Ronnie Sookhdeo Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Ronnie Sookhdeo

Nuclear Fission

The Horrifying Risks

(March 1977)

From Militant, No. 348, 25 March 1977, p. 4.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Comrade Wylie’s letter on nuclear technology [Militant, No. 344] raises a number of questions, especially his assertion that opposition to nuclear technology is indefensible and incompatible with the aims of socialism. I refute this and would like to reply to his and Alan Ashworth’s arguments in last week’s issue of the Militant.

We in the labour movement have never opposed the tremendous achievements that science has contributed and can give to mankind, for if we did it would be to turn the clock backwards. What we do question is the insane and irrational way in which science is being used under capitalism. This has led for example to disasters like the mercury poisoning at Minemata in Japan, the creation of dust bowls in America and latterly the explosion at Seveso that has poisoned thousands of people and permanently destroyed large areas of land.

Catastrophes like these are inevitable unless a socialist planned economy is adopted. Under a sane system a fuel policy will be implemented which may give a priority to nuclear technology, or to be more precise, a safe form of thermo-nuclear fusion and forms of energy that are not dependent on the earth’s resources and which are free from pollution.

Fusion Safer

Consider nuclear fusion. In this process deuterium (or “heavy water”, an isotope of hydrogen) nuclei can be made to fuse together and in so doing liberate energy. The advantages of this process is that no nuclear waste is produced and more importantly deuterium is present in sea water at a concentration of 34gm. per ton.

It has been calculated that the oceans represent a reserve of 50 million million tons of deuterium or in other words enough for many thousands of millions of years of fusion. If the technical difficulties could be solved (for example maintaining the very high temperature needed for fusion) this would represent a viable form of energy.

This is in sharp contrast to the present nuclear fuel policy which advocates the construction of 50 Fast Breeder reactors by the year 2000. This policy does not appreciate the fact that a reactor is dependent on the finite quantities of uranium as its fuel. It has never considered the dangers involved in handling, transport, storage and ultimately disposal of Plutonium a substance classified as the most toxic ever synthesised by man. Plutonium will remain toxic for the next 2,400 years and there are no methods for accelerating the decay process.

The two methods of disposal have both led to controversies. The first is burial in deep underground mines and introduces the fear of damage by future earthquakes and the annihilation of whole cities. The alternative method of disposal is by rocketing it into outer space and which will saddle future generations with enormous problems.

Consider the economics of the present policy. A recent OECD report concludes that the present uranium reserves correspond to only 15 years forward requirement and unless there would be a severe shortage which would disrupt the nuclear programme.

The situation concerning uranium will be exactly analogous with that of oil in the year 2000. It has been estimated that upwards of four million tons of uranium would be needed by that year and possibly ten million tons of uranium would be needed by that year and possibly ten million tons by the year 2025. The report neglects to mention what such an exploration, together with mining and mill construction would cost.

If the cycle from exploration through enrichment and fuel fabrication to the reprocessing of the irradiated fuel is taken into consideration the sum involved would be astronomical. To appreciate the extent of the sum involved, the proposed enlargement of the reprocessing plant at Windscale is estimated at £600 million! This compares with the miserly £100,000 Britain spent last year on research and development from waves – a drop in the ocean!

The arguments against nuclear fission are not academic but are based on the harsh realities. It is short sighted to dismiss the fears about the lasting effect of nuclear waste. Comrade Ashworth speculates that “it is quite possible that most of the problems of waste re-cycling can be overcome.” The fact is that in the here and now those problems have not been solved. Scientists cannot overcome the problems of obtaining uranium and disposal of its fission product plutonium.

It is entirely erroneous to compare the dangers in coal mining or the gas or the North Sea oil extraction industry with that in nuclear fission. The potential dangers from nuclear fission are much greater. Coal extraction is a danger to the workers in the industry and can be eliminated by technology. Arthur Scargill envisages the time when the digging of coal is done by mechanical means and there are no miners underground. But today the population at large does not face terrible dangers from coal extraction.

Yet the inherent dangers in the disposal of nuclear waste can result in catastrophe in the future. There is no safe way that it can be disposed of. The dangers are highlighted by the concession made to the nuclear lobby that nuclear plants should be situated away from large population centres!

Moreover there is conclusive evidence linking all radioactive materials with cancer. Documented cases of ‘atomic disease’ can be traced to the miners in Chile in the 19th century. In 1924 the medical world were astonished when reports reached them of the terrible story of the radium girls of Ottawa, Jersey. These girls painted luminous watch dials and in order to achieve a finer point would gently suck the tips of the brushes. The radioactivity of the radium ate away their mouths, teeth and jaws. To discuss the horrifying effects of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would entail an article on its own.

Since cancer is a long agonising process the full extent of radiation damage caused by plutonium is unlikely to be known in a couple of years.

Comrade Ashworth argues that because Britain’s nuclear industry is controlled by the State the dangers which other countries face – West Germany for instance – don’t exist here. This is unfortunately not the case. The nationalised industries in Britain serve the private industries and use the same criteria. It is no accident that the Financial Times is to the fore in demanding the building of Fast Breeder Reactors. Moreover many instances can be given to show that the mandarins at the top of the nationalised industries behave as irresponsibly as their counterparts in private industry with regard to safety of the workers in the industry and the population at large.

Of course the workers in the nuclear power industry will object to the programme being stopped unless an alternative is given. Lucas shop stewards have put forward proposals for their industry – and their jobs – to be switched away from providing weapons to peaceful purposes. The jobs of the workers in the nuclear industry can be guaranteed through a sane and safe socialist fuel policy.

It is wrong from a socialist standpoint to seek to justify nuclear fission and minimise the terrible dangers arising from it. Far from being a progressive factor, it can, and will, in the hands of irresponsible profiteers, create extra difficulties for us and future generations.

Ronnie Sookhdeo Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 6 November 2016