Nuclear power’s last ditch effort

Nuclear and wind

Nuclear versus wind in a cage match. Image:

A strange thing has happened in the response to the nuclear crisis triggered by the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake.

The nuclear industry, long used to trying to marginalize its critics by claiming the rational high ground and trying to frame opponents as emotional, has ended up making a case which is more emotionally driven than rational.

This, more than anything else, indicates a change in the balance of the debate over the future of nuclear power.

Nuclear’s prospects

The nuclear debate will play out in two places: In the court of public opinion through the media and online social networking, and in market sentiment. These are the two bellwethers which politicians will most pay attention to when they decide what shape the future energy supply of their countries will take.

They don’t want to get on the wrong side of either.

Of course it wasn’t like that when nuclear started. The industry began generating electricity as a side business to its main political role of creating the material for nuclear weapons. Neither the public nor the markets were involved. The state was the only customer.

If you set aside countries like Israel or Iran which have nuclear weapons aspirations because of regional security concerns, the post-Cold War case for nuclear now rests on its potential role in fighting another war — the war against climate change.  This is the battlefront which nuclear advocates now face. The main enemy they perceive in their cause is renewable energy.

Lacking a retail market, nuclear power finds that its only customers are governments. Yet directly or indirectly it’s the voters and taxpayers who must pony up the cash.  And all they get out of it is electricity and the attendant risks of nuclear, both of which they must pay for a second time, if not more.

It’s a very different situation from the 1950s.

Baby, you can’t live without me

In communications terms the nuclear industry has to do two things. First, because the potential of renewable energy vastly exceeds possible human needs with very low risk, the nuclear industry needs to make sure that the public does not get to decide. Rather, it must keep the decision making to an elite community of industry players, politicians, investors and officials.

Second — and this helps the first— the nuclear industry needs to create the impression that renewables don’t work. The complicity of the media is all important here, as it is a powerful framer of public understanding.

We saw an example of this emerge very quickly as the Fukushima crisis began to unfold.

What is an “independent expert?”

In the UK, the BBC, which is not state-owned but is dependent upon government for funding, produced a string of reports helpful to the nuclear industry and the UK Government, which is (or was) planning a major nuclear expansion as a way of meeting some of its carbon reduction targets. In the reports, government spokesmen downplayed the possible radiological impacts, provided reassuring noises about the engineering solutions to the over-heating reactors, while so-called independent experts and science writers echoed and amplified the claims.

They also lashed out at clean energy renewables.

A case in point was Malcolm Grimston, seemingly independent because he was from Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Grimston appeared in a number of BBC reports recently.  While presented as an expert, Grimston is a pedigree nuclear advocate with a seven-year stint at the British Nuclear Industry Forum and the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

True, the BBC also used Walt Patterson, a long time critic of the nuclear industry, also connected to Chatham House. However, Patterson was very guarded in what he said and almost a lone voice among the BBC’s stable of interviewees in not downplaying the risks, in not calling for things to be “kept in proportion” or putting a positive spin on the prospect of a technical solution.  The rest of the BBC’s stable of experts were mainly cheerleading nuclear engineers.

While ostensibly there to inform a technical discussion, these nuclear experts made some very political and unscientific points when it came to renewables.  For example, Grimston said:

Clearly if Japan had been seriously dependent on offshore wind or wave or tidal power, they would simply have been ripped from the ocean bed by an earthquake of this size, let alone the effects of the tsunami, which would have left Japan without power to keep its water clean to provide medical emergency services to the people who desperately need it now.

Others in the pro-nuclear lobby made very similar points.  For example, as investment banker Milton Recht said, “imagine the extra devastation and loss of life that might have occurred, if Japan were circled by huge wind turbines and the Tsunami pushed hundreds if not thousands of gigantic turbine blades into people and buildings.”

So what did happen to wind energy in Japan during the earthquake?

Kelly Rigg reports on Huffington Post that wind performed well in the face of the Fukushima disaster and is continuing to provide power in the ongoing crisis.

Yoshinori Ueda, leader of the International Committee of the Japan Wind Power Association & Japan Wind Energy Association, said there has been no wind facility damage reported by any association members, from either the earthquake or the tsunami. Even the Kamisu semi-offshore wind farm, located about 300km from the epicenter of the quake, survived. Its anti-earthquake battle proof design came through with flying colors. Mr. Ueda confirms that most Japanese wind turbines are fully operational. Indeed, he says that electric companies have asked wind farm owners to step up operations as much as possible in order to make up for shortages in the eastern part of the country.

I don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

Stock prices for wind have risen after the earthquake and tsunami. So while a nuclear station was in crisis, renewables had been helping keep the lights on in Japan.

Of course the next argument will be that there is not enough renewable energy in Japan. Of course not. It hasn’t been built yet — not because it won’t work, or, as it seems, that it won’t survive earthquakes.

Grimston and other pro-nuke lobbyists are resorting to arguments that can only be described as emotional, as well as inaccurate.

It’s not surprising that people do this when they’ve spent a lifetime in the industry. It defines their expertise, identity and paycheck. Providing the inspiration for the title of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

For instance, interviewed on BBC World Service, Dr. Reza Hashemi-Nezhad, Assistant Professor of Nuclear Physics in Sydney, put the incident in Fukushima down to “bad luck,” a sentiment echoed in the same report by pro-nuclear writer Angela Saini who said, “This reactor was earthquake proof.  It was tsunami proof. It just wasn’t earthquake and tsunami proof.  It was incredibly rare and unlikely what happened.”

Really? The Pacific has more tsunamis than any other ocean because of all the seismic activity. It’s mostly earthquakes that cause tsunamis. Did she expect a tsunami without an earthquake?

Saini continued, The danger now is that the international community looks at this single event and from that draws conclusions about the nuclear industry as a whole. That would be incredibly unfair I think.”

Unlucky? Unfair? Not very scientific arguments from the so-called science-based nuclear lobby. Japan, urged Saini, “needs nuclear” because it has “very few resources of its own.”

The problem for the nuclear industry is that the perceived rational argument is no longer on its side.

Death and rebirth

Relatively few countries have scaled up renewables to the point where they supply more than a minority of their power needs, but that is a question of priorities, time and investment. And as the technologies mature, the costs are coming down. Renewables are ultimately going to be cheaper than nuclear.

“Some people tend to believe that nuclear is very, very cheap,” said European Union Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard a few days into the Fukushima crisis. “But offshore wind is cheaper than nuclear. People should believe that this is very, very cheap.”

Even Japan has plenty of scope to convert to a renewable energy future.

Various scenarios show how by cutting waste and building renewables, it would simply not need nuclear. Japan has abundant geothermal, solar, wind and wave resources. Its government, however, has focused principally on nuclear. The country has simply not begun to do more than scratch the surface of its renewable potential.

So what’s the rational response to climate change and the current energy mix?

No sensible environmentalists are suggesting that all existing nuclear stations should be closed overnight. But they can be phased out. Those stations in vulnerable locations, such as on seismically active sites, ought to be closed down quickly. Spent fuel should then be moved from such vulnerable areas.

The main technical (rather than purely emotional) argument which the nuclear lobby advances against renewable energy is intermittency; that nuclear is needed to provide baseload power. The wind does not always blow, the sun does not always shine, and so on.

Evidence shows that in countries with a developed grid, intermittency has not proved a problem. And as development continues, with more electric vehicles for example, storage capacity will vastly increase in the greater electrical grid. And it’s storage, rather than generation, that needs a huge boost in advocacy in order to focus the attention of politicians upon it.

Future investment should be in renewable energy. And here the problem is not so much of money but of psychology. Of lifestyle, culture, mindset, and expectations.

Step in time

There are some rationalistic advocates of action on climate change who have convinced themselves that we need nuclear because they simply cannot imagine how we can otherwise make a swift transition away from fossil fuels.  This misreads the history of technological change and diffusion, the likely political impact of climate change itself, and the coming perfect storm of limits which the world increasingly faces. It also misses the point on how long it takes to build out nuclear plants and capacity, to say nothing of cost.

Those used to looking at scenarios which lay out gradual changes based on assumptions informed by industry spokespersons and other experts inside the existing industries tend not to acknowledge the possibility of rapid, non-linear change. Yet this is exactly what has happened many times before.

Nobody predicted the rapid spread of the telephone, mobile phones, or personal computing. Horses were not gradually replaced by cars. It happened rapidly.

Of course energy infrastructures and markets are highly regulated. Technological change led by social and market forces only nibbles at the edges. For example, Japan is one of the world’s biggest users of solar power but only in domestic housing where the decisions are made by individual householders.

So what of governments?

An economic case

Paul Gilding’s forthcoming book The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World helps tell the story.

An ex-Australian air force officer, a sustainable business advocate and one-time director of Greenpeace International, Gilding makes the case that, when it comes to the suite of overshoot problems coming our way — climate disruption, water shortages, land grab politics, soaring commodity prices, a suite of pollution problems, over-fishing, food shortages and an energy crunch — advocates should spend less effort making arguments about the need to protect the environment.

He says that instead the arguments should be economic ones.

Many people have foreseen the problems of overshoot and have called for a great transition or alternative economic models. But Gilding has something else.

He has road tested the politics by spending five years attending various business, academic and political gatherings. He found that the environmental case meets agreement from CEOs and green activists alike. But he also found that the economic and business case — telling existing businesses that they simply won’t be possible in a few years — causes denial, consternation, rejection or, in some cases, radical change.

Those ready to embrace that radical change are the ones that will lead us to the next iteration of business driven sustainable infrastructure. And that’s a motivator.

Gilding’s is one of those rare books which come along every so often that can really change the paradigm of the political debate.

Of course Gilding, who thinks that techno-optimism simply won’t have time to save the day, raises another scenario as far more likely. He argues that governments will be forced, as they were already after the 2008 banking crisis and as they will be after the disaster in Japan, to become interventionist. Advocates of clean energy don’t therefore have to win the argument – society just continues with business as usual and nuclear power and other dirty technology will go away on its own. But such a forced energy transition won’t be pleasant.

Like others, to avoid the worst-case scenarios, Gilding calls for mobilization on the scale of governments in wartime. However, he sees this more as an inevitable outcome, in awful circumstances, than as a likely pre-emptive, rational action.

As Thomas Friedman wrote of Gilding’s ideas in the New York Times, the great disruption will be the moment “when both Mother Nature and Father Greed have hit the wall at once.”

The point is that Gilding thinks the coming shocks of climate and resource limits and the political consequences that play out will render the pro- or anti-growth arguments null and void. Economic growth as such will simply be forced to stop.

That’s a game changer. But it doesn’t spell the end of innovation. And rather than being an entree into increasingly more expensive and definitely dirtier energy, it can be the gateway into a new paradigm, if we have the courage and will to embrace it.

Cross-posted from Campaign Strategy.

— Chris Rose

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  1. says

    Just noted that George Monbiot, in his latest web entry, has switched fully across to the pro-nuclear camp. I don’t wish to criticise him for that, but it does mean that he must have great confidence in the stability of society within the next century. As one very rational argument goes, so long as society is reasonably stable, where nations can manage all the safety procedures and protocols that are needed to make nuclear power reasonable safe, then there is a possible case to entertain nuclear power as the way of the future.

    But what happens if the world economy goes belly up and we have a great global recession, as is being predicted quite widely? How will they cope with several thousand nuclear facilities in an environment where governance breaks down and there is little spare cash in national economies?

    In order for nuclear energy to make an appreciable dent in fossil fuel emissions, the number of nuclear plants in the world will have to be increased from the present 430 to about 20,000, i.e. fifty times the risk possibly in an environment when risk won’t be able to be well managed.

    I’m not intrinsically anti-nuclear but this dreadful, but probably quite real, prospect does need to go into the big equation.

    • says

      I saw Monbiot’s column too where he thinks the “real disaster” would be if China stopped building nukes and replaced them with coal. I don’t think any of these folks are thinking much about any kind of serious energy descent, end of economic growth or decline from the heights of prosperity and technology. But prudence requires us to consider that the future may be much lower tech than today. Depending on how much, nuclear plants with spent fuel could be anything from hugely expensive albatrosses to frightening sites of demonic power and mystical contagion that have long slipped out of human control and comprehension.

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