Recently a number of prominent environmentalists, including George Monbiot and Dr. James Hansen, have called for expansion of nuclear power generation, to replace coal and oil fired plants that produce high volumes of greenhouse gases.
Most socialists and environmentalists have opposed such measures as unacceptably dangerous, pointing to the recent Fukushima catastrophe in Japan, and to the lack of any method for safe disposal of nuclear waste.
U.S. socialist David Walters disagrees: he defends nuclear power and argues that anti-nuclear positions are reactionary and that building socialism will require more energy than can be produced by any other means.
Climate & Capitalism welcomes discussion on this important issue. Please read Nuclear power: For a respectful and thoughtful discussion before posting.
by David Walters
David Walters was a power plant operator for 20 years at an IBEW organized facility, where he was a Shop Steward. He is a member of Socialist Organizer in Pacifica, CA.
The deepest, the most objective and the most indisputable criterion says: progress can be measured by the growth of the productivity of social labour.
– Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October (1932)
Energy, the environment, global climate change, and sea level rise are all huge, vast interconnected subjects that generate much debate and controversy at every level of society. One expects this when the future of our species, and all other species, are at stake.
The center of this discussion can be narrowed down to one technological and scientific issue: the generation, use, and distribution of energy. The historic application, or utilization, of various forms of energy is a measure of human progress. Even before the rise of civilizations such as the Indus, Greek, Persian, and others long gone were relegated to the anthropology text books and museums, and even before the development of class society, human use of energy set us apart from all other species, including the higher ones such as dolphins and apes.
Heat to cook food or keep warm in colder climates was the first human use of energy generated by the chemical reaction (though unknown to early humans) of hydrocarbons when brought to a higher temperature. This was low-density energy from a strictly biological source: wood.
Every step up the climb from pre-class society through the first civilizations, through the massive slave societies of the Egyptian and Roman empires through feudalism, and into and including our modern imperialist; with every advance in the mode of production; with every step forward in the application of scientific techniques for growing food, understanding the seasons, and increasing productivity of commodity creation; each has been intertwined dialectically with the discovery and deployment of ever more abundant, ever more useful, ever more dense forms of energy that could be deployed easily by growing numbers of people seeking to make their lives easier.
The rise and uplifting of human culture has always depended on, and been a function of, this development and utilization of cheaper, abundant and denser energy.
Most on the socialist left have forgotten this. The development of energy use by humans shows an evolution from wood to water/hydro and wind to coal and later to petroleum and gas, and finally to nuclear power. Each has provided vaster quantities, and qualities, of energy for human use. Each one has beendenser than the last, that is, more energy could be extracted from each subsequent form per measured unit of weight or volume.
This aided the expansion of the forces of production and the utilization of more labor-saving devices and techniques, and led to higher-quality goods and superior means of distribution.
It this development of the productive forces that Marx saw as being increasingly in conflict with the mode of production we know as capitalism. Thus, he saw the increase in production per capita as a goal, a human species goal, and something to strive for. Capitalism was beginning to hold this back, and thus one of the main underpinnings of Marxism was established: showing the contradictory nature of capitalism and how historically it sows its own doom.
But what does this have to do with the central question raised earlier? In the left today, and the much broader Green and environmental movements, this expansion of production is considered a “bad thing.” It causes pollution, ecological collapse, and climate change. No doubt, the rapid expansion of industry under capitalism in the 19th & 20th centuries has caused these terrible changes. But it also has allowed humans to develop solutions through techniques that could alleviate these problems were such forms of production placed under the democratic control of society, that is, what we call socialism.
Marx understood at least under communism, production would have to increase to alleviate the grinding poverty that prevailed in 90% of the world’s population of his day. In his 1847 essay The Principles of Communism, he posed the following question and provided an answer:
What will be the consequences of the ultimate disappearance of private property?
Society will take all forces of production and means of commerce, as well as the exchange and distribution of products, out of the hands of private capitalists and will manage them in accordance with a plan based on the availability of resources and the needs of the whole society. In this way, most important of all, the evil consequences which are now associated with the conduct of big industry will be abolished.
There will be no more crises; the expanded production, which for the present order of society is overproduction and hence a prevailing cause of misery, will then be insufficient and in need of being expanded much further. Instead of generating misery, overproduction will reach beyond the elementary requirements of society to assure the satisfaction of the needs of all; it will create new needs and, at the same time, the means of satisfying them. It will become the condition of, and the stimulus to, new progress, which will no longer throw the whole social order into confusion, as progress has always done in the past. Big industry, freed from the pressure of private property, will undergo such an expansion that what we now see will seem as petty in comparison as manufacture seems when put beside the big industry of our own day. This development of industry will make available to society a sufficient mass of products to satisfy the needs of everyone.
