Is Nuclear Power actually based on Science?

Several years ago, I went to a public meeting of the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel, which was considering the future of Vermont Yankee. A young mother testified at the meeting. “Please shut down this plant,” she tearfully pleaded, “I want my babies to grow up healthy in a place where they can live through normal lives.” I understood her pain.  I also knew her honest feelings would be used against her.

One after another, smug proponents of the nuclear plant stood up and talked about the  power they advocated. Clearly, they knew they had an utterly defenseless victim they could abuse to promote their point. As far as they were concerned, she was living proof of their position. “This is not an emotional issue,” they proclaimed, exuding hubris,”This is science! Nuclear power is science!”

Is it? Is nuclear power science?  Is it even based on science? This is what my Merriam-Webster’s says of science:

3 a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b: such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena”

Science can include conjecture, if the conjecture is open and used as a research tool to establish fact-based knowledge. This is what the scientific method is all about.  But science should not provide us with unsupported theories, asserted as though they were tested and noncontroversial. If nuclear power is science, then it should either give us a straight answer to a straight question, or tell us it does not know.

Question 1

Let’s try looking at one question it has often been asked and answered: How many people died as a result of the Chernobyl Disaster?

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) says it “is the policy organization for the nuclear technologies industry.” As such , it is regarded the representative organ of the US nuclear industry.  On its web page, “Chernobyl Accident and its Consequences,” it says the following:

“A landmark United Nations study published in September 2005 estimated that while 4,000 people theoretically could die from radiation-induced cancers, only 56 deaths could be attributed to radiation exposure from the accident.”

It does not provide a specific citation for this. It also does not provide any other, differing data. It does not mention the fact that the issue is controversial.

Wikipedia answers the question a bit differently in its article, “Chernobyl disaster,” with the following quote:

“Estimates of the number of deaths that will eventually result from the accident vary enormously; disparities reflect both the lack of solid scientific data and the different methodologies used to quantify mortality – whether the discussion is confined to specific geographical areas or extends worldwide, and whether the deaths are immediate, short-term, or long-term.”

The article then goes on to provide various sources together with their estimates, giving references for each:

  • UNSCEAR: 64 confirmed, as of 2008
  • Chernobyl Forum: 59 confirmed, 3940 others estimated
  • Union of Concerned Scientists: more than 25,000 estimated
  • TORCH Report: 30,000 to 60,000 estimated
  • Greenpeace: 200,000 estimated

So the question is, What does this tell use about the relationship between the nuclear industry and science?

The NEI report is one-sided and does not actually provide any reference we can check. The NEI presents only the view most positive for the industry. The article on Chernobyl may use science to support its arguments, but it uses science unscientifically, to support a specific and self-interested position. It says it bases its position on a report, but fails to provide anything more than the name of the organization that did the report, which is not a real reference at all. This is not science; it is advertising.

Wikipedia, which is often belittled because its articles can be edited by anyone, provides an interesting contrast. As it happens, the articles in Wikipedia are supervised, often by multiple people with differing points of view, and the supervisors are supposed to enforce a balanced approach with specific documentation. In the case of the article on the Chernobyl Disaster, Wikipedia tells us there is controversy, provides us with a range of answers, and gives specific citations for each.

In this specific case, it appears: The Nuclear Energy Institute is less scientific than Wikipedia.

Question 2 

Clearly, we should not base an opinion on a single question, but should try several and see if there is a pattern. For example, we might ask, How do the costs compare for electricity from various sources? We might expect to get a straightforward answer on this, because it can be precisely evaluated.

Some time ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists published an article saying new nuclear plants in Georgia were unnecessary, because there were less expensive renewable alternatives. The NEI responded to this in their website with an article called, “Union of Concerned Scientists Overstates Cost of New Nuclear Projects.” In this article they say the following:

The Facts: 

In fact, costs estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2011 show that new nuclear generation will have an (average) levelized cost lower than most popular renewable alternatives:

  • Advanced nuclear  – $113.90 per megawatt hour
  • Advanced coal with carbon capture and sequestration – $136.20 per megawatt hour
  • Solar PV – $210.70 per megawatt hour
  • Offshore wind – $243.20 per megawatt hour
  • Onshore wind – $97 per megawatt hour, but Southeastern states are considered poor locations ¹
  • Solar thermal – $311.80 per megawatt hour. ²

(FYI, the price of electricity from photovoltaic cells has dropped by more than 50% since the data above was published, making it less expensive than nuclear.)

Again, though the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is cited as the source, no more detailed reference is provided, leaving the curious person wanting to find the actual specific source in the lurch.  It is notable in this regard, that they did provide quite specific citations to some other data that supported their position. We might well ponder why they provide some references but not others.

It turns out, the data used by the NEI comes from an article published by the EIA called “Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2011.” Reading this document, we find the NEI conveniently left out a few data, some of which include the following (extracted to appear in the same form as the data in the NEI article):

  • Combined cycle natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration – $89.30 per megawatt hour
  • Geothermal – $101.70 per megawatt hour
  • Biomass – $112.50 per megawatt hour
  • Hydro – $86.40 per megawatt hour

Well!

It seems the NEI simply removed all less expensive, appropriate power sources from the list to prove their point that “most popular renewable alternatives” were more expensive than nuclear. They told a partial truth, and they did it in a way that certainly appears to be intended to deceive.  The NEI is not impartial, and so does not present science. Instead, it twists meanings because it is essentially an advertising agency.

Question 3

We might try again and ask, How do the carbon emissions of nuclear power compare with those of other sources?

The NEI has a section of its website called, “HOW IT WORKS.” In that  area, there is a page called “Electric Power Generation,” where it says this:

America’s 104 nuclear power plants generate almost 20 percent of the nation’s electricity while emitting no carbon dioxide or controlled pollutants.

The basis of the claim would have to be that fission of uranium atoms does not produce carbon dioxide, but radioactive waste. However, a scientific comparative evaluation of carbon emissions includes everything from building the plant and mining the ore to decommissioning and waste disposal. Claiming there are no carbon dioxide emissions is telling another partial truth, very possibly intended to deceive.

In “Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey,” author Benjamin K. Sovacool sorts through claims that vary by two orders of magnitude (none of which claim there is no carbon dioxide from nuclear power). He establishes criteria under which a study can be evaluated, and, rejects those that did not stand up to them, eliminating the wildest claims both for and against nuclear power. In the end, he establishes an average of the studies that use standard scientific methodology, concluding that carbon emissions of nuclear power are about four times as much as wind, five to six times those of hydro, and twice as much as modern photovoltaic cells, but about 7% of old coal plants.

Benjamin Sovacool’s survey establishes one thing of importance here. On the point of carbon footprints, the NEI is clearly either unacceptably lazy about presenting the truth or downright deceptive.

Question 4

Of course, the most important question is, How safe is nuclear power?

Discussions of safety and the nuclear power industry are based to some degree on data derived from risk analysis.  One type of data commonly used is called the Core Damage Frequency. It provides a number that we can use to assess the likelihood of a nuclear accident in a given situation.

In the early days, when the nuclear industry presented its estimates of the core damage frequency, the likelihood of a given reactor having a core damage accident in any given year was said to be one in 10,000.  Later, reactors were improved, and the number was raised to 20,000 and to 50,000.  Some estimates went even higher.  I want to note that these numbers do not come from the NEI, they are numbers used internally by the industry and government.

Recently, the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry issued a report on the safety of nuclear reactors, “Probability of contamination from severe nuclear reactor accidents is higher than expected.” In this report, the scientists use empirical data to show the frequency of meltdowns occur is about 200 times what the industry predicted. If legislators had understood the real-world rate, it is doubtful that many nuclear plants would ever have been built.

It is important to understand why the industry predictions were so far off. They were based on what is termed a design basis accident, which includes all accidents up to what is termed the “maximum credible accident.” Potential design basis accidents were all categorized and planned for.  The problem was that the risk analysis methods of the nuclear industry do not include any type of accident that cannot be planned for; human error cannot be planned for, and so it was not included in the analysis.  Arguably all core damage events so far were the result of human error, or, as the Japanese Diet so aptly put it, “collusion.” The discrepancy between prediction and the real world is the result.

Basically, what this means that the predictions of the nuclear industry are based on wishful thinking, in which possibilities of human error are purposely and systematically excluded from the calculation. In other words, The predictions of the nuclear industry depend on human perfection, and are only true when people are perfect.

Conclusion

Underlying the nuclear power industry are the following facts, all of which are scientifically verifiable:

  • You can convert atomic power indirectly into electrical power.
  • You can run a nuclear plant to do this safely, if you are perfect.
  • You can get government support an attempt to do this (possibly because government is not perfect).
  • You can make scads of money in the process, and this does not require that you be even close to perfect.
  • If you have scads of money, you are likely to be able to do more of the things you want to do, including to motivate politicians and regulators to agree with you, perpetuating your operations.

The fact that something is scientifically verifiable does not mean that taking advantage of it is necessarily science, or even that it is based primarily on science. Science only supports the nuclear industry in details, not in whole, and so science is systematically rejected whenever it is convenient to do so.

We might consider two other facts here:

  • The most beneficial science will almost certainly go undeveloped if it cannot make a profit for the developer.
  • The most dangerous results of scientific endeavor will be advertised as science of the most beneficial and valuable kind, if the profit potential is big enough.

The industry uses its connection to science as a smokescreen. It is based on only one thing, and that thing is a desire to accumulate economic power.

The real basis for nuclear power is not science.  It is an emotion called greed.

The nuclear power industry is no more scientific than the young mother who worried about her children’s health. The difference is that we can easily admire her motives.

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