Tag Archives: George Monbiot

fracking is just one symptom of our diseased democracies: how do we find a cure?

Of all the many troubles we face, from the huge repercussions of giving free rein to a criminal and insolvent financial services ‘industry’, to the rapid installment of a super-Orwellian grid for mass surveillance thanks to the NSA and GCHQ (and it’s hard to draw a clear division between the two agencies since evidently they share so much of our data and metadata), there is one that fills me with a more imminent sense of foreboding. That singular issue, fracking, my personal bugbear (at least for the present), somehow encapsulating everything that is so diabolically wrong with our democracies.

A branch-line of arguably the most ruthless and disreputable of all corporate sectors – takes some doing, but the hydrocarbon industry would at the very least be nominated for such an award, and that’s to say nothing of fracking pioneers Halliburton – first puts out its totally ludicrous lie that fracking has never caused any significant damage either to the environment or to human health. Notwithstanding such scandalous denials, the spokesmen of this same industry then lie again in efforts to allay our fears, making contradictory assertions that fracking in the UK will be completely, absolutely, and categorically different to more lax fracking practices carried out in other places. Perhaps even more flabbergasting, however, is that anyone outside of the industry gives credence to any of these corporate refutations and guarantees, yet predictably, it seems, some do… which amply illustrates the efficacy of a deviously clever and exceedingly well-funded public relations campaign.

Nevertheless, as trial drilling began in Britain, protesters gathered in huge numbers – just as anti-fracking protesters have gathered in huge numbers throughout the world. They came out to remind our contemptible Con-Dem government that this is not simply an environmental issue (as vitally important as this is), but that without proper consultation with local communities, any permission granted to frack under our neighbourhoods means yet another stab into the heart of (what we laughably still call) our democracy.

So back in early July, shortly after government plans for widespread fracking in Britain had been revealed, I decided to contact local constituency Labour MP Paul Blomfield in order to express my alarm. At the time I didn’t know if Blomfield felt similarly concerned about fracking nor the Labour Party’s official position. But I dashed off a quick email as follows:

Dear Paul,

The most pressing environmental issue facing this area of the world right now is fracking. Please stand up and challenge these plans to begin destroying our beautiful countryside and poisoning the precious ground water.

Best wishes,

James Boswell

Not the best email I’ve ever written, and after a month without reply I imagined it had found its contents emptied into Paul Blomfield’s recycle bin. But no, come mid August [14th] and to my surprise, Blomfield had put together an extended reply that was waiting in my own inbox:

Dear James

Thank you for your e-mail concerning fracking.

It must be a top priority to decarbonise our power supply as a matter of urgency if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. This is why the Labour party has said this will be in our manifesto at the General Election. Indeed I challenged David Cameron on a decarbonisation target for the power sector at Prime Minister’s Questions in February and pressed the issue with the Energy Secretary Ed Davey in June. I feel strongly about these issues, am a member of Sheffield Renewables and recently, working with Green Alliance UK, organised a city-wide conference on the potential of community energy schemes.

However I would not completely rule out any role for shale gas within the UK’s energy mix, if it is accompanied by an expansion of renewable energy capacity and investment in carbon capture and storage. But it makes no sense at all for the Government to announce tax breaks and industry incentives before we know how much shale gas is actually recoverable, or before anyone even has a licence to extract it. This money should instead have been used to kick-start a major national retrofit scheme, which would reduce carbon emissions and bills and create thousands green-collar jobs. The UK has among the best renewable resources / technology in the world and we should be seizing this great opportunity, including research in to carbon capture and storage.

Finally, it is vital that we fully address the wider environmental concerns associated with fracking. It is therefore crucial that Parliament is able to properly scrutinise the Government’s proposals and to ensure that key environmental safeguards are met and that there is robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring in place.

The Labour Party has consistently called for a new regulatory regime for fracking, recognising that the current system is outdated and unworkable. We haven’t jumped on the “dash-for-gas” bandwagon and have instead set out six conditions that need to be met before fracking should be allowed:

1. Mandated disclosure of chemicals used in fracking and assessment by regulator of their potential environmental impact and only non-hazardous chemicals to be used in fracking mix.

2. Must be a full assessment of the well integrity to ensure casing and borehole not susceptible to leaking; this must meet current industry standards for other types of drilling.

3. Micro-seismic monitoring of the area prior to any drilling to determine what the potential impact would be on local area.

4. Full assessment of impact of water use on local community, including assessment of how much of the water will be reused or recycled.

5. An assessment of groundwater methane levels prior to fracking.

6. There should be at least a full year’s monitoring of all of the above before any drilling can proceed.

Labour’s Shadow Minister for energy has set out more on our position here: http://centrallobby.politicshome.com/latestnews/article-detail/newsarticle/tom-greatrex-osborne-should-listen-to-obama-on-shale/

Thank you once again for writing to me and sharing your views.

Best wishes,

Paul

Grateful for receiving a genuine response, I was also dismayed. Apparently the Labour Party too – our only major party not in government! – also has big plans for natural gas fracking. Picking between the lines I read “The Labour Party has consistently called for a new regulatory regime for fracking” with Blomfield’s personal position being “I would not completely rule out any role for shale gas within the UK’s energy mix”. In other words, we’ll do fracking too although we’ll be careful to avoid any of that nasty old Tory fracking. New Labour – new fracking! I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything different, but it was depressing nonetheless. I wrote back forthwith:

Dear Paul,

I am grateful to you for replying to my letter but feel that I must disagree with you on a number of important points. To keep this simple, I will try to respond with reference to the points as enumerated.

1. I fail to see how fracking can be done at all without the use of hazardous chemicals. Can you provide examples of fracking carried out anywhere else in the world that uses an environmentally benign mixture of chemicals?

When selling the scheme in Poland the industry also claimed that only non-hazardous chemicals would be used but this turned out to be an outright and deliberate lie.

2. Well casings fail time and time again, I forget the exact percentage but any claim that well casings can be made absolutely secure from leaking is simply another industry lie.

4. Fracking requires enormous quantities of fresh water which will put an immediate strain on our reserves in areas where it is carried out. Much of this water never returns to the surface, which is surely worrying enough, the rest is then polluted not only with the chemicals added but also with any heavy metals and radioactive isotopes dissolved from the shale. Since this contaminated water is costly to dispose of the industry has been caught many times simply spreading it on roads or fields or wherever else happens to be convenient.

5. An assessment of methane levels prior to fracking is better than nothing but it only serves to help in the case of claims for compensation after the damage is done and when people discover their property has become uninhabitable. This has again happened over and over again but the industry regularly uses bribes, threats and non-disclosure agreements to cover up the fact.

6. One year’s monitoring is nothing. Why the big rush? If fracking offers such a potential boon then surely any government should first convince a concerned public by having a proper public debate on the issue.

Additionally, I cannot understand how dislodging large amounts of methane from shale can in anyway help to decarbonise the country. Methane itself is a far more effective greenhouse gas than CO2 and when it is burned again it simply produces CO2.

I am a physicist by training and in truth I am dismayed by the complete lack of imagination and investment when it comes to finding and developing alternative sources of energy. At the beginning of the twenty-first century surely we must find better and cleaner solutions for securing our long term energy needs. We live on a small island surrounded by ocean, so whatever happened to plans for wave and tidal power for instance? Fracking is a short-sighted, short term solution that pollutes land and water and endangers human populations. It is being promoted by the same people who brought us Deep Water Horizon (quite literally in the case of Lord Browne who is the man behind Cuadrilla) and yet for some reason we are now being asked to trust them.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the case of Jessica Ernst who is a Canadian environmental scientist in the process of suing the energy company Encana for the damage done by fracking in Alberta. She points out that although Canada has the highest environmental standards and tightest regulations in the world, when it came to fracking the industry managed to run roughshod over all of that. Here is a link where you can access the relevant documents: http://www.ernstversusencana.ca/

Thanks again for replying to my previous letter. Hopefully, I have now more clearly outlined my objections to plans for widespread fracking of our beautiful island. I look forward to hearing from you.

James

Three months (to the day) have since passed and I am yet to receive any further reply from Paul Blomfield.

More recently I came across yet another documentary investigating environmental and health issues associated with fracking, this time focussing attention on the rush for gas in Britain and, in particular, plans for extensive drilling throughout the Mendips as well as the immediate effects of the test drilling already carried out in Lancashire.

The Truth Behind the Dash For Gas takes a detailed look at the contamination of land and drinking water, seismic effects, as well as other less immediately toxic or hazardous strains that fracking puts on local communities. It starts out, however, by simply making the more straightforward assertion that the UK government has been deeply infiltrated by industry insiders. As evidence for this, it offers a summarised breakdown of appointments to government courtesy of Lord Browne of Cuadrilla (formerly of BP), who had himself been appointed as the government’s “lead non-executive director” in 2010:

He will be the government’s “lead non-executive director”, working with cabinet ministers to appoint people to improve efficiency in each department.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said Lord Browne’s experience would be of “real benefit”.

The appointment comes as Whitehall is being asked to make spending cuts averaging 25% over five years.

Lord Browne will sit on the Cabinet Office board, chaired by Mr Maude. This will look to take on non-executive directors for all government departments.1

Click here to read the full BBC news report.

Another article published more recently in July of this year by The Independent going on to point out that:

There are more than 60 “non-executives” (Neds) who sit across Whitehall departments, largely drawn from Britain’s most impressive corporate talent. Their job is to help ministries be run in a more business-like manner, and Lord Browne is the overall lead for this group.

Lord Browne sits within the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s constituency includes Balcombe in West Sussex, another area where Cuadrilla is drilling. On his website, Mr Maude acknowledges that fracking “understandably rang alarm bells” after the tremors in Lancashire, but argues that “shale gas could help significantly by contributing both to improving our security and independence and to keeping prices down”.

Mr Laidlaw has been the lead non-executive at the Department for Transport. Centrica, which owns British Gas, recently bought a one-quarter stake in Cuadrilla’s most promising licence, which is the one in Lancashire.

Baroness Hogg sits in the Treasury, but she is also a non-executive director at BG Group, which has extensive shale gas interests in the US.2

Incidentally, you can find a list of these non-executive directors in Whitehall departments here.

So if it wasn’t bad enough that our politicians are quite openly bought off by lobbyists, the appointments of non-executive directors means that corporations are now also granted an unelected but direct foothold throughout government. As the bloated corporatocracy becomes ever more bloated, our remaining elected representatives presumably wondering who they more profitably serve. They say they work for us, but aside from the website theyworkforyou.com where’s the evidence? Returning to the issue at hand, are the electorate jumping up and down and demanding to be fracked? I certainly don’t hear them. The corporate ‘Neds’ on the other hand…!

George Monbiot expounds the same point in his latest Guardian article entitled “It’s business that really rules us now” and captioned “Lobbying is the least of it: corporate interests have captured the entire democratic process.” His article begins:

It’s the reason for the collapse of democratic choice. It’s the source of our growing disillusionment with politics. It’s the great unmentionable. Corporate power. The media will scarcely whisper its name. It is howlingly absent from parliamentary debates. Until we name it and confront it, politics is a waste of time.

The political role of business corporations is generally interpreted as that of lobbyists, seeking to influence government policy. In reality they belong on the inside. They are part of the nexus of power that creates policy. They face no significant resistance, from either government or opposition, as their interests have now been woven into the fabric of all three main political parties in Britain.

After supplying a range of pertinent examples, Monbiot continues:

The role of the self-hating state is to deliver itself to big business. In doing so it creates a tollbooth economy: a system of corporate turnpikes, operated by companies with effective monopolies.

It’s hardly surprising that the lobbying bill – now stalled by the House of Lords – offered almost no checks on the power of corporate lobbyists, while hog-tying the charities who criticise them. But it’s not just that ministers are not discouraged from hobnobbing with corporate executives: they are now obliged to do so.

Thanks to an initiative by Lord Green, large companies have ministerial “buddies”, who have to meet them when the companies request it. There were 698 of these meetings during the first 18 months of the scheme, called by corporations these ministers are supposed be regulating. Lord Green, by the way, is currently a government trade minister. Before that he was chairman of HSBC, presiding over the bank while it laundered vast amounts of money stashed by Mexican drugs barons. Ministers, lobbyists – can you tell them apart?3

Click here to read the complete article published in the Guardian.

But unfortunately, it’s even worse than that. The corporatocracy already transcending national boundaries and thanks to behind closed-doors “free trade agreements”, quickly reaching a point where corporations will not merely be embedded with governments but enjoying equal status with nation states:

The United States and European Union (EU) are in closed-door negotiations to establish a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) that would elevate individual corporations to equal status with nation states. Seriously.

The pact is slated to include a foreign investor privileges scheme that would empower foreign corporations to bypass domestic laws and courts and demand taxpayer compensation for government actions or policies to safeguard clean air, safe food and stable banks.

This “investor-state” enforcement system would grant foreign firms the power to drag the U.S. and EU governments before extrajudicial tribunals — comprised of three private attorneys — that would be authorized to order unlimited taxpayer compensation for domestic health, financial, environmental and other public interest policies the corporations claim undermine their “expected future profits.” And, there would be no outside appeal.4

So writes Lori Wallach , someone who has testified on NAFTA, WTO, and other globalisation issues before thirty U.S. congressional committees and is currently Director of Public Citizen‘s Global Trade Watch.

