“This has got to stop, and it stops when people start taking a stand… The schism in environmentalism over nuclear power is now well underway. It is sad that the other side seem to have decided in their righteousness that they are allowed to play dirty and go after individuals, using the same cherry-picking abuse of science that is all to familiar in climate change denial.”
I was saddened this week to be forwarded a hatchet job on my friend and collaborator, Professor Barry Brook, authored by Jim Green of Friends of the Earth (FoE). Saddened, but not surprised. FoE has form in this department, having deployed these guerrilla tactics before against James Lovelock when he became inconveniently persuasive on the subject of nuclear power. It would seem that it is now Barry’s turn.
I have come to know Barry very well over the last 12 months. I know him well enough to know that he is both the last person who would ask for defending, and the most deserving of defence. So I offer this response to Green’s work. I really, dearly hope it will be read outside my circle of existing readers and supporters. I have some important things to say.
Green begins by getting some things really, really right. Namely, that Brook is highly qualified, highly regarded, extensively published, completely independent of the nuclear industry, and operating from a genuine concern about climate change. When you add to that the fact that he is highly influential, it becomes easy to understand why FoE have resorted to getting the hatchet out.
We are told Barry glibly believes “it’s nuclear power or it’s climate change”. This is an inaccurate and out-of-context portrayal of his position. It is a deeply considered and thoroughly researched position from a highly qualified scientist, the head of Climate Science at Adelaide University no less. It also happens to be a position that is largely shared by a long and growing list of prominent environmentalists (including the aforementioned Lovelock, James Hansen, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas) who have taken themselves through a similar process of critical examination of this problem as has Barry.
More times than I can recall, Barry has made the point that he does not care which technology does the job of rapid decarbonisation to avoid the worst effects of climate change. It is simply his well researched opinion that the central technology will need to be nuclear power or we will not succeed. Others are free to agree or disagree with him. But he states his case so cogently and robustly that every day more and more people are compelled to agree.
To suggest he is in error, Green refers to other, non-nuclear plans that supposedly demonstrate the redundancy of nuclear including a 2011 piece by Dr Mark Diesendorf of the University of NSW. I’m familiar with the Diesendorf study. I read both a critique of it and then a rebuttal from Diesendorf himself at this great site called Brave New Climate, run by a guy called Barry Brook. You see Barry (and therefore BNC) is not remotely concerned by robust debate on energy solutions. He positively encourages it, including running a very interesting and useful piece from none other than Jim Green! BNC is probably the best moderated and therefore most reliable place on the Australian web for robust, genuine debate.
It is precisely because of his commitment to robust discussion and debate that Barry is confident to hold such forthright opinions on nuclear power. Time and time again, efforts to beat the problem without nuclear are shown to lie somewhere between tenuous and impossible. Barry is responsible enough to understand these limits, and honest enough to look the problem of climate change in the eye. That’s why he is influential.
We are told that Brook trivialises the connection between nuclear power production and the spread of nuclear weapons. To show how “non-trivial” the connection is, we are given this information:
- Of the 65-odd countries with a nuclear program of any significance (involving power and/or research reactors), over one-third have used their ‘peaceful’ programs to advance weapons ambitions.
- Of the 10 countries to have built nuclear weapons, six did so with support and political cover from their “peaceful” programs (India, North Korea, South Africa, Pakistan, France and Israel).
- About 45 countries have the capacity to produce significant quantities of fissile material (more or less depending on where you draw the line with small-medium research reactors), and a vast majority of those countries acquired their fissile material production capacity through peaceful nuclear research or power programs.
Using Green’s own data, of 65 nations with some sort of nuclear program, only 10 have developed weapons. Access to nuclear technology is clearly not the major determinant in the development of weapons. Green tells us 45 nations are quite technologically capable of producing fissile weapons material. Surely the interesting point here is that they choose not to. Australia is one of these nations. If mis-used, the Lucas Heights reactor is perfectly capable of producing sufficient fissile material for a weapon in the course of a year. We have the technological capability right now. Declining to use nuclear power generation does not alter that. It just gives us dirtier air and higher greenhouse gas emissions.
Green leaves out some other important context. Of the 10 nations, that have developed weapons, five of them (US, Russia, China, UK, France) were armed by 1964. This is a legacy issue that we are still dealing with, but quite irrelevant to our decision making on meeting energy needs in 2012 and beyond. The other four (Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea) have armed since 1964. One (South Africa) has completely disarmed. Nuclear weapons proliferation is indeed very concerning. But it is not a runaway, out of control problem. The most recent weapon states lie in the world’s major trouble spots. The rest of the world uses nuclear energy and medical reactor technology with no attempt to arm. This problem is clearly geopolitical, not technological.
I presume Green would really prefer people not consider that the enriched material from 17,000 warheads has been downgraded and used as fuel in power reactors through the Megatons to Megawatts program. Nuclear power has provided a safe, sensible pathway for removing this material from circulation. Or that General Electric’s proposal to build a Prism Fast Reactor for the UK is clearly the best solution to that nation’s stockpile of plutonium.
Barry trivialises nothing. Green could easily have cited articles of Barry’s that have opened discussion with his large readership to examine these issues in detail like this and this. He is one of the deepest thinkers I know, and a very moral person. On the subject of weapons proliferation, there is no quick answer that can be handed out in debate. Barry has simply looked at this issue dispassionately and come to a very rational conclusion: the current and expanded use of nuclear power has almost nothing to do with the challenge of proliferation, and may in fact hold some very important solutions. The issue is complex, and deserves more consideration than a knee-jerk rejection of a clean energy option.
The piece then moves into the convoluted issues of radiation and the linear non-threshold theory of harm. I am going to largely leave this to Barry to make a technical response, though I have tackled Green on this subject before. But in the general issue of nuclear safety, Green says this:
Still Brook is adamant that “nuclear power is the safest energy option”. Safer than wind and solar? He could only arrive at that conclusion by using the nuclear industry’s methodology: only consider accidents at nuclear power plants rather than accidents across the energy chain; understate the death toll from accidents by several orders of magnitude; only consider accidents rather than routine emissions; and ignore the greatest hazard associated with nuclear power — its repeatedly demonstrated connection to WMD proliferation (most recently with North Korea’s use of an “experimental power reactor” to produce plutonium for weapons).
In this statement, Green is simply completely incorrect. The Energy Related Severe Accident Database maintained by the (independent) Paul Scherrer Institute considers the full energy chain in making the clear finding that nuclear power is the safest major power source in the world. The ERSAD does not consider the “routine emissions” from nuclear. Nor does it for coal and gas, which are responsible for a goodly portion of the 1.3 million deaths attributed by WHO to outdoor air pollution every year. Given the “routine emissions” of nuclear basically consist of water vapour, the deaths should be some small fraction of the number zero. While the ERSAD does not make a comparison with wind and solar, to do so would be pointless. They supply so little of the world’s electricity, the comparison would be quite meaningless. We in fact run a great climate change risk by engaging in planning that these energy sources are quickly capable of displacing fossil fuels en masse. They are not.
Finally, saddling nuclear power with the hazard of nuclear weapons is about as sensible as apportioning some of it to the steel industry for the missile casing, some to the av-gas industry for the missile fuel, and some to the physics departments for working out how to aim the missile. It is a lame duck argument.
Nuclear power is safe. Very, very safe, and only getting safer. There could be no better example than Fukushima, but here Green accuses Barry of spreading misinformation. I would like to test that.
Green disputes Barry’s position that the event will likely result in little if any radiological injury by asserting a likely death toll of in the 100’s or around 1,000. He provides references. Presumably, he hopes no one will read them carefully. I’m a little bit annoying like that.
The reference for 100s of deaths is called Fukushima Accident: Radioactive Releases and Potential Dose Consequences and subtitled Preliminary Investigations June 28, 2011. Preliminary is right; this reference was published just three months following the event. I have reproduced the third final and final slide from which Green infers fatalities “in the 100s”. Bear with me, things are going to get a bit boring and technical for a moment. I’m afraid the truth is often like that.
Green’s use of this reference is so misrepresentative as to be bordering on dishonest. An increased mortality rate of 0.001% is very much the same thing as 0%. The final slide makes it clear that their message is one that latent deaths “can’t be ruled out” but “conservative risk estimates suggest 100s” of cancers against a background of 10 million cases.
