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#ATOMS4CLIMATE: The Nuclear Lobby at COP26

by Christopher Pavenstädt 

An energy source that, at least from a German viewpoint, has had his days numbered for quite some time finds new life at climate conferences: nuclear energy.

Pro-nuclear ‘activists’ at COP26, photo source: iaea.org

Not only countries that still count on nuclear energy like Japan and France covered the use of nuclear energy in their pavilions, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was also there to promote nuclear energy as the green energy source of the future. The nuclear interest groups and agencies were granted quite some space to advocate at COP26, despite them fearing exclusion from the conference beforehand. One could imagine that an agency like the IAEA, equipped with considerable access to economic and political networks would focus on direct lobbying efforts, and while they did this in previous years, they were beginning to think of a different strategy for this year.

From the first day in the blue zone, you could find young(ish) people running around in T-shirts with the hashtags “#atoms4climate” and “nuclear for climate”. The first slogan traces back to the IAEA. The agency also organized side-events covering the role of “youth perspectives” on the use of nuclear energy. These were labelled campaigning or activism, yet the invited panellists were in fact senior consultants for the nuclear industry and representatives of think tanks. While these are somewhat young perspectives, they do not necessarily reflect youth climate activism as such.

Meanwhile, they call their positionevidence-based thinking” and contrast anti-nuclear positions as “ideology”, thereby implicitly criticizing the positions of the youth climate movement. They even went so far to use the design and wording of Extinction Rebellion, holding up colourful signs with statements written in caps “FOLLOW THE FACTS” & “EMERGENCY REACTOR”.

The aforementioned group “Nuclear for Climate” calls themselves a “grassroots” initiative. The website states that their “net-zero needs nuclearposition paper had been signed by over 100 societies and non-governmental organizations. What sounds like a broad coalition is in fact playing the numbers: the signatories consist of national nuclear societies, young professional networks in the nuclear industry (YGN) and women in nuclear groups. Not a single environmental NGO is part of this network. Meanwhile, exactly these YGN representatives appear as youth leaders in the IAEA side-events.

This position paper is therefore not a broad societal coalition, but rather an isolated call for nuclear energy from the industry itself. Yet they frame themselves as grassroots initiative, activists or campaigners, not as what they are: (young) representatives of the nuclear industry. It seems like the IAEA and nuclear societies tried to cover their traces, and let nuclear-advocacy seem like grassroots-youth activism, not so much as strategic lobbying efforts. The change.org petition on “nuclear energy for net-zero” has only received 6000 signatories, yet another sign of the low support that this broad coalition (allegedly representing 80.000 people) has in reality.

Nuclear lobby and anti-nuclear activists clash at FFF rally. Photo: Christopher Pavenstädt

What was still missing in this PR strategy was genuine youth protest. At the FFF protest march on Friday 5th of November, while assembling in Kelvingrove Park, a group of ‘nuclear activists’ positioned themselves at the protest march. They appeared armed with multiple banners, two persons in polar bear costumes and the slogans “trust nuclear, follow science” and leaflets about the advantages of nuclear energy for net-zero.

The nuclear lobby not only tried to set the agenda for nuclear, but co-opted key emblems (the polar bears), key references (the science), key staging (youth striking) and even used the stage of the FFF march to make their position appear as part of the overall ‘youth climate movement’- discourse.

It did not take long before anti-nuclear activists arrived at the scene, positioning themselves and their banners in front of the so-called nuclear activists, but the pro-nuclear people did not leave the spot before handing out candy to little children.

“Nuclear for climate” campaigners hand out candy to children at FFF march. Photo: Christopher Pavenstädt

A lesson to be learned from the cases of the IAEA and “Nuclear for Climate” is that one must be increasingly cautious of co-optation practices. “Youth” alone does not equal the voices of the climate (justice) movement, and neither does “follow the science” alone suffice as an argument.

In Germany, one could start to feel like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”: again and again, nuclear energy is put back on the agenda, this time labelled as a ‘green technology’ in the fight against climate change. The European Union (EU) is joining in. Despite studies showing that nuclear energy will not help us achieving the 1.5°C goal, despite nuclear being a centralized, highly expensive and risky technology (see here), the prospect of an easy technical escape from climate change seems to taste all too sweet to ignore it.

They all seem to have forgotten one lesson: Do not trust when strangers offer you candy.

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