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Moderate Environmentalists Go Nuclear

Greens and Nuclear Power

Photo Credit: Green Going Nuclear?/shutterstock

Last year, many scoffed at the suggestion that support was growing for nuclear power. Before the release of pro-nuclear documentary Pandora’s Promise, green magazine Grist wrote, “Of the 10 leading enviro groups in the US, zero support new nuclear power plants.” In response to an open letter sent by climate scientists to environmental leaders last fall, Ralph Cavanaugh told CNN, “I’ve been in the NRDC since 1979. I have a pretty good idea of where the mainstream environmental groups are and have been. I have seen no movement.” 

But the last two weeks has seen new support for nuclear come from moderate, mainstream elements of the environmental movement. “I used to be anti-nuclear,” wrote Carol Browner yesterday, who was head of the EPA under President Clinton and oversaw climate and energy policy for President Obama. “But, several years ago I had to reevaluate my thinking because if you agree with the world’s leading climate scientists that global warming is real and must be addressed immediately then you cannot simply oppose clean, low-carbon energy sources.” 

Last week, Eileen Claussen joined Browner at a press conference in Washington, DC, to raise the alarm about the closure of US nuclear power plants. Claussen helped negotiate the 1988 treaty to protect the ozone, and heads the Center for Climate and Energy, formerly the Pew Center for Global Climate Change. “Until large-scale energy storage is commercially viable,” said Claussen, “renewables will only be able to meet a small portion of our baseload needs … and you’d need roughly 7,600 wind turbines, or 3.7 million solar rooftops to generate the same amount of electricity as five nuclear reactors.”

Now, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the world’s largest environmental organization, has called for traditional green opposition to nuclear to be, at the very least, reconsidered. “Given the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report warning that we have only a decade to halt the worst ravages of climate change on nature and the natural systems people depend on,” wrote TNC’s CEO and Chief Scientist yesterday, “should nuclear power be off the table as an energy option?” 

Traditionally, the anniversary of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl is an occasion to warn of the dangers of splitting the atom. But instead, the strongly environmentalist New York Times used the occasion to call for more energy from the atom:

The dangers of nuclear power are real, but the accidents that have occurred, even Chernobyl, do not compare to the damage to the earth being inflicted by the burning of fossil fuels — coal, gas and oil. The latest dire warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should leave no doubt that reducing carbon emissions must be an urgent priority and that nuclear energy must be part of the mix.

Traditionally, environmental groups have claimed nuclear is unnecessary. But the experience in Germany in recent years has undermined such confidence. The electricity Germany gets from the wind and sun pales to the electricity it gets from hydroelectric dams and burning biomass, two renewable energy sources rightly criticized as environmentally devastating. In phasing out nuclear, Germany has increased its reliance on coal, and seen its greenhouse gas emissions, and energy costs, rise. 

Behind the scenes, energy analysts have been telling environmental leaders for years that greenhouse gas emissions cannot be significantly reduced without more nuclear power. In her statement, Browner pointed to reports by the National Academies of Science, Electric Power Research Institute, the EPA, and US Energy Information Administration. A 2011 study funded by the state of California concluded that nuclear would need to provide one- to two- thirds of the state’s energy to meet its climate commitments. 

To aid the shift in green attitudes, the head of the Clean Air Task Force, a respected research group that works for many environmental organizations and foundations, came out of the nuclear closet in December.

“I can tell you it wasn’t easy for me — who, as a lawyer back in the ’80s, started my career fighting nuclear power — to come around to the view that it actually may be one of the things in the portfolio that may be necessary to save us,” Armond Cohen told NPR. “But that’s where the facts lead you.”

To be sure, these are baby steps. Cohen made clear that he views nuclear as less than ideal. (“Unfortunately we’re in a world of ‘choose your poison.'”) Browner and Claussen mostly emphasized maintaining rather than significantly increasing nuclear energy. And TNC called for a discussion but stopped short of endorsing nuclear. 

But all of this is relatively rapid change given that most paradigm shifts do not take years but decades to unfold. Change starts from the margins, and gradually wins over the center. When such change finally arrives, it is framed not as radical but rather as incremental, pragmatic, and prudent. The new consensus was eloquently summed up by the Times.   

The watchword here and in the world at large should be prudence. Prudence in the design, maintenance, and operation of all nuclear facilities. Prudence also in the sense that policy makers not be spooked into shutting down a vital source of clean energy in a warming world. The great shield over Chernobyl should also entomb unfounded fears of using nuclear power in the future.

