Well, it's more like a subtle shifting or resettling of the ground after a slight tremor than like a full-fledged earthquake. But there are distinct signs indicating that educated and environmentalist opinion is moving in a distinctly more pro-nuclear direction.
One signal, noted here six months ago, occurred during a debate among the nine candidates vying at that time to be New York City’s next mayor. Invited to take a cheap, anti-nuclear shot by the moderator—who asked them whether they would favor closing the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plant north of the city—eight of the nine said they could not favor closing it unless ways were found to replace its electricity with clean, zero-carbon power. (One of those eight was the man just elected mayor by an overwhelming majority.)
Another sign of shifting opinion came last week, with the airing on Friday evening of a pro-nuclear documentary by CNN, the global cable news network. “Pandora’s Promise,” made by director Robert Stone, did not score high in television ratings. Still, it is noteworthy for the fact that CNN aired it and that Stone, who made an anti-nuclear film in 1988, has switched sides.
Some of Stone's reasons for changing sides, to be sure, are questionable. He minimizes the gravity of the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, and he may overstate the degree to which newer or alternative reactor designs would be immune to catastrophe. He certainly overstates the promise and understates the drawbacks of the so-called Integral Fast Reactor, a kind of breeder that would allegedly be almost proliferation-proof and consume its own waste. (An ancestor of that reactor concept, the Experimental Breeder Reactor II, is shown in photo.) Physicist Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists has subjected Stone’s treatment of the IFR to a withering critique, which seems sound to me in every single detail.
But Stone also does a good job of conveying the promise of new reactor designs being developed, and of getting across the reminder that today’s reactors are basically just the first shot humankind took at harnessing the atom for peaceful purposes. He asks, quite reasonably in my opinion, why we get so exercised about the possible dangers of ionizing radiation and reactor accidents when millions of people are dying each year from exposure to air pollution from coal-fired power plants and automobiles.
Among other things, the film includes interviews with several leading environmentalists who have switched sides on nuclear, the most prominent of whom is probably Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog. Another such environmentalist, not included in Pandora’s Promise, is George Monbiot, a zoologist and immensely influential climate activist in Europe. Monbiot has recently posted a blog expressing his dismay that Helen Caldicott, the Australian physician who for decades has been a leading anti-nuclear activist, is saying many things about atomic power that cannot be substantiated in the scientific literature.
Some of us who have been following Caldicott’s activities for years are not exactly shocked to learn that she has made unverifiable assertions. But it is noteworthy nevertheless when a grassroots leader of Monbiot’s stature makes that discovery and publicizes it.
Photo: Argonne National Laboratory-West