Click here to read Lori Wallach’s complete article on Huffington Post.

Around the time that negotiations started on this US-EU free trade deal back in July, claims that it would lead to “an economic bonanza” also came under close scrutiny in the Guardian. Dean Baker, who is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (not to be confused with the unrelated Centre for Economic Policy Research in the UK) , pointing out that:

As growth policy, this trade deal doesn’t pass the laugh test, but that doesn’t mean that it may not be very important to a number of special interests and, for this reason, bad news for most of the public. Since conventional barriers to trade between the US and EU are already very low, the focus of the deal will be on non-conventional barriers, meaning various regulatory practices.

Each industry group has a list of regulations that it finds troublesome, which it has been unable to eliminate or weaken at the national or sub-national level. An EU-US trade agreement provides these industry groups with an opportunity to do an end-run around such regulation.

For example, several countries in Europe and many state and county governments in the United States impose restrictions that make fracking difficult or impossible. In their dream agreement, the oil and gas industries will have a set of minimal restrictions on fracking. The deal will then define anything more stringent as a restraint on trade subject to penalties.

Yes, it’s a deal that once again helps to open the way to that old devil called fracking, but not just fracking… it will loosen regulations for big agra, big pharma, and the financial services ‘industry’. It may even permit tightening of controls that limit the freedom of the internet and without any need for bills like PIPA and SOPA to be passed into law:

There are likely to be similar effects on food regulation. Europe has far more restrictions on genetically modified foods and crops than the United States. Since it is not possible, given current European politics, for the industry to get these restrictions eliminated, it will be looking to include provisions in a trade deal that define limits on genetically modified foods and crops as trade barriers.

Millions of people took part in the efforts last year to defeat Sopa and Pipa, two bills that would require individuals and internet intermediaries to proactively work to stop the transmission of unauthorized reproductions of copyrighted material. The entertainment industry would very much like to include comparable provisions in a trade agreement, so that it can avoid having to have another fight over this issue in Congress.

The financial industry will also be at the table trying to include language that limits the ability of governments to impose regulations. It is likely that it will try to include wording that would make it impossible to enforce a financial transactions tax like the one now being considered by the European Union. Although the industry may not be able to sway enough votes in European parliaments to prevent them from supporting a tax, they can use an EU-US trade deal to make that fact irrelevant.5

Click here to read Dean Baker’s complete Guardian article

Monbiot says “I don’t blame people for giving up on politics” by which he means, I suppose, giving up on our current party political system. However, there are myriad alternative ways in which people remain very actively engaged in politics, and arguably, there have been few times in history when more people have been politically engaged (or perhaps I better mean enraged!) than during recent years.

With our governments already captured by special interests, it is just two years since many hundreds of thousands took to the streets to camp out in protest. Los Indignados leading the way, followed by Occupy Wall Street and then the wider Occupy movement. Those millions failed, but since their dissent was representative of even greater numbers who stayed at home, their valiant stand remains as a political marker. And since Occupy packed up their tents and retreated, the numbers of disaffected have only continued to rise, even if our cries of distress and anger are that much harder to hear. Irrefutably there is indeed a burgeoning interest in politics and a growing desire for a new political direction.

In the long run, protests will only get any movement so far, in any case, and so serious engagement with the democratic remnants of the extant political system is actually the only practical and realistic way forward. Credible and detailed programmes for real change, a basic requirement. Our new policies in turn requiring electable representatives to carry them forward. To take our democracies back we simply have to make use of the ballot box.

In the shorter term, however, protests do indeed help to bring about important, if generally, more local victories. And for once, the documentary I have featured above actually ends on a positive note. Since in spite of the Australian government’s keenness to give fracking the go-ahead, public hostility and the resulting anti-fracking campaign known as Lock the Gate has quickly gathered momentum to become an immense obstacle to further drilling. The campaigners driving the industry away from region after region, and real grassroots democracy for once beating back corporate greed.

The lesson, if we needed it, is that direct action really works – so (and certainly when it comes to fracking) why not follow Australia’s fine example? Meanwhile, letters to your MP cost nothing, and at the very least may help to sow a few seeds of doubt in the minds of our supposed representatives. To reap fuller rewards, however, we need first to retake ownership of territory other than the immediate landscape outside our doors, as vital as that is. We must aim instead to recapture the political heartland itself. Occupying not the streets outside Whitehall, but the corridors of power within. Following this, we may finally be able to start the lengthy treatment needed to cure the main disease, which is corporatocracy – the worst of its symptoms, such as fracking, will then, in turn, abate.

*

Update:

Yesterday [Nov 13th] wikileaks released a 95-page draft of a chapter relating to a different behind closed doors ‘free trade’ agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The agreement, which is being negotiated between the United States and twelve Pacific Rim nations, could also have wide-reaching implications for internet freedom, civil liberties, publishing rights and medicine accessibility with changes to laws on intellectual property rights, product safety and environmental regulations. Today’s Democracy Now! hosted a debate between Bill Watson, who is an analyst at the Cato Institute, and Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch:

 

Here is a brief overview of the debate:

LORI WALLACH: Well, free trade is a pretty theory, but as yesterday’s WikiLeaks showed, the TPP has very little to do with free trade. So, only five of the 29 chapters of the agreement even have to do with trade at all. What’s in that intellectual property chapter? What the Cato Institute would call rent seeking—governments being lobbied by special interests to set up special rules that give them monopolies to charge higher prices. What does that mean for you and me? In that agreement, we now can see the United States is pushing for longer monopoly patents for medicines that would increase the prices here. They’re looking for patenting things like surgical procedures, making even higher medical costs. They’re looking to patent life forms and seeds. And with respect to copyright, the U.S. positions are actually even undermining U.S. law. So, for Internet freedom, if you didn’t like SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, the domestic law that Congress and amazing citizen activism killed last year when it was attempted to be pushed here domestically, huge chunks of SOPA are pushed through the backdoor of this intellectual property chapter.

Now, what the heck is that doing in a free trade agreement? I would imagine the Cato Institute is also wondering: Are Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the free trade philosophers, rolling in their graves? Because that is protectionism. This is patent monopolies. This is copyright extensions. This is actually exactly what Bill just talked about, which is powerful special interests—Big Pharma, Disney and the other big-content guys—undermining us as consumers—our access to the Internet, our access to affordable medicine—and they’re using their power to put that into an agreement that they’ve got misbranded as “free trade.”

