Letters: All risks and nuclear risks

Submitted by Matthew on 8 March, 2017 - 10:26 Author: Les Hearn and Martin Thomas

The debate in Solidarity on nuclear power is in danger of missing three points. The first is that all forms of energy production carry risks; the second is that some risks are more visible than others; the third is that some risks are exaggerated while others are ignored or minimised.

Laker and Zubrowski (Solidarity 431) warn that the left should not support nuclear power because of “its radioactive byproduct, unique [but unspecified] risk” and contribution to carbon emissions.

Nuclear’s carbon emissions (due to mining, its use of concrete and steel) are essentially one-off and minimal: they are lower than those of solar power and hydroelectric and comparable to those of wind and tidal power. They are far lower than those of any fossil fuel. The problem of radioactive waste has been greatly exaggerated. Deep storage in geologically stable rocks is perfectly safe and radioactive matter does not leach into ground water, even if the containers deteriorate. It would not reach the surface anyway. Furthermore, thorium-fuelled nuclear power stations could “burn up” existing high-level waste (and redundant bombs), reducing the volume of waste by at least an order of magnitude.

Thorium power will probably not be developed by capitalist nuclear companies (without substantial state aid) but could be by socialist societies. It is difficult to comment on nuclear’s “unique risk” without further explanation. But surely alternative energy is safe? Not solar electricity.

The silicon required for photovoltaic panels is obtained from quartz, the mining of which exposes workers to the risk of silicosis, a serious, debilitating, and ultimately fatal lung disease. Since silica, the compound that makes up quartz, is one of the most common compounds in the Earth’s crust, silicosis can affect any miner and a range of other workers who breathe rock dust. In the last 21 years (i.e. since the Chernobyl disaster), silicosis has killed about a million people worldwide, while the total provable deaths from 60 years of nuclear power is less than 100. There is no evidence to support higher estimates of probable deaths from releases of radioactive matter from Chernobyl and the small number of other accidents. There have undoubtedly been many thousands of deaths among uranium miners from breathing radon but this figure pales into insignificance alongside the deaths that occur from fossil fuel extraction, processing, and combustion.

Even hydroelectric power has resulted in far more deaths than nuclear (more than, and possibly much more than, 27,000) through dam collapses and flooding. I am not sure what Laker and Zubrowski mean by responding aggressively to the Tories’ claim that they are reducing carbon emissions by expanding nuclear. We should certainly criticise their refusal to properly fund nuclear power (as with the Blair government), instead relying on sweetheart deals with French and Chinese state companies which look like going wrong anyway. There are several alternative approaches to nuclear power that socialists should support, not least thorium-powered reactors which can’t melt down but which can reduce radioactive waste.

Of course, we can and must support all forms of alternative energy that do not have unacceptable consequences. Incidentally, I can find no support for the assertion that Morocco’s solar power plants will supply all its energy needs by 2020. Current plans seem to suggest that only 1/7th would come from these.

Les Hearn, North London

No proof of the bias

Besides the exaggerations about nuclear power’s relative risks, on which I concur with Les Hearn, Neil Laker’s and Mike Zubrowski’s letter (Solidarity 431) relies on three unsubstantiated claims.

One, that the government (or capitalists generally?) have a “bias in favour of new nuclear”. But capitalist governments almost all across the world developed little new nuclear power for decades after oil and gas prices moderated in the 1980s, and are only tentatively restarting. They hesitate to make the big, long-term, planned investments which nuclear requires.

Two, that nuclear-power development cuts across renewables. Germany is the counter-example: its programme of phasing out nuclear power by 2022 has, despite more official support for renewables there than here, led to more use of coal.

Three, that biomass is a sufficient and superior “baseload” alternative. I do not presume to prescribe nuclear expansion; only to favour continued production of electricity, including “baseload” provision, and to see no socialist reason to exclude nuclear from the mix.

Martin Thomas, North London