Friday, January 30, 2009

Scientific American Hack David Biello Distorts Nuclear Technology

When I was a teenage boy I would walk to the library every month to read the latest issue of Scientific American. I would have never dreamed then that the then-august Scientific American would one day be reduced to the status of an anti-nuclear propaganda organ. Anti-nuclear hack and Scientific American Technical editor David Biello, an ex-Hollywood entertainment writer, is a big fan of the fanatic anti-nuclear blog Grist. He is a faithful redactor of the Grist line on Nuclear technology. Biello has turned Scientific American's electronic edition into a propaganda mouthpiece for the David Roberts/Joe Romm/Amory Lovins anti-nuclear party line. Biello, a journalism school graduate, clearly has little comprehension of nuclear technology. For example, in a January 27 article on spent nuclear fuel Biello talks about two options, sequestration, and "so-called fast-breeder reactors". So-called? Apparently Biello's comprehension of nuclear technology does not extend to understanding the management of neutrons in reactors. No doubt the concept of thermal breeding would mystify Biello.

Biello follows up his mention of the "so-called fast breeders" with an obligatory account of the 1995 shut down of the Japanese Monju LMFBR. Reader "bhoglund' caught an error in Biello's text that has since been corrected in the online article. The original text stated, according to bhoglund's comment, "... including a fire caused by a leak of its molten salt coolant, ..." That is right folks, Biello did not know the difference between Molten Salt and Liquid Sodium.

Now as my readers know I am not a big fan of sodium-cooled reactors, but Biello seems to think that they represent the only option in reactor disposal of nuclear waste, and of course they do not. CANDU reactor technology offers a second reactor option. And of course, Molten Salt Reactor/LFTR technology produces excellent synergies in for the disposal of reactor-grade plutonium and other nuclear waste actinides. Now why doesn't Biello know this? You would think that Scientific American could find a technology editor who actually knew something about nuclear technology, not some ignorant journalism school graduate.

Biello ritually recites every one of the obligatory anti-nuclear motifs. Guess who he consults on the Uranium availability question?
"The energy payback time of a nuclear power plant is at present about 11 years compared with natural gas at half a year, by 2070, Storm van Leeuwen found, the amount of energy it takes to mine, mill, enrich and fabricate one metric ton of uranium fuel may be larger than 160 terajoules—the amount of energy one can generate from it.
That is right, Biello uncritically quotes Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, who he describes as "energy and technology analyst at Ceedata consultancy in the Netherlands". Biello, of course did not Google "Ceedata consultancy" which appears to be nothing more than a front designed to add weight to Storm van Leeuwen exceedingly meager credentials. Nor did Biello google "Storm van Leeuwen" and "discredited" Bello goes along with the Ceedata consultancy gag, telling us that the us that "the Ceedata consultancy . . . advises European governments on nuclear issues . . ." well not quite, Storm van Leeuwen gets paid through an EU slush fund assigned to European Greens, for writing anti-nuclear propaganda. It is exceedingly damming to Biello's credibility that he relies on Storm van Leeuwen defective analysis of the EROEI of Uranium nuclear technology.
"The energy payback time of a nuclear power plant is at present about 11 years compared with natural gas at half a year," Storm van Leeuwen argues, when the full cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant at the end of its useful life is included. "The cost in the U.K. for dismantling a reactor is now estimated at about 7 billion euros ($9.9 billion) per reactor of one gigawatt-electrical. That's before the first bolt has even been loosened."

And by 2070, Storm van Leeuwen found, the amount of energy it takes to mine, mill, enrich and fabricate one metric ton of uranium fuel may be larger than 160 terajoules—the amount of energy one can generate from it.
Biello offers a form of pseudo-balance to his account by noting that
one metric ton of natural uranium yields nearly 20,000 times as much energy as the equivalent amount of coal—the cheapest form of electric generation at present. In other words, one metric ton of uranium can produce the same amount of electricity generated by burning more than 19,000 metric tons of coal.
But as Robert Niles tells us
balance . . . ought to mean that truth gets treated like truth and lies get treated like lies.
Balance is only possible when you are sorting out lies from truth, not when you perpetuate them.

Biello does the usual anti-nuclear song and dance about nuclear safety. Thus fundamental nuclear safety concepts, like passive safety, inherent safety, defense-in-depth are simply ignored, while much of the article is devoted to the safety problems of the Davis–Besse reactor. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are also discussed with emphasis on operator error. Biello claims that the Chernobyl reactor
exploded through its containment
as if the Chernobyl reactor had a containment structure. Needless to say, Biello does not discuss the history of nuclear safety, does not discuss the the lessons learn from the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. He does not discuss strategies designed to prevent human error from causing nuclear accidents. But we cannot expect an anti-nuclear hack to understand the difference between nuclear safety and talking about accidents including accidents that did not happen.


donb said...

I too once enjoyed reading Scientific American. But quite often now they choose to leave the dry road of science and instead slog through the swamp of politics.

Readers would be much better served with a good article on the LFTR, stating the history, current state of development, and remaining problems to be overcome for commercial deployment. Analysis of energy payback time, fuel availability, waste products, etc. would also be in order.

If their current direction keeps up, they should rename themselves the Politicized Science American.

mdf said...

American Scientist is the replacement for what Scientific American used to be. The 2009 Jan-Feb issue has an article on CHP, as well as other interesting subjects. Maybe they can be offered an article article on the LFTR?

Charles Barton said...

MDF, a replacement or an imposter? This scientific can and should not be trusted. i trusted the other one.

Jason Ribeiro said...

Charles, at a quick glance it looked like Biello wrote several articles, but I didn't have the heart to read past the first 2 paragraphs of his drivel. I couldn't believe this was coming from SciAm. It's really fallen apart as a reputable magazine.

I noted that readers could leave a comment if they were signed in. Perhaps you ought to copy paste your whole article here as a reader comment.

Anonymous said...

Aren't you being too kind to Storm van der Leeuwen by merely describing him as "discredited"? Shouldn't we be linking him to the Club of Rome (IIRC he was their chief secretary in the Netherlands), and their depopulationist agenda?

I want people to HATE the anti-nuclear movement as intensely as they hate Nazism.

Lynne said...

Sadly, it seems that many scientific publications and organizations have been co-opted by people with agendas that have nothing to do with science.

Josh said...

Argh, I hate this! Let's lynch Biello, journalism school graduate! Ha! More like Hollywood hack! That's why they can never get science right in movies - people like him write that crud!

Long live sience! Down with Biello!

Advance Technology Tools said...

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