Ukraine invasion shows danger of nuclear power
Ukraine invasion shows danger of nuclear power

The escalating horrors emerging from the war in Ukraine have put the danger of nuclear energy back in the spotlight. Days after Russia’s invasion, President Vladimir Putin said in a military address he was “ordering the defence minister and chief of the general staff to switch the Russian army’s deterrent forces [i.e. nuclear weapons] on to a high alert mode of combat stand-by duty”. And now Russian forces have gained control of two Ukrainian nuclear power plants: Europe’s largest, Zaporizhzhia, as well as the decommissioned Chernobyl plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.

Today’s nuclear plants have inbuilt safety mechanisms aimed at averting disaster in many situations. But there is no guarantee they can withstand the chaos of a modern war zone, the contingencies of which are difficult to anticipate. Already, the electricity to the Chernobyl site has been cut off, which is needed to cool the spent nuclear fuel that is stored there and lines of communication have been lost to Zaporizhzhia. There is also the risk that other nuclear reactors—Ukraine has 15 in total—could be caught in crossfire. All these scenarios open up the potential for nuclear disasters. Ongoing loss of cooling systems could result in radiation leaks, or, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned, “the end of Europe” if there is an explosion.

But despite the clear danger nuclear energy poses, many governments want to expand the industry, arguing that it provides much-needed “clean” energy. In Australia, National Party Senator Matt Canavan and former prime minister Tony Abbot want the coalition to lead a charge for the development of a national nuclear power industry—currently prohibited under Australian law—as a strategy to achieve Australia’s net-zero emissions targets. Similarly, US President Joe Biden’s 2021 infrastructure bill included US$6 billion for existing nuclear plants and advanced nuclear technology development, justified on the basis of reducing carbon emissions. 

Similar arguments about nuclear technology have been made by some on the left. The then-editor of US socialist magazine Jacobin, Bashkar Sunkara, wrote in the Guardian last year that nuclear power was key to decarbonising society. Sunkara also argued that we must let go of “paranoia” about nuclear’s dangerous past, insisting that it is now safer and that there is no necessary connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The decision to go nuclear is, apparently, one of pragmatism: If our options are between fossil fuel-driven climate catastrophe and switching to nuclear power, what choice is there?

But modern nuclear energy production is neither safe nor green. The impact of the industry on water supplies—which will be under greater pressure in a warming world—is just one example. The industry’s key resource is uranium, the mining of which requires a lot of water and contaminates it in the process. A 2021 report from Friends of the Earth documented unsafe levels of uranium in groundwater samples across remote Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, impacting mostly Aboriginal communities. In 2011, a tsunami struck Japan’s Fukushima power plant, resulting in nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen explosions and water contaminated with radioactive isotypes flooding into the Pacific Ocean.

And to argue that we can separate nuclear power from nuclear weapons is to ignore that nuclear power is an invention of war. The Manhattan Project, a top-secret US operation initiated during World War II, used breakthroughs from physicists at the University of Chicago to build the world’s first industrial nuclear reactors and weapons—the latter tested in New Mexico in 1945 and then used in the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year.

This catastrophic event prompted a nuclear arms race that has led to a situation today in which, according to the Federation of American Scientists, nine countries possess a total of 12,700 nuclear warheads between them. The public has always been assured that this situation creates a mutual deterrent for nations ever to use these monstrous weapons. But as we enter a new period of imperial conflict, where seizing nuclear reactors is part of military strategy and credible threats are being made about nuclear strikes, this argument seems more and more preposterous.

Nuclear technology can play a role in helping to win wars, and from that has followed the rationale for a nuclear energy industry. This is not the first time that energy production has followed this trajectory. Fossil fuel-derived energy was not a military invention, but wars played an essential role in the establishment of a fossil fuel-addicted economy. Britain converted all its battleships to petroleum to help fight World War I. The resources used to manufacture and power such machines had to go somewhere when the war was over—and so mass car production, chemical and synthetic material industries powered by oil followed in the 1930s. World War II then required further expansion of fossil fuel-aided technology and production, which were inherited by industrial agriculture and the plastics industry.

To argue that nuclear power represents the best of a lot of bad choices is to accept the unacceptable realities of capitalism. With all the resources available to us, humans are surely capable of finding ways to generate energy that are safe and sustainable. For anyone looking for solutions to the crises we face today, the task is not to pick from the terrible options that are compatible with capitalism, but to help fight for a society without wars and the destructive technologies they require, without the competition for profit that causes them, and without the constant threat of physical and environmental annihilation hanging over our heads.

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