The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nuclear power: a Marxist view

The Militant (logo)
Vol.65/No.6 February 12, 2001

No to nuclear power

"So long as the capitalists hold power...they will not conclude once and for all that nuclear power is a losing proposition. The political fight will have ebbs and flows with the course of the class struggle and capital's energy and profit needs."

As the energy crisis in California has unfolded, the accuracy of those words from "What the 1987 Stock Market Crash Foretold," printed in New International no. 10 and distributed by Pathfinder Press, has been confirmed. In an attempt to take advantage of the widespread anger at blackouts and rising prices, various politicians, opinion columnists, energy "experts," and nuclear power advocates have spoken up more boldly in favor of nuclear power than they have dared to for years.

These individuals claim that nuclear reactors offer the safest and most environmentally friendly method of producing electricity. But nuclear power is not a straightforward alternative to oil, coal, and other methods of power generation. It is inherently dangerous. Radiation produced in every step of the nuclear production cycle, from mining to waste disposal, is poisonous even in small quantities. If containment fails, as it inevitably threatens to do, then potentially fatal radiation can be released in sufficient quantities to endanger the health and lives of many thousands of people--including generations not yet born.

Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobyl in Ukraine are the two best known sites of major accidents involving nuclear power facilities. Along with the toll of illness and disease they caused, these catastrophes helped raise popular understanding of the dangers of nuclear power. They contributed to the deep opposition to the technology that developed among working people. In the face of this opposition, the capitalists had to scale back and eventually shelve most of their plans for construction of new plants. They also had to put aside their hopes that nuclear power would drive down the costs of electricity and foster a major long-term boost in profits.

As the bosses step up their efforts to rehabilitate nuclear power, workers and farmers should acquaint themselves and others with the truth about this lethal technology. In this regard, the publication What Working People Should Know About the Dangers of Nuclear Power, written by Fred Halstead and first published by Pathfinder Press in 1979, is a particularly effective resource. In the pamphlet, Halstead concisely explains the scientific facts and the political issues bound up in the debate.

The labor movement today should take the lead and speak out in the interests of all working people. On this issue they should demand that all plans for construction of new plants be scrapped. All nuclear power plants in use or in mothballs must be decommissioned. Decision-making over energy sources must be taken out of the hands of the profit-mongers: Nationalize the energy industry!

The Militant (logo)
Vol.65/No.6 February 12, 2001

Opposition to nuclear power blocked rulers' plans
(Book of the Week column)

Reprinted below are excerpts from "What the 1987 Stock Market Crash Foretold," a resolution adopted by the August 1988 convention of the Socialist Workers Party. The entire text of this document appears in New International no. 10. Copyright © 1994 by 408 Printing and Publishing Corp., reprinted with permission.

The thirty-year accelerated expansion of U.S. capitalism that began in 1941 created a substantial enough aristocratic layer in the U.S. working class to fasten a class-collaborationist officialdom on the labor movement; extinguish the embers of the broad proletarian social movement that had begun to take shape through the struggles that built the industrial unions and fought racism and reaction; eliminate the need for the rulers to move outside imperialist democracy in order to maintain stable political control; and foster the gutting of union power that continues to this day. With a time lag, a process with increasingly similar elements took place throughout the imperialist countries over the postwar years.

Despite this grave weakening of the labor movement, the toll that the international profit system has exacted from working people worldwide through and following the 1974–75 and 1981–82 recessions falls far short of the blows that the capitalists must deal to living standards and conditions of work as preconditions for launching and sustaining a new wave of capital accumulation. Nor have the rulers been able to impose the draconian reorganization of class relations and degree of additional social devastation on the peoples in the colonial and semicolonial countries that would be necessary to collect the Third World debt....1

From the late 1940s through the 1960s, the "peaceful use of the atom" was presented throughout the capitalist world as a virtually unlimited economic boon. Nuclear power was going to drastically lower energy costs across the board and result in a general increase in the average industrial rate of profit. The massive investments necessary to construct and outfit the reactor plants--given their long-term profit potentials--would further stimulate economic expansion.

