Editor’s note: The Conversation Canada asked our academic authors to share some recommended reading. In this instalment, MV Ramana, a nuclear physicist and disarmament expert who wrote about small nuclear reactors, looks at a mix of new and recent books on nuclear disaster, weapons, authoritarianism and climate change.
Leading Japan Through the Fukushima Disaster to a Nuclear-Free Future
By Naoto Kan. Translated from Japanese by Jeffrey S. Irish. (Non-fiction. Hardcover, 2017. Cornell University Press.)
On March 11, 2011, following a massive earthquake and tsunami, nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan, lost electrical power and all cooling systems stopped functioning. The malfunction led to meltdowns of three reactor cores, and multiple explosions involving hydrogen gas that were seen live around the world.
The resulting radioactive contamination spread over a large area, and forced the evacuation of about 160,000 people from their homes, many of whom still cannot return because their neighbourhoods continue to have unacceptably high levels of radiation. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people are expected to develop fatal cancers as a result of exposure to radiation from the accident.
Naoto Kan was the prime minister of Japan during this critical period and this book, published in Japanese in 2012 and newly available in English, offers his inside perspective of how events unfolded at the highest levels.
Kan reveals how little even powerful individuals and institutions like him and the government can do in the face of a major nuclear accident. If a society like Japan that is so well-prepared for natural disasters like earthquakes is unable to deal with a severe nuclear accident like Fukushima, there is little doubt that no country would have been able to do much better.
Kan’s account is testimony of the prevalence of the safety myth: the comforting but illusionary idea that technology can prevent nuclear accidents. Sadly, that myth continues to prevail not just in Japan but in most countries that are operating or constructing nuclear power plants.
Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
By Eric Schlosser (Non-fiction. Paperback, 2014. Penguin.)
The Damascus accident started when a missile technician dropped a socket from a socket-wrench while servicing a Titan II inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) in a silo in rural Arkansas. The socket hit the missile, puncturing its outer layer, causing a fuel leak that eventually sparked a powerful explosion that engulfed and propelled out of the silo the multi-megaton thermonuclear warhead. Fortunately, the warhead itself did not explode.
The Sept. 18, 1980, incident was just one of the many close calls involving nuclear weapons that the world has experienced. Going through these experiences, it’s hard to attribute the fact that there have been no accidental nuclear explosions to anything but blind luck.
Eric Schlosser, an award-winning American journalist and author, has produced a very readable account of accidents and near-misses, as well as the decades-long history of trying to control these risks through technological and institutional fixes.
Command and Control reminds us of the extraordinary danger posed by the large nuclear arsenals possessed by many countries around the world — most importantly, the United States and Russia.
At a time when Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un are trading aggressive rhetoric and increasing tensions in East Asia and elsewhere, this book raises a further warning: The mere existence of nuclear arsenals — even during periods of low political tension — brings with them the risk of nuclear weapon use, deliberately or inadvertently, along with horrendous consequences.
A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation
By Harold A. Feiveson, Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, Frank N. von Hippel (Non-fiction. Hardcover, 2014. MIT Press.)
The threat of nuclear warfare with North Korea, thanks to the posturing by Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, makes me, like many others, ponder the question of how to rid the world of these hugely destructive weapons.
In contrast to proposals for nuclear disarmament that focus on diplomacy and international relations, this book by four physicists at Princeton University (my former colleagues) offers a more technical road map for nuclear disarmament: Namely, through the control and elimination of highly enriched uranium and plutonium — the fissile materials that are the essential ingredients of all nuclear weapons.
The connection is laid out in the introduction of the book: “If we are to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons, we must deal with the dangers posed by the production, stockpiling, and use of fissile materials. Unmaking the bomb requires eliminating the fissile materials that make nuclear weapons possible.”
Unmaking the Bomb provides useful background material for the present crisis in East Asia by presenting some of the most reliable publicly available information on the nuclear facilities in North Korea and the United States (as well as the eight other countries confirmed to possess nuclear weapons) and the best independent estimates of their stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.
It also reminds us that most nuclear programs grow by borrowing technology from other states, and that the acquisition of nuclear technology for supposedly civilian purposes can be a stepping stone to a nuclear weapons program.
Secular Claims, Communal Realities
By Achin Vanaik (Non-fiction. Hardcover, 2017. Verso Books.)
The last few years have seen victories by right wing, authoritarian political parties and leaders in multiple countries. The same phenomenon in India, the “world’s largest democracy,” should be — and is — cause for worry.
In 1998, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power for the first time (if one discounts a brief stint in 1996), one of its earliest decisions was to test nuclear weapons, which has since led to well over a billion people living under a nuclear shadow.
The year before the BJP’s rise, Achin Vanaik’s book, The Furies of Indian Communalism: Religion, Modernity, and Secularization, was published. Vanaik — a writer, social activist, former professor at the University of Delhi, and Delhi-based fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam — has now updated and expanded that work significantly.
In this updated edition, he traces the transformation of the BJP from a relatively fringe position on the political spectrum to becoming the dominant national-level party replacing the Congress, and implanting itself and its ideology “in the country’s structures and institutions.”
The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism not only explores in great detail the growing communalization of the political arena and civil society, it also delineates what an oppositional and transformative project might look like.
Climate Change and the Unthinkable
By Amitav Ghosh (Non-fiction. Cloth, 2016. University of Chicago Press.)
Climate change has rightly come to be seen as one of the greatest challenges — if not the single greatest challenge — confronting the world today. There is an endless stream of academic papers and books, reports by local, national and international bodies, newspaper stories and documentaries on the subject. And yet climate change has appeared only sparingly in the world of fiction and literature.
It is the curious absence of climate change in these latter genres that novelist and writer Amitav Ghosh explored in a series of lectures delivered at the University of Chicago, which were subsequently published in the form of this book.
Ghosh traces this literary absence to “peculiar forms of resistance that climate change presents to what is now regarded as serious fiction,” but then goes on to explore the histories of imperialism, colonialism and capitalism that have brought humanity to what he terms “the Great Derangement.”
Reading this book makes it clear, at least to me, that climate change is not a problem that can be dealt with through some clever technological inventions or some neat-looking financial instrument, but will require us to fundamentally reshape our economic, political and international structures.