a response to anthony: the marshall islands and the dangers of nuclear neoimperialism

by labeeb hussain, 2nd year politics and international relations at LSE

US atomic bomb hits Marshall Islands. Courtesy of Library of Congress

US atomic bomb hits Marshall Islands. Courtesy of Library of Congress

“Any environmentalist should support nuclear..”. In the winter edition of earthrise, Anthony implored his readers to “be pro nuclear”, stressing zero carbon dioxide emissions, smooth energy generation through nuclear fission and, its place as the statistically safest energy source. In an ideal world, the positive impacts of nuclear energy would and should be welcomed. But in reality, the build rate of nuclear power stations is insufficient, and three stations are being scrapped in two months due to crisis levels of cost. The prohibitive cost of generating nuclear energy appears to be more than slightly more expensive than fossil fuels”.

The question then arises - are the acknowledged associated financial costs worth the possibility of zero  carbon dioxide emissions and smooth energy generation? Even taking into account its relative safety, it remains true that whilst fatalities may be on average less frequent, when they do occur e.g. Fukushima and Chernobyl, the magnitude is serious.

But Anthony did not address the socio-political implications of nuclear energy. At its worst, nuclear testing can manifest as neo-imperialism. For a stretch of twelve years during the early Cold War, the United States carried out 67 nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands. On average, the impact of these are similar to the magnitude of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs - every day for twelve years. Following the Second World War, the United Nations ceded sovereignty of the Marshall Islands to the United States, in the form of a “strategic trusteeship” - the only one of its kind granted to this day. Despite the United States professing benevolent intentions and possessing a supposed duty of care, this has not stopped continued forced relocation, a widespread cancer epidemic from the nuclear fallout and an almost complete erasure of the local culture of the Marshallese people.

Although there is no direct link between what was exploitation for strategic imperial purposes in Marshall Islands and nuclear energy, the proliferation of an energy source with the potential to inflict significant damage in war leads to perverse incentives. Despite all the evident benefits of peaceful nuclear generation, increased investment in the area, arguably at the cost of developing other renewable technologies, has significant scope for great power capture. There are manifold other sources of clean energy that do not possess costs of (potential) conflict, and many with much more manageable clean up in the event of a significant catastrophe.

Ultimately, even if the shortcomings of nuclear energy can be attributed to a lack of political will than an inherent ecological danger in the technologies themselves, the potential for this power to be misappropriated and the subsequent harms for human lives is serious - and avoidable. Until considerable developments in the disposal of nuclear waste and neutralisation of security risks can be achieved, focusing on alternative renewable sources appears to be an overall safer, less expensive and more efficient direction for environmental progress.