Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Chernobyl - an accident? (1986)

Editorial from the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Among the more obvious and immediate dangers of Chernobyl one which went unpublicised was the possibility that the disaster will be regarded as in some way exceptional and unique - the result of some human fallibility or secretiveness by the Russian authorities. In fact, there is more to be said about it.

The Green lobby, as might have been expected, seized on the disaster as ammunition for their attack on the policy of building nuclear power stations. This attack is extremely effective, backed up with impressive evidence, but it has one vital defect. It encourages the belief that nuclear power stations, like other threats to the environment, are peculiar acts of blind folly on the part of governments. The conclusion from this is that if we change the governments, or persuade them to change their policies, the problems will disappear. We will still be able to breathe the air. eat vegetables, drink milk, without going some of the way to committing suicide. So the Greens campaign to keep capitalism in being, while hoping to make it alter course in some respects.

The facts are not encouraging to their case. There is nothing exceptional or surprising about states acting in ways which are known to have perils for human life. Every state, for example, has its armed forces whose object is to destroy things and kill people. Every state is responsible for assaults of pollution on the environment killing off forests. lakes and seas, creating dust-bowls, wrecking scenic peace with dams, power stations, motorways and the like. Governments press on with these crimes in spite of the apparent cogency of the environmentalist case against them.

This is how it has been with nuclear power stations. These are not confined to the big industrial powers, there are nearly 400 of them in operation around the world, including Brazil, Argentina, South Korea and India, and more are planned. Their existence is justified by the governments concerned on the grounds that there is no real choice. France gets 65 per cent of its energy from nuclear power. Japan 26 per cent; in both cases the official line is that the lack of any other resources makes reliance on nuclear plants unavoidable. Russia draws 11 per cent of its power from atomic energy and plans another 34 nuclear stations as part of a drive to build up the economy into a stronger competitor - a policy spurred on because of doubts about the extent of Russian oil resources. So the questions are: why do governments argue that there is no alternative to nuclear power stations and what is nuclear power essential for?

Some answers to these questions are provided, in the case of Britain, by extracts from the diary of Tony Benn. published in the Guardian on 3 May. Benn was, of course, once Minister of Technology and then of Power in a Labour government, which made him not only a supporter of nuclear power plants but also gave him an insight into the motivation behind them. (On this, as on other issues, he has recently undergone a somewhat tardy change of mind). In December 1969, worried about the safety of the Magnox reactors, particularly the one at Bradwell in Essex where there had been some ominous problems. Benn called two officials from the Atomic Energy Authority and the Central Electricity Generating Board to his office. Both men were reassuring about the safety of the plant, where there had been corrosion of bolts holding the core restraint, caused by high operating temperatures. This was no minor problem for, according to Benn, it threatened an incident (it could hardly have been called an accident) which " . . . would kill many thousands of people in the area of Bradwell and would send a radioactive cloud that might kill people in London". That risk did not prevent Bradwell station raising its operating temperature, and so increasing the danger - a gamble which was taken "In view of the problem of the fuel situation this winter and the fear of a strike and cold weather . . . " But there was more to it than a concern to supply cheap power to British industry and forestall a strike: "The thing that worried them was the possibility that this might do damage to our nuclear exports . . . "

This concern for profits before people is perfectly acceptable, indeed necessary, under capitalism. That is why there was such a determined effort to suppress news of failures in British stations and to issue soothing reassurances about their safety. A letter in The Times of 5 May reveals:
In my 25 years at, first, Windscale (now Sellafield) as a research and development officer, then Harwell as a senior principal scientific officer. it was more than anyone's career was worth to talk to the Press or write a letter about what went on inside the nuclear establishments. Radioactive spills and leaks did happen at times, but they were hushed up. Every scientific paper declared for publication had to be submitted to a most rigorous declassification rigmarole.
That is why even now. with the mounting evidence from Chernobyl that nuclear reactors are desperately dangerous, things which no social system with any concern for human welfare would contemplate, the spokespeople for the industry and the government continue to insist that they are really good for us.

Nuclear power could be safe. It menaces our life now because we live in a society of class ownership of the means of production, in which wealth is turned out for sale and profit. In this system human interests have a very low priority; if something is profitable then it happens, whatever the risk to people. The Greens attack this as if it were a form of madness when by the standards of capitalism it has a deadly sanity and logic. If anyone should doubt this, they might ponder on a certain reaction to the speculation, soon after the explosion at Chernobyl, that a total meltdown was imminent. If that had happened, the consequences for the world would have been incalculably horrific. For everyone, it seemed, this was dreadful news. But not quite everyone. The prospect of the destruction of the Ukraine sent grain and livestock prices soaring in Chicago. When there is extra profit to be made, even out of human misery, the capitalist class are keen to do so.

If Chernobyl illuminated one thing it is that human society is at present organised in the interests of a small minority and that, short of dealing with that basic condition any efforts, however sincere or thoughtful, are futile. Anyone who has been frightened by nuclear "accidents" or who is concerned for what is happening to our environment can now have no reason for standing aside from the case for the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a social system where people are the priority

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