I\’ve had the great fortune over the years to know George Monbiot, the well-known left-wing and environmental author and Guardian columnist, very well and count him as a great personal friend. Having said that, we haven\’t actually met or conversed in person for some considerable time, since the heady days of rushing around a muddied meadow on the site of the Batheaston bypass protest in 1994 are long gone. I suspect George didn\’t really enjoy that campaign much as the security guards drafted in to stop us lowly activists from stopping work on the site decided to chuck him bodily on a pile of metal fencing spikes near the perimeter fence, one of which went through his foot. That effectively curtailed his activism for a bit and also his passion for running. During the course of subsequent encounters, such as his involvement with The Land Is Ours campaign, I may have teased him a bit about this but I remember that he wasn\’t very impressed at the time.
Over the years since the Solsbury Hill protest, George has of course ascended to the heights of national and perhaps also international recognition as a left-wing author, journalist and columnist for The Guardian, whereas I and many other old anti-road warriors now find ourselves scattered far and wide across the UK where we just continue with the usual business of trying to lead as ethical a life as possible in relative obscurity. Thats not something that bothers me particularly, I finally managed to get to university some years back and I now have a good degree from Bath Spa University, and I am currently trying to eke out an existence as a freelance writer, with some success I might add. I appear to have escaped being sucked into low paid wage-slavery in a factory or a call-centre contributing to the turbo-capitalist obsession with trashing the planet at every given opportunity, and in that I am reasonably content.
Something that does bother me however is George\’s apparent change-of-heart over nuclear. I have to say I\’m appalled at this and have blatantly said so on The Guardian\’s comments page following the second of his apparently pro-nuke articles which emerged into the limelight this morning. I am sufficiently annoyed in fact to try and venture again into a subject with which I am not overly familiar, despite my conviction that nuclear is dangerous and also nowhere near being a reliable answer to climate change and oil depletion. Nevertheless, George\’s new position on this motivates me to examine his arguments as closely as I can and to try and demolish them if at all possible.
Let\’s start with his first piece concerning the stricken Japanese plant at Fukushima. This was released on 22nd March entitled Going Critical. In it he states that so far no one has yet recieved a lethal dose of radiation. He then goes on to state that the average total dose of radiation incurred by people living within 10 miles of the Three Mile Island plant, which went into meltdown in 1979, was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers, which apparently, he states, is one-half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which in turn is apparently one 80th of an \’invariably fatal exposure\’.
George then turns to the subject of the extra burden renewable technology would have to bear in order to replace nuclear in addition to replacing fossil fuel. He rightly criticises the idea that renewables are an efficient source of energy, in the UK at least, before stating that if the UK\’s existing nuclear plants closed down that would automatically mean more fossil fuel and cites coal as being 100 times worse than nuclear as an example of why a no-nuclear option would be a bad idea.
In a subsequent article, George rebuts the various criticisms launched at him in response to the first article. \”I did not claim that there is no alternative to atomic energy, or any such thing\” he says. \”Nor did I suggest that it should replace renewables, or produce any higher proportion of our electricity than it does already\”. He goes on to state that he did \”point out that most of the countries that might abandon nuclear power are likely to replace it not with renewables but with fossil fuel, and that this is a major change for the worse.\”
In his latest piece, released today, George claims that the anti-nuclear movement has misled people on the effects of nuclear power on human health. He suggests that a press release sent to him by Dr Helen Caldicott, effectively contradicts her claims about the adverse health effects of radiation. Caldicott has apparently said that the work of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) concerning the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster is “a total cover-up”. George states that although he has challenged her on this she has yet to produce sufficient evidence to back this up. In response to criticisms against him made by his fellow Guardian columnist John Vidal, who apparently visited the Ukraine and saw “deformed and genetically mutated babies in the wards … adolescents with stunted growth and dwarf torsos; foetuses without thighs or fingers” George comments \”What he did not see was evidence that these were linked to the Chernobyl disaster\”.
That is about the size of it. Pretty revolutionary you might think.
Okay, thats a lot of smoke there, but lets see if there\’s any real substance to it.
My gut reaction to George\’s first piece was that he had actually believed the information that was coming out of Japan with regard to the radiation from the stricken Fukushima plant. Considering that George has spent a lot of time over the years questioning the official wisdom of western European and US governments, among others, I found this very surprising indeed especially considering that at least one Japanese media organisation, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, has released a story which does more than merely hint at the seriousness of the situation regarding escaping radioactive material. It says that \”The operator of the disaster-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has detected 5 million times higher than the legal limit of radioactive iodine in seawater around the plant\”. To my mind, that sounds like something to worry about, more so if I was living in Japan right now.
