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Deconstructing John Miller’s arguments against nuclear energy in the New York Times


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Nuclear power plants (Image: Fast Company)

John Miller, a social psychologist and journalist who once served as an officer on a nuclear submarine has a piece on Andrew Revkin’s New York Times blog Dot Earth in which he purportedly dismisses several claims about nuclear energy and provides evidence to the contrary; these include general claims as well as those made more specifically in the film “Pandora’s Promise” which I reviewed on this blog earlier. Since I found much of merit in the film, it’s obvious that I disagree with most of Miller’s points. Based on his replies to comments, Miller seems to think that providing a lot of links is tantamount to providing evidence. But this is a flawed assumption; for instance I might write a piece on alien abductions that is rife with links, and yet my arguments may not make much sense. What is strange in Miller’s piece though is that several of the links which he provides to support his arguments themselves contain information either contradicting or qualifying his claims. Below we look at a few of his arguments.

Miller cites a WHO study and claims that Chernobyl killed 16,000 people. However if we follow his link we find the following important qualifier which is noted right below the numerical estimate:

“While these figures all reflect human suffering and death, they nevertheless represent only a very small fraction of the total number of cancers seen since the accident and expected in the future in Europe. Indeed, our analysis of the trends in cancer incidence and mortality does not demonstrate any increase that can be clearly attributed to the Chernobyl accident. The exception is thyroid cancer, which, over ten years ago, was already shown to be increased in the most contaminated regions around the site of the accident.”

It’s worth noting that this qualification is common to all estimates of cancers from accidents like Chernobyl; the number is small to begin with, but even higher numbers are a fraction of the number of natural cancers that would occur over the years. Thus it is very difficult to ascribe any particular cancer to a radiation accident. Plus, thyroid cancer is easily curable and in case of Chernobyl resulted from the failure of a highly bureaucratic and secretive Communist system to sound the alarm, take prompt action and distribute iodine pills, a situation unlikely to arise in other cases. It’s worth constantly reminding ourselves that Chernobyl represents a close to worst-case scenario resulting from a fundamentally flawed design that has happened exactly once. Citing Chernobyl as a strike against nuclear would be like citing Bhopal (which definitively killed many more than Chernobyl) as a strike against the chemical industry.

Miller also says that fast reactors utilizing sodium are unsafe. To support his claims he links to a 1956 study by Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe that calculates the explosive yield of a fast sodium-cooled reactor should all the coolant suddenly disappear. Miller’s argument here is extremely limited and misleading. Let’s start by noting that throughout his life, Hans Bethe was a champion of nuclear power, for instance penning a clear-headed essay in 1976 on the need for nuclear power in the pages of this very publication (here’s an updated version of Bethe’s argument from 1991). But let’s take a look at the study; for one thing, Bethe’s calculation assumes a worst-case scenario:

“A number of pessimistically simplifying assumptions are made, in particular the rate of increase of reactivity is calculated assuming that the core suddenly loses its cohesion and collapses under the gravity”.

Such a worst-case scenario cannot be cited as the norm. In addition, in spite of minor leaks and problems, there has been no major accident with a fast reactor even close to that envisioned by Bethe that causes a loss of life. In fact fast breeder reactor construction continues in many countries. Neither are fast breeder reactors the only game in the nuclear town.

Finally, it is pure scaremongering to say that the reactor can  become a “small unintended atom bomb” even in the worst case scenario. In the 1956 study Bethe calculates the energy release from even a catastrophic accident as equivalent to 160 kg of TNT. This is a large explosion, but not even remotely close to an atomic bomb; for comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – quite small by modern standards – released about 16,000 tons of TNT. Even one of the smallest known nuclear weapons, the Davy Crockett tactical nuke, released 10 to 20 tons of TNT. It is also a well known fact that fundamental physics prevents a nuclear reactor from exploding like an atomic bomb (also, what does the random link to a book on Fast Spectrum Reactors mean?).

Miller’s statements about plutonium are also misleading and incomplete. He cites plutonium as causing lung cancers, but plutonium can cause harm only when inhaled; there are poisons like botulism toxin and anthrax spores which are far more easily available and much more dangerous. Plutonium is one of those things that needs to be deposited in a very precise location to cause harm; by that token, in one expert’s words, “tomorrow’s production of hatpins could kill everyone if placed in their lungs”. In addition plutonium is not something that you can buy off the shelf. Saying that “Procure 29 pounds plutonium and you can build a bomb with it” completely ignores the security measures taken to safeguard the substance and the extreme difficulty that anyone trying to obtain even a gram of it will face. Personally I would be much more scared of the guy who can procure 29 pounds of cheap and easily available nitrate fertilizer.

Later Miller decides to criticize some of the people interviewed in the film “Pandora’s Promise” and their apparently misleading statements. In the process Miller says a lot of misleading and incomplete things himself. For instance he points to a NREL study that examines various scenarios for achieving a 80% dependence on renewables by 2050, but does not point to the simplifying assumptions that the study makes and the huge political and economic challenges it considers; that does not mean research in renewables is futile, but it certainly makes a good case at the very least for an equal push in nuclear research. Miller also cites a 2009 McKinsey study that calculates a possible 23% cut in non-transporation energy use, but he does not cite the $520 billion price tag. The point is this; if we are willing to spend so much on unproven renewables based on so many simplifying assumptions, there is really no good case against spending about as much on modifying existing nuclear power plants and exploring new designs.

