Misplaced ideas about renewable energy
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[For previous articles by Don Fitz, click HERE.]
By Don Fitz
June 26, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Humanity must decrease its use of energy. The decrease must be a lot (not a little bit) and it must happen soon. A failure to do so will lay the foundation for the destruction of human life by some combination of climate change and radiation.
How long will the disastrous consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan continue? A good estimate is about 4.5 billion years — the half life of uranium-238.  The March 11, 2011, meltdowns sounded alarms that environmentalists have rung for over half a century. There is also a deeper green meaning: the limits of economic growth have long since passed and we need to design a world with considerably less stuff.
The industry claims that there is such a thing as a safe level of radiation and that nuclear production can be safe. Both are profoundly untrue.
The myth of a safe level of radiation is spread by comparing radiation releases to “background levels of radiation” and talking about “acceptable levels of radiation”. The implication is that if radiation occurs in nature, it must be okay. Not really. Anyone who has walked through poison ivy can attest that substances which exist in nature may be toxic. Background radiation is similar, except much more severe. Since it can take generations for cancers and other diseases to show up, it is impossible to know the full damage of radioactive isotopes from Chernobyl and Fukushima. 
Perhaps out of ignorance and perhaps intentionally, nuclear preachers confuse internal and external radiation when they compare plant meltdowns to X-rays and CT scans. The latter pass through the body and do not leave radioactive particles in it. Nuclear meltdowns, in contrast, spew particles that are breathed or ingested with food or beverages and become internal emitters as they migrate to the thyroid, liver, bone and brain. 
The myth of safe nuclear production is based on often unstated assumptions that (a) other than three nuclear accidents, there have never been severe problems at nuclear plants and (b) the only time that radiation is released is during power plant accidents. In fact, many, many articles have documented the lengthy list of accidents and near-meltdowns (which release radiation and are inherent to the technology).  As if this were not enough, radiation is released during every phase of its production: mining, milling, “normal” operation of nuclear plants, transportation of nuclear materials, and storage of nuclear waste.
One of the great lies of nuclear power is what Barry Commoner calls “linguistic detoxification”. In order to manipulate public opinion the industry refers to its highly irradiated nuclear waste as “spent fuel”. The term is clearly designed to give the impression that nuclear fuel is “used up” when, in fact, fuel rods come out of a nuclear plant more radioactive than when they went in.
Advocates of nuclear power know that they are lying
If the industry believed that nukes were safe, they would build them in the middle of big cities. That would prevent the huge loss of energy through the construction and use of transmission lines (and reduce the need for more nukes).  But since they know the true danger, they locate nukes elsewhere.
The US Price-Anderson Act of 1957 provides clear evidence that industry and government are holding back on what they know about nukes. That legislation limited the liability of power companies in the event of a catastrophic meltdown. The same politicians who support renewal of that act blather out the other side of their mouth how government must bow to free enterprise. If they truly believed in free enterprise, they would repeal Price-Anderson and replace it with legislation requiring the owner of every nuke to purchase insurance on the open market which would cover all costs that could be potentially associated with an explosion and meltdown. 
The nuclear industry puts public relations before public safety.
The supremacy of public relations is obvious from the very building of nuclear plants. It was shown again at Fukushima when plant operators used helicopters to drop seawater on the plants, allegedly to keep them cool. This was little more than a publicity stunt aimed at photo ops. Saltwater can lock up the valves on pipes, interfering with the ability of the system to regain functioning. 
During both the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, governments repeatedly minimised what was happening, exposing people to greater danger by understating the need to leave. Fukushima was no different. Though the disaster was on March 11, 2011, it was not until May 24 that the owners finally acknowledged that a meltdown had occurred. 
‘Environmental particularism’ poses an extreme danger to protecting the Earth
Most environmentalists realise the deep interconnectedness between biodiversity, toxins (including radiation), peak oil (and everything else) and climate change. But some limit their vision to what they see as “my issue”. We can call this self-limitation “environmental particularism”. It is divisive in the extreme and plays directly into the hands of corporations.
