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Pandora’s Promise: The Triumph of Hope over Fear in Nuclear Power?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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pandoras-promise-posterA believer in solar power rarely has a good word to say about nuclear, though the sun generates light in a nuclear way via fusion. Of course, the zealotry works in the other direction as well. Almost any energy source boasts a cadre of ardent adherents: burning coal (it alleviates poverty!). Fracking for natural gas (we’re better than coal!) Wind turbines (the fuel is always free!) Even fusion here on Earth. If you don’t believe me, check the comments on this piece.

So it’s no surprise that energy has proven a wedge issue among those who strive to save the world. Now along comes a new, intriguing documentary entitled Pandora’s Promise that hits movie theaters on June 12 and promises to drive that wedge even deeper.

The story of the film is your basic conversion narrative, minus the conversion onscreen and geared to produce a hoped-for one in the audience. A band of five self-professed converts to the benefits of nuclear power—iconoclast Stewart Brand, author Gwyneth Cravens, climate activist Mark Lynas, nuclear weapons expert Richard Rhodes, and environmental thinker Michael Shellenberger—lay out their individual reasons for their newfound belief.

That newfound belief runs counter to that of the majority of environmentalists and environmental organizations from the beginnings of the movement in the 1970s. Much of that opposition stems from the original sin of nuclear power: it was used as a weapon first. Nuclear became synonymous with mushroom clouds at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many other testing grounds and skies, mutually assured destruction, even nuclear winter and some kind of Armageddon, in the words of Whole Earth Catalog founder Brand.

What has cracked that catholic opposition for Brand and others is the invisible and invidious challenge of climate change. Simply put: nuclear power is one of the few technologies available today that can produce a lot of electricity, a lot of the time without a lot of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. To be anti-nuclear at this point means being for burning fossil fuels because energy sources such as solar and wind are too fickle and small to play a big role in providing clean electricity to the 7 billion people on the planet, according to this belief.

The film, through interviews with engineers and others, also notes that another original sin of nuclear power may have been the technology chosen by U.S. Admiral Hyman Rickover in the 1950s. The light water reactors the “Father of the Nuclear Navy” selected for commercial development may be simpler in design but they produce nuclear waste fairly rapidly and in quantity that still has no place to go. Safety is not an inherent feature of such reactors but instead has to be engineered around them with the cloak of containment vessels, redundant systems and other support and safety systems that add to the expense of nuclear power today. In fact, light water reactors are one of the few technologies to see little or no reduction in cost as more and more of them were built over the past several decades. Each one was, in essence, custom-designed to deal with the specific issues for a particular site and the specific version of the technology deployed.

That has left each reactor with its own unique flaws, as witnessed in the three nuclear catastrophes in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania; Chernobyl, Ukraine; and Fukushima, Japan. Each reactor may be flawed in its own way, but the three milestone accidents did share one critical failing in common: the human factor. In all three, human oversight, omission, and/or flat-our error played a pivotal role in allowing the nuclear accidents to occur—so much so that engineers of new reactor systems have emphasized the removal of humans from their oversight in an accident entirely. So-called passive safety designs—such as the two new AP-1000 reactors being built at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia—require no human intervention to work. These systems intend to provide some insurance against human error leading to catastrophic meltdown.

And the world needs more and more power. Lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty in the last few decades required the construction of hundreds of coal-fired power plants, which has lead to China disappearing beneath a sulfurous haze of choking smog as well as surpassing the U.S. as the world leader in greenhouse gas pollution. Energy efficiency can’t save us from that, according to the Breakthrough Institute’s Shellenberger. As the global population heads toward 9 billion or even more potentially, energy use may double by 2050 and continue to increase. To stop adding yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, all of that energy would have to be clean energy. And the only clean energy available is nuclear, according to Shellenberger and the other true believers of this film—in the absence of CO2 capture and storage for fossil fuel burners or some form of inexpensive electricity storage in the case of renewables like the wind and sun.

Size is an enduring totem for the proponents of nuclear power: the poster for the film above shows the actual size of the tiny cube of enriched uranium that could provide enough electricity for your entire life. And the filmmaker’s own conversion experience came when he visited the single room in France, the size of a basketball court, beneath which much of that nation’s nuclear waste is stored. Here is another size comparison: a pound of uranium contains as much energy as more than 2 million pounds of coal. Size matters and, since we face outsized problems from burning fossil fuels, an atomic-sized solution, with few emissions and well understood risks, can seem attractive.

That means we have to get over our overblown fears of radiation. Cravens, who wrote Power to Save the World about her own pilgrim’s progress from nuclear opponent to proponent, notes that eating a single banana gives a higher dose of radiation than drinking water laced with tritium from the leaking Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant—as footage plays of anti-nuclear activists handing out bananas to their fellow protesters at Vermont Yankee. Why? Each and every banana bears radioactive potassium, which also happens to be a necessary nutrient. This is where the film is strongest, showing the ridiculousness embedded in the zealotry of those opposed to nuclear power. One sight gag shows radioactivity readings from a dosimeter in Chernobyl, high in the sky over the Pacific Ocean and at a naturally radioactive beach in Brazil, along with many other places. Those three are listed in order of size of dose by the way, yet we see a man being buried in these sands for a holistic treatment of his body pains.

And that’s what it comes down to for these converts: the risks are smaller than people think since few have died directly from the meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and even Fukushima. Burning coal already kills thousands of people each year, and that’s just premature deaths from polluted air. A recent paper by retired climate scientist James Hansen pegs the number of lives saved by nuclear power (via displaced fossil fuels) at 1.8 million people since the 1970s—and the technology has the potential to save millions more. Everyone in the film points to the French energy transition from burning oil to generate electricity to getting 80 percent of their power from nuclear within just a few decades as inspiration for what the world should undertake. And, though the existing global fleet of 400+ reactors mass produces the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons, it can also be used to rid the world of excess bombs. The U.S. and Russia have already proven that as the U.S. has turned old Russian nuclear warheads into the fuel for the U.S. fleet of 104 reactors under the “Megatons to Megawatts” program.

Besides, there are better, safer nuclear technologies that could be explored further, like the integral fast reactor that enjoyed, in a test, conditions similar to those that resulted in the Fukushima disaster—a total loss of electric power to run cooling pumps and other safety technology. This advanced reactor, instead of melting down, just shut down in the absence of electricity during a trial in Idaho in the 1980s. Similarly, there are enthusiasts for molten-salt reactors or the kind of small, modular reactor that could be built on an assembly line and finally make nuclear power at least cheaper. Even Microsoft billionaire turned global philanthropist Bill Gates, among others, thinks the nuclear industry is in desperate need of some innovation. Maybe the innovation for nuclear is to take the Homer Simpsons and Mr. Burns of the world and replace them with super-smart robots or sealed nuclear batteries.

Of course, the old adage in the nuclear business is that the best reactor is a paper reactor. Every nuclear power technology looks best when it exists only in drawings and schematics before real construction and operation begins, as Admiral Rickover observed (pdf) at the dawn of the nuclear age.

On the one hand, these five proponents note that nuclear is here today and available, but the technology that is so available to help combat climate change in the near term is this same decried light water reactor technology with all of its flaws (some of which have been remedied by better engineering). And we would need to build thousands in short order and at great expense to displace all the coal and natural gas fired power plants around the world. It might be cheaper to bolt on even inefficient CO2 capture and storage technology to each and every one of those power plants and bury the greenhouse gas if the goal is to prevent further climate change. We could even bury the CO2 in the same place that Craven’s nuclear mentor, physicist Rip Anderson, suggested for nuclear waste: beneath the sea.

On the other hand, these proponents urge a new look at other technologies for generating electricity from fission: the fast-breeder reactors that work like a perpetual motion machine and require liquid sodium as a coolant, which has a propensity to burn in the presence of either air or water. Others propose a thorium fuel cycle, yet other alternative reactor designs or even fusion, which seems to always be 50 years in the future. All of them would take decades to develop and deploy and face the same hurdles as the dismissed renewable power from the sun, wind and the Earth’s own heat. In fact, such advanced nuclear is well behind in the deployment race compared to all these other renewable technologies. As it stands, nuclear power struggles to grow fast enough to keep up with existing reactors that retire and only India and China seem keen on building a new fleet, primarily composed of light water reactors, albeit incorporating the latest in passive safety design.

This film springs from director Stone’s dismay at the pessimism surrounding efforts to combat climate change and runs somewhat counter to his own first feature, Radio Bikini, which chronicled the horrors of nuclear weapons. But the main question around nuclear power is not answered by this visually compelling and interesting film Pandora’s Promise: what if this is an example of a technology that people just cannot handle due to its complexity and unforgiving nature as well as its inability to gain widespread social acceptance?


© James Hollow

Early in the film, we watch Lynas tour the aftermath of the multiple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan and have his faith shaken. “There is no other energy source that does this, leaves huge areas contaminated by its strange invisible presence,” he notes on camera while wearing a white Tyvek anti-contamination full body suit. “It’s kind of eerie. I could say I’m having a wobble. I could see why we’d want to do without nuclear power.”

By the calculus known as probabilistic risk assessment that governs nuclear power safety in the U.S. we should have one nuclear meltdown in 100,000 years. We’ve already had such a partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in the first 50 years of the nuclear era, with at least three more even more drastic core meltdowns worldwide. For many, nuclear power remains more closely related to some of the other woes afflicting humankind that sprang from Pandora’s mythical box than the hope that these converts require.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. krohleder 1:45 pm 06/4/2013

    I support some use of nuclear power but this movie was clearly propaganda. It did not even bother with the appearance of objectivity. There are also too many factual errors to count. I wish there were more documentaries that would make an effort to show all of the real pros and cons of different energy sources.

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  2. 2. ultimobo 1:49 pm 06/4/2013

    as with airlines crashes, the public is hypersensitive to rare risks that may affect many people.

    Maybe more stories about farmers moving back to the affected Fukushima area might help alleviate such fears.

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  3. 3. mp558 1:58 pm 06/4/2013

    The problem with both the film — which I saw at Sundance — and this essay is that it offers a hypothesis which is fundamentally flawed. Which is: What has doomed new nuclear power in America is fear of radiation and accidents.

    And that’s not true. What has doomed new nuclear power, for decades, is simple: It costs too damn much. And, secondarily, it’s incredibly water intensive.

    The film fails utterly to engage with cost issues, which is too bad. Go talk to a utility executive about whether new nuclear power is part of their plans and they’ll say No, without ever uttering a word about Fukushima. It’s just a dollar and cents problem.

