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Why degrowth needs nuclear power (3, end): When both sides are wrong

Once Finland's Olkiluoto-3 reactor was connected to the grid, market prices of electricity dropped by 75%, suppling electricity cheaper than wind in Europe and solar in Germany. (Image: BBC World Service/Flickr)


Supporting degrowth with nuclear power may sound surprising. While here in Poland, the political left is fervently pro-nuclear, I realise this is not the case in most Western countries. And so, simply for making the case for nuclear power, I’m sometimes accused of being a shill for the nuclear industry.

(I’m not. Incidentally, I work as a freelance translator for several players in the power industry, but only renewables and fossil fuels, not nuclear.)

The roots of degrowth go back to people involved in the early environmental movement and counterculture of the 1960s. They weren’t big on nuclear. Some of their anti-nuclear sentiment was understandable. Nuclear weapons could have killed most life on Earth by just pressing a few buttons. Opposition to nuclear war was noble and justified. Extending the opposition to civilian nuclear power plants may have made sense back then, but by now, we know the international safeguards against nuclear proliferation work quite well.

Here in Poland, the political left is fervently pro-nuclear, I realise this is not the case in most Western countries

In the early days of the nuclear industry, there was much hype about finally providing almost limitless energy for all. Of course, nuclear plants wouldn’t provide limitless energy – just like we won’t get limitless energy from solar or wind, simply because of limitations to infrastructure and resources.

But the Big Lie of abundant energy seemed plausible enough that many scholars and early proponents of degrowth (including Serge Latouche, Giorgios Kallis, Fabrice Flipo and François Schneider) assume as an axiom the rejection of some technologies, such as nuclear power, as ‘not amenable to limits’, as Flipo and Schneider put it in their foreword to Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era.

In these days of accelerating climate breakdown, we do not have the luxury of rejecting a specific technology just because over half a century ago some people thought it was too dangerous.

Not all advocates of degrowth are anti-nuclear. George Monbiot changed his mind when he learned the facts about nuclear power. Jason Hickel, in his book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, accepts nuclear power as a necessary part of the energy mix.

Yet, Hickel does repeat many anti-nuclear talking points about high costs and slow build times. However, he seems unaware that this is mostly true only in capitalist economies, for reasons having to do mainly with the need to maximise short-term profits. And here, we stumble upon something paradoxical in the opposition to nuclear…

We can see it when old-school anti-capitalist environmentalists dismiss nuclear power and start bringing out Excel spreadsheets with LCOE (levelised cost of energy) calculations to argue that nuclear power ‘is simply too expensive’. Suddenly, planetary overheating stops being an existential threat to human civilisation, to be stopped with all means available. Suddenly, it’s an accounting exercise. Yes, we must save the future, but let’s do it on the cheap.

High costs and slow build times for nuclear plants are mostly true only in capitalist economies, mainly because of the need to maximise short-term profits

Let’s be clear: electricity markets are a sham. They’re a method to privatise profits and socialise the losses. A market approach to energy leads to similar problems as a market approach to, say, healthcare.

Energy is not just a commodity like any other. When the supplies of electricity are interrupted, they’re not easily substituted with another commodity. And yet, the paradigm of energy markets with short-term contracts and the ability to speculate on energy prices (introduced during the domination of neoliberal thought in the 1970s) meant that energy markets did what markets do best: they transferred externalities to society while a few people were pocketing the profits.

For this reason, we are still struggling with the victory of fossil fuels. Coal and natural gas have managed to defeat both nuclear and renewables because the fossil fuel industry benefited most for not paying externalities. When calculating costs under capitalism, the future is discounted.

And more distant it is, both the costs (for fossil fuels) and the profits (for nuclear) are less important.

Coal and natural gas have managed to defeat both nuclear and renewables because the fossil fuel industry benefited most for not paying externalities

Under a non-market approach of degrowth, nuclear energy becomes much more attractive. The very high costs of building nuclear plants result from the fact that they are extremely long-lived, but have to be paid for upfront.

Current nuclear plants are designed with a 60-year lifespan in mind, and in the US some plants have already received a licence extension for 80 years of operation. Commercial loans are not usually provided for periods exceeding 30 years. This is because of discounting: future money is worthless when the future is distant enough. Therefore, construction costs are dominated by the cost of capital.

An example here is Hinkley Point C in England. If the construction of this nuclear plant was not financed by a commercial loan, but instead by long-term bonds issued directly by the British government, then the same funds could have been used, according to a report by the UK National Audit Office, to build four to six reactors instead of just one.

Or look at Olkiluoto in Finland, where construction of the third reactor was recently completed. The moment it was connected to the grid, market prices of electricity dropped by 75%. The plant supplies electricity for €42 per MWh, which is cheaper than wind in Europe (6080 per MWh) and cheaper than solar in Germany (around €45 per MWh) – and remember that wind and solar require energy storage or backup, not included in the price.

Interestingly, Olkiluoto-3 was built using the Finnish Mankala model, which could be summarised as a cooperative for the financing of energy infrastructure. In a degrowth society not obsessed with short-term profits, such long-lived, long-term projects will be much more attractive.

In a degrowth society, with its emphasis on public services, an energy infrastructure using nuclear power will be important

Local energy cooperatives based on renewables and energy storage are an excellent source of energy for citizens and households. But critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, sewage pumping and treatment stations, water mains, street cars and trains need something more. In a degrowth society, with its emphasis on public services, this public infrastructure will be even more important. This requires continuity of clean energy supplies, regardless of weather conditions.

It requires an energy source with the lowest ecological impact, using the least resources and materials, emitting no air pollutants or greenhouse gases, producing little waste, which should be recycled, and with the best safety record.

It requires nuclear power, whether degrowth supporters like it or not.

And, whether nuclear supporters like it or not, we need to talk seriously about our obsession with exponential growth. Even with nuclear power, it cannot continue.

Leszek Karlik, MA in English studies at the University of Warsaw, is a climate activist and freelance translator. He’s the coordinator of the Energy Group of the left-wing Lewica Razem party in Poland, and one of the authors of the party’s energy policy plan. Leszek has published articles (in Polish) on climate and capitalism, such as in, Nasze Argumenty and Równość.


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