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A Case Study in how Junk Science is Used by Anti-Nuclear Environmentalists

Robert Wilson's picture
University of Strathclyde

Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.

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  • Oct 28, 2014

Nuclear Risk and Junk Science

In opposing nuclear energy environmental groups draw on a wealth of imagery and deeply ingrained fears. There is no better demonstration of this than simply uttering the words Chernobyl and Fukushima. We all know these words and the fear they instill. Rigorous scientific analysis may show that the dangers from burning coal are vastly greater than those of nuclear energy; but can you can name a single coal power plant?

This willingness to draw on, and to strengthen, deep cultural fears sadly is coupled with a willingness to draw on remarkably dubious scientific studies. Mainstream scientific analysis is too frequently ignored in favour of reports from the fringe. Here we see that climate change deniers are not unique in their treatment of evidence.

One such report is that by the German actuarial firm Versicherungsforen Leipzig into the insurance costs of nuclear energy. This report, funded by the biggest German renewable energy lobby group, has been cited by Friends of the EarthGreenpeace, and such high profile figures of the British green movement as Jonathan PorrittTom Burke and Tony Juniper. It regularly forms a key piece of evidence to back up arguments that nuclear energy is too expensive. Yet, its contents are impossible to defend.

The conclusions of this study are relatively clear. If nuclear energy has to account for its true insurance costs then it will become deeply uneconomic. And the numbers they present are hard to argue with on first glance. It should cost between €0.139 and €2.36 per kWh of electricity generated to insure the average nuclear power plant.  This alone is double the wholesale electricity price in most countries. Nuclear energy then makes no sense, unless we fool ourselves that these external costs do not exist.

But let us consider these figures. Last year, the world’s nuclear power plants produced 2,500 TWh of electricity. If each plant paid €0.139 per kWh in insurance, the total insurance fees would be €350 billion.

This sounds remarkably high for a lower estimate of the insurance costs of nuclear energy. And it is. How much will the Fukushima disaster cost? Here I will turn to Greenpeace, an organisation one could not accuse of underestimating the costs of nuclear energy. They tell us that Fukushima will cost $250 billion. This is €200 billion in today’s conversion rates.


In other words this study is assuming that a Fukushima scale event should be occurring each year. And this is only to get to their minimum insurance fee. The maximum estimate would require an astounding €5.9 trillion in insurance fees each year. This is greater than the total annual GDP of Japan.

Do terrorists attack a nuclear power plant every two or three years?

Given that these numbers are on the face of it nonsensical, one must ask where they come from. The report itself lasts one hundred pages; just long enough to convince people it is a serious and detailed piece of work, and just long enough to put anyone of actually reading it.

But on reading the list of contents I was immediately intrigued by what it said about terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants. This section tells us all we need to know about the study’s intellectual rigour.

We know some basic things about the likelihood of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant. The first is that there has never been one, and there appears to be no evidence that a plan to attack a nuclear power plant has ever moved beyond the basic planning phase in any terrorist group.

The reasons for this are relatively clear. Attacking a nuclear power plants would be an exceedingly difficult affair, and only the most sophisticated or delusional terrorist organisation would even dream of doing it. There are far easier targets. For this reason we should be skeptical of claims about potential terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants.

What does this report say? On page 61 we find the following:

“Terror risks are a special kind of disaster risk, since they do not occur by chance but rather as a result of deliberate human action. This means that it is impossible to use data and processes to model the probability of occurrence of damage or associated perils brought about by terror risks”.

Estimating the probability of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant is impossible. We are then told that the probability of a terrorist attack is “1:1,000 per operating year.”

This statement about probability – a probability we are told is impossible to estimate – is offered up without explanation or any supporting evidence. Now, as Christopher Hitchens said, what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. But perhaps I should explain the full absurdity of this probability.

Here are the simple logical consequences of this one in a thousand probability of attack:

  • A typical nuclear power plant will have a 4% probability of being attacked by terrorists during its lifetime.
  • There is an almost 40% probability of a terrorist attack on one of the world’s 435 nuclear power plants each year.
  • The probability of there having been a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant in the last twenty years was approximately 99.9%.

Nuclear power plants are not attacked by terrorists every couple of years. And we have somehow managed to get through almost 60 years of civil nuclear energy without so much as a hint of one. Yet, these absurd numbers were presented in a report commissioned by Germany’s largest renewable energy lobby group and appear to be taken at face value by most major environmental groups in Britain. Keep this in mind when these groups, rightfully, tell us to stop ignoring the science of climate change.

The risks posed by nuclear energy are real, and should be managed. But they must also be put in context. In his book Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher pleaded with us to abandon nuclear energy; radiation, he told us, is “an evil of an incomparably greater ‘dimension’ than mankind has known before.” Schumacher’s alternative was to reconsider the benefits of conventional sources of energy; and by that he meant coal. He asked us to replace an imagined existential threat with a real one. And many continue to do so.


A couple of commenters and people on Twitter have pointed out that there has been one attack on a nuclear power plant. In 1982, a Swiss Green Party politician attacked an unfinished nuclear power plant with a rocket propelled grenades. I suspect this does not undermine my claim that environmentalists routinely exaggerate the risks of nuclear energy.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Oct 27, 2014

We should also consider that the vast majority of Fukushima costs are unnecessary costs of the mostly-unnecessary evacuation, unnecessarily imposed by the Japanese government. Since the government imposed those costs for political rather than scientific reasons, government should pay them, not industry.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 27, 2014

Wind and solar are great for offgrid but they can not power billions of people at high standards. Advocates insist that we do not need huge amounts of land (even though we would), however, they miss on another, very important issue, that of Eroei and Energy Stored On Investment or Esoi. Some reports say that lead acid batteries require fully half of the energy they would ever store, to make, and that pumped hydro storage requires less than 1%. Clean energy advocates dismiss the intermittent issue as well.

I am trying to figure out (or find) the equation which states overall efficiency from three variables: Eroei, Capacity Factor and Esoi. An example is solar at an Eroie of 10 and a CF of 20% charging storage with an Esoi of 5. If that solar generates a total of, say 1000 units over total lifetime, then it requires 100 to make. However, the 20% CF requires that 5 x that amount to be made to charge the storage. That storage would need to store about 80% of the total solar (without any other inputs and at 100% efficiency for constant 24/7 backup). Since it requires 1/5th of the energy to make it, we would need 160 units.

IF I am correct, we would need a total of 660 units to build plus whatever energy to account for inefficiency of that storage. However, I think I am incorrect.

Therefore, we need an equation to clearly state the total input required for various different systems with known Eroei, CF and Esoi.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 27, 2014

Robert, in the U.S. we might even the playing field by taxing the coal industry with an annual approximation of medical costs and liability for the ~12,000 annually killed by airborne arsenic, mercury, and particulates attributable to coal smoke.

With power comes responsibility, and the coal industry has been shirking theirs for 200 years.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Oct 27, 2014


Could we put nuclear power plants offshore with the wind turbines? Then there would be little concern if it had a melt down, however unlikely that may be.

And I suppose you could vary the nuclear output inversely with the wind.


Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 27, 2014


My article does not speak about wind or solar energy. Can you please stay on topic?

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 27, 2014

I’m just asking for the energy equations necessary to compare the input required for all sources. The anti-nuclear position tries to use such inputs as a reason not to deploy it. I need to be able to explain with the clarity of an equation.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 27, 2014


This study talks about the threat of aircraft crashing into nuclear power plants. It is an equally bizarre section. It’s just a bunch of made up scenarios, with zero reference to how probable they are. Dreadful stuff.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 27, 2014

Robert, apparently the study contemplates a scenario in which an Airbus 320 crashes into Biblis Nuclear Power Plant, where the reinforced containment walls are “just 60cm thick”. Instead of referencing the work of a structural engineer to estimate the damage such an incident might cause, the study references a paper by antinuclear activist Oda Becker, who is credited as a “Scientific Consultant”. Like other activists her opinions cover territory far outside the realm of her training, yet are cited in Greenpeace & Friends of the Earth literature as gospel.

