Nuclear power: there is no magical technological solution to climate change

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has put nuclear power back on the political agenda.

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Championing the benefits of the energy source Bishop last week argued:

 “It’s an obvious conclusion that if you want to bring down your greenhouse gas emissions dramatically you have to embrace a form of low or zero-emissions energy and that’s nuclear, the only known 24/7 baseload power supply with zero emissions.”

When not promoting market solutions to climate change such as cap-and-trade, the right has often turned to technological silver bullets to solve the problem. The ideas are varied – from clean coal and capture and storage to geo-engineering. This is how many see nuclear power — a system that provides a silver-bullet to our energy problems.

These solutions are built on the ideals of technological utopianism — the idea that progress in science and technology will eventually be able to solve all of humankind’s problems. This has become the backbone of much of the debate around climate change, causing significant delays in finding a real solution to the problem. 

While technically climate change is a scientific and technological problem, underlying this, the real cause is cultural and political. We pollute for a reason — to fuel an economy driven by an obsessive need to produce, consume and grow. We burn fossil fuels because, as a cheap and centralised energy source, they are the best at providing these needs. The fossil fuel industry works perfectly within a culture that values individualism and the domination of our environment — and it has built significant power to ensure this culture survives. We pollute because of our culture, not because of a technology. 

While technological advances may look like solutions therefore, they are in fact ways to avoid the problem. We can see this clearly with nuclear power. Let’s skim over the fact that nuclear is dangerous, economically unviable and not even that good at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The real problem is that nuclear power tries to replace one centralised energy system (fossil fuels) with another. It is a distraction that ignores the culture of growth, production and consumption that is behind the crisis. In fact, as a highly centralised, environmentally dominating, and corporate controlled energy source, it is part of the problem, perpetuating the crisis rather than solving it.

It is no wonder Julie Bishop is so enthusiastic about it. With the Government facing increasing pressure on climate change, promoting nuclear can make it look like they’re acting when all they are doing is entrenching right-wing ideals.

But it is not just the right who have placed all their faith in a technological utopia, but the left as well. Some notable left-wing commentators for example have provided strong support for nuclear power, using many of the same arguments visible in right wing circles. But technological utopian ideals are mostly seen in a blind faith to renewable energy.

Renewables do not have many of the same problems as nuclear. Renewable energy by its nature must be decentralised, having a smaller impact on the environment, and also allowing for the democratisation of our energy system (if implemented properly). Yet the left’s faith in renewable power buys into the idea that technological change is the only solution required, not questioning the political and cultural causes behind the climate crisis. We see this particularly when the left connect renewables to ‘green jobs’ and ‘green growth’. This green capitalism makes for great political lines but actually entrenches the right-wing culture that caused the climate crisis in the first place.

It is no wonder that despite dropping costs renewable energy continues to struggle. Even though climate change provides us with the best available ammunition, the left has been too afraid to enter cultural or political battles required. We have tried to fit our solutions into our society’s dominant culture. This is never going to succeed when there are already technologies out there (i.e. fossil fuels) that sit better within this cultural frame.

No one should be surprised by Bishop’s latest foray into the nuclear debate. It is part of a long history of the right presenting technological ideas that look like climate solutions, but are in fact just opportunities for them to push their agenda. What is surprising is that the left that buys into this agenda just as heavily.

Nuclear is not now, nor never will be a solution to climate change. Let’s ignore the distraction and focus on the cultural and social changes needed to solve the problem.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer and blogs at The Moonbat.