Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.
Preamble Following a recent article by Helen Caldicott in The Saturday Paper I submitted the following complaint to The Australian Press Council. Unfortunately TSP isn’t a member of the Press Council. Nonetheless they were kind enough to review my complaint and informed me that op-ed articles are judged rather differently from news reports and that even if TSP were a member, they would take no action. Given the high number of factually incorrect claims by Caldicott, I asked for an example of a false or misleading claim that would warrant Press Council action. None was offered. Accuracy features strongly in the Press Council General Principles, but where nothing is inaccurate enough to warrant censure, then it hardly matters what they claim to give a damn about.
Helen Caldicott is a well known ex-pat anti-nuclear activist. She recently (30/5) published an article in The Saturday Paper called “SA’s short-sighted view of uranium and nuclear options”. It’s some 1700 words long and a written in a gish-gallop debating style, packed full of technical jargon, sweeping and unsupported claims. (Editorial note: It was a similar performance by Dr Caldicott that turned George Monbiot’s opinion on nuclear around, as explained here and referenced in the blog post’s lead image above). It would have taken many thousands of words to respond to all of its claims, so rather than do that I wrote a 1300 word response which explains in lay language enough of the modern scientific picture of DNA damage and disease to explain why Caldicott’s three decades of predictions of nuclear catastrophe have failed dismally. I thought concentrating on explaining basic principles was preferable to a blow by blow rebutt al. That she is wrong matters less than understanding why.
Erik Jensen of The Saturday Paper rejected the piece saying they didn’t have space and suggested I submit a 100 word letter instead. I later found out that he had also rejected a response from Ben Heard who was named and subjected to an ill-informed hatchet job in the article. Ben subsequently gave up arguing with Erik who refused his reasonable requests for a proper response. Instead, Ben published a piece on his DecarboniseSA blog.
I decided instead to make a complaint to you, The Press Council, in the hope of getting an apology from The Saturday Paper both for publishing an article so clearly in violation of the Press Council General Principles; an article replete with misinformation and the omission of key facts. I also want TSP to publish a suitable response to Caldicott’s article; something of similar length.
I’d be happy, if required, to send the Press Council a copy of the original piece I sent TSP; but what follows is a more clinical blow by blow analysis of Caldicott’s misinformation and why it breaches Press Council Principles.
About the article itself
As I said above, dealing with a 1700 word article with sometimes multiple mistakes per sentence is a big job, so I’ll restrict myself to the most important examples which I believe violate the Press Council’s General Principles. Indented paragraphs are quotes from Caldicott’s article.
- [MISLEADING: solar farms use far more concrete] Construction of the huge reactor complex adds substantially to global warming as it is largely made of concrete – a CO2-intensive product.
This is misleading because it omits a key fact, namely that nuclear power plants require considerably less concrete (and steel) per unit of energy than either a solar or wind farm.
For example comparing materials per megawatt hour for the Spanish Andasol I solar thermal farm in comparison to a Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor shows the solar farm uses 15 times more concrete (and 75 times more steel, not to mention 2,530 times more land). And this is a generous comparison, because the reactor will last twice as long, so you’ll be building the solar farm twice.
- [MISLEADING: irrelevant] …[a] 1000-megawatt reactor requires one million gallons of water a minute, for cooling.
Again misleading. Most nuclear reactors use water for cooling, just like all thermal power stations, whether they be coal, gas, biomass or solar thermal. Any power plant which heats water to drive a turbine is most efficiently designed using lots of water for cooling. But it isn’t strictly necessary, it’s just more efficient than air cooling. Typically, many nuclear plants are on the coast precisely to make use of the water because water cooling provides efficiency gains. You may not have this flexibility with coal or solar because the former need to be near mines and the latter need to be on cheap land, which isn’t normally coastal. The amount of water required has nothing to do with whether a plant is nuclear but on its thermal efficiency and the ambient temperature of the water.
- [FALSE and FALSE] Thirty tonnes of radioactive spent fuel rods – nuclear waste – removed from the reactor core annually must be continually cooled for decades. Decommissioning of the intensely radioactive reactor occurs decades hence and long-term storage of radioactive waste for one million years must follow.
This is wrong on a number of counts. First, nuclear waste doesn’t require cooling for decades. It needs to spend at least a year in a cooling pond and is then ready to be stored in a dry cask. Second, there is no need at all to store waste for a million years. There are choices. You can recycle it as fuel in what are called fast reactors. The Chinese expect these to be dominating the market by about 2030 and they’ll be mass produced. The waste from a fast reactor needs to be stored for about 300 years. People have been building buildings that stand for 300 years for a couple of thousand of years; and burying waste safely for 300 years is trivial by comparison.
Their has been little incentive to commercialise fast reactors which recycle their fuel while uranium is cheap. The recycling gets you almost 100 times more energy per tonne out of reactor fuel. If however, you prefer uranium mining to recycling, then you you can dump the waste. First you turn it into Synroc or something similar and dump it in a hole. Geologists have no trouble at all finding areas that have been undisturbed for millions or hundreds of millions of years.
- [FALSE] Heard is advocating the reprocessing of radioactive fuel. This involves dissolving intensely radioactive fuel rods in nitric acid and chemically precipitating out plutonium, which would then fuel small, modular, fast-breeder reactors.
Simply plain wrong. The reactor technology proposed by Heard and Edwards is the GE-Hitachi PRISM reactor. It doesn’t use the kind of reprocessing described by Caldicott at all.
One of the key design parameters behind PRISM was that plutonium would never be isolated. In lay terms think about eggs and omelettes. Once you have an omelette, getting an egg back is pretty bloody tough. The fuel in a PRISM is always in omelette form and totally useless if you are after eggs. This is true both during operation and also during the on-site recycling. If you want bomb material, PRISMs are useless; as I said, this was a key design aim and brilliantly realised.
- [FALSE] … loss of coolant could induce a huge nuclear explosion scattering deadly plutonium.
Total rubbish. Making a huge nuclear explosion requires weapons grade material and a very, very elaborate trigger mechanism. Her suggestion that a critical mass is defined strictly by weight of material is simply wrong. Again, think eggs and omelettes. The fuel in a reactor is an omelette, made of a mixture of a few eggs and lots of milk. When experts talk about “weapons grade” plutonium or uranium, the adjectives have serious import; it’s very different stuff from what you find in a power reactor, it’s like pure egg yolk. Add even a little milk and it simply can’t go bang.
- [FALSE] The South Australian population would be likely to experience epidemics of cancer, leukemia, congenital anomalies and genetic diseases through future generations as the waste inevitably leaked.
How can Caldicott claim leaking waste is inevitable when no site or design has even been proposed? She’s simply making stuff up and she doesn’t even bother to provide either an argument or shred of empirical evidence to support it.
How could something solid and buried in a rock formation that has been relatively stationary for hundreds of millions of years suddenly move? And not just move, but travel in significant amounts and in precisely the right direction to encounter a population center and create havoc? Caldicott is silent on how this could happen. And even if the impossible was to occur, there’s excellent evidence that it wouldn’t cause the health problems Caldicott suggests. There were a couple of hundred thousand survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki whose subsequent health has been well studied. They got a bigger radiation exposure than anything possible from tiny amounts of miraculously mobile waste from under thousands of tonnes of rock in any conceivable waste dump. Did they experience any such epidemics? No. Their overall cancer rate rose just 11 percent. It affected how some of them died, but had little a ffect on when. The median loss of life was about 2 months for those with an exposure below 1 Gray (and this is a rather large dose!). Is that an epidemic? Had they not survived the atomic bomb but instead moved to Australia, their cancer rate would have risen about 50 percent. Japan’s cancer rate is rising as she abandons her traditional lifestyle(s) but it is currently 217 per 100,000 per annum. Australia’s rate is 323 per 100,000 per annum and it is well established that migrants gradually take on the cancer and most other disease rates of their new country.
- [MISLEADING FEAR MONGERING] The extremely dangerous elements in this waste include plutonium-239, existing for 250,000 years and so toxic that one-millionth of a gram is carcinogenic. There would also be americium-241, even more deadly than plutonium, as well as strontium-90 and cesium-137, lasting 300 years.
This is fear mongering, plain and simple, without any attempt to compare or quantify the size of the actual risk. The chance of flipping a coin and having it land on its side is tiny. Doing it two or three times in a row is impossible under any reasonable definition of the word. So given the number of low probability events that have to occur sequentially for any significant quantity of waste to come into contact with anybody, it wouldn’t matter how carcinogenic the stuff was.
But is it really so bad?
There is no shortage of human studies on the tens of thousands of people that have worked with and been exposed to and ingested plutonium, mostly during the cold war between 1948 and the mid 1970s. Workers exposed to plutonium between 1947 and 1975 at Sellarfield in the UK had an overall cancer mortality lower than the national average for England and Wales. You can tell how much people ingested by measuring the level in their urine. One group of plutonium workers in the US called themselves the UPPU club (You Pee Pu). Did they have extraordinary cancer rates? No.
Plutonium is a carcinogen, as is bush fire smoke, but unlike the latter, it is well controlled, easily avoided and doesn’t carry all manner of immediate risks including that of sudden death to asthmatics.
Similarly with Americium-241 and the rest. Am-241 has all kinds of industrial uses and is widely used in domestic and commercial smoke detectors. If you don’t eat your smoke detector you won’t have a problem, and if you do, the Americium is in a dioxide form which will go straight through your system; it will be the least of your problems.
- [FALSE] Yet this is a carcinogenic industry that must be halted immediately in the name of public health.
The net health contribution of nuclear power is overwhelmingly positive; it is a significant contributor to improving public health. The nuclear industry has prevented at least 1.8 million premature deaths during the past 40 years by replacing coal. This is very much an underestimate because nuclear is now displacing wood as a fuel in India and China and wood is horrific as an energy source … killing about half a million children and another three million adults annually. It’s a renewable energy source that is quite deadly. It typically kills people long before they are old enough to get cancer.
- [FALSE] The people advocating a nuclear South Australia have no comprehension of genetics, radiation biology, oncology and medicine. Or they are willing to ignore the risks.
Does she support this astonishing generalisation with evidence? No. Did The Saturday Paper ask for evidence? Presumably not.
My recent book GreenJacked presented a considerable amount of information about DNA, genetics, radiation and epidemiology. It was endorsed by Nobel Prize winner Professor Peter Doherty; who knows a considerable amount about all of the subjects Caldicott mentions. The question isn’t one of ignoring risks but quantifying them and comparing with alternatives and many people consider that the risks associated with climate change are considerable while the risks associated with nuclear power are not only small but considerably less than those associated with alternative energy source when properly quantified.
- [NO COMPARATIVE DATA] [South Australia] is perfectly suited for solar and wind power
If anybody wants to argue that nuclear power risks imply we should solar power (for example), then under the Press Council General Principles, you’d expect the risks associated with solar would be a key fact requiring mention. Pointing to the horrors of bicycle accidents and suggesting that people should switch to roller skates would violate this principle. Caldicott ignores renewable energy risks when even a few moments thought would suggest they are considerable. Rooftop solar, for example, is an extremely dangerous energy source. People, ladders and heights has long been a dangerous combination. It isn’t clear how many of the 7730 Worker’s Compensation claims for serious injury in 2010-11 resulting from falls from a height were associated with solar power, but even if were just one percent, it’s a serious problem, particularly when you con sider it in proportion to the small amount of electricity produced. It’s not easy to compare possibly losing two months off your life due to a radiation exposure with a couple of decades, or more, in a wheelchair, but I know which I’d prefer.
The Advertiser has run quite a few stories about the Nuclear Royal Commission since its announcement and has been very careful to make sure op-eds are balanced. Typically a half page by one side goes with a half page by the other. The Saturday Papers arrogant disregard for fairness is only matched by its appalling lack of any kind of fact checking of Caldicott’s piece. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that TSP uses “The whole story” as its website tagline.