Nuclear Renewables

Learning the truth about energy

I note that the scalability and cost of solar thermal technologies, and it viability compared to nuclear power, has been a hot topic on the BNC comments forum (see especially here and here). While it is good to see this sort of ongoing discussion, I’d like to take a brief moment to offer a couple of anchor points for the debate.

The first is an excellent document produced by Ted Rockwell, called the Nuclear Energy Facts Report (download 45 page PDF here). It covers a range of facts on nuclear and renewable energy, including section E: Key facts about solar-energy for the American electric power grid (pg 20 – 25). I urge BNC commentators to read this report — or at the very least the solar thermal section — if they wish to comment intelligently on what is known and demonstrated, rather than surmised or conjectured.


In a recent email to a list in which I participate, Ted explained the purpose and justification of his report:

“This is the latest edition of the Nuclear Energy Facts Report. The Facts Report itself contains only facts that manifest in the physical world; no opinions, conclusions, recommendations, or attempts at consensus-building. But we have found it helpful to precede the Facts Report with some explanatory material on energy production, and conclude with some comments on the historical context. As always, we welcome input from readers. This is not intended to be public relations document for the general public, but an interactive reference document, for people who work in, or report on, the energy production field. THE CURRENT EDITION OF THIS REPORT WILL ALWAYS BE AVAILABLE AT:

I have found useful for focusing discourse on nuclear energy.  There are no factual changes since the previous edition; just effort to clarify some of the wording.  It is not a public relations report, but is for science writers, policy makers, teachers and staffers. A number of colleagues I respect have found that using the Report does in fact significantly facilitate constructive discussion.

The first step is to get agreement that nuclear energy is not above or beyond the rules and understanding of today’s science. Alvin Weinberg dubbed nuclear technology “a Faustian Bargain,” implying that the science and engineering used in ordinary life cannot be quite good enough for nuclear. But our understanding of fission and radiation results from a century of well-funded, world-wide research.  We understand it better than many other potential contaminants such as chemical, neurotoxicological, biological or viral threats.

Yet we base policy on the mistaken idea that nuclear hazards are magnitudes more threatening than any other type of hazard, and even that human-made radiation is somehow more dangerous than the identical radiation we receive from the earth’s “natural” radioactivity.  It’s a fact that neither nuclear instruments nor the human body can tell the difference.  The false distinction between “natural” and human-made radiation has led to absurd situations, such as major lawsuits granted for contaminating the earth with dirt, when digging for oil.

The Facts Report includes only facts that manifest, or could realistically manifest, in the physical world.  It’s a fact that some people think radiation is too dangerous to accept, so long as it’s possible to avoid it.  But it’s also a fact that a large majority of Americans tell pollsters they favor using nuclear energy as a significant part of our energy mix. Many people believe that we are making the earth increasingly radioactive.  But it’s a fact that the earth is actually getting less radioactive each day, because our production of radioactivity cannot keep up with the natural decay of the earth’s radioactivity.

Because the Report does not reach any conclusions, make any recommendations, or attempt to achieve a consensus, it can properly emphasize contradictions among these facts, rather than trying to gloss them over.  That is the most direct way to facilitate resolution of the contradictions.

It is not reasonable to demand a “solution to the radioactive waste problem” unless we can define what problem we are trying to solve. There is no evidence that radioactivity from the nuclear enterprise has caused any harm to people or the environment.  In fact, there is evidence that it has not, and most probably will not, cause any real-world harm.  Unless we can define the problem in realistic terms,  how can we know that any “solution” has had any effect?  Applying extreme solutions in response to “perceived problems,” has proved ineffective over several decades.  The public has reasonably concluded that the perceived problems must be severe indeed, to warrant such measures as Yucca Mountain.

One can object that particular statements of fact in the Report are outdated, or otherwise inaccurate.  If we’re shown better, supportable facts, they will replace the criticized ones.  Or one can argue that our facts have been “cherry picked,” or that certain facts have been left out that should be included.  That too can be fixed.  If every fact included gets replaced by a better one, I will feel vindicated, not repudiated, because that is the purpose of the document: to consider the facts.

If the facts can be made clear enough, not only to the arguers, but also to the by-standers, it should become easier to overcome some of the fear-generated myths, and engage in more rational discussion.  I urge recipients to try it, and to make their own contributions toward making the facts as clear and accurate and up-to-date as possible.  Thus, the Report can have a long life as a useful, working document.”


In a similar vein, I thoroughly recommend you crack open a beer (or brew a jug of coffee — whatever’s your poison), and take a few hours to look over Don Lutz’s site called The Truth About Energy. Amongst the long list of topics Don tackles, he has a section on desert-based solar plants with a lot of interesting discussion on real-world installations (operating and proposed). The rest of the site is similarly populated with real-world numbers on capacity factors, some philosophising on the motivations of environmentalists, and coverage of a whole host of other issues. Don is not afraid to say it as he sees it, so don’t go there if your ‘green sensibilities’ are easily offended. But then again, if you’re one of those folks, you’ve probably long given up on reading BNC!


Finally, I’d like to remind readers of a posting last year on BNC by IEEE transmission consultant Gene Preston, concerning the feasibility of a range of microgrid solar systems. It worth reading this for a reality check, if you hold the opinion that distributed, small-scale electricity is a viable and cost-effective option for low-carbon power generation. Read Key concepts for reliable, small-scale low-carbon energy grids to understand the types of issues involved with such setups, and the practicality of various scenarios that are often proposed (by well-meaning people who usually haven’t really thought the matter through).


