Time for rational risk evaluation of energy sources – natural gas versus nuclear

It is way past time to begin the long process of helping people understand how to rationally weigh the risks versus benefits of available power or fuel systems. For far too many years, promoters of immensely profitable products like natural gas have been loudly and frequently telling society about its benefits while glossing over the very real risks associated with extracting, transporting, and using a flammable, explosive gas.

In contrast, there really are no loud promoters of nuclear energy; at best, there are a few slightly extroverted engineering types who will tell the public that they have successfully eliminated almost all risk – and they often emphasize the word “almost”.

Aside: My good friend Margaret Harding has shared a joke several times on the Atomic Show that is worth repeating here.
“Do you know how you can tell an extroverted engineer?”
“No, how?”
“He stares at your shoes instead of his own when he is talking to you.” End Aside.

The irrational contrast between what seems to be acceptable for natural gas and what others say is “acceptable” for nuclear has been quite clear to me for quite some time, but in the past month or so there have been several publicly discussed events that provide a teachable moment for sharing my thoughts.

During Hurricane (later called Superstorm) Sandy, there were several flooded neighborhoods that were engulfed in flames fed by natural gas from broken pipes.

Last weekend, a prosperous neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana was startled by an explosion that could be heard several miles away and that rattled windows in homes located more than a mile away from ground zero. Two homes were completely obliterated, several others have nothing left but a few external walls, and more than two dozen homes in the neighborhood are so damaged that they have been declared to be uninhabitable.

Though it has taken investigators several days to determine the cause of the explosion — and they are still not claiming to be completely certain — it is looking like the culprit was natural gas, perhaps released by a faulty appliance. Reading between the lines, it seems that the investigators are thinking that there was a leak into a home whose residents were out of town. Since there were no human detectors in the house to smell the gas, there was no prior warning. Judging from the photos, a substantial quantity of gas must have accumulated before it was ignited; there was a very powerful burst of released energy.

Aside: In one of my numerous assignments, I taught an introductory course in weapons systems engineering at the Naval Academy . As part of my preparation to become an instructor, I learned about what we called FAE – Fuel Air Explosives. They pack a powerful punch. The technology is frequently used to produce some of the largest non-nuclear bunker busting bombs.

From an engineering perspective, one of the biggest design challenges for an FAE is to properly atomize the fuel so that it mixes fully with air before ignition. That challenge disappears when the fuel is a lighter-than-air gas (CH4, aka methane, aka natural gas) fed slowly into a sealed volume of air – like a modern home.

This video may provoke some thinking about how the home explosion in Indiana might have looked if there had been any slow motion video equipment recording the event.


End Aside.

However, despite the destruction and human casualties, it is quite apparent that names like South Mantoloking, Breezy Point, Bay Head, Seaside Park, Long Beach Island, and Indianapolis are not going to be added to our common lexicon in a manner similar to “Fukushima”, even though each one of those places experienced destruction of private homes and public places caused by the direct impact of natural gas-fed fires or explosions.

In contrast, though the word “Fukushima” has been inserted into our worldwide vocabulary as a term that is supposed to cause instant trembling, there were no homes and no public buildings in the Japanese province destroyed by the direct impact of the melted reactor cores or the brief hydrogen explosions. If there are any buildings in the area have been physically damaged, that destruction was caused either by the earthquake, the tsunami, or by the forced abandonment of the entire area. When humans leave their infrastructure behind, it rapidly deteriorates.

The forced abandonment of the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station, like the one in the areas near Chernobyl, was driven by an unreasonable fear of the possible long term health effects of exposure to a small amount of radiation. Just a few days ago, I read another news story about a tight knit community of stubborn Ukrainian women who refused to leave their homes in Chernobyl’s “Dead Zone”. After more than 26 years of living off of the land in an area that the media insists is a “toxic wasteland”, they are still living a more healthy existence than that of the people who followed the evacuation orders.

When I discuss the contrast in “acceptable risk” between natural gas and nuclear energy with my pro nuclear advocate colleagues, they often slough it off. Some will say that the public has no real ability to make rational risk assessments. Some say that the public has a visceral and innate fear of radiation that can never be overcome. Others say that the problem is one of familiarity – many people use natural gas routinely and safely, but they accept that it can be dangerous if used improperly. Still others claim that the acceptability issue that nuclear energy has is that the public thinks that they have no control over it; they can be innocently living their lives and suddenly be displaced as a result of something happening at a nearby plant.

Aside: I wonder if the people living in Indianapolis had any control over the explosion or if the people who lived in San Bruno, California had any ability to tell the gas company to maintain the pipe that they did not even know existed under their neighborhood. End Aside.

I reject those arguments as either insufficient explanations or as beside the point. In my analysis, the real issue is that the public has been carefully taught to fear nuclear energy — often by people involved in competitive industries or who have a general dislike of any abundant energy source that provides power to the people — while they have been taught that natural gas provides so many benefits that its risks can be accepted. The nuclear industry has rarely sought to tell the public about the benefits or to compare its risks with those of its competitors.

Sometimes, people who oppose nuclear energy accuse nuclear promoters of overselling, but the examples they use demonstrate how silly that notion is. They point to a statement made during a 1954 (five years before I was born) speech about “electricity too cheap to meter” or they claim that the Japanese nuclear operators — who are rapidly approaching a bankrupt condition because they are only selling product from 2 of 50 operable units — have an excessive influence on government decision making.

Aside: I once went to sea with a political science major. As two “bull majors” in a ship full of engineers, we engaged in lengthy discussions about politics, philosophy, literature and the human condition. One of the things I learned from Mike was that our political, legal and economic system worked as well as it did because our founding fathers recognized that humans might never agree, but that an adversarial system of politics, justice and business put enough checks and balances into the mix so that our overall progress was in the positive direction. End Aside.

