Nuclear Energy: A Bitter Pill to Alleviate Global Warming?

Some prominent environmentalists—as well as Senators McCain and Lieberman, who back legislation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions—are supporting further development of nuclear power to serve as an emission-free bridge to an economy based entirely on renewable energy.

“It’s not that something new and important and good had happened with nuclear, it’s that something new and important and bad has happened with climate change,” says environmentalist Stewart Brand, who recently authored a controversial article on the topic in the May issue of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review. Brand has joined a small but growing cadre of environmentalists, which includes Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies dean James Gustave Speth and World Resources Institute head honcho Jonathan Lash, in touting new, cleaner, safer nuclear technologies as a solution to the vexing problem of how to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels before solar and other renewables are ready to take up the slack. Together, alternative renewables account for less than two percent of the nation’s energy production, while nuclear power contributes ten times as much power to the grid today.

And in a new twist, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has reportedly added language to the climate change bill he is drafting with Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) that calls for major federal subsidies to pay the cost of developing new nuclear energy technologies to lessen our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, which cause heat-trapping carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere. Felicity Barringer writes in the New York Times that the new language in the McCain-Lieberman bill would actually increase its chances of passage significantly by codifying a new political bargain: “Conservatives would support emission controls in return for liberal support for a new generation of nuclear power plants, a shift that could reshape the existing alignments on these issues.”

But despite the conversion of a few high-profile greens and some Senators, the majority of environmentalists still decry the safety risks and economic expense of nuclear power, instead calling on the federal government to subsidize the development of renewable alternatives such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass. “The notion out there from some of these deep thinkers is that we have to take our medicine and if only we could accept nukes, the global warming problem would be solved,” says Anna Aurilio, the legislative director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “We have a whole bunch of solutions already that are not as risky.”

Indeed, as the issues get more complex—and the planet continues to heat up—it’s getting harder and harder to tell the realists from the idealists anymore.