George Monbiot here continues the fierce debate he's been having with other environmentalists since he broke with green orthodoxy last week, and embraced nuclear power. I'm no expert on this (or as regular readers will note, anything else) but it seems, from this distance, as if all the arguments are on his side. Nuclear is a low-carbon energy source that doesn't depend on a finite resource. You'd have thought greens would be all over it, so to speak. But most oppose it on the grounds that it's dangerous. As Monbiot points out, however, until renewables can step up to the plate and provide most of our energy needs (which is a long way off) the alternatives to nuclear power aren't exactly risk-free either. 2,433 people died in mining accidents in China last year (that's the official figure; the real figure is likely to be much higher). That means that Chinese coal mining alone causes more deaths every week than Chernobyl, the worse nuclear accident in history, caused in 25 years. Add to that the long-term diseases that many miners suffer from and you have a pretty impressive rate of attrition.
The arguments Monbiot makes seem like common sense to me. In fact, many environmentalists, here and in the US, are coming round to nuclear power. My question is, how did the green movement get itself into this difficult-to-defend position in the first place? Their focus is on climate change - so why is safety so high up their list of priorities, and only for this particular energy source?
I wonder if this is a curious example of path dependence, as described by the linguist John McWhorter:
Path dependence refers to the fact that often, something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice, because once established, external factors discouraged going into reverse to try other alternatives.
We still have QWERTY keyboards (rather than alphabetically arranged ones) because early typewriters jammed easily when hit too hard and so the inventor wanted to place the common letter 'A' under the little finger. He also wanted the top row to contain all the letters for TYPEWRITER to make it easier for travelling salesman to demonstrate how the new contraption worked. Now that keyboards have improved, and even though other systems would make more sense, we're still stuck with it.
The green movement shares its roots with the left-wing anti-nuclear weapon campaigners of the 1980s. Back then, and not unreasonably, anything 'nuclear' was thought to be inherently bad. Now they've grown up and into their own independent political force, they are still stuck with an instinctive but irrational aversion to nuclear energy, and will reach for all sorts of logical absurdities to support it. It's their equivalent of the QWERTY keyboard.
OK now I really do have to pack.