This was originally published on December 4th, 2021, in National Review
The past few weeks have seen a radical change in the outlook for nuclear energy. Coincident with the global COP26 conference, major center-left forces have shifted their position from opposition to support. While a year ago French president Emmanuel Macron was calling for cutting the nuclear fraction of France’s electric power from its current 75 percent down to 50 percent (thereby eliminating the world’s only actually decarbonized major electric-power grid), on November 9 he called for “relaunching construction of nuclear reactors in our country . . . to guarantee France’s energy independence, to guarantee our country’s electricity supply and achieve our objectives, in particular carbon neutrality in 2050.”
Whereas a few months ago European Union bureaucrats drawing up the “taxonomy” that defines which energy sources would be considered carbon-free (i.e. valid substitutes for fossil fuels) excluded nuclear power, now nearly all except the fanatical Germanic states have reversed themselves. Indeed, the map of pro- and anti-nuclear European countries now closely resembles a map of World War II circa March 1945, shortly before the taking of the Ludendorff Bridge broke the last line of organized resistance in the Reich.
And even in Germany, pro-nuclear forces are taking to the streets.
U.S. energy secretary Jennifer Granholm began her tenure ten months ago by announcing the Biden’s administration’s commitment to strangling the nuclear industry by blocking the establishment of a waste repository. But at the COP26 conference last month, she was all in for nuclear power: “We are very bullish on these advanced nuclear reactors,” Granholm said. “We have, in fact, invested a lot of money in the research and development of those. We are very supportive of that.”
It may be noted that Granholm was voicing support for types of reactors that do not yet exist. Furthermore, she still supports the efforts of the environmentalist movement to increase the costs of nuclear power and make it appear as unsafe as possible by forcing wastes to be stored at power stations near cities, instead of under a mountain in Nevada. Nonetheless, the change in tone is remarkable.
While the pro-nuclear shift on the left seems to have surfaced overnight, the forces behind it have been at work for some time. In the United States they have been led by several groups, including the Breakthrough Institute and a Democratic Party think tank called the Third Way.
Founded in 2003 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the Breakthrough Institute has gathered an impressive array of Enlightenment humanist intellectuals, including sociologist Bruno Latour, journalist and author Gwyneth Cravens, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Burton Richter, political and environmental scientist Roger A. Pielke Jr., sociologist Dalton Conley, Oxford professor Steve Rayner, plant geneticist Pamela Ronald, sociologist Steve Fuller, environmental thought leader Stewart Brand (founder of the 1960s Whole Earth Catalog), philosopher Steven Pinker, and ecologist Emma Marais.
In 2015 this group issued an “Ecomodernist Manifesto” calling for humanistic, non-zero-sum approaches to solving environmental problems, including climate change. Taking a bold stand in defiance of established left-wing Malthusian groupthink, the Ecomodernist Manifesto called for nuclear power. “Human civilization can flourish for centuries and millennia on energy delivered from a closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle, or from hydrogen–deuterium fusion,” it proclaimed. The manifesto then went on to say:
Nuclear fission today represents the only present-day zero-carbon technology with the demonstrated ability to meet most, if not all, of the energy demands of a modern economy. However, a variety of social, economic, and institutional challenges make deployment of present-day nuclear technologies at scales necessary to achieve significant climate mitigation unlikely. A new generation of nuclear technologies that are safer and cheaper will likely be necessary for nuclear energy to meet its full potential as a critical climate mitigation technology. In the long run, next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion represent the most plausible pathways toward the joint goals of climate stabilization and radical decoupling of humans from nature. . . . The ethical and pragmatic path toward a just and sustainable global energy economy requires that human beings transition as rapidly as possible to energy sources that are cheap, clean, dense, and abundant.
