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?
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.