Coming up on BNC in the next week or so, I’ll be posting IFR FaD #5 (on fissile inventory), and will also launch the first in a run of shorter, more targeted TCASE posts, which aim to break big problems in sustainable energy down into very focused questions (each of the new TCASE posts will be a maximum of 1,000 words — my new self-imposed editorial limit for this series!).

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

56 replies on “Learning the truth about energy”

The Nuclear Energy Facts Report has been one of my favourite source documents in the energy debate, and it is probably the best and most concise argument for nuclear energy that still covers all the bases.

But the truth is not enough and we on the pronuclear side must always be cognizant of the fact that most of the real opposition, that is to say the opposition that counts, knows full well what the truth is. When U.S. Senator Alphonse D’Amato said, “The bastards are killing my people, and I’m not going to let them get away with it.” when moving to shut down a medical research reactor at the Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island, over a tritium leak that never left the facility. he knew that was a lie. What was more important to ‘his people’ was the fact that the news of this event, blown out of all proportion by the press, was impacting property values.

Most, if not all of us that support nuclear energy, came to this view via reason. In fact given the level of antinuclear propaganda that makes up the background noise on this subject, reason is almost the only way one can come to support nuclear energy. Consequently we are a group of rational thinkers that places a premium on reason, and are most comfortable debating from that position. Unfortunately that is not how real change comes about in most places. One cannot stand up to the grandstanding of a Senator D’Amato, with a lecture on Becquerels per litre vs, pico Curies per litre; no one will be listening.

And I will say again, that we also have to be very careful that we do not assume the public’s mood on nuclear energy based on what the antinuclear side claims it is. Very often I have found of late that there is a considerable discrepancy between what is considered to be given in the area of public opinion on nuclear matters, and what it is shown to be in proper polling. In my opinion the pronouncer side has often wasted time fighting spectres of public fears than, what the public is actually concerned about.

It is important for us to realise that in most primarily Judeo–Christian grounded cultures, people will pay lip-service to ideas that suggest we should not consume at the same rate we do now, but really when given a clear choice, the majority will support the continuation of the status quo. The bulk of our message then should be focused on this aspect of the energy debate – nuclear means not giving up your comforts and your toys.

The good news is that gains are being made, and the industry is beginning to advance after its long hiatus. It is now our task to fly escort, and go after those that seek to bury it again.


I’ve been reading the rockwell report and it is indeed very useful. I am confused about something. at one point in the discussion of radiation, R notes that coal plants emit more radiation than nuclear plants and that the radiation dose from smoking tobacco far exceeds that from either coal or nukes. Okay. I get that (p. 31 or so). and have heard it before.

But I’m a little confused by the following numbers: the total radioactivity released from 600 U.S. coal plants is 36,000 curies, says R. and the claim is that coal releases less radiation than nukes but then if we back up to the discussion of tritium, the annual release limit from the Candu (Bruce B) power plant (deemed safe though never reached) is 60,000,000 curies. (page 7-8, section on tritium)

so, obviously something isn’t making sense here. anyone help out?

this isn’t a question about safety so much as one to make sense of the numbers: which don’t make sense to me.



When I heard that Obama was going to support a nuclear power program I had high hopes that better public policy would result. Given the composition of the “Blue Ribbon” task force I am no longer hopeful that much of real significance will be achieved.

Sure we will get a few new LWRs but how much effort will be put into game changing innovative designs?

Sure the government will fund the construction of a few reactors but will anything be done to clear the regulatory minefield that discourages private investors from funding nuclear power plants?

Sure there will be brave talk about increasing nuclear power generating capacity but will existing nukes continue to be shut down (e.g Vermont Yankee in 2002)?

I guess that the bold initiatives will be left to France, India, China or Russia. It may take them a while to take over leadership in nuclear power technology but it is inevitable unless we take the brakes off.


One curie is not like another.

This is because the curie has dimensions of nuclear disintegrations per unit time: 37 billion such disintegrations per second. (The Becquerel is a similar unit, just 37 billion times smaller. So the picocuries you may have read of are each 0.037 Bq.)

Radiation released by coal-burning and natural gas-burning power plants is due to the uranium daughter radon-222. Because radon is gaseous and chemically inert, scrubbers don’t scrub it. Its disintegrations are, IIRC, 900 times more energetic than those of tritium. Also, tritium decays in a single step to helium-3, which is stable, while radon typically decays first to polonium-218, then lead-214, then bismuth-214, then to polonium-214, then to lead-210 …

At lead-210 there is a delay of typically 30 years. Then bismuth-210, then polonium-210 (Litvinenko’s bane), and finally a stable isotope, lead-206.

All these radon daughters are not inert, so in breathing air in which radon has produced them, one tends to retain them. (Interestingly, this implies the delivery vehicle for Litvinenko’s poisoning, perhaps a sugar cube, could have been loaded with polonium by heating a bottle that for decades has had some of a solid radium compound at its bottom, radon in its air, and lead-210 on its walls. Heating these walls would move the polonium that would be there, with the lead, onto the sugar cube (if that is what was used) if that sugar cube were held at the bottle’s mouth.)

In terms of radioactivity, 36000 curies of radon and radon daughters is as powerful as tens of millions of curies of tritium. So if you are allowed to emit 60 MCi of tritium and in fact emit only 10 MCi, you are indeed emitting less radioactivity than coal plants that emit 36000 Ci.

(How fire can be domesticated)


AHA: thank you very much.

Millirems are Millirems but Curies are not Curies.

Rockwell should explain this, G.R.L, just as you do. I’ve done a lot of reading, short of reading a radiation text book, and never learned and never heard what you just explained. thanks again.

GRL: what’s a good basic textbook on properties of radiation?

barry: would it help to make this distinction (curies, which differ greatly; millirems, uniform measurements designed to measure dose) in the radiation facts and fallacies piece?


greg meyerson – The CNSC restricts the amount of radioactive material that may be released to the environment in Canada. The Commission imposes limits, called “Derived Release Limits (DRLs)” that state the maximum effluent releases permitted for a particular route (e.g. to the air or surface water) from a particular station. These limits represent an estimate of a release that could result in a dose of 1 mSv to an exposed member of the public. Releases must still be as low as reasonably achievable. Actual releases of tritium from nuclear facilities have typically been less than 10 % of the DRL.

So the limits set by regulation are not set in terms of Curies, (or Becquerels) but in the projected dose that may occur and this has to be calculated for every case based on a set of published guidelines found at:

This handy 505 page document will take you step by step through the process.

Based on this calculation Bruce is permitted a release ceiling 9.0 × 10exp15 Bq/yr (or 25,000 Ci/yr) of tritium but in 2009 they released only 1% of that limit.

I would say then that there was an error in the Rockwell report.

There is also a limit of 7000 Bq/L of tritium in drinking water in Canada. For an adult, assuming a daily consumption of 2 litres of water, each Bq/L corresponds to an actual dose of 0.000015 mSv annually. Bruce Power has committed to maintaining tritium concentrations considerably lower, at an annual average less than 100 Bq/l at all local water treatment plants.


The first is an excellent document produced by Ted Rockwell
A quick look at the section on wind power, shows that Ted has listed many irrelevant or totally misleading statements;
each windmill contributes a tiny amount of electricity no more relevant that the “fact” that each household consumes a tiny amount of electricity, we have lots of both.
bird and bat slaughter still <1% of cats and building slaughter
uses more concrete and steel than nuclear still only a tiny proportion of steel and concrete consumption.
The paper by Lutz is even more biased, this has to be the most stupid argument about any technology afterall we tried them 30 years ago and (renewables) are still pegged at 11%


Excellent, excellent paper! Thank you Barry.

Really good web-site too, I’m going to spend some considerable time going over it.


Whoops… what I should have said is, thank you for the link Barry, thank you for the report Ted Rockwell.


I second camel’s pessimism about the Blue Ribbon Panel , even though it does have ONE member who actually knows about IFRs. But fear not, those other countries you mention aren’t slowing down. As in many things, the USA’s stultifying obeisance to the status quo will see it bringing up the rear and further undermining its economic influence. Such is, apparently, the case with empires in decline. In a few years India will have at least one commercial fast reactor operating with more on the way, China will have some Gen III+ reactors operating with more being built, Korea will be building more both for themselves and others, etc.

In many ways the USA and the EU are suffering from a similar malady: a neo-Luddite environmentalism that eschews good science and reason. We see it in Germany’s dogged support for solar and wind power via ridiculous and budget-busting feed-in tariffs, Spain’s unfortunate copying of the same sort of misguided policy, and the EU’s banning of genetically engineered food products. (For a thoughtful and in some ways shocking treatment of the latter, see Stewart Brand’s book, Whole Earth Discipline.)

It’s an attitude that implies a sort of virtuousness in the prospect of an energy-poor future, fueled (no pun intended) by the uneasy and usually unacknowledged awareness that their vaunted renewable portfolio simply can’t cut the mustard. A good example of that is something Amory Lovins once said: “If you ask me, it’d be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it.” It’s a world view that extols pre-industrial primitivism and pretends that the rest of the world can be convinced to live in energy poverty for their own good.

I too feel like rampant consumerism is foolish in many of its guises and can understand the dislike of its overt displays, but one can hardly realistically expect a globally widespread spartan asceticism to become the norm. But as long as this sort of ideological pseudo-environmentalism carries so much political clout, the countries in which it holds sway will continue to be left in the dust by those that give short shrift to such environmental extremism.

When it comes to the bottom line of how quickly these new NPP systems are deployed, it’s really not of great consequence. That horse has already left the barn when it comes to Gen III and III+ systems. If the USA would take some proactive and decisive steps to deploy Gen IV systems it could make a difference, but if not we’ll just have to wait a bit longer and maybe end up buying components from China, South Korea, Russia, etc until we build our own infrastructure for it. Eventually the interrelated crises of environment, energy, and population will be too much to hold back the adoption of nuclear power.

What could certainly slow such development would be another nuclear accident a la Chernobyl. That’s why it’s really a shame that the USA has so far refused to share its best technologies, to encourage the deployment of ultra-safe systems around the world. While I doubt we’ll see anything like Chernobyl again, we should do our best to prevent anything even remotely like that from happening again.


“bird and bat slaughter still <1% of cats and building slaughter"

I'm going to agree with Neil on this statement. It's a disingenuous argument, about as relevant as saying "nuclear power plants emit radiation". The inadequecies of wind power, and the enormous amount of mining needed to build them are argument enough. We don't need token arguments on "bird slaughter".

