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Response to Harper's Report on Nuclear
A letter from a Millennial socialist to a New Left journalist.
The January 2022 issue of Harper’s featured a report by journalist Andrew Cockburn, “Spent Fuel,” reacting to the perceived resurgence of nuclear power on the American political stage. Last month I wrote a letter to the editor in response to that article, to lightly expand on my thread on the subject. Unfortunately it seems Harper’s opted to publish Joshua Goldstein’s response in the March issue instead of my own.
Rather than dropping it entirely, I’m copying my response below. The reader should bear in mind that it was written as a short letter to the editor and therefore focuses on only one or two arguments.
To the Harper’s editor:
In Andrew Cockburn’s feature in the latest issue, “Spent Fuel,” nuclear energy is not a technology for generating electricity but a uniquely wicked pursuit to harm the earth.
Nuclear’s main competitor in reliable electricity generation is fossil fuels. Around the world, when nuclear plants close, fossil fuels take their place. And modern science is clear on the ill effects of that alternative: the normal course of burning coal, oil, and natural gas to produce electricity causes thousands of early deaths in the US each year from cardiovascular and pulmonary disease.
Cockburn highlights the 1979 partial meltdown of Three Mile Island Unit 2, skipping over decades of subsequent studies. A few miles downriver, however, is the Brunner Island coal plant—built in the 60s and still coughing up pollution into the same population. The Clean Air Task Force estimates that the plant’s emissions cause 27 early deaths annually, down from 150 a decade ago when the plant ran more intensely, still shy of its regular output for four decades. The plant’s owners will continue burning coal for profit until 2029.
“Pollution will increase substantially and more people will die.” That was climate scientist Dr. James Hansen’s warning about the closure of New York’s Indian Point nuclear power plant last year, an act that destroyed several hundred union jobs and a local economy. Cockburn cites the very same Hansen as having warned Congress of global warming 30 years earlier but omits Hansen’s staunch advocacy of nuclear energy as part of the solution.
More shocking was Cockburn’s neglect of global scientific expertise on the health effects of nuclear accidents. For example, the latest report from the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation still reveals that no discernible increase in cancer rates will result from the disaster in Fukushima, a result dismissed by Cockburn in a parenthetical remark.
As a Millennial, it would be easy for me to ascribe the difference in perspective to a generational divide. But I’d argue the real difference in perspective here is political. As a socialist, I see the trappings of the New Left in this cartoonish perspective on nuclear energy. There’s a lack of critical thinking about how we produce what society needs, let alone how it should be organized into markets, owners, and workers. The exploitation of capitalism is instead particularized to a single industry that earlier progressive culture has shunned. And the only lasting institution of the working class capable of pushing back against that exploitation—organized labor—isn’t worthy of even a single mention, especially not when they demand nuclear energy for science-informed decarbonization and good, lasting union jobs.