    To read more, please check out my review of this interesting — but inherently incomplete and flawed — film.


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  4. 4. leaf6 2:33 pm 06/4/2013

    Favorite part of this article: bananas

    True, the capital needed to build a nuclear power plant is a lot more expensive than capital for other power plants. I don’t see where nuclear power is comparatively more water intensive than coal power is, since they both ultimately use steam to generate mechanical energy for electricity. Anyways, I’ll be waiting for Gen IV reactors before I start investing in nuclear.

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  5. 5. GRLCowan 3:11 pm 06/4/2013

    I liked the question Biello offers as the “main question … not answered”: what if people just cannot handle nuclear power due to its inability to gain widespread social acceptance?

    Perhaps they just *can* handle it and therefore it *has* gained widespread social acceptance. Having produced as much energy as might otherwise have required five cubic miles of petroleum, and in so doing deprived governments of a couple of trillion dollars they might have netted in fossil fuel revenues would seem to back that up.

    But there’s that two trillion, and so, in governments’ eyes, and apparently Biello’s, the minority who oppose it are much more equal than the rest of us.

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  6. 6. rshoff 3:18 pm 06/4/2013

    The sun is a nuclear power station of sorts, yes. But it is not maintained on earth nor managed by humans. Nuclear power is not intrinsically bad and many good things can come from it. I used to fervently support nuclear power because of it’s promise. But the Benefit/Risk equation makes it unsuitable for humans here on earth. Why? Because humans manage it and human management systems and practices are not absolute. When something does go wrong (and we can count on that at least a few times a century at the current rate of nuclear power plant deployment), we have to live with the consequences for thousands or millions of years. And that pollution is additive. Each breach adds radioactive isotopes to our environment here at ground level well below the magnetic field. So, benefit vs Risk? Not worth it.

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  7. 7. sethdayal 3:22 pm 06/4/2013

    Here’s our slick Big Oil propagandist Biello with his usual thoroughly debunked nonsense.

    The three accidents in nuke reactors were all in ancient fifties designed units. Modern units would survive the same indignities without issue. TMI and Fuku long term effects were restricted to the plants itself with no injuries whatsoever. Chernobyl was a nuke weapons plant similar to our own unit at Hanford – nothing to do nuke power. Note that Biello and the rest of our corrupt media never mention the tens of thousands of tons of deadly toxic forever chemical emissions from all the Big Oil facilities destroyed in the Fuku tsunami.

    Nuke power’s record as the safest power source on earth by several orders of magnitude remains intact.

    The clean and green zero environmental cost VC Summer plant has a firm price and PUC approved budget of $9.8B for 2250 GW each for the nuclear plants – 7 cents a kwh or 4 cents a kwh if built with public power. That using inefficient last century American construction techniques under the way out of date onerous NRC rules. The same first of a kind plants,now almost complete, are being built on time on budget at less than half the cost using modern construction techniques in China. The last 7 Candu’s were built all around the world at $2B/GW – 3 cents a kwh.

    SCANA under penalty of perjury has proved to its regulator that its per kwh nuke and gas generating costs are the less than today’s gas market price of 40% the cost of production.

    Unfortunately fascist business interests would rather spend a small amount of capital on gas plant and collect a lucrative gratuity on future fuel sales paid for by the taxpayer, than a large amount of capital and no gratuities. They are saving their $2.5 Trillion in cash in their Swiss bank accounts donated by taxpayer debt financed tax cuts for quarterly bonus and weekend seminars at Caribbean hotspots.They pay a lot of graft to our corrupt politicians and media to keep that scam going. If they had to guarantee their prices for the next sixty years like nukes in effect do, not a gas plant would ever be built.

    Contrary to Biello’s slick spew India and Russia have two IFR Gen IV machines going online this year – first of 5 to 2020 in India’s case and less than 3 cents a kwh. China has an HTGR under construction for 2017 service, and several other Gen IV lead reactors based on the Soviet Alfa sub are due before that.

    Given a palty $2B diverted from the DOE’s corrupt carbon capture experiments within two years these expanded versions of already developed test Gen iV MSR’s could be online ready to ship on railcars at a penny a kwhr

    Google “terrestrial-energy-will-make-integral”

    With the rate of return on investment to the nation as whole at 40% per annum, like France did in the 80′s when it went from zero to 80% nuke in 15 years, it’d be pretty well done in a decade.

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  8. 8. rshoff 3:22 pm 06/4/2013

    @ultimobo – After an airplane crash is done, its physical impact on us immediately dissipates (except for the relatively few victims of course). Nuclear waste impacts the environment, and therefore us, rather permanently (depending upon the isotopes of course). And therefore the results of nuclear accidents are additive on our environment. Plane crashes are not additive or cumulative in the same way.

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  9. 9. rshoff 3:27 pm 06/4/2013

    @seth – The three accidents of the ancient (jesh, what does that make me?) nuclear plants were the result of human failure. Nuclear energy will not be safe until you can make human behavior fail-safe. And that will never happen.

    The danger in Nuclear power is the inconsistency in human management and human processes, including design, engineering, implementation, construction, procedural persistence in plant management, political resolve to transparency and honesty, etc, etc, etc.

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  10. 10. jimmywat 3:46 pm 06/4/2013

    As the original anti-human global warming film exposed, the whole anti-coal and other fossil fuels gambit was for the nuclear industry, kick-started by Thachter, may she rust in peace. Here is there new front, spearheaded by this propagandistic magazine which refuses to publish the fact that there has been no statistically significant warming in recent history spanning decades.

    The Voice of
    Russia reported on April 22, 2013,

    “Global warming which has been the subject of so many discussions in recent
    years, may give way to global cooling. According to scientists from the Pulkovo
    Observatory in St.Petersburg, solar activity is waning, so the average yearly
    temperature will begin to decline as well. Scientists from Britain and the US
    chime in saying that forecasts for global cooling are far from groundless.”

    That report quoted Yuri Nagovitsyn of the Pulkovo Observatory saying,
    “Evidently, solar activity is on the decrease. The 11-year cycle doesn’t bring
    about considerable climate change – only 1-2%. The impact of the 200-year cycle
    is greater – up to 50%. In this respect, we could be in for a cooling period
    that lasts 200-250 years.” In other words, another Little Ice Age.

    The German Herald reported on March 31, 2013,

    “German meteorologists say that the start of 2013 is now the coldest in 208
    years – and now German media has quoted Russian scientist Dr Habibullo
    Abdussamatov from the St. Petersburg Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory [saying
    this] is proof as he said earlier that we are heading for a “Mini Ice Age.”
    Talking to German media the scientist who first made his prediction in 2005 said
    that after studying sunspots and their relationship with climate change on
    Earth, we are now on an ‘unavoidable advance towards a deep temperature drop.’”

    Faith in Global Warming is collapsing in formerly staunch Europe following
    increasingly severe winters which have now started continuing into spring.
    Christopher Booker explained in The Sunday Telegraph on April 27, 2013,

    “Here in Britain, where we had our fifth freezing winter in a row, the Central
    England Temperature record – according to an expert analysis on the US science
    blog Watts Up With That – shows that in this century, average winter
    temperatures have dropped by 1.45C, more than twice as much as their rise
    between 1850 and 1999, and twice as much as the entire net rise in global
    temperatures recorded in the 20th century.”

    A news report from India (The Hindu April 22, 2013) stated, “March in Russia saw
    the harshest frosts in 50 years, with temperatures dropping to –25° Celsius in
    central parts of the country and –45° in the north. It was the coldest spring
    month in Moscow in half a century….Weathermen say spring is a full month behind
    schedule in Russia.” The news report summarized,

    “Russia is famous for its biting frosts but this year, abnormally icy weather
    also hit much of Europe, the United States, China and India. Record snowfalls
    brought Kiev, capital of Ukraine, to a standstill for several days in late
    March, closed roads across many parts of Britain, buried thousands of sheep
    beneath six-metre deep snowdrifts in Northern Ireland, and left more than
    1,000,000 homes without electricity in Poland. British authorities said March
    was the second coldest in its records dating back to 1910. China experienced the
    severest winter weather in 30 years and New Delhi in January recorded the lowest
    temperature in 44 years.”

    Booker adds, “Last week it was reported that 3,318 places in the USA had
    recorded their lowest temperatures for this time of year since records began.
    Similar record cold was experienced by places in every province of Canada. So
    cold has the Russian winter been that Moscow had its deepest snowfall in 134
    years of observations.”

    Britain’s Met Office, an international cheerleading headquarters for global
    warming hysteria, did concede last December that there would be no further
    warming at least through 2017, which would make 20 years with no global warming.
    That reflects grudging recognition of the newly developing trends. But that
    reflects as well growing divergence between the reality of real world
    temperatures and the projections of the climate models at the foundation of the
    global warming alarmism of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
    (IPCC). Since those models have never been validated, they are not science at
    this point, but just made up fantasies. That is why, “In the 12 years to 2011,
    11 out of 12 [global temperature]forecasts [of the Met Office] were too high —
    and… none were colder than [resulted],” as BBC climate correspondent Paul Hudson
    wrote in January.

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  11. 11. RDFInOP 4:20 pm 06/4/2013

    I’m not as afraid of Nuclear power as many but I doubt the long term economics. You build a plant and run it for 40 or so years, then you take it offline and guard the waste for 10,000 or so years. It just seems short-sighted to me.

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  12. 12. rshoff 4:52 pm 06/4/2013

    @rdflnop – You highlight my point. Do you think we are capable of guarding the waste for 10,000 years? Gosh, I don’t even know if our modern cities will last 1000. I’m worried about my mortgage and that’s only another 10. Human systems are temporary and riddled with failures. It is no different with how we handle nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plant management is not carved out of from our other human limitations.

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  13. 13. Carlyle 5:48 pm 06/4/2013

    Re: 10. jimmywat
    Thanks for that compilation. There are many other examples for instance:
    A combination of an icy winter and a chilly spring has meant that for the first time ever in the month of June, skiers will have the option of heading to the pistes in the French Pyrénées, French TV TF1 reported on Wednesday.
    After recent cold weather, bosses at the ski station Porte Puymorens in the Pyrénées-Orientales region of the mountain range that divides France from Spain have taken the exceptional step to re-open the slopes this weekend after they had closed them at the end of the season in April.

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  14. 14. Fanandala 5:53 pm 06/4/2013

    @ jimmywat
    it appears that you really have done quite bit of reading and I do agree with you in nearly all points you raised. I am not particularly worried about CO2 emissions of conventional power stations, but all the other muck they release into the air. I live near the coast, in the southern hemisphere, virtually at the arse end of the world and the local ( fairly poor) fishing community sports astronomic levels of mercury in their bodies. Which comes from the predatory fish they prefer to eat 35 days in a month,as one of them told me,and which was ultimately was produced in coal fired power stations, the nearest of which is about 500 miles away from here. We do not have any mining in coastal areas. so there would be no run off from some mines. I doubt we would have that environmental impact from nuclear power stations. We actually do have one nearby, and nobody has ever complained about emissions from that power plant. And I can assure you earthlife, greenpeace etc. are watching closely.
    The disposal of nuclear waste is often cited as a major problem. I think it is only a political problem, just do not bury it too deep because I am sure the next generations will be digging it up again as a fuel for the future, after all the “waste” of PWRs contains still 99 to 95 % of the energy that can be extracted.
    As things are now, I have a nuclear power station in my backyard (20 miles away), if there was a circumstance that would compel me to move house, I would, because of demographics and bang for the buck, likely move closer to it. So as things are, I am firmly in favour of nuclear power, though I would like that other options, like fast reactors, molten salt reactors, Thorium fueled reactors and other designs that have a high level of passive safety would be explored.

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  15. 15. sethdayal 6:21 pm 06/4/2013

    Why is it impossible to penetrate the thickness of the no nuker?

    The world’s current supply of used fuel rods which could all fit on football field would supply all the world’s energy needs for a thousand year when burned in Gen IV reactors. Buried in a salt mine miles deep like WIPPS it would have the same radiation levels as natural uranium in a few hundred years.

    Real science peer reviewed and published in reputable journal shows the radiation outside the plant site at the ancient 50′s designed FUKU plant destroyed by corruption in the worst possible nuke accident impossible in a modern reactor, never excelled those you’d get on a a beach vacation in Brazil.

    Yes human error used to crash lots Wright Bros’s biplanes but with modern failsafe systems human error in modern aircraft is a tiny fraction of the chance. Fuku to the Ap-1000.

    Keep in mind always as these fools dither, that every year a fossil to nuclear conversion is delayed with these impossible renewable dreams- 3 million more people die from fossil air pollution. France went from almost zero nuclear to 80% in a decade

    All those millions dying because these fools don’t want to sacrifice a football field to nuke waste, or take a chance on an event less likely than an asteroid wiping out NYC.

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  16. 16. Ben McCombe 7:30 pm 06/4/2013

    “By the calculus known as probabilistic risk assessment that governs nuclear power safety in the U.S. we should have one nuclear meltdown in 100,000 years. We’ve already had such a partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in the first 50 years of the nuclear era, with at least three more even more drastic core meltdowns worldwide. For many, nuclear power remains more closely related to some of the other woes afflicting humankind that sprang from Pandora’s mythical box than the hope that these converts require.”

    This is out by several orders of magnitude. The PRA assessment is 1 core damage frequency event every 100,000 reactor years, not years. Globally there have been 15,000 reactor years of commecial nuclear operation, of which about 3-4000 would have occurred in the US.

    Notably this PRA is for old Gen 2 reactors, newer reactors have CDF’s of one event between 3 and 33 million reactor years depending on the design.

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  17. 17. Leroy 7:47 pm 06/4/2013

    “no statistically significant warming in recent history spanning decades”

    then cites a bunch of weather reports… ha!

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  18. 18. johnm9070 8:06 pm 06/4/2013

    According to an article in the LA Times, several thousand Chinese die in coal mining accidents every year. This is not a recent occurence and has been going on for decades. However, this is seldom if ever reported in the news. However, let there be a minor accident at a nuclear facility in which some low level radiation leaks, with no one affected, and it is covered everywhere.

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  19. 19. Carlyle 8:14 pm 06/4/2013

    re: 14. Fanandala
    Although I share your concern about pollution from coal burning mercury is a minor component. Mercury is a naturally occurring mineral that often occurs in mineralised country & seeps into the water. I suspect that is the source in southern Tasmania. Other pollutants include radioactive material are released by coal burning. Much more radioactive material is released by a coal fired power station than from a nuclear power station. Mostly, I just hate the waste. Using fossil fuels for thermal purposes where nuclear could do the job is a terrible waste of the earths resources. Why? There is no logical reason.

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  20. 20. jcorreia 8:20 pm 06/4/2013

    I just want to remark on this statement which is totally false: “And, though the existing global fleet of 400+ reactors mass produces the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons…”

    Power reactors DO NOT produce plutonium for bombs! Plutonium is produced in special plutonium breeding reactors. Check out this page for further explanation:

    Power reactors do produce the Pu239 isotope but in combination with Pu240 to a degree that it is not operationally or economically feasible to “harvest” this isotope from a power reactor.

    David Biello and other anti-nukes would love this association to be true but to make this mistake is beyond making an error, it’s just plain confusion based on urban legend.

