The history and science of nuclear energy and the climate problem, part 5: Stigmas, populism, opportunism, and capitalism

  1. The history and science of nuclear energy and the climate problem, part 1: Why solar and wind energy is insufficient
  2. The history and science of nuclear energy and the climate problem, part 2: Historic context, and the development of nuclear fission energy
  3. The history and science of nuclear energy and the climate problem, part 3: The current state and potential of nuclear energy
  4. The history and science of nuclear energy and the climate problem, part 4: Reactor designs, the brilliant and the stupid
  5. The history and science of nuclear energy and the climate problem, part 5: Stigmas, populism, opportunism, and capitalism

Part 5: Stigmas, populism, opportunism, and capitalism

In the first part we have seen that the strategy of focussing solely on solar and wind energy, is too slow. We have also discussed the advantages of a more diverse electricity grid. And concluded that to effectively combat climate change as fast as possible and create a robust electricity grid in the process, we should diversify our approach.

In the second part we have discussed the history of nuclear physics, to conclude that the historic context during the early days of nuclear physics has had a significant effect on the development direction of the field. We continued this line of thinking in the third part, where we discussed the physics of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, to conclude that the historic context of the past still has an effect on the technological, scientific, and societal status of nuclear energy.

In the fourth part we analysed the major nuclear accidents, and showed that their causes can be traced back to priorities other than the safety being at the top of the list. Putting this in the historic context and scientific background of parts two and three respectively, we concluded that the occurrence of these disasters does not imply that nuclear energy is inherently dangerous or unsafe. Additionally, we saw examples of reactor designs which in fact are inherently safe, shortly discussed the futuristic potential of nuclear fusion energy, and talked about what to do with the radioactive waste.

In the original Dutch version, this fifth part contained an analysis of the positions of the Dutch left political parties on the matter of nuclear energy. And showed that almost all of these parties were presenting misleading statements, or in some extreme cases outright lies. Since this is not really relevant for the international reader, this part has been omitted. Instead this fifth part now contains an examination of the points brought forward by comrade Eddie Ford in two of his articles titled “Swords into ploughshares?” and “Expensive, dangerous, unnecessary in which he opposes nuclear energy[1]https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1335/swords-into-ploughshares/[2]https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1337/expensive-dangerous-unnecessary/. Conveniently, comrade Ford’s arguments are not that different from those one finds in the party programs of the Dutch left, or from any other item opposing nuclear energy for that matter. Comrade Emil Jacobs has also written a reply to the first article titled “Luddite delusions” which contains some very good points and I highly recommend reading it[3]https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1336/luddite-delusions/. The section on stigmas and the interests of the established capital is left mostly unaltered.

Stigmas and the interests of the established capital

The stigma

If nuclear energy is so amazing, then why are we not massively using it now? Part of the answer to this question can be found in history and in particular in the cold war. The huge amount of weapons of mass destruction constructed, formed a real existential threat for practically all of humankind. And though the acuteness of a potential nuclear mutual annihilation has faded, the threat is still there. In 2019 there still were 13865 operational nuclear weapons worldwide, of which 3750 were deployed with operational forces, 90% of those weapons were owned by the US and Russia[4]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_with_nuclear_weapons.

Rightly so, this led and continues to lead to massive protests. Socialists and communists should obviously oppose weapons of mass destruction. However, such protests often target nuclear (fission, and occasionally fusion) energy as well, which is unjustified. They cancel everything that involves techniques and science that even remotely touches with the fabrication of nuclear weapons, even though there is no fundamental or physical reason that nuclear energy must lead to the creation of nuclear weapons.

If there are no nuclear reactors of any kind or enrichment facilities, there are no Plutonium production reactors, and so no Plutonium or weapons-grade Uranium for nuclear weapons. Though not technically incorrect, such reasoning cuts all corners and ignores all details to conclude that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. In fact one can apply such reasoning to draw any number of absurd conclusions: I could write a whole article describing the horrors of drone strikes in the middle east, and I could compile a list of all the cities that were completely destroyed by aerial bombings since the invention of the air plane. I could continue describing terrible aviation accidents and as the cherry on the cake describe how on the 11th of September 2001 even civilian aircraft were used as weapons. To eventually conclude that all of aviation is inherently unsafe, and that we should not spend a single penny on research into this field since this can only lead to more deadly weapons, more death, and more destruction. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to think about how we can use similar absurd reasoning to conclude that we should stop buying matches, starting from the destruction of Dresden in the second world war.

For every new technology, improvement or knowledge two things are always true. Firstly that mistakes will be made, and secondly that an imperialist power will try to find ways to abuse it. The former is a reason to be careful, take precautionary measures, and to think about what we are doing, and we can and should learn from the inevitable mistakes. The latter is a reason to be constantly vigilant, and we can and should oppose such abuse when it happens. What we should not do is reactionarily oppose such advances all together, else we will get stuck and can never make progress

And the capital that financed it

Capitalism commodifies everything, electricity is no exception. The physical unit Joule is reduced to a product either sold for consumption, or utilized for the production of other commodities. Which brings us to the remaining part of the answer to the question we asked ourselves in the previous section, the interests of the established capital: the fossil industries.

To this day the large majority of electricity is still produced using fossil fuels. The industry that supplies these fuels obviously has an interest in preserving this market. And as such, it has engaged in an active lobby against nuclear energy since the 50’s. Let’s see an example: in 1954 during a meeting of the Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees, several of the trustees asked the president of the American National Academy of Sciences to start a research into the effects of radiation on public health.

Luckily for them they did not have to leave their seats to make this request because the president of the National Academy of Sciences happened to be a member of the Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees. The large majority of the assets of the Rockefeller Foundation are in stocks in the oil industries, and as such this ‘research’ of course concluded that “atomic radiation, no matter how small the dose, harms not only the person receiving it but also all his descendants”. Which is complete nonsense and scaremongering, because ionizing radiation is only harmful in large doses, something which was also known at the time. Additionally, these so-called ‘outstanding scientists’ had conveniently forgotten that background radiation exists, and that the amount of radiation a person is exposed to is never zero. The ‘findings’ of this study received wide coverage in the media, the New York Times went as far as to publish six different articles about the matter in their 13th of June 1956 edition. Coincidentally, the at the time publisher of the New York Times also happened to be a member of the Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees[5]https://atomicinsights.com/how-did-leaders-of-the-hydrocarbon-establishment-build-the-foundation-for-radiation-fears/.

And so the fossil industries laid the foundation of irrational extreme radiophobia. Some fossil fuel companies even went as far as to sponsor their opponents, the environmental organisations, if they had an explicit anti nuclear stance[6]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-nuclear_movement. And with great success, to this day the stigma against nuclear energy is still very much alive. To once again quote Weinberg:

My former colleague, William Clark, has likened the public’s frenzy over small environmental insults to the fear of witches in the later Middle Ages. Some million certified “witches” were executed because they could not prove that they had not caused harm to someone or something. In the same way, since one cannot prove that tiny amounts of radiation did not cause a particular leukaemia—for that matter one cannot prove that they caused it either—those who wish to succumb to low-level phobia succumb. As a result nuclear energy […is] under siege. Not until the low–level controversy is resolved can we expect nuclear energy to be fully accepted.[7]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiophobia

The siege Weinberg describes is partly due to radiophobia and partly due to fear for the annihilation of humankind by nuclear weapons. These fears are financed by the established capital and they are fed by nuclear disasters caused by skewed priorities of the governments and companies that operate nuclear power plants. And it is here that we find the difficult task for socialists and communists, we must fight against weapons of mass destruction, and at the same time we must also expose the stigma sponsored by the established capital that is preventing a fast and effective energy transition away from fossil fuels.

Craziness and delusion?

Comrade Ford starts his article by describing the Fukushima and Kyshtym disasters, comrade Jacobs has already added an important footnote to some of the numbers thrown around there that are supposed to impress us. I happen to agree with comrade Ford’s assessment on the strange way nuclear accidents are rated by the INES scale, ranking Fukushima above Kyshtym and equal to Chernobyl seems a bit strange. However, we have already analysed those same disasters in part four, so let’s continue on.

The next section of Comrade Ford’s article is aptly titled ‘craziness’. He first raises the question of nuclear waste and makes a valiant effort to present the problem as unsolvable, when in fact we have already seen in part four that a perfectly fine solution does in fact exist, and that the amount of waste is extremely small for the amount of electricity gained. “Deep underground in repository sites? Inside mountains?” he ironically asks, to which I would like to unironically reply: Yes!

