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Carbon Dioxide and Nuclear Energy: The Great Divide and How to Cross It

Meredith Angwin's picture
Carnot Communications

Former project manager at Electric Power Research Institute. Chemist, writer, grandmother, and proponent of nuclear energy.

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  • Jul 12, 2012

“Cult Versus Cult” on Global Warming

The Whole Earth Catalog

William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy,  has a provocative posting in Nuclear Townhall: When it Comes to Nuclear and Global Warming, It’s Cult vs Cult.  Basically, many nuclear supporters believe that global warming is not happening. Meanwhile, people who are eager to prevent global warming are often anti-nuclear.

To some extent, these attitudes show logical disconnects.

Nuclear is a low-carbon choice. If a person claims to be very concerned with global warming and is also against nuclear energy—that person is showing a logical disconnect, in my opinion.

Nuclear is preferable to fossil. Even without considering global warming, there are many reasons to prefer nuclear to fossil power. I moved into nuclear energy in the early 80s. (I had been working in renewables and fossil.) In those days, people were not concerned about global warming.  I still saw many advantages of nuclear over fossil fuels.

An Interview with an Environmentalist

Carbon Dioxide Chart

In the “Cult Versus Cult” article, Tucker quotes William McKibben, a well-known author and Scholar in Residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.  McKibben is very active in fighting global warming. He founded,  which describes itself as a “global movement to solve the climate crisis.” (I am happy to note that the website doesn’t bash nuclear.)

In the article, Tucker describes a scene at a solar festival.  McKibben had just addressed the group. Tucker notes that many of McKibben’s followers are wearing “Close VY” buttons, and Tucker asks McKibben why he doesn’t support nuclear power. Tucker wrote:

McKibben looked wistfully at the hillside filled with long-haired hippies.  “I understand what you’re saying,” he said.  “But supporting nuclear right now would split this movement in half.”

UPDATE: Bill McKibben has emailed me to say that this quote does not reflect his opinions. He has also commented on the original post at Yes Vermont Yankee.  I include his entire comment below. 

This story about me isn’t accurate. I’ve been opposed to Vermont Yankee for a long time–it’s badly run, and its owners have repeatedly lied to people. I believe Vt. is completely capable of replacing (and far more) its power output with renewables, which is why my roof is covered with solar panels. 

Founding a Movement

With, McKibben founded a globalmovement to solve the climate crisis.  In the quote above, he says that supporting nuclear would hurt that movement.  To me, this implies that he is more interested in the growth of his movement than in carbon dioxide results for the planet.

But what about me?  There’s an old saying that when you point a finger at someone else, look where the other fingers are pointing.

I just pointed at McKibben, and the other fingers are pointing back at me.  I’m trying to encourage people to support the continued operation of Vermont Yankee.  It’s a smaller scale movement than “solving the climate crisis,” but Howard Shaffer and I are growing a pro-nuclear, pro-Vermont Yankee movement.  What are we willing to do to support it? Well, among other things, in order to support the pro-Vermont Yankee movement, I rarely talk about global warming.

The Divide

I personally think the world-wide carbon dioxide increase is mostly man-made and causes some level of global warming. I think global warming is a threat to human life and health, but it is not the most over-arching threat we face.

In the past few years, many environmentalists have embraced nuclear power because of their concern with global warming. However, a significant portion of the people who support Vermont Yankee do not think global warming is a threat.

This divide is not just an issue for Vermont.  It’s a bigger issue. Global warming divides people in many areas, and it divides the pro-nuclear community. For example, one pro-nuclear discussion board has banned discussion of global warming because people were getting too acrimonious.

For myself, I rarely talk about global warming in context of Vermont Yankee.  I know the discussion could get too acrimonious, and I could alienate some of the plant’s supporters. Apparently, McKibben doesn’t talk about nuclear power in his “solve climate change” movement. He probably has the same reasons: talking about nuclear power could get too acrimonious, and he could alienate some of his supporters.

Are McKibben and I birds of a feather? At one level, yes.  We are two people, dealing with the huge climate-change divide and trying to keep our supporters . At another level, our strategies are quite different.

Though McKibben and I seem to be good illustrations for the problem, I don’t want to keep writing only about the two of us. “How people speak about global warming” is a more  general issue.

The Difference

Census map of Vermont

If a pro-nuclear speaker decided to talk about nuclear energy as helping to prevent global warming, that person would gain some supporters and lose some.  If an environmentalist admitted that nuclear energy could help prevent global warming, that person would also gain some supporters and lose some.  So far, the situations seem parallel.

However, these strategies are not actually parallel.

If the nuclear supporter decides not to talk about global warming, that person is choosing her rhetoric, not her technology. I can make several arguments in favor of nuclear power. Global warming is one pro-nuclear argument, but I rarely use it. In other words, I select my rhetoric: global warming is very controversial, and it pulls the discussion into directions which are not relevant to Vermont Yankee.

However, if an environmentalist decides not to talk about nuclear for fear of losing followers, that person is  selecting technologies based on what the followers will accept. That is more than a rhetorical choice. The choice of technologies will affect the results of climate change strategies.

Another Environmentalist (maybe) for Nuclear Power

Stewart Brand 

Some environmentalists have embraced nuclear energy, but others have not.  I am cheered by the ones (like Stewart BrandGeorge Monbiot and Gwyneth Cravens) who endorse nuclear power.  I hope that McKibben may someday bridge the great climate-change divide and join them.

Still, in the bottom line, this is not about McKibben, and it’s not about me.  The problem is the great Climate Change Divide. It’s almost impossible for anyone to have  a truthful conversation amidst so much acrimony and hatred.

I started this post with the Whole Earth Catalog cover from 1969.  Steward Brand was the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. For this cover, Brand  initiated a public campaign to have NASA release the then-rumored satellite photo of the sphere of Earth as seen from space, the first image of the “Whole Earth.” He thought the image might be a powerful symbol, evoking a sense of shared destiny and adaptive strategies from people. As mentioned above, Stewart Brand is a supporter of nuclear energy.

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Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Jul 12, 2012

Meredith - as a member of the discussion board that you mentioned that banned climate change as a topic because people were getting too acrimonious, I understand your point. I also know that you are one of the nicest people I have ever met and that it distresses you to get involved in acrimony and heated discussion.

As a career military officer, I never shy away from conflict. Since I am kind of a loner who has odd sleeping habits, I am not particularly worried about offending people. I do not go out of my way to be nasty, but I have plenty of family and friends already.

I'm also not trying to build any kind of "movement" in the hopes of ditching my day job to be its leader. I like my day job just fine; in fact, my effort to contribute to the movement of pronuclear supporters is kind of aimed at improving my chances of success at that day job. I figure that the bigger the movement is to support nuclear energy, the more nuclear plant orders and the more work for me and my friends in the business. 

For those reasons, plus my very real concern about the large scale experiment that human society has been running for a few centuries by dumping fossil fuel waste into the only known atmosphere in the universe that supports human life as we know it, I never shy away from talking about the climate change aspect of my pro nuclear fervor. 

There was a time when I did - every time I mentioned climate change I could predict that Kit P would jump in to tell us all how clean coal was in the US - but I ended up just banning him from my site. 

I freely admit that I like burning fossil fuels for such activities as driving, flying and boating. I also believe that the world has some natural sinks that help to mitigate the effects of some burning - our creation is pretty well designed from a systems point of view. However, I know that any differential equation can become unbalanced if production is greater than absorption and I can read the figures to see that CO2 concentration has been increasing at an increasing rate in our atmosphere for about 50 years.

Nuclear is clean enough to operate inside a submarine. It is the most powerful tool available for reducing fossil fuel waste dumping and for giving us a bit of breathing room before we turn our planet back into something that is not terribly hospitable to "naked apes."

Meredith Angwin's picture
Meredith Angwin on Jul 13, 2012

Hello Rod

This was first published on my Yes Vermont Yankee site, and Kit P has written about half of the comments on that post.


I spent a lot of yesterday in an email correspondence with Bill McKibben. McKibben didn't actually claim to be misquoted and Tucker never actually said that McKibben was in favor of Vermont Yankee. Sigh.  Well, there's a note up there from McKibben and I hope all is resolved now. McKibben and I share a great regard for Gwyneth Cravens.  

So I have the note from McKibben on the blog post, not hidden in the comments, and I am hoping for the best.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Jul 14, 2012

If a person claims to be very concerned with global warming and is also against nuclear energy---that person is showing a logical disconnect, in my opinion.

Meredith, you are being quite kind here.  I'd go further and say that anyone that claims to be very concerned with global warming and is also against nuclear energy cannot and should not be taken seriously.  McKibben whines incessantly that we must do what "physics and chemistry" have dictated; he ignores the fact that it is precisely because of our understanding of physics and chemistry that we rely on fossil fuels so heavily.  

Environmentalists are undergoing a long, painful, unexpected, and unwelcome education in the laws of thermodynamics.  And Mr. Adams can explain this far better than I can.

