Swords into ploughshares?
Nuclear power is no answer to global warming, argues Eddie Ford - it is incredibly expensive and inherently dangerous
At the weekend a 7.3-magnitude earthquake rocked large parts of Tokyo, with nearly one million homes losing power. This must have been a terrifying experience, even if nobody was killed. Perhaps even more scarily, this is believed to be an aftershock of the massive earthquake almost a decade ago, which triggered a tsunami that left 18,000 dead. The tsunami also went crashing into the Fukushima nuclear plant, in the worst such incident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Thankfully there are no reports of any further damage to the Fukushima plant (now decommissioned) or the neighbouring Onagawa plant - which actually was closer to the epicentre of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake in 2011. That was the most powerful quake ever recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900. The town of Onagawa was almost totally destroyed by the tsunami. However, whilst the four reactors at the Daini plant in Fukushima automatically shut down, as programmed, its sister plant at Daiichi underwent a triple meltdown - the radiation released into the atmosphere forced the government to declare an evacuation zone with a 20 km radius.
In total, some 154,000 residents from the surrounding communities were evacuated in 2011. Huge amounts of contaminated water were discharged into the Pacific Ocean during and after the disaster. Nightmarishly, like a bad science fiction movie, it has been estimated that 18 petabecquerel (PBq) of radioactive caesium-137 were released during the accident, and 30 gigabecquerel (GBq) of caesium-137 were still flowing into the ocean every day in 2013. The plant’s operator built new walls along the coast and constructed a 1.5km-long ‘ice wall’ of frozen earth to stop the flow of contaminated water.
The Fukushima disaster was classified as level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), joining Chernobyl as the only other accident to receive such a rating. Yes, there was the 1957 Mayak disaster at the Soviet Kyshtym site, which at the time was the worst nuclear accident in history.1 During this catastrophe a poorly maintained storage tank exploded, releasing 20 million curies (740 PBq) in the form of 50-100 tons of high-level radioactive waste, and contaminating a large area in the eastern Urals. Naturally, in the best Stalinist tradition, the Soviet bureaucracy kept the accident secret for 30 years. Maybe alarmingly, Mayak is still active and serves as a reprocessing site for spent nuclear fuel (another incident appears to have happened in September 2017). While the Mayak explosion was the second ever worst accident measured by the quantity of radioactivity spewed out, the INES - for whatever reason - classifies nuclear events by the immediate impact on the human population. So Chernobyl is the winner at 335,000 people evacuated.
By comparison, the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the US almost seems like small beer. The partial meltdown of a reactor, and subsequent radiation leak, was rated level five - an “accident with wider consequences”. Clean-up started in August 1979 and officially ended in December 1993, with a total cost of around $1 billion. Readers might recall the 1979 film The China syndrome, staring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, about safety cover-ups at a nuclear power plant - 12 days after the film’s release Three Mile Island happened. Mercifully, it appears, epidemiological studies analysing the rate of cancer in and around the area since the accident show that there has not been any statistically significant increase - but the monitoring continues.
At the moment nuclear power is being heavily sold to us on the grounds that it is a clean technology - which is nonsense of Orwellian proportions. Where do you store the nuclear waste, sometimes with a ‘half-life’ of thousands of years? Clay-lined landfill sites? Deep underground in repository sites? Inside mountains? Under the oceans?
Some have talked of using high-powered lasers to blast capsules of waste into outer space - which seems like madness - or even blasting the damned stuff into the heart of the Sun - more craziness. Then what about an equivalent of 9/11, with hijacked Boeing aircraft being launched into a power plant - which would surely have horrendous consequences?
Of course, in 1950s Britain we were told that not only was nuclear power the exciting new technology of the future, but also that the electricity produced would be free. This was the period when there was endless talk about how the only problem in the future would be what to do with our bountiful leisure time, thanks to the blazing white heat of the technological revolution - some feared that we might become too decadent or degenerate.
In August 1956 Calder Hall, Sellafield, was connected to the grid, becoming the world’s first nuclear power station to deliver electricity in commercial quantities. Then in February 1966 it was announced that the first prototype fast breeder reactor in the UK would be constructed in Dounreay, Scotland, at a cost of £30 million. Around this time we had a youngish Tony Benn - minister of technology and then energy minister under successive Harold Wilson governments - trying to sell us the wonders of nuclear power. (Benn admitted in a much later interview that, having been brought up on the Bible, “I liked the idea of swords into ploughshares”. War and peace.)
What is sometimes forgotten is that Labour then had a programme of closing down ‘unprofitable’ coal mines - not to mention a nagging concern that the balance of class forces was tilting too much towards the working class movement, with the miners acting as its Praetorian Guard. This process was speeded up under the Tories and Margaret Thatcher, of course. As part of his general move to the left during his maturement, Benn became an opponent of nuclear power - experience as a minister teaching him that it was not cheap, safe or peaceful.
Nowadays, nuclear power in the UK generates 20% of the country’s total electricity - not the dizzying heights imagined in the 1950s. Britain has 15 operational nuclear reactors at seven locations - in 2010 the government gave permission for private suppliers to construct up to eight new nuclear power plants. While two companies have pulled out of developing them, EDF Energy is still planning to build four new reactors at two sites, and Horizon Nuclear Power has plans for several new reactors.
There has also been a proposed nuclear power station at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex using reactors built by the China General Nuclear Power Group - construction of the site is expected to take between nine and 12 years. Inevitably, there have been sharp criticisms of the project from both the US administration and sections of the Tory Party. Iain Duncan Smith has compared the UK’s dealings with Beijing to the 1930s appeasement of Nazi Germany, claiming it would mean that “our energy policy is in the hands of the Chinese”.
Of course, in terms of history, the real reason for nuclear power was the development of nuclear weapons - the two cannot be disentangled. Indeed, it was an open secret that in 1956 Calder Hall was designed primarily for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Furthermore, the idea was for Britain to become an ‘independent’ nuclear power not reliant on the US - which did not succeed. Making the actual bomb was the easy bit, but developing an effective delivery system was an entirely different matter.
Eventually, for this or that reason, the UK abandoned the V bombers and the Blue Streak missiles - opting instead to hide under the American umbrella with Polaris, a theoretically invulnerable submarine-based system that cannot be detected by satellite or knocked out by aircraft. Polaris patrols continued until May 1996, by which time there was a phased handover to the replacement Trident system.
It is important to counter those on the left - the techno-utopians - who imagine nuclear power as some sort of answer to global warming. This belief is utterly delusional, as nuclear power is incredibly expensive - vastly more so than coal and gas, and, of course, wind and solar power, both of which are steadily becoming more efficient and inventive. Nuclear power is also inherently dangerous, as we have seen above. Just one accident can cause incalculable damage - not something you can say about wind or solar.
Nevertheless, some sections of the left insist on promulgating nuclear technology as the solution - or at least, part of the solution. This attitude was reflected in a recent article on the Corbynite Novara Media website - an “independent” outlet “driven to build a new media for a different politics”. In an article entitled ‘Is it time for the left to back nuclear energy?’, Craig Gent writes that nuclear power “quite simply isn’t a threat to humanity in any way that is even comparable to fossil fuels”.2 He goes on to say that, “whilst the uranium required for nuclear power does come ‘from the ground’, it is fairly abundant and far more evenly distributed across the globe than oil or gas”. Nuclear is “unrivalled” in terms of capacity, he claims, “because it requires so little space to produce so much energy”. Gent concludes that the left “should stop being shy about nuclear energy, because if we’re serious about rapid decarbonisation, it’s a part of the equation”.
In the same sort of vein, just after the Fukushima disaster the Weekly Worker published a letter, saying: “... the fact of the matter is that nuclear energy still presents the only immediately available, reliable and cheap, low-carbon-energy source”. The correspondent went on to argue that the left “must consider the future and how we see our energy needs being met, as we become a planet that is increasing its energy consumption” (my emphasis) and argued, like many others, that “the strongest candidate that we have to meet this need is nuclear fusion” (Letters, March 24 2011).
Whilst I would not want to categorically rule out nuclear fusion as a possible contender for eternity, the problems are legion. True, scientists writing seven year ago in the Nature journal declared that for the first time ever they had “used 192 lasers to compress a pellet of fuel and generate a reaction in which more energy came out of the fuel core than went into it”. But that is only half the story. The goal of “ignition” still remains a distant dream - that is, when far more energy is yielded than was consumed in the entire process. More broadly, it is extremely doubtful whether nuclear fusion will ever be able to seriously compete with the alternatives either economically or technologically. And there are plenty of energy options for the future that do not require nuclear technology.
If you live in the UK and stare unhappily out of the window, it may seem dark or cloudy all the time. But potentially all sorts of remarkable things can be done with solar power. Just look at how excess nuclear power in France is cabled to Britain - right now your lights or computer could be powered this way. Hence it seems perfectly possible that solar power in the Sahara Desert can be set up to power the UK, or any other country. We on the Marxist left need to be questioning growth for growth’s sake - production for the sake of production. Rather than imagining a future with increased energy consumption, which seems perverse, we need to be planning for a society of the future with dramatically reduced power usage.
Production must be for the sake of need - not profit, which threatens to destroy the natural environment on this precious planet, if not life itself.