Despite high hopes for nuclear power several decades ago, when the development of many large-scale nuclear plants was underway and numerous projects were already up and running, we are living far from the dream once envisioned by nuclear scientists, who were hoping to deliver vast amounts of clean energy to the world and offer a replacement for fossil fuels. Nuclear energy once presented the idea of a fossil fuel-free future, with power plants providing abundant clean energy to populations around the world. However, following a few prolific nuclear disasters, the world quickly turned its back on nuclear, and environmentalists worldwide made sure we never forgot about the high risks involved with nuclear power. Now, as several countries are putting nuclear power back on the agenda, many are questioning whether this fearmongering was really justified, given the major risks involved with continuing fossil fuel operations.
A new documentary, “Nuclear Now,” by Oliver Stone, explores the detrimental effect that environmentalists worldwide had on nuclear power development over the past decades. Stone suggests that actions taken by the environmental movement to derail nuclear power were wrong and contributed to the acceleration of the climate crisis. Stone stated, “We had the solution [nuclear power] … and the environmental movement, to be honest, just derailed it. I think the environmental movement did a lot of good, a lot of good ... [I’m] not knocking it, but in this one major matter, it was wrong. It was wrong.” He added, “And what they did was so destructive, because by now we would have 10,000 nuclear reactors built around the world and we would have set an example like France set for us, but no one … followed France, or Sweden for that matter.”
Oliver Stone is just the latest public figure to slam environmentalists for halting the development of nuclear power, which he believes could have provided clean, safe energy to replace the fossil fuels that continue to pollute the world. The International Energy Agency (IEA) and other major global groups have repeatedly called on governments and energy firms to reduce fossil fuel production in a bid to halt the effects of climate change. But without the renewable energy available to fill the gap, the world still very much relies on oil, gas, and coal. However, many suggest that nuclear power could have provided the energy source needed to wean ourselves off these fossil fuels decades ago.
A range of studies over several decades demonstrates that nuclear power is one of the safest forms of electricity generation. One analysis shows that nuclear power is responsible for 0.03 deaths by accidents and air pollution per terawatt-hour of electricity produced. By contrast, hydropower is responsible for 1.3 deaths, oil for 18.43, and brown coal for a staggering 82.72 deaths.
Yet, the three notable nuclear incidents – Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island – were publicised around the world and led to the widespread fear of other nuclear disasters. The lack of public knowledge of the implications of nuclear power and the failure of governments around the globe to respond appropriately to these incidents created a sense of fear about the continued development of nuclear energy. Conversely, the rate of accidents seen in coal, oil, and gas operations, while high, goes relatively undiscussed in the public forum. While people may be aware of the perilous conditions of coal mining and oil rigs, few see these as a threat to the greater population.
The irony is the very same environmental groups that were once encouraging populations around the globe to support a move away from nuclear are now pushing for the development of new nuclear power plants in a bid to move away from fossil fuels and curb the effects of climate change. In California, in 2016, the environmentalist Michael Shellenberger, the climate scientist James Hansen, and the founder of the crunchy Whole Earth Catalogue Stewart Brand started campaigning to save California’s last nuclear power plant – Diablo Canyon. Surprisingly, this action drove other environmentalists in the area to join the cause, including Kristin Zaitz and Heather Hoff, the founding members of the group Mothers for Nuclear. Zaitz explained, “It's the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the United States… Most people don't know that it produces a lot of electricity on a relatively tiny land footprint.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has spurred greater support for nuclear power, as we face severe energy shortages and rising costs worldwide. Governments are finally making meaningful investments in renewable energy, as well as putting nuclear power back on the agenda. And environmentalists are seeing this as an opportunity to encourage a green transition, even if this means supporting nuclear power. President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act – offering a zero-emission nuclear power production credit of up to $15 per megawatt-hour for the electricity produced by the plants – is widely supported by climate activists. And similar policies from governments around the world are gaining equal support from environmental groups, hoping that the rise of renewables and nuclear energy will lead to a cleaner future. So, despite the strong opposition to nuclear power once seen from environmental groups – leading to decades of delays and the acceleration of climate change – many climate activists are now backing nuclear plants as an important provider of clean energy.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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