The Wall Street Journal (6/16/16) published an article headlined “Environmental Groups Change Tune on Nuclear Power: Focus on Climate Change Has Raised Profile of Reactors, Now Viewed as Reliable, Carbon-Free Source of Energy.” Written by Amy Harder, the approximately 600-word piece appeared on the front page of the Journal’s B section.
Its dramatic lead-in:
Some of the nation’s most influential environmental groups are softening their longstanding opposition to nuclear power, marking a significant shift in the antinuclear movement as environmentalists’ priority shifts to climate change.
This shift, Harder wrote, “is lowering one of the biggest political hurdles facing the nuclear power industry in the US.”
What followed was framed by the story’s two quoted pro-nuclear sources, Joe Dominguez, an executive with Exelon Corp, the US’s largest electric holding company and operator of its largest fleet of nuclear plants, and Michael Shellenberger, co-founder of the quasi-neoliberal, pro-technology environmental think tank The Breakthrough Institute. According to Dominguez, the green groups’ “absence on the opposition front” is “’pretty significant’” and the “’shift in attitude…has a clear impact on companies’ bottom line.’”
The evidence of this shift? Vague assertions that the Sierra Club “is debating whether to halt its longtime position in support of shuttering all existing nuclear power plants” and that its “leaders see existing reactors as a bridge to renewable energy…as the group campaigns to shut down coal and natural gas plants.” Similarly, the story says, the Environmental Defense Fund is “deciding to what extent it should adjust its policy.”
Central to the story is the contention that prominent eco-advocacy groups, including Sierra, EDF and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are among those working with Exelon and state lawmakers on a legislative deal that would reverse a decision the company made in early June to close two money-losing nuclear reactors, Quad Cities and Clinton, and “ensure that the reactors remain in operation by providing financial recognition for the zero-carbon electricity they produce.”
But major assertions in the Journal article turn out to be either factually inaccurate, or to omit or spin important details. First, though Harder refers multiple times to nuclear power being “carbon-free” (echoing the websites of nuclear plant owners such as Exelon and Pacific Gas & Electric), that is not the case.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group:
Nuclear energy facilities do not emit criteria pollutants or greenhouse gases when they generate electricity, but certain processes used to build and fuel the plants do. This is true for all energy facilities. Nuclear energy’s life-cycle emissions include emissions associated with the construction of the plant, mining and processing the fuel, routine operation of the plant, disposal of used fuel and other waste byproducts, and decommissioning.
Nuclear energy’s greenhouse gas footprint is higher than renewables’, however. And as Greenpeace nuclear policy analyst Jim Riccio told the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change in 2008, “The fact is, there’s no such thing as a carbon-free lunch for any energy source.” Riccio is also quoted in the Journal piece—against nuclear power: “Illinois should not be bailing out old and dangerous reactors because they can’t complete,” he said—hardly an endorsement. That sentiment is reflected on Greenpeace’s website, which states, “Nuclear power has no place in a safe, clean, sustainable future.”
Second, the notion that “the nation’s most influential” green groups are “changing their tune” is also untrue. The characterization of Illinois’ energy-policy debate, for example, is “over-the-top outrageous,” according to Dave Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a 35-year-old safe-energy organization that calls itself “Illinois’ Nuclear Power Watchdog.”
NEIS is part of a coalition of environmental groups opposing SB 1585, a piece of legislation dubbed the Next Generation Energy Plan that is still in play. The bill was cobbled together from a proposal developed by Exelon with input from a variety of competing interests, including green groups. Kraft says these activists have been negotiating not “SO THAT the plants would be kept in operation, but WHETHER they will.… That’s a significant difference.” He says NEIS plans to write a letter of complaint to the Journal, asking for a correction and a retraction. (As this story went to press, Exelon notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it intends to close the Quad Cities and Clinton reactors—WJBC, 6/23/16.)
The story highlighted coalition negotiations underway in the Illinois General Assembly…. NRDC is engaged with allies in legislative negotiations on energy policy in Illinois. But the Journal is dead wrong on our goals, focus and motivation. Our effort to reform energy policy does not involve, or signal, a change in NRDC’s long-held concerns about the role of nuclear energy in the country’s generation mix. That is especially true in Illinois, the state with the greatest number of nuclear reactors and waste in the entire country. Our efforts to negotiate an agreement with Exelon involves a continuing dedication to transform the Illinois energy landscape and advance a new, clean energy economy.
The post went on to refute the Journal piece’s allegation that shuttered plants inevitably mean more carbon-spewing coal and gas in their place:
Current proposals by Exelon would bring financial assistance to the company’s two economically distressed nuclear facilities, as noted in the Wall Street Journal…. Our coalition is negotiating to ensure an orderly and just transition that will help ensure that when nuclear plants close (whether for financial reasons or reaching the end of their design life), efforts should be focused on how to replace them with energy efficiency gains and clean power from the wind and sun, not dirty fossil fuels. Without fixing the state’s flawed renewable energy policies, that cannot happen—so this is a conversation NRDC will continue to encourage in Illinois.
