How Do You Fight Green Dogma?

A week ago we came across the welcome news that some “blue chip” environmental groups were reportedly rethinking their staunch and increasingly irrational opposition to nuclear power. According to a Wall Street Journal article published last week, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund were both undergoing internal debates about the eco-merits of nuclear power. But the Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, wrote in to the WSJ to flatly deny that any such sober reflection was ongoing. From that letter:

It is categorically incorrect to suggest that the Sierra Club considers nuclear power a “bridge” to clean energy. Nuclear power, much like coal, oil and gas, is a bridge to nowhere. In Illinois the Sierra Club is part of a coalition to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency, not preserve nuclear reactors. America’s energy future must be powered by 100% clean, renewable energy like wind and solar—and nuclear in no way meets this requirement.

The Sierra Club’s successful work to stop and retire coal and gas operations has never precluded our efforts to oppose nuclear power, nor will it ever. Decades of evidence around the world clearly demonstrates that nuclear power remains a dirty and extremely dangerous energy source, and we will continue our efforts to block new reactors from being built and replace existing ones with 100% clean, renewable energy.

That’s a staggeringly obtuse statement. In it is reflected all the self-assured, scientifically baseless convictions that have come to define the modern environmental movement. It’s true that an opposition to nuclear power—born during the Cold War, an age of rampant nuclear-phobia—was one of the first marquee issues for environmentalists, and that their concerns over nuclear waste disposal had and still have merit.

That said, the hard line Brune is staking out displays a remarkable lack of foresight for a person charged with leading a group ostensibly concerned about the future of the planet. No one will dispute that climate change is today’s biggest green issue, and when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there’s no energy source more important than nuclear power. That’s because nuclear reactors are sources of zero-emissions baseload power, which means that they can keep the lights on 24/7, unlike intermittent solar and wind energy which require, well, sunshine or wind.

But Brune doesn’t just discredit the extraordinarily valuable work nuclear power—the world’s green energy workhorse—is currently doing, he goes even further, suggesting that the Sierra Club will never rethink its position. That might be the most galling part of this letter, because the future of nuclear power is looking brighter by the day as more exciting new technologies come our way. There are reactors being developed that are fail-safe (meaning they can’t melt down), reactors that reuse spent fuel (mitigating the waste issue), and researchers are even working on smaller modular reactors.

The next generation of nuclear power plants are going to look radically different from the ones we currently have, but if we’re to believe Brune, that won’t matter to the Sierra Club. Some smarter greens have started to come around to nuclear energy, but maybe that’s asking too much of one of the country’s leading environmental groups. For the Sierra Club, revulsion at the thought of nuclear power overwhelms the facts—the dogma runs all the way down to the atomic level. And that’s a shame.

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