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Movie Review: Put “Pandora’s Promise” Back in the Box

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There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good documentary: one that makes its case in a compelling way without resorting to crude propaganda techniques or insulting the intelligence of its audience. A good documentary treats opposing views with respect but then demolishes them with iron-clad arguments and well-supported evidence. And in addition, it should be a piece of engaging filmmaking.

A documentary of such caliber on the issue of nuclear energy would be very useful.  Nuclear energy is such a polarizing issue that the films it inspires tend to play to the extremes. Yet it is a complex subject that does not lend itself to a simple black or white treatment. A film that gives the question of the merits of nuclear energy the respect that it is due would not shy away from the messy middle.  It should instead provide a sound framework for how viewers should think about the debate and assess the available facts in order to come to their own decisions.

Unfortunately, “Pandora’s Promise” is not such a movie. By oversimplifying the issues, trivializing opposing viewpoints and mocking those who express them, and selectively presenting information in a misleading way, it serves more to obfuscate than to illuminate. As such, it adds little of value to the substantive debate about the merits of various energy sources in a carbon-constrained world.

“Pandora’s Promise,” taking a page from late-night infomercials, seeks to persuade via the testimonials of a number of self-proclaimed environmentalists who used to be opposed to nuclear power but have now changed their minds, including Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Richard Rhodes. The documentary tries to make its case primarily by impressing the audience with the significance of the personal journeys of these nuclear power converts, not by presenting the underlying arguments in a coherent way. This strategy puts great emphasis on the credibility of these spokespeople. Yet some of them sabotage their own credibility. When Lynas says that in his previous life as an anti-nuclear environmentalist he didn’t know that there was such a thing as natural background radiation, or Michael Shellenberger admitted to once taking on faith the claim that Chernobyl caused a million casualties, the audience may reasonably wonder why it should accept what they believe now that they are pro-nuclear.

My hand got tired trying to jot down all the less-than-half truths put forth by the talking heads in the film, which could have benefited from some fact-checking. Here’s just one example.  Gwyneth Cravens, when prompted by the interviewer about the leak of tritium from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, stated that someone would get more radiation from eating one banana than from drinking all the water coming out of the plant. Well, I thought I would double-check this one. The dose from eating a single banana is about 0.01 millirem. Entergy, Vermont Yankee’s owner, estimated in a 2011 report to the NRC that the leak detected in early 2010 released 2.79 curies of tritium into groundwater.  Assuming someone consumed all of this tritium in the form of tritiated water, that person would receive a dose of 185,000 millirem. Ms. Cravens was only off by a factor of twenty million. Perhaps she was referring to the actual amount of tritium that would end up in the wells of the plant’s neighbors, given dilution effects—but that isn’t what she said. These sloppy soundbites greatly diminish the film’s credibility.

A more egregious example of dishonesty is in the discussion of the health effects of Chernobyl. One after another, the film’s interviewees talk about how shocked they were to read the 2005 report of the Chernobyl Forum—a group under of U.N. agencies under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine—and discover that “the health effects of Chernobyl were nothing like what was expected.”  The film shows pages from that report with certain reassuring sentences underlined.  But there is no mention of the fact that the Chernobyl Forum only estimated the number of cancer deaths expected among the most highly exposed populations in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and not the many thousands more predicted by published studies to occur in other parts of Europe that received high levels of fallout. Nor is there mention of the actual health consequences from Chernobyl, including the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers that had occurred by 2005 in individuals who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident. And the film is silent on the results of more recent published studies that report evidence of excesses in other cancers, as well as cardiovascular diseases, are beginning to emerge.

Insult is then added to injury when Lynas then accuses the anti-nuclear movement of “cherry-picking of scientific data” to support their claims. Yet the film had just engaged in some pretty deceptive cherry-picking of its own. Lynas then goes on to assert that the Fukushima accident will probably never kill anyone from radiation, also ignoring studies estimating cancer death tolls ranging from several hundred to several thousand.  The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, which obtained a copy of a draft report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), revealed that the report estimated a collective whole-body dose of 3.2 million person-rem to the population of Japan as a result of the accident: a dose that would cause in the range of 1,000-3,000 cancer deaths.

