Book Review from the September 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Worst Accident in the World - Observer staff (Pan Books. £2.95)
Nobody expects a team of writers from the Observer to turn out a Marxian treatise and this book is written on the assumptions necessary to capitalist society, crucially that productive activity should be assessed by reference to its profitability. Given that, it is by a long way superior to most of the quickie books which are rushed out to catch the market in the immediate aftermath of a newsworthy event. For this is a well written, informative account of what happened at Chernobyl on that awful day last April, with some historical background and a journalist's account of the chemical processes and their effects. Its theme is that the world's nuclear dream is at an end and that the future lies with new, safer technologies.
When it became apparent to the rest of the world that something had gone seriously wrong at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl there was a gleeful stampede among the media here and in America to exaggerate what was in any event a horrifying incident. One report said that two thousand people had been killed at once; another predicted ten thousand deaths in the immediate future, another talked about 15.000 radioactive corpses being bulldozed into a mass grave. There had to be a backlash to this clumsy attempt to prove that Russian nuclear technology was shoddily dangerous and inevitably the question was asked: if Chernobyl, why not Sizewell, Dungeness, Dounreay? Was is safe to allow any nuclear power stations, anywhere, at any time?
This question forced the western media into the spurious line that only Russian nuclear plants were unsafe, that only the Kremlin would have been so cynically callous as to try to hide the truth about the explosion and so deny thousands of people the chance to take precautions against the lethal plume escaping from the stricken station.
The facts are a lot less favourable to the western powers. In October 1957 a fire took hold in the reactor at Windscale and raged out of control for 42 hours. The scientists and engineers were powerless and there was the beginning of a melt-down. Finally, in blind panic they doused the thing in a tidal wave of water, although they were not sure that this would not cause an even greater catastrophe. The sale of local milk was banned over a huge area and two million litres of it were poured away. All of this was obscured in as thick a shroud of official secrecy as the authorities could get away with. In 1976 two leaks of radioactivity were found at Windscale — one had been spewing out for four years and another huge one for seven years.
In the USA, in October 1966 there was an unexplained melt of the fuel in a reactor just outside Detroit. Nobody knew what to do to stop it and when it did stop nobody knew why this had happened. A relieved, but nonchalant engineer admitted that "We almost lost Detroit". In March 1979 there was a similar emergency in the plant at Three Mile Island, which came within an hour of a full melt-down Again, nobody knew how to control the problem and it was by "sheer luck" that a full melt-down was avoided. Between 1969 and 1979 there were 169 incidents in the USA, each one of which could have led to a melt-down.
This remarkable history spotlights the fact that nuclear energy is fraught with peril which will not disperse under the verbal massage of the industry's officials. We have had these assurances before, telling us that the designers have learned their lessons and that another "accident" has been designed out of credibility. In fact, Windscale continues to be a threat, thirty years after that first fire and people who live under its menace, even as far away as the Isle of Man, have become irritably accustomed to being cautious about what they eat. what sort of milk they drink and so on. Chernobyl happened nearly thirty years after a terrible incident at Kyshtym, in Siberia, which made it necessary for the Russian government to evacuate and abandon hundreds of square kilometres of land which now lie empty and sterile, the road through bearing warning notices to vehicles not to stop, to keep their windows closed and to drive as fast as possible.
The future is no more reassuring. The new-defunct Greater London Council (which the nuclear lobby would probably consider to be not unbiased) estimated that a disaster at far-off Sizewell would produce some 2.400 fatal cancers in London, would lead to the evacuation of 3½ million people from the capital and lay waste to 240 square miles of London. One expert has predicted. from existing evidence, that we must expect a Chernobyl every ten years, spewing out wastes which will remain malignant for hundreds of thousands of years.
This all sounds incredible, and incredibly stupid, except that by the logic of capitalist society it is all very believable, all very sensible. Nuclear powers have invested enormous amounts of capital and ability into producing their bombs and their reactors, from the first plant at Hanford in Washington State to the modern showplace at Chernobyl. After the war, when the specious justifications for Hiroshima and Nagasaki no longer applied, the Labour government in Britain (who had promised us peace, international harmony and socialism, although not necessarily in that order) took a secret decision to manufacture a British bomb Only six ministers knew about this; the cabinet were not told, neither was parliament and neither, of course, were the voters. The project was given the highest priority, by Attlee's personal command. It was a disgraceful, but typical, episode, motivated entirely by a desire to re-establish the British capitalist class as a leading power in world capitalism.
But the bomb was not universally loved, as the ruling class and the Labour government wanted it to be. Doubts were expressed about the morality of a weapon of such fearful and enduring destructiveness The prospect of producing electricity through nuclear reaction was held out as a beguiling counter to these objections. The first plants got onto the drawing board under a haze of maniacal optimism which spoke of humanity overawing the most basic forces of nature, to produce electricity so cheap that it would be impossible to meter it. In 1965 a Labour minister of power hailed the Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor as "the greatest breakthrough of all time" (although he did not go so far as to compare it with sliced bread) which was a measure of the deception in which the whole business was steeped.
In reality, the plants were massively more expensive, and more difficult to build than had been expected and when they were in operation they were plagued with breakdowns. Dungeness, in Kent— an AGR station — was estimated to cost £89 million and to be completed in 1970. Its first electricity was fed into the grid in 1983. at a building cost of £600 million. And when it finally comes on stream, a nuclear power station is selling its wares in a highly competitive market. At present, the power market is typically unstable, under the influence of falling prices for oil and for coal. By the standards of the capitalist market (but not by those of the "consumers", thousands of whom cannot afford to heat their homes in winter) there is now something of an over-production of electricity; the French industry, which drove through a programme of nuclear power stations with ruthless efficiency. is desperately seeking an export market for its "surplus ".
The mania of optimism stifled much of the opposition to nuclear power and a sizeable export trade in stations has been built up over the years. Plants have been sold to such countries as Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan and India (which is a world leader in nuclear pollution - one of the reactors there has exposed over 300 of its workers to levels above the international safety limits). Much of the world reaction to Chernobyl was concerned with the stability of the export trade before human interests. There was pressure from the British industry on the Italian not to close the Magnox plant at Latina, just south of Rome, for fear that this would encourage the campaign to close Magnox reactors in Britain. The French government deliberately tried to conceal the news of Chernobyl, as they have suppressed news about incidents in their own nuclear plants, to protect the industry A similar disregard for human safety caused the EEC to exclude East Germany from its ban on the import of foodstuffs from the countries affected by the Chernobyl fall-out; West Germany was concerned about the effect of such a ban on their trade with their supposedly ideological rival.
In the light of all this, it is hardly appropriate to describe Chernobyl as an accident, any more than it would be an accident if a car with no brakes and with defective steering came to grief on a journey down a steep, winding mountain road. Capitalism applies nuclear energy, as it does everything, with the motive of production for sale and profit. The drive for profit can reach the proportions of an all demanding. all-consuming, all-distorting hysteria, to the point at which the decision-makers begin to lose touch with even capitalist realities and become energised by their own ballyhoo. In this situation, human interests have a very low priority and when the inevitable disaster happens there is a ready supply of cynicism and deception as unguent for our fears.
Whatever criticisms we may have of this book, it is not composed as an unguent. Within its limited scope — its acceptance of the capitalist basis of profitability — it makes a strong case against nuclear power plants. Its conclusion — that the days of the nuclear industry are numbered — may be correct but if so it will not be because of any human factors but because yet another bubble of capitalist deception has burst.