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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.