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The Nuclear Option

By Keith Kloor

Nobody is doing more these days to inject the issue of nuclear power into the climate change debate than George Monbiot, the influential British environmental journalist. And that's no easy feat in the wake of Japan's nuclear crisis.

If you're familiar with Monbiot's style, you know he comes right at his target like a gentleman boxer, mixing polite banter with sharp jabs and roundhouses. The dividends of this approach are evident in his latest attempted takedown of the anti-nuclear movement in today's Guardian, which is already reverberating on this side of the Atlantic. 

But before we go any further, let's let Stephen Walt, in a recent post at Foreign Policy frame the nuclear option in a climate change context:

The basic equation here is pretty simple. The only way to deal with climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which in turns means reducing reliance on the burning of fossil fuels. Conservation, improved efficiency, and "green" energy sources like wind farms can help, but not enough to fill the gap without a significant curtailing of living standards. Accordingly, many recent proposals to address future energy needs have assumed that many countries — including the United States — would rely more heavily on nuclear power for electricity generation. It's not a complete answer to the climate change problem by any means, but addressing it in a timely fashion would be more difficult if nuclear expansion is eliminated.

As many others have noted, and as Walt writes in his post, "The destruction of [Japan's] Fukushima nuclear plant is bound to set back these efforts, and it may derail them completely."

Enter Monbiot, stage left. Since mid-March, he has written a string of pro-nuclear power columns, doing his utmost to push back on reflexive, anti-nuclear sentiment. His first was called, "Japan nuclear crisis should not carry weight in atomic energy debate." His second piece was a polemic, provocatively titled (paying homage to the classic film "Dr. Strangelove"): "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power." 

Ensuing negative reaction from many Guardian readers prompted Monbiot to get frisky in his next column, titled, "The double-standards of green, anti-nuclear opponents."  

But even that one was a warm-up act to Monbiot's latest column in today's Guardian, which 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.

Whether or not Monbiot has delivered a knockout blow to the anti-nuclear movement remains to be seen. But one prominent science journalist and blogger seems dazzled and has found his argument "pretty convincing."

Another admiring journalist, who headlines his post "Monbiot's Mission," writes that Monbiot "is undergoing an astounding and very public transformation."

But I'm not so sure about that. I looked into Monbiot's previous writings on nuclear power and it seems to me that for some years he's been working his way to where he is now. For example, in 2006, he was already saying that, "Anti-nuclear campaigners have a tendency to believe anything that casts the industry in a bad light." Then, two years ago, he wrote a cautiously favorable column on nuclear power that carried this subheading:

Support of nuclear power will no doubt provoke hostile responses, but we have a duty to be as realistic as possible about how we might best prevent runaway climate change.

Which brings to mind Michael Levi's lament last week over why debates regarding nuclear power are so painful:

Most advocates can’t admit that there are any downsides to nuclear power. Most opponents can’t accept that nuclear power has anything going for it. 

Monbiot, with his recent series of columns on nuclear power and the knee-jerk reaction to Japan's crisis, has tried to strike a realist position, based on this determination:

But the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power.

What's interesting to me is the double-legged stool Monbiot has now built to support his pro-nuclear stance.

The first leg was constructed on the climate change rationale — that nuclear power, despite its considerable drawbacks, has to play a muscular role in decarbonizing the world's energy economy.

The second leg, as anyone can see with his latest Guardian column, is built on a refutation of long-standing claims made by the anti-nuclear movement.

Is this a sturdy enough construction to defend nuclear power as a viable option in the climate debate?


By LucAstro (Mexico City/DF/04510)
on April 5th, 2011

On the subject of climate change AND that of nuclear radioactivity, G. Monbiot has based his conclusions on scientiific peer reviewed publications. He is consistent on both front. Personally, I am against nuclear because mega industries cannot appropriately solve conflict of interests when the public’s health is at risk. This should be clear by now. The denial of climate change by fossil energy supply companies is one example, others are the nuclear industry in Germany, Japan… or even Monsanto.

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By StuartR
on April 5th, 2011

@Luc Astro

“On the subject of climate change AND that of nuclear radioactivity, G. Monbiot has based his conclusions on scientiific peer reviewed publications. He is consistent on both front. “

Monbiot is not consistent on both fronts.

Nuclear power is the most critically observed power industry. It has had Three Mile Island and Chernobyl as over extended test beds for the “horror” it can inflict on humanity.

Monbiot observes actual risk against reality in Nuclear power and sees it is overblown, yet he over credits risk in climate from coal.

Any other power source must breathe a metaphorical sigh of relieif that nuclear draws such attention. (look up any other power source Luc)

“Personally, I am against nuclear because mega industries cannot appropriately solve conflict of interests when the public’s health is at risk.”

Four levels could be accepted.

* Government
* Law
* Industry
* Us - the rest - freedom

“solve conflict of interests”

Is for law.

Where do yopu want your power from Luc?

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By Christopher Mims (
on April 5th, 2011

Thanks for highlighting this. I would really like to see an analysis of the extent to which this is penetrating the debate (and public consciousness) in the U.S. I agree with Monbiot wholeheartedly that nuclear is in all senses superior to fossil fuels from an emissions perspective, but I don’t know that the public in the U.S. or, for example, Germany, really cares about that aspect of it. More importantly is what China will do in the face of all this. (I also continue to be unclear about the “real” debate over nuclear, namely, whether or not its cost justifies its use.)

Anyway, much as I appreciate this column, it does seem like a bit of inside baseball. It feels to me like there is the media read by climate journos and campaigners, and then there is the media read by everyone else.

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By Pascvaks
on April 6th, 2011

“Is this a sturdy enough construction to defend nuclear power as a viable option in the climate debate?”

The short answer is “Yes”.  Take Nuclear out of the bag and you have a very empty bag; one that cannot and will not sustain civilization.  No amount of wishing for something else to replace it is going to have any effect whatsoever.  Wind Power, Solar Cells, Solar Heating with Mirrors, Tidal Power, U-Name-It Power?  Sorry children, not in the 21st Century; not with 7 billion people running around.  Like I said, the short answer is “Yes”.

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By Sashka (New York, NY)
on April 6th, 2011

Good to know that Monbiot is finally growing up and reckons with reality.

I’m not sure why you left Walt’s point unchallenged. “The only way to deal with climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions…” is a lie. He completely ignores geoengineering. Not to mention that there may be no need to deal with climate change at all.

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By Alexander Harvey (UK)
on April 6th, 2011

How we eventually feel about the unfolding events in Japan is uncertain, we are yet to make the documentaries and the movie. A lot depends on what is and has really been going on at the complex. How many things went wrong that shouldn’t have. How touch and go were some of the actions. To what extent where engineers were working in the dark, metaphorically and literally.

It is things such as these that will determine the fear factor, for it is fear, not deaths, that have held sway in things nuclear.

Chernobyl had a lot of plus points on the people front. Once the situation was taken in hand by the grown ups the Soviet system did what it does best. Something like 200,000 or perhaps more people were evacuated albeit late but with efficiency. More importantly around 500,000 people moved into harms way, some thousands to the seat of the disaster itself.

It may be said that the causes of the Chernobyl disaster were emblematic of the Soviet system at its worse, the response however showed the discipline of the regime and also the bravery and capacity for duty of the responders. The stength of the response was largely a match for the weakness of the implementation.

This raises a question of whether nations are to be judged according to their fitness to host nuclear technology. Not simply as a matter of proliferation but as to to their capacity to pay the price should that be necessary.

When Jugoslavia descended into a succession of civil and ethnic conflicts, the region housing its sole nuclear power plant escaped the worse of it. Had that Westinghouse facility been in Bosnia or Kosovo as opposed to Solvenia could it have posed a regional threat and had there been a disaster could that have been addressed in a timely fashion without a civil infrastructure.

If large scale growth in nuclear generating capacity is to be a significant factor in global energy production would there not fall a duty on those nations that have proved at least a capacity for stable governance throughout the half century long life time of reactors to bear the lion’s share of the burden of those particular risks and importantly fears that nuclear power presents. Here Germany enters the spotlight. If nuclear energy is too rich for their civil constitution whither shall it wander.


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By Barry Woods
on April 6th, 2011

Did anyone take a look at a transcript of the debate that George had with Dr Helen Caldicutt that prompted the article…I would have loved to have been there.

As George gradually realises with horror, that someone he looks up to Dr Helen Caldicutt, is perhaps a bit extreme and notthat rational (and he thus napalmed some green bridges in the article above)

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””


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?


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.


Check out the VERY LAST words from Helen in the debate
I bet George didn’t like that, the sort of rhetoric he uses against ‘climate change deniars’ !

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.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Have you ever tried to help a child dying of leukemia, George? It’s beyond comprehension.


She also has a high opinion of herself..

HELEN CALDICOTT: George, you must listen to me. I’m a pediatrician. I’m a physician, highly trained. I was on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. My specialty is cystic fibrosis, the most common genetic disease of childhood. I actually””and I’m not boasting, but I’m a very good doctor; you know, I came second in my year of medicine. I don’t say things that are inaccurate.

Otherwise, I would be de-registered. I mean, doctors can’t lie.

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By Vir Narain (New Delhi,India 110017)
on April 7th, 2011

Mr Monbiot, like many other former environmentalists,  seems to have succumbed to carbon-monomania.  They believe that anthropogenic CO2 is the main cause of climate change and has to be minimized at all costs. The “all costs” approach is reckless.  In the present state of technology, nuclear power generation on a worldwide scale carries a very real risk of catastrophic failures with extremely long-lasting global impact.  While the Japanese disaster has served to shake our nuclear complacency (we can see that there are notable exceptions) it has also narrowed the focus to seismic events.  The fact is that, from uranium mining, through reactor operations with their safety and security problems, through decommissioning and long-term waste disposal, the worldwide use of fission for power generation is fraught with unacceptable risks.

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