Thursday, August 7, 2008

Life Stands Explained

"We have meet the enemy and he is us." - Pogo (Walt Kelly)

“When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries of life disappear and life stands explained.” - Mark Twain

"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken". - Oliver Cromwell

Robert Merkel left a comment on Nuclear Green overnight, and by coincidence, this morning I came across a post on nuclear power by Robert at larvatusprodeo, an Australian blog. Merkel's post brought this very illuminating comment from carbonsink (David Michie):

Dr Merkel, for a “deluded leftist academic” you sure are keen on nuclear power. I like you lack of tribalism on this issue — independent thought is so rare these days. If there’s one thing that annoys me its the “nukes are bad” mantra you get at left-wing blogs, and the equally idiotic “nukes are good” mantra at right-wing blogs, and neither side can adequately explain why.

Anyone who thinks nukes should be ruled out completely really isn’t taking climate change or peak oil seriously. Nasty as it is, the alternatives are worse

Mitchie's reference to tribalism is especially apt, because, ideology so far trumps information in many discussions on important issues.   Our first problem in discussions of nuclear power is to overcome the "my side is right" mentality and look at the facts.  The problem with the factual approach, is the depth of nuclear illiteracy.   I had the great good fortune to have grown up in a community of nuclear scientists, where reactor technology was discussed on the front page of the newspaper.   The newspaper editor/publisher happened to be the brother-in-law of a nuclear scientist, so he had to be well informed.  And of course my father was himself a reputable scientist.  That meant that I got great information.  

I know realize that the caliber of science that existed at ORNL from the 1940's to the 1970's was as high as anyplace in the world.  During the 4 years my father spent working along side George Parker from 1960 to 1964, the two of them certainly did world class work on reactor safety, and their peers recognized that.  Scientists came from all over the world to talk with them, and in some cases work with them.  This was but one of many ORNL accomplishments.  

During the 1970's ORNL was the first research institution to recognized the CO2/climate change problem.  I have noted else where, that I learned of the CO2/climate change problem in the spring of 1971, while I was a e supernumerary at ORNL. Thus my view of nuclear science and its rational was on an entirely different level that of the average people. 

I have elsewhere noted that nuclear critic Ralph Nader had access to first rate information about nuclear safety, through his sister Claire's friendship with Alvin Weinberg. Nader had direct contact with Weinberg on occasions, and would have been able to talk with him any time he wanted too. Nader had access to other ORNL scientists. Later Nader recorded a conversation he had had with an ORNL scientist about nuclear safety. Nader discounted the scientists discussion of "defence in depth", a key reactor safety concept, as jargon. As the mountain folk of East Tennessee say, that was plumb ignorant. Nader simply and willfully chose to be ignorant of the information ORNL scientist could give him.

The "Sovietologist" calls attention to a comment by 'Wolverine" about a debate on low level radiation that I triggered by challenging Joe Romm's assertions on low level radiation. (See here, here here, and here)
'Wolverine" wrote:

Good post until you got to the nukes v. coal issue. While I assume you oppose both coal and nuclear power, Oak Ridge is not a credible source for this information, as it is heavily invested in nukes, though probably more as weapons than as energy. Just as you would not use a "study" by the KKK to determine whether racism was worse in the U.S. or Africa, it's equally illegitimate to use the study you cited for the purpose you did.

The "Sovietologist" is, like me, an Oak Ridge boy, although from a younger generation. He was not amused by 'Wolverine" remarks. He wrote:
"Wolverine" apparently assumes that we Oak Ridgers are just Klansmen with radiation suits instead of sheets. I cannot help but be rather put of by the implications. After all, so many of my neighbors, friends, and relatives are being tarred by a very wide brush here. Especially given the lofty and humanitarian goals that ORNL researchers have put themselves to over the decades, and in many cases even achieved. Many of them were (and are) not just good, but great scientists. The work of ORNL researchers stands on its own merits--science does not operate on a principle of "appeals to authority."

I can only say, "amen". But I would like to call attention to the anti-scientific attitude that underlies "Wolverine's" statement. If ORNL researchers, whose have contributions of fundamental importance to many areas of science, have the same lever of credibility that KKK members have on race, what does that say about science as a whole. Is this not an expression of hostility to all science by implication?

Much of the low level radiation debate with Romm centered on the issue of natural sources of radiation.

Romm Made the following comment:
Radiation is not radiation no matter where it comes from. I’m rather surprised to see you say that. There are different types of radiation, and there are different exposure rates. There is, of course, internal and external exposure. It is entirely possible that humans have evolved to deal with the background constant rate of radiation, but would have difficulty dealing with repetitive dosing of a localized nature.

I prefer to rely on the decades long research synthesized by the decades long national academy panel.

Of course people who live near nuclear plants favor them more than people who don’t. I can’t think of anything more obvious. People who smoke favor smoking more than people who don’t smoke.

Romm's central claim is "humans have evolved to deal with the background constant rate of radiation, but would have difficulty dealing with repetitive dosing of a localized nature." But Romm seems only concerned about radiation from reactors. The radiation exposure of flight crews, people who live above granite or shale rock formations containing high levels of uranium and thorium, people who sleep with mates who who eat bananas every day, people who live in Denver, and people who receive large numbers of dental and medical X-rays and radioactive tracers in medical tests, would all seem to meet Romm's criterion of "repetitive dosing of a localized nature", Yet Romm repeatedly denies this, and insists that nuclear workers and people who live close to reactors are at uniquely risk for low level "repetitive" radiation "doses of a localized nature".

"Brad F." responded,
Joe, I hope you are still following this thread because I’m going to repeat my question from above and I think it deserves to be answered.

You have asserted that manmade radiation is somehow different, and worse, than natural background radiation. If this is not what you meant, then please clarify. When challenged on this, you have referred to methods of exposure rather than types of radiation.

To reiterate, in what ways are manmade alpha, beta and gamma radiation different than natural alpha, beta and gamma radiation?

DLH noted:
re: Backgound vs internal dosing - what about eating bananas, brazil nuts, drinking orange juice… all have low levels of radiation, and nothing to do with fallout, coal plants, or nuclear reactors. Is a diet rich in fruit and nuts risky and to be avoided?

Joe Romm seems to believe that there are no problems of nuclear power that can be solved. Thus if there is a danger from radiation to nuclear workers, there must be, in Romm's mind, no possible way to avert the danger. The only solution, according to Romm, is to not build reactors. 

Romm's basic difficulties were all identified by Francis Bacon nearly 4 centuries ago.  Bacon noted that four types of idols - that is mental images created by words - impair our thinking.   They are:

Idols of the tribe - "The idols of the tribe are inherent in human nature and the very tribe or race of man; for man's sense is falsely asserted to be the standard of things..... [They]...arise either from the uniformity of the constitution of mans spirit, or its prejudices, or its limited faculties or restless agitations, or from the interference of the passions, or the incompetence of the senses...." (

Idols of the den - "The idols of the den are those of each individual; for everybody (in addition to the common errors in the race of man) has his own individual den or cavern, which intercepts or corrupts the light of nature, either from his own peculiar and singular disposition, or from, his education and intercourse with others, or from his reading, and thre authority acquired by those whom he reverences and admires, or from the different impressions produced on the mind, as it happens to be preoccupied and predisposed...."

Idols of the market - "...formed by the reciprocal intercourses and society of man with man....for men converse by means of language, but words are formed at will of the generality, and there arises from a bad and unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction to the mind. Nor can definitions and explanations with which learned men are won't to guard and protect themselves in some instances afford a complete remedy - words manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and innumerable controversies and fallacies."

Idols of the theater - "...there are idol which have crept into men's minds from the various dogmas of peculiar systems of philosophy, and also from the perverted rules of demonstration...for we regard all the systems of philosophy hitherto received or imagined, as so many plays brought out and performed, creating fictitious and theatrical worlds."

We all face a life long struggle with these idols, if we have the ambition to know truth. If I were perfect in this regard, I might have reason to mock. I am hardly perfect in matters of truth. Indeed is not the point of an education, to learn to give up on what we think we know, and settle for only that which lies within our grasp?

"We have meet the enemy, and he is us." 


randal.leavitt said...

Here is an interesting conundrum. Which is worse for the health of nuclear plant workers - exposure to the radiation levels that exist in todays plants, or being replaced by robots. The robot solution is immanent.

Charles Barton said...



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