Nuclear power: decisions shaped by class interest

Submitted by Matthew on 16 November, 2011 - 1:12

In Solidarity 224 Les Hearn argued for socialists to welcome some of the latest developments in nuclear technology as one alternative, amongst others, to fossil fuels. Stuart Jordan debates the issues.

This year a group of scientists in Tel Aviv successfully replaced a part of a rat’s brain with a computer chip. This remarkable achievement could be the first step, along with other developments such as cochlear implants and prosthetic limbs, to a future human civilisation where human organs are enhanced by machines — a world of cyborgs.

Whether or not such technologies are desirable will not be the subject of democratic debate or at least not a debate of equals.

We live at a time when our productive forces are such that any decisions about technological development could determine the future of human civilisation. Yet, under capitalism, these decisions will be made in the board rooms of multi-national corporations and in the most secretive and unaccountable enclaves of the capitalist state. Our task as socialists is to fight for a world where these decisions are placed under democratic control. In the meantime we seek to mobilise a movement to contest the capitalists’ right to make these decisions unilaterally.

Over the past few years, Workers Liberty has developed policy on environmental issues, drawing on the largely forgotten ecological works of classical Marxism. In 2009 this led to the development of policy that included opposition to nuclear energy. In light of Les Hearn’s contributions on the benefits of thorium-based nuclear technology I think it is worth revisiting this question, although not necessarily for the reasons that Les sets out.

Les’s position is one common in the green movement but somewhat alien to level-headed Marxist analysis. His concern is that the level of CO2 emissions are so great that we are almost certainly heading for an ecological catastrophe. At best this would be a serious setback for the socialist project. At worst it could threaten the existence of life on earth.

Horrified at this prospect Les searches around for solutions and finds a technological fix. He then throws his weight behind the pro-nuclear lobby. He minimises the problems of high-grade waste and nuclear weapons proliferation and maximises the negative ecological consequences of renewables.

His gloss of scientific rigour is somewhat doubtful. For instance in his May 2011 article (Solidarity 203, he spun Axel Kliedon’s research on earth systems and thermodynamics to claim that heat pollution from wind turbines would cause climate change.

Actually the article said that if wind turbines were used to harness 70tW of “free energy” (over four times the amount we currently consume in fossil fuels) then it would have a similar global warming effect as doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Even without Les’s sensationalist spin, leading climate scientists challenged Kliedon’s modelling and maths (e.g., he ignores the amount of heat energy currently produced by non-renewables). Kliedon’s research is not an argument for slowing down on wind turbine development.

The Marxist method is to stare reality squarely in the face and then base our programme on the analysis that follows. It is vital that we use the best science to inform our discussion, not use the science to back up a pre-conceived political conclusion. The productive powers now at our disposal mean that any decisions that are made will determine the future direction of human civilisation. We should take this democratic responsibility seriously.

Workers’ Liberty’s approach starts with the two key contributions of classical Marxism to ecological issues. This first is Marx’s theory of the metabolic rift which describes how capitalist production despoils nature and depletes the world’s natural resources. The second is the understanding of the inter-relationships between developing technology, social relations, the reproduction of everyday life, relations between humanity and nature, and mental conceptions and ideology.

Marx saw that widespread commodity production fundamentally changed humanity’s relationship with nature. In pre-capitalist times, there was a relatively limited division of labour. Production was overwhelmingly concerned with servicing the needs of the local population. The waste of human consumption — excrement, ash, dead bodies and general detritus — was returned to the soil and unwittingly human civilisation was able to maintain the fertility of the soil for thousands of years.

With the development of commodity production this changes. Production becomes increasingly complex with an increasingly specialised division of labour, seen most clearly in the separation of town and country. In these circumstances, the produce of the soil is transported hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles and the waste of human consumption becomes concentrated in polluted rivers, landfill and is burnt to pollute the atmosphere. As Marx says: “In London, they find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense”.

When Marx talks about the “metabolic rift” he is describing a waste management problem that is part of the very structure of capitalist societies. Capitalist production seizes the natural resources of the earth, transforms them through multiple production processes and then sends them to market. At the point of sale, the value contained in those commodities returns to the capitalist so that the whole process can start again. The act of consumption and the resulting waste are kept strictly off the balance sheet. As Marx says, “The movement of capital is both the starting point and the concluding point, and this certainly also involves consumption for the commodity, the product, has to be sold. But once this is assumed to have happened, it is immaterial, for the movement of individual capital, what later becomes of this commodity.” (Capital Vol. 2)

State intervention (eg, rubbish collection, sanitation, emissions trading schemes) limits capitalism’s twin tendencies of resource depletion and despoilation of nature. Or if the damage is already done and has created a new ecological necessities, then new industries spring up to cope with the new situation. Thus, as capitalist farming turned Britain’s agricultural lands into deserts, entrepreneurial colonists made their fortunes in the mining and shipping of guano, and later with chemical fertilizers. As Marx explains “In capitalist society...any kind of social rationality asserts itself post festum [lit. after the feast]” (Capital Vol. 2).

A socialist approach, where democratic planning replaces ecological and social fire-fighting, needs to consider the effects of technological development on our future social and ecological development.

David Harvey suggests a footnote in chapter 15 of Capital Vol.1 provides a criteria by which we judge new technologies: “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.” Whether or not significant capital investment is ploughed into uranium-fuelled nuclear reactors or building up the infrastructure and technology for thorium-based, nuclear power will have an effect on the way our descendants relate to each other, how they relate to their environment, and to the way they think.

The story of thorium technology is instructive. In 1950s Alvin Weinburg developed the first successful Molten Salt Reactor using thorium as the main fuel. This technology had many advantages over uranium based technology. It had a higher neutron yield, a better fission rating, longer fuel cycle, a failsafe shutdown system. It can burn up much of the nuclear waste legacy and old bombs and it cannot be adapted to produce weapons-grade plutonium. However, the technology was almost entirely abandoned.

Professor Bob Cynwinski of the University of Huddersfield suggested that the need for weapons-grade plutonium led to thorium technology being abandoned. It is also arguable that the project was not economically attractive. Like any nuclear facility, thorium reactors involve a large initial investment in fixed capital. However, the plant can virtually run itself. From a capitalist point of view this means an enormous initial investment combined with very low levels of exploited labour.

Despite the fact that thorium-based nuclear power promised the elusive goal of “too-cheap-to-meter” electricity, capitalist social relations (in the form of both nuclear cold war and exploitation of labour) required that this technology was abandoned. Les’s blanket support for all nuclear technology fails to recognise this history and the way in which technological decisions are shaped by class interests.

Les is right that we cannot tolerate an energy shortfall, least of all at a time when we are entering a period of ecological crisis. A communist society would be one that seeks to heal the metabolic rift by democratically planning so that all (or nearly all) waste products are recycled. And the greatest rift of our times is the huge quantity of carbon dioxide and methane in the earth’s atmosphere, chemicals that were once securely fixed in the earth’s crust. But as David Schwarzmann demonstrates in his essay, “Solar Communism”, if we are able to harness enough energy, human civilisation will be able to repair the rift and move forward to a ecologically sustainable future.

Schwarzmann, against Kliedon, calculates that the amount of solar flux (solar energy that hits the earth and then bounces back to space) is enormous compared to the current energy requirements. The use of fossil fuels adds only 0.03% of the normal solar flux to the global heat budget. The far larger problem is the water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane that creates a greenhouse effect and traps some of this flux back into the Earth’s atmosphere. “A solar-based world economy would not affect the Earth’s surface heat budget (except in its initial parasitic phase, relying on fossil fuels and nuclear power), providing the tapping of solar energy involves no net transfers of carbon dioxide, methane or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere/ocean system (eg, by deforestation, flooding from big hydropower projects).”

Ultimately, I think our communist descendants will need to develop such a solar based economy and a system of total (or near total) recycling. However, we have to recognise that this technology remains, at best, a technical possibility. At present there are no means of harnessing solar energy without relying heavily on fossil fuels and nuclear technology. And if we are simultaneously hit by peak oil and escalating ecological crisis, then nuclear energy will at least provide us with some limited fire-power.

Our previous opposition to nuclear technology was based on the actually existing nuclear projects proposed by the UK government. While some of these projects can be converted to use some thorium fuel, the MSRs and similar technology will need to be developed and built from scratch. These technologies seem to be in accord with our ecological principles, not least in removing a large portion of the nuclear waste legacy and thus fulfilling the role of healing a metabolic rift. The investment necessary to develop the technology and the infrastructure for thorium nuclear energy is considerable and there is a danger that vested interests will tie us into uranium nuclear power for the next few generations.

Where we can we should intervene in this struggle and fight in the labour movement for workers’ control of research, development and investment decisions.


Submitted by AWL on Wed, 23/11/2011 - 10:23

Unfortunately, due to a miscommunication between myself and the editor, the article on nuclear power above was actually a first draft which I had substantially revised.

There are two points that I made in this first draft which I now think are wrong.

I made a claim that thorium technology was not economically attractive because in involved “an enormous initial investment combined with very low levels of exploitable labour”. This section was omitted from the final draft because I think it is wrong.

The ratio between constant and variable capital is varied between different industries. Compare a fruit smoothie stall trading on the roadside with a driverless train network, like the Docklands Light Railway. The smoothie stall owner has very low amount of constant capital in the form of fruit, a blender, a table, some cups etc. in comparison to variable capital, the wages of the worker.

The DLR has a huge amount of constant capital in the form of trains, track, power supply, computer system compared with the variable capital in the form of the few workers needed to maintain the network. After the initial outlay on fixed capital, the value added by the DLR workforce is very small compared with the value added by the worker making the smoothies.

This poses a problem for advocates of the labour theory of value. It seems to imply that no capitalist in their right mind would ever invest in driverless train networks and everyone would be investing in smoothie stalls. Marx solves this problem with his theory of the equalisation of the rate of profit in Capital Volume 3.

In the final draft I omitted the section on the relationship between technology and unfolding human history. The implication is that technological decisions are shaped by class interests, as the title implies.

In the past I believed all sorts of technologies, such as televisions and cars, to be “capitalist” by their very nature. However, I now think this view is too crude and has more in common with the early Soviet advocates of Proletkult than a Marxist understanding of science and culture.

It is more correct to say that the requirements of the Cold War must have influenced the decision to back uranium power over thorium technology and avoid the sweeping generalisations.

Stuart Jordan, London

• The final draft is here.

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