The Great Mumble: A New Generation Slouches Toward Nukes

nukes The Great Mumble: A New Generation Slouches Toward NukesIt wasn’t all that long ago that supporting nuclear power as a Democrat in New York State was an easy way to lose an election.

"In 1992 I was in a three-way race for the State Assembly," said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, whose opponents in that race were a high school math teacher in his fifties and a "self-described ’50’s housewife," according to Cahill.  "We sat before the active Democrats of our community. And the question came up about nuclear power. And the moment it came up, I knew I was going to be the last person standing. Because they both said they were O.K. with it. And my community was definitely not."

Mr. Cahill, who represents much of Ulster County and the area around Rhinebeck, in Dutchess County, stressed that his win was "coincidental." Even so, the sentiment remains powerful: supporting nuclear power did not earn votes.

That’s changing somewhat—although it should be said, not much in the Hudson Valley, which is home to numerous environmental groups and represented by one of Indian Point’s most visible opponents, Representative John Hall.

"It’s split," said Assemblyman Michael Gianaris of Queens, one of very few local elected Democrats—and perhaps the only one in New York City—who openly supports expanding nuclear energy. "It used to be all against, and now it’s become split."

Mr. Gianaris, 38, was first elected in 2000 and considers energy one of his main concerns. "It solves a lot of environmental justice problems," he said of nuclear power. According to internal research by his office, the area he represents produces 60 percent of New York City’s electricity—all from traditional power plants. He explains his position this way: "My concern has always been reducing the reliance on these pollution-spewing plants we have, particularly in western Queens, but also all over the city. And once you come at it from that point of view, it’s impossible to say that nuclear shouldn’t be part of the solution."

In part, it’s awareness of the danger posed by carbon emissions that has pushed public opinion away from power plants that rely on fossil fuel. Zogby released a national poll last June that asked respondents what kind of power plant they would want in their community if given the choice. Forty-three percent chose nuclear, trailed by natural gas (26 percent), coal (8 percent) and finally, oil (1 percent).  Compare this to a 1999 Associated Press poll that found support for nuclear energy had actually dropped from the previous decade and, according to an L.A. Times story on the poll, "Even a majority of those who support the use of nuclear power said they wouldn’t want to live within 10 miles of a plant."

"The debate over nuclear energy goes back for decades," said David Bloomgren, who between 2004 and 2007 was the communications director for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation. "I think you’re starting to see the public feel a little more favorability towards producing our electricity from nuclear power."

Mr. Bloomgren, who now works at the public relations firm Edelman in Washington, D.C., does not think the country is ready to expand nuclear power, but does think that growing dread about climate change is pushing public opinion. "I think as we’ve started to build awareness on the potential impacts of climate change, and increasing public knowledge about greenhouse gases, people view nuclear power as a clean energy, " he said.

This so-called nuclear renaissance has been written about numerous times since the passage of the Energy Policy Act in 2005, which made new plants feasible for the first time since the early 1970s.

But the progress, from the standpoint of nuclear supporters, has been very, very gradual.

"It’s getting there," Mr. Gianaris said. "But it’s getting there too slowly, in my opinion."

This is partly a generational issue.

"If people were adults in the ’50s, they were supportive of nuclear power," said Mr. Cahill. "If they were adults in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, they were opposed to nuclear power. I think people that grew up in the ’90s and are growing up now into adulthood don’t have the same sensitivities that we did—that my generation did—to the issue."

(Mr. Cahill, who personally opposes nuclear power, added, "But once they start grappling with the specifics, I think they wind up in the same place.")

"Well, there’s been a historic resistance to nuclear energy. I think that’s why there’s a little bit of resistance to the idea that it’s acceptable. It’s just historical resistance. But times have changed," said Mr. Gianaris.

"There’s a little bit of a debate," conceded Alex Matthiessen, president and Hudson Riverkeeper (his actual title) at Riverkeeper, the advocacy group that litigates environmental cases against Indian Point, and as part of a separate project, is pushing for the plant to be shut down for security reasons. Mr. Mattiessen then added, "The vast majority of environmentalists continue to believe that this is disastrous."

"I think a lot of people are having a hard time letting go of the kind of discourse that existed about nuclear back in the ’70s," said Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, which has taken the relatively flexible position that nuclear power has to be "looked at."

"At a moment in time, opposing nuclear was one of the planks of a serious environmental position," Ms. Bystryn added. "There are some people who simply have a hard time letting go of that because of the amount of intellectual and emotional energy that was invested in that position."

In addition to the very apparent generational gap, there’s also a stark regional divide in New York between downstate—where the prevailing opinion on nuclear power tends to be based on opposition to Indian Point, especially in wealthy Westchester County—and upstate, where a desire for economic development has trumped more abstract concerns about safety. Of course, terrorism is also less of a concern upstate.

