Environmentalist Monbiot Supports Nuclear Power

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Watching the outcome of how the earthquake and tsunami affected Japan, one environmentalist says he's convinced that nuclear is better than coal. NPR's Melissa Block talks with Guardian columnist George Monbiot about his decision.


Here's a provocative thought from the well-known British environmental activist George Monbiot: The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power. I am no longer nuclear neutral, he wrote in The Guardian, where he writes a weekly column, I now support the technology.

Well, that change of heart toward nuclear power from a prominent green has triggered quite a passionate outcry. And George Monbiot joins me now by Skype from his home in Wales to explain his view. Welcome to the program.

Professor GEORGE MONBIOT (Department of Environmental Science, University of East London): Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: And, George, you are looking at this disaster with the nuclear plant in Japan, and finding in there a justification for nuclear power. Why?

Prof. MONBIOT: Well, we've seen a really very poor plant and a very old one being hit by one of the worst natural disasters you could conceive of - a force nine earthquake and a major tsunami. And even so, what we've seen has been horrible, no question about it. It's a true disaster. It's caused an awful lot of trauma. It's dangerous. But it's nothing like the sort of scenarios which have been discussed as happening when a catastrophe of this kind affects a nuclear power station.

And my thinking is, well, if this is the worst - just about - that nature can do when it comes to a nuclear power plant and if this is the outcome, then the fears over nuclear power have been exaggerated.

BLOCK: Isn't, though, there a whole lot we simply don't know yet? I mean, how bad would it have to be at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant for you to change your opinion?

Mr. MONBIOT: Well, you would have to see, I think, quite a few people receiving a lethal dose of radiation to make it in any way comparable to the costs of other mainstream forms of energy generation. We know that there are two workers who have received radiation burns and will probably be made sick as a result of that radiation, but we have to compare that horrible situation with the even worse situation, for instance, in coal mining.

Now, in China alone, between 5,000 and 20,000 people every year are killed in industrial accidents in coal mines. And the death rate from coal-fired energy is hundreds, thousands of times greater than the death rate in nuclear.

And I'm not calling for complacency here, but I am calling for perspective and saying if there is an industry which is absolutely devastating in terms of the level of fatalities, the level of industrial injuries and, of course, pollution, climate change, everything else, than it is coal. It is not nuclear.

BLOCK: Hypothetical question for you here. Do you think your conversion to the cause of nuclear power would be the same if you were living, say, 10 miles away from the Fukushima plant?

Mr. MONBIOT: Well, of course, it's not a nice place to be right now. But then nor, for instance, is it a nice place to be around a coal plant at any time. What's happening in response to the Fukushima crisis is that a lot of countries are either suspending or scaling back their nuclear power programs and switching back to coal as a result. And we've seen a suspension in both Germany and China, which in both cases will lead to a significant upsurge in the use of coal. And as a result, a lot more people are likely to be killed and injured than if they had stuck to nuclear power.

BLOCK: George Monbiot, does your conversion to embracing nuclear power change, in some way, your view of the role of renewables?

Mr. MONBIOT: No, it doesn't. I still put renewables first. I think that there is enormous potential. But actually, what we're looking at at the moment is not a flat out war between nuclear and renewables. It's a war between nuclear and coal. And I know which side I want to win that war and it ain't coal.

BLOCK: I've been talking with George Monbiot. He's an environmental activist and a weekly columnist for The Guardian. Thanks very much.

Mr. MONBIOT: Thank you very much, Melissa.

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