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The Green New Deal needs nuclear

February 8, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Caroline Carter

Climate change is our Cold War. While Boomers lived in constant fear of Soviet nuclear annihilation, we suffer daily from the thought—the truth—that the life we now live is set to slowly deteriorate. Every morning we wake up to a new report telling us how many more years of inaction we have left before the Amazon turns into the Sahara; thus, every evening, our existential dread builds. Carbon is the new communism, and it is sitting on the very soul of our generation.

Worse, while the Boomers could rest assured it wasn’t really their fault—Khrushchev and Kennedy and Cuba were all people and places and ideas that were out of their control—our generation knows that in some small way, we do have the power to make a difference. We realize that every time we drive to Portland, we fly home, we leave the window open or indeed when we eat meat, that we are actively making the future worse. If we stop and think, we start to see that our inevitably consumptive existence, even on an individual level, is a threat not only to our friends, family and neighbors, but to the very existence of the human race. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way.

As much as the ongoing intergenerational and interracial warfare that is modern America seems poised to take it away, we do still live in a democracy, and we can still force the government to radically reorient the way we live our lives. Before it all burns down, we still have the chance to decarbonize our economy and thus secure America and the world for our posterity. That’s why Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s push to wrench open the Overton window and bring the Green New Deal (GND) front and center is one of the most promising recent developments in progressive politics.

The idea of the GND has been kicking around since 2007, but it has always seemed something of a pie in the sky idea—more like Fox News fodder than a political reality. That was, until yesterday, when Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced a GND bill. Now, there’s still a lot to work out—including killing the filibuster—but the details we have are wonderfully refreshing. The bill has an overarching goal to reach net zero emissions, and it calls for getting there through an array of smart ideas such as fossil-free vehicles, smart grids, retrofitted buildings, agricultural overhaul and renewable energy investment. Thus, it seems that we as a nation are finally set to go beyond measly carbon taxes and think bigger. However, if Ocasio-Cortez and all her GND advocates are serious and truly want to see sustainability reached, there is a severe omission from their bill: nuclear power.

Yes, that’s right. Nuclear power. It’s safe, cheap and as clean as energy comes. The fact is, nuclear power has to be the backbone of any GND proposal, and its decades-long denigration is one of the greatest environmental tragedies in history. Renewables are great, but they can never power the whole grid consistently. Solar and wind, the only renewables that can viably be implemented on a grand scale, are cripplingly reliant on weather conditions and thus produce energy erratically and irregularly. To be any good at scale, they need to be paired with massive battery infrastructure and, as hard as Elon Musk is trying, that technology is not quite here yet.

Nuclear is the only technology we have that can produce carbon-free power cheaply and continuously.

But what about Chernobyl and Fukushima? Both were terrible disasters, of course, but with relatively few casualties. In the Chernobyl meltdown, 31 people died from immediate exposure, while high end estimates say up to 4,000 people could die from radiation-caused-cancer. In Fukushima, no one died, and no is predicted to die from cancer later in life. Compare this to the ongoing slaughter that is coal power—in America alone, it kills as many as 30,000 people annually. Indeed, per unit of energy produced, nuclear is safer than hydro, geothermal, wind and even solar.

What about nuclear waste? It’s another non-issue; indeed, it’s one of nuclear power’s many comparative advantages. If all the nuclear waste the US ever produced was put on a football field, it would stack just 50 feet high. And all that waste can be stored safely in nice big containers, right next to the plants that produced it. Compare that with solar panels which leak heavy toxic metals when haphazardly disposed of in developing countries and generate 300 times more waste per unit of energy produced than nuclear.

While it is true the world will eventually run out of uranium, we have at least enough to keep us going for the next 200 years, and by then, I’m sure we will have figured out the next great energy source. So, while we wait, let’s bring back nuclear. Let’s cut through the fear mongering and misinformation and recognize that we already have all the technology we need to save ourselves from environmental destruction. Sierra Club liberals—Boomers who had their brains addled by the trauma of the Cold War—have too long been making a false connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Let’s eschew the dribble of these misguided pensioners and instead import that midcentury nuclear dream of cheap and abundant energy into the GND. It’s the only hope we have.


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  1. George C. Maling, Jr. Class of 1952 says:

    Your view on nuclear power is correct. See the editorial in the January 11, 2019 issue of Science magazine. The editorial is an excellent summary of the situation and you should read it carefully. I am a life fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and would be happy to contact them and try and get permission to republish it in The Orient.

    Chernobyl happened because of human stupidity.

    Fukushima happened because of a very rare event and the fact that the cooling pumps on a 1970s design were in the wrong place.

    Modern reactors will be able to dispose of nuclear waste and generate fuel.

    The big problem is the public which is convinced that nuclear power is a loser. Recall the history of Maine Yankee. Hazardous stuff is still stored in Wiscasset and is a disaster waiting to happen.

    Good luck trying to change the situation. Science is on your side. Talk to people in the physics department to see how nuclear power can be promoted and how some of the current fears can be overcome.

  2. Jordan Van Voast '81 says:

    Having left Bowdoin bubble in ’81, I moved to a state that nearly went bankrupt (Washington) by 5 nuclear power plants. There are ~435 or nuclear plants on the planet now. If any one of them loses power for more than a day or so, another Chernobyl or Fukushima is born. And you say safe?

    Uranium mining (always on indigenous land) and processing is neither carbon neutral, nor environmentally sound. One week ago, a mining dam collapsed in Brazil, poisoning a river and killing hundreds. We had our own uranium accident in New Mexico (Rio Puerco) and that is still killing through genetic damage passed down through generations.

    Just like Big Oil, there is still plenty of money to be made in nukes – not surprising that there is plenty of good press to be found in some publications. New York Academy of Sciences estimated a million lost their lives subsequent to Chernobyl. Fukushima still spilling radioactive groundwater into the ocean 8 years later.

    The answer is staring us in the face. The sun is free. The technology could advance if we funded independent science instead of failing for lies and misinformation from those with dollar signs in their eyes.

    • Sheila Parks says:

      Thanks Jordan Van Voast. I totally agree with you. Nuclear power is dirty, dangerous, expensive. Causes leukemia and other cancers, especially in children. Has a large carbon footprint. And on and on and on.

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