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Why George Monbiot is wrong on nuclear power

By Ricardo Sequeiros Coelho

“This is a very serious accident by all standards. And it is not yet over.” – Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

March 29, 2011 -- Cool the Earth -- George Monbiot, the well-known environmentalist and journalist, managed to surpass the nuclear power lobby in the downplaying of the Fukushima disaster. First, he wrote that the disaster should not lead to an end of nuclear power, since that would mean more coal plants, so we should build more nuclear plants ( Then, he wrote that since no one died from Fukushima he is now a nuclear power advocate ( Amazing.

His arguments are as far fetched as they are deceiving. It is worth discussing them in detail, going through the four strategies that he uses to make his point.

Cherry picking: playing with statistics to downplay the health effects of ratiation

Nuclear power enthusiasts like to say that the damage to human health from Chernobyl was negligible. Monbiot with them and quotes the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) figure of 28 deaths from Chernobyl’s staff and emergency workers, caused by radiation exposure, and 15 additional deaths from thyroid cancer from people living in the surroundings (link). The figure appears in the Chernobyl Forum, a regular meeting of IAEA and several UN agencies, reports.

But Monbiot forgot to add to this figure the estimated 4000 deaths from thyroid cancer. He also didn’t notice that the Chernobyl Forum, while avoiding estimates of cancer deaths among the most exposed to radiation because of the significant uncertainties regarding the treatment of data, it admitted that they could amount to thousands (PDF). Worse still, he forgot to mention how these estimates are contested.

In 2006, Greenpeace commissioned a report on the health effects from Chernobyl, in which it is estimated that about 200,000 people may die from cancers caused by radiation exposure (PDF). The Chernobyl Forum dismissed this study as “ideological” and “non-scientific” but its results were backed by many scientific studies.

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. The IPPNW report (link) is highly critical of the Chernobyl Forum’s evaluation of the scientific literature, as the references it quotes mention 10,000 to 25,000 additional deaths due to cancer but the number was somehow crushed to 4000 and as statistics regarding the increase in several health problems and deaths among rescue workers were ignored.

More importantly, in 2007, a book published by the New York Academy of Sciences, called Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe of the People and the Environment (Google Books) estimated a whopping 985,000 deaths as a result of the radioactivity released in the 1986-2004 period. The book used as a reference more than 1000 published scientific articles and more than 5000 internet and printed publications, mostly from Slavic origin, which were ignored by the Chernobyl Forum.

I’m no expert on the matter, so I won’t discuss the differences in methodology among these studies. It is worthy of note that we still know little about the effects of radiation on human health because there aren’t a lot of subjects to study. The estimates we have now on safe levels of radiation are based on data from the survivors of the infamous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fortunately, it is still impossible to find other populations that were exposed to high levels of radiation, so all we can do is extrapolate from this data and try to estimate the long-term effects of radiation exposure.

Yet, it seems evident to me that one should be suspicious of the Chernobyl Forum’s estimates, as one of the main participants is the powerful pro-nuclear lobby, the IAEA. As someone who states “I despise and fear the nuclear industry as much as any other green”, Monbiot should do the same, instead of just assuming that the “green” side of the argument is wrong and arguing that “some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution”.

Crystal ball: pretending to have the ability to guess the future

The danger of a nuclear meltdown on Fukushima is still long from gone. The rescue team has managed to put the power back on and start pumping water but, according to the engineers running the operation, the hardest tasks are still ahead and only two weeks from now, if all goes well, can we be sure that the worse was prevented. We still don’t know how much radiation was leaked into the surrounding area, how many people are going to be exposed and what the consequences will be. But Monbiot assures us that the problem was solved: “Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small.”

Unless Monbiot has psychic abilities, it is hard to imagine how he can know that, no matter what happens in the next days, the impact of the leaked radiation on human health and on the environment will be negligible. Personally, I don’t believe that Monbiot can guess the future, so I can only conclude that he is being cynical and wonder if he would have the guts to tell the residents from Fukushima that there’s nothing to worry about.

Deceitfulness: playing with words to fool the reader

Monbiot bases his argument for nuclear power on the false choice between nuclear winter and global warming. If we don’t have nuclear power, the argument goes, we will need to use coal, and we’ll all die from climate change. If we use nuclear power instead, only some people die. In his words: “Nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong.”

He goes then to show that even the main problem of nuclear power, radioactivity, is present in coal-fired plants, by quoting a Scientific American article (link) stating “the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy”. From this, Monbiot concludes that, on every measure, coal is 100 times worse than nuclear, even considering radioactivity. But reading the quoted article, one can easily see how misleading this conclusion is.

What the article is quoting is a figure from a 1978 study that compared the radioactivity present in fly ash and the radioactivity present in the surroundings of a nuclear plant, where radioactive waste is sealed. It is no wonder that the former is greater than the latter, despite still not being high enough to cause health problems. To jump from this to comparisons between burning coal and being exposed to radioactivity from nuclear fuel when there is a leak or a meltdown makes no sense.

