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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.]


How many cancers did Chernobyl really cause?

By Lisbeth Gronlund

MRZine -- There is a lot of confusion about how many excess cancer deaths will likely result from the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine.  As we see below, 70,000 and 35,000 are reasonable estimates of the number of excess cancers and cancer deaths attributable to the accident.

Much lower numbers of cancers and deaths are often cited, but these are misleading because they only apply to those populations with the highest radiation exposures, and don't take into account the larger numbers of people who were exposed to less radiation.

Perhaps the most authoritative report on the consequences of Chernobyl is Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-economic Impacts, released by the UN-sponsored Chernobyl Forum (September 5, 2005). According to this report (p. 15):

The international expert group predicts that among the 600 000 persons receiving more significant exposures (liquidators working in 1986-87, evacuees, and residents of the most 'contaminated' areas), the possible increase in cancer mortality due to this radiation exposure might be up to a few per cent.  This might eventually represent up to four thousand fatal cancers in addition to the approximately 100 000 fatal cancers to be expected due to all other causes in this population.  Among the 5 million persons residing in other 'contaminated' areas, the doses are much lower and any projected increases are more speculative, but are expected to make a difference of less than one per cent in cancer mortality.

(The "most contaminated" areas were those with contamination greater than 555 kilobecquerel per square meter (kBq/m2) of Cs-137, and the "contaminated" areas had greater than 37 kBq/m2 of Cs-137.)

Roughly 20% of people die of cancer, so we would expect a million fatal cancers in a population of 5 million.  A one percent increase would translate into 10,000 additional cancer deaths, so, according to this report, there would be fewer than 10,000 excess cancer deaths among those in the contaminated areas.  These deaths would be in addition to the 4,000 fatal cancers among evacuees, liquidators (clean-up workers), and those in the most contaminated areas.

Because of this report, people frequently cite "4,000" as the number of eventual excess cancer fatalities.  However, by limiting its analysis to people with the greatest exposure to released radiation, the report seriously underestimates the number of cancers and cancer deaths attributable to Chernobyl.  The effects of the radiation were not limited to the "contaminated" areas but would be felt in Europe and beyond.

The current understanding of the relationship of cancer to radiation is that the risk of cancer increases linearly with dose and that there is no safe amount of radiation.

This understanding is represented by the "Linear No-Threshold" (LNT) model of cancer.

We can estimate the number of additional cancer deaths using data from several publications of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), which give estimates of the radiation exposure from the accident.  Unfortunately, the information is not all available in one publication.

According to the Committee's 1993 report Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation (p. 23):

The collective effective dose committed by this accident is estimated to have been about 600,000 man-Sv.

(A sievert, or Sv, is a measure of radiation dose that takes into account the biological effects of different types of radiation.)

From UNSCEAR's 2000 report (p. 486):

. . .the estimated lifetime effective doses for the populations of the three countries living in contaminated areas are about 40,300 man-Sv from external exposure and 20,400 man-Sv from internal exposure, for a total of about 60,700 man Sv.

From Appendix D of the 2008 UNSCEAR report:

The collective effective dose is estimated at about 125,000 man-Sv to the combined populations of Belarus, Ukraine and the relevant parts of the Russian Federation, and about 130,000 man-Sv to the population in the rest of Europe.

We can relate the collective effective dose received in these various areas to the number of excess cancers and cancer deaths using data from Table ES-1 of the 2006 National Academy of Sciences report Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2 (p. 15), which I reproduce below:

Table ES-1

Table 1: Gy = Gray

The numbers in parentheses are "95% subjective confidence intervals," which the report states

. . .reflect the most important uncertainty sources -- namely, statistical variation, uncertainty in the factor used to adjust risk estimates for exposure at low doses and low dose rates, and uncertainty in the method of transport.

For gamma and beta radiation, which are of interest here, 1 Sv = 1 Gy.  Assuming an equal number of males and females in the affected population, we see that the expected incidence and mortality of solid cancers and leukemia are 0.1135 cancer cases and 0.057 cancer deaths per Sv.

For example, for a collective dose of 600,000 person-Sv, the expected number of cancer cases would be 68,000, of which some 34,000 would result in death.  If we apply the lower and upper confidence bounds, we find a range of 34,000 to 140,000 excess cancer cases, of which 16,000 to 73,000 would be fatal.