An interesting side note about Biblis: in response to Fukushima the German government immediately imposed a three-month closure of the plant, which was ruled illegal by a German court because it was in compliance. It reopened within weeks.

Mark Pawelek's picture
Mark Pawelek on Oct 28, 2014

Radiation in the environment? I was looking at a book called Plutonium [ in my local library. The author [Jeremy Bernstein] claimed that 10,000 tonnes of plutonium (equivalent?) had been released into the atmosphere as a consequence of nuclear bomb tests. Bernstein didn’t seem to be an anti-nuke. He had both journalistic and scientific credibility. Still, 10k tonnes of plutonium or plutonium equivalent looks wrong. Fat Man mark 3, similar to the Nagasaki bomb, had 6.2kg plutonium. There have been about 2300 nuclear bomb tests. At least half of the plutonium would’ve fissioned. It’s more likely 10,000 kg (10 tonne) of plutonium was released into as a consequence of atom bomb tests. Perhaps, also, another 10 tonne of fission products which, by now, would’ve mostly entirely decayed leaving only a small amount of Sr-90 and Cs-137. No so bad when spread out over the whole planet. All the nuclear bomb tests, although reprehensible, have not caused that much damage to earth or us. Nor do I believe in nuclear winters, or fallout killing life on earth. Helen Caldicott’s “On The Beach” nightmare doesn’t seem too plausible to me. The nuclear winter scenario looks like guesswork rather than an honest model; guesswork taking the most pessimistic path.

Mark Pawelek's picture
Mark Pawelek on Oct 28, 2014

In many cases putting them offshore makes no sense. There’s a significant loss of energy when electricity travels hundreds of miles. We should be putting more effort into developing reactors which are far safer: unpressurized reactors without water as the primary coolant. E.g. molten salt reactors (MSR) that can’t generate widespread atmospheric contamination under any reasonable circumstance.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 28, 2014

Actually, Americans are exposed to much more radiation from their own homes than we are from weapons testing (or nuclear power for that matter).  It turns out that imperfectly sealed basements tend to let radioactive radon into the house.

Radioactivity is a natural phenomenon that is to be managed, not feared.

Mark Pawelek's picture
Mark Pawelek on Oct 28, 2014

I believe UK ONR now require modern reactors (Hinkley C) to resist a direct hit by a large, fast, aircraft. All new reactors in the UK and USA will need a strong containment. Even unpressurized reactors, should any get built, must be contained. It’s no longer to keep stuff in – such as escaped steam from the reactor water cooling system. An MSR or IFR, etc. now needs strong containment to keep stuff out.  Mainstream nuclear engineers are hunky dory with this. Working in a nuclear power plant was already the safest job on earth [ nuke plant accidents are only ¼ as frequent as office accidents! ]. Theoretically, it just got even safer.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 29, 2014

The idea of off-shore nuclear plants is occasionally discussed, such as here:


Two questions that will come up are: 1) is there enough benefit to offset the cost and 2) how far off-shore would it need to be to garantee safety of nearby populations?

To answer either, we need to actually do science.  It turns out the cost is high, and safety is already baked into every new nuclear plant.  For any desired level of safety, it’s cheaper to increase safety factors and passive safety in land-based plants (as has been done with modern Gen III plants) than it is to move the nukes off-shore.  The safe spacing between the plant and nearby populations is the exclusion zone, which is about the size of a few hundred MWatts of solar plant.

In other words, the off-shore nuke concept only makes sense if we build our energy policy without the benefit of science.  How can we justify spending money on that?  (a 70 MWe Russian floating nuclear plant is under construction, but I think the purpose of that is bring power to places with no competent construction industry, and uncertain ability/willingness to pay the electric bill).

