There was a strong response and discussion following my posting where I mentioned my run-in with David Noonan of the Australian Conservation Foundation. So I decided to bring this post forward while I work on Part II of the Energy Plan.
Jim Green is a member of Friends of the Earth. I don’t know Jim but FoE is another organisation that I consider to have admirable goals, history and actions in a great many areas. I particularly admire the way FoE seems to get on the front lines in real global environmental trouble spots such as in settings of rampant deforestation in South East Asia. Here, they seem to do tough work, well, in partnership with other organisations. They appear to build evidence based studies using GPS coordinates, photographic evidence and scientifically referenced information to present the case, and they show no fear. Good on them.
Transplant this verve to Australia and it gets a little strange for me. God knows Australia has environmental problems, including in the management of forests, but we actually are not rampantly corrupt, and we basically manage natural resources like forests in a more sustainable and transparent way than the world trouble spots. My dealings with FoE in this setting, which were limited but direct during my years of working in Victoria, is that they lack a sense of compromise, and lack an appreciation of the value of forest and timber products and the value of jobs. Curiously, when the substitutes for construction timber are demonstrably worse for the environment, being mainly mined minerals, that doesn’t seem to cut through either. In a developed nation we must reach compromise in these areas. We need to accept that we are actually agents of management and stewardship for much of our environmental resources, some of which we will cordon off and conserve, and some of which we will use for a variety of purposes. Otherwise, the resources feeding our consumption will be imported from precisely the trouble spots FoE fights so hard to clean up! In this setting, I find the FoE approach a little hard to take. I concluded to my great disappointment that when FoE talks of a sustainable timber industry, what they actually mean is a cottage industry. It’s not the same thing. I can at least understand their motivations as it is pretty galling when the wrong things happen in our forests. But I disagree with their desired end point.
Then we get to nuclear power, and the situation gets truly ridiculous. They oppose it, vigorously. Exactly whose interests are they presuming to represent by opposing nuclear power? Surely not those in India who still burn sticks and dung for cooking fuel? Surely not those in China who burn coal directly in their homes? Surely not the rest of the Chinese living (and prematurely dying) in the Asian Brown Cloud, made partly from the emissions of factories and power plants? Surely not the poor worldwide who will be on the front line of the worst impacts of climate change?
Based on the article Radiation and Risk by Jim Green, which I was asked to rebut, they would appear to be representing deceased people who probably never existed. I realise that sounds weird, but read on and you will see. When I first read his article I was concerned. It sounded reputable and convincing, and seemed to be supported with his reference to the UNSCEAR. How could I rebut this?
I needn’t have worried. As I read the UN report, I was appalled to realise just how blatantly he had cherry picked from UNSCEAR, and the pains he had gone to in misrepresenting them. The only thing difficult about rebutting this was that the first five versions were unprintably angry. Even the version I eventually submitted to the editor was sent back for a little toning down.
Here is my article. The original on line publication can be found here, and it is well worth a read of the ensuing dual between Jim and I (and several others doing an admirable job of taking him to task) in the comments.
For someone like Jim to change his mind may be a bitter pill to swallow as my subscriber Podargus says, but I promise to be here with the glass of water when he or anyone else is ready. He can’t possibly be a horrible guy. But this type of thing can’t be allowed to go on unanswered and the environmental movement must urgently re-appraise the issue of nuclear power. Otherwise they are not behaving like Friends of any Earth I know.
Giving Green the red light
Ben Heard, Director – ThinkClimate Consulting
10th April 2011
In the fight against climate change, Jim Green and I should be on the same side. But something rotten is at work. Recently, George Monbiot demonstrated how Helen Caldicott rejects science and rigour in the pursuit of her anti-nuclear agenda. Green’s article Radiation and Risk , a rebuttal of an earlier piece by Wade Allison, suggests she may not be alone. There are many misleading lines of argument Green’s column. I’ve decided to confine myself to the cornerstone of the piece: the radiological health impacts of Chernobyl.
By way of background, Green works for Friends of the Earth (FoE), an organisation that is trusted by many, with a longstanding opposition to nuclear power. The popular perception of nuclear power as dangerous underpin FoE’s campaigns against it.
The peak body responsible for investigating Chernobyl is the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). Their 2008 report to the UN General Assembly, the work of 21 leading scientific representatives from 21 nations states that, to 2005, the death toll is 28 fatalities among emergency workers, plus 15 fatal cases of cancer. This poses a problem for FoE. If this is indeed the toll from Chernobyl, then nuclear power must basically be safe. If people know this, they will be more open to learning about nuclear power and may then drop their objections all together. Furthermore, the body reporting this finding is impeccably credentialed. The only way to get around this is to somehow both refute UNSCEAR, but also then leech off their credibility to produce a much larger death toll. That’s difficult, though not impossible.
In Radiation and Risk Green refutes UNSCEAR by first cherry-picking one paragraph from UNSCEAR’s 179-page report and using it three ways:
- Firstly, to infer that any author accurately repeating UNSCEAR’s findings on the specific known death toll of Chernobyl is misrepresenting UNSCEARs report (a shaky claim in the first place)
- Secondly, to infer that UNSCEAR didn’t do their job properly; that they chose to “shy away” from assessing broader radiation impacts
- Thirdly, to permit himself to re-calculate the death toll using a methodology specifically excluded by UNSCEAR due to “unacceptable uncertainties”: modelling cancer deaths among large populations exposed to very low level excess radiation over a long period.
So instead of looking carefully at what actually happened to people over 20 years to 2005 (as UNSCEAR did), Green takes the total radiation dose from Chernobyl, multiplies it by a standard rate of fatal cancers, and provides a new death toll from cancer. If that process sounds a bit shorthand to you, well, it is. Having reviewed 20 years of on the ground studies, UNSCEAR’s experts identified 15 fatal cancers. Green’s modelling estimates 30,000-60,000 fatal cancers. This incredible discrepancy surely confirms UNSCEAR’s point about the unacceptable uncertainty of the modelling approach adopted by Green. Even if the foremost experts in the field got it wrong by an order of magnitude, there would be 150 cancer deaths. Not 30,000-60,000.
Should you suspect me of cherry picking, the report is clear that efforts to understand the effects of Chernobyl have been exhaustive, and that there are very good reasons not to apply the modelling approach, such as the lack of evidence of carcinogenic effects at small radiation doses, and the fact that any conceivable increase would be so small as to be beyond detection . Two passages are reproduced below. For the purpose of rebuttal the original text is hard to improve upon (my emphases added).
There has been widespread misunderstanding …regarding the scale and the nature of the health impact of the Chernobyl accident. This is in part due to confusion regarding… theoretical projections of effects versus actual observations (pg 56, paragraph 37).
It is important to understand the significant statistical uncertainty associated with any projection based on modelling, which lends itself to estimations that are within an order of magnitude or even more (pg 64, paragraph 95).
So UNSCEAR didn’t “shy away” from modelling. They excluded it because they are professionals, and the modelling generates unreliable outcomes (Green’s 30,000-60,000 provides a good example).
What more needs to be said? Perhaps this. A significant impact from Chernnobyl is not radiological, but psycho-social. Borrowing the language of the report, exposed populations show stress symptoms including increased levels of depression and anxiety, with important consequences for behaviour such as choices in diet, smoking, drinking and “other lifestyle choices”. Calling that what it is, these people feel they have been robbed of their future by an invisible enemy, so see less reason not to eat, smoke, drink and engage in risky behaviour, sexual and otherwise, to the point of harming themselves. It’s tragic, it’s unnecessary, and UNSCEAR offers this reassurance:
From this annex based on 20 years of studies… it can be concluded that…the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident… Lives have been disrupted… but from the radiological point of view generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals involved should prevail (pg 65, paragraph 100).
UNSCEAR, using actual observations, gives those affected by Chernobyl confidence of long and healthy lives. The approach taken by Green, using theoretical projections, risks keeping them, and us, deeply afraid of radiation and cancer. That’s not good enough.
Somewhere in their history, the anti-nuclear movement appears to have decided that their ends justify any means. They appear prepared to distort credible sources in order to oppose the only near zero-carbon and scalable base load power source. Climate deniers use the same tactics to tell us climate change isn’t real. Both show a deep disrespect for the impartial ideal of science.
Those who resort to this modus operandi need to realise: this is not a game. Your actions risk exacerbating and perpetuating tragedy, and imperilling our future on this planet. Radiological health and climate change are both substantially informed by science. You have a responsibility to faithfully represent the scientific consensus of the former, as do others the latter. Anything less demonstrates a profound abuse of trust.
 “The Committee has decided not to use models to project absolute numbers of effects in populations exposed to low radiation doses from the Chernobyl accident, because of unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions. It should be stressed that the approach outlined in no way contradicts the application of the LNT (linear non-threshold) model for the purposes of radiation protection, where a cautious approach is conventionally and consciously applied.” Page 64, paragraph 98
 Page 47, paragraph 5
 Page 64, paragraph 95
 Page 64, paragraph 97
 Page 57, paragraph 45
 Page 58, paragraph 46