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Good Nuclear In, Bad Nuclear Out -- Cause for Celebration on 40th Earth Day

Posted: 04/21/10 04:53 PM ET

This Earth Day, which celebrates the 40th year of its founding, is special for another reason beyond its anniversary date. On the topic of nuclear, 2010 is a good year for both the environment and world peace.

Earlier this year, US President Barack Obama announced an $8.5 billion loan guarantee to Georgia Power to support building two nuclear power plants, the first new US plants in 30 years. The President's February 16th announcement was perhaps the biggest boost for nuclear power generation since Earth Day was established in 1970.

Why is that good? In simple terms, every nuclear plant can be viewed as two fewer large coal-fired generators. That makes for large reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

In speaking about his administration's support of Plant Vogtle near Augusta, the President was clear: "Nuclear energy remains our largest source of fuel that produces no carbon emissions. It's that simple. This one plant, for example, will cut carbon pollution by 16 million tons each year when compared to a similar coal plant. That's like taking 3.5 million cars off the road."

Earlier this month, the President addressed the other side of nuclear technology at the Nuclear Security Summit, the largest gathering of world leaders in the US since the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Prior to the Summit, on April 8th, the President and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new strategic arms reduction treaty agreeing to reduce active nuclear weapons by 30 percent.

The next day, the two leaders announced an agreement to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium each for a total of 68 tons equal to 17,000 warheads. This plutonium was in dismantled warheads or was stockpiled to build new warheads.

Russia has agreed it will burn its plutonium in two fast neutron reactors to make electricity. It is not clear how the US will dispose of its plutonium. Ironically, the sole US fast reactor, a 400 Mw unit at Richland, Washington, was shut down in 1993 in the name of preventing nuclear proliferation.

Following a 1993 agreement, Russia continues to sell 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium to the US to be "down-blended" for use in nuclear power reactors. All of this uranium is from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads. You would be forgiven for not being aware of this largely unreported fact that 50 percent of US nuclear energy, 10 percent of total US electricity, is being produced from this uranium. It is time the two good news stories of nuclear energy for peace and the environment and nuclear weapons disarmament for peace and the environment were more widely celebrated.

For me the path from swords to plowshares began in 1971 when I sailed on the first Greenpeace campaign to stop US hydrogen bomb testing in Alaska. Greenpeace was born of the view that all-out nuclear war was the greatest threat to both civilization and the environment. President Nixon cancelled the hydrogen test program, and the H-bomb that was detonated on Amchitka Island that year was the last hydrogen bomb the US ever exploded. In retrospect it was a major turning point in the arms race and heralded the first US-Soviet SALT arms reduction talks in 1972.

On this 40th Earth Day I hope people recognize that we are moving in a positive direction by encouraging the peaceful use of nuclear technology and working to reduce the threat of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. These twin accomplishments make 2010 the most significant year in decades of nuclear achievements.

A co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace and an advisor to government and industry, Dr. Patrick Moore is Chairman and Chief Scientist at Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. in Vancouver. www.greenspiritstrategies.com