THE TOPSY-TURVY WORLD of Nuclear Energy
[Any new idea is apt to attract critics. Critics generally try to discourage use of the new idea. Advocates generally try encourage its use.
In the nuclear world, this simple, natural process has been turned upside down. Advocates gratuitously issue wildly exaggerated stories of the dangers of their product, and urge the public to use less of it.]
One of the very first decisions of the new U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 was that steps should be taken to combat the “unwarranted public enthusiasm for nuclear power.” Thirty years later, the U.S. Department of Energy was formed, its regulatory responsibilities transferred to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it was now empowered to promote nuclear energy, relieved of any need to appear neutral. Yet, one of its early websites showed a thermostat in the upper right-hand corner, with the message to turn it down. Early bi-lateral agreements to assist other nations’ energy programs volunteered that they would not include nuclear.
In 1982, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission hired the Sandia atomic bomb laboratory to prepare a table, listing each of the 130 nuclear plants then built or planned, and calculate deaths, cancer cases and dollars damage for the “maximum accident” (defined for this study as a situation that is physically impossible to achieve). Each of these cases computed a hypothetical tens to hundreds of thousands of deaths. This study and the associated publicity were gratuitous, not in response to any public demand, and timed to hit the Sunday news editions.
When a group of professors associated with the Woodrow Wilson School presented a study that claimed to show that a spent-fuel accident could kill 518,000, the nuclear community’s response to media queries was, “That is a highly improbable scenario,” meaning that we don’t expect to kill half-a-million people very often. That is not an effective response. The lobbying agency for nuclear organizations is the Nuclear Energy Institute. But since only 20% of U.S. electricity is nuclear-based, most of its members make more money from nuclear’s competitors than from nuclear. This conflict of interest is repeatedly tested.
From its beginning, nuclear technology has been cursed with a fear-mongering policy of demonization. It started with a need to convince the Japanese immediately after Hiroshima that atomic weaponry was destructive beyond precedent or imagination; that no Army composed of mere mortals could defeat the forces that bind the universe together. That theme was also the threat behind the Cold War policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. When John McPhee wrote The Curve of Binding Energy in 1973, he quoted nuclear bomb-makers saying casually, “I think we have to live with the expectation that once every four or five years a nuclear explosion will take place…I can imagine a rash of these things happening. I can imagine—in the worst situation—hundreds of [nuclear] explosions a year.”
Nuclear bomb-maker Robert Oppenheimer said that nuclear scientists have known sin, and, as he watched the first bomb test, said, “Now I am become Shiva, the Destroyer of Worlds.” With the opera Dr. Atomic, this became, for many people, the public Voice of the Atom.
The sources of this fear-mongering are many. The military incentive to describe their weapons in fearful tones is clear and valid. The atomic scientists’ motivations are less obvious, but are long-standing and widespread. Unlike engineers and project managers, whose money generally comes in when a job is completed, scientists are paid by the hour, like doctors and lawyers, to work on problems, not to solve them. When the problem is solved, the money stops. So scientists have a strong incentive to discover problems, and to characterize the problems as difficult, dangerous and mysterious.
Nuclear pioneer Alvin Weinberg, long-time director of Oak Ridge National Lab, had an additional incentive. Starting in 1973, he repeatedly characterized nuclear technology as a “Faustian Bargain,” meaning that it was a gift of great value to humanity, but with the Devil to pay if we slip up. Near the end of his life, Weinberg called me to his house to urge me to continue using the term, in order to spur nuclear workers to maintain the extraordinary level of technical excellence that has been so important to the field.
I told him I believe the term has done great harm; that excellence should be sold on its own merits; that the Satanic myth implies that several hundred years of engineering experience with “ordinary machinery” is never quite good enough for nuclear work. This leads to improvising untested solutions, without drawing on the very type of experience most needed. Adding unnecessary “safety features,” to protect against events that can be shown to be physically unachievable, does not make a plant safer, just more complicated, more expensive, and prone to avoidable accidents.
He said, “You know that if the Davis-Besse situation (where boric acid was corroding the reactor vessel head) had not been detected in time, the public would have demanded the shutdown of all nuclear plants.” I replied, “Not at all. You’re talking about a small hole in the reactor head. That situation has been thoroughly analyzed. The plant would shut down automatically with no significant release of radioactivity. If we treated the situation as we did Three Mile Island, we certainly could panic the public. But if it were handled sensibly, there should be no undue public response.”
