Emissions Nuclear

Nuclear Power – Yes Please! (why we need nuclear energy to beat climate change)

Here is my side of the ABC Environment ‘debate’ I’ve had with Ian Lowe, based around my book ‘Why vs Why: Nuclear Power“.


The arguments against nuclear power are hackneyed and wrong

In part two of a two-part debate on the prospect of nuclear power in Australia, Barry Brook argues that the arguments against nuclear are hackneyed and wrong. Part 1, “Nuclear Power – No Thanks!” by Ian Lowe can be read here.

The world is caught between dwindling energy resources and increasing climate change.

As China and India expand their economies, with the very human aim of improving the prosperity and quality of life enjoyed by their citizens, the global demand for cheap, convenient energy grows rapidly. If this demand is met by fossil fuels, we are headed for both an energy supply bottleneck and, due to the massive carbon emissions from fossil fuels, a climate disaster.

Ironically, if climate change is the “inconvenient truth” facing our fossil fuel-dependent society, then the inconvenient solution staring right back is advanced nuclear power. Not, as many suppose, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind (although they will play some role).

There is a shopping list of ‘standard objections’ mounted by those who challenge the viability or desirability of nuclear power. None of these arguments stands up to scrutiny.

Opponents claim that if the world ran on nuclear energy, uranium supplies would run out in at most a few decades and nuclear power plants would then have to shut down. This is false. The nuclear fuels, uranium and thorium, are both more abundant than tin, and with the new generation of fast spectrum breeders and thorium reactors, we would have abundant nuclear energy for millions of years. Yet even if it lasted a mere 1000 years, we would have ample time to develop exotic new future energy sources.

Critics argue that past nuclear accidents mean the technology is inherently dangerous. However, this simply ignores the fact that it is already hundreds of times safer than the coal, gas and oil we currently rely upon. Moreover, passive safety features do not rely on engineered intervention and remove the chance of human error, making it impossible to have a repeat of serious accidents such as Chernobyl.

Some contend that expanding commercial nuclear power would increase the risk of spreading nuclear weapons. Firstly, this has not been true historically. Furthermore, the products of modern ‘dry’ fuel recycling in fast reactors cannot be used for bombs. Indeed, burning plutonium in fast reactors takes this material permanently out of circulation, and is the most practical disposal mechanism imaginable.

Is the sun enough? No way!

Those opposed to nuclear energy claim it would leave a legacy of nuclear waste which would have to be managed for tens of thousands of years. This is true only if we do not recycle the uranium and other heavy metals in the waste (called “transuranics”) to extract all their useful energy.

Right now, mined uranium is cheap. However, in the longer term, a once-through-and-throw-away use of nuclear fuel – which extracts less than 1 per cent of the energy – will make no economic sense. Feeding ‘nuclear waste’ into fast reactors will use all the energy in uranium, and liquid fluoride thorium reactors will access the energy stored in thorium.

After repeated recycling, the tiny quantity of fission products (shattered uranium atoms) that remain will become less radioactive than natural granites and monazite sands within 300 years.

To claim that large amounts of energy (generating greenhouse gases) would be required to mine, process and enrich uranium, and to construct and later decommission nuclear power stations simply ignores a wealth of real-world data. Authoritative and independently verified whole-of-life-cycle analyses have repeatedly shown that energy inputs to nuclear power are as low as, or lower than, wind, hydro and solar thermal, and less than half those of solar photovoltaic panels.

That is today’s reality. In a future all-electric society – which includes electric or synthetic-fuelled vehicles supplied by nuclear power plants – greenhouse gas emissions from the nuclear cycle would be zero.

Finally, when all other arguments have been refuted, critics fall back on the claim that nuclear power takes too long to build or is too expensive compared to renewable energy. These arguments are perhaps the most regularly and transparently false arguments thrown up by those trying to block nuclear power from competing on a fair and level playing field with other energy sources.

Is nuclear power enough? Sure is!

Indeed, the evidence on energy replacement I present in the ‘yes’ case of the new book ‘Why vs Why: Nuclear Power’ (Pantera Press, 2010) demonstrates that large-scale nuclear power actually offers the fastest, cheapest and the only complete solution to ending our dependence on coal, oil and gas.

