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.