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  21. 21. Cloud-Cuckoo 9:13 pm 06/4/2013

    Ah yes, ‘radiation’. You can always tell which side of the argument someone is on by the use of this word. Pro-nuclear types love the word, love to talk about background radiation, and love to put forward ridiculous comparisons using bananas, airplane flights, living in granite houses and so on. They see some biological significance in ‘background radiation’ rather than just a measurement to calibrate a geiger counter.

    Anti-nuclear proponents, on the other hand, will talk about radionuclides and the very different chemical properties and biological effects of each one. They realise that there is no ‘background’ level of plutonium, for example. And that concentrations of radionuclides (whether you accept that ‘hot particles’ exist or not) will have disproportionate effects on living cells.

    So I think, using the radioactive banana test, we can tell which side the author of this article is on. Pity they didn’t point out how easy it is to counter such stupid comparisons.

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  22. 22. rshoff 9:20 pm 06/4/2013

    I am not a no-nuker, I am instead very rightfully distrustful of human capabilities. It’s humanity that I distrust, not nuclear technology. Furthermore, C02 would not be persistent in our environment for thousands of years. It’s easily convertible by nature, once we wipe ourselves out.

    Overcome these obstacles and you will find my support!

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  23. 23. Carlyle 2:29 am 06/5/2013

    21. Cloud-Cuckoo
    Well, tell us how many deaths that can be ascribed to radiation from nuclear power generation since the first nuclear power station came on line. The number is vanishingly small. The one serious fatality causing accident that has occurred was from an early crudely designed & poorly managed plant. People & animals now live in the near vicinity.
    The scaremongering is unforgiveable from those who should know better. Exclude yourself if you are ignorant of the facts.

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  24. 24. ntouran 12:16 pm 06/5/2013

    As it turns out regarding the radiation danger, (Carlyle and Cloud-Cuckoo), famous climate scientist James Hansen of NASA recently co-authored a paper showing that nuclear enegy has saved a net of 1.8 million lives so far.

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  25. 25. Wuzawuza 2:07 pm 06/5/2013

    I can remember watching a talk show in the late 1970′s on TV Ontario (public TV in Ontario, Canada) where the engineers at Ontario Hydro were adamant that the long term cost of nuclear generated electricity was very low compared to any alternative. A group called “Pollution Probe” took the other side. Here in Ontario we now pay a “Long term debt reduction” fee on every power bill to help pay off the massive debts run up by our nuclear power plants. I’m not afraid of nuclear radiation, I’m afraid of spiraling costs of the plants.

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  26. 26. inventorof 2:17 pm 06/5/2013

    In a couple of years low energy nuclear- LENR also called cold fusion will burst up on the scene and make fission an unnecessary burden to future generations. We don’t need the fission waste when we can obtain nickel power with no rad waste generated..

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  27. 27. Profitsup 2:17 pm 06/5/2013

    Circa 2005 – - –

    We put millions of skilled workers on manufacturing jobs building 500 to 1,000 Nuclear power plant of a low cost standard design. This will provide all the energy to accomplish a full restoration of our industrial base. How will this happen you ask?

    First we “MINE” the oceans for gold, silver, copper, uranium, methane, manganese and other valuable minerals and metals. It has been estimated that it will be profitable to mine gold from the seas at around $ 3,000 per ounce. Second we use cheap nuclear power to extract these metals which could make a profit to pay off the national debt. Third we use the byproduct “WATER” to farm the huge vacant dry south west feeding the entire planet with low cost food.

    Finally we use the cheap nuclear power to build factories to manufacture everything the entire planet needs and we return to zero unemployment and can pay good wages because we have free energy that makes a profit in it’s creation.The money generated can payoff all debts, build nuclear reprocessing plants, research and develop a system to render nuclear waste harmless.

    Just think, full employment, no energy crisis ever, gold to make money valuable, make the dollar the strongest currency on earth, end inflation, end government debt. Just imagine “AMERICA REBORN AND THE DREAM FULFILLED!!!

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  28. 28. bobhiggins 2:37 pm 06/5/2013

    “though the sun generates light in a nuclear way via fusion”

    But the sun does it’s work at the sublimely comfortable distance of 93M miles and leaves us none of that pesky waste to dispose of.

    It’s also possible to get underwriters for solar facilities where no one will touch these dangerous nuclear teakettles with a very long stick. When we have a solar spill we call it a day at the beach.

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  29. 29. sethdayal 5:02 pm 06/5/2013

    More halfwits.

    “Long term debt reduction”

    Ontario’s nukes have long since been paid for selling electricity to the ISO at 6 cents a kwh, producing it for 3 cents. This is a political item caused by the dumbest governments in Ontario’s history – Bob Rae and Mike Harris and their inability to make decisions and their crazed finance schemes. The actual cost of the Darlington build was $2.7B/Gw cheapest energy available then and now.

    As for liability nuclear is the safest power on earth never killing a soul – a perfect record unlike wind and solar that kill thousands annually with the air pollution from their required gas backup and in future from their deadly toxic forever end of life waste leaching into landfills. Nary a one would be built if insurance was required to cover that liability.

    Its typical of these halfwits that they get their information from a TV show they saw a decade ago. The right to vote should be removed from these individuals.

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  30. 30. jack.123 7:36 pm 06/5/2013

    I read this article and saw it very anti wind and solar.In the west we have canyons above the treeline where winds blow constantly and in large volumes.the winds blow up during the day and down at night.Building funneling systems to direct winds to generating facilities would be easy do with current technologies.If you combine this with solar systems in the southwest,most of the USA energy demand could be met.This would of course mean a huge investment in infrastructure,but not any more than than going nuclear.

