WILLIAM TUCKER: When It Comes to Nuclear and Global Warming, It’s Cult-vs.-Cult

By William Tucker

Is there some law somewhere that says you can't believe in global warming and nuclear power at the same time?

This is one of the most puzzling things about the energy debate.  Those people who are most passionate about global warming are the most rabidly opposed to nuclear power.  And those who are most willing to go along with nuclear power insist that global warming is all a hoax.  I ran into this when I was publishing my book, Terrestrial Energy.   One prominent global warming skeptic advised me to throw out an entire chapter on the warming controversy, saying I would forever tarnish nuclear by associating it with a passing fad that was bound to be discredited.  Another very good friend refused to review the book for a major magazine because he said I had "fallen for all that global warming stuff."

I don't even try to reason with the other side.  Well, actually I do.  Two summers ago I caught Bill McKibben at a solar festival in Vermont.  He's the man who founded the 350 Movement and drove Jimmy Carter's old solar panels to the Obama White House.  My wife and I caught him backstage after he had given a rousing address to the Woodstock-style assembly, half of whom were sporting buttons to "Close Vermont Yankee.". If he was really serious about global warming, I asked him, shouldn't he embrace nuclear, the only energy technology that can realistically provide enough energy to an advanced society while cutting carbon emissions to near zero?

McKibben looked wistfully at the hillside filled with long-haired hippies.  "I understand what you're saying," he said.  "But supporting nuclear right now would split this movement in half."

McKibben is now looking awfully good for his observations that global warming will not only mean higher temperatures but more violent storms driven by more intense heat in the oceans and atmosphere.  When someone makes a prediction and it comes true, you've got to show some respect.  But being right about one thing shouldn't mean that you can just abandon logic when you suddenly find you don't like where it's leading you.

Very few people have been willing to maintain this kind of integrity.  James Lovelock has been one and he' s been excoriated for his apostasy.  Christie Whitman and Patrick Moore have run a very honest campaign at CASE, but of course they're just "tools of the nuclear industry.". It's like trying to be a Protestant and Catholic at the same time.  People tell you it can't be done.

I was at a conference a year ago in Knoxville when Matt Wald of the New York Times said he thought the effort to promote nuclear power amounted to a religion.  I said I thought it just represented scientists who understood the technology but if anything resembled a secular religion it was the environmental movement, with nuclear playing the part of the devil.  Yet there's a cultish quality to the global-warming deniers as well.  They can never admit that there's considerable evidence on the other side and plenty of good reason to be concerned.  It would be more than refreshing if people on both sides could admit that the other may have a point.

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  • http://twitter.com/Atomicrod Rod Adams

    William – please add me to the list of pro nuclear advocates who are also very concerned about climate change. (I personally think that “warming” is a bad word to use since some of the more important emitters (Russia, Canada, northern parts of US) might think that a warmer climate is a positive thing.)

  • stevek9

    It has been amusing to find almost perfect symmetry between right-wing and left-wing cults. You are perhaps slightly biased however. The climate-change deniers are every bit as irrational as the anti-nukes.

  • david walters

    William, you will find if you really get out there, especially among those of us who are pro-nuclear *activists* that most of us believe strongly that climate change is a threat to humanity. Many, including myself, arrived at a pro-nuclear position in large part because of our issues over climate change.

  • Jim Hopf

    Count me as one more nuclear advocate who believes in GW (like the other commenters). For me, the primary reason for supporting nuclear is the enormous environmental and health costs of fossil-fueled generation, global warming being just one more part of their impact. Frankly, I have a hard time understanding anyone who supports nuclear for any other reason.
    I’ve met many people in our industry who don’t believe in GW. Must be because the tribe (cult) that ostensibly supports nuclear (i.e., the right) also rejects GW. Therefore, since “our tribe” rejects GW, I reject GW. I find this attitude especially hard to understand given that GW polivies are probably the only way nuclear (i.e., the industry that they work in) is going to have any future. W/o GW, fossil fuels are cheaper, period. Why would anyone think that a power generation technology would be able to compete if they are required to guarantee long-term containment of all its wastes while the competition gets to just dump its wastes directly into the environment? Republican “support” is mostly lip service. It is Democratic energy policies that represent true support for nuclear.
    It’s encouraging that the more thoughtful, leaders of the environmental movement actually support nuclear. They, if anyone, are our true allies (potentially, at least).

  • Robert Hargraves

    I’m an ex-scientist who is truly concerned with the environmental effects of global warming, the deaths from air pollution, the grinding poverty of the third world, overpopulation, and national contention for diminishing natural resources. That’s why I’m writing THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal. Only nuclear power can undersell fossil fuels and provide economic incentives for all nations to stop burning coal.

  • nextbigfuture

    I am a nuclear advocate with a general science and technology site (nextbigfuture).
    I believe that global warming is happening but I do not know how much.
    I believe that carbon dioxide is less important than soot for the next 4 decades. This is aligned with
    a UN study that shows that soot mitigation would have a 0.5 degree celsius impact by 2040 while CO2
    mitigation does nothing until 2050.
    Dealing sooty cookers and heaters and shifting from slash and burn to slash and char in the developing world
    would not only help with climate but would save about 1-2 million lives per year from reduced indoor and outdoor
    particulate pollution.
    Most new energy generation is being built in China, India, South Korea, Russia and other countries with high growth.
    All of the economic arguments should look at the costs in those countries, where nuclear is half the cost of nuclear in the West.
    The US and Europe have 0 to 1 % growth in new generation.
    So any big shift in generation has to mostly look at the old power that exists already. Although as has recently been seen, the old power plants can be used a lot less. Coal is used less and Natural gas is used more.
    Nuclear can be scaled by 15% within 2 years by shifting policy to maximize extended power uprates.
    New annular fuel (cylinders with pebbles and not rods) would enable another 20-50% uprate of existing nuclear plants.

    A global analysis that looks at the technology and economics that exist now and will be developing over the next ten to twenty years is needed for better planning.

    As it stands China, India, South Korea, Russia and other countries with high growth do have a strong commitment to nuclear power and the economics work quite well for them. The public debates in the US and Europe do not have that much impact on the world situation. The only way it would have impact would be big pushes for a lot of uprates, annular fuel and other policies that would greatly impact the existing mix of generation or on soot or on concrete, construction and cars. The debate over whether the next 1% of power generation should be more wind, solar or nuclear or natural gas is not that relevant.

  • McClaughry

    Bill overlooks the sainted James Hansen of GISS, who says the climate threat is so grave and immediate that we must turn to nuclear to get rid of fossil fuels.
    And tell me again what awful weather, forest fires, and heat waves in central North America prove about the global climate? How is winter going in Australia, Patagonia and Capetown, where the air has the same CO2 concentration as here?
    After twenty years of styudying this, I conclude that human GHG emissions have made no detectable contribution to the global climate; the CRU etc. supercomputer projections do not reproduce known climate data, and are thus completely wrong; that fossil fuels (especially coal) are very bad for several strong reasons; and that new Gen 4 nuclear power, including thorium liquid fueled reactors, is the salvation of humanity.