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


Anonymous said...

Magnífica y contundente carta, lamentablemente no publicada, felicitaciones a David M y a A. Steiner, saludos, Antonio

DW said...

There is much to disagree with David M's arugmentation on nuclear energy. If you would like, I can give a point by point refutation of his positions.

Additionally my article in the British journal "Permanent Revolution" coming out shortly has a socialist pesrpective on energy.

David Walters