Veganism: the nuclear option

1 February 2023

Changing to a vegan diet is one of the most effective things you can do if you want to help the planet. As a somewhat extreme choice, this ‘nuclear option’ of the diet world has a surprising number of parallels with nuclear power itself.

It is inevitable that in years to come there will need to be more and more lifestyle changes that reduce the scale of our impact on the environment. These changes will come either as voluntary personal actions or as the cumulative effect of businesses moving to more sustainable practices. It is already well known that one of the quickest ways to reduce your carbon emissions is to cut down on the amount of meat you consume. And it is easy to make a start because simply swapping from beef to chicken makes a big reduction, a lot like when a country swaps from coal to gas. But is it worth the effort to cut your emissions – or meat – down all the way to zero?

A vegan diet is one that doesn’t contain any animal products at all, which means no meat and also no eggs, no dairy products like milk and butter and also none of the by-products that come from animal production such as leather and things like gelatine derived from animal bones. The vegan diet broadly consists of vegetables, fruit, fungi, nuts, grains and seeds, although today emerging technologies like precision fermentation and 3D printing of lab grown plant cells are beginning to offer more direct replacements for meat-based products.

If you think about it though, when you eat beef you are eating an animal which has already eaten a huge amount of grain. It is obviously a lot more efficient to simply eat the grain yourself. Taking this shortcut also saves a lot of water, energy, space, time and additional products like pharmaceuticals. It’s a decision that brings a serious boost to resource efficiency. In this way, the smaller environmental footprint of a vegan diet is quite similar to the small footprint of an energy system based on nuclear energy, which demands much less work in terms of energy-hungry activities like mineral extraction and transport while also producing far less greenhouse gas emissions. Being so much more resource efficient than other options is the key reason that both veganism and nuclear power have a low environmental footprint.

They are also the most healthy for your body. Vegans will typically lose weight, lower their cholesterol and reduce their risk of certain cancers, and other major killers like heart disease when compared to the average person on a more typical diet. Similarly, countries which look to developing and using more nuclear power as an alternative to fossil-fuelled electricity generation will breathe cleaner air and thereby reduce their risk of asthma, lung diseases and certain types of cancer. Both veganism and nuclear power avoid emissions like carbon dioxide and methane which are driving climate change and thereby impacting ecosystems all over the world.

Taken together, these relatively simple lifestyle changes represent choices that have much smaller impacts on the environment and on people, both now and in the future. It means that a vegan diet and nuclear power are both among the most sustainable options available. Indeed, some commentators are already claiming that veganism will even become the dietary norm by the middle of this century in the same way that they said nuclear energy would largely displace fossil fuels in the last.

Being selective about what we eat is, of course, a privilege that may depend on how much time and money we have, as well as our personal health considerations. For example, we probably made different choices during times when our movement and our social circles were restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when the supermarket shelves were literally empty. We need to remember that a lot of countries live in a similar way with their energy supply and are too busy securing desperately needed energy resources to think about idealised solutions like nuclear.

Nothing is a foregone conclusion. A major stumbling block for nuclear has been the spiralling demands of regulation and safety engineering which have contributed to putting the capital cost of a new power plant beyond the reach of many nations. Nuclear power simply demands a lot of extra work, compared to every other energy source, from technical capacity to waste management. Its supply chains are small and specialised. They remain more national than global. But just like currently overpriced pre-made vegan food, there is every opportunity for prices for nuclear power to come down when the market is bigger, as the supply chains are more developed and there is more competition and innovation.

When you discover something amazing it’s normal to want to tell everyone. And that’s where we find another common factor between nuclear power and veganism. We all know that when someone talks too much about their morally-pure vegan lifestyle it can cause negative reactions from people who enjoy eating meat. Merely revealing a change of diet can trigger unfortunate and sometimes extreme stereotypes about the kinds of people who are vegan. Sadly, this is a lot like revealing you work in the nuclear power industry. Furthermore, some people feel very attached to their favourite foods or technologies
and cognitive dissonance makes them unwilling to hear anything that reminds them their lifestyle causes pain and excessive environmental impact or that their ideas about energy are not based on reality. At the same time, a growing group of people concerned about the environment are following scientific data to update their ideas on energy and food simultaneously and busting all those old stereotypes.

Negative conversations about vegan diets used to be a lot more common, but nowadays it is increasingly normal and becoming more visible all the time. In the UK and elsewhere, a lot of food brands are quietly updating their recipes to be vegan. It’s just business: more and more people are choosing vegan items and so food companies and restaurants are responding by making more options available. It is easy to sense what were once considering extremely and radical choices are now becoming normalised. Even though people who would say they are vegan remain a small minority – less than 5% globally – a lot more people seem to be part-time vegans or vegetarians these days. So too with nuclear energy, where recognition of the devastating impact of climate change is also prompting many to reconsider its role in the energy mix.

Of course, any argument can be taken too far. We have to remember that balance is always key. Even vegans are advised to eat some meat, fish or eggs every now and again. By the same measure, support for nuclear power should probably not be an extreme endeavour either. But the more visible something is, the more it will be understood and seem normal, and that definitely goes for nuclear power as well as being vegan.

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 18 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.

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