A number of eco-modernists are now arguing that the threat of climate crisis means that nuclear power is necessary. However, it remains wildly impractical, and at odds with any world we would like to build.
A handful of people with a surface understanding of the issue have decided to define themselves against their strident forebears and paint themselves as reasonable pragmatists. Unfortunately, a handful of prominent public environmentalists are members of this last group.
Their position is particularly unfortunate because of the poverty of public debate on this issue. It would not be so harmful if these people, who mostly reached adulthood after the battlelines on this issue had already been drawn, were airing what should be understood as their contrarian views within a healthy fact-based discourse. But instead they are parroting a PR line from the nuclear power industry in a context where almost everyone is operating from a position of little to no understanding.
In that context, it’s completely understandable that some comrades have also accepted the industry line that nuclear power is necessary to tackle climate change. I think this is a huge mistake, for the reasons I will set out in this piece, but I have no interest in picking a fight with anyone who formed that belief in good faith. Although I think nuclear power is a fundamentally bad idea that nobody on the left should have any truck with, supporting nuclear power is not like supporting migrant detention or abstaining on the spy cops bill. However, I do think a lot of comrades need to think a lot more critically about whose interests are being served, and what answers are predetermined by framing the issue in terms of choosing between nuclear power and the greater evil of climate change.
Let’s be clear: nuclear power is not worse than climate change. But that doesn’t matter. Comparing the two is a pointless false dichotomy, and the focus of all the public debate in the UK on this framing is the main reason nuclear power is being built here at all. In fact, nuclear power is an expensive dead end, and pursuing it will make climate change worse. Furthermore, nuclear power has several unalterable characteristics that mean it is fundamentally incompatible with the world we want, and need, to build.
Hinkley C is now predicted to start producing power at least three years later than its original 2023 completion date, and a year beyond the date given when the Cameron government saved the project by guaranteeing EDF would be paid for the power the plant produces at double the market rate. The estimated cost of the project has risen from £16bn to £23bn. Hinkley C is actually going quite well compared to earlier EPR projects. The first two EPR reactors to be started at Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France have both been under construction for more than 14 years and are expected to cost three and five times their original budgets respectively.
In part, eco-modernism is an understandable reaction to the stereotypical Green belief that technological progress is actually bad. But we really need to move beyond approaching technology with a default attitude of either credulity or suspicion. Instead, let’s consider individual technologies and the types of social relations and state forms that those technologies engender in order to decide whether they have a role to play in the future we need to build. A technology does not on its own cause social relations or forms of the state. Raymond Williams was right to insist, in their debate over the politics of nuclear disarmament, that E. P. Thompson’s technologically determinist argument that nuclear weapons immediately give us a particular social and international order obscures decisive questions, including around the relationships that produced the technological form: “behind it, of course, is another question: who ‘gave us’ the hand-mill, the steam-mill, the missile factories?” However, Williams’ refusal of the intellectual closure of Thompson’s argument does not entail presenting technologies as politically indeterminate, as many eco-modernists would.
It is not possible to abstract nuclear power from its current context and purposes and simply transfer it to a socialist context and purposes. Nuclear power was, in Williams’ terms, “consciously sought and developed” within particular social and international relationships, and features of the technology favour the maintenance of these relationships, and particular forms of the state. Considering nuclear power in this way, it’s clear that its characteristics militate against the world we want to see.
Nuclear power requires large and secretive states and companies. The fundamental role of technologies and knowledge that could be used to create nuclear weapons, and the extensive upfront costs, makes state intervention in alliance with big capital, without any possibility of democratic planning, almost inevitable. The disparities of knowledge and of financial power that flow from these basic facts mean that nuclear power is inherently hierarchical and cannot be subject to meaningful democratic control. Unsurprisingly, given the overlap between the two technologies, many of the characteristics of Elaine Scarry’s conception of a Thermonuclear Monarchy, which argues that nuclear weapons structurally require forms of secrecy and unaccountable powers that are democratically harmful, are also present in nuclear power.
In summary, nuclear power is antithetical to the world we want to see. From its origins as a figleaf to distract us from the grim truth of mutually assured destruction, to its recent resurrection as a bogus solution to climate change, it is inherently bound up with violent state forms and paranoid and secretive hierarchies. It cannot be deployed at a speed and scale to make a difference to climate change, but it will make the world less safe and stable at a time when we can least afford to manage the many problems that come with it. People will already have to deal with its legacy for countless generations and the only moral course of action is to decline to add to their burden by generating more waste.
Climate change mitigation measures need to be prefigurative of the other changes we want to see in the world. Technology will never be the solution to climate change, but any viable solution will need to deploy it alongside social change. Nuclear cannot deliver on even the limited grounds where it claims to make a difference and is a distracting dead end. In political circumstances where social change is not immediately realisable, we need to be advocating for technologies which are in harmony with the changes we want to see, not providing free PR for an industry which should have been left to die decades ago.
Democratically controlled renewable power generation is much more amenable to the types of adaptation and demand matching that make a zero carbon grid a realistic possibility. Renewables are less complex than nuclear power, much quicker and easier to deploy, and much more scalable. The technologies can easily be shared globally, and building more cross-border grid interconnectors will make it much easier to manage the variance of renewable generation. Rather than reproducing existing oppressive structures and relationships, these technologies are at the very least compatible with the relationships and institutions we would want to see as socialists.
Locally owned and run renewables, linked together in a web of global interdependencies, is exactly the kind of prefigurative solution that we need to be working towards, and it is actually cheaper and more realistic than nuclear power. Decarbonising electricity generation is the low hanging fruit of climate change adaptation, but if we carry it out in the right way, it will be easier to work towards just and equitable solutions in future steps. Nuclear has already blown its chance to be a meaningful part of that future – the only question is how quickly people on the left will recognise this, and how much more we are going to continue storing future problems by trying to resist its inevitable demise.