Some environmentalists want both nuclear power and renewables. Richard Seymour says that’s an evasion. We must choose, and the choice isn’t easy.
Republished with permission from the author, Richard Seymour. It was first published on his Patreon blog, which we like a lot and encourage you to support.
THE ATOMIC GENIE
by Richard Seymour
The question is not whether we’re for or against nuclear power. The earth was forged by nuclear fusion, a miraculous byproduct of the nuclear waste from an exploding star.
Keith Barnham, ecologist and physicist at Imperial College, argues that we exist thanks to the nuclear energy from the sun, which drove the planet’s mineral evolution, from geochemistry to biochemistry. It made plants that produced oxygen as a waste product, on which mammals subsist.
The question is whether, instead of building nuclear reactors on earth, we can rely on the nuclear fusion reactor at the core of the sun. This is not a socially neutral question. Recently, The Economist highlighted a fatal problem with solar energy. It’s too plentiful:
“because additional solar capacity will produce power at times when there is already a glut, returns to further investment in solar capacity will decline.”
To be precise, solar energy is too plentiful to be profitable. Although intermittent, at peak times there will potentially be a huge surplus of energy. The better the solar infrastructure, the worse it will be for returns on investment.
Luckily, our friend the atom comes to the rescue. The Economist is heartened to note that new legislation in the state of California allows for the possibility of nuclear energy being treated as a “zero-carbon resource”. There are companies lining up to invest in nuclear energy projects. Admittedly, they rarely get very far without huge state subsidy, as with Hinkley Point C in Somerset. And states that are addicted to nuclear energy skew toward those with nuclear weapons or an interest in procuring them. But it is obvious enough why the Economist would prefer crony state-capitalism to unprofitable abundance.
But it isn’t just the Economist. Support for nuclear energy goes right to the heart of the climate change establishment. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has changed its position over the years. But its Fifth Assessment from 2014 was perhaps the most optimistic it has ever been.
Why, between 2011 and 2014, did the IPCC go from minimising the role of nuclear energy, to extolling it as a key element on climate mitigation? The short, surprising answer is that it adopts the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a body that exists to promote civil nuclear energy use.
In its Fifth Assessment from 2014, the IPCC cites the IAEA frequently, while ignoring the abundant energy literature that is critical of nuclear power. The IAEA, naturally, describes nuclear energy as offering “practically unlimited energy resources” for dealing with climate change. Its model for ‘sustainability’ is industry standards of ‘best practice’. The IPCC’s acceptance of this framework undermines its non-prescriptive, advisory role, and suggests that it adapted to the existing commitments of policymakers. Nonetheless, it has meant that industry assumptions about sustainability have been legitimized at the highest level.
The UK Committee on Climate Change agrees that nuclear must be central to decarbonization. And the government is now committed to a major expansion of nuclear energy capacity over the next twenty years. This commitment comes at considerable cost to the taxpayer. The British government has a subsidy scheme for nuclear reactors, which will involve the public funding the difference between wholesale electricity prices, and the high, fixed-cost of nuclear electricity. That scheme, which will benefit energy firms like EDF, was approved by the European Commission. So, institutional support for nuclear energy expansion as a bridge to a post-fossil fuels future, is extremely broad and deep.
Nor is the support for nuclear restricted to governments. There are a handful of left-wing journalists, from George Monbiot to Leigh Phillips, who are emphatically pro-nuclear. Not as an alternative to renewable energy, but as a supplement to it. As a supplier of baseload power, to back up intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. To quickly and expediently decarbonize the grid so that our new electric cars, buses and trains, and our new electric heating systems, don’t accelerate the crisis. There being no zero-carbon options, nuclear is held to be almost as close as wind and water to that goal.
This doesn’t mean they necessarily sign up to every public-private nuclear boondoggle. Monbiot is, for example, fiercely critical of the hugely costly Hinkley Point C project. But he defends the principle of a massive expansion of nuclear power, led by the public sector, as a safe and carbon-efficient part of the solution.
