Nuclear conversions

June 14, 2021 in Kevin Hargaden

KEVIN HARGADEN :: Over a century ago, H.G. Wells published a novel called Tono-Bungay which features a sub-plot about an amoral grifter called George Ponderevo who comes up with a scheme to harvest a substance called ‘quap’ from an island off the West African coast to make cheap lightbulb filaments in the UK.

Quap is “the most radioactive stuff in the world. … It’s a festering mass of earths and heavy metals, polonium, radium, ythorium, thorium, curium and new things, too…” He plans to just take it, for the residents of that land are “too damned stupid” to trade with. It is “rotten stuff and soft, ready to shovel and wheel.” He intends to load up tonnes of it and then sell it for three pounds an ounce back home.

As it turns out, he vastly underestimated how the toxicity of this substance would eat into his efficient profits. The quap sickens the crew and then corrodes the metal of the transportation ship, before sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

Written in 1909, Wells could not appreciate the ways in which this little tale could stand prophetically as a warning about the nuclear fuel industry. The promises that were made about fission-generated electricity were the stuff of mid-20th century techno-utopia. It would be, predicted the American industry leader, an energy source too cheap to even metre.

But the year before the first commercial nuclear power plant in the US was completed, the government had to pass an act capping liability payments in the case of meltdowns. The hoped-for bright future powered by smashed atoms never materialised, though enough horrendous accidents occurred to make the industry a cultural placeholder for careless capitalism, as best evidenced by C. Montgomery Burns in The Simpsons (let us not even discuss how such plants functioned under communism!).

Intermittently, we encounter voices within environmentalism that suggest that we need to repair our relationship with nuclear power if we want to avoid a climate catastrophe. This is superficially an absurd argument considering the environmental damage caused by reactor accidents. But even well regulated functioning plants generate waste that we do not know how to process.

The Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository about 300km northwest of Helsinki, has been under construction since 2004, and aims to be in operation in 2023. It is an example of international best practice and the plan consists of building a very deep tunnel in which copper canisters containing waste can be stored, and then filling the tunnels in when they are full, and hoping the facility stays secure for the 100,000 years that it will take for the material to degrade to harmlessness.

In response to recent efforts by those employed in the nuclear industry to push this technology on Ireland, I wrote a letter to the Irish Times this week outlining some of the topics such proponents never relish discussing. I cited the problem of waste, of source fuel, of location, of (il-)legality, and of the downward trend of nuclear power globally.

I did not mention the carbon cost of construction, the massive subsidies, cost overruns, or the fact that the particular technology being pushed isn’t actually in operation anywhere because the readers of the Irish Times don’t need thousands of words from me with their morning coffee.

Should this ever come up for serious policy consideration, these issues would have to be addressed at length. But from an ethical perspective, there is an even more fundamental reason why environmentalists should be wary of nuclear power.

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis argues that the key to tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis is in recognising that these traditionally “environmental” issues are inextricably linked to the crises we have typically dubbed as “social”. Thus, wealth inequality is a potential frontline in the biodiversity crisis and air pollution is a topic that matters to you if you care about child mortality.

This idea is known as integral ecology and it represents a profound theoretical advance for the environmental movement. It conceptually locates ideas like the just transition at the very heart of any response to the crisis.

It can be more than that though. At the end of the encyclical, Francis outlines an idea he calls ecological conversion, a sort of spiritual transformation whereby our culture’s latent aggression towards nature is replaced by a “spirit of generous care, full of tenderness” [§220]. This is a Christian humanist vision for social justice and environmental care.

The Irish Jesuit Niall Leahy SJ describes the perspective well when he suggests “Our ecosystem is the delicate but strong nest in which all our human relationships can develop”. It represents a truly radical alternative to the technocratic paradigm that has held sway for decades, with increasingly unavoidable consequences for our societies.

To be converted means to embrace a new way of thinking and doing, but that implicitly means leaving an old way of thinking and doing behind. The ecological conversion that Francis calls us to would invariably leave the hollow utopias of technocratic fantasies in the past. Contemporary advocates for nuclear power always suggest that the product their selling has to be bought because there is no other option. Within the fevered dreams of 20th-century capitalism, that is true. In that mode of thinking and doing, bigger is not only always better, it is inevitable. Economies had to grow. Profits had to grow. It didn’t matter if extinction rates and inequality and sea levels rose as well, as long as the shareholder yield or military prowess advanced.

There is a lively debate in academia about what to call the age we have ushered in with our heedless devotion to our dominating libidos. Some advocate calling this geological epoch the Anthropocene, to note that it is the age when humanity has shaped the earth. But others, quite convincingly, suggest it is more precisely labelled the capitalocene. All of humanity was not implicated, after all. It was really just a few societies, who, like the “entrepreneurs” in H.G. Wells’ novel, saw the world as a resource to be exploited and other people as idiots to be enslaved, placated, or disposed of.

The proponents of nuclear energy advocate for it on the basis that it is largely emissions-free. The argument proceeds that since the climate catastrophe is generated primarily by carbon emissions, the essential problem is to remove carbon and in that framing, all the other ethical, political, economic, and indeed environmental problems with nuclear power are cleared off the table.

But it is important to note that ethically speaking, the “essential problem” that is there discussed is, in fact, a reduced problem. “We can reduce the problem of climate change to carbon,” says the nuclear advocate. Integral ecology, with its much fuller, more realistic account of reality, rejects such essential reductionisms. Like the yet-to-be-invented “carbon capture technology”, those advocating for small nuclear reactors are not just choosing to simplify the complex factors at play, they are mistaking the symptoms for the cause.

We have not inaugurated catastrophe because we emit carbon. We inaugurated catastrophe when we treated creation as an inefficiency awaiting our rationalization. Carbon dioxide (and methane and nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases and so on) is a by-product of our devotion to infinite growth and purpose-less profit.

The electricity that we were told was too cheap to meter turned out to be costly beyond our worst imaginings. The vision of nuclear power literally arose as so-called civilized societies engaged in mass exterminations and planetary conflicts. This vision imagines the world as a resource waiting to be manipulated. It is as implicated in the endless-growth philosophy that created the crisis as crude oil and industrial agriculture. Any invitation to resolve this catastrophe with such a technology is really only an intensification of the initial problem.

To avert the environmental catastrophe, we don’t primarily need new technologies that let us keep living our old lives. We need new philosophies that allow us to build new ways of living together, not grounded on the myth of endless growth. An integral ecology is the foundation for such a philosophy and ecological conversion is the source of transformation that lets us move past the fantasies of our grandfathers’ youths. We need new approaches to navigate the catastrophe we have created but they are already spent if they continue to trade in the plutonium imaginings of the Cold War era.