The case against nuclear power

In the shadow of a still-unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan, an argument for why nuclear power should be dismantled everywhere

FROM THE very beginning, unlocking the power of the atom for “peaceful” energy production was about waging war—war carried through to its logical end point: the power to indiscriminately destroy life on a planetary scale. In 1946 the U.S. State Department issued a Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy, drafted by Robert Oppenheimer and other nuclear scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, which stated, “The development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent.”

People around the world stood aghast at the apocalyptic destruction wreaked on Japan during a few hellish minutes when the United States dropped the nuclear bombs Little Boy and Fat Man on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the official story about why the bombs were dropped remains one about saving the lives of U.S. servicemen by obviating the need for a ground invasion of Japan, the Manhattan Project leader General Leslie R. Groves in a 1954 testimony to Congress was clear about why the bombs were developed and dropped: “There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project, any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy and that the project was conducted on that basis.”

The immediate loss of life, in the tens of thousands, coupled with the invisible and long-term effects of radiation sickness and cancers, brought the world up against the sharp razor edge of the nuclear age. The Second World War, which had revealed the barbarism of total war, including the attempted eradication of Europe’s Jewish population through the industrialization of mass murder and the deaths of 60 million human beings in the mutual slaughter between the contending powers, ended with the unleashing of the most terrifying of all weapons as the world entered the atomic age. The allied concept of “carpet bombing” civilian population centers (two days of incendiary carpet bombing by U.S. pilots killed more than 100,000 residents of Tokyo during the war) had now advanced to the next level: total annihilation.

Subsequently, the Cold War nuclear war preparedness policy of NATO was officially named MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, a point parodied in Stanley Kubrick’s outstanding black comedy Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Today, the nuclear stockpile of the United States, which stands at over 7,000 warheads—some of which are still kept in permanent readiness—could alone destroy planetary life several times over.

If nuclear weapons were to have a future, perfecting them as the ultimate weapon of mass destruction needed some other justification than the annihilation of entire cities that left behind a multigenerational legacy of radiation poisoning. Moreover, plutonium, a necessary component of nuclear weapons and the most life-destroying element known to humanity, is not an element that occurs naturally on earth. It is a by-product of nuclear fission inside nuclear reactors. Hence, without a nuclear power program, justified as the peaceful use of unlimited, cheap, and safe energy, it is not possible to realistically generate the required amount of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The first nuclear plants in the UK, at Calder Hall and Chapelcross, commissioned in the 1950s, were explicitly for the production of plutonium for Britain’s nascent nuclear weapons program; Electricity production was a secondary consideration.

In 1954, Lewis Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, when speaking of the possibilities of nuclear power declared in the heat of the technological optimism of the day that,

Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.... It is not too much to expect that our children will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a life span far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.

The intimate connection between nuclear power production and nuclear weapons is inescapable. Because nuclear weapons are designed to be the Hammer of God, the ultimate arbiter of power, any country that is under external threat will logically seek to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent—which was their stated benefit and contribution to “world peace.”

North Korea—a country that didn’t have weapons of mass destruction—watched the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and quickly drew the logical conclusion that it needed to develop and test its own nuclear weapon as fast as possible. This fact is well understood by the U.S. government, which is doing all it can to prevent a civil nuclear power program developing in Iran despite it having the legal right to do so.

Hence, an important argument underpinning the anti–nuclear power movement has always been its insistence that an umbilical cord links military and civilian nuclear programs, which, as a consequence, drives a new and even more terrifying arms race.

There are four states with undeclared stockpiles of nuclear weapons developed from civil programs, and it is no coincidence that they are in some of the most volatile, militarized—and hence dangerous—areas of the world: Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. Experts estimate forty more countries are capable of developing nuclear weapons as the nuclear club continues to expand.

Ex-president Jimmy Carter has accused the United States of being at the forefront of efforts to undermine the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) after setting up a nuclear technology exchange with India in 2005 and revealing that the United States was committed to a “first strike” policy—even against countries without nuclear weapons:

The United States is the major culprit in the erosion of the NPT. While claiming to be protecting the world from proliferation threats in Iraq, Libya, Iran and North Korea…they also have abandoned past pledges and now threaten first use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.

However, the treaty itself is fatally flawed because it contains an intractable contradiction: in exchange for offering technology and nuclear know-how from established nuclear powers to set up civil nuclear programs, countries that sign on to the treaty agree not to divert material into a weapons program.

