1. What needs demonization is not existing nuclear technology, but the regulatory environment for existing nuclear. This regulatory environment, in the name of safety of course, decreases the overall electric power system safety because it makes nuclear power plants (as safe or safer than any alternatives) so difficult and expensive to build that other more dangerous power plants are built instead.

    I would love to see the many alternative technology nuclear reactors being development and eventually built. But while that is going on, we need be busy building many more of current technology nuclear reactors, under a more reasonably regulatory structure.

  2. Hi there – I thought I’d copy my response here (share & share alike in the blogosphere!) to help stimulate discussions. I now understand your stance a little better based on this post, but here is my response from over on my blog anyway:

    Hi Rod, thanks for your message.

    Let me start out by saying I too am a supporter of nuclear fission (the kind of reactor that would be driven by the accelerator I’m working on is, after all, a fission reactor) but I am all too keenly aware of the public perception issues surrounding it. Something I didn’t mention in this post is that Australia in particular has a stronger anti-nuclear stance than most other westernised countires, having never had a nuclear power plant and with (currently) none about to be built. The anti-nuclear sentiment is focused around the four issues I mentioned in my post above.

    There are two ways to tackle that issue – try piece by piece to change public perception (a laudible idea but one that has had very little traction so far) or change the game by offering a solution which, at a basic level, solves the existing issues. Both methods are valid.

    I applaud your efforts to spread the “good news” about nuclear fission but it is, I fear, a little too late for that. As you say, dozens of plants have already been shut down. I would love to think some effective science communication could change that but I am perhaps not as optimistic as you are…

    As for some of your other points:

    I agree that Plutonium is a valuable nuclear material, but it is still possible to make bombs out of it. In the right hands that’s fine, but what if it falls into the wrong hands? Wouldn’t it be better if this were simply not an option at all?

    Also, I agree that the nuclear waste is tiny compared to the energy obtained, but there is still a HUGE worldwide problem of nuclear waste storage which desperately needs addressing. Transmutation with a thorium reactor is a serious possibility to shorten the storage lifetime of existing waste. This can be done with or without an accelerator. (Although clearly I talk about the accelerator version because that’s the one I work on!)

    So yes, we should work on communicating the positive side of current nuclear fission reactors (which of course I know are very safe etc, no need to remind me that no-one was injured from radiation at Fukushima!) while thinking about what might be superior in the future.

    Would be happy to discuss more. – See more at: http://highheelsinthelab.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/taking-physics-to-new-audiences.html#comment-form

    1. Dr. Sheehy wrote:
      I agree that Plutonium is a valuable nuclear material, but it is still possible to make bombs out of it. In the right hands that’s fine, but what if it falls into the wrong hands? Wouldn’t it be better if this were simply not an option at all?

      With the mix of plutonium isotopes ones gets from a commercial reactor, it might be possible to make a low yield weapon if extraordinary measures were taken, way beyond what is needed to make a weapon from natural uranium.

      With reactor grade plutonium, handling the mix require continuous cooling of the material, would contaminate equipment, and need shielding way beyond that used for weapons grade plutonium (or uranium). The high level of heat and radiation from decay of certain isotopes would quickly destroy the triggers for the weapon. And the yield would be poor since the fission reaction would start before the plutonium materials come together for optimum yield. There are more details about this here.

      If we need to worry about reactor grade plutonium trapped in used nuclear fuel rods inside secured storage, then we need to worry a whole lot more about uranium naturally scattered about in dirt and seawater. It would be a whole lot easier to make a weapon from this starting point.

      1. To add onto the technical aspects of using reactor plutonium as a weapon.

        While counter terrorism experts discuss that a low yeild nuclear weapon or a radiological dispersal device may be the nirvana of terrorists, or non-state actors, the reality is that they are much more effective with a device that is either comprised of munitions or home made ingredients. It only took two non-affiliated boys, some bent ideology, and a couple of home made bombs to shut down Boston.

        There are plenty of available radiological materials from the medical industry that can be used, but in the 12 years since 9/11 it hasn’t happened. Was it because our counter-terrorism agencies are good at stopping these events? Or that the combination of gunpowder and nails is much more effective at getting attention? I’d go with the latter.

        Just another perspective.

    2. @DrSuzieSheehy

      Thank you so much for visiting Atomic Insights and engaging in the conversation. Your blog is quite remarkable and worth reading.

      I’m fairly well versed in Australia’s history of antinuclear activism. Are you aware that a major force in organizing the large demonstrations against nuclear energy development in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the railroad union? The members of that union were probably well aware of the importance of moving coal from one place to another as a major source of income for their employers. I think coal is still more than half of all traffic moved by rail in your home country. http://www.frog.org.au/rail_information.html

      They saw the traffic on a day to day basis and probably understood what would happen to their jobs (and those of their fellow union members) when power plants that need 100 train car loads per day of material were replaced with power plants whose fuel consumption can be delivered by a handful of trucks arriving every 18 months or so. Of course, the big wigs who owned the coal mines and the railroads were probably quite happy to allow the unions to man the front lines of the protests; they also prefer moving a lot of product into the market at as high a price as that market will bear.

      One of the big reasons that antinuclear activists have demonized plutonium is that it is a fundamental element in a sustainable nuclear fission energy system that Charles Till and Yoon Chang described as “Plentiful Energy” in their book about the Integral Fast Reactor. Using that element as fuel is what allows researchers at McGill University to describe fission fuels as “inexhaustible”. http://www.mcgill.ca/files/gec3/NuclearFissionFuelisInexhaustibleIEEE.pdf

      You see, if we use plutonium in a “plutonium economy” there is less and less need for any other kind of energy fuel. That prospect scares the heck out of some very rich and powerful people whose wealth and power rests on their control over hydrocarbon resources.

      For example, Ralph Nader, a guy who made his fame fighting against small, fuel efficient cars was adamant that the plutonium economy had to be avoided. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/interviews/nader.html. He is famous as a consumer advocate; almost no one knows that his family hails from the most hydrocarbon dependent region in the world. Who else but a proud Arab-American would refer to the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74 as “so-called”?

      Q: In the early 1970s, you became active in your opposition to nuclear power. Why was that?

      A: Well, it became clear that nuclear power was too hazardous, too costly, and unnecessary to provide electricity for our country.

      This was a time of maximum energy waste in the early ’70s before the so-called oil embargo. And we thought the mere investment in energy efficiency would replace far more than the megawatts that could be supplied by risky nuclear power.

      Your historian sister and you could make a dynamite communications team by combining your interest in science and her interest in history to help people understand more about what is really behind some of the things that we have all been told about nuclear energy.

  3. A big problem I have with Dr. Peter Sandman steps of acknowledging prior misbehavior and acknowledging current problems is that the things that the anti-nuke forces claim are misbehaviour and problems, aren’t.

    Should we apologize for things which are not causing harm? Cede the argument to the opposition, when they invented a fantasy issue?

    I still suspect Dr. Sandman’s strategy is really only effective when one faces an honest opponent, and the nuclear industry faces a gang of malignant depraved vandalizing deceivers, not honest opposition.

    On the bright side, the vast majority of the public cares little one way or the other. We don’t need to convince the opposition. We need to convince the public to care in a positive way about nuclear energy — to show them that this is the shining path forward to prosperity. There is a real, affordable, and safe alternative to the doom of utility controlled smart meters, rolling black outs, unaffordable energy and nineteenth century standards of living.

    As to Dr. Suzy’s opinion. If the battle is lost for current technology, then it is lost for thorium. She is not facing reality if she believes that accelerator excited thorium will fare any better than current nuclear techology in the public’s eye, if it ever becomes commercially viable. The opposition hates any technology which might be implemented **now**. They do not oppose thorium, and all the other little alternatives, because none of them presents a present threat of generating a kilowatt hour of electricity.

