The End of Nuclear Energy

This week, high profile environmentalists like George Monbiot (‘The Fukushima crisis should not spell the end of nuclear power‘) and Mark Lynas (‘What does the Japanese Quake Crisis Say About Nuclear Power’) wrote in defence of nuclear power putting the energy debate in a climate change context and debating the CO2 cost of stalling on nuclear versus emissions from coal. Here Justin Kenrick responds (it’s worth reading also Pat Kane’s piece for Caledonia Mercury here)…

Surely the choice is not between nuclear and coal but between:

(i) continually refuelling and expanding an economy that is destroying people and planet


(ii) making a rapid transition to resilient low energy relocalised livelihoods that can tread more lightly.

Accepting the rules of the economic game (with all it’s political, social and environmental consequences) means we end up choosing the lesser of two evils.

Powerful systems have always sought to maintain themselves by saying: if you don’t support us, the alternative will be far worse.

In contrast, the liberating aspects of this society – the same society that gave rise to the dominant economic model – have always emerged from the movements that have refused the choice of evils on offer, and insisted that we can be, we are, and we always have been a better world than that.

George Monbiot has been and continues to be a powerful force in one such current movement, and I am deeply grateful for his extraordinary week in week out spadework on all our behalfs. I just happen to think he’s missing the bigger picture on this one. But doubtless he would say the same of me, and who am I to judge?

It seems that how we frame that bigger picture is what always determines what happens next. This  points to the need to always reflect on whether our ‘bigger picture’ is simply a reflection of the dominant ideology of entrenched power relations, or is a true reflection of reality.

The current impacts of climate change – whether in the rain forests here in Africa or in the Arctic – and the Fukushima disaster are both clear cases of reality breaking through.

My hunch is that people like George Monbiot and Mark Lynas – in effectively championing nuclear power – are trying to challenge what they see as a dominant ideology in the environmental movement.

However what needs to be challenged in this movement is not some apparently totemic opposition to nuclear power, but rather the opposite.

What needs to be challenged is our refusal to really recognise the magnitude of change we each need to engage in – through rapid personal, community, cultural, legal and political change – to unhook ourselves from the convenience of high energy consumption.

If we cannot make the transition from a high energy economy (e.g. If we cannot feed ourselves without one) then we are stuffed. If we can make the transition, then we need not be stuffed.

We cannot know for sure whether we can make that transition, but we do know for sure that the powers that be always maintain themselves by saying there is no alternative.

If the road we are on leads over the sheer edge of a cliff, then we need to change direction, not continue driving rapidly at it – whatever the fuel source.

Comments (8)

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  1. vavatch says:

    You couldn’t hope for a better illustration of what is wrong with environmentalists than this article.

    The author is not concerned with the environment at all. The notion that a power generation technology could arise without any need for lifestyle and political changes deeply offends him. For him, it is not the pollution of th eplanet that offends him – it is the pollution of our spirit.

    And that’s a problem. I do not wished to be moralised at by people pretending to be concerned about the environment but who seek to alter how I behave. There is nothing – nothing – morally wrong with consuming and buying things. It makes me happy to cooperate – in my work and through my purchase choices in this economy – with people from all over the planet.Globalisation is truly the greatest liberalising force the planet has seen.

    And yet the author wants to stop me from cooperating with people in china, Mumbai, and the US. He’d rather I be shut in to his localised economy – and he will oppose technologies that would fix the environmental issues he pretends to be concerned with, because they wouldn’t enforce the social and economic changes he is using his environmentalism as a Trojan horse for.

    Be honest. Dump the environmentalism and come out as a priest or a commie.

  2. bellacaledonia says:

    ‘The notion that a power generation technology could arise without any need for lifestyle and political change’ – sounds great.

    What is it? Where is it?

    ‘There is nothing – nothing – morally wrong with consuming and buying things.’ No there’s not but there are consequences of mass hyper consumerism. Are there not? Does your lifestyle – our lifestyle on a massive scale have no consequence whatsoever?

    1. vavatch says:

      There’s certainly technologies in the nuclear arena that are very promising. Thorium reactors for example, which have no radioactive byproduct, can’t have a chain reaction, and have highly abundant fuel. If you really want emission free energy generation, nuclear is the only option we currently have. There’s no particular reason we couldn’t be like France and have 80% of our power being pumped out by emission free technologies.

      Instead, scaremongerers – who have clear social agendas as with the article author – seek to shut down nuclear research. Despite that wind power kills 10x more people per terawatt hour than nuclear, and despite that wind power condemns us to depend on coal when it is a calm day – coal killing 30000x as many people per terawatt hour generated than nuclear – the scaremongerers are all too happy to twist hysterical news events to their advantage.

      The real agenda isn’t about power generation and pollution anyway – it is about forcing people to live morally correct lifestyles on the flimsiest basis.

