George Monbiot’s nuclear conversion

Monbiot goes nuclear: too much too soon

Jim Green, 25 March 2011,

Prominent British columnist George Monbiot announced in the UK Guardian on Monday that he now supports nuclear power. That isn’t a huge surprise. Having previously opposed nuclear power, he announced himself ‘nuclear-neutral’ in 2009.

As recently as last week, Monbiot declared himself neutral while saying that he would not oppose nuclear power if four conditions are met:

“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.”

Along with renewables, nuclear meets the first condition – it is a low-carbon energy source. The other three conditions have not been met. No country has established a burial site for high-level nuclear waste. There is no clarity as to how much waste disposal programs will cost nor who will pay. We do know that monitoring and management will be required for millenia. If the Roman Empire was fuelled by atomic energy, we’d still be looking after their waste.

Monbiot’s fourth condition has not been met – there is no meaningful legal guarantee against diversion of materials for weapons programs. Unless, that is, you count the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which actually enshrines the “inalienable right” of all signatory countries to the full suite of nuclear fuel cycle facilities including those that are most useful for weapons production.

So Monbiot’s position hasn’t changed as a result of his four conditions being met. Indeed there is no mention of them in his column on Monday. Instead, Monbiot has become a nuclear supporter as a result of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

He writes: “A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation. … 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. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”

Monbiot is understating the radiological impacts of Fukushima and ignoring other serious impacts. Many, many thousands of people have received very small radiation doses as a result of Fukushima. For a tiny, unlucky percentage, that radiation exposure will prove to be fatal. Thus Monbiot’s claim that “no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation” does not stand up to scrutiny. We can be confident that the death toll from Fukushima will be far smaller than Chernobyl. Beyond that generalisation, it’s best not to speculate until data is available on collective human radiation exposure as a result of the crisis.

Monbiot ignores the impacts of Fukushima other than direct radiation exposure. These include restrictions on the consumption of food, water and milk; the expense and trauma of relocating 200,000 people; the very serious impacts of the nuclear crisis on the emergency response to the earthquake and tsunami; and big economic hits to the tourism industry and to agricultural industries.

Monbiot understates the impacts of nuclear power more generally. In terms of radiation releases and exposures, long-term exposure from uranium tailings dumps is estimated to be a much more significant source of exposure than routine reactor operations or reactor accidents. Nuclear fuel reprocessing plants have been another major source of radioactive pollution.

It is no small irony that nuclear power’s worldwide reputation has taken a huge battering from the Fukushima emergency while vastly greater radiological impacts from routine operations receive virtually no public attention.

Monbiot takes offence at ill-informed, moralistic objections to nuclear power. Fair enough. Yet two of the greatest objections to nuclear power both have a moral dimension − one because of its particularity, the other because of its generality.

The particular moral problem concerns the disproportionate impacts of the nuclear industry on indigenous peoples. The nuclear industry’s racism is grotesque. Regardless of all the other debates surrounding energy options, it’s difficult to see how this pervasive racism can be reduced to being just another input into a complex equation, and tolerated as a price that must be paid to keep the lights on.

The other major moral concern with nuclear power is its repeatedly-demonstrated connection to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As former US vice president Al Gore says: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”

Nuclear weapons are the most destructive, indiscriminate and immoral of all weapons, and nuclear warfare has the capacity to directly cause catastrophic climate change by lifting thousands of tonnes of soot into the stratosphere. Thus nuclear weapons pose an an existential threat to humanity. This proliferation problem must weigh very heavily against nuclear power in comparative assessments of energy options.

Much of Monbiot’s March 21 column concerns the limitations of renewables. He’s right to point to the limitations and costs of renewables, not least because they are poorly understood. But instead of addressing serious clean energy proposals, Monbiot simply demolishes one particular branch of thinking – the argument that current electricity supply systems can be replaced with off-grid, small-scale distributed energy.

There is certainly a role for local energy production but no serious analysts argue that it can completely displace centralised production. Thus Monbiot is demolishing a straw man argument.

In Australia, a growing body of literature demonstrates how the systematic deployment of renewable energy sources, along with energy efficiency policies and technologies, can generate very large reductions in greenhouse emissions without recourse to nuclear power. These include reports produced by academics such as Hugh Saddler, Richard Denniss and Mark Diesendorf, and important contributions by the Australia Institute, engineer Peter Seligman, CSIRO scientist John Wright, Siemens Ltd., and the ‘Beyond Zero Emissions’ group among others.

Like it or not, the Fukushima disaster will put a significant dent in nuclear power expansion plans around the world. Fukushima will prove to be an even greater disaster if that energy gap is filled with fossil fuels. It is more important than ever to fight for the systematic, rapid deployment of existing, affordable clean energy solutions. And to insist on major R&D programs to expand the capabilities of renewables and to reduce the costs. And last but not least, to aggressively pursue the energy efficiency and conservation measures that can deliver the largest, cheapest, quickest cuts to greenhouse emissions.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.