Lying About Nuclear Safety


The buzz this morning on Twitter was George Monbiot’s rejection of the anti-nuclear movement based on the statistics it uses, published in the comment section of The Guardian.

First she sent me nine documents: newspaper articles, press releases and an advertisement. None were scientific publications; none contained sources for the claims she had made. But one of the press releases referred to a report by the US National Academy of Sciences, which she urged me to read. I have now done so – all 423 pages. It supports none of the statements I questioned; in fact it strongly contradicts her claims about the health effects of radiation.

I pressed her further and she gave me a series of answers that made my heart sink – in most cases they referred to publications which had little or no scientific standing, which did not support her claims or which contradicted them. (I have posted our correspondence, and my sources, on my website.) I have just read her book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer. The scarcity of references to scientific papers and the abundance of unsourced claims it contains amaze me.

It’s worth a read in total. It’s also worth stacking up against a pro-nuclear energy piece in yesterday’s Guardian, written by Dr. Melanie Windridge and published in the science section. If you read my previous piece on the statistics used to show nuclear energy is terribly safe, you’ll see a familiar piece of information:

The World Health Organisation estimates that indoor air pollution from biomass and coal causes 1.5m premature deaths per year.

This, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the production of electricity. This is indoor air pollution from fuels burned for cooking and heating, mostly in stoves or hearths with no venting. It’s appalling, and fixable if we’re willing to deal with world poverty, but it has nothing to do with the nuclear power industry. It’s a simple case of lying with statistics.

[An an on-topic aside, the author of the Death per TWh statistics that have been floating around, Brian Wang, commented on the post that calls their reliability into question to let me know that I was wrong about him using indoor air pollution deaths as part of his coal numbers. Instead, he was attributing all deaths from urban outdoor air pollution to coal. Windridge puts the coal numbers at 100,000 a year instead of the 1.2 million Wang used, although her numbers are probably low.]

The article gets worse, however. Windridge cautions against getting too upset at the idea that radiation is leaking from the reactors.

Calls to widen the exclusion zone or to evacuate must be weighed against the risks of evacuation, which itself leads to many deaths, especially among the old and infirm.

She tells us this in the same article in which she says:

It has been three weeks since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. There have been problems at the Fukushima plant with cooling, gas explosions (not nuclear), and radiation leaks – all serious issues, but so far no one has died.

She is in such a rush to tell us how grand nuclear energy is that she forgets (I’ll assume) to think about what she already knows. There have already been evacuations from Fukushima, to the tune of 210,000 people. And she’s right about one thing. There have been deaths, 25 that we know of so far (not including the two Dai-ichi workers killed in the tsunami or the one killed when a crane collapsed during the earthquake).

The Guardian newspaper reports Friday that Japanese Self Defense Force troops found 128 elderly patients abandoned at a hospital about six miles from the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

According to the British newspaper, most of the patients were comatose and 14 of them died soon after being discovered. Japan issued an evacuation order for the area surrounding the Dai-ichi plant as the possibility of a meltdown increased in the days following the quake and tsunami.

Another 11 elderly Japanese — residents of a nursing home slammed by the tsunami — were found dead by security forces, apparently having succumbed to hypothermia. The newspaper said 47 residents of the home died as the wave initially washed over the building in Kesennuma.

Those are the people we know of. There will be more. There probably already have been more, of the 128 if nothing else. The conditions were bad during transit for everyone who was evacuated, and they are only marginally better in the shelters. Japan is not a young country, and even among the young, there are those who need medicine and power to live. (Yes, power is a factor in survival, too. At least there’s wind to take up some of the slack.)

So we have nuclear proponents lying about nuclear safety as well. Think anyone’s going to repudiate their movement for it?