(Taking the analysis presented by Marx in Part One of Capital Forward)
By Peter Custers
Director, Bangladesh People’s Solidarity Centre (BPSC)
Introduction: The Three Forms of the Capital Circuit
In the present essay I will endeavour to round up my theoretical discussion on the issue of nuclear waste. In the first Part of Capital II, where Marx comprehensively analysed the circuit of individual capital, he proposed not just one, but three basic formulas for the circuit of individual capital. Distinguishing three forms of capital’s circuit, he elaborately discussed the meaning of each. The one we have previously encountered, is the formula M C… P … C’ M’. This formula indicates how through a series of metamorphoses, the owner of money capital (M) succeeds in creating surplus value and in enlarging the amount of milponey capital he avails of (M becomes M plus m, depicted as M’) (1). While I have taken the formula M – … M’ as the starting point for making my economic analysis of the waste issue, it in itself does not allow us to visualise what role nuclear waste and other forms of waste play in the capital circuit of individual enterpreneurs. Hence, in order to incorporate non-commodity waste into economic theory it turned out to be crucial to transform Marx’s basic formula for the circuit of capital.
However – and this point should be extensively discussed below a full analysis of the waste problem requires further transformations, i.e. the transformation also of the formulas for the other two forms of the circuit described by Marx. Thus, aside from the circuit of money capital, Marx in Part One of Capital II analyses the circuit of manufacturing capital (Marx speaks of ‘productive’ capital when describing capital in its operational phase, hence uses the term P). The formula for the circuit of P describes the periodical renewal of manufacturing capital, and it has the formula P … C’- M’- C … P. While at first sight it may appear a superfluous exercise to separately analyse P’s circuit, Marx well explains how the result of P’s metamorphoses could either be manufacturing on the same scale, in which case we have simple reproduction, or reproduction on an expanded scale (P’) (2). The by-product nuclear waste, i.e. W ,comes into existence in course of the manufacturing phase P. A discussion regarding the capital circuit of P should thus enable us to visualise what consequences production on an expanded scale has for the generation of (nuclear) waste.
The third form of the capital circuit has the formula C’ M’ C … P … C’. Here the starting point is neither money capital nor manufacturing capital, but commodity capital, i.e. capital in the form of commodities bought on the market. The given third formula brings out how production by other individual enterpreneurs constitutes the precondition, the sine-qua-non, for the the capital circuit of each individual enterpreneur. Here, augmented commodity capital C’, i.e. commodities with an enlarged value brought onto the market by enterpreneurs who have already gone through their circuits, is the starting point for the specific capital circuit (3). Employment of the formula C’ – … C’ will enable us once again to deepen our analysis of the issue of nuclear waste. For although W is distinguished from C’ precisely by the fact that it generally does not represent exchange value and cannot be marketed, under certain circumstances – W does become a commodity, be it with a relatively low market value. In focusing on the form of the circuit that starts with C’, now W = C, we should be able to develop a better understand of what happens when waste-products in the nuclear sector, for instance depleted uranium, are ‘valorised’ or ‘re-valorised’.
My central concern in this essay is to bring out that Marx’s analysis of the individual circuit of capital, as presented in Part One of Capital II, can well be taken forward. Marx skipped the analysis of waste in designing his befamed formulas. Yet the issue of non-commodity waste does not just have a bearing on the first formula, the formula for the circuit of money capital. It in fact has a bearing on the fornulas for all three forms of the circuit proposed by Marx, i.e. including on the formulas for the circuit of manufacturing capital and commodity capital. Thus, in re-elaborating Marx’s formulas for the circuit of manufacturing capital and commodity capital, i.e. the formulas P … C’ M C … P’ and C’ M C … P … C’, I intend to underline how consequential the issue of the generation of industrial waste is for economic theory. And since waste in the sense of non-commodity waste is not only a feature of the nuclear sector, but of other industrial sectors too, the construction of a general theory on waste appears to be overdue.
