why Monbiot protests too much

In response to criticism of his earlier articles, in which he’d argued that the dangers of nuclear power are being exaggerated, Monbiot’s most recent article now accuses his opponents within the environmental movement of having double-standards. He writes:

“If low-level radiation really was the problem that some environmentalists say it is, the focus of their campaign should be coal plants, not nuclear power. As Scientific American notes:
“The fly ash emitted by a power plant – a by-product from burning coal for electricity – carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.”
This is because coal contains trace amounts of uranium and thorium, which are concentrated in the ash. Not only does this expose people living around coal plants to higher doses of radiation than people living around nuclear plants; but the regulations for disposing of fly ash are far weaker than the regulations for disposing of low-level nuclear waste.”

Now, Monbiot perhaps doesn’t imagine that many readers will bother to click to the link and read the original Scientific American notes, but any who do will find a footnote with the following caveat:

“As a general clarification, ounce for ounce, coal ash released from a power plant delivers more radiation than nuclear waste shielded via water or dry cask storage.”

Ah, well that’s not exactly a fair comparison then, is it really…

Aside from distorting the truth by cherry-picking his facts, the fulcrum of Monbiot’s argument depends upon on “the importance of the scientific consensus”, which he asserts to be firmly in favour of the industry. He writes:

“We emphasise, when debating climate change, the importance of the scientific consensus, and reliance on solid, peer-reviewed studies. But as soon as we start discussing the dangers of low-level radiation, we abandon that and endorse the pseudo-scientific gibberish of a motley collection of cranks and quacks, who appear to have begun with the assumption that it must be killing thousands of people every year, and retrofitted the evidence to match it.”

The problem with this kind of thinking is, however, that regardless of whether any such a consensus exists or not (and as an outsider I feel unqualified to know), consensus must never be confused with scientific truth. Indeed, whenever push comes to shove in any scientific discipline, and accepted theory is challenged by new findings, it is always the consensus that breaks first. Every scientist accepts this, even relishes it, fully aware that truth, and not agreement, is what finally counts. And every scientist also knows that certainty is a scientific rarity, as science itself merely tightens the gaps in our understanding; gaps that then grow larger again whenever disciplines become more complex.

In this case, we are concerned with the radiological and toxicological impact of nuclear pollution on biological systems. This requires an understanding of what happens when organisms are subjected to external sources of radiation, and also what happens when similar sources become absorbed into the body as poisons. To do justice, therefore, thorough research must involve the study of a varied range of harmful effects, from ones that are fairly immediate, such as death due to radiation sickness, to effects that may cause cancer and other illnesses in later years, and even in future generations. So here is a comparatively new area of study (almost all of the research carried out since WWII) that requires a detailed understanding of relationships between mechanisms that are chemical, physical and biological; given the circumstances then, we might reasonably expect results, and more importantly, the interpretation of results, to be complicated and perhaps even surprising. Basically, we are trying to understand something that is one heck of a lot more complicated than rocket science, which is only Newtonian physics after all, and so discovering the truth may take a little time.1

Intelligent skepticism is an essential and distinguishing feature of all scientific research, and yet Monbiot’s anti-scientific response is to immediately pour scorn upon just about anyone who deigns to challenge the currently accepted orthodoxy. Although, rather than attacking the dissenting view per se, he deploys an altogether cheaper form of assault: a sweeping ad hominem attack that is presumably intended to obscure and deflect attention from Monbiot’s own rather flimsy position as a radiological expert. Such an approach is quite frankly deplorable, but it also laughable…

Take for instance, Prof. Christopher Busby, who is one of the many supposed “cranks and quacks”. Busby, who trained as a chemist, subsequently researched chemical pharmacology and molecular drug interactions – which is obviously a useful platform to start from. By comparison, George Monbiot has a degree in zoology. Meanwhile, Busby, having spent twenty years researching the subject of radiological risk, has actually served as an advisor to both the UK government, and the European Parliament. He has also presented his concerns about the dangers of depleted uranium to the Royal Society. So when it comes to assessing the likely risks from exposure to radiation, and given such a vast gulf in comparative expertise, who is the more likely to be guilty of endorsing “pseudo-scientific gibberish”, Busby, Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risks, or Monbiot, a skillfully articulate journalist?

