Overreaction to Outside Pressure Puts Vermont Yankee Safety Culture Into Question
In an long delayed effort to prove to Vermont legislators that they are taking action to correct leakage of mildly radioactive water into the ground under the buildings that house Vermont Yankee, Energy as announced that they have disciplined 11 senior employees, five of whom have been removed from their positions and placed on administrative leave. In response to that action, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided to issue a Demand for Information which will require company representatives to testify under oath in response to questions about the plant operation and the information that has been provided to the NRC in relation to the tritium leaks.
If the potential consequences of the situation were not so serious, I would be enjoying a cynical chuckle at the way that seemingly smart people can royally screw things up.
A colleague of mine used to keep a sign over his stateroom door that said:
“There is no sense reacting if you cannot overreact.”
It was an ironic commentary; Mike was actually a very calm person who was very difficult to perturb. He was exactly the kind of leader that we all liked to have on our team; when the stuff was hitting the fan or the smoke was filling a compartment, he would calmly step through his carefully considered actions to solve the crisis. One of the keys to his success was the fact that he was always on the lookout for clues that something was not quite right – that allowed him to take action early to avoid what could easily turn into a crisis without an early response.
I learned a lot by watching and trying to emulate Mike; when I arrived on that boat, I was one of those bright young fellows who had not yet failed at anything. People who have regularly succeeded without much testing can be dangerous – they do not learn the importance of calm response in the inevitable crises that will occur eventually.
It is important for me to state this upfront so there is no misunderstanding – I strongly support the continued operation of Vermont Yankee. It has been a reliable supplier of emission free electricity for nearly four decades and with proper maintenance there is essentially no technical limit to the length of time it can continue to keep producing what is probably the most important manufactured commodity in modern society.
That said, it has become clear to me that the corporate leaders at Entergy have proven that they never served with a guy like Mike and never learned that taking early actions to prevent problems works a hell of a lot better than massive overreaction once it finally becomes apparent to everyone that action is required. Panic at the top never works – it destroys the confidence of the people that have to work steadily to fight a fire, correct public perception, or respond to outright attacks that threaten ship (or plant) survival.
When I first read about the NRC’s decision to issue the Demand for Information, I thought that the regulators were bowing to overblown media and political attention to a very minor issue – the amount of tritium in the ground under Vermont Yankee is no threat to anyone’s health and never will be. After thinking more about the situation and doing as much research as is possible for a guy who is several hundred miles away from plant and also has a pretty demanding full time job, I realized that the NRC has valid grounds for concern. Though the staff knows that the tritium is not a public health concern, they also know that 11 senior people at one of their licensed plants have been disciplined or removed from their position.
That upheaval in the work force that ensures daily safe operation causes legitimate questions about the talent and experience of the replacements for the people on administrative leave and about the effect on future performance of the six people who have received reprimands and financial consequences even after the investigation conducted by an outside organization
“. . .did not find that any Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee employees intentionally misled the Vermont Public Service Board, the Department of Public Service, a Public Oversight Panel assessing the plant’s reliability as part of its application for renewal of its operating license, or a contracting firm working for the panel, Nuclear Safety Associates.”
There is even a legitimate concern for the overall safety culture at the plant – after all, without visiting the plant and talking to employees it is hard to determine how they feel about the way that some of their colleagues are being treated.
At my current organization, we have a saying for what happens when a fall guy gets chosen to take the blame for what is often a systemic issue or one whose root cause can be traced to a “bullet-proof” decision maker – “He got thrown under the bus”.
I have not yet met any of the employees at Vermont Yankee, and I am just projecting my own response here, but I can imagine getting quite spun up if I saw one of my colleagues taking the hit for doing something innocuous like telling an investigator that there are no buried pipes carrying radioactive fluids even if he knew that there are pipes in trenches that are below ground level that carry air and non condensible gases from an “off-gas” system.
Engineers use a precise language where seemingly similar words mean totally different things and have completely different technical requirements; that kind of distinction is perfectly legitimate to them. I have been around enough smart engineers and technical types for enough years to recognize that it is quite likely that the Entergy employee making that distinction in response to an investigator would be a bit dismissive of the ignorance of the questioner. Smart people who have developed expertise in a narrow field can – believe it or not – look down on those people who do not know quite as much as they do.
