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Old 03-29-2011, 08:17 PM   #21
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Driving home tonight there was interesting NPR interview with a british green activist who said that the Fukushima incident basically convinced him that Nuclear was the way to go over coal.

Environmentalist Monbiot Supports Nuclear Power : NPR

Main argument is that (1) basically far far far more people will die from coal mining as opposed to nuclear energy and (2) this is one of the worst possible disasters with an aging reactor and yet only a few people have had to be hospitalized for radiation burns.
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Old 03-29-2011, 08:20 PM   #22
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Public perceptions of nuclear power are, for better or worse, shaped by the information we are bombarded with on a daily basis.
Great post.
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Old 03-29-2011, 09:02 PM   #23
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I don't see the news media reacting in quite the same way to the risks from other sources in our lives. Out where I live, it looks like it will take some 25 years to complete the replacement of a bridge span we know failed in a modest earthquake. The original failure was patched up, design plans for a replacement made, then stalled for a decade while folks argued over what options looked prettier, or would have the least impact on the mayor's girfriend's home. Not a thought was given to the thousands of lives at risk should an earthquake strike and collapse a structure with thousands of vehicles on it.
The public can't get upset over similar negligence in the nuclear power industry because it tends to be covered up: (two examples, both even connected to Fukushima...)

Fukushima: Mark 1 Nuclear Reactor Design Caused GE Scientist To Quit In Protest - ABC News

Fukushima Engineer Says He Helped Cover Up Flaw at Dai-Ichi Reactor No. 4 - Bloomberg

Back to your argument: normally I would agree with you that people would probably be very upset if such risks were taken with nuclear technology... But as I don't see many upset people in this forum these days (and especially this thread), I'm not so sure anymore now.

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Nuclear energy happens to be ideal for creating fear in people. It's man-made, high tech, hard to understand, invisible, and not under the individual's control.
We may soon find out if, under certain circumstances, it's under anyone's control at all.

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If things go sufficiently wrong, and a person is so unfortunate as to be exposed to a fairly high concentration of radioactive material, then that person may get cancer, the Big C, far more feared than bigger killers such as heart disease.
Is a "fairly high concentration" of radioactive material necessary? Some people seem to say that there's no minimum dose for ingested particles to increase cancer risk. I'm interested in knowing whether ingestion of a large quantity is necessary to significantly influence cancer risk. You seem to know more about this, any info welcome.

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The death rate from car accidents, or handgun abuse is far higher than from nuclear power.
So far. But those things haven't made land unsafe for thousands of years, so far, haven't they? Their potential for destruction and long term damage is much more limited.

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On the power production side, the death rate from coal fired power plants is much higher, at around 15 deaths per Terawatt-hour produced in the US, compared to about 0.04 deaths per Terawatt-hour for nuclear power plants.
You cite 0.04 deaths per Terawatt-hour for nuclear power plants. But that number is based on limited historical data. What if we are still to see the first really bad nuclear catastrophe? What if these only happen once per century? What if a whole country becomes uninhabitable once every 150 years... would the long timeframe make that price acceptable?

I'm no proponent of coal. Coal is no clean energy source.

Saying that nuclear is good because coal is bad, is like saying that (one bad thing) is good because (another bad thing) is bad.

Taxpayers money has been used for so long to support nuclear research, maybe we should have used a big part of that money to work on clean and durable alternatives. The earth is warm, the sun beams heat, the tides move all the time...
Could it be that vested interests limited possibilities?
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Old 03-29-2011, 09:14 PM   #24
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the Fukushima incident basically convinced him that Nuclear was the way to go over coal. (...) this is one of the worst possible disasters with an aging reactor and yet only a few people have had to be hospitalized for radiation burns.
The full extent the catastrophe will have is unknown at this time.
Therefore I believe his optimism to be a bit premature.


Good night, I'm off to bed (I'm in Europe).
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Old 03-29-2011, 11:55 PM   #25
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Is a "fairly high concentration" of radioactive material necessary? Some people seem to say that there's no minimum dose for ingested particles to increase cancer risk. I'm interested in knowing whether ingestion of a large quantity is necessary to significantly influence cancer risk. You seem to know more about this, any info welcome.
It depends on how you define risk, of course. First, there is no such thing as zero risk. There is a finite chance, for example, that all 10 ^ 37 particles that compose your body might simultaneously translate their position to the center of the Sun when you finish reading this. (Roughly 1 in 10 ^ (10 ^ 500). I didn't bother solving Schroedinger's Equation for the full set of 10 ^ 37 particles. I'm so lazy...).

One radioactive decay, releasing one gamma ray, which intersects and interacts with the P52 gene in one reproducing cell can cause cancer. Whether that one decay comes from an atom from a nuclear power plant, or from that banana you had with lunch is, of course, also a matter of chance.

If you had absorbed significant Iodine-131 from a reactor accident or atomic testing, there might be an increased chance of thyroid cancer. A dose of 10 nanograms adds roughly a chance of one in one million to the baseline incidence rate of roughly one in ten thousand over a lifetime. Compare and contrast with a typical medical dosage to treat hyperthyroidism of roughly 1000 nanograms of I-131.

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You cite 0.04 deaths per Terawatt-hour for nuclear power plants. But that number is based on limited historical data. What if we are still to see the first really bad nuclear catastrophe? What if these only happen once per century? What if a whole country becomes uninhabitable once every 150 years... would the long timeframe make that price acceptable?
The figures include Chernobyl, a worst case of an absurdly bad reactor design, a stack of carbon blocks with fuel pellets tucked into holes in the blocks. The damaged reactor actually blew apart. There was no containment whatsoever, and no mechanism to limit dispersion.

It did not render a whole country uninhabitable. It did make a mess of the surrounding region, of course. Note that the higher the radioactivity a given amount of material exhibits, the faster it goes away. Most of the really nasty stuff around Chernobyl is gone now, decayed into stable isotopes. The areas designated as 'contaminated' (as opposed to the worst areas designated 'strict radiation control') originally had radiation levels averaging 9 milliSieverts/year above the background of 50 milliSieverts/year. These areas now have levels of 0.1 to 1 milliSievert/year above background.

The figures also include SL-1, Three Mile Island, and mining and shipping accidents as well as industrial accidents in fuel production and handling.

(Note: The calculations took me an hour or so, between reference books and running them a couple of ways. I'd appreciate it if any responses also used hard data, rather than the media copout of 'possibly', 'could', 'perhaps as much as', etc. Innumeracy when doing risk assessment is just bad, M'kay?

'About' means 'on the close order of', that is within a factor of two. 'Roughly' means within one order of magnitude. )
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Old 03-30-2011, 12:29 AM   #26
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The figures also include SL-1, Three Mile Island, and mining and shipping accidents as well as industrial accidents in fuel production and handling.
IIRC, wasn't SL-1 the Army's 1950s atomic-tank project whose rod-ejection accident impaled the worker in the overhead?

It's hard to remember this stuff when you don't have a copy of your Naval Reactors Training Bulletins handy.

I wonder whether that death was classified as "radiation" or "blunt trauma". If it happened today I bet the entire civilian nuclear power industry would've shut down, and Naval Reactors would've probably been shut down too...

EDIT: Oh, yeah, here we go: SL-1 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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Old 03-30-2011, 09:03 AM   #27
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The full extent the catastrophe will have is unknown at this time.
Therefore I believe his optimism to be a bit premature.


Good night, I'm off to bed (I'm in Europe).
You're right the full extent is not known, but I think it's more of the case that coal mining is so bad. The comparison numbers he gives are 5000-20000 deaths PER YEAR in China.
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Old 03-30-2011, 12:01 PM   #28
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You're right the full extent is not known, but I think it's more of the case that coal mining is so bad. The comparison numbers he gives are 5000-20000 deaths PER YEAR in China.
That's why I gave the deaths per Terawatt-hour produced figures for the US only. If we include the horrible conditions coal miners work under outside the US, and the deaths from the essentially unrestricted pollution in some regions, the numbers are far higher.

The world average for coal power is about 161 deaths per Terawatt-hour produced, compared to the US at 15 deaths per Terawatt-hour. China runs around 278 deaths per Terawatt-hour.
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Old 03-30-2011, 04:56 PM   #29
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I think it depends on whether you really, really object to dying of certain things, to the point that you are prepared to take substantially elevated risks of dying of B in order to avoid dying from A. People are terrible judges of risk, even without the media shouting at them.

For example, when many Americans stopped flying after 9/11, an additional 1,200 people were killed in the resulting increased road traffic and consequent collisions. But of course, those road deaths were not on the news for hours on end, in slow-motion, with endless talking heads.

Nuclear energy cannot compete if it is held up to impossibly high safety standards. The standards are already very, very high, comparable to the airline industry (in which analogy, the coal-fired energy producers are working to automotive safety standards). And of course, there's the paradox that the safer things become, the rarer the incidents, and so the greater the media impact of each incident. (If we'd been having a minor radiation leak every 3 months since the 1950s, we probably wouldn't even be having this debate.)

My advice to people who are still worried would be to inform yourself: about the real effects of different doses of radiation, about the actual chances of you being exposed to those doses, about the massively higher chances of many other bad things happening you in the next X years, and about very large and very small numbers in general (this is a good source). But "we don't know everything, it's scary, something bad might happen" is not a good basis for public policy discussion when it comes to something as fundamental as energy supply. Governments and/or corporations don't build nuclear plants for the fun of it.
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Old 03-30-2011, 05:43 PM   #30
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That's why I gave the deaths per Terawatt-hour produced figures for the US only. If we include the horrible conditions coal miners work under outside the US, and the deaths from the essentially unrestricted pollution in some regions, the numbers are far higher.

The world average for coal power is about 161 deaths per Terawatt-hour produced, compared to the US at 15 deaths per Terawatt-hour. China runs around 278 deaths per Terawatt-hour.
When talking energy; world numbers are probably best. That is because energy is a a world market. Although nuclear power produced in a country might stay in that country, it reduces the need for imported oil, coal or natural gas.
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Old 03-30-2011, 05:45 PM   #31
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Thanks for the work, MPaquette.
- Regarding your "deaths per terawatt" metric: Can you give some info on methodology? Is this "end to end" for the fuel cycle for each energy type, is early mortality (decreased living years) converted to a death number in some way, etc?
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Newer US coal plants capture much of the fly ash, but there is still an amazing amount of stuff that escapes.
And the stuff that is captured has to be disposed of. In the past this was frequently done in a way that was a lot less tidy and safe than the nuclear industry had to use (e.g. fly ash was frequently disposed of by adding it to cement. Radioactive residue from burning coal thus ended up in the cement blocks of people's homes, schools, etc. The residue from pumping oil is also frequently radioactive.)

Nuclear power not only provides reliable energy for baseline use, it does it in a way that fits into our present grid. Energy from tides, winds, solar etc would require lots of new electrical lines. Those aren't pretty, and mining for the raw materials to make them and the energy needed to produce them has a non-negligible environmental and mortality cost as well.
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Old 03-30-2011, 06:07 PM   #32
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Why is deaths per terawatt a relevant figure? Since nuclear power kills few people, yet people are very afraid of it, doesn't it seem they are not that concerned with the deaths it causes? And why should they be? Lots of people are dying all the time. More plausibly, it is the genetic effects that causes such horror.
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Old 03-30-2011, 06:37 PM   #33
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More plausibly, it is the genetic effects that causes such horror.
Maybe, but if it is so central to the argument, it's strange that it doesn't get brought up more often.

Or, maybe that's because the evidence is so weak. Or because the realistic energy alternatives have their own mutagenic impacts.

People have all kinds of irrational fears. To cast about for potential frameworks in which their fears "make sense" is not likely to bring enlightenment.
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Old 03-30-2011, 11:42 PM   #34
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Thanks for the work, MPaquette.
- Regarding your "deaths per terawatt" metric: Can you give some info on methodology? Is this "end to end" for the fuel cycle for each energy type, is early mortality (decreased living years) converted to a death number in some way, etc?
The methodology used is taken from the ExternE project calculations.
Deaths/TWh
In this report, we have elected to present the damage to health as deaths/TWh, as this is a concrete concept and easier to understand than the more theoretical term of 'external costs'. Despite a number of shortcomings, this provides a good basis for comparisons between the various forms of energy.
Adverse effects, expressed as deaths/TWh, are used as one step of the calculations of external costs, and are listed in the ExternE report.
Deaths/TWh is a coarse measure. Deaths due to air pollution tend to occur primarily among old and/or weak persons, while deaths from cancer due to for example radiation tend to occur regardless of age. It has therefore been argued that a better measure would be ' years of life lost'. The same reasoning could apply for other deaths, such as those occurring in traffic. A small child, killed in a traffic accident, loses a greater number of possible years of life than does an older person killed in the same accident. Nevertheless, such statistics are generally expressed only in terms of number of deaths.
The use of the concept of 'lost years of life' instead of deaths/TWh would have the effect of presenting fossil fuels in a somewhat better light in comparison with hydro power and nuclear power, but not so much that it would affect the conclusions in the report.
Methods of calculation
ExternE has used what is known as the impact pathway method for its calculations. This involves calculating or measuring emissions of pollution from each type of energy system (particulates, SO2, NOX and radioactive substances). This data is then used in a model that allows for the dispersion of pollution in the air and for population distributions.
A complication is introduced by the fact that the emitted air pollutants are usually chemically converted during their passage through the atmosphere, but the dispersion model allows for this.
Another complicated step, and which introduces uncertainty for some applications, is calculation of how inhaled air pollutants affect human health. This is done by using what is known as the dose/effect relationship that has been estimated through measurements and theoretical studies. An example of this is that a radiation dose, or a dose of some chemical poison, as received by one person results in an effect in the form of a greater risk of cancer.
As the hazardous pollutants are distributed over long distances, and as they affect persons in other countries, it is important to determine how much the diluted pollutants can affect a large population.

Some of the calculations are from work done by Brian Wang and the research team at Next Big Future and the Lifeboat Foundation. (They're a bit eclectic, rather eccentric, but the math checks out.)
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Old 03-31-2011, 01:40 AM   #35
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More plausibly, it is the genetic effects that causes such horror.
Especially fearful since it's so difficult to quantify that risk...
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Old 03-31-2011, 09:06 AM   #36
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Why is deaths per terawatt a relevant figure? Since nuclear power kills few people, yet people are very afraid of it, doesn't it seem they are not that concerned with the deaths it causes? And why should they be? Lots of people are dying all the time. More plausibly, it is the genetic effects that causes such horror.
I guess it depends if you are looking for a measure that is indicative of safety or fear. For safety, it seems like a very reasonable thing to compute.
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Old 03-31-2011, 10:28 AM   #37
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The Japanese situation brings things into focus. 10,000 - 30,000 people were killed by the quake and tsunami, and only a handful have been killed by the nuclear problems, yet there's something extra ominous about radiation, potential for future cancer, and the slowly evolving hard-to-control threat.

This is just the kind of thing that protesters said would happen. Do you think they are being vindicated?
Along with the thread title, "Were the Nuclear Protesters Right?", I'm not sure where you are going with this, T-Al? It doesn't see to align with the statement "This is just the kind of thing that protesters said would happen." - I thought they were predicting mass deaths, large areas of contamination with definitive near-term negative effects, and clear expansive long-term effects?

But I guess I'd say NO to both. I haven't followed the numbers closely (I was traveling) but I think the few deaths were workers, right? So with 10,000-30,000 killed by the 'natural' events, and a few workers killed by the nuclear situation, how could this 'vindicate' the protesters, or make them 'right'? Especially if you compare worker deaths in other power generating facilities.

I think it was pointed out earlier, many thousands died on trains when the earthquake/tsunami hit. So are trains not designed to withstand these natural disasters? Should we ban trains? Where are the anti-train protesters?

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Old 03-31-2011, 05:25 PM   #38
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As far as I can tell, not one single person has died as a consequence of exposure to radiation. Some workers might have been killed during a hydrogen explosion, but that is not much different from any normal industrial accident.
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Old 03-31-2011, 05:57 PM   #39
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Why is deaths per terawatt a relevant figure?
Because the debate is not about whether "nuclear power is safe", because nothing is safe apart from a dead body. Rather, the debate is about "is nuclear power more or less safe than the alternatives". If you count deaths per TWh, it turns out that nuclear is pretty safe. If you prefer column inches per death per TWh, then it's a different matter. But a lot of people imagine that the likelihood of something happening to them increases with media coverage of that something, whereas in fact the opposite is generally the case.
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Old 03-31-2011, 06:02 PM   #40
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10,000 - 30,000 people were killed by the quake and tsunami, and only a handful have been killed by the nuclear problems, yet there's something extra ominous about radiation, potential for future cancer, and the slowly evolving hard-to-control threat.
was meant to keep the debate away from just comparing body counts.
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