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20 years after Chernobyl:
Is Blair leading Britain to nuclear catastrophe?
TWENTY YEARS ago, on 26 April 1986, the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine underwent a series of explosions followed by nuclear meltdown. Chernobyl - in what was then part of the Stalinist USSR - is now synonymous in people's minds with the dangers of nuclear power despite vested interests clamouring to convince us it was a 'one-off' catastrophe. By Thomas House.
There are conflicting accounts of the accident's exact causes and consequences. We know an experiment was being carried out during the directorship of V.P. Bryukhanov (a turbine specialist with experience in coal-fired stations) to test how the reactor would perform under an electricity blackout. We know that a combination of technical problems with the reactor design, ignorance and human error caused the deadliest nuclear accident in history.
Nuclear fission, the method currently used in nuclear reactors, involves splitting heavy nuclei to release the energy stored there. The fuel is either uranium, which is found naturally then treated, or plutonium, produced by uranium-fueled reactors.
Great care must be taken to keep the rate at which nuclear reactions happen stable, which is done by 'moderating' the flow of neutrons - subatomic particles that trigger the splitting of nuclei.
The Chernobyl reactor was moderated by graphite, as part of an inherently unsafe reactor design called RBMK. The inexpert personnel carrying out the experiment made a series of mistakes that increased the rate of nuclear reactions in the reactor core to dangerous levels, causing a steam explosion, then a graphite fire and release of radioactive material.
Most accounts of the Chernobyl tragedy focus on how workers involved in clean-up operations were kept in the dark about the true nature of the accident. There is no doubting the courage they displayed.
Firefighters called in to deal with the initial fires reported nausea, fatigue, strange sensations on exposed skin and a metallic taste in their mouths; they must have known they were in grave danger yet battled to extinguish the flames at the reactor. The workers' heroism stands in stark contrast to their bureaucratic 'leaders', whose response was woefully inadequate.
BY FAR the largest group affected were the 'liquidators', the workers conscripted to help clean up the site. Given insufficient radiation protection, misinformed and often sent directly to the site, accurate data for the impact on this group is hard to obtain. The latest issue of Socialism Today deals with this subject in more depth.
The clean-up process' final stage was constructing a concrete sarcophagus around the accident site. This building's structural weaknesses mean the Chernobyl story isn't over. There are plans to construct a still larger containment shelter - whether the private companies subcontracted to perform this task in now-capitalist Ukraine will do a satisfactory job is far from certain.
Chernobyl has consistently been used by capitalist commentators to try to discredit the ideas of socialism, firstly by pointing to Stalinism's failures, then by falsely equating the monstrous Stalinist system with genuine socialism. In fact, socialists have always criticised the lack of democracy that existed in the Eastern Bloc without thinking this discredits the idea of democratic economic planning.
Undoubtedly, the secrecy inherent in the Stalinist system, together with the fear that subordinates of the ruling bureaucracy felt if they questioned orders, was a major factor in both the occurrence and severity of the accident. But the market system has also had nuclear accidents such as at Three Mile Island in the USA or Tokai-Mura in Japan, in addition to reported and unreported 'near-misses', including another in Japan this month.
The underlying political, economic and social structure can alter the chances of an accident, but they can at most exacerbate the inherent dangers of a given technology. And no matter how carefully safety systems are designed to deal with human error, people can find more irrational ways of behaving than the system designers considered. There is also no guarantee that the safety mechanisms themselves were implemented without mistakes.
No to nuclear power
FACED WITH massive increases in prices of oil, capitalist leaders like Tony Blair are considering the 'nuclear option' again. The multinational energy companies' main interests are still the control and supply of oil and gas reserves, but capitalism's longer-term strategists realise that demand for these commodities will vastly exceed supply unless alternative energy sources are considered.
Short-term, this balance of supply and demand can be profitable - see the cynical way in which UK gas suppliers increased domestic gas bills much higher than the recent rise in gas prices. But long-term, economic growth will be compromised by the lack of raw materials.
The government may make some concessions to public opinion by increasing the proportion of energy the UK produces from renewables, particularly wind power, but this will be well short of the massive investment in research and infrastructure needed to generate significant amounts of energy from renewable sources.
Instead, they may bring in incentives to make small-scale methods more popular, such as supporting homeowners who install solar panels. But nuclear power will take the lion's share of non-fossil-fuel electricity production.
Since Chernobyl still looms large in most people's minds, the capitalist media will doubtless downplay the severity of the Chernobyl accident while using the anniversary to twist the knife still further into Stalinism's corpse. But socialists should use this anniversary to expose the bankruptcy of capitalist energy policy, to oppose nuclear power and to explain the advantages of a democratic planned economy.
AS WELL as the perils of a catastrophic release of radiation, other long-term dangers are inevitably associated with producing nuclear power using current methods. Most significant is the production of radioactive waste, dangers like spent fuel rods, but also discarded radiation suits and other 'low-level' waste.
There is no known method for dealing with this waste. Once something becomes radioactive, the radioactivity level is halved after a period of time known as a 'half life' - after two half-lives the material is a quarter as radioactive etc. Technically, radioactive material never stops being radioactive - radioactivity will at some point fall to a level where it makes no difference to health.
Because much nuclear waste is both highly radioactive and has a large half-life, it can sometimes take thousands of years before reaching an 'acceptably' low radioactivity level. The only known way to deal with this is to store waste over massive periods of time, creating a lethal legacy for future generations.
Few places on earth experience no geological activity like tremors and earthquakes over such time periods, and few casing materials are known to last so long.
Also, the civilian nuclear industry produces raw material for nuclear bombs based on plutonium. Historically the line between nuclear power and nuclear weapons has never been sharp. All grades of nuclear waste have potential use by terrorists, whether trying to make a conventional nuclear warhead or a 'dirty bomb' that distributes low-level radioactive waste using conventional explosives.
UNDER THE chaos of the market system, nuclear power can never be safe. A private company running a nuclear plant would be under the same pressures as private companies everywhere: to cut staff, compromise security and withhold 'sensitive' information. A combination of these measures would, over time, make a future accident not just possible, but likely.
Even if the nuclear industry were fully state-owned and run, on the basis of a predominantly capitalist economy the state could not guarantee enough money for sufficient security checks, and there would be risks associated with the bureaucratic way in which state-owned industries are run under capitalism.
On the other hand, future advances in science and technology might pave the way for a safer version of nuclear power. Nuclear fusion, for example, offers the possibility of nuclear power fueled by extracting heavy hydrogen isotopes from water, without waste or risk of meltdown.
If nuclear fusion became an option, or even if there were massive improvements in the technology around fission, then under socialism it would be possible to have a fully informed, democratic decision made about whether to use nuclear power following these advances.
Nevertheless, the most pressing need in energy policy is for massive investment in renewables like solar, wave and wind power. This is simply off the capitalists' agenda: commercial research and development does not take place as there is not sufficient opportunity to make profits, and public funding is limited by governments' neo-liberal policies.
By contrast, a democratic plan of production would open up possibilities of increased research and massive deployment of the solar panel or wind turbine technology currently available but deemed 'inefficient' - in reality unprofitable - by the energy corporations.
In The Socialist 27 April 2006:
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party election campaign
1926 General Strike
Environment: Nuclear power
Campaign for a New Workers Party
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis