On the edge of the abyss

Calder Hall was the start of nuclear power. Zaporizhzhia should mark its end

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Personally, I am not a royalist Brit. But I’ve lived long enough in the US to understand the fascination — dare I say obsession — of Americans with the British royal family, much of it falsely romanticized and sugar coated, and of course fodder for addictive dramas and documentaries.

Now there is a new monarch — King Charles III — and one who has not been afraid in the past to speak his mind on all things environmental. We don’t know where Charles stands on nuclear power — and now that he’s king, we likely never will, as his views will be muzzled by protocol and tradition.

However, his mother expressed hers early in her reign when she was just 30 years old. Queen Elizabeth II, who died on September 8 at the age of 96, said then:

“This new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community.”

Those doubtlessly scripted words, at once naively hopeful and wildly delusional, were spoken on the occasion of the official opening on October 17, 1956, of Calder Hall, the world’s first full-scale commercial nuclear power station.

A young Queen Elizabeth II opened the world’s first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant, at Calder Hall, in 1956, praising its potential for “common good”. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This misplaced optimism about the benefits of nuclear power followed on from the immortal and equally mistaken pronouncement in 1954 by then Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Lewis Strauss, who described the future of nuclear energy as “too cheap to meter.”

Queen Elizabeth lived long enough to see that ‘common good’ brutally shattered by the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident; the explosion of Ukraine’s Chornobyl reactor in 1986; and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.  And nuclear power of course turned out to be one of the most expensive ways to boil water.

She has now been spared living through what the rest of us currently fear most — a second nuclear tragedy in Ukraine as fighting persists around the 6-reactor Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, embroiled in the Russia-Ukraine war.

And yet, such horrors have failed to deter most political leaders from clinging to these often deliberate delusions about nuclear power. With the same blindness — and fealty to fossil fuel corporations — that ignored the obvious warnings of climate peril, those who have the power to make change, instead tout similar false mantras about the utility of nuclear power for our ‘common good’.

In her speech of 1956, the Queen did at least acknowledge the evil of nuclear weapons. And it was her uncle-in-law, Lord Mountbatten, who expressed it so forcefully in Strasbourg on 11th May 1979, when he presented the Louise Weiss Foundation Peace Prize to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, known as SIPRI and which is still doing great work today. Mountbatten said then:

“As a military man who has given half a century of active service, I say in all sincerity that the nuclear arms race has no military purpose. Wars cannot be fought with nuclear weapons. Their existence only adds to our perils because of the illusions which they have generated.

“There are powerful voices around the world who still give credence to the old Roman precept – if you desire peace, prepare for war. This is absolute nuclear nonsense and I repeat – it is a disastrous misconception to believe that by increasing the total uncertainty one increases ones own certainty. . .

“. . .The world now stands on the brink of the final abyss.  Let us all resolve to take all possible practical steps to ensure that we do not, through our own folly, go over the edge.

Nuclear power, like nuclear weapons, also adds to our perils because of those same delusions articulated by the young Queen Elizabeth 66 years ago. But now we know better.

The fighting has come far too close to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, putting us on the brink of a catastrophe. (Photo of war in Ukraine by Невідомо/Wikimedia Commons)

Nevertheless, we remain at the edge of that final abyss, our future hanging in the balance not only because of the ever-present danger of nuclear weapons, still not abolished, and the devastation of the climate crisis, but also as we face the imminent possibility of yet another nuclear power catastrophe and once more in Ukraine.

Last week, even as we breathed a welcome sigh of relief as a second backup power line was reconnected to the embattled six-reactor Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, we knew that the worst could still happen. 

It wouldn’t take much, anything from a prolonged loss of power and the failure of backup diesel generators, to a missile strike or bomb resulting in a radioactive conflagration. Even if cooler heads prevail at the leadership level, the chaos on the ground and in the urban battlefields could lead to an errant or even deliberate rogue act of sabotage with dire consequences.

In the meantime, tradition misses not a single beat in the UK, even as those who choose to exercise their right to speak freely and object to the perpetuation of a monarchy are roughed up by onlookers and hauled away by members of the UK police force, a worrying trend no matter what the topic.

But whether we like the monarchy or not, we can perhaps empathize with Charles, who was long labeled a looney for warning of the consequences of our reckless destruction of the environment and for early on championing solar energy, organic farming, and even the preservation of hedgerows.

“We are faced at this moment with the horrific effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms,” said Prince Charles in 1970. People laughed and dismissed him. But it turns out, he, like the rest of us unhappy Cassandras, was right all along.

Today, he is listened to more seriously, whether speaking at the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow at the end of 2021, where he declared that “Nature is our best teacher,” or in Canada earlier this year, where he urged political leaders to work with “indigenous knowledge-keepers” to “restore harmony with nature”.

King Charles III may reign, but he cannot rule. Officially, he has no actual power. But then, nor do we. All we can do is keep speaking truth to it. Because Zaporizhzhia is the most urgent reason we have yet faced to end the nuclear age, an era that the British Queen helped usher in.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

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