Somebody else’s problem

In february 2012 george Monbiot wrote to me to tell me I was wrong to be opposing a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset and my response was published on this blog.  George responded and this is my answer to his latest arguments, which are reproduced at the end of this post, after my references list.

Dear George,

Thank you for your warm-hearted and generous response, which confirms that our concerns for the biosphere and for social justice are essentially the same.  In the current situation our points of agreement are far more important to me than our differences over this one aspect of national energy policy.

From the broader perspective of our evolutionary crisis, the way that our political positions get hitched to issues of identity and self-interest could yet prove to be the fatal flaw of human civilization.  We do not listen well to each other.  Because of that, I have forced myself to consider your arguments as honestly and disinterestedly can.  This involves surfing through pages of contrary and specialist information to try and tease out the essential arguments – a task which I barely feel qualified to perform.

However, at the end of this process my opposition to a new EPR nuclear power station anywhere in Britain remains intact, and I will be supporting the Bridgwater protest and Hinkley trespass this weekend.  I’d invite you to come, but that would put me in breach of EDF’s High Court injunction against me.

I am very pleased that you have been persuaded by my email to amend your position slightly, and I respect you for it.  You have seen why “on planning grounds” the stand I have taken with others at Hinkley Point C is morally and politically justifiable.  But this puts you in a paradoxical position since you still believe that the power station needs to be built to avert climate catastrophe.   In other words, I am both right… and wrong. This position, which you call “a more nuanced one”, could well qualify you for a seat on the IPC!   Like you, they are prepared exhaustively to consider all our objections to EDF’s proposal “on planning grounds”.   And like you they have already decided what the outcome must be.  The only difference is, they are pretending they haven’t.

As you know, the public consultation, which has just ended, ruled out in advance any consideration of the safety, sustainability, viability or necessity of the project, since these are all deemed to be issues already decided by higher bodies.  This reduces local people and their councilors to showing their resistance through wrangles over bits of road widening or costs to the public purse.  However, I have been able to identify one aspect of the Hinkley C proposal which is both a planning consideration and a central issue to the argument against taking the new-nuclear route.

This issue falls within the remit of the IPC as outlined in DECC’s “Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy”[i] which reads:

5.14.7 The IPC should consider the extent to which the applicant has proposed an effective system for managing hazardous and non-hazardous waste arising from the construction, operation and decommissioning of the proposed development.

It should be satisfied that:

Any such waste will be properly managed, both on-site and off-site;

The waste from the proposed facility can be dealt with appropriately by the waste infrastructure which is, or is likely to be, available.

I have studied the 15-page proposal for waste management and de-commissioning at Hinkley C[ii] and it is essentially the same proposal which will be made for any new-nuclear site in Britain.   You can read my IPC submission regarding Waste management and De-commissioning on my blog [iii], but I can summarize EDF’s proposal here:

It will be someone else’s problem, in about 100 years time.

That’s not to say that somebody hasn’t worked very hard to bury that message in techno-babble, well-referenced assurances and statements of good intent – and made a pretty convincing job of it.  But in the end what possible assurance can anyone give about “the waste infrastructure which is, or is likely to be, available” at the Hinkley C site 100 years hence?   In the words of the planning application itself: “There are substantial uncertainties with respect to the characteristics of the future baseline conditions.”[iv]  There are indeed.  Yet that is the point at which managing the radioactive waste and spent fuel rods – which cannot be safely moved for up to another 100 years after that – will become the sole activity of the site.

People living in Somerset then won’t have any choice about it, but neither will they be receiving any benefit.  Indeed, they will have to generate substantial amounts of power from somewhere else in order to fulfill their compulsory duties.   For several generations they will need to monitor, maintain and refurbish a toxic waste heritage site bequeathed them by their great great great great grandparents.  They may not want to do it.  They may not know how to do it.  They may not even know why they have to do it.  But do it they must.

Of course, they may not have the parts.  Or the staff.  Or the money.  They may have other far more pressing concerns.  Yet, in the make-believe world of an EDF functionary who will have long since changed jobs, retired, died, and become no more than ash on the wind, and after the same time interval as that which separates us from the mid-1800s, there will apparently still be a company called EDF, meeting its financial commitments, monitored and regulated by a body called the ONR, and sending Letters Of Compliance to somebody called the RWMD. Around 2190 these make-believe people will do the necessary paperwork, make good EDF’s 21st century promise on speedy and efficient plant de-commissioning, and then safely remove the still highly radioactive material for transport to a hole in the ground.  Dog-walkers in 2200 will be pleased to hear that at this point, “there is the potential for the provision of new Public Rights of Way or other amenity uses”(!) [v]

I’m not saying it’s completely impossible that things will work out as EDF “anticipate”.  But you and I both know that over that time-period, considering the geophysical, biological and social turbulence that is most probably ahead and the historical precedents behind, it is unlikely.  Great resilience has to be built into the systems and the least favourable developments prepared for in advance.  As for showing that the hazardous waste arisings will be properly managed… off-site, the people who are proposing to produce this waste can only say that they expect some one else will have dug a suitable hole to put it in by then.

This hole in the ground, or “Geological Disposal Facility” (GDF), is the place that all of Britain’s quaintly named “Legacy Waste” is supposed to end up.  To get a sense of what this involves I recommend that you watch the evocative documentary “Into Eternity”[vi].  It charts the excavation of a GDF at Olkiluoto in Finland.  The Finns have taken their obligation to the future far more seriously than the Brits, but as they approach completion of the project they are still vexed by the question of whether they should leave clear warning signs outside to deter future entry – in which case people thousands of years hence (who will have no reason to think that the symbols we leave carry any more weight than a Pharaoh’s curse drawn on a pyramid) may be tempted to explore – or try instead to conceal its’ existence, in which case someone may stumble upon it by accident.

Britain’s GDF hasn’t even started.  We’ve been thinking about it since the mid 70s but we still don’t know where to dig it, and according to some calculations, if we start any more nuclear reactors here we’re going to need two GDFs anyway [vii].  In the light of this EDF’s application acknowledges “it is possible that the life of the on-site storage facility may need to be extended until the GDF is available[viii].  In other words, the obligation on future people in Somerset to securely oversee and monitor our radioactive heritage is open-ended – anything from 100 years…to several millennia.

There is surely no other industrial operator in Britain who could seriously expect permission to start a toxic process that they didn’t know how to finish.  If the plans for new-nuclear are given the go-ahead in the UK the state will effectively be sanctioning an act of gross corporate negligence.  Meanwhile in America the US Court of Appeals concluded in June 2012 that, before any new nuclear sites can be licensed there, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must address these issues of future uncertainties and ultimate waste disposal[ix].

I know that you yourself share these concerns, but you have apparently decided to ignore them.  In your oft-quoted blog of March 2011 you laid out your 5 conditions for an expansion of nuclear including that “We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried” [x].   You still haven’t told me how you think the waste problem has been solved since then.  I have allowed you your enthusiasm for researching new nuclear technologies that might consume the waste – a genuinely nuanced position – but I repeat that no such new technologies are being proposed here, and I cannot let you off the hook over it.  If your acceptance of objections “on planning grounds” is to mean anything, it must include the possibility of ruling the development out.  The issue of waste management does that.

The children of the future will be compelled to catch this red-hot ball and to organize their lives, their economy and their labour around it.  If they could be represented today, they would take the government to the European Court of Human Rights[xi].  The fact that, because they are in the future, they will lack any such redress means that their Article 13 “right to an effective remedy” will also have been violated.  Only we who live today can fight for inter-generational justice on their behalf.   I write this not to be legalistic, but to draw out what this abrogation of responsibility represents.

It’s the identical attitude which got us into this mess in the first place, the ethical dis-connect which underpins capitalist exploitation:  Financially, socially, medically and environmentally, our profligate lifestyles are paid for by people we do not know and ecological systems we do not see.   This is one-sided predation, freed from the virtuous self-renewing cycles of Gaia.  You know as well as I do how divisive, cruel, oppressive, and ultimately suicidal for our species it is.  Sooner not later, even without fossil fuels, our continued subjugation to this mode of existence would render the biosphere uninhabitable.

It is a central lie of capitalist “common sense” that humanity cannot thrive without doing violence against itself and against its life support system.  It is a central truth of ecological awareness that we must turn rapidly to those developing technologies which at least begin to move us in the right direction – re-integrating our own activities with the larger metabolism of nature and empowering democracy at every level of human community.   A new generation of radioactive waste factories will do neither.

We are in a climate emergency, and in an emergency it can be acceptable to suspend normal operations and make unpalatable compromises.  But starting more nuclear fires and leaving our children’s children to put them out is not the only option we have for continuing our lives on Earth.  It’s just the one that looked easiest to the British status quo at the point where it became unavoidable that we had to de-carbonize the economy. It is as if we were saying to our children “We have had to behave irrationally (nuclear) to avoid behaving even more irrationally (fossil fuels), because we didn’t care enough about you to take a rational, but more politically challenging, route”. To me this is the path of political expediency over ecological principles.   In its train come the eager proponents of Geo and Bio-engineering, with their new-styled technocratic optimism, which looks a lot like the old-fashioned hubris of the 20th C “men in white coats” rebranded.

That sounds harsh, and I know that you advocate new-nuclear because you think that time is just too short to bring about the kind of revolution in renewables, efficiency, and consumption we need and that “the most likely result of abandoning nuclear power is that fossil fuels will fill the gap”.  But to me “most likely result” means that another alternative result is still not ruled out.  But will we make the serious effort we’ll need to make to “fill the gap” sustainably, if we think the nuclear project is underway?

You say in a response to Oliver Tickell’s recent piece[xii], “to abandon our primary current source of low carbon energy during a climate change emergency is madness”, and so you advocate building new nuclear power plants as part of the mix.  Professor of energy policy at Exeter University Catherine Mitchell explored this in her report “New nuclear power: implications for a sustainable energy system”[xiii].    Rather than being a part of a future low carbon energy mix, new nuclear is more likely to absorb the funds and young talent which should be channeled into renewables, ensure that government skews the market in its favour, delay action on decarbonisation, and re-assure the capitalists that business-as-usual can continue, while preserving a corrupting culture of secrecy and sending the wrong message to emerging economies.  If they in turn commit to the nuclear route, weapons proliferation and the danger of nuclear war will follow, especially if, as now seems possible[xiv], there is a resurgence of fascism and global conflict.  If on the other hand there is a resurgence of capitalist growth, then with or without nuclear, my hunch is that fossil fuels will continue to be exploited to the last available drop.

I’m afraid the argument in your reply is a simple re-iteration of that in your first email, and contains no answers either to the waste question or to the other real-world rational concerns around this technology and how it will actually be implemented by real people.   Neither I think have you understood my point that while all corporate behaviour is the same, the particular twist of nuclear is that it removes corrupt and negligent corporate behaviour from public scrutiny – and it is an industry where scrutiny is most needed.

As you can imagine, I have had many friends and comrades asking me to raise objections with you over:  the relative cost;  the impact of off-site emergencies[xv];  the impacts, greenhouse footprint and peaking of uranium extraction[xvi];   the contentious issue of public health and acceptable levels of radiological pollution;  weapons proliferation etc etc.  I don’t have the time to research and argue them all, and they are all rehearsed frequently and well in the discussion threads, which follow every pro-nuclear piece you publish.   But I have been particularly struck by Paul Mobbs’ refutation of your key argument that Coal “turns out 100 times more radiation than Nuclear”, which seems to rest on a misrepresentation of the original 1977 research in America[xvii].  I think you should revisit it.  Increasing the incidence of thyroid cancer among our young ones will neverbe an acceptable outcome in my book.

But even disregarding my issues, it doesn’t look to me as if your own reservations have in any way been met by what’s on the table.  Crucially in the case of Hinkley C, your fifth caveat[xviii], which you believed was “so obvious that it didn’t need spelling out”, should rule out this particular project.  “No plants should be built in fault zones, on tsunami-prone coasts, on eroding seashore or those likely to be inundated before the plant has been decommissioned.”  Hinkley C would be located at the mouth of the Severn Estuary which has the second highest tidal range in the world, on a site which historically has already been inundated with a huge tidal wave (in 1607).  In the uncertain conditions ahead, this doesn’t look like a safe bet.

If we remove all the alleged prejudice, irrational fear, superstition, identity politics and bad science from the discussion it still appears to me that on rational grounds and with compassion for future generations, the current nuclear technology is ruled out as an escape route.  That means no Hinkley C or Sizewell C.  I may not have persuaded you, but you should at least demonstrate how your own 5 preconditions have been met by the current proposals, or else oppose them “on planning grounds”.

Saying no to new-nuclear limits our options – to the acceptable ones.  When the going gets tough, we need to hold our nerve.  It is not our job to offer an “acceptable” way out to the status quo if that no longer exists.  If the only (relatively) benign option left is a renewables revolution, with all the measures that that will entail (which you yourself mapped out so well in your book “Heat”), then that option is the one we must champion and that will be the one most likely to build up united pressure behind it as the climate crisis becomes more obvious to the majority of people.  This is especially true if the solutions we are proposing also imply some practical means for improving the economic conditions afflicting working people and the poor.  Our dual concerns of economic and environmental justice may then have a chance of being married together in the popular imagination, as they must be if there is to be any further human progress.

Your response has confirmed my hunch that you feel a certain amount of despair about any kind of meaningful social movement developing. “The capacity of social movements to change the direction of policy in this country is weaker than it has been at almost any time since the Peterloo Massacre. They are reactive, fragmented and ephemeral”.   I agree about the current state of things in the UK, although I would flag up the achievements of many more movements since Peterloo – for instance, the Labour Movement, the suffragettes, the 1945 generation, the feminist movement, anti-racism – not to mention the effect of the 60’s revolution on human culture and environmental regulation.   Right now the labour movement is atomized, environmental awareness has been co-opted and political analysis has been dumbed down.  But historical experience shows that things can turn around very quickly in the right conditions,  with the availability of the right ideas.

 

Right now the future of new nuclear build in Britain looks shakier even than the fuel rod storage pool at Fukushima Daiichi.  It seems increasingly likely that the envisioned “nuclear renaissance”, which was promoted by the likes of Bernard Ingham (who seeded the anti-wind movement on behalf of the nuclear lobby), instigated by the likes of Tony Blair, and bungled by the nobody-likes of the Lib-Dem/Tory Collision, will end up floundering on the rocks of hard finance[xix].   This means that the only realistic and socially just way to carry it forward now would be through public ownership and investment.   But if we could ignite the political will to make that happen, then we could equally well direct that will to beginning a massive publicly funded and democratically directed Renewables Revolution in Britain instead.  That also includes the R&D investment, the supergrid development and a total building insulation programme.  This has the advantage of creating a lot of meaningful work and a friendlier society as its by-products rather than CO2 or future radioactive hazards.

When I hear the weather news, and then witness the short-term egoistic posturing of our global political actors, like you I despair.  We do not have the movement we need and it’s hard to see how we will get it.  But as you yourself have recently observed, “when the masonry begins to crack, impossible hopes can become first plausible, then inexorable”[xx].  We have both learned through bitter experience that there is only one life-affirming way to deal with despair:  Rage, weep and thump the pillows, put the whiskey bottle out of reach, re-assess your thinking, and then figure out who your allies are and start to make a plan.  I know that, notwithstanding the nuclear debate, you are already engaged in this work. If everyone who read our debate did the same we would be well on the way to salvaging a future for life.

Warm regards, Theo


[iv] See note ii,  para 5.7.3

[v] See note ii,  para 5.6.45

[xi] European Convention on Human Rights, Articles 2, 4, & 8.

[1] http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/11/meeting-energy-demand/consents-planning/nps2011/1938-overarching-nps-for-energy-en1.pdf

[1]http://hinkleypoint.edfenergyconsultation.info/Preferred_Proposal_Documents/Environmental%20Appraisal/Volume_2/V2%20C05%20Decommissioning%20of%20Hinkley%20Point%20C.pdf

[1] https://theosimon.wordpress.com

[1] See note ii,  para 5.7.3

[1] See note ii,  para 5.6.45

[1] www.intoeternitythemovie.com

[1] http://www.nuclearpolicy.info/docs/consultations/NFLA_NPS_Response_2011

[1]http://hinkleypoint.edfenergyconsultation.info/Preferred_Proposal_Documents/Environmental%20Appraisal/Volume_2/V2%20C06%20Spent%20Fuel%20and%20Radioactive%20Waste%20Management.pdf  para 6.36.4

[1] http://www.nrdc.org/media/2012/120608.asp

[1] http://www.monbiot.com/2011/03/16/atomised

[1] European Convention on Human Rights, Articles 2, 4, & 8.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/aug/20/world-need-nuclear-power-climate-crisis

[1] http://www.green-alliance.org.uk/uploadedFiles/Publications/NewNuclearPower.pdf

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/28/greek-police-victims-neo-nazi?newsfeed=true

[1] http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/rebecca-johnson/from-fukushima-to-hinkley-point

[1] http://www.theleaneconomyconnection.net/nuclear/Nuclear.pdf

[1] http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/ecolonomics/01/ecolonomics-010-20110322.shtml

[1] http://www.monbiot.com/2011/03/16/atomised/

[1]http://realfeed-intariffs.blogspot.co.uk

[1] http://www.monbiot.com/2012/09/03/a-step-towards-the-dock/

Dear Theo,

First, may I say how sorry I am not to have replied before. I have some good excuses – a new baby and a book to finish – as well as the usual crap ones.

