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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beware of the Experts

“There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.” — Mark Twain

You've got to hand it to the Greens — 10,000+ people dead or missing, but that's not worth mentioning. That can't be blamed on anyone (except maybe Mother Gaia). But a series of nuclear breakdowns that have killed a reported one person and with little further chance of harming anyone? That's worth screaming about. That can be dropped on somebody.

The focus of this post is not the viability of nuclear reactors for the generation of power, but the hysteria and agenda driven talking heads that have paraded across your TV screens the past few days. But, before I can get to the main focus I need to provide some background on the topic of using nuclear power to our electric needs.

J.R. Dunn writes in American Thinker: “The oldest ultrasafe reactor is, as one might expect, a Canadian design, the CANDU (Canadian Deuterium-Uranium) reactor. The CANDU reactor utilizes deuterium, or heavy water, as both coolant and moderator. The trick is that heavy water is nearly transparent to neutrons, meaning that low-purity and even unrefined Uranium can be used as a fuel. The reactor simply doesn't get hot enough for a meltdown to happen. If a coolant leak occurs, loss of heavy water stops the reaction. CANDU reactors are so safe they don't even feature standard containment vessels. (I once had the pleasure of bouncing Cory Doctorow, who was waxing hysterical over the fact that Canada had not checked its reactors for Y2K problems. "But they're CANDU reactors," I told him. "They can't melt down." Doctorow was subdued for the rest of the discussion, a rare event, I was assured.)”

”CANDU reactors comprise Canada's entire nuclear reactor inventory. They've also been sold overseas, particularly to India, which has developed its own variants. The sole drawback of the CANDU design lies in the expense of the Deuterium. Even using cheaper unrefined Uranium, CANDU reactors are more expensive to operate than light-water reactors.: “There are plenty of questions concerning the Fukushima reactor breakdowns. For one, if I were living in Japan, I would like to think that reactors would be isolated from subduction zones. But that's not the kind of question the Greens and associated media are asking. The rhetoric they're using is designed to make the disaster seem much worse than it is, to find someone to pin things on, and to shift public opinion in the direction of shutting down all nuclear plants no matter what the circumstances. (Germany has already shut down seven of its reactors for the next four months, just in case there's a magnitude 9 earthquake in Stuttgart.) Anybody who was around for Three Mile Island back in 1979 or Chernobyl in 1986 will recognize the cycle: first hysteria, then accusations, then more hysteria, then demands to return to the pre-modern era.”

“First, let's put the accidents in context: the Fukushima reactors survived one of the worst earthquakes in the historical record without breaking down catastrophically. This is a compliment to the designers (GE, in case anyone was wondering), the construction crews, and the operational teams. If the same had been true of Three Mile Island and 6136.Mark_I_containment.jpg-550x0Chernobyl, the accidents that occurred at those sites would have been of interest only to specialists. (Remember that Three Mile Island had a critical set of coolant valves put in backwards, while the Chernobyl reactor had no containment structure and was deliberately red-lined with all the safety features shut down, for reasons never adequately explained.)”

“A major point being missed is that the Mark 1s at Fukushima are high-pressure light-water reactors of an obsolete design. They operate at extremely high temperature and pressure — needless to say, this is where things go wrong. The GE Mark 1s were designed in the 1960s and most of them went into operation during the 70s. They are all nearing the end of their operational lives and due for replacement. Despite news reports intended to work up a scandal, they have compiled a pretty good record regarding safety and reliability.”

“Moving on to newer designs we have the Generation III+ reactors. These feature passive safety features, that is, safety systems that don't require power to work. These include double containment vessels, expanded cooling areas, and large water reservoirs placed on top on the reactor. The first such design is the EPR, which stands variously for European Pressure Reactor and Evolutionary Powerbwr-cycle Reactor, now under construction in Finland and France.”

“Beyond those we have the Generation IV reactors, such as the NGNP (Next Generation Nuclear Plant), being developed under sponsorship of the Department of Energy. These reactors will be constructed with inherent safety features utilizing basic physical properties to provide safeguards. For instance, cooling the core through convection currents created by heat to assure that a meltdown cannot occur.”

Dunn continues: “Clearly, to imply that the Fukushima accidents are representative of current developments in nuclear power is similar to claiming that car safety has remained unchanged since the Model A. This is how the Greens want it -- keep in mind that goal of the environmental movement is not to develop new sources of power, but to accustom Americans to far lower levels of energy use than prevail today. Unfortunately, it's up to conservatives to get the information across, and conservatives are not very good at tech. (A mystery, when you consider how many engineering types conservatism attracts. Maybe we need to develop a tech debate squad to handle these matters.)”

