Back in 2007, I was, like all self-identified, self-respecting greens, anti-nuclear. And I was pretty sure that, based on my reading of ecosocialists like Bellamy Foster and Magdoff (more on them below) as well as peak oil analysts like James Kuntsler and Richard Heinberg, we as a species were facing a worldwide power down. I was convinced that a growth economy powered by renewable energy was not feasible due to resource constraints, the unavoidable inefficiencies of wind and solar, and the unacceptable costs of scaled-up biofuels. It was clear to me that the growth economy of capitalism needed to go, but even then, I did not see where humanity could continue to derive the power to maintain industrial civilization.
Then, one day, in the fall of 2008, I got from my pals on the “radgreen” environmental email list a link to a debate between a representative from Greenpeace and Tom Blees, author of the new book Prescription for the Planet, which promoted, among a suite of technologies, fourth generation nuclear power.
I really did not want to read the interview. My writing, my identity and my life were rooted in a worldview that this technology would undermine, a technology that, under the right circumstances, might make a life of equality and abundance possible. I and my comrades on the email list already “knew” that anything pro-nuclear had to come from a prisoner of the growth paradigm and a shill for the powerful nuclear industry, which, we “knew,” was responsible already for hundreds of thousands of deaths and racism against indigenous peoples.
Thankfully, honesty and self-criticism have become a part of my worldview, too, so (turning one view against my others), I read the debate. The Greenpeace representative lost badly, relying on erroneous sound bytes about new nuclear power that misidentified the type of reactor Blees was defending: the Integral Fast Reactor, a reactor the Greenpeace guy simply could not have known about. I bought the book (read my review at amazon)and have spent the last four years (with a great deal of help from my coauthor on energy matters, physicist and radiologist Bill Sacks, and a host of other experts and science journalists) learning equally about nuclear power and the material and practical barriers to a 100% renewable vision, even under an eco socialism where perpetual growth is overcome. I now think nuclear power (especially Generation 4, capable of providing essentially limitless clean energy) must play a central role in the energy transition to a society based on meeting human needs. Arguments against it are deeply uninformed, largely based on fear mongering.
There exists the assumption, nearly universal among environmental activists, that nuclear power is “too risky” to warrant serious consideration. In one important articulation of this risk claim, Monthly Review writers John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff reject nuclear in favor of water, wind and solar on the grounds that what underlies the probabilistic risk assessments associated with nuclear power is the category of “acceptable risk,” a category they claim “should be rejected as part of a capitalist world view.”
Germany is following this advice and, after Fukushima, speeding up its move away from nuclear (which supplied nearly 30% of German electricity pre tsunami) and towards renewable energy. Environmental activists have hailed this as a success story. Bill McKibben made headlines this summer when he noted that Germany generated “more than half” (a false claim as we will see) its electricity from solar plants on May 24. Activists point to towns like Feldheim, Germany, which gets all its electricity from renewables. If they can do it, they ask, why can’t everyone?
On the other hand, nearly two years before Fukushima, James Hansen, one of the world’s top experts on global warming, warned that Germany’s anti-nuclear policy would result in more coal plants, the larger point being that because of wind and solar’s unreliability, they are in effect parasitic on fossil fuels—in the absence of sources like nuclear and hydro that can contribute continual, steady power. What to think? Well, Germany has shut down half of its nuclear plants, and in fact, they have filled the gap with coal, the dirtiest and deadliest of all energy forms in use. In one telling example, Germany just completed a state of the art 2.2 GigaWatt coal plant (with a whopping 10% fewer emissions than less up-to-date plants). Those who built it brag that they are smoothing the transition to a renewables economy by “offsetting the intermittency of wind and solar power.”
Moreover, while wind power accounts for nearly 9% of Germany’s electricity annually, wind’s daily and hourly fluctuations have been, as they always are, severe and have required natural gas burning to fill the large gaps. (Calling fossil fuels “back up” is thus a severe distortion as it is more the other way around). With Feldheim and Bill McKibben, the main mistake environmental activists make involves an illegitimate inference from part to whole. The crucial point here is that you cannot extrapolate from solar’s high capacity factor at its high point on May 24 to the rest of the year. And the Feldheim example does not scale either; it cannot be generalized. As I pointed out elsewhere, there are significant periods in winter where Germany’s solar production is around 1% or less of nameplate. As for Mckibben’s solar claim, it turns out that Germany got 12% of its electricity from solar on May 24 (and about 1/3 at 1:45 pm). For the entire May-June period, wind/solar and geothermal together accounted for ~7000/45,000 GWH/month, or about 15 % of Germany’s electricity (http://www.iea.org/stats/surveys/mes.pdf).
As for Feldheim, in this tiny town, they have one third of a wind turbine per person, along with 4 pigs per person, for biogas. They are not tiny turbines but look to be of the 1 MegaWatt variety. Were we to carry this model to Japan, we would need 40 million wind turbines and 600 million pigs. This would be incredibly risky. Imagine the damage and the danger posed by a major tsunami slamming into 40 million coastal wind turbines? In the real world, Germany and Japan are replacing nuclear power with fossil fuels.
In a depressing example of this dynamic which sums up for me the patent dangers of green ideology, Japan is importing large amounts of liquid natural gas to replace its nuclear power, ironically enough, from the Arctic, since global warming has now, due to ice melt, made the delivery of the gas cost efficient. For all practical purposes, renewables are parasitic on fossil fuels, but green dogma virtually requires this fact to be misrecognized, and so you get greens aiming to ban fracking when, to quote green enthusiast Robert Kennedy, wind and solar are in effect gas plants, due to their huge dependence on “back up”—which is okay by him. Meanwhile, natural gas may turn out to be as bad or worse (in ghg terms) than coal due to methane leaks, as methane traps 25 times the heat per molecule compared to CO2 in the long term, 75 times in the short term.
The absurdity of this green dogma has not been lost on green hero James Hansen, who sees such dogma as risking the future of his grandchildren: “Do these people,” he asks himself angrily, “have the right to make a decision that may determine the fate of my grandchildren?” (Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, p. 203)
I see no solution to the climate problem under capitalism, primarily because the chaos and narrow-minded competition of capitalist production blocks the collective implementation of rational technical solutions. But capitalism is not the only problem that needs to be overcome. Green dogma, which naïvely champions renewable energy and rejects even cutting edge nuclear technology out of hand, needs to be overcome as well. Green dogma itself is unacceptably risky.