SKIP TO MAIN CONTENT

Stop Trying to Make Nuclear Power Happen

ECOLOGIES | Essays  }

Dave Cullen / October 16, 2021
A number of eco-modernists are now arguing that the threat of climate crisis means that nuclear power is necessary. However, it remains wildly impractical, and at odds with any world we would like to build. 6858 words / 27 min read

Photo:Demolition of two of Calder Hall nuclear power station’s cooling towers.


Nuclear power used to be a big thing: a huge touchstone issue on which people across the political spectrum based part of their identity. If you knew where you stood on the left-right spectrum in the ‘80s, your position on nuclear power followed naturally. That is no longer the case.

Some remember where they stood, and are in no mood to forgive and forget. Others are a bit embarrassed about their former zealotry. A handful of people with a surface understanding of the issue have decided to define themselves against their strident forebears and paint themselves as reasonable pragmatists. Unfortunately, a handful of prominent public environmentalists are members of this last group.

Their position is particularly unfortunate because of the poverty of public debate on this issue. It would not be so harmful if these people, who mostly reached adulthood after the battlelines on this issue had already been drawn, were airing what should be understood as their contrarian views within a healthy fact-based discourse. But instead they are parroting a PR line from the nuclear power industry in a context where almost everyone is operating from a position of little to no understanding.

In that context, it’s completely understandable that some comrades have also accepted the industry line that nuclear power is necessary to tackle climate change. I think this is a huge mistake, for the reasons I will set out in this piece, but I have no interest in picking a fight with anyone who formed that belief in good faith. Although I think nuclear power is a fundamentally bad idea that nobody on the left should have any truck with, supporting nuclear power is not like supporting migrant detention or abstaining on the spy cops bill. However, I do think a lot of comrades need to think a lot more critically about whose interests are being served, and what answers are predetermined by framing the issue in terms of choosing between nuclear power and the greater evil of climate change.

Let’s be clear: nuclear power is not worse than climate change. But that doesn’t matter. Comparing the two is a pointless false dichotomy, and the focus of all the public debate in the UK on this framing is the main reason nuclear power is being built here at all. In fact, nuclear power is an expensive dead end, and pursuing it will make climate change worse. Furthermore, nuclear power has several unalterable characteristics that mean it is fundamentally incompatible with the world we want, and need, to build.

Before we get onto why nuclear power should be anathema to anyone on the left, we first need to spend a bit of time looking at the current situation and the history of nuclear power to understand how it has failed even on its own terms. In this piece, I’m not going to talk about the unique dangers of nuclear power or argue that the risks of radiation are often understated. That’s not because there’s no merit to those claims, it’s because there’s no way to tackle them properly in any piece shorter than book-length, and nuclear power’s other flaws are sufficient without venturing into that territory.

The current state of nuclear new build in the UK

How then has nuclear power failed on its own terms? Let’s start with the current situation. The UK is 15 years into a “nuclear renaissance”. No reactors have been built during that time. No reactors have been built in the UK in over 25 years. One EPR reactor at Hinkley Point C has been under construction since around 2014, and will not be ready until at least mid-2026. Of the six new nuclear power stations that did recently stand a realistic chance of being constructed, three have been cancelled since late 2018. We’re in the throes of a planetary emergency, and we need to decarbonise the electricity system over the next decade.1 If nuclear power is going to play any serious role in that process the next few years need to be radically different for the industry. They won’t be.

Hinkley C is now predicted to start producing power at least three years later than its original 2023 completion date, and a year beyond the date given when the Cameron government saved the project by guaranteeing EDF would be paid for the power the plant produces at double the market rate. The estimated cost of the project has risen from £16bn to £23bn. Hinkley C is actually going quite well compared to earlier EPR projects. The first two EPR reactors to be started at Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France have both been under construction for more than 14 years and are expected to cost three and five times their original budgets respectively.

There are a couple of EPR reactors built in China that are actually producing power,2 so EDF will probably eventually complete the two planned Hinkley reactors – if only because the company will probably go under if it doesn’t, and the French government won’t allow that. EDF has public plans to build more EPR reactors at Sizewell and Moorside, though these plans primarily serve to make the company look like a healthy proposition. In reality it’s in no position to deliver on them.

EDF is substantially in debt, and its total liabilities for decommissioning its French nuclear fleet are almost twice the size of the company’s market capitalisation.3 It is solvent on paper because of the effect of discounting.4 One of the reasons for its €50bn project to extend the life of its French reactor fleet from 40 years to 50 is to delay those decommissioning costs for another decade. The French state auditor has said EDF can’t afford to build any more EPRs in France, and shouldn’t unless someone else puts up the money. Construction at Hinkley is being financed through EDF’s balance sheet rather than the low-interest loans offered by the UK Treasury, because these loans were contingent on the reactor in Falmanville being ready by 2020. This means Hinkley won’t actually be that profitable for EDF because the cost of borrowing to finance construction will be much higher than originally planned.

Despite its resemblance to a doomed pyramid scheme, EDF is still the most promising company in the UK’s supposed nuclear revival. NuGeneration, which was going to build Moorside just across the road from Sellafield, died when its owner Westinghouse went bankrupt. Westinghouse’s fate gives an indication of where EDF might have ended up without the backing of the French state. Losses from a failed attempt to build two AP1000 reactors in South Carolina sunk the company so comprehensively that it nearly bankrupted its parent company Toshiba – forced to sell its profitable microchip subsidiary in order to offset Westinghouse’s catastrophic losses. The EPR and AP1000 were the big hope for the European and North American nuclear industries, the cream of the so-called advanced 3rd generation reactors.5 They were supposed to address some of the shortcomings of earlier generations of reactors by, for example, using modular designs to reduce upfront costs and construction time. Instead they stand a good chance of being the industry’s epitaph.

EDF resembles a doomed pyramid scheme but is still the most promising company in the UK’s supposed nuclear revival.

Horizon, who were hoping to build new reactors at Wylfa and Oldbury, scrapped their projects after the government failed to buckle and underwrite the projects using a funding mechanism called “Regulated Asset Base” (RAB). RAB means that current users of electricity would fund the project through a surcharge on their bills, even though the power station wouldn’t be producing any electricity for a decade or so. The government had offered to take a 1/3 stake in Horizon, consider financing debt for building the reactors and guaranteeing a fixed price for electricity similar to the deal for Hinkley, but Horizon were still unwilling to take the risk. They “suspended” the projects in early 2019, fired most of their staff, and then finally withdrew in September 2020.

The only other serious player in the UK is the Chinese state-owned CGN, who are hoping to build a HPR1000 reactor at Bradwell. The opportunity to build this reactor was offered as an incentive to get CGN to invest in Hinkley C. Before they can apply for a site licence to build Bradwell, the HPR1000 reactor design needs to complete a generic assessment, a process that will not be completed before 2022.6 I don’t know whether the regulator will approve the HPR1000, but I think there’s a pretty decent chance that CGN’s Bradwell plans will be blocked. CGN is subject to US export controls and, after the controversy over Chinese firms and the 5G network, it’s difficult to imagine a state firm from a country the government has just officially deemed a ‘systemic challenge […] to our security, prosperity and values’ being allowed to run a nuclear power station in Essex.

These are the entities who are supposedly poised to roll out a massive expansion of nuclear power in the UK. There are other companies whose PR agents would like you to believe that they are poised to start building new reactors. It’s important to understand that these companies are not able to build nuclear power stations. They either do not have the capital or they do not want to take the risk. What they are trying to achieve with the regular fluff pieces they place in the press is a sense of momentum. The end goal is either for someone with more money than sense to buy their patents or the company as a whole, or, more likely, for credulous MPs to lobby the government to subsidise their schemes. As Mycle Schneider, editor of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report, has said, “If the industry doesn’t launch phantom projects, then it will die even faster.”

As Mycle Schneider, editor of the annual “World Nuclear Industry Status Report”, has said, “If the industry doesn't launch phantom projects, then it will die even faster.”

“Phantom projects” is the best description of SMRs, subject of the industry’s current PR blitz and therefore favoured talking point of a particular kind of nuclear bore. Ignore the funding the government has announced for them. There is no operator in the UK market that is currently in a position to deploy them, and the funding is best understood as a hidden subsidy for Rolls-Royce, who build reactors for UK nuclear submarines and want SMRs to support this aspect of their business.

There are no SMR designs that have been submitted for generic approval from the regulator. SMRs are never going to be deployed at scale in the time we have available to tackle climate change. There are really basic engineering reasons to believe that they will actually be more expensive than larger nuclear power stations, rather than cheaper, and nobody has come up with a convincing argument to explain how having lots of smaller reactors and the subsequent waste close to cities is going to be acceptable in terms of safety and security.

SMRs are just the latest spin that the industry is only one small step away from breaking free from its fundamental flaws and finally ushering in the long-promised era of electricity that is too cheap to meter. Before SMRs, it was “recycling” nuclear waste to make mixed oxide fuel. That gave us the disastrous THORP reprocessing plant that will probably end up costing more money to build and dismantle than it ever made in contracts, and has left the UK sitting on nearly 140 tons of civil plutonium, the world’s largest stockpile.

The Beginnings of the ‘Renaissance’

As with so many rotten and depressing aspects of British life in 2021, a direct causal line can be traced back from the current situation to decisions taken under the Blair government. In 2003, under Patricia Hewett, the Department of Trade and Industry published a White Paper. The White Paper was notable for being the first energy policy to try and tackle climate change, and because it said nuclear power was uneconomic. Following intense lobbying from the nuclear industry, which just happened to coincide with plans to replace the UK’s nuclear armed submarines and build a new warhead, Downing Street stepped in and ordered a review that resurrected nuclear power in the UK. Before the review had even formally concluded, Blair was telling the CBI that nuclear power was “back on the agenda with a vengeance”. A High Court judge later ruled that review was unlawful and ‘seriously flawed’, but Blair got his way, and new nuclear power has been official government policy ever since.7

As with so many rotten and depressing aspects of British life in 2021, a direct causal line can be traced back from the current situation to decisions taken under the Blair government.

At the time of the 2003 White Paper, nuclear power was dead. There hadn’t been a new reactor built since Sizewell C was completed in 1995. The supposedly most profitable part of the industry had been hived off and privatised in 1996. Within six years it was facing bankruptcy and the government had to step in to rescue it, picking up more of its decommissioning liabilities and pumping money into the company. The company was then re-privatised and sold on to EDF. The less profitable part of the industry (which includes several sites where the always nominal distinction between nuclear power and nuclear weapons production was completely nonexistent) stayed in government hands throughout and the cost of cleaning up the sites is expected to cost us somewhere between £99bn and £232bn. This is the industry that Blair decided to resurrect.

At the time, the official line was that there would be no government subsidy for nuclear, but everyone paying attention knew that was bullshit. No nuclear power station has ever been built without government support anywhere in the world, but the industry wasn’t worried. The intention was for the government to commit so fully to nuclear that it would be left with no option other than to provide the necessary support. Even when the initial regulatory framework was being set out, there were clear government subsidies in the form of the government bearing most economic risks from an accident,8 and the costs of dealing with waste.9 Despite this, and as many of us were predicting a decade ago, the government has since blinked and these subsidies have been followed by price guarantees and government-backed cheap finance, because nuclear power cannot be built without state support of this kind.

The reasons for this are straightforward. Nuclear requires a massive investment of upfront time and money. Constructing a reactor takes about a decade, and is an incredibly complex project requiring a highly specialist workforce. Running a reactor is comparatively easy, and barring any unforeseen problems you do get a supply of relatively cheap electricity for several decades. But after that decommissioning a reactor takes decades, and is again a highly complex project requiring substantial sums of money and human labour. The whole process generates wastes that have to be managed safely for millenia – opinions differ about what’s involved in this last stage because nobody has ever opened a facility for high nuclear level waste, nor grappled with the millenia that follow.

