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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Nuclear Option

Air Date: Week of

A new bill in Congress would cut greenhouse gases and subsidize new nuclear reactors. It's sparked sharp debate in the environmental community about whether the danger of climate change means rethinking nuclear power. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports from Washington.


CURWOOD: So far, the federal government has rejected mandatory limits on the emissions of greenhouse gases. But two prominent Senators are trying to change that. Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut want their colleagues to take another look at a modest cap on carbon emissions. Their Climate Stewardship Act gained a respectable 43 votes the last time the Senate considered it. This time around Senators McCain and Lieberman hope to pick up votes by adding subsidies for climate friendly energy technology—including nuclear power. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports that addition has sharply divided advocates for limits on global warming gases.

YOUNG: Two years ago the Climate Stewardship Act drew enthusiastic support from environmentalists. The bill called for the nation’s first cap on greenhouse gases from power plants and an emissions trading system to let the market soften the economic blow.

This year the bill is back—the support is not. That’s because its new version would put hundreds of millions of dollars toward the design and development of three new nuclear power reactors along with other technologies like solar and low-emission coal plants. The act’s primary sponsor, Senator John McCain, never made a secret of his support for nuclear energy. Here’s what he told Living on Earth in September.

MCCAIN: I feel very strongly about nuclear power and you can’t be serious--you can’t be serious--about reducing the effect of greenhouse gas emissions unless you factor nuclear power into the equation.

YOUNG: It’s been three decades since a nuclear reactor went on line in the U.S., due to concerns about cost, safety and radioactive waste--and opposition from environmental groups. McCain hopes to encourage a new generation of safer, more affordable nuclear reactors. He says it’s the only power source that could meet growing energy demand without pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making dangerous changes in climate more likely. Greenpeace energy specialist John Coequyt shares McCain’s sense of urgency about climate change but not his views on nuclear power.

COEQUYT: It’s a difficult choice in that we really believe the time to act is now but that being said we can’t support a bill that offers major subsidies to the nuclear power industry. Greenpeace is founded on the notion that nuclear power is not the answer so for us to backtrack from that is just not tenable at this point.

YOUNG: Opposition to nuclear energy is in the DNA of groups like Greenpeace, which grew up in the wake of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in the late ‘70s. Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club—most of the major environmental groups active in Washington—are now backing away from McCain’s bill. They urge a global warming strategy based on conservation and renewable energy.

Anna Aurilio with the US Public Interest Research Group says her group commissioned a study showing how alternatives like wind, solar and biomass could achieve the CO2 cuts McCain wants without the risks associated with nuclear power.

AURILIO: I don’t really understand, um, how you can be a real environmentalist and think that somehow you need to accept this very, very dangerous energy source to deal with a problem that’s caused by another dangerous energy source. That’s an unacceptable and unnecessary tradeoff and we don’t need to be making it.

YOUNG: James Lovelock considers himself a real environmentalist. The British scientist drew early attention to ozone-depleting chemicals and climate change and developed the Gaia hypothesis—the influential idea of the earth as a self-regulating superorganism. And through it all, Lovelock has urged other environmentalists to rethink nuclear power.

LOVELOCK: If they’re right about the dangers—and I don’t think they are, I think they’ve exaggerated them for their own purposes—but even if they were right, it’s nowhere near as dangerous as going on doing what we’re doing.

YOUNG: When McCain’s new bill linked nuclear power and climate change he brought to a boil a debate that’s long simmered in the environmental community. A few influential voices like Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand and early Greenpeace organizer Patrick Moore are breaking ranks and arguing that the risks of climate change now trump fears of another Chernobyl. Like Dr. Lovelock they have learned to stop worrying and love the nukes. Somewhere in between is the group Environmental Defense, whose President Fred Krupp still worries about radioactive waste and reactor safety but also still supports McCain’s climate bill.

KRUPP: If we believe that Global Warming is very serious, the overriding environmental issue of our day, then I think we have to have an open mind and certainly ask the serious tough questions about nuclear power that, um, need to be asked. And we should not just throw it off the table from the get-go.

YOUNG: McCain will likely try to make his climate measure an amendment to the massive energy bill heading for the Senate floor in the coming weeks. With or without the nuclear subsidies it’s a tough fight--industry condemns the climate act as too costly and President Bush opposes any cap on carbon emissions. But McCain might get some help from one of the President’s friends. British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he will push the U.S. on climate change during his upcoming visit with Bush.
For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



A summary of the new Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act

Dr. James Lovelock's preface to the book "Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy"

US Public Interest Research Group's report on meeting cabon caps without nuclear power


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