Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/397/4841
Is nuclear power the solution?
The G8 Summit has been billed as being around the twin global issues of climate change and world poverty.
Yet environmental issues were conspicuous by their absence from the campaigns of the main parties in the recent general election.
But hey, it's only the future of the planet at stake! Obviously not a 'sexy' enough subject! BILL GORDON looks at the real issues.
EVERY DAY there are new scientific reports about the growing crisis of the environment, particularly climate change. Global warming is the rise in the Earth's temperature caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other 'greenhouse' gases in the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.
A recent study of the Greenland glaciers by NASA scientists warned that global warming is a reality and that the rate of temperature increase and melting of the ice is increasing. This would have devastating consequences. Dramatically rising sea levels would submerge large land areas.
This would force mass population migrations, the loss of food-producing areas and spread disease. Weather conditions would become increasingly severe, with possibly a new ice age.
Correctly, Sir David King, the government's chief scientist, has said that climate change poses a bigger threat to the world than terrorism. The ranks of those who deny the link between climate change and human activity are shrinking like the ice itself - with the exception of Bush, the likes of the US oil multinationals, a section of scientists, as well as the increasingly oddball David Bellamy.
It recently emerged that an official in the White House, Philip Cooney, changed scientists' reports on climate change to downplay links between emissions and global warming. The US National Academy of Sciences is calling on Bush and Co to recognise the 'clear and increasing' threat posed by climate change.
The arguments of the climate change sceptics are clearly answered in Pete Dickenson's article 'Climate Change- Answering the sceptics' in Socialism Today, April 2005.
Unlike Bush and Co, Blair and much of the establishment are worried about the threat of global warming. They know that something must be done.
The upcoming G8 Summit has been billed around the twin global issues of climate change and world poverty. Unfortunately we are not likely to get anything more than the usual empty words, and "fiddling while Rome burns".
Despite all the "greenspeak" the embarrassingly fact for New Labour is that their pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010 is not likely to be met, by a long way. In both of the last two years they have risen.
Very expensive... and very dangerous
Against this background there has been much speculation that New Labour is planning a massive turn to nuclear power, using the fact that it does not produce the greenhouse gases that fossil fuels do as justification. Nuclear's supporters are attempting to paint it as a clean, green and viable alternative.
Others argue that a new generation of nuclear power stations is necessary as a short-term answer until renewables are developed to the level where they are ready to assume the mantle of mass energy production. They argue that the alternative and renewable energy forms are inefficient, and currently only provide 3% of our electricity.
It is reported that David King shares this worry that an "energy gap" will open up if/when fossil fuel forms are shut down, and that he insists "one generation only" of new nuclear plants. At present, nuclear power provides 20-25% of our electricity.
The current plants are ageing; all but one (Sizewell B on the Suffolk coast) of the twelve are scheduled to be decommissioned between now and 2023. So this could be a crucial juncture in energy policy decision making.
Nuclear power is very big business. And very expensive. A new generation of reactors would take about a decade to bring on line and cost roughly £2 billion each. These costs and the associated risks are far too high for the private sector. So the nuclear industry is coming cap in hand for government money.
However, such a decision would be highly controversial and would generate enormous opposition. It would also give further impetus to the 'anti-capitalist' movement and the radicalisation of young people. There are splits and disagreements at top levels on the issue, which is why nothing concrete has been announced yet.
The Socialist Party would also oppose such a decision. There should be no more nuclear reactors built, and existing ones should be decommissioned as soon as is practicable. Any workers in the industry not needed for the decommissioning process should be redeployed to other industries where their skills would be valuable. This should be overseen by the workers' trade union organisations.
The money that would be required for a new nuclear programme could be better used elsewhere. As a form of energy nuclear power is far too dangerous.
Recently a big leak of highly radioactive uranium and plutonium forced the temporary closure of the Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield. This is a timely reminder of the inherent risks. There is the ever-present danger of catastrophic accidents such as at Three Mile Island in the USA in 1979, and Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. Transporting nuclear materials also carries the same risks.
