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Is that a Phalanx in your Pocket or...

I was going to continue my coverage of the 2005 UN Climate Change Conference by describing our engagements with antis in chronological order.

But this article by Ronald Bailey in Tech Central Station made me so proud of the work we did last week. In it, Bailey recounts the goings on at a sidebar event titled “Why Nuclear is Not the Answer.” He begins by quoting a “screeching”(his word, not mine) Elizabeth May who is head of the Sierra Club in Canada. Why was she so perturbed?
What provoked May's eruption was that the report's findings were being vigorously challenged from the floor by a phalanx of representatives of the nuclear power industry.
Yep, those sturdy warriors flinging arrows of truth were none other than your dedicated NA-YGN representatives and their friends from around the world.

But let me start from the beginning.

The sidebar began, as Bailey notes, with the presentation of the results of a report by Felix Christian Matthes and sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The Foundation is closely affiliated with the Green Party in Germany which is stridently antinuclear. Though admirably portrayed as a result of scientific study, his conclusions were predictable; nuclear can't significantly affect carbon reduction, and even if it did, it's too dangerous, and besides, without "enormous" subsidies, nuclear power is uneconomical and trending downward, so all the money spent on nuclear should be spent on other renewables. In reality, Matthes took bits of real data from a few reliable sources like the International Energy Agency, threw in a lot of conjecture and misrepresentation of the facts, made flawed assumptions about "unknown externalities" and produced results to support his organization's premise.

But as lacking in substance as his bases were, his conclusions were at least loosely based on a logical train of thought compared to the remarks of the next speakers.

The aforementioned May expounded on how the industry, from the dawn of the nuclear age, has "disguised" itself as a "savior" when it is actually the "Grim Reaper." According to May, the industry has lied by saying it produces no carbon dioxide. She went on to talk about how nuclear plants require centralized grids which are "brittle systems" and that further investment in nuclear are obstacles to a de-centralized system. I'm not sure how "centralized" equates to "evil" but it doesn't matter much, her colleague contradicted her later.

Rebecca Harms, a Green Party member of the European parliament, said that nuclear power plants release a lot of radiation. I almost suggested that she cancel her flight back to Europe and take a boat since I received less dose working at a plant for a year than she will in an airplane, but I digress. The waste is "the most dangerous kind of waste known to man" and that relicensing plants is dangerous and uneconomical because older plants are getting worse, not better. I had to be polite, but it was too bad I couldn't pass out capacity factor and safety incident plots to the audience at this time. Harms also regularly referred to the Chernobyl accident in her comments. At our sidebar earlier in the week she claimed that 300,000 people have died as a result of working on cleanup teams at the site. I have yet to find her basis for that number.

Richard Worthington of Earthlife Africa claimed that renewable sources create more jobs than nuclear power but provided no data to backup his statement. I suppose during the initial build of a million windmills or solar panels, more labor would be required, but after that? I doubt it. Besides, I fail to see how a discussion of employment rates relates to climate change. Worthington then focused his time on denouncing the plan for a demonstration Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) in his home country of South Africa. This is where I got really confused with the centralized vs. decentralized question. If a centralized grid signals the coming of the apocalypse, then the small, modular PBMR would be ideal to delay Armageddon. But, nope, Worthington said its small size is part of the problem. Apparently he and May haven't quite worked out the details of this debate yet.

Next, Oswaldo Lucon (I missed writing down his affiliation) pointed out the obvious by saying that if all of our energy needs were to be met using high-grade uranium, known supplies of it would run out in about a decade. Personally, I was shocked to realize that if we were to depend solely on any one source of energy, we might run out of fuel. Perhaps I'm being a bit too sarcastic, but really, how silly a statement is that? Even without engaging in a discussion about known reserves and recycling, it is a ludicrous position on which to hang your "No Nukes" hat.

Last, Michael Marriotte of Nuclear Information Resource Service spoke. His statement could be summarized as "Nuclear is bad, it's always been bad, and all the corporations, all the governments, and the thousands of people working in the industry are in cahoots with each other to keep secret all the evil that goes on." He told a story about a Illinois man that called him to ask why people from the Braidwood plant would be digging a monitoring well near his property. For Marriotte, this is proof that the industry is up to no good.

Finally, the floor was opened to questions. I was first up and introduced myself as the president of North American Young Generation in Nuclear. Since some of our exhibit materials had been waved around and our message distorted, I reiterated that our organization never claimed that nuclear power was the solution to climate change or that life-cycle carbon emissions were zero. Luckily I had with me the IAEA pamphlet that we had been handing out that showed nuclear's low, but not zero, life-cycle carbon emissions.

In addition, I repeated our message at the conference:
Nuclear power is safe, clean, and reliable, and an important part of a balanced energy mix. Furthermore, nuclear power should be considered an equal among all energy technologies in meeting climate change goals—subject to the same thoughtful scrutiny and evaluation—and an available option to countries committed to carbon reduction.
Next, I said that our concern is that nuclear is not being evaluated with the same set of objective criteria as other options and I briefly addressed issues of safety, waste, and economics.

On safety, though I disagreed with their estimates of health effects based on my understanding of UN-sponsored studies, I acknowledged that Chernobyl was a disaster. I mentioned that the design was flawed from the beginning and there was no containment enclosure. Since additional plants with similar design will never be built and all plants planned or proposed have robust containment buildings, I shared my personal conviction that an accident like Chernobyl will never happen again.

Furthermore, I asked, if they are truly concerned about safety, how they can ignore key facts such as that no one in North America has died as a result of radiation released from a commercial power plant during normal or accident operations and that numerous people die each year in coal mining and natural gas pipeline explosions? Using Dr. Moore's example of the Bhopal accident (3000 died immediately, thousands more continue to suffer health effects), I said that the response to chemical industry accidents has been to make the industry safer, not to shut it down. Other examples are prevalent for other large industries, and commercial nuclear power should be no different. The industry was made safer after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and continues to improve.

Addressing waste, I asked how the panel members' organizations can ignore that, per kW-hr produced, solar power produces nearly the equivalent amount of toxic waste as nuclear. I reminded them that mercury and the hazardous waste never decay. I surmise that someone has been feeding Harms misinfomration about solar energy because at this point, she was shaking her head and saying "That's not true." In any case, I said that NA-YGN supports the use of solar panels where it is appropriate, but we are simply pointing out that proper accounting and sequestration of waste is essential, no matter what the source.

Next I turned to economics. In his analysis, Matthes had completely dismissed the continually improving performance of nuclear operators worldwide. I began by pointing out that he had chosen to use of some of the IEA's data but had ignored its conclusions. If he was truly concerned about economics how could he ignore that 1)sales of plants in the US have escalated into bidding wars, 2)next to solar, nuclear currently has the lowest operating cost of any other electricity source in America and that is without any production tax credits (like those given to wind an solar) and 3)that the IEA in their report "Projected Costs of Generating Electricity," which included all life-cycle costs, demonstrated that nuclear compares very favorably with all other generation sources?

As you can imagine, I didn't get satisfactory answers to my questions.

Marriotte grumbled on about all the people he could introduce me to in Pennsylvania who know someone that died as a result of the Three Mile Island accident. If I had a chance to respond, I would have said that dozens of studies by the likes of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the National Cancer Institute, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health prove him wrong. And if he prefers to stick with the anecdotal rather than the analytical, I'd introduce him to a former coworker of mine, who was in the womb within 10 miles of the accident, and her family and friends in the community that shake their head in wonder at claims like his.

Matthes challenged my belief that Chernobyl wouldn't happen again, but didn't address my other questions about safety. He also tiptoed around the economics question by again bringing up "enormous" subsidies and then expounding on issues of insurance and liability. He claimed that since nuclear operators can't insure themselves, it must mean that the facilities are unsafe. As you can see from the article, Sama Bilbao y Leon was prepared to question Matthes on this issue, but unfortunately, the session ended before she could.

Kudos to Sama for talking to the reporter later and giving him the facts!

In addition to my questions, Brent Cooper from NA-YGN asked additional questions about waste, and used examples from Canada. Later, Colin Hunt of CNA first complimented Matthes for being the only panel member to attempt to use facts and analysis rather than emotion to make his arguments, but then went on to challenge his methods. After only about ten minutes of review of Matthes' report, Colin was able to poke substantial holes in his methodology. In particular, he asked Matthes if he had attempted to quantify some of his assumptions by actually speaking to nuclear plant operators. After a lot of smoke and mirrors, the short answer was, "No."

Later, Jozef Valovic, Secretary General of the Slovak Nuclear Society, shared his experiences and challenged some of the statements of the panelists, particularly in the areas of safety, economics, and the causes and effects of the Chernobyl accident.

At the end, Andrew James of NA-YGN reiterated our concern that nuclear was not being evaluated against the same set of objective criteria as other energy technologies and then he focused a bit on economics and the issue of subsidies. He also pointed out the discrepency in the panel regarding the value of centralized vs. decentralized grids and boldly asked, "Which is it?" He then invited everyone with further questions to stop by our exhibits.

By this time, we had rankled the panel quite a bit. Their answers had become very defensive and emotional in nature. Mays in particular had an interesting parting shot calling on all of us "young people" that have been "seduced" by the nuclear industry to reconsider our choices. I had gotten a little weary of this condescension (more on that in a later post) and said loudly, "That's insulting."

While it was impossible to address every distortion or error, all in all I think we calmly and successfully challenged the antinuclear message at this sidebar event. One woman told me later that we were brave to be there. I suppose a little courage was necessary, but having the facts in our corner made questioning outlandish and distorted claims easier.

Thanks to everyone that participated and stay tuned for more Montreal reports!

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Rod Adams said…

Great report. It would have been a blast to watch all of you in action!

Keep up the good work and keep on telling us how it is going.

Luke McSweeney said…
Hi Lisa:

My first visit to your blog. Great post! What with the growing power of blogs and all, it's good to be ahead of the curve in getting the message out there. I especially liked the Moore bit. Thanks for your PR tips at the conference too. I feel like I changed a few minds at the public booth.

One little thingy, though. You may have heard of "Americans for balanced energy choices", which is some kind of coal industry PAC. They blabber about clean coal technologies and how coal is marginally less filthy than it was in 1970. I wonder if "balanced" is the right word to apply to nuclear. It implies that nuclear power can't stand on its own.

I think we should promote nuclear as the preferred energy source, rather than a stopgap or lesser evil.

Just a thought.
Brian Mays said…

A minor point, but you should be careful when you mention that all new plant designs have robust containment buildings. Some designs, particularly those that use particle fuel like the PBMR, do not actually have a containment building. Groups like NIRS know this and can challenge you on it, if they are clever enough.

The tricky part is the word "building." Although the building itself might not be designed for that purpose, that does not mean that these designs do not have robust containment. The containment begins with the particle fuel itself -- which has a layer of silicon carbide to contain the fuel and fission products -- and there are several other levels of containment to back that up.

The current design of the PBMR has a building that can survive aircraft impacts and the reactor vessel is contained in a reinforced concrete containment structure. Other designs, like General Atomic's GT-MHR, actually place the reactor below ground.

Good work! I enjoyed reading your post.
Thanks, Brian, for the reminder and explanation. My use of the phrase "planned or proposed" was intended to mean commercial plants currently under construction or proposed to begin construction in the near-term. To my knowledge all of these Generation 3+ plants do have robust containment structures. But your point is well taken that we may need to make those distinctions.
Brian Mays said…
Yes, Lisa. All of the Generation III designs that are being considered to be built today have a robust containment building like the currently operating plants in the US. (Hell, the EPR really has two containment buildings, one inside the other.)

I just get a little worried when I see the PBMR and "robust containment buildings" mentioned so close together. I don't want anyone to be caught flatfooted when someone points out that there are designs being considered (the South Africans want to build a demonstration PBMR) that do not have such a building. It makes the nuclear industry appear disingenuous if its advocates put so much emphasis on the containment building and then have to explain post facto why this building is not needed for a particular design.

My point is that the focus should be on containment, not the building. You shouldn't have to go into the details or make too many distinctions. The Chernobyl plant had no full mechanism for containment, so when the steam explosion occurred, the radioactive contaminants could escape into the atmosphere. In a plant with full containment -- which is required for all plants in the US, current or anticipated -- that would not have happened.
Starvid from Sweden said…
Well done Lisa, keep up the good work.

I am at quite a lot at environmental conferences or hang out with "green" people, and while they are still wary of nuclear power many have lost the anti-nuclear reflex (except the diehard fanatics, who are often 40+ years old).

Most greens have very faulty knowledge when it comes to nuclear energy and if you just discuss nicely and rationally with them they will start thinking nuclear energy is not such a very bad idea after all, considering the alternatives.

Epecially considering the massive threat of climate change and the increased use of coal and natural gas peak oil will bring and the rise of energy consumption in China and India.

In short I tell them there will be nuclear or there will be coal.

That scares the sh*t out of them and hell, it scares me too.
Hello! You're right, most individuals are willing to at least discuss nuclear energy these days, particularly as it relates to climate change. I noted as much in an earlier post that you might like to read:

Thanks for posting!
Oswaldo said…
I never said high grade uranium reserves would last for a decade. Instead, I quoted the findings of Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith ( on resources.
I´m not used to reply to blogs - especially with the wording used in this one - but there´s a matter necessary to clarify. My affiliation are the University of São Paulo and Environmental Agency in São Paulo, Brazil.
Oswaldo Lucon

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