From ecowarrior to nuclear champion

Nuclear is better for us than coal, says Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. What's holding it back are environmentalists.

Patrick Moore seems to court controversy.

Decades ago, he helped found Greenpeace, which fought nuclear proliferation and promoted environmental causes. But for the last several years, he has been an outspoken advocate of nuclear power as well as a critic of the environmental movement.

He now co-chairs the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a nuclear industry group, with former New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman.

Although nuclear power remains highly controversial, it's also making a comeback as concerns about global warming and electricity prices rise. Sixteen organizations are expected to file applications to build 31 new reactors in the U.S. Nuclear was a big topic at the World Economic Forum at Davos.

Moore spoke with CNET's Michael Kanellos about the potential for nuclear power as well as where he thinks environmentalists went wrong.

Q: When people look at your biography and see you're a Greenpeace co-founder and now a nuclear advocate, they don't believe it. Could you give us a synopsis of your personal history on this issue?
Moore: Well, actually I did feel a little lonely in that corner for a while, but I've been joined by the likes of Stewart Brand, Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel), and (environmental author) Tim Flannery, and now we form a fairly serious phalanx of pro-nuclear environmentalists. In fact, I'm the honorary chair of the Canadian chapter of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, which has 9,000 members worldwide.

As a co-founder of Greenpeace, even though I was a scientist, I made the same mistake in those days as all the rest of my colleagues did. We kind of lumped nuclear energy in with nuclear weapons as if all things nuclear were evil. It was an honest mistake. We were totally focused on the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War. Nuclear testing was what Greenpeace started on and we were peaceniks, and I think it's fair to say that the antinuclear-energy movement to some extent was formed out of the peace movement.

The impact of fossil fuel combustion on public health is the single largest impact of any technology we have.

But in retrospect, I believe we failed to make an important distinction between the peaceful versus the destructive uses of a technology. There are many technologies that are very good that can be used for destructive purposes. Cars can be made into car bombs as long as you have a little bit of fertilizer and diesel oil. Machetes have killed more people than any other weapon in the last 20 years, over a million, and yet they're the most important tool for farmers in the developing world.

It wasn't until after I'd left Greenpeace and the climate change issue started coming to the forefront that I started rethinking energy policy in general and realized that I had been incorrect in my analysis of nuclear as being some kind of evil plot. The perception at the time that nuclear energy equaled nuclear weapons was to some extent based on the fact that the only exception to the separation of peaceful and military nuclear technology was when India bought a reactor from Canada and then broke their promise and used that peaceful reactor to make plutonium to make their first weapon.

Make the case for nuclear power. It emits far less greenhouse gases than coal, but there are the disposal issues.
Moore: Well, it's not only cleaner, it's almost infinitely cleaner in that it has no regulated air emissions. Coal actually releases far more radiation than nuclear plants. There is some radiation released by the nuclear industry, but it's not considered to be of any significance from a health point of view or an environmental point of view. It is cost-effective and it is proven safe. Safety and waste are the two main concerns.

Greenpeace keeps harping on the terrorist issue, but the fact is the nuclear plants in the United States were designed from the beginning to withstand a 747. They are the hardest targets in the United States from a security point of view. They are very closely watched and monitored and they are built in such a way that they are not really a very desirable target. The World Trade Center was a much more desirable target and so were many other political targets and many other industrial targets. So that isn't an issue.

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