Nuclear Power and Environmental Justice
When we look at the world, it is obvious of our own impact on this planet. Whether we know it or not, and whether we appreciate and understand it or not, the earth is part of a global ecosystem; both living animals and plant life, as well as the climate included. Because of the very nature of phenomena taking place on a global scale, there are invariably individual pockets of life and small scale weather, that if you didn’t or couldn’t grasp the larger picture, you may not see how it all comes together. This is especially true to human kind. What one nation or society chooses to do with their resources, may end up affecting entire other societies at the opposite side of the globe. This is the problem of climate change, and the solution will be nuclear power.
Climate change is one of those problems that is too ambiguous for people to easily understand how widespread its effects are. Of course, in the 1970’s and 80’s, it was often referred to global warming, because in fact that is exactly what’s happening. It only began being referred to climate change in the late 1990’s more as a euphemism. It hasn’t been inappropriately renamed, as it can certainly well describe the phenomena of what is happening, but it does lessen the impact of global warming, strictly from the standpoint of fear. But more importantly, it’s ambiguity is likened to something as rare as a large asteroid impact on earth; it’s something we should absolutely be worried about, that the time it would take to react and plan to something like that is not easily conceived of by the common population. Whether or not it is a good thing, some nations of the world are taking a moral stance on the issue of climate change, and often for good reason. With rising sea levels, the acidification of our oceans, Greenland’s ice sheets melting away, global temperatures rising by a few degrees every year, billions of people and other living beings are negatively affected; it makes sense to take a stand against the change.
A problem arises however, when we are faced with the grand indifference of nature; for every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction. What we do to the earth, it reacts in kind. But we should not act like it is the earth that is our enemy. The rhetoric about climate change is often combative, where a war with climate change is being referred to. I don’t think this is helpful, what we should do is hold nations accountable for their actions: incentivise clean energy use and de-incentivise bad habits. Moreover, because climate change is an ambiguous problem, we would be wise to allow nations to work on their own to solve energy problems, insofar as it cannot negatively affect other nations. The example that comes to mind are countries like Germany, who by 2018 eliminated all of their functioning coal mines, and exported their responsibility for coal production to countries like Colombia.
The documentary film La Buena Vida (The Good Life), depicts the life of people living in a small Colombian village, Tamaquito, and how their lives are drastically changed, having to be relocated by the multinational coal company Cerrejón. The film opens by showing the changes that Germany has taken to it’s coal production. Because it ceased production of coal, and shut down the last of its coal plants, a vacuum was created; many European countries still import coal for their energy use, so coal production must come from somewhere; enter Cerrejón. While I won’t be specifically focusing on the use of coal, it is still a viable source of energy, despite its low-efficiency and negative health effects on coal miners. More importantly, when coal companies take over production from such a large producer, like Germany, they will invariably cut corners and cut costs in order to deliver to the energy market. Furthermore, villages such as the people living in Tamaquito experience a loss of habitat and setbacks to their very way of life. The film itself depicts the villagers and their negotiation with liaisons from Cerrejón in their relocation; mainly for their guarantee of fresh well water, nutrient rich soil, and the ability to plant the crops that they have been growing for generations. Ultimately, negotiations break down and the villagers fail in attaining a viable living space. This all seems to fall on the consequences of using specific forms of energy, stemming from decisions in Europe.
After the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan in 2011, following a massive tsunami, Germany decided to cease the production of nuclear energy and to shut down every plant by 2020. This was a reactionary response, not based on the facts surrounding the effects of radiation, but a historical one; with images of mushroom clouds or the disaster in Chernobyl, many countries and people have negative images of nuclear power in their minds. According to World Nuclear Association, “there have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident, but over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes to ensure this. Government nervousness delays the return of many.” This differs from the standard narrative of nuclear disasters, where the Japanese people were exposed to radiation levels “amounting to less than the typical natural background level of 2.1 mSv per year” (World Nuclear Association, Fukushima Daiichi Accident). But Fukushima isn’t the only disaster that is kept in people’s minds.
The disaster at the Soviet nuclear plant in Chernobyl is by far one of the most horrendous disasters present in those of us born before the 1990’s. The effects felt by the Chernobyl accident are vastly under-reported, but the quality of the actual facility was so poor, mainly because of the U.S.S.R.’s attempt to beat out the U.S. in nuclear power during the cold war, that they cut corners and used outdated equipment to undertake their production of uranium. This story is compounded by the HBO miniseries of the same name, further adding to fears of nuclear energy, when in fact modern nuclear power plants are safe and efficient. Nuclear power has caused less loss to human life than any other source of energy production, mainly from the lack of air pollution and no major energy accidents (Sustainable Energy, Ch. 24, Pg. 128). As far as environmental effects go, nuclear energy production has zero carbon emissions and has prevented the emission of 64 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from the burning of fossil fuels since the 1970’s (Kharecha, Pushker A., et al). This of course brings into question the kinds of nuclear power we are talking about.
Currently, nuclear energy is produced by the process of nuclear fission, where typical elements like uranium ore is enriched, and broken up into new elements, thus releasing large amounts of energy. This is the same process by which nuclear weapons get their energy, but on much larger scales. Even the accidents that have occurred from power plant disasters have released nowhere near the amount of energy or radiation that bombs such as the one detonated above Hiroshima produced. But even now we are capable of having a much different conversation on nuclear power when it comes to energy self-sufficiency. Taylor Wilson, when being interviewed by VICE News in 2016, Wilson described his own production of yellowcake, an enriched form of uranium, in his own backyard. He explains further that he had begun construction on nuclear salt reactors, that are buried underground, produce no harmful radiation, and only need to be refilled every 50 years or so. Similar to use of solar panels on homes, these small nuclear reactors and produce sustainable energy to the general population now, with minimal impact. But unlike hydro-power dams or large scale wind farms, even nuclear power plants don’t take up as much space or cause damage to the surrounding environment as other alternative renewables do.
Of course, it should never be a solution to completely use nuclear energy, without the use of other renewables, especially if the goal is to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. But considering that goal, we have to look at the people affected in the elimination of jobs that have been around for close to a century. Just like the elimination of coal production in Germany, there are two options: 1) relocate to where other fossil fuel plants are still in production, which goes against the goal, or 2) retrain the work-force into nuclear and electrical engineers, which is expensive. That should not dissuade us, however, as putting our priorities in order would relegate the use of money to achieve the solutions we need.
I think it ultimately comes down to the world that we want to live in. If we want a world where clean use of energy and mass populations of people aren’t faced with displacement, then spending a lot of money on protecting our future would be worth it. This is especially true when it comes to the prospects of nuclear fusion. This is the process that takes place within the hearts of stars, like our sun. It generates incredibly large amounts of energy on large scales, and is incredibly long lasting. In fact, it is even possible here on earth, albeit made in short bursts. However, institutes like the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics have made excellent progress on their stellarator, Wendelstein 7-X, where researchers are projecting that by 2021 they’ll have up to 30 minutes of continuous plasma generation. But, again, we should never view nuclear power as the complete solution to the problems of climate change; not just because we’ll need other forms of renewable energy, but some use of fossil fuels are still greatly required.
When we look toward still developing nations, it is often the case that fossil fuels are still the more efficient kind of energy when it comes to the production of electricity, as solar and wind energy are too expensive and take up too much space in densely populated areas. There is also a tremendous amount of fossil fuels, specifically jet fuel, coal and diesel fuel in both air travel and sea-faring shipping boats respectively. So, then, what do we do in the face of this large scale problem, when there are still many incentives to use ineffective and dangerous forms of energy, especially when it is the direct line to the injustices faced by many populations in the face of expanding energy production, like coal? I think it comes back to the question of what kind of world we want to live in. If we don’t do anything about this problem, rising sea levels would displace millions of people alone, but the slow adaptation to alternate forms of energy can be equally staggering in the amount of work and expense it would take to be on track. The best thing we can do is try every option, and to not exclude viable options. We ought to want to live in a world where we follow the evidence, and it points in the direction of nuclear.