Why New Labour Supports Expansion of Nuclear Power

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by Phil Ward

From Socialist Resistance, October 2007

October 10 sees the end of a public “consultation” to “help the government take a decision on the future of nuclear power in the UK”. The exercise is completely cynical. In February the government was found in court to have prejudged the issue, having held a previous consultation, described by the judge as “seriously flawed, misleading and unfair.” They were forced to launch a new, longer consultation, which has now been boycotted by Greenpeace, CND, WWF, Friends of the Earth and the Green Alliance on the grounds that it also was biased in favor of nuclear power.

The consultations were all carried out on the same day, September 8, when 1000 selected people went through a 207-page document, The Future of Nuclear Power, in nine public meetings organized by a specially commissioned polling organization. Unsurprisingly, they came out 45 per cent in favor of nuclear power, with 23 per cent against. The consultation, which people can also take part in on the web, does not present alternative plans if nuclear power is not accepted.

New Labour has by default committed itself to nuclear power in any case, due to its inability to cut back on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in the face of global warming. They are setting up a situation where the argument for nuclear power will appear unanswerable in the face of climate change, when in fact their main interest is making sure that energy supplies are “secure” – the other theme of the consultations.

It now seems likely that the government will not be content just to give private companies the option of building new nuclear power stations, but will seek methods to “incentivize” them. High prices in the oil and carbon emissions markets will also make the technology more attractive to the capitalists.

In the USA, two new power stations have been applied for, the first application for 30 years, with government guarantees against loan defaults, and Italy has just broken its post-Chernobyl moratorium into nuclear research.

One thing to recognize is that many environmentalists’ arguments against nuclear power are weak. When weak arguments are refuted, they expose their proponents to ridicule and some of the stronger arguments get ignored.

Defeated proponents of such ideas can become sudden “converts” as well. An example of this is Patrick Moore, a leader of Greenpeace up to the late 80s, who accuses his former comrades of “abandoning science and logic, in favor of emotion and sensationalism,” who wrote in The Independent – “Nuclear Energy? Yes, please…”

George Monbiot has also pointed out how many in the environment movement basically distort the facts on this issue. While some claim nuclear power emits more carbon dioxide than fossil fuel power stations, Monbiot understands that the emissions are just 2-4% of coal and gas (taking into account construction, fuel enrichment, decommissioning and waste disposal). He shows that, for example, the estimate in The Ecologist that building a nuclear power station uses 14 million tonnes of concrete is 130 times too large.

Monbiot points out that the argument that there is not sufficient uranium does not hold water either: this is an economic argument that depends on energy prices. In the earth’s crust, uranium and thorium, which is also fissile (and is used in India) are both more abundant than tungsten, used in tens of billions of light bulbs. He also admits that “an accident like Chernobyl could not take place in a new nuclear power station” and he is probably right: technologies mature and people learn from previous mistakes. After all, capitalists do not want to lose such expensive pieces of kit (workers are another matter).

Environmentalist arguments that nuclear waste disposal has not been solved, are valid, as Monbiot acknowledges, but in fact the main case against nuclear power is economic and political, not technical.

For countries that already have nuclear weapons, these are that the ruling class wants to ensure that it maintains tight control over its electricity generating system. A system with a cowed workforce under quasi-military occupation is used as a means of political control.

Secondly, maintaining the interests of a large energy sector is more important than energy conservation. The moves to look (again) at the Severn barrage are part of the same kind of thinking.

“Energy security” is vital for the ruling class, as the dependence of the capitalist system (and us as well) on reliable electricity supply has never been greater. This was shown in the June floods in Yorkshire, when the possibility of the inundation of a substation that served the whole of Sheffield caused panic behind the scenes amongst emergency planners, while the public were kept in the dark.

Perhaps it’s useful to wonder where the government’s priorities lie as you walk down your local high street, passing the chain stores with massive open entrances and heaters above blasting hot air straight into the street. Maybe there should be a “consultation” about that?


