Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It's Not Easy Being A Pro-Nuclear Environmentalist

The manner in which you, the reader, reacted to the idea of a "pro-nuclear environmentalist" may well illustrate just why I say that. If you're looking for a position that leads you to believe the rest of the world has gone somewhat askew, that enemies have made common cause to frustrate you, then I suggest you give it a try. You'd certainly have a greater understanding of things, at any rate, and understanding is one of the most vital things in the world. The lack of it is a problem--since I'm sure that if I was writing in a newspaper with any sort of circulation, the preceding paragraph would have been more than enough to spark angry comments about how I'm obviously a nuclear industry shill and "no nukes is good nukes."

Like I've said before at other times, there's something about nuclear power that twists plenty of people. I get the impression that a lot of folks think of it the way our ancestors thought of witchery and black magic, almost as if the reactor cores are really portals to Hell and everything that comes out of them is inherently evil and bad. Those attitudes show through fairly easily, particularly when I see newspapers oh-so-innocently drop references to atomic power. It's like they're saying "we're just presenting the facts, and by the way, you do remember what else was atomic, right?"

Sometimes I don't even have to look particularly hard to find it. Like, say, the cover of the Georgia Straight that's on the streets of Metro Vancouver right now, a very obviously unbiased design involving "fresh fish" that happen to have three eyes, are lying in flourescent slime, and are setting off a Geiger counter... because the average levels of radioactive cesium in Japanese fish were thirty-six becquerels per kilogram in June, below Japan's own ceiling of 100 Bq/kg and well below the Canadian ceiling of 1,000 Bq/kg. Less than ten percent of catches in June exceeded the ceiling--but hey! Nuclear. Not that anything is entirely free of radiation, of course--thanks to the decay of potassium-40, your body probably registers somewhere in the neighborhood of four thousand becquerels.

Still--the environmental movement and the anti-nuclear movement have gone hand-in-hand for quite a long time. I could understand the rise of an anti-nuclear movement after Chernobyl and Fukushima. After all, these were significant events with lasting legacies, and there's nothing unusual about things like that giving people pause. It's only natural to react like that, right?

That's not how it happened, though. Instead, the modern anti-nuclear movement grew out of the understandable and sensible opposition to nuclear weapons during the height of the Cold War... afterward, of course, it transformed into what we know today. The first protests against nuclear power emerged in the 1960s and started gaining steam in the mid-1970s, well before Three Mile Island. Chernobyl and Fukushima only energized the opponents, but really, it's not as if tens of thousands of people protesting against nuclear power is something that's started just in the last year. It's been going on for longer than I've been alive.

The movement even has a logo: the Smugging Sun... no, wait, the Smiling Smug... sorry, I meant the Smiling Sun, accompanied in English by "Nuclear Power? No Thanks." This was designed in 1975, a full eleven years before the first accident that I feel could have prompted rational opposition. The fact that the Sun is, itself, a gigantic nuclear reactor is conveniently ignored.

It's been going on for decades, and today I feel like I was betrayed by people who should have been looking out for me before I was even born.

NO NUKES! NO--wait, you're saying that's a COAL power plant? No uranium? Not even with the cooling towers? Whoops, terribly sorry for the mistake, just keep on doing as you're doing. We thought this was Three Mile Island.

Let me ask you something: when's the last time you remember hearing about tens of thousands of people protesting the construction of a new coal-fired power plant? How often do you hear of Greens in government using what clout they have to engineer fossil fuel phaseouts? When was the last time you heard about a coal power plant being closed well before its intended lifespan ran out because of environmental concerns? For me, the answers to all three are "never." The closest thing to a coal protest I can remember is the event a couple of months ago, when people blocked a coal train near the border. Among all the jurisdictions in the world, Ontario is the only one I know of that has actively legislated an exit from coal power.

I could be wrong--I could just not be hearing about these things... but that's part of the problem. I take an active interest in informing myself. I go out of my way to look things up and expose myself to information. I read newspapers from across the world, and yet I'm not hearing about any of this stuff. Simply put, then, if I'm unaware of this sort of thing, how aware would the average person who only reads the sports and comics sections be? Events like nuclear protests are transcendent, in their way--they gather attention. They're things people talk about. It gets its own inertia.

Meanwhile, the real problem chugs on. Meanwhile, coal power stations continue to belch their waste into the atmosphere. Even ignoring the issue of carbon dioxide emissions, the fact remains is that coal is the dirtiest source of power in existence. Coal plants emit sulfur dioxide, the main agent of acid rain. They emit hydrochloric acid. They emit fine particulates that can be inhaled and cause lung disease. They emit mercury. Some of these things, they emit tens of thousands of tonnes of it every year. when everything is working exactly as it's supposed to. They emit, and if they could I'm sure they would laugh as environmentalists furiously unload their chambers against nuclear, keeping their back to a force that's been steadily polluting the world for more than a century.

I would be disturbed, but I would not be particularly surprised, to find that environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club and so on have been financed in part by coal companies--because over the past forty years they've sure done a hell of a job to ensure that nobody cares about pollution from coal.

So it feels lonesome, like I'm one of the only ones who recognizes that even if a tool can be dangerous when it's not treated with the respect it deserves, it's still better to use it than try to get along without it. I wouldn't even have a problem with a world that managed to move beyond nuclear fission... so long as it had already moved beyond coal, oil, and natural gas. Sure, there is Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, but it's a fringe thing--its website literally looks like something you would have found on Geocities in 1998, from the animated flag gifs to the frames.

Don't expect new technology to come without a fight, either. Sure, the Sun is actually a nucelar fusion reactor... but remember, nuclear fusion is still nuclear! When it comes to fusion and organized environmentalism, it seems, don't hold your breath on any kind of accord - back in 2005, the French group Sortir du nucléaire criticized ITER as dangerous because scientists didn't yet fully understand how to control the fusion process... you know, exactly the sort of thing that you would build a research reactor to discover! Greenpeace got in on the dogpile as well, criticizing the investment of time and money into ITER because if ITER ends up being successful, it won't be until midcentury... so I guess the implicit position there is "cross your fingers that the world can be powered by wind, solar, and hydroelectricity, because we're certainly not going to support any potential way out if it can't."

I'm of the opinion that actions speak louder than words... and in that respect, it's clear to me that the anti-nuclear movement backs fossil fuel energy 100 percent.


  1. I can't believe I'm reading this - I thought I was the only one. I've been carping about this for years. The really frustrating thing is that safer nuclear technologies are available (pebble bed reactors, thorium fission, etc) but there just isn't the money in investing in new nuclear facilities.

    John S.

    1. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if there were plenty of us out there and we just didn't realize it because the anti-nuclear hugboxers are in control of the mainstream. Hard times when you think you're a minority of one... but to be honest, I have yet to meet an anti-nuclear person face to face. I have to wonder which way the silent majority really goes here.