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The Nuclear Option

By Keith Kloor

Nobody is doing more these days to inject the issue of nuclear power into the climate change debate than George Monbiot, the influential British environmental journalist. And that's no easy feat in the wake of Japan's nuclear crisis.

If you're familiar with Monbiot's style, you know he comes right at his target like a gentleman boxer, mixing polite banter with sharp jabs and roundhouses. The dividends of this approach are evident in his latest attempted takedown of the anti-nuclear movement in today's Guardian, which is already reverberating on this side of the Atlantic. 

But before we go any further, let's let Stephen Walt, in a recent post at Foreign Policy frame the nuclear option in a climate change context:

The basic equation here is pretty simple. The only way to deal with climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which in turns means reducing reliance on the burning of fossil fuels. Conservation, improved efficiency, and "green" energy sources like wind farms can help, but not enough to fill the gap without a significant curtailing of living standards. Accordingly, many recent proposals to address future energy needs have assumed that many countries — including the United States — would rely more heavily on nuclear power for electricity generation. It's not a complete answer to the climate change problem by any means, but addressing it in a timely fashion would be more difficult if nuclear expansion is eliminated.

As many others have noted, and as Walt writes in his post, "The destruction of [Japan's] Fukushima nuclear plant is bound to set back these efforts, and it may derail them completely."

Enter Monbiot, stage left. Since mid-March, he has written a string of pro-nuclear power columns, doing his utmost to push back on reflexive, anti-nuclear sentiment. His first was called, "Japan nuclear crisis should not carry weight in atomic energy debate." His second piece was a polemic, provocatively titled (paying homage to the classic film "Dr. Strangelove"): "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power." 

Ensuing negative reaction from many Guardian readers prompted Monbiot to get frisky in his next column, titled, "The double-standards of green, anti-nuclear opponents."  

But even that one was a warm-up act to Monbiot's latest column in today's Guardian, which begins:

Over the last fortnight I've made a deeply troubling discovery. The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.

Whether or not Monbiot has delivered a knockout blow to the anti-nuclear movement remains to be seen. But one prominent science journalist and blogger seems dazzled and has found his argument "pretty convincing."

Another admiring journalist, who headlines his post "Monbiot's Mission," writes that Monbiot "is undergoing an astounding and very public transformation."

But I'm not so sure about that. I looked into Monbiot's previous writings on nuclear power and it seems to me that for some years he's been working his way to where he is now. For example, in 2006, he was already saying that, "Anti-nuclear campaigners have a tendency to believe anything that casts the industry in a bad light." Then, two years ago, he wrote a cautiously favorable column on nuclear power that carried this subheading:

Support of nuclear power will no doubt provoke hostile responses, but we have a duty to be as realistic as possible about how we might best prevent runaway climate change.

Which brings to mind Michael Levi's lament last week over why debates regarding nuclear power are so painful:

Most advocates can’t admit that there are any downsides to nuclear power. Most opponents can’t accept that nuclear power has anything going for it. 

Monbiot, with his recent series of columns on nuclear power and the knee-jerk reaction to Japan's crisis, has tried to strike a realist position, based on this determination:

But the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power.

What's interesting to me is the double-legged stool Monbiot has now built to support his pro-nuclear stance.

The first leg was constructed on the climate change rationale — that nuclear power, despite its considerable drawbacks, has to play a muscular role in decarbonizing the world's energy economy.

The second leg, as anyone can see with his latest Guardian column, is built on a refutation of long-standing claims made by the anti-nuclear movement.

Is this a sturdy enough construction to defend nuclear power as a viable option in the climate debate?