Next he raises the hypothetical scenario of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant. However, if we were to extrapolate this reasoning then we cannot do anything any more: Did we stop building skyscrapers after 9/11, did we stop flying? Did we stop building dams out of fear that terrorists would blow it up and flood downstream villages? Did the Netherlands stop building homes below sea level out of fear the terrorists would blow up the dykes and flood half the country? If we allow such reasoning to dictate our actions and prevent us from building nuclear reactors and therefore prevent us from stopping climate change, then the terrorists have won.

At the end of this section comrade Ford comes to the core of his argument:

Of course, in terms of history, the real reason for nuclear power was the development of nuclear weapons – the two cannot be disentangled. Indeed, it was an open secret that in 1956 Calder Hall was designed primarily for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Furthermore, the idea was for Britain to become an ‘independent’ nuclear power not reliant on the US – which did not succeed. Making the actual bomb was the easy bit, but developing an effective delivery system was an entirely different matter.

And here he completely misses the mark. As we have seen in part two it was not that nuclear power was developed for the sole purpose of making nuclear weapons. In fact, nuclear weapons came way before any working nuclear power plant, proving that to make nuclear weapons it was never necessary to make a working nuclear power plant. It is true that most reactors constructed at the time, such as Calder Hall, performed a dual function to produce both Plutonium and electricity, such design choices however do not prove an intrinsic link between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Furthermore, we have seen in part three that such a link in fact only exists historically, not physically, and therefore comrade Ford’s claim that “the two cannot be disentangled” is false.

In his next section comrade Ford claims that it is “delusional” to think that “nuclear power is some sort of answer to global warming”, he states that such belief is ‘techno-utopian’. I would like to ask comrade Ford how then should we combat climate change? If comrade Ford thinks that we can just put solar panels on our roofs and wind turbines on our shores and pretend the problem is solved then I would claim that he is in fact the techno-utopian. In the same paragraph comrade Ford claims that “nuclear power is also inherently dangerous”, it does not grace the comrade that he treats the entire field of nuclear energy as a monolithic entity. Additionally, we have already seen in parts three and four that this statement is rubbish, and I will not waste any more words on it here since comrade Ford did not bother to substantiate his claim with anything but the observation that accidents have happened.

I agree with comrade Ford’s assessment that a working nuclear fusion power plant is still a distant dream. However, I would like to point out the irony of first presenting the nuclear waste problem as unsolvable only to later “not want to categorically rule out nuclear fusion”, what is comrade Ford going to do with the radioactive waste from a hypothetical nuclear fusion power plant at the end of its life-time? And why would comrade Ford’s solution to this problem not be applicable to waste from a nuclear fission power plant? Or has the comrade simply not given that matter any thought? Furthermore, as we have seen in part three, nuclear fusion also has a direct historical connection to weapons of mass destruction, in fact the most destructive of weapons, the thermonuclear weapons, are based on nuclear fusion. How is it that comrade Ford dismisses nuclear fission because of its military history but does not apply the same reasoning consistently to nuclear fusion? Extrapolating his own flawed reasoning, he should oppose nuclear fusion as well.

In his last paragraph, comrade Ford proposes to power the UK using solar panels in the Sahara. Comrade Jacobs has already pointed out that resistance exists, and that therefore such a solution would be far from optimal. Physicists are working very hard to find a room-temperature superconductor at low pressures, however the large scale application of superconductivity might be a dream that is even further away than a working nuclear fusion power plant.

Comrade Ford has one more argument up his sleeve that we skipped over before because I think that it is a truly ridiculous argument, the costs. It never ceases to amaze me that opponents of nuclear energy, no matter how far on the left, will all of a sudden care about whether something is economical or profitable under capitalism when the subject is nuclear energy. And to be honest I couldn’t care less if nuclear energy is economical or profitable to some capitalist, what I care about is combating climate change as fast and effectively as possible. But since comrade Ford has brought up the argument, let’s debunk it anyway. Wikipedia tells me that “it would cost between $6 billion to $9 billion for a 1,100 MW plant”[8]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power, lets humour comrade Ford and take the higher number of $9 billion, that would give us 8.2 dollars per Watt, a nuclear power plant lasts about 60 years before it needs a significant refurbishment so that would be 0.14 dollars per Watt per year. Now let’s direct our browser to Amazon and buy ourselves a solar panel, let’s humour comrade Ford again and buy a nice and cheap one, 100 dollars for a 100 Watt solar panel. And let’s assume that our really cheap and crappy solar panel lasts the full average lifetime of about 10 years, that gives us 0.10 dollars per Watt per year. And what do you know, more or less the same, and I haven’t even bought any converters or storage, which would be required for the large scale application of solar energy. And if the reader doesn’t believe my quick and dirty calculation, the reader is redirected to the relevant reports by the US Energy and Information Administration[9]https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/electricity_generation.php and to Figure S – 6 of this 2014 study commissioned by the European Commission[10]https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/ECOFYS%202014%20Subsidies%20and%20costs%20of%20EU%20energy_11_Nov.pdf, which support my conclusion that though the initial investment sum of nuclear energy is high, the costs per unit of electricity generated over the lifetime of a nuclear power plant is in fact comparable to other sources of electricity.

In his second article, comrade Ford quotes some numbers supposedly showing that nuclear energy is “more than three times as expensive as the cheapest source of energy”. However, when we look at his source it becomes clear that he has conveniently left out the storage capacity required for such large scale application of variable energy sources. Nor has he even considered the costs of the required adjustments of the electricity grid to support more decentralized sources. Comrade Ford continues with reminding us that we should not forget other renewables such as “wave power, hydroelectricity, radiant energy, biomass, etc, etc.”, and I of course agree with those first two. However, I’m very curious about what the comrade means with ‘radiant energy’ because to me that just sounds exactly like solar energy. And I am downright shocked that the comrade would mention biomass in this list, since the carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions of biomass are only marginally better than coal as we have seen in part one. Biomass can only be considered renewable if it only uses biomass as fuel that is waste anyway, which is very often not the case, and even if it is you’re better off using the wood to make furniture in my opinion.

Further on in his second article, comrade Ford highlights the enormous increase in the share of wind energy in the UK over the past 10 years, from 3% to 25%, impressive indeed. However, when comrade Ford states that “when it has been exceptionally blowy, we have even had a situation where wind power accounted for 59.9% of electricity generated in Britain”, he misses an important point. A single type of energy source more than doubling its output on certain days is in fact a problem for the stability of the electricity grid. To accommodate this increase, the energy output somewhere else has to decrease, or the excess energy should be stored. At the moment the former is almost always the case since massive storage infrastructure is currently not in place, gas and other power plants have to decrease their output on such days, which in principle is not a bad thing. However, there comes a point where the share of variable energy sources is sufficiently large that electricity storage is an absolute necessity to prevent the overall input from exceeding the output, which would cause a power outage (too much electricity is in fact just as problematic as too little). And this is why massive investments in electricity storage are now suddenly becoming an immediate concern, the alternative would be to add a replacement scalable constant energy source to keep the grid stable: nuclear energy. With his example comrade Ford tries to convince us that we can use wind energy to power society, but instead he highlights how very close we are to reaching this critical share of variable energy sources where the lack of investments in massive storage infrastructure would suddenly become a very real problem.

We could go into the exact whys and wherefores of it all” comrade Ford states, thinking that presenting some numbers with pound signs in front of them is enough to settle the issue. The ‘why’ of the matter is in fact very important, because there are reasons other than the initial investment sum, that prevent firms from investing in a nuclear power plant. Examples are, the relative long period it takes before such an investment starts paying off, the public opposition such a company would have to deal with, and the fact that a change in government policy could mean the early closure of the nuclear power pant, in which case the investment might not pay off at all. The fact of the matter is that nuclear energy is not an attractive investment opportunity, which is why it is expensive, and why it is not becoming cheaper as fast as solar and wind. That does not mean that governments should just let the capitalist market decide on the strategy to combat climate change, because as has been proven time and time again this market is not rational, nor does it make decisions that are in the best interests of all of humanity. Our strategy to combat climate change should be based on science, not on what is or is not a guaranteed lucrative investment for some capitalists.

We need as an absolute imperative to transition away from coal and oil – which actually can be done very quickly using existing technologies, especially renewables. Solar and wind are becoming dramatically cheaper, making them perfectly realistic options. But, like fusion, the new and better fission technology being developed right now – even if it works brilliantly – might arrive too late to save the day. Time is running out, as the planet is getting warmer and warmer by the year.