Secondly, I would like to thank you for the reason, consideration and decency with which you responded to my initial email. This subject raises intense emotions, and I’ve found that all too often they cloud what should be a rational discussion. All of us in the environment movement have the same overarching goals – to protect both the biosphere and the future of humanity – and we should be able to discuss them without tearing each other’s eyes out. I just wish that everyone could approach this disagreement in the spirit with which you have handled it.

Your letter provides the most persuasive case against both the Hinkley plant and nuclear power in general that I have ever read. It has persuaded me that the way in which the new power station is being shoved through the planning system is undemocratic, coercive and morally wrong. I now see that – on planning grounds – your protests are both worthwhile and necessary.

So I would like to retract my flat statement that campaigning against Hinkley C is the wrong thing to do. I would like to replace it with a more nuanced one. On planning grounds it was and is the right thing to do. But where climate change is concerned, the consequences of success would be, to put it mildly, unfortunate.

For the reasons I have given you I still believe that new nuclear power stations should be built. I don’t like the technology, but I believe that abandoning it or failing to replace it will exacerbate the disasters caused by climate change. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables in time to prevent runaway climate change is hard enough. Replacing fossil fuels AND nuclear with renewables in the same timeframe makes the task even harder. The most likely result of abandoning nuclear power is that fossil fuels will fill the gap.

We agree that the first task in confronting climate change is reducing demand for energy. I think we would also agree that the current government is utterly failing to do it. But even under ideal political circumstances, there are physical limits to the extent to which demand can be reduced.

Writing Heat forced me to recognise and understand these limits. For example, I found that the UK’s housing stock is the worst in Europe. The last government estimated the technical potential for energy saving in the UK’s housing – in other words the maximum that could be done even with huge resources and unlimited political will – to be between 40 and 42%. This could be a conservative estimate – perhaps with a massive push it could be raised to 50%. But this still means that half the energy our houses consume will have to be found from somewhere. We cannot wish this demand away.

Our heating fuel is primarily gas and oil. The quickest and easiest means of replacing it is with low-carbon electricity. As a result of this and the need to electrify transport systems, even with the maximum deployment of demand reduction for energy, the supply of electricity is likely to have rise if the UK is to be decarbonised (the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain report suggests that it will have to double). It’s a paradox some people find hard to grasp, but I know that you will understand it. So where is the electricity going to come from?

The points you make about the culture of security and inscrutability surrounding nuclear plants are good ones. Nuclear power could be seen as concentrated nastiness. On two occasions of note – Chernobyl and Fukushima – some of its nastiness has been dispersed (though the consequences of that dispersal have been wildly exaggerated by certain people, including the Stop Hinkley campaign, who have deployed junk science very similar to that used by climate change deniers. See this for the latest scientific assessment of Fukushima: http://www.nature.com/news/fukushima-s-doses-tallied-1.10686).

But what of other large-scale sources of power? They could be described as wide-ranging nastiness. I’m thinking of coal and gas, and the air pollution, acid rain and climate change they cause. Forgive me if you’ve heard me say it before, but I reckon it’s worth repeating: when coal goes right it kills more people than nuclear power does when it goes wrong. It kills more people every week than nuclear power has in its entire history. And that’s before we take climate change into account.

But I’m also thinking of public perceptions of an energy source I support: onshore wind. Attending a mass meeting in mid-Wales, I became aware that people see wind farms in the same terms as we see other industries: self-interested corporations are making profits at the expense of the landscape and environment they love. I sought to put the case for building them, and I still do, but I do not dismiss the truth of local people’s principal concern (once you’ve sifted out all the bullshit about capacity factors and health issues). To them, wind power is another form of extensive nastiness, a blight spread over a wide region.

The maximum deployment of wind in mid-Wales, which will be spread over a very wide area, is 800MW, at a capacity factor of 26%. Hinkley C is a 3.2GW project, with a capacity factor of approximately 90%. In other words, it will produce 14 times as much electricity as the entire deployment of wind across mid-Wales, but on a very much smaller site.

So the choice we face is:

– Nuclear:

Concentrated impacts (the security and exclusion you describe) in a small area. On two occasions diffuse impacts (radiation) over a large area.

– Wind:

Diffuse impacts (landscape) over a large area.

– Fossil fuels:

Intense impacts (air pollution, acid rain, climate change) over the whole bloody planet.

None of these options is good, none of them is desirable. So do we say no to everything?

Of course the ideal solution would be none of the above: a decentralised network of micro-generators. Unfortunately in the UK it simply cannot meet more than a small fraction even of a massively reduced electricity demand. I hope I don’t have to persuade you of the problems associated with micro-wind, or to remind you that micro turbines were largely withdrawn from sale, after it turned out that in many locations their manufacture and use consumed more energy than they generated.

Let’s focus on solar power instead. The government’s 2050 Carbon Pathways Calculator allows you to choose the most extreme of all possible solar options: using “all suitable roof and façade space” in the UK, or 9.5 square metres of solar panels per person. Such a programme is likely to cost hundreds of billions of pounds. In fact we would need a larger economy than today’s in order to support it: something I know we both oppose. Yet, by 2050, it would reduce the amount of energy provided by fossil fuels by a grand total of nine per cent. I’ll repeat that: nine per cent. Is that your favoured option?

So this leaves offshore wind and wave power and an international supergrid, connecting the richest sources of ambient energy in Europe and beyond. I support both of these solutions, though I am conscious that both require a massive deployment of new infrastructure. But if we were to rely on them alone, it would take decades longer to bring down our emissions than if we were to use all the useful and relatively cheap sources of low carbon power, among which is nuclear.

