"More People Died at Chappaquiddick than at Three Mile Island" was a bumper sticker favoured by supporters of nuclear power in the early 1980s. Chappaquiddick, you may recall, was the site of a car accident in which one person, Mary Jo Kopechne, died, while Teddy Kennedy emerged unscathed. Since then the facile Chappaquiddick argument has become more sophisticated and successful. James Lovelock was the first well known environmentalist to argue that the dangers of nuclear power had been exaggerated, and that it offered a relatively safe alternative to fossil fuels. More recently Stewart Brand (formerly one of the Whole Earth Catalogue crew) and Mark Lynas (author of Rising Tide) have defected with considerable fanfare to the nuclear camp.
For some time observers of the green movement have been wondering when George Monbiot would join them, as he has been sitting on the fence for several years. His 2006 book on global warming, Heat, did not (as some of us feared) plump for nuclear, but he wasn't exactly forthright in his rejection of it either. In March 2011, he finally held his nose and jumped into the nuclear pit, nudged in that direction by the disaster at Fukushima, which he described in these terms:
"A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami . . . yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation."
In this and in a second article in the Guardian two weeks later, George endorsed Lovelock and company's view that the dangers of nuclear radioactivity have been grossly exaggerated by the green movement, and that nuclear energy is a lot safer than fossil fuels. Antinuclear campaigners cite a New York Academy of Sciences publication which (from an overview of several thousand scientific papers) estimates that 985,000 deaths have resulted from the Chernobyl disaster. George finds more convincing the peer-reviewed United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which, (from an overview of several thousand scientific papers), concludes that casualties amounted to no more than 134 cases of acute radiation, and 6,848 cases of thyroid cancer.
This wide discrepancy will come as no surprise to anyone whose business it is to analyse the statistical outpourings of various camps in the environmental debate. As George remarks in Heat, after noting the wide range of figures supplied by dif- ferent bodies for the cost of a kilowatt hour of nuclear energy, "I conclude that the price of nuclear power is a function of your political position." So, apparently, is its safety. The fact that George and several other respected commentators ques- tion the 985,000 statistic casts doubt over its accuracy. But the sceptical reader will be aware that the lower figure, however rigorously peer-reviewed, will nonetheless be the outcome of value-laden computer models and data selection criteria.
Even if the lower figure is the more correct it still represents a considerable risk if the global community opts to build the 12,000 nuclear plants that the OECD considers will be necessary to make a significant contribution towards preventing climate change. Fukushima may have been "crappy, old and un- safe" but it was also built and maintained by one of the richest and most technologically sophisticated countries in the world in the full knowledge that the area was susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis — and it is being rescued, only just, by a fully functioning state-of-the-art technocracy. What's going to happen in 40 years' time, if every failing state from Ireland to Indochina has been encouraged by so-called environmentalists to plant a string of nuclear power stations on its seaboard? What happens if the capitalist empire collapses and we enter into a new barbarian ascendancy? A load of mangled and rusting wind generators will do no harm, but a necklace of 12,000 derelict nuclear reactors around the globe doesn't bear thinking about. Nuclear power is only safe as long as it remains in the hands of a clique of paramilitary technocrats — and as such it is inherently undemocratic.
In any case George's conversion to nuclear does not really hinge on the Chappaquiddick argument, but on his underlying dismissal of the central tenet of green philosophy — that we need to reduce consumption.This is not a stance that George considers in either of his pro-nuclear articles. Instead of providing (as he should if he wants to convince his green readership) an evidence-based assessment of the risks of nuclear energy compared to the risks of reducing energy consumption, he launches into a tendentious analysis of the inability of off-grid renewable energy to meet current demand:
"How do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways — not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels? The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment that you fall out of love with local energy production."
Speak for yourself, George. The moment a genuine green thinker, or indeed anyone with an ounce of spiritual insight, considers the demands of the whole economy is the moment that they start to wonder why we are producing all this crap. Why do we spend our lives driving to and fro on a daily basis, buying new clothes that we don't need, shunting food around the planet when it grows next door, eating disproportionate amounts of meat, wasting staggering amounts of food, discarding an endless stream of packaging, heating up entire houses to tee-shirt temperature when a warm room would do, warming up the firmament with patio heaters, and purchasing roomfuls of gewgaws and gizmos — the pursuit of Mammon, as it used to be called — when there is no evidence that this makes us any more fulfilled than we would be if we contented ourselves with a sufficiency of food, shelter, medicine and the cultural technology that was available in the days of Bach, Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci. The green ethic rejects economic growth in the industrialized countries because it imposes excessive demand on the world's resources, and it rejects nuclear power because that would only encourage economic growth.
Finally, what's this about needing textile mills? Has George not read his Blake and Cobbett? Has he forgotten that that was where the ghastly dehumanizing programme of fossil-fuel powered industrialisation began, and is still, to a large extent, where it is maintained? Perhaps he views textile mills as a necessity and handlooms as an anachronism? If so where would he himself rather work: in a third world sweat shop producing crappy plastic garments for export to people who don't need them, or in a hand-powered co-op producing tweed that lasts 30 years?
These are matters of more importance than the issue of whether one unpleasant technology harms more people than another. George may (or may not) be right in maintaining that the anti-nuclear lobby is scaremongering, but either way he is wasting his talents. There are already plenty of people, including the Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem parties, the Confederation of British Industry, representatives of Imperial College and Cambridge University and so on putting the case for nuclear power; we do not need anyone else to convince us. What we need is people eloquent enough to secure a niche in the main- stream press who will argue the case for reducing consumption, rejecting economic growth and living lightly on the land. It is a great shame that George Monbiot appears to have stepped down from that role.