8 High-Profile Champions of Nuclear Power

Who's on board?

Photo: George Monet/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Ever since an earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan last spring, some people might assume that public figures who previously had supported the technology might have had a change of heart.

While a few pro-nuke leaders have turned against the technology (most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who canceled all new German nuclear plants), a few high-profile, influential and powerful leaders still think fission is a way to wean us off oil, stop global warming, and lead us to greater energy self-sufficiency.

Why don’t these people support other forms of energy (such as solar, wind and geothermal), all of which have much lower costs and don’t cause disasters? Many of them do, but they see nuclear as part of the mix, while others may have other reasons, like economics, for supporting the building of new plants.

Bill Gates

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Bill Gates is just one of the perhaps-surprising public figures who is bullish on nuclear energy as a future power source. In fact, he is so supportive of one new type of nuke called TWR (traveling-wave reactor) that he is the major investor behind Terra Power, which is using Microsoft’s computing power to build next-generation power plants, possibly in conjunction with China. TWR can burn depleted uranium (instead of enriched) and other lower-quality radioactive fuels for much longer periods of time — possibly up to 100 years. “The idea is to be very low cost, very safe and generate very little waste,” Gates says in an Associated Press article.

Christine Todd Whitman

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Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey governor and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, calls the recent decision by Japan and Germany to close their countries’ nuclear power plants “reactionary.” Whitman says nuclear power is the cheap, zero-carbon answer to the unreliability of solar and wind power. In a recent opinion piece for The Hill, Whitman wrote, “No other electricity source can combine the benefits of knowing that it will always be on with its affordability and its lack of emissions.” Whitman supports renewing the licenses of the currently operational nuclear power plants around the country that are reaching the end of their 40-year expected life spans.

James Lovelock

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James Lovelock is a chemist and environmentalist best known as the co-originator of the Gaia Theory, which posits that the Earth is a self-regulating living organism, explained in his book “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.” In 2004, he shocked many environmentalists by coming out in support of nuclear energy when he wrote in the U.K.’s Independent: "By all means, let us use the small input from renewables sensibly, but only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy."

Barry Brook

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Barry Brook is an Australian scientist and professor at the University of Adelaide in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Brook has published three books and several hundred papers on climate change and environmental issues. He advocates for nuclear energy as a sustainable energy source, and his latest book, “Why vs. Why: Nuclear Power” argues for next-generation plants, specifically the integral fast reactor (IFR) type.

Brook says in his Brave New Climate blog, “Although many environmentalists consider nuclear power to be somehow anti-environment, it’s my firm belief that nuclear energy actually offers a viable low-carbon, low-impact alternative that cannot be matched by other low-carbon solutions.”

James Hansen

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James Hansen has been in charge of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies since 1981, and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University in New York City. He was one of the main figures to bring governmental and popular attention to the problem of global warming, and has been arrested several times as an activist around climate issues. He supports nuclear energy as a means to fight global warming.

He said in a Newsweek video, "I think that next-generation, safe nuclear power is an option which we need to develop. And it is being developed in many countries around the world. So if the United States declines to do that, we're just going to suffer economically because other countries will take the lead in that technology."

George Monbiot

JK the Unwise/Wikimedia Commons.

George Monbiot is a British writer and peace and environmental activist who has called global warming “the moral question of the 21st century.” Though he began his career abhorring nuclear energy, he became neutral on nuclear energy for some time before becoming pro-nuke following the Fukushima disaster.

By way of explanation he wrote in The Guardian, “... I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. ... Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”

Stewart Brand

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Stewart Brand is best known for editing “The Whole Earth Catalog,” a printed compendium of sustainable goods for back-to-the-landers and others interested in alternative lifestyles that had its heyday from 1968 to 1972. He was also involved in organizing rock concerts, including the Grateful Dead and putting together the first Earth Day. In 2005, he looked back at the environmentalist movement that he had a strong hand in creating and criticized it, specifically coming out in support of low-risk GMO crops and nuclear power.

In an interview in Conservation Magazine titled “Environmental Heresies,” Brand said, “Nuclear power is the only other form of power generation that is as harmless to the atmosphere as hydro — and hydro is largely maxed out. Fission reactors — especially the new, smaller and safer designs — should be deployed rapidly, particularly in the U.S., China, and India, where the greatest power demand is.”

Jeffrey Sachs

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Jeffrey Sachs began his career as one of the youngest professors of economics at Harvard University and advised developing countries on transitions from communism, during which time he became interested in the question of environmental sustainability, along with fighting poverty and hunger. He is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and in 2004 and 2005 Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. (In this photo, Sachs visits a grain bank in Malawi with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.) His latest book, “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity,” debuted in October 2011.

Sachs often cites nuclear energy as one of the ways we can fight global warming and encourage growth — for which energy is key. He recently told Alex Pasternak of Treehugger that what’s needed is "a mix of new energy-reduction technologies, some using renewables, some a large-scale use of nuclear power, and ... truly clean coal. ... It's not a happy thought but a reality in terms of carbon accounting."