(I have been accused of that kind of behavior even when I meant no harm and did not mean any insult; I am in a 12 step recovery program to become more humble.)
Lest you think I have rambled too long, let me wrap this up. A steadier hand at the top of the corporation would have recognized that there were strong forces at work in Vermont to destroy a valuable asset. Leaders with questioning attitudes who recognize that continued operation of that valuable asset would require a multi-layered defense with a strong coalition of allies would have been working hard to build that base of support and would not have used the upcoming license renewal as an opportunity for a sharp increase in the price of the electricity that the plant manufactures. (The threat of a prompt jump in price fractures the natural coalition of supporters.)
They would have recognized that their representatives on the ground – the work force at the plant – were the foundation on which to build that support. When outside pressure built by magnifying a seemingly minor issue through positive feedback mechanism of politics and press they would not have responded by blaming the very people who are best positioned to solve the problem; they would have recognized that leadership sometimes means sheltering employees and proving to them that someone has their back as they work to manage a crisis.
(Note – in systems engineering lingo, a “positive feedback” mechanism pushes responses out of control.)
There is also a cautionary tale here for the NRC. During my conversation with the public affairs officer, it came as a complete shock to him when I stated that his organization would be doing environmental harm if it did not work to protect the plant’s continued operation. He told me that kind of thinking was never introduced in meetings there – the organizational philosophy is that the “safe” path is to shut down the plant if there are any questions or concerns.
I reminded him that the NRC’s charter includes provisions to protect the environment; shutting down a nuclear plant that has no safety related issues will INEVITABLY harm the environment because the power WILL be produced by burning either coal or natural gas, which both dump pollutants into the environment – by design. Here is a quote from the Act that establishes the NRC’s responsibilities:
The Act requires that civilian uses of nuclear materials and facilities be licensed, and it empowers the NRC to establish by rule or order, and to enforce, such standards to govern these uses as “the Commission may deem necessary or desirable in order to protect health and safety and minimize danger to life or property.“
I reminded him that coal and natural gas are not “safe” alternatives. I also mentioned that just down the river from Vermont Yankee five people had died in a gas explosion in the very recent past. He told me that he would bring that up the next opportunity he had in a policy discussion.
It surprised me to find out that my line of thinking was new to this particular public affairs official – I am pretty sure he has been at the commission for quite some time. Why would my interpretation of the rather simple and direct language used in the Atomic Energy Act be so unusual?
During my conversation with the public affairs officer, it came as a complete shock to him when I stated that his organization would be doing environmental harm if it did not work to protect the plant’s continued operation.
Where are all the renaissance people? Are the folk at the NRC really so compartmentalised in their thinking?
Someone might want to respond to this:
I’m afraid I could do no more than register my disgust. this is a job for someone with a stronger stomach.
Thank you for posting this. Last night I wrote a long screed about how I thought McElwee and Dreyfuss were getting the short end of the stick, with examples. Then I went to bed without posting it. I was unsure I should post it because it was quite critical of Entergy management, and not like my usual posts. You have given me the courage to post it. Thank you.
The engineers responded as engineers do. Punishing them for giving truthful answers is wrong.
The correct way to respond to this is by personally demonstrating that the tritiated water is not a health concern. It means the plant manager gets out there, holds a press conference, and pours himself a glass of water taken from the supposedly contaminated wells and drinks it along with the other engineers. The media and the public like those willing to sleep in the beds that they have made for themselves; they appreciate those engineers willing to demonstrate the ultimate demonstration of confidence in engineering judgments.
A good campaign would mean vigorously informing the people of Vermont exactly what will replace Vermont Yankee, for instance, in the context of global warming. It means taking – at least reporters – on tours of the plant, for instance, during a refueling outage to show them what goes on in there, and how things work.
It means figuring out a way to cause people to question their assumptions about nuclear power, to help them figure out where those assumptions come from – to build the necessary strength to attack anti-nuclear arguments on the plane of ideas.
It means building coalitions with chemistry, physics, biochem, biology, engineering, math, and computer science departments at universities and colleges nearby, where most students have pro-reason views, local engineering societies, science organizations, even atheist and skeptical organizations, getting them vocal, and getting them out there.
