My Greenpeace conundrum

climate-change-pol_1203588cGreenpeace USA wants me to renew my annual membership. I’m ambivalent.

A letter signed by Phil Radford, who leads Greenpeace USA, paints a dire picture of the state of the environment:

We all see polluters poisoning our air, water and land; killing innocent wildlife, destroying our forests, pillaging aquatic life, increasing global warming and endangering human health–particularly the health of our children.

This is, alas, mostly true. US air quality is improving, although 40 percent of Americans live in counties that sometimes have unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Water quality in most American streams and river is poor, the most recent report from EPA says. The amount of forest land in the US has been more or less stable for about a century, says the USDA’s Forest Service, but just this week, it was revealed that valuable forest land is being destroyed to supply “green” wood for burning in Europe. As for global warming–yes, there’s lots to worry about, and Greenpeace’s activism around the climate issue has been one reason why I’ve supported the organization for years.

Noisy activist groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Network have important roles to play in the “ecosystem” that includes business, government and environmental groups. They spotlight the most egregious practices, target the worst polluters, build popular support and, indirectly, help connect  companies to other NGOs. In a way, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and RAN function as the business-development arms of NGOS like the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy; they raise a ruckus and companies turn to the corporate-friendly NGOs to help them get out of trouble.

Greenpeace also deftly deploys a tactic called “rank ‘em and spank ‘em,” comparing, for example, the climate footprint of leading IT companies or the seafood purchasing practices of big retailers. These campaigns helped persuade Facebook to shift away from coal and influenced major grocery chains to adopt seafood purchasing policies. What’s more, Greenpeace has the ability to work effectively with business, notably by helping to persuade Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and others to join in a global shift towards natural refrigerants.

So what’s not to like? Well, there’s this, from Phil’s letter:

Greenpeace Speaks Out to Eliminate Nuclear Power:

Greenpeace is working to end the expansion of nuclear power. The U.S. already has more nuclear power plants than any other country. The United States currently has 104 operating nuclear reactors, and each one is a threat to public health, safety and the environment.

Nationwide, 1 in 3 Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant. Do you? If a meltdown was to occur, the accident could kill and injure tens of thousands of people and leave large regions uninhabitable.

This passage, by the way, follows a section headed Greenpeace Speaks Out to Curb Global Warming. Does that make sense to you?

Nuclear_Power_Plant_CattenomIt doesn’t make sense to me. If we want to keep the lights on, and at an affordable price, without increasing the risks of climate change, nuclear power–at the very least, the plants we have today, and quite probably, more–has to be part of the solution. If Greenpeace manages to persuade the US or other governments to “eliminate nuclear power”–that’s what the headline says–the risk of catastrophic climate change will grow much worse. Climate activists/environmentalists who  support nuclear power include Stewart Brand (in his excellent book Whole Earth Discipline), ex-DOE chief Steven Chu, contrarians Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus (see Going Green? Then Go Nuclear), the former British prime minister Tony Blair, economist Jeffrey Sachs nd ex-NASA scientist James Hansen.

In an essay about this scientific paper, Hansen and his NASA colleague Pushker Kharecha recently wrote:

…without nuclear power, it will be even harder to mitigate human-caused climate change and air pollution. This is fundamentally because historical energy production data reveal that if nuclear power never existed, the energy it supplied almost certainly would have been supplied by fossil fuels instead (overwhelmingly coal), which cause much higher air pollution-related mortality and GHG emissions per unit energy produced.

Using historical electricity production data and mortality and emission factors from the peer-reviewed scientific literature, we found that despite the three major nuclear accidents the world has experienced, nuclear power prevented an average of over 1.8 million net deaths worldwide between 1971-2009. This amounts to at least hundreds and more likely thousands of times more deaths than it caused. An average of 76,000 deaths per year were avoided annually between 2000-2009, with a range of 19,000-300,000 per year.

Likewise, we calculated that nuclear power prevented an average of 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) net GHG emissions globally between 1971-2009. This is about 15 times more emissions than it caused. It is equivalent to the past 35 years of CO2 emissions from coal burning in the U.S. or 17 years in China — i.e., historical nuclear energy production has prevented the building of hundreds of large coal-fired power plants….

We conclude that nuclear energy — despite posing several challenges, as do all energy sources — needs to be retained and significantly expanded in order to avoid or minimize the devastating impacts of unabated climate change and air pollution caused by fossil fuel burning.

As I understand it, this paper compares nuclear power to fossil fuels. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club will argue that the superior alternative, for a host of reasons, is an electrical power system that relies on solar power, wind power and other forms of renewable energy. In theory, they’re right–but it has yet to be demonstrated that a modern electricity grid can rely upon intermittent sources of energy for round-the-clock affordable power.

Germany is the country most often praised by enviros for its commitment to renewable energy. According to Osha Gray Davidson’s excellent Kindle Single, Clean Break, Germany gets about 25 percent of its electricity from solar, wind and biomass. But  Osha reports that getting to Germany’s goal of 80% of electricity from renewables will require building 5,000 miles of power lines, at a cost of $25 billion, as well as developing cost-effective means of energy storage for days when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Already, Germany residential electricity customers pay about 28 cents per kilowatt, roughly three times the average cost in the U.S.; about 5 cents of the 28 cents is attributable to renewable energy subsidies, according to Der Speigel. Electricity from Germany’s solar installations cost four times as much as a Finnish nuclear plant that’s behind schedule and over budget, according to this analysis by Alex Trembath. Solar panel prices have dropped more than 80% in the past five years, so driving prices lower won’t be easy.

To be sure, nuclear power is also expensive and it comes with significant tradeoffs, as do all forms of energy. (Solar and wind projects in Germany are destroying natural habitat, provoking a backlash from environmentalists.) Nuclear waste disposal remains a big issue in the US, although the problem is more political than technological. Another big drawback:  Nukes take a long time to build, in part because of opposition from groups like Greenpeace. But countries like France have devised solutions to the problem of nuclear waste, and smaller-scale, next-generation nukes could be deployed more rapidly, assuming they clear regulatory hurdles in the US. In any event, in the near term, no new nuclear plants will be developed in the US because natural gas prices are too low. So the issue is moot for now.

Given that, I’m renewing with Greenpeace. The NGO does a lot more good than harm.

But I hope my friends at Greenpeace and the Sierra Club will rethink their opposition to nuclear power. We don’t need an all-of-the-above energy strategy–that’s folly, if it includes burning lots of fossil fuels–but we do need an all-of-the-above low carbon energy strategy, led by a strong commitment to renewables and energy efficiency, but including nuclear and some natural gas (ideally with carbon capture) to provide affordable baseload power. Instead of trying to eliminate nuclear power, environmentalists should work with industry to make it safer and cheaper.

As the Greenpeace banner above says: “Climate change is deadly. Get serious.”


  1. No more nuclear until the waste problem is solved period. And no more off-shore drilling until oil companies are required to be responsible for their accidents. 100% responsible, no caps on liability. BP destroyed the Gulf and has made thousands of people very sick. That is inexcusable and all perpetrated by legislators in exchange for campaign contributions.

    Legalize hemp. Investigate solar roads. Stop suppressing bio-fuels. There are too many good alternatives to nuclear. The only people who want nuclear are those who stand to gain financially. If they are well-connected politically, they only have to look at the short term because every 4-6 years, the connections change and they gotta buy somebody new.

    Screw the consumer. Most of them are kept working so hard they don’t notice until it’s too late.

    • Ed Reid says:

      The “solution” to the “waste” problem is “don’t waste it”. Reprocessing provides additional reactor fuel, increasing the overall efficiency of the nuclear generation process.

    • Yes! lol Both of you, in my opinion, are right. And I think so is Marc in pointing out the conundrum of Greenpeace’s letter.

      I had a chuckle at this “…but it has yet to be demonstrated that a modern electricity grid can rely upon intermittent sources of energy for round-the-clock affordable power.”

      Where I live, (Cali.) PG&E has no “modern” grid. They suffer from the challenges of taking on more solar power while their ancient grid dilapidates more every day. It’s old, mechanical, and PG&E wants to add the cost of UPGRADING it to the people’s bills over the 5-15 years to come. Tens of millions in planned PG&E cost increases are set. I would LOVE solar, with battery backup, off the grid. Maybe one day…

  2. Ed Reid says:

    “…as well as developing cost-effective means of energy storage for days when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.”

    Please note that the “cost-effective means of energy storage” must be filled with electricity available in excess of demand on the electricity system. This means that the renewable generating facilities must be built larger, so that there is excess electricity to store.

    Please also note that storage must work not only to fill diurnal demand/supply mismatches, but also to provide power when the intermittent renewable systems are not functioning because of weather conditions. This latter requirement significantly increases the storage capacity required to assure grid stability and reliability

    Obviously, both excess generating capacity and significant storage capacity add to system costs, which are already higher than the costs of conventional systems.

  3. Marc,

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece. As a board member of Greenpeace USA, I have had similar reservations. My defense of Greenpeace is that they simply point out that “shit happens”. Whether they are talking about the transportation of chemicals by train through major cities or Nuclear power plants that are not supposed to have any problems … until there are problems — they are consistent. I think Nuclear power can be built safely, not cheaply as you point out, but safely. The challenge when I made that point in college, Chernobyl happened. Right when I was winning in my arguments with my friends 2 years ago, Fukushima happens. I still believe that my arguments about Nuclear being safe are valid, but the general public is not OK with 99.9% safety with Nuclear, they need 100%. For as long as this is the case, Nuclear will get ever more expensive and the alternatives are getting ever cheaper.

    In the end, Greenpeace is right, we can accomplish our goal without building new Nuclear. In fact, our money will stretch farther if we do.

    Jigar Shah

  4. Marc Gunther says:

    Jigar, thanks for your comment. Like you, I remain a Greenpeace supporter. I don’t expect Greenpeace or Sierra Club to suddenly become enthusiastic about nuclear power; that would upset their members and donors. But I do wish they would stop spreading fears about nukes. Nuclear power is preferably to coal and arguably preferably to natural gas. All energy sources require tradeoffs, and we should be able to have a mature discussion about that.

  5. Thanks Marc. I dropped my support of Greenpeace after just a couple months when they started sending me a lot of anti-GMO email. GMO is a scientific technique, not an end product, and as such shouldn’t be vilified. I’m all for a regulatory regime that limits how and when GMOs are used in our food supply to increase safety and decrease environmental impact, but to throw out an incredibly powerful technology just because it is being misused today is simple minded.

    I prefer to support organizations that affect the public by being truthful and appreciative of the complexity of many problems (at least carefully weighting pros and cons), not ones that keep the level of dialogue as lowbrow as possible.

    • Foster Boondoggle says:

      Agreed. There’s a strain of anti-rationalism in Greenpeace that I first noticed 20 years ago when a campaigner came to my door with a petition to “eliminate chlorine” (that was how he put it). He reacted very angrily when I pointed out that he would die without it.

      Greenpeace’s anti-GMO efforts, particularly in Europe and south Asia, seem driven by the same know-nothing mix of fear of the unseen, ignorance and techno-phobia.

      Progressive advocacy is strongest when we base our views on facts and empiricism, which are generally on our side. (The externalities of air and water pollution, overfishing, CO2 emissions, etc. are real and extremely costly.) Our opponents have money and short term greed on their side. Without anchoring our views in reality, we lose the firm ground that gives us leverage and we can be easily dismissed by the self-interested. Espousing anti-scientific (and often hysterically expressed) views in one context then makes it easy for progressives’ views to be ignored in others, even when genuinely supported by fact.

  6. Great article! These anti-nuclear folks need to get their facts straight.

    “If a meltdown was to occur, the accident could kill and injure tens of thousands of people and leave large regions uninhabitable.”

    => Well, it is already known what happens when an American reactor melts down. Three Mile Island: 0 deaths, 0 injuries, no large-scale release of radiotoxicity. No “large uninhabitable regions”. That’s a 1950s horror/scifi movie clichee. Not reality.

    Also, what people should keep in mind is that we do not only need to replace fossil-fired power stations with zero-carbon options, but also the direct burning of mineral oil products, in car engines, jet engines, heating systems, locomotives, ship Diesels etc. These need to be replaced by electrical motors (cars, locomotives), synthetic fuels or hydrogen (jets) or directly by small nuclear reactors (ships). This will imply the necessity of installing much more electrical generating capacity then we have today, probably 3 kW(e) per person or more. While it’s possible on paper to do this through mirror-trough-style solar power in deserts, the amounts of material, work hours, land area, long-distance high voltage lines etc. would be prohibitive. So, go nuclear!

    • Playing devils advocate here…Fukushima isn’t enough reason to divert some gov. funds into bringing solar into the 21st century? I agree we are taxing our electrical capacity, but why build more of what will decimate us in the event of natural or weather caused disasters (currently occurring at alarming rates, no?). Decimate, as in poison our earth.

      • Ed Reid says:


        The US federal government has spent billions to bring solar into the 21st century, but the cost is still far too high to be competitive.

        None of the current electric generating technologies have the potential to “decimate” us, either literally or by your non-literal definition.

        Natural and/or weather caused disasters are not only not “currently occurring at alarming rates”, they are currently occurring at greatly diminished rates.

        I suggest you look at the data on hurricane, tornado and drought frequency and severity, rather that merely listening to the catastrophists.

        “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”, Daniel Patrick Moynihan

  7. Hi Marc,
    You make quite a valid point there. Working in Germany with a big solar EPC, it is quite apparent that building an energy infrastructure based on just Renewables – Wind, Solar, Hydropower and Biomass is riddled with challenged and might just not make the cut – unless we figure out a cheap and efficient means of storing the energy when the sun shines and the wind moves.

    And (at least) during this transition from dirty coal-fired power plants as well as the less dirty gas powered power plants, we need Nuclear power. I might not completely agree that we need to build NEW nuclear power plans, especially not in developed countries, where the amount of electricity has pretty much peaked and remaining stable.

    However, the issue is much more complex when we talk about developing countries such as India (where I originally come from), China, Vietnam, etc. On the one hand, the US, the EU, etc are shifting their manufacturing to these countries in an order to reduce costs and/or shifting their dirty emissions to these ‘developing’ countries. On the other hand we expect these countries – which have had an extremely low per capita energy footprint, to keep their CO2 emissions in check.

    These countries have an acute need to have access to cheap(ish) energy and I think the best trade-off would be to build new, safer Nuclear reactors – say using thorium-based reactors.

  8. Hello Marc,

    I share your perspective on Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear, as well as Sibley’s and Foster’s perspective on Greenpeace’s anti-GMO, stances. While I supported the organization in years past, I no longer do for those reasons, preferring The Nature Conservancy instead.

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