The Green Technology That Dare Not Speak Its Name
There is a path to a carbon-neutral future. Too bad it doesn’t make us feel good.
It’s the biggest, strangest, most unnecessary environmental disaster of the 21st century: a source of hundreds of millions of tons of new carbon emissions that aren’t just needless but purely senseless, at a time when we’re meant to be going all out to combat climate change.
I’m not talking about fossil fuel subsidies or plutocrats’ private plane fleets, or any other of the climate bugbears you already know about and hate. No, I’m talking about an environmental disaster perpetrated largely by environmentalists in the name of the environment.
Yes, I’m talking about the mass, premature shutdown of nuclear power plants.
As scientists and policy analysts know perfectly well, nuclear power—and I’m talking about old-style nuclear fission power—is in some ways the perfect solution to the climate crisis: extremely safe and reliable, it’s the only way humanity knows to produce large quantities of energy without heating up the atmosphere. Nuclear power plants tick over reliably in fair weather and foul, at night time as well as day, providing a stable base for any electric grid.
And we’re turning them off. In great numbers. All around the developed world. For no good reason.
Germany agreed to phase out nuclear power ahead of schedule in 2011 after a decades-long campaign by environmental activists. How did the resulting energy shortfall get made up? With fossil fuels, of course. This week saw a new generation of environmental activists face off against police in the village of Lützerath to protest plans to expand a nearby coal pit. Few stopped to mull that those plans were made necessary by the nuclear shutdowns that the previous generation of green activists had insisted on.
The reality few dare to speak out loud is that each time a nuclear power plant goes offline, carbon emissions jump. And the magnitudes are not small. Recent research from the Breakthrough Institute shows that, at a minimum, premature nuclear shutdowns since 2012 have added 138 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That’s close to the total yearly emissions from 37 African countries with a combined population of 455 million. At conferences the world over, negotiators from rich countries continue to press African delegates to curb their carbon emissions, then fly back to homes made cozy by coal-fired power plants that had to be brought on stream so zero-emissions nuclear plants could be taken off the grid. It’s galling.
How did we get into this absurd situation?
Anti-nuclear sentiment is for the most part a holdover from a previous age of activism. In the 1960s and 70s, the original wave of boomer green campaigners cut their teeth in agitating against nuclear weapons. Cold War era fears about the bomb bled over into distrust of nuclear power, and for the first generation of green activists, protesting nuclear weapons and protesting nuclear power were two sides of the same coin: a rebellion against a science-military-industrial complex they were sure would destroy the planet. To these people, “nuclear” came to mean the opposite of “ecological.” It was an aesthetic judgment as much or more than it was a political judgment, and one reached before the full scale of the climate disaster humanity was heading into had become clear.
Largely due to that early association with nuclear weapons, the fears nuclear energy generates in the public have always been out of all proportion to the actual risks it poses.
The reality is that nuclear power is extremely safe. Generations of research into cancer rates in the immediate vicinity of nuclear power plants have produced no clear evidence of any link. For all the scaremongering around accidents like the one at Japan’s Fukushima Number 1 plant following the 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami, or the accident at Three Mile Island four decades earlier, the fact that you recognize those names is an indication that these events are extremely rare. To date, not a single person living near a Western-designed nuclear power plant has ever been documented to have died as a result of radiation released by accident. Ever.
By contrast, scientists agree that millions of people worldwide die every single year from air pollution. And yet, when we take a nuclear power plant off-grid, we most often replace it with fossil fuels. The results are perverse: Particulate matter in the air kills millions, but nobody much minds if a diesel-electric turbine is brought online in their neighborhood.
It’s at this point that someone inevitably brings up Chernobyl and declares check-mate. That’s perhaps the weakest of the anti-nuclear arguments, tantamount to declaring that because jetliners used to crash all the time in the 1950s, it’s unsafe to fly now. The physical design of the Chernobyl nuclear power station was about as sensible as you would expect from the Soviet Union. Western scientists knew it even then. The design of modern nuclear plants makes it impossible for them to release radiation in the way Chernobyl did. Which is one reason why, after six decades in operation, none of them ever have.
Nuclear’s only real drawback is the challenge of long-term nuclear waste storage. Spent fuel from nuclear power generation will remain extremely dangerous for a very long time indeed, and no solution for its permanent safe storage has yet been found. It’s a unique, and uniquely long-term problem.
But it’s also one that has proven relatively manageable for the first three generations of nuclear engineers. With each successive generation, engineers will have recourse to more and more advanced technologies: problems that seem formidable to us may very well seem simple to the technologist of the 23rd century. Worrying about the technical problems nuclear storage engineers might have in the future seems, to say the least, less pressing than the 7 million deaths the world faces every single year just from fine airborne particulate matter produced by burning fossil fuels. And that’s before we even talk about climate change.
There’s no road to a carbon neutral future without nuclear energy, but it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference. That’s because the green technologies that do get taken up are the ones with a strong “green halo” effect: technologies like solar panels, electric cars, and even those silly paper straws whose aura of ecological virtue rubs off on those who consume them. Such products, some researchers now argue, appeal to status-seeking consumers looking to differentiate themselves through their shopping, much like a Rolls-Royce might have done a generation ago.
Nuclear energy is in the strange position of being an absolutely pivotal green technology that has no green halo at all. And that leaves it in a political dead zone, shunned or ignored by the people who ought to be championing it.
Some activists—a very few activists—are doing what they can to swim against the current and help turn around nuclear’s image. Brazilian model Isabelle Boemeke is doing the lord’s work on TikTok as Isodope, her radically pro-nuclear environmental influencer persona. A smattering of other activists is out there trying to fight this fight alongside her, but it’s lonely work swimming upstream against the culture.
Nuclear won’t get a green halo, I’m afraid. Its image problem is too culturally ingrained—down to the fact, as Boemeke points out, that when TV comedy writers wanted a send-up of the most dangerous work arrangement possible, they showed us Homer Simpson trying to operate the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. “I wish Homer had worked at a coal plant,” she quips.
Too late for that now. The upshot is that the West has virtually abandoned the business of nuclear power plant building. Out of the 55 nuclear power plants slated to come online between now and 2030, just two are in the United States, two are in Britain and one is in the EU. Meanwhile eight are in India and 21 in China. To the extent that nuclear plays a part in keeping carbon emissions within reasonable bounds, it will be because the global south stepped up where the West abdicated its leadership role.
Scanning this sad landscape, it’s hard not to conclude that we in the West are desperately concerned to fight climate change…but only when it feels good. Proven technologies that offend progressive aesthetics get left behind, because you can’t sell a green technology without a green halo. And as long as that’s the case, leaders in the developing world will keep rolling their eyes at our eco-lectures, seeing the shallowness of our commitments with a clarity that seems to elude us.
Francisco Toro, a journalist and the Content Director for the Group of Fifty, is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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