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Oct 29, 2014

Analyses determining the subsidy associated with the US Price Anderson liability limitations generally estimate subsidies on the order of 0.1 cents/kW-hr, with even nuclear opponent’s estimates being a fraction of a cent per kW-hr. This makes sense given that dividing Fukushima’s cost of ~$100 billion by the ~100 trillion kW-hrs that nuclear has generated over the last several decades yields an “accident cost” on the order of 0.1 cents per kW-hr.

The free pollution subsidy enjoyed by fossil generation (esp. Coal) is almost 100 times higher, with economic (let alone health) costs of several hundred billion every single year.

Actual numbers (data) don’t support nuclear opponents’ arguments, so they produce “studies” that simply make stuff up, and then they proceed to reference those “studies”. Is there anything that can be done about this?

Mark Pawelek's picture
Mark Pawelek on Oct 29, 2014

Maybe OK to evacuate for a hundred days or so. Senseless to stay away for years. Japan has much lower levels of background radiation than most of the world. Perhaps that has something to do with it? Prior to the adoption of no safe radiation level in 1956, up to 700 mSv per year was considered safe! Niether was scientifically determined, both are wrong.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 29, 2014

The molten salt reactor concept could store wastes underground in a hardened silo type reactor containment. Far less waste volume because it “burns” far more of the fuel. After a few hundred years, it’s decayed back down to that of natural ore. We need to prepare for acidification, warming and depletion, the consequenses of too much dependence on hydrocarbons to power more people at high standards.

I believe hospitals have more radiation, as does coal ash.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Oct 29, 2014


Just to clarify some terms, anti-nuclear is not equivalent to environmentalist. I think a lot of people who are not especially concerned about the environment (nature) would be against having nuclear anywhere near them just out of unreasoned fear. 

I am about as environmental as you can get.  But I am okay with nuclear.

And to be fair, nuclear has come a long way, but it takes a lot of education to understand how. 

Because I work in a safety-related field, I watched some lectures by one of the pioneers in nuclear energy. He described various methodologies, such as fault trees, which are used in the nuclear industry (and mine), and noted that when the first plants were built, they had no such tools, and designed “by the seat of their pants.”

Fear of old nuclear makes some sense. Fear of new nuclear, not so much.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 30, 2014

The exaggerated claims of spent nuclear fuel pool risk is yet another example of junk science intended to scare us into staying dependent on fossil fuel (see discussion here).

First of all, they are not soft targets.  They have thick concrete walls and no drains in the floor.  They are in inaccessible locations (such as inside the reactor containment building), so you can’t just drive a truck bomb up alongside them (as you could an office building, school, hydro dam, or oil refinery for example).

The fuel rods they contain are not powder kegs waiting to explode.  Outside of the special conditions in the reactor, there can be no chain reaction, so the only heat source is the ever-decaying after-heat.   Only the freshest rods (within a few months of being in the reactor) can get hot enough to cause serious concern (when not stored under water).  The fuel rods are not flammable, so there is no possibility of fire spreading from one to the next.  Mostly what would happen is the rods only get hot enough to release inert gases (like krypton and xenon).  It would take a lot of heat to release the cesium (it boils at 1240 F), which is the main concern for long-term contamination.

The results of any attack will occur over a period of many hours or days (the water will take time to boil away or drain out), so there will be plenty of time for intervention (i.e. to spray water on the fuel rods).

Even in the most serious unmitigated fuel pool accident, the off-site consequences won’t be that impressive.  Whatever radioactive material gets out will generally fall to the ground near the plant; long distance transport required a powerful energy source (like an explosion combined with the absence of water) to propel the material to high altitude.  Of course, a bomb dropped into a dry pool would mostly scatter the rods without much release; the cesium must be baked out slowly, since it is trapped in solid uranium oxide.

The very notion of radioactive contamination as a major disaster is blown way out of proportion.  There are still no deaths from Fukushima radiation.  What good is a terror attack without deaths?  Even Chernobyl was not sufficiently contaminated to require the closure of the power plant; the other reactors at the plant remained staffed and completed their normal service lives many years later! 

So even if terror attacks were frequent and successful, nuclear power would remain much safer than fossil fuel use.  

Gary Tulie's picture
Gary Tulie on Oct 30, 2014

In regards to the risk of a terrorist incident, the most likely risk possibly comes from radioactive isotopes used for industrial and medical purposes – such materials are fairly widely available, and could possibly be used to cause massive disruption in the form of a “dirty bomb”. 

Whilst the actual damage caused by such a device would not be all that great, the costs of a clean up and the associated disruption could be very high. 

Other than that, the risk is of nuclear proliferation if an unstable state wanted to make nuclear bombs, or a rebel organisation managed to overrun a nuclear plant. 

I would think it likely that the true full cost of nuclear insurance is higher than the industry would like us to believe, but clearly not nearly as high as the estimates of the German report. Not mentioned but also significant are the costs of decommissioning, and of safe long term storage of medium and high level nuclear waste – these have generally been state subsidised in the past so should be included in any credible cost calculation. 

Should we be prematurely closing nuclear plants? I would call that an overreaction with the exception of plants with special risk factors – the premature closure of existing nuclear plant in Germany following the Fukushima incident is in my view an over-reaction as Germany is not subject to major earthquakes, and the risk of a tseunami whilst not zero is far less than in Japan. It seems to me that a study of the circumstances of each reactor and potential local risks in the light of any incident is sensible, but that only plant with an identifiable risk – technical (poor engineering), or local environmental (significant likelihood of damaging earthquake, flood, tseunami, volcano etc) warrants premature closure. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 31, 2014

objection to nuclear research on the grounds that it has such an unparalleled evil potential

So we should abondon steel, aluminum, titanium, and all chemical fuels to avoid their evil potential (weapons using these materials have killed many, many millions of people!)?  Abandon the study of micro-biological agents and epidemiology because of the potential for bio-warfare that massacres entire continents?


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 31, 2014

Richard, that was considered and dealt with a long time ago.

The chances are high that whoever tried it would be vaporized to no effect. Many targets of higher value available.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Nov 1, 2014



Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Nov 1, 2014

That’s a good response because I was wondering about the pools. After reading what the UCS says, I was starting to get a little nervous. However, even they promote the supposedly safer dry cask after five years of cooling in the pools (instead of the urgent call to decommission all nuclear, as they don’t like the MSR concept).

After re-reading, I realize that there are a lot of “ifs” regarding deaths AND they do not explain anything about strengths or weaknesses about pool containment. They even have a link “more about cooling pools” but it’s just a 404. This  dry cask “necessity” could be just another ploy to raise the costs unnecessarily :v

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 1, 2014

Richard, see Nathan’s post about the dangers of spent fuel pools below. They’re not as protected as reactor cores for that very reason – they’re not as dangerous.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Nov 1, 2014

The Russians essentially do that right now, with floating reactor ships. The ships are docked at far northern ports to provide power to those cities, and presumably they can be sunk in deep water when their useful lives are done.

Mark Pawelek's picture
Mark Pawelek on Nov 1, 2014

When life first evolved on Earth 3.8bn years ago, natural radiation was at least 43 times more than it is today. According to anti-nukes life never evolved – because the radiation in early earth would’ve killed it off!  Or maybe life evolved mechanisms to repair DNA and cell damage as we observe in nature, perhaps that explained why life survived to cover our planet?

Mark Pawelek's picture
Mark Pawelek on Nov 2, 2014

You started off with a discussion about military attacks on nuclear power reactors and quickly switched it to one of terrorists gaining control over nuclear bombs. The issues are unrelated. You can’t relate them by just putting them side by side. Let’s first consider attacks against nuclear power reactors. These are often examples of military attacks against infrastructure during wartime. We see it all the time: Nato bombing infrastructure in Serbia in the 1990s, USA bombing Iraqi infrastructure in the 2nd Gulf war. The same attacks can be launched against CSP, Natural Gas, Hydro, or Coal plants, etc. An attack on a hydro plant could be far more worrying. Up to 171,000 died in China when the Banqiao Dam failed in 1975. If we are worried over vulnerable infrastructure in wartime attacks we should shut down all our hydro and pumped storage plants first before we consider nuclear power. The worse possible nuclear power accident: Chernobyl happened at an amazingly badly designed plant:
* having a positive void coefficient of 4.5 – the highest used in any commercial plant
* an entirely inadequate containment vessel