And that’s the key issue: time.

I agree with you that “what is necessary is to encourage and empower a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding.” And that one of its aims should be to achieve greater controls on capital and greater state intervention in decisions affecting the biosphere. But how close are we to that point?

It’s not just that we have had a succession of spectacularly craven governments, which seem to act only at the behest of corporations and the super-rich, but also that the social movements which might confront them and reshape politics in this country are in disarray. We are fairly good at contesting what we don’t like. We have been truly awful both at identifying what we do like and at creating the social and political structures required to bring it about. The capacity of social movements to change the direction of policy in this country is weaker than it has been at almost any time since the Peterloo Massacre. They are reactive, fragmented and ephemeral.

We have produced no coherent alternative economic theory. We have no programme, no clear set of aims, no strategy. Worse, I have seen no sign that any of this is changing. Occupy has been brilliant at highlighting inequality and injustice, but has so far been unable to translate that into political change. On the contrary: the populist right appears to rising, while the radical left sinks ever further from view.

You suggest that rather than proposing a solution “that doesn’t challenge the existing social order”, we should “wait for a social movement with real political power to develop.” I would love to believe we can.But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near. You and I both know how small the window is in which we can effect the necessary changes to prevent two – or even four – degrees of global warming. Do we give up on this aim while we wait for a transformative social movement to arise?

This is the cruelty and peculiarity of climate change: it imposes time limits on our dreams. The political vision you articulate, which I share, can be sustained through hard times by the belief that one day, when the circumstances are right, it will triumph. The fact that it is scarcely closer to realisation today than it was when Gerrard Winstanley proposed a common treasury for all does not invalidate the dream or provide a reason not to strive for its realisation, however elusive it may seem.

But if we rely on a social movement with real political power to deliver the reductions in greenhouse gases required to prevent two or more degrees of global warming, we will miss the boat. We have to make the necessary cuts in greenhouse gases not in the indeterminate future, but now.

You call this defeatism. You say “we need optimistic, life-affirming, movement-building messages right now”. I agree. But messages do not mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Action does. The only two actions which can reduce emissions are demand reduction and the substitution of energy sources.

Like you, I wouldn’t start from here. But because this is where we are, and because the only time to prevent escalating climate change is now, we have to work with what we’ve got: the current political system and existing technology. If we are serious about stopping runaway climate change, if the threat is as great as both of us believe it to be, we should surely pursue the most effective means of reducing emissions, as quickly as possible. The harsh reality is that campaigning to prevent nuclear power from being replaced pushes us – if it succeeds – in the opposite direction: out of low carbon energy and back into fossil fuels. It will exacerbate rather than mitigate climate change.

You suggest that nuclear power hardens and strengthens the economic system we both contest. You might be right. But it does not differ in this respect from the mass roll-out of renewables you call for. In both cases, large companies lobby governments for the policy they favour, then mobilise capital to build infrastructure, from which they hope to profit. The economic system is just the same.

As if to reinforce this point, one of the biggest investors in renewables in this country is … EDF. Blocking atomic energy in the (vain) hope that it will be replaced by wind does nothing to damage the interests of these companies: they merely shift their resources from one part of the business to another, as EDF has done since Germany decided to shut down its nukes.

Far from bringing down the system we contest, or even rocking it ever so gently, blocking nuclear power will simply create more opportunities for fossil fuel deployment, which is the greatest threat of all, and which has far more financial and political leverage than either the nuclear or the renewables industries.

In deciding whether we favour nuclear, renewables or fossil fuels, we are choosing between competing technologies, not between competing political systems. They are all deployed by the same system. They all reinforce the same system.

None of this is to suggest that we should not also be attempting to create political and economic alternatives. But we should not allow this task to blind us to the climate change crisis, and the need for immediate and effective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To be campaigning against this country’s primary source of low carbon energy in the midst of a climate emergency seems to me, to put it mildly, to be the wrong thing to do.

So are you right or wrong to be campaigning against Hinkley C? I now believe you are right to be campaigning against a planning system that is grossly undemocratic and unfair, and against the way in which it is being used to steamroller this project past public objections. But I believe we should try to separate that concern from an attempt to prevent low carbon electricity sources from being built, knowing that, if we succeed, they are most likely to be replaced by gas and coal.

With love and respect,

George

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22 Responses to “Somebody else’s problem”

  1. Theo:

    Unlike Monbiot, I actually like nuclear technology. Like both of you, I share a deep and abiding respect for our plant and the biosphere that enables life to flourish. I feel called to do everything in my power to be a good steward and to be a grandfather that my descendants will love and admire.

    Part of the way I meet my calling is to share my own personal testimony about the near magic of nuclear fission. I’ve lived for months at a time inside a nuclear powered world on board submarines surrounded by deep ocean. We had all of the power we needed for propulsion, clean water, refrigeration, air conditioning, lighting and cooking. All of that power came from a tiny core of nuclear materials with an active component that weighed just a little more than my own body weight. That tiny amount of fuel lasted for 14 years. At the end of that time, more than 40% of the initial load was potentially recoverable through recycling.

    Nuclear reactors are beautiful, artistic devices that coax a tremendous amount of continuous heat from materials that would otherwise be unused. That heat directly replaces heat from burning stuff – either coal, natural gas, oil or biomass. It does not produce any CO2, SOX, NOX, mercury or fly ash. There is no other alternative that produces reliable power and enables human beings to put their brains and muscle to more productive work that just manual labor.

    Controllable energy from combustion freed the slaves in most nations and enabled working class people to move up from lives of drudgery. Why would anyone who loves humans want to return to an era of constrained energy supplies that are dependent on the vagaries of the weather?

