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The Nuclear Question: Are We “Hostages to Modernity”?

Deep Green Resistance advocates for ending industrialization and moving to a localized, low-energy society. What about nuclear reactors?

If the DGR vision were carried out and the electrical grid dismantled, wouldn’t it lead to nuclear meltdowns?

By Max Wilbert

These are very important questions. They deserve a detailed response.

We must begin with this: no one has a plan to deal with nuclear issues, because there are no solutions. This is the insanity of the nuclear industry: to willfully unearth and concentrate radioactive material in a way that increases its deadliness by millions of times. Nuclear waste will remain toxic for billions of years.

How do we react to this? Where do we go from here? It’s essential to debate this issue. Let’s begin by examining the three main parts of the nuclear industry: nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants and reactors, and nuclear waste.

Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons are quite stable, and will not—as far as we know—explode on their own.

Alan Weisman writes, “The fissionable material inside a basic uranium bomb is separated into chunks that, to achieve the critical mass necessary for detonation, must be slammed together with a speed and precision that don’t occur in nature.”

The biggest danger of nuclear weapons is that they will be used in warfare. The threat is very real. And this risk will continue as long as nuclear arsenals are maintained in working order. And they are not just being maintained. They’re being expanded.

Even if nuclear weapons are never again used, they will corrode over time, releasing radiation from the weapons-grade uranium and plutonium inside them. This radiation will seep into groundwater and soil.

While high-energy industrial societies continue, the threat of nuclear war will only grow more serious. We support all efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear war through de-armament, dismantling of the industry, regulation and control measures, etc.

Nuclear Power Plants and Reactors

There are more than 440 nuclear reactors around the world, and each is a disaster waiting to happen.

Nuclear reactors are most dangerous in two situations: first, as at Fukushima, when direct physical damage to the plant disables back-up generators and other safety equipment. And second, as at Chernobyl, when design flaws combine with user error to create a catastrophic failure.

Charles Perrow called these types of situations “system accidents.” A system accident is when multiple failures in a complex system interact with each other in unforeseen ways, creating a larger unexpected problem. His conclusion was that nuclear technology should be abandoned completely.

Reactors are designed to cope with simple black-outs, so failure of the electrical grid is one of the least dangerous of possible disruptions to a nuclear plant. It is unlikely that a single dramatic blackout will collapse the industrial economy and cause widespread nuclear catastrophe.

However, lasting power disruptions to nuclear facilities can lead to meltdowns. This will happen no matter what. Increasing extreme weather events, economic instability, refugee crises and war will lead to blackouts and brownouts. Societies must prepare for this by safely dismantling nuclear power plants as quickly as possible.

It is possible that in the future, an increasing number of medium-scale power disruptions will encourage the decommission of nuclear power plants, or at least force closer attention to safety precautions. For example, several countries have started to shut down or put on hold their nuclear programs since the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

We support the expansion of these efforts. The nuclear power industry must be shut down. Engineers, politicians, and civil society have a responsibility to shut down the nuclear industry and dismantle it as “safely” as possible. The problem is, there is no safe when you are dealing with materials that will kill for billions of years.

And not only is the nuclear industry not shutting down—it is expanding. According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 55 nuclear power plants currently under construction.

Nuclear Waste

The most serious problem related to the nuclear industry isn’t reactors, but the radioactive waste they create. In the United States alone, there is at least 500,000 tons of Uranium-235—depleted uranium leftover from nuclear reactors. This material has a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years.

Depleted reactor fuel is (oddly enough) is more than a million times as radioactive as when it was raw ore. And the amount of it is growing steadily. Globally, around 13,000 tons of depleted fuel accumulates every year.

Ironically, depleted Uranium is often used in warfare, since it makes effective armor-piercing ammunition. In some locations, notably Falluja, U.S. military depleted uranium ammunition has led to explosions in birth defects and cancer.

Stored radioactive waste was the major issue with the Fukushima meltdown in 2011—not the power plant itself. Stored radioactive waste was the largest concern during the fires near the Los Alamos nuclear waste storage area in both 2000 and 2011, and after the near-flooding of a nuclear reactor in Mississippi in 2011. The reactor at any given nuclear plant contains only a small amount of active fuel compared to the spent fuel held within temporary storage facilities.

There is no good way to store this waste. No matter how it is contained—baked into glass sheets, poured into 55-gallon drums, encased in giant steel flasks and entombed in concrete, buried under mountains—it is still a threat to future life. Metal corrodes. Glass breaks. Earthquakes upend mountains. And 500 million years from now, this material will still kill any living creature that approaches it.

Are We “Hostages to Modernity”?

In a recent public panel, a public intellectual used the phrase “hostages to modernity” to describe how we are ‘locked in’ to a high-energy, industrial way of life because we must steward the nuclear industry. Is this true? Are we hostages to modernity?

In a sense, we are. The technical knowledge and engineering capacity to deal with nuclear issues as safely as possible is the sole domain of industrial society.

And yet this is an oversimplification of a complex situation. As we have seen, industrial societies are creating more nuclear power, more weapons, and more toxic waste far faster than any dismantling or cleanup is proceeding. And any “cleanup” that is being done is necessarily partial. Chernobyl is still toxic, as is Rocky Flats, Los Alamos, and Fukushima. There is no way to clean up these problems—only to mitigate some of the dangers.

So What Is To Be Done?

We believe the most responsible approach combines accelerated dismantling and cleanup of the nuclear industry using modern tools with a rapid dismantling of industrialism itself.

The ruling class is building more nuclear power and pushing us ever deeper into a full-on ecological apocalypse. Species extinctions. Extreme weather. Ocean acidification. Dead zones. Overfishing. Desertification. We are in a situation of converging crises.

