Nuclear vs Oil: The Devil We Know

Japan’s trauma following the partial meltdown of nuclear reactors in Fukushima has once again brought to the world’s attention the dangers of nuclear power. From the start, it was clear that a broad advocacy of nuclear energy is bad ecology. Splitting the atom (or worse, fusing atoms) unleashes intense heat and radiation and produces poisonous waste that lasts for up to 10,000 years or more.

But none of the estimated 18,000 deaths following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami were due to nuclear radiation, though long term exposure to the higher levels of radiation in the region will slightly increase cancer rates.

Nuclear power has a strong ecological argument in its favour as compared to the use of hydrocarbons. But using such lethal technology to make a light bulb glow, heat a house or charge a battery is like using a hammer to kill a fly. Appropriate technology in each case would suggest solar, thermal or wind power, tapping the mild warmth of the sun or earth or the movement of air, which produces far fewer side effects.

The advocacy of nuclear power was never about providing safe, clean energy. It was about justifying the technology itself, which was developed in WWII to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Making pacts with the devil is bad politics. Early advocates of nuclear technology, led by Albert Einstein, were appalled when the US dropped bombs on Japanese civilians in 1945, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people. He later rued the splitting of the atom, but it was too late. A handful of leaders in a nuclear elite club (Iran need not apply) can now destroy the entire planet hundreds of times over if the spirit moves them.

From the start, it was clear that the civilian use of nuclear technology was also lethal, the major problem being what to do with the toxic waste. Japan’s present crisis is not just the reactor meltdowns, but more about what’s happening to the tons of spent fuel rods, which ironically are not only poisonous, but continue to emit heat which evaporates the special cooling waters faster than they can be produced.

These dangers were known from the start and gave rise in the 1960s to a movement to end the use of nuclear energy for both peaceful and military purposes.

Nuclear power’s main energy competitor is, of course, Big Oil, which had no problem with nuclear weapons, but was not happy to lose its grip on the world’s major source of energy. Nuclear energy was not under their control, requiring, by definition, major government involvement and regulation of the industry. Its widespread use would leave Big Oil with falling profits, and would mean the end of Big Oil’s economic hegemony.

This led to a bizarre situation where oil companies both founded and funded ecology-related organisations, including the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and others to protest the peaceful use of nuclear power. These groups have all received backing from the oil industry, notably Atlantic Richfield Oil and BP (formerly the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now employing greenwash by marketing itself as “Beyond Petroleum”). Recall that BP is responsible for the world’s worst environmental disaster in recent times, last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Big Oil’s logic has been to rein in the movement for the arguably cleaner nuclear energy and keep the very dirty oil flowing.

The 1960s anti-nuke movement effectively made a devil’s pact with Big Oil (much like the altruistic scientists in the 1930s did with the Pentagon) inadvertently helping the oil devil. Their “logic” presumably was: the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

Though the US government officially promoted nuclear energy, from the start the US goal was to keep monopoly control of the technology (the Baruch Plan, 1946) through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, 1957), a neocolonial-type institution which the US dominates.

But for Big Oil, rather than to prevent countries from building bombs – the intent of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT, 1970), the goal has been to limit the use of civilian nuclear power. Given the budding anti-nuke movement and the fact that Big Oil has a firm stranglehold on US government, it has been able to discourage the US nuclear industry from expanding sales both domestically and around the world.

The period following the oil embargo by OPEC in 1973, when the Arab world tried to use its oil wealth to force Israel to finally make peace, was especially dicey, as many countries decided to opt for nuclear energy given the high cost of oil. Big Oil and the anti-nuke movement were successful in stalling this development (the peace movement, alas, was not successful in eliminating nuclear WMDs).

In the US no new nuclear reactors were ordered and scores of half-built or planned nuclear projects were cancelled after 1979. Plans by oil-poor Brazil and Germany to undertake nuclear programmes in the 1970s were cancelled. Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was planning a major nuclear power programme but was overthrown in a US-approved coup in 1977 as too close to the Soviet Union, and his successor General Zia cancelled Bhutto’s plans.

Iran started a nuclear power programme in the mid-1970s in conjunction with France and Germany; however, the Shah was already becoming too independent, using petrodollars for local development rather than to finance the US trade deficit. Khomeini was flown back to Iran as the Shah wrote in exile, “The Americans wanted me out,” and the nuclear energy programme was shelved.

As for the growing chorus for renewable energy technologies, which do not have the long term storage dangers of nuclear power, oil companies (especially BP and Shell) depict themselves as being on the forefront of research and buy up patents as they are developed, which will allow a controlled transition to non-oil energy — if necessary — but still in their hands.

So Big Oil deserves a backhanded tribute, our faint praise, for discouraging the proliferation of peaceful nuclear energy, though its motives were far from pure. Only Japan and France, both starved of hydrocarbon energy, produce the majority of their electricity via nuclear power. France has the cleanest air in Europe, the cheapest electricity, and, not having any faultlines, no record of nuclear disasters.

True, the legacy of nuclear technology is still, on the whole, negative. It culminated in a “Faustian bargain”, writes Richard Falk, “sold to the non-nuclear world: give up a nuclear weapons option and in exchange get an unlimited ‘pass’ to the ‘benefits’ of nuclear energy.” The NPT even promised complete disarmament by all existing nuclear powers, but this was the devil’s promise.

The IAEA and NPT were used to bully nations into complying with a stingy, invasive Western agenda, and there has been no disarmament for the big guys. Instead, the US and Russia agreed to START “arms control”, which amounts to them agreeing on how best to improve their nuclear WMDs. Even this fig leaf was possible only after United States President Barack Obama bribed the senate by adding $80 billion to the Pentagon’s nuclear budget.

