Jonathon Porrit vs George Monbiot on nuclear power

Two posh britishmen discussing nuclear power. Not exactly my cup of tea, I really don’t like the arrogant tone both regularly use, but interesting to follow.

by Ricardo Sequeiros Coelho
Cool the Earth, August 10, 2011 

Jonathon Porritt argued in a blog post that nuclear power supporters within the environmental movement are hijacking the debate over the future of energy, by putting it in terms of choosing between nuclear and renewables (Practical Action). In reply, George Monbiot dared him to explain why can’t nuclear power co-exist with renewables (Guardian). And that’s when the debate becomes interesting.

Porritt wrote an extensive answer to Monbiot, explaining why nuclear is more expensive than renewables and why nuclear and renewables cannot peacefully coexist (JonathonPorrit.com). Monbiot counteracts also with an extensive piece, arguing that investing in nuclear power allows us to reduce emissions faster than just investing in renewables and that shutting down nuclear plants implies increasing emissions (Monbiot.com).

I think both articles are self-explanatory so I’ll make only one remark. Monbiot seems to miss the point completely when discussing costs of electricity generation. He is absolutely right in criticizing Porritt for using data from the renewable energy industry as if it was as reliable as data from independent studies. But then he doesn’t understand a very important argument that Porritt makes: that costs will evolve in the future according to the choices we make in R&D and infrastructure.

If we invest heavily in nuclear power, then its costs can go down (that hasn’t been the case so far but let’s assume that it can happen in the future). But the same can be said of wind, tidal and solar energy.

This is the point that Porritt was rightly making when he quoted the report from the UK Committee on Climate Change (PDF). Monbiot points to figure 4, in page 23, where it is shown that nuclear power is cheaper than most renewables, to argue that Porritt got it wrong when claiming that nuclear was expensive. But the question remains, as the report notes in the conclusion (end of page 25):

The relative positions of technologies will depend on the scenario combination selected, such that it is possible to find cases where offshore wind, CCS, and nuclear are each lower cost than the other two. It is clear that pushing deployment can affect the relative costs of technologies.

So, offshore wind can become cheaper than nuclear if it is deployed massively. As offshore wind can supply a hefty part of the electricity needs of the UK it is hard to understand why Monbiot thinks that the UK government should choose nuclear instead.

And now for the cherry on top: to criticize the massive investment Germany has made in solar energy, Monbiot quotes the Breakthrough Institute. The same right-wing think tank that is fiercely anti-environmentalist and supports climate denialism. He sure knows how to pick his friends, now that he has passed on to the other side of the barricade.

Nothing surprising here. Mark Lynas, another “green” who advocates nuclear power also quoted a post from the same think-tank some time ago, only to be shamed by the fact that the data was flat wrong, as I wrote then (link). Now Lynas is portrayed as a “pragmatist” by the Breakthrough Institute (link), along with the climate denialist Roger Pielke Jr. and the other known “pragmatist” Stewart Brand.

I wonder how much more time we will have to wait to see Monbiot included in the list of the “pragmatists” that he rightfully criticized in the past (see, for instance here his attack on Brand and Lynas). He has already made peace with Lynas as both support nuclear power. Maybe supporting GMOs will do the trick.

Edit: I just remembered that this is not the first time that Monbiot quotes a right-wing anti-environmentalist think-tank to support his claims against the German renewable energy program. In March 2010, in a debate with the solar energy entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett, he used the same trick (Guardian).

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5 years 1 month ago

I agree that this is a useful and interesting debate, thanks for posting. However, mainstream or left-leaning environmentalists like Porritt and Monbiot often miss two very important points when it comes to discussing the relative cost of nuclear power versus renewable energy:

1) Nuclear power, unlike renewable alternatives, is a mature technology. As such, if nuclear energy were cost competitive then governments should let it stand or fall on its own economic feet and apply the massive government subsidies that regularly go toward nuclear technology to the newer technologies such as solar and wind instead so that they can become established. I think we all know what would happen.

The point that they can’t illustrates how expensive and risky an investment it still is despite billions of dollars and 60 years of research and experience with operating nuclear plants. However, there is a more significant question missed by many environmentalists: what drives governments who are supposedly so committed to the free market and the financial bottom line to ignore their own propaganda and continue to pour billions of dollars into the nuclear sinkhole?

That question can only be answered by an investigation of nuclear power’s connection to Great Power status and imperial geopolitics. It is not a coincidence that every one of the countrys to renounce nuclear power post-Fukushima is a non-nuclear weapon state. Imagine if France, the US or Britain announced they were closing down their nuke plants but keeping their nuclear weapons?

2) It is not sufficient or even the primary reason to be against nuclear power on the basis of its ever escalating cost.

As socialists we are often in favor of things that cost more – high quality public education, free healthcare for all, subsidized public transit etc. So we cannot primarily be against nuclear on the basis of cost – though the argument that it directly competes for funds with renewables is the most compelling piece of that question.

There are however a host of reasons to oppose nuclear power, beyond the waste of money and diversion of funds that could be better spent on an expansion of renewable energy and more R & D: nuclear power’s inherent safety issues and the ever-present potential for truly catastrophic and long-lasting accidents that contaminate vast areas of land, sea and air; the intractable problem of long term radioactive waste that is anti-democratically bequeathed to future generations; nuclear proliferation; the abiding connection to nuclear weapons manufacture; the militarization of energy production systems; the energy required and pollution associated with mining and refining uranium; the energy paradigm that stresses massive centralized power plants and thereby minimizes energy conservation measures; the need to run nuke plants constantly which often requires wind turbines etc to be shut down when too much energy is generated and, when it comes to making a difference with respect to climate change, the very long lead times for construction of new plants.

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