Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why George Monbiot is wrong on nuclear power

Much as I admire George Monbiot's work in general, his recent pontifications in support of nuclear power seem to me to completely miss the point.

I would not argue with him when he quotes recent New Scientist articles and others about the impact of coal mining and burning on human health. In terms of deaths per kilowatt-hour, he is right: nuclear power might be safer than coal.

But he frames the argument as if there was merely a choice between coal and nuclear power.

Many of my posts in the last two weeks since the Fukushima disaster are an attempt to provide information not only on the awful consequences of nuclear power but also on the many alternatives that exist. They form part of a plea to research and develop energy efficiency and renewable technologies seriously and to for the investment that would have been spent on dangerous nuclear power instead on safer alternatives.

These alternatives are firstly cheaper in the long run, since the fuel - such as wind, sun, waste, the earth's heat and tidal currents - is free or almost free and unlimited, and secondly they form the basis of technologies that will evolve over centuries rather than, as the case with nuclear power, only decades because the fuel will, sooner or later, run out.

I have found widespread ignorance, even in policy making circles, outlining these new technologies and the potential for eco-design to save an incredible amount of energy.

Now, environmental consultant and author Paul Mobbs has released a detailed analysis of George Monbiot's claims regarding nuclear power.

Published as part of his 'ecolonomics' newsletter series, it takes, point by point, Monbiot's claims regarding the environment movements position on nuclear power, radiation and health, and the significance (above over kinds of human activity) of coal burning on carbon emissions.

Rather than limiting the debate over the merits of nuclear versus coal, the report seeks to look at the issues George Monbiot has raised in the context of human ecology general - our total impact on the environment rather than a single facet of it - and finds that there is a more fundamental truth that the debate is ignoring; even with nuclear power human society would still be unsustainable.

To summarise the main points:

• The media's treatment of George Monbiot's comments typifies a problem with both the reduction of the ecological debate to the views of a few iconic figures. This result in the presentation to the public of an unchallenging and technically poor analysis of the trends that will increasing define the limits of our lives over the Twenty-First Century. (page 2/3)

• The claims made by George Monbiot, along with other figures who have recently professed a pro-nuclear position such as Stewart Brand or Mark Lynas, are distorting the analysis of the proposals for new nuclear build because. As noted above, the message they give is partial and not well analysed, and does not accord to recent academic and public policy research. (page 2)

• If we look at the significance of the carbon emissions from coal burning globally, they are no more significant than the emissions from the use of oil. It's not possible to single out coal as being qualitatively worse than other industrial activities -- for example it is arguable, at the global level, that the impacts of agriculture have a much greater impact upon the general environment and climate change than coal burning. (pages 4-6) In many ways coal has become a convenient scapegoat to deflect criticism from the affluent Western consumer lifestyle in general. (page 18)

• The statement that radiation emissions from coal-fired power stations are "100 times" (two orders of magnitude) greater than an equivalent nuclear power plant is _wholly incorrect_. Although based upon a Scientific American article, the analysis presented is a complete misquoting of the original 1977 research paper produced by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which put the emissions from coal and two different nuclear technologies as within one order of magnitude (10 times) of each other. The 1977 study also indicates that radiation doses to certain organs (e.g. bones) was lower for some nuclear emissions whilst the dose to other organs, (e.g. the thyroid) from nuclear power was always greater than coal. Subsequent UK-based studies of the radiation dose from coal power and the use of coal ash in building materials found no such hazard to exist. (pages 7/9)

• Claims that the Fukushima Daiichi accident is not "like Chernobyl" are only correct in terms of the causative mechanisms -- the radiological impact, based upon sampling reports by the IAEA in their daily updates, indicates that contamination is approaching the levels typically found around Chernobyl's 30km exclusion zone. (page 8)

• The claims that environmentalists' "exaggerate" the impacts of radiation are unfounded, and do not represent the current state of the scientific debate over radiation and health. There are many scientific grounds to criticise current dose models, which is why recent scientific studies have produced impacts for Chernobyl's death toll far higher than the "accepted" government and IAEA statistics. For example, a recent study published by the New York Academy of Sciences put the excess deaths from Chernobyl at 985,000 -- in contrast to the IAEA's figure of 4,000. In fact the head of the ICRP's scientific secretariat resigned in 2009 because existing dose models could not predict or explain the health effects of radiation exposures to human populations. (page 9/10)

• Any new nuclear build in Britain, if less than 9GW to 10GW of electrical capacity (or at least 7 new 1.6GW plant) will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions because of the retirement of existing nuclear plant -- and in fact, even replacing all existing coal and nuclear plants (34GW of capacity) with 22 new nuclear plants would only reduce the UK's total carbon emissions by 12%. Contrast this reduction with, for example, the recent 12% reduction in emissions that has taken place over the economic recession, and we can see that there are other options available to reduce carbon emissions -- and many of these are much cheaper. (pages 12/13)

• In any case, nuclear is no more a secure form of energy than any other fuel since uranium production is also experiencing capacity problems that are the result of declining resource quality. Nuclear fuel production is likely to experience supply problems as new nuclear plants ramp-up demand, and globally uranium production may peak as early as 2030. (pages 11/12)

• If we look at the available data on the carbon emissions from fossil fuels since 1992, when the UN Convention on Climate Change was signed at the Rio "Earth Summit", emissions have, over the intervening 20 years, increased by 50% when compared to the emissions of carbon over the previous 240 years of industrialisation. This demonstrates the complete political failure to address carbon emissions, primarily because we can't cut emissions without significantly changing the operation of the economic process, and that entails the end of "growth economics". (page 5)

• Most significantly, the issue of resource and energy depletion throws the operation of our present economic system into question -- the system can't grow if resource shortage create physical and inflationary pressures on the economy. In fact even if we were to cease carbon emissions tomorrow, the effect of other problems within the human ecological system -- such as food, water and mineral resource shortages -- will create a severe crisis over the next few decades. This is a fact attested to not just by environmentalists, but also by academic, public policy and intelligence agency research over recent years. (pages 13-16)

• Finally, and most significantly, the media and mainstream environmentalism's consumer-oriented infatuation with carbon is skewing the analysis of issues of human ecology and their public debate. We must develop a more broad-based critique of the political-economic process in order to understand and deal with these problems. The "deep green" members of the environment movement have always held such a viewpoint, but this has been marginalised, not only within George Monbiot's recent article, but also by the move of the large campaigning groups towards limited and often ineffectual "sustainable consumption" measures over the last two decades -- often promoted in return for sponsorship or political access rather than because on an objective analysis they are proven to "solve" the problems of human ecology. (pages 16-18)

To quote Paul Mobbs' views on George Monbiot's pro-nuclear argument --

"I can't help feeling that George has been "assimilated" by the misinformation of the nuclear-industrial lobby; add to that Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas and others of their ilk. Faced with the dilemma between representing a hard, unpopular truth; or... trying to make some perhaps positive but ultimately futile steps (in terms of the ecological trends and where they are heading) towards accomplishing some change -- they have decided not to stand for an interpretation of the data that makes the best sense because it represents such a challenge to existing political orthodoxy."

And he continued, relating the way the tobacco industry and their public relations advisor's have manipulated the scientific debate in the past --

" we've seen this week, George's article has created rather a clamour; and that, if nothing else, is really what I believe the nuclear lobby wish to do. It's not so much that George's efforts make any different to the bulk of the population; but amongst the environment lobby, the people who are likely to make trouble in the next few years as EDF and others apply to build new nuclear plants, it creates doubt and division -- and that, more than anything, is what vested interests seek to create today."

In conclusion, on the general philosophy of environmentalism, and the innate contradictions between the consumer-oriented message of Monbiot (and others) and the need for a fundamental change in society's relationship to the world it inhabits, he stated --

"As individual environmentalists we are called upon to witness the world as we experience it, and to share that insight with others; there should be no expectation that we represent "the facts" -- such evidence, freely available, should stand for itself without any nuancing of its content. Of course, taking such a view can be challenging for many people; unpredictable change is so much harder to think about than than a reassuringly predictable and reliable stasis. Environmental philosophy challenges us to understand and solve this dichotomy. The question we have to resolve is a value judgement over which is the best option for us to adopt: Is it better to serve under an order that is delusional (in the face of the evidence, perhaps suicidally so), and by taking no action risking that if it collapses your lifestyle will be seriously compromised; or, by accepting the need for change, risking the seeming chaos of trying to adapt your lifestyle to escape that outcome?"

Speaking on the release of his report, Paul stated --

"I think that my greatest concern is that in the rush to fulminate at George's comments we may be missing the most important dimension of this debate -- the environment. The concentration on either the nuclear or carbon issue in isolation detracts from a more meaningful and balanced debate about the impacts of the human system in general. The fact is, even if we stopped all coal burning tomorrow by magicking hundreds of nuclear plants into existence, the eventual outcome for the human species over the course of this century would change very little. The crisis of human ecology is much greater than either the nuclear or carbon issue; and I believe that the fixation upon carbon emissions is leading us to ignore equally pressing trends that will also create just as much misery and servitude for humanity over the course of this century."

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