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International Socialism, May 1977


Bill Fakes

Nuclear Power


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 98, May 1977, p. 28.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Nuclear Power
by Walter Patterson
Penguin Books, 1976

JUST for a change, here is a book which will be harder for someone with a sociology degree to understand than it will be for someone who knows a bit about the basics of electricity – about time perhaps. Walter Patterson provides a detailed and hair-raising catalogue of all the world’s nuclear near-disasters. It is absurd enough to live under the shadow of nuclear annihilation by hydrogen bombs, but even the peaceful spin-off in the shape of nuclear power stations provides another example of the way in which capitalism threatens to exterminate life on earth. This book should be read by anyone who thinks that the anti-nuclear pressure group is a bunch of middle-class vegetarian idiots. This is the – expurgated – view of most of the lads in West Cumbria who depend on British Nuclear Fuels Ltd for jobs as fitters, electricians, operatives etc. The issue is likely to spill over into the labour movement nationally in the next few years, so socialists would do well to learn the facts before they start picking sides.

The public relations side of the nuclear power industry claims an impressive safety record. No one has been killed outright in a radiation accident in this country, and only a handful in the world. (There may have been a few hundred killed in the Soviet Union if recent stories are to be believed). The truth is that in the early years radiation was treated with horrifying carelessness. In the ‘Uranium Rush’ in the USA after the last war miners were exposed to radioactive dust with callous disregard for the long term effects. About a third of those employed have already, or are likely to, die of cancer of the lung. The hazard was recognised, predictable and ignored. Early bomb tests in the Navaho desert scattered fall-out over Eastman Kodak’s warehouses, causing many of the films to be spoiled. When the company drew the attention of the USA government to this damage to their property the bomb tests were shifted.

In 1956 there was a fire at a nuclear power plant at Calder Hall on the coast of Cumberland. Tons of uranium graphite were ablaze for several days. Fortunately filters had been installed on the tops of the chimneys – otherwise radioactive dust would have turned Cumberland into a desert. As it was millions of gallons of radioactive milk were poured away. The point is that there might not have been filters on top of the chimneys. Some of the scientists thought they were a waste of money, and they would probably not have been installed if there had not already been a small fire at another plant. Phew. Even more hair raising was an accident at a plant situated close to Detroit. At one point orders were issued for the evacuation of the city – fortunately the orders were not widely disseminated, recalled and now supposed never to have been issued.

If the risks are much better recognised by the public and better precautions now taken, the credit must go largely to environmental pressure groups. Every stage in the tightening of the regulations in the USA has been fought for. The nuclear industry has uniquely difficult engineering problems. In a fast breeder reactor the heat from the core is circulated to the generators by tons of molten sodium. It burns spontaneously in the air, and explodes in contact with water. If the circulating pumps fail, the core overheats and quite possibly goes off in a full scale nuclear explosion. Plutonium itself is very radioactive, it also burns spontaneously in the air. If it catches fire, water should not be used – again there is the risk of nuclear explosion. When a reprocessing plant in the USA caught fire millions of dollars worth of plutonium went up in smoke and out into the environment.

In spite of the near misses, the engineering challenges at present are meeting with a response which is very crudely related to the actual demands of safety. The argument is a complicated one; the spokesmen for the industry are more concerned to win the arguments than to present the facts in a way which will enable ordinary people to make sensible opinions. Further expansion of nuclear power will increase the temptation to cut corners. More jobs will be at stake, more capital tied up. At the same time there will be heavier demands on the supply of engineers and scientists. Environmentalists will be treated more brusquely. Sooner or later, standards will fall.

Apart from the danger of a nuclear explosion near a populated area there is the hazard arising from the storage of nuclear waste. For the benefit of the uninitiated, this is the intensely radioactive material left behind when uranium or plutonium has been used up in a reactor. Reactors don’t use up radioactivity – they multiply it many hundreds of times. The radioactive waste that has already been created will take longer than man’s recorded history to decay, to a safe level. For the present it has to be stored in specially cooled tanks. How’s that for a mess to clear up after the revolution?

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