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Why Al Gore Downplays Nuclear Energy

Roger Pielke, Jr. has read Al Gore's latest speech on climate change, and thinks he knows why the former Vice President continually downplays the role nuclear energy could play in reducing future carbon emissions:
Gore'’s technological optimism on just about every other area of climate change policy does not square with his technological pessimism about nuclear power. My guess --– and it is only an uninformed guess -- is that Gore's views on nuclear power provide the strongest signal that he is positioning himself for a run at the Presidency in 2008. His views on nuclear power seem carefully crafted so as not to offend his base of political support. Otherwise, why wouldn'’t he call in grand fashion (as he has in every other area) for solving the problems of nuclear power that accompany its abundant carbon free energy? If we can freeze carbon dioxide levels we can sure keep nuclear material safe.
Gary Jones builds on that thought over at Back40:
True, but far too gentle. Let's face it, Gore is stuck on stupid, pandering to a base that is stuck on stupid. I think it's a blunder because the trend is for that S.O.S. base to be ever more open to nuclear power as the strident disinformation of paleo-environmentalists (like Gore) is publicly questioned, and even some old time environmentalists are changing their stance. They are getting unstuck.
Let's hope so.

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Robert Merkel said…
The reasons why nuclear power has such a bad reputation with dark greens, and the left-of-center side of politics (a much, much broader group of people, and you should be careful to distinguish between the two) are multifaceted, and calling your opponents "stupid" isn't helpful. Most of them aren't stupid.

Basically, the dark greens are a lost cause for you guys. It is their belief that society should essentially deindustrialize itself, move back into villages, and knit woolly jumpers. Nuclear power can obviously play no part in their vision for the world. So it's not even worth trying to convince them, any more than it would be worth trying to convince the Discovery Institute on the merits of evolution (note: my point is *not* to start a flame war about religion and science here, merely to illustrate that that you're never going to convince your most hardcore opponents).

As to the broader left-of-center, there are several issues that make them disinclined to be responsive to your message:

* Nuclear power is inherently run by big business. To a greater or lesser extent, the broad left is deeply suspicious of big business, and any claims that are made by it are immediately considered dubious. Why? The track record is not good. Consider Big Tobacco and Big Pharma for a start. And then you've got the "We Call It Life advertisements by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
* Then you've got the fact that most of your prominent advocates are on the political right, and a lot of them a global warming skeptics/deniers. Many of them simultaneously claim that climate change is not a problem, and the solution to that non-problem is nuclear power. It doesn't do wonders for nuclear's credibility with the broader left. While that may not be the fault of the readers (and hosters) of this blog, it is nevertheless a fact that you get tainted by the behaviour of your fellow travellers.
* Finally, people don't understand science, engineering, or economics particularly well. So when opponents of nuclear power (Helen Caldicott, for instance) make ridiculous claims, many people lack the background knowledge to do sanity checking. If they don't, they then look to the credibility of the claimant. See previous points for the problem with that.

So where does that leave supporters of nuclear power trying to win over the left-of-center polity?

I certainly don't have the whole answer, but some things to consider:

* be honest. If somebody claims that spent reactor fuel is very dangerous, there's no point denying it. Point out the tiny quantities of it, and the fact that it can, and has been safely stored for decades.
* Listen to what the people you're trying to win over care about, and address those things. A freebie: liberals spend a lot of time worrying about economic inequality and the condition of the least-well off in society. If not pursuing nuclear means more expensive energy, that will hurt the poor disproportionately. So if you're trying to talk to the left-of-center, talk to concerns like this.
* Finally, specifically in the US context, if you want to get Democrats on board, you (and I don't mean specifically NEI here, but the nuclear sector more generally) have to stop cavorting so disproportionately with the Republicans.
Paul Primavera said…
What Robert Merkel wrote about individual members of the Democrat Party among the general public is true. Sadly, Democrat politicians such as Elliot Spitzer running for governor in NYS, Andrew Cuomo running for Attorney General in NYS, Ohio's Representative Dennis Kucinich, Massachusettes' Representative Ed Markey and many other Democrat politicians DO cater to the whims of the anti-nuclear movement without regard for what is really best for the communities and areas they are or will be elected to serve.

On the other hand Republicans such as President George Bush are decidely pro-nuclear. The President's Global Nuclear Energy Program is perhaps one of the best ideas to come out of Washington, DC in a long time; yet it is / will be fought by many (not all) Democrat politicians and few (if any) Republican ones.

As far as political parties go, both Democrat and Republican are in need of house cleaning. Perhaps we members of the public (as I have said many times before) should vote Libertarian or Constitution Party in the next election. I am leaning towards the later.

At the same time, I will try to avoid calling Al Gore or his supporters 'stupid'; rather they are smart and are using an appeal to an anti-nuclear element of society to advance their ascendency in political power. It's simply politics and we members of the public in both major parties are the victims.


Paul Primavera
Brian Mays said…
I agree. Stupid is such a common, coarse, uncouth word. I prefer the more politically correct term: reality challenged.
robert merkel said…

Politicians will pander to the mistaken beliefs of their constituents to win votes. That's not unique to Democrats, and it's not unique to the issue of nuclear power. It's like complaining that water is wet.

It's my suggestion to you hat the best way to deal with this long-term is to try and tackle the mistaken beliefs being pandered to, rather than complaining about the cravenness of this or that politician.

Brian, a friend of mine came up with a great phrase to describe what at first glance appeared to the the "stupid" behaviour of voters - they're not stupid, they're rationally ignorant. That is, they use a rational decision-making process, but do not have the full set of relevant facts. It might sound twee, but it does explain a lot about politics.

The moral of the story is, of course, that if people are presented with the relevant facts, they *are* able to make rational decisions. With respect to nuclear power, at the moment there's a lot of rationally ignorant people out there. The facts speak for themselves, but they aren't widely enough understood yet. If the revival of the nuclear industry is important to you, getting the facts out there should also be.
Paul Primavera said…
Robert Merkel,

I agree with a lot of what you wrote. However, the overwhelming majority of news papers and other media and the most vocal "citizen" groups in areas such as Westchester County where Indian Point is located and Brattleboro Vermont where VY is located are adamantly and religiously anti-nuclear and will remain unconvinced regardless of logic to the contrary. And it is likely during this mid-term election that anti-nuclear politicians like Elliot Spitzer will win seats in Governors' mansions, in state and national legislatures, etc. And almost invariably they are Democrat.

Now kindly remember the example of former NY Governor Cuomo and the Shoreham nuclear power plant in Long Island.

Lastly, I do agree that most people are rational, but anti-nuclearism is like a religion to the committed. For example, my wife has a relative in Long Island. We went to a family gathering on Staten Island a year or so ago and met this relative and his wife. He is a lawyer with a very lucrative business. He is very smart (a lot smarter than me) and a Democrat. He is also entirely anti-nuclear and no argument to the contrary would convince him otherwise. He accepts the greater air pollution and the higher electric prices that came with the Shoreham fiasco and thinks Gov. Cuomo served the area well by forcing its shutdown. He fears Indian Point regardless of my assurances that it's one of the safest and most secure facilities in the entire nation. He actually said "I believe you, Paul, because you used to work there, but it should still be shut down."

Here is a very logical and rational man. And rational, dispassionate reasoning could not convince him.

I am therefore uncertain that facts have any sway to those like this. They can be logical in everything else, but this anti-nuclearism is like a religion. I have seen it up close and personal. I just hope that the majority of Americans are smart to overcome their irrational fears and listen to reason even if politicians (sometimes on both sides of the aisle) don't.


Paul Primavera
Anonymous said…
Merkel chastizes the author not to call opponents stupid and justifies their opposition by admitting they are, if not stupid, just perhaps a little dim:

Finally, people don't understand science, engineering, or economics particularly well.