Probably the biggest black hole in the arguments of the nuclear lobby is the question of the toxic waste which is an inevitable by-product of nuclear power generation. The (possibly insurmountable) problems of the toxic nuclear waste remain, with no solution in sight.
No safe disposal
Uranium and plutonium remain radioactive for 100,000 years. Who can envisage a safe method of disposal that would be secure in the (very) long term? Some scientists have talked of burying it under land or sea. But what storage medium could be guaranteed for the necessary period? Could it not be compromised and the material released by earthquakes, undersea volcanic activity and the like?
We witnessed the power of such forces with the Boxing Day tsunami. It would be irresponsible in the extreme to add to these problems.
Another factor that should surely be taken into consideration in these times of heightened 'danger' is the threat of terrorist attack and theft of nuclear material. In fact, government guidelines use these very fears as justification to allow the concealing from the public of information about nuclear power stations, including safety issues and potential hazards.
Under their 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act it is an offence to disclose information with the intention of prejudicing or being reckless with "nuclear security". Given the record of cover-ups and shadiness by the nuclear industry it is not difficult to see how this will be used against opposition.
A socialist energy policy
So, what should be done? When addressing the issue of energy needs and environmental sustainability there is a need for a holistic approach. Fundamentally this is incompatible with a system, capitalism, that takes as its first and last word the insatiable drive for profits. There must also be a recognition that there are no "magic bullets" and that there are many difficult decisions to be made.
An integrated energy policy is essential. That requires democratic planning. The major energy firms must be taken into public ownership to enable this. The priorities of society need to be re-ordered to provide massive investment around all of the different possibilities, both existing and future.
All the existing expertise that currently often works against one another to generate profits for capitalist paymasters should be pooled, and best practice shared. The huge funding (time, money and scientists) for the military, and research and development for military projects could be switched to environmental and alternative energy sources.
The aim should be to phase out the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power and adopt a new mix, based on a combination of renewable/alternative energy forms and energy efficiency measures.
Much technology is already in existence but too often they are isolated and piecemeal. They need to be drawn together, and research and development needs to be massively and rapidly increased. In the meantime existing and developing "clean coal" technology such as carbon sequestration should be introduced, as coal currently supplies 30% of our electricity.
Mention should also be made of nuclear fusion. For decades scientists have looked into the 'promised land' of possibly developing nuclear fusion (as opposed to fission) as an energy source, with the potential to produce virtually unlimited amounts of power with no pollution.
The basis of the technology is to try to harness the vast amount of energy that is released when atoms are fused together, which unlike splitting the atom, does not produce toxic radioactive waste. However, no decisive breakthrough has been made or is on the horizon. Squabbling between different teams of scientists has not aided the research.
The environment is far too important to be left to the vested interests and anarchy of the so-called free market. The necessary changes are huge and expensive and would threaten the profits of the big-business corporations that dominate society. Any good intentions some world leaders may profess will be sacrificed on the altar of the 'market', especially in times of economic crisis. They are hamstrung by the capitalist system that they ultimately represent.
With the environment it is axiomatic that international co-operation is vital. A world of competing capitalist nation states runs contrary to this. A world of warring capitalist nation states runs even more contrary to this.
To be quite blunt (and not forgetting that the advanced industrial nations, including Britain, have been the chief culprits in environmental destruction so far) it would be no good only one country, such as Britain, 'going green' if the likes of USA, China and India do not.
If capitalism cannot afford the necessary changes for an environmentally sustainable society, then we certainly cannot afford the capitalist system and the price it will make us all pay if allowed to continue its lemming-like rush to environmental destruction. Another world is certainly possible, but a socialist world is absolutely necessary.
This list summarises the main forms of renewable and alternative energy sources. It shows that a lot of the technology already exists and that, with more investment and development, they could provide viable alternatives to the existing sources.
Wind power is the most advanced renewable in Britain. A big increase is planned. The Government has a target of 10% of electricity to be produced by renewable energy. It is reckoned that by 2020 wind should be the cheapest form of electricity generation in Britain. At present there are around 1,230 turbines. The initial target would need another 2,000 with 1,500 offshore.
