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Atomic Balm: Some Prominent Environmental Veterans are Talking up Nuclear Power as a Climate Change Solution

Peter Dykstra's picture
  • Member since 2018
  • 5 items added with 6,731 views
  • Feb 17, 2015

In recent years, some major science and environmental players have come forward to endorse nuclear power. Former EPA Administrator and Obama climate czar Carol Browner is one of the glitziest.

Third Way Think Tank/flickr
Carol Browner, former EPA administrator, is on board with the Nuclear Matters campaign. 

Browner signed up for the newest and shiniest effort to sell nuke plants, the year-old Nuclear Matters, founded by electric giant Exelon in 2014.

Nuclear Matters is run by public relations agency Sloane & Associates. Critics call it a nuclear front group, but Sloane prefers to bill it as “starting a national conversation on nuclear power,” and adds that other utilities, nuke builders and suppliers have joined Exelon as sponsors.

The group recruited several other bipartisan political heavyweights as paid spokespeople but none that are catnip for the environmental community, where opposition to nuclear power is the rule, not the exception.

So when Nuclear Matters hauled in Browner as a spokesperson of its Leadership Council last year, she was a big catch.

Browner said she typically devotes a few hours a week to Nuclear Matters and is compensated for her time, but neither she nor Nuclear Matters will discuss her fee.  In late January, she appeared at a Nuclear Matters event in Chicago.

Browner said her conversion to nukes is entirely based on climate change concerns, and began shortly after she left the EPA in 2001. “Climate is the biggest challenge in the world,” she said. “We cannot take nuclear off the table.”

Though she’s enlisted in Nuclear Matters, Browner said she parts ways with industry policy on at least one issue: she has advocated government support for wind and solar – opposed by many of the utilities bankrolling Nuclear Matters.

Browner was reluctant to discuss the current financial struggles of multiple nuke plants, and acknowledged that the industry was still “trying to figure out” the unsolved problems of nuclear waste storage.

Since launching in Washington last April, it’s difficult to determine the impact the Nuclear Matters campaign has had. But Browner is far from the only convert.

A Field Guide to Nuclear Environmentalists

Opposition to nuclear is strong among environmentalists. However, the motives to support nuclear power vary from the pols, the techno-pragmatists, the eco-ancestors and those desperate to counter climate change. Here’s a list of the most prominent, in addition to Carol Browner.

James Lovelock

James Lovelock  

Now in his mid-nineties, Lovelock has enjoyed a rock-star life as a maverick scientist, given to great discoveries and an occasional wild overstatement. His inventions also aided our ability to monitor ozone-destroying chemicals in the atmosphere. As late as the mid 2000’s, he also went full-bore wild on the prospects of a climate catastrophe, predicting that the Earth’s human population would be mostly gone by 2100. In this desperate context, he argued, we’d be fools to abandon any carbon-free power source, including nuclear.

Lovelock stood on the extreme edge of the scientific community with his bleak climate views, and eventually walked them back, affirming in 2012 that climate change was real, but not to the “alarmist” extent he’d thought. In another interview that year with Nature, Lovelock stuck by his nuclear guns, downplaying the nuclear accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Stewart Brand

Stewart Brand has been one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, an LSD-loving Grateful Deadhead, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, and inventor of something that vaguely preceded the computer mouse.

Ten years ago, Brand published a manifesto called “Environmental Heresies” in which he denounced “romantic” environmentalists and what he perceived as a reluctance to embrace genetic engineering. And he stuck a flag in the ground in favor of nukes as a climate fix: “Nuclear certainly has problems – accidents, waste storage, high construction costs, and the possible use of its fuel in weapons. It also has advantages besides the overwhelming one of being atmospherically clean.”

Fortune Live Media/flickr
Christine Todd Whitman

Christine Todd Whitman

New Jersey Governor in the 1990’s and George W. Bush’s first EPA Administrator, Whitman signed on to a paid position as co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASE), organized by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the primary trade association for nuclear in the U.S. Like Browner and Nuclear Matters, Whitman acknowledges that she is compensated, but has declined to disclose how much she or her consulting firm are paid.

At the EPA, Whitman clashed with environmental advocates but she also clashed with pro-business hardliners in the Bush Administration including Vice President Dick Cheney. After resigning, she burned bridges with the Bush White House, saying the Administration “flipped the bird” at environmental regulation.

Whitman continues to co-chair CASE. NEI’s site lists dozens of op-eds and media appearances by Whitman, including a defense of Georgia Power’s rate increases to fund construction of new reactors near Augusta.

Patrick Moore

Billing himself as a founder of Greenpeace (the organization, where I once worked, disputes this), Pat Moore switched sides in dramatic fashion. He’s now a vocal critic of Greenpeace and the entire environmental movement and a ubiquitous spokesman for an array of industries with environmental image problems.

TEDx Vancouver/flickr
Patrick Moore

He was a compensated pitchman for CASE and the Nuclear Energy Institute for a decade, though neither Moore nor NEI will say for how much. He announced his retirement in 2013, but last February, he appeared in print and radio ads touting nuclear’s “low carbon” energy as a fix for climate change. NEI posted the video ad on YouTube on February 24, 2014. A day later, Moore testified before the House Science Committee that human-caused climate change is unproven.

In an email, Moore explained the apparent contradiction between his seeming embrace and rejection of climate concerns on successive days. “If a government has a climate policy that favors “low-carbon” technologies it only makes sense to mention that as one of the benefits of nuclear,” he wrote.

Moore added “I have been a skeptic on climate since at least 1990 when it first got real prominence. In the mid-2000s I became convinced that the ‘warmist’ movement was more politics than science and today I think we are being duped into spending hundreds of billions for nothing while at the same time denying developing countries the benefits we enjoy.”

However, in a 2006 op-ed for the Washington Post, Moore was still promoting nuclear by sounding the climate alarm. “Nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.”

Rainforest Action Network/Flickr
James Hansen, under arrest outside the White House at a coal protest, 2010.

James Hansen

It would be a stretch to say that James Hansen wrote the book on climate change, but not by much. In 1988 Senate hearings, Hansen, then of NASA, laid out a scenario of warming temperatures, rising seas, and melting icecaps that got America’s attention, at least for a while.

His projections bore up well over the next quarter century, though he took heat as his climate change warnings ventured beyond science and into policy, then into a civil disobedience arrest at the U.S. Capitol’s coal-fired power plant and at the White House. After 46 years, he quit NASA in 2013 because “as a government employee, you can’t testify against the government.”

In November 2013, Hansen joined three other leading climate scientists – Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of MIT, and Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research — in an open letter, calling on environmentalists to embrace “a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st Century.”

When asked if he has been approached by, is affiliated with or compensated by any industry group, Hansen, in an emailed response, said: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He added that his embrace of nuclear would have happened even without a climate crisis. “The nuclear industry has an excellent safety record, superior to any other major industry, even when you include (Chernobyl and Fukushima).”

Hansen said he’s received criticism for his nuclear stance that’s “much worse” than the relentless attacks he’s received from opponents of climate action. He said environmental leaders won’t reconsider nukes because “they are concerned that they would lose some of their financial support.” Ironically, that’s a mirror-image of a frequent charge by climate deniers against Hansen and other climate scientists.

kris krug/flickr
Rajendra Pachauri

Rajendra K. Pachauri

Pachauri has chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nation’s gold-standard climate science group, since 2002. In the process, the IPCC has shared a Nobel Peace Prize, been criticized by some climate scientists for being too conservative, and both Pachauri and the Panel have, like Hansen, sometimes been veritable punching bags for climate deniers.

In a discussion in Atlanta last month, Pachauri echoed IPCC’s recommendation for nukes: “You’ve got to look at nuclear. Some countries will, some countries won’t.” Pachauri’s native India is one that will. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck a deal last month with President Obama that could open the door for U.S. contractors to build new nuclear plants in India.

George Monbiot

George Monbiot, reluctant nuke endorser.

British environmental journalist Monbiot made a sharp turnaround on nuclear in 2011, but don’t expect to see the industry featuring pull quotes from him. “Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small,” Monbiot wrote in The Guardian.

Unanswered questions

Critics say two crucial vulnerabilities of nukes go unaddressed in U.S pro-nuke pitches: Unresolved questions about nuclear waste disposal, and Wall Street’s wariness about the industry.

Nuclear power plants currently store their waste on-site. Intended as a stop-gap method until a national nuclear waste repository is built, on-site storage in above-ground containers may be as good as permanent, since plans for the Yucca Mountain repository north of Las Vegas were halted by the Obama Administration after decades of delays.

Former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner and state regulator Peter Bradford sees the finance issue as the nuclear industry’s Kryptonite. “Wall Street doesn’t want (reactors), the utilities don’t want them,” said Bradford, who is also Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS is officially neutral on the use of nuclear power, but has often criticized what it sees as safety and financial vulnerabilities in the industry.

“Trying to solve climate change with nuclear is like trying to solve world hunger with caviar,” he said

This series is funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Family Foundation

Read part one: Last Tango for Nuclear?

Steve K9's picture
Steve K9 on Feb 16, 2015

Logic wins out eventually … we hope.

Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on Feb 16, 2015

I find it interesting how Wall Street’s (supposed) views are sometimes portrayed (often by the very same people) as a source of legitimate insight (when it comes, for example, to the difficulty of financing nuclear power) and at other times as a menace to civilization (when it comes, for example, to funding fossil fuel infrastructure).

 Although I am sure that this is unfair, it is difficult to avoid the impression that “Wall Street” is either invoked as a reasonable and authoritative source of financial information, or else reviled as an evil impediment, based on no other criteria than whether “what Wall Street wants” aligns with or against the author’s position. 

As a footnote, Rod Adams at Atomic Insights has several interesting posts about the role that the Rockefeller Foundation played in creating a climate of irrational fear around the risks of radiation. I was inclined to dismiss his posts as somewhat conspiratorial, but my prior bumped up slightly when I see who is funding this series. 

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Feb 16, 2015

So it seems that the deceptive takeaway we’re supposed to get from this hit piece is that most of the people in favor of nuclear power are either paid shills or half-crazy.

You know, Peter, when you deploy the ad hominem argument, that’s a pretty clear signal that you’ve lost the rational argument on the merits of the case.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 16, 2015

Beyond the nuclear issue, James Hansen also had some things to say the fossil fuel industry.

See this article.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Feb 17, 2015

Critics say two crucial vulnerabilities of nukes go unaddressed in U.S pro-nuke pitches: Unresolved questions about nuclear waste disposal, and Wall Street’s wariness about the industry.”

Both these problems: waste disposal and Wall Street wariness, would not exist in a world without organised anti-nuclear propaganda. 

The fact is that geological disposal sites for nuclear waste have been found in many nuclear countries (though not in the USA), and the communities hosting the sites are very happy about it.

Financing of nuclear power plants all around the world is proceeding without a hitch. Nuclear vendors typically offer financing along with their plants. The UK was offered PRISM nuclear power plants without any money down: the vendor and operator offered to build the plants for free, and in return all it wanted was the right to sell electricity on the UK grid, and the right to consume UK plutonium ‘nuclear waste’. Russia has been selling their conventional nukes internationally together with financing. No problem!

The anti-nuclear ‘critics’ have – entirely through their own propaganda efforts – created the very ‘issues’ they try to use to bash nuclear power. Anti-nuclear environmentalists are the most dangerous people walking the earth today, because they are the principle cause of global warming, air pollution and resource wars. They have killed more people, and will kill more people, then all the famous bloodthirsty despots of history.

Spec Lawyer's picture
Spec Lawyer on Feb 17, 2015

Both these problems: waste disposal and Wall Street wariness, would not exist in a world without organised anti-nuclear propaganda.


That makes no sense.  Having a bunch of people shut up doesn’t fully resolve the problems of storing radioactive materials for thousands of years.  Nor does it make the costs of building nuclear plants cheaper.


Nuclear power does have issues.  I still think we should use it but I worry when people try to completely dismiss the issues because that can end up making those issues into big problems.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 18, 2015

It’s always easier to dig for dirt than for solutions – especially when the money is squandered on more fossil fuels exploration. Also, we all made erroneous statements, trying to appease the “other side”. The scientific evidence behind the issue, which is now excess CO2 and which will become FF depletion (anyways) is why the scientists offer the high capacity and energy dense gift from nature’s heavy metal as the most obvious solution.

