Margi Kindig, Governor's Task Force on Global Warming, former Chair of Clean Wisconsin, Madison, WI
I have been an environmentalist for my entire adult life. For most of that time I was opposed to nuclear power because I considered it to be dangerous. The reason for my change of heart can be summarized in one word: science.
As an attorney I had little interest in science until I began to read about climate change, first in the popular press and, later, in more sophisticated publications. I also happened to marry someone with a PhD in microbiology who challenged some of my long (and strongly!) held beliefs.
I learned about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academies of Science, and consensus science generally. And what I learned is that my position on nuclear power was not supported by science but was an ideologically-driven position which parroted many of the organizations on which I had until then depended for my information.
I always thought Three Mile Island was quite a dangerous accident with grave consequences. In fact, there was only a tiny amount of radiation released at Three Mile Island, and no adverse health effects in the surrounding population.
Chernobyl has been painted as almost apocalyptic. While it was without a doubt the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen – and the only one that resulted in fatalities - its effects have been grossly exaggerated. Fewer than 50 people died as a direct result of the radiation, including less than 20 deaths from thyroid cancer. In addition, there were approximately 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children that were successfully treated.
The same un-founded fears about the dangers of radiation that followed Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have plagued discussions about Fukushima. The fact is that there have been no deaths attributed to radiation exposure as a result of the Fukushima disaster.
The science does not support the level of fear stoked by nuclear power opponents about nuclear waste. Spent fuel has been stored safely for more than half a century. The waste from burning fossil fuels, by contrast, simply goes into the air where it is neither contained nor safe-guarded.
Robert Stone, award-winning, documentary filmmaker and life-long environmentalist.
On the first Earth Day, in 1970, I was an 11-year-old kid living in Princeton, New Jersey. I spent the day with my friends gleefully crushing thousands of empty soda cans—our first awakening to the revolutionary concept of recycling.
Many of us went home empowered to teach our parents a thing or two about their wasteful and polluting ways. Unlike the protests surrounding Vietnam and civil rights, environmentalism seemed to me to be a children’s crusade. This was our movement and Earth Day was our day. I was an immediate convert to the cause and have remained so ever since.
Beyond the pall of air and water pollution that in 1970 was the extent of our environmental concerns, there also loomed the ever-present threat of nuclear war. It appeared to me that the world bequeathed to us by our parents was a world gone mad, the evidence of which was all around us: Vietnam, riots, assassinations, poisoned air and water, and the Orwellian defense doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Seventeen years later I was nominated for an Academy Award for a film called “Radio Bikini,” about the first nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. Overnight, I became a darling of the anti-nuclear movement, a righteous cause that had morphed out of the environmental movement of the 1970’s. Courted by activists bent on using my film about nuclear weapons to enhance their case against nuclear energy in the wake of Chernobyl, I was badgered repeatedly to advocate that the US government had intentionally irradiated US servicemen at Bikini in a conspiracy to study the effects of radiation on humans, and then covered it up.
Even though I knew (and stated publicly) that there was no evidence of purposeful intent, the activists who embraced my film had no use for evidence. Older than me by several years, and perhaps traumatized by duck & cover drills at school (which I had missed), their business was to spread fear and mistrust of all things nuclear, and to regard any conflicting information as a product of “The Establishment.” As the son of a Princeton University historian, I was raised to have a finely attuned bullshit detector and a deep suspicion of people who see the world in black and white. It was my first falling out with The Movement. As fate would have it, it would not be my last.
Twenty years after that I made a documentary film called Earth Days, a loving portrait of the rise of the modern environmentalism and the story of how Earth Day came about. At its premier as the Closing Night Film of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, I took the stage to answer questions before a packed house of about 1,500 people. Out of the blue, someone asked me what my views were on nuclear energy as an environmentalist. I mentioned Radio Bikini, which had also premiered at Sundance, and said that my views had evolved a great deal in light of climate change and that I was no longer anti-nuclear.
Part of me is still that 11-year-old kid, inspired by technology, appalled by our degradation of the planet, determined to make a difference, and open to learning new things and forming new opinions based on new information. Environmentalists have rightly urged us to confront inconvenient truths, and yet the most inconvenient truth of them all is one they themselves can scarcely acknowledge. In opposing nuclear energy in the midst of a climate crisis, I believe they’ve made an error in judgment of historic and potentially catastrophic proportions. It is one of my missions in life to right that wrong—before it’s too late.
