The narrative about how we continue to produce abundant energy, while proactively responding to climate change is rapidly shifting. For most of my life the story has gone something like this: keep investing in renewable energy sources like wind and solar and eventually we will wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. However the reality is as developing nations aspire to have access to clean water, education and health care, energy demand has continued to grow- and with good reason. Worldwide greenhouse gas emissions have also continued to soar despite abundant political and financial support of renewables.
In short, the dream of renewable energy replacing fossil fuels on a large scale has proven unattainable in the time frame needed to prevent climate change. Despite many decades of effort, we have come up against the inherent limitations of renewable energies; they provide intermittent, low-density power, which is at odds with the way we consume energy in our daily lives.
The truth is we use a lot of energy, and we use it all of the time. Not even the threat of a changing climate has changed our habits. And while renewables most certainly have an important role to play in our energy mix, they cannot do the job alone. Enter the other clean energy … nuclear energy. It’s carbon free.
The call for Science Based Environmentalism
Based on this realization, several high profile environmentalists have publicly stated that the clean energy narrative, as well as the environmental movement as a whole is in desperate need of an update. They have also suggested that science, not ideology needs to guide the process.
Slate published an article about the emergence of the “Pro-nuclear Environmental Movement” and Oscar nominated filmmaker Robert Stone released the film “Pandora’s Promise” last week at the Sundance film festival. The film offers an intimate look at formerly anti-nuclear environmentalists who now support nuclear technologies as both safe and integral to responding to the climate crisis. This realization is based in careful scientific analysis- very often cultivated by talking directly with both nuclear and climate experts.
These key environmentalists are asking their peers to reconsider their traditional positions on both renewable and nuclear energy, while making clear that it is okay and quite necessary to update one’s views in light of new information. No one has made this point more bluntly than Mark Lynas in a recent talk about GMOs; an issue that has some interesting parallels to the energy debate.
Diary of a Nuclear Tourist: Exploring the new energy narrative
I am very pleased that the timing of my upcoming adventure to learn about nuclear technologies in Europe fits squarely into the larger shift of the environmentalist movement reconsidering its stance on nuclear energy. Since my first visit to a nuclear site 15 years ago, I have found that going straight to the source is the best way to get information. Like electricity, information and understanding can get lost in transmissions, especially in the tenuous 24-hour news cycle that seeks scandal to drive traffic, but sometimes misses the most important facts in the story because they aren’t headline makers.
For instance, we have all heard about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that was hit by an earthquake and tsunami, prompting evacuations of the surrounding area. However, the good news that there has been no measurable public health impact from the events at Fukushima, nor the unsettlingly realization that the evacuation was more harmful than allowing citizens to stay in their homes have not been widely reported by the media. These nuanced realities don’t fit into the narrative of scandal and panic that drives traffic and sells advertising- so we don’t hear about these nuances and aren’t able to update our cultural understanding of the long term outcomes of the situation.
I am committed to being a part of this new movement of Science-Based Environmentalism and shining a light on some of these under-reported, not-that-exciting, sometimes confusing, yet extremely critical facts. In order to update our narrative, we need all of the information on the table.
I will contribute to this objective by offering a genuine look at what is happening on the ground in the nuclear industry in Europe. Due to the different approaches of each country I will be visiting, readers can learn first hand about the many options for advancing nuclear energy development, successfully closing the fuel cycle and managing nuclear materials safely and responsibly. I will be looking at these issues through the lens of an artist, making cultural commentary, but not technical recommendations for or against certain technologies.
I invite you to accompany me on this journey with an open mind and a dedication to getting the facts, so we can find real solutions to our biggest challenges. But first, we must all check our energy ideology at the door.