Why Is George Monbiot Shilling for Nuclear Power?

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.

21 comments ↓

#1 BlueRock on 04.16.11 at 4:46 am

Brian,

Excellent analysis. As you point out in various ways, the striking thing about Monbiot’s recent conversion to the nuclear cause is that he has simply abandoned almost all previous arguments he made.

You don’t even need to go back more than a few weeks. On the 16th (??) March he offered conditional support for nuclear based on 4 or 5 conditions. Those conditions were not met and cannot be met (e.g. knowing the full financial / CO2 cost of nuclear waste storage). The next article a week later made no mention of those conditions and he simply stated that, as a result of Fukushima blowing up, he now fully supported nuclear.

His subsequent behaviour towards Dr Helen Caldicott was disgraceful. He sneered at her in their video debate for suggesting there was collusion between the WHO and the IAEA. That collusion is a matter of recorded fact.

Monbiot is no longer a credible commentator IMO.

Best,

David.

#2 Robert on 04.18.11 at 1:39 pm

The idea that we can safely sequester nuclear waste underground is based on an extremely short-term perspective in terms of geological time. Our planet is 4 billion years old. The sun is 5 billion and has about 5 billion left before it expands and engulfs the earth. We know this because our sun is an average star and we’ve observed tons of them and know exactly how they evolve.

Any life we could justifiably call human has existed on this planet for only about 200,000 years. In other words, human life has barely hatched in the context of 5 billion more years left before the sun crisps the earth. The continents have moved, separated, touched, moved apart. The Himalayas happened after a piece of the African continent broke off and later slowly slammed into the Asian continent to form the Indian subcontinent.

In this context, how can anyone ever imagine it’s possible to safely bury nuclear waste that decays over hundreds of centuries? This is just plain bananas…short-term myopic thinking. So how would we feel about Neanderthals if they had buried some such nasty stuff to poison us slowly for the rest of civilization’s life and likely longer? But they didn’t. Maybe they were smarter than we are in a some kind of collective, socially macroscopic sense? After all, they lasted 400,000 years. We should be so lucky!

#3 wendy green on 04.21.11 at 12:48 pm

CONSERVATION…the most inconvenient of all truths…we must REDUCE our use of electricity. period. i’m turning my computer off right now.

#4 Remco de Ket on 04.22.11 at 2:48 pm

I know this is a controversial comment to make but I have learned that in all cases of miraculous conversion from an effective opponent to a sudden, and unexpected, proponent it pays to follow the money. I’m not saying that George was bought off, I’m merely suggesting that there might just be some 40 pieces of silver floating around.

#5 Jim on 04.24.11 at 4:43 am

What if:

Just thinking about the statistics of:

•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

We know that radiation kills many types of cancers. We also know that the sooner cancer is detected, the easier it is to kill cancer cells with radiation treatment. What if the low dose of radiation from scanners kills early, early stage cancer cells, or prevents the cancer from developing. What if 1 person in a million is “cured” of early stage cancer by walking through a scanner. In this case, for every cancer caused by scanners, 10 cancers would be prevented. If we could measure (and prove) such small effects, should it be public policy that everyone walk through a scanner every day, or at least make it optional?

#6 elasticsoul on 04.24.11 at 11:28 am

Jim – You may want to re-examine at least one of your premises.

#7 Jim on 04.24.11 at 11:42 am

Ok, I’ll scan it.

#8 Robert on 04.24.11 at 7:20 pm

The difference is quite enormous between the power of a scanner and the radiation treatments for cancer and where they are focused. The scanners that may cause cancer in one out of so many thousands is relatively weak and spread out over the whole body. The radiation used to treat cancer is highly focused on the tumor itself and is quite powerful. The latter would kill you instantly if it weren’t highly localized to the tumor. To compare the two is a clear case, metaphorically speaking, of comparing apples and oranges.

#9 Why Is George Monbiot Shilling For Nuclear Power? | Disinformation on 04.25.11 at 12:51 pm

[...] Brian Gordon writes: 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. [...]