    Theo – perhaps I have answered my own question. Your post does not reveal any deep love or respect for your fellow human beings or their lifestyle choices. In contrast, this is how you describe the way that billions of us have chosen to live:

    “Financially, socially, medically and environmentally, our profligate lifestyles are paid for by people we do not know and ecological systems we do not see. This is one-sided predation, freed from the virtuous self-renewing cycles of Gaia. You know as well as I do how divisive, cruel, oppressive, and ultimately suicidal for our species it is. ”

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

    • Rod asks: “Why would anyone who loves humans want to return to an era of constrained energy supplies that are dependent on the vagaries of the weather? ” For several years I lived in the mountains of New Mexico. We chopped wood, carried water, grew fruit and veg, gathered wildfood and kept livestock. At the vagaries of the weather I never felt more alive, more stimulated, happier and closer to the divine beauty of Life. I felt sympathy for my city friends, who asking how I survived, I would reply: “I am the one really living, you are the ones merely surviving.” The only thing that destroyed this bliss, this intense harmony with nature, was the power structures of human relationships – the ownership, ambition, control, profit motive etc., of those who wanted dependent power, heat, light, food and so on, while all I wanted was to be outside in the weather. I sense Theo’s deep love for all life. I cannot empathise with your love for technology.

      • Nicholas describes a love of nature and physical labor. I occasionally escape from settled society to experience similar joys while hiking. However, I also think about all of the people for whom such living would be pure pain – there are those who are sick, infirm, or just plain old. I think about all of the places in the world that are already so packed with humans that there is no room for hunter-gatherer existence or where the local weather patterns are less hospitable to living outdoors.

        Mostly I think about the importance of freedom and choice. There is no organized opposition that stops Nicholas from living the way he wants to live; why do some feel it is their right to demand that all of the rest of us accept that kind of low energy lifestyle.

      • The glib reply, Rod, is to ask you …why do some feel it is their right to demand that all of the rest of us accept their high energy lifestyle.
        But the deeper reply is that our rights: right to choose, vote, individual happiness and so on, only exist in the context of the whole. Here, to put the rights of a few above the rights of the whole, is, in this context, the greater harm. Yes, a civilised society does all it can to care for its sick and elderly, but if that care meant harming the future of (in this case the whole global) society, then we will have to think of a way to provide that care that is not energy intensive.

  2. George articulates a position held by many: better to have carbon free nuclear than choke on coal and gas. But nuclear power stations add to greenhouse gasses in their construction, which will take many years (eg 15), during which time renewables could expand greatly with minimal carbon cost. Yet even apart from that, George, and others, do not address Theo’s main point: the future disposal costs. For this reason, in my view, Theo is right, and we should unite behind this position.

  3. My dearest Theo, what a brilliantly executed arguement against nuclear. I imagine it must have taken some time and research to compile given that you are a novice at this and Monbiot is at it full time. I am suprised by his support for nuclear given the reports that you quote on disposal ect.
    Once again on behalf of those campaigning against well done keep up the brilliant work.
    Keith

    • I pray every day for the swift demise of the nuclear industry. In my opinion the humans who wish to build even more of these abominations have become insane. Worst of all they have no love of our planet or anything on it

      • Jude – I must caution you against the assumption that people who understand nuclear energy and are also strong supporters of its growth are crazy.

        Why is it so difficult for you to believe that some of us bear witness to the marvel of natural substances that contain 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as oil.

        I’ve held real fuel pellets in my hand; each of the tiny pellets contains as much energy as a large pickup truck full of coal (one ton). Those pellets weigh just 9 grams and are about the size of the tip of my pinky finger.

        The 15 year fuel supply for the 9,000 ton submarine that I served on could have fit under my office desk and that performance was possible using 1970s vintage technology. The US is now building submarines that do not even include the capability to refuel since their cores last as long as the ship – 33 years.

        Some of the people in this discussion seem to have a real hard spot with technology, but technology is a tremendous example of human creativity and problem solving using the gifts that nature provided.

      • Nicholas Thompson Says:

        Jude, if the people who want to build these “abominations” are insane, then are Patrick Moore, Stewart Brand, Bill Gates, and a whole list of other great thinkers insane? Nuclear waste is stored safely, which is why no one in the public has ever been harmed from it. Nuclear reactors run safely; even in the 2nd and 3rd largest nuclear power plant disasters, no members of the public were killed from radiation.
        If our largest environmental problem is CO2, this is a solution that emits no CO2 and can provide baseload (constant) power, unlike most renewables. Renewables are part of the solution, but must also be a part if you seriously want to reduce emissions, as France has done.

  4. Colin Jones Says:

    It would be so easy to be swayed by arguments like Rod’s – every home with it’s own little reactor providing clean uninterrupted power for 15 years. But we have witnessed what can and has gone wrong. We know the generations ahead who will have to be custodians of this dangerous material. The price is too high for a short term gain. By the time Hinkley C could be generating power, I’d be surprised if the cost per kWh were not in excess of offshore wind. And the legacy of wind, wave and solar for future generations? No, we need to change direction, and stop procrastinating and get on with innovative developments that are doubtless being held back by the corporate interests of governments.

    • Colin – while I have occasionally dreamed of tiny, personal reactors, my more realistic vision is community sized reactors operated by properly trained people. Most of us do not run our own water or sewage facilities, our own cable networks, or our own phone system. We have recognized the value of letting specialists learn how to manage those facilities to the point where their services are nearly invisible and all we each have to do is to pay our share of the costs.

      I have had a unique experience of having seen just how easy operating a reactor really can be, seeing how simple waste storage systems are, seeing how well nuclear energy can replace coal, oil and gas, and recognizing that the real opposition to nuclear has been funded and stimulated by the people who are associated with the $3 trillion per year enterprise of serving human energy needs and wants with massive quantities of hydrocarbons.

