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Current Opinion: Battling on Energy
Several “setbacks” have recently befallen the development of nuclear energy—the clean, cheap energy panacea we’ve been promised since the 1950s. In the past 2 years utilities have cancelled or delayed construction on the equivalent of 130 power reactors (compared with 56 now in operation). Key research projects have been scaled down or abandoned (e.g. Gulf General Atomic’s high temperature gas-cooled reactor), and some major nuclear-fuel suppliers have reneged on long term supply contracts (Westinghouse, United Nuclear/General Atomics).
The slowdown in nuclear power partly reflects  reduced demand (largely brought on by skyrocketing utility rates following the hike in oil prices),  escalating costs of construction and of nuclear fuels, and  related financing problems; it also reveals the impact of protracted campaigning by environmental and nuclear-safety groups in exposing the technology-run-amuk that nuclear power has come to represent. Besides the immediate threat of local catastrophe from a reactor failure, there is the increasingly ominous and unsolved problem of nuclear waste disposal. The spectre of a plutonium economy with hundreds of large-scale breeder1 reactors and a world-wide traffic in plutonium and in spent fuel for reprocessing, has actually made some “responsible” officials and business “leaders” uneasy. Recently Business Week, not in the habit of knifing future growth industries, has blown the whistle with an editorial which concludes: “The U.S. should put the brakes on the breeder program and push hard for fusion.” (BW, 11/17/75)
Bringing nuclear power under mass scrutiny, forcing a slow-down with attention paid to critical issues, is a real victory for the people. In this- light, the June 8 referendum in California on nuclear power is a pivotal confrontation as a variety of organizations, and their base of popular support, take on the utilities and energy monopolies and their big-money media blitz. This struggle must continue and grow, on an international level, if the global energy brokers are really to be denied free reign over nuclear energy—especially breeder based—with all its implications for safety, the environment and geopolitics (restoring energy monopoly to the imperialist powers). However there are several other energy fronts where we must also be active; success in limiting emphasis on fission will further intensify the rapacious development of coal, the international scramble for oil, and excessive reliance on new technology spectaculars e.g. fusion power.
Regarding coal, for example, huge increases in output are going to occur under any future energy plan. It is crucial that both environmental, and worker-safety, issues take top priority here because a powerful alliance could be cemented between workers in coal mining and processing, and working people in general, providing unity is achieved on safe working conditions on the one hand, and environmental protection and energy availability on the other. (At present mine safety is stalemated, large-scale strip mining is stalking the western states, and coal liquefaction/gasification is on the drawing boards with a new crop of hazards, e.g. carcinogenic synthetic fuels.) Politically conscious science workers should thus help create popular support for aggressive struggles by these workers in the context of a progressive energy program.
As for new energy-production technologies, we should point to those areas where major gains promise not profit and control for the monopolies but dependable, environmentally sound sources; projects that depend less on extravagant technological gambles and more on systematic exploration and nuts-and-bolts development work with broad potential for applications using widely available skills, facilities and resources. These areas, largely neglected, include solar heating, cooling and power generation, solid-waste utilization, clean coal combustion and energy storage. Not only does this approach offer a more certain contribution to energy security, but focusing on it will help expose how business and government define research priorities generally.
Energy conservation is the most important part of a progressive energy program, as it requires the total redesign of an economy based on “cheap” stolen energy and planned for private profit. Most immediately this implies the coordinated development of mass transit of all kinds, the construction of new buildings and modification of existing ones for energy efficiency, the reorganization of urban and rural living, the elimination of energy-wasteful production processes (frequently developed to displace workers), and the reversal of the trend in agriculture toward massive energy-dependence. Mass consciousness of the inherent design failures of the system (from the people’s viewpoint), and organization based on the common interests of working people (including decreased growth in energy demand), would be a real threat to the rulers of the industrialized societies. It would again present opportunities for science-related people to ally with other working people: for example, unemployed construction and production workers, harried commuters, and both city-dwellers and rural people in general whose well-being requires not only the redistribution of income and political power but also the redesign of society itself.