The nuclear energy dilemma in Trump’s era
Introductions: context, debates, and urgency
After the Fukushima Daiichi disaster of 2011, nuclear energy has been facing challenge after challenge: global public support for nuclear energy generation has decreased, major countries with significant nuclear capacity have announced phase-outs or complete shutdowns of existing nuclear infrastructure, and the future of nuclear new build is threatened, with some plants cancelled and projects shelved (Kim, Kim, and Kim 2013; Schneider 2013). At the same time, proponents of nuclear energy consistently seek to highlight that for all of the risks associated with large nuclear accidents, it remains a statistically far safer option for energy generation than coal or other fossil fuels, and has the additional benefits of being a low-carbon technology with the potential to mitigate climate change (Kharecha and Hansen 2013; T. Nordhaus and Shellenberger 2013; Wolf 2015). Opponents of nuclear energy, however, cite its high costs, inescapable disaster risks, and tendencies towards political cronyism and industry lobbying as reasons to reduce, rather than increase, nuclear’s share in the energy mix (Lovins 2011; Schneider 2013). This is a debate with enormously high stakes: anthropogenic climate change is an urgent threat to the livelihoods of millions of people, especially in developing countries, and the transition to a low-carbon economy must proceed with speed and urgency if climate change is to be adequately mitigated and the worst projections avoided (IPCC 2014).
While the environmental community is busy debating the prospects of nuclear energy in climate change mitigation, significant political shifts in the United States have presented an entirely new but not unrelated set of challenges: the election of a pro-coal, climate change-denying candidate in Donald Trump and his subsequent pro-fossil fuel cabinet appointees thus far raise the spectre of undoing much of the progress made by the Obama Administration and the Paris Agreement, while also putting into serious jeopardy the future prospects of some renewable energy technologies (Kaufman 2016; Sidahmed 2016). The promises made by President-elect Trump to coal communities, the major divisions within the American public on the threat of climate change, and the strong pro-fossil fuel orientation of many on his Cabinet mean that there is no guarantee that fossil fuel’s contribution to the energy mix in the United States will continue to decline. While some see hope in several of Trump’s recent decisions – including a private meeting between him, his daughter, and Al Gore – most analysis of his decisions thus far does not bode well for U.S. commitments on climate change mitigation or further reductions in carbon emissions.
This paper attempts to intervene at the intersection of these two urgent problems. I ask two broad research questions:
- What is the potential role of nuclear energy in mitigating climate change, and what challenges does it face?
- What is the upshot, for (i), of Donald Trump’s election in the United States?
I draw on three academic literatures to make my argument: the scientific literature on nuclear energy (in terms of health, costs, and weaponization risks), the empirical literature on public opinion towards nuclear power (including the effects of disasters, institutional trust, media, and political polarisation), and comparative analyses of nuclear energy policy across countries (with a focus on differences in liberal democracies). I also draw on recent coverage and analysis of Donald Trump’s climate agenda to inform my analysis of what Trump’s presidency may offer on climate change and nuclear energy.
Having marshalled all of this evidence, I will argue that nuclear energy, with appropriate institutional support and regulation, has significant potential to mitigate climate change. Firstly, new nuclear plants based on updated technology can be safe and efficient and remain relatively affordable, while older plants should not be phased out ahead of schedule, but should instead be updated to meet high safety standards where possible. Secondly, public opinion on nuclear energy in the United States is ambivalent, significantly affected by partisan media coverage, and varies somewhat along demographic (age, gender) lines, with similar dynamics playing out in other liberal democracies where nuclear energy is a sizable part of the domestic energy mix. There, however, public opinion also interacts with other institutional factors – such as trust and framing – in important ways that suggest lessons for the United States. Finally, of all the options presently put ‘on the table’ by a Trump administration, further investment in nuclear power is a strong option for environmentalists interested in mitigating climate change to put their support behind. Demonising nuclear power or seeking to phase it out when its replacement may be coal or other fossil fuels is both morally impermissible and strategically unwise, especially for an environmental movement dedicated to combating climate change and transitioning away from fossil fuels.