The economics of nuclear power are therefore highly sensitive to fluctuations in the market price for electricity and the cost of finance, and only add up if the private operator can sell enough electricity for a high enough price during the years for operation to offset its construction, decommissioning and waste costs. In practice this is usually achieved by offloading as many of those costs as possible onto governments. However, the cost of renewables has fallen so quickly over the time it has taken the nuclear industry to half-build Hinkley C that even with much of the costs offloaded nuclear just isn’t economic any more.

Nuclear power cannot tackle climate change

Why does any of this matter to us? So what if nuclear power has struggled under the conditions of a neoliberal energy market? Why should those of us who want to abolish all neoliberal market conditions care about that? I’ve introduced this potted history for several reasons. Firstly, to demonstrate that our public discourse on nuclear power is almost entirely bullshit. The industry and their numerous shills are peddling a fantasy and dictating terms of debate that bear almost no relation to reality. Secondly, because those struggles are not a feature of the market, they are a feature of nuclear power’s intrinsic characteristics. But most importantly, because nuclear power’s struggles in the market are fundamentally related to its unsuitability as a climate change mitigation technology.

Even with a hypothetical socialist government, under utopian conditions, prepared to properly resource this technology and find technical solutions to all the problems that crop up, nuclear power would still be extremely expensive, complex and slow to build. The planetary emergency that is climate change requires us to deploy technological solutions (alongside fundamental political, economic and social changes) that are relatively cheap, quick to put in place, scalable and available worldwide.

If we really did face a choice between nuclear power and climate change, we might need to accommodate ourselves to those shortcomings. But we don’t, not because climate change isn’t an issue, but because nuclear is inadequate to its threat. The lead-in time for nuclear power already rules it out if we are serious about adopting emissions scenarios that stand any chance of avoiding dangerous levels of warming. It doesn’t make any sense at all to commit the vast sums nuclear requires when spending the same amount of money on renewables would provide almost five times as much generation capacity in a fraction of the time, particularly with nuclear’s record of delays and failures.10 Ploughing resources and political commitment into nuclear will only slow down the response to climate change, and trying to engineer around the myriad problems of nuclear power is a distraction we cannot afford from the engineering problems that we should be focussing on: using demand management, energy efficiency, storage, international interconnectors and non-polluting load-following power sources to make a grid powered by renewables a reality.

Nuclear isn’t scalable to anything like the degree that would be needed for it to play a role in decarbonising electricity production worldwide. The state of the companies with a stake in the UK’s nuclear newbuild scene says it all: a roll-call of hucksters and the technically insolvent. The institutional capacity to roll out nuclear power across the globe at scale is simply not there. These projects have massive and complicated supply chains with a handful of specialist companies in key positions. Recent scandals over faulty welding and fraudulent certification of steel in nuclear suppliers illustrate the degree of specialisation needed in the nuclear supply chain and the difficulties there would be in trying to bring in new suppliers in order to scale the industry up. The industry already has problems with quality control, and you cannot safely mass produce reactors on the cheap. Skilled staff is another huge bottleneck – nuclear engineers take at least four years to go through an entry-level qualification, and will need many years of experience before they are ready to be in a supervisory role. Even with the UK’s current plans there is a crisis-level shortfall in skilled staff. There is no way that nuclear power can play a major role in the global energy transition that we need to see.

The complexity of nuclear power doesn’t just create a prohibitive upfront cost – it also means that reactors are subject to unplanned outages that can last for years. When a turbine component in a wind farm breaks, the rest of the turbines continue to function as normal. When something goes wrong in a reactor, the only safe option is often to shut the whole reactor down, sometimes for months at a time.11 Climate change also poses challenges for the siting of nuclear power plants. Reactors also need a constant supply of cold water for cooling, and during the heatwaves that are becoming more common under climate change, river water often gets too warm, an ongoing problem in France. The more common approach of siting reactors next to the sea is also problematic, however, as those sites will be threatened by sea-level rises and storm surges as climate change worsens. This is particularly an issue as some of those sites will probably need to store radioactive waste for decades after the plant shuts down.

Nuclear isn’t even particularly suitable for filling the niche that its advocates have claimed for it: as a complement to renewables in a zero-carbon energy mix. A grid with lots of renewable power doesn’t need a supply of always-on ‘baseload’ power, it needs flexible power sources to balance the variability of solar and wind. Nuclear could be used for this purpose, but the economics of nuclear power depend upon producing as much power as possible during the years of operation. Running a reactor below capacity in order to match variable power sources just makes it an even less financially viable option.

Nuclear isn’t even particularly suitable for filling the niche that its advocates have claimed for it: as a complement to renewables in a zero-carbon energy mix.

Nuclear Power and the Left

These are all reasons why any technocratic liberal with a grasp of the facts should shun nuclear power, but what about us on the left? I think there’s a strand of thinking on the left that has been far too willing to accept the lies of the nuclear industry because it believes in technological progress as a general human good, and that we can solve a lot of social problems through technology. This is a good example of what John Bellamy Foster termed an “eco-modernist” position, where

The Earth System crisis is said not to demand fundamental changes in social relations and in the human metabolism with nature. Rather it is to be approached in instrumentalist terms as a formidable barrier to be overcome by means of extreme technology.

In part, eco-modernism is an understandable reaction to the stereotypical Green belief that technological progress is actually bad. But we really need to move beyond approaching technology with a default attitude of either credulity or suspicion. Instead, let’s consider individual technologies and the types of social relations and state forms that those technologies engender in order to decide whether they have a role to play in the future we need to build. A technology does not on its own cause social relations or forms of the state. Raymond Williams was right to insist, in their debate over the politics of nuclear disarmament, that E. P. Thompson’s technologically determinist argument that nuclear weapons immediately give us a particular social and international order obscures decisive questions, including around the relationships that produced the technological form: “behind it, of course, is another question: who ‘gave us’ the hand-mill, the steam-mill, the missile factories?” However, Williams’ refusal of the intellectual closure of Thompson’s argument does not entail presenting technologies as politically indeterminate, as many eco-modernists would.

It is not possible to abstract nuclear power from its current context and purposes and simply transfer it to a socialist context and purposes. Nuclear power was, in Williams’ terms, “consciously sought and developed” within particular social and international relationships, and features of the technology favour the maintenance of these relationships, and particular forms of the state. Considering nuclear power in this way, it’s clear that its characteristics militate against the world we want to see.

Nuclear power requires large and secretive states and companies. The fundamental role of technologies and knowledge that could be used to create nuclear weapons, and the extensive upfront costs, makes state intervention in alliance with big capital, without any possibility of democratic planning, almost inevitable. The disparities of knowledge and of financial power that flow from these basic facts mean that nuclear power is inherently hierarchical and cannot be subject to meaningful democratic control. Unsurprisingly, given the overlap between the two technologies, many of the characteristics of Elaine Scarry’s conception of a Thermonuclear Monarchy, which argues that nuclear weapons structurally require forms of secrecy and unaccountable powers that are democratically harmful, are also present in nuclear power.

Nuclear power was “consciously sought and developed” within particular social and international relationships, and features of the technology favour the maintenance of these relationships, and particular forms of the state.

Nuclear is also not a green technology. It is environmentally harmful and produces waste that will be a burden on future generations. Even if you believe these issues are theoretically solvable and nuclear power could be potentially deployed under your chosen form of government in the future, deploying it now takes us further away from that better future.

All material used as nuclear fuel has its origins in uranium mining. Uranium mining is a major extractive industry, with all that entails. While some of the materials used in battery components, for example, could also be criticised on that basis, the wastes produced by uranium mining are frequently radioactive as well as toxic. While the quantities of material used as fuel in a nuclear power station are relatively small, the amount of ore that needs to be mined in order to produce it is 2,500 times greater. This is due to the concentration of uranium in the ore, the amount of excess material discarded during enrichment, and the relative scarcity of the more reactive isotopes within uranium. Around 41% of uranium worldwide is extracted using the in-situ leaching method, a similar process to fracking.

Most troubling is the way that the harmful effects of uranium mining, like the testing of nuclear weapons, are so directly bound up with colonial geographies: again, nuclear power emerges from and then reproduces international relationships and systems. From draining spring water for mining concessions on contested Aboriginal land in Australia, to deaths from kidney failure and cancer in the Navajo nation in the US and radioactive water pollution in Nigeria, uranium mining has frequently visited its worst impacts upon colonised peoples who have seen none of the supposed benefits of nuclear power. I don’t believe this callous disregard for certain human lives is a coincidental feature of the industry. Nuclear power is a direct outgrowth of the most extreme example of state violence: nuclear weapons. It should be no surprise that it also exhibits characteristics of colonialism as well. It is not correct to view nuclear power and nuclear weapons as separate, if linked, technologies. They are instead just two different applications of the same technology.

The harmful effects of uranium mining are directly bound up with colonial geographies uranium mining has frequently visited its worst impacts upon colonised peoples who have seen none of the supposed benefits of nuclear power.

Nuclear power and nuclear weapons

The major industrial processes used for nuclear power generation are also used to produce nuclear weapons. This was quite literally the case in the UK for most of its twentieth century. The process of enriching uranium to make nuclear fuel only needs to be prolonged in order to enrich the uranium to weapons-grade. Nuclear reactors produce plutonium, and all of the early large reactors were created specifically for this purpose. Calder Hall, the reactor at Sellafield which is claimed as the first civil reactor in the world, was actually primarily used to produce plutonium for the UK weapons programme, although this was hidden from the public for years.

Whilst nuclear power had been theoretically proposed years before and was already being developed to power nuclear submarines, its use in civil electricity generation arose directly from Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations in 1951. However, the championing of nuclear power was not the main purpose of the speech and was in fact a late addition. The “Atoms for Peace” speech was the culmination of a year-long media campaign intended to convince the US public to accept the permanent presence of nuclear weapons and the Cold War standoff with the USSR. Original drafts of the speech were considered too bleak, so the proposals for global support for nuclear power were included to inject a note of hope.13

Nuclear power can only be realised through the violence and centralised control of the state forms we see in mid and late modernity. As we can see from nuclear power’s current impasse in the UK, only the massive resources of the state are adequate to build the infrastructure and take on board the risks inherent to construction and waste management. The overlap between nuclear power and nuclear weapons can be seen very clearly in the example of the UK. The role of government funding for SMRs in subsidising Rolls-Royce’s submarine reactor production is just one example among many that support for the UK’s nuclear weapon programme is a major factor driving the government’s enthusiasm for nuclear power. This supporting role, which is acknowledged at the highest level, is only possible because the two sectors draw from a common pool of knowledge and share a supply chain.

Nuclear power can only be realised through the violence and centralised control of the state forms we see in mid and late modernity.

Preventing the spread of that technology and knowledge, and the destructive potential of materials and technologies, does not just necessarily imply secretive corporate entities, but also the existence of some kind of armed force to protect sites and materials. The UK actually has a separate police force for protecting the nuclear power sector, one of only three where officers are routinely armed. In 2021, does anyone really think it’s a good idea to tackle climate change with a technology that would have required us to invent cops if they didn’t already exist?

The UK has a separate police force for protecting nuclear power. Does anyone really think it’s a good idea to tackle climate change with a technology that would have required us to invent cops if they didn’t already exist?

These problems are mirrored on the international scale. A world with widespread nuclear power is one that will live in permanent fear of nuclear weapons proliferation and where peaceful cooperation and coexistence will be harder to achieve. Every known case of proliferation has been disguised with a nuclear power programme that was claimed to be solely civil, and in many cases the technologies involved were taken directly from (actual or claimed) civil programmes elsewhere in the world.

The uranium enrichment centrifuge designs exported by A.Q. Khan to Iran, North Korea and Libya came from Urenco, the British/Dutch/German enrichment company. The design of the North Korean nuclear reactor at Yongbyon which supplied the plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons is based on the UK’s Magnox reactor design that was used at Calder Hall and elsewhere.14 The Syrian nuclear reactor bombed by Israel in 2007 was almost certainly derived from the same design. We do not need to endorse the US hegemonic taxonomy of good and bad states to recognise that a world where any government can build nuclear weapons will be unstable and dangerous. If we allow the UK to develop new nuclear power in the UK, we either have to deny other countries with fewer potential renewable power sources and greater development needs the right to also develop nuclear power, or be prepared for a world where the likes of Duterte and Mohammed bin Salman can achieve nuclear weapons capability at a whim.

Nuclear waste

Nuclear power has no solution to the problem of waste. The industry’s preferred approach is to bury high level waste (the most radioactive and dangerous category) deep underground and forget about it. At the moment there is no working deep repository for high level waste anywhere in the world. Finland and Sweden have got the furthest towards building them, but their experience is not reassuring. Sweden recently discovered that the copper containers they were planning to use corroded much faster during experiments than they had anticipated. The official UK timeline for the Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) is planned around it being ready to accept waste in the 2040s, but nobody in the industry believes that is realistic.

The actual purpose of dates like this, and of the GDF plan in general, isn’t that anyone thinks they will be fulfilled in anything like their current form – it’s that the existence of these plans means that nobody today has to grapple with a problem that is actually insoluble. The plans are a convenient fiction disguising the fact that the problem is being constantly deferred for someone else to deal with. All that matters is to kick the can a little further down the road.

There are no specifications for the UK GDF yet, but when they emerge they will probably be along the following lines: no radioactive material should escape for around 500 to 1,000 years, and then only very small “safe” amounts would be able to escape until around 100,000 years have passed. These timescales make for interesting philosophical and ethical quandaries around how to construct warning signs and social or political forms that can transmit the necessity of leaving the waste alone for so long. However, the entire concept of deep geological “disposal” relies on the assumption that the people of the distant future will either have confidence in the technical solutions we choose to contain the waste or will be living in a civilisation so far advanced that putting in place additional measures will be inconsequential. In practice, neither of these assumptions should be taken for granted.

If our distant descendants are still around in 1,000 or 100,000 years and still retain any memory of our radioactive legacy, will they have any faith in infrastructure that is as distant to them as the reign of King Cnut or twice as old as the earliest cave paintings are to us?15 The idea is even more absurd than the notion that having to deal with the waste will by then be a negligible burden. It’s a laughable proposition, and we could learn a lot from the fact that the people who think otherwise are widely held to be pragmatists.

In truth, the radioactive wastes that we have currently generated, and whatever wastes are generated by the power plants being built now, will either endanger our descendants or place a burden of custodianship upon them that we have absolutely no right to impose. The financial costs of doing so are incalculable and it could never be ethically justifiable to pass them onto people who have no ability to consent.

The radioactive wastes that we have generated, and whatever wastes are generated by power plants being built now, will either endanger our descendants or place a burden of custodianship upon them that we have no right to impose.

Conclusion

In summary, nuclear power is antithetical to the world we want to see. From its origins as a figleaf to distract us from the grim truth of mutually assured destruction, to its recent resurrection as a bogus solution to climate change, it is inherently bound up with violent state forms and paranoid and secretive hierarchies. It cannot be deployed at a speed and scale to make a difference to climate change, but it will make the world less safe and stable at a time when we can least afford to manage the many problems that come with it. People will already have to deal with its legacy for countless generations and the only moral course of action is to decline to add to their burden by generating more waste.

Climate change mitigation measures need to be prefigurative of the other changes we want to see in the world. Technology will never be the solution to climate change, but any viable solution will need to deploy it alongside social change. Nuclear cannot deliver on even the limited grounds where it claims to make a difference and is a distracting dead end. In political circumstances where social change is not immediately realisable, we need to be advocating for technologies which are in harmony with the changes we want to see, not providing free PR for an industry which should have been left to die decades ago.

Democratically controlled renewable power generation is much more amenable to the types of adaptation and demand matching that make a zero carbon grid a realistic possibility. Renewables are less complex than nuclear power, much quicker and easier to deploy, and much more scalable. The technologies can easily be shared globally, and building more cross-border grid interconnectors will make it much easier to manage the variance of renewable generation. Rather than reproducing existing oppressive structures and relationships, these technologies are at the very least compatible with the relationships and institutions we would want to see as socialists.

