Last week Ketan Joshi (@KetanJO) published a piece titled Nuclear power’s tense contradiction.
Ketan is a thoughtful science and technology writer who earned a science degree (neuroscience and psychology) from Sydney University and has worked in the renewable energy industry. He is also deeply interested in politics and identifies with the left.
His article is worth a close read, but the major theme is pretty straightforward. Ketan observes that the pro nuclear movement is struggling because its supporters seem confused. They cannot be blithely categorized as supporting either the right or the left and thus can find themselves somewhat uncomfortable in any party gathering.
They (we) seem unsure about what we want politicians to do for us and end up pulling in many directions.
Part of the reason I find myself so drawn to the issues that swirl around nuclear power is the sheer dramatic tragedy of these contradictions. No other technology’s proponents are stretched so thin and so broadly across political and ideological tribes, and none have embarked on expeditions across ideological territory in the same way nuclear power’s proponents have.
The consequence of this is consistent public polling that shows a mostly-confused and somewhat distrustful public view of nuclear power, in Australia. In America, the solid climate policy landscape needed for a resurgence of a slowly-dipping nuclear power industry is only half-heartedly subscribed to by so many of its proponents. No industry that makes a habit of supporting those who sabotage its survival will last.
It is almost as if Ketan’s article was inspired by recent discussions in the comment section of Atomic Insights.
In contrast, he says the following about other energy sources.
Within my own renewable energy industry, expressing audible cynicism about a conservative political party at a conference isn’t a risky move. Doing the same about the Greens party at a coal conference is just as safe. These are worlds without major contradictions, and we heave at the hearts of these technologies in, mostly, a single direction.
I understand Ketan’s point of view, but I see the same issue through a different lense. I provided the following comment for discussion by his readers. It seems appropriate and timely to share it here as well.
Initially published on KetanJoshi.co. Modified, improved and repurposed here.
Thoughtful piece. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for me to offer a few thoughts of my own.
Nuclear energy advocates might seem hopelessly confused to people who occupy a left-right political world in which there are only two sides with battles being seen as either won or lost.
Some of us – hopefully a large majority of the population – live in a more nuanced and complex world in which there are many issues that pull us in various directions. We don’t define our politics as left or right because it all depends on the specifics of the issue.
I like to make the admittedly strained analogy that many politically vocal people participate and watch as if politics is a series of football games with exactly two teams and each contest ending in either a win or a loss.
In contrast, I see politics as a long running track and field or swimming meet in which there are a wide variety of contests happening at the same time with teams that are actually just groups of individuals who happen to go to the same school or live in the same area.
There are many winners of various contests, but nearly all of the participants can consider themselves to be winners depending on their own goals. Of course, there are also many who are disappointed in their own performance in any particular event and may end up considering that they have “lost” that specific contest. If they are like most meet participants, they have other events where the results might be different.
Nuclear energy isn’t a right or left issue because it isn’t a “one trick pony.” It was developed and commercialized several years before anyone expressed great concerns about climate change. Early adopters liked it because it wasn’t oil, coal, or gas and it wasn’t plagued by the drawbacks of those combustion fuel sources.
Atomic fission has no high volume gaseous emissions and doesn’t require a constant supply of oxygen laden air, so it held great appeal to people who wanted power in unconventional environments like underwater or in space outside of the earth’s atmosphere.
It also appeals to people who understand the very real and measurable effects of breathing hydrocarbon combustion waste products even in “normal” human environments.
Though there were some concerns about the magnitude of the potential resource in the earliest days, those concerns were alleviated within a decade or so of looking around the world.
We discovered that uranium and thorium were more abundant and widely distributed than we knew in the days before we started looking for them. Once the size of the resource became known, we gained another great reason to support nuclear energy – it was potentially so abundant that it offered a path out of the periodic or regional shortages and price swings know to occur with fossil fuels.
Its extremely compact fuel appeals to those who like endurance and resilience with independence from fuel supply chains. Its tiny waste product offers great advantages to those who understand the ease with which those waste products can be contained. Its lack of explosive or flammable properties appeals to safety-conscious designers and operators.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
There is incredible latent strength in the fact that nuclear energy has features that appeal along numerous vectors to so many different interests. I’m encouraged by realizing that its wide array of supporters can appear confused to people who occupy the left-right world of winners and losers that many media outlets seem to encourage.
Aside: Major media outlets love highly polarized, big money campaigns. As for-profit businesses, they capture a large fraction of the money spent. The product they sell is advertising. That is the product that campaigns spend most of their money purchasing. End Aside.
Maybe nuclear energy can serve a uniting purpose as well as serving as a powerful energy source.