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How the nuclear debate was resolved (for now) in Finland
And how the issue is connected to modes of environmentalism
Energy is certainly a hot topic. The climate crisis moves onward at its own crushing pace. At the same time, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the resulting sanctions and countersanctions and the general related economic crisis and inflation are creating friction. The events challenge the political sustainability of one of the main proposed solutions to the climate crisis; the process of moving towards fossil-free energy production.
This has also led to a new appraisal of nuclear power. Germans feel the heat for their decision to phase out their nuclear plants. With the German government now being forced to reopen coal plants in the face of what seems to be an indeterminate Russian shut-off of natural gas, and the prospect of a cold winter with no heating, many are pushing the German government to rethink this approach.
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While Finland won’t be able to avoid difficulties during winter, the things are at least different here regarding the nuclear front. The nuclear issue is has been essentially resolved, at least for now. Almost the whole of the political sphere has adopted either a pro-nuclear or what amounts to a neutral stance on the issue.
Finland currently has four operational nuclear units with a fifth one on the way (though considerably delayed) and plans for the sixth one to start construction on 2023 (edit: these plans have been put on ice due to the war in Ukraine). There is a lot of discussion on individual new projects and how useful they are. Nevertheless, doing what the Germans have been doing is certainly not on the agenda. Current proposals for new nuclear projects are mostly for small modular reactors, not old-school big plants. Some have said that SMR's could be implemented in 10-15 years, and some Greens have been particularly bullish on SMR's.
What has led to this consensus? Some reasons might include that Finland has, as a country, a long experience in nuclear energy, a generally pro-technology culture, no major production of fossil fuels (i.e., no coal lobby or oil lobby), and comparatively scarce opportunities for new large-scale non-polluting utilization of renewables.
The climate change debate of the last few years has also led to many activists rethinking their own stances. A lot of ground-level work has been done by the Ecomodernist Society of Finland, a small but visible pro-nuclear environmentalist organization which has had good media presence and has also, by participating visibly in climate change demonstrations, made it OK in the environmental activist scene to be pro-nuclear.
However, there’s also a reflection of a wider shift. To conceive this shift, we might talk about two different rough modes of environmentalism. These overlap, often heavily, and people often are aligned to both categories, but there are still enough differences between these to be distinct.
There’s what might be “catastrophe environmentalism”, which is the most concerned with the possibility that the modern society is doing something so irreplaceably fatal and global in scale that it might doom the whole of humanity, or at least the industrial civilization. Examples include climate change, of course, but also previously concerns about the “the population bomb”, the ongoing wave of extinctions, ozone hole, perhaps peak oil and if one wants to stretch the definition of environmentalism a bit, things like AI risk.
The second mode is what I’d call “bodily purity environmentalism”. This mode argues that modern society is creating a lot of byproducts that interfere with the working of our bodies and cause unnatural effects, from cancers to other ailments to birth defects to just plain unhealthiness. This is not presented as much as a global catastrophe threatening the entire humanity as a series of local issues causing hardships to a lot of individual humans.
These are not the only modes, of course. There’s also what might be termed “value of nature environmentalism”, which is less concerned with humanity by itself, but rather conceives nature as axiomatically worth preserving, from the preservation of ancient woods to endangered animals, or animal rights in general.
Movements like recycling, too, have elements that don’t quite fit in with either of these two main alternatives. However, for the purposes of this argument, we can talk about these two main modes, one concentrating on the existential risks faced by the entire humanity, the other taking a more personal, organic view of what might threaten individual human beings.
Anti-nuclear movement has traditionally been a solid fixture of the bodily purity category. Radiation is conceptualized as a form of impurity, along with toxins and other more physical forms of impurities. The anti-nuclear movement has been concerned with the idea that unsafe nuclear plants nor only lead to cancers, birth defects and other things through radiation, particularly in case of a meltdown, but might also lead to other fatal emissions, the stereotypical Simpsons “green goo” and so on.
This is not the *only* criticism of nuclear that there is, of course. Currently more popular criticisms have included, for instance, concerns about the non-renewability of nuclear power or the centralized nature of nuclear energy leading to societal vulnerability, and so on. However, looking at the history of the anti-nuclear movement as a popular topic, the main impetus has been the fear of radiation – and the related idea of bodily purity being disrupted.
Bodily purity environmentalism used to be the main stereotypical mode of environmentalism and behind much popular environmentalist support. During the recent decades, it’s clear that catastrophe environmentalism has usurped it and now provides the main impetus. As mentioned, the growing urgency of climate change as an issue has affected this. Even without taking the increase in European heat waves into account, it has been easy to observe in places like Finland that generally winters are shorter and summers longer than before.
In another sense, though, the bodily purity environmentalists were too successful for their own good. Nuclear power, along with many of the issues the environmentalist movement were concerned with, has just plain become safer than before, probably due both to scientific advances and nuclear safety legislation. Chernobyl might have once given an enormous boost to the anti-nuclear movement, with bodily purity issues very much in focus due to rescue workers getting cancers and allegations of children suffering mutations. Nowadays, though, there’s far less general angst about living in the vicinity of nuclear plants, even after Fukushima.
The purity mentality has often clashed with progressive appreciation of science and technology, since presents technology and progress as not something that will save the entire humanity but as something that constantly creates dangerous byproducts that cause unnatural reactions in our bodies. This has been very evident in the nuclear debate, but when it comes to climate change, the environmentalist movement and scientific consensus have tended to move in lockstep.
Another major bodily purity cause that has clashed with the technologist mentality has been GMOs, a major point for 90s environmentalist movement but much less an issue these days. It might be considered remarkable that there are not more people prone to “it will change your DNA” argument regarding the mRNA-tech-based Covid vaccines, considering the huge number of people, including environmentally conscious people, who have got vaxxed.
The anti-vaccine movement used to have something of an overlap with the environmentalist movement, at least enough to lead to some embarrassment for environmentalists and conscious efforts to sever this linkage. Through these efforts, the situation has conclusively changed in the recent years. In my circles, I’ve been witnessing an increasing amount of scorn for “hippies” and all sorts of naturalness rhetoric in general. This, of course, creates an opening for the right wing to appeal to this crowd.
If my theory is true, and assuming there’s not going to be something that would once again change the situation and make people more concerned about toxins and radiation and their bodies, I’d expect what I’ve seen in Finland to eventually happen elsewhere. Certainly, it might not look that way with the Germans now, but then again, the German government’s policy is not the one actually favored by the voters, and there are signs of a potential shift towards extending the life of the nuclear plants. The coming years will show if Finland is, within Europe, a harbinger - or an exception.
Image: Olkiluoto 1 and 2 nuclear power plants. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Olkiluoto_1_%26_2.jpg
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