Mike Shellenberger: How one of world’s cleanest & greenest technologies became viewed as bad for environment

Pro@MichaelBTI just posted a nineteen-point Tweetstorm on Storify explaining the history of how certain environmentalists discovered their true calling as anti-nuclear activists. Because I wasn’t following energy policy during this period, it has long been a puzzle to me how an “environmentalist” would turn against the cleanest, safest source of energy. To oversimplify a bit, what happened is that a few well-placed people with a strong “Small is Beautiful” and anti-corporate ideology invented issues that could be used very effectively for fear-mongering. Amory Lovins continues today to be an effective purveyor of these anti-nuclear myths. 

Here’s a plain-text recap of Mike’s history – please reply at the Storify page or directly to @MichaelBTI. Emphasis is mine.

1. As pro-nuclear ranks grew among people who care about climate & environment, we were treated as something of a novelty — but we weren’t.

2. Alvin Weinberg & other post-war scientists saw nuclear as huge breakthrough in pollution-free, low-impact source of electricity.

3. While California & others embraced nuclear, faction in Sierra Club saw cheap power as opening door to more people & more development.

4. Nuclear was so obviously superior environmentally to all other energy technologies that opponents had to invent new concerns.

5. Amory Lovins worked with David Brower @sierraclub (against Ansel Adams) to make up various reasons to be against nuclear energy.

6. They made up & publicized scary myths about proliferation & waste that notably had nothing whatsoever to do with the environment.

7. Anti-nuclear env. leaders of 1970s knew they couldn’t win on scientific or environmental grounds so they had to start fear-mongering.

8. But because it was “environmental leaders” who were doing fear-mongering, media misreported concerns as “environmental” — they weren’t.

9. Nuclear waste is deemed the environmental problem, but from environmental point of view it is exactly the kind of waste you should want.

10. From environmental point of view, production you want is highest output using fewest inputs & least amt. of waste: that’s nuclear.

11. Anti-nuclear leaders turned a huge strength of nuclear — its small amounts of highly manageable waste — into a weakness.

12. Grossly exaggerating nuclear waste risks was critically important to undermining its reputation as an orders-of-magnitude cleaner tech.

13. Much of “environmental” attack on nuclear had nothing to do with tech per se but paranoia of “large systems” e.g. the electrical grid.

14. Fear of big systems & utopian views of small communities underlay anti-nuclear movement rejection of both big government & companies.

15. Today anti-nuclear activists routinely talk of “nuclear industry!” but mostly are referring to public or heavily regulated utilities.

16. In truth, nuclear’s biggest advocates weren’t profit-motivated private companies but publicly-minded scientists & utilities…

17. … their motivation & excitement was around vision of powering California & world with pollution-free low-footprint energy.

18. In sum, it was the environmental benefits that were *the main motivation* of pro-nuclear advocates like Weinberg in the 1960s…

19. … while it was highly ideological *non-environmental* concerns that drove fear & opposition to nuclear energy starting in the 1970s.

The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 2

This is a sequel to The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 1, where I promised to look at the relative nuclear support amongst print and TV media, scientists and the public. A personal favorite technical source on nuclear power is prof. Bernard Cohen’s textbook The Nuclear Energy Option. While the book is out of print there is a very well-executed online version. For this post we need Chapter 4 Is The Public Ready For More Nuclear Power?

Prof. Cohen analyzed a broad range of opinion surveys that were available at the time of writing ~1990. Here I just want to focus on the hypothesis that “The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it.” If we collected fresh surveys today we might find the absolute levels a bit different, but I claim the relative proportions should be very similar. Here’s the relevant paragraphs from Chapter 4:

While public support of nuclear power has only recently been turning favorable, the scientific community has always been steadfastly supportive. In 1980, at the peak of public rejection, Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, social scientists from Smith College and Columbia University, respectively, conducted a poll of a random sample of scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science, The “Who’s Who” of scientists.1 They received a total of 741 replies. They categorized 249 of these respondents as “energy experts” based on their specializing in energy-related fields rather broadly defined to include such disciplines as atmospheric chemistry, solar energy, conservation, and ecology. They also categorized 72 as nuclear scientists based on fields of specialization ranging from radiation genetics to reactor physics. Some of their results are listed in Table 1.

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From Table 1 we see that 89% of all scientists, 95% of scientists involved in energy-related fields, and 100% of radiation and nuclear scientists favored proceeding with the development of nuclear power. Incidentally, there were no significant differences between responses from those employed by industry, government, and universities. There was also no difference between those who had and had not received financial support from industry or the government.

Another interesting question was whether the scientists would be willing to locate nuclear plants in cities in which they live (actually, no nuclear plants are built within 20 miles of heavily populated areas). The percentage saying that they were willing was 69% for all scientists, 80% for those in energy-related sciences, and 98% for radiation and nuclear scientists. This was in direct contrast to the 56% of the general public that said it was not willing.