What we are missing in the energy discussion is a more adversarial approach by all sides where each fuel source or energy system makes its own case to the public. As any good legal advocate or advertising specialist understands, making a case involves both building up your own positives and exploiting as many of the weaknesses of the opposition as possible. It is only through an adversarial, fully competitive approach that both strengths and weaknesses get exposed, tested and perhaps even overcome.

For some reason, many engineers have been taught to go along to get along and to avoid challenging others who have slightly different areas of expertise. They seek to stay in their swim lane and to avoid throwing stones. That is especially true when those engineers work for the government or for conglomerates that are involved in many different kinds of energy systems. I personally think that approach leads to poor decision making.

People who think that nuclear energy is acceptably safe and highly beneficial to to the public need to say so frequently and publicly. We should take our cue from natural gas marketers, who frequently tell us that they have 100 years of fuel right below our feet, that America’s Natural Gas Industry provides clean, affordable energy and good jobs, and that “clean natural gas” is cheap and will be forever — unless the analysis is coming from the financial side of the natural gas company and they are talking to outside analysts during a quarterly earnings call.

Rational decision making requires a realization that perception is NOT reality, that decisions about important issues like energy supply systems are too important to be made with emotions instead of facts, and that the biggest advantage that human beings have over other mammals is our ability to reason. In order to make reasonable decisions, we need to know about and weigh both positives and negatives.

We need to keep exercising our rational, cognitive ability in order to leave our children and grandchildren a world full of resources that has not been irreversibly crapped up by continuing to dump 30 billion tons (and growing) of waste products into the atmosphere every year. I am confident that the public is up to the task, but they need to be given the required information without any reluctance to expose the negatives while acknowledging that there are plenty of people who are paid to promote the positives of petroleum – a word that technically encompasses natural gas.

About Rod Adams

45 Responses to “Time for rational risk evaluation of energy sources – natural gas versus nuclear”

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  1. Jim L. says:

    I lean in the direction that the public just is irrational about radiation and nuclear power. My reasoning is that the general public in both Japan and Germany are considered fairly educated, yet that is still not enough to overcome their fears. Perhaps that education has been filled with anti-nuclear propaganda?

  2. gmax137 says:

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    I’m thinking the difference is this: the nat gas ads we see are put on TV by “the gas association” or some such organization, which I suspect is funded by the gas producing companies. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe those ads are sponsored by the power companies, or by the gas turbine vendors. Now contrast that with nuclear power. Do you expect the uranium miners to sponsor the ads? There’s little incentive for that, since they have a pretty fixed customer base and advertising won’t increase their sales, at least not in the forseeable future. But maybe more importantly, since the fuel cost is so low in the case of nuclear, the uranium mining part of the chain is only a small player. Compared to fossil power, where providing the fuel is where all the money is made.

    The reactor vendors should be sponsoring the advertising, since it really is in their interest. I expect they don’t want to spend much on it, though. Maybe it has been too long since they sold any new plants here in the US, and their business is really centered around services and fuel contracts for the existing plants. It just never occurs to them that positive public image could eventually lead to sales.

    The power companies have no interest in sponsoring the ads. They don’t really care whether the public likes gas or nuclear, they just want the public to like them. Their public image is based on low prices and rapid restoration of service after storms.

    • Joris van Dorp says:

      So who should be the natural sponsor of pro-nuclear campaigning, if not the uranium miners or the utilities?

      I think it should be:

      – Health organisations (since nuclear causes far fewer health problems than coal)
      – Environmental groups (since nuclear causes the least amount of environmental problems and can displace fossil fuels which is extremely bad for the environment, if only from changing the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere)
      – Humanist organisations, since nuclear power is a benefit to humanity and can make electricity accessible to those who currently have none. Electricity is a basic need. Life expectancy of people without access to electricity is only about 45 years. Increasing access to electricity demands a low cost power source, which is nuclear power.
      – Governments, since nuclear power contains energy prices and improves energy independence, both of which serve the interest of the state. (cheap energy serves the state, because the state will be able to tax energy and this tax will be dependable also in the future, since the cost of nuclear fuel and operations is constant in time.
      – Socialist political parties, since nuclear power makes rent-seeking difficult and therefore fosters low and constant energy prices, and therefore more industry and jobs for the socialists political base. Nuclear power is the ultimate socialist energy source. In fact, in my country one of the staunchest political proponents of nuclear power is the (far) left Socialist Party (SP), which has been supporting nuclear power research continually since its formation in the early ’70’s.
      – Technical universities, since the increasing application of technology and innovation demands low-cost and dependable power. Nuclear power allows a country to keep heavy industry inside the borders, and therefore also all the suppliers and R&D technology industries that support heavy industry, manufacturing and technology development.
      – Heavy industry itself. It needs affordable energy. Traditionally, they have been supporting both coal and nuclear, but since coal is becoming more difficult due to climate change, they should consider focusing on nuclear.

      Having an uncle who is a medical doctor, I emailed him yesterday about whether he would support more nuclear power in order to fullfill the Hippocratic oath. Haven’t had a reply yet, but I’m looking forward to it!

      Just my two-cents.

      • Twominds says:

        … In fact, in my country one of the staunchest political proponents of nuclear power is the (far) left Socialist Party (SP), which has been supporting nuclear power research continually since its formation in the early ’70′s. …

        Maybe, but they have a disappointing stand on a future second plant at Borssele, opposing it on strange grounds standpoint on nuclear power (in dutch) like that NPP’s baseload production is a drawback because the grid would ask for ‘flexible’ power instead, that the current plants are too large scale and have an unsolved waste problem. Sound like they don’t want to lose the (perceived) anti nuclear left voters they took from the PvdA (Labour Party).

  3. Joris van Dorp says:

    Aside: In a debate with the public, it may be essential to acknowledge the reality (and even the rationality!) of emotional responses to nuclear power, otherwise the debate will be futile from the outset because heels will be dug into the sand on both sides. The key should be to acknowledge emotions, so that the underlying (mis)conceptions can be respectfully unearthed, defined and then addressed. While it is tempting to proclaim that negative emotions are simply the result of propaganda which the public has (irrationally) bought into, this is not a winning strategy if the goal is to foster understanding and acceptance.

    • Steve Skutnik says:

      Bingo. We can pound the table with facts and rationality, but if that worked our work would be over already. (This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be tireless in this effort, but it’s not enough.) Acknowledging how risk perceptions are formed and using that information to correct misperception is key.

      • Cyril R says:

        I don´t fully agree here. Speaking for myself, I was once sceptical about nuclear power, but today I realise that my negativism was due to insufficient knowledge. Once I got into discussions with nuclear engineers, I learned that I didn´t know enough about nuclear power and nuclear safety, so I educated myself.

        My experience is that this really works, but we are not getting to a large enough audience. Blogs, websites, etc. are only visited by interested people, while the vast majority of the public are not reached by it and thus, retain the default attitude on nuclear power. (being that nuclear power is bad and solar is good).

        I think the more important point is, how do we reach a broad audience. We´ll need things like popular television to get the message across.

  4. Steve Skutnik says:

    @Rod: I think you bring up a key issue here:

    Some will say that the public has no real ability to make rational risk assessments. Some say that the public has a visceral and innate fear of radiation that can never be overcome. Others say that the problem is one of familiarity – many people use natural gas routinely and safely, but they accept that it can be dangerous if used improperly. Still others claim that the acceptability issue that nuclear energy has is that the public thinks that they have no control over it; they can be innocently living their lives and suddenly be displaced as a result of something happening at a nearby plant.

    But I think you miss the point a bit. All of these are in fact well-documented. Public perception of risk is driven by factors other than strictly rational assessments – the other factors you list, like (perceived) control and familiarity are things which raise or lower that perception. (I’m just about through David Ropeik’s book, “How Risky is it Really?” which talks explicitly about these in the context of nuclear energy. I highly recommend it.)

    However, the point should not be, “Oh well, the public’s irrational, I give up.” It should be, “How do we use this knowledge to overcome this problem?” It means putting our understanding out how the public perceives risk to good use to close that “perception gap” as Ropeik calls it. Unfortunately, as much as it pains me, rational appeals alone won’t do it. We’re going to really have to look at the things that drive inflated fear of the (minuscule) risks of nuclear and take on those things.

    I’m actually trying to organize a session at the next Winter ANS meeting precisely on that – I want to bring together social scientists who have studied this, not just to identify the problem, but so we can say to fellow nuclear professionals, “So here’s what we do about it.” (Another perspective too that Margaret shared with me is that some utilities are doing this better than others – so how can we learn from them and convey this to the utilities which haven’t done as well?)

    • Joris van Dorp says:

      Here a TEDx talk that got me thinking and led me to write my above comment that may be of use. Roeser tries to find a middle ground between the extremes of assuming the public is irrational, and therefore policy should be decided by experts, versus the alternative populist approach that also assumes the public is irrational, and therefore policy should be based on whatever the public wants (however irrational).

      I think the presentation is a bit long, it could have been shorter, but I think Sabine Roeser has a few good points here.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js6n7iwl2Co

  5. Daniel says:

    The water requirements of the gas cycle versus the nuclear cycle would be interesting to compare.

    We do not have that much water around and there will be a displacement factor for human consumption vs gas extraction.

  6. Paul wick says:

    When the Chinese government announced that their post-Fukushima review was completed a few days’ ago, they stated that they would confine new-reactor build for the next 3-4 years to the coast. And they would stress Gen III over Gen II (local, Chinese designed) reactors. One reason stated for not building reactors inland for the near future, is that they public has not been educated about the safety of nuclear power and is excessively fearful. Now, if there is one thing the Chinese Communist Party is good at, it is conducting nation-wide educational campaigns (OK, call them ‘propaganda campaigns’ if you prefer). Coupled with this news, yesterday, AREVA/EDF and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp. signed a deal toward designing a “medium-sized” 1 gig reactor. China can build as many AP1000s as they want inside their country, but cannot export them. It looks like China is looking to have their own 1 gigawatt Gen III reactor for the export market. I suspect this has large ramifications in connection with the radiophobia that exists worldwide and that obviously is an impediment to reactor sales. China has precious little reason to “kowtow” to existing radiation regulatory standards that are based on the erroneous “linear non-threshold” theory of radiological harm. They didn’t write them. They don’t have fossil fuel corporations that can plausibly support them, nor a radiation-protection industry that has an interest in hyping radiophobia. And this nonsense is a huge obstacle to future reactor sales. And so finally, there may be an economic entity with huge clout that has an interest in smashing the anti-scientific “holy crap Godzilla is coming!” nonsense that parades as sober science. As well, since this nonsense seems concentrated in Japan at the moment (and Germany), and China has a bit of a nationalist emotional dislike of Japan, there may be a little bit of one-upmanship, scientifically speaking, that could spur a Chinese campaign internationally on this issue (i.e. not just domestically, a campaign they imply is nigh). However, I’m just an amateur observer.

    • Joris van Dorp says:

      Fascinating take. Thanks.

      Does anybody here know of a group or person who is active on this area? A party that is promoting reform in the regulatory processes, design and risk assessment of nuclear power, with the aim of regaining the excellent financial performance of nuclear power plants as they were built and commissioned before the exponential rise in costs associated with regulatory turbulence and ratcheting, as it was called by Bernard Cohen?

    • EL says:

      The decision to not pursue power plants inland is a pretty significant development, and should be put in context.

      http://www.marketwatch.com/story/ex-officials-battle-china-nuclear-plant-plan-2012-03-11

      It comes largely in response to public pressure and the perception that local decisions may have been tainted by lack of regulatory standards, falsified reports, and local bribes. “This kind of official opposition to a nuclear undertaking is almost unheard of in China … Wang said that the discussion over whether to stop work on the Pengze facility was a referendum on inland plants.”

      • jmdesp says:

        There’s actually little rational ground for stopping inland plants construction.

        As we stand now, the only plant in history where a disaster occurred because of an external cause is a sea-bordering one. Not only did the threat came from the sea, but the fact of being near it basically didn’t help at all to restore cooling earlier.

        Actually it probably made the situation a little worse, because as sea water was the only large water source nearby, this probably caused several precious hours to be lost because the utility knew that using it directly too cool the plant would damage it beyond repair.

  7. David Walters says:

    Of course in China (not the subject of Rod’s essay here) doesn’t allow real public discourse. However…there have been literally thousands of environmental protests mostly against coal, hydro an chemical. None about nuclear. The hundreds of millions of internet users, I might add, DO have access to everything on energy we have. Including, if they read English, this blog. It is not censored. But there is no real discourse, per se, which is a problem.

    [However, the Chinese ARE increasing, a lot, their reliance on natural gas, including gas pipelines from the Russian Far East and expansion of LNG facilities. The energytribune.com, a pro-fossil site, covers this regularly, as does theoildrum.com–DW]

    The Chinese only pointed to non-approval of inland nukes but they have *already* approved and are building dozens of inland nukes now, including their Gen II reactors that have been criticized for not being, well, Gen III NPPs. Right now we are in the middle of the 11th 5 Year Plan, I believe. What we WILL see are major revisions to the 12th, 2015-2020 and 13th, 2020-2025 plans. The Chinese always meet, or try to meet, their energy plans.

    In these latter 2 5 Year Plans, expect to see a huge increase in nuclear. The Chinese will break ground on their CAP1400, designed to compete directly with the APR1400 from S. Korea in international markets. A site to build SIX of these NPPs is already selected and pre-construction clearing is already started. I expect to see, beginning in 2015, announcements to radically increase the use of these reactors inside of China as well, beyond the first 6. When concrete gets poured for these, R&D resources will be also radically increased for the first CAP1700 as well.

    The real problem, however, is that this is not significantly slowing down coal burning which continues on it’s upward build of approx 3 new plants a week, now. U G L Y.

    There is no reason for the Chinese not to “propagandize” for the reduction of coal and substitution of coal with nuclear right now. But they don’t beholden to their own coal interests in the Chinese bureaucracy.

    david

  8. Michael R. Himes says:

    Santa will arrive with a bag of batteries and if we all were good this year there will be all kinds of powered toys. In the dark from Sandy and with little hope of a brighter day there will at least be flashlights and iPads and Kindles for reading. The system for electricity will be broke as long as folks think mother nature is a ………… And that is the other issue. Insulting mother nature is just not smart.

  9. John Tucker says:

    One of the most important things in art, if you want a particular audience to view your work, you provide a point of entry that they know or relate to.

    Nuclear power technology was just kinda out there in its own technical bubble. Thats how Fukushima surprisingly brought so many over to appreciating nuclear tech. It provided a point of entry.

    Relating it first in comparison to more easily understood technology/issues probably should have been the strategy form the beginning.

  10. Pete51 says:

    I believe the only pro-nuclear TV commercial I have ever seen is the Areva Funkytown commercial. And they don’t even say the word “nuclear” at any time! You really need to be involved with the nuclear industry to recognize what the commercial is about.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgZsamFWyBI&feature=fvwrel

    Its a cute commercial, but years before Fukushima they were afraid of saying the nuclear word. Just who was that commercial aimed at, anyway? I’m pretty sure I only saw it on CNBC, though I could be wrong.

  11. DV82XL says:

    I think it is a mistake to assume that the failure of nuclear energy to grow is a direct function of public opinion, indeed there are several indications that the public is more accepting of nuclear energy than its detractors endlessly claim. This is rather surprising given the obvious bias of popular media which seems to never miss an opportunity to dump on nuclear.

    The fact is that nuclear energy is being suppressed by the actions of the fossil-fuel cartel and policy makers are hiding behind assertions that the public fears and hates nuclear to cover the fact that they have become creatures of the aforementioned cartel. Because we will never convince everyone nuclear is safe, fossil-fuel propagandists will always be able to find some group that will rail against it and have them held up in mass media as representing greater public opinion. By funding these groups, which clearly they do, they can create the illusion that they are far larger and have far greater influence than they warrant. This is the root of the real problem and it will continue as long as money-amplified free-speech and money driven policy making are the order of the day.

    What is needed is not more converts among the general public as much as the need to organize that which is there into a voting bloc, because the on thing that frightens politicians more than a wad of cash, it is an electorate with an issue, and is creating this bloc that should drive our efforts into the future.

    • Joris van Dorp says:

      Bravo, I’m all for it. But it is hard to imagine large amounts of people with placards and banners in front of government protesting vigorously on behalf of nuclear energy.

      I think the optimal route is to convince environmental (political) groups to ease-up on their dumping on nuclear power. In my country I have even had some success doing that, by getting a prominent figure in a green political party to actually state to me personally that the nuclear options was *not* actually completely off the table in principle. *If* there would be a demonstrated working, inherently safe reactor, preferably on running on Terium (sic), she said that her (currently rabidly anti-nuclear) political party *would* in fact reconsider the nuclear option. This came as a complete surprise to me. I guess even within the green groups themselves, you have your fanatics and your more even-minded people.

      Moreover, if such a green political party would publically embrace nuclear power even partially, that could be a step-change in the whole nuclear discussion. I’m sure it can be done though probably not by representatives of the nuclear industry itself. But if enough civilians (like myself, having no financial ties with the nuclear sector) passionately urge such groups to reconsider nuclear, will these groups not comply? Of course if they do comply, it will be up to the visionary and communicative nuclear folks to then lay out the situation again honestly and clearly. They need to do this, because otherwise self-styled fake experts will fill the gap and we are back at square one.

      • DV82XL says:

        ”…it is hard to imagine large amounts of people with placards and banners in front of government protesting vigorously on behalf of nuclear energy.”

        This was the case just recently as several hundred people demonstrated in opposition to the closure of Gentilly Nuclear Generating Station (or Centrale nucléaire de Gentilly) here in Quebec. Not only that they succeeded in having the decision (which the new provincial government thought would be a slam dunk and universally popular, sent to committee. I’m not sure they have saved the plant, but it goes to show that actions like this are effective in getting the attention of politicians.

        • EL says:

          “planned by the local Chamber of Commerce” and about 100 strong.

          http://news.ca.msn.com/local/montreal/gentilly-2-supporters-march-to-protest-plant-closure

          Hydro-Quebec isn’t citing public opposition as a reason for the plant closure, but high refurbishment costs and inability to compete with low electricity prices from Romaine River project. That said, it’s amazing to see Chamber of Commerce out throwing it’s support behind unionized workers at the power plant. Job protection is a pretty powerful argument in my book. Goes to show how different things can sometimes be in Canada.

          • DV82XL says:

            Nuclear politics are often local politics, and local actions can have greater impacts on nuclear issues than national ones.

            EL you know absolutely nothing about Quebec politics. Hydro-Quebec did not make the decision, the newly elected government of Pauline Marois did, one day after the election in an attempt to placate the Greens that supported her party. Hydro-Quebec is a creature of the provincial government, which controls it and sets policy for it.

            The Romaine River project has nothing to do with the Gentilly question. The Romaine River Hydroelectric Complex Development Project is controversial because the cost of electricity production will likely be higher than the price at which the electricity will be sold and the continued existence or closure of Gentilly will not change that.

            The fact remains that Marois and her people thought killing the nuke would be a quick win and help establish the legitimacy of her minority government and she was forced to back down. And this was not a minor setback for her as it was part of several order-in-council decisions she was forced to backpedal on in the first week of her mandate.

            The point stands that this decision was forced into full committee by the local action taken there, in spite of the fact that it was relatively small, and in spite of the fact that doing so was an embarrassment to the government. Thus proving that these types of actions are effective.

        • EL says:

          In 2012 Quebec election, Green Party had “0” candidates elected to office, and only 1% of the popular vote. It seems unlikely to me she would placate such a small share of the vote with such a major decision (especially one putting hundreds of jobs at stake, and her relationship with labor).

          The finances put forward by Hydro-Quebec in their own report seem like a more reasonable basis for the decision to me. $1.8 billion for decommissioning or $4.3 billion for refurbishment? 9.7 kWh cost for electricity from Gentilly-2, or 6.2 cents for Romain complex (and major contracts for selling this electricity to Vermont, which has mixed feelings about nuclear, and elsewhere in the States).

          Is the Green Party really that powerful in Quebec? Your statement is interesting (and I thank you for providing it). Couldn’t they have been bought off with something far less extreme … a wind project or two, support for organic farming, bike paths, a Provincial park, or something like that?

        • DV82XL says:

          I wrote nothing about the Parti vert du Québec (Quebec Green Party) which is very different than the Green vote, as I said, you know absolutely nothing about Quebec politics or the dynamics that drive it. You also know nothing about the politics of electric power in this Provence. But most telling is that you cannot parse the meaning of my post on this matter which was that the Marois government made an announcement that they would close Gentilly and that a public action in support of the plant forced this same government to suspend that decision and refer the matter to a parliamentary commission.

          This is the only point I was making, I do not care what your ill-informed opinion is on the broader issues of electric generation in Quebec, the viability of these projects are not the subject of ether my remarks or this thread and I will not debate them with you.

          • EL says:

            “the meaning of my post … was that the Marois government made an announcement that they would close Gentilly and that a public action in support of the plant forced this same government to suspend that decision and refer the matter to a parliamentary commission.”

            Huh? Where is the statement from Marois Government that public protests organized by the Chamber of Commerce (of 100 people) had anything to do with this. Quebec has the lowest level of support for new nuclear plants of any Province (at 12%), and 67% want to see no new construction or existing plants shut down. I really don’t see public opinion as the major issue driving this reversal.

            It was politicians who organized and formed a committee to meet with the newly elected Premier to reverse decision, and not the general public. How exactly was such a small protest an expression of grassroots public opinion (directly on the heels of a Provincial election), and not the nuclear lobby expressing it’s muscle through local officials, and organizing local protests through the Chamber of Commerce? The matter is not inconsequential, and highlights several issues with nuclear, resource development decisions, and how the public gets to have a say: through elections, Provincial or State level policies, subsidy and licensing agreements, grassroots activism, and public interest campaigns (from both sides of the issue). It seems likely that the Parliamentary Commission will show exactly what the report from Hydro-Quebec has shown: that refurbishment costs have ballooned to twice what was originally projected in 2008. I would also hazard to guess that many will see this Commission as a waste of time and money … if only to confirm what is already known and has been recommended by Hydro-Quebec executives based on available economic options (which you don’t seem to want to discuss).

