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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
by Chris Williams
Chris Williams, a frequent contributor to Climate & Capitalism, is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket, 2011).
From the very beginning, unlocking the power of the atom for “peaceful” energy production was about waging war—war carried through to its logical end point: the power to indiscriminately destroy life on a planetary scale. In 1946 the U.S. State Department issued a Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy, drafted by Robert Oppenheimer and other nuclear scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, which stated, “The development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent.”
People around the world stood aghast at the apocalyptic destruction wreaked on Japan during a few hellish minutes when the United States dropped the nuclear bombs Little Boy and Fat Man on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the official story about why the bombs were dropped remains one about saving the lives of U.S. servicemen by obviating the need for a ground invasion of Japan, the Manhattan Project leader General Leslie R. Groves in a 1954 testimony to Congress was clear about why the bombs were developed and dropped: “There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project, any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy and that the project was conducted on that basis.”
The immediate loss of life, in the tens of thousands, coupled with the invisible and long-term effects of radiation sickness and cancers, brought the world up against the sharp razor edge of the nuclear age. The Second World War, which had revealed the barbarism of total war, including the attempted eradication of Europe’s Jewish population through the industrialization of mass murder and the deaths of 60 million human beings in the mutual slaughter between the contending powers, ended with the unleashing of the most terrifying of all weapons as the world entered the atomic age. The allied concept of “carpet bombing” civilian population centers (two days of incendiary carpet bombing by U.S. pilots killed more than 100,000 residents of Tokyo during the war) had now advanced to the next level: total annihilation.
Subsequently, the Cold War nuclear war preparedness policy of NATO was officially named MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, a point parodied in Stanley Kubrick’s outstanding black comedy Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Today, the nuclear stockpile of the United States, which stands at over 7,000 warheads—some of which are still kept in permanent readiness—could alone destroy planetary life several times over.
If nuclear weapons were to have a future, perfecting them as the ultimate weapon of mass destruction needed some other justification than the annihilation of entire cities that left behind a multigenerational legacy of radiation poisoning. Moreover, plutonium, a necessary component of nuclear weapons and the most life-destroying element known to humanity, is not an element that occurs naturally on earth. It is a by-product of nuclear fission inside nuclear reactors. Hence, without a nuclear power program, justified as the peaceful use of unlimited, cheap, and safe energy, it is not possible to realistically generate the required amount of plutonium for nuclear weapons.
The first nuclear plants in the UK, at Calder Hall and Chapelcross, commissioned in the 1950s, were explicitly for the production of plutonium for Britain’s nascent nuclear weapons program; Electricity production was a secondary consideration.
In 1954, Lewis Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, when speaking of the possibilities of nuclear power declared in the heat of the technological optimism of the day that,
“Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter…. It is not too much to expect that our children will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a life span far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”The intimate connection between nuclear power production and nuclear weapons is inescapable. Because nuclear weapons are designed to be the Hammer of God, the ultimate arbiter of power, any country that is under external threat will logically seek to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent—which was their stated benefit and contribution to “world peace.”
North Korea — a country that didn’t have weapons of mass destruction — watched the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and quickly drew the logical conclusion that it needed to develop and test its own nuclear weapon as fast as possible. This fact is well understood by the U.S. government, which is doing all it can to prevent a civil nuclear power program developing in Iran despite it having the legal right to do so.
Hence, an important argument underpinning the anti–nuclear power movement has always been its insistence that an umbilical cord links military and civilian nuclear programs, which, as a consequence, drives a new and even more terrifying arms race.
There are four states with undeclared stockpiles of nuclear weapons developed from civil programs, and it is no coincidence that they are in some of the most volatile, militarized—and hence dangerous—areas of the world: Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. Experts estimate forty more countries are capable of developing nuclear weapons as the nuclear club continues to expand.
Ex-president Jimmy Carter has accused the United States of being at the forefront of efforts to undermine the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) after setting up a nuclear technology exchange with India in 2005 and revealing that the United States was committed to a “first strike” policy—even against countries without nuclear weapons:
“The United States is the major culprit in the erosion of the NPT. While claiming to be protecting the world from proliferation threats in Iraq, Libya, Iran and North Korea…they also have abandoned past pledges and now threaten first use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.”However, the treaty itself is fatally flawed because it contains an intractable contradiction: in exchange for offering technology and nuclear know-how from established nuclear powers to set up civil nuclear programs, countries that sign on to the treaty agree not to divert material into a weapons program.
One might ask, why would Japan, a small country close to active fault lines and known as “the Land of Volcanos,” a country that was still recovering from the devastation of a double nuclear attack, decide to adopt nuclear technology from the country responsible for that attack? While domestic considerations connected to energy independence certainly played a role, the United States sought to make Japan the “Great Britain of the East” by offering it protection under Washington’s “nuclear umbrella,” and nuclear technology to power the country. This was one of the factors that then drove China to acquire and test its own nuclear weapons in the 1960s and similarly motivated North Korea four decades later.
The ongoing and deepening nuclear calamity in Fukushima and Japan’s abiding commitment to nuclear power, including the ability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and generate plutonium, is therefore an outgrowth of imperial power plays at the end of the Second World War.
Reeling from a 9.0 earthquake and a devastating tsunami, Japan is now several weeks into the nuclear crisis at Fukushima, and desperate measures are all that’s left. These measures have included pumping thousands of tons of seawater into the crippled reactors and spent fuel rod containment pools, dropping water from helicopters, and trying to plug a containment leak first with concrete, then a polymer, and finally with sawdust and rags. Radiation levels in the surrounding water have soared as high as 7.5 million times the legal limit while elevated radiation levels are now being detected in the United States.
Murray E. Jennex, an associate professor at San Diego State University with 20 years of experience in examining nuclear containment structures, believes that because these ad hoc measures are untested, they could be leading to greater problems, as spraying water everywhere wrecks delicate electrical equipment. “They dumped water all over the place…. They keep on generating more contamination. That’s the consequence of doing it. They got water on things that shouldn’t be wet.”
U.S. nuclear experts question whether filling the reactors with hundreds of tons of water isn’t also raising the possibility of a rupture in the containment vessel, which would trigger a massive further release of radioactivity. The immense pressure of the water on an already compromised containment structure subject to continuing aftershocks could be enough to crack it open.
For the hundreds of thousands of Japanese moved into temporary shelters either because their homes were washed away in the tsunami or because of the emergency evacuation caused by the nuclear crisis, there is very little prospect of moving back. Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, Japan’s nuclear regulator, admitted on March 29 that, “We will have to continue cooling for quite a long period. We should be thinking years.”
According to Tetsuo Iguchi, a professor in the department of quantum engineering at Nagoya University, if further complications arise and the situation deteriorates further, “The worst-case scenario is that a meltdown makes the plant’s site a permanent grave.”
Despite assurances from U.S. politicians and the nuclear industry that a similar disaster “couldn’t happen here,” the possibility of a nuclear accident in the United States is very real. According to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists cited by the Christian Science Monitor,
“Nuclear plants in the United States last year experienced at least 14 “near misses,” serious failures in which safety was jeopardized, at least in part, due to lapses in oversight and enforcement by U.S. nuclear safety regulators…. While none of the safety problems harmed plant employees or the public, they occurred with alarming frequency—more than once a month—which is high for a mature industry.”Twenty-three of the 104 operational nuclear reactors in the United States are built on the same 1960s design, and by the same company — General Electric — as the reactors at Fukushima. They have been recognized to have serious design faults since the 1970s and have been regularly retrofitted (i.e., patched up) to take into account new research illustrating their design vulnerabilities to such things as power outages and other malfunctions that make possible a core breach and a resulting release of radioactive isotopes.
Many of these U.S. reactors sit on geologically active fault lines or are situated in coastal areas and close to extensive sources of fresh groundwater. The 40-year-old Indian Point nuclear plant, less than 30 miles from New York City, has a history of safety problems and sits on two fault lines. As U.S. government nuclear experts are arguing that Japanese authorities extend the current 12-mile evacuation and exclusion zone around Fukushima to 50 miles, a serious accident at Indian Point would mean relocating 17 million people. Alexey Yablokov, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and adviser to President Gorbachev during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, commented on the Japanese government’s playing down of the dangers, saying, “When you hear ‘no immediate danger’ [from nuclear radiation] then you should run away as far and as fast as you can.”
The U.S. department that would be in charge of such an operation is the same one that brought us the chaotic and ineffective evacuation of the much smaller city of New Orleans during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina debacle: the Department of Homeland Security.
A Coast Guard report released in April investigated its perfomance in response to the BP oil spill. The report does not inspire confidence that the U.S. government is in any way prepared for a possible nuclear accident. According to Roger Rufe, a retired U.S. Coast Guard vice admiral and chair of the team behind the report: “We clearly point out that contingency planning was not adequate, certainly not for a spill of this size…. There was a complacency that this was not going to happen at this scale.”
