One year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the world is witnessing the new horror of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. While last spring the world held its breath for weeks wondering when BP technicians could get the Gulf gusher under control, the world has now been similarly in grim suspense for weeks wondering when TEPCO officials can get the Fukushima radiation leaks under control. Yet, amazingly, nuclear energy’s boosters are continuing even now to portray it as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. The Obama administration has pledged no retreat from (oxymoronic) “clean nuclear power” plans—even as it takes the energy industry’s side in litigation seeking to hold it liable for global warming.
Alas, the acceptance of this false choice is not confined to the corridors of power, but even infects supposedly “progressive” circles. We once praised George Monbiot for taking on Alex Cockburn’s shameless denialism on climate change. But in The Guardian on April 5—three weeks and change into the Fukushima disaster—he serves as an unpaid PR flack for the nuclear industry. In a screed entitled “The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all,” he writes:
The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.
He starts out by railing against Helen Caldicott for sloppy research. Well, if Caldicott doesn’t have her ducks in a row and is thereby hurting her own cause, she certainly deserves to be called out. But that isn’t where Monbiot is coming from. He moves on to the Chernobyl disaster:
For the last 25 years anti-nuclear campaigners have been racking up the figures for deaths and diseases caused by the Chernobyl disaster, and parading deformed babies like a medieval circus. They now claim 985,000 people have been killed by Chernobyl, and that it will continue to slaughter people for generations to come. These claims are false.
The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) is the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Like the IPCC, it calls on the world’s leading scientists to assess thousands of papers and produce an overview. Here is what it says about the impacts of Chernobyl.
Of the workers who tried to contain the emergency at Chernobyl, 134 suffered acute radiation syndrome; 28 died soon afterwards. Nineteen others died later, but generally not from diseases associated with radiation. The remaining 87 have suffered other complications, including four cases of solid cancer and two of leukaemia.
In the rest of the population there have been 6,848 cases of thyroid cancer among young children – arising “almost entirely” from the Soviet Union’s failure to prevent people from drinking milk contaminated with iodine 131. Otherwise “there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure”. People living in the countries affected today “need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident”.
Caldicott told me that Unscear’s work on Chernobyl is “a total cover-up”. Though I have pressed her to explain, she has yet to produce a shred of evidence for this contention.
Well, we don’t know whether Unscear’s work on Chernobyl is “a total cover-up.” But let’s see what the presumably objective assessment on the BBC page on the disaster has to say:
The number of people who could eventually die as a result of the Chernobyl accident is highly controversial.
An extra 9,000 cancer deaths are expected by the UN-led Chernobyl Forum. But it says most people’s problems are “economic and psychological, not health or environmental”.
Campaign group Greenpeace is among those to predict more serious health effects. It expects up to 93,000 extra cancer deaths, with other illnesses taking the toll as high as 200,000.
The most obvious health impact is a sharp increase in thyroid cancer. About 4,000 cases of the disease have been seen, mainly in people who were children or adolescents at the time.
Survival rates are high and only 15 people are known to have died. But Greenpeace says there could eventually be 60,000 cases of the disease, among 270,000 cases of all cancers.
OK, so let’s go with the more conservative figure of an extra 9,000 cancer deaths. Is this considered an acceptable risk by Monbiot? And why do he and his buds in the nuclear industry get to decide for the rest of us? (And, by the way, how does this square with Monbiot’s 6,848 figure? Note that he only talks about how many cancer cases have already occurred—as if it were all in the past.)
Now who do you think is laughing all the way to the bank as this debate rages? Oh, that’s right: the oil companies. Exxon and its ilk were major players in the uranium business before they mostly divested their holdings with the decline of the nuclear industry a generation ago. (Highbeam Business “Industry Report: Uranium-Radium-Vanadium Ores”) You can bet that they’ll be rushing back into the uranium biz if the plans for a global “nuclear renewal” are realized. The cartel that currently controls uranium is now trying to halt a flight of investment sparked by the Fukushima disaster. (Reuters, March 14) This investment flight threatens a planned global expansion in uranium production—including on public lands in the United States.
Monbiot should be ashamed of himself for loaning propaganda assistance to these aims. Nuclear power is a dangerous distraction from the real solutions to the climate crisis: conservation and efficiency measures; truly renewable energy like solar, wind and soft hydro; and (because—as we have repeatedly argued—none of the rest is possible without this one) social control over critical energy resources and the global industrial leviathan.