Exceptions to the Formula on the Capital Circuit
In order to open my discussion on the issue of waste and the different forms of the circuit of capital, and to clear the way for theoretical innovation, I now wish to first briefly look at the exceptions which Marx himself registered, i.e. exceptions to the basic pattern of capital’s circuits. For Marx was not unaware of the fact that the three formulas which he presented in Part One of Capital II do not always apply. Whereas the three formulas, for the circuit of money capital ( M C … P … C’ M’ ), for the circuit of manufacturing capital ( P … C’ M’ C … P ), and for the circuit of commodity capital ( C’ M C … P … C’ ), do help us understand the modus operandi of most individual enterpreneurs, in some cases the trajectory of individual capitals diverges from these general patterns. These exceptions are rarely debated or even noted by students of Marx’s, yet they can be taken as a source of encouragement by anybody wishing to creatively develop the analysis on the circuit of individual capital presented by Marx in Part One of Capital II.
First, there is the important exception of the transport industry and of other communications’ industries, referred to by Marx in the context of his discussion on the circuit of money capital. Here Marx explicitly states that the formula M C … P … C’ M’ does not apply to all industrial sectors, since ‘there are certain independent branches of industry in which the product of the productive process is not a material product, is not a commodity’ (!!) (4). What the transport industry sells is travelling, ‘a change of location’. Thus, whereas the sector of transports does engender surplus value s, Marx argues, this surplus value is not expressed in the form of a material good that is sold (C’), but in the form of a service, hence directly in M’ . In short, the formula for the capital circuit of the transport industry is a distinct one. As stated by Marx, it is M C (MP/LP) .. P – M’ (5). This analysis of Marx’s is eminently relevant for our understanding of the most recent evolution in world capitalism. For the era of globalisation has precisely seen an enormously rapid development of communications worldwide.
Marx mentions yet another example of ‘deviating behaviour’ of capital, in the context of his discussion on the second form of the circuit, i.e. the circuit of manufacturing capital. He in fact begins his discussion on the circuit of P by noting that there are values entering into the process of production ‘which do not enter into the process of circulation’ (6). This happens whenever a portion of C’ directly re-enters into the labour process as a means of production (MP), without undergoing the metamorphoses which other parts of C’ undergo. A key example of such a product that immediately re-enters the labour process are the seeds which capitalist farmers derive from their harvest, and which they re-use in a next cycle of agricultural production. Like the previously mentioned exception, this example holds much contemporary significance. Agribusiness companies in recent years have launched a sustained campaign, they are waging a crusade to technically and legally deprive farmers and peasants of the possibility to re-use their seeds (7).
Marx returned to the theme of non-commodity and non-purchased elements in the process of production in his Chapter on the circuit of commodity-capital, i.e. the third form of the circuit. This shows how keenly he was aware of its significance (8). And yet the exceptions mentioned in Party One of Capital II appear as rather minor digressions in Marx’s analysis of the circuit of individual capital. When Marx did refer to non-commodity elements entering into the process of production, he had in mind such material elements as contribute to the creation of values, i.e. to forms of wealth, and not to non-commodity elements constituting the opposite, waste. Thus, although for an analysis of waste we can to an extent draw on Marx’s recognition of exceptions to the three general patterns of the capital circuit, – for a full analysis of our thematic it is necessary to adapt each formula, i.e. the formula for each form of the circuit. Below I will largely focus on adjusting the formulas for the circuits of manufacturing capital and commodity capital, since the adaptation of money capital’s circuit has already been discussed elsewhere (9).
The Circuit of Manufacturing Capital (P) and the Impact Exerted by Nuclear Waste
The second form of the capital circuit discussed by Marx in Part One of Capital II is the circuit of manufacturing capital. This circuit, as already stated in the introduction to this essay, is represented by the general formula P … C’ M’ C …P. Contrary to the situation as given in the first form of the circuit (M – …. M’), – the starting point of this circuit is not money capital M, but manufacturing capital P, i.e. capital as it exists during the phase when labour is expended on raw materials or components in order to produce a new commodity. Moreover, the circuit does not just commence, but also closes with capital-in-operation, P or P’ (see below). This second form of the capital circuit has a special bearing on the analysis of waste for this reason, that it is precisely when capital obtains the shape of P, i.e. when the commodity labour power purchased has been set to work on/with the help of means of production, that the by-product W comes into existence. It is P that gives birth to W, the latter being decidedly waste with a negative value in case of the nuclear sector.
