Nuclear Power and the Road to Ecomodernism

By Levin Schüren

Pho­to Cred­it: “Nuclear Envi­ron­men­tal­ist” by jurvet­son is licensed under

What if a belief you deeply held and one that’s rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed by your entire social cir­cle is actu­al­ly wrong and harm­ful? In the spir­it of my last blog, I want to tell the sto­ry of how I changed my mind on a major issue. The posi­tion I want to chal­lenge is deeply engrained in the DNA of the main­stream envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, espe­cial­ly here in Ger­many: the oppo­si­tion to nuclear power.

Grow­ing up in Altona, being anti-nuclear was as nor­mal as wear­ing clothes. Anti-nuclear protests were the first ones I attend­ed, and so did every respectable human being I knew. The icon­ic yel­low-sun say­ing Atom­kraft? – Nein, danke! (“Nuclear Ener­gy? No thanks”) was smil­ing at me from cars, street­lights, and doors. At the year­ly Altonale fes­ti­val, my friends and I were able to have some fun with the voice-chang­ing prop­er­ties of heli­um – at the cour­tesy of polit­i­cal par­ties adver­tis­ing their pro­gram by hand­ing out bal­loons. How­ev­er, that was not the only rea­son we head­ed for these tents. We also tried to con­vince the con­ser­v­a­tives to change their posi­tion on nuclear ener­gy. By my late teens, I con­sid­ered the argu­ment set­tled. Green ener­gy will get us out of that cli­mate mess. The fact that Ger­many was, and still is, heav­i­ly reliant on fos­sil fuels is due to failed pol­i­tics. What else? All these won­der­ful peo­ple I loved and cared about were on one side – the right one. They can’t pos­si­bly be all wrong, can they? 

It wasn’t until my ear­ly twen­ties that my opin­ions start­ed to change. At one point, I was forced to turn around and see, not the danc­ing shad­ows on the wall of the cave, but the world for what it real­ly is. I was con­front­ed with the very real prob­lems of renew­able ener­gy. But I’m a solu­tion-dri­ven guy, so I looked at what our options are. And what did I find? Nuclear ener­gy. It was like in some high-school teen movie where the pro­tag­o­nist dis­cov­ers his true love has been right in front of him the entire time – he just didn’t real­ize it. 

From a con­cern for cli­mate change, I devel­oped the idea of stay­ing at a sus­tain­able farm for some time. I was con­vinced that once all our jobs are auto­mat­ed, we can all be farm­ers – a bless­ing for the mind and the envi­ron­ment. I went to Swe­den to assist a young lad from Scot­land who had bought a house and some land to live off. Sur­round­ed by pine trees and mead­ows so rich in flow­ers, his plot would make every florist jeal­ous. The only cook­ing tool capa­ble of deal­ing with the scarce ener­gy from the solar pan­el was a slow cook­er. Even though I enjoyed every minute of my stay, some part of me antic­i­pat­ed the return to civ­i­liza­tion. 

I remem­ber com­ing home and get­ting very excit­ed just by turn­ing on the stove as long as I want­ed to. What I did learn about myself is – while I like being out­side – I don’t want to spend my entire ener­gy on cook­ing food or mak­ing sure I have a nice place to live. So how could I demand that of oth­er peo­ple? There’s also a gigan­tic dif­fer­ence between active­ly choos­ing to be a sub­sis­tence farmer, from a posi­tion of wealth and oppor­tu­ni­ty, and being one just by the virtue of birth. Luck­i­ly, I wasn’t the first per­son to under­stand that going back to live a low ener­gy life is not an option for most peo­ple. Quite to the con­trary, ener­gy pover­ty is a cause of many dis­eases, whether it’s due to the use of wood as cook­ing fuel or insuf­fi­cient cool­ing of food. 

The school of thought, which in my opin­ion best nav­i­gates the prob­lems of glob­al pover­ty and cli­mate change, is eco­mod­ernism. It orig­i­nat­ed on the West Coast of the U.S. The idea is to min­i­mize human impact to the earth by lim­it­ing the CO2 out­put and the space need­ed for human activ­i­ties while hav­ing a pros­per­ous econ­o­my, aimed at get­ting peo­ple out of pover­ty. Nuclear ener­gy is essen­tial to that process because, unlike fos­sil fuels, it pro­duces much less car­bon diox­ide.  

Now you might be think­ing, alright so we get all that ener­gy, but what good is it if we’re then poi­soned by radi­a­tion? How does it com­pare to all oth­er sources of ener­gy, and is the fear of low-lev­el radi­a­tion jus­ti­fied? I start­ed writ­ing this piece in Jan­u­ary. As of March, the issue of ener­gy became more dire than ever. As we’ve since learned, the West has out­sourced not only the pro­duc­tion of ener­gy prod­ucts, such as gas and oil to oth­er coun­tries, but also the pro­duc­tion of essen­tial ener­gy intense prod­ucts such as fer­til­iz­er to, in par­tic­u­lar, Chi­na and Rus­sia. 

 Fight­ing cli­mate change is not an easy task. For­tu­nate­ly, the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple rec­og­nize the neces­si­ty to start doing it. It will entail an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion on the risks and ben­e­fits of pro­duc­ing ener­gy as well as fun­da­men­tal ques­tions on what kind of soci­ety we want to live in. For me, instead of hav­ing poten­tial pow­er short­ages, I ask every­one to recon­sid­er their view on nuclear ener­gy. 

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Levin Schüren is a stu­dent at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg. He’s inter­est­ed in debat­ing and learn­ing about all kinds of issues rang­ing from pol­i­tics, phi­los­o­phy of sci­ence, and moral­i­ty to more prac­ti­cal issues, such as ener­gy and eco­nom­ic development.