      I have watched what happens to the profitability of that enterprise when the supply is greater than the demand – prices fall dramatically. The period from 1985-2000 is one in which dozens of new nuclear power plants began operating and increased their overall production dramatically. The world price of oil and gas was low for that entire time as the suppliers of those fuels desperately worked to maintain their market share.

      Reactors do not have to take 15 years to build. The first commercial reactor in the US took just 4 years from the time it was funded to the time it was operating at full power. Several reactors have been built in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China in less than 4 years.

      Opposition can dramatically lengthen the time it takes to build, though I will freely admit that some of the issues come from inside of the nuclear industry. Managing large projects is never easy; that is one of the reasons that I am such a strong advocate of community sized reactors.

      I do not see nuclear fission as a short time fix. There is abundant fuel material in the form of both uranium and thorium. People who were adults when the very basic components of the technology were first discovered are still alive and active today. In my view, we are about as far along in developing the technology as humans were with fire when they first figured out how to build chimneys. The materials need some care, but I see no reason to believe that my children and their children will be any less capable of providing that care. They are already smarter than I am.

      • Hi Rod – I appreciate you reminding us, as someone with a wealth of experience in one or another aspect of nuclear engineering, that the development of fission technology is an example of our brilliance as a tool-making and problem-solving species, (albeit as a by-product of our WMD programmes) . I have no doubt that nuclear engines can be seen as beautiful and elegant designs or that these designs have been improved upon by successive generations of highly intelligent oeople. Neither do i doubt that the period of industrial capitalism we have passed through has been beneficial in many ways to human experience, while at a dreadful human cost for many. But we now know that there have been big unintended ecological downsides, one of which, CO2 emissions, is over heating our atmosphere. There are also big downsides to nuclear technology as it is currently being deployed – in my opinion, unacceptable ones.

        Whether or not our children are capable of caring for the radioactive waste will depend on future events, but at this time on planet earth I’m afraid it is simply ridiculous to assume that social, economic and ecological conditions will remain stable over the coming centuries.. The unintended consequences of our enthusiastic tool-making, coupled to the greed-driven forced march of capitalism, have already placed our descendants in mortal danger, and we need to quickly turn our brains to reducing that danger. All skilled engineers have a part to play in that.

        Oh, and I do love human beings as much as you probably. That’s why I even give a toss.

      • Hi, Theo:

        I want to correct what may be a false impression about my experience and knowledge base – I am not a nuclear engineer and do not have any particular expertise in any specific aspect of that specialized branch of engineering. Truth be told, I am not really an engineer in the sense that I have never earned an engineering degree from an accredited engineering program.

        What I have done, however, is to delve deeply into the technology from the perspective of a literature major who was fascinated from early childhood by the material facts of nuclear fission. I’ve studied the history of the early discoveries by people like Fermi, Meitner, Frisch, and Szilard and learned how excited they were by the prospects of introducing a brand new source of power to people that could liberate them from both the pain and suffering of living in settled areas with insufficient energy and the economic cudgel that the hydrocarbon suppliers held over everyone else.

        Most of the men and women who learned about the existence of atomic nuclei, the existence of neutrons and protons, the way that nuclei tend to have more neutrons per proton as they get larger, and the way that neutrons – because they have no charge – can enter into nuclei to change their structure were NOT seeking destructive power of any kind. They were engaging in one of the most human of all behaviors, trying to learn more about the world around them. They were doing it in a way that most professional scientists today would never recognize – in tiny little labs sustained by little more than curiosity.

        It was only an accident of incredibly poor timing that those scientists learned about the energy density of the atom at about the same time that their continent was being taken over by a nation whose economy had been taken over by greedy businessmen and that elected a true madman as a leader. Szilard, in particular, would have never encouraged the use of atomic energy for anything other than beneficial uses if he had not been even more afraid of what it would mean if Germany succeeded in a total capture of Europe.

        This is getting way too long, but suffice it to say that I think that you and I are not fundamentally separated in our basic philosophies. Corporate power makes me very nervous, corruption of government puts us all at risk, and people work best together on a far more modest scale than some greedy folks like.

        Atomic fission is an incredible tool with the potential for wresting power away from the powerful and putting it into the hands of communities and individuals. It can enable humans to do a lot of beneficial work and leave future generations with far more resources on a far cleaner and less cluttered planet than would otherwise be possible. (The cluttered part is avoidance of an almost unimaginably large number of mostly idle wind and solar installations if we attempt to move forward on renewables alone.)

  5. Joris van Dorp Says:

    Interesting discussion.

    Concerning the risk of nuclear waste for future generations. I think we might keep in mind that nuclear waste is already a fact today. No matter whether we maintain nuclear energy as part of the energy mix or not, we will have to deal with existing nuclear waste one way or another.

    If we maintain and further develop our civilian nuclear capability, then revenues will be available from that with which to manage nuclear waste. It only takes about 0.1 or 0.2 ct/kWh of nuclear generated electricity to fully cover the cost of reactor decommisioning and waste management.

    Conversely, if we kill-off nuclear power (which is actually not likely since the Asians are going full throttle on nuclear whether we like it or not, but for the sake of argument) then we will not have any nuclear revenues to finance the waste management. It seems to me that the risk of poor waste management would be that much greater, since all the costs of waste management/permanent disposal would have to come from the tax-payer. It seems like a big risk to untie the historic link between nuclear revenues and nuclear waste management.

