Which Would You Choose: Nuclear or Coal?

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for Slate that probed the argument for nuclear power, which, in a nutshell, is based on the climate change imperative. I didn’t sugarcoat the serious obstacles to a nuclear build-out. I also said that solar and wind should be ramped up. At the same time, I sided with realists who don’t see renewables meeting the world’s voracious energy needs. So I wrote:

Bill McKibben says we need to “do the math,” which is to take the known fossil fuel reserves that oil and gas companies expect to tap and add that to the carbon already trapped in the atmosphere. The total will end up leading to catastrophic climate change. It’s a powerfully frightening equation. But we also need to do the math for the energy equation, which should be equally frightening.

This is a central point in Pandora’s Promise, the pro-nuclear documentary that has pissed off a lot of greens, some who have crudely fulminated against it (and a few of the featured protagonists) without even bothering to see it.

But as Andy Revkin notes at Dot Earth, “not all foes of nuclear energy are in attack mode.” He points to Terry Tempest Williams, a highly regarded environmental author and activist, who has given a thoughtful response to Pandora’s Promise in an exchange with journalist Mark Hertsgaard at the Nation magazine. Their dialogue is well worth reading. While Williams says that the film “challenged my thinking after thirty years of antinuclear activism,” Hertsgaard remains stubbornly small-minded and counters with ad hominem arguments, one of them so embarrassingly strained it should be read in its entirety to be appreciated:

Questioning one’s assumptions is a good thing, but I have to point out that this documentary’s pro-nuclear argument is neither as original nor as brave as its protagonists seem to think. Watching Pandora’s Promise reminded me that the first time I heard the phrase “global warming” was thirty years ago… from a nuclear 
industry executive.

This was in the early 1980s, and the industry was in the doldrums. This executive told me that a number of factors, including something called global warming, would eventually cause citizens and public officials alike to recognize that the world faced a “nuclear imperative,” as he and other executives called it. This is the same message the industry has spent untold amounts of money promoting in recent years. There is no hint in Pandora’s Promise that the film’s director or its protagonists are aware of this history—or, for that matter, that they’re in the pay of the industry. The fact is, however, that they and the film are playing roles in a drama written long ago by the very economic interests that would profit from a nuclear revival.

What follows after that is a back-and-forth in which Williams admirably struggles to reconcile her long-held anti-nuclear position with uncomfortable truths raised in Pandora’s Promise, while Hertsgaard continues to insist the film is doing industry’s bidding. She debates in good faith, he maligns the character of the film’s protagonists. The contrast between the two of them is often fascinating, because they essentially share the same worldview. The key difference is that Williams is willing to reexamine aspects of hers that she senses are outdated. This contrast between open-minded and small mindedness leads to one striking exchange when, at one point, Williams articulates a big conundrum:

What energy sources can we employ that do the least harm to life on earth and at the same time can meet the expanding needs of the human family?

Hertsgaard replies:

If our options really were as simple as Pandora’s Promise maintains—either go nuclear or incinerate the planet with more coal—it’d be a tough call.

That’s an astonishing thing to say. (Germany, it should be noted, has chosen coal.) One climate blogger said that reading that made his hair stand up.

I have argued that “there is a battle underway for the soul of environmentalism,” between green traditionalists and green modernists. The former is stuck in a time-warp, trapped in a 40-year old environmentalist black hat/white hat mindset, while the latter is willing to rethink old assumptions, like Williams is doing now with her views on nuclear power.

This clash is between one side that forecloses the use of certain technologies (such as nuclear power and genetic engineering) because they cannot be reconciled with a hardened ideology. The other side, as I argued last year in Slate, is less ideological and more pragmatic.

Pandora’s Promise, a documentary about how nuclear power can help address climate change, has widened a growing cleavage in environmentalism.  This split raises important questions: Can the old green guard and newer breed of eco-pragmatists find common ground? Can they work together to address complex environmental challenges and help make the planet more resilient and sustainable?

Only time will tell.

25 Responses to “Which Would You Choose: Nuclear or Coal?”

  1. jenniferbee4 says:

    Don’t discount the green traditionalists. Every movement needs those that aren’t willing to negotiate their values to bring the conversation to the middle. The animal rights movement has PETA, which has helped the Humane Society (less controversial.) You need the rhetoric of the traditionalists to get advances even if the modernists are the ones driving it.

