Greenpeace: speaking truth to power

I’d like to offer a post in praise of Greenpeace. I’m not an active member of the organisation, though I give modest financial support because I am often thankful for its clear voice and actions on climate change.  A look through Greenpeace NZ’s latest magazine reminded me of the range of its climate change concern and prompted this acknowledgement.

The backward-looking Gerry Brownlee receives short shrift in a piece which makes my criticisms of him on Hot Topic look timid by comparison. Here’s Greenpeace’s take on NZ reality:

“We are a renewable energy powerhouse with an embarrassment of riches in smart thinking, engineering and scientific capability which enables us to deliver world beating climate change solutions.”

Brownlee, instead of focusing government thinking and support on this reality, proposes:

“…that we reach for the pick axes and start digging for the black stuff – be it coal or oil. Come forth, explore, exploit and burn is his rallying cry as practically no part of God’s Own is exempt from the whims of the highest bidder.”

Brownlee is playing Russian roulette with our pristine coastlines, our international reputation and with the climate. Moreover his focus on resuscitating the dying fossil fuel industry is denying our clean tech companies (more than 250 of them) the opportunity to conquer the clean technology world. The government must wake up to the 21st century.


“It must make clean technology the foundation of long-term economic prosperity and, in doing so, send a clear signal to businesses both at home and abroad that we are serious about becoming a key player in a low carbon world.”

Elsewhere the magazine records that Greenpeace has called on the NZ government to permanently stop all plans to open up NZ’s coastal waters to offshore oil drilling and stop any expansion of coal mining. A petition to that effect is under way. Two actions have highlighted the call. A group of volunteers smeared with fake crude emerged from the sea at Muriwai in July (pictured).  A few days later a bathing-gear-clad group similarly smeared walked through downtown Wellington to deliver the first 18,000 signatures of the petition along with Greenpeace’s submission on the Review of the Crown Minerals Act.

Greenpeace NZ’s campaign against Fonterra for the dairy industry’s use of palm kernel grown on areas of destroyed rainforest has received media coverage, particularly through their disruptive action at the Auckland Fonterra offices. The magazine reports the evasiveness of Fonterra CEO Andrew Ferrier when asked if Fonterra supported deforestation in Indonesia “…we’ve got, um, plenty of people in our comms  department that you can talk to about that.” The “comms people” were meanwhile putting out a statement mentioning Fonterra’s supply partner who “we believe follows industry best practice in responsible sourcing.”  Greenpeace comments dryly that “we believe” is corporate speak for “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Typically Greenpeace were on the ground in Indonesia, researching the continued destruction of rainforest by the palm industry and the magazine includes Communications Manager Suzette Jackson’s account of her 27 hours in jail when caught documenting the evidence of widespread destruction.

These examples from the recent magazine are of course just the tip of the iceberg for Greenpeace’s ongoing activism on climate change backed by solid and well-researched reports such as one on the clean energy future possible for New Zealand, or the Greenpeace International publications on their climate vision. From the international level the magazine carried some remarks by Kumi Naidoo who became the Executive Director of Greenpeace in 2009. He describes climate change as without question the greatest threat any generation has had to face, and at one point speaks of the role of civil disobedience, often present in Greenpeace actions, in awakening governments to action on such a crucial matter.

“History tells us that whenever injustice arises – whether that be related to civil rights in the United States, New Zealand’s nuclear-free movement, a woman’s right to vote, Parihaka or the anti-Springbok tour protests – it was only when determined men and women were prepared to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough, I am prepared to peacefully break the law and even go to prison to get our message across’, that change finally happened.

“When all other attempts at negotiation or discussion have faltered, organisations must have the option of turning to civil disobedience and non-violent direct action.”

It is this preparedness that gives Greenpeace’s advocacy the seriousness that climate change demands. All power to them as they continue the battle determinedly in the year ahead.

9 thoughts on “Greenpeace: speaking truth to power”

  1. Greenpeace is to be commended for upping the ante on global warming and for many sensible suggestions in its report.

    However, its dismissal of nuclear power is based on “facts” which just ain’t so:

    nuclear energy is often cited as a solution to climate change, but
    employing it would be simply swapping one environmental nightmare
    for another. Nuclear power is never safe.

    Neither is getting out of bed in the morning. Obviously, you have to take due care. However, there has not been a single nuclear-related fatality at any commercial nuclear power station in the western world. I’d far rather have a “nightmare” like that than a Pike River type one.

    Not only is there no safe way of disposing of nuclear waste,

    This is regularly trotted out by people ignorant of the relative scale of the problem. Let us take 1 GW-year of electricity.

    In round figures, a 1GWe Generation II nuclear power station produces about 16 tons of used fuel from a similar amount of fresh fuel, per annum.

    Compare that with a 1GWe baseload coal station, which will burn about 4.4 million tons of coal and produce 12 MILLION tons of CO2. Included in the waste is, on average in the US, 0.46 tons of mercury, 33 tons of arsenic, 4.9 tons of beryllium, 3.1 tons of cadmium, 37 tons of chromium, 39 tons of nickel, and 10.8 tons of selenium. (How long are the half-lives of these poisons? INFINITE.)

    Also, and get this: 5.7 tons of uranium and 14 tons of thorium, goes into the fly ash or up the chimney. Admittedly barely radioactive, but still more tons than spent nuclear fuel/annum.

    Until reprocessing options improve (see ) dry cask storage has been shown to be a good interim solution.

    No other power generation source apart from nuclear is required to provide for its entire lifecycle costs and emissions. If coal and gas had to, we would see a fairer playing field.

    but the nuclear power industry requires
    enormous government subsidies. Nuclear energy cannot compete on an
    open market; it costs at least 20 per cent more (and up to 10 times
    more per kilowatt hour) than renewable energy or energy efficiency.

    Nonsense. All it needs is an off-the-shelf design, and guaranteed long-term purchasing at an agreed minimum price; this can be encouraged with a carbon floor price, a low-carbon electricity quota system, and/or a guaranteed baseload capacity payment. This is the regime which the new UK nuclear build is seeking, as the govt has refused them a straight subsidy.

    The huge cost overruns have occurred when doing first-of-a-kind designs, or when misguided greenies managed to sabotage new build that had already been approved and financed.

    Vermont Yankee is a 510MW BWR station in New England, USA that is presently profitably supplying electricity at 4.2c/kWh at, very roughly, 40g/kWh CO2 lifecycle emissions. It has been going for 38 years and been assessed by the US NRC as good for another 20 years from 2012. In its infinite wisdom, the local govt has decreed it must close in 2012. The shortfall will be made up by burning gas at 500-600g/kWh CO2 and importing Quebec Hydro hydro/nuclear at 6.0c/kWh initially.

    Further, New Zealand does not have the infrastructure or expertise to deal
    with nuclear energy,

    There is a growing list of suppliers who will be delighted to sell you a turnkey system to an off-the-shelf design, as the Koreans are currently doing in the UAE. And I can’t imagine that Kiwi ingenuity wouldn’t roll its sleeves up and do what it could.

    and even the smallest commercially viable nuclear
    reactor would be too big to fit into New Zealand’s electricity system

    Again, nonsense. NZ’s average year-round consumption is 4.8GW, and the Auckland region is crying out to get a baseload replacement for Huntly which, last I looked, was 1.3GW of installed capacity. A twin-600MW or triple-500MW reactor solution would give operational flexibility, or use of a set of newer Small Modular Reactor designs from Hyperion, Westinghouse/Hitachi, Chinergy etc is possible. Read about them at .