I think the witchcraft metaphor works well – that the nuclear plant is being attacked by the 21st century equivalent of witch-hunters, irrational religious fanatics, rather than by rational people. You want to tap into the broader struggle within the US today between whether public policy today should be guided by blind faith and the prejudices thereof; or whether it should be guided by science, engineering, reason, and decency. Turn it from a question about tritium into a question about religion, whether blind faith should rule Vermont, or whether reason should rule.
Constructing the appropriate meta-narrative – faith and fear versus reason, science, and logic – will cause cognitive dissonance within left-leaning anti-nuclear types – after all, they believe in science, or claim to believe in science, as opposed to the faith-based policies of the hard right. You want people to start questioning their assumptions. You won’t be able to stop the hard-core, but those who are half-hearted opponents or even somewhat dedicated opponents could break away and turn into supporters, you may even turn a lot of uninvolved people into allies.
With respect to your last paragraph, I’ve always seen a parallel between militant environmentalism and old fashioned religious puritainism. I also know that, given how little respect these liberals have for religious conservatives, pointing out the similarity in their actual behavior may cause them great discomfort. It seems clear to me that environmentalism is the new religion of the day. People are inherently religious (in the general sense), so as traditional religions lose inflence (with many), new secular religions rise to take their place. The similarities include blind faith, a prescribed set of dogmatic beliefs, holier-than-thou prudishness, and a desire to change people’s behavior (i.e., social engineering), not because it’s necessary to solve a specific practial problem, but as an end in itself.
I make an analogy between nuclear power and artificial birth control. Religious conservatives hate the idea of effective birth control (i.e., an engineering solution to the problem as opposed to people being required to change their behavior). They say that the reason people need to change their behavior is because of this or that practical issue (e.g., unwanted pregnancy and STDs). But their real motivations come out when you come up with technical (as opposed to behavioral) solutions to those problems, and you find that they’ll have none of it. It becomes clear that what they really want is for people to have to change their behavior, as an end in itself. (They also want to remain relevant, as the preachers/coaches, helping people in their endless struggle to change their behavior.)
Same thing with energy and environmentalists. They hate the notion of us continuing to “get away with” our profligate behavior with respect to energy use (as well as materialism in general). Instead, we should be humble before Gaia. They want a behavior change, as an end in itself. They have some real social engineering that they want to do, using our energy problems and the justification for doing so. Technological solutions, like nuclear, that solve the problems without requiring a change in behavior or the social order really get in the way of that. They hate nuclear because it will solve global warming, energy security and pollution problems while letting people continue to “get away with” their “profligate” behavior. It’s like birth control in that respect.
One more thing. I hope I don’t offend any Catholics here (I’m one myself), but I once heard someone say that the only reason the Church supports the rhythm method is that they know it doesn’t work. Quiz question: nuclear is analogous to effective birth control, what are renewables analagous too?
I’ll end by noting that pregnancy and STDs are not the only problems with pre-/extra-marital sex. And who knows, maybe there are energy issues that go beyond global warming, air pollution and energy security. For both cases (sex and energy) all I’m saying is that people should be honest about their real motivations/issues, and make their case on those issues in a straighforward manner. They shouldn’t raise certain problems as a reason for behavior changes when they know there are technical/practical solutions to those specific problems. They should rise to the (possibly) more difficult argument as to why pre-/extra-marital sex are not good for society even w/o pregnancy and STD risk or, for example, why decentralized and/or non-corporation-run energy is best even w/o concerns over global warming, air pollution or energy security. They have to convince people those other issues are important enough to change their behavior.
Anyway, I agree that this sort of thing is good to throw at zelous anti-nukes. It will cause a lot of congnitive dissonance.
This is probably one of the better illustrations of the connection between religion and the anti-nuclear movement:
The Demon Hot Atom
Look at the animated GIF on the top of the page.
Katana0182 (Dave) wrote:
The correct way to respond to this is by personally demonstrating that the tritiated water is not a health concern. It means the plant manager gets out there, holds a press conference, and pours himself a glass of water taken from the supposedly contaminated wells and drinks it along with the other engineers.
I like it! In addition, they need to make available water (or air) laced with the kind of stuff that comes out of a coal fired or even natural gas fired power plant, and then invite any critics present to drink (breath) the “cocktail”.
I have asked this question to NRC folks before (i.e., shutting a nuke will cause more deaths via coal). The reply I get is that the regulations do not SPECIFICALLY allow for such risk comparisons. They still live under the big AEC split and are to be “neutral” on the general question on the use of nuclear energy. It is as if FERC would have to be “neutral” on the use of electricity, the FCC being “neutral” on the use of telecommunications technology, or the FDA being “neutral” on the general idea of having prescription medicine.
I am a veteran climate campaigner (for more than twenty years) who is new at taking a pro-nuclear position.
From a story headlined “Vermont Senate Votes to Close Nuclear Plant”, published in the NYTimes:
In the hours of debate, one virtue of nuclear power emphasized by proponents at the national level ?production of electricity without emissions of greenhouse gases ?was hardly mentioned, even by supporters.
It is hard for me to understand how people who claim they have science backgrounds who also say they can look at an issue based on facts not emotion, such as pro nukes, can not see that the case for action on climate is on solid ground.
There is a shift going on right now among people who are interested in seeing action taken on climate about nuclear power. You, as pro nukes may feel you understand all about anti nuke people, but climate introduces a new element. It is very hard to overstate how serious people who study climate feel climate change is.
The President of the National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone, is calling “for action to preserve the trust between science and society”, now that so called Climategate “has raised concerns about the standards of science and damaged public trust”. He states emphatically,
scientists understanding of climate change is undiminished by this incident.
Anyone wishing to know what the National Academy’s latest views on climate change are can read their statements on Climate Change
and Ocean Acidification
Anyway, I hear a lot of pro nukes actually buy into the lines that gibberish peddlers are selling, that there are holes in the climate case, that the issue is not serious, that it is not vital. Good luck to you selling your case that nuclear power is held to be safe by scientists.
Pro-nukes understand that it will require a greater portion of the nation? wealth to expand government and create the carbon police needed to measure and to enforce CO2 emissions and climate related taxation.
Future carbon emissions will not come primarily from the currently industrialized world, but from the emerging economies, especially China. Future Green House Gas emissions from the developing economies in Asia will totally swamp reductions achieved at significant economic sacrifice in the West. In recent Copenhagen climate debates, China, which currently emits 30% more CO2 per year than the U.S., has not promised to cut actual emissions.
80% cuts in U.S. emissions will have only a tiny benefit. The bulk of our effort is best directed at helping the emerging economies conserve energy and move rapidly toward efficient solar, wind and nuclear power. Developing cheap carbon capture and sequestration is also a priority. Above all, we need to recognize that make-the-West-bear-the-burden Copenhagen proposals are meaningless and completely ineffective.
Professor Richard Muller of UC Berkeley has prepared an important analysis that should be brought to the awareness of decision makers. Information regarding how crucial the new developing economies in Asia are to averting climate catastrophe has been compiled into an article by Professor Muller which can be found at:
Robert – please do not assume that you are speaking for pro-nukes. Some of us believe that reducing CO2 emissions will not be terribly costly to anyone who does not sell fossil fuels. For them, the situation is a bit more dire because they will not be able to maintain their current markets, profits or power.
There is no need for any “carbon police”. We simply apply a waste disposal fee on fossil fuels at the source based on their carbon content – it is a pretty fair assumption that they will be burned and the CO2 will be released.
China does not have to promise emissions reductions in order to achieve them. They are taking the right steps with their aggressive development of atomic fission. As they gain more experience, I expect that their development will accelerate, not stagnate like ours did. The difference is that they do not have a powerful fossil fuel industry with the political savvy to work with others to cause fear, uncertainty and doubt about the formidable competition.
I fully expect to see China engaging in some coal2nuclear conversions within the next decade with more to follow. It is hard to believe that they do not have that process in mind as they build their new HTR-PMs.
The rest of the developing world will also move towards fission as a lower cost alternative power source that also happens to be far cleaner than any other alternatives.
I am not a man of faith in the free market, but I believe that there are rational people in the world who will remember the old saying:
You can fool some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people, all of the time.
The incredible energy density of fission is simply a fact that will not go away, especially since it is combined with the relatively generous dispersal of uranium all around the world.
CO2 is a problem, but solving it will lead to a richer world, not one that is limited by the uneven concentration of a rapidly depleting store of fossil fuels.
The HTR-10 is a test reactor.
Brian – good point. I meant to write HTR-PM, not HTR-10. The HTR-PMs are 450 MW (thermal) reactors that are under construction now. They were started in 2008 after several years of successful testing at the HTR-10.
I would like to apologize for presuming to speak for anyone other than myself (much less all pro-nukes).
(I strongly favor increased use of nuclear energy worldwide to help lift the condition of mankind).
This is a good news bad news thing. The good news is that the NRC is short of work investigating stuff that goes wrong. Over at the Chemical Safety Board, the CSB investigative teams are busy and have lots of choices:
?lasses had been canceled Tuesday in the West Shore school after maintenance staff discovered liquid mercury in a faulty classroom ventilation unit Monday evening. District spokesman Ryan Argot said small amounts of the toxic metal, which had come out of the heating ventilation unit, had been spread “throughout” classroom 18 in Building II.?
There are tens of thousands of homes contaminated with mercury but we only investigate when children show up at emergency rooms with symptoms. The CSB may want to go to Rod since he show frequent symptoms,
?O2 is a problem?
Other opportunities for the NRC to investigate power plants in just the last week.
At a geothermal plant,
?our engines, 24 firefighters and 10 civilian water tankers responded to the call, though fire crews could not immediately extinguish the blaze because of the presence of pentane, a volatile liquid that could have caused an explosion.?
At a coal plant:
?he fire is the second at a TVA coal plant in less than three months. A fire damaged one of the units at the John Sevier Fossil Plant near Rogersville, Tenn., on Dec. 30.?
At a biomass plant:
? blaze inside Roseburg Forest Product’s powerhouse caused an explosion which erupted into a 75-foot tall fireball. … The large amount of sawdust in the air ignited with explosive force, Dickson said, causing the fire ball at 6:55 p.m.?
@Kit P – Aside from the fact that you have implied that I am mentally retarded by exposure to mercury – my friends do sometimes accuse me of being crazy – thank you for your list of good reasons to like nuclear compared to the competition.
Rod an intelligent answer would be to tell me that you has eliminated the risk of mercury from your house. An intelligent answer would be to tell me that you have decided to move closer to work.
The electricity generating industry produces electricity for Rod’s big house with a near perfect safety record and insignificant environment impact. The biggest problem I have is with macho arrogant naval academy types. Rod hit the nail on the head about successful people who have never failed. When they fail, they do not learn anything.
Considering that coal burning is one of the largest sources of environmental mercury, I’d say that Rod is working tirelessly to eliminate the risk of mercury from houses all over, including mine; for which I’d like to thank him.
Thanks Rod. Keep up the good work.
So Chuck, you can explain how a coal power plant gets mercury inside your house?
Actually, it is environmental engineers like me who work tirelessly to protect the environment from things like mercury. I would say we are doing a pretty good job too.
Rod is a government worker who commutes long distance to get inside beltway to give a distorted view of the world.
Mercury inside homes come from old devices like thermostats that breaks open. When houses are tightly sealed to save energy, airborne levels could hurt children. If you have a new house, mercury is not likely to be a problem.
The largest source of environmental mercury is natural. Same thing with radiation.
Mercury from coal plants is not a problem. It is pretty easy to prove me wrong. Levels of mercury are easy to detect in hair and blood samples. No American has levels of mercury above a threshold of harm that is traced to environmental sources.
That is very good news. So Chuck; if you are concerned about mercury; blame fear mongers like Rod who make a living in DC producing fear so they can tax us.
Kit P – Yup , you have certainly tarred me by mentioning my academy education and my long years of government service. It is sure disheartening how many Americans – even on the conservative side – disrespect people who serve in uniform and protect the freedom of all of the rest of the population to enjoy the rights granted under the Constitution. Boy, those friends of yours sure hate paying taxes to support service people who willingly spend long months at sea, or do battle in the Pentagon to try to ensure that the troops get the training that helps to keep them safe and that their ships get the maintenance they need to keep the water out and the equipment running. – End sarcasm/irony.
Actually, I am always very humbled by the number of people who thank me for my service when they see me in uniform. I am sorry about the fact that I have a long commute. I have finally succeeded in convincing my superiors that there is such a thing as telecommuting that works pretty well for an analyst who spends most of his time on the computer or on the phone anyway. I am not at all ashamed of having attended the Naval Academy and served my country as an employee for about 33 years. I am grateful for the opportunities granted to me in return for my service.