Detracting from industry standards, I want advanced assembly line meltdown proof walk away safe molten salt liquid fueled nuclear which will lower both regulatory costs and intrinsic manufacturing costs. Less wastes too! Half a trillion dollors could be spent on this instead of all the pork in general programs.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 18, 2015

Advanced assembly line meltdown proof walk away safe molten salt liquid fueled nuclear will lower both regulatory costs and intrinsic manufacturing costs. Far less wastes too!

The MSRE was just a very early beginning which politics, not technology shelved. The entire anti’s agenda is based on the false premise that the technology itself is faulty. No, the technology never really got built due to the slashing of R&D (imagine using 1960’s devices and solar panels in 2015).

Now, we need to enact a very liberal 21st century MSR program, necessary to learn how to exact the standardization of manufacture, installation, wastes reprocessing and fission products storage with lowest possible startup fuel – and to make sure they can load follow a vast increase in RE to such a degree to make clean fuels from air and water during their highly extreme output.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Feb 18, 2015

People’s fear of radiation and nuclear waste stands in no proportion to the actual risks and threats. Propaganda made that happen. Their extraordinary fear adds to the cost of implementing nuclear power.

I don’t dismiss nuclear issues. What I dismiss is attempting to solve those issues without first accurately identifying and characterising them. It is always possible to spend money making something safer. That adds to cost. It will keep adding to cost until competition with dangerous (actually dangerous and extremely deadly!) fossil fuel burning becomes impossible. This is exactly what we see happening throughout the last few decades.

I want a nuclear power plant in my back yard. And I want a nuclear waste dump in my back yard. Better yet, give me some of that waste to heat my house with. It would save me a few thousands bucks a year. No problem!

I know the nuclear technologies. They are well thought out. They are effective. They work. They are safe. It is the anti-nuclear propagandists who have a screw loose. And they are ruining our lives and our common future. I cannot tolerate that.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Feb 18, 2015

You’d be surprised. From my perspective, working as a consultant on energy projects in the built environment, logic is frequently trumped by avarice, greed, or just plain boneheaded know-it-all stupidity. It’s not logic that is guiding decision making. It’s what people think they can get away with. It’s what people think other people will ‘like’ (as opposed to what they require). It’s what they see others doing, or what they believe works (never mind laws of physics).

Intellectuals have a duty to press forward their opinions – based on solid fact and incontrovertible evidence. Often, hoping is all we can do, but in my experience, many intellectuals give up very soon, too soon. Apres nous le deluge, is what I hear quite often, when intellectuals attempt to justify their choice to sit back, shut up and let everything turn to waste.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Feb 18, 2015


In the section about James Hansen, you wrote:

He said environmental leaders won’t reconsider nukes because “they are concerned that they would lose some of their financial support.”

That statement is worthy of more background than you provide. I engaged for several months in a discussion with a liasion from a major environmental group to try to set up a meeting between that group and some top-flight, mostly retired nuclear engineering and science professionals. The group we were talking to has a rather conflicted position on the related issues of climate change and nuclear energy. They believe that climate change holds dire, existential risks for human society. At the same time they are strong opponents of nuclear energy, saying it is:

1. Too expensive

2. There’s no solution for “the waste issue”

3. Plutonium recycle to address the waste issue raises concerns about the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation

4. There’s not enough regulation to make the nuclear fuel cycle safe and environmentally sound

5. Cooling systems use too much water

6. Climate change will put coastal nuclear plants at risk

7. Uranium has to be imported, making nuclear energy just as dependent on international relationships as oil

After several months of give and take with more than 50 hours worth of specific conversations and written exchanges, we could not come to any agreement that would allow a meeting. Though the liasion was very intererested and worked hard to sway the group’s leadership, he ended up telling me that the leaders were worried about losing their funding.

Larry Rockefeller (Laurence Jr.) is a board member and major funder of the group. So is Bobby Kennedy.

Some believe those players are opposed to both nuclear energy and enhanced production of natural gas because they like exclusive real estate. I believe they simply like high priced energy because it is more profitable to sell than cheap energy. Both have extensive energy industry holdings; so do most of their friends and associates in the environmental donor community.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Feb 18, 2015

That’s true. It gives a lot of energy.

I should mention that my comment was not aimed at Steve, who is one of those intellectuals who is pushing very admirably (in my opinion), for instance in the form of his interesting website

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