By Ricardo Sequeiros Coelho
is a very serious accident by all standards. And it is not yet over.” –
Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy
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 (Monbiot.com). Then, he wrote that since no one died from Fukushima he is now a nuclear power advocate (Monbiot.com). 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.]