Both the great Truths and the great Falsehoods of the twentieth century lie hidden in the arcane, widely inaccessible, and seemingly mundane domain of the radiation sciences

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Trial of the Cult of Nuclearists: SCAM NUMBER THIRTY-FIVE

What follows is the continuation, in serial form, of a central chapter from my book A Primer in the Art of Deception: The Cult of Nuclearists, Uranium Weapons and Fraudulent Science.

SCAM NUMBER THIRTY-FIVE: When promoting the benefits of nuclear technology to the layman, rely on half-truths and incomplete information to disguise costs to the environment which ultimately become risks to health.

The Cult of Nuclearists is dedicated to fulfilling its vision of the centralized control of electricity production through nuclear power. Having botched this plan the first time around with poor reactor design, exorbitant cost overruns, harrowing accidents and the massive loss of public support, they have been patiently waiting in the wings for an opportune moment to resume their campaign. Recent concerns over global warming and greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants have served as a pretext for touting nuclear fission as a promising “green” energy source. Since former vice-president Al Gore began stumping for an international commitment to combat global warming, a nuclear renaissance has blossomed. Orders for new nuclear power plants are in the works in numerous countries throughout the world. Admittedly, commercial nuclear reactors do not discharge greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And it’s just possible that next-generation reactor design may indeed guarantee the impossibility of catastrophic core meltdown. Nonetheless, nuclear power will never be green or clean.

When nuclear power is hyped as the solution to global warming, many important facts go quietly unmentioned. For starters, worldwide production of electricity releases only nine percent of the annual emissions of human-generated greenhouse gases. Although a nine-percent reduction would be significant, this goal could not be achieved even if all the coal-burning facilities in the world were shut down and replaced by nuclear ones. The reason for this is that uranium mining, milling, conversion, enrichment and separation; reactor-fuel fabrication; the building and decommissioning of nuclear power plants, and the storage of radioactive waste all require huge amounts of energy which is generated by the burning of fossil fuels. Thus, contrary to nuclear industry propaganda, nuclear power is responsible for emitting large quantities of greenhouse gases. Dr. Helen Caldicott has cited examples of this atmospheric pollution in her article “Nuclear Power Is The Problem, Not A Solution’:

In the US, where much of the world's uranium is enriched, including Australia's, the enrichment facility at Paducah, Kentucky, requires the electrical output of two 1,000-megawatt coal-fired plants, which emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for 50 per cent of global warming.

Also, this enrichment facility and another at Portsmouth, Ohio, release from leaky pipes 93 per cent of the chlorofluorocarbon gas emitted yearly in the US. The production and release of CFC gas is now banned internationally by the Montreal Protocol because it is the main culprit responsible for stratospheric ozone depletion. But CFC is also a global warmer, 10,000 to 20,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide” [1].

Any short-term benefit to be derived from nuclear power in reducing CO2 emissions will quickly disappear as high-quality uranium ore reserves become depleted. This is made clear in the treatise “Can Nuclear Power Provide Energy For The Future; Would It Solve the CO2-Emission Problem?”:

If the known uranium resources were used to exhaustion the total electrical energy produced would only amount to the present-day worldwide electrical energy use in three years.

If all of the contributions are taken into account [i.e., burning of fossil fuels throughout the uranium fuel cycle], a nuclear plant causes the emission of about one-third of the CO2 produced by a gas-burning plant. But this relatively favorable ratio only holds as long as there are rich uranium ores available. When these are exhausted, the use of leaner ores will lead to the production of more CO2 by the operation of a nuclear plant than by a gas-burning plant. In the long run, nuclear power is therefore not a solution to the CO2 emission problem.

The reason for this little-recognized problem of nuclear energy is that it costs energy from other sources (principally produced by burning fossil fuels) to produce nuclear energy. More disturbing is that many of these energy costs will have to be paid generations after a nuclear power station has stopped producing electricity. These are thus energy debts: debts incurred during its production lifetime, which our yet unborn descendants will have to pay” [2].

In the process of generating electricity for immediate consumption, commercial nuclear power plants produce massive quantities of radioactive waste that will remain hazardous for millennia. The energy debt borne by the future will be paid by the greenhouse gas emissions produced to handle this radioactive waste. Currently, there are more than 80,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste stored on site at the nation’s 103 nuclear power plants, in either indoor wet pools or outdoor dry casks. An additional 33 tonnes are produced annually at a typical 1000-megawatt facility. Fossil fuel consumption will eventually be required to transport this dangerous dross to permanent waste repositories. According to current plans proposed by the Department of Energy, tens of thousands of shipments by truck, train, and barge will be required to transport irradiated nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste through 45 states and the District of Columbia to the sequestration facility being readied at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The construction of this facility required the burning of fossil fuels. Future facilities will likewise result in greenhouse gas emissions. The long-term maintenance and monitoring of these facilities, for the incomprehensible tens of millennia that will be required, will also require ongoing fuel consumption. A third source of the energy debt bequeathed to the future that will be paid by fossil-fuel emissions is the energy expended to dismantle each nuclear facility at the end of its life-cycle. During the course of a reactor’s operation, the reactor vessel, piping and valves, and construction materials making up the containment building will have been made radioactive through neutron activation. This huge mass of radioactive debris will require disassembly, removal and burial — once again, all provided by fossil fuels.

Moreover, due to its high lethality, radioactive waste presents an attractive target to terrorists. Since 9/11, the once remote possibility of an attack on a nuclear facility has become more real. Any accident or terrorist attack resulting in a breach of containment of the reactor vessel, an interruption in core cooling, or the liberation of stored radioactive waste would produce an unimaginable catastrophe. Using Chernobyl as the template, what can be imagined is an environmental catastrophe, an epidemic of radiation-induced diseases, the forced relocation of large segments of the population, major economic disruption and so forth. Regardless of how clean the technology is, even one such event would negate any derived benefit of boiling water by nuclear fission to generate steam.

Shortsighted human beings fail to learn lessons from history. Wars break out. Social disruption engulfs whole societies. Economies collapse. In the event of these remote but not unimaginable misfortunes, the radioactive waste scattered around the country may be neglected or abandoned. Interruption in the guarding of this nuclear detritus or its proper cooling and storage may lead to environmental releases that would create uninhabitable zones for hundreds of human generations. Anyone unwittingly entering one of these areas in the remote future will be vulnerable to radiation-induced disease and death. This is a possible legacy of the “clean” technology being ballyhooed today.

When nuclear power is promoted as a clean technology, scant mention is made of the biologically significant quantities of radionuclides routinely liberated into the environment at each reactor site. Gaseous effluents contain fission-created or neutron-activated noble gases, iodine-131, particulates, and tritium. Liquid effluents include fission/activation products, dissolved and entrained gases, and tritium (Harris and Miller). This radioactivity is not credited with producing illness in the population despite numerous cases of cancer clusters in the proximity of nuclear installations. The operators of commercial nuclear power plants repeatedly assure the public that they operate within the safety guidelines issued by the federal government and that their emissions are strictly regulated. But how do members of the public really know what is being dumped into the environment from nuclear installations? The following will illustrate that radioactive pollution contaminates the environment to a greater extent than is admitted, that doses to the population are consequently higher than acknowledged and that the risks and incidence of radiation-induced cancer are greater than anyone cares to admit.

Beginning in 1990, citizens independent of the nuclear industry established the C-10 Radiological Monitoring Network in proximity to the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire. Within the 10-Mile Emergency Planning Zone in southern New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts, 25 monitoring stations were set up, mounted on the homes of volunteers. Each station included a beta/gamma detector, a gamma-only detector and a weather station. These instruments continually fed data into a computer for later retrieval. The data was periodically collected and analyzed in the Network’s Newburyport office. Early on the morning of November 29, 1995, three stations southwest of Seabrook registered the passage of a radioactive cloud. The beta/gamma detector readings jumped as high as eight times normal background levels and remained there for several hours. The gamma-only detectors recorded levels 15 times normal background. The weather stations measured wind blowing steadily from the northeast, strongly suggesting the source of the cloud was Seabrook Station. According to a report of the incident,

We occasionally register elevated readings (though never before as high as those on November 29) at one or more C-10/RMN stations, and follow up by checking with plant spokespeople or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) on-site inspector. Usually we have an answer in 2 or 3 days, and it often turns out that the high readings coincide with various “evolutions” within the reactor complex. This time our inquiries went unanswered for weeks. Only after we announced that we were going to the press did Seabrook's spokespeople get back to us.

Their story was that the plant had indeed been venting radioactive material at the time of our high readings. They claimed that the material was tritium — a form of heavy hydrogen — which had been vented at rates so low that our sensors should not have picked it up. Furthermore, they acknowledged that the plant's Wide Range Gas Monitor had been inoperative since about 30 minutes before the venting began, and that “periodic sampling” of the outflow was performed as a back-up.

There were two problems with this. The first was with the specific radioisotope involved. Tritium does not emit gamma photons, but the highest C-10/RMN sensor response was from our gamma-only detectors, indicating that the cloud could not have consisted of tritium alone. The second problem was with the rate at which Seabrook admitted venting. We have our own computer model for simulating the dispersion of radioactive clouds. It's based on the same mathematics and references as the models used by the nuclear industry and the NRC, and was developed with the assistance of several scientists. Using this computer model, which accounts for factors of weather and plant construction, we found that the rate at which Seabrook admitted venting could not have caused a cloud of the magnitude we observed. Instead, we found that a release rate about 50,000 times greater than Seabrook admitted was required to reproduce our cloud” [3].

In response to the press conference that eventually took place, the Citizens’ Radiological Monitoring Network came under heavy fire. Lobbyists for Seabrook worked to have state funding of the organization rescinded. Public relations personnel tried to discredit the Network in the press, attacking their data and instrumentation and offering a number of alternative explanations for the high radiation readings. What was the truth? As in many other such confrontations, the issue was wrestled into ambiguity so that potential outrage was smothered and the public’s concerns pacified. This gambit is another scam in its own right, a proven method of quelling opposition and of disarming a wary citizenry.

Before moving on, it is important to mention the benefits bestowed on the commercial nuclear industry from inaccurate models of risk. Nuclear power plants are licensed to release radioisotopes into the environment based on current models of radiation effects and the assumption that the permitted levels will not create illness in the population. Because risk factors have been inaccurately assessed, nuclear facilities have been given latitude to legally discharge hazardous levels of radioisotopes, while simultaneously covering up the price paid in the eroded health of unsuspecting citizens. Here is a case in point provided by Rosalie Bertell:

If it is decided that fatal cancer incidence rate should be the biological endpoint on which the regulations are based, and I do not accept this as the best indicators of problems, then the radiation industry needs to conform to the same standards of injury as is used for regulating the chemical industry.

The State of Minnesota, in the USA, decided that a nuclear waste dump should not be able to cause more than one cancer (fatal of nonfatal) over the lifetime (70 years) of an exposed person. This is the standard which the State used for chemical polluters. Based on this, a criteria of no exposure of the public above 0.0005 mSv per year was derived by the State Department of Health. This Standard is being enforced in that State, although it is ten thousand times lower than the current permissible dose to the public per year under US Federal Law, namely 5 mSv per year.

In Ontario, the Advisory Committee on Environmental Standards (ACES) expressed astonishment that the nuclear industry was permitting itself to pollute the drinking water with up to 40,000 Bq of tritium per liter, under the 5 mSv per year federal radiation dose limit for members of the public. When the ICRP reduced the recommendation to 1 mSv per year, the industry agreed to lower the permissible level of tritium in water to 7,000 Bq per liter. When the ACES used the industry risk estimates for calculating the expected number of fatal cancers considered to be “permissible” under this Standard, they called for an immediate reduction in permissible levels to 100 Bq per liter, with a further reduction to 20 Bq per liter within five years. This was based of the standard setting used for toxic chemicals. This means the radiation protection guide line allows 350 times more fatal cancers than chemical standards would allow.

While I understand mathematically why the nuclear industry, dealing with a mixture of radionuclides sets such unreasonably high permissible values, I see also that these high values are used for public relations reasons to assure the trusting public when there is a spill or abnormal incident at a reactor. Stating that the exposure was less than 10% of the permissible dose, sounds reassuring! Yet if one knew that the permissible dose was 350 times too high based on cancer deaths caused, 10% would be seen as 35 times too high. It is in the interest of the nuclear industry, hiding behind ICRP, to carry on the subterfuge that “permissible” implies ‘no harm’” [4].


[1] Caldicott H. Nuclear Power Is The Problem, Not A Solution. The Weekend Australian. April 13, 2005.

[2] van Leeuwen, Jan-Willem Storm, Smith P. Nuclear Power: The Energy Balance.

[3] Miller S. Citizens’ Radiological Monitoring Network Detects Radioactive Cloud Downwind of Seabrook Station. Synthesis/Regeneration. Fall 1996. Issue 11 (The Political Economy of Nuclear Power).

[4] Bertell R. Limitations of the ICRP Recommendations for Worker and Public Protection from Ionizing Radiation. For Presentation at the STOA Workshop: Survey and Evaluation of Criticism of Basic Safety Standards for the Protection of Workers and the Public against Ionizing Radiation. Brussels: European Parliament, February 5, 1998a.