Were someone absorbed with the dangers that genetic engineering poses to biodiversity to belittle activism on toxins, that person would be ignoring the intense threat that toxic substances pose to plant and animal life. Similarly, a colleague who I rely on for nuclear information once commented that toxins and radiation are true threats to humanity and we should get used to higher temperatures and stop worrying about climate change.
Using the flip side of this illogic, both James Hansen and George Monbiot minimise dangers of nuclear power. Hansen is perhaps the world’s leading authority on climate change.  Monbiot, a British environmental columnist, is author of Heat, an outstanding documentation of the realities and catastrophes of climate change.  After Fukushima, Monbiot became infamous for his spirited defence of nuclear power as the best alternative to burning fossil fuels. His position became extreme as he penned articles confusing external and internal radiation and favouring industry falsifications of Chernobyl’s effects over the meticulous scientific compilation of Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko .
Claims that society must choose between fossil fuels and nukes are 100% false
Pretending to care about climate change, utility companies say that we must have more nukes to avoid increasing CO2 levels. Hansen and Monbiot parrot corporate propaganda when they present the false dichotomy: nukes or fossil fuels.
Their tunnel vision on climate change interferes with their ability to perceive global warming and nuclear power as different manifestations of the same problem. The mechanical connections between the two are clear. First, climate change could increase nuclear accidents. Warming raises sea level and intensifies storms, making plants more vulnerable. 
Second, nuclear power intensifies climate change. The industry argument that nuclear plants do not release CO2 conveniently ignores the large CO2 releases during mining, processing, transportation and storage phases of nuclear power.
Monbiot’s Heat dramatically describes the horror that living through uncontrolled climate change would bring and Stan Cox explains the horror of trying to solve that problem with nuclear power. According to Cox, a 60% cut in greenhouse gases (GHGs) based on replacing coal with nuclear power would require increasing the world’s current 350 nuclear power stations to 18,500 by 2050 (accounting for economic growth). 
Since there have been three catastrophic nuclear accidents during 32 years (Three Mile Island, 1979; Chernobyl, 1986; Fukushima, 2011), we might expect 158 catastrophic accidents every 32 years with 18,500 plants. This would be one Fukushima every 2.5 months or 10 weeks. 
In fact, neither a pure nuke nor a pure fossil fuel future is likely and the more probable path is a combined intermediate level of horror from each. Yet these only reflect the obvious links between the two horns of the demon.
The deep green connection between radiation and climate change is that they are both part of the lockstep march toward economic growth. The question for both Hansen and Monbiot is what humanity will do when uranium ore is exhausted but the drive toward growth intensifies.
Coal, oil, natural gas and uranium will run out at some time in the future. None of them can ever be the basis of a sustainable economy. The issue is not whether society will or will not have to do without non-renewables — the only issue is whether humanity will stop using them prior to destroying the biological web of life or whether humanity is forced to stop using them, either because it takes more energy to extract them than they yield or because our descendants have lost the mental or physical ability to process them.
In a growth economy, solar and wind offer no alternative
In a growth economy, solar and wind cannot replace fossil fuels and/or nukes, which they must depend on for their own creation and for making up energy short falls. As Ted Trainer and others have clearly demonstrated, solar and wind power are subject to conditions like how much sunshine and wind exist at a given time.  An industry which is geometrically expanding must be drawn to fossil fuel and nukes because they are not subject to weather fluctuations and they can produce enormous quantities of energy for manufacture.
Weather variability means that solar and wind power have a greater need to store energy than non-renewables. This means solar and wind lose even more energy during storage and retrieval. They also require considerable energy and resource extraction to produce associated technologies such as transmission lines and batteries. These are not green attributes.
During the opening of his seminal exposé of renewable energy, Trainer points to turf where solar and wind proponents dare not tread: The issue is not merely whether solar and wind can provide for the industrial needs of a modern economy — it is ridiculous to suggest that they could provide energy needs of a global economy which is 60 times its current size. Trainer calculates that bringing all the world up to consumptive standards of the overdeveloped countries, maintaining a 3% annual GDP growth rate, and reaching a population of 9.4 billion would require a 6000% increase in the economy between 2007 and 2070.
