05. 12. 2013

It can’t be easy being George Monbiot

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I really look forward to reading George Monbiot’s articles in The Guardian on Tuesday. I know of nobody who ‘nails it’ more often than George - just check out the most recent article on his website www.monbiot.com about the “global bullshit industry” that is marketing today.

So it really pains me that the nuclear industry is able to summon up his pro-nuclear advocacy as one of the strongest shots in their rapidly emptying locker. And even though he is still out there as the man who ‘fell in love’ with nuclear power at the time of the Fukushima disaster, I can’t help but notice that he may be having second thoughts.

The headline for his Guardian article on October 22 was a simple one: “The Farce of Hinkley C will Haunt Britain for Decades”.

It turns out that even George Monbiot is opposed to the Government’s plans to build two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. That won’t exactly have EDF quaking in their lead-lined boots, but it must piss them off just a little.

It’s worth analysing this change of heart in a more detail, based on that article. And whilst keen to avoid any hint of ‘told you so’, it may be helpful to compare his newly-minted objections to Hinkley Point with the letter that myself, Tom Burke, Tony Juniper and Charles Secrett (as former Directors of Friends of the Earth) wrote to the Prime Minister back in March 2012

1. The Overall Cost

GM: “We should not accept nuclear power at any cost. And at Hinkley Point, the cost is too high.”

While George was weighing up in his mind some time ago whether to go with nuclear or not, he apparently reviewed all the available cost estimates for nuclear – and not one of them was as high as it now seems that the cost of Hinkley Point will be. George is apparently very surprised at this. No-one else is.

So how high is ‘too high’ for George? You might enjoy extracts of the preliminary analysis of the Hinkley Point deal carried out by City experts, Liberum Capital: 

“As far as we can see, at £8bn per reactor, this makes Hinkley Point the most expensive power station in the world (excluding hydro schemes) on a per MW basis. By way of contrast, for the cost of £16bn for the 3,200 MW to be built, the UK could build 27,000 MW of new gas-fired power stations, solving the ‘energy crunch’ for a generation.”

Here’s what we said to the PM in March 2012:

“EDF will not be able to finance new nuclear in Britain on its own balance sheet. It will be relying on at least an implicit guarantee from the French and UK Governments to lower its cost of capital. If this is not forthcoming, raising the £25 billion that will be needed for Hinkley and Sizewell will prove very difficult. Indeed, many independent commentators in the City are already deeply sceptical.” 

(Incidentally, that figure would now be £32 billion, not £25 billion for both Hinkley and Sizewell)

2. Financial Issues

GM: “This deal looks as bad as any Private Finance Initiative contract.” 

In other words, we’re all going to be screwed by EDF, who have persuaded the Treasury that the deal should be ‘fully indexed to the Consumer Prices Index’.

Beyond that, and even more astonishingly, the deal-breaker on finances will be the two Chinese nuclear companies that have joined forces with EDF to construct the two reactors at Hinkley Point. EDF on its own is a busted flush, with huge debts and a chronically exposed balance sheet. It therefore had no choice but to do the deal with the Chinese companies. They’re in it to get a toe-hold in Europe’s moribund nuclear marketplace, but they won’t pay too high a price for that speculative position. So it’s still possible that nothing will actually happen here at all. 

Liberum Capital again:

“The UK is taking a massive bet that fossil fuel prices will be extremely high in the future. If that bet proves to be wrong then this contract will look economically insane when Hinkley Point is commissioned. We are frankly staggered that the UK Government thinks it was appropriate to take such a bet.

Especially if the European Commission rules that this unprecedented level of subsidy for EDF breaches its state aid rules. Commissioner Almunia has just announced that he will be carrying out a detailed examination of the deal, and though it’s clear that France and the UK will be pleading for this to be seen as a special case, there are many other countries (including Germany and Austria) that will not be prepared to go along with an outright breach of the rules.

