Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lights on now, but a million years of disposal problems

Lights on now, but a million years of disposal problems

The role nuclear energy can and will play in a carbon constrained future is being hotly debated – particularly by socially responsible investors.

Nuclear power is routinely excluded from socially responsible investment fund portfolios, along with other often-maligned industries including tobacco, alcohol and mining.

But with demand for energy growing, oil prices climbing and concerns about climate change on the rise, some argue it is time to include nuclear power in the responsible energy equation.

Calvert, a leading US socially responsible investor, is one fund thought to be reconsidering its stance on nuclear power. Managers polled shareholders for input in December, although to date the group still screens against companies involved in nuclear technology.

Mainstream investors have for years invested in nuclear energy, sometimes for environmental reasons. Bill Page, vice-president of asset managers State Street Global Advisors, believes nuclear should be part of the future “energy pie” because it can help avert climate change.

Nuclear fission, proponents point out, produces no greenhouse gas. The technology is gathering support from some environmentalists, including Patrick Moore, a founding Greenpeace ecologist who once campaigned against nuclear energy.

Expensive and dangerous

Nuclear power’s detractors, however, argue it is too expensive and riddled with environmental drawbacks, including high water usage and radioactive waste disposal issues.

A recent report from a coalition of socially responsible investors and environmental organisations, including Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), concludes that new nuclear power plants cannot be cost-competitive with other electricity generation alternatives. The groups also raise concern over mechanisms for the disposal of spent nuclear waste and a finite supply of fuel grade uranium.

ICCR programme director Leslie Lowe says the environmental and safety risks associated with nuclear power are still too great. She is concerned the industry is too reliant on government subsidies to be a viable energy alternative.

“Investors focusing on actual market behaviour must conclude that nuclear power is not preferred,” the coalition report concludes. A similar report by Canada’s Ethical Funds agrees.

Nuclear energy will always be an explosive topic for socially responsible investment funds, whose clients are often the baby-boomer veterans of disarmament campaigns of the 1960s.

Marc Gunther, who writes about the impact of business on society, says that while he admires funds’ shareholder advocacy work, “by modifying or eliminating its screens, the SRI industry could shed its hippy image and expand its appeal to more mainstream investors”.

For now, however, most ethical funds seem tied to their “hippy roots” when it comes to nuclear power – with or without the threat of global warming.

Useful links:
» Debate: Nuclear power: The clean-air option
» Debate: Nuclear power: Not needed, not wanted
» Climate change - Nuclear confusion: help or hindrance?

Half price subscriptions to Ethical Corporation magazine are available here.
Want to read about business and climate change? Then visit for free news, analysis and newsletters
Write to Lisa Roner, North America Editor at

No comments: