I’ve chosen George Monbiot as my first inductee into my Greenwashers Hall of Shame, for the debate he had with Helen Caldicott the morning of March 30, 2011, on Democracy Now
“Prescription for Survival”: A Debate on the Future of Nuclear Energy Between Anti-Coal Advocate George Monbiot and Anti-Nuclear Activist Dr. Helen Caldicott
George Monbiot, British journalist and author. He is a columnist with the The Guardian (U.K.) and most recently wrote the article Why Fukushima Made Me Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Power.
Helen Caldicott, world-renowned anti-nuclear advocate, author and pediatrician. She has spent decades warning of the medical hazards posed by nuclear technologies. She is the co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, why don’t you begin? Why doesn’t what is happening now in Fukushima concern you when it comes to nuclear power worldwide?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, obviously, what happened—what’s happening in Fukushima concerns me a lot about the area surrounding Fukushima. It’s a horrible, dangerous, extremely traumatic series of events that we are seeing there.
But I’m very worried that the global response to what’s happening in Fukushima will be to shut down nuclear power stations around the world and to cancel future nuclear power stations, and that what will happen is that they will be replaced by coal. Now, coal is hundreds of times more dangerous than nuclear power, not just because of climate change, though, of course, climate change is a big one, but also because of industrial accidents and because of the impacts of pollution on local people. If we just look at industrial accidents alone, these massively outweigh both the fatalities and the injuries caused by any nuclear accident we’ve ever seen. In China alone, last year, 2,300 people were killed in industrial accidents to do with coal mining; purely by coal mining accidents, 2,300 killed. That’s six people a day. That means that in one week, the official death toll from coal in China is greater than the official death toll from Chernobyl in 25 years. And that’s to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of people contracting really unpleasant lung diseases, which will cause them a very slow and painful and terrible death.
So, what I’m calling for here is not complacency. I think it’s absolutely appropriate to be very concerned, indeed, about what’s happening in Fukushima. But I’m calling for perspective, and I’m saying that we must not replace a bad technology with a much, much worse one, because, unfortunately, that is what’s likely to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, your response? Do you agree with Helen Caldicott’s assessment?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, I agree that it’s a very parlous situation indeed. It does look as if it’s going to melt through the reactor floor, effectively, and onto the concrete, in which case exactly the scenario she’s talking about could take place.
I would disagree, though, that it will devastate a large part of Japan forever, which I think was a term that she used. I think that’s an overstatement of the impacts of the radiation. There’s no question that it will cause mass evacuation. It may cause health effects for some people. But we’ve got to be very careful about not doing what, say, the climate change deniers do when they say that there’s no danger from climate change: cherry-picking studies, plucking out work which is very much against the scientific consensus. When it comes to low-level radiation, unfortunately, environmentalists have been responsible for quite a similar approach by making what appear to be unjustifiable and excessive claims for the impact of that radiation. That is not in any way to minimize what is—what could well happen as a result of the events in Fukushima, but what it does say is we have to use the best possible science to work out what the likely effects are to be and not engage in what could be far more devastating to the lives of people in Japan: a wild overreaction in terms of the response in which we ask the Japanese people to engage.
GEORGE MONBIOT: When I’ve been dealing with climate change over the past 20 years or so, I learned very quickly that you have to effectively go with the scientific consensus rather than with a few outlier papers, because to choose those outlier papers over the scientific consensus is effectively to cherry-pick or to data mine, and to get what has turns out to be a misleading view. That’s certainly been my experience with climate change.
Now, when it comes to radiation—
HELEN CALDICOTT: I agree. I agree.
GEORGE MONBIOT:—I think we’re in danger, possibly, of falling into a similar trap to the trap that climate change deniers have fallen into with their cherry-picking of the science there. For instance, I don’t think you could dismiss the U.N. Scientific Committee as being part of the nuclear industry. I don’t think you can dismiss the very large amount of data—
HELEN CALDICOTT: Yes, I could. Yes, I could.
That’s enough for George Monbiot to hang himself. He buys the nuclear industry line, hook line and sinker, though I expect he’d deny that. He goes on to (politely) accuse Helen Caldicott of “getting into the same sort of conspiratorial thinking that you have with climate change denial–” Why would any environmentalist in his right mind believe anything the scientific establishment says about nuclear power? They have been covering up its disastrous effects from the start. Otherwise that industry could never have gotten off the ground, but a massive PR campaign, Atoms for Peace, was launched to convince people there was a silver lining to this hell unleashed on the world in the name of ending World War II, then in the name of the deterrent of Mutually Assured Destruction in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Sure, coal is also a lousy way to generate power, and there are issues with renewable energy which he lays out in the article linked above, but Monbiot’s insistence that nuclear power needs to be part of the mix, and is safer than coal, is a very sick joke perpetrated by the nuclear industry on a gullible public. He should know better. Especially after this debate, he should know better, but his mind is closed and I doubt he learned a thing. He’s convinced Helen Caldicott is one of those foolish environmentalists who rejects the scientific consensus and exaggerates the dangers of radiation. Besides, the issues he sees with solar and wind energy can be ameliorated or solved, even for the UK. Does he know about the technical progress in using excess electricity to more efficiently split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be stored to be recombined in fuel cells to generate power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing? Not to mention, there is plenty of wave action around his island that could generate lots of power. This planet is swimming in so much energy, once science learns efficient ways to tap it, there will be more truly renewable energy available than people could ever need. Soon enough, given the political will, there will be no need for nuclear energy or fossil fuels, period. That’s the real problem here; politicians don’t want to antagonize the barons of nuclear power or fossil fuels, so the necessary political will is not there.