Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Irrational fear 2: Nuclear power

Last time I wrote about pesticides and how we are worried to death about 0.01% of the pesticides that we ingest (the synthetic ones) instead of the 99% which seem to be as bad if not worse. Another area which I think is often associated with irrational fear is nuclear power. The word "nuclear" seems to elicit a knee-jerk kind of reaction in many people. Take for instance Nuclear Magnetic Resonance imaging (NMR for short), a very powerful and quite safe diagnostic method. People were very reluctant to use this method, seemingly only because it had "Nuclear" in the name. In part because of this fear they have now changed the name to Magnetic Resonace Imaging (MRI for short), and the technology has been a major boost to diagnostics as well as to research.

The following arguments are to a large extent a reflection on Richard Muller's (see picture below) paper with the title "The witch of Yucca Mountain". I can warmly recommend the article but if you want the same information in video format you can go here and forward to 47min and listen to the rest of the lecture (it is very entertaining).

It is no secret that we are facing an energy crisis. I am personally not convinced that CO2 emissions is an important contributing factor when it comes to Global warming, however, the fact of the matter is that our fossil fuels will eventually be used up and when there is none left we will need a different source of energy. Fission of uranium and plutonium is not an endless source of energy, however, it would provide us with energy for quite a while. Yet many countries do not want to build these Nuclear power plants, largely because of what I think is irrational fear…

Before I encountered Muller I associated nuclear power plant accidents with Chernobyl (see picture). However, Chernobyl was not a typical nuclear power plant. Its design was the worst imaginable and as Muller explains in his lecture such a design is completely prohibited today. The worst case scenario for a modern nuclear power plant is the nuclear meltdown. For a meltdown to occur, it is required that 4 different independent security systems which are inspected regularly, break down simultaneously which is not at all likely. If however, the highly unlikely worst case scenario would occur, and the radioactive material would penetrate meters of steel and concrete and go into the ground and the gases escape we would still not have anywhere near the same levels of radioactivity that were present after Chernobyl because the radioactivity leaks out into the ground instead of being blown up into the sky. I can understand that people want Nuclear Powerplants to be safe, however, there seems to be some sort of obsession here. People seem not to worry about other types of dangers. What if a chemical plant blew up? What is the worst case scenario there? Or what about the laboratories where they deal with the Ebola virus, what would happen if all their security systems broke down?

There is also a major concern about nuclear waste. The plutonium waste coming from a nuclear power plant has a half life of about 24.000 years meaning that after 96.000 years 1/16 of the radioactive waste will still remain. The question which does not yet have an answer is, where are we going to store this waste? In United States, Yucca Mountain, a place with very few earthquakes, was chosen as an ideal storage site. If the unthinkable would happen at Yucca Mountain, and all the radioactive waste would leak out, it would still be in small non-water soluble glass-pellets, so it would not mix with the ground water. Furthermore, even if Yucca Mountain was filled to its capacity limit and all the radioactive waste leaked out into the ground water and then out of the pellets in which it is cotained (this scenario has already passed into science fiction), the water would still not reach even a fraction of the radioactivity levels present in the Los Angeles drinking water! The drinking water that the citizens of Los Angeles are drinking is from the Colorado river which flows through many valleys with Granite. Granite contains some fraction of percentage of uranium which is slowly dissolved in the drinking water, thus making it radioactive. Because there is no agreement on where to store the waste today, today the radioactive material is simply sitting in a building next to the nuclear plant, not an ideal storage site.

To sum up, instead of storing the nuclear waste in the safest imaginable location where it has virtually no chance of leaking out, and even if it would leak out it would not be a major disaster, it is stored in buildings next to the power plants, which is a much less safe location, all because of the irrational fear among the public.


James Aach said...

You might find this an interesting look at nuclear power from the inside and outside, including the fear of radiation part: RadDecision.blogspot.com I've worked in the nuclear industry over twenty years.

moliver said...

Instead of storing juclear residues after initial used they should first be recycled, as is done in France. This removes a large of the radioactivity of the material and provides extra energy as well.Moreover, the newer type reactors, such as the Super Prism Units now being designed will reduce the radioactive residuse to less than 1% of thier initial radioactivity within five hundred years, not the thousands of years mentioned in your blog. Check this with General Electric, nuclear division.

rasmussenanders said...

To James,
Thank you for the novel tip, It looks interesting!

To Moliver,
I was aware that they are recycling waste in France and I would also think that is the best option. The worst option as I see it is the current one where the waste is simply being stored in buildings next to the Reactors.

Thank you for informing me about the Super Prism reactors to. Them I have not heard about.

Robert Synnott said...

The Bhopal chemical plant disaster is a case in point; it killed many more people than Chernobyl did or is likely to, and yet people do not generally see pesticide plants as a likely source of disaster.

Possibly the word 'nuclear' just has acquired terribly bad connotations.

Ulf Pettersson said...

I consider your blog one of the most intelligent and intellectually honest that I read. But I am pretty sure you are quite wrong in your disbelief of man-made global warming.

A largish meta-study has been performed by Oreskes. She analysed a random sample of 928 papers in refereed scientific journals keyworded "climate change".

How many of those disagreed with the scientific consensus of anthropogenic climate change?

Not one. Not a single published article!



And, about the graph you link to:

1. The graph is claimed to come from "Friends of Science". This group is known to be an astroturf operation funded by Canadian oil-companies:


2. The graph is manipulated. The temperature changes shown are different to those global measurements used in climate research, like the Hadley Center data (i have personally graphed the Hadley HadCRUT3v data - global temperature change does NOT look like that!)

Here are accurate graphs:



3. The cooling period after 1940 is known to have been caused by sulphate aerosols. This is fully accounted for in climate models. In no way does this contradict the important role of CO2.

The best info on global climate, written by actual, leading scientists in the field, is found here:


stormen_per said...

Interesting post.

(OT but probably interesting to you http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/125 )

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you Ulf for your comment, your compliment, and feedback on my little sidetrack. I will take a look at the references with interest.

The graph which I presented has not been the only source of my doubt. Apparently when you look at temperature changes 100.000 of year back and correlate it with CO2 levels, there is indeed a correlation, however, the changes in CO2 lag behind with 800years, which seems not to suggest a causal link. Following a quick search I found the following blog describing this.


I have also recently seen an article on how dirt in the snow may be as important as CO2 emissions:

I am as of now undecided in this question, and I would definetly be interested in your response to the above arguements.

Fred said...

Anders, could you please cite the source for your line about radioactivity in Los Angeles drinking water?

rasmussenanders said...

Muller writes:

Here is the absurd-sounding conclusion: if the Yucca Mountain facility was at full capacity and all the waste leaked out of its glass containment immediately and managed to reach ground water, the danger would still be 20 times less than that currently posed by natural uranium leaching into the Colorado River.


Bayman said...

My guess would be that politics and power games are what really fuel the propaganda campaign against nuclear fuels, whether there are legitimate safety concerns or not. Any technology can be made safe.

The fact is, only a few world powers have developed nuclear technology and relatively unfettered access to fossil fuel sources, those in control would prefer it to stay that way. Fear is an easy way to control the dissemination of nuclear technology.

Ulf Pettersson said...

I have now found some time to check out the links you provide. The first one did not impress me at all. The crowd Lubos Motls belongs to is very loud-mouthed but their arguments are very weak. It is all too obvious they are grasping at every possible straw just to avoid the conclusion that we are experiencing a man-made warming of the planet.

They continue spouting discredited theories such as links with sun-spots etc (beeing a complete lay-man I have still read two studies published just this year that refute any connection between current warming and solar activity). They hade no published studies to support their case.

About the 800-year lag in historic times, see these:


Your second link seemed much more convincing, to begin with. It refers to a published study by real researchers in field.

I have read the paper in question. It shows that warming at the poles is mostly the result of black cole particles on the snow and the resulting local warming as reflection is decreased. The effect is very large at the poles, however it does not account for very much in terms of warming the whole planet.

The study does of course not disprove that global warming is man-made, it only says that part of the warming is not caused by greenhouse gases. The particles that darken the ice come from pollution, but they also come from forest fires. However, there are more forest fires as temperature increases, so the forest-fire effect is in itself ultimately likely to be caused by greenhouse-gas emissions.

And, after searching a little it is clear that the phenomenon has been known for quite some time, and is definitely known to other researchers in field, such as those on realclimate.

Still, this study is good news, since it is much easier to avoid creating cole particles than CO2, it means doing something about global warming will be easier.

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Martin said...

That lecture was really intresting. I got intrested in all 30 of them.

Also, maybe you should clean up all the spam here :)

rasmussenanders said...

I am glad to have shown you the light! Yokes aside, Muller lectures have taught me very much and I counsel you to watch them all, they are all great!

Sorry about the spam. I actually haven't figured how you can delete single comments... Do you know?

Martin said...

I've already started watching them. Let's see how far I get :)

If you don't have a litte trash can icon beneath the comments you can add it by going to "Settings"->"Comments"->"Enable comment moderation?"->"Yes"

Then you should be able to clean up this mess :)

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for the tip, I will get on it right away. Have fun with the lectures!

Another great resource I recomend is The Teaching Company (www.teach12.com). Unfortunately their lectures are not for free (unless if you know how to get that sort of stuff online).

Beda said...


This paper in EOS is the one that trashes the original danish sun-cycle length one...


There is a problem with forcing mechanisms (in the upper atmosphere?) with solar climate forcing, although it is of course possible for things like the Maunder Minimum. THe difficulty is that the variation in the amount of energy being delivered is tiny (0.07 % from the top to the bottom of the sunspot cycle); so unless there is a (basically obscure) amplifying mechanism in the atmosphere(with clouds? there is an entertaining argument about cosmic rays seeding cloud formation...), it is hard to see the effect is anywhere big enough.

In my patch of the woods (partly Earth Sciences) there is endless fussing about global warming of course. I am a SLIGHT skeptic too (I congenitally disapprove of bandwagon effects...), but I must admit to have become less so over the years. I think it is pretty clear now (but only in the last *few* years really) that anthropogenic effects are forcing climate change, esp. for the last 30 years. The clouds stuff is a useful gambit to go for if you go to the right kind of dinner parties :-D

I think the big trouble is that politicians keep asking climatologists the straight question about global warming, and the climatologists in general want to give rather hedged-about responses (so much of it is modelling based, with all that that entails). But the politicians are not really interested in such opinions - after all, they need to know how to act now; and it may be that screwing up the atmosphere is not a great idea for all sorts of other reasons (carbonate budget/ph in the oceans being one very serious thing to consider). The trouble is that we do not have a complete grip on the global carbon budget, and how the atmospheres, forests, swamps, soils etc all respond to changes in ph, temp and C02 levels is all up for grabs...


PS I think we need more reactors :-)

Anonymous said...

moliver said:

"Instead of storing nuclear residues after initial use they should first be recycled as is done in France."

Are you kidding? The irrational "wacko-greenes" want to create an ongoing problem,not a rational solution.Such is their backwards extremist logic.

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