Miller also makes the non-statement that “Standing near a nuclear spent fuel rod will kill you” and uses this as an argument against reactors. Why on earth would anyone stand near a spent fuel rod? That would be like arguing that drinking a gallon of gasoline would kill you and that this is a good argument against using gasoline in cars.

Later Miller takes environmentalist Gwyneth Cravens to task. In the film, Cravens says that drinking tritium-lade water for a day would release no more radiation in your body than eating a banana. He links to a piece by Ed Lyman challenging this comparison, but a quick look at the comments section indicates arguments (most notably by Rod Adams) that significantly temper Lyman’s calculation. In addition Miller misses Cravens’s more general argument; that nuclear reactors release a lot of artificial radioactivity at doses that are much smaller than natural radiation levels. A short while later Miller sets up another straw man and says that if Fukushima had AP1000 reactors they would have withstood a loss of power for only 3 days. Firstly, the AP1000 is not the only game in town. Secondly, Fukushima was in the unfortunate situation of being hit by a double whammy; a massive earthquake followed by a massive tsunami. By any definition this is a rare event unlikely to happen in stable geological sites located inland. In addition the tsunami and earthquake killed tens of thousands, while according to the most recent WHO report, the nuclear accident will likely cause no excess fatal cancers.

Generally speaking then, I found Miller’s piece to be largely misleading and alarmist, indulging in much cherry-picking, citing worst-case scenarios and and linking to pieces which he himself must have known to be much more measured and critical of the arguments that he makes. His piece is also quite incomplete; for instance there is no mention of nuclear energy successes like France or of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates funding promising new reactor designs. There’s more to nuclear energy than what Miller would have us believe.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

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





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  1. 1. tuned 12:33 pm 08/23/2013

    Civilian nuclear power has the “best” ratio of deaths per megawatt by a huge factor.
    Oil and coal have killed millions.

    Link to this
  2. 2. rkipling 2:18 pm 08/23/2013

    Curious Wavefunction,

    Same issue with this post. Invisible on the home page.

    You still don’t have equal billing with the glue-spitting worm.

    Link to this
  3. 3. M Tucker 2:20 pm 08/23/2013

    As long was we have the either/or argument on nuclear/renewables we will continue to delay the needed transition from fossil fuels. All sides seem to engage in misleading and unsubstantiated claims. I generally agree with Hanson, we need both nuclear and renewables. The biggest problem with nuclear is cost. For me this is not trivial. Charging customers more before a plant comes online and increasing those charges when the utility makes mistake is just wrong. We are building solar and wind today and they come online at a much faster rate. Solar is much cheaper today and it is becoming cheaper all the time. Some utilities are actively opposing solar while their nuclear projects suffer delays and cost overruns. We still need nuclear but they are expensive and slow projects and it seems to me we could do better.

    All the claims about the next generation nuclear designs need to be substantiated with evidence and demonstration projects. I do not believe James Hansen when he says, “But with the new technologies, they are passively safe in the sense that if there is an anomaly like an earthquake or tsunami or both, it will just shut down and they don’t require power to cool them.” Cooling without power requirements! Well, even if he is wrong, nuclear will not solve “large scale and in a short amount of time” problem. Actually neither nuclear nor renewables will address the time problem. We will just have to do the best we can. The scale problem is exacerbated by the requirement that we build in a “stable geological sites located inland.” Most of the world’s population lives on the coast. These plants need a lot of water for steam and cooling. So we need to consider the water budget and geologic stability. Building in flood planes of major rivers is also an issue.

    We need to correct how we talk about this stuff and we need to provide evidence of safety and actually demonstrate that “they don’t require power to cool them.” If that is true then Phoenix can really save some power generation costs.

    Link to this
  4. 4. curiouswavefunction 3:17 pm 08/23/2013

    Yes, I agree that we need both renewables and nuclear. I just see nuclear as being a much bigger part of the mix compared to renewables. Also, I would strongly recommend taking a look at the Breakthrough Institute report on how to make nuclear cheap: http://thebreakthrough.org/images/pdfs/Breakthrough_Institute_How_to_Make_Nuclear_Cheap.pdf

    As for cooling without power requirements, one elegant example is the molten salt reactor. In this case, a plug of molten salt which seals the reactor from the bottom is cooled and frozen by electrical power. Once power is lost the plug melts away and the fuel simply exits the reactor, thus ensuring safety.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Agesilaus 3:35 pm 08/23/2013

    I’d add one ‘whammy’ to the Fukushima event. That would be a grossly incompetent operating company. If they were operating under the NRC they would have had much better disaster planning in place.
    As for Nuke power being so expensive, that could be controlled by using the Rickover principal. Build the same standardized plant over and over again. This was the practice in the US Navy (I served as a reactor operator) and led to lower costs and greatly improved elimination of potential trouble spots.
    If a particular valve, a real life example, proved to be maintenance problem. It was eliminated in all the the plants. Each plant wasn’t a new adventure in finding trouble. Which is the expensive and stupid way most civilian plants were built.
    As for renewable energy, they are all outrageously expensive. Not one could survive without bleeding money from the rate payers. And none of them show any sign of being able to do so in the future.
    Also none of them can provide base power. That is a stable and predictable power supply 24 hours a day for 300 days a year. Allowing for maintenance outages.
    Solar: no sun no power.
    Wind: no wind no power.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Jaro_Mtl 3:58 pm 08/23/2013

    Good blog !
    Just a little hint:
    In the Hans Bethe quote, “A number of pessimistically simplifying assumptions are made, in particular the rate of increase of radioactivity is calculated assuming…..” — the word radioactivity should be changed to reactivity.

