An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Mark Horstman travels to Fukushima Prefecture in Japan to investigate where the radioactive fallout has travelled since the Daichi nuclear power plant accident over three years ago.

This was the profile of a recent ABC Catalyst documentary investigation on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear event. You can watch the 17 min report here.

Below is a critical reply by Geoff Russell, framed as an Open Letter. Comments welcome below — and write to ABC if this motivates you!

An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Geoff Russell, August 2014

Dear ABC,

Can anybody imagine ABC’s Alan Kohler without his graphs?

Can anybody imagine him leaving the units of measurements off his axes? Instead of ‘$’s, ‘percent’s or something similarly meaningful, what if he started labelling his X or Y axis as ‘wiggles’ or ‘puds’. I’d reckon the ABC would get more than a few complaints.

So why can Catalyst’s Mark Horstman cite radiation units, which are about as meaningful as ‘wiggles’ to most of the population, without explaining what they mean? Isn’t explaining stuff what science communication is all about?

Horstman recently presented a Radiation fallout Catalyst story about the long term radiation impacts of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. He opens with a statment about forest areas having a radiation count of 7 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hr).

Horstman could have explained what 7 uSv/hr means. I’m sure he knows. But the closest we got to any kind of information about this level was his claim that 5 uSv/hr was “50 times the maximum dose rate considered safe for the general public”. Without information about how risk changes as the dose changes, this is vacuous at best and misleading at worst. Taking a teaspoon of wine a day may be safe, but what about half a glass a day? That’s 50 times more than a teaspoon, but does it matter? Does raising a safe dose by 50 times make it low risk, high risk, deadly, or perhaps even make it beneficial? Maybe 50 times safe is still just safe.

And Horstman didn’t even get the numbers right. Let’s go through it slowly. Horstman could have got the Catalyst graphics team to do a nice little image. I’ll rely on words.

First, let’s convert the hourly rate to an annual rate so we can compare it to normal background radiation, which averages about 2.4 milli Sieverts per year (mSv/year). Background radiation varies from place to place but usually ranges from 1 mSv/year to around 7 mSv/year. If you were to lay on one of Brazil’s black monazite beaches 24×7, you could get a hefty 800 mSv/year. So 5 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hour) is 5 x 24 x 365 = 43800 uSv/year and since there are 1000 micro Sieverts per milli Sievert, this is 43.8 mSv/year. Divide this by the global average background level of 2.4 mSv/year and you get 18.25. So 5 uSv/hour is 18 times the global average background radiation level. Is Horstman telling us that the global average background level is dangerous? If he is, he’s simply wrong. How wrong? The background level of radiation in Finland is 7 mSv/year, much higher than in the UK where it’s below 2 mSv/year, but the cancer rate in Finland is actually a little lower than the cancer rate in the UK. So it seems reasonable to regard the Finnish background radiation rate as safe. Then since 5 uSv/hour is about 6 times higher than the Finnish background rate, I’d say it’s only 6 times higher than a safe rate.

But Horstman’s arithmetic mistakes are a minor matter. Whether it’s 6 times or 50 times greater than something that’s safe doesn’t tell us anything at all about how safe it is.

Is there any evidence that a level of radiation 18 times the global average is dangerous? Not that I know of. But there is certainly quite good evidence that it is harmless.

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Battery electric vehicles in Australia

Graham Palmer, author of the recent book “Energy in Australia: Peak oil, solar power and Asia’s economic growth” (reviewed on BNC here), has just done an excellent ABC radio presentation on Robyn William’s “Ockham’s Razor” show.  This is Robyn’s intro:

Robyn Williams: Now I wasn’t in the room at the time, but it is claimed that George W Bush once complained about the Arabs: “Why is our oil under their sand?” Well, whether he said it or not, the question has become even more stark as the Middle East gets even more fractious. Would you really want to depend much longer on secure oil supplies from the region? As for coal: As more and more coal mines close in Australia and disasters recur from China to Turkey, you’d have to ask whether that technology is also about to hit the ashcan of history. Perhaps, but not yet, says Graham Palmer in Melbourne. He’s an engineer and has done research in the field of energy futures. And by the way, bear in mind that PV stands for photovoltaic.

You can download the audio and read the transcript (with supporting references) here.

But there’s more! Graham has just written a new analysis on electric vehicles for BNC. On this topic we can find opinions ranging from “EVs are great because they’ll mop up daytime solar!” through to “EVs are great because you can charge them cheaply on overnight off peak!”. Confusion reigns…

The take-up of electric vehicles in Australia – rethinking the battery charging model

Graham Palmer, July 2014

Between 2007 and 2013, the global motor car fleet grew by 3.6% annually, reaching 1.1 billion [1], but during the same period, the annual growth of crude oil including total liquids averaged only 0.9% [2]. Driven by demand in China, but also Russia, India, and Brazil, the growth is projected to continue indefinitely [3], but given a crude oil price of around USD$100 bbl, we have already entered a prolonged period of inelastic supply, and regardless, capital investment in the oil supply industry has tripled in the past 10 years [4].

It is obvious that there simply isn’t the ready supply of conventional liquids to accommodate the growth of motorcars. Further, any discussion of the sustainability of motorcars should encompass a broader discussion of urban planning [5], public transport, and a re-examination of the travel task [6]. Comprehensive assessments of the life-cycle analysis of EVs shows that they can be better than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, but still a long way from “sustainable” [7,8]. But whether we like it or not, the egg has been scrambled, and motorcars will continue to be the primary mode of transport in Australia for the foreseeable future.

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Four Corners and its field of dreams

On Monday 7 July 2014, the usually hard-hitting investigative current affairs program “Four Corners” (Australian Broadcasting Commission) showed “Power to the People“. Here was the tagline:

While the rest of the world moves to embrace renewable energy why is Australia drawing back? Four Corners documents the revolution in power generation taking place across the globe.

The lead journalist, Stephen Long, also published a detailed opinion piece on it the next day, which you can read here. Going by the reaction on Twitter (search for the #4corners tag), the reception from most of the environmental community was rapturous.

So, fantastic! Apparently it’s already all over for coal bar the shouting in most countries (e.g., 4Corners focused on various developments in the US), and unless Australia embraces this “Third Industrial Revolution” (via Jeremy Rifkin), it risks ‘going the way of the dodo’. But…

Who noticed the internal contradictions? Claims of massively falling costs that was already making Australian coal uneconomic — whilst at the same time lamenting the upcoming disaster to investment if the mandatory renewable energy target and other subsides were withdrawn or cut back. Eh?

Below, Geoff Russell lifts up the rose-tinted sunglasses for a moment, and takes a more critical look at Long’s claims…

Four Corners and its field of dreams

Geoff Russell, July 2014

How would you feel about an advertisement for a cold remedy with a tag line: “Our remarkable new treatment will see your cold gone in just 4 weeks!”?

That’s about the size of a recent article by Giles Parkinson for The Guardian called … “Solar has won …”. It could also be a suitable paraphrase for an also recent ABC 4-Corners documentary on renewable energy: Power to the People by Stephen Long and Karen Michelmore.

The defining claim in the Parkinson piece is a CSIRO report claiming that by 2040 more than half of electricty may be generated and stored by “prosumers”.

Is this supposed to be impressive?

I’d suggest that same claim, if realised, is good evidence of the ineffectiveness of distributed renewable energy as a climate change response. By comparison, France built an essentially carbon free nuclear electricity system in under 20 years. So while Australian electricity generates 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, France is down around 70 grams per kilowatt hour and she’s been there since 1990. Germany’s renewable revolution has them planning on hitting the same target by about 2050.

As I said in the beginning, renewable energy is the cold remedy for people who want to feel better in a month … or two … while contributing a bucket load of money to their local chemist’s retirement fund.

On the other hand, Long and the 4-Corners crew seemed totally messmerised by fields of mirrors; or panels. They filmed them here, they filmed them there, it seems they’re springing up everwhere. I half expected an army of Kevin Costner clones to emerge from behind a heliostat holding a banner saying “Build it and they will come”. Well they’ve arrived and they’re travelling in a van with an ABC logo.

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Where do you want to put nuclear waste?

The following article by Ben Heard and me was published on The Conversation today. This is a repost on BNC.


Nuclear waste is safe to store in our suburbs, not just the bush

For years, Australia has been looking at remote Indigenous land to store its nuclear waste. But now that Muckaty is off the table, it’s time to consider big city locations. Caddie Brain/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Right now, radioactive material is stored at more than 100 locations in cities and suburbs across Australia. Yet after the withdrawal of a proposed remote site for a “nuclear waste dump” at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, we’re back to square one to find a longer-term nuclear waste site.

Instead of trying to dump the dump on one remote community, we should be looking in our own backyards – including in the suburbs of our biggest cities – to solve Australia’s growing nuclear dilemma.

Mucking up the process at Muckaty

After years of debate, last week’s withdrawal of Muckaty Station as a possible nuclear waste site was the inevitable outcome of a flawed process.

By failing to trust average Australians for so many years, successive federal governments have been unwittingly co-opted into the role of villains in an orchestrated campaign of radiological fearmongering.

Nuclear technologies are used all over the world, and bring great benefits in generating zero-carbon electricity, as well as applications in health science, food hygiene, industrial processing and fundamental research. Many of those technologies are in use here in Australia, including at hospitals and at ANSTO’s OPAL reactor in Lucas Heights, 40km south-west of Sydney’s city centre

Inside the Opal nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney, operated by ANSTO.AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Radioactive waste is not automatically more hazardous than others waste. Indeed, it is demonstrably less hazardous than the organo-chlorine pesticides, poly-chlorinated biphenyls and heavy metal mixtures that also feature in Australia’s hazardous waste portfolio.

Our radiological waste is produced for good reasons. The most radiologically hazardous waste is the result of producing life-saving diagnostic medicines (radio-phamaceuticals) that are essential in our health-care system.

That’s why we need a centralised facility to house our waste in Australia. Fortunately, this material is relatively small in volume: about 4500 m3, or roughly the volume of a couple of Olympic swimming pools for the entire country. That waste is predominantly lightly contaminated soil, mostly relatively low in hazard, and well understood with mature techniques for treatment and storage. These are quantifiable facts and it’s an entirely manageable problem.

But our point is this: if the authorities know, as we know, that this waste stream just isn’t that dangerous, why outback Muckaty or similarly remote sites in the past?

How have we ended up with a process that includes only one site, with that site in the middle of nowhere? What message does that send to every Australian about this waste stream?

“Wow. It must be really, really dangerous if we have to put it there”.

And if that’s the message, what might any Australian with an interest in the land in and around Muckaty think about ending up with the facility in their backyard?

“How completely unfair. No way!”

The irony is that while the first statement is dead wrong, the second statement is quite reasonable.

Our cities are already home to nuclear waste

When dealing with any controversial issue – especially something as emotive as a nuclear waste “dump” – fairness eats facts for breakfast.

Once a process is popularly perceived as “unfair” and the proponent perceived as untrustworthy, the facts about the hazard itself are irrelevant. So why have successive Australian governments from both major parties seemed hell-bent on starting a process from that impossible position?

Most of our radioactive material can and should be transported and stored safely above ground in a suitably dedicated centralised storage facility for use on an intermediate basis (that is, for some decades). The identification of suitable sites for this storage facility ought to be principally a matter of infrastructure and zoning. Suitable sites for open discussion could and probably should be in the outer industrial areas of our capital cities.

That’s right. Australian capital cities.

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The clock is ticking on the drive for sustainable energy

The below is a (short) chapter I wrote for the recent book “The Curious Country“, published by the Australian Office of the Chief Scientist.

This excellent and well-illustrated book can be downloaded for free here. The blurb:

During 2013, The Office of the Chief Scientist asked Australians what they would like to know more about; what scientific issues concern them and what discoveries inspire them.

The results shaped this book – a collection of essays about the scientific issues affecting Australians today.

The Curious Country is available as a free download from ANU E Press. It is currently available as a pdf, so can be downloaded and read on your e-book reader, tablet, computer or mobile phone


POWERING THE FUTURE – The clock is ticking on the drive for sustainable energy

(Download the PDF for this article and the other energy-related chapters, here)

ACCESS to cheap and reliable energy has underpinned Australia’s development for decades. Fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — provided the concentrated energy sources required to build our infrastructural, industrial and service enterprises. Yet it’s now clear this dependence on carbon-intensive fuels was a Faustian bargain and the devil’s due, because the long-run environmental and health costs of fossil fuels seem likely to outweigh the short-term benefits.

In the coming decades, Australia must tackle the threats of dangerous climate change and future bottlenecks in conventional liquid-fuel supply, while also meeting people’s aspirations for ongoing increases in quality of life – all without compromising long-term environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. Fortunately, there are science and technology innovations that Australia could leverage to meet these goals.

Seeking competitive alternatives to coal

How can Australia shift away from coal dependence and transition to competitive, low-carbon alternatives, and what role will science and engineering play in making it happen? To answer these questions, a key focus must be on electricity generation technologies — electricity is a particularly convenient and flexible ‘energy carrier’— and to consider the key risks and advantages with the alternative energy sources that will compete with fossil-fuel power.

In 2012, the majority of Australia’s electricity was generated by burning black and brown coal (75 per cent), with smaller contributions from natural gas (13 per cent), hydroelectric dams (8 per cent) and other renewables (4 per cent). The nation’s installed capacity now totals over 50 gigawatts of power generation potential, with stationary energy production currently resulting in the annual release of 285 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, about 52 per cent of our total emissions.

CurCountry_Box1

Clearly, the non-electric energy-replacement problem for Australia would also need to consider transportation and agricultural fuel demands. In a world beyond oil for liquid fuels, we will need to eventually ‘electrify’ most operations: using batteries, using heat from power plants to manufacture hydrogen from water, and by deriving synthetic fuels such as ammonia or methanol.

Under ‘business as usual’ forecasts produced by Government energy analysts, electricity use in Australia is expected to grow by 60 to 100 per cent through to 2050 with hundreds of billions of dollars of investment needed in generation and transmission infrastructure just to keep pace with escalating demand and to replace old, worn out power plants and transmission infrastructure. At the same time carbon dioxide emissions must be cut by 80 per cent to mitigate climate-change impacts, via some combination of enhanced energy conservation and new supply from clean energy sources.

An uncertain mix of future options

Although there are a huge number of potential energy options now being developed that might one day replace coal in Australia not all alternatives are equally likely.

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