terça-feira, 21 de junho de 2011
Worshipping the Poison Fire
Why does the 'World Hero of Mother Earth' risk permanently contaminating his nation?
By David Montoute
Bolpress, September 2010
When the indigenous men of Déline entered the mines of northwest Canada in the 1950s, they had little idea of their contribution to the US secret nuclear weapons program. Whilst the miners carried sacks of uranium, the US government disposed of the residual waste in Great Bear Lake. Nobody bothered to inform the workers about the nature of uranium, nor the risks that they were running, nor how to protect themselves. Today, the remote and picturesque town of Déline is known as "the village of the widows". With no indemnity from the authorities, the epidemic of cancer that followed the mining left a generation of youth without fathers and grandfathers. It’s just one of the many tragedies that have taken place in indigenous territories since the dawn of the nuclear age. 50 years on, Arizona’s Navajo Nation hosted the Indigenous World Uranium Summit. The Navajo –relatives of the Déline natives– approved a moratorium on the exploration, enrichment and processing of uranium in their territory, as well as its use in nuclear weapons. “Uranium kills” they insisted, and although the moratorium covers a quarter of US uranium supplies, they saw it as the most logical measure. Equally logical – although from a very different perspective – was the response from world powers: the uninhibited promotion of a nuclear “renaissance” around the world. (1)
Today, China, France, the USA, Russia, Japan and Korea compete for control of the market in the exportation of nuclear technology, and indirectly encourage a new arms race. Remembering that the UN’s permanent Security Council is constituted by the world’s biggest arms exporters, nothing about this development should surprise us: pious declarations and sociopathic acts are no strangers to each other on the international stage. But when it comes to a self-proclaimed "socialist", "indigenist", and even "ecological" government, should we not expect a better example? As incredible as it may seem, the government of Evo Morales is contemplating the reactivation of uranium mining in Bolivia, and with Russian collaboration, the construction of a nuclear power plant. With the audacity that has come to typify it, the government reserved its announcement for the first day of the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba.(2) And in spite of the rejection of this technology on the part of the speakers, the Vice-President’s declaration passed without comment.
When debating nuclear technology, anti-imperialists typically invoke the “sovereign right of the State to the peaceful nuclear energy” – beyond the interference of foreign powers. From an ecological perspective, however, no technology is "neutral": every technical device has a particular inherent logic, since each been developed according to specific interests. To accept a given technology obliges us to accept its logic and the processes that facilitate it.
Uranium mining is the basis of nuclear energy production, and good part of the uranium is extracted in economically fragile countries like Bolivia. Once extracted, uranium mineral deposits are crushed, ground and then bathed in sulphuric acid, later to be packed as “yellow cake ” or uranium concentrate. To obtain one ton of yellow cake, hundreds of tons of radioactive residues must be generated. It is an intrinsically destructive process that contaminates air, water, fauna and human beings and there is no sustainable way of treating the remaining residues. Wherever these residues are deposited there is a high risk of contaminating water tributaries, land and airways. Unlike carbon from fossil fuels, uranium does not form part of any natural cycle in the biosphere. Mere contact with its residues (highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years) or with material exposed to its radiation can generate genetic damage and degenerative, terminal illnesses.
What does this mean in the case of Bolivia and the mines of Potosí where the extraction of uranium is proposed? According to local ecological groups, environmental management in Potosí is lacking in resources and weak in the face of national institutions. Worse, these institutions do little to assure multinationals’ compliance with environmental mining regulations. Without reference to the uranium mine proposal, the activists denounce that:
“The dikes that accumulate the mining residues are important sources of acidic water and they have an effect on the superficial and underground water systems, which in turn cause the deterioration of the soils. In addition to this the transport, primary grinding, the fine grinding, and in general the manipulation of minerals that produces large quantities of contaminated dust that reaches important distances.” (3)
To apply this standard of control to the extraction of uranium would be fatal. As plants absorb oxides of uranium dissolved in water, these residues could easily be incorporated into the food chain.
The myth of "civilian" nuclear power and the catastrophe of depleted uranium
The idea of technology as nothing more than a tool invites us to distinguish between peaceful and aggressive applications of nuclear energy. But in reality "civilian" nuclear power is unthinkable without its military counterpart. From the reprocessing of military residues in civilian plants to the use of power plants’ depleted uranium in the arsenals of western military forces, the two industries, in practice, have always been mutually dependent. So it was only logical that every country to obtain nuclear weapons in the last 30 years should do so under the cover of a “peaceful”, “civilian" nuclear program. And in spite of its denials, it’s hard to believe that today’s Iran will be any different. By obtaining nuclear arms, the Islamic State would achieve a strategic parity with its rival, Israel.(4) And certain anti-Zionists applaud the idea, affirming (correctly) that nuclear weapons have proved the best deterrent to imperialist aggression. But even ignoring the example of Pakistan – in possession of nuclear weapon and suffering constant US aerial bombing – entering the logic of deterrence only delivers us a zero sum game. In addition to the immorality of Mutually Assured Destruction, the daily activity of the nuclear industry is unleashing a slow motion catastrophe for the whole of humanity.
24 years after the worst nuclear accident in history, the 1986 Chernobyl explosion once more makes itself felt as Ukraine and Russia are consumed by forest fires. With 3.900 hectares of contaminated grounds being aerosolized, Europe is experiencing the equivalent fallout of four Hiroshimas, simultaneously.(5) To escape the poisonous cloud of smoke, schoolboys in the surroundings of Moscow have been evacuated en masse, and several foreign embassies have followed suit. But to where do they think to escape? With the aerosolization of radioactive metals, contamination has become generalized. In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a huge spike in background radiation levels was registered over the United Kingdom, a phenomenon only explicable by the aerosolization of depleted uranium ammunition in far-off Mesopotamia.(6) The promoters of the nuclear industry claim that technological advances prevent new accidents of the Chernobyl kind. But even in technologically advanced Britain, we find concentrations of infantile leukaemia around the Sellafield reactor that are ten times the national average. In the station’s immediate buffer zone, the levels of contamination are even greater than those of the Chernobyl exclusion zone itself. Cases such as this demonstrate that regardless of the technological capacity of the country – no plant can be completely sure in the long run, because it needs such a range of regulations, procedures and constant cross-checks that a minimal oversight, error, or wear can provoke escapes of radioactivity.
So what to make of a nuclear reactor in tectonically unstable Iran?
Activist Reza Fiyouzat calls our attention to Iran’s huge, active fault lines, and presents figures from recent major earthquakes, including: Bam in 2003, with a magnitude of 6.5 on the Richter scale and a toll of 26,000 dead, Qazvin in 2002, with a magnitude of 6 and more than 500 people dead, and northern Iran in 1997, with a magnitude of 7.1 and 1,500 dead. Fiyouzat says that the mortality rate in each of these cases was aggravated by the awful construction standards in prevalent in his country. The culture of bribery that skates around higher safety costs means that even the poor controls that do exist are not followed. “We would therefore be right to wonder about the building codes implemented in the construction of Bushehr's nuclear power plant …Those who, like the Islamic regime in Iran, insist that pursuing nuclear power is an automatic right, must also be prepared to bear the responsibility, and be ready to be fully accountable, for any outcome of the activities involved in handling of nuclear materials.” (7) But Fiyouzat ends by reminding us that the dictatorial regime in Tehran holds itself accountable to nobody.
Let's see the other side of the coin in neighbouring Iraq.
The industrial enrichment of the uranium produces big quantity of residues called depleted uranium (DU). In the 1970s, the discovery of the pyrophoric (inflammable) properties of this metal led to the US army to incorporate it into its arsenal. Like a hand to a glove, the US government provided the material for free to the military industry, thus liberating itself of the cost of safe disposal. Shells coated with DU burn and oxidize upon impact, liberating volatile and highly poisonous nano-particles. These particles then accumulate in lymphatic nodules, the brain, testicles and other organs. With the affinity between uranium and the phosphorus in our cells, DU provokes damage to DNA, mutations, cellular death and cancer. Beginning with the first Gulf War in 1991, the US army used these weapons in a series of wars. The biological effects were not long in coming, and towards the end of the 1990s epidemics of cancer and congenital defects in Iraqi children began to appear. To aggravate an already widespread contamination, in 2004 the city of Fallujah was submitted to massive US bombing in an attempt of eradicate the armed resistance there. In the assault, which destroyed 60 % of the city's buildings, depleted uranium weapons were once again used.
In January of this year, Professor Chris Busby, Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radioaction Risks, travelled to Fallujah to investigate the effects on the civilian population. His discoveries, presented first on Al-Jazeera, are shocking:
The rate of child leukaemia in Fallujah is 40 times greater than in 2004 and 38 times higher than in the nearby Jordan.
The rate of lymphatic cancer and breast cancer is 10 times greater than 2004.
The rate of infant mortality in the city is 80 to a thousand, in comparison with Kuwait, where the number is 9 to every thousand and in Egypt 19 of every thousand.
There has been an epidemic of genetic deformities since 2004, with babies born without eyes, babies born with two and three heads or born without orifices, without genitals or without extremities, and others born with malignant tumours in the brain and eyes.
Professor Busby concluded that the situation of Fallujah is “scary and horrendous”, and worse than that of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing of Japan. (8)
Technological dependency and the time bomb of residues
So far, those promoting the 'industrialization' of Bolivia have proposed doing so on the back of the extractive economy. How this approach should facilitate industrialization it still not clear. Uranium - like fossil fuels - is a finite resource and at the current rate of consumption, world reserves will last approximately 5 decades. If hydrocarbon revenues are any example, far from industrializing the country, uranium revenues will maintain a “clientelist benefit system” – the patronage that is so dependent on the unstable prices of the international market.
As for the construction of a nuclear reactor, Bolivia’s national institutions suffer from serious corruption and incompetence (like those of many of the countries now aiming for nuclear power). Will they be able to handle such a dangerous technology? The investigation and technical development of the civilian nuclear industry requires strong investment from the State. And far from the grand old promises of energy “too cheap to meter”, the nuclear industry would not survive in a genuine free market without massive state subsidies. In the developed countries, the knowledge economy impels a continual technological intensification, a process led by the military industry. And the effort of this sector to acquire enormous quantities of energy, wherever it comes from and whatever it costs, is the real backbone of the nuclear industry and what allows it to overcome plant-building and maintenance costs that would otherwise be prohibitive. Considering the huge initial investment that nuclear power stations require, the companies involved usually ask for regulative frameworks that guarantee the recuperation of their investments – an implicit admission of the poor competitiveness of the industry.
In Bolivia, this kind of investment by the State was not feasible previously. That it is today is the result the new energy bloc made up of Russia, Venezuela and Iran - a new axis attempting to marginalise the dollar and constitute itself as a rival to Western powers. The announcement of Iranian collaboration in the extraction of uranium in Venezuela exposed the true backdrop to Venezuela’s diplomatic rupture with the State of Israel. And considering Iran’s newly launched Bushehr plant and its need for uranium ore, this can hardly be seen as an altruistic collaboration. For its part, Russia, the most powerful member of the alliance, has announced its desire to turn Bolivia into the spearhead of its economic policies in Latin America. The siren song of a nuclear power station is intended to sweeten this initiative, for when a weak country resorts to the technology of a stronger power, patterns of dependency are always created in the recipient nation. The big powers then exercise a “soft power” over its clients, a power much more difficult to dislodge than that of typical mining companies. The entry to these alliances is sweet, with pacts for the building of hospitals, dairy plants, or the development of lithium mining in the Salar de Uyuni. But what happens if Bolivia later decides to opt out of nuclear energy? It won’t be easy.
