Nuclear power: no answer to energy policy in a changing climate

Martin Stott

It is eighteen months since the meltdown of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power complex after the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. Globally, reaction to this series of events has been mixed, with a number of countries including Germany reaffirming their intentions to get out of civil nuclear power generation, others like China and Indonesia taking a second look at the implications for them and some like France and the UK where the view has been taken that it couldn’t happen here, so there are few if any, lessons to be learned. Our newly minted energy policy hammered out within the Coalition over the past few months and presented to an expectant nation last week, reflects this complacency.

Very striking though has been the reaction of some leading commentators in the environmental movement to the nuclear versus renewable debate in this context. The response can be summarised by the headline to George Monbiot’s article ‘Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power’ in The Guardian on 22 March 2011, just 13 days after the tsunami which triggered the multiple meltdowns there. Monbiot is not alone. Stuart ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ Brand, James Lovelock and Mark Lynas have all piled in. The riffs are slightly different, but the tune is essentially the same, that nuclear power in the context of a rapidly warming planet is a far better way to generate electricity than coal, gas or oil. This, they assert is because it is low carbon, unlike fossil fuels, is more reliable than renewables and some argue, cheaper. Monbiot in particular has become more vehement in the past year and has become a forceful advocate of Integrated Fast Reactors (IFR’s) as the holy grail of both the nuclear industry and sustainable energy production.

Civil nuclear power has a track record and as long as you don’t look too closely at the costs, it is not all bad. It provides most of the electrical generation capacity in France for example. But it is not low carbon, let alone zero carbon. The whole nuclear fuel cycle from mining, refining and transportation onwards produces substantial quantities of carbon emissions. The power stations themselves are hardly models of low carbon infrastructure. This is important because their ‘environmental’ argument for nuclear power is that it is a major weapon in the fight against climate change.

There are a number of other arguments against nuclear power – the costs (the taxpayer subsidies over the past few decades are quite mind boggling and the decommissioning and waste storage costs in the future are even more so), the risks of terrorism, (Flight 93 that was brought down by its passengers in a field in Pennsylvania on September 11 2001 was aimed at Three Mile Island, a point that is frequently forgotten) the threat of proliferation, (if civil nuclear power generation doesn’t lead to proliferation, why is the US taking such an interest in Iran’s nuclear programme? They know it does, but only make a fuss when it suits them. Israel was treated much more gently.) the inability to store or safely manage in the long term the high level nuclear wastes produced, the threats to human health, and its sheer unreliability (the surprise 3.1% increase in UK green house gas (GHG) emissions in 2010 reported in February by DECC, was in large part due to the newest and most ‘reliable’ British nuclear reactor, Sizewell ‘B’ being out of commission for six months). All of these arguments can be rehearsed in some detail, but my focus is on the debate from the perspective nuclear power’s possible contribution to tackling climate change and what that means for the society of the future.

In his piece on why Fukushima had made him pro-nuclear Monbiot asserts that ‘the environmental movement… has done more harm to the planets living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved. As a result of shutting down its nuclear programme in response to green demands, Germany will produce an extra 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020.’

His solution is the promotion of IFR’s, following their advocacy by a retired American sea captain Tom Blees, in his self-published book ‘Prescription for the planet’. Despite this advocacy by Blees and Monbiot, there are a number of problems with IFR’s, the same ones that were discussed 35 years ago at the Windscale inquiry. First, they don’t work, as the prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Dounreay has amply demonstrated. Second, attempting to develop them costs a fortune – British taxpayers blew £4bn between 1955-2005 with nothing to show for it and third, like a number of other nuclear technologies such as nuclear fusion (another financial ‘black hole’) the official position is that getting the technology to work (forget about commercialising it) is ‘just round the corner’ – just as it has been for the last 40 years. Essentially this is a plea to the renewables industry to wait, while the nuclear industry gets its act together.

Meanwhile in Germany, renewables capacity is expanding at a rate of the equivalent of a new nuclear reactor every year. Perhaps the money proposed for investment in IFR’s could more usefully go into expanding the renewable sector, or research on developing technologies for energy storage – which would have a hugely beneficial impact on renewables.

Global climate change is arguably the most pressing social, political and environmental issue we face as a species over the next 100 years, as Lynas’ book ‘Six degrees’ graphically demonstrates. However my concern is that in identifying this extremely challenging issue, all perspective has been lost in the search for solutions. In his new book, ‘The god species: how the planet can survive the age of humans’ Lynas asserts,

‘Global warming is not about over consumption, morality, ideology or capitalism. It is largely the result of human beings generating energy by burning hydrocarbons and coal.’

It is this perspective that leads him to call for a ‘new environmentalism’, one that is ‘happy with capitalism’ and nuclear power. I couldn’t disagree more. In fact I consider this to be a manifestation of climate change extremism, where the ends justify the means and all political debate about societal choices is shut down in order to address this overriding imperative. Any environmentalism worth fighting for must have equality, justice and the public good at its heart. What is the point of having a society in 2100 – well within the lifetime of people alive today, where political freedoms and civil society are so tightly controlled so to ensure a certain kind of ‘stability’ and the continuing provision of an electricity production method, nuclear power, for a small global elite? It will be a society that is authoritarian, security obsessed, militarised, secretive, centralised and controlled by an elite in corporations and governments to ensure order and stability. Climate change poses a huge set of problems and challenges, but an unthinking technocratic ‘solution’ imposed now on future generations, threatens to make the situation in a couple of generations time far worse. This is the exact opposite of the principles of sustainable development.

Some very important context for this debate was published by Oxfam a few months ago. ‘A safe and just space for humanity: can we live within the doughnut?’ by Kate Raworth, was part of their submission for the Rio+20 conference. In terms of social justice, it sets out both the eleven priorities listed by governments (food security, adequate income, clean water and good sanitation, effective healthcare, access to education, decent work, modern energy services, resilience to shocks, gender equality, social equity and a voice in democratic politics) and the nine ‘planetary boundaries’ established in 2009 by a group of earth systems scientists in Stockholm, which Lynas in his book seeks to explain and popularise. These are: climate change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphate use, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, freshwater use, changes in land use, particles in the atmosphere and chemical pollution. The ‘safe and just space for humanity’ of Raworth’s title is the space between these two that humanity can thrive in. But of course to achieve this quite a few people on the planet who are currently well below the social justice ‘line’ have to rise above it. Does achieving this wreck our chances of limiting and lowering our GHG emissions? Of course it doesn’t, but it does involve some small increases in them. Specifically she identifies that:

• Providing enough food for the 13% of the worlds people who suffer from hunger means raising the worlds supplies by just 1%

• Providing electricity for the 19% of the worlds people who currently have none would raise global carbon emissions by just 1% and

• Bringing everybody above the global absolute poverty line of $1.25 a day would need just 0.2% of global income.

Put another way, half the worlds global carbon emissions are produced by just 11% of its people, with the poorest 50% producing just – 11%.

‘Excessive resource use by the richest 10% of consumers crowds out much needed resource use by billions of other people’ says Raworth. The paper makes what seems to me to be a pretty obvious point, that social justice is impossible without ‘far greater global equity in the use of natural resources, with the greatest reductions coming from the world’s richest consumers’. So global warming is about over consumption, morality, ideology and capitalism.

Lynas is right in making his plea for good global resource management, but this is an essentially technocratic approach without asking, as Raworth does, in whose interests? For both Lynas, Monbiot and others, nuclear power is an important part of this technocratic approach to global resource management (Lovelock’s ‘The revenge of Gaia’ takes the logic of this position to its extremes) when the problems and their solutions are essentially political in the widest sense. To get everybody on the planet inside Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ requires a political programme that really does ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’. Are we likely to get there any time soon? Sadly not, if the advocates of a so-called ‘new environmentalism’ which really thinks that ‘global warming is not about over consumption, morality, ideology or capitalism’ get their way. And just as importantly, we close off the opportunities for generations to come to determine their own destinies by imposing on them technologies that inevitably produce a dystopian future, just so we can avoid some hard choices now. This has nothing to do with inter-generational equity or sustainable development in any sense that I understand.

(A version of this article appeared in the March 2012 issue of Town and Country Planning.)






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