When the apocalyptic cloud erupted over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world woke up to the dawn of the nuclear age. Today, if we survey the landscape of nuclear development across the planet, we see that the destructive impacts of the technology are often paired with the dehumanizing impacts of environmental racism.
At every point in the nuclear production chain, the industry has sloughed a disproportionate share of the risk on marginalized communities, from native peoples in the Southwest United States to the Australian outback. While the rest of the world hums along with nuclear power, many of these communities have fought a losing battle against the standard corporate line that technological advancements have led to seamless safety.
Today, in the shadow of Fukushima, the African continent’s one nuclear power plant, near Cape Town, is no longer a symbol of South Africa’s relative industrial advancement. Rather, it is an emblem of a ruthless pursuit of new fuel at the public’s expense. Under the government’s energy program, designed to wean the country of its current dependency on coal, nuclear power will grow to about 23 percent of new energy generated by 2031, from just 2 percent in 2009, according to Bloomberg.
Advocates for the poor, women and other disenfranchised communities say the environmental harms of nuclear power will aggravate the social inequalities that persist despite the end of apartheid. In an email from Cape Town, Muna Lakhani, co-coordinator of Earthlife Africa’s Unplug Nuclear Campaign, told Colorlines that the government’s new nuclear agenda "was received with shock by civil society and labour formations" and amounted to "effectively an ‘up yours’ response to the citizens of our country":
One would think that the South African government would pause for a moment, in the aftermath of the ongoing nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in Japan, about committing us to a nuclear future….
Effectively, this message says to all of us: 1) we do not care about your health and safety; 2) we would rather support and pay for foreign technologies than develop local industry; 3) we would rather pay foreign workers than generate more jobs in South Africa; 4) we do not care that we will be responsible for poisoning Mother Africa for hundreds of thousands of years.
South Africa’s nuclear dreams fall on a historical trajectory stretching from imperialism to modern-day resource exploitation. Decades ago, South Africa led the continent in nuclear development and capitalized on its native uranium stores. Although today South Africa is ignored in the geopolitical discourse on non-proliferation, nuclear power is entwined in roots of apartheid and its massive security state.
David Fig, author of "Uranium Road: Questioning South Africa’s Nuclear Direction," broke down the country’s atomic evolution on "Democracy Now!":
South Africa had a lot of uranium. And so, the first time that we were integrated into the world nuclear industry was through providing uranium to the bomb programs of your country, the United States, and Britain, in the ’40s and ’50s. And then, as prizes, we were given research reactors by President Eisenhower. And later, during apartheid, the world turned a blind eye while we made nuclear weapons. And so, the nuclear energy industry was just a smokescreen, in a way, for arming apartheid during the Cold War.
Nuking the Global South
Jim Green of Friends of the Earth Australia noted that Australian aboriginal communities have resisted radioactive waste dumping on their lands in violation of their sovereignty and human rights. Globally, he said, "the nuclear industry profits from and reinforces racism. Backed by its political partners, the industry forces uranium mines, nuclear reactors, radioactive waste dumps and weapons tests on to the land of indigenous peoples."
Although the specter of nuclear weaponry still looms in debates on North Korea and Iran, the core of today’s nuclear crisis lies in the gears of global capitalism. After a long chill following the disasters in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, governments have in recent years responded to climate change issues by rebranding nuclear as a fossil fuel alternative. We don’t know if the fallout from Fukushima will brake the industry’s renewed momentum in the U.S., but as long as truly clean energy sources like wind and solar remain starved of investment–and the public memory of past meltdowns fade–the temptations of nuclear power may continue to eclipse fears of its global consequences.
Richard Falk, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, commented in Al Jazaeera on the link between the Cold War lust for nuclear weapons and the harnessing of nuclear power for "civilian" energy exploitation. To understand the lessons of Fukushima, he wrote:
[W]e must take account of the incredible Faustian bargain 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…
And we know that governments will be under great pressure to renew the Faustian bargain despite what should have been clear from the moment the bombs fell in 1945: This technology is far too unforgiving and lethal to be managed safely over time by human institutions, even if they were operated responsibly, which they are not.
If safety in the nuclear age can’t be guaranteed for all, the industry and its friends in government can always try a more efficient method of managing risk: confine the danger zone to the populations they see as less worthy of protection.