Colin Piper’s article on nuclear power quite rightly concludes that an international plan of production on socialist lines is the way forward to tackle the environmental crisis. Most on the Green Left, such as Derek Wall, reject this approach, arguing that to go down this road would be bureaucratic. In my book, ‘Planning for the Planet-how Socialism could save the environment’, I make the case for a democratic socialist approach to planning, that would avoid the bureaucratic degeneration that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Where I don’t agree with Colin is on the issue of nuclear power from fission, where he argues that nuclear should not be rejected as an option to generate energy. On the question of generating power from nuclear fusion, this could be a serious green possibility, but there is no sign that the resources to achieve this will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. Even if Colin is right that something could emerge in 20 years, which I strongly doubt, this could be too late to stop a disastrous rise in global temperatures.
Colin calls for a reasonable, informed and unprejudiced debate, something I’m sure we would all agree with. Such an approach I believe will reject nuclear, due to the huge threat it poses to health and safety. It is right to say that implementing any technology carries a certain risk and it necessary to balance the risks of competing approaches. However, the implication in his article that nuclear should not be rejected because the danger of off-shore wind generation is in some way comparable is incredible. His own figures contradict him, where he quotes an estimate of the death toll at Fukushima of 1000, whereas he says that 3 workers have been killed in the German offshore wind industry. It is true that the 1000 deaths will be spread over many decades as cancers occur, but this is surely irrelevant to the argument. Offshore wind power is a proven, relatively safe, technology that can be the mainstay of green energy generation in windy environments such as Britain.
He argues that the dangers of nuclear radiation have to be put in perspective and that they are much less than nuclear opponents claim. George Monbiot has been saying a similar thing for several years now. Colin says that the disasters that have occurred were all preventable and could have been avoided. And indeed, the a priori statistical analysis done by the nuclear industry claimed that the risk of such catastrophes happening was virtually non-existent. Yet there have been four such incidents in 50 years, Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. All could have been far worse than they turned out, and weren’t due to pure luck, and all were due to a combination of technical and human failure. The lesson is clearly that they will continue to happen, regardless of the nuclear industry’s reassurances.
It is true that the risks of exposure to low-level nuclear radiation are not fully understood. As a result, the estimates of the death toll at Chernobyl range from a handful to over 1 million, as claimed in an article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. The truth is that the chaos surrounding the disaster at Chernobyl and the collapse of the Soviet Union that followed, means that the true figure will never be known. Serious research only began into the health implications of Chernobyl many years, if not decades, after the event. In these circumstances, a cautionary approach is needed, it can’t be assumed, on the present state of knowledge, that the dangers of low level radiation are sufficiently small to justify using nuclear power.
In the long term, a far greater danger is posed by the toxic radioactive waste produced in the fission process than even by Chernobyl. No safe way has yet been found to store this material, which will be dangerously radioactive for 100,000 years. Colin hardly mentions this aspect of the problem. Large quantities of toxic waste already exist which will have to be dealt with, but it would surely be deeply irresponsible to advocate producing even more.