Showing posts with label atomic power. Show all posts
Showing posts with label atomic power. Show all posts

Friday, June 24, 2011

FUKUSHIMA, THE LEFT, AND NUCLEAR POWER

These articles were first published in the Summer 2011 issue of the British journal Permanent Revolution. http://www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/3332

FUKUSHIMA, THE LEFT, AND NUCLEAR POWER

by Stuart King

When a massive earthquake hit Japan on 11 March, followed immediately by a tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear plant suffered a major accident. It took weeks for the private operating company TEPCO to bring the crisis under control, and it will take at least another six to nine months to achieve a cold shut down of the plants nuclear reactors.

This was a very serious accident, rated 7 on the INES scale, the same as the Chernobyl accident, although Fukushima has released so far only 10% of the radiation of the Ukrainian disaster. Immediate casualties were much lower. Unlike Chernobyl no one died as a result of the radiation leaks at Fukushima – two workers involved in the clean-up were hospitalized when radioactive water seeped into their boots. By contrast an estimated 24,000 are dead or missing as a result of the earthquake and tsunami.

This is not to belittle the accident, but to put it in perspective. The long term effects of radiation are yet to be quantified but they will certainly be less damaging than Chernobyl, where incompetence by the Russian Soviet authorities exposed tens of thousands to contaminated food and milk for weeks after the event.

The Fukushima accident could have been much worse, reactor cores could have completely melted down, leading to much greater contamination and an even more difficult clean up operation.

The accompanying article by David Walters looks at the accident, its causes and consequences. Unlike many on the left he does not conclude that the accident was the “inevitable result” of an impossibly dangerous industry, rather that it was a result of a private company cutting corners on safety in the interests of short term profit.

For much of the far left Fukushima was just a confirmation of their anti-nuclear prejudices. Socialist Worker was typical. Its front page headline declared “Nuclear Plants are never safe: shut them all down” (19 March, 2011). Inside its editorial declared “Every plan to build a nuclear plant in every country across the world should be stopped – now. And all existing plants should be shut down. That’s the message we should take from the horrific events in Japan.”

Now just a moment’s thought by any serious thinking socialist would have revealed what a ludicrous demand this was. In Britain something like 19% of electricity comes from our nuclear power plants. Shutting them down immediately would lead to rolling blackouts across the country. In the medium term it would lead to electricity being produced by more CO2 polluting forms of electricity production – gas and coal – increasing global warming with all the dangers that entails.

And in France where almost 80% of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear? The economy would shut down and workers would be burning their furniture in the dark to keep warm. Now that would be a real vote winner!

The pat reply to this argument will be that nuclear can by replaced by renewables – wind, wave and solar power – and by better energy efficiency in homes, offices etc. Well it can’t – the figures don’t add up.

Building offshore wind farms, renewing the grid to use them, developing wave power etc will take years if not a decade or more, even if a socialist government threw all its resources behind it. Even a massive public works programme on energy conservation in homes and offices would take many years. At the same time we need to phase out all coal-fired power stations within the next decade or so, a really important demand in relation to CO2 emissions – and in Britain they still produce just under a third of our electricity.

Renewables cannot fill the gap if we take out nuclear power as an option.

As socialists we cannot magic away these problems. We can bury our heads in the sand, raise demands that no one takes seriously (even ourselves) or provide some scientific based and socialist answers to the problems we face – the major one being how we put forward a program to massively reduce CO2 emissions on a world scale to prevent global warming.

Nuclear power as a low CO2 producing energy source, for all its draw-backs and dangers, will certainly be part of the solution. The lesson of Fukushima is not, as Socialist Worker would have it, that nuclear power is an impossibly dangerous industry, but that it is far too dangerous an industry to be in private hands and to be driven by the profit motive.

Of the ten commercially operating nuclear plants in the UK seven were built between 1962 and 1970. They are old technology, as was Fukushima, more dangerous to run than the new generation of nuclear power stations. They need to be phased out and replaced by new ones as part of an energy mix where renewables are the major source of electric power, a mix where coal and gas are phased out.

The whole of the nuclear industry (apart from decommissioning) has been privatised and is run by multinationals like EDF. It needs to be nationalized with the profit motive removed. But it cannot be run by state bureaucrats who are as keen on cost cutting as any capitalist. It needs to be placed under the control of the workers who run it (and know the safety issues) alongside the communities that exist side by side with nuclear plants. Together they can monitor and control safety and management and should be given the resources by the state to employ their own experts and technicians to be able to do so.

Fukushima was a dangerous accident. Rejecting nuclear power in the context of uncontrolled global warming would be a disaster.

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FUKUSHIMA, NUCLEAR ENERGY AND A SOCIALIST PROGRAM

by David Walters

With the recent tsunami induced accidents at the privately owned Fukushima power plants in Japan, the issue of nuclear energy has once again become a campaigning issue for anti-nuclear activists around the world. Many of the left groups that have spoken out, most notably those active in “Green” circles, have now gone on a major campaign to “Shut them all down now”. Presumably this means the immediate closing of the world’s 440 nuclear power reactors.

We see this call being made by various socialist organizations in Japan, and even some of the unions they lead. It should be noted, however, that the main union representing the workers who operate Japan’s 54 reactors, including those placing themselves at great risk, do not echo this call.

The nuclear accident in Japan, where at the same time close to 30,000 people have lost their lives due to the earthquake and tsunami, certainly raises the question of safety at nuclear plants, not just in Japan, specifically the Fukushima reactors, but throughout the world. Socialists who are pro-nuclear do not shy away from these debates and discussions at all.

At the current time we know only a few facts about the accident at Fukushima. What we do know is that it appears the “physical plant” itself, that is the reactor housing, went mostly unscathed because of the tsunami or the earthquake. No nuclear plant in the world’s 60 year history of civilian nuclear energy has ever been wrecked, destroyed or otherwise overwhelmed directly by these natural phenomenon. That is correct: no earthquake has significantly damaged a reactor to cause a release of radiation or a meltdown. Many in the anti-nuclear movement don’t like to admit this but it’s true.

So what did happen then at Fukushima?

The earthquake did two things. It caused the operating reactors to automatically shutdown. It also knocked out the grid, that is the outside power grid the plants send power into for distribution and take power from during outages, either routine ones or emergency ones. In case of this occurring, two forms of auxiliary power come into play: battery backup that will last a few dozen hours, and auxiliary diesel generators that can last days or weeks until power is restored.

The use of water for cooling in any reactor is well known. In the old Fukushima reactors electricity was essential to provide pumping and cooling. We do not have to review that here as it is covered in many places already. Back-up power is provided but it failed in this case. We have to ask why it failed and what solutions could have mitigated this failure?

The batteries operated as they were designed to, essentially providing power to run the cooling pumps. However, TEPCO, the privately investor-owned utility that built and operates the plants (as well as numerous others) located the fuel tanks for the diesel generators at the oceanfront. This facilitates loading of fuel supplies, once every few years from, barges. They located them here because it was cheaper to do so. These fuel tanks were smashed by the ensuing tsunami caused by the earthquake. A double whammy, one that could have been predicted given the geological and quake-prone area Japan is close to.

Instead of building these fuel tanks up the hill behind the power plant, they took the cheap way out – for profit. Secondly, while TEPCO did install a breakwater, clearly visible on any available satellite imaging service such as Google Earth, they laid down the absolute minimum sized breakwater, which was clearly not sufficient to combat the 13 metre tsunami that hit this plant. Breakwaters are easy to build. A few million dollars worth of concrete and formed components and TEPCO could have easily built a break water that would of prevented the damage and subsequent disaster from occurring.

The operating engineer in me, like engineers everywhere, sees this disaster, but we do not run from it. We do not shout “Fear! Run! Shut it down!” No, we try to address the actual issues involved and seek a solution. What could have been done to prevent this disaster (I noted some precautions that could have been taken above)?

All seaside reactors everywhere in the world now have to be seen in the light of the experience of this tsunami and proceed to design fail-safe solutions so this can never happen again. We need to demand that worst-case tsunami possibilities be addressed and solutions applied. And it can be done, because humanity’s cognitive ability to analyze and address these problems within the laws of physics and applied engineering, knows almost no bounds. But we don’t run. We address the problem and we solve it.

If Japan actually shuts down 100% of their low carbon energy, that is their nuclear reactors, which make up 30% of the installed capacity (and closer to 40% of their actual generation) then they will have rolling blackouts and their society will go backwards, toward an increase in use of fossil fuels (already underway with the closing of Fukushima) and away from an eventual socialist solution for everything from feeding their nation to industrial production. And of course their contribution to global warming, with all the dangerous consequences of that, will increase.