Instead, over the past two decades nuclear power has ended in a debacle. The politics of nuclear power became the opposite of what had been expected by the capitalist rulers. As a result, it has proven to be an economic disaster for them. Nuclear power has met growing public opposition, as accidents such as those at Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union have put a spotlight on its unalterable catastrophic dangers. On top of the ever-present threat of a meltdown, nuclear reactors day in and day out produce mounting radioactive wastes (22,000 tons in the United States as of 1987) that remain life-threatening for tens of thousands of years and cannot be safely stored or disposed of.2

Popular opposition to nuclear power has become a permanent political factor throughout the imperialist countries. It has cut deep into industry profits by forcing the shutdown or cancellation of many plants and steeply increasing capital costs to cover additional safety equipment and procedures. The capitalists have increasingly concluded that nuclear power is a losing proposition. No new plants have been ordered in the United States since 1978, and more than 100--some near completion--have been canceled. Only three are currently scheduled to be completed and opened after 1989, and all of these are in jeopardy from challenges to their operating safety.3

There is massive overcapacity in the U.S. nuclear reactor manufacturing industry, which now produces almost entirely for plants being foisted onto semicolonial countries. Especially following the Chernobyl disaster, capital investment in nuclear power has slowed across most of Western Europe, and the debate over phasing out existing reactors is under way in many countries. Even in France, where nuclear power accounts for 65 percent of electrical generation, the industry faces a $32 billion debt.

Because of the change in consciousness about its irremediable dangers, nuclear power cannot be made profitable. While the wealthy owners of utilities monopolies are now organizing to recoup some of their colossal outlays through tax breaks, higher rates, and accounting write-offs, there is no way for them to transform a massive loss into a profitable new source of expanded productive capacity. They are now waging a battle within finance capital as a whole to share out the losses, not divide the profits, of four decades of investment in nuclear power. In the 1950s and 1960s, the capitalists anticipated that nuclear energy would bring a drastic lowering of the circulating costs of constant capital (that is, the costs of raw materials, in this case, energy). Instead, by the closing decade of the twentieth century the nuclear industry and related public utilities were saddled with an enormous increase in the fixed costs of constant capital (that is, the costs of nuclear plant and equipment). Much of this capital has been simply written off, with many reactors mothballed in recent years. At the same time, the "promise" of nuclear power has left a long-term legacy to humanity of tens of thousands of tons of deadly radioactive wastes, as well as hundreds of useless concrete-and-steel monuments to the truth of Marx's insight into capitalism's tendency to transform the forces of production into forces of destruction.


1. The political consequences of the failure by the leaderships of the organized labor movement and popular organizations in Latin America to take up the Cuban government's call for a campaign to demand cancellation of the debt is discussed in "Defend Cuba, Defend Cuba's Socialist Revolution" by Mary-Alice Waters, published elsewhere in this issue (of New International.) How international finance capital averted a potential banking collapse in the latter half of the 1980s by "securitising" the unpaid loans as other forms of paper assets ("Brady bonds") is described in "Imperialism's March toward Fascism and War."

2. For a concise account of nuclear power's special hazard to health, safety, and human life, see Fred Halstead, What Working People Should Know about the Dangers of Nuclear Power (New York: Pathfinder, 1981).

3. Five years later, as of the end of 1993, there were still no new nuclear power reactors on order in the United States and only one more had been completed and licensed for operation over that period. This trend is not limited to the United States, as indicated by an article headlined "Concern over lull in plant construction" in a special supplement on the world nuclear industry in the November 21, 1994, Financial Times of London. It reported that no nuclear power plants are under construction anywhere in Western Europe except France, "and even it is close to the end of its programme." The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that nuclear power's market share in energy production worldwide will drop from 17.5 percent in 1993 to between 13 and 15 percent by the year 2000.

So long as the capitalists hold power, however, they will not conclude once and for all that nuclear power is a losing proposition. The political fight will have ebbs and flows with the course of the class struggle and capital's energy and profit needs.

The Militant (logo)
Vol.65/No.5 February 5, 2001

Why working people should oppose nuclear power
(Book of the Week column)

Printed below are excerpts from What Working People Should Know about the Dangers of Nuclear Power, by Fred Halstead. The pamphlet was written shortly after the 1979 near-meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which was followed by protests demanding the closing of all nuclear plants. The United Mine Workers union played a prominent role in the protests. Copyright © 1979 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.


Nuclear power's special danger to health, safety, and even life itself can be summed up in one word: radiation.

