I am asked in an e-mail:
“I’m assuming that in 30 or 40 years, everyone will (pretty much) be using nuclear power for their energy needs. By last count, there were 440+ nuclear reactors in the world, with dozens more planned for installation. France (of all countries) is roughly 70% nuclear. My question: Why are people still pretending that nuclear energy isn’t the cleanest, most efficient method available?”
My answer: Because it’s not.
The first answer I devised, in 2012, to this question was (“solar power at 1% conversion efficiency on 2% of the land area of the United States of America would produce the total electrical energy use of the nation, 4 trillion kilowatt-hours per year (4T kWh/y)”):
My next answer (“nuclear weapons are obsolete”) was to the collateral question about nuclear weapons (which collateral question comes out of the “proliferation” issue associated with civilian nuclear reactors. I presumed the e-mail correspondent’s original question was prompted by my remarks on nuclear weapons posted on CounterPunch on February 1st, https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/02/01/why-it-is-the-way-it-is/)(appended below) was:
The two factors that would argue against nuclear power are responsibility and efficiency:
1. The “responsibility factor,” (MONEY).
Nobody wants to be the person/entity legally-financially responsible for insuring the nuclear power companies and reactor operators. The cost of “nuclear power malpractice insurance” is literally infinite.
So, governments that do have nuclear power must become (pass laws making) themselves the responsible parties of last resort — which means the public gets stuck with the bills and physical and health risks from all sorts of possible “accidents”: meltdowns and wide area contamination (like Chernobyl and Fukushima), waste storage (nuclear waste gets thermally hot, and if clumped too close or not cooled can explode, as in Russia in 1957) and guarding (from diversion by terrorists) forever (hundreds of thousands of years).
2. The “efficiency factor,” (the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics).
All the work (human and mechanical; intellectual-engineering and physical-construction) that would be required to build up a nuclear power infrastructure (like for mining uranium and refining the ore to reactor grade; and building power plants and waste disposal methods and sites), plus all the related security services needed (to ensure the refining plants don’t take the process to “bomb grade,” and then divert that into nuclear weapons, or it gets stolen!) ‘in perpetuity’ can be quantified as a total energy (or power flow into) needed to create and maintain the nuclear power industry/infrastructure (including its administration and finance agencies).
Does the energy extracted FROM nuclear power…
…(over the lifetime of its plants, whose remnants must be ‘disposed’ of as radioactive and toxic waste; so also over the time required to maintain and guard the disposal sites)…
…EXCEED the energy investment INTO nuclear power, to make that “engine for powering civilization” socially useful? This is called EROEI: energy return on energy invested.
EROEI is used by the oil industry to determine if any well/oil field is worth being pumped. If the energy needed to work the pumping is MORE than the potential energy that can be generated from the oil that could be extracted, then it makes no sense to pump it out. Instead, just use that original energy investment directly into other technical means to produce the work desired for social and economic purposes.
Another reason that re-insurers (the big big money like Credit Suisse that insures insurance companies) mark their costs for nuclear power at INFINITY (kind of like an inversion of Pascal’s Wager) is because they calculate that investments elsewhere (for energy generation) are more profitable (i.e., efficient).
Governments like the USG maintain nuclear power for military reactors, as on aircraft carriers and missile-carrying submarines, because these weapons systems are the technological infrastructure of their imperialism, their global-reach political power (and dick enhancements of the egomaniacal bigwigs in charge) to extract economic advantages (both real and imaginary) from the rest of the world (and entirely for Big Capital, which underwrites and profits from the Military-Industrial Complex: the MIC).
But this is neither energetically nor financially efficient; it is a definite national cost (a pure loss for the public) which is borne by civil society as a degradation of their standards-of-living (the combination of their political freedoms degraded because of “secrecy” and “security,” availability of social services, economic/job opportunities and thus income, and health and safety as it is impacted by the whole nuclear materials/weapons/power complex; guns versus butter).
After the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown, I wrote this poem:
Which would you rather live in?
A country of 200 nuclear plants, or
A country of 100 million solar collectors?
Which would you rather live in
After the air raids?
If the total current investment into nuclear materials/power/weapons, for all kinds of investments and from all sources, were channeled instead into “green energy” (the technology) and “eco-socialism” (the society powered by that technology), we would all live much much better and more securely and all at much less cost (which cost reduction would include much more effective action to counter climate change).
The great psychological barrier here is the usual one of people of all kinds being resistant to alter their behaviors and adapt to new thinking and technology because they are afraid of losing their personal advantages (money, wealth, jobs, “importance”), their social and economic status (in prejudicial hierarchical societies), and of “losing out” by relinquishing the old ways of “getting ahead,” because of sociological and technical advances (as John Henry, the “Steel-Driving Man,” was resistant, https://youtu.be/oEKAwslJ-_M). This is like the warped and economically unnecessary motivation that keeps Icelandic and Japanese whalers going on today in an activity that is a pure degradation of our interconnected natural world.
And that is why nuclear power continues: because of the mental inertia of those who “can’t” change their ways of life (of ‘taking advantage’ and ‘getting ahead’ of the rest of the world), and which dummies include the vast swathes of Joe Sixpacks and Karens and Jamie Portfolios and Nancy Fashionistas, who just want the continuity of their illusions of “good deals” on guns and granite countertops and big plasma-screen TVs and low-fat de-caff lattes, without any thought about the pesky “weather.”
For all such people, “nuclear energy as the cleanest most efficient method of powering our good life” is confidently held as an obvious truth.