But TEPCO didn’t do any of these things which could have prevented this accident. Like corporations all over the world, private enterprise does only that which they deem financially and politically necessary to get by. There is also a similar bureaucratic and cost-cutting compulsion even in state owned enterprises run, supposedly, for the public good.

Nuclear has been somewhat different historically from other forms of power generation, given the dangerous nature of generating energy from atomic fission. Everywhere it is highly regulated. This is true even in Japan where government and corporations are incestuously entangled with one other. In other countries, regulators have degrees more independence. Overall, there is no more regulated industry in the world than nuclear. But, as Japan shows, there are still vital safety issues that need to be addressed.

On a personal note, my own minimum experience with nuclear energy in the US and having being a shop steward in a union local with 800 nuclear workers, has educated me on the importance of safety, of following regulatory guidelines, and seeing the consequences of not following those guidelines for workers involved.

I was convinced after visiting nuclear power plants and talking to my fellow union workers, that I didn’t want to work in such an environment. Because it was unsafe? No, for just the opposite reason, in fact. The tremendous amount of NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Agency) oversight, training, regulations and paperwork, that is, the “safety culture”, was simply too great for me to want to deal with. The workers there take these issues so seriously that I didn’t believe I could tolerate this work environment.

In the beginning of May of this year the New York Times ran an editorial, disguised as an “article” (one of the authors being an anti-nuclear ideologue from Greenpeace), supposedly showing the “near misses” and accidents that were missed or not noted by the NRC. There is no doubt that some of this is true, while giving a false overall picture of the issue. But it’s also true that despite these incidents, not one of these resulted in injury to the public or work force.

The fact is that, thanks to the workers involved in operating these plants, most of whom are union members, the safety record of the US civilian nuclear energy industry and the sound regulatory oversight, has made even this, flawed, for-profit industry, the safest of any major industry in the US for the last 50 years. Can we say the same about the refinery, pharmaceutical, chemical, coal, gas and oil industries? No, we cannot. The relative risk of these industries has to be looked at, and anti-nuclear “investigative” journalism routinely ignores this.

But it is not enough. And there are flaws in the entire system that warrant some serious revisions.

We have serious issues facing our class, our planet. From economic development of the productive forces in the oppressed neo-colonial world to raise their standard of living, to the phasing out of climate-changing fossil fuel use, we are going to require more, not, less energy, specifically electricity.

Most on the left are at best confused by this and at worse, seek a return to some sort of pastoral green, “democratic” pre-industrial utopia. As Marxists we should reject this “we use too much” scenario that has infected the left across the world. We certainly should use energy more wisely, more efficiently and with a sense of conservation. This can happen only when the profit motive is removed and scarcity in basic necessities is a thing of the past. No one should object to this. But these things do not produce one watt of power, especially if you consider what we have to do. These include:

* Switching off from fossil fuels completely (they should be used only as chemical feedstock, i.e. as the basic material to make chemicals and lubricants)
* Increasing the development of the productive forces especially in the developing world. This means developing whole electrical grids, new, primarily non-fossil fuel, forms of generation and the infrastructure to support this, for the billions without any electrical usage at all
* Freeing up the productive forces to eliminate all forms of want as the material basis for a true socialist mode of production. Using nuclear energy is both the cheapest and safest way to do this.

George Monbiot in his latest entry on his blog* challenges the renewable energy advocates with some hard questions. No socialist by any means, Monbiot has brought attention to the issue of energy and what it will take to reduce carbon emissions. He notes, writing on Britain, among other things:

“1. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions means increasing electricity production. It is hard to see a way around this. Because low-carbon electricity is the best means of replacing the fossil fuels used for heating and transport, electricity generation will rise, even if we manage to engineer a massive reduction in overall energy consumption. The Zero Carbon Britain report published by the Centre for Alternative Technology envisages a 55% cut in overall energy demand by 2030 – and a near-doubling of electricity production.”

How is this electricity going to be produced in a sustained and regular way? We know wind generated power is erratic and variable, a problem only partially solvable by new continental wide electricity grids. We know other forms of low carbon power – tidal, coal with carbon capture and storage, large scale solar – are experimental and even if viable are likely to turn out more expensive than nuclear.

We get no answer from so-called socialist Greens on this problem, at least not yet. They simply have not considered the real issues.

