Give away or sell out?

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atomictree.jpgThe environment movement is still agitated about George Monbiot's article this week in the Guardian, in which he said:
"I have now reached the point at which I no longer care whether or not the answer is nuclear. Let it happen - as long as.. <caveats>" 

Leaving those caveats to one side briefly, I do recommend watching Tuesday's Newsnight (YouTube). They brought Monbiot in to defend his article, and put him up against Brian Wilson (the one who's been bought and sold, not the good one), and Jonathan Porritt, formerly of this manor

I've long been concerned that Porritt had lost his way, even before he was co-opted by Blair. Conversely, I've always admired Monbiot, ever since he used to be a regular on Newsnight as the voice of the roads protesters. Disclosure: I first met him outside the Cakehole, where he was introduced to me as Moonboot. Last year he did a fundraiser for the Party ahead of the elections too.

But I cheered when Porritt told him he'd sold out (although obviously not in the same literal way that Wilson has). Porritt made comprehensive sense all the way through, and managed to keep himself civil even as he pointed out Monbiot's gargantuan blunder.

If you want to know whether Monbiot has helped or hindered campaigns for clean energy, just look at Wilson's smug face as he awards a "slow learner's prize" to the former lion of the campaigners.

Back to those caveats. He listed four, as follows:
1. ".. its total emissions are taken into account"
2. "we know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried," 
3. "how much this will cost and who will pay;"
4. "and there is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be used by the military."

First, "take total emissions into account" could hardly be more vague, while nuclear's carbon emissions are substantial and rising. Research shows that the the amount of CO2 emitted in the nuclear process is dependent on the grade of the ore. Current power stations emit 84-122 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, but the quality of the remaining uranium ore will drop (Storm & Smith 2008, 672K pdf), and as it does, nuclear's emissions will rise and overtake even gas. (Oxford Research Group paper, p.42, 1.3M pdf) 

It's not hard to see why: the processes behind the scenes are complex and energy-intensive, and so the costs will only rise as oil depletes. If you listen to the nuclear lobby, they never mention it being a finite resource, nor that it uses vast amounts of energy to extract, mill, and ship around the world. Those carbon consequences will rise even more rapidly if the world returns to nuclear, as the higher grades and softer ores deplete faster. Monbiot knows that nuclear can't wash its own face even in climate terms, so why imply it could?

Next, he doesn't insist on a safe and permanent solution to waste being developed. He just wants to know how and where it's going. A letter from Gordon Brown explaining that it's going to be three feet down in your garden in a MDF box would apparently suffice there. I know that seems unfair, but the article is exceptionally sloppy, especially given the importance of the issues. Presumably we should hear the implied word "safety" there, but how can we guarantee centuries of safety, no matter what the containment?

Third, it'll cost an absolute arm and a leg, and we're all paying, as usual, right to the death. Does that reassure you, George?

Finally, you'd trust some kind of written statement that "oh no, we won't use this for nuclear weapons, promise"? It's not like that would stop Brown/Cameron/Clegg pushing ahead with Trident renewal - the Americans would be more than happy to sell us what we need. After all, Britain was their third largest supplier of plutonium between 1967 and 1988. 

And not using our own waste would just push the prices up, surely? Trident replacement is already a tad expensive at £65 billion.

Overall, this is a weaker position on civil nuclear, let it be noted, than David Cameron's one. He said straight-out that "there shouldn't be subsidies", which effectively kills civil nuclear dead. According to the Nation, Darling apparently said the same thing in 2006, but that was then and this is now.

Also, it's not like we don't know what the answer is: 100% renewables and energy efficiency. Where nuclear already emits 84-122 grams of CO2 per kWh, wind is just 11-37g, and biomass just 29-62g (see the ORG report above). Coal, incidentally, emits around 850g, eight times more than nuclear, and thirty-five times more than wind, using the middle of those ranges. If America can go carbon-free, so can we.

Early in the debate, Monbiot says part of his solution would be to set a maximum amount of CO2 that could be emitted per kWh, and suggests "80, or perhaps 50". You do see, George, don't you, that even at the bottom end, nuclear doesn't meet that? Why have you ignored the numbers? 

Haven't you read your own articles? (that's a recommended link, though, as it does show a previous partial shift)?

I'm sure Monbiot thought he would impress onto people the urgency of stopping coal power stations with such a radical call. Perhaps he thought Wilson and Brown and the like would think "Woo, coal's so bad that even Monbiot's prepared to back nuclear - maybe we should think again about Kingsnorth?"

Pure naivety, if so. The toxic rabble in the Commons are just rubbing their hands and dreaming of nuclear directorships, present and future, where they can continue to fleece the public and pretend to fight climate change simultaneously. That's why Porritt said "sellout" directly to his face, the worst insult an environmentalist has for another, although it could be argued it was more of a giveaway than a sellout: I doubt he's actually taken the nuclear shilling.

In the interests of fairness, I'll give 2000-vintage Monbiot the last word. "It's time to shut nuclear power down, and begin the dangerous and expensive task of decommissioning Britain's most disastrous experiment."


I volunteered with Forum for the Future, one summer. Fortunately it was before I joined the GPEW and knew anything about Porrit and Parkin. In some ways I did the reverse of selling out, I suppose...

Monbiot is concerned over a 'generation gap'. If we reject nuclear power, how do we address that, or is he wrong there too, and we can mind the gap by radical program of energy savings with comprehensive renewables?

There is also still the problem of road transport and it's consumption of fossil fuels.


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This page was published on August 9, 2008 1:27 PM.

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