George Monbiot’s Nuclear Mistakes

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British journalist George Monbiot has come out in favor of nuclear power. Do his arguments hold up?

by Jim Green
Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2011

Prominent British columnist George Monbiot announced in the British Guardian on March 21 that he now supports nuclear power. That isn’t a huge surprise — having previously opposed nuclear power, he announced himself “nuclear-neutral” in 2009.

As recently as March 16, Monbiot declared himself neutral while saying that he would not oppose nuclear power if four conditions were met:

“1. Its total emissions — from mine to dump — are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option.

“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.”

Along with renewables, nuclear meets the first condition — it is a low-carbon energy source.

The other three conditions have not been met. No country has established a burial site for high-level nuclear waste and it is not clear how much waste disposal programs will cost nor who will pay. And there is no meaningful legal guarantee against diversion of materials from peaceful nuclear programs to weapons programs.

So Monbiot’s position hasn’t changed as a result of his four conditions being met. Indeed there is no mention of them in his March 21 column. Instead, Monbiot has become a nuclear supporter as a result of the Fukushima nuclear accidents.

He said on March 21:

“A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down.

“The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation …

“Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small.

“The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”

Monbiot is understating the radiological impacts of Fukushima and ignoring the other impacts. So far, no one has received a radiation dose sufficient to cause the symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. But workers have received high doses and it’s anyone’s guess how many thousands (or millions) of people have received very small doses.

Monbiot seems not to understand that the weight of scientific opinion holds that there is no safe dose of radiation. For a tiny, unlucky percentage of the many people who have received small radiation doses as a result of Fukushima, that radiation exposure will prove to be fatal. Thus Monbiot’s claim that “no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation” does not stand up to scrutiny.

To estimate the death toll from Fukushima, it will be necessary to estimate the total human radiation exposure as a result of the accidents. We can be confident that the death toll from Fukushima will be far smaller than Chernobyl. Beyond that generalization, it’s best not to speculate until there is a credible estimate of total human exposure.

Monbiot ignores the impacts of Fukushima other than direct radiation exposure. These include restrictions on the consumption of food, water and milk; the expense and trauma of relocating 200,000 people; the very serious impacts of the nuclear crisis on the emergency response to the earthquake and tsunami; and big hits to the tourism industry and to agricultural industries.

He also trivialises the impacts of nuclear power more generally. In terms of radiation releases and exposures, long-term exposure from uranium tailings dumps is estimated to be a much more significant source of exposure than routine reactor operations or reactor accidents.

Nuclear fuel reprocessing plants have been another big source of radioactive pollution.

It’s no small irony that nuclear power’s worldwide reputation has taken a huge battering from one accident, while the vastly greater radiological impacts from routine operations receive virtually no public attention.

Monbiot notes that routine discharges of ionising radiation from coal-fired power plants are higher than those from nuclear reactors. But emissions of ionising radiation across the nuclear fuel cycle are — not surprisingly — greater than those from fossil fuels.

Monbiot takes offence at ill-informed, moralistic objections to nuclear power. Fair enough. Yet two of the greatest objections to nuclear power both have a moral dimension — one because of its particularity, the other because of its generality.

The particular moral problem concerns the disproportionate impacts the nuclear industry has on indigenous peoples. The industry’s racism is grotesque. In Australia, we can point to examples such as the (defeated) attempt to mine the Jabiluka uranium deposit in the Northern Territory, despite the unanimous opposition of Traditional Owners. Another example is the current push to establish a national nuclear waste dump at Muckaty in the Northern Territory.

Regardless of all the other debates about energy options, it’s difficult to see how the industry’s pervasive racism can be reduced to being just another input into a complex equation, and tolerated as a price that must be paid to keep the lights on.

The other big moral (and practical) concern with nuclear power is its connection to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There is a long history of peaceful nuclear programs providing political cover and technical support for nuclear weapons programs. Recent examples include North Korea’s use of an “Experimental Power Reactor” to produce plutonium for bombs, and the ongoing controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.

The nuclear industry exacerbates the proliferation problem. Japan’s plutonium program illustrates the point. A 1993 US diplomatic cable posed these questions:

“Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan’s being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?”

Since 1993, Japan’s plutonium stockpile has grown enormously and regional tensions are sharper than ever. Yet Japan is still pushing ahead with the huge reprocessing plant at Rokkasho that will result in a rapid expansion of Japan’s already obscenely large stockpile of separated, weapons-usable plutonium.

Another recent example of a grossly irresponsible policy fanning proliferation risks is the decision of a number of national governments, led by the US, to abandon the principle that civil nuclear trade should not be permitted with countries that refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That is a recipe for weapons proliferation.

The nuclear industry is its own worst enemy. We can’t reasonably be expected to support an industry that behaves so irresponsibly.

Nuclear weapons are the most destructive, indiscriminate and immoral of all weapons. They pose a real threat to humanity, all the more so because nuclear warfare has the capacity to directly cause catastrophic climate change. Academics Alan Robock and Brian Toon summarize recent research on the climatic impacts of nuclear warfare:

“A nuclear war between any two countries, each using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs, such as India and Pakistan, could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. This is less than 0.05% of the explosive power of the current global arsenal.”

Much of Monbiot’s argument discussed the limitations of renewable energy. But instead of addressing serious clean energy proposals, Monbiot simply demolishes one particular argument — that current electricity supply systems can be replaced with off-grid, small-scale distributed energy.

There is certainly a role for local energy production. But no serious analyst would argue that it can completely displace centralised production. Monbiot is demolishing a straw person argument.

In Australia, a growing body of literature shows how the systematic deployment of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency policies and technologies can generate big cuts in greenhouse emissions without recourse to nuclear power. These include important contributions by the Australia Institute, engineer Peter Seligman, CSIRO scientist John Wright, Siemens Ltd., Greenpeace and Beyond Zero Emissions, among others.

The Fukushima disaster will put a significant dent in nuclear power expansion plans around the world. Fukushima will prove to be an even greater disaster if that energy gap is filled with fossil fuels. It is more important than ever to fight for the systematic, rapid deployment of existing, affordable clean energy solutions.

It is also vital to insist on major research and development programs to expand the capabilities of renewables and to reduce the costs and to aggressively pursue the energy efficiency and conservation measures that can deliver the largest, cheapest, quickest cuts to greenhouse emissions.

[Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia and coordinator of the Choose Nuclear Free project.]


  • In his book “Heat”, Monbiot clearly shows the differing views of scientists about nuclear energy. Yet in his debate with Caldicott, he rests his case on the supposed overwhelming scientific “consensus” about nuclear energy. In the last analysis, Monbiot is a victim of his unwillingness (or inability) to think “outside the box” – with the box being capitalism. If there is no alternative to capitalism, then he must accept what appears to him to be the least bad alternative that capitalism has to offer. (Whether nuclear is the least bad is, of course, open to question.)

  • Why did he convert when the accident did little to confirm all four criteria can be met? Very curious….

  • Monbiot’s four criteria will never be met so his pronouncement on nuclear energy is pointless. His criteria aren’t very original or comprehensive either. I don’t know why he made the bother. Besides, even if his criteria are met, the outcome could still be socially and environmentally destructive.

    I agree that the responses to his column are the real value added here. They flesh out the deeper issues surrounding nuclear energy.

  • Monbiot, who has now destroyed what little credibility he had does not deserve nor would he be astute enough to appreciate such a well thought out response but the rest of us will get something from this this.