Socialists debate nuclear, 4: A green syndicalist view

Continuing our discussion of nuclear energy, Steve Ongerth of the IWW says it’s no coincidence that many of the same forces that are fighting to deny climate change and hold back renewables are also pushing nuclear power. 

Previous articles in this debate:

Climate & Capitalism  welcomes discussion on this important issue. Please read Nuclear power: For a respectful and thoughtful discussion before posting.


by Steve Ongerth

Steve Ongerth is a member of the Environment Unionism Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World. The views expressed here are his own, and are not an official position of the IWW

I read with interest David Walters’s recent article, “A Socialist Defends Nuclear Energy, wondering what I would find. I soon discovered there was very little credible “defense” and for that matter, not much “socialism” (other than the citation of various Marxist quotations that Marx and Engels would have bristled at given their context here) in it. In fact, it read to me as a typical capitalist defense of its standard operations wrapped in a rather threadbare and tattered red flag.

Michael Friedman has thoroughly debunked Walters’s claims about the “safety” of (conventional) nuclear (fission) energy and the “ease” at dealing with the nuclear waste in his own piece so there is no utility in elaborating further on that matter. It is my intention to address the issues that Friedman didn’t cover.

To begin with, if David Walters is so willing to overlook peer reviewed science and factual evidence that clearly shows that conventional nuclear fission energy is unsafe and the problem of nuclear waste not easily handled, he may as well also argue in favor of thorium based breeder reactors, nuclear fusion power, fracking, tar sands, “clean” coal, or even hydrogen fuel cells which are equally questionable technologies (and please note that I am not arguing in favor of any of these things here, though I think hydrogen fuel cells are worth a look at least).

Additionally, Walters lumps in all greens into a single, monolithic group, dominated by primitivism and Malthusianism. This is as inaccurate as arguing that all communists take their marching orders from Stalin. This is the rhetoric one expects to hear from the most reactionary elements of the capitalist class’s punditocracy rather than an informed anti-capitalist. To me this is a clear indication that his entire argument is mere propaganda and has very little substance.

I don’t think I need to belabor the point that the environmental movement is as multifaceted as the socialist one. The primitivists and Malthusians are merely two, very small — if highly vocal — factions within it. There are social ecologists, influenced by the works of Murray Bookchin and Janet Biel, Ecosocialists, represented by John Bellamy Foster and Ian Angus. I count myself among the green syndicalists whose class struggle ecology is inspired by Judi Bari, Graham Purchase, and Jeff Shantz. And those are merely the radicals.

Only a capitalist ideologue would lump all forms of socialism into a single camp and paint a caricature of it to match the very worst aspects of a brutal dictatorship lead by one Josef Stalin. Why then does David Walters likewise dismiss the environmentalists thusly?

Moving on from there, Walters dismisses renewable energy as being an insignificant pipe dream, opining that providing all of the current world’s needs with renewable energy is fantasy. However he provides not a single shred of evidence to support such a negative conclusion. As a matter of fact, there’s plenty of evidence [1, 2, 3] that 100% renewable energy is not only possible within the 21st Century, but already on course to happen quicker than anyone anticipates.

Claims to the contrary (without any corroborating evidence of course) are quite common, and they can usually be traced back to the fossil fuel and nuclear power industry. Their claims are based on utterly mistaken notions, including the myths that renewables are intermittent, not cost effective, too expensive, and dependent upon fossil fuels and nuclear power. In fact, not a single one of these claims is true.

Just to be absolutely clear, my definition of renewables means existing, proven technologies, including primarily solar (electric and thermal), wind, wave and tidal, geothermal, and small scale hydro power. I am including both distributed and utility scale deployment of each. I am not talking about (or are in favor of) that are (deliberately) mislabeled “renewable” by the capitalist class.[4]

On the matter of intermittency, Renewables, including especially wind and solar are effected by the availability of the wind and the position of the sun, but evidence shows that the intermittency problem is overstated and solvable by increased robustness of the grid.[5]

There also seems to be a happy coincidence that the peak solar generation times occur when the wind is stagnant and vice versa. Finally, when excess power is generated and not needed, there are a plethora of storage options available, including electric car batteries which are generally (erroneously) regarded as a drain on the grid rather than a buttress for it!

