Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Monday, June 27, 2011
***This article is from: The Ecologist
By Eifion Rees
June 23, 2011It produces less radioactive waste and more power than uranium but the UK would be making a mistake in looking to it as a 'greener' fuel. The Ecologist reports
In a world increasingly aware of and affected by global warming, the news that 2010 was a record year for greenhouse gases levels was something of a blow.
With the world’s population due to hit nine billion by 2050, it highlights the increasingly urgent need to find a clean, reliable and renewable source of energy.
India hopes it has the answer: thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element, four times more abundant than uranium in the earth’s crust.
The pro-thorium lobby claim a single tonne of thorium burned in a molten salt reactor (MSR) – typically a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) – which has liquid rather than solid fuel, can produce one gigawatt of electricity. A traditional pressurised water reactor (PWR) would need to burn 250 tonnes of uranium to produce the same amount of energy.
They also produce less waste, have no weapons-grade by-products, can consume legacy plutonium stockpiles and are meltdown-proof – if the hype is to be believed.
Global support for thorium
India certainly has faith, with a burgeoning population, chronic electricity shortage, few friends on the global nuclear stage (it hasn’t signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty) and the world’s largest reserves of thorium. ‘Green’ nuclear could help defuse opposition at home (the approval of two new traditional nuclear power reactors on its west coast led to fierce protests recently) and allow it to push ahead unhindered with its stated aim of generating 270GW of electricity from nuclear by 2050.
China, Russia, France and the US are also pursuing the technology, while India’s department of atomic energy and the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council are jointly funding five UK research programmes into it.
There is a significant sticking point to the promotion of thorium as the ‘great green hope’ of clean energy production: it remains unproven on a commercial scale. While it has been around since the 1950s (and an experimental 10MW LFTR did run for five years during the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US, though using uranium and plutonium as fuel) it is still a next generation nuclear technology – theoretical.
China did announce this year that it intended to develop a thorium MSR, but nuclear radiologist Peter Karamoskos, of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), says the world shouldn’t hold its breath.
‘Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.’
China’s development will persist until it experiences the ongoing major technical hurdles the rest of the nuclear club have discovered, he says.
Others see thorium as a smokescreen to perpetuate the status quo: the closest the world has come to an operating thorium reactor is India’s Kakrapar-1, a uranium-fuelled PWR that was the first to use thorium to flatten power across the core. ‘This could be seen to excuse the continued use of PWRs until thorium is [widely] available,’ points out Peter Rowberry of No Money for Nuclear (NM4N) and Communities Against Nuclear Expansion (CANE).
In his reading, thorium is merely a way of deflecting attention and criticism from the dangers of the uranium fuel cycle and excusing the pumping of more money into the industry.
Why is the nuclear lobby so quiet?
And yet the nuclear industry itself is also sceptical, with none of the big players backing what should be – in PR terms and in a post-Fukushima world – its radioactive holy grail: safe reactors producing more energy for less and cheaper fuel.
In fact, a 2010 National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) report concluded the thorium fuel cycle ‘does not currently have a role to play in the UK context [and] is likely to have only a limited role internationally for some years ahead’ – in short, it concluded, the claims for thorium were ‘overstated’.
Proponents counter that the NNL paper fails to address the question of MSR technology, evidence of its bias towards an industry wedded to PWRs. Reliant on diverse uranium/plutonium revenue streams – fuel packages and fuel reprocessing, for example – the nuclear energy giants will never give thorium a fair hearing, they say.
But even were its commercial viability established, given 2010’s soaring greenhouse gas levels, thorium is one magic bullet that is years off target. Those who support renewables say they will have come so far in cost and efficiency terms by the time the technology is perfected and upscaled that thorium reactors will already be uneconomic. Indeed, if renewables had a fraction of nuclear’s current subsidies they could already be light years ahead.
Extra radioactive waste
All other issues aside, thorium is still nuclear energy, say environmentalists, its reactors disgorging the same toxic byproducts and fissile waste with the same millennial half-lives. Oliver Tickell, author of Kyoto2, says the fission materials produced from thorium are of a different spectrum to those from uranium-235, but ‘include many dangerous-to-health alpha and beta emitters’.
Tickell says thorium reactors would not reduce the volume of waste from uranium reactors. ‘It will create a whole new volume of radioactive waste, on top of the waste from uranium reactors. Looked at in these terms, it’s a way of multiplying the volume of radioactive waste humanity can create several times over.’
Putative waste benefits – such as the impressive claims made by former Nasa scientist Kirk Sorensen, one of thorium’s staunchest advocates – have the potential to be outweighed by a proliferating number of MSRs. There are already 442 traditional reactors already in operation globally, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The by-products of thousands of smaller, ostensibly less wasteful reactors would soon add up.
Anti-nuclear campaigner Peter Karamoskos goes further, dismissing a ‘dishonest fantasy’ perpetuated by the pro-nuclear lobby.
Thorium cannot in itself power a reactor; unlike natural uranium, it does not contain enough fissile material to initiate a nuclear chain reaction. As a result it must first be bombarded with neutrons to produce the highly radioactive isotope uranium-233 – ‘so these are really U-233 reactors,’ says Karamoskos.
This isotope is more hazardous than the U-235 used in conventional reactors, he adds, because it produces U-232 as a side effect (half life: 160,000 years), on top of familiar fission by-products such as technetium-99 (half life: up to 300,000 years) and iodine-129 (half life: 15.7 million years). Add in actinides such as protactinium-231 (half life: 33,000 years) and it soon becomes apparent that thorium’s superficial cleanliness will still depend on digging some pretty deep holes to bury the highly radioactive waste.
Thorium for the UK?
With billions of pounds already spent on nuclear research, reactor construction and decommissioning costs – dwarfing commitments to renewables – and proposed reform of the UK electricity markets apparently hiding subsidies to the nuclear industry, the thorium dream is considered by many to be a dangerous diversion.
Energy consultant and former Friends of the Earth anti-nuclear campaigner Neil Crumpton says the government would be better deferring all decisions about its new nuclear building plans and fuel reprocessing until the early 2020s: ‘By that time much more will be known about Generation IV technologies including LFTRs and their waste-consuming capability.’
In the meantime, says Jean McSorley, senior consultant for Greenpeace’s nuclear campaign, the pressing issue is to reduce energy demand and implement a major renewables programme in the UK and internationally – after all, even conventional nuclear reactors will not deliver what the world needs in terms of safe, affordable electricity, let alone a whole raft of new ones.
‘Even if thorium technology does progress to the point where it might be commercially viable, it will face the same problems as conventional nuclear: it is not renewable or sustainable and cannot effectively connect to smart grids. The technology is not tried and tested, and none of the main players is interested. Thorium reactors are no more than a distraction.’
Let me turn to another topic about which I have so far said little. The thesis of this work is that worker-control socialism is superior to capitalist alternatives. but what about other socialist alternatives? This question too is of interest and importance.
A fundamental feature of worker-control socialism is control of the workplace by those who work there. I have called this feature "worker self-management." Commitments to liberty, democracy, participatory autonomy and the value of meaningful work all provide a basis for a commitment to worker self-management. If one calls "socialist" any economic system that prohibits private ownership of most of the means of production, it is plain that not all socialist societies are worker self-managed.
Less obvious but more significant to the model-comparison analysis we have been doing, some forms of socialism are incompatible with worker self-management. Unless major countervailing considerations can be brought to bear, these forms of socialism should be judged inferior to worker control by anyone subscribing to the values I've discussed.
One form of socialism is incompatible with worker self-management virtually by definition. "Technocratic socialism" is an economic system without private ownership of the means of production in which production units are run by more or less autonomous technical elites within bounds set by the state. If stockholders were "put to sleep" in Galbraith's Ideal Industrial state, the result would be a technocratic socialism. Also technocratic is a recent proposal by Leland Stauber to institute socialism by simply transferring all corporate stock to local-government investment funds, to be managed by experts--who would now serve the public instead of the interests of the wealthy few.
As is characteristic of a technocratic socialist, Stauber rejects
the syndicalist idea of ownership and control by firms totally or primarily by their employees . . . on the grounds that it underestimates the relevance to economic performance of professional management, particularly in large, complex organizations, and can also obstruct or retard the closing of uneconomic plants and dismissals of excess labor.
I have already discussed the thesis that technocratic control is indispensable to an advanced industrial society. As to the "obstructing or retarding the closing of uneconomic plants and dismissals of excess labor" that is a virtue of worker control, not a vice. Until the technocratic socialists confront the empirical record of successful worker self-management, I don't think more need be said.
The Soviet system best represents a second form of socialism that is difficult to reconcile with worker self-management. It is the economic form once identified with socialism: central planning by the state. a government planning board assumes control of the entire economy; it specifies for each production unit quantitative and qualitative output quotas, the inputs to be used, the prices to be charged and the wages to be paid. All economic mystification dissolves, since human agents now consciously decide what gets produced, how, and to whom it is distributed.
Unfortunately this model, so conceptually clear, is subject to serious practical difficulties--due not (primarily) to the ill-will or class bias of the planners, but to the sheer immensity of the task at hand.
"The essential point," says Nove,
is that in most instances the centre does not know just what it is that needs doing, in disaggregate detail, while the management in its situation cannot know what it is that society needs unless the centre informs it. . . . The trouble lies in the near impossibility of drafting micro-economic instruments in such a way that even the most well-meaning manager will not be misled.
Consider a single example: the production of sheet metal. the planning center must specify a quota for each factory. In what units? Suppose tons are selected. Then a manager, who has no other information upon which to base his decision, will tend to produce thick sheets, since it is more "efficient" to satisfy the quota that way. On the other hand, if square meters are selected, he will tend to produce sheets as thin as possible. of course consumer feedback will have some effect, but this is largely nonquantifiable, difficult to evaluate, and in any event an unwelcome obstacle, from the production unit's point of view, to its primary goal--speedy execution of the plan. (Nove cites a cartoon published in Krokodil, showing an enormous nail hanging in a large workshop" "The month's plan fulfilled," said the director, pointing to the nail. In tons, of course.
One must not lose one's perspective in the midst of the myriad examples of soviet inefficiency (so happily recorded by neoclassical economists). for all its inefficiencies the Soviet economy works. in some respects it works better than Western capitalist economies: there is less unemployment, less nonrational sales persuasion, (probably) less inequality; the system is better designed to decide and control the kind and rate of growth it undertakes, and it is less prone to inflation-recession instability. Micro-efficiency, after all, is but one value by which to judge an economic system; in a relatively affluent society it would hardly seem the most important.
In fact my main objection to central planning is not its inefficiency (though the demoralizing effects of waste and irrationality should not be discounted entirely), but to its problematic relationship to noneconomic values. Central planning requires centralized authority, and that leads (at least under conditions of scarcity) to a dangerous concentration of power. The classical liberal concern for liberty is not misguided here. Nor is the concern (not shared by classical liberals) for participatory autonomy. to be sure, it is possible for a centrally-planned economy to grant formal control of enterprises to their workers instead of to appointed managers--but since the planning board sets production quotas, prices, inputs and wages, there is little real scope for worker decision.
Even if some flexibility were granted in these areas, two important decision classes would almost certainly be ruled out: the choice of more leisure over more production and the choice of more "humane" but less "efficient" technology. But these choices--which serve to check compulsive consumption and work alienation--are important strengths of worker control. These are difficult to reconcile with central planning.
There is also the problem of discipline. granted, the central planners could discipline the entire workforce of an enterprise for failure to meet its quota--but such an approach would surely provoke an antagonistic reaction. It is far more "efficient" (from the point of view of the central planners) to appoint a director and make her responsible. But if she is responsible for quota fulfillment, then she cannot be accountable to her workforce--and so authoritarian structure must be imposed. this tendency toward authoritarianism seems to me almost irresistible.
If technocratic and centrally-planned socialism stand in conflict with worker self-management (and the value of participatory autonomy), no such conflict exists between self-management and a participatory "pure market socialism"-- a laissez-faire economy in which workers, not stockholders, have full legal control of their enterprises. Discipline, for example, is no problem, since an impersonal market imposes discipline. Enterprises are constrained by the necessity of economic survival, but within this constraint they have a range of options concerning distribution of income, labor-leisure tradeoffs, goods to produce, and technologies to employ.
Unfortunately, a pure market socialism with worker self-management is economically unsound. Its difficulties trace to two basic factors: first, the workforce of a labor-managed firm is disinclined to expand; second, investments are in no way coordinated or controlled. With pure market socialism we get anarchy of production, replete with unemployment that has no tendency to diminish, widespread and growing inequalities, consumption and production externalities, an unplanned growth, and inflationary and recessionary instabilities.
(This "anarchy" is somewhat different from capitalist anarchy, since enterprises are less likely to be expansionary. This might count as an improvement, since competition would be less ruthless and consumption less compulsive, but, on the other hand, with profits either consumed or invested in one's own firm, economic development is in no way directed to the general needs of the community. Not even the admittedly imperfect profitability criterion is employed, much less conscious social planning, with respect to society-wide investment opportunities.)
Against this background of alternatives, the essential strengths of worker-control socialism come sharply into view. By planning investment--but not the whole economy--the basic virtues of central planning are (approximately) achieved. by relying on the market to coordinate the daily activities of existing firms, the micro-efficiencies of the market are preserved, the economy is decentralized, and a structure prevails that is fully compatible with worker self-management. Thus the strengths of both plan and market are maintained, and the weaknesses of each minimized. This, in my view, is a remarkable accomplishment.
It is not good enough for some socialists. A Tradition rooted in the New left rejects both central planning and the market, and all combinations of the two. Central planning, these theorists agree, has all the defects I've described to it, but the market is also proscribed, on the ground that
it involves as motivations only the maximization of personal immediate consumption pleasure and profit (per worker). The market involves a continual possibility of competitive failure, and thus creates basic insecurities, which themselves elicit defensive behaviors counter-productive to societal well-being. . . . Markets simultaneously require competitive behavior and prohibit cooperation as irrational. For markets create a direct opposition of interests between those who produce a certain good and those who consume it. . . . As an economic agency, markets establish the opposite of solidarity--they declare the war of each against all.
But if neither the market, central planning nor some combination of the two is acceptable, what is the alternative? Albert and Hahnel don't flinch at the question. democratic councils and iterative planning, they reply. each workplace and each neighborhood is to be organized as a democratic council, responsible for the day-to-day activities of that unit, and for initiating and revising proposals concerning what it will give to society and what it will take. these proposals, via a "back-and-forth iterative procedure," will generate an economic plan.
And how will this happen? Let me quote:
Each council would have to estimate past experience the kind of efforts required by others to supply a list of proposed inputs, and the uses to which others would put a given list of proposed outputs. Then, learning the results of all units' first proposals, each council would get much new information to work with.
Stop! Consider for a moment some numbers. there are more than 200 million persons in the United States. place each in a neighborhood of say 2000, and a workplace of similar size. that gives us 100,000 neighborhood councils and 100,000 work councils, each which is to draw up a proposal to be read by every other council. (Even if a council reads only the reports of those it affects or is affected by, the numbers are staggering.)
Consider also the construction of each proposal. each member of each neighborhood unit estimates the kinds and quantities of goods he would like to consume during the next year. this information is somehow collated, and, in addition, estimates are made of the kinds of effort required to produce all these things. (How much effort went into producing the book you are now reading? How many books, and of what types would you like next year? How many paper clips, 12-penny nails, and cans of chicken soup? and what effort goes into producing them?)
To call this "alternative" mind-boggling is an understatement. To call it preposterous is not unfair.
Such silliness need not be taken seriously.
And yet . . . And yet there is something right about the critique that prompted this proposal. So long as one's material well being is tied to the production of things that one must sell on an open market, one is inhibited from experiencing one's activity as part of the collective, cooperative labor of society. One is tempted to deceive or take advantage of others (especially one's customers and competitors). The antagonistic relations generated by the market serve to promote an efficient allocation of goods, but they also promote suspicion, insecurity, duplicity, an selfishness.
It has long been the socialist dream to abolish this contradiction of capitalism, along with the many others. it has long been the dream to eliminate money, economic competition, and all the attendant "fetishisms." Worker-control socialism does not.
To a considerable degree it softens the antagonisms associated with the market, but it does not dissolve them. It is my belief (widely though not universally shared on the Left) that the objective conditions of contemporary society, even allowing the considerable change of consciousness that can be presumed to accompany the advent of socialism, render the abolition of the market unfeasible. To replace it by centralized planning is undesirable; to replace it by "democratic councils and iterative planning" is fantasy.
Source: Capitalism or Worker Control: An Ethical and economic Appraisal. NY: Praeger, 1982. Excerpt from Chapter 7, "Concluding Remarks: How, Which, And Then What?"