A sustainable planet is a nuclear-free planet.

What if the movement for climate change joined forces
with the movement for a nuclear-free planet?
Image via Flickr/public domain license.

Paul Garrett Professor of Political Science at Whitman College

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times made an interesting observation by juxtaposing two prominent social movements of our times. The piece pointed out that the People’s Climate March in Manhattan this past month mimicked in scale and scope the June 1982 Nuclear Freeze demonstration in Central Park. Held a generation apart, both massive gatherings identified a “threat to civilization and to life on Earth”—the dangerous warming of the planet for the first, the possibility of laying it to waste for the latter.

Working in tandem with worldwide social movements, both groups sought to generate and harness public opinion to urge policymakers around the world to take action on an emergency of planetary proportions (Teresa Tritch, “From Nuclear Freeze to Global Warming – and Back,” the New York Times, September 23, 2014). The point of Tritch’s piece was to caution climate-change activists to stay focused on specific targets, reminding readers that “32 years after the Central Park gathering, progress on significant arms reductions is going into reverse …” What the article was referring to here was the recent announcement by the Obama administration that the U.S. was going to spend trillions of dollars over the next three decades modernizing and upgrading its nuclear arsenal. An earlier piece in the same paper had called this escalation a “nationwide wave of atomic revitalization”—a surprise and disappointment to those who had taken seriously President Obama’s occasional rhetorical gesture toward a nuclear-free world. (William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms,” the New York Times, September 21, 2014). Tritch ends her piece by asking: “But what about a generation from now? Will the news in 2046 chronicle a resurgence in fossil fuel exploration?”

Like most uses of historical analogies, Tritch’s attempt is to draw an important lesson from the nuclear freeze movement that may be of value to a different movement that is trying to effect urgent change on a vital problem. In doing so she assumes, with good reason, that both movements share a vision of progressive change and common aspirations about the future of the planet. But what if, instead of working in a solidarity of aims toward a safer and healthier world, the climate change movement itself became a contributor to increased nuclearization? What if, instead of sharing a common destination, the goals of the two movements end up working at cross-purposes with each other? How might that happen?

Carbon-emitting fossil fuels might be the most obvious cause of a warming planet, but there is much disagreement on what could be viable alternatives to coal and oil that are able to sustain existing energy usages. Hence it is that some environmental activists, not so sanguine about the potential of the different sources of renewable energy to meet the ever-growing consuming appetites of a globalizing world, are increasingly looking to nuclear energy as the “clean” panacea for global climate change. For countries like China and India, whose own consuming appetites are growing apace with their population levels (as well as for other developing countries hungry to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous), nuclear energy is the environmentally responsible path to the neoliberal dream. In a capitalist world that feeds on mass consumerism, nuclear energy appears as the magic potion that asks of little sacrifice from those who may find their futures inconvenienced by a warming planet. And there are considerable profits to be made by nuclear energy corporations and their lobbying agents also now pushing for a green future. But what are the implications of such reliance on nuclear energy? 

Furthermore, what do nuclear weapons, whose elimination Tritch discusses, have to do with nuclear energy?

There is an odd disjunction in many discussions surrounding nuclearization where nuclear weapons are abhorred as so dangerous that all efforts need to be expended on eliminating or minimizing their presence and spread, while nuclear energy is celebrated as the liberatory answer to growing energy needs. In fact, in the current negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, Iran is clinging to its “right to enrich uranium” precisely for such liberatory purposes, while the P-5 plus one (composed of the negotiating team of US, Russia, China, UK, France, and Germany) fear that permitting Iran to have that capacity opens up the possibility of Iran crossing over that line where nuclear power become dangerous and abhorrent, i.e., that Iran might develop nuclear weapons. 

Nuclear Desire makes a case for attending to the larger political economy of nuclear power by examining the entire nuclear production process from its origins in uranium mining, through the various stages of conversion, enrichment, and testing, and ending with storage and waste disposal. This process reveals the mundane, everyday forms of dangers that nuclear power poses—in both its energy and weaponized forms—often to the most vulnerable communities in the world that provide the labor and the sites of toxic production and disposal, and whose radioactive effects will be felt for hundreds of thousands of years. The only wartime victim of a nuclear weapon attack, Japan made a commitment to be nuclear weapons-free but now finds even its faith in the liberatory power of nuclear energy imperiled after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. But while our fears of nuclear dangers generally reside in their most spectacular forms—the use of an atomic bomb or a massive explosion at a nuclear power plant—the dangers and costs of nuclear power are vastly greater and much more diffuse, both spatially and temporally, even if much of it remains invisible in calculations that look to nuclear power as any sort of panacea to global warming. 
Instead of thinking of the climate change movement and the anti-nuclear movement as parallel attempts at solving global crises that could learn from each other, perhaps it is time for them to unite their purposes in helping create a denuclearized and ultimately more environmentally sustainable world.

Shampa Biswas is author of Nuclear Desire: Power and the Postcolonial Nuclear Order. Biswas is Paul Garrett Professor of Political Science at Whitman College and the coeditor of International Relations and States of Exception: Margins, Peripheries, and Excluded Bodies and Torture: Power, Democracy, and the Human Body.
Aligning herself with the most vulnerable, and armed with a sharp stylus, Shampa Biswas deftly dissects the sprawling corpus of the global nuclear order. Focusing her analysis on the sinews of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, she tracks and traces the modalities through which ideological allure and enforced abstinence, sanitized events and horrifying accidents, faith in deterrence and flows of deathly waste, commodity fetishism and enlightenment technologies of rule, expensive state security and opaque political economy come together to power this colonial regime. Nuclear Desire offers profound and provocative insights into the hierarchical structuring and colonial governance of contemporary global orders.Himadeep Muppidi, Vassar College
Nuclear Desire moves us to rethink the route to a nuclear-free world as one that must center reasons of peace and social justice. Shampa Biswas moves beyond well-rehearsed critiques—indeed, beyond critique itself—to give us new insights into how a more secure world might simultaneously be more peaceful and just.J. Marshall Beier, McMaster University

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