Many of us growing up believed that we would see a nuclear holocaust in our lifetime. We lay in bed at night worrying about it, and it was almost a relief when the 1983 apocalyptic film The day after aired on national television and everyone started talking openly about the problem. Images of the mushroom cloud were everywhere. I remember a ubiquitous – and retrospectively odd – bumper sticker that said, “You can’t hug a kid with nukes. The clumsy pun contained a poignant message: the impossibility of nurturing life in the death drive culture represented by all things nuclear.
Today, this death drive culture still feels like it is rushing towards the apocalypse, but the engine of destruction is different. We have strong scientific reasons to believe that while nuclear war would always be a mass extinction catastrophe – so nuclear disarmament remains an important long-term goal – the climate crisis is much more of a present and future threat to life on earth than nuclear energy. is likely to be.
There were very real safety issues with nuclear power plants. But the factories are much safer than they used to be, thanks to better technology and improved procedures. Even taking into account the problems of the past, the climate crisis has already had a far more devastating impact on life on this planet. The Chernobyl accident may have killed fewer than 50 people; the famous heartbreaking accident in Fukushima in 2011 caused no casualties; and only three people died from a radioactive leak at a US nuclear power plant (and that was in 1961). The climate crisis has already killed far more animal species, caused far more human death and disease, and wreaked far more havoc on our economies and daily lives around the world. A 2013 study found that when it replaced fossil fuels, the use of nuclear energy prevented more than 1.8 million deaths from air pollution and, due to emissions of carbon it was avoiding, had the potential to avert some seven million additional deaths by mid-century.