Study: Nuke Power Has Saved Millions of Lives. Media Yawns.

By Keith Kloor | April 4, 2013 6:54 am

When James Hansen, the newly-retired NASA scientist talks, people who care deeply about energy and climate change pay attention.

For example, when Hansen says “game over” for the climate if Canada’s oil sands get developed, people take to the streets. When he publishes a study that says global warming has caused recent heat waves and droughts, it’s big news.

So what are we to make of the marginal notice paid this week to the results of an eye-popping paper just published by Hansen and a co-author in the journal Environmental Science & Technology? It finds that nuclear power

has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning.

Generally speaking, such a finding (from a world-renowned scientist, no less) is headline bait, as proved to be the case at Scientific American and here at Discover. But other than that, I’m not seeing much media coverage (as of Thursday morning). How can that be? After all, as Andy Revkin notes, this is “a significant new peer-reviewed study on nuclear power, public health and greenhouse gases.” (You can read a nice overview of it by Mark Schrope at Chemical & Engineering News.)

How does mainstream media not jump all over the news that nuclear power has apparently saved millions of lives? Then there’s the climate change angle, the massive amount of carbon emissions that seems to have been prevented. This strikes me as big!

I’m not suggesting the Hansen paper should be taken at face value, but I think it’s reasonable to expect it to be reported on, given his stature and the study’s startling claim. Millions of people saved is a lot of people. 

I really don’t know why this study has been ignored. I’m especially surprised it’s not warranting mention in the environmental media. (Or maybe I shouldn’t be? I’m guessing places like Grist would be playing it up if Hansen found, instead, that nuclear power had killed millions of people.) True, there’s been tons of coverage on Hansen’s retirement this week from NASA. Did that announcement trump news of his nuclear paper?

 

  • http://twitter.com/Roddy_Campbell Roddy Campbell

    I think I deduce from the abstract and an article I read on the paper that the paper also says natural gas kills 1/20th as many as coal? 400,000 plays 7 million, by 2050. But while we hate coal, we’re not allowed to substitute it by gas or nuclear now, are we.

  • Steve Crook

    Oh cmon, you’re not *really* surprised are you? After all you’ve written about GMOs over the last few months?

    Nuclear power is just another GMO. When you look at the publicity that Fukishima got compared to the time spent on the thousands that were actually killed by the tidal waves it’s clear that Nuclear is irredeemably tainted in the eyes of those who consider themselves to be green, and a lot who don’t. If anything, it’s probably a harder sell than GMOs.

    I expect that if Hansen continues with this line he will have the likes of WWF, Greenpeace and FOE all lining up to suggest he’s obviously lost it and should be ignored.

    There’s a counter argument. Had this power been generated by wind, wave, solar etc, then we’d have saved all those lives *and* not have the waste to deal with…

    • Buddy199

      If wind and solar had saved that many people I shudder to think of how many innocent trees would have to give up their lives to help the mainstream media to spread the good word.

  • Buddy199

    Hmmm… Could it be that the “mainstream” media are largely on the liberal end of the spectrum and ignore any stories that don’t support their various ideological narratives, while trumpeting any stories that do, even those as fact-free as anti-GMO?

  • jh

    Here’s a way to look at this that cuts the media (MSM and Green) a little slack.

    Hansen is a climate expert. He’s not an energy expert. He’s not a public health expert. IMO, he has nothing to contribute to the energy discussion. He has no record of understanding the economic factors that shape energy development or resource development in general. The same might be said of his understanding of public health issues related to emissions.

    It’s one thing for him to say “game over for climate” (however wrong he may be), it’s quite another for him to make pronouncements on energy and health.

    It would be nice if the media recognized his appropriate expertise, but I suspect that’s not the case. IMO, it hasn’t been covered by MSM because it delivers no doom. It hasn’t been covered by the EM because they don’t like it.

    It is a little surprising that the EM hasn’t covered it, since Hansen is the the Moses of climate change, He who Spake Truth to the Pharaohs. But perhaps he’ll find like many before him that it is not Truth that unlocks the love of the masses.

    • Marlowe Johnson

      I think jh gets it about right. energy policy isn’t his area of expertise and the idea of equating clean power to lives saved isn’t exactly new.

      a much more interesting study, IMO, is the one put out by Citigroup a while ago that essentially puts turns conventional wisdom re natural gas and renewables on its head:

      https://ir.citi.com/586mD+JRxPXd2OOZC6jt0ZhijqcxXiPTw4Ha0Q9dAjUW0gFnCIUTTA==

      if the study’s conclusions are broadly correct the economics of nuclear power don’t look particularly promising in the medium term…

      • jimhopf

        The conclusions probably aren’t broadly corrrect. Renewables can only supply ~15%-25% of overall power, due to their intermittentcy, and they are as or more expensive than nuclear (especially if grid costs and fossil backup costs are factored in).

        Also, it is clear that current low nat gas prices are temporary. They are actually far below the cost of production, and they will soon rise dramatically. Thus, existing nukes will clearly stay open, and even new nukes will be competitive (a few years from now). High gas prices will also negatively effect the overall economic/practical case for large amounts of renewable generation, since the required gas backup will be expensive.

        • Marlowe Johnson

          jim you clearly didn’t RTFR. from page 4 of the report:

          “By analysing load profiles in Germany within this note, we have shown that greater usage of renewables will ultimately require higher levels of conventional peaking plant – which is provided by gas. This is not just due to the intermittency of renewables, which is a well established theory, rather that as solar starts to cover more than just the midday peak (which it now does often in Germany) it will eat into baseload territory,requiring that to be replaced by peaking plant (gas) when the sun isn’t shining.”

          • jimhopf

            Not sure I follow. Your paragraph confirms that renewables will rope us into using more gas (vs. nuclear or coal) for the remaining electricty. My (2nd) point was that the cost of gas will be much higher in the future, and that a high gas cost will make the renewables/gas approach much more expensive.

            In Germany, solar and wind still aren’t anywhere near providing the 25% of overall generation that I referred to. And those renewables (in Germany) are extremely expensive and are being built solely due to govt. mandate. They are also building offshore wind, which is much less intermittent but is very expensive; much more expensive than nuclear. As a result, Germany’s overall power costs are ~33 cents/kW-hr, several times those in the US.

            Wasn’t your original point that the gas and renewables combination would beat nuclear on price? If so, the German experience certainly doesn’t support your assertion.

  • JonFrum

    “I really don’t know why this study has been ignored.”

    Let’s just say it’s not because the right wing elites control the nation’s newsrooms. ;-)

  • Tom Scharf

    Oh come on, you are asking this question rhetorically, right?

    Nuclear power is invisible to the greens and environmental media, the same way Asians are invisible in reports on minority social ills. It doesn’t fit the message. The greens killed nuclear power in the 70′s, and they will never, ever, admit that it was a mistake. They are on the side of angels, so it must have been right.

    I would agree that measuring lives saved by these hokey secondary effect calculations is ripe with abuse. These all start with “if everything else is assumed to have no effect, then X has saved Y lives”. Of course everything else is changing too, so you can’t really measure one parameter’s effects, it’s scrambled eggs. Anyway we all know that the Big Gulp is the real killer in America.

    You can bet that when someone calculates Fukushima has killed a zillion people via indirect affects it will be the rage in the media.

    • Joshua

      Nuclear power is invisible to the greens and environmental media,

      Tom makes an excellent point. Obviously, “the greens” control the media. “The greens” prevented any reporting. Probably some reporters wanted to do the story, but “the greens” took them out and shot them.

      The greens killed nuclear power in the 70′s,…

      Yes, that’s true also. The fact that other countries that use more nuclear power also have “the greens,” should, obviously, be ignored.

      And don’t forget the poor track record of the nuclear industry and the variety of reasons that funding is difficult (admittedly, some of that is due to opposition to from “the greens,” but certainly not all of it).