    To cede the ground on current reactor technology is also to cede the ground on all future technologies. Dr. Suzy will find that when her technology is mature, it faces the same unfounded opposition that current technologies do. I am sure that it is a comfortable self-deception to believe otherwise, and allows her to go blithely about her business and shed responsibility for helping to fix this mess, but in the long run, she is helping no one, not even herself.

    Finally, I must take her to task for claiming that nuclear waste is a “HUGE” worldwide problem. In what sense? Point to some imminent threat. Show me some immediate danger. Quantify the level of human life currently in peril. How is this a “HUGE” threat. The stuff is sitting there, quietly, turning into less harmful stuff. What an unfounded load of rubbish, which also aids and abets the cause of the depraved liars.

    When those of us who know enough to favor nuclear power in any form, do not take the trouble to analyze our assumptions, and inadvertently repeat the lies that the antis have so effectively spread into the popular consciousness, we are committing more vandalism to accuracy.

    Dr. Suzy’s statement that waste is somehow a “HUGE” problem is simply that. Thoughtless vandalism of accuracy.

    1. The classification of lightly-used nuclear fuel as “nuclear waste” that is a “HUGE worldwide problem”, especially by a scientific professional, shows how deeply the anti-nuclear narrative is embedded in the public consciousness. It is not “waste”. It is valuable material that can be used to extract energy in useful quantities. Yes, it is material that must be handled properly and processed before use, but so are a lot of things in modern life, among them crude oil, natural gas, chemicals, potable water, foodstuffs, sewage, and forestry products. No one anywhere has ever been harmed by the storage of used nuclear fuel. Not only can energy-producing material be recovered from it, so can a host of many other useful materials. I for one am very, very tired of the anti-nuclear narrative that has taken such a hold in people’s minds that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, people fear this technology simply because others have told them they should.

      1. Agree. This is a person with a PhD in Physics (I’ve known many). That is depressing.

  4. Despite the massive Big Oil funded campaign in Big Media to destroy nuke power, there are no cogent arguments against it. In a recent day long forum in Australia examining energy alternatives with thousands of attendees, nuke support went from 33% before to 55% after the forum, while support for not so renewables remained at the 33% level set by Green Party zealots.

    Western democracy needs to use citizen’s assembly’s to study issues like green energy strategies. With no cogent arguments against, there is no doubt that would be nuclear power. Unfortunately Big Oil knows this and spends a lot of money buying politicians and media to prevent such outrages.

    All this would be mute if we could divert the business interests owned by Big Oil and Its Bankers, from their current strategy of spending a small amount of capital on gas plant and collecting a lucrative gratuity on future fuel sales paid for by the taxpayer, into one involving a large amount of capital and no gratuities on nukes. They pay a lot of graft to our corrupt politicians and media to keep that scam going. If they had to guarantee their prices for the next sixty years like nukes in effect do, not a gas plant would ever be built.

    1. nuke support went from 33% before to 55% after the forum, while support for not so renewables remained at the 33% level set by Green Party zealots.


      I’d like to see a source for this. Particularly for the claim that support for renewables remained the same (while nukes got a boost of 22 percentage pts).

  5. “The physicist, probably unconsciously, successfully implemented a communications strategy that would make Dr. Peter Sandman proud.”

    Suzie is a skilled and effective communicator, who spoke to her audience (read more of her posts as evidence). Perhaps we can call it skill, not a magic unconscious occurrence?

    And conceding that plutonium is potentially dangerous for the sake of turning people on to the possibility that not all nuclear technologies are bad is a very effective conceptual trade off. It means the conversation can continue, and you have the chance to dig deeper into the issue in the future. Or not. With some audiences that simple change of heart is enough. Not everyone is going to be a nuclear physicist.

    It is extremely rare that one conversation, blog comment, facebook post, etc. will change a person’s mind. Suzie actual succeeded in doing exactly that and deserves major props. That said continued dialogue is cited again and again by anti to pronuke converts as the driving force in their change of heart. The idea that that every interaction pronuclear people have has to cover every aspect of the nuclear story is a really poor communications strategy, as is being overly critical of the strategies of other pronukes, and arguing amongst ourselves about details that everyday folk could care less about. And on that note, I’m going to bow out.

