Going Nuclear? The politics of nuclear energy in a ‘Green Recovery’

Going Nuclear? The politics of nuclear energy in a ‘Green Recovery’

Dr Michal Onderco and Professor Darren McCauley share their thoughts on the politics of nuclear energy in a ‘Green Recovery’. Professor McCauley was principal investigator on “Going Nuclear? Exploring the multi-level politics of including nuclear energy in a low carbon future”, a project funded by the ESRC and accredited as a global uncertainties project. 

Our dependence on electricity for day-to-day life has never been so evident as during the waves of lockdowns across the world. As societies retreated into the household, electricity has been at the heart of both work and play. Medical facilities on the frontline continue to be propped up by our energy supply networks. Reflections on the future of energy has never been so poignant.

In both professional and personal settings, our collective demand for low carbon resilient sources of electricity in response to the climate crisis is at an all-time high. And yet, the debate continues to be dominated by coal or wind, the two extremes of debate. Nuclear energy lies in the background.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) commented earlier this summer that nuclear energy remains the most substantive low carbon source of electricity in use in both Europe and North America. So, a logical answer is to expand its use? The IEA argues yes. It calls for urgent policy attention across the world to fund a new wave of investment. Well, the problem may be political before we even reach economic or more technical debates. We introduce some (not all) insights into what type of political concerns remain today, and in the near future.

A green Covid-19 recovery in an era of local public resistance to nuclear

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report earlier this year promoting the COVID-19 recovery as an opportunity for phasing out fossil fuel use. As the OECD argues, 2019 was the year when the production of fossil fuels actually increased by 39%. As countries explore alternatives to fossil fuels, nuclear energy is a leading option to decarbonizing the future. Wall Street Journal went last year as far as to publish an essay with an immodest title “Only Nuclear Energy Can Save the Planet”.

Yet, the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation is a political minefield at every level and beyond technological problems, it is politics that is the biggest obstacle to the more wide-spread adoption of nuclear energy.

At a local level, the obvious problems lie in the popular resistance to nuclear energy. After the meltdown of the nuclear powerplant in Fukushima, Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy on security grounds (how an earthquake and tsunami can be repeated in the German hinterland remains unanswered). Other European countries, such as Austria, are known as long-standing opponents of nuclear energy due to strong civil society concerns, often leading to conflicts with neighbors – whether it be the Czech Republic or Slovakia.

The (old and new) politics of waste

Beyond electricity production, the use of nuclear energy also creates problems related to the storage of spent nuclear fuel and waste, which brings an additional layer of complexity to the question. Storage of nuclear fuel requires facilities in geological locations which must fulfil demanding criteria. There is only so many places which fulfil these criteria. Furthermore, long-term fuel storage will create commitments (and costs) for hundreds of years. It is easy to imagine how nuclear waste storage can easily turn into a political nightmare – one can look at the options in Belgium where the neighboring Luxembourg quickly protested against storage too close to the border between the two countries; or to the United States where nuclear storage facilities are planned on indigenous lands.

A new politics of waste is emerging – the power plants themselves. As the IEA demands an urgent new round of investment in ageing nuclear sites, what are we to do with the old ones? The UK newspaper the Independent very recently ran a story about one such site, Douneray, in the North of Scotland. It first opened in 1955 and ceased operations in 1994. And yet, local campaign groups have never been as active. Why? As a 2020 report by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority puts it, the Douneray site will be ready for other purposes in the year…2333. As old sites come to an end, new politics of decommissioning begin.

Nuclear national regulatory regimes and their politics

The use of nuclear energy for electricity production creates needs for regulatory frameworks which often are not there. This is particularly the case in developing countries. In Africa, for example, the potential for the electricity generation from nuclear energy hit the hard wall of regulatory capabilities in numerous countries. Projects such as Atoms for Development at the South African Institute for International Affairs  and organizations such as the African Commission on Nuclear Energy aim at promoting the use of nuclear energy as well as development of responsible regulatory framework. The lack of regulatory framework goes hand in hand with the lack of nuclear energy, because it is difficult for these countries to expand their use of nuclear energy if their regulatory framework is not ready; but they see often little reason to bring it up to the scratch exactly because they have too few nuclear activities. In early 1990s, then-Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency Hans Blix tasked the external relations department, for example, to help countries in the Caribbean with acceding to the relevant international agreements.

Inescapable connections to the international politics of security

The discussion about the peaceful uses of nuclear energy comes at the very heart of the ongoing disputes in the global nonproliferation regime. Because peaceful uses of nuclear energy (eg for electricity production) can, down the road, lead to the military uses of nuclear energy, an elaborate system of export controls and nonproliferation regime has been developed. Obviously, those who benefited from this system are primarily the suppliers of the nuclear technology who happen to be – surprise, surprise – states possessing nuclear weapons and their allies. Numerous countries from the Global South have accepted the obligation not to develop nuclear weapons but reject the legitimacy of the elaborate international framework of regulations developed over time to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The most advanced legal framework in place – the Additional Protocol to the safeguard agreements of the International Atomic Energy Agency – is widely contested by countries as broad as Iran, Brazil or Venezuela. The contestation does not make discussions within the global nonproliferation regime any easier.

So where does this all lead us to? Firstly, we made the decision to pursue nuclear, and whatever we decide now, it will remain with us for a very long time. When geologists declared that we are in a new geological era, one factor defines it – nuclear. We are in the “atomic Anthropocene” epoch. Secondly, it’s not just the geological imprint, technology and waste that endures – it’s also the politics. The construction of a nuclear power plant captures the imagination, and the public. But this is a very small fragment of a much larger picture. Regardless of whether we pursue the IEA line of renewing in nuclear, political questions on the issue will not only persist, but will define its future.

Dr Michal Onderco is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Department of Public Administration and Sociology. His research studies how emerging technology influences deterrence thinking, how societal actors shape national security policies, and how states interact in international security governance regimes. Michal coordinates the Master International Public Management and Public Policy.

Prof. Darren McCauley is Chair in the Management of International Social Challenges (MISoC) at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He specialises in interdisciplinary approaches towards climate and energy issues designed to achieve a global just transition away from fossil fuels. His research explores the interplay between security, equity and sustainability in policies and communities across the world, with a special interest in the Arctic, Sub Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. 

Photo by Ajay Pal Singh Atwal on Unsplash