Rational Answer to Carl Pope’s Dismissal of Nuclear Technologies
Steve Kirsch is Silicon Valley entrepreneur (inventor of the optical mouse) and philanthropist who was once strongly opposed to the use of nuclear energy. About three years ago, he began seriously studying the technology and has completely changed his mind. I spoke with him on the Atomic Show in December 2008 and have maintained contact ever since.
He is a major advocate of reviving the technology developed as part of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) development project that was halted in 1994. At that time, the project had already proven the passive safety capability of the sodium cooled pool reactor and was close to completing the integral pyroprocessing recycling system that would have allowed a vast increase in the amount of energy extracted from each kilogram of mined uranium.
Steve has friends and acquaintances in prominent positions. He has been working his network to attract interest in IFR type technology and to show how the existence of such technology would alleviate concerns about the nuclear “waste issue.”
Carl Pope, the former head of the Sierra Club, is one of Steve’s prominent acquaintances. Recently, Pope told Steve that he doubted that nuclear technologies will ever succeed in combining affordability and long term safety. He accused the nuclear establishment of being wildly reckless, inefficient and unimaginative. He also told Steve that nuclear plants could be easily taken down by a small group of attackers with simple and easily fabricated explosives.
Steve shared the letter that he wrote to Pope in response to his accusations. I thought that the letter was a useful contribution to the nuclear versus antinuclear discussion. He gave me permission to republish it here. I have reproduced it exactly as he shared it. Please read the notes after the letter.
The key points are what you made in red I believe.
With regards to safety, two members of the public have died from nuclear power in the last 50 years in the US. If that isn’t “safe”, then I don’t know what is. It is funny how we think it is safe to drive cars, yet 96 people every day die in car accidents. That’s every day. They are a million times less safe than nuclear. We don’t ban cars. And we have well over 100 years to refine cars and they still kill 96 people a day. We have proven these cars are unsafe and it appears they’ll never be safe. Should we ban them? No, nobody would ever suggest that.
Commercial nuclear power on the other hand has an enviable safety record. It is THE safest way to generate a kw of electric power.
So before we dump nuclear, we should dump every other way to generate electricity. Nuclear should be the LAST technology we abandon.
Could it be safer? Sure. But to do that, we need to restart the nuclear program in the US and focus on cost and safety.
Can nuclear power be affordable? It has been in the past. It is in Asia. In Asia, they build the plants on-time and under budget. So there is inherently nothing that prevents that from happening here if we focus on doing it right.
Are people right about the tsunami? Yes, they are. What we learned from Japan is that they underestimated the tsunami impact. That’s what caused the failure at Daiichi, not the quake. That was their mistake to underestimate the water impact. Mistakes happen. We learn from them. Do we have tsunamis here in the US? Not that I recall. Should we engineer our plants to protect against this possibility? Well, we could, but it would be pretty silly.
As you know, the nuclear power plant at Onagawa was MUCH CLOSER to the epicenter. No damage. No press either. Press hates it when things work right. They ignore it.
Is the NRC reckless, etc? No, I don’t think so. The fact that only 2 people were killed in the US over 50 years says they are doing something right. Could it be better. Sure. Maybe we’ll shoot for one person in the next 50 years. But come on…at what point will you say nuclear is safe?
The head (or former head) of the radiation protection division of U.S.-NRC once stated (jokingly) at an IAEA reception in Vienna: There are three types of photons, namely ‘green’ ones, ‘yellow’ ones and ‘red’ ones.
The ‘green’ ones are plentiful and of natural origin. We are not concerned about them and we don’t regulate them.
The ‘yellow’ ones come from medical applications. They are usually less plentiful, but we are a bit concerned about them and thus we regulate them somewhat.
The ‘red’ ones are very rare, they find their origin in nuclear energy applications. We are very concerned about them and consequently we regulate the hell out of them.
Why aren’t we focusing on closing every coal plant? That would save far more lives every year.
The reason solar costs are going down is because we have LOTS of people doing solar.
If you want nuclear costs to go down, then start building nuclear plants and get more people thinking about cost reduction.
If you want safer nuclear, then build IFRs. They consume waste from existing plants and their waste is only dangerous for 300 years. No new uranium mining is required.
The Sierra Club, UCS, and NRDC ought to be cheerleading every electric power technology that is carbon free. The war is on coal and natural gas. Most experts agree we can’t do it on wind and solar. We need to be stepping on the gas on every clean technology we have including nuclear. Sure, there are issues, but these are all acceptable risks compared to the horrible impacts of global warming that we are going to be experiencing. Let’s learn from our nuclear mistakes and move on and design them better. We need your support to do that.