Now, in his analysis of the second form of the circuit Marx brings out well that capitalist enterpreneurs can either opt to expand the scale of their manufacturing, or can opt not to do so, i.e. continue on the same scale. P … , the process of manufacturing, results in commodities with a larger value than the value of the commodities that had entered P. Thus, C’ consists of one part representing the value of the original commodities C, and one part representing the surplus c. Similarly, the money capital that the enterpreneur holds after the second metamorphosis taking place under the second form of the circuit, M’, can be divided into M, standing for the value of the original money capital M, and the money capital representing the surplus m. Whereas the capitalist necessarily needs to re-invest, hence purchase commodity capital, upto the size of C, he can opt to consider the surplus c / m as his revenue, and use this part of his capital for personal consumption. Only if he chooses to re-invest a part of c / m , does production on an enlarged scale take place. Only then is the P that closes the circuit larger than the P that opened the circuit, and can the formula for the circuit of manufacturing capital be stated to be P … C’ M’ C (LP/MP) … P’ (10).
Now, the existence of a by-product, such as nuclear and chemical waste in the overlapping military/civilian nuclear sector, upsets Marx’s neat analysis of the circuit of manufacturing capital. First, the emergence of – W during P … can undermine the enterpreneur’s attempt at accumulation, at undertaking production on an extended scale. If W represents negative values and not just scrap, such as is the case for instance with the fuel elements after they have been spent in nuclear reactors, and is the case with the high-level waste remaining after the reprocessing of spent fuel elements, – the negative value contained in W must be subtracted from the surplus c / m in order to know how much additional capital the enterpreneur actually avails of for re-investment in production on an extended scale. Further, the existence of W can even wipe out the very possibility of expanded reproduction. For if the size of W is larger than the part of C’ that represents the surplus, i.e. where W > c / m , the trajectory P … P’ referred to above simply cannot be implemented. This eventuality was nowhere raised by Marx.
Moreover, even if the production of nuclear waste is less consequential, i.e. where W < c / m, the very existence of nuclear waste can have a significant effect upon the circuit of manufacturing capital. This is particularly so where the trajectory of manufacturing capital P emanates in production on an expanded scale, i.e. in P’. For in this case we do not just need to incorporate the factor W into the circuit, and bring out how – W emerges both during P at the beginning, and during P’ at the closing of the circuit. No, we need to also take account of the fact that the size of W grows alongside the successive growths in the scale of production. Stated differently: the process of the self-expansion of nuclear capital results ipso modo in the ‘self-expansion’ of nuclear waste, in waste on an enlarged scale. This, the accumulation of waste-production, may be expressed in the formula P’ (- W’). Thus, the formula for the second form, the form of the circuit of manufacturing capital, transformed in consequence of the incorporation of waste/expanded waste, now will be as follows: P (- W) … C’ (-W) M’ (- W) C … P’ (- W’).
The Processing of Waste and the Circuit of Manufacturing Capital
I will now proceed to discuss the significance of the formula for the circuit of manufacturing capital for the analysis of waste-processing, i.e. for the analysis of the treatment of nuclear waste previous to its disposal. Elsewhere I have already explained how the formula for the first form of the circuit, the circuit of money capital, needs being adapted in order to allow us to analyse the conditioning of waste. Neither can the starting point of this capital circuit be stated to be simply M, nor can the closing point be simply expressed as M’. For whatever money capital is laid out at the beginning of the circuit, is laid out alongside non-commodity waste. Moreover, all money capital M, and the commodities C purchased with M, in the course of … P … are ‘absorbed’ by the non-commodity object of the manufacturing, being the high-level waste or other radioactive waste which at the end of the circuit continues to be non-commodity waste. Hence the need for an adapted formula to highlight the nature of waste-processing. This is the formula W/M W/C … P … ‘W, in which ‘W stands for processed waste containing a lesser amount of negative values than the original W (11).
Now, the processing of nuclear waste can also be analysed through the formula for the second form of the circuit, i.e. the formula for the circuit of manufacturing capital. Let us look once again at the formula for production of commodities on an expanded scale, i.e. the formula running from P … , passing through the phases of capital circulation, to end in … P’. This formula is quite relevant to our discussion. For as nuclear production, such as the production work in enrichment facilities and nuclear reactors, expands, – the waste generation too increases in size. It inevitably takes place on an expanded scale. Hence, the scale of waste-processing too needs to expand over time. This can be expressed through an adapted version of the formula which Marx proposed for the circuit of manufacturing capital, which as stated was P … C’ M’ C … P’. The adapted formula will be: P … ‘W – W/M W/C … P’, where ‘W is transferred to its original owner who furnishes new waste plus new and larger capital to the owner of the waste processing facility, so that the latter can continue his circuit and undertake waste treatment on an enlarged scale.
However the meaning of P’ in the capital circuit for nuclear waste-processing facilities can in no way be equated with the meaning P’ has in the circuits of other individual capitals. Where P’ expresses the manufacturing of commodities on an extended scale, the commodities engaged in P’ result in products with a larger value than the value of the original MP and LP combined. Yet where P’ expresses the processing of waste on an extended scale, the outcome is dissimilar. An ever larger quantity of MP and LP are engaged to keep up with the increased supply of waste accruing to the waste processing facility, the outcome being a larger quantity of waste with a relatively lower negative value instead of more commodities with a higher value. Thus, where P’ stands for the processing of waste on an expanded scale, the manufacturing capital eats up an ever larger amount of the commodities MP and LP, which commodities are wasted for capital, in this sense that they do not result in creation of surplus value at all. The accumulation of waste (W’) is accompanied by an ever larger waste of commodities!
Of course, this logic of waste-processing goes counter to all capitalist logic, and no operator of waste-processing facilities would continue in his business, if he were to bear the consequences himself. Yet another specific feature of the circuit of manufacturing capital for waste processing facilities is therefore that M and C, along with W, are in principle supplied to the owner of the nuclear facility by the owner of nuclear waste, – W. Again, whereas in the case of regular enterprises, the outcome of P, the new commodities C’, are transformed into money capital M’, – in the case of the waste-processing facilities the outcome, i.e. conditioned waste ‘W, is transferred back to its owner who supplies the waste-processing facility with new waste and new money capital (W/M). In short, while the circuit of manufacturing capital can be adapted to account for the specific features of the capital circuit for waste reprocessing facilities, a mechanical use of the categories which Marx proposed in Part One of Capital II would surely result in a faulty analysis. Indeed, only a carefully reformulated version of P … – P’ will do.
Depleted Uranium ‘Valorisation’ of Waste
I will now move on to re-discuss Marx’s formula for the circuit of commodity capital, i.e. the formula for the third form of the capital circuit analysed in Part One of Capital II. For this purpose I will focus on the issue of depleted uranium. This choice of analysis may at first seem paradoxical, since depleted uranium originally is a by-product, waste (- W) from nuclear production, more specifically from nuclear enrichment. Contrary to the main product enriched uranium, it does not constitute a commodity or commodity capital! Yet the relevance of the formula for the circuit of commodity capital for analysing the role of depleted uranium precisely lies in the fact that enterpreneurs in the nuclear sector and the state have found ways to ‘valorise’ depleted uranium, and promote its use as a raw material (MP) both in the civilian, and in the military sector of the capitalist economy. Hence, depleted uranium is a case where waste is transformed into commodity capital, be it commodity capital with a relatively low value. It is a case where W as C becomes the starting point of a new circuit, for instance the circuit resulting in the military commodity munitions employed to pierce enemy tanks.
