Green Watch

Carbon-Free Nuclear Energy and the Union of Concerned Scientists

Summary: An InfluenceWatch author has been anticipating that someone would criticize us for his reluctance to include the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on our list of more than 200 groups that oppose nuclear power. When someone finally filled out an error report, she surprised him with the opposite complaint. Some of the confusion is caused because the UCS has been careful to obscure the degree to which it does or does not oppose carbon-free nuclear energy. Just as it is in a criminal trial, our reluctance to find them guilty doesn’t make them innocent.

InfluenceWatch has a “report errors” page where readers can help us clean up mistakes that might slip into our profiles. In February, we received the following curious note:

Hi, Union of Concerned Scientists isn’t opposed to peaceful use for nuclear energy. I’m a member and . . . [potentially identifying information redacted]. Please see the website for all white papers on nuclear energy: they support safe operation of nuclear plants and non-proliferation.

This was a strange error report. We have an InfluenceWatch profile page for Opposition to Nuclear Energy. It includes more than 200 nonprofits and political groups, but the Union of Concerned Scientists has never been one of them.

As the author of the original draft of that profile, I have been anticipating the opposite complaint: a criticism from someone who could make the case that we’re wrong about the UCS because it definitely should be on the anti-nuclear list.

Historical UCS Nuclear Energy Opposition

Keeping UCS off the list was a very close judgment call.

Our InfluenceWatch profile for the Union of Concerned Scientists (which I did not write) says this of the group’s history: “UCS began in the late 1960s with opposition to the Vietnam War and U.S. nuclear weapons testing, later coming to oppose peaceful nuclear energy” (Emphasis added).

The statement is objectively true. For a good chunk of its early history the UCS repeatedly promoted the closure of civilian nuclear energy facilities.

An academic paper examining the 1991 closure of the Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Station observed, “Sophisticated protests by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a powerful advocacy group, against the continued use of the plant were frequent.”

I quoted this example because Yankee Rowe was located in Western Massachusetts, about 110 miles from UCS headquarters in Cambridge. The UCS promotes severe reductions in carbon emissions, and Yankee Rowe cranked out a lot of carbon-free electricity during its 30 years in operation. It might even have powered the homes of UCS members or maybe the UCS office.

Historically speaking, shutting down nuclear has caused an immediate switchover to electricity created from carbon-emitting hydrocarbons. Germany currently provides the largest and most ironic example of this.

Yankee Rowe annually generated more than 1,400 gigawatt hours of electricity. For perspective, the U.S. Department of Energy reports that all of the weather-dependent power in the state of Massachusetts combined didn’t equal this annual output until 2020, nearly 30 years after Yankee Rowe had been closed.

And still in 2022, it still took more than 400 (!!!) Massachusetts solar projects and an additional 21 wind farms just to produce a combined total of 2,140 GWh of power.

The history of the UCS repeatedly promoting the closure of nuclear energy facilities makes it fair to argue the group has opposed nuclear power.

So, why is UCS not on our list?

In recent years the UCS has adopted what appears to be a more nuanced position. As our letter writer noted, on the UCS “Nuclear Power” policy page the group states that “the low-carbon electricity provided by existing nuclear power plants is increasingly valuable in the fight against climate change.”

Going back more than a decade I have been unable to find an instance of the UCS overtly promoting the closure of an existing nuclear power station. Unlike most other climate-left nonprofits, the Union of Concerned Scientists has not attached its name to any of the many recent public petitions denouncing the technology.

Has the UCS Really Changed?

But that’s not the whole story.

At the top of the UCS “Nuclear Power” policy page is this sub-headline: “Low-carbon electricity, with serious economic and safety issues.” These are talking points that could have come directly from one of the strident anti-nuclear nonprofits.

The claim of a “serious” safety issue begs this question: “Relative to what?” There is no such thing as perfect safety. Every form of electricity production carries risks and environmental costs.

A 2020 report from Our World in Data examined mortality rates per unit of energy produced and found nuclear power to be functionally tied with wind and solar as having the best safety record. Furthermore, the report showed nuclear to have lower greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy produced than every other source, slightly less than even wind and solar, and a whopping 10 times less than hydropower.

Civilian nuclear power has been around for nearly 70 years. Relative to all other options, it has proven to be the among the very safest available energy sources and the most carbon-free. These are not fringe positions. The UCS may (and likely does) disagree, but this places the group on the fringe of the debate, with the obligation to refute the data the rest of us are using.

That obligation is significantly, perhaps even severely, enhanced because the UCS claims to speak from a position of scientific authority. Despite this, the UCS policy statement on nuclear energy makes no effort to mention, let alone challenge, these points.

On the economic front, the UCS statement also asserts that nuclear plants “operate on very thin margins as they compete with cheaper electricity from gas and renewable energy.”

The term “renewable energy” is the work of self-interested PR professionals. Reputable scientists probably should not use it. The more precise term would be “weather-restricted” energy.

Neither wind nor solar are dispatchable power sources. Unlike every single other source of electricity we have, the “renewables” respond directly to the whims of weather, rather than the needs of the consumer. They work only when the sun shines or the wind blows and go away as soon as Mother Nature (or the rotation of the Earth) doesn’t cooperate.

According to 2021 data from the U.S. Department of Energy, American wind turbines produce at their full capacity only 34.6 percent of the time, and solar panels just 24.6 percent. These were the two lowest electricity production capacity factors reported by the Department of Energy.

Nuclear, at 92.7 percent, was by far the highest.

The Economics of Weather-Dependent Power

Reliability is the critical factor in the value of electricity. When a hospital needs a kilowatt-hour to keep a life support system operating, timing is absolutely everything and a fractional difference in cost is completely irrelevant.

This principle applies all the way down the chain of energy needs and wants, from the life sustaining to the merely inconvenient. The promise of saving pennies per hour isn’t going to inspire anyone to wait for the sun to shine before they cook their meals, air condition their homes, pump fresh water, or just binge-watch TV shows.

It is true that many advocates of so-called renewables claim that non-dispatchable wind and solar energy systems are competitive with the “levelized cost” of dispatchable power sources. The UCS does this as well. This thoroughly debunked comparison makes the mistake I just explained, equating the price of “energy when it wants to” with “energy when you want it to.”

The UCS policy page on “Renewable Energy” carries a subtitle claiming “Unlimited resources. Little or no pollution.”

If anything, this is even more misleading than the nuclear energy policy page.

Recall first that the nuclear energy page alleged nuclear was merely “low carbon,” despite it being closer to “no pollution” than either wind or solar. That word choice betrays a very unscientific bias.

Then there is the land use. The InfluenceWatch profile for Opposition to Nuclear Energy carries this description of the environmental footprint of weather-dependent energy systems:

A March 2021 analysis posted on the U.S. Department of Energy’s web page concluded that “nuclear energy produces more electricity on less land than any other clean-air source.”

“To put that in perspective,” claimed the Department of Energy report, “you would need more than 3 million solar panels to produce the same amount of power as a typical commercial reactor or more than 430 wind turbines (capacity factor not included).”

An April 2021 analysis from Bloomberg News estimated that a “conventional 1-gigawatt reactor operating on 1,000 acres produces the same amount of energy as a wind farm spanning 100,000 acres.” Land use of 1,000 acres is equivalent to 1.56 square miles, while 100,000 acres is equal to 156 square miles, or 18 square miles larger than the land area within the city borders of Detroit, Michigan.

It is difficult to accept the sincerity of “concerned scientists” who claim to be “environmentalists” while promoting the “unlimited” use of energy systems that needlessly and disproportionately devour so much of the environment itself.

For the comparatively trivial trickles of intermittent power they produce, weather-dependent sources kill a disproportionate share of wildlife. Energy journalist Robert Bryce has written extensively about the eagles, other raptors, bats, and migratory birds that are destroyed by the wind-energy industry.

Here’s a sample of his work. Imagine Chevron trying to get away with this and not earn the wrath of the concerned scientists:

Furthermore, the wind industry considers bird kills to be a trade secret and it has even sued to prevent government agencies from releasing data on bird kills. In 2016, Iberdrola, a Spanish company that is trying to expand its wind projects in the US, sued to prevent the state of Ohio from releasing bird mortality data from its Blue Creek wind project, claiming that the information is “confidential trade secret-protected information.”

Same Old Position, Less Honesty

Why does the Union of Concerned Scientists severely overstate the benefits of weather-dependent power while understating the costs? Why does it do the opposite with nuclear energy, a reliable and functionally limitless carbon-free power source with a comparatively tiny environmental footprint?

It is difficult to look at this overall picture and not arrive at the conclusion that the real policy of the group is to block the use of nuclear energy while not admitting to it.

But sometimes they say the quiet part out loud.

A 2020 report from the Center of the American Experiment reproduced the text of a statement that the Union of Concerned Scientists had sent to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

It included this quote from UCS:

We can’t avoid the dangerous and unjust impacts of the climate crisis if we swap coal for another polluting fossil fuel, and every dollar Xcel spends on nuclear is one less spent on clean energy. [Emphasis added]

Putting that the other way around, each dollar utilities are encouraged to waste on wind and solar is a dollar that should have been spent on a vastly superior carbon-free option. There is an opportunity cost to every energy investment. In the great anti-carbon war, nuclear and weather-dependent power are mutually exclusive rivals.

Some advocates of weather-dependent energy—particularly politicians—try to have it both ways, claiming they support nuclear power as well. But as the UCS admitted in its message to the Minnesota PUC, promoting wind and solar is to implicitly oppose nuclear.

It’s still not difficult to find evidence that the Union of Concerned Scientists is opposed to nuclear energy. The difference today is that it’s now just a lot harder to find evidence that they’re as honest about it. As in a criminal trial, our reluctance as a jury to vote them guilty doesn’t prove they are innocent.

Ken Braun

Ken Braun is CRC’s senior investigative researcher and authors profiles for and the Capital Research magazine. He previously worked for several free market policy organizations, spent six…
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