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The nuclear disaster in Japan comes just as some environmental groups had begun to soften their positions against nuclear power. A few prominent environmentalists had even embraced nuclear energy as a way to fight climate change.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports on whether this crisis means a return to the old battle lines.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Forty years ago, Patrick Moore helped found Greenpeace as an anti-nuclear group. Ten years ago, after he left Greenpeace, he had a change of heart. Now he's a paid ambassador of the nuclear industry. He says the nuclear crisis in Japan has not made him reconsider his support for nuclear power.
Dr. PATRICK MOORE (Public Relations Consultant, Greenspirit Strategies Limited): Even including this accident, nuclear power has been one of the safest technologies we have invented.
SHOGREN: He says nuclear plants can produce dependable power 24/7 and don't produce greenhouse gases, so they can replace the coal-fired power plants that spew so much climate change pollution. And he says they have a great safety record compared to other sources of electricity.
Dr. MOORE: In the United States, for example, 104 nuclear reactors operating now for 50 years, no member of the public has ever been harmed by them. You can't say that about oil or gas or coal.
SHOGREN: Moore is the rare environmentalist who has actually become an advocate for nuclear power. But in recent years, even some leading environmental groups had muted their opposition to nuclear power or even dropped it.
Elgie Holstein represents the Environmental Defense Fund.
Mr. ELGIE HOLSTEIN (Senior Director, Strategic Planning, Environmental Defense Fund): Prior to this disaster in Japan, we were interested, as a lot of people were, as to whether or not an energy package could be assembled that would potentially include some nuclear power incentives.
SHOGREN: It was seen as a way to make a climate change bill palatable to a broader group in Congress. President Obama supports nuclear power, so do many Republicans. And Holstein says his group still thinks the strategy could work.
Mr. HOLSTEIN: We're still interested in whether or not such a package can be put together.
SHOGREN: But Holstein concedes that effort should be put on hold. Experts first need to figure out what went wrong in Japan and whether safety standards in the United States should be updated.
For other environmental groups, the nuclear disaster in Japan is a wake-up call. The home page of the Sierra Club's website declares that the group has opposed nuclear power for more than three decades. But the Sierra Club supported the climate change bill that that passed the House two years ago. It included subsidies for a next generation of nuclear power plants.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune says that will not happen again.
Mr. MICHAEL BRUNE (Executive Director, Sierra Club): It would be hard to stomach any further support for additional nuclear power plants in the country.
SHOGREN: He says his group will make it a priority to examine existing U.S. nuclear plants for safety risks and make sure the public is being protected.
Mr. BRUNE: Making the problem worse by throwing taxpayer dollars at new nuclear plants would be something that the Sierra Club would definitely not support. We would oppose it vigorously.
SHOGREN: Greenpeace is one group that never softened its opposition to nuclear plants. Jim Riccio is a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace U.S.
Mr. JIM RICCIO (Nuclear Policy Analyst, Greenpeace USA): We've always believed that it's an inherently dangerous technology that should be phased out and replaced. And there are many cheaper, easier and less dangerous ways to generate our electricity, that don't threaten our families, homes and communities.
SHOGREN: In recent years, public opinion polls had shown growing support for building more nuclear plants in the United States. As many as 60 percent of Americans said they were in favor of them. But since the crisis in Japan, polls show support has shrunk to closer to 40 percent.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News. Washington.
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