Oil, Gas, Nukes, and the Other Nukes
by Neil H. Buchanan
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Ukraine's largest, had its fifteen minutes of infamy recently, when the world held its breath for a few days to find out whether Russian military attacks on the nuke would lead to an unprecedented tragedy.
The worst did not happen -- or at least has not happened yet -- which meant that the blizzard of other war-related horrors quickly took over the news cycle. Yet it is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves that it was only four days ago that we were honestly wondering whether Russia's unprovoked attack on a nuclear power complex would lead to a global nightmare.
This is all happening while the threat of the other kind of nukes -- tactical nuclear weapons -- is suddenly back on people's minds. Stephen Colbert made a grim "duck and cover" joke a few days ago on his late night show, which reflects the tragic fact that this is probably the most worried people have been about the use of nuclear weapons in almost four decades. Nukes and nukes. What could go wrong?
Earlier this morning, I was pondering the question of how to think about nuclear power in light of the near-miss in Ukraine. I am one of the relatively dwindling number of people who have remained deeply skeptical of nuclear power in general, and I have become increasingly uncomfortable over the years as the notion of nukes as part of a "green energy program" has been embraced on the left.
My concerns had nothing to do with the kind of tragedy that almost happened in Ukraine last week, so I do not want to claim any kind of vindication (however perverse) or claim that my warnings had been ignored. I had offered no such warnings that I can recall, but in the aftermath of that scary moment less than a week ago, one would think that the unique danger posed by nuclear power plants' very existence would cause a few people to reconsider what they had been thinking.
Because this is not my area of expertise, my inclination is generally to trust the experts, and they seemed to be reaching a pro-nuke consensus. I could have, in fact, at any point over the last few years learned to stop worrying and love the nukes. If I had done so, however, last week's white-knuckle moment would certainly have had me saying, "Wow, that was not one of my concerns, but this certainly strengthens the case against nukes. Should I re-reconsider?"
Among the tiny handful of cable news hosts that I honestly respect, MSNBC's Chris Hayes probably tops the list. He is informed, intelligent, respectful of his guests and people with whom he disagrees, and often offers deeply incisive analyses of key issues. Even as the wide range of newsworthy issues makes it obvious that the use of news commentators who are generalists/dilettantes is a sick joke -- The New York Times thinks it makes sense to publish conversations between, say, Gail Collins and Bret Stephens about the breaking issues of the day, which is ridiculous enough on any issue, but now we are even supposed to take them seriously when these shallow pundits talk about the war in Ukraine? -- Hayes is a good example of how a former philosophy major with no specialized knowledge about any issue can still provide valuable insights on a nightly basis.
On last night's show (15-minute "highlight" video here), Hayes provided an excellent series of segments discussing the last fifty years of presidential pronouncements followed by US inaction on moving toward renewable energy sources. This concluded with Hayes interviewing US Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) about proposals to refuse to buy Russian oil and natural gas as a way to punish Putin for his murderous actions and pressure him to change course. Merkley pointed out that the German government had had a plausible theory about mutual dependence -- Germans need Russia's oil and gas but Russia needs Germany's petro-euros so much that Putin would never risk losing that source of income -- that is now utterly discredited by events.
Because I had been thinking about nuclear power before watching that video, I wondered whether Hayes would bring up that angle. He honestly need not have done so, because his discussions had mostly been about renewables, and Merkley had to that point only mentioned things like offshore wind farms and so on. Hayes, however, followed Merkley's comments about Germany's necessary rethink of its mutual dependence theory with this (13:42 mark):
Hayes -- Germany also had a plan to ... shutter a bunch of their nuclear plants, which provided a lot of power, which seems to me, in the wake of this -- I mean, it's the largest source of carbon-free power on the earth -- like, I think the verdict on that is that that was a mistake. Do you agree?
Merkley -- I do agree, and the Green Party had always recognized the downsides of nuclear energy, the concern about where you store the waste, the possibility of a Chernobyl incident -- a meltdown -- and those are real issues. But the Green Party is about saving the planet, and to save the planet right now, substituting gas for nuclear energy (Hayes interjects: "Yeah") at safe, well-established facilities is a mistake.
