Uranium

 

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This month my new book, Uranium, was published by Polity Press, Cambridge, in their Series: Resources. Purchase from Polity :: Amazon :: The Book Depository :: Readings

‘A refreshing and highly readable analysis that takes a broad historic look at the discovery and exploitation of uranium and the moral, political and strategic questions to which its development has given rise.’
—Angela Kane, Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation

‘In this significant work, Anthony Burke traces the generative powers of a formidable metal that has shaped world politics in profound ways. Highlighting the toxic and dangerous effects of uranium through its entire production chain and failed attempts to control its uses, Burke makes an urgent humanitarian argument for nuclear disarmament.’
Shampa Biswas, Whitman College

 

∼ From Chapter 1: The Politics of Uranium

The names Hiroshima and Fukushima have a sinister rhyme. When considered together, they are stark historical bookends to Japan’s tragic experience of nuclear energy since 1945: at Hiroshima, one of only two explosions of a nuclear weapon in warfare, and at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the second worst nuclear accident in modern history. Two generations of Japanese, separated by half a century, had experienced the most feared outcomes of the military and industrial exploitation of a dull grey ore: uranium. This substance—whose atomic qualities enabled scientists to unlock the reactions that power the stars—has changed, secured and threatened the world, and continues to reverberate through its geopolitics.

As the heaviest (and most atomically unstable) naturally occurring chemical element on earth, uranium has won a unique place in the global politics of resources. Highly enriched shells of this metal sit inside the nose cones of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, promising enormous destruction and mortality should they ever be used. Formed into rods, it sits inside more than 430 electric power stations around the world, partially fulfilling a promise to unlock plentiful sources of energy for peaceful use by humankind, whilst opening up new dilemmas of nuclear safety, proliferation, terrorism and disposal. In other applications, the fission of uranium is used to create a range of radioactive substances used in medical imaging and treatment, while one of its fission products—plutonium—is used both in nuclear weapons and to power interplanetary spacecraft. In short, uranium is powerful and ironic. Put into the hands of doctors, scientists, technicians, soldiers and strategists, uranium saves lives and provides security, at the same time as it imperils human life and security on a planetary scale.

Uranium is controversial even before it is put to use in energy, military and medical applications. Protest movements, court cases, national inquiries and international treaties have been fuelled by the environmental impact of its mining, the safety and health challenges for mine workers, the costs to indigenous landowners and communities, and the security implications of its sale and export. These costs, wrongs and conflict triggers are absent from the nuclear non-proliferation regime—the structure of global governance designed to control nuclear dangers—yet are no less central to the politics of this extraordinary mineral. From the time uranium was first identified as a crucial military resource, its strategic importance has driven national efforts to find it, exploit it, and control it—especially to control its use, production and trade.

This book focuses on these struggles around the production, acquisition, enrichment and control of uranium as a resource, while also expanding to consider the ways it has had a major impact on the global geopolitics, and governance, of energy and security. These two levels of struggle are in fact tightly interlinked: desires for national security through nuclear weapons drove the first phases of uranium exploitation and trade; then, with the ‘Atoms for Peace’ program and the ensuing growth of the nuclear power industry, nuclear energy took over as a major driver of demand. The potential for the diversion of highly enriched uranium from peaceful to weapons uses remains a major concern in the non-proliferation and ‘nuclear security’ regime—shaping debates around Iran’s nuclear programme and the ethics of uranium sales to India, motivating calls for international control over the enrichment and sale of uranium through the establishment of an international ‘fuel bank’, and driving efforts to conclude a global Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) to end the production of weapons-grade uranium and assist efforts to control the illegal trade in fissile materials.

Uranium is also big business. The involvement of some of the world’s largest corporations in the mining, nuclear power and weapons industries has generated considerable political pressures, dangers and regulatory challenges. Nuclear energy has been touted by business lobbies (and some scientists) as a promising source of carbon-free electricity as the dangers of global climate change become the focus of governments around the world, but the reactor meltdowns at Fukushima in 2011 have tainted this promise and renewed attention to questions of safety, regulation and disposal. It even led some countries to commit to phasing out nuclear power altogether. At the same time, fears of transnational terrorism and the long-appreciated dangers of nuclear war have led the leaderships of four major nuclear powers—the US, UK, France and Russia—to proclaim a goal of total nuclear disarmament over the next few decades. However optimism is premature. This goal not only creates complex new strategic and regulatory challenges; it occurs amid new political and proliferation pressures that may render the disarmament enterprise stillborn.