Part of the reason that I spend so much time on Atomic Insights and producing the Atomic Show is that I honestly feel the need to give back by sharing some of what I learned.
BTW – Kit, there is plenty of good science that shows how much environmental mercury comes from the discharge of coal fired power plants. There are essentially no environmental control systems that remove that material and it is a natural part of many different grades of coal. It is most definitely present in very small quantities per unit mass, but since coal plants burn up 1.3 billion tons of coal in the US every year, they end up being a rather large source of mercury.
That mercury is found in high enough concentration to be hazardous to pregnant women and small children in the wonderful fish that come out of the Chesapeake Bay. It is also found in significant quantities in some of the very clear lakes in the northeast US.
?haring some of what I learned.?
No problem Rod, it is when you share what you make up that makes me think you are arrogant. So Rod, serving your country does not make it okay for you to disrespect others.
?o be hazardous to pregnant women and small children in the wonderful fish that come out of the Chesapeake Bay.?
This is not true Rod, it is fear mongering. Scaring pregnant women is that a skill they teach at the academy?
Rod, CBF is an advocate group and scientific organization. Your link is junk science at best.
I have read the CDC report and the following statement is not true. In fact the CDC found zero above a safe level.
? 2004 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that one in 15 U.S. women of childbearing age has blood mercury levels at or in excess of what is considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and some researchers have suggested that this number is even higher.?
And then there is this, it called a carefully worded organized lie.
? in the past decade, the number of U.S. states issuing warnings against eating fish because of mercury poisoning jumped from 27 to 42.?
Lots of warnings but no actual cases of mercury poisoning.
I read the study that was the basis for Washington State warnings. Considering that Washington State has only one coal plant, I thorough it was odd. Two lakes in Washington State have legacy issue with mercury caused smelting and paper making. Known sources of mercury Rod. Furthermore, the levels of mercury in the fish are decreasing and it is not credible that you could catch and eat enough fish raise levels above the threshold of harm.
The defining study on mercury from fish was performed in the Seychelles. Eating fish is good for you.
Ah … the good old CBF. What a confused bunch of hypocrites.
One hand says:
“States should also implement comprehensive mercury reduction programs to phase-out the use and disposal of mercury containing products, such as thermostats and automobile switches. In 2006, Maryland passed a law that would ban the sale of thermostats containing mercury.”
While the ignorant other hand says:
“Use regular 75 Watt bulbs for the lamps. You do not need flood or heat lamp bulbs. You can use 75 Watt Compact Fluorescent bulbs to conserve energy.”
Don’t they know that compact fluorescent bulbs contain mercury? In fact, a house full of compact fluorescent bulbs contains more mercury than is contained in one little thermostat, which unlike the bulbs, will most likely last for decades without ever breaking.
So mercury in consumer products is bad … unless it is used to “conserve energy.”
I find it difficult to take what these groups say at face value. Frankly, I have found that they are either unqualified to quote such misleading statistics, which they don’t understand, or they are so consumed with a cause that they pick and choose their way into such ridiculous advocacy as that which I have cited above.
Rod, as someone who is so quick to point out that elevated levels of tritium are no public health concern at all, I find it rather ironic that you rely on such poor sources of information as the CBF to back up your claims when it comes to other potentially hazardous material.
CFLs do contain mercury, but there are studies that argue that by using CFLs, emissions of mercury are reduced from coal power plants enough to make up for the small amount of mercury contained within them. They also induce the emission of far less carbon than incandescent light bulbs.
LEDs are even better than CFLs, but LEDs will be a while in getting to a reasonable price range.
What if the CFL is powered by natural gas? What if the CFL is powered by nuclear?
The “coal plant” slight of hand only distracts from my main criticism. How can an organization advocate the “phase-out the use and disposal of mercury containing products” while simultaneously advocating the use of mercury containing products without being completely hypocritical? Please explain that one.
Ultimately, the coal plant comparison fails to differentiate between a point source and a diffuse source (or equivalently, a point source that is very far away). The two have quite different risk factors.
I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to have the mercury contained in a household’s worth of CFL’s distributed across the countryside (my yard, my neighborhood), rather than confined in the enclosed space that is my house, where I can breathe the fumes.