The same will be true of agriculture, which also suffers from the pressure of private property and is held back by the division of privately owned land into small parcels. Here, existing improvements and scientific procedures will be put into practice, with a resulting leap forward which will assure to society all the products it needs.
In this way, such an abundance of goods will be able to satisfy the needs of all its members.
This holds as true today as it ever did in the imagination of Karl Marx before the 1848 upheavals across the European continent.
For today’s 7 billion (and growing) people, socialism, which can only be built by harnessing the productive forces of the entire planet, promises what Marx wrote of in 1847. But we can do it wisely, anddemocratically, only if we eliminate the global imperialist system.
Such a world of abundance will require more, not less energy. Yet, there is a belief, especially in the advanced Western countries of Europe and North America among socialists and activists for social change, that humans “use too much.” This is an idea that has been absorbed from the forces around the Greens and others who think there are too many people, that we cannot possibly sustain so many people on Earth, and that if we brought the standard of living of the entire world up to that enjoyed by workers in these Western countries, the planet would be ruined.
Doing so under capitalism, the world would be ruined. Capitalism has no way to lift the masses from poverty. Consider the following:
- There are 1.6 billion people with no electricity.
- Billions of people have no access to energy efficient mass transportation.
- Billions of people have little or no access to education and health care.
- Increasingly vicious wars and privatization continue to cause grinding poverty, dislocation and environmental destruction.
Capitalism is the cause. To bring the entire world to the (rapidly dropping) levels of Western workers or “middle income” families would require not simply a fundamental increase in wealth redistribution and energy, but a vast per-capita increase in both. But the refrain from many environmentalists and even socialists continued: “We use too much!” This is as reactionary as wanting to bust unions or launch wars of aggression of neo-colonial conquest.
These same leftists put their hopes in the false panacea of what has been called a “100% fossil fuel-free/nuclear-free carbon-free renewable energy economy.” Many academic papers have been written seeking to prove the practicality of such a project. An equal number of papers destroy this myth; that is not the purpose of this essay. Rather, consider several points about energy.
The advance of civilization has been predicated on the accessibility of and increased per-capita use of energy, but every paper advocating renewable energy is based on a massive reduction in per-capita energy use. While arguing renewable energy can power a high-tech civilization on a planetary scale, authors believe that such an endeavor itself could be carbon-free. Consider one example: according to almost all studies, land-based wind energy, the only kind being built in the United States, uses 8 to 12 times the amount of concrete per unit of energy compared to nuclear power. Concrete uses massive amounts of dirty natural gas in its production. It uses more steel, copper, and aluminum, not to mention that far more intensive extraction-mining of rare earth metals is required for wind generators than for nuclear power.
Because wind and solar energy have actual usable energy production, or capacity factors (CFs), that are very low, massive overbuilding of these systems will be needed. Nuclear energy in the United States is around 90% CF; that is, 90% of the time, a 1,000 MW plant produces 1,000 MWs. In some countries, it is even higher. Wind’s CF on land-based wind farms is only 33%. Solar is only 20% because the sun is only at its useable height in the sky from about 10am to 3pm.
What to do? There is a lot of talk about storage, big batteries, or using hot molten salts to store power. This can be done, but can it be done on a genuine utility-scale basis? The costs are overwhelming, as every solar and wind plant utilizing storage has proven. And they have remained in the experimental stage for more than a decade.
Nuclear is safe. This sounds like an outrageous claim in light of Fukushima and Chernobyl. In fact, the number of deaths per amount of energy for nuclear is way lower than it is for fossil fuel. It is lower than wind and solar if installation and industrial accidents are taken into account. People will argue about the numbers, but given what our species face with respect to global climate change, this is the wrong argument. Those numbers are going to be outrageous; they already are.
Fukushima could have been prevented. The capitalist board of directors of Fukushima’s operator TEPCO had its seawall only to minimum “recommendations” when common practice in other countries, for private or public utilities, is to build beyond specs. They also built their fuel tanks for the auxiliary diesel generators powering their auxiliary cooling system right on the water at their intake structure, rather than locating them behind the plant up on the hill from where the video was taken of the tsunami hitting the plant. There would have been no “Fukushima accident” had TEPCO put safety ahead of profits.
However, there were no deaths from the accident itself (compared to the 20,000 who died from the earth quake and tsunami itself!) and many experts believe there will likely be no fatalities because the population was exposed to so very little radiation after the accident.
Chernobyl, a truly horrific accident that caused 4,000 treatable thyroid cancer incidents (a number most likely vastly under-reported), was a one-off incident. A converted military-style reactor built by the U.S.S.R using a design banned in all but two countries of the world, exploded. The explosion sent dozens of tons of fuel into the atmosphere. There are still 10 such reactors online and yet, despite Chernobyl and despite the collapse of the U.S.S.R., there have been exactly zero other accidents of the type that happened there at any of those plants. Why? The nuclear industry in Russia stepped up and engineered out the ability of humans to cause such an accident, and began to add large, heavy containment to existing plants and design it into future plants. The Russians also stopped building this type of Chernobyl-style reactor.
Even under capitalism, the nuclear industry, despite corruption, despite the profit motive, has proved superior to the fossil fuel industry (including both privately run and publicly owned plants) in the number of deaths incurred through normal operations. Any comparison of fossil fuel plants and nuclear favors nuclear technology shows this to be the case.
Socialists argue that, like any technology, nuclear energy would be far better employed in a democratically run, worker- and consumer-controlled public power grid. Of this there can be no doubt. But we are talking about technologies that are being employed under capitalism generally. Many developing countries are delving into nuclear energy and developing nuclear plants or at least the safety regimes required by international law as a prerequisite to building a nuclear grid. Countries currently building nuclear grids include China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, the UAE, South Africa/Azania, and many more. They do this without influence from the “Nuclear Industry” or other lobby groups but after reviewing all the alternatives. Some of these same countries are also building new coal and gas plants and, at the same time, investing massive amounts to develop wind and solar power.
France is the world’s premier user of nuclear energy. The French ruling class decided that France had to eliminate its reliance on burning oil for power generation. In 15 years, France went from zero to 79% of its grid powered by 54 nuclear power plants. When an electric car gets plugged into the wall at night for recharging, or an aluminum plant is running to produce the millions of tons of aluminum needed in a modern society, everyone in France knows it is nuclear, not fossil fuel, providing the power. France has demonstrated that even a capitalist economy can rid itself of fossil fuels if it deploys nuclear.
There is nothing objectionable about wind and solar power per se. They can be useful and should be deployed in a limited fashion depending on local conditions (their ability to displace coal and gas is overstated; they are married to both, as the experiences of Germany and Denmark, where wind and solar power are deployed widely, have shown). But it is nuclear power that socialists should be fighting for: it is power on demand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year; and every megawatt produced by a nuclear plant can displace, permanently, an equal number of MWs produced from fossil fuels. No renewable source of energy, save for hydro-electricity (which has limited potential) can make the same claim. This fact alone should disqualify renewables for serious consideration as the solution to climate change.
While massive amounts of renewable energy has been deployed in Europe, not a single fossil-fuel plant has been phased out as a result. Nuclear, however, immediately displaces a fossil-fuel generation plant. China, which today has 30 nuclear plants under construction, would be building 30 coal-fired plants if the nation could not or was not allowed to go nuclear. Socialists should not only be defending the right of developing countries to build nuclear power plants, we should be demanding the bosses’ governments do so, and expand its deployment. We should be fighting for workers governments to come to power to organize society along the lines outlined here.
Socialists should oppose waste and inefficiency. These problems are worse in underdeveloped countries than in the advanced countries, but because per-capita energy use is much higher in the latter any amount of wasted energy generally compounds already existing problems from garbage to overextraction of resources to pollution, as well as climate change. We should be for conservation and efficiency as a function of any rational society based on human needs and not profit.
But this doesn’t mean lowering anyone’s standard of living (except the bankers and bosses, of course!). It really means a full-on reorganization of our productive and consumption capacity with the goal of raising the development level of the underdeveloped world in a rational and democratic manner, no longer under the jackboot of imperialism.
What does this mean, really, in many underdeveloped countries where only 10% of the population has access to electricity? Does it mean a 50″ flat-screen LCD television? A 24-cubic-foot Sub-Zero refrigerator? Central air conditioning and two SUVs in the front of a 3,000-square-foot home? Of course not. And yet, this seems to be what so many think when they object to raising the standard of living of the billions in underdeveloped countries to those of the West.
No, it means this: it means the right to generate and use electricity. The right to the ubiquitous light switch we take for granted in the West. It means electric light available day and night, whenever an individual decides he or she wants to read, whenever a student wants to study. It means at least a small refrigerator where leftovers can be chilled without spoiling. It means a laptop computer and access to the Internet. It means, perhaps, a small television. It means some air conditioning, perhaps only in one room, so children don’t suffer diseases brought on by increasing temperatures in our world. It means an electric hotplate or stove top so the 30,000 women and children who die every year in India from cooking with charcoal indoors can live. That is what energy means, and that is why we need more of it, a lot more, and why it has to be carbon free. This is what it will take to make all of Africa, India, and most of South Asia “developed.”
The anti-nuclear movement condemns billions of people to decades’ more energy starvation because of misplaced liberal guilt over greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than coming up with truly better ways to produce energy, this movement wants us to down-gear and “use less.” This is why anti-nuclear idealism should be characterized as a reactionary response to the climate crisis, and it explains why socialists who adapt to the Green ideology have lost their bearings.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) of 30MW to 300MWs can be built in mass production lines, lowering their cost. They can be set up in rural parts of any country and have an electricity grid literally built around them that could, eventually, be connected to and form a national grid that would enhance development and raise people’s standard of living. There are only two things holding this up:
- Imperialism, which has been breaking up countries, fomenting civil wars, and destroying the national economies of these countries.
