Greenpeace founder goes nuclear

Nuclear energy: friend or foe?Patrick Moore, who as a co-founder of Greenpeace began his environmental career protesting nuclear energy, now feels that nuclear power is the key to fighting climate change:

Wind and solar power have their place, but because they are intermittent and unpredictable they simply can’t replace big baseload plants such as coal, nuclear and hydroelectric. Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is too expensive already, and its price is too volatile to risk building big baseload plants. Given that hydroelectric resources are built pretty much to capacity, nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It’s that simple.

…the 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States effectively avoid the release of 700 million tons of CO2emissions annually — the equivalent of the exhaust from more than 100 million automobiles.

Moore has courted controversy in recent years by attacking numerous environmental orthodoxies. But his appeal for more nuclear power is sensible and convincing.

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  1. GreenGOP - April 16, 2006

    In addition to the clean air benefits derived from nuclear power, thousands of new jobs will be created from the “2nd wave” of nuclear power plant building on the horizon. Many small towns hit hard by the globalizing economy, particularly in the south, are actively soliciting power companies to build in their areas – to create jobs, stabilize local populations, generate tax revenue and improve local school districts. Nuclear power is an excellent example of economic development meeting emissions reduction.

  2. James Aach - April 16, 2006

    FYI: As may have been noted on this site before, Stewart Brand, the founder of “The Whole Earth Catalog” mentioned in Mr. Moore’s article, has also endorsed my thriller novel of nuclear power as a way for the lay person to learn the good and the bad of this energy source.
    “Rad Decision” is available online at no cost to readers at – – and they seem to like it, judging from the reviews they’re leaving at the homepage. There’s nothing else like it out there.
    James Aach
    20+ years in the nuclear industry.
    “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.” – Stewart Brand.
    “Very nice, good pace. The tech was good but not overwhelming.” – a reader.
    “I started reading Rad Decision because of my interest in nuclear power — then found I could not put it down!” — another reader.

  3. Anonymous - April 19, 2006

    What about tidal or geothermal?

  4. Electric Lady - April 19, 2006

    How interesting would it be if we could somehow harness the energy in tornadoes and hurricanes?

  5. kevin whilden - April 19, 2006

    This is ridiculous. why replace one problem an equally big and dangerous problem? Simply put, we have no way to deal with the waste, which is the most toxic substance on Planet Earth. The half-life of nuclear waste is 10,000 to 4.5 billion years. How many generations of our descendents should we burden , when clean, viable, and CHEAPER alternatives exist?
    Through a combination of energy efficiency, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and even some fossil fuels, we can meet all energy demands. Especially if we turned our brilliance and our $billions in this direction.
    Kevin Whilden

  6. Phil Zipin - April 19, 2006

    I would like to know what mainstream environmental groups (including GreenPeace) think about Mr. Moore’s idea. Are there sufficient safeguards (at least in this country) in the nuclear industry such that the catastrophic risks are virtually nil at this point in time? Is it time to reevaluate the nuclear power option?

  7. Tim K - April 19, 2006

    Sorry, but I have to agree with Kevin on this one; why replace one problem with a potentially worse one? There is not single magic bullet and trying to promote one is thinking too narrowly. Treat it like economics (well, how intelligent economists do anyway) and do a little bit of everything – tighter polution limits, more green energy sources (solar, wind, tital, etc), increased funding for innovation and research (will hydrogen work?), funding for public awareness, etc. Let’s get the general direction straightend out first, then see what emerges. It’s likely the best solutions have yet to be thought of.

  8. Tom - April 19, 2006

    I have to agree with Kevin as well (and disagree with Adam and Patrick Moore.
    In addition to not being sustainable, nuclear’s bigger issue is that it just won’t get built. As the huge batch of plants built in the 70’s get decommissioned, and NIMBY and waste issues hamper new plants, its unlikely that it will even maintain its share of world energy production. (note: this is also NDRC’s view referenced in a previous post)
    We have to find clean energy solutions that are both sustainable and palatable to deploy in the next 10 years.

