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New York Times wants you to want nuclear energy

The paper's recent opinion and news coverage portrays climate realities trumping nuclear concerns.

The 2 May New York Times editorial "The right lessons from Chernobyl" states the Times's institutional answer to a question that the Times's opinion and news pages have been probing lately: What about the future of nuclear reactors? The newspaper plainly wants—in fact, urges—citizens and policymakers to see them as "a vital source of clean energy in a warming world."

"The dangers of nuclear power are real," the editors acknowledge, "but the accidents that have occurred, even Chernobyl, do not compare to the damage to the earth being inflicted by the burning of fossil fuels." They also warn:

In the past year and a half, four power companies have announced the early retirement of five nuclear reactors, which supplied 4.2 percent of America's total nuclear generating capacity. Two are in California and one each in Florida, Wisconsin and Vermont. Another company is considering closing as many as three financially struggling reactors in Illinois.

Meanwhile an elaborately crafted 13-minute video appears on the Times's website, complemented by an online article. The video's teaser blurb asks, "More than three decades after the accident at Three Mile Island cast a shadow on the atomic dream, is America again ready to give nuclear energy a chance?" The film's introductory minutes show newscaster Walter Cronkite announcing the 1979 accident, report then-president Jimmy Carter's focus on it, and emphasize how it fundamentally undermined public trust in nuclear power. The introduction repeats the Times's question: "Is America again ready to embrace the promise of nuclear power?"

Then it shows Michael Shellenberger answering: "If we don't have nuclear, it's gonna be a much hotter planet." On 9 April, Shellenberger and his Breakthrough Institute colleague Ted Nordhaus lamented in a Times op-ed that "virtually every major national environmental organization continues to reject nuclear energy." They called for "embracing" it instead, to "slow global warming."

The video leads back to Shellenberger after summarizing the evolution of American views on nuclear power. The summary relies on old television and newspaper reports, looks back at the nuclear-disaster movie The China Syndrome, and conveys comments from physicist and historian Spencer Weart of the American Institute of Physics. At one point the video shows an old TV clip of someone saying that Three Mile Island had the potential to "wipe out" the "entire eastern seaboard." Then Shellenberger comes back to discredit exaggerated fears, to say that the pressing concern now is instead a hotter world, and to condemn the "dangerous delusion" of believing that wind and solar are going to meet the energy demands of 9 billion people.

Along those lines, a 28 April Times news article told of new pressure from some environmentalists and the nuclear industry to preserve aging reactors. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an independent nonprofit formerly known as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, has released a research paper. A new lobbying effort under the name Nuclear Matters involves three former senators—Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh, New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg, and Michigan Republican Spencer Abraham, who is also a former energy secretary—and William M. Daley, a former chief of staff to President Obama.

The article notes dissent:

An antinuclear group based in Washington, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, referred to both Nuclear Matters and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions as "de facto nuclear industry front groups" and said the groups were trying to create a false impression that environmentalists were warming to nuclear power.

And the Times engages dissent. In a letter to the editor responding to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, Robert F. Kennedy Jr, president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, wrote in part:

Many environmentalists would welcome nuclear power if it ever becomes safe and economical. Current construction costs for new nuclear plants run approximately five times the cost per megawatt of wind, solar or natural gas.

Even before Fukushima, private insurance carriers—the ultimate arbiters of risk—ranked nuclear power plants so dangerous that they would not indemnify them. Thanks to industry lobbyists, the public now bears most of that burden, along with the ruinous costs of waste disposal which, despite its promises, the industry has yet to solve.

The Times also recently ran a Fukushima update article headlined "Forced to flee radiation, fearful Japanese villagers are reluctant to return." And it published a piece called "Chernobyl: Capping a catastrophe," reporting on the 32 000-ton steel arch being constructed to shield the disaster site for a century, and calling it "a stark reminder that nuclear energy, for all of its benefits, carries enormous risks."

The Times editorial, though, ends by alluding to that arch, declaring that policymakers must "not be spooked into shutting down a vital source of clean energy in a warming world. The great shield over Chernobyl should also entomb unfounded fears of using nuclear power in the future."


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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