Wednesday, April 6, 2011

George Monbiot Declares the Era of Confusion Over

When I began to seriously investigate post carbon energy solutions in 2007, I was prepared to accept renewables as part of the solution. I thought, for example, that solar power was a potential source of daytime peak electricity. The problem with solar turns out to be its unreliability, geographic limitations and cost.

George Monbiot is something of a rarity, a well educated environmental journalist. Monbiot investigates environmental issues with a passion, that some times gets him into trouble. He long ago noted that most of the arguments against nuclear power are not valid, but a few years ago, continued to buy into the "nuclear power leads to nuclear weapons proliferation" position.
It has also become clear that we will never rid the world of nuclear weapons if we do not also rid it of nuclear power. Every state which has sought to develop a weapons programme over the past 30 years – Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq and Iran – has done so by manipulating its nuclear power programme.
But even then Monbiot pointed out the inconsistency of assigning a nuclear monopoly to the United States, the UK, China, Russia, and France, while denying nuclear weapons to everyone else, clear power which Monbiot found still valid in 2006 was
But perhaps the strongest argument against nuclear power is that we do not need it, even to reach the extraordinarily ambitious target the science demands. With similar levels of investment in energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage, and the exploitation of the vast new offshore wind resources the government has now identified(13), we could cut our carbon emissions as swiftly and as effectively as any atomic power programme could. In North America, where natural gas supplies have already peaked and are in long-term decline(14), this is a much tougher challenge than in Eurasia; but while our supplies of gas persist we should use them, and bury the carbon dioxide our power stations produce, while developing the electricity storage systems that will eventually replace them. Some of our arguments against nuclear power have collapsed, but it seems to me that the case is still robust.
Thus in 2006, Monbiot had recognized the invalidity of most of the Green arguments against nuclear energy, but still held hope for Amory Lovins' soft path. By 2011, Monbiot had come to recognize the truth about the soft path,
If other forms of energy production caused no damage, these impacts would weigh more heavily. But energy is like medicine: if there are no side-effects, the chances are that it doesn’t work.

Like most greens, I favour a major expansion of renewables. I can also sympathise with the complaints of their opponents. It’s not just the onshore windfarms that bother people, but also the new grid connections (pylons and power lines). As the proportion of renewable electricity on the grid rises, more pumped storage will be needed to keep the lights on. That means reservoirs on mountains: they aren’t popular either.

The impacts and costs of renewables rise with the proportion of power they supply, as the need for both storage and redundancy increases. It may well be the case (I have yet to see a comparative study) that up to a certain grid penetration – 50 or 70% perhaps? – renewables have smaller carbon impacts than nukes, while beyond that point, nukes have smaller impacts than renewables.

Like others, I have called for renewable power to be used both to replace the electricity produced by fossil fuel and to expand the total supply, displacing the oil used for transport and the gas used for heating fuel. Are we also to demand that it replaces current nuclear capacity? The more work we expect renewables to do, the greater the impacts on the landscape will be, and the tougher the task of public persuasion.

But expanding the grid to connect people and industry to rich, distant sources of ambient energy is also rejected by most of the greens who complained about the blog post I wrote last week(3). What they want, they tell me, is something quite different: we should power down and produce our energy locally. Some have even called for the abandonment of the grid. Their bucolic vision sounds lovely, until you read the small print.

At high latitudes like ours, most small-scale ambient power production is a dead loss. Generating solar power in the UK involves a spectacular waste of scarce resources(4,5). It’s hopelessly inefficient and poorly matched to the pattern of demand. Wind power in populated areas is largely worthless. This is partly because we have built our settlements in sheltered places; partly because turbulence caused by the buildings interferes with the airflow and chews up the mechanism. Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales; it’s not much use in Birmingham.
Monbiot, also did something most Greens ignore, he explored the environmental consequences of the soft path,
Some greens go even further: why waste renewable resources by turning them into electricity? Why not use them to provide energy directly? To answer this question, look at what happened in Britain before the industrial revolution.

The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural spectacles and which fed much of Britain: wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad as well as most seatrout and salmon(6).

Traction was intimately linked with starvation. The more land that was set aside for feeding draft animals for industry and transport, the less was available for feeding humans. It was the 17th-Century equivalent of today’s biofuels crisis. The same applied to heating fuel. As EA Wrigley points out in his new book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, the 11 million tonnes of coal mined in England in 1800 produced as much energy as 11 million acres of woodland (one third of the land surface) would have generated(7).

Before coal became widely available, wood was used not just for heating homes but also for industrial processes: if half the land surface of Britain had been covered with woodland, Wrigley shows, we could have made 1.25 million tonnes of bar iron a year (a fraction of current consumption(8)) and nothing else(9). Even with a much lower population than today’s, manufactured goods in the land-based economy were the preserve of the elite. Deep green energy production – decentralised, based on the products of the land – is far more damaging to humanity than nuclear meltdown.
Monbiot thus discovers the soft path for what it is, not the path to environmental salvation but the path to human ruin and environmental degradation that will be far worse than any consequence of nuclear technology. With that Monbiot has become a true revolutionary. Without even mentioning the name of Amory Lovins he has demonstrated that the idol of the Greens has feet of clay, and the the whole panoply of green solutions is but another example of junk science, every bit as intellectually reprehensible as global warming skepticism.

The Fukushima accident has lead Monbiot to complete his journey to Demascus. Yet he has completed it kicking and screaming,
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(10,11). Thanks to the expansion of shale gas production, the impacts of natural gas are catching up fast(12).

Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.
Since George Monbiot reached this monumental conclusion a good deal has happened. Monbiot is a bonafide member of the left, and in some left wind circles, support for nuclear power is still not kosher. Amy Goodman, another left wing journalist with impeccable anti-nuclear credentials decided that she would unleash the dragon lady of the left wing anti-nuclear circle, Dr. Helen Caldicott on now heretic George. What Amy did not understand is that Caldicott and indeed the entire anti-nuclear left was intellectually bankrupt. George, who received an Oxford education does. And George does not suffer fools gladly.

Caldicott attempted to reblind George and then lead him away from Damascus, but George had been where she was attempting to lead him before, and would not let the dragon lady blind him to the truth.

After the Democracy Now debate Georgy exchanged emails with Helen, in which Helen attempted to set George streight on what she took to be the evidence. Monbiot ask Helen Caldicott for credible sources for her assertions, to which her publisher, Diane Wachtell responded,
much as Helen would like to help you make your way through the scientific literature, she is not in a position to do this in the coming week, much less in the next few hours. . . .

Helen did direct you to source material that speaks to the questions you posed her following the debate, including specific reports from the New York Academy of Sciences and her own book (which The New Press published and which is thoroughly sourced and vetted), as well as names and contact numbers of experts in the field who can confirm the accuracy of Helen’s information. She has also provided you with a PDF of her book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer, which is indexed and searchable by key words. Other statements such as “a millionth of a gram of plutonium, or less, can induce cancer, or will induce cancer” are general knowledge in the medical community. You can easily look these up yourself; I don’t think it is Helen’s responsibility to do this kind of research for you. In any case, it is simply not reasonable or realistic to ask Helen to provide specific references to medical literature while she is on the road, away from her sources. Under these circumstances, it would be grossly unfair and inaccurate for you to assert that Helen either doesn’t have or failed to provide sources and citations.
George responded,
Most of these are claims she has made many times before. Surely she must know exactly where and what the sources are? In fact she told me that they are in her book, so she need only look them up. Now that you have kindly sent me an electronic copy, all she has to do is to give me the page and reference numbers, to answer the specific questions I have asked. This won’t take her more than 20 minutes. She has now had two days, and if she had spent as long answering my questions as she has spent sending me irrelevant material and recruiting other people to write to me, it would all have been sorted out several times over.

As for your outrageous suggestion that I am asking her to do my research for me, it suggests that neither of you are familiar with with the most basic responsibility of a scientist: to provide their sources when asked, and preferably to provide them as soon as the claim is made. If she doesn’t have the source, she shouldn’t make the claim. I am not a scientist, but I would never make a public claim about a scientific matter that I could not source either on the spot or immediately afterwards. It’s what makes the difference between a credible and a non-credible statement.
There you have it, Helen Caldicott makes claims which she says are supported by science. George says, show me where you found this, Helen sends her publisher to tell him that she is too busy to do his research for him, and George after expessing outrage at this suggestion, points out that claims to be making science based assertions, require at the very least references to the evidence. Of course the evidence is not forthcoming.

George Monbiot then wrote out 15 claims that Helen Caldicott made without supporting evidence.
Here are her replies, and my responses to her replies.

Helen Caldicott, Quote 1:

“There could be a huge hydrogen explosion, which would rupture the containment vessel, and out of Unit 2 would come huge plumes of radiation, which, if the wind is blowing towards the south, could devastate much of Japan forever.”

HC’s source:

“Read the NY Academy of Sciences Chernobyl report and extrapolate from there”

My response:

a. As my article explains, the Yablukov book has little scientific standing and has not been peer-reviewed.

b. Here is what Professor Robin Grimes, Professor of Materials Physics, Imperial College, London, tells me:

“The word “forever” is clearly nonsense as radioactivity does decay. Given the present temperatures and pressures within the reactors and the decay heat, which is now only a few percent of what it was, the pressure vessels are not going to rupture via a brittle fracture. At worst it will leak slowly. If it did, the levels of contamination would increase locally. More difficult to clean the mess and cost.”

Helen Caldicott, Quote 2:

“people will continue to die from cancer for virtually the rest of time.”

