Monday, February 23, 2009

caviar enemas vs inter-generational justice

Imagine if your mum and dad went off on first-class round the world cruises, filling their toilet cistern with 30 year old Laphroaig and their swimming pool with Dom Perignon, having caviar enemas and a programme of extensive plastic surgery, all of it on your credit card that they took without asking.

Whilst it would be outrageous to do as individuals, as a culture it's so prevalent that we don't often think about it.

My last post dealt at length with the venerable climate writer Mark Lynas' advocacy of nuclear power. In the Comments I cited something George Monbiot once said about the bonkers and murderous geoengineering idea of firing sulphates into the stratosphere to reflect the sun. He said that governments would choose it over carbon cuts.

if the atmosphere could one day be fixed by some heavy artillery and a few technicians, why bother to impose unpopular policies?

It is very perceptive, and exposes one of the central problems we face. Reducing consumption, even maintaining standards of comfort but having some disruption as we reorganise, will make the present population unhappy with the government. If they can find a way to avoid that, they will. If that way happens to pass all the risks, all the maintenance, much of the cost and none of the benefits on to those yet to be born, so be it. It is the idea at the core of the push for geoengineering, carbon capture and new nuclear power.

It's something Al Gore recognised when he advocated making America's electricity 100% renewable within ten years instead of having targets for 2050.

a political promise to do something 40 years from now is universally ignored because everyone knows that it's meaningless. Ten years is about the maximum time that we as a nation can hold a steady aim and hit our target.

The nuclear power debate often conflates several essentially separate issues. Whilst the issue of financial cost has some bearing on climate impact (money spent on nukes is not spent on renewables), Lynas is right when he says that the issue of radioactive waste and radioactive damage are not really part of the climate equation. Psychologically and culturally speaking, though, it is a very similar issue because of the 'pass it on to the future' thought-basis.

In his most recent pro-nuclear article, Mark Lynas says that the duration of the waste threat is overblown. Despite, as Greenpeace's response to him pointed out, the fact that UK and US authorities for decommissioning say waste should be 'maintained in the repository environment for at least a million years', Lynas asserts that new technology reduces this considerably, saying

In fact, almost all waste will have decayed back to a level of radioactivity less than the original uranium ore in less than a thousand years

Oh well then. When we have enough radioactive material, properly dispersed, to kill everyone, leaving a small proportion around for centuries is no biggy.

And only a mere thousand years you say? Imagine if we were still taking care of lethal waste left behind because of Tudor excessive living, with centuries still to go.

Imagine if we were, by the time you and I die of old age, just finishing tidying up the Normans' waste legacy after a time so long that the original records wouldn't have been in English because the language didn't exist then.

Or to look at it another way, imagine if all humans who are to live in the next thousand years were alive at once. Imagine if the early 21st century ones were living high on the hog, squandering resources and becoming obese, with their toxic wastes and sewage being piped into the homes of the people from the remianing 95% of the millennium.

If we could see those people, if we had to stand in front of them, we could never justify nuclear waste. How dare we advocate things we couldn't justify to our victims simply because we'll be dead by the time they come along.

The only thing less justifiable would be climate change caused by our carbon emissions. If it came to a straight choice between the two then Lynas and Monbiot would be right to choose nuclear. The damage - and the likelihood of the damage happening - are almost incalculably greater with climate change. But, contrary to the implications from the nuclear industry and Lynas, there are other options.

The rush to nuclear might be easier, but it is far more unjust. The real issue here, as with climate change and much of our overconsumption, is the issue of inter-generational justice. It is astonishing how people can be so concerned with global justice in the present - saying we have no right to exploit people just because they are born in a different part of the world - and yet be so blase about shitting on people just because they're born in a different time.

Nuclear power - like high-carbon power - is the social-industrial equivalent of your mum putting a daily champagne jacuzzi on your tab.


Unknown said...

I love your metaphor here!
I am just finishing Battle for the Trees. I was there too, in fact I was at Leeds at the same time as you; I believe we went hunt sabbing together from Bodington in the first year with Paul with dreadlocks.
I am making an aerial theatre show about Newbury and have really lapped up the book, great to have all the research and information there to back up the visceral passionate memories. Thank you. I would love to invite you to the show when it is finished, email me and i will be in touch.
Good wishes, Persephone

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry not to have found the time to respond to this properly. You know how it is.

Your rather melodramatic characterisation of intergenerational equity raises some valid points - indeed this issue was pretty crucial to me in my previous opposition to nuclear power. Why choose a power source that leaves a dangerous legacy for a million years when you can solve the climate problem with windmills and solar panels which do nobody any harm?

Well, it really comes down to risk assessment. Radioactivity is very risky if improperly managed - as we all know, it can kill, or cause cancers later in life. But the point is to try and reduce this risk and compare it with others - that's why the 'deaths per gigawatt year' comparison of nuclear power and other energy generation sources is so useful. As I mentioned in my initial article (and David MacKay develops this further in nuclear is lower than just about everything else - including renewables.

But what about long-lived waste? This is certainly an issue - but it tends to be overblown. For example, 40 years after waste exits the reactor core, it is only 1 thousandth as radioactive. Yes, there remains radioactivity for long periods, but its potential health impacts - particularly if contained in geological storage - are negligible, and much less than natural background radiation from things like radon.

Remember: most industries produce hazardous waste of some sort. Solar PV has major life-cycle issues due to heavy metals, particularly cadmium, which is highly toxic and will remain so for ever. Mercury is also a huge issue - particulary in coal-fired power station emissions. Emissions from cars kills tens of thousands per year, whereas deaths from man-made nuclear radiation are either zero or so tiny in number to be unmeasurable - all the figures cited, even for Chernobyl, are statistical extrapolations rather than epidemiological observations. And there is no evidence of cancer clusters and suchlike around existing nuclear stations - despite exhaustive studies in lots of countries.

I think it is dumb of the official agencies to buy into the idea that you can or have to keep radioactive material stored safely for a million years - that's clearly not possible, and it's hubris to assume it is. Luckily, it doesn't matter given that the radioactivity even in high-level waste is back down to that of the original uranium ore in 1000-10,000 years. OK, that's still a long time - but remember, it's buried a long way underground, and not very hazardous anyway. There are a couple of useful graphs, and a good summary of how the nuclear industry sees this issue and plans to deal with it on this page:

I agree, that on balance, it would be better not to have to deal with any of this stuff, and not to produce anything even vaguely hazardous from power generation. Wind power, for example, seems to be more or less totally benign in this sense. So let's have more wind. But there's a risk here too - if you put all your eggs in the renewables basket, the chances are you'll fail to deal with climate change, because there will be too much social resistance to ugly wind turbines on the scale needed, the intermittency issue will mean that substantial fossil fuel (gas) power remains on the grid, and we find that ramping up renewables and efficiency (which at best can only buy time) is simply too hard when you're trying to power advanced industrial society.

I'll make an admission here: I think most greens that end up reluctantly plumping for nuclear power do so because they have given up on the potential for major lifestyle change to permanently reduce energy consumption. Agitating for this is what most climate activists do, and all power to them, but the hard reality is that achieving this on any significant scale is vanishingly unlikely - particularly given the latent energy demand in developing economies.

merrick said...

Mark, a climate activist I was talking to the other day said she regards going pro-nuclear as a form of burnout. It denotes, she said, giving up on fighting for what we know is not only desirable but necessary.

Interesting, then, that you say:

I think most greens that end up reluctantly plumping for nuclear power do so because they have given up on the potential for major lifestyle change to permanently reduce energy consumption.

We don't have carbon emissions because people like emitting carbon. They are the by-product of certain industries that are, in turn, the by-product of basing our society on exponential economic growth.

If we don't rein in our overconsumption then we are charging headlong toward other crunch points. We owe it to ourselves and those in the generations that immediately follow, as well as the non-human inhabitants of the earth, to avoid this. One of the biggest lessons to learn from the climate crisis is that we have to scale back consumption.

You've said elsewhere on this blog that you're writing a book about the quantifiable ecological limits which the planet's finite and interdependent biosphere places on humanity. You cite the way that nuclear is essentially only a human welfare issue as part of the reason you accept it.

If that reason is something you really feel in your bones then you cannot accept the model of perpetual economic growth and must surely believe in fighting it or else most other environmental campaigns are worthless and doomed.

That being so, it follows that you shouldn't accept the feedstock for destruction, namely ever-increasing energy demand.

We have to fight for what's right and necessary, and leave the task of backing winners to bookmakers and The Sun at election time.

We might not get all we aim for, but we'll get a lot closer to it than if we go for something we know is rubbish before we begin.

Or, as one anarchist confided, 'you have to go for revolution to end up with decent reform; if you just go for reform you get nothing'.