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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.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
14 min read
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 News.com'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.

But the safety issue?
Moore: If people look at the actual record, as opposed to the sensationalist speculation, there has never been a member of the public injured by a nuclear plant in the United States, even during Three Mile Island. It was just a bad mechanical failure. It did not cause harm to the public or to the workers in the plant. There is no evidence that anyone was injured by that accident. That was the worst accident in the history of the West, excluding the Soviet Union's stupid Chernobyl design, which is pretty much phased out now, although there are still 11 of them running.

There are that many Chernobyl-style plants left?
Moore: Yes, there are 10 in Russia and 1 in Lithuania, but they are all scheduled to be phased out. After Chernobyl, they were all upgraded from a safety point of view. The accident at Chernobyl was a combination of ridiculous operator error. Secondly, they built reactors without containment vessels. No one else has done that. What the Soviets did was they took their military plutonium weapons production reactors and cookie-cuttered them all over the countryside. It was an economic shortcut and they learned the hard way, but the safety record in the West is impeccable in terms of not causing any harm to people.

Six thousand people die in coal mines every year in this world. Look how many people die in car accidents and many of those are innocent passengers and pedestrians. The impact of fossil fuel combustion on public health is the single largest impact of any technology we have.

But if we see more plants being built in the West, doesn't that increase the chance for negligence and people cutting corners? I mean, the more people you have, the more chances for people to mess up you have.
Moore: I don't know about that. You cannot build a nuclear plant in this world today without it being world-class in both its design and its operation. It's just not possible to do that. There is too much oversight. There is the International Atomic Energy Agency. There is the fact that these designs are coming out of the United States, France, and Russia. India, too; most people don't realize that India is at the very forefront of nuclear technology, in recycling, in producing thorium fuel, in fast reactors. Their science is as good as anybody else's in the world, and the Chinese are fast becoming a major center for nuclear technology as well. I don't think that that is a risk.

All the money that's going into subsidizing solar is a waste of money...

The nuclear industry has the most culture of safety around it of any industry. In the States it's safer to work in a nuclear plant than it is to work in either real estate or financial services, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Is that just because of large numbers, with real estate agents driving around to open houses or...?
Moore: This is per capita. There is lesser the chance of missing work due to an accident on the job in nuclear than there is in real estate or financial services. That's because in the nuclear industry it's safety first ahead of everything else.

So in your view, the safety issue is more of a perception issue right now?
Moore: Yeah. How people manage to perceive that nuclear is dangerous when no one has ever been hurt by it is hard for me to understand, but there it is. It's a scared thing and it's like many of the campaigns today that are based on scaring people about something invisible. In this case, radiation. In agriculture, it's invisible pesticide residues. In climate, it's invisible carbon dioxide. In genetic engineering, it's invisible genes. Actually, a majority of the what are being called environmental campaigns these days are basically scare campaigns based on people not being able to see what it is that they are supposed to be afraid of. You can make up all kinds of stories about things people can't see.

It's like with GMO (genetically modified organism) foods. I don't think there are any deaths associated with GMOs, but they are banned in Europe anyway.
Moore: Exactly. (There are only) positive impacts associated with most, and yet a perceived negative or a projected negative is given a higher weight. In many areas, environmental activists are arguing to ban things where there are obvious benefits and no evidence of harm. Many of their policies are actually resulting in negative actions for the environment rather than positive ones.

That is true in the case of nuclear power, where they are the ones who are screaming that the sky is falling and that the climate catastrophe is coming and it's going to be global and it's going to cause 40 to 50 percent of all the species to become extinct and it's going to be the end of civilization as we know it. And yet, they are against nuclear energy just because there could be an accident somewhere. How could one nuclear accident be worse than the whole world being destroyed?

It's not choosing the lesser of evils. They are basically saying that they are both just as bad as each other. I don't see how you can argue that. I mean, how could nuclear energy cause 50 percent of the world's species to go extinct and civilization as we know it to come to an end?

A lot of people will agree with the state of nuclear technology but will argue that we should put more money into solar thermal or solar photovoltaic first and see if we can make progress there before we go to nuclear. What do you say to that?
Moore: Well, I don't see how they are mutually exclusive. We know how to build nuclear plants. We don't know how to build solar thermal plants that operate cost effectively and we don't even know if we can build a solar thermal plant that will go through 5 or 10 days of cloud cover. I am all in favor of investing in solar thermal, but I think it has to be on a measured R&D basis, and I would like to see it coming under 10 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Solar photovoltaic simply has no place on the grid. All the money that's going into subsiding solar is a waste of money because it could be being used on more effective technologies that we already have that are not unreliable and intermittent. The $3.2 billion that California is subsidizing in solar would build a 1,000-MW nuclear plant and provide 10 times as much power into the system and on a reliable basis.

Many claim that nuclear is actually the only source of power that is going up in price. These aren't environmental advocates. These are Wall Street analysts. The nuclear energy industry says the opposite. Who is right here?
Moore: Well, the price of the plants is going up in terms of the capital costs, but then everything is going up. Concrete is going up; steel is going up. It's true that nuclear has a higher capital cost than the fossil energy plants, but it has a lower operating cost once it is established.

A compact fluorescent light bulb costs five times as much as an incandescent light bulb, but it only costs a fifth as much to run it and it lasts a lot longer. So it is a good investment. The trouble with individuals is that they want to (be paid) back in 2 years. Big institutions don't mind an 8- or 10-year payback and nuclear provides that.

