Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Letter on Socialism and the Global Energy Crisis

Note: The following letter was sent to the editors of the World Socialist Web Site (wsws.org) who refused to publish it.  The views expressed in the letter by David M. do not necessarily reflect the views of the permanent revolution web site. However we do feel the issues raised are important and should be discussed. I have made some minor corrections to spelling and grammar from the original letter that was sent to the WSWS, but did not otherwise change its content.  (A.S.)

Socialism and the Global Energy Crisis

Dear Mr. Symonds,

I disagree with the proposition you made in your article “Japan's nuclear cover-up” that the only reason for the catastrophic nuclear emergency at Fukushima is capitalism and the drive for profit by the companies operating nuclear power plants. [1] Your article states that “it is not nuclear power as such that presents the danger. […] The only possible way in which nuclear energy could be safely harnessed would be […] under socialism”. Similar statements have been made in other articles appearing recently on the WSWS.

Nuclear power as such is a danger. It is inconceivable to me how even a fundamentally different society could deal away with some of the dangers posed by nuclear power. As I will line out, there are some fundamental physical and economic rules to nuclear power which make it inherently dangerous and not viable, at least when the benefits and risks for all mankind are considered.

Radioactive waste disposal

One of the more overlooked but very fundamental problems with nuclear energy is the matter of nuclear waste disposal. Any nuclear power plant will leave behind radioactive waste. In order to prevent harm to future humans and the environment this waste must be sealed safely off for some tens of thousands of years. So long does it take until radiation levels become harmless. Our knowledge of physics says that there is nothing that could speed up the process. To put this into perspective: This time span is several times longer than the time since mankind left the caves and started building settlements and thus civilization.

How to build such a containment which will last so long without fault? Slow but constant corrosive processes in nature will eventually destroy anything man-made. With current technology we can hope for a thousand years at the most. This means that either these radioactive materials will reappear in the environment, poisoning people and wildlife. The only thing that could stop this from happening is human work, meaning today's radioactive waste leaves maintenance work for thousands of future generations. This alone outweighs any benefit we might get from nuclear power today.

Other forms of waste disposal such as sinking it into earth's core or shooting it into deep space are also very risky and costly. The reason why those are not really considered is because they bring up the costs immediately, while burying the waste simply puts the problem away into the future.

Power plant operation

Nuclear waste will poison slowly and in some more or less distant future. As we see in the event of Fukushima and other nuclear disasters, nuclear power poses the risk of large amounts of radioactivity released into the environment, leading to death and disease. One could argue that profit oriented operators are driven to neglect safety concerns at some times, because any safety measure comes at a cost that lowers the profit. The implication is that without the profit motive an operator could take all the measures needed to make operations safe. However, this is not true for several reasons.

To produce large quantities of nuclear energy we need large quantities of radioactive material. Because radioactive materials like uranium, plutonium and other elements produced in the process of nuclear fission are very dangerous even is very tiny quantities and stay dangerous for eons, a nuclear plant has the potential to create immense damage, no matter in what society it is operated.

Of course in a socialist society, that is, a society without the need for private profits and with the development of more productive technologies, a nuclear power plant could be more safely operated, relatively speaking. We could point out some decision in planning and operating the Fukushima plant which stem directly from the logic of capitalism, such as inadequate flood protection or building a power plant in a region with high seismic activity in the first place. Such risky decisions could have been averted in a socialist society, making power plant operations safer.

But when it comes to nuclear power “more safe” may simple not prove safe enough. Despite all the propaganda of the nuclear industry, an absolutely 100 % safe nuclear power plant does not exist. In fact, no man made thing is ever 100 % safe. Cars, planes, even cell phones pose some risks, and we balance their risk against their benefits to use them or not. The risk is characterized by two basic factors: The possible damage that could result from an accident and the probability it will actually happen. There is a simple relation between those two factors: The more serious the damage from an accident could be, the less likely it must be in order to be acceptable. In typical day to day decisions this balancing is done less consciously and highly subjectively, leading often to an underestimation of the risks. But as a general rule it is still valid. When it comes to technology with larger potential damage, say the injury or death of more than a few people, we demand that the risk is analyzed objectively by experts and we do not rely on just our intuition. We cannot predict every possible accident to asses the potential damage, but from the laws of science we can give some upper limit of damage for any technology by accounting for the mechanical, thermal, chemical or nuclear energies involved, the amount of poisonous chemicals and so on.

