Friday, February 24, 2012

Is the truth really out there? Sorting the crap from the credible

When we research something, we all have a set of base 'truths' that guide our decision whether a particular paper, blog post, speech, tweet or fact sheet is credible.

These truths are the product of our experiences, education and upbringing, and they have been refined over time to become ingrained in our consciousness.  They become virtually unassailable, and often are changed only by very persuasive argument.  Often the longer the time-span, the harder it is to change.

However, it is important to select your base truths as self-evident.  Try not to base them on someone else's opinion.

Here, I list my base truths about nuclear energy and thorium, and how I use them to pick the credible arguments from the anti-nuclear rants and distortions that flood this space.

Over 500 civilian and military nuclear reactors in service have been quietly doing their job for decades with no major problems.
So don't try and tell me it's unsafe or unproven.  If, on the other hand you accept this and suggest we have better reactor technology available, you'll get no argument from me.

The search for knowledge and understanding is a continually evolving endeavour, and nuclear science is no exception.
I will not accept outdated science when I know there are more recent scientific studies by credible organisations.

Every living creature on earth has been exposed to ionizing radiation.   Some have been exposed to huge doses.
This has provided the opportunity for extensive study of the effect of ionizing radiation across a broad spectrum of people, places and events.  From the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings to Chernobyl to Fukushima to natural exposure, there are numerous documented studies showing how much we have learned.

So don't try to sell me on the 1950's view of ionizing radiation and it's effects.  Don't try to sell the view that any study based on, or justifying, the Linear No Threshold (LNT) rule for radiation dose is anything but an anti-nuclear rant, or over-protective government policy. 

New nuclear power plants are being planned and built at record pace.
There is no doubt that numerous countries are planning and building reactors.  Even the United States has rejoined the active community!

So any article containing the view that 'Nuclear is dead' cannot be anything but anti-nuclear bullshit (or maybe wishful thinking).

Thorium is a different element than uranium and so has a very different fission progression in a reactor.
The progression of fission products in a thorium fuelled reactor is well documented.  Don't try and tell me different.  Basic science tells us that every element in the Periodic Table has different properties.  Any article that expresses the view that it's the same as uranium will not be accepted by me.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Most people are sceptics by default.  We like to see proof.  People who try to discredit or denounce something that holds great promise but does not yet exist usually have a vested interest in it's failure or a fear of it.

After all, throughout history every new significant endeavour has had it's share of derision from fear-mongers and vested interests.

I know thorium hasn't been commercialised yet.  There are no thorium MSRs or LFTRs at the time of writing this, and I too am keen to see this technology proven.  However, any article that tries to tell me before we have demonstrable reactors that thorium MSR or LFTR technology is bad, or too expensive, or dangerous, or powered by 'Kool Aid', or fantasy is summarily dismissed by me as anti-nuclear hysteria, or spin from a nuclear industry with too much at stake in current reactor technology.  There is no other explanation!

So folks, as you read literature touted as 'fact', take a look around you.  Note what is obvious to you and assess the article based on your own set of truths, but make your truths self-evident as I have above.

By doing this, I believe you will find a more informed path through the sea of crud out there.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

How Anti-Nukes can really save the planet

My previous post entitled Change from 'No Nuclear' to 'Safe Nuclear' was a plea to the anti-nuclear movement to help us all by co-operating to make civilian nuclear power safe.

I was immediately asked 'how'?  Who decides what's safe?

So, here's my view on how the anti-nuclear movement can help make the world a safer place:

1. Accept that nuclear power is here to stay.
Nuclear power is here to stay because it is very reliable, proven and clean.  These are irrefutable scientific facts borne out by the many years of nuclear power plant operation around the world.  No amount of anti-nuclear rhetoric or demonstration can undo this exemplary record.

A nation's prosperity is measured by it's access to energy.  The more reliable that energy source, the richer the nation.  The richer the nation, the more affluent it's citizens.  The more affluent it's citizens, the more it can trade on the world's markets and be competitive.  This is the cornerstone of global civilization.

If you weigh this up in the current context of climate change and air quality, that reliable energy source must also be clean.

Any nation wishing to achieve the above has to consider nuclear power.  I know everyone wants to see renewable energy (i.e., wind, solar, geothermal) fill that gap.  But it simply can't.  How many nations can afford the smart grids necessary to make this work?  How many can afford the huge over-building requirements to cater for regional intermittent outages? What about reliable energy storage options that can last decades?  What about the ongoing maintenance and expansion required to keep pace with energy requirements into the future?  And finally, after all is said and done, there is still no guarantee of reliability.  My view on why renewable energy sources can only fail comes down to the fact that the fuel cannot be controlled.  Simple as that. 

