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Nov 11, 2009

Leslie Kemeny a nuclear crusader in his own write

Other than paid columnists, who has had the most opinion pieces published in Australian newspapers in the past 40 years? Retired academic and strident nuclear advocate Professor Leslie Kemeny wins by a country mile, writes Jim Green.

Other than paid columnists, who has had the most opinion pieces published in Australian newspapers in the past 40 years?

Retired academic and strident nuclear advocate Professor Leslie Kemeny wins by a country mile. And good luck to him — he’s nothing if not persistent. A rough calculation suggests he has had more than 200 opinion pieces published, dating from the mid-1970s if not earlier.

The remarkable thing is that it’s pretty much the same opinion piece every time. His standard article:

  •  nearly always contains an appeal to “informed realism” as a reason to expand the nuclear industry;
  •  often refers to unnamed “international experts” who are purportedly “appalled” or “bemused” at Australia’s failure to expand the nuclear industry (recently, “the world” was “bemused” that Australia had not yet developed nuclear power);
  •  there’s usually a reference to the “pseudo-science” or “coercive utopianism” or “hidden socio-political agendas” of critics of the nuclear industry or supporters of “renewable energy” (a term that always appears in quotation marks for reasons unexplained); and
  •  expansion of the nuclear industry is often presented as being “inevitable” (though Kemeny of all people would know otherwise — he has witnessed the demise of plans in Australia for nuclear power, uranium enrichment, an international nuclear repository, etc.).

Kemeny is fond of sweeping claims, including many that do not stand to scrutiny. For example, he could not possibly produce evidence to support his claim that: “Most energy experts now believe that the only effective solution to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is the global acceptance of nuclear power technology.”

Nuclear expansion is always portrayed as a pathway to wealth and prosperity and these assertions are unencumbered by any connection with reality. Kemeny writes that exporting uranium without first enriching it “is just plain dumb”, yet the Switkowski Report, BHP Billiton and others have argued that an enrichment industry in Australia would be an economic white elephant.

There are numerous factual errors; for example, a recent opinion piece claims that “about 60” countries have embraced nuclear power, nearly twice the true figure. Kemeny claims that the Chernobyl death toll is 56, but a 2005 study by the World Health Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated 9000 deaths and other scientific studies estimate a death toll in the tens of thousands.

Many of Kemeny’s “facts” could be described as outliers; for example, he gives a figure of five kilograms of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of nuclear power, yet the 2006 Switkowski Report put the figure 12 times higher. Some of his “facts” are, on closer inspection, circular and self-evident; for example, he seems impressed that every country importing uranium from Australia operates nuclear power reactors. Every last one of them — whoever would’ve thunk it?

Twenty-five years ago, Kemeny had already published dozens and dozens of newspaper articles, and they were subjected to critical analysis by Professor Brian Martin, who was then teaching in the science faculty at the Australian National University.

Martin concluded his analysis: “In quite a number of ways, Kemeny in his public advocacy of nuclear power does not fit the image of the objective, trustworthy expert: he addresses only some of the issues and seldom replies to anti-nuclear arguments; he presents large amounts of irrelevant material; he is subject to inaccuracy, and on occasion fails to acknowledge his mistakes; he continually denigrates opponents; he speaks from a position representing a potential conflict of interest; and his expertise is mostly irrelevant to the issues, or of doubtful quality.”

Kemeny threatened to sue and claimed that legal counsel had suggested a five-figure sum for damages. There was no apology and no legal action.

Kemeny sometimes lets fly with a conspiracy theory (it’s much the same conspiracy theory as Ian Plimer’s — two men of the same generation and social cohort). Kemeny writes: “Radical green activism and global terrorism can form dangerous, even deadly, alliances. The ‘coercive utopianism’ of radical greens, their avid desire for media publicity and their hidden socio-political agendas can produce societal outcomes that are sometimes violent and ugly.”

Where he gets such barking-mad ideas from is anyone’s guess. Political demagogue Lyndon LaRouche makes similar comments: “This utterly depraved, dionysian cult-formation found its echoed, more violent expression in late 1980s Germany, where the anti-nuclear, fascist rioting reached near to the level of outright civil war …”

Kemeny believes the anti-nuclear movement is “supported by immense funds from affluent right-wing interests” and that it should be “recognised for what it is — anti-working-class activism aimed at maintaining the last “status quo” for a fortunate minority”.

Again, there are echoes of comments made by LaRouche about the “anti-blue collar, anti-industrial, anti-nuclear power, and green traits of that increasingly influential, ‘white-collar baby-boomer’ portion of the population”.

Which leads to the question — have Kemeny and LaRouche been seen in the same room together? If so, it proves they are in cahoots. If not, they’re likely one and the same person. Now there’s a conspiracy theory!

Clive Hamilton’s comments in Crikey about Ian Plimer also seem apt for Kemeny: “The emergence of the environment and peace movements in the 1970s challenged the benefits of nuclear technology, the power of the military-industrial complex and the claims of science to neutrality and benevolence … The criticism of the hitherto unquestioned place of science and technology destabilised the power and privilege of the scientific elite.”

Hence a cohort of disgruntled, elderly, and sometimes conspiratorial nuclear scientists.

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8 thoughts on “Leslie Kemeny a nuclear crusader in his own write

  1. Mark Duffett

    So this is going to be the pattern with your ‘environmental journalism’, is it, Crikey? Reproducing long defenses from old green activists to original articles that, on the other hand, you don’t see fit to bring to our attention?

    A similar, neat illustration of Crikey editorial bias also appeared on the website yesterday, which I detail below. I wrote to Crikey’s web editors and journalists seeking an explanation. In the continuing absence of one, or indeed any reply at all, I’m making it open. Again.

    Dear Ms Nethercote, Ms Brown and Ms Jamieson,

    Okay, so in your capacities as website editors/contributors, you gave prominent billing to an anti-nuclear piece by Greenpeace originating from Adelaide Now (The Advertiser), in today’s Environment section on the Crikey website. Fair enough. But why didn’t you mention that the piece was merely a response to a pro-nuclear article by Prof Barry Brook that previously appeared both in The Advertiser and online? More to the point, why haven’t you given Prof Brook’s piece at least equal prominence?

    Between Prof Brook and Greenpeace, you should understand who has the greater credibility on environmental issues – and it isn’t Greenpeace.

    Or Friends of the Earth.


    Dr Mark Duffett

  2. Michael James

    (from Michael R. James)
    Mark (2.12pm). Whatever your gripes with Crikey are (and I understand but you should also realize they run this operation on the smell of an oily rag), first I thank you for the pointer to the Barry Brook article.
    BUT, really, from this piece, I can hardly believe he is a research scientist (like me). This does a disservice both to citizen/scientist journalism and to his own case. It is a series of totally unsupported assertions, and surprisingly selective on the facts. If you have followed my writings in Crikey on this you will know that I am not against nuclear power per se, and find most of the anti-arguments to be distractions from the main one: economics, and in Australia’s case, industrial strategy.

    Several of the Comments to Brooks piece were in agreement with me, and made the stronger case. (I mean, model ourselves on the hapless British nuclear industry? Are we nuts! Even if the french will build most of it, if it ever gets built.) One blogger said: “No, Mr Brook is not spot on. He is a complete failure in presenting a true picture of a clean energy future.” That was spot on.

  3. Jim Green

    A critique of the non-existent ‘integral fast reactors’ (IFRs) that Brook champions is posted at:
    And a debate on IFRs is posted at

    South Korea recently announced its intention to embark on an research program which aims to provide a “demonstration” of the viability of the IFR concept by the year 2028. Almost 20 years – just to demonstrate the concept.

  4. Mark Duffett

    As you yourself have discovered, Michael, fact-laden pieces don’t necessarily get a run in mainstream media (including Crikey as mainstream in this instance, in the sense that it’s aimed at a general audience). It may well be that The Advertiser requires its op-eds to be…pitched at a certain level, shall we say. His arguments are laid out in much more detail (and debated, extensively) on his blog. He is definitely a research scientist (as I am also, by the way), with at least a couple of papers in Nature if I remember rightly.

    All that notwithstanding, my main point was that it seems odd to say the least to highlight the riposte while ignoring the original thrust, apparently for no reason other than accord with the former. I had thought Crikey better than that.

  5. Roger Clifton

    The author is short on facts himself. He makes vague reference to a IAEA document of 2005 that appears to have eluded the rest of us. However a quick search on the Internet showed that in 2005, the Chernobyl Forum, which included IAEA and WHO, published
    “Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, Russian Federation and Ukraine “.

    Instead of “estimating 9000 deaths” from chronic exposure to fallout, it said: “Claims have been made that tens or even hundreds of thousands of persons have died as a result of the accident. These claims are highly exaggerated.”

    He could have rubbed our noses in the horror of the thyroid cancer victims, caused by the operators concealing the accident from the authorities. Of the cases identified by 2002, 15 deaths had been documented, the Forum said. Not thousands dead. Forgotten are the “hundreds of millions” predicted in 1986 by similarly strident authors.

    Considering that there have been about 1 billion deaths from all causes across Europe in those 20 years, there is plenty of room to claim to see horrors in the fuzzy graphs. However a stronger case could be made using the same figures by an anti-coal campaigner, pointing out the absence of all the various deaths and ailments that would have been inflicted by an equivalent coal industry. Which side are you on?

    The number one lesson from Chernobyl is that relatively speaking, the once-feared fallout is a fizzog.
    The number two lesson from Chernobyl is that hysterical overreaction causes immense damage.

    Wake up, Friends of the Earth, the enemy of the Earth is carbon and nuclear is a friend where we need one.

  6. Michael James

    Mark (3.37pm). As you say, I know how evidence-based pieces are not easy to get into print in the “popular press”, but I know of no other reason why a scientist would write an article. There are no end of others who write stuff merely asserting unsupported positions. And so it was extremely disappointing to see Brook doing that, on top of which it was deeply unconvincing. Is the fact that the British government, flailing around for decades with no clear energy policies, has announced an absurdly ambitious nuclear resurgence, supposed to convince us that this is the way?? It is a joke. The fact that they have to practically revert to a police state (shutting down all the usual enquiry process) tells you that this program is highly likely, like so many British projects, to get bogged down for ages. My rule in these matters (as you know, also public transport, urban planning, energy) is that if the Brits are doing it that must NOT be the way to go! Sad but true.

  7. Jim Green

    Roger Clifton – here is the basis for the statement about 9,000 cancer deaths:

    “This might eventually represent up to four thousand fatal cancers in addition to the approximately 100 000 fatal cancers to be expected due to all other causes in this population. Among the 5 million persons residing in other ‘contaminated’ areas, the doses are much lower and any projected increases are more speculative, but are expected to make a difference of less than one per cent in cancer mortality.”
    Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts and Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine
    The Chernobyl Forum: 2003–2005
    Second revised version

    And a year later a WHO report estimated the death toll from both highly and lower-contaminated regions:
    “WHO also estimates there may be up to 9,000 excess cancer deaths due to Chernobyl among the people who worked on the clean-up operations, evacuees and residents of the highly and lower-contaminated regions in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.”
    World Health Organization report explains the health impacts of the world’s worst-ever civil nuclear accident

    cheers, jim

  8. meski

    “Other than paid columnists, who has had the most opinion pieces published in Australian newspapers in the past 40 years?”

    Anti-nuclear campaigners would have to win the “most published”, and, come to think of it, the “most opinion”. They certainly shouldn’t win the most factual …