The Nuclear Non-Option

If the cover of TIME magazine is any guide, attitudes to global warming have come a long way since it first made the cover in October 1987, when TIME went with the relatively neutral ‘How the Earth’s Climate is Changing, Why the Ozone Hole is Growing’. The 1990s saw a similarly restrained treatment, with stories on the vanishing ozone layer and the Rio Earth Summit.

It was only in April 2001 that a degree of urgency started to creep into TIME’s presentation, the cover showing an egg in a frying pan, a desert-yellow Earth digitally imposed as the yolk and the headline ‘Global Warming — All Over the Planet We’re Feeling the Heat. Why Isn’t Washington?’

2002 saw a more optimistic outlook, with a special report on ‘How to Save the Earth: The hot and wild weather is a sign of things to come. But fresh ideas and new technology can cool us down and make this a GREEN CENTURY’. However, the faith in good ideas and technology couldn’t withstand Hurricane Katrina (‘Are We Making Hurricanes Worse’, October 2005) with global warming singled out as a possible factor in the severity of the storm. The recent 3 April cover was blunter still: ‘BE WORRIED. BE VERY WORRIED’.

The justified and long-overdue concern with climate change has prompted many to reconsider nuclear power as a way of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The ALP’s Martin Ferguson and some Coalition MPs, for example, have proposed the nuclear option. While some of these advocates may be dismissed as having other motives than confronting global climate change — lucrative uranium exports to China for example — other advocates for nuclear power have advanced more considered arguments: for example, James Lovelock.

Lovelock is far from a cheerleader for the nuclear power industry. He’s a critic of the current notions of development and his position springs from an extensive knowledge of the science of climate change and an unimpeachable reverence for the interconnectedness of life on the planet, as articulated in his Gaia theory, combined with an alarm at the complacency around the seriousness of global warming.

His proposal that we prepare for global warming as we would a war, with a total mobilisation of society — cited in this issue’s essay by John Hinkson — and his image of a future in which the remnants of humanity trek to the artic across barren stretches of wasteland, which concludes his latest book The Revenge of Gaia, is a sobering reminder of the disaster that awaits us if we maintain the current complacency. Lovelock doesn’t regard nuclear power as a silver bullet that will eliminate CO2 emissions. Rather, he views it as a stop-gap measure, allowing us the breathing space to address the heating of the planet.

Lovelock’s is an authoritative argument, but nuclear power isn’t a solution to global warming. As Alan Roberts argued in issue 78 of this magazine — the original, expanded version of which can be found in issue 23 of Arena Journal — even if it were possible to convert all the power stations in the world to nuclear power stations without adding to the levels of greenhouse gases, the impact would still be marginal, since generating electricity plays a ‘significant but subsidiary’ role in generating greenhouse gases.

Supposing the problems associated with nuclear power could be overcome, taken in isolation, nuclear power might begin to look like an attractive option. But placed back within the context of the international systems of states — itself a kind of living ecosystem, every bit as sensitive and responsive to change and reverberation as the natural ones at the heart of Lovelock’s Gaia theory — then things start to look quite different. The entry of nuclear power into the international state system is, in short, akin to the introduction and proliferation of a new species into an ecosystem.

To think that nuclear power will simply be a temporary measure which will then gradually be reduced as newer, safer fuels come online is fanciful. For nation-states, nuclear power isn’t just another means for generating power. It’s bound up with deeply ingrained cultural meanings of progress and modernity; a means of being taken seriously on the international stage. While we might agree that such meanings are irrational, that doesn’t make them any less potent.
This is to say nothing of the military applications of nuclear fuel. While military applications are not a straightforward outcome of civilian power generation and the business of building centrifuges to enrich uranium is a complex one, the likely outcome of any proliferation of nuclear power generation is to push us headlong into a new era of nuclear armament. Once admitted to the nuclear club, most nation-states will be reluctant to hand back their membership card.

Lovelock’s response to those who warn of the dangers of nuclear conflict is to regard them as yesterday’s problem. With some justification, he argues that many of the claims about the dangers of nuclear were overstated within the context of superpower rivalry of the Cold War, which he regards as a ‘twentieth-century problem’ — the dangers of which pale in comparison to the dangers of global climate change.

While the Cold War is unlikely to be repeated, Lovelock’s is a remarkably static understanding of international politics. The best current illustration is of course is the current stand-off between Iran and the West over nuclear power. But even leaving aside the military applications, and naively accepting that Teheran’s arguments that their nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes, it’s difficult to find good environmental grounds for supporting it. The search for more sources of power remains predicated on a culture that accepts no limits to development; one driven by the idea that the natural environment is no more than a storehouse of raw material to fuel economic growth at almost any cost.

In this regard, the West’s opposition to Iran — or any other state pursuing nuclear power, for that matter — is hypocritical given that it is Western governments who fervently support this model of development as central to ‘our way of life’. The proliferation of nuclear power is likely to exacerbate the culture of consumer capitalism rather than rein it in, simply reinforcing the idea that there are endless sources of energy to satisfy endless desires.

Far from being a band-aid, nuclear power is an infected dressing, polluting the wound that it was intended to heal while causing new sores. The only tenable solution to climate change is a change in the culture of unfettered consumption and unending development that has produced it. Or, as Lovelock succinctly puts it, ‘As always, we come back to the unavoidable fact that there are far too many of us living as we do now’.

Christopher Scanlon is co-editor of Arena Magazine.

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Comments

species did not evolve. The perlbom with trying to disprove such is that the further science tries to go in coming up with such proof, the more evidence science finds to support the theory of evolution. Plus, the evolution of bacteria and simple organisms has actually been observed in a laboratory. Therefore, it is generally accepted that evolution is fact.The Gaia hypothesis, on the other hand, is a crackpot’s best guess as to how and why an undisclosed reaction occurs. Not only is it based upon insufficient data, but it is also based on insufficient results. There are no viable observations. There are no viable conclusions. It is an open-ended scenario by which the existence of any potential phenomemon can be rationalized, and there is nothing that anyone can do to disprove it. Therefore, it is not science. It is religion. I think it’s a stretch to even refer to it as a hypothesis simply because it does not meet the standardized criteria for being a scientific hypothesis.You, my friend, are the one who is using the same argument as creationists when trying to support your Gaia hypothesis. Religion has existed for millenia because of mankind’s insistance that common sense should prevail. The perlbom is, one man’s common sense is another man’s gibberish, and my common sense tells me that there is no God. My common sense also tells me that James Lovelock is a crackpot. I’m not too sure who this Lovejoy guy you refer to is though. One would think that such a huge proponent of the Gaia hypothesis would know the name of the guy who came up with it as second nature.

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