[This article first appeared in European Tribune in 2006. ]
The Case for the Defence
The claims made by the various spokespeople for the nuclear industry at this juncture are, in précis:
- (a) that nuclear power is “unlimited”, i.e. can be maintained or grown for an “indefinite” future (this in practise means “a couple of hundred years”);
- (b) that nuclear power is carbon-neutral, i.e. does not contribute significantly to greenhouse emissions or climate change and therefore is a “fix” for global warming;
- (c) that nuclear power is, nowadays, “safe”… meaning: incidents like TMI (Three Mile Island) and Chernobyl, and sites like Hanford and Sellafield, are “bad old days” stuff, and we can take care of all the problems of waste disposal, leakage of active isotopes, provide fail-secure “walk away” reactors, etc.
- (c1) that it’s “safer to build than to import” from neighbours with old or substandard nuclear technology
- (d) that nuclear power can replace almost every application of fossil power or
- (d1) that nuclear power can at least provide a reliable energy baseline
- (e) that nuclear power is already more cost effective than renewables and
- (f) that new fission reactor designs such as CANDU or pebble bed solve the problems of “old, bad designs” like TMI or Chernobyl and/or
- (g) that new developments such “safe breeder reactors” and “fusion reactors” are just around the corner and will make nuclear power really efficient and safe (even though, as we all know, it already is)
- (h) Just because some incompetent nations/companies have built lousy plants or mismanaged them (Soviet fast-track crude technology, American privatisation or political corruption) doesn’t mean that nuclear power cannot be managed properly by competent and rational government programmes, as in France. (i.e. failures of nuclear power in the past were structural failures of the society, government, or level of expertise or materials, not due to risk factors inherent in the technology).
- (i) All industrial technologies are risky, and there is no reason to fear nuclear accidents or pollution more than any other industrial process or “externalised” waste or pollution (much of which can be shown to have caused more premature loss of life over the last 20 years than can be irrefutably ascribed to the nuclear sector).
- (j) fission reactor construction, and nuclear development generally, have been unfairly held back over the last 20 years by unfounded public fears, prejudice, and anti-nuke protestors
Further systematic or conceptual, implicit or explicit claims often heard from the industry or its supporters are:
- (A) The energy and climate situation is dire and some remedial action is urgently needed;
- (B) Nuclear power is the only practical alternative to fossil fuels; or put more vividly, the only alternative to nuclear power is “shivering in the dark”, i.e. widespread power-famine. Therefore, opposing the nuclear industry is — implicitly — a crime against humanity, as it means obstructing the only possible solution and condemning people to freeze in the dark / die / starve / live like lowly third world peasants;
- (C) Therefore it is clear that only stupid people would oppose such an obvious solution; therefore opposition to the nuclear industry must be born of stupidity — opponents are presumably non-scientists and/or generally ill-educated, and believe a lot of superstitious/cartoony exaggerations about the dangers of radiation. Alternatively they are a lot of “eco-crazies” or “tree huggers” who are ideologically anti-science, anti-progress, and suffer from a sentimental attachment to a wholly fictional happier agrarian/pastoral historical period.
- (D) Quality of life is linearly related to amount of energy consumed per person per annum
- (E) We have reason to be optimistic about steady and often radical improvements in technology; scientific “miracles” produced by the efforts of academic and/or commercial elites have occurred in the past which produced wonderous returns for consumers, and more of the same can be expected to continue indefinitely until everyone on Earth enjoys a First World lifestyle and/or humanity colonises the solar system, etc. But to reach this Promised Land we will need lots of energy, so we must not permit our energy consumption and production to fall.
I think that about sums it up, but perhaps our local pro-nuclear advocates can add a few more talking points.
The Case for the Prosecution
The claims made by opponents of nuclear plants, on the other side of the fence, can be distilled into this list:
- (a) Nuclear power is not safe, because:
- Waste management is an unsolved problem and the waste is intensely toxic effectively forever
- Uranium mining is associated with poor worker safety, contamination of water sources, etc (like coal mining)
- Leaks happen at nuclear plants, safety procedures are not followed, corners are cut, and then coverups are mounted to prevent the public from finding out.
- No private insurer will insure a nuclear plant. If the technology were safe, you could get insurance on it.
- Nuclear plants are a stalking horse for the nuclear weapons industry. The history of DU munitions (a handy way the industry figured out to get rid of some hot waste) is abominable. This tie makes the world less safe all over.
- (b) The public does not trust reassurances made by nuclear scientists and industry spokespeople, and rightly so. (More on this failure of trust later).
- (c) Uranium mining is not only physically dangerous, but a politically dirty business associated with exploitation of labour, fraudulent dealings with aboriginal people, and all the rest of the typical mining industry profile (i.e. moral odium attaches to it).
- (d) Nuclear power is centralised, extremely high/heavy technology, difficult for average people to understand — and therefore makes power consumers into helpless clients of an authoritarian, secretive industry (with enormous lobbying power for self-perpetuation). In part this is because:
- Nuclear power is tightly coupled to national security risks, proliferation etc. which inspire/require rigorous security measures — these are inherently secretive and antidemocratic.
