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Pandora’s box of nuclear progress

Why uranium mining, nuclear energy, and atomic bombs are all steps in the path to destruction

By Cymry Gomery, Coordinator of Montréal for a World BEYOND War

This op-ed was inspired by a presentation by Dr. Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility on November 16, 2022.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has many worried that we are on the brink of nuclear war. Putin has put Russia’s nukes on high alert and President Biden grimly warned last month of the risk of nuclear “armageddon”. New York City shocked the world with its PSA on how to survive a nuclear attack, while the Doomsday Clock is just 100 seconds to midnight.

However, nuclear bombs are just the last in a series of related products and activities—uranium mining, nuclear energy, and nuclear bombs—whose production is rooted in the fact that human moral understanding of the world lags far behind our technical skills. They are all progress traps.

What is a progress trap?

The notion of progress is generally perceived in a positive light in Western society. If we can find an innovative way to do something more quickly, with less effort, we feel pleased. However, this perception was called into question by Ronald Wright in his 2004 book A Short History of Progress. Wright defines a progress trap as ”a chain of successes which, upon reaching a certain scale, leads to disaster. The dangers are seldom seen before it’s too late. The jaws of a trap open slowly and invitingly, then snap closed fast.”

Wright mentions hunting as an early example, because as humans developed tools that were more efficient at killing ever more animals, they eventually exhausted their food supply and starved. With industrialization, hunting gave way to factory farms, which seems very different, but in fact was just another version of a progress trap. Not only do factory farms cause immense suffering to animals, they are hurt humans too: People in developed countries consume too many calories, of food of questionable suitability to humans, and often die of cancers and obesity-related diseases.

Now let’s look at uranium mining, nuclear energy and nuclear bombs in this light.

The Uranium mining progress trap

Uranium, a heavy metal that was discovered in 1789, was initially used as a colorant for glass and pottery. However, eventually humans discovered that uranium can be used to effect nuclear fission, and since 1939 that miraculous property has been harnessed to produce nuclear energy for civilian purposes, and to make bombs for the military. That is the “successful” aspect of Wright’s definition (if you are okay with considering both keeping people warm and killing them as desirable outcomes).

Canada is the world’s single largest supplier of uranium, and most of the mines are in the North where Inuit communities—typically the most disadvantaged and least politically influential demographic in Canada—are exposed to uranium dust, tailings, and other hazards.

Uranium mining creates radioactive dust that workers can inhale or accidentally ingest, leading to lung cancer and bone cancer. Over time, workers or people living near a uranium mine can be exposed to high concentrations, which can damage their internal organs, notably the kidneys. Animal studies suggest that uranium affects reproduction, the developing fetus, and increases the risk of leukemia and soft tissue cancers.

This is alarming enough; however the progress trap comes into play when one considers the half-life of uranium, the period during which it decays and emits gamma radiation (electromagnetic radiation which we also know as X-rays). Uranium-238, the most common form, has a half-life of 4.46 billion years.

In other words, once uranium is brought to the surface through mining, a Pandora’s box of radiation is unleashed on the world, radiation that can cause lethal cancers and other illnesses, for billions of years. That’s a progress trap right there. But that’s not the whole story. This uranium is not finished its destructive mission. It can now be used to make nuclear energy and nuclear bombs.

The Nuclear energy progress trap

Nuclear energy has been touted as a clean energy because it does not produce greenhouse gasses (GHG). However, it is far from clean. In 2003, a study produced by nuclear advocates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified costs, safety, proliferation, and waste as the four “unresolved problems” with nuclear power……………………………………………………………

So nuclear energy is also a progress trap. Anyway, there are other means of producing energy—wind, sun, hydro, geothermal–which are less costly. However, even if nuclear energy were the cheapest energy, it would still be off the table to any project manager worth her salt, because it is highly polluting, entails the risk of nuclear disasters such as have already happened at Fukushima and Chernobyl, and because persistent nuclear waste poisons and kills humans and animals.

Also, nuclear waste produces plutonium, which is used to make nuclear bombs—the next step in the “progress” continuum.

The nuclear bomb progress trap

Yes, it has come to this. Humans are capable of wiping out all life on Earth with the push of a button. Western civilization’s obsession with winning and hegemony has led to a situation where we have mastered death but failed at life. This is the penultimate example of human technological intelligence outpacing human emotional and spiritual evolution.

An accidental missile launch could lead to the greatest global public health disaster in recorded history. A war using fewer than half the nuclear weapons of India and Pakistan alone would lift enough black soot and soil into the air to cause a nuclear winter. In his book Command and Control, author Eric Schlosser documents how nuclear weapons provide what he calls an “illusion of safety,” while, in fact, posing real danger due to the threat of accidental detonation. Schlosser documents how hundreds of incidents involving nuclear weapons have nearly destroyed our world through accident, confusion, or misunderstanding.

One way out of the mutually assured destruction (so tellingly rendered as MAD) trap we have created is the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in 2021, and has been signed by 91 nations and ratified by 68. However, the nuclear armed nations have not signed, nor have NATO member countries like Canada.

November 28, 2022 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, politics international

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