- The anti-nuclear/Green movement, which views any development in general as harming the planet, and sees nuclear energy as particularly evil.
For socialists to recapture the true vision of Marxism and the early revolutionaries of the 19thand 20th centuries means learning the lessons of the downside of the development of the productive forces such as climate change. It means using science and technology to alleviate and reverse the environmental damage capitalism has created, so we can live up to Marx’s vision of a new society:
“Society will take all forces of production and means of commerce, as well as the exchange and distribution of products, out of the hands of private capitalists and will manage them in accordance with a plan based on the availability of resources and the needs of the whole society. In this way, most important of all, the evil consequences which are now associated with the conduct of big industry will be abolished.
“There will be no more crises; the expanded production, which for the present order of society is overproduction and hence a prevailing cause of misery, will then be insufficient and in need of being expanded much further.”
- The Principles of Communism by Karl Marx
- Left Atomics blog
- Moment of Transition (section on energy beginning page 21)
- Brave New Climate
Climate & Capitalism Editor’s Note
This is a controversial article. We posted it to encourage a respectful and thoughtful discussion. Please don’t submit comments that simply disagree without explaining why, or that insult to author, or that say you haven’t bothered to read the article, but it’s wrong. (Yep, that happened). Inappropriate comments will be deleted.
In response to the author’s point that “nuclear is safe” I would like to point to an excellent list of resources compiled by eco-artist/anti-nuclear activist Eve Andree Laramee that counter this argument, and focus especially on “disposable laborers and migrant workers of the Nuclear Military/Industrial Nexus”: http://nuclearfacts.info In addition to labor issues, Eve also offers a list of 16 reasons why nuclear power is far too risky: http://nuclearfacts.info/Nuclear_Is_NOT_CO2-Free.html
While I wholeheartedly agree that “Socialists should oppose waste and inefficiency” and that “We should be for conservation and efficiency as a function of any rational society based on human needs and not profit” I wonder why “appropriate technologies” are not commonly discussed in greater depth, not only for use in developing countries, but in the most wasteful countries as well? this website offers many excellent options for small-scale, clean, people-developed and controlled technologies: http://www.journeytoforever.org
It would be hard to disagree with a statement like “Such a world of abundance will require more, not less energy.” It will also require more creativity and ingenuity to develop technologies that will not do more harm than good. Large-scale solar and wind may not be a catch-all answer…but by maximizing efficiency and reducing waste, there are many small-scale solutions that can be tailored to particular bio-regions.
I would also like to offer a clarification to the author’s point that “…there is a belief, especially in the advanced Western countries of Europe and North America among socialists and activists for social change, that humans “use too much.” We need to be careful about lumping all humans in together – since it is not ALL humans who are using too much – the wealthiest humans (most everyone who lives in a highly industrialized society, myself included) the are the ones who are using too much, and these (we) are a relatively small percentage of the whole population of the globe. Let us lay blame where the blame is deserved.
@Roger…I’m against all industry plans to bury Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) or what you call waste. It’s anything but. It contains lots of valuable isotopes and can be reprocessed. Despite what anti-reprocessing people say, the slight increase in volume lowers the radiotoxicity of the now complete waste harmless after a few centuries instead of the current 10,000 plus years. And, reprocessing effectively eliminates uranium mining.
The nuclear ‘industry’ such as it never, ever comments on this except to ‘support’ whatever gov’t comes up with. They have no financial incentive to support reprocessing because it’s more expensive that mining, milling and enriching (the capitalist market at work). So they never fought the anti-reprocessing plans of previous US administrations.
If reprocessing is more expensive than the other nuclear fuel processes you mention, is that not in part because it is very energy-intensive? Has anyone done an energy audit on reprocessing? Do we need ALL the isotopes that could come from, say, 10000 1GW reactors?
Thanks David, this has been an interesting, thought-provoking and downright unsettling article. You make excellent points, and it’s been particularly important to me, as I’m a photovoltaic research scientist by trade and largely got into this line of work because of my politics.
I feel, though, you’re quite dismissive of people’s concerns about the deployment of nuclear power within the confines of a system that has proven itself both capable and supportive of parallel development of nuclear weapons arsenals. The rejection of nuclear power has been a mass movement in the wake of the imperial drive to nuclear war from the 1950s to the 80s. I think it’s odd that you credit/blame the Green movement for making it impossible for the ruling class to build more reactors. Does the Green movement alone really wield such political sway?
