I was the first environmentalist in the United States to publicly and actively support nuclear power starting in 2000. I founded the Center for Environment, Commerce & Energy (the Center) and the African American Environmentalist Association (AAEA), the first environmental groups in the United States to publicly and actively support nuclear power. My new organization Environmental Hope and Justice brings together the Center and AAEA.
My support for nuclear power was an epiphany. In July 1991 I went into respiratory failure from an asthma attack in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. I was intubated for 4 days. I went into respiratory failure again in 1996 and was again intubated for 4 days. There were numerous visits to the emergency room during these years and I thought that I would die from an asthma attack during many of these episodes. As someone who suffers from chronic asthma, the fact that nuclear energy production doesn’t emit the harmful pollutants of fossil fuels that can exacerbate respiratory conditions such as asthma made it clear to me that saving nuclear power should be a central component of my mission to achieve environmental justice.
An interest in quantum mechanics led me to studying nuclear power and understanding its singular importance in saving the environment. This realization was terrifying and did not come easily because I knew how unpopular a pro-nuclear stance would be in a Washington, DC-based environmental movement. Almost everybody who knew me, in and out of the environmental movement, told me I was crazy.
I worked on nuclear power issues like there was no tomorrow. From about 2000 to 2014, my work was second to none. But by 2014, nuclear power was not in a renaissance, but was in a serious swan dive. Having put so much time and energy in this effort, I was discouraged and retreated away from the issue. And then Michael Shellenberger, president of a new pro-nuclear organization Environmental Progress, came along and inspired me to get back up on that nuclear horse and start riding again. Environmental Hope and Justice will be working closely with Environmental Progress going forward.
Underlying my mission is a dedication to environmental justice. In the early 90s I was one of the participants at the meetings with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in an attempt to get the agency to recognize the issue of environmental justice. In an open to the letter to national environmental organizations, the Center and AAEA challenged organizations’ hiring policies and their lack of attention to environmental justice. I attended the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC and authored the first comprehensive pollution report about our nation's capital with special emphasis on the effects on vulnerable communities. Perhaps most notably, I worked with Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo to help pass the first civil rights legislation of the 21st century—the 2002 No FEAR Act. I was the only environmental justice activist working with Dr. Adebayo to pass this landmark piece of legislation, which helps protect federal workers from discrimination.
Beyond environmental justice issues, I have indulged myself in working on a variety of issues and programs. These include everything from creek walks and cleanup events for youth, to the creation of a Minority Environmental Internship Program where we placed minority interns at various environmental groups in Washington, DC. To tell the full story of my work, I published my autobiography "Norris McDonald: Diary Of An Environmentalist" in 2009.
I hope to save nuclear power plants through my work at Environmental Hope and Justice. Background on my nuclear work shows how dedicated I have been to mitigating climate change already. A few highlights from my tours to 12 nuclear power plants in the United States, China and France are shown here.