Why the Left needs Nuclear Energy
by Lucien Groll
Nuclear energy is a controversial topic on the left, but this has not always been the case. In the light of the climate emergency and geo-political conflicts like the Russian invasion of Ukraine with implications for energy supply, the debate around nuclear energy has gained momentum. We believe that it is necessary to evaluate every technology brought about by capitalism in the most reasonable manner and assess its potential for a socialist society – in line with the Accelerationist Manifesto, which states that „the left must take advantage of every technological and scientific advance made possible by capitalist society“.
The left’s discontent with nuclear energy stems from several reasons.
Firstly, there is the association of nuclear energy with the nuclear bomb. The psychological phenomenon of radiophobia – the fear of nuclear radiation – adds to the projection of justified fears of nuclear bombs onto nuclear power stations.
Secondly, there is the issue of accidents in nuclear power plants. The most famous historical examples are Three Miles Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Isn’t nuclear energy a technology too dangerous and unmanageable given such examples?
Thirdly, the problem of managing nuclear waste depicts nuclear energy as something so unethical not even to seriously consider, regarding the burden the waste seems to put on generations to come. Other common objections against nuclear energy include a general critique of an „extractivist capitalism“, oftentimes combined with the issue of indigenous rights; and the reproach that nuclear energy was not renewable, but a fossil energy source.
However, none of these reasons holds true. There are countries with civil use of nuclear energy without nuclear weapons (e. g. Finland), just as there are countries without civil nuclear reactors but with nuclear bombs (e.g. North Korea). Nuclear energy can even play a role in efforts to get rid of nuclear bombs (see the power plant BN-800 in Russia). All this is a question of social organization, not of the technology itself.
According to the best available science, nuclear is among the safest sources of energy regarding human casualties in relation to energy produced, along with wind, solar, and hydropower – including the (in)famous and indeed horrible case of Chernobyl!
The issue of waste management is solved from a technological perspective since deep geological repositories do already exist and work – not only concerning nuclear waste, but also other toxic materials that don’t even have a half-life. Furthermore, in modern reactors like the BN-800 in Russia, it is possible to recycle much of the „waste“ that then can be used as nuclear fuel by means of transmutation. Even without proper recycling, the necessary storage time of nuclear waste can be massively reduced using modern technologies.
The displacement of indigenous communities for the extraction of resources is a general problem under capitalism with its huge power imbalances. A socialist world republic will not be able to exist without the extraction of raw materials. But of course, it must work towards a democratic social balance for people who have to give up something for the greater good.
Last but not least, technology does not preset a specific political and economic formation in which it is administered: We can think of democratically controlled nuclear power plants owned by everyone (think of France’s nuclear power fleet that is owned at least by the state), just as we can think of privately owned ‚renewables‘ (think of offshore wind farms by the German stock corporation RWE). The purported centrality of nuclear energy vs. the purported decentrality of renewables should not be conflated with ownership structures.
And concerning the renewability of nuclear, we got a bummer for you. Let’s hear what science has to say: „With a practical recovery method, saltwater extraction offers a sustainable alternative to land-mining uranium that could sustain nuclear power production for millennia. Uranium deposits are abundant and replenishable in seawater through the natural erosion of ore- containing rocks and soil. Despite dilute concentrations, approximately 3 milligrams of uranium per ton of seawater, the world’s oceans hold massive stores of the element totalling an estimated four billion tons—a 1000 times greater supply than all land sources combined.“ Sounds pretty renewable, doesn’t it?
How the fear of nuclear energy developed on the left
We must thoroughly analyse how we have come to a point where even science-friendly leftists lose their trust in scientific processes and institutions like the IPCC which are usually considered trustworthy if we want to combat climate change and provide a future of material abundance for everybody. This entails a look at anti-modern and sometimes even structurally antisemitic tropes we find in allegedly progressive critiques of nuclear energy: a reoccurring trope in leftist discourse is the one of alleged ‚uncontrollability‘ of nuclear technology. However, such notions stem to a large extent from the factual uncontrollability of technology by workers under capitalism, where workers are alienated from the means of production. The uncontrollability does not lie in the technology itself. It lies in the relations of production. Concerning structurally antisemitic tropes, we find the reoccurring notion of a „nuclear lobby“ that is being depicted as all-powerful and invisible, without regard to the factual strength of an indeed existing lobby for nuclear energy. It is no coincidence that the most successful anti-nuclear energy movement exists in Germany, a country with a population that had been indoctrinated with the alleged evilness of supposedly Jewish nuclear physics. Just as capitalism to many people seems too abstract and complex to grasp, nuclear energy with its invisible radiation seems alien and unintelligible. But we, as left accelerationists are „at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.“ (Accelerationist Manifesto)
A negative view of nuclear energy has not always prevailed on the left. In the 2nd volume of The Principle of Hope, published in 1955, Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote enthusiastically:
„As the chain reactions on the sun bring us warmth, light, and life, so atomic energy, in machinery different from that of the bomb, in the blue atmosphere of peace, creates from desert fertile land, from ice spring. A few hundred pounds of uranium and thorium would be enough to make the Sahara and the Gobi Desert disappear, to turn Siberia and northern Canada, Greenland, and Antarctica into the Riviera. They would be sufficient to offer mankind the energy, which otherwise had to be obtained in millions of hours of work, in narrow cans, highly concentrated, ready for use.“ (Our translation from German)
Bloch was well aware of the societal implications the human ability to make use of the atom’s power brought about, distinguishing nuclear power plants from nuclear bombs. „a society no longer imperialist will (…) manage nuclear energies humanely“ – let’s move forward!
The topos of human’s ability to control atoms can be found again and again in the history of socialist propaganda. Just think of Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads from 1934 or the Blacksmiths of Modernity mosaic by Halyna Zubchenko and Hryhorii Pryshedko from 1974! Such socialist imaginary with its positive outlook for the future of humanity given its ability to make use of the forces of nature can be a model for us today.
So, why do we need nuclear energy?
Energy politics is a complex matter where many variables need to be factored in and technological, ethical, ecological, geopolitical, and economic questions intersect. So as political activists, let’s listen to the science: According to the IPCC’s special report “Global Warming of 1.5 °C” from 2018, nuclear energy must be an integral part of efforts to combat devastating climate change. All scenarios presented by the IPCC do not only envisage massive global upscaling of ‚renewable‘ energy, but also nuclear energy. This goes alongside the assumption that a massive decrease in energy use by humanity is neither feasible nor desirable, given the fact that many people on earth still live in (energy) poverty.
From a materialist point of view, it is notable that energy sources with a large EROI (energy return on investment) provide the best basis for complex industrial societies with an abundance of energy. After all, we want everyone to live in luxury, don’t we? Somehow these robots that shall do our work must be powered.
Today, as humanity desperately searches for answers to the problem of climate change, we see a new generation of activists in the leftist spectrum becoming more open towards nuclear energy. Just a few examples: In contrast to her progressive party-mate Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has advocated for the possibility to include nuclear energy in a Green New Deal. The policy research organization good energy collective works on a progressive climate change agenda including nuclear energy with a diverse and mostly female team. The Green League, a political party in Finland, is in favour of nuclear energy.
And they all have good reasons to tackle the question of nuclear energy from a left perspective. As Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski write in People’s Republic of Walmart:
„The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that while nuclear energy is clean and non-intermittent, and has a tiny land footprint, „without support from governments, investments in new … plants are currently generally not economically attractive within liberalized markets.“ Private firms refuse to begin construction without public subsidies or guarantees. This explains why the most rapid decarbonization effort so far occurred before European market liberalization wrapped its fingers around the neck of its member-state economies. The French government spent roughly a decade building out its nuclear fleet, which now covers almost 40 percent of the nation’s energy needs.“
Climate change must be tackled now. „We need all hands on deck“, as climate scientist James Hansen puts it. This includes nuclear energy. Let’s recover the socialist nuclear dream, let’s recover lost possible futures! Because capitalism won’t do it.