Questions at the End of the Nuclear Age

Seventy-five years ago, American bombers dropped two atomic bombs—first on Hiroshima on August 6th, and then on Nagasaki three days later—killing an estimated 200,000 people and millions of non-human lives, which to my knowledge, have never been counted. And in those terrible two moments, the United States unleashed the nuclear age—one that enables us, with the push of a few buttons, to destroy all of human civilization and possibly most life on the planet, depending on how severe and extended the resulting nuclear winter is.

On the day of the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima, The New York Times, along with recounting this infamous and inhistoric day, also reported that Saudi Arabia appears to be working to develop the nuclear bomb—that’s the country whose leadership dismembered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 because he was saying bad things about them. But even if it were Sweden building the bomb, more countries obtaining nuclear capabilities (even “peaceful” ones) is simply a no-win situation. It doesn’t make the world more stable, nor has it ever. It eats up resources that could go to healing Gaia and society, it causes pollution, increases cancer rates, and it exponentially raises the possibility of mass deaths—both by intention and by accident.

But worse, we’re now years away—not decades or centuries—from climate collapse. We’re in a nose dive that even the most skilled pilot probably couldn’t pull up from, and the crash is going to be devastating. Countries will go bankrupt, people will starve, there will be overwhelming storms, city-erasing floods, and mass migrations, which in turn will probably be met with mass violence. In other words, it’s not going to be pretty.* And worse, we’re probably not going to handle it well—just look how we’re doing with COVID: sure there are a few countries that have threaded the needle expertly (Good on ya, New Zealand), but most are bumbling their way through it (or not even trying). So, there’s a really good chance that in the mess that comes with the climate emergency, we won’t effectively steward our nuclear arsenals and wastepiles. Look at the Soviet Union: when it collapsed, it was only the dollars of the United States—1.6 billion of them—which, through the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Initiative, kept dangerous nuclear (as well as biological and chemical) weapons from disappearing, being sold off, or being mishandled, as well as keeping weapons scientist employed instead of desperate and open to side hustles for the highest bidder.

We need to recognize that there is a significant chance that of the nine declared nuclear powers (Israel is a probable tenth), at least a few will fail as climate collapse ravages the world. And even if miraculously some countries who fare less poorly can help the others secure their arsenals, that is not solving the problem but just treating one of the worst symptoms (proliferation). 

The nuclear waste and the contaminated fuel- and weapons-making facilities, the mines, the bomb-testing sites, and the power plants (spread across at least 30 countries) will remain contaminated for tens, even hundreds of thousands of years. So we need to start asking questions and making plans now—as we know disruptions are coming, resources will contract (energy and money), and coastlines will flood.

Two questions to start:

  • What is the useful life remaining of nuclear facilities (whether power plants, uranium mills, or weapons facilities) and what is the plan for safely securing these when no longer in operation?
  • How many nuclear facilities will be flooded from one meter of sea level rise? Two meters? Three? Six?**

Answering even those two simple questions will help us to prioritize which facilities should be dismantled, in which order, and which can be permanently protected as Nuclear Guardianship sites.

Nuclear Guardianship

Joanna Macy, in the early 1990s, acknowledged that nuclear technology will need to be monitored and managed actively for thousands of generations—due to the lasting danger to life that nuclear materials pose. Think about that: civilization is only about 500 generations old.*** Even through the Dark Age ahead of us, we’ll somehow need to maintain nuclear sites to keep people from unknowingly resettling them, pasturing animals there, mining or logging them, even traveling through them. Perhaps we’ll have mass media or at least mass literacy but there’s a chance that in a few thousand (or even a few hundred) years, we won’t.

Could there be Nuclear Guardians who make it their calling to protect others from what Macy calls “the poison fire?” Considering governments’ track record doing this today, with mass media, with nearly infinite financial resources (we print money after all), I’m not optimistic with our ability to do this. And I don’t mean just the well-known examples of incompetence, like Chernobyl. Though in a century that area will surely seem perfectly fine—even luxuriant (since no humans have lived there for so long). How will we stop people from moving back into these areas—farming, foraging, and hunting there?

And there are thousands of more sites like this—sites that have been polluted not in an instant but over decades of bomb-making, milling, and splitting atoms. Here’s one example, the US Department of Energy turned over the highly contaminated former weapons facilities of Rocky Flats to the Department of Fish and Wildlife to make it into a park, a battle still being fought by The Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship, a local group of activists. And from the history of the struggle, the amount of incompetence by this facility makes me think the worst.

Guarding the Follies of Homo “sapiens”—Forever

So on this anniversary of Hiroshima, let’s reflect on the reality that when we detonated our first atomic bomb, we opened a Pandora’s Box that can never be closed, or maybe a better analogy (for those of you who have watched Stranger Things), we opened a portal to the Upside Down that now needs to be permanently guarded. But not just one portal, thousands. And guarded for longer than human civilization (and quite possibly the human species) has existed. And there is minimal discussion of the need for this. Searching for nuclear guardianship brought up very little. There are the activists in Rocky Flats, but I found no others—except a few web pages on older writings and a few speeches by Macy. Not even a Wikipedia page on the subject.

