Why does anyone trust Robert Alvarez’s opinions about nuclear energy?
The Energy Collective, is an aggregation site that provides a wide variety of views about energy. It is often a place with high quality discussions, but it can also be a site where article placement decisions completely baffle me.
Yesterday, I visited The Energy Collective and found out that the best, most visible spot on the site was inhabited by a post about nuclear energy by a freelance writer and solar energy advocate named Anja Atkinson. The post is titled Fukushima Comparable to Chernobyl [Robert Alvarez] That post was also listed as the top post about nuclear energy in the rotating marquee at the top left side of The Energy Collective Home page. It remains in that prime position today; the situation is almost enough to make me completely abandon The Energy Collective as a source of information.
There are a number of problems with the post and its elevation to a prime spot. First of all, Ms. Atkinson does not know anything about nuclear energy. She has demonstrated that repeatedly. In fact, she has another post that is currently featured that attempts to prove the ridiculous notion that solar thermal energy is competitive with nuclear energy on a cost and reliability basis.
Secondly, Fukushima is not remotely comparable to Chernobyl. The politically driven choice to assign it the same number on the IAEA scale is just plain wrong.
At Chernobyl, an uncontained reactor exploded and burned, dumping unfiltered core material into the environment. Of the 600 people on the reactor site soon after the accident, 134 of them received enough radiation exposure to cause immediate illness. Of that group of liquidators “28 died in the first three months and another 19 died in 1987-2004 of various causes not necessarily associated with radiation exposure.” 530,000 people received average doses of 120 mSv. At Fukushima, no one has gotten sick from radiation exposure. Only a few hundred workers at the site have received radiation doses in excess of 100 mSv.
Obviously, if there have been no illnesses, there have been no deaths either. The very worst that can be said truthfully is that a couple of workers have received a high enough dose that their lifetime risk of getting cancer sometime in the future might have increased by a few percent.
The final reason for my disappointment in the editors at The Energy Collective for their decision to place Ms. Atkinson’s piece in a prime location is the fact that she based her entire article on a Democracy Now interview featuring Robert Alvarez. (I happen to like listening to Democracy Now as a podcast, but find its blind spot about nuclear energy to be a source of continuing frustration.)
Ms. Atkinson provides the following snippet of information from the web site of Mr. Alvarez’s current employer, the Institute for Policy Studies, as a way to enhance the credibility of her assertion that Fukushima is comparable to Chernobyl.
“Robert Alvarez is a Senior Scholar at IPS, where he is currently focused on nuclear disarmament, environmental, and energy policies.
Between 1993 and 1999, Mr. Alvarez served as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment. While at DOE, he coordinated the effort to enact nuclear worker compensation legislation. In 1994 and 1995, Bob led teams in North Korea to establish control of nuclear weapons materials. He coordinated nuclear material strategic planning for the department and established the department’s first asset management program. Bob was awarded two Secretarial Gold Medals, the highest awards given by the department.”
During the Democracy Now interview that she embedded into her story, Alvarez describes how he used to be a nuclear insider and how his opinion formed that he could not trust nuclear industry people to tell the whole story. Here is a quote from that interview:
The nuclear industry enjoys this rather unique status because of its origins in the nuclear weapons program and that it’s a system that has been fostered under conditions of secrecy, isolation and privilege, and they do not consider it in their interest to be candid with the public. I used to work in the Energy Department for six years and was a former, I guess you would say, nuclear insider. And the mindset that I encountered there was that they—the people who were reluctant to reveal candid information about the nature of the hazards from these activities—was that we can’t scare people, scaring people is worse than telling them the truth.
As a nuclear professional, I am deeply offended when someone claims to be an insider and then implies that the people in the industry are “less than candid”. One of the things I have always appreciated about the people who dedicate their professional lives to extracting useful energy from atomic nuclei is that we share a strong sense of personal integrity and demand candid communications. One of the quickest ways to be removed from duties involving nuclear safety is to demonstrate that your words cannot be trusted. We are far more forgiving of admitted human error than we are of any effort to CYOA. (I can provide the translation of that acronym off line, it is not family friendly.)
It makes me angry to be accused of being untrustworthy by a guy like Robert Alvarez, and I cannot believe that anyone would think that he is a credible source of information about nuclear energy. He has no nuclear training and has an official record of deception and lawlessness that should disqualify him from any public commentary in a what should be a respected and moderated source of energy information. Here is a copy of the comment that I left on Ms. Atkinson’s post.
In my line of work, people must accept responsibility for their actions and they must demonstrate their personal integrity and reliability. Their backgrounds are under constant review. There are fitness for duty program to ensure that they are as capable as humanly possible of performing their assigned duties.
I am a nuke. That is the Navy’s familiar term for being a nuclear energy professional. I am no longer in the Navy nuclear power program, but I am still a nuclear professional.
My pride in what I do and what my friends and colleagues do to provide clean, reliable, affordable, emission free energy that has the very best safety record among all competitive energy sources is one of the reasons that I see red when someone tries to hold up a guy like Robert Alvarez as an authority on our technology.
Alvarez attended college and majored in musical studies, but he did not graduate. (Note: The preceding sentence was changed on June 20, 2011 from the original statement that Alvarez held a PhD in musical studies. The change was based on information received from two people who worked with Alvarez while he was at DOE. He apparently joked about his failure to complete his studies – he told one of them that that his failure to graduate does not mean that he cannot carry a tune.) He served in a politically appointed role at the Department of Energy – at the same time that he was married to a professional antinuclear activist who was proud of her role in helping to organize “No Nukes” concerts. He was FIRED from his job when his daughter turned him and his antinuclear activist wife in for growing commercial quantities of marijuana in their home in Takoma Park WHILE he was serving in a high level government job, presumably with a sworn duty to uphold the laws of the land. That does not say much for his personal accountability or his personal integrity. It certainly demonstrates that he cannot be trusted – we are not talking here about youthful indiscretions, but about purposeful actions of a presumably mature adult.
Give me a freaking break and stop trying to use this kind of source for information about nuclear technology!
Yes, this is an ad hominem attack, but when the man continues to use his former position at the Department of Energy to establish his credibility, “the rest of the story” about his job performance is clearly relevant information that MUST be shared as well.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Commander, USN (ret)
In other words, before you believe the words of a man like Alvarez in condemnation of tens of thousands of highly trained professionals with proven records of safely operating nuclear power plants and proven records of personal accountability, do a little Googling. Do the background checks that any reasonable employer would do. Make sure that you are not being seduced by a trained salesman or by a person with a lot of skeletons to hide in his professional history.
If you want a comparison between Chernobyl and Fukushima from a more credible source who knows a bit more about nuclear energy, I highly recommend reading this letter from Ted Rockwell that was published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly on June 1, 2011.
PS – I am starting to wonder if the Siemens sponsorship of The Energy Collective is influencing the editorial decisions that seem to be trending towards promoting natural gas, wind and solar energy and denigrating nuclear energy. After all, Siemens is deeply involved in collecting rent from taxpayers for its wind, solar and natural gas power generation systems at the same time that it is paying about a billion dollars to extract itself from a nuclear energy partnership with Areva.
Siemens has nuclear business outside of the Areva/Siemens partnership.
Speaking of “musical studies,” do you know what Commissioner Magwood’s highest degree is?
A bit of trivia.
I cheated. From the NRC website, he has a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Pittsburgh. He also has a BS in Physics and BA in English from Carnegie-Mellon.
Okay guys, don’t hate on an art degree 😉
Hate? Commissioner Magwood’s pretty OK in my book.
Yeah, no hate intended. Magwood seemed pretty reasonable when I met him in Oak Ridge at an ANS meeting.
Here’s a scary thought: Dr. Alverez probably had a Q clearance while working at DOE.
I posted a reply on the Energy Collective thread, although it doesn’t seem to have made it past moderation yet. My post was a response to, what strikes me as a rather ignorant comment by an anonymous poster. I quote the comment I’m replying to, throughout my reply, so you should be able to easily find the post I replied to.
In case the comment never shows up on TEC, I’m reposting here:
Where to begin, in responding to this? I guess with this:
“I watched the Democracy Now piece, and thought it was much closer to the reality of Fukushima than what the major media outlets are presenting.”
Really? Basedup upon what evidence or rationale? This sounds like a classic case of Confirmation Bias:
“What has been going on at the Fukushima Daiichi plant since 03-11-11 has been completely whitewashed by governments, corporations, and the media.”
Really? Again, I must ask based upon what evidence you come to this conclusion? You offer NONE in your comments. Apparently it’s a whitewash because you believe it to be terrible, and the news isn’t portraying it as terrible as your prejudice dictates, so it must be a whitewash?
“The nuclear fuel chain is one of the most intensive uses of fossil fuels we have created – from mining, to milling, to fuel production, to waste processing, to waste storage.”
That’s a red herring. Virtually all of the energy necessary to do those things *could theoretically* come FROM Nuclear Power, which would make it carbon free. I do acknowledge that historically, this has been the case – that oil and coal power have been used for most of the fuel cycle, but this isn’t an inherent necessity. I would also point out that you get out FAR MORE energy from the fuel than it takes to do all those things.
You also do not take into account that technology exists, though unfortunately is not widely used at this time, which could extract about 100 to 200 TIMES more energy from our “nuclear waste”. Even without using such technology, nuclear still gives us far more energy YIELD than the amount of energy spent in the mining, milling, fuel production, waste processing, and waste storage.
Finally, you do not acknowledge that you also need to do a LOT of mining, processing, etc for “renewables”, like Solar Arrays (either thermal or PV) and Wind Tower. If we apply the same standard to Solar and Wind that you insist on applying to nuclear vis-a-vis using carbon fuels for mining and manufacturing the solar plants/PV panels and Windmills, then those sources of power are ALSO not carbon-free.
So, the important thing, the real point of comparison is how many units of total energy yield will you get OUT per unit of carbon released in the lifecycle? Such comparisons have been DONE, and Nuclear’s carbon emission per unit energy is very low, and compares favorably (and there is definite room for improvement, as I said, by using nuclear power to run the early stages of the lifecycle more):
Next, let’s move to your comment:
“And, it is super expensive.”
Yeah, renewables are a lot more expensive than nuclear right now. Nuclear power could come down in cost quite a LOT. I believe the cost of nuclear power to be at an historic maximum right now, caused by the nuclear industry essentially being near a state of FULL STALL. Renewables advocates like to say that the cost of renewables will come down due to R&D plus Economies of Scale. This is true. It’s equally true for nuclear power.
Except, Nuclear Power has to deal with constant harrassment from anti-nuclear “advocates”, who are constantly filing nuissance lawsuits, and trying to stall the regulatory processes at the NRC as much as possible. This constant harrassment doesn’t really increase safety – it just drives the cost of nuclear power way, way up. I wouldn’t be surprised if it doubles the cost of nuclear power.
If we can get the nuclear industry (especially Small Modular Reactors, which should have very favorable economies of scale) going again, costs will fall. It’s almost inconceivable that they wouldn’t fall from the present levels.
Finally, we come to:
“And it is dangerous.”
Not especially. Yes, it has dangers. Virtually everything man does is dangerous. Fire is dangerous, yet we use fire. Fire is very useful. Driving is dangerous, yet we drive. Flying is dangerous, yet we fly. Eating is dangerous (You might choke!), yet we eat. Showering is dangerous (you might slip and crack your head!), yes most of us shower.
It’s about managing the risks, about developing new generations of nuclear reactor technology which keep increasing the safety. Fukushima appears to be the “worst-case” scenario for that type of reactor design, and while it’s bad, it’s definitely NOT as bad a Chernobyl. Others have provided better analysis of that, so I won’t make this post any longer with another comparison. But, I will simply note that the Fukushima reactors are 60 year old technology, but they were considerably safer than Chernobyl.
It’s very reasonable and rational to think the Gen III+ reactors (like the APR1000-series designs, the GE-Hitachin ESBWR which is an evolved, advanced version of the reactors at Fukushima, which adds a lot more safety), would be much safer still than the Fukushima reactors, and we have Gen IV reactors on the horizon, like the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, which can be made very nearly disaster-proof (not so much that disasters can’t happen, but that when they happen, there’s essentially no way that it can become a bad problem – seriously, go spend some time reading about the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor).
The Gen IV reactors will also SOLVE the nuclear waste problem. A problem that can ONLY be solved with Gen IV nuclear reactors – there IS NO OTHER SOLUTION. Burying the waste for 100,000 years isn’t really a solution.
“One of the things I have always appreciated about the people who dedicate their professional lives to extracting useful energy from atomic nuclei is that we share a strong sense of personal integrity and demand candid communications.”
Meh. I have long experience in the field as an outsider looking in, and have several nearby family members who work in the industry (Darlington is about 5 km from my house). I disagree with this claim, strenuously.
It’s not that insiders are being disingenuous, its that they are generally (and sophomorically) dismissive of any statement from someone who isn’t “big energy”, “big degree” or “big science”. This article is a perfect example. It is not only dismissive of the article in question, but then expands this to other posts by the same author, and then conflates that with the site as a whole.
It’s astonishing to see, notably when the author claims to be taking some sort of stand on the moral high ground. Consider this statement:
“ridiculous notion that solar thermal energy is competitive with nuclear energy on a cost and reliability basis.”
Given that you provide no evidence whatsoever for this dismissive statement, why would I possibly consider your claims to be any more cogent than hers? I’ve certainly seen studies that suggest best case CSP+gas is within 40% of best-case nuclear.
CSP+gas is within 40% of best-case nuclear
Emphasis on “+gas”, because – usually – in a CSP plant that incorporates gas, the overwhelming majority of the energy comes from gas and not from CSP. CSP+gas is a great way to sell a lot of gas; don’t get me wrong, gas isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s disingenuous to use a hybrid plant very heavily biased towards fossils as a shining example of the bright renewable future.
Wow, moving the goalposts there Dave?
The point is that her claim is not “ridiculous”, which you implicitly accept by re-quoting the number.
Wow, do you ever stop comparing apples to oranges, Maury?
If you’re going to go on and on about the economics of CSP+gas, shouldn’t you be comparing it to the economics of nuclear+gas?
I’m sure that they would compare quite well, except that the nuclear+gas combo would rely heavily on the economics of nuclear (based on marginal costs of the fuel), whereas the CSP+gas would rely heavily on the economics of natural gas.
If you remove the gas, then yes, the comparison becomes ridiculous.
You keep complaining that the “insiders” are being “dismissive,” whereas we keep complaining that we’re dealing with people who can’t tell apples from oranges. These two complaints are not independent.
So this is what passes for reasonable discourse on technical topics? Moving goalposts, personal insults and exaggeration?
What, you don’t think that’s an issue? Well you used the terms “ever stop”, “on and on” and “keep complaining”, when in fact the number in question is “one”. Apple(s) and orange(s), indeed.
I give up. This forum is clearly not the place for rational discussion.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Maury.
What a baby!
There’s nothing like introducing yourself to a forum by slinging insults
and then ducking tail and running when someone disagrees with you to
firmly establish your seriousness and credibility.
For those who didn’t catch it, Maury’s definition of “rational discussion” must be “everybody agrees with me.”
@Maury please note: I said noting about CSP+gas.
In addition, this post does not stand alone – there are about 1950 posts on Atomic Insights dating back to 1995. I have published a whole lot of supporting articles that back up my assertions.
You are slightly off the mark when saying that there have been “several hundred” workers at the Fukushima site who received radiation doses over 100 millisieverts.
At last count, there were 102 such cases:
Rod, I am reading with distress your criticism of our moderation policy at The Energy Collective, because as you know, we have in the three years we’ve been in existence, always embraced pro-nuclear blogs as an important voice in the critical conversation about energy choices. In fact, we have been criticized repeatedly for being a “pro-nuclear” site (see Justin Elliott in Salon.com.) Our decision to publish Anja Atkinson’s post was about our willingness to continue the debate around the implications of Fukushima (which has been called the “new Chernobyl in many places, including the New York Times) — and was not an endorsement of any particular viewpoint.
