The Nuclear Meltdown of George Monbiot

Passionate; articulate; intelligent; socially and environmentally progressive; careful and meticulous in his research; rigorous in his use of science and expert opinion.

Many people will recognise that description of George Monbiot in his role as one of Britain's leading environmental journalists. Sadly, few of those descriptors apply to the George Monbiot who is now championing nuclear energy.

The George Monbiot We Knew

Until quite recently, Monbiot was unequivocal that nuclear energy was not worth the risks. Here he is in 2005:

"...nuclear power spreads radioactive pollution, presents a target for terrorists and leaves us with waste that no government wants to handle."

He was also certain that nuclear was not the optimal solution for climate change mitigation. He approvingly quoted a paper from physicist, Amory Lovins:

“Expanding nuclear power would both reduce and retard the desired decrease in CO2 emissions
.
â€

He rounds off that article with an attack on the UK's chief scientific, Sir David King, for his support of nuclear energy: "I fear that the government’s chief scientist is mutating into its chief spin doctor."

He pushes home his point in 2006:

“To start building a new generation of nuclear power stations before we know what to do with the waste produced by existing plants is grotesquely irresponsible. ... If, as a result of slow leakage into the groundwater, radioactive materials from a burial site kill an average of only one person a year for one million years, those who made the decision to bury them will – through their infinitesimal and unrecorded impacts – be responsible for the deaths of a million people.â€

His positioned softened in 2009, stating that he would not oppose nuclear provided it met four conditions:

1. Its total emissions - from mine to dump - are taken into account.

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.

His second condition was not met in 2009, it is not met today and there is no sign of it being met at any time in the foreseeable future. We do not know where to put our nuclear fission waste, which needs storing somewhere securely for at least 100,000 years. This means his first condition is also not met - if we don't know where to put it we certainly do not know its total emissions. Similarly, we cannot know the cost so his third condition cannot be met. In theory, in a perfect world, his fourth condition can be met - but in reality there is no chance of guaranteeing it. We can never be certain what happens in democratic governments, let alone in the less stable regions of the world where theocracies and dictatorships exist on a political precipice.

So, in reality, none of Monbiot's conditions for not opposing nuclear can be met. He lectures us on why this is such a fundamental problem:

"The most fundamental environmental principle, taught to every child before their third birthday, is that you don't make a new mess until you have cleared up the old one. It seems astonishing to me that we could contemplate building a new generation of nuclear power stations when we still have no idea where the waste from existing nukes will be buried."

Fukushima Meltdown Brings Nuclear Epiphany

Following the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan on March 11 and the subsequent growing catastrophe that engulfed the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, Monbiot published an article just 5 days later, stating "The Fukushima crisis should not spell the end of nuclear power."At this stage, TEPCO (the Japanese power company who own and manage the nuclear reactors) were issuing calm reassurances that there was little to worry about - "All 6 units of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station have been shut down." (March 13) - as we simultaneously watched videos of nuclear containment buildings exploding and multiple experts warning that the situation was far worse than official reports suggested. Very clearly, TEPCO's claim that all the reactors were "shut down" was at best 'misleading'.

With each passing day it became clear that Fukushima was a growing disaster. A few, short weeks later it was elevated to International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) level 7 - the highest level, only matched previously by Chernobyl. To say that Monbiot's assertion was premature is a colossal understatement. TEPCO subsequently admitted that "The radiation leak has not stopped completely and our concern is that it could eventually exceed Chernobyl."

Monbiot reiterated his four conditions for not opposing nuclear and added a fifth in his March 16 article:

"To these I’ll belatedly add a fifth, which should have been there all along: no plants should be built in fault zones, on tsunami-prone coasts, on eroding seashores or those likely to be inundated before the plant has been decommissioned or any other places which are geologically unsafe."

Note that he has seemingly forgotten about the threat of terrorism even though there seems little evidence that the world has become a more stable, secure place in the past six years. He also seems unaware that the same chief scientific adviser to the UK that he pilloried in 2005 as being nuclear's "chief spin doctor" warned that "“a mass of rock†off the Canary Islands was “waiting to collapse into the Atlantic†causing “giant tsunamisâ€", adding “Britain would have a six hour warning before a 30ft wave hit usâ€.

