Left Atomics: A Call for Rediscussion of Nuclear Energy

Anti-nuclear power sentiment among the socialist and progressive Left in the developed world has been ubiquitous. Long time Marxist David Walters offers a counter-argument …

David Walters is a founding member and director of the Marxist Internet Archive, where, among other things, he serves as a member of the steering committee and Administrator of the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive. He is a member of IBEW local 1245 in Pittsburgh PA, and has worked in the power industry (natural gas, not nuclear) for 22 years. He recently launched the blog Left Atomics as a forum for “left activists: socialists, progressives, Marxists, etc., who believe that nuclear energy can be a positive force for humanity.”

by David Walters

Anti-nuclear power sentiment among the socialist and progressive Left in the developed world has been ubiquitous. Calls for the shutting down of nuclear power plants has been part and parcel of every platform for most groups since the 3 Mile Island incident in the U.S. in 1979. After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, “most groups” and most of progressive thought have been firmly anti-nuclear energy.

In the 28 years since 3 Mile Island and the 21 years since the Chernobyl incident few groups have re-examined their views or considered the history and development of nuclear energy since. Some of us have reconsidered, and believe it is time to do that. We would like to report on the current state of affairs to the community at large.

The opening paragraph above needs some comment. It is mentioned that anti-nuclear sentiment dominates Left thought in the developed, industrialized “West”. This, however, is not the case in developing countries. It is dominant only in those countries with strong economies, that is, in the imperialist countries. Our words, therefore, are aimed at them more than anyone else.

Issues

After 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl occurred, it appeared to be the death knell for those state and private concerns supporting or developing nuclear power. In reality, the research and development into nuclear fission as a source for energy accelerated. While some nuclear projects were cancelled around the world because of Chernobyl, many others continued to completion, then they were fuelled with uranium fuel, and went on line.

It is important to note that the industry as a whole did not slink away after these incidents. Quite the contrary, they addressed the issues concerning how these incidents took place and there have been none of that sort since. Nuclear designers, engineers and workers learned and found solutions to what caused these problems so they would not happen again. Thereafter there has been a virtually unblemished record of power production done safely, cheaply and without threats to the public. The record for nuclear power, across the board, is generally better than any other form of electrical energy production in the world today.

Our starting point for this statement are the following 4 items:

  • The worldwide, social need for nuclear power has changed dramatically since the 1980s.
  • As socialists, we need to deal with technological reality as it has developed in the last 30 years.
  • We need to reverse our opposition to nuclear power and instead support its development.
  • We need to oppose its privatisation and support its nationalization where it is private as part of state-owned, transparently regulated, nationalized energy monopoly for the sake of economically building of power plants and for their safety.

As of 2007, there are 440 working commercial nuclear power plants in the world, 103 of them in the United States. The term “commercial” means the production of electrical energy as the primary purpose. There are at least 700 other reactors whose primary purpose is not electrical production but rather for the propulsion for military naval craft, nuclear weapons development, or scientific research and development.

In the last 2 years the media has been running articles on the renaissance of nuclear power. Many countries, including the United States, have seen applications for increasing the world-wide inventory of commercial reactors by almost 20%. In the U.S., there are now 31 proposals for “Construction and Operating Licenses” before the Department of Energy for new nuclear plants, all of them additional reactors to existing nuclear facilities. China and India have plans to quadruple the number of nuclear plants they presently have to meet their incredible projections for economic growth. Japan and China are currently building a half dozen plants between them.

Socialists need to understand what nuclear power is, how to confront the issue, what it means and develop a response to this growth in nuclear power specifically and the needs for developing new sources of energy in general.

The 3rd Generation of Reactors

All but a few of the working nuclear plants in the world today are called “Generation II” plants. These plants were designed in the 1960s and 1970s and came on line in the 1970s and 1980s with a few later in the 1990s. These plants were designed as commercial plants. The Generation I plants, the 1950s variety, were generally submarine reactors taken from these vessels and placed in confinement domes to be run commercially. These military derivative reactors were small, and mostly not suited for commercial base-load production.

Because of 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl, the industry globally responded not by coming up with a hodgepodge of quick fixes to these incidents, but rather invented completely new designs.
These third-generation reactors have:

  • a standardized design for each type to expedite licensing, reduce capital cost and reduce construction time,
  • a simpler and more rugged design, making them easier to operate and less vulnerable to operational upsets,
  • higher availability and longer operating life, typically 60 years and running 90% of the time or better,
  • reduced possibility of core melt accidents,
  • minimal effect on the environment,
  • higher burn-up to reduce fuel use and the amount of waste,
  • burnable absorbers (“poisons”) to extend fuel life and eliminate any possibility of military use.

The greatest departure from second-generation designs is that any incorporate passive or inherent safety features* which require no active controls or operational intervention to avoid accidents in the event of malfunction, and may rely on gravity, natural convection or resistance to high temperatures.


*[Footnote] Traditional reactor systems employed the uranium nuclear chain reaction operating below the “critical” level. A control system was therefore essential to keep the reaction from running away toward a bomb-like condition. Some safety systems were “active” in the sense that they involved electrical or mechanical operation on command. Other systems operate passively, e.g., pressure relief valves. Both required parallel, redundant systems to reduce the chances of control failure. An inherent or fully passive safety system depends only on the laws of physical phenomena such as convection, gravity or resistance to high temperatures to prevent a run away condition.


The industry has to be able to sell these new reactors to a sceptical public. Even with the very good record of the older generation II reactors that are online now, people understandably want even safer plants. The engineers, in our opinion, who have designed the new generation III plants have done just that.Pollution and Global Warming

All countries, with the exception of France, rely on the burning of fossil fuel, mostly coal, followed by natural gas and oil for their electrical energy needs. Some countries rely on the extensive use of hydro-electrical power (Ecuador, Venezuela, Nepal), but these are exceptions. The infrastructure that delivers these fossil fuels is itself polluting (albeit much of this can be addressed by engineering) through processing, spills, leaks, dust, cave ins, etc. It is no longer a subject of debate that burning of fossil fuels itself is the major cause for climate change today through the discharge of CO2. We intend to emphasize the facts as they relate to nuclear power’s virtually zero emissions all of any pollution: CO2, carbon-monoxide, carbon and fly ash particulates, mercury and uranium (a major by-product of burning coal), and the nagging questions surrounding waste disposal and the front-end pollution and human costs of mining fertile and fissile materials.

Our view on nuclear power is that it is the only base-load energy available that is non-polluting, can provide for global economic growth, and provide the power needed to fuel the abundance we will have under socialism.

Base load is what constitutes the basic source of bulk energy for any nation’s grid. There are only two choices now that can cheaply provide the hundreds of thousands of megawatts for current and future growth: coal or nuclear. Society must make the best choice. Wind, solar, both now and for the foreseeable future, are incapable of providing reliable and cheap power to the world. We are prepared to discuss these issues and more with you.

Left Atomics, 2007

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nada
9 years 4 months ago

Jeff, Greenpeace is notoriusly wrong on their analysis. It is not true that the only reactors of the Gen III type are in Tawain…and in fact the ABWR are really Gen II 1/2 but we can leave that for another time…the Japanese as I previously noted installed two UNDER budget and AHEAD of schedule. But…it’s totally bad science to base any of this on one or two units. One needs to see the trend, see what corrections are made, etc on a series of the same type of unit to really get a handel on the cost in terms of overuns.We should, under scrutiny, watch to see all 50 or so plants that are immediatly planned or under construction now and see how they come in. The Chinese are building their nuclear plants NOW and have orders for 2 types of Gen III plants (Areva and Westhinghouse). We should see how these state owned utilities are able to implement these technologies. There is no stopping this now, we need to look at all the postive and negative aspects that flow from these new builds.David Waltersleftatomics.blogspot.com

Jeff White
9 years 4 months ago

A new Greenpeace report, released May 3, 2007, entitled The Economics of Nuclear Power examines the reasons behind the huge delays and cost over-runs which are common to nuclear power construction projects, and concerns over safety and reliability of new technology, concluding: * that in country after country nuclear construction has gone massively over budget; * that long construction periods are symptomatic of a range of problems including managing the construction of increasingly complex reactor designs, and inherent within the ailing nuclear infrastructure; * that combined with the huge subsidies required, uncompetitively high prices, poor reliability and serious risks of cost overruns, nuclear power stands no chance of being economically viable in countries that have moved to competitive power procurement; * that significant and widespread concerns remain over the basic safety, waste disposal and decommissioning of existing plants; * that there are similarly significant concerns over new, untested technology in currently-proposed nuclear power projects. As for those Japanese Gen III reactors that came in “UNDER BUDGET” ten years ago, the report has this to say: “The only Generation III reactors currently in operation are the Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWR) developed in Japan. By the end of 2006, four ABWRs were in service and two under construction in Taiwan. Total construction costs for the first two units were well above the forecast range. Further problems have now arisen as cracking has been found in the blades of the turbines of two plants. A temporary repair might allow the plants back into service in 2007, operating at 10-15% below their design rating until new turbines can be supplied.”