To start, let’s mention the essential meaning of the term depleted uranium. While nuclear enrichment on the one hand emanates in a commodity with an enhanced content of the isotope uranium-235, it at the very same time also emanates in a by-product with a smaller content of uranium-235, namely a content of 0.2 percent instead of 0.7 percent uranium-235 (12). The waste-product depleted uranium consists overwhelmingly in the isotope uranium-238. Although those who advocate the re-use of depleted uranium as a raw material for the manufacturing of means of destruction tend to mask its environmental and health risks, the radioactive content of uranium-238 is stated to be considerable. It reportedly represents 40 million bequerel per kilogram, being 80% of the radioactivity of natural uranium. Moreover, the period of radioactivity of uranium-238 is reportedly about as long as the period of existence of the earth, 4.5 billion years (13). Thus, whatever negative use-values depleted uranium embodies, will emburden future generations perpetually, and this in a very literal sense of the term.
The negative use-value of the ‘valorised’ waste-product depleted uranium is well-recorded in connection with its employment as a raw material in munitions. The projectiles with depleted uranium that are fired from tanks and military planes do not just penetrate enemy tanks effectively. The shooting of the projectiles also tends to result in the formation of smoke consisting of dust particles, a phenomenon which is called ‘aerosolisation’, and which represents a major health risk for human beings. For in case the dust particles of depleted uranium are inhaled and penetrate the human body, they reportedly can well result in cell damage through alpha radiation (14). Thus, although the owner of the depleted uranium (- W) happily ‘valorises’ his waste-product as C; though the depleted uranium enters a new capital circuit, and then comes to constitute a part of the value of the newly produced munitions, C’ (= WU), – it does not shed its negative value (- WU/-WE). This, the damaging consequences to human health and to the environment, re-appear once the munitions with depleted uranium are actually consumed, in war (15).
The potential negative impact of the use of depleted uranium on civilians, and even on soldiers of the army employing the munitions (!!), are overlooked with typical shortsightedness by those who plan the manufacturing of means of destruction. In facilitating the valorisation of depleted uranium as a raw material, they calculate that the resulting munitions (C’) do not only possess an excellent capacity of penetration, but also travel with high speed and have a reach that is superior to that of conventional arms (16). Hence, the processing of depleted uranium as raw material (MP) is premised on a narrow calculation of the ‘use-value’ of the resulting projectiles, nor for the public (i.e. not in the social sense of the term), but for the capitalist state. It is premised on the simplified equation, – W = C, and ignores the circumstance that the negative value contained in the depleted uranium W, re-appears in the commodity C’ that emanates from the new circuit of capital. Clearly, policies which aim at recycling of depleted uranium are premised on a defective analysis of its characteristics as waste.
Transforming the Circuit of Commodity Capital
Let me now try to show how the transformation of Marx’s formula for the circuit of commodity capital helps to bring out rather well what meaning the re-use of depleted uranium has. As I have mentioned in the introduction to this essay, the significance of the third form of the circuit, the circuit of commodity capital, lays in the fact that it expresses a necessary interconnection between the capital of different enterpreneurs. Though the circuit of an individual capitalist starts from M, money capital, – the given enterpreneur cannot embark on his path of production, unless some other capitalists have already completed, or completed in the main, their own circuit of capital and have brought their commodity C’ onto the market. M … M’ of the one capitalist is premised on the availability of the C’ of other capitals, Marx argues. Hence he proposes a specific formula for the circuit of commodity capital, i.e. for the circuit of the means of production (MP) which are sold to the owner of M by other enterpreneurs. This formula is the formula C’ M C … P … C’ (17).
Now, this formula is relevant for our discussion on depleted uranium, since the valorisation of depleted uranium as a raw material is indeed premised on the existence of an interconnection between two capital circuits, the capital circuit for the production of enriched uranium and the capital circuit for the production of munitions containing depleted uranium. Still, the existence of an interconnection between these two circuits of nuclear capital cannot be analysed, if our theoretical framework remains as given in Part One of Capital II. For although Marx here does very well explain how the circuit of one capitalist is premised on that of others, – the categories of analysis which he employs (M, C and P) are limited categories, they do not include the issue of waste. In consequence, his theoretical apparatus fails to offer us the possibility of depicting the interconnection between depleted uranium emanating as waste from the process of uranium enrichment on the one hand and the capital circuit for the manufacturing of munitions containing depleted uranium on the other hand.
