The HBO series about the nuclear accident of Chernobyl is already the most viewed in history, provoking a lot of debate across the world. And, as was inevitable, this debate has political aspects. On one side, the world press, referring to the crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy in Chernobyl, is using the series to denounce the accident as yet another “legacy of communism”.
By D., physicist and member of the Internationalist Workers Party (MezhRP) – Russia
Indeed, in the series there are many references to Lenin and Marx, whether on the speeches of the Soviet bureaucrats or in portraits and posters. On the other hand, the current Russian government, legitimate capitalist heirs of the old Soviet bureaucracy, criticize the series for giving a false, “exaggerated” version of the accident, as a piece of so-called “anti-Russian propaganda”. When the subject is Chernobyl, the official Russian version is limited to highlighting the (true) heroism of those who died to minimize the effects of the disaster. It obviously omits that many times those great heroes weren’t even aware of the consequences of their exposure to radiation. The Stalinist Left, as always, simply repeats the arguments of Putin’s ideologues, at best colouring them with a small amount of old red paint.
Although there are factual imprecisions, controversies about the role of some characters and a political bias, the series is generally very good and very useful. If we needed to sum it up, we’d say the series has a great virtue and a great defect. The virtue is precisely that it shows in all its rawness the risks and consequences of a nuclear accident, again bringing up the discussion about the subject around the world. And its defect is trying to convince us that the accident was caused only by the obtuse and criminal traits of the Soviet bureaucracy, as if the reactors around the world were safe.
But no, they are not safe. The technology of nuclear fission, that is, the one that splits (fissions) unstable heavy atoms like Uranium-238 to extract energy is not safe. There is nowhere in which it is safe. The Chernobyl accident was not only the result of an improbable sequence of unpredictable events, incompetence and lies as is shown on the series, but a permanent risk for any reactor in the world. Chernobyl was not an isolated case. Other similar accidents have already happened, such as Three Mile Island on the USA in 1979, Mayak in the former USSR in 1957 and Fukushima in Japan in 2011, as well as many other serious accidents. Among the most grave nuclear accidents in history is the one of Goiânia, Brazil in 1987, which did not involve a reactor, but an abandoned Caesium-137 radiotherapy bomb.
The disaster at Chernobyl cannot be attributed only to problems in the technology that was utilized or safety protocols that were not followed. Probably nothing in the world has some safety controls as nuclear plants (except obviously for nuclear bombs). But this is not enough. There is no known technology to make the fission reactions in a reactor safe. There is technology to minimize the risks, not for eliminating them. If this can be said about any industrial technology and sector, that there are always risks in, say, coal mining or oil drilling, the same cannot be said about the scale of the consequences. In the case of nuclear energy, the risks are unacceptable, as there series shows very well.
Today there are more than 800 nuclear reactors in the world, spread among more than 50 countries, between active and inactive ones, if you count only those for civilian and “legal” ends, recognized by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). The USA, Russia, Canada, Israel, European countries and others also possess various illegal plants, outside the IAEA’s control. There are also military reactors for production of fuel for atomic weapons and experimental reactors, which are also not counted by the IAEA. The division between civilian and military reactors is artificial. There is no “peaceful atomic energy”. The development of nuclear plants was a by-product of the production of the atomic bomb. The plants are necessary for the production of plutonium, which is much more efficient for nuclear bombs than uranium but does not exist in sufficient amounts in nature. Any country that wants to develop atomic weapons needs to dominate the technology of nuclear plants as well. That is why there is a lot of state incentive on the part of governments (as especially its Armed Forces) to “peaceful atomic weapons”, because it is the base for atomic energy for military ends.
Chernobyl was not an exception. The IAEA receives an average of one notification of nuclear accident per day somewhere in the world, of differing levels according to a scale which considers the amount of radiation leaked, the number of human victims and the financial cost. Among those considered serious, there have been more than a hundred since the foundation of the IAEA in 1957! Most of these accidents happened in the USA. The IAEA notification statistics is actually lower than reality, since private companies which manage the reactors and governments do not inform all incidents and many times minimize their danger, exactly as is shown in the series about Chernobyl.
