Putting the Nuclear Genie Back in the Lamp

We are warned through folk tales and other kinds of traditional wisdom of the folly of seeking superhuman powers. For example, Aladdin encounters a genie who offers to grant three wishes. The mythical characters who yield to "something-for-nothing" schemes typically come to grief, because as mere mortals they lack the maturity and knowledge to use those special powers wisely.

Such inherent limitations can be expressed in terms of the Four Laws of Ecology (paraphrasing Barry Commoner and others), which seem to parallel the testimonies of Peace, Justice, Equality, Integrity, Community, and Cooperation that have emerged from Quakerism:

Everything in the world is interconnected. Therefore no action can be safely pursued without considering what is good for the whole. Its corollary is the Precautionary Principle, which advises that if we lack adequate understanding of what is good for the whole, we have no business tampering with it.

So it is with the post-World-War-II wish for "peaceful atomic power," granted more than a half century ago without much forethought about possible negative side effects. Interestingly, nuclear fission was considered at that time to be a much more expensive and difficult way to create steam for electricity generation than other energy sources. Fossil fuels were cheap and abundant, and there was so little scientific concern about global warming in those days that virtually no one was advocating commercial nuclear fission primarily as an alternative to burning fossil fuels.

Why, then, were large government subsidies provided in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s to rapidly disperse scores of experimental nuclear fission plants and their associated fuel processing systems among a trusting population? One explanation is that the United States, as the only country that had used the atomic bomb, needed at the height of the Cold War to show a less threatening face to other countries that didn’t have such weapons.

Current justifications for nuclear fission look just as dubious in light of the remaining three laws of ecology:

There is no such place as "away." For any system to be considered ecologically defensible it must eventually break down its wastes into natural components that can be readily reused by the Earth’s basic cycles of energy and nutrients. Highly radioactive wastes can never be reintegrated in this sense, and no practical and affordable method of fuel reprocessing has been devised. It is also important to realize that "spent" fuel rods and other byproducts of nuclear fission are actually much more hazardous and difficult to isolate from the biosphere than the original enriched uranium. Even if the daunting technical challenges to extremely long-term "disposal" could be surmounted, we are still confronted by the sheer criminality of obligating future generations to the endless cost of guarding and monitoring nuclear waste repositories, without their having received any of the benefits from the energy originally generated. In other words, "We play, they pay."

There is no such thing as a free lunch. This law is closely related to what in today’s language is known as the Law of Unintended Consequences, the tendency for hastily adopted technologies to end up having troublesome downsides. In the case of nuclear fission, those making glowing promises of endless cheap, clean, and safe energy have tended to sidestep a number of serious safety and economic feasibility issues that are not close to being resolved. Also, the current pricing does not account for many externalized costs, from unrestored mining and processing sites to the high expense of providing proper security for nuclear plants and waste handling systems; from the full cost of nuclear fuel enrichment to the industry’s astonishing exemption, through the Price-Anderson Act, from full legal and financial liability.

Nature knows best. There is no long-term substitute for the natural systems that have co-evolved on this planet over billions of years and into which the community of life is fully integrated. According to this law, the best outcomes happen when healthy people live under decentralized governance in healthy communities, where they have mutually enhancing relationships with a healthy land and function in harmony with natural processes that require minimal human intervention. Nuclear power, in contrast, relies on intensive, centralized, and artificial mechanisms that require constant monitoring and human intervention to prevent critical components of the system from breaking down, with potentially disastrous impacts.

If the very idea of nuclear fission seems absurd from an ecological perspective, why is there currently a heated public debate over whether our national energy policy should include subsidies for additional nuclear power plants that most utilities and financial institutions today are generally reluctant to be involved with? The short answer is that proponents of commercial nuclear power and other high-tech systems by and large don’t understand the world in terms of the ecological principles outlined above. (I suppose that would include any of us who are willing customers for the outputs of nuclear power plants.) Accustomed to highly engineered environments, most modern urbanized humans hold some degree of a "technological" worldview that is basically the opposite of an ecological worldview. A "technological worldview" means that:

  • We are more problem-oriented than sysetem-oriented. We tend to pursue short-term solutions to problems, which in turn are often the side-effects of previous "solutions" to earlier problems, and so forth. We fail to perceive this endless chain of problems and attempted solutions as a sign that the larger system is out of balance—and that our "solutions" may be keeping it out of balance.
  • Dealing with the world in a compartmentalized way, we make waste disposal, social disruptions, and other byproducts of their operations go "away" simply by claiming those responsibilities are not part of our particular job descriptions.
  • We do believe in a "free lunch," the ultimate independence from nature, leading to unlimited luxury and power. Unforeseen side effects are viewed only as relatively unimportant slip-ups that will eventually be eliminated through further research and engineering.
  • And, of course, we believe that experts know best, that all good outcomes require conscious rational planning by centrally coordinated elites of narrowly trained specialists.
    There are three important things to note about these contrasting, and seemingly mutually exclusive, worldviews:
  • They are both self-consistent, self-confirming articles of faith that cannot be overturned by rational arguments. I believe, however, that the ecological worldview will prevail, because it is consistent with the practices of successful human societies over tens of thousands of years. The modern technological worldview, on the other hand, has few if any historical precedents to suggest that it has long-term viability.
  • In talking with other people who still are more technologically oriented than ecologically oriented, we may need to frame our deep reservations about nuclear power in more conventional terms. Without coming across as anti-technology, we need to point out, for example, that when the complete fuel cycle is taken into account, nuclear power is still responsible for significant levels of carbon dioxide, and because nuclear power plants are so expensive to build, they are unlikely to replace existing coal-fired plants or prevent new ones from being built. Even if additional nuclear power plants could greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there wouldn’t be time to get enough of them into operation before a fatal climate "tipping point" is reached. The same level of financial investment in alternative renewable energy systems could yield much better and faster results.
  • Modern technology has allowed millions of people to wield unprecedented levels of power, far beyond even the dreams of monarchs of previous eras. Unfortunately, many of the alternate energy schemes being promoted today are holding out the false promise that various technological breakthroughs will allow us miraculously to continue our wasteful lifestyles. We must answer these claims with the truth, even if it is unpopular. Simplicity and other traditional values can play a major role in reducing our ecological footprints, so that we can travel together peacefully on the ecological road to well-being and fulfillment for all of creation.