Posts Tagged ‘William Tucker’
Monday, July 2nd, 2012
By William Tucker
After I had finished giving my speech at the Canberra Users Group Convention in Nashville last week, I asked the audience for questions. There weren’t more than a couple but I still had about five minutes of my time left. I had just ended my speech with citations of several recent studies questioning the “no safe dose” hypothesis, plus the story of the Taiwan apartment complex where the accidental exposure of 10,000 residents to radiation at 20 times normal background levels had produced a 97 percent decrease in cancer incidence. So I decided to ask my own question of the 100 or so radiation and health physics specialists assembled.
“What is the general feeling among people in your line of work,” I asked, “about whether the dangers of nuclear radiation are being exaggerated?”
There was a sullen silence until one volunteer finally put up his hand. “We don’t really have any choice in the matter,” he said. “We have to do what the regulators tell us. The powers that be say there is no safe dose of radiation so we have to guard against any emissions whatever, no matter how small.”
A couple of other people gave dispirited seconds to his remarks, but one more outspoken audience member, a sales representative for the western United States, finally spoke out. “You know,” he said, “we really ought to do something about this. We know the dangers of radiation are highly exaggerated and we know that the public is being misled on this issue. There ought to be some way we could reach the public on this issue. We ought to put out a statement or something.”
There was a murmur of approval, but nobody volunteered to start any petitions or approach the leaders of the professional organizations about drafting a declaration of principles for the general public.
As one attendee explained to me at the cocktail hour afterwards, “Ever since the earliest days of nuclear power there’s been a general aura of fear surrounding the issue of radiation. People are just scared of it and scientists in the field really don’t like to talk about it much. That’s why we call ourselves `health physicists’ instead of `radiation specialists.’”
It’s sad to see an entire profession so badly cowed, afraid to confront the public over something they firmly believe. But of course the reaction is more than likely to be that the profession has been “bought by the nuclear industry” and that radiation specialists are callously willing to endanger the public “for profit.”
Some people in the press are starting to catch on. One columnist recently commented, “The more you listen to the experts about nuclear radiation, the less concerned you become. The more you listen to the experts on global warming, the more concerned you become.”
That’s an excellent observation. There’s much more reason to be concerned that something really strange is happening to the climate than there is to believe that every little dose of radiation is a potential killer. You’d think at a time when Kansas is scorching under 118-degree heat and the evidence is piling up that something unusual is happening to the weather that people would be willing to consider more rationally the only true power source that gives us any hope of reversing this process. But so far fear continues to trump rationality.
Wednesday, June 13th, 2012
Low-Level Radiation: Is There a Hormetic Effect?
By William Tucker
In the early 1980s, a Taiwan steel company accidentally mixed a quantity of highly radioactive cobalt-60 into a batch of steel rebar. The radioactive rods were then in the construction of 1,700 apartments. As a result, people living in these buildings were subject to radiation up to 30 times the normal amount received from the natural background.
When dismayed Taiwanese officials discovered this enormous error fifteen years later, they surveyed past and present apartment dwellers expecting to find an epidemic of cancer. Normal incidence would have predicted 160 cancers among the 10,000 residents. To their astonishment, the researchers discovered only five cases of cancer – a 97 percent reduction from the anticipated amount. Birth defects were also 94 percent below the anticipated rate.
These findings were published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons in 2004. As one researcher phrased it, exposure to high levels of background radiation had apparently bestowed upon residents “an effective immunity from cancer.” [W.L. Chen et al., “Is Chronic Radiation an Effective Prophylaxis Against Cancer?” Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Spring 2004. The upper line is the expected rate of cancer over a 20-year period among 10,000 residents. The bottom line is the actual rate.]
The Taiwan apartment incident is just one of many examples that has convinced a wide cohort of radiation scientists that the dangers of low-level exposures have been wildly exaggerated and there may actually be a “hormetic” effect – a word that still doesn’t appear in most dictionaries – meaning that low-level exposure may actually be beneficial.
The whole thing makes a certain amount of sense. First, there is ample evidence that the body has repair mechanisms that respond almost immediately in repairing genetic damage caused by radiation. Last December, researchers at Berkeley observed the repair mechanism at work in human breast cells and even managed to film it. “Our data show that at lower doses of ionizing radiation, DNA repair mechanisms work much better than at higher doses,” said Mina Bissell, a world-renowned breast cancer researcher with Berkeley Lab’s Life Sciences Division. “This non-linear DNA damage response casts doubt on the general assumption that any amount of ionizing radiation is harmful and additive.”
As a press report in Berkeley’s R&D magazine later expressed it: “This contradicts the standard model for predicting biological damage from ionizing radiation—the linear-no-threshold hypothesis or LNT—which holds that risk is directly proportional to dose at all levels of irradiation,”.
In April researchers at MIT reported they had exposed mice to 400 times natural background radiation over a period of five weeks without detecting any genetic damage. ''Almost all radiation studies are done with one quick hit of radiation. That would cause a totally different biological outcome compared to long-term conditions,'' reported Bevin Engelward, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT and one of the paper’s authors. “Exposure to low-dose-rate radiation is natural, and some people may even say essential for life,” added co-author Jacquelyn Yanch, a senior lecturer in MIT's department of nuclear science and engineering. “The question is, how high does the rate need to get before we need to worry about ill effects on our health?”
All this is quite contradictory to the opinions expressed in the recent special issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, where the authors not only claim that there is “no safe dose” of radiation but argue that exposure must be measured cumulatively over a period of decades. When this approach is taken, natural background and medical exposures quickly add up so that after 40 years every American is now approaching the danger zone of 10 rems, above which cancer incidence begins to show up. As host editor Jan Beyea, former energy director at the Audubon Society, put it:
In developed countries, the average accumulated dose for medical procedures is now so high that a significant percentage of the population in these countries will be above 0.1Sv [10 rem]. Therefore this population will be primed for radiation-induced cancers from release from nuclear reactors or dirty bombs, even using the hypothetical dose-response models of the LNT dissenters. There is no longer a convenient excuse for avoid using the LNT to estimate consequences from real or projected releases of radioactivity materials, even when the dose of concern is below 0.1 Sv.
The implications of this debate are enormous. If in fact there is no danger from radiation at the level of 400 times background – 120 rems spread out over the course of a year – then the entire Fukushima evacuation zone becomes habitable. The “Land of Wolves” surrounding Chernobyl – which is now thriving with animal life – could be fit for human habitation again as well.
In fact, as hormesis supporters point out, life on earth evolved in an environment that was much more intensely radioactive than it is today. It would be surprising if we had not developed mechanisms to deal with routine radiation damage, even though they may have atrophied to some degree. As Manhattan Project veteran Ted Rockwell expressed it: “If radiation really posed a serious danger to living creatures, we would have developed sensory organs to detect it a long, long time ago.”
Re-evaluating the presumed dangers of low-level radiation may be one of those paradigm shifts that takes the scientific community a generation to absorb. A whole worldview – and an entire industry – is now dedicated to the premise that radiation is an invisible killer against which huge resources must be deployed – even entire technologies abandoned – in order to provide ourselves with adequate protection.
Change will only come slowly. It won’t happen overnight.
Monday, June 4th, 2012
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Returns to Low-Level Radiation
By William Tucker
Nothing energizes the anti-nuclear movement more than the concern that exposure to low-level radiation is harmful and that nuclear power plants are emitting death rays that quietly spread cancer throughout the population.
Those who remember the 1970s will not have forgotten Dr, John Gofman fulminating on late night television that "for every reactor that is built, babies die," or the ubiquitous Dr. Ernest Sternglass informing the public that every blip in cancer incidence that occurred around the country was the result of a radioactive cloud passing overhead months before,
With the current revival of nuclear power, then, it is not surprising to find that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has decided to return to the issue of low-level exposures.
The May/June edition contains a special forum of eight essays ranging across fields from the biology of the hypothesized "bystander" effect to the communications theory of why people fear nuclear reactors more than routine medical diagnoses. Guest editor is Jan Beyea, former director of energy programs at the Audubon Society, moderates the discussion.
In his introductory essay, Beyea begins with a simple but indisputable observation: No one knows the effects of exposure to low-level radiation:
"Though the debate takes on many shapes, it always revolved around one magical number: 0.1 Sieverts (Sv), the dividing line between what is considered high and low exposure today. It is equivalent to about 40 cumulative years of the average unavoidable background radiation and to about 40 years of average medical diagnostic radiation in the United States. And from this magical number, more disputes spring, specifically on the radiation risks below 0.1 SV, as well as the risks from protracted radiation exposure above and below this number. The debates can be brutal – so much so that, at times, they make the spats between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow look lame.
Long-term data from Japanese victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki have confirmed a very clear, linear dose-response curve for cancer incidence down to 0.1 SV – the equivalent of 10 rems. Below that, however, cancer incidence disappears into the general background levels in the population. You might think the invisibility of any statistics would allay minds, but with such an important question as whether to build more nuclear plants nothing can be overlooked. And so critics extrapolate the numbers right down to the lowest levels. When these hypothetical rates are then projected across huge populations – the size of Europe, for instance – numbers can emerge that make for newspaper headlines.
Beyea outlines four ways in which cancer incidence can be projected below the 0.1 Sv level:
- The ratio of dose-to-response proceeds in a straight line down to zero, so there is "no safe dose of radiation," even though the effects may be so small as to be undetectable.
- The dose-response curve may proceed in a straight line until it reaches some "threshold," below which there is no danger.
- The adverse response may actually increase at lower levels due to a hypothetical phenomenon called the "bystander effect."
- Exposures at the lowest level may be beneficial, in that they act like a vaccine and stimulate the body's defense mechanisms against further radiation damage. This is the “hormetic” effect – a word that still does not appear in most dictionaries.
Beyea gives attention to all four possibilities but in the end decides that it doesn’t much matter. Existing levels of exposure to radiation are already so high that any increment from nuclear sources becomes unacceptable under any circumstances:
Given the increase in radiation from medical diagnostics and the interest in protracted exposure, the possible existence of a threshold or hormetic effect for public policy appears to be a moot issue for developed countries when it comes to future exposure. Even if the level of medical diagnostic exposures does not increase in the future, over the course of 40 years most people in developed countries will receive an average of 0.1 Sv from medical procedures alone. With this in mind as a dose starting point for millions of people, it is fair to say that any exposure to radioactive elements from a nuclear accident or a dirty bomb would definitely contribute to their delayed cancer risk (emphasis added).
The assumption behind this diagnosis, of course, is that the dangers of radiation exposure are cumulative and that being exposed to 10 rems from 40 years of background and medical exposures is the same as being exposed to 10 rems in a single burst from a nuclear accident or nuclear weapon.
Whether this assumption can be justified and where it leads in terms of public policy implications is something we’ll discuss in future columns.
Tuesday, August 10th, 2010
Last Friday’s NTH Debate of the Week, “Can the U.S. be the World’s Nuclear Policeman?” caught the attention of Warren Olney, host of National Public Radio’s popular “To the Point” debate show, who was putting together a session on the State Department’s recent efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Vietnam.
So yesterday afternoon, NTH editor-at-large William Tucker appeared on the show along with Jay Solomon, the Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story, Joseph Cirincione, of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington non-proliferation group, Henry Sokolski, director of the Non-Proliferation Center in Washington and former Deputy for Nonproliferation in the Bush Administration Defense Department, and Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy.
Tucker stunned the Beltway oriented group by telling them “we’re in last place when it comes to developing nuclear technology” around the world and that we are jeopardizing whatever moral authority we had in directing nuclear technology around the world by failing to develop it ourselves. Needless to say, the representatives of the non-profit world were in denial with respect to this premise, which they labeled “premature fatalism.” They also argued that “commercial interests” and the “powerful nuclear industry” is trying to spread nuclear technology around the world without any consideration of the proliferation aspects. Tucker responded that commercialization of nuclear power globally is largely being carried forth by France, Japan, Korea, Russia and China.
To hear the debate, click on this link and go to the podcast. Then move the cursor from the brief “Fed to H . . “ segment to “Nuclear Non-Proliferation and America’s Deal with Vietnam.” The debate lasts about 35 minutes.
Listen to the broadcast here
Friday, July 16th, 2010
By William Tucker
Last April, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu sounded an optimistic note in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. While the U.S. is challenged in the manufacturing of full-sized reactors market, he said, an opportunity was opening in small modular reactors in the range of 75 to 150 megawatts.