Uranium: a strategic substance

Uranium is a metal and a pure chemical element—that is, one of the fundamental units of matter, listed 92 in the Periodic Table of Elements. A chemical element is a substance containing a single type of atom, and the periodic table lists them in ascending order of atomic number—the number of protons in the nucleus. Uranium is high on the periodic table, having an atomic number of 92 in its naturally occurring form, causing it to decay naturally into other elements over time. This decay is termed radioactivity, and is what made uranium especially attractive to physicists seeking to investigate atomic structures and induce nuclear fission. Uranium is also naturally abundant in comparison to its other ‘heavy’ radioactive cousins, many of which are only present in trace quantities. It is as common in the earth’s crust as zinc or tin, and is present in much smaller concentrations in most rocks and in the oceans. It was these fundamental chemical qualities that laid the ground for uranium’s strategic and world-transforming importance, when the obscure investigations of quantum physicists merged, in the 1930s and 1940s, with the ambitions and insecurities of states and the cascade into global war.

It is sobering to consider, that aside from the final days of the Allied war with Japan, uranium weapons were not used in World War II and instead, shaped the cultural, strategic and political architecture of the Cold War, and beyond. In fact the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima have been referred to as the opening blows of the Cold War, given that they were used there as much to intimidate the Soviet Union and preclude them from the occupation of Japan as to induce a rapid Japanese surrender. Yet imagine the vast landscape of devastation had the weapons been available to the belligerent powers a few years earlier—which they almost were! The physicist Enrico Fermi and his Rome group successfully conducted nuclear fission in 1934—but failed to recognise it as such—four years before the nuclear chain reaction was decisively identified in Germany, immediately triggering widespread consideration of its military implications. Consider that atomic bombs were produced less than four years after the 1939 publications that confirmed nuclear fission: what would have occurred if Fermi had recognised the true import of his discovery? Might atomic bombs have been used in desperation against London, Paris and Moscow, or in France and Poland as allied forces surged towards Germany in 1944? Would they then have been used in retaliation? The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that there was no ‘nuclear taboo’ in place at that time, and showed the human and physical devastation that would occur when military exhaustion, desperation and perceptions of strategic advantage coalesced. Would the Cold War arms race then have been averted, as the world pondered the scale of the devastation, or accelerated, as they sought to outrun its next wave?

A troubled decade

The devastating tsunamis that hit Japan on 11 March 2011 crowned a decade of global tumult and fears over the potentials of nuclear energy.  The decade began with a bold series of demands for nuclear security and disarmament from the 190 members of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), saw the same ‘review’ conference in 2005 deteriorate into a brutal stalemate without progress, and concluded with nuclear tests by North Korea, frantic diplomatic efforts to forestall an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, deadlock in the US Congress over a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, and the tragedy of Fukushima. There, two tsunamis up to 15 metres in height overwhelmed the power station’s protections, killing all electricity to two reactors and seriously damaging the other four. Cooling systems broke down, fuel rods melted, and three of the reactor housings exploded, releasing 17 million curies of radiation into the air and 0.127 million curies into the sea. By 12 April, Japan’s Nuclear Safety and Industrial Agency of Japan had rated the disaster a 7, a ‘major accident’ highest on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). This was the same rating given to the comparably more devastating accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986. Fukushima Daiichi was the thirty-third serious accident at a nuclear power plant since 1952.

Earlier in the decade, as the 2000 NPT Review Conference set out a 13-point path to global disarmament, American nuclear strategists were reviving old dreams of making nuclear weapons usable, while  new concerns over the proliferation of uranium supplies and technology to “rogue states” such as Iraq, Libya, Iran and North Korea came to the fore. While Iraq proved to have abandoned its weapons programme, and Libya agreed to end its efforts and open its facilities to international scrutiny, Iran and North Korea pushed on, citing concerns about their future energy and national security. The 2010 NPT Review conference then revived hopes in global nuclear disarmament and governance with a 64-point action plan, hopes which by 2016 were rapidly dissipating.

The decade also bridged important challenges to uranium miners and governments from indigenous people. In the late 1990s, the Mirrar Aboriginal tribe of Queensland’s Kakadu World Heritage Area opposed plans to build a new uranium mine at Jabiluka, forcing its mothballing, while in April 2011, as the Fukushima disaster reached its full height, two Navajo communities in New Mexico presented their case against the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s grant of a licence for two uranium mines on their lands to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Navajo, who had worked in numerous mines in the region during the Cold War, were especially conscious of the contamination of their lands and ongoing health problems such as birth defects, cancer and heart disease. Here, the demand for uranium cuts across international law, the conflict with national law over resources and land rights, and the power that states have over indigenous peoples by virtue of dispossession and the legal expropriation of their lands.

