The climate debate is often discouraging because of the sheer volume of angry nonsense pumped out. And not just from one side, we hasten to add: the language of fraud and conspiracy is found on the skeptical as well as the alarmist side. And of course at CDN our main job is to point to nonsense and skewer it; if people were having a calm and reasonable discussion we’d be applauding them from the sidelines and looking for other work. But let us give credit where due. Specifically to National Geographic “ENVIRONMENT Executive Editor” Robert Kunzig for promoting nuclear in a calm and reasonable way.
He has the credentials. In this May 4 piece he wrote of being involved with anti-nuclear activism as an undergraduate, activism that helped shut down the American civilian nuclear power construction program. In which he then notes that “In some ways, not much has changed. The Seabrook [New Hampshire] demonstrators were worried about nuclear meltdown, nuclear waste, nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism. Those concerns are still with us. But for many environmentalists, they now take a back seat to the biggest worry: climate change.”
Our regular readers don’t have to be told we think that worry is, to put it mildly, overdone. But here’s the thing: If people are being logical in their assessment of problems and solutions dialogue is possible. If they’re alternating hallucinations and abuse, it’s very hard to have a conversation. And so given Kunzig’s premise that climate change is a crisis, or even just that a lot of people think it is, what would be the rational attitude to take to nuclear power?
Well, he says, balanced. “Nuclear power has a tiny carbon footprint, like wind or solar power. Its footprint on the landscape is far smaller. But… nuclear has an Achilles’ heel: It’s expensive and takes a long time to build.” On the plus side, “Help is on the way, in the form of new, smaller, safer reactor designs” but on the minus side they are “many years away. Meanwhile, the existing reactor fleet is aging and having trouble competing.”
Having delivered himself of this burst of rationality, Kunzig follows with another: “If you just look at the numbers, nuclear is pretty safe: Far, far fewer people have died from it than from the air pollution produced by burning fossil fuels. But these choices are never just about numbers.” And then he erupted into some of that famous tolerance we too often hear about from people who do not seem to know what the word means. “It’s not irrational for some people to prefer energy sources that don’t carry with them the tiny but ever-present risk of catastrophe, or the need to bury long-lasting toxins in a deep hole for our descendants to discover. Just as it’s not irrational for other people to prefer not to see a wind farm on the ridgeline outside their back window. Many roads lead to freedom from carbon pollution. All of humanity doesn’t have to choose the same one. We just all need to get there somehow.”
Well, maybe not. Maybe carbon isn’t pollution. But if we were discussing it in the tone of that piece, we’d be having a much less unpleasant and unproductive conversation.