The estimated collective doses and the health consequences for different areas are shown in the table below.

Health Consequences
Table 2: Numbers in italics are calculated.  Values in the first unshaded row are from Chernobyl's Legacy.  The number in row 5 is found by subtracting rows 1-4 from the Total in row 6.

Note that because exposure only increases the probability of developing cancer, in general no given cancer can be attributed to Chernobyl.  Moreover, because these additional cancers will be distributed among hundreds of millions of people, they will not be discernable among all the other cancer cases.  (Table ES-1 indicates that, on average, about 42% of people have cancer at some point in their lives, and about 20% of people die of cancer.)  However, the large increase in thyroid cancers among children in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia following the accident clearly indicates that it was the cause of the increase.

Dr Lisbeth Gronlund is a senior scientist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a research affiliate in the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

LNT is far from proven. High Chernobyl estimates lack evidence

The MRZine article misleadingly assumes that "Linear Non-Threshold" theory is a proven one for calculating cancer incidents following radiation exposure.

Unfortunately for Caroline's argument, it is my understanding that there is little to no evidence actually supporting the contention that even minimal long-distance doses of radiation do in fact increase risk of cancer over broad populations.

There is counter-evidence however. Namely the well-documented fact that though natural background levels of radiation (from space and the earth) vary widely (by a factor of as much as 100) from place to place, these levels of natural radiation dosages have not ever been correlated with cancer rates. That is to say, according to LNT people in Denver (or in Iran) where natural radiation background rates are much higher than in, say, New Orleans, (or in Iran) should report higher incidences of cancer than the latter. They don't however, and never have, to my knowledge.

Which suggests that elevated levels of low dose radiation does not translate into elevated cancer rates. Which suggests that the estimates of tens of thousands given cancer and death by Chernobyl, in Europe and worldwide, are built upon an invalid theory of projections. There is little scientific reason to accept these numbers as serious estimates.


I meant to write "Gronlund's argument", not "Caroline's". Could you please fix? Thanks

correction #2

damn. And I meant to say *France* not Iran in my second parenthesis. Sorry for the typos. (Missed my second cup of coffee today!) Thanks again.


First off great post. Secondly, its scary to think of how even with stats like this, the government chooses to "cover up" the truth about nuclear exposure. Japan's government raised the nuclear exposure level to 4 times as what it as before the devistation (obviously they had to) but it's still terrible because of the people who will/and are suffering. Hopefully one day we can figure out an effecient way to harness this power without hurting the people who have to endure its consequences.

Raj Patel: The Cost of Nuclear Power

By Raj Patel

George Monbiot and Helen Caldicott had at it on DemocracyNow! this week, in part because of Monbiot’s take-down of Caldicott’s claims. Monbiot himself seems to have become a convert to nuclear power. Having laid out these very sensible criteria – to which I also subscribe – he has recently decided to ignore much of the evidence showing that nuclear power violates them. In order to support nuclear power, he needed to be convinced that

1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option

2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried

3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay

4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes

I’m baffled by the questions of political economy shrugged off by #4. Particularly after Fukushima, finding places to dump the waste will be harder than it is already, so that’s #2 out. Not knowing where the waste is going, you can’t answer #1 or #3. And even if the number of deaths by direct radiation exposure are small, the costs of evacuating the area around Fukushima, and keeping tens of thousands from their homes and lives, isn’t chump change. It’s a cost that comes from no other source than the meltdown. Some scientists, and I stress that they’re scientists with reputation to preserve and a peer-reviewing history behind them, have taken a stab at posing the question of the true cost of nuclear power. The ever-thoughtful Bob Costanza writes here and the Union of Concerned Scientists writes here.

Incidentally, the most useful commentator I’ve read on all this is Geoffrey Sea, and I hope to post his recent analysis here since, as far as I can tell, he’s not posting anywhere else.

No to nuclear

Once again I see the arguments of the intrepid Mr Monbiot effectively countered by common sense. As an aside - I do think that the strength of opposition to his advocacy of nuclear power makes it impossible for him to change his mind even if he might want to. The stronger the opposition the stronger his resolve. The harder you push someone the more they resist.

Anyway = amongst the comments above I have seen nothing about what mankind is supposed to do with all those extortionately expensive concrete towers when the available uranium runs out - which I am given to believe is not all that long, since those who know about such things have suggested that we may have already reached or even passed "peak uranium"

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