Breakthrough Institute staffer Jessica Lovering followed this up with a series of policy papers identifying specific areas for action to break the nuclear deadlock. Lovering then went on to found two more left-leaning organizations, Energy for Growth and the feminist Good Energy Collective, which published a multitude of additional policy papers calling for advanced nuclear power and making the case for the necessity of using nuclear energy to lift the world’s developing nations out of poverty.
Many of the leaders, experts, and spokespersons of the nuclear lefties have been women. This wasn’t a completely new development, as Marie Curie and Lise Meitner had founded nuclear physics by discovering radioactivity and nuclear fission, respectively. Yet the arrival of a force of fierce female fission freedom fighters on the political battlefield is having a real impact, reshaping the nuclear message into a form congenial to progressives.
Their recommendations have begun to make their way into Democratic Party policy circles, with a key role being the think tank known as the Third Way.
In 2016, the smart money hit the canvas when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the November presidential election. Clinton had a great résumé and the full and enthusiastic backing of the nation’s political establishment, along with nearly all news and entertainment media. By any conventional calculation, she should have beaten the erratic Trump by 20 points. Instead, by the time Election Night was over, Trump had won. While many of Clinton’s disappointed supporters sought solace in blaming the defeat on racism, sexism, or Putin, a cold, hard look at the electoral map told a different story. Clinton lost the election in the industrial Midwest. Across the rest of the nation, states were won or lost in accord with the pollsters’ confident predictions. But to the amazement of all, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin — the industrial heartland, whose unionized labor had been the base of the Democratic Party since FDR — was swept by Trump.
The party clearly faced a problem, and at least some of its leaders recognized that the core of the issue was reconciling the passions of its environmentalist supporters with the real needs of blue-collar workers. “For what profiteth a candidate if she gains the donations of Tom Steyer but loses the votes of the industrial Midwest,” commented one wag. There had to be a way to please both.
The party was not about to abandon its core belief that carbon emissions present an existential threat to humanity, so changing its position on coal mining or fracking was out. But nuclear power is carbon-free. If the party embraced nuclear power, it could support both economic growth and environmental necessity. Not all Democrats saw things that way, but some did. Thus was born the Third Way.
Similar factions have begun to appear among center–left social democrats in Europe as well. In fact, some hard-left groups, such as the Irish Workers’ Party, have shifted their stance.
To be sure, environmentalist leaders themselves have not changed their position. This summer saw the spectacle of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council cheering the shutdown of New York State’s Indian Point nuclear-power plant. In Europe, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund are screaming bloody murder at the shift in the EU’s taxonomy to place nuclear in the charmed circle. But these groups have only themselves to blame for their abandonment by part of the political Left. While the greens may have been using global warming as a pretext for their real deindustrialization goal (just as they used global cooling in the 1970s), they have actually managed to convince a lot of people that carbon emissions need to be reduced. In fact, they have convinced so many people that the issue has gotten out of their control.
An “existential crisis” is one that threatens human existence. While green fanatics can shout “radiation danger” as hard as they like, the fact of the matter is that not a single person in the world has ever been harmed by a radiation release from any of the thousand or so pressurized-water reactors that have operated on land and sea for the past 67 years. If you believe that human existence is at risk from fossil fuels, you would have to be insane to continue to shun or sabotage the demonstrably practical nuclear alternative.
Personally, I do not agree with the Third Way line that nuclear power is needed to stop the “existential crisis” of climate change. I don’t believe there is such a crisis, and I’m not willing to pretend I do. In the 1950s and 1960s, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s visionary director, Alvin Weinberg, attempted to use the “existential crisis” of that time, the “population explosion,” to make the case for nuclear power. I think that was a mistake, because the Malthusian ideologues pushing the population crisis were intrinsically hostile to nuclear power. They hated it for the same reason that the current green anti-human movement hates nuclear power: It threatens to solve a problem they need to have.
But peace. In policy, as in religion, there is more than one path to virtue. If concern over global warming (or lost elections) persuades the center-left to switch sides and fight for nuclear power, I’m cool with that. We can march separately but strike together.