In response to: “The Nuclear Reaction” (Vol. 2, No. 1).


To the editors:

At the battle of Copenhagen in August 1801, it is alleged that Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, on being told of a signal from Admiral Sir Hyde Parker allowing him to withdraw from the battle, told his flag captain, while holding his telescope to his blind eye: “You know, Foley, I only have one eye—I have the right to be blind sometimes, I really do not see the signal!” Such is the stuff of heroism!

Michael Fumento, in his paean for nuclear energy’s superiority, primarily economic, over renewable sources, “The Nuclear Reaction,” does better than Nelson; with his telescope to his blind eye he manages not to see at least two “signals,” and he has a superior telescope, one with which he can see things beyond the horizon.

The signals he fails to see are: the costs, both economic and in terms of public health, of what he calls incidents (accidents to the rest of us and catastrophes to those directly affected by the radioactive fallout) and the economic costs of dealing with nuclear waste, which he admits is dangerous for 100,000 years. Perhaps to compensate, his telescope detects future developments in the industry that have been just that for a very long time.

True, Fumento acknowledges the accidents at Three Mile Island (TMI) in the USA, the Chernobyl power plant No. 4 in the Ukraine, and the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, all involving serious core damage. He says it would be “foolish to diminish these events, but it would be unwise to allow them to completely compromise the future of nuclear power.” Others tell a somewhat different story. Wikipedia says there have been at least 99 accidents globally between 1952 and 2009, more than half of those in the USA.1 The Guardian in 2011 says that there have been 33 incidents and accidents since 1952.2 An interdisciplinary study carried out by MIT in 2003 estimates that, between 2005 and 2055, there would be 4 accidents involving core damage.3 Do we believe that three of those occurred at Fukushima Daiichi, and there is only one left to come?

Fumento goes on to claim that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission stipulates that, “reactor designs must meet a one in 10,000 year core damage frequency,” and that, “the best currently operating plants are about 1 in a million and the latest models are almost one in 10,000,000.”

So, all should be well in the future. But, will it?

From the same industry source, we can learn that TMI occurred after 2,500 reactor years of operation worldwide, Chernobyl after about 6,000, and the three core meltdowns at Fukushima after about 14,000.4 According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), up to December 2014, there were 16,097 reactor years of operation worldwide. Therefore, historically there has been a core degradation accident of the type recognized by Fumento every 3,219 reactor years. In 1975, the so-called Rassmussen Report carried out a fault tree analysis on the then-current light water reactor in the US, predicting a core meltdown every 20,000 reactor years.5 So, even if we said there were, in effect, only three accidents, on the grounds that the three melted cores at Fukushima Daiichi were due to a single cause, an earthquake and tsunami, the nuclear industry is still seriously accident prone.6

The engineering is not the problem, it is the people in charge of the engineering.

About the public health and environmental consequences of these accidents, Fumento has nothing to say. Perhaps he is leaving that up to fellow nuclear enthusiast, Professor Wade Allison of Oxford University. Allison is similarly unimpressed by nuclear accidents. But he has solid reasons; apparently, all the World’s nuclear regulators have conspired to set the limits for acceptable exposure of the public to ionizing radiation 1,200 times too low!7 One 100 millisievert (mSv) per month or 1.2 sieverts (Sv) per year, some 600 times that received annually from natural background radiation (NBR), is safe. Under this scenario, I would propose that nuclear reactors do not need several meters of concrete shielding. Routine radioactive emissions do not need to be limited. Nuclear waste can be distributed to members of the public so they can take it home to heat their houses, or it can be discharged into the sea. Discharging radioactivity into the sea is, in fact, what Fukushima Daiichi is already doing and will likely be doing in the foreseeable future. Waving this magic wand, Allison, like Fumento, foresees the making of a cultural revolution.8

Although Allison is a professor of nuclear and medical physics, he is clearly no mean bridge engineer as well. In 2009, he published a well-written and highly entertaining book, Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear.9 Please note the word science. A colleague and I reviewed it, by invitation, for the journal Lancet; we submitted, and they declined to publish.10

Rather than calling on the significant body of epidemiological evidence concerning the risks of radiation exposure to humans, Allison makes the case for his safety limit of 100 mSv per month by likening the human body to a self-maintaining bridge (yes, bridge, as in a bridge over a river). Bridges, he tells the reader, have a sigmoid response to stress from wind (yes, wind, but wait, the biological relevance will be clear soon). At low wind speeds the risk of failure is zero, provided the bridge is properly maintained, but increases after a threshold wind speed is crossed. The bridge will only fail at a wind speed chosen by the bridge designer. He/she balances that risk of failure against the construction cost. No bridge is, in practice, 100% resistant to wind damage.

On the other hand, the regulators of radiation exposure, wilfully choosing to ignore the phenomenon of DNA damage repair, or so Allison implies, made the mistake of placing their faith in something called the linear-no-threshold, or LNT, radiation risk response. No dose, however small, in practice, is without risk. The primary effect of this decision, Allison says, is to engender unfounded fear in the population.

Who is right: Allison or the regulators? What does the science say?

In 2006, the US National Academy of Sciences comprehensively reviewed the then available data on radiation risk and concluded that:

[T]he biological and biophysical data supports a ‘linear-no-threshold’ (LNT) risk model—that the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and that the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.11

Since then, some ten epidemiological studies of cancer in populations exposed to average doses less than 100 mSv have been published. They are conveniently presented in a video compiled by Ian Goddard.12 Solid cancers are common; the spontaneous lifetime risk of fatal cancer is about 25%. Consequently, large population numbers, studied over long periods, are needed to detect the small risks associated with low doses (< 100m Sv). Errors can be large. In spite of this LNT is the empirically-favoured dose response relationship; a threshold at 100 mSv is rejected.

Switzerland has an unusually large variation in natural background external radiation doses. The sum of doses from external NBR and artificial sources ranges between just less than 0.5 to just over 5 mSv per year.13 External dose related differentials in cancer risk in children are detectable; there is a dose related effect in 2 million children less than 16 years of age, for all cancers, for leukaemia and for cancers of the central nervous system.14

In the UK, a case-control study of 27,447 childhood cancer cases shows a highly significant 12% excess risk of childhood leukaemia per accumulated mSv of NBR gamma dose.15

So, even for annual NBR doses of a few mSv per year, an increase in the risk of disease, potentially fatal, is detectable. True, TMI produced relatively little fallout. True, about 80% of the fallout from Fukushima Daiichi was fortuitously blown out to sea. But a few million people live with dose rates a few times the NBR dose rates around Chernobyl and the Japanese government has deemed it safe for some 100,000 evacuees to return to their homes when the external dose rate on their property falls to 20 mSv per year.

To put some perspective on these risk figures, overall the evidence points to a ~50% increase in the lifetime fatal cancer risk per Sv for adults. It is a few times higher for children. Allison’s annual 1.2 Sv safe dose raises the adult lifetime fatal cancer risk from 25% to 40%.

As Fumento says of the advocates for renewable sources of energy that compete with nuclear, but that lack its capacity: “And naturally they ignore capacity factors.”16 And naturally Fumento and Allison ignore the evidence of risk to health and life.

And what about the economic costs? Reuters reported in 2013 that the French radiological protection agency (Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire, IRSN), not known for its anti-nuclear sympathies, estimated the cost of a nuclear accident in France at 430 billion euros, or 20% of the annual national output.17 Nuclear accidents are uninsurable events and, thus, up to the taxpayer to fund, along with the financial crashes caused by banker greed.

Fumento is right to point out that much radioactive waste, particularly in the UK and the USA, arises from nuclear weapons production, so is not the responsibility of the nuclear industry. However, only four countries have made significant progress in terms of a permanent solution for the high activity waste produced by commercial reactors: Canada, Finland, France, and Sweden. None are presently permanently disposing of high level waste.

