This spring has marked two painful anniversaries. April 26 was the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, the worst nuclear accident in history. Chernobyl was a complete disaster, from planning and design to emergency preparedness and response management. It was also a tragedy resulting in over 40 direct deaths (occurring within months of the meltdown), and further exposing an additional 4,000 people to unsafe levels of radiation (or 40,000 — depending on who you read). Not to mention the social dislocation experienced by the 115,000 people evacuated from the area.
March 11 marked the 5th anniversary of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown. Unlike Chernobyl, the accident was not triggered by human mistakes, but it was similar to the Soviet-era disaster in relation to failures of design, response, and human impacts. It caused between zero and 60 directly related deaths from radiation exposure in the aftermath of the explosions (again, depending on the assessment), and between zero and 5,000 indirect radiation-related deaths. At Fukushima there were some 100,000 people evacuated, a chaotic process which itself is said to have caused over 1,500 deaths.
While these two incidents have left an indelible mark on global impressions about the safety risks of nuclear energy, fuelling a “never again” attitude towards the industry, it would be a mistake to take this as a sign of nuclear power’s global decline. In fact, nuclear power has grown over the years, and with reactors in over 30 countries, it provides 11% of the global electricity supply (18% in OECD nations). While Germany and Italy have both vowed to go nuclear free in the wake of Fukushima, numerous other countries (China, France, the UK, Poland, for instance) have renewed nuclear intentions, making 2014 the year with the most nuclear start-ups in 25 years.
From an industry perspective, nuclear is making a comeback (though as with all nuclear issues this point is hotly contested). There are presently some 65 reactors under construction around the world with another 173 officially planned. Most remarkably, the pro-nuclear movement is receiving a boost from an unlikely group of supporters, the very crowd that has played an instrumental role in raising awareness about the dangers of nuclear energy — environmentalists!
As Cohen and McKillop (2012) claim, “once upon a time, all self-respecting environmentalists hated nuclear power,” yet in recent decades growing attention to climate change has completely “reversed green politics” (42). Now, a number of globally renowned environmentalists point to nuclear energy as a “climate fix.” This includes eminent environmental thinkers like Gaia theorist James Lovelock, environmental columnist George Monbiot, editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue Stewart Brand, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency Carol Browner, co-founder of Greenpeace Patrick Moore — the list goes on.
For such “ecomodernist” proponents of nuclear power, the threat of runaway climate change is far more severe — and far more likely to materialize — than the risks posed by a localized meltdown, leakage of radioactive waste, or even a terrorist dirty bomb. In their eyes, the low-carbon electricity produced by nuclear power is necessary to minimize the risks posed to hundreds of millions of people from rising sea levels, increased severe weather, and the intensified drought, heat waves, wildfires, and flooding associated with climate change. Nuclear power, they argue, has already saved lives and could save millions more.
One of the best-known environmentalists to come out as a major proponent of nuclear energy is James Hansen, the former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute, who has received numerous awards and accolades as one of the world’s leading thinkers on climate change. In the wake of the 2015 Paris Climate Talks, Hansen and three colleagues wrote an op-ed calling for a major scale-up of nuclear power (in conjunction with investments in renewable). This was, they said, the only feasible means to obtain the Paris objectives of limiting the Earth’s warming to 2°C: “Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them,” they concluded.
Not everyone is convinced, however. This shift in attitudes about nuclear energy has led to a genuine rift in the global environmental movement. The “never again” mantra regarding nuclear is thus being interpreted in two main ways. There’s the “cold turkey” approach, where the only way to avoid another Chernobyl or Fukushima is to phase out nuclear power altogether and find some other way of decarbonizing the electricity market. This would be through renewables like solar and wind, with biomass to cover the “intermittency problem” of producing baseload electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Or, there’s the “necessary evil” approach, where nuclear energy, despite its inherent risks, is ultimately a required tool in the climate-change-mitigation fight. The only way to avoid another Chernobyl or Fukushima, in this view, is to pair the nuclear scale-up with technological innovations (safer types of nuclear reactors) and strong regulations to enhance safety practices and mitigate other risks posed by radioactive waste, terrorism, and proliferation.
This rift has left many nations — and environmentalists — contemplating the trade-offs between energy and investment policies today and the way they might influence various global security risks of the future. It also leaves them hedging bets about how electricity will be generated and stored in the coming years, and feeling pressure to make decisions now based on the trajectories of technological development and costs of alternatives such as renewables.
Canada, with the world’s second largest uranium reserves, and with plans to show global leadership in addressing global warming, has an important role to play in such discussions.
Ryan Katz-Rosene is a SSHRC Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies, and a Board Member of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada. In November 2015, his talk at CIPS was entitled Between “Doomsday Machine” and “Climate Fix”: The Ecological Political Economy of Nuclear Energy in Canada. He lives on a small family farm in Cantley, Quebec.