The Sierra Club, for its part, quickly answered the assertion that it’s reconsidering its position with a June 17 statement on the Club’s website by executive director Michael Brune:
Sierra Club remains opposed to dangerous nuclear power, and our efforts to make sure these plants shut down continue. Our successful work to stop and retire coal, oil, and gas operations has not precluded this important work, nor will it in the future. It’s imperative that we move toward an economy powered by 100 percent clean, renewable energy like wind and solar right away.
In addition, Sierra has publicly opposed the proposed bailout of the Exelon plants embodied in SB 1585, and has submitted a letter to the editor of the Journal, according to Club spokesperson Trey Pollard.
Even EDF, historically more industry-friendly, is not exactly a nuclear booster. The organization’s website recently featured a blog post (6/1/16) that listed key policies to “turn the corner” on carbon emissions: putting a price on carbon, implementing President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and developing a nationwide smart grid.
With this story, the Journal seems to be conflating the pro-nuke positions of prominent individuals in the scientific and policy community with the sentiments of major environmental organizations. As the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney reported in a fairly balanced (but misleadingly titled) article late last year, there has been a vocal group of academic scientists rethinking nukes. He wrote:
A new letter, signed by 71 ecologists and conservation researchers (at last count), may be…significant. Authored by ecologists Barry Brook of the University of Tasmania and Corey J.A. Bradshaw of the University of Adelaide—and based on a longer paper by the two just out in the journal Conservation Biology—it argues that greens must rethink their nuclear power resistance…. This is not the first time that a coterie of environmental scientists have stood up for nuclear energy. Last year, four top climate researchers—Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of MIT, Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and James Hansen of the Earth Institute of Columbia University—wrote a letter defending the deployment of what they described as newer, safer nuclear power technologies.
Frequently joining this latter group of pro-nuclear climate hawks has been TBI’s Michael Shellenberger, who told the Journal, “If anything gives me hope in these dark times, it’s that so many environmentalists are changing their minds about nuclear…. What was just a trickle of converters a few years ago has become a positive stampede.”
Who these converts are he did not say. But although the Journal describes TBI as “a progressive think tank,” the Institute and its new spinoff, Environmental Progress, have a history of separating themselves from, and even trashing, the environmental mainstream. The organization originally gained fame in the early 2000s with their essay “Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World.” TBI advances a philosophy they call “ecomodernism,” a “manifesto to use humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene.” A strong pro-nuclear stance is part of TBI’s and EP’s platforms.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Shellenberger, Hansen, Caldeira et al. signed a letter to Illinois legislators April 4 that repeatedly refers to nuclear power as “clean energy” and said that the two plants Exelon may close have saved lives that otherwise might have been harmed by coal plant emissions. The letter asserts that renewables like wind have an unfair market advantage over nuclear in terms of subsidies, and advocates that nukes be included in the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. (For the record, nuclear power is not a renewable energy source because it does not regenerate, according to the US Energy Information Administration—and nuclear power is heavily subsidized, not least through the Price Anderson Act, which caps liability for nuclear accidents at a tiny fraction of their potential cost.)
These scientists and policy wonks have also established a “win/win” pro-nuclear group called Save Diablo Canyon. In response to the Southern California plant’s impending closure, Save Diablo Canyon, Environmental Progress and something called Mothers for Nuclear (started by two women who work in the nuclear power industry) will lead a protest “March for Environmental Hope” from San Francisco to Sacramento beginning June 24 (Forbes, 6/21/16).
The Wall Street Journal has a long history of editorial page support for nuclear power (4/17/01; 8/5/09; 11/9/09; 4/6/11; 5/24/13, to cite but a few) and against wind power (5/22/06, 3/1/10, 8/24/10, 11/8/12, 5/18/14 and others). In publishing this piece as edited, perhaps it is telling a story it wishes were true. As Harder’s article itself acknowledges, nuclear power is in decline due to a combination of economics, displacement by renewables and opposition. The green groups’ supposed change of heart “comes at a critical time, as several financially struggling reactors are set to shut down” even as other reactors already have, due to the low price of natural gas and state policies “that favor renewables over nuclear power.” As if to prove that point, the story provided a list of a dozen reactors that have been or will soon be shut down.
Indeed, the anticipated closing of Diablo Canyon seems to show the opposite of the trend Harder describes. There, a coalition of environmentalists led by Friends of the Earth got industry and government to agree not only to phase out the plant, but also to replace the energy it generated with something other than fossil fuels. As Ivan Penn and Samantha Masunaga of the Los Angeles Times (6/21/16) reported, PG&E pledged that the “power produced by Diablo Canyon’s two nuclear reactors would be replaced with investment in a greenhouse-gas-free portfolio of energy efficiency, renewables and energy storage.” Their story notes that the move “runs counter to the nuclear industry’s arguments that curbing carbon emissions and combating climate change require use of nuclear power.”
So are there prominent climate scientists and self-described environmentalists advocating for nuclear power? To be sure. But their stance doesn’t necessarily define the larger movement of low-carbon, renewable energy advocates who hold a decidedly different position.
Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor, and a longtime FAIR contributor.
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