Interestingly one of the posters commenting on Monbiot\’s latest piece supplied a link to an article, also written in The Guardian, by Oliver Tickell, dated 28th May 2009. Tickell reveals in this piece that back in 1959 the World Health Organisation (WHO) effectively voted for an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which gave the latter organisation \”a veto on any actions by WHO that relate in any way to nuclear power\”. Tickell argues that this agreement effectively prevents the WHO from properly investigating the dangers to human health by nuclear power. Considering the various cover-ups that have gone on over the years with regard to the introduction of a lethal nuclear by-product, fluoride, into the public water supply, I have to say I am convinced by Tickell\’s argument here. Such a cover-up seems all too likely to me. I think therefore that there is more to Fukushima than meets the eye, and we ought to be on our guard in the face of information released to us by official sources.
Monbiot also seems to be wrong when mentioning Chernobyl too. According to Ricardo Sequeiros Coelho writing in Links: The International Journal of Socialist Renewal, while George quoted the 28 deaths among Chernobyl employees and emergency workers and the 15 deaths among people living in surrounding areas, he forgot to add in an estimated total of 4000 deaths from thyroid cancer. Coelho goes on to cast some doubt on the Chernobyl Forum\’s calculation of deaths from radiation exposure from Chernobyl which the forum estimated \’could run into thousands\’. Coelho questions the forum\’s report on that basis. He states that \”in the same year, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) estimated that more than 10,000 people were affected by thyroid cancer, to which 50,000 more cases are expected in the future should be added.\” Coelho further mentions that the IPPNW report is heavily critical of the Chernobyl forum and recommends suspicion of its findings, not least because of the members of the forum was the IAEA which, as Oliver Tickell suggests may be moved to disguise the true cost of radiation on human health. Instead, Coelho places more faith in the the 2006 Greenpeace report on Chernobyl (downloadable) which estimated that 200,000 may die from cancers caused by radiation from the plant. This is probably more likely and Coelho says that the Greenpeace report has been supported by many studies since.
Another study mentioned by Coelho is the book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe of the People and the Environment published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2007 which estimated some 985,000 deaths from the Chernobyl radiation. Coelho asks if Monbiot has \’psychic abilities\’ since it\’s still early days yet with regard to the Fukushima crisis and no-one really knows what the long term effects will be.
With regard to George\’s points concerning the likelihood that any replacement for nuclear plants would most likely take the form of more fossil fuel plants, this may be true. However, what stinks here is that, as Thomas Noyes mentioned in another Guardian article on 3rd April, the nuclear industry has been supported constantly by government funding. \”If the costs and benefits of nuclear power are so attractive\” Noyes asks \”where are the investors? At least with wind and solar power, it is possible to see the cost curve dropping to the break-even point in the near future. Nuclear power, by contrast, may never be able to convince investors to put their money down without government guarantees.\” Noyes states that compared to coal, the costs of something going drastically wrong with a nuclear plant are incalculable, and that is why there aren\’t many investors.
Monbiot makes the point that coal is 100 times more dangerous than nuclear, but Coelho exposes that as having been drawn from a 1978 Scientific American report that compares the radioactive properties of fly ash from coal plants with the radiation from nuclear plants. The flaw here is that fly ash is exposed to the open air whereas radiation from nuclear plants is theoretically contained within a sealed vessel so of course coal is going to appear to be more dangerous in such a comparison. Monbiot\’s observations about climate change may be sound, but to claim this level of dangerousness on the basis of a flawed study from the late 70\’s is, as Coelho points out, not sensible. There have been several reports which argue that we could technically abandon both nuclear and fossil fuels and still have enough energy. One of these is the Greenpeace Report Energy Revolution: a sustainable pathway to a clean energy future for Europe (2005). This is a conclusion that I have to question, considering the views of Canadian professor Vaclav Smil that I presented in two article\’s published by the F10 Group\’s Ask The Experts website. However, I am certainly of the view that in accompaniment with government legislation and measures to curb exponential economic growth, a lunatic idea from the very start, we could, with a bit of luck, escape the horror of runaway climate change and still lead satisfactory lives, at least to an extent. A study by Connolly et al (2011) also suggests that we can enter a 100% sustainable future, based on a study of renewable potential in Ireland. Unfortunately, unlike the Greenpeace Report, this is accessible only with a subscription to Science Direct so I am unable, as yet, to assess its findings.