“Small modular reactors . . have compact designs and could be made in factories and transported to sites by truck or rail. SMRs would be ready to "plug and play" upon arrival. . . . Their small size makes them suitable to small electric grids so they are a good option for locations that cannot accommodate large-scale plants . . .. If we can develop this technology in the U.S. and build these reactors with American workers, we will have a key competitive edge.”
The article caused a flurry of excitement in the nuclear industry where a bevy of companies — ranging from established competitors Babcock & Wilcox (B&W), GE, Westinghouse and General Atomics to emerging companies such as NuScale and Hyperion — were advancing new SMR initiatives. The government was becoming a proponent for serious nuclear energy innovation. Legislation was introduced in the Congress to spur development and $40 million proposed in the President’s FY2011 budget request. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission followed suit projecting approval of a design as early as 2017. TVA announced its interest in SMR deployment. Experienced manufacturers such as Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman were at the ready. And this week, Bechtel jumped on board the SMR express.
Notwithstanding the U.S. awakening in this arena, the rest of the world is moving ahead rapidly. Toshiba has a 10-MW “4S” (Super Safe, Small and Simple) reactor it offering to give to Galena, an isolated Alaskan village, as a demonstration. Russia has a modular reactor it is floating into Siberian villages on barges. Two weeks ago the Koreans announced they are entering the field as well.
Ironically we’ve been building “small modular reactors” for 50 years. They go on U.S. Navy nuclear submarines. The reason B&W has a technical domain in SMRs — and related U.S. manufacturers have expertise in this market — is because it already has a business supplying them to the Navy.
But at the current pace of NRC design and licensing approval, it may be the better part of a decade before anybody can get something out the door in the U.S. By that time, agile Japanese and Korean competitors may have moved out front in the global market.
So is it realistic to think America can compete in this field international? And if not, what can we do about it?
Wednesday, July 14th, 2010
Rod Adams is perhaps the original nuclear blogger. Along with Dan Yurman of the Idaho Samizdat, he has pioneered the field. A trained nuclear submarine officer and founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc, he began “Atomic Insights” as a web-based nuclear energy information effort in November 1995. In March 2005 he modernized it into an interactive blog and has been fielding responses ever since. With nothing to offer but his knowledge and opinions, Adams has gained a loyal following and become an influential voice in the nuclear industry. Rod will be retiring from active duty in September and seeking new employment. He isn’t quite sure whether his new job will allow him to continue "Atomic Insights." We’re hoping it does. Nuclear Townhall caught up with him this week to get his view of the current landscape.
NTH: How would you define the role of bloggers in the nuclear world right now? Have you been able to establish yourself as an independent voice?
ADAMS: The pro-nuclear bloggers that I have met or talked to are passionate about sharing facts and opinions about nuclear energy. They are playing an important role by putting a face on the hundreds of thousands of highly trained and thoughtful people who have been quietly working in the field for the past five decades. The face the bloggers are showing is not that of Homer Simpson.
Most readers recognize that I am an independent thinker who sometimes takes positions in opposition to the established industry line. For example, I have been trying to encourage the industry to give up on Yucca Mountain for about ten years. I call Yucca "the right answer to the wrong question". It’s only the right solution if you are afraid of used nuclear fuel, never want to reuse it, and believe that it should be put in the most remote corner you can find in the United States of America. That would be Yucca Mountain.
NTH: How has the industry responded to bloggers? Do you think they give you enough support? Are you looking for support? Do bloggers have a role in selling nuclear to the public or would you rather keep your distance?
ADAMS: The response has been mixed. I have been welcomed into dozens of industry gatherings, treated with respect as I ask questions, and had the opportunity to interview a number of recognized industry leaders. On the other hand, some industry leaders do not think that bloggers are worth their time or have any opinions or ideas worth reading.
I have been satisfied with the level of support received so far, but time will tell if the industry starts believing that blogs are a place where they can reach an important audience. I have not seen too many banner ads popping up on pro-nuclear blogs from major nuclear vendors. When that happens, we will know that the bloggers are here to stay because they might actually be making a bit of money to reward them for their effort.
