Environmentalists Rethink Stance on Nuclear Power Environmentalists concerned over global warming are considering a radical idea: Nuclear power as an acceptable way of making electricity. Unlike electricity from burning coal and gas, nuclear power doesn't produce the greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere.
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Environmentalists Rethink Stance on Nuclear Power

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Environmentalists Rethink Stance on Nuclear Power

Environmentalists Rethink Stance on Nuclear Power

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, baseball playoffs set to begin.

But first - (clears throat) - forgive me. It's getting hotter on our planet. Many people are worried about that, and among the biggest worriers are environmental groups who have been tracking rising temperatures and melting glaciers and other signs of global warming.

Now some of them are considering a radical idea, that nuclear power might be a good way to make electricity. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: People who favor nuclear power and those who don't often end up toe-to-toe in front of some power plant.

(Soundbite of protest groups)

GROUP #1: Facts not fear, facts not fear.

GROUP #2: Fear the facts, fear the facts...

JOYCE: Sometimes it gets pretty personal.

(Soundbite of protest group)

GROUP #3: I don't know what I've been told. I don't know what I've been told. Anti-nukes have got to go. Anti-nukes have got to go. They tell lies and they stir fear. They tell lies and they start fear...

JOYCE: Confrontations like this one four years ago on whether to close a plant in New York are one reason no one builds nuclear plants anymore. Another reason is economics. Coal and gas-fired plants are cheaper, so investors have ignored nuclear power. But it is getting warmer on our planet.

Most scientists agree the main culprit is carbon dioxide. It's turning the atmosphere into a greenhouse. Most of that CO2 comes from those cheap coal and gas plants. None comes from nuclear plants. So the ugly nuclear duckling is, for some people, not so ugly anymore.

One who's changed his mind is Patrick Moore. He co-founded the environmental group Greenpeace.

Mr. PATRICK MOORE (Greenpeace): What it comes down to in the end is making a decision whether you're going to continue to build coal plants and not build any nuclear plants - and of course not build any hydro plants - so then you'll just have CO2 emissions continuing to go up into the future; or whether or not you're going to emphasize nuclear over coal and maybe shift the ratio a little bit.

JOYCE: Moore left Greenpeace years ago and now his former colleagues call him an eco-Judas. They note that Moore takes money from the nuclear industry to sing its praises. Moore replies that he embraced nuclear long before he took industry money. He still says conserve energy and develop wind and solar technologies. But he argues that cities need big base load energy supplies, reliable day-in and day-out.

Mr. MOORE: It is just a complete dream world to think you can do the whole thing with windmills and solar panels. People who believe that have simply not done the arithmetic or don't realize how important base load energy is as an underpinning of our whole civilization. And unless you want to go back to mud huts with straw roofs and stuff, we have to have a significant base load energy.

JOYCE: Moore's turnabout irks many in the anti-nuclear movement he left. But the environmental movement is not necessarily of one mind about this.

Ms. KATHERINE MORRIS (Keystone Center): The environmental groups most concerned about climate change were starting to look for all possible solutions.

JOYCE: That's Katherine Morris, a former state utility executive who's now with the Keystone Center. It's a nonprofit enterprise that tries to resolve environmental disputes by getting opposing parties to talk with each other. Six environmental groups wrote a letter to Keystone last year asking for face-to-face talks with nuclear executives. The groups include the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists, both long-time critics of nuclear power.

Eventually Keystone got 29 organizations to participate, from Greenpeace to the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute. She says for industry it was a chance to talk outside the courtroom and off the street.

Ms. HARRIS: They've been through the history of litigation and delays that were really very detrimental to the industry. And I think they're looking at this as an opportunity to really have a frank conversation with groups that have traditionally been their adversaries.

JOYCE: Morris says sparks flew during the first meeting.

Greenpeace's energy expert says they won't drop their opposition to nuclear power. Environmental Defense, another participant in the Keystone talks, is more conciliatory. But the group's chief scientist, Bill Chameides, says there's still a lot of skepticism about nuclear's numerous flaws.

Mr. BILL CHAMEIDES (Chief Scientist, Environmental Defense): I think we would like to see nuclear power on the table, but the issues of waste and safety, security in nuclear proliferation are issues that we need to sit down and look at in a very careful and sober way, make sure that we've come up with solutions that are technologically sound and politically feasible, and then allow nuclear energy to compete against these other technologies in the marketplace.

JOYCE: Those other technologies are clean coal, wind and solar power, or simply using the electricity we already have more efficiently. Chameides says there's no one-size-fits-all solution to the CO2 problem.

Mr. CHAMEIDES: It's the silver bullet syndrome. So we see this climate problem and we recognize that we need to get emissions at some lower number. And you'll see a bunch of different industries stepping up and saying we're the ones that will do that. So nuclear power says you have to have nuclear power.

Mr. PAUL GENOA (Nuclear Energy Institute): It's not a silver bullet.

JOYCE: Paul Genoa is with the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the industry.

Mr. GENOA: There's no one type of technology that's going to solve this problem. But nuclear energy has a big role to play. And I think that's starting to resonate with people, particularly environmentalists. The people who are really concerned about climate change know that we can't really stay on the path we've been in the past where we've just taken certain technologies off the table for a variety of reasons.

JOYCE: Genoa notes that the nation's 103 nuclear plants provide one-fifth of America's electricity, and it's as cheap as electricity from coal. Nuclear's safety record has improved and last year Congress passed an energy bill giving nuclear power subsidies to build new plants.

But the nuclear critics have many grievances. More commerce in nuclear fuel and waste could mean more potential bomb material in circulation. Then there's all the radioactive waste. To make a dent in global warming, the U.S. would need to build as many as 200 new plants. That's a lot of waste. But there's still no permanent place to put it. The government's plan to bury it in Nevada is years behind schedule and may be dead. The Nuclear Institute's Genoa acknowledges there's no solution at hand.

Mr. GENOA: The waste issue is a challenge. I mean we, you know, we've been working on it. We have a national policy in this country since 1982 on what to do with nuclear waste.

JOYCE: Yes, but it's not working.

Mr. GENOA: It's not working as well as we'd like it to work. It's taking a long time, and I'm not willing to give it up yet.

JOYCE: The Keystone talks are set to continue until next spring. No one expects a love-fest at the end, but rather a fact-finding report and perhaps the beginning of a dialogue. In the meantime, utilities have asked the government for permits to start building more than two dozen new plants. The industry hopes to have several built by 2020. They would be the first new plants in over 30 years.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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