WeeklyWorker

25.02.2021
Better nuclear power than runaway global warming

Luddite delusions

Our arguments about energy forms must be based on solid grounds, says an insistent Emil Jacobs

Eddie Ford’s piece in last week’s Weekly Worker, which argued against nuclear energy, was badly informed and presented even worse (‘Swords into ploughshares?’, February 18). There are valid arguments to be made against nuclear power - or more specifically against nuclear fission based on uranium-235 - but these are not to be found in comrade Ford’s piece. This reply is an attempt to move towards a more constructive debate on the topic.

Comrade Ford starts with Fukushima, where the 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami knocked out the cooling of all reactors and back-up units, and where radiation was released into the environment. Comrade Ford says about this:

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.

Apparently he is impressed by prefixes like ‘giga’ and ‘peta’, equating them to ‘a lot’ and thus “nightmarish”. If we actually look up what the becquerel unit stands for, we read that “one becquerel is defined as the activity of a quantity of radioactive material, in which one nucleus decays per second”.1 That is, the decay of one atom per second - to become another more stable atom. This SI standard replaced the older curie unit, which was defined as the activity of one gram of radium-226. One curie is equal to 37GBq. More concretely, this “nightmarish” scenario is equivalent to less than 1.5 grams of radium-226 dropping into the ocean each day. Oh my!

Needless to say, this is an almost irrelevant amount of radiation. Subsequent studies showed that the environment was not impacted in any way.2 In fact, there were no reported deaths by radiation poisoning at all. The 2,000 fatalities linked to Fukushima were a result of the “overreacted” evacuation.3

Further on in the piece comrade Ford asks about the problem of disposing of nuclear waste:

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?

The short answer would be ‘yes’. The longer answer needs some explanation on the types of radiation that this waste produces.

There are three types: alpha, beta and gamma radiation. Of these, only the last two are directly dangerous to life forms. What is relevant for this discussion is that alpha radiation can be blocked by a sheet of paper - it cannot penetrate the skin. This can, of course, still be dangerous if it gets into your body in large concentrations (for example, via groundwater). As for beta radiation, it is blocked by a few millimetres of water or a thin metal sheet, but it may penetrate the skin, while gamma radiation is the most energetic and can indeed penetrate the body and cause a lot of harm if someone is exposed to it long enough. However, this harm is not a chemical process, but is more akin to a micro-machine gun shooting holes in a human body. Your body is built to cope with damage, but if you gather enough of those holes in a short enough amount of time, it will no longer be able to protect you and you will die of radiation poisoning.

The point, however, is that elements that stay radioactive for a longer period release less radiation per unit of time. Since the total number of atoms that will eventually decay does not change over time, the total amount of radiation that will eventually be released stays constant. Hence releasing this radiation over a longer period of time automatically means reducing the amount of radiation emitted per unit of time. So, while it is true that nuclear waste can emit radiation for many millennia, it is relatively harmless, as the level of output becomes much lower. Nevertheless, it is imperative that waste is stored safely, even for lower levels of radiation. It must be stored in a dry place, so it does not get into water, and must be surrounded by thick walls to absorb the gamma radiation it produces. So, yes, deep underground locations that are geologically stable would be suitable, like the repository sites currently being built in Finland.4 Furthermore, fast reactors can help burn up almost all waste and radically reduce the lifetime of the remaining product.

Meat of the matter

Comrade Ford makes a correct link between currently available fission technology and the cold war: “Of course, in terms of history, the real reason for nuclear power was the development of nuclear weapons - the two cannot be disentangled.”

This brings me to the ‘path not taken’: thorium-based fission energy. Thorium has several advantages over uranium. Thorium-based molten salt reactors are impervious to meltdowns. They are much more efficient in ‘burning up’ fuel, producing drastically reduced and shorter-lived waste, since thorium is a lighter element than uranium, which makes it very difficult - nigh impossible - to make weapons out of it. That was, of course, exactly why this technology was not further developed beyond the working prototype built by Oak Ridge National Laboratory that operated without issues from 1965 to 1969.5

Furthermore, thorium is currently already being mined, but is considered ‘waste’ because mining companies have no use for it. But the landfills that currently contain this ‘waste product’ could actually power humanity for the next century! So, in contrast to uranium mines, which do cause environmental impact on a large scale, we already have this fuel ‘free of charge’ for the foreseeable future.

But comrade Ford soon gets into the meat of the matter: according to him, nuclear energy is not an answer to global warming. He states:

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.

Let us unpack these two statements. First, the cost argument. I do not read anything in comrade Ford’s piece that actually explains why it would be so expensive, so we are left guessing. It is certainly true that it is expensive to build a nuclear power plant, but, on the other hand, their life expectancy is 50-60 years. Also, while the UK only has 15 active reactors, France has 56 - mostly built during the Messmer plan of the 1970s, when scalability, experience and the use of standardised designs reduced costs greatly. All of this results in costs per kWh for nuclear power that range from 5% to 75% of those for solar and wind.6

Then we have the statement that nuclear power is inherently dangerous, more so than wind or solar. Really? If we look at the actual figures, nuclear energy is incredibly safe. According to the Forbes website, in terms of deaths per thousand TWh produced, fossil fuels are the most deadly, with an average of 100,000 deaths for coal and 36,000 for oil. Even biofuel is very dangerous, ranking at a hefty 24,000 per thousand TWh. Wind (150) and rooftop solar (440) are much lower, with deaths mostly happening during installation, but nuclear ranks lower still, at 90 - and that includes the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. If those were left out of the equation, nuclear would rank at a mere 0.1 deaths per thousand TWh.7 True, falling off a roof may not be as spectacular as the Fukushima disaster, and I suspect that is why comrade Ford may have made his incorrect statement. Perhaps he would also be shocked to hear that, despite devastating airplane crashes often making the headlines, air travel is by far the safest way of mass transportation.

Alternative?

But let us dig deeper. Is solar energy actually an alternative to fossil energy? It is true that the sun hits the earth with more energy in an hour than humanity uses in a year.8 But can we exploit it? The thing with solar energy is, of course, that it only works for approximately half a day, when the sun is shining, and we tend to use more energy during the dark half. There are two conceptual solutions to this. The first is that we build a lot of batteries storing the energy to be used at night (maybe with a buffer of a day or so, for bad times). This would require truly huge investment in battery and network infrastructure.

By comparison, the US-based “clean energy” company, Tesla, finished building the 129MWh battery park - at the time the largest of its kind - in Australia in 2017. Tesla stated that this would be able to power up to 30,000 homes during a blackout9 at a building cost of about £37 million.10 But if we extrapolate that to Greater London, for example, a veritable city of batteries would have to be constructed. Also, moving electricity from a centralised power grid into homes would require a tree-like infrastructure, with thick cables at the power plants and thin cables at the last stretch into the homes. The grid would have to be reconfigured and very much decentralised. Such an upgrade would hardly be a trivial piece of work, but something requiring many years and huge resources to complete.

In addition, if we filled the Sahara with solar panels (well, enough to provide humanity with sufficient power), this would require a huge amount of concrete and steel - materials that create a lot of CO2 themselves. How much would we need to make? A quick calculation puts the required steel alone at several times the output of the entire world economy. Solar power (PV panels) require approximately 50 times the amount of steel per TWh as nuclear power.11

Then there is a second conceptual solution to the ‘night problem’: we build a power grid spanning the globe and move power from where the sun shines to where it is needed. Comrade Ford kind of suggests this solution, implying that a powerline from the Sahara to Europe would be needed. Physics, however, comes up with a problem, as there is something called resistance. Electrons do not move along smoothly in metal cables. To express things simply, they ‘bump into’ atoms, causing energy loss. Scientists are patiently working towards the ‘holy grail’ of superconductivity at room temperature, but we are simply not there yet (and it remains doubtful that will ever get to that point in any practical sense).

But comrade Ford has one more card to play:

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.

Now, that is easy to say for someone in a developed country like the UK. But is this also an argument against the development of Africa, for example?

The comrade has a point, of course. Capitalism, with its profit incentive of growth ad infinitum, is in direct conflict with living on a finite planet. So, of course we agree that this systemic problem has to be dealt with. But 87% of all CO2 emissions come from industry, and surely that is where we need to start, aiming to reduce emissions to as close to zero as possible. Production for human need - socialism - would indeed be a great leap forward towards a solution.

But the aim should indeed be zero, not simply a reduction. And that needs to happen in the very near future, because the way things are developing now, we are heading towards mass extinction due to climate change. The energy question must therefore be a central feature of our minimum demands, on which our class fights to attain political power.

If I had to choose between several more Chernobyl-type disasters and the end of humanity, together with much of the planet’s biodiversity due to climate change, I think this would be a rather obvious choice. Comrade Ford calls those on the left who champion nuclear power “techno-utopians”, but he himself maintains a dogmatic leftwing opposition to nuclear energy without making any serious alternative proposal. Or are we to believe that a Luddite vision of reducing energy consumption will solve the whole matter? Delusional indeed.

I am not a fan of uranium-based nuclear fission. There are real problems, which I do not deny. I would much rather see the development of thorium-based nuclear fission, but this will take time to develop - time we do not have. But if we have to build another generation of uranium reactors in the meantime to save the planet and our very species, so be it.

This is a debate the left needs to take up - which is, of course, the reason for comrade Ford’s article responding to a recent piece by Novara Media and its plea for nuclear energy in a nuanced manner. Comrade Ford sets out to dismiss the notion of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels, but not only does he fail in that (his article contains virtually no engagement with the Novara piece): he fails to spell out an actual alternative.

If we are to have this debate, let us be serious about it and base ourselves on solid grounds.


  1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Becquerel.↩︎

  2. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_Daiichi_nuclear_disaster#Contaminated_water.↩︎

  3. sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0957582017300782.↩︎

  4. wikipedia.org/wiki/Onkalo_spent_nuclear_fuel_repository.↩︎

  5. wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium-based_nuclear_power.↩︎

  6. 4thgeneration.energy/the-true-costs-of-nuclear-and-renewables.↩︎

  7. forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2012/06/10/energys-deathprint-a-price-always-paid.↩︎

  8. businessinsider.com/this-is-the-potential-of-solar-power-2015-9.↩︎

  9. electrek.co/2017/11/23/tesla-worlds-largest-li-ion-battery-system-in-australia.↩︎

  10. electrek.co/2018/09/24/tesla-powerpack-battery-australia-cost-revenue.↩︎

  11. energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2017/03/f34/quadrennial-technology-review-2015_1.pdf page 390. The amount of concrete does not compare so favourably, but this is compared to pressurised water reactors, which require a lot of concrete in the safety dome as a fail-safe, should an accident occur.↩︎