The Political Dilemma Posed by Nuclear Power
As of the September 2019 Democratic Climate Debate, the following candidates have one way or another “declared” their support for the use of nuclear and/or advanced nuclear power to address climate: Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, Michael Bennet, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Amy Klobuchar, Seth Moulton and Tim Ryan all seem to support existing and/or new nuclear plants as necessary to address climate change.
These are primarily the more centrist and right of center Democrats. We know well how the fear of drawing ire, even among one’s own eco-cohort, has cowed the willingness of ordinary individuals to admit that they support nuclear (which, to this day, keeps us releasing our full list of current members). Thus, it is easy to understand just how scary it must be for aspiring politicians—especially Democrats—to acknowledge their support for nuclear. Those that do risk backlash from a very vocal and impassioned, if very small, minority that has made opposition to nuclear a staple of progressive politics.
Which only heightens our respect for Senator Cory Booker, who is the only Democratic candidate who has come out with a forthright and defensible position in support of nuclear power in general. (If you haven’t supported Senator Cory Booker‘s presidential campaign, please do if only to show broader support for his pro-nuclear policies!) Andrew Yang hasn’t gone that far but, as a Silicon Valley guy, he has expressed a keen willingness to support innovations into Advanced Nuclear technology, so he ranks second behind Cory. The rest are trying mostly to muddle through with general vagueness.
Cory’s informed, principled and courageous honesty with respect to nuclear stands head and shoulders over all of the other candidates. Most of whom have chosen to: a) avoid addressing clearly how they actually feel about nuclear (Joe Biden Jay Inslee); b) deny supporting it when they probably do (Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris?); or c) are actually harboring completely anachronistic opinions about nuclear (Bernie Sanders, Marianne Williamson), have not taken the time to upgrade their knowledge with facts and are willing to continue taking cues from the 80s and the voices that were shaped by the 80s.
However, these are all very smart politicians with highly nuanced understandings of dozens of important and core issues. What they probably know in their hearts—especially those who have served in either the House or the Senate which has passed a raft of federal bills supporting nuclear power with overwhelming bipartisan majorities—is very different from what they are comfortable coming out and saying publicly. Fortunately, Congress can pass important pieces of legislation by “voice votes” which does not record individual votes taken, so they have plausible deniability for their support of nuclear. But this makes it very tough to really know where they stand.
James Conca, writing in Forbes, did a run-down of where the large crop of Democratic candidates stand with respect to nuclear in an article entitled “Nuclear Power And The 2020 Presidential Candidates,” which came out in early August. Unfortunately and probably as a result of political fear, deflection and waffling, even this highly precise author was unable to accurately reflect the candidates’ positions. For example, I had a direct personal conversation with Kirsten Gillibrand at a local campaign event in which she privately assured me that she totally supports nuclear and clearly expressed both her extensive knowledge of and support for nuclear and Advanced Nuclear. Yet somehow, Conca determined that Gillibrand was against using nuclear power. Was that because she does not publicize her pro-nuclear stance?
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s position on nuclear is another open question. Conca rated her as a nuclear supporter but, in the recent Democratic Candidates Climate Conversations on CNN, Warren came out with a rather strong position statement opposing nuclear power. This was very disappointing for many of us and also very surprising for those who count on Warren to be studied and fact-based in her view. Which makes it rather tough to accept that someone as perceptive and hard-working as Senator Warren would not be better informed and have a more nuanced view. Yet, it raises the specter of her taking a contrary position as a political maneuver, as her position as a front-runner on the progressive left makes her especially vulnerable to radical backlash, especially from Democratic women. According to the Green Advocacy Project, Democratic women comprise one of the largest blocks of opposition to nuclear energy by a ratio of about 1 to 2. What this means, however, is that 2/3rds of Democrats either support or don’t think nuclear would hurt anything—and could probably be convinced to support the use of nuclear as a climate solution. Elizabeth Warren would be a great one to help bring that constitutency along in their understanding.
We believe that Democratic candidates who don’t express strong support for nuclear will be vulnerable to future Republican attacks on the credibility of their commitment to addressing climate change. This article, written by Stephen Moore at the right-wing think tank, Heritage Foundation, entitled “Nothing exposes the insincerity of the global climate-change movement as does the left’s hatred of nuclear power” is the forerunner of the type of attacks that will be forthcoming in the general election if the leading Democratic candidates persist in playing up to anachronistic nuclear opposition that has long been misguided but abided by Democratic leaders and environmental leaders alike. The problem is, there really is widespread duplicity and lying involved, not just with respect to candidates’ unwillingness to honestly acknowledge the facts of nuclear because they are too worried about upsetting their supporters. There is also the overarching hypocrisy of spurning the safest and cleanest source of electricity ever devised by man and allowing people to normalize its continued demonification when one knows that the risks from from unstopped global warming significantly outweigh the risks from nuclear power—which could be instrumental in preventing the catastrophe that we are facing—and which existential crisis stems largely from that same underlying myth in the first place.