Science & Technology

The Cultural Contradictions of Anti-Nuke Environmentalists

Why do environmentalists reject a good bet for renewable energy?


Among the thousands of rowdy protesters and activists at last week's Copenhagen climate change conference was the group Don't Nuke the Climate. Their big moment came when they unfurled a banner inside the Bella Center to mark their displeasure with the idea that nuclear power is a carbon free source of energy. Currently there is a fierce debate within ideological environmentalism over whether nuclear power is an acceptable energy technology for addressing concerns over man-made global warming.

Seeing the anti-nuke protestors in Copenhagen reminded me that I had recently read James Gustave Speth's environmentalist manifesto Red Sky at Morning: America and the Global Environmental Crisis (2004) as preparation for an academic symposium on global warming. As I explained in my book, Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse (1993), environmentalism owes a great ideological debt to the anti-nuke movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and in many respects the two have now melded.

Speth, after a long career as an environmental activist, is now the dean of the prestigious Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, former Administrator of the United Nations Environment Program, and founder of the World Resources Institute, an environmentalist think tank. While reading his incoherent and reactionary tome, I was particularly struck by a passage in which Speth described his youthful opposition to fast breeder nuclear reactors in the 1970s.

Fast breeders are nuclear power plants that can produce more fuel (about 30 percent more) than they use. They can also produce electricity by burning up highly radioactive nuclear waste and the plutonium removed from nuclear weapons. On top of that, the radioactive waste that fast breeders generate after their fuel is recycled decays after just a few hundred years instead of the tens of thousands of years it takes for the waste from conventional reactors to decay. Plus, since fast breeders produce more fuel than they use, there's no need to mine additional uranium. And finally, new fuel processing technologies have largely allayed concerns that the plutonium produced by fast reactors could be diverted and used to produce nuclear weapons. In other words, fast breeders could be the ultimate in renewable energy.

So what caught my attention in Speth's manifesto was the credit that he proudly takes for helping to stop the development of these reactors. As an attorney for the activist Natural Resources Defense Council (which he co-founded), and the Scientists' Institute for Public Information, Speth filed a crucial 1973 lawsuit against a government plan to commercialize fast breeders. As Speth notes in his book, "The AEC's [Atomic Energy Commission] program to commercialize the breeder was extremely controversial; it aimed to have 200 breeder reactors operating commercially in the United States by 2000." He goes on to declare that "the breeder reactor story had a happy ending…[because] it was ultimately halted by President [Jimmy] Carter and the Congress."  

Actually, since Speth was then serving as the chairman of Carter's Presidential Council on Environmental Quality, it's likely that Speth had a hand in the president's final decision. It's also worth noting that Carter stopped the development of the nuclear fuel recycling program, which meant that thousands of tons of highly radioactive waste had to be stored rather than reused. Thus began the decades-long quest to find a long term (i.e, thousands of years) nuclear waste repository. More recently, President Barack Obama cut funding for the development of the Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada. There are no alternatives currently being considered.

Later in Red Sky at Morning, 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." His concern is that the U.S. is emitting about 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually from the burning of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. The accumulation of carbon dioxide is thought be the chief cause of global warming. In 2005 Speth declared that man-made global warming is the "single greatest threat" to humanity.

So here's the really aggravating part of Speth's preening self-congratulation about stopping the commercialization of breeder reactors: In an alternative universe where 200 fast breeders come online, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would be about a third lower than they currently are. (Note that I am not considering the economics and subsidies of fast breeder reactors, just as Speth does not take the economics and subsidies of solar power, geothermal, or fusion power—which he favors—into account. In world where carbon dioxide is not rationed, burning coal and natural gas will be cheaper than any of the current renewable fuel alternatives.)

Consider that burning coal accounts for 36 percent of current U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Since 90 percent of the coal burned in the U.S. is used to produce electricity, replacing all coal-fired generating plants with zero-carbon electricity generation plants (say, nuclear reactors) would cut emissions by roughly 2 billion tons.­­­ Currently, 1,400 coal-fired electricity generation plants supply about 45 percent of the country's electricity while 104 conventional nuclear power plants produce roughly 20 percent. So to replace all coal plants would take roughly 250 1,000-megawatt nuclear plants, either conventional or fast breeder. (Note also that according to former Vice-President Al Gore, in the 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission predicted that the United States would have 1,000 nuclear power plants operating by the year 2000.)

In a 1975 article in Environmental Action, Speth and his co-authors noted that the AEC projected that 50 percent of U.S. electricity in 2020 would be generated by fast breeder reactors and 20 percent by conventional nuclear power plants. This is very nearly the alternative universe posited above. If the AEC's projections had come true, U.S. carbon emissions could easily be about one-third lower than they are now. Which means that the very reactors that Speth opposed could have been a huge part of the solution to what Speth now claims is humanity's "biggest threat."

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.