In these dangerous times, nuclear meltdowns are just one of the catastrophes we face. And regardless of the scale of their horror, we have seen that life can survive nuclear catastrophe. The current “exclusion” zone around Fukushima encompasses about 600 square kilometres of land. This temporary boundary will probably — like Chernobyl—ironically end up ecologically richer over the coming decades.  Chernobyl was a horrible disaster. Yet it has had a positive ecological outcome: industrial human activity has been kept out of the area and wildlife is flourishing. There are now packs of wolves, endangered horses, wild boar and roe deer running wild in Chernobyl. It’s one of the most important wild bird areas in all of Europe. Hanford is the same. The nuclear waste at Hanford keeps one stretch of the Columbia River more wild than anywhere else, and it is this stretch that is the most important section of the river for wild fish.

This is not to say that the radiation doesn’t harm wildlife. It’s estimated that there is 50% less biodiversity in the most radioactive areas around Chernobyl.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the day-to-day workings of industrial civilization are more destructive to life on this planet than a nuclear catastrophe. It would be hard to do worse than Chernobyl.

More nuclear disasters will almost inevitably occur in the coming decades, whether or not the electrical grid is dismantled. Hazardous radioactive waste will accumulate as long as industrial civilization continues, and there are no safe long-term storage facilities anywhere in the world. So nuclear reactors will become more and more dangerous as larger and larger stockpiles of spent fuel are kept on-site.

Future nuclear disasters from shoddily-maintained plants will be very bad, but business as usual is far more destructive. And while nuclear radiation diminishes over time, unless something decisive is done, greenhouse gases levels will increase faster and faster as they pass tipping points.

There is no easy answer here. There is no simple solution. There is only the urgency that comes from confronting a stark reality. The nuclear industry must be dismantled—just like the fossil fuel industry, the mining industry, the industrial logging and fishing industries, the industrial agriculture industry. It must be shut down.

Further Reading and Videos

Nuclear weapons, power and waste create an immense amount of risk to the entire natural world (including humans). A number of civilian and military nuclear accidents have happened. These lists are incomplete, only include accidents, and do not account for the planned and deliberate harm caused by the mining, production, storage, waste disposal, or use of radioactive materials at weapons.

On top of that, mining for uranium itself is destructive to the land as well as the lives that depend on the land. Here’s an article about Uranium Mining On Navajo Indian Land.

Watch the following videos related to the topic.

5 thoughts on “The Nuclear Question: Are We “Hostages to Modernity”?”

  1. There is a blatant lie in the video about how the meltdown at Fukushima occurred. The reactors may have been technically “stabilized,” but Fukushima is still polluting the ocean with massive amounts of radioactive water. This alone is the only argument needed against nuclear power, though as Max’s essay points out, there are plenty of other problems with it, from uranium mining to nuclear waste, and some other problems that Max didn’t mention.

    “The ruling class is building more nuclear power and pushing us ever deeper into a full-on ecological apocalypse.”

    Yes, and this will continue until regular people stop insisting on their unnatural destructive lifestyles. There’s plenty of blame to go around here, it’s not just the ruling class, though they certainly have most of the blame.

    Some things when broken can’t be fixed, and all this nuclear crap is one of them. As Max pointed out, nuclear waste will be emitting radioactivity until the sun burns out. The only solution would be to put it all in rockets and send it to the sun where it wouldn’t do any harm (or at least a lot less harm), but rockets crash on takeoff about 20% of the time, so that’s far too dangerous. There is no good solution here. Industrial society is war against the Earth and must be stopped, but in doing so there will almost certainly be multiple or even many nuclear disasters. This is a no-win situation, we just have to choose the least bad alternative.

  2. I wrote an article for Sutter Town News detailing just these concerns and how nuclear reactors were sold to the public as cheap electricity producers. It was published in the mid 80’s. The concerns I raised, basically storage, have never been addressed, and judging from this article, never will. The folly of nuclear power is staggering.

  3. @Lynda Austin
    Post-industrial and industrial humans have a childish fantasy that they can do whatever they want without harming anything, and that technology will just fix the problems. What’s needed instead are large reductions in population and consumption, both of which will take long periods of time in human terms. Less harmful technologies — and to be clear, nuclear power is NOT a less harmful technology — would at best buy a little time, but all technologies are harmful and anything less than large reductions in population and consumption are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

  4. Max’s list of the industrial disasters poised to happen omitted a passive one that is a certainty — the runaway trains of population increase and diminishing resources, which are heading toward each other on the same track at maximum speed. An intergovernmental panel on biodiversity predicted there will be 200-300 million starving humans by 2050. One of Obama’s top scientists estimated 500 million by 2040.

    Nuclear technology, of course, is just one of the 20th century’s many wondrous achievements, most of which were unleashed on the world without the slightest thought to the downside. This includes the approximately 80,000 chemicals and synthetics that were never tested for safety — things like DDT, Roundup, Teflon, and microwave radiation. And I’d wager that one or more of them is responsible for the dramatic plunge in men’s fertility rates in the developed world since the 1970s (and which is happening at a rate that would make human reproduction virtually impossible by 2100).

    Unlike nuclear, however, most of them wouldn’t be impossible to detoxify, or otherwise render safe. The reason these threats almost certainly won’t be removed, however, is the simple lack of a profit motive.

    Even without nuclear power, future generations face centuries of decline and millions of deaths, because capitalism is driven by the lust for a fast buck — and most assuredly not by zeal for a nonprofit remedy.

    Other potential pandemics include the wave of cancers likely to be attributed to 5G technologies, all of which are driven by microwaves that are only 3 times the length of x-rays.

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