Out of the Nuclear Closet

Why it's time for environmentalists to stop worrying and love the atom.

Not long after a tsunami washed over Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plants in March 2011, causing a partial meltdown, it appeared to many that humankind's half-century experiment with nuclear power might be in permanent jeopardy. Although nuclear energy provides 15 percent of the world's electricity, all without spewing greenhouse gas emissions, many countries seemed ready to forgo nuclear for deadlier but less viscerally frightening power sources. And sadly, while U.S. political leaders, including those at the just-concluded Democratic National Convention, are quick to trumpet their embrace of natural-gas drilling, the word "nuclear" is scarcely ever mentioned.

A year and half after the accident, it's clear that the political fallout from Fukushima has been less than many anticipated. Despite the predictable denunciations from anti-nuclear campaigners and high-profile shifts away from nuclear both in Germany-- which is now planning to phaseout nuclear power entirely by 2022 -- and Japan -- where the government is seriously considering making the country's post-Fukushima shutdown permanent -- the nuclear landscape today looks much as it did before the accident. In places where rapidly growing energy demand has outstripped the availability of domestic fossil fuel reserves, nuclear remains the only reliable alternative to generate sufficient electrical power. Chinaand India are proceeding apace with plans to expand their nuclear generation capacity dramatically. South Korea recently announced plans to increase significantly the percentage of electricity it gets from nuclear energy.

Yes, in a number of developed economies with lower rates of growth and abundant reserves of fossil energy, reawakened nuclear fears have raised the bar for new nuclear projects. But these economies weren't building many new nuclear plants before Fukushima anyway. Germany's on-again, off-again relationship with nuclear has dragged on for decades, and in the wake of Fukushima, off is back in. But tellingly, despite top German officials' promises that "the nuclear power chapter has come to an end for us," Germany only shut down its oldest and smallest reactors, with a full phase-out not expected until 2017. Japan has shut down its fleet, at great economic cost, but already has restarted one reactor in Ohi. Now some in Japan are suggesting restarting more of them in the interest of reducing the nation's almost total dependence on imported coal, oil, and gas, which has turned Japan's long history of large trade surpluses into an enormous and unprecedented trade deficit in little over a year.

Arguably, the biggest impact of Fukushima on the nuclear debate, ironically, has been to force agrowing number of pro-nuclear environmentalists out of the closet, including us. The reaction to the accident by anti-nuclear campaigners and many Western publics put a fine point on the gross misperception of risk that informs so much anti-nuclear fear. Nuclear remains the only proven technology capable of reliably generating zero-carbon energy at a scale that can have any impact on global warming. Climate change -- and, forthat matter, the enormous present-day health risks associated with burning coal, oil, and gas -- simply dwarf any legitimate risk associated with the operation of nuclear power plants. About 100,000 people dieevery year due to exposure to air pollutants from the burning of coal. By contrast, about 4,000 people have died from nuclear energy -- ever -- almost entirely due to Chernobyl.

But rather than simply lecturing our fellow environmentalists about their misplaced priorities, and how profoundly inadequate present-day renewables are as substitutes for fossil energy, we would do better to take seriously the real obstacles standingin the way of a serious nuclear renaissance. Many of these obstacles have nothing to do with the fear-mongering of the anti-nuclear movement or, for that matter, the regulatory hurdles imposed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and similar agencies around the world.

As long as nuclear technology is characterized by enormous upfront capital costs, it is likely to remain just a hedge against overdependence on lower-cost coal and gas, not the wholesale replacement it needs to be to make a serious dent in climate change. Developing countries need large plants capable of bringing large amounts of new power to their fast-growing economies. But they also need power to be cheap. So long as coal remains the cheapest source of electricity in the developing world, it is likely to remainking.

The most worrying threat to the future of nuclear isn't the political fallout from Fukushima -- it's economic reality. Even as new nuclear plants are built in the developing world, old plants are being retired in the developed world. For example, Germany's plan to phase out nuclear simply relies on allowing existing plants to be shut down when they reach the ends of their lifetime. Given the size and cost of new conventional plants today, those plants are unlikely to be replaced with new ones. As such, the combined political and economic constraints associated with current nuclear energy technologies mean that nuclear energy's share of global energy generation is unlikely to grow in the coming decades, as global energy demand is likely to increase faster than new plants can be deployed.