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Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on May 9, 2014 5:33 pm GMT

Jim, given the low temperature differential available and the large pumping requirements per kW required, the overall thermodynamic efficiency must be very low. So a great deal of heat must be transferred to the ocean depths for each kWh produced. We will need at least 10,000 GW to give 10 billion people a comfortable quality of life.

If a large fraction of that comes from OTEC what is the impact of all that heat transfer?

1… On biological life in the oceans.

2… On ocean currents. If we accidentally cut off the gulf stream and Europe goes into a mini ice age they will be very upset when all their windmills ice up.

3… On sea level rise when deep cold water warms up and expands. As surface water temperatures are reduced, the rate of heat absorption by the oceans and the rate of sea level rise may increase.

4… Reduced surface water temperature reducing evaporation rate, reduced rainfall, reduced cloud formation, less solar reflectance, more solar heat absorption, faster global warming, faster sea level rise.

How many large OTEC plants are running now; what environmental impacts have been observed?

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on May 9, 2014 8:41 pm GMT

“Ocean thermal energy conversion can replace all fossil fuels.” C’mon Jim, this comment is fantasy.  I’m all for OTEC, don’t get me wrong, but proponents of various renewables have been making these grandiose claims for years.  They were wrong in the 1970s and they are still wrong today.

If you are going to use OTEC to produce synthetic hydrocarbons you might have an argument, but you are going to be hard pressed to make the economics work compared to all the fossil fuels that are lying at our feet.  And nukes will probably be a better way to produce synthetics.

The supplies of coal, oil and gas are incredibly vast, they are not going to run out in centuries.  And coal specifically is easy to access.  And what happens to the price of coal as substitutes are brought to market? It gets cheaper, and hence more desirable.

And on the demand side, diesel and jet fuel are the most energy dense carriers we have available, outside of nuclear, so for any type of vehicle that is high horsepower and requires lots of fuel, liquids are where its at.  Engineering performance and cost drives demand, not anyone’s moral persuasions.

When the US Air Force says they have something better than jet fuel I will believe it, until then I will focus my efforts on clean fuels and zero waste.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on May 9, 2014 10:06 pm GMT


Those numbers from BP are for today’s proven economic reserves, but as we have seen from recent history with shale gas and oil, technology innovation can rapidly transform uneconomic reserves into marketable commodities.

There are 16,000 Trillion Cubic Feet of high purity natural gas in one single deposit of methane hydrates in the Gulf of Mexico and that is but one deposit among hundreds spread across the globe.  All it takes is one engineering breakthrough, similar to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, to bring these unbelievably vast reserves to market. That is a pretty big prize that I am confident some clever engineer will seize.

I share everyone’s concerns about climate change and the need to keep CO2 from accumulating in the atmosphere.  And I am suppportive of any new technologies that can be proven to work and I think OTEC offers some interesting possibilities, but I don’t believe for a second it is a broadly applicable silver bullet. 

We need to address CO2 by capturing it and putting it to useful purposes.

Hydrogen may be more dense by weight but it is certainly not more dense by volume.  Hydrogen requires much bigger tanks for the same BTU than diesel.  Hydrogen does not compress nicely, it requires much colder temperatures than LNG to liquify, it embrittles metals so we would need stainless steel or other expensive materials for pipelines, and it is flat out dangerous to handle.  I do not share the vision that we will ever build a big hydrogen infrastructure for average citizens to interact with. Hydrogen has long been used in industry and will continue to be used there.  The military was using hydrogen air ships back in the 1920’s, if hydrogen was really superior from an operational perspective we would have been using it all along, but instead it was abandoned prior to WWII.

Energy security means being able to field competitive industry and an Army, Navy and Air Force that can defeat the enemy in combat.  We can not (and will not) sacrifice operational performance for environmental reasons or else competitors that do not share our moral virtues will defeat us using the very same fuels we left lying on the ground. All the military literature I’ve seen points towards synthetic hydrocarbons and nuclear for the long term future of fuels.


Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 10, 2014 12:25 am GMT

Jim, I do take exception to you using an a positive post for Nuclear Power as a platform for more OTEC propaganda.

While I philosophically support OTEC, the technology has to be proven as doable at a scale which would make a difference, and in time to be of a difference. To the best of my knowledge, the 10MW test plant formerly planned at Hawaii has been scrubbed, and the Chinese are planning a 10 MW plant of their own.

I do support Nuclear power because it is CO2 free and it is real, demonstrated, and already producing CO2 free power accross the globe, with newer and better designs comming up.

I do think the Heat produced by Nuclear is a Red Herring, since the planet’s ability to radiate heat would be quite adequate without all the CO2. The heat we humans Generate is not what is causing or even significantly contributing to GW, rather it is the heat from the sun being trapped in the atmosphere by CO2.