Here’s what we said to the Prime Minister in March 2012:

“The path to nuclear new build in Britain will be much harder and more expensive than the Government has yet recognised. It will be hard to explain why we are buying a reactor type that France itself is abandoning. Nor is there a plausible, let alone compelling case that this is necessary for security of supply. Furthermore, there is growing risk of policy failure due to the decisions of others and constraints on our ability to meet investor expectations. The biggest risk is that EDF will prevaricate, continue to delay the investment decision, while repeating its promises in order to negotiate a more favourable shift of risk to us. Meanwhile, we would be deterred from moving ahead more aggressively on our efforts to reduce electricity demand and other measures to drive down electricity bills.”

3. Nuclear Waste

GM: “A fundamental principle of all development is that we should know how the story ends. In this case, no-one has the faintest idea. No-one should commission a mess without a plan for clearing it up.”

Yes, George, spot on. As we’ve been pointing out ever since we started up our campaign against any kind of renaissance in the UK nuclear industry.

4. Inappropriate Technology

GM: “The clunky third-generation power station for Hinkley C already looks outdated.”

Now there’s a surprise! Here’s what we said to the Prime Minister in our letter back in 2012: 

“Current experience with the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) led François Rousseley, the former head of EDF, to recommend that the EPR be abandoned. This advice was endorsed by a recent report from the French National Audit Office which also found the EPR to be too complex and too expensive. This will intensify EDF’s desire to transfer most of the construction risk for British EPRs to British taxpayers and consumers".

In truth, all of these things were crystal clear well before the Fukushima disaster. Since then, they have all become even more compelling reasons to reject the nuclear option.
So is George about to change his mind all over again? I’m not sure.

His pro-nuclear love affair could just going through a bit of a rocky patch. Nothing that can’t be sorted out by conjuring up a couple of new ‘white elephants’ out of his nuclear hat. In his article, he revealed how bedazzled he now is by “the promise of integral fast reactors and liquid fluoride thorium reactors.”

Don’t they just sound absolutely amazing! Try saying that out loud to see if you too feel a little frisson of sub-sexual arousal!

I’ll return at a later date to explain the full extent of wishful thinking on the part of anyone in putting their eggs into those two nuclear baskets. Suffice it to say for now that there’s not the remotest possibility of either option producing a single electron by 2025 at the earliest – which is roughly when Hinkley Point is scheduled to come on stream. 

And by 2025, almost all renewables will have been enjoying a decade of reducing costs and increasing efficiencies.

So what does George suppose he’s still up to? What a massive intellectual price there is to be paid to keep those nuclear dreams intact.

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04. 05. 2017
Susanna Allen

Someone has spiked his tea. Did he marry the daughter of the CEO of EDF? Has the nuclear industry promised to fund him for the rest of his life? His opinion on the nuclear industry is extraordinarily out of character, even to the point of a Chernoble denial! This is someone who valiantly refused to pick up the financial reward of an Italian book prize, because he could not justify flying a plane to get there! Every single other opinion of his goes the furthest I have ever read on exposing the real way the world is run, cooly, calmly and factually. Climate change and how to prevent it has been a huge part of his output, even exposing the negative impact of sheep across our land. What part of that amazing brain has been snuffed out? (Please don't stop writing about everything else!)

27. 02. 2014
Chris Murray

Monbiot’s naivety is staggering. He is also clueless on the low level radiation debate. Because of his self-confessed inadequacy years ago in evaluating claims from the anti-nuclear movement, rather than produce a rational re-evaluation, he has, in a fit of hysterical pique, gone to the other extreme. In particular, he and others have been allowed get away with the disgraceful claim that Chernobyl only killed a few dozen people, with the implication that this is close to the final death toll.

UNSCEAR, a collection of radiation users, and hardly neutral on the issue, is deemed by Monbiot to be a supreme authority. Even if this dubious promotion is accepted, Monbiot’s claims re Chernobyl and Fukushima still fail. In spite of a claimed thirst for reason, and accuracy, for the facts, for perspective and scientifically sound references, Monbiot has, utterly incredibly, ignored all his own preaching and elevated UNSCEAR’s concerns about the magnitude of the risks (not their existence), and UNSCEAR’s consequent unwillingness to quantify the total risk, into a complete dismissal of the risks altogether, and has totally ignored the many caveats from UNSCEAR.

He has ignored one in particular, from the very report he quotes (UNSCEAR 2008, Annex D, Paragraph D274) - "Although the numbers of cancers projected to be induced by radiation exposure from the accident are very small relative to the baseline cancer risk, THEY COULD BE SUBSTANTIAL IN ABSOLUTE TERMS" (My emphasis – even a “very small” increase in baseline risk of say 0.5%, could result in 10,000 cancers among a population of 10 million, assuming baseline cancer mortality of 20%).

Got that, George? Here it is again: “....the numbers of cancers.....COULD BE SUBSTANTIAL IN ABSOLUTE TERMS”. There has been not been the slightest peep from Monbiot, the self-proclaimed great lover of impartial science and honest journalism, about this, from his own source, from the – according to him - all-knowing UNSCEAR itself.

UNSCEAR, which was part of the Chernobyl Forum, was unwilling to put absolute numbers on Chernobyl's projected death toll, claiming concerns re uncertainties. The WHO was also part of the Chernobyl Forum. In April 2006, it stated

“Within the UN Chernobyl Forum initiative the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a series of expert meetings from 2003 to 2005 to review all scientific evidence on health effects associated with the accident. The WHO Expert Group used as a basis the 2000 Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), updated with critical reviews of published literature and information provided by the governments of the three affected countries. The Expert Group was composed of many scientists who had conducted studies in the three affected countries as well as experts world wide........The WHO Expert Group placed particular emphasis on scientific quality, using information mainly in peer-reviewed journals, so that valid conclusions could be drawn. In addition, comparisons were made with the results from studies of people involved in previous high radiation-exposure situations, such as the atomic bomb survivors in Japan....................The Expert Group concluded that there may be up to 4 000 additional cancer deaths among the three highest exposed groups.....Projections concerning cancer deaths among the five million residents....... suggest that up to 5 000 additional cancer deaths may occur in this population".

Again there is not the barest whisper of all this from the intrepid Monbiot, never mind that these figures could legitimately be roughly doubled to allow for deaths across wider Europe, and doubled again to allow for the recent dropping by WHO of DDREF 2.

Monbiot’s “case” is largely based on pro-nuclear distortions of some things UNSCEAR said, pro-nuclear omissions of other things UNSCEAR said, and pro-nuclear third-hand drivel – the ignorant blatherings of Mark Lynas, who in turn has allowed himself to be spoon-fed hormesis quackery by a classically nutty professor, Wade Allison. Because Allison’s work is self-published, his outlandish claims have not been subjected to the scientific assessment required by peer-reviewed journals. Data and claims have to withstand the peer review process if they're to be treated by other scientists as worthy of further investigation.

Allison has based his case on ignorance, obsessive ideology, wishful thinking, and thin air. He is one of a motley collection of cranks peddling pseudo-scientific gibberish about radiation thresholds and hormesis, unpublishable in reputable scientific circles. They appear to have begun with the assumption that, since we’re surrounded by radiation it must be good for you (like flu maybe?), and trying to retrofit the evidence to match. Allison, a physicist, wants to increase the current radiation limits a thousandfold. He has been called “deluded” and “a menace to society” by senior radiobiologists, experts in the field.

If Monbiot was a serious science journalist rather than a grandstanding ego-maniac, if he genuinely wanted the scientific position on low level radiation, and was genuinely concerned about the long-established scientific consensus, and really wanted impeccable scientific references, then, rather than serve as a mouth-piece for the ramblings of a few eccentric pro-nuclear crackpots, he could have, and still could, look more closely at UNSCEAR, WHO and Chernobyl Forum reports, rather than cherry-pick to suit his prejudices. Rather than attack straw men, he could look up the proceedings of the 21st LH Gray Conference, or the BEIR VII report, or the ICRP’s 2006 report, which examined the evidence for threshold and hormesis, and firmly rejected them. The oft-babbled nonsense about populations in areas of high background radiation “proving” that radiation is perfectly safe has also been examined, and thoroughly dismissed.

Monbiot’s articles would hardly have read as favourably to the nuclear industry if they had been more scientifically accurate and, instead of shouting “Chernobyl’s death toll is only 47!”, applied the almost universally accepted linear non-threshold (LNT) theory and stated honestly “Chernobyl’s death toll from cancer alone is possibly 36,000”.

As far as I know, Monbiot has not mentioned the 47 figure since 2011, apparently preferring to shift the goalposts and contrast nuclear deaths with coal deaths. But it matters. If I offer to do a job for you for £47, and then try to charge £36,000, would that be acceptable? If you protested about the almost three orders of magnitude difference and I replied, while lecturing you about honesty and accuracy and morality, “What’s the big deal? There are even bigger scams being played by the coal industry, and it’s either my scam or the coal industry scam”, would that be acceptable?

Monbiot’s figures on other aspects of the debate might be right or they might be wrong. I don’t know. All I can do is judge by what I do know. And I do know that his figures and position on low level radiation are ignorant and unscientific, based as they are on an internet chart and on Mark Lynas’s gullible parroting of Wade Allison’s wishful dreaming. Monbiot’s “science” makes junk science look good.

10. 12. 2013
Andrew Harmsworth

If EDF's nuclear power stations are so good, why don't we just contract to have them deliver electricity through the grid links to France?

10. 12. 2013
angela paine

Several years ago I wrote to George Monbiot, explaining in detail the results of the Kikk study, which demonstrated that within a five km radius of all nuclear power stations in Germany, there was double the incidence of childhood leukemia.
He asked me for proof and I sent him a DVD. He did not acknowledge receipt of this. I found him at Glastonbury Festival and asked him if he had received my DVD. He thanked me for it, but I'm sure he did not watch it.

He said he was converted to nuclear power when he saw the result of coal mining. did he ever go and have a look at an Uranium Mine? Does he know how many uranium miners die of cancer?

Angela Paine

07. 12. 2013

Who is George Monbiot ??? Not a nom-de-plume for another benighted George we can think of, surely? 'GM' being his bet-hedging alter ego??

Perhaps I should ask, WHAT is Geo M?
& why does his opinion on nuclear energy merit any publicity????

From the quotes above, it seems his comprehension of the dilemma is little advanced than mine - & I'm just a bloke in a cap whose instincts & casual observations have long ago concluded much the same as him. But I have been anti-nuclear for the 3 most obvious reasons, mentioned above, since b4 I can remember. ADC Bridgwater !!!

07. 12. 2013
Andy Harding

Dear Jonathan, please will you settle your differences with George Monbiot? I appreciate the issue of nuclear is contentious, however, the tone of disagreement between you appears to have taken a nasty turn.

The green movement needs you working together, despite differences, not fighting each other.



06. 12. 2013
Mike Hamblett

Stick with it George; you've brought many more into a complex debate and raised awareness of a compelling problem. My own view is that although nuclear is risky and savagely expensive, it still remains a zero carbon option. At the moment tho, fear of the known (accidents) is stronger than fearof the unknown (how hot is it going to get?). I'm sure you know that what will kill the nuclear option is that commisioning times will exclude it from being a viable alternative to fossil fuel.

05. 12. 2013
Alan Simpson

Brilliant. I have always said that the dreams of George (and others) about the next generation of 'sustainable' Thorium reactors was like my relationship with Angelina Jolie; intriguing in theory but remote from reality. Actually, Angelina and I are probably the better bet.

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