Parsing the Nuclear Debates: Health, costs, and proliferation
Perhaps the most significant problem with the nuclear energy debate, as it is presently playing out in the environmental movement, is a disagreement on the basic facts. Major environmental groups routinely criticise studies that are positive about nuclear energy, while also claiming that much of the research and publicly-available information on nuclear energy is funded by industry groups intent on protecting their economic interests (Greenpeace International n.d.; Bennett 2014; Macilwain 2011). This position is seen as reprehensibly anti-science by a number of academics and environmentalists, who have argued that – just as with genetically modified food – the green movement seems to have forgotten what the true problem is (fossil fuels) and has begun attacking some of the solutions (nuclear energy) instead – effectively making the perfect the enemy of the good (Lynas 2012; T. Nordhaus and Shellenberger 2013; Pearce 2012). Two things are of interest here. Firstly, environmental groups critical of nuclear energy who take political action against it sometimes have conflicts of interests of their own, such as being funded by the also-heavily-subsidised solar industry (Lynas 2012). Secondly, taking a decidedly anti-science position (that is, if one accepts that studies published in peer-reviewed journals and conducted by institutions such as NASA are science) leaves this wing of the environmental movement open to the very same accusation that it frequently levels at climate change deniers, viz. their refusal to accept scientific findings as fact. Rather than attacking the basic scientific facts presented by researchers on nuclear energy, a more productive strategy would be to focus on its risks, costs or political implications.
Perhaps the most significant problem with the nuclear energy debate, as it is presently playing out in the environmental movement, is a disagreement on the basic facts.
As such, an important task for this paper is to frame the debate constructively. What are the basic considerations both sides should try to engage with in their respective arguments on nuclear energy? I offer a realistic principle, grounded on two simple notions: first, that every country works within ‘energy mixes’ that are likely to incorporate several types of technology, and second, that – for all our efforts – we are unlikely to shift the entire energy mix of the global economy to renewable sources such as wind and solar within the short timeframe required for urgently mitigating climate change to avoid the worst projected scenarios. The challenge for the climate movement, therefore, is to find a way to bring down the share of fossil fuels within the global energy mix, presently at about 65% (Brook and Bradshaw 2015), and shift it towards renewables and low-carbon alternatives as quickly as possible. An inclusive coalition must be built, where any technologies that have a reasonable chance of competing with coal, oil and natural gas should be given fair consideration, and it is this realistic conception of the energy challenge that must guide our responses. An evidence-based analysis of each possible option – its economics, its political viabilities, and its scientific risks – should be undertaken for us to best pursue the aim of mitigating climate change, and old ideological commitments should be open to re-evaluation based on evidence.
Nuclear energy and public health
The scientific consensus is clear on the health risks of nuclear energy. Analyses of public health data have found that overall human mortality caused by nuclear energy from 1971 to 2009 adds up to about 4900 deaths, with about 25% of deaths being due to occupational accidents, and about 70% being due to “air-pollution related effects” such as radiation fallout (Kharecha and Hansen 2013). In terms of nuclear accidents with significant radiation fallout, evidence suggests that among the three major nuclear scares thus far (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima) only Chernobyl has any deaths that are “conclusively attributable to nuclear radiation” (Ibid). Even the initial 4900 figure, Kharecha and Hansen admit, is a “major overestimation”: there is simply no evidence for large mortality from nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island and Fukushima.
This is not to say, of course, that nuclear energy completely carries no health risks. Studies done on the health effects on uranium miners suggest that risks of developing certain types of cancers – especially leukemia – rise due to significant long-term exposure to the products of radium decays found in uranium ores (Sagan 1972). The deaths from Chernobyl are not trivial, and the effects of such accidents or routine exposures must be weighed into account when discussing nuclear energy’s health risks. Furthermore, some analysis suggests that those most at risks of adverse health effects are frequently minorities and the disadvantaged, especially indigenous peoples, whose land rights are frequently violated in order for uranium mining permits to be approved (Shrader-Frechette 2011). These statistics are concerning, and the complaints raised by Shrader-Frechette and others regarding inequities in exposure to radionuclides should be taken seriously in trying to build just institutions around nuclear energy.
Even with those caveats, however: when framed as an energy source that competes with coal, oil and natural gas, it is simply not true that nuclear energy poses a substantial danger to public health. Relative to fossil fuels, most credible estimates suggest that nuclear energy is much safer – both for workers and communities. For instance, Kharecha and Hansen (2013) argue that nuclear energy’s development and use as an energy source replacing coal – which has been shown to be by far the most problematic fossil fuel, from both emissions and public health perspectives – has saved thousands of lives. Depending on which fuel it replaces, nuclear energy is projected to save between 420 000 and 7.04 million lives, and is thought to already have prevented close to 1.84 million deaths, although this decreased mortality is mostly concentrated in the United States and OECD Europe, owing to their larger investments in nuclear technology as an energy source (Ibid). The mathematics underpinning this entire analysis represents a frank look at fossil fuels in general and coal in particular: the NASA study by Kharecha and Hansen illustrates the high mortality rate of coal as an energy source, and stresses further that attempts to replace it with natural gas (a less intensely polluting fossil fuel) would still cause far more deaths than replacing coal with nuclear power. As far as public health is concerned, the literature is clear: the claims that nuclear energy is dangerous are clearly unjustifiable, and there is no scientific basis for its demonization as a ‘killer fuel’.
Proliferation, weaponization and security risks
But what of other, more existential risks? Opponents of nuclear energy frequently argue that framing nuclear energy as a solution to global climate change increases the risk of nuclear proliferation, especially since large-scale global deployment of nuclear energy would require giving nuclear energy to countries that are not presently a part of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In his lengthy analysis, Charles Ferguson (2007) argues that nuclear energy’s proliferation risks must be very carefully balanced in order for it to be scaled up at a global level to deal with climate change. The scientific realities underpinning proliferation are well-understood: weapons-grade uranium can indeed be “produced by the same enrichment plant that made low-enriched uranium”, where the latter is a necessary fuel for reactors (Ibid). The risks of providing the technology for nuclear power plants in a situation with limited safeguards or significant geopolitical instability are fresh in the United States’ collective imagination, especially after it spent years intervening on Iran’s nuclear programme.
…If nuclear energy is kept only within the set of countries that already have nuclear plants, it still represents a major opportunity to decrease global carbon emissions.
However, proliferation risk arguments tend to ignore the fact that even if nuclear energy is kept only within the set of countries that already have nuclear plants, it still represents a major opportunity to decrease global carbon emissions. The top five emitters (per EDGAR and European Commission 2015) of carbon at present – China, the United States, the European Union, India and Russia – all already have significant nuclear energy infrastructure, with some variations within the EU. Collectively, these five regions account for over 65% of global emissions, meaning that even if we limited investment in nuclear energy to countries that already have substantial nuclear infrastructure, we would still be able to make a substantial impact on global carbon emissions. Of course, an important caveat here is that even countries with sizable nuclear infrastructure do not necessarily manage their nuclear waste or plutonium stockpiles perfectly, and there are still risks that renegade groups within these regions could gain access to nuclear technology for weaponization. The prospects of this happening are unlikely, however, and given that this paper mostly focuses on the energy mix of the United States it seems reasonable to assume that increased investment in nuclear energy here will not lead to radically enhanced domestic security risks compared to the present climate.
