Britain - Back to nuclear energy? But who can trust the profit system?

Jul/Aug 2006

On 28 June, DTI secretary Alistair Darling gave a lengthy interview to the Guardian which was obviously designed to set the tone on the nuclear issue, ahead of an energy review, due this July, which is to serve as a Green Paper paving the way for a new Energy Bill.

Under the title "the lights will go out if we avoid the nuclear option, Darling started by coining this scaring thought: "we run a serious risk that some day someone will go into the living room, flick the switch and nothing will happen because we do not have the capacity to generate any energy from any source at all" He then proceeded to set out his case as follows: "No-one is talking about a French-style nuclear provision, where they are up at 80%, but given where we are at the moment, with our increasing dependency on imports of gas (..) we need to took seriously at all options, and nuclear (..) does produce substantially less carbon than its gas counterpart" And for good measure, he raised the threat of rising gas prices, blamed on North Sea gas reserves being allegedly close to exhaustion, which have been driving electricity bills through the roof over the past year.

Darling's argument, therefore, was a treble-barrelled one. For the benefit of green-minded voters, he hammered in the idea that, despite what they might think, nuclear energy may well be the only environmentally-friendly large-scale source of energy, not only because it can help to cut greenhouse gas and carbon emissions, but also because it avoids depleting gas reserves. For the benefit of middle England, he brandished the scarecrow of Britain becoming dependent on imports, in other words on "foreigners", for its energy. And for the benefit of all, he made the implicit promise that the only way to contain the on-going rise of utility bills is to go down the nuclear road.

Darling's arguments and somewhat provocative tone may have come as a shock to some readers of the Guardian But in fact none of this came out of the blue. Those who believed in Labour's environmental promises had already been shocked by what appeared as a sudden about turn, at last Autumn's Labour party conference, when Blair mentioned nuclear energy as one of the options in his government's forthcoming energy review. More or less at the same time, and this was certainly not a coincidence, a House of Commons committee announced an enquiry into "fears of a Winter gas shortage". By the following May, the Observerreported another of Blair's statements, which said that nuclear power was back on the energy agenda "with a vengeance and that it would be "a dereliction of duty to rule it out. In the meantime the issue was discussed at length in the papers. Darling's latest delivery only confirms that, for the first time since Blair came to power, the government is now prepared to say openly that nuclear power is, indeed, part of its plans.

In fact, all the evidence points to the fact that there has been a carefully planned policy, designed first to create the right conditions for big business to share the spoils of a new, very profitable nuclear programme and then to prepare public opinion to the idea of its inevitability.

Hypocritical arguments

What is now becoming more and more openly the official line, as outlined in Alistair Darling's interview, is nothing new, either. Almost exactly the same line was taken by the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 90s.

Last May, a New Statesmancolumnist reminded his readers how Labour responded at the time. The then Labour shadow energy secretary challenged the Tories' energy policy, declaring in the Commons: "What is unbelievably depressing about the government's response is that they see, in the evidence about greenhouse gases, not an opportunity to promote environmental concern but a chance to make the case for nuclear power.

It may be worth noting that this ambitious young politician was none other than Tony Blair himself and that he was proved right on all accounts. As to the arguments he developed against the Tories' plans at the time, they could be used, almost without changing a dot or a comma, against the plans outlined by Darling.

Indeed, it is rather cynical to use the green card in order to promote the case for the nuclear industry, when this industry has already produced, in Britain alone, a stockpile of 470,000 cubic metres of radio-active waste, which is waiting at 20 different sites to be disposed of - without anyone appearing to have a clue as to how this can be done in a way which is safe for the environment!

Of course, the government has managed to put together a task force, known as the Committee on Radio Active Waste Management (Corwm) which has proved willing to issue a report in which it considers "deep geological disposal to be the best available approach. According to press reports, Corwn's experts were satisfied that an underground repository would be safe and represent a "fair burden to pass to future generations. Yet, other experts argue that one of the major difficulties with Britain's existing waste, is that it is made of over a thousand different varieties - partly due to the numerous military research programmes carried out over the years - and that some of these varieties are not even properly documented. As a result, no-one can be sure of what will become of them in the medium or long-term, while in storage. Leaving it to future generations to discover the answer to this question is not only an unfair burden, but an ecological crime!

Besides, there is the long record of on-going and accidental pollution caused by nuclear plants. Was the daily pumping of millions of gallons of liquid radio-active waste by the Sellafield site into the Irish sea, against which the Irish government brought a case in the European court, good for the environment? And what about the criminal case which has recently been brought by the Health and Safety Inspectorate against British Nuclear Group (BNG), the subsidiary of the state-owned British National Fuel (BNFL) which runs the Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant? Following a leak which was officially detected in April 2005, and not a small one, since it involved 80 cubic metres of dissolved nuclear fuel, the HSE discovered a catalogue of neglect - not least of which was the fact that the leak had been known about for nine months before being formally notified.

Even the argument about carbon emissions does not hold as much water as it may seem, nor, for that matter, does the attempt which is made to appeal to those who are worried about the planet's natural resources being threatened with exhaustion.

Indeed, nuclear reactors need fuel to produce energy. And for the reactor to be energy efficient or even viable, this fuel, which is uranium or a composite of uranium, needs to be extremely pure. According to a detailed article published in the Financial Timeslast February, uranium ore has been, for some time, the target of feverish speculation which is largely due to the fact that consumption of high-grade ore has risen much faster than actual production. Like in most extractive industries - including North Sea gas - there has been little new investment by companies in recent times, so that the existing exploited reserves are becoming depleted. According to this article, the only reason why the supply of uranium has not dried up is because Russia still has huge stockpiles which it sells to the rest of the world.

But this means that, at some point, on the basis of present resources, the nuclear industry will have to manage with low-grade uranium ore, which requires massive amounts of energy in order to produce proper fuel. On balance, according to research quoted by another Financial Timesarticle, a nuclear industry relying on such low-grade ore may well result in more carbon emissions than a gas-based energy industry.

As to Darling's argument about "energy independence", it is laughable given all the speeches on "globalisation" that working people have been subjected to over the past years, in order to get them to submit willingly to the exploitative whims of the capitalist class. So, it is alright for "globalisation" to result in agreements on working conditions being thrown out of the window and casualisation being imposed on workers, but it is unacceptable that Britain should be "dependent" on the rest of the world for its energy fuel? This is pure nationalistic nonsense, all the more so as, after all, there is no uranium produced in Britain anyway. Not to mention the fact that Britain is a net importer of oil and, as far as we know, while Darling has announced plans for a "pay-as-you-drive" tax, he has never mentioned any intention to stop the big haulage companies from guzzling diesel on British roads!

Out comes the state purse

The last argument used by Darling, implying that electricity bills will be cheaper if a new nuclear programme gets off the ground is just an outright lie - whether it is the bill for society as a whole or the bill for individual consumers.

In his days as shadow energy secretary, Blair attacked the Tories' attempts to push for the privatisation of the nuclear industry, by warning that the privatised nuclear companies would demand always more subsidies from the state, adding: "when it comes to the decommissioning of existing nuclear power stations, the taxpayer will be asked to underwrite the risk (..) even though the profit from the industry will have passed into the private sector. And this is exactly what happened.

But the same is happening today under Labour's rule. In fact, intense preparations have been taking place over the past years in order to pass on the overheads of a nuclear programme to consumers and guarantee comfortable dividends to the shareholders of all the companies involved in it, using the tax system and the electricity pricing system - and working class people will pay, as taxpayers, consumers or both.

Various ministers have been quoted again and again as claiming that there was no way a new nuclear programme would be able to rely on state subsidies. Well, there are subsidies and subsidies, those which are declared as such (but they are officially forbidden under this government) and those which are not (and there are many).

The bail-out of privatised British Energy by Blair, in 2002, is a case in point. Although the government always denied having "subsidised" British Energy on this occasion, it did so in two ways. First it took over responsibility for most of BE's future liabilities in return for 65% of its free cash in the form of shares - which amounted to a huge future state subsidy. Second, it got state-owned BNFL to offer BE more favourable terms for the storage and reprocessing of spent fuel - which amounted to an indirect state subsidy. As to the government's present stake in the company, it will be returned to the private sector as soon as its financial situation is considered healthy enough.

The biggest overhead of nuclear power is, of course, waste disposal and decommissioning. ow Labour plans to deal with it is best illustrated by the convoluted way in which it has resolved the problem for the existing power stations.

Last year, a new government agency was set up, the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA). It has responsibility for the disposal of all nuclear waste and ultimate decommissioning of all existing power stations. It is also the owner of the oldest nuclear power stations (those not currently owned by British Energy) and of the Thorp reprocessing plant, while these sites are operated by BNFL or one of its subsidiaries. Altogether, the NDA is estimated to have over £90bn worth of contracts to distribute (an estimate which has been revised upwards every year) over the coming decades, which will have to be paid for by taxpayers.

Yet, what about the shareholders of the private companies which made a fortune out of building and operating these power plants - like GEC, Taylor-Woodrow, Babcock and Wilcox, McAlpine, etc. - until they finally came under state control in the 1970s, not to mention the interest earned by the big banks on the huge loans they made for these projects? None of these companies bothered to think at the time about waste disposal or decommissioning. But why should they get away with it?

However, the £90bn will not be lost for everyone. Many companies are already queuing up to get their share of this state-backed bounty, including companies like Bechtel, Fluor and Amec, which are said to have suspiciously friendly relations with the Labour party machinery.

The convoluted restructuring carried out by Labour in order to free the existing companies of all their liabilities may be a clever accounting trick from the point of view of public finance, but it is a transparent one. If this is not government subsidy to the private nuclear industry, what is?

In any case, despite Labour's intimation that no state subsidy will be available for "new nuclear", as it is already branded, the capitalists know that they will not be let down in case they get into trouble over their liabilities.

A price-fixing operation

Would-be operators in the "new nuclear" project have long been complaining about the high cost of building nuclear power plants compared to conventional ones (from 3 to 6 times more expensive) and the uncertainties linked to the lengthy system of reactor licensing and planning permission, which makes it difficult to find cheap loans for the huge finance required. Above all, they have highlighted the risk that, after all, the ups and downs of the electricity market may force them to sell electricity at a loss at some point, thereby threatening them with bankruptcy, like British Energy in 2002, partly, at least, for that reason.

There again, Labour has been preparing the ground for its new nuclear programme, through numerous reports and committees. Apart from plans to relax existing rules on licensing and planning for the benefit of future nuclear power plants, government officials have already come up with two ways of dealing with the price issue in order to reassure potential nuclear industry investors.

One way would be to impose a carbon tax on all electricity producers using fossil fuels. This carbon tax would be varied so as to ensure that electricity production costs are comparable regardless of the fuel used, but its cost would obviously be passed on to consumers through the pricing system.

The other way would require electricity generators to make use of the carbon emission rights market which exists now in the European Union. So fossil fuel electricity generators would have to buy such rights, while nuclear electricity generators would not need to, which would absorb some or all of their overheads. But it also means that the cost of conventional generation would be increased and so would consumer prices.

So either way - and both could be combined - consumers would be made to pay the bill to help ensuring that "new nuclear" remains competitive despite the high cost it involves. Of course, this would amount to a huge price-fixing operation resulting in consumer prices remaining artificially high - which is rather ironical, given Labour's boast of having created the most liberalised electricity market in the world!

In any case, the promise of leaner electricity bills is a lure if nuclear industry shareholders are to be kept happy. And if there is anything that one can be sure of, it is that Labour will do nothing to displease them!

$1Capitalism cannot be trusted

Labour has clearly done its home work. After so many areas in which it has paved the way for the capitalist class to find new sources of profits - whether it be its privatisation programme, or its backdoor privatisation in the NHS and education - it is now opening the gates for capitalist profits to develop in a new field, nuclear energy. Of course, although the preparations for this have been going on for some time, the choice of doing it now is not random: the sharp rise in oil and gas prices makes it far easier to present the re-introduction of nuclear power as a necessity in front of public opinion and to ensure that the future nuclear operators will make comfortable profits out of their new ventures.

Even if there were no other reasons, the objective pursued by Labour should generate suspicion over the whole plan.

Unlike most green currents, revolutionaries are not against the use of nuclear energy in and of itself. Mastering scientific and technological progress will be a vital element for society to go forward and to build a better future. But for us, it is not just a technical matter, nor an issue of tighter regulation, it is a social issue - which social interests actually determine what is decided and done in society.

The question of carbon emissions is a typical example of this. The problem has been known for a long time. But the only "solution" that the capitalist system has come up with to resolve it has been to create a new financial market of "carbon emission rights", which by definition allow the richest companies and economies to be the worst polluters. Yet the technology needed to absorb factories' carbon emissions exists - only this costs money and very few companies are prepared to make any investment in this area, simply because it is not profitable. And the so-called "carbon emission rights" are just a way for them to avoid any obligation at a reduced cost. As to the voluntary reductions included in the Kyoto agreement, who will take them seriously when the richest capitalist class - in the US - ignores them, while Blair, who likes to posture as a green-conscious statesman and who signed the agreement, is unwilling to enforce it here.

Should nuclear energy ever be used in its present technical form? We do not know. But what we do know is that, in today's society, if there is a known alternative way to use it, it will only be chosen provided it is more profitable - but certainly not simply on the grounds that it is safer for the environment and presents less danger in case of accident.

As the case of the Thorp reprocessing plant shows, even facilities which are not supposed to be run on the basis of profitability, because they are state-owned, are nevertheless the subject of cost-cutting, regardless of the human and social consequences this may have. Even more so, when these facilities are run by companies which are driven by the demands of their bankers, the ups and downs of financial markets and the greed of their shareholders.

Capitalism is just too irresponsible and too chaotic a system to be entrusted with using the knowledge provided by modern science for the benefit of society. And this is the real and only issue.

As to the environmentalists who advocate this or that form of "renewable" energy, are they right, are they wrong? Is the solution to cover a large part of the available land with wind farms - which is what would be required just to reach the present electricity consumption? We do not know, but this is not the issue. Because whatever technology is used, it will only be used in this society in so far as it generates profits for the tiny number of parasites who own everything. Someone has to foot the bill for these profits, one way or another, meaning the vast majority - working people. And this is what is unacceptable.

Whoever wants a "clean" and socially conscious world, one in which the collective interest of society comes first, in which no effort is spared to ensure that the safety of all is guaranteed and knowledge and skills are shared for the benefit of everyone - will not build it just by patching up the capitalist system, but only by joining the camp of the working class to overthrow the power of the capitalist vultures.