Fear of nuclear should not prevent carbon cuts

Taking existing climate provisions to build back better and adding more support for nuclear power would be a real addition to overall decarbonisation efforts.

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No issue divides the green movement more than nuclear energy. Gas? “Transition fuel” for some, “fossil gas” for others. But no matter the term, everyone agrees that it is still a fossil fuel. And fossil fuels must disappear, as soon as possible.

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Nuclear power? For some it’s worse than fossil fuels, for others it’s the only real alternative. Its supporters and opponents can be unpredictable.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia with a long history of fighting climate action, wants to expand a tax credit under the Build Back Better legislation that keeps nuclear plants operating. It’s the kind of measure – and messenger – that can only get lukewarm support from green groups at best. Most are either against nuclear energy or have, in recent times, been largely silent. They shouldn’t be so reluctant.

If Manchin’s support for this credit means passing the Build Back Better climate package, others in favor of the broader measure should agree to the deal. Equally important, nuclear power itself deserves a second look as a low-carbon technology.

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The long-standing opposition of environmentalists to nuclear power is understandable. The history of nuclear power, after all, is intimately tied to the history of the environmental movement itself.

The modern environmental movement, both in the United States and elsewhere, came of age against the backdrop of the global threat of all-out nuclear war. When Rachel Carson needed a stark example to demonstrate the dangers of overusing DDT as an insecticide in the opening chapters of her bestselling book Silent Spring, published in 1962, she compared the effects of DDT to those of strontium- 90 and the fallout from nuclear testing.

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Take this anti-war base, add a good dose of anti-corporatism, a portion of anti-capitalism and a pinch or two of “small is beautiful”, and the attitude of most environmentalists towards nuclear energy becomes a fait accompli.

The opposing argument has long been seen as such: opposed to the broad environmentalist consensus. It was reserved for so-called “techno-optimists”, “eco-pragmatists”, “eco-modernists” and others who are keen to distinguish themselves from broad swathes of the movement. Rare is the environmentalist, like Stewart Brand, who has gone from fierce opposition to nuclear power to active support.

Brand not only supports nuclear energy, but also solar geoengineering research – attempts to alter the Earth’s reflectivity and cool it without directly cutting CO₂.

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The link between nuclear power and solar geoengineering here runs through the overriding fear of “moral hazard” on the part of many environmentalists: the fact that any kind of investment in nuclear power R&D, for example , would lead policymakers to look away from the decarbonization ball. In short, for many, if not most, environmentalists, much like solar geoengineering research, the fear of nuclear energy is actually anxiety about reducing carbon.

There are, of course, legitimate concerns about nuclear proliferation and reactor safety. The nine Chernobyl-type reactors still operating today in Russia are long overdue, despite modifications made after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Equally important, Western regulators would never have allowed them to be built. In fact, Japanese safety regulations and provisions helped ensure that the 2011 Fukushima accident resulted in no loss of life and “no adverse health effects to Fukushima residents” from exposure. to radiation.

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While the accident reignited fears among German Greens and led to the country’s nuclear phase-out this year, eight years before its coal phase-out, the response in France, the United States and elsewhere has been quite different. No matter where, however, the real fear of most opponents of nuclear power seems to be that supporting it is a distraction from rapid solar and wind deployment.

Some of this fear is justified, when limited funds are at stake: supporting nuclear energy in exchange for less support for solar and wind. This does not appear to be the case with Senator Manchin’s endorsement of nuclear tax credits under Build Back Better. It supports these tax credits in addition to the existing (reduced) climate measures currently on the table.

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Taking the existing climate provisions from Build Back Better and adding more support for nuclear power would be a real addition to overall decarbonization efforts. It is time for environmental groups to support it and, in doing so, overthrow the dreaded “moral hazard” argument.

Imagine a large environmental group long opposed to technology coming out publicly and saying bluntly, “We still don’t like nuclear, and neither should you. But it’s so late in the climate game that we now have to even consider this technology. »

Gernot Wagner writes the Risky Climate column for Bloomberg Green. He teaches at New York University. His book “Geoengineering: the Gamble” comes out this fall.

Bloomberg.com

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