Brad Plumer on Nuclear Learnings from France & South Korea

Brad’s excellent essay on Vox interprets the recent Energy Policy paper by Jessica Lovering, Arthur Yip, and Ted Nordhaus. I have really just one quibble with Brad’s “Four broad lessons” summary where he wrote:

1) Stable regulations are essential for nuclear power to thrive. More than, say, solar or wind, nuclear will always need strict safety and environmental regulations. No way around that. The risks are inherently higher.

That’s an example of the “see I’m not pro-nuclear” positioning that we often notice even in informed commentary on how nuclear power fits into the menu of low carbon options. The relative risks of nuclear power are not inherently higher! In his marvelous “Sustainable energy without the hot air” David Mackay’s Chapter 24 Nuclear? examines nuclear power. From that chapter I extracted following graphic. This is David’s computation of deaths per GWy (gigawatt-year), which he has extracted from two of the studies we’ve previously referenced: the EU ExternE research, and the Paul Scherrer Institute.David MacKay relative risks of energy options

  • Our goal is to substitute low-carbon for fossil, especially coal, and especially in the developing fast-growing nations.
  • Amongst the low-carbon options, nuclear has proven to be the safest and really the only scaleable option that can displace coal and natural gas.
  • Nobody is proposing to build more unsafe Chernobyl RBMK unsafe. Yet Chernobyl deaths dominate the tiny comparative death-print statistics of our generation options. Take away Chernobyl and commercial nuclear’s death-print is effectively zero.

When I first studied the relative risks of our energy options I quickly realized that my fears of nuclear catastrophe were based entirely on media mythology. The media don’t report on the thousands of people killed by fossil fuels every year. Even major accidents like the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion are not widely reported or investigated (this 2010 accident was in a suburb of San Francisco: 8 fatalities, 52 injured). Fossil energy causes real people to die every year – real deaths versus theoretical nuclear deaths.

San Bruno gas pipeline explosion

We have a civilizational choice to make: whether we organize political support to scale up construction of advanced nuclear plants that are both economical and orders of magnitude safer than the existing safe 3G plants. If we fail to do that we are going to squander our wealth on the renewables dream – only to find ourselves blockaded by the economics when we are only halfway to our goal of zero emissions energy.

Is there a way forward for Japan’s post-Fukushima fears?

Radiation and reason
Cover art: Spencer Weart’s “The Rise of Nuclear Fear”; Wade Allison’s Radiation and Reason

The survivors of Japan’s Tohoku Earthquake have suffered so much. The former residents of the Fukushima exclusion zone are bearing the additional stress of nuclear fear. Polling of former residents indicates that fewer than one-half may be willing to return. There is so much radiation fear and distrust of government.

Radiophobia is common in Japan, probably explaining why the government enacted radiation standards much lower than scientifically justified; and why politicians nourished expectations of nuclear power perfection. Combining this history with the mismanagement of the Fukushima accident has put Japan in a very unfortunate position:  Japan’s economy is damaged by importing fossil fuels to replace the almost 30% of their electricity generation that has been closed. And the widespread radiophobia may prevent restarting the majority of Japan’s 43 operable reactors. In addition to Japan’s economic stress, the fear of nuclear catastrophe is causing Japan to share their fear globally – as unnecessary carbon emissions.

How to help the Japanese people shift to a realistic view of the benefits vs. risks of restarting their nuclear fleet?

Consider the segment of the American population with similar fears of apocalyptic nuclear accidents. If you wanted to form a Presidential Commission to evaluate and report on the entire range of energy options – who would you nominate that could influence the fearful? Who would I nominate? George P. Shultz is an easy choice. If he accepted, the rest of the recruiting would go well. My next call would be to Burton Richter. Besides his deep competence and gravitas he has long experience with just this sort of public policy responsibility, and practical experience with getting things done in government. As an example Burt has been a key contributor to the California Council On Science And Technology project “Policies for California’s Energy Future”. My third pick would be Jane Long – who coincidentally was the very effective leader of the enlightened CCST project.  

Surely Japan has public figures of similar skills and stature. Who are they? How much impact could such an “Japan Energy Commission” have on public fears? Could such a commission get the ear of Japan’s heavily anti-nuclear media?

A complementary approach could be to adapt Robert Stone’s concept of building a high-credibility story around “switchers”. If Robert himself could be enlisted to this project he would be a powerful agent of change. I’m sure he could train a Japanese counterpart. As a director Robert knows how to organize the effort to tell a compelling story. There must be Japanese anti-nuclear campaigners who have switched?

Regarding funding of such a project, moving Japan towards a pragmatic energy policy isn’t just for Japan’s benefit. Earth’s atmosphere will obviously say “Thank you” for reduced Japanese emissions. Emissions aside, Germany plus Japan’s nuclear shutdown is having a big negative impact across the globe. If Japan restarts most of their nuclear fleet that will send a very helpful signal.