“The point is that we're not going to be using GE Mark 1s in the future any more than we'll be driving Stutz Bearcats or flying around in DC-3s. We'll be using pebble-bed reactors (that we'll probably buy from China) or Thorium reactors (that we'll probably buy from India — see how this works?), or our own IVth or Vth generation designs, any of which will be safer than what's online today.”

The March 11 earthquake off the coast of Japan has been an unprecedented disaster. Now estimated to have been a magnitude 9 earthquake — one of the top five earthquakes measured since reporting started in 1900 — it was the result of a “megathrust” in which an area of sea floor bigger than the state of Connecticut broke free and moved under the force of colliding tectonic plates. It was so strong that it literally moved the entire island of Honshu eight feet to the east. The earthquake was then followed by a tsunami comparable to the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 — but since the epicenter of the quake was only a few miles off the coast of Japan, the tsunami struck the heavily populated coast of Honshu with almost no warning, basically washing many coastal villages off the face of the earth.

The earthquake and tsunami seriously damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi (“number one”) and Daini (“number two”) in Okuma, in Fukushima Prefecture, and also damaged the Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture. In total, of the 55 nuclear power generation plants in Japan, 11 have been forced to shut down, cutting power generation capacity in Japan dramatically and forcing the country to adopt a series of rolling blackouts. It would seem impossible to overstate the severity of the crisis.

The media, however, has risen to the challenge, with a combination of poor information, ignorance, and alarmism, along with antinuclear activists passing themselves off as unbiased experts.

The Fukushima plants have several reactors built on the same basic design, either by GE or by Japanese companies licensed by GE. These are all “boiling water” reactors, which means just what it sounds like: the heat of the nuclear reaction boils water; the steam generated is used to drive turbines and thereby generate power. The water in direct contact with the reactor core known as “coolant” is nothing particularly special, just demineralized; water itself isn’t very susceptible to becoming radioactive, but minerals and contaminants in the water can be. If the water is purified, there’s less radioactive waste to deal with.

The cooling water is pumped past the reactor core in normal operation to get the energy with which power is generated, and of course to cool the core. If there’s an accident, the reactor is shut down by inserting the “control rods,” made of some material that absorbs neutrons and so slows the nuclear fission from which the reactor gets its power. Even a shut down reactor continues to need cooling, however; there’s an immense amount of residual heat still left in the reactor core. This means continuing to run the pumps, and of course with the reactor shut down they can’t be run from the reactor’s power, so there are diesel generators as a backup, and batteries as a further backup to the generator.

If all the cooling fails for some reason, the accumulated heat can’t escape; the water boils away, and once it’s gone, the materials that make up the reactor core break down. This is a bad thing, because the controls on the reactor fuel also break down; it starts to heat up again. This is what’s called a meltdown. When this happened at Chernobyl, the reactor core quickly became hot enough to vaporize the reactor’s fuel and a good part of the other material around it, leading to an explosion that destroyed the building that housed the reactor.

To prevent that from happening in commercial reactors in the capitalist bloc, the reactor is inside three concentric safety vessels: first, the “boiler” itself; second, a massive steel bottle; and third, an even larger and more massive reinforced steel, concrete, and graphite outer containment vessel. In case of a meltdown, the whole reactor should be contained within the steel secondary containment vessel, but if it’s not, the molten reactor core drops to the graphite floor of the third vessel, where it spreads out across the floor. This causes the reactor to stop, and it can cool naturally. Eventually the pieces can be cleaned up. This whole structure is then inside a big conventional steel building that is the outside wall of the reactor complex.

This is the point at which the media confusion starts. Many stories concentrating on the reactor accidents were illustrated with blazing pictures of a natural gas plant explosion and a burning oil refinery, much more visually impressive than a building with the façade stripped off, but giving the false impression of a blazing inferno at the reactors.

Several headlines said “nuclear explosion,” which is something very different from “an explosion in a nuclear power plant.”

Anti-nuclear politicians like Congressman Ed Markey and anti-nuclear activists from groups like the Institute for Policy Studies (a George Sorros funded organization) warned ominously of “another Chernobyl” — which this isn’t and never will be; the reactors are wildly, radically, different in design.

Television talking heads talked about the “containment building.” Which is strictly true, since the building in which the containment is housed would be the “containment building” — but misleading and confusing, because the containment for all three reactors remained intact.

Who are these talking heads that we see on the TV for one or two minutes? All we see is the person’s name, title and sometimes association or the title of the book they wrote on the bottom of the screen. An example would be Dr. Herr Pie, PhD, author of the Nuclear Peril. Who is Dr. Herr Pie and what is his agenda? What make him an expert? Who is he associated with?

As an expert Land Surveyor I was qualified to present “expert” testimony in a court of law. This meant I could give an opinion on the facts of the instant case. No matter who retained me — plaintiff or respondent — the first thing the attorney would do is present my bona fides. This would include education, length in service, licensing, and experience in matters pertaining to the issue.

I would then give my professional opinion regarding the facts of the case. The attorney on the other side of the issue would then attempt to disqualify my opinion by attacking my credibility. It would then be up to the jury to decide if my testimony carried any weight in the case. A professor of Land Surveying would not qualify as an expert as he probably has no real world experience

This does not happen with the so called “experts’ on the talking head shows. They are brought in for a two or three minute segment to spout off on what they believe to be the facts. Their bona fides are never questioned.

This works okay with most political or social issues as they are opinion driven. But on technical, military or economic issues the credentials of the person are important to you the audience — the jury.

There are many so called “experts” on the issue of nuclear energy. I have seen the bearded professorial looking or the women with the stringy hair and little wire frame glasses being interviewed about the Japanese nuclear plants and I always ask myself, “What is this person’s real expertise or agenda?

Who are some of these experts? Let’s begin with Robert Alvarez “The situation has become desperate enough that they apparently don’t have the capability to deliver fresh water or plain water to cool the reactor and stabilize it, and now, in an act of desperation, are having to resort to diverting and using sea water,” said Robert Alvarez, who works on nuclear disarmament at the Institute for Policy Studies.

IPS became involved in environmental issues through the anti-nuclear movement, a natural extension of its long history of work on the “national security state.” In 1979, IPS Fellow Saul Landau won an Emmy for his documentary “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” which tells the story of the cover-up by the U.S. nuclear program and of the hazards of radiation to American citizens. In 1985, Fellow William Arkin published Nuclear Battlefields: Global Links in the Arms Race, which helped galvanize anti-nuclear activism through its revelations of the impact of nuclear infrastructure on communities across America.

“It is considered to be extremely unlikely but the station blackout has been one of the great concerns for decades,” said Ken Bergeron, a physicist who has worked on nuclear reactor accident simulation. Kenneth Bergeron, author of Tritium on Ice: The Dangerous New Alliance of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power.

Joseph Cirincione, the head of the Ploughshares Fund (like grind your swords into plough shears).” This would be the same Ploughshares Fund that supports a global network of experts and advocates who are now poised to realize the vision of a nuclear weapon-free world. We leverage the impact of those funds with our own advocacy, with our ability to raise the profile and visibility of key issues, and by convening and engaging with organizations and leaders in the field.

Paul Gunter of the U.S. organization “Beyond Nuclear,” which aims to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future. Beyond Nuclear advocates for an energy future that is sustainable, benign and democratic. The Beyond Nuclear team works with diverse partners and allies to provide the public, government officials, and the media with the critical information necessary to move humanity toward a world beyond nuclear.

The founding president of Beyond Nuclear is Dr. Helen Caldicott. Caldicott has devoted the last 35 years to an international campaign to educate the public about the medical hazards of the nuclear age and the necessary changes in human behavior to stop environmental destruction. In the U.S. she co-founded the Physicians for Social Responsibility. The international umbrella group (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. She also founded the Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND and now known as Women's Action for New Direction) in the US in 1980. She is the author of numerous books and currently hosts a radio show in the U.S. - If You Love This Planet. Of course their passion for saving the planet does not include unborn babies.

Gunter is a co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance. A resident of Warner, New Hampshire, he has been arrested at the Seabrook reactor for nonviolent civil disobedience on several occasions.

You can see the pattern. Google those several names; you’ll find that over and over again, these same four names are being quoted as “nuclear power experts.” All of them closely associated with anti-nuclear organizations.

A few of the other well-known names associated Beyond Nuclear are: Ed Asner, Ed Begley,Jr., Christie Brinkley, Susan Clark, David Cortright, James Cromwell, Judi Friedman, Keith Gunter, Joan MacIntosh, Friedrike Merck, John McEnroe, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Sarandon, Marilyn Strong, Steven Strong, and Paul Winter. Notice the media and Hollywood people. Wonder why it’s hard to get the straight facts about anything. These people know very little about nuclear reactors, but they have the money and notoriety to get their left wing message out.

So, when you hear someone in the media giving one of these catastrophic predictions, check who it is — Google them. So far, the catastrophic predictions are consistently coming from people who have been professionally and personally committed to shutting down nuclear weapons and nuclear power for decades. They all belong to various left-wing environmental groups, the same groups that caused millions of African children to die of malaria due to their sponsored ban on DDT without accepting any responsibility for what they did. They never do.

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