Vladimir Putin’s terror campaign against Ukraine has pulled back the curtain on the tightly integrated, brittle, and destructive energy regime that fuels the industrialized world. This regime poses an immediate threat to the survival of the people of Ukraine, and the longer-term survival of civilization itself. The deadly power of the troika of oil, gas and nuclear energy is unfolding before our eyes as Ukraine pays the price for a path all our countries have forged.
Energy is a source of two kinds of power – the kind that turns on lights, heats homes, and turns engines and the kind that drives politics. While there are many options for providing the energy services we all need, only some create authoritarian petrostates, transnational corporations with budgets larger than many nations, and billionaire oligarchs. Only some finance wars and inflict gross injustices on those in the paths of rigs and pipelines. Only some emit pollutants that kills millions every year. Only some create deadly wastes that will persist longer into the future than humans have walked on this Earth. Only some turn a conventional missile into a nuclear weapon. Only some destroy the climate that makes Earth liveable.
All these existential threats are associated with the global networks of political and economic power built by transnational energy corporations. Energy policy has long been dominated by ‘iron triangles’ of energy business interests, ‘client’-oriented energy bureaucrats, and captured politicians. Whether it is Putin’s transnational petrodollars, Western Europe’s energy tap line to Russia, or nuclear plants dotting the European landscape, governments and whole countries have become entangled in a dangerous, brittle system that now threatens global security.
The inevitable outcome is the world on a knife-edge.
In the midst of Russia’s oil-financed terror campaign, the international climate science body issued its latest report documenting our collective descent into climate hell. UN Secretary-General Guterres called the report ‘an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.’
Enter the nuclear industry. After languishing for decades in Western countries due to intractable liabilities, and a legitimacy crisis following narrow escapes and full-blown disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, opportunistic nuclear interests have seized on the climate emergency to promote itself as the ‘clean’ energy solution. This falsehood has now been exposed in Ukraine. Every nuclear reactor and nuclear waste storage site is a potential nuclear weapon, minus the blast and fireball. All Putin has to do to wreak radioactive havoc across Europe is target a nuclear facility or two with conventional missiles. Uncontrolled nuclear reactions and wind currents will do the rest.
Yet, the Liberal government’s climate action plan includes pouring hundreds of millions into an industry that would build modular nukes to export around the world, each one a target for a despot or a terrorist. This is all laid out in the federal “SMR Action Plan” that the nuclear industry helped to write, with funding disguised within the $8 billion “Net Zero Accelerator”.
New Brunswick is vying to become the hub for producing this deadly commodity. Nuclear experts from the United States have exposed the security threat inherent in the plutonium feedstock – the stuff of nuclear weapons – that one of the New Brunswick models requires. But even without diverting that fuel into a nuclear weapons program, the plant only needs to exist to be a nuclear target.
The Ukraine catastrophe should be enough to halt nuclear expansion in its tracks. Trading one existential threat (fossil fuel dependency) for another (an even wider network of nuclear targets) is a callous, willful betrayal of the public trust by those politicians enabling it.
Equally perverse is the opportunistic clamouring of transnational oil interests invested in Canada and their political backers to quickly expand Canada’s oil and gas reach to Western Europe. Climate science couldn’t be more clear: the fossil fuel industry needs to wind down fast, not expand. What part of climate catastrophe do politicians not understand?
In June 1988, the Canadian government hosted the first international conference on climate change called, The Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security. Prophetically, the final report of the conference opened with this statement: “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.” Today, the world is simultaneously facing climate breakdown and the threat of nuclear catastrophe.
Fortunately, the means exist to deescalate on both fronts by embarking on a rapid transition to a resilient, efficient, locally-controlled renewable energy system. This option exists now, is the cheapest source of new power, and can be built out quickly, as the European Union’s REPowerEU initiative and Canadian studies demonstrate.
Political leaders in Canada and abroad have two choices before them. They can deepen domestic and global energy and security vulnerabilities and hasten climate breakdown by building more pipelines, escalating oil and gas production, and enabling the expansion of the nuclear industry. Or they can work towards the elimination of energy as a geopolitical weapon and an existential threat to the civilization. It is up to us citizens to hold them accountable for the choice they make.
This commentary was originally published in The Hill Times.
Janice Harvey, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Environment and Society at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Before entering academia, Dr. Harvey worked for 25 years on environmental and energy policy at the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. For 12 years, she penned an op-ed column for Brunswick News under the banner, A Civil Society.