Nuclear Piranhas Eat Their Own

We already know that the nuclear industry is quite comfortable colluding with governments to deceive the public or spying on environmental groups such that senior executives are sent to jail or lying to regulators to cover up radioactive leaks that are contaminating groundwater.

So, it should come as very little surprise that the nuclear industry has the same ‘flexible’ view on ethics, legality and basic decency when dealing with its own people. In fact, not even the CEO of France’s nuclear giant, Areva, was safe: the Financial Times has recently revealed a catalogue of incompetence, espionage and massive financial failure (follow-up article) swirling around the French nuclear industry:

  • Areva purchased a uranium mine for €1.8 billion that was valued at only €1.4 million two years earlier
  • after purchase of the mine it became apparent that it contained a fraction of the uranium deposits that the Areva board believed
  • a senior Areva executive was exposed as having hired a Swiss private investigation firm to spy on then Areva CEO, Anne Lauvergeon (known as ‘Atomic Anne’ in France)
  • Lauvergeon alleges that her husband’s phone was hacked as part of this and is now starting legal proceedings
  • the web of intrigue goes as high as the president of France, Sarkozy, who became personally involved when he forced Lauvergeon out and installed a friend of his, Henri Proglio, who also happens to be CEO of EDF, one of the largest energy companies in France and the UK
  • Areva have now written off almost €2 billion as a result of the failed uranium mine purchase amid accusations of fraud

This debacle is piled on top of the disastrous nuclear projects that are unravelling in Olkiluoto, Finland and Flamanville, France where Areva are trying to build their new “Nuclear Renaissance” power plants.

It all paints a picture of a desperate industry in turmoil as nuclear power continues its long-term trend of global decline, with the IEA reporting that nuclear is down 10% year-on-year as renewable energy climbs 24%. Given that the nuclear industry can sometimes more closely resembles a crime syndicate with its illegal activities, it might be a little difficult to find sympathy for its predicament.

Along with flying atomic cars and glittering cities on the Moon, the claims of “unlimited, clean and safe energy” that is “too cheap to meter” that the nuclear lobby began promising in the 1950s have been utterly discredited. If the nuclear piranhas continue eating their own then the planet can focus its full resources on deploying clean, safe and truly sustainable renewable energy in order to mitigate the worst of climate change.

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David MacKay’s ‘Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air’… Perhaps A Little Hot Air?

David MacKay is the professor of natural philosophy in the department of Physics at the University of Cambridge and chief scientific adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change.

He is also author of a widely cited book on energy strategy for the UK: Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air. This book is highly regarded by many, almost an infallible ‘energy bible’. This critique suggests it is nothing of the sort. Read on.

Just the Numbers Ma’am, Just the Numbers

MacKay states that “…what the climate-change discussion needs is clear, simple numbers, so that we can understand just how big our challenge is…

Numbers. Numbers don’t lie – they are solid and dependable, non-partisan. Therefore if MacKay just follows the numbers he cannot be wrong, cannot be ‘taking sides’. This is a persuasive narrative for many – especially when the conclusions that MacKay reaches with his numbers confirm what some people want to be true, primarily that renewables alone cannot power the UK and that we must have nuclear reactors.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the numbers MacKay has chosen are flawed. It is entirely possible that MacKay has made assumptions that do not stand up to scrutiny. But because MacKay has stated he’s just ‘following the numbers’ then he creates a narrative that he is a dispassionate scholar without agenda. Jim Hickey takes a detailed look at this deceptive beguiling tactic in ‘No Hot Air’ About Renewable Energy While Blowing Smoke: David Mackay plays ‘Brutus’ to the Sun’s ‘Caesar’.

The Big Claim Fails

Let’s go straight to the central claim of MacKay’s book: the UK cannot be powered by renewable energy alone. This is a momentous conclusion and would mean that the UK had no choice but to accept new nuclear in order to attempt to mitigate climate change. But is this claim correct?

MacKay claims that the UK’s energy demand figure is 195 kWh/d – but the true demand figure is 82 kWh/d and can be readily reduced with efficiency measures and EVs. Therefore the UK can quite realistically be powered by 100% renewable energy – even using MacKay’s low-ball estimate of total UK renewable energy resources.

Let’s reiterate this startling conclusion: MacKay’s central and most important claim, that the UK cannot be powered by renewable energy alone, is false.

This is supported by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission (recently shut down by the pro-nuke Tory government). They stated that:

“…it is indeed possible to meet the UK’s energy needs without nuclear power. With a combination of a low-carbon innovation strategy and an aggressive expansion of energy efficiency and renewables, the UK would become a leader in low-carbon technologies. This would enhance economic competitiveness whilst meeting the UK’s future energy needs.”

And the SDC had this to say about nuclear:

“…even if the UK’s existing nuclear capacity was doubled, it would only give an 8% cut on CO2 emissions by 2035 … nuclear power has benefits, but in our view, these are outweighed by serious disadvantages.”

So, contrary to MacKay’s claim that renewables alone cannot power the UK and that we must have nuclear, the very opposite is true: renewables can provide 100% of our energy and nukes have serious disadvantages. Note that Germany is following a 100% renewable policy. If they can do it, the UK certainly can given its much larger offshore wind resource.

For Brutus is an honourable man…

Rhetoric is a powerful tool. It is the art of persuasion and can be an artifice used to veil intent. It comes in many forms, whether the masterclass in irony that Shakespeare delivered through Mark Antony or the simple sledgehammer of the fossil fanatics in the USA – “Drill, baby, drill!” We all use rhetoric if we are arguing for or against a position. It can be honest and overt or it can be mendacious and ‘concealed’. It might be conscious and crafted or subconscious and haphazard. If rhetoric forms a clear pattern, it’s reasonable to assume that it is intentional and is intended to promote an agenda.

Here’s a selection of the rhetoric that MacKay litters his book with, either his own words or quotes from others:

  • Wind farms will devastate the countryside pointlessly.” – this is how the chapter on wind begins. Before MacKay even begins to discuss wind power, he has primed the reader that wind power brings devastation without benefit.
  • …windmills...” – this is how MacKay continually refers to wind turbines. It is technically incorrect and the label used by those who wish to mock wind power as being archaic and low-tech. Windmills mill things. Wind turbines produce energy.
  • Is someone who advocates windmills over nuclear power stations “an enemy of the people”?” Josef Goebbels would be proud!
  • I’m more worried about what these plans [for the proposed London Array wind farm] will do to this landscape and our way of life than I ever was about a Nazi invasion on the beach.” – wind turbines on the horizon are worse than Hitler’s invading army. Got it.
  • “…army of windmills”. MacKay certainly likes that wind energy = army / invasion narrative. Don’t let the kids read this terrifying book!
  • This Greenpeace leaflet arrived with my junk mail…” Have you made the subtle connection, dear reader? Greenpeace = junk.

Another soundbite from MacKay is a warning that we should  “…not be conned by greenwash…” – but nowhere does he seem concerned about the massive potential for being conned by the nuclear industry that has been sucking billions of £££s out of the public coffers for 60 years and yet still needs massive subsidies to operate.

David MacKay Hearts Nuclear

In comparison to this blatant rhetoric against wind and renewable energy, there is nothing negative directed at nuclear. All we hear about nuclear is soothing reassurances – including a whitewash of the dangers of nukes from the global warming-denying Patrick Moore who MacKay introduces as “former Director of Greenpeace International“. Moore left Greenpeace 25 years ago and they have since denounced him as a paid spokesperson for polluting companies. In fact, Moore is now employed as a lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute! He is a paid cheerleader for the nuke industry… rather different to MacKay’s portrayal of him as eco-warrior. Either MacKay has been incredibly negligent in not discovering this conflict of interest or he has dishonestly chosen to hide it.