Note: The only real question I had for Steve about his letter was the following: “The fact that only 2 people were killed in the US over 50 years…” I asked him which accident or event caused those deaths; his response was “TMI had 1 or 2 statistical deaths.” As is often the case with nuclear advocates, Steve was giving the benefit of the doubt to the opposition.
Those “statistical” deaths only come when you apply the Linear No Threshold (LNT) assumption and the total population dose to a very large number of people. That is a practice that the Health Physics Society strongly discourages. It is very much like saying that if a bottle full of aspirin will kill one person if they ingest the whole thing, then the same amount of aspirin ground up and distributed to a million people will still kill one of them. In other words, it is unlikely in the extreme that anyone experienced any health related consequences from radiation doses received as a result of the accident at Three Mile Island. The total toll from radiation exposure as a result of commercial nuclear energy use in the United States remains at zero.
Please do not misunderstand me. I do not think that perfection is required to claim safety. Compared to all other energy alternatives that are considered safe, nuclear energy is many orders of magnitude better. A few casualties every once in a while for a valuable and productive power source should be acceptable. Sorry if you disagree.
The biggest problem is that we have not effectively communicated this to the public. This is where intuitions like Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club and other such groups are morally culpable. I understand the concerns of fossil-fuel interests: each nuclear power station represents millions of tons of coal, or billions of cubic meters of gas not burned, and therefore unsold by them. However the raw hypocrisy of organizations nominally concerned with environmental issues is utterly reprehensible. The leadership of these groups are nether stupid or ignorant. Clearly they know the truth, yet choose to ignore it, for what ever reason. Their sin are orders of magnitude greater than those of Big Carbon, who in the end, are fighting for survival.
I sometimes think “these people” i.e. leaders of most environmental NGOs, “know the truth” about nuclear, but then I run into some pro nuke who is rabidly anti climate science and wonder. I don’t know pro nukes that well, but I have difficulty believing they are lying about the fact they happen to reject climate science. I don’t see the motivation. I think they sincerely believe what they say.
I don’t really have a good idea how to explain the fairly common pro nuke anti climate science bias. Your typical pro nuke can be very intelligent, capable of examining the scientific literature directly even, capable of understanding how the best scientists see the world. If I can’t explain why these people have their attitude, I wonder how to explain the environmentalist NGOs.
I know something about environmentalist NGOs though. I do believe some of the NGO leaders are lying – I issued a challenge today to Romm to debate on the cost of nuclear vrs solar and didn’t make it through moderation on his recent blog post that attacked Lynas. I said (to Romm) one of your former teachers (Moniz) couldn’t even stand beside you on stage without feeling forced to tell the crowd you were lying to them. I have interacted with some others of them in political debate over decades. Unlike Patrick Moore, I have always been a critic of my so called fellow Greens, to the point I never fit in anywhere, except briefly in the late 1980s as a leader in the movement in BC, and then only until they figured out what I stood for. A common attitude in NGO land is the entire system is corrupt, everyone else is lying their head off, the planet is being destroyed (which gives them their great excuse) so they’ll lie their heads off. (The last appearance I made at the door of a Green Party meeting I was barred from entering and a special meeting of the governing council was held to rescind my membership). But unlike Moore, I don’t denounce all environmentalists as conspirators against capitalism who haven’t been interested in environmentalism for decades. People in the movement come to it out of concern for things they care about. It isn’t all BS.
One possibility to explain attitudes that aren’t lies is examined in “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus”. http://www.culturalcognition.net/browse-papers/cultural-cognition-of-scientific-consensus.html
First it’s not correct to claim that a significant number of pronukes are necessarily anti climate except in the States where both these issues seem to have split some people along party lines. In the rest of the world many that are pronuclear are some because they see it as a solution to climate change.
As far as the NGO leadership goes, they are likely motivated by which side of the bread they think the butter is on. That is one of the reasons I have a somewhat jaundiced opinion of some out of favor ex-Green suddenly making like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. Suddenly this individual has currency and becomes sought after to speak and write articles again.
I have a feeling he’s talking about me. Remember, David holds a grudge.
It’s a shame. If he spent half as much time focusing on solutions as he does in persecuting “heretics” who violate his own personal beliefs, then he might find some common ground with those whom he constantly picks fights with.
I wish that this type of self-destructive behavior were rare, but sadly, I encounter it all too often. Some people are born evangelists.
@Rod – just a heads up, you mis-spelled Steve Kirsch’s name in the first sentence (you left out the c – easy mistake to make). It’s good to hear from Steve.
When I was first learning more about nuclear energy, about a year and a half ago, Steve’s columns about the Integral Fast Reactor were some of the early documents I read. They really opened my eyes to the possibilities for waste reduction and energy security.
However, I’ve always been a little bit worried about the use of sodium in IFR designs. I’m not an engineer, so I guess I don’t know the real risk of loss of containment of the Sodium in a disaster, but I vividly recall a demonstration one of my junior high science teachers did. He took a tiny, pea-size bit of sodium metal,dropped it into a tub of water, and a few seconds later a 4 or 5 foot high column of fire *erupted* from the tub. That was one pea-size bit of the stuff.
Not only that, but the teacher then went on to explain that just that small amount of sodium had turned the, I dunno, about a gallon of water in the tub, into a very strong base (I think it was Sodium Hydroxide?).
I think I can somewhat reasonably extrapolate what tons of sodium would do if it got out, and reacted with the air or a water source – it would, I think, burn very vigorously, be extremely difficult to put out, and create very large quantities of very dangerous sodium hydroxide or other compounds?
On the plus side, he did then go on to show us how by adding just the right amount of HCl (Hydrochloric Acid), the acid and base would react and I think created table salt (Sodium Chloride) and water. The question is, would anyone have enough HCl or other suitable acid around to react with the Sodium Hydroxide?
But, still, in the end, I’m rather worried about the possibility for Sodium to make a slightly bad situation into a terribly bad situation? Can anyone speak to that, and if I’m wrong for some reason? I’d be happy to be wrong in this case *grin*.
“There are three types of photons, namely ‘green’ ones, ‘yellow’ ones and ‘red’ ones.?”
Shouldn’t it read, “There are three types of gamma rays”?
In the debate about various energy sources, I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” So it is also with nuclear power — it is the worst form of energy except all the other that have been tried.
The real problems with nuclear power are twofold:
1. Familiarity with hazards, and lack thereof. Take automobiles for example. While many people benefit from them, they also kill many people. Assume that everyone benefits from automobiles. Then assume that only 20% of the population benefits from nuclear power (about the proportion of electric power provided by nuclear in the USA). Now look at the number of people killed by both. Automobiles are clearly more hazardous, by orders of magnitude. However, they are a familiar hazard, and a hazard over which people feel they have control. Thus the hazard is greatly discounted. A fatal natural gas explosion is easily understood. Radiation, even at harmless levels, is much more mysterious, and thus much more feared.
2. The victims of reactor disasters tend to be more identifiable than the victims of, say, coal plant emissions. Someone dying from an asthma attack caused by fine particulate emissions from a coal plant will probably not be identified. This is a classic problem. A good example of how this causes the misallocation of resources is in government support for various programs. Take a given amount of money. It could be spent on supporting ‘orphan’ drugs for rare medical conditions. In this case, the potential victims are clearly identified individuals. The same amount of money might be spent on highway improvements that would save 10 times as many lives. But no one will ever know who did not have an accident on the highway because of these improvements. But the orphan drug program is more likely to receive the funding
It would be great if we could get away from power production being a kind of majority rule over the minority. Right now it’s not an individual decision, but a decision formed by the government policies, the regulators, utilities, and influenced by anti-nuclear lobbyists and demonstrators.
There are already “green” power rates that promise to either supply hydro/wind/solar or otherwise buy green energy certificates on some market to fund investment in such energies.
Imagine every power consumer, individuals and businesses, would have multiple choices: coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, gas, oil, or he can default to whatever the utility wants to have. Each choice would come with a different price and restrictions/incentives.
Consumers would vote with their wallets. Green/anti-nuclear activists would have a hard time convincing the public to spend more money on wind/solar just to get environmental benefits. The system might not produce the winner we would like to have – nuclear might be reduced to 10% of total energy, and more coal plant built, but whatever the outcome, it should be acceptable to anyone who respects money.
I thought the 2 deaths in 50 years might have been a referrence to SL1.
Rod – thanks as always for your thoughtful posts. Jerry – I agree that we should have choice. But our local ‘green’ electricity option provider, Bullfrog Power doesn’t have the option I really want – nuclear. I’m completely behind nuclear as the long term primary energy source we need.