      And please, don’t ever mention that countries that have significantly more nuclear power (with perhaps the exception of Finland) have massive federal funding and centralized energy policies – both of which meet staunch opposition from the right in the U.S.

      Run for the hills. Grab the women and children. Don’t forget the keys to the bunker. THE GREENS ARE COMING!!!

    • BasM

      “The greens killed nuclear power in the 70′s, and they will never, admit it was a mistake.”

      The killer of nuclear fission power are the real cost/subsidies:
      1. Law restricts liability of nuclear to a marginal amount!
      We have ~ one disaster / 5000 years per nuclear power plant. Damage only ~$500 billion/disaster, thanks to lucky circumstances.
      This translates to an insurance premium of ~$200million per nuclear reactor year. Which is an add on of ~10 cent / KWh!

      This is carried invisible by government and citizens in the neighborhood, until disaster strikes! Then it becomes very real!

      2. Nuclear plants liability for its radio-active waste is limited to ~100 years. While a million years is needed!!
      Studies show that safe permanent storage for that waste will costs many hundreds of billions per nuclear power plant. This translates to an add-on of ~5cent/KWh.
      So nuclear plant operators parasite on our grand- grand- children!

      This implies the real nuclear cost price is ~20cent/KWh!
      That is more than solar PV panels in combination with pumped storage!

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jouni-Osmala/100000909450105 Jouni Osmala

        1) The medical results of nuclear disaster are far less than what green media panic has told. The risk of cancer living in Fukushima evacuation zone is less than if you had a family member who smoked tobacco. Maybe effects of “BIG disaster” are not that big after all if not counting for effects of panic. And fukushima produced huge amount of electricity, and it offset

        2) This is because greens managed to stop transportation of nuclear fuel for recycling. With full recycling the radioactivity goes below natural uranium in couple hundred years, AND there 1/60th of waste. But that is what green movement actually managed to prevent for many countries including USA.

        Solar panels have other problems like land use, and cleaning water and chemicals used. The big issue for solar is low area efficiency of cheap enough solar panels. And winter causes problems for many areas as snow blocks the solar panels completely and keeping required area clean from snow takes more energy than solar panels produce during winter and storage capacity for MONTHS worth of energy use is far too high. [Bio is even worse, we loose 100% of nature land if try to use that in winter, and CO2 emissions from change of land negate entirely the benefits of Bio fuels.] Land use is large fraction of our CO2 balance problem, and that is problem with almost all green plans, they increase our land use which is unbearably high already. Only plan that doesn’t do it is just reducing consumption levels by a lot. But that has even better effect from land use perspective if we go 100% nuclear with recycled fuel.

        • BasM

          1) That does not lower the huge accident costs of nuclear, that is subsidized by the tax-payer.

          2) Recycling reduces the volume, not the length of the radio-activity.
          So nuclear parasite on our grand-grand-children as it is only liable for ~100years, while a million is needed.

          These 2 subsidies have a value of ~10 cent/kWh. Without those huge subsidies all nuclear power plants would close as they cannot compete in a open market!

          • DiogenesNJ

            Point 1 has been addressed well by others, and point 2 is nonsense.

            The idea that nuclear waste needs to be isolated for (pick your arbitrarily large number) of years is a misconception based on the assumption that everything else remains static.

            It won’t. In particular, we are in the middle (actually, maybe still near the beginning) of a biotechnology revolution every bit as profound as the electronic one that started with the transistor.

            What we fear most from radiation is cancer. If it weren’t for cancer, greens would love nuclear power. Its other environmental impacts are negligible compared to fossil fuels because the volume of fuel mined and transported is so much less, as is the volume of waste. This was shown in a book titled “The Health Risks of Not Going Nuclear”, now sadly out of print.

            Consider cancer treatment today compared to, say, Ben Franklin’s time. Now imagine how much more detailed our understanding of cancer treatment, possibly even prevention, will become in another century or two.

            If cancer becomes the kind of non-issue that plague is today, our descendants will regard us with the same pitying disbelief that we apply to the self-flagellators of 1348 trying to propitiate an angry G*d.