The mechanical impossibility of infinite solar and wind power leads to a deeper green problem: They reflect the same fetish on things as do non-renewables. Switching from one fetish to another in no way rejects the thingification of human existence. It is this worship of objects which is the core of the problem.
Failure to challenge the endless manufacture of artificial needs and the continual shrinkage of the durability of commodities means that no combination of nuclear power, fossil fuel, solar, wind and other energy sources can ever satisfy bottomless greed. Seeking to replace human caring, sharing and community with object glorification will always result in feelings of emptiness and craving for more and more objects. Object addiction can never be satiated — even if those objects are “green”.
Stan Cox notes that a huge expansion of fossil fuel use would be necessary if solar and wind were to increase enough to replace nukes.  Creating this solar and wind infrastructure would result in massive emissions of CO2. Thus, in a growth economy, renewables are no more separable from non-renewables than climate change is separable from radiation.
Recent increases in solar and wind power has resulted in lawsuits to protect native lands and sensitive species.  How many more valleys must be transformed into ugly wind farms and how many more deserts must be covered with solar collectors just to enable landfills of discarded junk to expand to the moon?
The ideology of growth is the bedrock of nuclear power. Growth requires the expansion of energy. As Robert Bryce demonstrates, “America’s energy consumption has grown in direct proportion to its economic growth”.  Between 1913 and 2005, the 300-fold increase in oil imports was paralleled by a 300-fold increase in US economic output. 
As energy sources have gone from wood to coal to oil to nukes, there has been a steady increase in the total amount of energy available. During most of this progression economic growth has meant an expansion of goods which people need. By the end of World War II this was no longer the case as there was enough to provide basic needs for everyone.
More than ever before, production for need gave way to production for militarism, for obscene wealth, for throw-away goods and for marketing to take precedence over utility. Nuclear power became the cornerstone of both militarism and the seemingly limitless energy necessary for planned obsolescence. Nuclear plants were born as a physical manifestation of social relationships underlying growth without need.
Fukushima shows the disastrous consequences of increasing production simply because people want useless items – or because corporations want people to want items so they can make money. In the era of Fukushima, further increases in piles of garbage will not improve our lives today but it will expose future generations to the misery of toxic mine tailings, a reduced number of animal and plant species, unbearable heat waves, and leaky nuclear waste containers oozing radiation across the globe.
Is anti-growth feasible?
“Anti-growth” means that people will have better lives if society produces fewer things that are useless and dangerous. It assumes that the total quantity of things needed to make everyone’s lives better is vastly less that the total quantity of current negative production.
“Anti-growth” can be contrasted to “de-growth”, which has become synonymous with trying to change the economy by tiptoeing through the tulips. The phrase “anti-growth” aims to dismiss two myths: (a) the belief that a decrease in production requires people to suffer; and (b) the belief that lifestyle changes can substitute for social action. (Though altering individual lifestyles is important to show that a new and different world is possible, it does little to bring about the scale of needed changes.)
The corporate line on reversing growth is that it would bring agony worse than nuclear radiation and is therefore impossible. Sadly, many progressives (including environmentalists, anti-war activists and even “Marxists”) swallow the line.
Let’s not confuse an increase in provision of basic needs like housing, clothing and education with overall economic growth. Reducing unnecessary and destructive production (such as military spending) can be done at the same time as increasing preventive medical care. Reducing the advertising of food, packaging of food, long-range transportation of food and animal protein can occur simultaneously with increasing healthy food. Nobody’s quality of life is going to deteriorate because they have a simple coffee pot that lasts for 75-100 years rather than one with a mini-computer designed to fall apart in six months.
To reiterate: the economy can shrink while the amount of necessary goods expands. Anti-growth is not too complex to fathom. The idea that we should make more good stuff and less bad stuff is so simple that anyone except an economist can understand it. 
Unfortunately, many advocating a smaller economy shoot themselves in the foot by rejecting anti-corporate struggle. These include Richard Heinberg, Pat Murphy and Ted Trainer, who have all made enormous contributions to the understanding of the ecological crisis. 