The nuclear love-fest continues:

  • He claims that “Uranium can be used 60 times more efficiently in fast breeder reactors…” – but fast breeder reactors are, to date, a failed experiment. France shut their program down. The Japanese shut theirs down. And so did the US. Only the Russians have one functioning fast breeder reactor and it has “never closed the fuel cycle and has yet to fuel BN-600 with plutonium.”
  • He refers to nuclear waste as a “beautifully small” problem, as though volume of waste was the only consideration when it is the fact that the high-level waste from nuclear reactors must be stored securely somewhere for at least 100,000 years. This is an inconceivably long time and no one has a solution. This vast problem is simply being ignored by the nuclear industry and its cheerleaders.
  • He tells us that “the nuclear waste from Britain’s ten nuclear power stations has a volume of just 0.84 litres per person per year“. Just?! That’s 50 million litres a year – with only the current fleet. That’s not “beautifully small” when it needs to be stored safely for many times longer than the whole of recorded human history. This is an obscene legacy to leave future generations who are given no say in whether they want it or not.

Once is a Misfortune, Twice is Carelessness – But Three times or More?!

The errors and extremely pessimistic assumptions that work against renewables are legion. Here are a few more to add to MacKay’s central, failed claim:

  • His estimate of what offshore wind could provide – 120 GW for shallow waters and 240 GW for deeper waters – is massively different to other estimates. For example: Two Terawatts average power output: the UK offshore wind resource. “The theoretical resource from offshore wind turbines in UK waters is approximately 2.2 TW of average (ie continuous output) of electricity.” So, that’s 2200 GW against MacKay’s 360 GW. Slightly different. To put 2.2 TW in perspective, it is about the same as the entire planet is currently using.
  • MacKay claims that “…windmills generate 9% of the electricity…” in Denmark. This is factually wrong. Massively so. Wind power provided 24% of generation capacity in Denmark in 2008. This error has now been corrected in the errata to the book, but will clearly not be seen by many people who will be badly misinformed about the growing success of wind energy in Denmark.
  • He assumes 3 MW turbines for his offshore wind calculations when 7 MW are available today with 10, 15 and 20 MW being developed.
  • He proposes “that we assume the available fraction is one third” of total offshore sea area for wind turbines. Why? He mentions fishing boats and shipping, but the spacing of offshore turbines allows plenty of space for boats to pass between, so cutting the available resource to one third is completely unnecessary. Also, fishing is likely to improve as turbines create artificial reefs for fish and other sea life.
  • Floating turbines that can be deployed in deep water will be on the market soon and make his assumptions even further removed from reality.
  • He makes multiple claims about the unreliability of offshore wind and cites problems with the Danish Horns Reef wind farm – but fails to mention that this was the world’s first offshore wind farm. Should we not expect teething troubles with a first-of-its-kind technology? Compare the ‘teething problems’ that continue in nuclear reactors today after 60 years of massive investment and development! Given that we’ve been building ships for a few hundred years, it seems likely that we have the technological know-how to build wind turbines that will withstand life at sea.
  • Another analysis takes MacKay to task: “It is grossly misleading to compare this chemical energy with wind power or electricity due to the different energy paths, losses and potential for supplying useful work at the wheels of a car in either case.”

And so it goes on. MacKay produces a litany of false claims and bizarrely pessimistic assumptions directed at renewable energy, while offering the most rose-tinted view of nuclear energy.

The Best Sales Pitch is the One You Don’t See Coming

David MacKay’s claims that he has produced a dispassionate analysis are not borne out by the rhetoric and pattern of assumptions and factual errors in his book. It’s a deeply partisan work that pushes a clear anti-renewable and pro-nuclear agenda.

Read his book with a critical eye and some familiarity of the FUD and propaganda targeted against renewables, and you should see that MacKay is not the dispassionate energy scholar that he has successfully marketed himself as; he is simply another player in the divisive battle between clean, green, safe renewable energy and the status quo of centralised power generation from nuclear energy… or as some wag put it, “the most expensive and dangerous method ever invented to boil water“.

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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.

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.”

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 tsunamis””, adding “Britain would have a six hour warning before a 30ft wave hit us”.

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:

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:

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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Money cannot be eaten.

“Only after the last tree has been cut down.
Only after the last river has been poisoned.
Only after the last fish has been caught.
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

– Cree Indian Prophecy

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