Many environmentalists believe the best low-carbon solution is for governments to guide us back to simpler, less energy-consuming lives, a vastly less consumer-oriented world. Notions like that are unrealistic. The world will continue to need energy, and lots of it. But fossil fuels are not a viable future option. Nor are renewables the main answer. There is no single solution, or “silver bullet”, for solving the energy and climate crises, but there are bullets, and they’re made of uranium and thorium, the fuels needed for nuclear plants.

It is time we embrace nuclear energy as a cornerstone of the carbon-free revolution the world needs to address climate change and long-term energy security in a world beyond fossil fuels. Advanced nuclear power that provides the technological key to unlocking awesome potential of these energy metals for the benefit humankind and for the ultimate sustainability of our global society.

Professor Barry Brook is the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute. He runs a popular climate change and energy options blog at

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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.

112 replies on “Nuclear Power – Yes Please! (why we need nuclear energy to beat climate change)”

Ideal Mission Statement

“The minimum standard for a government to enjoy the goodwill of its people is honesty. No government can consider that it serves its people if it blatantly lies to those people.” Paul Chambers 2010

Reminder Examples of Unacceptable Concealment

It is clear from public records that are now available that the AEC knew all along that any use of nuclear weapons would create a public health catastrophe. Nevertheless, in the name of national security the Eisenhower Administration veiled all radiation research in secrecy and disinformation. And, in 1955, with the creation of the first nuclear power plant, it extended that veil to cover the civilian sector. For nearly four more decades all information regarding the public health impacts of radiation would be rife with critical flaws. The Atomic Energy Commission and its descendant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, would hide—literally—mountains of data and obfuscate or distort the information that was released. Employees of both government and civilian industries would be compelled to sign secrecy agreements, violations of which would constitute grounds for prosecution on charges of treason or espionage. Scientists who independently studied the human health impacts of low-level radiation would be vilified, their reputations smeared. Laurie Garrett 2000

A former US secretary of the Interior during the 1960’s, describes how he learned that AEC officials lied about the cancers induced by the Nevada tests in the course of his unsuccessful legal representation of some of the ‘downwinder’ victims.

As Chairperson of the Australian Atomic Weapons Test Safety Commission, Sir Ernest Titterton regularly assured the Australian people that they were in no danger from the British nuclear tests on their land. As in other countries, the significance of the fallout was never communicated to the public. Dr Hedley Marston (CSIRO) undertook to collect thyroid glands from grazing animals for analysis to determine the extent of radioactive contamination from the British 1956 Operation Buffalo tests in SA. He found heavily contaminated areas 1,500 – 2,000 miles away from the Maralinga test site, even reaching areas of Queensland. When Sir Ernest Titterton was asked to comment on Dr Marston’s findings, he simply reasserted the tests were carried out safely. R. Bertell

In late 1945 the US army stated that all deaths due to radiation effects from the H/N atomic bombs had already occurred. They maintained this absurdity for 5 years & no official investigation of the survivors’ health was made, despite press stories of large increases in cancer in the exposed population. In 1950, after countless deaths from exposure had already occurred, the US government set up the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission to study the remaining survivors.
A large excess of cancer among the heavily radiated was reported by the Hiroshima Cancer Registry but not by the ABCC. The HCR showed a 400% increase in non-leukaemia cancer for the highly exposed group, while the ABCC found only 30% increase. The ABCC figures were used for risk assessment. There was a great deal of messing about with choices of control groups in the A-bomb studies in order to make the results tidy & to show there was very little problem with radiation. The US certainly did not want to believe their weapon had caused such long term effects in innocent people. In addition, such effects would make it clearer that no one could really win an atomic war. The problem of the inadequacy of the controls became evident in the 1963 UNSCEAR report, where a higher leukaemia level was visible in that group. C. Busby UK

Henry Myers, (chief scientific advisor to the US House Committee on Interior & Insular Affairs 1980, with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics) in his role of highlighting nuclear safety issues, readily found people lied about what they had done to make plants safer, let problems fester until it was too late, & used psychological forms of avoidance to convince themselves & the public, that nuclear reactors were safe. Myers encountered human weaknesses far beyond what he had thought likely, or what his education & experience had prepared him for. Based on the subcommittee’s investigations, Myers estimated that as many as 75% of all the reactors in operation or under construction (at least 100) had “serious problems” that should’ve required costly repairs or closure. Myers often found cracks, leaks, faulty welds, false records & human vice in his investigations. S. Cook 2009

The European Parliament’s Green Party launched a study into nuclear accidents, released in 2007. Countless incidents had been insufficiently documented or not noted at all. Operators at the Shika-1 boiling water reactor lost control of it for about 15 minutes in 1999 but disclosed only a month before the Green Party report was released. S. Cook 2009

Before he resigned from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Peter Bradford said, “The first casualty of nuclear power was the truth”. He said, “the history of nuclear power is a history of silenced concerns, rigged studies, and suppressed scientists”.

A former Chief Scientist for the UK Ministry of Power, Sir Kelvin Spencer, has said:

“We must remember that government scientists are in chains. Speaking as a one-time government scientist I well know that ‘reasonably achievable’ has to be interpreted, (so long as one is in government service) as whatever level of contamination is compatible with the economic well-being of the industry responsible for the pollution under scrutiny.”

This government attitude clearly shows how public health is of secondary concern.

Dr S.G. Goss, a senior former member of the research staff at the National Radiological Protection Board, wrote of the culture of that organisation in the ‘New Scientist’ (1977):

“The Royal Commission on Environmental Protection criticizes the NRPB for bias towards understating risks & for not being seen to be independent of the UKAEA. These faults in the management were known to exist when the NRPB was set up, & if they were not obvious to outsiders interested in radiation protection, it was not for want of trying to make them understand…
My post on the NRPB was concerned with risk estimation &, as expected, it soon became obvious that the management were biased toward underestimating radiation risks. It was also soon clear that the ways of controlling staff used by the UKAEA’s own Health & Safety Branch would be applied in the NRPB.”

“Were we to reduce the maximum permissible exposure by a factor of ten, I seriously doubt that many of our present nuclear power plants would find it feasible to continue in operation.” stated Dr. Morgan. Furthermore, to admit that standards had been too lax would open a floodgate to compensation claims being made not only by radiation workers but by hundreds of thousands of veterans and downwinders. There were powerful incentives to keep the researchers away from the data. Karl Morgan, as chairman of the International Commission on Radiation Protection, wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1987 that he thought the current radiation risk had been underestimated by a factor of ten. Morgan had previously supported rapid expansion of the nuclear industry and his assertion caused a great alarm throughout the industry.

Dr Mancuso’s funding was cut off and he was ordered not to publish his findings. He was denied further access to the workers’ data. After twelve years and $5.2 million, the Energy Research and Development Administration (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission) removed Mancuso from the study. In 1977 he was ordered to give up his files or have them seized. When he refused to yield the data, ERDA asked the University of Pittsburgh vice chancellor to intervene. Fortunately the university refused. Practically everyone who sided with Mancuso and Stewart were subjected to character assassination or lost their funding.

Dr. John Gofman, director of radiobiological studies at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories was a brilliant nuclear chemist who had discovered a way of separating plutonium from uranium that had provided the Manhattan Project with plutonium for its bombs. In 1969 his findings corroborated with Stewarts’. He concluded that there was no basis for the AEC’s claim that there was a so-called safe threshold of radiation and that the cancer risk from radiation was roughly twenty times worse than previously thought. This meant that the hazard to future generations in the form of genetic damage had been underestimated even more seriously. His staff and budget were slashed, his work censored and he became known as the enemy within. Gofman resigned from Livermore in 1972, calling Livermore a “scientific whorehouse”.

So it comes to this: we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative. Because scientists are not (in most cases) licensed, we need to pay attention to who the experts actually are – by asking questions about their credentials, their past & current research, the venues in which they are subjecting their claims to scrutiny, & the sources of financial support they are receiving. N. Oreskes & E. M. Conway 2010

Simple Lesson from the US Love Canal Tragedy

What went wrong? What might the residents have done to come closer to the truth, to worry less about extremely unlikely harms, to concentrate more on mitigating whatever hazards there might be, & to avoid the vast disruption & consequent harm of being forced to move?

Their first error was to rely too much & too soon on scientific experts to inform them, which is to say that they first needed to know something about the subject themselves before making use of experts. Aaron Wildavsky 1995


Dr Jim Falk has already answered Prof Brook’s point

‘Professor Lowe demands impossible proof, which cannot come until after the fact. This is not science, nor risk management. He also ignores the fact that we know perfectly well how to recycle nuclear waste – we just need to start doing it on a massive scale.’ Prof B. Brook 2010

Dr Jim Falk writes in Global Fission

Sometimes advocates of nuclear-based programs will argue that the opponents are demanding the impossible: that nuclear power should be proved absolutely safe before it can be acceptable. Such proof is of course impossible. But the charge is not an accurate explanation for people’s opposition to nuclear power. Nuclear technology is distrusted because it is based on critically toxic materials which cannot be rendered safe chemically & which are capable of being transformed into the most devastating weapons; because these must be contained to a degree of precision which seems impractical to any person familiar with the errors, mechanical failures & even corruption, that are a feature of the workplace everywhere. Above all, the technology has been moved from the experimental to the commercial scale in less than 20 years. During this time many new hazards have been identified, & old ones have been found to be much more serious than early confidence suggested. Energy systems seem to be based on critically dangerous materials, still in many ways experimental but incorporated into programs as if they were adequately understood, & not compatible with trust by the community. Dr Jim Falk 1982


Has the Early Nuclear Industry been guided by Excessive Pressures & Bias?

Have Unacceptable Failures of Attitudes Resulted?

After the war, the US was left with a tremendous industrial complex devoted to building atomic bombs. But the knowledge & the physical infrastructure developed for the bomb could easily be turned to generating nuclear electricity. So this new technology of nuclear power (which, strictly speaking, did not yet exist) had a tremendous amount of momentum as it headed into the post-war years.

Although after the war many scientists returned to the research they had pursued earlier, plenty of others were hooked on the power of the atom. Given all this, Chauncey Starr says, the attitude among many scientists was, “what do we do now?” The obvious answer was to put the war machine to work developing nuclear power. “I don’t think we thought very deeply about it. Just let’s try it.”
Once it was clear that a chain reaction in uranium was possible, scientists didn’t have to stop & think what this might mean. Decades of speculation & prediction had already created an image of a world with nuclear power. For Leo Szilard & others, it was taken for granted that atomic energy would be the source of unbounded power. Unfortunately, this compelling image had been created from little more than the basic fact that the atomic nucleus held a great deal of power. It did not take into account (because no one knew) what sorts of things might have to be done to release that power. There was no place in the vision for the problems of nuclear waste or the dangers of radioactivity, & so at first, they were not taken as seriously as they deserved.

The early government control of nuclear power created a culture of secrecy that permeated the industry, even after commercial business had taken over all but the military aspects. Too often, the first instinct of both government officials & corporate managers was to hide information, to mislead, or even lie. The result was predictable – eventually a portion of the public assumed that nuclear officials were hiding something or lying, even when they weren’t. The Manhattan Project left nuclear power with a complex & contradictory psychological legacy.

Looking back on the early days, Alvin Weinberg recalls that even before the end of the war, Enrico Fermi was warning his colleagues that the costs of nuclear power might be higher than people wanted to pay. Fermi said, “it was not clear that the public would accept an energy source that produced this much radioactivity, & that could be subject to diversion of material for bombs.” But few paid any attention.

Years later, David Lillienthal, the first chairman of the AEC, reflected on the motivations of the scientists. They shared a conviction, he said, “that somehow or other the discovery that produced a terrible weapon simply HAD to have an important peaceful use. Everyone, our leaders, laymen, scientists & military men wanted to establish a beneficial use of this great discovery. We were grimly determined to prove that this discovery was not just a weapon.”

Most scientists at the time were generally unconcerned with the relatively minor risks that might be caused by fallout from weapons tests. Willard Libby in a 1955 congressional hearing said: “people have got to learn to live with the facts of life, & part of the facts of life are fallout”.

The Plowshare & nuclear plane programs went on so long as they did because there were essentially no brakes to slow their momentum. The true believers at the AEC & on the Joint Committee had nearly complete discretion in developing atomic energy, & they tended to dismiss negative results as due to lack of effort or insufficient vision. It was not impossible, merely extremely difficult, to build a nuclear-powered aircraft or find a practical peaceful use for atomic bombs, & so the supporters of these projects argued that the proper response to problems was to try harder & spend more money.
Throughout the 1950’s, the AEC, the Joint Committee & the President all pushed for nuclear power. In 1954 Congress passed a revised atomic Energy Act that changed the ground rules for developing nuclear power, & was designed to encourage business to get involved. The AEC would still however own the fuel & simply lease it out to companies operating reactors. This gave the commission great influence over the economics of nuclear power. For many years the AEC would subsidise the nuclear industry with fuel charges that represented only a fraction of the real fuel cost.

There was steady government pressure on utilities to adopt nuclear power. But companies were having trouble getting sufficient liability insurance. Insurance companies would provide no more than about $65 million for a single plant, but the potential liability was much greater. According to a 1957 AEC safety study, a serious accident at a large reactor could conceivably kill thousands of people & cause billions of dollars of property damage. Even if the chances of such an accident were extremely small, no utility would be willing to risk bankruptcy by building a nuclear plant without enough insurance. In response, Congress passed the Price-Anderson Act of 1957. It required a plant operating company to buy as much liability insurance as was available, with the government committed to pay for damages above $65m, up to a limit of $560 million only. If a major accident ever did cause billions of dollars in damage, then some victims would be uncompensated.

At the beginning of the 1960’s, even the most optimistic cost estimates had nuclear electricity being significantly more expensive than electricity from coal. The combination of technological enthusiasm & government pressure was enough to convince some utilities to invest in nuclear power even when they knew they would lose money. GE’s vice president of planning, John McKitterick said in 1970, “If we couldn’t get orders out of the utility industry, with every tick of the clock it became progressively more likely that some competing technology would be developed that would supersede the economic viability of our own. Our people understood this was a game of massive stakes, & that if we didn’t force the utility industry to put those stations on line, we’d end up with nothing”.

Only years later would it become evident how badly the reactor manufacturers had misjudged, or misrepresented the real costs of building nuclear power plants. On average, nuclear plants ordered in the mid to late 1960’s cost twice as much to build as estimated. GE & Westinghouse quickly realised what was happening & stopped offering the turnkey contracts in 1966. But by then they had already agreed to build a dozen nuclear plants for a fixed price. Later unofficial estimates indicate those twelve plants cost both companies about $1 billion in losses.

If nothing else, the nuclear industry’s lessons in the importance of learning have dispelled the technological hubris with which it began the nuclear era. No one in the nuclear industry realised just how much learning this new & complex technology demanded. Blinded by such technological hubris, the industry didn’t think it had much to learn. Time after time, the industry believed that it understood the technology very well, only to be surprised again. One of those surprises had arisen in the steam generator of a PWR.
With the exception of a few nuclear enthusiasts, no one in the utility industry was in a hurry to build atomic power plants. Without the push from the AEC & the Joint Committee, LWR’s would not have been locked in so quickly, & there might have been a real competition from the CANDU heavy-water technology & the gas-cooled reactors from the UK & France.

That shouldn’t be surprising. In the ideal world of economics, the central authority may be an objective body, making its decisions on the basis of calculations & expert opinions in an effort to settle on the best technology. But in reality, government bodies are subject to all sorts of pressures, both internal & external, that urge them to push a technology in one direction or another.
It starts with the prejudices & motives of the people involved. Just as individual economic players in a market are not totally rational, neither are individuals in government bodies.

Institutional inertia also often influences decision-making bodies. Once people have resolved to go in a certain direction or have spent a great deal of time & effort on one option, they tend to resist the alternatives. Changes threaten their way of thinking, perhaps even their jobs.

All excerpts are from Robert Pool (1997), who had his manuscript viewed by Richard Rhodes amongst other experts.


Is There A Conspiracy to Mislead the Public?

Altogether about $4m went into the Rasmussen study. Professor Norman Rasmussen, dean of engineering at MIT, along with a staff of fifty, spent 3 years on a study funded by the US AEC. The report came up with exactly what the AEC wanted to know: that a nuclear accident was just about the least likely accident that could possibly happen.

One of the lesser known & less publicised aims of the report was to help gain renewal of the Price-Anderson Act, legislation limiting the liability of companies operating nuclear power stations in the event of a terrible accident. The AEC also needed an optimistic survey to bolster up its flagging image. Most commentators & media helped by taking the summary at its face value, & not examining the 12 detailed volumes from which the summary was made. This was crucial. The summary spoke of the likely number of ‘prompt’ deaths in the event of an accident & left it at that. It said that, say 10 prompt deaths would be about the same number as would occur if a meteor shower fell on a heavily populated area. However, buried in the more detailed data was the forecast that in addition to these 10 ‘prompt’ deaths there would eventually be 7,000 cancer deaths, 4,000 genetic defects & 16,000 thyroid abnormalities. Radioactive contamination of about 3,000 square miles would also occur.

Among the scientists who disagreed fundamentally with Rasmussen was one who said that the figures for death & injuries were 16x too low, while another said Rasmussen had underestimated the cancer & genetic effects by as much as 50 times. The Rasmussen team refused to adopt the views on the radioactive health hazards put forward by accepted health experts, & instead produced from nowhere figures lower by about half than those widely accepted. They gave optimistic forecasts of evacuation & decontamination measures & ignored the fact that components deteriorate over time. The full report was published in 1975. By early 1979, informed criticism had reached such a level that the NRC was forced to disown it. In an unusually frank & stringent criticism, the NRC spoke of the politically motivated promotional aspects of the report. The NRC said: ’the Commission does not regard as reliable the reactor safety studies of numerical estimates of the overall risk of reactor accident…..the conclusions should not be used uncritically for public purposes’. Judith Cook 1986

What a ‘surprise’. An AEC funded study that conveniently downplays the risks with a sanitised summary, to neutralise the 1964 WASH-740 report on reactor safety.


Is There A Conspiracy to Mislead the Public? II
Idaho Falls SL-1

It appeared that contrary to reports at the time, there was some release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. About 791 people involved in the cleanup & rescue attempt received significant doses of radioactivity even at a time when safety thresholds were higher than at present. Some of these have now developed cancers of different kinds but the US AEC were so far refusing to follow up & find all those involved.

The body impaled on the ceiling was very difficult to remove. When rescuers got it outside it was giving off 1,500 roentgens per hour. In the process of bringing out the bodies not only did the rescuers become contaminated but so did every vehicle & piece of equipment they touched. The ground around the plant & even the public highway outside it were made radioactive. Those trying to clean it up became frustrated as the more they tried, the more the radiation seemed to spread.

It took about 18 months to clean up the reactor building & initially the men had to work wearing protective suits for four hours at a time, during which period they actually went into the radioactive zone for only 8 minutes. It took several relays of men just to loosen a simple nut & bolt. It also transpired that some of those in charge had falsified the records of radiation doses to make them appear lower than they really were.

Finally, in discussing how the accident occurred, the theory put forward was that it was known that one of the men involved was suffering from severe emotional problems & might well have removed the control rod as a bizarre suicide act. Judith Cook 1986

Falsifying radiation records is deliberate deception, as is downplaying uncomfortable doses.


Is There A Conspiracy to Mislead the Public? III

Among those not happy with the Black Report was James Cutler who made the YTV documentary. He later received confidential copies of the detailed evidence given to the inquiry which revealed a different picture from the reassuring one made public.

The evidence showed without doubt, that more than half the cases of childhood cancer that occurred in Seascale & surrounding villages had been quite simply, left out. The result was obviously an under-estimate of the numbers involved. Worse still, says J. Cutler, other polluted areas on the Cumbrian coast were found to have alarming childhood cancer rates but were never mentioned in the report as they were not within the area that was the inquiry’s remit.

All the statistics used by Sir Douglas Black show omissions & distortions. Also the inquiry only concentrated on one limited period, from 1968 – 82. If the study period had been extended by just one year (1983), there were two further leukaemia cases diagnosed in Seascale which would’ve put Seascale at the top of the northern region for that disease. When all the missing Seascale cases are included & when the ‘top -10’ wards in the area are correctly listed by statistical significance, Seascale heads the ‘top-10’ wards in the tables for all cancers & leukaemias, with a rate of 24x the regional average. The odds of this occurring by chance are one million to one, & are unmatched by any village so far found in Britain.

The more detailed data shows a definite geographical pattern. Missing out cancer cases resulted in Bootle ward being shown as having only one cancer case instead of four. Four of the wards in the ‘top-10’ for childhood cancer in the northern region are found on the Cumbrian coast: Seascale, Ravenglass & Wampool, both the later being on river estuaries & Barrow Island, a known plutonium hotspot, according to the government’s own environmental radioactivity monitoring experts.
On 16 February 1986, the Sunday Times revealed that discharges around the Sellafield site were at one time, 40x higher than those stated in the Black Report, & that doses of radiation received by the local population for a period of 3 years during the 1960’s were 5x officially recorded. This only came to light because of physicist Derek Jakeman who was employed at Windscale in the 1950’s. In 1955, he & a colleague from the Research & Development Department took Geiger counters back to their homes in Seascale. The readings were very high, so high that both men immediately asked for more information on discharges from the site. Not only was this refused, but both were told that if they pressed the matter any further, they would be sacked.

A report produced by D. Jakeman’s own department in 1955 had recorded that the amount of radioactivity in grass, lettuce & milk was approaching the maximum permissible level. Milk was a particular concern in view of the possible effects on babies & young children. The figure given to the Black inquiry for the amount of uranium discharged into the atmosphere between 1952 -55 was 400 grams. In actual fact it was 20 kilograms. In a statement to the Sunday Times, BNFL admitted that the figure was wrong.

In August 1945 a lengthy paper appeared in the British Medical Journal revealing the results of the largest study of employees’ health records ever undertaken by the Atomic Energy Authority. Researchers found that the risk of genital cancer among workers exposed to low-level radiation appeared to be 15x greater than the recognised safe guidelines. It was also found that the death rate from prostate cancer in one group was 8x the national average. Men exposed to multiple sources of radiation, particularly tritium at the Winfrith plant, were up to 9x more likely to develop prostate cancer.

Probably the single most worrying aspect of this whole subject is that reliable information is so hard to come by in Britain. The point was made very well by the Guardian’s science editor, Anthony Tucker, in March 1986 when he stated that official censorship is gagging those involved in crucial civil research into radiation in the environment, & he described various statements from nuclear industry spokesmen – that fears of radiation ‘are born of ignorance’ – as ‘insulting cynical hypocrisy’. Information generated by research projects, carried out in areas of public health or safety, may never reach the scientific journals & then the public. There is, he said, a highly effective ‘insidious & concealed form of systematic censorship operated by government departments in conjunction with industry’, & this has corrupted British science to an unprecedented level. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of radiation. Government departments exercise complete control over the information resulting from contract research, possibly leading to interference, delay or the blocking of publication. The government gag is most stringently applied to research into the effects of radio-nuclides discharged into the environment. Civil research appears to show that radioactive material is not distributed evenly but accumulates as ‘hot particles’ throughout the inshore marine sediments & generally in the environment over a wide area around nuclear plants. Judith Cook 1986


Reflections on Nuclear Power from pioneer Dr Alvin Weinberg

Possible failure of nuclear energy was far from our minds at Geneva in 1955. Here was this gathering of the world’s nuclear scientists, including Bohr, Wigner, Cockcroft, Teller, Heisenberg, Perrin & the political functionaries. It would’ve been the height of bad manners to suggest that nuclear energy would not necessarily succeed. Nor did anyone even consider this possibility, since nuclear power was being generated already in some places & we were all caught up in the promise of the ‘miraculous’ new source of energy. As one goes through the 15 volume proceedings there is hardly a suspicion that the problems mentioned by Enrico Fermi in 1944 (immense radioactivity & plutonium diversion) might prove intractable. (James Conant felt in 1951 that the waste issue was also intractable).

The nuclear reality was turning out to be far less utopian than the visions I had promoted in the 1960’s. The underlying issues were the same two that Enrico Fermi had warned us about at the New Piles Committee in 1944, where reactors created radioactivity on an enormous, unprecedented scale, & breeders were potential bomb factories. If a reactor failed catastrophically, radioactivity would be widely spread.

Because radioactivity was hazardous, government regulation of nuclear power became onerous & intrusive. As a result, a component like a valve in a nuclear plant might cost 5x more than a similar part in a fossil-fuel plant. Maintenance of radioactive pumps, heat exchangers etc, was far more expensive than we had predicted.

I think the nuclear establishment made a serious mistake when it first established ‘acceptable’ levels of public exposure. When I started to work on the Manhattan project in 1941, the allowable dose to workers was set at 100 mrems per day (or 36 rems per year). This was derived from experience with X-ray workers & was about 10x lower than the doses that produced manifest harm like radiation burns. This was later reduced to about 5 rems per year for workers, with the allowable public exposure about 10x less than occupational limits. Relating public exposure to occupational exposure was in retrospect a blunder, since the occupational standards had been set to avoid acute radiation effects (skin-burn) not long-term effects like cancer. Unfortunately, little was known in the early days about radiation-induced cancer.

What WAS known was that background radiation subjected all of us to about 100-200 mrems per year. We could have set radiation standards, even in the earliest days, in relation to the NBR. In the very first report by the National Academy of Sciences on the setting of radiation standards, this approach was discussed, but it was not adopted by the NCRP. This was a blunder the whole nuclear enterprise fell into.

As I reflect on my own involvement in the waste problem, I have some regrets. Most importantly, during my years at ORNL I paid too little attention to the waste problem. Designing & building reactors was what interested me, not nuclear waste. I did not aggressively push the work on waste disposal at ORNL.

Nuclear energy will always be a demanding technology, one that requires a level of technical sophistication that American utilities generally do not posses.

One of my first jobs at the Metallurgical Laboratory in 1942 was to help Dr Edward Teller estimate how much radioactivity would be released from an air-cooled graphite reactor due to the graphite oxidation. Thus even in the earliest days we were aware that our marvellous new energy source had a profound deficiency. Along with the energy came radioactivity on an unprecedented scale. Safety was not dominant in our thinking (during wartime) but was more secondary.

But now we realised that a failure of the safety features could in extreme cases, lead to the failure of pressure vessel & containment. The containment & safety features in such cases became effectively in parallel, & NOT in series as the AEC had previously argued. So there were in these extreme cases only TWO barriers instead of three between the radioactive fuel & the public. We could no longer argue that the widespread damage described in the Brookhaven WASH-740 was impossible.

An admission of using another way to claim safety, which misleads the public

We then had to change the basis of our claim that reactors were ‘safe’. Instead of claiming that because reactors were contained, no accident would cause off-site consequences, we had to argue that, yes, a severe accident was possible, but the probability of its occurrence was so small that reactors must be still regarded as ‘safe’. Reactor safety then became ‘probabilistic’ & not ‘deterministic’. Does the public regard risk a probability x consequences? Or does the public only consider consequences without understanding probabilities?

Well the Rasmussen Report 1974-75 claimed an unbelievable risk of 1 major accident in 1 million reactor years. TMI 1979 & Chernobyl 1986, proved that wrong, even with the lower number of reactors operating then. With so many people in the modern world making major mistakes, probabilistic assessments are grossly misleading if they do not allow for such human failures, & are therefore of no practical value. Even the NRC repudiated the Rasmussen Report before the TMI accident.

By 1972, reactor safety had become a primary source of contention between the nuclear industry & the intervenors. I found myself increasingly at odds with the AEC reactor division. After all, we were pushing molten salt reactors & not LMFBR’s. We were also being troublesome over the question of reactor safety. One day Floyd Culler & I was talking to Chet Holifield about our work on reactor safety. Chet was clearly showing signs of exasperation & blurted out, “Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it may be time for you to leave nuclear energy.”

Is that the way to treat an experienced pioneer when he is advocating safety issues? Shortly after the above conversation, Dr Weinberg lost his job.


from Dr Alvin Weinberg again

A nuclear-powered aircraft would have unlimited range. On the face of it however, nuclear reactors are entirely unsuitable for powering manned aircraft. Though the reactor might be made small enough to fit into a large bomber, the radiation shield might weigh as much as 100 tons. The reactor would have to operate at 1,500 deg F or higher to drive a jet engine. Were a nuclear airplane to crash, the radioactive core would contaminate many square miles.

What caused otherwise sober, even brilliant engineers to conclude that nuclear flight wasn’t crazy? In part, it was fear of the Soviet Union & the difficulties in developing ICBM’s. Also partly due to autocatalytic optimism. 1994

This phrase really covers why the WHOLE nuclear power program has been irrationally pursued when there were so many obviously difficult engineering & safety problems needing to be solved, & continue to be REALLY unsolved.


Over last weekend, much of South Australia was blacked-out for several hours, because of loss of power from the grid interconnection with Victoria. Apparently, S.A. now relies upon renewables, mainly wind power, aiming to supply as much as 50% of our total power demand. When Alinta closes down the brown coal-fuelled Port Augusta power stations in 2017, we will be able to generate only 10% or so of our base-load power requirements by local gas or oil-fuelled generators – the remainder must come from intermittent renewable sources or from interstate.
We really need an efficient commercial operator, such as BHP, to replace our uneconomic, polluting, obsolete generating system. If we install modern high-temperature molten salt or liquid metal cooled nuclear reactors, then we will be able to produce a zero-carbon cost-effective electricity supply, hydrogen to replace our natural gas supply, and gigalitres of distilled water to irrigate our thirsty crops and water our livestock.
And yes, the Chinese can do it within 3 years, so why can’t we, if we are only half as smart as we claim to be? Of course, we don’t have the advantage of living in a one-party authoritarian state, so it would require that our politicians get off their fat armchairs and unite to legislate for the common good, instead of studying popularity polls.
In May 2015, I made a peer-reviewed submission to the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Submission on a web-site , which I hope offers an unbiased assessment of the benefits of a nuclear power industry, in terms that are comprehensible to anyone who completed Year 12.
For a broader view of solutions of the problems of climate change, please refer to my web-site


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