The film also puts forth the Integral Fast Reactor, a metal-fueled fast breeder reactor, as a visionary nuclear reactor design that could solve all of nuclear power’s problems by being meltdown-proof and consuming its own waste as fuel. However, it glosses over the myriad safety and security problems associated with fast-breeder reactors. The film makes much of an experiment conducted at the EBR-II, a fast reactor prototype that purported to demonstrate the safety of the reactor. However, again engaging in cherry-picking, it did not discuss the fact that the tests only simulated some kinds of accidents, and that such reactors are inherently unstable under other conditions. It also does not bother to explain the very real proliferation concern that led the Clinton administration to terminate development of the reactor: the fact that spent fuel reprocessing, needed for the fast reactor fuel cycle, produces large quantities of nuclear weapon-usable materials in forms that are vulnerable to theft. Contrary to its portrayal in the film, reprocessing increases, rather than decreases, the volume of nuclear waste requiring disposal.

There are also scenes in the film that are downright offensive, such as showing impoverished, barefoot children wandering through slums with the clear implication that nuclear power is all that is needed to raise them out of poverty. The biggest failing of the film, however, is the lack of any discussion of what the real obstacles to an expansion of nuclear energy are and what would need to be done to overcome them. In fact, nuclear power’s worst enemy may not be the anti-nuclear movement, as the film suggests, but rather nuclear power advocates whose rose-colored view of the technology helped create the attitude of complacency that made accidents like Fukushima possible. Nuclear power will only be successful through the vision of realists who acknowledge its problems and work hard to fix them—not fawning ideologues like filmmaker Robert Stone and the stars of “Pandora’s Promise.”

Update 6/13/13:

Gwyneth Cravens pointed out that I missed part of the quote that I attributed to her. She writes that her actual quote was “If you ate one banana which has a potassium isotope that’s a little hot, you would get more radiation exposure than you would if you drank all the water that comes out of the plant in one day.” I had missed the phrase “in one day.” However, her statement is still wrong by a large factor.

The leak of 2.79 curies appears to have occurred over a period of a few months at most.  It was detected as part of routine quarterly monitoring, and Entergy terminated the leak after about a month. If the leak took place at a constant rate over, say, four months (assuming it started just after one quarterly inspection, was detected three months later at the next inspection, and then took a month to stop), then her statement is incorrect by a factor of more than 150,000. Even assuming, very conservatively, that the leak took place at a constant rate over two years, her statement is still wrong by a factor of more than 25,000. If there are calculations that disagree with mine I would be happy to see them.

Posted in: Nuclear Power Safety Tags: ,

About the author: Dr. Lyman received his PhD in physics from Cornell University in 1992. He was a postdoctoral research scientist at Princeton University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, and then served as Scientific Director and President of the Nuclear Control Institute. He joined UCS in 2003. He is an active member of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management and has served on expert panels of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. His research focuses on security issues associated with the management of nuclear materials and the operation of nuclear power plants, particularly with respect to reprocessing and civil plutonium. Areas of expertise: Nuclear terrorism, proliferation risks of nuclear power, nuclear weapons policy

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  • Vicki Jenssen

    Dr Lyman….I would be interested in your views on LIFT nuclear technology. I am pro-nuclear SINCE Fukishima, but only pro-thorium. It seems “Pandora’s Promise” is a lost opportunity. I am told that CANDU reactors are available in a model that uses thorium.

    Vicki in Cape Breton

  • http://www..nuclear-news.net Christina MacPherson

    Thank you indeed, for putting the searchlight of scrutiny onto this film.
    The film is being touted all over the mainstream media, as evidence that there really will be a “nuclear renaissance”, and we should all rejoice at this.

  • Roger Helbig

    Suggest that you look at the truth about Chernobyl instead of the fiction published by the NY Academy of Sciences and edited by Janette Sherman (who also claimed that she measured increased radioactivity near the Pentagon on 9/11 because the US hit the building with a depleted uranium tipped missile and not because of the Al Quaeda terrorist attack with an airliner) – there are many good sources and the fictional probable deaths are off by a factor of hundreds of thousands to millions. After you do that, your paragraph insulting the movie for supposedly fictional cancer deaths should be drastically revised if not removed in toto. I really doubt that agrees with your mission of scaring the public about nuclear power, but if you are a sincere scientist as opposed to paid flack with a science degree, then you will do the right thing!

  • http://CravensPowertoSavetheWorld.com Gwyneth Cravens

    Dear Mr. Lyman,
    You need to watch “Pandora’s Promise” again. You are, following your own cherry-picking method, gravely misquoting what I said about the tritium leak at VT Yankee.
    Please listen again. I actually said:
    “If you ate one banana which has a potassium isotope that’s a little
    hot, you would get more radiation exposure than
    you would if you drank all the water that comes out of the plant in one day.”

