Colin Piper calls for a rational approach on this controversial subject
At the time of writing “smog” caused by car fumes in Paris has led to severe restrictions on car travel. Problems such as these have led to the increased use of electricity for heating and transport, rather than the burning of fuels. Electricity is seen as clean and safe but it has not always been thought of in this way. Thomas Edison famously electrocuted an elephant in public in order to demonstrate how dangerous alternating current was (the type we all now have in our homes).
How is electric current generated?
Electric current is man-made. This usually involves spinning a turbine attached to a generator; the turbine is essentially a giant fan. The spinning can be done with wind, say, as in a wind turbine, or by boiling water and then blowing the steam at the turbine blades. This leads to the main problem with our increasing dependence on electricity, it may be clean and safe at the point of use but most certainly isn’t where it is generated.
Burning fossil fuels
In the 1940s coal was used to generate around 90% of our electricity. Burning fossil fuels still accounts for around three quarters of our electricity production but natural gas has replaced most of the coal.
These industries all have a history of catastrophic environmental disasters. In her list of the 25 all-time worst man-made environmental disasters, Elaine Dimdam lists seven that were directly related to the extraction and transport of fossil fuels and a further five connected to the wider petrochemical industry. Moreover, her list was compiled before the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst accidental oil spill ever.
There is also the problem of climate change, the five wettest and seven warmest years in Britain since records began have all taken place since 2000 and this winter’s floods are, according to Lord Stern, “part of an international pattern of extreme weather”.
Renewable energy sources
Derek Wall, and the left of the Green Party, sees the future in local solutions and community based energy production, “I have never been convinced that a centrally planned economy would work…” he says. I have some sympathy with his desire for localised electricity generation but there are problems with this image of a wind turbine on every chimney and a solar panel on every roof . People tend to settle in sheltered places and, even if it is windy, the large number of buildings in cities causes the air-flow to become turbulent and wind turbines inoperative. Solar panels only work when it is sunny and most of the world’s densely populated places aren’t very sunny at all, even without the smog.
Pete Dickenson in The Socialist, favours the construction of “offshore wind farms”. My main concern is for the construction workers who have to build them. Germany has so far built three offshore wind farms and there have been three deaths and 80 serious accidents. There are plans to build a further 40 wind farms, many of them in more difficult and dangerous locations than the existing three. Do the maths and I hope you agree that wind generated electricity is far from safe.
All around the world there is a drive towards developing hydro-electric power. The 20-40,000 Xingu of Brazil are just one of many indigenous peoples who are fighting forcible eviction from their land. But it is not just the rights of indigenous tribes that we need to consider. Between 80 and 230,000 people died in Henan province China when a typhoon caused a dam to break (the authorities kept it a secret – hence the uncertainty in the figures) and an earthquake in India, caused by the weight of water behind Koyna Dam killed 280 people. Hydro-electric power isn’t safe either.
Radiation is all around us and there is lots of it. If you could see radiation the world would be permanently foggy. Most of this radiation comes from outer space but some of it comes from naturally occurring rocks within the Earth. These naturally occurring rocks can be mined, refined and used to produce steam to drive turbines, replacing the fossil fuels that cause climate change and acid rain. Whereas our reserves of oil and gas will run out in maybe less than 50 years our reserves of nuclear fuel will last at least a thousand years, some argue much longer. This is partly because uranium, the fuel used in most nuclear power stations, is two to three million times more concentrated an energy source than coal or oil.
How dangerous is radiation?
Exposure to a dose of 1mSv (one milli-Seivert) gives an additional risk of fatal cancer of 1 in 20 00010. The fatal injury rate for agricultural workers in the U.K. is currently 8.8 per 100,000 per annum11, nearly twice as dangerous. The first workers to re-enter the Fukushima plant after the disaster were exposed to around 2mSv12. They faced about the same risk of death as each and every agricultural worker in Britain, and far less danger than the people currently building offshore wind farms, the desire for which is partly fuelled by a perception that nuclear power is dangerous.
The Fukushima nuclear power plant was old, inadequately maintained and lacking many safety features that ought to be obligatory. It was struck by a devastating earthquake, Japan’s worst in living memory, and a vast tsunami 14 metres high. The reactors began to explode and melt down after the power failure had knocked out the cooling system. Yet to date there hasn’t been a single death resulting from the leaked radiation. It is impossible to make any kind of reliable estimate of the final impact on health but one American scientist has suggested that the disaster may ultimately lead to 1,000 extra cancer deaths in Japan over the lifetimes of all the survivors, a century or so,the increase will be undetectable.
The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was by far the worst accident in the history of nuclear power. 530,000 local recovery workers were exposed to a radiation dose equivalent to 50 years normal background. Thirty one people died at the time of the accident followed by another 50 soon after from radiation poisoning. Estimates vary as to how many additional cancer deaths will be caused worldwide but it is certain to be in the tens of thousands.
Details of the circumstances that led to this accident are widely available. Suffice to say that it should never have happened but its causes were not related to any inherent fault in nuclear power per se.
Socialism is a society in which resources, including human ingenuity and scientific understanding, are used for the benefit of everyone. Marx talked of a society of super-abundance; this will inevitably require the availability worldwide of electric current and therefore a massive increase in our current capacity.
Unlike Derek Wall and the Green Party I think this is only achievable on the back of an international socialist plan, with a world-wide grid that allows supplies to be transferred from where they are available to where they are needed.
Unlike Pete Dickenson I don’t think this demand for electricity can be credibly met by offshore wind farms. Unlike both of them I am not prepared to reject a potential source of huge amounts of energy for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years because of a complete misunderstanding of the nature of risk. Risk is inevitable and unavoidable. Societies as well as individuals have to make decisions about how to minimise and manage it.
There are issues relating to nuclear power, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the safe storage and disposal of waste being two obvious examples. The new generation of thorium reactors and the development of nuclear fusion might well do away with these concerns over the next 20 years or so and, in the meantime, I hope that we can have a reasoned and informed debate around the options available to us, a debate based on evidence and not prejudice.