Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Climate Change: Is Nuclear Power the Answer?

The massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated much of Japan in March and the resulting major nuclear accident at the Fukishima power station has once again brought the question of climate change and whether or not nuclear power is the answer to the fore. The government has for some time been talking about building a new generation of nuclear power plants. The green movement has long been united in opposing nuclear power. However recently well-known and influential environmentalist George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian has said not only that he supports the building of new nuclear power stations, but that he is more convinced after Fukishima than he was before. He also attacks anti-nuclear campaigners in the article, claiming there is no proof to support the claim that radiation is dangerous. What is the truth of his claims? Does the science support his arguments? What should our position be?

The disaster at Fukishima is now ranked at the same level as the disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine where a reactor exploded in 1986 releasing 400 times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima bomb. Workers dealing with the fire, explosions and leaks suffered cancers and illness from radiation and their death rate from cancer is three times that of the rest of the population. 34,000 clean-up workers are thought to have died. In total 500,000 people are thought to have died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster and another 1.5 million have been affected. In neighbouring Belarus, which was 'down wind' of the disaster, 1000 children die from thyroid cancer every year. So the long term consequences for Japan's economy, health, agriculture and industry are massive.

Climate Change: the facts
There has always been climate change but now it is as a result of human activity. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have been burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas which release greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases are not all bad. If we did not have enough greenhouse gases the earth would be too cold to support life. However, if we have to much greenhouse gas the earth begins to heat up. At the current rate scientists predict global temperatures to rise by between 2 and 5˚C this century. A rise of more than 2˚C will mean more flooding, less food production, greater incidence of disease and more extinctions of both animals and plants. There is an urgent need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels but in fact it is increasing.

The nuclear industry lies and the truth
The nuclear industry tell us nuclear power is safe and environmentally friendly. Indeed they say nuclear power generation is the only way to produce low carbon electricity. This is not true. Numerous disasters prove that nuclear power is not safe, not just Fukishima and Chernobyl but also the Three Mile Island disaster in America in 1979, the fire at Windscale (later renamed Sellafield to counter bad publicity) in Britain in 1957 and countless other smaller incidents and accidents. Nuclear power is also a net producer of greenhouse gases if the whole process is taken into account, as it of course must be. In fact every stage of the process releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The mining of uranium, the building of reactors and the storage of waste products. Indeed there is no long term solution to the problem of radioactive waste. As if that were not reason enough to abandon the idea of nuclear power, it is also very costly and is entirely reliant on government subsidies. In 1990/91 the UK government imposed a levy on fossil fuels amounting to £1,175 million. Of this 99% went to fund nuclear power stations and 1% went to renewable energy.

So if nuclear power is not safe, environmentally friendly, nor economical why is the government planning to build new nuclear power stations rather than investing in renewables?
Put simply, nuclear power is big business. There is a lot of money to made out of the industry because of the subsidies. Indeed there are also subsidies for fossil fuels and even arms trading. In America, which is responsible for 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions, politicians’ election campaigns, both Democrat and Republican, are funded by the fossil fuel industry. Massive profits are made by the oil industry, the car and rubber industries that depend on oil and the coal mining industry and this makes these powerful corporations an important lobby. The nuclear industry is also tied up with nuclear weapons. Indeed the first nuclear reactors in the UK were built to produce plutonium for weapons. The generation of electricity was merely a by-product.

Climate Change: The Solution
The solution is to phase out nuclear power and to spend the vast quantities of money currently spent on nuclear on renewable energy, such as wind power, wave power, tidal power and solar power, plus co-generation (heat is a by-product of electricity generation and can be used to heat nearby buildings thus reducing the demand for electricity). Compulsory energy efficiency schemes should be introduced for big business to reduce their demand for electricity. Finally we should support the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group's campaign for one million climate jobs in order to expand public transport (the second biggest cause of carbon dioxide emissions after energy production), increase sources of renewable energy, carry out energy improvements to buildings, offices and houses and to reduce emissions. This must be done by continuing to build a mass movement that can challenge the priorities of capitalist system.

Monbiot has recently claimed in the Guardian that anti-nuclear campaigners have made “wild” assertions about the dangers of radiation that have no scientific backing. In fact there is an abundance of scientific research showing significant links between radiation exposure and cancers, Down’s syndrome, kidney and liver damage, and other serious diseases. George Monbiot may say there is no proof that radiation causes illness and deformity. But there is evidence that exposure is linked to those illnesses and deformities. And there is certainly no proof that low doses are safe. The nuclear industry claims the risks are low. But why should we take any risks? A risk of developing cancer, however “low”, is not acceptable. It can seem preposterous that environmentalists like Monbiot are vigorously campaigning for nuclear power. But there is a logic to his position. Monbiot doesn’t think that we can meet our energy needs by a combination of green, renewable energy sources and increased energy efficiency. And he believes that any sort of radical change will be very difficult to win. Because he accepts these limits, he has become an advocate for one of the system’s worst aspects. Socialists have a different vision. We are fighting for a world that is sustainable and run by ordinary people.

Capitalism doesn’t care about the natural world or the majority of the world’s population. Building nuclear power plants in areas of high population density and earthquake zones is proof of this. So we must build a movement that challenges the interests of big business and the priorities of capitalism. There is no contradiction between this and the labour movement or the fight against cuts and austerity. We need to learn the lessons from the revolutionary wave in North Africa and the Middle East. The struggle against nuclear power is part of the struggle for a better world.

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