Resisting Ecological Transformation: Some Observations on Nuclear Energy in a Post-Fukushima World

We are re-publishing Dr. M V Ramana’s talk at Panel on “Fighting Ecological Transformation: 20th Century Energy in the Era of Sandy and Fukushima, the Case of Nuclear Power” at the Left Forum organised in New York City, USA from 7-9 June 2013.

M V Ramana

M.V. Ramana is with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University. He is the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin Books, 2012). He is a member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials and the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

He can be contacted at

[Article courtesy: Left Forum]

Three days after the Fukushima nuclear accident started on 11 March 2011, der Spiegel, the German magazine, declared that the accident “marks the end of the nuclear era” (Spiegel Staff 2012). The magazine was hardly unique and numerous media commentators, policy makers, academics, not to mention, anti-nuclear activists, wrote epitaphs of one form or the other, some more guarded than the others, for nuclear energy. Now, over two years after 3/11, nuclear power doesn’t seem quite as dead as some expected.

Yukiya Amano, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Director General, declared in March 2013, “The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in March 2011 caused anxiety about nuclear safety throughout the world and raised questions about the future of nuclear power. Two years on, it is clear that the use of nuclear power will continue to grow in the coming decades, although growth will be slower than was anticipated before the accident. Many countries with existing nuclear power programs plan to expand them. Many new countries, both developed and developing, plan to introduce nuclear power” (Amano 2013).

In January 2012, less than a year after the accident, Russia reportedly had 21 deals to build reactors in China, Vietnam, India, Iran and Turkey, and, according to the head of Russia’s state-owned Rosatom, has secured over $50 billion worth of reactor contracts, both domestic and export, to be delivered over a 10-year horizon (Carbonnel 2012). This is, of course, only a claim and not all reactors will actually get constructed.1

But the trend is clear. The nuclear industry has survived Fukushima, although not in all countries. In this talk, I will try to discuss some of the ways through which the industry has managed to get over the setback from Fukushima. The purpose of this exercise is partly to describe how the nuclear industry is moving us away from the possibility of ecological transformation, and partly to use it as an example of how countries make technology choices, and how they are strongly controlled by powerful organizations using a number of techniques.


An important tool in the bag of techniques is, of course, propaganda. The nuclear industry and various arms of the government involved in some aspect of nuclear power indulged in a major campaign to change the public image of the technology. Elements of the campaign included trying to trivialize what happened at Fukushima, trying to convince the public that nuclear power was indeed safe, that what happened was peculiar to Japan and could never happen in one’s own country, and that nuclear power was a clean, safe, and cheap way of generating much needed electricity. A key mechanism of the propaganda campaign entails exploiting public ignorance about nuclear technology.

A good example of trivializing what happened in Fukushima was the statement by the Chairman and Managing Director of India’s Nuclear Power Corporation, “there is no nuclear accident or incident in Japan’s Fukushima plants. It is a well planned emergency preparedness program which the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power Company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown following a major earthquake” (PTI 2011). This casual reference to residual heat, produced by the radioactive elements generated during the fission process, did not do justice to the gravity of the situation—as was clear when it melted the cores of the Fukushima reactors.

A second element was to assure people that a Fukushima like accident was impossible in their country. For example, on March 16, 2011—before there was a clear understanding of what was happening in the Japanese reactors—a Polish government official hurried to reassure citizens that nothing of that sort would happen there, due to its location and the advanced design of the nuclear power plants Poland plans to build (Kruk 2011). The haste with which countries rushed to make assertions about the impossibility of accidents and the inapplicability of the lessons of Fukushima does not bode well for safety, especially when they are made so soon after any major nuclear accident, since the full extent of the nature and mechanisms of the accident has not in any instance been fully understood until well after the fact (if then).

One technique we commonly heard after Fukushima to assert “it can’t happen here” was misdirection: e.g. “we don’t have tsunamis.” This distracts, of course, from possible accident mechanisms that are widespread: e.g. failure of both offsite and backup power causing cooling system failure, which can be caused by a variety of natural and man-made disasters affecting an entire plant site and particularly if a wider area also is affected. Also, it makes us forget that most, if not all, of the previous major reactor accidents—Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in particular—occurred due to purely internal causes, without any external triggers.

Many countries claimed that their reactors are, or would be, the “safest.” Hamad Al Kaabi, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, for example, said that his country was “committed to… adopt the safest design, safest plant, but also to focus on developing a culture of safety among workers, among entities, among all the relevant stakeholders” (Chaffee, 2012). A Russian nuclear manager involved in the Akkuyu project in Turkey proclaimed that he and his colleagues were going to build the “world’s safest reactor” (Anatolia News Agency 2011). And while preparing a bid to build a reactor in Finland, GE-Hitachi announced that its Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) design is “the world’s safest available reactor design as measured by industry standards” (GE 2012). Obviously all of them cannot simultaneously be the safest reactor, but that doesn’t prevent reactor vendors and government officials from making that claim. As Sundaram has observed, the safety these claims refer to is safety from “public scrutiny and accountability” (Sundaram 2013).

In 2012, the Polish government started a PLN 22 million (approximately $7 million) “Meet the Atom” campaign aimed at building support for nuclear power, which is low in areas being considered for nuclear reactors (Ministry of Science and Higher Education 2012). The campaign’s goal is to present nuclear energy as a safe and efficient technology, which, despite the high initial cost of investment, will provide inexpensive energy in the future.

Relationship with Government

An important element in the nuclear industry’s ability to rebound from any setbacks due to Fukushima was the close relationship between the industry and their respective governments. In just about every country that is substantially invested in nuclear power, government officials played a crucial role in trying to regain public trust (or try to make sure that the public doesn’t lose trust).

Just two days after the Fukushima accident started, when it wasn’t even clear what was happening, British government officials sent emails to nuclear companies—including EDF Energy, Areva, and Westinghouse—to come up with a coordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident so as to minimize the loss of public support for nuclear power (Edwards, 2011; The Guardian, 2011). One official at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) wrote, “This has the potential to set the nuclear industry back globally… We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it. We really need to show the safety of nuclear.” Other emails stressed that both government and industry should be highlighting how newer reactors are much safer.

In some ways, the government role has become even more crucial with the potential nuclear market shrinking to some extent. Many governments have become much more involved in finalizing reactor deals. This is illustrated by a recent speech—on May 15, 2013—by Rose Gottemoeller, Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade organization:

“It may not be the first impulse of export firm executives to think of the U.S. Government as a business asset, but there is much that we can do to help. We are developing what we call a “Team USA” approach to civil nuclear engagement abroad. In January 2012, the White House created a new position – Director of Nuclear Energy Policy – to lead this effort. Going forward, this will help us present a unified U.S. message on these issues and increase our presence in the civil nuclear commercial spaces.

Another service that the government can provide is advocacy. Once a potential nuclear project is approved for advocacy by the Department of Commerce’s Advocacy Center, the State Department and other U.S. government agencies can, through active diplomacy with the host country, put U.S. Government support behind the American bidder. Even when more than one American firm is bidding on a nuclear power plant, we may be able to engage in generic advocacy, expressing to the host government our support for a U.S. firm winning the contract.

We also try to ensure that a foreign government’s decisions are being made in a transparent manner on a “level playing field.” Our diplomatic posts are sensitive to any evidence that undue influence is affecting a host government’s decision, and those posts are prepared to protest unwarranted discrimination against U.S sellers.

There are a number of other steps that the Administration has taken to ensure that our nuclear exports receive the attention they deserve. The Department of Commerce has established a Civil Nuclear Trade Initiative, the goal of which is to identify the U.S. nuclear industry’s trade policy challenges and commercial opportunities and coordinate public-private sector responses to support the growth of the U.S. civil nuclear industry” (Gottemoeller 2013).

Governments have also invested massively in new reactor and other nuclear technologies, sold both to their own public as well as potential clients on the basis of false promises. The current hype is all about a class of reactors called small modular reactors (SMRs). Over the last few years, an increasing share of nuclear R&D funding in several countries has been going towards developing and commercializing SMRs. In November 2012, the United States Department of Energy announced that as part of its SMR Licensing Technical Support Program, it would offer financial support of up to $452 million towards the development of the Babcock & Wilcox Company’s mPower SMR and one other SMR design that is to be selected soon. The first likely customers for these SMRs will likely be government entities, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, and possibly the Department of Defense, and it is possible that one of the early SMRs might be sited at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Facility. Other countries have been following suit. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute is currently developing the SMART (System-integrated Modular Advanced ReacTor) and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in India has been developing an Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR). Russia is in the process of constructing a floating nuclear plant.

