Nuclear Pipe Dreams: Too young to reason, too grown up to dream

Bryan Ferry wrote “too young to reason, too grown up to dream” in 1985 in the song Slave to Love, at the age of forty. Perhaps he wasn’t singing about teenage love as much as he was about the human condition. No matter how old we are, reasoning is faulty, imagination declines with age, and the way forward falls victim to hubris and doubt. Many of our self-proclaimed men and women of reason, the most highly educated and proudly rational leaders, refuse to accept evidence that capitalism is driving humanity over a cliff. They pretend that nuclear energy can solve the climate crisis while they are incapable of conjuring up a worthy dream of alternative social and technological transformation.
From the official music video for Slave to Love, Bryan Ferry, 1985
One man who is a rare exception to this breed, with the rare capacity to reason and dream a dream worth realizing, is the French physicist and ex-nucleocrat, Bernard Laponche. He left the French nuclear establishment in the early 1980s in order to do research on alternative energy. On March 22, 2016, he spoke at the Centre Franco-Japonais in Tokyo to explain how through two decades of research he and his colleagues at Global Chance have mapped out a plan for a complete transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear. His criticisms of nuclear energy and his ideas for alternatives were covered in a previous post, a translation of an interview published in Telerama.fr in 2011.

The main point one could take home from his presentation in Tokyo consisted of some simple data: 17% of global energy output is in the form of electricity, and 11% of that is produced by splitting uranium and plutonium atoms. 17 x 0.11 is 1.87, so, to round it up generously, that’s about 2% of global energy needs being supplied by nuclear energy (the charts below, from different sources, show similar figures from earlier years). Thus people who think nuclear energy can save the world are imagining an impossibly fast and vast nuclear expansion project, one which wise nations and private investors don’t want to pay for because of the obvious future uncertainties. Even if there were the desire to build such an expansion, it would be physically impossible. There aren’t enough suitable sites, and there is no way to handle the increased stocks of spent nuclear fuel rods. There has never been a solution for what already exists. Finally, society would have to be oblivious to all the risks and the legacy of damage that we have already.
The nuclear proponents are not entirely too old to have dreams, but the problem is that they are pipe dreams. They say they will build a new generation of safe reactors that will “eat up” all the nuclear waste over a few centuries, and during that time all other non-electricity types of energy will be electrified. Heating, cooling, transportation and industrial needs will all run on nuclear-generated electricity, and the planet will be saved from the catastrophic effects of fossil fuels. Then, a few centuries hence, there will be nirvana with the long-imagined fusion energy breakthrough.

Usually when a person tries to sell you something, or promise you something, you expect the goods to be delivered within a reasonable time. Otherwise, you have no faith in the offer. But the nuclear sales pitch promises nothing in your lifetime. It asks you to put up your money and bet on results that won’t be known for hundreds of years. You are told that the reactors and the waste products will all be built and managed securely for hundreds of years and the problems will be resolved at some point after your great-great grandchildren are dead. They really think this is a reasonable proposal, and they don’t seem to realize how unprecedented and radical it is to propose such grand schemes that must stretch into the deep future.

At a certain point these energy dreams become like a desire to reach heaven. All want would cease, and we’d all be sitting (bored out of our minds) on puffy white clouds on that great rapturous day when suffering ends and all our energy needs are fulfilled. This is why science has come to be called a cult.

Mr. Laponche finished his presentation by stressing that the most important thing is to forget about these messianic quests and keep our vision of our energy future down to earth, focused on what humans really need: clean water, clean air and clean soil. Needing these things is not the same as wanting to be comfortable, and our energy policy will have to be based on this understanding… which brings us back to that simple love song that is also about so much more—the downfall of the rich and the strong, burning skies and seas aflame. Several lines of the song conjure up this dilemma of self-deceived, hopeful, enslaved, earthbound creatures lost in a time of upheaval.

Tell her I'll be waiting in the usual place
With the tired and weary there's no escape
To need a woman you've got to know
How the strong get weak and the rich get poor
We're the restless hearted
Not the chained and bound
The sky is burning
A sea aflame
Though your world is changing
I will be the same
The storm is breaking or so it seems
We're too young to reason, too grown up to dream
Now spring is turning your face to mine
I can hear your laughter, I can see your smile
Slave to love
I can't escape

Repeated lines have been cut. The full lyrics can be found elsewhere.

Further reading:

*The vision and mission of  www.global-chance.org bears a great resemblance to that of the Rocky Mountain Institute. See the presentation by RMI’s Amory Lovins, Winning the Oil Endgame, for a close “English version” of the vision put forth by Mr. Laponche in French in the many articles published by Global Chance.

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