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Why George Monbiot is STILL wrong on nuclear power

By Ricardo Sequeiros Coelho

April 6, 2011 -- Cool the Earth -- George Monbiot has decided to fight back and justify his pro-nuclear stance. He directs his aim at what he calls double standards from environmentalists, making all sorts of accusations that only serve to diminish his credibility (see It is worth looking at them in detail, but a prior point should be made.

In the debate over nuclear power, Monbiot did not explain whether he was is merely arguing against the closure of existing nuclear plants or if he was further, arguing for building new ones. These are two different issues and conflating them is an important part of his deceptive arguments for nuclear power.

He does state in his latest article that in his previous ones he didn’t suggest that atomic energy should “produce any higher proportion of our electricity than it does already”. Yet, given that he classified as a catastrophe the recent decision from the Chinese government to review its plans to expand nuclear power, it is hard to see how this suggestion wasn’t present all along.

The main argument he gives for nuclear power is that it is better than the alternative – coal power. He quotes two articles by two other environmental writers, Mark Lynas (see link) and Chris Goodall (see link), to support this claim. In both cases, the authors are discussing new nuclear plants, not existing ones. So, again, it is quite clear that Monbiot, like Lynas and Goodall, is saying that we need a lot more nuclear power to substitute for fossil fuels.

Of course, when one makes this argument, one should be prepared to prove that renewables can’t substitute both nuclear power and fossil fuel power. Monbiot just states that “like most environmentalists, I want renewables to replace fossil fuel, but I realise we make the task even harder if they are also to replace nuclear power”, evading the question all together.

To be clear, claiming that “100% renewable energy is very hard” is not the same as claiming that “100% renewable energy is impossible”. Monbiot seems to ignore this important distinction, which allows him to ignore studies that show how we can decarbonise the energy sector without building new nuclear plants, like “Zero Carbon Britain 2030″ (see link). How convenient.

By restricting the debate on energy choices to coal vs nuclear and falsely dividing the environmental movement into anti-coal and anti-nuclear activists, Monbiot is able to find seven “double standards” in the environmental movement. I’ll discuss them in detail.

Double standard 1: deaths and injuries.

According to Monbiot, anti-nuclear campaigners cry in despair over the deaths and injuries caused by nuclear accidents, yet don’t say a word about the victims of the coal industry. To make his point, he uses the estimate of 2433 deaths in coal-mining accidents in China last year, a figure that is probably underestimated by the government. He could have used the statistics from the US, where safer methods to mine coal have reduced average deaths to four times less than those of China (see Wikipedia), but he chose to play with statistics.

To be perfectly clear, I’m against coal mining. Even disregarding the tremendous environmental impact from burning coal, the health impacts of coal extraction for miners are so great that it should be banned. But Monbiot seems to think that, while deaths and injuries can be substantially lowered in nuclear plants and uranium mines, the same cannot be said of coal plants and coal mines – a double standard.

The game goes on by playing with statistics from Chernobyl. Monbiot again quotes the highly disputed number of 43 deaths from the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, taken from the Chernobyl Forum report. Not only does he uncritically follow the statistics given by an international body that incorporates one of the strongest pro-nuclear lobbies in the world, he is dishonest enough not to quote it correctly, as Joe Giambrone neatly exposes (see Counterpunch).

The Chernobyl Forum estimated that about 9000 deaths were to be expected from the accident, explaining that the number was just an unreliable and disputable estimate. Other estimates have put the number of deaths at 100 times more. Yet, Monbiot clings on to his fantasy.

From this intensive cherry picking of data (a “sin” that he considers anti-nuclear activists guilty of), Monbiot concludes that coal mining kills as many people in a week as the Chernobyl meltdown has killed in 25 years. I guess we should make a petition for Ukrainian authorities to give permission for Monbiot to move to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, as he clearly thinks that it is perfectly safe to live there.

From this manipulation of data comes an accusation: “When was the last time you heard an anti-nuclear campaigner drawing attention to this daily carnage? No really, when was it?” I don’t know what Monbiot considers as an “anti-nuclear campaigner” but since all environmentalists fall into this category I used a highly advanced technique to find out what environmental NGOs think of coal mining: I searched their websites.

Take Greenpeace, the most well-known opposer of nuclear power. In its 2008 report The true cost of coal, it places deaths and injuries by mining accidents as one of the most important non-paid “external costs”, showing how coal mining is ruining the lives of communities around the world (see link). In a briefing from last year, about mining impacts, it is written: “Mine collapses and accidents kill thousands of workers around the world every year. Chinese coal mine accidents killed 4,700 people in 2006” (see link).

Other examples exist, if one is willing to spend about five minutes searching for them. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single environmental NGO which doesn’t oppose coal as fiercely as it opposes nuclear power.

There’s another interpretation of “anti-nuclear campaigner”, though. Monbiot could be talking about members of anti-nuclear groups. In this case, it wouldn’t be surprising if none of these groups had ever took a stand against coal-mining accidents. But then again, an anti-nuclear group focuses its action on nuclear power, so I wouldn’t expect it also to take a stand on biodiversity loss, war for oil or the Lbyan civil war. As I wouldn’t expect an anti-coal group to take a stand against uranium mining.

Double standard 2: the science

Monbiot rightfully claims that, when debating climate change, we should focus on the scientific consensus and rely on solid, peer-reviewed studies. He then makes a rhetorical jump to the health dangers of low-level radiation, to argue that there is no scientific evidence that they exist. He makes this claim based on an article by Goodall and Lynas, his pro-nuclear allies (see link).