    1. @Suzy Baker

      I meant no offense with my use of the word “unconsciously” to describe Suzie’s choice of words. I was simply not trying to assume that Dr. Suzie Sheehy had studied the specific outrage management strategies of Dr. Peter Sandman.

      You are absolutely correct; Dr. Sheehy is a skilled communicator who demonstrates that she earned a balanced education that included more than just science. As she described in her piece, she was the kind of student that received exceptional grades in both humanities and STEM type courses. She chose science as her profession, but continues to develop and display the “other side” of her intellect.

      I make no apologies for challenging “other pronukes” and for starting public conversations amongst ourselves about details that bore “everyday folk”. The devil is in the details and I believe it is valuable for people to engage in complex discussions about important topics that do not degenerate into arguments.

      Recognizing plutonium as valuable fuel instead of Nader’s characterization of it as the most deadly substance known to man is far more important that you might realize because EVERY nuclear fission reactor will produce at least a small amount of plutonium. Even though the production rate of element number 94 (Pu) is much lower when the reactor starts with mostly element number 90 (Th), neutron fluxes tend to eventually make heavier and heavier elements. All thorium reactors will include some uranium (element number 92) – they would not work without it.

      If pronukes continue to say things like this, “I agree that Plutonium is a valuable nuclear material, but it is still possible to make bombs out of it. In the right hands that’s fine, but what if it falls into the wrong hands? Wouldn’t it be better if this were simply not an option at all?” they condemn “our side” to a battle in which some members are always handing valuable rhetorical weapons to the opposition.

      You and I have had similar discussions about the damaging tendency of many “pronukes” to discount the importance of climate change; as with damaging statements about radiation, waste and plutonium, I will keep challenging that position both because I think it is wrong and because it is damaging to efforts to put the world’s economy on a more solid energy path.

      I’m sorry you have decided to “bow out” of this conversation. I hope that does not stop you from reading and thinking more about the importance of continuing to respectfully communicate and to explain why we may still have areas of disagreement even among people who are generally in favor of nuclear technology development.

  6. This is an issue I can see both sides on.

    I’ve heard plausible arguments that advanced reactors, SMRs, or some other “technology advance” could allow many people who’ve been opposed to nuclear a face saving way to come around to support it. It’s hard for people to accept that they’ve been wrong all along about something, making that approach (nothing ever was wrong with existing nuclear) a harder sell. It’s much easier to let them think that their concerns were legitimate, but this or that new technology addresses those problems. (Never mind that this point of view is not accurate. It’s an easier sell…)

    On the other hand, I also agree with Rod’s point about how demonizing existing technology can be problematic. That and using advanced reactor/technology arguments in response to all “concerns”, as opposed to putting things in perspective, and showing people how tiny these “issues” are, when compared to the health/environmental problems/impacts of fossil fuels (as well as most other industries whose risks are readily accepted). Hyping risks of stored used fuel in an effort to get Congress to do something about Yucca Mtn. is an example of this. Given that we will need existing nuclear tech for decades, and how imperative it is to use it (e.g., LWRs) in lieu of fossil fuels, such arguments are not helpful.

    The other problem with hanging all of ones hopes on new technologies is that you’re making the same old mistake (like we’re doing with waste) of trying to find a technical solution to a political, regulatory, and public perception problem. Imagine we had a technology that achieved the Holy Grail of a fission products only waste stream (that decayed away in a few centuries). How hard would it be to site the repository in that case? Answer: Exactly as hard as it is (or will be) to site a once-through repository like Yucca Mountain.

    People have to understand that this is not about the science. Yucca passed under the science. It isn’t about anything objective, analytical, or quantitative (e.g., how long the waste lasts). If people were objective, analytical and quantitative, we wouldn’t even be having any of these discussions. Nuclear waste is nuclear waste, period, in the public’s mind. It’s all about “being singled out” for the nation’s one repository. Purely political (NIMBY). No fuel cycle will change this.

