This piece was written in the aftermath of Fukushima.
Some people may find the current spat between Guardian eco-warriors’ Monbiot and Vidal, entertaining. I doubt that I am alone in finding it both distracting and somewhat offensive. I take considerable objection to Monbiot’s use of the royal ‘we’ to apologise on behalf of a ‘movement’ to whose leadership he has appointed himself.
A very large number of people are opposed to the further development of nuclear power on a very wide range of grounds. As citizens in a democracy they are entitled to choose whatever grounds they wish. Nor is there any compulsion for those grounds to be scientific: opposition on the grounds of morality, economics or simply taste, are all permissible.
If Monbiot has made erroneous claims about the health impacts of radiation he is right to apologise. But he must do so on his own behalf not on behalf of a wider ‘movement’ which he has not consulted on either his past or current opinions.
More substantively, the discussion on the health impacts of Chernobyl is a distraction from the more important matter of the significance of the events at Fukushima. I am not sure that there will ever be a universally accepted ‘scientific’ conclusion about the health effects of Chernobyl. There is, after all, still debate about the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But as has been repeatedly pointed out, Fukushima is not Chernobyl and the issue of it’s implications for the future of energy and climate policy cannot be reduced to some morbid calculus of casualties. We do not determine transport policy options simply by comparing the number of deaths each mode generates no matter how important we think human life to be.
In any case, the event at Fukushima is not over yet and may not be for months to come. Even so, it’s impact on human well being is already large. As many as 200,000 people face the prospect of never being able to return to their homes. TEPCO has lost 80% of its value destroying the savings of a great many people. Millions more in Japan are understandably anxious about the possible impacts of what will be for some time an uncertain exposure of their children to radiation. Many others, well beyond Japan, are worried about the impact of the loss of electricity on their jobs.
There is now a growing debate around the world about the future role of nuclear power in resolving the energy-climate security dilemma. This is an important discussion that will deal with a huge range of issues from nuclear weapons proliferation to the building of public confidence in regulatory institutions. The risks to health of radioactivity, whether routine or accidentally caused, will,quite properly, play a part in this debate. But not a very big one.