On the negative side, windfarms have generated some local opposition for blotting the landscape. There is currently an ongoing public inquiry into these issues with the Whinash wind farm in Cumbria.
Critics also say that it is intermittent and requires back-up power. However, supporters counter that turbines can be quickly removed if necessary, and that the impact on the landscape is as nothing compared to the problems of climate change.
There are quite a few new wind schemes in the pipeline. Addressing a conference in Aberdeen on 25 May, the new energy minister Malcolm Wicks announced approval for a 26-turbine wind farm at Scout Moor, Greater Manchester, which could supply 30,000 homes. On 8 June plans were publicised for a huge windfarm in the Thames Estuary which was claimed would be able to supply fully one quarter of the energy needs of London.
Wave and tidal power are potentially huge sources of energy, but the least developed, certainly in Britain. There are some examples of the existing technology though. A wave powered generator 'Limpet' is operating on rocks on the Scottish island of Islay but only produces about 500 kilowatts of energy.
The Department for Trade and Industry has commissioned the UK Renewable Energy Atlas to spatially map the wave and tidal resource potential. On 25 May, £2.68 million government funding was promised for a prototype tidal energy scheme TidEl in Orkney Islands.
For years the big tidal power station at La Rance on the Normandy coast has been producing 240 megawatts of energy with its 24 turbines. A Scottish company Ocean Power Delivery is to install three wave power machines in the Atlantic Ocean, three miles off the coast of northern Portugal, near Povoa de Varzim.
In the news recently was a plan to build the world's biggest solar energy power station in Portugal. It would cover 250 hectares and supply 130,000 households. A spokesman claimed it would be visible from space.
Solar power uses silicon photovoltaic cells (PV) which generate power whenever light falls on them. A British company Solarcentury says that: "If we covered a small fraction of the Sahara desert with PV, we could generate all the world's electricity requirements."
Uses renewable biomass resources - like fast-growing plant material - to produce various energy products. Currently there is 10 gigawatts of installed biomass power capacity in USA.
Hydrogen fuel cells
Currently being developed to power passenger vehicles, homes, commercial buildings, mobiles and laptops. However, it takes more energy to produce it than the hydrogen itself will yield and the resultant carbon dioxide emissions would cancel any potential environmental advantages of hydrogen cells. Of course, if the hydrogen that drives them was produced with renewable energy, fuel cells could potentially be a useful green alternative. [See Socialism Today, no 75, June 2003.]
Geothermal energy technologies generate power from the heat of the earth.
Combined heat and power generators
These generate electricity and heat together. Current CHP achieve a 30% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared with coal-fired power stations, and the newest ones achieve over 50%.
Energy efficiency measures
- An environmental audit of every process, industrial and process, using the maxim of 'reduce, re-use, re-cycle'.
- The average wastage of energy from properties in this country is 30%. Simple measures (such as cavity wall insulation, loft insulation, condensing boilers, energy-saving lightbulbs) could have a significant effect in reducing energy use. The enforcement of existing building regulations from 1999, the "Standard Assessment Procedures" would increase efficiency.
- Greenpeace estimate that our outdated electricity grid system wastes two-thirds of the energy put into it.
- If energy utilities were taken back into public control, together with the large building firms, we could plan and ensure high standards of energy efficiency in the generation, transfer and usage of energy.
- There should be massive investment in a publicly owned integrated public transport system to reduce vehicle use. This could make a substantial contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
- Democratic town and country planning could make communities more efficient in energy use and reduce the amount of unnecessary journeys people have to make (eg restore local services) as well as being better places to live. Think a modern 'Garden City' movement .
- Capitalism is a very wasteful system, with built-in obsolescence of appliances, the duplication of production, and the unnecessary packaging etc that is part of it. On the basis of a different kind of society it would be possible to eliminate much of that waste.
In The Socialist 16 June 2005: