A Pro Nuke Environmentalist?

The other day I read George Monbiot’s column in the Guardian, and I have been mulling it over in my head ever since. Monbiot is a well-known, well-respected environmental writer and activist who has done some of the finest writing in support of renewalable energy that I have read.

Imagine my surprise, then, as I read the title of March 16, 2011 column: “Japan Nuclear Crisis Should Not Carry Weight in Atomic Energy Debate.” I must have read that title three or four times, certain I was missing something. How could the meltdown of a nuclear power plant be anything other than an argument for the dangers of nuclear power, and why would someone whose work and whose mind I respect have a meltdown of his own in response to this crisis?

I’ve now had some time to work through Monbiot’s argument and to read another of his

Getty Nuclear Power Plant

columns on the matter–“Why Fukushima Made Me Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Power”— and while I do not embrace his change of heart, I can see how he’s come to the conclusion that nuclear power is the lesser of the evils currently available to us. His argument is essentially this: a “crappy old plant with inadequate safety features” was hit with more than we had imagined possible–an earthquake registering 9.0 on the Richter scale and a huge tsunami–and for the most part withstood nature’s onslaught; that is, our worst nightmare in terms of death and destruction has not happened, or as Monbiot puts it “as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.”

Monbiot doesn’t discount the devastation for those forced to evacuate their homes due to increasing levels of radiation, nor does he ignore the workers who have been hospitalized. And he fully recognizes that the food, air and water surrounding the plant, and perhaps stretching for miles upon miles, has been contaminated with radioactivity.

He argues, however, that if we abandon nuclear power now, we will have to turn to the coal industry as the primary source of our power:

If this suspension were to become permanent, the power those plants would have produced is likely to be replaced by burning coal. While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong. The only safe coal-fired plant is one which has broken down past the point of repair.

Monbiot argues that even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, and they do, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-mining and use does when operating normally. Coal, he says, “is the primary driver of human-caused climate change. If its combustion is not curtailed, it could kill millions of times more people than nuclear power plants have done so far. Yes, I really do mean millions.” He cites the Chernobyl meltdown, noting that it “was hideous and traumatic” and unacceptable, while also pointing out that the “official death toll so far appears to be 43–28 workers in the initial few months then a further 15 civilians by 2005.” These, he argues are “but a tiny fraction of the deaths for which climate change is likely to be responsible, through its damage to the food supply, its contribution to the spread of infectious diseases and its degradation of the quality of life for many of the world’s poorest people.”

He further notes that coal is responsible for lots of other environmental damage “far worse than the side effects of nuclear power production: from mountaintop removal to acid rain and heavy metal pollution,” and that more people die or are maimed working in coal mines than are those working in nuclear power plants.

Certainly coal mining is dangerous, life threatening work; if you don’t die in a mining disaster, you will eventually die of some disease caused by all the soot you have inhaled. We need only look back a few months and recall the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped miles beneath the earth for 69 days to understand the dangers of coal mining; amazingly these men survived. That wasn’t the outcome for the 48 miners who died in 2010, while working in US coal mines.

Monbiot makes a compelling argument: if we turn away from nuclear power now, our only other viable alternative is coal. In time, perhaps, renewables will be able to fill this gap, but right now we do not have the infrastructure to make that a reality. However, his claim that coal is the greater of the two evils is one I understand but am not convinced by. Each day the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant grows worse. Today the news is that the core in the number 3 reactor has melted down and radioactive waste is seeping through the cement barrier and into the sea. We don’t know what news tomorrow will bring, but we know it won’t be good. At least until this crisis is contained, I’m reserving judgment.

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