What makes China able to plan for the future

Part 3

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we have discussed the phenomenal rise of the People’s Republic of China as a major world manufacturer and what has fueled its growing economy. Since China has more coal compared to other fossil fuels, it has relied — like the United States — on coal for most of its energy.

But coal is one of the worst generators of greenhouse gases. As China rose to become the number one manufacturer in the world, it also surpassed the U.S. in greenhouse gas emissions — although not on a per capita basis. That dubious distinction still belongs to the U.S.

Now, at a time when global warming has been clearly identified as the major threat to our environment, China has laid out very detailed and ambitious plans to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. It will continue to expand its solar and wind capacity, but a more significant source of energy now embraced by Chinese planners is nuclear.

In the U.S., there is much opposition to nuclear energy. Nearly all the plants here are privately owned and operated for profit. There is much justifiable fear that the profit motive will override safety considerations, especially as these plants are old.

China is a young nuclear power. It has no old plants. By contrast, the average U.S. nuclear plant was built 36 years ago when reactors were subject to dangerous accidents, especially if something damaged the cooling system — as happened to the General Electric reactors in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. However, China has the benefit of many improvements in reactor design developed by scientists since then.

The IFR- Integral Fast Reactor.

The IFR- Integral Fast Reactor.

Ironically, one of the designs China originally pursued was worked on at the Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho from 1984 to 1994. Called the Integral Fast Reactor, it takes a very different approach than the light water reactors then in use. Several books on the subject explain that the great advantages of the IFR, also called a fast breeder or fourth-generation reactor, involve safety and solving the problem of nuclear waste.

The IFR, instead of being water-cooled, uses a passive system to cool the reactor. If anything happens to interrupt the working of the reactor, it will passively shut down. No human intervention is necessary.

The IFR, also known as a closed nuclear fuel reactor, can burn up to 99 percent of the energy in uranium, leaving very little radioactive waste. This contrasts with the light water reactors, which use only 1 percent of the energy in enriched uranium, leaving the rest as waste to decay over hundreds of thousands of years. Even better, the newer reactors could run on the waste left behind by the older reactors, thus helping clean up the vast amounts of radioactive materials that have presented a danger for many, many generations to come.

The Argonne scientists were certain they were in the process of developing a safe technology for powering the world. However, in 1994, Washington suddenly shut down the program to build the IFR, just three years before its scheduled completion.

Leading the charge in Congress against the project was then-Senator John Kerry. The scientists involved were baffled and outraged. Many saw the hand of the oil, gas and coal lobby in the shutdown. One can only imagine their frustration today as the dire news about the consequences of global warming make headlines.

In the meantime, three other countries have succeeded in developing functioning fast-breeder reactors. Today, China, Russia and India all have them, after years of testing involving pilot projects. The expense of developing and building these fourth-generation reactors has been borne by the governments involved.

When the Argonne IFR program was shut down in 1994, neither the U.S. government nor any of the privately owned U.S. energy companies were willing to lay out the large sums of money that would be needed to develop a new, safer generation of nuclear power.

The U.S. today has by far the most nuclear power reactors in the world — 99, operated by 30 different power companies. But they are old. Almost all the nuclear-generating capacity in the U.S. comes from reactors built between 1967 and 1990. Only five new reactors are under construction, and they are all light water reactors.

By 1990, the U.S. had already gone to war in oil-rich North Africa and Southeast Asia against Iraq. That was just the first in a series of conflicts, from Iraq to Syria to Libya, that held the promise of vast profits for the military-oil-banking-industrial complex — especially since it’s the public, not the energy companies, that pays for these wars. Whatever the outcome, the war budget doesn’t come out of their bottom lines.

For the hundreds of millions of people living in North Africa and West Asia, the result of these wars for oil has been a disaster. Is any more proof needed than the millions of refugees now risking their lives trying to find somewhere to live in peace?

And the whole world is affected. The scramble by the imperialist powers, most of all the U.S., to control profitable fossil fuels has precluded any adequate expenditures to develop renewable energy. It would take a massive investment on the scale of what is now spent on imperialist wars for the U.S. to change course and wean itself off coal, oil and gas. That’s not going to happen without a revolutionary change in class relations.

Why socialist planning is necessary

The World Nuclear Association summarizes China’s nuclear power development as follows:

“China has 30 nuclear power reactors in operation, 21 under construction, and more about to start construction. Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world’s most advanced, to give more than a threefold increase in nuclear capacity to at least 58 GWe by 2020-21, then some 150 GWe by 2030, and much more by 2050. The impetus for increasing nuclear power share in China is increasingly due to air pollution from coal-fired plants. China’s policy is for closed fuel cycle. China has become largely self-sufficient in reactor design and construction, as well as other aspects of the fuel cycle, but is making full use of Western technology while adapting and improving it.”

The rich imperialist countries accumulated their wealth generations ago by grabbing much of the world’s resources and super-exploiting workers in the global South. So how is it that a developing country like China can forge ahead with a nuclear program that promises to outdistance them in every way?

The answer lies in China’s ability to control and plan the central components of its economy, especially the infrastructure on which all other activity is based. While the Communist Party and the government made a decision decades ago to allow private ownership of many types of commercial enterprises in order to amass the capital they needed for growth, they have not surrendered ownership and control of the land, the sources of energy, the means of transportation and communication, and other essential elements underpinning modern life.

This allows government economic and social planners, scientists and technical people — not beholden to any private interests — to work together, look ahead and make decisions based on solving immediate and anticipated problems. The government is then tasked with carrying out these plans. While the existence of for-profit enterprises and very rich capitalists can impede this, leading to corruption of many officials in China, the planning principle remains strong.

This is how workers’ wages have been increased on a very steady basis for at least the last two decades. Even U.S. publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal acknowledge thatin the last 10 years alone, wages in China have increased fivefold. In the same period, workers’ wages in the U.S. have actually declined in constant dollars, even as the income of the capitalists has soared exponentially.

This is also how the Chinese government is able to allocate a great deal of wealth for future development on a sustainable basis. Its planners are able to think nationally and even globally because they are not hamstrung by the immediate profit needs of the dog-eat-dog economic system, in which each enterprise is in a life-and-death struggle against its competitors.

And how did China get to this point?

Through the revolutionary struggle of millions of poor and oppressed people. Many of them were very exploited workers, but a majority were downtrodden peasants, whose life offered nothing but unending toil and brutal punishment by parasitic landlords. Since that revolution and China’s economic growth, hundreds of millions of young people have migrated to the cities from rural areas and become workers. They are organized, educated and demand a better life. From their ranks also come a new generation of scientists and technical personnel.

The Chinese Revolution was victorious because it was led by communists, who saw the potential for China to become great based on the unity of the workers and peasants. Their goal was to get rid of the old and build something new — a socialist society. Despite detours and setbacks, that goal has not been abandoned, and the hard-won fruits of its planning can be seen more clearly as China continues to shake the world.