Rothman and Lichter also surveyed opinions of various categories of media journalists and developed ratings for their support of nuclear energy. Their results are shown in Table 2. [which I’ve rendered in chart form]

Click to embiggen

We see that scientists are much more supportive of nuclear power than journalists, and press journalists are much more supportive than the TV people who have had most of the influence on the public, even though they normally have less time to investigate in depth. There is also a tendency for science journalists to be more supportive then other journalists.

In summary, these Rothman-Lichter surveys show that scientists have been much more supportive of nuclear power than the public or the TV reporters, producers, and journalists who “educate” them. Among scientists, the closer their specialty to nuclear science, the more supportive they are. This is not much influenced by job security considerations, since the level of support is the same for those employed by universities, where tenure rules protect jobs, as it is for those employed in industry. Moreover, job security for energy scientists is not affected by the status of the nuclear industry because they are largely employed in enterprises competing with nuclear energy. In fact, most nuclear scientists work in research on radiation and the ultimate nature of matter, and are thus not affected by the status of the nuclear power industry. Even among journalists, those who are most knowledgeable are the most supportive. The pattern is very clear — the more one knows about nuclear power, the more supportive one becomes.

For the 2014 perspective, please read Geoff Russell’s wonderful new book GreenJacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change

Geoff articulates how Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club and the like thwarted the substitution of clean nuclear for dirty coal. Those organizations could not admit today what will be completely obvious after reading Greenjacked!: that if they had supported nuclear power from the 1960s to today, then all of the developed world could easily have been like France, Sweden and Ontario province — powering advanced societies with nearly carbon-free nuclear energy.

The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 1


Image and caption credit Chattanooga Times Free Press: Houses in the Hunter Trace subdivision in north Hamilton County are within a few hundred yards of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant near Soddy-Daisy. Neighbors to the nuclear plant say they don’t mind living close to the TVA plant. Staff Photo by Dave Flessner

In 2002 I started looking into our low-carbon energy options. Over the next two years I learned there is no perfect-zero-carbon energy option. I learned that realistic low-carbon energy policy is about deploying scaleable and affordable electricity generation. To my surprise, like the five environmentalists of Pandora’s Promise, I discovered that my anti-nuclear view was based on fictions. I had carried around “The Washington Post accepted” wisdom for decades without ever asking “Why is that true?”

As I was studying the nuclear option, it became blindingly obvious that the people who feared nuclear knew essentially nothing about the subject. Conversely the people who were most knowledgeable about nuclear supported large-scale nuclear deployment as a practical way to replace coal.

And, very interesting, the people who live in the neighborhoods of existing nuclear plants tend to be very favorable to building more nuclear. Including new nuclear plants to be constructed literally “In their own back yard”, a reversal of the expected NIMBY attitudes. Of course there are economic benefits to the neighbors of a plant, including the taxes paid to the regional government entity. The economic incentives gave people a reason to want to be there, so it motivated them to ask some serious questions:

  • “Should I buy a home near that nuclear plant?”
  • “Will my children be harmed?”
  • “What if there is an accident?”

From reading the recent NEI annual polls I developed an untested hypothesis: the more contact you have with people who work at a nearby nuclear plant, the less you fear nuclear and the more you appreciate the benefits of clean electricity. It’s easy to informally ask your neighbors “what’s the truth?” about things that worry you. And you learn the people who operate the plant are just as devoted to their children as you are.

Here is another encouraging trend: there are significant numbers “voting with their feet” by moving into nuclear plant neighborhoods.

USA 2010 census: the population living within 10 miles of nuclear power plants rose by 17 percent in the past decade.

And if you read the same surveys that I did you will see how strongly the neighbors’ attitudes contrast to the typical media fear-mongering. Examples:

Neighbor of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant “This is a safer neighborhood than most areas and I really don’t think much about the plant, other than it provides a great walking area for me,” said Blanche DeVries, who moved near Sequoyah three years ago.

NEI 2013 survey similar to 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011 “familiarity with nuclear energy leads to support.” 

NEI 2013 survey “80 percent agree with keeping the option to build more nuclear power plants in the future”

BBC Living near a nuclear power station

  • Q: “What’s it like to have a reactor on the doorstep?”
  • A: “I live not more than 100 yards…and it doesn’t worry me.”

NEI survey 2009: “Eighty-four percent of Americans living near nuclear power plants favor nuclear energy, while an even greater number—90 percent―view the local power station positively, and 76 percent support construction of a new reactor near them, according to a new public opinion survey of more than 1,100 adults across the United States.”

NEI survey 2013 [PDF]: “81 percent of residents near commercial reactors favor the use of nuclear energy, 47 percent strongly.”

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UK 2013 Why we love living next to a nuclear power plant: “It’s cheap, it’s quiet and, say the residents of Dungeness, blissfully safe”. “Here, by contrast, everyone I talk to enthuses about a strong feeling of security and a rare kind of community spirit. Put simply, they live in houses that happen to be next door to a nuclear power station because it makes them feel safe.”

Next we will look at the relative nuclear support amongst print & TV media, scientists and the public The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 2.