Green Living: Green Living Guides
Environmentalism, Then and Now
Director, nuclear program
Year joined NRDC: 1973
Then: "Almost from its inception in 1970, NRDC has been concerned about the destructive potential of the unleashed power of the atom. The goal of our work has always been to reduce the risks associated with the use of atomic energy for both civilian and military purposes. In the 1970s, our primary focus was on fighting the use of plutonium in civilian nuclear reactors, because of the risk that plutonium separated from the reactors' spent fuel could be used to make nuclear weapons. Ultimately, we wanted to kill the U.S. plutonium breeder reactor program because of its heavy reliance on separated plutonium as a fuel. Breeder reactors -- once seen as the key to cheap nuclear power and electricity -- produce more nuclear fuel than they use. But each one would require 10 to 20 tons of plutonium in the reactor and supporting fuel cycle facilities, enough to make about a thousand nuclear weapons. Slowly, over the period of a decade, NRDC organized a large coalition of scientists and environmental groups who opposed the program. This resulted in a major victory for us in 1983 -- when Congress cancelled the breeder reactor demonstration plant on the Clinch River in Tennessee."
Now: "In the 1990s, two things revolutionized our work on nuclear weapons and waste: advances in the speed and memory capacity of desktop computers, and the availability of satellite images that let us peer into nuclear weapons programs around the world. The coupling of these two advances has allowed us to better calculate the effects of the use of nuclear weapons. This has been a powerful educational tool, and it has made it easier to make the case that we should strive for deep reductions in the global arsenals of nuclear weapons. The satellite images have also given us a better appreciation of the environmental legacy associated with nuclear weapons production during the Cold War. For example, you can actually look at sites in Russia and see the rusted hulks of abandoned nuclear-powered submarines."
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Photos: Top, Robert Rubic; Bottom, Dunn Photographic Associates, Inc.