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.