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Scientific American Demands Perfection From Nuclear But Lets Coal, Gas, and Oil Off The Hook

Rod Adams's picture
President and CEO Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
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  • May 20, 2011 3:15 pm GMT

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The editors of Scientific American published an op-ed titled Coming Clean about Nuclear Power: Regulators and industry have one precious moment to recapture the public’s trust that holds nuclear energy to an unobtainably high standard of guaranteed safety, absolutely secure operations, and complete transparency.

Now the toughest regulator in the federal government has to be even less understanding that there is no such thing as absolute safety, perfect people or failure proof machinery in order to “prove” itself to the critics.

They suggest that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has damaged its credibility by not rigorously enforcing every regulation that has been layered onto to the books during more than 60 years of ratcheting in which new regulations did not result in revisions or elimination of old regulations. Their proposed solution to the NRC to regain credibility is for the agency to force some plant to shut down and to refuse to issue some operating licenses.


The NRC must also be scrupulous about licensing new plants. If an operator proposes a site that is too close to an earthquake fault, or too close to oceanfront that is vulnerable to a tsunami or hurricane storm surge, or downriver from a huge dam that could burst, then the NRC should reject the bid. Similarly, if the utility could not protect spent fuel pools or casks from being breached during a severe accident, which happened in Japan, the NRC should not license it. Saying no to a suspect plant would do more than anything else to restore public confidence.

I guess the fact that NOT ONE SINGLE new nuclear energy production facility has been proposed and licensed since the NRC was first created by splitting the Atomic Energy Commission into two separate pieces is not enough. Now the toughest regulator in the federal government has to be even less understanding that there is no such thing as absolute safety, perfect people or failure proof machinery in order to “prove” itself to the critics. The editorial ends with another example of what I call “damning with faint praise.”

Nuclear power has a good safety record, but when it fails it can fail catastrophically. Now is the time to make tough, transparent decisions that could regain public trust. Otherwise, the public might make the ultimate call: “no more nukes.” 

Several good comments already existed in the thread responding to the editorial, but there was an idea that had not yet been introduced, so I added the following:

Nuclear energy is not in competition with a perfect energy source that operates without pollution and without imposing any risk. That unobtainium does not exist except in the minds of dreamers and a few science fiction writers.

Nuclear energy competes head to head with flammable, explosive, dirty hydrocarbons (coal, oil, natural gas, wood, and other biomass). Those fuels are the products that are found, extracted, processed, transported and sold for enormous piles of cash by some of the world’s largest, oldest, and most politically astute multinational corporations.

Petroleum pushers are also some of the world’s most active advertisers, providing a substantial source of revenue for the most influential portions of the established news media.

Though some multinational oil&gas corporations dabbled in the fuel cycle side of the nuclear energy business in the early years, they have little to no involvement in the technology today. Some of their early involvement included uranium market manipulation that helped tie Westinghouse up in court for a decade.

My assertion is that nuclear energy scares people whose wealth and power derives from the fact that the world’s industrial economy rests on the back of hydrocarbons that can be burned to produce reliable heat. We use that heat to control our local environments, to provide useful domestic and industrial power to do work, and to be converted in thermodynamic energy for motion (transportation).

Because uranium and thorium both contain at least 2 million times as much potential energy as oil, the most energy-dense hydrocarbon, and because they release energy in the same form (heat) while producing a tiny quantity of waste material that can be readily and safely stored, they pose a massive competitive threat. Uranium and thorium cannot completely replace fossil fuels, but allowing their use with fewer artificial constraints can increase the world’s energy supply enough to drive fossil fuel consumption and prices WAY down.

Demanding “perfect” transparency is a red herring. There are legitimate security needs AND there are fanciful security threats that can be posed to tie nuclear facility operators and system designers up in logical knots. Companies are damned if they release information and damned if they work to keep it secure. Security provisions add substantial cost. Binding up the competition is EXACTLY what the hydrocarbon hawkers want – that lets them keep earning TRILLIONS of dollars every year selling fuels to “their” markets.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

I would be interested in your response. Don’t you think that the editors of one of the premier magazines covering science and technology for the general public should have just a bit more understanding of the fact that no technology is absolutely perfect?

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