An example for clarification: It is impossible that an entire neighborhood is destroyed from the usage of a single mobile computer. Even, as unlikely as it could be, should it release all energy stored in its battery at once in an accident, spilling its content, the damage would be limited to the room in which it is located, because of the relatively small amounts of energy and poisonous material involved. I do not consider follow up events like the exploding computer lighting up the room and burning down the whole building in the end. This is because in such a chain of events scenario it is not the initial event that is really responsible for the follow up damage. In the mentioned scenario, the cause of the large fire would not be the computer, but the combustible material from which the building is made or are stored within.

For nuclear power plants the upper limit for the potential damage is really high. The worst thing that could happen is the spill of the entire radioactive reactor content over a large area, causing death and disease for possibly millions of people and making the area uninhabitable for hundreds or more years. As we saw from the catastrophes at Chernobyl and Fukushima, mankind came quite close to this upper limit already twice. This means, that such disasters should be really, really rare, say once in a thousand years, before they can become generally acceptable. Clearly under current conditions we have a fault probability in orders of magnitude higher than desired. It is virtually impossible to lower it as much as we want to, even under the most favorable conditions.

In a socialist society safety also comes at a cost. Socialism may free us from the parasitic drive for profit which cripples today's economies and provide us with higher productivity. But even socialism cannot do away with some fundamental economic laws. Higher flood protection walls do require more raw materials and more labor under socialism as well. If a socialist society would try to protect itself from every thinkable and unthinkable accident, the cost of the protection would soon outweigh any gains from any given enterprise. That means in balancing the cost and the safety gain of a given measure, a socialist society could tilt more towards safety than a profit-driven corporation can. However, it cannot dispose of the balancing completely in favor of safety. Given the enormous potential damage from nuclear plants, this extra safety provided by socialist operation would very like prove insufficient as well.

It would be naïve to say that all that was needed in Fukushima was higher flood protection, and this would hardly render a socialist plant uneconomical. Unlike the Chernobyl event, which could be attributed to human error and unsafe design, the Fukushima meltdown is due to a fundamental weakness that haunts every nuclear plant designer. The nuclear processes that produce vast amounts of energy cannot be stopped. Nuclear processes are different from chemical reactions as a coal or gas fire. Engineers can control those, for example by shutting a valve that provides the fuel for the combustion or flooding the fire with water or incombustible gasses. No such provision exists for nuclear processes. It is only possible to control the rate of the reaction within some limits, and only to the extent the reactor is intact. The engineers can shut down a nuclear chain reaction, but they cannot stop the radioactive materials from spontaneous decay, which produces considerable amounts of heat for years. The spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors, which do not take part in a nuclear chain reaction anymore, produce so much heat that they need to be cooled for five years after they are removed from the reactor. If cooling of the spent fuel rods is interrupted, they will heat up to several hundred degrees Celsius within hours, which will result in fire and explosions from steam or hydrogen, spilling radioactive material. This is why the cooling system in any nuclear power plant is crucial and its weak spot. It must work without interruption for several years even after shutdown, before the nuclear material can be handled safely without cooling.

There are many events that could result in a disruption of the cooling system, natural disasters, wars and other targeted attacks on a plant, society breakdowns as consequence of grave events that result in turn in lack of resources or labor power to run the cooling system or plain and simple human error, which happens all too often. Even a socialist society cannot shield a nuclear plant from all these events.

Nuclear power: A capitalistic technology

I would even say that nuclear power is a capitalistic technology. In total, nuclear energy production has huge costs. There are the costs of development and production of nuclear plants and all required infrastructure, the costs of dismantle a decommissioned plant safely, the cost of nuclear waste disposal and finally the risk of large nuclear disaster. When all this costs and risks are taken in account, nuclear energy is hardly a very productive technology. It would be hard to calculate this exactly, but taken all into account it could prove that nuclear energy costs the entire society more than it offers to it. A socialist nuclear technology could not alter this relation fundamentally.

