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THE DEVELOPMENT OF NUCLEAR POWER

THE DECLINE OF NUCLEAR POWER

THE FUTURE OF NUCLEAR POWER

THE DEVELOPMENT OF NUCLEAR POWER

There is no need in this thesis for anything more than a sweeping overview of nuclear power, and I will focus this discussion o n the development of nuclear power in the capitalist countries.

During World War II and in the immediate post-war period, civil nuclear applications were generally accorded a m u c h lower priority than nuclear weapons and were developed largely along lines dictated by military requirements. For example the first "commercial" nuclear power plant, the Calder Hall complex in the United K i n g d o m (UK), w a s designed primarily to produce plutonium for weapons.

The viability and success of any technology depends on the ease with which it can be subsumed within existing social structures or, failing that, the degree to which

social structures and technologies can be reshaped to accommodate each other.

Nuclear p o w e r w a s broadly commensurate with the structure and trajectory of post-war capitalism, and w a s seen to be an important element in the

reconstruction of the international capitalist order. It w a s to be an important industry in itself, and a m e a n s to further expansion in other industries through the generation of cheap electricity. It promised s o m e advantages over other energy/electricity industries, which were m o r e labour intensive and sometimes prone to labour militancy. Nuclear power w a s also seen as a w a y of "cashing in"

on technologies developed for nuclear weapons. (Falk, 1982; Roberts, 1976;

Camilleri, 1984.)

Notwithstanding the broad compatibility of nuclear power with post-war capitalism, a great deal of social and technological engineering w a s required to establish nuclear p o w e r industries. Existing scientific institutions generally lacked the necessary organisational and financial resources to accommodate and develop nuclear power. The military had a large degree of control over nuclear

development during the w a r in s o m e countries, but military control over (civil) nuclear p o w e r w a s ideologically unacceptable and logistically impractical.

Industrial interests had been established to s o m e degree - for example

Westinghouse had gained experience in reactor manufacture during the w a r - but it soon became clear that nuclear power w a s a complex, multifaceted system, the commercial risks were high, and the developmental phase would last for s o m e years. (Spence, 1984.)

The net effect of the various strategies employed by early advocates and sponsors of nuclear p o w e r w a s to create the institutional and ideological framework for the

establishment and acceptance (however limited) of nuclear power. In countries pursuing nuclear programs a "nucleocracy" w a s established, institutionalised, and further developed, comprising a coalition of state, industrial, and professional interests involved in the civil and military development of nuclear technologies.

There would be deep divisions between sections of the nucleocracy at times, but a fundamental, shared commitment to nuclear development. Atomic energy

agencies (a.k.a. institutes, laboratories, commissions) were established in m a n y countries, well supported by public funds and closely connected with private industry and numerous branches of the state apparatus; these agencies were

central to nuclear development. In s o m e countries (e.g. France, the Soviet Union), little effort w a s m a d e to separate civil and military nuclear programs; in others (e.g. the U S ) , efforts were m a d e to disentangle them if only to a certain extent; and in other countries, nuclear p o w e r w a s developed but there w a s no serious pursuit of nuclear weapons (e.g. Canada) or a weapons program w a s pursued for a time but then abandoned and the emphasis w a s on civil applications (e.g. Sweden).

The nuclear fuel cycle is highly integrated and requires a great degree of co-ordination, regulation, and financing. The reactor industry cannot be considered in isolation because it depends on "front-end" technologies (uranium mining and processing, uranium enrichment for s o m e types of reactors, fuel fabrication), and

"back-end" technologies (reprocessing of spent fuel, and m a n a g e m e n t and disposal of radioactive wastes). Each facet of the cycle must operate adequately or the viability of the entire nuclear power industry can be threatened. All the necessary components of the nuclear fuel cycle were in the early stages of

development in the post-war period. In s o m e cases technologies developed for w e a p o n s production, such as enrichment, had direct spin-offs for nuclear power;

but other aspects of nuclear power, such as reactor technology, required a great deal m o r e development.