Comrade Ford correctly notes that time is running out, which is why it is all the more surprising that he continues to advocate for a strategy that is already proving to be too slow. We are already behind[11]https://climateactiontracker.org/, and such an observation is usually a reason to reevaluate our approach to the problem and ask ourselves how we can solve the problem faster and more efficiently. Instead comrade Ford suggests we simply keep doing what we’ve been doing and hope that this strategy will somehow speed up, even though one would expect that increasing the share of variable energy sources will only become more and more difficult the larger this share becomes because more and more storage capacity will be required. I do not know where comrade Ford gets the notion that the transition away from coal “can be done very quickly using existing technologies, especially renewables” considering that so far this strategy has proven to be too slow, too bad he did not provide us with a source for this claim.

It is interesting to note that in the first part of his second article comrade Ford dismisses nuclear energy because it would be too expensive under capitalism, he states that:

But back to price. Communists, of course, have our own way of approaching things – planning and calculating labour hours. But we are highlighting price because this is how capitalism establishes its rationality – through the law of value. An indirect way of working things out, yes, but nonetheless it is the best way capitalism has to tell what is efficient and what is inefficient.

So in essence comrade Ford dismisses nuclear energy because he claims that capitalism tells us that it would be inefficient. However, later on in that very same article, when talking about putting solar panels in the Sahara Desert, comrade Ford says:

If capitalism cannot do that because of national divisions, state breakdown, profit maximisation, the narrow self-interests of the oil majors, etc, then socialism would have every interest in taking up such a project on a global scale. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks presided over the highly successful Goelro plan.7 We in our turn shall preside over Desertec 4.0. Workers’ power plus solar power equals global sustainability.

And all of a sudden comrade Ford has completely reversed his position, we apparently do not have to take capitalism into account at all for comrade Ford’s grand plans of a massive solar farm in the Sahara Desert. Though I admire comrade Ford’s optimism and I would not dismiss the notion of Saharan solar energy as a possibility in a socialist future. We obviously cannot expect that the socialist revolution will take place before climate catastrophe hits, so we will have to deal with the problem of climate change within a capitalist context. Furthermore, it seems to me that, given a capitalist framework, it would be a lot easier for a government to build a couple of nuclear power plants even if the capitalists are hesitant to invest, than it would be to realize comrade Ford’s dream of Saharan solar energy, which would require the collaboration of multiple countries in a region that, as comrade Ford admits, is considered ‘politically unstable’.

Lastly, I completely reject comrade Jacobs’s absurd dichotomous choice between climate warming or nuclear power, runaway climate change or a thousand Sizewell C’s. The fact of the matter is that if you thought there was just about to be a qualitative tilt in the climate pattern which would fry the planet, the last thing you would rationally do is choose the nuclear option – given its dangers, cost and how long it takes to put it into operation.

And there is comrade Ford’s final argument, it would take too long to build a nuclear power plant. For starters the energy transition is already taking too long, the strategy is already too slow, and we are already behind schedule. What this means is that we need to diversify our approach to the energy transition, we need to heavily invest in all non-fossil energy sources, not just solar and wind. We need to embrace nuclear energy, lest we risk getting slowed down even further by the bottleneck that is electricity storage. It is precisely short-term thinking that got us into this fossil-mess in the first place, so please let’s not use the same short-term thinking now. Yes it would take relatively long to build a nuclear power plant, and yes we might miss the 2030 goals, but we are going to miss those goals anyway. So we can either stay on the current path, miss the 2030 goals, and in 2030 we would still be behind schedule for the 2050 goals. Or we can start investing in nuclear energy now, in which case we would probably also miss the 2030 goals, but we would make a major leap forward between 2031 and 2033 when the nuclear power plants that we’ve been building become operational. And then there would still be some hope to meeting the 2050 goals.

Conclusion

In order to effectively combat climate change and to create the most stable and robust electricity grid we should diversify our approach, solely wind and solar energy is not enough, nuclear energy can and should play a role in this diversified energy transition. Nuclear energy is an entire field of many different designs and ideas, it is not a monolithic entity, it is not inherently dangerous, nor is it inherently linked to nuclear weapons. Therefore, we should combat and break the stigma surrounding nuclear energy, so that there might still be some hope to avert complete climate catastrophe.