All three conclude that the major source for change should be in individual lifestyles. I call it the approach of “consume less so the military can consume more”. Neither they nor the growing Transition Movement grasp that social gluttons will eagerly expand their own consumption to fill whatever void is created by ecological Puritans living exemplary lives.  Despite their insights, their writing detracts from and undermines the building of mass social and political movements necessary for the changes they advocate.
A radical rethinking
Will the nuclear industry learn from its horrific disasters and change its ways? Yes and no. The industry will definitely learn how to lie more subtly and control government and the media more tightly. That is merely extrapolating from the past to the future.
But if the question means “Will the industry learn how to avoid dangerous shortcuts and become safe?” the answer can only be “no”. The very existence of nuclear power is a safety shortcut — but the nuclear industry is incapable of learning that.
Imagining safer nukes at a time when sea levels are rising and weather extremes are becoming worse is a bad hallucination. Looking at the energy industry as a whole, we see ever and ever greater risks from renewed deep-sea oil drilling, hydro-fracking for gas and increased exploitation of Earth-destroying tar sands. There is zero possibility that nuclear can put itself outside of the risk-taking frenzy. Purchasing politicians and regulatory agencies is so-o-o much more cost effective.
The survival of humanity is at not only odds with right-wing politicians and “free market” economists who preach growth by engorging the rich. Human existence is simultaneously threatened by “liberal” politicians and Keynesian economists who promote growth by governmental intervention. Preserving a livable environment is likewise at odds with “environmentalists” who advocate growth via purchasing green gadgets. “Socialists” and wooden “Marxists” walk less than a shining path when they demand a planned economy for the purpose of “unleashing the capitalist's fetters on production” (i.e., unlimited growth). Planetary extermination under workers’ control does not fulfill dreams of Karl Marx.
In the wake of Fukushima many scream that we must abandon nukes as rapidly as possible. Yes, yes and yes. Join their screams and demand a halt in the production of new nukes and a rapid shut down of those that exist!
We must do the almost the same for fossil fuels, with a rapid reduction to 90% of current levels, then 80%, and so on until we level off at perhaps 10% of where we are at now. If and only if this reduction is made can solar, wind and geothermal (along with a very judicious use of fossil fuels and biofuels) meet energy needs in a sane society.
But all of us, especially environmentalists, must abandon the illusion that solar, wind and geothermal can be a source of infinite economic growth. And all of us, especially social justice activists, trade unionists and socialists, must abandon any misplaced belief that a massive reduction of energy requires any sacrifice in the quality of life. We must affirm if we change our values, change our society and change our economy, we can have great lives by focusing on people rather than the eternal accumulation of objects.
[Don Fitz teaches environmental psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. He is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of the Greens/Green Party USA. He can be contacted at fitzdon [at] aol.com.]
1. A better estimate might be 45 billion years, or 10 half-lives. The Earth probably has been around for 4.5 billion years, a good comparison figure for how long nuclear waste will exist.
2. Caldicott, H. (April 30, 2011). Unsafe at any dose. New York Times. Retrieved June 17, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/opinion/01caldicott.html.
3. Caldicott, H. (April 12, 2011). Attack of the nuclear apologists. Retrieved June 18, 2011 from http://www.counterpunch.com/caldicott04122011.html.
4. For example, Chris Williams documents that there were at least 14 “near misses” in US nuclear plants in 2010. (April 12, 2011). Why nuclear power must go. The Indypendent. Retrieved June 17, 2011 from http://www.indypendent.org/?pagename=author_search&a=Chris%20Williams. For documentation of at the Indian Point nuke 24 miles north of New York City, see Anthony Dimaggio’s (March 24, 2011) What lessons can the U.S. learn from Japan’s crisis? zcommunications.org/the-nuclear-connection-by-anthony-dimaggio. For a list of nuclear accidents in Japan, see J. Green (March 16, 2011). Is Australian uranium fuelling Japan’s looming nuclear disaster? Retrieved June 18, 2011 from http://links.org.au/node/2213.
