SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today issue 94, September 2005

A new nuclear future?

A WEEK after Labour’s re-election, the share price of British Energy hit £3.35, compared to £2.50 in January. British Energy owns eight nuclear power stations and hopes that the government will decide to build more. City financiers think Tony Blair will be good for nuclear business.

All eleven Magnox reactors built between 1956-71 need to be closed by the early 2020s. Four are still working. Their life has already been extended. It takes nearly ten years to plan and build a new nuclear power station, so a decision on their replacement must be taken before the next general election.

The nuclear industry likes to describes itself as ‘climate friendly energy’. Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, causing global warming. Nuclear energy produces far less, although the mining and transportation of raw materials, building power stations, and the storage and processing of waste all lead to carbon dioxide emissions.

Evidence is mounting that global warming is accelerating. ‘Tipping points’ occur when a further small increase in temperature results in changes that feed back to produce larger temperature rises. An example is the vast area of frozen peat bog in Siberia, recently found to be melting. This will release huge quantities of previously trapped methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Recent crop failure in Niger, drought in France and Spain, forest fires in Portugal and Indonesia, floods in India, and even a tornado in Birmingham, all indicate an increasingly unstable climate. The need to drastically cut back greenhouse gas emissions is urgent.

So is nuclear power an answer? In fact, even if nuclear power in the UK was doubled, this would only cut emissions of greenhouse gases by about 8%. Electricity generation is responsible for less than a third of UK carbon dioxide emissions.

Nuclear power, produced by splitting atoms (fission), can never be safe. The process produces radioactive waste which remains highly toxic for tens of thousands of years. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Britain’s first nuclear power station at Calder Hall. The surrounding Sellafield area is the most radioactive in the world, according to Greenpeace. The rate of childhood leukaemia there is ten times the average elsewhere in the UK.

Next year is also the 20th anniversary of the catastrophic meltdown of the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine. Thousands were displaced from their homes. Vast areas of Europe and the then Soviet Union were polluted by radioactive fallout. Thyroid cancers in children under 15 years old in the Gomel region of Belarus are now running at nearly 100 per million. The UK average is 0.5 per million. Thyroid cancer is treatable and usually non-fatal, but is only one of a number of cancers caused by radiation.

The latest estimated cost of dismantling Britain’s Magnox reactors, together with some military nuclear sites, is £56 billion – £8 billion up on the previous estimate by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). If another 100 tonnes of plutonium and thousands of tonnes of uranium stored at Sellafield are also classified as waste, the bill will rise by a further £10 billion. A US company, Jacobs, is set to sign a deal to decommission the Magnox stations. This seems likely to lead to the takeover of the British Nuclear Group by a US company.

A recent opinion poll showed that 59% believed it would be irresponsible to build more nuclear power stations while problems remain in the management of current waste. Fifty percent saw nuclear power as unsafe. The Department of Trade and Industry has stated it realises "the importance of having public opinion on our side". It has a big job in front of it as the poll shows a paltry 1% would trust an MP or minister’s word on safety – that figure will probably have been rounded up!

With oil prices at record levels, nuclear ‘experts’ calling for 80 new reactors worldwide, and with Blair calling for greenhouse gas reductions in the next ten years, the signs are that Labour will approve the replacement of old nuclear power stations. The report on handling nuclear waste is due in December. What will the government then decide?

Keith Baverstock, formerly senior radiation adviser with the World Health Organisation in Europe, accused the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management of wasting time on "amateurish" attempts to draw up a list of options: "The public health aspects of the problem are being ignored and trivialised by people who do not sufficiently understand the issue", he said. Unsurprisingly, Baverstock was given the boot.

Finland is building the first new nuclear power station in Europe for many years. In France the parliament has recently approved a new nuclear plant. Guillaume Dureau of Areva, the world’s largest nuclear supplier, declared: "We are pretty convinced of a nuclear revival and need to prepare for it. We need to hire 1,000 engineers". In Germany the Christian Democrats may overturn the ban on new plants imposed in the 1990s should they win the coming general election. Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific advisor, argues for ‘another generation of nuclear-fission stations’.

The war of words from US and European governments against Iran reopening its nuclear power industry shows the links between nuclear energy and nuclear warfare. Weapons-grade plutonium is produced by some reactors. US companies are dealing with China, where plans are in progress for 30 reactors in the near future. But they have seen contracts blocked by the House of Representatives, for fear of transferring too much secret know-how.

The renewed enthusiasm for nuclear power is in spite of past events such as the Three Mile Island near-meltdown (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and the falsification of safety figures at Tokyo Electric Power, where Japan’s largest private electricity company had to shut 17 reactors after hiding cracks at some of its plants. If a 9/11-style attack struck Sellafield it would unleash a catastrophe 40 times greater than Chernobyl, according to a European parliament report.

There are many alternatives to nuclear power and the unsustainable burning of fossil fuels. Sixty percent of government energy research funds, however, were spent on nuclear power in 2000, compared to 23% on renewable energy. There is huge potential for renewable sources as part of an integrated and planned energy programme. According to Cabinet Office figures in 2002, the estimated cost of UK electricity in 2020, measured in pence/kilowatt hour will be: land wind, 1.5-2.5p; offshore wind, 2-3p; energy crops, 2.5-4p; wave and tidal power, 3-6p; gas, 2-2.3p; coal, 3-3.5p; large combined heat and power, over 2p; nuclear, 3-4p.

Since then, the cost of gas and the decommissioning of nuclear power stations has gone up. As Ed Cummins of US energy company, Westinghouse, says "the biggest motivator for nuclear today is $6 [per million British thermal units of] natural gas. If gas goes back to $3.50 then nuclear plants aren’t competitive". Such short-term, profit-oriented calculations cannot solve the growing crisis of energy production, pollution and global warming.

A socialist programme would incorporate massive investment in renewable technologies. Decommissioning nuclear power stations would place safety as the only priority and would provide decades of work for existing nuclear industry workers. Renationalisation of the whole energy industry with workers’ control and management is essential to avoid impending catastrophe from global warming and nuclear fallout.

Sam Lesniak


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