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How the Environmental Movement Changed its Mind on Nuclear Power

May 1, 2016
By MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER

In the U.S., utilities have either closed or announced premature closures of seven plants in three years. At least eight more are at risk of early closure in the next two years. In 2011, Germany announced it would close all of its nuclear plants.

nuclear

In the U.S., utilities have either closed or announced premature closures of seven plants in three years. At least eight more are at risk of early closure in the next two years. In 2011, Germany announced it would close all of its nuclear plants. Swedish utility Vattenfall announced late last year that it would be forced to close several reactors prematurely.

Everywhere the underlying reason is the same: anti-nuclear forces, in tandem with rent-seeking economic interests, have captured government policies. On one extreme lies Germany, which decided to speed up the closure of its nuclear plants following Fukushima. In Sweden the government imposed a special tax on nuclear. In the U.S., solar and wind receive 140 and 17 times higher levels of subsidy than nuclear. And states across the nation have enacted Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, that mandate rising wind and solar, and that exclude nuclear.

Nuclear went from 18 per- cent of global electricity in 1996 to 12 percent in 2011. And nuclear declined 10 percent in absolute terms between 2006 and 2014.

Against the hype about solar and wind’s rapid growth, the decline of zero-carbon energy shows that they do not make up for loss of nuclear. Zero-carbon power as a percentage of global electricity declined from 37 to 31 percent between 1993 and 2014.

WHY ENVIRONMENTALISTS BECAME ANTI-NUCLEAR

 

Few people realize that up until the early-seventies, environmentalists including the Sierra Club itself was pro-nuclear. “Nuclear energy is the only practical alternative that we have to destroying the environment with oil and coal,” said famed nature photographer and Sierra Club Director, Ansel Adams.

How then did environmentalists come to view nuclear as bad for the environment?

Starting in the mid-sixties, a handful of Sierra Club activists feared rising migration into California would destroy the state’s scenic character. They decided to attack all sources of cheap, reliable power, not just nuclear, in order to slow economic growth.

“If a doubling of the state’s population in the next 20 years is to be encouraged by providing the power resources for this growth,” wrote David Brower, who was Executive Director of the Sierra Club, “the state’s scenic character will be destroyed. More power plants create more industry, that in turn invites greater population density.”

A Sierra Club activist named Martin Litton, a pilot and nature photographer for Sunset magazine, led the campaign to oppose Diablo Canyon, a nuclear site Pacific Gas and Electric proposed to build on the central Californian coast in 1965. Sierra Club member “Martin Litton hated people,” wrote a historian about the how the environmental movement turned against nuclear. “He favored a drastic reduction in population to halt encroachment on park land.”

But anti-nuclear activists had a problem: their anti-growth message was deeply unpopular with the Californian people. And so they quickly changed their strategy. They worked hard instead to scare the public by preying on their ignorance.

Doris Sloan, an anti-nuclear activist in northern California said, “If you’re trying to get people aroused about what is going on ... you use the most emotional issue you can find.” This included publicizing images of victims of Hiroshima and photos of babies born with birth defects. Millions were convinced a nuclear meltdown was the same as a nuclear bomb.

Not Martin Litton. When asked if he worried about nuclear accidents he replied, “No, I really didn’t care because there are too many people anyway.” Why then all of the fear-mongering? “I think that playing dirty if you have a noble end,” he explained, “is fine.”

But the fear-mongering worked on a young and idealistic Amory Lovins, the renewable energy advocate, who began his career crusading against nuclear weapons. Lovins’ basic framework of transitioning from nuclear to renewables was promoted by David Brower and Friends of the Earth and eventually embraced by Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the German government, Al Gore, and a whole generation of environmentalists.

The full article can be read by following the link or clicking on the PDF.

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