Every day you read about how “green” energy, especially solar and wind power, are growing by leaps and bounds. And yet as a share of total electricity generation, green energy’s share is declining. (See the paired charts below.) One reason for this is that natural gas-fired electricity is growing faster, which somehow the news media forgets to mention. Another reason, though, is that many emission-free nuclear power plants are being retired, some of them before their useful life is over, and the new solar and wind installations can’t replace the steady, 24/7 output of nuclear plants.
And who is responsible for this? Environmentalists, of course.
Take this in for a moment:
“Nuclear power is one of the chief long-term hopes for conservation … Cheap energy in unlimited quantities is one of the chief factors in allowing a large rapidly growing population to preserve wildlands, open space, and lands of high scenic value … With energy we can afford the luxury of setting aside lands from productive uses.”
And who said this? It was David Siri, the executive director of the Sierra Club, in 1966. What happened?
Michael Shellenberger tells the larger story in a terrific article at Environmental Progress Illinois. Here are a few highlights:
Few people realize that up until the early-seventies, environmentalists including the Sierra Club itself was pro-nuclear. “Nuclear energy is the only practical alternative that we have to destroying the environment with oil and coal,” said famed nature photographer and Sierra Club Director, Ansel Adams.
Nuclear’s environmental benefits are the same today as they were back then. Nuclear produces zero air or water pollution. It uses tiny quantities of natural resources. Solar and wind require three to five times as much steel and concrete as nuclear plants. . .
How then did environmentalists come to view nuclear as bad for the environment?
Starting in the mid-sixties, a handful of Sierra Club activists feared rising migration into California would destroy the state’s scenic character. They decided to attack all sources of cheap, reliable power, not just nuclear, in order to slow economic growth.
“If a doubling of the state’s population in the next 20 years is to be encouraged by providing the power resources for this growth,” wrote David Brower, who was Executive Director of the Sierra Club, “the state’s scenic character will be destroyed. More power plants create more industry, that in turn invites greater population density.”
A Sierra Club activist named Martin Litton, a pilot and nature photographer for Sunset magazine, led the campaign to oppose Diablo Canyon, a nuclear site Pacific Gas and Electric proposed to build on the central Californian coast in 1965. Sierra Club member “Martin Litton hated people,” wrote a historian about the how the environmental movement turned against nuclear. “He favored a drastic reduction in population to halt encroachment on park land.”
But anti-nuclear activists had a problem: their anti-growth message was deeply unpopular with the Californian people. And so they quickly changed their strategy. They worked hard instead to scare the public by preying on their ignorance.
Doris Sloan, an anti-nuclear activist in northern California said, “If you’re trying to get people aroused about what is going on … you use the most emotional issue you can find.” This included publicizing images of victims of Hiroshima and photos of babies born with birth defects. Millions were convinced a nuclear meltdown was the same as a nuclear bomb. . .
The highest priority of the environmental movement was now to phase out nuclear, not fossil fuels. “It is above all the sophisticated use of coal, chiefly at modest scale, that needs development,” Lovins wrote in 1976. Around the same time Sierra Club’s Executive Director, Michael McCloskey, referred to coal as a “bridge fuel” away from nuclear and to renewables.
Nothing much has changed. In flat contradiction of their stated views that climate change represents an imminent cata- strophic threat, anti-nuclear environmentalists from Germany to Illinois to California bless the burning of fossil fuels if it means they can force the closure of a nuclear power plant.
Michael is one of the environmentalists who have been leading the charge for environmentalists to change their mind on nuclear power—something I never thought I would see in our lifetime. There’s much more in the whole article, but I’ll end with just one more short excerpt:
Fifty years of empirical research show that . . . the anti-growth anti-people extremists who started the anti- nuclear movement were wrong. More energy is good for people, and it’s good for nature.