25 Jun 2011

Nuclear Power - splitting the green atoms

I've mentioned 'The Land' magazine in a previous article 'Three Cheers for the Recession'. Well, one of the founders of 'The Land is Ours' is George Monbiot - a highly respected (in some circles anyway) environmental commentator and reporter.

George has never been one for shying away from confronting difficult and taboo subjects head-on, and I think the world, well journalism at least, is a better place because of him. I like the subjects he tackles, I like the fact the he appears to exhaust every avenue of research on the subject he's writing/talking about, I like the fact that he provides references to the quotes and statistics he uses, and I like the fact that he's not afraid to talk face to face with his critics (something his critics seem less enthusiastic to do).

As a vegan, George's support for my food and lifestyle choice has waxed and wained. At one time, he backed veganism for it's environmental credentials, only later to make comments along the lines of he's never seen a 'healthy-looking vegan'. Recently, he whole heartedly backed Simon Fairlie's book, "Meat - A Benign Extravgance" and took a swipe at vegans and vegetarians. In fairness, Fairlie's book actually does advocate a drastic reduction in meat consumption for the average person.

I suppose one could say that he is at least open to have his mind changed, and changed, and changed. Not that there is anything wrong with that, quite the opposite in fact - too often in politics, green or animal movements/organisations, people have their beliefs set in stone because that's the party line.

One of his ideas though has set him on a collision course with many of the people who previously supported him - he now agrees with nuclear power!

In March 2011, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan caused major problems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The scale of the problem has subsequently been classed as level 7 (major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures) on the International Nuclear Event Scale, which in turn has led many countries to halt and re-examine their nuclear power programmes.

As the disaster at Fukushima unfolded, George wrote "How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power". As you'd expect, this caused many 'greens' to lash back at George for his sudden change of heart. In my mind, and the minds of many others, nuclear power and environmentalism are mutually exclusive, so why has George said this?

The very condensed form of George's argument seems to be this - he doesn't like nuclear, but even with the 'odd' disaster, the number of people who will die as a result of it are far, far fewer than the number who will die as a result of global warming. If we abandon nuclear as a power source, initially, the gap would be filled with carbon-based fuels, which add to global warming. Even if we get renewables on side, the infrastructure is not in place to support them - it would cost a lot, it would look ugly and it may not be as reliable as we hope, which means we'll fall back on fossil fuels, which means global warming, which means more deaths.

I can see George's point, to a degree. If humans carry on the current trend - our desire for (clean) energy ever increasing, our targets for carbon emissions ever lower, it's hard to see where the power is going to come from. I'd really like to think that renewables could be the key player here, but in the back of my mind I wonder if more nuclear power will become an inevitability.

But, and this is the big but... George bases his whole argument on the fact that we will/must continue to consume electricity at our current rate, if not increasing our consumption. In other words, business as usual, and the technofix that George often throws as something climate change deniers fall back on is nuclear.

I don't believe that there can be business as usual. Our current approach is to rape the world of resources and exploit the poor and voiceless people in order to provide for the privileged few. I think that the 3rd option has to be to force people to reduce what they use.

I'm finding it hard to verbalise what I actually believe, so I was happy to find an article by Simon Fairlie (yes, the co-founder with George Monbiot of 'The Land is Ours' and author of 'Meat, a benign extravagance'). Here's what Simon Fairlie says in 'The Land' magazine...

Thanks George, but No Thanks

TLIO's founder is wrong about nuclear power.

"More People Died at Chappaquiddick than at Three Mile Island" was a bumper sticker favoured by supporters of nuclear power in the early 1980s. Chappaquiddick, you may recall, was the site of a car accident in which one person, Mary Jo Kopechne, died, while Teddy Kennedy emerged unscathed. Since then the facile Chappaquiddick argument has become more sophisticated and successful. James Lovelock was the first well known environmentalist to argue that the dangers of nuclear power had been exaggerated, and that it offered a relatively safe alternative to fossil fuels. More recently Stewart Brand (formerly one of the Whole Earth Catalogue crew) and Mark Lynas (author of Rising Tide) have defected with considerable fanfare to the nuclear camp.

For some time observers of the green movement have been wondering when George Monbiot would join them, as he has been sitting on the fence for several years. His 2006 book on global warming, Heat, did not (as some of us feared) plump for nuclear, but he wasn't exactly forthright in his rejection of it either. In March 2011, he finally held his nose and jumped into the nuclear pit, nudged in that direction by the disaster at Fukushima, which he described in these terms:

"A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami... yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation."

In this and in a second article in the Guardian two weeks later, George endorsed Lovelock and company's view that the dangers of nuclear radioactivity have been grossly exaggerated by the green movement, and that nuclear energy is a lot safer than fossil fuels. Antinuclear campaigners cite a New York Academy of Sciences publication which (from an overview of several thousand scientific papers) estimates that 985,000 deaths have resulted from the Chernobyl disaster. George finds more convincing the peer-reviewed United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which, (from an overview of several thousand scientific papers), concludes that casualties amounted to no more than 134 cases of acute radiation, and 6,848 cases of thyroid cancer.

This wide discrepancy will come as no surprise to anyone whose business it is to analyse the statistical outpourings of various camps in the environmental debate. As George remarks in Heat, after noting the wide range of figures supplied by different bodies for the cost of a kilowatt hour of nuclear energy, "I conclude that the price of nuclear power is a function of your political position." So, apparently, is its safety. The fact that George and several other respected commentators question the 985,000 statistic casts doubt over its accuracy. But the sceptical reader will be aware that the lower figure, however rigorously peer-reviewed, will nonetheless be the outcome of value-laden computer models and data selection criteria.

Even if the lower figure is the more correct it still represents a considerable risk if the global community opts to build the 12,000 nuclear plants that the OECD considers will be necessary to make a significant contribution towards preventing climate change. Fukushima may have been "crappy, old and un-safe" but it was also built and maintained by one of the richest and most technologically sophisticated countries in the world in the full knowledge that the area was susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis — and it is being rescued, only just, by a fully functioning state-of-the-art technocracy. What's going to happen in 40 years' time, if every failing state from Ireland to Indochina has been encouraged by so-called environmentalists to plant a string of nuclear power stations on its seaboard? What happens if the capitalist empire collapses and we enter into a new barbarian ascendancy? A load of mangled and rusting wind generators will do no harm, but a necklace of 12,000 derelict nuclear reactors around the globe doesn't bear thinking about. Nuclear power is only safe as long as it remains in the hands of a clique of paramilitary technocrats — and as such it is inherently undemocratic.

In any case George's conversion to nuclear does not really hinge on the Chappaquiddick argument, but on his underlying dismissal of the central tenet of green philosophy — that we need to reduce consumption. This is not a stance that George considers in either of his pro-nuclear articles. Instead of providing (as he should if he wants to convince his green readership) an evidence-based assessment of the risks of nuclear energy compared to the risks of reducing energy consumption, he launches into a tendentious analysis of the inability of off-grid renewable energy to meet current demand:

"How do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways — not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels? The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment that you fall out of love with local energy production."

Speak for yourself, George. The moment a genuine green thinker, or indeed anyone with an ounce of spiritual insight, considers the demands of the whole economy is the moment that they start to wonder why we are producing all this crap. Why do we spend our lives driving to and fro on a daily basis, buying new clothes that we don't need, shunting food around the planet when it grows next door, eating disproportionate amounts of meat, wasting staggering amounts of food, discarding an endless stream of packaging, heating up entire houses to tee-shirt temperature when a warm room would do, warming up the firmament with patio heaters, and purchasing roomfuls of gewgaws and gizmos — the pursuit of Mammon, as it used to be called — when there is no evidence that this makes us any more fulfilled than we would be if we contented ourselves with a sufficiency of food, shelter, medicine and the cultural technology that was available in the days of Bach, Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci. The green ethic rejects economic growth in the industrialized countries because it imposes excessive demand on the world's resources, and it rejects nuclear power because that would only encourage economic growth.

Finally, what's this about needing textile mills? Has George not read his Blake and Cobbett? Has he forgotten that that was where the ghastly dehumanizing programme of fossil-fuel powered industrialisation began, and is still, to a large extent, where it is maintained? Perhaps he views textile mills as a necessity and handlooms as an anachronism? If so where would he himself rather work: in a third world sweat shop producing crappy plastic garments for export to people who don't need them, or in a hand-powered co-op producing tweed that lasts 30 years?

These are matters of more importance than the issue of whether one unpleasant technology harms more people than another. George may (or may not) be right in maintaining that the anti-nuclear lobby is scaremongering, but either way he is wasting his talents. There are already plenty of people, including the Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem parties, the Confederation of British Industry, representatives of Imperial College and Cambridge University and so on putting the case for nuclear power; we do not need anyone else to convince us. What we need is people eloquent enough to secure a niche in the main- stream press who will argue the case for reducing consumption, rejecting economic growth and living lightly on the land. It is a great shame that George Monbiot appears to have stepped down from that role.

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