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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Energy policy and the nuclear option: Saunders doubles down

In an in-depth essay this weekend, one of the Globe's senior foreign-affairs writers urges us not to shy away from building more nuclear-energy plants just because of that spot of bother in Japan.

At the core of his argument:

The world needs two things now: fewer carbon emissions, and a growing supply of energy at a low cost. By accomplishing both, nuclear power, even factoring in disasters, can save millions of lives.

He's half right. The world does need fewer carbon emissions. That's a no-brainer.

Consider, in that regard, George Monbiot's argument in Heat. (Saunders himself cites Monbiot in support of his argument for staying the course.) For the purposes of this discussion, it can be summarized thus: we're fucked, unless we're prepared to embrace radical changes right now. And when you look at the institutional, cultural, physical and economic obstacles to such radical change, well, you can pretty much forget about everything in the preceding sentence after the F-word.

More problematic is his suggestion about a growing supply of low-cost energy. Saunders sets up his plea for low-cost energy with

... in Asia, Africa or South America ... the most pressing demand in the next two decades will be to turn three billion poor or impoverished people into energy consumers – ideally, high-efficiency, low-waste consumers, but certainly people able to have street lighting and refrigerators. To do this without nuclear power would either be ecologically catastrophic, because it would rely on more coal-fired generation than the world has seen, or murderously inhumane, because it would raise energy prices to levels that would keep people in terrible poverty.

It seems reasonable on first read, but when you break down his argument, you find a number of underlying assumptions that need closer examination.

He seems quite comfortable, for example, putting his faith in human ability to engineer its way out of anything – the idea that we can keep nature at bay, using the planet's resources to sustain our lives and lifestyles, while rendering its fury and unpredictability less damaging. The underlying assumption seems to be that we can bend nature to our will.

More fundamental, though, is the suggestion that we we can continue with a pattern of profligate energy consumption fuelling unlimited economic and industrial growth, and the related implication that poor or developing nations can rise to our levels of affluence, comfort and consumption. If Saunders has thought through the implications of this, especially in terms of demand for resources  and ecological footprint, it's not apparent in the article.

Nor is there any acknowledgement that it might just be a tad hypocritical for us privileged First Worlders to urge our friends in Asia, Africa and South America to become "high-efficiency, low-waste energy consumers." It's not as if we've set a particularly good example there.

Finally, while a lot of privileged societies have found ways to go greener within their own national borders, a lot of that's been accomplished by externalizing the costs and imposing them on less privileged societies or nations. The stories we're being fed about "Somali pirates," for example, may fit neatly into a useful narrative about Islamic terrorists and primitive societies collapsing into anarchy, but they don't frequently mention the use of Somali waters as a dumping ground for Europe's nuclear waste. Nor are we likely to read much about the dumping of toxic waste in the Cote d'Ivoire. Nor, for that matter, are we likely to see anyone in the corporate media wondering how many more stories like that aren't making the news.

In short, the international economic and ecological relationships established over the last couple of centuries, if not longer, demonstrate quite clearly that the rich and powerful are prepared to short-change  the poor and powerless in pursuit of their own comfort. It's not clear that switching from burning fossil fuels to nuclear energy is going to change that.

More instructive, perhaps, is this clever video from the post carbon institute ...

In short, what's required is a series of wrenching economic, ideological and infrastructural changes that Western societies currently aren't prepared to contemplate. And a genuine commitment to global justice requiring all people in all societies to pay the true costs of the energy they consume, instead of relying on artificial and biased economic models that conveniently exclude some of those costs by imposing them upon others.

In fairness to Saunders, perhaps he's considered this and decided that it won't fit within the framework of acceptable ideas, at least in his particular context. But his continuing advocacy of the nuclear option does little to address the larger issues.

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