Making mountains out of meltdowns

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at</em>

The destruction caused by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded, and the tsunami which followed it,were not momentous enough for much of the world’s press.

Thousands of people are feared dead. Tens of thousands are missing or injured. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes. Buildings, vehicles of all kinds and civil infrastructure have been smashed to pieces and swept away. But the story that has dominated the news in the past 48 hours is the loss of control of two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In contrast to the devastation across Japan, however, the accident has – at the time of writing – so far caused only 15 injuries, just one of which appears to be serious, and a handful of suspected cases of exposure to radiation, none of which appear to be serious. So why is there such a preoccupation with the nuclear power plant?

‘Fears of catastrophe as nuclear plant explodes’, ran the headline in The Sunday Times. Yet the explosion took place long after concerns were raised about the loss of control of reactor 1. And the plant did not explode. There was an explosion at the plant, a big difference when we consider that none of the reactors or their containments were damaged. (A similar thing appears to have occurred this morning at reactor 3.) ‘Thousands feared dead after blast at Fukushima No. 1 plant in Japan’, screamed the Herald Sun. The headline isliterally true, of course. Thousands are dead and there was an explosion; but nobody has died as a consequence of the explosion. The low-quality journalism and pointless commentary continued across the media and internet, but it is epitomised by this line from The Sunday Times’ multi-page gore-fest: ‘The ghosts of Chernobyl and Five Mile Island (sic)hung in the air.’

This kind of lurid, almost prurient prose is standard fare in coverage of disasters of this magnitude. Anxious to file copy, yet without the necessary facts to make sense of a situation that is by definition chaotic, wild speculation is the journalist’s displacement activity. It’s not so much that the ‘ghosts’ of nuclear accidents past haunt the site of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, but that they haunt the heads of lazy hacks, who have no better way of expressing their own poorly-informed view of the situation. Anybody could make such a statement. A concatenation of barely-understood factoids about nuclear energy and the unfolding crisis created a drama that barely resembled what was actually happening, based on the simple equation ‘Nuclear power station + explosion = Chernobyl’.

The accident at Chernobyl in 1986 is the event by which all nuclear accidents will be naturally measured, unless something worse ever happens. But it is not a useful standard. The chain of events there, too, involved the loss of control of a nuclear reactor, but of a different design. The much smaller Japanese reactor sits in a containment chamber made from steel several inches thick, unlike its Russian predecessor, which was less stable, and operated by inexperienced technicians. The two countries’ cultures also vary greatly, with safety and public accountability being far higher up the public agenda in a democracy. Safety protocols in the West are constantly pored over and contested in public, in a way that was simply not possible in the Soviet Union.

The fact that different and superior reactor designs and safety protocols make it highly unlikely that Fukushima Daiichi 1 will ‘do a Chernobyl’ does not stop the speculation that it will, and is about to, however. And just as journalists with nothing better to do are happy to cook up salacious copy, so are anti-nuclear and environmental campaigners keen to exploit the anxiety it creates.

Within hours of the incident, Greenpeace had declared that ‘Nuclear plants like the one at Fukushima were never designed to withstand a meltdown of the reactor core and won’t’. Crispin Aubery, an anti-nuclear campaigner at Hinkley Point in England – site of two long-standing nuclear stations and a possible site for a new plant – told local news reporters, ‘The events in Japan provide yet more evidence that nuclear power is unsafe… We should immediately shelve plans for any new reactors in this country, including the Hinkley C proposal.’ Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a US anti-nuclear weapons pressure group, told CNN: ‘This is going to go down in history as one of the three greatest nuclear incidents, if it stops now.’

But if the accident really does get recorded as the third-worst civil nuclear accident, it will be yet further testament to the safety of nuclear power. Even the second-worst event, the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979, caused no deaths, and exposed people nearby to a dose of radiation no more significant than an x-ray at a hospital. In spite of Chernobyl, nuclear power – even after an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, a resulting tsunami, and numerous powerful after-shocks on a nuclear plant about to celebrate its fortieth birthday – remains safer than many other, routine aspects of daily life.