5. Takashi, H. Nuclear power plants for Tokyo. Cited by Douglas Lummis in introduction to Takashi, H. (March 22, 2011). What they're covering up at Fukushima. Counterpunch.
6. This would ring the death knell for the nuclear industry, since no insurance company would have assets to cover trillions of dollars of loss, which proves the financial non-viability of nukes. Congress reviews Price-Anderson every so often and the current liability limit for utility companies is $12.6 billion, a fraction of potential damages.
7. Takashi, H. (March 22, 2011). What they're covering up at Fukushima. Retrieved March 23, 2011 from http://counterpunch.com/takashi03222011.html.
8. Digest—3 Meltdowns Confirmed. (May 25, 2011). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. A5
9. Hansen, J. Sato, M., Ruedy, R., & Lo, K. (2010). If It's That Warm, How Come It's So Darned Cold? Retrieved January 10, 2011 from http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2010/20100127_TemperatureFinal.pdf.
10. Monbiot, G. (2007). Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
11. Yablokov, A.V., Nesterenko, A.V. & Nesterenko, V.B. (December 2009). Chernobyl: Consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1181. http://www.nyas.org/publications/annals/Detail.aspx?cid=f3f3bd16-51ba-4d7b-a086-753f44b3bfc1.
12. Kenward, A. (March 24, 2011). Sea level rise brings added risks to coastal nuclear plants. Retrieved June 18, 2011 from http://www.climatecentral.org/news/sea-level-rise-brings-added-risks-to-coastal-nuclear-plants.
13. Cox, S. (2011, in press) It’s always too soon for nuclear power—and already too late. Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought.
14. Taking into account that the nuclear era began prior to 1979 would result in adjusting down the estimate of one catastrophic accident every 10 weeks; but adjusting for the increase in the number of nukes between 1979 and 2011 would adjust the estimate up.
15. Trainer, T. (2007). Renewable energy cannot sustain a consumer society. The Netherlands: Springer. Also see R. Heinberg, (September, 2009). Searching for a Miracle: Net Energy Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society, Post Carbon Institute & International Forum on Globalization. http://www.postcarbon.org/report/44377-searching-for-a-miracle.
16. McBride, S. (Jan 5, 2011) Sierra Club sues over California solar plant. Retrieved March 7, 2011 from http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/05/us-solar-idUSTRE70432N20110105.
17. Bryce, R (2008). Gusher of lies: The dangerous delusions of “Energy independence”, New York: Public Affairs.
18. “Decoupling theory”, a current fad among economists, maintains that energy usage can be separated from economic growth. The argument ignores the fact that this occurs in overdeveloped countries by outsourcing energy-intensive manufacturing to poorer countries.
19. In the early years of the 21st century, human suffering has no more to do with inadequate production than hunger has to do with insufficient food. Hunger is caused by domination of market forces. When it is more profitable to drive people off their land and produce exotic food to fly across the globe than it is for people to grow what their ancestors have grown, hunger results. There is already an abundance of food which is not distributed to the hungry. Increasing the quantity of food will do nothing to end hunger. Food production is a microcosm of the entire economy. Increasing production will not provide more people with the necessities of life. Rather than producing more, we must produce differently [and, of course, less].
20. Richard Heinberg has taught many environmentalists that the approach of peak oil threatens a lunge toward other, even more destructive forms of energy. [See R. Heinberg, R. (2005). The party’s over: Oil, war and the fate of industrial societies. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers and R. Heinberg. (2004). Powerdown: Options and actions for a post-carbon world.. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. Many of Heinberg’s writings are at http://www.postcarbon.org] Pat Murphy meticulously illustrates the massive sources of energy waste in the overdeveloped world. [See P. Murphy. (2008). Plan C: Community survival strategies for peak oil and climate change. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.] Ted Trainer gives perhaps the most thorough documentation that solar, wind and geothermal cannot meet energy demands of societies on a suicidal rush to infinite growth. [See note 15]
21. In transition. (2009). Transition Media: The Transition Network. See http://transitionnetwork.org/support/publications/transition-movie.