Monday, April 7, 2008

The Oil Drum Nuclear Debate

I have participated in Internet debates on a variety of subjects including anti-semitism, and anthropogenic global warming. In the first debate I found that people who took anti-semitic positions directed anger and hate against the Jewish people and their institutions. Almost inevitably they used distorted information to support their case. They reported false statements as true. They altered statements of Jewish leaders to prove that Jews had evile intention, and they ignored important facts. They also reported events out of context. Behind their arguments was a belief that Jews and their institutions were evil, and that hat for them could be excused because of the bad things that Jews had done.

The second internet debate I participated in focused on global warming. I have know about CO2 and global warming for a long time. I have told the story many times how in 1971, I sat in on an informal conference of scientist at ORNL in which Jerry Olsen gave a briefing on increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and the long term implications for global climate. A generation later the attack on Al Gore, for voicing an idea that I had accepted for a generation came as a shock. I have little doubt that the PR campaign against the idea of global warming was paid for by oil, coal and natural producers. Indeed I tracked the flow of money from oil and coal produces to right wing propaganda factories, and then on to well known global warming skeptics.

In debating global warming skeptics I noted that the same thinking pattern that I had noted in anti-semites. There is virtually no science behind the global warming skeptics position, and most skeptical "scientist" are not doing peer reviewed research. Indeed one of the most often quoted skeptics, Dr. Fred Seitz, was 20 years ago judged by his previous paymasters in the tobacco industry to be "not sufficiently rational to offer advice."

What I discovered as I debated global warming skeptics was their willingness to distort information, and their underlying anger and rage.

So what do we find in the Oil Drum Debate on Nuclear power?

Will Stewart charges that I am not credible because I am not a scientist. Of course I try to back up my statements with the work of highly credible scientists, so as Finrod pointed out, "The people you're really attacking are the ORNL scientists and engineers who pioneered the technology in the fifties and sixties. Without doubt, they were some of the most competent minds of their generation."

Critics of Nuclear power during the Oil drum debate demonstrated an astonishing degree of scientific incompetence. For example, I had argued:
M. King Hubbert states, "1 gram of U-235 releases 2.28 x 104 kw-hr of heat, which is equivalent to the heat of combustion of 3 tons of coal or of 13 barrels of oil. One pound of U-235 is equivalent to 1400 tons of coal or 6000 barrels of oil. Within narrow limits the same values are valid for U-238 and for thorium."

The energy ratio between uranium and coal is 280,000 to 1.

Kiashu shot back,
Um, I think you mean "the energy ratio between U-235 and coal is..."

Since U-235 makes up 0.71% by weight (1 part in 141) of the uranium found naturally, we then get not 280,000:1, but 1,9858:1; let's be generous and call it 2,000:1.

And then we must consider that potential energy is not work done, so that the potential energy of anything - uranium, coal, sunlight - won't all be turned into useful work done. So for example fuel rods might be uranium enriched to 3.5% by weight U-235, after one cycle it's about 0.8% U-235, so that 77% of the U-235 has been used, and 77% of its potential energy released. Thus in practice the 2,000:1 then becomes 1,540:1
I was astonishing by Kiashu's ignorance. Kiashu appeared to not have the slightest understanding of one of the most simple concepts of nuclear science.

Kiashu was completely unaware of his blunder, In the same comment he wrote,
They should have got someone anti-nuclear like me to write the article; when you're against something, you're familiar with the arguments against it, and will look very critically at the arguments in favour of it, so paradoxically can actually argue for it better than those supporting it.

Surely the source Kiashu blunder is his attitude toward science. In another comment Kiashu stated,
The thing is, some people believe in Jesus, some believe in Mohammed, and some believe in Science! . . .


Remember: "It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter..."

Always, grand claims. You get this not just from the nukers but from renewable fans, too. "My favoured technology has no problems, or if it does have problems they're easily solved, and future advances are inevitable, things which are just designs on paper will work perfectly. But the other lot has many problems, not easily solved, future advances are impossible, and those designs on paper will never be practical."

An honest approach would be to reject anything that's not currently commercially-proven, to acknowledge that each approach has its problems but that some problems are worth paying the price for the benefits they give.

But neither the nukers nor the renewable fans are keen on honesty, in general.
It is difficult for me to not feel anger when I encounter such a combination of ignorance and self approbation.

One of the intellectual errors is what I call ahistoricism, taking events out of their historical context. Thus Big Gav cited as evidence afinst the nuclear industry the health problems of cold war Native American uranium miners. Mine health and safety practices have changed dramatically since the cold war era, but big Gav does not mention that.

Some of the information distortion by the antinuclear side came from a failure to understand the information that debaters on the nuclear side used. In an exchange with Eric Blair, Soylent asked,
And do you really want farmers to toss all that uranium right where food crops are grown instead of co-mining it with phosphates? (to the tune of ~100 g per tonne of phosphate rock).

Blair answered.
The fertilizer, which the company describes as treated raffinate, is processed from wastes at Kerr-McGee's Sequoyah Fuels Facility here, one of two plants in the United States that purify milled uranium, a step in the process of making nuclear fuel rods for power plants.
In fact, the link that Blair provided,
did not refer to phosphate fertilizer at all.

The problem of uranium in phosphates fertilizer is well known.

One would expect that people who worried about problems like radiation from reactors and the disposal of radioactive "nuclear waste" would also be concerned with the presence of radioactive heavy metals in fertilizer. But this does not appear to be the case with Mr. Blair, who seemingly does not understand the issue.

Some of the critics of nuclear power assumed that we were headed for disaster. ccpo stated,
My account assumes TS is gonna HTF sooner rather than later; that collective action in the face of a massive economic downturn, geopolitical instability, famine, water shortages, energy shortages, etc., is highly unlikely; that GW is going to come at us faster than many think.
I would characterize ccpo's view as extreme and unwarranted pessimism, a willingness to give up without making an effort.

ccpo added:
Seriously: are there, now, currently, existing on this planet, working thorium reactors? I was pretty clear inn stating the essential components probably exist, wasn't I? And I never indicated they didn't work, did I?

The problem with an agenda? It affects how you perceive your world. Take off the radiation-affected glasses and read what is written, not what you want it to say.
I responded with a long discussion of the history of reactors that used the thorium fuel cycle, the current Indian thorium fuel development program including Indian reactors that currently use the thorium fuel cycles, reactors that the indians are building, and Indian plans to build thorium cycle reactors capable of producing 20 GWs of electricity by 2020. ccpo did not respond to my last comment.

Despit my original post, which demonstrated a supply of thorium capable of providing all of the power the united states needed for 400 years, anti-nuk commenters continued to argue that we are running out of nuclear fuel.

sofistek tried to rely on an argument about what no one knows.
No-one here knows that enough fuel will be extractable at needed rates without environmental impact. No-one here knows that future generations will eventually be able to sort out the problems we leave them with. You are playing the wishful thinking card. No more.

If "the next generation is dependent on us", then don't we owe it to them to ensure that they don't have to sort out our mess for the generation after them? Don't we owe it to them to try and find a way to live within the means provided by the earth (not just in energy)?

By basing an argument on what "no one knows" sofistek uses an argument form called an "appeal to ignorance." Appeals to ignorance are fallacious, and arguments based on them are invalid.

Beyond the problem with logic, sofistek seems to believe that we will fix things for future generations by living within the means provided us by the earth. Of course what those means were was the substance of my argument. sofistik argue
Proven reserves of uranium would last only 40-70 years, depending on where the bar is set in terms of price. And that is only at current consumption rates. Current production rates are below consumption and so stocks of weapons grade uranium are being used. Production rates may decline, of course, allowing a longer availability time but at reducing rates. More reserves will become economically proven, there is no doubt, but how much, and at what rates of production, requires some crossed fingers.

You fall into the group of people who thinks that the only way is up, when it comes to energy (which is only one of the many limits we face). Another way is to reduce our energy use, stop wasting so much and moving towards sustainable societies. Unfortunately this would require a contraction of the economy and that would be unthinkable - ever.

sofistik's argument ignored my post which provided evidence of American thorium reserves would last for at least 400 years and quite possibly thousands of years. This is denial, a refusal to accept information that is avaliable, a refusal to accept a better future than sofistek had assumed.

Confronted with strong evidence about the thorium reserve, sofistik argues
You still offer hopes rather than definites, even if the outlook for Thorium looks a little rosier. The USGS may sometimes be conservative but their World Petroleum Assessment could be considered rather optimistic, at least on the discovery side.

I'm not denying that some companies have plans for the Thorium industry, but then companies also had plans for the hydrogen industry 28 years ago. So it remains a hope rather than a fact. Not all companies with business plans turn out to be successful.

sofistik attempts to diminish my evidence with words like "hopes rather than definites." Probable reserves might be counted as hopes, but proven reserves are more than hopes. At this juncture it is safe to say that 400 years of American thorium reserve exist Lemhi Pass. This is a truth beyonds a reasonable doubt, not simply a hope. The comparison of a thorium industry to the hydrogen energy is bogus. sofistik has not pointed to any basis for his analogy between thorium technology and hydrogen technology.

One of the debate tactics of the anti-nuks was to discount scientists simply on the basis of where they worked.

pondlife said,
estimated radiation doses ingested by people living near the coal plants were equal to or higher than doses for people living around the nuclear facilities" - said a guy from Oak Ridge [a nuclear place] in a report..

I responded,

One of those guys from Oak Ridge was R.E. (Bob) Moore, a long time associate of my father. Moore along with J. P. McBride, J. P. Witherspoon, and R. E. Blanco published their finding on coal in article "Radiological Impact of Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants" in the December 8, 1978, issue of Science magazine. A publication in Science is a sign that the research of exceptional quality and importance.

My father wrote about Bob Moore: "Bob had an unusual ability to combine his knowledge of mathematics, physical chemistry and computer programming." Considering the quality of scientist my father worked with, this is high praise.

I could go on with this account, but I think by now I have sufficient evidence of the intellectual caliber of the anti-nuclear party to leave it at that. At least some in the anti-nuclear party want to believe that we are running out of all sorts of energy. Any effort to show tham that substitute energy sources exist is dismissed out of hand. Some in the anti-nuk camp have a low oppenion of science and of scientists. Some claim that the fact that research is done by scientists in Oak Ridge, automatically discredits it. The anti-nuclear camp seems to discount the very idea of technological progress. Some in the nuclear camp argue that if proven technology is not already in commercial service, no effort should ber made to do so. People who hold this view appear to wish to terminate all efforts toward technological progress. The anti-nuks have use any argument no mater how weak, counterfactual, irrational, illogical, and dishonest to further their case.

I could go on with this account, but I think by now I have sufficient evidence of the intellectual caliber of the anti-nuclear party to leave it at that. The anti-nuks have use any argument no mater how weak, counterfactual, irrational, illogical, and dishonest to further their case.


Anonymous said...

A decade of cooling could be seen as possible scientific evidence of something that is not Global Warming.

Charles Barton said...

I don't think we have evidence of a cooling trend. Arctic ices is still retreating.

Yogi said...

It’s ironic that you’ve been accused of fanaticism for making a calm and rational case for nuclear energy. Most of the real fanaticism on the Oil Drum seems to come from a few hard core Luddites and misanthropes. These are people who seem to be eagerly awaiting the collapse of industrial civilization and don’t want to hear about any technological solutions. They have a certain intellectual kinship with this guy:

The leader of a Russian doomsday sect has attempted to kill himself as his followers continue to emerge from a cave where they have been waiting for the end of the world.
Pyotr Kuznetsov was in hospital yesterday after he was discovered hitting himself over the head with a log. Members of his religious group have been hiding in a cave since November, believing that the world would end in May. (London Times).

Charles Barton said...

You have got it. The attitude is, the world is ending hah rah!

Anonymous said...


I am a GW skeptic. I have studied the arguments on both sides and I am qualified to do so (I have a BS in physics and an MBA).

I strongly support nuclear power (especially thorium MSR). The one silver lining I see to the foolishness over GW is that nuclear has beome more attractive.

Might I suggest a web site for some good impartial (no oil money or grant money) commentary on GW.


Charles Barton said...

The point of my story about hearing Jerry Olsen talk in 1971 about the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, is that Olsen was right about everything that he predicted would happened to our climate in the last generation. I am impressed when a scientific theory demonstrates the power to bring about produce predictions.

Anonymous said...


Many of the anti nuclear persons you debated on the Oil Drum share a kind of eco religion that has embraced GW as a club to restrict continued development.

A few things I have picked up regarding GW

a) the whole GW issue is being driven by eco religionist and grant seeking scientists. The US spends about $2B on GW research each year. If there is no GW crisis then there is no need to spend so much money vs other worthy areas.

b) Co2 is plant food. Commercial greenhouse add co2.

c) Co2 does contribute to warming but the effect is small and a log function. it is not linear and certainly not exponential. Thus since co2 is increasing linearly the effect on temp will be less in the future than it has been in the past.

d) most of the warming is in the winter, at night in the higher latitudes. read longer growing season, less ice, ....

We are most ever so slightly from a arctic climate to a tropical climate. (this is bad)

e) The most credible negative of co2 induced warming is higher sea levels. a foot or two over the next 100 yrs. But on the other hand we get longer growing seasons in the higher latitudes and increased plant growth from co2 fertilization.

So if you have a beach house build if a few feet higher, otherwise you can relax.

Greg Barton said...

Anonymous, you can be as anti-GW as you long as you're pro-nuke. :)

Man, unc, that Eric Blair is a wacko.

Charles Barton said...

Anon, You are repeating every verse of the anti-GW line. I stopped debating global warming skeptics some time ago. We are starting to run out of oil, coal will be gone in another hundred years of so. Using carbon based fuels creates pollution and has adverse impacts on human health. So even if AGW weren't happening, we need to do something about energy.

GW skeptics have a choice. Either come to the table and join the conversation about post-carbon energy, or disempower yourself by ignoring it.

Anonymous said...


I'm for policy based on solid science. I see the same poor science support for GW as I see in opposition to nuclear. Many times it is the same eco religion member making the poor arguments.

The most effective GW skeptics are engineers/scientists from non-climate science backgrounds (they are not looking for their next grant). The highly qualified persons are looking at the data and analysis supporting GW and finding many serious problems.

I can easily understand why someone who is strongly supportive of more nuclear power (especially thorium based) would feel comfortable with the co2 is evil theme. As I said previously, this is the silver lining in all the GW foolishness. Some eco sensitive persons will support nuclear since it is the only serious base load technology with no co2 impact.

So lets get some of the $2B/yr spent on GW hand wringing spent on thorium MSR development. If it makes some more comfortable thinking of this in the context of a GW insurance policy that's fine by me.

But please, do not call GW skeptics oil shills, nuts etc. It simply is not true and puts you in the same company as the eco-religionist blocking nuclear development.

Orem, Ut (retired)

Anonymous said...


I should have added..

I believe most serious skeptics (the engineers and scientist) are generally supportive of more nuclear power. This is especially true with the nuclear waste advantages of thorium.

I personally would be happy if coal was phased out quickly and replaced by thorium nuclear. It can be cheaper and cleaner and safer compared to anything else. One does not need to believe co2 is bad to come to this conclusion.

So keep pushing the thorium message hard. Its a winner.


Charles Barton said...

Charles H, I understand your beliefs are sincere. I see no point in arguing with you about AGW. There are other equally pressing reasons for switching to a carbon free energy economy. The peaking of oil production, for example, and the expected world wide shortage of coal production. The cost of natural gas is also increasing significantly. At any rate, we out to be thinking about preserving fossil fuel stocks for future use in chemical industrial production.

There are significant health related cost associated with the use of fossil fuels in transportation and energy production. At present producers and consumers do not pay those health costs.

Charles Barton said...

Man, unc, that Eric Blair is a wacko. - GB

It has gotten worse today.

An old mountain lady in Campbell County, Tennessee once said to me, "Pay it no never mind. He don't know what he's sayin."


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