1. Nuclear energy: power for capitalist growth ...
All modern life requires the use of energy, especially in the form of electricity. The question of nuclear energy is in fact all about the supplying the economy with sufficient energy. Opponents of nuclear energy simply refuse to accept that radioactive contamination is a necessary part of being supplied with energy. Although they are correct in that they are expected to put up with a monstrosity, opponents of nuclear power are mistaken in their assumption that nuclear energy is about their electricity supply. If this were the case, if nuclear energy were really about supplying people with electricity, it would be sensible for the critics of nuclear power to implore politicians to abolish it.
As it is, nuclear energy is about supplying the economy with energy, and this is in fact what energy and electricity generation are all about. Only in this sense is nuclear energy about supplying people with electricity, which is indeed provided to everyone, including the inhabitants of remote countryside hamlets. By providing electricity to the last villager, even those citizens not involved in public life are turned into a resource that is economically accesible, available, and actionable. Without electricity, a modern state would be without radio and television news, internet access, the ability to refrigerate food – essentially, without a people that could be governed. The state thus organizes the supply of electricity to its citizens to keep them functional as a resource for itself as well as for business, which is not quite the same as providing people with the electricity they need to operate night lamps and make cold drinks. Indeed, the fact that the production of energy is not at all about the daily electricity consumption of individual citizens is evident in the impenitent disregard for the safety of human life evinced by the nuclear industry, as well as in the organization of (nuclear) power production and distribution as a profitable business: Everyone has to pay for electricity, and those who cannot afford to do so have their supply cut and will be left to sit in the dark. In this way, the citizen is turned into a paying consumer, and supplying the population with electricity is made useful for economic growth.
In other words, an industrial nuclear supply of energy is about providing sufficient energy to power a capitalist economy (rather than about sending a little electricity to grandma’s kitchen). But why does this form of economic organization require the consumption of an ever-increasing amount of energy? The reason for this is quite simply that the goal of the capitalist economy is growth, and its measure of success is the rate of growth. Growth here does not refer to the production of an increasing quantity of material wealth, i.e., useful goods. Rather, growth refers to an increase in invested capital, whose purpose it is to provide the investor with a profit, and in this way to make more of itself – thus the growth for which the state organizes its energy industry is the growth of wealth in the form of money. Since the goal of a capitalist economy is the endless growth of capital, the energy needed to fuel this growth is equally without limit. (This is not all contradicted by recent attempts to “decouple” economic growth and energy consumption. The strategy of lowering the energy cost of growth is itself aimed at increasing profitability and economic growth, even if the increase in energy demand is slowed a little.) Accordingly, those living in a capitalist state are forced to accept and to pay for the energy industry in order to satisfy the requirement of economic growth – even if this entails environmental pollution and radioactive contamination.
2. ... is a state program: National energy for competition on the world market
The national energy supply constitutes a special sphere within the “free-market” system, in which the supply of a good or service is generally dependent on the ability of private capital (business) to make a profit from its sale. The state desires and encourages this kind of free economic activity – but not in the case of energy and the national energy supply. The reason for this is the very desire of the state to maintain a capitalist economy and to encourage economic growth, which requires a sufficient supply of energy. Competing capitals only produce what is profitable, and produce only as long as they are able to survive the competition for profit against other capitals. If energy were produced strictly according to the rules of the capitalist economy, it would only be produced as long as it would be profitable to do so – meaning that the supply of energy to the economy would be interrupted every time an energy company failed in competion and went bankrupt.
The state does not expose the energy sector to the perils of competition and the risk of failure precisely because the supply with sufficient energy is a necessary condition for capital to be able to compete in the first place (i.e., for businesses to operate at all). State protection for the energy sector thus exists not (only) to save one or another capital (energy company) from elimination in capitalist competition, but because capitals regularly produce general economic crises. In case of a crisis in the energy sector, in which all energy companies were to cease operation, the economy would not be able to recover and to resume growth. Since the overriding interest of the state is economic growth, which is the growth of capital, the state ensures the energy sector against the risk of competition, whose downside is the elimination of an enterprise from the economy. This is the fundamental reason why costs and profits of individual businesses are not the guiding principle of state action and regulation in the energy sector.
It is thus misguided and inadequate to counter the false advertising for nuclear power as a cheap source of energy simply by providing calculations that prove the opposite.
The fact that the state ensures a constant supply of energy to the economy does not mean that this energy is also supplied by state-owned enterprises. In the majority of states, energy is supplied by private enterprises, such as the Tokyo Electric Power Company in Japan and Pacific Gas and Electric in the United States. These are gigantic capitals (corporations) that make a profit from supplying the entire business world, as well as indiviudal consumers, with energy. The state requires these energy suppliers to calculate costs and profits whilst ensuring that they are able to sell their energy at profitable prices. If needed, the state actively protects their business results: Energy companies are too important to fail. The state thus protects the national energy industry to ensure a constant supply of energy to enable and stimulate economic growth.
Still, the energy supply to the economy must not only be stable and reliable, but energy must also be relatively cheap. Since for all companies not in the energy sector, energy costs are simply a negative quantity in a profit calculation, the state is also interested in keeping general energy prices low in order to allow businesses to maximize profits. This creates a problem for the state: On one hand, energy prices must be sufficiently high to allow energy companies to operate profitably, while on the other hand, energy prices must be sufficiently low for other businesses to operate profitably and to grow. Since both are preconditions for economic growth, the state is thus forced to deal with a contradiction particular to capitalism.
Since energy prices directly affect a company’s profit margins, and thus their ability to undercut and outcompete their rivals, energy prices matter tremendously in the competition between states. The lower the energy costs that a state can offer, the more competitive businesses operating on its soil will be. Low energy prices are thus first of all an incentive for internationally mobile capital to move to a country; secondly, they enable local companies to succeed in international competition and to thus conquer and claim the money of other countries. Success in competition leads to an increase in capital and to an expansion of credit, which together can be used to acquire and exploit foreign sources of growth. International trade is thus not a division of labour between states, but rather a competition among them: All states want their national companies to outcompete the companies of other states, which means that the economic interests of states are necessarily at odds with each other. In this competition, the national energy supply and national energy prices of a state are either useful as a weapon, or not – depending on whether the national energy supply is more stable and secure than that of other states, and on whether energy prices are lower than those of other states.
A stable and reliable energy supply in particular is a conditio sine qua non in international competition, which is why a capitalist state demands a lot of its people to ensure it.
3. Imperialist energy policy: "energy security" through domestic mixed energy and the control of the energy states
For this world economic competition of the nation, nuclear energy first has the same benefit and purpose as other forms of energy on or under the national territory: disposal over this energy is safe and secure from the nation's competitors. The special feature of nuclear energy is that a nation disposes over only a limited amount of raw materials, so it's just a matter of national technical abilities to gain a very large and expandable amount of energy from them. Even if the nation has to acquire the initial volume from overseas, it then has a bit of self-sufficiency. And that's what competing states seek in the long run, even if they seek self-sufficiency neither in their policies towards the world market or their energy.
A state uses every means to become a world market power. The crucial energy for it is still today oil and gas, which is drilled abroad under foreign soveriegnties. Indeed, politicians' sayings about "our dependence" on "foreign oil" are well known. In energy, all the leading world market nations both want to use the global market and are critical of it. Basically, a nation which gets its money power from business with the world of states and wants to make it the basis of its political power at the expense of its competitors, does not want oil to expose its capitalism to the money interests and power interests of other states that are oriented towards the same thing.
The program to resolve this contradiction in favor of the nation, to get the world market supply and eliminate dependency on supplier countries, is called, "creating energy security." That sounds as innocuously technical as if an electrician said it. But it is imperialism: the foreign authorities and their energy capitals should be secure suppliers of oil and gas and nothing else; oil states, gas states, transit countries which exist only for "our" demand -- one notices that the conventional name expresses a reality. A state like the US or Japan does not want to have to pay tribute to their demands for national growth, their price demands should be expendable for the US or Japan, and it should entail no dependence for the US or Japan that these authorities are the owners of their energy sources; they should be overlords in their countries only to ensure the safe delivery of energy at a price acceptable for American or Japan's growth: their energy security. To push this through is a) a program of economic competition and b) a program of political-military blackmail.
