Comments can be left on Karen's blog, at A Friend's Path to Nuclear
Karen Street, a member of Berkeley (Calif.) Meeting, began working on energy and environmental issues in 1995, with an early focus on climate change. Her interest groups and weekend retreats cover a range of issues: understanding the science and impacts of climate change, examining our own greenhouse gas emissions and motivations for change, energy policy and technology updates, nuclear power, corporate response to climate change, and informed activism. For references and footnotes for this article, go to Karen's blog: A Musing Environment.
Over a decade ago, I held opinions about nuclear energy similar to those of many Friends. I worked against nuclear weapons, but made a distinction between weapons and nuclear power plants—with the latter being a lighter concern. Later, after Three Mile Island, I became more aware of nuclear power risks. In the early days, however, I saw no reason to believe nuclear energy was any better or worse than other sources of electricity, including coal power. I knew from newspapers at the time that 2,000 miners died every year, mostly from black lung disease, and I assumed the dangers of nuclear waste were about equally bad.
Then, in 1995, for a class at University of California Extension, I chose to write a paper comparing coal and nuclear power. My training in math and physics led me to notice that all the authors who shared my initial position on the dangers of nuclear power got the physics and/or numbers wrong. Those who challenged my assumptions—arguing that nuclear energy is far less harmful to human health and the environment than coal power—checked out as reliable and compelling. (One antinuclear writer, Amory Lovins, argued, among other things, not that nuclear waste was dangerous, but that nuclear power costs a tad more than coal power. He did not speak to my concern: which source of energy costs the most in human lives?)
I searched without success for scientifically reliable sources to support claims that nuclear energy was too dangerous to be worth the risk. Rather, the story of coal—and the myriad ways it kills—began to look like the real disaster we were visiting on ourselves and our children, while the story of nuclear energy—the improved ventilation of mines beginning in 1959 that removed the major cause of miner death, the comparatively far lower risk of radiation from nuclear waste than was generally understood, the absence of air pollution—began to sound like a far safer energy source than coal could ever be.
I had two choices at this point: maintain my beliefs without justification, or give them up.
For me, as a Friend, the Testimony on Integrity—to be honest and truthful in word and deed—pointed the way then, as it does today. Initially, I looked at all sorts of books, articles, and websites, from believable to bizarre. I wanted to base my ministry only on those sources I found to be the most scrupulous and knowledgeable. Did their numbers compute? Was the evidence they cited traceable to verifiable sources? Did the evidence support the conclusions drawn? Was the work reviewed by independent experts in the field?
Even the best-documented and most sensible reports may someday prove wrong, and no system is totally immune to pressure. Peer review, however, such as that used in high-quality journals like Science and Nature, or in selecting papers for academic journals and conferences, is a formal process in which experts who do not have conflicts of interest are selected to review research or other work to determine whether it merits publication. Unaffected by those who stand to benefit from findings or recommendations, this process also rules out unfounded speculation. In this sense, the technical review performed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or by national labs and governmental or intergovernmental agencies, can be seen as a type of independent peer review.
The facts, theories, models, projections, and the like found in these sources continue to be tested over time. Within the scientific, technical, and policy communities that produce and rely on this information, although scandals are not unknown, those who fudge data are discredited, and errors are acknowledged and corrected. Though all knowledge is fallible, the ideas and information subjected to this kind of scrutiny are, not surprisingly, more reliable.
In my ministry, governed by the Testimony on Integrity, I try to pass on only information that has been subjected to this kind of review. This approach protects me from rumors and exaggerations, like the claim that we are running out of uranium, or that greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear energy are comparable to those from natural gas—two assertions offered by antinuclear activists that are incompatible with reports appearing in peer-reviewed publications.
As I began to consider advocating nuclear energy to replace coal power, I examined the issues through the lens of the Testimony on Equality. If there is that of God in people, don't kill them. I could not find sources I trusted that told me that radioactivity from nuclear waste—even less so from a normally operating plant—would significantly jeopardize human health, while coal pollution kills over 20,000 people in the United States every year, plus contributing more than one-third of U.S. emissions of CO2 changing our climate.
Nuclear accidents do kill: 50 to 60 are dead already from Chernobyl, and, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, up to 4,000 more may die from the initial exposure. Although a Chernobyl could not happen in the West because we use containment systems and other safety features not used in that plant, fatal accidents can happen anywhere. But what does this mean? I hear antinuclear activists who appear to accept hundreds dead in plane crashes, 43,000 Americans dead every year in automobile accidents, and many more coal miners dead in the area around Chernobyl since the late 1980s than are expected ever to die from Chernobyl. We seem able to accept these accidental (though predictable) deaths, yet some would insist that nuclear power—which has an impressive track record for safety in Western countries—must never have a single fatality.