OTEC need to be at or near the equator, and simultaneously in deep water. When you have built an affordable OTEC plant capable of replacing our coal and natural gas plants, and also able to provide power to distant cold climes in the Nothern hemisphere,  do let us know and we’ll see be happy to applaud.

Here is a telling quote about OTEC:


We heard back from Makai Ocean Engineering, which was involved in the 10 MW pilot plant project planned for Hawaii. While the company believes a 100 MW plant would still be viable for Hawaii and would provide power at a lower rate than is currently available from existing sources, a 5 to 10 MW pilot plant would be a necessary stepping stone to validate the main OTEC systems and give a better idea of the cost projections for a larger-scale commercial plant. Unfortunately, current cost estimates suggested that a 5 to 10 MW plant wouldn’t be cost effective at the time so the U.S. Navy was unwilling to invest the money required to finance the project.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 10, 2014 12:41 am GMT

If the IPCC’s latest report statement of : “we have only a decade to halt the worst ravages of climate change” is directionally accurate we better plan-shift our clean energy strategies to other more feasible investment alternatives such as ‘adaptation’.  Even if Environmental Groups began to strongly support nuclear, it normally takes well over 10 years to design, permit, construct and startup most any type nuclear power plant.  Hopefully we will have a little more time to avoid the major-chronic claimed climate change impacts since it will likely take a few decades to install the nuclear power capacity needed to reliably operate most power grids with high penetration levels of variable, non-dispatchable wind & solar.

Of course, if alternative technologies become a reality and reasonably cost effective options in the next decade or two, the need for safe-proven nuclear technologies will become less critical in the future.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 10, 2014 2:32 am GMT


Just to be clear someone, whether a Company, consortium, or Government, needs to build economcal OTEC plants, and be able to reproduce them in significant quantities while providing the neccessary Wiring to distribute their power to land lock countries. Fine, when and if this is done, I will be as great a supporter of OTEC as I am of Nuclear power.

For now, the only baseload thermal or chemical storage free, none CO2 power source we have (besides hydro, and small scale geothermal) is Nuclear power.

If we are going to arrest GW on time for any of this to matter, we can’t put Nuclear aside while waiting for OTEC to be proven and well understood. It is better for OTEC to be continued to be developed, and added side by side with nuclear power as primary baseload sources, when it is better understood.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 10, 2014 6:11 am GMT

It’s good news that western environmentalists are warming up to nuclear.  Another bit of good news is that nuclear is alive and well in some of the developing nations with the biggest appetite for new electrical generation.  China has 17 GW of nuclear operating, and another 26 GW under construction.   India (with a 5x smaller average grid demand  than China’s) has 5.3 GW of nuclear operating now and another 3.9 GW under construction.

David Katz's picture
David Katz on May 15, 2014 11:12 pm GMT

The comments on choosing your poison in energy alternatives is profound!. Where is the life cycle assessment that addresses the GHG contribution of the nuclear from mining the ore to building the plants to burying the waste. While it may have less GHG emissions and that is still questionable relative to renewable energy options even if supported by fossil and biomass to overcome intermittency, there are large waste management costs that are yet to be solved.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 16, 2014 6:55 am GMT

David, spent fuel management costs about 10% of the total energy cost of nuclear, or about one-half cent per kWh. Any problems are not technical but ones of perception, and politics.

There is a wide disparity between estimates of lifecycle nuclear carbon emissions; one of the more reasonable estimates puts it at 66gCO2e/kWh. For reference purposes, coal generates 960gCO2e/kWh.

Building out nuclear in the U.S. is a slow and expensive process, but once built plants are a source of reliable energy with low fuel costs, low operating costs, and a capacity factor of over 90%.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 16, 2014 8:38 pm GMT

Nuclear opponents continue to tell us that radiation from nuclear power plants is super dangerous, and respected scientific organizations keep telling us that it isn’t.  See this United Nations committee report which predicts no detectable health impact from Fukushima radiation, or this similar one from the WHO.   

Nuclear opponents keep telling us that nuclear power is way too expensive, while real-world data from power plant construction say it’s about the same as other energy sources (such as this data from the US EIA). 

The worst fantasy is that we don’t need baseload and we can power our society with variable renewables; it is the worst because the truth is so obvious.  Almost none of the 300+GW of wind and solar power installations in the world today have significant energy storage.  That means that when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, fossil fuel backup will power the grid.  We all know that solar power is feeble and ineffective in the winter (when northern energy demand is greatest) and non-existant at night, and when we think about it, we know the wind is not reliable either.  Extensive data collection on large regions gives the same result as one might guess: that increases in solar and wind power become impracticle once the penetration reaches the capacity factor (i.e. 30% for wind and 15% for solar).