The surprising thing about nuclear advocacy is that it comes at a moment of crisis and threatened decline for the industry. Look how fast we get to ‘peak oil’, and ‘peak uranium.’
It took 240 million years of the high pressure underground incubation of dead florae to make the oil reserves. It took about a hundred years to exploit half of that. The uranium deposits were made by processes older than the planet itself. It took half a century to exploit half of that.
On average, only 50-70% of uranium resources can be mined, depending on the situation. It is estimated that all the available ore will be gone in at most 70 years. In Europe, uranium mining ended in the 1990s. In China, where uranium supplies are still plentiful, and where the government is investing in nuclear power on that basis, peak supply is expected to be reached by 2042. In global terms, Michael Dittmarr of the Institute of Particle Physics estimated ‘plateau production’ on the current basis would last about ten years (this was in 2011) after which there would be a likely decline. But production has to increase to sustain nuclear energy’s role in decarbonization. Even assuming a sustainable supply, or new discoveries countervailing against scarcity, the increase in demand is likely to send prices soaring.
The search is on for a technological miracle to solve this problem. Currently, governments are investing in potential ways to extract uranium from sea water. This is a fascinating line of research in itself, which can be traced back to British military-scientific efforts in the Cold War. But it remains at an experimental stage. There is little chance of this becoming a global commercial prospect any time soon. At present, there are hard limits to this energy. And given the fundamental unreliability of the industry’s estimates of “reasonable assured resources,” these limits may be pressing sooner than we think.
Notice that, even with the resources increasingly exhausted, nuclear energy currently supplies no more than 3 per cent of global energy. Global nuclear energy use has been falling since 1996. Even if a massive increase in nuclear energy usage was possible, it wouldn’t put a dent in the problem.
Any energy source imposes three types of cost: carbon cost; financial cost; and opportunity cost.
Any energy-infrastructure investment has to be long-term. This is the opportunity cost. It has to lock you in for generations. Once you build an infrastructure you create dependencies which last. It excludes options, by definition. This is true of fossil extraction industries, wind power, hydro, solar — and it is especially true of nuclear energy.
This is not just because of the lifetime of nuclear power plants. Hinkley Point C is expected to have a lifetime of about sixty years, for example. But, rather, it has to do with the question of waste storage. The half-life of plutonium waste is 24,000 years, and it will be far longer before it is safe for the environment. Even though most existing reactors are based in rich OECD nations, where there exist infrastructures to adhere to minimal industry standards of ‘best practice’, the industry doesn’t know how to store waste safely and securely for anything like that length of time. This would be true even if the industry wasn’t, as Monbiot put it, a bunch of “corner-cutting scumbags.”
Take, for example, the San Onofre power plant in California. Edison, the firm operating it, knowingly built unsafe reactors, and operated them outside of allowable limits for pressure and temperature. After a resulting radiation leak, the plant was shut down. The same people who designed the plant were given control of waste management. They were permitted by local authorities to use the site itself as the location for the burial of the waste. They were given considerable latitude to bypass regulations requiring them to notify the public of ongoing issues. And the emergency preparation system was gutted, just for them.
Legal action by residents forced them to move the waste away from a highly populated earthquake zone. But the container system they proposed remained the same: underground storage in dry casket containers made of steel and concrete. This is designed to last for about sixty years, but only guaranteed to last twenty-five years. And this is the solution used for most of the 70,000 tonnes of nuclear waste generated by US power plants every year.
In the UK, most waste has historically been stored at Sellafield. Because of the extremely dangerous (and desirable for dangerous people) nature of the materials stored there, Sellafield acquired its own police force and fire brigade. But that didn’t prevent a range of corner-cutting measures, such as habitual understaffing and storing nuclear waste in plastic bottles.
The current ways of dealing with nuclear waste display extremely short-term thinking about a problem that demands ‘deep time’ thinking. Managing nuclear waste will require future generations to engage in long-term investments and strategies in exchange to pay for the generation of energy today. That’s another form of opportunity cost.
This is, of course, linked to the issue of financial cost. As The Economist shows us, how you estimate the cost of any energy source depends on such factors as under what system and in whose interests the energy is produced.