          • BasM

            There is even no theoretical somewhat sound idea how biotechnology could help regarding nuclear waste. Biotechnology is at molecule and cell level.
            Radio-activity is within atoms, a deeper (much smaller) level.

            There are already 60 years vague ideas to use the waste as fuel in a nuclear reactor in such a way that the new waste contains only less long living radio-active parts. In all those years that idea could not converted into a sound one about how to do it…

            In this area, science made very little (better; no) progress during these 60 years, while a lot of money was invested.

            Btw. (Low level) Radiation generates also other diseases (just as nicotine).

          • DiogenesNJ

            Sorry, you missed my point. I didn’t mean “bioremediation” of the waste. I mean we worry about sealing the waste for thousands of years only because we think if any at all leaks out, it will increase the risk of cancer. Same for the consequences of another meltdown like Fukushima.

            But if we learn how to inhibit the initiation of cancer, then the casualties from a minor radiation leak go to essentially zero. This is obviously biologically feasible, because there are species like cockroaches which are tens of thousands of times more resistant to radiation than we are. Live evolved in a naturally radioactive environment.

            And anyway, there is new research from one of the US national labs which invalidates the linear no-threshold hypothesis directly by observing the DNA repair processes in living cells:

            http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2011/12/20/low-dose-radiation/

            Here’s the punch line: “Our data show that at lower doses of ionizing radiation, DNA repair mechanisms work much better than at higher doses. This non-linear DNA damage response casts doubt on the general assumption that any amount of ionizing radiation is harmful and additive.”

          • BasM

            It’s logical that lower doses imply a better working DNA repair, as the repair mechanism is less troubled by another fault while repairing.

            That may be the reason that it takes such a long time (>20 years) before harm (cancer and other diseases) shows with low level radiation.

            My idea is that those repair mechanism get exhausted due to the extra repairs (same with nicotine, asbestos, etc).

        • BasM

          Germany has ~33 GW of solar panel capacity now.
          ~30 GW is on 1,3 million roofs. The county has ~40 million roofs.
          So using only roofs it can increase to ~600GW with the present ~15% yield panels. And in a few years we get ~30% panels (max. electricity need in Germany is only 60 GW).

          So land use of solar is better than nuclear.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.foster.77736 Stephen Foster

    How about this: media exists for one purpose – and that is to make money. That money comes from advertisers, and who else spends cash by the ton on advertising like Exxon, Shell, etc. who just happen to be in the gas business? One GW scale nuclear reactor will reduce the demand for gas by something like $1,000,000 per DAY. If reactors started popping up all over the place, Big Oil stands to lose many, many BILLIONS.
    So, taking the stink off nuclear is NOT in the best interests of some of corporate medias biggest clients. That’s my $0.02…

  • cosmic

    I guess in your faux worldview Hiroshima and Nagasaki don’t count.

    • FosterBoondoggle

      Did Kloor suggest blowing someone up? I missed that part.

    • Buddy199

      On that note – which is completely unrelated to the peaceful use of nuclear power mentioned here – the two bombs used in warfare ended WW2 and prevented the deaths of millions of American and Japanese because an invasion, drawn out battle to the death to conquer the islands, and occupation / hostile insurgency never happened. A choice between horrible and unimaginably horrible, and the lesser evil occurred.

    • mtvessel

      Nuclear weapons also made war between the great powers futile. There was no World War III and no likelihood now of one. Nuclear weapons have e saved millions and millions of lives.

      The Tokyo fire bomb raid of March 9/10 1945 was much more deadly than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. it used only conventional bombs

  • FosterBoondoggle

    By the time this post appeared, Hansen’s paper had already been highlighted in the New York Times — the “paper of record” that conservatives love to bash. The article on his resignation from NASA (which originally appeared on the 1st) was updated on the 2nd to reference and summarize his research results. And right now that article is 19th on their “most blogged” list. So I think you’re maybe just a little bit impatient.

    I’d just add to all this that most of the progressives I know (living in Berkeley, CA, that’s pretty much everyone I know) are at worst ambivalent about nuclear power. There’s a common recognition that we need to shift to a post-carbon world, that sooner is better than later, and that nuclear power if done safely (which doesn’t appear to be the case for the 32 Fukushima-type reactors currently operating in the US) can be a good alternative. BTW, a significant area of Japan is now uninhabitable for years to come, thanks to the meltdowns and radiation dispersals.

    A problem with nuclear power risks is that we overreact to rare but very bad events. You could put 9/11 in that category — we responded to the deaths of 3000 citizens by killing a bunch more of our own (soldiers) and tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. Not to mention the trillions of $’s.

    • Tom Scharf

      They don’t talk about it because nuclear power is a wedge issue. It’s hard to be pro-CAGW and be anti-nuclear and explain that logically. Read almost all solutions sets for AGW and nuclear power is simply left out. It’s ludicrous. Nuclear is not intermittent and can be connected to existing grids today. These aren’t “minor” technical issues.

      People who take AGW seriously and have engineering backgrounds and run the math on what it takes to convert the grid will “concede” that nuclear is the best option.

      The fact that it is not even taken seriously reflects badly on the climate change crowd. It’s easy to dismiss them on this fact alone.

      It is also a key part of a “grand bargain” that will get support from the right. Ideological nonsensical rigidity is holding back the movement here.

      • FosterBoondoggle

        Hmm…. It seems like you’re responding to the opposite of what I said. The NYT did talk about Hansens’ article. Have a look: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/01/james-hansen-is-leaving-nasa-to-intensify-his-campaign-for-carbon-cuts. It’s in boldface right at the top, under the headline.

        And “conceding” that nuclear is “the best option” is not at all obvious. Nuclear in its current form has tremendous externalities – rendering large swathes of land uninhabitable in an accident being one, and an as-yet unsolved wasted disposal method being another. (Don’t tell me it’s those lefty Nevadans who are blocking it. Nevada is a barely blue state and only for the last two elections. They just elected a conservative GOPer to the senate.)

        But this is all beside the point, which is the claim that the “MSM” is uninterested in highlighting Hansen’s research on nuclear power. That’s just false on the face of it, and Kloor, who is usually good on this kind of stuff, let his politics get in the way of the facts.

        • Keith Kloor

          FosterBoodogle,

          Did you actually read my post. I cite and quote the DE post, along with a few others that mention the nuclear study. What I’m pointing out is that hardly anyone else in mainstream (or green) media has seen fit to report on the study. And they still haven’t. So what is false on the face of it?

          • FosterBoondoggle

            Keith, you wrote “How does mainstream media not jump all over the news that nuclear power has apparently saved millions of lives?” I pointed out that the NYT – about as mainstream as you can get, and apparently considered left of center by conservatives – had this up on their website and that it was prominent enough to be high on the list of “most blogged” stories. (I hadn’t made the “Revkin” connection… Sorry) That seems to contradict your assertion that the MSM is ignoring it. Maybe I misunderstand what you mean by “mainstream media”. People Magazine?

            Come to think of it, one MSM source where it *hasn’t* shown up is the WSJ. I suppose that’s because if they highlighted it they’d be admitting that AGW was anything other than a liberal conspiracy to oppress patriotic fossil fuel producers.

          • Keith Kloor

            FosterBoondogle,
            Are you serious? Are you using one reference in a blog post at the NYT as proof that the mainstream media has covered this study? Really? I can’t engage you at this level. It’s too ridiculous.

          • FosterBoondoggle

            I am serious, and I’m puzzled that you think the NYT doesn’t count as “mainstream media”. And it’s not “one reference in a blog post” – it’s about a quarter of the whole post, prominently highlighted at the top.

