Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nuking Florida?

At a showing of the movie Kilowatt Ours (a pretty cool film, I might say) at the 8th Avenue Bike Shop and Coffee House here in Gainesville, it was brought to my attention that there is a proposed nuclear power plant to be built in Levy County, about 50 miles from Gainesville, and that there is a grassroots protest movement being formed against its construction. Admittedly, what struck me in the beginning about the information presented to me was a NIMBY focus on the unsafe nature of the routine release of radiation from nuclear power plants, which went against my understanding of nuclear energy safety, and so I googled. The first link I ran into was from the National Energy Institute: http://www.nei.org/keyissues/safetyandsecurity/factsheets/safetystudiespublicworkers/, which mostly settled the safety issue for me. The average radiation exposure composition for a person living near a plant being only 1 percent from the plant; radiation being detected easily and being one of the “most studied and best understood forms of energy”; a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer finding that the risk of health effects from exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation is small; the National Academy of Sciences conducting a study which found a similar conclusion; all of these resonated with my memory of the subject and confirmed my belief that nuclear power is safe. (Also of note are the helpful links on the right side of that webpage – the Health Physics Society, in particular, has a lot of useful information regarding our interactions with radiation in the everyday, the medical field, and more.)

My firm belief is: Scientists, by and large, don’t like to be wrong. At the very least, I believe that a national organization of scientists could not possibly be made up almost entirely of shills who would collude to fudge studies to get the desired results.

When the National Institutes of Health say that childhood vaccines do not cause autism, I trust that they are not covering up data in a massive conspiracy – the studies are right there in the open, and it would be impossible to do so. When climate scientists at NASA and the world over agree that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change, I believe them. The studies are open, and it would be impossible to fudge the data without even ten percent of those eyes catching it – and rushing to be the first to publish their counter analyses. When the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued its report explaining how the fires in the World Trade Center weakened the steel in the buildings to the point where they could no longer support the structure, I believe them, because they presented a large body of evidence, which was reviewed by a large body of materials scientists and engineers from diverse fields, and because they openly published their findings. When the scientists composing the National Academy of Sciences (and virtually every biologist on Earth) agree that evolution is an observed fact and the only scientific explanation for the diversity of life past and present on this planet, I believe them – because there’s mounds of published, peer-reviewed, documented evidence.

I believe in scientific consensus for that reason first: the open evidence. It’s there for anyone to see, and it’s been seen by many brilliant eyes. But I also believe in it for another reason – a negative reason: I don’t believe in a consensus of conspiracy or incompetence. For any of those things to be true – for vaccines to be causing autism, for global warming to be a hoax, for the World Trade Center buildings to have been brought down by explosives, or for evolution to be wrong – would require a vast conspiracy among scientists, mixed with vast incompetence.

The way I feel the field of science works with regard to revolutionary, paradigm-shifting ideas that challenge consensus is this: they are sought and revered and are the way to become famous. Scientists don’t reject them on the basis of conservative philosophy, because scientists, quite on the contrary, are seeking to discover something new – even if it upsets the status quo. Rather, they accept or reject them on their merits, because those merits are their reputations. Scientists don’t get rich selling out – they get discredited by selling out (where selling out is defined as falsifying data or demonstrating incompetence by drawing unsupported conclusions in order to support the aims of industry, not practicing good science which happens to support the aims of industry).

Scientists hate to be wrong. Whether they are wrong shilling for industry or wrong cooking up a crackpot conspiracy theory about industry, their reputations will be irreparably damaged, how much so depending on the level of malfeasance and/or incompetence and not which side they are on. Large bodies of scientists hate to be wrong even more, because they represent the reputation of an entire profession of people so dependent on being right, and at the very least, rigorously honest and careful.

