Power production is a subject about which I’m not especially knowledgeable. I know a decent amount about what the options are, but a whole lot less about the exact mechanics of how they work. It’s something I’m trying to learn more about, but it’s far less of a priority to me than other aspects of climate change and the politics surrounding it. As I’ve said before, I think the primary obstacles are social and political, rather than technical. That is true for renewable energy, it’s true for agricultural changes, and it’s true for nuclear energy. I was looking through the youtube channel for Yale Climate Connections, and I came across this video, which I think serves as a good example of what I’m talking about:
Leaving aside my reflexive annoyance at having to listen to Bill Gates talk, I think there’s useful information in there. I also think there are parts of the video in which we can clearly see there are a couple limitations in perspective. The first one is the rather fatalistic take on whether new nuclear reactors will be cost-competitive with renewables, as though economics are just a force of nature, rather than the deliberate result of government policy. The idea that cost should be a primary concern in responding to climate change continues to be one of the most apocalyptic mind-viruses of our age, and it’s infuriating to see otherwise intelligent and well-educated people showing those symptoms.
The other thing I want to quibble with is this:
The first small modular reactor will be eight, ten years from now. We need to have pretty much solved the whole problem, and have overwhelming momentum to zero carbon electricity by that time
There’s one aspect of this that’s fine – Dr. Makhijani is absolutely correct about the scale of action needed within the next decade, if we want to keep the warming below two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial temperatures. We certainly should want that, but whether or not we actually achieve it, life will continue, and we’re going to need a lot of power generation. If we miss that mark, we’re going to need more power if we want to avoid mass death unlike anything our species has seen. I get why there has been so much focus on avoiding this crisis, but just because we’ve largely failed at that doesn’t mean it’s “game over”, and I think Makhijani’s framing there can do real harm.
A huge portion of this crisis was caused by a societal inability to make decisions based on long-term outcomes. We can’t afford to continue that. That’s why I think societal change is such an important element of this. It’s also why resilience needs to be the focus. My primary objection to nuclear power, over the last few years, has been something that’s mentioned in the video – all conventional nuclear power plants rely on a constant supply of water for cooling. Some of them are far more efficient in their use and re-use of water than others, but for all of them, things like drought, heat waves, and flooding are a concern for safety and for efficiency. That’s not a reason to discard the technology, but it is a reason to build with the assumption that our infrastructure will be subjected to conditions unlike anything we’ve seen before. That goes for everything we’re doing to deal with climate change. If, as seems increasingly likely, we miss the 2°C mark, then life is going to get a whole lot harder. We’re going to need to spend increasing amounts of energy cooling our homes and places of work, keeping crops alive, repairing infrastructure, and so on. Nuclear power – including the small, modular designs mentioned in the video – could be a powerful tool in that effort, but only if we’re clear-eyed about the conditions under which it will be used.
We don’t get to just give up if we haven’t solved everything in a decade, and that means we need to consider how technology like this can and cannot be used in a much hotter world. We’re at a point, horrific though it is, where we need to be planning for the scenarios we’d been hoping to avoid, and frankly people like the ones involved in this video need adjust their thinking to account for the passage of time. I think we should absolutely be continuing the momentum of wind and solar power. I also think that adherence to the focus on the two degree deadline, and the idea that this all has to be done via capitalist competition, are both perspectives that do more harm than good.
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