Socialist arguments for nuclear power

Climate and Capitalism has frequently published articles by greens and socialists arguing that nuclear power is innately dangerous and must be stopped. Below, two veteran socialists argue that the anti-nuke position is based on “fear and fantasy,” and that only nuclear power can meet society’s energy needs.

We encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion of their arguments in the Comments section that follows this post.

These articles were first published in the Summer 2011 issue of the British journal Permanent Revolution.

FUKUSHIMA, THE LEFT, AND NUCLEAR POWER

by Stuart King

When a massive earthquake hit Japan on 11 March, followed immediately by a tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear plant suffered a major accident. It took weeks for the private operating company TEPCO to bring the crisis under control, and it will take at least another six to nine months to achieve a cold shut down of the plants nuclear reactors.

This was a very serious accident, rated 7 on the INES scale, the same as the Chernobyl accident, although Fukushima has released so far only 10% of the radiation of the Ukrainian disaster. Immediate casualties were much lower. Unlike Chernobyl no one died as a result of the radiation leaks at Fukushima – two workers involved in the clean-up were hospitalized when radioactive water seeped into their boots. By contrast an estimated 24,000 are dead or missing as a result of the earthquake and tsunami.

This is not to belittle the accident, but to put it in perspective. The long term effects of radiation are yet to be quantified but they will certainly be less damaging than Chernobyl, where incompetence by the Russian Soviet authorities exposed tens of thousands to contaminated food and milk for weeks after the event.

The Fukushima accident could have been much worse, reactor cores could have completely melted down, leading to much greater contamination and an even more difficult clean up operation.

The accompanying article by David Walters looks at the accident, its causes and consequences. Unlike many on the left he does not conclude that the accident was the “inevitable result” of an impossibly dangerous industry, rather that it was a result of a private company cutting corners on safety in the interests of short term profit.

For much of the far left Fukushima was just a confirmation of their anti-nuclear prejudices. Socialist Worker was typical. Its front page headline declared “Nuclear Plants are never safe: shut them all down” (19 March, 2011). Inside its editorial declared “Every plan to build a nuclear plant in every country across the world should be stopped – now. And all existing plants should be shut down. That’s the message we should take from the horrific events in Japan.”

Now just a moment’s thought by any serious thinking socialist would have revealed what a ludicrous demand this was. In Britain something like 19% of electricity comes from our nuclear power plants. Shutting them down immediately would lead to rolling blackouts across the country. In the medium term it would lead to electricity being produced by more CO2 polluting forms of electricity production – gas and coal – increasing global warming with all the dangers that entails.

And in France where almost 80% of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear? The economy would shut down and workers would be burning their furniture in the dark to keep warm. Now that would be a real vote winner!

The pat reply to this argument will be that nuclear can by replaced by renewables – wind, wave and solar power – and by better energy efficiency in homes, offices etc. Well it can’t – the figures don’t add up.

Building offshore wind farms, renewing the grid to use them, developing wave power etc will take years if not a decade or more, even if a socialist government threw all its resources behind it. Even a massive public works programme on energy conservation in homes and offices would take many years. At the same time we need to phase out all coal-fired power stations within the next decade or so, a really important demand in relation to CO2 emissions – and in Britain they still produce just under a third of our electricity.

Renewables cannot fill the gap if we take out nuclear power as an option.

As socialists we cannot magic away these problems. We can bury our heads in the sand, raise demands that no one takes seriously (even ourselves) or provide some scientific based and socialist answers to the problems we face – the major one being how we put forward a program to massively reduce CO2 emissions on a world scale to prevent global warming.

Nuclear power as a low CO2 producing energy source, for all its draw-backs and dangers, will certainly be part of the solution. The lesson of Fukushima is not, as Socialist Worker would have it, that nuclear power is an impossibly dangerous industry, but that it is far too dangerous an industry to be in private hands and to be driven by the profit motive.

Of the ten commercially operating nuclear plants in the UK seven were built between 1962 and 1970. They are old technology, as was Fukushima, more dangerous to run than the new generation of nuclear power stations. They need to be phased out and replaced by new ones as part of an energy mix where renewables are the major source of electric power, a mix where coal and gas are phased out.

The whole of the nuclear industry (apart from decommissioning) has been privatised and is run by multinationals like EDF. It needs to be nationalized with the profit motive removed. But it cannot be run by state bureaucrats who are as keen on cost cutting as any capitalist. It needs to be placed under the control of the workers who run it (and know the safety issues) alongside the communities that exist side by side with nuclear plants. Together they can monitor and control safety and management and should be given the resources by the state to employ their own experts and technicians to be able to do so.

Fukushima was a dangerous accident. Rejecting nuclear power in the context of uncontrolled global warming would be a disaster.

+++++++++++++++++

FUKUSHIMA, NUCLEAR ENERGY AND A SOCIALIST PROGRAM

by David Walters

With the recent tsunami induced accidents at the privately owned Fukushima power plants in Japan, the issue of nuclear energy has once again become a campaigning issue for anti-nuclear activists around the world. Many of the left groups that have spoken out, most notably those active in “Green” circles, have now gone on a major campaign to “Shut them all down now”. Presumably this means the immediate closing of the world’s 440 nuclear power reactors.

We see this call being made by various socialist organizations in Japan, and even some of the unions they lead. It should be noted, however, that the main union representing the workers who operate Japan’s 54 reactors, including those placing themselves at great risk, do not echo this call.

The nuclear accident in Japan, where at the same time close to 30,000 people have lost their lives due to the earthquake and tsunami, certainly raises the question of safety at nuclear plants, not just in Japan, specifically the Fukushima reactors, but throughout the world. Socialists who are pro-nuclear do not shy away from these debates and discussions at all.

At the current time we know only a few facts about the accident at Fukushima. What we do know is that it appears the “physical plant” itself, that is the reactor housing, went mostly unscathed because of the tsunami or the earthquake. No nuclear plant in the world’s 60 year history of civilian nuclear energy has ever been wrecked, destroyed or otherwise overwhelmed directly by these natural phenomenon. That is correct: no earthquake has significantly damaged a reactor to cause a release of radiation or a meltdown. Many in the anti-nuclear movement don’t like to admit this but it’s true.

So what did happen then at Fukushima?

The earthquake did two things. It caused the operating reactors to automatically shutdown. It also knocked out the grid, that is the outside power grid the plants send power into for distribution and take power from during outages, either routine ones or emergency ones. In case of this occurring, two forms of auxiliary power come into play: battery backup that will last a few dozen hours, and auxiliary diesel generators that can last days or weeks until power is restored.

The use of water for cooling in any reactor is well known. In the old Fukushima reactors electricity was essential to provide pumping and cooling. We do not have to review that here as it is covered in many places already. Back-up power is provided but it failed in this case. We have to ask why it failed and what solutions could have mitigated this failure?

The batteries operated as they were designed to, essentially providing power to run the cooling pumps. However, TEPCO, the privately investor-owned utility that built and operates the plants (as well as numerous others) located the fuel tanks for the diesel generators at the oceanfront. This facilitates loading of fuel supplies, once every few years from, barges. They located them here because it was cheaper to do so. These fuel tanks were smashed by the ensuing tsunami caused by the earthquake. A double whammy, one that could have been predicted given the geological and quake-prone area Japan is close to.

Instead of building these fuel tanks up the hill behind the power plant, they took the cheap way out – for profit. Secondly, while TEPCO did install a breakwater, clearly visible on any available satellite imaging service such as Google Earth, they laid down the absolute minimum sized breakwater, which was clearly not sufficient to combat the 13 metre tsunami that hit this plant. Breakwaters are easy to build. A few million dollars worth of concrete and formed components and TEPCO could have easily built a break water that would of prevented the damage and subsequent disaster from occurring.

The operating engineer in me, like engineers everywhere, sees this disaster, but we do not run from it. We do not shout “Fear! Run! Shut it down!” No, we try to address the actual issues involved and seek a solution. What could have been done to prevent this disaster (I noted some precautions that could have been taken above)?

All seaside reactors everywhere in the world now have to be seen in the light of the experience of this tsunami and proceed to design fail-safe solutions so this can never happen again. We need to demand that worst-case tsunami possibilities be addressed and solutions applied. And it can be done, because humanity’s cognitive ability to analyze and address these problems within the laws of physics and applied engineering, knows almost no bounds. But we don’t run. We address the problem and we solve it.

If Japan actually shuts down 100% of their low carbon energy, that is their nuclear reactors, which make up 30% of the installed capacity (and closer to 40% of their actual generation) then they will have rolling blackouts and their society will go backwards, toward an increase in use of fossil fuels (already underway with the closing of Fukushima) and away from an eventual socialist solution for everything from feeding their nation to industrial production. And of course their contribution to global warming, with all the dangerous consequences of that, will increase.

But TEPCO didn’t do any of these things which could have prevented this accident. Like corporations all over the world, private enterprise does only that which they deem financially and politically necessary to get by. There is also a similar bureaucratic and cost-cutting compulsion even in state owned enterprises run, supposedly, for the public good.

Nuclear has been somewhat different historically from other forms of power generation, given the dangerous nature of generating energy from atomic fission. Everywhere it is highly regulated. This is true even in Japan where government and corporations are incestuously entangled with one other. In other countries, regulators have degrees more independence. Overall, there is no more regulated industry in the world than nuclear. But, as Japan shows, there are still vital safety issues that need to be addressed.

On a personal note, my own minimum experience with nuclear energy in the US and having being a shop steward in a union local with 800 nuclear workers, has educated me on the importance of safety, of following regulatory guidelines, and seeing the consequences of not following those guidelines for workers involved.

I was convinced after visiting nuclear power plants and talking to my fellow union workers, that I didn’t want to work in such an environment. Because it was unsafe? No, for just the opposite reason, in fact. The tremendous amount of NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Agency) oversight, training, regulations and paperwork, that is, the “safety culture”, was simply too great for me to want to deal with. The workers there take these issues so seriously that I didn’t believe I could tolerate this work environment.

In the beginning of May of this year the New York Times ran an editorial, disguised as an “article” (one of the authors being an anti-nuclear ideologue from Greenpeace), supposedly showing the “near misses” and accidents that were missed or not noted by the NRC. There is no doubt that some of this is true, while giving a false overall picture of the issue. But it’s also true that despite these incidents, not one of these resulted in injury to the public or work force.

The fact is that, thanks to the workers involved in operating these plants, most of whom are union members, the safety record of the US civilian nuclear energy industry and the sound regulatory oversight, has made even this, flawed, for-profit industry, the safest of any major industry in the US for the last 50 years. Can we say the same about the refinery, pharmaceutical, chemical, coal, gas and oil industries? No, we cannot. The relative risk of these industries has to be looked at, and anti-nuclear “investigative” journalism routinely ignores this.

But it is not enough. And there are flaws in the entire system that warrant some serious revisions.

We have serious issues facing our class, our planet. From economic development of the productive forces in the oppressed neo-colonial world to raise their standard of living, to the phasing out of climate-changing fossil fuel use, we are going to require more, not, less energy, specifically electricity.

Most on the left are at best confused by this and at worse, seek a return to some sort of pastoral green, “democratic” pre-industrial utopia. As Marxists we should reject this “we use too much” scenario that has infected the left across the world. We certainly should use energy more wisely, more efficiently and with a sense of conservation. This can happen only when the profit motive is removed and scarcity in basic necessities is a thing of the past. No one should object to this. But these things do not produce one watt of power, especially if you consider what we have to do. These include:

  • Switching off from fossil fuels completely (they should be used only as chemical feedstock, i.e. as the basic material to make chemicals and lubricants)
  • Increasing the development of the productive forces especially in the developing world. This means developing whole electrical grids, new, primarily non-fossil fuel, forms of generation and the infrastructure to support this, for the billions without any electrical usage at all
  • Freeing up the productive forces to eliminate all forms of want as the material basis for a true socialist mode of production. Using nuclear energy is both the cheapest and safest way to do this.

George Monbiot in his latest entry on his blog* challenges the renewable energy advocates with some hard questions. No socialist by any means, Monbiot has brought attention to the issue of energy and what it will take to reduce carbon emissions. He notes, writing on Britain, among other things:

“1. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions means increasing electricity production. It is hard to see a way around this. Because low-carbon electricity is the best means of replacing the fossil fuels used for heating and transport, electricity generation will rise, even if we manage to engineer a massive reduction in overall energy consumption. The Zero Carbon Britain report published by the Centre for Alternative Technology envisages a 55% cut in overall energy demand by 2030 – and a near-doubling of electricity production.”

How is this electricity going to be produced in a sustained and regular way? We know wind generated power is erratic and variable, a problem only partially solvable by new continental wide electricity grids. We know other forms of low carbon power – tidal, coal with carbon capture and storage, large scale solar – are experimental and even if viable are likely to turn out more expensive than nuclear.

We get no answer from so-called socialist Greens on this problem, at least not yet. They simply have not considered the real issues.

Monbiot goes on:

“3. The only viable low-carbon alternative we have at the moment is nuclear power. This has the advantage of being confined to compact industrial sites, rather than sprawling over the countryside, and of requiring fewer new grid connections (especially if new plants are built next to the old ones). It has the following disadvantages:

“a. The current generation of power stations require uranium mining, which destroys habitats and pollutes land and water. Though its global impacts are much smaller than the global impacts of coal, the damage it causes cannot be overlooked.

“b. The waste it produces must be stored for long enough to be rendered safe. It is not technically difficult to do this, with vitrification, encasement and deep burial, but governments keep delaying their decisions as a result of public opposition.

“Both these issues (as well as concerns about proliferation and security) could be addressed through the replacement of conventional nuclear power with thorium or integral fast reactors but, partly as a result of public resistance to atomic energy, neither technology has yet been developed. (I’ll explore the potential of both approaches in a later column).”

I want to address this last point. Monbiot is slowly seeing his way to something that has taken a long time: that nuclear energy is really the only way to go, even in light of the “big three” accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. These new technologies he mentions, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (which doesn’t require any uranium mining, enrichment or long term disposal of spent fuel) and the Integral Fast Reactor, provide the material basis for eliminating all fossil fuels and for a future society without want, wars or exploitation, that is a socialist one.

Where Monbiot and I come together is not, obviously, the socialist requirement to get rid of capitalism. It is over the need for more energy, not less. It is over the realization that renewables cannot do it except in the most utopian of fantasies.

The real “Great Divide” is between those among the Greens who run on fear and fantasy, and those socialists that have a materialist understanding of the need to move toward a society based not just on current human needs alone, but on expanding humanity’s ability to power such a society.

Only nuclear can do this.

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Other Climate & Capitalism articles on nuclear power.

