Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

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Monday, April 04, 2011

George Monbiot Sees The Light!

Last week in the Guardian, George Monbiot, previously the greenest of Greens and an opponent of nuclear power, announced that having seen the minimal radiation leakage from the Japanese nuclear plant damaged by the tsunami, and having regard to the over-riding requirement to reduce our CO2 emissions in order to combat global warming, he had swung round to supporting nuclear power. I think we should all applaud his honesty. OK, so most of us had been saying for years that if reducing human contributions to global warming was the main environmental priority then ideological quibbles over different kinds of low-emission power generation were an unaffordable luxury. We need demand reduction strategies, certainly, and we need to start thinking ahead about damage limitation and disaster relief as the situation deteriorates (and plans to date only defer catastrophe rather than eliminating it). but we also need to make use of every technology we have to generate electricity without massive carbon emissions. Wind, wave, tide, solar, for sure, but nuclear as well: fission for now but continuing research into fusion which would be the perfect answer to the problem (after all, what else is solar power?). There are various reactor technologies available which improve safety and diminish the risk of use for weapon production, chief of which is the accelerator-driven sub-critical reactor which can run off otherwise useless and toxic nuclear waste. But for someone like Monbiot to risk ostracism by his former colleagues by stating the obvious must have taken considerable courage, both moral and physical.

A measure of the desperation such a high-profile breaking of ranks engendered in the renewables industry can be seen in this hysterical piece by John Vidal in Saturday's Guardian. It rubbishes the UN International Atomic Energy Agency's figures on the death toll from Chernobyl (50 dead: 4,000 more likely over time) as "insulting and grossly simplistic" without explaining in what way their methodology is at fault. The Ukrainian Scientific Centre for Radiation came up with a different figure which sadly they didn't get properly peer-reviewed: to Vidal the fact that their reult was ignored is a criticism of the scientific community rather than an endoresement of its quality control.

It gets better. Vidal cites a succession of steadily increasing figures offered up by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (10,000 dead already: 50,000 to come), Green MEPs (up to 60,000 possible deaths), Greenpeace (93,000 terminal cancers now: 140,000 more to come). Then "using other data" (what? the I Ching? drug-induced visions? the prophecies of Nostradamus?) the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences came up withh a figure of 212,000 deaths already as a result of Chernobyl. Finally (because that figure simply isn't inflated enough) a priminent Russian Green activist and some mates, "factoring in the worldwide drop in births and increase in cancers seen after the accident" estimated that that 985,000 people had so far died and the environment had been devastated. Now call me a stubborn traditonalist, but a "worldwide drop in births and increase in cancers" needs to be shown to have some clear causal link to Chernobyl before you can factor it into the figures. Moreover, a decrease in the global birth rate does not allow you to make statements about how many people have died to date: that requires, you know, real dead people, not wispy potential ones who might have been born had Chernobyl not melted down and had Saturn not been in Scorpio. Vidal tells us that "their findings were met with almost complete silence by the World Health Organisation and the industry". That seems very restrained: I would have expected raucous laughter.

Vidal asks "Who can we trust?....Should we believe the empirical evidence of the doctors; or governments and industrialists backed by their PR companies?" Well, it would seem that the Empirical evidence is that which produced the 50/4,000 figure, while it is the renewables industry and its PR machine which is promoting pseudo-science and ludicrous figure of nearly a billion deaths. Let's be clear here: a properly-conducted study of the effects estimated that 50 people had died. A crazy "study" by the Russian Green party which appears to count almost everyone who has died since Chernobyl as a victim (along with some wholly imaginary people who might have been born but weren't) came up with a figure of 985,000 deaths (1,970 times the fatalities for which there is evidence). "So politicised has nuclear energy become, that you can now pick and choose your data, rubbish your opponents, and ignore anything you do not like." As Mr Vidal shows in his shameful piece of gutter journalism.

Update: here is George on the reaction to his article.

Of course if you want real blue- (or black-) sky thinking you would be looking to put as much as possible of your energy-intensive industry into orbit where solar power really is the answer. O'Neill envisaged beaming microwave power to Earth, which is more feasible now than it would have been then, but I still think putting the industry where its energy source is makes sense.


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