Don't Stop Worrying, George


George Monbiot usually writes excellent articles, but occasionally he writes nonsense. His book Heat was severely — and in my view, rightly — criticised by Clive Hamilton for choosing coal power with carbon capture and storage, a technological system that is still unproven, as his principal solution to global climate change. Recently, in an illogical article in The Guardian, "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power", Monbiot has swung his support behind nuclear power.

In taking comfort from the good luck that the accidents at Three Mile Island and — so far — at Fukushima Daiichi have not released vast quantities of radiation, Monbiot complacently fails to recognise that world experts on nuclear power stations (not only environmentalists) have said that both accidents could have gone the other way and killed many thousands of people.

As of today it appears that Fukushima could still do that. If Fukushima sent a deadly radiation cloud over Tokyo, Monbiot would presumably dismiss that with a glib statement about "a crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami". There are many of these crappy old plants in the USA and elsewhere.

Monbiot ignores the fact that the majority of operating reactors still have the capacity to cause major disasters. They are not failsafe. They are an unforgiving technology. Nuclear reactor disasters can still be caused by extreme weather, operator error, sabotage, terrorism and war.

Monbiot is also inconsistent, because on climate change he is not waiting for a major disaster, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf, that could lift global sea-level by up to several metres in just a few weeks. He recognises the risks and huge potential impacts — and speaks out. Why not on nuclear power?

Monbiot’s claim, that greenhouse gas emissions from renewable energy may overtake those of nuclear energy, demonstrates ignorance of the detailed studies on the topic. One such study is the 2008 paper by nuclear energy proponent, Manfred Lenzen, which
showed that CO2 emissions from nuclear power will increase greatly over the next several decades as high-grade uranium becomes scarce and more and more low-grade uranium has to be mined and milled with fossil fuels.

In theory these emissions could be greatly reduced by introducing fast breeder reactors, but these reactors and their fuel cycles are far more dangerous and costly than those of conventional nuclear power (which is already more expensive than wind and some biomass residue sources) and could not make a significant contribution to electricity generation before 2030. Fast breeders may never be built on a commercial scale.

Monbiot also seems to be equating the impact on the landscape of renewable energy (particularly wind) with all the hazards of nuclear power, a strange comparison.

His article doesn’t even mention the biggest nuclear power hazard of all, the contribution of so-called "peaceful" nuclear power to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Yet India, Pakistan, North Korea and, to a lesser degree, South Africa have all used nuclear power and nuclear research reactors as the basis for their development of nuclear weapons. Iran is currently on that pathway. There is credible evidence that Britain and France used nuclear power to help expand their nuclear weapons programs. Several other countries have used the civil nuclear fuel chain in attempts to develop nuclear weapons, but fortunately discontinued their programs. These countries include Libya, Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan and South Korea.

Even Australia started on this dangerous pathway under the Gorton government, by digging the foundations of a nuclear power station at Jervis Bay that was intended for both military and civil purposes. Fortunately this project was terminated by a change of prime ministers, as Richard Broinowski writes in his book Fact or Fission.

The only point in Monbiot’s article that makes a little sense is his comment on the opposition of some environmental groups to transmission lines in rural areas. Although Monbiot exaggerates the numbers of environmentalists involved and the significance of this opposition, this is an issue that the environmental movement must resolve.

To tap Australia’s vast resources of solar, wind and geothermal energy, several new high-voltage transmission lines will be needed. Provided these are limited to routes across previously cleared land, they will have no adverse impacts on food production or the environment or health, and their impacts on the landscape will be small. Those who oppose all transmission lines need to rethink and broaden their perspective.


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