This comment is by Charlotte Dennett, a Burlington-based lawyer, is an author and investigative journalist. His latest book is “Follow the pipelines: uncover the mystery of a lost spy and the deadly politics of the big oil game.” His new website is followthepipelines.com.
His conversation is with Harvey Wasserman, co-author of “Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Energy”, author of “Solartopia” and the upcoming “People’s Spiral of US History”. He also edits nukefree.org.
One day the world (if we survive) will hopefully look back on that war in Ukraine and conclude that it was the last – and possibly the most horrific – energy war in a century.
From World War I to endless wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the contributing role of great power competition for oil, gas and the pipelines that carry energy to markets – and to military machinery – was largely hidden. But not more.
The war in Ukraine propelled the Great Oil and Gas Game into the headlines due to the East-West battle over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline which was to supply Russian gas to Germany and European markets beyond.
No less important to our understanding (and growing horror) is a possible nuclear disaster, made as alarming as possible when Russian forces allegedly bombed the massive Zaporizhzhia plant in southeastern Ukraine. “By the grace of God, the world narrowly avoided a nuclear disaster last night,” the US ambassador to the UN said. The US Embassy in Kiev has accused Russia of commit a war crime by hitting the plant, but tensions eased when the world learned that an administrative building, not the reactor, had been hit and firefighters extinguished the fire.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, none of the plant’s safety systems were affected and no radiation was emitted. But that was cold comfort to Ukrainians living near the dismantled but still radioactive Chernobyl site. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy his nuclear arsenal only adds to already deep global anxiety about the possibility of an accident triggering World War III and a nuclear war.
The morning after the Soviet invasion on February 24, at a time when reporters were talking about raging battles around Chernobyl and Russian military efforts to secure and cover an atomic waste pit at the site, Harvey Wasserman and I had a conversation about the nuclear peril in Ukraine.
Harvey has 50 years of experience writing and researching nuclear energy and is the author of numerous books on the subject, including his upcoming “People’s Spiral of US History.” I have spent the same time researching and writing about the influence of oil, gas and pipelines on the wars of the last century, leading to endless wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan – and now, in Ukraine.
Our conversation started with Ukraine operating not one, not two, but 15 reactors. If one were hit, we would see it become a nuclear bomb of mass destruction, sending clouds of deadly fallout into the ecosphere far beyond the destruction wrought by the American atomic bombs that struck. Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“These reactors are old, cracked, poorly maintained — and incredibly dangerous,” Harvey told me. “Most were built more than 30 years ago, when the Soviet Union still dominated the region.” The largest – in fact, the largest in Europe, with six reactors – is the Zaporizhzhia plant in southeastern Ukraine. (In the United States, he points out, there are no more than three reactors on a site; in Ukraine, there are six.)
Why, you might ask, would Russia risk worldwide condemnation by bombing this massive nuclear reactor? According to Gilbert Doctorowa well-known Russian watcher (and Cumlaud Harvard grad who went on to a business career focused on the USSR and Eastern Europe), Russia’s goal was to keep the plant from falling into the hands of of right-wing radical Ukrainian militias lest they seize fissile material and misuse it.
One has to wonder what would have happened if he had been hit by a stray missile. The result could have been apocalyptic, warns Wasserman, eclipsing what happened at Chernobyl or Japan’s Fukushima power plant. At the very least, a strike at one of the 15 nuclear power plants “could damage the aging control room, emergency power supply or reactor emergency cooling systems. If you don’t have backup power, the whole country could sink. Not to mention the impact of massive radiation releases on Ukrainian citizens.
Tragically, the impact of the Chernobyl reactor explosion (apparently due to faulty design and insufficiently trained personnel) resulted, according to a 2007 study, in almost one million deaths. This, although Chernobyl was once touted as a safe, state-of-the-art reactor when it exploded in 1986. The Chernobyl power plant is about 93 kilometers north of Kiev and very close to the border with the Belarus. (For more on Chernobyl, Harvey recommends a five-part series called “Chernobyl,” available on HBO.)
Ukraine gets 40% of its electricity from its 15 nuclear power plants, which are still serviced and maintained by Russia. For the rest of its electricity needs, Ukraine has relied heavily on Russian natural gas supplied by pipelines that cross the country and also contribute over $2 billion a year to Ukraine’s economy through fees of transit.
