April 16, 2014
The Socialist Case for Nuclear Energy
How Technology Can Achieve Marx’s Vision of a New Society
Most members of the Socialist left have forgotten that the rise and uplifting of human culture has always depended on, and been a function of, this development and utilization of cheaper, more abundant, and denser energy. A movement toward denser fuels has aided the expansion of the forces of production and the use of more laborsaving devices and techniques, and has led to higher-quality goods and superior means of distribution. For today’s growing population, such a world of abundance will require more, not less, energy, and in order to deal with climate change, that energy must be baseload, carbon-free nuclear.
The deepest, the most objective and the most indisputable criterion says: progress can be measured by the growth of the productivity of social labour. -- Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October (1932)
Energy, the environment, global climate change, and sea level rise are all huge, vast interconnected subjects that generate much debate and controversy at every level of society. One expects this when the future of our species, and all other species, are at stake.
The center of this discussion can be narrowed down to one technological and scientific issue: the generation, use, and distribution of energy. The historic application, or utilization, of various forms of energy is a measure of human progress. Even before the rise of civilizations such as the Indus, Greek, Persian, and others long gone were relegated to the anthropology text books and museums, and even before the development of class society, human use of energy set us apart from all other species, including the higher ones such as dolphins and apes.
Heat to cook food or keep warm in colder climates was the first human use of energy generated by the chemical reaction (though unknown to early humans) of hydrocarbons when brought to a higher temperature. This was low-density energy from a strictly biological source: wood.
Every step up the climb from pre-class society through the first civilizations, through the massive slave societies of the Egyptian and Roman empires through feudalism, and into and including our modern imperialist; with every advance in the mode of production; with every step forward in the application of scientific techniques for growing food, understanding the seasons, and increasing productivity of commodity creation; each has been intertwined dialectically with the discovery and deployment of ever more abundant, ever more useful, ever more dense forms of energy that could be deployed easily by growing numbers of people seeking to make their lives easier.
The rise and uplifting of human culture has always depended on, and been a function of, this development and utilization of cheaper, more abundant, and denser energy.
Most on the Socialist left have forgotten this. The development of energy use by humans shows an evolution from wood to water/hydro and wind to coal and later to petroleum and gas, and finally to nuclear power. Each has provided vaster quantities, and qualities, of energy for human use. Each one has been denser than the last, that is, more energy could be extracted from each subsequent form per measured unit of weight or volume.
This aided the expansion of the forces of production and the utilization of more laborsaving devices and techniques, and led to higher-quality goods and superior means of distribution.
It this development of the productive forces that Marx saw as being increasingly in conflict with the mode of production we know as capitalism. Thus, he saw the increase in production per capita as a goal, a human species goal, and something to strive for. Capitalism was beginning to hold this back, and thus one of the main underpinnings of Marxism was established: showing the contradictory nature of capitalism and how historically it sows its own doom.
But what does this have to do with the central question raised earlier? In the left today, and the much broader Green and environmental movements, this expansion of production is considered a “bad thing.” It causes pollution, ecological collapse, and climate change. No doubt, the rapid expansion of industry under capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries has caused these terrible changes. But it also has allowed humans to develop solutions through techniques that could alleviate these problems were such forms of production placed under the democratic control of society, that is, what we call Socialism.
Marx understood at least under communism, production would have to increase to alleviate the grinding poverty that prevailed in 90 percent of the world’s population of his day. In his 1847 essay The Principles of Communism, he posed the following question and provided an answer:
What will be the consequences of the ultimate disappearance of private property?
Society will take all forces of production and means of commerce, as well as the exchange and distribution of products, out of the hands of private capitalists and will manage them in accordance with a plan based on the availability of resources and the needs of the whole society. In this way, most important of all, the evil consequences which are now associated with the conduct of big industry will be abolished.
