Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nuclear Energy is the Answer

This article from City Journal reports on the conversion of one environmentalist who formerly did not, but now believes in using nuclear power.

An excerpt.

“Consider Stewart Brand’s meaty, well-informed, and mostly sensible new book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. The man who used to be so California Hip that in 1968 he made a cameo appearance in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test now presents himself as a “hacker (lazy engineer) at heart,” ready to promote realistic responses to the great eco-existential crisis of our time—climate change. How can Greens fulfill their new mission, which is to save not only birds and trees but all humanity? The man who founded and then edited the Whole Earth Catalog for 16 years—a magazine guided by “biological understanding” and enamored with the planet-saving power of organic farming, solar, wind, insulation, bicycles, and handmade houses—now concludes: “Cities are Green. Nuclear energy is Green. Genetic engineering is Green.”…

“The question I ask myself now,” Brand tells us when he gets to nuclear power, is: “What took me so long? I could have looked into the realities of nuclear power many years earlier, if I weren’t so lazy.” When he got over his nuclear sloth, here’s what Brand learned. (Most of the words quoted here are Brand’s own, but some are Brand quoting others approvingly.) “Fear of radiation is a far more important health threat than radiation itself.” “Reactor safety is a problem already solved,” and the new reactors are even safer than the old. Waste isn’t a problem; we need the $10 billion Yucca mountain disposal site “about as much as we need a facility for imprisoning dangerous extraterrestrials.” Nuclear power isn’t just the cheapest practical carbon-free option around, but the cheapest, period, when not snarled up in green tape. Scientists “invariably poll high in support of nuclear.” The people so pragmatic that they actually keep the lights lit, he might have added, have polled that way for 40 years, on the strength of reams of data and analyses, as well as the operating experience of our nuclear navy and a wide range of commercial reactors scattered across the planet.

“Other Greens, Brand reports, have experienced similar nuclear epiphanies as age moved them closer to a place hotter than tropical. Among them is Gwyneth Cravens, a novelist, former New Yorker editor, and activist who in her salad days “helped frighten the American nuclear industry to a standstill” by successfully crusading to kill a brand-new nuclear power plant in Shoreham, Long Island. And James Hansen, a NASA climatologist and the most outspoken American advocate of drastic reductions in carbon emissions. And founders and former high officials of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and “a surprising number of [other] prominent environmentalists.” Canada, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, England, and other countries that not long ago either froze new construction or resolved to shut down their nukes have flipped from red-hot aversion to tepid embrace.

“But tepid may not suffice. “One of the greatest dangers the world faces is the possibility that a vocal minority of antinuclear activists could prevent phase-out of coal emissions,” Brand writes, quoting Hansen. It’s an indubitable historical fact that the developed world was poised to break free from a carbon-centered energy economy 30 years ago. Greens locked us back into it. By demonizing nukes so effectively, they boosted U.S. coal consumption by about 400 million tons per year. We would instantly cut our coal consumption in half if we could simply conjure back into existence the 100-plus nuclear plants that were in the pipeline three decades ago. If global warming is a problem, Brand and his ex-friends own it.”