BILL WATSON: This is a rare occasion where I do agree with Lori Wallach. I agree that what’s going on in the IP chapter is a special-interest free-for-all, a grab bag, that U.S. companies are pushing to get what they want in these agreements. And the problem, really, with that is that intellectual property is not a trade issue, and it shouldn’t be in the agreement. Originally, adding intellectual property into the agreement was a way to bring on more political support, to be able to bring in U.S. companies to counter other U.S. companies that would oppose the agreement. At this point, I think we’ve gotten to where the intellectual property chapters are so expansive that what you’re seeing is a domestic constituency, people concerned about copyright and patent reform, who are opposing the TPP, not because of anything having to do with trade, but just because it’s going to reform U.S. copyright and patent laws. […]

You know, I’m certainly glad that WikiLeaks published this report. Personally, I like to be able to read it. It’s very interesting. I wish that they would publish the rest of it, to show us the rest of the draft text. I don’t think that it would be, at this point, particularly harmful to the agreement to let us know something about the countries’ negotiating positions.

But I really—I really disagree that the TPP negotiations are especially secret. There’s a lot that goes on in Congress that the public doesn’t know about. When Congress writes a law, we don’t know in advance what it’s going to be before it gets proposed. So, they’re still trying to figure out what the contents of the agreement will be. They don’t know yet; they’re working on it.

LORI WALLACH: Well, first of all, this is extraordinarily secret. I’ve followed these negotiations since 1991 with NAFTA. And during NAFTA, any member of Congress could see any text. In fact, the whole agreement between negotiating rounds was put in the Capitol, accessible for them to look at. In 2001, the Bush administration published the entire Free Trade Area of the Americas text, when it was even in an earlier stage than TPP is right now, on government websites. They’ve even excluded members of Congress from observing the negotiations. I mean, this is extraordinary. […]

I mean, these agreements, once they’re implemented, you can’t change a comma unless all the other countries agree. It locks into place, super-glues, cements into place one vision of law that, as we’ve seen, has very little to do with trade. It’s about domestic food safety. Do we have to import food that doesn’t meet U.S. safety standards? It’s about setting up international tribunals—can’t imagine the Cato Institute likes that, global governance and all—where U.S. government could be sued and our Treasury raided by foreign corporations, who are rent seeking, compensation for not having to meet our own laws that our domestic companies have to meet. […]

The bottom line of all of this is we need a new procedure to replace fast track that gives the public the role and Congress the role to make sure what will be binding, permanent, global laws do not undermine either our democratic process of making policies at home—that we need—or that lock us into retrograde policies that the current 600 corporate trade advisers are writing to impose on us. So, we need a new way to make trade agreements to get different kinds of agreements. And the bottom line with TPP, as this WikiLeak just showed, it’s very dangerous. It’s not about trade. You’ve got to find out about it. And you’ve got to make sure your member of Congress maintains their constitutional authority. Democracy is messy. But I, myself, more trust the American public, the press and this Congress rather than 600 corporate advisers. We need to make sure what’s in that trade agreement suits us, and you all are going to be the difference in doing that.

Click here to read the full transcript or watch the debate on the Democracy Now! website.

*

1 From an article entitled “Ex-BP boss Lord Browne to lead Whitehall reform” published by BBC news on June 30, 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10467532

2 From an article entitled “Revealed: Fracking industry bosses at heart of coalition” published by The Independent on July 14, 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-fracking-industry-bosses-at-heart-of-coalition-8707589.html

3 From an article entitled “It’s business that really rules us now” written by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian on November 11, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/11/business-rules-lobbying-corporate-interests

4 From an article entitled “’Trade’ Deal Would elevate Corporations to Equal Status With Nation States” written by Lori Wallach (Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch) published by Huffington Post on October 22, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lori-wallach/trade-deal-would-elevate_b_4143626.html

5 From an article entitled “The US-EU trade deal: don’t buy the hype” written by Dean Baker, published in the Guardian on July 15, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/15/us-trade-deal-with-europe-hype

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Australia, Britain, Europe, fracking (shale & coal seam gas), global warming, GMO, USA

nuclear waste can help save the planet says Monbiot — but what do the experts think?

Are you worried about saving the planet? Having difficulty deciding on the best policy for our future? Then why not consolidate in one safe and easy step? Just ask for new and improved “fourth-generation” fast-neutron, fast-breeder nuclear technology and you need worry no more, as George Monbiot explains in his latest article “A waste of waste”1:

In his book Prescription for the Planet, the environmentalist Tom Blees explains the remarkable potential of integral fast reactors (IFRs). These are nuclear power stations which can run on what old nuclear plants have left behind.

Conventional nuclear power uses just 0.6% of the energy contained in the uranium that fuels it. Integral fast reactors can use almost all the rest. There is already enough nuclear waste on earth to meet the world’s energy needs for several hundred years, with scarcely any carbon emissions. IFRs need be loaded with fissile material just once. From then on they can keep recycling it, extracting ever more of its energy, until a small fraction of the waste remains. Its components have half-lives of tens rather than millions of years.

Which means that we finally get shot of all that deadly and long-term environmental waste we’ve been wondering what to do with and even make a profit, apparently. And if you are still unsure, then listen to some of the other advantages of this ‘alternative’ nuclear energy as outlined by Monbiot:

The material being reprocessed never leaves the site: it remains within a sealed and remotely-operated recycling plant. Anyone trying to remove it would quickly die. By ensuring the fissile products are unusable, the IFR process reduces the risk of weapons proliferation. The plant operates at scarcely more than atmospheric pressure, so it can’t blow its top. Better still, it could melt down only by breaking the laws of physics. If the fuel pins begin to overheat, their expansion stops the fission reaction. If, like the Fukushima plant, an IFR loses its power supply, it simply shuts down, without human agency. Running on waste, with fewer pumps and valves than conventional plants, they are also likely to be a good deal cheaper.

Clean, safe, and better than free, here is nuclear power that “ticks all the green boxes: reduce, reuse, recycle.” And don’t be put off, says Monbiot, by the nay-saying environmentalists and anti-nuclear campaigners, who “have generated as much mumbo-jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers” with “views on nuclear power [that] have been shaped by weapons-grade woo.”

We are surely fortunate then, that last week, GE Hitachi (GEH) made the British government an offer it could hardly refuse:

 “[to] build a fast reactor within five years to use up the waste plutonium at Sellafield, and if it doesn’t work, the UK won’t have to pay.”2

A curious offer, perhaps, but not to worry, because, and even if “at present there are no Integral Fast Reactors in commercial operation,”3 of course it will work, and of course it will be safe. After all, and as Monbiot points out, “a fast reactor has been running in Russia for 30 years.” He is referring to the BN-600 reactor, and helpfully Monbiot provides a footnote to a wikipedia entry where you will find the following:

There have been incidents involving sodium/water interactions from tube breaks in the steam generators, a sodium fire from a leak in an auxiliary system, and a sodium fire from a leak in a secondary coolant loop while shut down.

Incidents? – but no accidents, thankfully…

All these incidents were classified at the lowest level on the International Nuclear Event Scale, and none of the events prevented restarting operation of the facility after repairs.

Though there is also the case of the Monju Nuclear Power Plant in Japan where:

An accident in December 1995, in which a sodium leak caused a major fire, forced a shutdown. A subsequent scandal involving a cover-up of the scope of the accident delayed its restart until May 6, 2010, with renewed criticality reached on May 8, 2010. In August 2010 another accident, involving dropped machinery, shut down the reactor again. As of June 2011, the reactor has only generated electricity for one hour since its first testing two decades prior.4

Here’s the New York Times report on Monju from earlier this year:

Three hundred miles southwest of Fukushima, at a nuclear reactor perched on the slopes of this rustic peninsula, engineers are engaged in another precarious struggle.

The Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor — a long-troubled national project — has been in a precarious state of shutdown since a 3.3-ton device crashed into the reactor’s inner vessel, cutting off access to the plutonium and uranium fuel rods at its core.

Engineers have tried repeatedly since the accident last August to recover the device, which appears to have gotten stuck. They will make another attempt as early as next week.

But critics warn that the recovery process is fraught with dangers because the plant uses large quantities of liquid sodium, a highly flammable substance, to cool the nuclear fuel.5

That’s how the fast reactors work, by the way. Unable to use water as a coolant because water would slow the neutrons (which is necessary in older generation reactors), all fast-neutron reactors to date have used sodium as a coolant. It carries the advantage that the reactor operates below the boiling point of liquid sodium (883 C) and therefore at low pressure, which is why “it can’t blow its top”, although the disadvantage is that we are unfortunately dealing with the delicate problem of containing liquid sodium…

“Sodium’s major disadvantage [as a coolant] is that it reacts violently with water and burns if exposed to air. The steam-generators, in which molten-sodium and high-pressure water are separated by thin metal, have proved to be one of the most troublesome features of breeder reactors. Any leak results in a reaction that can rupture the tubes and lead to a major sodium-water fire.”

Which was taken from a somewhat less enthusiastic appraisal of the latest in nuclear technology, written not by “environmentalist Tom Blees”, but taken from a research report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) 6 that was published February of last year.

The IPFM report continues:

As the country studies [in the report] detail, a large fraction of the liquid-sodium-cooled reactors that have been built have been shut down for long periods by sodium fires. Russia’s BN-350 had a huge sodium fire. The follow-on BN-600 reactor [the Russian reactor Monbiot refers to] was designed with its steam generators in separate bunkers to contain sodium-water fires and with an extra steam generator so a fire-damaged steam generator can be repaired while the reactor continues to operate using the extra steam generator. Between 1980 and 1997, the BN-600 had 27 sodium leaks, 14 of which resulted in sodium fires.

The bold highlight is mine – it’s for emphasis: 27 leaks and 14 fires from a single reactor deserves emphasis.

The report then goes on to sodium-air fires, drawing on examples from fast reactors around the world:

Leaks from pipes into the air have also resulted in serious fires. In 1995, Japan’s prototype fast-breeder, Monju, experienced a major sodium air fire. Restart has been repeated delayed, and, as of the end of 2009, the reactor was still shut down. France’s Rapsodie, Phénix and Superphénix breeder reactors [all now shut down] and the UK’s Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) and Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) [also shut down] all suffered sodium leaks, some of which resulted in serious fires.”

Monbiot entirely fails to mention the problems with using liquid sodium, and says nothing of worrying occurrence of leaks and fires, and although he does point out that meltdown is impossible, he also fails to mention that:

“Finally, light-water-cooled reactors have the critical safety characteristic that, if the water moderator is lost, the chain-reaction stops… By contrast, in a fast-neutron reactor, the concentration of plutonium is high enough that it can sustain a chain-reaction even in the event of coolant loss. Indeed, except in special core configurations, the reactivity will increase if the coolant is lost. Furthermore, if the core heats up to the point of collapse, it can assume a more critical configuration and blow itself apart in a small nuclear explosion. Whether such an explosive core disassembly could release enough energy to rupture a reactor containment and cause a Chernobyl-scale release of radioactivity into the environment is a major cause of concern and subject of debate.”7

Back in Japan, about three hundred miles away from Fukushima, and the struggle to save the Monju reactor may have finally been called off:

The Japanese government will consider scrapping the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor as one of its options in reviewing the trouble-plagued nuclear facility’s operation, nuclear disaster minister Goshi Hosono said Saturday [Nov 26th].8

It is far from being the first fast reactor to have been abandoned. Indeed, and even after five decades of research (since this is actually far from new technology), fast reactors have a rather disappointing track record around the world, whilst the basic claims that they might be used to eliminate stockpiles of nuclear waste and reduce the chances of nuclear arms proliferation, are far from guaranteed.

To help form your own judgment, I thoroughly recommend listening to an audio presentation of the IPFM report mentioned above, which is followed by a very interesting question and answer session. The same link also offers a useful summary of the report with a list of key findings.

Or click here to read the full IPFM report.

Back to Monbiot’s article, which is mostly a hotch-potch of underhand attacks on opponents and half-truths about the wonderful new reactors, although he saves his strongest card till last:

So we environmentalists have a choice. We can’t wish the waste away. Either it is stored and then buried. Or it is turned into mox fuels. Or it is used to power IFRs. The decision is being made at the moment, and we should determine where we stand. I suggest we take the radical step of using science, not superstition, as our guide.

Science should indeed be a guide, although not the guide. You cannot make decisions of this kind purely on the basis of science, since nuclear power is a political issue, involving social and economic considerations, as well as scientific ones. The first-generation of nuclear reactors were sold to us as a source of cheap, safe and almost infinitely abundant power, and have proved to be nothing of the kind. It was a deliberate lie, in fact, perpetuated by governments intent on arming themselves with nuclear warheads. Besides the weaponry, our nuclear plants also created near eternal heaps of deadly waste that we have no idea how to dispose of safely. This is supposed to be the solution to that problem, and perhaps some future technology can indeed convert nuclear waste harmlessly into electricity, although unfortunately, at least if scientists at IPFM are to be believed, that promise is nowhere close to being fulfilled:

Hopes that the “fast breeder”– a plutonium-fueled nuclear reactor designed to produce more fuel than it consumed — might serve as a major part of the long-term nuclear waste disposal solution are not merited by the dismal track record to date of such sodium-cooled reactors in France, India, Japan, the Soviet Union/Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to a major new study from the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM).

Titled “Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status,” the IPFM report concludes: “The problems (with fast breeder reactors) … make it hard to dispute Admiral Hyman Rickover’s summation in 1956, based on his experience with a sodium-cooled reactor developed to power an early U.S. nuclear submarine, that such reactors are ‘expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.'”9

According to the scientists then, the latest offer from GE Hitachi really is too good to be true.

*

To get some idea of General Electric‘s past record in nuclear power, I also refer readers again to this article by investigative reporter Greg Palast.

1http://www.monbiot.com/2011/12/05/a-waste-of-waste/

An article also published as “We need to talk about Sellafield, and a nuclear solution that ticks all our boxes”, written by George Monbiot, published by the Guardian on December 5, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/dec/05/sellafield-nuclear-energy-solution

2According to Monbiot’s footnote: “This pledge was made during a meeting between GEH and UK government officials and advisers on 30th November 2011.”

5“The plant, a $12 billion project, has a history of safety lapses. It was shuttered for 14 years after a devastating fire in 1995, one of Japan’s most serious nuclear accidents before this year’s crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Prefecture and city officials found that the operator had tampered with video images of the fire to hide the scale of the disaster. A top manager at the plant recently committed suicide, on the day that Japan’s atomic energy agency announced that efforts to recover the device would cost almost $21.9 million. And, like several other reactors, Monju lies on an active fault.”

From an article entitled “Japan Strains to Fix a Reactor Damaged before Quake”, written by Hiroko Tabuchi, published on June 17, 2011 in the The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/18/world/asia/18japan.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all

7 “Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status” written by Thomas B. Cochran, Harold A. Feiveson, Walt Patterson, Gennadi Pshakin, M.V. Ramana, Mycle Schneider, Tatsujiro Suzuki, Frank von Hippel, published in February 2010. http://www.fissilematerials.org/blog/rr08.pdf

8From an article entitled “Gov’t to consider scrapping of Monju reactor as option: Hosono”, published in the Mainichi Daily News on November 28, 2011. http://mdn.mainichi.jp/mdnnews/news/20111128p2g00m0dm010000c.html

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the City of London: “Plutocracy, pure and simple”

Well it seems that Occupy London have managed to open up a real can of worms. Not only have they revealed just how closely tied the Church of England is to the financial establishment (which is something for the disestablishmentarians to get their teeth into – and it’s not often you get chance to say that!) but they have also brought mainstream attention to the murky twilight zone that is the City of London.

It’s a funny thing isn’t it, when somehow you can know all aspects surrounding the truth, yet never usefully piece them together into a complete picture; and so it is with the City of London.

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve known that there are actually two cities in “London”, and that the bigger part of London should more properly be referred to as the City of Westminster. This is common knowledge and the kind of information that wins pub quizzes. For nearly as long again, I’ve also known that the City of London (or more commonly “The City”) is a pseudonym for “the banks”; simply because, or so I presumed, the Square Mile is the major business and financial district in the country. But for some reason, during all those years, I’ve never actually thought to put two and two together and look behind the labels. Well now, at last, the beans have been spilled, and thanks to some extent to George Monbiot.

In previous posts, I have been strongly critical of Monbiot with regards to his dismissive response to the catastrophe at Fukushima, and his significant, if presumably accidental part in the subsequent government/industry cover-up. But one should give credit where credit is due, and on this occasion Monbiot must certainly be applauded:

“It’s the dark heart of Britain, the place where democracy goes to die, immensely powerful, equally unaccountable. But I doubt that one in 10 British people has any idea of what the Corporation of the City of London is and how it works. This could be about to change. Alongside the Church of England, the Corporation is seeking to evict the protesters camped outside St Paul’s cathedral. The protesters, in turn, have demanded that it submit to national oversight and control.”1

So begins Monbiot’s article from Monday [Oct 31st] which goes on to outline how the City of London is run as a shadowy plutocracy where in over 80% of the electoral wards:

“…the votes are controlled by corporations, mostly banks and other financial companies. The bigger the business, the bigger the vote: a company with 10 workers gets two votes, the biggest employers, 79. It’s not the workers who decide how the votes are cast, but the bosses, who “appoint” the voters.”

A place where even to qualify to become an elected representative of ‘the Corporation’, from ‘common councilmen’ all the way to the post of Lord Mayor, requires that you are a ‘Freeman of the City’, which in turn means that you will need to belong to one of the City livery companies:

“medieval guilds such as the worshipful company of costermongers, cutpurses and safecrackers. [Whilst] to become a sheriff, you must be elected from among the aldermen by the Livery. How do you join a livery company? Don’t even ask.”

Might it involve rolling up a trouser leg and giving a dodgy handshake? Well, that was very definitely the comparison drawn by Labour MP John McDonnell in November 1999, during a parliamentary debate on the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill, in which he described ‘the backwoodsmen of the City corporation’ as ‘the lodge of lodges’, adding that ‘it is not the last bastion of privilege and freemasonry in this country, but it might be the biggest’.2

Meanwhile, and according to the Corporation’s own website 3 , the official role of the Grand Cyclops… sorry, I mean Lord Mayor, whose position is apparently ‘unpaid and apolitical’, is to:

open up new markets for city businesses, and to open doors at the highest levels for the accompanying business delegation.

Whilst:

In private meetings and speeches, the Lord Mayor expounds the values of liberalisation and expands on those factors which have underpinned London’s success, such as probity and transparency, open markets, corporate governance, Common Law, welcome for skilled people from around the world, support for innovation, proportionate taxation and regulation.

But as Monbiot explains, “this isn’t the half of it”…

The City of London is the only part of Britain over which parliament has no authority. In one respect at least the Corporation acts as the superior body: it imposes on the House of Commons a figure called the remembrancer: an official lobbyist who sits behind the Speaker’s chair and ensures that, whatever our elected representatives might think, the City’s rights and privileges are protected.

With suitably arcane title, the remembrancer (try saying it as Vincent Price would) is a gatekeeper; he who prevents the fancy of mere mortals from encroaching upon the auspices of that other world…

Monbiot again:

The City has exploited this remarkable position to establish itself as a kind of offshore state, a secrecy jurisdiction which controls the network of tax havens housed in the UK’s crown dependencies and overseas territories. This autonomous state within our borders is in a position to launder the ill-gotten cash of oligarchs, kleptocrats, gangsters and drug barons.

Monbiot also proposes a cure for such corruption, saying:

If you’ve ever dithered over the question of whether the UK needs a written constitution, dither no longer. Imagine the clauses required to preserve the status of the Corporation. “The City of London will remain outside the authority of parliament. Domestic and foreign banks will be permitted to vote as if they were human beings, and their votes will outnumber those cast by real people. Its elected officials will be chosen from people deemed acceptable by a group of medieval guilds …”

The Corporation’s privileges could not withstand such public scrutiny. This, perhaps, is one of the reasons why a written constitution in the United Kingdom remains a distant dream.

