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Nuclear power’s rebound causes rift among environmentalists

Wall Street Journal|Paul Vieira|September 2, 2022
USAEuropeEnergy PolicyCarbon Emissions

While many environmental groups and green political parties in the U.S., Canada and Europe have long opposed nuclear power as dirty and risky, a new generation of climate activists ...argue that nuclear power can be a valuable low-emission alternative to fossil fuels. The opposing viewpoints are fueling a contentious divide among environmental groups and within green political parties, an issue that has grown more pronounced in recent months amid the world’s energy crisis.


A new generation of activists and some governments are reconsidering nuclear power as a solution to energy shortages and climate change, while other environmental groups remain staunchly opposed

At a rally outside November’s United Nations climate-change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, nuclear energy advocate Chris Keefer was heckled, told to go away and called “a nuclear moron” by one attendee over a loudspeaker.

Mr. Keefer, a Toronto emergency-room doctor who runs Canadians for Nuclear Energy, a group of about 50 environmentalists who believe nuclear is needed to reach net-zero carbon emissions, said he spends “an inordinate amount of my time and energy in a rear-guard battle against environmentalists, you know, whose goals I broadly share in terms of taking aggressive climate-change action.”

While many environmental groups and green political parties in the U.S., Canada and Europe have long opposed nuclear power as dirty and risky, a new generation of climate activists—including a branch of Fridays for Future movement, which ... more [truncated due to possible copyright]

     

A new generation of activists and some governments are reconsidering nuclear power as a solution to energy shortages and climate change, while other environmental groups remain staunchly opposed

At a rally outside November’s United Nations climate-change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, nuclear energy advocate Chris Keefer was heckled, told to go away and called “a nuclear moron” by one attendee over a loudspeaker.

Mr. Keefer, a Toronto emergency-room doctor who runs Canadians for Nuclear Energy, a group of about 50 environmentalists who believe nuclear is needed to reach net-zero carbon emissions, said he spends “an inordinate amount of my time and energy in a rear-guard battle against environmentalists, you know, whose goals I broadly share in terms of taking aggressive climate-change action.”

While many environmental groups and green political parties in the U.S., Canada and Europe have long opposed nuclear power as dirty and risky, a new generation of climate activists—including a branch of Fridays for Future movement, which draws its inspiration from Greta Thunberg—argue that nuclear power can be a valuable low-emission alternative to fossil fuels. The opposing viewpoints are fueling a contentious divide among environmental groups and within green political parties, an issue that has grown more pronounced in recent months amid the world’s energy crisis.

The U.K., France and Canada have pledged to increase their nuclear-power capacity as an alternative to Russian energy and to more polluting energy sources, such as coal. Some jurisdictions that previously planned to mothball existing nuclear plants are now having second thoughts in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In April, the Biden administration allocated $6 billion to rescue nuclear power plants at risk of closing, citing the need to continue nuclear energy as a carbon-free source of power. California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Dianne Feinstein—both proponents of action to address climate change—recently reversed their opposition to keeping open the Diablo Canyon nuclear-power plant. State legislators voted early Thursday to keep Diablo Canyon operating until at least 2030.

While some environmental groups supported the measure as pragmatic, others remain steadfast in their opposition to nuclear power.

“The residents of California have waited long enough to finally see this dangerous, decrepit facility closed for good,” said the Environmental Working Group, a U.S. advocacy group, which opposes extending the life of the Diablo Canyon plant.

Politicians who believe in combating climate change and see nuclear power as a possible tool can find themselves in a tough spot. Tea Törmänen, leader of Finland’s small Liberal Party until 2019, promptly quit to join the higher-profile Green Party after the Greens dropped their opposition to nuclear power.

“I’m pretty pronuclear and also an environmentalist. It’s a pretty hard combination,” Ms. Törmänen said.

In Germany, which has recently become a focal point of the debate over nuclear power, the country’s ruling coalition is divided on plans to mothball existing nuclear plants by the end of this year as it faces a shortfall of gas from Russia.

Germany’s Green Party has so far been the main obstacle. The party emerged in former West Germany from the fusion of the antinuclear protest movement of the 1970s and various environmentalist and leftist groups. Opposing nuclear-power generation has been part of the party’s core ideology, reflected in one of its iconic slogans—“Nuclear, no thanks!”—that is still being printed on campaign material and has served as the Greens’ unofficial logo since their inception in 1980.

Some German Green leaders, such as the economy minister, Robert Habeck, and the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, have demonstrated political pragmatism since they came to office in December. Mr. Habeck announced the reopening of coal plants to make up for the loss of Russian gas supplies.

Reverting to burning coal, the most polluting energy source, didn’t trigger much protest within the Green Party, but leaders have come under pressure from the grass roots not to extend the operation of the nuclear plants, especially from the party’s youth organization and its west German chapters, officials said.

“I have fought for abandoning nuclear energy for nearly 50 years; now, just before the last [reactors] will go offline, I will not allow for my success to be stolen from me,” Michael Schroeren, a veteran Green activist and former official, tweeted.

The issue has also caused a fracture in Fridays for Future. The global organization, inspired by Ms. Thunberg, has campaigned against nuclear power, but the Finnish branch recently broke away, arguing in a statement that nuclear power “is not a perfect alternative, but its emissions are low. We need to use all means available to fight the climate crisis.” Representatives for Fridays for Future didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Younger environmentalists in Finland and across Europe “see the urgency, they see that we need all the tools available” to fight climate change, Ms. Törmänen said of the breakaway group.

In July, European Union lawmakers voted to include nuclear power on a list of investments that the bloc deems sustainable, despite some lawmakers opposing the move, calling it greenwashing.

Established environmental groups including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and 350.org remain deeply wary of nuclear power, pointing out the threat of a nuclear accident and the high cost of building plants. Some of those opposed lived through the Cold War, the partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant and the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl. Others fear a disaster like what occurred at the Fukushima plant in Japan, which was triggered by a massive earthquake. Nuclear opponents also point to technological advancements that have lowered the cost of renewables such as solar and wind power.

Promoting nuclear power as a solution to climate change “is consciously used as a diversion tactic,” said Jan Haverkamp, an Amsterdam-based nuclear-energy expert with Greenpeace. “Every time and again, we’ve seen there are surges of lobbying to get the nuclear industry back into growth. The industry now thinks that we’ve forgotten about Fukushima.”

Steve Connelly, a professor at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. who co-wrote a study on nuclear power and climate-change advocacy, said nuclear power isn’t necessarily carbon neutral once the mining of uranium is taken into account. In addition, what to do with nuclear waste remains unsolved, he said, and experience shows that nuclear-power projects run years behind schedule and billions over target.

“The chances of new stations contributing to addressing the climate emergency are low,” Mr. Connelly said.

The views of some antinuclear environmentalists have shifted over the years. Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, is a former nuclear-power opponent and Greenpeace campaigner who two decades ago scaled Toronto’s 1,800-foot CN Tower to protest government inaction on climate.

Following his appointment last year, he didn’t rule out the use of nuclear power when questioned about it at the Glasgow summit, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later said at the same summit that nuclear power would likely be part of the clean-energy mix to help Canada reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Nuclear power now provides nearly two-thirds of the electricity used in Canada’s most populous province, Ontario.

Mr. Guilbeault wasn’t available for an interview, but a spokesman said the minister “is aligned with the government of Canada’s openness to nuclear energy.”

Up until 2020, U.K. resident Zion Lights was a spokeswoman for the British environmental group Extinction Rebellion, which opposed nuclear power. She said she approached the group’s senior officials about softening its approach on the matter after she struggled with questions during a broadcast interview on what energy sources would replace fossil fuels.

Her pitch “caused a huge fight within the group,” said Ms. Lights, who now leads Emergency Reactor, a U.K.-based nuclear-power advocacy group. Some of Extinction’s members, she said, “kept coming to me and asking, ‘Who’s paying you? Who’s got to you?’ ”

A spokeswoman for Extinction said the group “does not have an official position on nuclear power,” and declined to address Ms. Lights’ remarks about how she was treated.

At a climate-change rally in Germany several years ago, Eric Meyer was shoved, called a fascist and faced chants that he was part of a conspiracy aligned with corporate greed. Mr. Meyer represented a U.S. group called Generation Atomic, which promotes nuclear energy as a solution to wean the world off fossil fuels and address climate change.

“You think that people can be convinced with facts if they align with their values, but sometimes their ideologies are pretty strong,” Mr. Meyer said.

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