I appreciate that technological advances have allowed safe nuclear power to be a reality, and certainly support the notion that the debate over nuclear power on the left should veer toward the technical/strategic and away from ‘anti-nuclearism’ as a hardline point of principle. However, in that vein, should our call really be ‘Build Nuclear Now’ in the same way as we might say ‘Build Public Transport Now’? It seems the critical point needs to be made that any development of nuclear energy should be entirely decoupled from military R&D and should be strictly under civilian, public control.
Anything less will find no traction with people who lived through the terror of the Cold War.
Any comments in return would be appreciated!
Craig Johnson, PhD
University of New South Wales
Hi Craig, thank you for your kind comments, it helps in having a good discussion.
Sorry about being dismissive, or that you feel that way, about people’s concerns. I actually have a lot of respect for people’s concerns but it’s how those concerns, I suppose, are expressed that I try to respond to. Where those concerns come from, etc etc. A lot of time people who oppose, generally nuclear energy its because of some really bad info intentionally put out there or, some outlandish claims regarding it. Anwyay….
… the anti-nuclear *energy* movement really didn’t get started in a mass way until the mid to late 1960s, not the 1950. And yes, it grew out of the CND and other mass movements opposed to nuclear arms. My own mother was active in the nuclear test ban movement in the early 60s, banging her high heels against the Pentagon doors when I was but a small lad. But marching against nuclear energy is…backward, in my opinion now. I don’t deny it was part and still is parcel of the ‘left’ at least in advanced countries but that doesn’t make it correct. And not all the left always opposed nuclear energy, a large section did, but not all. I aim to make that small wedge bigger 🙂
My own view is that yes, we should be campaigning for more nuclear “now” if it’s acceptable to have banners for solar and wind as the Green movement generally and some left groups do specifically. Why wouldn’t we? Ironically the same groups that build solar and most notably wind, are the same companies building nuclear: Westinghouse, GE, Areva (builds great smart grid control equipment as it happens). So my view is that all non-carbon energy should be supported but I favor nuclear for the reason I write about in the essay.
On the Military side of this. It is actually, already ‘decoupled’. Generally assumed but entirely false is that spent nuclear fuel, for example, is used to create atom and thermonuclear bombs. But it’s not. Never has been, not really anywhere. The connection was really never around weapons, but around propulsion. A lot of people don’t ‘remember’ that it was the U.S. navy nuclear propulsion program that ‘invented’ nuclear energy, not the bomb side of things though of course it’s all the same physics. Just the engineering is quite different. But I’m all for it.
So let me throw something back at ya’….for you opinion…and since you raised it. The only single program I ever supported coming out the Clinton White house in the 1990s was the “Megatons to Megawatts” program that took the nuclear swords of Russia’s atom bomb program and turned it all into the energy plowshares that US got a full 10% of it’s energy from until this year (actually the supplies will run out next year or so).
My question is do you oppose this or do you think perhaps this is a good program? I’m for extending this to all global nuclear WMD and turn ALL atom bombs into megawatts. I say this because we need to make the US the main supplier of the U235 and Pu239 for nuke plants because it is our nukes here in the U.S. that are the most dangerous, wielded as they are by the most powerful Imperialist country around. And, moreover, it’s the *only* way to get rid of such material permanently. What do you think? So, yeah, *absolutely* break any links between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons (such as they are) and BAN all nuclear weapons.
Craig, I realized I did not answer one of your questions: yes, I think the anti-nuclear movement, applying old and new tactics of mass action, effectively ended nuclear energy *expansion* in most countries save for France and Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. They were able to capitalize on TMI and Chernobyl and created a huge consensus with sections of the ruling class to stymie the growth of nuclear.
In the U.S. for the last 30 years it is totally the result of anti-nuclear “NGO” type organizations (as opposed to mass movement ones) that have effectively done what I describe above. I was part of the anti-nuclear movement in Pa. after TMI (where we pushed coal as the solution for nuclear back then). I believe, firmly, that the anti-nuclear movement created the climate mess we are in today for opposing nuclear energy and this is my harshest criticism of this highly effective movement.
Additionally, anti-nuclear activists don’t like to be shown how their movement dovetailed and in some cases were financed by fossil fuel interests. This was shown in the film “Pandora’s Promise”. I wish that movement, instead of being anti-nuclear, were anti-fossil fuel instead, it would of made for a different world I believe.
Thank you for replying so thoughtfully, David.
I appreciate your point about the ‘Megatons to Megawatts’ program, but I’m afraid all it does is answer the question “What should be done with nuclear weapons?” I suppose it’s too easy to read the program as an eager attempt to disarm one’s enemy while getting energy on the cheap. I don’t exactly see the US jumping to convert its weapons stockpile to peaceful energy, and I think it’s a bit of a red herring in this particular debate.
