George Monbiot’s nuclear mistakes

Children are scanned for radiation exposure outside Fukushima, March 12.
Saturday, March 26, 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.”

See also: Clean and green ... or nuclear?

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 generalisation, 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-useable 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 summarise 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. (SeeClean and green ... or nuclear?)

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 Email ]

Tags: Australia environmental anti-nuclear Comment and Analysis


No one likes an alarmist without cause, however, in this case, there appears to be ample cause for alarm.

Study the close up views of the #3 reactor explosion and you will see that the blast was not the type of blast one would expect from a hydrogen explosion. The fireball seen in the corner of the plant may have been due to hydrogen but it was much too small to cause the main blast. Not only that, inspection reveals that this was a directional blast. Much as if a cannon had been fired straight up from inside the reactor building.

This is what one would expect if the reactor dome exploded with enough force to take out the removable concrete pads covering it.

Injecting sea water into the molten core causes an immediate explosion of steam. If the temperature of the reactor vessel had reached critical temperature, it would not have had the integrity required to withstand this dramatic increase in pressure.

If my assessment is correct, the dark colored cloud we witnessed, that was shot approximately 1,000 feet into the air, contained the remains of the MOX core and made this accident worse than Chernobyl.

I also suspect that the #1 and #2 reactor vessels have lost their integrity due to the same process.

The so called experts that have been downplaying the seriousness of this accident, have an agenda other than disseminating the truth. It is long past time for scientists, other than myself, to speak up and show the discrepancies in the current story. It is also long past time for news reporters to do the basic research required, before publishing erroneous and misleading details in their stories.

Now go back and read the rest of Monbiot's writing and you'll understand why he's called "Moonbat."

Oh, yeah, you failed to notice how crazy he was before.

The remains of a reactor core were definitely NOT blown out of the reactor. Radiation detection is very precise, even over very long distances - there's only so much that TEPCO can get away with and there would be mountains of independent evidence if a reactor core was expelled.
Early assertions that reactor containment vessel/s were undamanged are looking increasingly doubtful ... but that's another matter.
All reactor cores contain plutonium once they have been operated for any amount of time ... a point that discussion on the MOX-fulled reactor #3 sometimes overlooks.
Jim Green

hi and thank you for posting this article. I haven' t been reading the whole Monbiot's since the title was quite appalling and his way of writing is tedious to say the least. In any case what impressed me is those comments, those hur·rah hur·rah. I do not know how to call those people.. maybe zombies who are afraid to die and would do anything to believe in any lie since it gives them some kind of hope? In this mass hysteria climate, the level of radiation levels might create brain damage, and this is what i notice the most.

hi and thank you for posting this article. I haven' t been reading the whole Monbiot's since the title was quite appalling and his way of writing is tedious to say the least. In any case what impressed me is those comments, those hur·rah hur·rah. I do not know how to call those people.. maybe zombies who are afraid to die and would do anything to believe in any lie since it gives them some kind of hope? In this mass hysteria climate, the level of radiation levels might create brain damage, and this is what i notice the most.

With Japan nationalizing TEPCO and the disaster still smouldering,, repair teams are being doused with radioactive seawater, plutonium in the soil, and deaths from radiation poisoning still on the horizon, we'll happily watch Monbiot wither into the shadows for his extremely premature conclusion on the "safety" of nuclear power.

The bottom line is that Monbiot is driven mainly by Ego-Promotion, more than anything else. A journalist who wants and needs to be in the news. So it is not worth spending too much time speaking about his stupidity.

you out of minde the japaneas govomant tokyo ennagey have bean lieing to japaneas pepole about sarecans of emgensiey fact that pltouneam bean exoisadt radeo active watear liking form core of reactiora coud be compeat mealt dowan you so gulbeal to bliving undear contoal shanbeal the sovieat govomant yousd same dechpoan and lies wean was full seal mealt dowan we cant evear have nucklear powaer in australla how we tust tham not lie to us dowan playing risking heath polushion how coud be afacteard you first raght ideioat wake up by sam bullock

The ABC is now reporting that No 2 reactor has probably melted through the bottom of the containment vessel. If it keeps going down until it hits the water table it could well cause a steam explosion that would throw a lot of radioactive material into the air (and pretty well seal the fate of the remaining reactors). Even without that I'd be worried that the area around it would become too radioactive for the workers to remain - same result: multiple meltdowns.

It obviously isn't identical to Chernobyl. It may or may not be actually worse (yet) but the prognosis is very, very bad in terms of where it's heading.

Ben C

Consider the energy to takes and it's subsquent carbon footprint it will take to store the highly radioactive waste produced by nuclear reactors for a time period which is longer than human civilisation has existed on the planet. These waste depots are not going to be running on baked beans are they ?

Monbiot's vitriol against those who dared question the CO2 orthodoxy is well-known. On ABC Australia's Lateline show he interrupted Prof Ian Plimer an astonishing 21 times robotically shouting "Answer the question" even as sceptic Plimer sttruggled to get a word in. That Monbiot's nuclear masters have finally called in their debts during this Japanese crisis is not surprising. What is surprising is that George's skin is so thick, even as it is apparent we are confronting levels of contamination similar to those in Pripyat. Al Gore's pro-nuclear credentials are less well known. His $6b. company slash hedge fund Generation Investment Management invested heavily with GE's Energy Division which makes solar and wind devices. Less well-known is that the same division also makes nuclear power plants of the latest type which rely on gravity and convection not diesel pumps to achieve fail-safe shutdown. You cannot invest in the Energy Division of GE without investing in nuclear. So Gore eats his share of yellowcake too. Finally there is the friend of Youth, Obama. Funded by the nuclear industry...his whole campaign for President, that is. No, seriously. Look it up and do your research. Obama is the champion of America's nuclear the tune of $20b. of govt funding. Climate Change was the straw that was going to save the drowning man that was the nuclear industry. And Monbiot, Gore and Obama were up to their necks in it as well...until the Japan crisis.

Monbiot has no principles. He can't even be called planet-hating pro-nuclear activist. He is just a witty, calculating #### in pursuit of success and money.
On a environmental note: Forest fires, volcanoes, coal fired power plants pollution, oil spills - all will be healed naturally. Not so for the nuclear waste - there is no bacteria that digests plutonium. 10% of Chernobyl contamination? - How much "stuff" has been dumped into the Pacific by the Japanese heroes we will never know. Remember early estimates on Macondo blowout?
On a technical note: Much more frequent nuclear incidents are different from accidents only in that a little crappy safety thing which miraculously worked (as it can't be tested properly in advance) and tamed out-of-control beast. Still, these are "brown trousers times" for the plant workers.
Anatoli Ostapenko,
professional Power Engineer

I have cited this excelent article on my blog post about Monbiot's conversion from environmentalist to "nuclear greenwash mouthpiece". Feel free to check it out.