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The Environmentalist That Went Nuclear

When Canadian born Patrick Moore began his career more than 30 years ago as an environmental activist and founder of Greenpeace,  he was appalled by all things nuclear. In 2000, British ecologist James Lovelock, best known for the Gaia hypothesis that holds that living and nonliving parts of the earth are viewed as a complex …

When Canadian born Patrick Moore began his career more than 30 years ago as an environmental activist and founder of Greenpeace,  he was appalled by all things nuclear. In 2000, British ecologist James Lovelock, best known for the Gaia hypothesis that holds that living and nonliving parts of the earth are viewed as a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism, convinced him that if one is truly serious about reducing carbon greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, widely believced to cause global warming, one had to support nuclear energy-a power source that is carbon-free.

Moore now serves as chairman and chief scientist for Greenspirit Strategies Ltd., a Vancouver consulting firm that develops strategic planning for sustainability issues and works with such groups as the U.S. Green Building Council and the World Wildlife Fund. He also co-chairs along with former EPA administrator and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, The Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, an advocacy group of conservationists, academics, labor and business groups and environmentalists who believe greater use of nuclear energy is critical to a U.S. energy policy. Moore spoke with CE’s J.P. Donlon on why a once rabid anti-nuke went atomic, and why anyone who is serious about global climate change should also. 

Given that you are a co-founder of Greenpeace, what was your epiphany in becoming a proponent of nuclear energy?

I started rethinking the subject of energy in terms of climate change around the mid ‘90s.

James Lovelock, a British scientist and father of the Gaia Hypothesis, and an icon to the environmental movement, had always argued that nuclear power should have an important role in changing fossil fuel consumption. At the time, many of us thought he was a bit of a crank on that topic, but he was highly respected for his thoughts on life on earth and atmospheric chemistry. When I visited him in 2000 at his country home in the west country of England, he convinced me to change my opinion, which had become very entrenched. Since the 1970s many of us were focused on stopping nuclear holocaust and protesting against nuclear weapons.  

In retrospect, we mistakenly lumped nuclear weapons with nuclear energy as if they were all part of the same holocaust. Today that would be as foolish as banning nuclear medicine. Every technology has beneficial uses as well as destructive and even evil uses. An airplane can fly one to a meeting on world peace or it can drop a hydrogen bomb. I can’t see how we got them so mixed up, but we did. In our antinuclear revolutionary zeal we got it muddled. In the early Greenpeace days this is one big area where I think we were very wrong. 

How do former Greenpeace colleagues regard your apostasy?

With considerable disdain. They seem to be stuck in the ‘70s and unable to recognize the important role that nuclear energy can play in reducing fossil fuel consumption. It’s quite ironic that the very people who are most concerned about climate change are generally the same ones who are against the solution that from a technical point of view, is straightforward. Both hydroelectric and nuclear power are the only other base load power technologies apart from fossil fuels that can provide continuous electricity into the grid. That’s it. No other large-scale technologies can provide continuous energy. Wind and solar are both intermittent, unreliable energy sources that cannot form the base load in a power grid.  

What is your view of renewables?

Renewables are great except when they are far too expensive, like solar panels. Solar panels only make sense off the grid. My house in Mexico is powered by solar, which is off the grid. The cost is 5 to 10 times what you pay for electricity depending upon where you live, which is why it doesn’t make sense to put solar on the grid. Biomass energy is also very important, particularly if we can succeed in developing cellulosic ethanol technology to where it’s cost effective. Considering the huge amount of feed stock there is in agricultural waste and forestry waste, its use should relieve pressure on other sources such as starch from sugar cane and corn, which is already being stretched to the limit and pressuring food prices. 

The same applies to geothermal heat pumps. If we install geothermal heat pumps in our buildings to extract the storage solar energy in the earth, we have to use some electricity to run the heat pump. It doesn’t make any sense to use a coal-fired plant to run the heat pump. But it does make sense to use a nuclear plant to run that heat pump, because then you’re producing electricity without fossil fuels. 

If we will take advantage of the technologies that already have been proven to work, that are reasonably cost-effective and that get the carbon out of our electrical supply, transportation and building infrastructure will have a better future. 

With respect to nuclear energy, how should we deal with political risk?

In the U.S. political risk is not a problem because 70 percent of the public supports  nuclear. Eighty percent of the people who live near nuclear plants support nuclear because they have lived there for a while and they know the nuclear plant is good for their community. There are 64 nuclear sites in the U.S., most with one or two reactors on them, yet they were designed in some cases for up to eight reactors to be on the site. So it’s possible to double capacity without even having any new nuclear sites.

Canada has also made the decision to move forward with new nuclear. Russia just announced it will build 50 nuclear plants. So I don’t see political backlash as an obstacle.  Germany is a different story. It is the bull’s-eye of antinuclear sentiment in the world.  Compare France and Germany side by side. They share a common border. They’ve known each other for hundreds of years. France depends on nuclear for 80 percent of its power with hydro supplying another 10 percent-almost no carbon emissions from their electricity sector. They have the second lowest per capita CO2 emissions in Western Europe, Sweden being the lowest with 50 percent hydro and 50 nuclear. Germany, on the other hand, has a policy to phase out all 17 of its nuclear plants by 2020, which is 30 percent of their electrical supply. At the same time they are pledging to reduce their CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020. These two policies are mutually exclusive. They simply can’t happen together. If they phase out 30 percent of their electricity, they have to replace it. The only options for replacing it are brown coal, which is domestic, or Russian gas, which would put them in a vulnerable geo-political situation. 

Even more ironically, Germany imports billions of dollars worth of French nuclear power every year because it is not producing enough electricity for its own needs. German CEOs, such as the CEO of BASF, are so frustrated by this that they have gone public with opinion editorials in major newspapers telling the Chancellor to please get off this track or face the destruction of the country’s industrial base. France has a rational policy; Germany has a completely irrational one. 

What about fuel supply and waste disposal risks?

Fuel supply is not an issue because there is a lot of uranium already discovered. Nobody even was looking for uranium for the last 30 years, because so much was found that there was no point in looking for more. Now that a nuclear renaissance appears to be coming, there is new exploration. For example, in Canada, [BP1]discovered a huge new find in Labrador. There is another huge new find in Slovakia. People are finding uranium all over the place now. In addition, thorium is a perfectly viable nuclear fuel; a different style reactor must be built to use it, but thorium reactors have been built. There’s four times as much thorium in the Earth’s crust as there is uranium. Besides which, it is felt to be reasonably achievable economically to extract uranium from sea water, and there is a huge amount of uranium in the sea. Then there is used fuel recycling which increases uranium by about 20 times. So in other words, 100 years’ worth of uranium suddenly becomes 2,000 years’ worth of uranium. 

Waste disposal isn’t a technical risk. The U.S. finally realizes that it is on the wrong track here by outlawing the recycling of used nuclear fuel. Other countries, like France, Britain, Russia and Japan, have nuclear fuel recycling facilities where they can get the energy back out of fuel rods and use it again. Then the waste is just a small proportion of those fuel rods that can then be glassified or vitrified, as it’s technically referred to where you basically melt glass and put the fission material in and cool it. Basically the fission products become embedded in a piece of rock. This is placed in steel and concrete and buried deep in the ground. Three hundred years later it’s basically harmless because the fission products do not have anywhere near the longevity of plutonium. 

How do you defend yourself when activists who consider themselves to be in the forefront in the fight against global warming dismiss you as a tool of nuclear power or big energy industry?

I don’t work for the oil and gas industry. I support nuclear because I believe that it has a strong position in terms of the environment and sustainability. It’s part of the solution.  Green Spirit Strategy is an interesting company. We are a for-profit company and a consultancy, but we’re also a kind of hybrid consultancy/activist group, because we have an agenda. Our agenda is to promote sustainability and only to work for people that we think are parts of the sustainability solution for the future.

When I first publicly supported nuclear energy in a Miami-Herald op-editorial a few years ago, I had no relationship with the nuclear industry. I just made it known in public utterances that I believed that we needed to change our thinking on this subject. Soon enough, I was approached by the nuclear industry to see if I would help them, and I was  happy to do so. 

What group most needs to have its thinking changed and how might this happen?

There’s strong bipartisan support for nuclear energy among both Republicans and Democrats. The Energy Act of 2005 had strong bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. Democrats have a little harder time with nuclear energy, because the antinuclear constituency tends to be in their camp. But this has not deterred them from being in favor of nuclear power. 

The thinking among the leadership of the mainstream environmental movement, on the other hand, needs to be changed. To some degree this has already started to occur. It started with myself and with Stewart Brand in California, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, with intellectuals like Jarrod Diamond, Pulitzer prize winner and author of “Guns, Germs and Steel,” and with natural historian, Tim Flannery from Australia.  These are all environmental people who have come out in saying that nuclear energy has to be part of the solution. 

The problem is that most of the people in the environmental movement are not independent of their organizations. They have to toe the party line. Within groups like the NRDC and the Sierra Club, there are people who are questioning this policy now. But they’re not free to speak their minds if they want to keep their jobs. It’s hard for groups that have spent so much time and money educating their supporters into thinking that nuclear energy is evil to shift their position because they risk losing half the membership that they have worked so hard to build up. 

But as time goes on, the logic has to eventually emerge. It is simply not logical to say that climate change is the most important issue and that reducing fossil fuel consumption is the main aim and then be against the most important technology for accomplishing that.  There’s no doubt that in the U.S., no other technology offsets as much carbon emissions as nuclear technology because it’s 20 percent of the electrical supply. If that percentage wasn’t being produced by nuclear, what would we use to produce it? No doubt we’d use coal and gas. 

Yet the history of the environmental movement seems to be based less on using logic, as you pointed out, than advocating a religious commitment to an environmentally pure theology.

Yes, there is an unfortunate element of religious fervor or lack of logic within the movement. It’s not in all the groups though. The NRDC tends to be a more fact-based organization, and I know for a fact that there is quite a debate going on within the organization. There are high-level people in the NRDC who do not agree with their antinuclear policy. 

I mean, how much sense does it make for the Sierra Club to be against nuclear energy when it’s the coal-fired power plants that are making the air filthy at the Grand Canyon?  If they want clean air and pristine wilderness, surely they would be more in favor of a technology that does not produce air pollution than in favor of a technology that does.

When it comes right down to it, the choice is between fossil fuel and nuclear for base load power production. Look around the world and see the choice that people are making. It’s irresponsible of established organizations like The Los Angeles Times that recently published an article where the paper said tax dollars are better spent on windmills than on cooling towers. Replacing nuclear energy with wind power is simply not possible. There is a fundamental difference between intermittent and unreliable sources like wind and solar and reliable base load sources like hydro, fossil and nuclear. Replacing base load power with wind simply can’t be done. Yet there are people in the environmental movement, in politics and in media who are saying we don’t need nuclear power, we can do it with wind and solar. That is an untrue statement. It’s not possible in the real world, because you can’t make the wind blow all the time and you can’t make the sun shine all the time.

You can make hydro, nuclear and coal power all the time, night and day. But the general public doesn’t make this critical distinction and is being purposefully misled by people who ought to know. It’s irresponsible.

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