Tuesday, May 05, 2009

To Harvey Wasserman: "Why should I trust anything you say?"

Wasserman asks: Who Will Pay for America's Chernobyl? Answer: No one – Because it can’t happen here.

The premise of Wasserman's article is erroneous. It is physically impossible for any U.S. nuclear power plant to explode like the Chernobyl reactor did. They are a completely different design that cannot run out of control and explode. And (unlike Chernobyl) all U.S. nuclear plants have heavily fortified containment buildings that are designed to withstand the worst case accident, nor can our reactors catch on fire. The fact is, Chernobyl can't happen here.

The worst thing you can do to a U.S. light water reactor - overheat the fuel and cause it to melt - is what happened at Three Mile Island 30 years ago. But the TMI accident had no impact on the health of the people or the environment around the facility because of all of the safety systems built into the plant. With all of the changes and additional safety measures made because of the lessons learned from TMI, it is very unlikely a similar accident will happen again. And (unlike Chernobyl) TMI was cleaned up, placed in safe storage, and paid for years ago. The total cost of the clean up was about $975 million, paid in equal shares by the nuclear industry, ratepayers, and insurance.

Speaking of insurance, Wasserman says "the industry cannot get its own insurance," the Price-Anderson Act could pay only "a tiny portion of the potential damage," and that "taxpayers are on the hook," to pay for an accident. All of these assertions are false. Every nuclear plant is required to have property insurance of at least $1 billion. Every nuclear plant also is required to have liability insurance of at least $300 million. If the $300 million is used, the Price-Anderson Act can take an additional $12 billion from the industry, and Congress can get even more from the industry if it shows cause. The fact is, the nuclear energy industry is very well insured and taxpayers are well protected.

Wasserman’s argument about millions of deaths and trillions of dollars lost is based on a discredited study. He stated that “the Sandia Laboratory's WASH-740 Report warned that a melt-down at an American reactor could permanently irradiate a land mass the size of Pennsylvania. The fiscal costs, like the potential death toll, were essentially inestimable.” The NRC issued a disclaimer on the Wash-740 study (that used nuclear bomb data and assumed no containment building) stating, "The NRC's most recent studies have confirmed that early research into the topic led to extremely conservative consequence analyses that generate invalid results for attempting to quantify the possible effects of very unlikely severe accidents.”

Wasserman’s statement that nuclear power plants have "a 40 year design span," is incorrect. They did not have a designed life span. When the plants were built is was recognized that like all machines, how long they would last depended on how well they were built, and how well they were maintained and operated. There were some who thought the plants might operate a century or more, and they may be right. The "104 rickety atomic reactors" he refers to operate at full power over 91 percent of the time. They are in fact, by far, the most reliable cost effective source of electricity in the nation because they were well built, and have been very well maintained and safely operated.

Considering the above are just a few examples of Mr. Wasserman’s many attempts to deliberately mislead readers in this article, one might ask Mr. Wasserman, "Why should I trust anything you say?"

Guest post by NEI's Tom Kauffman, former reactor operator at Three Mile Island.

19 comments:

Charles Barton said...

I wrote a send up of Harvey Wasserman's post hoc, proper hoc reasoning in a post called "They were exposed to radiation and they died."
http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2009/05/they-were-exposed-to-radiation-and-they.html

David Walters said...

Tom, EXCELLENT post. Thank you. Charle's post is good too.

JD said...

From having read several of Harvey Wasserman's articles, I can tell you that his disbelief of the claim that "Chernobyl can't happen in America" is based on the Fermi-1 breeder reactor accident. I assume he's been thoroughly beaten up on by those who understand more about light water reactor technology than he does, so he instead focuses on this accident, which is lesser known. If I recall correctly, the story he gives is that this was a hair's breadth away from a sodium explosion and damage on the scale of Chernobyl's steam explosion.

Anonymous said...

Harvey Wasserman is a poster child for junk science. Like the flu, it's possible for the inexperienced to get infected by his writing until logic sets in and they recover rationality. Young people tend to recover more rapidly than old people.

The interesting question is why Wasserman and other aging anti-nukes have an apparently permanent disability in connecting facts together logically. A part of this mental deficit is due to advancing age. But within this population of non-working, protest-attending activists there are also substantial mental deficits that can be attributed to substantial and long term use of mood altering drugs popular in the 1960's and 70's.

There are rational critics of nuclear energy, and it is important to work to continuously improve the technology, just as engineers and scientists do for all technologies important to humanity.

Today Wasserman is a joke. I'm not sure how many drugs he's done, but my best guess is that it's well above the average for people in his generation (fortunately for Wasserman, at 64 he can begin to collect Social Security next year, unlike what will likely be the case for the majority of younger people...)

Anonymous said...

So if you don't agree with someone, they must be a drug abuser? There's some cogent analysis.

