As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology. . . . A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation…
So begins George Monbiot in his now famous Guardian Pauline-conversion-to -nuclear-energy article, a provocative commentary published ten days after Fukushima became the newest word for nuclear meltdown. Riddled with mistakes, Monbiot’s pro-nuclear rant reflects errors of judgement, ignorance and narrowness of vision. This article is my reply to Monbiot.
For all his apparent (and immodestly trumpeted) independence of thought, George views the world though the same distorting lenses as the main political systems. I leave out the Green Party, which at least used to have (at the beginning) a radical alternative ideology. In his cutting edge analysis we all need vast amounts of energy to keep the present operation going. And so we have to have nuclear power. That’s what it boils down to, according to George: we have to keep the system up and running, pissing away all the Joules, burning up all the energetic stuff that we have inherited from evolution: the coal, the gas, the oil, the uranium. Of course, it will all run out eventually, Uranium as well as the fossil fuels but let’s keep the party going as long as possible. Then our descendants (probably our children) can freeze to death and deal with the radioactive waste we have left them.
Actually if you are surprised to hear that George is in favour of nuclear energy you may be surprised to learn that I am not opposed to it per se. I am a scientist (unlike George) and my purpose is to find the truth about the consequences of these various alternatives. To me, if democracy means anything (which I doubt, being one with de Tocqueville on democracy) it means that the people choose. But they must choose on the basis of real data, on the basis of true information, and not the pie-in-the-sky nonsense peddled by the nuclear lobby, which George (knowing no better) has swallowed. Nuclear energy kills people all the time. I have done enough epidemiological research to see this quite clearly. And the nukes also know this and they know that if anyone takes them down it will be by this route. And so that’s why they spend so much time hacking into me and my radiation health colleagues whilst Brer’ Rabbiting many of the greenies who do oppose them into the wasteful and irrelevant economic argument thorn bushes.
The nukes have got to poor George in a clever operation. They had to get some prominent greenie to endorse their tricks. The industry knows it has a bad reputation: deservedly of course since it has lied and chicaned its way though so many incidents that we have all lost count. So it has its spin doctors; and one of the cleverest of these is a certain Malcolm Grimston, who you may have seen in the last month on the telly talking down Fukushima. Find him on Youtube. On 14th of March Grimston was on the BBC, striped as independent analysis from Chatham House: We’re certainly not in Chernobyl territory, he pontificated, the inner containment of all 3 reactors is intact, the fuel is contained safely. . . the key is not so much these explosions, clearly it would have been better if they hadn’t happened. . . He was wrong on every count, except the last. As I said on BBC News on 12th March, and as we now know, three reactors had melted down in the first few days. By the time George wrote the Guardian piece Japan was well into nuclear nightmare. Why do I bring in Grimston? It’s is because he was George’s Chemistry teacher at school, at Stowe. And I believe that this is the link. I know about Grimston.
Despite having taught chemistry at school, he is not a scientist; he took a degree in psychology, and for a long time he was paid by the nukes to turn up at all the independent radiation risk meetings that occurred around the country. His (mission impossible) job was to find a way of explaining to the ordinary person how safe it all was. He would do this by sitting in the audience and lumbering to his feet at question time (those days he was immensely fat; am I allowed to say this or am I being fattist?) and viciously and cleverly attack the lecturer. I saw him savagely hack into the late Prof Alice Stewart in Bristol once, it was alarmingly well done. I debated nuclear with him at a public meeting in Manchester town hall once; naturally he lost the vote at the end. Because at the end, he is just plain wrong and the used car he is selling is dangerous and has no brakes. But George doesn’t seem to see this; maybe he is hypnotised by his old school teacher, who knows?
Maybe they make a lot of him (George) flatter him, give him money, who knows? He has recently bought an obscenely large and expensive house down the road from me in Wales, in Machynlleth. Lately he (George) has been travelling round the countryside advertised wearing boxing gloves as taking on all comers. In this tour he has taken some steps to personally attack and libel me and my scientific discoveries in the area of radiation and health (coached no doubt by Grimston, since there is some heavy complex technical stuff in these attacks, beyond George). Grimston will not have forgotten his own defeats in boxing match rounds with me in Manchester, Bristol and other venues, and this is the origin of the particularly nasty nature of the arguments he uses. But when George was asked by my friend Richard Bramhall to step down the road from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth (some 20 miles) for a public debate which we would organise at the University here he refused. His reason? I was not well known enough for him to bother with me. (For those who care, on Google Chris Busby gets 2.8 million hits and George Monbiot gets 970,000). The real reason is that without Grimston coaching him, George would rapidly be shown to have no specific knowledge in this arcane area, no ability to deal with the issue, and no case.
So let’s go back to the beginning. Fukushima. There are two sets of predictions.
The Grimston/ Monbiot nuke predictions (reactors intact, nothing like Chernobyl, not leaking, no deaths yet, or ever if we are to believe Wolfgang Weiss of the United Nations UNSCEAR) on the one hand. On the other hand the real world. Ongoing nuclear catastrophe, still fissioning, worse than Chernobyl, at least half a million will die of cancer in the next 50 years, radioactive particles turning up in the filters in the USA where infant mortality has increased, and even the UK at Aldermaston, polluted wasteland in northern Japan, no solution, etc etc. Who is right?
For most of these questions I have so far been proved right and the nuclear industry apologists sequentially trotted out by the BBC totally wrong. (Do they apologise? No. Is the BBC embarrassed? Yes.) The one that George has been proved right is that no one has died from their exposure to the radiation (though there is contrary evidence: see Janette Sherman and Joseph Mangano’s report on infant mortality rates in the American Northwest.
To anchor his arguments in such assertions, no one dead yet, reveals George’s breathtaking ignorance of the effects of radiation. Radiation kills by being genotoxic, causing ill health and cancer and leukaemia, heart disease, diabetes, strokes etc. long after the initial exposures. Causing effects in future generations. And for this we have to wait. Or rather the poor people who live in Tokyo (Yes) and closer to the Fukushima site have to wait. And they have to believe the reassurances of the Japanese government that the absorbed doses they receive are safe. And the Japanese government has to wait and hope that the risk model of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, is indeed accurate and safe. Which it most certainly is not.
So finally lets return to the need for energy from nuclear to keep the wheels turning and the money flowing. The core mistake that George accepts and is implicit in all these energy arguments is that we will all freeze to death, that modern society will grind to a halt, without the inputs of nuclear energy. For some ten years I was (and maybe still am) the national speaker for the Green Party of England and Wales on Science and Technology. So I was asked this question many times: What is the alternative? Here is the answer. We do not need all that energy. Walk down the high street what do you see? Shop windows full of things. We have drifted into a state where all we do (the human race I mean) is make things (using energy and natural resources) and then spend energy (and natural resources) selling these things to each other.
This is a deadly bootstrap culture where we go round and round making things advertising things and buying the same things getting more and more tired and frustrated and sick. Sick: more things. Pollution: more things. Health foods, sleeping tablets, special designer metal sticks to walk up mountains (and get fit, Hah!). Cancer treatment things. Hospital things. Loony bin things (starting with Prozac). Viagra things. Blood pressure things. It is insane. We spend so much time doing this ( increasing competitiveness, increasing the GDP) that we are all unhappy, working all the time, with no time to be with each other and with our children, no time for love, for walking about in the countryside (without metal sticks) in the sun discussing the finer points of philosophy. Wearing white togas. Folk dancing. Science should have taken away the drudgery and struggle. Instead it has made it worse. Do we really need a toilet roll holder in the shape of a donkey? Twenty different types of washing powder, vaginal deodorant, hair dye, wrinkle cream with nanoparticles. All those things. All that energy. Going to work, coming back. Running about, exhausted, no time for love.
So what is it that has hypnotised the human race into believing that this breathless vortex of work, of continuous manufacture of every conceivable thing, of consumption and waste, and its associated requirement for vast amounts of energy is the “good life? The politicians are clear: Education, Education, Education. Or rather what passes for it these days. Blimey. What can I say? I have been watching the education system over the last 30 years becoming dumber and dumber, crazier and crazier, more and more frenetic.
The helpless children have to work harder and harder. This project, that project, this deadline, that marking scheme. Andre Gorz, the French philosopher, wrote in Farewell to the Working Class in the 1970s that there were two possible futures following the discoveries that Science and Technology could take the weight from the shoulders of mankind. The good one was a development of the nice laid-back peace love and understanding of the hippie state (in which I included myself). The other (evil?) one was that one half of the population teach the other half a lot of useless rubbish for money. The taught half end up with a piece of paper that says “degree” or “A-level” or something important sounding. And to get this piece of paper, originally paid for by the State (i.e. the taxpayers) they now have to hock their lives away, paying out maybe ?70,000 so that they get this worthless piece of paper. And make no mistake, these degree courses are pretty bad, most of them. I have seven children and have seen them through their schools and colleges so I know. I had a young friend a few years ago who went up to a good class university in Scotland. The course was easy-peasy, in fact a lot of her essay assignments required nothing more than a bit of common sense and Wikepedia. She now has a 2.1 degree and a big debt. But not as big as the one my youngest daughter will have to take on next year because of the Banksters. Talk about boiling the frog.
So let’s all step back a bit and think about what’s happened to us, the poor human race. And please George, do the same, and stop talking nonsense. And, oh yes, let Grimston know we have rumbled him.
Chris Busby is Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk. He is visiting Professor at the University of Ulster and also Guest Researcher at the Julius Kuehn Institute of the German Federal Agricultural Institute in Braunschweig, Germany. He was a member of the UK Committee Examining Radiation Risk on Internal Emitters CERRIE and the UK MoD Depleted Uranium Oversight Board. He was Science and Policy Interface leader of the Policy Information network on Child Health and Environment based in the Netherlands. He was Science and Technology Speaker for the Green Party of England and Wales. He has conducted fundamental research on the health effects of internal radiation both at the theoretical and epidemiological level, including recently on the genotoxic effects of the element uranium.