Liberals and Progressives for Nuclear

The Coming Atomic Age

While historically conservatives have been the prominent supporters of nuclear energy, the urgency of climate change has recently compelled liberals and progressives to reconsider nuclear as the best zero-carbon source of baseload electricity for a world with rapidly rising energy demand.

A couple years prior to the release of Robert Stone’s documentary Pandora’s Promise, which follows five anti- to pro-nuclear converts, Breakthrough Senior Fellow Barry Brook, writing at his blog Brave New Climate, composed a list of the most prominent intellectual leaders and public figures who changed their mind about nuclear energy and now support it.

Brook’s list was written in April 2011. Since then we have seen a growing number of public figures and environmental heavyweights publicly call for more nuclear energy to deal with climate change, perhaps best captured in the thoughtful remarks of President Barack Obama.

Nuclear energy, according to the President, must be extracted from the partisan debates that have impeded US progress on multiple levels. At a 2010 labor meeting in Lanham, Maryland, when he announced a $8 billion loan to build the first new nuclear reactor in the United States in 30 years, Obama argued, “On an issue that effects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can’t keep on being mired in the same, old stale debates between the left and the right and between environmentalists and entrepreneurs.”

He continued:

Investing in nuclear energy remains a necessary step. What I hope is that, with this announcement, we’re underscoring both our seriousness in meeting the energy challenge and our willingness to look at this challenge, not as a partisan issue, but as a matter that’s far more important than politics because the choices we make will affect not just the next generation but many generations to come.

In the spirit of surpassing the ‘stale debates’ over nuclear energy, Breakthrough would like to continue the work initiated by Brook and document the rise of pronuclear liberals and progressives. Return to this article for periodic updates.


If you gave me only one wish for the next 50 years: I can pick who is president, I can pick a vaccine … or I can pick that [an energy technology] at half the cost with no CO2 emissions gets invented, this is the wish I would pick. This is the one with the greatest impact. – Bill Gates, investor of TerraPower, in his Ted talk “Innovating to Zero,” 2010

Governments need to realize that the cleanest and safest energy, statistically, is nuclear energy…We need to try to produce as many nuclear power stations as possible, particularly if we're going to try to combat global warming. It's one of the only real weapons to combat global warming that we have. – Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of Virgin Group, at the National Press Club, Washington, DC, 2009

Yes [nuclear waste] will be around for hundreds of thousands of years, but I am kind of hoping we will be too … Nuclear power has to be part of the solution. – Senator Al Franken, Post-Bulletin

Even before Pandora’s Promise was made, I’d become convinced that nuclear energy should be part of the climate change solution. Once I saw Pandora’s Promise, I knew the film would get people thinking about nuclear in a whole new way. – Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, in Forbes

The danger is that the minority of vehement antinuclear "environmentalists" could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed such that utilities are forced to continue coal-burning in order to keep the lights on. That is a prescription for disaster. – James Hansen, NASA climate scientist, in a letter to John Holdren

The danger of nuclear power is conjectural and the pollution potential, compared with the known pollution potential of burning coal and oil, is minute. When you consider the threat of acid rain and the general pollution of air and water caused by thermal-power production, it is terrible. There is general agreement that nuclear weapons are absurd, but I disagree with the view that nuclear power is bad. They have many reactors in England and they have never had any trouble. The problem here is that we just don’t have adequate training for nuclear technicians. We ought to use our technology to make nuclear power safe instead of fighting it, since it is the only practical alternative that we have to destroying the environment with oil and coal. -- Ansel Adams, interview with Playboy, May 1983

Nuclear energy, which worldwide maintains a better safety and public-health record than fossil-fuel plants and hydroelectric dams do, is essential if we are to reduce deaths and curb carbon and greenhouse emissions that are accelerating global warming and ocean acidification. – Gwyneth Cravens, author, in Bloomberg

We won't meet the carbon targets if nuclear is taken off the table … Emissions per unit of energy need to fall by a factor of six. That means electrifying everything that can be electrified and then making electricity largely carbon-free … We need to understand the scale of the challenge. – Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, at Asian Development Bank meeting in Manila

I find it sad and ironic that the UK, which leads the world in the quality of its Earth and climate scientists, rejects their warnings and advice, and prefers to listen to the Greens. But I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy. – James Lovelock, scientist, in the Independent

Let me be very clear. Without nuclear, the battle against global warming is as good as lost. – Mark Lynas, author, in the Guardian

My change of mind wasn’t sudden, but gradual over the past four years. But the key moment when I thought that we needed to be extremely serious was when it was reported that the permafrost in Siberia was melting massively, giving up methane, which is a very serious problem for the world.  Stephen Tindale, former director of Greenpeace, in the Independent

"We as a world, including India, have to find ways of growing and overcoming poverty, but at the same time reducing emissions. Putting the question that way, I think we recognize that it is possible that you can be more efficient and use renewables and over time you can use nuclear ... It is not a matter of halting development; it is a matter of halting emissions." – Lord Nicholas Stern, economist, in the New York Times