 

CGEP Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy

On April 10, 2015 the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy hosted a “Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy.” The CGEP panel:

Tom Blees, President, The Science Council for Global Initiatives;
Travis Bradford, Associate Professor of Practice in International and Public Affairs; Director, Energy and Environment Concentration, Columbia SIPA;
Eric Loewen, Chief Consulting Engineer, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy; and,
Robert Stone, Director, Pandora’s Promise.

There is a lot of well-informed discussion – I recommend the 90 minute video. Around 1:04 Robert Stone was asked to comment on current public attitudes towards nuclear power. He replied that of the screenings where he was present “the response overwhelming support, over 90% in favor of what I’m saying in the film.” At 1:06 Robert goes in to the exceptions to this positive outlook. Following is a loose partial transcript:

Surprisingly, audiences in Europe are still infused with this idea that Chernobyl killed 100s of thousands of people. There are continual documentaries on television about that.

(…snip…) Probably the most controversial and shocking aspect of the film was what the World Health Organization has reported after years and years of study. WHO has published that substantially less than 100 people have had their lives shortened by the Chernobyl accident.

The mayor of the town of where 50,000 people were relocated from Chernobyl asked me to bring the film. They were so grateful for the film because there is this perception that we all have two headed babies, we are all dying of cancer. They said no documentary film maker has ever talked to them or visited them.

Europe: there have been so many EU TV documentaries claiming great damage/death caused by Chernobyl – and more that talked about Fukushima in the same way. No European broadcaster has shown Pandora’s Promise. 

They said we can’t show your film because it contradicts all the films that we have produced. They can’t both be true. It will undermine our credibility with our audience.

How to be an Errorist: if anti-nuclear content was factually true it wouldn’t be anti-nuclear

Errorist

I see far too many anti-nuclear press reports. It truly looks like all the big media journos have their favorite UCS and Greenpeace contacts in their Rolodex. And it is a fact that “Fear Sells”, whether clicks or newsprint. So I had a chuckle today when I read this little essay How to be an Errorist from the Northwest Energy folks. They were motivated to write this June 17, 2015 by the satirical New Yorker piece “Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans.”

While the story is made-up, many of these fact-resistant folks seem to be radically opposed to nuclear energy. This normally wouldn’t be of great concern, anyone can believe what they want. But when that ignorance (deception?) is given legitimacy through public policy discussions, then it can create a problem for society as a whole (impeding the development of new nuclear energy resources to combat climate change comes to mind).

So, I have a challenge for you Dear Reader: please email or Tweet me if you have encountered an anti-nuclear article that is factually correct. I’ve been scratching my head trying to remember such an instance — but I can’t think of a single case. If the content was factually true it wouldn’t be anti-nuclear.

Wade Allison: Why radiation is much safer than you think

Originally man relied for energy on the digestion of food like all animals, but at a historic moment he began to domesticate fire as a source of external energy for lighting, cooking and heating his home. Although this was a dangerous step, it was essential to civilisation. No doubt the environmentalists of those days objected and had a strong case, but they had to accept that the benefits outweighed the dangers, provided education and training in the use of fire was given to everybody including children.

Recently retired Oxford physicist Wade Allison continues helping people understand that radiation risks are radically less than the usual media alarmism. Prof. Allison used this cartoon in his recent video interview, to illustrate the political situation when humans first began to burn fuel outside of their bodies.

Here’s a sample of his science communications:

Very high background radiation areas of Ramsar, Iran: preliminary biological studies

Jim Conca cited this abstract in PubMed

People in some areas of Ramsar, a city in northern Iran, receive an annual radiation absorbed dose from background radiation that is up to 260 mSv y(-1), substantially higher than the 20 mSv y(-1) that is permitted for radiation workers. Inhabitants of Ramsar have lived for many generations in these high background areas. Cytogenetic studies show no significant differences between people in the high background compared to people in normal background areas. An in vitro challenge dose of 1.5 Gy of gamma rays was administered to the lymphocytes, which showed significantly reduced frequency for chromosome aberrations of people living in high background compared to those in normal background areas in and near Ramsar. Specifically, inhabitants of high background radiation areas had about 56% the average number of induced chromosomal abnormalities of normal background radiation area inhabitants following this exposure. This suggests that adaptive response might be induced by chronic exposure to natural background radiation as opposed to acute exposure to higher (tens of mGy) levels of radiation in the laboratory. There were no differences in laboratory tests of the immune systems, and no noted differences in hematological alterations between these two groups of people.

I found an ungated version of the paper here. Study participants were 14 normal and 21 elevated background persons.

Liebreich: Germany’s self-inflicted nuclear disaster

Fact #1: Fossil Fuels continue to dominate global energy

Michael Liebreich, Chairman of the Advisory Board – Bloomberg New Energy Finance on the contradictory energy policy of Germany’s Energiewende. Following is a short excerpt from a long VIP comment on the global lack of progress on decarbonization: 

While Japan’s nuclear woes result from the Fukushima natural disaster, Germany’s are wholly self-inflicted. In 2011 Angela Merkel reversed her former determination to prolong the life of Germany’s nuclear fleet, quickly shutting eight of the country’s 17 reactors and returning to the previous policy of full nuclear phase-out by 2022. This left fossil generation’s contribution to the German electricity system largely unchanged until at least 2020, and possibly 2025. Combined with the collapse of the EU-ETS carbon price and a flood of cheap coal being squeezed out of the US by the glut of shale gas, and the result is Germany burning more coal and generating higher emissions.

Anyone who promotes the Energiewende as Germany’s solution to climate change needs to understand that it is first being used to retire Germany’s zero-carbon nuclear fleet, and only when that has been completed will it start to squeeze fossil-based power off the grid. Germany has given nuclear retirement a higher priority than climate action, pure and simple.

To anyone not ideologically anti-nuclear power, this is a manifestly wrong-headed policy. The arguments about nuclear waste and proliferation hardly apply to existing nuclear power stations. The problems are real, but they are not worsened by continuing operation. Nor are they mitigated by early shut-down. They may be powerful arguments against building nuclear capacity in new countries, but are poor arguments in the case of Germany or Switzerland.

The fact is, as I showed in the statistics I presented in my BNEF Summit keynote in April 2012, nuclear power is far safer than coal-fired power generation. Deaths per TWh are around 15 times lower for nuclear power than for coal-fired power in the developed world, and 300 times safer than coal-fired power in China. And this is including the impact of Three Mile Island, Sellafield, Chernobyl and Fukushima, but before taking into account the appalling toll inflicted on the wider population by coal-driven air pollution and smog. The tsunami that hit Fukushima killed nearly 16,000 people; however, so far no one has been shown to have lost their life as a result of the nuclear disaster.

So much for those countries that have – illogically and to the detriment of the climate – decided to shut their nuclear fleet prematurely. What about the countries that are pushing ahead and replacing aging nuclear plants? (…snip…)

Source.

Risks from low levels of ionizing radiation

This is a guest post by physicist Jani-Petri Martikainen @jpjmarti, proprietor of PassiiviIdentiteetti
(This post first appeared on Passiiviidentiteetti October 26, 2014)

This is one branch of the referenced Twitter discussion. 

There was a brief, but interesting discussion in Twitter about risks from exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation. Among pro-nuclear people this discussion erupts with some regularity. For some background there is this really clear discussion by @kasilas which you should read. The thing is that some (I suspect mostly people with engineering background) dislike LNT (linear no threshold) assumption in radiation protection. They say that below a dose of about 100 mSv it doesn’t have observational support and therefore one should not talk about “risk” below some threshold. Such risk is speculative and just gives ammo to anti-nuclear crackpots. On the other hand experts in radiation biology and protection gather around the “party line” and tend to see LNT, if not perfect, then at least good enough and certainly better justified than supposed alternatives. The sane on both sides nevertheless conclude that whatever risk model we use for low doses, the risks will  be small compared to many other risks we face on a routine basis. Both, by and large, hold the opinion that radiation from nuclear power is not an important public health concern relative to more pressing concerns.

Figure 1: Discussing hormesis and how it relates to LNT

Figure 1: Discussing hormesis and how it relates to LNT

I think this discussion is interesting not so much from the scientific perspective, but mainly from the sociological perspective. I suspect that engineering types dislike going through the trouble of minimizing all sources of exposure as much as possible while knowing that it adds to costs and that this work has no observable consequences. They feel that they could be working on much more important things. Radiation protection people on the other wish to protect scientific standards and probably feel a civic duty to maintain and built public trust on experts. Playing fast and loose with radiation risks might undermine that work. They dislike fear mongering by anti-nuclear folks as well as nonchalant attitude to small doses expressed by some pro-nuclear people. They are the doctors trying to keep inmates from running the asylum. (Although this task is complicated by the fact that only pro-nuclear folks have the courtesy to loiter close to the asylum. Antis have always been running free.)

