Nuclear Energy Information to inform discussion

A collection of links and comments for use in Renewable + Nuclear Living Room Conversations.

chat Posted Jun 13, 2015 by Rezwan | Category : Energy Supply Nuclear Strategies
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Pandora’s Promise

Pandora’s Promise is a documentary about about nuclear power by director Robert Stone. His first film was an anti-nuclear weapons documentary, Radio Bikini. It received an Oscar® nomination for Feature Documentary. 

The director is as anti nuclear weapons as ever. Pandora’s Promise is an evolution on his thinking about nuclear energy. Per the director:

PANDORA’S PROMISE is without question the most personal and important film of my career. I’ve learned that just about everything I thought I knew about energy turned out to be wrong. And most of what I had been lead to believe about nuclear energy and its historical events turned out to be significantly different from what had really happened.

Note the filmmaker is not some industry lackey.  He and Michael Moore go way back, as you see in their conversation.

Radiation and Human Health


Helen Caldicott v. Nuclear:  Most of the information people have about the evils of nuclear comes from Helen Caldicott. She is a pediatrician and cares a lot about people. Her concern is real, but her fears are misplaced. Her work suffers from lack of evidence, per George Monbiot. A former admirer, he systematically reviewed her evidence and was sobered. He concludes: 

Failing to provide sources, refuting data with anecdote, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate change deniers, against which the green movement has struggled valiantly, calling science to its aid. It is distressing to discover that when the facts don’t suit them, members of this movement resort to the follies they have denounced.

In case you suspect Monbiot just likes to bash environmentalists, here he is defending Rachel Carson from the myth that the “DDT ban” has killed millions of people, here also. His defense of Carson led me to this excellent link - if you ever find yourself having to correct someone about Rachel Carson, this is it.

What About Fukushima?:  Here is the official UNSCEAR report on Fukushima (pdf). The conclusion:

The World Health Organization (WHO) Fukushima health risk assessment comes to the same conclusion. Here’s the WHO executive summary (pdf)

In other words, per the UN, the only health impact from Fukushima is a theoretical increase in thyroid cancer for the most exposed children. This population will be monitored to see if an actual increase in thyroid cancers occurs. Note that of all cancers, thyroid cancer is one of the least fatal. It has a mortality rate of 2.3%, compared to 83.4% for lung cancer. 

No one likes to see children at risk, and we hope they all come through without incident. 

Comparative Risk and Double Standards. Compare the impact of this worst-case-scenario of nuclear to the routine impact of coal on children. Note that when they shut the nuclear power plants down they replaced them with…coal.

Compare the worst-case risks of nuclear to the routine risks of solar energy. The toxic materials used in the construction of solar panels are a health risk, as is the risk of falling off roofs while installing the panels. Deaths of young, healthy, active people in their prime child bearing years.

The fifty actual deaths from roof installation accidents for 1.5 million roof installations is equal to the actual deaths experienced so far from Chernobyl. If all 80 million residential roofs in the USA had solar power installed then one would expect 9 times the annual roofing deaths of 300 people or 2700 people (roofers to die). This would generate about 240 TWh of power each year.

Who do you trust?  Can the UNSCEAR report be true? Could the health impacts of a nuclear meltdown be lower than routine impacts of other energy sources including solar? The UNSCEAR report was commissioned by the UN, the same institution that commissioned the IPCC report on climate change, using a similar process of gathering many scientists from around the world to evaluate the data.

Note that chapter 10 of Helen Caldicott‘s book “Crisis without End” is entitled: “What the World Health Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, and International Commission on Radiological Protection have falsified.” It is written by Alexey Yablokov, the very guy that Monbiot says has been debunked.

Is Yablokov the one who falsifies, or is it the majority of scientists at the UN? Do you feel the same way about the UN IPCC reports?

Could low level radiation be good for you?  Beyond the UNSCEAR “cancer rates to remain stable” projection, studies on the cancer rates of actual Nagasaki bomb survivors suggest a positive effect from radiation exposure, i.e.

a small but significant bumping increase in cancer risk at low doses in Nagasaki that probably reflects internal exposure to 239Pu. The threshold was distinct from the canonical definition of zero effect in that it was manifested as negative excess relative risk, or suppression of background cancer rates. [Emphasis mine]

“Suppression of background cancer rates” means that people who were exposed to the fallout appear to have LESS cancer than the average population.

Health Cost of Fear of Nuclear Power: Fear has health impacts. Frightening a population, getting them to worry when they don’t need to, adds to their stress levels and has a negative effect on their health.

Additional negative health impacts of radiation fear on human health come from opportunity costs.  For example, in reaction to Fukushima, Japan shut down all its nuclear power plants and replaced the energy shortage with…coal.

What is the estimated impact of this switch on human health and safety? It drives the death rate up. How many deaths? We can use the rate of 15 deaths per TWh that coal has in the US (rather than the higher rate in China. Let’s assume Japan has better environmental standards). Japan uses about 1000TWh of electricity each year. Before the tsunami, a quarter of that was nuclear, so 250TWh came from nuclear.  Switching away from nuclear to coal gives you 250 x 15 = 3750 deaths each year. 