What do you think? Should socialists support the expansion of nuclear power? If not, what’s the alternative? Share your views in the Comments space, below…

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Jeff White
5 years 2 months ago

Chis or Chris or whatever your name is:

Read the Monthly Review article again. You will find plenty that knocks huge holes in your arguments for “painless remedies” for our environmental and energy crises. A sample:

In addition, we shall argue that “solutions” proposed for environmental devastation, which would allow the current system of production and distribution to proceed unabated, are not real solutions. In fact, such “solutions” will make things worse because they give the false impression that the problems are on their way to being overcome when the reality is quite different. The overwhelming environmental problems facing the world and its people will not be effectively dealt with until we institute another way for humans to interact with nature — altering the way we make decisions on what and how much to produce. Our most necessary, most rational goals require that we take into account fulfilling basic human needs, and creating just and sustainable conditions on behalf of present and future generations (which also means being concerned about the preservation of other species)….

There are a number of important “out of the box” ecological and environmental thinkers and doers. They are genuinely good and well-meaning people who are concerned with the health of the planet, and most are also concerned with issues of social justice. However, there is one box from which they cannot escape — the capitalist economic system. Even the increasing numbers of individuals who criticize the system and its “market failures” frequently end up with “solutions” aimed at a tightly controlled “humane” and non-corporate capitalism, instead of actually getting outside the box of capitalism. They are unable even to think about, let alone promote, an economic system that has different goals and decision-making processes — one that places primary emphasis on human and environmental needs, as opposed to profits.

And here’s a free copy of the Nature article that I found after 10 seconds of googling.

5 years 2 months ago

Ian, I found and read the Monthly Review article you referred to:

http://monthlyreview.org/2010/03/01/what-every-environmentalist-needs-to-know-about-capitalism

I found nothing there to contradict my view that global warming is by far the most serious and imminent threat to the habitability (for humans and many other species) of the planet, and that there is no problem with nuclear power that
justifies opposing its spread as a way of reducing global warming (and/or addressing its effects).

The Nature journal article I baulked at paying for.

I find very uninspiring and unpromising the strategy of(instead of promoting socialism on its positive merits) just “proving” that unless capitalism is overthrown some time within the next ten years (and replaced with some especially green version of socialism) the world will end.. It just seems to be a recipe for defeatism and despair for those who accept your “proof”, and of course making you unappealing pundits for those that don’t.

The nominally capitalist, mainly technological vision set out by Tom Blees in his 2008 book “Prescription for the Planet..the
painless remedy for our energy and environmental crises” much more inspiring, scientifically literate and credible. I say “nominally capitalist”, but the book strikes me as being humanely motivated and implicitly socialistic. He wants to put nuclear energy in the hands of a non-profit international trust and establish access to cheap electricity and adequate drinkable water (where necessary produced by desalination) as a basic right for everyone on earth; and to pack the corporations currently in the fossil fuel business off to recycle garbage.

I doubt that will happen without a mass mobilisation, and if it does I think it likely that it will occur to the masses to solve other problems by taking other important functions out of private (big capitalist) hands. But as I said, the main points of the book are about technology(and some recent history).

http://www.prescriptionfortheplanet.com/

Note that the late Howard Zinn (according to the blurb) gave Tom Blees a thumbs-up (“deserves serious attention as an informed and conscientious
voice”).

In the book Blees promotes Integral Fast Reactors (one of the forms of Generation IV nuclear power)and some other technologies for private transport and recycling garbage.

He talks about his book in this youtube video, made not long after its release:

Of course he’s said and written things since then, including posts on bravenewclimate.

Chris Benham.

5 years 2 months ago

Ian Angus wrote:

“Chris Benham writes: “The capitalists have no other planet to go to, so like the rest of us they need this one to remain habitable.”

How then can we explain this? “US regulators weaken nuclear safety rules.”

Maybe the regulations were previously too strict. Is your position that that isn’t possible? The type of nuclear accidents that become more
likely as a result of weakening safety rules don’t broadly threaten the habitability of planet Earth.

“In search of profit, capitalists will destroy the planet. Letting them build nuclear plants will just speed up the process.”

No, it will greatly slow it down. You write as if there is some threat to the planet (as a habitat for humans) that is remotely comparable to that posed by global warming.There isn’t.

Chris Benham

5 years 2 months ago

Allen Myers wrote:

” Chris Benham writes:

“I’m a socialist, but independent of that I am also very concerned about global warming. And I don’t anticipate that catastrophic (probably irreversible ) global warming will hold off until after the socialist revolution. So I say: Give eco-capitalism a chance!”

Chris, you are clearly a very patient socialist, at least when it comes to giving capitalism a chance. Capitalism has been destroying the planet for at least two centuries. How much longer are you willing to give it to turn ecological? Another two centuries? It amazes me that anyone can use the term “eco-capitalism” seriously. In opposition to imperialist war, would you advocate “Give pacifist-imperialism a chance!”?

By “eco-capitalism” I meant capitalism that recognises that anthropogenic global warming is a serious problem/threat and so seeks to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by one mechanism or another.

By “give a chance” I just mean be supportive of measures that will or might reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and don’t just assume that any proposed market-based measure (such as a carbon tax or even an ETS) will be hopelessly ineffective or that nuclear power is unacceptable because some capitalists stand to profit from it.

“Capitalism has been destroying the planet for at least two centuries.”

I find the term “destroying” imprecise and an exaggeration. For most of that time the harm done to the environment by capitalism was relatively small, and repairable. And was the Soviet bloc really so clean and green? James Hansen writes in his book (published in 2009) that “..up through the middle of the twentieth century, the net human-made climate forcing was rather small”. And that “..global warming of 0.8 degrees Celsius in the past century, and of 0.6 degrees Celsius in just the past thirty years, has brought global temperature back to at least peak Holocene level, and sea level rise is beginning
to accelerate. Sea level is now rising more than three centimetres a decade – double the rate that occurred in the twentieth century”.

““The capitalists have no other planet to go to, so like the rest of us they need this one to remain habitable.”

So we’re all in the same boat, are we? Now where have I heard that one before? In reality, the capitalists don’t need the planet to remain habitable; they only need their usual comforts in the parts they want to use. If Bangladesh goes under water because of rising sea levels, the capitalists in their resorts in northern Canada or wherever will hardly notice.”

Obviously the poor are more vulnerable. I think at least a significant proportion of the capitalists are not quite that mad. Many of them like snow and ice for “winter sports” like skiing. Some of them worry about endangered species and like to go on eco-tours. Also there is a danger that with runaway global warming that no part of the planet will be a comfortable habitat for humans.

“If I’m wrong about this, Chris, you should be able to list the capitalists who have decided, “I really don’t need all my 20 billions; I’ll give 15 of them to the work of the Eco-capitalism Foundation”.”

That assumes that capitalists can only seriously address global warming by losing money instead of making it. I know that Bill Gates is interested in nuclear power, and that Ziggy Switoski (Polish-Australian ex-CEO of Australia’s largest telecommunications company, and qualified as a nuclear physicist) is kind enough to advocate it.

You are also “not sure” that I am correct in saying that “rational decisions about climate change are impossible in capitalist society”, and find it “very unappealing” of me even to raise the idea. The problem with your uncertainties is that the benefit of the doubt always seems to be given to the capitalists.

Why is that a problem?

“Two centuries of experience indicate that they don’t deserve it”

There hasn’t been anything like two centuries of significant anthropogenic global warming or awareness of it as a problem.

“You are “not sure how anyone rationally weighs rival options without doing some sort of cost-benefit analysis”. But as I pointed out, the capitalists already operate on the basis of cost-benefit analyses, ensuring that they gain the maximum benefit at lowest cost from whatever alternatives are being considered.”

So what? Is that supposed to discredit the idea of anyone doing a cost-benefit analysis? The phrase “cost-benefit analysis” was first used in this discussion by Geoff Russell (a well-informed and highly intelligent fellow). Addressing Corey Little he wrote, referring to nuclear power, “You don’t do a cost-benefit analysis, just want it banned”. To be rational in forming one’s view of one or another way of producing electricity, one should do a dispassionate cost-benefit comparison of it with its alternatives, deciding entirely for yourself what you count as “costs” and what you count as “benefits”.

“Finally, if you really don’t understand the meaning of putting quotation marks around “fix” in “technological ‘fix’”, it indicates that a technology can be presented as fixing something when it really doesn’t do so, or does so by creating some other, larger problem.”

Nuclear power really does fix the problem of having to rely on carbon-polluting fossil fuel burning power-plants for reliable base-load electricity, and it doesn’t create some other
“larger problem”.

(I find it difficult to imagine how it could.)

Chris Benham

Jeff White
5 years 2 months ago

You invoke The Revolution Betrayed in support of deploying nuclear energy “as widely as possible”?

Please do not confuse Trotsky’s concern for overcoming the “backwardness” of production under Tsarism and Stalinism for an endorsement of the expansionist and productivist aims of modern global capital.

Why shouldn’t we work towards a future where we use less per-capita energy – in fact, less per-capita of all the earth’s resources – than the current profligate capitalist system, with all its waste and overproduction?

5 years 2 months ago

Chris, the “tech approach” was not a criticism. I’ve done a lot of these myself. And I don’t doubt your socialist credentials (although using what “business thinks” about the economic viability of nuclear is…probably not the best as many anti-nuclear activists do).

Even with Fukushima and the results of the evacuation of 100,000 people…nuclear is STILL vastly safer than the history of fossil fuel and it’s low carbon. One can’t get around this. As nuclear nations (and new nuclear nations) advance toward Gen III reactors (to take a ‘tech approach’) the plants get safer.

The real issue here is can we afford the almost forever tie of solar and wind with fossil fuel (as Germany is demonstrating now) or do we go nuclear to prevent or mitigate, climate change? This the the real debate. It is clear that nuclear and wind and solar are part of the future. We know countries ARE developing, even in the context of the Imperialist domination…and economic dislocation…Greece for example today…and that means more and more energy.

Ultimately, wind/solar advocates see a form of de-development: more *expensive* energy; more restrictions on energy use; less per-capita energy.

It is a future that runs backwards, not future toward an *expansion* of the productive forces, as Trotsky noted about socialism in his Revolution Betrayed. So our job is to make nuclear *safer*, placed under democratic control, and deployed widely as possible.

5 years 2 months ago

I’m not sure how my recent piece in the Indypendent, reprinted by C&C, could be construed as taking a “tech approach” as David Walters claims.

I was specifically asked to write an article on the feasibility of a non-fossil fuel and non-nuclear energy system, hence that is the focus of the article. Nevertheless, I make unambiguously clear in the article and throughout my writings that the real problem is capitalism and therefore the real solution is social and political rather than technical. So I state under the sub-heading “Social Power” that:

“It is clear from all the studies and possibilities – as well as nearly two decades of delays and sabotage of international treaties to address climate change – that the central problem is the political priorities of the social and economic regime of Capital…The real answer to whether or not we can power the planet on clean energy isn’t so much a technical question as a social and political problem.”

Allen Myers
5 years 2 months ago

Chris Benham writes:

“I’m a socialist, but independent of that I am also very concerned about global warming. And I don’t anticipate that catastrophic (probably irreversible ) global warming will hold off until after the socialist revolution. So I say: Give eco-capitalism a chance!”

Chris, you are clearly a very patient socialist, at least when it comes to giving capitalism a chance. Capitalism has been destroying the planet for at least two centuries. How much longer are you willing to give it to turn ecological? Another two centuries? It amazes me that anyone can use the term “eco-capitalism” seriously. In opposition to imperialist war, would you advocate “Give pacifist-imperialism a chance!”?

“The capitalists have no other planet to go to, so like the rest of us they need this one to remain habitable.”

So we’re all in the same boat, are we? Now where have I heard that one before? In reality, the capitalists don’t need the planet to remain habitable; they only need their usual comforts in the parts they want to use. If Bangladesh goes under water because of rising sea levels, the capitalists in their resorts in northern Canada or wherever will hardly notice. Would it bother them if global warming kills off several billion people? Not unless the threat of mass death set off a revolution. Otherwise, they would be very happy with a much smaller world population, something they’ve been advocating for some time. If I’m wrong about this, Chris, you should be able to list the capitalists who have decided, “I really don’t need all my 20 billions; I’ll give 15 of them to the work of the Eco-capitalism Foundation”.

You are “not sure how anyone rationally weighs rival options without doing some sort of cost-benefit analysis”. But as I pointed out, the capitalists already operate on the basis of cost-benefit analyses, ensuring that they gain the maximum benefit at lowest cost from whatever alternatives are being considered. Unfortunately, this does not lead to rational results for the rest of the human race or the ecology of the planet. If you are planning to convince the capitalists that you have a superior cost-benefit analysis for them, well, I wish you good luck.

You are also “not sure” that I am correct in saying that “rational decisions about climate change are impossible in capitalist society”, and find it “very unappealing” of me even to raise the idea. The problem with your uncertainties is that the benefit of the doubt always seems to be given to the capitalists. Two centuries of experience indicate that they don’t deserve it. If that makes me a “neo-Luddite hysteric”, so be it. (And congratulations on being the first person on either side of this discussion to feel so insecure as to have to resort to name calling.)

Finally, if you really don’t understand the meaning of putting quotation marks around “fix” in “technological ‘fix’”, it indicates that a technology can be presented as fixing something when it really doesn’t do so, or does so by creating some other, larger problem. A case in point was the selling of nuclear power to public opinion back in the 1950s with the claim that this technological “fix” would make electricity production “too cheap to meter”.

Chis Benham
5 years 2 months ago

Allen Meyers writes:
“A major problem with the discussion launched by David Walters is that it is almost entirely a discussion of technology.”

Nuclear power is a form of technology, so I can’t see any “major problem”.

“George Monbiot is a liberal, not a socialist, so he presumes the continuation of capitalism.”

I’m a socialist, but independent of that I am also very concerned about global warming. And I don’t anticipate that catastrophic (probably irreversible ) global warming will hold off until after the socialist revolution. So I say: Give eco-capitalism a chance!

“His method of dealing with environmental problems, particularly global warming, is therefore to advocate one or another technological “fix””

Allen, what is the significance of your quotation marks around the word “fix”?

“The problem is that most technologically feasible measures (such as mass public transport) are not socially feasible because they are in conflict with the needs of capital.”

Why should anyone accept your pronouncements on what are and are not “technologically feasible measures”? The capitalists have no other planet to go to, so like the rest of us they need this one to remain habitable.

“We even have a call for a cost-benefit analysis, overlooking the fact that the world already operates on the basis of the only cost-benefit analysis that is possible at present, namely a capitalist one.”

I’m not sure how anyone rationally weighs rival options without doing some sort of cost-benefit analysis.

“Surely the task of socialists is to point out how and why rational decisions about climate change are impossible in capitalist society and why they will become possible when capitalism is replaced by socialism.”

If it were entirely true that “rational decisions about climate change are impossible in capitalist society” , then I suppose that would be one of the tasks of socialists. But I’m not sure that it is, and I find this sort of doomsday triumphalism very unappealing. I think socialists, like other sane people concerned about the future of our planet, should demand that greenhouse gas pollution should be
urgently cut using the best clean energy technology following the lead of qualified experts, not neo-Luddite hysterics. Over and above that they should promote socialism and of course point out how capitalist and imperialist vested interests have dangerously delayed this from happening.

Also they should highlight and praise the Peoples Republic of China for doing a lot to address global warming, including pressing ahead with nuclear power. “Eco-capitalism” in the West might get a boost from having to play catch-up with China.

Chris B.

5 years 3 months ago

Allen, I accept this as a very valid and truthful criticism. The problem is that so much of the discussion from any angle involves technology. Look at Chris Williams piece posted on this web site. He too takes a “tech” approach. I think while you are correct, and we need to deal more what “what is” rather than “what could be” often we are trapped in a circular discussion when the issue of technology is brought up. But I accept your criticisms.

Allen Myers
5 years 3 months ago

A major problem with the discussion launched by David Walters is that it is almost entirely a discussion of technology.

George Monbiot is a liberal, not a socialist, so he presumes the continuation of capitalism. His method of dealing with environmental problems, particularly global warming, is therefore to advocate one or another technological “fix”. The problem is that most technologically feasible measures (such as mass public transport) are not socially feasible because they are in conflict with the needs of capital. (For a more detailed analysis of Monbiot’s argument, see my article in the May issue of Direct Action: http://directaction.org.au/issue_32_may_2011/george_monbiot_and_nuclear_power_how_a_liberal_talked_himself_into_a_dead_end.)

David Walters and most of the respondents here are socialists and presumably expect a socialist future at some point. But the discussion revolves around what is best in present conditions: which technology as developed for capital, given the energy demand created by capitalism, in a cost structure created by capitalism and regulated by a capitalist state? We even have a call for a cost-benefit analysis, overlooking the fact that the world already operates on the basis of the only cost-benefit analysis that is possible at present, namely a capitalist one.

Several writers say that a socialist future implies a greater energy consumption. Perhaps, but perhaps not. Does the calculation include the energy savings from the elimination of all military production and destruction, from the abolition of capitalist advertising, from the replacement of private cars by public transport, from all the changes in human lifestyle that will emerge when consumption is no longer the prime means of social interaction? How could we even begin to know these figures? We can only guess at the needs and the solutions that will be developed in the socialist future.

Surely the task of socialists is to point out how and why rational decisions about climate change are impossible in capitalist society and why they will become possible when capitalism is replaced by socialism. Outside of that explicit framework, we will end up in the same box with George Monbiot, calling on capitalist society to adopt the technology that we think will kill us less quickly than the alternatives. Within that framework, it is obvious why we should oppose existing technologies, like nuclear and fossil fuels, whose use in the present creates long-term dangers.

Geoff Russell
5 years 3 months ago

Corey. There will be more nuclear accidents. The fire at the Chiba refinery in Japan burned for 10 days, spewing out carcinogenic poison for all that time. Do you want to shut down the oil industry on account of that? I want to shut it down because of climate change, not because of that fire. 6,000 Australians get bowel cancer EVERY year because they eat more than 1 red meat meal per week (Cancer Council stats, Prof Graham Giles). Do you thank that poison warrants shutting down the beef industry (I do!). No. For some particular reason that is unfathomable to me you treat nuclear poison differently. You don’t do a cost benefit analysis, just want it banned. If you read my first piece on India

http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/05/25/greenpeace-india-spotlight/

You will see I’m not over confident at all, but postulate two Chernobyls in the next few decades and compare the lives that will cost against the lives saved by electrification. That’s what you do with technology. You electrify your house in the full knowledge that some house fires will occur and kill people.

Corey Little
5 years 3 months ago

I suggest people stop putting “spewing poison” in quotation marks. In fact, Fukushima is spewing poison, and there will be no children, Indian or otherwise, safely living around that area for as long as the eye can see.

As I mentioned to start my post, nuclear power brings out the most audacious of hubris, and its represented wonderfully in this thread. I have no doubt of your good intentions, and understand your arguments for the need for power to catapult the world’s poor into a better life-experience, and when you say the following, I am sure you are communicating with a sense determination, confidence and commitment:

“Every nuclear plants…these “400+” points you insinuate are terrible or “spewing poison” will and do no such thing. They will be decomissioned and returned to brownfield (for new plants) or greenfield status (for parks, like Shippingport, PA, the US’ fist commercial plant, now a childrens park).”

All I hear is hubris, overconfidence and promulgations of guarantees you can’t keep. Of course, I hope there is never another accident. But I occasionally wish the sun would rise in the west as well. It may seem misanthropic in a single generational viewpoint to not build more nuclear, but on a longer time scale, I tend to believe that future generations would appreciate fewer of potential/probable catastrophes rather than more.

I may be wrong.

Regards.

Geoff Russell
5 years 3 months ago

Great to see such an important discussion taking place on this forum but its clear that the anti-nuclear people have a middle class westernised notion of risk. 250,000 Indian children between 1 and 5 years old die EVERY YEAR because they have to cook with wood or cattle dung. Here is a “spewing of poison” which is not
a possibility with very tiny odds but a daily occurrence. There is a desperate need for electricity in India. There are indeed “vast wind farms” being built, but they just don’t generate much in the way of energy. You can’t power Mumbai with toys, you need huge power stations. Think about the 5 mega watt wind turbines in the North Sea. Install 200 of them and you have a giga watt, right? Wrong. Because the wind is intermittent, you need about a thousand of these
to generate as much energy as a single modest 1GW nuke. The Indians are building a power station with 4×1.7 GW nukes near Mumbai. But Greenpeace is trying to stop them so that Indian children keep dying because Greenpeace have a middle class western notion of risk where something is dangerous even if no-one actually dies or gets sick. With nuclear you can simultaneously fight climate change and poverty. With renewables, the poor will stay poor.

For a little more detail see:
http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/06/18/greenpeaces-plan-for-india

5 years 3 months ago

Jeff, capitalist baiting Brave New Climate is silly and you know it. Then you post form “capitalist” al-jazeera a report that attempts to slam nuclear.

The issue of fukushima is dealt with some in the essay. No one here defends TEPCO or the Japanese gov’t. But the backward, understandably emotionally driven decision to close nuclear plants in Japan actually doesn’t address any of the issues, least of all the treat to the 20 million people on the Plain of Tokyo from the next tsunami. Nor does it address the people who will die from the increased use of fossil fuel in Japan if Japan in fact phases out nuclear.

5 years 3 months ago

Corey, I think you are taking the kind of non-Marxist perspective that mirrors the pessimism of most green, but not eco-socialist, activists.

I think, and believe, that humanity’s unique cognitive abilities to handle crisis, the geology and biology of the planet, knows almost no bounds.Every nuclear plants…these “400+” points you insinuate are terrible or “spewing poison” will and do no such thing. They will be decomissioned and returned to brownfield (for new plants) or greenfield status (for parks, like Shippingport, PA, the US’ fist commercial plant, now a childrens park).

We will replace all the plants online today with safer Gen III and Gen IV plants. We believe, that fundamentally, a large part, or ‘wedge’ to use eco-speak, the material basis for the expansion and development of the productive forces in an ecologically small footprint, safe and democratic manner rests on massive deployment of these forms of fission energy. Anything else, we believe, runs backward into de-developing the productive forces which leas to more poverty, more war, and ultimately, barbarism.

Corey Little
5 years 3 months ago

I am glad that Jeff White is not convinced of the merits of nuclear power and is putting up antagonistic points of view. Nuclear power is a horrific example of human hubris which assumes advanced civilizations will endure, for what amounts to forever, to lord over the poison simmering in the pools and casks… I can not take this proposition with a straight-face. As the arc of human history experiences its inevitable peaks and troughs, there is no reason to assume that the wizardry of nuclear engineering will survive. Instead, as time unfolds on scales of 10,000+ year increments, you will end up with 400+ points on the planet similar to the Acropolis, except they will be spewing poison. We now have 2, with 398+ to go. For now, with massive amounts of fossil energy and nourished engineering knowledge, lids can be put on each accident, somewhat mitigating the eco-cide produced by each accident. This current ability is not preordained to last forever though. The mere fact that anyone ever thought to boil water at a scale requiring a nuclear reaction provides clear evidence our human desires have gone past the limits of sanity.

Jeff White
5 years 3 months ago

Here’s something you won’t read on the ecocapitalist, pro-nuclear website Brave New Climate:
Fukushima: It’s much worse than you think.

5 years 3 months ago

Jeff, Mark Diesndorf has been debate and refuted several times here. There are actually many references to this paper here on Brave New Climate. The real debates about this are really logged at this site. I won’t review here but renewables have yet to fullfill their promise at cost of production that makes it baseload comparable to nuclear.

Only on diesndorf but the Svacool study has been throughly parsed and refuted here as well as on Brave New Climate. Serious wind and solar advocates and defenders, and sorry, Sovacool and Jabonson are not, don’t use the thoroughly refuted faith-based belief that CO2 out put of lifecyle analysis for nuclear is “high” or anything but statistically irrelevant than wind. Any review of the peer-reviewed studies shows this. I’d really suggest you move on to the more serious issues with nuclear, which there are.

On nationalization, workers control and so on. I agree in part, Jeff. I noted in my essay that there are, even under state owned public power entities a “bureaucratic inertia” about safety that often parallels problems of safety culture of private investor owned utilities.

But this is where democratic input and workers control plays a further role in mitigating, albiet not eliminating it. On the other hand, even under privately run nuclear plants, the safety culture is quite huge, extensive, and, almost repressive for the workers involved. I know this from personal experience and was the main reason I chose not to transfer to a large nuclear power from my gas fired power plant in California: I didn’t want to work under that omnipotent safety culture. It wasn’t for me.

Despite the scare stories about NRC (in the US) and other countries, the fact is that these plants have killed almost no one here (I speak of N. American plants) and, actually, none that I know of . Commercial nuclear power here has the *best* safety record of any source of energy in the U.S. You have to ask why this is? Why, despite the ‘close calls’ ‘serious events’, lies from operating companies and so on this is the still the case. A gas pipeline DID explode 1 mile from my house near San Francisco and killed dozens of people burning them to death. A dam in China (“renewables”) kills tens of thousands. A gas turbine burns up and explodes killing 8 union workers in Connecticut last year and yet there is no “panic”.

Yes, nuclear doesn’t have to be perfect to be better than renewables.

Jeff White
5 years 3 months ago

Stuart King and David Walters are clearly working with outdated information about Fukushima.

Where Stuart King got the idea that TEPCO has brought the crisis under control is a mystery, inasmuch as it is still very much out of control.

Contrary to what King says, at least three of the six reactor cores are believed to have melted down.

Stuart King says nuclear plants can be operated under public ownership, with control decisions being made by the workers and the local residents nearby. This would solve the problem of cost-cutting and skimping of safety and control measures that are endemic to privately-owned enterprises that seek to maximize profit, David Walters assures us.

I’m not so sure. Who’s to say that if Fukushima had been operated under workers’ control, similar cost-cutting measures would not have been adopted – like, for instance, saving a few million dollars of public funds by building a smaller tsunami-prevention breakwater? If the private investors in TEPCO saw fit to run the risk of losing their entire investment in Fukushima by skimping on anti-tsunami measures, how can we rule out a similar process of cost-benefit analysis taking place under workers’ control?

I say this not to denigrate workers’ control or to laud the profit motive, but to point out that there are risks in either system, and with nuclear power technology the risks are not fully known and appreciated. Moreover, earthquakes and tsunamis are unpredictable, and are no respecters of public ownership. If a collectively-owned and operated Fukushima plant hired the same nuclear scientists and experts for advice as the privately-owned Fukushima did, how are we to assume that the present disaster would have been avoided?

The Worldwatch Institute has just put out a new status report on the world nuclear industry. Among its key findings are that annual capacity increases for renewable energy have outsripped nuclear startups for the past 15 years; that worldwide cumulative installed capacity from wind turbines, biomass, waste-to-energy, and solar power have now surpassed installed nuclear capacity; that total nuclear power generation has dropped every year for four years in a row.

“U.S. news headlines often suggest that a nuclear renaissance is under way,” said Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. “This was a big overstatement even before March 11, and the disaster in Japan will inevitably cause governments and companies that were considering new nuclear units to reassess their plans. The Three Mile Island accident caused a wholesale reassessment of nuclear safety regulations, massively increased the cost of nuclear power, and put an end to nuclear construction in the United States. For the global nuclear industry, the Fukushima disaster is an historic — if not fatal — setback.”

As Climate and Capitalism has reported elsewhere, Mark Diesendorf has debunked the fallacies of the renewable energy deniers like King and Walters regarding matters such as base-load.

As for the claim that nuclear energy is low-carbon, it is only so in comparison to the burning of fossil fuels. In life-cycle comparisons with renewable forms of energy, however, nuclear is many times worse in carbon emissions, according to the highly-regarded and peer-reviewed Sovacool study. If nuclear “has to be vastly better than renewables” as Walters says, it fails the test.

5 years 3 months ago

@prianikoff …no what was appalling was the almost universal *ignoring* of the 20,000 people dead by the tsunami from the greens. As it if it almost never happened and the only issue was Fukushima. And…no talk *at all* about the immediate increase in fossil fuel consumption and the deaths *this* will lead to because of the 8,000 MWs of low carbon energy now destroyed by the accident. How much *more coal* and *natural gas* will be used to make up for the loss of nuclear energy there?

The solution is to look for a solution as I noted in my article, prianikoff. It’s not running away.

I agree about a “DEMOCRATIC” perspective on nuclear energy. But its not about the “long term danger”. Socialists need to come up with solutions to the REAL and PRESENT danger of 400,000 dead people a YEAR who die form particulate caused disease from coal. It’s coal which is the main focus. And I haven’t mentioned global warming yet, either.

Newer designs DO lessen and, essentially eliminate the problems caused by what happen Fukushima. We need to start phasing out these old BWRs…and this should be the socialist perspective…and building on site newer, safer models. Why? Because we can’t afford not to. Nuclear doesn’t have to be perfect…it only has to be vastly better than renewables. Even with this terrible accident, nuclear will have mitigated billions of tons of CO2, save countless lives through coal mitigation.

Socialists should be championing low carbon advanced nuclear energy. Not chimera’s of expensive, high-material-use-per-unit-of-energy renewables.

5 years 3 months ago

Let me respectively start here to answer Zane’s well articulated counter-points.

1. Solar wind costs. There is a difference between costs and price. The costs are under socialism the accumulated use values inclusive of labor power “sold” even under socialism. Under capitalism this includes surplus value during the whole extraction/assembly as it becomes a commodity. The price is what you or I pay for what they, the capitalist (or socialist distributive unit) charges.

Bravenewclimate has shown and as Greg implies, here: http://bravenewclimate.com/renewable-limits/ with over 2 dozen reports where the economics are parsed to show the huge costs of solar and wind.

Solar of course is simply not ready for prime time. You argue that “prices will come down” yet you don’t allow the same development in production techniques as applied for nuclear? I think both will come down and the both the Japanese, Koreans and now the Chinese are proving this by bringing in reactors…Gen III reactors at that..at cost and ahead of schedule.

2. Wastes. Someone like Gregory above and myself don’t view this as ‘waste’. You might because you don’t want to use it. Gen IV reactors…at least 2 of varieties, use *spent nuclear fuel* as feedstock.

The IFR is already proven…you just haven’t been following the literature out of India and Russia that IFR is ‘evolved’ out of the FBR program that is 30 years old.

The Chinese are investing, as of this February, in Molten Salt Reactors using Thorium (LFTR).

As Marxists we defend the right of the people to control their own resources and that decisions should be made with as much democratic input and control as possible. This might mean we oppose uranium mining if the local inhabitants oppose it or a wind farm, as in Wales, if the local inhabitants oppose that. Right? Uranium mining can be phase out. Already 50% of all nuclear energy in the U.S. uses downblended ex-Soviet nuclear WMD, a true Swords into Plowshares program that should be expanded to include ALL the worlds nuclear weapons. At the same time we develop, rapidly, masses of Gen IV reactors to use up the both the remaining SNF and the even greater amounts, albeit less frightening, depleted uranium stocks.

Zane, we think along these lines because we want solutions to both the huge ecological footprint that renewables represent and because we want to rapidly solve climate change.

3. Proliferation. WMD doesn’t grow organically out of nuclear energy. Different isotopes, different enrichment regimes and different tech, generally.

Countries like Israel and Pakistan built their WMD without a civilian nuclear infrastructure. You don’t need one. It’s *cheaper* to build nuke weapons from dedicated R&D reactors than it is from the SNF from civilian reactors. Which is *why no one does it*!! The “cat IS out of the bag” so the only solution to nuclear weapons is not to build them. That is, implement unilateral nuclear disarmament and close the bomb factors, using the remaining material to down blend into fuel.

Secondly, it’s a fake comparison anyway, quite honestly. Should we stop using jet passenger planes because EVERY civilian air liner is essentially the same tech as a B-52 or earlier B-29? Jet bombers are built in the *same* plants as civilian airliners! Do we not use steel in wind mills because the same plants make steel for tanks? Of course not. So it’s even a remoter connection between military nuclear WMD and civilian nuclear energy.

prianikoff
5 years 3 months ago

If socialists want to be tribunes of the people, they’d be well advised to pay attention to the decision of the Italian electorate. In the referendum on Monday, they decisively opposed new Nuclear Power stations being built. A similar referendum in Germany would probably back the government’s decisions to phase out their nuclear power programme too.

What’s under debate there is not whether there should be a nationalised nuclear power industry (like Chernobyl?), but whether there should be one at all. In the immediate term, that means deciding on whether the existing industry should be expanded.

That’s what socialists have to relate to, not some imaginary debate of their own choosing.

So first of all we should be supporting the elementary democratic demand for a REFERENDUM on Nuclear power.
Secondly, were such a referendum to be held in Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia or anywhere else , we should be using the debate to point to the very real long-term DANGERS of nuclear power.

Since these remain unsolved and there have been 3 major nuclear accidents since the 1970’s, we should call for a NO vote in such a referendum. All the evidence is that this would make Socialists POPULAR.

The reaction of pro-Nuke Greens like George Monbiot to Fukushima was particularly appalling on this score.
Instead of dealing with the real situation after Fukushima, “Greens” merely regurgitated bland abstractions.
They completely failed to challenge the propaganda of nuclear Power industry and simply became its mouthpieces.
This was in a situation where Fukushima has led to 80,000 refugees, a very serious long-term environmental disaster and, almost certainly some kind of melt-down of the containment vessels around the fuel rods, which has escaped into the surrounding sea-water and atmosphere.

This was the result of a system specification which failed to deal with all possible contingency – the main cause of failure in safety-critical systems. Whatever the reassurances given about “more modern” designs, this is something that can never be entirely designed out of the system.
There will be other unanticipated situations in the to future that will lead to disasters.

The problem is, that with nuclear power, the long term consequences of such failures can operate over historical timescales as long as human civilisation has existed. These consequences are never calculated for in the costs of the plant, they’re virtually incalculable in economic terms.

That’s why it’s nonsense to say nuclear power is “safe, “clean” or “Green”

There are many other safer alternatives and they can and will be developed.

Gregory Meyerson
5 years 3 months ago

I’ll say more later, but the promise of generation four nuclear would not only greatly reduce the waste but eliminate the need for mining.

On the other hand, if you were dumb enough (and it won’t happen) to scale up wind and solar to multiple terawatts, do you think you would not have an “incredibly toxic mining problem” dwarfing nuclear’s mining footprint? Not just the mining for concrete and steel but for the rareearth metals, etc. and since renewables are at this point so energy diffuse, there is no chance to achieve what we know nuclear can do: eat nuclear weapons and waste.

and gen four is not as unproven as claimed. Most of the claims for it were proven in the eighties and nineties at argonne when plug was pulled (as the scientists were working out the pyroprocess, now being worked on by the south koreans). if you were interested, you could talk to one of the scientists working on the project. George Stanford. George wrote some pieces on the IFR for Bravenewclimate.

as far as toxicity, you have to compare nuclear toxicity, which decays after 300 years if you eat the actinides, to the chemical toxicities of scaled renewables mining. one can use all the scare adjectives here etc. etc.

I see lots of FUD in these posts.

GM

Zane
5 years 3 months ago
Norm
5 years 3 months ago

Ditto. To campaign aggressively now for a nuclear future would be a tactical disaster and isolate the socialist movement from the environment — and peace — movement’s current trajectory and preference while allying them with the shrillist of capitalist ‘magic bullet’ solutionists. Following the recent anti nuclear decisions in Japan and Germany ‘nuclear’ is a dirtier word than it was even a year ago. So why should we jump on a nuclear bandwagon when there is no self evident imperative that humanity must go down that route? The same mistake can be made over population arguments: it becomes inherently a distraction from what primarily needs to be done. There is no way that nuclear is going to win consensus democratic support unless it is clear that renewables will fail or have failed us.Ultimately, even under a nuclear regime, you have to come back to the core question of peoples control of how, when, where– and then it ceases to be an abstract polemic and something that exists in the real political world — just like uranium mines on indigenous land in Australia or nuclear waste disposal . Even Denmark insisted that Sweden close down its Barsebäck nuclear power plant because it was so close to the Danish coast. How’s that for large scale NIMBYism? So what do you want, that we, as socialists, should campaign cpntrary and work to keep projects like that open? That we argue that what your local town needs is a nuclear power plant , just like Springfield?

Zane
5 years 3 months ago
Neither of these authors saw fit to talk about the issue of waste storage. Renewables are criticised as utopian and ‘too expensive’ and then the mythical integral fast reactor, of which none have never existed anywhere on the planet, is evoked as a solution to the waste problem. Contradiction much? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t take a super pessimistic view of renewable technologies like solar thermal which are actually in operation and say they will never be cheap enough and then in the next sentence say that a completely unproven technology like IFR will be some sort of cost effective way of dealing with the waste issue. And whilst it is true you can make nuclear weapons with a small research reactor, the capacity for covert weapons programs and rapid mass production of nuclear weapons expands exponentially as you build ever more new nuclear plants. Finally, don’t forget where the uranium comes from- places like Australia, where Aboriginal people are pitted against each other to secure ‘consent’ for massive thirsty open pit or insitu leach uranium mines with vast toxic tailings dumps which will slowly spread through the artesian basin. Moreover, the Howard Government in Australia tried to have a massive international nuclear waste dump built on Aboriginal land. I look forward to the eco-socialist revolution- the sooner the better – but in the meantine capitalist governments have made clear their interest in dumping massive volumes of nuclear waste in the Australian outback. Until such a time as we have abolished capitalism, the more the nuclear industry expands, the greater the risk that some massive volume of the accumulated waste may end up getting foisted upon Aboriginal Australia. Yes, it is possible to run reactors in a safer way than Fukushima- and new reactors are safer than the fukushima plant- and the left is probably not doing itself any great favours by denying this. No, existing nuclear plants cannot all be shut down over night as this would cause rolling blackouts. But each major nuclear accident presents new things that had not been thought of, new mistakes that ‘won’t happen next time’. The nature of nuclear material is that it is just so *INCREDIBLY* toxic, and bio-accumulates in the food chain, so that even one accident per several thousand reactor-years is enough to put a serious question over the industry. Look at the effects on Japanese exports right now. Coupled with the proliferation risk, the waste issue, the incredibly toxic way in which the ore is extracted, then this all adds up to put a major cloud over the viability of the industry. Why can’t renewables do the job? Because they are ‘intermittent’? You cant decry one part of the left for having a simplistic critique of nuclear and then go on to provide an evidently simplistic critique of renewables. Distributed wind is proven to be able to provide baseload power – look at the work of Mark Jacobsen. New solar thermal technology with storage is a game changer precisely because it can store large amounts of heat which can be flashed to steam to dispense power as needed- which apart from allowing plants to run 24/7 and have reserve for cloudy days, also allows plants to act like fast ramping gas to provide an ideal backup to wind. Yes, major grid upgrades (including massive high voltage DC cable to take power from sunnier areas like northern Africa to places like Europe and the UK) are needed to facilitate a shift to renewables, yes the program would take a decade or more and would be quite expensive. Wind power is quite affordable though and thats why vast wind farms are getting built globally versus hardly any nuclear. Sargent and Lundy consulting (USA) projects the cost of baseload solar will drop massively – to within cooee of coal fired power – once another 7-8gigawatts of plant are built out and economies of scale kick in. Sargent and Lundy are not a left wing think tank. Distributed wind and baseload solar thermal with storage present a viable alternative to nuclear, are quicker to approve and build than nuclear plants, don’t carry the same risks, and whilst they are cost effective already (without necessarily being ‘cheap’) there exists great potential to further refine these technologies. I would argue that it would be prudent for socialists to be calling for a rollout of as much distributed renewable technology as possible, and once the limits of what renewables can reliably provide have been reached – and only then – it may be necessary to revisit nuclear or other options. I can’t see why socialists would have anything other than a highly conditional support for nuclear power, in highly specialised instances. Nuclear energy has been tweaked and refined for 60 years – at immense expense – and there are still a host of very serious unresolved issues. Renewable energy is still fairly new, but in terms of new plant getting built it is already way more popular than nuclear and indeed even fossil fuels (even with the global power sector almost entirely under the control of crude market forces). I just cant see how socialists should not be supporting an even greater gearing up of the renewable industry globally to further refine those technologies, bring their cost down and supercede as much existing coal and nuclear generation as we possibly can. Maybe 20 years from now the mythical nuclear waste neutralising Integral Fast Reactors will be up and running and we can see what they cost, how safe they are and how effective they are at neutralising nuclear waste, and revisit this debate. But really, why would socialists call for any new nuclear plant now when renewables have so much untapped potential – when there is so much coal and nuclear just waiting to be replaced by renewables. The transition is eminently possible but its just happening at a snails pace due to the profit imperative, which dictates existing plant… Read more »
5 years 3 months ago

Hansen is far more ‘liberal’ on non-carbon generation, Mark, than I am. He opposes *nothing* that is low carbon. He’s “for it all” but understands that at the baseload side…that is the minimum 24/7 grid provided power, you need nuclear.

The recent Canadian “Equinox Summit” basically came out with a “40% renewables, 40% nuclear” scenario. I’d love to actually see that on a world wide basis…but the actually getting to 40% *baseload* is something that those wacky wind-crazed Danes and Germans have not figured out how to do, at least under a capitalist mode of production.

But to answer directly: my understanding of this, from my own experience with grid operations is that the cost to store the vast amount of generation and redundant capital expenditures would be so expensive as to make this impossible.

The great climate activist blog, bravenewclimate.com has a tab on exactly these questions. Also, a Marxist analysis of this will be coming out in a future issue of “Cultural Logic” in the near future. Stay tuned.

Mark
5 years 3 months ago

Dave,

James Hansen claims in his latest book that he’s spoken with many engineers about base-load electricity requirements in a realistic decarbonizing scenario. He’s concluded that (fourth-generation) nuclear reactors would be necessary to ensure this load.

You only dismiss the affordability of other low-carbon options in your article. Is it theoretically possible to ensure a reliable base load of electricity without nuclear power? I am assuming that demand is controlled with strong conservation measures. (I don’t know if Hansen considered conservation.)

5 years 3 months ago

Hi Ted, all good points. Let me try to address them…

Faults. If history is an example, nuclear power plants, including those in Japan, especially in Fukushima, have indeed survived with out releases of radiation or devastating rupturing of reactor cores. Of course we only know some of what happened at Fukushima but clearly it was the quake *induced* tsunami that did the damage, not the quake(s) themselves.

Nuke plants are quite overbuilt and this has already been proven in numerous quakes that have hit many plants around the world. The two plants in California among them albeit they haven’t been hit but more that 4+ quakes to my knowledge. But even a 9+ quake hasn’t destroyed any plants and they’ve been around for 60 years.

Capitalism. It’s all true what you say, but it’s also true that the seriousness of safety regulatory regimes varies country by country but also industry by industry. Even Japan, with it’s terribly incestuous gov’t-industry-regulatory regime, is far above the MOST regulated of any industry in Japan (or any where else). It’s not as if they run nuclear, in any country, the way they run, say, food inspections on street food.

This is why more transparency, nationalization, worker and technician input & control, MORE but rational regulations, need to be implemented.

Ted Crawford
5 years 3 months ago

I am with you Dave on this but I would add a rider in that building nuclear plants on tectonic faults is clearly dangerous, that includes California Dave! I would also add that in the long run the political institutions under capitalism will always be bought and corrupted by profit making capitalists, unless there is a most powerful democracy at work – look at Wall St.
Even then formal democratic institutions such as the US Congress have been bought by the Banks and it looks as if they will be bought again as their lobbyists are fighting like tigers (and bribing)to prevent any laws that will diminish their profits.
Ted Crawford

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