So, Monbiot's growing list of conditions all fail - but this does not dampen his growing affection for nuclear. Although, deciphering Monbiot's position is quite difficult when he makes statements such as:

"I despise and fear the nuclear industry as much as any other green: all experience hath shown that, in most countries, the companies running it are a corner-cutting bunch of scumbags, whose business originated as a by-product of nuclear weapons manufacture."

Who does he think will build and manage nuclear reactors in the UK - or anywhere else - except the "corner-cutting bunch of scumbags"?! At this point a person who makes decisions based on evidence and reason might start backing away from nuclear. Not the new George Monbiot. He is now more convinced than ever:

"As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology."

After his March 16 article, he no longer mentions his four five conditions. They have simply vanished.

Chernobyl? General 'Buck' Turgidson Assesses the Impact

Monbiot is now aggressively advocating nuclear and going on the attack against a growing chorus of criticism directed at him:

Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution.

He even uses the strap line "How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power" which is a play on Kubrick's classic movie, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb". Just like General 'Buck' Turgidson from the movie, Monbiot's assessment of mass death and suffering is akin to "having our hair mussed."

In order to dismiss the impact of Chernobyl as being relatively insignificant Monbiot offers up his readers a single number for total deaths: 43.

That number is cherry-picked from the IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency - whose stated purpose is to "seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy". Those 43 are the poor souls who were immediately affected by radiation that came pouring out of Chernobyl, mostly firemen, engineers and other first responders. They received massive doses of radiation and died quickly, in days or weeks. However, the 43 that Monbiot claims (subsequently increased to 47 in a later article) is most certainly not the full extent of the excess deaths that resulted from Chernobyl. Here are a selection of estimates:

World Health Organisation (WHO) / IAEA = 9000 "...there may be up to 9,000 excess cancer deaths due to Chernobyl among the people who worked on the clean-up operations, evacuees and residents of the highly and lower-contaminated regions in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine." http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2006/pr20/en/index.html

International Agency for Research on Cancer = 16,000 "...about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers may be expected due to radiation from the accident and that about 16,000 deaths from these cancers may occur." http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2006/pr168.html

TORCH (independent scientists, commissioned by the German Green Party) = 60,000 "...the worldwide collective dose of 600,000 person sieverts will result in 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths." http://www.chernobylreport.org/?p=summary

Greenpeace = 93,000+ "...approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl. The report also concludes that on the basis of demographic data, during the last 15 years, 60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000." http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/chernobylhealthreport.pdf

New York Academy of Sciences = 985,000 deaths as a result of the radioactivity released. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster_effects#New_York_Academy_of_Sciences_publication + http://www.napf.org/articles/db_article.php?print&article_id=141

There is clearly a very wide range of estimates of total mortality as a result of Chernobyl and it is impossible to ever know the true number. But one thing is clear: the true death toll resulting from Chernobyl far exceeds the handful that George Monbiot wants us to believe.

Also, note that the WHO are effectively muzzled by the IAEA following an agreement in 1959 whereby the WHO cannot publish anything regarding radiation or nuclear technology without the approval of the IAEA. So, even the nuclear industry's marketing department admits there may be up to 9000 excess deaths due to Chernobyl. And this says nothing about the tens of thousands of excess cancers, the miscarriages, birth defects, people displaced from their homes, all the lives wrecked by each of these things and the crippling economic costs - all of which continue today.

Monbiot's claim of 43 47 excess deaths due to Chernobyl is not simply wrong. It is an obscene lie. He must know about the wide-ranging credible estimates that put total fatalities in the thousands or tens of thousands. He must know that the IAEA is the marketing department for the nuclear industry - the same industry that he describes as "liars" and "scumbags". And yet, for the purpose of assessing the impact of Chernobyl, a cherry-picked number from the nuclear industry that not even the nuclear industry quotes is the gospel truth for General 'Buck' Turgidson George Monbiot.

Radiation dangerous? Bananas!

Now George moves on to the thorny problem of radiation toxicity. He 'cites' a nifty graphic from a well-known web-based comic: XKCD, Radiation Dose Chart. It offers a guide to radiation based on relative doses, starting with 'sleeping next to someone' and 'eating one banana'. Monbiot found this quite convincing. Perhaps because he chose to in preference for doing the least amount of research on the subject?