            Perhaps the reason why this isn’t generating more excitement is that it just confirms what many people already thought – not least environmentalists. I thought the high mortality rate from coal burning was general knowledge, and in a sense that’s all this study amounts to showing: electricity from nuclear power is electricity that’s not from coal, and nuclear power is cleaner both in air pollution and carbon emission. I really don’t see why it’s supposed to be exciting news. (Opposition to nukes have to do with other problems, which I’m sure you understand perfectly well. So there are tradeoffs to be made and this study hardly makes the choice a slam dunk.)

            In any case, I’d guess that the next time there’s a reason for discussing zero-carbon energy alternatives, Hansen et.al.’s study will get mentioned. Just as Mark Lynas’ about-face comes up in current articles about GMO opposition. Maybe it won’t come up in Grist, but that’s hardly MSM.

          • Joshua

            Have there been any stories on Fox News? If not, I’m sure it’s because that place is just crawling with “the greens.”

        • jimhopf

          Nuclear in its current form has negligible externalities; orders of magnitude lower than those of fossil fuels (esp. coal) as Hansen’s study shows (as do all external cost studies). Fossil fueled power generation causes ~1000 deaths PER DAY, worldwide, along with global warming. Fukushima was the first significant release of pollution in non-Soviet nuclear’s entire 40+ year history, and even it is not projected to have any measurable health impact. Fossil fuel generation killed over 10 million people over that same time period.

          Much of the suffering in Japan (economic damage, and the area of long term evacuation) is due to massive over-reaction to miniscule health risks, just because they’re “nuclear” related. The “uninhabitable” land area is quite small, and shrinking rapidly, due to decay, natural dispersion, and cleanup efforts.

          Nuclear’s waste problem is more “solved” than that of any other industrial waste stream or energy source. In addition to air pollution effects, the very-long term impact of fossil fuels’ waste streams (e.g., coal ash piles), will be far larger than any associated with nuclear waste, the one waste stream for which we require demonstration of containment for as long as the waste remains hazardous. Even with those impeccible, unprecedented standards, the nuclear waste “issue” has been technically solved for a long time. It is purely a political/NIMBY problem. It’s not based on any real, objective, scientific concern. It’s based on a feeling of being “singled out”.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XYBTPW7PMWITBHUIGDL4B4PZBU G

          It’s one lefty Nevadan who is blocking it: Harry Reid. You know, that guy who is Senate Majority Leader and hasn’t passed a budget in four years and doesn’t bring anything to a vote that he doesn’t like. Obama and Reid have managed to subvert the Nuclear Waste Policy Act which is still the law of the land.

      • harrywr2

        “It’s hard to be pro-CAGW and be anti-nuclear and explain that logically.”

        It’s actually quite simple.

        Here is the ‘logical explanation’.

        Nature is an exquisitely complex and delicate system ,anything Humanity does that in any way tampers with or modifies Nature entails incalculable unknown risks.

        Sorry…but IMHO people who are anti-nuke ,anti-GMO and believe in CAGW are intellectually consistent.

        The whole ‘science/anti science’ meme is what is inconsistent.
        Incalculable unknowns are unknown, hence science is silent.

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    Maybe if he got arrested while publishing it they’d cover it.

    Or if he faked a Dylan quote.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shane.milburn.5 Shane Milburn

    Fear and panic is what sells.

  • jh

    Incidentally, it’s not clear from the abstract of the Kharecha and Hansen paper if they handle it or not, but I suspect they ignore the Big Nasty of nuclear power: waste disposal.

    As far as I know, no organization has a functional plan for retiring radioactive waste that’s generated by nuclear power production. From my POV, any assessment of human health that ignores this issue isn’t looking at most of the picture. This waste could impact humanity long after the power plants that produced it are gone.

    From the standpoint of the environmental media, of course, it’s a no-discussion issue: environmental groups are key organizations in preventing progress on this issue, almost invariably seeking to prevent any kind of experiment or facility from operating. This effort is a sort of end-around on nuclear power: prevent research on storage facilities in order to keep people in doubt about the efficacy of nuclear power.

    • mechanieker

      “As far as I know, no organization has a functional plan for retiring radioactive waste that’s generated by nuclear power production.”

