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UCS’ “Nuclear Power in a Warming World”

It’s about that time of the year when the Union of Concerned Scientists comes out with their annual criticisms of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry. After reading their latest critique, “Nuclear Power in a Warming World,” my emotions are mixed. Some of the time I can agree with or at least understand their arguments. The rest of the time, though, I am frustrated and irritated by some of the claims in the report.

On the one hand, they correctly conclude nuclear power’s “life cycle emissions are comparable to those of wind power and hydropower” (p. 11). This tells me they have the potential to dig deep and analyze an issue and not just go by the usual anti-nuclear rhetoric.

On the other hand, though, they proclaim sabotage of a nuclear reactor “could contaminate large regions for thousands of years, producing higher cancer rates and billions of dollars in associated costs” P.4. The worst nuclear accident in the world at Chernobyl didn’t even do the damage they are asserting could happen.

The report is rational one minute and apocalyptic the next.

One example ...

The UCS names the UN-sponsored Chernobyl Forum as “perhaps the most authoritative report on the consequences of Chernobyl.” According to the UN report, “the total number of people that could have died or could die… is estimated to be around 4,000.” What vexed me, however, was the fact that the UCS somehow translates the UN’s estimate of 4,000 “potential” deaths to mean “60,000 cancers and 40,000 cancer deaths overall.” (P. 15) Even though the UN report is apparently “the most authoritative report” on Chernobyl, I guess the UCS can still make up their own inflated numbers. Rational one minute, apocalyptic the next.

And another ...
While the United States has one of the world’s most well-developed regulatory systems for protecting nuclear facilities against sabotage and attack, today’s security standards are inadequate to defend against credible threats. (P.4)
So the regulatory system is “well-developed” yet the security standards are “inadequate.” That makes no sense to me.

Most of the report takes the NRC to task for their supposed “lax” safety culture. A reading of the report will have anyone thinking the NRC doesn’t do anything. However, the report fails to recognize some key operations of the NRC.

Every nuclear power plant receives a minimum of more than 2,000 hours of inspection and oversight from the NRC annually. This includes oversight from resident inspectors who are stationed at every nuclear plant site and are supported by NRC regional offices and headquarters. Under the NRC’s reactor oversight process, power plants that exhibit declining performance undergo increased inspection activity above and beyond the 2,000-hour minimum.

The regulatory oversight process (ROP) includes 15 performance indicators for each plant that rate performance in key safety-related areas. Inspection findings are combined with performance indicator results to determine whether additional NRC oversight is warranted. Through its enforcement program, the NRC can issue violations and civil penalties (fines) to ensure compliance with its regulations. The NRC is also empowered to force a reactor to shut down if there is unacceptable performance. All of the safety-related metrics tracked by the NRC and the industry demonstrate high levels of excellence.

On to new plants ...
Of all the new reactor designs being seriously considered for deployment in the U.S., only one – the Evolutionary Power Reactor – appears to have the potential to be significantly safer and more secure than today’s reactors. P.1
I’m sure AREVA is bouncing with glee that they passed UCS’ standards. I do find it hard to believe, though, that according to UCS, new plant designs are no safer then existing plants despite the fact they have benefited from more than 3,000 combined reactor-years of operating experience in the U.S.

According to Westinghouse, the “AP1000 is an advanced 1117 to 1154 MWe nuclear power plant that uses the forces of nature and simplicity of design to enhance plant safety and operations and reduce construction costs.” According to General Electric on the ESBWR, it is “11 times more likely for the largest asteroid near the earth to impact the earth over the next 100 years than for an ESBWR operational event to result in the release of fission products to the environment.”


It is easy to criticize nuclear standards and say that safety margins can always increase. However, it is tough to find the right balance between being a safety nut and allowing a nuclear plant to run at a reasonable risk (a risk much lower then driving a car, flying in a plane, being overweight, and riding a bicycle, to name a few).

You know what I call this report: Job Security. The nuclear industry is by far one of the safest industries in the world. But in order for the “concerned scientists” to keep their jobs, they have to continue to come up with shoddy rhetoric and proclamations about an industry where safe operations is the most important concern.

Despite all my ranting, I do give the UCS credit for two things. One is for the fact they recognize nuclear’s life cycle emissions are comparable to other non-emitting sources of energy. The other is for the recommendations they put forth in all of their criticisms. While many antis only complain, the UCS takes the time to make recommendations on their issues.

However, I do begin to fall asleep when I read objections to nearly every single aspect of nuclear power. It is hard to take anyone seriously who finds fault with everything.


Anonymous said…
"What vexed me, however, was the fact that the UCS somehow translates the UN’s estimate of 4,000 “potential” deaths to mean “60,000 cancers and 40,000 cancer deaths overall.” (P. 15)

I call foul. You're distorting their position by leaving out a big part of it.

You don't bother to mention that UCS gives a detailed explanation in a footnote as to WHY they believe the UN report of 4,000 underestimates future deaths from Chernobyl.

You may not agree with their analysis (I'm sure you don't) -- but it's highly misleading for you to try to make it look like they don't explain and at least make a case for this apparent inconsistency.
Randal Leavitt said…
The life cycle emissions of nuclear power plants are in no way comparable to wind powered systems. Wind powered systems are intermittent on a minute by minute basis, and have to be backed up by coal fired systems. The filthy backup system has to run all the time, either spinning idly, or in full operation. Consequently a wind driven grid system is just about as dirty as a coal driven grid. There is just no comparison with nuclear power, which is both less complicated and much cleaner. No comparison at all.

And please note that you cannot back up a wind driven system with clean nuclear reactors. You cannot do this because once you have switched over to the nuclear reactor there is no reason to switch back to wind. The wind system is useless in this situation. The backup system has to be filthy to justify turning it off and going through all the difficulty of switching back to wind for another five minute run.
David Bradish said…

I don't explain how the UN report calculates its number so why do I need to explain how the UCS calculates their number? If I'm distorting the UCS' position, then according to your logic, I guess I'm distorting the UN's as well.

I'm taking two conclusions: the one from the UN and the other from UCS. They don't match. Now according to UCS, the UN report is "the most authoritative report on Chernobyl." If that is the case, then why does the UCS come up with a different number - no matter what their reasoning is?

The UCS should not claim the UN report as the "most authoritative" if they have to modify the UN's conclusions.
Don Kosloff said…
The key to a political estimate of cancers and cancer deaths from Chernobyl is to include a large population, invoke LNT and then assert a large number (from an absolute perspective). The only limit on the asserted number is that it be small enough (from a relative perspective) that it can never be confirmed by observation of the subject population. That is, the number of asserted cancers needs to be smaller than the normal variations seen in populations from year to year. This is all easy to do and it is almost impossible to explain to the general population.
Anonymous said…
"I'm taking two conclusions: the one from the UN and the other from UCS. They don't match. Now according to UCS, the UN report is "the most authoritative report on Chernobyl." If that is the case, then why does the UCS come up with a different number - no matter what their reasoning is?"

Well, David, UCS EXPLAINED exactly that apparent inconsistency in their report. And your omission of that explanation, in an attempt to make them look foolish by CREATING a contradiction that's not in their report, is what I was objecting to.

Also, I don't think word games help prove your point. "Most authoritative" does not mean "perfect," does it?

Their message is debateable, of course, but not internally contradictory as you try to allege. They're simply saying that the UN report is the most authoritative, but it still underestimates.
David Bradish said…

Okay, I see the wording may paint the picture that the UCS picked the number out of thin air. How about I say "calculates" instead of "translates" the UN's estimate? If I was trying to distort their position, I probably wouldn't have provided at least a page number to the reference.

My point was still to show that they're rational one minute and apocalyptic the next. The UN report states there are about 4,000 thyroid cancers which may result from the accident. The UCS calculates 60,000 cancers. That's a fifteen-fold increase. Is that not a bit apocalyptic?

While the UCS provides an explanation on how they derived their numbers, it is precisely these "exaggerated" claims from organizations like the UCS that the UN report warns about. The UCS even quotes this warning in their explanation on page 15.

20 years later and the effects of Chernobyl are still hotly debated. The question is which sources and methodologies do we go with. To me, a Forum solely designated to studying the effects of Chernobyl would be a sound choice rather then a four paragraph explanation from the UCS.

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