Legitimate Concerns and Overstated Rhetoric

Colin Macilwain has unfortunately marred a reasonably sensible article in Nature News by adding unsupported inflammatory rhetoric in the opening and closing paragraphs. In between these he refers approvingly to a much better article by Charles Ferguson which appeared a week earlier, and makes some legitimate points of his own about real failings of the nuclear industry (and those that dictate the circumstances within which it operates).

The comments by tas yoto and Chris Phoenix both bear repeating.

tas yoto said:

good balanced article. However, 1) your final paragraph is somewhat unclear purely from a communication perspective, 2) related to one, you do not make clear the core safety risk of nuclear reactors.

By "active human intervention" do you mean during the operation of nuclear reactors, including under worst case scenarios? If so, then you would be correct but what many do not realise is that there are current nuclear designs which are being aggressively pursued, mainly in China, that are passively safe. The most promising of these are thorium fuel cycle molten salt reactor technology such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). These address most concerns about current nuclear designs, including safety, efficiency, militarization, waste and sustainability. Ironically, these designs were created and built exclusively by the US in the 1950s!

After all, given the immense energy available from nuclear power compared to all other known sources, it is likely that, short of viable fusion technology becoming available from US research (Polywell etc), the US will be reliant on buying Chinese thorium-based nuclear technology within 1-2 decades ...

and Chris Phoenix said:

To those who are unwilling to introduce ionizing radiation to the environment: Burning coal does that. Renewables will take decades or longer to ramp up. Saying "no radiation" is unrealistic and impossible to implement.

Fossil fuel pollution kills and sickens far more people than nuclear power has – even including Chernobyl. I'm not saying "Go nukes, yeah, yeah!" but I am saying that we shouldn't support a worse alternative – and coal is worse. By setting completely different standards for nuclear and fossil power, we are effectively supporting coal.

And by the way, coal-ash arsenic is a carcinogen thatnever decays, and the US government has considered some coal-ash ponds to be such ripe terrorist targets that it wouldn't even publish a list of the most dangerous ones.

While this article was quite informative and well-written, it does not support its opening and closing sentences: "almost existential" risks and downsides "too terrible to contemplate." Nothing in the article explains why the author has taken this position. Perhaps an editor added them, thinking the article needed extra "punch"? Or perhaps the author thought they were self-evident? But there are no facts to back them up. Just fear which somehow manages to ignore the millions of fossil-fuel deaths we're inflicting on ourselves.

But then Macilwain's weak and disappointing reply to Chris's request for details to support the rhetoric about the scale of risk was all about perceptions with no substance to speak of.

Part of what troubles me about the nuclear hysteria in this particular situation is the way it diverts attention towards what will in even its most extremely tragic potential outcome be only a very small fraction of the tragedy that has already occurred.

Even in the unlikely event that hundreds of deaths end up being attributable to the failure of the plant design to withstand what nature delivered, that tragedy would pale in comparison with the tens of thousands (over 12000 confirmed and 15000 unaccounted for) of others who have been lost as a result of inadequate protection in other parts of the Japanese infrastructure.

Does nobody have any sense of scale in this world?

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