From the February 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
You are right to argue that the choice of technology to generate electricity should be a matter of public discussion and democratic social decision and not left to capitalist enterprises or government bureaucrats. Where you go wrong is in believing (or behaving as if you believed) that this is possible within the framework of existing capitalist society.
The economics of Electricity
Capitalism is based on the ownership and control of the means of production by a minority, either privately or through the state. It exists not just in the West but, in the form of state capitalism, in Russia, China and similar countries. Under capitalism production is carried on to make a profit. Capitalist firms and states compete to sell their goods profitably. If an enterprise can produce its goods cheaper than its competitors it can make an extra profit until they too introduce the cheaper method. There is thus a stimulus under capitalism to continually introduce cheaper methods of production.
Most industry today is electric-powered so an important element in the cost of goods is the electricity used in their production. One State can win a competitive edge over its rivals if it can cut down on the costs of generating electricity. Because of the huge investment costs involved in constructing a network of generating stations, this has fallen in most cases on the state. The power stations are run as state-capitalist enterprises to enable private and state industries to compete profitably on world markets. Decisions on the technology to generate electricity are constrained by this capitalist framework. State-run power stations, just as much as private enterprises, are subject to the law of profit.
At the moment (apart from hydro-electricity) there are three main methods, all based on raising steam to turn giant turbines: burning coal, burning oil (or natural gas), and splitting atoms of uranium. All three are open to criticism from an ecological point of view. Instead of being literally burned up into useless gases, the limited coal and oil resources of the planet would be more rationally used as raw materials for the manufacture of plastics. The dangers to the environment of using nuclear fission, in particular the disposal of the radioactive waste, are now generally known as a result of your protests.
But environmental considerations only enter marginally (to the extent that other capitalist interests might be harmed by the pollution) into decisions about which method to use. The prime consideration is cheapness, the competitive position and profits of enterprises which consume the electricity. The cheapest method at the moment is to use oil, but strategic considerations (security of supply) and estimated price trends over the coming years, have led those who run the power stations to turn to nuclear fission.
Despite what is suggested by some of you, atomic power is an obvious future source of energy, preferably in the form of nuclear fusion (the fusing of atoms of light elements such as hydrogen or helium) rather than fission (the splitting of heavy elements like uranium). Nuclear fusion, using atoms of heavy hydrogen which exist in plentiful supply in the oceans of the world, promises virtually limitless energy which would be “clean”, i.e., without the dangers of radiation associated with nuclear fission. But the technical problems connected with its use have not yet been overcome and, given the limited funds now made available for research, are not expected to be for about twenty years.
Nuclear fission is a different matter. On the evidence, the long-term environmental effects of using it would outweigh any short-term advantages in releasing coal and oil for other uses. But nuclear fission reactors are already in use and more will be built as time goes on since they promise a cheaper and strategically more secure method of generating electricity than does oil. As long as capitalism continues this will happen, despite your protests, peaceful or otherwise. It is the logic of capitalism, its law of profit, which dictates this and which all governments must apply or risk hampering the competitiveness of goods produced in their countries.
A single-issue Campaign?
But are the dangers of nuclear fission a sufficient reason for singling it out for particular opposition? We say “no”, for the following reasons. The two alternative methods—burning coal or oil—are also open to objection from an ecological and environmental point of view so that a mere moratorium on building nuclear power stations (or even closing down existing ones) will not stop pollution of the environment nor waste of the world’s non-renewable resources. Single-issue campaigns of this sort divert attention from the need to get rid of capitalism before anything meaningful can be done to tackle the problems of the environment.
Some objections you raise against nuclear energy are to the use to which it is put or might be put in capitalist society. That it can be used to make weapons of mass destruction, or could fall into the hands of some terrorist group, only makes sense in the context of capitalism. If the world were not divided into capitalist states where military strength is a factor in economic competition not only for markets but also for sources of raw material and trade routes, there would be no need for armed forces or weapons of destruction, whether nuclear or “conventional”.
If you object to nuclear energy on the grounds that it is employed to manufacture nuclear weapons then logically you should be struggling, as we are, to end the society which perverts science in this way.
So what is our alternative? It is world Socialism. Already a number of writers on ecology realize that there are no national solutions to the problems of the environment, pollution and waste. The planet forms a single ecological system so it is only on a planetary scale that ecological problems can be solved. Unfortunately, this world consciousness does not go farther than demanding a world government or world bodies to deal with environmental problems, without changing the capitalist basis of society. This is why the solutions they propose can at best only be palliatives; they deal with effects while leaving the cause—the ownership of world resources by a section only of mankind and the production of goods to be sold with a view to profit—intact.
Only when freed from the vested interests of capitalism, can mankind deal rationally with the question of its relationship to the rest of nature. The production of wealth would then be under democratic social control and would be geared not only to satisfying, in accordance with the principle “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, mankind’s material needs but also to protecting the environment and sensibly conserving resources.
What could be done on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the world’s resources can be sketched (we emphasize that this is not in any way a blueprint). The burning of coal and oil could be phased out and, in addition to the development of clean nuclear power, alternative sources of energy such as water, winds, tides, the earth’s heat and the sun’s rays could be properly investigated. Coal and oil could rather be used as raw materials for manufacture. The sea, as well as much more of the land, could be farmed by methods which fit in with the balance of nature.
Such a world plan presupposes that commercial and nation-State interests have been swept away and that all the world’s resources, man-made as well as natural, have become the common heritage of all mankind. In short, world Socialism. This is why we concentrate all our efforts towards the spread of socialist consciousness without which Socialism cannot be established. Socialism can only be established when working people want and understand it and take the necessary democratic political action to achieve it. We feel that this is a much more worthwhile activity for you who are concerned about the environment than negative and ultimately futile protests at the effects of capitalism. We invite those of you who want to know more about our viewpoint to contact us.