After Japan, this green guru’s gone pro-nuclear
Last week George Monbiot, the environmental writer, sat down at his computer and typed sentences like grenades, calculated to explode in the face of fellow greens. “You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power,” he wrote in The Guardian. “You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.”
The accident at Japan’s Fukushima plant was very bad, he conceded. “Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation … Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small.”
Isn’t it a bit early to say? “Unless something very big and unexpected happens,” he told The Sunday Times, “I think we have seen the worst of it. We have a pretty good idea these days what kind of dose makes someone ill, enhances the risk of cancer, or makes them die. And so far there has been no sign of anything even approaching what in humanitarian terms could be described as a catastrophe. It doesn’t touch the impacts of climate change.”
His change of heart has enraged former comrades on the eco barricades. Caroline Lucas, Britain’s first Green party MP, was quick to disagree: “Although George Monbiot and I agree on most things, on nuclear power we part company.”
Jeremy Leggett, founder of a solar power business, was with Lucas: if people such as Monbiot back nuclear power, Leggett fears, political support, and funding, will fall away from renewable sources of energy. On the internet, old enemies cheered Monbiot while supposed friends cursed him.
One comment hints at the feelings of betrayal: “Wow, add one more to the list of green traitors … Let’s site a nuclear plant in his back yard and make him eat the waste.”
As this suggests, he is not the first green champion to have jumped the fence. James Lovelock, who formulated the Gaia theory, which proposes that the world is a single, self-regulating organism, lost friends in 2004 when he first endorsed nuclear power as the only energy source realistically capable of feeding our requirements while also reducing greenhouse emissions.
He is merely the most famous of a list of others who have gone the same way. They include a former director of Greenpeace, Stephen Tindale, who described changing his mind in favour of nuclear as being “like a religious conversion”; Chris Goodall, a Green party parliamentary candidate and author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet; and Mark Lynas, author of the influential book about global warming, Six Degrees. On his blog last week Lynas offered to consume any Japanese milk, spinach and fava beans shown to contain above-average levels of radioactive iodine. “The political fallout from Fukushima,” Lynas wrote, “will be far more dangerous than anything physically radioactive.”
By political fallout, Lynas was pointing to the problems governments will now have selling nuclear energy to their people. And it does appear that Monbiot’s shift is untypical: a national opinion poll commissioned by Friends of the Earth suggests that the number of people who support new plants has fallen from 47% to 35%. Even in France, the world’s most nucleardependent country (it relies on the technology for 75% of its power), a shift has been detected against nuclear power. Monbiot grew up in Oxfordshire and attended an independent school, Stowe, before going to Oxford. His parents were prominent figures in the Conservative party.
From there he embarked on a textbook career as an environmental activist, claiming on his website to have been shot at, beaten by military police, and hospitalised after a clash with security guards in the road protests of the 1990s.
“I took my first direct action when I was eight years old,” he tells me. “I tried to stop a man on the common outside our house cutting down a tree where woodpeckers were nesting. I went home for lunch and when I came back it had been cut down. That was one of my first lessons in the perfidy of men with chainsaws.”
Another formative experience arose during summer holidays from university, when he regularly drove past the peace camp at Greenham Common, where opponents of American nuclear weapons gathered. “After a couple of weeks I couldn’t resist my curiosity any longer. I went and introduced myself.” He went back again and again.
Of his latest intervention, he says: “We live in a world of bullshit and I see my task as trying to sift it. I have a thick skin, but it does trouble me when I receive criticism from within the movements I feel I belong to. From time to time, I receive a great deal of vitriol. That has been the case in the last couple of days. But I’m not in a beauty contest here. I’m not trying to win friends. I’m just trying to say what I think is true.”
To be clear, he says his support for nuclear is conditional. “There has to be a great deal more openness in terms of inspection and records. We need a much clearer view of the costs. And the sound environmental principle is that you don’t make a new mess until you have cleared up the old one: it seems wrong to be commissioning new nuclear [power stations] before] we know where that old waste is going to go.”
But we do know in principle how to deal with high-level waste safely. “It can be done. The danger is that the operators do what is cheap and wrong rather than expensive and right.”
He remains concerned about the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. “There are good reasons to be suspicious of Iran’s nuclear programme. And if it’s not practicable to have open inspections, then the nuclear development should not go ahead.”
And lest there be any mistake, he doesn’t think nuclear power is better than renewables. “I would put renewables ahead of nuclear, but nuclear ahead of any fossil fuel option, because the dangers with fossil fuels are becoming clearer. An article in Scientific American recently found a gigawatt-hour of electricity generated by coal results in 100 times as much radioactive pollution as nuclear — because there are trace amounts of radioactive materials in coal. And so much of it is burnt that the residents around a coal plant have six times as much radioactive material in their bones as people living around nuclear plants.”
He hopes to see research start on a new kind of reactor that uses thorium instead of uranium. Thorium is more common than uranium and produces a fraction of the hazardous waste.
He is sceptical about Britain’s plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. “Can nuclear be delivered on time? No, because ‘on time’ was about 1990. Can it be delivered quickly enough to make a big difference? No, but the same applies to any large-scale solution we might envisage.
“If we were to switch to a largely renewable system, which would include a lot of marine solutions, the new grid connections would take as much time to build as new nuclear. They have to go through planning and a lot of people would object, reasonably enough, to the new pylons. You can’t magic up any large-scale solution in the blink of an eye.”
What about small-scale solutions? “The fundamental problem is that the places where people live are generally quite poor with ambient energy [such as winds and tides]. That’s why we live in those places — not on top of mountains or at sea or in a desert. We build our homes in sheltered places. And partly because of that, you generate far less electricity per pound spent than with large-scale solutions. Also you would require far more total infrastructure and materials than you do with large-scale.
“So it might feel like a green solution — because we environmentalists feel that small is beautiful — but with energy generation small is useless. A wind turbine needs to be at least 10 metres above any obstacles nearby. And that means the only efficient ones would be a terrible eyesore. Solar power makes sense in some countries, but in the UK it’s a dead loss.”
Oh dear. It all sounds hopeless. But Monbiot refuses to see himself as a doom-monger. “I am often called Private Frazer [after the Dad’s Army character], but I don’t think we’re doomed. Large-scale renewables do have a lot to offer. But everybody does need to try to cut their own consumption.”
Four years ago, with that in mind, Monbiot moved with his wife and daughter from Oxford to Wales, to live in a well-insulated house with wood-burning stoves and enough land to grow all their own food. But not long after the move, the couple separated. “I now live with my daughter some of the time and two lodgers.” There’s also a cat that prowls on his desk while he works.
“I’m lucky enough to have half an acre of land. In normal circumstances that’s more than enough to provide all the food we need. But unfortunately it was a devastating winter and wiped out all my kale, broccoli, winter salads and slightly optimistic fruit like kiwi and figs and Chilean guavas and frost-tolerant oranges and lemons. So things aren’t looking too good.”
Happily, the remote location gives him opportunities to research his next book, about “re-wilding” Britain. “I’m loving it. A lot of the research involves being at sea in my kayak, or snorkelling, or walking in the mountains.”
Like other greens, Monbiot is often accused of telling other people how to live. It’s unclear whether he’s sending himself up, or being deadly serious, when I ask if there is a downside to his remote location. “Obviously, there are some things I can’t do,” he says. “I can’t go on Channel 4 News, or Newsnight, as easily as before. But I have broadband. I can use Skype. One of the great benefits of modern technology is that I can tell people how to lead their lives wherever I am.”
1720 words. First published 27 March 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.