Currently, the dominant strategy of the far-sighted elements in the fossil states is to try to engineer a situation in which renewables are commercially viable. In other words, for profit, in a capitalist market. So, for example, the British government has a small pot of subsidy cash available for low-carbon energy sources, for which wind, solar, hydro and nuclear firms compete.
Now, there are all sorts of perverse incentives for the British government to favor nuclear in this competition, despite the fact that it has never been profitable without massive subsidy. Britain’s civil nuclear industry has its origins in the military production of nuclear weapons. This is why it is dedicated to reprocessing nuclear waste, to extract plutonium for new weapons production. It is also how it ended up alighting on the happy idea of using radioactive waste, depleted uranium, as a weapon. So it is unsurprising that the British government has chosen a white elephant in the form of Hinkley Point C as its energy flagship for the foreseeable future. The same perverse incentives apply in WMD-rich France, where the grid is overwhelmingly nuclear.
In principle, it should be possible for any government of the radical left to adopt a very different costing framework. For example, Labour’s commitment to a publicly owned, decentralized energy system would change the calculus substantially. Profitability would not have to decide whether and how fast we move to renewables. However, such a government would have to give up the perverse incentives favoring nuclear energy. It’s not clear that Labour will do that. John McDonnell currently claims to support the government’s nuclear boondoggle. Labour’s 2017 manifesto committed it to sixty percent renewables or zero-carbon resources by 2030, a form of wording that keeps the door open to nuclear energy. That’s clearly in part a byproduct of Labour’s acceptance of the increasingly preposterous Trident system.
The problem is that this nexus of military, science and industry, and the growing role of military power in organizing climate mitigation, makes it nearly impossible to base policy on a proper cost-benefit analysis. This is one reason why the UK Committee on Climate Change has been so pro-nuclear. It rests its case partly on findings that nuclear energy would be cheaper than renewables, a condition that, as Jonathan Porritt pointed out, applied only if the renewable infrastructure was not properly developed to make it cost-efficient.
Indeed, as a major review of the world nuclear industry pointed out almost a decade ago, the real costs of nuclear energy are often obscured for a number of reasons. Public contributions are often left out entirely from cost assessments, for example. But there are also, as suggested by the above, a range of valid uncertainties about the future availability of the raw materials, as well as about the reliability of industry guarantees.
What, then, is the carbon cost of nuclear? And are we able to pay it? Carbon cost has not been priced by capitalist markets. Indeed, they don’t have any idea how to price it. The whole point of such costs is that they are externalities.
More than that, the cost of carbon is not commensurable with market pricing. There is no way to quantify it in relation to the labor-costs congealed in a particular good. It is a matter of the destiny of the whole human species. It is a political issue. This is why attempts to use market mechanisms to simulate a carbon price (say, carbon taxes or cap-and-trade) have been completely ineffectual.
The good news is that governments, with major exceptions, now accept the goal of zero net carbon emissions by 2050. That commitment is vastly greater than their actual preparations. Moreover, they seem to be hopping that fossil fuels giants will slowly melt away, or diversify into renewables, when they have massive investments in fossil energy that have to pay off for decades to be profitable. But it is worth having the target set down. The question is, can nuclear energy help get us there? Is it a useful bridge to zero net carbon emissions? What is the nuclear carbon footprint?
The IPCC is, again, strikingly optimistic about this. It estimates how much carbon dioxide each energy source emits in an hour of use. Since carbon dioxide isn’t the only warming gas, it also takes into account equivalents like methane. So, the measurement is called “grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour” (gCO2/kWh). And it suggests that nuclear energy is not just as good as renewables on this score but, on the balance of research, better than hydropower, better than solar, and about equal to wind power. This is extraordinary, for reasons that I’ll momentarily come to.
But, of course, the IPCC does not do its own research. It cites the research being carried out by others. With regard to nuclear power, Annexe II of the Fifth Assessment makes it clear that the figures are based on two meta-studies. These were conducted by Manfred Lenzen (2008), and Ethan Warner and Gavin Heath (2012). This is a far smaller range of resources than those cited for any other energy resource, but it can be justified by the fact that they are meta-reviews, not single studies.
