Yesterday’s announcement that Britain is to ‘go nuclear’ was a foregone conclusion, but is nonetheless a dispiriting reminder of the institutional inertia that stands between us and a radically lighter economy.
As Polly Toynbee points out in The Guardian today, “no voice in cabinet queried this decision. Faced with persistent cabinet and industry lobbying, and professors bearing heavy statistics, MPs have simply caved in (under) the sheer grinding pressure of the nuclear industry, the engineering institutes and a host of powerful interests”.
It’s not that all government ministers and parliamentarians are bad people. But, as Toynbee asks, “how are ordinary politicians (or journalists) to know which group of distinguished professors bearing statistics is right?”
As an example of the problem, I spent two hours last evening trying to find out about the embergy (embodied energy) that the vast UK programme will entail. That’s to say, what is the total impact not just of the energy output once the things are up and running, but also the extraction and processing costs of all the steel, concrete, new materials, nuts and bolts and electronics in the reactor pressure vessels, steam generators, and turbines, large pumps, control systems – not to mention the concrete and steel for the containment and other buildings, and distribution infrastructure?
I found a small number of much-cited studies – and a lot of vitriolic disagreement about their veracity and meaning.
Now, imagine you are a new minister of energy. No, don’t: in the UK the decision was in fact taken by the ‘Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform’. You arrive in your new job. (The British minister had been in his job since June). You walk in the door to be confronted by hordes of civil servants and eminent professors whose careers, identity and self-esteem are predicated on a perpetually more energy-intensive economy. The media are screaming about an impending ‘energy crunch’. What are you to do? Go home and Google “nuclear versus renewables” ? No. You sign on the dotted line, that’s what you do.
This does not make the minister a bad person. He is trapped in an institutional framework that disallows him the time and context to think clearly. Besides, he is confronted by the wrong question. The real question is not whether nuclear is “bad” and renewables are “good;” it’s whether the energy regime of our economy as a whole is sustainable.
And it ain’t.
We lack the net energy needed to keep the show going. As ever John Michael Greer puts it better than I can so I will use his words to explain.
“Net energy”, Greer explains, is a simple concept: “it takes energy to get energy. To calculate the net energy available from an energy resource, you add up the energy used to find, extract, process and deliver that resource and then subtract that amount from the amount of energy the resource contains. Uranium contains a very high concentration of energy, but the complex systems needed to mine, process, use, and clean up after it probably use more energy than the uranium itself contains. Once we no longer have the nearly free energy of fossil fuels concentrated for us by half a billion years of geology, concentrating energy beyond a certain fairly modest point will rapidly become a losing game in thermodynamic terms. At that point, insofar as progress is measured by the kind of technology that can cross deep space, progress will be over”.