            I appreciate you raising this issue, and highlighting these important concerns. I’m sorry you don’t have an interest in discussing it further.

          • DV82XL says:

            EL -you consistently make a fool of yourself on these pages by your habit of making a superficial pass through Google on some topic and then trying to spin it through your particular biases and ideologies. Let me reiterate yet again: you do not understand Quebec politics. Holding any opinion on matters surrounding Hydro-Québec requires a far greater depth of knowledge than you have demonstrated and as a result you are simply talking out of your hat, something we have all seen you do on several occasions before. There isn’t a ‘nuclear lobby’ worth a damn in Canada, and what little there is has no standing in Quebec. Your crack about it ‘expressing it’s muscle’ is risible and again demonstrates just how small your grasp of these matters are.

            Decisions on energy in this Provence are not made to reflect supply and demand market economics. Hydro-Québec is a creature of the Quebec government and one of its greatest roles is providing employment through energy development projects. We have more generation that we can off-load now, a point not lost on those that objected to the Romain complex and who now are not happy with other schemes to bring another 3,500 MW more hydro on line under Le Plan Nord. The requisite investment for that is estimated at $25 billion (and will balloon, as these things always do) but will create 75,000 jobs in man-years, which is the real reason it is being pushed forward. Unless you understand this, you have no context in which to understand the Gentilly question.

            Please don’t be fooled by pronouncements made by Hydro-Quebec executives, they are hand puppets of Ministère des Ressources naturelles.

            I am also sick and tired of your habit of deliberately misinterpreting what others write in an attempt to reframe the argument on terms of your own choosing. In this case trying to imply that I was suggesting that it was a swing in public opinion that swayed the government when in fact I only wrote that it was a public action that did so, and the fact that it was small only serves to reinforce my point about the need for such actions and their general effectiveness.

          • EL says:

            There isn’t a ‘nuclear lobby’ worth a damn in Canada, and what little there is has no standing in Quebec.

            So there is no such thing as SNC-Lavalin (based in Montreal) and Candu Energy, they didn’t petition the Government to reconsider decision, Canadian Nuclear Association had nothing to say, there’s no worker’s union defending those jobs, and no Chamber of Commerce speaking to economic interests in the region?

            If your argument is that public opinion is NOT part of the debate, there is no nuclear lobby (or at least not one that is effective), and jobs aren’t a factor in keeping Gentilly open or not (consistent with your view of Quebec politics and energy policy), then what exactly is your argument (and how are you being misunderstood)? And we still haven’t discussed rising cost and feasibility of the retrofit, and the weak economic position of the Province. You can’t have it both ways, and all ways, and no ways (simply because you want to cast aspersions on another member, and suggest nobody else is as informed about Quebec politics and energy development as yourself)?

            It should be clear to anybody that a handful of 100 protesters (organized by the Chamber of Commerce) are not driving the issue (as you have suggested). If I’m using Google and offering links, it’s because most other people agree to the same, and there is abundant evidence to the contrary.

          • DV82XL says:

            I an not suggesting that nobody else is as informed about Quebec politics and energy development as I am, only that you are not. You have displayed no evidence that you understand what is going on here both in the larger sense of maitre chez nous, or as things apply to this matter and you never will if you are depending of articles by the likes of Jack M. Mintz for your information. An English, Toronto based rag is not the best source of information on Quebec at the best of times, when it comes to anything pertaining to the Parti Québécois it is worse than nothing.

            But to continue. Where did I write that jobs were not the issue? That is the issue. Jobs were the reason that Centrale nucléaire de Gentilly was built in the first place as the power wasn’t needed then ether and it would have been more cost effective to develop more hydro even then. It was built to establish and maintain a position in nuclear technology and to provide jobs in that sector. You must understand that Hydro-Quebec is not a company driven only by the need to increase shareholder value – it has a much broader mission and part of that is keeping Quebec in play on a broad technological front. As for the costs, the development of hydro resources when we cannot sell the electricity for a profit are just as unsupportable but are going ahead for the same reasons. The cost is not really the issue here.

            What is becoming clear to me is that the only thing you are desperately trying to bury with your noise on this subject is the idea that a small group of pronuclear activists can have an impact. As a doctrinaire antinuke, that must scare you a great deal. Your side has been using these tactics for years to great effect and you have had the field to yourself and now you are panicking because it is clear that at indeed a small group can snatch away what looked like an easy victory. So the community leaders were mobilized, so the Chamber of Commerce and the unions were involved, so what? Movements are made up of people with an interest in the matter at hand, that’s how it works. Local protests against nuclear plants in other parts of the world are made by people that believe they have an economic stake in the issue, are you suggesting that they should not be involved because their motivations may not meet your standards for ideological purity?

            As far as I an concerned the way you are behaving only underlines both the need and the effectiveness of direct action that has been lacking on the pronuclear side. We need more people involved on the ground, and yes reaching out to out to community leaders and other local shakers and movers needs to be part of this effort. That is what worries EL and his fellow-travelers, rational people plowing the fields they have had to themselves for all these years. His attempts to hide this little partial victory at Gentilly under a blizzard of ill informed verbiage based on poorly researched material is the best indication that I have of just how threatening it would be to them if we started using their own tactics against them.

          • EL says:

            That is what worries EL and his fellow-travelers, rational people plowing the fields they have had to themselves for all these years.

