Don’t rule out nuclear power: a debate on the Left

These articles were published in Solidarity in 2011: an opinion piece by me (Don’t rule out nuclear power), a reply by Theo Simon (Don’t rule out workers’ power), and an answer by me (Why I support nuclear power (as one of a range of alternatives to fossil fuels)).

The intervening five years have not seen any great change in the rising trend of “greenhouse gas” emissions, though a treaty has recently been ratified to limit these to a level that would cause no more than a 2 degree Celsius rise, still likely to cause major disruption.

Don’t rule out nuclear power

Our society is powered largely by burning fossil fuels. This is the equivalent to living on our savings. Fossil fuels — oil, coal and gas — were laid down over a period of a hundred or so million years and we are using about a million years’ worth every year. Even if there were not the risk of climate change, we should be looking for alternatives.

Ultimately, we need to be aiming for complete renewability, but this will require some massive changes in human societies, and some enormous leaps forward in technology. Humans have never used any resources renewably (apart from a few insignificant exceptions).

The immediate alternatives to fossil fuels include wave, tide, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass, solar and nuclear power. All have their up and down sides but all can make some contribution, and it would be foolish to rule any out without strong reaons. That is just what many environmentalists do when they rule out nuclear power from the future energy mix. Can other sources suffice?

Recently, New Scientist looked at one scientist’s efforts to “do the math” (2 April 2011). Axel Kleidon, a physicist from the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany, has calculated that building enough wind farms to replace fossil fuel-derived energy would actually remove a significant amount of energy from the atmosphere and alter rainfall, turbulence and the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.

Humans at present use some 47 terawatts (TW or trillions of watts = joules per second) of energy of which 17 TW come from fossil fuels. The rest is made up of renewable sources, mainly harvesting farmed plants. This is only about one twenty-thousandth of the energy coming from the sun.

But the useful energy available to us is restricted by the laws of thermodynamics to what is termed the “free” energy, the rest being unusable heat. Kleidon calculates that we are using some 5-10% of the free energy, more than is used by all geological processes, such as earthquakes, volcanoes and tectonic plate movements! If we were to set up wind and wave farms with a theoretical output of 17 TW, we would find, first, that a lot of waste heat would be produced, contributing to global warming. We would also deplete the available energy in the atmosphere: Kleidon calculates that this could reduce the energy to be harnessed from the wind by a factor of 100.

There are other sources of energy but these have their drawbacks. Geothermal power stations rely on pumping water into hot rocks fractured by explosions, but experimental plants are losing unacceptable amounts of water underground so the outputs are lower than expected.

Solar electricity relies on rare elements such as indium and tellurium, which are projected to run out within decades. Cheaper versions of solar cells still require another rare element, selenium.

Solar heating, using large mirrors to focus the Sun’s rays to boil water and drive turbines, is a very promising technology but it is not clear that this could fill more than part of the gap. For one thing, the Sun does not shine so strongly (or at all) on many parts of the Earth or during many times in the year.

Is it wise to rule out nuclear power? Many eminent environmentalists are coming round to the view that it isn’t.

Mark Lynas, writing in the New Statesman shortly after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan (21 March 2011), warned that a panicky abandonment of nuclear power would lead to catastrophic global warming, a far greater problem. He argues that renewable sources are not going to be able to fill the gap in energy for countries like Japan, certainly in the short to medium term, and they will simply increase their use of fossil fuels.

And long-time environmentalist George Monbiot (Guardian, 22 March 2011) called for a sense of perspective over Fukushima, with no deaths (apart from two killed at the plant by the tsunami), and over the enormous disruption of the landscape which would be necessary if renewables were to supply all of our energy needs. Not only would there be enormous areas devoted to onshore windfarms, but also increased networks of grid connections to get the electricity to where it was needed. Pumped storage facilities would be needed to store the energy for when it was needed.

Other options favoured by some involve reversing the pattern of industrialisation and moving people back into rural communities where power could be produced locally. Except, according to Monbiot, it couldn’t. In the UK, he says, generating solar power involves a “spectacular waste of scarce resources”, while wind power in populated areas is largely worthless, since we build in sheltered spots. And direct use of energy by damming rivers or harvesting wood would wreck the countryside.

One of the UK’s oldest environmentalist groups, Friends of the Earth (FoE), consistently opposes nuclear power. Its five year-old report, Nuclear power, climate change and the Energy Review, raises the following objections.

Nuclear power is error-prone and likely to fail in ways dangerous to lots of people; it assists in the proliferation of nuclear weapons; it is vulnerable to terrorist attack; and that it is anyway unnecessary to use nuclear power at all in the complete replacement of fossil fuels in power generation and transport which FoE also calls for.

The claim is repeated that, though nuclear power generates electricity without releasing CO2, the extraction of uranium and the building of plant result in carbon emissions — as though this was a significant objection. Every current and proposed energy technology will result in carbon emissions as the concrete, steel, etcetera, will have to be made using current fossil fuel resources. The point is that it will make far less overall than the fossil fuel burning it will replace.

The Green Party uses many of the same arguments. Both the Greens and FoE both give expense as an argument against new nuclear power, and yet the report the Greens cite states that the increased nuclear option would be the cheapest, while the no nuclear/all renewable option would be the most expensive (necessitating energy imports as well!). FoE’s own figures show nuclear power’s costs sitting right in the middle of all other energy sources.

Another problem identified is that of disposal of waste, including dangerous high-level waste. This has a solution — burial in geologically stable strata deep underground. The waste has to be inaccessible for about 100,000 years, but there are plenty of rock layers where movements of chemicals is measured in a few metres per million years (for example, the Oklo “natural” reactor in Gabon).

The problem of nuclear accidents was perhaps the most prominent criticism raised by FoE five years ago, and the accident at Fukushima would not diminish the shrillness of their alarms. Nowhere do FoE or the Greens even mention the possibility of improved safety features in current reactor designs, for instance, ones that rely on gravity to flood overheating reactor cores with water, rather than as at Fukushima using pumps whose electricity could be cut off by an earthquake.

Nowhere do they raise the need for new designs using thorium which are “fail-safe” and could be adapted to burn up the high level waste which is such a problem and has to be dealt with, whether we have nuclear power or not. And nuclear reactors even now are burning up “surplus” nuclear weapons.

The Labour Party’s “green wing”, the Socialist Environmental and Resources Association (SERA), does not differ from FoE and the Greens in opposing nuclear power, though they concentrate on problems of time and money. They ignore the fact that the delays are due to the political cowardice of Labour governments and refusals to support research into new reactor designs.

It is notable that the environmentalists seem to have stopped blaming nuclear power stations for clusters of childhood leukaemias (no link with any other form of illness has been found). Such clusters are in fact found in many places where workers and their families have moved from elsewhere and may be due to lack of resistance to locally occurring viruses.

If one hoped for an independent voice from the SWP, one would be disappointed. In a slightly revised update of a 2006 pamphlet, Martin Empson refers blithely to the cancers and other illnesses coming to the Fukushima clean-up workers “as with the Chernobyl disaster”. He is clearly unaware of the massive differences in the two cases and the absence of evidence of long-term harm in the unfortunate but brave Chernobyl workers who survived initial exposure to radiation.

He sets up the straw person who argues that nuclear power is “the only way that we can produce low carbon electricity” and repeats the irrelevant fact that some CO2 will be released in setting up reactors. He insists that “Fukushima shows that nuclear power is extremely dangerous”. He doesn’t recognise that the reactors survived one of the most powerful earthquakes and tsunamis recorded with minimal damage and would have been virtually problem-free had a fail-safe cooling system been installed — as should and could have happened.

He repeats the discredited allegations of clusters of leukaemias around nuclear plants. He rubbishes suggestions of as few as 4,000 excess deaths due to Chernobyl which came from a United Nations report in 2005, preferring another “independent” report which suggested some half a million deaths already(!). He seems unaware of the latest UN report which drastically reduces estimates of illness and death from Chernobyl. It states that 28 of 134 “liquidators” died of acute radiation sickness at the time and a further 19 have died but not of radiation-linked diseases. Fifteen of some 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer have died (this problem arose only because of the criminal negligence of USSR authorities). No other deaths have definitely been attributed to radiation from Chernobyl. Professor Wade Allison, a radiation expert from Oxford University, argues that people’s natural defence mechanisms against radiation damage have been greatly under-estimated.

The environmentalists and the SWP appear to be unaware of the fact that fossil fuel extraction and use is thousands of times more dangerous than nuclear power.

References

Nuclear power, climate change and the Energy Review, Friends of the Earth 2005

Meeting the UK’s 2020 energy challenge: Do we need new nuclear?, Alan Whitehead MP, SERA January 2008

Climate Change: Why Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, Martin Empson, SWP 2006 (“updated” 2011)

Health effects due to radiation from the Chernobyl accident, UNSCEAR 2011

Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear, Wade Allison (ISBN 0-9562756-1-3, pub. 2009), http://www.radiationandreason.com

Don’t rule out workers’ power (by “Theo”)

Les, Your article seems to be based mainly on the arguments now being put forward by George Monbiot and Mark Lynas – both deservedly respected thinkers and researchers on climate change. Though you list the objections to Nuclear Power, you don’t even attempt to answer many of them, and on the issue of waste disposal, plant safety and cost, you repeat the fundamental mistake of Lynas, and (to a lesser extent) Monbiot, which is that you fail to see the reality of Nuclear Power within the context of a global capitalist economy. Astonishingly, you don’t even call for public ownership and democratic workers control of nuclear production.

Critically, you also fail to question the projected “energy gap” which is being used to justify Nuclear Power expansion as a necessary stop-gap to maintain our energy supply without catastrophically increasing CO2 emissions. And you don’t ask what is the best way forward for energy in the interests of the working class.

Capitalism is immensely – criminally – wasteful of the fossil fuel energy we are currently burning up as if there was no tomorrow. Insulation and energy conservation at every level could slash by a third our current consumption in Britain. Vast amounts are burned globally to power totally uneccessary production for manufactured consumerist needs, in order to generate private profit. The stuff that is produced is purposefully designed to break rather than to last or be easily repairable, leading to more energy being burned for repeat production. Personal travel and the transport of goods occur in a totally irrational way because of the demands of the competitive capitalist economy. Advertising, marketing, commercial lighting, stuff on standby out of work-hours etc, are also inherently massively wasteful. I dare say that they have occurred precisely because fossil fuels have been such a cheap source of energy in the past, but none of these aspects of Capitalism’s energy wasting are in the interests of working people, except in the immediate interest of providing jobs.

So far as work is concerned, how many jobs could be created in the insulation and conservation industries, premises conversion, public transport expansion etc that energy efficiency demands? And at what saving to working-class people?

It is true that people in the rest of the world will have a growing energy need over the next decades, but while they need and have a right to expect more, we in the western capitalist world could actually use a lot less with no drop in social well-being and an actual improvement in the living conditions of most working people. Monbiot and Lynas make the mistake of equating the energy needs of competitive capitalism with the rational needs of humanity, and I think this article does the same.

Monbiot and Lynas are ultra-aware, (as are most other environmentalists, though you seem to question it) of the urgent need to cut CO2 emissions. It is so urgent that it raises a problem for revolutionaries as, with or without a socialist transformation, we need to deal with it now if the human species is going to survive. This is why the desperate measure of proliferating a hazardous technology seems necessary and acceptable to some climate-change analysts. But I think it betrays a class attitude which is not acceptable for socialists.

It concentrates more power and wealth, with massive public subsidies, into the hands – and behind the fences of – corporations with an appalling track-record. Nuclear Power by it’s very nature demands high security and centralised control, and in the present world that means also an inherent lack of the transparency and democratic accountability which are absolutely essential where hazardous industries are concerned.

Monbiot and Lynas play fast and loose with the safety of working people in their calculations – one nuclear accident has the potential to destroy the lives of hundreds if not thousands of workers and working-class communities – even if as it appears some radiation dangers have been miscalculated in the past. As Fukushima showed, the unthinkable can still be avoided, but only at an inconceivable public expense for the containment and clean-up, at the cost of wholescale evacuation and land contamination, and with the long-term health fears for everyone exposed. Even then it was touch and go.

Japanese Nuclear Power used to be heralded as the safest in the world, before the unthinkable happened. You say Fukushima “would have been virtually problem-free had a fail-safe cooling system been installed — as should and could have happened”. Ah, yes – If only capitalism hadn’t cut corners and disregarded safety, it would have been virtually (only virtually?) problem-free! Elsewhere you talk about “the possibility of improved safety features” as if a capitalist industry will go for the best and safest method rather than the cheapest it can get away with. But this is one industry where shoddy workmanship means potentially mass disaster.

You don’t deal with the proliferation argument at all. But you can’t advocate nuclear power expansion in one country without it being for all countries, however unstable or tyrannical they are.
And again, you then have to take responsibility for how it will actually be developed in those countries and how much that increases the hazard of nuclear accidents occurring which are a threat to people everywhere, and particularly to the workers living near them.

You seem to have single-handedly dealt with the waste problem, so my great grandchildren will thank you for that! You also play down renewables alarmingly. If you are so confident that designers can improve nuclear design, why don’t you have the same faith in workers in the renewables sector to devise better ways of harnessing the sun’s power directly and indirectly? What’s wrong with the Europe-wide supergrid idea, using new conducting technologies, integrated renewable energy generation on a continental and local scale, and massive solar harvesting in Northern Africa etc?
Monbiot and Lynas have no faith in the ability of the international working class to take control of the situation and transform production. But most of the international working class will have little faith in our new-nuclear saviours, especially with Fukushima still steaming away. We need to come forward with a strong and uncompromising socialist programme for energy and cutting emissions, not give any more energy to this divisive and hazardous distraction.

Why I support nuclear power as one of a range of alternatives to fossil fuels

Back in the 70s, like many on the left, I was alarmed by what seemed to be the cover-up of the risks of nuclear power in the 50s and 60s. The indiscriminate power of nuclear weapons to kill in large numbers also marked many on the left with a fear of nuclear energy. But, as Maynard Keynes put it, “when the facts change, I change my mind”.

We only have one planet and it is overwhelmingly likely that “we” (or greedy capitalists, if you like) are altering its climate for the worse by returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere a million times faster than it was originally locked away in fossil fuels. And, despite attempts to reduce carbon emissions, these are actually rising … by over 5% last year, from 29.0 to 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt or billion tonnes).

And, of the 13.7 Gt released by electricity generation, 11.2 Gt is “fixed” for the foreseeable future, since it will come from existing or planned fossil fuel power stations that will be operating in 2020.

The closure or cancellation of nuclear power stations makes this much worse, since these are the main proven alternative source of electricity. Countries which have reacted to recent scares, rather than evidence, include Japan, Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, Italy and Switzerland.

Truthfully, the potential risks of radiation are massively exaggerated by anti-nuclear groups in comparison with the actual risks of the fossil fuel industry to workers and the public. In particular, the environmental risks of radiation are minimal — wildlife is flourishing in the exclusion zone round Chernobyl and, as James Lovelock has pointed out, in the atom bomb test sites in the Pacific.

Furthermore, the difficulties of replacing nuclear power, let alone the whole fossil fuel industry, with renewables are minimised (see my article in Solidarity 203, 11 May 2011— http://bit.ly/qffeKv).

It is said (by Theo Simon, Letters, Solidarity 204, 18 May —http://bit.ly/k8WOD9) that “nuclear power demands high security and central control”, as if these were necessarily bad.

Central control would anyway be needed to construct tens of thousands of wind turbines, on- and offshore, and the new supergrid of thousands of kilometres which would be needed to get the electricity to the cities. Already, proposals to introduce new systems of pylons have provoked mass protests in Wales, Scotland, Somerset and the West Midlands. And putting cables underground would be ten times more expensive.

Apparently, I fail “to question the projected ‘energy gap’ which is being used to justify nuclear power expansion”. The argument goes that, if the most wide-ranging programme of insulation and energy conservation is undertaken world-wide (the like of which has never been seen), then the electricity generated by nuclear power would not be needed. As the Spartans once said in a different context, if!

Once again, let’s look at the reality of nuclear power. The worst accident of all time, Chernobyl, has killed 43 people. This was due to the criminal negligence of the USSR police state. 28 workers were fatally irradiated while bringing the reactor under control. 15 young people died of thyroid cancer, entirely avoidable had the bureaucrats issued potassium iodide tablets (as was done promptly in Japan recently). Other estimates of potential deaths range from 9,000 to 900,000 but even the lowest of these seems to be way too high. So far, no other deaths have been proved to be due to the Chernobyl disaster.

As Wade Allison (author of Radiation and Reason) states, the ability of living tissue to repair radiation damage has been wildly underestimated. In radiation treatment of cancers, healthy tissues receive up to five times the fatal dose of radiation but spread over several weeks, during which time they efficiently repair the damage.

Many accidents have occurred in nuclear power plants. In those resulting in radiation leaks, there have been … no deaths or even injuries among the public. A few workers have died, usually because they were close to the incident. Otherwise, nuclear workers are healthier than the general population. A 2% increased risk of cancers linked to radiation is dwarfed by a 24% decreased risk of death from other cancers, according to a Canadian study. It also found that nuclear workers lived longer than average. And this under capitalism!

I am accused of listing the objections to nuclear power but not attempting to answer many of them. In particular, in the areas of waste disposal, plant safety and cost, I fail to “see the reality of nuclear power within the context of a global capitalist economy”. Trading content-free accusations, I might accuse others of failing to see the reality of renewable energy within the context etc. etc.

Of course, I did deal with plant safety and waste disposal. A recent Physics World (May 2011) shows that more modern designs would have survived both the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. These include better back-up generators and containment for molten fuel in case of a meltdown, and passive (i.e. not depending on a power supply) emergency cooling, operated by gas pressure or gravity. In fact, modifications to the Fukushima model to reduce radiation leaks in case of an accident were proposed by scientists 30 years ago but rejected as too expensive. Meanwhile, other similar power plants survived the earthquake and tsunami undamaged.

On radioactive waste, I said that deep storage in stable strata was perfectly plausible. Reprocessing would reduce the amount and feed back fuel to nuclear plants. The relevance of the “global capitalist economy” to this is not clear, except that they won’t pay for it. In any case, the danger of waste has been greatly overstated. Five metres of concrete would absorb all the radiation from anything. Wade Allison “would be perfectly happy” to have high-level waste buried 100 metres below his house, while James Lovelock has “offered to take the full output of a nuclear power station in my back yard.”

Alternatives to fossil fuels consist of two proven technologies, nuclear and hydroelectric power (HEP), a host of promising but unproven ones, and the mirage (at present) of a vast reduction in energy demand.

All have environmental and/or health implications. HEP requires vast dams flooding arable land and wildlife habitats, disrupting river ecosystems, destroying estuarine fisheries, reducing the fertility of flood plains, and endangering lives in case of collapse.

The Three Gorges dam in China necessitated flooding 1000 towns and villages, and “removing” 1.4 million people. Since completion in 2006, the reservoir has been plagued by pollution and algae. The dam is silting up, while the extra weight of water is causing geological problems. Downstream, the reduction in flow has led to a drought affecting 300,000 people, with drinking water reservoirs containing only “dead water.” Shipping can no longer use large stretches of the river. It is worrying that Switzerland is phasing out the nuclear power that provides 40% of its electricity, replacing it with HEP.

It is also worrying that Germany, the sixth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is phasing out nuclear power, increasing carbon emissions by 3%. If it can afford to do without the electricity from its nuclear plants, it would be better to keep them open while closing down an equivalent number of fossil fuel plants, cutting CO2 emissions proportionately.

In Japan, phasing out nuclear power will cause massive shortfalls in energy. The optimistic scenarios of Energy-Rich Japan (ERJ — http://www.energyrichjapan.info) all involve substantial reductions in demand (so far untested), while some involve reductions in population — by up to 20%! Since an increase will be needed in order to care for the ageing population, this seems particularly unrealistic.

In particular, ERJ claims that transport energy can be reduced by 70% with hydrogen-powered vehicles. They don’t mention the following problems.

1 Hydrogen is inefficiently produced from fossil fuels; solar-powered electrolysis of water is even more expensive.

2 Highly flammable hydrogen must be stored in pressurised tanks, no doubt to be released in traffic accidents.

3 A new infra-structure for hydrogen supply would have to be built, “a matter for policy decisions and market forces” (ERJ) (!?).

4 Fuel cells to “burn” the hydrogen use costly platinum catalysts which can be poisoned by impurities in the hydrogen or air, which is also needed; their reliability over long periods is unknown; they would easily freeze in cold weather; they would be a magnet for thieves.

5 Incidentally, ERJ assumes that much of the hydrogen would be imported (from where?).

Other aspects of ERJ’s schemes are equally vague. Much geothermal energy would be needed, though this technology is notoriously unreliable. Curiously, nowhere in 250-plus pages is there a mention of earthquakes or tsunamis!

It is difficult to avoid James Lovelock’s conclusion that “only nuclear power can now [my emphasis] halt global warming” — but this is not to accept nuclear power as it is. The possibility of fail-safe thorium-powered reactors is ignored not only by the (capitalist) industry which will not or cannot afford the research costs but by the Left and environmentalists. Supported by eminent scientists such as Carlo Rubbia (former head of CERN), thorium reactors do not have a chain reaction to go out of control. They rely on a stream of neutrons from a particle accelerator which could be instantly switched off. Using plentiful thorium, they can also “burn” other radioactive materials, including surplus bombs … and high level radioactive waste. Radioactive material decays into stable isotopes, usually lead. Plutonium takes about 100,000 years to reduce to 1/20 of its original amount. Thorium reactors accelerate this process greatly (Accelerated Transmutation of Waste), reducing the volume of waste and the time for which it would have to be kept safe.

A final point: Theo accuses me of ignoring the “proliferation argument”, which he seems to equate with the simple possession of nuclear power. There are many difficult steps to building nuclear weapons and it is clear that these have not proliferated anything like as fast as civil nuclear power. More of a problem is terrorism and here too it is not clear that nuclear power plants are uniquely vulnerable and dangerous targets. More importantly, many conflicts are, and will be increasingly, over resources, particularly as the climate changes. Nuclear bombs won’t be much use in these!

Yet more deaths in the UK fossil fuel industry (four workers killed in a Welsh oil refinery explosion in March 2011; five coal miners killed in Wales and Yorkshire in September) should help put the supposed dangers of nuclear power in perspective. Multiply these figures by at least 1,000 worldwide. According to Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (www.ecolo.org), environmental opposition to nuclear energy is the “greatest misunderstanding and mistake of the century”. We should be demanding that nuclear power be expanded and improved, rather than phased out.

But let’s demand the safest forms of nuclear power, as well as support for renewable energy research.

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