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Recontextualizing the Nuclear Option

newyorker_logoWhen the Senate changed the filibuster rules to allow judicial and executive appointments to proceed to the floor with 51 votes instead of the 60 the filibuster required, the process was called the nuclear option, a name given it (probably) by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) back in 2006. The association has always been with weaponry not energy, but the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg goes with energy – in a notably detailed metaphor – and in notably familiar language:

But global warming has changed the picture. Nuclear power isn’t the best way to reduce carbon emissions—that would be wind and solar. For the intermediate future, though, breezes and rays won’t be enough. As growing numbers of environmentalists and climate scientists have come to realize, nuclear power is much, much better than what remains the real-world alternative: fossil fuels like oil and, especially, coal. When it comes to energy, the nuclear option, though not the best of all possible worlds, is better than the one we’re living in.

In Hertzberg’s view, exercising the nuclear option in politics or energy policy is the equivalent of doing the next best thing given the status quo.

There’s a larger point, too, to focus on the experiential nature of political or energy choices. One knows that a simple majority in the Senate might reduce the backlog of appointments. One knows that nuclear energy is carbon emission free and scalable. Hertzberg carries his metaphor no further than that - the quote above is all there is to it. He doesn’t really describe, for example, what the wind and solar energy options for filibuster reform would be – he seems in favor of fully ending the filibuster, even for legislation, so perhaps that’s it.


The way Hertzberg phrases his support is interesting, too. Take this bit from the open letter recently released by four prominent environmentalists:

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.

We wrote much more about this important missive here and had an eye out for pickup in the press – we rounded up some of that here – but Hertzberg does not reference it. It’s just in the wind, being lit by the sun. Hertzberg has his mind on a different topic entirely, but I wonder whether his matter-of-fact endorsement was influenced by the letter. 

As for the filibuster rule change, early days. For climate change, getting later every minute. And for the nuclear option? Thanks to Hertzberg, it has a much better metaphorical future.


jimwg said…
What is this "stain" that nuclear energy must carry even when some "converts" reluctantly admit it's the best thing around to do the job even by itself and not merely as part of some lame PC "Mix"?? If one avails nuclear's sheer mortality score and property damage record you just can't hammer it for killing and maiming masses of people or causing local devastation like other sources have, so there just must be some other beef that the media so disdains and slanders it by. Could it be Hiroshima guilt or Sci-fi mutant monster fears or something else ideological? Really makes no sense not to vigorously tap an energy resource that's proven itself over 50 years!

James Greenidge
Queens NY
Anonymous said…
I agree completely! On the other hand, this stain is here and we need not only to work against it, but around it too. If lukewarm people find nuclear power easier to accept when it is in a mix of things they like, I won't complain. Half-won hearts are easier to further convince than hearts set in stone. If a solution seems too radical, fewer people will want to embrace it. We need fierce defenders like you, and we need people who can lead others slowly and gently.

Mitch said…
If lukewarm people find nuclear power easier to accept when it is in a mix of things they like, I won't complain. Half-won hearts are easier to further convince than hearts set in stone.

Wasn't this tried in places called Vermont and San Onofre?
Anonymous said…
No, I don't think so. The opposition to Vermont Yankee was very much not lukewarm. I'm not talking about active anti's but ordinary people who don't have a strong feeling yet one way or the other.
jimwg said…

I hear where you're coming from but I have to ruefully disagree on just how effective "getting along" mixes are. Those others in the energy "mix" DON'T really want us (nuclear) in their mix, yet nuclear must be civil and polite and include them in our perception of one. To me, agreeing that you'll be a part of such a "mix" guarantees that you'll just end up as a token razor sliver of the pie. Antis and their sycophants in the media are burning our olive branches and shooting down our doves every time we try to edge a fact into their alarmist reporting and are wholesale perversely distorting facts of nuclear to a clueless public. There are more anti "Pandora's Promise" YouTube shows popping up fifty-to-one to any supporting it! The only real recourse we have is aggressive public nuclear education, and I don't mean via a sprinkling of more pro-nuke blogs or neighborhood Tupperware teach-in parties that just won't cut it against the antis and media. I'm talking mainstream media PSA slots and Ads. I'm talking SuperBowl Ads. I'm talking subway car posters. I'm talking of acting like your very livelihood and career and industry depended on it! Atomic workers unions and nuclear professional organizations have the bucks and resources to do mass ed PR (hey, if PUPPY RESCUE could!...) but they won't move their butts even for self-preservation! This isn't rocket science. Knock on the door of the Ad firms that bailed Tylenol and BP Guld out of their PR perception disasters and nuclear's image CAN be turned around -- but the WILL and GUTS has to to be there! Bickering about future reactor types won't get U.S. out of this bad-guy hole it's dug itself into; mass public education will!

James Greenidge
Queens NY
Anonymous said…
James, oh, yes, all that is needed! I very much do not mean that we should be content with a token presence in an energy mix and sit on our behinds. Not at all.

But I do think that people who have soaked up so much of the nonsense of the anti's that they can't hear anything from what even smells like a part of the nuclear industry (that really should start that PR campaign!) without dismissing it as propaganda or lies, will sometimes listen when an ordinary man or woman they know tells them about the subject.
No need at all to be gentle with the Gundersons and Busbys, but going rough-shod over a person who is half-won and interested to learn more is counter productive.

I think you and I aren't talking some much in opposite directions but at different scales. Yours is the bigger picture, and mine the smaller, where I can have some influence on the convictions of people around me. If I can make people more willing to hear the public nuclear education you're talking about, I think that's time well spent.


BTW the second Anonymous was me too, it was written in haste.

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