Thursday, August 21, 2008

Nuclear energy and class

by Ann Rogers

BRITAIN’S nuclear power programme was intended from the very start to produce plutonium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. This purpose was played down and the publicity focussed on energy production and what was dishonestly referred to as “the peaceful uses of nuclear power”.
Today’s drive for a new generation of power plants is no different, even though the proposed new plants are expected to be Pressurised Light Water Reactors (PWRs) rather than the old Magnox type.
This is not surprising since nuclear weapon powers need a long-term source of plutonium and the ruling class need to be in control of its production.
Unlike those countries which have nuclear power for energy but no nuclear weapons, Britain has the facility for uranium enhancement, which can then produce plutonium. The Thorp plant at Sellafield in Cumbria is such a place – or it would be if a pipe failure in April 2005 inside a hot cell had not forced it into temporary closure.
The pipe was carrying spent fuel nitric acid. The 83,000 litre spill was contained in the cell but the incident was rated three on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The spilled liquid was recovered two months later and the British Nuclear Group (the decommissioning and clean-up arm of British Nuclear Fuels – BNFL) was fined £5,000,000 in October 2006.
Thorp (thermal oxide reprocessing) is the third reprocessing plant built to Sellafield, though the initial ideas for it go back as far as 1974. It was granted authorisation to begin operating in 1994.
As well as plutonium from uranium, Thorp was supposed to earn money. It contracted to accept spent nuclear fuel rods from countries that do not have a reprocessing plant of their own and reprocess it for a price. This meant countries such as Japan and Germany could send their nuclear waste to Britain.
Since the leak at Thorp the imported fuel has just been piling up – the contracts have not been voided. And even when the reprocessing is functioning there is a serious matter of safety because of the distances the fuel has to be transported.
Only about half of the 2,160 tonnes of fuel from advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs) has so far been reprocessed. As of the middle of last year, 1,500 tonnes of AGR fuel was planned to be reprocessed at Thorp and a further 4,500 tonnes (going up to the end of the working lives of the AGRs) was earmarked to be stored.
So, whether nuclear fuel is reprocessed or not, the problem of nuclear waste remains.
It cannot be got rid of – ultimately it can only be buried, either on land or under the sea. And given that some radioactive elements take generations to decay (for instance the most stable isotope of plutonium has a half life of 25,000 years) and that these elements are highly toxic carcinogens which can never leave us, it is a devastating time-bomb.
The latest thinking on nuclear waste seems to be to find a geologically suitable single depository. Britain has already tried a deep ocean site before 1982. But following protests from other countries the practice was subject to an international ban in 1993.
Even with land burial it has to be remembered that high-level waste is literally hot and has to be stored for 50 years to allow it to cool.
There already is a site for low-level radioactive waste at Drigg in Cumbria and this is at present is the responsibility of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). The NDA is now planning deep geological repositories for high and intermediate waste – it is claimed to cost some £7.5 billion.
Not surprisingly people are not happy to live near the chosen sites. So in June last year there was a public consultation around the idea of “partnerships with potential host communities that allow issues and opportunities to be fully discussed and evaluated”. Oh how very Blairite!
More recently there has been talk of offering local communities cash incentives to agree to these plans.
In pressing for nuclear power the Government argues that nuclear power plants do not emit carbon. That is little comfort if the long-term problem of nuclear waste creates something far worse. The Government also claims that we need nuclear power in order to close the “energy gap”. First of all the term “energy gap” is misleading because the gap is not on all energy but only in electricity production. The carbon emissions from all forms of transport – air, road, rail and sea will not be lessened by nuclear power.
According to the Government the electricity gap will occur over the next few years, accounting for about one third of our current electricity supply. Nuclear power will not solve this immediate problem since not one new nuclear plant will be operational for at least 10 years and the plan to build up to 10 stations will not deliver until at least 2025.
The alternatives to nuclear power are the clean electricity-producing renewable sources such as wind, solar, tidal, hydro powers and the cleaner use of fossil fuels. In addition there is now technology being developed to retrieve carbon and bury it – preferable to burying nuclear waste.
At present these alternative sources are a drop in the ocean and will not meet current and future needs. But there is no reason why this technology cannot be developed. It would require both capital investment and investment in further research and development.
The problem is that this is not likely to be achieved if the nuclear option is taken.
Back in the mid 1980s, when Thatcher was busy destroying our coal industry, the miners’ union argued then for investment to be made in coal-fired power station design to enable coal to be used without the emissions of ash and particulates. As we know, the miners were ignored.
The thrust now is all on nuclear. There are two main reasons:
1) The link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and2) The prospect of big profits for capitalist enterprise.
As always capitalism is the problem – its stances towards both climate change and the electricity gap is to take measures that will not endanger business or profits and, where it can, to exploit any crisis for its own ends. And so the proposed new nuclear power plants will be in the private sector and only regulated by bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive. And, of course, they are only interested in making money.
The vultures have already been gathering. The Government wasted no time in inviting energy companies to submit plans to build new nuclear plants.
Just over a year ago the Government announced that four designs had met the criteria to go to the first stage of the assessment process: the European-based Aneva, the US-based Westinghouse (since taken over), Canada ACR and the US-based General Electric. By January of this year the French state-owned EDF and the German company E.ON threw their hats into the ring.
E.ON claimed it could finance the project without Government subsidies but most independent nuclear experts do not think nuclear energy can be financially self-supporting. They point to the £3.4 billion Government bail-out of British Energy.
We now know that it is most likely that EDF will gain the contract and they are planning to build 10 new nuclear power plants – though this is currently on hold for further haggling over money.
The British working class will ultimately foot the bill. This will include £70 billion for decommissioning the existing nuclear plants and at least a further 320 billion for burying the existing nuclear waste.
As in everything else, privatisation has been gaining a momentum in the nuclear industry for years. Nuclear plants (apart from Magnox) were put into the private sector in 1996 under British Energy (BE). The then state-owned BNFL took over the Magnox plants. BNFL later bought Westinghouse.
When economic conditions in the industry changed BE turned to the public purse for help. Between 2003 and 2005 it was restructured and the Government took a 64 per cent share. The following year the Government sold this down to 39 per cent.
The list of companies coming on and off this stage and the wanderings in and out of Government support are too long to give here.
But the nub of the matter is that capitalism wants all it can get when the Government is prepared to pick up the tab for fluctuations in the industry and difficult problems that arise and wants to walk a way if it proves less profitable than expected. So promises by firms like EDF to be self-financing may not prove true in the long term.
Everyone can see what privatisation has meant in other industries – Notwork Rail, water companies and their leaks, the London Tube maintenance fiasco and so on. And in the energy industry itself we are acutely aware of the massive rise in bills to customers.
A new generation of nuclear power plants in private hands is against the interests of the working class. It means there is no democratic control, only the limited efforts of regulation. It means we get to pay or it all while the private owners take all the profits. And it means that other energy solutions will be sidelined, under-funded and largely under-used.