Following the major nuclear disaster which hit the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, in Japan, last March, the governments of the main industrialised countries went into a state of total denial.
In Japan itself, the government took four days to admit that radiation levels around the plant could "harm human health". On the other hand, it took only 2 days for the Bank of Japan to see to the health of the banking system, injecting £177bn to prop up it up. The Japanese authorities were obviously more concerned about shareholders' dividends than "human health"!
Meanwhile, from London to Washington, Paris, Rome and Delhi, the highest state authorities were following an almost identical script, which went something like: "this cannot happen here, ours is the safest nuclear industry in the world; but just to make sure, we'll arrange for additional safety inspections to be made in all our nuclear plants". Promises cost nothing!
The very few exceptions to this universal denial were entirely politically motivated. For instance, Chris Huhne, the coalition's Lib-Dem Environment and Climate Change secretary, felt he needed to remind the public of his party's doubts about nuclear energy - but in the same breath he explained that his hands were tied by the coalition agreement. As for the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, being on the eve of a vital election in the state of Bade-Wurtemberg, she went just one token bit further by promising a 3-month review of her nuclear policy.
While governments were frantically trying to reassure the public, but above all shield their domestic nuclear industries from criticism, the Fukushima disaster sparked numerous calls for anything from a moratorium, to a ban, on the use of nuclear energy.
This recalls the old argument which says that, since manipulating the atom on any scale is potentially dangerous, it should be abandoned once and for all as a source of energy. However, since the days when this position first became popular among "green" political currents, they have found reasons to reject other sources of energy as well. So, for instance, some reject the use of fossil fuels (like coal, oil, gas, etc..) on the grounds that they only exist in finite quantities on the planet, making their use "unsustainable". Others reject all methods of producing energy by burning any kind of fuel, which they blame for disrupting the planet's climate by producing excessive amounts of carbon dioxide. Etc..
Caught in this web of contradictions, many "green" currents have changed tack. For instance, some support nuclear power as a "lesser evil" against the threat of climate change, while others argue for a return to what they call "clean coal" as an alternative to nuclear power. Either way, their reasoning still implies that energy consumption should be drastically reduced.
Of course, as revolutionary communists, we understand and share the concerns of environmentalists for the planet and the protection of mankind. In fact, Marx and his followers voiced these concerns long before there was any talk of "political ecology". But history shows us that mankind has always moved forward by improving its mastery over nature and its ability to control its future, through the use of technological progress, not, as the "greens" would have it, by shying away from using this potential.
For us, the problems facing the planet and mankind cannot be considered independently from the social organisation in which we live. The main hazard facing mankind today is not this or that form of energy, nor any other economic activity for that matter, but the devastating consequences of the race for private profit. Which is why, society will not be made safe without resolving its contradictions, and getting rid of private profit. These are the ideas that we want to develop in this forum.
TEPCO, a long record of criminal profiteering
The owner of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is the Tokyo Electricity Power Company, or TEPCO. It was created in 1951 as part of the breakup of the state electricity company, in the form of a privately-owned state-regulated regional monopoly. Subsequently, the Japanese energy market was deregulated in stages until 2000, when it became a complete free-for-all, comparable to what already existed in the US, where this kind of free-for-all was soon to produce power shortages and the Enron scandal. But it is also comparable to Britain's privatised energy industry which underwent a further transformation under Blair's watch.
TEPCO is no cow-boy operator. It is Japan's largest energy company and the 4th largest in the world. It owns 17 nuclear reactors, 20 oil-fired power stations and 2 coal-fired ones. Last year, it produced 29% of the country's electricity, supplying 2m businesses and 26m households. As the Financial Times pointed out in April, TEPCO "is really too big to fail", especially as, in addition, it is also part of Japan's largest business conglomerate - Dai-Ichi Kangyo Group, which includes, among others, the country's second largest financial group, Mizuho Financial Group, as well as Hitachi, Fujitsu, Kobe Steel, and two dozen other large companies. No wonder TEPCO is being propped up by the Bank of Japan and other big Japanese Banks, with loans worth £14bn to deal with its crisis!
Despite its huge industrial empire and powerful business connections, TEPCO has a long criminal record, involving cost cutting at the expense of safety and the convoluted camouflage of its failures.
Immediately after the Fukushima disaster, the media recalled a scandal dating back to August 2002, when the Japanese government revealed that TEPCO was guilty of false reporting in routine governmental inspections of its nuclear plants and systematic concealment of plant safety incidents. All 17 of its nuclear reactors were shut down for inspection as a result. Eventually TEPCO admitted to 200 cases between 1977 and 2002, in which false technical data had been submitted to the authorities, in order to avoid complying with existing regulations or to conceal safety breakdowns. Eventually, all TEPCO's reactors went back into operation in 2005, but no charge was ever brought against the company's top management.
The 2-year suspension of TEPCO's nuclear generation did not end the company's criminal attitude to safety. In 2007, an earthquake of magnitude 6.6 on the Richter scale (therefore 250 times less powerful than this year's earthquake) hit TEPCO's largest nuclear plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, on the western coast. Although this was a relatively moderate earthquake, its epicentre was only 12 miles from the plant, which was severely shaken. Despite TEPCO's initial attempt to cover up what was happening, this event exposed the plant's anti-seismic protection as inadequate - in particular, when radioactive material leaked into the Sea of Japan. As a result, TEPCO had to stop all 7 reactors at the plant for 21 months, in order to carry out repairs and strengthen their defences against future earthquakes.
But perhaps the most damning example of TEPCO's profiteering is the least publicised by the media - the working conditions it imposes on its workforce. According to the most recent figures, contract workers represent 88% of the 83,000 workers employed by Japan's nuclear plants and 89% of Fukushima Daiichi's 10,000-strong workforce. Just like here, these workers are employed through a pyramid of subcontractors and at each level of the subcontracting pyramid, wages, benefits and protection against radiation tend to deteriorate. In April, the Tokyo correspondent of an Indian daily described their conditions as follows:
"Some[contract] workers are hired from construction sites, and some are local farmers looking for extra income. Yet others are hired by local gangsters, according to a number of workers who did not want to give their names. They spoke of the constant fear of getting fired, trying to hide injuries to avoid trouble for their employers, carrying skin-coloured adhesive bandages to cover up cuts and bruises. In the most dangerous places, current and former workers said, radiation levels would be so high that workers would take turns approaching a valve just to open it, turning it for a few seconds before a supervisor with a stopwatch ordered the job to be handed over to the next person."
In addition to lower wages, lack of adequate training and protective work gear is the common fate of all contract workers in every industry across the world. After all, if big companies resort to this form of employment, isn't it precisely to boost profits by reducing their wage bills? Except that in the nuclear industry, just as in a number of other industries involving dangerous chemicals, this profiteering threatens the lives of the workers concerned.
Fukushima, a disaster waiting to happen
Understanding what really happened at Fukushima Daiichi, even if the full details were publicly available - which is far from being the case - would take far more expertise in nuclear physics and technology than we have. So we will make no attempt to do that. But it is worth going through some of the facts which have eventually filtered through about the background to this disaster.
TEPCO's Fukushima plant is among the world's 15 largest nuclear power plants. It was built in the late 1960s, on this stretch of Japan's coast, partly because it gave the plant access to seawater if need be, partly because it allowed heavy equipment to be brought by ship and partly because of the low price of land in the area.
It was apparently considered an "acceptable risk" that a well-known seismic fault, which was known to have produced 4 earthquakes of magnitude 8 or more on the Richter scale over the past 400 years, ran close to this coastline. After all, wasn't the plant built in accordance with the country's anti-seismic regulations? Being so close to the ocean, the plant was also provided with some protection against the risk of a tsunami following an earthquake. But this was based on the 20ft wave height of the 1960 tsunami in Japan, without taking into account the possibility of a worse scenario. This was cynically described by TEPCO's vice-president, in an interview to the Reuters new agency in late March, as allowing for a "margin of error".
Yet, for years, TEPCO bosses had known that allowing such a small "margin of error", meant imposing significant risk on the plant's workers and surrounding communities. In 2004, after the Indonesian tsunami hit an Indian nuclear power plant, TEPCO's engineers launched a study into the potential threat of a tsunami at Fukushima Daiichi. In 2007, they concluded that there was a 1 in 10 chance of a tsunami involving a wave higher than 20ft hitting the plant within the next 50 years, and recommended that anti-tsunami protection should be upgraded. However, this was considered too expensive by the company, which chose to do nothing on the grounds, according to its vice-president, that there "was no consensus among the experts". In the end, the wave that hit Fukushima on March 11th, was 47ft high, more than twice the "worst case scenario" for which TEPCO had been prepared to pay!
The plant's first reactor began operation in March 1970. By 1979, a total of six reactors had been brought online, 3 built by US giant General Electric, 2 by Japan's Hitachi and one by Toshiba. All six are based on designs patented by General Electric in the 1960s and 70s. By 2011, not only were these designs outdated, but the GE Mark I design on which reactors 1 to 5 were based had been known to have a number of flaws for a very long time.
Indeed, the New York Times reported on March 12th: "GE began making the Mark 1 boiling-water reactors in the 1960s, marketing them as cheaper and easier to build". However, says the paper: "In 1972, Stephen H Hanauer, then a safety official with the Atomic Energy Commission, recommended that the Mark 1 system be discontinued because it presented unacceptable safety risks. Among the concerns cited was the smaller containment design, which was more susceptible to explosion and rupture from a buildup in hydrogen - a situation that may have unfolded at the Fukushima Daiichi plant". Obviously the recommendation had been ignored, but this was not all.
"In the 1980s", continues the New York Times, "Harold Denton, an official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, asserted that Mark 1 reactors had a 90 percent probability of bursting should the fuel rods overheat and melt in an accident. Industry officials disputed that assessment, saying the chance of failure was only about 10 percent". In fact, these officials were knowingly lying at the time, as was shown "in the late 1980s after the disclosure of internal company documents dating back to 1975 that suggested that the containment vessel designs were either insufficiently tested or had flaws that could compromise safety".
Despite all the evidence, of course, it was neither in the interests of General Electric nor of TEPCO, to make substantial investments in safety improvements, let alone replace these faulty reactors. In fact, to date, there are still 32 GE Mark I reactors in operation across the world, including 23 in the US. If anything, this shows that, despite Obama's proclaimed confidence in the safety of the US nuclear industry, the profiteering of its richest nuclear company has a share of responsibility for the Fukushima disaster!
Beyond the doubts that should have been raised by the design of the plant and of its reactors, there was also a series of advance warnings exposing a number of flaws. The plant's worst safety incident was only revealed in 2002, following the scandal caused by TEPCO's forgeries. This had occurred as early as 1978, when an uncontrolled chain reaction was caused in reactor No. 3, apparently due to human error. There are reports of safety breaches almost every year after that. Whether these were resolved or not, we do not know. But the fact is that they kept taking place. As recently as last year, two reactors had to be stopped due to a similar breakdown, involving a sudden drop in the level of the cooling water.
Just one month before this year's tsunami, government regulators approved TEPCO's request to prolong the life of one of its six reactors at Fukushima by another decade, despite its dubious record, and despite warnings that its backup power generator contained stress cracks, making them more vulnerable to water damage. Shortly after, TEPCO admitted it had failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment inside the plant's cooling systems, including water pumps.
This latter admission by TEPCO is all the more damning as one of the main explanations it gave for the explosions which took place in four of the plant's six reactors following the tsunami, was the failure of their cooling systems.
But TEPCO's criminal attitude did not stop there. For a long time, TEPCO claimed that the plant had withstood the earthquake. The problem, said the company, was that once the plant was cut off from the national grid, it had been unable to use its backup diesel generators which were flooded by the tsunami. Eight weeks after the event, however, the story was somewhat changed when TEPCO finally admitted to the fact that the plant, its cooling systems and its generators had all suffered "structural damage" due to the earthquake. Then and only then did TEPCO's management finally state that the plant would have to be decommissioned for good.
When the earthquake struck, three of the plant's reactors were already stopped for maintenance. But these reactors turned out to be just as much at risk as those in operation. This was because huge quantities of spent nuclear fuel were stored in these idle reactors. In fact, over its 4 decades of nuclear generation, TEPCO had never seen the point of investing in a separate storage facility - what profits would they have made out of it? However, this accumulation of very hot and highly radio-active waste in such small containers implied a whole series of risks - as was proved by the two explosions that took place in reactor No 4, despite the fact that it was stopped. The only way to avert these risks was to restore an effective cooling system.
In this respect, TEPCO came under heavy criticism for its handling of the disaster. Even after the second of the five explosions had occurred, the company still insisted that the reactor cores were intact and should be salvaged at all costs. The main danger was the low level of cooling water in the reactors and the way to deal with it, since the normal cooling systems were out of operation, was to flood the reactor cores with the only liquid available in large quantities - sea water. But rather than using this solution straightaway, TEPCO waited for three days. It was only after the third explosion occurred that it finally ordered the use of seawater and, even then, only for one of the reactors. Why such a delay? Quite simply because the salt contained in the sea water was certain to make the reactor cores unusable, forever. Preserving these cores was seen as more "cost-effective" by TEPCO than averting the risk of a complete meltdown!
Little has been said, once again, about the workers who were used as cannon fodder in the desperate fight to contain the disaster. 24 hours after the tsunami struck, the company admitted that 190 of the site workers had been exposed to life-threatening levels of radiation. By the beginning of April, another 21 workers had each been exposed to cumulative radiation doses of more than 100 millisieverts, the maximum total of radiation that nuclear plant workers should be exposed over a 2-year period according to past regulations. However, since nuclear regulators raised this maximum to 250 millisieverts this March, these workers are now supposed to be alright! But even this pretence to abide by legal safety standards is bogus, as is shown, for instance, by the fact that for several weeks, emergency workers were not even supplied with the individual dosometers required to measure their exposure! To add insult to injury, TEPCO has just demanded that its workforce should agree to a 25% pay cut as a gesture of "solidarity", a demand that the electrical workers' union has immediately and proudly yielded to, out of a "sense of responsibility" as its leaders said in an official statement! For the likes of TEPCO, workers' lives literally come cheap!
Nearly two months after the disaster, no-one can be sure of its consequences. The nuclear authorities have given the event a level 6 rating. On this scale, the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown has a level 5 and the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, level 7. But this rating is merely an empirical evaluation of the visible damage so far, not a scientific measure of long-term impact.
For the time being, all that can be said is that a full-blown meltdown of the Chernobyl type has been avoided. But heavy secrecy surrounds the structural damage caused to the plant, the radio-active leaks into the nearby Pacific Ocean and the quantities of radio-active particles released into the atmosphere. Even for those who have access to this data, it will probably take many months, if not years, to measure the disaster's impact.
But it is unlikely that the data will ever be released to the general public, at least not as long as the profit sharks run the world, nor will the findings be acted upon. The vested interests involved are far too poweful. As Iouli Andreev, the Russian nuclear accident specialist who directed the clean up of Chernobyl, told the Reuters news agency in March: "After Chernobyl all the force of the nuclear industry was directed to hide this event, for not creating damage to their reputation. The Chernobyl experience was not studied properly because who has money for studying?" The same will happen with Fukushima, because there is no profit to be made out of safety.
The nuclear dustbins of capital
After the explosions in reactor No 4, British commentators made a point of stressing the role played by TEPCO's irresponsible piling up of nuclear waste in this reactor. But, in this respect, Britain probably provides the most glaring example of profit-driven short-termism.
Although Britain's nuclear industry is relatively small by international standards, its main nuclear waste repository, the site owned by the NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority), at Sellafield in Cumbria, has been described as the "dustbin of Europe". Thousands of tons of waste have been piled up there over the past 50 years, in 250 separate facilities occupy just 1.5 square miles, making it the world's most densely-crowded nuclear site. This waste, which includes 100 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium, has a radio-active life-span ranging from ten of thousands to over a hundred thousand years.
In 2009, a Guardian reporter gave a graphic description. In one facility, he wrote, "piles of old nuclear reactor parts and decaying fuel rods, much of them of unknown provenance and age, line the murky, radioactive waters of the cooling pond (..). Down there, pieces of contaminated metal have dissolved into sludge that emits heavy and potentially lethal doses of radiation". In another facility, a silo-shaped building built in the 1950s, "nuclear waste was tipped in at the top once the building was erected and then allowed to fall to the bottom. Later, when it was realised that pieces of aluminium and magnesium among this waste could catch fire and cause widespread contamination, inert argon gas had to be pumped in to smother potential blazes. And so, for the past 60 years, the building has remained in this state, its highly radioactive contents mingling and reacting with each other".
No-one really knows what there is in this lethal junkyard, because no-one ever bothered to keep track of what the trucks full of waste were bringing in over the years. It was considered that dealing with this could be postponed to some future time, when a magic wand would make it possible to sort out the problem. Except that while no magic wand materialised, this nuclear junkyard was threatening to become more unpredictably dangerous.
Finally, in the 1990s it was decided to try to reduce the stockpile and the Thorp reprocessing plant was built. It came into operation in 1997. But in the general privatisation scheme of the time, it was decided that this plant would have to generate enough profit to fund the clean-up of the Sellafield site and of the 10 older Magnox nuclear power plants. To this end Thorp was meant to produce and sell every year 56 tons of Mox, a nuclear fuel which could be used by many reactors.
However, the Thorp plant revealed countless design flaws and faced safety problems as soon as it came into operation, many of which were due to cost-savings. Two years later, a scandal broke out when its managers turned out to have sent shipments to Japan and Germany with falsified quality control certificates. In 2000, the containers used by Thorp to export Mox were disqualified, when tests proved that they would rupture after less than 3 minutes of exposure to a fire. In 2005, the plant was closed down for 2 years after serious leaks of radio-active liquids. By 2009, it was estimated that the plant had operated, on average, at just over 2% of its capacity! It was a complete flop.
After that, in response to Sellafield's unending problems, one of the last gestures of Gordon Brown's Labour government was to appoint a new CEO for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in charge of the site. Its choice was Tony Fountain, former president of BP's North American power unit - the very company responsible for the explosion and fire which had killed 15 workers in a BP refinery, in Kansas City, in 2005! This was a very symbolic choice for Sellafield!
Today, the government may well claim that, at last, it has a waste disposal plan for Britain. But guess what? Its target is to have completed its task by the year 2120 - and this only includes the clean-up of Sellafield and that of the ten oldest power plants! In the meantime, the idea of a deep underground repository to provide additional storage is being mooted, even though this would only help to conceal the problem for a few more decades without resolving anything.
The nuclear industry and the state
In the Fukushima disaster, TEPCO emerges clearly as the "bad guy", with the spectre of US giant General Electric featuring in the background. But of course, these are not just "bad apples" in an otherwise spotless industry. In every country, the nuclear industry operates in the same way, with a few big players each controlling large sectors of the industry, and governments underwriting their profits. Besides, should a nuclear disaster take place, the state is always there to cover most of the companies' liabilities, regardless of their responsibility.
Whether these big players are privately-owned or state-run makes no difference. The state-run nuclear operators are merely proxies for the big private companies they use as subcontractors. In Britain, for instance, the state-run NDA already mentioned, is mainly a front through which the state shares out its funding between three large private contractors.
Due to these close links, there is an on-going game of musical chairs involving the nuclear regulation body, the top spheres of the nuclear companies and ministerial departments. The regulators in charge of watching the wrong-doings of nuclear companies and government officials in charge of acting upon their findings, are more likely than not to originate from, or end up in, the boardrooms of the same companies! The result is just an elaborate cover-up operation.
In and of themselves, these close links between the state and the big players are not specific to the nuclear industry. Industries requiring large investment all operate more or less in the same way in this capitalist world. But the fact that the nuclear industry also belongs to the smaller, elite club of strategic industries - like the weapons, aircraft and space industries, among others - has played a role in giving it its present shape.
Ever since its inception, this strategic role has served as a justification to keep the nuclear industry under a thick veil of secrecy. And two decades after the end of the Cold War, this veil remains as thick as ever. Recently, the Guardian newspaper reported on the 1,000-strong police force in charge of Britain's nuclear facilities. Not only do nuclear workers have to sign the Official Secrets Act, but this force has extensive powers similar to those of Revenue and Customs. According to the Guardian, being caught taking pictures of a nuclear facility may be enough to be arrested under anti-terrorist legislation.
But all this secrecy has nothing to do with any terrorist threat. Like their counterparts in other major industries, the nuclear magnates know all too well what could really stop their dirty profiteering and cost-cutting: the control of the workforce over the production process and the scrutiny of the public over their industry.
The nuclear industry, big business and safety
If, more than half-a-century since the first nuclear power plant came into operation, nuclear generation remains so dangerous, it is not for lack of scientific or technological knowledge, but primarily because, at every stage of the industry's development, priority was given to capitalist profit.
The decisive discoveries which paved the way for today's nuclear industry were made in the 1930s, when two methods of generating huge quantities of heat by releasing some of the colossal energy contained in the atom's nucleus were found. Ironically, the method which was discovered first, in 1932 (nuclear "fusion") was clean, in that it used very light atoms (essentially hydrogen), could not possibly get out of control and left easily disposable by-products. By contrast, the method of nuclear "fission", which was discovered only 6 years later, used very heavy atoms, left highly-radioactive by-products and was prone to get out of control under certain conditions.