After five decades of predictions of nuclear meltdown, it hasn't happened. I try to imagine a nuclear power accident where many people die, and I ask how that might compare to the costs of not using nuclear energy. Besides the thousands in the United States who die each year from coal particulates, hundreds of thousands die from coal in China every year.  Coal pollution kills preferentially the very young, the very old, and those with other health problems. In the United States alone, coal deaths are the equivalent of more than six Chernobyls a year, and in China, they equal nearly 100 Chernobyls a year, including infant deaths in the tens of thousands. (Solar power is not a viable option for the Chinese so long as pollution blocks the sun.)
At one time, arguments warning against a possible Chernobyl, or demanding that no one should ever die from nuclear waste, might have felt persuasive. But I carry in my heart a picture of the people or the species I am trying to help. In the first year of my ministry, I carried over 26,000 deaths in the United States from coal pollution and mining. The number dead here from coal has grown to 350,000 since then.
But already by 1995, when I was learning the horrors of coal energy, those numbers were considered insignificant. Among scientists, saving those lives had already become only "another benefit" of reducing fossil fuel use—a more urgent goal. The dominating fear then, growing bigger every year, was climate change. While the burning of coal and other fossil fuels is most immediately harmful to people downwind, climate change harms everyone—disproportionately those who do not benefit from the energy producedÑand endangers species in every part of the planet.
At the time, I had my favorite problems and my favorite solutions. I did not want climate change to matter. Too much was demanded of me, not just changing my mind, but also changing how I lived.
But it became obvious that our Peace Testimony was involved: living in the Light that takes away the occasion for war. Conflicts over the environment—over water and food and land above sea level—will continue to escalate. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group 2, by the 2050s the number of people without water year-round due to climate change may grow to two billion or more. Bangladeshis are already moving because of saltwater incursion into freshwater supplies, and the Not Welcome signs have appeared in nearby areas. When tens or hundreds of millions lose access to water and food, conflict is unavoidable.
Studying climate change soon expanded my concern for the environment, as well. As I began to see where people lack food and water, I came to understand what we must be doing to other species. Scientific studies proliferated: along with other alpine and polar species that will go extinct in coming decades, two-thirds of polar bears will be gone by mid-century. All shelled organisms in the ocean are at risk, including coral reefs crucial to at least a quarter of marine species, on which significant numbers of the world's poor depend exclusively for protein. A combination of warming and earlier spring is increasing the number and duration of large fires in the Northern Rockies as well as California and Oregon, adding to other ecosystem threats. Even bacteria species are expected to go extinct in large numbers, let alone our primate cousins. And the circle closes—what we do to the least of these our brethren, we are doing to ourselves.
From the beginning, the testimonies have framed and supported my ethical and rational understanding. But I am also filled with sadness and grief.
I hear people talk in abstractions about the benefits of not depending on corporations for our electricity—as if BP and other corporations are not involved in solar power, or that only nuclear energy of all electricity sources is produced by corporations. I hear claims that nuclear power costs a fraction of a cent more than coal power per unit of energy. (This is true in coal-rich nations; in other nations, nuclear power is often cheaper than coal, even without carbon capture and storage. Coal will be more expensive than nuclear power everywhere if we use technology to sequester carbon.) I could understand arguments against doubling the price of electricity, but when people talk about fractions of a cent, I think of the 170,000 deaths attributable to climate change in 2000 alone, from heat waves, flooding, drought, and disease. And I grieve.
I hear compelling pleas that we should live with less. Indeed, in my presentations, I help people look at personal greenhouse gas emissions, how we make choices, and what we value. But I am reminded of entomologist and human population growth critic Paul R. Ehrlich's recommendation that the world's population stabilize to between one and two billion. Since then, it has grown from 3.7 to 6.6. billion. We can work toward reduced demand, but we cannot base policy on wishful thinking. Policy experts are looking for solutions that wonÕt roast us, whatever the world's population, whatever the levels of consumption to which we hold ourselves. During the time Friends have been asking me why people in charge of policy don't consider voluntary changes in behavior, world greenhouse gas emissions have grown faster than even the highest estimates.
Marianne Lepmann, a beloved Berkeley Friend who lived to age 90, left Germany with her family in 1933 after she woke up with a vision of the Holocaust. Those in her family who stayed behind all died. "The price of indecision was death," she said. Similarly, I hear Friends say they intend to work on climate change tomorrow, or that we should wait to see if renewables and efficiency will be enough before we expand nuclear power plants. Then I wake to more reports of my state, California, suffering a big increase in forest fires, which scientists say is due to climate change. By century's end, all predictions are that the snow pack will be gone, or nearly so, with great harm to agriculture and ecosystems. I read about the gradual replacement of Amazon rainforest by savanna. I hear the Ganges River, a spiritual wellspring as well as a source of water, will run dry during part of the year within a generation. And I grieve.
I hear arguments about the role of nuclear subsidies—for research and development and for extra regulatory costs of new plants. Many are unaware that subsidies for solar R & D have exceeded those for nuclear power since 1976, and that these and other subsidies must continue to be high for decades given the costs of developing and deploying solar technology. If we argue against subsidy-intensive solutions, solar would be among the first to go. Instead, we all hope for more solar subsidies, even though solar is expected to provide less than half a percent of the world's energy in 2030 unless better technologies are discovered.
I hear people fantasizing that we can meet all of our energy needs with so-called renewables, by which we mean fuel sources that do not run out. Contrary to popular view, windmills and solar collectors require more resources to build and replace than nuclear plants for an equivalent amount of energy, because the energy source is so much more diffuse. And to my sorrow, current reliable estimates continue to suggest that neither renewables alone nor together with nuclear energy will come close to meeting expected increases in demand, much less cutting into current levels of fossil fuel use. Meanwhile, I learn that food productivity in parts of Africa will decline by half by 2020, and up to 30 percent in South and Central Asia by mid-century, due to climate change. And I grieve.
Others idealize so-called "non-technological solutions," by which they mean non-nuclear, though they support national labs' use of nanotechnology that will be essential to make solar power economically viable. And who does not depend on our society's advanced technologies, from telephones and computers to airplanes? Inarguably, we need all the non-fossil fuel sources of energy we can muster—from solar and wind to nuclear energy—and technology of many kinds will be basic to any solution we find.
But truly non-technological solutions are also important, such as redesigning cities to make driving inconvenient in order to promote walking, biking, and public transportation; taxing air travel to make it a less attractive option; and mandating higher summer temperatures in public buildings. Along with such non-technological solutions, we can focus on safer technologies. But instead, I read of Germany replacing nuclear plants with coal plants—without carbon-sequestering technology. And I grieve.
Analyses from International Energy Agency and others accepted for inclusion in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offer no way to keep global temperature increase below 2°C, and few see any way to keep increases below 2.4°C. Instead of finding additional solutions such as carrots and sticks to change our behavior, I hear Friends opposing one of the largest solutions. And I grieve.
Some want only those solutions that are decentralized, small-scale, natural, or whatever the current appeal to our longing for a simpler world. But why only those solutions? Following these arguments, we may, within a decade, have policies in place that assure a precipitous melting of the Greenland ice sheets and the creation of a world where many will find adaptation impossible, guaranteeing conflict for decades or centuries.
Scientists see species extinction dominoing: species magnificent in their own right—whales and bees and hummingbirds—or prosaic and indispensable as fungi; species beneficial to humans and ecosystems—the mangrove forests that buffer coasts from storms and harbor fish, or species whose benefit may not be apparent; species that have withstood climate change for millions of years. I allow myself to acknowledge these losses, and I grieve.
I know my own resistance to change, so I share
sympathy with others who are digging in heels and locking knees to
protect old beliefs. But there is comfort in knowing that when called,
I have followed. When challenged, I have responded. Friends'
testimonies ask no less of me.
Center for Disease Control identified black
lung disease as the underlying or a contributing cause of death for
2,700 coal miners in 1982; this was down to 700 by 2004. Coal
workers' pneumoconiosis: Number of deaths, crude and age-adjusted death
rates, U.S. residents age 15 and over, 1968Ð2004, (CDC: 2005) Many fewer die in mining accidents,
which averaged 45/year in the 1990s, though 65 died from US mining, 33
from coal mining, in 2007. Mine Safety and Health Administration Injury
Trends in Mining (US
Department of Labor)
Lovins once advocated coal over nuclear power, in part because it was
cheaper. For example, he gives the increased expense of nuclear power
relative to coal as 25% more, however, 25% of <3 cents/kWh was not a
big addition to the utility bill. Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins, Energy/War:
Breaking the Nuclear Link (New
York: Friends of the Earth, 1980), 56.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states,
"the excess deaths of the 2003 heatwave in Europe are likely to be
linked to climate change." Over 35,000 died just in Europe from heat
and the pollution problems associated with heat (increased forest
fires, and greater particulate and ozone pollution). IPCC Working Group 2
(2007), ch 8, 397
 Some mountainous areas of Europe may have species loss as high as 80% by 2080. By mid-century, "[t]here is a risk of significant biodiversity loss through species extinction in many areas of tropical Latin America." "In both polar regions, specific ecosystems and habitats are projected to be vulnerable, as climatic barriers to species invasions are lowered." "With higher temperatures, increased invasion by non-native species is expected to occur, particularly on mid- and high latitude islands." IPCC Working Group 2 Summary for Policy Makers, 14-15