The economic competition program is: the US as a customer wants to turn its dependence on energy suppliers outwards: oil states, gas states should be dependent on supplying the US, namely on revenue, thus they should also be blackmailed by the price. For this, the US and other big imperialists pursue a "mixed" energy policy, again such a nondescript name: the US uses the whole world's marketable energy sources from all the supplying countries together, so that it is relatively independent of the specific natural resources of any specific supplier country. Then, the program lets the raw materials countries earn money and ascend in the world market with their oil, etc., to use it against them. So "energy" is a weapon of competition; and therein nuclear energy: the big imperialist alternative of self-sufficiency. A source of energy apart from the world market, available for the US at prices fit for the US's capital growth in the world market competition: the "economic efficiency" of nuclear power measures up for the nation in these world market profits, not in the operational cost of nuclear power as such in comparison to other kinds of energy -- an error of the anti-nuclear counter-calculators about the basic math of their opponents.
The program for the political competition to use foreign states in the way that the US uses the energy suppliers requires bringing their political will and their state power under its control. The headlines under which this power question goes are war on terror, Nato, "energy Nato"...
A national energy policy that produces "energy security" is also imperialism: it wants to have command over the energy wealth of other countries as if it were its own. Where oil is "our oil," it is treated as a hostile act if an OPEC is founded to ensure oil revenues for the oil producing countries and their national advancement; Germany and the EU explain it to be "unacceptable blackmail" if Russia and Ukraine argue about amounts and prices, instead of supplying "us" -- it wants them to be suppliers of the EU and quarrel only with each other over the revenue. The economic interests of a world market power is always a political power question between itself and other states.
4. The state's nuclear program: a question of power
It is now clear: nuclear energy is already in its civilian use a state's weapon in the competition between nations. A nuclear program is a question of international power, even if nuclear weapons aren't built, as in Japan or Germany; a nuclear state, which industrially dominates nuclear technology, can also build them.
The national budget creates and guarantees nuclear capital, its profits and growth. So it guarantees nuclear energy and nuclear technology as a capitalist business; this includes dealing with the danger of nuclear energy as a "risk" and an experiment: nuclear fission and its chain reaction release enormous energy, radiation and fission products. In a reactor, the same technical principle as the A-bomb's destructive force is used, however "moderated," i.e. the chain reaction is braked so that the released energy is regulated and usable, the radiation and fission products encased; this means, however, that radiation and fission products which are destructive to organic life are inevitable in the normal course of operation; if the brakes fail, the chain reaction is an inexorably destructive energy like a bomb; radiation destroys the encasing material and makes it into scrap metal. A nuclear state knows all this and handles it as an experiment in a double sense: a) nuclear energy is so important that it will take a chance on these dangers, which is why they are called "risks," and b) it organizes the operation of the nuclear industry like a test drive, sees what happens and brings under control what it can. Each day of successful risk management at the same time elevates the risk through the radioactive contamination of the safeguard equipment and preserves the danger as increasing waste.
The state carries out this incalculable danger and the certainty of harm for the capital location and its human resources as a calculation with its land and people. First, it claims its people and land as resources for national growth and its security policy: they are ultimately there to service growth and the nation; on the other hand, the state continually checks whether or not they are too damaged to function as a useful people, and it controls the damage if necessary with "limit values" and security measures; danger warnings to people are thus on the one hand superluous, on the other hand, the population also confuses them with being for their health.
With the nuclear energy program, the recklessness of the purpose of the growth of capital and the ruthlessness of the state to fight out this national goal in the state competition becomes a demand on the people which is calculated as a risk similar to war.
These are the gains which seem worth it for the state:
1. Mixed energy, including nuclear power, creates energy security;
2. exports of nuclear and other energy technologies take in/out the revenue of other nations; this is at the same time
3. power over the energy state basis of other nations, a dependency which states fight against.
These are the energy-imperialistic calculations which the opposing calculations of anti-nuclear activists do not understand.
As harmless as wind energy and solar energy are dressed up as, for energy policy-makers they fulfil the same imperialistic use value qualities as nuclear energy: energy that has the geological good fortune of being available inside the nation and is purely a question of national technology, or in other words, the size of its capital. It is about a new energy security-weapon and indeed it is the same as a business on the world market. As to whether this adds up, capitalism decides whether wind energy is helpful! Another a mistake of the opponents of nuclear energy.
[Taken from a lecture by an editor of GegenStandpunkt, the Marxist quarterly from Germany]