Monbiot and Caldicott

Update: Monbiot finally reads the sources Caldicott recommends, and learns that she quotes unreliable sources and misquotes the reliable ones. Monbiot also links to the Guardian environmental editor who is upset to be put in the science-denial camp, and confirms his position there by warning that “Fukushima’s meltdown may be worse” than Chernobyl and accusing World Health Organization of being part of the Chernobyl cover up.


Over the last fortnight I’ve made a deeply troubling discovery. The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.

Monbiot debates Caldicott on Democracy Now.


I’m assuming that anyone debating Caldicott has to enter in a very centered space, because she is not one to allow people to finish a sentence where she clearly sees mistakes, and Goodman is not very effective at explaining whose turn it is to speak.

I too find Caldicott’s claim of UN conspiracies to cover up claims that 1 million are already dead from Chernobyl somewhat unlikely, and am interested that a physician seems unaware that most cancers take years to develop. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Chernobyl Report (pdf), the report accepted as scientific consensus (which means that disagreement from scientists would have appeared in Science and Nature) says there are 50 – 60 dead from Chernobyl, thousands of cancers attributed to the accident (both are true: juvenile thyroid cancer has close to 0 death rate), and more than 4000 deaths may occur in the next 5-6 decades. There are differences between the IAEA assumptions and the greater numbers produced by Caldicott, Greenpeace (pdf), etc.:
• scientists assume that most cancers take years to develop—leukemia and juvenile thyroid cancer are exceptions.
• scientists assume that pre-Chernobyl data in the Ukraine and surrounding areas are unreliable.
• scientists look at a number of explanations for increased mortality.
• scientists find a cause more likely if increased exposure is associated with increased mortality and morbidity.
• scientists compare the results for other known exposures. For example, according to Radiation Effects Research Foundation , there was not a statistically discernible change in birth defects in Hiroshima/Nagasaki (except for women pregnant at the time of the bombings, and this does not appear to have been passed on to succeeding generations).

Here are recent health data from Ukraine. In line with much of the rest of the Soviet Union, the life expectancy of males is very low. Ukraine ranks third in the world in deaths from poisonings (including alcohol?) and heart disease (heart disease is the most important cause of death associated with drinking and smoking, but it’s also the second most important cause of death worldwide, after lower respiratory infections), and 19th for liver disease. Ukrainians rank 5th worldwide in alcohol consumption; data for smoking are not available. Not so high for cancers, HIV/AIDS, or car accidents. Congenital anomalies are high, but alcohol-related birth defects are high there. Men are especially at risk: the male: female ratio goes from 0.92 for ages 15 – 64 to 0.5 for ages 65+. Literacy is high.

Russia shows a similar pattern. Russia ranks 6th worldwide for alcohol consumption and 1st in cigarette smoking. Men die even younger, compared to women, in Russia than in Ukraine. Literacy is high.

From a Wikipedia article, Long-term effects of alcohol:

High levels of alcohol consumption are correlated with an increased risk of developing alcoholism, cardiovascular disease, malabsorption, chronic pancreatitis, alcoholic liver disease, and cancer. Damage to the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system can occur from sustained alcohol consumption. Long-term use of alcohol in excessive quantities is capable of damaging nearly every organ and system in the body. The developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of alcohol.

Also accidents, as well as car and pedestrian accidents in countries with significant numbers of cars.

Note: both Monbiot and Caldicott make mistakes; however, I especially wonder at Caldicott’s assumption that as a physician, she never makes mistakes. I know people who turned agnostic on nuclear power on January 1, 2000 after hearing Caldicott warn that Y2k would lead to nuclear power plants meltdown.

Update: Brief bios for Monbiot and Caldicott
Helen Caldicott was a doctor until 1980, when she quit medicine to oppose nuclear power and nuclear weapons. She detours into other subjects:

Caldicott’s investigative writings had the distinction of being nominated and subsequently chosen as Project Censored’s #2 story in 1990. Citing the research of Soviet scientists Valery Burdakov and Vyacheslav Fiin, Caldicott argued that NASA’s Space Shuttle program was destroying the Earth’s ozone and that 300 total shuttle flights would be enough to “completely destroy the Earth’s protective ozone shield,” although there is no scientific evidence to back up this claim.

Among anti-nuclear power people I know, Caldicott is the best known activist, and the least respected.

George Monbiot is an environmental and political activist who writes regularly for The Guardian. His Wikipedia biography contains much that is new to me about his travels,

His activities led to his being made persona non grata in several countries and being sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in Indonesia. In these places, he was also shot at, beaten up by military police, shipwrecked and stung into a poisoned coma by hornets

and his politics (offering a reward to anyone who attempts a citizen’s arrest of former prime minister Tony Blair).

Monbiot began as anti-nuclear, shifted to neutral over the years because of his concern on climate change, and has recently declared himself in favor of nuclear power:

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

4 Responses to “Monbiot and Caldicott”

  1. Excellent post. The difference between facts and endless worse-case scenarios. Thank you for this excellent summary.

  2. Thanks Karen. I would have liked to see short bios and background of both George Monbiot and Helen Caldicott for those who are not familiar with them. I had not heard of Monbiot so I had no idea of who he is until I played the video. Even then, some more information from you would be helpful.

  3. Karen Street says:

    Good idea, bios added at the end.

  4. T-Squared says:

    Your comment “…I especially wonder at Caldicott’s assumption that as a physician, she never makes mistakes”, reminded me of an old saying — A tailor wears his mistakes, a doctor burys his.