  2. Tom Scharf says:

    Yes nuclear waste is toxic…but…

    One person’s lifetime nuclear waste would fit in a Coke can.

    Compared with the many tons of carbon dioxide the average American dumps into the atmosphere each and every year.

    You must choose, hopefully wisely, between several non-perfect alternatives. And you must do the math on cost and viability on each. Those who discount these in favor of dubious eco-morality arguments come off as crack pots, and I bet none of them are having trouble paying their power bills.

    The green’s vision of declaring all the above unacceptable and promoting unworkable renewable solutions has gotten them to where we sit now. BAU. Indefinitely. Are they happy? Will they ever wise up?

    Not likely.

    We all know that once humans have staked out a firmly held public position, they are quite unlikely to back away from it (and of course I mean other people, not myself, ha ha). Environmentalists are proud of the fact they killed nuclear power in the 1970’s, and to turn around and embrace it now would be an admission they were wrong. Not gonna happen.

  3. mem_somerville says:

    Well, it is nice to see that the movie has at least generated conversations. I saw it at the MIT Nuclear Science Department viewing. The response there was quite different than that interview. They laughed at parts that I’ll bet most people don’t find funny.

    One guy–a German scientist now at MIT–apologized for Germany during the question session. Most of the academic science audience was just so thankful that someone told their side.

  4. Tom Scharf says:

    Mark Hertsgaard :

    “If our options really were as simple as Pandora’s Promise maintains—either go nuclear or incinerate the planet with more coal—it’d be a tough call.”

    “Personally, I have no ideological beef with nuclear power”

    Same article. I’m sensing a possible credibility issue here.

    Over at DotEarth they had one of KK’s favorite people, RFK Jr., present a rebuttal after the film. These guys do love their ad hominems and appeals to motive.


    It is actually Williams (who is curiously supposedly taking the pro-nuclear side in the mock eco-debate) who provides the most reasoned anti-nuclear argument.

  5. harrywr2 says:

    The fundamental problem at the current time for Next Gen Nuclear is the cost of producing a new fuel fabrication infrastructure.

    As a pro-nuclear advocate myself I find it reasonable that some people would prefer to wait for a large scale roll out of new nuclear until the Gen IV goals of greater fuel burnup and walk-away meltdown proof safety have been worked out.

    The only ‘developed’ country that has sufficient domestic electricity demand to support a next generation fuel cycle is the USA. The USA is also sitting on the worlds largest pile of inexpensively extractable coal and gas.

    The Chinese on the other hand have very little in the way of gas resource and they’ve pretty much already burned up their ‘inexpensively’ extractable coal.

    Hence, the Chinese are leading the world on NextGen nuclear R&D and will most likely lead the world on NextGen nuclear deployment.

    The Chinese are well down the road to rolling out a High Tempurature Gas Reactor that will allay many of the anxieties held by many anti-nukes.


  6. hmmm. Interesting.

    This kind of “pragmatic environmentalism” strikes me as a dangerously arrogant way of seeing our interdependent relationship with the earth.

    Must have missed that part of what Williams had to say, eh Keith?

    This clash is between one side that forecloses the use of certain technologies (such as nuclear power and genetic engineering) because they cannot be reconciled with a hardened ideology. The other side, as I argued last year in Slate, is less ideological and more pragmatic.

    Perhaps if you don’t give in to your tendency towards fear-mongering about fear-mongering, and consider the entirety of what Williams (or perhaps even what Hertsgaard) has to say, you might find the debate is not accurately characterized in such extreme and binary terms.

  7. Here’s a thought, Keith – instead of disparaging Hertsgaard as an extremist – how about you comment about the substantive arguments he makes.?

    Why not start with his point about the “cost” of nuclear in comparison to energy efficiency? You know, as integral part of supporting his statement that:

    …it is absolutely valid to reconsider nuclear power—and other
    controversial technologies as well—in light of the fast-accelerating
    climate crisis…

    Even as he agrees with Williams, also, that the film relies on simplistic rhetoric and cartoonish characterizations.

  8. Robert Ford says:

    I still thing this is all much ado about nothing. Mental masturbation at most – no one’s going to change the way this many billions of people live in any significant way. It’ll happen if it happens. Purely an academic argument.