One might ask, why would Japan, a small country close to active fault lines and known as “the Land of Volcanos,” a country that was still recovering from the devastation of a double nuclear attack, decide to adopt nuclear technology from the country responsible for that attack? While domestic considerations connected to energy independence certainly played a role, the United States sought to make Japan the “Great Britain of the East” by offering it protection under Washington’s “nuclear umbrella,” and nuclear technology to power the country. This was one of the factors that then drove China to acquire and test its own nuclear weapons in the 1960s and similarly motivated North Korea four decades later.

The ongoing and deepening nuclear calamity in Fukushima and Japan’s abiding commitment to nuclear power, including the ability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and generate plutonium, is therefore an outgrowth of imperial power plays at the end of the Second World War.

Reeling from a 9.0 earthquake and a devastating tsunami, Japan is now several weeks into the nuclear crisis at Fukushima, and desperate measures are all that’s left. These measures have included pumping thousands of tons of seawater into the crippled reactors and spent fuel rod containment pools, dropping water from helicopters, and trying to plug a containment leak first with concrete, then a polymer, and finally with sawdust and rags. Radiation levels in the surrounding water have soared as high as 7.5 million times the legal limit while elevated radiation levels are now being detected in the United States.

Murray E. Jennex, an associate professor at San Diego State University with 20 years of experience in examining nuclear containment structures, believes that because these ad hoc measures are untested, they could be leading to greater problems, as spraying water everywhere wrecks delicate electrical equipment; “They dumped water all over the place…They keep on generating more contamination. That’s the consequence of doing it. They got water on things that shouldn’t be wet.”

U.S. nuclear experts question whether filling the reactors with hundreds of tons of water isn’t also raising the possibility of a rupture in the containment vessel, which would trigger a massive further release of radioactivity. The immense pressure of the water on an already compromised containment structure subject to continuing aftershocks could be enough to crack it open.

For the hundreds of thousands of Japanese moved into temporary shelters either because their homes were washed away in the tsunami or because of the emergency evacuation caused by the nuclear crisis, there is very little prospect of moving back. Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, Japan’s nuclear regulator, admitted on March 29 that, “We will have to continue cooling for quite a long period. We should be thinking years.”

According to Tetsuo Iguchi, a professor in the department of quantum engineering at Nagoya University, if further complications arise and the situation deteriorates further, “The worst-case scenario is that a meltdown makes the plant’s site a permanent grave.”

Despite assurances from U.S. politicians and the nuclear industry that a similar disaster “couldn’t happen here,” the possibility of a nuclear accident in the United States is very real. According to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists cited by the Christian Science Monitor,

Nuclear plants in the United States last year experienced at least 14 “near misses,” serious failures in which safety was jeopardized, at least in part, due to lapses in oversight and enforcement by U.S. nuclear safety regulators…. While none of the safety problems harmed plant employees or the public, they occurred with alarming frequency—more than once a month—which is high for a mature industry.

Twenty-three of the 104 operational nuclear reactors in the United States are built on the same 1960s design, and by the same company—General Electric—as the reactors at Fukushima. They have been recognized to have serious design faults since the 1970s and have been regularly retrofitted (i.e., patched up) to take into account new research illustrating their design vulnerabilities to such things as power outages and other malfunctions that make possible a core breach and a resulting release of radioactive isotopes.

Many of these U.S. reactors sit on geologically active fault lines or are situated in coastal areas and close to extensive sources of fresh groundwater. The 40-year-old Indian Point nuclear plant, less than 30 miles from New York City, has a history of safety problems and sits on two fault lines. As U.S. government nuclear experts are arguing that Japanese authorities extend the current 12-mile evacuation and exclusion zone around Fukushima to 50 miles, a serious accident at Indian Point would mean relocating 17 million people. Alexey Yablokov, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and adviser to President Gorbachev during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, commented on the Japanese government’s playing down of the dangers, saying, “When you hear ‘no immediate danger’ [from nuclear radiation] then you should run away as far and as fast as you can.”

The U.S. department that would be in charge of such an operation is the same one that brought us the chaotic and ineffective evacuation of the much smaller city of New Orleans during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina debacle: the Department of Homeland Security.

A Coast Guard report released in April investigated its perfomance in response to the BP oil spill. The report does not inspire confidence that the U.S. government is in any way prepared for a possible nuclear accident. According to Roger Rufe, a retired U.S. Coast Guard vice admiral and chair of the team behind the report: “We clearly point out that contingency planning was not adequate, certainly not for a spill of this size…. There was a complacency that this was not going to happen at this scale.”

