In theory, the March 11, 2011, disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant should have bolstered environmentalists’ opposition to new nuclear-energy projects. But in the wake of the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, some of the world’s leading Greens have done just the opposite: they have come out in favor of nuclear power. Perhaps the most prominent convert is British activist and journalist George Monbiot, who even cites the disaster as one reason for his change of heart. Just ten days after Fukushima, in a column for the Guardian, Monbiot called the use of solar energy in the United Kingdom “a spectacular waste of scarce resources” and declared that wind energy was “hopelessly inefficient” and “largely worthless.” Moreover, he wrote, “on every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power.” He concluded: “Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”

Illustration by Arnold Roth
Illustration by Arnold Roth

A number of prominent British and American environmentalists were pronuclear before Fukushima. Among the Americans are longtime environmental activist and publisher Stewart Brand, as well as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, founders of the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute, a center-left think tank. The Brits include environmentalist Mark Lynas, former British prime minister Tony Blair, and scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock. There’s also a Canadian in the group: Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore.

The emergence of the pronuclear Greens represents an important schism in modern environmentalism. For decades, groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have pushed an antinuclear agenda and contended that the only energy path for the future is the widespread deployment of wind turbines and solar panels. But fear of carbon emissions and climate change has catalyzed a major rethinking. As Brand puts it in a new documentary, Pandora’s Promise, which explores the conversion of antinuclear activists to the pronuclear side: “The question is often asked, ‘Can you be an environmentalist and be pronuclear?’ I would turn that around and say, ‘In light of climate change, can you be an environmentalist and not be pronuclear?’ ”

Newfound support can only help the nuclear-energy sector, but it remains to be seen whether nuclear will play a major role in the burgeoning global electricity market, which has grown by about 3 percent per year since 1985. It’s already clear that the Greens’ pronuclear stance won’t have a significant impact on the American electricity market over the next decade or so, for a simple reason: the shale-gas revolution here has produced abundant supplies of low-cost natural gas. In 2010, one of the largest electric utilities in the country, Exelon, said that for new nuclear projects to be economically viable, natural gas would have to cost at least $8 per million Btu. Today, the price is about $3.50, and the shale-gas boom means that a price anywhere near $8 is exceedingly unlikely for years to come. Four nuclear reactors are now being built in the United States—the Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors in Georgia and the Summer 2 and 3 reactors in South Carolina—but the projects are going forward only because regulators in those states have allowed the utilities that own them to recover costs from ratepayers before the projects are finished.

Nuclear advocates may have more influence in Asia and Europe, where natural gas remains relatively expensive. For instance, in Japan, where the nuclear industry is fighting to stay alive after Fukushima, natural gas must be imported in liquefied form, and it currently costs about $17 per million Btu. In Western Europe, imported, liquefied natural gas costs nearly $12 per million Btu. When natural gas is that expensive, nuclear reactors can make economic sense. According to the World Nuclear Association, a trade group, some 62,000 megawatts’ worth of new reactors are now being built—58,000 in Europe and Asia and the remainder in South America and the Middle East. (The WNA figures don’t count all 4,400 megawatts of capacity under construction in the United States.)

The biggest obstacle to a rapid expansion of the global nuclear fleet isn’t natural gas, however; it’s coal, the leading source of carbon-dioxide emissions. In China, for example, about 500,000 megawatts of new coal-fired electric generation capacity came online between 2000 and 2011. Between 2013 and 2016, China will probably build another 315,000 megawatts of new coal-fired capacity. Electricity producers are building new coal-fired power plants because coal is relatively cheap and abundant and because no OPEC-like cartel controls the global market (see “Coal Comfort,” Summer 2012). Those factors help explain why, over the past decade, the global consumption of energy from coal grew by about the same amount as the consumption of energy from oil, natural gas, hydropower, and nuclear power combined. In just one year, 2011, global coal use increased by the equivalent of about 3.9 million barrels of oil per day. That daily increase was nearly as much energy as the total amount provided each day by all global non-hydro renewables.

For nuclear energy to gain significant momentum in the global marketplace, then, it has to get much cheaper. In a September essay published in Foreign Policy, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, with coauthor Jessica Levering, provided a road map for revitalizing the nuclear sector. They called for a “new national commitment” to the development and commercialization of next-generation nuclear technologies, including small modular reactors. The goal, they said, should be reactors that can be built at “a significantly lower cost than current designs,” as well as a new, more nimble regulatory framework that can review and approve the new designs.

While that plan is sensible enough, it’s not clear whether groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace can be persuaded to abandon their antinuclear zealotry. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see that some influential environmentalists are realizing that we have no choice but to embrace the astonishing power of the atom. We do have to get better at nuclear power, and that will take time. But we’re only at the beginning of the Nuclear Age.


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