2022 has been quite a year so far. No sooner do we begin recovering from the gut-punching reminder of “Don’t Look Up!” that we have a potentially civilization ending Climate Code Red to contend with, and fast, when along comes – Russia.
Suddenly, humanity’s destruction from inexorable and increasingly severe climate events gets supplanted by the prospect that humanity’s destruction may instead come about from that old reliable – nuclear war. And while it’s difficult for the average human to contemplate two competing self-destructive thoughts in one’s head simultaneously, reality insists that we must.
While these two catastrophes may seem unconnected, they are not if one does not fixate on the obvious notion that one off-ramp is immediate and abrupt, while the other is slow, painful and agonizingly relentless.
Sandwiched in among the stories of the body counts, destroyed tanks and cities, and threat of nuclear war have come accounts that Ukraine’s 15 operating nuclear reactors are also under threat. Initially, it was the Russian army’s capture of Chernobyl and an errant shell hitting a radioactive waste dump there that introduced the issue. Then, it was the fire-fight around and eventual capture of the 6-reactor Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex that drew serious consternation, both inside and outside of Ukraine. When the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi says, “…you see the problems that are occurring. These are indications/confirmations that we cannot go on like this,” it is indeed time to worry.
While not as impressive as a hydrogen bomb explosion, the destruction of a nuclear reactor site would have enormous consequences for Ukraine (which has had practice with this already – recall Chernobyl in 1986) and all Europe. While an actual meltdown and destruction of a reactor is both difficult and less likely, the probability is not zero as we have seen with the previous Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear meltdowns .
More worrisome and likely is the destruction of less-reinforced structures housing the highly radioactive spent-fuel rods. Their destruction and subsequent fires could disseminate radioactive materials across the region, just as occurred in 1986 at Chernobyl. The urgency behind such a possibility is not overstated in the case of Chernobyl as the Russian occupied site in Ukraine has, as we write this, just lost off-site power and is now relying on backup generators to power needed safety systems.
One would think that the prospect of full-on nuclear war or even just the possibility of destroying nuclear reactors and indiscriminately distributing radiation around the planet might serve as a deterrent, as something undesirable. Or, as some experts have already stated and events on the ground have proven, nuclear reactors were not constructed to survive in war zones. One would be wrong, however.
Astonishingly, at this very moment when even the IAEA is expressing serious alarm, nuclear promoters spring their own “Don’t Look Up!” moment on the world, and promote the Monty Pythonesque conclusion that – the world needs more nuclear reactors to both fight Climate Code Red and end dependence on fossil fuel cartels and oligarchs like Vladimir Putin.
The Biden Administration and Sen. Joe Manchin favor rescuing old and expanding new nuclear reactors. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm recently completed a “nuclear is the future” cheerleading tour of the U.S. Elon Musk says Europe should, “increase power output of existing ones,” because he alleges it “is *critical* to national and international security.” And Breakthrough Institute’s mouthpiece Michael Shellenberger recently suggested that Ukraine could have been off of Russian gas if it had more nuclear plants – while failing to describe how these additional reactors would have fared in the current path of the Russian Army.
Their idea is that nuclear power can somehow displace reliance on either coal or natural gas. It doesn’t take a lot of deep scratching below the surface of these self-serving positions to see the fallacies, and realize that better, more secure non-nuclear energy choices exist already.
On Feb. 22, 2022, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ statement on the Russian invasion made this very clear:
“…Finally, in the longer term, we must invest in a global green energy transition away from fossil fuels, not only to combat climate change, but to deny authoritarian petrostates the revenues they require to survive.”
Sanders has long been a champion of the green, non-nuclear energy transformation needed. However, opportunistic nuclear marketers would try to suggest that nuclear power play a role in this transformation.
What the disingenuous nuclear hucksters don’t tell you is that currently, 40-50% of the uranium in U.S. reactors comes from Russia or its Federation partners. Trading one cartel for another seems irrationally non-productive.
The facts are clear. Old nuclear is both uneconomic (as demonstrated by needing incessant billion-dollar government bailouts) and aging (most reactors are past their initial 40-year planned lifetime; many have 60-year licenses to operate, and now utilities are petitioning regulators for 80-year licenses. How many of us drive 1946 Fords, or fly DC-3s to Europe?). New nuclear is vastly too expensive ($17 billion cost overrun at the only reactors being constructed in the U.S.), too slow to come online in quantities sufficient to have any meaningful impact on the Climate Code Red; or are only in conceptual development and model demonstration phases, decades away from commercialization — IF they work at all. And now both are demonstrably and dangerously vulnerable to modern warfare. This is not an energy resource; it’s an increased liability.
In our nuclear “Don’t Look Up!” moment, the world has shrugged off both Climate Code Red and the nuclear catastrophes at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Nuclear proponents are already minimizing the impact of the Russian attacks on Ukraine nuclear sites. Will we be similarly rationalizing future disasters involving China/Taiwan? India/Pakistan? North/South Korea? The Middle East (again)?
Einstein once observed: clever people solve problems. Geniuses avoid them. The immediacy of the Climate Code Red and the threat of nuclear war and proliferation require that we build an energy present – i.e., in the next 8 years — not dependent on past cultish ideology or questionable future science fiction. To avoid the imminent threats of climate and nuclear extinction, we need to aggressively implement now what we know already works: renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy storage and improved energy transmission.
As then-President Jimmy Carter observed nearly 50 years ago: “Solar energy will not pollute our air or water. We will not run short of it. No one can ever embargo the sun or interrupt its delivery to us.” But further embracing nuclear power will.