The German gas pipeline connection
Germany, unlike Ukraine, decided to shut down all its nuclear power plants following the Fukushima disaster. Germany, under Chancellor Angela Merkel, has turned to Russia for an alternative supply of natural gas.
Enter the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 (N2) pipeline, its construction recently completed after numerous attempts by the United States since 2017 to to prevent this does not happen. The pipeline is owned by Russia but is jointly funded by Russian and European partners, including Shell Oil (which just decided bail out all its investments in Russia). It flows under the Baltic Sea, connecting Russian gas to Germany.
N2 was intended to supply additional cheap Russian gas to Germany and markets across Europe, where gas supplies are at their lowest. This explains Germany’s initial reluctance to join renewed US calls for sanctions against the pipeline, which was recently completed and was awaiting certification from Germany this summer.
Along with Germany, Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy were in favor of Nord Stream 2. Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States opposed it.
Poland and Ukraine both have gas pipelines connecting Russia to Europe. According to Canadian economist John Foster, “They fear Nord Stream 2 will reduce gas volumes and lucrative transit fees through their pipelines.”
Once Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Germany bowed to US pressure for sanctions. The Swiss pipeline builder just turned all its staff. Germany now plans to build two LNG terminals. Unsurprisingly, the United States was send massive supplies of frac gas to Europe.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was surprisingly blunt when he recently characterized Western efforts to circumvent the role of Russia as “an important source of natural gas and oil for European partners. And one of the things we’ve been doing over the past few weeks is to make sure that there are alternatives to Russia, not just to make sure that our friends and allies in Europe continue to be able to keep their economies going and to support their people. , but to ensure that Putin no longer derives sustenance from his economy.
Comparisons with World War I
Our conversation turned to tangled alliances: the NATO powers against Russia, Belarus, Iran and nuclear-armed North Korea, with China and Golf’s country refusing (so far) to take sides. This led us to draw comparisons to the eve of the First World War when, Harvey observed, we saw alliances become a set of “falling dominoesleading to war.
Although many believe that there is still no rational explanation for what caused the First World War, I have argued that the German Berlin-Baghdad railway which pushed eastward towards the oil fields British troops in Iraq and Iran is now seen as a major cause. of the war. “The British wanted to block the railway from crossing Serbia,” I said, as they saw the completed railway (with promising oil concessions from Turkey to Germany on either side of the tracks) as a threat for British oil holdings in the Persian Gulf and their plans to seize oil from Iraq. Seizing Iraq, in fact, was considered a “first-class” war objective, as Iraqi oil was needed to fuel the British Navy, which had converted in 1911 from coal (including Great Britain). Britain had a lot) to more efficient oil (including Britain). didn’t have one.)
We ended our conversation by agreeing that the current war in Ukraine is actually fueled by competition between the world’s biggest oil powers. Their underground battles and lies to the public in order to control fossil fuels – to power their armies as well as their industries, combined with their boasting of nuclear energy as a safe and now clean alternative – have put the world in peril. We agreed that nuclear power plants and pipelines are particularly vulnerable in times of war.
“If Europe’s energy needs were met by wind and solar – which could have been done a long time ago,” Harvey commented, “we wouldn’t have this war in Ukraine.”
As for the military needs of Europe, which continues to depend on oil for fuel, the latest war in Ukraine is a grim harbinger of prolonged human suffering.
“We cannot forget,” I said, “that Germany lost both world wars because its trucks and tanks ran out of gas.” The Russian advance into Ukraine would have been blocked for the same reason.
And US authorities, like Ken Rogoff, a Harvard economist and former economic director of the International Monetary Fund, are now saying that tackling climate change is fine, but reality has to be faced. “The cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline project was perhaps based on sound environmental logic,” he said. writing“but now the timing seems awkward. Measures intended to protect the environment are useless if they lead to strategic weakness.
Trump supporters heavily invested in domestic fracking gas are also stepping up their attacks on Biden’s “anti-fossil fuel” climate policies, with one conservative calling the fighting in Ukraine a ” First Green New Deal War.”
In short, what is happening in Ukraine is a “formula for global catastrophe, both militarily and climatically,” concludes Wasserman. “We can’t let it happen.”