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Christopher Paine, Senior Policy Adviser, NRDC Nuclear Program, Washington, DC

Christopher Paine

I was born in Baltimore, MD., in 1951, grew up in Maine, Vermont, New York City, and Texas, went to college in Cambridge, MA, spent my early post-college years in California, and have lived for the last 30 years in northern and central Virginia. My first political memory is of JFK winning the 1960 election, and my second political memory is of his assassination a few miles from my home in Dallas, Texas. A few of the kids in my 7th grade class actually applauded the event, which kind of gives you the flavor for what parts of America were like before the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960’s and early 1970’s gave us at least a shot at becoming a tolerant, humane, and environmentally sustainable society.

Senior year in high school I was voted most likely to become a “campus agitator,” but also elected the student body president, in a surprise revolt of the nerds and freaks against the tyranny of football and cheerleaders. In college I fulfilled my classmates expectations, resisting the draft and becoming caught up in the movement to end the Vietnam War and the other revolutionary currents of the time.

Armed with a degree in economics, a Presidential pardon from Gerald Ford (for anti-war activities that had nearly landed me in federal prison) and a still burning commitment to peace and social change, I headed west in late 1974 to Taos, NM, and then to the Bay Area, working as a free lance researcher and journalist, traveling through the Middle East and Asia, and becoming deeply involved in the efforts of Iranian students and exiles to overthrow the Shah’s dictatorship in Iran and establish a popular democratic government , a movement that ultimately succeeded in 1979. But the democratic revolution I had been assisting was crushed within a year and its proponents exiled and murdered by the emerging Islamic theocracy, a government the world knows only too well today.

My work on U.S. arms sales to the Persian Gulf region led me fairly quickly to probe more deeply into the “unwarranted influence” of what President Eisenhower once indelibly christened the “military-industrial complex,” and in particular the terrifying risks and absurdities of our genocidal-suicidal nuclear deterrent posture, and what was then a spiraling arms race with the Soviet Union. What particularly caught my eye (and fired my outrage) was a Pentagon plan in 1978 to deploy hundreds of MX intercontinental ballistic missiles on huge mobile transporters, which would shuttle them around vast oblong “racetracks” constructed in the arid and largely unspoiled high valleys of the intermountain west in Utah and Nevada, so they couldn’t be targeted by “Soviet nuclear war planners” in a “first strike.”

Indeed much of the region’s natural splendor would have been sacrificed to this absurd proposal. It was immediately apparent that the fundamental strategic premises of the US nuclear war planning apparatus had become unhinged from reality, and that it could not stop itself. It had to be stopped by citizen action, and eventually our unusual coalition of ranchers, peace activists, people of faith, and arms controllers did stop it, and the Great Basin was saved from destruction at the hands of our own Department of Defense.

My life as an itinerant “left coast” journalist came to an abrupt end in 1979 as I took on what became a life commitment – to end the nuclear arms race before it ended us, halt nuclear weapons proliferation, dismantle existing nuclear arsenals, and make the transition to a nuclear-weapons free world. I moved to Washington DC, where I became a co-founder of large national grass roots campaigns in the 1980’s to enact a U.S.-Soviet nuclear weapons freeze, stop deployment of the MX missile, and end nuclear test explosions. Recently I read on the front page of the New York Times how these efforts influenced a young student at Columbia University named Barack Obama, which only goes to show that successful advocacy is a long-term proposition, with inherently unpredictable long-term payoffs, particularly in shaping the outlooks and commitments of the next generation.

In the 1980’s I worked as a research fellow, policy analyst, or legislative strategist for a number of progressive organizations and university think tanks, including the Federation of American Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Princeton University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, before moving to the Hill in 1985 and having the good fortune to work on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation issues for two outstanding public servants from Massachusetts, Rep. Ed Markey and Senator Ted Kennedy (my retrospective on Senator Kennedy’s contributions to ending the nuclear arms race can be found here

Armed with the necessary security clearances, and a big assist from a few insiders with the requisite knowledge, from 1987 – 1991 I delved into the secret records that allegedly documented the technical conclusion that the United States would need to keep testing nuclear weapons indefinitely to ensure their safety and reliability, and discovered that these conclusions were actually distortions and outright lies. This work helped pave the way, in October 1992, for Congress to legislate an end to nuclear testing, and the moratorium begun at that time has persisted to this day.

It was during this period that I first came into contact with NRDC, which was exceptional among mainstream US environmental organizations for its commitment to ending the nuclear weapons threat to humanity and the natural world. Indeed, NRDC had emerged as a path-breaking source of carefully documented public information on the operations and polluting environmental impacts of the nation’s vast, and then largely still secret, nuclear weapons enterprise, and on the nuclear arsenals and weapons complexes of other nations. NRDC’s unprecedented collaborative verification experiments with the free-thinking scientific advisers around Soviet President Gorbachev became a featured component of my efforts within the Congress to legislate an end to nuclear testing.

