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It is not easy to change your mind or consider how you might be wrong. I found that happening to me with the issue of nuclear power. This is how I would address the issue to long-time activists, such as Bonnie Raitt.

Dear Bonnie Raitt:

The other day I was listening to you singing a duet with John Lee Hooker on the radio. It brought back memories of the days when I listened to you at those anti-nuke concerts. I have always admired your talent, your love of the Blues, and your courage to speak out on controversial issues. One of them is nuclear power. A lot of people listened to us then, and it seems our movement has been quite successful in stopping new plants from being built. Now, people are rethinking their opposition to nuclear power. The issue of global warming is changing the argument. It has brought me to a position I never thought I would take even a few years ago.

 

Up until the mid-1970s, I was not opposed to nuclear power. I did support any power source that ended our dependence on oil. My environmental activism was focused on our culture's over dependence on cars. It started with the first gas shortage in the early 1970s. I saw how cars have wasted finite petroleum resources and have been destructive to modern society in general. Cars have caused suburban sprawl, the loss of adequate public transportation, and the destruction of our urban centers. That is when I bought my first 10-Speed bicycle and vowed to eventually live car-free.


When the first articles exposing the flaws in nuclear power technology were being published, I started to wonder if the electrical utilities were selling us a major boondoggle. In the early days, nuclear power was promoted as an energy source that would be "too cheap to meter." That prediction never came close to being true. On the other side, I was wondering if the detractors were overstating their case. The possibility of a nuclear meltdown, as portrayed in Jane Fonda's The China Syndrome, was an especially weak argument to me. Then Three Mile Island happened. The nuclear industry boasted that no one was killed or even injured by the accident. Stories of genetic damage to local wildlife were just urban legends, but the industry couldn't argue away the economic damage. One worker error destroyed a multi-million dollar plant with ratepayers being asked to foot the bill. Did nuclear power make good economic sense? Were there better ways to spend our money to generate electricity?


And where are they going to put all that waste? Through whose community is that waste going to be transported? My opposition became so strong that I joined the anti-nuclear power demonstrations. I volunteered at an anti-nuclear concert in San Diego that featured you, Jackson Browne, and Helen Caldicott. I used my first paid vacation from my job in Richmond, CA to go to San Luis Obispo and get arrested while blockading Diablo Canyon. I spent the week in a makeshift jail with Browne, Wavy Gravy, and Robert Blake. After all this involvement in the anti-nuclear movement, it has been a challenge for me to consider that my activism may have been misplaced, that all that time and effort could have been counter productive.


Twenty-five years ago, I argued that nuclear fission power was not a good use of our financial resources. Investing in solar and wind made more sense. Then, I would add, "nuclear fusion is just around the corner." My opinion was based on an encounter I had with a physicist who had worked at Oak Ridge. He was the father of a friend of mine. Although he did not argue against fission power, it was clear that he favored fusion. He listed three advantages of fusion reactors. The wastes remain toxic for a much shorter period of time, making waste storage easier. The reactors can't be used to build nuclear weapons. There is no risk of meltdown since the reaction shuts down automatically if there is any problem. In fact, he said, the reactors shut down too easily, and the challenge was to keep them going.

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Unfortunately, we don't seem to be any closer to commercial fusion power now than we were then. Fusion has been put on the back burner as other tech fixes for the global warming problem have come to the forefront. Carbon sequestration is being touted as a way to continue burning fossils fuels, especially coal, without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Instead of escaping into the air, the carbon dioxide would be pumped into the ground. Engineers have suggested pumping carbon dioxide down old oil wells to squeeze more of the hard-to-reach liquid to the surface. Can we avoid building nuclear plants if we invest in so-called clean coal?


I found my view on nuclear power shifting when I heard Dr. Steven Chu, the director of Lawrence Berkeley Lab, lecture on the lab's Helios Project. The lecture was a part of a series held at the Berkeley Repertory Theater on Helios, a project designed to develop carbon-neutral sources of energy, including biofuels. Dr. Chu made his position clear. The only realistic short-term solution to our energy and climate crisis must include nuclear power. Why? Dr. Chu admitted he was not particular fond of nuclear power but found the alternative path to increased coal burning to be even more frightening. China is building new coal-fired plants at the rate of one per week. Coal is an especially dirty fossil fuel and is very abundant. As our oil and gas supplies dwindle, the pressure to burn more coal is increasing.


What about sequestering the carbon dioxide into the ground, the clean coal concept that many are pushing? Dr. Chu threw a wet blanket on that idea. He asked us to imagine the challenge of keeping that gas underground once we put it there. Would we want to live above a large deposit of carbon dioxide buried underground? If it escapes, Dr. Chu warned, only a 10% concentration of the gas in the air would be enough to kill people. So Bonnie, where would you rather live—next to a nuclear waste storage facility or on top of a big bubble of carbon dioxide? After listening to Dr. Chu, I would chose living next to the nuclear waste.


And what about nuclear fusion? Dr. Chu spoke of the obstacles that prevent the technology from being commercially viable until later this century or the beginning of the next. Unfortunately, we do not have that kind of time. A dramatic shift away from fossil fuels needs to happen in the next ten years or global temperatures may rise to a disastrous level.

 

The same problem exists with other emerging technologies, such as solar, wind, and tidal generators. These technologies can be and should be developed. The issue is scalability. It is not a question of being able to make solar panels, windmills, or biodiesel fuel, it is being able to make them on a large enough scale to economically replace the technology we are dependant on now. According, Dr. Chu and the other lecturers in the Helios series, the present alternative technologies will not be scalable until later this century. Again, we can't wait until those technologies come online on a meaningful scale.


So Bonnie, here's the deal. I know we agree on the need to conserve energy. Dr. Chu described conservation as the low hanging fruit. We can drive less and use public transportation more. Many of us are physically able to ride bicycles, and, if I can ride a bike at age 57, I know more people can. We can turn out lights when we aren't in the room and switch our bulbs to compact fluorescents. We can replace old appliances with Energy Star rated models. Energy conservation won't stop global warming, but it can slow the warming down.


 

It will take about ten years to bring nuclear power plants online so we will need to make our decision to build soon. At the very least, we can't afford to decommission the plants we have. More realistically, we need to get our current coal plants off line and refuse to build new ones. Over the short term, we will need to replace the lost kilowatts that would been generated by coal with an equivalent amount of nuclear power. For the longer term, we should replace those nuclear power plants with more sustainable sources of energy.

 

 

This decision is not an easy one, but it is one that has been forced upon us by the current climate crisis. Make no mistake, Bonnie. I refuse to call nuclear power green energy. It is as green as the computer I am sitting in front of now. Any technology that produces toxic waste that must be disposed or recycled is not environmentally benign. I would like to have a computer that does not contain toxics, but I am not going to give up using computers while I wait for that day to happen. I take into account all the paper and energy I have saved over the years by reading newspapers online instead of having them delivered, sending e-mail instead of postal mail, and managing my money with online banking and automatic bill paying.  Improving technology will make computers be even more energy efficient, reducing their negative impacts on the environment.


The same argument applies to light bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs contain mercury and should be recycled properly. Their energy-saving benefits far outweigh the hassle of keeping them out the landfill. Eventually fluorescents will be replaced by LEDs. Until LED technology becomes scalable, it makes sense to replace energy wasting incandescent bulbs with the most efficient technology we have now.


Nuclear power is not a panacea, and that is a major worry for the current anti-nuclear movement. We can't replace cars and airplanes that run on fossil fuels with nuclear powered equivalents. In addition, nuclear plants aren't easily powered down when demand for electricity decreases. The excess power can't be efficiently stored until later when it is needed. This is where solar power has the advantage. The solar cells only work during the day, but that is when we need the power most. When PG&E originally planned the Diablo Canyon plant, the utility wanted to build a dam and a reservoir above it. The plan was to pump water into the reservoir during the night, then release it through hydroelectric turbines during the day.


There are nuclear power boosters who want to use the excess power to extract hydrogen from water. Their vision is to fuel our cars by burning the hydrogen. Dr. Chu argues that it would be safer to keep that hydrogen onsite to generate more electric power in fuel cells. I certainly would not want to see millions of mini Hindenbergs on our nation's highways. It would be ironic that the most dangerous byproduct of future nuclear plants would be all that explosive hydrogen.


There is still the threat of nuclear technology being diverted to weapons production. This means we must work even harder to rid the world of nuclear weapons. We can start here at home by demanding our government destroy all of its nuclear warheads. We need to be vigilant that this stuff doesn't end up in the wrong hands.


So Bonnie, I do not regret my anti-nuke activism in the past. If they had listened to us back in the 1970s, this wouldn't be an issue today. Unfortunately, global warming has changed the debate, and time is not on our side. The real enemy of our planet is the coal industry.  Let us take what we have learned from our anti-nuclear organizing to stop the spread of coal power. If you decide to play any anti-coal concerts, I'll be there.