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James Hansen, a scientist famous for sounding the alarm about climate change, visited Illinois to rally support for nuclear energy this week in a trip some saw as a push for state state legislation backed by Exelon.
On Monday, a coalition of scientists and conservationists including Hansen; Michael Shellenberger, an anti-nuclear activist turned high-profile nuclear proponent; and Whole Earth catalogue founder Stewart Brand sent an open letter to Illinois legislators asking them to “do everything in your power to keep all of Illinois’s nuclear power plants running for their full lifetimes.”
That night, Shellenberger, Hansen and philanthropist Rachel Pritzker spoke at Northwestern University’s journalism school, and on Tuesday they paid a visit to workers at Exelon’s Clinton nuclear plant, one of up to three the company has threatened to close if the state does not pass a law ensuring Exelon up to $300 million more per year in revenue.
The letter says that 18,640 lives were saved by Exelon’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants, compared to the theoretical impacts of air pollution that would be caused by fossil fuel plants generating the same amount of energy. If those two plants close, the letter says, “much of the nuclear energy would have to be made up for with coal or natural gas.”
“One solution might be to expand Illinois’ Renewable Portfolio Standard to include nuclear energy,” says the letter. “Such a change would allow Illinois to be more ambitious, achieving 70 percent or more of its electricity from clean energy. The standard should be set so that renewable energy has plenty of room to grow while ensuring that Illinois does not go backwards.”
The energy bill previously proposed by Exelon would create a low-carbon portfolio standard to replace the renewable portfolio standard. Critics have argued that the bill would diminish the case for new renewable energy in the state.
Support for nuclear or for Exelon?
Elisabeth Moyer, a climate scientist who declined to sign the letter, was in the audience at Northwestern and criticized the speakers for using a general bid for support of nuclear energy to mask a push for legislation mired in the “swamp of Illinois politics.”
Opponents of Exelon’s bill say the company does not need more funds to keep the plants open, especially after capacity auctions last year that were very favorable for the plants.
Shellenberger stressed that he and Environmental Progress Illinois have not taken a formal position on Exelon’s proposed legislation. Speaking with Midwest Energy News, he expressed support for the concepts in the bill.
“Nuclear is not treated fairly as a clean energy source – it does not get the same subsidies as solar and wind gets, and everyone agrees if it were its plants would not be in trouble,” he said. “Everyone agrees if you had it included in the RPS, it would not be in trouble.
“You have complicated questions about how much Exelon is losing – are they demanding too much?” But the bottom line, he said, is that the Clinton plant and the others in Exelon’s fleet should stay open.
Shellenberger recently founded the group Environmental Progress Illinois (EPI), described as an independent organization that takes no donations from the energy industry. The slogan on its website is “protect and grow solar, wind and nuclear energy.”
“It’s too bad we have to have these corporations that own these plants,” Shellenberger said. “We have these magic machines – these are public assets – these are really important plants for all of us.”
Pritzker, a board member and major funder of Environmental Progress Illinois, said, “I realize it’s become a partisan issue but I have hope that by having more conversations like this, by talking to people on both sides of the aisle, we can find some compromises…providing a new model of how to properly value and price energy could have ramifications well beyond Illinois for the rest of the country and even the world.”
Hansen called for making nuclear more competitive by putting a price on the cost of carbon emissions and on the health impacts of fossil fuels. He cited statistics showing that pollution from fossil fuels is estimated to kill more people per day than have ever died in nuclear plant accidents.
“The way to do this is stop subsidizing solar, wind or any energy source but have a rising carbon fee,” Hansen said. “That way we can stop arguing about which one has the worst pollution. Just let the market make the decisions.”
Hansen touted the promise of next-generation nuclear technology, which would make it possible to build nuclear plants more quickly and cheaply. Talking with Midwest Energy News, Shellenberger described next-generation technology as farther away from viability than he had previously hoped, and urged more focus on the nation’s existing reactors.
“How much safer could they be?” he said. “If you have nuclear plants that don’t hurt anyone, keep running them.”
A matter of emotion?
Shellenberger told Midwest Energy News that support for nuclear energy has grown recently among environmental leaders and “elites,” even while opposition to nuclear power among the general public has risen in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
A Gallup poll last month found that for the first time, a majority of Americans – 54 percent – oppose nuclear energy.
In 2003 Shellenberger co-founded the Breakthrough Institute, aimed at “changing the way people think about energy and the environment.” The Breakthrough Institute was involved in the production of “Pandora’s Promise,” a 2013 film touting the benefits of nuclear energy. Some predicted the film would change the dialogue on nuclear energy; critics saw it as biased propaganda for the industry.
Shellenberger compared the shift in environmentalists’ attitudes toward nuclear as akin to changing views on rural versus urban living. “Today environmentalists love cities,” he said. And he compared fears about the safety of nuclear energy to fears about the safety of vaccines.
“Our fears of these technologies are completely out of whack with what all the objective science says,” Shellenberger told the crowd at Northwestern.
He told Midwest Energy News that while concerns about the safety and environmental impacts of nuclear energy are especially high in the West and the Northeast, where the future of California’s Diablo Canyon and New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant are in doubt, Midwesterners are more concerned about the financial aspects of energy.
“Support for nuclear energy rises when energy prices are high,” he told Midwest Energy News.
Some critics in the audience at Northwestern said they have valid concerns about waste and safety. “My concerns are not unfounded and my concerns are not silly, which is what you are saying,” said attendee Margaret Aguilar.
Shellenberger countered that evidence shows no significant safety risks from stored nuclear waste or nuclear reactors, and he said people who don’t have science to back up their positions on nuclear could be seen as in the same category as climate change deniers.
Such calculations were among the reasons he shifted from his early days of anti-nuclear activism to become an ardent nuclear advocate. Despite public opposition and funding challenges like that facing the Clinton plant, Shellenberger said he is confident that nuclear energy will prevail.
“The Rosie the Riveter meme has spread in the nuclear community,” Shellenberger said at Northwestern, showing slides of a woman with an image of an atom inked on her bicep, and the slogan “We Can Do It.”