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Science, Law & the Environment Emerging Topics in Environmental Law

The Ideological Clash of Nuclear Power and Climate Change: One Perspective from the Pacific Northwest

Posted in Climate Change, Emerging Policy, Energy Policy

My weekend reading had a couple themes. The first theme was how many of today’s elections in Washington have national implications, from the minimum wage fight in the city of SeaTac, to the GMO labeling initiative, and, of course, the county council election in Whatcom County-where that council will be tasked with a large amount of the decision-making authority for the Gateway Pacific Terminal, one of two terminals in the planning stage that will export coal. The second theme was the public reaction to a letter by four climate scientists calling for a renewed look at nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuel combustion. These themes are related to the point that I thought they were worth combining in a blog post.

In terms of local elections with national implications, the Whatcom County election is top of the list. The coal export issue is something I’ve covered a fair amount over the past few months. At times I look at my blog and see one coal entry after another and vow not to blog on it again until I cover other topics. The anti-coal crowds’ political position is strong and vocal, and I’ve personally heard people evaluate various political candidate’s “ideological purity” with respect to the environment based on that candidate’s platform regarding coal exports, i.e., that a candidate cannot deviate from an anti-coal export position and hope to continue to be supported by the environmental community. The concept of ideological purity certainly seems to be rising in prominence and importance on both side of the political spectrum, and perhaps to the detriment of all of us as electeds of various political beliefs become more entrenched in their party lines. Washington is certainly a leader on one side of that political spectrum and with respect to progressive thought–Seattle is progressive to the point of having elections that oftentimes boil down to which candidate is more progressive. I believe in many ways that Washington’s environmental community is also a national leader in environmental thought, with significant national influence. As an example, that community rapidly elevated the coal export issue to the level of the Keystone XL Pipeline on the national stage.

So, when I saw this letter from four well-known and well-respected climate scientists (one of whom recently got arrested for climate change protests in front of the White House) regarding the need to revisit nuclear energy as part of the solution to greenhouse gas emissions, I couldn’t help but think about how the environmental community in the Pacific Northwest may react to this letter. Washington’s nuclear energy past is tainted by the mess at Hanford, and also the colorful palm-slapping-your-forehead history of the Washington Public Power Supply System (“WPPSS,” perhaps appropriately pronounced “whoops”). More recently, Washington has found itself directly downwind of Fukishima–a disaster that occurred at a time when public support of nuclear power was starting to build again, and one that resulted in a rapid erosion of that support for nuclear power in Japan, the United States, and as far abroad as Germany. Given the strong ideological purity that is behind the fight against coal exports (and the underlying desire to do something about climate change), I’m curious to see how the environmental community here in the Pacific Northwest responds to the letter by Dr. Caldeira, Dr. Emanuel, Dr. Hansen and Dr. Wigley. My guess is that–if there is a response– it will be along the lines of the NRDC’s, i.e., that nuclear power is not part of the solution to climate change and carbon emissions–and instead we should focus on energy efficiency, distributed generation such as rooftop solar, and upgrades to power plants to reduce carbon emissions. All of those pieces are important, but if you accept the building urgency to lower carbon emissions that is at the core of the current anti-coal efforts, I think you also have to objectively consider nuclear power as an alternative–simply because it seems to be the quickest way to substitute the massive generation capacity of burning fossil fuels. I’d welcome comments on this point from people with deeper knowledge than I have.

My view has been–for a long time–that we need to consider all energy sources in reducing carbon emissions, including nuclear, solar, wind, and things you’ve probably never heard of, like Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion. As Dr. Caldeira, Dr. Emanuel, Dr. Hansen and Dr. Wigley note, no energy source is without its drawbacks.  New nuclear technology holds significant promise, and there are reactor designs that are fairly impressive in terms of theoretical capability. For instance, Toshiba is one of a few companies developing a so-called “battery pack” reactor the size of a rail car that can be dropped into remote areas as a substitute for diesel generators. There are also some really bad ideas out there, one of them being Russia’s efforts to mount Soviet-era ship reactors on barges as a mobile, floating, energy source for developing areas (shameless self-promotion: I wrote an article on the challenges of these reactors from an international law perspective when in law school). I hope that–as the environmental community in Washington State processes what I think is a fairly significant statement by these four scientists–they do so with an eye on developing a “new” ideological purity for that community with respect to energy policy: one focused on prioritizing issues and looking at solving those issues from all angles, which may include taking a pragmatic, fresh look at all energy sources.