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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