Frankly, every church, every local environmental group, every Transition Town, where there is a nuclear power plant, mine, missile silo, or weapons facility, should integrate this into their programming. Local governments should regularly be pressed: what is the plan for decommissioning this facility? They should be lobbied to create a Nuclear Guardian Tax that will start stockpiling dollars (or probably wiser, gold) for the next ten thousand years to protect these sites. Heck, if the US Postal Service needs to prefund retiree health benefits for 75 years, why shouldn’t the nuclear industry have to pre-pay the next seventy five years of site maintenance and cleanup? (Instead the US government heavily subsidizes catastrophe insurance.)

If these changes make nuclear power less competitive than wind and solar, so be it. Ultimately, we should be working aggressively to end this hubristic stage in human history, phasing out mining as soon as possible, and running the still working power plants with downgraded nuclear weapons-grade uranium (which we did as part of the CTR initiative) until that runs out or the safe life of these nuclear power plants ends. From there, we’ll need to figure out which of these we can safely guard, and which will be submerged by rising seas and thus will need to be dismantled, moved, and guarded elsewhere (or entombed if impossible to move them). As Macy notes, the idea of burying nuclear waste and forgetting it is nonsensical. The geological and hydrological cycles make that impossible. We’ll need people actively monitoring these dangerous materials for the rest of human history. But on the good side, as Macy notes, this gives us a good reason not to let civilization fail: we’ve got to manage the waste we made.

Gaians’ Role as Guardians

Gaians, who understand and are oriented toward protecting the living Earth, could play an important role in Nuclear Guardianship, today and in the future. Today, we could be getting involved with this—learning more about Nuclear Guardianship, organizing, and breathing new life into this small movement. Nuclear issues have fallen off most peoples’ radars and there is certainly little being asked of federal, state, or local governments—in terms of immediate plans, and absolutely in terms of plans over the next few decades or longer.

As well, Gaians might be naturals for guarding these sites in the future (and develop the training/get trained to do so). I could imagine these large domains could almost become the forbidden lands of the future—the sacred dark spaces where monsters reside. Yes, some adolescents will venture in, to prove their bravery, but for the most part, the stories, the warnings, and the guardians—perhaps living in monasteries on the fringes—will make it clear to most to stay out. These ominous and wild lands will be somber memorials to humanity’s worst moment, when we disregarded the life of Gaia and put only ourselves first. And in that future, hundreds, even thousands of years from now, people will still be paying the price. But better to pay the price in terms of looking over these lands, of taking responsibility for our mistakes as adolescents, than to unleash the ravages of this mistake to harm generations to come for generations to come.

*That’s not to say we can’t act now to reduce or at least delay these outcomes. Our actions certainly still shape our future, though our continuing failure to act at the level this crisis requires, the denial by leading politicians, and so on, means without bold and significant action, this collapse will come far sooner and be far worse than it could.

**Not sure the questioning can stop at six meters. At this rate, we might need to plan for far more sea level rise—but certainly the list generated even with this six meters rise will give us much to do to begin with.

***Assuming 20 years per generation and civilization is 10,000 years old (the start of agriculture).

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2 Responses

  1. Wornsmooth

    Thank you for this great article.
    You touch on the looming climate crisis of global warming. My personal opinion is that all of the immense stresses that will build from this will manifest themselves in other ways, before the changing climate itself brings industrial civilization to collapse. As crops fail and fresh water becomes compromised the people’s directly affected will not go quietly into the night. There will migrations, accompanied by resistance to them by other areas not yet as severally affected. There will be wars over water. ( Ethiopia-Egypt) As societies inevitably become poorer, there will be demigods who will rise up and promise a return to better times. The past examples always involved Nationalists emphasizing the purity of the Armed Forces. Some of these will probably come to power where their Military has Nuclear Weapons.
    As global warming becomes a more destabilizing crisis, the threat of nuclear winter increases as well. Ironic.
    Your main theme, keeping ourselves, and those who follow, safe from nuclear waste. Spot on.
    Currently a majority of the spent rods reside in cooling ponds at the nuclear plants themselves. It takes a constant flow of cooling water to keep them from melting and releasing all their high energy destructive particles. This takes an uninterrupted source of power. Which takes an uninterrupted management and maintenance of the facility. Which requires society to more or less stay intact.
    And of course, after cooled enough to be stored in some sort of container, they must still be monitored for leakage, with the technical know how of repairing these leaks. For, as you point out, vast numbers of generations. What will they think of us for leaving them such life altering detritus?
    The poet Szymborska ends a work (from Life While you Wait) with the line “ and whatever I do today, will become forever what I have done”. A more clever way of stating what every thoughtful person knows…any action has no ending, it goes on forever.
    Unfortunately, policy makers/leaders/ rulers have seldom been particularly thoughtful.

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