Signs of Sustainability: Nuclear arms and climate disruption: Two inconvenient truths

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At a time when major nuclear arms treaties are being orphaned and thick reports on climate disruption are accumulating like waves on a stormy beach, many are asking if there are connections between the two. The answer is an obvious and uncomfortable yes.


Consider ‘nuclear winter,’ the name given to the prolonged darkness believed by Carl Sagan and other senior scientists to arrive on the heels of nuclear war. Some or all of the planet will be darkened by the ash plumes of nuclear incineration. Photosynthesis will wane along with parts of the food chain, habitats we take for granted, and healthy ecosystem services we depend on. Our largest nuclear reactor, the sun, will be eclipsed by the effects of thermonuclear war on earth.


Another climate connection to nuclear arms is found in human health and safety. Indigenous community inhabitants have dwelt in radioactive landscapes as their homelands have been mined for uranium and designated as nuclear dump-sites. On an even larger scale, according to Daniel Ellsberg’s recent book, “The Doomsday Machine,” cities across the globe have become admissible nuclear targets, bargaining chips in the lethal game of deterrence. Contrary to international law, ‘enemy cities,’ their noncombatant inhabitants, and their urban ecosystems are premeditated collateral damage among Doomsday planners. Ellsberg writes with first-hand knowledge as a former Pentagon war planner.


We might also fathom the ties between natural disasters related to climate disturbance and nuclear accident risk. Major forest fires have burned dangerously close to nuclear weapons production and storage facilities. For example, the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Up to 30,000, 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste are stored there above ground. In 2018 California’s Woolsey fire began near the shuttered Rocketdyne facility, the site of a partial nuclear meltdown some decades ago and the subject of stalled cleanup efforts thereafter. Forest fires have recently raged in the ‘nuclear exclusion’ zone of the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, raising dangers of resuspension and dispersal of contaminants from a site that has exposed hundreds of millions of people to radioactivity for 30 years, along with their water, land, and biosphere.


Beyond these conflagrations, climate deterioration means warmer, rising oceans. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts flooding and abandonment of major Naval bases along the US East and Gulf coasts by 2050. The upshot is that major bases will be relocated in the coming decades, including the Kings Bay Trident Submarine base in southern Georgia. That facility will soon be a household word because its security was breached in 2018 by seven Plowshares members, religious protesters whose trial in the Southern District Court of Georgia will garner national headlines. As the largest U.S. Naval base at Norfolk, VA, Kings Bay is seeing the revenge effects of nature as sea levels rise, surge effects and higher tides push the ocean inland, and ever-intensifying hurricanes push costly relocation plans to the fore.


Climate disruption and nuclear refurbishment both cause fiscal fatigue. In 2017 the Congressional Budget Office estimated the 30-year cost of America’s nuclear forces at $1.2 trillion. That year National Geographic reported that extreme weather, aggravated by climate change, costs our economy at least $240 billion annually when the health impacts of burning fossil fuels were included. This estimate leaves out the cost of multiple hurricanes in 2017 and 76 western wildfires estimated at over $300 billion.


The opportunity costs to society of two inconvenient truths are almost beyond comprehension. The $300 billion alone would provide tuition for the 13.5 million U.S. students enrolled in public colleges and universities for four years or go a long way to clean up our sprawling list of 1,400 Superfund sites. Among these is the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee. It is where the U.S. Energy Department produced enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and left mercury contamination that deprives local residents of water that is drinkable, swimmable, and fishable.


A final nexus between climate woes and nuclear preparations is the U.S. Department of Defense’s insatiable appetite for oil; it is the largest institutional consumer of petroleum products and energy on the planet. Yet the Pentagon has a blanket exception to all international climate agreements. Even as the D.O.D. spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it generates, stores, transports, and tests nuclear weapons that imperil the planet on a similar scale. An example is the fleet of Trident Submarines based at Kings Bay, Georgia. In 2018 seven committed activists, motivated by Ellsberg’s Doomsday book as much as by Pope Francis’ call to contain global warming, entered the Georgia base and protested the immorality of nuclear weapons. That courage may cost them up to 25 years in prison, a fate to be decided in the Southern Georgia Federal Court in a few short weeks.


Environmentalists and nuclear protesters have a profound common cause, the fate of the earth. It merits deep examination and commitment to jointly bring our society to its senses.


Dr. Geisler is Emeritus Professor of Development Sociology at Cornell University, whose research focuses on land use, natural disasters, emergency rule, and national security. This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.

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