Left, Flickr, Center, Simon Fraser University Flickr Creative Commons, Right, Screenshot from Pandora’s Promise.
My previous article was about Bill Nye’s choice to ignore the science when it comes to nuclear energy safety. I’m not picking on Bill. My critiques are in response to Nye’s decision to use his celebrity status to publicly air his anti-nuclear energy beliefs. This is likely the last article I’ll write about his views …depending I suppose, on what else he has to say in public about nuclear energy. I’m bringing this topic up again because the pro-nuclear energy film Pandora’s Promise (which was the target of his keynote address following the screening of Pandora’s Promise at Columbia University) was also shown at the recently concluded Paris climate talks to bolster James Hansen’s call for environmental groups to “let go of long-held biases when it comes to nuclear power.”
You can view the YouTube video of that speech here. I don’t know what the organizers were expecting, but what they got was an old-school anti-nuclear energy diatribe (where pretty much everything he said was wrong). Bill was doing his best to teach the young Columbia students in the audience (who he kept referring to as kids) what he had been taught and twice asked them to vote out of office politicians who think nuclear power plants should be part of our energy mix to fight climate change (as Obama does).
Interestingly enough, the two senators from Nye’s old stomping grounds in Washington State who are big supporters of anything green, were not among the four who voted against expanding the role of nuclear power in a new energy bill, so maybe reasoned argument is starting to turn the tide:
WASHINGTON — Here’s how the state’s U.S. senators voted on major issues in the week ending Jan. 29. The House was in recess.
Boost for nuclear energy
By a vote of 87 for and 4 against, the Senate on Jan. 28 expanded the role of nuclear power in a wide-ranging energy bill (S 2012) that remained in debate. In part, the amendment directs the Department of Energy to establish a “national innovation center” at which the government and private sector would jointly develop advanced technologies for nuclear reactors.
Voting yes: Maria Cantwell, D, Patty Murray, D
Now, of course, the entire anti-nuclear energy idea was started with some critical thinking. Nuclear energy can do harm and it isn’t too cheap to meter after all. But from that point on it became a snowball rolling down hill, a bandwagon to be jumped on. Facts got discarded along the way, stories grew larger with each retelling.
Indoctrinate: teach (a person or group) to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. Pandora’s Promise is often described by anti-nuclear ideologues as propaganda. To determine which side is right in any ideological contest, you have to fire up your brain and go looking for the truth …you can’t just trust what your chosen authority figures think because they may never have been motivated to apply critical thought to what they think, or were taught. In fact, like the Pope, they may be highly motivated not to apply critical thought to what they think. Recall the scene from the Simpsons episode where Ned Flanders burns Homer’s airtight proof.
This is what makes Pandora’s Promise so unsettling to anti-nuclear energy ideologues; it is narrated by a collection of fallen angels–well-known environmentalists who, for whatever reasons, applied critical thought to what they had been taught about nuclear energy only to discover that what they had been taught was largely (borrowing a word used by Nye in his speech) crap . The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the claim that nuclear power consumes more energy than it produces (although it could have been any number of equally ridiculous claims). Deciding to think critically is one thing, convincing others to think critically is easier said than done.
In the long run, ideologies tend to degenerate into a struggle for the hearts and minds of the young and impressionable. Indoctrinated young people grow old and go on to indoctrinate more young people. The end will start to justify the means (the outcome excuses any wrongs committed to attain it) and on and on human nature goes. Below is a screenshot I just took of the Google search results for Pandora’s Promise. Note the Google warning that the site may have been hacked.
Screenshot of Google search Result for Pandora’s Promise with Hacking Warning
So, I can’t send you the link to the website where the reviews are. You can watch Pandora’s Promise on Amazon video. You can of course, also watch any number of anti-nuclear energy documentaries. But who has time to fact check everything said in a documentary? Although documentaries will often make the same claim, Pandora’s Promise actually was thoroughly fact-checked before airing because the director knew he would be kicking the stool out from under a lot of fellow environmentalist’s strongly held anti-nuclear energy beliefs. That’s why so many criticisms of the film don’t deal with the facts presented, but with facts left out. Of course, a lot of facts have to be left out because you only get 90 minutes in a documentary, which leaves it vulnerable to claims of deception by omission. However, I suspect that few of those missing facts would actually turn out to be factual, so the critics should be careful about what they ask for. In addition, an anti-nuclear energy blogger at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Citizens attacked the film with a spittle-flecked fury when it was first released, providing me the opportunity to apply some critical thought to his attack, which further vetted the film (other bloggers, like Dave Roberts, attacked the film without bothering to watch it, basing their attack on reviews they had read). Here is a warm and recent review/recap of the film by Ecomodernist Mom, who may not know what she’s about to get in to.
I didn’t transcribe the first ten minutes of his talk because it made no mention of nuclear energy. He used those minutes as story time to gain his young audience’s trust, pump up his credibility, gain a little status by association, and let them know that he is one of them …as were his parents; all students or alums of private colleges with tuition approaching fifty thousand dollars a year.
After transcribing his talk I was surprised to find that it was comprised largely of old and outdated anti-nuclear arguments I haven’t heard in years that confused the mishandling of waste by secretive nuclear weapons programs dating back to the forties with the practices of modern commercial nuclear power plants. Cost, the main (but flawed) argument used against nuclear energy today was never mentioned. I’m guessing that he felt more comfortable returning to the scariest (outdated) arguments from his own youth that worked so well to convince him.
Like most things in this world, reality is a matter of degree. As I’ve done in other posts, rather than rate Nye’s comments as true or false (a step function), I will give each claim a veracity (conformity with truth or fact, accuracy) score. I’ll calculate the average score at the end of the post. For example, a typical politician may average a veracity score of about 3 out of 10 any time his or her lips move, a televangelist, maybe a 2 out of 10. A score of zero indicates not a grain of truth to be had. A score of 10 would indicate a cold, hard, fact. They are of course, arbitrary, so feel free to make up your own.
Some of the transcript is not presented in the order it was given because I wanted to highlight the more important points at the front of this post for those not inclined to read the whole thing. Parts taken out of order will be marked with footnote (1).
The “Complexity of Next Generation Nuclear Energy” Argument
(1)So, uh, finally, about the next generation nuclear reactor, the premise is to have a fissionable stuff like uranium 235 in the middle, and then you would have this other stuff that is left over, uranium 238. People in India and places where there is more thorium in the ground for mining, people propose using thorium which is another radioactive material that’s not as powerful as uranium but you can set it up and the idea is, instead of having the stuff fission like this, you’d have it fission like this and then you’d have this gizmo or these robotic arms (gesticulations), conveyor belt that would continually move the fuel to the proper place. But the premise is to get Plutonium in the middle.
Above, Nye goes Luddite on his young audience, ironically, each in possession of a smart phone, as he describes how complex next generation nuclear power technology will be.
Boeing 777-200ER involved in an Asiana Airlines accident at SFO in 2011
Veracity Score = 2
If technological complexity is his concern with nuclear energy, he may want to avoid riding on a modern airliner like the one shown above, arguably one of the more complex machines ever assembled. The fuselage skin (separating you from an 84% the speed of sound blast of -60 degree F air so rarefied that it would suffocate you in minutes if you didn’t freeze to death first) is little thicker than the cardboard on a cereal box. The wings on either side and the center tank under your feet are filled with a highly flammable fuel.
Rolls Royce Trent Engine used on some Boeing 777 Sub-models.
Attached to those wings are 110,000 horsepower turbofan engines burning 3,750 gallons of fuel per hour at takeoff power, each more powerful than all of the engines combined on the Titanic.
Homer Simpson enjoying a doughnut while operating a nuclear power plant
The “Accidents / Homer Simpson” Argument
(1)The problem with each of these three accidents [TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima] is not, to me, is not really inherent in nuclear energy, the problem is, if I may, it’s Homer Simpson. The kind of people …
The kind of people? Ouch …did a comedian entertainer just disrespect the engineers who have been designing and safely operating our nuclear power plants for the last half century? Note to Nye; humans also design and operate airliners.
This is also a straw man argument because nobody is claiming that there are never going to be more nuclear accidents over the next half century with outcomes that will vary like the first three nuclear accidents (of which, only one resulted in fatalities).
Photo via NTSB
There are also going to be future airline accidents like the one above caused by pilot error. As is also the case with modern nuclear power plants, manufacturers of jet airliners go to extremes you can only imagine to maximize the safety of their products. For example, the landing gear and engines, which all attach to the wing box which also serves as a fuel tank, are designed to disconnect from the aircraft in the event of a crash should the loads become great enough to rip open the fuel tank. In the above accident at San Francisco International, where the pilot was too low and hit a concrete sea wall with the tail section, both engines safely separated from the wing as they were designed to do. One engine could be found a few hundred yards away, the other can be seen lying against the fuselage. The landing gear also separated as designed. After evacuation, a fire eventually started when oil leaking onto the hot engine ignited. Had the fuel tanks been ripped open and this fire reached jet fuel, the outcome would likely have been very different. This particular accident resulted in three fatalities when there could have been hundreds in large part thanks to Boeing’s engineering design philosophy prioritizing safety. But there will be more accidents.
The “There will be Another Accident” Argument
(1)…you’ll hear it from the nuclear airline industry …all these guys will say “Well, they shouldn’t have been doing that at Chernobyl San Francisco, that was graphite concrete…But they did (laughing)! “Well, they shouldn’t have built that Fukushima plant sea wall …“ But they did! So, when it comes to trust us (laughing) I am Mr. Skeptical man.
There’s going to be another accident. There just will be because its humans. It’s not, it’s not this bunch of idealized people running the things. There will be another accident. So we just have to say to ourselves, is that worth the risk? Can we manage the risk?
Veracity Score = 5
I modified Nye’s above paragraphs assuming for the sake of discussion that he is one of the millions who have an irrational fear of flying, even though it is the safest way to travel. He would get a score of 10 because there certainly will be future nuclear accidents, just as there will be future airliner accidents. He gets a 5 because he doesn’t seem to have a good grasp on the concept of risk perception:
The mid 1960s saw the rapid rise of nuclear technologies and the promise for clean and safe energy. However, public perception shifted against this new technology. Fears of both longitudinal dangers to the environment and immediate disasters creating radioactive wastelands turned the public against this new technology. The scientific and governmental communities asked why public perception was against the use of nuclear energy when all the scientific experts were declaring how safe it really was. The problem, from the perspectives of the experts, was a difference between scientific facts and an exaggerated public perception of the dangers.
The de Havilland Comet was being produced at about the same time as the first nuclear power plants circa 1954
There are no more primitive, Soviet era, containment dome-free, reactor designs like Chernobyl, just as there are no more airliners like the Comet with square windows. The risk of what, that in the next half century another 60 foot high tsunami will smite the backup generators at another nuclear power plant resulting in no deaths, a temporary evacuation, and another super fund site to clean up? Is air travel worth the risk? Airplane accidents kill far more people than nuclear energy ever has, yet it is the safest way to travel, just as nuclear is one of the safest ways to produce electricity.
Fukushima taught the world what to expect when not one, but three modern reactors with modern containment domes melt down—a non-fatal event. Even the Soviet era Chernobyl accident taught us that instead of mutant armies you get a “potential” total fatality count equal to about ten percent of annual U.S. car deaths, babushka’s who refused to evacuate outliving those who did by ten years, a power plant that continued to operate for fourteen years after the accident, and Europe’s largest wildlife reserve. Can we manage the risk that terrorists will never gain control of another jet airliner and crash it into a skyscraper? What would Bill propose; no skyscrapers or no airliners? Should we start dismantling our dams before another one fails?
Comparing airliners to nuclear power plants isn’t a perfect analogy (one produces gargantuan amounts of zero carbon energy and one burns gargantuan amounts of fossil fuel energy) but when it comes to safety records, they’re both pretty hard to beat.
The “Toxicity” Argument
One of Nye’s strategies is to warm his young and impressionable audience up with stories of famous people he’s met and places he’s been …then terrorize them with anti-nuclear energy urban legends apparently gleaned from anti-nuclear energy websites. For example:
(1)Anyway he said if you breath just a few micro-grams, breath a few micro-grams of Plutonium, it will kill you. Like arsenic, it will replace the phosphorous in your DNA. So it really is dangerous stuff.
Veracity score = 1
Photo taken at my local hardware store of a poster advertising the environmentally friendly Plutonium paint brand …which contains no Plutonium.
Maybe Nye has confused Plutonium with Polonium, which plays no role in nuclear energy production? Polonium was the radioactive poison used by Russian agents to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko.
Several populations of people who have been exposed to Plutonium dust (e.g. people living down-wind of Nevada test sites, Nagasaki survivors, nuclear facility workers, and “terminally ill” patients injected with Pu in 1945–46 to study Pu metabolism) have been carefully followed and analyzed. These studies generally do not show especially high Plutonium toxicity or Plutonium-induced cancer results, such as Albert Stevens who survived into old age after being injected with Plutonium. “There were about 25 workers from Los Alamos National Laboratory who inhaled a considerable amount of Plutonium dust during 1940s; according to the hot-particle theory, each of them has a 99.5% chance of being dead from lung cancer by now, but there has not been a single lung cancer among them.”
Plutonium has a metallic taste.
And another example:
(1)So anyway, it was Neils Bohr, who was at lunch who figured it out and he got up from lunch and he ran into, or he walked quickly to the blackboard, and he drew what they needed to do to realize, all you gotta do is take the uranium ore, and put it in fuming nitric acid, and some, I guess some hydrofluoric acid, and then you can make uranium hexafluoride. Simple, the most deadly freaking stuff there is …
Wait a minute …I thought Plutonium was the most deadly freaking stuff. In any case, our industrial world is full of potentially dangerous chemicals that require safeguards to protect the environment and workers. Trying to use the fact that dangerous chemicals are involved as an argument against nuclear energy is absurd. Below I present a short list of chemicals involved with the manufacture of different types of solar panels, some more freaking deadly than others of course:
- hydrochloric acid
- trichlorosilane gas
- silicon tetrafluoride
- sulfur difluoride
- sulfur dioxide
- sulfur hexafluoride
- sodium hydroxide
- potassium hydroxide
- hydrochloric acid
- sulfuric acid
- nitric acid
- hydrogen fluoride
- arsine gas
- phosphorous oxychloride
- phosphorous trichloride
- boron bromide
- boron trichloride
- ammonium fluoride
- phosphorous oxychloride
- ethyl acetate
- ethyl vinyl acetate
- ion amine catalyst
- silicon trioxide
- stannic chloride
- tantalum pentoxide
The natural world is also full of deadly chemicals, like the ones found in the skin of the lethally toxic Golden poison frog– Phyllobates terribilis (leaf climbing terror). A deadly chemical only presents a potential problem if handled improperly, or, in this case, handled at all.
The “Conflating Nuclear Weapons Production with Commercial Nuclear Power” Argument
Nuclear weapons, as I’m sure you saw in the film, I hope you got this, have been tied very closely to nuclear energy every since the whole thing was figured out …
Veracity score = 1.
Here, Nye is trying to plant a false memory in the minds of his young Columbia University audience. Our existing nuclear power plants have nothing to do with the military industrial complex at all and most certainly, the film does not suggest that they do. Here’s the quote he’s misrepresenting: “The whole nuclear business was started for a bomb and I think that put the negative side on it.” Another commenter in the film also said, “I avoided looking at the whole picture. I only looked at the questions that seemed to prove nuclear power was dangerous” which Nye failed to mention for some reason.
A Quick Primer on the Issue of Weapons Proliferation
You can tour some of the first nuclear reactors and snap pictures like the one above taken at Oak Ridge. Click here to sign up for a tour of the B-Reactor at Hanford. There are many nuclear reactors around the planet similar to the one shown above that are not associated with a nuclear power plant. The dummies are representative of the mutant clones that were used by the evil nuclear empire to run the reactor : ).
The lay press often confuse nuclear reactors with nuclear power plants and will often use the two terms interchangeably, which further confuses readers. Just yesterday I read a story about how Iran has disassembled its nuclear reactor, leaving the reader with the impression that they now no longer have a functional nuclear power plant. What the writer didn’t understand is that they disassembled a separate production reactor designed to make weapons grade Plutonium, not the commercial reactor that creates heat to make steam at their commercial nuclear power plant, which is incapable of making weapons grade Plutonium.
A nuclear reactor is a device containing an assemblage of uranium/plutonium enriched nuclear fuel that allows a moderated nuclear fission reaction to occur which results in the release of a great deal of heat.
There are three main uses for nuclear reactors represented by three types:
- Research (many universities have small reactors on campus, including one at my alma mater) known as research reactors.
- Production of weapons grade plutonium (plutonium is produced in the fuel pellets as a result of fissioning the uranium) known as military or production reactors.
- Generating heat to make steam to power turbines that spin electric generators at nuclear power plants known as civilian or commercial reactors.
To further confuse readers, types 2 and 3 were, on occasion, combined in the past by what are known as dual purpose reactors like the Hanford N-reactor which was the only one of its kind in the United States. Local politicians talked the military into letting a Washington State utility capture the waste heat from the reactor to make electricity. These were military nuclear weapons production reactors whose primary purpose was to produce weapons grade plutonium that were also collecting the waste heat from the reactor to produce steam to generate electricity rather than waste the energy by dumping it into the atmosphere as other military production reactors do.
There are also many different reactor designs for the above uses, as well as many variations on the fuel consumed.
Nuclear Power plants
A nuclear power plant is a form of thermal power plant (like solar thermal, geothermal, biomass etc) that uses the heat from a nuclear reactor instead of heat from solar radiation, subterranean hot water, or the burning of wood respectively, to make steam to spin generators to make electricity.
You can have a nuclear reactor without a having a nuclear power plant, but you can’t have a nuclear power plant without a nuclear reactor.
A nuclear reactor is just one component of a nuclear power plant.
Many nuclear power plants have more than one nuclear reactor on site.
Reactor Designs are not Interchangeable
Today’s approved commercial nuclear power plant reactor designs do not produce salvageable plutonium in their spent fuel suitable for production of “weapons grade” material, although “reactor grade plutonium” can be extracted and recycled as fuel. The reactors optimized to economically provide heat for steam in commercial nuclear power plants are of a different design and can’t feasibly (as opposed to theoretically) be used to make weapons grade plutonium. No nuclear weapon in the world today was made by extracting the “reactor grade” plutonium from spent commercial nuclear power plant fuel.
The only use for “reactor grade” plutonium is as a nuclear fuel after it is separated from the high-level waste by reprocessing. It is not used for weapons “due to the relatively high rate of spontaneous fission and radiation from the heavier isotopes such as Pu-240 making any such attempted use fraught with great uncertainties.” From Wikipedia:
The degree to which typical Generation II reactor high burn-up produced reactor-grade plutonium is less useful than weapons-grade plutonium for building nuclear weapons is somewhat debated, with many sources arguing that the maximum probable theoretical yield would be bordering on a fissile explosion of the range 0.1 to 2 kiloton in a Fat Man type device, that is, assuming the non-trivial issue of dealing with the heat generation from the higher content of non-weapons usable Pu-238, that is present, could be overcome, as the premature initiation from the spontaneous fission of Pu-240 would ensure a low explosive yield in such a device, with the surmounting of both issues being described as “daunting” hurdles for a Fat Man era implosion design and the possibility of terrorists achieving this fissile yield being regarded as an “overblown” apprehension with the safeguards that are in place.
While others disagree on theoretical grounds and state that dependable high, non-fizzle level yields, can be achieved, arguing that it would be “relatively easy” for a well funded entity with access to fusion boosting tritium and expertise to overcome the problem of predetonation created by Pu-240, and that a remote manipulation facility could be utilized in the assembly of the highly radioactive gamma ray emitting bomb components, coupled with a means of cooling the weapon pit during storage to prevent the plutonium charge contained in the pit from melting, and a design that kept the implosion mechanisms high explosives from being degraded by the pits heat. However with all these major design considerations included, this fusion boosted reactor grade plutonium primary will still fizzle if the fission component of the primary does not deliver more than 0.2 kilotons of yield, which is regarded as the minimum energy necessary to start a fusion burn. The probability that such a device would fail to achieve this threshold yield increases as the burnup value of the fuel increases.
No information, available in the public domain, suggests that any well funded entity has ever achieved, or seriously pursued creating, a nuclear weapon with the same isotopic composition of modern, high burn up, reactor grade plutonium. All nuclear weapon states have taken the more conventional path to nuclear weapons by either uranium enrichment or producing low burn up, “fuel-grade” and weapons-grade plutonium, in reactors capable of operating as production reactors. While the isotopic content of reactor-grade plutonium, created by the most common commercial power reactor design, the pressurized water reactor, never directly being considered for weapons use.
The reactor shown above (which, again is not to be confused with a nuclear power plant) explains why the majority of countries with nuclear weapons did not have a nuclear power plant when they made their first weapons–they can’t be used to make nuclear weapons grade plutonium. Let me reiterate, not only do you not need a nuclear power plant to make weapons grade nuclear material, but today’s commercial nuclear reactors can’t feasibly (as opposed to theoretically) be used to make weapons grade plutonium (not to mention there are international safeguards that track and account for all new and spent commercial nuclear fuel, just in case).
Iran has an operating commercial nuclear power plant. Nobody is concerned about it because not only can it not produce weapons grade material, but to be extra conservative and safe, its fuel is provided and accounted for by a nuclear power as required by international regulations. They may eventually end up with a bomb, but if so, certainly, their commercial nuclear power plant will have played no role in its creation.
In a nutshell, the main concern with weapons proliferation isn’t with the spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants. It is primarily with the technology used to concentrate and purify (enrich) uranium, which at higher levels of concentration can be used to make a uranium based bomb (no reactor necessary) and at lower levels of concentration can be used to make fuel for military production reactors. As part of the fission process, plutonium is created in a reactor out of uranium. If the uranium fuel was used in a military weapons “production reactor” design, the plutonium can be extracted from the spent fuel, enriched, and used for a plutonium based nuclear weapon. As stated above, the “reactor grade” plutonium found in the spent fuel of commercial nuclear power plant reactors can’t be feasibly extracted in a form suitable for weapons production although reactor grade plutonium can be extracted and used for fuel in a commercial nuclear power plant.
How are nations that have access to enriched uranium fuel for their nuclear power plants prevented from using that fuel in a secret weapons production reactor to make weapons grade plutonium should they want to do so? You can read all about it here.
Ergo, other than the knowledge and technology used to enrich uranium to make fuel for their respective reactor designs, there is no relationship between nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear power plants. Making nuclear power plants go away would not make the technology used to make reactor fuel, the military production reactors themselves that use the fuel, or all of the attendant downstream knowledge and technology needed to make a nuclear weapon go away.
With or without commercial nuclear power plants, the technology to enrich uranium will continue to exist, or can be recreated, to make fuel for military production reactors, which have been successfully hidden and used to secretly make weapons grade material by most countries that have nuclear weapons. Those countries didn’t have a nuclear power plant when they made their first weapons and two of them (North Korea–one of the poorest countries on earth–and Israel) still don’t.
Again, contrary to what Nye believes, today’s nuclear power plants across the country have nothing at all to do with military nuclear weapons manufacture or development or the superfund sites they created. In fact, a lot of our fuel for commercial reactors contains material from disassembled nuclear weapons–swords to plowshares writ large. When trying to close the cold war missile gap, the military used its own reactors optimized to produce plutonium at places like Hanford, Washington, which is the location of the military, not commercial, superfund site that Nye repeatedly claims is the result of commercial nuclear powered electricity production.
The “Secrecy” Argument
It’s quite expensive. I had a security clearance for a while. The FBI comes to your neighborhood and they ask your neighbors, you know, if you’ve been spending a lot of money, do you do drugs, are you a communist …
Veracity score = 9
As Nye continues to try to plant the idea that commercial nuclear power plants are tied to the secret military nuclear weapons industry, he tells us about once having a security clearance. He likely got that clearance because he was working on a military airplane program as a new hire at an aerospace company for the two or three years he held a job there. I also obtained a security clearance as a new hire there.
But this tradition of secrecy has played havoc in my opinion with our perception of nuclear power and furthermore the way the nuclear industry presents itself to us on the outside.
Veracity score = 0.
There is no tradition of secrecy. Today’s nuclear power plants owned by various utilities across the country have nothing at all to do with secret military nuclear weapons manufacture or development. There is nothing anymore secretive about a commercial nuclear power plant than there is with a hydro-electric power plant with its armed guards or, say, a manufacturing facility of commercial airliners where employees like myself must wear identification at all times and most pass through gates with armed guards to get to work inside facilities surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire.
The “Waste” Argument
Now if you don’t know the premise of the bit as we say in comedy writing the premise of the bit is you dig up this uranium, you clean it up somehow, then you fission it, it get really hot crazy hot and then you run a steam generator just like you do with coal or natural gas or oil. You just, just, run a huge heat engine that spins turbines at very high speed and you make electricity, big fun, and then the premise of the bit is that when we are done we will just put it back into the ground. Great, fabulous.
Veracity score = 3
He gets a 3 because his description of a thermal power plant (how most electricity is made) is reasonably accurate. Why he keeps describing how a thermal power plant works is beyond me, unless he’s trying to convince his young audience that making electricity with them is bad (a promotion of wind and solar voltaic I’m guessing) but as I said earlier, boiling water to make steam to spin generators to make electricity is how all thermal power plants work, including solar thermal, biomass, and geothermal.
A coke can could hold all the nuclear waste generated to provide all of the electricity consumed by a typical American over a lifetime
He completely made up the idea that there was a plan to simply put our spent fuel back into the ground, like we still do with much of our waste in our tens of thousands of landfills and coal ash ponds, and like we once did to all of our rivers and lakes.
The plan, unlike with fossil fuels, has always been to keep the minuscule amount of nuclear waste (a coke can would hold all the waste for the power generated for an American over his or her life) from commercial nuclear power plants isolated from the environment, assuming we don’t use it up as fuel with newer technology in the future. No other power source keeps tabs on every ounce of its waste. Bill continues to blame the irresponsible waste disposal by military programs , especially in the many decades before the EPA came into existence, on commercial power plants.
His reference to a comedic bit is to suggest that using uranium to continue to make low carbon electricity to spare our children and grandchildren the worst of a warming world has been some kind of joke.
The “Conflating Nuclear Weapons with Commercial Nuclear Power Argument” …Again
Anyway, when I was a kid we went to Heckinger’s hardware to look at a bomb shelter which we were going to build and we filled these bleach bottles, Clorox bottles, with water for when the nuclear weapon exploded, we would just go downstairs and wait it out and everything will be fine. Anyway, as it turns out everything is fantastically more complicated than that.
Combining the “Complexity / Weapons Conflation” Arguments
And then another just amazing story, have you guys ever heard of the cross-section? So, a cross-section, you cut a log and there’s the tree rings, and they used this, physicists use this to describe how to get neutrons to bump into other atoms as though they have a cross-section. You know, we all think of atoms and neutrons protons as particles, a really good model but you know, it’s like nature, and maybe they’re not really particles, that’s just how we think of them. But at any rate, they used the term cross-section, but only about 0.7% of uranium has the right cross-section. You may have heard the expression, uranium 235 has 92 protons and all the rest are neutrons, but most of the uranium, the other 99.3% is uranium 238, three more protons, uh, three more neutrons.
And you may have heard people talk about the centrifuge and all the controversy about having centrifuges in the Middle East and so on. Now the cool thing about fluorine is that it only has one isotope. It always has the same number of neutrons. So, you can spin this stuff in a centrifuge really fast and ah, the heavier stuff goes to the outside and if you are really skilled and careful you can get the lighter weight stuff, literally lighter weight, higher mass stuff closer to the middle. And then, there’s several other processes and you can enrich it from 0.7 percent of the good stuff up into the 80% good stuff.
And that’s the stuff that fissions, that gets hot on its own. And so, ah, it’s extraordinarily complicated.
Veracity Score = 4
If you are wondering where the “other just amazing story” he mentions went …so am I.
I think he’s attempting to accomplish three things:
- Convince his audience that he is an expert on nuclear energy when he obviously isn’t.
- Insinuate that the technical complexity is a bad thing, and because nuclear reactors are complicated, they are bad things.
- With the mention of centrifuges in the Middle East, he is also still attempting to conflate nuclear power plants with nuclear weapons for the tenth time.
Again, although he may or may not have largely gotten most of his facts right, he gets a 4 for insinuating with his centrifuge reference that the operating Iranian commercial nuclear power plant is somehow tied in with their attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon and for trying to convince his audience that nuclear power plant complexity is somehow an argument against their use.
In the end, he is also inadvertently demonstrating how technologically difficult it is to build a nuclear weapon because his above description is just for making the initial fuel for a reactor that will be used to make plutonium. It does not attempt to describe how to build that reactor to fission that fuel, the technology to remove the plutonium out of that fuel and to concentrate it into weapons grade material, shape it, and build a device of great complexity to insert it in to and finally test it before you would end up with a bomb, which also largely explains why there are still only nine nations on the planet with nuclear weapons since they were invented. There wouldn’t be that many had the world gotten its nuclear regulations act together soon enough to prevent India and Pakistan from getting them.
Now I was the MC of the Department of Energy Science Bowl, for a couple of years It’s the coolest job. Cause what you get to say over and over again and this may only appeal to some people my age, over and over you get to say “Here’s the toss up.” And I’ll just tell you, the people, the kids, these are high-school kids, from Oakridge Tennessee are just butt kickers, they’re just so smart because all their parents are a bunch of physicists and chemical engineers.
It’s so complicated to get uranium to where it’s fissionable, that makes it different from other types of heat fired turbines like coal. You burn it, I got it, I’m there, I got it. And I don’t know if you have ever heard of a fluidized bed which we use in coal plants, you turn coal into like flour it’s so fine and then they spray it out into a furnace that’s on fire all the time and this greatly increases the efficiency of coal fired power plants. But it’s still that they are just burning coal, there’s no uranium hexafluoride, fuming nitric acid, and all this stuff.
Coal Cars at a Power Plant via Flickr
Veracity score = 2
The first paragraph doesn’t seem to contain any relevance. He gets a 2 here because in the second paragraph he’s trying to convince his young audience that a nuclear power plant is worse than a coal power plant (with its millions of respiratory deaths, acid rain, ocean acidification, mountain top mining, thousands of train cars of coal delivered daily and of course the CO2 emissions) because with coal, all you have to do is grind it into dust before burning it, which is so much less complicated than making fuel pellets and a reactor for a nuclear power plant.
So, um, the complexity of it has really been troublesome and the secrecy that was required to develop these processes that allowed the United States to especially develop the first nuclear weapons, this stuff is still with the nuclear industry, this secrecy.
Veracity score = 0.
Combining the “Waste / Military Use” Arguments
Now with that said, the U.S. Navy, has a lot of nuclear reactors, in fact I’m not sure exactly how many there are, if they told me they may have to kill me, but they are very good with it, they fission the stuff in the conventional way to get it hot to run steam turbines because they run submarines and aircraft carriers all over the ocean and ah, it was Admiral Rickover who realized nuclear power was the way to do this so you wouldn’t have to continually refuel ships, which is a cool idea, but they have the luxury for when the reactor is old, they just take it out of the ship and bury it, usually in Idaho, our beloved Idaho, and ah, that’s good and you can bury it for a long time. Are there any Idahonians here? It’s lovely but there are a lot fewer people there than there are in other parts of the world. Leaving it there is OK (audience laughs).
Veracity score = 2
He’s inadvertently shooting his argument in the foot when you consider that nuclear sub crews live within a few yards of a nuclear power plant for much of their career with no adverse health effects. Placing parts from decommissioned military reactors that have been irradiated until they cool off in out-of-the-way places is perfectly reasonable and commonplace. This type of radiation does not escape into the environment and poses no health risks unless you decide to sit on one of them for too long. Decommissioned commercial reactors are moth-balled until they cool off and are disassembled. Look again at the picture of the decommissioned reactor above where you can walk in and take pictures.
The “Terrorist” Argument
No really, I mean it’s OK, people. If you’re a terrorist, and you are willing to drive to Idaho with a bulldozer and think you’re not going to be detected, knock yourself out. It probably won’t happen (audience laughs).
Veracity score = 10
…why a terrorist would want to run off with a piece of an old reactor while it is still emitting harmful levels of radiation is beyond me.
Combining “the Waste / Secrecy / Weapons Conflation” Arguments–Hanford
But I have been to Hanford Washington. Now I know people back east have not really heard about Hanford but you have heard about Los Alamos, right? That’s where they built the first nuclear weapon. Well, Hanford Washington is in the South-Eastern part of the state, is were they developed plutonium, and or invented or created the first plutonium and that’s where they made the hydrogen bomb which relies on fusion instead of fission like we have in the sun.
And so it was a secret place, and they have been, at least for me, I lived in Washington State for 26 years, ah, they have been really bad (laughing) at handling their waste. Not, ah, stuff from the wash room, stuff from nuclear activities. It’s not the men’s room or something. It’s rather extraordinary. And the problem has been, the waste itself is trouble, I mean the radioactive stuff is trouble but there’s all these rubber gloves and booties and coveralls and all the stuff and all these solvents that were used to wash things and get them purified and stuff that are just buried in these casks and oil drums. And it seemed like when I live there, every week there was another news story out of Hanford.
Veracity score = 1
And once again, it’s his deliberate omission of the fact that Hanford is an old military nuclear waste super fund site that commercial nuclear power plants had no part in creating that earns a score of 1. Hanford hosted the military reactors that made plutonium for nuclear weapons. His talk follows a screening of the film Pandora’s Promise. He’s supposed to be talking about commercial nuclear energy, not military weapons programs.
The “Accidents” Argument—TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima
Then you probably heard about Three Mile Island. And Three Mile Island was almost a big problem. Can I use the term “big problem?” I don’t think it’s appropriate to drop some other words here. But it was a big mess-up. And it almost created an enormous trouble. It’s Harrison berg Pennsylvania, it’s right at the end of the runway. It’s not hidden. It’s right there.
Veracity score = 2
Big problems occur every day somewhere on this planet. Three Mile Island was made into a big deal thanks to anti-nuclear groups, the for-profit sensationalist lay press, and the timing of the movie The China Syndrome. A single reactor core had a partial melt down requiring a harmless amount of radiation to be vented. Compare that to Fukushima which had three cores completely melt in the midst of a magnitude 9 quake and 60 foot tsunami resulting in no fatalities, causing the temporary relocation of the equivalent of a few big ten universities …and another super fund site to clean up.
It almost blew up.
Veracity score = 0
It isn’t possible for a nuclear power plant to create a nuclear explosion. The worst case scenario for TMI would have been similar to Fukushima, where the explosions seen on TV are often described as nuclear explosions but they were hydrogen explosions in the structure over the containment domes, which were unfazed by them.
Then Chernobyl did blow up.
Veracity score = 0
Again, it isn’t possible for a nuclear power plant to create a nuclear explosion. The melting of the reactor core resulted in a localized explosion caused when the melted core was exposed to water and open air, which dispersed radioactive material in the immediate area near the power plant because its primitive Soviet era design didn’t have a modern containment dome. The smoke further dispersed radioactive particles into the air and surrounding soils downwind. Few people realize that the Chernobyl power plant continued to be staffed and produce electricity from its undamaged reactor for fourteen years after the accident.
And then Fukushima is still trouble, I mean the film mentions the thing is in a containment vessel, the thing, the nuclear mass of molten metal goo is in a containment vessel but it is still unusable and fantastically radioactive and they’re trying to set up this detector that’s just not working …but the longest journey starts with a single step.
Veracity score = 10
Another expensive super fund site is being cleaned up. I can view the cleanup of another super fund site a short distance from my office. A giant dredge scoops up the river sediment filled with heavy metals, dioxin, PCBs and on and on to dump on a barge that goes who knows where.
The “Nuclear Accidents Compared to Oil Wells” Argument
Now, there are at any time in the world about 800,000 oil wells. If you want to reckon it in off-shore oil rigs it’s a little over 3,000, 3,100, 3,400, offshore oil rigs. When one of those messed up, couple years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, in Deep Water Horizon, people were like totally freaked. And demanded that something be done right away. Well, right now there are 432 commercial nuclear power plants. There were 433 until Fukushima
Above Bill is building his audience up for a bombshell of some kind, suggesting that the Deep Water Horizon spill was no big deal compared to one of the three nuclear accidents in the last half century. However, the bomb fizzled because he got his math wrong:
Anyway, just wait till there are 43,000 …or, 14,000, nuclear power plants.
Veracity score = 1
I am unaware of any plans to complete (14,000)/(2050-2015) = 400 nuclear power plants per year (over one per day) between now and 2050.
The “Vote Against Nuclear Power Helping Renewables Avert Climate Change” Argument
This is where I want you as voters and taxpayers to kind of figure that out.
He says this a few times in his address. Good advice. But figure it out for yourselves. Consider taking Bill’s other advice and “don’t always believe what grownups tell you.” Personally, after listening to his largely fact-free scare tactics, I’d vote to keep nuclear power in the energy mix, but luckily for all of us, engineers are usually charged with the design of our power grids, not taxpayers.
German Carbon Emissions
On the other hand, in Germany, where taxpayers are trying to design their own grid, emissions reductions have gone flat for the last four or five years and the economics minister had this to say last year:
Germany must reduce the cost of its switch from atomic energy toward renewables to protect growth, Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said.
German companies and consumers shoulder as much as 24 billion euros a year for renewables because of subsidy payments, Gabriel told an energy conference in Berlin.
“I don’t know any other economy that can bear this burden,” Gabriel said today. “We have to make sure that we connect the energy switch to economic success, or at least not endanger it.” Germany must focus on the cheapest clean-energy sources as well as efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants to stop spiraling power prices, he said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has made the top priority of her third-term government, which took office last month, reforming clean-energy aid after rising wind and solar costs helped send consumer bills soaring. Germans pay more for power than residents of any European Union nation except Denmark.
While renewable aid costs are at the “limit” of what the economy can bear, Germany will keep pushing wind and solar power, the most cost-effective renewable sources, Gabriel said. Biomass energy is too expensive and its cost structure hasn’t improved, he said.
The “Waste Storage / Yucca Mountain” Argument
Now, uh, I’ve been to Yucca Mountain, in Nevada. Now you guys, look, you don’t have to, this is not rocket surgery (laughter). Yucca Mountain is a tunnel in a ridge way up a hill, a big mountain, and you go over to the parking lot railing and there’s a, a stream down there a couple of hundred meters!
Veracity score = 0
This came out of Nye’s book. There is no stream. You might guess that a stream running through Yucca Mountain would be hard to miss by the planners and sure enough, a quick look at Google Earth confirms that there isn’t one. Why I even looked, I cannot say. There are of course erosion channels formed from rain runoff on every mountain on Earth.
Not that I’m for or against Yucca Mountain for waste storage because I don’t know enough about the topic, but Bill with his claim that a stream runs through it is also obviously not an expert. Yucca Mountain may or may not be the best place for a central storage site, but certainly, waste can be safely stored. It’s been sitting in the parking lots of nuclear power plants without incident waiting for central storage for many decades.
It’s way, way, above the water table. So you’re telling me, that in the next thousand years that no nuclear stuff is going to get into the stream and go to Las Vegas, I mean come on …kids, dude, dude.
Veracity score = 0
Bizarre … considering that nothing has washed down from inside Yucca Mountain for the tens of thousands of years since volcanic ash fall created it, why would it wash down just because there is waste encased in multiple protective layers buried inside of it? And what kind of culture does Nye envision in Las Vegas a thousand years from now? A future technologically advanced culture would have no problem dealing with waste. Of the thousands of carcinogens in the world, one of the easiest to detect is radioactivity with a cheap Geiger counter. What are the odds that a primitive culture arising from the ashes of ecological collapse would find a secret repository buried half a mile underground, and if they did locate it, wouldn’t they quickly realize their mistake and rebury it?