Hence, the formula C’ M C … P … C’ cannot be applied mechanically. It needs to be transformed point-by-point. First we need to be aware that the commodity thrown onto the market by capitalists who have largely completed their circuit, may be a waste product, or ‘valorised’ waste. The given commodity is represented by W = C instead of C’. Whereas the sale of depleted uranium results in M for the original owner of the waste, this sale in one and the same breath marks the appearance of depleted uranium as a specific means of production, it now becomes C (MP). And although the process … P … for the manufacturing of munitions containing depleted uranium emanates in a commodity with added value, i.e. in exchange value larger than the exchange value contained in C, this C’ does not constitute a commodity like any other commodities, but is a rather special market ware. For the ultimate product, the munitions, like other military commodities, represents negative use-value in the social sense of the term (C’ = W). Moreover, given its environmental and health-risks, it can be stated to embody both negative use-values and negative exchange values (- WU/WE).
Marx’s formula for the circuit of commodity capital then can be reformulated, to account both for the special nature of the commodity opening the circuit, and to account for the special nature of the commodity ending the circuit. The commodity depleted uranium at the start represents – W= C, whereas the military commodity, the munitions, emerging at the end, should be depicted as C’ (= W). And in renaming both the C’ at the beginning, and the C’ at the end of the circuit, the formula for the circuit of commodity capital is largely transformed. It now becomes: (- W = C) M C … P … C’ (= W). This formula being a far cry from Marx’s original shorthand formula, it well reveals the degree to which Marx’s explanatory framework of Part One, Capital II, needs being reshaped, rethought. In conclusion: the ‘valorisation’ of depleted uranium can be highlighted through the formula for the circuit of commodity capital, but only if this formula be adapted to account for the special character of depleted uranium as waste-turned-into-a-cheap-commodity.
Solving the Riddle of Nuclear Production (1): Transfer of Responsibility for Expenditures
Before concluding this essay on nuclear production and forms of the capital circuit, let’s return to the first form of the circuit, M – … – M’. As stated previously, the example of nuclear production shows that capitalist manufacturing need not always result in the production of surplus value. There are cases where the generation of waste, and the expenditures necessitated by such waste, are so large as to wipe out the surplus generated during the operational phase of capital. … P … .. Yet creation of surplus value being the very raison d’etre of capitalism, – how can we explain capital’s readiness to continue nuclear production, if the outcome of manufacturing in the sector is no additional money capital? How can we explain such suicidal behaviour on the part of capital?! There are basically two answers to this question, – one being the transference of responsibility for negative expenditures on account of non-commodity waste to other owner(s) of capital; -the other being the transfer of these costs to future generations of humanity. Both amount to nuclear capital tending to dog its responsibility for the consequences of behaviour that is illogical in capital’s own terms.
First, the policy of making another owner or other owners of capital bear the responsibility for the costs resulting from the existence of waste has already been refered to above, in the section on the circuit of manufacturing capital. Capital in charge of the processing, the ‘conditioning’, of nuclear waste, cannot itself bear the expenditures of such processing. For the manufacturing which it undertakes packaging waste or changing its material form does not emanate in a commodity which can be sold against a price on the market. It rather results in non-commodity waste with a lower negative value than the original waste (‘W). Hence, the transference of the expenditures for means of production and labour power (MP and LP) purchased to process waste, to the original owner of the nuclear waste, would appear to be the solution to the dilemma faced by the owner of the waste-processing facility. The owner of W, who is also the owner of the nuclear commodity C’, simply incorporates all costs deriving from the former, when allocating the money capital resulting from manufacturing the latter.
This logic, however, may not impress the owner of the enrichment facility or the nuclear reactor who has furnished the spent fuel elements or other nuclear waste to the waste-processing factory. To an extend, he may agree to incorporate the costs to be incurred on account of W into m, the surplus money capital, i.e. he may agree to allocate a part of the surplus capital towards reducing the negative consequences of the non-commodity waste. This strategy, however, is only acceptable for the owner of the nuclear production facility as long as his balance sheet does not turn negative. Hence, as long as the capital expenditures on account of W are substantially smaller than the size of m, i.e. as long as m > WE , the given enterpreneur may agree. However, whenever the opposite is the case, as soon as the costs for waste-processing come to wipe out his surplus m, he will immediately rebel, and will either refuse to continue nuclear production, or demand that the costs on account of W be borne by others. In fact, he will rebel well before being thrown into the ‘danger zone’, the point at which his surplus capital approximates zero level.
