Monday, July 10, 2017

Nuclear Power: The Macho Man's Manly Path to Global Salvation

I've written a bit about nuclear power before, and how it may be our best hope at achieving deep decarbonization in a reasonable time frame while still meeting our electricity needs. Put simply, nuclear power has three characteristics that make it extremely attractive from a decarbonization perspective:
  1. It's high capacity.
  2. It's zero-emission.
  3. It's dispatchable.
Back in the day, nuclear energy was attractive for a fourth reason -- people thought it would be inexpensive. Nuclear energy would famously be "too cheap to meter". This turned out to be a less than oracle-esque prophecy. Nuclear power plants have long been plagued with cost overruns, and their skyrocketing expense (along with a few very public safety scares) is what caused a long freeze in nuclear construction from which we are only just beginning to see a thaw.

But from my vantage, the issue blocking us from pursuing necessary anti-climate change action isn't monetary. We have the resources to do it. The problem is, for lack of a better word, cultural. Conservatives have gotten it into their heads that fighting climate change and promoting renewable power is something only woolly liberal hippies care about, because they hate capitalism or something. And since Cleek's Law states that "Today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily," that means conservatives oppose pretty much anything on the clean power agenda.

Enter nuclear energy. Nuclear power is not coded as liberal -- if anything, its public valence is probably still more anti-environmental stemming from "nuclear-free zone" politics emerging out of the 70s and 80s (nuclear waste controversies stemmed from whether holding sites designed to last 10,000 years were sufficiently permanent. Given that we're staring down catastrophic climate change by the end of this century, that timeframe looks adorably quaint). It's muscular -- nuclear energy is something big, bad-ass countries produce -- unlike solar power which might turn your calculator on if you're not in a dark room. Sure some people fret about "safety" (although nuclear power is on net actually quite safe), but conservatives actually tend to be less risk-averse when it comes to nuclear energy than liberals. And conservatives actually have no problem expending resources when it comes to things they care about -- like funneling money to really rich people or building jet fighters.

Basically, nuclear energy is culturally coded in a way that makes it acceptable to conservatives in a way that other clean power sources aren't. And so regardless of whether it's theoretically possible to go 100% clean power without resort to nukes, nuclear energy is unique in its ability to not be rejected out of hand by conservatives who hate what renewable energy represents -- limp, paternalistic liberalism that wants to take away American muscle and replace it with some Dutch windmill and hippie solar communes.

Now I want to be 100% clear: This is a profoundly stupid reason to push for nuclear power (there are good reasons, but "nuclear power is manly" is not one). As a human, I'm embarrassed that the argument has come to this -- that we can only convince people to endorse global salvation if we can frame in a way that allows them to feel sufficiently manly about it. But we're past the point where my pride matters. If conservatives need to feel like they're sticking it to liberals and environmentalists by promoting nuclear energy, har-dee-harharhar, I say we indulge them.

So let's go, conservatives. Make electricity great again. Back a big nuclear energy push. That'll show me and my liberal pals what's what. It's the macho, manly way to save the planet.

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