The nuclear nonanswer

Principal author:
John L. Clark


When discussing concern over environmental exploitation and destruction, often particularly regarding global warming, the question often arises: what about nuclear? But what is the question for which nuclear energy is the answer? To slow global warming, the correct question is: how do we go about reducing the amount of carbon we emit?[1] But that's entirely unrelated to the question that nuclear energy answers, which is: how do we generate more electricity?

Nuclear energy is pursued in the interests of—and based on an assumption of—economic growth. Without the growth assumption, it is not necessary. With the growth assumption in place, it is not sufficient.

When I first read the latest sermon to the gospel of nuclear energy by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in the New York Times (Global Warming Scare Tactics), I was hoping that I wouldn't have to autopsy their rhetoric myself. Thankfully, Joe Romm responded a day later to challenge some of the assumptions made by these leaders of the Breakthrough Institute. The Nordhaus and Shellenberger article is called Global Warming Scare Tactics, so you might correctly assume that the article is immediately about global warming; Romm focuses his critique on this aspect of their argument, and, indeed, there is a great deal there that falls apart under scrutiny. Nordhaus and Shellenberger go on, though, to link the problem of global warming to the solution of nuclear energy. We desperately need to respond to the problem of global warming—and to the myriad other crises that are consequences of civilization and exponential growth—but the link to nuclear energy is completely wrong. All of the rhetoric around nuclear energy lauds it as contributing to growth, which only exacerbates the consequences that that growth brings.

The New York Times is simply a representative of this larger pattern. In less than a month, the New York Times has published several other apologies for nuclear energy; a recent article from Physics Today summarizes the situation:

The 2 May New York Times editorial "The right lessons from Chernobyl" states the Times's institutional answer to a question that the Times's opinion and news pages have been probing lately: What about the future of nuclear reactors? The newspaper plainly wants—in fact, urges—citizens and policymakers to see them as "a vital source of clean energy in a warming world."

Meanwhile an elaborately crafted 13-minute video appears on the Times's website, complemented by an online article.

This video prompted a question from another person who, in an act of resistance against the Keystone XL pipeline, was arrested at the Tar Sands Action in 2011: “[w]here do you stand on this issue?” In that video, we see Shellenberger (again) making the argument about nuclear power and global warming: “Well if we don't have nuclear, it's going to be a much hotter planet.” This is ludicrous on its face, as it is certainly not the lack of nuclear reactors that is causing global warming. But the narrator of the video also highlights our “constantly growing energy needs”; in fact, we see devotion to growth everywhere in the dominant rhetoric. Why are these “energy needs” constantly growing? And are they really needs? Our society assumes that continued growth is possible and necessary, which are gravely perilous assumptions.[2]

One global warming analyst and prophet, Gavain U'Prichard, summarized a critically important element of our predicament when he said that “we know from detailed examinations of IPCC data that the U.S. must start reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 6-8% per year, not 18% by 2020. This information is suppressed by media, government, and scientists themselves, because it is not reconcilable with economic policies that forbid the rate of economic growth dropping below a certain level.” We can talk as much as we like about the palette of options with which we might want to mix a balm for global warming, but until we start dealing with the economy, and growth in particular, a crushing juggernaut will (continue to) rend all of our efforts to unrecognizable detritus.

We should look at the nuclear option in this light. Set aside (for a moment) the rightful concerns about reactor safety, about the many costs and limits of mining fuel and other construction materials, about there existing absolutely no plan whatsoever for waste disposal. (Ahem.) Now, how does this look economically? Well, we've had nuclear energy for a while now, and what has it done to our consumption of fossilized carbon? Not a thing. Nor will it, as long as the growth imperative remains firmly installed. What reason would our economy have for rejecting one form of energy in favor of another? If growth is your most sacred tenet, then you will turn to every energy source and every resource available. A growth-oriented system will consume all the inputs it can find, so nuclear just becomes one of “all of the above”. Growth says: "Nuclear or carbon energy? Why not both!" The same argument, of course, applies equally to any other source of energy or raw material you care to name. History shows that the exponential growth economy happily devours nuclear as well as fossilized carbon energy (and every other source: with dams, windmills, photovoltaics, and that radical photoreceptor: plants) and inexorably demands more. How will this have any effect on carbon emissions, again?

Nuclear energy certainly has its own specific bag of significant problems. Let's not forget that massive amounts of energy are used and carbon emitted in the construction of power plants and in the mining of the fuels. In addition, the industrial practices used to obtain all the resources for building and fueling these reactors (and many other projects, to be sure) generally have the effect of displacing indigenous peoples; destroying economies and local environments; and empowering corrupt regimes to dominate their polities through violence and injustice. Finally, society has no tenable plan for how to handle nuclear waste. “The United States, as yet, has no disposal facilities for high-level nuclear waste which meet these standards. Instead, waste is stored on an ad-hoc basis.” How insane is this?

If we continue to consider policies without looking at the economic heart of our society, every economist (armchair or otherwise) in the universe will scream at us (as they have been) about hurting growth (or its proxy: job creation). And they will be correct (technically, if not morally)! We need to address the economics, and to propose a different way. We must abandon a growth-based economy. A carbon tax would certainly help facilitate this, which implies that for as long as the dominant culture remains shackled to growth, it will never allow a potent carbon tax to exist, as it would be an existential threat. “This information is suppressed by media, government, and scientists themselves.” We must understand how society is structured to make this so, and we have to confront it directly.

We are in dire need of a unified message about economics, and in particular an answer to the grave environmental and social consequences of exponential growth. It's very important to note that very little of the above discussion is particular to nuclear energy as a technology; much of the same critique could apply just as well to other energy sources. You may rightfully want to dig deeper to understand how we've become enslaved to growth, and I want to have that conversation with you, too. But we must still acknowledge our growth-based society for what it is: awesomely powerful (and, as we know, destructive), and awesomely adversarial to any efforts that would hinder it. Nuclear energy represents a continuation of the same industrial and growth-oriented belief that has suffused our society for centuries. It is with the greatest pride that the dominant culture works feverishly to solve its problems on its own, through its own ingenuity, severed from the realities and gifts of creation.


And the answer is simple: stop burning fossilized carbon.


Two very useful sources for understanding exponential growth are the lecture Arithmetic, Population and Energy by Professor Albert Bartlett and the article Galactic-Scale Energy by Professor Tom Murphy.

This page was first published on 2014-05-05 17:00:00-04:00.

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