In other countries, the nuclear industry has tried to build alliances with other big domestic corporations. For example, in Poland, three nuclear vendors — Areva, Westinghouse and GE-Hitachi —have been involved in an aggressive lobbying effort to sell their reactors. “All three are promising enormous sums of subcontracting work to local firms and are scrambling to sign the appropriate agreements. Areva, for instance, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Polimex MOSD.WA, a construction firm, and company officials have hinted that PGE [the Polish utility] could acquire a stake in one of Areva’s uranium mines rather than seek long-term delivery contracts for uranium, in return for deciding on the EPR. For its part, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy is hoping that its recent victory in Lithuania will give it competitive synergies in Poland. The company recently announced an MOU with Warsaw-based engineering firm Energoprojekt Warsaw “to discuss the feasibility” of working together on future reactor projects” (Peach 2011).

Even when countries express themselves popularly and democratically against nuclear power, vendors continue to pursue deals. Hitachi, for example, continued to attempt to sell its wares in Lithuania after a referendum and election of a government that promised shelving nuclear power as part of its platform (Shiraki 2012).

Controlling the Future

George Orwell is supposed to have said, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”. In the nuclear world, however, it is the control of the future, or more precisely control of the idea of what the future is going to be, that determines the present. What is the idea with regard to the future that nuclear advocates peddle?

no nukesThere are two, somewhat contradictory, elements to this future. One is the idea that the future will be like the past, and that there will be continued growth of the economy with corresponding increases in electricity demand, much as has been the case in the last several decades. This is especially true in industrializing countries, many of which emphasize current energy shortfalls and projections of rapid growth in energy demands as reasons for turning to nuclear power. When Bangladesh signed a deal with Russia to import two 1-gigawatt reactors, its science minister Yeafesh Osman reportedly said, “We have signed the deal… to ease the power crisis that hampers our economic activities” (BBC 2011).

What this view implicitly ignores are the many ecological and social crises that the world is confronting, of which climate change is just one manifestation. Indeed, in 2009, a group of 28 scientists around the world proposed a framework of “planetary boundaries” designed to define a “safe operating space for humanity” wherein they identified nine processes for which that they felt it was necessary to propose planetary boundaries. In at least three cases, these safe boundaries that had been transgressed—biodiversity loss, biogeochemical flows (nitrogen cycle, in particular), and climate change (Rockstrom et al. 2009). As more and more of these boundaries are approached and crossed, it will become more and more difficult, if not impossible, to sustain any kind of business as usual economic growth pattern.

Similarity to the past is also implied in the idea that future electricity planning will and should resemble old ideas like meeting demand through baseload and peaking generation plants. The attraction of this paradigm for nuclear power is that it fits the pattern of technical characteristics and economic costs that lend credibility to the idea that nuclear reactors are a good choice for a baseload electricity generator. But as the world moves towards a system that has more renewable electricity generation as well as demand response, this paradigm will become increasingly inappropriate (Makhijani, Mills, and Ramana 2012).

The second element, ironically, is to imagine that the future for nuclear power itself will be drastically different from the past. This involves assumptions that the history of failed nuclear power projections worldwide will not continue into the future, that future reactors will be cheap and constructed on time, and that people’s concerns about nuclear power would be resolved through “education”. They implicitly assume that all previous problems have been solved and no new problems will ever emerge (Mackerron 1992). This is why, for example, Turkey’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yildiz could declare at the World Economic Forum in June 2012: “We are a country without a nuclear power plant. However, we are determined to have nuclear power plants. We want to meet our increasing energy needs by erecting at least 23 nuclear units by the year 2023…We can see that accidents, as in Fukushima, do not [negatively] affect decisions to have and operate nuclear power plants” (Hürriyet Daily News 2012)

This example is particularly interesting to consider now, in June 2013, in light of the ongoing protests that started with a focus on preventing the destruction of a public park in central Istanbul, and which have spread to more than 60 cities and provinces, bringing millions onto the streets against Turkey’s ruling government. The problem confronting rapid growth of nuclear power are not all technological, but also social and political.

Such promises of fast growth are an important mechanism for building elite support. In my book on nuclear energy in India, I argue that one of the sources of political support for the country’s Department of Atomic Energy is the ability to make promises about large increases of nuclear power sometime in the far future (Ramana 2012).

Concluding Thoughts

I will finish with some concluding, and not so well-developed, thoughts.

One striking feature of the above-mentioned patterns of action by the nuclear industry is that they cut across characteristics like the degree of control by the government. The nuclear industry can be, broadly speaking, divided into two categories. In the United States and Japan, followed to some extent in Canada in recent years, the nuclear industry is technically separate from the state. The two leading firms in the United States involved in designing and selling reactors—Westinghouse and General Electric—are competitors with no overt financial relationship to the state. [Their Japanese collaborating companies—Hitachi, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi—are much closer to the government, however.] In several other leading nuclear countries, on the other hand, nuclear vendors and reactor constructors and utilities are public sector companies, owned and controlled by the state. This ranges from Electricite de France and Areva in France to Rosatom in Russia to the various Korean nuclear companies and utilities to the Nuclear Power Corporation and Department of Atomic Energy in India to the CNNC/CGNPC/SNPTC triumvirate in China. Despite this difference, all of these companies seem to have strong parallels in the way they have acted. I think this says something about the modern world, and how many dominant organizations, whether public or private, behave.

Why is nuclear power so attractive to elites? There are two aspects to this question. The first is that even though capitalism does not necessarily need nuclear energy, it does need a large-scale source of power that is virtually inexhaustible if it is to maintain its goals of never-ending economic expansion. For many decades now, coal has played this role. But with increasing concern about climate change, maintaining or expanding coal based electricity production requires increasing PR work, lobbying, and battling protestors.

But neither is nuclear energy incompatible with capitalism. Though there is no dearth of analyses pointing out how nuclear power is uneconomical, including some by me, the nuclear industry has been able to make inroads into multiple countries. The old slogan “too cheap to meter” only goes so far. Why then do countries adopt nuclear power? The first point to note—and this must be all too obvious in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis—is that even if one or more nuclear projects end up being losing propositions, even incurring massive losses, in practically all cases, the losses are borne by the populace at large, not just through higher electricity prices, but also tax incentives, cheap land, and a host of other “subsidies”. Second, the very fact that nuclear power is extremely capital intensive makes it attractive to various sections of society. As projects involving large amounts of capital investment, nuclear power plants and other facilities provide a basis for creating strong alliances and offer a mechanism whereby capital, often borrowed on the international market by the state, can be channeled to various private companies in the form of contracts. Other influential sections of society also benefit. Nuclear power often forms the fulcrum around which several advanced science and technology research programs can be built, with attendant institutions, bureaucracies, careers and yet another circuit of contracts. These are the non-economic benefits—or costs, depending on whose perspective one is taking—that justify investing in expensive nuclear programs. Further, while the profits are in large part privatized, the losses (at least for some key players) are socialized. These profits in the case of some players (e.g. those on the technology production, construction, and servicing end) often come in well before the project starts. Hence, it is not necessary that the project ultimately prove profitable, only that the appropriate decision makers be persuaded that the project is desirable.

A corollary of this kind of analysis is a better understanding of the limits of conventional expert critique. Pointing out that nuclear power is uneconomical does still have its benefits. Apart from the obvious value of lending substance to an often heated debate over the merits or otherwise of nuclear power, highlighting this uneconomic nature of nuclear energy does open up schisms within the capitalist elite, with those sections that do not benefit from nuclear projects being able to utilize this argument for their own ends The fallacy lies in the assumption that once this is done, countries will cease to invest in nuclear power. A similar fallacy is involved in assuming that governments will not build nuclear reactors if it is demonstrated that they come with a irreducible risk of catastrophic accidents that is at heart incalculable. Or that they produce long-lived radioactive wastes. For the ruling elite, these are typically costs that someone else within society will bear.

Yesterday, Noam Chomsky spoke about really existing capitalist democracy, RECD for short—as he has been doing in the past too (Chomsky 2013). He highlighted both the incompatibility of a sustainable future with RECD and how far the world is from textbook definitions of capitalism and democracy. Nuclear power in general, and its trajectory since Fukushima, offers yet another illustration of this schism. In Japan, for example, the vast majority of the population opposes nuclear power, in contrast to a small section of the elite. The fact that the government is doing its utmost to restart nuclear power plants and expand Japanese reactor exports reveals whose preferences are revealed in policy choices, testimony to how far decision making veers from democratic ideals.

The lessons of this history go back to the twinning of the economic and the ecological in the theme of this year’s Left Forum. It strongly suggests that if we are to have an ecological transformation—and I mean transformation, not just some green-washing effort like changing light bulbs to more efficient ones—then it will necessarily need an equally significant economic transformation, one that will radically shift power relations in society.


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Carbonnel, Alissa de. 2012. “Russia Doubles Nuclear Exports Despite Fukushima.” Reuters, March 23.

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1 For example, it now seems likely that the Kaliningrad nuclear power plant, the first to start being constructed in the Baltics since Fukushima, might be abandoned (Ozharovsky 2013).


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