Top ten myths of nuclear cheerleaders

This is a bit of house keeping on my part, I published the following post sometime ago, but thought as I’ve updated the various parts of it over the last few months, it might be sensible to re-post it.

As I mentioned in a previous posting the worst enemy of the nuclear industry is not Greenpeace or the environmentalists, but many of their own nutty cheerleaders (an excellent example here!).

The more reasoned voices within the industry, which say that yes it can supply some small amount of the world’s energy, at least while we still have uranium around and we’re prepared to foot the bill for building and decommissioning reactors (which they admit is probably higher than the alternatives, but you have to look at the issue of energy security). Unfortunately these people tend to get drowned out by their colleagues who are more motivated by job security than any genuine concern for the world’s energy security.

The second category of the nuclear cheerleaders includes the numerous PR gurus who lobby and schmooze on the industries behalf. Few of this last category have any relevant qualifications (not that this stops them claiming to be “experts”) and often work for large PR agencies, who count the Tobacco industry and the fossil fuel lobby among they’re other clients. This last point is relevant for as I shall demonstrate these PR types often use the same tactics the tobacco and global warming denial lobby utilise to promote nuclear energy while distorting the facts.

Finally you have by far and away the majority of the nuclear cheerleaders – the sheep. These are people who generally don’t really know very much about nuclear energy, other than what they’ve lapped up from industry produced propaganda. They tend to be either unaware of many of the negative aspects of nuclear energy or assume that all such stories are the product of a bias media….yet they happily lap up stories from the very same media whenever they say something positive about nuclear energy (usually the result of lobbying by the PR types mentioned above). This last category of nuclear cheerleader are probably the most dangerous, as they are quite happy to pass himself off as “experts” to anyone who’ll listen and fill other people’s heads with pure industry generated drivel and half truths.

These “sheep” are essentially worshippers of a “scientific cargo cult” , something that has the illusion of science but is actually more a creation of science fiction. There are several other examples of such “scientific cargo cults” such as those trying to develop SSTO space vehicles that violate the basic principles of the rocket equation, or nano-technology “assemblers” (that ignore the very basics of thermodynamics and atomic theory) or Intelligent design (that ignores science altogether!). All of these examples as well as some aspects of the nuclear dream all share one common thread – they are founded on myth’s that are at odds with reality!

Don’t get me wrong, we can do a great deal more than we are currently doing in space (for a lot less money too!), and nano-technology has many potentially exciting applications (notably in the field of renewable energy), and there is some potential scope to use nuclear power in the future (but only so long as we’re prepared to pay the price both in financial and environmental terms). But the idealistic visions promoted by some in these fields are just non-starters, usually for fairly simple technical reasons. Wasting time and money pursuing such impossible goals will only make achieving more reasoned and plausible objectives less likely.

To prevent anyone reading this from getting sucked into this nuclear energy cargo cult, as recently happened to the (former) environmentalists George Monbiot, I will explain a couple of the common myths that these cheerleaders spout out and demonstrate how they are wrong, illogical and totally divorced from reality.

Myth I – The Fukushima accident is a “Triumph” of nuclear technology, it proves it works safely - Reality: It raises some important questions about aspects of nuclear safety

Myth II – Only 56 people were killed by the Chernobyl accident - Reality: The death toll from Chernobyl was many times higher, in the thousands or possibly tens of thousands

Myth III – Radiation isn’t that dangerous at all, it’s over exaggerated by the media, why the impact of Chernobyl was no worse than a few dozen chest x-rays each, and TMI was no worse than you’d get eating a banana - Reality:  The effects of radiation from artifical sources is potentially quite serious

Myth IV – Nuclear power is cheaper than any of the alternatives - Reality: Its actually more expensive than most of the alternatives!

Myth V – But we can’t rely on renewables, because of their intermittent nature - Reality: Nuclear power has its own issues with intermittency

Myth VI – there’s plenty of fissile material in the world - Reality: While no immediate supply problems are anticipated,  ultimately the world’s stockpiles of fissile material are limited in scale

Myth VII – We can’t build Renewables fast enough only nuclear power plants can be built quickly enough to prevent climate change - Reality: The current build rate of nuclear power stations is a small fraction of the annual build rate of renewables, even the maximum ever build rate of NPP’s in the 70′s is still exceeded by the currrent build rate of renewable systems

Myth VIII – Yes, you’ve highlighted several problems but you see once we get these new fast reactors working all these problems will be solved - Reality: Fast-reactors are a failed series of white elephants that are unlikely to ever work

Myth IX – All these problems will be solved when we develop Fusion, which will happen in the near future - Reality: While we’re making progress, its far to early to say when Nuclear Fusion will become commercially viable….if ever!

Myth X – Disposal of nuclear waste is easily solved, indeed we’ve already sorted it out - Reality: While there are options available, the nuclear industry is not pursing them, this is leading to a gradually worsening problem which needs to be tackled soon

Stop press, Bonus feature! Myth XI  – We need to use MOX and reprocessing to stop Terrorists getting their hands on Plutonium in the future - Reality: This statement merely shows how out of touch the nuclear industry is….with reality!

So where do I stand? I recognise that nuclear energy can play a part in meeting our future energy needs, but it seems to me like a lot of trouble for not a lot in return.

Furthermore we can only use nuclear energy so long as we accept the risks involved, deal with these in as safe a manner as possible and are prepared to pay the financial costs of ensuring reactors and nuclear waste disposal systems are properly managed. We also need to accept the limitations on nuclear power (due to the intermittent nature of electricity demand, limited supplies of nuclear fuels, etc.) and quit wasting time and money on Boondoggles like fast reactors, MOX and mega-sized LWR’s, instead focusing resources on deep geological storage facilities and smaller modular reactors (which while likely more expensive, would probably be a good deal safer, and more practical as the big LWR’s on offer aren’t much use to the many smaller countries around the world).

What worries me thought is the sort of deluded talk coming out of the nuclear lobby, as the examples above demonstrate. They, and more importantly their political cohorts,  don’t seem to appreciate the risks, show no intention of dealing with nuclear waste in a responsible way, and reckon someone else (that would be the rest of us) should pick up the tap as far as the costs go. They also show an unhealthy obsession towards failed white elephant projects like fast reactors, spent fuel reprocessing and MOX. They are also prone to overly optimistic delusions about the potential of Thorium or Fusion energy.

To make matters worse those Nuclear Energy supporters in the UK, often find that the obvious way to finance the safe building and operation of reactors, through state owned companies (as the French do it), conflicts with they’re (largely right wing) politics. Consequently we’re likely to end up with a twisted mess of a situation where we have a privately owned (on paper anyway) nuclear industry which is wholly dependent on various stealth subsidies, but without the sort of controls necessary to ensure proper waste management and safety, nor that the electricity produced (which wee will effectively be subsidising) is sold to the public at a reasonable price (the “privately” run nuke industry will be able to charge whatever they like and pocket the money as profit).

All in all as I see it, if it’s a case of no more nuclear reactors, or some reactors but ones run by this group of deluded zealots, I’d rather see no more nuclear reactors and a phase out of nuclear energy as soon as possible.

And thus my advice to anyone reading this is not to take anything you hear from the nuclear cheerleaders seriously, until that is we start to hear the right sort of policies coming out of the nuclear industry.

Comments on this page can be posted here.

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A quick note on references, I’ve included a couple of links to online sources, notably Wikipedia, but I do that primarily because I recognise that anyone reading this is unlikely to have a library handy.  I would note that my primary sources of information are often good old fashioned books and reports, these include:

Energy by G. J. Aubrecht (an excellent one stop shop for all energy related facts & figures!)
Into the Atomic Age by J. M. Pincher (old and dated, but a gem of a book relating the earlier pioneering days of nuclear energy)
Going Critical: An Unofficial History of British Nuclear Power by W. Patterson (again dated, but a nice blow by blow account of the development of nuclear power in the UK)
Sustainable Energy without the hot air by G. Mckay (another excellent resource, now online too!)
Cool Energy by Micheal Brower
Civil nuclear energy : fuel of the future or relic of the past? by M. C. Grimston
I also relied on a number of reports from the IEA and REN for my various facts and figures. Archive material from the NRC and the DoE was also utlised.
http://www.iea.org/stats/index.asp
http://www.ren21.net/