Helen Caldicott and George Monbiot have recently attacked each other in anti and pro-nuclear articles, and honestly I now am entirely unsure of the truth. Both claim scientific backing, though Monbiot appears to shred Caldicott’s claims. I have a great deal of respect for Monbiot; back when I was doing my own research on climate change (I was a sceptic and was attempting to see if it was real, was human-caused, was dangerous, etc, and I read lots of real science in the process), I found him to be ruthlessly honest and perfectly aligned with the actual science.
That said, I think the pro-nuke crowd, now including George Monbiot, is making two grave errors. The first is claiming that low levels of radiation are safe.
As an example of this, something that really struck me as a blow to the nuke movement was a seemingly unrelated article posted on Reddit a few weeks or so ago discussing the nude-o-scanners used by the TSA. The author interviewed a scientist who flat-out said that the scanners would cause cancer in some people. The reasoning went thusly:
- The risk of a mutation caused by the scanners is very low, say 1-in-10,000,000
- However, many tens of millions of people pass through the scanners each year
- Therefore, some of those people will develop cancer caused by radiation from the scanners
In this case, “low risk” still means “will cause cancer in some people.” Not everyone wants to take that risk, and may be unhappy about others forcing that risk upon them.
This brings me to my second point; Monbiot seems just as political in supporting nuclear energy as Caldicott is in opposing it. In fact, this seems a common theme among many pro-nuclear ‘environmentalists.’ Take these paragraphs from his article, my emphasis added:
If…we make the wrong decisions, the consequences can be momentous. …that countries [will] shut down their nuclear power plants or stop the construction of new ones, and switch instead to fossil fuels. Almost all of us would prefer them to switch to renewables, but it seems that this is less likely to happen.
In response to the Fukushima disaster, for example, the German government insists that it will replace its nuclear plants with new renewable power sources – particularly large wind farms. But as most of its wind is in the north and much of its nuclear capacity is in the south, this will require a massive new construction of power lines. That gives the government just as much of a political headache as the current anti-nuclear protests. The new lines are also likely to take around 12 years to build, raising the possibility of shortages.
In other words, Monbiot (and “almost all of us”) think renewables are a better idea, but will support nuclear because it seems politically more feasible. Chalk one up for the nuclear lobby. He also states that new power lines will take about 12 years to build – which is about the amount of time required to build a nuclear plant, assuming it’s not stopped by the kinds of mass protests recently seen in Germany.
Monbiot digs himself in deeper by assuming that power lines will be opposed equally as have been nuclear plants, but this seems a stretch.
In his book Heat: How to stop the planet from burning, Monbiot thoroughly analyses nuclear energy, and some of the dangers he points out are not trivial:
- p. 90: “…every nuclear power station leaks radiation into the environment. As well as their routine emissions into the air and the sea, the nuclear generators are surrounded by dumping scandals.” He then goes on to detail numerous examples, and as we have seen with Fukushima, the same leaks and cover-ups occurred there.
- p. 92: Monbiot discusses the intractable and so-far insoluble problem of nuclear waste, and that there have also been cover-ups in this department, in which proponents of the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada “falsified the rates at which water percolates through it.”
- pp. 92-95: Monbiot discusses the financial cost of nuclear power, concluding that it only exists courtesy of large taxpayer subsidies and that the actual “price of nuclear power is a function of your political position.”
- p. 97: “…sixteen years would be needed to obtain finance and planning permission and to design a build [a new nuclear] plant.” Monbiot does agree that this timeline also rules out any large-scale energy development, and so the government would have to fast-track (i.e. ram through) projects like this.
And Monbiot’s conclusion?
Because of the industry’s record of corner-cutting, because of its association with weapons of mass destruction and because of the unresolved questions about waste disposal and energy balance, I will provisionally place nuclear power second from last in my list of preferences, just above generation using coal from open-cast mines.
So George – which of these things has changed in the last few years? The answer, of course, is none. The only thing that has changed seems to be that Monbiot has abandoned hope that we will embrace renewables or conservation – for political reasons. He has thus given up and is now shilling for his “second from last” energy choice, the one he places one short step above coal, because he thinks that’s the best we can get – even though it’s not very good at all.
George Monbiot is entitled to his change of political views. But to become a proponent of nuclear power now, not because it’s better than the alternatives or even necessary, but because that’s all the nuclear lobby will allow, is a disgrace. His words again:
This is an especially difficult time to try to make the case for keeping the dangers of nuclear power in perspective. The frightening events at Fukushima are still unfolding, the disaster has been upgraded to category 7, making it one of the two worst such events on record. But it is just when the case is hardest that it most urgently needs to be made, however much anger this generates. If we don’t stick to the facts, if we don’t subject all claims to the same degree of scepticism, we could make a bad situation worse.
Sometimes, George, the reason the case is hard to make is because it’s not a very good case. And yes, we should stick to the facts. Those facts are that conservation and renewable energy are the best, and ultimately the only, path out of our current spiralling energy addiction that is causing climate change. Nuclear power is at best a stopgap measure; it just pushes the problem down the road a ways.
Forget immediate concerns about irradiated food and water, and increased cancer risk, for the moment; let’s say they’re exaggerated or a trade-off we’re willing to make in order to phase out coal (because conservation and renewable energy are ‘politically more difficult.’) A nuclear accident like Fukushima has the potential to render large areas uninhabitable for generations. What is the cost of that?
And consider this; if we decide to forge ahead with nuclear power, we will need thousands more nuclear plants all over the world, including in many countries far less politically stable or technologically advanced as Japan. The risk of accidents will surely increase exponentially, as will the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Finally, not a damn word about conservation, which could cut our need for energy enough to make battles over nuclear versus renewable much less of a concern – and, if we don’t start conserving, will ultimately lead to massive energy generating plants and related problems all over the globe anyway.
George Monbiot, I am disappointed.
UPDATE: Guy Dauncey has written an excellent dissection of nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima: Nuclear – Hope or Hype? It is an extract from his equally good book, The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming. Dauncey takes a no-nonsense, fact-based approach to his evaluation, looking at nuclear from all angles: economic, waste storage, global warming, and more.