  9. Keith Kloor says:

    Joshua, like Hertsgaard, you don’t debate in good faith (and you conveniently ignore his string of ad homs that are the core of his counter to William’s thoughtful meditation on the movie.

    It’s also kinda funny that you chastise me for not considering the entirety of what Williams says. I encouraged people to read the exchange for themselves. If they do, they’ll see that I accurately represented the thrust of what Williams says about the movie, whereas you cherrypick one thing she says. I didn’t say that Williams has joined the eco-pragmatist side (clearly, she is not pro-GMO), I merely pointed out that she honestly acknowledged the main points of the movie, such as this one when she says:

    “The fracture line that I do believe is present and widening within the green movement is a philosophical one that cuts to the core of Pandora’s Promise. Given that our species numbers 7 billion and rising, there are those who believe the only practical way we can sustain an energy-rich future is to commit to more development, more technology—nuclear energy included—as we continue on the trajectory of progress to fuel more consumption. The energy-poor deserve what we have in places like the United States and Europe. There is no turning back. We have no historical evidence of stopping the arrow of progress. Developing nations deserve America’s privilege. This is a core belief that saturates the logic of this documentary and its converts.”

    So yeah, you can prattle on about efficiency and the one time that Hertsgaard mentions the cost of nuclear reactors (did I not mention that, too?), but some of us will debate in good faith what the movie was about and the energy realities of the world are, which you and plenty others seem unwilling to discuss.

  10. Keith Kloor says:

    Here’s a thought, Joshua: How about you comment on the substance of the argument Hertsgaard actually makes– that the movie’s director and protagonists are in the pay of the nuclear industry and/or being shills for the industry. You did read that part, right?

    Anything simplistic or cartoonish about that?

  11. mem_somerville says:

    Huh. You must have read a different post than I did. I got the impression that she was struggling with the idea that nuclear might not be entirely evil. Not that she had lined up with Brand and Hansen.

    I think most people would recognize that it’s hard to break decades of quasi-religious conviction on a topic.There are few actual Damascence insta-converts.

  12. jh says:

    “The math” is riddled with invalid assumptions and dogged by unforeseeable events. It’s completely worthless as a predictive tool beyond about 10 years or so – except as political fodder to advance one’s particular agenda.

    If you go back in 15 year increments, the energy landscape has major changes in almost every increment back over 100 years that make the
    next 10-15 years unpredictable. Not to mention the next 50-100 years!

    “Mathers” say that “it tells us that we’ll need A LOT of ENERGY! We have to do the math! It guides future development!” Nonsense. We don’t need to do the math to see that energy use will always grow over the long term, and if the past is any guide, will probably grow at a relatively steady rate.

    And “the math” about energy usage doesn’t drive future development. Technology drives future development. We can see that from the
    shale-gas boom, which had been in the making for decades but still exploded unpredictably (like every other major change in energy production). We cannot predict technological advances, but
    we can be sure that, as long as there is a profit motive to developing them, someone somewhere in the world will be working on anything that has even the slightest chance of success.

    Our challenge is to maintain an economic environment that
    encourages innovation, so the invisible hand can do its work.

    So coal or nukes? In 20 years the answer won’t matter – at least not nearly as much as it seems to now.

  13. jh says:

    “either go nuclear or incinerate the planet with more coal”

    It’s interesting that this statement hasn’t been challenged. It’s pretty ridiculous.

  14. harrywr2 says:

    “Why not start with his point about the “cost” of nuclear in comparison to energy efficiency?”

    I’ll handle that.

    A US centric view of energy is pretty worthless when discussing a ‘global’ challenge.

    All the shills for or against any energy solution engage in implying a localized truth is a universal truth.

    In some US electricity markets there is room to reduce energy consumption without negatively impacting quality of life.

    The US is less then 5% of the worlds population.

    If you really want to address the ‘Great American Energy Sin’ then you need to address transportation fuel consumption.

    That means lightweight materials.

    Lightweight materials are energy intensive which is why BMW has their Carbon Fiber spun in Washington State…we have abundant inexpensive energy.

    ‘Conserving away’ light weight material production is penny wise and pound foolish.

