Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Evil Reactor: David Bower's Decent

At one time David Brower actually supported nuclear power. That was when Brower was fighting Dams. But once the fight against dams was over, a new issue arose over the siting of nuclear power plants. David Brower explained to Plowboy in 1973:

BROWER: It was just honest differences of opinion between myself and the rest of the Sierra Club's board of directors. Superficial differences about how international we should get, how far we should go into publishing . . . and whether or not I was competent. Well, I was always in competent and I told them so and we pretty much had ourselves a Mexican standoff on these minor issues when we found ourselves face to face on a major matter: atomic energy.

When Pacific Gas & Electric tried to locate a nuclear reactor at Bodega Head in California, most of the Sierra Club's board of directors refused to enter the fight against the installation. That battle was fought by David Tesonen's Northern California Association to Preserve Bodega Head and Harbor and, although I was still in the Sierra Club, I helped David's group as much as I could. My action ruffled some feathers but I was allowed to remain in the organization.

Then we came to the Diablo Canyon proposal where PG&E wanted to build a major nuclear installation on the last unspoiled bit of California coast between Cape Mendocino and the Mexican border. That's a long, long stretch and there was only this one little spot left and PG&E wanted it. Actually, the company really preferred to build at Nipomo Dunes—which is beautiful and which most of the other Sierra Club directors justifiably wanted to save—and had substituted the Diablo Canyon location only at the insistence of the club. But the decision to recommend the Diablo site was made in spite of the fact that none of the voting directors had ever seen it!

I urged that the decision be delayed until the Sierra Club's executives could at least inspect Diablo Canyon before reaching a verdict on the matter, but I was outvoted. A great deal of pressure was then built up to remove me from the club and my resignation was, finally, a forced one.

Brower was unwilling and probably unable to compromise over the Diablo Canyon issue, and preferred leaving the Sierra Club to compromise. Browder had been able in the past to compromise over issues involving dam siting, issues which involved far greater environmental damage than that which would occur at Diablo Canyon. Brower told Plowboy:

Even as recently as `69, when I was fighting with the Sierra Club about the Diablo Canyon reactor, I was saying, "No, not there . . . put it somewhere else on the California coast." I still had the illusion, you see, that atomic energy could be a safe alternative to damming all our rivers for power.

Brower claims that his change of heart came about as a result of concerns about nuclear waste. Brower claimed that he first learned about the problem during the 1950's, but continued to support nuclear power until the beginning of the 1970's. When he became more aware of the problem. And exactly what was the problem? According to Brower, "nuclear waste . . . is lethal and which we have absolutely no way of disposing of (it). There is no place where we can safely store worn-out reactors or their garbage. No place! We tried burying the waste at sea and the concrete cannisters that held it cracked open. We've pumped it into cavities in solid rock and found that it spread through the rock. We've put it in Kansas salt mines, only to learn that the mines leak."

Here Brower argues, in effect, that if a problem has proven difficult to solve, it is impossible to solve.

Brower acknowledges that "there are many different kinds of radioactive waste and each has its own half-life . . ." But he engages in a tactic which i call typlification by the worst case, or the fallacy of composition, "to simplify matters, I base my calculations on the worst one and that's plutonium." Now what Brower calls "Plutonium" in facts is a mixture of several isotopes that is referred to as "reactor grade plutonium. It is called reactor grade plutonium for the reason that it works well as reactors fuel. Why then dispose of reactor fuel? Why consider it waste?

Scientists like Alvin Weinberg and my father could have told Brower that almost all of what he called nuclear garbage, was useful stuff, had Brower been willing to listen, but Brower was not willing to listen, because Brower wanted to rave, He wanted an evil to fight. He wanted a band of followers to protest. He wanted to be seen as as a brave and heroic defender of the just, the moral, the right: Brower posed as a spokesman for future generations, and as a wise and rational man who could foresee those future generations "sit(ing) in judgment on the madness—or immorality—of the idea. "

Brower is cognatively trapped by his own language. What is it which Brower refers to when he uses the words "reactor waste." What is lethal, cannot be disposed of or contained, and in 20,000 generations it will be just as lethal, just as dangerous as it is today. If we posed this question as a riddle, the answer startlingly would be "old age." Brower was 61 the year he gave the interview. His account of reactor waste is absurd scientifically, but has somehow become tied up with his own mortality. Brower cannot sanely protest the impinging years, but he can indulge in substitute protests.

Brower also denounced the dangers posed by reactors to out own generastion:
(T)here's the problem of cooling the plants. If a reactor loses its cool, it can quickly go out of control . . . even if it's shut down promptly. Every reactor absolutely must have an effective emergency cooling system and the Atomic Energy Commission has made this requirement quite clear. But a year's hearing in 1972—before the AEC's safety and licensing board—revealed a most alarming incompetence in emergency core cooling systems, engineering and testing.

In the face of this revelation, it is certainly odd that the AEC board has ruled "irrelevant" the questions addressed to the AEC's regulatory staff about present reactor safety criteria. Well, the AEC may wish to think that such questions are irrelevant . . . but the public had better not dare think so.

