George Monbiot, the prominent left writer and columnist for the London “Guardian” newspaper, has recently announced his support for nuclear power (“Guardian” newspaper, March 21, 2011). Considering the fact that he has written extensively on the issue of environmentalism and that he previously opposed nuclear power, his changed position merits serious consideration.
In his book “Heat” (published in 2006), Monbiot presents a plan for “how to stop the planet from burning” from global warming. In it, he explains how to reduce CO2 emissions in the industrialized world (using Britain as the example) by 80% in ten years. His book is meticulously researched and carefully reasoned. He considers the use of nuclear generated electricity, but ultimately rejects it.
Changed Position: Coal vs. Nuclear
About a year ago, however, he announced that he had become “neutral” on the issue of nuclear power and just within the last month, following the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, he announced his support for developing nuclear power and went on the radio to debate the prominent anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott. Monbiot bases his new-found support on the belief that renewable energy sources cannot power a modern society; connected with this is the belief that some form of mass, centralized energy production is necessary. He apparently accepts the views of the peak oil proponents and appears to dismiss the possibility of increasing the number of natural gas fired generating plants. As a result, he poses the alternatives as being either more coal or more nuclear fired plants.
In “Heat” and elsewhere, he explains that there is no such thing as “clean coal”. The result of coal fired plants is not only more global warming, but also increased air pollution. Then there is the issue of the deaths associated with coal mining.
Since from Monbiot’s point of view some form of centrally produced electrical power is necessary for a modern society, and since renewables cannot provide this in sufficient quantity, he sees nuclear as the only option.
In “Heat”, Monbiot explains how the nuclear industry sacrifices safety to cost cutting, citing for instance the record of the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria, UK. There, European inspectors found a radioactive pond “which had been sitting there, unacknowledged and unchecked for 30 years. In 2005, investigators found that a pipe at the complex had been leaking, undetected, for over eight months, spilling nitric acid containing some 20 tonnes of uranium and 160 kilograms of plutonium.” Such criminal negligence appears to be the general rule, not the exception, if Monbiot’s accounts are to be believed.
In his newfound defense of nuclear power, Monbiot ignores this issue. Instead, he blithely asserts that only a few people have died in Japan as a result of the nuclear power disaster there. He compares this to the six people per day killed in China last year from industrial accidents associated with coal mining. “The official death toll from coal in China is greater than the official death toll from Chernobyl in 25 years,” he says. According to Monbiot, only 43 people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident.
Such claims are based on extremely narrow view of what is ascertainable. Other studies completely dispute this and show a far, far greater result of Chernobyl. For instance, one study (http://eon3emfblog.net/?p=2028) showed a nearly 2/3 die off of young birds all the way in Pt. Reyes, California the following spring. According to the study, this could only be explained by a radioactive iodine-laced rain that spring – a rain whose contamination was due to Chernobyl. This same article cites other studies which show a worldwide increase in mortality related to Chernobyl.
Lest anybody think that such accidents could not happen here in the US, or that safety is strictly enforced here, they should be aware that the US government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigated 14 cases of “near misses” last year. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, these cases occurred “because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerated known safety problems.” Furthermore, the NRC only has the resources to audit 5% of the activities at the US nuclear plants. While Monbiot does not deny such problems, his recent writings on the issue completely ignore them.
Monbiot also ignores the risks associated with uranium mining. For instance, one study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1615135/) concludes: “Findings were consistent with those from previous studies. Twenty-three years after their last exposure to radon progeny, these light-smoking Navajo miners continue to face excess mortality risks from lung cancer and pneumoconioses and other respiratory diseases.” These findings would also seem to contradict Monbiot’s claim that there is no shown increase in cancer due to radon exposure. (Radon is a slightly radioactive gas to which uranium miners, among others, are exposed.)
Low Level Radiation
Monbiot apparently accepts the claims of many within the scientific community that exposure to low level radiation is not dangerous. From this he seems to conclude that the low levels of radioactive releases from nuclear power plants are not harmful. However, he ignores several points: First is that there are different kinds of radiation, and the studies done on the background, low level radiation focus on one particular type. Second, even these studies are open to criticism. Here, for instance, is what one writer comments on these studies:
For the past several years, health research on the effects of ionizing radiation exposure has focused on estimating the number of excess radiation-induced fatal cancers and excess severe genetic diseases to be expected in a population given the average estimated exposure to radiation for the country. Other radiation-related human tragedies such as earlier occurrence of cancers, endocrine disorders, immune dysfunction, developmental disorders, and other illnesses are not included. This averaging approach also fails to deal with global distribution of air and water with the result that deaths and the cumulative damage to future generations are not limited to one country.
Then there is the issue of costs. The nuclear industry claims that the cost of producing electricity by nuclear power are as low as under two cents per kilowatt hour. However, these claims are based on ignoring the overall costs, which include the ultimate costs of storing the deadly nuclear waste (for up to 250,000 years) and decommissioning the nuclear plants once their useful life ends (figured to be after about 60 years). It is natural that the industry ignores these costs, since they assume that these costs will be borne by society as a whole (meaning the working class in the main) rather than come out of the bottom line of the individual companies.
The fact that it is impossible to get Wall St. to finance construction of nuclear power plants – at least not without federal loan guarantees – is telling. So is the fact that US federal law shields the operators of nuclear plants from lawsuits to recover damages due to nuclear accidents.
The reinvented Monbiot ignores the issue of the radioactive wastes. Given that there is no proven way to dispose of these wastes, some of which are deadly for 250,000 years, this is not a small issue. In fact, it appears that the leakage of radioactive water at Fukushima Daiichi is from the water in the storage pools used to store such wastes. In addition, there is the issue of the tailings – waste ore – from the uranium mines. Huge mountains of these tailings exist, and they too are radioactive. Numerous studies have demonstrated the links between these tailings and cancer and birth defects
Finally, in regards to greenhouse gas creation, once again the industry vastly underestimates the role of nuclear power. They claim that it’s greenhouse gas free because the act of producing the electricity doesn’t in and of itself create greenhouse gas (CO2). This, however, ignores the greenhouse gas produced through the exploration for, mining, refining and transportation of uranium, as well as of the construction of these immensely costly and complex nuclear energy plants and their ultimate decommissioning and cleanup. When all of these are accounted for, according to Caldicott, nuclear-produced electricity produces about one-third the CO2 of natural gas fired plants – far less than coal-fired plants certainly, but also certainly not greenhouse gas free.
There are several problems with Monbiot’s approach, and they all stem from his limited perspectives.
Monbiot sharply condemns Caldicott for her failure to rely solely on peer-reviewed scientific articles. He compares her method to that of the global warming deniers. However, he ignores several points.
In his book, Monbiot documented the direct economic ties between those scientists who deny the fact of global warming and the industry that has most to lose from this fact: The oil industry. He fails to consider what ties exist between the nuclear industry and the scientists in this field and how those ties might influence the scientists’ findings. Of course, these would be the main scientists who write and peer-review the scientific articles.
Nuclear scientists receive their training through an education system that is linked with the industry, and the scientists would have a predisposition to minimize the dangers associated with the industry. They would also have economic and career interests in the further development of the industry. While they may not tell outright lies in many instances, it does not take much to design studies slanted towards producing a certain conclusion. While Monbiot accuses the critics of “cherry picking” – i.e. only accepting the studies whose results they like – he ignores similar practices by those whose results he likes. Consider, for instance, the studies cited above, which found little if any danger in ionizing radiation, based on excluding certain diseases as having possibly been caused by this radiation.
Second, while capitalist-developed science has tremendously advanced human understanding of the natural world, it also has some limitations, especially when it comes to understanding environmental issues. This is so because the “scientific method” relies on strictly controlling all factors to study what statistical effect the change in just one of these factors will have. Theo Colborn, in her ground breaking book “Our Stolen Future” (which should be read by all socialists), calls for a new approach which she calls “eco-epidemiology”. This would involve “real-world environmental detective work (which) comes to judgment based on ‘the weight of evidence’ rather than on scientific ideals of proof that are more appropriate to controlled laboratory experiments and the practice of science than to problem solving and protecting public health in the real world.” Colborn was writing about the long term effects of hormone disrupting synthetic chemicals, but the same point can be made about nuclear radiation: When studying real-world effects, which must necessarily be outside of a controlled environment, it is nearly impossible to isolate one single factor. This may be part of the reason why it is difficult to find peer-reviewed, scientific studies on the long-term effects of radiation.
The study cited above regarding Chernobyl shows that it is impossible to study the effects of radiation simply by looking at areas immediately surrounding the source of such radiation. Wind and weather patterns – both nearby and long distance – have to be taken into account. This is part of the reason why it is so difficult to narrowly define the immediate results, especially by simply drawing general averages. How, for instance, can “scientifically” determine the cause of the cancers that strike one out of two US males in the course of their lifetime and one out of three females? (source: “The Tennessean” 3/5/2011)
While he does not come right out and advocate it, the entire thrust of Monbiot’s arguments lead to supporting the construction of more nuclear power plants. In the real world, this is the alternative to energy conservation, for instance – an issue that Monbiot ignores now. (The only alternative is coal, according to 2011’s Monbiot.) Furthermore, even in his book, Monbiot ignores several other aspects, one of the main ones being the military industrial complex. This must be a massive force for greenhouse gas emissions, but Monbiot doesn’t deal with it – neither in his book nor presently. He also doesn’t deal with the issue of the consumer society and the mass psychology that lies behind it and what it would take – revolutionary change – to transform that psychology.
Tackling such issues would mean a direct challenge to the capitalist class, which Monbiot appears unwilling to do.
Thus, the most severe limitation of Monbiot’s lies in his general social vision as a whole. In his book “Heat”, he presents a general plan to vastly reduce production of CO2. This plan is well-researched and credible. It also is impossible without some form of central planning, which Monbiot ignores. And the minute the issue of central planning raises itself, the question arises, “who will do the planning, which class?” Under capitalist such a plan could only be imposed from above by a “strongman” – that is by a dictatorship. In that case it would immediately be corrupted by the dictator’s cronies, it would be bureaucratic and totally inefficient.
The only way that Monbiot’s proposals could realistically be developed would be through a genuine, democratic socialist society in which the working class was directly involved in devising and administering the economic plan from the very start. This author had a short e-mail correspondence with Monbiot several years ago. However, when the issue of economic planning and capitalism was raised, Monbiot cut off the discussion. He was unable or unwilling to consider this question, and he appears to remain so to this day. A real, rational plan for economic development – including development of energy systems - is impossible under capitalism, because any such development must be based on conscious economic planning. However, since Monbiot is unwilling to think outside of this limitation, he finds himself forced to choose between either coal or nuclear.
Monbiot’s political naïveté should come as no surprise. After all, by his own confession, he voted for the Liberal Democrats in the last elections in Britain (and now he feels “betrayed” by them). This same naïveté shows through in relation to the issue of nuclear power: Contrary to Monbiot’s belief, the alternative in the real world of modern day capitalist politics is not coal vs. nuclear; it is coal plus nuclear vs. conservation plus renewables.
April 5, 2011