A few weeks ago the New Mexico Environmental Law Center’s media director, Juana Colon, suggested I should write a blog post about policymakers’ recent embrace of nuclear power as just a way to enrich the world’s economic elites while at the same time continuing to subject poor and minority communities to various kinds of radioactive pollution, and therefore continue to encourage wasteful energy consumption. Her words were actually a lot angrier and profanity-laced, largely because the office had been preoccupied with a series of preposterous pro-nuclear pieces of legislation during the state legislative session (Such as declaring nuclear power green energy [PDF] and seeking that it become part of the governor's clean energy efforts [PDF]) Adding to that, President Obama had also just announced his intention to increase the subsidies the public would lavish on the nuclear industry.
I’ve thought a lot about Juana’s suggestion and there are a lot of interesting aspects to the nuclear power puzzle that deserve some ink.
To begin with, there’s the issue of who benefits from increasing nuclear power generation. At every point along the nuclear fuel chain, the flow of money reinforces current economic and social power disparities. In an interesting case of metaphorical biomimicry, public handouts to the nuclear industry tend to get larger as they move up the nuclear fuel chain, much the way bioaccumulated toxins become more concentrated the higher they move up the food chain. At the beginning of the fuel chain – uranium mining – economic benefits go either to large multinational corporations and their executives, or just to the executives, in the case of junior mining companies who subsist on speculation. At the generation phase of the fuel chain, corporate elites accrue even more benefits. As President Obama’s nuclear loan guarantees demonstrate, when the taxpayer is handing out money, the really big bucks go to a few corporate interests, in this case the Georgia utility, Southern Company. Exelon, GE and Areva will no doubt not be far behind with their hands stretched out.
There’s also the problem of who pays the price for nuclear power. Generally, it’s three groups – poor and minority communities, ratepayers, and taxpayers. Many poor and minority communities around the world pay the price at every step of the nuclear fuel cycle. At the beginning of the fuel cycle, native communities in New Mexico, South Dakota, Canada, Niger, Tibet and Australia deal every day with the toxic and radioactive results of uranium mining. And poor communities and communities of color, such as those in Oswego, New York, Port Gibson, Mississippi, and Bay City, Texas, receive doses of radiation everyday from nearby nuclear power plants. Finally, although no permanent nuclear waste facility currently exists in the U.S., the places most usually considered for such a waste facility are low income or minority communities such as the Skull Valley Goshute tribe in Utah, Mescalero Apache tribe in New Mexico, or a place such as Yucca Mountain that the Shoshone and Paiute tribes consider sacred.
Finally, there’s the intractable problem of consumption. One of the main arguments that nuclear power proponents make is that nuclear is the only “emissions free” way to satisfy growing electricity demand. This argument assumes, though, that there will be no gains in efficiency or any conservation efforts affecting that demand. Any legitimate energy policy should start with efforts at improving energy efficiency and conservation. Efficiency and conservation (a truly carbon free alternative) would not only reduce electricity consumption significantly, but would also generate thousands of jobs. On the face of it, increasing efficiency and reducing consumption seem like direct and simple ways to address a significant problem.
I wonder, though, whether the idea of energy conservation and efficiency is at odds with some of the fundamental assumptions of our economy and culture. We’re constantly urged to buy and consume. Even as electronics and appliances get more efficient, we’re constantly told we need more of them. If we’re not perpetually plugged in and communicating (Twitter anyone?), we’re not part of the “information society.” We’re stigmatized as Luddites and information lepers. The 24 hour news cycle is flooded with indicators of economic success, i.e. growth, like consumer confidence and monthly home sales. Consumerism and the quest for more and better things seem at the heart of American culture. Against this backdrop, can we really expect Americans to curb consumption? Would the answer change if we realized that changing consumption habits could avert dramatic economic and societal dislocations in the future? I have my doubts. I think it’s human nature to avoid change until change becomes obligatory because of external circumstances. In the case of changing energy consumption to stave off a climate catastrophe, I worry that the catastrophe will have to come first. I hope I’m wrong, though.
Eric Jantz is a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.