Another issue that Coelho raises is cost. Apparently the only way that nuclear can compete against fossil fuels is if the costs of nuclear energy are reduced and are balanced by a high carbon tax. This is the finding obtained by a study into the economics of it all by the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and it is supported by a second MIT report into the future of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Poor George is rapidly digging himself into a hole it seems since there are other journalists, writers and researchers besides Coelho queueing up to have a go at him. Extracts from a report written by Paul Mobbs featured in Energy Bulletin for example dismantles Monbiot\’s conclusions on the basis that he, along with Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand are distorting the argument with poorly analysed evidence which \”does not accord with recent academic and public policy research\”. Mobbs states that the emissions from coal are no more significant than those from oil and that under examination it is possible to conclude that coal burning is no worse than many other industrial activities. Mobbs concludes from this that coal has become a convenient scapegoat used to detract criticism away from affluent western lifestyles.
Now this I would certainly agree with and I really like what Mobbs is saying here. Mobbs continues by joining Coelho in demolishing Monbiot\’s view that coal is \’100 times more dangerous\’ than nuclear. \’Wholly incorrect\’ says Mobbs identifying this as a misleading product of the 1977 Oak Ridge National Laboratory. On Fukushima, Mobbs is also quick to criticise the rejection of comparisons with Chernobyl saying that radiation is indeed approaching the levels of dangerousness found in the 30km exclusion zone around the Russian plant. He says that claims that environmentalists are exaggerating the impacts of radiation are unfounded and that any new plants built in Britain will have a zero effect on reducing carbon emissions because of the retirement of old nuclear plant. Even replacing existing coal and nuclear plants by building 22 new nukes will only reduce the UK\’s emissions by 12%. Mobbs also mentions a phenomenon that I have only just begun to take notice of, declining uranium resources which Mobbs says will produce supply problems as new nuclear plants face increased demand. He predicts \’peak uranium\’ to hit somewhere around 2030.
A study by the Rocky Mountain Institute also slams nuclear, finding that expansion of nuclear will be 2 to 10 times more expensive than renewables and takes 20 to 40 times as long compared to energy efficiency, renewables and co-generation. Assuming such studies are accurate Ricardo Coelho\’s judgement is that Monbiot is using ridiculous, cynical and even dishonest arguments in his support of nuclear. If so, its a pretty sad state for a journalist who\’s been one of the leading lights in the green movement so far. Despite being an old friend, I am now really beginning to wonder what\’s got into the man.
Will the real George Monbiot please stand up, and meanwhile put this imposter back in a box labelled \’nuclear waste\’. This Monbiot is unwanted and unwelcome, but more importantly, just plain wrong.
Caldicott, Dr Helen http://www.democracynow.org/2011/3/30/prescription_for_survival_a_debate_on [referred to in Monbiot, 5th April 2011]
Coelho, R. \’Why George Monbiot is wrong on nuclear power\’, Cool The Earth, March 29th 2011, http://links.org.au/node/2246
Mobbs, P. \’When the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do sir?\’, Ecolonomics, No.10, 25th March 2011 http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/ecolonomics/01/ecolonomics-010-20110322.pdf extracts featured in Energy Bulletin http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-03-31/new-report-picks-apart-george-monbiots-support-nuclear-power-and-finds-factual-an
Monbiot, G. \’Evidence Meltdown: The green movement has been circulating appalling falsehoods about the dangers of radiation\’, The Guardian, 5th April 2011
Monbiot, G. \’Seven Double Standards: Why don’t we judge other forms of energy generation by the standards we apply to nuclear power?\’, The Guardian, 31st Mar 2011
Monbiot, G. \’Going Critical: How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power\’, The Guardian, 21st March 2011
NHK World (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), \’High level of iodine-131 detected in Fukushima\’, 5th April 2011 http://www3.nhk.or.jp/daily/english/05_25.html
Noyes, T. \’The Incalculable Cost of Nuclear Power\’, The Guardian, 3rd April 2011
Tickell, O. \’Toxic link: The WHO and the IAEA\’, The Guardian, 28th May 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/28/who-nuclear-power-chernobyl
Connolly, D., Lund, H., Mathiesen, B. V. & Leahy, M. (2011) \’The first step towards a 100% renewable energy-system for Ireland\’, Applied Energy, 88, 2, pp502-507
Ansolabehere, S. et al (2009) \’The Future of Nuclear: An interdisciplinary MIT study\’, MIT http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/
The future of the nuclear fuel cycle http://web.mit.edu/mitei/docs/spotlights/nuclear-fuel-cycle.pdf