There will be no more crises; the expanded production, which for the present order of society is overproduction and hence a prevailing cause of misery, will then be insufficient and in need of being expanded much further. Instead of generating misery, overproduction will reach beyond the elementary requirements of society to assure the satisfaction of the needs of all; it will create new needs and, at the same time, the means of satisfying them. It will become the condition of, and the stimulus to, new progress, which will no longer throw the whole social order into confusion, as progress has always done in the past. Big industry, freed from the pressure of private property, will undergo such an expansion that what we now see will seem as petty in comparison as manufacture seems when put beside the big industry of our own day. This development of industry will make available to society a sufficient mass of products to satisfy the needs of everyone.
The same will be true of agriculture, which also suffers from the pressure of private property and is held back by the division of privately owned land into small parcels. Here, existing improvements and scientific procedures will be put into practice, with a resulting leap forward which will assure to society all the products it needs.
In this way, such an abundance of goods will be able to satisfy the needs of all its members.
This holds as true today as it ever did in the imagination of Karl Marx before the 1848 upheavals across the European continent.
For today’s 7 billion (and growing) people, Socialism, which can only be built by harnessing the productive forces of the entire planet, promises what Marx wrote of in 1847. But we can do it wisely, and democratically, only if we eliminate the global imperialist system.
Such a world of abundance will require more, not less energy. Yet, there is a belief, especially in the advanced Western countries of Europe and North America among Socialists and activists for social change, that humans “use too much.” This is an idea that has been absorbed from the forces around the Greens and others who think there are too many people, that we cannot possibly sustain so many people on Earth, and that if we brought the standard of living of the entire world up to that enjoyed by workers in these Western countries, the planet would be ruined.
Doing so under capitalism, the world would be ruined. Capitalism has no way to lift the masses from poverty. Consider the following:
- There are 1.6 billion people with no electricity.
- Billions of people have no access to energy efficient mass transportation.
- Billions of people have little or no access to education and health care.
- Increasingly vicious wars and privatization continue to cause grinding poverty, dislocation and environmental destruction.
Capitalism is the cause. To bring the entire world to the (rapidly dropping) levels of Western workers or “middle income” families would require not simply a fundamental increase in wealth redistribution and energy, but a vast per-capita increase in both. But the refrain from many environmentalists and even Socialists continued: “We use too much!” This is as reactionary as wanting to bust unions or launch wars of aggression of neo-colonial conquest.
These same leftists put their hopes in the false panacea of what has been called a “100 percent fossil fuel-free/nuclear-free carbon-free renewable energy economy.” Many academic papers have been written seeking to prove the practicality of such a project. An equal number of papers destroy this myth; that is not the purpose of this essay. Rather, consider several points about energy.
The advance of civilization has been predicated on the accessibility of and increased per-capita use of energy, but every paper advocating renewable energy is based on a massive reduction in per-capita energy use. While arguing renewable energy can power a high-tech civilization on a planetary scale, authors believe that such an endeavor itself could be carbon-free. Consider one example: according to almost all studies, land-based wind energy, the only kind being built in the United States, uses 8 to 12 times the amount of concrete per unit of energy compared to nuclear power. Concrete uses massive amounts of dirty natural gas in its production. It uses more steel, copper, and aluminum, not to mention that far more intensive extraction-mining of rare earth metals is required for wind generators than for nuclear power.
Because wind and solar energy have actual usable energy production, or capacity factors (CFs), that are very low, massive overbuilding of these systems will be needed. Nuclear energy in the United States is around 90 percent CF; that is, 90 percent of the time, a 1,000 MW plant produces 1,000 MWs. In some countries, it is even higher. Wind’s CF on land-based wind farms is only 33 percent. Solar is only 20 percent because the sun is only at its useable height in the sky from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
What to do? There is a lot of talk about storage, big batteries, or using hot molten salts to store power. This can be done, but can it be done on a genuine utility-scale basis? The costs are overwhelming, as every solar and wind plant utilizing storage has proven. And they have remained in the experimental stage for more than a decade.
Nuclear is safe. This sounds like an outrageous claim in light of Fukushima and Chernobyl. In fact, the number of deaths per amount of energy for nuclear is way lower than it is for fossil fuel. It is lower than wind and solar if installation and industrial accidents are taken into account. People will argue about the numbers, but given what our species face with respect to global climate change, this is the wrong argument. Those numbers are going to be outrageous; they already are.
Fukushima could have been prevented. The capitalist board of directors of Fukushima’s operator TEPCO had its seawall only to minimum “recommendations” when common practice in other countries, for private or public utilities, is to build beyond specs. They also built their fuel tanks for the auxiliary diesel generators powering their auxiliary cooling system right on the water at their intake structure, rather than locating them behind the plant up on the hill from where the video was taken of the tsunami hitting the plant. There would have been no “Fukushima accident” had TEPCO put safety ahead of profits.
However, there were no deaths from the accident itself (compared to the 20,000 who died from the earth quake and tsunami itself!) and many experts believe there will likely be no fatalities because the population was exposed to so very little radiation after the accident.
Chernobyl, a truly horrific accident that caused 4,000 treatable thyroid cancer incidents (a number most likely vastly underreported), was a one-off incident. A converted military-style reactor built by the U.S.S.R using a design banned in all but two countries of the world, exploded. The explosion sent dozens of tons of fuel into the atmosphere. There are still 10 such reactors online and yet, despite Chernobyl and despite the collapse of the U.S.S.R., there have been exactly zero other accidents of the type that happened there at any of those plants. Why? The nuclear industry in Russia stepped up and engineered out the ability of humans to cause such an accident, and began to add large, heavy containment to existing plants and design it into future plants. The Russians also stopped building this type of Chernobyl-style reactor.
Even under capitalism, the nuclear industry, despite corruption, despite the profit motive, has proved superior to the fossil fuel industry (including both privately run and publicly owned plants) in the number of deaths incurred through normal operations. Any comparison of fossil fuel plants and nuclear favors nuclear technology shows this to be the case.
Socialists argue that, like any technology, nuclear energy would be far better employed in a democratically run, worker- and consumer-controlled public power grid. Of this there can be no doubt. But we are talking about technologies that are being employed under capitalism generally. Many developing countries are delving into nuclear energy and developing nuclear plants or at least the safety regimes required by international law as a prerequisite to building a nuclear grid.
Countries currently building nuclear grids include China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, the UAE, South Africa/Azania, and many more. They do this without influence from the “nuclear industry” or other lobby groups but after reviewing all the alternatives. Some of these same countries are also building new coal and gas plants and, at the same time, investing massive amounts to develop wind and solar power.
France is the world’s premier user of nuclear energy. The French ruling class decided that France had to eliminate its reliance on burning oil for power generation. In 15 years, France went from zero to 79% of its grid powered by 54 nuclear power plants. When an electric car gets plugged into the wall at night for recharging, or an aluminum plant is running to produce the millions of tons of aluminum needed in a modern society, everyone in France knows it is nuclear, not fossil fuel, providing the power. France has demonstrated that even a capitalist economy can rid itself of fossil fuels if it deploys nuclear.
There is nothing objectionable about wind and solar power per se. They can be useful and should be deployed in a limited fashion depending on local conditions (their ability to displace coal and gas is overstated; they are married to both, as the experiences of Germany and Denmark, where wind and solar power are deployed widely, have shown). But it is nuclear power that Socialists should be fighting for: it is power on demand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year; and every megawatt produced by a nuclear plant can displace, permanently, an equal number of MWs produced from fossil fuels. No renewable source of energy, save for hydro-electricity (which has limited potential) can make the same claim. This fact alone should disqualify renewables for serious consideration as the solution to climate change.
