In studying the relationship between climate change and nuclear issues, two things become immediately clear. We must address both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. There is a third issue that arises in this study and that is the reality that the two concerns of climate change and nuclear issues are together the greatest threats to the Earth community, whether relational or not.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND NUCLEAR WEAPONS
In a 2006 study of the potential global impacts of nuclear blasts, scientists “…have warned that nuclear weapons pose the biggest threat to the Earth’s environment…An American team found that even a small-scale war would quickly devastate the world’s climate and ecosystems, causing damage that would last for more than a decade…
“Nuclear weapons are the greatest environmental danger to the planet from humans, not global warming or ozone depletion.” [i]
Similarly, Jeffrey Masters, Ph.D., Director of Meteorology for Weather Underground, Inc., gives us the following scenario in his piece, “The Effect of Nuclear War on Climate.”
“In the 1980s and early 1990s, a series of scientific papers …. laid out the dire consequences on global climate of a major nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Union. The nuclear explosions would send massive clouds of dust high into the stratosphere, blocking so much sunlight that a nuclear winter would result. Global temperatures would plunge 20°C to 40°C for several months, and remain 2 – 6°C lower for 1-3 years. Up to 70% of the Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer would be destroyed, allowing huge doses of ultraviolet light to reach the surface. This UV light would kill much of the marine life that forms the basis of the food chain, resulting in the collapse of many fisheries and the starvation of the people and animals that depend on it. The UV light would also blind huge numbers of animals, who would then wander sightlessly and starve. The cold and dust would create widespread crop failures and global famine, killing billions of people who did not die in the nuclear explosions. The “nuclear winter” papers were widely credited with helping lead to the nuclear arms reduction treaties of the 1990s, as it was clear that we risked catastrophic global climate change in the event of a full-scale nuclear war.
“It turns out that this portrayal of nuclear winter was overly optimistic, according to a series of papers published over the past few years… A December 2008 study titled, “Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War”, concludes that ‘1980s predictions of nuclear winter effects were, if anything, underestimates’. Furthermore, they assert that even a limited nuclear war poses a significant threat to Earth’s climate.” [ii]
CLIMATE CHANGE AND NUCLEAR ENERGY
On February 11, 2015, Hannah Osborne, science editor at the International Business Times UK, wrote an article warning about the radiation that can still be unleashed by climate change-induced wildfires. This is a summary:
In a study released in 2014, scientists from the Chernobyl and Fukushima Research Initiatives at the University of South Carolina found that radiation still poses a threat by being spread through “catastrophic wildfires”. The team found that radiological damage to microbes near the site resulted in a slowing of the decomposition of plant matter, resulting in a build-up of dry, loose foliage that could cause wildfires… Speaking at the time, researcher Tim Mosseau said: “There’s been growing concern by many different groups of the potential for catastrophic forest fires to sweep through this part of the world and redistribute the radioactive contamination that is in the trees and the plant biomass. That would end up moving radio-cesium and other contaminants via smoke into populated areas.” [iii]
Then, on April 28, 2015, we read in BBC News:
Forest fire breaks out near Chernobyl nuclear plant
A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists states:
“There are two major kinds of risk associated with nuclear power:
“Safety risks. A serious accident at a nuclear power plant could release large amounts of dangerous radiation, with disastrous consequences for the environment and an increased risk of cancer for those exposed to the radiation.
“Security risks include both the risk of sabotage and terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants and the risk that nuclear materials will be stolen and used to create nuclear weapons.” [i]
CLIMATE CHANGE AND NUCLEAR CONCERNS
On January 22, 2015, scientists moved the hands on the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. The clock now stands at three minutes to apocalypse. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) created the clock in 1947, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S., as a way of bringing awareness to nuclear proliferation. Midnight signifies what the BAS sees as a global catastrophe. The move was a response to the impending dangers of climate change and nuclear weapons. (emphasis added) “In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity… The probability of global catastrophe is very high. This is about the end of civilization as we know it,” said Kennette Benedict, executive director of the BAS, at a news conference in Washington, DC. [i]
On May 25, 2014, Winslow Myers wrote:
“No two trans-national issues are more closely related than the abolition of nuclear weapons and global climate instability, for three reasons: first, nuclear war is the biggest potential accelerant of life-threatening climate change; second, the resources desperately needed to address climate issues continue to be poured into nuclear weapons and their delivery systems; and third, the solution to both challenges depends upon the same new way of thinking based in the reality that national and international self-interests have merged.” [ii]
It is clear that nuclear weapons, if unleashed, will have catastrophic consequences not only on climate but on all the Earth community. Similarly, if there is another meltdown at a nuclear power plant, it, too, could have catastrophic climactic consequences. Given the heretofore-mentioned realities and studied scenarios, there is no doubt that climate change, already underway, is intimately tied to today’s nuclear realities and will be accelerated and worsened by the use of nuclear weapons or nuclear power disasters.
Pope Francis stated, in paragraph 57 of his Encyclical, Laudato Si’: “It is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims. War always does grave harm to the environment and to the cultural riches of peoples, risks which are magnified when one considers nuclear arms and biological weapons. Despite the international agreements which prohibit chemical, bacteriological and biological warfare, the fact is that laboratory research continues to develop new offensive weapons capable of altering the balance of nature”.
Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against Radioactive Environment), a Livermore, CA-based non-profit that monitors the activities of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab and the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex, states on their August 6, 2015 flyer: “Today, after 70 years, more than 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world continue to pose an intolerable threat to humanity. And, the danger of nuclear war is growing. Whether a nuclear conflagration is initiated by accident, miscalculation or madness, the radiation cloud will know no boundaries. The US plans to spend a trillion dollars over the next thirty years “modernizing” its nuclear arsenal. The human cost of this is astronomical—to our health, environment, ethics, and democracy, to our prospects for global peace, and to our confidence in human survival.” On their 2011 flyer, they aptly displayed the interconnectedness and dangers of both nuclear weapns and nuclear power. A copy follows this text.
To ensure human survival and the survival of the planet as we know it, there are few issues as pressing as the need to address both the climate crisis and nuclear issues facing us today. The common good of all, and common sense, must guide present decisions if we are to have a future for our species and the whole Earth Community.
i Climate threat from nuclear bombs, by Alok Jha, science correspondent for ITV News, reporting on the American Geophysical Union’s meeting in San Francisco in December of 2006
iii Chernobyl scientists warn radiation can be unleashed by climate change-induced wildfires, by Hannah Osborne, February 22, 2015
iv The Union of Concerned Scientists, “Nuclear Power 101” at: http://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/nuclear-power/nuclear-power-101#.VadESPlViko
v Report written by Eric Krupe on January 23, 2015, for the PBS Newshour show, “The Rundown”
vi Article by Winslow Myers, written on May 25, 2014 in the Political Newsletter, Counterpunch