Nonetheless, just as their overall analysis omitted research critical of nuclear power, in their figures they omitted Benjamin Sovacool’s (2008) meta-review, which gave a much higher figure for nuclear carbon emissions. The IPCC’s median estimate of the number of grams of carbon dioxide emitted each hour by nuclear energy over its life-cycle, is 12 gCO2/kWh. Sovacool’s average estimate is 66 gCO2/kWh. That would seem to place it well above geothermal, hydropower, wind and solar, except that Sovacool’s average is a mean, whereas the IPCC are using a median. They are just claiming that half of the estimates of nuclear emissions their meta-reviews looked at were below the figure of of 12 gCO2/kWh. When the spread of assessments varies widely, a mean average is arguably more useful, depending on the reasons for the spread.
On that very point, as the aforementioned physicist Keith Barnham pointed out at the time, the Warner & Heath survey poses various difficulties. Its meta-review takes into account 99 estimates, which it treats as ‘independent’. But these come from just 27 papers, which means that studies giving a large number of different estimates for the same model are weighted disproportionately. As Barnham puts it, “these are mainly analyses which report low-carbon footprints.” Their methodology weighs down their median by inappropriately inflating the number of estimates that fall on the lower end. Beyond this, both the Sovacool and the Warner & Heath surveys include studies which overlook big parts of the nuclear life-cycle.
Why is it so hard to figure out the carbon cost of nuclear energy? To the combination of perverse incentives, interests and ideology, one has to factor in difficulties that are intrinsic to the terrain.
A great deal depends, for example, on such factors as the quality of the ore being extracted. The lower the quality, the more carbon is emitted during its production. At the lowest quality, 0.005% concentration, the carbon emitted is higher than for natural gas. There are variations in the location and method of extraction (open-pit, under-ground, in situ leaching) that can make a difference.
Much besides depends on what assumptions you make about the inputs to the life-cycle of the energy supply. Different surveys of nuclear energy emissions make wildly different assumptions about reactor construction, operation, fuel preparation, decommissioning and waste disposal. Those, naturally, will be inflected by unconscious ideological assumptions. The assumed energy context also matters. At the moment, for example, the energy required to produce even renewable supplies would require significant carbon emissions. That’s because most of our energy still comes from fossil fuels. If, like Norway, 99% of our electricity production came from renewables, then the estimate would be far lower.
It is also not simple to compare like with like. Nuclear energy has been the object of government strategies, funding and infrastructure building for decades. Any uncertainties that remain are there to stay, and indeed may get worse as stocks are exhausted. After all, the carbon cost of extracting and processing fuel is one of the major factors in the overall emissions of nuclear energy. The renewable energy sector doesn’t have any fuel factor to deal with. It is, by definition, renewable. Its sources are given, abundantly, in the natural world if they can be harnessed. But it is also underdeveloped, a source of energy for which infrastructures have not been built. There naturally remain uncertainties depending on where the wind farms or dams or solar panels are situated, and the intermittencies of source to which they are subjected.
Nonetheless, what is clear is that the atomic Genie is not the clean, efficient, unproblematic source that its apologists pretend it is. The reasons given for claiming that nuclear can do the job of renewables, only more stably, are not the good reasons they imagine. I think, underlying the appeal of this solution to some on the “I Fucking Love Science” Left, is that it seems to enable us to avoid tragedy. That is, a massive statist expansion of nuclear energy will solve our problem almost overnight, then we really don’t face too many hard choices about consumption and fundamental economic restructuring: it’s just a matter of political will.
This evasion of tragedy is at its worst with Monbiot’s claim that one doesn’t have to choose between nuclear and renewables. You unfortunately do. The two are very different kinds of infrastructure, linked to very different statist logics, and a very different calculus of human survival (cf nuclear weapons). And every pound you spend on nuclear energy is a pound not spent on developing the essential renewables infrastructure. And that is a choice that might just end up costing the planet.