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Reader riposte: Monbiot\'s conversion

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COMMENTS

31 March 2011 16:05

Richard Broinowski, author of Fact or Fission, and a retired Australian diplomat writes: 

A comment on Monbiot's sudden conversion to nuclear power if I may. Monbiot's claim that no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors does not stand up to scrutiny. From all informed reports, some of the heroes who worked in the plant desperately trying to remediate damage have received such doses from gamma radiation and will die. And among the many thousands of civilians who have received small radiation doses in Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, some, according to the best informed of nuclear physicians, will probably die sooner or later from one radiation-induced cancer or another. It is far too early to early to say how many, since the crisis is by no means over.

Monbiot also ignores the other impacts of Fukushima: restrictions on the consumption of food, water and milk; the expense and trauma of re-locating 200,000 people; the very serious way in which the nuclear crisis is hampering the emergency response to the earthquake and tsunami; the destructive effect of the accident on agriculture and tourism. 

As Dr Jim Green of Friends of the Earth observes, Monbiot rightly takes offence at ill-informed, moralistic objections to nuclear power. Yet two of the greatest objections to nuclear power both have a moral objection – one because of its particularity, the other because of its generality.

The particular moral concern is the disproportionate impact of the nuclear industry on indigenous people in Australia, North America and Africa, where some tribal areas are subject to the mining and milling of uranium, and the indiscriminate disposal of nuclear waste products. It's difficult to see how this pervasive racism can be reduced to being just another input into a complex equation, and tolerated as a price to keep the lights on.

The general moral concern is the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. As former US vice president Al Gore observed 'For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. If we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal...then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonable scale'.

For Australia, the moral dimension has particular resonance in two respects. First, the mining industry presses the government to sell uranium to India, not a signatory to the NPT. There's nothing new in this because the industry has been behind almost every modification to the strict bilateral safeguards conditions passed by parliament in 1976, and they see no particular reason why yet another safeguards principle should not be broken. Despite strenuous denials by DFAT in Canberra, Australian atoms cannot be accurately traced, not even their equivalence, once they enter the international nuclear industry. 

Second, Australian policy verges on the schizoid when it comes to returning nuclear spent fuel to Australia. Yes, we are keen to sell uranium to any country which says it won’t use it in any weapons program. But no, we won't take any responsibility for its radiotoxic end products by allowing spent fuel rods to be returned to Australia for disposal. Bob Hawke, who actively promotes such a course of action doesn't have to be responsible to the electorate. But because of voter sensitivities, any sensible politician, State or Federal, avoids speculation about nuclear power in Australia or a spent fuel regime here like a radioactive plague.