Cesar Penafiel, former co-chair of the Columbia University Coalition for Sustainable Development
I was neither pro- nor anti-nuclear until Fukushima happened. If it can happen in Japan, it can happen anywhere, I thought. The risk of a radiation cloud putting humanity at risk just wasn’t worth it. Renewables were far better alternatives.
Having grown up in the developing world and also having traveled and volunteered extensively in poor countries in my early 30s, I was fully aware that energy was indispensable if the poverty and pollution that seem endemic in these countries were to be addressed. The negative side effects of pollution, geopolitical conflicts and the seeming inevitable corruption and lack of governance that comes with having too much oil were further reasons to transition away from fossil fuels to renewables.
On my 40th birthday I started my Master’s in International Affairs at Columbia University, focusing on energy policy. The Columbia School of Public Policy was the undisputed leader in renewable energy policy. I too wanted to be a leader in expediting our transition to clean energy. My application letter listed the solutions that were so evident to me at the time — solar, wind electricity, even hydrogen storage. They were all coming down in price, but policymakers often close to the fossil fuel industry were too slow to act. I wanted to jump in and make everything go faster.
During my first semester, I took an energy fundamentals class. I had to read thousands of pages from various publications. I began to realize how complicated the problem of matching supply and demand truly is. The slow pace of battery innovation over the past century and the negative impact of our present battery technology on global warming, ecological toxicity, and human health really disappointed me. I learned that the only form of energy storage actually used by utilities, pumped storage naturally given to us by nature, comes with a loss of 25% of electricity in the process, and despite heavy investments, only 2% of the electricity in the U.S. is stored and released with this method. I also learned that hydrogen storage was essentially hype.
My studies made me understand that the real challenges to clean energy were economic and technological. The amazing growth rates of solar and wind were not anywhere enough to match the increase in electricity demand, but what was most worrisome about these technologies was their intermittency. Without batteries, intermittency was an unsurmountable challenge. I began to realize how the widespread belief that renewables would soon power the world was nothing more than a myth.
Towards the end of my first semester, I landed an interview with Nobuo Tanaka, the former head of the International Energy Agency, concerning a job researching advanced nuclear reactors. He asked all his interviewees to watch the Pandora’s Promise video, which blew me away. I went on to read books about advanced nuclear energy, the history of the Integral Fast Reactor and how the U.S. government abandoned development of this technology after having made significant progress. I was so shocked about what I learned that I asked my energy fundamentals professor about this Integral Fast Reactor technology. He had never even heard of it.
If a leading professor of energy policy at Columbia University had never heard about a fairly successful 30-year U.S. Government effort to power the world by recycling nuclear waste, and in the process vastly reducing it, then something was missing. When I saw the video of hours of congressional hearing where my hero, John Kerry, kept repeating what I by then knew to be incorrect facts, my heart collapsed. I had spent many hours on phone banks as a volunteer for his presidential campaign. How could Kerry not bother to research facts before speaking against a technology designed to save the world?
I got the job researching advanced nuclear reactors for Nobuo Tanaka, and as I learned about advanced nuclear reactors over a summer, I stumbled onto facts about the current generation of nuclear reactors and also facts about Chernobyl and Fukushima. Just about everything I once thought I knew about these reactors was contradicted by scientific studies. The so-called Fukushima nuclear disaster (as distinguished from the tsunami itself) was a disaster because of an unnecessary evacuation, not because of radiation. Fortunately, as an engineer, I had the tools to put data in perspective and do my own calculations. And I also had access to brilliant experts with whom I connected for my research project with Nobuo Tanaka. Most of those experts were not interested in politics, but they did lean to the left. It was a generally accepted tragedy that nuclear policy had become a political issue where scientific facts didn’t matter.
I began to discover that the myths of nuclear power extended to the classroom. Very little was ever mentioned about nuclear power, but when it was, it was about how it became more expensive over time and had already surpassed renewables. There was never any mention that those renewables were boosted by billions of dollars and euros of subsidies, nor that they produced only a fraction of today’s electricity. I looked deeply into the economics and was even more shocked to realize that, in fact, nuclear power is competitive with other baseload forms of electricity (coal, oil and natural gas) in much of the world, and far more economic than unsubsidized wind and solar power.
Both the regulatory system and the way markets are manipulated to favor wind and solar through subsidies and natural gas through markets that encourage short-term planning. All the valuable attributes of nuclear power: clean, reliable, with on-site fuel completely ignored.