            Far from it. I’ve always seen an engaged public in energy issues as a fundamentally good thing (regardless of the positions taken or technology involved). It’s part of my training as an academic, and also my work (working on public education and climate change programs in my city). Debate should be robust, informative, critical, engaged, and interested. We had several energy issues on the ballot this year in my State, and this is a significant and positive trend (when matched with a high degree of civic involvement and public education). Blogs (such as this one) are an excellent way to get out the word and help frame the discussion, and they should encourage active and broad participation (as Rod does with considerable skill). And public demonstrations have a role to play too (especially if people are being excluded from decision making and the public sphere). We need more debate, and not less, and not just debate among people who already agree. I have no problem with a very well organized and influential pro-nuclear citizen activism. In fact, I would encourage and like to see one. I think having a very robust and healthy debate helps everyone (regardless of the position that one favors). But this by no means suggests that everyone should get their way (environmentalists, industry proponents, scientists, labor unions, students, private developers, and more). Energy issue are complicated, and involve many short and long term trade-offs, opportunities, and concerns.

            “Doctrinaire antinuke” … “your side” … “these tactics.”

            Ugh. Really? I don’t know what you mean here. I’m trained as an academic, I’m my own person (not a category or a tactic), and I participate in these threads because i enjoy talking about energy issues (and always wish to learn more). I am loath to visit anti-nuclear sites (because many of them are so poorly designed and do such a poor job framing the issues and engaging with the public). I read primarily in scientific journals, mainstream news, and a handful of blogs. I appreciate your comments on maitre chez nous, and the scope and historical focus of energy development in Quebec. It was very helpful and illuminating to me. If you could dial back your ascerbic tone and dismissive attacks we might actually get somewhere, and have a more civil and constructive dialogue that might be more interesting and perhaps even engage others (and involve less mud slinging). Just a thought. To each his or her own (as they say)?

          • DV82XL says:

            I see no point in continuing this conversation with you as it is clearly drifted off-topic and I try to respect such things when I am a guest on someone else’s page.

          • EL says:

            The topic raised by Rod is whether nuclear has a public relations problem (and the perception that natural gas may be getting a free pass). And if so, how to correct this … with a more adversarial approach, direct action (which you raised), blogs and media campaigns, lobbying, public pressure on decision makers, journal articles, engaging with opponents, demeaning opponents, promulgating fear and uncertainty about other technologies, or any other strategies and techniques. Our discussion seems entirely germane to the topic (but I agree … it’s become tired, I doubt others are interested, we’ve resorted to old and worn out arguments, which is telling in and of itself, and it seems to have run it’s course).

            Thanks again for the information on Quebec. I’m going to be in Quebec City over the holidays, and we are looking forward to the trip.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @EL

            Hope you enjoy your trip.

            I do have one quick correction to your comment. I do not believe that natural gas is getting a “free pass”. I believe that they are working very hard and spending a large sum of money to ensure that they continue to be allowed to do their job and to supply their product to a willing market. The acceptance of natural gas risks is not automatic; convincing so many people to invite a product into their neighborhoods that includes the proven possibility that a stray leak combined with a spark could level several homes and damage dozens of others has required marketing skill and investment in ad-supported media outlets that has been sustained for many years.

          • EL says:

            It is interesting to see how this stuff gets covered, particularly if there are no fatalities involved. This one on day after Thanksgiving. Two buildings destroyed, others beyond repair, six story apartment building evacuated, and windows blown out for three block radius.

            http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/24/us/massachusetts-gas-explosion-levels-building.html

            ““It’s a miracle on Worthington Street: Nobody got killed” (Sgt. John Delaney).

          • jmdesp says:

            There’s not always a miracle, 14 have died recently in the town Titisee in Germany from a gas leak of a heater :
            http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/afp_world/view/1239761/1/.html
            (in more recent news, the origin of the leak is definitively confirmed)

      • Twominds says:

        …a prominent figure in a green political party to actually state to me personally that the nuclear options was *not* actually completely off the table in principle. …

        That’s extremely interesting! Who was it, and which party? Not Sap, I hope, because she’s more or less out of the picture now.
        If I write letters to anti-nuclear political parties, it’s best to have a kind of opening and write to this person instead of to their general letter box.

        Actually, Samsom (PvdA, Labour Party) said something similar, that nuclear power isn’t completely out of the picture. No source, I can’t remember where I read or heard that. So, a letter to him too.

    • Rick Maltese says:

      As usual Robert. You describe the situation very well. If there is any respectable leader with the courage to speak out on behalf of nuclear that would make a significant difference. The case in Gentilly needs someone like Justin Trudeau to step up. I doubt that he ever will but it is worth a shot trying to convince him or others of similar persuasion. An even stronger case than “an electorate with an issue” is “an electorate with an issue” who also has a strong spokesperson. Even has been politicians qualify for this.

      • DV82XL says:

        Justin Trudeau will not touch the nuclear dossier with a ten-foot pole, not now, not even if he becomes leader of the Liberal Party, and maybe not even in the unlikely event he becomes PM. The fight for nuclear energy in Canada will be fought on the provincial level, the feds will stand above the fray.

  12. David Walters says:

    BTW…I live about 1 mile from that San Bruno neighborhood that Rod pointed to in terms of the dangers of natural gas. The flames reflected off my living room window when they got high enough. S C A R Y.

  13. Bryan White says:

    The challenge to improving public opinion regarding things nuclear is rooted in confirmation bias. We all have our accumulated prejudices and prefer to listen to those who share them. We all are less receptive to ideas outside of our comfort zone. My prejudices lead me to recommend that we invest our resources to educate youth towards their having improved understanding of the science of things nuclear, and develop some ability for critical thinking. A fraction of the youth are receptive to learning about science. Moreover, with improved understanding they will bring their youthful low tolerance for opinions they perceive to be based on ignorance or delusion. Educate the youth — they will be more effective at influencing their parents than all the TV ads that will be skipped with PVRs. Today’s high school seniors will be voting shortly. Moreover, they will be living with the legacy of the choices made regarding energy supply.

