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Solving the Climate Crisis with Nuclear Energy Won’t Work

By Robert Pollin - Dollars & Sense, March/April 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is—as of this writing, in late March—an ongoing calamity. As of now, it is impossible to predict how it might end, and what all its costs will be. We do know, as of now, that many thousands of people are dead, and millions of lives are being wrecked.

In addition to these most brutal consequences, the war must force us to rethink many issues that—with no exaggeration—reach to the core of how we can envision future prospects for life on earth. I will consider only one such question now. That is: What role should nuclear energy play in advancing a workable global climate stabilization project?

In the initial phase of its invasion on February 24, the Russian military seized control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which is located about 60 miles north of Kyiv in Ukraine. In 1986, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl was the site of the most severe nuclear power plant accident in history. An explosion blew the lid off one of the plant’s four operating nuclear reactors. This released radioactive materials into the atmosphere that spread throughout the region. Despite this disaster, the other three reactors at Chernobyl continued operating until 2000.

The other three reactors did cease operating in 2000. And the site still houses more than 20,000 spent fuel rods. These rods must be constantly cooled, with the cooling system operating on electricity. If the system’s electrical power source were to malfunction, the spent fuel rods could become exposed to the air and catch fire. This would release radioactive materials into the atmosphere. Once released, the radioactive materials could again spread throughout the region and beyond, as they did in 1986. This is a low-probability but by no means a zero-probability scenario.

On March 3, the Russian miliary also took control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the largest in Europe. According to a March 4 report on NPR, “Russian forces repeatedly fired heavy weapons in the direction of the plant’s massive reactor buildings, which housed dangerous nuclear fuel.” All military actions at or near the plant create further danger of the plant’s operations becoming compromised. As with Chernobyl, this could then lead to radioactive materials being released into the atmosphere.

Nuclear disasters at both Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia are therefore active threats right now. In addition, the war is compromising the security systems that operate to protect both sites. The fact that both sites have become combat zones means that they are more vulnerable to attacks from non-state actors, including terrorist organizations of any variety. The aim of such organizations in breaching security at Chernobyl or Zaporizhzhya would almost certainly include gaining access to materials that would enable them to produce homemade nuclear weapons. At the least, they would be positioned to threaten the release of radioactive materials.

Nucleocrats Don’t Sleep

By Achim Klüppelberg - Undisciplined Environments, March 31, 2021

In a global state of climate emergency, technocratic voices for nuclear renaissance to curb greenhouse gas emissions are becoming prominent. The current anniversaries of the disasters at Fukushima (10 years) and Chernobyl (35 years) demand a reflection.

Nuclear energy as a contributor for the mitigation of global warming is heavily discussed among environmentalists and nuclear experts. While it is clear that fossils need to be replaced by alternative energy sources, people divide around the question whether nuclear could be an option for the future.

A debate surfaced after the ecomodernist manifesto proposed a technocratic approach in 2015, supporting the benefits of technofixes in a world which would be split into culture and nature. Political ecologist Giorgos Kallis disagreed, arguing with Latour and Žižek for the inseparability of human society and nature. He also argued against large technological systems, since such systems would result in the division of society into consumers and experts – and who could then challenge the experts? For him, this could not be ideal, since “a society powered by nuclear energy [could not] be a society of equals or of mutual aid.”

In the meantime, Robbins and Moore did not see this strong divide and rather saw themselves mediating for common ground between ecomodernists and environmentalists. Five years later, their theories were put to the test, as nuclear historian Kate Brown has found herself in a very practical struggle, after publishing Manual for Survival.

She analysed Chernobyl’s negative health consequences in Belarus and Ukraine on the basis of declassified material in central and county archives, supplemented by oral history. Quickly she got attacked by nuclear experts, challenging her interpretation of source material with an alleged lack of knowledge about radioactivity. By turning towards flora and fauna, she was able to add so-to-speak living archives of radioactive contamination.

Don’t Nuke the Climate

By collective - Green Anti-Capitalist Media, March 10, 2021

Remembering Fukushima

We all remember the Fukushima Daiichi disaster that took place in Northern Japan on the 11th of March 2011, the aftereffects of which are still being felt as the Japanese government continues to grapple to deal with the tons of radioactive soil, water and waste they need to store or dispose of. The surrounding communities are still suffering from their radiation exposure and displacement as 36,000 people have not returned to their homes (according to Fukushima prefecture) despite government announcements allowing return, and compensation claims are still being processed.

The Fukushima accident was the second worst nuclear accident in the history of nuclear power generation. It was the result of tsunami waves generated by the powerful earthquake that shook Japan on the same day damaging the backup generators of the plant. Japan is an earthquake prone country and tsunami waves of this size have historical precedents in the country. Despite the reactors shutting down, the power loss caused the cooling systems to fail and the reactors’ cores to melt down, release radiation and create holes in their containment vessels exposing the nuclear materials and resulting in explosions in the following days that released further radioactive materials.

At least 600 square km of land was initially evacuated with 47,000 people leaving their homes surrounded by a wider zone where residents were asked to remain indoors. In the following months radiation was found in the local food and drinking water, and ocean water near the plant was discovered to have been contaminated with high levels of iodine-131. An additional corridor of land covering roughly 207 square km was also designated for evacuation in the months following the disaster raising the number of evacuated people to 150,000.

Apart from the contamination of the soil, plants, animals and groundwater in the surrounding areas, the Fukushima disaster is the single largest accidental (in other words excluding bomb testing) release of radioactivity into the ocean the results of which it is too early to tell.

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