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 Monbiot.com). 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
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
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.
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.]