These questions are critical to energy self-sufficiency in every nation on earth, and these are the reasons why the anti-nuclear movement is failing to stop the progress of civilian nuclear energy.

2. Put away the 'No Nuclear' banners and pick up the 'Safe Nuclear' banners.
It is important to understand that there are much safer alternatives to the current LWR and PWR reactors in common use today.  By advocating safer designs, the anti-nuclear movement can preserve it's fundamental goal - maximizing human safety - without compromising it's stand to remove nuclear power stations that are not as safe.

'Safe Nuclear' is a message that resonates with far more people than 'No Nuclear'.  We all want safe, reliable and clean energy.

3. Make the effort to learn about new reactor technologies - and learn it from the scientists, not from the 'religious'.
The nuclear 'debate' (as with most public debate) has it's religious zealots on both sides.  I attended the IThEO Thorium conference in New York in 2011 - my first conference on energy ever.  What struck me most was the accessibility I had to some of the actual researchers charged with the development of the technology.  Being able to chat with them and ask questions and see their passion is worth more than all the anonymous bloggers on the internet combined.  I felt truly empowered by this and gained a level of understanding that cannot be gained by 'Googling it'.

I recommend to all (not just those in the anti-nuclear movement) that you go to conferences in your state or country as often as possible and talk to the scientists.  Hear what they have to say and take an interest.  Scientists and researchers are human beings just as we are, and they strive to provide the safe, reliable energy we all want.  They may not be as articulate as the zealots, but you will be far better informed!

4. Put your energy into removing all fossil fuel energy sources from the planet - pick up the 'No Fossil Fuel' banners.
Fossil fuel is the enemy.  Regardless of the truth on climate change, we should be striving to end the pollution of our air and water.

No one can argue that air and water aren't vital to our survival.  The extent of the pollution provided by fossil fuels is much wider than the air around your car or water around your boat.  There are myriad examples of accidents that pollute huge areas of ocean and sky, that kill millions of living creatures - human and animal.  This is the enemy, and it's all man-made.

We also know that we have viable alternatives to fossil fuels in all aspects of their use (except perhaps aircraft).  We can use electric vehicles.  We have great hydrogen fuel cell technology available for use now.  The list goes on.

Much of the effort going into these alternative technologies is being hampered by vested interests.  These are many of the same companies the anti-nuclear movement has already identified as the bad guys.  So you may not even have to protest at a different location - just change the banner - 'No Fossil Fuels!'

5. Take a balanced view of lessons learned from nuclear energy events.
What the events at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima did for me were to highlight just how safe nuclear reactor designs have become over the years.  The nuclear energy industry has weathered incredible opposition to show that safety can be achieved in a civilian energy context.

The earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Fukushima was undoubtedly one of the most horrific disasters of the last 100 years.  Measure out the 12 square mile exclusion zone around Fukushima, and consider it's size relative to area of the island it contains, and to the area of devastation caused by the natural disaster.  It's tiny.

Now measure the extent of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the loss of life there.  There is no comparison.

Finally, learn the truth about the dangers of radiation and of spent nuclear fuel.
The health affects of radiation have been grossly exaggerated for more than 50 years.  This is as much due to lack of education as it is to the few religious zealots who overstate it to their own ends.  Get educated.  You will find it surprisingly benign when the radioactive substances are handled with the respect and knowledge they demand.

Come on folks.  We are at the cusp of really doing something that will fundamentally improve our relationship with our planet and give our children hope for a better world.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Change from 'No Nuclear' to 'Safe Nuclear'

I would support an anti-nuclear movement that stood for 'safe nuclear' rather than 'no nuclear'.  The time has come for the anti-nuclear movement to move with the times and stop being the disruptive force of the past.

What I find most unfortunate about the whole anti-nuclear movement is that, even with the best intentions, it has effectively prevented the timely development of safer reactor technologies over the past 37 years. In my view it has proved the old adage that 'The road to Hell is paved with good intentions'.

Whose to say what reactor technology would be in use now if the research had been allowed to proceed at pace? Is it possible that the Fukushima reactors could have been Molten Salt Reactors or Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, in which the reactor core cannot melt down, and would safely shutdown without human or mechanical intervention?

What would the global energy vista be like if many of the world's economies were self-sufficient for baseload power?  Could we have avoided a Gulf War?  Would petrol (gas) prices be so high? The world-wide implications of this are staggering.

Fortunately, despite the anti-nuclear movement, research has progressed and we have three very promising reactor designs that need commercialization - The Integral Fast Breeder Reactor (IFR), the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).

If the anti-nuclear movement would only stop disrupting the emergence of these technologies, and work with the industry and scientists to make sure these reactor designs live up to their promise, we can see a truly safe, clean nuclear industry - together.

I think this is what most people really want.