This must say something about a hugely distorted perception of disaster, and an unchallenged desire to exploit it. The earthquake and tsunami have been far worse for Japan than Chernobyl was for people in the former Soviet Union. Only around 50 deaths can definitively attributed to Chernobyl. An official report into the aftermath in 2006 suggested that perhaps as many as 9,000 more might eventually result, over the course of decades, but this was at best an educated guess. Very little damage was done to basic infrastructure outside of the plant and the other three reactors at the Chernobyl site were up-and-running again after just seven months. Compare that to the thousands of deaths already confirmed and the sight of whole towns being swept away by last week’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Yet the media and anti-nuclear campaigners seem bent on priming themselves and their audience for ‘another Chernobyl’, as though it would somehow be worse than the events that have preceded it. Forget the scale of destruction and human cost caused by the earthquake and tsunami; the detection of radioisotopes at the plant ‘heralds the beginning of an ecological and human tragedy’, wrote Brian Vastag in the Washington Post. Across the coverage of the event, a sense of proportion is missing from the commentary, which fails to make the distinction between, for instance, a release of small amounts of slightly radioactive material, and a catastrophic meltdown of a reactor, its explosion, the widespread contamination of land, and the deaths of dozens of people.

Whatever happens to the reactors, we can expect even more columns of mawkish prose, written on the hoof, that will continue to distort the sensible perception of nuclear power. Anti-nuclear campaigners will continue to say that an acceptably safe form of nuclear power is not possible.

To this, it should be pointed out that earthquakes and tsunamis cause much greater problems for humans than nuclear power ever has. Furthermore, where nuclear power is a possibility ie, in wealthy economies, the effect of earthquakes and tsunamis is mitigated, and their consequences more easily ameliorated than in poorer regions. The 2004 Asian tsunami, and the earthquake in Haiti last year, were smaller in magnitude than last Friday’s events, but came at a much higher human cost than in Japan. Poverty, and the earth’s natural forces, are far more dangerous than our attempts to protect ourselves from them.

Media Meltdown

I have an article up on Spiked about the response to the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant from the media and anti-nuclear lobby.

Thousands of people are feared dead. Tens of thousands are missing or injured. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes. Buildings, vehicles of all kinds and civil infrastructure have been smashed to pieces and swept away. But the story that has dominated the news in the past 48 hours is the loss of control of two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In contrast to the devastation across Japan, however, the accident has – at the time of writing – so far caused only 15 injuries, just one of which appears to be serious, and a handful of suspected cases of exposure to radiation, none of which appear to be serious. So why is there such a preoccupation with the nuclear power plant?

Read on…

The low-quality copy emerging even from the ‘quality’ press has been amazing. It has been totally speculative, and giving a lot of free airtime to the nakedly anti-nuclear agenda, merely to generate something exciting out of the unfolding event.

The End (of Nick Stern's Credibility) is Nigh!

Think Progress is a misnomer for a site devoid of thought or sensible conception of ‘progress’. It’s currently running a series of crass, pointless, sub-tabloid mini interviews with climate alarmist, Nicholas Stern. In the first interview, Stern expounds some views that mirror the site’s problems with thinking about progress.

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Nicholas — now Lord — Stern is a pillar of the climate change establishment. He is perhaps even more respected a commentator on matters climate-related than most climate scientists. He authored the 2006 report on climate change that still determines UK policy today, and which NGOs and other organisations draw from to set and further their own self-serving agendas. Since authoring the report, Stern has shot to climate stardom, being sought by carbon finance firms, keen to cash in on his connections to government and his insider policy-making knowledge, by the media, and by billionaire philanthropists wishing to have him set up and manage climate research organisations that bear the benefactors’ names.

But why? Anybody could invent the argument in the video above, in which Stern claims that increases in temperature will make some areas inhospitable, driving the population away, causing war. It’s a what-if-join-the-dots kind of bogus thought experiment, which only carries any weight because of Stern’s authority, not because of the quality of any research or theoretical ground behind it. In order to take Stern’s word for it, we have to trust that authority. It goes without saying that I don’t.

And so shame on Brad Johnson, the author of the piece, whose idea of an ‘interview’ is merely to repeat, verbatim, what the interviewee told him, without subjecting the claim to any criticism whatsoever. That’s not interviewing, Brad, that’s flattery.

Stern, who advises politicians the world over, gets to sit on influential panels that dictate national and international policies, and who does the bidding of billionaire ‘philanthropists’ seems particularly reluctant to face criticism. He has strong views about what the world should do, but has yet (as far as I am aware) to face, let alone answer, a single critic or criticism of his work. The closest Stern ever seems to get to defending himself is to send the idiot climate bulldog, Bob Ward, out to harass any editor that dares publish anything that dissents from the orthodoxy.

