Earth Day: Finding Common Ground Through Concern for the Planet

By Emma Redfoot

EarthDayimage2017I truly think people more or less value the environment; they just choose to show it in different ways. Someone in the city might be willing to pay to maintain the Alaskan Arctic, and have no interest in ever going on a hike, let alone visiting the Arctic. Someone else may be dead set against environmental regulation but spend much of their time in beautiful undeveloped places; hiking, fishing, or hunting. No matter what people’s personal feelings are towards the environment, we all are dependent on it and need to find ways to agree on how to use the natural resources available.

Earth Day began when the environmental movement had widespread popularity. From Gallup polls, we know that 70% of the population identified themselves as environmentalists between 1970 and 1990. Today that number is down to 42%.  I do not think the statistical decline is because people like nature less, or care less about leaving a beautiful world behind for the next generation.  Instead, I suspect that, for many,  environmentalism is now seen as elitist, unpragmatic, and, at its worst, misanthropic. Environmentalism is too often associated with needing to give something up or sacrifice human welfare for the sake of a pristine natural world in which other human concerns are not adequately valued.

This Earth Day, I want to encourage people to think of nuclear power as an opportunity for different types of environmentalists– those who value development as well as those who value a pristine notion of nature — to explore common ground and common values.  If we do, perhaps we can find ways to work together.

Many environmentalists are at a moral crossroads when confronted with the role of nuclear power in decarbonizing the electric grid.  When I went to an academic environmental conference last summer, as both someone genuinely concerned about environmental issues and a nuclear power advocate, people expressed that nuclear power was often the elephant in the room that no one really talked about. The people I spoke with who were outspoken in their opposition to nuclear power expressed concerns ranging from the cost of insurance, to the historic impacts of uranium mining on the Navajo people, to the amount of water nuclear plants consume. We, as a nuclear community, need to  take responsibility for the historical problems of nuclear[1], find common ground with environmentalists in concern for the planet and belief in the science of climate change, and then try to engage in a real discussion. And we, as nuclear advocates, need to bring that discussion to them, as many environmentalists will likely avoid the touchy topic of nuclear power until confronted with it. We must contextualize the incredible benefits of nuclear and the scale of problems nuclear can be used to address.  People in nuclear need to force the conversation.

The past two years have seen some environmentalists consider support for nuclear; or at least some struggle with what the closure of nuclear power plants means in terms of increased harmful emissions. Groups like Grist, which explicitly focus on the impacts of climate change,  are coming around to the idea that shutting down nuclear plants is a bad thing as long as there isn’t something clean to replace them.  Vox has published a couple articles that are considerate of the role of nuclear in minimizing emissions. Taking into consideration how intertwined the environmentalist and anti-nuclear movements have been historically, these beginning steps towards the recognition of nuclear as a climate change mitigation tool are important. Serious conversations about the environmental benefits of nuclear power, in this country and the developing world, are picking up steam.

The last two years have seen groups of people emerge to carry the pro-nuclear, environmental message. Founded on Earth Day two years ago, Mothers for Nuclear has carried the message of how lives are positively affected by nuclear energy. Generation Atomic went door to door over the past year, working with citizens in Ohio to send in postcards and sign petitions to keep Ohio’s nuclear plants open. Environmental Progress has worked tirelessly over the past year both on national issues such as in California and New Jersey as well as internationally in South Korea and Taiwan. Nuclear plants are being threatened with closure, and it is exciting to see new explicitly pronuclear environmentalist groups forming to oppose those closures.

Now is a time where action is required to keep nuclear power plants from closing. There is more at stake and therefore more of a reason to reach out to friends, family, and environmentalists to discuss the role of nuclear power. What we know from social science is that people tend to respond to other people in their own “in” group, facts rarely make any impact in changing anyone’s mind, and often people are fairly skeptical of company propaganda campaigns. This means nuclear cannot rely on companies to do the work of changing hearts and minds, especially within thoughtful environmentalist groups. Nuclear needs environmentalists in our midst to engage with the broader environmental community to share why we/they think this technology is important.  These new nuclear advocacy groups are not addressing people primarily as nuclear experts; much more fundamentally, they speak as people with strongly held values which drove them towards nuclear.

So takeaways on this Earth Day — the conversation about nuclear power is changing among people who consider themselves environmentalists, and while that change is slower than desirable, it may be faster than expected in some cases. People in nuclear need to continue to challenge environmentalist groups, but do so in a way that they might actually listen. We all care about the earth. If we can start from there, maybe we can come to a more sympathetic understanding of the role of nuclear power in how to care for it.

[1] I got the idea of taking nuclear taking ownership of past problems from Dr. Paul Wilson after meeting with him in early April 2018. Thanks!

Emma Emma Redfoot pursued a B.A. in Environmental Studies because of concern about climate change. After deciding to become an engineer, she realized the incredible benefits of nuclear power for people and the planet. She is currently finishing up her M.S .in Nuclear Engineering at The University of Idaho in Idaho Falls. She is an active member of the American Nuclear Society and is a part of their Social Media Team.

Feel free to leave a constructive remark or question for the author in the comment section below.

2 thoughts on “Earth Day: Finding Common Ground Through Concern for the Planet

  1. Jim Hopf

    I’m not sure how I feel about the notion of nuclear power taking “responsibility” for past problems that were created by the nuclear *weapons* industry, such as the old, irresponsibly run uranium mines on Navajo land. Those mines purely served the weapons industry, and were built and operated before the age of environmental awareness. They pre-dated the age of nuclear power. Modern mines are having much less impact (less impact, per kW-hr, then the mining impacts of other energy sources).

    The fact that so many people conflate nuclear power with nuclear weapons is a bad enough problem. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had Hanford and its problems thrown at me, in debates about the merits of modern nuclear *power*. Also, we hear people say that nuclear *power* (w/ all it’s benefits to public health and climate) should not move forward until they clean up “their” mess (i.e., the weapons industry mess). The truth being that delaying the use of nuclear power, and using fossil generation in the interim, will cause countless numbers of deaths (far more than have ever been caused by the nuclear weapons, let alone power, industry), and will greatly exacerbate global warming.

    We do not want to have those sins and problems (that we did not create) associated with us. It’s a bad association. The notion that we (and nuclear power) are “the same people” as the old weapons industry would be incredibly damaging.

    Sorry, I’ll stick to the position that nuclear power has little to do with the old weapons industry. We are not the same people, and nuclear power did not create those problems. We need to talk about how minimal the impacts of nuclear *power* have been, relative to other energy sources. As for “past problems” with nuclear *power*, we need to not overstate their significance. Instead, we need to put things in perspective, e.g., fossil power generation kills more people PER DAY, than have been killed in the entire history of nuclear power (especially non-Soviet nuclear power).

  2. Hank Phillips

    Emma looks as old as I was when I testified in favor of the South Texas Nuclear Project. Soon I read “The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear” by Petr Beckmann, who hired me as a mail clerk. Behind the scenes I witnessed cynical manipulations against nuclear energy by proponents of dictatorships–the very thing such energies were first unleashed against. But I did not expect the cynical indifference to the safety advantages of nuclear generation I witnessed in utility monopolies. Don Beeth got HL&P into activist mode, and that plant recently mitigated a lot of hurricane damage.