Radiation comes in different forms and can be delivered by different mechanisms. The key fact not shown in Monbiot's preferred comic is that external emitters of radiation (e.g. getting an x-ray at the dentist) are not the same as internal emitters (e.g. drinking milk contaminated by caesium). Once radioactive products have entered the body (via water, food or from the air) they are emitting radiation directly into cells and their deleterious effect is multiplied massively. So background radiation is not at all the same as having radioactive plutonium in your lungs or radioactive caesium in your bones or radioactive iodine in your thyroid.

Bananas? Bananas contain potassium. Your body contains potassium. When you eat a banana, your body ejects the same amount of potassium that you just consumed, thereby making bananas radiation-neutral. Also, as you would expect, the radiation delivered by bananas is very different to that delivered by fissile materials that come out of a nuclear reactor that is in meltdown. For some reason, this has not occurred to George Monbiot.

Note the warning at the foot of the XKCD graphic - which Monbiot clearly did not: "If you're basing radiation safety procedures on an internet image and things go wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself." Indeed.

The False Dichotomy: Nuclear or Coal

The key argument that Monbiot appears to be pushing (as best one can discern from the multiple, frantic articles published over the last few weeks) to defend his nuclear crusade is that our energy choice is "nuclear or coal" and therefore "nuclear or unmitigated climate change". This is a false dichotomy.

The choice for our energy future - and therefore climate change mitigation - is nuclear energy or renewable energy.

Remember that Monbiot circa 2005 said, “Expanding nuclear power would both reduce and retard the desired decrease in CO2 emissions.†This was confirmed by the UK government's Sustainable Development Commission: "doubling nuclear capacity would make only a small impact on reducing carbon emissions by 2035" and "the risks of nuclear energy outweighed its advantages." That advisory panel has since been closed by the pro-nuclear Tory government - which is one way to get rid of inconvenient facts when you have an ideology to push ahead with.

Monbiot is backing the wrong horse in the climate change mitigation race. Reality shows that renewables are being deployed at a phenomenal rate and global renewable energy generation now exceeds nuclear. Remember, nuclear has been subsidised, developed and deployed for almost 60 years; renewables have only received serious investment in perhaps the last decade.

New nuclear reactors are barely being deployed quickly enough to match old reactors going offline. The disaster at Fukushima is unlikely to improve that. Indeed, Germany have since announced rapid closure of their nuclear reactors and to accelerate their plan for 100% renewable energy.

The other tactic that Monbiot has employed to justify a rush to nuclear energy is that nuclear will become cheaper in the future. He made the following bizarre statement while debating Caroline Lucas of the Green Party:

"So while you can say wind at the moment costs 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 cheaper."

That beggars belief. He is making "guesses" based on non-existent studies about the costs of nuclear and renewables decades in to the future while admitting that right now nuclear is the more expensive option. And contrary to Monbiot's "guessing", the evidence suggests the very opposite. Nuclear continues to climb in costs while renewables continue to fall:

Does nuclear power have a negative learning curve? Real escalation in reactor investment costs while solar and wind falls. "New nukes have gone from too cheap to meter to too expensive to matter for the foreseeable future."

The George Monbiot of Today

There is no coherence to Monbiot's arguments. He demonstrates all the traits of the climate change deniers he has fought for many years. He cherry picks numbers, ignores all credible evidence that undermines his position and abandons his arguments as soon as they prevent him pushing forward with his new-found love of nuclear. He is making statements which he must know to be untrue. He is "guessing" about costs of technology decades in to the future in order to justify his beliefs.

George Monbiot is in denial of reality in order to protect an emotional attachment to what he erroneously believes is a solution to global warming. He is advocating a technology that brings catastrophic risks, highly toxic waste, is too expensive, too slow and unreliable to build. Nuclear energy will starve the renewable sector of the funds and resources it needs and which offers the best chance of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time Monbiot has succumbed to superficial arguments from vested interests. He was fooled by the lies of the climate change deniers regarding the stolen CRU emails. He was fooled by a single paper from a rightwing think tank, RWI Essen, to the extent that he called Feed In Tariffs and solar energy "The German Disease"? He has now been fooled by the lies of the nuclear lobby.

For many, this inconsistency and lack of coherent, evidence-based reasoning is now too much. George Monbiot can no longer be considered a credible commentator.

George Made Some New Friends

To finish on a positive note for George, he has made some new friends and allies with his nuclear epiphany. Among them are the billionaire brothers who own Koch Industries, and who are possibly more responsible than any others for funding climate change denial. They also strongly support nuclear energy. Why? Because they know that nuclear offers no realistic threat to their fossil fuel golden goose. The George Monbiot that we knew would have gained a clue from that fact....


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BlueRock
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Guest Nuclear Fissionary

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The New York Academy of Sciences did NOT conduct the study that said a million dead from Chernobyl, their publishing department was hired to print it and nothing more. And print it they did, along with a disclaimer that essentialy denounced the study as politically motivated junk science paid for by GREENPEACE. Antinukes might sprinkle a dash on honesty into their fear campaign. It might give them at least some credibility, not much though. The REAL study, the one performed by the World Health Organization (you know...Doctors) said that 56 people had died as a result of Chernobyl. Compare that number to the nearly 1 million who die every year from coal pollution (not to mention climate change) and it becomes painfully obvious that the world needs nuclear power.

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Guest BlueRock

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The article does not state that the NYAS conducted the study. > The REAL study, the one performed by the World Health Organization (you know...Doctors) said that 56 people had died as a result of Chernobyl. You have ignored the fact that the WHO issued a report suggesting the *total* mortality resulting from Chernobyl was or will be *9000*. The 56 (or 43 or 47 depending on which version of the WHO reporting you look at) is only a count of those who died quickly from massive radiation exposure. As stated in the article. > Compare that number to the nearly 1 million who die every year from coal pollution (not to mention climate change) and it becomes painfully obvious that the world needs nuclear power. Also clearly covered in the article. See 'False Dichotomy'. Nukes are too expensive, too slow to build. The solution to coal and climate change is renewable energy.

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Guest Shelly Leit

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Are you kidding? Monbiot is right. His arguments are based on facts, and hysterical people like Caldicott can't even back up their arguments. In fact, one of Monbiot's main arguments is that the nuclear hysteria is more like the climate deniers, and now you have turned his own point on his more fact-based point of view. He is only asking for perspective and a fact-based discussion, he's not in love with nuclear power. No one is. But if your main concern is climate change, increasing nuclear power might very well be necessary.

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Guest Shelly Leit

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What does expense have to do with anything? We either fight climate change by removing the use of fossil fuels, or we don't. Believing that we should condemn future generations of people and other life to a harsh future because we could not "afford" nuclear power, so we stuck with the cheaper coal, is not an argument anyone suffering in the future would understand. Expense should not even be part of the discussion. We either need nuclear and/or renewable power, or we don't. If we do, we build it. Slow to build is not a valid argument for anything except rushing to build them, and that's not smart.

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Guest BlueRock

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You also do not appear to have read the article. The choice is not coal or nuclear, it is nuclear or renewables. Renewables are cheaper, faster to deploy. Therefore renewables are the optimal solution.

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Guest BlueRock

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The evidence from all sources shows Monbiot is wrong. Do you have any credible *evidence* that contradicts it?

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Guest Simon Leufstedt

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I agree with you that we shouldn't care about expenses in the fight against climate change. Transforming our societies will require a lot of hard work and money. There is no question about that. But that doesn't mean we should spend our money on an energy source that is expensive, dangerous, not cost-effective and will worsen climate change. Simply put: nuclear power is not the answer to our energy and climate crisis. And like BlueRock said in his reply to your comment. The choice is not between the plague or cholera (an old Swedish saying), i.e nuclear or coal. Projects like DESERTEC shows the potential of renewables.