  9. Philip Bogdonoff - April 19, 2006

    The extensive article at the link below by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith provides an extremely informative analysis of nuclear power, looking at a variety of factors, from uranium fuel availabilty, CO2 output, net energy analysis and life-cycle costs. It shows that even in the medium-term, nuclear power quickly becomes a dead end and a poor choice in which to invest our declining fossil fuels if we are going to do sensible things to prepare for the post-peak-oil era.

    Nuclear Power: the Energy Balance

    — Philip B. / Washington, DC

  10. Chris - April 19, 2006

    Increased capital expenses to build nuclear are a waste of our scarce resources and the limited time left to us to change our energy economy from hydrocarbon based to renewable.
    If we waste our time and money on diversions such as nuclear, we may not be able to change our energy economy to a renewables based one, and civilization as we know it may fall, given our current proximity to peak oil, and the climate disasters that loom somewhat further in our future.
    The only processes that make sense are as follows:
    1) admit that we have an energy emergency.
    2) promote conservation and energy efficiency to the max
    3) remove all subsidies from hydrocarbon energy and require progressive CAFE standards for all personal vehicles.
    4) institute a true carbon tax on all hydrocarbon combustion
    5) Go to a war time equivalent economic restructuring to promote the true renewables: wind, solar, tidal, geothermal

  11. MM - April 19, 2006

    France runs on almost 90% nuclear. Faced with a big bill from Kyoto, Europe is investing in their nuclear infrastructure. We aren’t geared up to switch over to renewables on a large scale in this country. Look we even fight the Cape Wind project. We consume more energy than anyone else in the world. Unless this changes, nuclear seems like the only viable option. I agree.
    I think the stats show you have a greater chance of being killed in a plane crash than by a meltdown at a nuclear power plant.

  12. Anonymous - April 19, 2006

    Used fuel rods are typically only 5-10% spent. Therefore, with recycling of nuclear waste, we can keep using the existing fuel that we already have refined for over 200 years of energy for all of North America at the current demand levels. By using the longer-lived uranium (half life of 4.5b years) to generate power, we can get carbon-free energy and make the radioactivity problem go away sooner (most highly radioactive byproducts have a half life of only a few hundred to a few thousand years — i.e. most of the problem will go away with just a lifetime of storage — and there are many interesting ways of dealing with it that do not involve significant danger of theft or burying it and closing up a mountain for the rest of civilization’s existence and then some) without mining any more uranium. Hopefully, this can last us until we can get fusion power, which has almost no radioactive waste (once we can get to using He3, and normal fusion still produces way less radioactive byproduct than any fission) and we have hundreds of years of He3 on the moon and thousands of years in the gas giants.

  13. Anonymous - April 19, 2006

    The root of the problem is not energy, it is too many people. But to stay on topic…

    If nuclear power is the answer, then it would be all over the place. Not only is it dangerous for us and future generations, but it the most heavily subsidized energy source EVER. Just google “price-anderson act” and you’ll see that the utilities have next to zero liability for accidents.

    Efficiency, renewables, lifestyle change….the keys to a successful Powerdown.

  14. Ruskicat - April 20, 2006

    I agree with Anonymous of 19 April, 11PM. The main problem is too many people, and in the US too many selfish people. There is no one answer now but instead of tax credits for hybrid cars, which don’t all get great mileage, how about credits for installing wind and/or solar power on individual dwellings when feasible. It’s not that expensive.

  15. Dan - April 20, 2006

    Some of the commentors near the end are catching on.
    The founder of Greenpeace sees that solar and wind are not capable of supporting our mainstream energy supplies, he is confronted with two choices but he ignores that he has a choice. He chooses to go back on everything the organization he started is founded upon and support nuclear energy. Hypocritus maximus. The option that he ignores or is not aware of is power down.
    I am dismayed to say that some in the environmental movement in this country are really no better than the industrialists. They want to support the industrialists and allow everyone to continue operating as we are, just in a “happier” way. Ridiculous. Rather than trying to find new sources for our nation’s INSANE demand for energy, why not take steps to reduce that demand? From a problem-solving perspective, wouldn’t that be so much easier?

  16. FreeMarket - April 20, 2006

    Require the nuclear operators to take out insurance policies to cover accident cleanup and any health costs. If it’s still profitable, I hole-hartedly encourage them. My guess insurers won’t touch it at any premium – they know better.
    Meanwhile, coal power companies will pay a tax on emitted greenhouse gasses. They and other poluters will also pay a portion of any non-smoker’s respitory disease depending on how much fine particulate matter they emit.
    When the free market is forced to pay the full cost of their activities, society will make the correct choice on it’s own. If this was phased in over the next 20 years, by 2026, 40% of electricity would be very clean coal and the rest would be renewable.

  17. Joe G. - April 20, 2006

    Waste, waste and more waste. Environmentalists constantly push the issue that CO2 has a residency time in our atmosphere of roughly 150 years as a reason to proactively mitigate emissions. So why are we not using the unknown residency time of nuclear waste as a reason to oppose nuclear power. Nuclear, wind and hydro all sound and look exciting…but why don’t we focus on a solution that exists now…ENERGY CONSERVATION (EFFICIENCY).

    California has shown that energy efficiency measures are cost-effective policies that achieve measurable results. Technologies such as automated demand response, water-less heaters and high efficiency commercial equipment (HVAC, motors etc.) provide energy solutions that nuclear plants will never match. They may not be as “sexy” as alternative or nuclear energy projects, but they are real and effective.

  18. Alex Stange - April 20, 2006

    I agree with Kevin, Tim, Tom, etc. Too much of anything is bad for you. When it comes to energy, the best solution is the least economical one: diversity.
    The fundamental problem is that it costs to much to develop one type of power source that it’s very un-economical then not to copy that plan over and over again. Why would you spend billions to design a coal plant and only build a few of them? No business would do this, but that kind of restraint on all types of energy production is the only way to limit their negative effects.
    If we built enough wind or solar power to fuel a significant part of the country I’m sure we would cause some other unforseen environmental problems.

  19. Adam - April 20, 2006

    Good discussion. I wish I had more time to dig into all of the topics raised, but I will say that I remain unconvinced by the nuclear skeptics. I feel like people are mostly talking around the subject of the article rather than addressing the points directly. It’s almost as though the subject of nuclear energy is, um, radioactive or something.

    Couple of things:

    1) A lot of the anti-nuclear sentiment here seems to boil down the notion that nuclear waste is so terrifyingly, catastrophically dangerous that we’d be fools to even consider going down this road to certain doom. Trouble is, I’ve heard a lot of very reasonable and knowledgeable people state otherwise, and I happen to know that France gets 90% of its electricity from nuclear and hasn’t yet been overtaken by mutants. I’m not trying to be glib (well, a little), but I will tell you what keeps me up at night: global warming. Not Three Mile Island.

    2) There’s a vocal minority of people who seem to think we can conserve our way out of global warming. Most of these people also seem to feel that Americans are wasteful, evil, and profligate in their energy use. This attitude is wrong in so many ways that I don’t know where to begin.

    Just so I’m not misinterpreted (although I will be), I’ll state up front: conservation is incredibly important to fighting climate change, and Americans do use too much fossil-fuel based energy. No argument here.

    But Americans, and more generally Westerners, use all of this energy not because we’re evil but because we’re rich. Energy is a consumption good, and as the rest of the world gets richer, they’re going to catch up to the West, not vice versa.

    This is a mostly good thing. Greater energy consumption = more education, better health care, longer life spans, greater human potential, and improved human welfare. The proverbial Chinese peasant is much better off hooked up to the grid than not.

    The problem is not so much that we use too much energy because we’re evil, but that we use too much energy because it’s underpriced relative to its true costs. One of the great things about carbon markets is that they address this pricing problem directly.

    3) In general, I feel like nuclear is a big strawman that gets pushed around. No one suggested nuclear instead of conservation. Or nuclear instead of wind. The question is, does nuclear have a role in a low-carbon future? Tom, you suggest that nuclear is hampered by practical obstacles to adoption (and it may well be), but I’m not convinced that those obstacles are as insurmountable as they presently appear. Nor do I really think we’re going to lick the climate problem in the next ten years, sadly.

    So I guess for now I remain on the fence. Nuclear may well be a terrible idea, but I haven’t heard the argument so far that convinces me of that. Keep the comments flowing.

  20. Anonymous - April 20, 2006

    The sad fact about nuclear for those who boost it is that, like oil, Uranium has peaked. Much of the fuel that is used currently is being mined from warheads, not from new sources.
    It would be interesting to compare the carbon cost of building and running a nuclear plant and keeping the wastes isolated for thousands of years compared with other non-nuclear options. My guess is that these don’t rank very well.
    The waste is the key issue. We’ve been producing it since the 40s and we still don’t have a solution. Not the burden I want to leave for futire generations. Conservation, solar and wind still seem like our best option. Requiring car makers to give up the SUV might also be another thing worth looking in to.

  21. Steve - April 23, 2006

    It’s still hogwash (like it was in the 1980’s) to say that nuclear fission power will get us out of our current energy dilemmas. It’s a massive, centralized technology that still has big problems with cost of construction, safety, reliability, waste disposal and public perception. Even with the continuing government promotion of nuclear power via the Price-Anderson insurance guarantees, utility companies are refusing to commit to more nuclear plants.

    It’s worth noting that nuclear power also helps contribute to global warming through the enormous quantities of waste heat generated, in addition to the conventional electric generation required to enrich uranium (a process that uses as much as 3% of our total national electric consumption!) The inefficiency of generating power this way is built-in; energy is lost in each conversion, from heating the water to make steam, to converting the steam energy to mechanical to drive turbines, to converting the mechanical to electrical in the generators, and so on. Why use a chain saw to cut a stick of butter?

    As for creating jobs, studies have shown (and isn’t it obvious?) that far more jobs will be created by investing the same money in low-tech manufacturing jobs to make solar and wind energy devices than a few highly paid construction jobs to build nuclear plants (that will be taken by a non-local workforce, anyway).

    The way to go for energy is increasing incentives for energy conservation (a kilowatt-hour saved is a kilowatt-hour earned!), and government policies that promote increased use of ALL forms of solar energy, including active and passive solar installations, wind energy, biomass, hydrogen fuel, hydroelectric, geothermal, and ocean thermal. Mr. Moore is being naive and short-sighted when he claims that increased use of nuclear energy is the solution to our energy problems.

  22. Keith Henson - March 8, 2007

    In spite of the problems with nuclear energy, a huge expansion is one of only two ways I know about as a solution to the combined peak oil and global warming problems.

    Unfortunately there is an unrecognized problem with nuclear power. The probable reason the North Korean bomb fizzled is that they almost certainly used reactor plutonium, which has a high percentage of plutonium 240. Plutonium 240 has a high rate of spontaneous fission. That causes the bomb to go off in a low-grade mode before the core is completely compressed.

    Weapons grade plutonium is 90% or better plutonium 239. It is made by pushing slugs of uranium though a reactor fast enough that little of the plutonium 239 formed picks up a second neutron and becomes plutonium 240. The slugs are then chemically separated to recover the plutonium. It’s a trade off between grade and production rate.

    Several years ago it occurred to me that exceptionally high grade plutonium 239 could be made by briefly exposing U 238 in solution to neutrons, removing the plutonium formed from the solution with ion exchange and pumping the solution back though the reactor to convert more U 238 to plutonium 239. (U 238, depleted uranium, is scattered all over Iraq.)

    This will generate low cost plutonium 239 upwards of 99% purity, perhaps high enough that simple gun type bomb designs could be used. Considering that over a fuel consumption cycle a large power reactor generates
    a number of kilograms of neutrons, tapping 10% percent of them in this loop would produce a considerable amount of super weapons grade plutonium.

    For a long time I considered it something I wished I had never thought of. But if I can think of it, so can any number of other people. Widely known it will give International nuclear inspectors an idea of what to look for.

    In spite of all the problems, including this one, I agree with Patrick Moore that vast numbers of nuclear reactors are one of the few central power plant approaches to replacing coal and doing something about global warming.

    One of the other approaches is solar power satellites, lifted to GEO either with rockets or (if carbon nanotube cable can be made strong enough) a space elevator. If nanotube cable can be made at low cost and strong enough, then a mechanical powered elevator is possible. This energy source is big enough and easy enough to exploit this way that it could displace virtually all other energy sources.

    The other point of a space elevator is that with much access to space (thousands of tons a day) we could put sunshades in the sun/earth L1 location and directly reduce global warming.

    Keith Henson