Nuclear radiation has a certain mystery about it, partly because it cannot be detected by human senses. It can't be seen or heard, or touched or tasted, even though it may be all around us. There are other things like that. Radio waves, for example. They are all around us but we can't detect them, sense them, without a radio receiver. We can't sense radioactivity without a special device, such as a Geiger counter. But unlike common radio waves, nuclear radiation is not harmless to human beings and other living things.

The advocates of nuclear power will sometimes point to a nuclear power plant and say: "See, there's nothing coming out, no smoke, or haze, like you sometimes see at a coal-powered plant. Thus, nuclear power is cleaner than coal." But nothing could be further from the truth. Radiation can and does get out of nuclear power and weapons plants, and radiation can hurt you.

Nuclear radiation consists of tiny particles or rays which are spit out, or emitted, by the atoms of certain chemical elements, such as uranium or radium. These elements, which are found in nature, are said to be radioactive. In addition large quantities of other radioactive materials are produced inside the reactor of a nuclear plant. All these radioactive materials, both natural and manufactured, emit radiation. These particles or rays, like tiny bullets, tear through living tissue. They ionize it--that is they change the electrical charge of its atoms and molecules. Hence nuclear radiation is a form of ionizing radiation. It can kill a living cell immediately, or it can disrupt its normal life cycle.

At very high levels, radiation can kill an animal or human being outright by killing masses of cells in vital organs. But even the lowest levels can do serious damage. There is no level of radiation that is completely safe.

The tiny bullets of radiation can disrupt the chromosomes of the reproductive cells. Gross birth defects can occur at higher dose levels. Even at lower levels, cell damage can result in increased incidents in later generations of diabetes and cancer, and lower resistance to disease in general.

If, in passing through living tissue, the radiation does not hit anything important, the damage may not be significant. This is the case when only a few cells are hit, and if they are killed outright. Your body will slough off the dead cells and replace them with healthy ones. But if the few cells are only damaged, and if they reproduce themselves, you may be in trouble. They reproduce themselves in a deformed way. They can grow into cancer. Sometimes this does not show up for many years.

This is another reason for some of the mystery about nuclear radiation. Serious damage can be done without the victim being aware at the time that damage has occurred. A person can be irradiated and feel fine, then die of cancer five, ten, or twenty years later as a result. Or a child can be born weak or prone to serious illness as a result of radiation absorbed by its grandparents.

All the more reason the truth about radiation produced by nuclear power and nuclear weapons plants should be told. Working people should understand all that is known about it. It is too serious a matter to be trusted to company-controlled safety people and company dominated government agencies.

For military, profit, and political reasons, the nuclear industry and the government have for many years carried on a campaign to obscure the facts and confuse the public about the real dangers of radiation. That is another reason for the mystery surrounding it. They don't want us to know the truth....

There is only one way to protect people from the cancer and genetic damage caused by nuclear power plants, from the possibility of catastrophic accidents at these plants, and from the continued and growing accumulation of deadly radioactive waste which cannot be stored safely.

That is to shut down all the nuclear power plants immediately....It is possible to shut down the nuclear power plants immediately without disrupting the economy or interfering with the growth of industry. How is this possible in the short term, before other alternatives are developed? The answer is a four-letter word, coal.

Coal as the immediate alternative
By using more coal, we could shut down all nuclear power plants this year, and still leave ourselves a comfortable margin of electrical generating capacity in reserve....

Coal does not involve the possibility of catastrophic accidents wiping out whole states. Coal does not involve the problem of either low-level or high level radioactive wastes. Industry operated on coal for decades and it never threatened to wipe out the human race.

Moreover, techniques already exist and are in use in many places to remove almost all of the worst pollutants from coal emissions....

Ten years ago, before many of the problems with nuclear power were widely understood, the government and nuclear industry were projecting as many as a thousand major nuclear power plants in the United States by the end of the century. But, by the time of President [James] Carter's first State of the Union message in 1977, that figure had been cut to 300. Today, in 1981, the number being spoken of is less than 100, with 73 of those already completed....

The energy corporations have already invested some $150 billion in the existing nuclear plants and those that are already in some stage of construction. They want to use these plants until they get their money back. They also want to use them to reduce the power of the United Mine Workers union.

