Why we don't oppose nuclear power

Submitted by Matthew on 6 November, 2013 - 12:07

We recognise that climate change alters the conditions in which we formulate our socialist politics. Climate change is ultimately caused by capitalist social relations of production, which permit capitalists to simultaneously exploit wage labour while despoiling the ecology of the planet for the pursuit of profit.

Climate change is already impacting on working class communities across the globe. Floods, drought, wild fires and storms are frequently in the news. Climate change is already affecting food supplies, ecosystems, water and health. It is already integral to government policy on energy, transport, taxation and a host of other areas. All these issues affect the terrain on which the labour movement operates. It affects what Marxists say — from the fight for immediate reforms under capitalism right up to the material foundations of socialism.

The risks from climate change are now greater than ever before. IPCC reports confirm that global temperatures have risen by nearly a degree over the last century and may increase by 2-6°C in the next 100 years. They confirm that human activity is the principal cause of climate change, particularly fossil fuel burning in energy and transport, and agriculture.

A significant turning point was reached in May this year when the global carbon dioxide concentration briefly hit 400 parts per million. Greenhouse gas emissions have increased by a quarter in half a century and are accelerating. The planet is already heading away from the zone which has sustained life for countless millennia.

Contemporary climate change politics has reached an impasse. None of the bourgeois factions of advanced capitalism in energy, finance and industry, nor of their representatives at the head of states and multilateral institutions, has devised a significant plan to tackle climate change. Capital has failed to meet the climate challenge. 

A new “golden age” of fossil fuels is emerging. There is a resurgence of oil and gas production, spurred by unconventional sources such as tar sands and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), with coal demand growing faster than renewables. If no action is taken by soon, much of the energy infrastructure will be locked in for decades. This “extreme energy” scenario threatens to derail global efforts to prevent dangerous climate change.

The global “carbon budget” — how much oil, coal and gas could safely be burned and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees — is roughly 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by mid-century. However fossil fuel companies have perhaps five times the reserves of coal, oil and gas on their balance sheets and are allocating billions to developing more. The New York and London stock markets are becoming more carbon-intensive. This is the paradox of neo-liberal climate politics: either a carbon bubble leading to financial collapse, or continued profitable fossil fuel burning with dire climate consequences.

The AWL has established our own distinctive tradition on climate change in recent years. We have developed the Marxist understanding of the interdependence of ecology and social transformation — well summed up by Marx’s conception of the metabolism between nature and society. We understand how capital exploits waged workers and degrades the climate through its deployment of technology and energy.

We have highlighted the way climate change and climate policy hits working class people hardest. Most of all, we have emphasised the need for a working class-based climate movement to have the power and the interest to tackle climate issues and fight for socialism and for conscious, democratic planning as the answer to both ecological and social questions.

Our comrades have intervened in the unions to promote urgent action by the labour movement on climate change. We played an important role in the Climate Camps that took direct action around key climate issues. Our comrades played an irreplaceable role in the Vestas occupation in 2009 — the most significant climate class struggle to date in Britain. We believe the re-emergence of climate campaigning through recent actions against fracking is very important and should be supported by socialists.

We raise important transitional demands around climate change. First, privately owned energy firms and bourgeois-state corporations run according to market imperatives continue to invest in fossil fuels at the expense of less polluting sources such as renewables and nuclear. Taking ownership and control of these capitalist energy giants is necessary, so that climate change can be mitigated to the extent necessary and in the time left.

Second, private ownership and control of energy makes democratic oversight and accountability much harder. This is true at various scales, from getting a global agreement between states to tackle climate change, to government policies (like the Tory tax-breaks for shale gas), all the way down to local people who find firms fracking without their say-so. Socialists need to advocate maximum democratic control and planning. The basic answer for workers in extreme energy industries is conversion, paid for by the employers and the state. Climate-related employment is also the direct answer to the economy mired in economic stagnation.

We advocate and fight for a big programme of research and investment to expand renewable energy generation. We advocate and fight for a comprehensive programme of measures to redesign living spaces, industry, transport, etc to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions while protecting and improving living standards. This includes fighting for a shorter working week and longer holidays.

AWL last discussed climate change in depth at our conference in 2008. At the time, and after a robust debate, we decided to oppose the development of nuclear power.

Many comrades have since changed their minds after further discussion. At our 2013 conference (26-27 October) we decided that we can no longer oppose nuclear technology in principle, particularly given the scale of the climate risks.

We still put most emphasis on the development of renewable technologies, as these provide the most sustainable, low-carbon sources of energy in the long run. However, the sheer amount of energy necessary to sustain and indeed improve human living standards means that the real choice in the actual conditions we face today is not renewables vs nuclear, or renewable vs fossil fuels, but between nuclear and fossil fuels. This is partly because renewables have not been developed on anything like the scale necessary to replace other sources of energy. It is also because at present, there are real practical problems with renewable sources — such as when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine at times when energy demand is high — where a baseload supply is unavoidable. For generations this has come mainly from fossil fuels and to a lesser extent from nuclear. That dilemma cannot be wished away.

Nuclear technologies can provide a reliable source of low carbon electricity. Life cycle analysis of different technologies per unit of power suggest that nuclear emits around the same amount of carbon as wind and hydro, and less than solar or biomass. Most significantly, coal emits 30 times more emissions than nuclear, oil 25 times and gas 17 times.

The most notable objections to nuclear are cost, waste, and safety.  The cost issue has been starkly posed in the last few weeks by the announcement of a new nuclear power plant at Hinckley Point. With a “strike price” of £89-93 per megawatt hour and guaranteed for 35 years, the first point socialists should make is what a rip-off this is. Again workers pay the price in high energy bills to guarantee the profits of capitalists.

However this is not decisive against nuclear technology in general. The Treasury’s “Investing in the Future” document (June 2013) had prices for other renewable energy sources. The nuclear price is less than the current and projected estimates for onshore wind (£100) and less than offshore wind (£155), solar (£125) and wave/tidal (£305).

The irony of the Hinckley deal is clear: largely state-owned companies from France and China are given guaranteed profits of 10% to build and operate the plant. That is not an argument against nuclear, but it is a cast iron case for public ownership and democratic workers’ control of the nuclear new build. Even nationalisation in capitalist conditions would give more leverage over prices and safety.

A more substantial objection concerns the waste generated by nuclear power, some of which remains radioactive for very long periods and would be a terrible legacy for future generations. Currently, storing fuel rods in huge vats is a hazard both for the immediate workers involved and potentially for the wider area where they are stored. There is no currently no geological storage options available, although some sites are still being investigated. This is a real concern and cannot be ignored.

However, relative to the massive risks of climate change, nuclear waste is a lesser evil compared to continued reliance on fossil fuels. In reality, the past legacy of nuclear waste would still have to be dealt with by a workers’ government. However technical solutions are possible. According to Mark Lynas, Hitachi has a design of integral fast reactor that can burn spent nuclear fuel to general more power — sufficient for many years. The experimental thorium reactors apparently have the same sort of capability. These advanced technologies should be explored, not shut down before they’ve even been given the chance to work.

Perhaps the greatest concern with nuclear is safety. After Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima this is again a real objection. The arithmetic is grim.  At Fukushima, an estimated 1,000 people are expected to die from cancer after exposure to leaked radiation. We know that workers in the plant have had potentially lethal doses of radiation. This is terrible for everyone affected.

However, as the worst nuclear disaster in recent memory, it also has to be put in perspective. Fly ash from coal fired power stations also produces lethal doses of radiation. Last month the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said that in 2010, there were 223,000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide resulted from air pollution. Much of this can be attributed to fossil fuel burning. In China, more coal miners die every year than nuclear workers, and some Chinese cities have had to shut down due to pollution caused by fossil fuel burning. That’s why even the Chinese government is pursuing nuclear and renewable technologies.

The highly-regarded climate scientist James Hansen co-published a paper in March this year in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. He estimated that nuclear energy since 1971 has saved 64Gt of carbon dioxide equivalent and saved 1.8m lives by displacing fossil fuels. He estimates nuclear could save 7m more lives in the future as well as drastically reducing further emissions. The juxtaposition is valid: when the German government decided to phase out nuclear after Fukushima, despite its existing and future commitments on renewables, it also committed to replace some of that capacity with fossil fuels.

We are not pro-nuclear, but nor can we sustain an anti-nuclear stance in the face of climate realities. We are not advocates for the nuclear industry or for government nuclear policy; we will criticise and campaign against the inadequate, pro-capitalist energy and climate politics of the ruling class.

However we will not fetishise opposition to nuclear technology when this means the continuation of far more damaging fossil fuel use. Thousands of scientists, well beyond those who work in the nuclear industry, see nuclear as a necessary part of the answer to climate change. Environmentalists such as Mark Lynas and George Monbiot have also reassessed their opposition after rationally weighing up the issues. Even Friends of the Earth UK has dropped its demand for the immediate closure of nuclear plants on climate grounds.

Socialists have no special authorities to appeal to. We can only assess the arguments and formulate rational political conclusions that flow from them.  That’s part of taking climate change seriously and helping to rearm the new climate movement with coherent, working class politics. It’s about honesty and accounting for your political line.

We hope others in the labour movement and in climate campaigns will discuss these issues with us, as we fight for common goals on climate change.

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