Stop telling stories! Or rather, you can, but make it a great one…

Policy op-ed by Claire Roumet

Nuclear this, nuclear that, on every page, from every angle. I was already feeling inundated with news on this sector before I began writing this editorial, but when I decided to delve deeper into the issue, I fell into a bottomless pit, an abyss!  The Belgian government is still torn on the question of whether or not to withdraw from this energy source[i]… The European Council is divided on whether or not to include nuclear investments in the green “taxonomy”, with the First Vice-President of the Commission clearly leaning in favour of nuclear energy…

What is alarming is to see how everyone becomes fixated on nuclear power, how it dominates the debate, how it becomes the solution to all our problems since it doesn’t emit CO2 and doesn’t make us dependent on Russian gas. Does the problem then boil down to CO2 emissions and dependence on Russia? To put it another way, would bulldozing the Amazon rainforest with an electric bulldozer be enough to consider the problem of deforestation solved?

People are fascinated by nuclear power

I myself find myself fascinated by it; I ought to mention that my first encounter with it was as a child. While I did not grow up in the shadow of a power station, I was not far off. Close enough to visit on a school outing. And yet, I can’t really remember what I was told about it. I don’t think that basic knowledge about energy, its production and uses, was part of my school curriculum as a child… Or if so, it was in a way that was far too fleeting to understand the issues at stake, let alone to take part in the debates surrounding it.

Any discussions surrounding the energy issue require a fine balance and the debate will be complex due to ever-changing contexts. Basing the choice on an economic model alone is somewhat risky, as prices (of the resource, of technologies, etc.) fluctuate so much. All the projections are based on highly ‘political’ assumptions, because bias is present from the outset. For instance, as the excellent article in Médor magazine explains, the Belgian debates are based on consumption estimates made by the network operator Elia, a public company listed on the stock exchange, which therefore cannot be neutral and objective. These estimates also differ from those of the Belgian electricity and gas regulator (CREG)… The latter believes that it is possible to shut down nuclear power stations without having to resort to gas. This does not mean that the regulator is right (as consumption forecasts can be complicated), but it does prove that the debates are not based on a shared assessment of the situation, and that the stakeholders have yet to agree on the contours of the issues. To put it simply, in order to address the problem, we should start by agreeing from which angle we want to tackle it.

Neither does this mean that these issues are too complex to be discussed with the general public. On the contrary, experts do not always have “perfect” answers, but they can provide information about the choices to be made through a debate enriched with technical, geopolitical and economic understanding… This is what the President of the Commission for Public Debate (a French body dedicated to public consultation on infrastructure projects) recently asked for when she was astonished to hear that the President of the Republic had announced a nuclear investment project – without any debate!

The first proposal, then is to make energy choices a real societal debate and to do so by providing everyone with the minimal background knowledge that will commit us collectively for centuries to come (and that is not even a figure of speech). And this popular education must be based on our day-to-day reality. An example of this is the installation of solar panels on the Jean Jaurès school in the suburbs of Paris, making it possible to anchor the energy issue in the neighbourhood’s daily life.

But more effort will be needed to get nuclear power out of our imaginations, and the French novelist Alice Zeniter talks about it best. We might have adopted a vegetarian diet if the power of narrative had not made the hunt so appealing. As her novel reminds us, talking about cranberry picking doesn’t generate the same level of emotion and cave paintings are still there to testify to the epic nature of the pursuit of large animals!

Have you ever seen a work by the artist Cécile Massart? She questions the invisibility of the risks and of waste management and proposes visualisations. It’s striking! She does not position herself for or against this energy source, but comments on the space it occupies, or does not occupy (invisible waste) in our societies. Instead of leaving behind the Chauvet caves for the next 30,000 years, our legacy will be blocks of radioactive cement buried deep in the earth’s crust, as Etienne Davodeau depicts in his graphic novel entitled Le droit du sol [“The right of soil”].

In short, nuclear energy is as fascinating as bison and this ability to impress on our imaginations raises questions for many artists. It seems that narrative still holds more power to sway opinion than rational arguments and arguing that renewable energy is a better solution under any circumstances will not win the battle.

My second proposal is to write great stories. We need a great narrative – a grand narrative – one so grand that it will overshadow nuclear power plants.

Pens at the ready!

[i] As explained in my last editorial, the decision on the extension of the use of these power plants beyond 2025 was supposed to be made at the end of November, but the hysteria surrounding debates has postponed it without an end in sight…)