    Finally, it is all fine and well to decide to kill nuclear power today, but we cannot know whether humans will again decide to build nuclear power in 100 years time, or 200 or 1000 years. So the argument that nuclear waste lasts for thousands (or even millions) of years and *therefore* should never be generated in the first place is quite weak since it works both ways: Even if our generation would not create nuclear waste that is supposed to be a threat for thousands of years, who will guarantee that future generations will not produce this waste anyway by their own nuclear program? Considering the inability of fossil fuels to serve our energy needs for more than a few hundred more years at most, and considering that while we still have fossil fuels we have the energy surplus needed to bring nuclear where it needs to be to fully displace fossils, it seems ironic to want to kill nuclear at this point. It does nothing to prevent future generations to seek nuclear, and since they will probably have a much harder time than us in doing nuclear very well (since we have benefitted from extremely cheap fossil energy surplus), the risk of nuclear pollution or poor waste management due a future nuclear program is that much greater! In a way: killing off nuclear today would therefore actually *increase* the risk of nuclear pollution occurring anyway.

    Pragmatically, we should accept that nuclear power is here to stay. We might as well make the best of it! Future generations are likely to consider us stark raving mad if we dump nuclear power, do nothing to solve the existing nuclear waste or fund it’s management, *and* saddle them with large amounts of fossil fueled power plants that have become too expensive to fuel and have changed the climate for the worse!

  6. Colin Jones Says:

    There are many reasoned arguments to continue with nuclear power – but many bads do not, IMO, make any kind of good.
    Here we have a planet where we have never ceasing motion from the oceans and a pretty much unlimited amount of energy from our sun, both of which can be captured to provide us with a never ending amount of power with no possible contamination. All it requires is a government with the guts to commit to the research to build effective capturing systems. Look at Desertec. http://www.desertec.org/ Some great ideas there.
    I appreciate that we have an urgent problem with dirty coal and other emmissions which needs to be dealt with to combat climate change and nuclear does tick a lot of those boxes, but I for one will keep up the pressure to look for safer, cleaner alternatives, no matter how good the arguments for nuclear are.
    Instead of spending 100 billion on Trident replacement, why not fit all our highways with induction coils and subsidise electric vehicles.
    There is always money available when the government decides to spend it – our money of course.

  7. Joris van Dorp Says:

    If it was just a matter of getting the government to spend money, I guess there wouldn’t be ANY problems, right?
    Tidal energy, solar energy, its great, but its expensive. Really, it is. I’ve been working in this field more than a decade. I you want to get a co2 reduction project running, it HAS to be able to pay for itself! Solar can’t do that, neither can tidal energy. That’s just the way the cooky crumbles. Nuclear power can work. It can pay for itself. All it needs is public acceptance. We can have our engineers preventing us with unlimited number of devices and plans, but if they are not economically viable, then they WONT get done! And we’ll be stuck with lots of climate change and rising energy prices. That’s no good.

  8. Colin Jones Says:

    I’m afraid I cannot agree. A select committee reported last year that the construction of the European supergrid would be a worthwhile project – and they talk about tens of billions. Small fry compared to defense spending. I say the money is there – it requires the political will to do it. Africa and southern Europe can provide solar and northern Europe wind and wave. It needs action now, though. Which is why it is essential to keep up the pressure to make sure they don’t just take the easy way out.
    If essential services like energy and water were not placed in private ownership, there would be no requirement to produce shareholder profit so the financial cost would not be such an issue.

    • @Colin – even if it was possible for Europe to collect enough intermittent, diffuse solar energy in Africa and ship it to consumers in Europe, don’t you think that is a little presumptuous? What makes you think that the Africans don’t need that power – if successful collection was actually achievable?

      Do you have any comprehension of the scale of construction required, the impact of such events as sandstorms, or the challenge of maintaining equipment in a desert environment?

      Who was on your “select committee”? Were they proposing to invest their own money or were they planning to spend money collected at the point of a gun?

      • Colin Jones Says:

        It would seem to be possible and there are organisations like http://www.desertec.org/ working towards that goal. Enough power for all, in fact.CSP will provide power 24/7 as the heat is stored for when it’s dark.
        I’m sure it’s a challenging environment – but there are a few examples of systems in use in California, and there’s a great set of photos at http://goo.gl/XW6OY of a large CSP installation in the Mohave desert that’s being built right now.
        The select committee was appointed by the house of commons, and you can read about it here http://goo.gl/4CqbK

  9. Joris van Dorp Says:

    Maybe you can agree if you read the following scientific study. It shows that even with a supergrid, intermittent renewables such as wind and solar energy *cannot* realistically supply more than 40% of the european electricitiy supply. That means that 60% will remain fossil fuels!!! Biomass is a no-show at such scales since it causes as much greenhouse gas emissions as it displaces, or even more in some cases. Let alone the biodiversity challenge of industrial biomass, and the serious social strive caused in biomass producing developing countries.

    And even if we could run our electricity production on renewables (by using only expensive sustainable biomass) then we still have our liquid fuel consumption and heat production systems to make renewable.

    But please, just read the following study, and then tell me if you agree that being anti-nuclear and anti-CO2 means you are pro-blackouts! They cannot give us more than 40% renewable electricity! Nuclear must provide up to 60% of our power, otherwise it is carbon based fuels or blackouts. This is clearly shown by scientific study.

    http://ec.europa.eu/energy/nuclear/studies/doc/2011_10_electricity_supply.pdf

    • Joris van Dorp Says:

      Specifically, the study states on page 36:

      “The policy implication of this analysis is that there are clear limits to the deployment of intermittent generation technologies in the EU-27. Furthermore, a corresponding upper threshold is estimated to be around 40% for the share of intermittent generation capacity in both a 2030 and 2050 perspective (with 5% uncertainty). Beyond this share, costly additional preventive measures will have to be taken in order to guarantee power system stability.

      This limit is based on considerations of abatement (balancing) costs needed to guarantee power system stability. The abatement costs are assigned to the intermittent generation technologies that are causing the need for abatement. A cost increase of 25 billion Euros per year is suggested here as a limit to acceptable costs. The purpose of this analysis has been to show the impact of a higher share of intermittent generation on the additional costs for the power system stability. The final choice of an acceptable cost increase will be a
      political choice.”

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