I joined NRDC as a senior research associate in the Nuclear Program in June 1991, and spent the next 8 years visiting Russia, China, Japan, India, Pakistan, France, and other countries rounding up support for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – which President Clinton signed in September 1996 -- and seeking to contain the proliferation and environmental consequences of the disintegration of the Soviet nuclear “gulag archipelago,” which I witnessed firsthand. Entire “secret cities” of nuclear scientists and technicians were subsisting on meager incomes and growing beets and potatoes to survive as the world they had once known fell apart, and Russian criminal gangs prospered in politics and business in the new “Wild East.”

Following the arrival of the Putin regime in 1999, G.W. Bush in 2000, and the global “War on Terror” in 2001, Russia’s chaotic experiment with democracy faded away, as did NRDC’s ability to work there constructively. During those years (2001-2008) I turned my attention to what became a defensive but largely successful effort by the nuclear arms control community to defeat Bush Administration plans to develop advanced new types of nuclear weapons (for striking “rogue leaders” in their underground bunkers) and “modernize” the nuclear weapons complex to manufacture these advanced weapons.

Following the enactment in late 2005 of significant federal subsidies designed to revive the US nuclear power industry, I and my Nuclear Program colleagues have devoted considerable time to analyzing the economic costs, proliferation consequences, and environmental liabilities of this supposed “nuclear renaissance,” comparing nuclear power’s realistic potential with other less costly pathways for “de-carbonizing” the electricity sector, in the US and globally, which do not pose the same level of non-carbon environmental and security risks. My personal perspective on this complex issue is set forth in considerable detail here, Following the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, the NRDC nuclear team has also directed its attention to highlighting nuclear regulatory weaknesses in the U.S. and litigating important nuclear reactor safety and waste storage issues. I became the Director of NRDC’s Nuclear Program in 2007, and stepped down from that position in March 2013.

Recent Posts

US Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Deployment Fades Further into an Uncertain Future

Posted June 13, 2014 by Christopher Paine

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Comments (2)

Today, both small and large nuclear reactor proponents confront a US economic landscape that has shifted against nuclear power in the near term, while the longer-term outlook remains cloudy and uncertain at best, even with the prospect that gradual carbon...continued

US Nuclear Safety Regulators Continue to Ignore Lessons of Fukushima for Severe Accident Hydrogen Explosion Risk at US Reactors

Posted March 6, 2014 by Christopher Paine

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Three years after Japan’s nuclear disaster, US reactors remain vulnerable to the threat of runaway hydrogen production and leakage in a severe nuclear accident, with little or no capacity to safely reduce or vent potentially explosive concentrations of this gas,...continued

NRDC Response to "Coming Full Circle in Energy, to Nuclear," by Eduardo Porter, New York Times, August 21, 2013

Posted August 23, 2013 by Christopher Paine


Comments (10)

In his recent article “Coming Full Circle in Energy, to Nuclear,” Eduardo Porter offers up nuclear energy as the best alternative to coal in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Regarding the real possibility that humankind will burn vast additional...continued

"Public Participation" or Citizen Pacification: What Does the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Really Want?

Posted February 14, 2013 by Christopher Paine

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Comments (1)

On January 31, 2013, I appeared before the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Rockville, Md., to present NRDC’s views on the agency’s rules governing (and sharply limiting) the public’s participation in the nuclear licensing and rulemaking process.  As fate...continued

Minimizing the Risk of Hydrogen Explosion from a Reactor Meltdown at Indian Point: Entergy and NRC Counter Substantive Citizen Safety Petition with Spin

Posted November 28, 2012 by Christopher Paine

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Citing the risk that hydrogen produced in a severe nuclear accident could accumulate and explode with sufficient force to breach Indian Point’s Unit 2 and 3 containment buildings and expose the public to a large radiological release, the New York...continued

NRC Task Force on Lessons of Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Reveals Serious Gaps in US Reactor Safety Regulation

Posted July 18, 2011 by Christopher Paine

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As the four severely damaged reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station continue their slow progression toward a cold shutdown condition, more has become known about how the accident unfolded. States, regulatory agencies and experts around the world are...continued

A Question of Balance

Posted February 15, 2011 by Christopher Paine

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Obama’s Department of Energy Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2012 Is Still Top Heavy with Funding for Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Energy While the final DOE budget for FY 2011 remains highly uncertain, due to ongoing Republican efforts to impose...continued

Packing the Nuclear Pork Barrel is the Wrong Approach to Low-Carbon Energy

Posted May 21, 2010 by Christopher Paine

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The “American Power Act,” the long-awaited Kerry-Lieberman-[ Graham?] “discussion draft” of a Senate climate bill released last week on Capitol Hill, is stuffed with taxpayer giveaways and new regulatory loopholes for the nuclear power industry. These financial subsidies and licensing...continued


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