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March 31, 2011

George Monbiot describes the double standard against nuclear power

George Monbiot is a reporter and environmentalist at the UK Guardian. He describes his support for nuclear power and for a clean environment. He lists the double standards against nuclear power

Double standard one: deaths and injuries

Chinese coal mining alone kills as many people every week as the worst nuclear power accident in history – the Chernobyl explosion – has done in 25 years.

And this is to say nothing of the far larger number of injuries that coal mining inflicts, in particular the hideous lung diseases which plague so many miners and cause long, lingering and terrible deaths. When was the last time you heard an anti-nuclear campaigner drawing attention to this daily carnage?



Double standard two: the science

We emphasise, when debating climate change, the importance of the scientific consensus, and reliance on solid, peer-reviewed studies. But as soon as we start discussing the dangers of low-level radiation, we abandon that and endorse the pseudo-scientific gibberish of a motley collection of cranks and quacks, who appear to have begun with the assumption that it must be killing thousands of people every year, and retrofitted the evidence to match it.

A good summary of the scientific consensus on the effects of exposure to both high and low levels of radiation, see the new post by Chris Goodall and Mark Lynas: two environmentalists who have kept their heads in this crisis.

Double standard three: radioactive pollution
If low-level radiation really was the problem that some environmentalists say it is, the focus of their campaign should be coal plants, not nuclear power. As Scientific American notes:

"The fly ash emitted by a power plant – a by-product from burning coal for electricity – carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy."


Double standard four: mining impact

The impacts of coal mining are massively greater. There are hundreds of times more coal mines than uranium mines, including opencast sites, and a lot of them of them are many times bigger and more destructive than the largest uranium operations. This doesn't make uranium mining right, but it makes the likely switch to coal even more wrong.

It also does not include the deaths from air pollution to the general populace.


Double standard five: costs

Many environmentalists claim that, when all the hidden costs, especially the massive decommissioning liabilities, are taken into account, electricity from atomic plants could cost as much as 5p per kilowatt hour or even more. The highest figure I have come across was the top end of the range of estimates produced by the New Economics Foundation – 8.3p. If this is correct – and I should emphasise that it's an extreme outlier – it suggests that nuclear is an extravagant means of generating low-carbon electricity.

So why do the same people support a feed-in tariff scheme under which we pay 41p per kilowatt hour for rooftop solar electricity?

Double standard six: research

Last week I argued about these issues with Caroline Lucas. She is one of my heroes, and the best thing to have happened to parliament since time immemorial. But this doesn't mean that she can't be wildly illogical when she chooses. When I raised the issue of the feed-in tariff, she pointed out that the difference between subsidising nuclear power and subsidising solar power is that nuclear is a mature technology and solar is not. In that case, I asked, would she support research into thorium reactors, which could provide a much safer and cheaper means of producing nuclear power? No, she told me, because thorium reactors are not a proven technology. Words fail me

Double standard seven: timing

Anti-nuclear campaigners point out that it takes 10 years or so to build a new nuclear power station, and we haven't got that long, if we are serious about preventing climate breakdown. They are of course quite right: it's too little, too late. But the same problem affects every significant move to decarbonise the energy supply. By the time it has gone through the planning process, a major new grid connection to support an offshore windfarm will take roughly as long to develop as a new nuclear power station. The same goes for the pumped storage facilities required to support a largely renewable power system and for the carbon capture and storage required to reduce the impacts of fossil fuels. As for growing trees …

My point is that we have to take responsibility for every component of our energy supply and the consequences it carries; not just the section of it that's produced by nuclear reactors. And we should apply the same standards to all generating technologies. Otherwise, in the name of reducing risks to people and the planet, we will unwittingly increase them

Also, uprating nuclear reactors can add 2-20% to the power level of a reactor and uprates can be done in about 18 months.

Nuclear reactors can be built in China and South Korea in about 4 years. The approval processes are also shorter there. Most of the world's nuclear reactors and power generation of all kinds are going into high growth countries in Asia.

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