The Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic downturn have led, again, to calls for governments to institute some kind of a Green New Deal (GND) to both create jobs and deal with climate change. Most prominently, climate and environment ministers from 17 European countries have publicly called upon the European Commission to include some such deal as part of the EU recovery plan. In the United States, too, there have been similar calls from academics, community organizers, and journalists; there are even hints that the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden might embrace parts of this proposal.
There is no single version of a Green New Deal. Yet, all versions share many common features. They universally emphasize major investment in solar and wind energy to meet climate goals and because these sectors create many more jobs than older centralized energy forms. With the rapid declines in the costs of renewable energy and storage technologies, the economic logic for their expansion is impeccable.
Within discussions of the GND, what is fiercely debated is nuclear power. For proponents of nuclear power, the case for inclusion is obvious: it is a low carbon source of electricity. Some go so far as arguing that it is impossible to meet any serious climate targets without nuclear energy. Conversely, most serious proponents of the GND would simply not countenance an increase in nuclear power.
This is as it should be, for GND proposals also emphasize considerations having to do with ethics and equity. These emphases are what make these Green New Deals rather than just climate change mitigation plans. They explain why the Green New Deal for Europe calls for supporting climate justice around the world and the New Democratic Party’s GND proposal in Canada stresses respect for indigenous rights.
Nuclear power is not compatible with this emphasis. The environmental impacts of the long chain of processes involved in generating electricity from nuclear reactors are unevenly spread out, and the heaviest burdens have been placed on historically marginalized communities, especially indigenous populations.
Consider, for example, uranium mining. Much of the uranium that has been mined around the world has come from areas occupied by indigenous peoples, including in Australia, in Canada, in India, and in the United States. Several examples of proposed uranium mining projects are in areas with large indigenous populations, for example in Meghalaya in India, or in the United States. Indigenous communities have suffered incalculable health consequences as a result of these activities, for example, the Navajo Nation in the United States.
At the other end of the fuel chain is radioactive waste that is produced by all nuclear power plants. Many of the sites that have been proposed as potential hosting places for nuclear waste have high proportions of indigenous populations. This has been a major concern in Canada, and has been termed nuclear colonialism; earlier in January, the Saugeen Ojibway Nation voted overwhelmingly against one such proposal. The proposed Yucca Mountain repository is strongly resisted by the Western Shoshone people, on whose lands the site is located.
Underlying this resistance is the reality that there is no demonstrated solution to safely managing nuclear waste. The radioactive elements in nuclear waste will remain hazardous to human health for hundreds of thousands of years. This long period poses a challenge to distributive justice; any putative benefits of producing this nuclear waste will accrue to current generations while future generations will face the risks resulting from their production. This mismatch does not fit well with the ethical ideas underlying Green Nuclear Deal proposals.
Another tenet underlying all GND proposals is the need for rapid climate action, the importance of which was reinforced by the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report outlining the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. International bodies have warned that we only have a decade to stop irreversible damage from climate change. Urgency is the reason GND proposals set ambitious targets for emission reductions.
Nuclear power is incompatible with this envisioned pace. It takes approximately 10 years to go from start of construction to connecting a new nuclear plant to the electricity grid. It might take another decade before starting construction to prepare the site, deal with the necessary safety and environmental licensing processes, and engage in complex negotiations needed to raise the billions of dollars the reactor costs. Nuclear energy capacity can simply not be scaled up rapidly.
The bottom line is that nuclear power is incompatible with any plan that strives to be a Green New Deal. Add to this the long list of other problems confronting nuclear power, including unfavorable economics, danger of catastrophic accidents, and connections with nuclear weapons proliferation, and the GND for Europe proposal that the world should be planning for the “obsolescence” of nuclear energy makes complete sense.
Schyler Edmundson is a policy professional from Vancouver, B.C. whose research explores the intersection between public policy and climate change, and has worked at Environment and Climate Change Canada and as a Research Assistant for the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia.
M. V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia.