Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Who said 'No debate'?

Well the event was everything it was billed to be (and more) - but the pronuclear people in the audience, at least, did not get in any debate. What event is that? Dr. Judith Johnsrud spoke last night at an event in Charlottesville, Virginia, organized by PACE and the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice.

I don't have time to go over all the topics of Dr. Johnsrud's talk of the evening; I hope to blog some details of it in future posts. Much of the information presented (and there was certainly a lot of it; she spoke for at least an hour and half) was not surprising, considering her background, her audience, and her hosts. (The audience consisted of about two dozen people.)

However (just a few of!) the things that were a surprise may be of interest to readers here.

Dr. Johnsrud is a delightful lady to listen to! She is measured, compassionate, occasionally funny, and personable. She speaks eloquently, with education and with knowledge. Best of all, hers is not the rhetoric of the impassioned emotional roller-coaster to which several speakers resort when they fall short on information. I enjoyed hearing her viewpoint, although I disagreed with many of her assertions.

It was a surprise to me to hear the latter half of Dr. Johnsrud's speech. It must have sounded disheartening to her target audience, the antinuclear crowd. Her remarks are revealing, however - remember that her bio states she intervened in the licensing and restart of Three Mile Island: "It used to be the public could write up and submit contentions and argue, with or without lawyers, and the burden of proof was on the utility... [Now] opportunities for citizens to protect themselves if they do not want a facility are limited."

True colors indeed! It used to be all you had to do was be willing to spend your time raising an argument, and you could be free to fritter away utility, investor, and ratepayer dollars in the legal wrangling, while simultaneously blaming the utility for being powerless to stop the money waste. Dr. Johnsrud admits that the regulations have changed to put the burden of proof up front, and on those who seek to argue with the societal and environmental benefits of a mature, successful industry.

Another exchange as near as I can reproduce it follows. It began in followup to Dr. Donal Day's contention that nuclear energy is "practically dead" for much of Western Europe, while the US insists on resurrecting the dinosaur, in spite of higher infant mortality rates and other negative health impacts. (By "practically dead" I have to assume he does not mean construction in Finland, a future unit in France, or debating future nuclear power in Scotland and the UK.) I thoroughly enjoyed hearing all of it:

Delbert Horn: "I understand the French electric industry gets about 80% of its power from nuclear sources, while the US only gets about 20% of our electricity from nuclear sources. Would you expect cancer rates in France to be about 4 times higher than the cancer rates in the United States?"

Dr. Johnsrud: "They have a different regulatory environment, so I don't know. But you do bring up a good point that I would like to investigate. [The French reactors are government run, so people didn't get the same opportunity to intervene that we had here in the US. Our impact was to increase the level of safety in the US nuclear industry.]"

Dr. Donal Day: "The per kilowatt-hour cost in France is higher than what we pay here in the United States, so some of that money goes to more regulation."

Abhaya Thiele: "Plus the French used a standard, cookie-cutter design, which we in the US have failed to do."

Dr. Johnsrud: "Yes, in the United States, even when based on several standard designs, each nuclear unit is unique, and that is a major failure on the part of our [regulation and industry business model]."
Kudos to Delbert! He managed to get even the staunch antinuclear activists arguing both sides of an issue among themselves. Here is his understanding of the exchange: "What Dr Johnsrud was implying was that the French reactors are more government-run, (true) so there is less public participation in the licensing process (also true). What Dr. Day implied was that more regulation = lower releases. So one Dr. (Johnsrud) says less public involvement = fewer controls, and higher releases, the other Dr. (Day) says more control (with less public involvement) results in lower releases."

One could imagine a split in ideology while listening to them speculate in many directions.

Did I really hear two (yes, 2!) staunch antinuclear advocates both imply they're in favor of standardized nuclear reactor design and construction? For this and other reasons, it was a twilight zone experience...

Lest I forget, I should include my thanks to the woman I did not know, who asked Dr. Johnsrud for information on the nuclear fuel cycle (Dr. Johnsrud now calls it the 'nuclear fuel chain') to counter the claims of the "young nuclear engineers" in the area. It is always gratifying to know there is someone listening!

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Anonymous said...

I agree with Kelly’s assessment of Judith Johnsrud as a skilled presenter. She is knowledgeable and gives the impression of being sincerely interested in the public welfare. However, her attitude about the supposed dangers of low-dose radiation and nuclear power is reflected in her practice of carrying not one but two radiation detectors.

I found plenty to criticize about the content of her presentation. (1) She is happy to point out that nuclear power plants release radioactive material. However, she does not put the resulting dose into perspective. According to the American Nuclear Society’s personal radiation dose worksheet, the extra dose from living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant is equal to that received by climbing five feet up a ladder. The person on the ladder receives extra cosmic radiation because he loses the shielding due to five feet of air. (2) She noted that at one time a large fraction of the U.S. electrical power output was devoted to uranium enrichment but did not clarify that the enrichment operations were for military purposes, not for civilian nuclear power. (3) She is happy to recite the list of processes in nuclear fuel production that result in wastes, but she does not bother to remind the audience that nuclear fuel production is by no means unique in this regard. I would have a hard time thinking of any mining or manufacturing step that does not result in some sort of waste. (4) She expresses great concern about internal doses (committed effective dose equivalent) and asserts that they are not well understood because, unlike plain gamma rays, internal doses vary according to isotope. Is it possible that, after all her years as an anti activist, she is unaware of the elaborate tables in 10 CFR 20 Appendix B? My dim view is that she is well aware of them, but she uses a “risk informed” approach and assumes that her audience is not.

Kelly expressed surprise that two antis should agree that standardized reactor designs are good. I was not surprised. My experience is that antis tend to prefer whatever you are not currently doing. My favorite example of this comes from an ASLB hearing. The licensee proposed to use M5 cladding, but the intervenor expressed the opinion that Zircaloy-4 was superior just because it would rupture more easily in a LOCA! If the U.S. had chosen standardized reactor designs and France had not, I think the antis would say that the U.S. had a greater risk because a single type of failure could occur at many plants.

Overall, I found Johnsrud’s presentation to be an amorphous pile of carefully selected and carefully worded truths and half-truths. Providing information in this way has decided advantages for an anti activist. The mere size of the pile is sufficient to evoke fear in the uninformed listener. And if an informed listener should refute a few of the half-truths, well, the pile slumps a bit, but it is still a pile. How can the nuclear community sweep away the whole pile before the audience loses interest? We are still wrestling with that question.

Kevin McCoy

Kevin McCoy said...

After consulting with Kelly Taylor, I have the following correction to my original comment.

In item 2, "she did not clarify" should be changed to "she did not adequately clarify".

As I recall the discussion, it was something like this: "[commercial nuclear power] ... [commercial nuclear power] ... Fuel enrichment requires a lot of energy. At one point during the Cold War, 16% of the U.S. electricity output was being used to enrich uranium for weapons. ... [commercial nuclear power]". Unless one was listening carefully, it would have been easy to miss the deft changes from commercial to military and back. However, a critical and sceptical listener could have noted them, so it would have been more appropriate to write "she did not adequately clarify".