In addition, the suppliers of components for nuclear plants are hoping to recoup their investments by exporting nuclear plants overseas to underdeveloped countries. Since they can't sell them in the U.S. anymore, they are trying to palm off a bad investment on these countries. However, they know that if the American people put a stop to nuclear power here, this shell game will be exposed and it will became very difficult to sell these monsters anywhere....

It is therefore of historic importance that a significant section of American labor--with the United Mine Workers up front--is taking the lead in the fight for safe energy and full employment and for ridding the country of the nuclear menace. The labor movement and its allies in the rest of the population can solve this big problem. They can solve it because unlike the capitalists, they have an interest in doing so. Labor's jobs do not depend on nuclear power; on the contrary, they depend an the development of safe energy. And the working class must be concerned about the general health of the population and the future of all our children.

Sooner or later the labor movement and its allies--the working farmers, students, and so on--must take political power in their own hands in order to resolve this problem as well as others in the interests of the common people.

The Militant (logo)
Vol. 68/No. 25 July 6, 2004

The war over electricity

Under the self-serving banner of “opposing nuclear proliferation,” Washington, London, and other imperialist powers are on an offensive to prevent Third World nations from using nuclear power as a source of electricity and other vital energy needs. Today, Iran and North Korea are among their main targets.

This represents a war by the wealthiest powers against the world’s oppressed nations to keep them from using every means at their disposal to make progress in bringing much of humanity out of darkness.

The labor movement in the United States and other industrialized countries should oppose this imperialist offensive. As an elementary act of solidarity, we should champion the efforts by workers and farmers in the Third World to expand electrification in their countries.

First of all, Washington and its cohorts have no right to insist that they should have nuclear weapons but no one else can be allowed to develop them. This arrogant stance has nothing to do with preventing nuclear war. On the contrary, the biggest threat to humanity is the drive by the U.S. rulers and their imperialist competitors to rely on military might—including the threat of using nuclear weapons, and a “missile shield” to give them first-strike capability—to continue to dominate and exploit the oppressed nations of the world.

Secondly, the imperialist governments dismiss efforts by governments in the Third World to develop nuclear power for meeting energy needs. Washington even has the gall to “advise” Iran that it doesn’t need to develop nuclear energy and instead should rely on its oil and natural gas reserves!

Iran faces rapidly increasing energy needs. Since the 1979 popular revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah, the country’s population has more than doubled from 32 million to 70 million, while its oil production is only 70 percent of the pre-1979 level. Iran’s electrical power generation has not kept up with growing energy needs, especially in the countryside. Iranian officials explain that they are developing their nuclear program to meet these expanding energy needs. Relying only on fossils fuels—instead of diversifying its energy sources—would condemn Iran to become an importer of crude oil in coming decades, and to suffer the environmental consequences of pollution from burning such fuels. The imperialist powers seek to prevent Iran from developing nuclear reactors that produce enriched uranium—but that element is essential for the development of nuclear energy, not just for weapons.

Iran is just one example of the reality facing the overwhelming majority of humanity. Today, 2 billion people—one-third of the world’s population—have no access to modern energy. They must rely on candles or kerosene lamps for lighting, and on wood, dung, thatch, and straw for fuel. In semicolonial countries there is a big disparity in conditions between city and countryside. In Ghana, for example, barely 4 percent of the rural population has access to electricity. In Pakistan the figure is 40 percent. Even in Brazil, one of the most industrialized semicolonial nations, nearly 40 percent of rural areas are not electrified. The only parts of the world that come close to universal electrification are the imperialist countries, as well as the workers states in Russia and Eastern Europe. In Cuba, because workers and farmers have taken political power and carried out a socialist revolution, 95 percent of the country is electrified.

Coal and oil are the most widely used energy sources in the world. But these fuels take a huge toll on public health and the environment, and are not the solution to meeting humanity’s longer-term energy needs. Nor are solar power or wind power.

In contrast to the industrialized powers of the imperialist world, the more than 75 percent of humanity who live in the semicolonial countries have little or no access to nuclear power, which produces the greatest amount of energy with the least use of resources and the smallest output of atmospheric pollution. In the semicolonial world in particular, harnessing nuclear power could make all the difference in the ability to extend electrification to the entire population.