Personally I have sympathy for both sides of this discussion, but I think this is fundamentally not a scientific question, but a question of public perception of risks and how that relates to policies. Due to decades of misinformation many people have fundamentally wrong perception of radiation risks. When we start by saying that radiation dose, no matter how small, poses a risk, we do not question that underlying default setting. We might then continue telling how this risk is nevertheless tiny, but many people have already tuned out. And in any case people are very bad at evaluating risks so they are more than likely to compress the message to “radiation BAD”. The conspiracy minded among the public will of course go even further. When official tells them small amount of radiation has risks, they will conclude that it is in fact deadly and the level that is really safe will be something much much lower. As the safety level is thus adjusted downwards possibilities for exceeding those “safe levels” multiply and the sense of danger will probably go up rather than down. Of course this is a complex issue. If on the other hand we say that the risk is not there, some will simply decide that you are not credible and tune out immediately. You have to adjust your message in response to craziness on the other side and hope they will gradually move to a sensible position. But does anybody know, how nuanced accurate discussion actually influences people whose opinions are at the start of the discussion bizarrely off base? Such discussion certainly is preferable with people whose opinions are more or less sensible to begin with, but with others? I am really not sure and would love to learn of some research on this topic.

Given my background I was (of course) thinking that isn’t this kind of similar to importance of quantum mechanics? We live in an imperfect world where most people do not need Planck’s constant in their daily lives. This natural constant is at the heart of quantum mechanics and indeed our world be inexplicable without it. (In fact some of those who actually need it in their daily lives, define their units in terms of it so that for them Planck’s constant has a value one. Being so down to earth and organic they even call such units “natural”.) However, as a practical matter it doesn’t make sense to incorporate the effects of Planck’s constant into building codes or environmental impact assessments etc. Most people will find it easier to just set Planck’s constant to zero and as a practical tool that is usually perfectly OK, even though it is fundamentally wrong. In fact, if we were to do the opposite, the risk of a backfire would be large. People would not know how to deal with Planck’s constant in practice and if asked about its magnitude they would be off by a large amount. (If we were to give them some additional information such that “Planck’s constant is related to the energy of  particles of radiation”, many would probably increase the value of the constant even more.)

Given the horrendously wrong public perception of radiation risks, I often feel they would be better served if their default settings were based on the idea of zero risk. This is fundamentally wrong, but it is less wrong, in a practical sense, than their current perceptions. Once the lowest order term has been correctly established we could start adding nuance and even move to discussion of such regimes where radiation risk is actually large. Nowadays people start from fears of cities attacked with nuclear weapons and then we expect them to make a reasonable extrapolation of risks into their daily lives. For most people I don’t think that will ever happen. On the other hand, I do not know how that more sensible starting point can be established in practice. Currently people pickup nonsense from NGO:s and media already as children and accurate information gets drowned in the noise.

[The Twitter discussion follows, Ed]:

Amelia Cook (@millysievert)

10/24/14, 3:33 AM

 

According to LNT-influenced guidelines, cancer risk starts to increase at 100mSv, right? Is that an annual dose, or some other duration?

Anders Örbom (@andersorbom)

10/24/14, 3:40 AM

 

@millysievert No, 100 mSv is where increased risk has been observed, but that is due to lack of data, not that 100 mSv is a “limit”.

Amelia Cook (@millysievert)

10/24/14, 3:41 AM

 

@andersorbom No, I understand that, just trying to find it if that assumption is made on an annual dose or some other duration.

Casey (@cthorm)

10/24/14, 4:48 AM

 

@millysievert @andersorbom LNT considers “dose”, not “dose rate,” while dose rate is actually what matters.

Casey (@cthorm)

10/24/14, 4:50 AM

 

@millysievert @andersorbom “accumulation” has no support in the data. Hormesis is observed, biological processes repair slow damage.

Amelia Cook (@millysievert)

10/24/14, 4:55 AM

 

@cthorm @andersorbom Thank you! Looking up ‘hormesis’ now, knew I’d have to do it at some point…

Anders Örbom (@andersorbom)

10/24/14, 4:57 AM

 

@millysievert Or don’t, it’s basically the “cold fusion” of radiobiology. Motivated reasoning and wishful thinking.

Amelia Cook (@millysievert)

10/24/14, 5:01 AM

 

@andersorbom @cthorm Now I don’t know what to believe…

Anders Örbom (@andersorbom)

10/24/14, 5:08 AM

 

@millysievert Believe unbiased trusted sources and the scientific mainstream, not either pro- or anti- activists and fringe researchers.

Janne M. Korhonen (@jmkorhonen)

10/24/14, 6:13 AM

 

@andersorbom @millysievert My heuristic: scientific mainstream is more often right than wrong,and only very rarely totally wrong.

Janne M. Korhonen (@jmkorhonen)

10/24/14, 6:14 AM

 

@andersorbom @millysievert My take after reading quite a bit: LNT model might overestimate cancers but radiation may cause other damage too.

Steve Darden (@stevedarden)

10/25/14, 7:55 AM

 

@jmkorhonen Where is your personal comfort level for annual exposure. E.g., 100mSv/yr? @andersorbom@millysievert

Amelia Cook (@millysievert)

10/26/14, 12:00 AM

 

@stevedarden @jmkorhonen @andersorbom Exactly what I’m trying to figure out! A good question, I’ll put it to more knowledgeable people.

Anders Örbom (@andersorbom)

10/26/14, 12:05 AM

 

@millysievert @stevedarden @jmkorhonen I’m sorry but “comfort level” is just a weird way to think abt it. You shld minimize dose, period.

Jani Martikainen (@jpjmarti)

10/26/14, 3:46 AM

 

@andersorbom @millysievert @stevedarden @jmkorhonen Actually,I disagree.There are risk levels that are too low to worry about. 1/2

Ben Heard (@BenThinkClimate)

10/26/14, 10:24 AM

 

@jpjmarti @andersorbom @millysievert @stevedarden @jmkorhonen Minimising dose beyond evidence of harm leads to costs, creating greater harm

Anders Örbom (@andersorbom)

10/26/14, 10:32 AM

 

@BenThinkClimate @jpjmarti @millysievert @stevedarden @jmkorhonen Weighing risk & benefit does nt req denying risk, and that’s all from me.

Jani Martikainen (@jpjmarti)

10/27/14, 2:19 AM

 

.@andersorbom @BenThinkClimate @millysievert @stevedarden @jmkorhonen I was left wondering…passiiviidentiteetti.wordpress.com/2014/10/26/ris…

Janne M. Korhonen (@jmkorhonen)

10/27/14, 9:06 PM

 

@jpjmarti @andersorbom @BenThinkClimate @millysievert @stevedarden Abandoning LNT politically impossible.Better fight battles we can win.

Jani Martikainen (@jpjmarti)

10/27/14, 9:11 PM

 

@jmkorhonen @andersorbom @BenThinkClimate @millysievert @stevedarden Yes,LNT is not the problem.Misguided perception of risks is the problem

Steve Darden (@stevedarden)

10/27/14, 11:25 PM

 

@jpjmarti Yes, so what can we do to correct mis-perception of risk? @jmkorhonen @andersorbom@BenThinkClimate @millysievert

Reddit AMA grills the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering

NewImage

Members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering participated in the Reddit.com Science AMA Series, responding to a large number of largely hostile questions. Lots of variations of “Can I still eat fish from the contaminated Pacific”. As typical with these AMA sessions the signal to noise ratio is low due to the uninformed questions and irrelevant branched threads of discussion by people who are more interested in politics. I “mined” the 1,447 comments for what I thought were fragments worth archiving.

I guess I’ll start things off. What type of reactors should we be building? I know a big deal a few years ago was made about liquid flouride thorium reactors. Is that the way of the future, or are there superior alternatives?

Prof. Per Peterson replies (emphasis mine):

I do not think that we have the basis to determine or select the best coolant or fuel type to use in future reactors. But there are some attributes which we do need to make sure are used in future reactors.

The first is to use passive safety systems, which do not require electrical power or external cooling sources to function to remove decay heat after reactors shut down, as is the case with the AP-1000 and ESBWR designs, and with all of the light water reactor SMRs now being developed in the U.S.

The benefits of passive safety go well beyond the significant reduction in the number of systems and components needed in reactors and the reduced maintenance requirements. Passive safety systems also greatly simplify the physical protection of reactors, because passive equipment does not require routine inspections the way pumps and motors do, and thus can be placed in locations that are difficult to gain access to rapidly.

The second is to further increase the use of modular fabrication and construction methods in nuclear plants, in particular to use steel-plate/concrete composite construction methods that are quite similar to those developed for modern ship construction. The AP-1000 is the most advanced design in the use of this type of modularization, and the ability to use computer aided manufacturing in the fabrication of these modules makes the manufacturing infrastructure much more flexible. In the longer term, one should be able to design a new reactor building, transfer the design to a module factory over the internet, and have the modules show up at a construction site, so the buildings are, in essence, 3-D printed.

The final attribute that will be important for new reactors will be to make them smaller, and to develop a regulatory framework and business models that work for multi-module power plants. While there will likely always be a market for large reactors, creating an ecosystem that includes customers for smaller reactors (inland locations served only by rail, installations needing reliable power even if fuel supplies are interrupted, mature electricity markets that need to add new capacity in small increments).

On thorium, a question:

Hello! What do you think is the most important advantage that thorium has over uranium as a “fuel?”

Prof. Per Peterson’s reply

The thorium fuel cycle has clearly attractive features, if it can be developed successfully. I think that most of the skepticism about thorium emerges from questions about the path to develop the necessary reactor and fuel cycle technology, versus open fuel cycles (uranium from seawater) and closed, fast-spectrum uranium cycles.

The most attractive element of the thorium fuel cycle is the ability to operate sustainably using thermal-spectrum neutrons. This allows the design of reactor core structures that use high-temperature ceramic materials like graphite, which have substantial thermal inertia and cannot melt. Because these ceramic materials also provide significant moderation, it is difficult to use them in fast-spectrum reactors and thus the most plausible fast-spectrum reactor designs need to use metallic structural materials in their cores.

So thorium reactors are compatible with higher intrinsic safety (cores which do not suffer structural damage even if greatly overheated) and that can deliver heat at higher temperature, which enables more efficient and flexible power conversion.

Molten fluoride salts are compatible with these high-temperature structural materials, and given their very high boiling temperatures make excellent, low pressure heat transfer fluids. In the near term, the largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel, which is simpler to work with and to obtain regulatory approvals.

But molten salt technologies also have significant challenges. One of the most important is managing the much larger amounts of tritium that these reactors produce, compared to light water cooled reactors (the quantities are closer to what heavy-water reactors, such as the CANDU, produce, but methods to control and recovery of tritium are much different for molten salts than for heavy water, and key elements remain to be demonstrated).

To repeat a critical point “…largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel…”. This summarizes why Prof. Peterson’s lab is focused upon developing the PB-AHTR design, which will also prove out many materials and technologies required subsequently to implement the more challenging Liquid Fuel molten salt reactor concept (such as LFTR).

Regarding waste: Prof. Peterson was a member of Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. I consider him one of the best-informed sources regarding Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) which the anti-nuclear lobby calls Nuclear Waste. It is not “waste” it is an extremely valuable source of carbon-free energy. 

Q: One of the elephants in the room for nuclear power is the waste….

A: …Finland and Sweden have successfully sited and are building deep geologic repositories in granite, and France is very far along in developing its geologic repository in clay. The U.S. nuclear waste program is currently stopped and is in a state of disarray…

There are a wide range of opinions as water reactors (LWRs) is substantially more expensive than making new fuel from uranium, even if the plutonium is free. This is primarily because the plutonium must be handled as an oxide powder to make LWR fuel, and oxide powder is the most hazardous and difficult form to handle plutonium in. All of the Generation IV reactor technologies can use fuel forms that do not involve handling plutonium and minor actinides in the form of powders and that are much easier to fabricate using recycled material (e.g., metal, molten salt, sol-gel particles in either coated particle or vibropacked fuel forms).

In my personal opinion, the most sensible thing to do in the near term is to prioritize U.S. defense wastes for geologic disposal, and to use a combination of consolidated and on-site interim storage for most or all commercial spent fuel. Implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s major recommendations, which include development of consolidated interim storage that would initially be prioritized to store fuel from shut down reactors, would put the U.S. on this path.

By using geologic disposal primarily for defense wastes first, and using primarily dry cask interim storage for commercial spent fuel, this will give a couple of decades for nuclear reactor technology to evolve further, and by then we will be in a better position to determine whether commercial spent fuel is a waste or a resource.

Nuclear innovation: Prof. Peterson replies

There are a number of factors which make innovation difficult in improving nuclear reactor technology, in particular the long operating life of nuclear power plants and their very large capital costs, which dissuade innovation. The trend toward designing larger and larger water-cooled reactors has increased these disincentives.

Given their lower capital cost and shorter construction times, innovation is much easier in small reactors. There will remain a role for large reactors, just as dinosaurs existed for millions of years alongside the new mammal species, but currently some of the most important policy issues for nuclear power involve creating an ecosystem where small reactors find customers. Smaller reactors, produced in larger numbers with most of the fabrication occurring in factories, would also use specialized manufacturing and skilled labor more efficiently. Imagine factories as being similar to airplanes, and the ability to keep more seats filled being really important to having low per-seat prices…

FHR (Fluoride Salt Cooled High Temperature Reactor), Where to take technical risk?

I will answer this question first indirectly, and then more directly.

A key question for innovation in developing new nuclear energy technology is where to take technical risk. SpaceX provides a good example of a highly successful risk management strategy. They focused on developing a highly reliable, relatively small rocket engine, that they tested in the Falcon 1, which uses an ancient rather than innovative fuel combination, kerosene and liquid oxygen. On the other hand, they chose to use aluminum-lithium alloy with friction stir welding for their fuel tanks, which is at the cutting edge of current technology. They have then used the approach of ganging together large numbers of these engines to create the Falcon 9, which is now successfully delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

Currently the most important barrier to deploying nuclear power is not the cost of the fuel, but instead is the capital cost of the plants, the need to assure that they can run with high reliability (which for current large reactor designs creates strong disincentives to innovate), and the relatively low electricity revenues one receives for producing base load power, particularly today in the U.S.

The primary reason that UCB, MIT, and UW, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, are working on solid fuel, salt cooled reactor technology is because we have the ability to fabricate these fuels, and the technical difficulty of using molten salts is significantly lower when they do not have the very high activity levels associated with fluid fuels. The experience gained with component design, operation, and maintenance with clean salts makes it much easier to consider the subsequent use of liquid fuels, while gaining several key advantages from the ability to operate reactors at low pressure and deliver heat at higher temperature.

Q: Can I also ask what you think the safest way to transport the waste is?**

A: Per Peterson: There is a long record of safe transportation of nuclear waste, including spent fuel, world wide. The containers used to transport nuclear wastes are substantially more robust than those used to transport hazardous chemicals and fuels, which is why transportation accidents with chemicals generate significantly more risk.

This said, the transportation of nuclear wastes requires effective regulation, controls, and emergency response capabilities to be in place. The transportation system for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has logged over 12 million miles of safe transport, with none of the accidents involving the transportation trucks causing any release of radioactive materials.

One reason it is important to restore WIPP to service (it had an accident involving the release of radioactive material underground in late February, which had minimal surface consequence because the engineered safety systems to filter exhaust air were activated) is because the WIPP transportation system has developed a large base of practical experience and skilled personnel at the state and local levels who are familiar with how to manage nuclear waste transport. This provides a strong foundation for establishing a broader transportation system for commercial spent fuel and defense high level wastes in the future.

A commenter replied to Per’s hecklers, referring to WIPP:

Actually I work for this program and this is an understatement. Not only have there never been any accidents that caused a release of nuclear material, there have never been any accidents with a truck loaded with waste containers, ever. They’ve happened while empty, but never otherwise.

Per Peterson discussed the unpriced carbon emissions externality. Which I would say is effectively a tax on nuclear because nuclear produces nearly zero carbon energy in competition with coal and gas which do not pay their carbon externality costs. Per raised a very important issue: how the NRC gatekeeping sets up a strong incentive to free-ride on NRC rulings.

But there is another important market failure that affects nuclear energy and is not widely recognized, which is the fact that industry cannot get patents for decisions that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes. For example, there are major regulatory questions that will affect the cost and commercial competitiveness of multi-module SMR plants, such as how many staff will be required in their control rooms. Once the first SMR vendor invests and takes the risk to perform licensing, all other vendors can free-ride on the resulting USNRC decision. This is the principal reason that government subsidies to encourage first movers, such as cost sharing or agreements to purchase power or other services (e.g., irradiation) make societal sense.

Is this being discussed in the USgov? I’ve never seen a word about it. This is another example of the sub-optimal result we get from wasting billions on energy-farming production subsidies, while rationing a few millions for nuclear R&D. Even America has very limited funds – and needs to spend them very carefully.

LNT, UNSCEAR and the NRC “State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analyses”

UNSCEAR 2012 “Therefore, the Scientific Committee does not recommend multiplying very low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or lower than natural background levels;”

The main NRC SOARCA page, which indexes the definitive 2012 NRC severe accident study. This study is large so I’ll rely on the NRC’s own words of summary:

SOARCA’s main findings fall into three basic areas: how a reactor accident progresses; how existing systems and emergency measures can affect an accident’s outcome; and how an accident would affect the public’s health. The project’s preliminary findings include:

  • Existing resources and procedures can stop an accident, slow it down or reduce its impact before it can affect public health;
  • Even if accidents proceed uncontrolled, they take much longer to happen and release much less radioactive material than earlier analyses suggested; and
  • The analyzed accidents would cause essentially zero immediate deaths and only a very, very small increase in the risk of long-term cancer deaths.

Rod Adams posted his thorough analysis of UNSCEAR here, which Rod summarizes thusly:

  • The individual early fatality risk from SOARCA scenarios is essentially zero.
  • Individual LCF risk from the selected specific, important scenarios is thousands of times lower than the NRC Safety Goal and millions of times lower than the general cancer fatality risk in the United States from all causes, even assuming the LNT dose-response model.

If I may underscore that last: even assuming the LNT dose-response model For more plain English here’s UK environmentalist Mark Lynas in Why Fukushima death toll projections are based on junk science:

As the Health Physics Society explains[1] in non-scientific language anyone can understand:

…the concept of collective dose has come under attack for some misuses. The biggest example of this is in calculating the numbers of expected health effects from exposing large numbers of people to very small radiation doses. For example, you might predict that, based on the numbers given above, the population of the United States would have about 40,000 fatal cancers from background radiation alone. However, this is unlikely to be true for a number of reasons. Recently, the International Council on Radiation Protection issued a position statement saying that the use of collective dose for prediction of health effects at low exposure levels is not appropriate. The reason for this is that if the most highly exposed person receives a trivial dose, then everyone’s dose will be trivial and we can’t expect anyone to get cancer. [my emphasis]

The HPS illustrates this commonsensical statement with the following analogy:

Another way to look at it is that if I throw a 1-gram rock at everyone in the United States then, using the collective dose model, we could expect 270 people to be crushed to death because throwing a one-ton rock at someone will surely kill them. However, we know this is not the case because nobody will die from a 1-gram rock. The Health Physics Society also recommends not making risk estimates based on low exposure levels.

James Conca explains the UNSCEAR 2012 report, which finally drove a stake into the heart of LNT:

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) (UNSCEAR 2012) submitted the report that, among other things, states that uncertainties at low doses are such that UNSCEAR “does not recommend multiplying low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or below natural background levels.” (UNDOC/V1255385)

You know, like everyone’s been doing since Chernobyl. Like everyone’s still doing with Fukushima.

Finally, the world may come to its senses and not waste time on the things that aren’t hurting us and spend time on the things that are. And on the people that are in real need. Like the infrastructure and economic destruction wrought by the tsunami, like cleaning up the actual hot spots around Fukushima, like caring for the tens of thousands of Japanese living in fear of radiation levels so low that the fear itself is the only thing that is hurting them, like seriously preparing to restart their nuclear fleet and listening to the IAEA and the U.S. when we suggest improvements.

The advice on radiation in this report will clarify what can, and cannot, be said about low dose radiation health effects on individuals and large populations. Background doses going from 250 mrem (2.5 mSv) to 350 mrem (3.5 mSv) will not raise cancer rates or have any discernable effects on public health. Likewise, background doses going from 250 mrem (2.5 mSv) to 100 mrem (1 mSv) will not decrease cancer rates or effect any other public health issue.

Note – although most discussions are for acute doses (all at once) the same amount as a chronic dose (metered out over a longer time period like a year) is even less effecting. So 10 rem (0.1 Sv) per year, either as acute or chronic, has no observable effect, while 10 rem per month might.

UNSCEAR also found no observable health effects from last year’s nuclear accident in Fukushima. No effects.

The Japanese people can start eating their own food again, and moving back into areas only lightly contaminated with radiation levels that are similar to background in many areas of the world like Colorado and Brazil.

Low-level contaminated soil, leaves and debris in Fukushima Prefecture piling up in temporary storage areas. (Photo by James Hackett, RJLee Group)

The huge waste of money that is passing for clean-up now by just moving around dirt and leaves (NYTimes) can be focused on clean-up of real contamination near Fukushima using modern technologies. The economic and psychological harm wrought by the wrong-headed adoption of linear no-threshold dose effects for doses less than 0.1 Sv (10 rem) has been extremely harmful to the already stressed population of Japan, and to continue it would be criminal.

To recap LNT, the Linear No-Threshold Dose hypothesis is a supposition that all radiation is deadly and there is no dose below which harmful effects will not occur. Double the dose, double the cancers. First put forward after WWII by Hermann Muller, and adopted by the world body, including UNSCEAR, its primary use was as a Cold War bargaining chip to force cessation of nuclear weapons testing. The fear of radiation that took over the worldview was a side-effect (Did Muller Lie?).

(…snip…)

In the end, if we don’t reorient ourselves on what is true about radiation and not on the fear, we will fail the citizens of Japan, Belarus and the Ukraine, and we will continue to spend time and money on the wrong things…

That’s just Jim’s summary – please read his complete essay for the charts, tables and implications for Japan. And did Muller Lie? The evidence seems pretty conclusive that all this enormous waste of resources was based on a lie. Not to mention the fear, and in the case of Fukushima at least a thousand unnecessary deaths due to the panic and mismanagement of the evacuation.

Footnotes:

[1] While link testing, I found that Mark’s HPS link fails – that’s the Internet. Here’s the most recent HPS position statement I could find this morning. Radiation Risk In Perspective: Position Statement Of The Health Physics Society (updated 2010) 

In accordance with current knowledge of radiation health risks, the Health Physics Society recommends against quantitative estimation of health risks below an individual dose1 of 50 millisievert (mSv) in one year or a lifetime dose of 100 mSv above that received from natural sources. Doses from natural background radiation in the United States average about 3 mSv per year. A dose of 50 mSv will be accumulated in the first 17 years of life and 0.25 Sv in a lifetime of 80 years. Estimation of health risk associated with radiation doses that are of similar magnitude as those received from natural sources should be strictly qualitative and encompass a range of hypothetical health outcomes, including the possibility of no adverse health effects at such low levels.

There is substantial and convincing scientific evidence for health risks following high-dose exposures. However, below 50– 100 mSv (which includes occupational and environmental exposures), risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are nonexistent.

[2] Environmentalist Stewart Brand on the retirement of LNT.

[3] Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) Fifty-ninth session (21-25 May 2012) [PDF]. 

[4] EPA’s decision to allow risk-based decisions to guide responses to radiological events