According to scientists, California has a 99.7 percent chance of being hit with an earthquake of 6.7 or greater within the next 30 years. And a quake could easily far exceed that level. Nuclear plants in California are only built to withstand earthquakes of only 7–7.5. How do we know a more powerful earthquake is possible? Because it’s already happened; the 1906 earthquake that tore apart San Francisco was measured at 8.3.
The 42-year-old San Onofre nuclear plant, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, is situated right on the beach, with a fault line five miles offshore. Its tsunami wall is 25 feet high, which would have been too low to withstand the wall of water that washed over northeastern Japan. The Diablo Canyon plant, located 200 miles northwest of Los Angeles near Santa Barbara, was built in 1968 near two fault lines, one three miles off the coast that suffered a 7.1 earthquake in 1926.
With the nuclear industry’s litany of smaller radioactive leaks, accidents, opaque safety plans, and a history of cover-ups, people have every right to be very alarmed at the potential for a devastating nuclear accident coming to a plant near them.
Moreover, with the clear connection to nuclear weapons production, alongside many unresolved questions surrounding long-term waste management and the decommissioning of old plants, there are more than enough compelling arguments against nuclear power—in addition to the potential for terrifying accidents—to justify shutting them down now.
The production of electricity from splitting apart uranium atoms is an inherently unstable process liable at any moment to run away, out of control. In other words, the operation of a nuclear plant is premised on constant control over a fundamentally uncontrollable process. The “chain reaction” that is necessary to get the fission process going has to be relentlessly monitored to keep it within tolerable limits. Hence the need to keep the core cooled at all times, for control rods to drop into place at a moment’s notice, to avoid radioactive leaks, for multiple back-up systems and fail-safe devices, at least two containment vessels, an evacuation plan, regular testing of workers and the surroundings, and so on.
This instability at the heart of the production of nuclear power, combined with the long-lived and extreme toxicity of the resulting byproducts, leads to the second insurmountable issue with nuclear power: its expense.
This is fully recognized by the people who would otherwise be investing in nuclear power plants. They won’t do it without cast-iron guarantees that they will have only limited liability for accidents and retain huge government subsidies. The Bush administration gave the nuclear industry $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to try to encourage investment in new nuclear plants. The Obama administration doubled down with an extra $36 billion.
But even with over $50 billion of taxpayer money pledged, to get the ball rolling the nuclear industry feels the need for more. It is now asking for $100 billion. The industry also requested an extension of tax credits without plant-size restrictions, an investment tax credit, and a worker training and manufacturing tax credit as well as reductions in tariffs on any imports of required materials and components.
A 2009 report by Citibank, an institution that has rarely met a risky investment it could say no to, highlighted in the title of its report on nuclear power what its analysis showed: “New Nuclear: The Economics Say No.” The report goes on to say: “The risks faced by developers [of new nuclear plants]…are so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility company to its knees financially.”
In 2001 the Economist, a publication with its heart firmly in the camp of “free-market” capitalism wrote: “Nuclear Power, once claimed to be too cheap to meter, is now too costly to matter.”
The Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, first passed in 1957 and last renewed in 2005, restricts any costs payable by utility companies in the event of a nuclear accident to $12.6 billion. Anything above that amount — which would be easily exceeded by any major accident — is covered by the federal government’s coffers; i.e., us. Again, without that indemnity, without the government subsidies and loan guarantees, and tax breaks, the nuclear industry could not exist; the laws of the free market are not allowed to apply to nuclear power.
A comprehensive 2003 MIT report, The Future of Nuclear Power, made it clear what the difficulties of expanding nuclear power were. Prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited, the report found, by four unresolved problems: high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes.”
A 2009 update recognized the ongoing challenges of getting a “nuclear renaissance”:
“After five years, no new plants are under construction in the United States and insufficient progress has been made on waste management. The current assistance program put into place by the 2005 EPACT has not yet been effective and needs to be improved. The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.”When the report mentions that the current support program is “not yet effective and needs to be improved,” this is a clear reference to the requirement for increased government subsidies. According to a report cited in Scientific American, the costs to the taxpayer of building 100 new nuclear power plants, over the lifetime of the plants, over and above costs associated with alternatives if they had been pursued, come to a truly gargantuan $1.9-4.1 trillion. As nuclear plants are notorious for cost overruns, the higher figure is much more likely.
The report’s concluding statement is highly significant for those environmentalists who have been taken in by the pro-nuclear argument that “at least it’s not coal.” Without an increase in the rate of new-plant construction that surpasses that of the global construction programs of the 1970s and 1980s, nuclear power cannot make a meaningful contribution to climate change risk mitigation.
Just to maintain the current world production of nuclear power, either the oldest, creakiest plants need to be re-licensed or a veritable orgy of nuclear construction needs to begin. To maintain the current proportional contribution of nuclear power would require building eighty new nuclear plants in the next 10 years — commissioning one every 6 weeks! A further 200 would be required over the subsequent decade.
The long lead times for construction that invalidate nuclear power as a way of mitigating climate change was a point recognized in 2009 by the body whose mission is to promote the use of nuclear power, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “Nuclear power is not a near-term solution to the challenge of climate change,” writes Sharon Squassoni in the IAEA bulletin. “The need to immediately and dramatically reduce carbon emissions calls for approaches that can be implemented more quickly than building nuclear reactors.”
Wind farms take only 18 months to come online; nuclear plants typically take in excess of 10 years. The last nuke plant to be built and become operational in the United States, at Watts Bar in Tennessee, took 23 years to build and cost $6.9 billion. Hence, from an economic and environmental perspective, nuclear power makes no sense; numerous studies from the Wall Street Journal and independent energy analysts have put the cost of nuclear power at between 12-20 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). In contrast, those same studies put the cost of renewable energy at an average of 6 cents/kWh.
Furthermore, according to research by Friends of the Earth, if the extremely polluting and dangerous mining and refining of uranium are included in the running of nuclear plants, they emit 250,000 tons of CO2 for every year of operation. Moreover, one in five uranium miners in the Southwest has contracted some form of cancer.
The U.S. government and other governments around the world are enamored with nuclear power neither for its supposed environmental benefits (as if that weren’t a sick joke anyway) nor for its reliability, safety, or economic superiority. Ruling elites want more nuclear power because of its connection to nuclear weapons production, the need for energy independence, and the deeply entrenched and highly effective power of the nuclear lobby. However, that corporate lobby could not be so successful if its interests did not dovetail with the imperial geostrategic interests of the countries involved.
There are many other reasons to be against nuclear power: the cost overruns, the fact that no country has a fully developed or workable plan — or in most cases any plan — for what to do with the nuclear waste that is piling up alongside the nuclear reactors. If the government opened the long-term nuclear repository that was supposed to be beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada today, it would be immediately filled with already existing nuclear waste.
The unresolved problem of long-term waste disposal — the U.S. government has pledged to sequester the waste for 1 million years — contributes to the astronomical cost of decommissioning nuclear power plants. Then there is the transportation of nuclear fuel for reprocessing and the international trade in nuclear waste. Alongside that, the highly centralized nature of nuclear plants means that if one or more goes down, at one stroke it takes out an enormous chunk of the electricity supply grid.
As nuclear plants have to be run continuously as close to full capacity as possible to even come close to justifying their enormous construction, operating, and decommissioning costs, they compete not just for funding, but they compete directly with clean renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, which are similarly best operated on a continual basis. In addition, if regulators relicense nuke plants for another 20 years and start building new ones that will operate for 60, then there will be no “transition” to clean power until almost the end of this century. Goodbye clean world.
Can truly green, renewable sources of energy replace nuclear power? Easily. Scientific studies too numerous to mention show repeatedly that wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal sources of clean energy are abundant and easily accessible. Unlike coal and oil, these renewable forms of energy are freely available, don’t pollute the environment with waste (radioactive or otherwise), don’t need to be fought over, don’t contribute to global warming, and don’t require massive amounts of farmland, energy, and water as do biofuels.
Furthermore, we have the technology to tap into them to provide not just the 20 percent of electricity currently provided by nuclear in the United States, but to provide all of our electrical needs.
But President Obama and the vast majority of Democrats are resolutely in the pro-nuke camp, even in the face of the catastrophe in Japan. They also favor more offshore drilling for oil in the Gulf and the Arctic, “clean” coal, and increases in agro-fuels such as ethanol. If we want a transition to a sane and clean energy policy, we will have to independently organize and fight for it.
We should take a page from the playbook of the German antinuclear movement. Mass protests in Germany against nuclear power have already forced Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s center-right government to announce a three-month moratorium on plans to extend the life of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power plants. Not satisfied, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in four major cities at the end of March, including more than 100,000 in Berlin, calling for an end to nuclear power.
We need to organize local demonstrations against nuclear plants here in the United States, and resurrect the incredibly strong and successful antinuke movement of the 1980s. Let’s bring back the slogans “Nuclear Power — No Thanks” and “No Nukes Is Good Nukes.” We need to organize in our workplaces, unions, communities, and campuses for a national March on Washington in the fall for Jobs, Clean Energy, and Climate Justice. Because, to quote the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass,
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”