Last Monday’s meeting on nuclear power has got me thinking about the whole phenomenon of nuclear power and how it ever got to the size that it is. To me, it’s really a puzzle, because it’s so completely obvious that this is a technology that you don’t want to use on planets with a biosphere.
The basic problem is that the materials and natural forces that nuclear power exploits are so toxic and dangerous that it is never going to be possible to contain them for long. The history of major disasters once every ten to fifteen years, thousands of smaller incidents and ‘near misses’ bear this out. The nuclear industry has been promising us solutions to the problem of its waste products for the last 60 years, but it is really clear that there is no solution, even in the short term. How these materials are to be kept safe for hundreds of thousands of years (a period longer than humans have been around as a species), it is impossible to guess. In the shorter term the whole nuclear power cycle, which includes mining, production of fuel, reprocessing etc, sprawls across the globe generating plutonium for nuclear weapons that you would never want to get in to the hands of out of control entities such as Western governments. (Indeed, as the speakers at Monday’s meeting reminded us, although nuclear power was first promoted as a peaceful compensation for the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first nuclear reactors were designed specifically to maximise the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons production.)
The usual answer to the question of why powerful technologies persist is that somebody is making money out of them, and that’s undoubtedly true for nuclear power, although only at the cost of massive subsidies from tax-payers: if capitalism were allowed to function ‘normally’, nuclear power would not exist. Despite the propaganda, it’s also obvious that saving us from climate change is certainly not the reason that nuclear somehow persists: we could never build enough nuclear power stations quickly enough to make any significant dent in the problem.
So, there’s something else going on, some other underlying drive that tries to keep the nuclear show on the road despite all difficulties. I suspect that if you were to ask the nuclear engineers, they would tell you that it is precisely the challenge of overcoming the seemingly impossible technical difficulties that they find so rewarding. Nuclear power stations are probably the most complex engineering projects on the planet. Even though that complexity, which is required in order to contain all the toxic materials and huge temperatures and pressures that reactors operate at is itself a major cause of vulnerability. The more complex the system, the more points at which it can fail – this is the Catch 22 of nuclear technology. But all that does not matter to the engineers because, ultimately what’s driving them is their own ideology, the ideology of technocracy, which insists that human beings can and must find ways to control nature, whatever the cost. Nuclear power is the most extreme example of the technocratic ideology in today’s world, although geoengineering and synthetic biology are catching up fast.
As ever, the pathological shines a light on the basic functioning of a system. Since the Scientific Revolution and the age of Enlightenment, the central ideas of the technocratic world view – materialism, the view of nature as a clockwork mechanism, the idea of ‘objectivity’ and the scientific method as the sole arbiter of truth – have underlain what our culture calls rationality. These ideas have inspired generations of scientists and engineers to use science and technology to help people, and no one can deny their genuine motivation to do good. But the persistence with a project as obviously insane as nuclear power shows that, at the heart of scientific rationality there is a fundamental flaw, one that can lead scientists into complete irrationality. The dark side of the apparently innocent move to harness nature’s forces for human benefit is an iron will to control and manipulate nature without restraint. If you really force scientists and engineers into a corner, they will admit that this is how they think, and they can’t see anything wrong with it. Four hundred years of allowing that philosophy free rein has undoubtedly produced some spectacular successes and benefits for humanity, but the downside of that history is an overconfidence that can sometimes lead to massive overreach, such as nuclear power.
I am a member of Luddites200, and like the Luddites themselves, we are not an anti-technology movement. Our central assertion is not that technology is bad, but that it is political, and that those political forces, acting through technology often produce effects that are what the Luddites called, ‘hurtful to Commonality’. The main task of Luddites is to democratise the politics that leads to the introduction and adoption of some technologies and not others. But I have to admit that there are some technologies that are simply bad, full stop. Nuclear power is one of them and to persist with it is not merely wrong, it’s insane.