Will the invasion of Ukraine revive the debate on nuclear weapons?

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought many issues to the fore. Questions that for many, myself included, had lain somewhat dormant for years, losing their edge as the world went on without addressing their contentious nature. Two of the issues I have in mind are interrelated, nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

The baby boomer generation, of which I am a part, was the first generation to grow up with the existential threat to life on earth posed by nuclear weapons. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened when I was in sixth grade. I went back to school after lunch one day not knowing if we would be home for supper. What if the Russian ships that were to reach the American blockade that afternoon did not turn back. What if that led to a nuclear war, the war we trained for, learning to hide under our desks.

This anxiety peaked in the 1980s, as the nuclear arms race escalated, and the grim reality of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) was on many minds. Peace marches proliferated in Canada as opposition grew to the testing of cruise missiles on Canadian soil. The documentary If you love this planet, by Dr. Helen Caldicott, has been widely seen. There have been municipal referenda declaring nuclear weapon free zones, thanks to the work of Operation Dismantle.

And then in late 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik to discuss a possible nuclear arms reduction treaty. Hope was in the air. There has been talk of completely abolishing nuclear weapons. The Reykjavik summit failed, but not entirely. This led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty of 1987, which arguably seemed to be reassuring enough that the widespread sense of urgency had waned. Except for those who remained attentive. The power to commit MAD remained. But the end of the Cold War soon after brought even more comfort.

Until Vladimir Putin also directly threatens the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal against those who might seriously consider seriously hampering his plans for Ukraine.

The 1980s were also a time of great concern and debate about the merits and dangers of nuclear energy. The partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania occurred in 1979, and the meltdown of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine occurred in April 1986. Both events added from urgency to debate. In Canada, there has been a lively debate not only about nuclear power, but also about uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal. For my part, one of my private member’s motions calling for a moratorium on all new development of nuclear energy in Canada was debated and defeated in 1985.

Somehow, for various reasons, in the 1990s, the nuclear energy debate died down. At the same time, concerns about global warming and climate change have taken center stage in the minds of those concerned with the environment and sustainability from the human perspective. For some, the need to reduce carbon emissions argued for more nuclear power, but the debate itself continued to simmer rather than boil.

In 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought nuclear energy back to the fore in at least two ways. Initially, it was brought back by supporters of nuclear energy. They were eager to point out that Germany’s dependence on Russian gas exports was the result of an allegedly misguided exit from nuclear power. But a few days is a long time in environmental policy. Germany did not break ranks with NATO. On the contrary, it unexpectedly changed a long-standing rule on the export of German military equipment. Then the world held its breath at the prospect of a nuclear meltdown at Ukraine’s largest nuclear facility following a fire caused by Russian artillery. In fact, the reactor Zaporizhia would be the largest reactor in Europe, much larger than the Chernobyl reactor. The possibility of a dangerously radioactive Europe was narrowly avoided. The fire broke out in a nearby training building.

Whatever happens in the weeks and months to come, I hope that recent events will reinvigorate the nuclear weapons abolition movement and reservations about the wisdom of nuclear energy.

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