Two neutrons short of a critical reactor
Among the Western public, the use of nuclear power is a very contentious issue, primarily related to the fear of the possible harm it could do. It is hardly unique. Such concerns also extend to genetically modified foods, vaccines, mobile phones, pesticides and nanotechnology. Attention seeking alarmists and sensation hungry journalists naturally capitalise on these bogey men by conjuring up all manner of contrived scenarios by which public health is threatened.
But how seriously should we take these threats?
The world is an inherently dangerous place. Your monitor could catch fire in a moment, burning down your house, taking you with it. The risk is small, but still present. Normally, we do not worry about such trivial hazards as the flammability of electronics, because we accept a small amount of risk in exchange for the life we want, just as we accept the dangers of crossing the road, or driving on the road, or taking the train, or using an elevator, or eating in a restaurant. Did you see them prepare your food safely? If anyone told you that it was too dangerous to eat in a respectable restaurant, you would dismiss them as paranoid crackpots. Theoretically, their concerns may make sense, but the risk is so low and speculative, that it is pointless devoting much though to it.
It is called FUD, or fear, uncertainty and doubt, and it depends on exaggerated and hypothetical risks to encourage anxiety. The entire basis is that if it cannot be deterministically proven to be safe, then it is too dangerous, regardless of how low the risk actually is. Purveyors of FUD set a criterion of zero risk.
This is an unworkable criterion and in most aspects of life, nobody applies it, except for in certain fringe areas such as the ones mentioned above. This can happen because, being much newer and more mysterious to most people, they feel removed from the lives of most people. Having grown food for millennia using conventional farming methods, genetic engineering, despite the huge benefits it can bring, may seem like something we can do without. This allows the luxury of the unworkable criterion of zero risk. For the highly dangerous activity of road transport, which is so ingrained into all aspects of our lives, we cannot so easily divorce ourselves from it. The risks are there, but we cannot imagine not travelling by road so we overlook those risks.
An activist, journeying to a rally to protest the dangers of a nuclear power station, is orders of magnitude more likely to be harmed by the journey there- and that includes travelling by environmentally friendly bicycle or foot- than anyone living near to the power station by any tritium that make accidentally leak.
And when we talk about risk, we are not talking about the probability of an accident or malfunction occurring, but about the probability of the public coming to harm as a result of them. That includes both the likelihood of the accident and the severity of its consequences. Several commentators have repeatedly criticised the NRC for developing a superfluous and expensive regulatory minefield by focusing on the former and not the latter.
When evaluating risk, everything must be kept in context. Demanding zero risk is irrational. The simple act of standing up and saying it, is not without the minute possibility of you accidentally choking yourself to death or tripping and cracking your head open. Yes, they are pretty silly things about which to worry, but under the rules of FUD and the fear of what cannot be deterministically proven safe, are legitimate concerns.
FUD is illogical. It has no place in mature debate.
A QUESTION OF MOTIVE
It is unfortunate that the science always has a tendency to fall away on such issues. Attitudes towards nuclear power can often be clouded by political and ideological bias. A particularly prevalent misdemeanour that often crops up in these issues is the tactic of questioning motives of proponents of an argument. Many people and groups have something to gain in what they propose beyond the satisfaction of being noble, philanthropic activists. There are many forms of wealth in the world, most of which are not measures in pounds or dollars, which can still be the driving force behind a person’s greed. Self-interest can be found everywhere. It is not too much to say that when British Energy advocates more nuclear power, they have something to gain from this and hence they cannot be considered a totally objective source.
The problem is when inference of motive becomes a replacement for refutation. The simple fact that British Energy stand to benefit from their argument is used to summarily dismiss it. Sure they have something to gain from further implementation of nuclear power, but that does not necessarily mean they are wrong when they advocate it. If they firmly believe they are right, then they have all the more motive to make that known. Yet, it is commonly the case that proponents of nuclear power are dismissed based on alleged and sometimes fabricated connections to the industry and hence the insinuation of an ulterior agenda.
On June 28 2005, the BBC’s news analysis programme Newsnight ran a segment about the sceptics of the global warming paradigm. They spent forty minutes attempting to dismiss out of hand anything they say, of which virtually nothing made it into the programme, based on innuendo concerning connections between right wing think tanks and oil companies as if that alone was sufficient to dismiss their arguments. Similarly, noted JFK and Apollohoax conspiracy theorist Jack White has frequently dismissed the work of Jay Windley’s refutation based on allegations that his website is government disinformation site. In both these cases, whether or not the allegation is correct is irrelevant. If either Newsnight or Jack White wish to refute their opponents, they need to describe why it is they’re wrong, not simply evade the challenge with ad hominems.
Perceived motivation is not an acceptable refutation to an argument. If opponents wish to continue to allege our connection with the nuclear industry, and hence our material interests, we are easily at liberty to point to statements by people like Amory Lovins, which suggest that opposition in some areas is based not on the standard arguments, but on preconceived agendas against industrialised civilisation or liberal economics, which nuclear power can support through its ability to provide energy on a massive scale. A battle of mud slinging would arrive at a stalemate. But whether certain opponents are using the standard arguments as a smokescreen for luddite or anti-capitalist agendas is irrelevant. If it were not, then this website could end here since we could say we have exposed the ulterior agenda and hence defeated the opponents in honourable debate.
Of course such a debate would be far from honourable, as it would be with Newsnight, Jack White or anyone who would sling mud in this way, for two reasons.
- We have not accounted for all opposition. Some opponents might be motivated by such political agendas, but a simple read of the right wing tabloid The Daily Mail shows that all opposition to nuclear power is certainly not part of left wing bias.
- They are not necessarily wrong in their arguments. Even if a luddite was trying to argue against nuclear power on grounds of waste or proliferation as part of a campaign to convince people to give up the city in favour of a low-tech agrarian lifestyle, it does not necessarily mean those arguments are in themselves wrong. They must be refuted in their own right.
There are many motivations for what people say, some more obvious than others, but ultimately, the arguments either stand for themselves or fall by themselves regardless of who makes them.
PROBLEMS OF SCALE
The media, politicians, activists all have a singular talent for making small things seem huge. They do this (usually) without having to tell lies or half-truths. Rather, they convey to their audience a misleading impression of scale. There are two principle ways in which this is done.
The first is to remove context. People use figures involving “tonnes” or even “thousands of tonnes” making it sound like a great deal of material. To the average viewer sitting at home a tonne sure seems pretty heavy. But one cubic metre of uranium weighs 22 tonnes alone and on the industrial scale, one cubic metre is a fraction of a tail. Lack of context fails to provide their audience with any sense of the industrial scale, which dwarfs anything in the domestic experience. Millions of tonnes or more of industrial materials are dealt with each day.
Lately, an oft-quoted statistic is that currents stores of nuclear waste in Britain amount to a volume equivalent to five Royal Albert Halls. This technically true, although certain commentator more overtly deceive by failing to adequately convey that only a tiny fraction of this is high level waste, most being low level and intermediate waste. Through the Royal Albert Hall benchmark, they successfully convey a problem of a very large scale.
What they do not mention is that Britain takes less than a day to produce that amount of domestic waste. Industrial wastes, some of which are very deadly and long lived, accumulate to far greater levels each year. Five Albert Halls worth of waste for over 50 years of commercial, military, industrial, medical and research activity, including the heavy burden early reactor development, may sound a lot, but when considered in context, it is not really all that great.
A second way is through abuse of units, most notably when it comes to specifying radioactivity. A curie is a moderately significant amount of radioactivity, but frequently, scare stories surrounding things such as tritiated water involves millionths of a curie or smaller. However, media stories frequently amplify the apparent figure by using the tiniest units imaginable. They will state that activity level of 200,000 picocuries have been detected. A picocurie is a trillionth of a curie so 200,000pCi is only 0.000 000 2Ci.
Such figures should always been considered with some caution. How significant a value is it really? Through sleights of wording, mountains frequently get made out of molehills.
THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME
Guilt by association is the fallacy of attempting to condemn or incriminate a certain thing by attempting to draw a connection to something else negative. For example, vegetarianism is often demonised because it was allegedly popular among Hitler’s Nazis. The argument is that since the Nazis were evil and the Nazis practiced vegetarianism, then vegetarianism itself is evil and perhaps by extension others who practice it (this is also an illustration of Godwin’s Law). Now, of course, most people would not draw the connection. Vegetarians may or may not have been prevalent in the Nazi party, but that academic fact does not affect the morality of vegetarianism itself.
Yet some will apply similar logic to incriminate nuclear power. The most transparent example is on the subject of nuclear weapons. A lively debate surrounds the morality, practicality and rationality of the possession of nuclear weapons. To a significant number of people, weapons capable of killing millions in a single stroke, inflicting lethal doses of radiation of thousands of others, and contaminating the target area with the fallout of neutron activation and fission products, is intrinsically evil. Some will then use the commonality of energy sources between these devastating weapons and civil nuclear power, to assert that the latter also possesses this intrinsic evil.
As was mentioned at the Potential Energy project, comparing nuclear power and nuclear weapons is like comparing the Jedi and the Sith. Both draw their power from the force, but the force it not itself good or evil. The way we use it is good or evil. To argue otherwise would be to argue the Sun is evil for being a giant fusion reactor. It would also be like arguing that water is evil because the Nazis drowned their victims as part of their sadistic medical experiments.
On a less mellow dramatic side, there are many examples of equipment failures, intrinsically unrelated to nuclear power, which are used as evidence for the dangers of nuclear reactors specifically. For example, the Mihama tragedy, which claimed five lives, was the catalyst for many articles in the media questioning the safety of the Japanese nuclear industry and nuclear power in general. However, the accident itself was due to a steam pipe rupture in the turbine, which it not a unique feature of nuclear power station. Such an accident can happen, and has happened, in coal fired power stations. In fact, it can happen anytime high pressure, high temperature gas is used, which is a great number of places.
Guilt by association is fallacy because such arguments do not address the real issue. Dwelling on nuclear weapons or turbines and transformers side steps the real issue. Arguments against (or for, for that matter,) nuclear power must be about nuclear power.