    Incidentally, modern fast reactor design addresses Bethe’s concern by using a core with an unusually low aspect ratio (ie. large diameter, small height), so that coolant voiding and core slumping leads to a decrease in reactivity, rather than increase.

    Hope this helps.

    Link to this
  7. 7. curiouswavefunction 4:04 pm 08/23/2013

    Thanks for your input and for the correction.

    Link to this
  8. 8. M Tucker 5:15 pm 08/23/2013

    Ash,

    Yes, I have read the Breakthrough stuff. None of the suggestions indicates that anything will change soon. No estimates of how much cheaper the new designs might be. They did mention quite a number of things that do not currently exist that need to be created in order to achieve lower cost. They say, “It is incumbent upon nuclear developers to prove the safety of their designs and to bear the cost.” The ‘industry’ does not want to bear the costs. If they can’t get subsidies or somehow get the ratepayers to front the money they don’t want to play.

    The article talks a lot about getting the public involved. Well, since regulatory changes are a big part of the Breakthrough solution we need to get the politicians involved. If they take the issue to their town halls the public will come to know what is needed. It seems like industry also needs to read the report. How else will they know that they need to bear the cost of proving the safety and the cost of demonstration projects?

    All this takes time. Nothing will happen in a “short amount of time.” As a rough measure of time, how long did it take to get just 20% of our energy from nuclear before TMI?

    As a rough measure of speed and cost how are the Chinese doing? I imagine they have a more streamlined system and they have a lot of nuclear planned. Any chance of getting believable cost information from them?

    Meanwhile EIA predictions are that, “…renewable energy sources and nuclear power will be the fastest growing energy sources through 2040, the report calculates that fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, will still comprise 80 percent of world energy use.” And, by 2040, China’s energy use will be twice what the US uses. China per capita energy use will continue to grow.

    No amount of speedy nuclear power creation, or renewable either, will have any impact on CO2 emissions through 2040 or 2050. So when you say we “would have to replace fossil fuels, and especially coal” in a short amount of time, how fast are you thinking about?

    Link to this
  9. 9. rkipling 8:45 pm 08/23/2013

    Okay now you are on the home page.

    Link to this
  10. 10. rkipling 9:33 pm 08/23/2013

    Actually no. It is just the Blogs main page. These last two still don’t show up on the home page or chronological listing or under the energy topic. Makes no sense to me, but I will quit worrying about it.

    Link to this
  11. 11. John Miller 10:23 pm 08/23/2013

    I forgot to mention in my reply to Jogalekar (sorry I misspelled his name in the reply I’ve already posted) that he is also incorrect when he says, “It is also a well known fact that fundamental physics prevents a nuclear reactor from exploding.” That’s hogwash. All Navy reactors can go prompt critical and explode. All reactors with over about 6 percent enriched U-235 can explode. For that reason, all commercial reactors in the United States have only 4 to 5 percent U-235. The rest of the uranium is U-238.

    Dr. John Miller

    Link to this
  12. 12. jonathanseer 11:10 pm 08/23/2013

    While I agree with everything the author said, he continues to make the same mistake all proponents of nuclear power do and that is to mostly argue the pro and con in isolation as if the choice the world faces is only should we use nuclear or not.

    The real choice we face is should we include nuclear as a major source of clean energy or continue reliance of filthy, dirty, global climate changing fossil fuels.

    In all these discussions fossil fuels rarely get slammed for the untold millions of deaths their use has caused since we started using them as universally as we have.

    And this should be done, because anti-nuclear energy activists use any and all incidences involving nuclear energy as proof of how bad it is for example the nukes used in WWII.

    Nuclear energy needs to be discussed in real world terms exclusively and while discussing it there should be a no holds barred inclusion of the wholesale evils associated with the use of fossil fuels.

    People really do NOT associate the extreme damage the use of fossils fuels has done to our world.

    Until the proponents of nuclear fuel start to connect the dots for the public loudly and clearly without apology the public by and large will remain easy prey to fearmongering used so successfully by opponents of nuclear energy.

    Link to this
  13. 13. sault 12:20 am 08/24/2013

    “The point is this; if we are willing to spend so much on unproven renewables…”

    Are you even paying attention??? Renewables provide a sizable portion of electricity generation on many grids around the world. How can they be “unproven” if we’re using GIGAWATTS of renewable energy as I type this? Again, look up that definition of bias one more time…

    “A short while later Miller sets up another straw man and says that if Fukushima had AP1000 reactors they would have withstood a loss of power for only 3 days. Firstly, the AP1000 is not the only game in town. Secondly, Fukushima was in the unfortunate situation of being hit by a double whammy; a massive earthquake followed by a massive tsunami.”

    Firstly, the AP1000 is one of the most COMMON “games in town” and they are the ONLY new reactor model being built in the USA right now. And secondly, the next reactor to melt down will be in some other “unfortunate situation” that all the nuclear power apologists will claim was unforeseeable. And you know what? I agree with them! There is NO WAY we can predict every disaster or nuclear reactor failure mode that occurs in response to said disaster over the 60 – 80 years we are now expecting nuclear reactors to operate. The consequences of a meltdown are so horrendous that we MUST build nuclear power plants so that meltdowns are an extremely remote possibility. Planning against such uncertainty is necessarily expensive, causing new nuclear reactors to cost $8B a pop or more! (only AFTER the Federal Government picks up the liability tab for the nuclear industry, and only AFTER the utility building the reactor gets to milk billion$$$ from their customers through “cost recovery”, and only AFTER the bad debt that piles up when a reactor is abandoned as a lost economic cause is offloaded onto utility customers…)

    What a deal, right?

    Link to this
  14. 14. sault 12:29 am 08/24/2013

    M Tucker,

    China currently gets 1% of its electricity from nuclear power and has a goal of 6% by 2020. Most experts think they will struggle to reach that goal. Installed wind power capacity in China just exceeded installed nuclear capacity last year and they are expected to add much more wind power than nuclear power in the coming years.

    Trying to get cost data on Chinese nuclear reactors, just like getting cost data on ANY major project in China, is nearly impossible. The state-owned “enterprises” supplying the parts, labor and expertise to build these reactors are given lavish subsidies and are basically the “business end” (literally and figuratively) of Communist Party policy. China also manipulates their currency and pays low wages all while having an entirely different concept of safety than what is practiced in developed countries.

    My prediction is that they will see that adding wind, solar and other renewables is just easier, faster, cheaper and just less of a hassle than nuclear power. Anybody want to make a wager on what China’s grid will look like in 2020???

    Link to this
  15. 15. iCossack 2:07 am 08/24/2013

    This article is akin to moving deck chairs on the Titanic. We as a species are not responsible enough to be proper stewards of this planet. From Radchick Radiation and Mitigation

    John Large, Nuclear consultant: [...] What happened is the intensely radioactive fuel is beginning to migrate into the water. And the water is seeping and migrating out of the containment.

    In the immediate ecosystem, of course it moves beyond that. Once it comes out of the groundwater into the marine environment, then tides and currents will take it along — and the whole scenario’s rather like this: You get these very fine oxide particles of fuel, each intensely radioactive, being carried along the coastline. The tide taking it in, […] it dries out. The onshore breeze that comes everyday blows the radioactive dust — these very fine particles — onto local communities, and those communities receive an exceptional dose.

    It’s pretty active, pretty intense, and out of control.

    [Tepco] didn’t think ahead, and of course they’re left with an in-addressable situation. There’s not much you can do when it gets out to the marine environment.

    It looks like we’re in for a long term here. Remember 3 reactors went down, each reactor had about 120-130 tons of fuel. That’s lacking any containment. It’s beginning to drift into the marine and terrestrial environment. The situation is the radiation and the radiological effect in terms of health harm for that fuel will go on for hundreds, thousands, if not tens of thousands of years.

    http://ruvr.co.uk/2013_08_20/Fukushima-leak-out-control/

    Link to this
  16. 16. sethdayal 2:11 am 08/24/2013

    Folks reading this article need to understand that John Miller has no academic qualifications in engineering or science. His use of Doctor on a subject of which he has no academic standing is repulsive.

    Mr Miller’s type was trained to operate a certain kind of small nuclear reactor safely just as the operator of a mainframe computer is trained to keep it running. Most of the time, he has that job in the navy, the sub was in dry dock. Today’s nuke plant would call him a lead operator or a lead hand in a unionized operation.

    The idea that any of these would be qualified to comment on the design, economics, or engineering of a nuke or computer and associate electronics is hilarious.

    The only possible reason for Revkin posting his spew was to suck up for Big Oil advertising bucks. Next we will see Revkin hosting a collection of retired dentists with Doctor in front of their name telling us that Hansen’s warming global theories are a hoax, based on their understanding of the physical chemistry in their amalgams. At least they have academic exposure to science unlike Miller.

    Rather than than the movie It is John Miller that that “spews out a stream of untruths,” in the Times article.

    I and many others utterly trashed his nonsense in the Times. At least we can thank Revkin for letting us do that – Huffington Post would block the comments.

    Revkin would have certainly reconsidered hosting Miller’s spew if he read the trashing Miller took here:

    Google “was-gundersen-a-licensed-reactor-operator-and-senior-vp-nuclear-licensee”

    The skewering begins at “April 10, 2013 at 2:11 PM” in the above thread.

    Link to this
  17. 17. sethdayal 2:19 am 08/24/2013

    Hey cossack – we you one of the rare individuals that survived Chernobyl? I can see why you’d have issues. However facts is facts son and you ain’t got none.

    Here’s a profession engineer thrashing your nonsense and the scifi from Russia today.

    ansnuclearcafe.org/2013/08/20/scaremonger-week-in-the-mainstream-media/

    Link to this
  18. 18. ksparthasarathy 4:02 am 08/24/2013

    Many countries which need electric power in large quantities do not have the luxury to choose one mode of power generation against other. They will have to accept
    all options. It is shocking to find how disinformation influences general public.There are anti nuclear activists in India who believe that atomic energy program in USA is finished and many US nuclear power plants were converted into gas fired plants.

