It’s unmistakable that there’s been a sea-change around popular support for nuclear energy.
A confluence of factors, including the ongoing need to confront climate change, turmoil in global oil and gas supplies due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and persisting electric grid instability in states like California and Texas have drawn the public’s focus on the importance of reliable and clean energy.
It’s no surprise that public opinion polling has shifted to reflect that reality in recent months, with multiple polls showing that most Americans now support nuclear energy. A bipartisan consensus has also emerged at the federal level, as members of both parties have been working to support a robust advanced nuclear energy industry.
However, despite this groundswell of support for an American nuclear renaissance, one key bloc has been recalcitrant in its opposition to nuclear: legacy environmentalists.
It might seem counterintuitive—the community that facially would have the most to gain from embracing the country’s single-largest source of carbon-free electricity almost uniformly opposes its existence—but it remains true. In many cases, the hostility to nuclear power from these powerful groups is blatant.
“The Sierra Club remains unequivocally opposed to nuclear energy,” reads an excerpt from the website of the famed environmental megachurch.
“Nuclear energy has no place in a safe, clean, sustainable future,” reads the website of the group Greenpeace.
In other cases, opposition through on-the-ground activism takes the place of anti-nuclear declarations. Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), for example, have proved instrumental in galvanizing the early closure of valuable nuclear plants all across the country despite the fact that such moves have unanimously resulted in higher GHG emissions.
Fortunately, this anti-nuclear fever among legacy environmentalists has started to break. Greta Thunberg, the eco-left’s favorite poster child, expressed a change of heart toward nuclear when she chastised the German green party for prematurely shuttering its nuclear fleet.
And just this week, Bill McKibben—as prominent a climate activist as you’ll find anywhere on Earth—expressed optimism over the role small-modular reactors might play in a clean energy future.
In an interview with liberal columnist Ezra Klein for the New York Times, McKibben said, “What I’ve been saying for some years now is that where we have nuclear power plants that can be operated safely, we should probably keep them open. And I don’t think that’s a rare position on the environmental movement.”
“And I think people are, for the most part, supportive of more money for research into doing things like small modular reactors or even fusion or things. My sense is that some, anyway, of the environmental opposition to nuclear power has waned over the years,” he added.
This change of heart cannot be overstated. McKibben actively helped galvanize opposition to the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in the early 2010s and publicly celebrated when it was shut down. Now, faced with the reality that such decisions inevitably result in increased emissions in direct contravention of climate activists’ stated goals, he appears to be disavowing that past.
“And as technology changes and things, you get different options and different possibilities. Truthfully, I think I’d probably err on the side of letting that, say, the nuclear power plant in Vermont stay open, in part because in its wake, Vermonters did not rally to make sure that we could replace it with solar power and wind power,” McKibben said.
To be clear, this expression of support for preserving existing plants and exploring small modular reactors does not herald a complete shift in the environmental community’s preferred climate strategy. Indeed, most of the interview was dedicated to McKibben’s insistence that a combination of wind, solar, and batteries is still the best route to take.
Likewise, I’m not as bullish as he is that the environmental opposition to nuclear has completely waned over the years. The very climate group he founded, 350.org—a group on par with the above-mentioned Sierra Club and NRDC in terms of funding and influence—continues to peddle anti-nuclear claptrap on its website.
Nevertheless, a voice as influential and revered by the environmental left as McKibben’s speaking favorably towards nuclear power in any fashion, in a publication like the New York Times no less, is an extremely positive development.