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Climate change debate
Nuclear power is not the answer
Climate change demo December 2005, photo Paul Mattsson
THE LABOUR government's proposed "solution" to concerns about oil and gas supplies and the menace of global warming is to push ahead with a programme of renewing nuclear power stations. STEVE SCORE explains.
BRITAIN'S SUPPLIES of oil and natural gas are running out. Oil and gas prices have been rising. On a world scale supplies are limited, and many experts are talking about shortly reaching the position of "Peak Oil", at which point production will start to fall. Even capitalist governments are waking up to the reality of global warming, and its link with emissions of greenhouse gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels, and the enormous cost it will bring to the system.
The government's decision to opt for nuclear power ignores the recent court case, won by Greenpeace, which exposed the government's sham consultation exercise. Blair's "big conversation" turned out to have only one participant - the government!
New Labour were forced to delay the announcement; nevertheless a White Paper is out in May and they plan to formally make the decision in the autumn. This is despite a recent poll in The Times which showed that only 1% of people believe ministers on the safety of nuclear power!
Alongside its plans to renew nuclear power, the government wants further privatisation of the industry. One of the nuclear companies, British Energy, having previously been privatised, collapsed in 2004. The government bailed them out and currently hold a 65% share. Much of this is to be sold off. In addition there are plans to sell off the British Nuclear Group (BNG).
If new nuclear power stations are built they will be profit-motivated and privately owned, yet it will only happen on the basis of huge subsidies from the taxpayer. Privatisation and safety do not go together well as the recent Cumbrian rail crash, the latest of many, demonstrates.
Britain's reactors are old and coming to the end of their life span. The older 'Magnox' ones will be closed by 2010. Some have already had their life span extended. There is plenty of evidence that they are already cracking up - literally!
By 2023 all 14 Advanced Gas Cooled reactors (AGRs) will be closed. According to the government, it takes a minimum of ten years to get a nuclear plant up and running.
OVER RECENT years, there had been a decline in the use of nuclear power internationally. This was mainly because of its cost, but also because of safety fears after well-publicised incidents like Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979.
However now, with high oil and gas prices, this trend has been reversed. Finland has built the first new plant to be constructed anywhere in ten years, and large numbers are planned around the world such as in China, where 30 are already in the pipeline with more to come.
The key "moral" argument used to back this up is global warming. This is undoubtedly a serious issue that has to be addressed. Even before the more dire predicted outcomes of melting of the polar ice caps, flooding and climate instability, the World Health Organisation said in 2003 that climate change has resulted in an extra 150,000 deaths due to malaria and other diseases.
The famous environmentalist, James Lovelock, argues that a shift to nuclear power away from fossil fuels is the only way in the short to medium term to reduce the chance of total climate disaster. Most environmentalists disagree. Friends of the Earth (FoE) dispute the benefits in terms of reduction in carbon emissions.
They say that in Britain, if the output of nuclear power was to double it would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an inadequate 8%. Electricity generation produces a third of the UK's carbon dioxide, but nuclear power is currently a quarter of electricity production. In contrast transport is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases at 34%.
These figures do not include the fact that, over the whole nuclear power process, there are in reality carbon costs. The uranium has to be mined and transported, fuel rods created, plants built, and at the end of their life decommissioned. In addition the waste has to be processed and then stored. If uranium is heavily mined and itself starts to run out, lower quality uranium would have to be used over time, resulting in higher carbon costs.
Physicist Helen Caldecott points out that if sea levels rise as a result of global warming then the safety of coastal nuclear plants, including most of those in Britain, is compromised. A ten feet rise in sea level would result in disastrous "meltdowns"!
Safety is the issue that clinches the argument against nuclear power. Government officials will argue that the risks are tiny, but the problem is the scale of the consequences if that "tiny" risk develops. If a Chernobyl-type incident were to occur then the impact would be massive. An accident in the Soviet plant in 1986 released a cloud with twenty times the level of radioactivity resulting from the Hiroshima bomb.
Estimates of the number of deaths vary widely, the US Department of Energy made a conservative estimate of 17,400 excess cancer deaths, 63% outside the former USSR. Other estimates are at least twice that figure. However this could have been much worse if the wind had been blowing in the other direction, towards the nearby city of Kiev.
The official explanations are design fault and human error, but the human error resulted from pressure from above to keep production going. There is no doubt the bureaucratic Stalinist system, with its lack of democratic workers' control exacerbated the dangers.
HOWEVER, NO-ONE could argue that the dangers that threatened the Chernobyl plant do not exist in the capitalist world, either in purely capitalist-owned, profit centred plants, or in publicly owned plants (which are still bureaucratically run) within capitalist societies. Given nuclear fission's inherent dangers, even with the highest level of democratic workers' control and management, and far greater safety levels, you cannot rule out the possibility of human error.
The Three Mile Island crisis in the US in 1979 clearly illustrates that it can happen under capitalism. The plant went close to "meltdown", which could have released radioactive material deep into the earth and contaminated the water supply over a huge area, the consequences of which would have been greater than Chernobyl.
In 2002, the world's largest private electricity company, Tokyo Electric Power had to shut down 17 reactors after it was found to be falsifying safety records to hide cracks in its plants. There are numerous reports of smaller-scale incidents.
Last year for example, BNG was fined £500,000 for safety lapses at its Sellafield THORP reprocessing plant. The plant leaked 80,000 litres of radioactive material but the leak was only discovered nine months after it happened.
Statistics on local clusters of illnesses need to be handled carefully. However, it is surely no coincidence that 50 years after the building of the first nuclear power plant in the Sellafield area at Calder Hall, nearby Seascale has a childhood leukaemia rate of ten times the national average.
In a world where the government constantly talks of the threat of terrorism, nuclear plants are not built to withstand the impact of a 9/11-style attack. A report commissioned by the European parliament said that a plane crashing into Sellafield would be forty times more dangerous than Chernobyl.
Even more worrying is the issue of what to do with nuclear waste. Because of the length of time the levels of radioactivity take to break down, it remains toxic for in excess of 100,000 years. Yet no one yet really knows a way of disposing of it or storing it for that incredible length of time. How can anyone guarantee that geological movements, for example, could not disturb this waste during that period?
The government's plan amounts to "hoping something will come along"! They are offering bribes to local communities, hoping that they can get agreement to dig a hole in the ground nearby. Given that most areas would not be keen to have it near them, the most likely places are going to be where livelihoods depend on nuclear power, such as Sellafield.
However the storage being planned is only for an interim 100 years. During that time the government hopes someone will come up with a better idea! The cost of this disposal, which will be borne by the taxpayer - not out of the profits of the new private plants - is already estimated at £56 billion.
SO IF we dismiss nuclear power, how do we answer the government argument that there will be an "energy gap", or that reliance on oil and gas will worsen climate change?
There are alternatives: Increased energy efficiency and conservation, and renewable energies. However these have not been given priority. The International Energy Agency says that the UK government has spent £6.8 billion since 1979 on research and development for nuclear fission compared to only £540 million for renewables.
According to Friends of the Earth, renewables such as wind, wave, tidal and solar power, could be producing half of Britain's electricity needs by 2025. They say, for example, that measures such as "promoting more efficient electric motors in industry could save 6% of our electricity use - equivalent to three nuclear power stations".
Using the waste heat given off by industrial plants and boilers in offices could generate 30% of our energy needs, equivalent to 15 nuclear power plants. We have, "in the form of wind power the largest renewable energy source in Europe," claims the British Wind Energy Association. There are other green energy ideas that could be developed too. A combination of different measures could be carried through to generate energy needs in a safer and greener way.
Obviously, all these measures would have to go along with other steps to reduce greenhouse gas production such as a massive boost to public transport including rail, making it a better and cheaper alternative to car and lorry transport. This could only be done on the basis of a fully integrated, publicly owned and democratically controlled public transport system.
Why hasn't all this been done already? The problem is capitalism, a system run for the benefit of the owners of big business, where profit in the short term is the key motive. Governments may sometimes attempt to be slightly more far-sighted on behalf of the system, but ultimately they are under the pressure of the capitalist companies. The proof of this is Labour's plan to privatise nuclear power, along with the privatisation of public transport and everything else they have handed over to their fat-cat friends.
The Kyoto agreement was one example of governments attempting to do a bit of long-term thinking, but it amounts to much too little, too late. It is an attempt at a "market-based solution", allowing the buying and selling of pollution quotas.
Friends of the Earth suggests that: "Energy companies should change to make money from selling us less energy not more". But this is unrealistic under capitalism; all market-based "solutions" are inadequate.
The kind of massive shift that is needed would mean prioritising the needs of the environment and society as a whole over the profits that determine what capitalist producers make. It would need a democratic, socialist plan of production. If transport, energy and the major capitalist firms were publicly owned and democratically planned, we could use their huge resources to find real solutions to the environmental problems for the benefit of all.
Of course, solutions to issues like climate change cannot be discovered - or implemented - in one country alone. Chernobyl showed that nuclear fallout does not respect national boundaries! Neither does global warming. The opposition to nuclear fission, and to environmental destruction, has to be linked to the struggles for socialism on a worldwide scale.
This is the first article in a series on alternatives to fossil fuel. Future issues will deal with issues such as wind power.
In The Socialist 12 April 2007:
Environment and socialism
G8 Summit protests
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis