The Week That Was
May 19, 2001


The weekly journal "Science" is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest scientific society; it is the most widely read and perhaps the most influential journal of its kind. Its newly appointed editor is Stanford biology professor Donald Kennedy, former head of FDA in the Carter Administration. His March 30 editorial attacks George Bush for allegedly backing out of the Kyoto accord and emission caps on carbon dioxide. He accepts and extrapolates the IPCC conclusions about global warming and seems to have no doubts whatsoever about the underlying climate science. [We wonder where he gets his advice.] Significantly, his politically charged editorial blames the California power crisis on industry advocates and former governor Pete Wilson, a Republican. [This may give us a clue.]

On May 11, Science published my reply - in much abbreviated form. You can read it, together with the full version. Kennedy's brief response starts out: "Singer makes much of the alleged discrepancy between satellite and surface measurements …"[my emphasis]. He fails to mention that the National Academy panel, set up specifically to reconcile the obvious disparity, was unable to do so. The panel, however, did not investigate the quality and correctness of the surface data but took them at face value.

The Week That Was May 19, 2001 brought to you by SEPP

Just in time for George Bush' energy message, we bring you this straightforward endorsement of nuclear power:

By Richard Rhodes

MADISON, Conn. - Technologies are born, grow, thrive and decline, much as living organisms do. That should not be surprising. Since they derive from human knowledge, their effective application must be learned, and they compete for social and economic territory.

Nuclear power, a product of naval propulsion research, emerged in the United States in the 1950's. Its first use as a commercial energy source came about because it had obvious benefits for pollution control. A Pennsylvania utility, Duquesne Light, built the first commercial nuclear power reactor at Shippingport, Pa., in 1954. The utility had planned to build a coal-fired power plant. When the public objected to further smoke pollution around smoky Pittsburgh, Duquesne switched to nuclear power.

Public acceptance of a new technology is essential to its growth. Nuclear power, associated in the public's mind with nuclear weapons, was probably commercialized prematurely, while its complexities were still being worked out. Its environmental benefits were not fully appreciated in the early decades because air pollution was abating under government regulation in the 1960's and 1970's, and global warming had not yet emerged as the ultimate environmental challenge. When conservation slowed electricity demand after the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and 1974, utilities canceled orders for new power plants, both nuclear and coal. Almost all new plants built since then have been fueled with natural gas.

But the population of the United States is growing, adding the equivalent of one California every 10 years. Demand has caught up with supply even with significant improvements in energy efficiency and conservation, and the United States has become the world's leading greenhouse gas emitter. These factors make a renewal of nuclear power likely.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has begun carefully extending licenses for existing reactors for an additional 20 years; eventually all 104 operating United States power reactors will probably be relicensed. Since they produce no air pollution or greenhouse gases, that's good news. The nuclear industry is consolidating, focusing experience and expertise. Several reactors that have been shut down will probably be restored to operation. Several others that were left unfinished when demand slowed will probably be completed. Two or three new advanced light- water reactors, designs the NRC has already pre-licensed, will probably be built at sites that already have construction permits. One company, Exelon, is considering seeking licensing of a simpler reactor, designed so that it cannot melt down, that uses a bed of billiard-ball-sized "pebbles" of compacted uranium oxide and graphite as its fuel and helium as its coolant and working fluid, passing the fission-heated helium directly into a turbine to generate electricity even more cheaply than burning natural gas. If the pebble-bed modular reactor wins approval from the NRC, other utilities may decide to use this technology as well.

Americans are beginning to understand one of the unique benefits of nuclear technology. A majority now says they approve of nuclear power, a shift that appears to indicate awareness that nuclear power does not produce greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. There is less evidence of public understanding of radiation and nuclear waste. Antinuclear activism began in the 1960's with concerns about the disposal of nuclear waste, and disposal continues to be the nuclear industry's Number 1 public-relations problem. The disposal debate is likely to move to center stage later this year, when the scientists and engineers evaluating Yucca Mountain, north of Las Vegas, as a possible permanent waste repository expect to deliver their final report.

All energy technologies produce waste. Burning fossil fuels - even relatively clean fuel like natural gas - generates waste that cannot be contained within the power plant, as nuclear waste is, but must be released into the environment as air pollution and toxic waste. In the case of coal, burning releases ash that is mildly radioactive, because radioactive uranium and thorium are ubiquitous in the earth's crust, including coal seams.

Even renewable technologies like wind power and solar photovoltaics produce waste: manufacturing the materials for the multitude of collectors necessary to gather up such diffuse sources as wind and sunlight requires burning fossil fuels. Thus wind or solar power systems release far more greenhouse gases across their life cycles than does a nuclear system of equivalent output.

The great advantage of nuclear power is its ability to wrest enormous energy from a small volume of fuel. One metric ton of nuclear fuel produces energy equivalent to two million to three million tons of fossil fuel. Waste volumes are comparably scaled: fossil fuel systems generate hundreds of thousands of metric tons of gaseous, particulate and solid wastes, but nuclear systems produce less than 1,000 metric tons of high- and low-level waste per plant per year. The high-level waste is intensely radioactive at first, but its small volume means it can be and is effectively isolated and contained. When a nuclear plant is dismantled (few have been so far), the several hundred thousand tons of concrete, which is mildly radioactive, is buried in the same sort of commercial waste site used for radioactive medical and industrial wastes.

Spent nuclear fuel loses radioactivity steadily; after 500 years it is no more radioactive than high-grade uranium ore. The risk of radioactive waste's seeping past multiple barriers would be small compared to health risks posed by air pollution from burning fossil fuels, which the World Health Organization estimates causes three million deaths a year, with 15,000 deaths annually in the United States from coal particulates alone. Substituting small, sequestered volumes of nuclear waste for vast, dispersed volumes of toxic wastes from fossil fuels could provide an enormous improvement in public health.

The other risk that nuclear power supposedly raises is nuclear proliferation. In fact, no nation has developed nuclear weapons using plutonium from spent power reactor fuel. It's much easier to make weapons from plutonium bred specifically for that purpose. Inspection and proper accounting and control of nuclear materials are the answer to proliferation, not limits to nuclear power.

France once burned coal; that nation's electricity is now 80 percent nuclear, with five times less air pollution and with carbon dioxide emissions 10 times lower than Germany's and 13 times lower than Denmark's. At a conference recently in Japan (another nuclear leader, with 36 percent nuclear electricity), French nuclear industry executive Anne Lanvergeon proposed improving the debate about nuclear power by creating an authoritative world database that would assess the advantages and disadvantages of each type of energy in terms of use of resources and economic, environmental and health impact. Measured against other energy sources, nuclear power would emerge at the top of such a list.

Energy needs in the United States will grow in the coming decades, even with improved efficiency and more strenuous conservation. Nuclear energy needs to be a major component of our energy supply if we hope both to reduce air pollution and limit global warming.


Richard Rhodes is the author of "Nuclear Renewal" and "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal.


In September 2000, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published its Report to the General Assembly, with Scientific Annexes, a document of some 1220 pages in two volumes. Annex J (vol. 2, pp. 453-551) deals with exposures and effects of the Chernobyl accident. Recently updated dosimetric findings in the regions of the former Soviet Union most highly contaminated by radioactive fallout, and an updated evaluation of the health effects of the Chernobyl accident, were discussed during the 50th session of UNSCEAR in Vienna between April 23rd and 27th 2001.

Apart from about 1800 thyroid cancer cases, with 99+% cured, registered in children and in some adults, there is no evidence of any major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure after the accident. There is no increase in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukemia, which due to its short latency time is a good indicator of radiation harm, is not elevated among about 5 million inhabitants of the contaminated regions, nor among the evacuated persons or recovery operation workers. However, there is a widespread psychological reaction to the accident, due to fear of radiation, and not to the actual radiation dose received by individuals. These reactions lead to psychosomatic disorders and epidemic symptoms such as headache, depression, sleep disturbances, inability to concentrate and emotional imbalance, not unlike similar social reactions following major disasters of non-nuclear origin (such as floods, earthquakes or landslides).

The increase in the number of registered thyroid cancers is very likely due to a screening effect. The normal incidence of "occult" thyroid cancers (which, while not causing any visible clinical disturbance, are histologically malignant and aggressive) is very high in most countries (e.g., about 13,000 per 100,000 inhabitants in the United States). This number should be compared with the highest incidence of thyroid cancers recorded in the highly contaminated region of Bryansk (Russia), of 26.6 per 100,000 inhabitants. Document prepared for this year's session of UNSCEAR provide several similar examples of such screening effects, e.g. an increase in chronic lymphocyte leukemia, a disease known as not being caused by ionizing radiation.

Among the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power stations and rescue operators, 30 persons died after having received a very high dose of ionizing radiation. No deaths directly attributable to exposure from the Chernobyl radiation have been found in the population of the contaminated regions. Cancer incidence rates over the most contaminated regions of Ukraine are found to be consistently lower than rates over the country as a whole. The incidence of solid cancers among Russian recovery operation workers is observed to be significantly lower than that in the general population.

This is to be expected. The whole-body radiation dose due to the Chernobyl fallout received during the past fifteen years by individuals in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union (about 1 mSv per year) is ten to a hundred times lower than the dose of ionizing radiation from natural sources received by individuals in many regions of the world. Neither radiation-induced diseases nor any genetic disorders have ever been found in these regions. Genetic disorders have not been found even in the offspring of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims exposed to a very high radiation dose.

Because governments of Belarus and Ukraine protested against low Chernobyl health effects estimated by UNSCEAR, on the recommendation of General Assembly UNSCEAR invited experts designated by the three affected countries to present their views. Only two countries sent their experts: Prof. J. Keningsberg (Belarus) and Prof. V.K. Ivanov (Russian Federation). They addressed UNSCEAR on 26 April, and both stated that they agree with the estimates presented in UNSCEAR 2000 Report.

This information was made available to SEPP by Dr. Zbigniew Jaworowski, a long- time member, and former Chairman, of UNSCEAR. He is with the Central Laboratory for Radiological Protection, Warszawa, Poland. e-mail:
UNSCEAR was established by the General Assembly in 1955. It is now composed of 21 countries.


And finally: we find New Scientist editor generating a "Hydroxyl Holocaust" scare

By Deborah Smith, Science Writer

Repairing the hole in the ozone layer could trigger an environmental catastrophe that would reduce life expectancy to 30 years, says the editor-in-chief of one of the world's leading science magazines, New Scientist.

Dr Alun Anderson, who is in Sydney for National Science Week, predicted that by 2070 rich people could be forced to live in city-sized domes to escape air pollution. Elsewhere, smog would make asthma the leading killer of young people, and countries such as Russia would be devastated by famine as poisoned crops failed.

He said the cause would be a "hydroxyl holocaust" - plummeting levels of an atmospheric molecule that few people have yet heard of, called a hydroxyl radical, which has a vital role mopping up pollutants.

Hydroxyl levels began to drop as the world produced more smog, but they rose again during the 1980s. The growing hole in the ozone layer allowed in more UV light, which stimulated the production of more hydroxyl. