Author shares thoughts about ‘bright future’ of nuclear power

  • Joshua Goldstein, an Amherst-based political scientist, speaks on Sunday at the Shelburne Falls Arms Library about his new book. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

  • Joshua Goldstein, an Amherst-based political scientist, speaks on Sunday at the Shelburne Falls Arms Library about his new book. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/6/2020 9:22:23 PM
Modified: 1/6/2020 9:21:52 PM

SHELBURNE FALLS — A conversation with his son was what changed Joshua Goldstein’s mind about nuclear energy.

Goldstein, an Amherst resident who is an expert in international relations, grew up mostly in California, in the 1960s and ‘70s. The thinking then and there was that people should “return to the land” and reduce their reliance on increasingly advanced technology, he said. Nuclear energy fit easily into that way of thinking.

In hindsight, he said, that was probably influenced by the trauma of how World War II ended, and the then-ongoing terror of the Cold War. As he sums it up now: “We don’t trust ourselves, we don’t trust our technology.”

In the last few years, Goldstein has totally changed his mind, due largely to conversations with his son, Solomon Goldstein-Rose, a climate activist and formerly a one-term state representative for the 3rd Hampshire District.

Goldstein, a research scholar at the University of Massachusetts and professor emeritus at American University, has written a new book, which he discussed on Sunday at the Shelburne Falls Arms Library: “A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow,” co-authored with a Swedish nuclear engineer, Staffan Qvist.

Inevitably, the solution will be nuclear energy, Goldstein argued. The reason is, nuclear is the only energy source that is cheaper and more efficient than coal.

It also happens to be far cleaner, if handled right. Coal is still the most used and fastest-growing energy source worldwide, he said, despite what we know about what it does to the planet.

This is a problem for relatively wealthy, technologically advanced nations that already rely on coal and other fossil fuels, as ours does. But it’s also a problem for developing nations that don’t yet have high energy demands, but want the conveniences and quality of life improvements that advanced technology can give, Goldstein said.

So why not return to the land, as they wanted to in California in the ‘70s, and give up energy-consuming technology? Because people in developing countries deserve the boons of advanced technology, Goldstein said, whether it’s air conditioning, machinery to automate labor or high-speed transportation.

“It’s their moral right to have it,” Goldstein said. “The trouble is, right now, they’re using fossil fuel.”

A wealthier nation that wants to commit to reducing its carbon emissions may be able to afford to use an energy source that is less efficient than coal, such as solar, Goldstein said.

But a poorer nation has to choose the least expensive, most efficient energy source; which is why coal is still so widely used. So, if a developing nation is to be convinced to switch to a clean energy source, it would have to be one that is at least as efficient as coal, Goldstein said. Nuclear is the only one.

The problem then is, people are terrified of nuclear. It’s the trauma of World War II and the Cold War; but it’s also rampant misinformation about how dangerous it is, Goldstein said. People think that a single leak of nuclear waste could poison the whole world, that it could cause genetic mutations in plants, animals and people.

“How do we overcome fear? By giving rational responses to people’s fears,” Goldstein said.

As an example, he talked about the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine in 1986. The death toll of the accident, including people killed immediately in the accident itself and those affected by radiation, was probably about 10,000, Goldstein said. Today, the same amount of people die every week from coal-related illnesses, he said.

Nuclear power becomes safer if every plant is built to the same, standardized design specifications, Goldstein said. France and South Korea have done it that way, and have apparently transitioned successfully to using nuclear power for most of their energy needs.

Nuclear waste is also less dangerous than people believe, Goldstein said. If it is properly contained, it’s perfectly safe. And if it leaks, it creates a single hotspot. The area would have to be quarantined, but it wouldn’t contaminate the whole planet. The amount of waste is so small that containing it safely is doable, as long as safety procedures are followed. A plant in Sweden, observed by Goldstein’s co-author Qvist, keeps its nuclear waste in a space the size of a swimming pool, Goldstein said.

Coal creates far more waste, and it is at least as dangerous as nuclear waste. Germany, the country at the heart of the Cold War, has made no serious investment in nuclear energy; 40 percent of its energy is coal, Goldstein said. The waste from a single German coal plant is equal in volume to 10,000 elephants a day, Goldstein said.

Opinions on nuclear energy may be changing, Goldstein said. As the newer generations take over, the trauma of World War II and the Cold War will probably fade, and people will be able to consider nuclear power more soberly.

It will help that younger generations are probably even more terrified of climate change than they are of nuclear power, Goldstein said.

Environmental groups, since the ‘70s, have had a troubled relationship with nuclear power. Many supported the “return to the land” ethos of that era; and they found that opposing nuclear power was a good way to court donations and membership, he said.

Now, many are reconsidering their views. The conservation-oriented groups tend to favor nuclear, Goldstein said; but the politically-oriented ones still tend to oppose it.

“I think it comes down to whether we believe in ourselves as a species,” he said, “whether we believe in the technology we’ve created … and whether we can mobilize.”

Reach Max Marcus at or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.

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