Nuclear energy is spectacularly unfit to power a just transition
By Makoma Lekalakala
A just transition is the only way out of the multiple crises we face — the climate emergency, the collapse of life systems the world over, and growing political and social discontent. Over the past year, we have seen some argue that not only is nuclear the best way to “green” our economies, but we have also seen nuclear being framed as a technology that will be good for “workers”.
However, the publication by Dr Neil Overy and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Neither Climate Nor Jobs: Nuclear Myths About the Just Transition, offers a comprehensive account of why nuclear will be detrimental to our collective capacity to transform our energy systems in a way that leaves no one behind — #LeaveNoOneBehind.
Here are six reasons why nuclear energy is spectacularly unfit to power a just transition, in a way that leaves no one behind:
1 Just transitions require stable electricity supplies in the face of extreme weather. It is widely claimed that nuclear power is reliable but, over the past five years, French nuclear power plants have had to shut down for up to 7,000 hours due to climate events. In fact, nuclear energy’s reliance on water for cooling makes it particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The causes for these have ranged from floods to droughts and dramatic temperature increases. Earlier this year, we saw that in the Texas snowstorm, nuclear plants had to be shut down because water in pump stations froze.
It is also argued that a green energy system would require nuclear for “baseload”, but technology has moved far beyond this. It is outdated thinking such as this that keeps us from doing what must be done to keep temperatures below 1.5°C, even though it has been shown that smart grids can draw from a mix of renewable energy sources to provide a constant energy supply.
2 Even in the unlikely case that nuclear power stations are in locations that are not affected by temperature changes, storms, sea level rise or water scarcity, the lengthy time lag between planning to operation of new plants (a decade in the best cases, which are the exception rather than the rule) means that new nuclear will be of little help in mitigating emissions in the crucial decade leading up to 2030. In comparison, utility-scale solar and wind plants are completed on average in around half the time — two to three years from planning to operation.
There will be no just transition if we fail to decarbonise in this decade, in the lead-up to 2030. The IPCC is clear that unless we cut emissions by half until 2030, we will miss the 1.5°C target. We all know that those most vulnerable to the climate emergency are those who are already marginalised and who we cannot afford to leave behind.
3 Even as a technology that could potentially reduce GHG emissions after 2030 compared to fossil fuels, nuclear costs are prohibitively expensive and make for anti-poor policies. Even before accounting for the nuclear waste management expenses, a new nuclear power plant costs about four times more than renewable utilities.
Such fantastic expenses mean that:
- Efforts to address and eliminate energy poverty will fail. In fact, energy poverty will most likely be exacerbated;
- Precious resources will be diverted from public services like health and education — services relied on, again, by those who we cannot leave behind;
- It will not be possible to make the investments required for a Just Transition — investments in skills development, industrial programmes, small business support programmes and a stronger social safety net — precisely when these will be needed most; and
- We have also seen how the exorbitant costs of nuclear crowd out investments in renewables.
4 All evidence shows that renewables create more jobs than nuclear. Depending on the technology and the job measurement, up to six times more. Moreover, not only do renewables create more jobs, they also create a wider variety of jobs, across more flexible locations. This means that job profiles are accessible to a wider array of people and can be located where they are needed most. And then, despite its enormous expense, the economic stimulus that nuclear creates is less than that created by renewables.
5 Even if we ignore all the above — cost, time, jobs, economic impact, supply reliability risks — nuclear energy still provides inferior environmental outcomes. The median carbon footprint of nuclear power is at least two to four times more than that of renewables — and that is still an underestimate. It also creates an intergenerational toxic waste crisis.
6 History shows us that the social and economic consequences of a serious accident occurring at a nuclear power station are devastating to both workers and society at large. Such outcomes can hardly be justified by the few jobs nuclear creates.
These last two points suggest that nuclear is spectacularly unfit to power a just transition. And not only will the jobs it creates go to a few highly skilled elites, nuclear energy’s economic stimuli will affect lesser industries and its costs will likely result in austerity policies.
Nuclear power is not, has never been, and will never become a viable means to generate electricity, especially within the context of the worsening climate emergency. It is obvious, via any metric, that renewable energy is a far better option if we are to meaningfully address carbon emissions to avert a climate catastrophe.
Renewables will do so while safeguarding decent livelihoods and rolling back inequality.
Makoma Lekalakala is the director of Earthlife Africa and a board member of Natural Justice. She was the joint recipient, with Liz McDaid, of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa and the SAB Environmentalist of the year 2018.
This article is based on Makoma Lekalakala’s speech at the COP26 launch of Dr Neil Overy’s report, Neither Climate Nor Jobs: Nuclear Myths About the Just Transition. It was first published by the Daily Maverick.
Headline photo of Just Transition rally in Minneapolis, USA by Lorie Shaull/Creative Commons