And before you think my preference is too strange, I should point out that nuclear advocates make this distinction between concentrated and diffuse sources of potentially toxic materials all of the time — as well they should.
This is a judgment call. I wouldn’t assume that all CFLs break, nor would I expect that all fluorescent light bulbs break, and I’m not certain that they’re exactly oozing with mercury, either, in comparison to many products manufactured a long time ago (mercury vacuum seals, barometers, various pressure gauges and levels, switches, rectifiers, etc.)
Ultimately, the concern of this coalition appears to be with bio-accumulation in fish. It isn’t hypocrisy to support the use of CFLs at the cost of potential (very minor) mercury exposure to humans in the event of a CFL being disposed of improperly, as I guess that coal power is the source of more proximate pollution of fisheries than broken fluorescent bulbs are.
Once again, mercury exposure is something to be avoided, from what I understand – but I don’t understand the details regarding the potential threat of mercury to human health on a large scale.
Once again, some of the commenters here seem to want to dismiss all environmental groups as being advocates of “junk” science. That plays well in certain portions of the political and religious spectrum, but is, at best, a dangerous over-simplification.
There are certainly large and well known environmental groups whose focus has been corrupted by greed to the point where they resort to fear mongering in order to buff up their income from gullible donors. I put the national level Sierra Club (local chapters do some excellent and important work to protect open spaces), Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth into this category.
There are also some dedicated and talented groups who use real science to help push for public education, policies and technology that actually do make the world a cleaner, safer and more sustainable place to live and recreate. I put CBF in the second category. It’s mission is one that is near and dear to my heart – protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay watershed to a condition of cleanliness and fishery productivity that it had before people started ringing the bay with intense development that resulted in both diffuse and point source pollution.
CBF employs talented scientists and educators that help people and government decision makers who live near the Bay understand the importance of well designed and maintained sewage systems, the importance of collecting and treating run off from agriculture, the importance of proper handling of fuel and lubricating oil, and the need to reduce air pollution that gets washed into the bay by the natural water cycle.
Mercury distributed from coal fired power plants is a source of more concern than CFLs because it is, by design, dumped into the environment. I am not saying that coal plant operators purposely choose to dump mercury, but it is a natural contaminant of coal and they do not have any available technology that captures more than about half of the discharge that goes out the stack. It is a trace contaminant, but it builds up over many years and has an infinite half life. It is something that needs to be corrected – with the easiest path to correction being replacing the coal fired boilers around the Bay with nuclear fission heat sources.
Like many of you, I am not a particularly big fan of CFLs. I do not have any in my home. I think that many well meaning people have been bamboozled by the marketing push of companies like GE and Siemens to transition from inexpensive incandescent light bulbs to more expensive CFL. The lobbying push to mandate their use is particularly onerous, especially when you consider the fact that – for GE at least – it is one more example of the way that their leaders over the past couple of decades have used their clout to mold the market in ways that increase income and reduce US based employment.
Disclosure – I have been a CBF volunteer since 2001 and a member since 2003. I have a lot of friends who are either current or former CBF employees, including my best friend in the whole world – my wife.
Not at all, Rod. Unlike some people who comment on the internet, I don’t see the world as a cowboy movie, where everyone wears either a black hat or a white hat.
I don’t dismiss all environmental groups, but I think that they should be held to the same standards that you hold the marketing departments of various fossil-fuel companies. If they misunderstand, if they overstate, if they misrepresent, or if they just publish garbage then they should be called on it. It’s as simple as that.
Truth, factual information, consistency, and common sense are more important to me than whether someone is a good guy or a bad guy, so I’m not trying to pander to any particular group. Unlike you, Rod, I have never been a registered Republican. Furthermore, I’m not particularly religious. In fact, personally, I have more reason to be annoyed by evangelicals than most people.
You like history, Rod. Well, the CBF has a history. In its early days, after being founded in 1967, it worked to intervene in the construction of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. Its executive director at the time founded the Calvert Cliffs’ Coordinating Committee, which was the lead plaintiff in a case brought against the US Atomic Energy Commission by several environmental groups. The case originated from concerns about the harmful impact of thermal pollution from the nuclear plant on Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem, but the ultimate impact of Calvert Cliffs’ Coordinating Committee, Inc. v. US AEC was to suspend the licensing of all nuclear power plants for eighteen months, and to force a drastic change in the licensing procedures of the AEC, which had long-lasting consequences.