The role of the capitalist state was crucial for the development of nuclear power and the nuclear fuel cycle more generally. M a n y of the political, judicial, financial, administrative, and coercive arms of the state have been involved. The state has always been central to capital accumulation, and accumulation has increasingly

been m a r k e d b y industrial and financial concentration, technological innovation, and centralised production and distribution. Nuclear p o w e r w a s a prime example of these trends, but an unusually high degree of state support w a s necessary

because of the cost and complexity of nuclear power. Another reason for the

central role of the capitalist state w a s the reluctance of the private sector to b e c o m e involved - particularly in the formative years of the industry - because of the high capital costs and high risks. The military potential of nuclear energy provided a further reason for substantial state regulation over all facets of the nuclear fuel cycle. (Spence, 1984; Camilleri, 1984, pp.274-278.)

In many countries, energy demand rose substantially and steadily in the post-war generation. State subsidisation of electricity production - in particular nuclear

p o w e r generation - stimulated electricity d e m a n d . Electricity utilities, public or private, could be directed, or at least encouraged, to meet at least s o m e d e m a n d with nuclear p o w e r as opposed to coal, oil, gas, or hydroelectricity. Forward

estimations of electricity d e m a n d rested o n variables that were difficult to predict;

thus there w a s scope for creative accounting to bolster nuclear power. (Camilleri, 1984, ch.2.) M o r e directly, state institutions funded and/or conducted a great deal of research and development ( R & D ) . In addition, private companies were offered a range of financial incentives and concessions to encourage their involvement in the industry, such as indemnity legislation limiting private-sector liability in the event of accident, opportunities to commercialise state-funded R & D , and sundry other incentives such as generous support in relation to fuel use and fuel

fabrication charges and waste management. (Falk, 1982.)

Another major area for the state has been regulation, including the implement-ation of security systems to prevent sabotage, theft, or terrorism; control of

information; licensing and regulation of radiation hazards; and the development of international safeguards systems to prevent w e a p o n s proliferation. Regulatory processes were (and are) complex and contested. Traditional models of scientific research, including open-ended ("pure") research and the free flow of information across national borders, were restrained in the context of bureaucratised and

militarised nuclear science. Vetting of employees, security provisions attached to employment, and limited disclosure of information, resulted in the state and the nucleocracy having a near m o n o p o l y of nuclear expertise, with independent critical inquiry subordinated to institutionalised interests. Regulatory agencies have generally not been sufficiently strong or independent to call into question major aspects of nuclear development. Politicians and bureaucrats have often been the prisoners of blinkered "expert" advice from the nucleocracy. (Camilleri, 1984; Moyal, 1975.)

Commercial nuclear power plants came into operation in the 1950s, but growth w a s slow. Then from the mid 1960s, there w a s an upsurge of orders - 105 power reactors were ordered around the world from 1966 to 1971. In the early to mid 1970s, uncertainty over oil maintained the m o m e n t u m of nuclear power.

(Camilleri, 1984, pp.167-178.) Most of the powerful capitalist countries developed substantial nuclear power programs - in particular the U S , the U K , France, West Germany, Japan, Canada, and Sweden. A major nuclear power program w a s also pursued in the Soviet Union. Small or moderate nuclear power programs were established in various other capitalist and Eastern European countries and in a small n u m b e r of developing (third-world) countries.