I won’t dispute the scientific data exposed in the quoted article, although I think it is clear that its implicit conclusion, that even very high levels of radioactivity can be safe, is highly misleading. But there is at least one flagrant omission, the authors chose to focus only on mortality from radiation.

Taking into account that exposure from radiation causes several illnesses, miscarriages and health problems like hypothyroidism, sterility and cognitive deficiencies, one would hope that these guys would take some time to explain to us ignorant fools how these impacts are non-important. But they just choose to ignore the issue.

Scientific evidence on health effects from exposure to radiation is highly disputed, namely for political reasons. I have no qualification to discuss this issue but it seems clear to me that categorising a side of the dispute as a “pseudo-scientific gibberish of a motley collection of cranks and quacks” is not a serious argument.

Double standard 3: radioactive pollution

Again with the comparison between radioactivity from coal and uranium -- sigh. Monbiot has quoted this article so many times that I would expect him to quote it correctly. Also, I would expect him to know that the article he quotes is from 1978, and that particulate emissions from coal plants are much lower now because of environmental regulations. But there’s a new argument here.

Monbiot makes the comparison between deposition of fly ash and of low-level nuclear waste. He gives the following example: “You may remember the controversy about RWE npower’s plan to dump the fly ash from Didcot power station into a lake between the villages of Radley and Abingdon. Where were the anti-nuclear campaigners then? Can you imagine what the outcry would have been if a corporation had planned to fill it with low-level waste from a nuclear plant?” I wonder what kind of low-level waste from a nuclear plant can be as radioactive as fly ash.

Anyway, I’d bet my money on this: the outcry would have been the same, as obviously environmentalists campaign against the disposal of any kind of waste in a lake. For instance, Greens MP Caroline Lucas, with whom Monbiot debated nuclear power recently, showed her support with the local movement against the deposition of the fly ash in Thrupp Lake, by meeting with the residents and making a formal objection to the planning authority (see link).

The idea that one has to choose between opposing the coal industry and opposing the nuclear industry has no connection with reality, but is central to Monbiot’s theses.

Double standard 4: mining impact

Monbiot argues that there are a lot more coal mines than uranium mines and that “a lot of them of them are many times bigger and more destructive than the largest uranium operations”. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that there are a lot more coal plants than nuclear plants in the world.

From this, he concludes: “This doesn’t make uranium mining right, but it makes the likely switch to coal even more wrong.” Again, the argument only makes sense in the coal-vs-nuclear dichotomy world.

Double standard 5: costs

Now for a short lesson on finance. Monbiot says that it incoherent to criticise nuclear power for its high cost but support an expensive feed-in tariff scheme that is much more expensive, per kilowatt-hour. He could have compared nuclear power with wind, solar, tidal, wave power or any other renewable energy, but instead chose a micro-generation scheme that, despite being very expensive per kilowatt, is peanuts compared to nuclear power in absolute terms. This way he evades the question of how can he support a very expensive “means of generating low-carbon electricity” and reacts to a question with another question.

I’ve already quoted several reports showing possible pathways to achieve 100% renewable energy. None of these predicts a strong role for microgeneration in the future. There are some environmentalists who love the idea of supplying electricity for everyone with rooftop solar panels (I’m one of them) but the truth is that, given the cost and the technical difficulties, microgeneration’s contribution for electrical supply will continue to be low. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t invest in this new technology, so that it can become viable in the future, instead of investing billions in fusion power.

The main point, though, is that no one is proposing to shift from nuclear power to microgeneration. By focusing on this choice instead of the choice between nukes and fossils on the one side and renewables on the other, Monbiot chose to attack a strawman.

Double standard 6: research

Monbiot refers to his debate with Caroline Lucas, mentioning that she was “wildly illogical” for supporting the feed-in tariff scheme because it helped develop a non-mature technology (solar power) and then opposing research into thorium reactors, which could be safer and cheaper, for not being a proven technology. I wasn’t able to trace this claim, it’s not on the debate published on The Guardian (see link). We can only take Monbiot’s word on this and I don’t know if I’m willing to do that these days.

Anyway, the comparison is a bit of a stretch. With solar panels, we’re talking about generating electricity with a technology that we have now and without any danger for human health (unless we consider the possibility of someone dying because a solar panel fell on her head, that is). With thorium reactors, we’re talking about generating electricity with a technology that we don’t have now and don’t know when we’ll have and that has health risks.

Double standard 7: timing

Conceding that nuclear power plants take a lot of time to build, Monbiot argues that “by the time it has gone through the planning process, a major new grid connection to support an offshore wind farm will take roughly as long to develop as a new nuclear power station”. Using as a reference the state-of-the-art reactor 3 in Olkiluoto, Finland, the first “third generation” reactor in the world, I don’t see how this is possible. This reactor will be operational, if all goes well, 13 years after the licence application was made and with a more than 50% cost overrun. Since Monbiot didn’t provide any source for his comparison, I can only guess that he’s making it up.

Questions unanswered

In all this prolific writing in support of nuclear power, Monbiot never quite answers the most difficult questions regarding cost, liability for accidents, nuclear waste disposal and link with nuclear bomb manufacturing. Instead, he chooses to attack his previous allies in the environmental NGOs and movements, ridiculing their struggles as resulting from delusions of ignorant people. No matter how cool he thinks he might look with his supposedly highly rational approach to environmentalism, I’d like to know what exactly is his stance on this critical issue. Is that asking too much?

[See also: "Why George Monbiot is wrong on nuclear power".This article first appeared at Ricardo Sequeiros Coelho's website, Cool the Earth. He is a Portugal-based ecosocialist.]

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