Monbiot Goes Nuclear

George Monbiot is on quite a tear. His latest riposte begins:

Over the last fortnight I’ve made a deeply troubling discovery. The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.

Today’s unambiguous rebuke to the anti-nuclear wing of the environmental movement (coming on the heels of Monbiot’s recent string of pro-nuclear columns) represents a serious challenge to climate advocates who don’t support nuclear power as a bridge fuel until renewables can be scaled up  to help meet the meet the world’s energy needs.

Monbiot is also going off the reservation in a way that is reminiscent of this column and this one from two years ago.

I agree with Barry Woods that Monbiot has entered “heretic” territory. And one reason for that is that he is providing ammunition for generalizations like this by one commenter at the Guardian site:

It’s a interesting double-bind for environmentalists, of course: if large scientific collaborations are corrupt (as is claimed about nuclear) that leaves large scientific collaborations on climate change (which have essentially identical governance and participating institutions) where, exactly? Conversely, if climate change is bolstered by “listen to the science!” then that leaves the nuclear science where, exactly? Watching a man struggle with cognitive dissonance is always amusing, but in this case strangely moving: the first paragraph has the decency to admit that when it came to wild scaremongering, George was in the front ranks.

Monbiot is in for another wild ride this week. This one is going to be interesting.

23 Responses to “Monbiot Goes Nuclear”

  1. Barry Woods says:

    15 pages of comments, mostly telling him how wrong he is..

    This one might sting a little… ie a number of comments that he’s sold out.

    “How much did they pay you George?”

    I would have more sympathy, but he’s Hon. President of the Campaign Against Climate Change, that has a deniar’s “Hall of Shame”, which would no doubt have me in it if I was more famous..
    (maybe he’ll have a bit more sympathy for Bjorn Lomborg, in his hall of shame, just for being sceptical of economic policy, not agw)

    Now he can see first hand how some irrational environmentalists treat climate change (man made catastropihic version) sceptics.  He is still using ‘climate change deniar ‘in his article (even though the Guardian was going to stop using ‘deniar’)

  2. Marlowe Johnson says:

    The problem with nukes from a climate mitigation pov is not radiation fears or what to do with the waste.  The main objection is cost, plain and simple. Put another way, there are plenty of other fruit on the low carbon tree that can/should be pursued before nuclear.

  3. Barry Woods says:

    The Guardian appear to have started deleting comments allready, the one above has gone..

    Not spotted this one yet.. 😉 (an extract)

    “Cox – pimped by the UK gov / BBC.
    Monbiot – pimped by the nuclear industry.
    I never thought you would end up the bitch of super wealthy industry.”

    there are some more sensible ones, the entire comments section is worth a read, just to get an insight into their worldviews

  4. kdk33 says:

    Now, if we can pursue more sensible regulations, perhaps combined with newer safer technologies and sensible waste handling…

    We can make it cost competitive.  Maybe even cheaper.

    And I’m all for cheap energy!

  5. And once again, I’m kind of on the other side of the fence from Monbiot. It’s odd. I’m anti-nuclear, but I observe that George is correct. I’m anti-nuclear but I don’t condone the lies that have been told to bolster the fearmongery. I’m anti-nuclear, but I recognise that the dangers it presents are not the dangers (of the magnitude) presented by the anti-nuclear movement.
    Once again, what I want to achieve I want to do so through honest endeavour and appraisal, NOT through lies, manipulation and coercion. As it is with fearmongering over CO2 – which I just don’t believe, based on the complete absence of ACTUAL tested/testable scientific theory – so it is again with nuclear. I can accept that the risks are less great than the ageing CND hippies (of which I was one) want everyone to believe, and still be uncomfortable with the idea of nuclear power proliferation, but I will remain honest and will challenge the lies and misrepresentations.
    I’d rather try to convince people honestly than attempt to coerce them with lousy science, clever mind-bending rhetoric and fake gotchas. Sadly, as George has been learning, this is NOT the “green way”.

  6. Howler monkeys take note:  one of the documents Monbiot used to buttress his pro-nuclear case was The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear),  which
    “is the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Like the IPCC, it calls on the world’s leading scientists to assess thousands of papers and produce an overview.”
    Are your heads exploding yet?

  7. Eli Rabett says:

    To be serious, this is the fruit of the cake that Watts, Hopkinson, Curry, Lucia, Keith, et al. bake.  If everything is uncertain, there are no, even marginal risks, worth taking.  There is no possibility of weighing one thing against another.  Blather on.

  8. Stu says:

    I never thought you would end up the bitch of super wealthy industry.”

    Too many who apparently think like this. Imagine actually going around imagining that all opinions besides your own (right opinions) are industry paid or propagandised. They can’t really believe that… well some probably do. Wonder if Monbiot is on Sourcewatch yet linked to the nuclear industry. Can’t be bothered to check…
    More support for Lazar. Oil/nuclear/solar panel/scientist shill is just boring.

  9. Perhaps one should note some missing context here: the exceptional virulence of the *British* anti-nuke movement, dating back to the 1980s.

  10. Atomic Hairdryer says:

    ob disclosure. My nickname is named for the most wantonly destructive emitter of radiation, the Sun. I have no connection what so ever with the nuclear industry other than via my electricity supply, which I’d really like to keep working and not get more expensive.
    But this is all very amusing. Monbiot has realised he’s been lied to by his peers in the enivornmental industry. Risks have been exagerated, pseudoscience written and passed off as fact. Costs have been exagerated or inflated due to scaremongering by his peers. Some day he may realise the same fearmongering has been used to spin climate change as has been used for anti-nuclear campaigning, which shouldn’t suprise him because it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks.
    He hasn’t converted all the way though. His previous article compared nuclear safety to coal safety, and the environmental effects. Too bad he didn’t compare nuclear and renewables. That has a poor safety record due to the hazards involved in working with wind turbines. Or the environmental impact of mining rare earths for magnets, or strip mining lithium to make batteries for electric cars.
    So I somewhat disagree with the idea that nuclear is some kind of stop gap or bridge fuel until renewables can be scaled up. The problem with renewables is upscaling increases the costs of dealing with intermittency substantially and doesn’t overcome the fundamental problems with current renewables. Wind turbines don’t generate power when the wind isn’t blowing. Wave power doesn’t complement wind because wind makes waves. Tidal energy is again intermittent , as is solar PV. They may still have niches, but can’t replace predictable baseload generation as we’d get from nuclear.
    As for costs, well, some of those have been inflated by inflating the risks. Simon Hopkinson says “which I just don’t believe, based on the complete absence of ACTUAL tested/testable scientific theory ““ so it is again with nuclear.” which is arguably incorrect. Scientific theory predicted worse outcomes from nuclear accidents than actually seems to have occured in the few major accidents that have happened, ie TMI, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima. If the risks have been consistently exagerated, then you could argue that costs could be reduced by easing regulation.. But that’s probably a bit too heretical. Better to stick to more sensible approaches like recycling spent nuclear fuel via reprocessing rather than the once-thru system currently used in many countries. It may mean transporting more nuclear material, but reduces the amount of waste.

  11. isaacschumann says:

    Steven Sullivan,
    be more specific, I take it you do not hold unscear in high regard. Unless you provide more specific criticism, I will assume you just don’t like them because they disagree with you. What separates unscear from the ipcc other than its smaller size?

  12. harrywr2 says:

    Marlowe Johnson Says:
    April 5th, 2011 at 9:22 am Keith,
    The problem with nukes from a climate mitigation pov is not radiation fears or what to do with the waste. The main objection is cost, plain and simple

    The result of the German decision to close 7 nuclear plants pushed year ahead contract prices for steam coal in Europe to $130/ton. That works out to a 6.5 cent per KWh fuel price for coal. Nuclear has a fuel price of 1/2 cent per KWh.
    A Westinghouse AP1000 running at 92% capacity(US Average) will produce 8.8 TWh/year.   8.8 TWh * 6 cents/Kwh Fuel cost savings = $520 million per year in fuel cost savings.
    The price difference between a Westinghouse AP 1000 and an equivalent sized coal plant with all the pollution controls except CCS is between $3 billion and $4 billion depending on who you ask.
    The mortgage payment on a 30 year $4 billion loan at 10% interest will be $421 million per year.
    The design life of a Westinghouse AP1000 reactor is 60 years.
    If ones energy choices are imported coal, imported natural gas or nuclear there really isn’t a cost discussion.
    The cost of transporting coal is expensive and the cost of Liquefying Natural gas so that it can be transported by ship is expensive as well.
    The EU, China,India,Japan,Taiwan and South Korea aren’t self sufficient in coal or natural gas. That totals 3.2 billion people.
    Windmills with natural gas or hydro backup might make some economic sense if you have either hydro or cheap natural gas.
    The price of natural gas in Europe is in the range of $10/MMbtu.

  13. toto says:

    I think Steven’s point is that Monbiot is actually quite consistent in his approach: he would rather believe the scientific consensus, as backed by UN-assembled experts, than the contrarian musings of ideological groups, supported by small cadres of fringe scientists.
    GMOs are another case in point (with G. E. Seralini taking the role of a Richard Lindzen or Roy Spencer).
    If you make wild claims that contradict the scientific consensus, wrapped into inflammatory rhetoric and unfounded accusations of dishonesty, don’t expect to get much credit – whether you’re from Greenpeace or the Heritage foundation.

  14. RickA says:

    Good for George!
    It takes a brave person to look at the evidence and reevaluate their beliefs.
    Other than hydro, nuclear is the only baseload power which doesn’t emit CO2 (at least as much as coal, oil or gas).
    If you don’t live near a dam or river, when it is dark and not windy, we still have to have power.
    In order to emit less CO2, we need nuclear – it is as simple as that.
    George has run into a conflict between his anti-nuclear past beliefs and his AGW beliefs, and has decided AGW is the worse danger.
    Now he is pro-nuclear (apparently).
    I think this is the correct analysis also.
    The lesson from Japan is to improve the safety of the systems, not to eliminate nuclear power.
    Clearly, passive cooling systems should be incorporated into the designs of new power plants.
    That way, if back-up generators are wreaked by some natural or man-made disaster, the cooling systems will still function.
    Also, if containment was breached at Japan (not clear yet I don’t believe), it needs to be beefed up in future designs.
    However, these are just engineering problems – not a reason not to try to generate at least 50% of the world’s power using nuclear power.
    Over time, I expect a lot of greens to become pro-nuclear – even in the face of the disaster in Japan.

  15. isaacschumann,
    I think you misunderstood me.
    You got it.

  16. Keith Grubb says:


    It is clear containment was breached.

  17. isaacschumann says:

    Steven Sullivan,
    oops, it seems pretty obvious now, sorry: i’m totally with you and toto.

  18. Marlowe Johnson says:

    I largely agree with what you say.  whether or not nuclear is economic relative to other generation technologies depends to a great extent on particular geographic circumstances.  I think that with the shale gas play in the u.s. natural gas makes more sense as a bridge fuel than new nuclear plants; hence my objection to Keith’s characterization of nuclear in his main post.  the u.s. case against nuclear becomes even stronger when you consider the fairly onerous approvals process that utilities have to go through to get a new nuke plant up and running.
    On a related note, I don’t know how liability issues are dealt with in other jurisidications, but the Price Anderson Act acts as a substantial subsidy for u.s. nuclear.  if they had to pay the full cost of insurance then the cost would be even higher.  Now in regions of the world where commercial liability issues are lower (e.g. China and India) and other baseload electricity options are unavailable, then of course it makes sense to look at nuclear.
    As Steve Sullivan suggests upthread, it’s important to look at context; when it comes to the economics of energy, there isn’t a global one-size-fits-all solution.

  19. Alexander Harvey says:

    I think that there is a real risk that quick facts about radiation hazards run the risk of the charge that they mislead.

    The Dr Melanie Windridge piece (the link “ungrounded in science”) may contain such a case. The general thrust is great and well supported but the claim with respect to drinking water although correct may be misleading.

    After some searching and calculating it does seem to be true that drinking the Tokyo tap water for a year at the radiation levels detected amounts to a little less dosage in mSv than the increase due to a move to Cornwall for a year but this is not comparing apples with baby thyroids or adult ones for that matter.

    When mSv/annum values are given out they are likely to be notional whole body dosages. Iodine has a preference for the thyroid gland and when you delve you come up with quite different figures for what is considered an acceptable dosage. Whereas 20 mSv/annum is acceptable for whole body only 0.15 mSv/annum is accpetable as an adult thyroid dosage, i.e. less than 1/100th the amount. I cannot find a figure for babies but it seems they are considered to be more endangered rather than less.

    Now I am NOT saying that this corresponds to a huge scare, only that it seems to me that the safety criterion for drinking water is about where I might expected it to be and in keeping with other dosage limits.

    What I am saying is that a true but misleading fact does not inform people in a consistent way and is open to a cry of “foul” which risks putting a whole body of well considered information in doubt. Consider for a moment how it should be if there is a resultant thyroid cancer spike in children. People may well feel that either:

    a) they should get thir kids out of Cornwell pronto, or

    b) that they simply cannot believe what scientists tell them when it comes to nuclear safety.

    The case for the long term safety of nuclear power as stated in comparison with other sources is possibly overwhelming but it only takes one overstated claim to undermine confidence in the whole debate. I simply wish that people would refrain from leading with their chins when more conservative stances are all that are required.

    Disclaimer: I am sometimes wrong on such matters but in a sense that is not perhaps the most significant issue which I would say is that neither the reader nor the editor of that piece would ordinarily have a clue what to believe, so believe they must even though the extrapolation they are encouraged to make from a indecisive fact to a conclusion about health implications for newborns is plausibly unsupportable.


  20. harrywr2 says:

    Marlowe Johnson Says:
    <i>the Price Anderson Act acts as a substantial subsidy for u.s. nuclear.</i>
    The US Nuclear Power Industry self insures to $10 Billion. A substantial amount 20 or 30 years ago but I would agree that it is currently too low.
    Our NPP fleet currently produces 800 Billion KWh/yr.
    If we added a ‘catastrophic insurance tax’ of 1 cent/KWh that would raise $8 Billion/year multiplied times 40 years of actual experience factor without a catastrophic payout we would have $320 billion sitting in the catastrophic reserve fund.
    A natural gas price increase of $1/MMbtu or a coal price increase of $20/ton adds 1 cent to the price of electricity produced by fossil fuels.
    There is a lot of chatter about US Natural Gas prices staying firmly at $4/MMBtu in the long term.  Just in the last 6 month we’ve seen a 60 cent/MMBtu upward tick. At $6/MMbu price for natural gas nuclear is competitive.
    What percentage of our energy needs should we gamble on natural gas remaining at historically low prices?
    Margaret Thatcher’s ‘dash for gas’ was based on the assumption that the North Sea gas fields would never run out. The UK has been importing natural gas since 2006.
    In the US 40% of our generating capacity is natural gas, 30% coal, 10% nuclear.
    Natural gas already has a substantial place in the US energy mix as ‘peakers’.

  21. Barry Woods says:

    I’ve just come across a transcript of the debate that George Monbiot had with Dr Helen Caldicutt that led to the article…

    The original debate must have been a must see. as George gradually realises with horror, that someone he looks up to Dr Helen Caldicutt, is a complete nutter (and he thus napalmed some green bridges in the article above)
    It starts off nicely and then descends to this at the end..

    GEORGE MONBIOT: I mean, this is””the U.N. Scientific Committee is the major repository of the science on this issue. You don’t know about it?
    HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, yeah, no, I’ve read about it, but the main thing is that the WHO was prevented or did not examine the results from Chernobyl, and it’s ongoing and will be for generations and generations, George.
    GEORGE MONBIOT: But the United Nations did. The United Nations””
    HELEN CALDICOTT: And soil, 40 percent of the soil in Europe is contaminated.
    GEORGE MONBIOT: The United Nations Committee did examine Chernobyl. And they have said””
    HELEN CALDICOTT: Oh, yeah?
    GEORGE MONBIOT:””that so far the death toll from Chernobyl amongst both workers and local people is 43. Am I””sorry, are you saying you didn’t know that they had examined this””
    HELEN CALDICOTT: That’s a lie, George. That’s a lie.
    GEORGE MONBIOT:””and you aren’t aware of their report?
    HELEN CALDICOTT: That’s a lie.
    GEORGE MONBIOT: What’s a lie?
    HELEN CALDICOTT: How dare””
    GEORGE MONBIOT: That they examined this””
    GEORGE MONBIOT:””and they wrote a report?
    HELEN CALDICOTT: How dare they say that?
    AMY GOODMAN: On that””
    HELEN CALDICOTT: How dare they say that?
    GEORGE MONBIOT: But are you aware””are you aware of the report?
    HELEN CALDICOTT: This is a total cover-up. Yes, I am.

    AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to wrap, with 10 seconds of each””
    AMY GOODMAN: In this wake of what has happened in Japan and on this anniversary of Chernobyl, three weeks away, I give you each 15 seconds to express your concern, as we wrap up this debate, beginning with George Monbiot.
    GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, we have to use the best available science, not cherry-pick our sources, and we have to keep some perspective on this, so that we don’t see a massive rush to coal, as governments get out of nuclear as a result of what’s happened in Japan.
    AMY GOODMAN: And Helen Caldicott, 15 seconds.
    HELEN CALDICOTT: George, I totally agree with you about coal. I think it’s a deadly substance, and we must stop burning, à la James Hansen. But we must not go from the global warming frying pan into the nuclear fire, George. This is an obscene technology. They’ve known about it since the Manhattan Project. Seaborg, who discovered plutonium, said it’s the most dangerous substance on earth. Each reactor has 500 pounds of plutonium, lasts for half-a-million years, causing cancer after cancer.
    AMY GOODMAN: We leave it there, and I thank you both for being with us.

  22. Marlowe Johnson says:

    @ Keith and Harry,
    Any thoughts on Romm’s latest post on nuclear costs?  He’s making the same points that I have but with links to studies 🙂

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