This was an early victory for the growing anti-nuclear movement. It was the start of the ratcheting up of licensing red-tape that strangled the US nuclear industry during the first nuclear construction era. This was the beginning of many of the problems with the NRC that pro-nuclear advocates love to complain about, and we have the early leadership of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to thank for it.
Fortunately, the CBF has become better in recent years. I’m sure that they do many good things and have helped to improve the conditions in the Chesapeake Bay from what they were over 40 years ago, but they are not always right.
I wouldn’t assume that all CFL’s break. However, I would assume that most other consumer products that contain mercury don’t break either.
Futhermore, I would assume that a bulb, which is a disposable device, would be more likely to break, spreading mercury, than a thermostat that contains mercury, which the CBF advocates should be phased out and banned.
Personal experience and common sense should highlight how strange it is to advocate the use of the former, while advocating banning the latter. How often have you encountered a broken light bulb? How often have you encountered a broken thermostat switch?
In terms of comparing CFL’s to coal burning, the two are like night and day. A broken bulb results in a direct exposure to elemental mercury vapor, often in an enclosed environment. When inhaled, around 80 percent of elemental mercury is absorbed directly into the blood stream.
Meanwhile, for the mercury from coal plants to be a health hazard, this mercury must be (1) deposited on water, (2) converted to methylmercury through the action of anaerobic organisms, (3) ingested by organisms, which are in turn ingested by other organisms up the food chain. In the end, this mercury is bioaccumulated by fish that can be eaten by humans, but even then, the risk is not severe enough that it outweighs the health benefits of regularly eating fish — except in the most extreme cases of concentrated pollution or sensitivity (pregnant women and young children).
I understand your perspective, but there is a difference in terms of quantities of mercury…
I was expecting there to be less mercury in CFLs than I originally thought. 5 mg per bulb isn’t the healthiest quantity in the world, and exposure to that is something that shouldn’t occur routinely, especially if children are around. One would also wish that people would build CFLs so that they actually last as long as they claim to last with the color rendition they claim to deliver. Only GE and Phillips really deliver in that area.
There are bigger sources of mercury than coal plants. The famous Japanese mass mercury poisoning incidents (due to bioaccumulation of mercury in fish, which the Japanese
(small d) diet contains a lot of) point to chemical and industrial processes that directly involved mercury, as one example, not coal.
What would I say: Mercury is something to watch. It isn’t something to scream about. But something to keep an eye on. Whether from CFLs, coal, consumer products, or chemical plants.
Dave you will be happy to know that the CDC is carefully monitoring mercury along with other legacy environmental pollutants like lead, and uranium. The CDC samples hair and blood samples to see in the concentration rise to a level of harm. For mercury the level is below the level of harm but two orders of magnitude that level so monitoring is still required. What has been incorrectly reported is the number above the level to stop monitoring. Some are at risk for being at risk. Lots of interesting source information at the CDC.
The CBF report that Rod linked is junk science because it does not cite the levels of mercury in Chesapeake Bay, it does cite the sources of mercury in Chesapeake Bay, it does cite the pathways of mercury in Chesapeake Bay, and it does cite anyone who has been harmed by mercury in Chesapeake Bay.
So if Rod wants to defend people who like to scare young mothers, it is his blog.
The last psot was mine
Pro-Nuke blogger Nnadir covered in some detail the question of whether using CFLs reduce the amount of mercury getting into the environment:
Kit – you aren’t one to be talking about who’s intelligent and who isn’t. You seem to be unable to see the forest for the trees at times, and only be able to see the forest and not the trees at others. Of course, your blindness depends on what you’re talking about…so maybe you are smarter than you appear.
Skip the ad hominem attacks, and the subtle – and not so subtle – assaults on your opponents’ intelligence. By stooping to the ad hominem level, you degrade the level of the conversation for everyone and demonstrate your own lack of convincing arguments, as well as your lack of self-restraint, your lack of respect for others, and your overall narcissistic attitude.
BTW – commas are your friends! “Rod an intelligent answer” should have a comma after “Rod”, as in “Rod, an intelligent answer…”.
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