To be certain, fossil fuel and nuke plants also suffer from intermittency primarily due to peak loads and maintenance issues not inherent in renewables.

The argument that renewable energy isn’t cost effective or is too expensive has been thoroughly debunked [6, 7, 8] and any socialist worth their salt knows that fossil fuels and nuclear fission power are the beneficiaries of massive state subsidies that renewables do not currently receive, and yet they’re cost effective in spite of that.[9]

The claim that renewables actually require fossil fuels (or nukes) to back them up (thus making the former dependent on the latter) is also a myth [10] based on the “intermittency” misconception which I have addressed. The claim has often been made that wind and solar cannot provide baseload power (thus requiring fossil fuels or nukes) is likewise false [11, 12] and in fact the opposite is true. Renewables actually reduce the need for fossil and nuke based baseload and peaker plant power (which already exist due to the intermittency of fossil fuels and nukes) [13, 14].

And David Walter’s claim that renewables are not resulting in the scaling down of fossil fuels is utterly false. [15]

Nuclear power advocates often argue that nuclear power “creates jobs”, but this argument doesn’t pan out. First of all, most of the time the “creates / provides jobs” claim actually is capitalist newspeak for “generates profits”, and furthermore, studies show that renewables generate far more permanent direct jobs than any conventional energy sources [16, 17] and in fact, renewables create enough jobs to generate full or near full employment, something the capitalist class — which depends heavily on the reserve army of the unemployed — cannot and will not tolerate.

This gets to the heart of the matter. The capitalists — for the most part — support nuclear power. We don’t witness multi-billion dollar corporate interests like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or reactionary think tanks (like the Heritage Foundation or Cato Institute) engaging in covert subterfuge against nuclear power the way they do against climate science or renewable energy. [18] That’s because nuclear power doesn’t represent the same type of potential threat to capitalism as renewable energy does.

At worst, nuclear power could be used by states (such as Iran) not within the satellite orbit of major capitalist powers (like the US) to possibly develop relative energy independence (and possibly, though far less likely, nuclear weapons). However, the capitalist class has long been able to handle the challenge of nonaligned states developing nuclear power and weapons. They’re far less prepared for energy sources that lend themselves much more easily to the dissolution of their dominant economic model, which renewables do.

The great advantage renewables have that conventional sources do not is the ability to scale them for localized, distributed generation at relatively cheap cost, thus allowing formerly dependent end users to declare independence from the yoke of centralized energy producers.

This is already happening with solar on a large scale and much more rapidly than anyone anticipated. That’s why we’re seeing utilities — whose very existence (which depends upon state sanctioned monopoly capitalism) is being threatened by the rapid growth of rooftop solar [19] and crowd sourced community energy projects — do everything they can to hold it back by attempting to force ratepayers to pay increased grid maintenance fees and to outlaw “net metering”. In fact, the capitalists are publishing very frightened sounding position papers [20] questioning whether or not centralized, for profit utilities are even a viable model anymore! [21]

This is happening due to the fact that solar and wind power are “disruptive” technologies, meaning that by their nature they induce a reshuffling of business as usual. What makes these renewable technologies so disruptive is the ability at which they can be scaled as largely or as small as possible — given the particular requirements (or limitations) of specific installations — and interlinked to the grid.

Conventional power sources cannot be scaled thusly and only make economic sense in large, centralized facilities. Even theoretical new technologies, such as breeder reactors and fusion reactors are not scalable as renewables are.

I concede that even though capitalism tends toward monopoly, by themselves disruptive technologies do not necessarily threaten its existence. Capital has proven quite adept at withstanding and controlling other disruptive technologies, such as electricity, automobiles, computers, the Internet, and cellular phones. One difference between then and now, however, is that none of those previous disruptions ever occurred at a time of great economic stagnation as now, nor was the very existence of life on earth ever as much at stake as it is currently.

Worse, still, for the capitalist class is the looming problem of the carbon bubble. There is increasing evidence that a major day of reckoning at hand, because if the human civilization is to avoid certain climate catastrophe resulting from an increase in global temperature beyond the already dangerous 2 degrees Celsius we’ve already passed (but could theoretically reverse), almost 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves will have to remain in the ground. However, the value of those reserves is priced on the basis that 100 percent of them will be extracted! And we’re talking about hundreds of trillions of US dollars here.

Fear of this carbon bubble (and not “peak oil” as Richard Heinberg and his ilk are suggesting) is a major factor behind the coal, fracking, and tar sands mining booms. It’s also behind climate change denial and opposition to pro-renewable measures like feed-in-tariffs, net metering, and renewables production tax credits. If you look carefully, you will find the same ultra reactionary puppet masters (such as ALEC) funding the reaction to the growing popular opposition to business as usual. They have every reason to do so; after all, it’s their assets that risk being stranded! [22]

Therefore, the capitalist class has every incentive to deny climate change and undermine confidence in viable alternatives (like renewables), because their very existence is at stake. As we have seen, this is exactly what they’re doing with renewables and climate change, but not with nuclear power!

If anything, most of the same forces that are fighting to deny climate change and hold back renewables are also pushing nuclear power. That should tell us something about its potential utility as a source of power.

David Walters might argue that under socialism, none of the problems with nuclear power that currently exist would continue to do so under socialism. Granted, many of them could be minimized, but as already discussed, they can’t be eliminated outright.

Furthermore–and this is where many socialists might disagree with my own, green-syndicalist, perspective–there is an inherent problem with nuclear power that traditional socialism cannot address, and that is its technocratic nature.

Nuclear power is a highly specialized and highly centralized technology. It’s also very risky work. requires advanced systems to keep it running, highly skilled and trained workers to make it function.

It is entirely possible, even desirable, to have highly specialized technicians in a socialist society when necessary, but if less specialized, less risky alternatives are available, why spend the effort needlessly?

While we’d all like to think that the elimination of capitalism would eliminate the possibility of elite concentrations of power from forming, there’s no guarantee that it will. Having access to the ability to devastate millions of lives deliberately (or even accidentally) is not something that should be granted under any circumstance.

The capitalists recognize the strategic danger in letting nuclear power “fall into the wrong hands” and will no doubt do anything and everything to prevent revolutionary forces from gaining access to it should a revolutionary situation develop. They cannot prevent revolutionaries from retaining access to electricity if it’s powered by distributed renewable sources. Already there are far too many of them.

And why should we waste all of our time and resources trying to capture nuclear power plants when we could use that effort far more effectively to simply help the spread of renewables and fight to nationalize the electricity grid?

Now, I’m not suggesting that renewables are 100 percent clean. They’re not. The extraction of materials, their manufacture, and transportation still has an impact on the environment. And in the case of wind power, there is an impact on wildlife, including especially birds and bats (though the effects are vastly overstated [23] and it needs to be pointed out that all other, non-renewable sources as well as many other factors, including natural predators have a much larger effect on these same birds and bats). All of these factors can (and are) being addressed with renewables. This is not the case with nuclear power.

Furthermore, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, market, or install renewable energy equipment are no less capitalistic in their outlook than the fossil fuel and nuclear capitalists. Like the other members of their class, they’re motivated by the same class interests and will act accordingly. They engage in class exploitation, including union busting, no less than their fossil fuel and nuclear brethren.

However the cumulative effect of distributed energy generation will entice the renewable energy sector to act in ways that will (and already is) exposing deep divisions within the capitalist class — divisions that we socialists and anarchists ignore at our peril. Renewables can be easy delinked from capitalism relative to fossil fuels and nuclear power.

And even if the risks of nuclear mishaps can be minimized, there’s a chance they could still happen and kill millions, or even billions. No such risk exists with renewables.

I therefore grant that it is theoretically possible for conventional nuclear fission power to play some positive role in a post capitalist society, but I have yet to have that proven to me and David Walters’s “defense” doesn’t even come close to the target.















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Posted in Energy, Nuclear

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2 years 9 months ago

I’m afraid I don’t think this article advances the debate about renewables very far. I think that if you advocate an entirely RE energy system, you do need to show that it is feasible, especially if you do not suggest ANY measures at all that would reduce or limit current energy consumption. This means, for example, that your advocacy of electric motor vehicles would mean an electricity generating system at least 50% larger than it is at present, with untold numbers of Li-ion batteries (the Tesla car originally used 6831 laptop batteries: multiply that by 800 million).

The first task for any socialist addressing this issue has to be to make a distinction between exchange value and use value and thereby to understand that what is needed, along with energy conservation, is a whole new system of production distribution and exchange, that caters for human needs, not capitalist profit. To give an example: we don’t “need” cars: we need to be able to move around, but even then, our need to move around is determined in part by the design of our cities and landscapes, how our time is organised etc. etc. All such questions need addressing and dealing with, if we are not to have our ecosystems utterly destroyed by more mines, wind farms, solar farms, electricity storage systems and so forth.

I’m also not sure about the capitalists’ alleged vulnerability to distributed electricity generating systems. What happened to the power that resides in working people, concentrated in large, strategic industrial complexes? I’m not suggesting that more should be built, but while they are there we should at least acknowledge that they could be a poisoned chalice for the ruling class.

Timothy Baldwin
2 years 10 months ago

Some comments on your sources:

[1] Renewable power is currently not being accompanied with large amounts of storage, with fossil fuels providing backup. Since renewable (and nuclear) costs are primary independent of output, the cost will increase relative fossil fuels and their is a risk that renewable energy will grind to halt. The oil&gas industry is currently benefiting from a switch from coal to renewable+gas, they will oppose a switch from fossil oil+gas to renewable.

[2] This document does not support the claim it is cited for.

[3] These proposals for 100% renewable energy rely heavily on agrofuels

[4] which you reject. Can your provide a breakdown on the claim on nuclear CO2 emissions? Your inclusion of tidal power as renewable dispute it’s a limited resource and excessive use (current world energy use over several million years) will result in severe climate change.

[6] [7] [8] These are all claims on the market price of electricity, some of which are blatant cherry picking or hypothetical (without evidence that the electricity price covers the cost of building the wind farm). This is wind industry propaganda.

[15] David Walters comment was about installed capacity, your evidence is relating to generated electricity, and therefore CO2 emissions.

[18] Whilst it may not be covertly opposing nuclear power, the CATO Institute is doing so openly. There are other anti-nuclear climate change deniers.

David Walters
2 years 9 months ago

I run into anti-nuclear climate change deniers all the time. Trying to line up the climate debate “on your side” is silly”. it doesn’t speak to science and is at best a rather lame appeal to authority in the negative. The debate, obviously, is full on. Most on the left oppose nuclear energy. But a growing minority for nuclear energy is, well, growing. I think that is a good thing.

David Walters

Edward Butterworth
2 years 10 months ago

I don’t think Richard Heinberg (and his ilk) can be so easily dismissed. The oil peak is here but looks a little different from what was originally predicted. How can Ongerth write an article such as above without mentioning EROI (energy return on investment)?

EROI measures the energy required to extract/produce/bring to market the oil/coal/solar power etc. In the early days EROI for oil was 100:1. For new sources of oil, deep water or tar sands EROI is less than 10:1. As more energy is siphoned off to extract/produce energy less energy is available for luxuries/non-essentials. Since energy is the fundamental support of the industrial economy the global economy is coming to the end of growth. The end of growth is the end of capitalism.

The EROI of renewables is also low. They are viable now only because the EROI of oil has fallen so much but they will not prevent overall economic decline. Energy available per capita will decline and as has been the case for a long time the most sensible investment is in conservation. Only with effective conservation will we be able to avoid catastrophic economic slumps.