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Between Barbarism and a Solar Transition

Jay M. Gould worked as a statistical expert in antitrust litigation, and served on the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Carter administration. He is author of The Enemy Within: The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996) and you can learn more about his work on the web at

John Bellamy Foster’s brilliant review, “Monopoly Capital and the New Globalization” (Monthly Review, January 2002), demonstrates how monopoly capitalism has reached its current crisis, one in which all the contradictions of imperialist domination and the worldwide lack of effective demand are now leading toward the stark choice between a “deadly barbarism or a humane socialism.”

That choice may come far more quickly and favorably if we consider the current prospects of dealing with the enormous environmental pollution produced by capitalist enterprise over the last two hundred years, and especially over the last fifty.

Long ago, during the Industrial Revolution, capitalists discovered that extremely profitable economies of scale could be realized by the exploitation of fossil fuels like coal and oil. They also learned that they need do nothing to cover the social costs of this exploitation, namely the associated environmental pollution.

A good example of this neglect of social and environmental cost occurred fifty years ago when U.S. policy makers saw in nuclear technology the illusory promise of unlimited control over the rest of the world. Today, they have discovered that all nuclear facilities are highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. A single such attack could reduce even the United States to a nuclear basket case, as happened in the former Soviet Union when social order collapsed in the wake of the Chernobyl meltdown in April of 1986. The realities now facing western energy policy makers include, first and foremost, the same possible loss of political legitimacy faced by Gorbachev in 1986. And now, they must soon deal with such issues as global warming and the public health crisis produced by two hundred years of environmental pollution.

I am a statistician who has been studying the health effects of man-made, low-level radiation for many years. In fact, I published an article in Monthly Review in February 1984 (“The Future of Nuclear Power”) in which I correctly predicted the industry’s rapid decline. I have since become aware, especially after Chernobyl, of a deepening and unsolvable crisis in the nuclear industry, one that finally erupted at the close of last year.

That crisis was revealed on December 13, 2001 in a front page story carried by every British newspaper (but completely ignored by U.S. mainstream media), that a government commission appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair has recommended that Great Britain replace all nuclear facilities with solar power. The story was taken from a report leaked to the journal, New Scientist. Here is the story, published on December 15, 2001 and titled “Death Knell Sounds for Nuclear Energy,” followed by some brief comments of my own:

Nuclear power may have had its day. The best way to cut carbon pollution and tackle global warming is to replace oil and coal-fired power stations with renewable energy sources, says a draft British government review leaked to the New Scientist. Nuclear power is simply too dangerous and expensive.

The review attempts to lay out Britain’s energy policy for the next 50 years. If the government accepts its recommendations, Britain will become one of the most environmentally friendly producers in the world.

The long-awaited study had been widely expected to embrace the nuclear industry’s plan to set up 15 new nuclear stations. Instead, it relegates nuclear power to an also-ran that could be totally phased out by 2050 if renewable sources deliver as expected.

This happens under both scenarios put forward by the study. One, labeled “global sustainability,” assumes government intervention by regulation and financial incentives, leading to a 30 percent contribution from renewables and a 60 percent cut in carbon emissions. The alternative “world markets” scenario envisages a big rise in oil and gas consumption driven by consumer demand, resulting in a 20 percent rise in carbon pollution.

Public fears about nuclear safety seem to have influenced the review, which was undertaken by the Cabinet’s Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU). The technology has an “uncertain role,” the report says, “since concerns about radioactive waste, accidents, terrorism and proliferation may limit or preclude its use.” It also wants the cost of insuring against accidents and disposal of radioactive waste to be borne by nuclear stations rather than the government.

This makes nuclear power very expensive. It is estimated that it will cost 3.0 to 4.5 pence per kilowatt-hour by 2020, compared to 1.5 to 2.4 pence per kilowatt-hour for onshore wind power. Combined heat and power costs come in at 1.6 to 2.4 pence per kilowatt-hour. “Nowhere in the world have new nuclear power stations yet been financed within a liberalized electricity market,” the report points out.

The report is enthusiastic about the potential of renewable energy, which it says is the most flexible way to reduce carbon emissions. It suggests producing at least 20 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020, compared with the current target of 10 percent by 2010. That could be achieved by expanding the number of wind turbines on land and offshore and by introducing wave power and underwater tidal generators.…

The report will be a bitter disappointment to the nuclear industry, which had been expecting it to kick-start a nuclear renaissance. But it does urge the government to contribute to international efforts to design cheaper, safer reactors, and to ensure that Britain’s nuclear regulators are “adequately staffed” to assess them….

The above article records a reversal of a fifty-year-old British policy based on total reliance on oil and nuclear energy. The first question we in the United States should ask is why such a truly sensational story has been totally ignored by U.S. mainstream media. Here is a heroically brief attempt to explain.

The decision by U.S. policy makers during the Second World War to invest some four trillion dollars in the development of nuclear weapons and reactors will ultimately be seen as the greatest industrial blunder in human history because there is no way known today to protect life from the radiation emanating from millions of tons of uranium, torn from the earth since 1945, or from the used radioactive fuel assemblies now residing in highly vulnerable cooling pools at each reactor site. The British were even more drawn to the use of nuclear power to restore their lost empire; they built nuclear reactors as early as the 1950s and retained possession of the world’s largest uranium mines long after U.S. oil companies sold off their own in the 1960s. The nineteen British reactors now operate in an area the size of Pennsylvania, with tragic public health consequences.

Over the past fifteen years, photovoltaics and wind turbines have become the most rapidly growing source of energy. All major oil companies today, with the notable exception of Mobil-Exxon, have small but strategic investments in photovoltaic manufacturing, as a hedge against the possible loss of cheap oil from the Middle East. If 1 percent of the four trillion dollar investment in nuclear energy were invested in solar technologies today, it would be possible someday to cover every roof top in the world with photovoltaic shingles, paving the way for the eventual elimination of both pollution and poverty.

While there would be plenty of profits accruing to the large companies from solarization, the great drawback for them is that ultimately solarization would provide electricity too cheap to meter. Sunlight, like the unpolluted air we would then breathe and the potable water we would then drink, would be far too abundant to be sold for a profit.

It may be, then, that socialism will come as a result of a fierce struggle by all who fear dying prematurely of hunger and environmental pollution, and who will fight for the coming solar transition, as the only possible alternative to barbarism and the extinction of homo sapiens as a species in a radioactive planet.

2002, Volume 54, Issue 02 (June)
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