Nuclear Power is Still Nuclear Power

daiichi plant

On a recent Dot Earth column, Andrew Revkin pointed to two opposing views on nuclear power, but both coming from well established environmentalists. I'm pressed for time today, preparing for my periodic face-to-face encounter with my students at marlboro College Graduate Center, so I will mostly crib from Revkin. Here's his lede:

I encourage you to weigh two starkly divergent reactions to the seismic and nuclear crises in Japan from Bill McKibben and George Monbiot — both leading voices of environmentalism.

In separate opinion articles in The Guardian yesterday, McKibben turned the conversation to climate and pressed for a shift to durable, localized energy production and more modest lifestyles in the face of human-amplified natural hazards. Monbiot used this moment, when some European leaders and campaigners have called for an end to the nuclear age, to embrace this technology.

Revkin promises more shortly, but I'll chime in anyway. You'll need to click on the links in the quote to get the full thrust of these articles. McKibben uses the power of nature as an indicator of the futility of expecting that we can engineer our way to safety and the avoidance of changes to our present life styles. Monbiot's stance is basically one of holding one's nose and moving ahead. The opportunity to replace nuclear energy with renewable alternates in the portfolios of industrialized countries is unlikely to be picked up. Instead the alternative to nuclear will be continued dependence on carbon-based fuels which pose different, but highly significant risks compared to nuclear power. Monbiot has taken his position assuming that the effects on health from the Japanese reactors is small so far. The "so far" may change in the future as these plants are still not fully tamed. Will he change his mind?

after tsunami

it's akin to hearing that Seventh Generation is now being sold in Walmart stores after years of seeing the as the enemy. How come the turnaround? The reality of such situations is that the problem is complex; the right solution is fuzzy and depends on the assumptions going in. The Japanese disaster has not changed the fundamental calculus about nuclear power. If anything, it has exposed some of the known but ignored warts. I expect to see new policies and technology to make this source of power safer than it is today. I am not arguing for nuclear power. Monbiot thinks it is more positive today. I disagree; the case for it is basically the same as it was a few months ago.

The folly of expecting any technological fix to cure the illnesses that our economies bring to the earth hasn't changed a bit. We are still waffling. I hope the need to change the culture to one that respects the Earth and its web of life doesn't get lost in the noisy arguments over nuclear power that are now inevitable.

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Ricardo Coelho said:

I've written a thorough rebuttal of Monbiot's pieces supporting nuclear power:
http://cooltheearth.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/why-george-monbiot-is-wrong-on-nuclear-power/