Anti-nuclear power sentiment among the socialist and progressive Left in the developed world has been ubiquitous. Long time Marxist David Walters offers a counter-argument …
David Walters is a founding member and director of the Marxist Internet Archive, where, among other things, he serves as a member of the steering committee and Administrator of the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive. He is a member of IBEW local 1245 in Pittsburgh PA, and has worked in the power industry (natural gas, not nuclear) for 22 years. He recently launched the blog Left Atomics as a forum for “left activists: socialists, progressives, Marxists, etc., who believe that nuclear energy can be a positive force for humanity.”
by David Walters
Anti-nuclear power sentiment among the socialist and progressive Left in the developed world has been ubiquitous. Calls for the shutting down of nuclear power plants has been part and parcel of every platform for most groups since the 3 Mile Island incident in the U.S. in 1979. After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, “most groups” and most of progressive thought have been firmly anti-nuclear energy.
In the 28 years since 3 Mile Island and the 21 years since the Chernobyl incident few groups have re-examined their views or considered the history and development of nuclear energy since. Some of us have reconsidered, and believe it is time to do that. We would like to report on the current state of affairs to the community at large.
The opening paragraph above needs some comment. It is mentioned that anti-nuclear sentiment dominates Left thought in the developed, industrialized “West”. This, however, is not the case in developing countries. It is dominant only in those countries with strong economies, that is, in the imperialist countries. Our words, therefore, are aimed at them more than anyone else.
After 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl occurred, it appeared to be the death knell for those state and private concerns supporting or developing nuclear power. In reality, the research and development into nuclear fission as a source for energy accelerated. While some nuclear projects were cancelled around the world because of Chernobyl, many others continued to completion, then they were fuelled with uranium fuel, and went on line.
It is important to note that the industry as a whole did not slink away after these incidents. Quite the contrary, they addressed the issues concerning how these incidents took place and there have been none of that sort since. Nuclear designers, engineers and workers learned and found solutions to what caused these problems so they would not happen again. Thereafter there has been a virtually unblemished record of power production done safely, cheaply and without threats to the public. The record for nuclear power, across the board, is generally better than any other form of electrical energy production in the world today.
Our starting point for this statement are the following 4 items:
- The worldwide, social need for nuclear power has changed dramatically since the 1980s.
- As socialists, we need to deal with technological reality as it has developed in the last 30 years.
- We need to reverse our opposition to nuclear power and instead support its development.
- We need to oppose its privatisation and support its nationalization where it is private as part of state-owned, transparently regulated, nationalized energy monopoly for the sake of economically building of power plants and for their safety.
As of 2007, there are 440 working commercial nuclear power plants in the world, 103 of them in the United States. The term “commercial” means the production of electrical energy as the primary purpose. There are at least 700 other reactors whose primary purpose is not electrical production but rather for the propulsion for military naval craft, nuclear weapons development, or scientific research and development.
In the last 2 years the media has been running articles on the renaissance of nuclear power. Many countries, including the United States, have seen applications for increasing the world-wide inventory of commercial reactors by almost 20%. In the U.S., there are now 31 proposals for “Construction and Operating Licenses” before the Department of Energy for new nuclear plants, all of them additional reactors to existing nuclear facilities. China and India have plans to quadruple the number of nuclear plants they presently have to meet their incredible projections for economic growth. Japan and China are currently building a half dozen plants between them.
Socialists need to understand what nuclear power is, how to confront the issue, what it means and develop a response to this growth in nuclear power specifically and the needs for developing new sources of energy in general.
The 3rd Generation of Reactors
All but a few of the working nuclear plants in the world today are called “Generation II” plants. These plants were designed in the 1960s and 1970s and came on line in the 1970s and 1980s with a few later in the 1990s. These plants were designed as commercial plants. The Generation I plants, the 1950s variety, were generally submarine reactors taken from these vessels and placed in confinement domes to be run commercially. These military derivative reactors were small, and mostly not suited for commercial base-load production.
Because of 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl, the industry globally responded not by coming up with a hodgepodge of quick fixes to these incidents, but rather invented completely new designs.
These third-generation reactors have:
- a standardized design for each type to expedite licensing, reduce capital cost and reduce construction time,
- a simpler and more rugged design, making them easier to operate and less vulnerable to operational upsets,
- higher availability and longer operating life, typically 60 years and running 90% of the time or better,
- reduced possibility of core melt accidents,
- minimal effect on the environment,
- higher burn-up to reduce fuel use and the amount of waste,
- burnable absorbers (“poisons”) to extend fuel life and eliminate any possibility of military use.
The greatest departure from second-generation designs is that any incorporate passive or inherent safety features* which require no active controls or operational intervention to avoid accidents in the event of malfunction, and may rely on gravity, natural convection or resistance to high temperatures.
*[Footnote] Traditional reactor systems employed the uranium nuclear chain reaction operating below the “critical” level. A control system was therefore essential to keep the reaction from running away toward a bomb-like condition. Some safety systems were “active” in the sense that they involved electrical or mechanical operation on command. Other systems operate passively, e.g., pressure relief valves. Both required parallel, redundant systems to reduce the chances of control failure. An inherent or fully passive safety system depends only on the laws of physical phenomena such as convection, gravity or resistance to high temperatures to prevent a run away condition.
The industry has to be able to sell these new reactors to a sceptical public. Even with the very good record of the older generation II reactors that are online now, people understandably want even safer plants. The engineers, in our opinion, who have designed the new generation III plants have done just that.Pollution and Global Warming
All countries, with the exception of France, rely on the burning of fossil fuel, mostly coal, followed by natural gas and oil for their electrical energy needs. Some countries rely on the extensive use of hydro-electrical power (Ecuador, Venezuela, Nepal), but these are exceptions. The infrastructure that delivers these fossil fuels is itself polluting (albeit much of this can be addressed by engineering) through processing, spills, leaks, dust, cave ins, etc. It is no longer a subject of debate that burning of fossil fuels itself is the major cause for climate change today through the discharge of CO2. We intend to emphasize the facts as they relate to nuclear power’s virtually zero emissions all of any pollution: CO2, carbon-monoxide, carbon and fly ash particulates, mercury and uranium (a major by-product of burning coal), and the nagging questions surrounding waste disposal and the front-end pollution and human costs of mining fertile and fissile materials.
Our view on nuclear power is that it is the only base-load energy available that is non-polluting, can provide for global economic growth, and provide the power needed to fuel the abundance we will have under socialism.
Base load is what constitutes the basic source of bulk energy for any nation’s grid. There are only two choices now that can cheaply provide the hundreds of thousands of megawatts for current and future growth: coal or nuclear. Society must make the best choice. Wind, solar, both now and for the foreseeable future, are incapable of providing reliable and cheap power to the world. We are prepared to discuss these issues and more with you.
Left Atomics, 2007