Nuclear power? Well, maybe

Submitted by Anon on 20 February, 2005 - 3:55 Author: Martin Thomas

Solidarity’s recent discussion of the dangers posed by global warming raises the question of how we find alternative energy sources to burning fossil fuels.

That prompts me to ask: should socialists oppose nuclear power out of hand?

I think we should not.

In the 1950s, left-wingers generally argued in favour of the peaceful use of nuclear power while opposing nuclear weapons.

Opinion shifted in the 1970s and 80s. In March 1979, a nuclear power station at Three Mile Island in the USA suffered a partial meltdown, and in the same month (by coincidence) the film The China Syndrome, about just such an accident, was released. No new nuclear power station has been built in the USA since then.

In 1986 the only large nuclear power station accident ever took place in Chernobyl, in the USSR. 31 people were killed directly, and maybe 25,000 people (estimates vary) will die, or have died, prematurely because of the radiation released.

Cost problems with some nuclear power stations; the large cost and technical difficulty, in particular, of safely shutting down nuclear power stations and disposing of waste; and the downslide of oil prices from their crisis peaks in 1973–4 and 1979–80, all discouraged nuclear power. Few governments have built new nuclear power stations, and much left wing opinion came to oppose nuclear power out of hand.

When the AWL discussed this question around 1979, we decided not to reject nuclear power out of hand. We favoured workers’ control over the nuclear power industry, especially over safety, and a moratorium on further development until open and democratic investigations were satisfied about safety. (To demand the shutting down of existing nuclear power stations made little sense, since the stations are as dangerous, or more so, when shut down as when operating.) The moratorium has, in effect, happened, though not because of our agitation.

What now? With scientific evidence mounting of the dangers through global warming of fossil-fuel burning, governments could turn to nuclear power after the “anti-nuclear” lull of the last 20 years. If the chaos in Iraq continues and worsens, they may also be pushed that way by worries about oil supply.

China is about to pioneer a new type of nuclear power station, much smaller than previous types, and (so the Chinese scientists say) also safer.

Many of the writers now advocating a return to nuclear power are right-wing in politics. But does it follow that the left should respond by a knee-jerk “no, never” to nuclear power?

The balance of the debate has shifted for us too. Or should have shifted.

In 1980 the dangers of global warming were scientific speculation — global average temperatures fell slightly from the 1940s to the 1970s, variations in the sun’s activity outweighing the greenhouse effect — but now some of them are present-day fact (the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice, for example).

Nuclear power is not “the answer”. A replacement for petrol-fired vehicles will be needed, for a start, and the most likely option there seems to be hydrogen fuel cells (which, however, will require power stations to extract the hydrogen). Many, many other technologies — or increased efficiencies in existing technologies — can be used to diminish the dangers of global warming and other fossil-fuel pollution.

It would be foolish for socialist politicians to claim to be instant scientific experts and have a hard “line” on exactly which technologies should be used. What we say, politically, is that the rule of profit should be broken and energy production decisions should be made democratically, with human need as the criterion and the best disinterested scientific advice.

The question is, should we modify this general approach by adding the qualification: “but not nuclear power! Never! No way!” I think not.

One case against nuclear power has been its link to nuclear weapons. But nuclear weapons cannot be made at all directly from nuclear power stations. The limits on the spread and possible use of nuclear weapons are set by politics, not by the number of nuclear power stations.

Five countries use nuclear power for a large proportion of their energy production, from 40 to 80%: France, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, and Sweden. No-one fears being blown to bits by a secret Swiss or Swedish nuclear bomb.

The most common case against nuclear power is that it is unsafe to a degree beyond any common measure with other technologies. But fossil fuels — and the search for them, and to secure control over their sources — kill more people, and make more people sick, than nuclear power ever has. They do that immediately, through atmospheric pollution, for example, quite apart from their long-term effects through global warming.

In the USA alone, for example, there are 15,000 premature deaths each year due to pollution generated by burning coal. Oil and gas power stations are cleaner than coal, but still pollute.

There are ways to make them pollute less. There are also ways to make nuclear power stations much safer than Chernobyl.

The building of dams for hydroelectric power is not without side-effects. Wind power, wave power, and solar energy are all attractive options on some scale or other. But they are all technologies which depend on collecting energy which is spread over large areas and intermittent in time. There are limits to how much land can be given over to wind farms or giant solar panels, or how much coast to wave farms.

Also, all these are pioneer technologies, whose limits and side-effects we do not yet know. It would be foolish for socialists to set ourselves up as super-expert engineers who can insist as a matter of political “line” that these technologies will suffice as “the answer”.

Nuclear power? Maybe. Under the same conditions of workers’ control and safety-vetting that we demand for other technologies — why not?

Martin Thomas

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