Such plants are no longer designed. Despite the bad design nearly all the casualties were consequent on high radiation exposure sustained by workers fighting the fire, or the fault of the authorities being slack by not handing out idodine pills to the populace.

The 2nd issue isn’t an issue. Terrorists aren’t going to gain control or Pakistran’s nuclear weapons no matter what a war game scenario says.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Nov 3, 2014

Volcanoes kick up truly massive amounts of radioactive materials when they explode, which get dispersed over a very wide area, even across the entire globe when the plume is caught in a jetstream.

Yet whenever there is a volcanic explosion, the issue of radioactive contamination due to the explosion is never mentioned, let alone treated with hysterical outcry.

The fact is that the radioactive contamination due to volcanoes, nuclear bomb tests and due to an accident like Fukushima is simply negligeable. It doesn’t do anything. The only reason why our society has been trained to be scared to death (literally sometimes, as Fukushima has shown once again) is because some nuclear scientists in the ’50’s decided it was important to imbue society with extraordinary radiophobia in order to reduce the risk of nuclear armageddon during the Cold War. By instilling grotesk levels of irrational fear into the population, it was thought that society would take notice of nuclear matters and frown on them to such a degree that the politicians would think twice before unleashing nuclear holocaust. Perhaps the scientists at the time were right. I would say that the risk of (limited) nuclear warfare in the 20th century would indeed have been much higher if the public had been aware that surviving (the fallout of) a nuclear explosion is in fact rather likely, as opposed to the propaganda version in which the slightest exposure to fallout means horrific pain, death, mutated offspring, etc, none of which has any basis in health science.

But these are modern times. The risk of nuclear armageddon is still with us, but it is not as large as it once was. It’s time we use nuclear power to solve pressing problems of the environment and our economies. We have to shed our anti-nuclear cold-war indoctrination. Nuclear power plants are safe, even when they melt down, as Fukushima has in fact proved beyond any doubt. There have been no – and never will be any – casualities among the public from that accident, because the health effect of such very low levels of radioactive contamination are simply too small to be observable. This is scientific fact. It is high time that the public understands and accepts this.

Jean-Marc D's picture
Jean-Marc D on Nov 12, 2014

Not everyplace in Japan has a lower level of background radiation than the rest of the world. They are several radon bath where the local exposure is actually higher than in most part of the world.

And one study there found lower cancer fatalities than elsewhere, see here for some references :

It’s interesting that in that article from 2004 it’s the now world famous after Fukushima professor Shunichi Yamashita who is professing that most likely the reason why no negative health effect from radon was seen was that there wasn’t enough for that, and that the study finding a positive effect was likely an artefact.

Jean-Marc D's picture
Jean-Marc D on Nov 12, 2014

The thing also is that the cost of that actual attack was almost 0, the construction wasn’t significantly delayed, so excessively far away from the estimated 250 billion it would cost as estimated here.


Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Nov 12, 2014

The EU stresstest was delayed many months as there was a quarrel concerning the plane that would be considered for a collision against the (dome of the) reactor.

In the end it was decided that it would be a light sportsplane (one engine) flying at cruise-speed. So all NPP’s could pass the test…

The new EPR with its double dome can withstand an unarmed F16 fighterplane (~16ton), but the builders (Areva & EDF) refuse any indication concerning a (200ton) airliner or freight plane…
As it’s sure they did computer simulations, you can safely assume that the results of such collision against the EPR are disastrous.

China builds also EPR’s.
Chinese government gave similar hint by declaring that no (Chinese) pilot would collide with a NPP…

Robert Wilson's picture
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