The ideology at the root of this sort of attitude has been progressively bothering me over the last few months. Mark Pawelek (@swcrisis) put it into words recently:
I think you missed out a 4th category [to explain anti-nuclear belief]:
4. They are politically (ideologically?) opposed to nuclear power because they think it prevents a ‘decentralized economy’ (DE). DE posits a world where technology is locally controlled – a sort of syndicalist economy. They believe that real democratic control is a value in itself. They think that nuclear power must lead to centralized solutions, and autocratic institutions.
I’m not pretending their posited ‘decentralized economy’ makes sense. It doesn’t. They believe it. This DE argument has become widespread since the end of communism. In early 1990s many Trotskyists migrated to green politics. Prior to that the DE argument was just latent in green thought. Since the 1990s it’s become of prime importance to these disillusioned politicos who value politics above all else.
It doesn’t make sense, and it is far from internally consistent. For me, it was first elucidated while reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about a year ago. The increasing academic distaste for industrialisation during the late sixties/early seventies was a jarring theme for me while I was employed in analytical quality control for food manufacturing. That’s not to say I didn’t understand it; I feel this attitude permeates my society’s psyche in much the same way that, traditionally, Australia has just been anti-nuclear.
Of course, that doesn’t sound very scientific, and it’s not – but I’m not a sociologist. Having participated in every aspect of a value-adding industrial process, I see how divorced from reality the notion truly is. The ideology of anti-centralised energy offers no way forward due to intrinsic inconsistency. Replying on an internet forum to reject any discussion of nuclear energy and advocate decentralised energy ignores the centralisation of the manufacturing required to mass produce every circuit and component needed for the mobile device or computer being used to post, plus the transmission infrastructure, the datacenters (which are inherently centralised) and any number of ancillary physical entities and services, and, fundamentally, dependable grid electricity required to run it all in an economical fashion. A skerrick of consistency would be obtained if such an advocate were to divest himself of all his personal electronic communication devices, which are only affordable due to centralised economies of scale – scale that he cannot grasp, and indeed frightens him. I hope many have in fact already done so, though we won’t hear from them, of course.
Further consistency – in the context of the actual energy debate – would be gained by opposing windfarms – invariably centralised at an optimal site to assist transmission of their output – and the economical manufacturing of solar panels, just as vociferously as nuclear reactors. We’re not talking about pencils here, this is seriously complex science, engineering and electronics, in all cases. Seimens and Yingli – just like Areva, Toshiba, Hitachi, Mitsubishi – are not exactly local produce cottage co-ops. This is important, because the decentralised energy argument does not lead to any answer to human-caused climate disruption. According to the best analysis, we are likely to see several degrees of average warming in the next seven decades – glacial retreat, ice shelf melt, less stable weather – along with possibly disastrous oceanic acidification. So let’s decentralise all our electrical supplies and – do what? Ride it out? All agree to (just as magically) limit the birthrate so far fewer people are fighting over resources by the time it gets really bad?
A moment’s clear thought is all it takes to see that resilience for the billions of people who will live in the future we shape today will be best delivered by enabling abundant energy supplies. Still hesitant about the risks of expanding modern nuclear energy as part of this? Fair enough, but authoritative information is available. Fact is, it’s already happening. At best it is merely the illusion of decentralised energy and, for all its indulgent western appeal, it won’t spontaneously take hold in the parts of the world hungriest for energy. What do proponents want to do – force them to decentralise?
I’m not hating on local economies – doing away with bank notes and trading locally-sourced produce and services among neighbours and communities. There should be more of that, and I feel it contributes to regional resilience. And obviously I’m not claiming that there’ll be no decentralised generation. There’ll be a lot. After all, the idea is popular and therefore marketable. Will it realistically contribute to climate action? I hope so, but the arithmetic is beyond the scope of this post. Take the example of solar PV plus batteries – Tesla is pursuing an unprecedented battery gigafactory, primarily “to engineer a step-change downwards in battery costs.” Well, that’s centralisation of mass-production to capture economies of scale. This is the only physical way to bring costs down for stuff normal folks want to buy, and it’s exactly what a hypothetical purely distributed energy world would lack.