      On that score, I am not worried about the externalities of my lifestyle. When I buy cheap goods in tesco I’m doing more to pull Chinese peasants out of poverty than ten thousand environmentalists have achieved. I completely fail to see the issue with my voluntary cooperation with people across borders and I refuse to be condemned to a parochial “local” existence – an utterly unworkable dream anyway, unless you want 18th century living standards.

      But the onus isn’t on me to show why my lifestyle is not corrupted in any case – it is for you to show how it is corrupted, and how you intend to command hundreds of millions of people to live in a backwards economy where they can’t freely exchange goods and services among themselves, and somehow explain how this will make their lives better! Impossible mission, I think.

  3. My goodness Vavatch (I am calling you that but am not sure that’s your real name) I think we may slightly disagree! Can you see that your perspective carries a powerful set of moral values too? Yours are not any more neutral than mine, and we both think ours will make the world a better place. It’s fine to disagree but maybe not helpful if either of us takes the high moral ground without recognising that morality and values are at the centre of our arguments.

    To me, though clearly not to you, your arguments carry the tone of the British Empire bringing civilisation and benefit to the world (and I would see that empire like the current corporate one, bringing devastation instead). I am working in Africa now, and have just returned from villages where people have next to nothing but are rich and know themselves to be rich beyond anything you or I can buy. For me buying in Tesco keeps fuelling the system that tears people off their land and turns them from living in co-operative communities (with all the ups and downs and conflicts and benefits that entails) to having to work for slave wages which (in the corporate system) can only improive at the expense of destroying the environment on which they and we depend.

    You see it differently, and that is fine and who’s to judge which of us is right?

    For me, the best way to judge is by looking clearly at the realities of what is happening in the world, and when reading another’s writing asking oneself: does this leave me feeling more open to a broader way of understanding the world, or does it leave me shut down in my certainties of agreement or disagreement? Just a thought, but do enjoy your life whoever you are and whatever name you go by!

  4. bellacaledonia says:

    If the block of flats I stay in could run efficiently on solar panels and wind turbines – and I could go off grid and kiss goodbye to the extortionate fuel bills from Scottish Power etc – then count me in. How is that being part of a backwards localised economy?

    The nuclear industry has one huge unresolved problem: they can’t tell us where they intend to store the tonnes of longlife toxic nuclear waste they’d generate over the next century. That is surely a pre-requisite for even considering nuclear power but they’re not even at that stage yet. Despite over fifty years of nuclear power stations in the Uk the nuclear waste managment system is a disgrace with the stuff piled up at power stations.

    If the London government want to store it in the bowels of Westminster Palace – until a better idea comes along – then I’m all ears.


  5. M Jones says:

    The long-lived nuclear waste problem (as well as the problem of cost / hazard of surplus nuclear warheads) is addressable if we’re able to revisit liquid-fueled nucleaer reactors that use molten salt as coolant and thorium as primary fuel. This type of reactor (as alluded to in a previous post) is passively, inherently safer by orders of magnitude versus the kind of reactors most commonly operating worldwide (generically “light water reactors”) and they require very small footprints in part because they operate at normal atmospheric pressure (in contrast to light water reactors which use highly-pressurized water inside the reactor to moderate the nuclear reaction and to transfer the resulting heat energy, as steam, to the turbines that make electricity) The waste issue is addressed by this kind of reactor because of the far-more-complete utilization of fuel that goes in: the volume of unusable hazardous waste these reactors produce is a fraction (less than 10%) of what comes out of existing “first generation” light water reactors, also the nature of the waste material is that it will be radioactively safe in about 300 years (versus 10,000 years for the tons of stuff that’s piled up in various locations with nowhere to go). I don’t know that this post will find a receptive audience, here, but having commenced learning about this a few weeks ago, and finding it compelling, I offer it up and encourage anyone to visit the sites I discovered while searching for information on what was happening in Fukushima: and

  6. M Jones says:

    Ah, forgive me, I should have made clear the existing inventories of nuclear waste (along with plutonium and fissile uranium in weapons to be decommissioned) can be efficiently reprocessed fir use as fuel for liquid fluoride thorium reactors.

    This is an important and surprising point — resolution of the waste issue is of course hugely compelling, in itself, potential for making enormous quantity of inexpensive, carbon neutral energy out of it verges on revelation.

  7. no nuclear says:

    Part 1.

    “Independent science & independent reporting in Japan outlawed”

    Part 2.

    “The Manga “Oishinbo” Controversy: Radiation and Nose Bleeding in the Wake of 3.11”

    Part 3.

    “Radiation from Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster has for the first time been detected along a North American shoreline, though at levels too low to pose a significant threat to human or marine life, scientists said on Monday.”

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