‘Atomic Humanism’ and the Eco-Modernist Campaign to Promote Nuclear Power

ProNuclearActivistsBlockNRDC"Only nuclear can lift all humans out of poverty while saving the natural environment," Michael Shellenberger said in his keynote address at yesterday's annual meeting of the American Nuclear Society. "Nothing else—not coal, not solar, not geo-engineering—can do that." This, he declared, was one of the first principles of "atomic humanism."

Shellenberger is the founder of the pro-nuclear green group Environmental Progress, which argues that the best tool for fighting climate change is the no-carbon power generated by nuclear reactors. His speech offered a tour through the sorry history of environmentalist falsehoods and exaggerations about nuclear power.

He began with Ralph Nader, who started training activists on how to stop new nuclear plants in the 1960s. (At one inflammatory moment, Nader declared: "A nuclear plant could wipe out Cleveland, and the survivors would envy the dead.") The Sierra Club soon jumped on board the anti-nuclear campaign. Shellenberger quoted a secret 1974 memo from then-executive director Michael McCloskey: "Our campaign stressing the hazards of nuclear power will supply a rationale for increasing regulation...and add to the cost of the industry." Unfortunately, this strategy worked to perfection.

What was the activists' alternative to nuclear power? Fossil fuels. For example, Nader argued that we didn't "need nuclear power" because we "have a far greater amount of fossil fuels in this country than we're owning up to...the tar sands...oil out of shale...methane in coal beds." In 1976 Sierra Club consultant Amory Lovins declared that coal "can fill the real gaps in our fuel economy with only a temporary and modest (less than twofold at peak) expansion of mining." That same year, California Gov. Jerry Brown actually advocated the construction of coal-fired plants in place of nuclear power stations.

The results? According to Shellenberger, California's carbon dioxide emissions are now two and a half times higher than they would have been had the planned nuclear plants been allowed to go forward. Meanwhile, vastly more people have died as a result of pollution from fossil fuel power generation than from nuclear power.

It gets worse. Many prominent environmentalists, worried that abundant nuclear power would lead to overpopulation, endorsed strong anti-human sentiments. As Shellenberger noted:

"Giving society cheap and abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun," said Paul Ehrlich. "It'd be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of cheap, clean and abundant energy because of what we would do with it [emphasis original]," said Amory Lovins in 1977.

"I didn't really worry about the accidents because there are too many people anyway....I think that playing dirty if you have a noble end is fine," confessed Martin Litton, the Sierra Club member who led the campaign to kill Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California.

Shellenberger concluded by arguing for pro-nuclear activism including mass protests and sit-ins:

There is no short-cut around political engagement. Nuclear energy's opponents are well-financed and well-organized. But they have this huge achilles heel: Their entire agenda rests on a rejection of simple physics and basic ethics. They are in the wrong factually and morally. As such, when they are confronted with the truth—when it is pointed out that the emperor is wearing no clothes—they lose their power....

It's time for action. We have to move. We must confront the truth, and confront the threat. By standing up to Sierra Club, NRDC, and other anti-nuclear greenwashers, we saved nuclear plants in Illinois and New York.

A new grassroots movement, Generation Atomic, is backing measures to keep current nuclear power plants operating and also advocating the deployment of new advanced reactors. For example, Generation Atomic activists are now going door-to-door in Ohio urging voters to pressure state legislators to support the ZEN (Zero Emissions Nuclear) bill, which aims to keep both Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants operating. They note that those plants provide 90 percent of Ohio's non-carbon energy.

Though you may not agree with all of Shellenberger's arguments, his whole keynote is well worth your attention.

Bonus links: For more on new nuclear power generation technologies, go here. For more on the ways excessive regulation is boosting the costs of nuclear power, go here. For more on environmentalist opposition to nuclear power, go here.