Despite being so much more dangerous, it was the "fission" method that was preferred over its cleaner "fusion" alternative. One reason was technological: in order to prime a "fusion" reaction a huge burst of energy was required and, at the time, there was no readily available way of doing this on any significant scale. Of course, by putting all scientific resources into it, this problem might have been resolved, even if meant waiting for another one or two decades.
But a far more decisive reason prevailed. By that time, the build up to World War II was in full swing. The rival capitalist classes of the US and Germany were throwing all available resources into the resulting arms race. The "fission" method was pursued since it was likely to yield results faster, not for production of energy of course, but for the purpose of developing a super-deadly weapon. The authorities were not bothered about the dangers involved. After all, aren't weapons meant to be dirty, by definition? And for the next 13 years or so, nuclear science was entirely focused on military purposes, first to assert the dominant role of US capital at the end of WWII and then as part of the Cold War.
Fortunately, many among the most prominent US nuclear physicists of the 1940-50s were outraged by the way their work was being used, especially after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and some decided to develop a "clean" form of nuclear energy.
Eventually, these efforts were fruitful, resulting in several alternative reactor designs which were safer. One of these projects, for instance, the so-called "liquid fluoride thorium reactor" - or "lifter" for short - was finalised in the early 1970s, by a team led by Alvin Weinberg. The "lifter" was far safer to operate and 50% more efficient than existing designs, while its by-products were easier to decontaminate and partly re-usable. In addition, the "lifter" used thorium as its main fuel, which was less dangerous to handle than the uranium used in today's reactors across the world.
However, when it came under consideration by the US nuclear authorities, in 1973, the "lifter" hit several obstacles. The most formidable proved to be capitalist profit. This was the period when, taking advantage of the oil boycott threatened by the Arab countries after the Yom Kippur war with Israel, the oil majors had engineered a huge increase in oil prices. For the private generating companies, this made nuclear plants, which they had considered too expensive so far, as profitable as oil-fired power plants. That year alone, these companies signed contracts to build 41 nuclear power plants. The manufacturers of existing uranium-based reactors were not going to allow such a bounty to slip out of their hands, just because a new, safer design had become available! Nor was the US government going to threaten the dividends of their shareholders by imposing the "lifter"! As a result, the "lifter" was shelved, while the uranium-based design spread across the US first, and then in many other countries.
As to nuclear "fusion", it is only very recently, from around 2005 onwards, that significant investment has been put into developing research on its potential - although not paid for by the huge profits of the nuclear industry, but by state funding. Among the main projects is the ITER project, which brings together 33 countries, but is not expected to deliver any results before 2018, at best.
One may ask whether throwing all the resources of research into nuclear "fusion" right from the beginning, or choosing one of the alternative safer "fission" designs conceived in the 1970s, like the "lifter", would have considerably reduced the risks attached to nuclear generation. Probably yes, even if we cannot know for sure. But the fact is, that these alternative forms of energy generation were dismissed out of hand, to preserve the imperialist aims of the US capitalist class, in the case of "fusion", and then to preserve the profits of companies like General Electric or Westinghouse. From this point of view alone, capitalist profiteering bears a heavy responsibility for the development of an unnecessarily dangerous industry.
The nuclear industry is far from being the only one in which profiteering is a permanent and lethal hazard. The chemical industry does not hit the headlines quite as often, but it has certainly claimed far more victims than the nuclear industry over the past decades, and not just because it is many times larger. However, as in the nuclear industry, the problem is not the inherent danger of handling chemicals, but the priorities which dictate how they are handled. And the cocktail of profiteering and toxic molecules is particularly lethal.
Probably the worst example of this is what happened at Union Carbide's Bhopal factory, in northern India, in 1984. This plant was opened in 1969 to produce the pesticide carbaryl. After the disaster, it emerged that Union Carbide had, contrary to its claims at the time, installed cheaper and inferior technology at the plant. Over the years, serial cost cutting and the sacking of skilled workers led to dangerously low levels of maintenance. Pipes were allowed to corrode without being replaced and even necessary safety valves had not been fitted. The capacity of safety devices wasn't adequate to deal with a serious gas leak, nor were there procedures in place to deal with such a leak - though there had been many other incidents before, leading to serious burns and injury of workers. Union activists who raised safety issues were victimised, sacked or otherwise gagged.
In fact in the run-up to the gas blow out, the pipe connection to the flare tower (a system for burning off escaped gas) was disconnected for maintenance. To save money, the plant's refrigeration unit had been switched off for weeks. This meant that the methyl isocyanate gas (MIC) in the storage tanks couldn't be kept at 5ºC or less as it should have been, but was held in an unstable state at an average 20ºC.
So when, in the early hours of 3rd December 1984, during a cleaning operation, a mixture of running water and rust went into the MIC tank, it caused a runaway heat reaction, producing a dense, lethal cloud containing mainly MIC, but also other toxic gas and chemicals. The cloud blew low over the town, hitting first the crowded informal settlements right next to the factory, causing intense burning of people's eyes and throats. The cloud was so toxic, that it immediately killed 2,259 people by asphyxiation (these are the official figures, which probably means at least twice that number). Another 8,000 died within days. But over 500,000 people were exposed. It is thought that 20,000 more died later as a result of the effects of the poisoning. At least 100,000 are left with permanent physical injury.
The combination of lies, cover-up and corruption in connection with this disaster is as dense and toxic as the killer cloud manufactured by Union Carbide at the time - and it lasts up until today. Unbelievably, in the months after the disaster, there was no information available as to the effects of MIC and the other derivatives which might have been in the cloud - like hydrogen cyanide. The known antidote for cyanide poisoning which finally experts (among them from the chemical warfare facility at Portadown in Britain) were forced to admit could be effective against MIC as well - sodium thiosulphate - had never been retained for emergencies, and only a limited supply was made available in Bhopal, but months too late!
Union Carbide never ever admitted any responsibility. After their investigation, their official version was that a single disgruntled worker had deliberately piped water into the tank. They said that what happened could never have been "accidental". It was only in this respect that UC was right: it was no accident, because their criminal cost cutting was to blame!
As for the aftermath, it is true, as some assert, that the Indian authorities should bear some of the responsibility for the appalling lack of care which was delivered. But a company like Union Carbine, which had $10bn assets, could have provided all that was needed to alleviate the effects of this disaster and also do the environmental clean-up. But that still, up to today, hasn't been done. The factory site became a dumping ground for all kinds of chemicals including mercury and these have leached into the water supply. The townspeople are still being poisoned 27 years later.
Seveso - marked by profiteering
The Seveso disaster in Italy predates Bhopal and was not as devastating. But it showed that even in Europe's fourth richest country, disasters could occur for which no preventive measures were in place. It also showed the difference between a poor country like India and a richer country like Italy in the outcome.
Seveso is a town of 20,000 inhabitants in north Italy, 15 km from Milan. The ICMESA plant where the accident occurred was owned by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche. The plant employed 170 workers to produce intermediate compounds for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industry. In the 1970s it began producing large amounts of trichlorophenol, which is a toxic and inflammable compound used for making weedkiller. On the weekend of 10 July 1976, an explosion in one of its tanks due to a sudden heat reaction broke a possibly faulty safety valve. A cloud of tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin (TCDD) escaped - and it was blown downwind to a rather densely populated area of 7 square miles.
This TCDD form of dioxin is highly toxic, stable and persistent. It settled in this area and immediately killed over 3,000 animals. The leaves on the trees turned brown and fell off. Nobody died, but people in the area developed "chloracne" - a severe, disfiguring and semi-permanent form of pustular acne. The closest residents were exposed to the highest concentrations of dioxin yet experienced. But guess what, even though Roche was making this molecule in huge quantities it had no available information on its effects on humans. After a week it advised evacuation of the 736 people closest to the plant. They had to leave without their possessions. Residents a little further away were told to "refrain from procreation". Women were advised to have abortions, despite the fact that this was illegal in Italy (but it was allowed in their cases).
It was longer term that the damage to their bodies was going to become evident. But that was a long time after the authorities had already washed their hands of this contamination. They declared in 1984 that "with the exception of chloracne, there were no ill effects ... which could be attributed to TCDD". This was a lie. But official follow up of those exposed was stopped in 1985. 25 years later the ill effects have been found to be substantial, with higher than normal levels of cancers, diabetes and lung disease.
At the time of the disaster, scientists and toxicologists, especially those engaged in chemical warfare, knew that dioxin caused cancer and birth defects. Indeed, dioxin is a component of "Agent Orange" which had been sprayed on vegetation in Vietnam to prevent the Vietcong from hiding from US surveillance. But neither for the US in Vietnam, nor for Roche in Seveso was the long-term follow up of victims something that they wanted to get involved in.
The company's Italian director was arrested. But before he could be tried, in February 1980, he was shot dead by a left-wing terrorist organisation, Prima Linea. In 1983, 5 former employees of ICMESA were sentenced to 5 years in prison - and on appeal 3 were found not guilty - while the other 2 were eventually jailed in 1986.
The lethal waste of capital
It is not just nuclear waste which constitutes an ongoing risk in the hands of the profit sharks - but all waste, industrial and otherwise.
There is the case, for instance, of the Love Canal Chemical dump created as early as 1920 by Hooker Chemical, near Niagara Falls. The site was "sealed up" and the land sold for $1. Then, in 1953, a real estate development was built there under the appealing name of "Love Canal". But strange odours and seepages appeared and there was a high incidence of birth defects amongst the residents as well as various illnesses. By 1978, it was eventually admitted that the chemical dump beneath was responsible and all the families were moved away from the area. 20,000 tons of chemical waste consisting of 248 different chemicals including the most toxic form of dioxin were found to be present. The development was closed. Hooker's parent company was sued and settled for $20m - but the horror story isn't over. In 1998, the dump site, still containing all theses toxic chemicals was just re-sealed, the area supposedly cleaned up and the houses in Love Canal went on sale again!
Another case was that of the Grande Paroisse AZF fertiliser factory, in Toulouse, which was owned by the oil major Total, but run by a subcontractor. There, it was the handling of waste by yet another subcontractor which caused an explosion, in 2001. Sacks containing unknown chemical waste products were placed in a drum in the lobby of a storage building which was full of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate. These chemical products contained in the drum reacted together, producing enough heat to prime the explosion of the fertiliser stored in the building. This blew a crater 200m wide and 30m deep, destroying the whole factory and the factory next door, causing 31 deaths, 20,000 injuries including blindness, paralysis and deafness. It demolished 1,000 homes and damaged 50,000 more causing devastation to a quarter of the town of Toulouse.
When the final court hearing took place in 2009, the tribunal found that the bosses of Total could not be charged for lack of evidence - evidence which in fact Desmaret, Total's CEO, had concealed from the court. Total passed the buck of responsibility to its contractor - and the state and insurance companies picked up most of the bill for compensation and repair. Total has got off scott-free.
It is not just industrial waste for which the capitalists do not have safe disposal solutions, but also domestic waste. Britain has one of the worst problems in Europe - with the highest amount (19m tonnes per year) in the EU going to landfill. It is failing to meet targets to reduce this. So the tax which is charged to councils to dump rubbish in landfill holes is being increased to encourage greener policies like recycling. The problem is that rotting landfill waste produces methane which is not only a poisonous gas for humans and animals, but it is a bigger contributor to global warming than CO2. The councils complain that by having to pay the landfill tax they haven't the money left to spend on recycling and composting green waste. A vicious circle!
There is an even worse scandal when it comes to waste which is considered potentially toxic from the start. In fact most of this is still exported and often the job is handed to contractors who are then not monitored, which leads to the most horrendous dumping in and off African coasts, for instance resulting in the poisoning of local populations - as was the case with the dumping of toxic waste by Dutch company Trafigura in Ivory Coast, in 2006, which resulted in 17 deaths and over 30,000 injured.
The "e-waste" body representing the electronics industry admits abuse is widespread. As the Independent newspaper reported last year: "With the average Briton throwing away four pieces of e-waste every year, approximately 500,000 tonnes is going unaccounted for. Industry research (..) estimates that at least 10,000 tonnes of waste televisions and 23,000 tonnes of computers classified as hazardous waste are being illegally exported as part of a wider e-waste market worth 'tens of millions of pounds'".
George Monbiot, the environmental campaigner, told the following story: "When the great tsunami of 2004 struck the Somali coast, it dumped and smashed open thousands of barrels on the beaches and in villages up to 10km inland. According to the United Nations, they contained clinical waste from western hospitals, heavy metals, other chemical junk and nuclear waste. People started suffering from unusual skin infections, bleeding at the mouth, acute respiratory infections and abdominal haemorrhages. The barrels had been dumped in the sea, a UN spokesman said, for one obvious reason: it cost European companies around $2.50 a tonne to dispose of the waste this way, while dealing with them properly would have cost "something like $1,000 a tonne."
The truth is that while recycling just doesn't fit with the need to make a quick buck for big business, the production of massive amounts of domestic waste does - whether it is for the billion-pound packaging and canning industries or for the manufacturers of so many goods which are not designed to last, but to be thrown away and replaced needlessly.
A deep addiction to profit
The pharmaceutical industry, as part of the chemical industry shares the same features. But in addition its profiteering has a far wider impact for those who take their medicines. In this industry, the race between rival companies for patents and markets not only prevents cures for non-profitable treatments to be developed (eg., for malaria) but also means that corners are cut to get there first - so tests are rushed and in the worst cases fraudulent research is submitted to prove efficacy and safety.
It is over 50 years since the thalidomide scandal - now referred to as the worst medical disaster in history and affecting 20,000 people. Thalidomide was marketed worldwide after being patented in Germany by the company Grunenthal in 1954. By the late 1950s, and until the 1960s it was used as a tranquillizer and for the treatment of morning sickness in pregnant women. But it had not been properly tested for transmission across the placental barrier, and when it was proven that it caused birth defects in 1961, the drug was withdrawn. The companies responsible eventually paid compensation, but the governmental regulatory bodies were ultimately held responsible for allowing the drug onto the market before checking it had undergone rigorous testing. Last year in January, the British government decided to apologise and settle an additional £20m package on survivors, whose needs obviously must increase with time.
But has much changed since then? In fact there have been countless instances since thalidomide, of drugs being marketed and then withdrawn after causing death and injury. There are far too many to mention. Here's one example. Mediator, produced by the 2nd largest French pharmaceutical company, Servier, was one of several similar drugs used to treat obesity which were introduced in the 1970s. In 1990, all these medicines were withdrawn due to their toxicity - except for Mediator, which was dressed up as a treatment for diabetes for the benefit of the regulating authorities, even though it was still mostly used as an anti-obesity drug. Having no competitors left, Mediator turned into one of Servier's biggest earners. By 1999, an official report questioned whether the drug had any real use against diabetes, but the authorities did nothing - probably due to Servier's connections in high places. Despite an internal report warning that the drug could cause damage to heart valves, Servier went on selling it. It took another decade for the drug to be finally banned in 2009, after having been found to have killed at least 500 and up to 2,000 people, depending on estimates. The French health products safety agency says at least 5 million people have taken the drug since 1976!
Although private profiteering is not directly involved in the running of public health services, the permanent cost-cutting in state social expenditure under the pressure of a capitalist class which always wants a larger share of public funds for its own benefit, has a similar impact. One example of this was the "tainted-blood scandal" in the NHS.
In the last few decades the trend in the NHS when it comes to treatment provision, has been towards taking what they call "calculated risks". Like on the railways they calculate how many people will die if they don't install the most modern signalling systems and then decide it's ok to go with the cheaper, less safe version. When blood borne diseases like hepatitis C, then HIV and then BSE (so-called "mad-cow disease") were discovered it was obvious they could be spread via blood products. Calculated risks were taken, given that patients with haemophilia may have bled to death without being given blood products. But these blood products could well have been contaminated with a virus - or a prion, the primitive virus-like agent responsible for BSE. In fact before the heat-treatment for some of these products became available - or even today's synthetic products, it meant that a whole generation of haemophiliacs risked infection.
The so-called "tainted blood scandal" affected 4,670 haemophiliacs in Britain. They were given blood contaminated with hepatitis C. At the time - although little was known about the long-term effects of this newly discovered form of blood-borne hepatitis, it was decided to take the risk and give the product. 1,200 of this group of haemophiliacs also then became infected with HIV. Out of the whole group, only 1,200 are still alive today.
The BSE scandal, however, has probably yet to unfold fully with regard to human victims when it comes to tainted blood. But already there have been several cases where variant Creuzfeld-Jacob Disease (vCJD), which is the human form of mad cow disease has been transmitted by blood transfusion and the risk remains, since an effective blood screening test does not exist yet for this disease. So again, calculated risks are being taken in giving blood products or transfusions of whole blood - and perhaps doctors are right this time, since the incidence of vCJD is expected to be low in the population.
The figures do seem to confirm this. Since 1990, there have been 119 confirmed vCJD deaths, with only one last year. But of course that does not mean there are not others which were never referred to the authorities.
What cannot be forgotten however, is why this highly infectious epidemic among British cattle first developed. Despite the fact that cattle are herbivores, farmers were giving protein supplements to them containing processed meat and bone meal from slaughtered animals - including those destroyed because they were sick. This feed supplement was meant to be sterilised at high temperatures - but in Britain the law was relaxed in this respect, so that British feed producers could have a competitive edge over their continental rivals. The BSE which cattle contracted here (first diagnosed in 1986) was traced to contaminated feed which had been inadequately sterilised, and which contained live prions.
Almost 200,000 cattle were infected in the country and 4.4m were slaughtered to prevent the spread of the disease. Of course the beef market collapsed. The cattle feed capitalists may have got their come-uppance, but what was ultimately the effect of their greed, was devastating. BSE spread far and wide before a ban on British cattle and beef imports could be instituted. The disease is still not totally eradicated with the odd case still occurring on British farms. And all this, just to boost the profits of a few animal feed manufacturers!
The hidden industrial toll
We react to the death and injury toll of the highly publicised disasters when media give these high priority. But who talks about the toll from the day-to-day profiteering of capitalism? Yet, it is much, much, higher. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that there were 551,000 new cases of illness caused by work last year and this is in addition to the estimate of 246,000 injuries. The 151 workers killed at work was, however, at an all-time low - but this was due almost wholly to the recession.
Why is work so damaging to so many people? Well, that is pretty obvious to most workers. Cost-cutting and so-called "efficiencies" mean that too few workers are doing too much work; that workers are not adequately trained, they work hours which are too long (mostly because they have to make up for low hourly rates of pay), they use machinery which is not regularly maintained nor renewed and are often expected to work in an environment and use products which are toxic without the correct protective gear nor even the information they need to protect themselves.
The TUC published data suggesting that 15,000 workers die annually because of occupational cancer; 4,000 die because of lung damage from dust, fumes and chemicals; 1,000 die in accidents while driving. They also estimate that 7,500 die as a result of heart or circulatory problems. So that makes 27,500 workers dying prematurely every year in Britain just due to occupational diseases - 75% more than the number of victims in this year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan!
As for injuries sustained at work, last year 28,692 major injuries to workers were reported. A further 105,222 had an injury requiring at least 3 days off work. The HSE reckons that only half the injuries sustained at work are actually reported so if we double the total of reported injuries we get 266,000 - over a quarter-of-a-million. And this doesn't count the back injuries, the repetitive strain injuries, the asthma or other illnesses - including depression or anxiety which develop over time - which would add at least another half-a-million workers to the total. We are left with maybe 3/4 of a million workers out of an estimated workforce of 26m - nearly 3% - who are being injured every year in one way or another!
Ironically the TUC - which supplies these figures - is quick to point out that: "We certainly have fewer fatal injuries. These have fallen by around 80% in less than 40 years. In part that is because many of the most dangerous industries such as shipbuilding, mining and heavy engineering have declined dramatically in the same period." Sure, but these deaths and injuries have just been exported, by means of subcontracting, to China, India and other 3rd World countries where the death toll is appalling and much higher than in the rich countries. In fact there is just no comparison.
What is more, the legal health and safety framework which has existed in Britain since 1974 and improved upon since, is hardly enforced. Unsurprisingly, the capitalists' state makes sure that those in charge of enforcing it can't do their job - each inspector having around 1,100 premises to take care of! So a workplace can expect an inspection maybe once in every 38 years. As for prosecutions, they fell by 50% in 10 years. There were only 1,090 in 2008/9 - compared to a quarter-of-a million injuries! The average fine for a safety breach is about the same as that given for fly-tipping - £14,614! It's cheaper for the bosses to break the law than to abide by it. That's the advantage of holding the reins of power.
Asbestos - poisoning on an industrial scale
Asbestos, according to the HSE, is the biggest workplace killer. It was liberally used in construction for insulation and fire prevention as well as in heating products - and although blue and brown asbestos were banned in 1985, white asbestos was in use right up until the year 2000 in this country.