Monbiot goes on:

“3. The only viable low-carbon alternative we have at the moment is nuclear power. This has the advantage of being confined to compact industrial sites, rather than sprawling over the countryside, and of requiring fewer new grid connections (especially if new plants are built next to the old ones). It has the following disadvantages:

“a. The current generation of power stations require uranium mining, which destroys habitats and pollutes land and water. Though its global impacts are much smaller than the global impacts of coal, the damage it causes cannot be overlooked.

“b. The waste it produces must be stored for long enough to be rendered safe. It is not technically difficult to do this, with vitrification, encasement and deep burial, but governments keep delaying their decisions as a result of public opposition.

“Both these issues (as well as concerns about proliferation and security) could be addressed through the replacement of conventional nuclear power with thorium or integral fast reactors but, partly as a result of public resistance to atomic energy, neither technology has yet been developed. (I’ll explore the potential of both approaches in a later column).”

I want to address this last point. Monbiot is slowly seeing his way to something that has taken a long time: that nuclear energy is really the only way to go, even in light of the “big three” accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. These new technologies he mentions, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (which doesn’t require any uranium mining, enrichment or long term disposal of spent fuel) and the Integral Fast Reactor, provide the material basis for eliminating all fossil fuels and for a future society without want, wars or exploitation, that is a socialist one.

Where Monbiot and I come together is not, obviously, the socialist requirement to get rid of capitalism. It is over the need for more energy, not less. It is over the realization that renewables cannot do it except in the most utopian of fantasies.

The real “Great Divide” is between those among the Greens who run on fear and fantasy, and those socialists that have a materialist understanding of the need to move toward a society based not just on current human needs alone, but on expanding humanity’s ability to power such a society.

Only nuclear can do this.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Left Manifesto for Nuclear Energy

Left Manifesto for Nuclear Energy

Left Atomics: A Call for a Re-discussion on Nuclear Energy

Anti-nuclear power sentiment among the socialist and progressive Left in the developed world has been ubiquitous. Calls for the shutting down of nuclear power plants has been part and parcel of every platform for most groups since the 3 Mile Island incident in the U.S. in 1979. After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, "most groups" and most of progressive thought have been firmly anti-nuclear energy.

In the 28 years since 3 Mile Island and the 21 years since the Chernobyl incident few groups have re-examined their views or considered the history and development of nuclear energy since. Some of us have reconsidered, and believe it is time to do that. We would like to report on the current state of affairs to the community at large.

The opening paragraph above needs some comment. It is mentioned that anti-nuclear sentiment dominates Left thought in the developed, industrialized "West". This, however, is not the case in developing countries. It is dominant only in those countries with strong economies, that is, in the imperialist countries. Our words, therefore, are aimed at them more than anyone else.IssuesAfter 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl occurred, it appeared to be the death knell for those state and private concerns supporting or developing nuclear power.

In reality, the research and development into nuclear fission as a source for energy accelerated. While some nuclear projects were canceled around the world because of Chernobyl, many others continued to completion, then they were fueled with uranium fuel, and went on line. It is important to note that the industry as a whole did not slink away after these incidents. Quite the contrary, they addressed the issues concerning how these incidents took place and there have been none of that sort since. Nuclear designers, engineers and workers learned and found solutions to what caused these problems so they would not happen again. Thereafter there has been a virtually unblemished record of power production done safely, cheaply and without threats to the public. The record for nuclear power, across the board, is generally better than any other form of electrical energy production in the world today.

Our starting point for this statement are the following 4 items:

• The worldwide, social need for nuclear power has changed dramatically since the 1980s.

• As socialists, we need to deal with technological reality as it has developed in the last 30 years.

• We need to reverse our opposition to nuclear power and instead support its development.

• We need to oppose its privatisation and support its nationalization where it is private as part of state-owned, transparently regulated, nationalized energy monopoly for the sake of economically building of power plants and for their safety.

As of 2007, there are 440 working commercial nuclear power plants in the world, 103 of them in the United States. The term "commercial" means the production of electrical energy as the primary purpose. There are at least 700 other reactors whose primary purpose is not electrical production but rather for the propulsion for military naval craft, nuclear weapons development, or scientific research and development. In the last 2 years the media has been running articles on the renaissance of nuclear power.

