Expensive, dangerous, unnecessary
The solution to global warming does not rely on going over to nuclear power and a thousand Sizewell Cs - an accelerationist delusion, argues Eddie Ford
My recent article on nuclear power may or may not have been poorly presented (‘Swords into ploughshares’, February 18), but comrade Emil Jacobs's reply did not sufficiently engage with the real issues at stake (‘Luddite delusions’, February 25).
Firstly, it has to be quickly said that my original article was not born of any desire to critique the views of Novara Media on this matter - which I stumbled across by mere chance, thanks to the vagaries of Google. Rather, it was prompted by the latest earthquake off the coast of Japan and the possibility of a new leak at the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant. Having said that, it is worth mentioning Aaron Bastani in this context - the co-founder and guru of NM. He is also the author of the altogether silly book, Fully automated luxury communism (2019), which tells us that machinery and technology is “the path to a world of liberty, luxury and happiness”, where the value of commodities will be reduced towards zero. Asteroids will be mined, genetic editing will prolong life, disease will be virtually eliminated, wonderful sex with cyborgs - meaning humans will “transcend the limits of biology” at last and “build meaningful freedom for all”.
Bastani’s book lies fully within the tradition of Peter Struve (1870-1944). Beginning as one of the founders of the RSDLP, his commitment to capitalist progress saw him evolve first into a liberal, then into a white counterrevolutionary. Bastani is part of a modernday school of Struvites who sometimes call themselves accelerationists - the idea is to encourage the speeding up of technological development, because that brings us nearer to socialism and communism, without the need for the messy business of class struggle, mass communist parties, proletarian revolution and state power. Dead labour becomes the liberator, not living labour - the working class is written out of the equation. Others associated with this school of thought include Paul Mason. Hence in Postcapitalism: a guide to our future (2015), Mason declared that, just as with the end of feudalism, “capitalism’s replacement by post-capitalism will be accelerated by external shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being” - Homo Technologus. The inexorable rise of advanced machinery and “collaborative production” will eventually help capitalism to kill itself. Like Bastani, he dismisses the idea that class struggle is the central driver of history. What class struggle does do, Mason argues, is force the capitalists to introduce shiny new technology - something we want to encourage, as that will emancipate humanity. In 2016, telling you a lot, Paul Mason released a video putting forward the “leftwing case” for Britain retaining nuclear weapons.1
Anyhow, moving on to the substance of the argument, the case against actually existing nuclear power seems to me more or less unanswerable. We will not go here into the whole question of nuclear fusion - something that has been experimented with for a long time now (the new technological dawn is always just over the horizon). Yes, true, it seems scientists fairly recently have finally managed for the first time to conduct an experiment where they produce more energy than they put in - just about. However, putting it very simply, to properly replicate the process going on inside the sun requires an absolutely colossal amount of power. Stating the obvious, to make fusion a viable energy source we need the exact opposite - getting far more out than you put in - otherwise it defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. Whether this can actually be done in the real world, rather than a hermetically sealed lab, is an entirely open question. Fusion promises boundless energy with none of the well-known negative side effects you get with fission, such as a Chernobyl-type meltdown or radioactive waste with a half-life of tens of thousands of years. But the problems of getting fusion up and running before the planet is toasted by runaway global warming are formidable. The cavalry could come too late.
Clearly the first line of argument concerns what is cheap and what is expensive. The answer is obvious if you look at the most recent statistics, on a globalised average, for the cost of various power sources per unit.2 First in terms of cheapness is land-based wind power ($46/MWh) and next is solar ($51). Of course, these sources of power are great if it is windy or sunny, which is not always the case in Britain. But that does not detract from the fact that wind and solar are highly cost-effective and inexhaustible.
Next on the list we have natural gas ($59), followed by geothermal energy ($77) - basically digging deep into the ground, where it is warm, because of the Earth’s molten core. Then we have offshore wind power. At the moment this is $100 - almost twice as much as its land-based counterpart, but not an eyesore, as some would see it. Then we find coal at $112, but way out in front - quite predictably - is nuclear is on $164 - more than three times as expensive as the cheapest source of energy. Looks like a no-brainer so far. (We must not forget other renewables either, such as wave power, hydroelectricity, radiant energy, biomass3, etc, etc.)
But then we have to take into account peak demand, like when people get home from work and start switching on the kettle and TV, cooking dinner, and so on. In Britain about 6pm is when the natural gas stations kick in to cover this quick surge in demand, peaking at $175. Now, I am not entirely sure if the nuclear power statistic includes the cost of cleaning up after disasters. There have been two big ones so far - in Chernobyl and Fukushima - plus others not so well known (eg, Mayak in 1957). The estimated clean-up cost of Fukushima, which is still going on, is between $460 and $660 billion. In 2016, Peter Wynn Kirby, an Oxford University researcher in this area, reported little progress on the handling of the more intense radiation waste of the wrecked plant site itself; or on dealing with the larger issue of the national nuclear programme’s wastage - particularly given the earthquake-risk in Japan relative to secure, long-term storage.
Turning to Britain, we have the ongoing building of a number of new nuclear power stations. The government originally planned six, but this is now down to three, because contractors pulled out, citing expense. Despite a generous, twice above wind power, guaranteed price from the government, three consortiums still decided to leg it, since the cost of building a station was prohibitively expensive - compared with any expected returns. Then there are ever mounting costs: Sizewell C was initially going to cost £20 billion, but that has since morphed to £25 billion and counting. Sizewell C is also at least 10 years behind schedule: it was meant to come into operation in 2017, now the official completion date is 2027.
There is another very important fact to consider: the increase in the contribution from wind power to the overall UK electricity supply. Ten years ago it counted for only 3%, but now it is 25% - a massive rise in the cheapest source of electricity generation. Indeed, when it has been exceptionally blowy, we have even had a situation where wind power accounted for 59.9% of electricity generated in Britain - something that should be a great cause for optimism, rather than dreaming about the dubious wonders of nuclear power.
But back to price. Communists, of course, have our own way of approaching things - planning and calculating labour hours. But we are highlighting price because this is how capitalism establishes its rationality - through the law of value. An indirect way of working things out, yes, but nonetheless it is the best way capitalism has to tell what is efficient and what is inefficient. Anyhow, between 2009 and 2019, what happened to the price of various power sources? Gas went down 37% and oil 2%, showing that those who think that gas and oil production have peaked are talking complete nonsense. There is plenty of gas and oil out there - and it will last a long time. The price has fallen mainly because there are new techniques to extract the stuff, such as fracking (whether it is safe or wise environmentally is a different question). Similarly the cost of extracting a ton of coal on a global level has gone down by 2%. But the cost of nuclear power has actually gone up 26% in the same period.
We could go into the exact whys and wherefores of it all, but this puts a big dent in the naive idea that nuclear technology has been mastered and now all we need to do is churn out the stations to put ourselves in clover. Planet saved. Even the fact that it takes such a long time to build a power station and put it into full operation should be enough to tell you something about the immense difficulties posed by nuclear power.
Then we have the equally important, much harder to calculate, question concerning the indirect costs and dangers of the source of your energy supply. As comrade Jacobs said in his article, nuclear power is extremely safe, relative to other technologies, when it comes to deaths. True. It is coal that is the big killer … and not only from mining accidents, but air and others forms of pollution. The Great Smog of 1952 in London was responsible for 12,000 deaths - and now we have a similar phenomenon in Beijing and other big cities. Anyway, here are the mortality figures, per terrawatt-hour produced, in descending order: coal, 24.6; oil, 18.4; bio, 4.6; natural gas, 2.8; nuclear, 0.07; wind, 0.04; hydro, 0.02; solar 0.02.4
So relatively speaking, certainly compared to coal and oil, nuclear power is safe. At Chernobyl, for instance, just 30 were directly killed. But to this has to be added the appalling impact it had on the whole territory and wider environment - with radiation killing often very slowly, including the unborn, and so on.
As briefly mentioned, you have the hideously difficult question of how to dispose of radioactive waste, which can hang around for many thousands of years - something that comrade Jacobs seemed rather blasé about. You can keep it in all sorts of different ways, but you have to transport the dammed stuff to the mountains, or landfill site - which contains an inherent element of danger. Meanwhile though, many worry about a 9/11-type attack aimed against a nuclear plant - not something to be dismissed lightly. No plant is invulnerable, even those encased in thick concrete.
When it comes to CO2 emissions per gigawatt-hour of electricity produced, coal is once again the unsurpassed leader at 820 tons, while oil is on 720 tons, natural gas 490 tons, biofuels (depending on what sort) between 78 and 230 tons, hydro and nuclear just three tons - which includes building the plants - and solar and wind around about the same.5 Which is precisely why it can be sold to governments in terms of global warming.
The Boris Johnson administration is keen to show that targets for reducing the UK’s net emissions of greenhouse gases by 100% relative to 1990 levels can be met by 2050 - which would make the UK a ‘net zero’ emitter. Now in terms of new technology we have reactors where nuclear fuel comes in the form of ceramic pebbles.6 This supposedly produces no extra radiation, but requires much greater storage capacity, amongst other things. But the builders of this new technology are selling it on the basis that you would never have a Fukushima or Chernobyl - no nuclear meltdown.
This illustrates the central problem, or paradox, of nuclear power. In terms of CO2 emissions the greatest culprit is coal, not nuclear - nobody would dispute that. But that only makes it even more vital that with nuclear we question what we are being sold, why and by whom. We need as an absolute imperative to transition away from coal and oil - which actually can be done very quickly using existing technologies, especially renewables. Solar and wind are becoming dramatically cheaper, making them perfectly realistic options. But, like fusion, the new and better fission technology being developed right now - even if it works brilliantly - might arrive too late to save the day. Time is running out, as the planet is getting warmer and warmer by the year.
Therefore I was surprised by the way comrade Jacobs appeared to mock solar power. Look at a global map of sunshine. The highest levels occur slap in the middle of the Sahara, with 80%-90% of the days of the year being hot and sunny. My idea of solar farms in the Sahara running power to Europe was not plucked out of thin air - it is already a reality. There are solar power plants in north Africa that feed into molten salt towers and from there run cables that eventually go undersea to Malta - which is hooked in to high-voltage, direct current transmission lines to Italy and further into Europe.
There are plenty of such high-voltage lines joining various European countries over land and under the sea … and to a very reassuring level of efficiency. The UK gets electricity from France’s excess nuclear capacity via high voltage lines under the English Channel. Similar lines join Britain to Ireland, Finland to Sweden, Italy to Greece, Norway to Germany and France to Spain.
Showing what is possible, even under capitalism, in 2009 there was an ambitious proposal called Desertec, aimed at setting up giant solar farms in the Sahara and powering Europe. Desertec 1.0 stalled, not least because of political instability. But Desertec 3.0 has now been set up, with a view to linking the Middle East, North Africa and Europe into a single power grid and meeting 90% of energy demand through renewables.
If capitalism cannot do that because of national divisions, state breakdown, profit maximisation, the narrow self-interests of the oil majors, etc, then socialism would have every interest in taking up such a project on a global scale. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks presided over the highly successful Goelro plan.7 We in our turn shall preside over Desertec 4.0. Workers’ power plus solar power equals global sustainability.
The crucial thing to understand is that the technology is there - this is not a quixotic pipedream, let alone a “Luddite delusion”. As for what to do when it is not sunny or windy, great strides are being made in battery and other storage technology. For example, when it comes to wind power, plants are being designed that store cheap ‘off-peak’ electricity in flywheels that turn faster than the speed of sound.8
Lastly, I completely reject comrade Jacobs’s absurd dichotomous choice between climate warming or nuclear power, runaway climate change or a thousand Sizewell C’s. The fact of the matter is that if you thought there was just about to be a qualitative tilt in the climate pattern which would fry the planet, the last thing you would rationally do is choose the nuclear option - given its dangers, cost and how long it takes to put it into operation.
Fortunately, it is not a choice of nuclear power or runaway global warming. There are other, far better, solutions. Not only replacing coal and oil with wind and solar power, but reducing demand through little measures such as home working, radically reducing the consumption of meat and dairy products, limiting air travel, introducing thermal insulation and proper building standards, discouraging car use and encouraging walking, cycling and public transport.
That is what constitutes the communist programme on this question.
Goelro - State Commission for the Electrification of Russia.↩︎