Where is the Positive Image of Nuclear Energy Coming From?
Despite the problems and disasters of the past and present, nuclear power is still being praised for being a cheap, abundant, and clean form of energy production by many politicians. Of course, it’s also “safe” and without any kind of “waste management problems” (due to future developments that would make energy out of dangerous nuclear waste), but those slogans are a little harder to sell today, so the focus is usually on “clean” and “cheap”.
While there is overwhelming proof that these pro-nuclear arguments are questionable at best, it’s a strange tradition that the pro-nuclear voices always seem to oversell their favourite product and try to turn this decade-old technology into some kind of silver bullet that fixes the problems of present and future generations alike. It’s even stranger or outright alarming that critical voices are often ignored or portrayed as making unfounded or unscientific claims. As the scale of the disaster in Fukushima became apparent, this schizophrenic nature of the public discussion on nuclear energy took a turn to the absurd.
When the German government announced that it would review it’s nuclear policy and [return to (!) a] phase-out of nuclear power as a result of the worst human and economic nuclear disaster of the past 25 years, the international and domestic media were suddenly flooded with articles about something called “German Angst”. There was little or no information about the background behind this decision. The fact that it was forced upon a pro-nuclear government by a well informed public due to a long-lasting anti-nuclear grassroots movement was simplified into an election gamble. Instead of reporting the issues and risks that were raised by anti-nuclear activists (airplane impacts, terrorist attacks,…), the decision was based on “German Angst”, case closed.
When looking at the history of the nuclear industry, it becomes very obvious where the pro-nuclear voices come from and who formulated the talking points. Since the early beginnings in the 1950s, the propagated image of nuclear power has never been the result of an open, scientific, ethical, public, and economic discussion. It has always been the product of special-interest-driven public relations campaigns. Starting with the famous “Atoms for Peace” initiative and the nuclear programs of the UK and France (resulting in nuclear weapons), nuclear energy turned into a manufactured consensus.
Furthermore, a strong web between politics, business, and science was established and resulted in many international and national institutions. The IAEA, EURATOM, or the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) are just some of these taxpayer-funded institutions that were designed to push the nuclear future of our energy supply. They love to be portrayed as neutral and objective institutions that assist policymakers with their knowledge, but they are biased by design.
“To assist its member countries in maintaining and further developing, through international co-operation, the scientific, technological and legal bases required for a safe, environmentally friendly and economical use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. To provide authoritative assessments and to forge common understandings on key issues as input to government decisions on nuclear energy policy and to broader OECD policy analyses in areas such as energy and sustainable development.”
– Mission Statement of the Nuclear Energy Agency
In fact, organisations like the NEA are very frank about their lobbying activities. They provide governments and opinion leaders with pro-nuclear arguments and studies. They promote their publications throughout their member countries and at importantant policy events. (See: The Strategic Plan of the NEA 2011-2016)
The Nuclear Renaissance that Was Not
Most nuclear reactors that are in operation were built in the 1970s or 1980s. That means that the bulk of these highly subsidized power plants are nearing the end of their life and need to be decommissioned. If the nuclear lobby doesn’t manage to turn this situtation into a necessity to build new reactors, the nuclear age in the field of electricity production will come to an inevitable end.
The arguments of the nuclear lobby to achieve the necessary public support for this goal are easily summed up: Nuclear is Clean, Cheap AND there is no alternative!
It’s easy to show that all three arguments are wrong and it has been done countless times. But nonetheless, the web of politics, business, and science that is being spun by institutional lobbyism has had some success at framing their nuclear product as “clean” in recent years (in terms of CO² emissions).
Today, these arguments are in fact falling apart in front of our very eyes and the renaissance might end before it started. Fukushima has put a huge question mark on the argument that nuclear is “clean” — hundreds of thouseds of tons of contaminated soil and the constant threat of contamination of the food supply are difficult to put aside.
Plans to build new nuclear reactors face increasing difficulties due to the high and rising intital investment costs. According to studies and recent estimates, the costs for decommissioning the aging fleet of reactors are also skyrocketing. This puts an even bigger question mark on the argument of nuclear energy being cheap energy.
And last, but not least, the big energy lie is being unmasked by the large-scale introduction of renewable energy sources around the globe. The technologies required to harvest the abundant natural energy potentials from renewable resources are proving to be more than enough to supply even our growing energy needs of today, despite being at the beginning of their technological development.
Myth-Based Opinions & A Call for Subsidies
Despite all this, the nuclear lobby is still propagating its gospel of the atom — its “nuclear is cheap and there are no alternative” arguments. As the widespread talking points about “German Angst” have shown, the public discussion is still very much dominated by myths instead of honest discussion.
At this critical moment of a fading nuclear power industry, pro-nuclear governments of France, the UK, Poland, and the Czech Republic seem to have embarked upon a mission to save the future of nuclear energy. According to a leaked letter to the European Commission, they have voiced their wish that nuclear energy should be on par with young renewable energy technologies, thus making their struggling nuclear projects eligible to receive EU subsidies. This comes at a time when the EU is about to start the debate about 2030 goals for CO2 reductions and the future introduction of renewable energy sources.
While this push by pro-nuclear EU governments will hopefully end up dead on arrival, their mission has already accomplished an important task:
With their call for financial support, they did prove once again that nuclear power is not and never has been a cheap and economical way of producing electricity. Even after 60 years of development, research, and subsidies, nuclear requires large subsidies to survive.
Image: Nuclear power station over sunset courtesy shutterstock