Anonymous said...

If you're going to slander someone, at least have the guts to post your name so you can be sued.

(I know, I'm anonymous also, but I'm not slandering anyone personally, particularly without any substantiation or relevance to the topic being discussed.)

Anonymous said...

Slander/smander. People did a lot of drugs back then. This was particularly true within the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements.

Doing drugs is not something that a lot of people from the 60's generation are really proud of today, although it's entertaining to watch them in the grainy color film footage on the PBS historical documentaries. At least today there's not a lot of them out arguing that today's kids should experiment with lots of different psychoactive substances.

There's a list of things that the 60's generation can be proud of, topped by the civil rights legislation passed during that era. But there's a lot they did that in retrospect was pretty self destructive, and the anti-nukes have a lot to do with the fact that today over half of our electricity comes from coal.

I'm sure that Harvey could chime in if in fact he never did use drugs. In the end, though, that's still not going to fix his inability to link simple facts together, whatever its cause might be.

Ondrej Chvala said...

I;d suggest sending your responses to the Huffington post. Engage them in a debate.

Anonymous said...

Why should someone have to post to defend themselves against anonymous slander?

If you have evidence of drug use by a specific individual AND it's somehow relevant to this topic, post it. If not, take your McCarthyist tactics elsewhere.

Moderator, please take note.

gunter said...

Funny how the blog responses go for an attack on Wasserman's character and not the issues.

The GE MARK I BWR does not have a viable containment folks, unless you are in a state of denial. That's been established by NRC since 1972 and again confirmed by the instatllation of the DTVs on the wetwells (torus) beginning in 1989.

If we are going to have an American Chernobly (if you are going on the comparison of "no containment" then the 23 operating Mark I BWR raise the probability not lower it.

perdajz said...

Gunter,

State those probabilities, or concede that you have no point. The probability of a large, early release in any type of LWR, even a Mark I, is very, very small - on the order of 1E-6 or 1E-7 per rx-year. In fact, Peach Bottom was used as the base case BWR plant for NUREG-1150, which concluded the probability of an early fatality at a BWR was 2E-8 per rx-yr. All BWR, including Mark I, were analyzed for core damage and containment failure frequency as part of the IPE program, which took place during the 90's, well after the 1989 date you reference.

Noone familiar with these plants would give your comments any creedance. There is no such thing as an American Chernobyl, other than in your imagination.

Charles Barton said...

gunter, Considering the fact that Harvey Wasserman argued that the Three Mile Island accident killed people, and offered as proof arguments based on a post hoc, proper hoc fallacy - people were exposed to small amounts of radiation and they died, therefore the radiation caused their death - reveals either a startling level of intellectual incompetence or outright dishonesty. In either case Wasserman's character is in question. You character will be in question too, by the way, if you resort to the use of silly and obvious logical fallacies in your attack on nuclear power.

gunter said...

My attack? Hmmmm...actually, perdajz & charlie, the first place you will find the term "American Chernobyl" is in a publicly available Differing Professional Opinion filed by David Orrick (former Navy SEAL and Viet Nam naval captain) who at the time was the director of NRC Operational Security Response Evaluations (OSRE) regarding the abysmal response failure to mock attacks and vulnerability of US reactors because of utilities bottom line approach to security readiness.

Reliance on probabilities is inappropriate and irrelavent when it comes to deliberate acts of malice. "What are the odds" can't capture things like someone deliberately steering an explosive laden aircraft, a flying IED if you will, into a substandard design like the Westinghouse Ice Condenser PWR or a Mark I BWR. Why can't somebody over at the Justice Department get this into their thick skull before its too late?

Furthermore, reliance on probabilities modeled on garbage-in that fails to capture age related degradation is dangerous and deceptive.

Dedajz, you acknowledge that the MARK I installed the DTVS because its containment design is recognized as substandard. Control room operators now have choice to open a butterfly valve on a 30 psi carbon rupture disc and vent these undersized containments directly to the atmosphere in order to save them. That's the equivalent of no containment at all if they must be retrofitted to be defeated to prevent a breach.

With TMI-2 radiation monitors going off scale, its disingenous for you all to claim little radiation got out. Last I checked radiation still causes cancer and people are still dying of lung cancer and leukemia.

Let's face it, alot of US reactors are driving through their rear view mirror right now, oblivious to unseen risks that lie ahead. Inspection, testing, surveillance and maintenance programs must be ramped both in frequency and thoroughness if we are to avoid an "American Chernobyl" or worse.

Charles Barton said...

gunter, how would an American "American Chernobyl" be possible given that a Chernobyl type accident is only possible with a RBMK-1000 type reactor and there have never been RBMK-1000 reactors in the United States. It really bothers me that you appear to know nothing about nuclear technology, and seem to not even know the difference between a RBMK-1000 and a Light Water Reactor, and yet you pose as an expert on nuclear safety. I never see references to standard nuclear safety concepts in your writings, so I presume that you are ignorant of them. That is not your game.

Anonymous said...

American Chernobyl, eh? Don't want to rely on probabilities and common sense, how about reactor physics? Maybe you can tell us which of the LWR designs used in the West has a positive void coefficient of reactivity in the range of 4-5 beta, which was a feature of RBMK designs of that era? That is what it would take to produce a Chernobyl-type event. If you can't, I suggest you lay off the American Chernobyl crap, which is yet another logical fallacy (obfuscation, et al.) commonly used by the anti-nuclear crowd.

JD said...

Gunter:

With TMI-2 radiation monitors going off scale, its disingenous for you all to claim little radiation got out. Last I checked radiation still causes cancer and people are still dying of lung cancer and leukemia.From the Kemeny Commission report:

There were deficiencies in instrumentation for measuring the radioactivity released, particularly during the early stages of the accident. However, these deficiencies did not affect the Commission staff's ability to estimate the radiation doses or health effects resulting from the accident. The maximum estimated radiation dose received by any one individual in the off-site general population (excluding the plant workers) during the accident was 70 millirems. On the basis of present scientific knowledge, the radiation doses received by the general population as a result of exposure to the radioactivity released during the accident were so small that there will be no detectable additional cases of cancer, developmental abnormalities, or genetic ill-health as a consequence of the accident at TMI.

--------------------
You're right that high doses of radiation can cause cancer. And the prevailing/conservative theory is that small doses of radiation have a small probability of causing cancer. And you're also right that people die of lung cancer and leukemia. But, the #1 cause of non-smoking-related lung cancers is radon gas, which is produced naturally in soil. Dauphin county in Penn. is in the EPA's highest-risk zone for radon:

http://www.epa.gov/radon/zonemap/pennsylvania.htm


The scientific evidence points to health effects from TMI-2 being so low that figuring out which cancers would not have happened anyway wouldn't be possible. From what you say I wouldn't be surprised if 100 years from now you would point to TMI-2 as the reason that no one alive in March 1979 is still alive in the year 2109.

gunter said...

JD,
Regarding "prevailing/conservative theory is that small doses of radiation have a small probability of causing cancer", there is no safe threshold for dose and consequence.

Regarding, dose estimates, its my understanding that the estimated does (70 millirem) was scattered over a surrounding population when in fact the actually dose was delivered to a much smaller population in the narrow plume.

We seem to go round and round with you all over this same area, but it bears repeating that University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did find statistically significant incidence of lung cancer and leukemia.

JD said...

Gunter:

Regarding "no safe threshold for dose and consequence," this is untrue. The threshold depends on the consequence. Linear-no-threshold is far from being proven correct; it is used because of its simplicity and if it is indeed in error, it will overestimate the risks, hence being conservative. It also does not apply to all consequences. For example, acute radiation sickness is certainly a threshold effect. Noticeable symptoms require a dose of around 20 rem or so. It is not true that a dose of 20 millirem will cause acute radiation sickness in 1/1000th the number of people as a 20 rem dose.

As for the 70 millirem, that is the estimate for the most affected person. The dose they quote for 'scattered out among large population' is much smaller: "It is estimated that between March 28 and April 15, the collective dose resulting from the radioactivity released to the population living within a 50-mile radius of the plant was approximately 2,000 person-rems. The estimated annual collective dose to this population from natural background radiation is about 240,000 person-rems."

Can you send provide a link to a study that the Kemeny commission did not properly account for where the dose was distributed?

It bears repeating that while Stephen Wing's study found an increase in leukemia of 0.139% (and less for the other cancers cited), the subsequent study by Univ of Pittsburgh concluded: "In conclusion, the mortality surveillance of this cohort, with a total of almost 20 years of follow-up, provides no consistent evidence that radioactivity released during the TMI accident (estimated maximum and likely gamma exposure) has had a significant impact on the mortality experience of this cohort through 1998."

gunter said...

Mr. Barton,

What about a NRC branch section chief on site security evaluations being the author of the term "American Chernobyl" don't you understand?

Obviously, the term was coined to convey the comparison to catastrophic failure of a containment system,any reactor containment system, not simply the RBMK-1000.

Whether its a super-hot aerosol radioactive steam release from a LWR or a pall of radioactive smoke from a graphite fire from the RBMK---its the fact the radioactivity gets out into the weather system and is then distributed as radioactive gas and deposited as fallout that is relevant.

As for providing "the probabilities" of Mark I containment failure, suffice to say that even the promotionally prone AEC placed the risk so high to put the kibosh on additional construction of Mark 1's in 1972 need be enough. However, we still have 23 of the bogus designs operating in US today.