    P.S. The most economical way to reach students is to invest in their science teachers.
    http://www.cns-snc.ca –> Education –> Info for Teachers & Students. (feedback appreciated)

    • George Carty says:

      Good point about adverts being skipped using PVRs — I suggest though that even without such technology, the efficacy of TV advertising is overrated. I therefore have my suspicions that advertisers also demand influence on TV content in exchange for their money, which may explain (when the advertisers are fossil fuel firms) why TV news often has an anti-nuclear slant.

  14. Cal Abel says:

    Rod,
    Excellent post. I think the risk of natural gas like driving a car are well understood and immediate. The perceived risk from nuclear is radiation, something that you can’t touch taste or feel. It has biological effects that have long latency periods that are cannot be immediately known if there is a problem.

    I operated under this mindset for the bulk of my nuclear career. I was not alone in this view, Alvin Weinberg, and Hyman Rickover come to mind. In fact my radiation operating manual, Radiological Controls for Ships is built entirely on this premise and serves as the basis for Nvay nuclear operations.

    Fukushima challenged my perspectives on radiation forcing a reevaluation of my preconceptions. What I found was the source of perceived risk stems from the inclusion of genetic effects as being linear to radiation exposure from high to low levels. I was surprised to find that this had not always been a radiation protection standard. It was created by Herman Muller and Curt Stern. They are solely responsible for its inclusion into BEAR I. Prior to BEAR I the concept of tolerance dose was the law of the land.

    In studying public policy and the economics of energy production (actually exergy production), I found that the LNT model serves as the primary constraint on the cost of nuclear energy. If you do not believe me, run a thought experiment and see what operations and construction would look like if there was a tolerance dose and that DNA can correctly repair itself up to a certain level where those repair mechanisms become overwhelmed. What would be the benefit to society? What is the risk to the public of an accident like Fukushima? What level of contamination do you have to control?

    The constraint of LNT is one that is not based on science. Ed Calabrese found that Muller and Stern knew hat there was evidence of a genetic tolerance dose for radiation in 1946. BEAR I was in 1954. Muller and Stern actively sought to suppress the evidence, I think to inhibit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We are now seeing clear evidence of somatic and genetic tolerances for radiation. Daily, we see the breakdown in the containment of nuclear weapons. We breathe the pollution from fossil fuels and are preventing those without electricity form getting it as a result of LNT.

    Why do we still cling to bad science as a valid basis of regulation? Some want to limit nuclear weapons, even though people who have little concern for other people’s lives have or are getting weapons.

    Some are afraid they are going to loose their bread and butter-the radiation protection industry. Here their claims are two fold, LNT is valid science and that even if LNT is not valid it is still the best form of regulation because it is simpler. LNT is only valid if the data that you admit into consideration only comes from high doses. We are not questioning the high dose region. We are concerned about the low dose region <3 rem/qtr year after year. We have vast quantities of data regarding this in human studies, post facto occupational and accident, and animal studies. If you look at BEIR III and up the sole basis used for understanding low dose regions is high dose acute exposure. This is reprehensible. Antone Brooks attacked this very line of thought in his retirement speech list last March. As he said, "the dinosaur of [LNT] is dead." Why do we still regulate based off it? Because it is effective is not a valid reason.

    To regulate effectively you need valid science. So, let's take the existence of a threshold as given (I am not talking hormesis here, just threshold). The best example of a regulation based on tolerance is OSHA's hearing conservation program. I had the benefit of being responsible for this program on my ship, I was the Engineer. It was simple. Wear hearing protection with steam in the engine room and double hearing protection when entering the diesel space. Oh and make sure everything was posted and hearing protection was provided to everyone.

    If we to regulate radiation like this, anything up to 100mrem/hr has an 8 hour occupancy restriction. Go up from here and the stay times go down. This would eliminate all, I mean all need for dosimeter beyond a few hotspots inside the reactor compartment. For a commercial plant it would mean roping off some higher noise(radiation) regions inside the aux building and containment where additional simple and common sense measures are necessary. It would get rid of ALARA budgets which contribute significantly to outage length and cost, remember that thought experiment from earlier.

    For everyone interested in seeing nuclear power advance, we will not see that occur at any meaningful level until the fundamental constraint of LNT is removed. Even reactors like LFTR and WASMR fail this litmus test, because no matter how safe we make something we can postulate some release mechanism, sorry Kirk.

  15. Rick Maltese says:

    Rod and I are in sync on this one. I think we were both influenced by the same article on China’s “social-risk-assessment” article in the nytimes and some other places that covered a recent announcement about preventing massive violent protest over perceived environmental dangers. Here’s my blog on a similar topic. http://deregulatetheatom.com/2012/11/social-risk-assessment-and-data-mining-vs-good-pr-planning/

  16. EL says:

    The topic raised by Rod is whether nuclear has a public relations problem (and the perception that natural gas may be getting a free pass). And if so, how to correct this … with a more adversarial approach, direct action (which you raised), blogs and media campaigns, lobbying, public pressure on decision makers, journal articles, engaging with opponents, demeaning opponents, promulgating fear and uncertainty about other technologies, or any other strategies and techniques. Our discussion seems entirely germane to the topic (but I agree … it’s become tired, I doubt others are interested, we’ve resorted to old and worn out arguments, which is telling in and of itself, and it seems to have run it’s course).

    Thanks again for the information on Quebec. I’m going to be in Quebec City over the holidays, and we are looking forward to the trip.