Is the public perception changing? Do you find more people saying they will consider nuclear or people who are actually in favor of it?
Moore: A considerable majority of Americans are in favor of nuclear energy. It's around 70 percent of the general public. (Editor's note: an MIT survey last year said only 35 percent of Americans wanted to see nuclear power increase.) The closer you get to an operating nuclear plant, the higher the support is. The average within 10 miles of a plant is 80 percent in the U.S. In some plants, it's up to 90 percent because the people living near them know that they have operated safely and that they're a huge wealth generator in the community. They are basically a very compact wealth generating machine, producing energy and producing employment in communities. They say the closer you go to a nuclear reactor, the better the schools and the roads are.

As far as Wall Street goes, there are still a lot of jitters.

How about "Not in my backyard"-ism? Although people support nuclear, they also say they want to see the plants 500 miles away.
Moore: The good news there is that the first (likely) wave of new plants will all be built on existing sites. There is, in fact, a huge amount of room to expand on the existing sites. Many of these sites were originally designed for eight reactors and only have two on them.

Some people have suggested exploiting the waste heat in these factories to make hydrogen or purify water.
Moore: There are additional benefits beyond just giving electricity. And we will use the electricity to charge all our plug-in hybrids. We are going to need more electricity in the future for that. It doesn't make sense to charge a battery with a coal-fired power plant from an air pollution or climate point of view.

There's no possibility that California can meet its objectives without new nuclear, either in or out of state to supply the electricity. Twenty percent of the state's electricity now comes from coal-fired power plants. If you cut that 20 percent out, you simply cannot replace that with renewables unless they can make solar thermal work. They should go ahead, try it, but in the meantime build some nuclear plants. That is the only way that a full umbilical cord can be cut.

What do you think of wave power?
Moore: It is so pie-in-the-sky that we shouldn't even think about it. Just let people test it. If they can figure out how to make it work, fine. But I don't really see that much promise in all those tidal- and wave-powered programs.

What support do you see among politicians, or the bureaucracies, or even the large financial institutions?
Moore: Most major political parties are squarely in favor of nuclear power. There's stronger support on the Republican side, but there is a good majority on the Democratic side, and most Democrats who were against nuclear power openly before are now either neutral or not talking about it much. (John) Edwards is against coal and nuclear. He wants both of them banned. Hillary (Clinton) is neutral. You can't really read her.

As far as Wall Street goes, there are still a lot of jitters. When the nuclear industry failed in the late '70s, early '80s, it was a combination of Three Mile Island, huge regulatory burdens piled on by the antinuclear movements' influence, and huge interest rates. When you have a huge capital investment, it takes 10 years to start paying back from when you start building it. Interest rates are extremely significant and you remember interest rates went to like 19 percent back then. That's what killed the industry. It wasn't anyone of those; it was the combination of all three of them together.

How about the nuclear waste disposal? Has there been much progress technologically?
Moore: It is not a problem technologically. It's called recycling, or what used to be called reprocessing. The French, the Russians, the Japanese all use it. It is basically separating out the remaining uranium and the plutonium that is manufactured as a byproduct and used as fuel again.

Plutonium is a fuel; we don't need to wait 250,000 years for it to decay. We can use it right away as a fuel and turn it into fission products, which will then only have a 300-year lifespan of being radioactive. Japan just opened a $30 billion fuel fabrication and recycling center in Northern Honshu. Japan figured out a way to take the French technology, which is probably the leading technology, and design a system in which the plutonium never emerges as a pure product anywhere; it's only inside, where nobody could, without dying, get it. The plutonium is separated, then before it comes out it's recombined with uranium into what's called mixed-oxide fuel, which cannot be made into a bomb.

How does the supply of fuel look?
Moore: Fifty percent of all the nuclear energy being produced in the United States is from dismantled Soviet warheads. We are turning swords to plowshares, not the other way around. There is enough enriched uranium and plutonium in (missile) stockpiles that is surplus now to (fill) the needs of the military to run our nuclear plants for years. When you start recycling, it magnifies the fuel reserve by 5 to 10 times. So we've actually got a thousand years of nuclear fuel for the existing reactors. The mining industry actually stopped looking for uranium 30 years ago because there already was enough discovered.

Now, they're looking for it again and finding it all over the place in places they didn't know it existed. There's a huge find in Labrador, Canada, for example. Slovakia has now been proven to have the largest uranium reserve in all of Western Europe. Austria still has tons of the stuff, and now Kazakhstan has come on as a major world's supplier.

Before we run out of uranium, there's a lot of people interested in the thorium fuel cycle. Thorium is much more abundant in the earth than uranium, so it's another nuclear fuel that is proven to be workable. India is well advanced in this technology and there is an international group of thorium scientists that is meeting on a regular basis.

One last thing. How about the rogue state question? People worry about states like Iran getting bomb-making capabilities. Is the regulatory framework strong enough to take care of that?
Moore: There is a group of academics from the U.S. and Europe who have come up with the proposal to create a kind of insurance policy for the nuclear fuel supply. The idea is to restrict the amount of enrichment technology because you can use uranium enrichment technology centrifuges to either make nuclear fuel or a nuclear bomb. So there is a big interest in reducing the number of facilities that do enrichment and basically in keeping them in the existing weapon states, which is where they are now except for Iran.

There is also the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership otherwise known as GNEP, which 20-odd countries are part of. It wants control over the front end, which is uranium enrichment, and the back end, or recycling plutonium, to maintain control over those processes in such a way that countries that don't have those technologies are guaranteed a supply of fuel.

It's really interesting, in some ways, how this whole nuclear renaissance is causing a new alignment of interests around the world.