June 09, 2005
Nuclear Power: Still an Environmental Scourge or Now a Climate Change Mitigator?
by William Baue
Despite prominent environmentalist opinions that low greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear power
eclipse its problems, socially responsible investment funds still screen nukes out.
In his presentation at
the Institutional Investor Summit on
Climate Risk in May, Harvard University
Professor and National Commission on
Energy Policy Co-Chair John Holdren stated that nuclear power might be a valid energy
alternative to mitigate climate change. Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore said the same
thing in testimony before
the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and
Resources. So did Whole
Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand in an article in
the May edition of Technology
Review from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Gaia theorist James Lovelock in a May op-ed
in The Independent.
Climate change is significantly altering the landscape of environmentalism, to the
degree that former nuclear power opponents are shifting to supporting it due to its minimal
emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), the primary cause of climate change. Socially responsible
investment (SRI) firms have traditionally screened out companies involved in nuclear power.
One sign of SRI community recognition of the increasing complexity of the nuclear question is
the June 1 announcement by SRI research firm KLD
Research & Analytics increasing the number of nuclear power involvement ratings criteria from three to six.
KLD's existing criteria identify owners and operators of nuclear power plants, ownership of over 20
percent of nuclear power companies, and over 50 percent ownership by nuclear power
companies. New criteria cover construction and design of nuclear power plants, production of
nuclear power fuel and key parts, and nuclear power service providers.
This change upped
the number of companies listed in the KLD Nuclear Power Involvement Report (which forms the basis
of many SRI firms' nuclear screening decisions) from 69 to 104. Much of this increase comes from
the supply chain, as 17 percent of the companies fall into the nuclear power fuel and key parts
"We need a more comprehensive view of the nuclear power industry as
the potential for the construction of new plants in the US develops and investor interest develops
with it," said Eric Fernald, KLD's director of research. "Three major drivers have increased
public interest and debate about nuclear power in recent years: a bolder nuclear power industry,
global environmental and energy concerns, and a friendlier regulatory and political framework."
Indeed, in a January Wall
Street Journal interview, US President George Bush threw his weight behind nuclear power as
an alternative to coal-burning plants that spew GHGs into the atmosphere. However, not all
environmentalists have lined up behind Messrs. Moore, Brand, and Lovelock in embracing nukes.
"Nuclear power is a dangerous energy source that creates more problems than it solves," said
Dan Becker, director of the global warming program at the Sierra Club. "Switching from dirty coal plants to dangerous
nuclear power is like giving up smoking cigarettes and taking up crack."
Sierra Club Mutual Funds, which focuses
primarily on environmental responsibility, has been discussing the complexity of nuclear issues
in-depth, according to Garvin Jabusch, director of sustainable investing there. However, the firm
shows no sign of jumping on the pro-nukes bandwagon.
"Nuclear energy is a double-edged
sword: we are cognizant of the argument that nuclear power minimizes greenhouse gas emissions, but
we still cannot overlook the fundamental problem of what to do with the spent plutonium," Mr.
Jabusch told SocialFunds.com. "We have no plans to change our nuclear screening criteria, which
are quite stringent in excluding companies involved in nuclear power development, manufacturing, or
While several SRI funds, such as the Winslow Green Growth Fund (ticker: WGGFX) and
the New Alternatives Fund (NALFX), similarly focus on
environmental responsibility, they invest primarily in small-cap companies that are unlikely to be
involved in nuclear power. The Sierra Club funds hold large-caps and hence have greater exposure
to companies involved in nuclear power, adding weight to its anti-nuke stance.
for Portfolio 21 (PORTX), an international fund
focused on sustainability whose screening criteria look at environmental liability, according to
firm chair Carsten Henningsen.
"Until there's a practical solution for nuclear waste
disposal, we believe the liabilities from nuclear power pose an enormous risk to both the
environment and shareholders," Mr. Henningsen told SocialFunds.com. "Also, nuclear is not cost
effective, if you apply the full cost of waste disposal and decommissioning plants, as well as the
potential environmental liabilities of accidents."
KLD adds worker and community radiation
exposure, potential contribution to nuclear weapons proliferation, and terrorist targeting of
nuclear plant to the list of problems, and also points out that mining, milling, and enrichment of
uranium contributes to global warming.
"The cost effective and practical solutions are
conservation and renewable energies; if we invest in conservation and renewables the same
investment dollars and time required to build a nuclear power plant, we're going to be in a much
healthier and safer position," Mr. Henningsen added.
He also points out that SRI screens
do not exist in a vacuum, but rather fulfill client demand to avoid exposure to certain corporate
practices (such as nuclear power) or increase exposure to other practices (such as renewable
energy.) Portfolio 21 has received no client requests to review or alter its nuclear screen,
according to Mr. Henningsen.
I appreciate the summary of issues regarding nuclear power in the article by
William Baue (June 9). My view is that a "full cost accounting" of this method of generating
electricity must include its cradle-to-grave impacts on human health and the environment. This
includes the radiation exposures at every stage of the fuel cycle, the mining and mill wastes often
dumped on lands of indigenous peoples in the U.S., Canada and developing countries such as Namibia,
as well as the costs associated with fuel enrichment and decommissioning mentioned in the article.
Richard Clapp, D.Sc., MPH
Boston University School of