Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are strangely entwined in a Gordian knot. They cannot be separated.
The two nuclear fission bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, together killed more than 200,000 people. The bomb that destroyed Nagasaki released an amount of explosive energy equivalent to a pile of dynamite as big as the White House and had been contained in a sphere of plutonium no bigger than a baseball, according to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
On the other hand, when nuclear power was first commercialized in the mid-1950s, many viewed it as an ideal solution for the electricity needs of a growing global population. One pound of uranium-235 can produce two to three million times as much electricity as one pound of coal or oil. Wow, how seductive is that? Many people are now saying that nuclear power is the answer to climate change.
However, the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 remains the most serious nuclear power accident in U.S. history. Then came the tragedies of Chernobyl, in 1986, followed by the catastrophe of Fukushima Daiichi in 2011.Thanks to the world’s ocean currents that connect us all, radiation from Fukushima first showed up on the U.S. Oregon coast in 2016.
The mighty jet stream in the blue sky above us all now carries radiation from Fukushima according to Scientific American.
We now have about 450 nuclear power plants operating in the world, each with its own nuclear reactor where the fission takes place, generating 10% of the world’s electric power according to the World Nuclear Performance Report 2019.
These 450 nuclear reactors also produce the key nuclear materials needed for the production of nuclear weapons. All of the more than 400 nuclear power plants now operating in 32 countries produce large quantities of plutonium that, when chemically separated from spent fuel, can be used to make reliable, efficient nuclear weapons of all types; a constant temptation for countries that want to keep up with the arms race.
Nuclear waste from these reactors is steadily building and it is radioactive essentially forever, with no place to store it that renders it harmless.
Clearly we need to phase out all nuclear power worldwide and accomplish this while being responsive to climate change and at the same time get nuclear weapons dismantled across the globe. Whew.
The Gordian knot cannot be untied. We are collectively facing new choices.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs Fridays in the Colorado Daily.