Costs and economic issues
If nuclear energy is safe from both public health and security perspectives, we must then confront other arguments against it: its large start-up costs and uncertain financial viability. Amory Lovins (2012) has been particularly critical of nuclear energy’s costs in much of his writing, specifically decrying the major subsidies that it requires to be financially viable, the long time-scale it requires in order for investments to pay off, and the much cheaper low-hanging fruit gains that we forgo by investing in nuclear energy. He proposes instead that investments be made in energy efficiency and decentralised power grids (‘micropower’), both of which he argues are much more economically viable and likely to scale well. I certainly do not deny that efficiency and micropower are laudable goals, but I fail to see how investing in nuclear energy necessarily prevents us from pursuing them. Large-scale, centralised electricity grids are unlikely to be phased out any time soon, and with the rise of large solar and wind farms it may be a long way to go yet before micropower is capable of replacing grid-based electricity. We must instead look at ways to decarbonise the major sources of electricity currently on the grid – and here, the case is strongest for replacing coal with low-carbon technologies that are ready to scale.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger (2013) provide an instance of nuclear’s financial viability and scalability in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. They take the case of the “beleaguered” Olkiluoto nuclear power plant in Finland, which has suffered from cost increases and delays and is now projected to open in 2018. Olkiluoto is often used by anti-nuclear environmentalists as a cautionary tale: Nordhaus and Schellenberger mention specifically that thinkers like Bill McKibben and others who compare Olkiluoto’s struggles to Germany’s success with solar power might conclude that nuclear is rightly described as being too expensive. But in their calculations, taking into account the large subsidies for solar energy in Germany and factoring in nuclear’s longer 60-year lifespan (compared to solar’s 25 to 30-year lifespan) they find instead that Finland’s plant produces more energy for cheaper than Germany’s solar panels – 4 cents per kWh versus 16 cents per kWh. The mathematics seems to suggest that nuclear power – especially new build – is significantly more affordable than other renewables presently, but also that nuclear’s high start-up costs (Ferguson 2011) mean that government investment and regulation is likely to be necessary in order to ensure its financial viability.
Lessons from the Science
Ultimately, it seems that the scientific data allows for a nuanced-but-positive case to be made for nuclear energy. While health risks do exist for miners and those caught in major nuclear fallout, these risks are often vastly exaggerated and do not come close to approaching the magnitude of health risks posed by fossil fuels, especially coal. Considering that the majority of the developing world still deals with the major pollution-related problems posed by coal-fired power plants, it seems odd – and perhaps a touch hypocritical – for developed nations with strong nuclear infrastructure to opt to phase out nuclear because of minor safety concerns, especially when phasing out may mean increasing reliance on fossil fuels (Wolf 2015; Karnitschnig 2014). Beyond public health, it seems clear that the spectre of nuclear proliferation is also overblown: among the largest emitters, for whom there is significant room for emissions reductions, the top five already have significant nuclear energy infrastructure. Raising investment in nuclear energy can reduce carbon emissions by these economies, without spreading the technology to countries we fear might be tempted to weaponise – and doing so would not actually require a major re-thinking of global nuclear energy safeguards and monitoring institutions. As for economic arguments against nuclear energy – while the literature clearly suggests that the technology requires substantial start-up investment and subsidies, long-term gains seem to put it firmly within the bounds of reasonable costs-per-kWh. This, too, supports a modest-but-positive outlook on nuclear energy’s potential for climate change mitigation.
‘Nuclear Opinion’: Accident effects, media, and institutions
Yet economic and safety arguments alone are insufficient for understanding the unique issues nuclear energy faces as a tool to mitigate climate change, and here we must turn to the public opinion literature to understand some of the obstacles and possibilities surrounding increasing adoption of nuclear energy, especially in liberal democracies like the United States. In my analysis, I have identified two main elements that influence public opinion on nuclear energy: the effect of high-profile accidents and their coverage, and the effect of institutional framing and trust.
Accident effects: nuclear realities post-Fukushima
Nuclear accidents such as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster of 2011 are traditionally thought to have transformative and negative effects on both public opinion and actual policy towards nuclear energy, but the truth is that the relationship is less straightforward and depends on several mediating factors. In a study examining American perceptions of nuclear risk post-Fukushima, Yeo et al. (2014) show that partisan amplification of risk in media coverage contributed significantly to the distribution of opinions around nuclear energy. Specifically, they found that higher levels of media attention among conservatives – those who watched more Fox News coverage, for instance – actually decreased risk perception of nuclear energy, whereas risk perceptions among conservatives less exposed to the media were increased in the immediate aftermath of the event, although they did decrease later. Liberals had few effects to risk perception, which the authors of the study suggest is likely due to a ceiling effect – most already had high risk perceptions towards nuclear energy. Another interesting dynamic about Fukushima coverage was the confusion and conflict between experts and officials on what to do – this tended to give journalists a harder task of comprehensively covering the event, since authority figures were disagreeing on the impacts and next steps required.