And Yucca Mountain was largely a political thing to just trying to get something done, uh, to keep the nuclear industry going.
Veracity score = 0
He has that backwards. The endless attempts to kill Yucca Mountain are largely a political thing to keep the nuclear industry from continuing.
From the Wikipedia article on the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982:
The Nuclear Waste Fund receives almost $750 million in fee revenues [from nuclear energy power plants] each year and has an unspent balance of $25 billion. However (according to the Draft Report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future), actions by both Congress and the Executive Branch have made the money in the fund effectively inaccessible to serving its original purpose. The commission made several recommendations on how this situation may be corrected. In late 2013, a federal court ruled that the Department of Energy must stop collecting fees for nuclear waste disposal until provisions are made to collect nuclear waste.
The nuclear industry is global. All nations with nuclear power plants have their own plans to store waste. Yucca Mountain is just one of them.
What an American’s lifetime amount of nuclear waste mixed into glass (vitrified) for permanent storage would look like
The latest plan for Yucca Mountain is to mix high-level military waste into molten glass first (vitrify it) to form stable glass cylinders and permanently bury it. Glass has high surface hardness, doesn’t corrode, dissolve in water, or rot. These will then be placed in other containers surrounded by yet more barriers. Used nuclear fuel from commercial reactors will remain accessible because of its potential to fuel the next generation of nuclear power.
Here in the states, every attempt to find a repository is attacked by the anti-nuclear lobby, in part so they can use the lack of central storage as an argument against nuclear energy. They want to convince us that finding a suitable storage site is not possible. In a country the size of the United States we can’t find a geologically stable site? Really? In reality, technically speaking, long term storage is actually relatively quite trivial, in large part because nuclear power generates so little waste. The nuclear waste deposits would be microscopic pin pricks relative to the surface area of an entire planet.
The “Waste Storage / Nevada Doesn’t Want It” Argument
If nothing else everybody, nobody in Nevada wants it. Nobody in Nevada wants nuclear waste put there because of all of the bad experiences they’ve had with trust us, we know what we are doing with the nuclear industry. We’re going to do this with Yucca Mountain and you go out there and …dude, dude, this is never going to work.
Veracity score = 3
Actually not Bill, as the poll shows, a minority of Nevadans oppose storing waste at Yucca Mountain. Most are willing to consider it depending on benefits to the state.
Sandia Labs Deep Borehole Disposal
Read this excellent article by James Conca at Forbes on the DOE plan to use multiple deep bore sites instead of one giant depository:
This plethora of good borehole spots follows from the deep borehole going well into the Earth’s crust and into what we call crystalline basement rocks. These basement rocks are below the upper rocks that cover most of our world – below the sedimentary rocks and other formations that often are leaky and not very dense, those that host our drinking water aquifers, most of the oil and gas deposits and other things we think of when we think of the rocks beneath our feet.
The deep borehole goes down so deep in the crust that the overlying rocks don’t matter. The water table doesn’t matter. The climate doesn’t matter. Human activities don’t matter. And it takes millions of years, if ever, for anything to get up to the surface from that depth in the Earth’s crust.
Nye’s main point is that the “nuclear industry” can’t be trusted to do anything right. But what is this thing he calls the nuclear industry? Yucca Mountain was commissioned by the DOE, not the nuclear power or weapons industry. The civil, mechanical, mining, electrical, geological, and chemical engineers employed by the contractors hired by the government to design and build the facility are not and never have been employed by the nuclear power or weapons industry.
The “Waste Storage / Alloy 22″ Argument
Have you heard of alloy 22? Alloy 22, its going to be the key. It’s a stainless steel. You can buy it. It’s a hastelloy thing. It was supposed to be corrosion resistant for 10,000 years. Dude, dude.
Veracity score = 2
This also came out of Nye’s book. Here he claims that somebody claimed that it would last ten thousand years but then, again, never actually finishes the thought because the real goal is to suggest that it isn’t possible to have a container that can remain intact for ten thousand of years. But this is another straw man argument. The metal is only one level of containment. All levels would all have to fail.
The official designation for this alloy is UNS N06022. Engineers use it all over the place particularly in highly corrosive applications. Nuclear waste can be ensconced in any number of redundant containment barrier scenarios: first melted into glass cylinders, then placed in steel and/or concrete containers, then surrounded by clay, and on, and on. Some countries in Europe are thinking of using pure copper because they have found pure copper in nature that has been stable for tens of thousands of years as well as copper tools many thousands of years old.
The “Waste Storage / Government Stability” Argument
Now in the movie you saw them point out that the conventional nuclear plants, light water reactors, as they’re often called, have produced waste that is dangerous, well, like the Navy, this is waste that is dangerous for 10,000 years. Hey wait, we’ve got a new one that’s only dangerous for 800 years. What? 800 years! The Roman Empire, which was pretty much a butt kicking government, alright, did not make it 800 years. What, I mean everybody, just get it into perspective. When people are talking about dozens and dozens of nuclear plants, that are going to do something safely for 800 years… Do you think the United States is going to be here in 800 years? I mean, will it be the federation with Captain Kirk, flying aound? I don’t know.
Veracity score = 2
He gets a score of 2 only because he is right in that you can’t count on governmental stability to regulate a waste site, or anything for that matter, for hundreds of years, let alone thousands. But that’s another straw man argument. That isn’t the long-term game plan. Stable governments are not needed. The plan is to put vitrified waste (mixed into molten glass cylinders) that can’t eventually be used for nuclear fuel (waste we have no need to access again) in very deep stable geologic formations and eventually, back fill the tunnels, sealing off the entrance.
From the Tri-City Herald on the latest plans for Yucca Mountain: “Used commercial nuclear fuel could need to be retrieved after disposal for reprocessing for additional use, but high-level defense waste could be permanently buried.”
As I said earlier, if some future, less technologically advanced culture manages to find it by boring new tunnels, they will quickly realize it has bad juju and rebury it! And of course, if it is a technologically advanced culture that finds it, no problem. The nuclear waste issue is technologically, and volumetrically, trivial.
The “Waste Storage / Hubris” Argument
But it is a haughty thing to imagine, it is hubris to imagine that a society can do that.
IMHO, it’s a haughty thing and takes hubris, or deep willful ignorance, to ask those of us with children to bet their futures on the untested hypothesis that wind and solar alone can displace fossil fuels without the assistance of nuclear, or vice versa.
The “Pollution / Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant” Argument
With that said, maybe we can. Maybe we can produce power in a way that’s good enough. Now, uh, by the way, when it comes to nuclear waste …as I’ve said, there’s a lot of trouble with ancillary or secondary waste, but also in Paducah Kentucky where they did the uranium hexafluoride and stuff, they had all kinds of solvents, PCBs, polychlorinated Butyl, and ah, trichloroethylene, and uranium dust on stuff. Uranium dust! You know, it’s just not your first choice.
He’s talking about the now closed Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky, which was in operation almost two decades before the EPA even came into existence and was and old ordinance site before that. According to Wikipedia, the primary contamination of concern is trichloroethylene (TCE), which is a commonly used degreaser.
It’s another Super Fund site. As I stated elsewhere, I can watch the cleanup of a Super Fund site outside my office windows.
Industrial byproducts, regardless of industry, only become pollution when not properly dealt with. The pollution he refers to is primarily from military applications in the cold war rush to close the missile gap. The audience is assuming this is the fault of commercial nuclear power plant operators. Let me provide again an incomplete list of chemicals associated with manufacture of solar panels:
- hydrochloric acid
- trichlorosilane gas
- silicon tetrafluoride
- sulfur difluoride
- sulfur dioxide
- sulfur hexafluoride
- sodium hydroxide
- potassium hydroxide
- hydrochloric acid
- sulfuric acid
- nitric acid
- hydrogen fluoride
- arsine gas
- phosphorous oxychloride
- phosphorous trichloride
- boron bromide
- boron trichloride
- ammonium fluoride
- phosphorous oxychloride
- ethyl acetate
- ethyl vinyl acetate
- ion amine catalyst
- silicon trioxide
- stannic chloride
- tantalum pentoxide
The “Water Use / Pollution” Argument
So, you have to have something really hot to make something spin but you also have to have something cold, and the expression is a cold reservoir. So the way I describe this is if you have a tea kettle and you boil water and you had a pinwheel or something, a turbine, and spinning woowhoohoohoohoo then you connect it to a generator somehow and you make electricity, cool, or hot, and then you’re out of water, so you add more water and boil more. So, you know, I’m tired of adding water, in fact, you have to shut it down to add water because it’s under pressure. You can’t just put a funnel on it …cause the steam would come out of the funnel …whoa. So you have to shut it down to add water, so we’ll make a duct, a tube, that goes around the turbine and comes back over here back into the tea kettle. Cool. This is great. So it works for a few moments, the boiling steam goes zip, spins the turbine, goes back up into the thing but after a while, it’s a thought thing, thought experiment, the kettle gets really hot, the duct gets really hot, your little pinwheel gets hot, everything gets hot, and under pressure. And the pinwheel stops. Do you follow me? Without a difference in temperature, between hot and cold, it won’t spin. And the next time you are in a cab you will notice that the outside air is colder than the engine, which is typically as 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, 600 degrees Celsius. You’ll find actually if you design ah, fuel injection systems, cars are more efficient on cold days strangely enough.
Above, he’s warming up to critique nuclear power based on his experience in Washington State by first trying to explain how fossil fueled, solar, geothermal, and nuclear thermal power plants work: a heat source makes steam that spins turbines connected to electric generators. To reduce water loss, they use one of three main methods to condense steam back into water to turn back into steam again to spin turbines:
- Water temporarily diverted from a lake, river, or ocean.
- Passive cooling towers.
- Cooling towers assisted with electrically powered fans.
So, these power plants were built on the Columbia river. Now, if you guys live back East and stuff, I got to tell you it’s a whole-nuther thing. The Columbia river is a huge freaking river. It’s just an enormous thing. We really don’t have anything quite that big back east. The Mississippi is pretty big but anyway, they were going to build six power plants along here and the idea is that you will have this nuclear fuel making, getting hot, then you cool it with the Columbia river.
Veracity score = 3
- The idea is to cool the steam, not the nuclear fuel.
- They were going to build four power plants, not six, three at Hanford, one at Satsop.
- None of the plants are located on the banks of the Columbia.
The Google image above shows the three sites at Hanford and the one at Satsop. Three were never finished, but you can still see the cooling fans they were going to use to condense the steam (the third method shown above) at the two unfinished sites at Hanford, and the passive cooling towers at Satsop.
Anyway, because of all the controversy about nuclear waste, and all the trouble people have had at Hanford, with all the secrecy and the low level waste, they only built, they only finished one of them.
Veracity score =2
He gets a score of two because the only thing he got correct was the number of power plants finished.
Hanford is the location of a military nuclear waste superfund site.
The other two power plants at Hanford and a fourth one at Satsop were never finished for financial reasons. Read about it here.
Secrecy and the military waste at Hanford had nothing to do with not finishing the other power plants. Incompetent utility bureaucrats had grossly mismanaged the project, both underestimating and exacerbating costs as well as overestimating future demand. Many higher level managers lost their jobs as a result, as I suspect happened when Solyndra the solar panel company went bankrupt taking half a billion dollars in government loans with it. I know one of those managers personally, and work with several civil and mechanical engineers who had been hired to help build those plants who eventually ended up working in the aerospace industry.
The “Security / Terrorist” Argument
Washington Public Power Supply No. 2. And it’s cool, I’ve been there, it works great. There’s guys running stuff, there it goes, and um, they have security. There’s people with machine guns standing around. But if you really wanted to break in, I mean I’m not an expert like Bruce Willis or somebody, but you could do it and if you had a confederate inside, who really wanted to get nuclear material out of there, given a couple of years you guys could set up a raid …and really, you could do it. There’s guys with AR 16 machine guns but you …I don’t want to tell you how but I’d recommend a personnel carrier that can go across the prairie in Eastern Washington. And you just plow right in and pick the guy up with his suit case full of stuff and cause trouble.
Veracity score = 2
Machine guns …sounds sinister until you realize you can’t take a commercial flight without walking past half a dozen guys with machine guns.
Today’s nuclear power plants owned by various utilities across the country have nothing at all to do with secret military nuclear weapons manufacture or development. As I said before, there is nothing anymore secretive about a commercial nuclear power plant than there is with a hydro-electric power plant with its armed guards or, say, a manufacturing facility of commercial airliners where employees like myself must wear identification at all times and most pass through gates with armed guards to get to work inside facilities surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire.
Why terrorists would want to risk irradiating themselves trying to steal a chunk of spent nuclear fuel is beyond me. It would be a lot easier to steal a batch of waste containing high levels of something like dioxin from any of thousands of other industrial sites, especially considering that unlike other forms of waste, radioactive waste can be detected and tracked with a simple Geiger counter.
Terrorists may not be the sharpest tacks in the box, but even they would know you can’t make a nuclear weapon with a trunk load of spent nuclear fuel (scene from the movie Repo Man).
The “On-Site Waste Storage” Argument
But the casks that were described in the movie, they’re there. You can hold a Geiger counter right up next to them, cool, it’s good. But, you know, they’re casks above ground, full of nuclear waste, and nobody has a plan as to what exactly to do with them and they just keep piling them up.
Space used by decades worth of spent nuclear fuel from a typical nuclear power plant sitting in its parking lot.
Veracity Score = 5
And as I’ve stated many times before, we can largely thank anti-nuclear energy ideologues for the fact that there still is no central depository, which as Bill does here, allows them to use the lack of a central depository as an argument against nuclear power plants. All of the used nuclear fuel in the United States from the last half century laid out on a football field would reach about as high as a telephone pole. Any mid-sized municipal land fill would dwarf the volume of all used nuclear fuel.
The “Earthquake” Argument
Now it may be that this traveling wave reactor, this fourth generation will do it but I’ll give you an example. At the Washington State, Washington Power Supply No.2 Colombia generation station, they’ve estimated the Earthquake risk.
Scene from the movie Idiocracy
Bill Nye: “And it was just teetering. I went up on the roof …whoooa, dude, dude! And so I tied it to another side of the roof…”
Now I lived in Seattle for many years and in 2002 we had a pretty good earth quake and my chimney broke loose on my house. And you know this expression, a ton of bricks? This was about three tons of bricks. And it was just teetering. I went up on the roof …whoooa, dude, dude! And so I tied it to another side of the roof and then …is anybody here a brick layer?
Above, he tells his personal story of the 2001 Nisqually earthquake when he attempted to keep his chimney from falling over with ropes, which reminded me of the movie trailer for Idiocracy. The premise of the bit, as Nye would say, is that in the future, dumb people have out-bred smart people. A very ordinary guy from the past wakes up from suspended animation in this future and is considered to be one of the smartest persons in the world. Crops are failing and they want him to figure out why. He discovers that a sports drink company has convinced the government to water crops with their product (analogous in some ways to government mandated use of corn ethanol for fuel). My house developed a large crack in a wall as a result of that quake. However, my brick chimney had been removed as part of a remodel before the quake.
So there’s an earthquake in Seattle and all of these brick buildings break …four thousand brick layers show up. Hey, I’m here! Hey cool. And then they knock the whole thing apart, anyway, in Washington State, it in the West, it’s geologically young, there are earthquakes, that’s all.
All 50 of the nuclear reactors in Japan shut down without a hitch. Only Fukushima failed to keep the shut down cores cool, and not because of shaking ground. That magnitude 9 quake (literally 1000 times more powerful than the quake that previously killed almost a quarter million Haitians) proves that Nuclear power plants obviously can be designed to deal with earthquakes.
They estimate the chance of an earthquake at Columbia power station to be one in 147,619. Now I don’t know if you guys have ever heard of significant digits, but that’s crap. I’m sorry but you can’t give me five or six significant digits and make me believe it. I’m sorry, guys, I love you all, but it’s part of the tradition of the nuclear industry is telling you everything is OK, and I’m skeptical.
Or is his point about significant digits crap? I don’t know where Bill got his number, but any estimate came from teams of seismologists and geologists assembled to study the problem. Bill wants his young audience to believe that the estimate came from the evil nuclear empire which chose to show the last three digits in an attempt to suggest this was a precise answer. His skepticism is with the seismologists and geologists assembled to study the problem, not his fictional evil nuclear empire. The decision to publish the whole number, assuming it ever was published, was perfectly reasonable. He’d have a point had they thrown in anything to the right of the decimal point …but they didn’t! It’s up to any downstream users of the number to round 147,619 to 148,000 if they choose.
And even after all the new post Fukushima precautions are completed a quake were to still cause the Colombia station with its modern containment dome to have a meltdown, the worst case scenario would be some temporary evacuations to avoid the potential for higher than normal cancer rates from a known and detectable mild carcinogen, no deaths, and another super fund site to clean up.
Plutonium 239, that’s the stuff. Now, no matter how you feel about plutonium, I’ll tell you this story. I was at the California Science teacher association in 1994, and I had lunch with Glen Seaborg. If you’ve ever heard of Glen Seaborg, Atomic number , er, element number 168 is now called Seaborgium. Does anybody here have a Noble prize? Anybody? Yeah, so did he, so did he. And he was the guy, or one of the guys who invented, created plutonium. And I’m having lunch with him, and he’s just a charming guy, I want to say his wife is just cool, they had a good thing, it was really good. And he says Bill, Bill, they wanted me to call it Plutinum. But come on, Plutonium, sounds a lot cooler. Yeah, Glenn, yeah it does. And then he told me they wanted by long tradition, they wanted the atomic symbol to be PT but he insisted …Glenn Seaborg told me this to my face, it’s hearsay when you hear it, to my face is how we talk in junior high, “to my face.” He said, I insisted that the atomic symbol be PU because this stuff stinks. Some of it has a half life of well over ten thousand years, and he said at lunch, it’s the heaviest of heavy metals. Bear in mind that uranium is a heavy metal, these are metals. They’re like grey if you see them in pictures.
Above he enters the world of hearsay. I include it only because it is part of the transcript of his talk.
The “Vote Against Nuclear Power Helping Renewables Avert Climate Change” Argument …Again
It may work. It may work, but as voters and tax payers I just want to give you that perspective.
Average veracity score = 2.56521
If, after trying to read such a long-winded article your head hurts and you still just want to pick a champion you can trust, I give you three choices:
Homer Simpson, via Wikipedia Commons, Bill Nye via Simon Fraser University Flickr Creative Commons, James Hansen Via Screenshot Paris Talks Press Release
We all know Homer. Most of you know Bill Nye, especially if you are young enough to have watched his children’s science show. James Hansen was recently referred to in the Guardian as “…the father of climate change awareness …possibly America’s most celebrated scientist …now probably its most prominent climate activist.”
Keep in mind that neither Homer, Nye, or Hansen are experts on nuclear energy, economics, or power systems engineering (three fields that interact to determine the best application of nuclear energy). I juxtaposition the personalities as an example of counter-arguments from authority for those who don’t feel they know enough about the issue of nuclear energy (which is almost everyone) who want a public figure they think they can trust to make the decision for them. And of course, nobody is right all of the time. All else being equal, I know who I’d pick if I needed a champion.
What Homer thinks:
What Bill Nye thinks:
…the secrecy that was required …this secrecy …and so it was a secret place …with all the secrecy …but this tradition of secrecy …more complicated than that …extraordinarily complicated …It’s so complicated …So, um, the complexity of it …with machine guns …with AR 16 machine guns …you can make uranium hexafluoride …But it’s still that they are just burning coal, there’s no uranium hexafluoride …where they did the uranium hexafluoride and stuff … plutonium in the middle … breath a few micro-grams of plutonium, it will kill you …plutonium and that’s where they made the hydrogen bomb …Plutonium 239, that’s the stuff …no matter how you feel about plutonium …one of the guys who invented, created plutonium …
What James Hansen thinks:
Everyone agrees that the most urgent component of decarbonisation is a move towards clean energy, and clean electricity in particular. We need affordable, abundant clean energy, but there is no particular reason why we should favour renewable energy over other forms of abundant energy. Indeed, cutting down forests for bioenergy and damming rivers for hydropower – both commonly counted as renewable energy sources – can have terrible environmental consequences. To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice. The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions – not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power. Some have argued that it is feasible to meet all of our energy needs with renewables. The 100% renewable scenarios downplay or ignore the intermittency issue by making unrealistic technical assumptions, and can contain high levels of biomass and hydroelectric power at the expense of true sustainability. Large amounts of nuclear power would make it much easier for solar and wind to close the energy gap. The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking. Throwing tools such as nuclear out of the box constrains humanity’s options and makes climate mitigation more likely to fail. We urge an all-of-the-above approach that includes increased investment in renewables combined with an accelerated deployment of new nuclear reactors. Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them. We are hopeful in the knowledge that, together with renewables, nuclear can help bridge the ‘emissions gap’ that bedevils the Paris climate negotiations. The future of our planet and our descendants depends on basing decisions on facts, and letting go of long-held biases when it comes to nuclear power.
From the Wikipedia article on Nye:
…an American science educator, comedian, television presenter, actor, writer, scientist, and former mechanical engineer, best known as the host of the Disney/PBS children’s science show Bill Nye the Science Guy (1993–1998).
I struck out the “scientist” from Nye’s Wikipedia description because he has never actually worked as a scientist, whatever exactly that is, whereas Hansen has been a dedicated science researcher his entire adult life.
From the Wikipedia article on Hansen:
Former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies …elected to the National Academy of Sciences …listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People … the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) selected James Hansen to receive its Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility “for his courageous and steadfast advocacy in support of scientists’ responsibilities to communicate their scientific opinions and findings openly and honestly on matters of public importance” …shared the US $1-million Dan David Prize for “achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact on our world” … received the PNC Bank Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service for his “outstanding achievements” in science …named by EarthSky Communications and a panel of 600 scientist-advisors as the Scientist Communicator of the Year, citing him as an “outspoken authority on climate change” who had “best communicated with the public about vital science issues or concepts during 2008″ … awarded the 2009 Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the American Meteorological Society, for his “outstanding contributions to climate modeling, understanding climate change forcings and sensitivity, and for clear communication of climate science in the public arena” …Foreign Policy named Hansen one of its 2012 FP Top 100 Global Thinkers “for sounding the alarm on climate change, early and often” … received the Commonwealth Club of California’s annual Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communications …received the Joseph Priestley Award at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania “…for his work advancing our understanding of climate change, including the early application of numerical models to better understand observed climate trends and to project humans’ impact on climate, and for his leadership in promoting public understanding of climate and linking the knowledge to action on climate policy.”
Nye is a disciple of the untested hypothesis that wind and solar (combined with some kind of as yet to be invented economically viable energy storage technology, massive reductions in energy consumption, and restrictions on when energy can be consumed), can economically displace our fossil fuel use. Those who accept this as a fact as opposed to an untested hypothesis have logically concluded that there is no need for nuclear energy. For many, the entire argument against nuclear energy hinges on that single hypothesis. IMHO, assuming that climate change and the expected impacts are real, risking our children’s and grandchildren’s futures on an untested hypothesis is stunningly disingenuous.
In many environmental circles, the anti-nuclear sentiment has morphed into an ideological belief, analogous in some ways to the once popular but now thoroughly tested hypothesis of Marxism. Implementing hypothesis as if they were facts often leads to negative consequences. Nuclear energy is a technology with a proven half-century track record, whereas, displacing all fossil fuels with nothing but wind and solar is largely a social engineering hypothesis with no precedent.
Hansen, having read and understood the available research and never having been indoctrinated in his youth with an anti-nuclear energy ideology (not a long-standing member of the anti-nuclear energy monkey troop), sees no convincing evidence that wind and solar can do it all. Although the hypothesis that wind, solar, and nuclear combined can replace all fossil fuels is also untested, it is a fact that the combination of nuclear, wind, and solar have already displaced significant amounts of coal (primarily with nuclear) and natural gas primarily with wind and solar (where they act as efficiency devices reducing natural gas power plant fuel bills).