The editors note on the article says it all: “As a general clarification, ounce for ounce, coal ash released from a power plant delivers more radiation than nuclear waste shielded via water or dry cask storage.” So, the comparison is between a certain event with negligible health effects or a low-probability event with significant health effects. Monbiot clearly thinks that the former is more acceptable than the latter, after leaving aside the possibility of neither being acceptable. He should have been honest enough to make this point clearly, instead of playing with words.

Twilight zone: what is true in this reality can be untrue in another dimension

To us the coal-vs-nuclear blackmail (which is the only convincing pro-nuclear argument an environmentalist can offer), Monbiot has to prove that we cannot have 100% renewable energy. It should not come as a surprise that he chooses to evade the hard question.

There are several reports which show that we can abandon both fossil fuels and nuclear power and still provide energy to everyone’s needs. Both WWF (link) and Greenpeace (link) published reports showing possible pathways to achieve this goal by 2050. A similar study was made for Australia by Beyond Zero Emissions (link).

There are also several scientific papers on the subject, based on case studies from a single country. A paper in Energy (abstract) concluded that reaching 100% renewables by 2050 is feasible for Denmark. Another paper in Applied Energy (abstract) concludes that “a 100% renewable energy-system is not only feasible in Ireland, but that there are numerous methods of achieving this”, leaving as an object of future research how and when to achieve this goal.

I could go on showing examples but the point is that while Monbiot crossed his arms and assumed that getting rid of fossil fuels and nuclear is impossible in the next decades, experts around the world are using their brains to figure out how we can phase out non-renewable energy starting now.

Then there’s the problem of cost. The main argument given against the expansion of renewables is their high cost, but nuclear power is even more expensive. Back in 2003, already a comprehensive study by the MIT concluded that nuclear power can only be competitive against fossil fuels if its cost decreases and a high carbon tax is imposed (link), and the conclusion was again present in the 2009 update and in the 2010 evaluation of the nuclear fuel cycle (PDF). MIT then recommended that taxpayers’ money should be used to subsidise the nuclear power industry, as a temporary measure until its cost decreases enough to make it competitive in deregulated markets. But last year, Citibank issued a report showing that the cost of nuclear power has been increasing and predicting that it will not decrease in the future (PDF). Further, the cost estimates that MIT uses are much lower than the estimates from consultancies and the historical data from the industry (Nuclear Information and Resource Service).

Nuclear power isn’t even cost-efficient compared to renewables. A study from the Rocky Mountain Institute, for instance, estimates that reducing emissions through expansion of nuclear power is two to 10 times more expensive and takes 20 to 40 times as much time as reducing emissions by investing in efficiency, renewables and co-generation (link). Talk about wasting money.

Monbiot’s answer to these claims is laughable. In the debate with Green MP Caroline Lucas (Guardian), he makes the following point: “When you have a relatively low penetration of renewables on the grid – 10, 20, 30, even 50%, the costs will not be that high. But once you get beyond 50% or maybe 70%, they are likely to escalate dramatically, because you need a lot more redundancy and storage. So while you can say wind at the moment costs less than nuclear, it’s much harder to be confident that wind, once we’ve got 60% of all our electricity being produced by renewables, will cost less than nuclear. My guess, because I haven’t yet seen a comparative study, and I don’t believe one exists, is that when we get up to those sorts of levels, nuclear is likely to be quite a lot cheaper.”

To put it in other words, while it is true that nuclear is not cost-effective now, it might be true that it will be cost-effective when we have a high percentage of renewables (even though their cost is decreasing) and this possibility justifies the investment in new nuclear power plants.

This “what if” argument is present in a different form in one of his articles: “It may well be the case (I have yet to see a comparative study) that up to a certain grid penetration – 50 or 70% perhaps? – renewables have smaller carbon impacts than nukes, while beyond that point, nukes have smaller impacts than renewables.” When everything else fails, Monbiot turns to guessing the future games.

Flip-flop leads to discredit

In December 2009, I saw George Monbiot in a debate on nuclear power in the KlimaForum. Among environmental activists, he claimed that he changed his stance from neutrality to opposition to nuclear power because the risks are too high. Among other things, he mentioned how there is no regulatory system that is reliable enough to assure us that radioactive waste won’t be just thrown into the sea, as some has been in the last decades. Now, he uses the most ridiculous, cynical and even dishonest arguments to support nuclear energy, destroying the image of a journalist who is serious about his use of sources.

It is one thing to change one’s mind and only an idiot doesn’t do that several times over her life. It’s another thing to engage in an intensive flip-flop and become someone who has no opinion of his/her own. Maybe someday Monbiot will change his mind again and turn anti-nuclear again, but I for one can’t take him seriously anymore.

[This article first appeared at Ricardo Sequeiros Coelho's website, Cool the Earth. He is a Portugal-based ecosocialist.]

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