Nuclear Fantasy

The executive director of Greenpeace International argues that the world needs less nuclear power, not more.

For a source of electricity that contributes to about 3 percent of global energy consumption, we are having an awfully big debate. Charles D. Ferguson ("Think Again: Nuclear Power," November 2011) and company seem to miss this point when they trot out a litany of lame claims about how nuclear energy is a climate-friendly panacea for energy security.

Even before the Fukushima meltdown, industry plans to double nuclear power capacity were in the realm of fantasy. Doubling current capacity would require a multibillion-dollar nuclear plant to come on stream every week for two decades. That's a far cry from the few reactors that become operational worldwide each year. Such a construction boom would only cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 3 to 4 percent.

Building a nuclear power plant currently takes more than a decade from inception to completion, rendering such plants irrelevant in stopping CO2 emission growth during this decade, a prerequisite for keeping global warming below catastrophic levels.

Contrast that with two or three years for a wind farm or less than a year for solar panels. Wind power already provides more affordable power than nuclear power plants, and the costs for solar panels are coming down faster than anyone could predict.

In the long term, measured in the half-lives of radioactive decay, nuclear power would produce radioactive waste that would threaten countless generations. Arguments for functioning radioactive-waste disposal sites are dangerously spurious, and the notion that any experience can be extrapolated over hundreds of thousands of years is a potentially deadly delusion.

Ferguson's dewy-eyed "jam tomorrow" promotion of nuclear power sounds like the bold promises of the 1950s nuclear barons and reminds me of the promise that electricity would become "too cheap to meter." As the bill for Fukushima continues to rise, we know that is simply not true.

Executive Director
Greenpeace International
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Charles D. Ferguson replies:

As an admirer of Kumi Naidoo's vision for transitioning the world from burning fossil fuels, I was perplexed to read the misinformed claims made in his letter about my purported "dewy-eyed 'jam tomorrow' promotion of nuclear power." On the contrary, my article clearly concludes that nuclear power "since its inception has been haunted by its early boosters' starry-eyed projections of incredibly cheap and abundant energy." I did not imply at all that nuclear power would become "too cheap to meter." As my article underscored and as Naidoo would agree, large nuclear plants have huge construction costs, and "nuclear power has never succeeded anywhere without enormous government backing."

I think the real difference of opinion is that I still foresee a significant role for nuclear power in the coming decades, while Naidoo wants to eliminate its use. Although nuclear power provides only 14 percent of the globe's electricity, several countries generate more than one-third of their electricity from this power source. The fact remains that China and India -- the two largest developing countries -- are committed to boosting their use of nuclear power as well as coal. Although Naidoo makes a fair point that wind power is becoming economically competitive and solar power's prices are dropping, these sources are intermittent. Thus, until reliable, large, and inexpensive energy storage systems are available, these renewable energies will need backup power sources such as coal, natural gas, oil, and, yes, nuclear power to ensure that electricity is there when people need it.


It's Party Time

Historian Lewis L. Gould says that James Traub is taknig the Republican contendors too seriously.

James Traub's excellent essay on the Republican presidential candidates and their approach to foreign policy ("The Elephants in the Room," November 2011) needs modification in only one area. The various Republican candidates are not trying to set out a consistent foreign policy in any meaningful sense. The attacks they level at the president are intended, rather, to demonstrate to the GOP base that they are the nominee to take out the president in 2012.

The upshot is that the Republicans don't really know what they think except that if President Barack Obama is for it, they are against it. This past fall, Herman Cain seemed the beneficiary of such sentiment even though his foreign-policy views barely rose to the level of attitudes.

This is not the first time Republicans have struggled when Democratic incumbents have had a creditable record on world affairs. In 1916, Charles Evans Hughes never found an answer to the simplicity of the Democratic appeal on behalf of Woodrow Wilson: "He kept us out of war" (a claim that quickly proved false). In 1940, Wendell Willkie could not get traction against Franklin D. Roosevelt until he charged at the end of the campaign that FDR was planning to lead the country into World War II. Willkie later dismissed the allegation as "a bit of campaign oratory." Eight years later, Thomas E. Dewey could not make the case for Harry Truman's failings in the diplomatic sphere in the face of the Marshall Plan and other programs. A year later, after the fall of China and the emergence of anti-communist fervor, the Republicans would discover richer pickings against the Democrats. Like their historical predecessors, the modern-day aspirants for the nod of the Grand Old Party want to first oust what they see as an illegitimate incumbent and then figure out what to do in terms of foreign policy.

Author, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans
Austin, Texas

James Traub replies:

I hope I didn't give the impression that I think most of the Republican candidates have done any serious thinking about the world. Anyone who watched the Nov. 12 GOP foreign-policy debate would know that Herman Cain and Rick Perry, to mention the two most egregious examples, have a grasp of world affairs that would embarrass a moderately well-educated eighth grader (though both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, have actual, self-consistent convictions). It's telling that all of Lewis L. Gould's well-chosen examples precede the full onset of the Cold War. Ever since that time, Democrats have had to prove, often by way of unnecessary wars or extravagant rhetoric, that they are not "soft." President Barack Obama may have inoculated himself by killing Osama bin Laden, but he is also the beneficiary of a deep sense of exhaustion with the unnecessary wars and extravagant rhetoric of a Republican predecessor.