The pamphlet from “Nuke Florida” that I received suggests that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is basically a “front for pro-nuclear forces”, receiving 90% of its funds from companies that operate nuclear reactors. But what about the NAS? Or the National Safety Council? (See http://www.nsc.org/resources/issues/rad/risks.aspx, and all of their other educational information on ionizing, non-ionizing, natural, and man-made sources of radiations, their levels, and their effects on humans. Compare the average exposure to radon radiation to the average exposure to radiation for those living near a nuclear power plant.) Are they all shills, too? Is everything a giant conspiracy? Are scientists from diverse national academies and institutes of safety and of health unanimously colluding to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, without regard to human life, because they all feel like supporting the nuclear power industry? I highly doubt it.

The point of it all being: there is some serious misinformation, malignant or not, in the “nuclear power is inherently unsafe and kills” movement. The millirem exposure for one year from a nuclear power plant for those living within 50 miles is roughly one one-hundredth that of one dental x-ray (http://www.nsc.org/resources/issues/rad/exposure.aspx). Of all the ionizing radiation sources, by far the most dangerous are natural, and of those, by far the most dangerous is radon. The pamphlet also claims that the NAS “reviewed hundreds of scientific articles, and concluded that there is no risk-free dose of radiation.” This statement is completely lacking context. The NAS recommended the use of what is known as a “linear no-threshold hypothesis” with regard to low-level ionizing radiation, not because of any observed health effects in properly controlled studies, but rather to be consistent with other approaches to public health policy (from the nsc.org/risks link above). The linear assumption has no scientific basis, but in proposing a linear relationship, it assigns some risk to any exposure to ionizing radiation, no matter how minute. The proposed nuclear power plant in Levy County may not be economically ideal, but aside from terrorism, it would be safe, and far less harmful to humans than a fossil fuel plant.

So, am I wrong in not opposing the Levy nuclear power plant barring unforeseen economic reasons? The way I see it, the battle against global warming is an absolutely enormous problem, and will require every effort. Yes, we need to massively reduce consumption of energy. But we also need to retire as many coal plants as possible, and nuclear power is one part of that. I sincerely hope that we as taxpayers vote with our wallets to subsidize all viable green power generating technologies while they are more “expensive” than greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuel technologies. Solar, wind, and geothermal are all very important and must become economically viable on a mass scale for the sake of our health and to avoid ecological disaster. They all need to be used – i.e., we need to reforest and slow deforesting, too, among other things. The more green power technologies we can employ, the less stress on any one resource and the greater the likelihood of success.

And then, on the other issue (perhaps the larger issue): Is it wrong to trust consensuses reached among large bodies of scientists? (Sadly, this is my only slightly philosophical question among the "hard" politics.)

I don’t really see myself as a conservative or liberal on the energy or global warming issue, but as a fan of good science. I know I have a really strong opinion on this, but I appreciate all thoughts.


“A nice bar of Godiva 72% Dark Chocolate makes a cheap bottle of Yellow Tail Cabernet Sauvignon taste mighty fancy”


  1. I agree heavily with your article on two counts:
    1) There is overwhelming scientific evidence suggesting that exposure to radiation caused by nuclear power plants is no real threat!

    2) Overwhelming scientific evidence is worth believing.

    There is no need for me to reiterate my beliefs here, considering the nei.org website provides more ground for me to stand on then I'd ever need in a debate.

    However, I'm concerned that the people with the "Nuke Florida" pamphlet are right to be worried; but they're worried about the wrong thing. The real problem with nuclear power isn't the immediate danger associated with their operating in radioactive material, but the waste generated by doing so.

    I suppose everyone goes back to the Chernobyl disaster as a reason to fear nuclear power, but given today's safety standards, and the increased transparency by which world governments are being forced to operate under, a similar such event is unlikely to occur again.

    For me, however, my biggest issue comes from Progress Energy Florida's own website: http://progress-energy.com/aboutenergy/poweringthefuture_florida/levy/spentfuel.pdf
    They talk about how spent-nuclear fuel has been stored safely for 40 years. They make an analogy comparing the amount of waste accumulated at Crystal River Nuclear Plant over the last 30 years adds up to occupying a space about the size of a single family home.
    Here's the problem: Nuclear waste takes hundreds to thousands of years to become non-radioactive again! That same single-family-home-sized mass of waste which took only 3 decades to fill, will be here and will be potent for no less than at least 10 times that long (given the actinides are removed from the waste. Otherwise it could last thousands of years.)

    As of 2007, the United States Environmental Protection Agency claims that the US's 50,000 metric tons accumulated waste will take as long as 10,000 years of radioactive decay to no longer pose health threats.

    And this is just long term waste. What is coined as "low-level radioactive waste" is the operational waste created from running nuclear power plants. Things like clothing, tools, and most other things used in a plant down to the plant itself, fall under this category. Nrc.gov claims that 4 million cubic feet of low-level waste were produced in 2005 alone.

    This being said, there are many reasons for us to not rule out nuclear power. Consider France, which enjoys the cleanest air of any industrialized country, as well as the cheapest electricity. This is a result of their heavy usage of nuclear power. In the short term, nuclear power is an ideal form of energy production, considering how clean it is, and how viable it is an option compared to wind energy and such. Still, nuclear waste is a growing issue, and their ability to continue their program depends on a feasible and realistic method for disposing of or reprocessing the waste.

    Speaking of reprocessing, here lies another glimmer of hope for nuclear power. Creating a mixed-oxide fuel using nuclear waste could potentially recycle it at 95% efficiency! However reprocessing requires the use of breeder reactors which are not yet prolific enough to bring about such an impressive number. Reprocessing itself has its critics, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.
    Furthermore,they've posted an article this year claiming nuclear power to be unaffordable. http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/nuclear_power_and_global_warming/nuclear-power-resurgence.html

    I suppose my biggest concern is that human-kind has the habit of letting things accumulate and putting this off for the last minute. I view nuclear fission power as a very feasible option in the short term, and we very well may need it to buy some time. In order to help people realize this, people need to be educated about the facts about it. However, I doubt it could become a truly sustainable option in the long term. Unless a breakthrough occurs in regards to dealing with waste, it is an option that is doomed to failure.
    But hey, what about Fusion. eh? eh?

  2. Awesome response. Too bad it's only us so far, eh? All in due time.

    I agree, waste and cost are the key issues. I guess I can sum my position up as briefly as possible by saying:

    Nuclear is better than fossil fuel, and may have a role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It certainly can't be the only part of the reduction. It may be more expensive than any of the renewable sources, but adding in the environmental cost, it's less expensive than fossil fuels. It's available now, and can create large watts, so it's probably somewhat necessary in the near term.

    What I despise is the conservative take on nuclear power that says that it can solve our energy problem. That position lays the groundwork for the wrong kind of debate: is nuclear our savior or our devil? (I think it's neither.)

    I absolutely agree it's only a feasible option in the short term, and then only as part of the overall reductions. Part of the stop-gap as we develop the technologies that will allow us to ramp up renewables to mass-scale.

    Right now, with nuclear power being unaffordable long-term, and with our limited ability to produce renewables in the kind of mass quantity needed, things look kind of bleak. I think the key is getting people to realize we need to throw money at the problem -- lots and lots and lots of money. This is of far greater importance than going to the moon, and the problem is far more difficult.

    Fusion research? Fund it to death.

    Solar cell research? Fund it to death. Google "carbon nanotube solar cell" (without quotes) to see one of the latest breakthroughs.

    Also, conservation. Every dollar that goes into retrofitting buildings, repairing air ducts, etc., etc., etc., is at LEAST a dollar saved in energy costs down the line, and usually far more; which translates directly into reduced CO2 emissions, less power plants needing to be built, and...economic win. So, fund that like crazy.

  3. Hey ya'll =)
    Im not drinking or pondering, since Im at work. But I like this discussion and thought maybe you want to see this ted video!http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

    -Maria =)