There is still an argument for nuclear energy. When you need a hammer, a hammer is the appropriate technology. For a spacecraft or submarine, the risks involved perhaps can justify its use. But unbridled use of nuclear energy merely to promote economic growth is not justified. And building nuclear plants on faultlines is the height of folly. Furthermore, it is the height of hypocrisy for the US to control the use of nuclear technology while maintaining its own massive arsenal of nuclear WMDs.

While we can thank Big Oil and its unwitting US governmental accomplices for slowing down the rush to nuclear energy, Big Oil is far more of a killer than is the nuclear power industry, both directly due to massive pollution and oil wars, and as a result of oil-fuelled global warming. Nature’s revenge for Big Oil’s activities will be far more lethal than for our use of peaceful nuclear energy.

The lesson from Japan’s earthquake is that there is no magic energy bullet. Giant wind turbines and ambitious solar farms create their own environmental and political problems. As oil prices sore and Big Oil gloats following Japan’s tragedy, we are reminded that we must reduce all our violations of nature to a minimum. That is the only truly safe sustainable development strategy. The devil you know and the ones you don’t know are still devils.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism and Postmodern Imperialism. His most recent book is Islamic Resistance to Imperialism. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Vic Anderson said on March 25th, 2011 at 1:08pm #

    Nuked, AGAIN; BOMB!

  2. mary said on March 25th, 2011 at 2:13pm #

    Japan Radioactive Iodine Releases May Exceed Three Mile Island by 100,000 Times

    Institute Calls for More Intensive Contingency Planning by Japanese Authorities; U.S. Should Move as Much Spent Fuel as Possible to Dry Storage to Reduce Most Severe Risks, Suspend Licensing and Relicensing During Review

    TAKOMA PARK, MD – March 25 – The damaged Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan continue to release radioactivity into the atmosphere. So far, the accident has released far more radioactivity than the 1979 Three Mile Island (TMI) accident. While Chernobyl had one source of radioactivity, its reactor, there are seven leaking radiation sources at the Japanese site. Together, the three damaged reactors and four spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi contain far more long-lived radioactivity, notably cesium-137, than the Chernobyl reactor.

    /…… {}

  3. mary said on March 26th, 2011 at 3:06am #

    Fukushima – suspected core break, radioactive water

    Japan struggles to cool nuclear reactors
    Efforts to stabilise stricken Fukushima nuclear plant are being hampered by leaking radioactive water


    Japan faces new setback in fight to avert disaster at Fukushima plantPrime minister urges vigilance after safety officials said break in nuclear reactor may have caused big radiation leak


  4. Deadbeat said on March 26th, 2011 at 4:34am #

    Can the author provide some EVIDENCE of “oil wars”. He offers no footnotes and I would like to see some EVIDENCE where the oil companies lobbied for war. Otherwise I have to assume that he is writing what tantamounts to typical Chomskyite bromides.

  5. efgh1951 said on March 26th, 2011 at 6:52am #

    re oil wars: i’m not saying oil companies start wars. governments start wars. -wwi and wwii were at least to some extent about controlling oil (iran was occupied in both, and iraq was stolen by the brits in wwi to keep it out of german hands).
    -mossadegh was overthrown for oil in 1953
    -the post-wwii imperial order was to keep israel happy AND the oil in ‘safe’ hands, involving lots of military activity
    -the hostility to iran, the invasion of libya, and the saudi invasion of bahrain today just recap this

  6. Deadbeat said on March 26th, 2011 at 2:40pm #

    Eric Walburg wrote …

    While we can thank Big Oil and its unwitting US governmental accomplices for slowing down the rush to nuclear energy, Big Oil is far more of a killer than is the nuclear power industry, both directly due to massive pollution and oil wars, and as a result of oil-fuelled global warming.

    And his response to my comment …

    re oil wars: i’m not saying oil companies start wars. governments start wars

    Clearly the author contradicts himself. He is saying that these are not “oil wars” but they are “government” wars. That being the case then the question is WHO are the forces INFLUENCING the government.

    Both wars on Iraq were clearly not an “oil war” and has been documented that the oil companies and their lobbies were not in favor of either of the wars against Iraq that sandwiched the brutal sanction in between. This was for the obvious reasons — it hurts their profits, interferes with production and harms relationships. In other words those wars are not good for business. However the first Gulf war was executed to cement George HW Bush “New World Order” after the USSR collapsed. The War by GWB was clearly a Zionist war of aggression against Iraq (see Project for a New American Century).

    Oil companies face severe fines if they violate the sanctions against Iran. Those sanctions were lobbied by Zionists in the Obama administration. In fact Israel wanted the U.S. to attack Iran over Iraq. I’d suggest you read James Petras’s article if you’d like more info.

    Libya is also NOT about oil. Libya is strategically position between Tunisia and Egypt. These are the two countries where the uprising against the Zionist puppet regimes took place. The liberal Zionists and Zionist neo-cons were the ones pushing an attack on Libya. I refer you to the recent articles by Alexander Cockburn and another one by Stephen Walt.

    Saudi Arabia entry into was cleared by the U.S. in order to crush the renewed awaking of Arab aspiration. Much less about “oil” and more about despotism and maintaining Israeli hegemony in the region.

    U.S. entry into WWI was influenced by the banks.

    So let see among your arguments the only one that has some credibility is the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh — nearly 60 years ago — which was not a war but a coup.

    It appears that this article is more an “opinion” piece based on the repetitive indoctrinations of the pseudo-Left’s bromide “War for Oil ™” which has become “axiomatic” to most “Lefties”.