On Wednesday, April 9, 2014, The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists hosted a symposium titled Speaking Knowledge to Power in Princeton University’s Robertson Hall. The speakers included John Holdren, Allison Macfarlane, Frank von Hippel and Christopher Chyba.
Three out of the four (Holdren, von Hippel, and Macfarlane) have long been influential skeptics about the use of nuclear energy, even though they are well-educated scientists with solid reputations in their particular fields of study. Two of the four currently wield considerable power from their politically appointed positions, with Macfarlane serving as the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Holdren serving as the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Von Hippel is proud of his chosen role of being an outsider. He described his conscious realization that he is more effective at influencing policy from his academic perch than from being in a responsible position inside the government.
As a independent citizen armed with personal knowledge about the value and capabilities of nuclear energy in addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing human society, I thought it would be a good idea to make the trip to Princeton so I could ask the powerful public scientists some hard questions.
My first opportunity to engage came after Holdren gave the keynote talk in which he identified addressing climate change as one of our most important current challenges. He described actions that the Administration has taken so far and mentioned the achievements enabled by spending $80 billion on energy investments as part of the Recovery Act.
His speech contained little information about nuclear energy, and did not note that this one “mature low‐GHG emission source of baseload power” (to use words from the recently released IPCC Summary for Policy Makers) received essentially zero dollars from the Recovery Act.
Adams: Dr. Holdren, my name is Rod Adams. I publish Atomic Insights. I’m curious about the Administration’s verbal support for nuclear energy, but presentations like yours basically do not say a word about it. It is a very large and reliable clean energy source.
Holdren: Well actually, I give a lot of presentations that are more focused on energy and climate and in those I do talk about nuclear energy. The Obama Administration would like to see nuclear energy play a larger role. We’d like to see benefits of zero carbon electricity generation from that sector expanded.
There’re some challenges that have to be faced. One of those challenges is competition from very inexpensive natural gas. It’s hard to get a lot of nuclear power funding when natural gas is $3.00 a million BTU or so. Over time — if we ever succeed in getting a price on carbon emissions — obviously the economics of nuclear and a variety of renewables will improve.
We also need to deal with waste management challenges. There are some utilities who won’t build a nuclear reactor unless and until the government starts accepting its responsibility to take spent fuel off of the hands of the utilities. That’s a problem that the Blue Ribbon Commission addressed with a set of recommendations. We’d like to see those recommendations move forward so that we can improve the environment for nuclear energy in that respect.
Adams: Yes. Something like two thirds of the states have a law that says they cannot build a new nuclear plant unless the federal government has a licensed waste repository. And we were really close to one.
Moderator: (Kennette Benedict, Executive Director, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists) Thank you very much. Let’s move on.
Both Holdren and I used some incorrect numbers in our exchange. He was off by about 50% on his guess for current natural gas prices – they are now $4.50 per million BTU on most days and sometimes skyrocket out of control during peak use periods. My statement about the number of states with laws restricting new nuclear was way off; the real number is 13 states, not the “two thirds of the states” in my question.
When I made my statement about the almost-achieved waste repository, I was careful to make eye contact with Dr. Macfarlane, the current Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That is one of the organizations involved in the politically-orchestrated effort by Senator Harry Reid to follow through on a campaign promise to ensure that Yucca Mountain was “unworkable.” There is little doubt that she understood my point. Ms. Benedict, the moderator, skillfully changed the subject.
After Holdren spoke, the other three panelists each gave a short talk with no break in between for questions. Macfarlane identified both Holdren and von Hippel as being her mentors and thanked them for their intellectual influence. She also acknowledged the influence of Rod Ewing, who was in the audience. She talked about the way that science influences policy decisions.
Her primary example of a recent “regulatory science” effort was the NRC’s direction to nuclear licensees to update their seismic and flooding hazard analysis based on new seismic source models for the eastern and central parts of the US. She indicated that the NRC will reviewing the results which were recently submitted and asking some of the companies who just submitted their preliminary results to do more research and provide a more detailed analysis. I really wanted to ask Dr. Macfarlane how much this effort will be costing and what the benefits will be in terms of increased safety.
What do you want to bet that no one has ever pointed out to her that the nuclear industry spent a great deal of time and money developing a solid understanding of the seismic hazards associated with nuclear power plants in an industry-wide effort known as the Seismic Qualification Utility Group (SQUG)? Here is an important quote from one of the hundreds of documents that the group produced.
The evaluation, concurred with by the independent expert judgement of the Senior Seismic Review and Advisory Panel (SSRAP), showed that adequately anchored equipment in these classes are inherently rugged under seismic ground motions less than “bounding spectra” having peak ground accelerations of up to about 0.3g. It also demonstrated the feasibility of applying earthquake experience data to verify the seismic ruggedness of certain classes of equipment used in both conventional and nuclear power plants.
In other words, the issue is one of proper engineering, it is not a matter that needs more science.
Before accepting another effort by the NRC to add costs without associated benefit to currently operating nuclear power plants, the industry should push back hard and encourage the NRC to review the documents that the SQUG has already produced. There is no indication that there is a pressing need to perform additional seismic analysis. There has never been a case in which the safety functions of a nuclear power plant have been damaged by an earthquake, even if the earthquake significantly exceeded the official design basis for the plant. The engineers who design nuclear plants are conservative people who have included considerable margins in their designs.
However, I did not take the opportunity to press this issue while at the symposium because Frank von Hippel made a statement that needed to be questioned even more immediately.
He talked about the ways that policy-oriented scientists influence policy from outside of government by setting the agenda. He said the people working inside the government really don’t have time to do any original thinking; they are too busy responding to what comes in each day.
Von Hippel mentioned his involvement in several successful efforts associated with nuclear arms control to get the public engaged in issues and used that public attention push policy makers to make a change. His first example was the effort that started in 1954 to stoke public concerns about “fallout” from nuclear weapons testing. That fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) campaign — led by the geneticists who asserted that every dose of radiation, no matter how small, was hazardous to human health — eventually led to the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban.
Aside: The genetics committee for the 1956 National Academy of Sciences Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR) study was chaired by Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation. That is one more instance of oily fingerprints related to actions against nuclear energy. End Aside.
During the question and answer session that followed the three talks in a row, I chose to encourage critical thinking about von Hippel’s talk instead of Macfarlane’s.
Adams: I’m Rod Adams. Dr. von Hippel you mentioned the success of the fallout program. One of the reasons that was successful was it was based on the assumption that every single dose of radiation, no matter how tiny, was dangerous. The research being done on DNA these days is showing that assumption is actually quite false. What do you think about that?
Von Hippel: This is continuously very controversial but the Academy of Sciences does a review on this periodically. The last one was in 2006 and they concluded once again that the best information that we have, both scientifically and epidemiologically, was that, in fact, the risk never goes to zero that it is proportional to dose.
Adams: Yes, the assumption works great as long as you throw out everything that goes below zero. That’s a great way to slant statistics.
After the event, a very nice lady came to me and said “They didn’t really answer your questions, did they. We have to move towards more nuclear energy.”
With that response, I called it a day. I had a three hour drive to make and some East coast megalopolis traffic to avoid.
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Correction: The original version of this post misspelled Dr. von Hippel’s name.