Robin – I was not necessarily criticizing your decision to publish, but I was criticizing your decision to place an article that was factually wrong on many levels in a position of prominence. Your site does not place articles in random positions; there are conscious editorial decisions involved.
As has been pointed out on a number of occasions, The Energy Collective seems to almost overreact to an accusation of being pro-nuclear. If the facts land in favor of nuclear, so be it.
I also find it disingenuous that you cite the general interest New York Times with regard to the description of Fukushima. I guess I am a little confused – are you simply a place where all opinions are equal or are you a place where experts in energy technologies can come to discuss challenging matters in a factual way.
“discuss challenging matters in a factual way”
Pot, meet kettle. If you want to promote rational discussion, you should generally start by treating the other people in the debate with respect.
Having read the linked article several times, I see nothing even remotely questionable in the post. It appears you are actually concerned with Alvarez’s comments, then expanding that to concerns about anyone that would quote them, and then expanding that to the entire website.
So again, pot, kettle.
As for the subject of the article, IMO, the reason why Alvarez gets press is because he has “impressive experience” and is well-connected in anti-nuclear circles, even if his departure from his high-ranking DOE position was unusual in nature. Probably also because he’s willing to talk and (thinks) he knows enough of the subject that he can claim to have an “insider perspective”.
@Dave – The idea that Alvarez has “impressive experience” is exactly why I believe it is important to continue to repeat the truth about that experience in as many venues as possible. He has no educational or professional background that demonstrates technical knowledge – he studied enough of the “issues” and spouted enough of the accepted political line to gain a politically based appointment. He attended a lot of policy meetings, but that does not make him knowledgeable about the health effects of radiation, or about the material challenges associated with operating high pressure steam plants, or about the effort invested in maintaining containment boundaries.
He then DEMONSTRATED his complete lack of judgement and integrity by blatantly violating the law and the policy of his own employer. Again, growing commercial quantities of an illegal drug in your basement when you are a 54 year old high level federal government official is really, really stupid, even if you believe that the laws against marijuana are ill advised. It is impossible to maintain a sense of personal integrity when you have to live a lie every day and you are constantly worried about someone finding out what you are doing at home. However, it can be easy if you are a natural liar.
If you happen to be able to lie with ease, then you should not be trusted to provide your opinion about anything. People should shun you. Journalist should never call. This is America and there is a right of free speech, but people who have that sense of morality should be limited to finding a literal soap box in a city park or some other very limited venue for sharing their ideas.
By the way, Alvarez is not the only vulnerable character in the antinuclear movement. All of them should be constantly exposed for the frauds that they are. They are doing their best to eliminate a valuable energy source that means a great deal to the prosperity of our current generation and all future generations. They should stand by for the consequences of that action and not be held in high regard by anyone.
Very revealing that you are afraid of Bob Alvarez and what he says. The question can also be asked – why trust nuclear industry blogs that support the bilking of the tax payer by big government and their corporate buddies?
Let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Tom’s background gives him standing, Bob’s, not so much. If you wish to ascribe every opinion to vested interests, you’ll get nowhere, fast.
Ad hominem attacks on former colleagues who you wish to discredit are not going to get you anywhere, either.
All opponents of nuclear power are “frauds”? Meaning, you think none of them actually believe nuclear power is too dangerous to be used?
Maybe they’re incorrect, maybe not. That’s what the discussion is about. But it’s preposterous to say they’re all frauds.
I’m sure you’d bristle if someone said, all pro-nuclear advocates are frauds because they earn money from nuclear power. Both statements are fallacious.
There is nothing wrong with earning money from applying technical knowledge to create useful electrical power or heat from atomic fission. People who do work or sell a product that others are willing to pay for should earn money.
There is something wrong with continuously claiming that the technology is so dangerous that it should be avoided altogether when there is a 55 year long history of nuclear power plant operations that belies that claim.
Perhaps I am just not imaginative enough to understand how anyone can attempt to live based on fear or feelings of something that is simply contrary to actual experience.
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