Back in May, I published a critique of an MIT report on the future of the nuclear fuel cycle (MIT FNFC), on behalf of Yoon Chang and the Science Council for Global Initiatives.
Since that time, SCGI member Steve Kirsch (a MIT alumnus and benefactor) has been trying to get MIT to engage with their critics, to little avail. Some recent details were posted on Rod Adam’s blog ‘Atomic Insights‘, here: Fast reactor advocates throw down gauntlet to MIT authors.
As you’ll note from Rod’s post, the reaction from MIT has been to (i) ignore us, then (ii) try to divert the debate to other matters (“Fukushima is now the only thing that is worth discussing” — or words to that effect), or (iii) to change the debate topic to make it so broad that no one will end up concluding anything. So Steve, like the bulldog he is, has sent another letter to the MIT nuclear guys, outlining our case for having an open and public discussion on this, will all the facts on the table and experts in the chairs. I reproduce an edited version of the letter below. Steve also gives an interesting take on the implications of Fukushima Daiichi, which I’m sure you’ll find interesting — and probably want to discuss in the comments below.
Steve Kirsch’s letter to Head of MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
I’m confident that MIT is capable of telling the Fukushima story without our help.
Personally, here are some of the lessons I learned:
1) The world is in serious trouble with carbon emissions. We need to be deploying every form of clean power we can as fast as we can. Fukushima doesn’t change that goal or strategy one bit.
2) We now can update our statistics on public deaths due to nuclear power over the last 50 years by adding 0 deaths affecting the public. As we expected, nuclear is still by far the safest way to generate power (fewest deaths per MWh generated). It is important that we tell the world that they should be shutting down the most dangerous forms of power generation first. It makes no sense whatsoever to be shutting down the safest form of power generation first.
3) We learned it is a bad idea to put generators in the basement of a plant near a large body of water subject to tsunamis. But their design spec was a smaller tsunami. So we learned that sometimes, accidents happen that are beyond our design center and people will get killed. Does that mean we should spend huge additional sums to over-design everything we build to account for the worst possible disaster? Probably not. I think Haiti is a good example of setting your standards too low. But I don’t think that is the case here. I think the lesson of Fukushima is that natural disasters cause deaths that we can’t always avoid.
4) We learned that 40 years ago, people didn’t design reactors as safely as we do today.
5) We learned that if the reactor closest to the epicenter sustains no damage, the press and public will completely ignore it when they should be telling people that this proves that the technology itself is inherently safe even in disasters beyond the design specification.
6) We’ve always known that having a reactor shutdown process that is dependent upon electricity is a bad idea. Having waste lying around is a bad idea. Not being able to reprocess that waste is a bad idea. Cancelling the IFR project that could have reprocessed the waste was a bad idea.
7) It shows that 40 year old designs are not perfect, yet nuclear is still the safest form of power. But we should be still aggressively even safer designs by building these designs and learning from our mistakes. In particular, the IFR design avoid such problems since it doesn’t require any operator intervention or electrical power to shut down safely. Is it perfect? No, but it is statistically better than non-nuclear alternatives.
8) We’ve learned, once again, that people are irrational. When 8 members of the public died in a natural gas explosion in a town near where I live (San Bruno), there was not a single editorial or protest calling for the end of natural gas. When any single plane crash kills more people than nuclear has in its entire 50 year history, do we hear about anyone calling for banning air travel and shutting down the travel by air? Absolutely not! When 115 people die in car crashes every day, do we hear cries for banning automobiles? Nope. Yet when no member of the public dies due to the disaster in Japan, instead of people talking about how, even in the roughest cases, nobody in the public was killed, we talk about the end of nuclear power in countries around the world. If a 40 year old car exploded, killing its occupant, do you think there would calls to end the manufacture of cars worldwide? Or do we learn what we did wrong and not repeat that mistake next time?
[ED: Add the Chinese fast rail accident to the list — do we give up on high-speed rail now, a favoured tech of BZE?]
9) No member of the public died from nuclear radiation in the Japan quake. Unsafe buildings caused untold thousands of deaths in the same disaster. Why isn’t the priority on making safer buildings that can withstand tsunamis? Why aren’t countries closing down all buildings because building technology has proven time and time again to kill people when an accident occurs? Buildings are an unsafe technology.
10) We learned that politicians don’t think clearly during and after disasters. The head (or former head) of the radiation protection division of U.S.-NRC once stated (jokingly) at an IAEA reception in Vienna:
There are three types of photons, namely ‘green’ ones, ‘yellow’ ones and ‘red’ ones. The ‘green’ ones are plentiful and of natural origin. We are not concerned about them and we don’t regulate them. The ‘yellow’ ones come from medical applications. They are usually less plentiful, but we are a bit concerned about them and thus we regulate them somewhat. The ‘red’ ones are very rare, they find their origin in nuclear energy applications. We are very concerned about them and consequently we regulate the hell out of them.
In Fukushima, the evacuation zone criteria is >=20 mSv/yr. The problem with that choice is that large areas of France have natural radiation more than three times higher than that. Therefore, people were forced to leave their homes without a credible justification. In fact, there are many people (me included) who have concluded that there is a good scientific basis to believe that radiation levels of around 100 mSv/yr are beneficial to health and actually save lives. The one thing we know for sure: forcing people out of their homes cost lives due to suicides. Without a doubt, more people died from a bad political decisions in the Fukushima disaster than died from nuclear radiation. Maybe it is time to ban politicians worldwide first before we ban nuclear power?
11) As far as I know, the death toll at Fukushima was 4 people. Two were drowned when the tsunami hit, one man fell from a crane and there was one heart attack death.
But the big point is that people need to be reminded of the notion of “acceptable risk.” 115 people die in car accidents in the US alone every single day, but we like cars, so killing 42,000 people a year from this unsafe technology is an acceptable risk. No problem. No protests. Non-issue. If we look at the public death toll from nuclear power worldwide, it’s about 1 member of the public per year over the entire 50 years of nuclear operation. If you remove Chernobyl, it is 0.02 people per year. If I just gave you the statistics on deaths per year in the US between these two technologies (42,000 vs. 0.02), but didn’t mention the technology by name and asked you which technology should be eliminated, everyone would say cars, no question. But once I use the “n” word, it’s completely the reverse. Cars are totally safe, nuclear is super dangerous. Go figure. And we will spend arbitrarily large sums of money in order to reduce the nuclear death count per year; 0.02 per year is simply not good enough. That is “unsafe.”
It’s really important to communicate the points above, but I’m not sure that debate is best carried out by my experts in fast nuclear reactors and climate change.
Equally important to the Fukushima aftermath is that the MIT Fuel Cycle Report is wrong and it sends the wrong message to the world.
If there is any lesson to be learned from Fukushima on a technical side, once we start thinking clearly again, is that we need to be pursuing even safer nuclear designs and we need to do something about all that stored waste. That means investing aggressively now in safer reactor designs that do not require electricity or active safety systems to safely shut down (like the IFR) and in reactor designs that safely get rid of the waste (the IFR again). The MIT Report says it is just fine to not to build anything for decades. That is stupid and wrong. It is critically important that that advice not go unchallenged.
One of our country’s best and brightest nuclear scientists is Chuck Till. I asked him how to best advance nuclear science and safety. His answer was unequivocal: you build them (demo plants) and you learn from your mistakes. You can only get so far with computer simulations. The MIT Report tells not to do this…that we have plenty of time to decide what to do. That’s just so incredibly wrong. We needed a safe way to dispose of the nuclear waste years ago. Fukushima confirmed that in spades. Well, we had a way to get rid of that waste. But we cancelled the project and the MIT FNFC report says we shouldn’t build an IFR for decades. Lead author Professor Moniz says “it is low priority.” That’s terrible advice. This just opens the door to the next Fukushima which will lead to even more countries choosing to abandon nuclear for irrational reasons.
If we had a working new reactor design that shuts down safely in disasters with no power requirement, no operator intervention, and no safety systems, and a reactor design that consumes the dangerous waste product, the reaction to Fukushima should be a call to switch the existing reactors to the new safer reactors.
Following Professor Moniz advice will deny the world of that choice. Even though we have a bird in the hand with the IFR which time and time again has proven itself up to the task, Moniz says “don’t build it… keep waiting for something better; this is a low priority.” It reminds me of the book “Waiting for Godot.” Godot never shows up. We have a bird in the hand solution now. We ought to build it now. If a better design comes along later, that’s fine, we can switch horses at that time. But to hold off doing anything right now is just stupid, bad advice that should not be allowed to go unchallenged. We need a contingency plan and we need to aggressively start pursuing that contingency plan now with a passion. That is completely opposite what the MIT report says.
Do you know why Professor Moniz does not respond to our challenge to defend his report? If he’s right and his conclusions are on solid factual and scientific grounds, he has nothing to fear from us. We welcome learning the truth.
Today, the challenge to debate from Congressman Garamendi, James Hansen, Yoon Chang, Barry Brook, Chuck Till, and Ray Hunter remains unanswered. I can probably add the President of the American Nuclear Society to the mix too if you’d like. They all think the report is wrong.
To be honest, all of my nuclear friends told me that the MIT authors would never agree to a debate because Moniz knows he’d lose badly.
Is that true? Who is right on this? MIT? Or my nuclear expert friends? It’s an important question to resolve. Yet Professor Moniz is ducking our attempts to learn the truth.
Let’s do this debate on the MIT report and let the students decide who is right. OK?
If MIT is afraid to defend their own report against a such a qualified set of challengers, then they should not have issued it in the first place.
135 replies on “Fukushima, IFRs and an MIT debate”
Was I? I don’t recall receiving any such communication. I didn’t even realise my comment had been censored until just now. At any rate, I wasn’t trying to make any point in the debate. It was merely an expression of my disgust with Andrew Glikson, and the objective was to make sure he knew it. Objective accomplished.
Finrod – it is not just you – everyone has been asked to desist. Someone starts the personal attacks and it soon spirals into acrimony. Not permitted (as per BNC Commenting Rules) and definitely not conducive to reasoned discourse.
Thank you Barry.
As you know from numerous debates on blogs with those who do not accept climate science, once ad-hominem remarks and personal attacks commence against those of different points of view, its game over.
On my part I can state that, in many hundereds of thread communications, not even once have I questioned an adversary’s sinncerity and integrity.
I wish you the best in continuing to discourage such expressions on your otherwise highly effective Bravenewclimate.
“There is not much doubt about radiological hot spots from the Fukushima accident – they certainly exist, but not on the west coast of the US, not in Tokyo but mostly in a corridor NW of the plant.”
Wish you were correct. However, the Mainichi Daily News of 23 August of today in an article titled “Estimated yearly radiation dosage hits 508 mSv in town near nuke plant” http://mdn.mainichi.jp/mdnnews/national/archive/news/2011/08/20/20110820p2a00m0na009000c.html reads:
“High radiation levels of up to 508.1 millisieverts per year are estimated for areas within a 20-kilometer radius of the crisis-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power plant in figures released by the government on Aug. 19.
The figures, released by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, are the first publicly released estimate of the yearly accumulated radiation dosage in 50 locations across eight municipalities in the 20-kilometer radius zone.
The highest figure was for the Koirino district of Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, where the estimated yearly dosage was 508.1 millisieverts — over 500 times the acceptable yearly level of 1 millisievert per year for artificial radiation dosage. The district is three kilometers west-southwest of the plant.”
As you are aware the maximum doze allowed for the public is 1 millisievert per year and for nuclear workers 20 millisievert per year – tthe >500 millisievert per year is 25 times the latter.
It appears that nobody has the answers to your questions. However, we do have two point on the curve of impact on population of radiation. The first is, for natural radiation, if there is such a thing, our day to day data on radiation caused illnesses. The second or last or extreme case is from Hiroshima and Nagasaki where thousands of people were either destroyed or damaged and the data may exist on their exposure. There is a third source of data, the Chernobyl incident, where much data has been collected but may or may not be available.
Does anyone on the blog have access to this data?
Bill Goliff (not to be confused with Dr. W. Goliff)
According to this article, most of the high radiation sites are within 3 km of the plant. This seems to indicate a fairly small permanent evavuation zone.
The article at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903327904576524122257910948.html#articleTabs%3Darticle
Notes among other:
“But the education ministry’s measurements of radiation levels at 50 locations within the 20-kilometer radius showed annual exposure could exceed 100 millisieverts in 15 locations, including one where it could reach 508 millisieverts, compared with the government 20 millisieverts per year standard for evacuation.”
This is confirmed by detailed ground measurements and laboratory studies of I (half life 8 days), Cs (half life 30 years) and other radioisotopes at the Univesity of Hiroshima titled:
“NHK Documentary: Collaborating to Create a Radioactive Fallout Contamination Map” (subtitle:What exactly was the extent of contamination caused by radiation in the Fukushima nuclear accident? What is happening in the contaminated areas? This is a record of a two-month survey conducted by scientists working close together)
The New York Times August 8, 2011 reports:
“Japan Held Nuclear Data, Leaving Evacuees in Peril”
“In interviews and public statements, some current and former government officials have admitted that Japanese authorities engaged in a pattern of withholding damaging information and denying facts of the nuclear disaster — in order, some of them said, to limit the size of costly and disruptive evacuations in land-scarce Japan and to avoid public questioning of the politically powerful nuclear industry. As the nuclear plant continues to release radiation, some of which has slipped into the nation’s food supply, public anger is growing at what many here see as an official campaign to play down the scope of the accident and the potential health risks.”
Andrew Glikson, on 24 August 2011 at 8:41 AM — The New York Times article is intended to sell papers by playing upon people’s fears (based on ignoranace of matters radiological). It is in no sense a source of reliable information.
On the other hand, here is a sober, completely factual report:
Monitoring of newly released radiation in the air has been stepped up by about a factor of ten after levels fell below detection limits. The dose rate at the site boundary from newly released radiation now is just 0.4 millisieverts per year – within normal operating limits.
With the site now substantially stabilised and radiation release all but stopped to both air and sea, the issue of disposition of caesium-137 in the wider area is becoming the main focus of attention. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is now beginning analysis to support the return of residents to the zone 20-30 kilometres from the plant. It will need to assess the extent of contamination in each individual area as well as potential remediation measures. from
and I previously posted (on one hred or another) a Japanese newspaper account indicating the primary radiological interest lies within 3 kilometers of the plant site.
Most of the articles about this matter have been trying to spin it to look as bad as possible. The fact is, the permanent evacuation zone is going to be rather small.
Given the 30 years half-life of 137Cs, the statement “With the site now substantially stabilised and radiation release all but stopped to both air and sea, the issue of disposition of caesium-137 in the wider area is becoming the main focus of attention.” (from
is in clear conflict with the reference:
“But the education ministry’s measurements of radiation levels at 50 locations within the 20-kilometer radius showed annual exposure could exceed 100 millisieverts in 15 locations, including one where it could reach 508 millisieverts” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903327904576524122257910948.html#articleTabs%3Darticle
Consistent with measurements and studies by the University of Hiroshima, as below:
Reporting among other: “A study of soil samples has revealed that as much as 400 times the normal levels of radiation could remain in communities beyond a 30-kilometer radius from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, where explosions spewed radioactive materials into the atmosphere. The study was conducted by a team of experts from Kyoto University and Hiroshima University. According to the study, the accumulated amount of radiation in the soil at Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture – which is located outside of the 30-km radius – calculated over a three-month period would exceed the annual accumulated amount of 20 millisieverts that the central government is considering as a guideline for evacuating residents.”
Andrew Glikson, on 24 August 2011 at 9:24 AM — I trust TWSJ even less than TNYT; I have no idea what “earth-issues” is about. Indeed, you might even find Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama (U.Tokyo) credible, although I do not. But probably best to wait until Saturday (Japan time) for
Kan to spell out no-go zone reality
Some areas to stay closed well past cold shutdown
rather than further (rather pointless) speculation.
Another issue that seems to have received little attention is how “permanent” is permanent evacuation. According to this post that draws upon data from Iitate village the relative contribution to external dose from Cs-134 and Cs-137 has a ratio of about 2.5. Cs-134 has a half life of about 2 years and the expected decay in external dose over time is plotted in the accompanying chart. Over ten years external dose is projected to decline to about 25% of current dose and the contribution from Cs-137 dominates.
This is not to belittle the disruption to the lives of those who are evacuated, but to throw some light on claims of huge areas of land lost to productive use for many decades or centuries.
Andrew Glikson – I am disappointed by the (personal comment deleted) way you have linked to sources which are dubious to put it mildly. You even admit that you can’t verify the content – so why post it?
I trust you, and others concerned by the information you have posted on BNC, will take the time to read this from” Nature” News Blog, a respected scientific publication, regarding the exclusion zone around Fukushima.
It is also nonsense to insist that agricultural land will be unusable for decades or more and this report, also fro “Nature” News Blog explains why.
I should have included in my comment at 2:47PM this quote from the friend who sent me the link and is very experienced in the field of radiation
Ms. Perps makes good sense.
When you examine the incidence of leukaemia in the survivors of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki there is incontrovertible evidence of cancer increasing with radiation dose. However, the threshold dose is about 200mSv and below that dose the rate decreases and then starts to rise again as the dose approaches natural background levels below 10 mSv.
This is from peer-reviewed data published in UNSCEAR’s 2000 report.
As I said in an earlier post, my analysis of cancer mortality and radiation doses in Europe showed no increase in mortality and in some cancers, a decrease. Would anybody care to look at the data which took me months to compile, before going into orbit about radiation doses from Fukushima?
The problem about radiation is that for 2 generations the public has been told that “There is NO SAFE DOSE of RADIATION”!! Most people don’t know that there is such a thing as natural background radiation, or that they are radioactive.
The earth of a billion or a million years ago was more radioactive than it is now. If there is no safe dose of radiation, how on earth did life survive and evolve in such a radioactive and radiation environment?
That means there must be a range where radiation doses are safe to living organisms. Problem is that regulators said we will assume that there is no safe dose and we will calculate the effect from zero radiation according to a linear hypothesis. There is no such thing as zero radiation dose.
Eat a banana or enjoy a steak and get a healthy dose of potassium 40 which is radioactive and has a half-life of 1.3 billion years.
(The comment to which you refer has been edited.)
The sources I referred to above include:
1. The University of Hiroshima.
2. World Nuclear News
3. Wall Street Journals
4. The New York Times
5. Fukushima Update
6. Official UN forcast
No one on this blog has conducted independent radiation measurements so none is in the position to confirm or deny radiation levels reported in these media, except expressing an opinion as to which they considered more or less believable.
C. The detailed on-the-ground measurements conducted by scientists of the University of Hiroshima must be considered as reliable as any. Detailed account of this study is at:
D. While some environmentalists view IFR as a promising safe future energy source, as discussed in deail in numerous articles in Bravenewclimate, it is hard to see why the promotion of this particular technology requires some of the correspondents on this blog to underestimate the consequences of the Fukushima accident, in particular in view of the detailed studies by scientists of the Universities of Hiroshima and Kyoto.
@ Andrew Glikson:
Yes, and one example of the ‘other’ sources you referenced is the following:
Are you prepared to stake your reputation as a credible scientist on the veracity of the starseed website? Or was it thrown in to gain credence for it by association with more reputable sources? If not, why was it included?
“The earth of a billion or a million years ago was more radioactive than it is now. If there is no safe dose of radiation, how on earth did life survive and evolve in such a radioactive and radiation environment?”
The short answer is that prior to 1 billion years ago life was restricted to the oceans, therefore to a large extent protected by water.
Radiation levels depend on (A) radioactivity of underlying rocks and soil, for example highly radiogenic granite terrains; (B) state of the ozone layer and magnetic fields partly blocking cosmic radiation, x-rays and UV; (C) elevation of terrain, and other factors.
The statement regarding radiation and early life is incorrect as no simple linear progression is known in this regard.
1. Many/most terrains where life evolved were located over basaltic and oceanic basic crust, of low radioactivity;
2. Atmospheric conditions varied greatly, i.e. pre-700 million years ago low atmospheric oxygen and ozone levels allowed penetration of cosmic radiation,
3. Life before 420 million years ago was mostly restricted to marine environments and to a large extent protected from radiation by water.
4. During high-oxygen (>30 percent) periods (Carboniferous-Permian) high ozone levels minimized CR damage to the abundant land flora and fauna.
External radiation dose is not the problem. The Taiwanese residents that lived in accidentally contaminated buildings (cobalt-60 in the steel) received dosages up to 500 mSv/year of external gamma radiation yet had much lower cancer incidence than the Taiwanese average. My interpretation is, that it is likely that external radiation dose is good for you in quite high doses, especially if the dose rate is modest.
The problem is bio-accumulating radionuclides in high doses. However, cesium doesn’t bioaccumulate – it is taken up by the body but cycled out rapidly. Biological half life is just a few months compared to the radiological half life of 30 and 2 years for cesium-137 and cesium-134, respectively. In plain English, the radiation sources don’t get much chance to decay in your body. They will decay out of your body so they are essentially an external radiation source.
Strontium and plutonium are much more dangerous in this respect since they stick to bones in your body, and tend to stay there a long time. Fortunately these elements are much less volatile so don’t blow up into the air like cesium does.
andrew, you say:
“With the site now substantially stabilised and radiation release all but stopped to both air and sea, the issue of disposition of caesium-137 in the wider area is becoming the main focus of attention.” (from
is in clear conflict with the reference:
“But the education ministry’s measurements of radiation levels at 50 locations within the 20-kilometer radius showed annual exposure could exceed 100 millisieverts in 15 locations, including one where it could reach 508 millisieverts”
I don’t think there is any conflict between the two reports. The WNN report focuses on rates of newly released radiation (to air and sea) at edge of plant (site boundary); the other numbers refer to dose rate from accumulated deposits of radioactive material “in the wider area,” which are mostly cesium–what WNN says should be “the main focus of attention.”
While the focus of pro nuclear people should be on generation three and four, it is important to counter FUD.
On the health effects of the Fukushima accident, the chair of UNSCEAR, when announcing the commencement of a two year study had this to say
U.N. body to probe Fukushima radiation impact
In contrast, in the UK, DEFRA (Department For Environment Food and Rural Affairs) states:
Sources and Impacts of Air Pollution
One might conclude that living in the evacuation zone in Fukushima could well be safer than for example living on North Circular Rd in London. Very rare accident Vs business as usual.
But then CoalCares
I like your sources. Thanks.
cyril: I have read the taiwan study and talked to someone who helped design it.
just curious: why do you think that study is reliable and have there been follow ups, criticisms, etc?
if reliable, it is quite astounding in its implications for the effects of chronic radiation.