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the pathetic PR record of nuclear power

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 1 month, 2 weeks ago

A page of energy issues and probably an unpopular essay


I grew up with Plutonium (figuratively) in my blood. My father was one of the best nuclear engineers yet (OK I'm biased). At the age of five I started talking about neutron capture cross-sections based on what I had overheard discussed in our household... not always accurately!


He was a perfectionist. At the age of seven I asked him a question... or started to... and said in introduction "I know that Uranium-238 can absorb a neutron and then by Beta decay become Plutonium..." and he cut me off... "Hold on there, Son, you've made four mistakes already..." It reduced me to tears.


I love my father. And ironically, he was a passionate supporter of solar power too, and had built his first wind turbine in his early teens. I wish he were here to help me write this. He would. But like all of his generation of nuclear physicists and engineers, he made some mistakes. And we are still suffering from them.


And I saw these mistakes from the inside. I hope you find my observations interesting and informative.




The bomb came first

The nuclear industry has suffered from the first from an inability to deal with the public. 


In my opinion this stems from its military roots. The Manhattan Project built the first artificial nuclear reactors and the first nuclear fuel processing plants under wartime secrecy, and this was the training ground for the first generation of nuclear engineers. The PWR, still by far the most successful and popular power reactor design, was developed during the cold war to power nuclear submarines, under similar secrecy and supported by the same industrial processes and facilities.


Old habits die hard. The people involved in these projects were highly trusted and exceptionally competent. They expected to do their work well and not to have it questioned. They expected to be trusted. They knew that they were worthy of that trust. They were the cream of the cream and they knew it. They looked to the cream of the next generation to follow them, and educating anyone else in the incredibly intricate workings of nuclear power was not just not a priority. It was not even a consideration.


A complete waste of time at best. Perhaps even a very bad idea. The Cold_War was in some ways even scarier than World War II had been. Anything that even might help the enemy was out of the question.


Oh, there was publicity. There were even PR people employed, somewhat belatedly in most cases. But even these efforts were underscored by the assumption by the experts that the public should and would simply trust them if there were things that were not explained. Those PR people, in my experience, knew very little about nuclear energy and were not expected to know it. Their job was presentation, not education.  


Bad mistake. But an understandable one.


Why this page

This page was split from early versions of my page fissile. As I say there, as the page developed it got curiouser and curiouser. That page was in turn inspired by discussions at Talk:Fissile_material at Wikipedia, which led in turn to an interesting page at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission website. See fissile for the details of that pathetic page.


It is so bad that perhaps the person who posted on Quora recently the claim that the US NRC is now stacked with anti-nuclear activists was right. I do not know. But it would explain a lot.


But these are not new thoughts. I have been consistently frustrated by the profound and disturbing ignorance shown by the "experts" produced by the anti-nuclear-power movement, and also even by those who saw themselves as standing somewhere in the middle. And even more disturbed by the failure of the nuclear community, if I can call them that, to address this ignorance.


The downhill slope

My father wrote a privately published book, Australia's Uranium Opportunities, ISBN 0 646 29942 5. One of the personal failures that I most regret was not persuading him to write a second book. I wanted it to be called Reactor Accidents. I think it would have sold like hot cakes, and could have been an important part of educating the public. And Dad was in a unique position to write such a book. He had first-hand knowledge of them all, including some still virtually unknown to the public. He could have obtained photographs from those involved, most of whom he called friends.


But he wasn't interested. Worse than that, he was gun-shy on the topic. And rightly so! He had built his first wind turbine in his teens, to power a radio set in the all-gas apartment in which his parents, sister and he then lived. His father was the most senior tradesman in the local gas company. Even his mother's iron ran on gas. But of course the radio wouldn't. He and I built our solar hot water service in 1962, before they were commercially available in Australia. He was an outspoken advocate of alternative energy, and he put his money where his mouth was.


And he spent the rest of his life being abused by people who regarded him as their enemy, and who wanted to save the world from his evil intentions. And he was not the only one. Get the picture?


It gets worse. The ignorance of these people was (and is) staggering. On one occasion when I was an undergraduate I was laughed off the stage at a General Meeting of Students because I challenged an anti-nuclear speaker. He had implied that Plutonium had a longer half-life than Uranium. So I asked him was that true. He replied angrily that of course it was true, and asked what I was trying to pull. (Look it up.) The scariest thing isn't just that an anti-nuclear "expert" believed this. The scariest thing is that the student body at a major University overwhelmingly believed him.


