James Lovelock is one of the icons of the environmental movement. His idea that the Earth is a
self-regulating, living organism (the GAIA hypothesis, first expounded in his 1979 book GAIA:
A New Look at Life on Earth) provides the philosophical underpinning of environmentalism.
So it may be surprising that Lovelock is an enthusiastic supporter of nuclear energy, which he
says has "great benefits and small risks." In the preface to the seemingly paradoxical book
Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, he writes: "I want to put it to you that the dangers of
continuing to burn fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) as our main energy source are far greater and they
threaten not just individuals but civilization itself." The answer, he maintains, is the clean energy
from nuke plants, which produce almost nothing that clogs up the atmosphere. As for what to do
with all that radioactive waste, Lovelock has a shocking answer:
Natural ecosystems can stand levels of continuous radiation that would be Intolerable in a
city. The land around the failed Chernobyl power station was evacuated because its high
radiation intensity made it unsafe for people, but this radioactive land is now rich in
wildlife, much more so than neighboring populated areas. We call the ash from nuclear
power nuclear waste and worry about its safe disposal. I wonder if instead we should use it
as an incorruptible guardian of the beautiful places of the Earth. Who would dare cut
down a forest in which was the storage place of nuclear ash?
Lovelock does admit that nuclear power is "potentially harmful to people," something that his
brethren in the group Environmentalists for Nuclear Power often try to downplay. Truthfully,
some of their points are good ones. More people have been killed by coal-mining than by nuclear
power, even when you factor in the shorter time that nuclear power has existed. Most of the
radiation we get zapped with comes from outer space (around two-thirds) and medical
procedures (around a third), with only a smidgen from nuke plants.
Still, when you know about all the unpublicized accidents and near-meltdowns that have
occurred, it's hard to be quite so blasé about the dangers. After all, the group's own literature
says, "Nuclear energy is a very clean energy if it is well designed, well-built, well operated, and
well managed." Trouble is, it's often none of those things. Design flaws, human error, corruption,
incompetence, greed, and toothless oversight mean that in the real world, nuke plants often don't
work as advertised.