But here I would say that Monbiot is mistaken in two ways. Firstly, in Britain we already have our written constitutional laws in the form of multiple documents which include the Magna Carta and our lesser known Bill of Rights (from 1689); and secondly, even if we might produce a more condensed, up-to-date and familiar constitution – and right now, I dread to think who might be put in charge of such a project – this newly established constitution could still be overridden.

Take America, for example, which has the most famous “written constitution” of all, and consider the case of the founding of the Federal Reserve System. The Federal Reserve, for those who don’t know already, is the privately owned and controlled central bank of America. It was set up on the basis of plans agreed at a secret meeting of – would you guess? – bankers, that took place on Jekyll Island – you can’t make it up – exactly one century ago (Nov 1910), and was then smuggled into law as the Federal Reserve Act, just a couple of days before Christmas in 1913. This private takeover happened in spite of Article 1, Section 8, Clause 5, of the US constitution, which explicitly states that it is Congress that has the power “to coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin”, yet in spite of its conspicuously unconstitutional origins, the Federal Reserve has remained in charge of US monetary policy ever since.

However, what we most certainly do need, and getting back to our own private banking takeover, is for continuing exposure of, and growing pressure on, the self-serving banker-occupied enclave that is the City of London. So well done to Monbiot for helping to set the ball rolling, and perhaps now he’s got a taste for the more exotic, he might also try to lift the veil on a few more ‘private’ clubs and organisations – Bilderberg would be top of my own list, although there are plenty of other shadowy, anti-democratic agencies to choose from.

I also hope that plenty of Londoners and others will take up Monbiot’s call for more directed action:

It happens that the Lord Mayor’s Show, in which the Corporation flaunts its ancient wealth and power, takes place on 12 November. If ever there were a pageant that cries out for peaceful protest and dissent, here it is. Expect fireworks – and not just those laid on by the Lord Mayor.

1 From an article entitled “The medieval, unaccountable Corporation of London is ripe for protest: Working beyond the authority of parliament, the Corporation of London undermines all attempts to curb the excesses of finance”, written by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian on October 31, 2011. http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/31/corporation-london-city-medieval?cat=commentisfree&type=article

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British government involved in cover-up of Fukushima

Nuclear experts have thrown doubt on the accuracy of official information issued about the Fukushima nuclear accident, saying that it followed a pattern of secrecy and cover-ups employed in other nuclear accidents. “It’s impossible to get any radiation readings,” said John Large, an independent nuclear engineer who has worked for the UK government and been commissioned to report on the accident for Greenpeace International.

“The actions of the Japanese government are completely contrary to their words. They have evacuated 180,000 people but say there is no radiation. They are certain to have readings but we are being told nothing.” He said a radiation release was suspected “but at the moment it is impossible to know. It was the same at Chernobyl, where they said there was a bit of a problem and only later did the full extent emerge.” 1

This is the opening to a Guardian article from March 14th, written just three days after the tsunami which caused such widespread devastation and triggered the failures at the Fukushima plant. The same article concludes:

“What we are seeing follows a clear pattern of secrecy and denial,” said Paul Dorfman, co-secretary to the Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters, a UK government advisory committee disbanded in 2004.

“The Japanese government has always tended to underplay accidents. At the moment the Japanese claims of safety are not to be believed by anyone. The health effects of what has happened so far are imponderable. The reality is we just do not know. There is profound uncertainty about the impact of the accident.”

The Japanese authorities and nuclear companies have been implicated in a series of cover-ups. In 1995, reports of a sodium leak and fire at Japan’s Monju fast breeder reactor were suppressed and employees were gagged. In 2002, the chairman and four executives of Tepco, the company which owns the stricken Fukushima plant, resigned after reports that safety records were falsified.

Then, last Thursday, the Guardian published this follow-up article based on the evidence of internal emails which show that the British government was also involved in covering up the dangers of nuclear power in the immediate wake of Fukushima:

British government officials approached nuclear companies to draw up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and before the extent of the radiation leak was known.

Internal emails seen by the Guardian show how the business and energy departments worked closely behind the scenes with the multinational companies EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse to try to ensure the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the UK.

“This has the potential to set the nuclear industry back globally,” wrote one official at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), whose name has been redacted. “We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it. We really need to show the safety of nuclear.”2

The article continues:

The business department emailed the nuclear firms and their representative body, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), on 13 March, two days after the disaster knocked out nuclear plants and their backup safety systems at Fukushima. The department argued it was not as bad as the “dramatic” TV pictures made it look, even though the consequences of the accident were still unfolding and two major explosions at reactors on the site were yet to happen.

“Radiation released has been controlled – the reactor has been protected,” said the BIS official, whose name has been blacked out. “It is all part of the safety systems to control and manage a situation like this.”

The official suggested that if companies sent in their comments, they could be incorporated into briefs to ministers and government statements. “We need to all be working from the same material to get the message through to the media and the public.”

Do we get the message then? The message being very loud and clear, and a profound cause for concern. As Tom Burke, a former government environmental adviser and visiting professor at Imperial College London, said to The Guardian:

“[The British government] are too close to industry, concealing problems, rather than revealing and dealing with them.”

Or you may prefer to infer from all of this, as George Monbiot did in a follow-up piece for the Guardian on Monday 4th July, that this is simply business as usual, which no doubt it is:

“Nuclear operators worldwide have been repeatedly exposed as a bunch of arm-twisting, corner-cutting scumbags.

In this respect they are, of course, distinguished from the rest of the energy industry, which is run by collectives of self-abnegating monks whose only purpose is to spread a little happiness. How they ended up sharing the names and addresses of some of the nuclear companies is a mystery that defies explanation.”3

With this much agreed, Monbiot then goes further, perpetuating the industry line that radiation leaks from Fukushima, which we ought to remind ourselves is still very much an on-going disaster, and with no foreseeable end in sight, have caused no serious harm to the people of Japan:

[Even] the Daiichi meltdown, the same energy agency report tells us, has caused no medical harm. While the evacuation it necessitated is profoundly traumatic and disruptive, “to date no confirmed health effects have been detected in any person as a result of radiation exposure” from the accident. Compare this to the 100,000 deaths caused by air pollution from coal plants every year, and you begin to see that we’ve been fretting about the wrong risks.

Whenever I read excuses like this my immediate thought is tobacco, asbestos, depleted uranium… So why does Monbiot continue to parrot such blatant disinformation? As a journalist and an environmentalist isn’t he supposed to be demanding answers from this industry, which he concedes is corrupt absolutely, rather than playing forward defensive to their cause.