  15. Gaythia says:

    I think that the Nation piece is an excellent exchange, and that there is much to be learned from the thoughtful analyses of both Terry Tempest Willaims and Mark Hertsgaard that would have led to a richer and more well rounded acessment here. Both take a very guarded approach to how points are raised in the movie. Terry Tempest Williams is not endorsing any nuclear technology now employed and is raising serious questions regarding waste disposal. Truly open minded approaches will recognize that meeting the future needs of “earth’s family” can and will be done in a manner different than the approaches of the past.

    THIS is the Terry Tempest Williams I know and admire:

    ” For my part, I submit that the solutions to climate change are as much about will and evolutionary consciousness as they are about
    technological choices. It is also about humility. Humans are not “the
    God species.” We are simply one more breathing, struggling species, one that has been gifted with a large imagination that has a propensity to shape the environment around us. Our task is not to unleash a box of demons upon the world. It is to nurture a space for serious dialogue
    about our energy choices, while employing our imagination and sustaining what we should love and cherish most: life.”

  16. Tom Fuller says:

    Just want to point out that global solar capacity increased from 70 GW to 100 last year… It’s gonna sneak up on y’all pretty soon.

  17. chatpaltam o says:

    its not a matter of the fuel one uses , its a matter of how people can stop depending so much on one resource, and create many more products that use as little of it as possible.
    logic is not being followed. why would you waste fuel, trying to get fuel?
    why create more trash by making throw away cheaply made products that don’t last? why does everyone need to get a new phone every year?
    we all know the technology exists for cars to run on compressed air,
    self generating itself. flashlight invented by a 15 yr old that runs on the heat of your hand, what is everyone doing? wanting money. its just greed.

  18. jh says:

    “those that aren’t willing to negotiate their values”

    Yes, personal values, not the irrefutably confirmed survival of the planet, is what is at stake. Thanks for your honesty.

  19. juniper97 says:

    Well, kind of a dumb argument, one much bandied about. Please stop and think before you pass along talking points. 7 billion coke cans is a hella lot of nuclear waste, it’ll stay hot approximately forever, it leaks and pollutes and — depending on how stored — can pose environmental threats, and as of this writing we’ve got nowhere to put it. Also, this business about carbon-neutral — once you start looking at the amount of fossil fuel needed to run the nuclear apparatus, you begin to see that this is not exactly free-n-easy energy.

    I’m actually a big proponent of nuclear energy, but I’d like people to be smarter than this when talking about it, and recognize the serious problems that exist. I don’t see any other way of addressing them.

  20. Martin Hill says:

    Wasn’t it the ‘then it would be a tough call’ that was the jaw dropper? It’s not a tough call at all if you start with that premise, unless you’re arguing a point of principle against utility, which I think was Keith’s point.

  21. jh says:

    Yes, I think the “tough call” thing was Keith’s point. It does demonstrate the head-in-the-sandness of many on the green side of the game.

    But it’s a choice we’ll never have to face. I think the implied merit to the question is more worrisome.

  22. Geoff says:

    There’s only one way to save the planet, stop breeding and consuming. Failing that, it matters not whether we go with nuclear or coal, either way we’re showing we haven’t learnt anything.

    I think the author should reconsider the statement that “one side that forecloses the use of certain technologies (such as nuclear power and genetic engineering) because they cannot be reconciled with a hardened ideology”.

    What he probably means to say is those whose ideologies aren’t swayed by the promise of a dollar and the continued flow of cheap junk from third world sweatshops. I also guess that by “pragmatic” he means more in tune with their inner shopper and willing to overlook the consequences…

    Ascribing their position to “hardened ideology” is a cheap shot that glosses over the very many very real concerns they hold.

  23. kdk33 says:

    I would choose the cheapest, of course. This makes energy available to as many people as possible; frees up societal resources to do nifty things like cure cancer; maximizes wealth accumulation so humanity can deal with future crises of any kind.

    It’s an easy call.

  24. holdthepickle says:

    Suicide is very cheap provided you go through with it. Over the long-term, its costs shrink to zero. And the people who commit it escape paying even the short-term costs. And after one short burst of released carbon, you’ll pollute no more forever. Easy call indeed.

  25. balance says:

    Dirty & dirtier… That’s a false choice that ignores all the other options (or falsely labels them unfeasible). We’re not buying that ridiculous sell anymore. Get off both of those trains… coal & nuclear aren’t going anywhere. Nowhere humans want to go, anyway.

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