The ultimate solution to the dilemma of the owner of the facility for the conditioning of nuclear waste does not lie in a transfer of his manufacturing costs to another nuclear owner, – but in a transfer of responsibility towards an agent outside the overlapping civilian/military nuclear sector. This agent can be none other than the capitalist state whom we have previously encountered as a powerful patron of the nuclear sector, which sector in view of its high organic composition of capital contributes to, or is supposed to contribute to, the social accumulation of capital. The state through taxation has an access to the surplus produced in whatever sector of the capitalist economy. Hence, where a nuclear enterpreneur cannot bear the costs of its own manufacturing process, such as in the case of the processing of waste represented by the circuit W/M – … ‘ W, or where he refuses to surrender his surplus m, – the state is called upon to furnish the capital resources (i.e. the C (MP/LP) required along with W) so as to allow the owner of the nuclear processing facility to condition ‘his’ waste.
The Riddle of Nuclear Production (2): Delaying the Dismantling of Nuclear Facilities
There is yet a second possible solution to the dilemna posed by nuclear waste. This is: the transfer of responsibility not to the existing state, but to future generations of humanity. This course of action, although potentially coinciding, is to be distinguished from the above-mentioned one, since it implies that the erosion of the surplus c / m is masked. Although a proper system of capitalist accounting would force the owner of the nuclear facility to take stock of the given, negative expenses WE, the nuclear owner chooses to ignore these expenses: his policy will be to presume that these expenses do not exist, at least to presume so for the time being. This ostrich policy, i.e. the closing of one’s eyes to the expenses to be incurred in consequence of nuclear waste, has been and is being pursued in the nuclear sector. A vivid illustration is the attitude of nuclear owners and nuclear policymakers to the decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear facilities, – an issue which I can touch on only briefly here, and which needs to be elaborated separately.
Expenses for the decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear facility are expenses to be incurred – not at the end of each capital circuit M – … – M’ , but after the closure of the facility. Industrial capital passes through a series of circuits. The amount of the circuits varies in numbers, depending on the nature of the capital and the durability of the means of production purchased at the beginning of the first circuit. In any case, the major means of production, such as the machinery and the buildings, wear out in course of a series of production cycles, the end result being depreciation of these means of production MP. Whereas in other sectors, the durable means of production will represent zero value and can simply be disposed of as scrap at the end of the last production cycle, – in the case of the nuclear sector some means of production instead represent waste, negative values, at the end of the last cycle. Hence, on top of the waste which emerges from each cycle ( -W), the capital owners are faced with ultimate waste This waste is depicted in the formula M -.. M’. M -.. – M’. M-..-M’ etc. (-WW), where (-WW) refers to the dangerous nuclear waste, including high-level waste, that remains after the end of the last production cycle, i.e. after the closure of the nuclear facility.
Now, whereas the costs for the decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear facilities should logically be included as negative expenditures in each and every production cycle which nuclear capital passes through, – capital owners in the sector have historically ignored such costs, behaving as if they did not exist. This has, for instance, occurred in the USA, the country where nuclear facilities were first built (18). Thus, although a part of the costs for WW should logically have been added to the costs for W, i.e. to the expenditures on account of the nuclear and chemical waste emerging from each cycle of manufacturing … P … , this in reality was not done. Yet by ignoring such costs, the owners of nuclear facilities obviously have not succeeded in whisking them away or in making them evaporate, but have simply defered the moment at which they needed to be taken into account. Hence, they have merely succeeded in hiding the erosion of the surplus. Thus, the costs on account of the existence of non-commodity waste appeared to be smaller than they are or will be in reality.
