Fukushima nuclear plant
For workers in the plant and residents nearby, this certainly is a disaster. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, roughly 185,000 people have been evacuated from homes within 19 miles of the plant. Some 25 workers have suffered injuries from the explosion or radiation exposure; two are reported missing. A crane operator was killed in one of the plants as a result of the earthquake. (A report in the London Telegraph that four other workers had been killed, reported in the Militant last week, is unconfirmed and appears to be untrue.) And dangers from the failed cooling systems and radiation leaks continue.
Radioactive contamination has been found in coastal waters near the plant, as well as in milk and on spinach and other produce close by. Radiation has been reported in drinking water in the area, with consumption warnings in a few places, and with very low levels as far away as Tokyo.
As of late March, however, there was no evidence of a public health calamity. There may yet be radiation-related deaths or illnesses among workers at the plant, as well as future cancer cases among people living close by. Such dangers, however, are not comparable to those at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986, where casualties resulted from the Stalinist regime’s extraordinary negligence, reflecting contempt for working people.
Unlike all but a handful of antiquated reactors in the world today, those at Chernobyl were designed with no secure containment vessel, resulting in an enormous release of radioactive material from the 1986 explosion. The big majority of deaths and cancer cases resulted from Moscow’s inexcusable delay in evacuating people from what is now a 20-mile “uninhabitable zone” around the plant, and the regime’s failure to inform residents not to eat vegetables or give milk to children in that area.
Yet, pointing to the Fukushima incident as the reason, Halpern urges rejecting the working-class course to expand electrification and global energy output—to advance industrial and social development—presented in “Our Politics Start with the World” by Jack Barnes. The article, printed in issue no. 13 of New International magazine, is based on a 2001 report adopted by the Socialist Workers Party, of which Barnes is national secretary. (The section Halpern cites was excerpted in the Militant last week: “What Social Class Can Meet Energy Needs of Billions?” in issue no. 13.)
Nothing to do with Japan
Halpern objects to Barnes’s statement that “the communist movement does not have a position on nuclear power, for or against.” Halpern suggests “an alternative position which is that today, given that imperialist property relations dominate the world, that nuclear power is inherently unsafe.”
Halpern’s proposal, in reality, has nothing to do with Japan. He could have made it any time since nuclear power plants went into operation in the mid-1950s. And Barnes’s report was given in 2001, well after the 1979 breakdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania or the 1986 Chernobyl explosion.
Barnes says that although coal “will undoubtedly remain a power source for years,” it is not “the solution to meeting humanity’s long-term energy needs.” Pollutants from burning coal account for many tens of thousands of premature deaths and serious illnesses each year worldwide. Thousands of coal miners are killed due to profit-driven unsafe mining practices and speedup.
For the foreseeable future, so-called renewable sources cannot provide the enormous quantity of energy needed, Barnes points out.
Sky is not falling
Halpern says “the unfolding catastrophe in Japan makes it clear that nuclear power is the most potentially dangerous form of electrical power.” The trick word here is “potentially,” since Halpern never explains why.
Even including the Chernobyl disaster, nuclear energy has taken a much smaller toll in human lives—and in destruction of the natural environment we depend on and that our social labor transforms—than mining and burning of coal, oil extraction and refining, or hydroelectric power and its (sometimes bursting) dams.
Nothing happening in Japan alters that fact. The sky is not falling.
Halpern proposes that the communist movement oppose the development and use of nuclear power so long as “imperialist property relations dominate the world.” That is, until the victory of the world socialist revolution.
Shouldn’t we also demand a halt to all off-shore oil drilling in light of last year’s Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and massive oil spill, and more frequent but less publicized blowouts the world over? What about an end to use of coal? Or the shutdown of oil refineries, where there were blasts in 2010 alone in Washington, Texas, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and no doubt elsewhere?
Closing gap among toilers
What prospects do class-conscious workers in the United States and other imperialist centers offer our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, on whom the blows of today’s global capitalist crisis fall most heavily? Hundreds of millions still live without electricity—including 40 percent of the population on average in rural areas.
What do we say to working people in sub-Saharan Africa, where 85 percent in the countryside still have no access to electricity, and 40 percent even in cities? To the 50 percent of peasants and farm laborers living without power in rural South Asia, and the more than a quarter of those on the land in the Mideast and Latin America?
“Wait for the socialist revolution in the United States? Then you and your children can read at night? Then fresh water can be pumped into your homes? Then the burdens of food preparation, laundry, and other daily chores can be lightened for women?”
