Monday, May 21, 2007

Dissecting Lies

Every now and then, I'll read something about nuclear power that is such a pile of lies that I just have to sit down and take it apart. This morning, I found one such article.

John Rosenthal has a blog at the Huffington Post. Messr. Rosenthal had this to say at the beginning of a blog post entitled "It's Still Dangerous Nuclear Power" (where did he learn his grammar, by the way?):

{UPDATE - Messr. Rosenthal or his editor apparently got out a good grammar text and changed the title of the post to "It's Still Nuclear Power" from the original title. Now, if only he'd taken as much care to do fact-checking...}

I thought the NRA's support for suspected terrorists continuing to be able to legally buy guns took the "truth is stranger than fiction" prize until I read some supposed environmentalists support reviving commercial nuclear plants as an alternative to carbon (vs. radioactive waste) producing fossil fuel facilities. Now if that isn't a shortsighted and false choice I don't know what is.

Well, Messr. Rosenthal goes on to prove he doesn't know much of anything when it comes to nuclear power. Let's break out the fact scalpel and go to work on this post, shall we? Below is his post in italics, with my comments and some of those things people like Messr. Rosenthal hate the most - facts.

The only factors that haven't changed in the last 20 years since the environmentally disastrous, inefficient and costly nuclear power plant expansion program was abandoned is that there's still no long term solution to nuclear waste storage and on 911 Al Qaeda terrorists flew past 12 operating nuclear plants proving that we're just as vulnerable to nuclear terrorist attack than we previously thought.

Ahhh, so glad you used the word "factor" there, Mr. Rosenthal. Let's talk about factors, capacity factors, for instance. Just released figures show nuclear power had a 90.13% capacity factor for 2004-2006. That means nuclear plants were up and running 90% of the time, providing reliable electricity at constant rates for millions of US citizens and businesses. Compare that to solar (20%-30% at best), wind (30% to maybe 35% for the best sites) and coal-fired power plants (75%-80%). Messr. Rosenthal calls nuclear inefficient. If nuclear power is inefficient, what does that make all the other sources of power out there?

He also uses the timeworn logical fallacy usually referred to as "waving the bloody shirt" - he tries to equate the atrocities of 9/11 with nuclear power plants. But in doing so, he destroys his own argument. He notes that the Al Qaeda terrorist flew over 12 nuclear power plants during their evil mission. Huh - that means that they obviously knew that nuclear power plants, with their massive concrete-and-steel containment domes would have withstood their assaults, and they went looking for something easier to destroy.

Oh yes, and the assessment of nuclear power security by the Department of Homeland Security? Only that "...nuclear plants are the best-protected assets of our critical infrastructure..." and it goes on to talk about how these-already well-secured assets are having security enhanced.

We'll leave the "waste storage" issue for a little later.

It's been sixty years since the highly secretive Manhattan Project developed nuclear power to create enriched uranium for the US nuclear weapons program. After we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan, President Eisenhower dreamed up the "Peaceful Atom" Program. In addition to making enriched uranium for bombs, nuclear power is just a fancy way to boil water in order to generate electricity. The nuclear fuel cycle theory goes; build Light Water Reactors fueled by enriched uranium and reprocess the highly radioactive plutonium waste by-product into fuel for the next generation of Breeder Reactors. These plutonium-fueled plants were thought to be the alchemists dream because the Breeder's by-product or waste is more plutonium, thereby making more fuel than it uses. Sounds great except reprocessing plants were shut down by President Reagan because they were too dangerous and didn't work, the only Breeder Reactor to ever operate was the Enrico Fermi Plant which was shut down when it began melting down nearly forcing the evacuation of Detroit Michigan, a millionth of a gram of plutonium causes cancer in laboratory animals, it explodes when it's comes in contact with air or water and 10 pounds is enough to make a large nuclear weapon. Throughout the entire nuclear fuel cycle from mining uranium to high level nuclear waste storage at every US nuclear plant, to decommissioning plants after 30 years of operation because they're too radioactive for workers to operate, large quantities of high and low level nuclear waste are generated with devastating environmental and public health consequences and no safe long term solution.

My goodness, where to begin with this stack of lies and misrepresentations?

First off, let's get soemthing straight. President Reagan didn't kill civilian recycling in the US, that was started by President Ford and Carter finished the killing of that vital program. Amazing how he wants to rewrite history. First, all major nuclear power countries recycle their used fuel except the US. Japan, Russia, France and the UK all recycle. They strip out the 90% of material that is still useful in a used fuel rod and treat the remaining 10% for storage - though work is ongoing on a way to "burn up" that remaining 10%. Recycling is expensive - yes - but it is technology that is over 60 years old. We know how to do it and do it safely. It is a political issue, not a technical one.