This is all quite ridiculous. Calling a spade a spade, any conceivable impact will be so small as to be completely undetectable, which is the prevailing finding of experts one year down the track. This so called “increased risk” is utterly pitiful against the range of very serious and well established risk factors for cancer. It is a non-issue. My questions for Green on this are therefore:
- Did you look for more recent references and not find them? Or did you not look?
- Is this massive mis-representation of the reference your own work? Or did you not even read the reference properly?
Green’s second reference, citing 1,000 deaths, has a couple of clangers. It’s too good to paraphrase. Here is the direct quote:
A corresponding estimate of the cancer consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident has not yet been conducted, but it is possible to make a very preliminary order-of-magnitude guesstimate … one might expect around 1,000 extra cancer deaths related to the Fukushima Daiichi accident
I did not make that up. The author Green himself cites for the upper fatality figure calls his own figure “a very preliminary, order of magnitude guesstimate”. It is, quite simply, appalling that anyone would lean upon a “very preliminary order of magnitude guesstimate” to suggest that a thousand people are going to die. This is deeply, deeply unfair. It is this sort of from-the-hip activism that contributed to fear-driven psychological illness being the major latent impact of Chernobyl. In a stunning irony, Green’s own reference makes this very point in the next paragraph for Fukushima:
Finally, it is important to note that, if not dealt with properly, the psychological consequences associated with accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima could damage many more lives than the cancer consequences.
Publicly accusing someone of spreading misinformation is a serious charge. Anyone doing so should make sure their own house is in order first. This time, my questions for Green are as follows:
- How much of your work depends on “very preliminary order of magnitude guesstimates?”
- Are you aware that your own reference warns against the very serious consequences of the misunderstanding of radiation risk? If so, why have you contributed to the problem? If not, why not? Do you not read references completely?
Green’s misuse and abuse of references, whether the result of laziness or something worse, leave him with little credibility. This does not stop him and others continuing to make great hay out of Barry’s erroneous prognostications early in the unfolding Fukushima event. But there are two things they don’t ever, ever do:
- Point out where Barry, on his own site, revisits this mistake, corrects the record and engages in some searching self-criticism
- Follow Barry’s example in the now innumerable examples of incorrect, foolish and downright dangerous misinformation that has been spread about nuclear power, such as those highlighted above
For example, in response to my own recent piece on activists deliberately stoking outrage, Green put the hard word on the Brisbane branch of FoE who were continuing to highlight a (medically impossible) link between Fukushima and a “spike in deaths” in the USA in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Apparently even Green has his limits. But will you find a retraction from FoE? No. A correction? Certainly not. Some self criticism as to how such absolute claptrap could have been posted under their good name? No way. Acknowledgement that is was only through sheer embarrassment caused by an independent blogger that they finally removed it in the first place? You get the picture.
I have not enjoyed writing this, nor indeed needing to write it in the first place. I don’t like seeing a cheap hatchet job on one of our best and brightest scientists, not just because he is a friend of mine, but because he is an outstanding Australian and a caring leader in our global community. I don’t like knowing someone has bastardised references, only to find it is way, way worse than I would even have expected. I don’t like watching environmental organisations, some of which I supported with both my money and my time when I was younger, sink this low and keep sinking, seemingly proud of their efforts. I really don’t like that it seems impossible to give a firm rebuttal without taking an individual to task, and I hate that someone undecided on nuclear power may read this and think that I just hate FoE.
But bullshit like this has got to stop, and it stops when people start taking a stand. The schism in environmentalism over nuclear power is now well underway. It is sad that the other side seem to have decided in their righteousness that they are allowed to play dirty and go after individuals, using the same cherry-picking abuse of science that is all too familiar in climate change denial. Based on the way so many issues play out, I think it would be a real tactical mistake to presume that this sort of cheap, tabloid activism does not work, and to think we can fight this without getting into the mud.
If you indentify as someone who cares about the environment, you DO have a choice to make in the next few years: you are either pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear. There are two camps. Please, look carefully. Think critically. Choose wisely.