Merchants of Doubt about nuclear energy

The vast majority of technical specialists in the field of energy production favor the use of nuclear energy and recognize that it is a safe source of power that produces no direct greenhouse gases. Even when measured on a complete lifecycle basis, CO2 emissions from nuclear energy are roughly equal to the emissions from wind or hydro and about 1/4 of the emissions from solar.

As is frequently noted in discussions about climate change, however, the news media almost never publishes any story about nuclear energy without providing “equal time” to the naysayers who do everything they can to spread doubt about the use of nuclear energy as an effective tool in addressing the world’s energy trilemma of supplying “energy security, social equity and environmental impact mitigation”.

In the case of climate change, the naysaying “experts” often have credentials that sound like they are related to climate – television meteorologist, for example. A similar pattern exists with the merchants of doubt about nuclear energy, in this case the confusing credential might be “nuclear physicist”. In articles about climate change, some journalists have done a pretty fair job in helping people to understand that a talking-head weatherman might not be the best source of accurate information about climate patterns, but they have not done such a good job of helping people to understand that the course work in a nuclear physics curriculum has nothing to do with energy production, thermodynamics or economic analysis of power system options.

One of the traditional “go to guys” when a journalist needs a doubter’s perspective on nuclear energy is Dr. Ed Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Dr. Lyman has a PhD in nuclear physics, but somehow journalists have translated that credential into confirmed expertise on all things nuclear.

On Monday, December 17, 2012, WFAE, the National Public Radio (NPR) in Charlotte, North Carolina, did a piece on the B&W mPowerTM reactor development project. The reporter did a good job in talking to nuclear experts like Pete Lyons, Doug Lee, Chris Mowry and Marv Fertel, but he also followed the journalistic practice of providing Dr. Lyman a forum for spreading his unsubstantiated message of uncertainty.

Dr. Lyman was allotted 7 paragraphs out of 23, nearly one third of the total space. Here is a sample of his message

“My feeling is that if you’re going to have a nuclear power plant it better be a Rolls Royce,” Lyman says.

Lyman sees problems with the entire concept of mass producing small reactors.

“Nuclear power is a technology that is much more suited for large plants, centralized and isolated from populated areas in as small a number of places as possible,” Lyman says.

The comment thread for the article is generally positive and includes a supportive comment from Jim Hopf, who is a reliable and well informed pro nuclear commenter on many articles on the web. Here is my contribution to the discussion:

I wonder when journalists will start to recognize that the course of study required to earn a degree in nuclear physics does not provide expertise in power plant economics, site security, or the thermodynamics associated with keeping a decay heat generating reactor core at a safe temperature?

The market for smaller nuclear power plants is self evident – the vast majority of power generators in the world produce far less power per unit than the traditional nuclear power plant size of 1000 MWe. About 85% of those power plants burn fossil fuels or carbon based biomass and must release a minimum of 500 grams of CO2 for every kilowatt hour they generate. The lowest cost fuel for those plants has a market price of $2.00 per million BTU, not including delivery to the power plant; fully fabricated commercial nuclear fuel – including an allowance for waste disposal – costs about $0.65 per million BTU.

Sure, if built one at a time or if outrageously delayed by legal maneuverings that have little or nothing to do with safety, nuclear power plants can cost a lot more than equivalent fossil fuel plants, but as the naysayers are wont to say, they are actually very similar in technology. They boil water to create steam. There are few technical reasons why a nuclear plant should cost much more than a fossil plant especially if you include the cost of the fuel supply infrastructure required and the waste treatment necessary to somewhat approach the cleanliness of a system that is clean enough to operate inside sealed submarines.

With regard to the safety and security of small reactors, as noted by BobM593, the US Navy has been safely and securely operating small reactors around the world since January 17, 1955. The world also has deep experience in operating and securing small research reactors.

A smaller core that generates less power while operating will have a larger surface area to volume ratio than a large core (providing for better heat transfer) and it will start with a proportionally lower quantity of decay heat after a reactor shutdown. If needed at all, the pumps associated with decay heat removal are much smaller and easier to power with portable generators than those associated with a larger core.

The idea that developing nations should not be able to take advantage of low cost fuel, reliable power plants and emissions free operation is offensive. I used to be in charge of operating a small reactor around the clock with a team of about 35 people, only 6 of whom had college degrees. We all participated in an excellent technical training system, but that only required about 6 months of study and another six to 18 months of on-the -job training to make us competent operators. Every country can afford to train a cadre of people; the US has tens of thousands of experts in the field who could provide a core of instructors and mentors.

One more thing – Ford makes a much more reliable car than Rolls Royce does.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

This is also a good time to point people to a useful history lesson about Dr. Lyman’s employer, the UCS, directly from an interview with Henry Kendall, one of the founders of the organization. It is prime example of how a tiny group of people who are dedicated to a cause and a message can make an outsized impact on public policy. There is no reason to believe that nuclear advocates – starting from a far larger base – cannot achieve similarly effective results with a little creative application of lessons learned.