Messr. Rosenthal talks about plutonium in a very uneducated manner. Plutonium does not explode on contact with air. It can be machined and worked with. You don't want to inhale particles, true, but frankly, you could handle an ingot of pure plutonium-239 with gloves.

Plus, Messr. Rosenthal says that you only need 10 pounds of plutonium to "make a large nuclear weapon." That, folks, is a lie. A lie that contradicts the laws of physics as we know them today. Anyone who knows how to calculate a critical mass knows that Messr. Rosenthal is lying in an attempt to scare people into accepting his other lies.

He goes on to bemoan that used fuel rods are stored at power plants. Well, we are not allowed to recycle and we are not allowed to place them in long-term storage because Yucca Mountain has become a political football. So perhaps he could give us a third way?

The idea behind the Peaceful Atom was to convert the nuclear weapons program into commercial power plants. In 1957, because the US government's own studies reported that a Maximum Credible Accident at a commercial nuclear plant could result in over $7 billion in damage and render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable, the private utility industry refused to embrace nuclear power. As a result Congress enacted the Price Anderson Act which holds the nuclear industry harmless in case of a nuclear power plant accident. In fact you can find the small "Nuclear Exclusion Clause" at the bottom of any insurance policy you own or will ever buy. If nuclear power is so safe and clean why does the industry continue to require limits on liability? It's interesting that the only other industry that I know of that benefits from such a Congressional act protecting it from liability is the gun industry. Granted 30-40,000 Americans die every year from guns but that's a fraction of the number of Americans that could die from a large-scale nuclear accident or terrorist event with a conventional weapon (or plane) strategically placed. Remember on Sept. 11, 2001 the Al Qaeda terrorists flew past 12 operating nuclear power plants between Boston, New York and Washington DC. They could have easily turned 911 into a nuclear catastrophe. They didn't...this time.

Well, we somehow go from nuclear power to nuclear weapons and those 12 power plants that Al Qaeda flew by. Well, the worst-possible nuclear power plant accident has happened - it happened at Chernobyl. 56 people died. That kind of accident could not happen in the US as our power plants are vastly different, have massive containment structures around them (which Chernobyl did not) and are better engineered. Again, Messr. Rosenthal uses false logic, trying to equate nuclear weapons with nuclear power plants, which is ridiculous on the face of it.

By the way, please also notice the drama he adds: "Remember on Sept. 11, 2001 the Al Qaeda terrorists flew past 12 operating nuclear power plants between Boston, New York and Washington DC. They could have easily turned 911 into a nuclear catastrophe. They didn't...this time." Please allow me to drum up the dark music. AQ didn't attack nuclear installations because they, and anyone who can do the math behind the mechanics of materials knows that they would have failed to do anything except blow up their planes. Where did Mr. Rosenthal get his technical education?

To make matters even worse and in classic "do as I say not as I do" fashion, the US is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war. Yet we insist that Iran not develop commercial nuclear technology for fear that they to will make, proliferate and maybe even use nuclear weapons. Still we boast that 17% percent of our exports last year were nuclear technology related. What is the US government thinking and where is the public outcry? What could be more destructive to the environment and civilization than a large-scale nuclear accident or terrorist attack with a conventional weapon (or airplane) at one of the 100 nuclear plants around the country? These plants are all located on water sources and many within close proximity of major cities that couldn't be evacuated in time, no matter how good a plan looks on paper. And at what risk? To avoid spending money on renewable energy, conservation and even cleaner coal while we transition from fossil fuels? Nuclear is the most dangerous alternative for boiling water and generating electricity and there are far better alternatives for energy production.

I will not even touch the first part of that paragraph. Perhaps Messr. Rosenthal, in addition to needing to learn the basics of physics and mathematics, needs to also learn history and gain appreciation for the complex issues involved in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to learn more about current tensions in the Middle East.

As for the rest, what could be more destructive to the environment? How about climate change? How about no power to the millions of US citizens who rely on it for heating in the winter and cooling in the summer?

Nuclear power, far from being the most dangerous alternative, is the best, safest, cleanest and in the long-term, cheapest form of electricity that has been proven to date. Those are facts.

Messr. Rosenthal is a fact-challenged fool.

Sorry for the long post, but I had to get that out of my system.


subadei said...

Nice piece, Flagg. Rosenthal sounds like a melodramatic ninny. The 9/11 correlations are tiresome and the idea that we turn our backs of the best energy scenario because "somebody might smash a plane into it" is a bit like outlawing the automobile "cause those gasoline tanks could blow at any time!" Senseless and alarmist.

FromAway said...

Found this via the NEI blog - thanks for an excellent post.