    May I suggest that you post my correction?

    • Stephen Young

      Thanks for the correction. We’ve added an update to the post.

      • SA Kiteman

        If so, it still doesn’t reflect what she said.

        • Ed Lyman

          Mr. Kiteman,

          Could you please explain what you mean by this remark?

          Ed Lyman

  • http://deregulatetheatom.com Rick Maltese

    I’d like to know whatever half truths you found because I do not recall any and I consider myself well read on the subject. You seem to be hearing things too. Gwyneth Cravens was commenting on the daily amount of tritium, which is in fact very low, but you compare her math to calculations based on a much longer period and even those need reviewing. Even people with credentials seem to be capable of hearing what they want to hear.

    The film does a good job of explaining that the hysteria over radiation is based on fear and manipulation. The dosimeter readings show natural levels higher than Fukushima or Chernobyl. That is significant.

    • Joris van Dorp

      Fully agree with you mr. Maltese. I think it would be great if the author of this article would oblige the reader and participate in discussing the article in this space. Or otherwise, if he would please consider preparing a sequel article that goes into some of the critical responses here. Let’s get down and use Pandora’s Promise for what it was intended to do. Have a discussion about whether we *really* shouldn’t consider nuclear power as a legitimate and significant part of our energy mix, being faced as with are with the grim specters of climate change and the clearly approaching conventional crude oil resource limits.

      My first question for the author is – if I may – what particular problems of nuclear power he sees as needing fixing so badly? We’ve just had Fukushima which turned out largely a dud, looking back. I was told there would be millions of deaths. Where are they? Even the WHO and the UN cannot find them. And the cannot predict them either, owing to the fact that the doses received by the Japanese public are so very low.

      If an energy technology in human hands is so safe that even a worst case disaster like Fukushima causes immeasurably low health effects according to WHO and UN, then why should we not conclude that hey! It’s safe! It’s fixed! Even when it fails, it succeeds!

  • Mauri Miller

    All good and more. I have the good fortune of having spent a career developing wind power and solar power projects. I have sees the difficulties in proving the economics of each of these technologies over the years, and the non-economic roadblocks put in the path of ‘reasonable’ development. All of the items discussed above, and apparently glossed over in the documentary are relevant to the discussion. The biggest impediment, however, will be economic, if and when we (as a society) decide that nuclear is an option that must pay its own way. This week is an example: A wind project in the Great Plains was approved – finally – after the developer (the largest owner and a major utility subsidiary) and the local government agreed on economic terms for the land recovery and dismantlement provisions relating to the final end of the project in 30 or 40 years. I have been in many of these discussions. ‘Convince us that the farm land you plan to use will be farm land again – without significant change – in 50 years, and post security for the cost. This test is common upon commencement of large scale renewable facilities. It is not part of the discussion for nuclear or fossil facilities. I think it is fair to say that nuclear advocates simply add this to the list of federal nuclear ‘subsidies’ to which nuclear is entitled. Sound familiar?

    Anyway, can you imagine the U.S. imposing on nuclear energy development a requirement that a a nuclear facility secure – financially for the life of the facility – the reclamation of the site to original conditions (without government help) or, conversely, can you imagine any nuclear facility in the U.S. (or the world) that could pass such a test? I can’t. It’s only one of the amazing number of reasons nuclear isn’t now and shouldn’t ever be a viableI energy source.

    • Joris van Dorp

      “‘Convince us that the farm land you plan to use will be farm land again – without significant change – in 50 years, and post security for the cost. This test is common upon commencement of large scale renewable facilities. It is not part of the discussion for nuclear or fossil facilities.”

      It certainly IS part of the discussion for nuclear facilities. Requiring wind farms to operate to the same standards as nuclear facilities would make it impossible even to commission them, since they kill too many birds and bats.

      IMHO there are ways to argue credibly for windfarm development under specific favourable conditions, but claiming that wind farms are already held to higher safety standards than nuclear plants, without even discussing the terms of decommissioning, would not seem to be one of them.

    • Keldin

      Hmmm… I must say that I’ve never really understood the economic arguments for or against any source of power, let alone nuclear. When in your life have you ever decided whether or not you liked something based on how much it cost? Possibly never. In actuality, you choose whether or not you’re willing to pay for something based on how much you like it. Telling me that a bicycle I want is expensive will, at most, only convince me that I can’t afford it. But the thing is, I’m not the one buying the bicycle, which was a poorly veiled allegory for nuclear power. The utilities are. If they decide to build a shiny new reactor, why should I care how much it cost? Because, someone says, the bus bar cost of electricity might go up! Well, then I guess that utility will just get out-competed by one that chose not to build a reactor (my apologies if electricity markets are not yet deregulated where ever you hail from, dear reader; rest assured, the future is coming to a transmission line near you). So, the big question is, whom are we trying to convince that nuclear power is affordable/exorbitant? Utilities? Elected officials? Utilities don’t care whether WE think it’s affordable. But, presumably, persuading each other that nuclear is expensive will persuade elected officials, and then they’ll end all these subsidies, right? This might be valid if there were subsidies to end. 1) Nuclear bearing utilities don’t get any tax breaks. They actually pay more… to fund the NRC (I’m not complaining; just pointing out that your tax dollars never went to regulating nuclear). 2) Nuclear utilities are required to accumulate funds for decommissioning. 3) They paid for Yucca Mountain. 4) They have even paid for their own disaster relief fund. Unless you wish to do something to make nuclear more economically viable still (like regulating the radioactivity in coal fly ash, or introducing a novel reactor design), discussing the costs of nuclear power bears little fruit. So, focus more on whether or not YOU want it, and less on whether or not a utility can afford it.

    • Jeff S

      It is my understanding that all nuclear power plants have to have a decommissioning fund, which is paid into with a fraction of revenue for every kiloWatt-hour of electricity sold, to ensure that at the end of life, there will be sufficient funding available to decommission the plant – including any necessary environmental remediation.

      Check out the following page from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
      http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/decommissioning.html

      Relevant quotes:

      “When a power company decides to close its nuclear power plant permanently, the facility must be decommissioned by safely removing it from service and reducing residual radioactivity to a level that permits release of the property and termination of the operating license.”

      “Each nuclear power plant licensee must report to the NRC every two years the status of its decommissioning funding for each reactor or share of a reactor that it owns. The report must estimate the minimum amount needed for decommissioning by using the formulas found in 10 CFR 50.75(c).”

      I’m not sure how a decommissioning fund, paid into by the plant owners to fund the decommissioning, qualifies as a subsidy?

  • http://www.beyondnuclear.org Linda Gunter

    Brilliant Ed! You nail all the key points so well.

    The film also ignores the fact that the so-called impoverished people of the Third World (a pet message point of The Breakthrough Institute which hammers away at a preposterous notion that they care about human rights) object in their tens of thousands to the imposition of deadly nuclear plants (see protests in Jaitapur and Koodankulam, India for example.) This is all the more remarkable given that in most cases efforts to impose uranium projects – whether mines or reactors – are deliberately made in places where impoverishment is expected to stifle resistance.

    And of course they ignored the fact that huge, rural developing countries like India have low grid penetration and are far better served by distributed renewable energy.

    I also find the pronouncements from comfortable, ivory-towered think tankers that “no one will die as a result of Fukushima” deeply offensive and callous – apart from the fact that such a prediction has no basis in medicine whatsoever.

    Good job!!

  • Jesse

    Talk about half-truths:

    “Assuming someone consumed all of this tritium in the form of tritiated water, that person would receive a dose of 185,000 millirem.”

    How do you *assume* that someone would be able to separate and consume all this tritium? It is diffuse and therefore diluted. A reasonable assumption would be to assume said person consumed all of their water, all the time, from the dilute source. In following the influence of your argument, let’s assume someone consumed all of the potassium-40 from all banana farms in one banana. That is a comparable argument and equally unlikely. What are your results? Assuming a production of 145 million tons a year, the dose to that poor person would be 256,000 Sv. That’s likely enough to boil your cereal in the morning.

  • Jesse

    I also just read through this report that you suggested to read:

    http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_weapons_and_global_security/nuclear_terrorism/technical_issues/reprocessing-and-nuclear.html

    It is missing their normalization information on the volume. I would suspect a fair unit would be m^3/GW… but this is just volume. I can compare the volume of water from the Mississippi feeding the Gulf to all the rivers of the world feeding the oceans and those number would greatly differ. It appears this report is considering the entire French reprocessing streams (forgetting that much of that “HWL” it is labeling are fissionable transuranics) to storage capacities in Yucca mountain (if you read their references). This is an invalid comparison. I would agree that low level waste levels would increase, but high-level WASTE streams are significantly lower PER UNIT ENERGY extracted and the HWL is typically short-lived as the significant fraction of transuranics are the long-live radioisotopes.

    Also, looking at these two reports (one you suggested):

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3107017/
    http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1204996/

    The risk increases are significant, as expected, but even in the report you’re suggesting, folks with iodine supplements show 0.7 ERR/gy vs. 8.0 ERR/gy for untreated cases. Males have a negative risk! -0.20 ERR/gy. With the right precautions, (ie: open the windows when you work with acetone) you can protect yourself. It is about managing risk. Also, since the natural incident of thyroid cancer and leukemia is very small, the total increase is (in my opinion) insignificant – 137 out of the 110,000 folks. That’s less than the standard deviation of the total country’s population.

  • http://thesciencecouncil.com Tom Blees

    Lyman writes: “…spent fuel reprocessing, needed for the fast reactor fuel cycle, produces large quantities of nuclear weapon-usable materials in forms that are vulnerable to theft.”

    Completely untrue, assuming you’re talking about the pyroprocessing system described in the film. The fuel would be too hot to handle at every single stage of the fuel cycle, and it wouldn’t isolate any weapons-usable material at all. It could only be handled remotely in a hot cell. Lyman is wrong here on both counts.

    “… such reactors are inherently unstable under other conditions.”

    It’s easy to glibly toss out such an assertion, but the truth is that the IFR is amazingly stable. The PRISM reactor is the commercial-scale design of an IFR-type fast reactor, and the probabilistic risk assessment studies that were done on it (and accepted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) indicates that if we built enough of them to power the entire planet, we could expect a core meltdown about once every 435,000 years. Even if the rigorous PRA studies were off by a factor of a thousand, that would still be fantastically safe.

    Just the facts, Ma’am.

  • http://atomicinsights.com Rod Adams

    Dr. Lyman

    I am not sure how you came up with your dose calculation or where you found the 2011 report from Entergy about the total number of curies released. Ms. Cravens was probably basing her statement on analysis conducted closer to the time of the releases, which were reported in late 2009. People who are not professionally engaged in the business of being critical of nuclear energy and pouring through final reports that might be filed years after an event can be forgiven for not being fully up to date.

    In March 2010, I produced an analysis based on the best publicly available sources I could find that indicated that Vermont Yankee probably leaked water containing 2.5 million picocuries per liter at a rate of about 100 gallons per day. http://atomicinsights.com/how-much-tritium-leaked-from-vermont-yankee-before-the-leak-was-stopped/

    At that time, I assumed that the leak might have been going on for a year before being detected and computed that the total number of curies released was about 0.35.

    If you can give me the accession number for the 2011 report that you found, I would love to learn where my methods were incorrect enough to be off by a factor of almost 10.

    When you computed the total dose, did you account for the fact that tritium is simply hydrogen with a couple of extra neutrons and that it washes through human bodies along with all other hydrogen nearly all of which is in the form of H2O or a complex carbohydrate? The biological half life of tritium is just 7 to 14 days, depending on activity, water and caffeine consumption.

    Time to go to work, but I will be back with my own computation of the dose from tritium, both at the level you claim Entergy reported and at the level of 100 gallons per day of a fluid with a concentration of 2.5 million picocuries per liter.

  • http://CravensPowertoSavetheWorld.com Gwyneth Cravens

    In regard to Mr. Lyman’s mistaken quote of my remark in the film about the tritium leak, thanks for posting my correction.

    In regard to Mr. Lyman’s second attempt, I stand by what I said in the film. This information was fact-checked by one Nobel-prizewinning particle physicist, a health physicist, and by four radiation-protection experts. Apart from my own wish only to say what I knew to be the case, Robert Stone wanted to make sure everything in the film was accurate.

    • Ed Lyman

      Dear Ms. Cravens,

      Thanks for your reply. If your reviewers could send us their calculations and underlying assumptions, we’d be happy to compare them with ours.

      Sincerely,

      Ed Lyman

      • http://atomicinsights.com Rod Adams

        Dr. Lyman

        The method I am using can be found in many basic texts. One that is available online is LLNL Environmental Report 1998 Appendix A Methods of Dose Calculations https://saer.llnl.gov/saer98/98pdfs/mv-apA.pdf .

        In that document, you can find the following conversion factor for a whole body dose from consuming tritiated water. The document has a fully referenced method for producing the final number, so I will not reproduce it on your blog.

        6.4 × 10–8 mrem/pCi

        Therefore Dose = 6.4 x 10-8 mrem/pCi x 2.79 x 10+12 pCi = 178,000

        So, it looks like your number is close enough – on the surface.

