Robert Downey Jr. Joins Growing Pro-Nuclear Movement

On April 4, the day before Jim Hansen and I visited an Illinois nuclear plant threatened with premature closure, American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called for closing Indian Point nuclear plant in New York.

Jim felt the need to respond, and we posted his strongly-worded statement at Environmental Progress's web site. "For the sake of future generations who could be harmed by irreversible climate change," Hansen wrote, "I urge New Yorkers to reject this fear mongering and uphold science against ideology.”    

I had first documented the negative climate impact of Sanders' proposal last December in an analysis I did for Slate. Just his proposal not to relicense existing plants, I found, would increase pollution about same amount as the U.S. produces each year making electricity.

The New Republic makes pro-nuclear case, cites Save Diablo Canyon.

Not long after Jim made his statement, Bernie Sanders supporter Leigh Philips wrote a long and eloquent left-wing case for nuclear power in the New Republic, which cited both the Hansen Statement and EP's campaign, Save Diablo Canyon.

"In recent years, a small and scrappy, but growing, grassroots pro-nuclear movement has emerged among progressives, scientists, conservationists, climate activists, and trade unionists who see nuclear power fundamentally as a social justice issue—as the best, cleanest way to end energy poverty around the world. Witness, for instance, the campaign to save the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California."

The next day, Phillips's left-leaning case for nuclear was joined by a right-leaning case in the Wall Street Journal, also pointing to our efforts:

"Honest greens have always said nuclear power is indispensable for achieving big carbon reduction. James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who has been chaining himself to fences since the first Bush administration, was in Illinois last week lobbying against closure of a nuclear plant. Ditto activist Michael Shellenberger."

I tend to roll my eyes when celebrities opine on energy issues and thus confess my hypocrisy for being delighted when the actor Robert Downey, Jr., apparently inspired by the Wall St. Journal article, gave a wonderful, on-camera statement later the same day:

"It’s like half the people that were out there saying “No nukes! Shut down the power plants!” are now realizing nuclear is the best way to go for energy for the future," said the star of Iron Man movies. "I think it’s natural to reexamine your beliefs as you age up.”

Three days later the Washington Post published a strong editorial, "Mr. Sanders' War on Clean Energy," and the New York Times yesterday similarly criticized Sanders' rejection of nuclear power as bad for the environment and ideologically-driven.

Momentum is clearly shifting. Environmental Progress has since January been building a grassroots movement of supporters around the world. We started our defense of nuclear with Save Diablo Canyon, extended it to the mid-west in Illinois, and we will be in New York and Europe before June.

Our goal is to reverse nuclear's declining fortunes — not just save plants at risk of premature closure but also build new ones — at the speed we need to avoid dangerously high levels of global warming.

Ours is a massive undertaking. Many people — even sympathetic on-lookers — believe we cannot succeed against an anti-nuclear lobby that spends over $500 million every year denying the scientific consensus that nuclear is the safest way to make reliable electricity, and has the smallest impact on the natural environment.

And every day brings some new bad news. Right now rumors are flying that Pacific Gas & Electric is cutting a deal behind the scenes with lawmakers and regulators to close Diablo Canyon in 2025, just half-way through its lifespan. Time is running out for legislation in Illinois to protect and expand clean energy, including nuclear. And every week seems to bring another frightening-sounding claim about Indian Point nuclear plant in New York that, on closer examination, proves outlandish.

The truth is, I decided to start Save Diablo Canyon despite all the discouraging information for a very simple reason: I knew I would deeply regret not trying what in my gut I felt had to be done. Over the last three years I had watched anti-nuclear activists force the closure, directly and indirectly, of California's San Onofre Nuclear Station, Vermont Yankee, Pilgrim, Oyster Creek, Fitzpatrick, and Kewaunee. I simply couldn't take it any longer.

I had hoped others would step forward but nothing prepared me for such a strong response from so many people. Jim Hansen has been active and engaged and incredibly generous with his time. Our open letter calling for fair treatment of nuclear in Illinois was signed by an ever-growing number of climate scientists and conservationists. And at the grassroots level, pro-nuclear environmentalists are stepping up, asking how they can help.

It is still early days, but what's happened over the last few weeks is incredibly promising. "It's starting to feel like a movement," I wrote in an email to one volunteer, who had driven over five hours from Minneapolis to help with our Illinois visit. "That's because," she wrote back moments later, "it is!