The accident of Three Mile Island in the USA, like Chernobyl, has also happened because of safety system cost cuts, use of wrong materials to cheapen the reactor, personnel without the necessary qualification and attempts, by the company and the government, of minimizing the event, refusing to evacuate the local population. After 38 hours of the accident, the governor of Pennsylvania stated on TV that “everything is under control”. As we can see, incompetence, lies and disregard for human lives are not exclusive defects of the Soviet bureaucracy…
And what can we say about the hyper-technological and hyper-competent Japan, who built the Fukushima nuclear plan exactly in a region known for the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis? In Fukushima not one, but three reactors blew up. As a result of the intense heat generated by the core meltdowns, the concrete floor also melted and leaked radiation to the subterranean water, which was avoided in Chernobyl by the heroic volunteer work of the Tula miners, as shown in one of the most touching scenes of the series. To keep the three Fukushima melted cores cooled, 400 tons of water are necessary everyday, even today, more than eight years after. Every single day, these 400 tons of water become 400 tons of radioactive water. And this radioactive water is at least partially dropped into the sea… The “modern” Japan does not divulge the total volume, but the estimates are of at least 100 tons of radioactive water dropped into the ocean every day since the accident, for at least 30 years more. These radioactive waters reach not only the Japanese and Asian Pacific coast, but have already been detected on the North American, Australian and South American coast. Japan does not reveal the number of casualties of the accident, nor and estimate for the following years of deaths due to radiation exposure. The official number estimates in 40 years the time necessary to control the active reactor cores.
No, the North American, European and Japanese reactors are not safe… No reactor is. Iouli Andreev was head of the Soviet Service of Nuclear Emergencies and was the responsible for the clean-up of the region after the accident. He states: “Accidents at nuclear plants happen every 25 years, whatever the political system may be. It is impossible to build perfectly safe nuclear plants for a series of technical reasons. We could spend more money with the project and operation of the plants, but it would not be profitable for the market. So far our plant has had luck because, after the accidents, the wind did not head towards large cities with the radioactive emissions, but things will not always go this way.”
As if this was not enough, the matter does not end with nuclear accidents. After the nuclear fuel is enriched, it can no longer be “turned off”. When the lifespan of the fuel ends, it is considered nuclear residue, the highly dangerous radioactive waste. The only thing that can be done is storing it away from living beings. The best “solutions” governments and companies have managed so far is throw it in the sea or bury it. Many times the powers “export” radioactive waste to semi-colonial countries… The half-life of an atom is the time for half of the radioactive atoms of a sample to decay into other atoms. In the case of radioactive residue, the half-life of isotopes exceeds decades (caesium 137 – 30 years; strontium 90 – 28 years; plutonium 241 – 15 years; plutonium 239 – 10 years; plutonium 238 – 90 years), some going over a thousand years (plutonium 240 – 6.500 years). Again, this is the time necessary for only half of the atoms to decay. The other half remains radioactive. That is, the problem of the residues is not solved, only pushed into the future, for the next generations. The barrels with nuclear residues oxidise and decay, and have for decades been permanently liberating radiation on the seas and the subterranean water tables. There have been countless transport accidents which liberated radiation, including plane crashes and sinking of ships loaded with nuclear waste.
The regions which were used as test areas for nuclear bombs also suffer with radioactive contamination. They are mainly Pacific islands, regions of the Arctic Polar Circle, deserts, the seabed, as well as the tests directly done on the atmosphere. And obviously we must include Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There is also the problem of uranium mining. The workers of uranium mines, as well as the inhabitants of the involved regions, are permanently receiving radiation doses. Since it is not enriched uranium, these doses are small, but cumulative, strongly increasing the probability of these workers and their relatives of developing cancer. It is not by chance that a lot of the uranium mining is outsourced to African and Asian countries, which produce it for the powers. For example, France extracts the uranium it needs from its former colonies, like Niger and Gabon. The USA and England, from Congo, Namibia and India. Russia extracts mostly from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Among the defenders of the use of nuclear energy it is commonly argued that it could be, if well utilized, safe, clean and cheap. Even many “ecologists” defend this. These are lies! There is no technology that ensures safety in its use. The lack of safety and the matters of residues of mining ensure it not clean either. And nuclear energy is in no way cheap, quite the opposite, it is possibly the most expensive of all. It seems cheap due to an accounting trick. The costs of a nuclear accident are simply not included! The cost to try to deal with the consequences of Chernobyl, in updated values, has already gone over 150 billion dollars, and Fukushima is predicted to cost more than 180 billion. If these costs, which are very undervalued, are accounted for, it is very clear that there is nothing cheap about nuclear energy. But these expenses are assumed by the State, with public money, while the profits generated by the power plants are snatched by the private companies which manage them. It is the old privatization of profit and socialization of losses… but the financial costs are the least important here. In order to control Chernobyl’s core, 900000 workers were required to suffer exposure to radiation! Many did so willingly. In Fukushima Japan again does not divulge information, but an estimate of at least 40000 workers were exposed. There is no reliable data on how many suffered due to radiation exposure in either case. Certainly they number on the tens of thousands. We sincerely pay our homage and thank these worker-heroes who prevented these disasters from becoming even greater tragedies.
The fact that the “advanced” capitalist countries are as criminal, petty and irresponsible about nuclear energy does nothing to diminish the responsibility of the Soviet bureaucracy in the catastrophe of Chernobyl. Usurping the name of socialism in defence of their selfish interests, the Stalinist bureaucracy, with its Anti-Leninist politics of “building socialism in one country”, refused to expand the revolution, isolating the USSR and taking part in a military nuclear war with the much more powerful imperialist countries. By forcing the former USSR to compete in unfavourable conditions, the Stalinist bureaucracy imposed impossible goals even in the nuclear area, amplifying all risks. The bureaucratic management, without worker control, made everything worse. It is no wonder the Chernobyl disaster is often linked with the decadence and dissolution of the former USSR. Indeed, the accident happened in 1986, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was already implementing in full swing its policy of capitalist restoration, which converted the Soviet bureaucrats in the current Russian capitalists. That the Chernobyl plant was officially christened Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant will be marked in history as the grimmest symbol of the falsification of Leninism by Stalinism.
The working class, the inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods and the population of semi-colonial countries are those who die in the uranium mines, in the nuclear power plants and in the radioactive waste depots. And this is why they are those in the greatest need of a program for the nuclear question, a program of the working class. In such a serious subject, which involves without exaggeration the survival of mankind, the program of the working class must go straight to the point and mince no words. It cannot repeat the crimes of the Communist parties which led to the Chernobyl catastrophe, nor repeat the betrayal of the European social-democratic parties which, when ruling their countries, kept and expanded the use of nuclear energy, even for military ends. We must be decidedly for the end of the use of nuclear energy for ends both military and so-called peaceful! We demand the shut-down of all nuclear warheads in the world! We are against commercial nuclear power plants for the production of electric power and profit and for the closure of all nuclear reactors in all countries across the world. Only reactors used for research or for the production of medicinal radioisotopes, without commercial, military or State secret, under control of the scientific community of the entire world. Nuclear energy is not safe, clean or cheap. In the conditions of decadent capitalism in which we live, the risks tend to grow with the economic crisis and ever greater cuts to maintenance, safety and specialized personnel, on the part of both the indebted governments and of the private companies in search of maximum profit. Besides, as they grow old, the reactors cost more and more to maintain.
In the framework of this program, which is radically against the use of nuclear energy for ends either military or commercial, we understand the possibility of partial, tactical exceptions in the case of semi-colonial countries (or new states where the working class may seize power), which, in order to defend themselves from imperialistic pressure, are forced to develop and/or maintain nuclear plants (and even weapons). But those will be temporary exceptions, in the framework of a policy of worldwide denuclearization, starting obviously with the great nuclear powers: the USA, Russia, China, France, England and Israel.
This program is not utopian. Popular pressure already achieved, in Germany, a ban to the building of new nuclear plants and a plan for the deactivation of the ones that exist. After Fukushima, there is also a ban in Japan. In the 80’s there was a powerful grassroots movement against nuclear energy in the USA. It is perfectly possible to organize the widespread rejection to the use of nuclear energy in a worldwide campaign for its end.
The socialist humanity of the future, freed from oppression, exploitation and from the wars promoted by imperialism, as well as from the barriers of what the Soviet bureaucracy proved itself to be, will then have full conditions of dominating the atom and discover how to safely use nuclear energy for the common good of all of humanity, and not the petty interests of a handful of capitalists and wealthy nations, which, with their thirst for profit, threaten the very existence of planet Earth and all beings which inhabit it.
Translated by Miki Sayoko