I cannot speak for all of the bloggers, but most of us seem to agree that we want to sell the public on the idea of using nuclear technology to enhance human existence. That is completely different from selling the nuclear industry to the public or being an advocate of any particular project.
NTH: As far as you can tell, where do your readers come from? Do you have a following within the industry? Do you attract random readers? Do bureaucrats within the NRC follow your posts?
ADAMS: “Atomic Insights" readers come from all over the globe. Some months the statistics show representation from more than 100 different countries. On average, about two-thirds of the visitors come from North America but 40 countries had more than 10 individual visitors last month. About one third of the visitors are new but 40 percent came back at least 25 times. Both the NRC and the DOE rank high and there are usually visitors from every major nuclear vendor, quite a few utilities, more than a dozen universities and both NEI and ANS.
NTH: When and how do you encounter anti-nuclear opponents? Do you go looking for arguments? Do they come looking for you? On what matters do you usually end up disputing with them?
ADAMS: In five years of blogging with comments enabled for immediate posting, I think I have attracted fewer than two-dozen anti-nuclear comments. I have several frequent visitors who reliably disagree with nearly every position I take, but even those people still claim to be in favor of nuclear energy. I am pretty active in other people’s forums and on news sites that allow comments. I enjoy a good debate and have engaged in several running discussions over the years.
The topics where disputes arise include costs, life cycle emissions of carbon, the unsuitability of diffuse and weather-dependent renewable energy sources in a modern economy, and, perhaps most frequently, my theory that a major source of anti-nuclear opposition comes from people who are involved in discovery, extraction, financing, marketing and distributing hydrocarbons.
NTH: Without going into any personalities, how informed do you find anti-nuclear opponents to be? Are they reasonable? Do they make any attempt to understand the technology? Or are they just plugging the fear element?
ADAMS: There are some anti-nuclear activists on the web who are apparently working from a list of talking points. They believe they have knowledge but can only recite rather than explain. Many have little technical background that would enable them to understand the technology in any real sense. Most of the more persistent anti-nuclear folks that I encounter these days are not all that fearful, however. They express concerns about cost, time requirements and generally believe there should be no government encouragement for nuclear energy, even if it does not cost any money. They classify programs like Price-Anderson, loan guarantees, and even payments to the ITR fusion program as unfair subsidies for nuclear power, although it is not unusual for the same people to support a myriad of renewable energy subsidies, mandates and set-asides.
NTH: Judging from your interactions with the general public, does the attitude toward nuclear seem to be getting better or worse? What’s the source of this improvement, if there is any?
ADAMS: I have seen a lot of improvement over the years. When I first started working to share nuclear knowledge, the major topic at industry gatherings was D&D – decommissioning and decontamination. The discussion these days is not if but when the first handful of new plants in the United States will begin to operate. However, we are not just working on a few new plants. There are dozens of additional projects in open or quiet development.
There are many reasons for this improvement, including the work of a lot of independent thinkers who knew the truth about nuclear energy was far different from the public perception. It has also helped that more and more people are recognizing the limitations of competitive energy sources. Another big plus is that industry leaders have worked on operational excellence over the past 20 years and put up numbers that are making investors pay attention.
NTH: Every journalist’s dream, of course, is to break that one story or offer that one opinion that changes history. Is there anyplace along the line where you feel you’ve really made a difference in the way things turned out over a particular event?
ADAMS: The closest I have come to that was my encounter with John Horgan, a writer who often contributes to Scientific American. He had been very critical of nuclear energy during a Bloggingheads web video discussion with George Johnson and that video captured some attention when The New York Times picked it up. After an email correspondence with Horgan, he invited me to join him for a Bloggingheads debate. By the end of our discussion, Horgan appeared to have changed his mind. He wrote about our debate later on his Scientific American blog. He is scheduled to tour Indian Point with Gwyneth Cravens soon and I believe that came as a result of our discussion.
NTH: Thanks very much for all the great work you’ve done, Rod. We hope that new job allows you to continue blogging at "Atomic Insights."
Wednesday, July 7th, 2010
By William Tucker
Gwyneth Cravens is an established novelist with six books and a stint at The New Yorker under her belt. Under any other circumstances, she might be attending book signings of her next novel. But almost a decade ago, she attended a party in Albuquerque that changed her life. Almost unwittingly, she became drawn into what may eventually become the most controversial political issue of the era – the Revival of Nuclear Power in the United States.
Three years after the publication of her groundbreaking book, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy (Vintage), she spends a great deal of her time touring the country, trying to convince audiences that nuclear power is nowhere near as frightening as people imagine and that in fact it will play the crucial role in our energy future. And her book is still selling. We caught up with her for a brief update on how she believes public opinion is changing:
NTH: At the risk of boring you to death, could you just tell us once more briefly how you went from being a Long Island mother protesting the opening of the Shoreham Nuclear Reactor to one of the country’s leading voices in favor of nuclear energy?
CRAVENS: Marcia Fernández, a friend of mine who’s a singer and an educator lives in Albuquerque, where I grew up. On visits there I’d see her at parties along with her scientist husband, D. Richard (Rip) Anderson, who worked at Sandia National Laboratories. You never ask Sandians what they doit’s almost always classified. During a conversation at a flamenco party, however, he happened to tell me that the plutonium and uranium removed from warheads in the US arsenal would eventually be used to make electricity at nuclear plants and that 10 percent of our electricity today comes from former Russian weapons. Astonished, I began asking a lot of questions and sounding off about the risks of nuclear power and nuclear waste. I didn’t realize that he was one of the world’s foremost experts on probabilistic risk assessment, nuclear waste, and nuclear environmental health and safety! He patiently spent a lot of time giving me clear and thorough answers. As the dialogue continued over the next few years, he finally said I ought to see some nuclear facilities for myself. So he and Marcia and I eventually went on the “Nuclear America Tour” as their son dubbed it. We went all over the country, following the path of uranium from cradle to working life to grave and met a lot of interesting people in the nuclear world. I was so skeptical that I had to double-check everything with a number of helpful scientists and engineers and to study the literature. Eventually I came to realize that wrong assumptions and distorted data had led to prejudice on my part.
NTH: From the perspective of New York literary circles, embracing nuclear power does seem to entail certain social risks. What has been the reaction of your friends and colleagues in the literary world to your newfound passion on nuclear?
CRAVENS: I thought I’d be shunned. But all my literary friends who have read the book have changed their minds and they’ve even given copies to their friends. There’s one exceptionan environmental writer who I believe will come to his senses when he truly realizes what’s at stake. A number of his fellow environmentalists as well as many climate scientists have become pro-nuclear.
NTH: As someone who has been fielding questions from audiences for the past three years, how has the public response changed ? Is the public becoming more literate on energy matters?
CRAVENS: When I finished the book I was pessimistic. I assumed that public sentiment would continue to be manipulated by the usual fear-mongering mythology. To my surprise, I’ve found audiences quite receptive particularly after I recite the facts about the impact of fossil fuel combustion on public health and the environment. People worry about a hypothetical nuclear catastrophe when not one member of the public has died as a result of the operation of commercial nuclear plants. Meanwhile tens of thousands die annually in the US because of waste from burning coal, oil, and natural gas.
NTH: Where does the opposition still lie? Is it the east and west coasts that are opposed to nuclear, with the South and Midwest more receptive? Is it a class issue? Are college-educated people generally more or less favorable?
CRAVENS: The Southeast is the most pro-nuclear – in part because the cost of electricity is cheaper thanks to the large number of nuclear plants there and the communities’ familiarity with them. New Yorkers and Californians seem more reflexively anti-nuclear. I didn’t oppose “Our Friend the Atom” until I left New Mexico, went to grad school at NYU and got involved in ban-the-bomb protests. People who have done surveys find that women tend to be more anti-nuclear, especially mothers. I’ve noticed that the more science coursesand I don’t mean ecology courses herethat a person has taken, the likelier he or she is to approve of nuclear power. They understand the scientific method.
NTH: What are the objections you usually encounter when you’ve finished your presentation? Do people still throw up visions of whole states laid waste by a nuclear holocaust? Are they concentrating on the costs? Or is it all “Wind and solar can do the job better?”
CRAVENS: Since I once raised just about every objection that can be made, I understand that the questioners are not necessarily hostile or foolishthey think that they know something because someone claiming to have credentials said it was so. Unfortunately some “experts” who have degrees in political science–or perhaps no degrees at all–are good at spreading around misinformation that terrifies people. People worry about a Chernobyl here in the US. Can’t happen. Some bring up radiation, not realizing that they’re getting a relatively big dose from Mother Nature and from the medical profession. Others will say that nuclear is too expensive and takes too long and that renewables can do the job cheaper and faster. They can’t. The angriest response I’ve received so far was from an employee of the coal industry. He shouted that coal was now clean and that a lot of people would lose their jobs if nuclear power ever expanded.
NTH: What do people seem to find the most convincing argument in favor of nuclear power? Is there any one fact or catch phrase that makes a big impression?
CRAVENS: Our choices for supplying reliable electricity on a large scale in the US are limited to fossil fuel and nuclear plants. Today we get over 70 percent of our electricity from fossil fuels. The 70,000 deaths a year that are caused by air pollution are chiefly due to fossil-fuel waste from tail pipes and smokestacks. If we care about our health and about the survival of our grandchildren and their children and about the environment, we urgently need to curb air pollution and greenhouse gases using every possible resource. Nuclear power provides 73 percent of low-carbon electricity and has the best safety record of any large-scale energy generator. The cost of uranium is so minuscule that it’s not an issue. And a uranium fuel pellet weighing the same as a few pennies contains the energy equivalent of nearly a ton of coal. One Best Buy could hold all our spent nuclear fuel with room to spare. But we won’t put it there: it retains 98 percent of its energy, so one day we’ll imitate the French and recycle it over and over until the ultimate volume of waste is tiny.
NTH: You’ve been traveling with Rip Anderson and sharing the podium with him now for almost a decade. Does he feel optimistic that the Nuclear Renaissance is going to take place in this country? Do you?
CRAVENS: Rip’s an optimist and these days I am too. He’s always said, “When people’s beer gets warm I expect they’ll go to nuclear.” He also once observed that if they don’t, “One day God could say to us: I gave you the brainiest men and women in human history to come up with an understanding of the atom and its nucleus. I gave you enough uranium and thorium to last for thousands of years. I gave you an understanding of how when uranium decays it releases energy. You didn’t need to invent anything else. You had everything you needed to provide energy for yourselves and your descendants without harming the environment. What else did you want?”
NTH: That “Best Buy” line has got to be your showstopper. Thanks very much for your time and best of luck in your work.
Friday, July 2nd, 2010
By William Tucker
This week’s rapid-fire developments have once again focused the discussion back on that perennial issue – and anti-nuclear trump card – “What do you do with the waste?” Now we’re back to square one. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has rejected Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s proposed Yucca Mountain license withdrawal and posed the question that a lot of people thought should be asked in the first place: “Where’s the scientific basis for closing the Yucca Mountain repository?”
Obviously, the withdrawal was just a political decision. But the reversal of the Obama Administration’s efforts, which include kicking the can down the road via a Blue Ribbon Commission, may only lead us back into a labyrinth. Some entity is certain to challenge any outcome in court (cases are already filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals). That will lead to a long judiciary proceeding that will take years to resolve, maybe even leading up to the Supreme Court. Whatever the outcome, it is not likely to be based on the science.
Meanwhile, to the extent that you link new or current nuclear plants with resolution of the back-end, the future of nuclear hangs twisting in the wind. So maybe it’s time to pose another question, “Why are we having this discussion in the first place?”
How did we ever get to the point of digging a $90 billion hole in the ground to bury valuable material when other countries are embracing recycling technologies that greatly reduce the footprint of a repository? Why we got into the argument in historical terms is well known.
In 1972, a New Yorker writer named John McPhee living in Princeton met an eccentric former Defense Department bomb designer named Ted Taylor who also lived in Princeton. After designing the Davy Crockett and other battlefield weapons, Taylor had become somewhat conscious-stricken and decided if he could design a bomb in his garage anyone else could as well. Taylor convinced McPhee that stealing plutonium out of an American reprocessing plant would be easy and that by the 1990s “hundreds of explosions” of homemade nuclear weapons and terrorist bombs would going off in American cities. McPhee packaged all these fears in The Curve of Binding Energy (which still sells well on Amazon) and the rest is history. America’s abandonment of recycling under President Carter’s Administration is the reason for Yucca Mountain.
So is the project worth pursuing? Or, contrarily, is it worth following Secretary Chu through the “not-invented-here” exercise looking for some way to recycle that doesn’t simply duplicate the French? Or, once again, does at-reactor dry cask storage offer such a clear and obvious bridge — as also suggested by Secretary Chu –that we don’t have to think about this for another 50 years? What’s your opinion?
Tuesday, June 29th, 2010
By William Tucker
As President Barack Obama meets with key Senators this morning to discuss energy, the number of scenarios that could unfold in the passage of an energy bill through Congress this year keeps multiplying.
As The New York Times suggests in a lengthy article this morning, one more possibility – besides the adoption by the Senate of some form of cap-and-trade – is that Senate Democrats may pass some deliberately weak bill and then count on it being strengthened in the conference committee. Anything the Senate passes would have to be reconciled with the stronger Waxman-Markey adopted by the House. Then an up-or-down vote on the conference bill could be postponed until after the November election.
Another scenario has the Senate adopting an oil-spill bill with an energy bill attached. The main body of the legislation would involve punishing BP and improving drilling safety. Since acting against BP would be popular, Republicans would find it hard to vote against any cap-and-trade or renewable portfolio requirements that might be attached. Democrats would label them friends of the oil industry.
Beyond these strategies, the big question remains what will happen with any bill's four major provisions: 1) carbon restrictions, 2) renewable portfolio standards, 3) nuclear loan guarantees, and 4) offshore drilling regulations. If the Democrats manage to assemble one big package, as they did with health care, they might force Republicans to accept some things they don't like.
A strong nuclear title will likely be part of any package. The Kerry-Lieberman bill is very strong on nuclear, with expanded loan guarantees and a section telling the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to speed up the licensing process. Its inclusion is more than likely since- miracle of miracles – nuclear power has become something of a favorite in Congress with few anti-nuclear representatives raising their voices.
Cap-and-trade would also favor nuclear, since it would act against nuclear's main rivals, coal and natural gas. The real danger to nuclear would be a strong renewable portfolio standard -17-percent-by-2020 as in Waxman-Markey, for instance – that would exclude nuclear. This would lead to a decade of misplaced investment in wind-and-sunshine that would probably push nuclear into the background. Several Senators are urging a carbon-free standard instead of a "renewable" standard, since that would put nuclear back into the picture. In fact it is something of a mystery how proposals to generate electricity with wood instead of coal on the grounds that wood is more "renewable" ever made it into bill aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
It's high drama, with both the election and the nation's energy future hanging in the balance. After the sneak-preview offered by today's White House discussions, prime time will begin on July 12 when majority leader Harry Reid brings his oil-and-energy offering to the floor of the Senate.
Read more at the New York Times
Friday, June 25th, 2010
One of the most grotesque outcomes of anti-nuclear crusading in recent years was the insistence by European bureaucrats that Eastern European countries close down their reactors before gaining admission to the European Union.
Lithuania was forced to give up its 1,300-MW Ignalina reactor that satisfied 70 percent of its electrical demand. Bulgaria was also required to close its four Kozloduy reactors, which supplied 34 percent of its electricity and played a crucial role in the national economy. The result was these former Soviet colonies found themselves even more firmly tethered to Russia for natural gas.
The rationale given for these closings was that the Soviet-built reactors had similarities to Chernobyl, which had produced the world‚s biggest nuclear disaster in 1986. But Chernobyl‚s major flaw was that it had no containment structure, while both the Lithuanian and Bulgarian reactors did. The much more likely cause was the anti-nuclear sentiment of European bureaucrats. (It was around the same time that European enforcers of the Kyoto Protocol were ruling that countries could not meet their carbon-reduction requirements by building nuclear reactors.)
Now Eastern Europe is once again asserting its independence by embracing nuclear power. Poland, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria are all planning new construction as a way of freeing themselves from Russian dependence. In doing so they may set an example for countries everywhere who do not want to have their fortunes determined by the world's random and unequal distribution of fossil fuels.
Read more at Bloomberg