A major component of the commercial reactor waste is spent fuel. The IAEA reports that in 2006 the global inventory was 176,000 tons. Much of this material is stored on the sites of reactors and presents a serious potential risk to public health. For example, spent fuel stored at the top of the damaged reactor No. 4 building at Fukushima Daiichi had to be kept immersed in water to prevent it catching fire. Two years ago it was recognized by the Japanese government as a national priority to retrieve the fuel rods and transfer them to safe storage.18 It is likely that fear of a fire, a truly catastrophic possibility, led the Japanese Atomic Energy Authority to advise the then Prime Minister that an evacuation order might need to be delivered to 30 million inhabitants of Tokyo (250 km from Fukushima Daiichi).19 A further earthquake could have led to the collapse of the building and such a fire.20 Once underway, the ambient radiation levels would preclude fighting the fire, potentially leading to a massive release of long lived radioactivity.

Furthermore, it would be ethically indefensible to produce more high level waste when the existing stocks cannot be safely dealt with. Technically, permanent geological disposal is feasible; Finland has built the facility at Onkalo and will start disposing of waste in the 2020s, but it is expensive and ideally requires consent from those living in proximity to the disposal site, which has been obtained in Finland.21

A Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 1976 deemed disposing of the UK’s legacy of radioactive waste a priority.22 Accordingly, in 2003, the then Labour government set up a committee to advise it on the management of high level waste.23 In 2006, it recommended geological disposal (after spending 16 months considering shooting it into the sun inside rockets).24 The cost of identifying and creating a disposal facility is estimated at 4 billion pounds sterling, and the overall cost of disposing of the legacy of waste, 12 billion pounds sterling.25 A realistic estimate of the time from the identification of a suitable site until waste can be put in the ground is 35 years, and a site has yet to be found. It is unlikely that the UK will be disposing of waste before 2050, approximately 75 years after it was identified as a priority, but still shorter than the half-life of 239Pu (24,110 years).

The radioactive waste problem is not one that we can turn a blind eye to.

I imagine that telescopes enabling us to see beyond the horizon have much in common with rose-tinted glasses. Presumably with the aid of his telescope, Fumento identifies a number of promising upcoming developments in nuclear reactor technology: molten salt reactors and thorium reactors, to name but two. These are not new. They have been discussed for decades, but not brought to commercial realization.

Meanwhile, the Finnish electricity utility, Voima Oy, signed a contract in 2004 with the French firm, Areva, to build a new design of reactor in Finland (Olkiluoto 3), with the promise of generating electricity by 2010.26 Today, there is no firm date for the completion of the project, but 2018 seems an optimistic possibility.27 It is optimistic, given that this estimate comes from the World Nuclear Association. In 2012, the overruns already had budgetary consequences of 2 billion euros. By now they are likely to be closer to 3 billion euros. The overruns have had another consequence. Okilouto 3 was a key component in Finland’s policies to reduce greenhouse gasses in line with the Kyoto agreement, and free the country from the need to import electricity. It is quite ironic then, that a technology that is sold on its claimed ability to produce carbon-free energy should have wreaked such havoc on the country’s climate change policy.

There is more to be said, but there is also little point in flogging a dead horse.

The point is: what motive persuades these authors to advocate policies based on such arguments? Perhaps we must conclude that they are both so passionate about an end—a cultural revolution—that the means are seen as irrelevant. This is the kind of uncontrollable brain aberration typical of someone hopelessly in love. In love with nuclear energy! I am genuinely puzzled. Being in love is a wonderful thing, but not a rational state of mind for serious decision-making.

The blindness of Fumento and Allison does not command the admiration we reserve for Nelson.

Keith Baverstock


Michael Fumento replies:

I am honored that Mr. Baverstock clearly put so much time and effort into his comments. That said, in essence he has accused me of being a futurist, a type I loathe. This is a field usually based on predictions for a time so far distant from now that when they do not come true, the prediction will have long since been forgotten, or the predictor will be safely six feet under. Everything in my article was based on the past, present, or on technology expected within fifteen years.

Mr. Baverstock notes that I concede that high level nuclear waste “is dangerous for 100,000 years.” Curiously, he omits mention of both the preceding sentence and the discussion that follows. Before it, I wrote “It has been handled and stored safely since we began producing nuclear power.”28 The discussion immediately following is of a molten salt reactor design (MSR), expected to be operational (albeit not commercialized) within five years, the waste of which “would require storage on the order of only hundreds of years.” Further, this same type of reactor could use that high-level waste as its energy source, tremendously reducing the volume of what remains, and again requiring merely hundreds of years of storage.29

Admittedly, there is a bit of a predictive factor with MSRs, which Mr. Baverstock dismisses as not only theoretical, but theoretical for a long time now. But one has to look at the “why” of this. It is not like controlled fusion, which, curiously, is always “30 years away.” For decades, molten salt reactors have produced energy.30 But ironically, much of U.S. research was cut off because the material could not be weaponized, something now seen as a big plus.31 Emphasis was placed, instead, on light water reactors that could produce fuel for bombs and missiles.32 All technologies have their naysayers, but the overwhelming consensus is that MSRs will be the next generation of nuclear plants and in commercial operation by 2030.

Much of the funding for MSRs comes from a vast array of countries, including the U.S., Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Japan, Russia, South Korea, South Africa, Switzerland, and the UK.33 Perhaps more importantly, a lot of the investment is not from taxpayers but rather from venture capitalists (read: individuals willing to risk their own money or that of shareholders). Several designs would consume current high-level waste, leaving just a small fraction remaining.34

In the event, storage of such waste is not difficult. You contain it and then put it where it is not likely to be stumbled upon. The vast majority of the earth is completely unpopulated. Again, you need not be a futurist to believe that in the relatively near term, mankind—aided by computers currently approximately doubling in power every two years35—will find a way of converting that waste into something harmless. Even the currently silly idea of shooting it into the sun is only silly because we have made almost no progress in rocket engine technology in several decades. Any serious advance in such technology would indeed allow such disposal.

But here we start to see the problem with double standards applied to nuclear technology. Every day we routinely engage in avoidance against a fiery ball of fusion energy called the Sun. Stare at it more than a few minutes and you will suffer permanent eye damage. The solution is simple: Do not stare at it! The Sun is also a major cause of skin cancer. We need to deal with that, as well. We have invented all sorts of dangerous technologies, such as hot stoves. The answer to avoiding injury: Do not touch the burner.

Without directly saying so, Mr. Baverstock makes the case time and again that nuclear energy generation and its by-products be held to uniquely high standards, more than all other forms of energy generation. He speaks of huge numbers of “accidents,” yet aside from the hunk of junk called Chernobyl, there is no evidence that any land-based reactor or any sea-based reactor outside the Soviet bloc has ever killed anyone.

Just what does “accident” mean? For “real” accidents, those involving core damage, Mr. Baverstock must turn to future estimates, estimates that are not real, merely hypothetical. “An interdisciplinary study carried out by MIT in 2003 estimates that between 2005 and 2055 there would be 4 accidents involving core damage” (emphasis added). Better yet, “In 1975, the so called Rasmussen Report carried out a fault tree analysis on the then current light water reactor in the U.S., predicting a core melt-down every 20,000 reactor years.” That was released 41 years ago!

Yet even here, the Australian Atomic Energy Commission concluded that the Rasmussen report shows that “the risk due to reactor accidents is smaller than that associated with many other aspects of everyday life.”36 Clearly, the accident terminology is both misleading and false, and designed to be so. What both Three Mile Island and Fukushima have taught us is that a complete core meltdown, not just “damage,” can—even with 1978 technology—result in no human harm. In terms of clean-up that is a lot more serious than a coffee spill, but in terms of mortality it is on the same level.

Again, we see that if safety standards applied to nuclear power plants were applied generally, we would have simply to shut down the world. The reason we are forced to look at potential deaths from nuclear energy (again, Chernobyl aside) is because that is all we have to look at! One study found that, along with solar energy, nuclear has caused fewer deaths than any type of energy source.37

In every country that drills or mines for natural gas, coal, and oil, there are deaths from mining itself, and, with coal, long-term deaths from inhalation and exertion. Whole movies are made about them; songs written about them. It is hard to find an American of any intelligence who has not heard of Three Mile Island, yet how many can name the latest U.S. fatal mining accident caused by either a coal dust explosion or a cave-in?

The worst coal-mining disaster occurred in China in 1942 and cost 1,549 lives. But even in the nuclear age, we have had such disasters as Wankie Colliery Disaster in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that killed 426 people in 1972.38 As recently as 2010, 29 miners were killed in a West Virginia explosion.39 Each miner, driller, or worker on an offshore rig is an actual human being with thoughts and feelings and families and friends. They were not theoretical human beings dreamed up in some physicist’s model.

Fossil fuels cause many deaths to non-workers, as well. All fossil fuels are inflammable. The gases released are also fatal upon inhalation. Throughout the world people routinely die as a result of fumes from faulty kerosene stoves, even as natural gas was a serious killer until distributors started adding a distinct odor to it. In a few seconds in 1966, 116 children and 28 adults were crushed when a Welsh coal slag mountain suddenly collapsed onto the town of Aberfan, including its school.40 Curiously, Germans did not rush to begin closing down all their coal-fired plants.

If measured by the standards of nuclear power generation, all fossil fuel plants would be closed as of, well, a long time ago. Ironically, a huge part of the capital cost of building nuclear plants are redundancies upon redundancies of safety measures—many added at the behest of those who have in fact insisted upon them because they make nuclear energy more expensive and less competitive.41

Mr. Baverstock concedes that it is the human factor that is responsible for nuclear accidents, as was pointed out by the Three Mile Island Commission. According to the Kemeny Commission report: “The equipment was sufficiently good that, except for human failures, the major accident at Three Mile Island would have been a minor incident.”42 The takeaway is something engineers have long known: the less human involvement, the better. Retrofitting Gen II nuclear plants has focused on precisely this; Gen III and III+ plants have taken the concept even further.43

It is simply impossible to exaggerate the absurdity of the nuclear safety double standard. The massive earthquake (the worst in Japan’s recorded history) that in turn caused a tremendous typhoon that subsequently caused a three-core meltdown in Fukushima? So far as we know it caused no deaths from radiation. But the number of confirmed deaths from the typhoon itself is a horrific 16,000—something American brains cannot even conceive. There are over 2,500 people missing.44

We have now had over 50 years’ experience with nuclear energy, on land and sea, and far more with all of its competitors, except solar. Nothing approaches nuclear in terms of safety. The lack of pollutants and so-called “greenhouse gas emissions” is just an added bonus.

  1. Wikipedia, “Nuclear and Radiation Accidents and Incidents”:
    99 accidents at nuclear power plants from 1952 to 2009 (defined as incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or more than US$50,000 of property damage, the amount the US federal government uses to define major energy accidents that must be reported), totalling US$20.5 billion in property damages.
     
  2. Nuclear Power Plant Accidents: Listed and Ranked Since 1952,” The Guardian
  3. The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary Study,” MIT (2003). 
  4. Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors,” World Nuclear Association (2016). 
  5. Wikipedia, “WASH-1400.” 
  6. Fumento claims that naval reactors world-wide have an unblemished record with more than 12,000 reactor years of operation since 1955. Perhaps this is because under military control, rather than civilian, with its economic pressures, fewer safety violations have occurred. The three explosions at Fukushima could have been avoided had the reactors been equipped with nitrogen purging apparatus, as was allegedly recommended by the IAEA a few years before the accident, but which is an obvious safety precaution. 
  7. Wade Allison, Radiation and Reason: the Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear (Aylesbury, UK: Wade Allison Publishing, 2009). 
  8. Wade Allison, Nuclear is for Life: A Cultural Revolution (Aylesbury, UK: Wade Allison Publishing, 2015). 

  9. Wade Allison, Radiation and Reason: the Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear (Aylesbury, UK: Wade Allison Publishing, 2009). 
  10. Keith Baverstock and Hooshang Nikjoo, “Book Review: ‘Radiation and Reason’ by Wade Allison.” 
  11. Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2 (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2006). 
  12. Post-BEIR VII Dose-Response Analyses,” Goddard’s Journal (2015) 
  13. L. Ryback et al., “Radiation Doses of the Swiss Population from External Sources,” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 62, no. 3 (2002): 277–86. 
  14. Ben Spycher et al., “Background Ionizing Radiation and the Risk of Childhood Cancer: A Census-Based Nationwide Cohort Study,” Environmental Health Perspectives 123, no. 6 (2015), doi:10.1289/ehp.1408548. 
  15. Gerry Kendall et al., “A Record-based Case-control Study of Natural Background Radiation and the Incidence of Childhood Leukaemia and Other Cancers in Great Britain During 1980-2006,” Leukemia 27, no. 1 (2013): 3–9. 
  16. The capacity of an energy production process is the fraction of the maximium possible output that is achieved in practice. 
  17. Michel Rose, “Major Nuclear Accident Would Cost France $580 Billion: Study,” Reuters, February 6, 2013. 
  18. David McNeill, “Revealed: Secret Evacuation Plan for Tokyo after Fukushima,” Independent, January 27, 2012. Also reported in The New York Times
  19. David McNeill, “Revealed: Secret Evacuation Plan for Tokyo after Fukushima,” Independent, January 27, 2012. 
  20. The spent fuel has now been removed from Reactor No. 4. See “All Spent Fuel Removed from Reactor 4 Pool at Fukushima No. 1, Tepco Says,” The Japan Times, December 20, 2014. 
  21. Posiva, “Final Disposal.” 
  22. Flowers, Brian Hilton Sir, Nuclear Power and the Environment: The Sixth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (Cmnd. 6618), 6th edn. (London: H.M.S.O., 1976). 
  23. Committee on the Management of Radioactive Waste (CoRWM),” gov.uk. 
  24. Keith Baverstock and David Ball, “Editorial,” Energy & Environment 19, no. 3–4 (2008): 379–90. 
  25. Emma Howard, “UK Radioactive Waste Disposal Site Search Continues Despite Opposition,” The Guardian, August 17, 2015. 
  26. Chronology of Olkiluoto 3 Project,” archive.is
  27. Olkiluoto 3 Begins Instrumentation and Control Tests,” World Nuclear News, January 14, 2016. 
  28. Radioactive Waste Management,” World Nuclear Association, October 2015. 
  29. Transatomic Technical White Paper,” Transatomic, March 2014. 
  30. Molten Salt Reactors,” World Nuclear Association, April 2016. 
  31. Marin Katusa, “The Thing About Thorium: Why The Better Nuclear Fuel May Not Get A Chance,” Forbes, February 16, 2012. 
  32. Generation IV Nuclear Reactors,” World Nuclear Association, August 2015. 
  33. Generation IV Nuclear Reactors,” World Nuclear Association, August 2015. 
  34. eGeneration, “Molten Salt Reactors and the Nuclear Industry.” 
  35. Annie Sneed, “Moore’s Law Keeps Going, Defying Expectations,” Scientific American, May 19, 2015. 
  36. C. P. Gilbert, “Nuclear Reactor Safety: A Review of the Rasmussen Report (WASH 1400),” Australian Atomic Energy Commission, March 1979. 
  37. Stephen Williams, “Molten Salt Reactors: The Future of Green Energy?” ZME Science, January 16, 2015. 
  38. The World’s Worst Coal Mining Disasters,” Mining Technology, May 16, 2014. 
  39. CNN Wire Staff, “Obama Urges Probe into Mine Disaster after Last Bodies Found,” CNN, April 11, 2010. 
  40. BBC On This Day, “1966: Aberfan - A Generation Wiped Out.” 
  41. Bernard Cohen, Costs of Nuclear Power Plants – What Went Wrong? (New York: Plenum Press, 1990). 
  42. John Kemeny et al., Report of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island (Washington, DC: United States Government Publications Office, 1979). 
  43. United States Department of Energy, “DOE Standard Human Performance Improvement Handbook, Volume 1: Concepts and Principles,” June 2009. 
  44. Damage Situation and Police Countermeasures,” National Police Agency of Japan, March 10, 2016.