Interestingly, similar studies that were done on public opinion effects in Germany after the Fukushima incident found that media also played an influence, but in a less partisan way: across the various outlets, coverage of “risk versus security” issues grew sharply and stayed high after the Fukushima incident, whereas prior coverage up to 2010 had mostly focused on economic topics (Arlt and Wolling 2016). Increased negative coverage of nuclear energy had a significant effect on public opinion in Germany in all arenas except the nuclear industry itself, which reinforces the importance of media as a mediating factor in the public’s processing of such incidents.
These findings suggest several interesting takeaways. Firstly, partisanship and polarisation matter. When multiple narratives exist suggesting how an event like a nuclear accident can be understood, people often turn to the narrative that most aligns with their pre-existing political commitments. Second, an individual’s level of engagement with the media is important. Conservatives who only saw limited coverage were likely to see only the alarming initial details pertaining to nuclear fallout and security risks, whereas those who stayed tuned in continued to receive reassurances and optimistic analysis from pro-nuclear energy experts and journalists on their partisan media channels. Thirdly, this illustrates comprehensively that accidents alone do not necessarily determine opinions towards nuclear energy. Prior to the Fukushima disaster, most conservatives’ views towards nuclear energy were actually negative, stemming in part from the Obama Administration’s support for nuclear energy (Yeo et al. 2014). After the disaster, however, polarising coverage resulted in conservatives actually having more positive views towards nuclear energy, whereas views among liberals became more negative. People’s prior political and ideological commitments, alongside efforts by the nuclear industry to shape media narratives, are important for understanding how these disasters are understood. In a narrow sense, this suggests that there may be hope yet for nuclear energy in the American public’s eye: if the nuclear industry and environmentalists can present a compelling case in the media, they may be able to overcome the hurdles of nuclear accidents that result in perceptions of nuclear energy’s danger increasing in the public’s imagination and draining support from nuclear technology. I argue that if partisan risk amplification results in coverage of nuclear accidents pushing public support away from nuclear energy and towards more ‘traditional’ fuels, such as coal and gas, then these media effects can be damaging to the cause of mitigating climate change, especially since any perception that coal or gas are safer than nuclear energy is simply factually untrue. As such, careful management of narratives and discourses should be considered. How might one frame the nuclear energy debate to the American public, both during and apart from disasters, such that people arrive at similar evidence-based conclusions to scientists in the field?
Institutional framing and trust: comparative lessons
Here, we must engage broader questions about public opinion on nuclear energy – especially as it relates to trust in institutions and framing. In their analysis of debates over nuclear ‘new build’ in Finland, France and the UK, Teräväinen, Lehtonen, and Martiskainen (2011) identify three different frames present within public debates over nuclear energy – all of which suggest interesting parallels for the United States in the context of a post-Trump election. Specifically, they identify a ‘technology-and-industry-know-best’ discourse in Finland, a ‘government-knows-best’ discourse in France, and a ‘markets-know-best’ discourse in the UK. They found that high levels of institutional trust in Finland were correlated with public support for nuclear energy, given the near-monopoly held by the nuclear industry on the production of authoritative knowledge about the science on nuclear power. The differential outcomes in France, the UK and Finland, according to this analysis, are attributable to the different discourses and framing strategies used by institutions in the respective countries: in Britain, for instance, the state’s responsibility for energy management was constructed as “keeping the lights on” and simply avoiding major electrical disruptions, whereas for France and Finland no such insecurities were present in public discourse, with emphasis being shifted instead to national sovereignty (especially in terms of Finland’s independence from Russia) and nuclear as a ‘national project’.
Another study by Brouard and Guinaudeau (2015) analyses public opinion and nuclear policy debates in France, and discusses how the effects of public opinion are conditioned by “party incentives to politicise the issue at stake”. Specifically, they observe that the pro-nuclear trajectory of France’s politics does not actually reflect public opinion on the technology, precisely because of the lack of what they call ‘democratic responsiveness’ in France’s highly technocratic decision making apparatus. They also observe how the challenges of party politics – such as managing fragile coalitions and avoiding politicising an issue where party stances are not in line with public opinion – gave French policymakers an incentive to “observe party discipline” when voting on nuclear energy issues and avoid questions on nuclear power during parliamentary debates, effectively locking-in a pro-nuclear stance for decades. These findings – that nuclear energy is not in step with public opinion, and that decision-making is often confined within the hands of a small set of elites – are applicable also to the United States, where some analyses have shown that public opinion has historically not influenced Congressional voting patterns on nuclear energy (Bisconti and Peterson 2004).
These analyses suggest two major takeaways. Firstly, institutions matter: their legitimacy and track records, as well as their attempts to frame the discourse around nuclear energy, can have a significant impact both on public opinion and eventual nuclear energy outcomes. Institutions that manage to frame nuclear energy in ways salient to their populations (such as through inspiring confidence in “safe Finnish reactors” or emphasising the importance of French exports for “world poverty reduction”) are more likely to build the support required to succeed. There exists a wide variety of framing devices through which to communicate nuclear energy’s appeal, some of which do not even rely on acceptance of anthropogenic climate change: narratives like energy security, independence from foreign oil, fostering local technological innovation, and ‘leading the world’ in innovation were strongly employed in the French, Finnish and British cases. Discourses that do emphasise climate change can also be effective, with France and Finland in respectively articulating a sense of responsibility towards future generations and a pride in ‘carrying one’s weight’ in international climate negotiations, and both being effective in mobilising support.
Secondly, nuclear energy does not appear, fundamentally, to be a technology amenable to contentious democratic politics – in fact, societies with lower democratic responsiveness and less potential for contention appear to have more favourable nuclear energy outcomes. This is a disturbing finding, even though it does not take away from the fundamental appeal of nuclear energy as a mitigatory force against climate change. The resistance by some environmentalists to nuclear power can be better understood when approaching nuclear technology in this way: if we accept that societies with less robust political debate are necessary (or, at least, helpful) for nuclear energy to be more successful, their resistance to the way nuclear energy incentivises technocrats to concentrate power becomes much more reasonable. Amory Lovins’ critique (2011) becomes more plausible: it really does seem that the nuclear industry is propped up by a strong group of special interests and politicians, rather than popular support. An interesting follow-up question is raised: should societies accept this as a trade-off? Are there some technologies that are fundamentally less democratic, in that they presuppose or incentivise certain types of political arrangements in order to be successfully adopted? Arnold Pacey’s (1983) warning against viewing technology as value-neutral or politically neutral seems salient here, and further analyses beyond the scope of this paper might make comparisons between different types of renewables and their relative openness to democratic control, perhaps thinking of a ‘technology-democracy index’ that would likely view micropower innovations and decentralised technological options (such as rooftop solar grids) as being more open than large, heavily subsidised and regulated power grids running on anything from coal to nuclear which tend to concentrate and centralise power in the hands of elites. We must be wary, however, of insisting on decentralisation: as much as its appeals to individual electrical self-sufficiency are attractive, they necessarily come at a price, given the loss of economies of scale from large centralised plants.