According to scientists, California has a 99.7 percent chance of being hit with an earthquake of 6.7 or greater within the next 30 years. And a quake could easily far exceed that level. Nuclear plants in California are only built to withstand earthquakes of only 7–7.5. How do we know a more powerful earthquake is possible? Because it’s already happened; the 1906 earthquake that tore apart San Francisco was measured at 8.3. The 42-year-old San Onofre nuclear plant, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, is situated right on the beach, with a fault line five miles offshore. Its tsunami wall is 25 feet high, which would have been too low to withstand the wall of water that washed over northeastern Japan. The Diablo Canyon plant, located 200 miles northwest of Los Angeles near Santa Barbara, was built in 1968 near two fault lines, one three miles off the coast that suffered a 7.1 earthquake in 1926.

With the nuclear industry’s litany of smaller radioactive leaks, accidents, opaque safety plans, and a history of cover-ups, people have every right to be very alarmed at the potential for a devastating nuclear accident coming to a plant near them.

Moreover, with the clear connection to nuclear weapons production, alongside many unresolved questions surrounding long-term waste management and the decommissioning of old plants, there are more than enough compelling arguments against nuclear power—in addition to the potential for terrifying accidents—to justify shutting them down now.

The production of electricity from splitting apart uranium atoms is an inherently unstable process liable at any moment to run away, out of control. In other words, the operation of a nuclear plant is premised on constant control over a fundamentally uncontrollable process. The “chain reaction” that is necessary to get the fission process going has to be relentlessly monitored to keep it within tolerable limits. Hence the need to keep the core cooled at all times, for control rods to drop into place at a moment’s notice, to avoid radioactive leaks, for multiple back-up systems and fail-safe devices, at least two containment vessels, an evacuation plan, regular testing of workers and the surroundings, and so on.

This instability at the heart of the production of nuclear power, combined with the long-lived and extreme toxicity of the resulting byproducts, leads to the second insurmountable issue with nuclear power: its expense.

This is fully recognized by the people who would otherwise be investing in nuclear power plants. They won’t do it without cast-iron guarantees that they will have only limited liability for accidents and retain huge government subsidies. The Bush administration gave the nuclear industry $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to try to encourage investment in new nuclear plants. The Obama administration doubled down with an extra $36 billion.

But even with over $50 billion of taxpayer money pledged, to get the ball rolling the nuclear industry feels the need for more. It is now asking for $100 billion. The industry also requested an extension of tax credits without plant-size restrictions, an investment tax credit, and a worker training and manufacturing tax credit as well as reductions in tariffs on any imports of required materials and components.

A 2009 report by Citibank, an institution that has rarely met a risky investment it could say no to, highlighted in the title of its report on nuclear power what its analysis showed: “New Nuclear: The Economics Say No.” The report goes on to say: “The risks faced by developers [of new nuclear plants]…are so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility company to its knees financially.” In 2001 the Economist, a publication with its heart firmly in the camp of “free-market” capitalism wrote: “Nuclear Power, once claimed to be too cheap to meter, is now too costly to matter.”

The Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, first passed in 1957 and last renewed in 2005, restricts any costs payable by utility companies in the event of a nuclear accident to $12.6 billion. Anything above that amount—which would be easily exceeded by any major accident—is covered by the federal government’s coffers; i.e., us. Again, without that indemnity, without the government subsidies and loan guarantees, and tax breaks, the nuclear industry could not exist; the laws of the free market are not allowed to apply to nuclear power.

A comprehensive 2003 MIT report, The Future of Nuclear Power, made it clear what the difficulties of expanding nuclear power were. Prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited, the report found, by four unresolved problems: high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes.”

A 2009 update recognized the ongoing challenges of getting a “nuclear renaissance”:

After five years, no new plants are under construction in the United States and insufficient progress has been made on waste management. The current assistance program put into place by the 2005 EPACT has not yet been effective and needs to be improved. The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.

When the report mentions that the current support program is “not yet effective and needs to be improved,” this is a clear reference to the requirement for increased government subsidies. According to a report cited inScientific American, the costs to the taxpayer of building 100 new nuclear power plants, over the lifetime of the plants, over and above costs associated with alternatives if they had been pursued, come to a truly gargantuan $1.9–4.1 trillion. As nuclear plants are notorious for cost overruns, the higher figure is much more likely.

The report’s concluding statement is highly significant for those environmentalists who have been taken in by the pro-nuclear argument that “at least it’s not coal.” Without an increase in the rate of new-plant construction that surpasses that of the global construction programs of the 1970s and 1980s, nuclear power cannot make a meaningful contribution to climate change risk mitigation. Just to maintain the current world production of nuclear power, either the oldest, creakiest plants need to be relicensed or a veritable orgy of nuclear construction needs to begin. To maintain the current proportional contribution of nuclear power would require building eighty new nuclear plants in the next 10 years—commissioning one every 6 weeks! A further 200 would be required over the subsequent decade.

The long lead times for construction that invalidate nuclear power as a way of mitigating climate change was a point recognized in 2009 by the body whose mission is to promote the use of nuclear power, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “Nuclear power is not a near-term solution to the challenge of climate change,” writes Sharon Squassoni in the IAEA bulletin. “The need to immediately and dramatically reduce carbon emissions calls for approaches that can be implemented more quickly than building nuclear reactors.”

Wind farms take only 18 months to come online; nuclear plants typically take in excess of 10 years. The last nuke plant to be built and become operational in the United States, at Watts Bar in Tennessee, took 23 years to build and cost $6.9 billion. Hence, from an economic and environmental perspective, nuclear power makes no sense; numerous studies from the Wall Street Journal and independent energy analysts have put the cost of nuclear power at between 12-20 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). In contrast, those same studies put the cost of renewable energy at an average of 6 cents/kWh.

Furthermore, according to research by Friends of the Earth, if the extremely polluting and dangerous mining and refining of uranium are included in the running of nuclear plants, they emit 250,000 tons of CO2 for every year of operation. Moreover, one in five uranium miners in the Southwest has contracted some form of cancer.

The U.S. government and other governments around the world are enamored with nuclear power neither for its supposed environmental benefits (as if that weren’t a sick joke anyway) nor for its reliability, safety, or economic superiority. Ruling elites want more nuclear power because of its connection to nuclear weapons production, the need for energy independence, and the deeply entrenched and highly effective power of the nuclear lobby. However, that corporate lobby could not be so successful if its interests did not dovetail with the imperial geostrategic interests of the countries involved.

There are many other reasons to be against nuclear power: the cost overruns, the fact that no country has a fully developed or workable plan—or in most cases any plan—for what to do with the nuclear waste that is piling up alongside the nuclear reactors. If the government opened the long-term nuclear repository that was supposed to be beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada today, it would be immediately filled with already existing nuclear waste.

The unresolved problem of long-term waste disposal—the U.S. government has pledged to sequester the waste for 1 million years—contributes to the astronomical cost of decommissioning nuclear power plants. Then there is the transportation of nuclear fuel for reprocessing and the international trade in nuclear waste. Alongside that, the highly centralized nature of nuclear plants means that if one or more goes down, at one stroke it takes out an enormous chunk of the electricity supply grid.

As nuclear plants have to be run continuously as close to full capacity as possible to even come close to justifying their enormous construction, operating, and decommissioning costs, they compete not just for funding, but they compete directly with clean renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, which are similarly best operated on a continual basis. In addition, if regulators relicense nuke plants for another 20 years and start building new ones that will operate for 60, then there will be no “transition” to clean power until almost the end of this century. Goodbye clean world.

Can truly green, renewable sources of energy replace nuclear power? Easily. Scientific studies too numerous to mention show repeatedly that wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal sources of clean energy are abundant and easily accessible. Unlike coal and oil, these renewable forms of energy are freely available, don’t pollute the environment with waste (radioactive or otherwise), don’t need to be fought over, don’t contribute to global warming, and don’t require massive amounts of farmland, energy, and water as do biofuels. Furthermore, we have the technology to tap into them to provide not just the 20 percent of electricity currently provided by nuclear in the United States, but to provide all of our electrical needs.

But President Obama and the vast majority of Democrats are resolutely in the pro-nuke camp, even in the face of the catastrophe in Japan. They also favor more offshore drilling for oil in the Gulf and the Arctic, “clean” coal, and increases in agro-fuels such as ethanol. If we want a transition to a sane and clean energy policy, we will have to independently organize and fight for it. 
We should take a page from the playbook of the German antinuclear movement. Mass protests in Germany against nuclear power have already forced Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s center-right government to announce a three-month moratorium on plans to extend the life of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power plants. Not satisfied, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in four major cities at the end of March, including more than 100,000 in Berlin, calling for an end to nuclear power.

We need to organize local demonstrations against nuclear plants here in the United States, and resurrect the incredibly strong and successful antinuke movement of the 1980s. Let’s bring back the slogans “Nuclear Power—No Thanks” and “No Nukes Is Good Nukes.” We need to organize in our workplaces, unions, communities, and campuses for a national March on Washington in the fall for Jobs, Clean Energy, and Climate Justice. Because, to quote the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”



Issue #96

Spring 2015

Race, surveillance, and empire

Issue contents

Top story



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    Keegan O'Brien reviews Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie and Kay Whitlock
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    Paul Pryse reviews Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney López
  • Crimes of war

    Bill Roberts reviews Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse