By Robert Jacobs
Bhaskar Sunkara’s recent opinion piece extoling the virtues of nuclear power and castigating its opponents as paranoid and ill-informed, is clearly motivated by his deep concerns over the dire impacts of global warming, which loom closer by the hour. Unfortunately, his arguments amount to little more than regurgitated industry talking points, in their traditional form of a Jeremiad.
First, Sunkara poses the decline of the nuclear industry in the West as an achievement of progressive political movements. Specifically, he cites the decline of nuclear power in Germany as attributable to a “Green party-spearheaded campaign.” This decline has been more reasonably ascribed to both market conditions and missteps by nuclear industry giants such as Westinghouse and AREVA. From its inception, nuclear power has been heavily dependent on government subsidies to appear economically viable (subsidies such as insurance and the disposal of waste largely configured as taxpayer burdens).
Rather than succumbing to its political opponents on the left, the industry has been sunk by its structural economic dysfunctions. In the US, this has sparked schemes to secure additional taxpayer subsidies in legislative fixes such as guaranteed returns for nuclear utilities, and outright bribery of legislators for taxpayer bailouts of failing companies.
The most simplistic recitation of nuclear industry talking points is when Sunkara dismisses concerns about nuclear waste, and extolls the mythic separation between “civilian” and “military” nuclear technologies. He asserts that most nuclear waste “can be recycled to generate more electricity,” an assertion that goes back more than half a century and has been ritualistically recited by an army of nuclear industry PR professionals before him…yet here we are 50 years later and very little spent nuclear fuel has actually been recycled. The most successful nuclear recycling nation is France which, nevertheless, is experiencing a “nuclear exit” and is unlikely to ever use this recycled fuel. AREVA, the French nuclear giant, has gone bankrupt. Reprocessing facilities like the Rokkasho plant here in Japan have never functioned properly, unless you consider their role enabling the stockpiling of plutonium by Japan to hedge against future weapon needs to be an elemental goal.
There is a difference between what can be done, and what actually happens. Rather than being recycled, hundreds of thousands of metric tons of spent nuclear fuel await “final disposal” in deep geological repositories. Some have been waiting for over 70 years. Just last week, a panel advising the EU on categorizing nuclear plant as “green” energy, and thus eligible to receive EU funding as a “sustainable investment,” concluded that the problems of nuclear waste preclude that designation.