Nuclear Fallout v. Wildlife and the Environment

Chernobyl:  The wolves of Chernobyl - how wildlife responds to the worst ever nuclear accident.

Fukushima:  The impact on the web of marine life due to Fukushima.


Spent Fuel and Reprocessing

About spent fuel pools.  Who knew that WATER is a radiation shield? 
Argonne explains nuclear recycling in 4 minutes

Reactor safety

The Fukushima experience is often portrayed as a case of a modern nuclear power plant failing against impossible conditions. This makes it seem that nuclear power plants are vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. What can you do against tsunamis?

A lot, it turns out. 

You probably haven’t heard of it, but the Onagawa reactor, closer to the epicenter than the Fukushima Dai Ichi reactor, was hit with a higher wave. How did it fare? Just fine.

They took tsunamis into consideration in their design and located the generator in a more suitable place.

The Onagawa reactor shows us that a nuclear power plant can withstand a 9.0 earthquake and 40 foot tsunami and keep working with no meltdown.

The only problem we have with nuclear power is human failure - the technology can handle epic tsunamis. Had the Fukushima team taken similar design precautions, this fiasco could have been prevented. As it was, the failure of team Fukushima led to shutting down all the plants and making sure each of them is up to Onagawa standards and beyond. This is great - it means the plants are now even safer.

There are many who want to use this incident as an excuse to eliminate nuclear power.  “There will always be human failure, so we must shut these plants down.” The first part is true, there is human failure and greed. But the second part is not applied equally to other industries that experience failure. As noted above, the impacts on health from Fukushima pale in comparison to the routine health impacts of coal, and are on par with the impact of Solar. As for property damage in Fukushima, that came from the tsunami and earthquake.

About Nuclear Weapons

A little known upside to nuclear power: it’s a great way to eliminate weapons.

The Megatons to Megawatts program recycled Russian warheads into fuel for American power plants.  Now we just need to recycle the rest of the warheads dangling over us. Burn them for fuel.

Could the anti-nuclear war movement take on this battle cry? It’s pragmatic. It’s a wake up call to denialists and hawks.  If environmentalists are willing to use nuclear power, then climate change must REALLY be a problem. And burn the nukes for fuel! Save trillions in warhead spending. Kill 2 birds (disarmament and global warming)  with one stone.

Fun fact:  As of December 2013, the program has been completed: 500 metric tons of bomb-grade HEU have been recycled into more than 14,000 metric tons of LEU, equivalent to 20,000 nuclear warheads eliminated enough material to produce fuel to power the entire United States for about two years.

Wait, those hawks want their nukes. Well, they don’t need most of them. Could we convince them they could do as much damage with a fraction of them? 

On a paradoxical note, what would happen if environmentalists were more skeptical of the dangers of nuclear power and even nuclear warheads? Could they knock out the warmongers? The fear of weapons of mass destruction justified the Iraq war and the passage of anti democratic surveillance laws. Could the fear itself be unjustified? Fear is the greatest asset of a warmonger and terrorist. Environmentalists play into it!  It is frustrating to see this happen.  Could the danger of nuclear weapons be inflated? Check out this book, “Atomic Obsession” which makes the case that the fear is, indeed, inflated.

Cost and Carbon Footprint Comparisons

Nuclear isn’t zero carbon because of all the concrete.  Some argue that nuclear power emits unacceptable levels of greenhouse gases because of the concrete in the initial build. If you use this argument against nuclear, you have to use it against other sources as well.  As Scientific American notes in “Renewable Energy’s Hidden Costs”, mining the materials for the initial build of Solar panels has a carbon footprint:

The demand for metals, and their already significant carbon footprint, may grow with a switch to green energy. Given all the resources needed for new infrastructure, an analysis last year found that large solar installations take one to seven years to “break even” with coal power on the greenhouse scorecard.

The question is, per Terrawatt hour, which energy source has the bigger carbon footprint? How long does it takes nuclear to “break even” compared to solar? How does the lifetime recycling of materials for solar compare with the decommissioning and storage of spent fuel, given that development of next generation power plants will use up said spent fuel?

We would like to get to the bottom of these questions with our Zero Carbon Scoreboard.  Please donate to make it happen.  Thanks!

Fun Fact: That concrete comes in handy. If you crash a jet into a nuclear power plant, it will disintegrate the plane and not harm the power plant. This video, by the way, a good thing to show the conspiracy oriented who wonder what happened to the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11.

Nuclear Costs too Much. With wind and solar power, you can build a few units at a time. With nuclear, you have to build a whole power plant. You have to get the commitment up front for the whole 1 to 2GW plant. It’s a big chunk to start with. Over the lifetime, and for all the energy produced, the cost is lower than solar and offshore wind as you see in this chart on the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of different power sources.