David Walters
9 years 4 months ago

I wanted to respond to Jeff’s comments which were in response to my own. Jeff, you ask an excellent question thusly: “Why should nuclear power even be on the ecosocialist agenda at this point? While it is possible that a future socialist world will employ some form of nuclear technology as an energy source, that technology will be very different from what it is now. Capitalism has made such a mess of it that it behooves us today to oppose, not promote, nuclear technology in its present form and context.”It should be on our agenda because it’s the most ecofriendly form of base load power available. Conservation aside, CFL aside, efficiency aside, I’m convinced that only nuclear can give us what we want. The interesting thing is that whether it’s a socialist system (like the French ‘form’ of nuclear development or the Russian) or capitalist, they are all pretty safe. If we use your method, then we should oppose ALL industrial development, as *any* industrial development has killed far more people, destroyed more of the environment, been totally ruiness equal to or more than nuclear. So, why, again, should we oppose nuclear energy, regardless of who develops it.Secondly, I’m not so much interested in promoting that I am in opposing opposition to it. We should no more be in opposition to nuclear energy than we are to any other form of large scale vertically integrated energy or other industry. But I think since the ecological socialist wing has opposed nuclear but seemingly oblivious to the consequences save for “oh, well, we don’t want to build coal either…” is simply not going to cut it in the real world.The eco-left in Germany has done this with stunning consequences: they (Green Party and eco-“friendly” wing of the Social-Democracy) instituted a “phase out” of nuclear energy…where they NEVER had an accident of consequence, none has died and where they displace hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 every year…and now they have announced they are going to build 26 new coal fired plants (ever see German coal? Nasty, wet brown stuff) to replace the nuclear power and allow for more growth. Well done.You state: “Walters’s nuclear industry has consistently failed to live up to its rhetoric with operational reality. Why should we not be skeptical when we are presented with the wonders of “Generation III” technology?”Not my industry, THE industry. You should always be skeptical, but look for answers too. The Japanese completed TWO such Gen III reactors online 10 years ago UNDER BUDGET and AHEAD of SCHEDULE. So….why would the industry (state owned and private) try to ‘market’ these reactors when the are under such total and absolute scrutiny? Because they know they work and they know they are cheaper and safer.My view as socialist on this is that it’s cleaner/cheaper/safer than anything else. It’s an industry world wide that has tracked every bit of everything involved…something even the wind and solar folks can’t claim. It’s a *proven* technology. And, it is reliable. It’s pro-working class to make electrical energy safe and clean.You suggest: “The safety record of nuclear power in the past 30 years is not as rosy as Walters claims. We have not had another Chernobyl or TMI, but there have been thousands of radiation leaks into air and water.”Sorry? Where? And…what are the consequences? How does it differ from the massive radiation we get *everyday* from cosmic rays, radon and general background radiation? In fact, nuclear power plant workers have a *longer life* and *better health* than most industrial workers. Sounds good to me.You further state “If nuclear power is the “non-polluting” technological fix for the impending world ecocatastrophe and “can provide for global economic growth” then we may be sure it will be embraced heartily by the capitalist system as an important part of its survival strategy. Walters doesn’t need to convince the left of this – it will happen without our approval anyway.”The last sentence is true. Most of the world is scrambling to get nuclear energy, whether it be reactionary Arab regimes in the Gulf to more advanced countries like Venezuela, Brazil, India, China and Argentina. My view is that we have to support all campaigns that oppose the privatization of these vital industries and for their nationalization across the board. But I don’t think development, as such, here or anywhere, should ‘stop’ because we don’t like the bosses way of doing things.The capitalist system has not embraced nuclear energy. Coal interests certainly haven’t. Even sections of the nuclear industry, if you can believe this, haven’t because they want to restrict R&D to THEIR types of reactors and plants. Thus, Areva, the big French manufacturer, has tried to stymie S. African’s smaller, developing country-friendly Pebble Bed Modular Reactors.The same hated capitalists are the ONES to be building ALL windmills and solar panels…I don’t hear how bloody awful they are in this field?I think we have to stop opposing the development of what has proven to be a technology that has almost spotless safety record, produced almost no CO2 and otherwise can provide almost limitless power.David Waltersleftatomics.blogspot.com