        I will admit that Ms. Cravens comparison is a little off, but the basic point remains true. Even in the entirely impossible instance of a single person consuming every single drop of a leak of tritiated water that had a concentration of 2.5 million picocuries per liter, the total dose to that one individual would be about 178 Rem. That dose is in the range that might result in mild radiation sickness, but is unlikely to lead to any immediate consequences worse than a mild flu.

        The recipient MIGHT contract cancer that they otherwise would not have gotten, but the average American has a 30-40% lifetime risk of cancer anyways.

        In order to get that dose, however, the person would need some rather special capabilities that are not normally found in human beings. They would have to be able to consume, in a single sitting, roughly one MILLION liters of water.

        If, instead, the person was closer to an average human and consumed their normal intake of 8 liters per day, their dose rate would be 0.001 mrem per day.

        Perhaps the comparison that Ms. Cravens was attempting to make in the film and the one that was checked by her eminent sources was to note that human beings could obtain ALL of their daily water intake DIRECTLY from the water that Vermont Yankee was leaking into the ground underneath the plant and they would STILL receive a daily dose that is less than the one received from eating a single banana.

        Even that situation is absurd, since water that leaks into the ground underneath a power plant cannot be consumed by any human without going through a rather effective filter consisting of thousands of feet of soil with a delay measured in years since there is little driving head pushing that water towards wells used for drinking water.

        Ms. Cravens and Robert Stone are perhaps guilty of making a statement that is attempting to illustrate risk in terms that people can more readily understand and goofing up the wording of the comparison a little bit. What they are NOT guilty of is harming people and the planet by making people tremble in fear about a minuscule risk.

        Living in continuous fear can cause debilitating health effects all its own. Focused efforts aimed at shutting down emission free electrical generating plants because of “tritium leaks” can cause an elevation in real risks like climate change, fires and explosions, and economic consequences from rising power prices caused by having to replace an adequately safe nuclear plant that is already built and paid for.

        I am accusing you and your organization of failing to help the public make reasonable evaluations about one of the most important energy decisions they can make – whether or not to allow the safe, reliable, cost effective operation of nuclear power plants INSTEAD of having to produce the power they would otherwise have produced by burning hydrocarbons or damming up rivers.

        • Ed Lyman

          Hi Rod,

          Thanks for your comments.

          The reference for the 2.79 Ci release, if you haven’t found it yet, is from the following inspection report: http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1014/ML101400040.pdf.

          The point I intended to make by highlighting Ms. Cravens’ remark in my post was not that UCS considers the release of tritium from Vermont Yankee a major health threat, although such incidents are usually indicators of other safety problems that could have more serious implications. What I wanted to show is that her remark, on its face, is technically incorrect, and is therefore one example of “Pandora’s Promise” casual approach to the facts. In order to have an intelligent debate about nuclear power, it is important to differentiate between facts, conjectures, and personal opinions that may or may not be supported by evidence.

          Best regards,

          Ed Lyman

          • http://atomicinsights.com Rod Adams

            Hi Ed:

            Thank you for responding.

            After posting my comment both here and on Atomic Insights, I realized that I had made a math error that resulted in my dose rate calculation for drinking water directly from the leak source to be underestimated by a factor of 1000. I do not want to take up too much space here attempting to reword my comment – anyone who is interested can find the corrected copy at http://atomicinsights.com/ucs-is-guilty-of-harming-humans-by-reinforcing-fear-mongering/

            Pandora’s Promise has a few other factual errors; most of them actually make the case for nuclear energy seem less compelling that it should be. However, if I wanted more facts about nuclear energy, I would not look for them in a documentary that is designed to tell a story about how people who have just recently overcome fears to start learning more about the technology.

            The primary purpose of Pandora’s Promise is to open previously closed minds to the idea that there might be things about our available energy alternatives that are worth taking the time to study and comprehend.

          • http://atomicinsights.com Rod Adams

            Ed – I have skimmed through the inspection report. Though it includes the 2.79 curie number that you used as an input to your dose calculation in your fact checking of Pandora’s Promise statements, it also includes a number that you have failed to mention.

            That number is 0.00035 mrem, which is the dose to the most exposed person as a result of the leak which caused so much angst and required the plant owner and the government to incur expenses that must have totaled in the several tens of millions of dollars.

            A scientifically honest person with any concept of economics should engage their “questioning attitude” to wonder if that money was well spent considering the extraordinarily tiny quantity of radiation dose.

