Climate Change Motivates a Reevaluation of Nuclear Energy

Ironically, the people who profess to care most about climate change have been those who most vociferously reject the technology that can solve it. But this is changing

A nuclear future? Climate change is leading many former opponents of nuclear power to embrace it. Image Credit: fhm/Getty Images

As world leaders and activists gather in Egypt this week to ruminate about global warming, there are signs that many are willing to look beyond doctrinaire—and heretofore less than fruitful—policies founded on renewable generation sources, such as wind and solar. Whatever the merits of climate change arguments, it is clear that the issue is causing many inveterate opponents of nuclear energy to embrace the technology as the one available that can do something about it.

The influential American Climate Perspectives survey, published in 2021 with addenda out this year by environmental nonprofit ecoAmerica, pointed out that American attitudes about nuclear power are shifting decidedly into the positive column, with the movement most profound on the left. A summary released by the organization along with the report noted that support for nuclear power among Americans grew by 10 points between 2018 and 2021, from 49% to 59%. And while support among Republicans held steady during that time (hovering around 65%), support among Democrats increased sizably over the same period—from 37% in 2018 to 60% in 2021. And this shift seems to be indicative of a worldwide movement of opinion.

Renewables Flicker

Renewable energy sources are perfectly fine technologies for generating electricity at certain scales under particular weather conditions and in localities close to the point of consumption, and they are widely regarded as an essential part of achieving a carbon-free future. But experience shows that there is no way solar and wind power and the attendant battery storage technologies will be able to sustain a modern economy on their own.

According to Frank Hiroshi Ling, chief scientist at the Anthropocene Institute, a clean power and climate technology incubator that cooperated with ecoAmerica on its report, a growing realization that renewables are not up to the task may be spurring a corresponding interest in nuclear energy. “The Democrats traditionally have been the early advocates for renewables,” Ling said. “Yet renewables have not scaled up as quickly as many had hoped. People are learning that there are a lot of limitations to increasing capacity through renewables.”

The challenges of implementing a purely renewable electric grid have been well documented. From a technology standpoint, the key limitation is the intermittency of solar and wind power generation when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, respectively. On the manufacturing and supply chain side, renewable generation technologies and batteries to support them require a lot of resources, such as rare earth metals, that are not processed in the U.S. and have a train of environmental baggage all their own.

“I would not necessarily call myself pro-nuclear,” Ling said. “But I am looking at all the technologies that we need to achieve stabilization of the planet’s climate. That means we should look at energy systems from the perspective of resiliency, and that means looking at a diversity of mixes. I am also in favor of renewables. But every energy source out there has its drawbacks. Nuclear would address many concerns, but we still have that problem with the public perception.”

Public perception and the government policies they inform are not always steered by the pure of heart. While it would be nice if experts could be counted on to discuss issues such as the global economy and the fate of the planet openly and without ulterior motives, we are not living in such an age. Politics and ideology often trump science and reason, warping perceptions and thwarting good outcomes—especially when ideologues cloak themselves in lab coats.

In a 2008 op-ed in The New York Times, pioneering environmentalist Stewart Brand wrote that the climate change issue has produced four distinct camps, which may be arrayed along a spectrum: calamatists, warners, skeptics and deniers. The outliers are primarily ideological, political and unmoved by argument. The centrists are primarily scientific and, in Brand’s evaluation, represent the preferred forum for debate. However, the extremists view the opposing wing as evil and the centrists as stupid, corrupt or heretical. Typically, the extremists have dominated the argument.

As Brand elaborated subsequently in a post on Edge.org:

If climate change were to suddenly reverse itself (because of some yet undiscovered mechanism of balance in our climate system), my guess is that the denialists would be triumphant, the skeptics would be skeptical this time of the apparent good news, the warners would be relieved, and the calamatists would seek out some other doom to proclaim.

If climate change keeps getting worse then I would expect denialists to grasp at stranger straws, many skeptics to become warners, the warners to start pushing geoengineering schemes like sulfur dust in the stratosphere, and the calamatists to push liberal political agendas—just as the denialists said they would.

Thus, political parties like the Greens in Germany would sooner fire up coal plants than support nuclear power, and ideological organizations like Greenpeace would prefer a new dark age. The headline about Germany dismantling wind farms to expand coal production after lecturing the world about renewables and being a role model to California is a satirist’s dream. Both Germany and California vowed to shutter their nuclear plants; both are now experiencing regret.

