Discussions Of Nuclear Power Should Be Based In Reality

The great scientist-philosopher Sir Arthur Eddington wrote that his words about "the soulless dance of bloodless electrons" might be truth, but they were not reality. He urged us to get away from theoretical speculations periodically and watch a sunset. Speculation is our business, but when people ask us about a technical matter, they deserve an answer that has real-world meaning, not a hypothetical argument. For example, one day consumer activist Ralph Nader was debating radiation pioneer Ralp

Mar 16, 1998
Theodore Rockwell

The great scientist-philosopher Sir Arthur Eddington wrote that his words about "the soulless dance of bloodless electrons" might be truth, but they were not reality. He urged us to get away from theoretical speculations periodically and watch a sunset. Speculation is our business, but when people ask us about a technical matter, they deserve an answer that has real-world meaning, not a hypothetical argument.

For example, one day consumer activist Ralph Nader was debating radiation pioneer Ralph Lapp. Nader stated that a pound of plutonium could kill every human being on Earth. One could picture a one-pint jar of the stuff spilling on the ground and its dea dly vapors spreading until all life was obliterated. That's what Nader's statement means in the common-sense real world. But Lapp put the statement in its proper context by replying: "So could a pound of fresh air, Ralph." Now how can that be? We've been repeatedly told that plutonium is the deadliest substance known. And we know that fresh air is literally the breath of life. What's going on here? Nader's statement was not actually a lie; he was just trying to make us think that a hypothetical conjecture was a real-world problem. He's saying that the lethal dose of plutonium is a five-billionth of a pound. It's really several thousand times larger, but even if Nader were correct, the only way you could actually kill the world's 5 billion people with just one pound would be to line them up and have a trained physician inject into each person just the toxic amount of plutonium-no more or there wouldn't be enough to go around. It would have to be in a fine aerosol mist, or it wouldn't be lethal, and it would have to go directly into the lung. Then we would have to wait several decades, protecting the individual from other life-threatening influences such as cars, smoking, and malnutrition, until he or she died of lung cancer, because plutonium poses no other health threat.

Nader's statement is truth, of sorts, but it is not reality. In reality, atomic bomb tests have dispersed about six tons of fine plutonium mist into the air, enough to give each person in the world 1,000 cancers, and we've had some laboratory accidents and spills that contaminated people. But not a single case of plutonium-caused cancer has been found, despite diligent searching. (Incidentally, plutonium is not the deadliest substance known; there are pesticides we throw onto food crops by the ton that are more toxic, spoonful for spoonful.)

And what about Lapp's statement? It is true in precisely the same way as Nader's. If a tiny bubble of fresh air is injected in just the right way into the bloodstream, a fatal embolism will develop. The only difference from the plutonium case is that you wouldn't have to wait decades for cancer to develop. We do not think of fresh air as deadly, lethal, or dangerous, and rightly so, although people have been killed by air bubbles in their blood. How dangerous is plutonium in the real world? The answer is: Not a single death has resulted from plutonium poisoning, although we've been handling it in tonnage lots for a couple of generations. A sheet of paper, or even a few feet of air, provides enough shielding from its radiation. That's the difference between the world of the imagination and the real world we live in.

Since most nonscientists don't flit so easily from the hypothetical world to the physical world, we should be clear when we do. When we talk about casualties we should distinguish between real and hypothetical deaths. For example:

  1. Persons who die of food poisoning are known by name and can be counted. They are real.
  2. Persons who die from particulate air pollution are largely unknown individually, but their numbers can be estimated approximately by methods that are subject to peer evaluation. These victims are nameless and their number controversial, but they are probably real.
  3. Deaths "predicted" from exposure to radiation levels less than natural radiation backgrounds are wholly hypothetical, since the premise on which such calculations are based is an administrative convenience, not a scientific model. The premise is that individually harmless doses of radioactivity in a population can be added up to "predict" illness and even deaths in that population-a notion that affronts both science and common sense.

These various kinds of victims should not be compared as if they were the same. We should not justify America's 9,000 annual food-poisoning deaths and tens of thousands of air-particle deaths by claiming we have avoided hypothetical deaths that might result from irradiating the food or replacing coal-burning plants with nuclear. Scientists have expressed their concerns about global warming and particulate emission predictions but have been surprisingly reluctant to speak out on radiation questions. Why? We are told that we must choose between wrecking the planet by continuing to burn fossil fuels at current rates or wrecking the economy by drastically reducing our energy usage. We don't even discuss the option of using nuclear power to produce as much energy as needed without creating pollution or economic disruption. Nuclear power has been reliably and safely generating 22 percent of the United States' electricity for a full generation. But we ignore fission and talk about untried hopes such as fusion, solar power, and undefined "renewables."

We decide not to build another nuclear power plant because "we haven't solved the waste problem." How many people do we save by not adding to the nuclear waste? None. No one has ever been hurt by nuclear waste in the U.S., and no one is ever likely to be. We should treat radioactive waste just as we do selenium, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, barium, and other toxic materials whose half-lives are infinite. With such toxins we have ample experience that simple, common-sense waste disposal practices are fully adequate.

Another notorious hypothetical scenario is the dreaded nuclear reactor meltdown and the subsequent China syndrome, in which the molten core melts into the Earth on its way to China. (We're talking about the only kind of reactors built in the West and in the Pacific Rim. The Chernobyl reactor is a different story-not as bad as you've heard, but not relevant here.) To get radioactive clouds and evacuation plans and all the other aspects of a nuclear emergency, we had to dream up a situation that would get all of the water out of the reactor vessel fast; otherwise, the reactor will not melt. In the laboratory of the mind, that's easy. We came up with the "guillotine break," a magical, instantaneous shearing of the heavy-duty main coolant piping. But even that is not enough, because the water can't escape rapidly unless the sheared pipe ends move out of the way of each other quickly so that the water can flash unimpeded into clear space. No problem-the mind can move the pipe ends instantaneously, even though the pipe walls are more than an inch thick and made of high-grade stainless steel.

Other scenarios spring up like mushrooms. To study how radioactive clouds disperse under the worst possible weather conditions, we imagine a hierarchy of fantastic scenarios. This requires us to put a network of radiation monitors around each nuclear plant. And we put more engineering hours into calculating the impact of severe earthquakes than we used to use for the whole plant design. And we set up elaborate security provisions. And every component and safety system is backed up with backup systems. And we put the whole thing inside a steel-reinforced, leak-tight containment structure. And we prepare emergency procedures involving local, regional, and national police and fire and emergency organizations, and we run periodic drills. And then we turn to the public and say: "How about that! Are we safe or what?" And the public says, "Gosh, they must really be scared of this stuff." And who could blame them?

Theodore Rockwell (tedrock@cpcug.org), an engineer with more than 50 years in nuclear power, is a founding officer of the engineering firm MPR Associates Inc. of Alexandria, Va., and a founding director of Radiation, Science & Health, an international public-interest group in Needham, Mass., working to rationalize radiation policy. He was technical director under Adm. Hyman Rickover of the national program to develop nuclear power for naval propulsion and to build the world's first commercial nuclear power plant.
The public didn't know we were just playing games-serious games, legitimate games, but hypothetical speculations, not reality. What does the real world say about nuclear safety? Quite a bit, actually. Experiments and theoretical studies have been made, and we had the real thing at Three Mile Island in 1979. Nearly half the core melted down, and tons of the molten stuff fell down onto the bottom of the pressure vessel. That is the start of the China syndrome scenario. But in fact the core penetrated only a small fraction of an inch into the thick vessel wall and stopped. Negligible radioactivity was released; the nearest residents got about as much radiation from the accident overall as they get each day from the natural radiation background (having nothing to do with the nuclear plant). No one was hurt, not even the operators. When I pressed a Nuclear Regulatory Commission official as to why this was not more nearly the model for a major reactor accident, rather than various theoretical speculations, he looked shocked and said: "If I really thought that, I'd have to ask what I'm doing here!" I assured him he should ask exactly that, as we all should.

So, after 40 years' experience and running more than 100 U.S. nuclear power plants (plus twice that many in the Navy), plus hundreds more in other countries, the Three Mile Island accident is the worst the real world can offer: nobody hurt, no environmental damage. Yet we proceed as if the speculations were real. The game is now costing hundreds of billions of dollars: making multimillion-dollar studies; "decontaminating" land that is already harmless; designing shipping casks with yet another layer of protective shield although the radioactive cargo they contain poses less of a public hazard than the diesel fuel in the truck that carries it. And spending $13 billion to dig a hole in Yucca Mountain in California to hold some shielded casks of spent fuel and nuclear wastes.

On June 3, 1997, the Department of Energy issued a report "after six years of study and analysis," predicting that 23 people will be irradiated to death as a result of shipping shielded casks of radioactive waste from the weapons program (not civilian waste). Let me tell you how this works. As a truck with a shielded cask drives by, a government official says to a bystander: "Congratulations, sir. You are the millionth bystander." The puzzled fellow asks. "What do I get?"

"You get to die," replies the official. "This cask has been emitting radiation at one-millionth the lethal level. We have now passed a million bystanders and no one has died, so it's up to you."

"But I got only one-millionth of a lethal dose, right?" he asks. "And that can't hurt me, right?"

"Correct, sir. But we have delivered a lethal dose overall, to the whole population of bystanders. I don't expect you to understand it. Just be assured that these calculations have been peer-reviewed by scientists. You can count on them."

"Tell me this is just a game," the poor chap moans.

Do you doubt it?