To move the needle on nuclear energy to the point that it might actually be capable of displacing fossil fuels, we'll need new nuclear technologies that are cheaper and smaller. Today, there are a range of nascent, smaller nuclear power plant designs, some of them modifications of the current light-water reactor technologies used on submarines, and others, like thorium fuel and fast breeder reactors, which are based on entirely different nuclear fission technologies. Smaller, modular reactors can be built much faster and cheaper than traditional large-scale nuclear power plants. Next-generation nuclear reactors are designed to be incapable of melting down, produce drastically less radioactive waste, make it very difficult or impossible to produce weapons grade material, useless water, and require less maintenance.

Most of these designs still face substantial technical hurdles before they will be ready for commercial demonstration. That means a great deal of research and innovation will be necessary to make these next generation plants viable and capable ofdisplacing coal and gas. The United States could be a leader on developing these technologies, but unfortunately U.S. nuclear policy remains mostly stuck in the past. Rather than creating new solutions, efforts to restart the U.S. nuclear industry have mostly focused on encouraging utilities to build the next generation of large, light-water reactors with loan guarantees and various other subsidies and regulatory fixes. With a few exceptions, this is largely true elsewhere around the world as well.

Nuclear has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress for more than 60 years, but the enthusiasm is running out. The Obama administration deserves credit for authorizing funding for two small modular reactors, which will be built at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. But a much more sweeping reform of U.S. nuclear energy policy is required. At present, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission haslittle institutional knowledge of anything other than light-water reactors andvirtually no capability to review or regulate alternative designs. This affects nuclear innovation in other countries as well, since the NRC remains, despite its many critics, the global gold standard for thorough regulation of nuclear energy. Most other countries follow the NRC's lead when it comes to establishing new technical and operational standards for the design, construction, and operation of nuclear plants.

What's needed now is a new national commitment to the development, testing, demonstration, and early stage commercialization of a broad range of new nuclear technologies  -- from much smaller light-water reactors to next generation ones  -- in search of a few designs that can be mass produced and deployed at a significantly lower cost than current designs. This will require both greater public support fornuclear innovation and an entirely different regulatory framework to review and approve new commercial designs.

In the meantime, developing countries will continue to build traditional, large nuclear powerplants. But time is of the essence. With the lion's share of future carbon emissions coming from those emerging economic powerhouses, the need to develop smaller and cheaper designs that can scale faster is all the more important.

A true nuclear renaissance can't happen overnight. And it won't happen so long as large and expensive light-water reactors remain our only option. But in the end, there is no credible path to mitigating climate change without a massive global expansion of nuclear energy. If you care about climate change, nothing is more important than developing the nuclear technologies we will need to get that job done.


Democracy Lab

The Gang That Can't Shoot Straight

The Syrian National Council has failed to galvanize international support for the rebellion -- and it has only itself to blame.

Last week, the Syrian opposition columnist Ghassan Muflih, writing in the online newspaper Elaph, informed his readers who was to blame for the failure to dislodge Bashar al-Assad. "The West is supportive of the demands of the Syrian people [to live in] freedom and dignity but does not encourage the success of the revolution," he wrote. "The reasons are related to the Israeli desire to see the destruction of Syria at the hands of the Assad gangs. The Western position is justified by flimsy arguments, for example, when they speak of Islamist militants or the unity of the opposition. However, the essence of the western position remains: Give Assad more time to kill."

It's understandable that some try to hold the West accountable for the continuing horrors in Syria. Last month was the deadliest so far, with the overall death toll surpassing 20,000 and the number of refugees that have fled the fighting exceeding 150,000. (The photo above shows a street scene in Aleppo earlier this week.) All UN attempts to end the bloodshed have so far come to nothing -- a dismal failure underscored by the resignation last month of UN-AL special envoy Kofi Annan. The prospects for his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, are poor. Air support from the countries of the West would probably be far more effective when it comes to loosening Assad's grip - but the prospects for that appear remote.

But while the West recognizes the inadequacy of the international response and has clashed with Russia and China over the matter, the Syrian opposition appears to be blissfully unaware of its own role in prolonging the conflict. By failing to create a credible alternative that appeals to Syrians, as well as to the international community, the opposition has consistently put a damper on any plan for western military intervention. Their division and incompetence are now the main lifeline for a beleaguered Assad.

The Syrian National Council claims to be the largest, the best-financed, and the most well-organized of all the various Syrian opposition coalitions. According to its own books, it has received over $25 million from Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, not to mention assistance from the U.S. and the UK in the form of "non-lethal aid."

Last week, SNC President Abdulbaset Sieda lashed out at U.S. officials for saying that it was premature to speak about a transitional Syrian government. He described the many differences within the SNC as "normal." Normality is a relative concept, but in suggesting that the SNC's performance during the past year could in any way be considered "normal" in a country crying out for alternative leadership is as breathtakingly insulting as it is naïve.

SNC members like to cite the Western intervention in Libya as the sort of thing that needs to happen in Syria now. But the West's involvement in Libya came about partly because the Libyan opposition demonstrated a basic capacity for leadership. A transitional council was formed within one week of the first anti-Qaddafi protests. That council appointed a commander-in-chief to lead the rebel forces. It sent emissaries around the world to represent the opposition to foreign governments, and it immediately established contacts with grassroots constituencies inside the country. A respected defector, Mustafa Abduljalil, was elected to head an executive team tasked with implementing a clear-headed strategy to bring down Qaddafi at all costs.

The SNC has done nothing of the sort. Its control over the Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups remains tenuous, sustained only by payments of cash but little else. Repeated attempts to bring the armed opposition under its political wing have failed because there is little trust in the SNC as a representative body. The resultant void in leadership has been filled by radical jihadist groups that have emerged as powerful challengers to the SNC. 

Despite its claims to "serve as a political umbrella for the Syrian Revolution in the international arena," the SNC has yet to appoint a single delegate or spokesperson in any of the world's major capitals.

Competing factionalism within the SNC means that ponderous and ineffective delegations of twenty or more fly around the world at great expense because none of the constituent parties trust each other to sit with foreign governments alone. It should come as little surprise that no country apart from Libya recognizes the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Among the Syrian revolution's rank-and-file, the SNC appears distant and increasingly irrelevant. Despite access to at least seven satellite television channels and dozens of websites and YouTube channels, the SNC was neither able to appeal to its own core constituency (Sunni Arabs) or to develop sophisticated messages to engage with the minority groups on whose continued support Assad relies.

To this day, the SNC does not have a discernible media strategy. It failed to understand that the key to winning the media war is not credibility but consistent messaging. Opposition activists have become obsessed with reporting details while the regime media machine keeps its eye on the big picture. "People don't have to believe what is being broadcast," says Nadim Shehadi, Syria specialist at Chatham House, "but the overall message [of the regime's propaganda] is ‘we're here and here to stay,' which is quite strong."

Leadership in the SNC is very much "by committee," and this precludes the emergence of a strong and popular leader. The SNC was created by a series of delicately constructed alliances between competitors: secularists and Islamists, Arabs and Kurds, party affiliates and independents, tribal chiefs and Facebook activists. What this means in practice is that decisions, more often than not, are compromises.

The SNC's first president, Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, was just such a compromise, and it showed. A Paris-based academic with no prior experience in front-line politics, his nine months at the head of the organization were marked by dithering and confusion over policy towards militarization and foreign intervention. Under his watch, the initial goodwill that was extended by the international community steadily ebbed away. His successor, a Stockholm-based Kurdish academic, did nothing to dispel the air of the exiles' elitist disconnect from the street.

Perhaps the most damning failure of the SNC was its inability to frame the struggle in Syria in its own terms. In what can only be described as a shameful case of intellectual cowardice, little attempt was made to define the revolution using the language of politics. Where is the list of specific grievances and demands? Where are the revolutionary slogans and symbols? Where are the thinkers that are shaping the way that Syrians understand their act of rebellion? What the revolution is about and what it aims to achieve are questions that invariably draw vague and emotional responses from SNC politicians -- responses that, though playing well to Al-Jazeera's audience, have left western observers feeling confused and underwhelmed.

The conflict exposed a series of ruptures within Syrian society -- be it sectarian, ethnic, class-based, or ideological -- which the SNC was expected to address head-on as part of a compelling new vision. The adoption by protesters of the pre-Ba'ath Party, green-white-black tricolor known as the Flag of Independence, a symbol around which Syrians rallied in their struggle against the French mandate, should have been enough to convince the SNC that they needed to seek legitimacy not in Doha or Paris but in Syria's "golden age." The post-independence liberal democracy (1946-58) is a reference point from which the SNC could have launched a progressive political program based on freedom, equality, and national reconciliation. What they actually came up with was an uninspiring four-page document called the National Covenant for a New Syria. It is doubtful whether any Syrian inside the country has heard of it, let alone knows what it says.

The regime, meanwhile, has been able to frame the conflict in terms favorable to itself: a struggle between secular urban sophistication and religious tolerance versus Islamist country bumpkins fuelled by petro-dollars and jihadist ideology. While this is not a wholly accurate portrayal, the SNC's failure to offer an alternative that allows for the role of rural religious conservatives and absorbs them into a broader liberal-national narrative, has allowed the regime to claim, not without sympathy from some in the West, that it is on front lines of the war on terror. The SNC's fundamental failure is not one of organization but of imagination.

The SNC claims to draw legitimacy from the Syrian people. In reality, it sources of legitimacy are external: Arab money and western recognition. For now, Arab money still flows into its coffers but the West has grown impatient and is looking for alternatives.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to meet an SNC delegation in Istanbul last month; she opted to meet with independent activists instead. Recent diplomatic activity points to an incipient consensus in London, Washington, and Paris that encouraging a credible alternative to Assad based around the SNC is a policy that has failed. And, that in turn, has prompted criticisms of the West from the SNC leadership.

But so what? Blaming the West has always been a useful crutch for failed political institutions in the Arab world. In this case, the SNC has concluded that it cannot afford to lose contact with the U.S. As a direct result of the recent snubs, the SNC announced on September 1 a restructuring of the organization that would see the group's general assembly grow from 300 to 400 members and each opposition group to be represented by at least 20 members. The idea is to make the SNC more representative.

In reality the SNC needed to slim down, not pile on weight. More members means more contenders jostling for position, more avenues for corruption and waste, and less chance for consensus-building and thoughtful policy formulation. It also means more meaningless posts, adding to the noxious mix of ego, ambition and incompetence that has stifled the SNC from its inception. It is a solution worthy of a committee of Arab bureaucrats.

Last week a key founder of the SNC resigned. Dr Bassma Kodmani had been involved in a tug-of-war with the Islamists for months, who reacted decisively by voting her out of the all-powerful executive committee. Her exit signals the end of the liberal-Islamist concord that established the SNC as a cross-party coalition. Now it is the Muslim Brotherhood who are firmly in the driver's seat.

The Syrian National Council has presided over a catastrophic failure of leadership. The West is right to seek an alternative, but in so doing, it will need to contend with the Muslim Brotherhood. Right from the start, the SNC was viewed by the Islamist movement as a useful tool to rebuild its own organization and position itself to capture power in Syria. Knowing that many in Syria and in the West dislike the Brotherhood, the SNC proved to be useful camouflage.

Sidelining the SNC means sidelining the Brotherhood, a task that poses considerable problems. Brotherhood leaders are well-versed in the arts of prevarication and backroom dealing, and they will try to smother any rival organization that attempts to compete with the SNC for money and international recognition. In the meantime, one can be sure that anti-western rhetoric will get louder.

It must surely be a worrying development when those working to bring down dictatorship are found to be borrowing from the dictator's manual. West-bashing will not save the SNC or the Syrian revolution. Only by demonstrating a modicum of effective leadership can the Syrian opposition hope to convince the international community that it is a credible alternative and worthy of a Libya-type investment in men, materiel, and political will.

A British diplomat summed it up nicely at a meeting with SNC representatives in April: "Spend less time communicating with us and more time communicating with your own people." The irony is that the SNC is now doing neither.