Although very little happened, Nov. 24 was a red letter day for the nation's nuclear power industry. No new nuclear reactors were purchased, no breakthrough in treating nuclear waste was announced, and the Obama administration did not declare that it would pay for new reactors.
Instead, the source of the industry's happiness was The Washington Post leading Page One with an article that detailed how the environmental movement, after 40 years of bitter opposition, now concedes that nuclear power will play a role in averting further harm from global warming.
Mind you, not every environmental group has come around; but the feared and respected Natural Resources Defense Council in the United States has allowed that there is a place for nuclear power in the world's generating mix and Stephen Tindale, a former anti-nuclear activist with Friends of the Earth in the United Kingdom, has said, yes, we need nuclear.
For the nuclear industry which has felt itself vilified, constrained and damaged by the ceaseless and sometimes pathological opposition of the environmental movement, this changing attitude is manna from on high. No matter that the environmentalists, in opposing nuclear since the late 1960s have critically wounded the U.S. reactor industry and contributed to the construction scores of coal and gas-fired plants that would not have been built without their opposition to nuclear.
In short, the environmental movement contributed in no small way to driving electric utilities to the carbon fuels they now are seeking to curtail. Also, the environmentalists had a big effect on public policy by co-opting the left wing of the Democratic Party and feeding the nuclear doubts of President Jimmy Carter. What should have been a technical argument became a social and cultural one.
Nuclear was such a target of the environmental movement that it embraced the “anything but nuclear” policy with abandon. Ergo its enthusiasm for all forms of alternative energy and its spreading of the belief--still popular in left-wing circles--that wind and solar power, with a strong dose of conservation, is all that is needed.
A third generation of environmental activists, who have been preoccupied with global climate change, have come to understand that a substantial amount of new electric generation is needed. Also some environmentalists are beginning to be concerned about the visual impact of wind turbines, not to mention their lethality to bats and birds.
Of all of the deleterious impacts of modern life on the Earth, it is reasonable to ask why the environmentalists went after nuclear power. And why they were committedly opposed to nuclear power even before the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the catastrophic Chernobyl reactor failure in Ukraine. Those deserved pause, but the movement had already indicted the entire nuclear enterprise.
Having myself written about nuclear energy since 1969, I have come to believe that the environmental movement seized on nuclear first because it was an available target for the legitimate anger that had spawned the movement in the 1960s. The licensing of nuclear power plants gave the protesters of the time one of the only opportunities to affect public policy in energy. They seized it; at first timorously, and then with gusto.
The escalation in environmental targets tells the story of how the movement grew in confidence and expertise; and how it added political allies, like Ralph Nader and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). The first target was simply the plants' cooling water heating up rivers and estuaries. That was followed by wild extrapolations of the consequences of radiation (mutated children). Finally, it settled on the disposition of nuclear waste; that one stuck, and was a lever that turned public opinion easily. Just mention the 240,000-year half-life of plutonium without mentioning how, as an alpha-emitter, it is easily contained. It is not that we do not need an environmental movement. We do. It is just that sometimes it gets things wrong.
In the days of the Atomic Energy Commission, the environmental groups complained that it was policeman, judge and jury. Indeed.
But environmental groups are guilty of defining environmental virtue and then policing it, even when the result is a grave distortion, as in the nuclear imbroglio. Being both the arbiter of environmental purity and the enforcer has cost the environment 40 years, when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases.
By. Llewellyn King
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org