COUNTERING THE ‘NUCLEAR FOR CLIMATE’ NARRATIVE: TESTIMONIES FROM THE FRONTLINES OF THE NUCLEAR FRONTIER

Beyond Extraction sought views from nuclear power’s extractive frontier and from those actively resisting its expansion

by Devin Holterman & Patrick Schukalla

‘Nuclear for Climate’ as an extractive strategy

02.11.2021_ Last year’s COP meeting has just begun. Postponed due to the pandemic — Glasgow, Scotland, was to host the summit in November 2020 — representatives from around the world are once again turning their attention to the problem of climate change at the UN conference. COP26 in Glasgow will get a lot of attention, but probably not enough measured against the undisputed and enormous challenges of anthropogenic climate change. The year 2021 has – yet again – made it clear in many parts of the world, and in some cases cruelly[1], that urgent action is needed. The latest IPCC report once again provides the scientific insights, but the political and economic consequences remain controversial and the result is all too often inaction. The changes necessary to avert complete breakdown will have to be more profound than merely changing electricity suppliers. At stake is a profound change in the way we produce, consume and live. In short, the dominant paradigm in the fight against climate change lacks a post-growth strategy. But some propagate a supposedly simple carbon-free way out: nuclear power. For years now, a narrative has been gaining renewed support in certain corners, according to which the production of electricity through nuclear fission seems imperative for climate change mitigation. Against the backdrop of COP26, Beyond Extraction draws a line from nuclear lobbying in the name of climate protection to the centre of our collective’s work so far, the critical examination of the consequences and devastation of mining, exploration, and the speculation in raw materials.

In this brief article, we look at the link between the nuclear lobby, the mining industry and resource speculation and bring to the forefront the people and places who would be affected by uranium mining. While the nuclear industry is trying to present itself internationally as key to the energy solution of the climate crisis, the mining industry is waiting in the wings to offer new and old uranium mining projects as investment opportunities. But what about the people and places that would be affected by uranium mining? In order to answer this question, we need to focus on an area mostly ignored in the general debate: the initial stages in the nuclear fuel chain[2]. 

The various other reasons[3] for which nuclear power cannot be a valid answer to the climate crisis are unaffected by this.

Beyond Extraction therefore sought to amplify the voices of those campaigning against old and projected uranium mines and the devastating legacy of nuclear fuel production in Canada, Greenland, Namibia, Spain, and Tanzania. They are pushing for a carbon free, truly renewable future of energy production and against a false promise of nuclear power. 

Nuclear enthusiasm – nuclear renaissance – nuclear for climate

It is not the first time that nuclear power has been seen as a technological fix to major societal problems, nor the first time that climate change has been claimed as a problem to be solved by nuclear reactors. But all nuclear enthusiasm plays under the conditions and omens of its time. In the 1950s quasi-utopian future conditions were associated with the splitting of the uranium atom. The nuclear enthusiasm of the 1970s took place especially under the pretext of the oil crises and the subsequent debates on energy security. In both phases of great expectations in nuclear power, large mines were developed and uranium was explored across the globe. But the great expectations did not materialize as projected. This was no different in the overblown discourse of the ‘nuclear renaissance’ of the 2000s with its hyper ambitious growth scenarios. And yet, high future expectations in growing nuclear electricity production led to uranium exploration, mine expansions and new development activities. And this is precisely what we must be aware of today when governments, lobbying organizations and even some misguided environmentalists are talking about nuclear power being a potential force against the climate crisis. In fact, investing in uranium stocks is already being touted as a way to profit from climate policy[4]. 

Greening Nuclear Power’s finances!?

For some years now, the COP summits have repeatedly become an arena of the nuclear lobby. Attempts to present itself as a potential solution to the climate crisis at the Glasgow summit already led to debates in the run-up to the summit[5].

Self-proclaimed pro-nuclear activists say they want to take the COP meeting by storm[6] and major nuclear companies and its lobby are represented in Glasgow and beat their radiant advertising drum. ‘Nuclear for Climate’ is their motto and it is echoed in different parts of the world. In the EU, for example, there is currently a serious debate under the slogan of a Green Deal about whether the design of a European sustainability label in the financial sector (the so-called EU taxonomy) should, in the future, treat the financial support for nuclear power as support for sustainability and climate neutrality. This would label subsidies for nuclear power as a supposedly sustainable technology[7]. Matter of fact, an assessment published in April 2021 by the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC)[8], concluded that nuclear energy is not harmful to humans or the environment. This assessment is, of course, a travesty for all those who have lost land, health and livelihoods to uranium mining or would be threatened by it to say nothing of those harmed by the various catastrophic meltdowns, the most recent being in Fukushima, Japan in 2011. But Europe is not alone in this: Canada provides significant support for the development of so called Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)[9]. In the USA, too, plans are being discussed to provide financial subsidies and relief for nuclear energy, which would happen at the expense of the expansion of renewable energies[10]. One of the arguments is climate mitigation.

Resource speculation and the revival of a dinosaur at PDAC and elsewhere

Beyond Extraction’s central activities so far have focused on the critical monitoring of the annual Toronto-based Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention. PDAC is amongst the most important global investment conferences for the mining sector. During the 2000s, the nuclear renaissance discourse translated into talk about market fundamentals that would indicate that prices for uranium would definitely have to rise due to a definitely rising number of operating nuclear reactors. So naturally the idea of a materializing nuclear renaissance was greeted with enthusiasm amongst the speculative prospectors and developers.

Measured by the aims of its proponents, the nuclear renaissance remained rather limited, yet it resulted in rampant speculation with uranium inventories, stocks, futures, prospective geology and flushed investment money into uranium exploration ventures. PDAC is not only emblematic of this form of speculation but is also one of the most important sites and gatherings for those who seek to turn geological riches into private profits. In its coverage of the PDAC convention in 2007, while uranium spot prices were approaching their peak during the so called nuclear renaissance, the Northern Miner(2007) reported that “this was uranium’s year at the PDAC, with junior explorers touting hundreds of new uranium exploration and development projects located around the world”. The mining industry journal emphasized further, “there’s actually a lot of [uranium] lying around the planet; the tricky part is jumping through the regulatory hurdles, mining it and selling it at a profit”[11].

The nuclear renaissance talk ended with the aftermath of the reactor core meltdown in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011. Containing the damage to the industry’s image was the new motto and seemingly a job as hard as containing radiation in and around Fukushima Daiichi – which, even a decade after the accident, poses major challenges. Momentum in the nuclear industry today is undoubtedly linked to a collective amnesia about the catastrophic meltdown at Fukushima, coupled with the return of the renaissance discourse in the face of climate change.

Central to this is the investment in research and development of SMRs. For years now, PDAC has offered a platform for the nuclear industry and its most committed partners, such as the Government of Canada, to offer a vision of the nuclear industry that is more subtle and, crucially, more mobile. In Canada’s Roadmap to SMR’s[12] and its Minerals and Metals Plan, small and modular reactors are positioned as a powerful way for the mining industry to reduce its carbon emissions and the overall footprint of a project. Similarly, French president, Emanuel Macron, has recently spoken in favour of continuing down the nuclear path, with reference to the presumed developments of SMRs as a way of combatting climate change. Yet, as is usual, the promotion of this re-imagined dinosaur fails to account for the risks associated with both increasing demand for uranium and the danger of making nuclear reactors mobile. Take, for example, the ‘Akademik Lomonosov,” the only floating, and therefore mobile, nuclear power plant today. Built by Rosatom, the Russian state-owned Nuclear Corporation it is stationed at the arctic port town of Pevek. Rosatom claims that the power station was good to avoid C02 emissions, yet as an enabler of enhanced oil, gas, and mineral exploration and potential extraction in the Arctic region it is effectively a means to dig out more hydrocarbons.

Testimonies from nuclear power’s extractive frontier and those actively resisting its expansion

Nuclear power is effectively on the decline[13]. Industry’s repeated rescue attempts, however, are misleading, they waste time and resources, and they slowly start to inflate a speculative bubble around uranium resources. It is worrying that the narrative of a possible, albeit nuclear, «business as usual» could gain momentum in the face of increasingly severe climate change impacts. This is perhaps especially so for the communities affected by uranium mining or exploration whereby the threats of extraction are dangerously high. This list of testimonies is limited and would have to be expanded in order to do justice to the global spread of experiences with uranium mining and exploration. Yet here campaigners from across the globe offer their rich insights about the climate crisis and its mitigation.

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