Locally owned and run renewables, linked together in a web of global interdependencies, is exactly the kind of prefigurative solution that we need to be working towards, and it is actually cheaper and more realistic than nuclear power. Decarbonising electricity generation is the low hanging fruit of climate change adaptation, but if we carry it out in the right way, it will be easier to work towards just and equitable solutions in future steps. Nuclear has already blown its chance to be a meaningful part of that future – the only question is how quickly people on the left will recognise this, and how much more we are going to continue storing future problems by trying to resist its inevitable demise.


  1. Even the government’s inadequate plans call for ‘an overwhelmingly decarbonised power system in the 2030s’. See “In-Depth Q&A: How Does the UK’s “Energy White Paper” Aim to Tackle Climate Change?’” Carbon Brief. 16 December 2020. 

  2. As this piece was being prepared for publication it emerged that there has been a radiation leak in one of these reactors since October 2020, a little over a year since it began operation This further diminishes the likelihood that more EPR reactors will be built in the UK. 

  3. See: “When Investors Need to Restate Liabilities,” The Footnotes Analyst. 31 March 2019. Undiscounted liabilities are listed as being £82bn. “Electricite de France Market Cap,” YCharts. puts market capitalisation at £43.5bn on 20 May 21. 

  4. Discounting is an accountancy practice where costs you will incur in the future are counted as literally costing less because you don’t have to pay them yet. When used in combination with the massive timescales involved in nuclear decommissioning, discounting can produce interesting results. 

  5. There are other III+ generation reactor designs in Russia and India but these have not been seriously proposed for construction in Europe or North America and would probably need substantial adaptations to meet regulatory standards here. 

  6. See: Assessment of Reactors. Office for Nuclear Regulation.. The Environment Agency consultation is due to publish in early 2022. 

  7. While Blair is widely believed to have personally driven the decision-making, he was far from alone in his enthusiasm. This surprisingly good BBC News article outlines the myriad links between the nuclear industry and New Labour: “Labour and the Nuclear Lobby”. 23 May 2007. 

  8. In the event of an accident, operator liabilities are capped, regardless of their culpability. In 2017 the cap was raised from £140m to €1.2bn. See “Changes to the UK Nuclear Liability Regime: Implications for the Industry”, Clifford Chance LLP. 

  9. The original plan was for operators to be charged a fixed fee by the government for waste disposal, transferring the risk to the state. The industry ran a successful lobbying campaign to ensure that fees would be low and operator risks minimised. See: “Waste and Decommissioning Financing Arrangements”. n.d. No2NuclearPower.; Tim Webb. 2010. “EDF Ran Secret Lobbying Campaign to Reduce Size of Nuclear Waste Disposal Levy”. The Guardian. 2 June 2010. 

  10. Base overnight cost per kW of Nuclear (light water reactor) is estimated at $6,034 vs. $1,248 for Solar PV with tracking in “Cost and Performance Characteristics of New Generating Technologies, Annual Energy Outlook 2021”. 2021. US Energy Information Administration. Presumably without tracking technology the cost of installing solar would be even lower. 

  11. The most recent example in the UK is Sizewell B: Emily Gosden. “Sizewell B Nuclear Plant Forced to Stay Shut over Safety Concerns”. The Times. 17 May 2021. Problems can cause plants to stay offline for years, or even close. In 2020 EDF announced it was to close Hunterston entirely after a two year closure. EDF hopes to be allowed to run the reactors for another few months, but the whole plant has essentially been retired due to a fault. See: “Scottish Nuclear Power Station to Shut down Early after Reactor Problems”. The Guardian.. 27 August 2020. 

  12. Elaine Scarry. 2014. Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing between Democracy and Doom. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 

  13. Stephanie Cooke. 2009. In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age. New York: Bloomsbury, pp.107-112. 

  14. Siegfried S. Hecker, Sean C. Lee, and Chaim Braun. 2010. “North Korea’s Choice: Bombs Over Electricity”. The Bridge 40 (2), pp.5–12. 

  15. Cnut’s reign in England lasted from 1016 to 1035, just under a millenia ago. The oldest cave painting is dated to 45,000 years ago. 


Author:

Dave Cullen (@humbleetc)

Dave Cullen researches nuclear weapons for a living.