Savvy activists cast nuclear benefits in a fresh green light


Claire Lehmann

From The Australian; July 2021

Zion Lights

At the height of Extinction Rebellion's protests in London in 2019, spokeswoman Zion Lights appeared on the BBC in an interview with veteran journalist Andrew Neil. Under the hot glare of studio lamps, Lights was grilled about her group's claims. Specifically, Neil wanted to know whether she could defend the argument that six billion people were likely to die this century because of climate change.

Lights faltered and was unable to give a convincing reply. Later, she confessed it was because she knew the claim to be wrong. Not long after this interview, Lights left Extinction Rebellion, citing overly alarmist rhetoric as one of the reasons for her departure. Despite this, she remains passionate about mitigating climate change and has since started her own organisation, Emergency Reactor, which emphasises nuclear power as a clean and safe form of energy.

Disenchanted with traditional environmentalism, Lights is one of a handful of leaders navigating a new path in this arena. Michael Shellenberger, author of Apocalypse Never. Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, is another. These figures are not associated with green political parties and do not seek to tear down "the system" or to profit from investments made in renewable technologies. Their orientation is pragmatic: they wish to see the world make the transition from dirty sources of energy to clean as quickly and as safely as possible. And nuclear energy is seen as a critical part of that transition.

Surprisingly, this position appears to be a minority stance among green activists.

To understand why it is unusual for environmental activists to advocate for nuclear energy, one has to go back to the movement's origins. Long before climate change was on the radar, the threat of nuclear war and the fear of nuclear energy had galvanised progressives. By the mid-1970s the anti-nuclear movement had gained traction, with huge protests successfully closing down nuclear plants in Spain, France, Germany, The Philippines, Italy, the US and the Soviet Union. In 1985, 350,000 people marched in Australia in support of the anti-nuclear agenda. It was out of these protests that many modern-day green parties were borm.

For baby boomers, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy were conflated as an existential risk that could wipe out humanity. While the danger of nuclear armament during the Cold War was real, the risks posed by nuclear power plants were needlessly inflated, creating an irrational fear that persists today.

This is not to say there are no risks associated with nuclear energy. When the Chernobyl reactor exploded in 1986, two operating staff were killed and 134 station staff and firefighters were hospitalised with acute radiation syndrome Of these 134 staff, 28 later died, and 14 died of suspected radiation-related cancer in the following decade. These deaths were tragic and preventable, and the Chernobyl explosion should never have happened (the explosion occurred during a faulty safety test). But while it was predicted that thousands would die from subsequent radiation, present research indicates fewer than 100 deaths can be attributed to exposure to radiation caused by the accident.

At Fukushima in 2011, the second worst nuclear power plant disaster to occur in civilian history, one person died from cancer attributable to radiation exposure while two workers were taken to hospital with radiation burns. Sixteen more were hospitalised with injuries related to hydrogen explosions.

While these disasters were tragic and shocking, the scale of these fatalities pales in comparison with those caused by fossil fuels esery year. The dirty energy that continues to power most of the world doesn't just release carbon into the atmosphere, it also diminishes air quality through releasing fine particulate matter that makes people sick. One study from Harvard University has estimated eight million people globally died from air pollution in 2018 and that air pollution caused by burning coal and diesel was responsible for one in five deaths worldwide.

Fear of radioactive waste also has plagued a generation of green activists. But while it is true high-level radioactive waste does require painstaking regulation and processing, the fact nuclear energy is so dense means only a small amount of waste is produced in comparison with the vast amount of energy generated.

In France, where 75 per cent of the nation's electricity is produced by nuclear power plants, the annual per capita amount of radioactive waste generated is 1kg (of which only 11g is "high level' waste), compared with 2500kg of industrial waste (of which 100kg is toxic).

For baby boomers, opposing nuclear arms and nuclear power go hand-in-hand. These positions have been linked inextricably because nuclear power has been feared for its potential to produce pollution. Yet solar panels generate less energy and discarded panels cause pollution.

The problem with the traditional approach to environmentalism has been its ideological confusion and lack of tangible achievements. On the one hand green activists call for clean energy to replace fossil fuels and with the other they oppose nuclear power. In their position statement last year, the Australian Greens explicitly oppose nuclear power in all its forms.

When the Indian Point nuclear plant in the US was shut down recently, the power generated by the plant was replaced by power generated from natural gas, a fossil fuel source that emits more pollution, not less.

With this muddle of priorities, is it any real surprise that no real progress in reducing carbon emissions has been made? As Lights recently pointed out on social media, if baby boomers had not spent decades getting nuclear power plants shut down, the world would be much closer to being carbon neutral.

Claire Lehmann is founding editor of online magazine Quillette.