Environmentalists and Nuclear: Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

U.S. President Barack Obama is set to deliver a landmark speech on the regulation of greenhouse gases from existing power plants on June 2 that has the potential to completely alter the trajectory of America’s energy future. It will also highlight the enormous amount of common ground that exists between two constituencies who are often at odds: the nuclear power industry and environmentalists.

The U.S. environmental movement has opposed nuclear power for decades. It was the issue that first galvanized people around an environmental issue when so many Americans protested the construction of many of the nation’s nuclear power plants in the 1960s and 1970s.

As climate change has emerged as the most threatening and insidious environmental threat the world has ever faced, opposition to nuclear power has softened, owing to a nuclear reactor’s ability to generate carbon-free electricity. Still, many environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are still wary of nuclear power or actively oppose its expansion.

For its part, the nuclear industry and its allies believe environmental groups and renewable energy advocates are standing in the way of meaningful action on climate change. On one hand, that’s a purely business-driven position. For example, Exelon — the owner of the largest nuclear fleet in the country — made fighting subsidies for wind and solar its number one lobbying priority in 2013 because its reactors face stiff competition from low-priced clean energy. But more broadly, the nuclear industry and allies like The Breakthrough Institute argue that environmental groups are making greenhouse gas reductions much more difficult due to their irrational opposition to nuclear power.

The arguments on both sides have their problems. Environmental groups often ignore the fact that less nuclear capacity would lead to higher carbon emissions, and that solar and wind won’t be able to replace coal and natural gas on their own, at least in the short-term. At the same time, the nuclear industry puts an inordinate amount of blame on green groups for its own problems. In reality, utilities simply don’t want to build more nuclear plants for a variety of reasons — including high upfront costs and the abundance of cheap natural gas — most of which are beyond the influence of the environmental lobby.

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