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Greens Going Nuclear

Thursday, 06 September 2001 12:00 AM

Some highly regarded environmentalists are looking to nuclear power to help solve what they see as Earth's greatest ecological threat: the theory of global warming caused by humans.

Among those promoting or advocating a re-examination of nuclear energy are French physicist Bruno Comby; former Clinton administration environmental adviser Jerry Mahlman; famed environmental leader James Lovelock; Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.; and Clinton's former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Nuclear energy is a cleaner energy source than fossil fuels but has suffered from the stigma of radioactive waste, a "not in my backyard" sentiment relating to nuclear plant location and waste storage, and the risk of nuclear incidents.

But changes within the climate change debate and the nuclear power industry have resulted in changes in how more environmentalists and political liberals are warming to the idea of a fission-powered future.

The group Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, headed by French author and physicist Bruno Comby, believes it makes sense for environmentalists to embrace nuclear energy.

"There isn't any choice. The only question is how it's going to be done," said Comby, whose organization includes prominent environmentalist James Lovelock, a leader in the controversial "all species are equal" movement.

Comby said his group was formed to bring nuclear advocates and environmentalists together to promote nuclear power as the best hope to fight energy shortages and climate change.

The French physicist also believes a worldwide conversion to more nuclear power can be done expeditiously, and he points to his native country as an example. According to Comby, France went from zero percent nuclear energy production in 1973 to near 100 percent today.

"Any other country that has the financial resources can also do it in 25 years, and having the financial resources is a question of commitment," said Comby, adding that nuclear power is "a very economical source of energy."

Also calling for increased consideration of nuclear power is Princeton University scientist Dr. Jerry Mahlman, a former National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration official, and environmental adviser to the Clinton administration. Mahlman has called for "a re-examination" of nuclear power in light of the growing need for cleaner emissions.

"Twenty years ago, we weren't so worried about the cost of not using nuclear fission energy," said Mahlman. "The fact that countries like France and Japan have gone seriously into [nuclear power] without major environmental problems suggests that the U.S. overreacted 20 years ago."

Mahlman's leanings toward nuclear power are fueled by his concerns about global warming. He believes climate change treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol are insufficient to solve the problem, telling Science magazine in 1997 that "it might take another 30 Kyoto's over the next century" to deal with global warming.

So convinced is Mahlman about the threat of global warming, he told CNSNews.com that any skepticism of human-caused global warming is "baloney," saying that going nuclear may be the preferred option to combat the real or perceived buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Among the more unlikely supporters of nuclear power is James Lovelock, considered by many environmentalists as the "guru of the greens." Among his credits in the environmental movement is the "Gaia Theory."

Named after the Greek goddess of Earth, the Gaia theory states that "earth is a living organism and all species are equal; it does not place man above the other species, it's just one of the living species on the planet," explained Comby.

Lovelock's Gaia Theory, first promulgated in the 1970s, has become the ideological foundation of many of today's environmental laws, including endangered-species regulations and the philosophical thrust behind the animal rights movement.

Lovelock is also considered to be the inspiration for Rachel Carson's best-selling 1962 book "Silent Spring," which has been credited with starting the modern environmental movement.

While his green bona fides are beyond reproach, Lovelock, 82, lamented in the preface to Comby's book "Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy," that future generations would see the harm of global warming and "reflect regretfully that they could have avoided their miseries," by greater reliance on nuclear energy.

He cautions, "I hope that it is not too late for the world to emulate France and make nuclear power our principle source of energy."

So enthusiastic is Lovelock about nuclear energy, he even advocates the storage of nuclear waste in natural settings, making them too toxic to support human development.

Lovelock stated in his writings earlier this year that "nuclear power, although potentially harmful to people, is a negligible danger to the planet," and asserts that "natural ecosystems can stand levels of continuous radiation that would be intolerable in a city."

He notes that nuclear radiation can actually benefit plant and animal life. He claims the land surrounding Russia's Chernobyl nuclear plant, which experienced the world's worst nuclear reactor accident in 1986, "is now rich in wildlife, much more so than neighboring populated areas."

He sees disposal of nuclear waste as an opportunity to promote forest conservation. "I wonder if instead we should use it as an incorruptible guardian of the beautiful places on Earth. Who would dare cut down a forest in which was the storage place of nuclear ash?" asked Lovelock.

But Lovelock's idea of preserving wild lands with radioactive waste is shared by few. Greenpeace International spokesman Damon Moglen called Lovelock's idea of forest conservation via nuclear waste "ludicrous."

"Anybody who thinks Chernobyl has somehow positively effected the environment needs a head cleaning", said Moglen. He added that Lovelock's idea to store nuclear waste in the forests in order to discourage development was "just foolhardy, utterly foolhardy."

In the political arena, old rules of environmentalism are also falling by the wayside.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, one of the Senate's most prominent environmentalists, is among those willing to give nuclear power a fresh look.

Kerry, who received a rating of 86 from the League of Conservation Voters in 2000, down from a rating of 100 the year before, boasts on his Web site that he led the 1993 fight in the Senate to kill the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor program, which he called "environmentally unsafe technology."

However, Kerry recently has been changing his tune. "I will not dismiss the potential for technology to solve the existing problems of nuclear power," said Kerry in a statement to CNSNews.com. "I approach the debate with an open mind and do not discount any technology or policy out of hand"

Adding further to this political mix of greens reassessing nuclear energy is former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who came out strongly in favor of nuclear energy in May.

At the annual meeting of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry advocacy group, Babbitt waded into the controversial issue of using the area around Yucca Mountain, Nev., as a nuclear waste repository, saying, "It's a safe, solid geologic repository," and described environmentalists opposed to nuclear energy as "deeply irrational."

Some anti-nuclear environmentalists are baffled by this emerging coalition of pro-nuclear greens like Babbitt. "People who call themselves environmentalists - it confuses me as to why they would say nuclear is the answer," said Debbie Boger, described as an energy expert with the Sierra Club.

While she acknowledges that it's "absolutely true" the nuclear industry has improved its safety record, Boger worries about the "potential for catastrophic accidents," and asks, "What kind of risks are you willing to take for that?"

Some also see another issue: the threat of pro-nuclear greens derailing a broader environmental movement.

Moglen of Greenpeace believes support of nuclear power by environmentalists risks undermining the broader agenda of the green movement. "With all respect to [nuclear converts], they should not be held up as the middle, they should be held up as the periphery," said Moglen. "We should not be sidetracked into talking about nuclear. It's irreverent in the climate change debate."

On the question of fossil fuel alternatives, Moglen and others support wind and solar power, but Comby discounts such alternatives. "It is unrealistic to look at renewable resources. They are too expensive," he said, adding that solar and wind power aren't available 24 hours a day.

Comby and other greens backing increased nuclear power often point to France as an example of how reactors have been used to provide electricity without negative effects on the environment.

In fact, Comby noted that France has so much nuclear-generated energy, it exports much of its surplus power to neighboring countries, which have strict anti-nuclear policies.

"So they are anti-nuclear and they end up buying nuclear electricity coming from France because they don't have enough," explained Comby, referring to Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

When asked if the U.S. should model its energy infrastructure after France, Boger responded: "France has their own problems. They eat frog legs in France too. Just because they're doing it, we shouldn't follow in their footsteps."

For its part, the nuclear energy industry welcomes green converts into the fold. "It's about time," said Chandler van Orman, an official with the Nuclear Energy Institute, a pro-nuclear group.

"Nuclear power is clean, safe and reliable and it's affordable. Anyone interested in clean air or climate change has to look at nuclear as part of the solution."

Regarding fission-based energy, the American nuclear industry is philosophically much closer to Lovelock than many of his environmental contemporaries, a fact he lamented to the London Independent.

"I find that side of the green movement that considers everything chemical as harmful, produced by a nasty organization thinking only of its profits and never of the good of people or humankind, as rather absurd," said Lovelock.

But many environmentalists are not persuaded by Lovelock and like-minded greens, and Moglen continues pressing the case for lifestyle changes rather than increases in nuclear power.

"The U.S. needs to consider what the global impact is of driving SUVs and of this kind of extraordinary over consumptive attitude that we have gotten ourselves into," argued Moglen.

Lovelock fired back, saying his fellow environmentalists "can't really be green without being involved with science."


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Some highly regarded environmentalists are looking to nuclear power to help solve what they see as Earth's greatest ecological threat: the theory of global warming caused by humans. Among those promoting or advocating a re-examination of nuclear energy are French physicist...
Thursday, 06 September 2001 12:00 AM
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