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Prominent Environmentalists Embrace Nuclear

By Romeo St-Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

“I used to be anti-nuclear. But, several years ago I had to reevaluate my thinking because if you agree with the world’s leading climate scientists that global warming is real and must be addressed immediately then you cannot simply oppose clean, low-carbon energy sources.”

– Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy

Carol Browner
Carol Browner

Before climate change topped the environmental agenda, environmentalists often stood on opposite sides of the nuclear debate.

Even today, many big-name environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, remain opposed to nuclear power.

However, a growing number of prominent environmentalists and scientists have converted to the pro-nuclear camp, including those who had vehemently opposed nuclear power.

The reason is simple: Climate change is the top issue, and countries cannot meet both their energy needs and greenhouse-gas reduction targets using renewable energy sources alone.

Mark Lynas
Mark Lynas

Look no further than Germany and Japan to see countries that closed nuclear power plants only to see a rise in their use of coal and gas.

“Without nuclear, the battle against global warming is as good as lost,” environmentalist Mark Lynas wrote in a recent op-ed for The Guardian. “Even many greens now admit this in private moments.”

Lynas admits that he “grew up hating nuclear,” but converted to the pro-nuclear side after discovering the dangers had been exaggerated.

Another prominent pro-nuclear environmentalist is James Lovelock, the British scientist best known for the “Gaia hypothesis,” which proposes that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system, similar to a living organism.

James Lovelock
James Lovelock

“I think nearly all of the arguments against nuclear energy are just false and highly political,” Lovelock recently told the Globe and Mail.

“But it’s a question of how you compare: What’s the risk of powering your nation by nuclear power, compared with coal or oil? I think the case in favor of nuclear is enormously strong.”

Perhaps the most prominent pro-nuclear environmentalist is James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has been credited for being one of first to warn politicians and policy makers about the dangers of climate change.

Hansen was one of four environmental scientists who wrote a 2013 open letter urging the green movement to give up its opposition to nuclear power.

James Hansen
James Hansen

“While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power,” the letter said.

(Hansen is also the featured speaker at the 2015 Canadian Nuclear Association conference.)

Other prominent pro-nuclear environmentalists include Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace; author Gwyneth Cravens; and Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy.

Cravens, Lynas, writer Stewart Brand, and writer Michael Schellenberger were among the notable environmentalists once opposed to nuclear who were featured in the 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise. The film focused on the environmental movement’s opposition to nuclear, even though it is a safe, low-carbon energy source needed to combat climate change.

Nuclear Education Nuclear Energy

Pandora’s Promise Raises Good Questions for Environmentalists

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Both environmentalists and nuclear industry advocates are talking about a new and highly provocative film, Pandora’s Promise. What makes this conversation, and the film that inspires it, so interesting is that they are not in disagreement.

Director Robert Stone follows the journey of previously anti-nuclear environmentalists who have changed their views. Their conclusion is that nuclear is central to reducing fossil fuels as the source of electricity.

There are those who would consider it heresy to suggest that nuclear technology can lead us to a greener world, but more and more environmentalists are coming to see nuclear as an ally rather than the enemy. This is the result of a more comprehensive, evidence-based vision of the costs and impacts of each energy source, in the context of a sober realization that the demand for power will be met one way or another. Put simply, if we have to get energy from somewhere, we could do worse than get it from nuclear power – we could get it anywhere else. It is the unattractiveness of all the other options that has led the conversation right back to clean, affordable, inexpensive, and always-available nuclear power.

You simply cannot create such a film without hitting nerves and Pandora’s Promise shows a willingness to do so. Those who want to disagree with the conclusion will argue bias, but the participants, including the director, are all people who were once fervently anti-nuclear. As well, the filmmakers scrupulously avoided any nuclear industry support. And these are not the only converts; for example, George Monbiot, an environmentalist committed enough to personally swear off unnecessary air travel, has also embraced nuclear power. Yet, while being called a traitor by some former colleagues may be hard to take, it is liberating for any scientist to follow the facts wherever they lead.

For many policy makers and scientists there is little new in Pandora’s Promise, but the obstacle was never with them. Nuclear technology projects are large and politicians are sensitive to public opinion, even if that opinion is not always well-founded. Pandora’s Promise is an invitation to the public to reconsider, as did the participants in the film, their misconceptions about the costs, impact and safety of the technology.

It is natural that the science of climate change would find resistance when available options are poor and the cost of change is numbing. By putting the promise of nuclear back on the table, Pandora’s Promise may well restore hope that we can control our thirst for a limited supply of carbon.