There is no such thing as a mostly renewable grid, and probably never will be.  Renewables lock-in fossil backup, and the backup will supply the majority of the annual grid energy.


By the way, that $2 per peak Watt for solar in Germany, when you remember the 11% capacity factor, gives a cost of $18 per average Watt, which is almost triple the cost of nuclear, and that is before the cost of energy storage is added (storage is not usually added, since when the sun is not shining, 89% of the time on average, the lignite-coal powered Germany grid can take over).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 16, 2014 6:04 pm GMT

Kelly, there’s a considerable amount of interest in MSRs on The Energy Collective, and Transatomic Power is carrying one torch for a movement which has roots in Oak Ridge’s Molten Salt Reactor Experiment of the 1960s.

Kirk Sorensen is a former JPL engineer who has been carrying his own torch, you may be interested in some of his videos. He’s an animated and well-versed pitchman for the concept.

The annual conference of the Thorium Energy Alliance will take place May 29-30 in Chicago. I attended last year and it was fascinating, with seminars addressing every aspect of the technology as well as the political and financial hurdles necessary to jumpstart it. It also offers the chance to rub shoulders with nuclear physicists and entrepreneurs who are financing nuclear projects.

Highly recommended.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 18, 2014 5:42 am GMT

Ok, you’ve basically just recited a bunch of bumper-sticker slogans.  But I guess you have no other choice since you believe the DOE and its scientists are not trustworthy.  

I suggest you actually read some technical material about our energy system, but it has to actually come from people that work in the industry.  The material you’ve read so far is basically all propaganda from peoople are not actually responsible for producing results, so they can say whatever suits their agenda.

For example, if you had read the Fraunhofer document which you linked, you’d see that solar and wind do not produce 30% of Germany’s electricity on average, but only hit 30% for brief peaks.  The annual average is more like 5% for solar and 10% for wind.   Coal (in particular lignite, a dirty form of coal) is still the largest source of electricity in Germany.

Germany already has a lot of energy storage!  In power output, they have 9 GWatts, which is about 15% of the average grid demand.  And even this is not enough for them to get the majority of their electricity from solar and wind (here is a great analysis of the German grid, with projections for high solar and wind penetration).  And no, solar PV with storage is not cheaper than nuclear.  Don’t bother to claim otherwise unless you can reference a datasource at least as respected as the US EIA.

Surely you know that peak electricity demand occurs in the evening, when people get home from work (which solar PV output drops towards zero).  Solar PV is just not useful in a low carbon grid without energy storage.

I’m not sure why you have trouble understanding the fact that solar and wind power are the least flexible sources of all, even more so that coal and nuclear.  That is why it gets harder and harder to make the grid function as their penetration gets higher and higher.  Nuclear is plenty flexible enough to reach 100% grid penetration (energy storage makes it easier, but is not necessary).  You certainly can’t say the same about solar unless a large amount of storage is used; the same is true of wind, though it less clear-cut.  

The concept of a town or a region being net exporters of renewable energy is pretty meaningless.  The grid is organized into “balancing areas”, which are usually much larger than cities.  Each balancing areas must have enough electricity generation on-line and enough under automatic control in order to meet demand at all times.  There are no solar and wind dominated balancing areas, anywhere in the world that I am aware of.  These all-renewable towns you mention no doubt out-source their balancing function to fossil-fuel powered neighbors (they might outsource to hydro powered neighbors, but neither the US nor Germany has much hydro, around 5% of generation).

Waste to energy is a tiny energy resource.  Please cite a source that shows that it can be non-negligible.

The bottom line is that solar and wind power are very impractical energy sources, unless the majority of grid energy comes from fossil fuel and hydro.  In other words, they can help reduce fossil fuels a little, but they can’t give us the 80-100% reduction in fossil fuel use we need.  (Before you call me a liar, please go find a technical source that says otherwise; ideally, choose a source like NREL or Fraunhofer that includes sub-hourly demand and generation analysis, along with capital cost and transmission calculations). 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on May 18, 2014 8:57 am GMT

It is a sign of hope that some enviro’s are actually doing the math required to prevent biofry from fossil fuels.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 25, 2014 12:35 pm GMT

The problem with OTEC is this: Very high onpromise, but almost no implimentation and application. Jim nobody on this planet knows how to build the required terra Watts of OTEC that will do what you promise.

Ironically, we already know how to build the other carbon free sources, and we can show you actulal, functioning Utility Scale plants, whether Solar Photovoltaics, Wind Power, or Nuclear.


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