on ‘Nonviolence and Nuclear Power’

Introduction to London Nonviolence Discussion Group meeting on “Nonviolence and Nuclear Power” that took place at Housmans, London on 9/6/15

In spite of the title I’ve been given I will talk about violence and nuclear power, since I think I am clearer about what violence is. I will leave the question of non-violence in relation to nuclear power to be dealt with in discussion.

At the top end of violence lies “premeditated murder”. An example might be my buying a gun with the aim of killing a particular person with it and carrying out that intention.

Since the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was made in advance with the knowledge that many people would die as a result of the bombing, that would seem to serve as an example of premediated mass murder. That it was carried out during a war and that the aim was not to kill anybody in particular does not to my mind make it any less mass murder.

When we come to nuclear power, I also think a case for premeditated murder at least with the knowledge we have now. Earlier on in the nuclear age it could be that said the detrimental health effects to those in the vicinity of nuclear power stations were not known or suspected. However in recent times, to take one example, study after study has shown that the incidence of childhood leukaemia among children living within a certain distance from nuclear power stations is much greater (to the extent of 37% within 50kms of almost all NPPs in the UK, Germany, France and Switzerland according to a summation of studies into the incidence made by Ian Fairlie and published in 2014) than among the general population in the area lying outside that. In these circumstances it is extremely probable that the presence of the nuclear power stations causes this increase But this means that those continuing to operate nuclear power stations in the knowledge that this is the case are doing so with the knowledge that this operation will result in injury and presumably premature deaths of a certain proportion of children in the vicinity, so how is this any less the premeditated causing of injury and death to those children affected than in the deliberate shooting case? Or, in the latter case, making those responsible guilty of premeditated murder?

It is not sufficient defence against these charges for those responsible for the operation of the power stations continuing to say they disbelieve the statistics or think some other factor than the operation of the power stations caused the increase in cases. Unless and until it can be shown that there is some other explanation for the increased cases of leukaemia, then on the precautionary principle this evidence should lead to the closure of the power stations.

An analogy would be with the case of smoking. For a long time there seemed to be some evidence that smoking was harmful to health but this was disputed. The precautionary principle would dictate that people should give up smoking in case the evidence was correct, until it was disproved.

One sort of argument that might be thought to justify continuing to run nuclear power stations even though they produced this toll of injuries and death would be that the good that they produced for society outweighed the harm they produced.

This may not seem a very strong sort of argument when there seem alternative ways to that of nuclear power of producing the heat and light, manufacture and transport of goods which are so necessary for the survival and wellbeing of individuals and societies.

However, if we take another analogy – that of coal-mining – perhaps the kind of justification involved becomes clearer. For a long time before the nuclear age, we relied on coal to produce energy for the above purposes. Coal was produced by coal mining which caused death and injury to many thousands of miners. However these deaths and injuries were not generally seen as sufficient reason for stopping coal mining; so it must have been thought that the good produced by coal was thought to outweigh the harm to miners coal mining involved. (It might have helped it’s true that those affected, miners, were generally seen as a separate and indeed inferior kind of human being.)

A similar defence is sometimes put forward for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – that the bombings ended the war and thus saved thousands of lives. This is often put in racist terms, that the bombings saved thousands of Allied lives with the implication that the ultimately hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives caused by the bombings didn’t count and nor did any Japanese lives saved by the bombing. In any case there’s something dubious in justifying actual enormous death and destruction now on the possible good that might be achieved in the future.

How else my nuclear power stations be seen as violent? I will make some suggestions.

  • In general countries interested in having nuclear weapons have seen building nuclear power stations as a way to acquiring them. Fuel for nuclear power stations needs enrichment of their radioactive isotope concentration, which is done by means of centrifuges. All that has to be done to produce material for atom bombs is to enrich the uranium much more by the same process. Also the uranium fuel rods in operation in the power station become a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides and this plutonium, which does not occur naturally, is required in thermonuclear devices. So nuclear power at least gives the means of producing atom bombs fairly easily and also make possible the production of thermonuclear bombs.

Are nuclear bombs violent in themselves, however, if they are not used?   I would say so, because the whole point of having them is surely to threaten that they would be used in certain circumstances and surely to threaten mass murder is itself a violent act whether or not this threat is ever carried out.

  • NPSs bequeath waste which will remain highly radioactive for many tens of thousands of years to future generations and will thus threaten them with injury and death through the escape of radiation.
  • The mining of the uranium ore required to fuel nuclear power stations involve the despoiling of the habitat of indigenous inhabitants and animals and death and injury to miners.
  • In spite of nuclear power stations not producing much CO2 in operation the whole operation of producing nuclear power requires many processes that produce a great deal of CO2 (from mining, refining, transport, fuel enrichment, building of power stations, their dismantling, building and maintenance of storage facilities for nuclear waste) and thus add to global warming with the threat it poses for human and animal life on this planet. (That many of these CO2-producing processes take place in foreign countries or even in future eras at most partly shifts the threat abroad or to the future.)

So the question I will leave with you to answer is how we get rid of nuclear power stations non-violently?

David Polden, June 2015


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