Wednesday, 6 July 2011

George Monbiot: Useful idiot for the nuclear lobby

George Monbiot, environmental campaigner
turned celebrity  nuclear power propagandist.
The nuclear industry is worth hundreds of billions of pounds and it doesn't matter how often the nuclear lobby and their stooges in the government get caught out lying, misrepresenting, misinforming and spinning the truth in order to create the impression that nuclear is a safe, clean and affordable solution to our energy needs they will always have a number of "useful idiots" to blithely parrot the "benefits" of nuclear power.

One of the most famous of these "useful idiots" is the Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who before his conversion to unofficial "nuclear greenwash tsar", was known for his environmental activism but now seems to spend most of his time (and Guardian column inches) justifying his new found support for the nuclear industry.

I am not a nuclear physicist or an expert in the field but I have taken an interest in the subject and over the years I have taken the time to inform myself of the fundamentals of the debate, measures Monbiot seems to have deemed unnecessary judging by some of the dreadfully ill informed and frankly misleading statements present in several of his "love letter to the nuclear industry" style opinion pieces in the Guardian.

Before Monbiot's much criticised nuclear conversion I admired the man for the strength of his convictions and the fact that he had devoted himself to the task of trying to educate the public about environmental issues and do his best to prevent the climate change Armageddon that he fears, as well as his criticism of the neo-liberal economic model and his attempts to have Tony Blair arrested for his role in the Iraq invasion. Despite respecting his motivations and determination I always had concerns about his methodologies, the way that his writing style veers between sanctimony and sensationalism, his willingness to cherry pick statistics and his tendency to speak with journalistic authority on subjects that he clearly knows little about often detracted badly from the cases that he tries to make.

After his post-Fukushima nuclear conversion I have begun to find his articles utterly cringeworthy, not only has he failed to tone down his bombastic and sensationalist writing style, his articles seem even more error strewn than before and the position he has found himself defending is an utterly divisive one to the green movement. Surely he must have realised the hugely divisive effect of one of the ideologues of the green movement suddenly beginning a very public campaign in favour of an industry that the majority of environmentalists will always oppose.

After the Guardian broke the news that the nuclear lobby and the UK government conspired to systematically misinform the public about the severity of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and below-the-line commenter's began to make jokes about Monbiot's nuclear conversion I knew it would only be a matter of days before Monbiot's next pro-nuclear article.

Considering the fact that it took the man several days to come up with his response it was massively disappointing with a large number of gaping flaws which at best could be described as ill-informed and at worst deliberately misleading apologia for the nuclear industry.

Faulty basic premise

The basic premise of the article is that "nuclear operators worldwide have been repeatedly exposed as a bunch of arm-twisting, corner-cutting scumbags" yet the technology itself is a viable solution to the impending climate change disaster.

The idea that bringing the nuclear industry under greater government control, in the guise of renationalisation or much stricter regulation would stop nuclear operators getting up to the same kind of activities is laughable. The Chernobyl disaster and the attempted cover-up by the Soviet authorities shows that state controlled nuclear operations are not necessarily safer or more transparent than the current model. The collusion between nuclear lobbyists and the UK government to misinform and mislead the public  in order to protect the interests of private nuclear operators raises the question of what kind of lies and misinformation a government would spout in order to cover up it's own nuclear mistakes to protect themselves and their own interests from electoral disaster.

The whole idea that control of nuclear technology can be taken out of the hands of the corrupt electricity industry and their inept regulators and given over to righteous and incorruptible individuals (like Monbiot himself perhaps) is laughably naive.

Ill-informed/misleading

The vast majority of spent uranium is stored like this, in vast open air facilities,
not in highly engineered underground bunkers as Monbiot likes to pretend.
Fitting the criticisms of his latest pro-nuclear paean into one post is going to be hard enough so I'm going to hope that the contents of this article are enough to demonstrate that he has a track record of using weasel words, deliberately misrepresenting his opponent’s arguments, asking for proof for banal statements that have been established beyond all doubt, citing evidence that actually disproves his own arguments, and utterly misunderstanding concepts fundamental to a decent comprehension of the issues.

The fact that he has been called out on this track record of misrepresenting his opponents arguments and misunderstanding the basics of the subject on multiple occasions did not prevent him from sprinkling his latest effort with absurdities the worst of which is this utterly disingenuous question.
"The claim that it's unsafe to put fissile materials underground is inexplicable. Isn't that where they came from? Why is it less safe to leave uranium several thousand metres below the surface, encased in lead, backfilled with bentonite and capped with concrete than it is to leave it, as nature did, scattered around the planet, just beneath the surface?"
There is so much wrong with this it is difficult to know where to start. 

Firstly, as Monbiot surely knows already naturally occurring uranium occurs in the form of uranium ore that has roughly 0.05% Uranium content which is a vastly different proposition to the mass storage of thousands of tons of highly concentrated fissile materials, meaning that his question is reliant on nothing more than a facile and disingenuous comparison.

Secondly, the question implies that the only concerns about nuclear waste that anti-nuclear protesters hold are that burying it "several thousand metres below the surface, encased in lead, back filled with bentonite and capped with concrete" is not safe enough, when most well informed anti-nuclear protesters are much more concerned with practices like the long term storage of nuclear waste in close proximity (or even above) nuclear reactors, slinging nuclear waste down well shafts (Dounraey), wrapping depleted uranium in plastic and throwing it in landfill, or even selling it to the military for use in shells causing the dispersal of radioactive uranium dust particles across confict zones.  Characterising anti-nuclear protesters as irrational and oversensitive nutcases by falsely defining their complaints is a classic straw man argument.

Thirdy, the phrasing of the question implies that spent uranium is routinely stored "several thousand metres below the surface, encased in lead, back filled with bentonite and capped with concrete" when even the slightest amount of research would reveal that nearly a million tonnes of spent uranium is being stored in huge outdoor storage facilities in the form of Uranium Hexaflouride in steel drums that only have an expected safe life of a matter of decades. Efforts are being made to create safe storage for the most deadly nuclear byproducts, I'd recommend a viewing of the award winning documentary Into Eternity to anyone who considers safe waste storage as a simple option. The film is about the construction of a monumentally ambitious underground nuclear containment facility for the most highly radioactive waste. The idea that this level of expenditure is routinely spent on the safe storage of uranium, as claimed by Monbiot is absurd.

Downplaying the Japanese nuclear disaster

Map showing the scale of the Japanese nuclear disaster.
Considering Monbiot's article seems to have been written as a diversionary strategy to deflect negative attention away from nuclear technology in the wake of the leaked misinformation campaign by creating a false distinction between nuclear industry and the people that run it, he seems to have spectacularly missed the point.


The reason people are so angry about the leaked evidence of collusion between the British government and the nuclear lobby is that non-experts decided that they could speak from a position of authority and give out misleading information in order to downplay the significance of the Fukushima incident and create the false impression that there was nothing to worry about, when they were not actually in possession of the full details.


In an article that is intended to deflect attention away from the deliberate downplaying of the seriousness of a nuclear accident, the inclusion of this statement is quite astonishing.
"The Daiichi meltdown.... has caused no medical harm.....to date no confirmed health effects have been detected in any person as a result of radiation exposure from the accident".
There is an absolute consensus amongst scientists that the health consequences of large scale radiation exposure are measured in terms of years and decades, meaning that anyone signalling the "all clear" after only eight weeks is being highly misleading. Radiation exposure has cumulative effects meaning there is no such thing as a "safe" level of radiation exposure, something that Monbiot has been known to contest in the face of overwhelming opposition. The idea that a significant increase in background radiation would have no health consequences would be challenged by virtually anyone with any medical expertise.


We should be thankful that there are not thousands of people dying from radiation poisoning after the Japanese nuclear disaster, but to use the lack of corpses after only a few weeks as an argument in favour of nuclear power is both misleading and offensive to the 200,000 people that have been forcibly evacuated from their homes, many of whom will be worrying about whether the radiation exposure they have experienced will lead to cancer or the premature deaths of their children.

The fact that Monbiot is prepared to mislead his audience like this shows that his approach to "selling" us nuclear technology is no different from the nuclear lobbyists and government shills that he describes as "scumbags".

Monbiot's fantastical idealised version of nuclear industry

 Monbiot concludes his article with the statement that "A new generation of nuclear power stations should be built [but] only with unprecedented scrutiny and transparency". As recently as March 2011 Monbiot still described himself as nuclear neutral and set four preconditions for his support.
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.

There are several problems with these conditions: Condition 1 seems like a sick joke (see the footprints section below for more explanation). Condition 2 relies on the misleading assumption that nuclear waste is "safely" buried instead of being stored as uranium hexaflouride in vast open air facilities or just thrown in landfill. Condition 3 is absurd, given the huge subsidies that the nuclear industry relies upon and the fact that at the end of the lucrative electricity generation phase the owners can demand clean-up subsidies and if the government wont cough up they could just fold the company leaving the whole cost to the taxpayer. Condition 4 is also highly unlikely to be met judging by the fact that British and American forces have been free to contaminate conflict zones with spent uranium dust for the last couple of decades.

In the aftermath of Fukushima Monbiot decided to make his conversion to "nuclear greenwash tsar", however the nuclear industry has not come close to meeting even one of his silly preconditions. If he is prepared to drop them so quickly and put his full support behind the nuclear industry in the wake of a huge nuclear disaster who is to say that he wont just quietly drop his call for "unprecedented scrutiny and transparency" at some future date? Perhaps after a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant or a massive accident at an open air temporary nuclear waste storage facility?

Footprints

The Earth has a feedback mechanism for dealing with excess carbon dioxide,
but no way of removing highly toxic nuclear waste products
should they find their way into the environment
The first of Monbiot's abandoned preconditions about making nuclear power "carbon neutral" shows how muddled Monbiot's thinking has become. He seems to have spent so much time and effort considering the potentially catastrophic consequences of man made climate change that he is prepared to embrace absolutely anything that offers an alternative.

I'm utterly sick of hearing about "carbon footprints" in discussions about the nuclear industry. I admit that it's a nice simple soundbyteish way of getting the message across to people who can't be bothered to find out about environmental issues for themselves however I'm much more concerned with my "plutonium footprint" and my "depleted uranium footprint".

Monbiot has a wealth of knowledge about environmentalism and climate science so he must know that the Earth has a feedback mechanism for dealing with excess carbon dioxide called the carbon cycle, this is the biogeochemical cycle that allows the Earth to recover from massive spikes in carbon dioxide concentrations such as the one caused when Mount Tambora blasted 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as well as an ash cloud that blocked out sunlight to such an extent that 1815 was known as the year without a summer. 

This statement is not intended as an attack on the environmentalist camp, it is simply an observation that the earth has a repair mechanism that could deal with excess atmospheric carbon dioxide over the course of several hundred years.

Obviously there is no biogeothermal feedback cycle for dealing with rare and highly radioactive rare elements such as uranium and plutonium. Plutonium has a half-life of around 24,000 years meaning that it takes 120,000 years to become 3% as radioactive as it is today (still too dangerous to handle). Considering the fact there have been several major radiation leaks in the last few decades alone, the idea that the nuclear industry is capable of safely storing highly radioactive waste for 100,000 years would be laughable if it were not so scary.

Divisiveness and unsustainability

Monbiot likes to frame the debate as "clean, safe and efficient" nuclear power generation against "dirty, polluting and dangerous" fossil fuel energy sources. Simplifying the energy debate to this level is completely misleading because it neglects the role of properly sustainable renewable energy sources, a pretty heinous oversight for a so called environmentalist.

The real issue is sustainability of energy supply, not a short term reduction in carbon emissions. Nuclear technology as it is now is not sustainable, uranium reserves are estimated to last the next 50-100 years, with extraction becoming increasingly difficult and ecologically damaging as the richest seams are used up. In calling for governments to invest £hundreds of billions in a new fleet of uranium fuelled nuclear reactors Monbiot is actually calling for the a long term postponement in making the shift to sustainable energy supplies, handing the task of developing properly sustainable technologies to future generations while lumbering them with a hugely expensive toxic legacy to clean up too.

As I have pointed out already, Monbiot's conversion from environmentalist to nuclear cheerleader is hugely divisive to the green movement. At a time when environmentalists should be uniting to send a clear message to governments that we demand a proper sustained investment in renewable energy sources he is advising us to just give up and switch our support to the nuclear industry.

Conclusion

Uranium based nuclear technology is not sustainable, it is not economically viable (reliant on vast government subsidies), it produces hundreds of thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste and creates the risk of further Fukushima type incidents. The Germans have shown that they would prefer to see the €hundreds of billions invested in the development of properly sustainable technology, in which they will probably become world leaders and net exporters. The neo-liberal Brits would prefer to forget about sustainability for the next couple of generations, give the £billions to companies like EDF and let future generations buy the sustainable solutions from the Germans and spend billions more cleaning up the toxic nuclear legacy.

Monbiot has shown that he is prepared to make a number of incredible mental contortions in  order to adopt this pro-nuclear stance, based on his belief that anthropogenic climate change is the biggest threat to the human race in all of eternity. His tactics include using weasel words, straw man arguments, deliberate misrepresentation and hectoring opponents. He has shown an alarming miscomprehension of several concepts that are fundamental to the debate and a willingness to speak as an authority on issues he knows little about. He seems to have created a fantastical idealised version of the nuclear industry that is far removed from the appalling reality of the situation and has seemingly ditched a number of preconditions he previously said ought to be met before he would support nuclear expansion.

In converting himself to a high profile nuclear industry shill, he has chosen to signal that environmentalists should give up on the pursuit of properly sustainable technology and in doing so has further divided the green cause and has given ammunition to those who would take delight in the failure to develop sustainable energy. 

Perhaps the most striking thing is the fact that an environmentalist with a background in zoology could call for the production of thousand of tonnes of highly ecologically destructive material when the nuclear industry has abjectly failed to safely dispose of the vast stockpiles of nuclear waste it has already created.


In the words of noted British economist E.F. Schumacher "No degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make safe and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages. To do such a thing is a transgression against life itself, a transgression infinitely more serious than any crime ever perpetrated by man".

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