Nuclear Power Plants: Our Industrial Cathedrals
I didn’t understand what historical inheritance means until I moved to Santa Fe. I’d caught glimpses in New England—walking by Robert Frost’s grave, encountering a Revolutionary War site. But it wasn’t until I entered the city limits of Santa Fe, parked my car, walked down to the plaza, and saw the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi that I began to feel the power of history.
The original church was built in 1610 when the city was founded by the Spanish Empire. Territorial wars led to its destruction and reconstruction, but within its chambers rest the oldest depiction of the Virgin Mary in America, sent over by Spain in 1625, and bone fragments of St. Thomas Aquinas.
The latter touched me in a way I didn’t expect. St. John’s College had accepted me into their master’s program. I’d moved to New Mexico to study the Great Books in the high desert. Naturally, Aquinas features prominently in the curriculum. I gasped when I saw the relic in person: There rested a bone that had been covered by the saint’s flesh as he wrote what I was now reading.
History is more than the handing down of names. It lives with us. And what we build, if stewarded, shapes the lives of our inheritors.
Life’s surprises led me into nuclear energy advocacy. I learned that it produced no carbon, that Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, and Fukushima were overblown by opponents of nuclear, and that renewables are too dilute and intermittent to power industrial society on their own. I also learned that regulators expect nuclear power plants to last beyond 100 years. That means that someone who helps build a nuclear plant can rest assured that generation after generation of their progeny can work there and provide cheap, clean electricity to their area. Nuclear plants bring wealth and meaning to their host communities. They are American industrial cathedrals.
The more I have learned about nuclear technology or thought about these industrial cathedrals and the inheritance they represent the more alienated I have become from the left. I have, for years, seen myself as a socialist. My experiences working dead-end jobs all over the country convinced me, and convince me still, that the fruits of American prosperity belong to its workers more than to its vampiric elites. Control of our society should be allocated accordingly.
I took my commitments seriously. I was one of the first members of Santa Fe’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and represented the chapter at the 2017 national convention. I wrote articles for American and U.K. left-wing publications. My godfather was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. I proudly sent him a photo of my registration card when I paid my first dues.
I believed that it was through banding the working class together that we could win for ourselves a more bountiful future and run industrial society by ourselves and for ourselves. Nuclear energy fit nicely into what I believed to be the left’s historical vision for the future.
But the left, aside from a powerless few, does not care for that vision and is in open conflict with the material reality upon which it relies. The left’s distaste, and often contempt, for those who have come before us sits side by side with its climate catastrophism. On the one hand, the left wants to escape from history more than it wants to understand it; on the other, they scarcely believe a future is possible. This locks them into a distorted presentism, a survivalism.
If survival is all you care about, then to cope with hard realities you’ll retreat to fantasy. The left’s fantasies are romantic. The romance is that of trauma and healing. They think in terms of victimization rather than moral agency. Personal pain—not universal rights nor civic duty—is the prism through which they derive their conceptions of the social good. Absence of pain serves as their vision of freedom.
This, combined with the left’s near total lack of engineering discipline, has manifested in its wrong-headed support of “green energy.” Advocates of green technology believe that they can achieve harmony with nature through renewables like wind and solar and heal our relationship with the earth. Never mind that for every 0.88 MW of solar and wind you install, you need 1.0 MW of fossil fuel back-up. Or that renewables contribute to what Meredith Angwin calls the fatal trifecta—an over-reliance on weather-dependent technology, natural gas, and imported electricity—that was on full display during California’s blackouts and the February disaster in Texas. For them the history of industry is inherently cruel, racist, colonialist, and has thus been a disaster for the human race. If we have only inherited barbarism, who cares if we destroy what we’ve inherited?
And so the left doubles down on the unreality of its desire: the roll back of industrial society in response to a real problem they’ve mushroomed into an apocalyptic specter that justifies whatever unsavory consequences the policies that they pursue inspire. If something feels like it can deliver the “undifferentiated contentment of the womb,” as Christopher Lasch put it, then that’s all that matters.
The left position has led to a decades-long assault on nuclear energy. The Sierra Club, the Natural Resource Defense Council, Greenpeace, and similar groups have long hated the technology and their vision is far and away the most powerful on the broad left—from radical sects to more conventional Democrats. Some of these NGOs have annual budgets in the hundreds of millions and lobby in the halls of Congress. I once believed I could play a role in dissuading more radical elements from their misguided green environmentalism.
I no longer believe that’s possible.
My commitment to the left came to its final breaking point earlier this month. Governor Cuomo and environmental groups like the Riverkeeper and the Natural Resource Defense Council forced the premature closure of Indian Point nuclear plant. The move was supported by the NYC DSA and the candidate they raised to great prominence: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The NRDC and other groups threatened the public with fabrications about the dangers of Indian Point and lied about renewables’ ability to make up for the loss. Cuomo’s father terminated one nuclear reactor, so he probably felt the need to close two. Along with 1,000 high-paying union jobs, New York State has now lost a major source of clean energy. Natural gas has already replaced Indian Point. The head of New York State’s power grid has gone on record to say that their 2040 climate goals are “extremely challenging, if not impossible.”
Now, the plant’s host town of Buchanan will lose half its tax base. The nearby region will suffer the same fate of towns where other decommissionings have taken place, or where offshoring has hit the hardest. They will likely never recover.
Indian Point is neither the first nor the last plant to suffer such a fate. Byron and Dresden in Illinois and Diablo Canyon in California are all facing similar pressure from the left. In all, 4.3 gigawatts are about to go offline before the end of the year, the equivalent of 4.5 million cars on the road.
If you don’t care about climate change, you should care about societal wealth. And the resilience of the U.S. electrical grid. There is no such thing as a wealthy society with a weak electrical grid. As nuclear plants are forced to close, our grid grows more fragile. Our infrastructure and our wealth are what we hand down to posterity. And these are what nuclear energy protects.
Nuclear energy plants are our industrial cathedrals. Their presence, or their absence, will shape the lives of those who follow us in powerful ways. If Democrats and the left continue to win their war against nuclear, then we will no longer have national inheritance worth preserving nor will we be able to build it.
By forsaking nuclear energy, the left has abandoned its duty to deliver a world of greater shared prosperity to succeeding generations. Will conservatives?
Emmet Penney is a writer and the co-host of the ex.haust podcast.