Nuclear power’s tense contradiction
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.
It seems like a good proportion of the informed / engaged nuclear proponents on the internet are left of centre. The problem is translating that into some change of heart on the left generally.
Good piece. It’s bloody lonely here on the ecomodern left, but we exist. It is possible to believe a technology is problematic, dangerous, flawed, immature in some areas, fraught with historical/military baggage… and yet still better than burning more coal for baseload during the transition to renewables.
Thoughtful piece. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for me to offer a few thoughts of my own.
Nuclear energy advocates might seem hopelessly confused to people who occupy a left-right political world in which there are only two sides with battles being seen as either won or lost.
Some of us – hopefully a large majority of the population – live in a more nuanced and complex world in which there are many issues that pull us in various directions. We don’t define our politics as left or right because it all depends on the specifics of the issue.
I like to make the admittedly strained analogy that many politically vocal people participate and watch as if politics is a series of football games. In contrast, I see politics as a long running track and field or swimming meet in which there are a wide variety of contests happening at the same time with teams that are actually just groups of individuals who happen to go to the same school or live in the same area.
There are many winners of various contests, but nearly all of the participants can consider themselves to be winners depending on their own goals. Of course, there are also many who are disappointed in their own performance in any particular event and may end up considering that they have “lost” that specific contest. If they are like most meet participants, they have other events where the results might be different.
Nuclear energy isn’t a right or left issue because it isn’t a “one trick pony.” It was developed and commercialized several years before anyone expressed great concerns about climate change. Early adopters liked it because it wasn’t oil, coal, or gas and wasn’t plagued by the drawbacks of those combustion fuel sources.
Atomic fission has no gaseous emissions and doesn’t require a constant supply of oxygen laden air, so it held great appeal to people who wanted power in unconventional environments like underwater or in space outside of the earth’s atmosphere. It also appeals to people who understood the very real and measurable effects of breathing hydrocarbon combustion waste products even in “normal” human environments.
Though there were some concerns about the magnitude of the potential resource in the very earliest days, those concerns were alleviated within a decade or so of looking around the world. We discovered that uranium and thorium were far more abundant and widely distributed than we knew in the days before we started looking for it. Once the size of the resource became known, we gained another great reason to support nuclear – it was potentially so abundant that it offered a path out of the periodic or regional shortages and price swings know to occur with fossil fuels.
Its extremely compact fuel appeals to those who like endurance and resilience with independence from fuel supply chains. Its tiny waste product offers great advantages to those who understand the ease with which those waste products can be contained. Its lack of explosive or flammable properties appeals to safety-conscious designers and operators.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
I find incredible latent strength in the fact that nuclear energy has features that appeal along numerous vectors to so many different interests. I’m encouraged by realizing that its wide array of supporters can appear confused to people who occupy the left-right world of winners and losers that many media outlets seem to encourage.
Maybe nuclear energy can serve a uniting purpose as well as serving as a powerful energy source.
Publisher, Atomic Insights