Meredith Angwin's picture
Meredith Angwin on Jul 14, 2012


I have been accused of being too kind, too sweet.  I have two main defenses:

First: I can't help it.  The quote the yearbook writers chose for my picture when I graduated high school was: "Every human being is an opportunity for kindness."  So if I am too sweetie-pie, it's been going on a long time, and I can't change now! (I had a big-number high school reunion last month, which made me think about that yearbook for the first time in decades. Okay.  It was my 50th reunion. I am a grandmother, and I am not hiding my age.)

Second: Most Vermont Yankee opponents don't think I am sweet at all.  

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Jul 14, 2012


It may be helpful to think of yourself as a grief counselor.  Most of the hardcore enviros seem to alternate between the Denial and Anger stages, mindlessly peddling the nonsense that we can wean ourselves off of fossil fuels by 2037 or whatever and then castigating anybody that objects as an enemy of humankind.  Others (George Monbiot is a good example here) seem to have made it to Depression.  Bottom line is that in this context you should never take the anger personally; the rage is ultimately directed at the laws of thermodynamics that impose severe limits on what we can generate.

Meredith Angwin's picture
Meredith Angwin on Jul 14, 2012


Thank you!  This is a very very helpful way to look at the situation.  

I remember thermodynamics in college.  On the first day, the professor said something like "Remember. Every time you strike a match, you are contributing to the heat death of the universe." Well, THAT gave me something to think about!  However, like most people who work with chemistry, physics or engineering, I eventually adapted thermodynamics into my world view and came to terms with it.  

The "dismal science" isn't economics. It's thermodynamics.

Thank you for this insight into the thought processes of many people who describe themselves as environmentalists. 



Meredith Angwin's picture
Meredith Angwin on Jul 14, 2012

Oh please!  Move on to the second law. OTEC is a tiny step above throwing ice cubes out of the back of a ship to provide motive power. That was disproved by Sadi Carnot, as I recall. T2 minus T1 over T2.  The efficiency equation based on the second law. Think about it.

I was in the renewable group at EPRI before joining the nuclear group. In the renewable group, we decided not to invest in OTEC because it simply was not going to work.  EPRI had a great concern to invest in renewables that would work.  We wanted to build good projects.  Also, frankly, we felt  people might think EPRI was playing some kind of game to sabotage renewables if we invested in technologies that were doomed from the start. We didn't invest in OTEC.

However, in deference to your concern with nuclear power and fondness for a system that won't about we keeping using nuclear power ONLY until those OTEC plants come on-line?  Works for me...

Fred Dougherty's picture
Fred Dougherty on Jul 14, 2012

Calling Bill McKibbon a "scholar" is a stretch.  His only actual degree is from Harvard in journalism.  His writings and discourse seem to be mainly climate alarmist rants, devoid of scholarly content.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Jul 15, 2012


As a veteran mother you'll be able to draw on the extensive experience you've had dealing with whiny people who insist on having their way.  This is also what qualifies mothers to be project managers, especially on ones that involve engineers.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Jul 15, 2012


Every source of energy, without exception, has serious tradeoffs.  The question is whether environmentalists can come to grips with the notion that nuclear energy, with all its obvious flaws, can be treated as the least bad option.  

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 15, 2012

(1)   “the internal energy of a closed system is equal to the amount of heat supplied to the system, minus the amount of work performed by the system on its surroundings.”

Question:- Are you saying that Earth is a Closed System, and no heat escapes from it? 

(2)   With OTEC – at least in its production – you are converting existing, damaging, heat to productive work.

Question:- Assuming that OTEC actually works, Have you considered the environmental and ecological impact of transfering surface heat to the cooler lower strata of the Ocean

Meredith Angwin's picture
Meredith Angwin on Jul 15, 2012

It's true!  I am a mother and I was a project manager at EPRI!   I hadn't realized how motherhood had prepared me for that job. ;-)

Meredith Angwin's picture
Meredith Angwin on Jul 15, 2012

Two comments.  

1)  Admiral Rickover was attacked and vilified all his life, and he was also a very difficult person to be around.  Near the end of his life, he made one negative statement about his life's work. The statement was made in the context of the difficult things we are forced to do in order to prevent war.  It is regularly trotted out by anti-nuclear activists as his final word on nuclear energy.  Rickover was the force behind the research and development that gave us all this huge gift--working, reliable nuclear power.  Please read the book "The Rickover Effect" or at least read the Wikipedia article on Rickover. They both put this often-quoted statement in context.

2) I am in favor of advanced reactor development, especially the LFTR, as you would know if you read my regular blog. You seem to think that supporting the operation of existing reactors and supporting reactor research are incompatible.  They are not.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Jul 15, 2012


Didn't know that, but I suppose it's not surprising.  Too many intellectuals/academics treat their expertise in one area as a license to comment in another.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Jul 15, 2012

Hurricanes are powerful, but distributed, unfocused and uncontrollable. That is not the kind of power that we need to enable humans society to "do work."