While massive amounts of renewable energy has been deployed in Europe, not a single fossil-fuel plant has been phased out as a result. Nuclear, however, immediately displaces a fossil-fuel generation plant. China, which today has 30 nuclear plants under construction, would be building 30 coal-fired plants if the nation could not or was not allowed to go nuclear. Socialists should not only be defending the right of developing countries to build nuclear power plants, we should be demanding the bosses’ governments do so, and expand its deployment. We should be fighting for workers governments to come to power to organize society along the lines outlined here.
Socialists should oppose waste and inefficiency. These problems are worse in underdeveloped countries than in the advanced countries, but because per-capita energy use is much higher in the latter any amount of wasted energy generally compounds already existing problems from garbage to over-extraction of resources to pollution, as well as climate change. We should be for conservation and efficiency as a function of any rational society based on human needs and not profit.
But this doesn’t mean lowering anyone’s standard of living (except the bankers and bosses, of course!). It really means a full-on reorganization of our productive and consumption capacity with the goal of raising the development level of the underdeveloped world in a rational and democratic manner, no longer under the jackboot of imperialism.
What does this mean, really, in many underdeveloped countries where only 10 percent of the population has access to electricity? Does it mean a 50-inch flat-screen LCD television? A 24-cubic-foot sub-zero refrigerator? Central air conditioning and two SUVs in the front of a 3,000-square-foot home? Of course not. And yet, this seems to be what so many think when they object to raising the standard of living of the billions in underdeveloped countries to those of the West.
No, it means this: it means the right to generate and use electricity. The right to the ubiquitous light switch we take for granted in the West. It means electric light available day and night, whenever an individual decides he or she wants to read, whenever a student wants to study. It means at least a small refrigerator where leftovers can be chilled without spoiling. It means a laptop computer and access to the Internet. It means, perhaps, a small television. It means some air conditioning, perhaps only in one room, so children don’t suffer diseases brought on by increasing temperatures in our world. It means an electric hotplate or stovetop so the 30,000 women and children who die every year in India from cooking with charcoal indoors can live. That is what energy means, and that is why we need more of it, a lot more, and why it has to be carbon free. This is what it will take to make all of Africa, India, and most of South Asia “developed.”
The antinuclear movement condemns billions of people to decades’ more energy starvation because of misplaced liberal guilt over greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than coming up with truly better ways to produce energy, this movement wants us to down-gear and “use less.” This is why antinuclear idealism should be characterized as a reactionary response to the climate crisis, and it explains why Socialists who adapt to the Green ideology have lost their bearings.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) of 30MW to 300MWs can be built in mass production lines, lowering their cost. They can be set up in rural parts of any country and have an electricity grid literally built around them that could, eventually, be connected to and form a national grid that would enhance development and raise people’s standard of living. There are only two things holding this up:
- Imperialism, which has been breaking up countries, fomenting civil wars, and destroying the national economies of these countries.
- The antinuclear/Green movement, which views any development in general as harming the planet, and sees nuclear energy as particularly evil.
For Socialists to recapture the true vision of Marxism and the early revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries means learning the lessons of the downside of the development of the productive forces such as climate change. It means using science and technology to alleviate and reverse the environmental damage capitalism has created, so we can live up to Marx’s vision of a new society:
“Society will take all forces of production and means of commerce, as well as the exchange and distribution of products, out of the hands of private capitalists and will manage them in accordance with a plan based on the availability of resources and the needs of the whole society. In this way, most important of all, the evil consequences which are now associated with the conduct of big industry will be abolished.
“There will be no more crises; the expanded production, which for the present order of society is overproduction and hence a prevailing cause of misery, will then be insufficient and in need of being expanded much further.”
The Principles of Communism by Karl Marx: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/11/prin-com.htm
Section on energy in the following document: http://clogic.eserver.org/2010/Roberto_Meyerson_Essex_Noonan.pdf
David Walters worked as power plant operator for 20 years at an IBEW organized facility, where he was a Shop Steward. He is a member of Socialist Organizer in Pacifica, CA. This article originally appeared on Socialist Organizer.
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