Moreover, the fact that these costs have since started appearing in the account books does not herald a seasaw change, for nuclear owners and nuclear policymakers have meanwhile taken recourse to a second devise to mask the size of the expenditures on account of nuclear waste. On the whole, most capitalist countries harbouring nuclear production facilities permit extensive delays, in particular in the timing of the dismantling of the reactor core, which represents the most cumbersome waste among all means of production MP that remain as nuclear waste WW after the closure of a nuclear power station (19). The policy forms an absolute contrasts with capital’s current policy on the storage of commodities (20). Where such delays lead to the decay of radioactivity, they do result in reduction of costs on account of WW. Yet the prolonged delays at the same time serve to make it exceedingly difficult to undertake precise calculations of the composite costs which capital incurs in consequence of the existence of W and WW. They thus tend indeed to mask the erosion of the surplus characterising nuclear capital.
Concluding Note: Towards a General Theory on Waste and the Individual Circuit of Capital?
In this and the previous three essays I have largely focused on the production of radio-active waste in the overlapping civil/military sector. What significance does the analysis presented have for the construction of a general theory on waste-production under capitalism? First, my discussion is both incomplete as regards the waste-problem in the nuclear sector itself, and it is also sector-specific. On the one hand, I have hardly dwelt on the production of non-nuclear waste in the sector, and on waste that is put aside as scrap or is carelessly re-‘valorised’, inspite of its radio-active content (21). On the other hand, nuclear waste does possess characteristics which make the problem of this waste specially intractable. Given its radioactivity, all nuclear waste does contain negative values. Moreover, because the period of ‘half-life’ of radioactive isotopes is irreducible, and because this period can extend over tens of millions of years or more, the causation of damage is perpetual in time as compared to the production time in the nuclear sector.
To construct a general theory of waste under capitalism it will be necessary to further conceptualise waste. In the first place, the distinction between waste which is a commodity yet represents negative use-values (i.e. arms: C = W), and waste which is non-commodity waste ( – W) needs to be further elaborated. Both forms of waste have been referred to in this and the previous essays, as I have tried to sketch the dramatically negative consequences of the overlapping military/civilian nuclear sector for human and non-human life on earth. Both forms of waste, in different ways do incorporate negative use-values: all armaments in the sense that their actual consumption purposefully results in destruction; – all non-commodity nuclear waste in the sense that it negatively impacts on the environment and on human health. The manufacturing of nuclear arms results in both. Still, it would be wrong to analytically equate the various forms of waste-production mentioned, for the degree to which they represent negative exchange values quite clearly varies.
In the second place, the identity of non-commodity waste also varies, and this will become apparent once we try to extend our analysis of waste-production beyond the nuclear sector. In constructing a general theory of waste, one would have to address, for instance the distinction between scrap, being waste which is not a commodity destined for market sale and which represents zero value at the closing of the circuit of money capital, yet is not intrinsically damaging, and damaging waste, i.e. waste which has the identity of being a non-commodity, but which also emburdens the environment and constitutes a threat to human health. The basic formula aimed at incorporation of the issue of non-commodity waste into critical economic theory, namely the formula M C … P … C’ (- W) M’ ( – W), may be applicable to each manufacturing sector of the capitalist system engendering non-commodity waste. Yet in view of the variety in damaging properties of non-commodity waste, the kind of sector-specific analysis which I have made for the nuclear sector, will have to be made for other industrial sectors too.
Nevertheless, the analysis of waste in the nuclear sector, it seems to me, already poses an enormous challenge to critical economic theory. Historically, the purview of the theory has been limited to commodity-waste, to waste in the form of commodities which have been manufactured but are not sold. In the past critical economic theory to my knowledge has ‘overlooked’ the issue of non-commodity waste. Over and again, Marxist authors have pointed out that the capitalist system is a wasteful production system, that the unplanned, chaotic nature of production inevitably leads to overproduction and the destruction of vaste economic resources, as enterpreneurs fail to sell their commodities. Through my analysis of waste in the nuclear sector I have tried to put on the agenda a qualitively different kind of waste, i.e. the issue of non-commodity waste. The analysis presented in this series of four essays has hopefully clarified that the incorporation of this type of waste into economic theory is best accomplished through a reconceptualisation of the circuit of individual capital, as originally presented by Karl Marx in Part One of Capital II.