Published: April 14, 2008
Why he says they’re wrong to view nuclear energy as ‘evil’
By: Fareed Zakaria
Apr 14, 2008
Patrick Moore is a critic of the environmental movement—an unlikely one at that. He was one of the cofounders of Greenpeace, and sailed into the Aleutian Islands on the organization’s inaugural mission in 1971, to protest U.S. nuclear tests taking place there. After leading the group for 15 years he left abruptly, and, in a controversial reversal, has become an outspoken advocate of some of the environmental movement’s most detested causes, chief among them nuclear energy. NEWSWEEK’s Fareed Zakaria spoke to Moore about his sparring with the green movement, and why he thinks nuclear power is the energy of the future. Excerpts:
ZAKARIA: At Greenpeace, you fought against nuclear energy. What changed?
MOORE: My belief, in retrospect, is that because we were so focused on the destructive aspect of nuclear technology and nuclear war, we made the mistake of lumping nuclear energy in with nuclear weapons, as if all things nuclear were evil. And indeed today, Greenpeace still uses the word “evil” to describe nuclear energy. I think that’s as big a mistake as if you lumped nuclear medicine in with nuclear weapons. Nuclear medicine uses radioactive isotopes to successfully treat millions of people every year, and those isotopes are all produced in nuclear reactors. That’s why I left Greenpeace: I could see that my fellow directors, none of whom had any science education, were starting to deal with issues around chemicals and biology and genetics, which they had no formal training in, and they were taking the organization into what I call “pop environmentalism,” which uses sensationalism, misinformation, fear tactics, etc., to deal with people on an emotional level rather than an intellectual level.
Why do you favor nuclear energy over other non-carbon-based sources of energy?
Other than hydroelectric energy—which I also strongly support—nuclear is the only technology besides fossil fuels available as a large-scale continuous power source, and I mean one you can rely on to be running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Wind and solar energy are intermittent and thus unreliable. How can you run hospitals and factories and schools and even a house on an electricity supply that disappears for three or four days at a time? Wind can play a minor role in reducing the amount of fossil fuels we use, because you can turn the fossil fuels off when the wind is blowing. And solar is completely ridiculous. The cost is so high—California’s $3.2 billion in solar subsidies is all just going into Silicon Valley companies and consultants. It’s ridiculous.
A number of analyses say that nuclear power isn’t cost competitive, and that without government subsidies, there’s no real market for it.
That’s simply not true. Where the massive government subsidies are is in wind and solar. I know that France, which produces 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear, does not have high energy costs. Sweden, which produces 50 percent of its energy with nuclear and 50 percent with hydro, has very reasonable energy costs. I know that the cost of production of electricity among the 104 nuclear plants operating in the United States is 1.68 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s not including the capital costs, but the cost of production of electricity from nuclear is very low, and competitive with dirty coal. Gas costs three times as much as nuclear, at least. Wind costs five times as much, and solar costs 10 times as much.
What about the issue of nuclear waste?
As is now planned, I’d establish a recycling industry for nuclear fuel, which reduces the amount of waste to less than 10 percent of what it would be without recycling. How many Americans know that 50 percent of the nuclear energy being produced in the U.S. is now coming from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads? The environmental movement is going on about how terrible it will be if someone does something destructive with these materials. Well, actually the opposite is occurring: all over the world, people are using former nuclear-weapons material for peaceful purposes—swords into plowshares. This constant propaganda about the cost of nuclear energy—that’s just activists looking for the right buttons to push, and one of the key buttons to push is to make consumers afraid that their electricity prices will go up if nuclear energy is built. In fact, it’s natural gas that is causing [energy] prices to go up.
Don’t you worry about proliferation?
You do not need a nuclear reactor to make a nuclear weapon. With centrifuge technology, it is far easier, quicker and cheaper to make a nuclear weapon by enriching uranium directly. No nuclear reactor was involved in making the Hiroshima bomb. You’ll never change the fact that there are evil people in the world. The most deaths in combat in the last 20 years have not been caused by nuclear weapons or car bombs or rifles or land mines or any of the usual suspects, but the machete. And yet the machete is the most important tool for farmers in the developing world. Hundreds of millions of people use it to clear their land, to cut their firewood and harvest their crops. Banning the machete is not an option.
Are you optimistic that there will be an aggressive move toward nuclear power in the industrial world, and in particular in the United States?
There are 32 nuclear plants on the drawing boards right now. Last year four applied for their licenses and this year we expect 10 or 11 more. That’s just in the United States. There are hundreds of nuclear plants on the drawing boards around the world. This is a completely new thing: the term “‘nuclear renaissance” didn’t exist three years ago, and now it’s a widely known term. Unfortunately, the environmental movement now is the primary obstacle here. If it weren’t for their opposition to nuclear energy, there would be a lot fewer coal-fired power plants in the United States and other parts of the world today.