Some national industries such as those in the US, the UK, France, and India -strove for independence across the nuclear fuel cycle. Independence w a s sought to avoid the financial burden of dependence on foreign suppliers, because indepen-dence in nuclear power fitted well with nationalist ideologies, and in s o m e cases because expansion into areas such as reprocessing and enrichment facilitated the development of nuclear weapons. H o w e v e r for most countries, complete

independence w a s impractical for a system as complex and costly as nuclear power. There w a s a demand-side pull for nuclear equipment and services, and also a supply-side push with m a n y national industries seeking export markets to recover the huge investments m a d e in the nuclear power industry. Thus there has been a great deal of international cooperation and competition, carried out in the context of an international division of labour characterised by stratification, competition and uneven development. A s with the management of domestic nuclear industries, the state has been heavily involved in all aspects of interna-tional nuclear relations - attempting to protect and strengthen the nainterna-tional

nuclear industry vis a vis foreign competitors, supporting the export initiatives of the national industry, and managing international issues such as control of

weapons proliferation. (Camilleri, 1984; Falk, 1982.)

The US had enormous political and economic power in the first two decades after the war, and that strength w a s used to shape the international development of

nuclear power. Light-water reactors19, developed in the U S , had advantages over reactor types being developed elsewhere, and the American industry enjoyed other advantages such as a virtual world monopoly, outside the Eastern Bloc, of uranium enrichment facilities. The U S government launched the A t o m s for Peace policy in 1953. This involved supply of enriched fuel and agreements to take

12 Light-water reactors use ordinary ("light") water as the moderator of the uranium fission reaction, and are fuelled with low-enriched uranium. Heavy-water reactors use heavy water

back spent fuel; access to training facilities and research results; and loans for

privately-owned utilities. These funds were m a d e available only if they were used to b u y equipment, materials, and technical services from the U S nuclear industry.

Behind the A t o m s for Peace policy w a s a strategy to stimulate the global nuclear power market, to control and profit from it as m u c h as possible, and to control weapons proliferation. (Clausen, 1985.)

American light-water reactors led the field when there was a surge of orders for power reactors from the m i d 1960s. A n u m b e r of countries with significant

nuclear power industries also based their programs o n U S light-water reactor

technology, including West Germany, France, Japan, Sweden, and Switzerland. In some cases (e.g. France), indigenous reactor designs were developed but dropped in favour of light-water reactor types. The U K and Canada developed and

persisted with their o w n reactor types, s o m e of which use natural uranium as fuel and thus avoid the problems associated with reliance on overseas enrichment services or the cost and complexity of construction of domestic enrichment facilities. (Thomas, 1985; Spence, 1984; Wohlstetter et al., 1979.)

The strong position of the US nuclear industry was under threat even before the end of the 1960s. The erosion of U S dominance in nuclear power w a s part of a

broader trend of declining U S hegemony in the face of the growing strength of European and Japanese capital; America's military superiority w a s secure but its economic dominance w a s not. Even w h e n based o n U S light-water technology, competitors began to threaten U S dominance in the nuclear power export market.

By the late 1960s, a controlled market, dominated by the U S , gave w a y to more classical market mechanisms. (Rees, 1990; Spence, 1984.) There w a s a gradual spread of enrichment technology, fierce competition for reactor sales, a race for technological leadership in the development of fast breeders20, and diverging approaches to international safeguards which tended towards the lowest c o m m o n denominator. (Camilleri, 1984, pp.286-288.)

In addition to the growing strength of individual nation states vis a vis the US, alliances were undermining American control over nuclear power. O n e of the

informal alliances w a s between French technology and G e r m a n industrial muscle in areas such as reprocessing and fast breeders. A n u m b e r of European countries collaborated to develop enrichment facilities, thus gradually reducing their

2Q "Breeder" reactors are fuelled with natural uranium and plutonium-239. They produce more plutonium-239 than they consume, through conversion of uranium-238 which constitutes 99.3% of natural uranium. The development of breeder technology has been extremely expensive, unsuccessful, and also contentious for various reasons including the weapons proliferation implications of the

dependence o n the U S . Alliances involving major capitalist countries and semi-peripheral countries were also emerging - for example between West G e r m a n y and Brazil, West G e r m a n y and Argentina, and France and South Africa - and other nuclear alliances, for civil and/or military nuclear development, were forming independently of any of the powerful capitalist or Eastern Bloc countries.

(Camilleri, 1984.)