As for the rest of your comment Neil, you criticised a couple of "sort of conclusions", but I see that you failed to refute or improve any of the facts.


Tom Blees,
You expressed my frustration very well. When I arrived in the USA in 1982 I was expecting to find traces of a bold “frontier spirit”. Maybe there was some back then but it is very hard to find it today when every misfortune generates a lawsuit.

When societies seek to minimise risks it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain innovation. In the last few weeks we have seen public opinion in the USA swing sharply against the idea of “Off Shore Oil Drilling” owing to an accident in the Gulf of Mexico. This tells me that our problems with creating a sound energy policy are not simply due to weak leadership.

Given the reaction to an oil well accident it is pretty clear that another Chernobyl would set nuclear power in the USA back by decades. That is why I advocate reactors such as ORNL’s Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor which avoid several disaster scenarios:

1. No criticality accidents as the fuel is dissolved in molten salt that expands with temperature, thereby preventing thermal runaway. There is also a passive “freeze plug” to dump the reactor core in the event of over heating.

2. No pressure accidents as the LFTR operates at one bar instead of >200 bars with Gen I & II reactors.

3. No reactivity accidents as no reactive chemicals (e.g. graphite or sodium) are used to construct the LFTR.

Yes, I realise that LWRs have a magnificent safety record but we have to deal with our hysterical press that loves to scare the public.

In my earlier post there is a typo. Vermont Yankee will lose its operating licence in 2012, not 2002!


Just for fun … here are some serious renewable projects, courtesy of The Onion

Alternative Energy Projects

The U.S. Department of Interior just approved Cape Wind, the nation’s first offshore wind farm, which will be built five miles from Cape Cod.

Here are some of the other projects awaiting approval:

Gulf of Mexico solar-powered oil-spill refinery

The Central Texas Lance-Armstrong-on-a-Stationary-Bike Initiative

The Nevada Battery Hole, a two-mile deep shaft that the nation’s dead batteries will be thrown into

The Alabama Abdomeno-Thermal Energy Program, a proposal to bore deep shafts through the surface of the state’s rotund citizenry to capture the natural heat emanating from their roiling liquid cores

Georgia’s 100% Hazard-Free Miracle Electricity Program

The Salt Lake City Prayer Turbine Solar PanelVille application on Facebook

The Alan Parsons Project Project, a program aimed at harnessing the unique onstage electricity that is generated when the legendary prog rockers play live.

Why are we here at BNC overlooking the work of serious renewable energy like this? Do we have so little vision???


Based on this calculation Bruce is permitted a release ceiling 9.0 × 10exp15 Bq/yr (or 25,000 Ci/yr) of tritium but in 2009 they released only 1% of that limit.

I would say then that there was an error in the Rockwell report.


am I reading you right? 25,000 curies versus 60 million curies in the rockwell report? yeah, that would be an error alright.

thanks for the rest of the info. I will see if I can digest that report.

(boy, is this english professor getting an education)

what figures does Rod Adams use in his blog piece on tritium leaks? I’m wondering in Rockwell borrows from Rod. I’ll check.


RE: Tom’s comment: “That’s why it’s really a shame that the USA has so far refused to share its best technologies, to encourage the deployment of ultra-safe systems around the world.”

Tom: are the fast reactors built in India missing the passive safety of the Prism?



DV: Rod’s number for Derivable Release Limits from Pickering is 13 million curies.

I get the main point that all of these numbers in curies and Becs ultimately are converted into very low dose numbers: 1 msv.

but I’m still understandably flummoxed by the number disparities here: 60 million curies; 13 million curies; 25,000 curies.


greg meyerson – First Pickering and Bruce are two different stations, there is an outside chance that the calculations of the DRL are the source of the discrepancy.

Secondly there is a difference between the total radionuclide releases to the atmosphere and to surface water, a plant is permitted, and the figure for tritium alone, which is what is under discussion here.

I will have to dig a bit to see what is going on.


found this interesting paragraph on calculating dose rate from isotope activity.

for those who don’t already know this (sort of brings together G.R.L’s comments and DV’s):

Many people are searching for How do I convert activity to dose or dose-rate? We think that conversion is the wrong term. Conversion usually means, what number do I multiply Ci and Bq by to obtain R, rad, rem and Gy or Sv? What you should be asking is how do a I calculate dose-rate or dose for a given activity of an isotope? It is indeed a complicated calculation, not a simple conversion. There is no number that you multiply Ci and Bq by to get R or rad and Sv or Gy. Different isotopes emit different energy gammas and some emit more than one gamma. At the same rate of emission or decay, an isotope that emits more and higher energy gammas will give a higher rem/hr or Sv/hr. Ci and Bq are based on dpm/sec (dps). Consider the same emission rate (dps) for Cs-137 and Co-60. Co-60 will give you a higher dose-rate and dose because it emits two gammas above 1000 keV where Cs-137 emits only 1 gamma at 661.8 keV. Obviously Co-60 is emitting more electromagnetic energy per decay than Cs-137 which will give one a higher dose-rate in R/hr or Sv/hr. Also, the dose and dose-rate varies with the distance from the source. You cannot convert from Ci and Bq to R, rem or rad and Sv or Gy. You must do a complicated calculation on an isotope by isotope and a distance by distance basis. The formula can be found here. If you can eliminate the word “convert” from your question and replace it with “calculate”, Rad Pro Calculator can give you your answer, here. Rad Pro Calculator also calculates dose-rate in rad/hr and Gy/hr from beta emitter activity here.

DV: make sure to get back to me about those curies, even if you have to ignore family and personal obligations.


okay: so for bruce-A and B, the DRL is about (very approx) 2.5 million curies annually (I assume). [I used a Terabec/curie converter]

The TBQs for B-A and B range from 88-94,000. multiply by 27 to get curies.

So Rockwell is way off, am I right?

He should fix this; it leaves one open to doubt his other numbers as this one appears off by a factor of 25.

Now I’m wondering about the Rod Adams number.

Thanks for all your help.


greg meyerson – Yes it looks like there is some confusion over this. However the CNSC numbers, I would think, should be considered gospel, and the only reliable ones on hand.

I suspect that some of the error comes in from switching back and forth between Bg and Ci; as I demonstrated up thread it’s easy to lose (or gain) a zero in that process if your not paying attention.


rod adams had the DRL at 490,000 TBQ instead of 55,000 TBQ, which is what the CNSC numbers say.

That’s how he got 13 million curies. He should have gotten 1,485,000 curies.

but rod’s main point is unaffected as in reality Pickering released but 5400 curies in 2008–“almost 15 curies per day, about 40 times as many curies as Vermont Yankee’s infamous leak released in an entire year.”


greg meyerson – Just for the record Vermont Yankee did not release anything. The fact is the tritium from the leak never made it outside the fence, as I understand it.

Ether way, it’s ludicrous that facility will be shut down, and replaced by a gas plant.


Right. I know.

It’s insane.

I heard an activist give a talk about it last november.

She was throwing around numbers whose meaning she didn’t understand, and then saying that there was no need to worry about the loss of power since solar would fill the gap: and she cited german solar power as a model–asserting preposterously that germany got 60% of its electricity from pvs.

Fortunately, she didn’t get away with the latter assertion but I didn’t know enough at the time to respond precisely to her slinging around of dangerous picocuries.


Tom Blees said:
“We see it in Germany’s dogged support for solar and wind power via ridiculous and budget-busting feed-in tariffs….”

A delicious irony arising out of this budget busting is that it has forced the extension of operating licenses for several aged NPPs that were due for well earned retirement.

The general public only takes a serious interest in energy policy when the gas pumps run dry, lights go out or the electricity bill triples. From Germany to California we will be seeing these things more and more. In the end reality will trump dogma.



That article is utterly fascinating. I don’t think I’d refer to it as the “logic” of the antis though, as there is no logic to it. It just highlights the plain stupidity of some human beings.



If I may, I would, once again, like to ask you for an explanation of technical issues, this time on the subject of radioactivity and its effects on health. More specifically, I am hoping for guidance on why there are apparent (probably not real) inconsistencies in the various pro nuclear citations that readers of BNC have been alerted to. I fear that , without the necessary clarification, there could be accusations of special pleading from the “other side”, weakening the value of our advocacy for rapid roll out of civil nuclear power.

1) In your post which addressed the exaggeration of threats by nuclear terrorists, you cited two (possibly three) papers written by a war planner which I found to be interesting. I was led to believe that the acute effects of the explosion of a nuclear bomb in my vicinity could be terminally unpleasant, what with blast, heat and acute radiation sickness. More insidious and unpleasant would be the chronic effects associated with fall out. It is these that possibly make nuclear weapons seem more terrible than their explosive power. However, in apparent contradiction of this, I have read that the bombs dropped on Japan killed far fewer people than expected and that only a small percentage of the still very significant number were accounted for by fall out. I think, therefore, that there seems to be an anomaly somewhere.

I am aware that you think that the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons have been beneficial and instrumental in the avoidance of world wars and I tend to accept this as a valid viewpoint. In order for the deterrence to have maximum effect, the more horrendous one can make the effects of nuclear explosions appear the better. I am therefore left wondering whether the dire consequences of fall out have been deliberately exaggerated for the best of motives. If so, it is unfortunate that the hysteria thus induced acts counter to the clear need for rapid deployment of civil nuclear power.

2) I am being assured that my body is constantly being assailed by radiation from a variety of sources of which my own skeleton and bananas figure prominently. Despite this, I am quite probably suffering from radiation deficiency and could protect myself from possible future harm by exposing myself to more. Nevertheless, should I choose to do so by the simple expedient of inhaling tobacco smoke, the strategy comes unstuck. Perhaps I should also be worrying that the demise of coal might make my radiation deficiency worse and outweigh the possible harms to me from particulates and heavy metals.

Should you explain that different radiation sources have different properties, both with respect to penetrative ability and effects on the body, it would make more sense. Obviously, penetrative power variability is well descibed. However, sweeping assertions made by some nuclear advocates that, as far as the body is concerned, all radiation is the same smacks of special pleading and seems, therefore, to be counterproductive.

3) Cherobyl apparently represents the worst that could be expected from an accident at a civil nuclear plant. In retrospect, the consequences, other than those consequent upon resulting hysteria, appear to have been trivial (but for the unfotunate few directly affected). Nevertheless, the British authorities identified quite significant (in the sense of being detectable) fall out in some areas of the country. It was considered necessary for sheep grazing certain upland areas of North Wales to be kept out of the human food chain – not just temporarily but for a number of years. I doubt that this action was justified but it sure as hell stoked up a lot of sentiment against civil nuclear power. It would be valuable to learn a bit more about the radiation dose numbers in Wales as I would assume they were miniscule relative to those in the vicinity of the plant. At the time, however, I remember thinking that the French nuclear industry had great potential to cause severe economic damage to the UK should anything go wrong. To what extent can I expect that our authorities have changed their attitudes to acceptable levels of radiation in the light of the Chernobyl experience?


Douglas Wise – It is early in the morning for me and I’m just on my way to my office. Your questions are all very pertinent, and I will endeavour to give then the detailed answers they deserve, latter today.



GRL: what’s a good basic textbook on properties of radiation?

Go back to my previous BNC post on nuclear energy fallacies, and read the 44-page radiation pamphlet by Colin Keay. All of this is explained very well.


barry: I already read it. I’ll look again, though.

I don’t remember the sort of thing G.R.L was discussing.


follow up to doug’s questions:

it is implied in bernie cohen’s radon studies that under a certain threshold (though this is not the principal conclusion of the study–which is that LNT cannot be correct), higher levels of radon exposure are associated with lower rates of lung cancer.

cigarette smoking is of course the main cause of lung cancer and it sends significant amounts of radiation into the lungs, including radon, which it presumably concentrates.

is the radiation from cigarette smoking a significant cause of the cancer? if so, is it due to its high levels beyond any hormetic threshold?



I just took a quick look at the radiation pamphlet, and indeed you are correct.

the section on radiation weighting factors is what I needed to understand.

I didn’t know the significance of what I was reading the first time I read it (passed right thru me like a gamma ray instead of sticking, like an alpha particle, though that’s the extent of the analogy).

thanks again.


Tom: are the fast reactors built in India missing the passive safety of the Prism?

The first Indian FBR, rated at 500 MW and opening next year, is oxide-fueled, and so although it has many standard safety features (and is incredibly safe), it doesn’t have the simply exceptional safety advantages delivered by metal fuel in IFRs (or fluid fuels + salt plug in LFTRs). As I cited yesterday in the Open Thread 4, however, the plan is to have this reactor, and its successors, to be running on metal fuels within a decade.


Douglas Wise –

Your first point – The yield of the WWII nuclear weapons was fairly low: Hiroshima 15 kt; Nagasaki 21 kt., and only one of these were dropped on each target city. In the papers I linked to, if you recall, the author pointed out that to effectively destroy a city a salvo, not a single device would be necessary. The rest of his conclusions were based on that assumption.

However, you are correct that the fallout issue has been given far more weight, especially in fictional treatments of the subject, that would likely be the case, at least in a limited nuclear exchange.

Keep in mind that most off the cuff estimates of fallout from a full exchange were based on the assumption that all the warheads of both sides would be successfully deployed against their targets. In reality, many would be destroyed themselves by the initial attack, (being primary counter value targets) and around 30% would likely be duds (a fact little acknowledged, but true.)

Your second point – The study of radiation hormesis.seems to suggest that some radiation is good for the body, however to the best of my knowledge, no one in that field has done any research that suggests any minimum required dose, below which a human could be considered deficient. Consequently I would not suggest anyone upping their exposure on purpose at this time, and I would certainly disabuse you of the idea that any advantages from increasing your radioisotope intake from tobacco smoke would outweigh the impact from the other toxins present.

Of course different radiation sources have different values in terms of their impact on living tissue. If fact the term ‘radiation’ in general is bandied about without a clear definition, often making discussion difficult. However I have not too many instances where nuclear power supporters have made the sort of sweeping assertions you are suggesting, other than stating that the levels that the public are exposed to are very low, and the standards perhaps too paranoid.

Your third point – This again reflects the stupidity of the LNT hypothesis being used a standard, coupled with the fact that the very nature of radioisotopes makes them trivial to detect in minuscule quantities.

Unfortunately it is going to take a lot of work to have this nonsense rectified, as any attempts to dial back limits will be met with huge resistance from both in and without the government . Opposition leaders will jump all over any government that tabled enabling legislation, and I think we can both easily imagine the stream of rhetoric that will vomit from the antinuclear NGOs.

I hope this covers your questions adequately.


The study of radiation hormesis.seems to suggest that some radiation is good for the body, however to the best of my knowledge, no one in that field has done any research that suggests any minimum required dose, below which a human could be considered deficient

There has apparently been work done on lower animals (not humans), by the French, which showed the detrimental effects of radiation deficiency. I cite Colin Keay pg 38 (see my earlier BNC post):

…we are entitled to ask if there is such a condition as a radiation deficiency. Would you believe? It appears that there actually is such a condition.

Because everyone on this planet exists in the depths of an ocean of nuclear radiation we do not see a disease that might be referred to as “radiation deficiency syndrome”. However some scientists, mainly French, have carried out experiments on various organisms under conditions where practically every source of radioactivity and ionising radiation have been excluded, both by stringent purity and by massive shielding of external radiation sources. Humans have not, to the best of my knowledge, been guinea pigs in such experiments but the various organisms tested under low-radiation conditions exhibit poor health and fertility compared to their control groups.

There we have it. Nuclear radiation follows the same biphasic dose-response behaviour as the other toxins we’ve been discussing. In the light of what we have learned about measuring radiation dosages it now remains to place some estimates on the curve shown in Figure 2 as it applies to the effects of nuclear radiation on human beings.


DV82XL, thanks for your responses.

You have made a valiant attempt to answer my questions. I am reassured by your view that , barring a large scale nuclear exchange, the consequences of fallout have been overblown. Of course, a large scale exchange might precipitate a nuclear winter which could, arguably, be much worse. I suppose this would depend upon how much dust got into the stratosphere. Could this be calculated? Do we even know how much Pinatubo threw up, the eruption of which caused measurable dimming?

A couple of the authors in Barry’s cites talked either of all radiation being equivalent (admittedly taken out of context) or of the possibility of our suffering from radiation deficiency. I was a little concerned that such comments from pro nuclear supporters could be construed as being “over the top”. I hope my somewhat flippant treatment of the subject didn’t give the impression that I was advocating smoking (my own 40 year addiction to pipe smoke has been replaced by a six year and ongoing addiction to high nicotine gum – uncouth but ,no doubt, marginally more likely to take me to a troublesome old age).

Your answer relating to my last point is quite predictable. The imposition of unnecessarily safety limits, welfare limits etc are wrecking western economies. You suggest that it would be political dynamite to change them. One could equally argue that, if we don’t, neither poor Peter Lang nor the rest of us will get the cheap power we need (note the tritium/Yankee nonsense to illustrate the point.) I am beginning to think that the only way to beat the antis is to confront them rather than pandering to their exaggerated fears. However, I’m no politician.

In passing, I note that the UK’s new energy minister is a long standing Liberal anti-nuclear campaigner. In my view, this is the worst outcome of the present coalition government. Given that both main parties are pro civil nuclear power, the minister will almost certainly not be able to do more than slow developments but this is bad enough..


Douglas Wise – A last word, if you will indulge me, on the nuclear warfare topic.

Public (and much political) opinion on the subject is still based on assumptions and decisions made in the 1950’s with the information and the tools that were available at the time. Like everything, these have changed in the last sixty years.

Not only have assumptions changed, but the warheads have changed, the delivery systems have changed, and the doctrines for using them have changed. It is no longer the case that the Great Powers plan to use their arsenals to pound each others cities to rubble with large-yield weapons. This was the only option when a city was the smallest target that the delivery systems of the time could reliably acquire, but now a much more nuanced approach is being pursued.

Nuclear weapons now have the primary role of checking an attack by large troop concentrations, as well as deterring a nuclear attack alone. Even counter value strikes are positioned to create more economic and military disruption, than just ratchet up the civil body count.

Thus the possibility of a full exchange has all but vanished, and will become even slimmer as the Americans and Russians reduce their warhead counts to more reasonable levels.

Thus we should not dwell on the past in this subject but deal with the reality of nuclear weapons as it is in the present.

As for radiation politics, this too will only change when the public is made familiar enough with the subject, to no longer fear it. This is not impossible; great strides have been made, in my lifetime at least, in the laws and general attitudes on the subject of women, people of color, and even those with different sexual orientations. While it cannot be said that the job is finished in any of those areas, we have come a lot farther than anyone would have thought in the middle of the last century. In other words: it can be done.


Oh and by the way – I knew you weren’t serious about the tobacco thing, but I thought I’d answer it straight up anyway.

However your point is well taken, and I don’t dwell on radiation hormesis in debate or discussion outside the circle for the very reason you cited.


gallopingcamel – The study was in fact done in Taiwan, which has not yet been repatriated with the Mainland to date.

While I don’t have a copy on hand at the moment, I have looked at one recently, and made several observations:

The first is that I would not typify a 2,363 mSv dose as being ‘low.’ While it is not one that would make you catch fire, it is certainly at a level I would consider to be of some concern particularly over thirty years of exposure. However in my opinion, the dosimetry used to make the estimates in this study was lacking somewhat in rigor, so the actual exposures may well have been greater than reported.

Second cobalt radioisotopes deliver a particularly high energy radiation that is noted for its ability to penetrate. That is why it is used as a radiation source in the first place. This is not the first time this material has found its way into commercial steel, and frankly I am appalled with the cavalier attitude that regulators in most of the world have with it. At the very least it should receive the same attention that is lavished on plutonium and enriched uranium, yet it does not.

Thirdly – I did not like the fact that this study did not correct for other insults that the subjects might have been exposed to over that time. This is an area that is often lacking in these types of studies, but it is also one that is very hard to establish over such a long timeframe.



Thanks for your further reply and I think your comments that we shouldn’t dwell on the past with respect to nuclear war are eminently sensible. However, it might be politic if they were more widely appreciated.

I thought I’d add one more comment which might be relevant pertaining to the overturning of excessive safety protocols. In the UK, the volcano in Iceland has been sending ash clouds over us. Initially, this shut down most flights. The airlines complained that the authorities were being excessively cautious The public tended to back the airlines. This week, however, the volcano perked up and more flights were cancelled. The airlines’ negative response to the authorities was swifter this time and the latter have now backed down and are accepting that what had been deemed unsafe is, in fact, not so. In my experience, the nanny state and “health and safety” are driving most of the public to distraction. I suspect, therefore, that, properly explained, that many excessive safety margins, including those relating to radiation, could be adjusted down without major public furore.


Not smart to attack “environmentalists” since nobody knows exactly what the definition is, and because almost everybody is one, depending on definition, plus you are creating push back from many potential allies who do consider themselves environmentalists and support nuclear for environmental reasons. I don’t consider myself an environmentalist, not that I might not be defined as one by somebody else.


Although I am a trained radiation worker I am not competent to assess the quality of the ROC study of thousands of citizens exposed to gamma radiation. Your comments were most helpful. Given that the finding of greatly reduced rates of illnesses that are associated with acute doses of gamma radiation the study appears to make a strong case for radiation hormesis.

An alternative hypothesis is that the ROC government was party to a whitewash. As someone who made many visits to Taiwan during their development from a military dictatorship into a constitutional democracy I do not buy this hypothesis. Even though the ROC did not have a free press while I was working there its government was structured under the US model (Legislature, Judiciary and Executive) but with a fourth arm of government called the “Ministry of Audit”:

The free press in the USA used to have a “watchdog” function to keep government officials honest. Given the failure of the press here to take this function seriously of late, I often wish we had a “Ministry of Audit” with access to all government files and with the power to indict government officials. This is not a toothless “Ombudsman”: the penalties for stealing government money while in office in Taiwan include death by firing squad.


Russ, alas, ‘environmentalist’ is becoming a meaningless term, much like ‘sceptic’. But there really are ‘environists’ — that is, environmentalists with the ‘mental’ part removed. It is this group that I dismiss, and not idly.


gallopingcamel – I don’t know that the Taiwanese study makes a strong case for radiation hormesis per se, however it does make a strong case for better control over cobalt sources, which is spectacularly bad all over the world. The latest being in India where a neighborhood was contaminated by a source improperly disposed of by Delhi University which killed a scrap dealer and seriously injured six others.

There have been similar events in Brazil, Mexico, Estonia, and Thailand, as well as Taiwan and India. This just off the top of my head, there may be others. The level of indifference over this is to me, breathtaking, given the fuss that is made over a gram or so discrepancy in the plutonium numbers from a reprocessing operation.

This sort of hypocrisy is intolerable, and cries out for better licensing and accounting of industrial and medical sources, and serious penalties for those mishandling them.


My university and its associated medical center uses bright gamma ray sources including Cobalt 60; the oversight is first class. We are regularly audited under strict state regulations. The audits are backed up by real time safety measures such as sensitive automated monitors on all access roads and exhausts. Penalties for losing radiation sources in this state go all the way to the top (university president) and are therefore taken quite seriously.

I suspect that other jurisdictions may not be as diligent in applying radiation safety standards. Industrial sources can be far more powerful than anything we have in our medical center so the potential for harm can be much greater too.

You mention the fuss over tiny discrepancies in plutonium inventories. How about panic reactions over leaking tritium at Vermont Yankee?

It seems you live in Canada. The only emergency shutdown of a reactor that I have witnessed was at Chalk River.


gallopingcamel – Chalk River was the only major nuclear accident we ever had, it is true.

Yes, sources in first World countries are reasonably secure, but then again so are there stocks of HEU and plutonium. What I was underlining was the hypocrisy of demanding that everyone, with very few exceptions, de-rate their research reactors with LEU, and avoid reprocessing used nuclear fuel, on the grounds that this material may be diverted for use in weapons, yet tolerate the sloppy security that sees very powerful radioactive sources falling into the wrong hands with depressing regularity.

Worse, as you pointed out, a small tritium release at a nuclear plant, well below the limits of any health or safety impacts, precipitates a reaction far out of proportion to the actual risk, yet a loss of containment from a source that actually produces casualties and death, hardly rate mention.

To me this indicates that radiation hype over nuclear power is, in fact, propaganda meant as FUD, rather than the result of fear born of ignorance. And that is telling.


What baffles me is that there is so little interest in technologies that will consume the higher Actinides by turning them into stable isotopes and electricity.

The real problem is ignorance as you point out. Somehow in spite of all the advances in technology we do a really lousy job educating our children. In my spare time I set up several charter schools but the scale of the problem is overwhelming.


gallopingcamel, on 29 May 2010 at 12.16 Said:

What baffles me is that there is so little interest in technologies that will consume the higher Actinides by turning them into stable isotopes and electricity.”

The problem isn’t so much ignorance as it is the difficulties of commercializing novel nuclear reactor designs. Between regulatory type approval, that can cost millions of dollars with no guarantee of success, to the sticker price of a plant, to attracting investors, the hill is very steep. Then in the final analysis, despite the shrill racket from the antinuclear brigades, the ‘nuclear waste problem.’ isn’t one at all, thus there is no real financial impetus to move to exotic fuel cycles.


It is true that developing >1,000 MWe plants such as Super-Phenix can be very costly and time consuming. However, small plants (75 MWe for arguments sake) can be much cheaper to develop. GE already has designs for small GenIV reactors suitable for factory construction and similar size LFTRs could follow within a few years.

In my opinion the technical hurdles are small compared to those solved in creating nuclear weapons during WWII but today the USA lacks the political will to take even the first step. India and China may be poised to take the lead in NPP technology as even the French seem to be faltering.


gallopingcamel, – I wrote nothing about any technical challenges, which as you correctly observe, are easy to overcome. The problem isn’t with the engineering, it is with regulatory hurdles, and the financing. In the current political environment that we are living in, at least in the West, these other issues are what have to be dealt with to move forward with Gen IV.


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