Great Power and Great Responsibility: Belgium’s Nuclear Energy Quandaries

I don’t know about you, but every time I start wading into a news story featuring nuclear anything, I start feeling like we, collectively, as humans, have basically been a toddler that somehow unlocked grandpa’s gun cabinet for the last 75 years or so – we’ve found this Shiny Thing that occasionally goes bang in exciting ways and now we want to see what else we can do with it. And we have absolutely no idea what it’s really capable of. Except instead of just killing like, ourselves, or a loved one, it’s capable of destroying the entire earth. So… more like a toddler that’s got into grandpa’s nuclear warhead cabinet, really.

baby mushroom cloud

I’m really good at metaphors.

Nuclear fission, the process that lies at the core of both atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, has fundamentally altered our world in so many ways that it would be a completely unrecognisable place without it. And while it’s made significant advances in science, engineering and medicine possible, when it comes to associations it’s hard to get past the image of a mushroom cloud and the names of places like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

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On the other hand, it gave us radioactive spiders which would eventually lead to this amazing cinematic moment, so it’s not all bad. [x]

It’s probably deeply unfair to associate nuclear warfare with nuclear power station disasters, one being intentional destruction and killing with weapons and the other being the accidental result of unforeseen circumstances in otherwise useful infrastructure, but the connections seem a lot more concrete once one gets into discussions about the security issues surrounding nuclear power stations. Discussions like the ones Belgium is currently facing after the death of a guard at a Belgian nuclear facility two days after the attacks in Brussels on the 22nd of March 2016. The incident sparked fears of sabotage to a nuclear power station despite the local prosecutor ruling out any military link to the guard’s death, and further security measures heightened tensions in the weeks following the attacks. Media reports have stoked fears that nuclear plants in Belgium might be potential targets for terrorists seeking nuclear materials.

Which… is not great news, although it’s wise to consume news media in the days and weeks following a terrorist attack with a healthy grain of salt. Besides which, there’s a much larger and longer-running discussion around Belgium’s nuclear power plants that poses serious logistical and political problems for a sizeable portion of Western Europe: really friggin’ old reactors.

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They no longer identify with the music played on the radio, they need sleeping pills at night and they’re starting to worry about osteoporosis. [x]

Both the Doel plant on the Dutch border and the Tihange plant near the German border have experienced maintenance and mechanical issues in the last five years. Both plants have reactors dating back to the mid-1970s. The Netherlands and especially Germany are calling for Belgium to mothball the oldest of the reactors in these plants – which were scheduled to be shut down in 2015 – due to fears they might malfunction enough to cause nuclear meltdowns, also known as the worst possible crisis your neighbours can have, narrowly beating out noisy marital disintegration and acquiring an anxious and overzealous Chihuahua.

Germany has made similar demands to France, which is closing its oldest nuclear power station, the 39-year-old Fessenheim, this year. The Energiewende, or energy transition, launched by Angela Merkel’s government in 2011 has seen plans put in place to close all of Germany’s nuclear power facilities by 2022. Largely spurred on by the disaster in Fukushima in March 2011, the Energiewende policies saw a reversal of the CDU’s plan to extend the lifespan of Germany’s nuclear reactors to 2050, and instead beat a hasty retreat to the timeline originally proposed by its left-wing predecessors in government.

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“After careful consideration of recent events, we have decided that nuclear fallout is scary as shit and we out. We ouuuttt.” [x]

It’s a policy that is not without its detractors, five years on. Nuclear power still provides about 18% of Germany’s electricity production at the moment. Finding a balance between the difficulties in creating new renewable energy infrastructure and trying to limit the need for increased reliance on fossil fuels is no small task. They’re getting there – almost a third of Germany’s energy requirements were met by renewable sources last year. But the nature of the European energy landscape means that there is a not insignificant amount of import and export between Germany and its neighbours, and Germany’s neighbours are still big into that sweet, sweet, nuclear buzz. While proponents of the Energiewende policy claim this doesn’t compromise Germany’s political position on nuclear energy, the fact remains that nuclear energy will still be passing through Germany’s grid and coffers as long as its neighbours are producing it, and that nuclear disaster – of the kind it fears will happen in Belgium – doesn’t respect national borders.

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Nuclear fallout doesn’t even need to show its passport any more! [x]

Is it alarmist to talk about an impending nuclear disaster in Belgium? Maybe not, when you consider that the Belgian government decided three weeks ago in late April to provide iodine pills to its entire population, in case of a nuclear accident. The pills are to prevent the build up of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland, which is one of the most well recorded hazards of radiation exposure from nuclear accidents. The move doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the government’s decision not to shut down the reactors, but then again it’s worth noting that 60% of Belgium’s electricity comes from nuclear power, so it’s not really a decision they can make lightly.

So how worried should we be? Greenpeace certainly has grave concerns. But nuclear energy proponents point out that the dangers posed by increased fossil fuel usage are a certainty, compared with nuclear power, which only poses the possibility of a threat. There are even arguments that radiation exposure after a nuclear accident isn’t as dangerous as we’ve thought. The problem is that the argument around nuclear energy is deeply polarised, with compelling facts on both sides, but a disturbing lack of scientific certainty or consensus. It often comes down to balancing the benefits of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption with the difficulty of storing and disposing of nuclear waste – both extremely long-term issues with ramifications that will need to be dealt with many generations down the line (assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves in the meantime).

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If only there was a solution… [x]

Ultimately Belgium is left with the choice between taking drastic action to overhaul its energy infrastructure (either in the form of new reactors, or alternative forms of energy production), or crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. But does it have a responsibility to listen to its neighbours on this matter? Given that the EU is currently seeking to strengthen investment in nuclear energy throughout its member states it might be best served by planning construction of new reactors, despite its pledge to phase out reliance on nuclear power. Who knows, maybe we’ll reached the promised land of nuclear fusion, with its increased safety and efficiency, and less hazardous by-products compared to fission. Unfortunately that technology seems to be perpetually thirty years away from commercial production, and Belgium’s problems can’t wait that long. And if it chooses to continue down the path of fission energy, it’s fairly likely that Germany won’t be too keen to let it borrow a cup of sugar or water its houseplants in the near future.

CB

 

PS While researching I came across that old 1950s video on what to do in case of nuclear attack, so please enjoy this horrifying jaunt through history:

Trident and the Nuclear Deterrent

After the atomic bomb was first used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the USSR raced to match the technology of the Americans and tested their first nuclear weapon in 1949. A nuclear arms race began in the late 1950s as the Cold War became increasingly hostile, and by the 1980s each side had tens of thousands of warheads (see graph below). Into this fray wandered Britain, who had still not quite come to terms with the fact that the imperial dream was over and that it had ceded superpower status to its renegade colony across the Atlantic. Britain first tested a nuclear weapon in 1952 (France would follow in 1960 and China in 1968). To date these countries, along with India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are the only ones known to have nuclear weapons, to a greater or (in North Korea’s case much) lesser extent.

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What goes up must come down? From here.

After attempting to develop their own Blue Streak missile system, the British eventually realised it would be much easier to deliver death to their enemies by buying the American Polaris missiles and attaching their own nuclear warheads to the tips. A Polaris-armed submarine first went out on patrol in 1968 and, despite the end of the Cold War, the patrols continued for over a quarter of a century until another American missile system, Trident, replaced it in 1994.

The idea of these weapons during the Cold War was that if Britain was devastated by a nuclear attack, it could in turn obliterate the main cities of the country (i.e. the USSR) which launched it. For this reason some of the nuclear weapons, and the only ones which still remain today, were based on submarines patrolling the ocean and able to respond even if the mainland defences were destroyed. The ability of both sides to almost simultaneously wipe each other out is known as “mutually-assured destruction” and is the reason Trident is often referred to as a “nuclear deterrent”. It’s a situation which Yes, Prime Minister is still the best at explaining.