Speaking of which, I believe you’ve falsely linked the opposition to nuclear power and the advocacy of renewables to a reactionary anti-development agenda, thus insisting on a divorce between Marxism and anti-nuclearism. While there may be those on the left or in the Green movement that would argue for a radical decrease in world energy use, that’s certainly not the position taken by the likes of Chris Williams here:
In fact I think you’re making the same mistake as your opponents in reverse: you’re confusing the shortcomings of the system with the shortcomings of a particular technology. It’s agreed that wind and solar have relatively low capacity factors. But opposing nuclear as the alternative despite its high CF—given its acknowledged risks and externalised impacts—does not fly in the face of Marxism. Building a system that relies 100% on existing non-nuke renewables (with no fossil fuel backup) has been shown to be technologically and economically feasible, at least for Australia:
You can claim that this would require huge investment, etc, but these are existent commercial technologies, unlike LTFRs. And when have socialists backed off of advocating large-scale investment due to ‘economic feasibility’? The whole notion of building a socialist society relies on large wealth transfers and reinvestment in infrastructure. And if you want clean energy rolling off production lines, have a look at the PV industry. Built-in PV capacity could increase enormously overnight if governments around the world wanted it, as a huge excess of high-quality solar cells is sitting in Chinese factories because market mechanisms forbid them being sold.
This is not to say that every anti-nuke strategy has been correct: case in point the German experience. But I wonder, David, if you think the anti-nuke movement made no positive strides. Speaking strictly of energy, not weapons, did the activism have no positive impact on the industry with regard to safety? Nuclear energy advocates point to the safety record of the industry, but how many unsafe plants were prevented from being built because of anti-nuke activism? I ask this as a genuine question, not just a rhetorical point. I agree with Michael Friedman that blaming the anti-nuke movement for climate change is a bizarre conclusion indeed.
It would be interesting to see a full life cycle assessment of nuclear versus PV, etc., as the Sydney University study you attach shows that nuclear outperforms PV by several times on the CO2-per-unit-power measure.
On nuclear waste, an article by Amanda Mascarelli in New Scientist (Nov 2, 2013) sums up where matters stand today with the vexing and unresolved issue of nuclear waste. She writes,
“Globally, there is roughly 350,000 tonnes of nuclear waste (see diagram) and stocks of the most dangerous – “high-level” – material are increasing by about 12,000 tonnes annually…”
“At present, much nuclear waste is simply stored above ground. This makes sense in the short term, as the waste’s radioactivity will fall to one-thousandth of its initial level within half a century. At that point, probably the safest option is to move the stuff into deep underground storage.
“Finding suitable sites is not proving easy, however. Repositories need stable geology and should be located in sparsely populated areas. Groundwater is bad news as it can bring radioactive particles back to the surface, so the rock needs a low permeability, and its chemistry should limit the ability of radionuclides to dissolve in the event that water does reach the waste.”
The U.S. has abandoned its Yucca Mountain, Nevada storage plan, after spending $11 billion. Mascarelli says the only country on course to create deep, underground storage in solid rock is Finland. She goes on to cite scientists who question the long-term safety of any storage. The article explains that the most long-lived of radionuclides have half-lives of hundreds of thousands and millions of years.
Present global energy generation is coal 40.8%, gas 21.3%, hydro 16.2%, nuclear 13.5%, oil 5.5%, other 2.7%. There are 434 nuclear plants generating electricity in the world today. The estimate of total plants by 2030 range from 525 to 730. The top number would double nuclear generation capacity.
The article is behind a paywall, you can write to me for a copy: email@example.com.
Just a quick correction: the figures you quote for “energy generation” are actually for mains electricity generation, so about two thirds of energy use (building heating, transport, agriculture, foundries) is not included. In fact, less than 6% of world energy supply comes from nuclear. To replace fossil fuels, using the approach suggested by David Walters, who I presume – from his comment about the need for personal transport – advocates electric vehicles, electricity production would probably have to increase by at least another 50%, on top of the on-grid nuclear electricity that David advocates for currently non-developed areas of the globe. So let’s say it needs to double overall and that 70% of that as nuclear is a good option. That would mean we need about 25 times more nuclear reactors than there are now – i.e. about 10000. Nuclear reactors last 40 years, so there would need to be built 1 reactor every 1.5 days, in perpetuity. I shudder to think what the waste implications would be.
On accidents, let us assume that the same accident rate as has happened up to now occurs in the future (we are talking about capitalism, after all). So far, there have been about 10000 reactor-years of operation of nuclear power plants and about twenty reactors completely destroyed in that time. So, once we have our plants up and running in 40 years’ time, we can expect about 20 meltdowns a year, of which ten will be very serious and involve large-scale clean-ups and evacuations. Perhaps we could be generous and say technical and other developments (workers’ control?) improves safety by a factor of 2, or even 5. I think it’s still not a good option.
Apols for error in calculation above, which would lead to 5000 reactors being needed, not 10000. I think the arguments still apply and I have certainly seen an argument in a lecture on artificial photosynthesis that says 8000 1GW reactors is a reasonable estimate. It was from that that I got the rate of build requirements.
Of course, the amount of plant required – and the ecological consequences – apply to RE as well. What is needed is an estimate of the energy requirements for a secure, fulfilling life. I will try to do this one day, possibly after my retirement, but I think 25% of current use is a reasonable estimate, plus some off-grid RE electricity in the least developed parts of the world, as David outlines.
I’m not convinced Marx’s views are a “cornucopian” as David suggests. Daniel Tanuro, in his new book, argue that Marx’s views on this are contradictory and that our perception of them has been coloured by stalinism, as well as the techno-optimism of Lenin and Trotsky. (He also argues that on energy matters, Marx was plain wrong – quelle heresy!)
The distinction between use value and exchange value has long been known to be crucial to a Marxist approach to the ecological crisis. This is certainly in Marx (!) and allows people like John Bellamy Foster (and, at a less elevated level, me: https://climateandcapitalism.com/2008/06/14/the-ecological-crisis-and-its-consequences-for-socialists/) to argue that there is an ecosocialist core to Marxism and guards against an approach that tends to imply “there’s plenty of stuff to go round: it’s just that the ruling class takes it all”.
irsPhil, among nuclear techie-types one sees the figure of 6,000 reactors, however, of varying size.
First, the figure of a reactor lasting “40 year” is false. The licensing was for 40 years (basically they took the Federal Hydro License and brought it over to nuclear for lack of any other boilerplates). All reactors can last well more than 40 years. They didn’t know for sure when they were built, not they do. Most can last 60 years. The new ones are built to a *minimum* of 60 years and likely can last 80 years. So you have change you calculations now (as an example, the 4 new Gen III reactors Southern Energy is building are designed for 60 years, the AP1000).
On waste…most medium and low level waste comes form the radiological medical industry, not the commercial nuclear energy side. What people worried about are the high level waste of which, for the US, is about 77,000 tons (after 60 years of commercial operations!). There are about, on yearly basis, 2,600 tons produced. If we quadrupled the number of reactors to handle electrical generation, that would mean about 10,000 tons a year. This can be reprocessed and reused (thus reducing uranium mining) and later, used as fuel directly by Fast Reactors.
There have been 5 reactors destroyed in accidents, Phil, not sure where you get 20. Yes, the small experimental R&D reactors (including a few destroyed on purpose) can be ‘added’ but it’s a false comparison. I’m talking about civilian, commercial reactors plugged into the grid, not a university or military propulsion or R&D reactor.
I’ve read a LOT of the material by Marx and Engels on the question of cornucopia. At the end of the day, Marx and Engels wanted to “free up” the productive forces and saw capitalism as actually hindering this as the basis for socialism. While both M&E were concerned about the health of the environment (especially soil fertility) those making the case that they were hidden eco-socialists have to do a better job of weighing that against the bulk of their work on political economy. For me it’s like left wing Christians trying to put a progressive bent on Christianity.
@Bill Onasch: First, our “long standing position” was wrong. That’s what a Marxist does when they realize their position was based on faulty data. Secondly, our “common position” was reinforced by our massive propaganda of advocator for COAL against nuclear. Remember that? So our positions need to be reexamined. And now many socialists are in fact doing just that. To wit:
1. Record of catastrophic accidents. Three Mile Island was not ‘catastrophic’. It was an economic “disaster” but no one was killed or injured. As the accident at Chernobyl was specifically caused by the actual design of that plant, and they are not building these kind of military derived reactors anymore how is this even an issue? And Fukushima: scientists look at this problem (and it’s a lot less catastrophic than it appears pumped up by a totally sensationalist press quoting liars like A. Gundersen and H. Caldicott) try to come up with solutions after analyzing the flaws. TEPCO cutting corners…I know what it is they cut, do you? And we come up with solutions to prevent it from happening again. That *is what we do*. We find solutions. As it happens the number of reactors being built in the world of the type used at Fukushima is exactly zero. They are building 60 that are of an advanced design and none of them come close to the design of the GE Mark 1 used there. Additionally, the industry (broadly defined as all those engaged in designing and running plants, from state run ones to private ones) have designed plants that are passively safe and avoid all the problems what occurred with Fukushima.
2. “-There are still no known methods of safe, secure storage of radioactive waste that can remain dangerous for centuries.” Wow! This is false on every point! This is an urban legend proposed by those who know nothing about Spent Nuclear Fuel (what you call waste) or by those who know better but deliberately lie about it in the anti-nuke movement. ALL high level waste is safely stored. That is why there have NEVER been an accident with the waste, anywhere! But you wouldnt’ know this listening to anti-nukes. In fact all the waste in the U.S. is safely stored onsite mostly in dry casks that sit there. the problem is that the very small amount: 77,000 tons for the entire 50 year history of commercial nuclear energy production wouldn’t fill up even one of the Costco’s you might go to Kansas City. It has never caused a problem unlike the 8 coal plants surrounding your resident city which KILLS PEOPLE NOW. Causes untold number of respiratory diseases not to mention climate change. Wow…I think you priorities are skewed.
We should be reprocessing and recycling our SNF and…and all the atom bombs ever made to be cycled backed as fuel for energy. BTW the SNF is dangerous for millenia not centuries. Just say’n….
3. “3-At best, nuclear could only be a temporary stop gap because it is not renewable, ultimately depending on energy intensive extraction and refining of uranium.” totally untrue, again on every count. Nuclear is quite renewable. I can count the ways but I will give you one. China and Russia have already launched an integral fast reactor programs. China expects to have 200 GWs (that’s around 200 plants) running as IFRs by 2050. That recycle the fuel on cite. Current reactors only use about 5% of the energy in the uranium. IFRs use 100%. We could run the entire world for 300 years just on the stocks of depleted uranium that exist not to mention the high level radioactive SNF I talked about above because the IFRs breed their own fuel. We can get rid of extractive uranium mining forever (and there really isn’t that much of it compared to things like bauxite, iron, copper, rare earths).
Bill, a nuclear plant can replace a natural gas or coal plant on a megawatt per megawatt basis. Nothing else can do that.
Socialists should be fighting for MORE not less, safe, clean and advanced nuclear power plants, not opposing them.
Brian, thanks for your comments. Let me explain why I believe you are wrong:
Solar is intermittent. Almost all of it is (99.99% of it is). thus, as RFK, Jr noted, a “solar plant is a gas plant” when he was firming up the U.S. natural gas industry support for wind and solar. Solar can cut into fossil fuel but has never replaced one fossil fuel plant. So no matter how cheap it appears, you have to include all the gas plants and methane use costs associated with wind and solar.
Secondly, the CO2 budget for wind and solar is the same as that for nuclear: very low. Wind, for example, according the DoE (US Dept. of Energy) uses 8 times the concrete, steel, copper and so on per unit of energy compared to wind. If you read my actual essay, you’ll note that nuclear is very dense form of energy. Thus the foot print, and thus materials used including fuel, are in fact a lot more efficient than, say, wind. Even most sophisticated wind and solar advocates understand this. conversely I could argue, but I do not since I don’t think it’s that relevant, that the massive extractive mining for rare earths metals for wind turbine magnets is environmentally damaging. It is, of course, but it’s pales in comparison to what is needed and what humanity faces!
It is disappointing that highly respected climate scientists have become so desperate that they recommend what they see as a lesser evil of nuclear power as a needed diversion of carbon emissions. Probably without consciously recognizing it, I believe this flows from a hope that the capitalists who rule nearly all of the world’s governments would be receptive to expanded nuclear profits as use of coal, oil and natural gas decline–a dubious proposition.
It is even more disappointing when veteran socialists also depart from our long standing opposition to nuclear power.
Nukes should continue to be a deal breaker for us for three simple reasons that don’t require one to be a scientist to understand or explain.
1-Their record of catastrophic accidents both well publicized–Three Miles Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima–and others kept from public knowledge for years.
2-There are still no known methods of safe, secure storage of radioactive waste that can remain dangerous for centuries.
3-At best, nuclear could only be a temporary stop gap because it is not renewable, ultimately depending on energy intensive extraction and refining of uranium.
Nukes will not solve, or even make an appreciable dent in the greenhouse gas accumulation that underlies the climate crisis. It would only add new environmental dangers.
While implementation will not be cheap or easy, the technology exists that can replace both fossil and nuclear fuels with clean, renewable energy wherever the sun shines and winds blow. Some regions have additional natural clean sources.
Of course, utilizing these alternatives will require a global restructuring of our economy in production, transportation–and consumption. That depends on public ownership of at least the commanding heights of the economy and a democratically determined plan of how these resources are used–in other words, socialism.
While there will always be room for strategic and tactical debates among eco-socialists and climate allies I believe we must stick to these simple but essential principles. There’s no room for nukes in the fight for class and climate justice.
Solar cells are cheap if you look at ebay.com something like $0.60 per watt, way below nuclear. Subsidies are coming off solar but are going on to new nuclear like Hinkley. Nuclear requires lot of concrete with its CO2 budget. If it is expanded the more easily available fuel will run out in decades, making it much dearer, in terms of CO2 budget for extraction, too. Investment ought to be in storing energy in such as improvement of reversible thermochemical reaction (as opposed to phase change) technology such as sodium sulphide. You have not mentioned bio-crude from algae. Coal is subsidised the subsidies should go to what is sustainable if they are needed.