There’s two thick, frayed ropes tied to the heart of nuclear power, and on each end is a tiny little person with their feet dug into the ground, pulling as hard as they can. They’re both equally strong and equally motivated, and they pull, but in two different directions.
At one end of this tug of war is an instinctive distrust of environmentalists, greenies and, to varying degrees, climate change action. There’s a sharp political edge to this attitude. Nuclear supporters, in Australia, tend to lean centre-right:
The other end of the rope is tugged by what is often a genuine desire for environmental conservation and climate action. The most solid manifestation of this philosophy is a movement called “eco-modernism” — re-framing nuclear power as a vital component of global decarbonisation. It’s been hard not to notice an increasingly diverse collection of voices from within this movement.
When the Diablo Canyon reactor announced closure in June last year, protests were held at Greenpeace and the National Resources Defence Council, in San Francisco. The inversion of roles here is pretty interesting – I can’t imagine Greenpeace or the NRDC are used to being on the receiving of this type of protest.
Third Way Energy inject a fair amount of effort into countering ideological barriers between nuclear power and renewable energy – their videos give you an idea of their aim:
Every time one of the two directions gains purchase, the other end pulls back. This was well represented at the launch of the eco-modernist manifesto. As Mark Lynas wrote of Owen Paterson, a conservative guest at the launch,
“Paterson himself didn’t help by writing a typically bombastic piece in the Sunday Telegraph using ecomodernism as a platform for excoriating the “reactionary tendencies” and “relentless pessimism” of what he calls the “green blob” (ie environmentalists in general). Battle lines were beginning to be drawn, with ecomodernism — which I feel belongs if anywhere on the centre left — apparently already co-opted to fight the war against greens for the Tory right”
That was back in 2015 — a different time. These ‘battle lines’ still exist, and re-assert themselves on a daily basis. But they’ve been drawn thicker, and there’s razor wire and alarms and trenches, now.
Another example — a report from an eco-modernist aligned US group, ‘Environmental Progress’, examined a relatively important issue — waste from solar power. I think this is pretty well worth digging into, if we’re to build out a lot of new solar — particularly in Australia.
Except, the news ended up mostly as a anti-solar, anti-green battering ram. The study was immediately picked up and published on ‘Watts up with that’, a climate denial blog, alongside far-right sites like the National Review and the Daily Caller. Whatever the intention or validity of the original research, the ‘battle lines’ have the final say when it comes to the resting place of the idea you put out into the world.
It’s in the bowels of these alt-right digital fever swamps that the biggest threat to climate action manifests — both nuclear power and renewable energy rely, unambiguously, on a solid and considered policy environment. Investors won’t touch these technologies without it. Nuclear’s long build time makes this even more of an important factor. Despite this, the American nuclear power industry seems to be shifting gear — dropping the climate change message to appeal to the Trump administration on the grounds of grid security.
Arguing for the expansion of nuclear power to reduce emissions, whilst playing to online communities and political players that roadblock climate action, is a real-world manifestation of the bidirectional tug of war at the heart of this technology.
American nuclear power supporter and analyst, Rod Adams, wrote recently about his views on what a Trump administration will do for energy in America:
“Based on Trump’s campaign statements and careful attention to Senate confirmation hearings for his nominees for EPA Administrator (Scott Pruitt) and Secretary of Energy (Rick Perry) it appears that we are headed for an era of cheap and abundant power. Trump and his key cabinet members have promised to work to remove artificially imposed barriers to developing increased supplies. They plan to replace those barriers with pragmatic solutions and regulations based on science and the rule of law”
Australian nuclear supporter Ben Heard seems keenly aware of the risks of this approach:
“You can take every good thing that comes your way, keep your heads down and run with it as hard as you can. I would consider that a shortsighted and high-risk decision at best, and potentially entirely morally compromising at worst. You will risk being bundled into everything many Americans are finding abhorrent and distressing about the dawn of this administration, with no values-based identity of your own to stand on”
Part of the reason I find myself so drawn to the issues that swirl around nuclear power is the sheer dramatic tragedy of these contradictions. No other technology’s proponents are stretched so thin and so broadly across political and ideological tribes, and none have embarked on expeditions across ideological territory in the same way nuclear power’s proponents have.
The consequence of this is consistent public polling that shows a mostly-confused and somewhat distrustful public view of nuclear power, in Australia. In America, the solid climate policy landscape needed for a resurgence of a slowly-dipping nuclear power industry is only half-heartedly subscribed to by so many of its proponents. No industry that makes a habit of supporting those who sabotage its survival will last.
Within my own renewable energy industry, expressing audible cynicism about a conservative political party at a conference isn’t a risky move. Doing the same about the Greens party at a coal conference is just as safe. These are worlds without major contradictions, and we heave at the hearts of these technologies in, mostly, a single direction. The coal industry is extremely good at capturing the souls of politicians, and the renewable energy industry is extremely good at capturing the souls of the public. The nuclear industry struggles with both, because its heart is pulled in two different directions.