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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Environmentalists And Nuclear: Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Environmentalists And Nuclear: Not Such Strange Bedfellows

U.S. President Barack Obama is set to deliver a landmark speech on the regulation of greenhouse gases from existing power plants on June 2 that has the potential to completely alter the trajectory of America’s energy future.

It will also highlight the enormous amount of common ground that exists between two constituencies who are often at odds: the nuclear power industry and environmentalists.

The U.S. environmental movement has opposed nuclear power for decades. It was the issue that first galvanized people around an environmental issue, when so many Americans protested the construction of many of the nation’s nuclear power plants in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

As climate change has emerged as the most threatening and insidious environmental threat the world has ever faced, opposition to nuclear power has softened, owing to a nuclear reactor’s ability to generate carbon-free electricity. Still many environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are still wary of nuclear power or actively oppose its expansion.

For its part, the nuclear industry and its allies believe environmental groups and renewable energy advocates are standing in the way of meaningful action on climate change.

On one hand, that’s a purely business-driven position. For example, Exelon – the owner of the largest nuclear fleet in the country – made fighting subsidies for wind and solar its number one lobbying priority in 2013 because its reactors face stiff competition from low-priced clean energy. But more broadly, the nuclear industry and allies like The Breakthrough Institute argue that environmental groups are making greenhouse gas reductions much more difficult due to their irrational opposition to nuclear power.

The arguments on both sides have their problems. Environmental groups often ignore the fact that less nuclear capacity would lead to higher carbon emissions, and that solar and wind won’t be able to replace coal and natural gas on their own, at least in the short-term.

At the same time, the nuclear industry puts an inordinate amount of blame on green groups for its own problems. In reality, utilities simply don’t want to build more nuclear plants for a variety of reasons – including high upfront costs and the abundance of cheap natural gas -- most of which are beyond the influence of the environmental lobby.

Related Article: Obama’s On A Winning Streak In Drive To Curb Air Pollution

But let’s leave all of that aside. The common interests of these two factions are much bigger than their differences. The overarching goal for environmental groups is to phase out fossil fuels. This dovetails nicely with the interests of nuclear power, whose principle competitors are natural gas and coal.

That’s why the June 2 announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will limit carbon emissions from existing power plants, which will disproportionately hit coal-fired generation, is being enthusiastically welcomed by both environmental groups and the nuclear industry.

“Our goal is to work with EPA to make sure the rule works,” Joe Dominguez, senior vice president of Exelon, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg News. “There needs to be a pathway towards meaningful reductions.” Bloomberg also notes that some utilities actually support the new EPA regulations, especially companies that have nuclear capacity in their portfolio.

If Obama sets an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – early reports say it will be 20 percent by 2020 – it would be an enormous boon to both renewable energy (supported by environmentalists) and nuclear power. As coal plants are retired, not only can solar and wind scale up, but nuclear reactors can remain profitable and stay in operation for longer.


While environmental and nuclear advocates will never see eye-to-eye, they don’t need to. By focusing their efforts on supporting mandatory limits on greenhouse gases, both sides win big. Similarly, by supporting a future price on carbon – through a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax – environmental and nuclear groups can make much more progress on furthering their agendas.

The Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council foresee renewable energy scaling up in a major way in coming years, with dozens of gigawatts of solar and wind installed. The nuclear industry can go on the offensive, becoming more competitive as a source of power compared to natural gas and coal. And both sides can claim success in tackling climate change.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Mark Uhran on June 02 2014 said:
    Well done, Nick.

    That's the most rational post on the energy-climate challenge to date. Both renewables and nuclear are needed to reverse atmospheric carbonization and oceanic acidification from carbon fuels. Industrial and urban energy supplies for a world population that's on a trajectory to 10 billion in this century can only be achieved through gigawatt scale new electric generation. Advanced nuclear options include not only generation IV designs, small modular reactors and thorium fuel cycles; there is also a clear opportunity to transition from heavy-element (uranium/thorium) fission to light-element (hydrogen) fusion by mid-century. The emergence of superconductors and supercomputers represent classic "disruptive technologies" that finally allow hydrogen fusion to be demonstrated at a 500 megawatt industrial scale (see www.iter.org, or www.usiter.org). The potential for clean, safe, non-proliferative and virtually inexhaustible base load energy from hydrogen would dovetail with profound simplicity into as much renewable energy as we can realistically, and cost-effectively, generate.

    Posts like yours rise above the cacophony of misinformation, ideological dogmatism and special interest group noise that seems to be drowning out this pragmatic solution to what is likely the defining issue of the 21st century.

    Thank you.
  • Jamie on June 02 2014 said:
    Just never mind the radioactive waste, we will just sweep it under a rug somewhere.
  • G.R.L. Cowan on June 02 2014 said:
    "Environmental and nuclear advocates will never see eye-to-eye" -- well, "never" is a long time. The late Sir Fred Hoyle, astronomer, wrote "Commonsense in Nuclear Energy" about 35 years ago, but it's still worth reading. It includes a chapter, "It Has All Happened Before", which recounts environmentalist opposition to the earliest steam trains. They burned coal or wood, so by modern standards there would indeed have been an environmental case against them, but that wasn't what the stagecoach interests figured would work.

    Now-a-days, of course, few if any environmentalists hate rail transport.

    Perhaps there were cases where casuists who professed to fear trains were caught on board them, as Greenpeace associates were famously caught on board a nuclear icebreaker.
  • Richard Elder on June 02 2014 said:
    Environmental activists are fully justified in opposing the "nuclear industry." The technical solutions it developed 50 years ago are a dangerous engineering nightmare. The light water reactor uses water held at extreme pressures to avoid flashing off to steam and exploding. Any loss of coolant starts the reactor down the path to meltdown, thus requiring multiple redundant back-up systems and constant monitoring. Not surprisingly, each new reactor is a multi-billion dollar project---economically viable only if the cost of failure is borne by the people potentially at risk because no private insurance will touch it. And as the "nuclear industry" milks the cash cow of their existing plants far beyond their design life, there will be more failures.

    In choosing a technology whose primary "benefit" was producing material suitable for bombs, the nuclear industry has earned its reputation as an industry unsuitable for the real flaws of human societies.

    The tragedy/clusterfuck at Fukushima has implications far beyond the long term effects upon the oceans and the Japanese land mass. It basically closes the door to development of a viable nuclear energy system. The paths not taken--- for example the Liquid Floride Thorium Reactor-- are only calculations on faded mimeograph paper rather than a fully developed base load energy source with inherent safety and vastly reduced waste stream.

    We've now traveled down the path of fouling our planetary nest to the point where we really need to immediately transition to an energy system that doesn't require burning ancient carbon. The only energy source that has the required energy density and output stability to serve as a base load is found in the atom. Unfortunately what our economic system --not just the US, but the entire world--- is designed to produce are 10 billion dollar boondoggles that line the pockets of nuclear industry executives and their bought-and-paid-for politicians.

    So boondoggles and graft is what we will get. Or most likely just keep burning coal until the entire world looks like Beijing and billions of people die of lung disease or starvation.

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