No one will insure nuclear power
Per Truth-out, “Nuclear power stations are so dangerous that no insurance company will undertake to pay the total costs of a disaster or a terrorist attack.”

Per the World Nuclear Association in “Liability for Nuclear Damage”:

“it is wrong [to believe] that insurers will not touch nuclear power stations. In fact, wherever they are available to private sector insurers, Western-designed nuclear installations are sought-after business because of their high engineering and risk management standards. This has been the case for 50 years.” He elaborated: “My comment refers very much to the world scene and is not contentious. Apart from Three Mile Island, the claim experience has been very good. Chernobyl was not insured. Significantly, because Chernobyl was of a design that would not have been an acceptable risk at the time, notably the lack of a containment structure, the accident had no impact on premium rates for Western plants.

Then came Fukushima, which raises some questions:

Beyond the actual plant, the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents raised the question of what actually is damage from radioactive releases, giving rise to liability. Both accidents resulted in radioactive contamination of surrounding (notably downwind) areas, but the effect of this depended on government edicts extending or relaxing the evacuation of people. Those government decisions in turn depended on assessment of likely health effects of radiation exposure, with both science and populist sentiment feeding into that assessment, which became ultimately a political decision. The cost of both accidents in both human and monetary terms was hugely increased by applying radiation exposure limits set for ideal normal circumstances relating to nuclear and medical activities. These limits are well below the levels that many people experience naturally.

The algorithm for liability is not related to actual damages.

So the operators, notably at Fukushima, were liable for huge costs not because of damage or health effects from radioactive releases, but because of government decisions regarding maintaining the evacuation of significant areas for years, with generous compensation, even where contamination would give low exposure levels.*

This creates odd incentives:

Japan’s tsunami victims have minimal compensation and most want to return home, but cannot because their homes are gone. Meanwhile, many of the Fukushima evacuees can return home but choose to stay away and prosper from huge government-mandated personal and property compensation which amounted to over $42 billion by August 2014 for about 75,000 evacuees. These payments are promised to continue until 2021, but cease a year after residents return to their homes. Of the approx. 300,000 tsunami victims however, one-third has moved to other parts of Japan and the rest have received less than half the total sum awarded to the nuclear accident evacuees, though most do not need to remain away from their homes.

We don’t need nuclear. Renewables are sufficient.
This is the most important point to explore. The fact of the matter is, we need to get to zero carbon as soon as possible. The question is, what is the best way? Renewables have some challenges.  What is the fastest way with the smallest all around footprint? What is in everyone’s best interest?

Conversely, what approaches, as you scale up, will trigger more solution aversion? What solutions have a higher NIMBY Coefficient?

To answer this question, we need to roll up our sleeves, look at the options and do the math. We are developing the “Energy Supply Worksheet” to help people see the actual impact of scaling up to zero carbon with whatever energy supply mix they like.

We’ve got a lot of work to do. This carbon isn’t sequestering itself. If we can get to zero carbon without nuclear, let’s get on with it. If not, let’s get on with adding nuclear.



Host a Renewable + Nuclear Living Room Conversation

Do the Energy Supply Worksheet for your state.

Notes & Related:

“We don’t need nuclear. Renewables are sufficient.”

This is the most important statement we need to evaluate. Anti-nuclear activists point out that there are 100% Renewable solutions. Rather than consider nuclear, we should focus on implementing them.

This assumes that it is disinformation and distraction that is keeping us from implementing 100% renewable solutions, not the inherent challenge. Here’s what it would take for US to run with 100% renewables. Few people who promote a 100% renewable solution truly grasp the enormity of what they are proposing.

Assuming we need to get to zero carbon as soon as possible. The question is, what is the best way? What is the fastest way with the smallest all around footprint? What is in everyone’s best interest? And how do we get everyone to really SEE the likely impact of their decision?

Imagine the implementation of various solutions in your state.

What solutions would you least like to have in your backyard? Which solutions have a higher NIMBY Coefficient?

The choice seems easy at first glance. Solar panels and wind turbines are elegant devices. Who wants a nuclear power plant in their back yard? 

But as you scale up, you start to realize it’s not a nuclear power plant vs. a few panels and a wind turbines. It’s millions of panels and 70 wind turbines per mile off the coast for the entire coast. As solutions scale, the solution aversion will become more obvious.

FYI, we are developing the “Energy Supply Worksheet” to help people see the actual impact of scaling up to zero carbon with whatever energy supply mix they like.

Whatever you decide, we’ve got a lot of work to do. The carbon isn’t sequestering itself. If we can get to zero carbon with 100% renewables, let’s get on with it.

If not, let’s get on with adding nuclear.

How much of your perspective is cultural?

It’s not what you think, it’s who you are.  Those who are most passionate about climate change also tend to be most averse to nuclear power. Cultural Cognition has done studies on this.

Energy Supply Field Worksheet
PACE: “If you finance it, they will build it.”

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