Nova’s “Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail”

On July 29, 2015, a week before the August 6 commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, PBS (Public Broadcast System in the US) aired a documentary titled Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail. Unlike many efforts on similar topics, this one is worth watching. More importantly, it is worth recommending to family, friends, acquaintances, students and strangers.

Though there is a heavy focus on the destructive power of atomic bombs — logically enough, considering the calendar hook with the Hiroshima anniversary — there is also excellent information about nuclear medical technology, the health effects of radiation, the importance of nuclear energy in any effort to reduce fossil fuel CO2 emissions, and the innovations currently being explored by people like Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie of Transatomic Power.

The show is narrated by Derek Muller, a young and engaging physicist turned science communicator. Derek is famous on the Internet for his Veritasium: An Element of Truth YouTube channel. You might not have heard of Muller, but his 2.7 million subscribers have provided his channel nearly 200 million views in the five years it has been available. As evidenced by his selection as the star of Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail those are numbers that make network producers take notice.

The show includes segments with Professor Gerry Thomas of the UK’s Imperial College, Leslie Dewan, and Bionerd23 who all provide important information about radiation and nuclear energy.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to find out that I don’t agree with all aspects of the production. After all, I don’t agree with 100% of the material that I wrote more than a few months ago.

My key disagreement with Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail comes near the end of episode 2 when Muller provides a summary of his journey.

The entire story of uranium is perhaps one of measured risk.

When I began this journey to understand uranium, I had to wear this badge everywhere I went. It measures my cumulative exposure to radiation. I’ve worn it here, among some of the largest uranium deposits on earth [scenes from Australian outback], where the uranium is actually woven into the creation story of the people who have lived here for thousands of years.

And I’ve worn this badge into places where people may never live for hundreds of years [Chernobyl scenes]. I discovered how we took uranium, and one morning 70 years ago in the New Mexico desert, we unleashed the power of the dragon. [Quibble – The event he’s describing was the plutonium bomb test at the Trinity site.]

We launched ourselves into the nuclear age.

[Embedded movie scene] Men being what they are, wouldn’t it really have been better if this thing hadn’t been invented?

Of course you’re right Mr. Benson. The energy in the atom is the most destructive force the world has ever seen. It can also be one of the greatest blessings God has ever given us. Which is it to be? Because on that depends the future of mankind. [End movie scene]

So, what should we do with uranium? As a physicist, I’m tempted to say it’s such a great source of power. It has such incredible energy density. It has so many benefits that way. How can you ignore it?

But after studying it, after searching the world and following the story of uranium, the feeling that I’m left with is that it’s not ready to take over. And seeing how far renewable energy has come, that suggests to me that there are alternatives these days and that we don’t need to go with uranium. We don’t need to risk another place like this.

[Note: Above was said while showing scenes of devastation caused by Great Northeast Japan tsunami and earthquake along with the incorrect political decision to force people to leave homes in a lightly contaminated area. The “place like this” was not caused by a nuclear accident or the effects of releasing a limited amount of radioactive material.]

In my opinion, it doesn’t sound completely consistent with the rest of the documentary and tends to ignore the known hazards of all other technologies that can perform similar tasks. Despite all marketing material to the contrary, “renewable energy” is fundamentally unreliable energy and incapable of replacing fossil fuel power sources.

Fortunately, Muller’s final soliloquy doesn’t end with his statement that we do not need uranium.

And yet every year, uranium treats disease and every year saves more lives than it ever destroyed, even including the atomic bombs. And just imagine a world where next generation reactors could produce massive amounts of clean, safe energy. We live in an age where the nuclear dragon has been unleashed. Where that leads us remains to be seen, but there is no such thing as a future without uranium.

Uranium had one last surprise for me. After all of the radioactive places I’ve been, what was the reading on my radiation monitor?

Well, from natural background radiation, we all get 2,000 microsieverts per year. My reading was just 280 more. For me, the journey was worth the risk.

Of course it was “worth the risk,” because that amount of additional radiation exposure posed no risk to Muller. Even if absorbed in a single, acute dose, there is no evidence in any study that human health is affected by 280 microsieverts (0.28 mSv). I’d bet that if 100 random people wore a dosimeter for a year, there would be substantially more that 280 microsieverts of variation between them.

Unlike Muller, I’m not a scientist who thinks in terms of discovering new knowledge. I’m a humanist with an engineering bent who focuses on applying knowledge widely to make life better for people.

Muller is right; nuclear energy is not yet ready to take over. My answer is not to accept that condition, but to be inspired to work on improving nuclear technology and the acceptance of nuclear technology so that it continues the process of taking over wherever appropriate.

PS: Until a little over a week ago I had not heard of Veritasium. I discovered the valuable resource after Wally, one of the amazingly bright teenagers who participated in my Duke TIP Nuclear Science class, asked me for my opinion on some of the nuclear related videos posted there.

Veritasium covers a broad range of science topics in addition to nuclear energy and physics, but I was impressed by Muller’s style and ability to explain complex subjects in short video clips. He is full of energy, excitement, and curiosity and seems able to inspire his audience to adopt some of the same attitudes about learning. He’s not just a communicator, he’s an educator.

He has attracted at least one new subscriber to his YouTube channel.

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