No, communist workers fight to close the gap in economic and social conditions of life and labor between working people in the industrially advanced imperialist countries of North America, Europe, Japan, and the Pacific and the billions elsewhere on earth.
More than 150 years ago, Karl Marx answered those in the young working-class movement of the times who urged workers to oppose the development of machinery and other productive forces so long as capitalism exists. In an 1856 speech to supporters of a working-class newspaper in London, Marx said that there is without doubt an “antagonism between modern industry and science on the one hand” and “modern misery” on the other.
“Some parties may wail over it; others may wish to get rid of modern arts in order to get rid of modern conflicts,” Marx said.
As for the revolutionary workers movement, however, “We know that to work well the new-fangled forces of society, they only want to be mastered by new-fangled men—and such are the working men… . They will then, certainly not be last in aiding the social revolution produced by that industry, a revolution, which means the emancipation of their own class all over the world.”
A class question, not a technical one
For class-conscious workers, Barnes explains in the 2001 article, a course to expand energy production for electrification and industrial progress must start with where it “fits along the line of march of workers and farmers toward the revolutionary struggle for national liberation and socialism on a world scale.”
He continues: “The competition of capitals, the drive to maximize profits, spurs technological innovation under capitalism and will continue to do so for as long as this social system exists… . In the process, capitalists display wanton disregard for the health and safety of workers and the broader population. Nor do they care one whit about the long-term or short-term consequences for the natural environment.”
Both conclusions have been verified time and again.
In face of global competition for markets, and the sharp falloff in orders for new nuclear power plants after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, capitalists have improved reactor safety. Containment vessels are more resistant to destruction, and operations are less dependent on electrical-driven pumps and cooling systems like those that failed at Fukushima’s older reactors.
At the same time, both Tokyo Electric, the owner of the Fukushima plant, and Japan’s imperialist government have displayed flagrant disregard for safety. “Over the decades, preparedness against tsunamis never became a priority for Japan’s power companies or nuclear regulators,” says an article in the March 26 New York Times headlined, “Nuclear Rules in Japan Relied on Old Science.” But maximizing “new profits,” not relying on “old science,” is the source of the unconscionable negligence.
Tokyo Electric, for example, never even shelled out minimal funds to put backup electrical generators on higher ground to withstand anticipated tsunamis. When the giant waves struck last month, the company deliberately delayed action to cool the reactors in hopes of preserving their assets.
Is socialist revolution possible?
Finally, Halpern argues that “given the history of imperialist military actions, there is no guarantee that in the future the imperialist armed forces would not bomb an active nuclear power plant.” Yes, there’s never any guarantee what our ruthless class enemies will do when workers and our allies enter into struggle—from a strike, to the revolutionary battle for state power.
Despite his intentions, however, Halpern’s warning boils down to little more than an argument against socialist revolution.
What’s more, it is an argument that discounts the demonstrated capacity and determination of working people to mobilize, arm, and defend our revolutionary conquests in face of imperialist hostility—as the working people of Cuba have done for more than 50 years. And it discounts the capacity and determination of workers in the United States and other imperialist countries to take action in the factories and the streets to stay the hand of the war makers, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters the world over.
In the section of the 2001 article Halpern proposes scrapping, Barnes writes: “Given the unmet energy needs of billions across the globe, especially in the semicolonial countries; the rising extraction and refining costs of the world’s oil resources; and accumulating and accelerating damage to the earth’s atmosphere from the burning of oil, coal, and other fossil fuels, nuclear reactors will be used to generate a growing percentage of the world’s electrical power in the twenty-first century. That’s for sure, and necessarily so.”
The question, the Socialist Workers Party leader adds, “is how long will the design and construction of containment vessels, the monitoring of reactor operations, and disposal of atomic waste products—with all the consequences for public health and safety—be carried out by governments beholden to the imperialist ruling families and other capitalist exploiters.
“How long before these vital matters, including the eventual transition away from nuclear power toward other, safer energy sources yet to be developed, will be organized by workers and farmers governments acting in the interests of the great majority of humanity.”
“The communist movement does not have ‘a position on nuclear power,’ for or against,” says Barnes. “We have a proletarian internationalist course to advance the revolutionary struggle for national liberation and socialism.”
Halpern looks forward to the day when imperialist property relations no longer “dominate the world.” So does the Militant.Let bourgeois liberals and middle-class radicals traffic in fear and panic. Those are not tools in the chest of the revolutionary workers movement.