But the best example is Chernobyl. The design (the RBMK) was proudly announced at the 1956 World Power Conference in Vienna, which my father (a newly graduated Bachelor of Reactor Engineering or as he termed it BORE) attended. The Soviets were asked whether it would have a positive power and void coefficient of reactivity. They replied (in Russian) "Yes, and we are aware that in the West this would be considered an unsafe design. But our safety and control systems are so far in advance of anything that the West will ever develop that in our hands, this is a safe design." This is all in the public record.


Scroll ahead to 1979. Three Mile Island #2, a PWR, had a core meltdown. Widespread protests followed about how dangerous reactors were, citing this as an example although the melt didn't breach the reactor vessel, let alone the containment. Now, if you're going to preach how dangerous reactors are, shouldn't you do a little research into which reactors the experts themselves consider most dangerous, and why?


Evidently not. Scroll ahead to 1986. Chernobyl #4 explodes. The only containment depended on the reactor top plate, which was blown high into the air. Radiation alarms inside  the containment building of a nuclear power plant in Sweden (a BWR, not my fave type but not as bad as the RBMK) were set off two days later, providing the first evidence of the disaster.


Where were the "environmentalists" in the meantime? They were busy using the TMI accident as an excuse to close down similar reactors, and citing the LNT as proof of the many people TMI had killed. And they still are. The Russians are now building PWRs instead, and have modified the remaining ten RBMKs to operate more like a PWR does (or even more like a BWR does actually but even that is an improvement). See Some nukes are better than others.




The way reactors are built and run

It may seem that I hold the "environmentalists", or even the community in general, responsible for their irrational beliefs when it comes to matters nuclear. 


I don't at all. The contempt of the public by the nuclear community goes a lot deeper than just not budgeting for PR.


I've told the story elsewhere, such as crossover period (scroll down to a revealing anecdote). But I'll say it again.


While working at AAEC I attended a lunchtime staff seminar given by Bill Gemmell, a nuclear engineer whose particular interest and expertise was the fast reactor.


I was working an afternoon shift operating the central computer. I came in a few hours early to attend. At the end questions from the floor were invited.


I asked:


"Bill, you've said that the fast reactor can get the period of time before the waste is less radioactive than what we dug up down to under three hundred years. But as I understand it, that's operating the reactor, reprocessing etc to get the maximum amount of energy from each pound of uranium. What if we instead optimise for minimum waste? How much can we further reduce this period of time then?"


He answered "It would be to a little under seventy years."


But he then added "But I don't think anyone is interested in doing that." (My emphasis)


Right and wrong.  Nobody in the nuclear business was interested. They thought that the waste wasn't a problem.


More bad mistakes. Because the public were vitally interested. They (we!) wanted the waste minimised and they (and I) still do.


The nuclear industry thought so little about educating the public in terms that they could understand that they didn't even have a term for what I later termed crossover period. And they still don't care enough to clean up the pathetic NRC page on what fissile material really is.


The way waste is treated

Similarly with dry cask storage in the USA. Nobody in the nuclear business sees it as a problem, and understandably . There is plenty of money and plenty of time to dispose of the stuff, and it's safe where it is for the moment. And if and when sanity prevails and it is recycled as fuel, it's relatively easily accessible. It is technically a good solution, provided (and this is a big qualification) that the funds set aside for disposal aren't lost in a financial crisis, or misappropriated for a war, or frittered away on consultants who get paid best if they come up with the most expensive solutions possible, such as Titanium encapsulation.  


But the public doesn't see it that way at all. They (and I) want the stuff dealt with now. And if it's not dealt with now in spite of their clearly expressed wishes, they have a right to conclude that there is a problem doing so. And that is exactly what they have concluded. So it is a political disaster.


And none of that is their fault, or the fault of the environmental movement of which the nuclear industry was once part and of which it should still be part. But they (we!) weren't chucked out of it. We walked away from it.


Another bad mistake.


A voice in the wilderness

I said above that I'm not a fan of the BWR. I'm not. But I seem to be the only one expressing reservations. (And I admit that nuclear engineers, including my father, generally like them. See why on earth did they build the BWR.) Whether or not you agree with my reservations, let's take a look at why I am alone in expressing them.


The nuclear community are not going to voice them. They don't want to give the antis ammunition.


The antis are not going to voice them. They don't want to admit that some nukes are better than others and particularly post Fukushima, where the reactors were all BWRs, they would like everyone to think that all nukes have all the problems of those ones.


So either way, this is not discussed. The information is not suppressed, but neither is it provided. Except here!


We may even see a nuclear "renaissance" without fixing this pathetic lack of transparency and accountability. But it sure isn't helping and never will. 


 More to follow. Watch this space. And if you find others expressing similar views or raising objections to them that deserve answers, I would love to hear about them. So contact me.

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