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John G. Wright

Capitalists Lie About Peacetime
Possibilities of Atomic Energy

(22 June 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. 10 No. 25, 22 June 1946, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Among the arguments first employed to justify the military monopoly of atomic energy was the contention that it would take huge sums and many years before this epoch-making discovery could be developed for civilian uses.

The Brass Hats and the administration in Washington found this flimsy argument rather embarrassing in view of the fact that even the low-temperature atomic piles at Hanford were meanwhile producing as much energy as Boulder Dam, all this energy going to waste, heating up the Columbia River.

They were further embarrassed by public statements of scientists that in its present state this energy was already available for use as a source of power, heat and electricity, not to mention its urgent and immediate need for medicine, agriculture, scientific research, etc.

And so, after a delay of at least two years they have announced that a high-temperature atomic power plant will be built at Oak Ridge, Tenn. It will be purely “experimental”, that is, remain under rigid military control. No information has been released about any of its technical aspects. But the campaign to belittle and discredit its potential benefits has already begun.

The favorite line of argument now runs that atomic power is of questionable value for Industrial and civilian use, because after all, fuel comprises only a small fraction of the cost of operating electrical power plants. With a serious air a debate is now being conducted in public on whether or not atomic energy can compete successfully with coal or oil.

This debate is so important that the editors of N.Y. Times deem it necessary to add their authoritative voice to the side of the “doubters”.

“Transmission, distribution and administration costs are far greater than fuel costs ... so that the saving in fuel will have to be striking if a uranium ‘pile’ is to take the place of coal.” (N.Y. Times, May 12)

Vast Savings

As a matter of fact, this argument speaks not against but overwhelmingly in favor of atomic power plants. If fuel costs are not the decisive consideration, then the atomic “piles” can be far more expensive than the use of coal and oil or water power (which no one even bothers to pretend) and still compete with the present plants. Why? Because of the vast savings in transmission and distribution costs.

Atomic power plants can be erected close by industries and cities: they can be built anywhere, in the remotest region as well as the most accessible one, in the most densely populated areas as well as those most sparsely populated. The costs of transmission and distribution can thereby be cut to the barest minimum, which is impossible with the existing plants.

As for the costs of “administration,” the atomic plants are automatic and self-operating, requiring virtually no labor after once set up. And, what is far worse from the capitalist standpoint, they will cut out completely the annual tribute extracted by the huge public utility monopolies.

They will not only render existing facilities obsolete but also make it difficult to establish private ownership in this field. The capitalists can and should get exactly nothing from the development of atomic power. It follows that from the standpoint of “administration” the costs will once again be slashed to barest minimums.

Let us note in conclusion one other incredible argument which the editors of N.Y. Times employ in their zeal to place a big question mark over the future of atomic power. They claim that they have been “misled by the oft-quoted statement that a pound of uranium or plutonium will generate as much energy as we now get from 1,400 tons of coal or 900 tons of gasoline. The comparison assumes the complete conversion of uranium or plutonium into energy.”

Incredible Argument

The comparison, as is well known, assumes nothing of the sort. It is based on the assumption of converting only a fraction of a pound of uranium into energy, less than 1 per cent. (The atomic bomb converts approximately one-thirtieth of an ounce of mass into energy.) A complete conversion of a pound of uranium would release approximately 100 times the quantity cited by the Times’ editors, who only pretend to be misinformed.

According to the computation of the scientists they are able to release at the present stage of development only the maximum of 1 per cent conversion of the uranium mass into energy. Once again this is a powerful argument not against but in favor of atomic power. If such vast vistas are opened up when there is only one per cent at our disposal, they will be multiplied geometrically as mankind learns to use the major portion of the remaining 99 per cent. But the imperialist rulers of the world bar this road.

They cannot and will not employ atomic power for the benefit of mankind, but only for its destruction.

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Last updated: 27 February 2020