      That’s because anti-nuclear propaganda has been so convincing that you never even bothered to find out about the facts.
      http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/11/12/finland.nuclear.waste/index.html

      • jh

        “That’s because anti-nuclear propaganda has been so convincing that you never even bothered to find out about the facts.”
        Thanks for pointing out the article. I see that ONE organization has a plan for dealing with nuke waste. I note the repository is not yet operating.

        I’m hardly overwhelmed (or convinced) by antinuclear propaganda. Nonetheless, at the moment, most spent nuclear fuel is poorly stored above ground. This is a health problem. The lack of a permanent storage facility is a health problem.

        If the purpose of the paper is to compare the health/enviro effects of fossil fuels to the health/enviro effects of nukes, then nuke waste is a serious consideration and must be part of the equation – whether or not the problem is political or technical.

        • mechanieker

          But how do you quantify the health effects of stored nuke waste? After all, in OECD countries not one person has ever been exposed to radiation from nuke waste, let alone hurt by it. Moreover, institutions like the US-NRC report regularly and with excruciating detail that that all waste storages (including pool type and dry cask stores, etc.) in the US are completely safe. Similarly, in my country (NL), the storage of nuke waste was always certified completely safe, with zero radiation exposure risk to the public. I visited the COVRA facility myself (everyone in the public is free to do so in my country, its quite nice to do so and inform oneself about nuclear waste storage). You can freely walk between the high stacks of concrete cylinders containing the waste. It’s hard to imagine what kind of health effect would be emanating from that. It all just seems extremely sturdy and hard, it doesn’t take much space and quite frankly it doesn’t seem much of a risk at all.

          At least, not compared to the 1 million kilograms of co2 we are spewing into the atmosphere every second by burning fossils, which is set to cause up to 6C of global warming (which would pretty much submerge my entire country!) Also not compared to the fossil fuel heavy air pollution which kills 18.000 of my fellow Europeans every year, with nobody being bothered by that.

          In order to quantify health effects of nuke waste, you have to calculate a probability of the waste getting into the living environment by some pathway. That turns out to be pretty hard to do, not only because the waste is stored in hardened casings and facilities that can withstand military projectiles, but also because even if such waste is attacked, it’s vitrified and impervious to dissolution or evaporation or anything like that. A determined bombing attack on such a facility will perhaps spread some chunks of vitrified waste around the crater, but there still would be no large scale exposure to the public. I cannot realistically escape the conclusion that when considering the various wastes from energy production, nuclear waste is by far the easiest, cheapest and least dangerous kind of waste to be dealing waste, compared to all others.

          • jh

            I agree, the waste at present seems completely safe and hasn’t caused an issue. I also agree it’s hard to quantify the chances of an health issue emerging.

            Nonetheless, it’s inappropriate to presume that no health issue will emerge. That’s about as head-in-the-sand as you can get. The period over which N-waste is dangerous is much greater than the residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere. The health potential effects project 100K yrs into the future.

            You also make some claims that I dispute:

            Vitrification: I seriously doubt that any N-waste has been vitrified. The US is certainly struggling with it. It’s hard to imagine why the US would ignore Dutch technology if it were readily available.

            I’m very surprised that any country lets the public “walk freely” among high-level radioactive waste storage containers. I can’t imagine it.

            I also doubt that there’s such a thing as above-ground storage that’s impervious to explosives. Methinks there’s a reason Iran is building it’s nuclear facilities deep in hard-rock tunnels.

          • mechanieker

            All Dutch nuclear waste is processed by the French and returned to us vitrified and ready to store above ground at COVRA

            All Dutch nuclear waste is slated to be stored at COVRA above ground for 100 years, after which it will go in an underground repository, which was shown in 2002 report by COVRA to be technically feasible.

            If you are ever in The Netherlands, make an appointment with COVRA to view the waste stores and you will see what I have seen. Doubt is pointless.

            The US is struggling with everything nuclear, because Americans have been brainwashed by the anti-nuclear know-nothings to fear and doubt anything nuclear, which translates into wasting money at epic scale, failing to replace coal power with nuclear power, worsening nuclear safety, and even doubting that any other country might be having a much easier time with nuclear power issues.

          • mechanieker

            Iran building their facilities underground may have something to do with the real threat of military attack on their facilities, which already happened after all. It costs a lot of money to do nuclear R&D so it pays to limit the chances of getting your facilities bombed.

            Notice that earlier nuclear facilities which were bombed to smithereens did not result in any nuclear holocaust or radiation. When you bomb a nuclear facility, what you get is a bombed nuclear facility. Not a nuclear holocaust.

          • jh

            I see that there are some vitrification plants operating, but thus far it appears to be for low-level waste, no?

        • http://www.biodiversivist.com Russ Finley

          We can thank anti-nuclear activists for the fact that most waste is still stored in nuclear power plant parking lots. By blocking the creation of better places to store it, the anti-nuclear crowd creates comments like yours, which point out that it does not have a better place to be stored.

          The fact that all the nuclear waste from half a century of nuclear power easily fits in their parking lots (without reprocessing which reduces volume ten fold into class rods) is worth noting.

        • DiogenesNJ

          “most spent nuclear fuel is stored unsafely”: bullfeathers.

          Point me to the reference listing all the casualties from nuclear spent fuel storage. Can’t find any? Me either.

          Also, see my reply to BasM above on why this is much less of a long-term issue than most people think.

  • DiogenesNJ

    For Earth Day right after Fukushima two years ago, I put together a presentation for my kids’ elementary school called “A Rational Environmentalist’s Guide to Nuclear Power”. A greatly expanded version can be found online here:

    http://www.www.scribd.com/doc/54904454

    I wouldn’t go as far as Hansen’s wild-eyed calculations of the deaths from CO2, but I would certainly argue that (for example) the German greens are complete loons — ahem, make that poor misguided souls — for dumping nuclear. Germany was already the world’s 5th biggest coal importer, and in the short term coal consumption is going nowhere but up.

    The direct health risk from coal is much greater than for nuclear anyway, Consider this:

    http://ephtracking.cdc.gov/docs/Estimating_national_burden.pdf

    The map on page 4, Figure 2 shows the routine level of PM2.5 particulate emissions in the eastern third of the US, downwind of midwest coal plants.
    That’s all the time, not the aftermath of an accident. Cough, cough.

    The case for replacing coal capacity (42% nationally) with nuclear can be made strictly on grounds of public health, disregarding climate change altogether.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/George-Carty/669388594 George Carty

      I wonder how much the traditional left-wing hostility to nuclear power was motivated by a desire to protect the jobs of coal miners?

  • http://www.facebook.com/choonway Liao Choon Way

    I think instead of quantifying the benefits from the number of people saved (or killed), it’s better to think of the number of years gained in terms of life expectancy. It’s less sensational, but we have to criticize and move away from this kind of reporting,

  • BasM

    “I really don’t know why this study has been ignored”
    Two reasons:
    It is not easy accessible, hence not verifiable.
    Items that I could check raise real questions.

    E.g. for Chernobyl and Fukushima only WHO figures are used, while every expert knows that WHO is tied up to IAEA regarding such radiation (due to the enforced 1959 agreement) figures, and the IAEA has the explicit target to promote peaceful nuclear.

    Concerning Chernobyl death figure estimates now are raised towards a million of more, due to the new research findings about the harmful effects of low level radiation, incl. raised background radiation levels. Death not only spread out over Europe but even other continents.

    With Fukushima the number will be less because 97% of the radiation went towards the pacific ocean. But still many can be expected starting after 2030. They estimate only a few…

    Note: The harmful effects of enhanced low level radiation show after 20-70 years (exposed babies in the womb are exceptional vulnerable due to their enhanced rate of cell division, etc).
    This is showed by the US-Japanese Life Span Studies, etc.
    This is similar as the effects of low level asbestos inhalation, fine dust (micro-particles), nicotine, etc.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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