Here’s what Busby wrote a fortnight ago, with regards to Monbiot’s confidence in the safety of nuclear power:

“Most recently we have seen George Monbiot, who I know, and who also knows nothing about radiation and health, writing in The Guardian how this accident has actually changed his mind about nuclear power (can this be his Kierkegaard moment? Has he cracked? ) since he now understands (and reproduces a criminally misleading graphic to back up his new understanding) that radiation is actually OK and we shouldn’t worry about it. George does at least know better, or has been told better, since he asked me a few years ago to explain why internal and external radiation exposure cannot be considered to have the same health outcomes. He ignored what I said and wrote for him (with references) and promptly came out in favour of nuclear energy in his next article.”

In the same article, Deconstructing Nuclear Experts published on 28th March by CounterPunch, Busby continues:

“Joseph Conrad wrote: “after all the shouting is over, the grim silence of facts remain”. I believe that these phoney experts like Wade Allison and George Monbiot are criminally irresponsible, since their advice will lead to millions of deaths. …

In the meantime, I challenge each of them to debate this issue with me in public on television face to face, so that the people can figure out who is right. For the late Professor John Gofman, a senior figure in the US Atomic Energy Commission until he saw what was happening and resigned, famously said: “the nuclear industry is waging a war against humanity.” This war has now entered an endgame which will decide the survival of the human race. Not from sudden nuclear war. But from the on-going and incremental nuclear war which began with the releases to the biosphere in the 60s of all the atmospheric test fallout, and which has continued inexorably since then through Windscale, Kyshtym, 3-Mile Island, Chernobyl, Hanford, Sellafield, La Hague, Iraq and now Fukushima, accompanied by parallel increases in cancer rates and fertility loss to the human race.”

Committing ourselves to Monbiot’s leap of faith, and trusting in a consensus (one that is substantially informed by the vested interests of a powerful military-industrial lobby2), means pressing ahead with more and more nuclear power plants and dispensing with “the precautionary principle”, which, and especially in light of the unfolding disaster in Japan, at least exposes Monbiot’s own double-standard when it comes to the nuclear issue. If Busby is even broadly correct in his assessment of the spreading and invisible menace of radioactive pollutants, then moving away from our reliance on nuclear power will certainly save a great many human lives; or given the worst case, could, in the long run, quite literally save the planet… now, isn’t that what Monbiot believes in?

1 An open letter to George Monbiot from Low Level Radiation Campaign posted on Friday 25th March.

When nuclear apologists speak the language of dose they speak the language of deceit. If you speak it too, you become one of the liars you say you despise.

Dear George,
In your column in the
Guardian newspaper 22nd March 2011, you announced that the Fukushima disaster has made you stop worrying and love nuclear power. But you say you still hate the liars who run the industry. Unfortunately, ignorance (or maybe laziness) has led you to parrot the nukes’ favourite lie.

The basis of your argument is that as far as we know, no-one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation and you go on to reproduce an explanation of the range of radiation doses we are exposed to. It’s a simplistic classroom treatment which you found on the internet.

Like many simple explanations it is attractive, since it gives the impression that the ideas involved can actually be grasped, for once. This version is all the more attractive because its scope is large – it offers the reassurance that you have all the bases covered, like a dictionary, or a biblical concordance, or any kind of compendium. We have become used to comparisons between man-made radioactivity and natural and medical exposures; we have heard many dismissive statements like our pollution gives you a smaller dose than eating a banana or flying to Tenerife. Now, all of them are rolled up in one picture. How satisfying. And so, George, you picked out a few snippets to make us all feel stupid for being concerned about a few wrecked reactors.

The problem is that the concept of “dose” here is another simplification. For some kinds of radiation exposure it is even a fiction. This is because radiation “dose” is always an average, even for those kinds of radioactivity which only irradiate the DNA of a single cell, or which affect a few hundreds of cells very intensely but do not expose any of all the other trillions we have in our bodies.
The English king Edward II offers an analogy. His wife and her lover deposed him in 1327. They imprisoned him in Berkeley Castle and there he was, supposedly, murdered in the same year. I say supposedly because there is an academic dispute about even this – never mind radiation! Either way, the method his assassins allegedly used made his death the most famous in English royal history; a group of men pinned him beneath a mattress; they pushed a horn into his anus; through it they inserted a red-hot poker. In our analogy with the official view of radiation the King could have ignored the burning poker up his bum, reasoning to himself that the heat it was transferring into his body was, on average, far less than he’d absorbed in his nice warm bath earlier that evening. No-one supposes he did ignore it, but radiation risk practitioners ignore this issue of local exposure and localised damage. The fact that all competent scientific authorities now recognise that it is a challenge creates a paradox.

The Chernobyl disaster shows how big the challenge and the paradox are. Chernobyl contamination was global, but outside the areas nearest to the power station itself doses as calculated on the average dose model were about the same as natural background – say 2 – 3 milliSieverts. At this level there should be no observable increase in disease if the risk model is right. This dogma is repeated endlessly by apologists for nuclear power – After Chernobyl there was no increase in disease that could be attributed to the radiation. Spot the qualifier? They mean no increase that could be attributed to radiation on the bogus average dose model. In fact all are agreed there has been a massive breakdown in health.

The problem faced by radiation protection officials is that reactors create a massive cocktail of radionuclides with widely differing characteristics and different biochemistry. Some concentrate in muscle, some in bone, teeth and DNA, some in lymph nodes. Some don’t concentrate anywhere. Some cause localised damage, others don’t. Radioactivity is like poison – there are many different kinds and they operate by myriad biological mechanisms. Accurate modelling of the biological effects of either radioactivity or poison involves understanding the specific variations, but that makes regulation very complex. For convenience in the 1940s and early ’50s nuclear officials decided to treat the energy of the radioactive decays from all kinds of radionuclide as if they were a uniformly distributed dose. Then they quantified the expected disease, dose for dose, by reference to studies of the Japanese survivors of Hiroshima. These people in fact were exposed to a uniformly distributed dose – the flash of the bomb itself – and the effects of unevenly distributed internal radioactivity were excluded from the study by the clever trick of comparing the “exposed” bomb survivors with “unexposed” people (“controls”) who lived in the city but had been shielded when the bomb exploded. Thus the controls and the study group had equal amounts of radioactive fallout inside them.

It’s a plot so fiendish it is scarcely credible. But George, according to the Guardian, you are one of the UK’s foremost thinkers and environmentalists so you should be able and anxious to check it out. Will you? Consider; if someone asked you what dose of poison is safe wouldn’t you want to know what poison they had in mind – aspirin or arsenic, alcohol or aflatoxin? Wouldn’t you ask a toxicologist about the precise dangers of the particular substance? Don’t we deserve the same scientific specificity?
When you have checked it out, please tell us what you think the future holds for the people of Honshu.

2 If you decide to look up Christopher Busby then there’s a good chance that you’ll come across his biography on Wikipedia. Once there you will find the following:

“He served on the UK Government’s Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (CERRIE), which operated between 2001 and 2004, ultimately disagreeing with the committee’s conclusions and publishing a ‘minority report’ with another committee member.”

A footnote, which you might presume would take you to the “minority report” in question, in fact does not. Instead it refers you to a document entitled “Reflections on CERRIE” by Richard Wakeford (2004) from the Journal of Radiological Protection 24 (4): 337–340. This document is highly critical of the committee and damning of Busby’s role in it:

“I felt that the first meeting of the Working Group had confirmed my suspicions that we had been brought together largely to consider (and, presumably, endorse) the views of Chris Busby.”

With regards to the ‘minority report’, Wakeford continues:

“I do not believe that a wholly separate document was supported by any scientific need; but I also believe that there exists a political dimension to the ‘minority report’, which cannot be ignored. Chris Busby is essentially an aspiring politician who happens to have scientific qualifications – he is the Green Party’s spokesperson on science and technology and has stood for election to the European Parliament – and, in my view, his actions must be seen in this light. It would be asking too much of him to make substantial concessions on the very issue that has brought the media publicity that provides the fuel to drive a political career.”

So the question you may be pondering now is who is Richard Wakeford. Well, for once, Wikipedia offers no answers – at least not immediately. However if you read the opening paragraph to “Reflections on CERRIE” there’s a clue (highlighted here in red):

“CERRIE membership was an eclectic mix of anti-nuclear campaigners (one each from Greenpeace, the Low Level Radiation Campaign (LLRC) and Green Audit), the National Radiological Protection Board (three members), the nuclear industry (me) and five scientists…”

Look a little further and you’ll discover that this outspoken proponent for scientific impartiality and apolitical neutrality was the CERRIE representative from BNFL (see “affliations” on page 2 of Radioactive Times Vol 6, no. 1. ) and is the current editor of Journal of Radiological Protection.

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1 Comment

Filed under analysis & opinion, Japan, nuclear power, Uncategorized

One response to “why Monbiot protests too much

  1. this is well worth a read.. x x x

    Like

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