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  31. 31. Tweenk 10:04 pm 06/5/2013

    There are several factual errors in the article.

    The article implies that Chernobyl was a light water reactor, which is not true. It was an RBMK reactor, an entirely different design, which uses water as coolant and graphite as moderator. The main event that spread radioactive contamination during Chernobyl was the graphite fire. This is not possible in a light water reactor, since it contains no graphite.

    Plutonium from light water reactors is not suitable for bombs. It contains too much Pu-240, which causes predetonation. All nations which obtained nuclear weapons used either plutonium from purpose-built reactors, or high enriched uranium.

    Carbon capture and storage creates a waste disposal problem which is orders of magnitude harder to solve than the issue of nuclear waste. It is far easier to store a small quantity of inert solids for 10 000 years than to store huge quantities of a gas indefinitely.

    In addition to LWRs, China is also researching and building fast reactors, and the long term plan is to make them the primary source of electricity. There is also a commercial fast reactor in Russia, with two more under construction.

    Renewable technologies cannot replace fossil fuel not because of some technological shortcoming which can be rectified with more research, but because of fundamental physical laws. The Sun does not shine at night and is weak during the winter. The wind is unpredictable, even on the country scale. Geothermal power requires suitable geology. All good sites for hydro are already taken. Advanced nuclear does not face any of those issues.

    The Three Mile Island accident was a non-event for everyone except the reactor owner. There were zero deaths, zero injuries and zero excess cancers. Not all meltdowns are made equal. I would take a TMI over a Banqiao or a Deepwater Horizon any day.

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  32. 32. Dr. Strangelove 10:51 pm 06/5/2013

    “eating a single banana gives a higher dose of radiation than drinking water laced with tritium from the leaking Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant”

    To get rid of radioactive waste, nuclear plants should put the water in bottles and sell them as “radioactive energy drink.” When the radiation level drop, throw the solid waste to the sea. Seawater is too salty to drink :-)

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  33. 33. sofistek 2:12 am 06/6/2013

    Do they consider the possibility of a nuclear society remaining stable for the life of the reactor and the storage of the waste? I suspect not. How likely is that, for all nuclear societies?

    In any case, a significant build up of nuclear will statistically involve more accidents and hundreds of thousands of families having their lives ruined or at least highly disrupted for a very long time. Also, any effects on climate change will happen far too late to make any difference and climate change itself will make stability in nuclear societies even less likely.

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  34. 34. Carlyle 2:35 am 06/6/2013

    33. sofistek
    Oh woe is me :(

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  35. 35. JimHopf 8:56 pm 06/6/2013

    A few inaccuracies in the article:

    LWRs do not generate “large volumes” of waste. It is miniscule in volume; almost a million times smaller than the waste streams of other energy sources and industries. Whereas other waste streams (e.g., fossil fuels’) have just been released directly into the environment, nuclear waste has always been contained and safely stored. As for long-term disposal, this problem has been technically solved for a long time. Problems with siting repositories are purely political. This is actually not a significant problem with nuclear power. It is largely a fabrication.

    As others have pointed out, nuclear waste is NOT a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons. The military has always used specialized reactors, of a different type, to create all weapons plutonium. Due to poor isotope distribution, whether or not it’s even possible to use power reactor waste plutonium in a weapon is the subject of debate. Nuclear plants (LWRs) are simply not a proliferation risk. (Only enrichment or reprocessing facilities are.) Reactors convert enriched uranium ore into spent fuel, which is actually harder to extract weapons material from than the enriched uranium ore.

    Finally, it’s very unlikely that CO2 sequestration could ever compete with nuclear in terms of cost. At a minimum, new fossil plants w/ sequestration could not compete with new nuclear plants. And the old fossil plants will wear out eventually (many are extremely old right now). In any event, an objective market based policy like CO2 limits or taxes would sort out all these issues. The least expensive CO2 reduction options would win out. I doublt CCS would go anywhere under such a policy.

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  36. 36. JimHopf 9:10 pm 06/6/2013

    Many of the posters here have bought into the myth that nuclear waste is somehow unique in terms of long-term hazard. How will we babysit the waste for 100,000 years? I dunno, how will we babysit all our other waste streams?

    There seems to be this notion that all other waste streams just magically become harmless after some relatively short time period. The fact is that many, of not most other waste streams have toxic constituents that last as long or longer than nuclear waste (since nuclear waste actually decays away, exponentially). How about all those toxic elements (mercury, arsenic, etc…) in solar cells, as well as coal ash, that never decay away?

    Given that these other waste streams are thousands to millions of times larger in volume, have much more dispersible, leak-prone physcial forms (vs. ceramic nuclear pellets sealed in corrosion-resistent metal rods and containers), and are buried with infinitely less care and containment, many of not most of those waste streams will actually pose a far greater health hazard, even hundreds of thousands of years from now.

    Nuclear is required to show, to a high standard of proof, that its waste repository will have no impact on public health or the environment, for as long as its wastes remain hazardous. Nothing even close to that is required for any other waste stream. The (impeccible) requirements are unique, not the long-term hazard. Once the repository is sealed, it will not require any long term monitoring or babysitting.

    The real truth, of course, is that in a century or so (if not sooner) we will develop the technology to process and eliminate all the waste. This is long before there is any chance of leakage from a repository like Yucca Mountain, etc.. Thus, nuclear waste is the one waste stream that will never be released into the environment; the one waste stream that we know, right now, will never hurt anyone. Would that any other waste streams (or the fossil industry) could say the same.

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  37. 37. JimHopf 9:29 pm 06/6/2013

    Finally, based on a lot of the comments, I feel that a comparison of nuclear’s risk and impacts to those of fossil fuels is in order.

    Fossil fueled power generation causes tens of thousands of deaths in the US, and hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, ANNUALLY. It also inflicts hundreds of billions in annual economic costs. Finally, it is the leading source of CO2 emissions (cause of global warming).

    Meanwhile, non-Soviet nuclear power has never had any measurable impact on public health, and emits no air pollution or CO2. Even the Fukushima event, the first significant release of pollution in non-Soviet nuclear power’s entire history, is projected to have no measurable impact. It did have an economic impact, about equal to that inflicted every few months by fossil power generation.

    Despite its massive impact, fossil generation continues to enjoy extraordinarily lax regulations and requirements. They don’t pay a dime to compensate for, or reflect their massive health and environmental costs. CO2 emissions are still free. Meanwhile, nuclear’s requirements are absurdly strict. It has to spend enormous sums to avoid even the tiniest risk of a release (of pollution).

    Poster #3 says that nuclear’s cost, not undue fear of radiation, is what’s holding nuclear back. Why do you think nuclear’s so expensive? Undue fear of radiation has led to an unbelievably slanted regulatory playing field; literally a black-and-white double standard in terms of requirements and what risks/impacts are allowed. Under a level playing field, nuclear could easily beat fossil plants. For starters (if they were treated anything like nuclear) fossil plants would not be allowed to emit any CO2 or other air pollutants, and would have to prove that there is even a small chance of those pollutants being released. If we ever do have limtis on CO2 emissions, that equation, where utilities prefer fossil plants, would change, big time (over the longer term certainly).

    Someone else referred to consequences of a nuclear accident lasting thousands of years. Also nonsense. Radiation levels (and doses) within contaminated areas after a meltdown are almost entirely due to Cs-137, which has a ~30-year half life. Radiation levels fall off much faster than that, however, due to natural dispersion effects and cleanup efforts. Radiation levels will fall to within natural background levels within years, decades at most.

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  38. 38. sigmac 11:11 pm 06/6/2013

    Jim said everything I was thinking. The antis believe what could possibly happen. Even though the worst has occurred and has not happened. A review of history has demonstrated that their fears are ungrounded. Bikini Atoll and Chernobyl are some of the most pristine environments in the world. Not because of radiation but because man left these areas alone due to the fear of radiation. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were going to be desolate for decades but there are cities again where the bombs were dropped. the antis believe that the radioactive waste cannot be maintained in ceramic pellets and stored safely but Oklo in Gabon contained the waste and was safe without any man made barriers to contain the waste. I believe that the proven safer course should be adopted over the continuing unsafe deadly alternative. From everything the pros say, they understand the risk and realize that based on science and history, the safest choice is nuclear.

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  39. 39. David Russell 11:43 pm 06/6/2013

    The only practical use of nuclear power was Project Orion. Anything else is like taking cyanide to cure a cold. We have no way of storing the waste and fusion will leave any containment system riddled with neutrons from hell.

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  40. 40. Carlyle 12:53 am 06/7/2013

    39. David Russell
    As I said earlier to another commenter, if you are ignorant of the facts, you are excused. If you are intelligent & base your opinions on facts instead of unreasoning fear, you have no excuse.

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  41. 41. rshoff 5:07 pm 06/11/2013

    I’ve seen comments that both say the nuclear activity of waste is only a problem for decades and other’s say it’s thousands of years. I know that different isotopes have varying half lives. And I believe a lot of the radiation level is due to local dissipation and not neutralization of some of the isotopes. Cesium 137 is not the only isotope we have to deal with. Furthermore, water flows, fish swim. Steam evaporates and is carried with the wind. How can you really account for the residual radiation that dissipates from the local site of the accident? I don’t trust you can.

    Where is the real truth? There are facts, they just don’t seem to be listed here. They cannot be, otherwise as they would not be so contradictory. But as I said before, stick your heads in the sand of denial and bring me cheap electricity. The world would be at greater risk taking the nuclear route, but my retirement years will be nicer.

    Again, are we talking about humanities needs or are we talking about a living earth? There is a difference.

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  42. 42. rshoff 5:15 pm 06/11/2013

    btw, I’m not ‘afraid’ of nuclear power plants. I just see what a mess they will become, and think it’s better to avoid that route all together. Think of all the messes we already have that we cannot clean up. Radioactive waste will just become another. Look at Hanford. They can’t even clean it up and now the waste containment is leaking. Right next to the Columbia river.

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  43. 43. rshoff 5:21 pm 06/11/2013

    If SA is gracious enough to let me post this link to the news event surrounding this exact topic regarding Hanford Nuclear Reservation storage leaks, alarm system, and human incompetence.

    If the link doesn’t appear, please use your search engine for King5 news Hanford nuclear waste leak from May 2013.

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