Bhaskar Sunkara’s recent opinion piece extoling the virtues of nuclear power and castigating its opponents as paranoid and ill-informed, is clearly motivated by his deep concerns over the dire impacts of global warming, which loom closer by the hour. Unfortunately, his arguments amount to little more than regurgitated industry talking points, in their traditional form of a Jeremiad.
First, Sunkara poses the decline of the nuclear industry in the West as an achievement of progressive political movements. Specifically, he cites the decline of nuclear power in Germany as attributable to a “Green party-spearheaded campaign.” This decline has been more reasonably ascribed to both market conditions and missteps by nuclear industry giants such as Westinghouse and AREVA. From its inception, nuclear power has been heavily dependent on government subsidies to appear economically viable (subsidies such as insurance and the disposal of waste largely configured as taxpayer burdens).
Rather than succumbing to its political opponents on the left, the industry has been sunk by its structural economic dysfunctions. In the US, this has sparked schemes to secure additional taxpayer subsidies in legislative fixes such as guaranteed returns for nuclear utilities, and outright bribery of legislators for taxpayer bailouts of failing companies.
The most simplistic recitation of nuclear industry talking points is when Sunkara dismisses concerns about nuclear waste, and extolls the mythic separation between “civilian” and “military” nuclear technologies. He asserts that most nuclear waste “can be recycled to generate more electricity,” an assertion that goes back more than half a century and has been ritualistically recited by an army of nuclear industry PR professionals before him…yet here we are 50 years later and very little spent nuclear fuel has actually been recycled. The most successful nuclear recycling nation is France which, nevertheless, is experiencing a “nuclear exit” and is unlikely to ever use this recycled fuel. AREVA, the French nuclear giant, has gone bankrupt. Reprocessing facilities like the Rokkasho plant here in Japan have never functioned properly, unless you consider their role enabling the stockpiling of plutonium by Japan to hedge against future weapon needs to be an elemental goal.
There is a difference between what can be done, and what actually happens. Rather than being recycled, hundreds of thousands of metric tons of spent nuclear fuel await “final disposal” in deep geological repositories. Some have been waiting for over 70 years. Just last week, a panel advising the EU on categorizing nuclear plant as “green” energy, and thus eligible to receive EU funding as a “sustainable investment,” concluded that the problems of nuclear waste preclude that designation.
I would point out that even though plastics manufacturers assure us that most plastic can be recycled, we still seem to be living a world with ever increasing amounts of plastic waste. Their greenwashing has not eventuated in a world full of plastics made from recycled materials. The market reality is that it is cheaper to manufacture new plastic than it is to manufacture plastic from recycled materials. Similarly, it is cheaper to discard spent nuclear fuel than it is to reprocessit.
Sunkara dismisses the irrevocable link between military and civilian nuclear technologies as imaginary. First, let’s consider the present imbrication. A 2019 Atlantic Council study places the value of the US civilian nuclear complex to the US national security apparatus at $26 billion annually simply in terms of the human capital assets: “In terms of nuclear technology innovation, export capacity, and geopolitics, a vibrant civilian nuclear energy sector is a critically important national security asset.”
However, the civilian operation of nuclear power plants also places future generations at military risk. I have written that, historically, nuclear reactors were “born violent.” That is to say, they were invented by the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s to manufacture plutonium for use in nuclear weapons, and were instrumental in killing almost 100,000 people in 1945. The “first” American commercial atomic plant in Shippingport, PA that went critical in 1958, was actually the 14th industrial nuclear reactor built in the United States, the other 13 only manufactured plutonium, which by then formed the fissile cores of thousands of nuclear weapons.
In nuclear reactors used to make electricity, this plutonium is not separated out for use in weapons. However, all nuclear power plants remain plutonium production factories. The fact that most of those tons of plutonium remain in the spent fuel rods does not mean they will stay there forever. Thousands of years from now, some government or military may dig up the spent fuel in our deep geological repositories and separate that plutonium out to build nuclear weaponry. All it would take is the technology (technology we currently possess) and the will. We continue to manufacture that plutonium—perhaps for them to weaponize. Every nuclear power plant that operates adds to that inventory; more than 99% of existing plutonium was manufactured in nuclear reactors. In 1962, the US successfully detonated a nuclear weapon assembled with just such “reactor-grade” plutonium. Our generation’s use of nuclear power silently stockpiles fissile material that will remain militarily viable for millennia.
I too wish that the things that the nuclear industry says about itself were true—I wish it was green and renewable. I wish that there weren’t multiple uranium mining sites around the world with thousands of tons of uranium tailingsabandoned and open to the elements, continuing to harm the health of generations born long after mining ceased. I wish that it didn’t take immense, carbon-intensive mining projects to extract uranium from the Earth, and then again to “deposit” the spent nuclear fuel from reactors back half a kilometer underground. Estimates before construction began at Onkalo spent fuel repository in Finland were that the site would entail a “half-billion-euro construction project will generate some 2,500 person years of employment,” and would take 100 years to complete. That is just to contain the spent fuel from five nuclear power plants. The United States, by contrast, has 94 commercial nuclear power plants. There is still no actual plan for the astonishingly large and carbon-intensive site it will take to bury the more than 140,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, with some hope of containing it for thousands of generations of future human beings. This doesn’t include the thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from the nuclear reactors operated by the US military to provide the fissile cores of more than 70,000 nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
The panic-inducing impacts of anthropic climate change spark a desperate need for immediate reassurance and calming: we want to fix it now. We long to turn some corner that will change the situation. It is unlikely that the same short-sighted military-industrial technophilia that brought us to this climate crisis will flip over and provide us the urgent path to its resolution. Technological evangelists have been auditioning for the part of Climate Change Savior to anyone who will listen. Some proffer a Reagan-era Star Wars pitch: they will fill the skies with material to block the enemy (in this case sunlight rather than Soviet ICBMs). These geoengineering quick-fix schemes are more likely to cause unplanned outcomes than to achieve their missions.
At one time nuclear weapon producers imagined they too could geoengineer the planet to shape it to human desires. They tested the use of nuclear weapons to sculpt harbors into coastlines, and to release natural gas trapped in rock formations. These experiments led to some of the most significant radiological distributions and contaminated sites in the wide panoply of nuclear testing. Still, hyper-capitalist techno utopians like Elon Musk envision the key to human habitation on Mars is the detonation of a massive arsenals of thermonuclear weapons to shape it to our needs.
The nuclear industry will ignore its market dilemmas as long as taxpayers continue to backstop its investors. However, to believe that this massive, for-profit, military-based industry has concern for the welfare of the Earth and its inhabitants is akin to believing the plastic industry is actually beavering away to make the plastic waste disappear. Repackaging their talking points out of a genuine concern for living creatures is a resource they will continue to tap so long as it flows freely. Sunkara would do better to advocate for the mass social movements that have shifted giant industries towards social welfare in the past rather than preaching that the industries themselves are saviors. Time is obviously short, wrong turns are catastrophic.