Do you know what a runaway reactor can do? It can produce a radioactive cloud that extends 100 miles downwind and kills everything—that could include anywhere from 10,000 to one million people—in two weeks flat. The fallout from the accident, of course, can cause major injury and damage even cause further away than that.

Imagine what Con-Ed's Indian Point reactor—which, by the way, has already had a one-million-dollar fuel leak—could do to Manhattan. If they hadn't caught that fuel leak in time and the Indian Point reactor had runaway and the wind had been wrong . . . how many civilians could have escaped Manhattan? Or even known which way to go? Very few. Indian Point could wipe out Manhattan. Just kill 'em all. There's no point in messing with that kind of risk . . . there just isn't that much reward in it.

In fact a core meltdown following coolant loss occurred at Three Mile Island some six years after Brower spoke. This lead in turn to a partial core meltdown. As George Parker and my father had foreseen, there was an escaped of radioisotopes, but almost all the radioisotope were contained within the reactor containment structure. Most of the rest of the escaping radioisotopes., were contained within the fence of the reactor complex. Most of the radioisotopes that escaped into the atmosphere were nobel gases, which were not chemically or biologically active. It is extimated that the average person in the exposure area received a radiation dose equivalent to a chest x-ray. Subsequent research showed that the radiation relase caused no cancer cases. The Three Mile Island accident, while it cost the power company money, caused no deaths, no injuries, and no illnesses. Thus contrary to the Plowboy interviewer. "Nuclear power installations" did not "present even more immediate and horrifying dangers." What happened at Three Mile Island was an industral accident, which frightened people who had believed the likes of Brower. As an industrial accident, the TMI accident destroyed an exceedingly expensive peice of equiptment, but unlike many coalmining accidents, it did not cost human lives.

Brower's Plowboy interviewer was throwing him soft pitches. "(L)et's say that the designers and engineers lick the emergency cooling problem. Let's say, in fact, that they design a perfect reactor," the interviewer suggested.

Brower responce reflected his misanthrpy:
"Even if you build the perfect reactor, you're still saddled with a people problem and an equipment problem. What happens when the guy who runs the reactor gets out of bed wrong or decides, for some reason, that he wants to override his instruction sheet some afternoon? What happens when a part breaks down somewhere inside that piece of machinery and it isn't perfect anymore?"

"If you'll look at the records that the AEC has of the little accidents—the lesser disasters—that have already taken place, you'll see that incidents of this nature are almost common. There was one reactor mishap where a whole series of 32 things that "couldn't go wrong" did. One fed the other, fed the other, this wasn't going, that valve wasn't quite ready to work and so on. It is just too much to expect perfection and the risk of anything less is just too enormous."

But is brower right about human error? Reactor s are designed to be foolproof. Reactor incidents, which Brower referred to as "lesser disasters" - note his pejorative language - were lessons to be learned in the quest for nuclear safety. What Brower, the misanthrope, underestimaed was the capasity of reactor safety experts to learn from such experiences.

The fact is that the United States Navy has operated hundreds of seagoing reactors over the last 60 years, and never experienced the sort of catastrophic failure Brower talked about. Does the Navy know something that Brower didn't?

Having told us what a bad thing plutonium is, Brower next took on breeder reactors:

The breeder reactor has all the problems we've just discussed—in spades—and introduces a few brand new ones all its own. The threat, I think, has best been described by the AEC itself which recently pointed out that breeder reactors should not be developed until a safe fission reactor has been built . . . and, of course, that hasn't happened yet.

Over and above the "ordinary" nuclear powerplant dangers, however, you must realize that breeder reactors—which produce plutonium at the same time they generate usable power—would throw us right into the middle of a plutonium economy. This is the same plutonium that must be isolated from all living things for 500,000 years . . . and once the breeders are introduced, we'll soon be shipping it back and forth across the country from one nuclear installation to another by the ton.

Now this is a very dangerous undertaking. First, there's the increased risk of exposing innocent bystanders to that lethal cargo and, second, it practically invites the criminal element to wreak all kinds of havoc by hijacking the material. As Dr. Donald Geesaman of the AEC has documented quite vividly, the transportation system of this country is so heavily infiltrated by the Mafia that they can divert any shipment of anything they want, at any time.

Now it only takes about 15 kilos (33 pounds) of plutonium to make a Nagasaki-type bomb. I don't know how to do it and I don't want to know how . . . but other people do. People in organizations like the Black September Movement. People who are extremely clever and who are willing to sacrifice anything to get their way. Once we open the door to the plutonium economy, we expose ourselves to absolutely terrible, horrifying risks from these people.

We don't need all those dangers. The additional energy isn't worth it. The breeder program should be forgotten . . . stopped!

Browder is being downright silly here. The AEC in 1973 had a proposal to build a safe breeder reactor, the Molten Salt Breeder Reactor. The Molten Salt Breeder produced U233 instead of plutonium, thus negating Browers objections to plutonium breeder technology. Brower was either to lazy to inform himself about this technology, or too dishonest to pass the information on to the Plowboy readers.

But even given plutonium breeding Brower is commting a numerous logical error. The whole point of breeding plutonium is to burn it as nuclear fuel in reactors, as Brower well knows. Yet brower tells us, "plutonium that must be isolated from all living things for 500,000 years."
Well quite obviously the best way to isolate plutonium is to stick it in a reactor and burn it up as reactor fuel.

Well what about diversion by the Mafia? This is the height of Brower's silliness, but diversion by terrorists is a more serious issue. First it should be said what Brower failed to point out, That plutonium shipments had been going on routinely for 25 years at the time of the Brower interview. These shipments were usually conducted by the military, but my father's experience demonstrates that shipments in multi-kilo amounts were not unusual between atomic energy facilities. Needless to say Plutonium was not shpped by parcel post, or UPS. Considerable care was taken with plutonium security.

Brower is engaged in setting up staw man conditions. He insists:
At this point, I don't want to see any atomic plants operating anywhere with fission energy until [1] we find a very large group of absolutely infallible people to build reactors, [2] we have a still larger group of infallible people to operate them and [3] we've turned every one of the Black Septembers in the world white and persuaded God to stop acting. When all that happens, atomic energy will be safe. Until then, forget it.

But are we so imperfect that we can't prevent "the Indian Point reactor" from running away while "the wind had been wrong" so that civilians would need to escape Manhattan. The Three Mile Island accident showed that imperfect people could design, build and operate reactors that will not have the sort of mega-disaster Browder envisioned. Three Mile Island showed that nuclear power is safe to live with.

What about the challenge posed by terrorism. Elsewhere I discuss the problems that would be faced by terrorists who would attempt to gain control of Plutonium as part of a plan to build atomic bomb. My own contention is that building an anthrax bomb would be far easier and that it would also be more likely to cause the civilian population harm.

In his 1973 Plowboy interview David Brower posed as an expert on Atomic Energy and the problems presented by nuclear power. In the course of the interview Brower presented many debatable statements as facts, and also made numerous statements that were just plain wrong. Brower talked about human fallibility, the fallibility of scientists, and nuclear plant operators, but he completely ignored the fallibility of one human being, that is the fallibility of David Brower.

Brower's comments were republished by Mother Earth News. Reader Richard A. Morneau
of Lawrence, Mass. responded:

David Brower's warning about the dangers of nuclear reactors was interesting, but grossly exaggerated. The interview depressed me because people who are unfamiliar with nuclear energy can easily be prejudiced against this power source simply because they do not know all the facts or because they've been given false information.

I would like to counter a few points made by Mr. Brower. I mention now that what I say does not include everything that could be said about the situation. I will only speak of those things that I feel most competent to speak about.

Mr. Brower says, "Man-made nuclear reactors are not so well engineered as the sun, and none has been so thoroughly tested." This statement is ridiculous. First of all, the sun produces its energy through nuclear fusion...a much more energetic means than the nuclear fission used in nuclear power reactors. Nuclear fusion and nuclear fission are completely different means of producing energy. Secondly, many billions of dollars have been spent in the study and development of nuclear power engineering. To speak of the sun as being more "thoroughly tested" is equally ridiculous, unless he is including sunbathing as some form of scientific test.

The BrookhavenReport , "Theoretical Possibilities and Consequences of Major Accidents in Large Nuclear Power Plants", was published in 1957. In the 16 years since then, the Atomic Energy Commission's safety requirements have become much more stringent.

Mr. Brower claims that if the maximum credible accident actually occurred and the emergency core cooling system failed, the radiation released to exposed populations could be lethal up to 100 miles away. First of all, we must assume that the accident will extremely unlikely event Secondly, we must assume that the emergency cooling system even more unlikely event. When the AEC appraises the effectiveness of a particular safety system, they always assume that the system can fail. Therefore, they require that additional safety systems be built, so, if the first system fails, the other systems will be able to handle the emergency completely on their own. This is true of the emergency core cooling system, which is not just one system, but - usually - three...each capable of effectively cooling the core by itself. The probability of all three systems failing simultaneously is extremely low.

Mr. Brower mentioned several other points, all of which - I think - are exaggerated to the point of foolishness. I suggest that Mr. Brower (and anyone else interested) write to the AEC or any nuclear plant and ask them how these "accidents" are prevented. I have no doubt that the explanations given will destroy anyone's fears on the dangers of nuclear power production.

Finally, nuclear physicists, nuclear engineers and radiation health physicists, after having thoroughly studied nuclear engineering and radiation, continue to work 40 hours each week in what Mr. Brower would consider extremely dangerous situations. If anyone understands the hazards involved in these fields, I'm sure it's these men and women. Yet they continue on their jobs in complete safety. When I fly on a commercial jetliner, I trust the pilot in his ability to get me to my destination safety. I assume he knows more about flying than I do. I can only hope that Mr. Brower and people with similar viewpoints will realize their mistake in not trusting people who are certainly much more knowledgeable on the subject.

No comments:


Blog Archive

Some neat videos

Nuclear Advocacy Webring
Ring Owner: Nuclear is Our Future Site: Nuclear is Our Future
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
Get Your Free Web Ring
Dr. Joe Bonometti speaking on thorium/LFTR technology at Georgia Tech David LeBlanc on LFTR/MSR technology Robert Hargraves on AIM High