State Senator Darrel Aubertine, a recently elected Democrat, describes his district, which includes Oswego County, Jefferson County and parts of St. Lawrence County, as "overwhelmingly supportive" of nuclear power.

"I think without question they see the economic benefit of it, no doubt, but they also recognize the fact that nuclear energy certainly poses an alternative to fossil fuels," Aubertine said. "I think that people’s views on nuclear energy—and other things as well, but I think in particularly on nuclear energy—people’s views are evolving and changing, as the industry evolves and changes a little bit. Clearly, I think everyone recognizes that we need to keep the lights on."

Oswego County already has two nuclear plants, and the congressman who represents the district, Republican John McHugh, is also pushing for more.

On a rainy Thursday morning in early December, Ms. Bystryn presided over a forum on the future of nuclear energy, held in beige-toned conference room on the top floor of New York University’s Kimmel Center. The forum, the final in a three-part series called "Powering the Future," drew a full house. There was Patrick Moore, one of the founding members of Greenpeace, now a supporter of nuclear energy and favorite target of those opposed to nuclear. There was Lorna Salzman, founding member of the New York Green Party and of Long Island’s Shoreham Opponents Coalition, which helped stymie the planned Shoreham nuclear plant (it never went online). There was, inexplicably, an infant, who accompanied a parent in Salzman’s new group, the Green Brigade.

Asked if the environmental movement is split over nuclear power, Salzman said, "It’s more than a split—those guys have sold out."  She added, "We had it in the ’70s. We lost it."

The most infamous of "those guys" is Mr. Moore. After planning the first Greenpeace voyage in the 1970s, he stayed at the organization for over a decade, before leaving (amicably, he says) over ideological differences. Today, he works for a group called New York AREA (Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance), an alliance of mainly labor and business interests that is funded in part by the company that runs Indian Point.

Mr. Moore, interviewed the day after the conference in the lobby of the Hotel Edison in Times Square, said, "When Greenpeace today says I’m some kind of turncoat, I try to remind them that I’m not campaigning for the resumption of nuclear testing."

The conference made clear, if nothing else, that there is little middle ground on the issue of nuclear power.

("If you feel conflicted over this, I’m sure there are psychiatrists in the audience," said moderator Matthew Wald, of The New York Times, to the sea of men in suits, students in sweaters and older women in jewel-toned jackets.)

Memories of the two major nuclear energy incidents—Chernobyl and Three Mile Island—continue to dominate public discussion of the issue.

Bloomgren, the former E.P.A. spokesman, said, "Even though the public is starting to view nuclear as a more favorable option, there are still a lot of people in this country that remember Three Mile Island."

"The worst you can have is Three Mile Island, which was pretty negligible," said Stewart Brand, who founded the hippie-staple Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s and, with Moore, is a former orthodox environmentalist now supporting nuclear power. "I mean, Three Mile Island could have happened on Governors Island and it wouldn’t have hurt anybody."

That may be true, but it would have scared a lot of people, and the fear of fear is a great motivator.

So the generation that didn’t spend its childhood in the shadow of nuclear annihilation is more willing to consider it as a power source. While researching an article for the alternative journal Utne Reader, Jason Mark, the editor of the Earth Island Journal, surveyed several environmental Web sites, like Treehugger.com, and found that a majority of those who joined the debate were in favor of at least keeping nuclear power on the table. It should be said that Mr. Mark’s article argued that the nuclear industry has snowed younger environmentalists, but true or not, there appears to be a changing attitude toward nuclear power.

But if that shift is influencing elected officials, it’s happening incrementally.

"It looks like, sort of, the grass roots are moving faster than the leadership on this one," Mr. Brand said. He calls this phenomenon the "great mumble."

"People will go out their way to say things in absolutely unquotable terms," Mr. Brand added, "Al Gore comes to mind." 

I asked Mr. Gianaris if his colleagues also support nuclear power. "I think if you asked enough of them," he replied. "I don’t think there’s anyone who’s out there banging the drum."

Certainly, there’s little political payoff at the moment for banging that drum. In fact, the political consensus increasingly to be that there’s little point in getting deeply involved in the nuclear issue at all.

City Councilman James Gennaro, chair of the Environmental Protection Committee, once drafted a resolution calling for the decommissioning of Indian Point. (The Council doesn’t actually have any power over Indian Point, but it would have put the body on the record.) After a hearing or two, he decided not to advance it.

"It would have been pretty intense thing for the Council as an institution to deal with the industry and deal with all the science," Mr. Gennaro said. "A lot of yelling and screaming and a lot of work and a lot of science to work through to produce a resolution that would have no real impact other than symbolic."

Mr. Gennaro, who says that, as a geologist, he can’t support nuclear power because there is not yet a good way to store the waste, added, "Plus, I was a little ambivalent about the whole thing." He decided to use his resources on other issues.