Electrification is an elementary precondition for modern industry and cultural life. It is part of narrowing the gap between the conditions of working people in city and countryside. It is necessary to raise the level of culture in the rural areas, especially, and to overcome, even in the most remote areas of any land, backwardness, ignorance, poverty, and disease. Championing the fight for electrification poses the need to forge an alliance of workers and farmers in a common struggle to take political power out of the hands of the capitalist exploiters and begin transforming society in the interests of the vast majority.

The Militant (logo)
Vol. 68/No. 27 July 27, 2004

Stance on nuclear power is a political,
not technical, matter
(Reply to a Reader column)

In his letter to the editor, Peter Anestos comments on an editorial in the July 6 issue and asks whether the Militant has changed its position on nuclear power.

The starting point here is not a technical, or scientific, question but a political question: how to advance the interests of workers, farmers, and the oppressed. This question must be approached in the framework of the world, not the United States.

As the editorial in the July 6 Militant noted, the fact that one-third of the world’s population lacks access to modern energy is a direct consequence of imperialist exploitation and domination. It will only be resolved by workers and farmers organizing a fight to take political power out of the hands of the exploiting classes. That struggle can be successful only if the workers movement forges an alliance with our fellow producers on the land, the farmers. To do so it must champion the demand to expand electrification throughout the world as part of bridging the political and cultural gap between the urban and rural toilers. This means championing the efforts of nations oppressed by imperialism to develop their economic infrastructure and raise the living conditions and cultural level in face of systematic efforts by imperialism to perpetuate its domination and plunder of the semicolonial world.

It’s not enough to say that such problems will be resolved after a victorious socialist revolution—they are burning questions that must be taken up today by the workers movement.

In addressing the needs of the vast majority of humanity, the point is not which kinds of technology represent a “positive good” as opposed to a necessary evil, as Anestos poses it. All technology has its hazards. Again, this is a social question, not a “scientific” issue that somehow stands above classes and outside the class struggle. How safe or dangerous technology is, and how fast advances can be made to overcome seemingly unsolvable safety problems, depends on which class controls it.

Since the mid-1970s, the Socialist Workers Party has opposed the production and use of nuclear power in the United States. Class-conscious workers don’t trust big business, the capitalist government, and the bourgeois political parties to place human needs above profits in addressing the questions of health and safety posed by running nuclear power plants. That was the main point addressed in the 2001 Militant editorial that Anestos quoted.

Marxists don’t pretend to have the solution to the problem of the disposal of nuclear waste. But we don’t believe that safely harnessing the atom for productive purposes is impossible. Our starting point is not the half-life of uranium or other technical issues. We start from the demonstrated capacity of human beings to transform nature, raise the productivity of social labor, and advance the progress of civilization and culture.

It’s worth noting that in the two decades after the splitting of the atom, Socialist Workers Party leaders wrote—in America’s Road to Socialism by James P. Cannon, Too Many Babies? The Myth of the Population Explosion by Joseph Hansen, and Understanding History by George Novack—about the possibilities that could be opened for human progress by applying atomic energy if working people took their destiny into their own hands.

To those who want to make the issue one of the dangers of nuclear power, we must ask: what is their alternative to bring the majority of humanity out of darkness?

In contrast with middle-class reformers, we start not with the framework of the United States but with a world view of how to advance the interests of productive humanity. Two billion people—overwhelmingly in the semicolonial world—have no access of any kind to electricity or modern sources of fuel for cooking and heating. And the use of coal or oil—not to mention solar and wind power—is not the solution to meeting the long-term energy needs of humanity. Pollution from oil and coal-fired power takes a heavy toll on public health and the environment, especially in the semicolonial world where “scrubbers” and other costly “clean coal” technologies are more difficult to obtain.

While nuclear power accounts for 80 percent of electricity produced in France and 20 percent in the United States, the figure is merely 2 percent in South Asia, less than 1 percent in Latin America, and virtually zero in Africa and the Middle East. The labor movement should oppose attempts by Washington and its imperialist allies to maintain this virtual monopoly on nuclear energy, including their efforts to block Third World governments that already have nuclear plants from producing enriched uranium as nuclear fuel for electrical power generation.

It’s from this class and international standpoint that working people should defend the efforts of the power-poor semicolonial nations to obtain and develop the energy sources they need—including nuclear power—to lay the basis for closing the gap between city and countryside. Making this a central part of what the working-class vanguard fights for is necessary to be able to lead a successful struggle by workers and farmers for political power. A struggle that will change the course of history.

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