    1. turnages, thanks for the useful comment. I don’t myself take any position on nuclear power, and my gratitude to Greenpeace is for their general awareness and serious response to global warming. Obviously there are arguments to be had and decisions to be made on the extent to which nuclear is part of the mix in non-fossil energy. I detect an increased willingness to at least consider it on the part of those who would once have been vehemently opposed. There seems to be a pragmatism on both sides of the debate. I’ve fixed your link, by the way, and deleted the follow-up which became unnecessary.

    2. I think nuclear is definitely better than fossil fuel generation, but the risk is that we don’t learn the obvious lesson from our exploitation of fossil fuels: there are limits.

      In the case of nuclear there are still limits. In the event that we were to shift a large amount of electricity production to nuclear there are limits to the amount of fuel available and more importantly to the capacity of future generations to sequester away all the waste for the requisite thousands of years.
      speaking of which, there is the issue of imposing the burden of managing the waste from our energy production on future generations. kind of like being burdened with the clean up for a party that you didn’t actually get to attend….

      1. Actually, I have to agree with pretty much all of that, nomopilot. If we could get Thorium power to be a commercial reality we’d be in a lot better place too.

  2. I think it needs to be said that nuclear is preferable to FF. The only issue is whether NZ needs nuclear. One reactor could supply more than we would ever need. Nuclear would at least buy more time as more decentralised options become more attractive. Certainly Australia could do us all a favour and go nuclear. Nuclear waste would be a lesser evil to runaway climate change and may even be better than carbon capture and storage which seems like a can of worms.

  3. I don’t think Australia is likely to go nuclear.

    Many people might love the idea of U3O8 export dollars (hell, I live in ‘the Saudi Arabia of uranium’, to quote our state Premier!) but community attitudes are a long way from overcoming NIMBY biases regarding the siting of reactors themselves. If the Gen 4 reactors really do live up to their promise it might be different.

    But I wouldn’t hold my breath. The federal government ended up having to effectively use its ‘total’ executive power to establish a waste dump site for our reserve of not-overly-contaminated waste.

    (I’ve been amused by the apparent own-goal of so many nuclear advocates also being AGW deniers. And vice-versa. They’re never going to have a better opportunity to market their much-maligned product. )

    I remain skeptical of nukes, in the true sense of the word. Expensive, long lead times, uninsurable, terrorist targets, enrichment and proliferation, if it’s all so theoretically viable where are all the start-ups? etc. etc.. However, I accept that it may be the least-worst option for large-scale baseload production.

    I also worry that it’s the BAU ‘hyper-consumerism forever’ option, and that CO2 production will continue to grow exponentially while the new plants are being established and tail off only marginally afterwards.

    And nommopilot raises a very interesting point re the waste. Let’s consider the loooooong storage life. If the Sadduccees had made some deal with the Romans over the storage in perpetuity of their most toxic waste – material of no conceivable benefit to anyone now living – and Berlusconi was still attempting to enforce it I can just imagine the scorn directed at the agreement (rightly so!)

  4. Responding to some of the comments above, especially regarding spent nuclear fuel.

    A picture of dry cask storage is shown here. Contained in these casks is the ENTIRE waste stream produced by the 619MW nuclear station over 28 years. Over this period, it produced 110 billion kWh = 12.5 GW-years. If this had been generated by coal the emissions would have been 150 million tons of CO2 plus great piles of toxic wastes.

    community attitudes are a long way from overcoming NIMBY biases regarding the siting of reactors themselves.

    Australia has a big re-information job ahead of it. A generation of emotional disinformation needs to be overcome. However, initial suspicion rapidly gives way to support once the plant is actually operating. Ask the locals in Vernon, Vermont, USA or Sizewell, Suffolk, UK what they think of their nice clean power station which gives reliable low-carbon power day and night whatever the weather, or whether they would prefer stinky brown Hunter Valley coal. Candid and open management and a transparent safety policy is important though.

    Expensive, long lead times, uninsurable, terrorist targets, enrichment and proliferation,

    Not exactly uninsured. In the US, the nuclear industry is required to pay the first $10billion of any accident cost, after which the government steps in. No such payouts have ever been required for a commercial nuclear power station. A $10bn excess is a powerful incentive to run a clean ship.

    Tempting terrorist targets – hardly. Have you tried to break into a dry cask? 22 inches of reinforced concrete surrounding a 2-inch thick sealed steel vessel.

    This is what happens when a high-speed fighter aircraft collides with the equivalent of a nuclear containment dome: .

    You could justifiably assert that the Western Springs stadium was a more serious target than an NPP.

    Regarding proliferation, no state has yet used spent fuel from a commercial power reactor to fabricate a weapon. It’s simply far too impure to make a decent bang. You build a totally different type of reactor if you want weapons-grade stuff.

    if it’s all so theoretically viable where are all the start-ups?

    Worldwide, there’s plenty of new nuclear construction with shovels in the ground right now. See . New startups or alliances doing Small Nuclear Reactors include , and Hyperion Power .

    … their most toxic waste – material of no conceivable benefit to anyone now living …

    Did you read the reprocessing reference in my original post? As well as reprocessable fuel, it’s full of valuable byproducts. See also .

    I also worry that it’s the BAU ‘hyper-consumerism forever’ option, and that CO2 production will continue to grow exponentially while the new plants are being established and tail off only marginally afterwards.

    A real and in some ways a separate problem. But unless nuclear is allowed to demonstrate that it is indeed a viable substitute for high-carbon baseload power, we won’t be likely to get any tail-off at all. If it does, there is hope.

    Nuclear waste would be a lesser evil to runaway climate change and may even be better than carbon capture and storage.

    I reckon. It’s way easier to sequester 16 tons of used nuclear fuel solids than 12 million tons of CO2 gas. For all the clean-coal hype, CCS has never been practically demonstrated on an industrial scale.

    1. Thanks for all the information, turnages.

      I am a bona-fide, paid-at-the-time (the exchange rate for Roubles was always a bitch, though!*), former anti-nuclear activist, and if I couldn’t see the merit in many of your arguments I wouldn’t be saying that we may well have to accept nuclear power, even if only as a ‘least-worst’ option.

      That doesn’t change my impression of the Australian electorate one iota – and I might add that I always thought that in all justice Woomera should have been the final destination of this country’s medium-to-high-level waste, given the money that this state makes, and still stands to make, from uranium exports.

      However, in my experience most people don’t feel much of a need to be logically consistent, and they’ll happily keep the money but you can keep your reactor, thank you. To get any local people coming around to liking a nuke plant you’ll first have to build one – good luck with that! I suspect we’ll be watching the Gen 4 reactors overseas for some time yet…

      One of the problems for the industry is the history of erroneous and overstated claims – ‘electricity too cheap to meter’, ’10 000 jobs at Roxby’, ‘the floor price will never fall below $30US per lb,’ ‘the waste problem will be solved forever by 1972 1986 1990 1993 2000 2016 etc.’ are just a few that leap to mind.

      In fact, because it’s ridiculous to hope that people won’t remember the above my top tip for nuclear advocates is not to make ‘there are no more problems, we know everything there is to know now, and nothing can go wrong’ type claims – rather like Alan Greenspan in another arena – but instead to acknowledge risks but get people to assess them realistically in the light of other risks. Which is, I know, what you’re doing; but I could nominate a few Antipodean academics who tend to use the other ‘Father knows best’ approach, and it just won’t work.

      Also, the point of my comment about toxic waste that was of no conceivable use to anyone was actually to attempt to get around the reprocessing argument. There are still going to be nasty, dangerous and lingering residues that will have to be stored somewhere, they are very likely to be fobbed off on weaker countries (though since these states are also likely to be politically unstable, as we’ve already seen wastes are likely to be fobbed off on poor electorates in richer countries – and who knows how long stability and affluence are likely to last, anyway?) and I doubt that any citizens of 2111 are going to be overly impressed by deals made now or feel justly bound by them.

      *this is a joke, John

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