            An even more egregious example of the reason why excessive fear of radiation is responsible for at least some of nuclear energy’s current high costs is the San Onofre event. In that case, a tiny leak that caused a release that would have given the most exposed person a dose of 5.2E-5 millirem turned out to be the cause of a shutdown that cost utility customers several hundred million dollars and counting since the 2100 MWe of emission free power has been permanently removed from the grid more than 30 years earlier than it should have been.

            Rod Adams
            Publisher, Atomic Insights

  • Nick Lenssen

    Work like this reminds me that I should up my annual contribution to UCS.

    Great job, as always.

  • justin kohn

    I’m always amazed that “experts” can do tons of research on energy production, even make high-end documentaries on the subject and still not know the latest technologies and innovations. We need to get the word out:
    The solutions to any and all Global warming/energy issues already exist today. The “Bloombox” fuel cell (Bloomenergy .com) has been on the market for several years and is a fuel cell that does not require platinum. It creates electricity from many sources (including HYDROGEN) and atmospheric oxygen. The second development is the “Leaf” solar cell (Developed by Daniel Nocera and his team at MIT)- high efficiency/low cost and it produces hydrogen from water and sunlight (Google: Sun Cataytix co.). These two used together give us unlimited cheap energy forever. No need for conservation, or downsizing our energy uses. Oil, coal, nuclear, biofuels as well as wind and traditional solar are now obsolete.
    Do some homework on these technologies and spread the word!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEk4o10WNG0
    Bloom box
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTtmU2lD97o
    Daniel Nocera- Leafcell

  • Richard Solomon

    It is unlikely I will see the movie but I still found Dr. Lyman’s review worthwhile. FYI, he/this post was mentioned in the NY TIMES articles on Dot Earth by Andy Revkin about the movie.

  • John Hartshorn

    Given the low health effects and generally good safety record of current nuclear plants, (Chernobyl is irrelevant since the design was inherently unstable in addition to lacking a containment dome – characteristics not present in currently building and future designs) and the known greater damage from fossil fuels, it’s strange how much attention is given to hashing over the past. The relevant questions concern current and future designs like the AP-1000 now being deployed and the fast-reactor and thorium based reactors now in final design stages and prototyping. The AP-1000, EPR, and other 3rd generation plants are already two orders of magnitude less likely to have catastrophic failures than current designs and the Gen IV plants are completely unable to melt down under any circumstances. More to the point, once you pass 30-40% of grid capacity, alternatives by their nature start costing much more than advertised because of the large overbuilding and nearly watt for watt backup of fossil plants required to ensure reliability and meet demand curves with supply availability that fluctuates at the whims of nature such that solar only averages 20-25% of nameplate capacity and wind 30-35% in the best locations.

    Dr. Lyman knows his stuff, but he seems to selectively prefer to quote the more concerning research by less qualified groups while discounting research by well respected groups like UNSCEAR and the IEA. Too many years of partisan advocacy, perhaps. His stated concern about the risks of diversion from the EBR-II reactor program, for example, overlook the fact that the experimental reactor actually developed and used a compact, efficient ON SITE method for reprocessing fuel without it’s ever leaving the plant or existing in a state in which it would be useful to bomb makers.

    Drawing back from the day-to-day fight for partisan advantage and surveying the whole energy and greenhouse gasses conundrum in the context of the time and funding available to convert the world to carbon free energy might change his emphasis. At any rate, China and India are committing to make new nuclear the cornerstone of their decarbonization plans, so we can always buy reactors from them when we’re ready to face reality.

    • Richard Solomon

      Admittedly, I am no expert on different designs, etc. I’d like to hear Dr. Lyman’s comments on the risk of meltdown that the ‘AP-1000, EPR, and other 3rd generation plants’ you mention have.

      Also, do they produce spent fuel? What do they do with it? Storage of this stuff has never been dealt with adequately, in my opinion.

      As far as I know, reprocessing of spent fuel is still not practical/possible. Does the EBIR really, actually reprocess the fuel successfully on site? Or is this another proposed benefit/fantasy of how it could be done?

      • Keldin

        Richard, can you clarify what you meant by “still not practical/possible”? Reprocessing is very real, and is employed on a commercial scale in a few countries (including France and Russia). Now, I won’t argue that it has been cheap. But definitely possible.

        And yes, the IFR project (EBR II) did feature a novel method of reprocessing on-site that would have been completely proliferation resistant.

  • Ben Heard

    Mr Lyman,
    This review reveals exactly the thinking and practices that Pandora’s Promise sets out to challenge.

    You reject the use of the findings of the Chernobyl Forum.

