Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Caldicott and Monbiot debate Coal and Nuclear energy on Democracy Now

Today, Democracy Now hosted a debate contrasting Coal and Nuclear Energy between British journalist George Monbiot and Dr. Helen Caldicott. The first part was excellent but towards the end it turned a bit caustic. It's clear they like and respect each other, but that they have strongly divided points of view.

To summarize their points:

Caldicott: Radiation and radioactive wastes from nuclear power are incredibly dangerous. When a particle is inhaled it will kill a few cells and cause mutations in surrounding cells that will cause cancer a few years later. There is enough nuclear material in the Japanese plants to poison the whole planet. The danger from Nuclear power is too great.

Monbiot: In the rush to shun nuclear power he's afraid (certain) the powers-that-be will turn back to Coal to provide electricity. It would be the ditching of a bad technology to one that's horridly worse.

  • George Monbiot, British journalist and author. He is a columnist with the The Guardian (U.K.) and most recently wrote the article “Why Fukushima Made Me Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Power."
  • Helen Caldicott, world-renowned anti-nuclear advocate, author and pediatrician. She has spent decades warning of the medical hazards posed by nuclear technologies. She is the co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

GEORGE MONBIOT: ... But I’m very worried that the global response to what’s happening in Fukushima will be to shut down nuclear power stations around the world and to cancel future nuclear power stations, and that what will happen is that they will be replaced by coal. Now, coal is hundreds of times more dangerous than nuclear power, not just because of climate change, though, of course, climate change is a big one, but also because of industrial accidents and because of the impacts of pollution on local people.

... what I’m calling for here is not complacency. ... I’m calling for perspective, and I’m saying that we must not replace a bad technology with a much, much worse one, because, unfortunately, that is what’s likely to happen.

HELEN CALDICOTT: ...The Guardian yesterday reported that Unit No. 2 had actually melted down. The fuel had melted through the reactor vessel onto the concrete floor below. That is a problem because the zirconium in the fuel reacts with the concrete, and it could form a huge hydrogen bubble like happened at Three Mile Island. There could be a huge hydrogen explosion, which would rupture the containment vessel, and out of Unit 2 would come huge plumes of radiation, which, if the wind is blowing towards the south, could devastate much of Japan forever, or it could be blown across the Pacific towards the American—North American continent and around the globe, indeed, and pollute the whole of the northern hemisphere.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, I agree that it’s a very parlous situation indeed. It does look as if it’s going to melt through the reactor floor, effectively, and onto the concrete, in which case exactly the scenario she’s talking about could take place.

I would disagree, though, that it will devastate a large part of Japan forever, which I think was a term that she used. I think that’s an overstatement of the impacts of the radiation. There’s no question that it will cause mass evacuation. It may cause health effects for some people.

... cherry-picking studies, plucking out work which is very much against the scientific consensus. When it comes to low-level radiation, unfortunately, environmentalists have been responsible for quite a similar approach by making what appear to be unjustifiable and excessive claims for the impact of that radiation. ...

HELEN CALDICOTT: ... A new report from the New York Academy of Sciences has just translated 5,000 papers from Russian into English. ... Up to a million people have already died from Chernobyl, and people will continue to die from cancer for virtually the rest of time. What we should know is that a millionth of a gram of plutonium, or less, can induce cancer, or will induce cancer. Each reactor has 250 kilos, or 500 pounds, of plutonium in it. You know, there’s enough plutonium in these reactors to kill everyone on earth.

... George, I really appreciate your writing, and I understand your concern about global warming. ... You’ve bought the propaganda from the nuclear industry. They say it’s low-level radiation. That’s absolute rubbish. If you inhale a millionth of a gram of plutonium, the surrounding cells receive a very, very high dose. Most die within that area, because it’s an alpha emitter. The cells on the periphery remain viable. They mutate, and the regulatory genes are damaged. Years later, that person develops cancer. Now, that’s true for radioactive iodine, that goes to the thyroid; cesium-137, that goes to the brain and muscles; strontium-90 goes to bone, causing bone cancer and leukemia. It’s imperative, George, because you’re highly intelligent and a very important commentator, that you understand internal emitters and radiation, and it’s not low level to the cells that are exposed. Radiobiology is imperative to understand these days. I do suggest, humbly, that if you read my book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer, which I think I’ve tried to send you once, you’ll learn about that.

HELEN CALDICOTT: ... Nuclear power, George, creates massive quantities of radioactive waste. There is no way to put it on earth that’s safe. As it leaks into the water over time, it will bioconcentrate in the food chains, in the breast milk, in the fetuses, that are thousands of times more radiosensitive than adults. One x-ray to the pregnant abdomen doubles the incidence of leukemia in the child. And over time, nuclear waste will induce epidemics of cancer, leukemia and genetic disease, and random compulsory genetic engineering. And we’re not the only species with genes, of course. It’s plants and animals. So, this is an absolute catastrophe, the likes of which the world has never seen before. ...

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