'Stuck on Stupid' works well in this and many other contexts, and has the advantage of not being personal.
Anonymous said…
Robert, nuclear waste is less dangerous than coal waste. Never admit the danger of radwaste without pointing this out! Here's the facts according to Bernard Cohen:

- Running a coal plant of 1GW for a year kills about 85 people through particulate emissions.
- Dumping the ashes into a landfill (== cheap disposal) will kill another 17 people through cancer over the course of some million years.
- Running a nuclear plant for a year kills nobody, not even statistically, taking freak accidents into account.
- Dumping the waste in the form of a glass block into the ocean (== cheap disposal) kills 0.6 people through cancer over a few million years.

Therefore, ask everyone who speaks out against nuke plants, how they can value human lives and not rally against coal plants in the first place. (Many will then point out that they are against coal, too, and didn't want to side with the coal mafia, either. These are simply stupid, ridicule them as much as you can.)
Anonymous said…
I really like the comment for General Honore's famous statement "You're stuck on stupid"... But, I really believe that Forrest Gump's "As stupid is as stupid does..." applies more appropriatly to Al's comments..
Anonymous said…
First of all, I am not a proponent of our current nuclear power industry that is based on uranium/plutonium as it's source. There are plenty of sound reasons not to ever build any more of them. Poliferation and waste being the two main reasons, but also because the uranium/plutonium cycle is no more sustainable than our finite source of fossil fuel unless breeder reactor technology is employed.
But, what if a technology existed right now today, with the potential sustainablity to solve most of our energy problems, yet virtually nobody has heard of it? What if there was a nuclear reactor design that solved most if not all of the problems inherent in todays existing designs? By using thorium instead of uranium, poliferation issues diminish. By using all of the fuel instead of only 1% as current designs do, it solves the waste storage problems. Plus, it can burn up our current waste, thereby eliminating the need for Yucca Mountain to find a place to store it.

Pie in the sky or too far into the future you say? What if that really wasn't the case, and it had already been designed built and test fired for almost a decade in the 1960's. What if the reasons research and development was stopped on it since then was because it did not produce weapons grade plutonium, or have poliferation issues, and back in the 60's people actually wanted the bomb grade material it did not produce? Dual military use drove early reactor designs, after all.

What if our nuclear industry giants like Westinghouse or GE were not currently interested in reviving it, because is only loaded with fuel at startup, and never needs any thereafter. Currently the nuclear industry does not make any profit from selling reactor designs, but rather from selling the customer the fuel, handling the waste, reprocessing, etc, and this design virtually wipes out what is now the only profitable end of their business.

What if the holder of the patent on the light water reactor, Dr. Weinburg, former director of Oak Ridge National Labratory, strongly believed that this technology was the direction we should be going? Yet the current Generation 4 DOE reactor development initiative dropped funding only for this technology, claiming it was "too far off" -a rationale that is pretty difficult to understand, considering it was the only technology on their list that had already been successfully built and tested, and all the major technological issues had already been resolved by Oak Ridge National Labratory.

What if this design could be drug out of mothballs, and a modular commercial design could be produced from it in just a few short years, instead of decades?

Pretty much all the information on this subject can be found here:

I encourage everyone to take the time to look into the links found there and inform others about it. I do not think you will be sorry. I am convinced that this is a nuclear technology that even an environmentalist could come to love.

Liquid Flouride Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) Invented in the USA in 1954
Not yet commercialized, even after 2 successful MSRs were built & operated
Meltdown proof
Does not produce weapons grade plutonium
Has inherent nonproliferation features
Thousands of years of energy
Its wastes are simpler and less toxic than current nuclear wastes
Only hundreds of years of storage versus thousands for the current wastes
Can burn the existing wastes (spent fuel)!
Higher thermal efficiencies (operates at a "Red Heat"; ~700° C [1260° F])

Releases in 1982 from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium. The population gets 100 times more radiation from a coal plant than from a nuclear plant. So in 2004 by burning 4.6 billions tons of coal, we released 5980 tons of uranium into the air and 14720 tons of Thorium. This is like 80 truck size dirty nuclear bombs releasing 1 ton of radioactive material every day.

Certainly I agree we would all be a lot better off utilizing the thorium energy in the coal, than wasting it by burning the coal itself?

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