ARE ANTI-NUCLEAR ACTIVISTS WORKING FOR MAN OR FOR NATURE?
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, April 17, 2006 -- An OpEd in the Washington Post this week argued that the use of nuclear power is the truest pro-environmental response to global warming. Among a few rational responses, there was also the predictable flurry of ad hominem attacks on the messengerm rather than a careful evaluation of the message. Why this should be so is is all but lost on reporters.
What was missing is an understanding of the fundamental dichotomy in environmentalist thought; for editorial writers, this point is crucial to understanding how pseudo-environmentalism is so often elevated over the more fundamental kind. Environmentalism in the modern day has to be understood as two fundamentally different, often competing impulses.
The first, original impulse, going back to Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, is to protect and preserve nature - the forests and rivers, the birds and the bears, Yosemite Valley and the Alaskan wilderness.
The other impulse is what I refer to as the "human toxicity" question; i.e., it is the attempt to protect ourselves against the effects of industry, farming and waste management. One is aimed at protecting all of nature. The other is aimed at protecting ourselves, whether or not it benefits nature.
The human toxicity argument was adopted by environmentalists as a way of pushing their message to non-environmentalists. Scare them about their children and they will go along with the rest of the package seems to have been the thought.
Once understood in this light, it becomes obvious that these are different approaches, sometimes working in concert, sometimes in opposition.
An example of the desire to protect ourselves from toxicity will be experienced whenever a community fights an industry that emits pollutants into the air or groundwater. My own community of San Pedro is very concerned about diesel particulate matter that ships pour into the air. Plenty of data now point to its toxic effects on our lungs and hearts. However, there is little reason to think that ship exhaust has much of an effect on the fish and the crabs living in the waters below.
Along the other branch of environmentalism, an example of the preservation impulse can be seen in the attempt to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve from being developed for oil production: The protectionist impulse has little to do with protecting our own lungs, and everything to do with the desire to save one of the last wilderness areas that is essentially untouched by man. We can see the same impulse in the desire to preserve the Amazon rainforests and in the management of our national parks.
Sometimes the two traditions work in concert. Any attempt to clean up lakes and rivers exemplifies such a combined impulse: The fish and the wildlife that depend on water for their very lives share the same needs with humans. The same toxic chemicals that kill off fish and algae are damaging to us as well, so any progress in making the water less toxic benefits man and beast alike.
A confused example of the two impulses, presented almost as one and the same, can be found on the cover of the April 3, 2006, edition of Time magazine. It is labeled, "Special Report: Global Warming. Be Worried. Be Very Worried." Time announces, "Climate change isn't some vague future problem - it's already damaging the planet at an alarming pace. Here's how it affects you, your kids and their kids as well."
It is true that we humans are going to be most concerned about the lives of our own families ("your kids and their kids ..."), but the photo on the cover shows a polar bear that is obviously suffering loss of its icy habitat. Saving our own hides and saving everything else in the world may now be approaching each other asymptotically, but they are not identical, particularly when it comes to the tactics that would be appropriate for each.
And now, as an example of that difference, the Washington Post April 16 edition contains an OpEd (available on the Internet) by Patrick Moore entitled "Going Nuclear: A Green Makes the Case." The case that Moore is trying to make is that nuclear power is a necessary ingredient in any attempt we will make to stave off global warming. The argument is simple: nuclear doesn't emit carbon dioxide.
Moore is a self-described cofounder of Greenpeace who left the fold, and for some years has made a living arguing the case for logging and mining. Many of his original colleagues consider him to be a traitor; a contributor to dailykos.com, going by the name of Hunter, wrote a 1,400 word-screed calling Moore a shill for industry. To the Left, being pro-nuclear seems to be enough, in and of itself, to be drummed out of the cadre. May I suggest that such positioning is a symptom of misunderstood environmentalism by those who profess to be its chief exponents?
To understand why this is so, and why such rote ideology prevents a deeper environmentalism, consider the argument from the standpoint of that dichotomy I mentioned.
What are the arguments against using nuclear power to generate electricity for domestic use? At one time, they began with a general distaste for anything and everything associated with nuclear weapons. The argument isn't terribly logical, since we already have lots of nuclear weapons and the domestic industry doesn't have much to do with them, but the idea that power-plant waste could be diverted to weapons has been around for decades. The fact that hundreds of reactors are now in existence all over the world goes a long way to undermine this argument (even if nuclear plants create that risk, there's nothing much we can do about it in the United States). We may have legitimate concerns over surplus weapons from the old USSR getting into the wrong hands, but that has little to do with our own domestic industry.
