The climate breakdown is already with us. Wildfires, floods, droughts – they are all made worse and more frequent by the immense amounts of carbon we have dumped in our atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The biggest challenge to European Union and to humanity as a whole is how to minimise climate catastrophe, because we cannot fully avoid it. But the fact that the bus we’re all stuck on is on a collision course with a concrete wall does not mean that we can still floor the accelerator. Whether we start braking and hit the wall at 30 km/h, or continue accelerating and hit the wall at 120 km/h wll mean the difference between life and death to us and our children. We need a Green New Deal, to decarbonise our economy as rapidly as possible.
The main problem the Left faces in introducing the Green New Deal is convincing enough people that the climate is changing and that it’s an existential threat which justifies the investment. The 2nd climate survey by the European Investment Bank shows that only 47% of EU citizens consider climate change to be a major threat to society.
Unfortunately, the laws of physics do not care about human ideologies.
This applies to both sides of the debate. There is another problem with the Green New Deal that the Left does not want to face: it might prove to be technologically unfeasible without the inclusion of nuclear power. Just as are a lot of people among both politicians and voters on the Right who think that the scientists are lying about climate change, there are also a lot of people on the Left who think that the scientists are lying about the safety and low emissions of nuclear power. The former fear the “renewables lobby”, the latter fear the “nuclear lobby”, while the planet is being devastated by torrents of money from the fossil fuel lobby, which is determined to destroy the future of our children in the name of their short-term profits.
If I were to choose, I’d prefer to be in climate change denial, since it would provide me with psychological comfort of living without fear for the next decade or three, until the coming collapse. But I can’t choose. That is why I’ve been increasingly worrying about global heating for over two decades now. A decade ago I was still in the “exponential growth of renewable energy will save is, it will be much cheaper than nuclear power” camp, but I’ve become disillusioned with this promise since I’ve started working for the energy sector.
Dreams about a civilisation powered by wind and sun are not new: the first concept of “100% renewables based energy system” was presented in academic research in 1975, more than four decades ago, and more detailed scenarios started being presented since 1998, over two decades ago. Since then, the level of CO₂ has increased from 331 ppm in 1975 to 366 ppm in in 1998 to 411 ppm in 2019, and the only “100% renewables-based” energy grids are present in small countries able to cover most of their demand from hydropower, which is dispatchable: you can turn on a hydropower plant when it’s needed and switch it off when it’s not, and it provides system services for the grid, unlike solar or wind farms. Most countries in Europe are not Norway or Uruguay or Costa Rica, they’re also not located at the boundary of tectonic plates like Kenya or Iceland, which would enable achieving a significant share of energy mix with geothermal power.
There is only one technology that would enable Europe to rapidly transition to a “100% renewables” power grid: convert all coal plants to burning wood. Just like the Drax power plant (the largest lignite-burning polluter on the British Isles) was converted to burning shredded trees shipped to Europe from the US, we could convert other large plants, like Bełchatów and Kozienice in Poland, Niederaussem and Frimmersdorf in Germany or Agios Dimitrios and Kardia in Greece to burning “renewable biomass”, or, more bluntly, wood pellets from old-growth forests ruthlessly chopped down to support our greed for power. This would do absolutely nothing to prevent climate breakdown and would in fact accelerate it, even though the “100% renewables” goal would b achieved in theory.
Carbon released into the atmosphere from an old-growth forest will heat the planet exactly the same as would carbon from coal. The EU has classified the burning of shredded trees (under the euphemistic label of “biomass”) to be “renewable”, in large part due to the lobbying of a Green MEP from Luxembourg, Claude Turmes. The assumption behind this accounting swindle is that the trees are going to grow back later on, absorbing the emitted carbon dioxide, and biomass provides dispatchable power, so there’s no need for the Great Unclean: nuclear power. The problem is: the trees will grow back in a few decades, and the CO₂ is frying us right now. This assumption not only ignores carbon captured in forest soil, it also assumes the trees will grow back. Yet one of the threats of climate change is that on an overheated planet new forests, instead of growing and capturing carbon will burn in wildfires, emitting even more carbon, becoming a carbon emitter instead of a carbon sink. Forest fires in Australia in 2019 have emitted more carbon dioxide than half a year of the entire economy of Australia.
Renewable energy does not mean low-carbon energy.
Not only biomass is a problem, hydropower is also problematic: depending on what area is chosen as the reservoir, methane emissions from decomposing plants may be comparable to CO₂ emissions from a coal plant. And just like the construction of a nuclear power plant has some small CO₂ emissions (because of production of concrete and steel, because of mining and processing of uranium), even clean renewable energy sources cause some small CO₂ emissions (because of production of concrete and steel needed for wind turbine towers, of silicon, silver, lead and cadmium needed for photovoltaic panels, of lithium and cobalt needed for batteries etc.).
That is why a goal of “100% renewable” will not save us.
We need to strive for a goal of “zero emissions”, as fast as possible. The goal of 2050 might prove to be too late, due to feedback loops (such as melting of permafrost and glaciers and massive forest fires, in particular of industrial forests that were supposed to provide us with “renewable energy”). Climate change is an existential risk for humanity as a whole – not necessarily in 2100, but we should remember that climate change won’t stop in 2100 just because most graphs end at that time point. If we don’t stop climate change, humanity might go extinct before the EU gets to be 100 years old. That is why we need to decarbonise our energy grids and our industry as fast as possible.
Unfortunately, so far the decarbonisation of energy sector has succeeded only with the use of hydropower, geothermal power or nuclear power. We cannot decarbonise an entire continent with hydropower and geothermal power, and nobody has ever achieved decarbonisation with wind and solar alone, so we need a hybrid renewables+nuclear grid.
The problem is that most of pro-environmental movements which were created in the 1970s and 1980s were not born to oppose coal, they were born to oppose nuclear power, which was perceived as both environmental hazard and a military technology. Even in 2011 there were Greenpeace activists who thought that if they have a choice between nuclear power and “just heating the planet a bit”, then heating the planet is a better choice. The problem is that while Chernobyl could be evacuated, we have nowhere to go if we burn our planet to a crisp. You can’t evacuate from a burning Earth, and every nuclear plant that’s been closed so far has meant the immediate increase in carbon emissions and in deaths caused by air pollution, because closure of nuclear plants meant an increase in the burning of fossil fuels.
Civilian nuclear power (just like nuclear medicine) has nothing to do with nuclear weapons.
The technology of pressurized water reactors used in modern power plants was selected not only because it’s intrinsically safe, unlike the reactor in Chernobyl, but because it does not produce usable quantities of weaponizable fissile material. Plutonium for nuclear warheads can be obtained much more easily using gas centrifuges, which is why North Korea, South Africa and Israel have built their nuclear weapons without having any nuclear power plants, while Argentina, Armenia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Spain, Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates and Ukraine all possess nuclear power plants and have no nuclear warheads.
Unfortunately, this misleading association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons has resulted in most parties of the European Left being anti-nuclear. As far as I know only the Labour Party in the UK, the Razem party in Poland and the communist parties in France, Spain and Czech Republic are more or less pro-nuclear. Overcoming this tribalistic tradition and facing the facts is a challenge to the Left, just like overcoming the tribalistic tradition of climate change denial and facing the facts is a challenge to the Right.
It is two to three decades too late for any solution other than “all hands on the deck” to work. We need all deep decarbonisation tools at our disposal.
If we would have started significant efforts to decarbonise our economy in the 1990s, maybe we would now have time to try for a “100% renewables path”, but we did not and greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing. This is why International Panel of Climate Change in its scenarios that avoid exceeding the 1.5°C threshold has an increasing share of nuclear power, not decreasing. If we claim to “listen to the science”, then we should listen to all the science, and that includes both IPCC reports on global warming and IPBES report on the biodiversity crisis (IPCC scenarios with low increases in nuclear power have high increases in biomass power, which is a biodiversity catastrophe).
After 80 years of using nuclear power we already know that it’s the safest way to generate power there is: for the same amount of generated power it causes the least deaths, less than wind turbines and less than photovoltaic panels. Of course, every source of energy is dangerous, but calculated per gigawatt-hour the highest amount of deaths is caused by coal (ignoring completely the impending victims of climate catastrophe), and the single largest catastrophe caused by the energy industry was caused by renewable energy: Banqiao dam failure in China has killed approximately 200 thousand people and has caused millions of people to lose their homes. Knowing the statistics I would prefer to live next door to a nuclear plant then downstream of a hydropower dam or next to a lignite power plant.
That is why nowadays the anti-nuclear movements have switched to the argument of nuclear power being “too expensive”. The same political parties that in their everyday discourse claim that the “neoliberal logic of austerity harms the society” transform into profit-obsessed bean-counters when talking about nuclear power, claiming that when something does not provide enough short-term returns on investment in a free market, then it should not be done.
