While nuclear has plenty of detractors, it also has key support from well-informed individuals from environmental and climate change camps. Former EPA Administrator Carol Browner promoted the obvious in September of 2014: Nuclear energy as a fundamental tool in addressing climate change (1) and, more recently, another former EPA Administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, added her support to nuclear as a key energy resource that meets power generation needs in ways renewables can’t (2). This places Browner and Whitman in camp with other pragmatists such as climate change pioneer James Hansen, who also supports the deployment of nuclear power in addressing climate change issues (3, 4).
In a different encampment is climate change activist and Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune who, when presented with the scenario of ‘nuclear versus natural gas’, responded with: “We hope that they fight each other and assure, uh, mutually-assured destruction” (5). Brune’s opposition to both nuclear energy and natural gas doesn’t reflect a realistic commitment to reducing CO2 emissions. Instead, it’s an example of ideology transgressing into irresponsibility where it’s all about climate change until it’s not about climate change—then it’s about something else, whatever that something else is.
The issue of CO2 emissions warrants rational attention. While Michael Brune’s environmental ideals are one thing, his position on nuclear energy and natural gas widens the chasm that separates idealistic environmental activism from rational pragmatism and only serves to further polarize a debate that is in sore need of gravity. Michael Nesbit, in the first of a two-part installment on climate activism and political polarization, discusses how “…in-your-face activism surrenders broader and potentially more substantive goals…” (6). This is not included in an effort to pigeonhole Nesbit as to his own position on environmental issues. Rather, I reference it only to point out the insufficiency of an activism that chooses to ignore realistic conditions that constrain or prohibit idealistic objectives. Pure idealism doesn’t acknowledge the technical, economic and geopolitical space that separates our current complex energy position from a yet-to-be-determined future energy position that is less CO2 intensive. Idealism such as that reflected in Brune’s opposition to nuclear and natural gas, expects to skip that space and simply “be there”. Pragmatism, on the other hand, endeavors to “get there” by developing realistic, constrained solutions that navigate us through that messy space that’s in-between.
Nuclear energy, a zero-carbon high-density energy source that can be used to dispatch electricity with an annual capacity factor greater than 90%, must be part of the constrained solutions that move us through the space that stands between today’s energy and tomorrow’s energy. To oppose it, is environmentally irresponsible.