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Nuclear Energy, Climate Change, and the Fission of the Environmental Movement

What They Used to Say
What They're Saying Now
Not Every One is Saying It
References & Links

Comments & questions to:
Laura Bartolomei-Hill


There are certainly a number of mainstream groups that have remained firm in their opposition to nuclear energy, and there are probably EJ groups in favor of nuclear development organizing somewhere in the country. I do think, though, that there could be massive repercussions in the cohesiveness of the environmental community in the United States as a result of the controversial promotion of nuclear energy by certain groups. At the conception and emergence of the EJM, the founders did not consider themselves to be a part of the broader environmental movement. Through  youth organizing and work around green economic growth and green jobs, there have been interesting and constructive collaborations between the two groups. There are certainly disagreements over particularities – disagreements about cap-and-trade; some favor civil disobedience while others choose to work through direct lobbying – but none of these are as divisive as nuclear energy will be. 

Nuclear is controversial because it has historically had massively disproportional effects on communities of color (particularly Native American lands) and because those voices are not being welcomed into the modern debate. It is controversial because climate change is threatening societies around the world and carbon emissions need to be cut. Nuclear energy is controversial because it is expensive, centralized, and generates toxic waste.  As environmentalists and environmental justice activists negotiate their positions on nuclear energy, I encourage them (us) not to focus only on quantifiable details: carbon emissions cut, kilowatts of energy generated, number of homes powered, tons of toxic waste left over. Instead, focus on the political and historical processes through which we arrive at this moment. Who gets to decide where to place a nuclear facilitiy or waste dump? Are the people and communities who will face the consequences invited to have as meaningful a contribution to the discussion as those who will benefit? It is easy to get lost in the numbers; but climate change wasn't caused by coal plants and fossil fuels burning themselves. It was caused by human choices, systems, and actions. While they may disagree on the role the nuclear energy should play in the new energy economy, environmentalists of all backgrounds should be able to come together and advocate for a reformed process through which energy decisions are prioitized and implemented. 


Figure 7:


Figure 7 : Three Mile Island today


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