I’m not surprised that the clean and peaceful technology, which today provides about 13.5 percent of world electricity without air pollution or greenhouse gases, was tarred with the same brush as the [Atomic] Bomb. I am surprised, however, that idealistic, intelligent people who want to clean up the air and limit global warming are opposed to nuclear power. They might as well be out there promoting fossil fuels. – Richard Rhodes, author, in the New York Times

Environmentalists are also being forced to reconsider their objections to nuclear power because many people view it as a potentially large source of greenhouse gas-free energy… This constituency needs to factor in the fundamental human desire to better their lives and increase their affluence while finding solutions that improve the environment. – Jane Long, associate director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in the paper “A Blind Man’s Guide to Energy Policy”

I used to be pretty much a kneejerk environmentalist on [nuclear]. And then because of climate change I reinvestigated the matter and discovered that I’d been misled in many of the details on how nuclear works. And I finally got to the point where I’m so pro-nuclear now that I would be in favor of it even if climate change and greenhouse gases were not an issue. Stewart Brand, president of the Long Now Foundation, in an interview with NPR

The advantages far outweigh any objections, and I can see no practical way of meeting the world's needs without nuclear energy … The subject is so important that it should be a matter of informed public debate. – Hugh Montefiore, cofounder of Friends of the Earth, in the Independent

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. George Monbiot, journalist, in the Guardian

Nuclear has to be a necessary part of the portfolio…Fear of radiation shouldn’t even enter into this. Coal is very, very bad. – Steven Chu, former US Secretary of Energy, at the economic summit at Stanford University, 2008

Although nuclear energy is not a panacea for the climate problem, there is no panacea. [Nuclear energy] could make a significant contribution if we could make it expandable again. It would be easier to solve the climate problem with the help of nuclear energy than without it. – John Holdren, MIT, David J. Rose Lectureship in Nuclear Technology

At the moment the public discussion is intensely emotional, polarized and mistrustful. This is particularly the case for nuclear power – too often people divide into sharp pro- or anti-nuclear positions, with no middle ground… Nuclear power has substantial drawbacks, but the consequences of not embracing it are likely to be significantly worse.  Chris Goodall, author, in the Independent

To deal with our energy problems we need everything available to us, including nuclear power. Nuclear power should simply be done carefully, like they do in France, where there have been no accidents. – Jared Diamond, author of Collapse, at his Long Now Foundation lecture, 2005

When I have listened to the arguments of pro-nuclear Liberal Democrats in recent years, the one argument I found increasingly difficult to answer is the climate-change argument, because climate change poses a real and massive danger to our planet. Not keeping a genuinely low-carbon source of electricity as an option looks reckless when we don’t know the future. -- Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, in address to Liberal Democrats in Glasgow

Nuclear energy has risks, but we face the greater risk of accelerating climate change if we do not embark on another generation of nuclear power. Time is running out. Nuclear can be a vital and affordable means of providing low carbon electricity. – Chris Huhne, former Energy Secretary, in speech to Royal Society (October 2011)

For the intermediate future, though, breezes and rays won’t be enough. As growing numbers of environmentalists and climate scientists have come to realize, nuclear power is much, much better than what remains the real-world alternative: fossil fuels like oil and, especially, coal. When it comes to energy, the nuclear option, though not the best of all possible worlds, is better than the one we’re living in. – Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor and writer, New Yorker

"There are still many developing countries with a huge gap between rich and poor…millions of people’s lives remain under the poverty level and we have to think about these people...Just to look at [nuclear energy] from one side then to make a decision is not right," – Dalai Lama, Tokyo media conference (November 7, 2011)

“As EPA Administrator, I led an organization charged with protecting our nation’s public health and the environment, and I saw first-hand how important producing energy and electricity from clean sources is to our energy security and the health of our communities...Preserving our existing nuclear plants will be a key part of our efforts to reduce carbon emissions and build a cleaner-energy future and safer environment for our children.” – Carol Browner, former EPA Administrator, upon joining Nuclear Matters (April 2014)

"I think the fact is that we need to continue having nuclear energy and continue to make it safer ... With climate challenge and global warming we can't say go away from nuclear energy." – Gro Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, keynote speech at Stanford University (April 2014)

“Losing more of our existing nuclear fleet will make it that much tougher to meet our carbon reduction goals. We need to keep ramping up renewables, but they can’t meet our need for reliable power 24/7. Nuclear is a baseload source and it’s carbon-free – two things we need.” – Eileen Claussen, president of C2ES, press conference (April 2014)

"I can tell you it wasn't easy for me — who, as a lawyer back in the '80s, started my career fighting nuclear power — to come around to the view that it actually may be one of the things in the portfolio that may be necessary to save us. But that's where the facts lead you." – Armond Cohen, executive director, Clean Air Task Force, NPR

"As a result of over-excited media reporting ... that single word [Fukushima] has probably condemned nuclear power for another generation, when in fact the accident produced no radiation-related deaths (and it's doubtful that it will produce a discernable statistical blip in cancers in the future) .... That received non-wisdom has persuaded Green Germany to begin decommissioning its nuclear reactors - which means more coal-fired plants. Japan too will probably turn back to coal ... So the real catastrophe of Fukushima is in the future, waiting for us in the form of vastly increased atmospheric CO2." – Brian Eno, musician, in a letter to Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2013)