Eric Holthaus has become one the best climate journalists in the country over the past few years, but his most recent article promoting nuclear power demonstrates why the effort to address climate change can no longer afford to focus exclusively on emissions. There are a lot of problems with Holthaus’ article, some of which likely stem from his use of Jesse Jenkins and Michael Shellenberger as sources. Jenkins and Shellenberger have spent their careers promoting techno-salvation and denigrating environmentalism. Their influence is particularly evident in the fact that Holthaus literally starts his article with a conclusion that nuclear power is necessary.
We can’t have a serious discussion about nuclear power without talking about democracy. Nuclear proponents argue that nuclear power can be done safely and with minimal waste. Even if that is true, it is also certainly true that nuclear power can be done less safely by cutting corners in ways that increase the profits of the corporations who own the plants. And the consequences of cutting those corners can be catastrophic. That’s why it is so critical that if we are going to be embracing extremely high-risk technology, we need a government and regulatory agencies that are not willing to compromise public safety for corporate profits. We don’t have such a system. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Until we end corporate personhood, we don’t have a governing structure that can handle the responsibility of nuclear power.
Local democracy is also critical to any discussion of nuclear power. While some tout the hypothetical potential of nuclear power to be rapidly scalable, new nuclear power has not been able to contribute anything to our energy needs for decades. This is at least partially because of the regulatory hurdles and safety standards that are in place. “Fast-tracking” new nuclear power plants means ignoring the rights of those who will be affected and threatened by the plants. We can be pretty sure that no mega-mansions will be seized by eminent domain to make way for nuclear plants. It will be poor and marginalized communities who suffer the negative impacts from the mining of uranium, the construction and operation of the plants, the storage of the waste, and any potential disasters. I can walk through my neighborhood and find plenty of sites where solar on the roof of a house, a business, or in an open lot would be appreciated by the community of people who live there. There is no place around here where a nuclear power plant could be built without a massive disruption to the people who currently live there. If we are willing to sacrifice those people’s rights at this point, what will we be willing to do down the road as the climate crisis becomes even more desperate?
A lack of subsidies is not the cause of sluggish nuclear growth. Shellenberger deceptively highlights a 2016 disparity between subsidies for nuclear and all renewables combined, but historically those amounts have been roughly similar. Nuclear subsidies often come in large chucks like the $8.3 billion subsidy Obama gave to just one nuclear plant in Georgia in 2010. That plant has still not been built, the company building it filed for bankruptcy, and Trump is trying to give them more subsidies. Between 1973 and 2003, the US gave about double the subsidies to nuclear as to all renewable and energy efficiency combined.
Discussions of nuclear power also should not be detached from the crisis of income inequality, a core destabilizing force in our society. Part of the reason that there are such well-funded efforts to promote nuclear power is that it maintains the same basic centralized economic model of the fossil fuel industry. As a limited fuel supply, whoever controls access to the fuel, technology, and capital investments gets to set all the terms. They set all the terms for their workers, for their communities, for the people downstream, and even for regulatory agencies, so they end up with a massive concentration of wealth and political power. That why fossil fuels have led to such extreme levels of wealth inequality. With renewables, because no one controls access to the sun or the wind, the wealth is more likely to flow to those who do the work of harnessing that energy. In contrast, a nuclear power plant is the very definition of “too big to fail.”
Finally, any discussion of nuclear power has to happen within the context of our failure to stop the climate crisis. It’s not 1992 anymore. It’s 2018, and we know that we have almost certainly committed to massive climate disruption. That means we can reasonably count on unprecedented instability and uncertainty over the coming decades. In times of uncertainty, resilience is found in diversity. We should not be putting all our eggs in one basket with massive and expensive nuclear power plants (or as Moody’s calls nuclear power investments, a “bet-the-farm” gamble.) The kind of scaling up we need has to be diversified, as we see with community solar development.
As sea levels rise and predictions for future sea level rise keep increasing, it can’t make sense to be building nuclear power plants near shorelines. But if we build them inland, the increased water shortages caused by climate change will be an ever-increasing problem for nuclear power, which uses more water than any other power source. With a diversified energy system of renewables, we can afford a few mistakes in our planning, experimentation, and development. With nuclear power, we can’t afford a single mistake.
Nuclear power plants are not only a massive upfront investment of $20 billion or more, they also require long term management and extensive decommissioning to avoid meltdown disasters. New nuclear power plants beginning the planning process today require the certainty that we are going to have the kind of social and economic stability that can ensure teams of nuclear engineers can spend years safely decommissioning these plants in the year 2075. For those of us who take climate change seriously, how can we have that much confidence in a stable future? Holthaus calls nuclear power “a good bet to save the world,” but it’s also an extremely risky bet that the world as we know it can still be saved.
Being realistic about the climate crisis doesn’t mean that we have to take a panicked leap into ever-higher risk gambles with our future. It means that we have to be honest about the fact that our current levels of consumption simply can’t continue, and no techno-fix is going to save us.