The Cultural Contradictions of Environmentalism: Fast Breeder Reactor Edition


I was recently at a conference on global warming where I had to read James Gustave Speth's environmentalist manifesto Red Sky at Morning: America and the Global Environmental Crisis. It's an amazingly reactionary and incoherent book. One passage that particularly irritated me dealt with fast breeder reactors. These are nuclear power plants that can produce more fuel (about 30 percent more) than they use. We would never have to mine a single pound more of uranium to produce electricity. Admittedly, this also means that fuel from the reactors can be diverted and used to produce nuclear weapons.

In any case, Speth takes a bit of credit for stopping the development of fast breeder reactors in the 1970s when he filed a lawsuit against the program as a young attorney for the activist group, the Natural Resources Defense Council. As he notes:

The AEC's program to commercialize the breeder was extremely controversial; it aimed to have two hundred breeder reactors operating commercially in the United States by 2000…The breeder reactor story had a happy ending…[because] it was ultimately halted by President Carter and the Congress.

Also in his book, Speth asserts:

The biggest threat to our environment is global climate disruption, and the greatest problem in that context is America's energy use and the policies that undergird it.

So here's the aggravating aspect of Speth's preening self-congratulation about being part of the effort to stop the commercialization of breeder reactors: in an alternative universe in which 200 reactors come online, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would be about 35 percent lower than they currently are. In other words, the reactors that Speth opposed could have been a huge part of the solution to what Speth claims is humanity's "biggest threat." Like I said, really annoying.