    Also, imagine we could develop reactors that simply couldn’t melt down, due to their fundamental geometry, materials and physics. A lot of advanced reactor advocates believe that these reactors will be lower cost (due to lack of need of safety systems, I suppose), but I’m not sure I agree. Can anyone here imagine the NRC being willing to declare an entire reactor design, and all of its components “non-safety-related” (i.e., not subject to impeccible nuclear (NQA-1) fabrication QA requirements), due to the mere fact that it’s physically incapable of a large release?

    Not a chance. Simply due to the fact that “it’s nuclear”, and radioactive material is involved (i.e., present on site), NRC will hold most if not all of the reactor components to the same old impeccible QA and fabrication standards. Same with operations and analyses, etc… The result will be that industry will have given up economy of scale and power density, and will not “get anything in return”.

    Again, what we have is a political and public perception problem, which in turn has led to a regulatory/bureaucratic problem (i.e., absurdly strict regulations and QA requirements). As long as the industry remains under this regulatory regime, no kind of advanced reactor design will ever solve nuclear’s economics problems. If you have one industry (fossil) that is allowed to pollute, en masse, routinely, for free, while even a tiny chance of any pollution is considered absolutely unacceptable for the other (nuclear), the 2nd (nuclear) industry will never be able to compete.

    We need to spend less time researching advanced reactors and fuel cycles, i.e., trying to find technical solutions to nuclear’s supposed “problems”, and more time trying to solve the political, public perception and regulatory problems that nuclear faces. That and getting policies passed that treat nuclear fairly. Not sure what to do on the public side, but on the regulatory side, we need laws that will require NRC regulations to pass some kind of cost benefit analysis. Also, NRC regs need to consider their real impact on public health, including the fact that they lead to more fossil fuel use, thus actually increasing public health risks.

  7. This is a particularly tenacious problem with thorium advocates, though it is general to most people who support a new nuclear technology.

    The truth is the most radioactive stuff, and the most mobile stuff, that you would worry about, are the fission products. These are generated in all nuclear reactors, in amounts only varying slightly with thermal efficiency and even more so slightly with thorium vs uranium/plutonium fuel cycles.

    Proliferation is not an argument against exisiting reactors. A steel ingot can be used to produce a machinegun or a saucepan (quoting a famous risk assessment researcher). This makes steel ingots a proliferation threat? So ban steel ingots to prevent machineguns to be produced? Accellerators gain almost all energy from fission, therefore fissile materials are produced. It’s there. Machineguns kill a lot of people every year. Nuclear weapons do not, even though many countries have them. It is about political choices, not technology choices. It’s easy to make nuclear weapons with dedicated small low pressure reactors. It’s very much harder to do with power reactors, of any type.

    Safety is not improved with accellerators; adding complexity to a system does not improve it’s safety, certainly when that complexity does nothing to deal with the most basic risk factor in a nuclear power plant, which is decay heat. All reactors have these, again varying only slightly with thermal efficiency and fuel cycle. Accellerators do nothing to deal with this decay heat, that cannot be turned off, even when the accellerator is off, and in fact having a complex component in this heat field results in more ways that a containment can fail (more penetrations, paths for leakage, etc.). Passive criticality safety is easy to achieve with power reactors, no need for expensive complicated accellerators. Accellerators are like jet engines strapped to cars. Sure it could work, but it won’t be efficient, it won’t be economical, it won’t improve safety and has no effect on proliferation. The reasons why cars are not powered by jet engines are similar to why accellerators are not added to nuclear reactors.

    The keys to safety and economics are in the reactor design, and how we treat nuclear power as a component in our society. A passively safe reactor in a world that applies similar standards to nuclear power as to other industries, is a safe and economical reactor, benefitting society greatly with clean air, low cost electricity, and a safer living environment

    1. I don’t have a problem with Thorium (or its advocates), but with an ‘accelerator-driven’ reactor. I consider you one of the true experts out there. You may not have researched the accelerator-driven approach. But, if you have, does this make any sense at all?

      1. ASDR are only attractive in an irrational, political sense. It does not solve any technical problem, it simply tacks on some useless expensive kit to a perfectly good reactor.