Yet modern nuclear power is very cheap when the entire period of operation of 60 to 80 years is taken into account, which means that it’s cheap as a state investment (in particular in the era of negative yield government bonds), and extremely expensive when constructed for profit, when it must repay the commercial banking loans within 30 years. The cost of Hinckley Point C in the United Kingdom is almost three-quarters payment on interest – if HPC were to be built for money obtained by British government including long-term debt, four to six such power plants could be built for the same amount.
On the other hand, renewables are very, very cheap when they are not a significant part of the mix, but become more and more expensive the higher their grid penetration. This is the main problem with the “100% renewables” scenarios: when all costs are taken into account, they prove much more expensive than hybrid “renewable+nuclear” scenarios. An analysis of almost 1000 various scenarios from various research papers and forecasts which was published last year in the Joule scientific journal demonstrates that attempting a deep decarbonisation using solar and wind with storage has a higher risk of failure and much higher total costs. Using all of the available technologies ensures the highest possible chance of success. This is why it’s too late to abandon nuclear power due to its risks – they are incomparably smaller than the millions or billions of deaths that the climate catastrophe will bring in the later half of the 21st century.
Unfortunately, most people have no knowledge of esoteric intricacies of power engineering, and can be easily sold on the beautiful vision of “100% renewables”, even though no one has yet succeeded in creating an energy grid based in 100% on wind and sun. It’s like decarbonising the transport sector by switching to bicycle transport: if 10% or 30% of urban trips were to be switched from cars to bicycles, then both carbon emissions and other transport-related pollution would fall. Supplies could be delivered with cargo bicycles, and people who are not sufficiently physically fit to ride bicycles may be transported with rickshaws. Just like a vision of “50% renewables” or “70% renewables”, the vision of “30% bicycles” or “50% bicycles” does not seem unachievable.
But we can immediately see the problem with the claim that it would be possible and desirable to implement nationwide “100% bicycles” transport scheme, and to phase out all cars, buses and trains “because engines are dangerous”. The increase from 0% to 30% is inexpensive, rapid and easy, while the increase from 70% to 100% is difficult and very, very expensive, both for bicycle transport and for renewable energy.
This, of course, does not change the fact that a “100% bicycles” based transport is physically and technologically feasible. A scientific study demonstrating that it is possible to transport goods between cities with muscle-powered draisines and to provide long-distance passenger transport by a network of rickshaws and waystations every 30 or 50 kilometers could be published in the Journal of Transport Research, because complete bicyclisation of transport is not contrary to the laws of physics. However, we can see the technical, logistical and costs of a “100% bicycles” based system at a first glance, and the limitations of the “100% wind and sun” vision are mostly hidden.
In 2017 in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews a study was published, analysing 24 studies which claim to demonstrate that “a 100% renewable electricity system is achievable”. It took into account four criteria: consistency with energy-demand forecasts, detailed simulation of reliably meeting energy demand at hourly, half-hourly, and five-minute timescales, with resilience to extreme climate events, identifying necessary transmission and distribution requirements and maintaining the provision of essential ancillary services (frequency and power control, ensuring the stability of the energy grid). None of the studies has taken into account all of the engineering issues, the maximum score was 4 out of 7.
Using nuclear power to supplement renewables has many other advantages: the supply of uranium is inexhaustible in practice. Uranium is dissolved in seawater, and with a doubling of uranium prices it becomes economical to extract it, and the price of uranium is only a few percent of the cost of electricity from a nuclear power plant. Uranium can be also found in coal ash (coal plants emit more radioactivity than nuclear power plants), and China is working on the technology for uranium recovery from coal ash heaps next to coal plants.
Nuclear waste is also not such a significant problem as anti-nuclear activists try to present: nuclear isotopes which remain radioactive for thousands of years do not emit a lot of radiation, while these which are highly active remain a hazard for a short time (this is how radioactivity works). Toxic chemicals will remain toxic forever, chromium or cadmium or lead from photovoltaic panels thrown out into a landfill will never cease to be a hazard. That is why we need to ensure that all photovoltaic panels are recycled, and that’s why we should also recycle nuclear waste: spent nuclear fuel can be reused to make new fuel. Recycling is not obligatory because we live in capitalism. Short-term profit is king, therefore the extraction of new uranium or cobalt is more profitable than recycling it from waste. But we could recycle, and the coming generations will have to recycle, because it will be much easier than obtaining resources from the last deposits, most difficult to access.
Moreover, 4th generation nuclear reactors currently being designed will use nuclear waste as fuel, therefore spent fuel rods have to be stored in easily accessible locations, so that they can be used as fuel in the future. And we should remember that nuclear power is not the only source of radioactive waste. There’s a widespread popular support for curing cancer. People who demand the closure of operational nuclear power plants and who oppose the construction of new plants never demand the closure of oncology wards in hospitals, even though nuclear medicine generates a lot of low-level radioactive waste (and some really dangerous high-level radioactive waste).
A frequent argument used to advocate for “100% renewables” grids is that they provide “energy democracy”. The idea of local energy clusters and energy cooperatives is very good and should be promoted, but rooftop panels, small wind turbines and micro-biogas plants using waste will never supply a majority of demand in an industrialised nation. We need to power trains, hospitals and sewage pumping stations, and they will not be powered by prosumers. For this, we will need significant offshore wind farms (that is, investment by large corporations) and country-level smart grids (again, investment by large corporations).
In the 1990s, when the Internet was being created I read exactly the same arguments as now with “energy democracy”: that the distributed nature of the Internet and citizen control will destroy the monopoly of large media corporations and will provide us with true “information democracy”. In the era of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon we know that technology of itself will not save us from monopolies and distributed networks are not inherently democratic.
Prosumers may install solar panels on their roofs, but they don’t fill their basements with enough batteries to store the excess power from summer and use it up in the winter. Prosumers also won’t construct their own grid, so unless we ensure tight national control over the transmission grid corporations, these corporations will decide whether they will purchase the surplus of energy generated by the prosumers and how much they will pay for them, and what prices they will charge in the winter. When combined with “smart grid”, this is a ripe field for algorithmic speculation, a favourite past-time of late capitalism in the 21st century. We can’t get fooled with “inherent democracy of distributed technology”, we’ve already got fooled once with the Internet and ended up with the monopolies of GAFA.
Cooperatives and democracy require state intervention and appropriate legal framework. Wind turbines and renewable transmission grid equipment are manufactured by exactly the same corporations that manufacture turbines and I&C equipment for coal plants or nuclear power plants, and a small cooperative will not erect an offshore wind farm. And yet, in the United States there are energy cooperatives with shares in nuclear power plants, and nuclear power in Finland is cooperatively financed by energy consumers (the Mankala model).
Finally, we should note that “distributed energy” which is intended to power the entire country and not just small local clusters will not be cheaper than centralised energy. The costs of power transmission for wind power are currently already 3-4 times higher than for coal or nuclear (centralised) power, because the transmission lines have to be dimensioned to pass through the maximum generated amount of power (at 100% of capacity). Unfortunately, the capacity factor of wind (for how much of the year the power plant generates its maximum rated capacity) is only 30-40%, compared to 60-70% for coal and 80-90% for nuclear. This means that you have longer and larger transmission lines that are only used for 30-40% of the time (and, in Northern Europe, trying to go for a solar-powered grid is futile, since the capacity factor of solar power in Germany or Poland is about 10%). Additionally, we should build a lot of energy storage facilities (hundreds of pumped storage plants or tens of thousands of megabattery facilities), which we don’t, because it’s much more expensive then just burning natural gas when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine.
The solution is simple: we should use renewable energy clusters to provide power for consumers, but our critical infrastructure (electric public transit, hospitals, utilities, street lighting etc.) has to be powered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and for this nuclear power plants are the best choice, in order to minimise carbon emissions and maximise the production of energy.
And yes, we also need a wide-scale rollout of energy efficiency measures, but we cannot forget that while energy efficiency decreases primary energy use (that is, the burning of petrol in car engines, of gas and coal in home heating furnaces and in combined heat and power plants etc.), but at the same time it will result in an increase of the consumption of electricity: by electric busses and trams, by heat pumps for residential heating etc. Energy efficiency will never reduce a hospital’s or train’s energy demand to zero, so we’ll always need some power.
There are no “magic bullet” solutions to the climate catastrophe problem at this point. We need all the tools we have at our disposal. That includes nuclear power. And a Green New Deal that does not include nuclear power may simply fail, like Energiewende is failing (a NBER paper has estimated that the post-Fukushima nuclear phaseout in Germany has resulted in additional 36 megatonnes of CO₂ being emitted annually, a 13% increase compared to keeping the nuclear plants running, and over 1100 annual deaths caused by air pollution).
Leszek Karlik is a translator and interpreter working, among others, for the energy sector (renewables, coal and gas), a climate activist and a member of the Polish Razem Party and of DiEM25 movement.
This is an English translation of an article written for and published in the “Nasze Argumenty” (Our Arguments) quarterly of the Forward Foundation, a member of Transform! European network for alternative thinking and political dialogue.