    John Miller’s article and Jogaleker’s comments were informative. As the former did, some anti nuclear activists with no domain knowledge pick and choose ancient references to prove that nuclear power is highly dangerous! Their articles are eminently readable as they are virtually jargon free; only a specialist will be able to realize that their strong opinions are not backed by science.

    It is not very unusual. For instance Mr. Praful Bidwai, an Indian journalist who took an anti nuclear stand decades ago scares public by stating that nuclear reactors are high-pressure, high-temperature systems, in which a fission chain-reaction is barely checked from getting out of control.
    “But controls can fail for many reasons, including short circuits, faulty valves, operator error, fire, earthquakes or tsunamis,” he warns.

    If such scare-mongers review air safety, they may assert that air journey is very dangerous as four jet engines burning tons of inflammable fuel blast forward through virtually airless, frozen atmosphere at 85 % of the speed of sound.They may tell us that while assembling the aircraft the technicians drilled 10,000 holes in the fuselage (For Boeing 747, one million holes!). We do not think about these scary bits; we know that aviation is a safe industry

    As Miller argues antinuclear activists consider that fast breeder reactors are terribly dangerous. They may ignore many facts: about 20 Fast Neutron Reactors (FNR) have already been operating, a few since the ’50s, accumulating over 400 reactor-years of experience;some supplies electricity commercially; All advanced countries carry out research to overcome the challenges in technology; and presently, fast reactors are not cheap as they cannot compete with current thermal reactors; also as uranium is available, there is no incentive to invest in fast reactors.

    Link to this
  19. 19. TheHealthPhysicist 7:01 am 08/24/2013

    You said the WHO report says the Fukushima accident will likely cause no excess fatal cancers. The report actually says:

    “With respect to Japan, this assessment estimates that the lifetime risk for some cancers may be somewhat elevated above baseline rates in certain age and sex groups that were in the areas most affected.”

    Whatever the normal background cancer rate is, we don’t want to add to it. Just because a nuclear accident causes a small increase, it is still an increase. That said, overall nuclear is still safer than fossil fuels.

    Link to this
  20. 20. John Miller 9:01 am 08/24/2013

    Reply to Health Physicist,

    You are right and wrong. I didn’t refer to a WHO report about Fukushima cancers, just to an epidemiological study.

    You’re right on the main point you made. WHO said that there would be isolated cancers. I have heard so many pro-nukes claim that WHO said there would be none, I just temporarily forgot that point. I will correct my comment.

    I very much appreciate your professional opinion that radiation doses and cancers that might result from them should be handled with the ALARA, that these events should be minimized to As Low As Reasonably Possible.

    Thanks,

    Dr. John Miller

    Link to this
  21. 21. rexberglund 9:32 am 08/24/2013

    If you believe we need to address climate change (as they do at the National Academy of Sciences), the issue going forward is cost trends of low GHG sources. Until sequestration is available in sufficient quantities and at low enough costs, that leaves only nuclear and renewables. The good news is that the cost of renewables is projected to be as low as the cost of fossil fuels soon, even without subsidy, as the graphs in this article depict:

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/05/06/1966071/four-must-see-charts-show-why-renewable-energy-is-disruptive-in-a-good-way/

    In fact, the declining costs allow us to address the issue of subsidies, former Energy Secretary Steven Chu states that “Before maybe the end of this decade, I see wind and solar being cost-competitive without subsidy with new fossil fuel”

    http://www.cleanedge.com/sites/default/files/CETrends2013_Final_Web.pdf

    To those who say the intermittent nature of renewables makes them unrealistic, please note that the NREL RE futures study addresses those concerns, after all, existing companies like EnerNOC already help to match supply with demand:

    http://finance.yahoo.com/news/enernoc-demand-response-network-helps-163000424.html

    Please clarify “the simplifying assumptions that the [NREL RE Futures] study makes.” The study used GridView with high spatial and temporal resolution so the resulting energy mixes satisfied demand and operating reserves in all areas, for every hour of the year. As to cost, this article in the Denver Post states a middle of the road estimate of $870B for renewable production, and around $7B/year till 2050 for grid upgrades:

    http://blogs.denverpost.com/thebalancesheet/2012/07/09/renewable-energy/5430/

    I do think we’ll need to maintain 20% production from nuclear, but that won’t be cheap either, see “Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable without Subsidies”:

    http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nuclear_subsidies_report.pdf

    Link to this
  22. 22. TheHealthPhysicist 10:20 am 08/24/2013

    I wasn’t criticizing you, Dr. Miller. My comment was directed to AJ’s original piece. He is wrong and I’m right.

    Link to this
  23. 23. rkipling 11:22 am 08/24/2013

    This discussion has run off into the weeds and far from any relevant points. But that just reflects who usually shows up to comment.

    Link to this
  24. 24. sethdayal 1:28 pm 08/24/2013

    Actually real science from UNSCEAR showed:
    ” After discussing the results at their annual meeting, the committee has concluded that it is unlikely that there will be any detectable health consequences of the accident, as the overall exposure of the Japanese population was low, or very low”

    The WHO as always had to be politically correct with its you never know addendum.

    With radiation levels at the FUKU front gate never even approaching those you’s get on beach vacation in low cancer area of Brazil or India. the entire low dose radiation scam has been outed. Just more Big Oil paid propaganda.

    Link to this
  25. 25. quantumxdt 1:40 pm 08/24/2013

    in reply to iCossack
    I’m having a laugh at what man has done to it’self. I mean in reality I’ll be dead in another 25-30 years max..so as you say the leeching effect will represent an epoch relative to a mans lifetime. A new age of man s confounded evolution has begun it would seem!
    Was it not Tesla who had the idea that he could harness energy out of the potential difference and broadcast it freely. Now modern capitalists have taken the model put forth by the industrialists JP Morgan and Mr. Westinghouse himself; That being Lobby ( the damn lobbyists). It is,(A nice way to say bribe), which by the way is, a historically correct version of the industrial revolution concerning energy production and who gets to make it. The methods of creating energy in the form of electrons is still the same however the mode by which it is made has changed ..love the science… Which means Big Oil better be prepared too move over. But what is particularity galling is that solar and other “renewable s” are the real answer… love the technology….Why has this avenue been redacted so heavily? Greed and Lobby summing it up gently for all you out there.
    The only outcome which represents the limiting factor of humans being able to exist in harmony on this earth is to reduce the drama greed has played in these disaster scenes. As it stands the use of Fossil Fuel and Nuclear has inextricably changed the global genome chain of every species on this planet..it’s the chain reaction reaction … good luck guys :)

    Link to this
  26. 26. Mark656515 9:13 pm 08/24/2013

    I have long defended thorium nuclear (good proliferation profile, far more abundant than uranium) as a complement to an ultradeep geothermal, but the simple fact is that all forms of fission produce incredibly polluting poisonous wastes, very unwieldy to manage, to which there is no adequate solution yet.

    The problem is not waste from one or two plants, but that if we switch to a heavy use of fission power, very soon we’ll be wading in quickly accumulating radioactive poison, very slow to cool off.

    Perhaps a large centrifugal sling, housed in an open hole to contain misfires, could launch half-ton packages past escape velocity in the direction of the sun.

    I think our best shot is universal ultradeep geothermal (geothermal is cost-competitive in ‘hotspots’, but if you dig deep enough anywhere becomes a viable site – talk about scalability) supplemented by solar thermal in dry areas, and lightly complemented by all the other renewables.

    Link to this
  27. 27. DaRaco 8:45 am 08/25/2013

    > “Miller seems to think that providing a lot of links is tantamount to providing evidence.”

    No, it really is evidence – that you fail to address, let alone refute.

    > “Miller cites a WHO study and claims that Chernobyl killed 16,000 people.”

    No, he does not. He states that “a United Nations World Health Organization agency predicts 16,000 more will die from Chernobyl cancers and that the European Environment Agency estimates 34,000 more.”

    Note – “will die”. If the author of this blog can’t even comprehend the difference between past and future tense in a simple sentence then why would anyone pay heed to his opinions? Never mind that he doesn’t address the fact that the nuke fan boys in Pandora’s Promise are lying about the predicted death toll for Chernobyl.

    This blog post is nothing but nuke propaganda by the numbers – no different to the ‘documentary’ he is trying to defend.

    Link to this
  28. 28. DaRaco 8:53 am 08/25/2013

    > “eating a banana.”

    This is one of the most idiotic pro-nuke talking points – comparing the radioisotopes that result from nuclear fission with a fruit.

    Geoff Meggitt, a retired health physicist, and former editor of the Journal of Radiological Protection: “Bananas are radioactive — but they aren’t a good way to explain radiation exposure. When you eat a banana, your body’s level of Potassium-40 doesn’t increase. You just get rid of some excess Potassium-40. The net dose of a banana is zero.”

    Let’s see what conviction the nuke fan club have that Cs-137 is just like a banana. Give them a glass of the radioactive water that is flooding out of Fukushima and watch them drink it. No, I didn’t think so.

    Link to this
  29. 29. sault 12:23 pm 08/25/2013

    seth,

    Japan was extremely lucky in the fact that the wind was coming from a westerly direction when the reactors blew their tops and took most of the toxic radioisotopes out to sea. Had the wind been blowing towards Tokyo instead, it would have been an unimaginable nightmare. And given that there are already 400 nuclear reactors out there and some people want that number to increase, we can’t count on being as lucky the next time since a meltdown can happen anywhere. Since the nuclear industry is averaging one reactor meltdown every 10 years, there will come a time when it doesn’t matter which way the wind is blowing when one goes kablooey…

    Link to this
  30. 30. curiouswavefunction 12:58 pm 08/25/2013

    DaRaco: I would recommend that you read an elementary nuclear chemistry textbook. Big difference between Cs-137 and tritium (which was mentioned in the film). Also, please stop the tired old tirade against nuclear power based on Chernobyl. I will not have more comments talking about Chernobyl and making general points based on worst-case scenarios; this topic has been discussed dozens of times on this blog.

    Link to this
  31. 31. curiouswavefunction 1:02 pm 08/25/2013

    Note to commenters: I welcome and appreciate constructive comments and conversations. Please keep in mind that comments need to be brief, polite and to the point. Rude, ad hominem or repetitive comments will be deleted; there’s something to be said for a sense of decorum. Likewise, commenters who try to hijack the comments thread will be banned. Happy commenting!

    Link to this
  32. 32. rkipling 2:42 pm 08/25/2013

    curiouswavefunction,

    Good!

    Link to this
  33. 33. rkipling 2:44 pm 08/25/2013

    FYI This is still can’t be found from the home page without going to your specific blog.

    Link to this
  34. 34. John Miller 1:15 pm 08/26/2013

    Reply to Ash Jagolekar from Dr. John Miller

    The “deconstruction” of my New York Times review of the movie Pandora’s Promise by Ashutosh Jogalekar is demonstrably false and misleading. He defends his earlier uncritical review of the movie and doesn’t correct its falsehoods that he endorsed in that review.
    Perhaps if he had ever qualified to supervise an operating nuclear reactor and its watch-standers, like I have done on two different reactors, he could understand the evidence I present. As it is, he misunderstands every single part of my review that he criticizes.
    Jogalekar found “much merit” in Pandora’s Promise. That’s only because he doesn’t know enough about nuclear power to see the movie’s flaws. I presented evidence that the movie contains at least four significant flaws.
    Jogalekar says falsely that I think that providing links is tantamount to evidence. I included 23 separate pieces of evidence in addition to the 52 links I provided. In contrast, he provided no evidence that is pertinent or persuasive. Let me debunk his false claims now, point by point.
    First, he makes the illogical claim that the thousands of predicted Chernobyl cancer deaths might not take place, just because we cannot see them against the much larger numbers of all cancers. Twenty-five percent of us will die of cancers, solid or blood-born. A few tens of thousands more over several decades won’t be noticeable on a graph.
    But just because these needless deaths won’t make a noticeable bump on a graph of total cancer deaths over time does not mean they aren’t real. These are real people who will leave families who will grieve for them when they die needlessly. He calls 16,000 to 34,000 predicted cancer deaths “small.” That’s insensitive. If any of his loved ones wound up dying of Chernobyl cancer, he’d find their demises that many deaths too many.
    Moreover, if the dead all turn out to have been SciAm subscribers, the magazine will lose upwards to $1 million a year for years, because none of these people will renew their subscriptions.
    Jogalekar claims I termed Han’s Bethe’s calculation that a fast breeder reactor might explode “as the norm” for breeder accidents. I did nothing of the sort.
    Bethe’s claim that explosions may occur remains the worst possible outcome possible. The authors of the “bible” for designing fast breeders, Fast Breeder Reactors, Alan Waltar and Albert Reynolds, say that modern breeders are much more likely to melt, so that Bethe’s result is “conservative,” i.e., that it’s the very worst that could happen and probably won’t. Breeders are engineered now to be safer than the one Bethe based his calculations on, so the worst probable outcome would be melting down.
    I said just that in my review, and I linked to the 2012 update of the book, which is titled Fast Spectrum Reactors. If Jogalekar had followed that link, he would have been able to read large parts of the book online for free and see for himself that they say the same thing 30 years later.
    He accuses me of “scaremongering” for saying that a breeder reactor can become a small unintended nuclear bomb. Bethe calculates the explosion in the simple design he modeled equals the explosion of 160 kg of dynamite, or 352 pounds worth. That’s a large enough explosion to destroy the reactor, and it may be enough to spew plutonium-laced radioactivity outside the plant. Plus, I never said that the explosion would produce energy equal to a real atomic bomb, just a small unintended one.
    Jogalekar also errs when he says, “It is also a well-known fact that fundamental physics prevents a nuclear reactor from exploding.” That’s not strictly true. All Navy reactors can go prompt critical and explode. All non-breeder reactors with over about 6 percent enriched U-235 and/or Pu-239 can explode. For that reason, all commercial reactors in the United States have only 4 to 5 percent U-235, so they can’t explode. The rest of the uranium is U-238.
    Moreover, breeder reactors present a special hazard that theoretically allows them to explode too. Unlike conventional water-cooled reactors, they contain more than one “critical mass” of fuel. Local melting in one region could cause a mini-explosion that compacts other fuel together in some other part of the fuel, prompting a larger explosion that prompts a still larger one, etc. Dr. Richard Webb’s classic book, The Explosion Hazard of the Liquid Metal Cooled Fast Breeder Reactor, explained this before any other reference I’ve seen.
    Jogalekar next claims I have misled readers by claiming that plutonium can cause lung cancer, because he says that can only happen if you inhale it. But I wrote clearly that plutonium must be kept isolated from humans “because breathing air contaminated with it can cause fatal lung cancers.” So he makes no valid criticism at all. I’m wondering why SciAm blogs editor Bora Zivkovic didn’t read my New York Times review carefully enough to see the mistake before he published it. For all I know, he may never have read it.
    Jogalekar then criticizes me for saying that the US government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory predicts that by 2050 renewables can provide 80 percent of the energy we will need, without natural gas or coal backups. He complains that I didn’t explain the “simplifying assumptions” of their calculation. Jeez! I had 900 words to say everything I said; I couldn’t waste that much space on details.
    Furthermore, he suggests that the “simplifying assumptions” mean that NREL’s conclusion is false. But he doesn’t provide any evidence that they make NREL’s conclusion wrong. He only inserts unsubstantiated innuendo.
    Jogalekar next faults me for not mentioning that the McKinsey and Company report saying that by 2020 we could save 23 percent of the energy we use would cost $520 billion to implement. That it costs that much money doesn’t mean the report isn’t accurate. Whatever investments the world makes to stop global warming by 2030 will cost trillions. Half a trillion will seem modest in comparison.
    Next he criticizes me for saying that standing near a new spent fuel rod would kill a person. Nobody would do that, he says. But I mentioned it only because Mark Lynas made the preposterous claim in the movie that natural background radiation is much more dangerous than reactor-made radiation. A spent fuel rod puts out tens of thousands of rems an hour of radiation. It takes about 600 rem absorbed quickly to kill a person. In contrast, natural background radiation gives off 0.36 rems to the average person in an entire year. Lynas is way wrong; Jogalekar’s criticism is baseless.
    Then he criticizes Dr. Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, saying that pro-nuclear advocate Rod Adams has criticized Lyman’s criticism of a statement made in the movie by novelist Gwyneth Cravens. She said that drinking all the radioactive tritium in water leaking from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant for a day (the leak rate was greatest in the spring of 2010) would have given only a banana’s worth of radiation. (Bananas give off tiny amounts of potassium radiation.)
    Lyman calculated 150,000 bananas worth of radiation for a day during that period, which had it been delivered by real bananas would have been enough to have killed her from gastric distress! “Look ma! Poor Gwyneth just exploded!”
    If you read the comments following Lyman’s article, http://allthingsnuclear.org/movie-review-put-pandoras-promise-back-in-the-box/, Rod says first that Lyman has greatly overestimated the radioactivity. Then, to his credit, he later posts a retraction:
    “After posting my comment both here and on Atomic Insights, I realized that I had made a math error that resulted in my dose rate calculation for drinking water directly from the leak source to be underestimated by a factor of 1000.”
    Why didn’t Mr. Jogalekar or his editor note that Adams conceded that Lyman was correct and that Adams’ earlier calculation had been too low by one thousand-fold? Why didn’t Zivkovic or a fact checker find Rod’s retraction? When I write for SciAm, I always hear from fact checkers, and they can be pesky little nitpickers. (Sorry guys. I know you’re just doing your jobs.) Does Scientific American not fact-check blogs?
    Finally, Jogalekar criticizes my statement that if the Fukushima reactors had all been Westinghouse-Toshiba AP1000s, they would have melted down too because they can only go for three days without electrical power and it took 11 days to restore power. “The AP1000 is not the only game in town,” he says. Actually, it’s the only so-called passively safe Generation 3+ reactor that’s ever started construction in the US. The first four of them are being built now, two each in Georgia and South Carolina.
    Then, remarkably, he says my AP1000 statement is also wrong because “Fukushima was in the unfortunate situation of being hit by a double whammy; a massive earthquake followed by a massive tsunami. By any definition this is a rare event unlikely to happen in stable geological sites located inland.”
    Excuse me! The AP1000 is advertised to be a passively safe reactor, but it would have melted down at Fukushima. So it is not passively safe in all loss-of-offsite-power accidents.
    It’s also not excusable for three reactors to melt down just because the situation causing the accidents can be called a “double whammy.” Life happens. Reactors must be safe in any situation, even ones that cannot be predicted.
    Last, Jogalekar says, the Fukushima accident “will likely cause no excess fatal cancers.” But look at this paper: http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/TenHoeveEES12.pdf. It calculates that roughly 130 people will die from Fukushima cancers in the future, probably no fewer than 15 and no more than 1100.
    In summary, my New York Times review of “Pandora’s Promise” is true. Jogalekar’s review of “Pandora’s Promise” is mostly false. His “deconstruction” of my review of the movie is completely false.
    Reasonable people can disagree. However, it’s not acceptable for a magazine to publish a blog article on its web site that is factually false through and through.
    Dr. John Miller

    Link to this
  35. 35. John Miller 2:30 pm 08/26/2013

    Reply to Curiouswavefunction’s comment of 8/23/ 3:17 p.m.

    The frozen plug at the bottom of a molten salt reactor strikes me as a Rube Goldberg device that’s sure to create problems sometime. We’ll find out that in a way that no one could have predicted, it melts, or it somehow moves, or some other crazy thing happens. On my submarine, the USS SEAWOLF, the second oldest nuclear sub in the world, we saw lots of stuff happen in the same vein.

    Second, you recommend people read a comment by the Breakthrough Institute. Those guys are profoundly pro-nuclear, yet none of them has ever qualified to work on a nuclear plant. IMHO, they don’t know what they’re talking about. As I pointed out in my New York Times review of Pandora’ Promise, Michael Shellenberger gave an opinion about energy efficiency which is simply false, and demonstrably so.

    Dr. John Miller
    @NuclearReporter

    Link to this
  36. 36. John Miller 9:11 pm 08/26/2013

    This comment is meant to reply to the person who said that fast breeder plants are safe. Here are the facts.

    The EBR-1 breeder and the Fermi breeder both partially melted down. The Japanese Monju reactor caught fire and took about a decade to start up again. Other breeders have also caught fire, because liquid sodium automatically burns in air and automatically explodes in water. Dr. Ed Lyman of the neither pro- nor anti-nuclear Union of Concerned Scientists told me that the world’s experience with running fast-breeder plants has been a disaster.

    Although pro-nuclear people often claim that fast breeder reactors are inherently safe, they are not. The authors of “Fast Breeder Reactors” include several chapters showing how breeders can suffer accidents and melt.

    Dr. John Miller
    @NuclearReporter

    Link to this
  37. 37. rkipling 2:52 pm 08/27/2013

    Dr. John. Everybody left. Sorry but that’s too long to read.

    Link to this

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