The stakes are getting higher by the day in the radioactive roulette playing out at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. On Monday the Japanese government finally widened the evacuation zone and is raising the threat level from five to seven, the same level as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. In our own movements we need to raise the nuclear threat level too.
While it’s tempting to sit back and wait for an antinuclear movement to rekindle in the United States, we simply can’t afford the time. Nor is it clear that such a movement will emerge. The failure of the anti-war movement to gain broad traction is a case in point. Many progressive movements are just struggling to hold on in the face of vicious right-wing assaults and loss of funding. So the question becomes: How do we build an antinuclear politics in the absence of a full-fledged antinuclear movement?
The answer lies in finding points of convergence. After all, nuclear power, waste and weaponry threaten us all, as well as generations to come. The nuclear accident in Japan – if we can really call it an accident since potential disaster was built into the very location and design of the plants – serves as a glaring reminder that those who hold the reins of power do not have solutions for the serious social, economic and ecological crises of our time. On the contrary, they are making disasters, not unmaking them, risking our collective future for their own short-term gain. As economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote recently, financial meltdown and nuclear meltdown are closely related, both products of a system of delusional speculation, technological hubris, public subsidies and private greed.
In each of our movements, then, we need to make a space for antinuclear activism. Here are just a few of many possible points of convergence:
Nuclear power is a reproductive rights issue. Among other serious side effects, exposure to radiation can increase the risk of sterility, birth defects and genetic mutations that can affect the reproduction of generations to come. Plutonium, a by-product of nuclear power and a key component of atomic bombs, is the most potent manmade poison on the planet, with a half life of 24,000 years. It crosses the placenta and is stored in male testicles.
Nuclear power is an environmental justice issue, from uranium mining on indigenous lands in the southwest to locating reactors in poor African-American rural communities in Georgia.
It’s a climate justice issue. Don’t let them fool you. Nuclear power is not a clean substitute for dirty fossil fuels. For one thing, the government and industry have no idea of how or where to safely store the waste. Moreover, nuclear is hardly emissions-free when you factor in the mining, transport and enrichment of uranium as well as the leakage of the potent greenhouse gas CFC 114 from cooling pipes. The money spent on nuclear development should instead flow to the development of safe renewable energies and conservation.
It’s a labor rights issue. As we’ve seen at Fukushima, nuclear workers, many of them laboring on an exploitative contract basis, are being exposed to unacceptable health risks. Nuclear power also produces dangerous chemical by-products that affect workers. As an industry shrouded in secrecy, workers often lack redress or are scared to complain about health and safety violations for fear of losing their jobs.
It’s a peace and security issue. The notion of ‘atoms for peace’, first trumpeted by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, has always been a sham. Nuclear power fuels the atomic weapons industry, facilitates nuclear proliferation, and increases vulnerability to terrorist attacks. In a profound irony, it helps legitimize the national security state as necessary to protect us from nuclear threats of the state’s own making.
Nuclear power is a basic democracy issue too. Why does President Obama support nuclear power? Because the nuclear lobby supported his candidacy. If we want clean renewable energy, we need clean elections. And we need local control. Right now the brave state of Vermont is fighting to shut down the leaking Vermont Yankee nuclear plant that has the same flawed design as Fukushima. Its state legislature is pitted against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which recently renewed the plant’s license. Whose vote should count – the people of Vermont’s or a few pro-industry representatives on the NRC licensing committee?
By including opposition to nuclear power in all of our diverse struggles, we can start to build an effective antinuclear politics that could spawn a broader movement. But even if it doesn’t, we won’t have stood by passively as the threat level mounts. While the Republicans play at shutting down the government, what really needs shutting down is the nuclear industry. We all need to help in that fight.