About Rod Adams

14 Responses to “Merchants of Doubt about nuclear energy”

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  1. Brian Mays says:

    In the case of climate change, the naysaying “experts” often have credentials that sound like they are related to climate — television meteorologist, for example.

    And then others have credentials like PhD’s in meteorology and atmospheric science, and they do things like teach atmospheric science at MIT or construct satellite temperature records or serve as lead authors for IPCC reports.

    Meanwhile, the “experts” on the other side that are frequently interviewed are folks like Bill Nye, whose only “credentials” are that he used to host a television show for children. Then again, considering the amount of intellectual rigor that has gone into the thinking of most of those who are the most concerned about “global climate disruption,” I can see why he’s popular with this crowd. 😉

    Note that Bill Nye is not only an “expert” on climate change. He is also an “expert” on why both climate change and nuclear energy are so dangerous that they must be stopped.

  2. George Carlin says:

    I saw this interview around the time of the Fukushima accident. Before watching the interview I assumed Bill Nye was well-read in the subjects he was brought on to talk about. I couldn’t believe how ignorant he was to nuclear reactors/fission yet still went on national TV as though he was an expert. It was an insulting interview to anybody knowledgeable of nuclear power. During the interview the CNN banner read “How Nuclear Reactors Work”. This is the quality of journalism we see from the MSM on nuclear power. They absolutely refuse to have on an actual expert in nuclear power when discussing nuclear power.

    • Brian Mays says:

      Yeah, it was pretty bad. It’s difficult for me to watch that without wincing and being somewhat embarrassed for him.

      But consider how it would be if you knew nothing about nuclear technology or “how nuclear reactors work.” He would sound pretty convincing, wouldn’t he? He uses technical words (cesium) and states everything in such a confident matter. Furthermore, everything he says probably agrees with everything you’ve ever heard about “dangerous” nuclear power. It’s not difficult to see how the average layman is easily confused and frightened.

      Now consider that you know nothing about atmospheric thermodynamics, ocean chemistry, or cyclic patterns that influence global weather … 😉

  3. Jeff Walther says:

    “There is no reason to believe that nuclear advocates – starting from a far larger base – cannot achieve similarly effective results with a little creative application of lessons learned.”

    Well there is one reason. Panic and fear sell in the media. We’re not promoting panic and fear, so the media has a lot less interest in giving us a platform or in repeating our message.

  4. EL says:

    Even when measured on a complete lifecycle basis, CO2 emissions from nuclear energy are roughly equal to the emissions from wind or hydro and about 1/4 of the emissions from solar.

    To provide some counterpoint on this, and not an extended discussion (which we can all do in our sleep at this point). The World Nuclear Association’s assessment of comparative lifecycle data (dated 2005) is not a complete account … and they cite several studies that are well know and well examined (and notable for being on the low end of emissions estimates).

    A better source might be the latest and most comprehensive review article on topic: “Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy: A review” (Lenzen 2008). And yes, this is the latest comprehensive account (newer assessments are lacking in the scientific literature). The article is highly critical of Storm van Leeuwen and Smith (the highest estimate) for not drawing on current industry practices for storage, disposal, and decommissioning. And it is also highly critical of the Vattenfall study (the lowest estimate), which “omits the energy and greenhouse gas impacts of many upstream contributions as well as auxiliary services …” (p. 2189). The study is balanced, and looks at all the available research and inputs (drawing on the most consistent and well documented methodologies among them): mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, reactor construction, reactor operation, decommissioning, fuel re-processing, nuclear waste storage, nuclear waste disposal, and transport.

    For most popular reactor types (LWR and HWR), the range is well documented and independently confirmable: 10 – 130 gCO2e/kWh with an average of 65 gCO2e/kWh. Ore grade, enrichment method, and research assumptions are the most significant variables accounting for the range. Wind and hydro are included for comparison (at 15-25 gCO2e/kWh), and solar (at 90 gCO2e/kWh with average insolation). Newer research for solar is often lower than cited by Lanzen in 2008 (here, here, and here), but within an expected range.

    If anybody has newer and more comprehensive research on topic (that dates to this decade), please provide it. I would be interested in looking at it.

    • DV82XL says:

      The general problem with all life-cycle CO2 emission studies is that there is little in the way of standards as to what should or should not be included as part of the burden and this is as true of all such studies regardless of what non-combustion energy system is being measured. In the case of nuclear what type of energy being assumed during the refinement and enrichment phases of fuel manufacturing can have a profound impact on the calculated CO2 load and in all fairness the same can be said for PV manufacturing as well. The point here being that these do not make for compelling arguments as they are often rife with bias.

