The Rise of Atomic Humanism


"Only nuclear can lift all humans out of poverty while saving the natural environment," Michael Shellenberger said in his keynote address at the June meeting of the American Nuclear Society. "Nothing else—not coal, not solar, not geo-engineering—can do that." This, he declared, is one of the first principles of "atomic humanism."

Shellenberger is the founder of the green group Environmental Progress, which argues that the best tool for fighting climate change is the no-carbon power generated by nuclear reactors. His speech offered a tour through the sorry history of the environmentalist movement's falsehoods and exaggerations about the technology.

It begins with Ralph Nader, who started training activists on how to stop new nuclear plants in the 1960s. ("A nuclear plant could wipe out Cleveland," Nader once declared, "and the survivors would envy the dead.")

The Sierra Club soon jumped in. In his speech, Shellenberger quoted a secret 1974 memo from then–Executive Director Michael McCloskey: "Our campaign stressing the hazards of nuclear power will supply a rationale for increasing regulation…and add to the cost of the industry." The strategy worked to perfection.

And what was their alternative to nuclear? Nader argued that we didn't need it because we "have a far greater amount of fossil fuels in this country than we're owning up to…the tar sands…oil out of shale…methane in coal beds." In 1976, Gov. Jerry Brown (D–Calif.) advocated for the construction of a coal-fired plant in place of the proposed Sundesert nuclear power station.

We've paid the price. According to Shellenberger, California's carbon dioxide emissions are now 2.5 times higher than they would have been had the planned nuclear plants been allowed to go forward. Meanwhile, nearly 2 million people die annually as a result of pollution from fossil fuel power generation, making it almost 2,000 times more dangerous than nuclear power.

Worst of all, many prominent environmentalists actually worried that nuclear power would lead to overpopulation. "It'd be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of cheap, clean, and abundant energy because of what we would do with it," Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins said in 1977. When Martin Litton, the Sierra Club member who launched a campaign in the mid-1960s to kill the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California, was asked if he worried about nuclear accidents, he reportedly replied, "No, in fact, I really didn't care because there are too many people in the world anyway."

Atomic humanism sounds a lot better than that.

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  1. “‘It’d be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of cheap, clean, and abundant energy because of what we would do with it,’ Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins said in 1977.”

    “We can’t let humanity acquire sustainable energy! That would make our economy unsustainable!”

  2. I am all for nukes for ‘energy. Still for planes,cars,trucks,ships and many chemicals ,you need oil and natural gas.

    1. If nuclear made electricity cheap enough we could manufacture liquid fuels from cracked seawater and atmospheric CO2 making them carbon neutral.

      1. Yep.

        The biggest obstacle to synthetic gasoline, gas, etc. is the energy input. With carbon emitting sources, it’s idiotic to make them on a large scale.

        Ethanol from switchgrass, etc. can be done in a way that’s not completely retarded.

        Hell, it becomes affordable to take garbage from what source and subject to energy intensive processes that break it down into elemental components.

  3. Yes, yes, the positive benefits of nuclear power are becoming more obvious over time, but it still has downsides that have to be overcome. And it’s still just a stepping stone to the future, as we will eventually discover an energy source that’s even better.

    1. Any downside could be minimized by the use of the molten salt reactor.

  4. “A nuclear plant could wipe out Cleveland,” Nader once declared, “and the survivors would envy the dead.”

    Which is why Cleveland is the perfect place to cram as many nuclear plants as possible- we don’t have to worry about a nuke accident, the living *already* envy the dead there.

  5. I’ve always found it odd, but telling, that environmentalists are always quick to talk about future generations and the impact that our current energy sources will have on them, and the supposedly disastrous effects that nuclear could have on them, but always discuss their ideas for ‘renewable’ energy almost entirely in present terms with claims that wind, solar, and batteries have reached the point that we could power everything from them right now.

    It’s an oddly “status quo” position for them to embrace. Aside from the fact that they need large amounts of land right now to replace everything with wind and solar, it’s going to take more and more land to handle the growth of population. I suppose it can be argued that the only way to change everything to wind/solar is to put the left completely in charge, at which point mass starvation and executions will solve the population problem.

    How much solar/wind acreage is needed to power a particle accelerator like the LHC, or even things like new desalination plants? I can also get rid of any hope that one day companies will be making affordable synthetic fuels from rubbish, weeds, etc.

  6. Ralph Nader has always struck me as a tiresome charlatan.

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