This safety philosophy is enshrined in the Price-Anderson Act, based on the demonstrably false premise that a nuclear power casualty (not a bomb) could overwhelm the financial resources of the world’s insurance companies. Under the Act, the nuclear industry pays for damages, relocation, etc., and Congress has the option of requiring additional compensation from the industry if the first two tiers of Price-Anderson are not sufficient to cover the costs of an accident. This unique law is cited in other insurance policies—automobile, house, business, etc.—noting that those policies do not cover a nuclear reactor disaster. Ironically, the insurance industry knows from its own statistics that the nuclear industry is one of the safest.
On January 11, 2001, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced proposed changes to legislation to enable “compensating thousands of current and former workers in nuclear weapons-related activities…whose service to the country left them sick or dying.” He said a recent study, based on previously discredited reports, showed that that death toll was large, and that previous government officials were aware of this situation but had covered it up. A preliminary list of locations where workers might have been affected named 317 sites in 37 states, DC, Puerto Rico and the Marshall Islands. The Energy Department sent out personnel to these sites, visiting retirement homes to ask residents if they were suffering any illnesses that might have been caused by radiation exposure decades earlier.
I was familiar in detail with the radiation data, having published the Reactor Shielding Design Manual in 1956, and I knew there was no scientific basis for any charge that nuclear workers were being harmed by their occupational exposure. I wrote the Secretary’s office and asked for a copy of this “new report.” There was no such report. I received copies of the various “discredited reports.” I was familiar with them. They are scientifically indefensible. The Assistant Secretary assured me this was only the beginning of the study, and “robust public discussion” would follow. It did not. With the change of administration, Richardson was replaced and immediately made a trustee of the anti-nuclear Natural Resources Defense Council.
In response to the repeated news stories, the U.S. Congress held hearings and issued a statement:
“It is the Sense of Congress that—
(1) Since World War II Federal nuclear activities have been explicitly recognized by the U.S. Government as an ultra-hazardous activity…involved unique dangers, including potential catastrophic nuclear accidents that private insurance carriers would not cover…
(2)…large numbers of nuclear weapons workers…were put at risk without their knowledge or consent…
(5) Over the past 20 years more than two dozen scientific findings have emerged that certain Department of Energy workers are experiencing increased risk of dying from cancer and non-malignant diseases at numerous facilities…
(6) …Furthermore, studies indicate that 98% of radiation induced cancers within the Department of Energy complex occur at dose levels below existing maximum safe thresholds.
Each of these alleged facts is demonstrably false.
I had worked with a Washington Post reporter, showing him data that demonstrated that low-dose radiation is actually beneficial, acting like a vaccination to reduce cancer rates and extend lifespan of nuclear workers and atomic bomb survivors. His first article received considerable favorable attention worldwide. We planned some follow-up stories, but they never appeared, and he stopped returning my phone calls. Thereafter, he published a series of stories based on discredited studies claiming increased cancer for nuclear workers and the surrounding population. These studies show that some counties near nuclear facilities were above average in cancer deaths. (Some were below average, but that is not newsworthy.)
During one week, he had four such stories above the fold on page one, and went on to win several awards, including a Pulitzer. These stories became the impetus behind the atomic workers compensation act that gave several billion dollars of the taxpayers’ money to nuclear workers, despite the data cited in his first story that such workers are healthier than average.
Radiation protection policy and procedures declare that “human made” radiation is one or two orders of magnitude more harmful than “natural,” though neither instruments nor the body can detect any difference. This curious policy creates situations like lawsuits against oil companies for contaminating the ground with dirt by bringing up more naturally-radioactive dirt in drilling for oil. Yucca Mountain carries this curse to the extreme, ending up with radiation requirements that can’t possibly be demonstrated (or justified), leading to a estimated cost of $100 billion for a hole in the ground that must be guaranteed flawless for a million years—for material that will reach background radiation level in a few centuries.
How Do We Rationalize Such Policies?