And that was the end of the interview. To which one can only say: "Wait. What?" In order to save the planet, Germany should have kept its nuclear plants open? Is Merkley saying (with Hayes's enthusiastic agreement) that this calculus still holds up even now, that is, that we are safer with nukes than we are with oil and gas?
To the extent that there is an argument there, it certainly cannot be the flip side of Germany's now-jettisoned mutual dependence theory. That is, even though it is now obvious that Putin will not be stopped by the threat of losing oil and gas sales, no one could imagine that Putin would have been stopped if the Germans and other western nations had been more reliant on nuclear power all along. Putin as madman is Putin as madman, and there is no reason to think that his actions in Ukraine and elsewhere would have changed either way.
In any event, that is clearly not what Merkley was trying to say. Having just mentioned Chernobyl as one of the central reasons that some people still reasonably continued to oppose nuclear power, the senator (with the full support of the pundit) then lapsed back into a prewar mentality: the world will be safer overall if we reduce our carbon footprint by shifting toward nuclear power. Again, prior to last week, I had spent years wavering about this tradeoff. It is simply bizarre, however, that both Hayes and Merkley agreed without further reflection that there is no reason even to consider updating where we should come down on the relative costs and benefits of nukes versus oil and gas.
If "the Green Party is about saving the planet," after all, should it not now be worried about something that was potentially ten times larger than Chernobyl? Note that Merkley said that the nukes that he favors would be "safe, well-established facilities." In context, that presumably means that they are (or would be) in Germany. Dresden is less than 800 miles from Kyiv, and NATO-member Poland (which also has nuclear plants) lies in between. I would be interested in knowing what Merkley thinks makes any particular nuclear power plant -- no matter how well established -- safe in the current situation.
Is it that Putin would not attack a NATO country? That he would certainly not attack Germany? Seriously? Putin as madman is Putin as madman. Even though today's reactors are reputedly safer than Chernobyl's was, the relative safety has to do with protections against spontaneous meltdowns. If Putin starts to use so-called low-yield nuclear weapons (which apparently would "only" kill 15 or 20 thousand people in limited strikes), and setting aside the possibility that such attacks would quickly escalate to kill tens of millions in less than five hours, would it not be better if there were no nuclear power plants -- no matter how safe they might otherwise be -- that could be hit?
My longstanding discomfort with the bipartisan embrace of nuclear power was in part fed by the problem of waste disposal, but more particularly by what to do when an entire plant becomes waste. That is, because all facilities have time-limited useful lives, they must be decommissioned at some point. But because part of what makes a plant no longer usable is that it has become too irradiated to be safe, the plants cannot be disassembled and moved to Yucca mountain or some other supposedly safe disposal site.
And even if that were possible, the dangers of the transportation process would be awesome to contemplate. Worries about certain countries using nuclear plants to create nuclear weapons seem only to be aimed at states like Iran, but having a different kind of "loose nuke" falling into the wrong hands is hardly a small concern.
Admittedly, this discussion is entirely hypothetical in the current debate, because we cannot go back in time and choose not to build the many, many nuclear power plants that are dotted across Europe and the rest of the world. We can only hope that the tragedies of the last two weeks will not soon be superseded by something unimaginably more deadly, if a nuclear plant were to become a mega-Chernobyl.
As I noted above, however, it seems that recent events should at least require asking whether the balance has been altered. That is, even if we are able to emerge from the current war without an existing nuclear plant being breached (by either nuclear or non-nuclear weapons), should we not at a minimum consider that this might be an additional reason -- maybe even an argument that is sufficient, standing on its own -- to think that Germany was right to want to move to a post-nuclear energy future?
Nukes of both types present risks that are in some sense incommensurable with other risks. The harms from using fossil fuels are well known and severe, and we should definitely move toward renewables quickly, especially because they have become so inexpensive. But how do we weigh those "known knowns" versus the "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns" of nuclear power?
I do believe that reasonable people can still differ on this, but it seems impossible not to have noticed that the anti-nuke argument has recently become much, much stronger. Unless, apparently, you are a liberal U.S. senator or an MSNBC pundit.