The Sciences

U.S. Liberals on Nuclear: "It’s Complicated."

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyApr 5, 2011 4:22 PM


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Conservatives have long alleged that liberals and environmentalists have knee-jerk negative views of nuclear power, and twist science to support this prior ideological commitment. Indeed, they're making the allegation right now. Expecting as much, I hazarded a few weeks back that Fukushima might be a test case for whether a leftwing tendency to reject nuclear power based on an overblown sense of its risks is really a problem in the present. It's certainly true that since then, we have since seen a lot of anxiety and fear--much of it whipped up by the media, which in its frantic coverage has imparted a very skewed perception of the dread-to-risk ratio in the current case. By far the worst display of this phenomenon was Nancy Grace. It's also true that many liberals who opposed nuclear power in the 1960s and 1970s seem to be reliving much of that era. And there has been, from some on the left, clear exaggeration of the dangers of nuclear radiation and the amount of deaths (past and future) attributable to Chernobyl--Helen Caldicott being the prime example that I've seen so far. However, I don't see much evidence--though I'm willing to be convinced--that many on the U.S. left are making claims like Caldicott's. Far from a wave of knee jerk rejection of nukes or science abuse—at a time when, if ever, that’s what you would expect to see—I’m instead seeing a lot of nuance and shades of gray thinking, and even a few cases of outright pro-nuclear contrarianism. For instance, here’s George Monbiot, writing about “Why Fukushima Made Me Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Power.” No kidding. An even more striking example is climate author and environmentalist Mark Lynas, excoriating the Swiss for moving their embassy out of Tokyo based on trumped up fears and writing that “The political fallout from Fukushima will be far more dangerous than anything physically radiaoactive”—because it will lead us to rely more on fossil fuels. Lynas wants us instead to focus on the next generation of safer nuclear reactors—as does Frank von Hippel, writing in the New York Times and also pointing out the nuclear vs. fossil fuels trade-off. And here's CNN Money, of all places: "Climate Hawks Still Support Nuclear Power." Shades of gray, again. It’s not either-or, it’s but-and. It's hard not to contrast this with conservatives and climate change, where as we all now know, rejection of the fundamental science has become increasingly monolithic—and doesn’t seem burdened by much uncertainty. This despite the fact that the validity of the basic science a much less gray and less complex issue at this point. So at this point, I raise the question for discussion: What is the cause of the difference cited above? Or are the climate and nuclear issues too incomparable (or too complex) to draw any conclusions?

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