All forms of power (physical and electrical utility power) are statements about the kinds of societies that are envisioned — by their controlling ‘visionaries’ (sic) — as being necessary.
So, the fundamental question is actually: what kind of society do we want? And from that the kind of power technologies that should be mounted can then be most clearly defined and invested in and built and used.
Why It Is The Way It Is
28 January 2021
Here are my reactions to three articles in the 28 January 2021 edition of Counter Punch.
Why We Can’t Give Up on the Idea of a World Free From Nuclear Weapons
The “inability” to relinquish nuclear weapons is entirely a function of the “inability” of power elites to pry their cold dead hands off the levers of power. This is in every way like the “inability” of gun nuts (euphemistically: 2nd Amendment Patriots) to relinquish their guns and military gear costumes; the acting out of a dick measuring contest by deeply insecure people unable to let go of the security blankets they hide behind and which project their illusions of confidence, manhood (and/or penis envy), power and enviable popular acclaim and fear. This is no different from Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot before the walls of Troy to safely chest-thump his hubristic pride in himself and to inspire terror.
Another, secondary aspect of this clutching onto the obsolescence of nuclear weapons is pure pork-barrel and corporate welfare. It has nothing to do with the logical pursuit of war aims under any conditions. But the disturbing element here is the possibility of an illogical actor — a pure irrational — somehow gaining control of some nation’s nuclear weapons infrastructure Doomsday Machine, as many feared a nutty American president (take your pick) might have done.
I would say that the ideal and polar opposite alternative to the continuation of the Nuclear War Club Delusion is a combination of: the outlawing of war with a robust International Criminal Court with full world participation as championed by Ben Ferencz (https://youtu.be/meDbZemxuK4), with an equally robust worldwide participation in a concerted effort to respond to climate change as urged with fervent and penetrating clarity by Greta Thunberg, and to which I have made my own individual (and I’ll admit amateur) efforts to flesh out with policy visions (as in my last CP article, https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/01/28/from-fractiousness-to-sustainability-is-it-possible/).
While America Was Sleeping
Alfred W. McCoy describes how the United States has steadily slipped from its long-standing position of world leadership (from 1945 to 2017), both politically but most crucially economically, and which decay of American imperial power and world respect for it is most hideously reflected by the previous four years of the Boobus Americanus Administration.
The increasing economic isolation of the United States from world markets, with Europe, Asia and Africa being steadily drawn into market conformity with China, and effectively assisted by Boobus Americanus’s inept “America First” isolationism, leads me to think that the centroid for the production of carbon-dioxide planetary poisoning has moved to China, with this relocation of World Capitalism’s economic engine.
I am brought back to John Lennon’s thought that the world is run by insane people for insane purposes (https://youtu.be/YspNkm0BKgw). The intellectual refinement and seriousness of the mentalities that carry on the complex and sober work of perpetuating the objectively insane obsession with political domination for exclusionary wealth accumulation — most heinous when self-focussed, but understandably forgivable when aimed at poverty reduction nationally — is breathtaking for its utter disregard to its consequent destruction of our planet. This is “circling the drain-hole” terminal addiction on its grandest scale.
Federal Secrecy Protects the Crimes of Every President
James Bovard shines a strong light on the putrefaction of American democracy by its envelopment with the hyphae of the “classification” of rightly public information as “state secrets.” Very little of the information generated by government activities needs to be classified either for public safety or the defense of the Constitution (remember, the two official duties and purposes of the USG and its officers) against the attempted hostile actions by ‘enemies’ (who they?) of the American people.
I once had large locking safes filled with blueprints and computer printouts of engineering details of nuclear explosive devices (a.k.a. “bombs”), and I agree those should be classified. But even so, if such blueprints were posted on the internet it might do less for nuclear proliferation than you might imagine. Certainly a few nuclear powers, like North Korea and maybe Pakistan, would be able to improve their own nuclear weapons designs from a study of the U.S. nuclear weapons technology.
But all members of the nuclear weapons club already know how to blend very high level classical physics and engineering with the use of exotic radioactive compounds, gases, metals and salts (the material guts of nuclear bombs) into the construction of functional nuclear explosives. The threat to others from Nuclear War Club members is exponentially amplified when such members also possess high-speed delivery systems with long reach (missiles, submarines and worst of all: satellite platforms).
Most states would never (well, almost never) be able to develop their own nuclear weapons even if they possessed a huge cache of “blueprints” from say the U.S. or Russia or China or England or France or Israel, because they could never mount the huge complex infrastructure necessary to manufacture nuclear explosives, nor accumulate the many exotic materials needed.
But, it is true that any state with civilian nuclear reactors could apply that technology to generate low-grade (and yet super extremely toxic and harmful) nuclear material and waste, which could be used in crude terroristic attacks. So the single best strategy for the prevention of the proliferation of nuclear terror and nuclear weapons is the strict international (U.N.) control of the possession and transport of nuclear materials. Secrecy in the operations of such a nuclear materials policing agency is certainly a public good.
But, as has long been known and which Bovard points out, government secrets in general and the explosion of “classification” by the USG in particular are mostly about embarrassment-control and impunity-perpetuation by and for the lever-pullers in governments.
And it all makes this nerdy très petit bourgeois kid from the Hippy Era, who is irrelevantly far out from the insane consensus on world management, think gratefully of Ben Ferencz, fondly of John Lennon, and wistfully of Greta Thunberg.