Saturday, December 3, 2011

Not enough buckets for Helen Caldicott

The New York Times puts her in the batter box, but her wild swings at nuclear energy produce a strike out

In the world of baseball, a batter who steps away from home plate with his leading foot, instead of a straight-ahead stride, is said to "put their foot in the bucket."

It is also generally a slang or idiomatic phrase that means clumsiness or cluelessness which can and often does lead to wrong-headed action.

Such is the case of Helen Calidott, MD, a long-time advocate against the use of nuclear energy.  She founded Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and remains active on behalf of the organization.

In an OP ED published 2 Dec 2011 by the International Herald Tribune, the Paris, France, based print and online outlet for the New York Times, Dr. Caldicott makes so many errors in her claims against nuclear energy that if she were in a nine inning baseball game, there would not be enough buckets to hold them.

Caldicott complains in her New York Times OP ED that . . .

"Nuclear advocates often paint those who oppose them as Luddites who are afraid of, or don’t understand, technology, or as hysterics who exaggerate the dangers of nuclear power."  

Frankly, that describes her very well.  Put another way, Caldicott paints the world green with fear, uncertainty, and doubt giving a bad name to the environmental movement. Here are the examples which make that point.

Chernobyl did not kill one million

Let's start with her claim that one million people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident.  Caldicott cites as her source a discredited study published by the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS).  The Academy, when advised of the lack of scientific rigor in the materials it published, was so embarrassed it returned the copyright to the authors and removed the work from its website.

Nuclear blogger Rod Adams has the devastating details of how the study came to public attention and its rapid fall from grace.

There can be no question that Caldicott is aware that the NYAS report has been determined to be incredible and useless as a scientific reference. In 2009 the NYAS acknowledged a published a review pointing out the study, sponsored by Greenepeace, contained "hasty impressions and ignorant conclusions".

By citing the discredited Chernobyl report in the pages of the New York Times, she is deliberately misleading the newspaper's readers.  Relying on the NYAS report for the truth of casualties at Chernobyl is like stepping on a banana peel and expecting to retain your stride.

If you are willing to read real science, the web pages of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) contain a wealth of information on the original accident and a retrospective 25 years later.  As a member of the ANS Public Information Committee, I was a contributor to the ANS materials on the 25th anniversary of the accident. The work was guided by a technical team of nuclear scientists and engineers.

Fukushima fairy tales

Fukushima radiation map ~
Source: US. DOE
There are no dangerous cesium-137 hot spots in Tokyo from the Fukushima reactor site.  The Japanese government and the U.S. Department of Energy, and other agencies have made detailed maps (Nature 11 Nov 2011) of hot spots, especially those that would be considered dangerous.  See for instance this interactive map published in the science journal Nature last September.

Many thousands of people are NOT living in highly radioactive areas around Fukushima. The Japanese government evacuated over 140,000 people in a 20 km radius around the plant. (New York Times map of evacuation zones 16 March 2011).

And the news media did not suppress information about the accident.  With the speed of the Internet, the coverage was global and unceasing.  TEPCO, the Japanese government, and even U.S. government spokesmen, made mistakes in the way they communicated information, but errors in technical information did not stay uncorrected for long.

For instance, an assessment by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the spent fuel pool at Fukushima unit 4 was uncovered, and releasing radiation, was later retracted by the chairman of that agency.  The reason is that video images and tests of water chemistry showed the spent fuel remained undamaged and was always covered with water to keep it cool.

Why nations build nuclear reactors

Caldicott claims that nations build nuclear reactors because propaganda from the industry pulls the wool over their eyes.  The facts, not fiction, are much more reliable as an explanation.
  • India, despite the work of political opposition parties, will move ahead with new construction of nuclear reactors at Jaitapur (Areva) and Koondankulam ( Atomstroyexport) because it needs baseload power to drive its economy. India's electrified railroads are planning to have their own dedicated network of nuclear reactors to power the trains.
  • Japan is less than 50% self-sufficient in terms of food. To pay for food imports, it must produce high value manufactured goods for export like cars, electronics, and industrial machinery including large forgings for nuclear pressure vessels.  Japan must turn its shuttered reactors back on or it will starve.
  • China is shifting its investments from Generation II to Generation III nuclear reactors with passive safety systems. It is making these investments because it cannot power its economy with coal.  China is expected to build 25-30 GW of new reactor generation capacity by the end of this decade.
  • The U.K. will build 19 GWe of new nuclear power plants because the North Sea gas has a finite shelf life and its current fleet of reactors are reaching the end of their service lives.
  • The Czech Republic will build as many as five near reactors worth {e}21 billion - two at Temelin, one on Slovenia, and two more at other sites.  Much of the power will be sold to Germany and Italy which have decided not to use reactors within their borders.  Hypocrisy anyone?
  • In the U.S. by the end of this decade there will be six new reactors producing electricity in the southeast - two in Georgia, two in South Carolina, one in Alabama, and one in Tennessee.  By 2020, or earlier, at least two U.S. firms will have NRC licenses to build small modular reactors opening up new domestic and international markets.
  • In the Middle East the UAE will build four new reactors supplied by South Korea.  Saudi Arabia has announced plans for 16 new reactors with the tender for the first units to be released soon. If the center of the global oil industry thinks nuclear industry is good idea, exactly where does that put Caldicott's logic. It's back in the bucket.
Terrestial energy

In the same issue of the New York Times, the editors ran another OP ED this one from Nathan Myhrvold who is driving the development of the TerraPower reactor design. Funding comes in part from the Foundation established by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. 

Gates is putting up his money because he believes energy is a key to sustainable development and that it cannot be achieved solely with solar energy or wind power.

Readers may also benefit from reading Myhrvold's essay which explains the concept of relative risk, e.g., it is more dangerous to drive to the airport than to fly on the plane.  Myhrvold writes that the harm done by fossil fuels to the planet, in terms of pollution and greenhouse gases, "pose a greater threat than the darkest nuclear accident scenario."

Caldicott passes on mentioning global warming or greenhouses gases in her campaign against nuclear energy.

Calm reason makes sense. Over-wrought emotion does not.  

Video - absolutely putting your foot in the bucket

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Atomikrabbit said...

I propose coining a new term for “clumsiness or cluelessness which leads to wrong-headed action”; as in “Angela Merkel pulled a real Caldicott this year with her ill-advised substitution of unreliable renewables for emission-free nuclear energy”.

Meredith Angwin said...

Dan, this is terrific! There are simply not enough buckets for someone who is full of...misleading statements.

Last year, I ran a Caldicott contest on my own blog. I asked people to write about another technology the way Caldicott talks about nuclear. In response:

Kit P warned of the dangers of toothpaste for newborns. Joffan pointed out that paper cuts are painful, yet paper is sold in 500 unit packs. Thousands of people all over the world must be dying of paper cuts. David Lewis won the contest with his description of the suicidal nightmare of solar power: people trying to use power from the fusing of hydrogen!

Here's a link.

But seriously, folks....The reason for this contest was to show that ANY technology can be described in overwrought terms. Nuclear just happens to be the usual target for the "usual suspects."