Monbiot now conditionally supporting nuclear

Andrea Simms-Karp: camera cyclops

In his book Heat, George Monbiot rejects nuclear fission as a low-carbon source of electricity: arguing that it is unacceptably dangerous, and that we could make do without it. In a recent column on his website, he makes it clear that he has joined the ranks of those willing to reluctantly consider nuclear, on the simple grounds that he is so deeply concerned about climate change.

He does, however, have some conditions:

  1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account
  2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried
  3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay
  4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.

The first of these is important, but a fairly low hurdle. If there wasn’t good evidence that the life cycle emissions of nuclear are low (though they are not zero), it wouldn’t be getting the kind of attention it has been. The second matter is mostly a matter of not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. Nobody wants a nuclear waste dump in their area, though everyone knows that a safe dump will basically resemble: a deep and well-sealed hole in some very geologically stable rock. The fourth requirement may be a reasonable bar for states with pre-existing nuclear weapons capability, but it is a bit much to expect from states that lack that capacity and face threatening neighbours. In all likelihood, more civilian nuclear power will mean more states with nuclear weapons, a few decades out.

The third issue is the most uncertain: the cost of nuclear power. Regrettably, no government out there actually has the spine to make polluters pay the true cost of their carbon dioxide emissions. Likewise, no government seems to be willing to forego the political opportunities involved in subsidizing technologies like nuclear fission and carbon capture and storage. In all probability, more nuclear will result in taxpayers and electricity consumers subsidizing the mistakes of governments and energy utilities. It may also produce a clunky, dangerous, and expensive infrastructure that was slower to come online and less effective than focusing on conservation, efficiency, and renewables would have been. All that being said, the inevitable costs may be justified as a precaution. If it does become brilliantly clear to the public that climate change requires urgent action – to the extent that people are willing to accept the rapid decommissioning of coal plants – having nuclear as an option might be an important way to facilitate the route forward. Given the risks of climate change, its low-carbon status may also be worth the inevitable accidents and contamination.

I admit that this is an issue where my thoughts remain divided. That being said, barring some big unforeseen change, I think we can definitely expect to see Canada’s nuclear reactors replaced with new ones, during the next few decades, at the very least. The post later today will provide some further thinking on the issue.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “Monbiot now conditionally supporting nuclear”

  1. Thank you for introducing this discussion.

    I also read Monbiot article and found it compelling. Like him, I feel ” we have a duty to be as realistic as possible about how we might best prevent runaway climate breakdown”

    I am impressed that someone who so publicly as in book the Heat rejected nuclear fission as a low carbon option would go public with this position of being no longer opposed to nuclear fission assuming the four conditions are met. As he concludes on his blog “I realise that this will provoke hostile responses from almost everyone – including my friends – but we do our cause no favours by obscuring the choices we face.

    Monbiot has contributed significantly to public awareness on climate change issues. It takes courage on his part to write what he did. However, it is also practical. There is a role for idealism in raising awareness. However, practically speaking the carbon free “ideal” solutions are a long and expensive way off dealing with an imminent crisis of climate change.

    I have not been anti-nuclear. I was raised in fear of annihilation by nuclear arms as a child. I participated the End the Arms Race marches as a young father. I stood in vigils after Chernobyl. I am concerned.

    However, I am also practical. For me extending nuclear power, and not just replacing old reactors with new ones is a viable option.

  2. I also grew up in fear of nuclear war and nuclear catastrophies but we are told that new reactor technologies are much safer than their predecessor producing less waste and less or no weapon grade material.

    I have also read very enthusistic articles recently about new reactor design such as pebble bed reactors (

  3. Some relevant passages from Heat:

    “Here begins the section of the book I have been dreading most: a discussion of nuclear power. I hate this topic partly because it is charged with more anger than any other; partly because every fact is fiercely contested. However much reading you do, you still don’t know what or whom to believe.” (p. 89 hardcover)

    “I conclude that the price of nuclear power is a function of your political position. If you don’t like it, it is expensive. If you do like it, it is cheap.” (p.95 hardcover)

    “I will provisionally place nuclear power second from last in my list of preferences, just above generation using coal from open-cast mines.” (p. 99)

    He also projects that, by 2030, natural gas plants with carbon capture and storage could provide 50% of the grid-based electricity in the UK.

