I’ve noticed a frustrating tendency among some climate activists to cling to a mode of thought that works to uphold the justifications for capitalism, and the bleak view of life perpetuated by capitalist and fascist propagandists. It’s the notion of endless competition as a driving force in society. It’s Spencer’s pseudo-scientific notion of “survival of the fittest”, supported by the lie that resources will always be less than what would meet the basic needs of humanity. The notion of false scarcity was probably made most famous by the diamond industry, which boosted the price of its product by strictly controlling the supply, and limiting the rate at which new diamonds entered the market. Similar shady practices also drive up housing prices, and a related line of justification is used not to increase the price of food – though that has happened a bit – but rather to justify the hunger of those who are prevented from eating food that would otherwise go to waste. Diamonds are actually pretty common, there are more empty homes than homeless people, and there is more food than we need to feed everyone. We are not, in reality, stuck in endless competition with each other. We live in a world and in a time when nobody needs to worry about their basic necessities.
We’re just forced to, in order to force us to use our bodies and our time for the enrichment of someone else.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and if we’re going to find a way out of this mess, we will have to train ourselves not to see the world that way, and I think that includes our sources of power. Maybe this is also partly because we’ve found that certain sources – fossil fuels – cannot be used safely, so we see a need to get a “better” energy source, and that can lead to viewing things like solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, and so on as being in competition with each other. As Le Guin said, we live in capitalism, and its power seems inescapable. For an example, take this recent study from the University of Sussex:
If countries want to lower emissions as substantially, rapidly and cost-effectively as possible, they should prioritize support for renewables, rather than nuclear power.
That’s the finding of new analysis of 123 countries over 25 years by the University of Sussex Business School and the ISM International School of Management which reveals that nuclear energy programmes around the world tend not to deliver sufficient carbon emission reductions and so should not be considered an effective low carbon energy source.
Researchers found that unlike renewables, countries around the world with larger scale national nuclear attachments do not tend to show significantly lower carbon emissions — and in poorer countries nuclear programmes actually tend to associate with relatively higher emissions.
Published today in Nature Energy, the study reveals that nuclear and renewable energy programmes do not tend to co-exist well together in national low-carbon energy systems but instead crowd each other out and limit effectiveness.
Benjmin K Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “The evidence clearly points to nuclear being the least effective of the two broad carbon emissions abatement strategies, and coupled with its tendency not to co-exist well with its renewable alternative, this raises serious doubts about the wisdom of prioritising investment in nuclear over renewable energy. Countries planning large-scale investments in new nuclear power are risking suppression of greater climate benefits from alternative renewable energy investments.”
This is where I start to worry about the analysis of these researchers, and the conclusions they draw. From what I can tell, they’re basing their conclusions on the notion that we’ll be swapping out power sources, but leaving much of the rest of how things work as is. We have the resources, as a species, to do a large-scale rollout of renewable power sources, and also to build new nuclear power plants. The obstacle isn’t one of resources for investment, it’s one of political and social obstacles. Likewise, for countries that currently have well-established nuclear power, it’s not like that’s the only factor affecting CO2 emissions, and many of the power plants in question are decades old, which means they’re worse on pretty much every metric than newer reactor and plant designs.
I have my reservations about nuclear power, but they largely stem back to the same root as my problem with this sort of analysis. It’s likely that without changing the power and incentive structures of our society, no power source will be either sufficient or safe. There are too many problems, even if we only focus on the environment, that are caused by pursuit of profit over all else, and that cannot be solved because doing so isn’t “profitable”. I think it’s highly unlikely that we will be able to avoid total collapse under the political and economic conditions these authors assume will continue to be the norm.
The researchers, using World Bank and International Energy Agency data covering 1990-2014, found that nuclear and renewables tend to exhibit lock-ins and path dependencies that crowd each other out, identifying a number of ways in which a combined nuclear and renewable energy mix is incompatible.
These include the configuration of electricity transmission and distribution systems where a grid structure optimized for larger scale centralized power production such as conventional nuclear, will make it more challenging, time-consuming and costly to introduce small-scale distributed renewable power.
Similarly, finance markets, regulatory institutions and employment practices structured around large-scale, base-load, long-lead time construction projects for centralized thermal generating plant are not well designed to also facilitate a multiplicity of much smaller short-term distributed initiatives.
Andy Stirling, Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “This paper exposes the irrationality of arguing for nuclear investment based on a ‘do everything’ argument. Our findings show not only that nuclear investments around the world tend on balance to be less effective than renewable investments at carbon emissions mitigation, but that tensions between these two strategies can further erode the effectiveness of averting climate disruption.”
The study found that in countries with a high GDP per capita, nuclear electricity production does associate with a small drop in CO2 emissions. But in comparative terms, this drop is smaller than that associated with investments in renewable energy.
And in countries with a low GDP per capita, nuclear electricity production clearly associates with CO2 emissions that tend to be higher.
Patrick Schmid, from the ISM International School of Management München, said: “While it is important to acknowledge the correlative nature of our data analysis, it is astonishing how clear and consistent the results are across different time frames and country sets. In certain large country samples the relationship between renewable electricity and CO2-emissions is up to seven times stronger than the corresponding relationship for nuclear.”
Ironically, my objection to this analysis is similar to an objection I’ve raised to more avid nuclear advocates – we can’t base our plans for the future on how things have been historically, because we are in a historically unprecedented time. If we continue to assign value and importance within the constraints of a capitalist rule set, we’re never going to see an end to overproduction. If a grid designed for distributed power generation can’t handle the output of a nuclear plant, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to put the technology to use. If your reactor is adequately protected from sea level rise (high elevation or placement on a floating structure), a nuclear plant could be an excellent way to power large-scale desalination, hydrolysis, or both. It could also be used to power industrial activity – factories, waste processing, shipping, or even indoor farming.
As I’ve mentioned before, the best path to both sustainable population size and sustainable energy usage is to equalize at a decent standard of living, and to stop centering things around consumption and growth:
However, not only do the findings show that the energy required to provide a decent living could likely be met entirely by clean sources, but it also offers a firm rebuttal to reactive claims that reducing global consumption to sustainable levels requires an end to modern comforts and a ‘return to the dark ages’.
The authors’ tongue in cheek response to the critique that sweeping energy reform would require us all to become ‘cave dwellers’ was: “Yes, perhaps, but these are rather luxurious caves with highly-efficient facilities for cooking, storing food and washing clothes; comfortable temperatures maintained throughout the year, computer networks — among other things — not to mention the larger caves providing universal healthcare and education to all 5-19 year olds.”
That said, providing growing conditions that can feed humanity, ensuring access to water, maintaining pleasant indoor temperature and air quality, and manufacturing durable goods in a sustainable manner are all likely to consume a lot of power. I generally favor distributed power generation through “renewable” energy sources, for the flexibility and resilience that provides, but it would be very foolish, in my opinion, to just dismiss nuclear power, or to stop working on ways to improve on it.
There’s also another factor to consider. Ideally, we’re going to do more than just deal with our impact on the climate and reduce the production of new waste. We also need to deal with the waste we’ve already produced, both in terms of disposed products, and in terms of things like mine waste, industrial byproducts, and new kinds of toxic waste like the concentrated brine from desalination plants.
We need to make an industry out of cleaning up and rendering harmless a vast array of substances, including radioactive waste that has nothing whatsoever to do with nuclear power.
Unfortunately, the speed at which the planet is heating means that the amount of energy we’re going to have to consume to both survive and end fossil fuel use is going to be massive. Even as we take steps to increase energy efficiency and reduce consumption, we’re going to have other growing demands for energy. I think it’s entirely likely that in some situations, a nuclear reactor is going to be the best option. The focus should be on what conditions must be met. I think most modern reactor designs are very, very safe, if they’re operated by people whose primary incentive is their safe and reliable operation, without consideration for things like profit. Any community within the exclusion zone of a reactor should have a role in oversight of that reactor, as well as a responsibility to educate themselves in defense against misinformation.
If we manage to actually gain the power to start reshaping society, one of our first problems is going to be cleaning up after the last century or so. It only seems responsible to keep nuclear power as an option, for when we do need a massive concentration of energy in one location.
I also think that we’d do well, insofar as we have the power to influence any of this, to encourage as non-fossil energy production is possible, and rather than focusing on storing excess for later, use the excess as it’s generated, and arrange things so that at the grid’s lowest ebb, we have enough for the minimum requirements of day to day life.
As I mentioned at the outset, a lot of the world’s power comes from control over access to vital resources – food, water, shelter, healthcare, and in the modern era, electricity. One of the reasons that mutual aid networks can serve as a foundation for organized, working class power, is that they make it harder to use the subtler forms of coercion that government and capital typically use to keep people in line. If you can ensure supply lines of food, water, and so on, then people actually have firm ground on which to make a stand. A strike is far more sustainable when those involved know that their families will still have their needs met, even if they lose their wages.
We can use abundance as a weapon against economic coercion.
Now, as we’ve seen recently, they’re willing to be overt, if that’s what it takes to keep people working, but strike-breaking, or openly manipulating things like access to unemployment insurance in order to force people to work for poverty wages, tend to help turn people against the ruling class.
As this century continues, I think it would be wise to adopt a similar strategy for energy production. We need to combine increased efficiency with increased zero-carbon power generation to create a state of abundance, where excess can be used for essential work, and it’s much harder for a government or corporation to wield power over people by controlling their electricity access.
We should continue to invest in distributed power generation, especially at the community level, where possible, but I honestly think we’d be foolish cease all investment in nuclear power.
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