Many countries, including the United States, have seen applications for increasing the world-wide inventory of commercial reactors by almost 20%. In the U.S., there are now 31 proposals for "Construction and Operating Licenses" before the Department of Energy for new nuclear plants, all of them additional reactors to existing nuclear facilities. China and India have plans to quadruple the number of nuclear plants they presently have to meet their incredible projections for economic growth. Japan and China are currently building a half dozen plants between them. Socialists need to understand what nuclear power is, how to confront the issue, what it means and develop a response to this growth in nuclear power specifically and the needs for developing new sources of energy in general.

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From Der Speigel:“At present, 29 nuclear power plants are under construction and there are concrete plans to build another 64. Another 158 are under consideration.”http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/16/world/europe/16spiegel.html?ei=5070&en=53149fde209698a4&ex=1173070800&pagewanted=print

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The 3rd Generation of Reactors

All but a few of the working nuclear plants in the world today are called "Generation II" plants. These plants were designed in the 1960s and 1970s and came on line in the 1970s and 1980s with a few later in the 1990s. These plants were designed as commercial plants. The Generation I plants, the 1950s variety, were generally submarine reactors taken from these vessels and placed in confinement domes to be run commercially. These military derivative reactors were small, and mostly not suited for commercial base-load production.Because of 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl, the industry globally responded not by coming up with a hodgepodge of quick fixes to these incidents, but rather invented completely new designs. These third-generation reactors have:

• a standardized design for each type to expedite licensing, reduce capital cost and reduce construction time,

• a simpler and more rugged design, making them easier to operate and less vulnerable to operational upsets,

• higher availability and longer operating life, typically 60 years and running 90% of the time or better,

• reduced possibility of core melt accidents,

• minimal effect on the environment,

• higher burn-up to reduce fuel use and the amount of waste,

• burnable absorbers ("poisons") to extend fuel life and eliminate any possibility of military use.

The greatest departure from second-generation designs is that many incorporate passive or inherent safety features* which require no active controls or operational intervention to avoid accidents in the event of malfunction, and may rely on gravity, natural convection or resistance to high temperatures.

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(*Traditional reactor systems employed the uranium nuclear chain reaction operating below the “critical” level. A control system was therefore essential to keep the reaction from running away toward a bomb-like condition. Some safety systems were “active” in the sense that they involved electrical or mechanical operation on command. Other systems operate passively, e.g., pressure relief valves. Both required parallel, redundant systems to reduce the chances of control failure. An inherent or fully passive safety system depends only on the laws of physical phenomena such as convection, gravity or resistance to high temperatures to prevent a run away condition.)

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The industry has to be able to sell these new reactors to a sceptical public. Even with the very good record of the older generation II reactors that are online now, people understandably want even safer plants. The engineers, in our opinion, who have designed the new generation III plants have done just that.

Energy Demand

Energy demand is growing. [Not only is total energy use projected to grow dramatically, but electrical energy will be by far the largest proportion. …Etc., etc. You can mention that nearly 1/3rd of the world’s population have no electricity. Think about refrigeration and electric lights so that the kids can study at night. If you want to talk about energy demand, then do so, and talk about pollution elsewhere.]

Pollution and Global Warming

All countries, with the exception of France, rely on the burning of fossil fuel, mostly coal, followed by natural gas and oil for their electrical energy needs. Some countries rely on the extensive use of hydro-electrical power (Ecuador, Venezuela, Nepal), but these are exceptions. The infrastructure that delivers these fossil fuels is itself polluting (albeit much of this can be addressed by engineering) through processing, spills, leaks, dust, cave ins, etc. It is no longer a subject of debate that burning of fossil fuels itself is the major cause for climate change today through the discharge of CO2. We intend to emphasize the facts as they relate to nuclear power's virtually zero emissions all of any pollution: CO2, carbon-monoxide, carbon and fly ash particulates, mercury and uranium (a major by-product of burning coal), and the nagging questions surrounding waste disposal and the front-end pollution and human costs of mining fertile and fissile materials.

Nuclear Power as only non-polluting base-load power source

Our view on nuclear power is that it is the only base-load energy available that is non-polluting, can provide for global economic growth, and provide the power needed to fuel the abundance we will have under socialism. Base load is what constitutes the basic source of bulk energy for any nation's grid. There are only two choices now that can cheaply provide the hundreds of thousands of megawatts for current and future growth: coal or nuclear. Society must make the best choice. Wind, solar, both now and for the foreseeable future, are incapable of providing reliable and cheap power to the world. We are prepared to discuss these issues and more with you.

Left Atomics, March, 2007 updated, December, 2007