    Are they, or are they not, the experts? The exposure beyond the territories of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus was not high, it was incredibly low. The Chernobyl Forum says. “The vast majority of about 5 million people residing in contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine currently receive annual effective doses from the Chernobyl fallout of less than 1 mSv in addition to the natural background doses”. Those natural doses are commonly 10 times that amount in different parts of Europe. The experts are far too responsible to use modelling to infer deaths from such low levels of exposure.

    Regarding Fukushima. You refer to “studies estimating cancer death tolls ranging from several hundred to several thousand.”. I’ve heard just stats like that before from another anti-nuclear activist. Here’s what I found when I looked more closely.

    The reference for 100s of deaths is called Fukushima Accident: Radioactive Releases and Potential Dose Consequences and subtitled Preliminary Investigations June 28, 2011. Preliminary is right; this reference was published just three months following the event. Fatalities “in the 100s” is inferred from an increased mortality rate of 0.001%, which is very much the same thing as 0%. The final slide makes it clear that their message is one that latent deaths “can’t be ruled out” but “conservative risk estimates suggest 100s” of cancers against a background of 10 million cases. To be inferring fatalities from this source is patently ridiculous

    The reference citing 1,000 deaths is another 2011 paper from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (Sept/Oct) and says this:

    “A corresponding estimate of the cancer consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident has not yet been conducted, but it is possible to make a very preliminary order-of-magnitude guesstimate … one might expect around 1,000 extra cancer deaths related to the Fukushima Daiichi accident”.

    Your upper fatality figure is called “a very preliminary, order of magnitude guesstimate” by the author himself. Then you tell us that a newspaper determined 1,000-3,000 deaths based on extrapolations from numbers obtained from the experts. Why not just refer to the experts themselves, who said in June 2013 that “Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers”.

    This review has engaged in precisely the conduct PP has sought to call out: departing from science as and when it suits.

    • Richard Solomon

      Interesting, as well as distressing, to read how you and ‘the experts’ play the numbers game with possible deaths due to exposure at/near Fukushima.

      How would you, or a loved one of yours, like to be one of the ‘few’ deaths attributable to the exposure? Suddenly, then it becomes very personal! Yourself or a loved one of yours would be ONE TOO MANY, wouldn’t it?!?

      An article on the website Japan Focus noted in January that many of the workers hired to do the cleanup of the Fukushima facilities are temporary, day laborers recruited by Japanese gangsters. The gangters make a lot of money for providing these workers. But these men are reportedly being exposed to unsafe amounts of radiation. Then they leave the facility only to disappear back into their transient lifestyles. Ie, no oversight, no adequate medical care, no follow up. How many of these men will eventually contract cancer of some kind in the years to come? Do they not matter because they are some of the more ‘invisible’ members of society?

      Here is a link to that article: http://japanfocus.org/-Gabrielle-Hecht/3880#. FYI, this is a legitimate website affiliated with the Asia Pacific Journal.

      On a much ‘lesser’ note, how about the thousands of displaced families? Those who have not yet returned to their homes…probably will never return to their homes? And the farmers and fishermen whose lifestyles have been, probably permanently, lost because of the contamination from these ‘low levels’ of radiation? What about these kinds of ‘costs’ from this supposedly clean and safe form of energy?

      • george

        Do you think these “numbers game” calculations aren’t made and discussed for every large industrial process? How do you think insurance works?

        How many people do you think are killed each year by coal and nat gas energy production?

        • Richard Solomon

          I am sure that ‘the calculations’ are made by energy and insurance companies for every project they engage in. These estimates are typically low because the companies are able to externailze some of the costs onto society.

          Eg, the health problems caused by the extraction of coal, nat gas, etc are paid for by consumers or the government in the form of higher medical care costs, etc. NOT via the price people pay for gasoline. If people paid for the true costs of gasoline or even ‘safer and cleaner’ nat gas, they might be less complascent about these forms of energy.

          I cannot quote the number of people killed each year in the extraction and refining processes needed for coal, gasoline, or nat gas. I do know, however, that these processes are far more costly in terms of human health than most people realize. A fire at a gasoline refinery in Richmond, Ca last year (near Oakland) has uncovered the fact that this refinery is rife with many corroded pipes which will lead to future fires as well. No one died. But many suffered respiratory distress, needed medical care, etc. How much did that cost society?!? The lack of regulatory oversight of this refinery, and all the other ones operating in Calif, is very costly indeed. Meanwhile, Chevron goes on making HUGE profits for its shareholders and execs.