There are two reasons why this technology is employed under capitalism anyway, despite its dubious net gains. The first is that capitalism allows companies to operate in a fashion which concentrates all the profits in the hands of the few company owners, while the rest of the society shares the costs and the risks. Is it really any coincidence that nuclear plants are under private administration in their profitable producing phase, while development and construction is usually funded in large part by the state, as well as dismantling and waste disposal? Such a scheme of privatized profits – socialized costs is so common nowadays, that is has become a very popular negative slogan. Virtually all utilities are operated this way, and it has been used on grand scale in the bailout of the financial industry. Socialists know that this stems from the preceding decay of capitalism and its increasing inability to produce new real value, so capitalists are driven into this parasitic mode to save their profits.

The second reason for the employment of nuclear technology is one that is often obscured from the general public. There is no Chinese Wall between the peaceful use of nuclear energy and the production of nuclear weapons. Much of the infrastructure is of dual-use character, or can be refitted to military use quickly. That means that the different capitalist states employ nuclear power plants either to produce nuclear weapons, or to be able to produce nuclear weapons on short notice.

If we strip nuclear energy production from these two motives, there is not much left why we should pursue it any further. Socialists should not fool themselves: Socialism may help mankind to free itself from many great problems it faces today, but it is not a magic wand that turns poisoned water into wine on our wish.

The global energy problem and socialism's answer to it

Finally, I would like to point out how mankind's need for energy could be met under socialism in a far more safe and productive way, thus eliminating the need to operate nuclear plants at all. The problem of abundant energy production is not a technical one. We do not need nifty new technologies or revolutionary breakthroughs in nuclear physics that could enable us to build less dangerous nuclear plants (like fusion reactors). All the technologies and resources are in place at mankind's disposal.

Solar power could easily solve the energy problems for the foreseeable future. The sun radiates massive amounts of energy on our planet, and this energy could be harvested. Scientists have calculated that solar plants situated in the uninhabited deserts of Northern Africa could provide all the energy needed for the entire European continent, while using only a tiny fraction of the available space. Similar solar plants could be built in other places, too, providing energy for the entire planet. That this is indeed a feasible option is underscored by the fact that some giant European companies have made serious efforts to develop such a plant, calling this project “DeserTec”. It is worth pointing this out again: It is not technical for reasons why we are still far away from realizing such a project. All the technology needed to build and operate it is available today. Under favorable conditions such a plant could be built within a decade, eliminating the need for polluting fossil energy sources or nuclear power for all of Europe.

So why aren't such plants being built? Capitalist society faces serious obstacles set by the framework of private ownership and profit, competing nation states and enormous imbalances in wealth distribution. A project like DeserTec requires international cooperation on an unprecedented scale. The division of the world in competing nation states makes this project hardly feasible. Too many countries and companies would try to rip of their own share of profit out of this project, leading to endless quarrels between them where cooperation is needed. On a strategic level, European countries would hardly find it acceptable to become dependent on North African countries in providing them such a crucial resource as energy. Furthermore, the current giant energy/fossil fuels companies like Exxon, BP, Gazprom etc., would spare no effort to save their profitable oligopoly by obstructing DeserTec. Capitalist logic requires those companies to keep energy supply short and in their hands to keep profits high. Abundant energy supply at almost no cost would make them obsolete and ruin them. Finally, the recent upheavals in Northern Africa have certainly scared the companies involved in planning DeserTec.

This is how Socialism could enable mankind to overcome many of its problems. Socialism is not the simple continuation of capitalism without its worst calamities (poverty, pollution, wars etc.). Socialism can overcome the various contradictions and impasses stemming from capitalism and thus enables mankind to pursue whole new ideas, technological solutions, social institutions and so on which seemed unaffordable, utopian or otherwise impractical under capitalism. Thus the socialist answer to the energy need of mankind is not the prolongation of such an inherently dangerous technology as nuclear power, but the employment of new clean and safe technologies which are being suppressed today because they are a threat to current profiteers.


David M.

1. Peter Symonds, “Japan's nuclear cover-up”, 12. April 2011,  http://www.wsws.org/articles/2011/apr2011/pers-a12.shtml

    Fukushima nuclear plant after the tsunami

Monday, May 9, 2011

Are you OK?