This is a book about the world that uranium has helped to bring about: the discovery of its distinctive atomic properties in parallel with two world wars and the rapid development of quantum physics as a field; the global race to find, control, and exploit its mineral reserves; the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and strategic plans for their use, which has had such a dramatic effect on the landscape of global insecurity; the growth of nuclear electric power, and its complicated interrelation with questions of proliferation and climate change; and the profound moral questions raised by a situation in which the very life of humanity and planet Earth have been put into peril for a few states’ national security. It also looks ahead, to consider the futures of conflict, disarmament, or proliferation that coming decades may bring, and to consider how adequate our current thinking and regulatory systems are to cope with future nuclear dangers.

The book thus addresses both uranium, and the nuclear applications, potentials and dangers its exploitation has helped to bring about, and refers to a range of related substances (such as plutonium, thorium, hydrogen, and tritium) that atomic and weapons research has produced and utilised. The book is also widely concerned with the historical, social, ethical and political impacts that these substances have had, beyond the traditional concerns with energy and security. Energy and security are certainly important, but are understood too narrowly. This limits our ability to understand and appreciate how different uses and histories of the resource are linked together, and the variety of challenges and wrongs with which it is associated. Debates about nuclear energy focus around electricity prices, renewable energy and climate change, but rarely touch on the ecological and social impact of uranium mining. A similar problem haunts the nuclear non-proliferation regime, which grants states a basic right to civilian uses of nuclear energy with limited international oversight, and is mainly concerned to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, technology, and weapons-grade fissionable materials. This lack of international oversight was arguably a factor in the Fukushima tragedy. In a different way, the lingering damage to the health and human rights of indigenous peoples and other communities from nuclear testing and mining is a moral silence at the heart of the regime; it is not seen as relevant to international security.

This book is not written primarily as a theoretical or even academic work. However a theoretical strand can be traced through its overall narrative. The book is informed by a hybrid of structuralist and ‘new materialist’ ways of thinking about how matter and things are taken up by societies and transform them. This perspective sees matter—such as uranium—as having a raw materiality and agency that acts on the world, in a way that that resists, frustrates and channels human intentions. Uranium is an actant, in Bruno Latour’s terms. Uranium’s radioactivity, its heavy and unstable nucleus, and its ubiquity in the earth’s crust, are facts that enable it to do things and make a difference. At the same time, ideas—formal and informal knowledges, natural and social sciences, ideologies, cultural practices, even emotions—also shape the encounter that society has with matter, and especially shape how it is transformed into technology and integrated into social, economic and political systems. Consider the equation that was discovered by Albert Einstein, which expresses the enormous reserves of energy contained in even small amounts of matter: E=Mc2, energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. The discovery of this equation, even as it expressed an important scientific fact, was quickly absorbed into our politics and our concepts. Our ideas, our culture and our politics strongly shaped how uranium would be utilised and exploited, while its actancy often troubled and frustrated those very uses. That is why there have been such intense ethical and political controversies over technological developments associated with nuclear weapons and energy, and why it is so mistaken to believe that technologies—even weapons—are neutral tools that we can wield and shape to our will. This kind of critical thinking about the relationship between ideas, science and matter has thus become influential in Science and Technology Studies.

In short, there was nothing inevitable about the joining of uranium and geopolitics. There was nothing inevitable about the transformation of an obscure mineral into the engine of fearsome weapons, a global electricity industry, or a problem for international law. Nor was there anything inevitable about the distinctive ways that uranium was transformed into these things. In a different world—one less predisposed to war, and better organised to prevent conflict and control the evolution of technological systems ethically—uranium may have been used solely for medical applications. Uranium can only be used for bombs in a world where bombs and strategic theories for their use exist, such as the airpower theory of Guilio Douhet—which advocated attacking citizens and cities as the basis of enemy morale. At the birth of the nuclear age, in 1945, developed notions of nuclear deterrence did not exist; rather they evolved slowly over the next four decades, in competition with other perspectives that saw the weapons as useful in warfare. Matter and society interact in complex and unpredictable ways, and are not always susceptible to instrumental control. As I have argued elsewhere, the confidence of nuclear strategists that they could control and harness the awesome power of the atom for strategic purposes foundered on both the geopolitical dynamics they set into play, and the unprecedented properties of atomic weapons themselves. This could happen, in part, because they forgot that there was ‘a troubled universe of decisions between equation, conception, production and use’.

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