My father worked in the nuclear power industry for 30+ years and few things make him angrier than the misinformation spewed by dolts like Rosenthal.

You are absolutely right that reprocessing is a political rather than technical issue. It's nonsense, too. Other countries, as you point out, have managed to recycle for years. And gee, no one has grabbed the waste to use in a weapon (which is ridiculous anyway, but usually one of the arguments against it).

And the plants have always been built to withstand planes. The 9/11-related fears are completely unwarranted.

It's so frustrating (and stupid!) that a perfectly good power option -- arguably the best power option -- is limited by such misunderstanding and fear.

kconrad said...

The 9/11 perpetrators seemed interested in symbolic devestation in targeting a major icon of US financial and military power. Nuclear plants are vulnerable - spent fuel pools have much less protection than reactors.

There have been significantly more that 56 deaths as a result of the meltdown at Chernobyl. This is a classic example of nukespeak, when you parse your comments to try to seem like you are the authority. There have been numberous deaths from the subsequent radiation effects of that meltdown. There have been stillbirths, severely mentally and physically deformed children born. There are hundreds of people with cancerous tumors and diseases. There are thousands of inhabitable acres of land surrounding that site.

You fail to understand that the "common person" is capable of reading and learning about the dangers of nuclear power. No country has solved permanent, long-term storage of nuclear waste, no matter how you parse "recycling".

Nuclear power is not carbon-free - it requires large amounts of electricity to mine and enrich the fuel, to construct and operate plants and to transport wastes.

Nuclear power is a dinosaur.

Flagg707 said...

Hi kconrad: The death toll from Chernobyl is definitely problematic. My number of 56 deaths is the total from the immediate explosion and early consequences.

There were thousands of cases of thyroid cancer directly attributable to exposure to the massive doses of radioactive material that the people near the plant were subjected to. Most of the cases survived.

As for the long-term effects, the statistics are less reliable, but we can expect an uptick in cancer (and thus related fatalities) this will certainly number in the thousands if not tens of thousands of cases. Even if every single person who gets cancer attributable to the Chernobyl disaster (again, not likely since most will seek treatment), that number will still be below the figures trotted out by Messr. Rosenthal. As for the other effects - there were many horrible after-effects from Chernobyl, but there were also many people who are not sick from that accident, but who blame it anyway.

All of this information could be found in the link I provided - I have nothing to hide. Anyone linking over for details would see that the issue is fraught with uncertainty. Messr. Rosenthal trotted out assertions, none of which were linked to any sort of citation.

As for no country figuring out how to handle the waste, what can I say that is not already available for anyone to review - that France, Japan, the UK and Russia do recycle/reprocess/reuse the fuel rods utilized in their fuel programs. They do have unusable waste left over (the 10%, mainly made up of the actinide chain). There have been experiments (notably at the EBR-II reactor in Idaho, that was shut down by Clinton) showing it is possible to burn up the actinides.

You WILL still have waste that must be stored for a few hundred years, even in those scenarios. We can store it safely.

It is not cheap. I think I mentioned that in the post as well. I am not saying it is easy and inexpensive. The recycling/reprocessing cycle requires massive infrastructure and good engineering. But so does a soccer stadium or a fertilizer plant. The facility must have a good decommissioning plan in place - again not cheap, but do-able.

As for nuclear being a dinosaur, well, okay, that is one opinion. I still view it as very important in order to provide stable, cost-effective electricity to large groups. I fear that electricity generation could beomce a boutique industry in the future, where only the wealthy elites in their off-grid homes with massive solar arrays can have power - and that won't be cheap. What that means to the rest of us is another story.

I'm all in favor of wind, solar, tidal and anything else that will make power. It's just that I don't see any realistic alternatives to nuclear in a world of depleting fossil fuels. Unless of course, we want to abandon much of the creature comforts inherent in industrial civilization.

I do appreciate your comment, even if I disagree with it.

Flagg707 said...

Oh yes, and one last comment. You mentioned that "Nuclear power is not carbon-free - it requires large amounts of electricity to mine and enrich the fuel, to construct and operate plants and to transport wastes."

You are correct. That said, I don't recall saying it was carbon-free.

But please note - by your definition solar, tidal and wind power are also not carbon-free.

Solar especially. The plants needed to create the high-purity semiconductors for good solar arrays used a lot of electricity.

All the parts for the various power sources must be transported, all the metallurgy for the housings, the high-temperature ovens for the ceramics and composites, the gas in the trucks for the maintenance guys, the lead in the lead-acid batteries for storing the power generated, etc.

Nuclear is a low-carbon, zero-emission producer. There is still a carbon contribution from it, though - just like everything else currently used to generate significant electricity.