But is a nuclear deterrent useful on the modern world stage? It’s not possible to do much more than scratch the surface of the question in this sort of format, but the main threats to Britain in recent years have been ISIS, al-Qaeda, and arguably the occasional lone FSB agent or remaining Irish republican paramilitary. All of which are groups or individuals who are particularly difficult to target by a nuclear strike. In the case of ISIS it would feel like a hollow victory to free the people of Iraq and Syria from the caliphate only to hand back to them a radioactive wasteland. For the kind of warfare fought today, intelligence and targeted drone strikes are far more valuable for achieving our objectives. Yet still it’s difficult to shake that nagging feeling that the first person to put down their gun runs the risk of getting shot. (It should be remembered however, that South Africa once developed a nuclear weapons programme, before voluntarily dismantling it.)

Another dimension to this argument is that to simply think of the nuclear deterrent in terms of our own national interest is in fact rather selfish. That as a developed nation, a world power with resources to maintain a nuclear arsenal, we are responsible not just for protecting ourselves but also for defending smaller nations from the despotic tendencies of their better-armed neighbours. It’s an argument not without merit and is one that should at least be seriously considered. All military intervention is quite reasonably seen through the prism of Iraq these days, but at the turn of the century air support and boots on the ground in Kosovo and Sierra Leone almost certainly saved lives. An attitude of isolationism is not necessarily desirable, either in our own interests or in terms of our moral responsibility to the world community.

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“Hey guys, me and the crew wondered if you needed any extreme defending doing.”

A reading of this view in terms of nuclear weapons, however, brings us back full circle to the question of whether the button would ever be pressed. Russia recently annexed Crimea, the territory of another sovereign state, and vastly increased its influence in other east Ukrainian provinces. Despite strong evidence to the contrary Russia denies a military involvement in the conflict and this just illustrates how differently wars are fought from seventy years ago. Could a nuclear strike be justified if there wasn’t 100% surety the country being targeted was even an aggressor? And even if there was that surety, is Crimea worth the mutually-assured destruction of starting a nuclear war for? The answer, as evidenced by the fact we’re all still here is, apparently, no.

Another possibility for retaining peace of mind as we deal with the nuclear anachronism would be to decommission the weapons multilaterally, that is, all sides agree to do it. Following the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) meetings in the 1980s, weapon numbers ceased to rise significantly and have started to come down, albeit very slowly. If the pure outdatedness of such weapons isn’t enough to encourage us to destroy them, maybe their capacity for a new kind of threat will be. The weapons storage sites in the former USSR are notoriously insecure. The International Atomic Energy Agency has recorded 18 incidents of loss or theft of plutonium and uranium, not to mention any cases which have gone unnoticed. Nuclear material could easily pass through the former Soviet states either side of the Caspian Sea and then on into Afghanistan, or through Turkey’s porous Eastern border to Iraq and Syria. Fears of terrorists creating a low-grade yet nonetheless devastating “dirty bomb” and using it have long been voiced and if we imagine that such an attack might be a suicide bomb, the nuclear deterrent quickly loses its ace in the hole. And in case we think that Russia is the only one taking poor care of its nuclear arsenal, this eye-opening video about America’s nuclear weapons should bring us back to Earth.

The decision on whether to renew the Trident system will come before Parliament this year and with a majority Conservative government the result is only likely to go one way. However, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has long been in favour of unilateral disarmament and recently shuffled his top team to make sure his shadow defence secretary was too. With many of the Labour membership supportive of Corbyn’s views but a majority of his MPs opposed there are likely to be some ugly scenes ahead, and it’s difficult to say who will come out on top. Andy Burnham has said recently that an agreement which satisfies the whole party may be “impossible”.  However, what can be said is that for the first time in many years we will probably have a genuine debate about the pros and cons of maintaining Trident.

TF