On why nuclear energy is incompatible with direct democracy

Written by Yavor Tarinski

The assumption that what currently exists must
necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.[1]

Murray Bookchin

The question of energy is of crucial importance when we discuss the future of our cities. Our contemporary heavily urbanized societies consume huge amounts of energy, which is being derived through environmentally degradive means.

The creation of democratic and ecological cities, beyond statecraft and capitalism, requires departure from our current energetic paradigm. Instead it implies changes in two basic directions: first, by going beyond the logic of the neutrality of technology; and second, by rethinking how our needs are being formed and towards what ends.

For the modernist Left, the problem is not our current technology but who owns it. For them technology is violent, wasteful and destructive only when used by the wrong hands (for example those of the capitalists). In their view, every technological innovation is not shaped by the context in which it was created, which in itself is really problematic concept.

Driven by this logic, many on the Left imagine the post-capitalist city’s energetic needs being supplied by nuclear power. Their answer to the anti-nuclear movement is that our current dependence on fossil fuels is destroying our world and nuclear energy is the quickest way towards salvation. But they seem blind to the characteristics, this energy source has, which were embedded in it by the contextual environment in which it emerged.

First of all, nuclear power is incompatible with decentralized and democratic forms of self-governance. Instead, as suggested by researcher Aaron Vansintjan, it requires large state subsidies and centralized planning[2]. According to him, nuclear power requires a regime of experts to manage, maintain, and decommission; a centralized power grid; large states to fund and secure them; and, then, a stable political environment to keep the waste safe for at least the next 10,000 years. The technology is only 80 years old, modern states have existed for about 200, humans have only been farming for 5,000, and most nuclear waste storage plans operate at a 100-year time-span. To put it mildly, an energy grid dependent on nuclear means having lot of trust in today’s political institutions.

This is deeply political issue. The vision of a nuclearly powered society implies the creation of a totalitarian-like organizational structure, a powerful state. The scale of such an energy system demands to be situated away from the people, in areas zoned away from the rest of society (even whole cities build around such power plants). In this environment scientists and technocratic elites will naturally play an important role. With all the dangers that come with nuclear power plants, there will be need of high level security measures, control and supervision. All these requirements make nuclear energy incompatible with direct democratic ecological visions. Instead, it is much more suitable for totalitarian ones like eco-fascism.

Furthermore, nuclear energy is incompatible with the new climate-impacted planetary conditions, which are highly prone to fires, extreme storms and sea-level rise. With the increase of the probability of environmental catastrophes and extremities, it is questionable to say the least, weather nuclear power can function safely. Professor Heidi Hutner has pointed out that wild weather, fires, rising sea levels, earthquakes and warming water temperatures all increase the risk of nuclear accidents[3]. And on top of that, the lack of safe, long-term storage for radioactive waste remains a persistent danger.

An energy source compatible with the paradigm of democratic and ecological cities is the one derived from renewables. But simply shifting from fossil fuels to renewable sources will not suffice. We must, first of all, avoid approaching renewables from a modernist perspective. This means that we cannot use them mainly in a centralized manned (like industrial-style enormous solar or wind farms), since this would require a bureaucratic managerial apparatus, not much different from the one required by nuclear power. Although it will never be possible to avoid larger scales, one democratic and ecological paradigm would require for us to develop renewables towards the greatest possible decentralization, so as to allow local communities to have direct control over their energy supply.

Then there is another issue that must be seriously considered. As author Stan Cox notes:

There’s nothing wrong with the ‘100-percent renewable’ part… it’s with the ‘100 percent of demand’ assumption that [scientists] go dangerously off the rails. At least in affluent countries, the challenge is not only to shift the source of our energy but to transform society so that it operates on far less end-use energy while assuring sufficiency for all. That would bring a 100-percent-renewable energy system within closer reach and avoid the outrageous technological feats and gambles required by high-energy dogma. It would also have the advantage of being possible.

Thus from ecological and democratic perspective, we cannot simply switch to this or that technology. We have to bear in mind the contextuality of every technological innovation and the scale on which it is being implemented. Energy is much more than simply a tool: it has to do with relationships between people, societies and ultimately between humanity and nature. In an democratic paradigm, it will have to be deliberated on grassroots level by all members of society.


[1] Murray Bookchin: “The Meaning of Confederalism,” in Green Perspectives, no. 20 (1990)

[2] https://www.redpepper.org.uk/wheres-the-eco-in-ecomodernism/

[3] https://aeon.co/ideas/nuclear-power-is-not-the-answer-in-a-time-of-climate-change

    – as Hermann Scheer wrote in his last book EnergETHIC Imperative. 100% Now: How to make reality the integral change towards renewable energy.
    – as Craig Morris & Arne Jungjohann clearly explain in their book Energy Democracy: Germany’s ENERGIEWENDE to Renewables

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