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Why degrowth needs nuclear power (2): Energy means progress

Part 2 of the essay, ‘Degrowing the global economy will require accepting nuclear power’.

Image: evening_tao/Freepik


The enormous progress humanity has achieved in the last 150 years or so – in feeding and clothing people, in keeping women and infants from dying, in providing education and healthcare – is thanks to the use of enormous reservoirs of millennia of solar energy stored in easily accessible form: fossil fuels.

Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels won’t be easy. Since 1980, the total use of fossil fuels in primary energy production has roughly doubled. During that time, its share in global energy use has barely budged – still a staggering 82%.

But as the waste of burning coal, natural gas and oil is taking its toll on the planet, we need to move away from fossil fuels.

Using less energy is always a good starting point. We can and should encourage efficiency with regulations and incentives to keep energy use low. Energy efficiency is not a magical solution to all our problems, but it is an absolutely necessary and woefully underused part of the solution.

The enormous progress humanity has achieved in the last 150 years or so is thanks to fossil fuels

For example, retrofitting the existing stock of houses to be energy efficient would not only decrease carbon emissions (with potential savings in the UK of the order of 50 million metric tonnes of carbon), but would also make life better and save many people from energy poverty. I live in a communist-era apartment block that has been retrofitted to be well-insulated and is immersed in a sea of greenery. It’s pleasantly cool even in the most sweltering heat (without air conditioning) while being comfortably warm in the winter, and the heating is cheap.

Or, as another example, if the whole world were to adopt the cycling patterns of the Dutch, instead of commuting by car in the rich countries, we could save more than 868 million metric tonnes of carbon emissions while living more healthy lives.

However, efficiency cannot lower the demand for energy to zero. It’s energy that keeps people alive. We need it to protect us from cold or heat, to keep medicines cool and food from rotting, to keep the lights on, to power sewage pumping stations…

Remember, a degrowth society will not be a primitive one. Even a modern ‘passive house’ (which requires no heating in a freezing winter and no cooling in a heatwave) needs electricity to run its heat recovery ventilation system.

We need clean energy, and we need lots of it.

A degrowth society will need electric energy. Electricity is a highly efficient form of energy, currently taking up 20% of all energy use globally. Consider that when we drive a traditional car with a combustion engine, only up to 30% of the energy from petrol is converted into motion, with the rest wasted as heat. Electric cars, by comparison, are over 77% efficient.

We need clean energy, and we need lots of it

Similarly, an induction stovetop is 90% efficient in transferring energy into heating food, while an old-fashioned electric cooktop has an efficiency of 74% and a gas burner is only 40% efficient. Even with heating, electricity wins. In fact, any type of heating is very efficient (because ‘inefficiency’ in technology mostly means producing heat), but while a gas furnace is about 95% efficient and a wood stove 80%, heat pumps can achieve efficiencies of 300600%.

So, heating our homes with a heat pump instead of a gas furnace means that we reduce our primary energy use as well as greenhouse emissions, but it also means that we use more electricity, just like travelling by high-speed rail instead of flying (88% more energy efficient and with 92% less carbon emissions, but needing electricity).

Here’s the paradox: in order to reduce our primary energy use we will need to use more electricity, not less.

And here’s the good news: decarbonising electricity generation is relatively easy, compared to, say, the food sector or heavy industry. We know how to do it.

While solar and wind power need to be constantly balanced, electricity is all about a reliable infrastructure

Today, electricity grids are still powered mostly by high-carbon, polluting fossil fuels. In 2022, 61% of global electricity came from coal, gas and oil. We will need to expand low-carbon energy sources.

These include solar panels and wind turbines, which provide, respectively, 4.5% and 7.5% of global electricity. These are the only sources that are now growing rapidly. Hydropower is responsible for 15% of global electricity (down from 20% in 1980), and has little space to grow due to geographical limitations and climate change, which makes water a scarce resource. Nuclear’s slowly shrinking share is now 9.5%, half of what it was in the 1980s and 1990s.

If we had a magic wand that could transform all the dirty coal and natural gas plants into clean solar panels and wind turbines to generate the same amount of electricity, waving the wand… would destroy the electricity grid.

This is because electricity cannot be stored. It has to be used precisely when it is generated. Our continental-scale energy grids, the largest machines ever built by humanity, have to balance demand with generation at all times, keeping voltage and frequency of electricity at a certain level. Without this delicate balance, frequency would spike or drop, causing many devices connected to electrical sockets to smoke and spark and stop working. Many components of the grid would burn out. Blackouts would ensue, and people would die.

What if we had a magic wand that could transform all the dirty coal and natural gas plants into clean power plants?

We can store energy, of course, but for this, we convert electricity to either chemical energy in batteries, or gravitational potential energy in pumped hydro storage stations (and energy conversion always entails losses). Our magic wand would also need to create millions of mega-battery facilities to balance the natural fluctuations in solar and wind power production.

Electricity is all about a reliable infrastructure. And while today, we can rapidly build solar panels and wind turbines (so they continue their exponential growth), we are at least decades away from doing so with batteries.

And what if we had a magic wand that could transform all the dirty coal and natural gas plants into clean power plants? What if there were plants that would produce reliable electricity for the grid without emitting greenhouse gases or causing air pollution?

Luckily, we already have this technology. It’s called ‘nuclear power’.

Even if we had phased out coal rather than halting the development of nuclear in the 1970s, we’d still be running into planetary overheating. It would just be slower

Wait. Nuclear power?! Isn’t that the one source that was supposed to give us ‘electricity too cheap to meter’? Doesn’t that mean we actually do not really need degrowth, because with abundant nuclear power we can all be saved and our economies can keep on growing exponentially forever?

No, of course not.

Even if we had listened to early warnings about rising greenhouse gas emissions in the 1970s and phased out coal, rather than halting the development of nuclear power, we’d still be running into planetary overheating. It would just be slower.

That’s because the maths of exponential growth are inescapable. Our historical rate of growth since the beginning of the industrial revolution (approximately 3% per year) is explained by two factors: the 2% annual growth of energy use and the 1% annual decrease of energy intensity of the economy. (Please note that energy efficiency cannot increase forever.)

When we look at historical economic growth, it is coupled both to the amount of fossil fuel waste we are putting into the atmosphere (which has been growing at a slightly smaller rate than ‘the economy’ due to advances in clean power) and to the total use of physical resources (which has been growing at pretty much the same rate).

Source: Wiedmann et al., Scientists’ Warning on Affluence, Nature Communications. MF – material footprint, CO2 FFI – carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and industry

The proponents of ‘sustainable green capitalism’ claim that we can achieve absolute decoupling of economic growth from its material impacts: in other words, an economy that will grow perpetually without using new material resources and without requiring more and more energy. I believe we have a name for ‘absolute decoupling’ of money from material goods: we call it hyperinflation.

And if we want to avoid hyperinflation, money flows have to correspond to flows of useful stuff. That means that exponential growth of the economy requires an exponential growth of physical resource use. Forget fancy talk about the ‘service economy’ or ‘digital economy’ – even these will require physical resources.

The question is: How do we produce clean energy using as few resources as possible?

Proponents of ‘sustainable green capitalism’ claim that we can achieve absolute decoupling of economic growth from its material impacts. I call it: hyperinflation

All energy sources require materials, whether they’re dug up from the ground or recycled from our waste. If we look at the amount of cement, steel and other metals, and the number of working hours needed to obtain one kilowatt-hour, and compare all energy sources, nuclear power turns out to be more effective than wind and solar. According to a study led by Oliver Vidal, published in Nature Geoscience, for the same installed capacity, solar and wind require up to 15 times more concrete, 90 times more aluminium, and 50 times more iron, copper and glass than nuclear power.

Degrowth advocates must take into account the laws of physics. Even if we radically decrease our consumption of energy, we will need a certain number of terawatt-hours (TWh) every year in order to provide people with the ‘public luxuries’ they need to agree to ‘private sufficiency’. Generating these terawatt-hours from solar panels and wind turbines coupled to humongous energy storage facilities, or alternatively, from hydroelectric or geothermal plants will require more material resources than generating the same amount of energy in nuclear plants.

Because nuclear power is so energy dense, it requires few resources. That makes it a perfect fit with a degrowth society.

This resource efficiency, combined with the fact that nothing is burnt in a nuclear power plant, means that the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy generated are extremely low. In the AR5 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), median emissions for nuclear power, measured over the full lifecycle from mining to waste management, are set at 12 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh, at the same level as wind power. Hydropower is double that, and geothermal triple, with solar panels slightly above this.

Please note that in order to compare nuclear with wind and solar, these renewables require the construction of a large-scale storage system which does not yet exist, and which is not included in the figures.

Obviously, for fossil fuels the numbers get well in the hundreds. Coal leads the list with 820 grams.

Lifetime extensions of nuclear reactors are considerably cheaper than new construction and are generally cost-competitive with new wind and solar projects

Undoubtedly, the best anyone can do who supports degrowth is not buy something new when we have something that works just fine. This motto is in line with the early environmentalists. From that perspective, closing a well-functioning nuclear power plant is insane.

Restarting Germany’s prematurely closed nuclear plants, and shutting down coal plants instead, could save one billion tonnes of carbon from being emitted. It would require few resources to keep them open for safe operation. It’s simple: we need to save what we have.

According to the International Energy Agency, ‘Lifetime extensions are considerably cheaper than new construction and are generally cost-competitive with other electricity generation technologies, including new wind and solar projects.’

There are still hundreds of nuclear plants operating all over the world. In Europe, the fissioning of uranium is still the single largest source of electricity (21.9% in 2022). It would be a waste to close them.

Waste? Did something say, waste? Ah yes, the old question: What about the waste?!

Nuclear waste has been a concern for decades. Many people are still afraid of highly radioactive substances which remain dangerous for millions of years and have to be guarded for uncountable generations. These fears have been artificially created by misinformation campaigns.

In a degrowth society, industrial waste can and should be recycled. This is possible with nuclear waste

Yes, we can have highly radioactive waste, and yes, we can have extremely long-lived waste – but we can’t have both. Highly radioactive isotopes decay very rapidly, while the isotopes that remain radioactive for millions of years have only very low radioactivity.

To the extent that long-lived radioisotopes are dangerous, it’s because they are heavy metals. By definition, heavy metals are unhealthy, even when they are not radioactive. This also applies to heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium found in solar panels.

However, especially in a degrowth society, industrial waste can and should be recycled. This is currently not happening, not with the spent fuel from reactors (which is typically stored on site, awaiting geological repository) nor with waste from dismantled solar panels or wind turbines (which is supposed to be recycled, but for now usually ends up in a landfill).

Luckily, significant advances are being made in both fields. Many companies and scientists are working on the recycling of waste streams generated by renewable energy, while significant investments are being made into development of fast breeder reactors that can consume nuclear waste to generate electricity.

Using fast breeder reactors on a large scale would eliminate the need for mining uranium, as RePlanet has shown in a recent report. While the combined spent fuel from many decades, produced in hundreds of nuclear power plants, isn’t exactly a lot, it has enough potential energy to power our civilisation for many centuries.

Recycling nuclear waste is a perfect illustration of a circular, closed-cycle economy, solving the problem of long-term storage of nuclear waste.

The number of deaths caused by producing energy is a real, deadly price that is frequently ignored under capitalism, which has a tendency to sacrifice human lives on the altar of the economy

No industry comes without accidents and deaths. This is also true for energy production. Nuclear power seems to be doing poorly. A meltdown, or so it seems, could spread invisible radiation, poisoning millions.

As a child, I had to drink iodine right after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 to protect my thyroid against cancer. I don’t remember much, but I do remember that people were anxious, and so was I, of course.

Again, the reality is different.

The number of deaths caused by producing energy is a real, deadly price that is frequently ignored under capitalism, which has a tendency to sacrifice human lives on the altar of the economy. For example, we completely ignore air pollution caused by coal, which is a silent, everyday killer which humanity has become used to since the ‘satanic mills’ of the Industrial Revolution.

Everyone knows the name ‘Chernobyl’, but almost no one has heard of the Banqiao Dam failure (which may have killed up to 240,000 people), and not many know about the Bhopal disaster (which killed thousands of people and injured hundreds of thousands more).

When counting the numbers of deaths for every terawatt-hour of electricity, coal kills 100 people, biofuels kill 24 people, natural gas kills 4, hydropower 1.4, rooftop solar 0.44, and wind power 0.15. Nuclear is all the way down the list at 0.09 people.

If we count deadly accidents from all sorts of energy production, nuclear power performs best

To be sure, these are global figures. If we only look at the US, hydropower is responsible for a mere 0.005 deaths per TWh and nuclear 0.0001.

So, if we count deadly accidents from all sorts of energy production, nuclear power performs best.

Why? Because nuclear plants don’t emit air pollutants like fossil fuel plants do. And because the nuclear industry had to create a safety culture that has no equal. Working at a nuclear power plant is not only much safer than, say, being a professional driver; nuclear plant workers actually have lower mortality than the population average.

Because nuclear is the safest way to produce energy, we should be using it more (just like we should be using more solar and wind power). If we don’t, other, more deadly forms of energy production will be needed.

>> Continue reading: Part 3 (end). When both sides are wrong

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