I once studied under the tutelage of Chih Wu (who like to be called "Bob). He was a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the US Naval Academy, but he was also the man who "wrote the book" on Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC).

I took two advanced alternative energy courses from him and then signed up for a semester long research project. After running the numbers for all of the alternatives covered in the courses, including OTEC, and engaging in many after class discussions with Bob, we agreed to produce a paper together on the alternative that made the most sense from a climate, resource and potential cost perspective.

Not surprisingly, that alternative was nuclear energy.

Rod Adams

Publisher, Atomic Insights

Host and producer, The Atomic Show podcast

Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. (now defunct)

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 15, 2012

1) Jim, in your comment about nuclear power adding heat to the Earth, you referred to the 1st law of thermodynamics. That law only applies to a closed system. So I ask you again, are you saying that the Earth is a closed system, if you are not then why  use the 1st law in support of your arguement?


2) Jim, OTEC WILL transfer Heat from the hotter surface waters to the cooler ocean depths, that is the reason the system can work, the greater the temperature differential, the more effective the OTEC will be.

What are the ecological impacts of such heat transfer on organisms which live in the cooller depths?

Even if you say that the effect is negligible, has there been any study on the potential ecological effects of large scale use of OTEC on say the plankton for instance.


3) How much Ocean surface will be required to generate say 500 MW, if we were considering OTEC as alternative to Nuclear Power, say for an OTEC plant, built in the Gulf of Mexico for instance?

Meredith Angwin's picture
Meredith Angwin on Jul 15, 2012

You seem to have run out of arguments, except personal attacks on my wisdom and assertions about what Admiral Rickover did and said in his later years.  You've even brought in Hitler, which is always the last phase of desperation in an internet argument.

If you live in a world where military bases are run by renewables, you sure as heck live in a different world than I do.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Jul 15, 2012

Rather than paying attention to an anoymous internet commenter attempting to portray the nuclear opinions of Admiral Rickover, perhaps it might be more informative to read what Ted Rockwell, a currently living wise old man, said about the final testimony to congress provided by his former boss:

"His testimony is published in a 205-page congressional report (and that’s just “Part 1″ of six.). In all those small-print, single-spaced pages, there are only a few sentences, on pages 60 and 61, mentioning abandoning nuclear technology. The subject of the testimony is economics, and this is the Joint Economic Committee. In the first paragraph headed “Nuclear Reactor Safety,” Senator Proxmire opens with the question:

“In view of the experience with Three Mile Island and the other accidents and mishaps, do you believe that civilian nuclear reactors can be operated safely?”

To which Rickover answers “Absolutely, sir.”

On page 60, under “Need for Nuclear Energy,” Rickover says, “Ultimately, we will need nuclear power because we are exhausting our non-renewable energy resources; that is, coal and oil.” Then he diverts to the subject of radiation and the need to control it. And then, “There are, of course, many other things mankind is doing which, in the broadest sense, are having an adverse impact, such as using up scarce resources. I think the human race is ultimately going to wreck itself. It is important that we control these forces and try to eliminate them.”

Note that this talk of restricting use of resources is generic; no mention of nuclear yet. And then, in the next sentence, Rickover says: “In this broad, philosophical sense, I do not believe that nuclear power is worth the present benefits, since it creates radiation. You might ask, why do I design nuclear-powered ships? Because it is a necessary evil. I would sink them all.”

There is more to the story. You can read Ted's full analysis of Admiral Rickover's final testimony at the following URL:

By the way, Ted, Meredith and I openly use our own names and provide plenty of publicly available information about our backgrounds and the source of our knowledge about the safe, reliable, economically competitive operation of CURRENTLY AVAILABLE light water reactors. Those people who claim that nuclear MIGHT be okay if only we do some more research and development and solve its remaining "issues" are actually fossil fuel advocates trying to claim to be nuclear energy supporters.

Rod Adams

Publisher, Atomic Insights

Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast

Resume available for download at

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jul 15, 2012

Preserving legacy assets is important, given the lack of progress in new energy technology here. And I thank you for your efforts.

I usually don't enter nuclear discussions since I know too little about nuclear fission. But I do know thermodynamics and seriously doubt many of the steam engine generation arguments included in the ambiguous "nuclear energy" umbrella.

Thermodynamics is a 19th century pseudo-science used to explain observed pressure/volume/temperature effects on chemical equilibria and reaction rates. Steam engines and Carnot efficiency are very primitive, but so is the wheel and we will use it for a while, too.

Remarkable change came from Quantum Physics and Statistical Mechanics in the 20th century. Personally, I don't think nuclear power has a long term chance against direct excitation of electric energy from photons (so called solar energy). Yes, the technology has a long way to go, but it also has a lot of uncharted physics yet to explore in time.

The often berated German effort is learning this 21st century physics for a good reason.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Jul 15, 2012

Jim - you mischaracterize my comment - I said that fuel that has been out of a reactor for more than about six months will not produce enough heat to boil water. Vapor certainly rises from a used fuel pool, but it also rises from a hot tub and those are generally at about 110 F or less. It rises from a swimming pool or a lake on a cold day.

Transferring heat from the ocean's surface to deep under its surface would not do much to lower the average temperature of the ocean or the volume that it occupies. It would do nothing to slow any potential rise in ocean levels due to global warming.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 15, 2012



1) Earth and its oceans are not a closed system, heat flows in and out from it, therefore if Nuclear plants were replacing fossil Fuel plants, then no additional net heat input is created, and since Nuclear generates no CO2 directly, it is vastly preferred to FF.


2) OTEC could potentially damage the ecology of the Oceans if it transfers significant surface heat to the Cooler depths.

3) Since you implied that heat producing Nuclear is not what we need, it would have been helpful were you able to tell us how much ocean surface area (footprint) will be required for Utility Sized OTEC that could potentially replace Fossil Fuel, and/or Nuclear power. We have similar data for other renewable means of power generation.

4) In spite of these points, I could still view OTEC as a possibility if the Technology were indeed cost effective, and if the potential damage to ocean ecology could be shown to be negligible, or could be mitigated economically .

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Jul 16, 2012


It sounds to me like you have declared victory and are moving on. I am pretty sure, however, that I have refuted what you wrote about Admiral Rickover by providing a more complete context of the isolated quote that you probably found in a publication produced by professional antinuclear activists.

Here is a refutation of your assertion about light water reactors. Every one of the currently operating reactors in the United States uses light water reactor technology. That whole fleet of 103 operating reactors is virtually paid off, with most of the debt incurred to build the machines retired. However, more than 2/3 of the fleet has already received a 20 year extension on its operating license so it can continue to provide electricity for the next 20-30 years.

In that situation it is wonderful to know that the average production cost of electricity from those machines is only 2.19 cents per kilowatt hour. That compares quite favorably the the production cost from "cheap" coal (3.23 cents/kw-hr) and "cheap" natural gas (4.51 cents/kw-hr). It is incredibly cheap compared to those unfortunate places in the US that still depend on burning oil (mostly Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico) - electricity from petroleum has an average production cost of 21.56 cents per kilowatt hour, almost exactly 10 TIMES as much as the cost of producing electricity at a nuclear plant.

Though those 2011 costs admitedly ignore capital costs, they do not ignore regulatory costs or the cost of employing a large number of nuclear professionals at every plant. They do not ignore the cost of mining, enriching and fabricating nuclear fuel. They do not even ignore the cost of both paying the government for the service of removing the used fuel AND paying the cost of storing the used fuel on site because the government is more than 14 years deliquent in starting to perform the service that it forced the utilities to contract from it (with no alternative supplier allowed to provide bids.)

Light water reactors are perhaps not "inherently safe" but they are safe enough. Not a single person in the world has ever died because they were exposed to radiation from a commercial light water nuclear power plant.

Can we make better nuclear technology - sure. Are we already producing nuclear power plants that are effective long term investments that produce electricity that is cheaper than the competition, more reliable than the competition, cleaner than the competition and safer than the competition? You bet.

Why have too few people heard and learned just how good nuclear energy is compared to the competition? Part of the reason is the companies that operate nuclear plants also operate coal and natural gas plants. They do not like to compare the benefits of nuclear against the competition because someone might actually ask them why they have not built more nuclear plants and SHUT DOWN their fossil fuel plants. 

In my opinion, a bigger part of the reason is that the advertiser supported "mainstream" commercial media has been bringing you a "word from their sponsors" for the past 50 years that happens to be antinuclear. That is because the competitors to nuclear - coal, natural gas and oil - come from companies that are heavy ad buyers. No one in the media is willing to bite the hands that provide them with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of revenue every year and has ever since the earliest days of large metropolitan newspapers, radio and television.

As a guy who lived within 200 feet of an operating light water reactor for months at a time, I am pretty darned tired of people who claim that we should never build any more light water reactors and should instead wait until better reactors have been designed, tested, and constructed. All that delay does is provide more profits for the multinational petroleum companies.

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