Nuclear power irrationality

Simon Wells challenges not only the specifics of nuclear power, but also the logic of capitalist expansionism

After four years of deliberations, despite having declared (in 2003) that going nuclear was “an unattractive option”, it came as no surprise that the Labour government plumped for nuclear power. Announcing the Nuclear White Paper and Energy Bill, energy secretary John Hutton said: “Set against the challenges of climate change and security of supply, the evidence in support of new nuclear power stations is compelling.”

This is being sold on two counts. Firstly, of course, global warming. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fourth assessment of global climate change and concluded that “anthropogenic warming over the last three decades has had a discernible influence on many natural systems”. Therefore, there has to be reductions in the emissions of CO2 and other global warming gases. This is beyond dispute, but how to reduce it most certainly is disputed.

When it comes to the role of nuclear power, there is today a huge amount of scepticism. A far cry from the early 1950s. When the first nuclear power station was built, according to Lewis L Strauss of the US National Association of Science Writers, it was going to usher in an age of “electrical energy too cheap to meter”. This was in the context of the August 9 1945 A-bomb attack on Nagasaki that prompted Japan’s surrender and ended World War II. That was why in December 1953 US president Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace programme at the UN.

Throughout the 1950s, European and US capitalists went into overdrive to present nuclear power as ideal for peaceful purposes. Society was bombarded with images of nuclear-powered cars and aircraft, and radiation treatment was promoted as a cure for all manner of ailments. It was sold as an unproblematic technology. The truth was, and we know this now, that nuclear power was about nuclear weapons. That was the reality about the UK’s first reactor: Britain’s aim was to become a nuclear military power, and this had nothing to do with free electricity.

Far from producing electricity “too cheap to meter”, the nuclear industry has been massively subsidised. According to The Guardian, “… the government has been left with liabilities of up to £5.1 billion since the virtual collapse of nuclear company British Energy, as well as £70 billion in existing waste” (January 7). Nuclear remains the most expensive form of electricity generation. Even if the latest nuclear power stations turn out to be more economic, the problem is still one of safety however.

As has been widely pointed out, terrorists are capable of targeting more than the symbols of capitalism, such as the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and nuclear power stations are extremely vulnerable to damage or sabotage from a deliberate attack. The effect of the population living downwind of nuclear plant that suffered a meltdown as a result of an attack would be awful. Tens of thousands would die of radiation illness, and years later epidemics of leukaemia and cancers would persist.

Apart from the problem of terrorism, there is another major question that remains to be resolved - the issue of radioactive waste with a half-life of many thousands of years. We are not talking about nuclear fusion. There are suggestions that the waste could be buried in very deep shafts, but there is no guarantee that such sites would remain secure for tens of thousands of years - the time needed for the radiation to lose its potency (which is a very long time compared to changes in human technology and culture).

Then there is the possibility of human error. Chernobyl is a good example of the potential result of proper procedures not being adhered to. Aware of the risks, the government states: “The safety and security of nuclear power is of paramount concern and we have an effective regulatory framework in place to ensure that these risks are effectively managed and minimised” (Meeting the energy challenge white paper on nuclear power, January 2008). The phrase “effectively managed and minimised” (not removed) does not exactly inspire confidence.

Nuclear power’s second selling point is, if the white paper is to be believed, energy security. The production of North Sea oil has peaked and it is now in decline, so what the government is doing is looking to the future and aiming to reduce outside dependency. With oil and gas supplies subject to the control of ‘untrustworthy’ regimes in places like Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela, the ‘tap could be turned off’, or tribute demanded of helpless imperialist Britain. Nuclear power, in contrast to wind, wave and solar energy, can make a significant contribution to Britain’s existing and growing demands.

This constantly growing demand for energy is taken as a given. Energy requirements are predicted to increase year on year and nuclear power is the only way they can be met. It does not, for the most part, even enter the heads of the defenders of the system of capital that the continual drive to expand production for its own sake is not some inherent human characteristic. It is a feature of capitalist production, with its artificially created needs and artificially produced demand.

The Morning Star was half right, then, when it commented that New Labour’s “approach is governed solely by private profit” - although not in the simplistic way the leader-writer meant (January 10). It is not just a question of the nuclear capitalists - French or otherwise - rubbing their hands at the prospect of raking in the millions. It is the ï:system of profit, the system of the production of surplus value, that underlies the proposal.

So what needs to be challenged is not only the specifics of nuclear power, but also the logic of capitalist expansionism - on the basis of real human needs. Energy should be used wisely. Oil and gas are finite resources, yet they are being burned with no regard for the future. Millions of people are unnecessarily transported from A to B every day, and millions of unnecessary - undesirable - commodities are produced. Valuable resources are used up in this irrational way. Waste is endemic to the capitalist mode of production and the only rational answer is to supersede capitalism itself.

David King, the former chief science advisor to the government, recently stated: “There is a suspicion, and I have that suspicion myself, that a large number of people who label themselves ‘green’ are actually keen to take us back to the 18th or even the 17th century - ‘Let’s get away from all the technological gizmos and developments of the 20th century’” (The Guardian January 12). And it is true that some who are quite influential in the green movement do hanker back to a society that never really existed.

We reject the notion that the technological progress achieved by capitalism must be abandoned or reversed. What we demand is that it be employed on a new, rational basis. The people must take back control of production - in their own interests.