What the industry insiders in Britain either didn’t know, or didn’t care about, as they lobbied the government to play the incident down, was that reactors 1 and 3 were already in meltdown, and that the meltdown in reactor 2 was imminent:

The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., admitted last month that nuclear fuel rods in reactors 2 and 3 probably melted during the first week of the nuclear crisis.

It had already said fuel rods at the heart of reactor No. 1 melted almost completely in the first 16 hours after the disaster struck. The remnants of that core are now sitting in the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel at the heart of the unit and that vessel is now believed to be leaking.

A “major part” of the fuel rods in reactor No. 2 may have melted and fallen to the bottom of the pressure vessel 101 hours after the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the plant, Tokyo Electric said May 24.

The same thing happened within the first 60 hours at reactor No. 3, the company said, in what it called its worst-case scenario analysis, saying the fuel would be sitting at the bottom of the pressure vessel in each reactor building.4

Click here to read more details from the same CNN article

A few newspapers had reported the meltdown of reactors almost from the onset of the disaster, but there had then been a full two months delay before any official confirmation was received either from Tokyo Electric Power Co. or the Japanese government. Meanwhile, the British nuclear industry, in cahoots with British government, were already spinning a line to mutually protect themselves from the inevitable public backlash.

In defence of these deceptions, the emails having been exposed, both sides will plead ignorance of course, as if not knowing the true extent of the disaster justified their efforts to play the risks down. But with the proper role of journalism being, as it is, to expose lies and force truth to the surface, Monbiot really ought to be looking into whether or not this plea of insider ignorance can be sustained, whilst highlighting the irresponsibility, criminal or otherwise, of such mendacious collusion between government and industry. Yet he shows no interest in doing either.

John Vidal, also writing in the Guardian (Friday 1st July) gets closer to the heart of the matter:

What the emails shows is a weak government, captured by a powerful industry colluding to at least misinform and very probably lie to the public and the media. When the emails were sent, no one, least of all the industry and its friends in and out of government, had any idea how serious the situation at Fukushima was or might become.

For the business department to then argue that “we really need to show the safety of nuclear” and that “it’s not as bad as it looks”, is shameless. But to argue that the radiation was being released deliberately and was “all part of the safety systems to control and manage a situation” is Orwellian.5

So Orwellian, in fact, that on page 50 of the 136 page file released by the Guardian, one line of a letter to government reads:

“The explosion whilst visually dramatic is part of the safety system, the building protected the reactor”

The explosion was part of the safety system… such an explanation really demands more than mere technical ignorance, involving us also in a wish to remain in ignorance. To accept whatever nonsense we are told and make believe it is true. For IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, as George Orwell, a journalist with courage, integrity and a deep understanding of politics, knew only too well (if ironically).

Just about catching up with last week’s disinformation, the news rolls ever onward. Fresh lies are continuing to downplay the unprecedented and long-term impact of the crisis at Fukushima, whilst the plight of those unfortunate enough to live in the shadow of Fukushima is slowly forgotten. And a radioactive plume that is growing day by day and month by month, goes almost unnoticed by most people outside of Japan. Uncovering the true scale of the disaster at Fukushima is therefore a matter of great urgency. It might yet save millions of lives.

1 From an article entitled “Japan radiation leaks feared as nuclear experts point to possible cover-up” written by John Vidal and Damian Carrington published in the Guardian on Monday 14th March.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/14/japan-radiation-leak-cover-up

2 From an article entitled “Revealed: British government’s plan to play down Fukushima” by Rob Edwards published in the Guardian on Thursday 30th June.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/30/british-government-plan-play-down-fukushima

3 From an article entitled “The nuclear industry stinks. But that is not a reason to ditch nuclear power” by George Monbiot published in the Guardian on Monday 4th July.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/04/nuclear-industry-stinks-cleaner-energy?intcmp=239

4 From an article entitled “3 nuclear reactors melted down after quake, Japan confirms” from CCN published 7th June.

5 From an article entitled “Fukushima spin was Orwellian” by John Vidal published in the Guardian on Friday 1st July.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/01/fukushima-emails-government-nuclear-industry?intcmp=239

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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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nuclear madness?

Following Obama’s commitment to expand the future use of nuclear power, Democracy Now! hosted a debate yesterday between British journalist George Monbiot and Australian physician and environmentalist Dr. Helen Caldicott.

Caldicott, who was author of Nuclear Madness (1979) and Nuclear Power is Not the Answer to Global Warming or Anything Else (2006), insists that there is “an unholy alliance” between the IAEA and WHO to deliberately cover up the health impact of previous nuclear accidents and the dangers of low-level radiation.

Click here to watch the same debate on the Democracy Now! website.

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Monbiot’s strange spin on Fukushima

“You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power.” So begins eco-warrior George Monbiot’s article from Monday’s Guardian (March 21st). He then continues: “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.”

With two explosions, three reactor meltdowns, fires throughout the compound, and radioactivity now spilling out across wide areas of Japan, we are in the midst of the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. One that we must all hope does not become the biggest environmental disaster ever. But Monbiot takes a different view: “A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.”

Well I suppose it is easy to be relaxed if you’re lucky enough to be living in mid Wales, and approximately 6,000 miles outside the evacuation zone . But what’s the bit about “poor design and corner-cutting”? Are we being asked to believe that the latent problems at Fukushima were somehow exceptional? I’d always been under the impression that Japan was especially advanced and world-renowned for its technical expertise and excellence. But then perhaps I’m mistaken. Perhaps the reactors in Armenia, Argentina, Bulgaria, China, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, South Africa, Ukraine, along with those in France, USA and back home really are all designed and built to far higher standards.1

Or is Monbiot simply saying that the reactors being built today will be much safer? For no doubt this is true, with newer technologies in general, making improvements on older designs. But then what do we do with all the unsafe old reactors? And, much more importantly, how safe is safe enough? Because there is no reactor, indeed no technology, that can ever be guaranteed to function without failure. Of course when most of our old technologies fail… well, you know, the lights go out perhaps. Whereas if a nuclear reactor fails, the effects tend to be a little more catastrophic — just ask any of the 50,000 people who once lived in the now abandoned city of Pripyat.

Monbiot rounds his article off saying: “But the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power.” Sorry — did I get that right? Fossil fuels are 100 times worse than nuclear power even when it comes to radioactive discharges! What’s that old saying about lies and damned lies?

The article, entitled “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power”, plays on Kubrick’s subtitle to his masterpiece of nuclear madness, Dr Strangelove. And I cannot help feeling that Monbiot’s new love is also rather strange.

1For a full list of operating nuclear power plants worldwide click here.

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