#10 BigAl on 04.25.11 at 2:32 pm

“If I’d written a response, I hope it’d be
as good as this one. Thanks Brian.

Monbiot lost me when he drank the coolaid
and embraced “habitual destruction”.
Absolutely an inhuman fool tool!
End the nuke madness.

#11 Robert on 04.25.11 at 6:19 pm

Please, folks! Doesn’t it matter to anyone else here that you CANNOT bury nuclear waste safely ANYWHERE? We’ve got approximately 5 billion years left on this planet before the sun turns into a red giant and toasts this planet. I guess some of us think it’s OK to poison some future generation way before then with nuclear waste just because those of us living now will be gone before that happens? First, we can’t even be sure that’s true. Second, what kind of morality thinks it’s OK to poison some future generation just because in 5 billion years we’ll all be gone anyway? Mountains move; continents shift. There’s no way you can bury nuclear waste safely.

#12 un tecnico preocupado on 04.26.11 at 12:18 am

Brave people like you is what the world needs. I’ve already begun to spread his words. A technician worried who works at GE .

#13 mountainman on 04.26.11 at 3:08 am

Let’s continue to burn coal and pump CO2 into the atmosphere and leave the solid wastes exposed to the environment so it can contaminate our streams and groundwater with mercury, arsenic, uranium, etc. Much more moral way to poison future generations. (we generate 50% of our electricity from burning coal)

http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?
title=Coal_waste

http://www.nrdc.org/energy/coalwaste/

google coal wastes for much more

#14 elasticsoul on 04.26.11 at 6:27 am

Thanks all!

Mountainman – there are other options than coal or nuclear. It’s time we got serious about them.

#15 mountainman on 04.26.11 at 8:23 am

What other options do we have for baseload electricity?

#16 Robert on 05.03.11 at 11:53 am

Mountainman, all the government has to do is take the subsidies to the oil industry and give that money to research in sustainable energy. Private industry is doing it anyway. We are a lot closer to a lot of economically viable and sustainable energy technology than the media portray. There is a lot of spin that these things are very far from economical viability. It ain’t so! It would take a relatively small kick start to get of lot of alternative technology online and economically viable.

#17 Robert on 05.27.11 at 6:42 pm

One of the problems with really getting serious about alternative sources is how fast it could happen. Huge changes that happen fast can really make the economic road very bumpy. It is quite within realistic possibilities that this could happen.

Even if we go slowly enough to avoid a general economic trauma worse than what we’re currently experiencing, some people in very powerful places will be deposed by this. They have the power, money, and political influence to delay things very substantially. They’ve been doing so for quite a while already.

I know this is very likely not amazing news to most here. It’s just important to recognize that this is the true root of the problem and not technology as some here seem to think. That thinking is the result of the propaganda the “save-my-own-stinking-rich-neck” club is feeding you.

#18 BlueRock on 05.28.11 at 6:11 am

Robert,

I think the energy ‘debate’ is a mirror issue of climate change. No surprise really given that it’s largely the same players with the same goals involved.

We’ve got the vested interests, buying themselves politicians and funding ‘think’ tanks to push out FUD and propaganda.

We’ve got the usual cranks and pro-pollutionists who eagerly swallow that FUD and propaganda and regurgitate it ad nauseum on the internet. There’s also that ‘special’ group who are simply against anything that greens and progressives are for.

And we’ve got the public being fooled by the FUD and propaganda. That public includes George Monbiot – and he’s not slowing down with his pro-nuke crusade: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/may/27/why-choose-nuclear-renewable-energy

So, just as with climate science, we need to break this cycle of disinformation in order to get the public on side which then puts pressure on politicians to act for the interest of the greater good and not for the interests of a handful of billionaires and their corporations.

In other words, it *is* about the technology in the sense that we all need to be aware of the lies that are being spread about it.

#19 elasticsoul on 05.28.11 at 7:57 am

I find Monbiot’s ‘conversion’ to nuclear power puzzling; as I said in the article, all the reasons he once provided for ranking nuclear a short step above coal still exist. I can think of only two reasons:

1. As Remco de Ket said, perhaps Monbiot has decided to sell out and cash in. Seems unlikely given his history, but it is a possibility.

2. Monbiot has given up on root-cause solutions (such as conservation and renewables), caving to the nuclear lobby’s argument that “only nuclear can save civilization.” He wouldn’t be the only one; Lovelock says the same.

However, this seems as senseless to me now as when I read Monbiot’s – and many others’ – arguments against nuclear, all of which are still valid. Switzerland and Germany have announced plans to phase out nuclear, and surely the reasons should be clear to anyone: a serious nuclear accident like Fukushima could render the entire country uninhabitable. (All the other reasons, like storage of the waste, leaks, cost to build, etc still hold, too.)

For an excellent article explaining why nuclear power is still not worth it, see Guy Dauncey’s Nuclear – Hope or Hype? (http://www.blog.earthfuture.com/2011/03/nuclear-hope-or-hype.html)

What’s next George – “clean” coal?

#20 BlueRock on 05.28.11 at 9:40 am

> …all the reasons he once provided for ranking nuclear a short step above coal still exist.

And all the conditions he set out not long ago that must be met before he would support nuclear have *not* been met – he simply abandoned them. See http://thisbluerock.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/the-nuclear-meltdown-of-george-monbiot/

The big problem I have with Monbiot now is not so much his support of nuclear, it’s the fact that he supports it based on incoherent, inconsistent arguments and blatant falsehoods spread by the nuke propaganda mill that he unquestioningly repeats.

Rather than the wary, sceptical, investigative journalist that he used to be, Monbiot now seems like a credulous tool of vested interests. He parrots findings from UK / UN government bodies that are known to have a strong nuclear bias. In fact, you might as well skim Areva or Westinghouse press releases as read a George Monbiot article!

One thing that has been very conspicuously absent from Monbiot’s recent output is any acknowledgement that multiple countries (Germany, Spain, Scotland, Denmark, Switzerland, etc.) are pursuing a 100% renewable policy – so any suggestion that “renewables aren’t ready” is blatant nonsense.

That fits a pattern of what I see as intellectual dishonesty from Monbiot – a very careful selection and presentation or omission of facts to suit a pre-determined conclusion that we *must* have some nukes. It’s the same as his recent attempts to convince us all that only 47 people died as a result of Chernobyl.

As I said to someone else recently: George Monbiot is now outside the circle of trust!

#21 Robert on 06.03.11 at 6:52 pm

Yes, BlueRock and elasticsoul, I believe we’re essentially on the same page. Infrastructure has historically determined even since ancient times what populations grew prosperous and comfortable and which ones didn’t. We’re falling way behind on high-speed rail. It’s essential to the future of any successful country. China, Japan, and Europe are going full tilt on it. We have political problems from vested interests like airlines.

If we develop the wrong kind of infrastructure because of political propaganda that continues to successfully hoodwink the general population, we’re going to find ourselves in serious trouble competing in the world arena. Of course, the myopic, self-centered attitudes that sell this propaganda are ultimately screwing themselves into the ground right along with nuclear waste.

However, they’re smart enough to know that most people don’t give a flying fig about anything but local stuff and national sports. Most don’t know where any of the places we’re militarily involved in are on the map and don’t care. They are deliberately uninformed.

The disastrous problem with that is the uninformed are very easily misinformed. These are the folks who are proud of their cultural monism and little provincial points of view and call it patriotism. These are the folks who love Faux Infotainment because it reinforces their cherished ignorance. They consciously dislike “liberal intellectuals”. Fox and their political cohorts are not ashamed to say it out loud and play to that big time.

Some commenator said one good thing about nuclear, though. He said no matter how much political weight there is behind nuclear, the investors are not likely to to there and they’re essential to the ball game. If you were wealthy and wanted to put your money into something with a big future, how would Fukushima affect your sense of risk to your capital with all the liabilities, shutdowns, etc.?

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