Is switching to nuclear energy our best chance to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, or a more dangerous prospect than climate change? Is nuclear power the only option to replace finite fossil fuels or can decentralized energy sources such as wind and solar, along with conservation and efficiency, fill the gap?

A nuclear advocate and a critic tackled these questions in a heated debate in November at a Michigan environmental conference. At odds were 1970s-era activists Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace co-founder and now a nuclear supporter, and Harvey Wasserman, an anti-nuke crusader from Columbus, who coined the expression, “No Nukes.”

The use of nuclear energy has become a hot button issue for environmentalists with some of its biggest names switching to endorse nuclear. Among them: James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis and Stewart Brand, former editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue.

Moore embraces nuclear power as a way to battle climate change. “If we want to reduce fossil fuel consumption, and 85 percent of the U.S. does, it’s not possible without nuclear energy on a large scale,” he said in the debate at the Conference on Michigan’s Future: Energy, Economy and Environment.

Moore claimed that wind and solar energy, now accounting for less than one percent of total production, will never replace fossil fuels because they are too intermittent and expensive. “You can’t run factories, schools and hospitals on sources that will disappear for days at a time,” he said.

Actually, he has a point. Even with double-digit growth rates, wind and solar along with geothermal remain a miniscule portion of total energy use. While green techno-enthusiasts may claim that a growing industrial world could be run on scaled-up renewable sources, the numbers suggest otherwise.

Wasserman, author of SOLARTOPIA! Our-Green Powered Earth, A.D. 2030, argued that a combination of renewable energy sources, increased efficiency and a new transportation infrastructure would better solve the climate crisis and energy problems than nuclear power, which he described as a “failed 20th century technology.” Wasserman detailed a long list of nuclear power’s woes—its high cost (about $10 billion or more per plant and rising), the potentially catastrophic health and safety effects from everyday radiation emissions and possible meltdowns and other accidents, the inability of the industry to get private funding and insurance and the unresolved issue of the disposal of high-level radioactive waste.

With these concerns, it’s no wonder that a new nuclear plant hasn’t been commissioned in the U.S. in some three decades. But the pressure for new nuclear plants will continue until what is truly the most cost-effective, clean, renewable, safe energy source is embraced—namely conservation—in the form of massive energy curtailment which embraces lifestyle changes in food, housing, transportation and other sectors.

But neither debater spoke of the promise of a rapid and deep reduction in per capita energy use from personal behavioral changes. Energy efficiency, promoted by Wasserman, relies much on unknown technological advances and has been shown to increase rather than decrease the rate of consumption of a resource (known as Jevons’ Paradox). We have more efficient cars, but tend to drive them more and our homes are more energy-efficient than 40 years ago, but twice as large.

Whether nuclear power is the safest, cleanest, cheapest energy source available, or the most deadly, polluting and expensive, the real issue might be the fundamental nature of power generation in the 21st century, a point which Wasserman hammered home. “The entire structure of centralized control [of energy] by large corporations is the problem,” he said.

So renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, when combined with radical conservation measures—local food production, other local production, sharing and exchange systems, such as ride-sharing and local currencies and credit—may be our best options because they are decentralized and under the control of communities, businesses and homeowners.

As Wasserman concluded in deriding nuclear power, “We are not only getting away from a failed technology, we are moving from a failed paradigm and that is centralized control.”