Out from Under the Desk

Ironically, many of the same experts, advocates and activists who have pushed the climate change issue to the forefront of international debate spent decades agitating against nuclear energy. Green policies and public fear of nuclear energy have their origin in the anti-nuclear movements of the Cold War era that generally conflated nuclear power with nuclear weapons—either out of ignorance or propaganda savvy. The fact that these “green” policies have hamstrung efforts to produce a carbon-free future is what has turned many nuclear power opponents around.

“I hated nuclear power because I’m an old environmentalist,” said Joshua Goldstein, professor emeritus of international politics at American University and a research scholar at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “My main ideology in the 1970s and ‘80s was environmentalism. I always assumed nuclear was terrible. And there was an ideology back then, too, about going back to the land, rejecting technology, trying to simplify life, and to be more natural. Nuclear isn’t that. It’s high-tech. And I was also part of a generation that was hiding under the desk to prepare for nuclear war.”

Goldstein said he started to come around on the issue specifically because of the threat posed by climate change. After a professional career focused on international relations and war studies, he found himself thinking more about world energy—a key driver of war and peace—and its relation to the environment. “I had children and started to think about their future,” he said. “My son became a climate activist and started to put the pressure on me about climate change.”

Goldstein studied the data and the evidence to try to figure out how the problem might actually be solved. While there were a lot of ideas out there about how to take steps in the right direction, he concluded that the world would be unable to solve the carbon emissions problem without nuclear power. “What we are getting in a lot of places is a hybrid of wind, solar and natural gas,” Goldstein said. “That works, and it can be relatively cheap, and it’s less polluting than doing it all with coal. But it doesn’t get you to decarbonization in 30 years.”

Those who cite climate change as an urgent threat to mankind’s future almost universally advocate drastically reducing or eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation-, manufacturing- and electricity-generating sectors. Electrifying essentially everything from vehicles to assembly lines to generation would, in the most optimistic scenario, enable a clean energy grid powered entirely by renewable sources. But this promise is turning out to be more pipe dream than realistic strategy for decarbonization.

Princeton University, supported by its Climate Mitigation Institute, recently published its latest “Net Zero America” report describing in detail five potential pathways toward decarbonizing U.S. high-emissions sectors by 2050. Some of these pathways have a target of zero emissions, while others provide for drastic reductions and tolerate some fossil fuels. One pathway outlines a future with 100% renewable generation, which strikes many except the most wishful thinkers as a nonstarter.

Professing to be agnostic toward generation sources, the report’s authors aim to provide data to enable policymakers and planners to rationally evaluate infrastructure, technology development, incentives and regulations. Comprehensive and even-handed, the report nevertheless is a product of a reality where carbon emissions are a pressing public policy issue. Nuclear power supporters express frustration that this need not have been the case.

“When you study the issue, you realize that if we had stayed on track back in the 1970s when people like me were demanding that we stop nuclear power, if we had kept going, we would have a thousand nuclear reactors rather than a hundred now,” Goldstein said. “And instead of 20% of U.S. electricity, it would be electrifying everything.”

Fear is the Mind Killer

The aforementioned Stuart Brand, whose environmentalist bona fides include founding the “Whole Earth Catalog,” has always been something of a gadfly among his peers in that he embraced nuclear power as a clean energy source before climate change was even on the radar. Although an advocate of “back to the land” living, he nevertheless is a futurist and notably co-founded the Long Now Foundation, which professes to plan for the next 10,000 years of human civilization (the organization’s website notes it was founded in 01996).

In 2010 (or 02010, if you prefer), Brand had a popular TED Talk debate (with nearly 1.75 million views to date) with Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, on whether or not the world needs nuclear power. Brand laid out the argument for why nuclear power was absolutely the essential technology for providing electricity in a safe and environmentally friendly way. Jacobson staked out the orthodox environmentalist view that renewables alone could supersede fossil fuels in providing for the world’s energy needs without having to turn to potentially dangerous nuclear power.

The Anthropocene Institute’s Ling says fear of nuclear power underlies government actions and regulations to phase out existing facilities and prevent new ones from being built. This fear also serves as a drum that opponents can beat, either in uninformed good faith or to cynically warn away would-be nuclear supporters. However, Ling says that public fear of nuclear power is waning and the growing support for it among historic foes shows fear of climate change is more acute.

Ling, who splits his time between Japan and California, said there was a time when any mention of nuclear power in the media was negative, driven by real-world accidents at facilities such as Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. Popular culture could be counted on to amplify these worries, such as HBO’s compelling dramatic series, “Chernobyl” or the 1979 chestnut, “The China Syndrome.”

“A lot of the policies we see in place up to now have been driven by this very vocal anti-nuclear crowd,” Ling said. “As far as the general public is concerned, I don’t think people care where their electrons come from. But most people do care about their health. Any clean source of energy would tend to generate support. Anything that can help us move more quickly away from coal plants or natural gas, even, I think would compel them to look at the sources that provide cleaner air.”

Ling attempts to counter fear of the technology by highlighting the public health benefits of nuclear energy along with climate-minded colleagues at GotNuclear.net. The site features calculations of lives saved through the use of nuclear energy by avoiding polluting fossil sources, and the methodology for arriving at these.

If attitudes are shifting in favor of nuclear power, even among demographics once most opposed to it, the question remains about how to turn this burgeoning support into public policy or financial backing of expensive projects. As UMass’ Goldstein pointed out, nuclear power really doesn’t have much of an activist base. “Who has been the historic constituency for nuclear power?” he asked. “Not the environmentalists. It’s not the right-wing climate deniers; they’re happy with fossil fuels. There is no sort of geographical base like you have with, say, Pennsylvania natural gas or West Virginia coal, where some senator is going to speak up for the resource they have. That’s a big issue.”

Moving the Needle

In 2019, Goldstein partnered with Swedish nuclear engineer Staffan Qvist to publish “A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow.” Nowhere in this title and wordy subtitle is the word “nuclear” mentioned. In fact, it does not appear on the covers, dust jacket copy or even in the first two chapters. The idea was to present this unmentioned technology as an alternative to fossil fuels by Sweden, France and other countries while not dwelling on the specter of the term.

Goldstein said he wanted to write about the technology by focusing on its success stories: It’s easy to write about doom and gloom when it comes to climate change. However, he saw that there had been successful cases in France and Sweden showing that countries could build enough nuclear reactors to take fossil fuel offline. These programs provide a blueprint for other countries to follow, he said.

Cognizant of how his own attitudes about nuclear energy evolved over time, he said he didn’t want to put the technology front and center and instead endeavored to ease readers into a discussion of the results that could be achieved. “I recognized that while I hated nuclear power, it was going to be necessary,” Goldstein said. “And then learning about nuclear power I realized that everything I hated about it turned out to be a pack of lies, for lack of a better term. It just wasn’t true. We were regulating it as if it were the most dangerous energy source when it is actually the safest. This is sort of a two-part conversion: When I learned about it, I really fell in love with it.”

In a conjunction nearly as unexpected as Stewart Brand’s support of nuclear power, director Oliver Stone called on Goldstein to help him develop a film based on his book. The result of this collaboration is the new documentary “Nuclear,” which does indeed put the term front and center. At a press conference at the film’s Venice Film Festival debut in September, Stone said he wanted his audiences to get away from the mentality of fear surrounding nuclear power.

In an interview at the event, Stone and Goldstein pointed out that the people who know most about nuclear energy fear it the least. Stone said that Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” moved the needle on public concern about climate change, and he wanted to help do the same for the obvious solution. He also pointed out that Gore’s film did not offer nuclear power as a solution but instead focused on renewables. However, “there’s a problem with renewables,” Stone said: “It doesn’t work in the sense of getting rid of carbon dioxide because we have been putting it in on top of fossil fuels. We haven’t been cutting the fossil fuels.”

The reason is that from a practical standpoint, intermittent renewables are no substitute for dispatchable power sources, such as fossil fuel plants, hydroelectric and nuclear energy. “Dispatchable” means just that: The power is available around the clock. Renewables may be valuable for reducing reliance on dispatchable sources in advanced economies, but they will never be a substitute, certainly not before trumpeted carbon-free targets of 2050.

Ling noted that the problem will become more acute as people who have never had reliable access to electricity throughout the world begin to demand access to it. Right now, this demand is being met with proliferating coal plants in the developing (and already rather developed) world. “The pain we are about to see may cause people to kick the tires of nuclear power,” he said. “Not only do we have to scale up clean energy sources much quicker, we also have to draw down the carbon that we are putting into the atmosphere. This is where nuclear power can do a lot of the heavy lifting.”

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter