Socialists and nuclear power

Submitted by Matthew on 9 November, 2011 - 2:33

We continue our debate on the future of nuclear power with this article by Les Hearn. Les argues that technological developments, such as using thorium instead of uranium, can create a vastly more ecologically-friendly nuclear industry acceptable to socialists. In our next issue we will print an opposing view.

Why I support nuclear power as one of a range of alternatives to fossil fuels

Back in the 70s, like many on the left, I was alarmed by what seemed to be the cover-up of the risks of nuclear power in the 50s and 60s. The indiscriminate power of nuclear weapons to kill in large numbers also marked many on the left with a fear of nuclear energy. But, as Maynard Keynes put it, “when the facts change, I change my mind”.

We only have one planet and it is overwhelmingly likely that “we” (or greedy capitalists, if you like) are altering its climate for the worse by returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere a million times faster than it was originally locked away in fossil fuels. And, despite attempts to reduce carbon emissions, these are actually rising … by over 5% last year, from 29.0 to 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt or billion tonnes).

And, of the 13.7 Gt released by electricity generation, 11.2 Gt is “fixed” for the foreseeable future, since it will come from existing or planned fossil fuel power stations that will be operating in 2020.

The closure or cancellation of nuclear power stations makes this much worse, since these are the main proven alternative source of electricity. Countries which have reacted to recent scares, rather than evidence, include Japan, Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, Italy and Switzerland.

Truthfully, the potential risks of radiation are massively exaggerated by anti-nuclear groups in comparison with the actual risks of the fossil fuel industry to workers and the public. In particular, the environmental risks of radiation are minimal — wildlife is flourishing in the exclusion zone round Chernobyl and, as James Lovelock has pointed out, in the atom bomb test sites in the Pacific.

Furthermore, the difficulties of replacing nuclear power, let alone the whole fossil fuel industry, with renewables are minimised (see my article in Solidarity 203, 11 May —

It is said (by Theo Simon, Letters, Solidarity 204, 18 May — that “nuclear power demands high security and central control”, as if these were necessarily bad.

Central control would anyway be needed to construct tens of thousands of wind turbines, on- and offshore, and the new supergrid of thousands of kilometres which would be needed to get the electricity to the cities. Already, proposals to introduce new systems of pylons have provoked mass protests in Wales, Scotland, Somerset and the West Midlands. And putting cables underground would be ten times more expensive.

Apparently, I fail “to question the projected ‘energy gap’ which is being used to justify nuclear power expansion”. The argument goes that, if the most wide-ranging programme of insulation and energy conservation is undertaken world-wide (the like of which has never been seen), then the electricity generated by nuclear power would not be needed. As the Spartans once said in a different context, if!

Once again, let’s look at the reality of nuclear power. The worst accident of all time, Chernobyl, has killed 43 people. This was due to the criminal negligence of the USSR police state. 28 workers were fatally irradiated while bringing the reactor under control. 15 young people died of thyroid cancer, entirely avoidable had the bureaucrats issued potassium iodide tablets (as was done promptly in Japan recently). Other estimates of potential deaths range from 9,000 to 900,000 but even the lowest of these seems to be way too high. So far, no other deaths have been proved to be due to the Chernobyl disaster.

As Wade Allison (author of Radiation and Reason) states, the ability of living tissue to repair radiation damage has been wildly underestimated. In radiation treatment of cancers, healthy tissues receive up to five times the fatal dose of radiation but spread over several weeks, during which time they efficiently repair the damage.

Many accidents have occurred in nuclear power plants. In those resulting in radiation leaks, there have been … no deaths or even injuries among the public. A few workers have died, usually because they were close to the incident. Otherwise, nuclear workers are healthier than the general population. A 2% increased risk of cancers linked to radiation is dwarfed by a 24% decreased risk of death from other cancers, according to a Canadian study. It also found that nuclear workers lived longer than average. And this under capitalism!

I am accused of listing the objections to nuclear power but not attempting to answer many of them. In particular, in the areas of waste disposal, plant safety and cost, I fail to “see the reality of nuclear power within the context of a global capitalist economy”. Trading content-free accusations, I might accuse others of failing to see the reality of renewable energy within the context etc. etc.

Of course, I did deal with plant safety and waste disposal. A recent Physics World (May 2011) shows that more modern designs would have survived both the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. These include better back-up generators and containment for molten fuel in case of a meltdown, and passive (i.e. not depending on a power supply) emergency cooling operated by gas pressure or gravity. In fact, modifications to the Fukushima model to reduce radiation leaks in case of an accident were proposed by scientists 30 years ago but rejected as too expensive. Meanwhile, other similar power plants survived the earthquake and tsunami undamaged.

On radioactive waste, I said that deep storage in stable strata was perfectly plausible. Reprocessing would reduce the amount and feed back fuel to nuclear plants. The relevance of the “global capitalist economy” to this is not clear, except that they won’t pay for it. In any case, the danger of waste has been greatly overstated. Five metres of concrete would absorb all the radiation from anything. Wade Allison “would be perfectly happy” to have high-level waste buried 100 metres below his house, while James Lovelock has “offered to take the full output of a nuclear power station in my back yard.”

Alternatives to fossil fuels consist of two proven technologies, nuclear and hydroelectric power (HEP), a host of promising but unproven ones, and the mirage (at present) of a vast reduction in energy demand.

All have environmental and/or health implications. HEP requires vast dams flooding arable land and wildlife habitats, disrupting river ecosystems, destroying estuarine fisheries, reducing the fertility of flood plains, and endangering lives in case of collapse.

The Three Gorges dam in China necessitated flooding 1000 towns and villages, and “removing” 1.4 million people. Since completion in 2006, the reservoir has been plagued by pollution and algae. The dam is silting up, while the extra weight of water is causing geological problems. Downstream, the reduction in flow has led to a drought affecting 300,000 people, with drinking water reservoirs containing only “dead water”. Shipping can no longer use large stretches of the river. It is worrying that Switzerland is phasing out the nuclear power that provides 40% of its electricity, replacing it with HEP.

It is also worrying that Germany, the sixth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is phasing out nuclear power, increasing carbon emissions by 3%. If it can afford to do without the electricity from its nuclear plants, it should keep them open while closing down an equivalent number of fossil fuel plants, cutting CO2 emissions proportionately.

In Japan, phasing out nuclear power will cause massive shortfalls in energy. The optimistic scenarios of Energy-Rich Japan (ERJ — all involve substantial reductions in demand (so far untested), while some involve reductions in population — by up to 20%! Since an increase will be needed in order to care for the ageing population, this seems particularly unrealistic.

In particular, ERJ claims that transport energy can be reduced by 70% with hydrogen-powered vehicles. They don’t mention the following problems. Hydrogen is inefficiently produced from fossil fuels; solar-powered electrolysis of water is even more expensive. Highly flammable hydrogen must be stored in pressurised tanks, no doubt to be released in traffic accidents. A new infra-structure for hydrogen supply would have to be built, “a matter for policy decisions and market forces” (ERJ) (!?). Fuel cells to “burn” the hydrogen use costly platinum catalysts which can be poisoned by impurities in the hydrogen or air, which is also needed; their reliability over long periods is unknown; they would easily freeze in cold weather; they would be a magnet for thieves. Incidentally, ERJ assumes that much of the hydrogen would be imported (from where?).

Other aspects of ERJ’s schemes are equally vague. Much geothermal energy would be needed, though this technology is notoriously unreliable. Curiously, nowhere in 250-plus pages is there a mention of earthquakes or tsunamis!

It is difficult to avoid James Lovelock’s conclusion that “only nuclear power can now [my emphasis] halt global warming” — but this is not to accept nuclear power as it is. The possibility of fail-safe thorium-powered reactors is ignored not only by the (capitalist) industry which will not or cannot afford the research costs but by the Left and environmentalists. Supported by eminent scientists such as Carlo Rubbia of CERN, thorium reactors do not have a chain reaction to go out of control. They rely on a stream of neutrons from a particle accelerator which could be instantly switched off. Using plentiful thorium, they can also “burn” other radioactive materials, including surplus bombs … and high level radioactive waste. Radioactive material decays into stable isotopes, usually lead. Plutonium takes about 100,000 years to reduce to 1/20 of its original amount. Thorium reactors accelerate this process greatly (Accelerated Transmutation of Waste), reducing the volume of waste and the time for which it would have to be kept safe.

A final point: Theo accuses me of ignoring the “proliferation argument”, which he seems to equate with the simple possession of nuclear power. There are many difficult steps to building nuclear weapons and it is clear that these have not proliferated anything like as fast as civil nuclear power. More of a problem is terrorism and here too it is not clear that nuclear power plants are uniquely vulnerable and dangerous targets. More importantly, many conflicts are, and will be increasingly, over resources, particularly as the climate changes. Nuclear bombs won’t be much use in these!

Yet more deaths in the UK fossil fuel industry (four workers killed in a Welsh oil refinery explosion in March; five coal miners killed in Wales and Yorkshire in September) should help put the supposed dangers of nuclear power in perspective. Multiply these figures by at least 1,000 worldwide. According to Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (, environmental opposition to nuclear energy is the “greatest misunderstanding and mistake of the century”. We should be demanding that nuclear power be expanded and improved, rather than phased out.

But let’s demand the safest forms of nuclear power, as well as support for renewable energy research.

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