The dinosaur lay dead, sprawled in front of the Brandenburg Gate, with the words “Deutsche Atomkraft” – German nuclear power – emblazoned on the side of its stomach.
Surrounded by fake nuclear waste barrels, the four metre long sculpture was placed in the centre of Berlin by Greenpeace to celebrate the end of nuclear power in Germany last April.
It was a typically eye-catching demonstration by the 54-year-old campaign group, which is famous for its daring and controversial stunts.
Yet today the charity and its bosses are the ones being labelled dinosaurs, amid a row with younger climate activists over their “old fashioned and unscientific” attitude towards nuclear power.
A petition launched this week by Ia Aanstoot, an 18-year-old from Sweden, calls on Greenpeace to end its opposition to atomic energy, which they say is “no longer morally or politically justifiable”.
The dispute highlights a growing fissure within climate activism, with campaigners split over whether nuclear power should be embraced or reviled as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Greenpeace says it has “always fought – and will continue to fight – vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity”, pointing to past disasters such as Fukushima and Chernobyl.
But that position has put it at odds with younger activists such as Aanstoot, who say it makes no sense to discard what to them is a vital tool – when managed properly – in the fight against climate change.
“Unlike some of the people that run Greenpeace, it’s my generation that will have to live with the consequences of climate change,” says Aanstoot’s open letter, which was published this week.
“In my experience young people tend to be open minded to all solutions, including nuclear.
“Put simply, we trust the science. Our real enemy isn’t nuclear energy, it’s FOSSIL FUELS.”
The civil war within the net zero has erupted into the open as Greenpeace takes legal action to stop the European Union from classifying nuclear power as “sustainable” for investment purposes, through a scheme known as the “green taxonomy”.
Greenpeace claims that including nuclear power stations in the bucket of energy projects that can qualify for EU state support and green investment funds risks diverting money away from renewable energy schemes, while doing irreversible damage to the environment.
In response, Aanstoot and her allies are raising money to launch a counterattack by hiring their own lawyers and speaking against the charity at a showdown in the European Court of Justice.
Aanstoot, who for years joined the Friday school strikes started by fellow Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, says Greenpeace’s position is outdated and risks making the group “totally irrelevant”.
She became disillusioned with the group’s position on nuclear power after debating with older activists who remained implacably opposed, even as respected organisations such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the push towards “net zero” carbon emissions would be far harder without it.
A 2019 report by the IEA pointed out that nuclear power was the second-biggest source of low-carbon power globally, after hydro-electric, reducing the need for gas power plants or more carbon-intensive alternatives.
It also warned that additional investment of $1.6 trillion would be needed in wind, solar and grid upgrades up to 2040 if the world’s nuclear power plants were phased out of use.
This is why Aanstoot argues Greenpeace’s opposition to nuclear power – which she regards as a hangover from the Cold War – is so wrongheaded.
“Greenpeace is a part of an older climate generation,” she says.
“For a lot of them, the anti-nuclear movement is what the climate movement is. I feel differently.”
She shares Greenpeace’s concerns about nuclear waste but argues that the need to prevent catastrophic climate change – and the risks posed if we fail – are far more pressing.
“We’re talking about an entirely different scale of crises,” she argues. “Nuclear waste is very well regulated. My generation, we can figure out the science of how to manage that at a later date. Climate change has to be essentially now or in the next few decades.”
She is just one among a growing cohort of teenage and twenty-something who are banging the drum for nuclear power on social media.
Isabelle Boemeke, a Brazilian model known as “Isodope” to her tens of thousands of followers on TikTok and Twitter/X, calls herself “the world’s first nuclear energy influencer”, dispensing facts about the technology and witty memes to her audience.
She has collaborated online with Grace Stanke, a nuclear engineering student who was recently crowned “Miss America 2023” and spends her spare time promoting atomic energy.
Yet activists like these face an uphill struggle. Greenpeace’s objections to nuclear power are deep-rooted, going back to its very foundation in 1971 when a small band of activists set sail in a boat of the same name to try to stop an American nuclear weapons test in Alaska.
Today, the group’s main objections to nuclear remain the risks surrounding waste disposal and a concern that proliferation of fuel could allow easier proliferation of nuclear weapons.
“Our position on nuclear is evidence-based,” says Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist.
“There are a number of features to nuclear, where the associated hazards are unique and, ultimately, unmanageable.”
Workers are still cleaning up the former site of the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria, built in the 1950s to make weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear bombs. Nuclear waste from the site will remain in storage until at least 2120.
Meanwhile, Hinkley Point C in Somerset, which is under construction, is expected to run until 2083 and will not be fully decommissioned until 2138, when all the spent fuel has been disposed of.
Parr says these long timescales present dangers in and of themselves, putting waste sites at risk of “black swan” events – such as terrorist attacks, serious mishaps or wars – which are impossible to predict and could have devastating consequences.
Other experts dispute this, saying spent fuel pools are safe and difficult to reach behind thick steel and reinforced concrete structures.
“If you believe that humans are perfect, institutions are great and nothing can ever go wrong with regulation, you might think there’s nothing wrong with nuclear waste,” Parr hits back. “But we know that’s not true.”
He is also uneasy about the historic link between civil and military nuclear programmes. “That link has not gone away,” Parr adds.
“It’s acknowledged in France, where they’re quite open about the fact that part of the purpose of their civil programme is to ensure they have people who are skilled for their military programme. It is not an emotional thing to be concerned about that.”
Experts point out this uncompromising stance can have perverse consequences. In Germany, where Greenpeace cheered on the early closure of nuclear reactors, the country has compensated by burning larger quantities of coal in its power stations.
“They’re stuck in a lot of fears and dogmas about nuclear power, because I think a lot of them grew up in the anti-nuclear movement,” says Aanstoot. “We have to concentrate on using all the tools at our disposal to get rid of fossil fuels.”
Source: The Telegraph