The dismantling of a nuclear power station is hardly akin to destroying an old factory. Rather, it requires an array of technical and administrative procedures for its progressive decontamination and demolition. Once the installation is dismantled – a process which usually takes more than 20 years – it is necessary to regularly monitor for radioactive exposures in the local environment. Bolivia would in this way be dependent on its technological supplier and its technical assistance for decades. In addition to political dependency, this would also impose a strong economic burden upon the country. In France, the current dismantling of the small Brennilis reactor has cost approximately 480 million Euros (20 times the estimated cost) and has still not been completed. (9)
The question of residues is worse again – a problem not even the most technically advanced nations have managed to solve. The failure of deep dumping has only led to even crazier "solutions", such as that of the European Union ‘Eurotom’ that authorises the recycling of radioactive waste into common commercial products. Other 'solutions' include waste recycling in reprocessing plants (the most toxic option of all), or that of the genocidal arms industry with all of the consequences described. Even the traditional method of the dumping method requires extremely long-term management and stable geological conditions for thousands of years. Who can guarantee these conditions?
IIRSA: integrating the “culture of the death”
Science historian Lewis Mumford outlined the historical development of two technological models: one a set of "democratic" technics that functioned in accordance with human nature, and another "authoritarian" technics that concentrated power in the hands of small elites. Constituting a type of "megamachine", the authoritarian technics are characterised as centralised, hierarchical, dependent upon high grades of specialization and complex organizational bureaucracies, and intensive in their consumption of resources and capital.
It is clear that the MAS’ developmentalist strategy engenders the second, hierarchical model. Its policies are framed by the IIRSA (Initiative for the Regional Integration of South American Infrastructure) a massive megaproject of territorial rearrangement shared by 12 countries, its principal axis being the network of highways that will join Brazil with the Pacific Ocean and the Asian market. As a strategy that concentrates power on hands of those who already have it, it is no surprise that the South American colossus is the IIRSA‘s biggest promoter. For the Brazilian elites, it is a means to transform their country into the superpower of the 21st century. (10)
According to the communities affected in Bolivia, the government of La Paz violates its own regulations and its own Constitution in order to facilitate these megaprojects. The construction of the Villa Tunari - San Ignacio of Moxos highway, the exploration of hydrocarbons in the north of La Paz, the dams on the Rio Madeira – are all of benefit to neighbouring powers more than to Bolivia itself. Some may be surprised that a "neo-nationalist" government should do so much to facilitate the growth of neighbouring countries, but the truth is that all major infrastructural power projects are transnational in nature today. It cannot be otherwise given the extreme interdependence of the modern industrial system. It’s clear then, that the “culture of the death” so denounced by President Morales, is precisely the culture that monopolizes the concept of "development", a concept based on the same extractivism and commodification of the earth promoted by the MAS itself and its partners in the IIRSA.
Awakening of the imagination?
Approximately 35 years ago, the Arab oil embargo provoked a so-called “energy crisis” in the industrialized world. The philosopher Ivan Illich pointed out the ambiguity of this concept and how it was used as pretext to limit the privileges of developing nations. The ecological sermons came precisely from the countries with highest per capita energy use – a hypocrisy that did not pass by unnoticed in the so-called “Third World”. But like many others, Illich also understood that technological intensification and energy consumption, beyond a certain limit, have a tendency to enslave us. The energy crisis of the 1970s was a chimera – an ephemeral product of politics. But today, the imperatives of degrowth and contraction are imposed upon us by geology. In 2006 worldwide conventional oil production came to its peak, with a "plateau" following it, just as Peak Oil theorists had predicted. With the rise in oil prices and the turn to “difficult oil” from unconventional sources, we can see the outline of a new and darker age. There are those who minimize this change, qualifying it a capitalist crisis (the decline of profitable oil), without understanding the scope of our dependency. Electricity, transport, plastic, mining, food, cosmetics and any industrial product or modern activity all depend upon this fossil fuel. For every kilojoule of food that we consume, 10 kilojoules of hydrocarbons have been invested in it in the form of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Together with the peaking of oil, comes a series of approaching 'peaks' in essential resources, from natural gas up to fresh water, to so-called REE or “Rare Earth Elements”(11) - converging declines that will impose an irreversible industrial contraction and radically change the character of our civilization. Along with its allies in Russia and Iran, the Bolivian government has planned its economic strategy in terms of a world that is rapidly disappearing before our eyes.
