Why do world leaders love nuclear power?

In the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan, Amy Thomas argues that the drive for nuclear power is tied to the nuclear arms race

The disaster at Fukushima underscores a message environmentalists have pushed for a long time: nuclear power is unsafe, expensive and unnecessary. Whole generations will have to deal with huge levels of cancers and sicknesses as a result of radioactive contamination of the soil and sea. Fukushima should be a signal to phase out every single reactor.

But global elites are working overtime to make sure the damage to nuclear power’s reputation isn’t permanent. On her recent trip to Japan, Julia Gillard made a pact with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to pursue “safe nuclear power generation standards”. Barack Obama, undeterred by Fukushima, is investing $8 billion in new reactors. The Australian Uranium Association’s Chief Executive Michael Angwin is confident Australian uranium exports, which make up 22 per cent of the world’s total, will continue to expand.

Nuclear is one of a few industries that have been almost completely developed through government subsidies. According to Green Cross International, the US provided $115 billion in direct subsidies to nuclear between 1947 and 1999, and an additional $145 billion in indirect subsidies. Japanese law means that TEPCO, the owners of the Fukushima reactors, will only pay $2.1 billion of the insurance bill for the disaster. Japanese taxpayers will foot the rest.

Nuclear is comparable in cost to solar thermal plants, a truly renewable technology. Yet no government in the world is rolling out a massive state-subsidised program to build them.

The love affair with nuclear technology only makes full sense when you take into account the intimate links between nuclear power and the arms industry. Nuclear technology provides significant military advantage in a cutthroat economic system.

Birth of the bomb

Capitalism is an economic system based on competition between rival firms. From the late nineteenth century, as the size and reach of major industrial corporations spilled out over national boundaries, this economic competition translated into brutal wars between nation states to guarantee resources and markets. World powers were now routinely using their military force to dominate the globe.

The development of imperialist competition drove states to put science and engineering to work to perfect the art of mass slaughter.

The physics of “splitting the atom” were only theoretical when WWII began. Albert Einstein wrote to US President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 saying, “It may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium … extremely powerful bombs of a new type may be constructed”.

The US military leadership wasn’t convinced of the possibilities until 1942. But as soon as they committed, the full weight of the world’s most powerful industrial economy was thrown behind developing the bomb.

By 1945 the level of investment and number of workers in the project was greater than the whole automobile industry. New cities were established, such as at Oakridge in Tennessee and the Hanford site in Washington State, as part of the most advanced industrial complex ever constructed.

A test explosion took place in the New Mexico desert in July 1945. The United States then dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. One hundred thousand people were immediately killed and the same number again died in the years that followed from burns and cancers. A quarter of a million live with the effects of mass radiation poisoning.

This carnage was entirely avoidable. The German war effort had collapsed and Japan was on the brink of surrender.

The US’s Target Committee, which decided where to drop the bombs, wrote that Hiroshima was about “making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognised.” In other words, the mass murder was a stamp of authority on the post-war world.

In particular, the US was keen to demonstrate its military superiority over the rising Soviet empire.

The logic of competitive accumulation under capitalism creates a logic of competitive weapons accumulation, with nuclear weapons at the pinnacle.When the US was the only state with the atom bomb it used that to dominate states that didn’t have one—but as soon as the other states caught up, the US developed more powerful weapons to take the advantage back. It built more and more nuclear weapons and other states reacted by doing the same.

Nuclear power and arms

In the decades after WWII, imperialist competition between the US and Russia fuelled a massive and terrifying arms race. The Cuban Missile Crisis, a standoff between the US and Russia’s ally Cuba, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The globe is still littered with these weapons of mass destruction, enough to destroy the world thousands of times over.

The development of nuclear power plants was essentially a spin-off from this arms race. Building a bomb requires fissile material, such as uranium-235 or plutonium-239. Nuclear reactors use this same uranium fuel and produce plutonium during operation. Nuclear weapons split the atom to detonate a massive explosion. In a power station, the reaction is “controlled”, emitting immense heat that is used to boil water, produce steam and turn turbines that generate electricity.

“Civilian” programs sprang up from the need to produce plutonium for weapons. When the Queen opened “the world’s first nuclear power station” in Sellafield, UK in 1956, its primary role was to produce plutonium for British bombs. The same is true of early reactors in the US, France, Russia and China.

The next five countries to develop nuclear weapons—India, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa and North Korea all did so in secret, under the cloak of “peaceful” nuclear energy programs.

In the 1960s, Australia’s then Prime Minister John Gorton pushed the construction of a nuclear reactor at Jervis Bay. He told the Sydney Morning Herald many years later that: “[We were interested in Jervis Bay] because it could provide electricity to everybody and it could, if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb.”

Even before this, the Menzies government had established a “research reactor” with British help at Lucas Heights south of Sydney in 1958 (another was built at the same site in 2002). Lucas Heights has been used to advance weapons technology, such as research into laser uranium enrichment techniques. In exchange for the reactor, the Australian government allowed the British to bomb Maralinga (near Woomera in South Australia) from 1955 to 1963. The traditional owners of the land, the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people, were forcibly removed from test sites.

Reports of disproportionate levels of blindness and cancer among those involved in the tests, and the local Aboriginal population, forced a Royal Commission in 1983. It found remaining significant radiation hazards at the test sites. Over one hundred square kilometres of South Australia is still considered uninhabitable. Scandalously, from 1957 to 1978, scientists secretly removed bone samples from 21,000 dead Australians to search for evidence of the deadly poisoning Strontium-90, a bi-product of the testing. Australia’s first major uranium mine, Rum Jungle in the NT, was established in 1954 to feed the weapons programs of Australia’s “great and powerful friends”.

These are the lengths Australian rulers have been prepared to go to to give themselves an economic and military advantage. The impact of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s combined with the abundance of cheap coal means Australia has never pursued nuclear power, nor built up its own nuclear arsenal. But Australia’s uranium mining industry continues to provide the government with a crucial strategic lever in international negotiations, alongside its the alliance with the world’s sole superpower, the US.

Nuclear today

Over the past decade, as concern about climate change has grown, the nuclear power industry has worked overtime to position itself as a “clean and green” alternative to fossil fuels.

Nuclear fission itself does not produce carbon emissions. But when the full impact of the whole nuclear chain is accounted for, emissions from nuclear equate roughly with those of gas power. In Japan, extensive modelling has already demonstrated that renewables could replace the entire reactor fleet.

Many world leaders, including Barack Obama, also argue that nuclear helps provide “energy security” in an increasingly hostile world.

Imperialist competition between nations means some want develop an industry they can control over relying on imports from competitor nations. When compared with coal and gas, only small amounts of uranium fuel need to be imported to run power stations. The lack of fossil fuels in Japan was part of the reason Japanese rulers were attracted to nuclear power.

It is the enduring geo-strategic advantages gained from nuclear that explain why it is the “alternative” being pushed by global elites. The US is planning to build more than 20 new reactors at the same time as they undertake an $80 billion “modernisation” of their nuclear weapons arsenal and a $100 billion investment in upgrading nuclear delivery systems like nuclear armed submarines.

Under capitalism, the drive to exercise control over other countries and wage wars for economic interests leads to the production of deadlier and deadlier weaponry to intimidate rivals and wage deadlier wars. Evidence points to the use of depleted uranium rounds by US troops in the Iraqi city of Fallujah—designed to break through walls and kill those inside. Doctors in Fallujah are reporting escalating infant mortality and cancers. The fallout from depleted uranium lasts for thousands of years. And the US hasn’t stopped—there are reports troops are using uranium-tipped weapons in the “humanitarian intervention” Libya.

The horror unleashed at Fukushima is reason enough to get rid of nuclear for good. But the world’s rulers are pushing ahead with new fossil fuels, nuclear power and nuclear weapons developments completely undeterred by the catastrophic consequences for people and the planet. The vested interests at the core of this toxic global system need to be challenged head on. We need a world based on sustainability and solidarity—not one based on weapons and war.


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