Ultimately, I maintain that a nuanced case can be made for using nuclear energy as a means to raise institutional trust, such that its accompanying reduced democratic responsiveness need not necessarily be a result of illiberal power-concentrating processes, but can instead be a result of regime legitimacy and confidence in government regulators and private innovation. For instance, the Finnish and French cases clearly demonstrate the power of framing nuclear energy as a national project, where energy independence and fostering technological innovation are framed as being, in important ways, the role of productive state-industry partnerships that are supported and rendered legitimate by the public. In similar ways, one might argue that the US nuclear energy programme is an asset to American nuclear diplomacy internationally and that building an American consensus in favour of a strongly regulated and responsible nuclear energy industry should be a goal of both environmentalists and diplomats. Within the legislative government, nuclear energy thus far has enjoyed broadly bipartisan support, suggesting that it has potential to bridge divides within an increasingly polarised political climate. However, there is currently deep uncertainty in the American political climate, where Donald Trump’s election has prompted more pessimistic outlooks on the future of democratic norms and consensus building. But what concretely are Donald Trump’s policy positions on climate change, and how might they affect the prospects of nuclear development?
Mapping the political landscape: Donald Trump and climate change
Here, we begin to find some rather strange developments that are simultaneously cause for optimism and pessimism. Firstly, despite his denial of climate change, Trump supports nuclear energy (Nuclear Energy Institute 2016). He has in the past cited reasons such as energy independence (especially framed as being rid of ‘horrible monopolies’ represented by oil imported from OPEC) and untapped technological potential to justify his views, and our research thus far suggests that both of these narratives have been used in other liberal democracies in the past to some success. Some recent moves by the Trump administration have also been particularly welcoming towards the nuclear industry: a request made by his transition team to the Energy Department suggests that he is searching for ways to keep nuclear viable and prevent the shutdown of plants (Chediak and Traywick 2016). At the same time, we cannot afford to neglect that the cabinet he has appointed thus far is distinctively pro-fossil fuel, with recent nominations like Rick Perry as Energy Secretary and Scott Pruitt as EPA head proving particularly baffling to environmentalists (Leber and Adler 2016).
Nothing about Donald Trump’s impending presidency appears to be cause for even modest optimism about climate regulations, except for some recent sobering analyses that suggest that the stated emissions policies of nations have little effect on actual emissions reductions, with the most prominent forces actually being macroeconomic and technological trends such as the shale revolution or the collapse of the Soviet Union, among many others (T. Nordhaus and Lovering 2016). In this view, explicit climate policy has mixed, if any, impacts on actual emissions reductions except in rare exceptions such as the UK post-2008, when strong policies combined with economic forces to result in significant and successful decarbonisation efforts. However, such an analysis seems premature at best and cherrypicking at worst: while international climate negotiations may not necessarily directly influence domestic policymaking or the macroeconomic forces exerting pressures to decarbonise upon economies, it would be foolish to rule them out or disregard their impacts in terms of creating the impetus for state and local-level mitigation efforts and subsequently incentives to adopt the technologies that Nordhaus and Lovering mention. If nothing else at all, climate policy in the United States surely matters from the point of view of international co-operation and mitigation participation models: both William Nordhaus (2013) and Ostrom (2014) affirm the importance of broad participation in climate change mitigation if efforts are to have any prospect of success.
Ultimately, however, the main theme to emphasise with Donald Trump’s presidency and its implications for climate change is uncertainty. Given his singularly strong capacity to influence the media, we have in recent weeks seen events that lead us to wonder how Trump’s views can vary all over the spectrum: whether it was meeting Al Gore to discuss climate change, appointing Rex Tillerson (who, incidentally, has come out in favour of climate change mitigation during his tenure as Exxon’s CEO) to Secretary of State or selecting Rick Perry to lead a department he once said he would eliminate, a consistent thread thus far has been his unpredictability.
Fortunately, however, recent trends show that while his views towards climate change may be in a state of flux, his views on nuclear energy remain positive, and this opens up a major political opportunity pathway for environmentalists to build a coalition with Trump and his political base. Leveraging this opportunity will require honest soul-searching on the part of some anti-nuclear greens, but the urgency of our present political predicament demands it.
Offering a Synthesis: Nuclear science, nuclear opinion, nuclear policy and Trump’s America
In the final analysis, we are left with a few main conclusions and suggestions for the environmental movement going forward. Firstly, now that it has been made abundantly clear that nuclear energy really is a safe fuel, environmentalists must square with the scientific facts and cease their demonization of the fuel source and alarmist rhetoric around nuclear accidents. Secondly, given its high start-up costs and the long-term time horizons required for nuclear plants to effectively deliver on their promises, major thought must be given to designing regulations that ensure safe but cost-effective functioning of nuclear plants. Thirdly, fears of weapons proliferation do not detract from the fundamental observation that nuclear energy still has the potential to shift the energy mixes of large emitters away from coal and towards a low-carbon source. Framed as a long-term alternative to solar and wind, it is unlikely that many environmentalists would support it, but framed in our present reality as the alternative to coal it certainly will become in a Trump administration its potential as a climate mitigator must be accepted and understood.
On the political front, the impacts of public opinion on nuclear policy tend to be muted – in the sense that technocratic elites typically make nuclear policy without necessarily being in step with public opinion on nuclear energy – but there are definitely lessons for the nuclear lobby and its environmentalist allies to learn in order to ‘re-brand’ nuclear energy. The first lesson gleaned from comparative public opinion studies is that institutions matter. The media, science organisations, governments, industry and civil society can all have significant effects on framing discourses on nuclear energy during public debates. In particular, the media’s role in the aftermath of a nuclear accident has been found to be particularly significant, and if nuclear energy remains an issue that divides polarised publics (but interestingly, not their elected representatives) then fears of further division seem justifiable, especially since people who consume more news media appeared to experience much more strongly the effects of partisan amplification or downplaying of nuclear’s safety risks. Beyond the media, many other institutions play a critical role in framing discourses around nuclear policy, with frames tailored to local experiences and pressures often finding success. Trust in bureaucracy and technological expertise is also important for determining whether nuclear energy enjoys public support or public scepticism. There are interesting future dimensions to with regard to nuclear energy and its effect on democratic institutions, specifically as it relates to how technocrats can be disincentivised from debating nuclear energy or incentivised to set the agenda of any debate in such a way that it will, by default, benefit the nuclear lobby. Societies that choose to invest heavily in the nuclear option seem to require a level of distance between public opinion and policy, which opens up interesting questions about decentralisation versus efficiency paradigms.
The environmental movement can either choose to embrace Donald Trump’s sympathetic position towards nuclear energy, or it can continue its broad response so far and attempt to obstruct and resist as many of his decisions as possible while campaigning for robust state-level policies to mitigate climate change.
Finally, the upshot of all of this analysis with regard to Donald Trump’s election suggests that the environmental movement is currently presented with a very unique political opportunity. It can either choose to embrace Donald Trump’s sympathetic position towards nuclear energy, or it can continue its broad response so far and attempt to obstruct and resist as many of his decisions as possible while campaigning for robust state-level policies to mitigate climate change. While the ‘states rights’ approach has potential to positively impact emissions and regulatory standards, I argue that there must be some level of realist acknowledgement that Donald Trump is going to have some effect on the United States’ energy mix. If we are not vigilant and he is allowed to proceed with his pro-pipeline and pro-‘clean coal’ rhetoric we may find ourselves having to deal with significant setbacks to emissions reduction efforts passed by the Obama Administration, which would be a considerably larger setback than simply trying to transition out of more nuclear energy in the far future. Within a realist frame that tries to shift energy mixes away from fossil fuels, it is clear that nuclear energy is the most politically viable candidate for future investment at the moment – especially given Trump’s frequent criticism of wind energy for its unsightliness and solar energy for its costs.
If we are serious, then, about our commitments to act on climate change, we must see that our efforts do not go towards unproductively blocking the only low-carbon initiatives that Donald Trump supports; we must re-think our calls to phase out nuclear energy while doubling down on further research into renewables, efficiency and micropower; and finally, we must consider carefully how to reduce the gap between public risk perceptions and scientific concern for the safety of nuclear energy, and shape public discourses that deal honestly with nuclear’s threats and promises while also keeping the strong realistic goal of shifting energy mixes towards renewables firmly in mind.
Feroz Khan is a Junior at Yale-NUS studying environmental science.
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