As part of an ongoing debate over the capacity of nuclear energy to tackle climate change, Friends of the Earth’s Jim Green responds to New Matilda’s recent coverage.
New Matilda editor Chris Graham writes in an October 13 editorial that those responding to Geoff Russell’s pro-nuclear articles “never seek to punch holes in a single fact or claim”. In this article I’ll take up the challenge to respond substantively to some of Russell’s pro-nuclear claims.
But first, some passing comments on the other nuclear advocates mentioned in Chris’s editorial. Chris links to a video of Dr James Hansen ‒ a response is posted here. Chris links to an open letter to environmentalists from 65 scientists ‒ a response is posted here. Chris links to George Monbiot ‒ a response is posted here. And Chris promotes the Pandora’s Promise film ‒ responses are posted here.
Back to Russell. One of his themes in recent years has been to downplay the Fukushima disaster. And he goes much further, arguing that nuclear critics are responsible for all of the death and suffering resulting from the Fukushima nuclear disaster and much else besides.
How does he arrive at those conclusions? One part of the intellectual contortion concerns the role of environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth. To the limited extent that environment groups influence energy policy around the world, the result is a greater role for renewables, less nuclear power and less fossil fuel usage. But for Russell, being anti-nuclear means an implicit endorsement and acceptance of fossil fuels and responsibility for everything wrong with fossil fuel burning.
That contorted logic will come as a surprise to Friends of the Earth (FoE) campaigners risking life, limb and heavy penalties in their efforts to shut down coal mines and ports; and to everyone else engaged in the fossil fuel and climate problems in many different ways. And it will come as a surprise to FoE campaigners who worked tirelessly and creatively for many years ‒ with literally zero support from nuclear lobbyists including the self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists ‒ to achieve a recently-announced ban on unconventional gas in Victoria.
A second intellectual contortion concerns the cancer risks associated with radiation exposure. Russell’s view is that long-term exposure to low levels of radiation “does sweet fa”. Russell and science are at odds on the question of the cancer risks associated with low-level radiation exposure. For example, the 2006 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR) of the US National Academy of Sciences states that “the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and … the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.” Likewise, a 2010 report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation states that “the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates.”
On the Fukushima death toll, the World Health Organisation released a report which concluded that for people in the most contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated increased risk for all solid cancers will be around 4% in females exposed as infants; a 6% increased risk of breast cancer for females exposed as infants; a 7% increased risk of leukaemia for males exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer among females exposed as infants, an increased risk of up to 70% (from a 0.75% lifetime risk up to 1.25%). The WHO doesn’t provide an overall estimate of the long-term death toll, but it would be broadly consistent with the estimate of 5,000 deaths from British radiation biologist Ian Fairlie.
Russell’s having none of that ‒ he claims that Fukushima was “deathless”.
It’s a big step, but once you’ve convinced yourself that radiation is harmless, a world of possibilities present themselves. Scientific estimates of the Chernobyl death toll range from 9,000 to 93,000, but Russell claims the Chernobyl death toll was “three tenths of a half of a sixth of bugger all” or “a few dozen deaths”. Another step gets you to this: “It is far worse than flippant to risk the destabilisation of the unusually benign climate of the past 10,000 years because of a few dozen deaths. That’s nutter stuff.”
Russell claims the performance of the Fukushima nuclear power plants in the face of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami was “a spectacular success and one of the biggest unreported good news stories of the decade.” And it was indeed a spectacular success except for the explosions, meltdowns and fires.
Russell wants us to contrast the Fukushima nuclear accident with “actual suffering” from the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. Tell that to the family and friends of the Fukushima farmer whose suicide note read: “I wish there wasn’t a nuclear plant.”
The Fukushima disaster has caused an immense amount of suffering, particularly for the 160,000 evacuees ‒ at least half as many are still dislocated over five years after the disaster. The Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) − established by an Act of Parliament − noted that evacuees “continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, displacement, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives and lifestyles and the contamination of vast areas of the environment.” The nuclear disaster is also responsible for nearly half of the estimated 1,632 indirect deaths associated with the evacuation from the 3/11 triple-disaster.
Importantly, the NAIIC report − along with every other report into the Fukushima disaster − is clear that whereas the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami were Acts of God, Fukushima was an Act of TEPCO. Russell and like-minded apologists fudge or ignore the distinction. The NAIIC report states that the Fukushima disaster was “a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented” if not for “a multitude of errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11.”
That wilful negligence is responsible for all the suffering and deaths associated with the evacuation and ongoing dislocation; radiation exposure that will likely lead to a cancer death toll in the low thousands; and long-term economic costs in the ball-park of $500 billion.
Russell has another intellectual contortion to perform. If radiation is harmless, there is no need for an exclusion zone to be maintained around Fukushima. Sometimes he goes so far as to say the initial evacuation was “unnecessary” − though of course he never said any such thing in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear disaster.
So why is an evacuation zone still in place over five years after the nuclear accidents? Russell argues: “The panic whipped up by the anti-nuclear movement completed the devastation began by the tsunami and prompted an unnecessary evacuation that killed people.” And still more bizarrely, “the people who are still living in temporary housing in Japan should be running a class action against the anti-nuclear movement for its role in the wasting of so much money when there are serious needs to be met.”
Russell never explains how NGO views (which he misrepresents) translate into government policy. As best as one can work it out, environment groups pump “radiophobia” into the ether and governments (and radiation scientists) absorb it by osmosis − hence the “unnecessary” Fukushima exclusion zone.
To accuse greenies of being responsible for the death and suffering resulting from Fukushima is mildly-amusing black comedy. But there’s nothing funny about his distinction between the easily-preventable Fukushima nuclear disaster and “real problems”, or his distinction between the suffering of Fukushima evacuees and “actual suffering”, or his description of the Fukushima disaster as “benign”. Those statements are disgusting and disgraceful.
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