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Environment

Which Would You Choose: Nuclear or Coal?

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Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for Slate that probed the argument for nuclear power, which, in a nutshell, is based on the climate change imperative. I didn't sugarcoat the serious obstacles to a nuclear build-out. I also said that solar and wind should be ramped up. At the same time, I sided with realists who don't see renewables meeting the world's voracious energy needs. So I wrote:

Bill McKibben says we need to “do the math,” which is to take the known fossil fuel reserves that oil and gas companies expect to tap and add that to the carbon already trapped in the atmosphere. The total will end up leading to catastrophic climate change. It’s a powerfully frightening equation. But we also need to do the math for the energy equation, which should be equally frightening.

This is a central point in Pandora's Promise, the pro-nuclear documentary that has pissed off a lot of greens, some who have crudely fulminated against it (and a few of the featured protagonists) without even bothering to see it. But as Andy Revkin notes at Dot Earth, "not all foes of nuclear energy are in attack mode." He points to Terry Tempest Williams, a highly regarded environmental author and activist, who has given a thoughtful response to Pandora's Promise in an exchange with journalist Mark Hertsgaard at the Nation magazine. Their dialogue is well worth reading. While Williams says that the film "challenged my thinking after thirty years of antinuclear activism," Hertsgaard remains stubbornly small-minded and counters with ad hominem arguments, one of them so embarrassingly strained it should be read in its entirety to be appreciated:

Questioning one’s assumptions is a good thing, but I have to point out that this documentary’s pro-nuclear argument is neither as original nor as brave as its protagonists seem to think. Watching Pandora’s Promise reminded me that the first time I heard the phrase “global warming” was thirty years ago… from a nuclear industry executive. This was in the early 1980s, and the industry was in the doldrums. This executive told me that a number of factors, including something called global warming, would eventually cause citizens and public officials alike to recognize that the world faced a “nuclear imperative,” as he and other executives called it. This is the same message the industry has spent untold amounts of money promoting in recent years. There is no hint in Pandora’s Promise that the film’s director or its protagonists are aware of this history—or, for that matter, that they’re in the pay of the industry. The fact is, however, that they and the film are playing roles in a drama written long ago by the very economic interests that would profit from a nuclear revival.

What follows after that is a back-and-forth in which Williams admirably struggles to reconcile her long-held anti-nuclear position with uncomfortable truths raised in Pandora's Promise, while Hertsgaard continues to insist the film is doing industry's bidding. She debates in good faith, he maligns the character of the film's protagonists. The contrast between the two of them is often fascinating, because they essentially share the same worldview. The key difference is that Williams is willing to reexamine aspects of hers that she senses are outdated. This contrast between open-minded and small mindedness leads to one striking exchange when, at one point, Williams articulates a big conundrum:

What energy sources can we employ that do the least harm to life on earth and at the same time can meet the expanding needs of the human family?

Hertsgaard replies:

If our options really were as simple as Pandora’s Promise maintains—either go nuclear or incinerate the planet with more coal—it’d be a tough call.

That's an astonishing thing to say. (Germany, it should be noted, has chosen coal.) One climate blogger said that reading that made his hair stand up. I have argued that "there is a battle underway for the soul of environmentalism," between green traditionalists and green modernists. The former is stuck in a time-warp, trapped in a 40-year old environmentalist black hat/white hat mindset, while the latter is willing to rethink old assumptions, like Williams is doing now with her views on nuclear power. This clash is between one side that forecloses the use of certain technologies (such as nuclear power and genetic engineering) because they cannot be reconciled with a hardened ideology. The other side, as I argued last year in Slate, is less ideological and more pragmatic. Pandora's Promise, a documentary about how nuclear power can help address climate change, has widened a growing cleavage in environmentalism. This split raises important questions: Can the old green guard and newer breed of eco-pragmatists find common ground? Can they work together to address complex environmental challenges and help make the planet more resilient and sustainable? Only time will tell.

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