  • Phil, I think you are dead wrong, both on the politics, perspective, and the facts.Nuclear spent fuel is only a ‘waste’ if you want to throw it away. If you view it as ‘waste’ then it becomes so. But if you view it as a resource, then it ceases to be ‘waste’ and is just that, a new source of fuel.Your own state-owned ACEL is building plants that BURN the waste. The waste from Light Water Reactors in the US is 77,000 tons. A Canadian proposal would build the ACR-1200s and use ONLY this spent fuel as new fuel for the reactors, thus reducing by up to 90% the amount of long term ‘waste’.The enviornmental movement has to come up with a soluction to the issue they constantly try to point out but consitently avoid taking ANY perspective on: this ‘waste’ you complain about. The US supply of this waste…after 50 years it would only take up the size of large grocery store in SPACE, is here whether you want to build more nukes or not. It’s not going away, Phil: what do YOU want to do about it? Pronuclear activsts advocate actually reprocessing it, or, in the case of plutonium from nuclear weapons, actually burning it up: which is exactly what fuels half of all US nuclear reactors now. Anti-nuclear activist are against(!?!?) this…they would prefer both the weaponize plutonium and spent to fuel to…what exactly IS your proposal? In *effect* it is to do nothing.Waste from NPPs have not harmed a single person Phil. It IS managed right where it is and can stay like that for centuries until it is reprocessed.”Efficiency” and “Renewables” will NOT provide base load power. You know this. Why exaggerate utopian schemes that have no serious perspective of succeeding.A socialist gov’t is going to nationalize all energy resources, your “small is beautiful” perspective of ‘decentralized power’ is not only not needed, it’s all contrary the the development of the productive forces in the cheapest and efficient forms of power, and that includes nuclear.You are worried about 5.5 cents/KWhr…I pay 11 cents/KWhr…and those ares where nuclear is a higher percentage of the market pay much less because it’s so cheap to produce. Nuclear is NOT premised on unbridled consumer capitalism, it’s premised on the ability of using uranium to produce electricity on demand when you want it with no carbon output (or soot, or particulate)A workers gov’t is going to use extensively uranium and thorium energy production. If it means big centralized grids like most industrial countries because it works better then it will. Where decentralized systems work better, it will do that. But the idea that “decentralized” systems are better is plane a-historical and borders on utopian ideas of “arts and craftds” cottage industries. I hope this skewed view never comes to pass.David Walters

  • From Paul YorkThe pro-nuclear position is logically and morally bankrupt and cannot, in good consciencebe supported, if you consider the following:The waste storage problem has not been solved and will not be solved. Right now there is no way properly store the waste, which is lethal to human beings and remains so for at least 25,000 years. This negatively effects 8,000 generations of human beings for the sake of 3 or 4 generations of energy users.Our governments are told by the nuclear lobby that they will find the technology to safely dispose of the waste — this is based on a blind faith in technological process — the same faith that is responsible for much of the world’s ills.But why take the risk in case they will fail? I see them pushing ahead blindly with no consideration for future generations, unable to deliver on their promise. And if our opposition to climate change is based on the moral argument that it is wrong to kill human beings (not to mention biodiversity) the argument for nuclear power is logically inconsistent because there is no way that the risk to future generations can be guaranteed.If you start playing utilitarian games — that the lives of this group is worth more than that group and so that group has to be sacrificed — you fall into the trap that the nation-states and corporate giants are already in: justifying harm to some based on the argument of a ‘greater good’ being served.The more just position is that all human lives are equally valuable and that any technology which causes irreperable harm is not justified, especially when truly clean, safe alternatives exist. Renewables might not produce as much energy as the capitalists want to fuel their 24 hour factories for making crap that none of us need, but I’d rather do without these factories and these useless goods than sacrifice the lives of future generations.It is logical to assume that this civilization will collapse under its own weight (aided by climate change and peak oil, leading to rising energy prices and increasing wars over scarce resources) leaving 8,000 future generations with the legacy of radioactive waste.Furthermore, when you consider that main demand for nuclear power is coming from big industries which want cheap power for the manufacturing and processing base, and that this furthers a society of unecessary consumption and waste, the argument for nuclear energy appear to be little more than a ploy by capitalists to use the climate crisis for their own ends, at the expense of the public who are being asked to pay the enormous costs of building the reactors.This cost, by the way, comes at the expense of the true solution to the energy crisis: renewables and conservation. The money that could be spend on these things is instead spent on nuclear. In Ontario the provincial government plans to spend $43 billion in public funds on nuclear energy, which will benefit the big industrial energy users, who represent 1.2% of the user base and consume 55% of the energy in Ontario and get it for a cheaper rate (3.2 cents per kilowatt hour) than the public (a fluctuating price of 4 to 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour).The same $46 billion could have been spent on renewables and conservation — but these received only token funding because it is mistakenly believed that they cannot meet “base load” demand. The government had a choice: investment in decentralized renewables or investment in centralized nuclear. They chose nuclear based on the “base load” argument. Dr. Keith Stewart of the World Wildlife Fund produced a report called “Renewable is Doable” that showed three possible scenarios in which Ontario could acheive base load demand without nuclear or coal, depending on the dates for coal phaseout. He projected a possible coal phaseout in 2009 as opposed to the McGunity government’s 2014 (which is suspect). The point is that the world has enough potential wind and solar power to meet base load if we combine that with cogeneration methods and a massive conservation push — and this would hurt ONLY the big industrialists who rely on cheap energy.Ontario and other governments are choosing nuclear because it doesn’t serve the needs of the industries they cater to and renewables and conservation — which actually solve the problem — require a new sort of thinking, one that does not favour endless consumption and production and blind faith in technology.Furthermore consider that drinking water is contaminated by miniscule leaks from the power plants into drinking water — traces of tritium are in the drinking water as we speak — in Canada the allowable level is 100x more than in the EU.I haven’t even gone into the risk posed by nuclear power plants — the fact that they make great targets for terrorists and that the risk of fallout from such an attack is that we have another Chernobyl. Now, if the world were a kind and loving place and terrorism was not being stimulated by likes of George Bush and Osama bin Laden, this would be no concern, but it is naive to think that such an attack will not occur this century.Wind and solar power, on the other hand, are decentralized and do not make good targets. And they give municipalities and individual users “energy sovereignty” so they don’t have to rely on a centralized grid.Tim Flannery and George Monbiot are fine environmentalists but they havn’t thought their way through this issue thoroughly. To sum up: the waste disposal problem is unsolved and will remain unsolved, renewables and conservation can meet the base load demand if we elimiate wasteful production and consumption (which is also a good in itself!), nuclear energy usurps limited funding for renewables, and the fact of drinking water contamination — all point to logical reasons for why nuclear is not a good idea — unless you beleive that the benefit to a few capitalists outweighs the good of 8,000 generations of human beings. The whole argument for nuclear is premised on the continuation of a system of endless consumption and production without consideration of finite resources and faith in technology. Cheap energy has allowed us burn through the renewable natural resources more quickly resulting in overfishing and deforestation, as well as the overconsumption of less renewable natural resources such a healthy topsoil and fresh water. Nuclear energy would allow that to continue and leave us with a legacy of radioactive poison … no fresh water, no oil, nuclear waste, no trees, no biodiversity, no arable land, useless waste products leeching poisons into the ground, toxic mine tailing — this is why E.O. Wilson and others say (correctly) that “future generations will not forgive us.”

  • I want to thank Phil (or whoever posted this) This is a very thoughtful contribution to the discussion on nuclear energy. I come recently as a ‘convert’ to nuclear power, as mentioned in the article. I started davidwalters.dailycos.com and left-atomics.blogspot.com to take up this issue as a pro-nuclear advocate. Phils points are very well taken. I think people like Tam Hunt at the Energy Center, while not a leftists, understands well the real serious arguements against nuclear, which do boil down to economics and politics.It is from THIS perspective, really, that the discussion AGAINST nuclear are most effective and I’m saying this a pro-nuclear activist. I don’t mind amitting as such either, just as Paul admitted the problems with some anti-nuclear positions.Again, thanks for this thoughtful post.David Waltersleft-atomics