The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

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


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.

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

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