        You can shut down fission in a LWR by dropping in control rods. You can shut down a MSR by melting the freeze plug. You can shut down an ADSR by turning off the accelerator. In all of these reactors heat will still be produced by FP decay. The only significant difference is the 3rd option is less reliable and more expensive.

        Not to speak for Cyril, but he convinced me to abandon any support for ADSRs. A non-solution that will only distract.

  8. Reactor grade Plutonium would be a very poor choice for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. First, Plutonium has to be recovered from spent reactor fuel. This is a technically very difficult challenge. The nuclear decay of Pu-240 makes it undesirable. Pu-240 represents about 25% of the Plutonium in reactor grade Plutonium. Pu-240 undergoes spontaneous fission at a continuous rate. It produces several hundred thousand neutrons per kilogram. Not only are the neutrons dangerous to anyone working with the material, but also produce heat that impedes the weaponization of reactor grade Plutonium. It is far less expensive and less technologically challenging to produce weapons grade Plutonium with Graphite Pile Reactors or with Heavy Water Reactors. The Plutonium produced from these sources does not contain a great amount of Pu-240. Separating U-235 from Uranium Fluoride gases by use of a centrifuge is far less expensive and less technically challenging. U-235 is a superior weapons fuel.

    It is often said that the better is the enemy of the good. While I am a supporter of conventional nuclear power and favor the wide scale production of nuclear power facilities, if no other options are available, I must note that conventional nuclear power has some disadvantages compared to more advanced nuclear technology. In particular, I have supported the notion that Molten Salt Reactors offer many advantages when compared to conventional nuclear power plants. This is not to say that conventional nuclear power plants are a bad choice especially when compared to carbon based energy technologies and solar and wind generated electricity. It is simply the case that while conventional nuclear power is good, advanced nuclear technology is better. Nor is it the case that I am opposed to the use of Uranium as a nuclear fuel. Both in the case of conventional nuclear power and in the case of Uranium fueled Molten Salt Reactors. It is only my view that in a choice between conventional nuclear power plants and Uranium fueled Molten Salt Reactors, the Uranium fueled Molten Salt Reactors offer advantages, so much so, that if they were available in a competitive market the conventional Pressurized Water Reactor would quickly be regarded as a relic of the past, just as the piston engine is now regarded as a relic of the past when compared to a jet engine.

  9. Wow you’ve all certainly given me a lot to think about.

    Thank you all for the in-depth and respectful discussion, I am quite impressed. I’m (obviously) not a nuclear engineer, I work on designing particle accelerators, hence the focus on that aspect. Can any of you recommend a good well-researched book on the plutonium issues discussed above? My statements were founded on talks given by expert academics who work on Thorium but now I realise they may have been somewhat biased. I’d like to read more on that.

    I agree that this is largely a political issue – and I’m somewhat reluctant to get into that side of it. However I agree with the general consensus that talking down other types of nuclear to the benefit of one’s particular technology choice is probably not a great strategy.

    However I suspect in many cases people are simply not fully aware of the precision of the statements they make about other technologies – after all it is difficult to be an expert in any of them, let alone all of them!

    As for accelerator driven reactors I too am not 100% sold on the idea. I don’t know if they will be beneficial or not, I leave that to the nuclear engineers. What I do know is that they present a future challenge for high power proton accelerators. Thankfully even if not utilised in thorium reactors, a high power proton accelerator can be used for many other non-energy-related applications, so not to fear I am not wasting valuable research time!

  10. Although I was never a diehard antinuke, I can say that I used to be much more concerned about things like nuclear waste, accidents, and proliferation than I am now. Then I read the book by Tom Blees, watched some LFTR videos, and started supporting LFTRs and IFRs. That lead me to read more about nuclear power in general, and now I’m happy with any modern nuclear technology.

    So maybe the physicist’s approach isn’t all bad.

Comments are closed.

Recent Comments from our Readers

  1. Avatar
  2. Avatar
  3. Avatar
  4. Avatar
  5. Avatar

Similar Posts