What nuclear energy has to do with nuclear war via Newsroom


Dr Karly Burch is a Research Fellow from the Centre for Sustainability at the University of Otago.

Branding initiatives have successfully separated nuclear weapons as ‘bad’ and nuclear energy as ‘good’, and it is impacting our abilities to notice the material threats Ukraine is facing amid Russia’s attack, argues Dr Karly Burch

As someone who has spent more than 10 years studying the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, I was puzzled by the initial framing of Ukraine as a “non-nuclear state” at the onset of Russia’s invasion.

The Chernobyl nuclear complex was seized by the Russian military on February 25, 2022. However, it wasn’t until the fire and Russian take-over at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant complex that most people started talking about, and preparing for, the potential for a war-induced nuclear disaster or nuclear war.

Even then, few are describing Russia’s nuclear energy aggressions or the potential for a war-induced nuclear disaster as constituting nuclear war. Why is this the case?

The symbolic weapons – energy split

Nuclear technologies play a major role in upholding our current global imperial order, what some refer to as nuclear imperialism.

In 1953, the United States-derived Atoms for Peace Program worked to actively separate the stigma of the “bad”, “murderous” and “military” nuclear weapon, from the “good”, “peaceful” and “civilian” nuclear energy.

These branding initiatives have proven to be incredibly successful, with nuclear energy maintaining its positive image as “peaceful”, “safe” and now “sustainable” even in the face of numerous nuclear disasters at nuclear power plants (e.g. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi), uranium mines, nuclear storage facilities, among other locations along the nuclear fuel cycle.

As we can see today, these positive brandings can also impact our abilities to notice the material threats Ukraine is facing amid Russia’s attack.

For example, in 1994 Ukraine signed the United Nations Budapest Memorandum with the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia agreeing to return the nuclear weapons it had inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The memorandum assured that, in return for Ukraine becoming a non-nuclear weapon state, these nuclear imperial powers would “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” —words that were breached with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.

However, while Ukraine no longer had nuclear weapons in its possession, it was far from being non-nuclear. It had also inherited the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and a number of nuclear power plants. And, eventually, it started building more.

Putting a country with all this uranium-derived nuclear material in the category of non-nuclear because the nuclear technologies are considered peaceful is incredibly dangerous and does not prepare us for the vulnerabilities nuclear energy and its infrastructures could face in times of war.

The danger of trusting words over materials

Over the years, there have been many attempts to dispute the dominant branding of nuclear power as peaceful, even by leaders of nuclear (weapons and energy) nations.

In 2006, Mikhail Gorbachev (the final leader of the Soviet Union) described how the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union”.

In 2015, Naoto Kan (the Prime Minister of Japan at the time of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster) described in an interview how, if Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster “had been a bit more severe, we would have had to evacuate people within a radius of 250 kilometres for a long period of time … Such colossal damage usually occurs only after a crushing defeat in war”.

These words based on material experience did little to disrupt the powerful branding of nuclear energy as peaceful. Yet, as the events of the past week have shown, brandings of peaceful nuclear energy do not guarantee peaceful results.

At a press conference on March 4 to discuss the fire at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant complex, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi outlined the seven indispensable pillars of nuclear safety and security that need to be in place at all times to ensure nuclear reactors, nuclear fuel storage pools or nuclear waste storage facilities are not compromised.

And on March 9, another pillar was breached as the Chernobyl nuclear reactor site – also occupied by Russian military – lost power. Again, the focus on words over materials have made these potential war-induced nuclear disasters appear to be a surprise.

When it comes to dealing with some of the most dangerous materials on Earth, whether in the form of nuclear weapons, nuclear reactors, nuclear waste storage facilities or uranium mines, we cannot wait for actions to speak louder than words. The consequences will be dire, not only for Ukraine, but globally.

While some argue the current crisis would not have emerged if Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons, more nuclear weapons cannot guarantee peace or erase the material vulnerabilities posed by nuclear energy.

If peaceful and safe nuclear energy can only exist under stable environmental, political and economic conditions, then perhaps it is not a technology we can rely on to promote global peace and stability in an increasingly unstable world. Our dependence on “peaceful” nuclear energy only becomes more questionable when maintaining this peace requires the possession of nuclear weapons.

This should be a wake-up call to people in New Zealand, since this country supports the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, while it works within the IAEA to “realise the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons”.

If we look at the current crisis in Ukraine, we can see how nuclear energy promotes, not prevents, the spread of nuclear weapons. Scholars have found this linkage be true before the current crises brought it to our awareness.


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