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform and the subsequent extensive use of chemical dispersants have aggravated the growing black tide in ours oceans. Mercury, plus the tens of thousands of industrial chemicals in common use, together with the atmospheric contamination of uranium oxide are all generating synergistic effects that scientist Leuren Moret identifies as the cause of a new worldwide epidemic of diabetes. Completing the picture is a progressive demineralization of topsoils that aggravates already generalized nutritional deficiencies. Now, to propose an expansion of nuclear power in this context is to propose more of the same. It goes beyond immorality, and demonstrates a profound spiritual poverty. When the Venezuelan government announced the construction of its own nuclear power plant in 2005, a group of Latin American and European scientists signed a manifesto denouncing the zombie-like thought process behind it:
"The argument “if they have it, why can’t we have it” ... is an absurd way to justify imitating the ecocidal energy model developed principally by capitalist societies, where the transnational corporations and right wing governments [decide] without taking the will of the people into account.” (12)
At the current juncture, it is improbable that popular pressure will block the nuclear proposal in Bolivia. The country’s intensifying socio-economic conflicts tend to sideline academic debates on models of development. But by marginalising these debates, we ignore their fundamental relation with societal conflict. A solution to the material and spiritual needs of the people must be local in nature. Development under local control, and integrated regionally would then facilitate technological redundancy and renewal – completely the opposite of nuclear energy whose management requires precautions for periods that escape our notion of time. Instead of promoting this redundant developmentalism of satellites and nuclear power stations, a truly ecological leadership would promote conservation and efficiency, together with clean technologies such as solar energy, wind energy and biogas. Decentralizing and localizing energy production would also diminish the distributive and regional conflicts that inevitably arise with the extractive economy. As Alberto Acosta says, we won’t abolish the current model overnight, but it is possible to initiate the transition to a post-extractive economy. Such an economy does not reject the exploitation of natural resources, but seeks to establish the biophysical limits of development, and to “reach sustainability, and eliminate poverty and its cause, which is opulence”.(13)
After all of Evo Morales’ decrials of “Western culture”, will he now introduce the worst thing that this culture offers us? This would be an appalling betrayal of the hopes and expectations that accompanied his rise to power. By disturbing uranium’s millenary sleep, the Bolivian government joins the enormous and irreversible experiment that it entails: the permanent contamination of the human gene bank. Let's not forget the vast source of energy of love and compassion. If the native Iroquois weighed each important decision by the effects it would have on the seventh generation, where is this love for our great-great-grandchildren or even just for our children? Will we keep on mortgaging their future for our inflated energy "needs"? Or like the Navajo: will we put the imagination and intelligence of our species to work?
It’s time to end the failed nuclear experiment and face the challenges posed by a genuine transformation.
Notes and references:
(1) Some 50 countries have declared an intent to become nuclear powers, including Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Qatar, Oman, Bulgaria, Albania, Yemen, the Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Chile, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Ghana, Namibia and Tonga. As for the illegal spread of nuclear weapons, the International Atomic Energy Agency has registered more than 650 cases of trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials since 1993. The nuclear “renaissance” in part owes itself to a perceived energy shortage, but also to the search for alternatives to fossil fuels. The latter idea is in turn based upon the dubious hypothesis of Anthropogenic Global Warming. See: http://www.lavanguardia.es/lv24h/20091203/53835833352.html
(4) When Ahmadinejad arrived in Bolivia in November of 2009, the two countries issued a joint declaration expressing their support of “peaceful nuclear energy in the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty”. They also called for the renunciation of nuclear arms by the countries that possess them.
(11) Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, Richard Heinberg, 2007 (New Society Publishers)
Many thanks to Volodymyr Vladimir I. Druzhshchienschkyy and Susana Montes for their input.
David Montoute is a naturopath, visual artist & political researcher. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Original in Spanish: “Venerando el Fuego Venenoso” http://www.bolpress.com/art.php?Cod=2010100605