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Guest D A Ryan

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Nuclear Fissionary, The problem with Nuclear cheerleaders such as yourself and George Monbiot is that they are guilty of deliberate Strawman building. I also don’t accept that silly 984,000 or whatever it is, assessment from…well whoever came up with it! Even so the 4,000 predicted by the official joint WHO/IAEA report (you know, doctors…& nuclear scientists) is worrying enough. I also find this obsession with the Chyernobl “body count†by both sides morbid and pointless. The fact is (as anyone whose actually bothered to read these reports would know) that hundreds of thousands of people among the liquidators, and those in the fallout zones, have come down with cancers (but survived after costly treatment), lung conditions, leukaemia and otherwise had they’re health ruined. Have you ever seen a relative go through cancer treatment? Its not a walk in the park you know. That the nuclear industry supporters can so callously dismiss such a mass of human suffering while actually seek to downplay it, speaks volumes as regards both their compassion – and their sanity. Of course, I’m quite sure you’ll argue that there’s no link between these extra deaths/health problems and radiation, other than the causal link (lots got exposed to radiation, lots got cancer). Of course I could equally point out that there is no link between cancer and smoking, other than the causal link (i.e hundreds of millions of people who smoked a lot or were exposed to 2nd hand smoke got cancer). Of course the Tobacco lobby love to point this one out all the time, but I don’t believe them. Monbiot and nuclear cheeleaders are thus guilty of using tobacco lobby tactics. Finally, to be honest the safety issue has never really been something I’ve really worried about as regards nuclear. I assumed that post-cold war, the industry had cleaned up its act (I might need to reassess that post-Fukushima, but unlike Monbiot I’m not going to rush to judgement on it until we’ve worked out the impact). No, it’s the spiralling cost of nuclear reactor building costs and the decom costs and the fact that nobody (with the exception of the Finns) seems to have any coherent plan as to what they’re going to do with this waste, not to mention the limited size of global stocks of fissile material, these are the things that worry me about nuclear energy. It isn’t so much the Elephant in the room, it’s an entire herd of white elephants in the room. But I suppose Monbiot is deliberately picking a fight on ground he knows he has some chance of winning…..just so long as we ignore the elephants!

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Guest D A Ryan

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Shelly Leit, What does expense have to do with anything?.... ……how about everything, at least as far as the markets are concerned! Are you personally prepared to pay the (not-so) reassuringly expensive costs of nuclear energy? Those costs are now running in the €4,000-5,500/kW mark, at least 3 times higher than the install costs of wind energy. Once you factor in the decommissioning costs, this could easily double again. Already it looks unlikely the banks are interested in meeting these costs, not without a signed confession from governments that we’ll bail out the nuclear industry if and when the bubble bursts (using our tax money…again!). Two good articles cover these rising costs here: https://www.citigroupgeo.com/pdf/SEU27102.pdf http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/expert-edf-reactor-design-slated-for-calvert-cliffs-other-us-sites-is-in-crisis-unlikely-to-succeed-even-with-major-government-ratepayer-help-106691078.html In my article below I put forward a (slightly tongue in cheek) theory that the French nuclear industry may well amount to a giant ponzi scheme. http://daryanenergyblog.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/nuclear-reality-check-chapter-2-%E2%80%93-are-the-french-running-a-ponzi-scheme/ Of course the serious point I’m making is that the nuclear industry cannot continue to defy the laws of economic gravity forever. Sooner or later they’ll reapply themselves, just like they did with the sub-prime bubble, or indeed every other economic bubble in history. Likely the crunch will come in the 2020's to 2030’s when many nations will be building and decommissioning reactors plus dealing with the waste issue at the same time, and dealing with a looming pension crisis (and thus seriously short of cash). We will not be able to afford, at this point, an expensive nuclear building program. This could lead to several of these reactor projects being abandoned (leaving some very costly holes in the ground) so we can focus purely on the decom costs (in the UK the estimated bill is currently around £73 Billion, the US I believe its $400 Billion, but its been awhile since I checked either). Of course the ideal thing to do would be to invest in renewables, but if we wait till this eleventh hour (i.e after wasting our time & money with nuclear) we won’t be able to afford that. Having mortgaged the family silverware on these nuclear magic beans we won’t be able to afford the high capital costs (high but not as high as nuclear mind) of rewewables roll out ….course we’ll still have plenty of coal left…..

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Guest saša nikolić

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It is the cost of a stumbling block in the decision. But why not just use the resources of nature but not the least expensive way, not digging coal, but wind, water ... etc.. Is it all that more expensive than human life?

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Guest james steven

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Every one need to know the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power. Even though need to reduce the nuclear uses to increase the natural powers like Green It or Cloud Computing, re usability concepts and wild farms To save the planet for green it concepts visit at www.greeniteconomicsummit.org

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Guest Green IT Summit

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Every one need to know the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power. Even though need to reduce the nuclear uses to increase the natural powers like Green It or Cloud Computing, re usability concepts and wild farms To save the planet for green it concepts visit at www.greeniteconomicsummit.org

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