Fukushima: The End of Nuclear Power?

By Dave Walters with an Introduction by Stuart King

When a massive earthquake hit Japan on March 11, 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 ten percent 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” (March 19, 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 percent 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 carbon dioxide polluting forms of electricity production—gas and coal—increasing global warming with all the dangers that entails.

And in France where almost 80 percent 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 windfarms, 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 program 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 carbon dioxide 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 carbon dioxide emissions on a world scale to prevent global warming.

Nuclear power as a low carbon dioxide producing energy source, for all its drawbacks 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 privatized and is run by multinationals like EDF (Environmental Defense Fund). 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. —Stuart King, Editor of Permanent Revolution

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 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-meter 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 percent of their low carbon energy, that is their nuclear reactors, which make up 30 percent of the installed capacity (and closer to 40 percent 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 percent 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 requires 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 who 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.

David Walters worked as a union power plant operator for 24 years in California. He is currently a member of Socialist Organizer, U.S. Section of the Fourth International. This article, however, reflects his own personal position on the questions and not that of his organization.

—Permanent Revolution, June 13, 2011