HC’s source:

“This is all in my book and previous book NUCLEAR MADNESS and depends upon the half live of the tran-suranic isotopes and their extraordinary toxicity and food chain bio-magnification. Also Professor Tim Mousseau has been studying the deformities and species reduction in birds etc in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, I am ccing him also so you can question him”

My response:

Without specific passages and references, it is hard to know what to make of this. But “virtually the rest of time” sounds, at the least, like a stretch. I’m not sure how work on birds answers a claim about people.

Helen Caldicott, Quote 3:

“a millionth of a gram of plutonium, or less, can induce cancer, or will induce cancer.”

HC’s source:

“That is referenced in my book.”

My response:

No it’s not. It’s mentioned three times, but not referenced.

Helen Caldicott, Quote 4.

“One x-ray to the pregnant abdomen doubles the incidence of leukemia in the child.”

HC’s source: “This is the classic work of Dr Alice Stewart in the Oxford study and is referred to in the BEIRV11 report”

My response:

Professor Gerry Thomas, Chair in Molecular Pathology, Department of Surgery & Cancer, Imperial College, London, tells me this:

“There is a confusion between relative risk and actual risk. One obstetric examination may increase the relative risk of Leukaemia and childhood cancer by about 40% but the actual risk of developing these types of conditions in childhood is extremely rare the actual risk is very small. The earlier the foetus is exposed to radiation the more significant damage to development may be – however, as most women do not know they are pregnant for 4 weeks at least, I suspect that a good many accept medical treatment without knowing their are pregnant. If I needed an emergency abdominal scan I would have it on the basis that if it was that serious I may not be around to deliver my baby and therefore both of us would die – I’d rather run the small risk of damage and cope with the consequences. We work on the ALARA principle – as low as reasonably attainable, so avoidable X-rays are not carried out on pregnant women. Interestingly there appears to be less thyroid cancer post Chernobyl for those who were in utero at the time of the accident as opposed to those who were under 1. Could be better DNA repair in the foetus, or less exposure due to the fact that the mother’s thyroid took up the iodine, and those born were exposed to radioiodine in milk.”

There are 11 more if the reader wants the whole sequence. What Mobiot does is to demonstrate that Caldicott systematically evads her responsibility to prove the things she claims to be proven true by scientific evidence. Caldicott has been playing this game for years, but her day of reckoening has arrived, and Monbiot gives her unwillingness or inability to provide evidence the exposure it richly diserves. The only question that remains is what does Caldicott understand about her own knowledge state? Is she confused, or is she willfully deceiving? Let us be satified with the more charitable of the two possibilities and assume that Caldicott is confused. No doubt a lot of people are, but George Monbiot, who has finally worked through his own confusion, has clearly announced that the Era of Confussion is over.

ברוך אתה ה' א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, שהחינו וקימנו והגענו לזמן הזה.‏


John said...

No need to answer my question on HuffPo.


Joel A said...

In regards to your final paragraph, I believe Caldicott is a willful deceiver. Now, I cannot provide a link to a transcript, but at a lecture I attended, Caldicott specifically stated "there has not been a single study that refutes the LNT theory." Lie.

She also made some perverse statements about how specific amounts of mined uranium lead directly to detonated nuclear weapons. The logic was so poor that I'm not sure how either her nor any of her audiences can regard her with anything but absolute suspicion and, perhaps, derision.

In this particular lecture, she only mentioned background radiation and naturally occurring radioactive isotopes dismissively. There was certainly no examination into background radiation or naturally occurring isotopes that make their way into even an healthy individual and no comparison to the health effects of synthetic isotopes and medical exposures.

She was also flatly against [a logical conclusion, stemming from her utter illogical reasoning] medicinal applications of radiation, which I personally find reprehensible. I know of several first hand examples where medical imaging has led to the diagnosis and eventual curing of cancers, where, in the absence of these techniques, presumably [doctor's presumption] lead to death.

One general point of hers is valid: ingestion and inhalation of radioactive substances can have a detrimental effect on one's body [in large doses], especially in the case of alpha emitters like plutonium 239 & 240. Yet her assumption that all [or close to it] individual radioactive decays that transfer their energy into a cell of the body cause mutations is clearly false.

Caldicott is inventing and trying to slay apparitions. Normally, people showing such behaviour inadvertently are admitted into mental sanatoriums and dosed up on anti-psychotics. However, being a trained physician and having [apparently?] submersed herself in nuclear issues for over 40 years, she should conduct herself more morally and logically than what she has done up until this point.

An end note: I remember distinctly that she claimed plutonium was the most toxic substance to humans. I can't remember whether she made the distinction between chemical or radiological toxicity, but i don't think it matters. I came home from her lecture, did a little browsing on the internet and came across several pages claiming that botulism toxin is in fact the most toxic substance to humans. Surprisingly, the same class of professional as Caldicott get paid large amounts of money to inject it into the faces of the rich and famous. Botox...

So much for absolute risks...

Anonymous said...

New Helen Caldicott op-ed in the New York Times

Pretty depressing


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