Yet the effect of asbestos fibres on the lungs of workers was suspected as early as the 1960s, when the first cases of mesothelioma - cancer of the pleural membrane covering the lungs were diagnosed - and asbestos fibres were found in the tumours. In fact it was also well known that the fibres would embed themselves in lung tissue, both inside the lungs and in the pleura, and cause a reaction in the tissue which leads to scarring and then restriction of the expansion of the lungs - and breathlessness. However the effects are mostly delayed by 10-15 years or more, after exposure.
As with the dust from coal and gold mining, it took decades of campaigning and law suits before any of the authorities began to act against bosses who knowingly carried on allowing workers to handle asbestos. Even today, the asbestos industry still absolutely refuses to take any responsibility for the huge cost in lives and the continuing toll among workers both in this country and in the countries where asbestos was mined, like South Africa.
The workers who were exposed most to asbestos where those who worked for the main producers of asbestos panels, those who handled raw asbestos - like on the docks - and those who made and fitted the panels - in manufacturing, construction, the railways, etc. More than 35,000 people died from mesothelioma between 1977 and 2007. There were 2,249 deaths in 2008 from cancer and another 2,000 from lung scarring, which makes 80 deaths a week caused by asbestos.
The ban on using asbestos, however, does not mean exposure and risk is over, as refurbishment means that workers risk regular exposure as do those working for asbestos removal contractors. The HSE states: "There is a real risk facing plumbers, joiners, electricians, painters and decorators and many other maintenance workers every day. Asbestos may be present in any building constructed or refurbished before the year 2000, and it is estimated that around 500,000 workplace premises could contain asbestos. If repair and maintenance work is not done safely it can lead to asbestos fibres being released into the air by drilling or cutting, and workers breathing them in."
It is probably not surprising that despite all this evidence, workers trying to get compensation for loss of their ability to work, face court judgements based on how many fibres they may have inhaled - even though this is irrelevant - as it only takes one!
The true cost of sweated labour
A common recipe to maximise profits among the bosses is that capital should "sweat", in other words that machines should operate round-the-clock together with the workers who man them. And this is the justification for having night shifts in many workplaces, including when - unlike hospitals, fire stations, etc.. - they provide no emergency service to the population. But at what cost to the working class?
The fact is that, night shift working is dangerous for workers' health. As many researchers point out, the Exxon Valdez, oil spill, the Bhopal disaster, and the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe all happened on the night shift.
Already in 1802 an "Act for the Preservation of the Health and Morals of Apprentices in Cotton and other Mills" prohibited work between the hours of 9pm and 6am. Yet today we do not even have a limit on the working day to 8 hours - even if the struggle for "8 hours for work, 8 hours for play, and 8 hours for sleep" began 200 years ago! As for the 48-hour working week, it is still not absolute law in this country because of the CBI's insistence on the right for individuals to opt-out of the EU regulations. So out of 27 European countries, only workers in Rumania and Bulgaria work longer hours than British workers.
This is the case even in the historically strong, unionised, plants like Ford Motor Company - where criminally long 12-hour night shifts and rotational shifts are worked which do not even rotate clockwise as per guidelines, that is "mornings to afternoons to nights", but instead, go from "mornings to nights to afternoons". Not to mention the horrendous pattern of one week of 8-hour day shifts followed by 4 nights of 9 hours each! When again, guidelines say that no night shift should be more than 8 hours long and that they should not be consecutive, at least not for more than 2 nights in a row and with at least an 11-hour rest period in between, something which, by using a loophole in the law, is also not observed at Ford!
In fact it has long been established, from a health and safety point of view, that if night shifts really need to be worked, workers should be found who wish to work only nights and therefore can adjust to this pattern - which it is reckoned takes about three months.
Night working is dangerous for several simple reasons. Our brains have a light-sensitive gland which regulates certain body processes according to the amount of light absorbed by our eyes. When it gets dark we are preprogrammed to go to sleep. If we don't, a fight between our consciousness that we need to stay awake and our bodies' predetermined processes ensues, which raises stress levels and stress hormones. But between 2 and 4 am, which is the period in which deep sleep would normally occur and when the production of vital hormones is reduced no matter how stressed we are, we are actually running on empty. As a result there can be a crucial delay in our "flight or fight" responses when we are faced with an emergency. This is why night workers are 3 times more likely to have an accident at work. Cumulative sleep deprivation is the equivalent of constant jet lag or having drunk several pints of beer. No wonder too, that night workers are twice as likely to have an accident on the way home from work.
After the Clapham rail disaster in December 1988, when 3 trains collided, killing 35 people an injuring 500, it was admitted that the mistake in the wiring which led to signalling errors was due to the fact that the signalling engineers doing this major rewiring job had been overtired - having been working 7 days a week for months due to inadequate staffing levels. Their working hours were restricted as a result.
The other major risk for night shift workers is cancer. In fact already in 2007 the International Agency for Research on Cancer was declaring that night shifts which disrupted the natural sleep and wakefulness rhythms (biological clocks) of workers increased the likelihood of certain cancers.
But that does not deter bosses from getting workers to run their machinery round-the-clock and thus keep their profits up.
In search of "clean-safe" energy
All the examples we have outlined so far bear out the self-same fact: in today's capitalist society, the main obstacle to overcoming the risks involved in any social activity is private profiteering. And this applies just as much to the production of energy.
So, to go back to the starting point of our forum, the question of energy raised after the Fukushima disaster, what could be the way forward? For those who call for a moratorium or ban on nuclear energy, the alternative is to use "clean" and "safe" sources of energy instead. But can such forms of energy exist in today's profit system?
The apostles of a return to so-called "clean coal" may be right to say that, indeed, even coal-fired power plants can be made "clean", using known technology. The problem, of course, is that these technologies are expensive and that forcing the energy industry to cut into its profits in order to clean up its act would require a political will that no government will ever have, as long as politicians are in office to manage the interests of the capitalist class.
But, far more importantly, coal has to be produced. And extraction comes with significant environmental costs attached (whole regions turned into "dust lands", because coal also has its own waste) and, above all, at an intolerable human cost. How many mining accidents have we heard about on the news, involving dozens, sometimes hundreds of death? According to official government figures, over 45,000 miners died in China's coal mines between 2000 and 2006 - and, of course, such figures grossly understate the reality. And it's not just in the poor countries that coal takes an unacceptable toll. In Britain, between 2002 and 2004, 1,000 new cases of pneumoconiosis from coal exposure were registered each year, ten years after most of the British coal industry had been finally closed down! If one was to compute the numbers of coalminers who died from accidents or silicosis since the origins of coal mining, or even just since the emergence of nuclear energy, there is no doubt that this number would be far larger than the number of those who have died from nuclear exposure!
What about oil and gas then? Much as in the case of coal, energy production using these resources can be made "clean", assuming that the capitalists can be coerced into paying for it. But oil and gas extraction are not "safe" for people, when profit-driven, neither for those who do the work, nor those living around extraction sites or refineries.
Witness BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 15 workers, injured 170 and spilled 5m barrel of oil into the sea. This came at the end of a cost-cutting programme in which BP had cut 6,500 jobs, or 10% of its workforce. The disaster itself was directly blamed on a series of high-level decisions whose only purpose was to gain time - and therefore, money.
Witness, as well, the oily mess left by Shell in the Niger delta, in Africa. Unlike the case of Deepwater Horizon, there is no "disaster" there, just "normal" extraction of oil. But the need for the most basic maintenance of the pipelines has been ignored. As a result swamps and rivers are flooded with a sludge which kills the fish and deprives the local population of their staple food.
In Britain, in 2005, at the Buncefield refinery, which was owned and managed jointly by Total, Chevron, BP and Shell, an explosion came close to a major disaster for the surrounding population. It caused the largest fire in Europe since WW2, 2,000 people were evacuated and 43 people were injured, although luckily no-one was killed. In the aftermath, 92 companies employing 9,500 people had to leave the industrial park. As it turned out, faulty gauges and safety devices which failed to cut off fuel supply were to blame - as well as out of date safety manuals and lack of worker training. In short, profiteering, again!
And no-one should expect the most recent progress in gas extraction to reduce these kinds of threats, as long as it is done for profit. The latest fad among the oil majors is called "fracking", and already produces 25% of the gas extracted in the US. It involves injecting massive amounts of chemicals at very high pressure into shale deposits located very deep underground (often over a mile below the surface). Each injection requires around 8m gallons of liquid with up to 18 injections being made in each well. The chemicals used, from benzene and toluene to boric acid and ammonium bisulfite, are all more or less toxic. Only half of the fluid injected returns to the surface, mixed with the extracted gas. This means that even if the waste is properly cleaned up, which is doubtful, millions of gallons of solvents are likely to find their way into the underground water as a result. In addition, a more infrequent, but even more damaging source of risk, is that this kind of totally blind underground drilling may caused minor seismic shocks with unpredictable consequences on the surface above.
The threat of climate change and the claim that the planet's resources in fossil fuel are running out have been used to call for more exotic sources of energy - described collectively as renewable (or sustainable) energies.
It should be said first, that behind this call lies a huge swindle on the part of the energy giants. For over three decades, governments have poured all kinds of subsidies into these companies as an enticement to invest in renewable energies. But the energy giants, no matter how "green" they claim to be, only invest in what is profitable. As to subsidies, they have a long-standing habit of taking them and running! The fact that Chris Huhne recently explained that he would not be granting subsidies to the nuclear industry, because it already gets "green" subsidies, probably says it all!
Among the renewable energies, the most important by far, in terms of the amount of electricity it actually produces today, but the least popular among the environmental lobby, is hydro-electricity. In fact the largest power plant in the world, currently under construction, is the Three Gorges Dam in China, with a capacity of 22.5 gigawatts - or 20 times the capacity of the largest British nuclear plant. But hydro-electric power plants also have many drawbacks. Building huge dams in inhabited areas involves displacing whole communities, often depriving them of their livelihoods. And there is a long history of disasters attached to hydro-electric dams. These are due to cost-cutting on the expensive geological surveys required for safe construction and on subsequent maintenance. This history includes disasters such as the collapse of the Vajont Dam, in northern Italy, in 1963, which killed 2,500 people, and the failure of the Banqiao Reservoir Dam in China, washed away by typhoon Nina in 1975, which claimed over 200,000 victims. Even in terms of carbon emissions, hydro-electricity is not a perfect answer, at least not in tropical countries: a recent study in South America, showed that the methane released by the vegetation sunk under a power station dam had the same environmental impact as the CO2 released by a gas-fired power station of the same capacity!
What else? Solar power then? It is often presented as the solution of choice both for poor countries with a warm climate and for well-off individuals who absolutely insist on having their own private source of energy (and can pay for it!). Of course, solar power is renewable, at least on our historical scale. Except that the silicium or cadmium-based photovoltaic panels used to capture the sun's energy are themselves very expensive to produce in terms of energy and require materials which are relatively rare in nature. Besides, while the capacity of solar-power plants is small, they require enormous ground surface. The largest project to date, Blythe Solar in the US, due to open in 2017, will have a capacity equivalent to that of a medium-size gas-fired power plant. But it will cost twice as much, at £3.7bn, while occupying no less than 11 square miles of land!
How about wind power then? More than any other energy, wind power is a bounty for the small number of turbine manufacturers which manage to occupy a monopoly position on the market - like the US General Electric and Germany's Siemens. But although less costly from an energy point of view than solar power, wind power has similar drawbacks. In particular, relatively modest energy production capacities require huge geographical areas. So, for instance, the world's largest wind farm, the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center in the USA, has the capacity of a small gas-fired plant. But its 421 turbines occupy 73 square miles. On that basis, producing just the equivalent of the output of the US nuclear power plants in the form of wind power would require a wind farm occupying one and a half times as much space as the whole of England!
A consciously planned future
From what has been said so far, it is obvious that none of the renewable sources of energy provide a solution for mankind's needs today, let alone tomorrow. These sources of energy may have a role to play in the future, but certainly not a primary role.
Already, today, the majority of the planet's population is deprived of the most basic amenities enjoyed by the rich countries' populations, in particular due to lack of energy. If anything, what is needed is a colossal increase in the production of energy. If some level of savings in energy consumption must be achieved, as some argue, this should be done by stopping the waste involved in maintaining an army or the all-night lighting of Buckingham palace, not by trying to make people feel guilty because they forget to switch off their lights, let alone by depriving whole populations of energy.
As has been shown in this forum, contrary to a widespread idea, this profit-driven society would not be safer without nuclear energy. Of course, this idea has a lot to do with the existence of the nuclear bomb and the understandable fear it causes. This class society has indeed an incredible capability to use scientific advances to produce lethal instruments aimed at shoring up oppression and spreading terror among the population. But this should be blamed on capitalism, not on science. After all, with 130,000 victims, the carpet bombing of the German town of Dresden, which was carried out with "conventional" weapons in February 1945, claimed more lives than the two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of the same year, with a combined death toll of 120,000. Moreover, since then, the countless wars waged by the rich countries or their regional proxies, have claimed far more victims than World War II itself, even if in many cases only hand weapons, rocket propellers and crude landmines were used.
Or to put it another way, society will not be safe - in any respect - as long as the rule of capital remains, with its race for private profit and chronic social irresponsibility.
As revolutionary communists, we believe than instead of turning the clock back by depriving itself of the benefit of scientific progress, in the field of nuclear energy or in any other field, mankind should have the much higher ambition of creating a society in which it will really be able to benefit from this progress.
Today's crippled capitalist system, which is barely capable of limping from crisis to crisis, has long passed its sell-by date. If something has to be banned - or rather forcibly uprooted, because we cannot expect the capitalists to give in without a fight - it is this capitalist profit which constitutes a permanent threat for all of us. The only possible way forward for mankind is a society organised on the basis of the conscious co-operation of its members, for the benefit of all, rather than the profits of the few. It will be a society in which economic development will be planned democratically as a function of collective needs and existing resources, and in which decisions will be made not as a function of the private interests of a few, but the long-term interests of all. Finally, it will be a society in which the advancement of science and knowledge and their use for the progress of mankind, will be a priority for all.
Such a communist society is not just the only rational way for mankind to progress, it is also a vital necessity in view of the destructive power of today's class society. By now, we hope that all those who are conscious of this destructive power are convinced that they have no other choice but to fight for a communist future!