    • q says:


      If you want to mention WNA claims about emissions, then you should refer to the July 2011 metastudy:

      But the bottom line is that nuclear is lower emission than any form of fossil fuel – even projected CCS fossil fuel use and comparable to renewables.

  5. Daniel says:

    Scientists (alleged or not) do play a part in today’s debate on the nuclear and environment issues. But what about the artists community?

    I was at a Renoir’s exhibition in Montréal and in 1861, three crusaders won their battle as forest sites and rocky landscapes were reserved for artistic purposes to paint nature in the wake of the ‘impressionnist’ mouvement that was taking place at the time. 500 years of abuse by man was taking its toll.

    Here is a word for word excerpt of what I read on the first storyboard upon entering the Renoir gallery:

    – After five centuries of over exploitation, French forests were in a sorry state. Time was of the essence. The Industrial Revolution was well underway and its appetite for timber was depleting stocks. Idle land had therefore to be reforested. For Rousseau and the ‘Bar Bizons’ ancient oaks and rocks were the equivalent of the ‘models that Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt left us. ‘ For the sake of this ‘green museum’, a resistance movement was organized just as the last pockets of mature forests were about to be felled.

    – Rousseau proved to be an effective lobbyist. In Paris, he inspired a string of press campaigns, and in the country he was joined by young painters who executed ‘tree portraits’ and turned into ‘eco-warriors’, cutting down young, newly introduced Scots pines. Rousseau was supported by influential critic, including Théophile Gauthier. The old trees of Fontainebleau were saved mainly thanks to the fashion for ‘forest interiors’ that art lovers fought over.

    So it was the artists, and not scientists, who were the pioneers of nature protection in France.

    On a personal note, what was I doing at a museum ? I did not pay much attention to the actual paintings but was rather watching my date from all angles. So am I an artist or a scientist? Well, I think I’m French!

    • Bruce Behrhorst says:

      Oh, French like, Gérard Depardieu the French tax hero exiled from France to avoid the 75% top rate of tax rate ?

  6. Bruce Behrhorst says:

    The Union of CS guy seems to think people in developing world aren’t smart enough to operate an SMR – that is a weak debate point.
    M power is a good product I’m sure it will find a market but my for my tastes I like an SMR that can ‘scram’ a LOCA event meaning, dump core reactor fuel in a snap, poison, chill & isolate fuel to make it less of a problem in a LOCA event.
    The other thing this Union of CS Mr.Lyman seems to think SMRs have more of chance to accident. Hmmm. I seem to have looked at the historical record of the few NPP who had operation anomalies were all huge MWth reactor designs.

    Most of these anti-nuke ‘experts’ seem to want ot limit the ability of developing nations to generate electrical power for it’s citizens. They never realize that SMR can even Co-Generate district heating, desalination and fertilizer production. All the means necessary for developing nations to grow an economy.

    I guess arrogant concerned scientists knows no limits.

  7. James Greenidge says:

    Seasons Greetings!

    This issue boils down to a sheer lack of aggressive nuclear public education in behalf the nuclear industry and unions and pro orgs. Bill Nye and that Mako somebody guy and dozens of their likes are invited to speak for nuclear experts because the nuclear industry lets the media get away with tapping them without a peep. Other industries bitch a storm if the media doesn’t call on their certified reps, whether it’s food quality or automobiles or guns, but the nuclear side is MIA on keeping non-pro media tokens from smearing its image with FUD. As I mentioned before, I know there’s no “nuclear industry” per se, but they do have a common brotherhood of sorts for emergencies and info sharing, don’t they? The plants themselves, even apart their parent owners, should form a collective of some kind to address the lack of political clout and nuclear public education out there just for self-preservation’s sake!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • Brian Mays says:

      Bill Nye and that Mako somebody guy …

      You’re referring to Michio Kaku, a string-theory physicist at City University of New York. He’s about as nutty and misinformed as Bill Nye. However, considering some of the outright wacko things he says, I’ve long suspected that he has a drug or alcohol problem. No sober person could ramble on the way he does sometimes with a straight face.

      • Chuck P. says:

        I post this whenever Kaku comes up:
        If you value the advancement of human knowledge brought to us by the Cassini space probe that explored Saturn, keep in mind that it never would have launched if it was up to Michio Kaku. He worked hard to prevent the launch because Cassini had scary plutonium onboard

  8. Mark Bolton says:

    Understanding the Science for Tomorrow: Myth and Reality
    Taught By Professor Jeffrey C. Grossman, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a course from The Teaching Company. I was very disappointed in his section on Nuclear Power which is classic precautionary principle
    Dunno treatment. Much of his work is on solar and he is disingenuous in his dismissive treatment of other alternatives. I would like to hear him challenged on the Atomic Show.