- Radiation is invisible, unsmellable, undetectable without expensive equipment (geiger counters, dosimeters, etc) — average people cannot tell if they are being exposed. They must take the word of (untrusted) authorities.
- (e) Health effects of radiation exposure may take many years to develop, and may include genetic damage that does not become visible until gestation or birth of children. As menaces go, it qualifies as “insidious” as well as carrying extreme damage and lethality potential.
- (f) Uranium is no more an infinite resource than fossil fuel.
- (g) Nuclear power is not cost-effective; no nuclear plant has ever turned a profit, all have been subsidised/socialised (as the saying goes, “No plant has ever been built that burns uranium as efficiently as it burns money.”). This muddies and confounds comparisons with alternative technologies that have never been subsidised/socialised to the same extent. Further cost issues are:
- Old nuclear plants are very expensive to repurpose or clean up. Decades go by and they are still eating up scientist and engineer hours: a permanent burden on society.
- Nuclear plants are very costly to build and require many highly trained personnel to operate — high level of complexity and high failure costs. This = Expensive. Expensive multiplied by … how many of them would we have to build to replace fossil fuel generating capacity?
- (h) Other alternatives look more obvious, cheaper, easier, and less scary: first, conservation; second, reversion to renewable energy sources (wind, tidal, solar, geothermal, “solar tower”, biomass, biodigester methane, etc); third, localisation, micropower, smart grids (smart information/routing technology)
- (i) In terms of addressing urgent climate/energy issues, nuclear power is not a nimble or timely solution. It takes 10–15 years to bring a new nuke plant on line, whereas we need solutions and ameliorations right now for both fossil fuel scarcity and climate destabilisation.
- (j) What has held nuclear power plant construction back for 20 years has not been public protests (10 million people protesting couldn’t stop the illegal invasion of Iraq, after all) but the failure of the technology to demonstrate a good return on investment or a manageable risk
- (k) New miracle technologies are mostly vaporware, and/or incur significant underplayed “externalities”. We’ve been promised safe breeder reactors and fusion for at least 30 years. Where are they? [Ironically the fission faction in the pronuclear camp has at times made much the same snarky remark and has protested against the diversion of funding into “impractical” fusion research.] Pro-nuke advocates suffer from a sentimental attachment to a wishful-thinking Star Trek or Jetsons cartoon future and are naively optimistic about technology, which they fetishise.
In addition, antinuclear advocates have their own implicit or explicit “larger assumptions” or ideological groundwork which tends to inform the viewpoint of a majority among them. These might include:
- (A) skepticism about the Infinite Growth model of economic theory and urgent concern about its impact on various biotic and social infrastructure worldwide; skepticism about capitalism and the profit motive as engines of progress
- (B) conviction that it is not physically possible for everyone on Earth to live a First World lifestyle; and further, that it is not possible for First Worlders to go on doing so much longer; for survival as well as for social justice, affluent lifestyles in the industrial West should be considered excessive and some curbing of consumerism/materialism is in order
- (C) a conviction of the utter moral wrongness of nuclear weapons; for example the conviction that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a crime against humanity
- (D) skepticism about technological hubris and promised “scientific miracles”; a conviction that many of these carry hidden price tags
- (E) some degree of libertarian and/or anarchistic tendencies leading to
- a skeptical and resistant stance towards Authority, and a mistrust of centralised government and/or large corporations;
- higher value placed on community/grassroots and local organising and provision of services (devolution, downsizing, decentralisation))
- fear that any government may fall, or policies change at any time, leaving large numbers of nuclear plants in “the wrong hands”
- (F) optimism about the intelligence and capacity of the proletariat (vs faith in academic or corporate elites) and the viability of simple, sustainable, and small/medium-scale systems to provide a decent lifestyle for a majority of people; the Promised Land is already here, if we would only exercise some common sense, reasonable frugality, and fairness. Quality of life is not linearly related to amount of energy consumed per person per annum.
The usual disclaimers apply: not everyone who is pronuke will agree with every one of the “pro” talking points, and vice versa for the contranuke position; ideological mappings are always fuzzy in detail. But published literature from both points of view seems to bear out the rough clustering in meme-space that I’ve tried to map here.
In addition to a polarisation of risk assessment and beliefs as detailed above, there is an approximate conventional-political polarisation: support for nuclear power is more common and firmer among people of right and centre-right ideology and/or strong adherence to neoliberal received ideas; it seems to be more common and firmer among high-level technocrats as well. Again this is not a hard and fast correlation, but a perceptible tendency. Firm opposition to nuclear power is more common among people of left/liberal, anti-war, “green,” anti-capitalist, sustainable/eco-activist, “hippie” leanings. Support for nuclear power also appears to be significantly stronger among males than females, something I’ll return to in a later installment.
I’d be interested to find out how ET readers feel about this meme-map… how it reflects — or doesn’t reflect — their own experience of the nuclear power debate.
In the next diary (part 2) I’ll start to address the problem of security and its social implications, and similar sociopolitical issues around nuke plants and the model of power distribution that they lock us into. Thereafter I’ll try to address different talking points from the lists above, not in any particular order, and as time permits. Let the games begin…
Originally published at www.eurotrib.com.