  4. Incidentally, nuclear power produces about 19% of the electricity in the UK now, compared with about 11% in Canada.

  5. Nuclear power in the Nordic countries
    Recalled to half-life

    Feb 12th 2009 | HELSINKI
    From The Economist print edition
    A surprising revival in previously reviled nuclear power

    IN WHAT may be his boldest move so far, Sweden’s Fredrik Reinfeldt has shredded a central part of the election manifesto on which his centre-right government fought the election in 2006. The four parties in his coalition have long been split over nuclear power. So they agreed in the manifesto to keep all matters atomic off the agenda until their term expired in 2010. But a combination of tight climate-change targets, energy-security worries and a wobbly economy has now caused a rethink. On February 5th Mr Reinfeldt unveiled a plan to reverse Sweden’s 30-year ban on building new nuclear capacity.

  6. everyone knows that a safe dump will basically resemble: a deep and well-sealed hole in some very geologically stable rock.

    What about the possibiltiy that we will eventually be able to reprocess spent fuel into usable new fuel and lower-level waste? Does that justify keeping the material accessible, until such technologies potentially emerge?

  7. Reprocessing seems to be another ‘it depends on who you ask’ issues.

    Cheerleaders suggest that it can largely deal with the problem of waste, while hugely expanding the amount of fuel.

    Skeptics argue that it is expensive, creates lots of contamination, and would increase the chances of proliferation.

  8. Thursday, February 26, 2009
    The Nuclear Comeback

    The natural gas crisis caused by the cutoff of supplies from Russia earlier in the year crystallized for many nations the threat of being overly dependent on another country for their energy supplies. Over the past decades, countries in Europe have shut down nuclear reactors, which caused them to turn to other energy supplies – like gas from Russia. Bulgaria began pushing for a return to nuclear power during the crisis, and concerns over gas supplies have already prompted Germany to reverse course and change their stance on phasing out nuclear power.

  9. Saskatchewan keen to partner with AECL
    Premier’s comments come as Ottawa considers selling stake in company’s business
    From Thursday’s Globe and Mail
    February 26, 2009 at 3:28 AM EST

    No decisions will be made until after Ontario completes the bidding process for the purchase of two nuclear reactors. The first round of bidding closes tomorrow and a winner – either AECL or its main rival, France’s Areva Group- will be announced by June 20.

    If AECL wins, the federal government will have a stronger hand in seeking partners. If AECL loses to Areva, options are more limited, but industry insiders expect the government would restructure the company to focus on its profitable maintenance business.

  10. Green Movement acknowledges nuclear power as a feasible option for the UK

    Posted by Nyla Sarwar on February 24, 2009 at 23:30

    The past week saw reports of at least four of the country’s leading green activists accepting that nuclear power may have a significant role to play if we are to avoid runaway climate change. Concerns over safety issues, build-up of radioactive wastes and the proliferation of nuclear weapons were realistically balanced against the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.

  11. The difficulties of going pro-nuclear

    Mark Lynas, whose Six Degrees has been a great success, had a piece in the New Statesman last week about nuclear power. It was a pretty standard, pretty well executed I’m-a-green-who’s-much-more-freaked-out-about-climate-than-about-nukes piece, much in the long travelled Lovelock vein, not that unlike some things George Monbiot has recently been writing. As such it obviously got up the noses of some greens. I thought it was pretty sensible, myself; but there’s a depressing kicker.

  12. It seems to me that the discussion of use of nuclear power to provide energy has died down. Do others agree? And if so, why would that be the case as our need for reducing carbon emissions continues to increase?

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