The HBO TV series on the Chernobyl nuclear accident has already become the most popular in history and has sparked major debate around the world. On the one hand, the world’s press, referring to the crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy in Chernobyl, has been taking advantage of the series to denounce ‘communism’. On the other hand, the current top Russian rulers, the capitalist heirs of the old Soviet bureaucracy, denounce the series as a false, “exaggerated” view of the accident, as part of an alleged “anti-Russian propaganda”.
D., physicist and member of the POI (International Workers Party) of Russia, section of the LIT-CI
When the issue is Chernobyl, the Russian official version is limited only to highlighting the (true) heroism of those who died to minimise the effects of disaster. Obviously, it ignores that many of these great heroes were not even aware of the consequences of their exposure to radiation. And the Stalinist left, as always, is limited to repeating the arguments of Putin’s ideologues, at best dyeing them with a faded red.
However, as much as there are some factual inaccuracies in general terms the series is very useful. We would go so far to say that the series has one great virtue and one great defect. The virtue is showing in all its harshness the risks and consequences of a nuclear accident, raising again the world debate on this subject. And the defect is in wanting to convince viewers that the accident was due solely to the obtuse and criminal character of the Soviet bureaucracy, as if the rest of the world’s reactors were safe.
But no, they are not safe. Nuclear fission technology, that is, the one that breaks unstable heavy atoms like Uranium-238 to extract energy is not safe. The Chernobyl accident was not only the result of an unlikely sequence of unpredictable events, incompetence and lies as shown in the series, but a permanent risk at any reactor in the world.
Not an isolated case
The Chernobyl accident was not an isolated case. Other comparable accidents have already occurred, such as the Three Mile Island reactors in the United States, in 1979, Mayak in the former USSR, in 1957, and Fukushima in Japan, in 2011, in addition to many other serious accidents. Among the most serious nuclear accidents in history, Brazil is still included with Cesium-137 in Goiânia, in 1987, which did not involve a reactor but an abandoned radiotherapy pump.
There is probably nothing in the world with as many security controls as nuclear power plants (with the obvious exception of nuclear bombs …). But it’s not enough. There is no known technology to make fission reactions in a reactor safe. There is technology to minimise the risks, not to eliminate them. While in any technology and industrial sector it can be said that there are always risks, for example in coal mining or oil extraction, the same cannot be said about the scale of consequences. In the case of nuclear energy, the risks are not acceptable, as the series shows very well.
Today there are more than 800 nuclear reactors, active and inactive, in more than 50 countries, counting only those used for civil and “legal” purposes recognised by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). The USA, Canada, Israel, European countries and others have several illegal power plants, beyond the control of the IAEA. Then there are military reactors for the production of fuel for atomic weapons.
However, the division between civil and military reactors is artificial. There is no “peaceful atomic energy”. The development of nuclear power plants was a by-product of the production of the atomic bomb. Plants are necessary for the production of plutonium, much more efficient for nuclear bombs than uranium, but which does not exist in sufficient quantity in nature. Any country that wants to develop atomic bombs also needs to master the technology of the nuclear power plants. That is why there is a great state incentive for governments (and especially their armed forces) for “peaceful atomic energy”, since it is the basis of atomic energy for military purposes.
The IAEA receives, on average one notification of a nuclear incident in some region of the world per day. These are measured on a scale that takes into account the amount of radiation escaped, the number of human victims, and the financial cost. There have been more than a hundred incidents that are considered serious since the foundation of the IAEA in 1957! Most of them in the USA. However, the statistics on notifications from the IAEA is underestimated, given that private companies and governments that manage the reactors do not report all the incidents and often minimise their seriousness, as is shown in the Chernobyl TV series.
The extent of the accident of Three Mile Island in the United States, as well as that of Chernobyl, was caused by cost cuts in the safety system, use of non-specified materials to cheapen the cost of the reactor, unqualified personnel necessary for its operation, attempts by the company and the government to minimise what happened, refusing to evacuate the local population. After 38 hours of the accident, the governor of Pennsylvania declared on TV that it was “under control”. As you can see, incompetence, contempt for human lives, and lies are not exclusive defects of the Soviet bureaucracy!
And what about the ‘super-technological’ and ‘super competent’ Japan, which built the Fukushima nuclear power plant in a region known precisely for risks of earthquakes and tsunamis? In Fukushima not one but three reactors exploded. As a result of the intense heat generated by the fusion of the cores, there was melting of the concrete bottom and radiation escaped to groundwater, which in Chernobyl was avoided by the heroic and voluntary work of the Tula miners, as shown by one of the most exciting scenes of the series.
To keep the three melted cores of Fukushima cold, 400 tons of water per day are needed, even today, more than eight years after the accident. Each day, these 400 tons of water become 400 tons of radioactive water which will be at least partially thrown into the sea at an estimated minimum of 100 tons per day for at least the next 30 years. These radioactive waters do not only affect the Japanese and Asian coasts of the Pacific, but have been detected already on the American, Australian and South American coast. Japan does not disclose neither the number of deaths in the accident nor the estimate of deaths for the following years due to exposure to radiation. The official estimate for the time needed to control the active nuclei of the reactors is 40 years.
Despite these incidents France, the country that has the highest proportion of nuclear power plants in its energy matrix worldwide, recently, to “economised”, and lowered security protocols in its reactors!
No, the American, European and Japanese reactors are not safe … None are. Louli Andreev was director of the Soviet Service of Nuclear Emergencies and was responsible for the cleanliness of the Chernobyl region after the accident. He states: “Accidents at nuclear power plants occur once every 25 years, regardless of the political system. It is impossible to make the nuclear power plants perfectly safe for several technical reasons. More money could be spent on the project and operation of the plants, but that would not be commercially profitable. So far, our planet has been lucky after nuclear accidents, because the wind did not carry radioactive emissions to large cities, but it will not always be that way.”
The issue does not end with nuclear accidents. After it is enriched, nuclear fuel cannot be “turned off”. When the fuel from a power plant is finished, it remains radioactive and is highly dangerous. The only thing that can be done is to store it away from living beings. The best “solutions” that governments and companies have found so far have been to throw them into the sea or bury them. Often, the nuclear powers “export” nuclear waste to semi-colonial countries.
The so-called half-life of an atom is defined as the time for half of the radioactive atoms of a sample to decay into other atoms. In the case of radioactive waste, the half-life of several of the isotopes exceeds several decades (cesium-137, 30 years, strontium 90, 28 years; plutonium 241, 15 years; plutonium 239, 10 years; plutonium 238, 90 years), some exceed one thousand years (plutonium 240, 6,500 years). We repeat, that is the time necessary for only half of the atoms in the sample decay. The other half is still radioactive.
The problem of waste is not solved by pushing it for the future, for the next generations. The barrels with nuclear waste oxidize and deteriorate and have been releasing radiation permanently in the seas and underground water beds for decades. Added to this are problems such as the transport of waste. There were countless transport accidents that released radiation, including falling planes and sinking ships loaded with nuclear waste.
The regions that were used as test areas for nuclear bombs also suffer from radioactive contamination. They are mainly Pacific islands, regions of the Arctic Circle, deserts, sea bottoms, in addition to the tests performed directly in the atmosphere. And, obviously, we must still include the regions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There is also the problem of uranium mining. The workers of the uranium mines, as well as the inhabitants of the regions involved, are permanently receiving doses of radiation. As it is not enriched uranium, these doses are low, but cumulative doses sharply increase the likelihood of these workers and their families developing cancer. It is not by chance that nuclear powers outsource much uranium mining to African and Asian countries. For example, France extracts the uranium needed from its former colonies, such as Niger and Gabon; the United States and England do so in the Congo, Namibia and India; and Russia extracts most of it in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Paying the price
Among the defenders of the use of nuclear energy the most common arguments used are that it is safe, clean and cheap. But they are lies! There is no technology that guarantees safety in its use. Lack of security and the issue of waste and mining make it not clean either. And nuclear energy is not cheap at all, it is possibly the most expensive of all. If it appears to be cheap, that is only due to an accounting trick. Put simply, the costs of a nuclear accident are not counted!
The cost to try to deal with the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, in corrected values, has already exceeded $150,000 million dollars, and the forecast is that Fukushima will surpass $180,000 million. If those costs, highly underestimated, were accounted for, it would be clear that nuclear energy is not cheap at all. But those expenses are assumed by the states with public money, while the profits generated by the plants are devoured by the private companies that administer them. It is the old privatisation of profits and the socialisation of damages.
But the financial costs are the least important here. To control the Chernobyl nucleus, 900,000 workers exposed to radiation were needed! A large part did it voluntarily. In the case of Fukushima again, Japan does not disclose the information, but a minimum of 40,000 workers were exposed. There is no reliable data on how many died due to exposure to radiation in either case. They were, with certainty, tens of thousands. We put on record here our sincere tribute and gratitude to these worker-heroes who prevented disasters from becoming even greater tragedies.
The distortions of Stalinism
The fact that the “advanced” capitalist countries are so criminal, petty and irresponsible in relation to nuclear energy in no way diminishes the responsibility of the Soviet bureaucracy for the Chernobyl catastrophe. By usurping the name of socialism in defence of their selfish interests, the Stalinist bureaucracy, with its anti-Leninist policy of “building socialism in one country,” refused to extend the revolution, isolated the USSR and put it into a nuclear and military race with an imperialism that was much more powerful.
By forcing the former USSR to compete in unfavourable conditions, the Stalinist bureaucracy imposed unrealistic goals even in the nuclear area, widening all the risks. Bureaucratic management, without control of the workers, further aggravated everything. The Chernobyl disaster has been associated with the decline and subsequent dissolution of the former USSR. In fact, the accident occurred in 1986, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had already fully implemented its policy of capitalist restoration, which would convert the Soviet bureaucrats of that time into the current Russian capitalists. That the Chernobyl plant had its official name Nuclear Station Vladimir Ilyich Lenin will forever be marked in history as the gloomiest symbol of the falsification of Leninism by Stalinism.
Nuclear energy is not safe, it is not clean, it is not cheap. Under the conditions of decadent capitalism in which we live, the risks tend to increase with the economic crisis and the increasing cuts in maintenance, security, and specialised personnel, both by indebted governments and private companies in search of maximum profit. In addition, as they age, the reactors are require extra maintenance costs.
The working class, the inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods, and the populations of semi-colonial countries are those who die in uranium mines, in nuclear power plants, and in radioactive waste deposits. Therefore, they are the ones who most need a programme for nuclear energy. A programme of the working class.
A working class programme
In a matter so serious, which involves without exaggeration the survival of humanity, the programme of the working class cannot contain half words or half measures. It cannot repeat the crimes of the so called Communist Parties that led to the Chernobyl catastrophe nor repeat the betrayal of the European Social-Democratic parties, who when in power in their states maintain and expand the use of nuclear energy, even for military purposes.
We must be resolutely for the end of the use of nuclear energy for both military and peaceful purposes! We demand the deactivation of all the nuclear warheads in the world! We are against commercial nuclear power plants for the production of electricity and profit. We call for the closure of all nuclear reactors in the world, in all countries. Maintenance must only be for research reactors and for the production of radioisotopes for medicine, without commercial, military or state secrecy, under the control of the scientific community of the whole world.
Within the framework of this programme, we understand the possibility of partial, tactical exceptions in the case of semi-colonial countries (or new states where the working class takes power), to defend themselves against imperialist pressure they are forced to maintain or develop nuclear power plants (and even weapons). But it will be a temporary exception, in the framework of a general policy of denuclearisation of the entire planet, obviously starting with the great nuclear powers: the United States, Russia, China, France, England and Israel.
This programme is not utopian. Popular pressure has already managed to force a moratorium in Germany in the construction of new nuclear power plants and a plan to deactivate existing ones. In Japan, after Fukushima, there is also a moratorium. In the 1980s there was a powerful popular movement against nuclear power in the United States. It is possible to organise the widespread rejection of the use of nuclear energy in a global campaign for its end.
The socialist humanity of the future, free of oppression, exploitation, and wars promoted by imperialism, as well as the obstacles of what was the Soviet bureaucracy, will give us the opportunity to tame the atom and discover ways to explore nuclear energy safely, for the common welfare of all humanity.