So much for Stern’s authority then. Since he is incapable of defending them, his arguments and research can carry no authority. The authority he has then, lies only in the fact that he repeats the mantras that politicians and others engaged in the climate change agenda want and need to hear. For instance, I had the misfortune of attending a lecture by luvvie-turned-planet-saver Lord David Puttnam a few years ago. (They’re all Lords — unelected, unaccountable feudal relics — these people; Lord Stern, Lord Puttnam, Lord May, Lord Turner.)  During the lecture Puttnam claimed

To read much of the media, you simply wouldn’t know that there’s a ninety-nine per cent scientific consensus on this issue. In some cases we’re even led to believe that the whole idea of man-made climate change has been put about by a bunch of self-promoting scientists in flapping white coats in some vast conspiracy. If anyone ever tries to pull that on you, I beg you; ask them a few very very simple questions. Where has this conspiracy come from? Who is financing it? How is anything in this disorganised world so brilliantly organised as to make this possible? And most important of all, consider this. If Crispin Tickell, myself, and others are wrong, and if ninety-nine per cent of the world’s scientists are wrong, to what degree will we have damaged your lives and life chances? […] On the other hand, if the climate change deniers are wrong, if you’re stupid enough anyway to believe them, the net effect of that could be to devastate your entire life, and more important than that, your children’s’ lives, your grandchildren’s lives and your great grandchildren’s lives. You cannot afford to give them that much credibility. Everything I said about the BNP, I feel just as strongly about intelligent climate deniers. They are living on another planet. I wish they’d go there.

Puttnam’s own contribution to scientific knowledge is limited to his role producing films such as Bugsy Malone and The Mission. These remarkable achievements, nonetheless, qualify him to make pronouncements about who in this debate are reckless and stupid.

I asked Puttnam where the 99% figure came from. The figure is widely cited, he told me… And after some hesitation, ‘from Stern’. All that it took for Puttnam — who chaired the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Draft Climate Change Bill — to have such confidence in the figure was for Stern to have uttered it. I asked him precisely where the figure had come from. He promised to reply to my email, asking him. I sent him three. He never replied. Meanwhile, anyone who disagreed with Puttnam, was, by proxy, disagreeing with Stern, and 99% of the world’s scientists. Now we can see how Stern’s authority exists at the end of a chain of circular reasoning. This must be what is meant by ‘peer review’.

But what of the argument itself. The climate changes where people can be, claims Stern. This is true to an extent, of course. But who could have imagined Phoenix, Arizona, before it was possible to divert entire rivers? The extent to which human populations are forced to move, then, is determined by our ability to transport sources of water to where they are needed. Leaving aside the matter ‘is climate change happening, the question here, then, should divide the debate between those who think that, in the 21st century, this is no impossible challenge, and those who think it is. Stern must presuppose it is impossible. We can see for ourselves that it is possible, and it should be more possible between the years 2011 and 2022 than it was when those first huge dams were constructed in the early part of the last century. We can now see how it is Stern’s presuppositions which influence his understanding of climate, not his understanding of climate which informs his economics.

But let us assume, anyway, that it is not possible for humans to respond positively to climate change, and that, a century from now, climate change has caused the displacement of a billion people? Is this likely to be the cause of World War III, as he claims?

No. The movement of a billion people over the course of a century amounts to the movement of 10 million people a year. This is no exodus. It is 0.143% of the world’s population.  In other words, it’s the equivalent of 87,000 people leaving the UK (population 60 million) each year. That’s fewer people than would fit into the new Wembley stadium. It’s less than half the number of people who pass through Heathrow airport each day.  The resettlement of a billion people throughout the world over the course of a century presents absolutely no technical challenge whatsoever. Again, Stern must presuppose a political problem with such a movement of people in order to demonstrate that a climate problem exists. Why is ‘Think Progress’ — seemingly a ‘liberal’ organ — so convinced that immigration is such a problem that it could create a world war? So much for liberal values. In fact, we might point out that, if the problems of climate change are problems of poverty, the world might well cope with climate change — anthropogenic or not — by migration. Isn’t that how early man survived the ice age, after all? It shouldn’t need pointing out: as a race, we’ve survived climate change before. And we survived it with far less technology and resources than we now posses.

So, in order to take Stern seriously, we must presuppose too much. We can only arrive at a position in which we trust Stern after too much circular reasoning. We can trust Stern because of his authority, or we trust him because we presuppose the bleak things he presupposes. But we can’t trust him for having made a sound argument.

As the political ambitions of Stern and Co have failed, so they have escalated the drama in their depiction of the future. As Stern finds it harder to make convincing and coherent arguments, so the worse the future becomes in his view. What Stern expresses then, is not ‘science’, nor even coherent economics. It is just the ravings of a lunatic, the same as any religious nut-case in a sandwich board bearing the words, REPENT: the end is nigh! The man in the sandwich board, and Lord Nicholas Stern say more about themselves than they say about the end.