The word “nuclear” clearly can provoke radically different reactions depending on context. Extra interesting is how those reactions can change over time, especially within the context of the two very different “nuclear topics”: on the one hand, the matter of nuclear weapons and whether countries need them, should have them, should ban them, etc. On the other hand, the matter of nuclear energy and the indisputable fact that, when managed well, it is clean and efficient and could help us transition into cleaner energies. It is curious how a phrase such as “nuclear future” can (though need not necessarily) evoke very dissimilar scenarios depending on which of the two topics is being discussed. It’s also a topic that requires at least some deeper, nuanced information to fully understand it. Being more informed can quickly change a person’s mind about it, either towards being against or in favor of these technologies.
On the military side, no doubt today’s nuclear weapons could destroy all human life many times over. A future where the stronger nuclear options were ever to be used, certainly could become an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenario (assuming we were to survive it). Then on the energy and renewables side, it’s easy to understand that nuclear accidents and disasters also carry a huge risk towards life on Earth. What’s more, it has happened – twice and relatively recently, in Chernobyl and Fukushima. Given such dangers, it’s always been tempting (but hugely simplistic) to want to lump both issues together in the same bag and to simply advocate for the banning of “everything nuclear”. This kind of anti-nuclear advocacy was heavily associated with liberal social movements in the 60s and 70s. Being “anti-nuclear” was (somewhat loosely at times) associated with being pro-peace, “a hippie”, pro-social justice, an environmentalist or even pro-feminism (yes, many associate the two). But the many nuances of the issue make it hardly black-and-white. We also cannot ignore the elephant in the room: right now, there is an ongoing war in Ukraine where one of the parties has nuclear weapons and the other has nuclear plants.
Thus, a very real threat that Russia could use nuclear weapons, or that other countries could use nuclear weapons in retaliation against Russia (in Ukraine or in Russia) have made many reconsider the entire issue, for we have not been so close to such an event since the Cuban missile crisis. Even the mere threats to “use nukes” have the potential to change courses of negotiations and military strategies. There is a case to be made for the concept of “deterrence”, lending credibility to the idea that states who have nuclear weapons are very unlikely to want to use them, for fears of retaliation – and thus immense destruction and suffering. Deterrence is not a guarantee however, and it might be less and less so in a world where so many politicians on all continents seem to often lose touch with reality – across all political spectrums. That is why many experts on this issue argue that, if it’s unrealistic to expect countries to ban or do away with nuclear weapons, the efforts should at least be aimed at non-proliferation (with or without an end goal of eventually getting rid of them).
In the case of the ongoing conflict, the connection of the military issue to the energy issue also happens to be clear. Conflict disrupts trade and production. A conflict so close to the gates of the European Union now has affected gas prices, oil prices, and put many countries (for example and especially Germany) in a dilemma or two. Recently, high-level politicians in Germany have spoken in favor of nuclear energy, while the country has been for years on the road to dismantling its nuclear power machinery. As published in The Economist in September 2022: “Russia’s attack on Ukraine has forced Germany to rethink its energy policy”. A brutally cold winter with soaring fossil-fuel prices might bring even more people into this reconsideration. Nuclear energy is overwhelmingly clean except for the radioactive waste created at the end of a nuclear plant’s operational life. This cannot and should not be ignored. Also, the risk of accidents remains realistic – and if it happened to the serious and protocol-friendly Japanese, we know that it could happen to any state.