Impressions of May Day 2011

by Frank Brenner

Sometimes the impressions of a day jostle up against each other, and the friction is enough to give off some sparks of insight. This year's May Day came etched in an irony that was particularly acrid. I happened to be reading, in the hours before the Big Announcement from the White House, the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, and in the back pages I came across the following letter to the editor:

Bradley Manning is the soldier charged with leaking US government documents to WikiLeaks. He is currently detained under degrading and inhumane conditions that are illegal and immoral.

For nine months, Manning has been confined to his cell for twenty-three hours a day. During his one remaining hour, he can walk in circles in another room, with no other prisoners present. He is not allowed to doze off or relax during the day, but must answer the question “Are you OK?” every time he turns his back to the cell door or covers his head with a blanket so that the guards cannot see his face. During the past week he was forced to sleep naked and stand naked for inspection in front of his cell, and for the indefinite future must remove his clothes and wear a “smock” under claims of risk to himself that he disputes.

The sum of the treatment that has been widely reported is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the Fifth Amendment's guarantee against punishment without trial. If continued, it may well amount to a violation of the criminal statute again torture, defined as, among other things, “the administration or application ... of ... procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.”

Private Manning has been designated as an appropriate subject for both Maximum Security and Prevention of Injury (POI) detention. But he asserts that his administrative reports consistently describe him as a well-behaved prisoner who does not fit the requirements for Maximum Security detention. The Brig psychiatrist began recommending his removal from Prevention of Injury months ago. These claims have not been publicly contested. In an Orwellian twist, the spokesman for the brig commander refused to explain the forced nudity “because to discuss the details would be a violation of Manning’s privacy.”

The Administration has provided no evidence that Manning’s treatment reflects a concern for his own safety or that of other inmates. Unless and until it does so, there is only one reasonable inference: this pattern of degrading treatment aims either to deter future whistleblowers, or to force Manning to implicate Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in a conspiracy, or both.

If Manning is guilty of a crime, let him be tried, convicted, and punished according to law. But his treatment must be consistent with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There is no excuse for his degrading and inhumane pre-trial punishment. As the State Department’s PJ Crowly put it recently, it is “counterproductive and stupid.” And yet Crowley has now been forced to resign for speaking the plain truth.

The Wikileaks disclosures have touched every corner of the world. Now the whole world watches America and observes what it does; not what it says.

President Obama was once a professor of constitutional law, and entered the national stage as an eloquent moral leader. The question now, however, is whether his conduct as Commander in Chief meets fundamental standards of decency. He should not merely assert that Manning’s confinement is “appropriate and meet[s] our basic standards,” as he did recently. He should require the Pentagon publicly to document the grounds for its extraordinary actions --and immediately end those which cannot withstand the light of day.
The letter was the text of a petition that had been signed by a few hundred academics. Manning's predicament wasn't news to me but some of the specifics were, particularly his being reduced to naked helplessness and the macabre use of what is normally an expression of humane concern – Are you OK? – as an endless echo chamber of torture. Those details were still on my mind when, late that night, I happened to turn on the television and came across the “eloquent moral leader” announcing a killing and claiming it as a crowning achievement of his presidency.

Every president, at least in my memory, has been a second-rate actor whose 'image' is a matter of striking poses rather than conveying genuine human feeling. This is, of course, why Ronald Reagan was such a success at the job. The forte of the face on the tv screen is earnestness and today the pose comes accented with resolve: it celebrates a murder with solemn dignity, thereby demonstrating eloquent moral leadership. Like the acting, the writing is second-rate, a text of repetitions, an echo chamber of its own: “I directed ... I was briefed ... I met repeatedly ... I determined”; “bring him to justice ... justice has been done ... pursuit of justice ... justice for all.” I did this killing and this killing is justice – that is the real message minus the pose. Are you OK? Are you OK? Are you OK? Are you OK?

Crowds came to the White House and to Ground Zero in New York to celebrate. These people didn't have to pose, they didn't have to be eloquent moral leaders. But they got the message loud and clear and reacted with their own echo chamber: USA!USA!USA! USA! Some chanted Yes, We Can! Yes, We Can!, at long last giving that slogan real meaning. These was no question as to how these people would have answered the question, Are you OK?

Alas, the next day there were recriminations: the images on tv looked too much like cheering on a murder, too uncomfortably like a lynch mob. But the eloquent moral leader wasn't put off: he declared that the crowds expressed the true spirit of America. And other eloquent moral leaders weighed in – the Pope, the Dalai Lama: while their religions don't condone killing (actually not true in the case of Catholicism), still some murders are justified. But some common folk with less exalted standards of morality took a different view: a woman who lost her daughter in 9/11 told an interviewer, “In our house we don't celebrate death.”

But these discordant voices did little to detract from the triumph of the moment. The eloquent moral leader had proved himself a true warrior, a non-wimp. Reporters marveled at how, right after giving the OK for the killing operation to go ahead, the eloquent moral leader donned a tuxedo and delivered a comedy speech to a gathering of Washington reporters and Hollywood celebs. His demeanor did not betray a trace of anxiety or concern; he delivered his punchlines with aplomb and basked in the attention of the glittering crowd. The next night, after the announcement of the killing, the juxtaposition of these events would strike some observers as being a bit odd.

“If we could have seen everything unfolding in real time,” wrote one pundit in The New York Times,” it would have had the same dramatic effect as the intercutting in the president's favorite movie, 'The Godfather,' when Michael Corleone calmly acts as godfather to his nephew's baptism at church, even as his lieutenants carry out the gory hits he has ordered of rival mobsters.” Wow! The leading newspaper in the country comparing the president to a Mafia boss! Could it be that the eloquent moral leader had betrayed a major streak of callous brutality? Actually, so far as the Times pundit was concerned, just the opposite was true: this ability to shift seamlessly from wisecracks to killing demonstrated the mark of a leader of “muscular purpose.” Reaching for another film allusion, the piece was titled “Cool Hand Barack.”

On this MayDay 2011:

The eloquent moral leader is OK.

The CIA is OK.

Wall Street is OK.

The DemocraticRepublican Party is OK.

The New York Times is OK.

Are you OK?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Rosa Luxemburg: What are the Origins of May Day?

Written: 1894. First published in Polish in Sprawa Robotnicza.

Published: From Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, tr. Dick Howard, Monthly Review Press, 1971, pp. 315-16.

Online Version: marxists.org April, 2002.

The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day was first born in Australia. The workers there decided in 1856 to organize a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favor of the eight-hour day. The day of this celebration was to be April 21. At first, the Australian workers intended this only for the year 1856. But this first celebration had such a strong effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, enlivening them and leading to new agitation, that it was decided to repeat the celebration every year.

In fact, what could give the workers greater courage and faith in their own strength than a mass work stoppage which they had decided themselves? What could give more courage to the eternal slaves of the factories and the workshops than the mustering of their own troops? Thus, the idea of a proletarian celebration was quickly accepted and, from Australia, began to spread to other countries until finally it had conquered the whole proletarian world.

The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. In 1886 they decided that May 1 should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the eight-hour day. Later, police and legal harassment prevented the workers for many years from repeating this [size] demonstration. However in 1888 they renewed their decision and decided that the next celebration would be May 1, 1890.

In the meanwhile, the workers’ movement in Europe had grown strong and animated. The most powerful expression of this movement occurred at the International Workers’ Congress in 1889. At this Congress, attended by four hundred delegates, it was decided that the eight-hour day must be the first demand. Whereupon the delegate of the French unions, the worker Lavigne from Bordeaux, moved that this demand be expressed in all countries through a universal work stoppage. The delegate of the American workers called attention to the decision of his comrades to strike on May 1, 1890, and the Congress decided on this date for the universal proletarian celebration.

In this case, as thirty years before in Australia, the workers really thought only of a one-time demonstration. The Congress decided that the workers of all lands would demonstrate together for the eight-hour day on May 1, 1890. No one spoke of a repetition of the holiday for the next years. Naturally no one could predict the lightning-like way in which this idea would succeed and how quickly it would be adopted by the working classes. However, it was enough to celebrate the May Day simply one time in order that everyone understand and feel that May Day must be a yearly and continuing institution [...].

The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.

Rosa Luxemburg 1871 - 1919