The more persuasive arguments have to do with the danger that a nuclear power plant could be damaged and release its radioactive material into the local environment. The Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents are the poster children for these concerns. A rationalist view treats the Chernobyl-style accident as one that is effectively impossible to happen at any modern reactor built in the Western world. Still, there is always the chance, even if very slim, that some combination of factors - earthquake, tsunami, aircraft or missile attack - could breach the containment shell of an active nuclear reactor, spread poisonous radioactive material and sicken and kill people while making the surrounding areas unlivable.
With all due respect, we have to classify this argument as a human toxicity issue. The concerns we have, such as they are, involve the damage that might occur to ourselves and our kin. Moreover, unless you stretch the argument far beyond reason, such accidents are rare and confined to the reactor's surroundings.
The threat of global warming is a different beast entirely. Here, the threat is not just to humans, but to thousands of species that are in danger of losing their habitats and their lives. When the habitat is destroyed, many of the creatures living in it are also destroyed. The climate change associated with global warming may involve destruction of the Arctic ecology, loss of much of the coastal ecologies, and perhaps even the destruction of Europe due to loss of the Gulf Stream and its moderating effects.
Viewed in this light, the modest risks associated with building nuclear power plants pale in comparison. The risks are to ourselves, and to put it bluntly, only to a few of us at that. The argument that is currently most popular among the anti-nuclear forces involves the shipment and storage of power-plant waste that has been reprocessed into plutonium. Arguments about the dangers of shipping plutonium waste are clearly human toxicity arguments. The dangers of storage are, in general, the same. What's left is the concern that encouraging humans to purify and concentrate uranium ore into its metallic form is an encouragement to build bombs we can use on each other.
Even this argument is largely a human toxicity argument. The use of atomic weapons obviously isn't good for anything, plant or animal, that happens to be in the way, but even then we are talking about localized events - presuming plutonium shipments are not sunk at sea after bursting open - rather than the destruction of entire large areas of the planetary flora and fauna, as would be the case if plutoium casks were breached.
Once this dichotomy is understood, the argument can be stated succinctly in moral terms: We as humans shouldn't be hurting and killing each other by technological negligence, and we have even less right to destroy all of creation through a different kind of negligence.
When Patrick Moore makes the argument that nuclear power plants are the only reasonable method of replacing a huge amount of CO2-producing coal plants, he was (intentionally or not) helping to make the case in these moral terms. "More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions - or nearly 10 percent of global emissions - of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power," he wrote.
Moore hedged his bets when he continued, "And these days it can do so safely." But this was just frosting on the yellowcake.
One anecdote: Back in 2001, I attended a public demonstration protesting President Bush's refusal to intervene in California's electricity crisis. At the event, I ran into an acquaintance who represents a large environmental organization. I was interested in this particular topic even then, and I suggested to him that since his organization considered global warming to be the premier threat to the environment, shouldn't they also support the use of nuclear power over coal? After all, uranium supplies us with electricity absent the CO2, toxic emissions, and general dirtiness of coal plants.
It was like one of those scenes in a science-fiction movie where the robot is confronted with a logical paradox and self-destructs in a shower of sparks and burning metal. My once-friendly acquaintance got a glassy-eyed look, stammered that he would send me a position paper on the subject, and walked away. I'm still waiting for that paper.
Perhaps the times are changing. A couple of celebrity bloggers - one from the Right and one from the Left - signaled their agreement with Moore's column. Michelle Cottle, subbing for vacationing conservative Andrew Sullivan, said this: "My father has spent his entire career in the nuclear field - first in the Navy, then in nuclear power. He has long insisted that, despite what my lefty media colleagues might think, when environmental activists got serious about global warming they would concede that nuclear energy ain't all bad." The liberal Kevin Drum also took note of Moore's argument and offered agreement in principle. Even our editor, Joe Shea, who first mentioned global warming in a 1980 article for the LA Weekly, ends one of his sonnets with a plea for peaceful nuclear power: "'Regard the gentle Earth, that nurtured thee: Direct thy light to help, or burn with me.'"
What's most important is that large news organizations have started to revisit this discussion. What has been missing is perspective. This explanation is offered in the hope that someone in the media will take note of the great and immediate relevance of this quiet debate. Our nation's editorial writers and opinion leaders need to understand the difference between risking a few of our own lives and destroying the rest of the world.