Anonymous
9 years 5 months ago

Jeff White’s analysis leaves out a factor that seems important to me: uranium is exceedingly cheap. In thermal barrel-of-oil-equivalency terms, its most recent sharp price rise was 47 US cents a barrel, from US$2.47/BOE to US$2.94/BOE.That means oil-and-gss-profiting capitalists are one of two powerful groups that historically have been annoyed when a $60 barrel of oil was replaced by uranium, and more than $55 of fossil fuel revenue was cancelled. The other group is civil servants and others sustained by government money. Their discussions of nuclear-versus-fossil issues typically do not include mention of the tens of dollars in petroleum and natural gas tax revenue that are strangled at birth when a dollar’s worth of uranium is used instead.They don’t talk about it, but it’s hard to see how it could ever be off their minds. I believe when that money talks, it uses their lips. Many of their other activities, i.e. ostentatiously failing to enforce highway speed limits, seem to be part of the pattern.So this remark of White’s — “If nuclear power is the “non-polluting” technological fix …” (It is.)”for the impending world ecocatastrophe and “can provide for global economic growth” then we may be sure it will be embraced heartily by the capitalist system as an important part of its survival strategy.”– is a non-sequitur. Dirty, expensive fuel can provide for much greater growth in the economies capitalists care about most, their own. And this,”Walters doesn’t need to convince the left of this – it will happen without our approval anyway”.misses the point. The left can do a little to help nuclear energy, and in so doing, it can do a lot to help itself.Nuclear is clean, safe, and inexhaustible, and a lot of us masses have the impression that no rightist ever says or suggests otherwise except for fossil fuel money — usually private fossil fuel money — and no leftist ever says or insinuates otherwise, except for fossil money, usually public.— G. R. L. Cowan, former H2 fanOxygen expands around B fire, car goes

Jeff White
9 years 5 months ago

Why should nuclear power even be on the ecosocialist agenda at this point? While it is possible that a future socialist world will employ some form of nuclear technology as an energy source, that technology will be very different from what it is now. Capitalism has made such a mess of it that it behooves us today to oppose, not promote, nuclear technology in its present form and context.David Walters has been drinking his employer’s Kool-Aid for far too long. There’s nothing in his brief initial introductory sketch that would be out of place in a presentation to a corporate board of directors. Indeed, numerous pundits of ecocapitalism, such as Patrick Moore and Nicholas D. Kristof, have been regaling us with the same message for years.Walters’s nuclear industry has consistently failed to live up to its rhetoric with operational reality. Why should we not be skeptical when we are presented with the wonders of “Generation III” technology?All parts of the nuclear fuel cycle have to be examined critically – the location, availability, and quality of uranium ore; its mining, transportation, processing, refining, enrichment, and reprocessing; the construction, maintenance, decommissioning, and ultimate deconstruction of generating plants; the storage and disposal of hazardous waste – including issues of worker and public safety, environmental impact, and cost at each stage in the cycle.The safety record of nuclear power in the past 30 years is not as rosy as Walters claims. We have not had another Chernobyl or TMI, but there have been thousands of radiation leaks into air and water.The 103 commercial nuclear power plants operating in the United States at present produce over 2,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste and 12 million cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste EVERY YEAR. Much of it is in temporary storage until someone can figure out how to segregate it safely from the biosphere, essentially forever.If nuclear power is the “non-polluting” technological fix for the impending world ecocatastrophe and “can provide for global economic growth” then we may be sure it will be embraced heartily by the capitalist system as an important part of its survival strategy. Walters doesn’t need to convince the left of this – it will happen without our approval anyway. In its desperate race to stave off economic and ecological collapse, capitalism will attempt to rush into a rapid expansion of nuclear power generation – literally, at all costs. It will suspend environmental review requirements and deregulate the nuclear industry; it will postpone even further the reckoning with issues of safety, waste disposal, and environmental degradation in the interests of satisfying its relentless appetite for energy. Not even “public” ownership of the generating industry will make a difference in a capitalist society. Will these developments be cheered on by ecosocialists?

Anonymous
9 years 5 months ago

“A control system was therefore essential to keep the reaction from running away toward a bomb-like condition” –No. Outside the former Soviet Union, power reactors always have been self-controlling in the same manner the naturally occurring Oklo reactor was, two billion years before them. Thus, the nuclear submarine San Francisco could ram an undersea mountain, killing one sailor and injuring many, without there being any possibility of its reactor entering a bomblike condition. In fact it got all the survivors home.— G. R. L. Cowan, former H2 fanHow internal combustion gains nuclear cachet

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