One day, the world (if we survive) will hopefully look back at this war in Ukraine and conclude that it was the last – and possibly the most horrific — energy war of a century. From World War I to the endless wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the contributing role of big power competition for oil, gas and the pipelines that carry the energy to markets — and to military machines — has largely been hidden from view. But no more. The Ukraine war has thrust the Great Game for Oil and Gas into the headlines due to the East-West battle over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was to supply Russian gas to Germany and to European markets beyond.
No less important for our understanding (and mounting horror) is a possible nuclear catastrophe while the war in Ukraine is being fought perilously close to some of the country’s aging 15 reactors, including the dismantled but still- radioactive site at Chernobyl. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy his nuclear arsenal adds to the already deep global angst about the possibility of an accident setting off World War III and nuclear war.
On 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 experience writing and researching nuclear power and is the author of many books on the subject, including his soon-to-be-released "People's Spiral of U.S. History." I’ve spent the same amount of time researching and writing about the influence of oil, gas and pipelines on the wars of the past century, leading up to the endless wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan…and now, Ukraine.
Our conversation began with Ukraine’s operating 15 reactors. If any one of them were hit, we would witness it becoming a nuke of mass destruction, blasting into the eco-sphere clouds of lethal fallout far in excess of the destruction wrought by the US atomic bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“These reactors are old, cracked, undermaintained — and insanely dangerous,” Harvey told me. “Most were built more than 30 years ago, when the Soviet Union still ruled the region.” The largest — in fact, the biggest in EUROPE, with six reactors — is the Zaporizhzhia plant in south-eastern Ukraine. (In the US, he points out, there are no more than 3 reactors at one site; in Ukraine, there are six.)
This huge plant is in easy striking range of the People’s Republic of Donetsz (which is rich in natural gas) and Luhansk, recently recognized as independent by President Putin, and is in the path of the current Russian advance toward Kiev from the south.
What would happen if struck by a stray missile? The result could be apocalyptic, Wasserman warns, dwarfing what happened at Chernobyl or Japan’s Fukushima plant. At the very least, a strike at any of the 15 nuclear plants “could damage the aging control room, back-up power, or the reactors’ emergency cooling systems. “If you have no back-up power, the whole country could go dark.” Not to mention the impact of massive radiation releases on Ukrainian citizens.
Tragically, the impact of the Chernobyl reactor’s explosion(reportedly due to faulty design and inadequately trained personnel)resulted, according to a 2007 study, to almost one million deaths. This, although Chernobyl was once touted as a safe, state-of-the-art reactor when it blew up in 1986. The Chernobyl plant islocated about 93 kilometers north of Kyiv and very close to the border with Belarus. [For more on Chernobyl, Harvey recommends a 5-part series simply titled Chernobyl, available on HBO.]
Ukraine relies on 40 percent of its power from its 15 nuclear plants, which are still being serviced with maintenance and fuel by Russia. For the rest of its power needs, Ukraine has relied heavily on Russian-supplied natural gas supplied by pipelines that traverse the country and also contribute to Ukraine’s economy of over $2 billion annually through transit fees.
The German pipeline connection to the energy war in Ukraine
Germany, unlike Ukraine, decided to close down all its nuclear plants in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, which, Harvey notes, has now run out of storage space for its liquid wastes and will have to dump millions of tons of radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean. Germany, under Chancellor Angela Merkel, looked to Russia for an alternative supply of natural gas.
Enter the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 (N2) pipeline, its construction recently completed after many attempts by the US since 2017 to prevent this from happening. The pipeline, which is owned by Russia but jointly funded by Russian and European partners, most notably Shell Oil (which just decided to bail out of all its investments in Russia) runs beneath the Baltic Sea connecting Russian gas to Germany.
N2 was intended to supply additional cheap Russian gas to Germany and to markets throughout Europe, where gas reserves are at an all-time low. This explains Germany’s initial reluctance to join the US renewed calls for sanctions against the pipeline, which was recently completed and awaited Germany’s certification this summer. Along with Germany,Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy favored Nord Stream 2. Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic States opposed it.
Poland and Ukraine both have gas pipelines crossing from 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 caved to US pressure for sanctions. The Swiss builder of the pipeline just fired all its staff. Germany now plans to build two LNG terminals. Not surprisingly, the US has been sending massive supplies of fracked gas to Europe. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was surprisingly blunt when he recently characterized the West’s efforts to circumvent Russia’s role as “a significant source of natural gas and oil for European partners. And one of the things that we’ve been doing over the past number of weeks is ensuring that there are alternatives to Russia, not just to make sure that our friends and allies in Europe continue to be able to function their economies and support their people, but to make sure that Putin no longer draws sustenance for his economy.”
Comparisons to WWI
Our conversation turned to entangling alliances taking place: NATO powers v. Russia, Belarus, Iran, and nuclear-armed North Korea, with China and Gulf Countries refusing (so far) to take sides, causing us to make comparisons to the eve of WWI when, Harvey observed, we saw alliances become a set of falling dominoes” leading to war. Although many believe that there is still no rational explanation for what caused World War I, I offered that the German-owned Berlin to Baghdad railroad that was pushing east toward British oil holdings in Iraq and Iran is now being seen as a major cause of the war. “The British wanted to block the railroad from passing through Serbia,” I said, “as they saw the completed railroad (with Turkey’s promising oil concessions to Germany on either side of the tracks) as a threat to British oil holdings in the Persian Gulf and their plans to seize the oil of Iraq. Seizing Iraq, in fact, was considered a “first class war” aim, as Iraqi oil was needed to fuel the British navy which had converted from coal in 1911 (of which Britian had plenty) to more efficient oil (of which Britain had none.)
We ended our conversation agreeing that the current war in Ukraine is in fact fueled by competition between the world’s largest petro powers. Their subterranean battles and accompanying lies to the public in order to control fossil fuels — to fuel their militaries as well as their industries –combined with their touting nuclear power as a safe, and now clean alternative, have imperiled the world. We agreed that nuclear plants and pipelines are especially vulnerable in a time of war.
“If Europe’s energy’s needs were provided by wind and solar — which could have been done long ago,” Harvey commented, “we wouldn’t be having this war in Ukraine.”
As for Europe’s military needs, which continue to rely on oil as its fuel, the latest war in Ukraine is a dark harbinger of prolonged human suffering. “We can’t forget,” I offered, “that Germany lost both world wars because its lorries and tanks ran out of gas. The Russian advance into Ukraine was reportedly stalled for the same reason.” And American authorities, like Ken Rogoff, a Harvard economist and former chief economics officer for the IMF, are now saying that fighting climate change is nice, but we have to face reality. “Cancelling the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline may have been based on sound environmental logic,” he writes.” But now the timing seems awkward. Measures intended to protect the environment do little good if they lead to strategic weakness.” Trump supporters heavily invested in domestic fracked gas are also ramping up their attacks on Biden’s “anti-fossil fuel” climate policies, with one conservative calling the fighting in Ukraine “the first war of the Green New Deal.”
In short, what’s happening in Ukraine is a “formula for global catastrophe, in terms of both military and climate,” Wasserman concludes. “We can’t let it happen.”