To be fair, I haven’t asked Bullfrog Power about whether they plan to have a nuclear energy option. If enough people start asking, it might happen. We have to demonstrate our demand and put our money behind our words.
I don’t see us being able to crowd source a nuclear power plant by individual contributions though. Not yet, anyway…
Andrew, it’s exactly my point. Before the “green energy” era began, it was assumed that consumers just want electricity and they don’t care how it is being produced. The cheapest power was chosen by the utility. Now we have subsidies/regulations totally distorting this.
Instead of falling prey to fearmongering and majority rule, the ultimate decision should be in the hands of the consumer who pays for the power. It would clarify things greatly to see the results. After all, talk is cheap. How many of these anti-nuclear demonstrators are willing to pay double or triple the prices to save the planet from radiation?
I’m one of those ‘pro-nuke / anti climate change’ people. The fact that belief in climate change is a potential driver for nuclear power is a fortunate outcome of an malevolently evil, destructive meme.
One of the biggest issues that alternate energy people have with nuclear is that it is the biggest of ‘big power’ – of such scale that they have no control, no choice, no personal involvement.
As nightmarish as it might sound to those trying to keep all nuclear material under tight control, a household nuclear generator, producing say 5kW may be one of the best ways of turning opinion on this around. I’m not suggesting that such an idea is possible, practical or politically acceptable, just that the availability of such would dramatically change peoples concept of nuclear power.
There is nothing wrong with trying to be more self-sufficient, and going ahead and installing a solar panel and maintaining a personal emergency generator. The problem with the “solar roof” campaigns is that they all want to get paid to do that, through feed-in-tariffs (forcing the utility to buy power they don’t need at exorbitant prices), and don’t want to invest their own money into it.
They dislike central power plants because it competes with their idea of “distributed” generation, the idea of someone having a windmill in his backyard, contributing energy to the smart grid. But once again, since central power plants are just much more efficient and provide energy cheaper (the free market knew what it was doing) they call on taxes on the central plants and subsidies for their decentralized schemes, which makes power more expensive for everybody in the end.
My conclusion is that the best way to solve this ongoing controversy about “how” to provide electricity, is to put the decision not in the hands of representatives that can be influenced by loud minorities and lobbyists, but to put it into the hands of the ratepayers, in a way like I posted above.
Pro-nukes like ourselves would tell our utility we “want” our electricity to come 100% from nuclear power plants. On each electric bill, we would see a big yellow symbol that says “Your power consumption was supplied entirely from nuclear plants or otherwise obligated us to invest your contribution entirely into constructing new nuclear plants.”
A majority of people would probably default to the cheapest option, and let the utility decide what to build and “how” to produce the power.
Government’s role would only be to supervise the scheme, and to regulate real environmental and safety problems. Government would no longer “pick winners” in the energy market and no longer tax and subsidize anybody just because politicians thought it was a good idea.
“Do we have tsunamis here in the US? Not that I recall. ”
Well, look to NW Pacific coast. Tsunamis from Alaska & the “big one” expected soon from Pacific subduction zone!
I see nothing wrong with distributed generation – IF there is enough for ppl to meet their needs. In the old days of windmills and water-mills with NO a/c and few lights, this was how it was done. This is self-sufficiency, which is a concept rooted in our nationhood as Americans. This is invariably linked with RURAL living.
The central power grid is for ppl who have TV’s, computers, A/C’s, and who run lights at night.
That counts most of us.
But has anyone noticed how MUSIC has shrunk from big hi-fi sets to medium-sized CD players….to LITTLE battery-operated iPods and MP3 players??? I could take an iPod to a sunny third-word country, charge if off solar during the day, and have a couple hours of tunes at night…
Distributed generation CAN’T do everything – especially not health-care reliable electricity or industrial generation — but it can meet some very basic applications in rural settings where urban services (and populations that need them) are not present.
Comments are closed.
Recent Comments from our Readers
The Clinton Nuclear Plant also in Illinois was shutdown essentially for almost 2 years before it was taken over by…
Good Podcast – Very informative One thing that was not discussed is how to deal with a particular fear that…
Renewables people are masters in marketing. Unreliable intermittent generators whose output is all over the place, and usually badly correlated…
Looking at their lineup, Westinghouse seems bound and determined to keep Gen IV in its “place” which is apparently the…
So they are developing a scaled down version of the AP1000, which is a scaled up version of the AP600,…