Huffpost Homepage
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

David Roberts Headshot

Nuclear Power is Not Rational or Forward-Thinking, Even If You Say So Over and Over Again

Posted: Updated:

Back when I first read Stewart Brand's Environmental Heresies, I wrote about it admiringly and, in retrospect, somewhat naively.

Of the nuclear debate, I said that there's an array of great arguments against nuclear power, and one real argument in its favor: There's no other way to cut our CO2 emissions fast enough. That argument, I said, "strikes me as decisive if it's true."

Since then it's become clear to me that it's not true. The pressing realities of climate change argue against nuclear power, not for it, because they argue for the cheapest, fastest, most adaptable and resilient response, and that's not nuclear power. Money spent on capital-intensive hard infrastructure (run by a rent-seeking, politically connected industry with a crappy record of regulatory compliance) is money that would have more positive effect spent on distributed renewables and efficiency. The opportunity costs of nuclear power are too high.

NYT columnist John Tierney, in a hagiographic piece on Brand today, reinforces what I find dishonest and manipulative in Brand's argument.

There's this bit:

"There were legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear power, but now that we know about the threat of climate change, we have to put the risks in perspective," [Brand] says. "Sure, nuclear waste is a problem, but the great thing about it is you know where it is and you can guard it. The bad thing about coal waste is that you don't know where it is and you don't know what it's doing. The carbon dioxide is in everybody's atmosphere."

Good thing we don't have to choose between nuclear waste and coal waste!

But most irksome is Brand's (and Tierney's) decree that the pro-nuke stance represents the "scientist" wing of environmentalism, as opposed to the anti-nuke "romantics." You see a lot of this kind of thing on blogs and forums: the guy -- and it's usually a guy -- who insists that he alone is being rational and that his interlocutors are mired in emotion, if not hysteria. The self-proclaimed rational people are also prone to martyrdom: when they can't convince the benighted, irrational masses to accept their positions, they become, in their own eyes at least, brave "heretics." Nuclear proponents love this kind of intellectual narcissism.

But it's not an argument; it's a substitute for an argument. It's a label. Of course opponents of nuclear power think they are the scientists, if by that we mean those sifting through empirical evidence and drawing reasonable conclusions from it. They believe opposition to nuclear power is the rational position. "I'm the scientist, you're the romantic" amounts to "I'm right, you're wrong, nyah nyah." Such things are not settled by edict.

An equally irksome tic is the notion that Brand represents some sort of next-gen environmentalism. There are basically three of these guys, these new nuclear proponents: Brand, Patrick Moore, and James Lovelock. Every story about one of these guys -- and there are plenty -- tries to spin the next-gen angle. Finally environmentalists are letting go of their old ideas, right?

But I don't see anything new here, much less any brave new environmentalism. I see three guys approaching their twilight years, worn down from a lifetime of fighting, making a desperate bet based on fear.

The fearful don't make history. History passes them by.

Let's not panic. In ten years, by the time we could get any nuke plants built, technological and cultural changes will have rendered their alleged necessity a quaint, archaic notion. Boomer journalists and "futurists" would do well to abandon their jihad against imaginary dirty hippies and get with the zeitgeist.

grist.org