By Lindsay Potter
The nuclear industry has demonstrated a long list of failures including costliness, vulnerability, and toxicity. Operators deny the impossibility of safely handling waste from nuclear reactors. Currently, radioactive wastewater is slated for dumping from the Eastern Coast of the United States to Japan’s Pacific Coast. Every natural disaster near a nuclear site risks releasing deadly radiation, poisoning water and soil, and depressing local communities. Of the world’s nuclear reactors, 20 percent are vulnerable to earthquakes. The Santa Susana Field Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory are in areas prone to massive wildfires. The Navy dry docks servicing nuclear submarines in Bangor, Washington, closed bays to study risks of seismic activity. Turkey’s recent devastating 7.8-magnitude quake damaged areas near Incirlik Air Base, where the U.S. stores 50 nuclear warheads, and yet Turkey plans to build even more new fragile reactors. In France, reactors shutdown due to lack of cooling water from rising temperatures and dried up rivers.
The world has also witnessed what disaster nuclear sites can unleash through human error at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and now potentially at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station. Cataclysmic meltdown and radioactive release have been avoided despite blackouts and nearby strikes, but Ukraine’s 15 reactors, six of which sit at Zaporizhzhia, are all time bombs awaiting an errant missile.
Yet there is a current surge for new nuclear technology that diverts hundreds of billions of dollars away from proven renewable sources of cleaner and cheaper energy. In response to shortages of Russian energy, from sanctions and the war in Ukraine, Europe is walking back commitments to ween off of nuclear and switch to renewables. Belgium deferred plans for a 2025 exit from nuclear, extending the life of two reactors by ten years. Germany pushed off the slated 2022 closure of its remaining three reactors. The U.K. plans to build eight new reactors. In January, Sweden green-lighted legislation to construct new reactors. Not to be outdone, in February, Poland announced plans to construct 79 Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMNRs) by 2038 in addition to six other reactors, including the Westinghouse AP1000 (despite the fact two U.S. Westinghouse reactors now under construction at Vogtle in Georgia are seven years behind schedule and over budget at $30 billion). The U.S. loaned $3 billion to Romania on a contract, scooped from China, to build several new reactors. Yet, last year, French power company EDF reported a $19 billion loss. Half of France’s 56 reactors shuttered for repairs, and its nuclear energy production fell by 30%, leaving one of the world’s most nuclear-powered nations a net importer of energy in 2022.
Most unbelievably, Ukraine’s energy minister announced an order for two new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors for the Khmelnytskyi facility, despite last November’s emergency shutdown of the site’s two current reactors due to missile attacks. Ukraine’s reactors in the war zone present an unprecedented threat of global catastrophe, reiterated by the UN and IAEA. The world holds its breath in hopes each bout of shelling fails to spill Zaporizhzhia’s more than 2,000 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel, a prospect made only riskier by reports Ukraine is stashing Western-supplied arms at nuclear reactor sites.
Rather than defending democracy or sovereignty, the U.S. and NATO and their nuclear-backed tyranny pursue, via proxy war, economic and technological dominance. Biden’s sanctions and attack on the Nordstream pipeline resulted in Europe buying more expensive U.S. fracked gas. Still, Russia found outlets for its oil and gas. Exxonmobil took home a record-breaking $56 billion in profits for 2022. Yet Europe needed $640 billion in energy subsidies through the winter to stabilize the disrupted market. African countries were largely unable to cushion the shocking thirty-year-high energy cost spike, another example of African citizens suffering under the political machinations of wealthier nations.
After one year of war in Ukraine, the ripples across the global economic landscape – from cold homes in Europe to famine in the horn of Africa – prove this war is about energy. It should be no surprise, as U.S. arsenals shift from Europe to the Pacific, one harbinger of war in Asia is new nuclear energy policy. After years of increased military presence, arms sales, drills, and missile testing, Japan moves further from its nuclear taboo, and the U.S. continues to antagonize China and intervene on the Korean Peninsula. Japan has now approved draft legislation to allow limitless longevity for reactors, prolonging operation of some to 60 years. As part of their return to nuclear, Japan pledged to build 20 “next-generation” reactors to replace those scheduled for decommissioning. North Korea has increased plutonium processing. South Korea will add more nuclear reactors in lieu of promises to add new renewable energy infrastructure. South Korea and Japan sit under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, but analysts are clamoring at the possibility the two nations could develop their own nuclear arsenals.
From construction of new reactors, to growth in the market for U.S. natural gas, to unfathomable profits for weapons manufacturers whose contracts are inextricably linked with the nuclear power industry, the energy crises caused by the Ukraine war serve U.S. interests – albeit not the interests of the hungry, poor, sick, or unhoused. It is important to note, in the same year, renewables produced more energy than ever before and the affordability and accessibility of renewable technology grew. Though we are still on a cusp of transition, projections continue to confirm renewables can provide faster, cleaner energy than nuclear. Essential energy decisions cast the specter of two very different paths: a future that builds human and environmental well-being or a future of unabated avarice.
— un.org, Feb. 13, 2023; Reuters, Jan. 11, 2023; BBC, Oct. 18, 2022