No more Fukushimas

Technology is not socially neutral, declares James Turley

When they were not on Libya this week, the world’s eyes have been on Japan, following its most severe earthquake on record and the resultant tsunami. However, the focus soon shifted from the thousands who died to the effect the earthquake and tsunami had on the various nuclear power facilities close enough to the epicentre to suffer damage. In particular, of course, the Fukushima No1 nuclear plant on the Pacific coast, which was severely hit.

Inevitably, these events have reopened the thorny question of exactly how advisable it is to build and maintain nuclear power plants. The massive post-war expansion of the industry ground slowly to a halt after the 1979 near-disaster at Three Mile Island in the United States, and the full-blown catastrophe at Chernobyl in 1986. Recently, however, the tide has begun to turn. The nuclear energy lobby has found new life with the increasing prominence of anthropogenic climate change on the political agenda; Barack Obama announced the construction of several new plants last year, to little controversy.

The last thing the nuclear money-men need is another disaster to take the safety-conscious sheen off their product. Yet here it is - the Fukushima plant suffered several explosions, propelling radioactive steam into the air. A large exclusion zone is in place, and the reactor itself is in such a mess that simply restoring power to the site took the best part of a week. The plant itself is a total write-off, and can look forward only to a great sarcophagus on the model of Chernobyl.

Of course, Chernobyl this ain’t - in that case, an apparently routine test of a new safety measure resulted in a great fire at the reactor cores, which sent enormous amounts of radioactive material pluming into the atmosphere and the tender mercies of the weather - some of it reaching Wales. Alarming as it is, the Fukushima accident is not a threat to life and limb on that scale.

Yet it is an unflattering insight into the priorities of the nuclear industry. Japan sits on the ‘Pacific ring of fire’, which accounts for the vast majority of seismic and volcanic activity in the world - 90% of the world’s earthquakes take place somewhere on the Pacific rim. In those circumstances, is it really wise to construct a nuclear reactor on the meeting point of three tectonic plates - and, even better, right on the coast to make easy pickings for a tsunami? It was the 10-metre wave, it should be noted, that caused the problems by flooding the plant.

Fukushima No1 was shielded against tsunamis up to five metres high - but, given the geological nature of the region, this was always a hostage to fortune. That such a powerful earthquake should strike just off the coast of Japan is horrific, to be sure - but it is no great surprise.

That painfully inadequate attitude to possible natural disasters sums up the safety record as a whole. Less than two weeks before the earthquake, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the plant, formally admitted to over two decades of systematically misreporting safety records to government inspectors. This marked the conclusion of a scandal that had first erupted in 2002, and resulted in many of its plants (including Fukushima No1) going offline for three years ... or, it would have marked the conclusion, had not its oldest site found itself victim to mother nature’s caprice.

Fukushima No1, indeed, is an old plant. Nuclear power has gone through numerous technological advances since its construction. This simply begs the question - why are all these ancient reactors still in operation? The issue here is a fundamental one - under capitalism, it is the exigencies of profit that determine what gets built, and for what purpose. Nuclear power is rolled out - even where it is manifestly ill-advised to do so - because there is big money to be made.

For the same reason, safety records are falsified. Mighty public relations apparatuses function wholly to dispel popular concerns over the potential environmental and human costs of these power plants, regardless of how close to reality these concerns are. Inconvenient matters such as the problem of nuclear waste disposal, or the decommissioning of old plants, are quietly brushed under the carpet. Everything is fine, we are told - until something like this happens.

It was once the fashion, both in the west and in the old Soviet Union, to imagine that technological development was apt to drag humanity into a glorious future, massively reducing the demands of work on people’s daily lives and ushering in the ‘leisure society’. There were perhaps more people who feared for the consequences of the death of honest graft than people who questioned the likelihood of that scenario in the first place (Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world is a prescient example).

Technology, however, is not socially neutral. It is shaped according to the needs of the society which produces and deploys it. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of nuclear power. It was to be the lynchpin of the aforementioned ‘brave new world’, making electric power so cheap that it would not be worth the electric companies’ while to charge us for it; yet it demonstrates very clearly the perverse imperatives of capitalism both in its ‘classic’ (Three Mile Island, Fukushima) and bureaucratic state (Chernobyl) forms.

Capitalism’s short-termism is embodied in the nuclear power industry generally, but particularly the matter of radioactive waste. Beyond persistent pipe dreams about blasting it into space, and various infamous illicit ventures to dump it in the ocean, the best solution the finest scientific minds of our time have come up with is ... bury it and hope it does not leak. It is not for want of trying that capital has failed to come up with a serviceable solution to this problem, but any method of managing materials that remain toxic for thousands of years is likely to be difficult - and expensive.

An even more directly sinister tendency of capitalism implicated in the nuclear power industry is the transformation of means of production into means of destruction. Civilian nuclear power and nuclear armaments are inextricably linked; the former has provided an alibi for the latter since the beginning, and still does - Iran is merely the best known contemporary example of this link, of which there are many. The technologies are substantially different - no nuclear plant is ever going to go up in a mushroom cloud - yet closely enough related that attempts to promote one at the expense of the other frequently collapse into absurdity. Nuclear power is the ‘acceptable’ face of the human race’s ability to obliterate itself.

There is no reason to rule out of hand splitting the atom as a potential source of energy for the future. The problems with nuclear power today are very serious ones for anybody concerned with maintaining the natural environment; but we should not assume it is beyond the ken of man to solve them. We Marxists declare our faith in science openly, and overly generalised arguments against nuclear power - as with many products of the green movement - frequently lapse into proto-primitivist misanthropy.

Science, however, is hamstrung through its instrumentalisation by capital. The methods of rational inquiry and investigation are presently deployed in the service of increasingly irrational social forces. The ‘white heat of technology’, far from liberating us from drudgery, puts us all the more thoroughly in chains; greater understanding of our physical and natural environment, far from allowing us to preserve it, simply enables capital to destroy it more efficiently. The plain truth of the matter is that capital cannot be entrusted with nuclear power - the interests of humanity demand the closure of all nuclear plants.

Communists look forward to the day when science - and all other forms of human endeavour - are liberated from these perverse imperatives. Only then can we ensure that there will be no more Fukushimas and no more Chernobyls.