Many important American public policies are arrived at via an amateur version of the Precautionary Principle. This principle says that if there is a particular national danger that overwhelms all others, then any indication that the danger may be imminent, dictates that action must be taken without waiting to prove whether the danger is real. “Better safe than sorry.” I picture this as the opposite of the Hippocratic Oath. The Precautionary Principle says: “begin immediately… an all-out effort to use every policy and program, every law and institution, every treaty and alliance, every tactic and strategy, every plan and course of action—in short, every means to halt the destruction of the environment” (Al Gore, Earth in the Balance, p. 27) vs. the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”
During the Cold War, the prevention of America’s possible destruction by Communism was given overwhelming priority. I’m not concerned here with whether that was a wise position. I want to look at the consequences of arriving at it via the Precautionary Principle. Some people bragged that the Defense National Highway Act and the Defense National Education Act, passed under the Precautionary Principle, could never have passed on their own merits. Is that good? Shouldn’t such important legislation be openly debated and passed on its own merits? Now we have climate-control advocates urging that we apply the same priority process to their particular concern.
A basic problem with the Precautionary Principle is that it examines only the scenario it is determined to prevent. By fiat, we mustn’t wait to examine the potential consequences of the actions we actually take. “He who hesitates is lost.” So we arm and train that brave commie-fighter, Osama bin Laden, topple popularly elected leaders like Allende in Chile, spend 50 years trying to crush the Cuban economy, and sell arms to one side and then the other of the Iraq/Iran wars. And this strategy is now held up as a shining example of how to deal with climate control. In both cases, key scientific journals and public media announce they will publish no more articles questioning the scientific basis of the government policy, and those who raise questions are berated as Enemies of the People. This is not a good way to resolve scientific issues. As Voltaire said, when the Government is wrong, it is dangerous to be right.
Another policy-making process is a variation of the philosophical tool, Reductio ad absurdum. In the early days of nuclear power, the industry gave in to a number of unreasonable demands for “more safety,” because it could. In fact, when the requirements were applied evenly to all competitors, it actually became profitable to accept them. As these requirements were put into effect, it became clear in some cases that the consequences were absurd (e.g., the requirements associated with Yucca Mountain, or the idea that a single gamma ray can kill you.) Dale Klein, then Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, complained that “The Public has to understand that there is such a thing as an acceptable radiation dose—such as the standard banana.” But the Government keeps telling us just the opposite. The nuclear community apparently fears that acknowledging the absurdity would look like an embarrassing reversal of policy, so the absurdities are simply overlooked.
Nuclear technology suffers from many arbitrary shackles, which need to be acknowledged and shaken off, so that it can work with other technologies on an even basis. The mystery and romance has been exciting, but we need to start treating nuclear technology as a work-horse and not a show-horse. We’ve shown that unprecedented attention to engineering excellence pays off, and we must continue that course; not in fear of the Devil, but in the best tradition of American engineering.
“A Nuclear Casualty Could Cause
Unprecedented Loss of Life and Ecological Damage”
Another topsy-turvy example. The nuclear nightmares all occur only in someone’s inflamed imagination, not in the real world. Many of the horror stories are computer-aided, but that does not make them any more real. The undeniable fact remains that several hundred commercial nuclear power plants, operating world-wide for two human generations, plus a comparable number of nuclear naval vessels, have not led to a single radiological death or injury to the public, or significant ecological damage. And we now know, and have documented, that the type of commercial nuclear plants we have built or planned, cannot, in fact, create a radiological disaster. In 1981, after the Three Mile Island incident, Chauncey Starr, Milton Levenson and others summarized and documented their research on the potential consequences of the worst realistic casualty for commercial nuclear power plants of the type being built in the developed world. They concluded that few if any deaths would be expected off-site.
The research was expanded to a billion-dollar effort, by several nations, over the following decades to the present. After September 11, 2001, with another 20 years of data accumulated, I arranged for 19 nuclear-expert members of the National Academy of Engineering to publish a Policy Forum in the mainstream, peer-reviewed journal Science , updating the 1981 report after TMI, and reaffirming its conclusion that the worst that can be expected is few if any deaths offsite. That conclusion was publicly agreed to by the then-Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The American Nuclear Society White Paper on Realism, followed up with more details, additionally confirming that conclusion. We can no longer claim that radiation is mysterious or uniquely dangerous. The risks of nuclear power are now better understood than most other hazards we face in our daily life.
“The Chernobyl Accident in 1986 Killed Thousands of People and Disabled Millions.”
Not true. Thirty to fifty workers and firefighters at the plant were killed. The radioactivity release was driven by the enormous power surge and the graphite moderator burning for several days. A 20-year investigation by the U.N. and the World Health Organization concluded that no members of the public were harmed. However, careful screening identified about 2,000 cases of childhood thyroid nodules, with about 10 deaths following medical treatments for this condition. These deaths are generally attributed to the reactor. To put the death toll in perspective with other energy sources, note that they come to 0.86 death/GWe-year, 47 times lower than from hydroelectric stations (~40 deaths/GWe-year). But the occurrence of these nodules doesn’t correlate with radiation level, and are within the natural occurrence frequency for such nodules in low-iodine locations like Chernobyl. Unfortunately, we don’t have much pre-Chernobyl health data for that area to make a valid comparison. The World Health Organization (WHO) said that fear of radiation caused much more harm than radiation itself. It led to unnecessary, long-term evacuation of large population groups, 100,000 unwarranted “elective” abortions, unemployment, depression, alcoholism and suicides. Deformed “Chernobyl victims,” displayed to raise money for relief efforts, turned out to be a scam The “victims” suffered from conditions that were later shown to be wholly unrelated to the accident. Some were from far away; others were deformed before the accident. Chernobyl was not a factor in their condition. In July 2010, the Belarus government announced plans to move people back into the evacuated area and begin to normalize life and business there.
In any event, no one is suggesting that more Chernobyl reactors be built. It was a flawed design, primarily for weapons production, built and operated without adequate safety considerations. The graphite in that reactor burned for ten days, pouring fission products directly into the stratosphere. (There is no graphite in current commercial nuclear reactors.) Also Chernobyl had no real containment. And its control rods actually increased power under some conditions when shutdown was called for. Its power could increase when reactor temperature increased (rather than the opposite, as required in our reactors). Its safety circuits had been deliberately disabled by operators “for a test.” And there was inadequate supervision of operator training and decision-making. The commercial water-cooled reactors we’ve built and planned could not under undergo the type of casualty that occurred at Chernobyl.
We do not claim that all kinds of reactors are safe. Chernobyl was not. And we do not claim there will be no accidents or malfunctions. But we do provide that all the kinds of accidents physically possible--probable or improbable--will have limited and tolerable public health consequences.
“What About the Waste? It Stays Toxic for Thousands of Years.”
The fact is, that one of the inherent advantages of nuclear technology is that the waste problem is trivial. This is because nuclear fission can deliver a given amount of power with a millionth as much fuel material (and commensurate amount of waste) as any fossil fuel or any other chemical combustion process.
First, we must ask: How does “the waste problem” show itself in the real world? Are people or the environment harmed, or apt to be harmed in the future? If we can’t describe the problem clearly, then we won’t be able to define, or detect when we have come up with a satisfactory solution.
The facts are: 1) No harm to persons or environment has yet been caused by nuclear wastes. No significant quantity of nuclear wastes has been released to the environment. They can be harmful only if ingested. And nearly all of it is held interstitially in the refractory ceramic structure of used nuclear fuel. . Arch-nuclear critic, Sheldon Novick, wrote in The Electric Wars: “it is difficult to see in what way they are more or less hazardous than other poisons produced by industry.” And that’s if we turned them loose, which we don’t. In fact, coal-fired power plants routinely release unmonitored and uncontrolled quantities of radioactive materials that would cause immediate shutdown and severe penalties if they were nuclear plants.
2) The concern for future harm is based on the fact that the material stays toxic for thousands of years, and this is looked on as an unprecedented hazard. But their toxicity decreases 99.9% during its first few years, and continues to decrease thereafter. Non-radioactive wastes like mercury, arsenic, selenium, and barium maintain their full toxicity forever.
The term “nuclear waste” is a misnomer. Most of the material is useful. It’s not trash. If that much potential energy were in the form of oil, we’d be ready to sacrifice a generation of our young people to acquire and protect it. The fission products are worth billions of dollars. Within a few decades used fuel should be recycled and the useful portions recovered. The tiny amount of non-usable residual is no more toxic than other industrial wastes we handle in much, much greater quantities. The waste produced by one person’s lifetime supply of nuclear electricity could be stored in a 12-ounce soda can. Surely, handling such “nuclear waste” does not pose a serious challenge to our nation’s technological capability.