We can’t seem to stop thinking about nuclear power. Given what’s at stake — the biosphere, the economy, our genetic integrity — this is understandable. But I think too many are getting distracted from the fundamental problem with splitting atoms and arguing scientific questions we are unlikely to resolve anytime soon.
Much of the recent hand-wringing is a reaction to George Monbiot’s quasi-conversion to a nuclear power advocate. His latest column, Evidence Meltdown, practically radiates scorn for the “anti-nuclear movement,” which he manages to reduce to a monolithic cult led by Helen Caldicott. It’s a travesty, he writes, that we have been lied to by those who claim upwards of a million deaths can be blamed on fallout from Chernobyl, when in fact, the true number is a tiny fraction of that.
Keith Kloor, now of Climate Central, inflates one British columnist’s rant about an Australian activist’s sloppy research into a major meltdown, wondering “Whether or not Monbiot has delivered a knockout blow to the anti-nuclear movement remains to be seen.”
Chris Mooney at the Intersection is impressed by Monbiot’s transformation, too. Although he and most of his commenters are skeptical that Caldicott is representative of anyone but herself, and Chris is now exploring the homo or heterogeneity of the “left” approach to nuclear power in general, given the lack of scientifically rigorous research on the health effects of nuclear energy.
[Update: Andy Revkin gets on board.]
With all due respect, I think this is a waste of our energy. Why? Three things come to mind.
The threat posed by nuclear weapons generates little debate. This is why Helen Caldicott was so admired back in the 1980s. Her campaign against the bomb very likely helped bring about the end of mutually assured destruction. She deserves our undying thanks. But by turning her energy against nuclear reactors without first arming herself with supporting science, she is doing no one any favors, and as was pointed out at Chris’s post, who on this side of the pond had even heard of Caldicott’s latest claims before Monbiot brought them to our attention? Why are we paying so much attention? I know Monbiot’s a formidable and hitherto respectable climateer, but he is, as Douglas Adams said, “just this guy, you know?”
The health threat posed by nuclear reactors remains a murky subject, and that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. If you think the climate denial lobby has been successful taking advantage of invented, misrepresented, and exaggerated uncertainty over global warming, then imagine how easy it will be for that same crowd — and it is the same crowd to a large extent — to exploit the lack of hard data linking reactors and cancer. It’s a war the anti-nuclear campaign cannot win.
There is one powerful reason not to build any more nuclear reactors even if they were 100% inherently safe and waste disposal wasn’t the ultimate NIMBY challenge: They cost too much. Why waste money when there are cheaper, faster, cleaner, and yes, safer, options?
Even if we could find a way to build reactors cheaply, they aren’t a wise choice because we need to start replacing fossil-fuel emitters with clean renewables now, not 15 years from now. At best, we can expect any nuclear renaissance to start making a significant contribution to carbon emissions reductions in 25 years. They should be off the table until new technologies (liquid thorium, perhaps?) have been developed that offer cheaper and safer ways of controlling fission reactions. Of course, by then, I expect we won’t need them, as solar PV will be too cheap too meter….)
These last two issues are, excuse the word, critical. If those of us who are not keen on nuclear power concentrate our efforts on the both Achilles heels — cost and lost opportunity — we would a much better chance countering the pro-nuclear lobby.
I recognize, of course, that both problems are rooted in safety. Reactors wouldn’t cost so much and they wouldn’t take so long to site, commission, review, and build if there weren’t some serious concerns about what might happen if one melts down. To that extent, safety is a genuine problem, one that Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima make clear. But by dribbling all over the court worrying about vague unknowns like just how many expected cancer deaths can be attributed to a given exposure to radioactive iodine, we’re missing more than one clear shot at the basket.