Responding to A socialist defends nuclear energy, Michael Friedman says our primary task is not to offer technological solutions to capitalist ills, but to offer social solutions that incorporate the technologies most amenable to our social goals. Nuclear doesn’t fit the bill.
Climate & Capitalism welcomes discussion on this important issue. Please read Nuclear power: For a respectful and thoughtful discussion before posting.
by Michael Friedman
Michael Friedman is an evolutionary biologist and adjunct assistant professor at QueensCollege of the City University of New York.
Retired nuclear power plant operator David Walters seeks to make a socialist case for nuclear power as the alternative to fossil fuels. Unfortunately, he parts from the unfortunate and worn-out progressive infatuation with capitalist productivism, the technology that it employs and the technological determinism that justifies it and brings forth a host of magic bullet non-solutions for every problem it engenders. This is succinctly confirmed by his assertions that “the center of this discussion can be narrowed down to one technological and scientific issue: the generation, use, and distribution of energy” and “human use of energy set us apart from all other species, including the higher ones such as dolphins and apes.”
These formulations fly in the face of a Marxist understanding of human development, reducing ‘all hitherto existing human history’ to the history of energy development. That is technological determinism, no more. For Marxists, the “center” of this discussion is the capitalist mode of production, and concretely, its method of appropriation of human labor and natural resources.
Driven to privatize and turn the natural world into marketable commodities incorporating human labor, capital rips natural processes such as biogeochemical cycles or trophic webs to pieces in order to isolate profitable components. We are presented with abominations like monocrop agriculture, fracking and Fukushima.
This mode of production and the reductionist, mechanistic worldview attendant upon it, has turned Homo sapiens’ biological connections to the rest of the natural world upside down; under capitalism, humans are not only alienated from their labor, and each other, but from the nature with which they are inextricably bound. This is the cause of the environmental crisis. Global warming is far from the only major element of this crisis. Many ecologists regard the dramatic decline in biodiversity as just as devastating to humans and all life on this planet as global warming. Deforestation, ocean acidification, the proliferation of human waste and toxic contaminants, the introduction of genetically engineered organisms and invasive species, all of these are, of course interconnected consequences of the market economy, but it is meaningless to subsume them under the rubric of “generation, use and distribution of energy.”
Even global warming cannot simply be reduced to a problem of energy production. Authors Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss observe that, “by most accounts, deforestation in tropical rainforests adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world’s roads. According to the World Carfree Network (WCN), cars and trucks account for about 14 percent of global carbon emissions, while most analysts attribute upwards of 15 percent to deforestation.”
What does all of this imply for solutions?
First, the integral environmental crisis we face today quite simply does not admit to technological solutions in the first instance, because it is a product of the peculiar relationship that capitalist society establishes between humans and the natural world. The solution, as Walters might agree, lies through revolutionary transformation of society.
Second, a radical rethinking of capitalist scientific and technological paradigms and potentialities is in order. Technologies and their deployment are shaped by the society that engenders them. Scientific paradigms are shaped by the social order. And the very idea that nuclear power represents a safe and viable solution is rooted in those paradigms.
Unfortunately, in the process of making his case, Walters not only falls back on technological determinism, but also twists the facts. I refer particularly to his discussion of nuclear safety, to which I turn.
Contrary to his rosy view of the nuclear power option, the Union of Concerned Scientists — which supports continued carefully monitored development of nuclear power — is not so sanguine about its safety. According to the UCS, “Nuclear power is an inherently hazardous technology; there’s no way to make it perfectly safe. But we can make it safer.” In a a position statement on global warming, they elaborate further:
“It must be borne in mind that a large-scale expansion of nuclear power in the United States or worldwide under existing conditions would be accompanied by an increased risk of catastrophic events—a risk not associated with any of the non-nuclear means for reducing global warming.
“These catastrophic events include a massive release of radiation due to a power plant meltdown or terrorist attack, or the death of tens of thousands due to the detonation of a nuclear weapon made with materials obtained from a civilian—most likely non-U.S.—nuclear power system.
“Expansion of nuclear power would also produce large amounts of radioactive waste that would pose a serious hazard as long as there remain no facilities for safe long-term disposal.”
The UCS statement was issued in 2007. Would Walters argue that things have greatly improved since then?
David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who worked for 17 years in the industry before becoming Director of the UCS Nuclear Safety Project, warned, before Congress in 2008, that “those advocating a nuclear revival should recall the famous words of George Santayana: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” He provided a historic scorecard on U.S. reactor safety:
U.S. Nuclear Power Reactors, 1953-2008
- 253 nuclear power reactors ordered
- 71 reactors canceled before construction started
- 182 construction permits or limited work authorizations issued
- 50 reactors canceled after construction started
- 132 operating licenses issued
- 28 reactors permanently shut down before the end of their 40-year operating licenses expired (including one meltdown)
- 104 reactors operating
- 36 reactors operating despite having experienced one or more year-plus outages
- 68 reactors operating having never experienced a year-plus outage
- 0 inherently safe reactors operating
Lochbaum qualified that last figure as follows: ”
“The last entry in the table – which indicates that none of the operating reactors are inherently safe – may appear to be a snide editorial comment, but is not. Because the reactors are inherently dangerous, their risk must be properly managed. The history of nuclear power in the United States is fraught with mismanagement of that risk. This has resulted in reactors that were canceled before ever operating, permanently shut down before the end of their operating licenses, and temporarily shut down for over a year to restore safety levels. This mismanagement of these inherently dangerous reactors made nuclear power less safe and more costly than necessary.”
In his testimony, Lochbaum produced a list of failures on the part of operators and regulators, before concluding that neither the U.S. nuclear industry, nor the NRC has shown signs of improvement on this record.
Three years after his 2008 testimony, Fukushima happened. But, neither Fukushima, nor Chernobyl, nor 3 MileIsland have been the only serious reactor accidents. The UCS, lists a few more:
- Enrico Fermi Unit 1 — Coolant flow blockage in two fuel channels led to the partial meltdown of two fuel assemblies at Fermi Unit 1.
- SL-1— The withdrawal of a single control rod caused a catastrophic power surge and steam explosion at the SL-1 boiling water reactor that killed all the workers on duty at the time.
- Sodium Reactor Experiment — A partial meltdown occurred at the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) due to cooling flow blockage that caused the reactor core to overheat.
- Windscale — Windscale Unit 1’s core caught fire and melted, which led large amounts of radioactivity to be released to the surrounding area.
Both the SL-1 and Windscale accidents resulted in fatalities — over 200 cancer deaths, in the case of Windscale.
In a 2012 report on nuclear safety, the UCS states, “in 2012, the NRC reported 14 “near-misses” at nuclear plants. Just to be clear about the gravity of the situation, a near-miss is an event that increases the chance of core meltdown by at least a factor of 10, thus prompting the NRC to dispatch some level of special inspection team to investigate the event. Over the past three years, 40 of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors experienced one or more near-misses.”
A perusal of the nuclear plant safety record in other countries is hardly reassuring. In France there have been 12 accidents, including two in which a dozen workers were exposed and had to be hospitalized, and two in which radioactive substances escaped into the environment. Fukushima is not Japan’s first (leaving aside its earlier brushes with the “nuclear-military industrial complex”), nor even the first at Fukushima. The country has experienced a dozen accidents, including several fatalities and leaks into the environment. And, this even though physicist and anti-nuke activist Michio Kaku, considers Japan’s reactors to be, “among the safest in the world.”
Walters attempts to put a positive spin on the fatality record for nuclear power as compared to fossil fuels, a rather disingenuous offering, something like comparing traffic fatalities on the NYS thruway with those on a back-country road, given relative scales of development. But, more importantly, accident risks are not commensurable, given the threat of ionizing radiation inherent to nuclear power, the persistence of radioactive contaminants in the environment and their potential dissemination by wind and sea currents and the food chain, with the attendant risk of biomagnification.
In this vein, Walters makes a surprising claim about Fukushima, that “the population was exposed to so very little radiation after the accident.”
Physicist Michio Kaku would disagree with that assessment. Writing after the meltdown, Kaku explained, “Now we know it was 100 percent core melt in all three reactors…now we know it was comparable to the radiation at Chernobyl.” He further explained some of the exposure risk in another piece, “the tragedy is, this accident has released enormous quantities of iodine, radioactive iodine-131, into the atmosphere, like what happened at Chernobyl, about 10 percent the level of Chernobyl. Iodine is water soluble. When it rains, it gets into the soil. Cows then eat the vegetation, create milk, and then it winds up in the milk. Farmers are now dumping milk right on their farms, because it’s too radioactive. Foods have to be impounded in the area.”
Kaku’s point is important. Pro-nuclear ideologues often make the claim that nuclear power plants lead to less exposure than a medical x-ray. The problem is that different types of radioactive elements and exposures pose distinct dangers. External exposures like a medical x-ray represent one-shot deals. Internal exposures persist as long as the element remains within our system and can intimately expose cell nuclei to ionizing radiation.
Different elements remain in our systems for varying periods and are sequestered in different tissues. And different elements undergo different types of radioactive decay, which can cause greatly varying degrees of damage. Iodine 131, for example, is a significant uranium and plutonium fission product, and figured prominently in releases at Chernobyl and Fukushima. It does not have a long half-life — 8 days — but it is sequestered in thyroid tissue, where even small exposures for short periods represent high risk for carcinogenesis in a vital regulatory organ, particularly given its principal mode of decay — beta decay.
Walters also seeks to brush off concerns about nuclear waste disposal. However, his preferred solution, “dry cask” waste storage, is not meant to be any more than a short-term (50 year) stop-gap measure. In his 2008 testimony before Congress, David Lochbaum stated, “over the next 50 years, interim storage of spent fuel in dry casks is economically viable and secure, if hardened against attack. In the longer term, a geologic repository would provide the stability needed to isolate the spent fuel from the environment.” No such permanent repository has yet been designated.
The UCS notes, “The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 dictated that the federal government would identify a permanent geological repository—a long-term storage site—and begin transferring waste from nuclear power plants to that repository by 1998. A decade and a half after that deadline, the search for a repository site has stalled, with no resolution likely in the near future.”
The only planned facility, at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, was shut down by pressure from local residents before it was even finished, due, among other things, to issues of transparency and democracy. Concerns were also expressed that the site, although deemed “safe,” was located in a seismically active zone, with possible additional problems with runoff and potential contamination of the water table.
With respect to Walters’ other option for coping with radioactive waste, reprocessing, Lochbaum testified that, “reprocessing offers no advantages for nuclear waste disposal. Reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium and uranium would not allow a geologic repository to accommodate more nuclear waste, as the repository would also have to accept high-level waste from reprocessing. Reprocessing would also increase the amount of material needing disposal in other engineered waste facilities.”
The UCS also expressed concern with the risks of nuclear weapon proliferation, noting that “no technical fix—such as those incorporated in new reprocessing technologies—can remove the proliferation risks associated with nuclear fuel cycles that include reprocessing and the use of plutonium- based fuel.”
Nor do nuclear power plants, processing and waste disposal represent the only risks attendant on nuclear power. Uranium mining and milling operations pose particular risks for the workers and those living near mines. Studies by NIOSH in 1973, 1983 and 2004 all showed higher than expected mortalities for uranium mill workers, from cancer and other diseases.
A 2010 study published in Radiation Research followed a cohort in a mill town in New Mexico from 1950 to 2004, finding increased rates of lung cancer in men. They noted, “excesses of lung cancer among men seem likely to be due to previously reported risks among underground miners from exposure to radon gas and its decay products.”
An earlier study conducted by the same authors with a cohort of miners found, “lung cancer mortality to be significantly increased among underground miners.” There are a plethora of studies documenting these risks (see, for example the World Information Service on Energy website).
A commentary by anthropologist Hugh Gusterson in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “The Lessons of Fukushima,” sums up the risks we face and the choice we currently have:
“And presumably there are other complicated technological scenarios that we have not foreseen, earthquake faults that are undetected or underestimated, and terrorists hatching plans for mayhem as yet unknown. Not to mention regulators who place too much trust in those they regulate.
“Thus it is hard to resist the conclusion reached by sociologist Charles Perrow in his book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies: Nuclear reactors are such inherently complex, tightly coupled systems that, in rare, emergency situations, cascading interactions will unfold very rapidly in such a way that human operators will be unable to predict and master them. To this anthropologist, then, the lesson of Fukushima is not that we now know what we need to know to design the perfectly safe reactor, but that the perfectly safe reactor is always just around the corner. It is technoscientific hubris to think otherwise.
“This leaves us with a choice between walking back from a technology that we decide is too dangerous or normalizing the risks of nuclear energy and accepting “that an occasional Fukushima is the price we have to pay for a world with less carbon dioxide. It is wishful thinking to believe there is a third choice of nuclear energy without nuclear accidents.”
Curiously, for a Marxist, Walters claims that nukes can “even” be run safely under capitalism. The UCS (not a socialist group) argues, essentially, that this could be done, but has yet to be done. As Marxists though, we should understand that these exceptions are the rule under capitalism. It is precisely due to the laws of the market that all of UCS’s failings in management and regulation occur. It is precisely because of those market laws that the laws of physics become such a problem. It is precisely because of the laws of the market that intrinsically harmful technologies are developed or potentially harmful technologies are deployed half-baked, without consideration for health or environmental consequences.
As to whether or not nuclear power will become feasible in a socialist society, that is not for our generation to say. As a science fiction fan, I would not categorically rule out nuclear power. Perhaps when we devise adamantium containers, force fields and cheap intra and interstellar transportation, within the framework of a society that places human life above profits, it will become feasible.
In the meantime, our primary task is not to offer technological solutions to capitalist ills, but to offer social solutions that incorporate the current technologies most amenable to our social goals — which put a premium on intertwined human and environmental health and well-being, and grass-roots democracy. Nuclear power does not currently fit that bill. Renewables do.
And contrary to Walters, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reason to assert that, “close to 80 percent of the world‘s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies …. The findings, from over 120 researchers working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), also indicate that the rising penetration of renewable energies could lead to cumulative greenhouse gas savings equivalent to 220 to 560 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtC02eq) between 2010 and 2050.”