75% of Greens OK with Nuclear Power [redux]
[Update 11.9.2008: Over the last several days, thousands of environmental activists in Germany have blocked and delayed a train carrying nuclear waste from France into the country to be stored in an old salt mine. The story reminded me that there is still substantial opposition to nuclear power, despite the fact that it has been touted by many as an essential component of our energy mix because nuclear power generates little in the way of greenhouse gas emissions. The story also reminded me of the following post. ]
This past spring we conducted a reader poll that concluded with some rather unexpected results. Nearly 75 percent of the respondents believe that nuclear power is good because it is a source of “abundant carbon free energy.” Granted, this simple reader’s poll with an admittedly minute n of 133 is not a statistical representation of the public attitude of any particular group of people. But attitudes towards nuclear power have undergone a palpable shift amongst self-identified environmentalists in recent years. The change is especially striking considering that the anti-nuclear cause had been one of the core issues for the environmental movement for almost four decades.
But as consumed as I am with energy issues and the politics that surround them, I remain somewhat agnostic about nuclear power. Why is that? There’s no simple answer. Part of it is not wanting to reconcile the tensions between nuclear power as a low-carbon alternative with the ecological dangers of mining uranium and the big issue of transporting and storing nuclear waste.
I would also argue that the reason I (and many other greens my age) are not particularly averse to nuclear power is because the pressing environmental issues that were building blocks to my own environmentalism were generally not related to nukes. I vaguely remember the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. And I was in high school when the more serious accident at Chernobyl happened. But that’s it. There has not been a new nuclear power plant built in this country in 30 years, and for that reason nukes have faded away as one of the critical rallying issues of the modern environmental movement.
One of my biggest concerns is the issue of water. Extracting uranium from the ground using in situ mining methods requires massive amounts of water, as do the reactors themselves. Judith Lewis, who also holds that concern. She wrote in Mother Jones,
“Light water” reactors, used at the majority of the world’s nuclear plants, use water both to moderate the chain reaction and produce steam to spin turbines—2 billion gallons per day on average. Most of it returns to the adjoining river, lake, or ocean up to 25 degrees warmer, an ecological impact that could significantly interfere with nuclear power’s chances as a climate-change solution. Already, wherever a light-water reactor sits near a sensitive body of water, its intake pipes kill fish and its outflow distorts ecosystems to favor warm-water species.”
That said, I recognize that nuclear power must be part of “the discussion.” I just want to be sure that the discussion happens, and that it is thorough, and geographically specific. In other words, nuclear power will not be the answer everywhere.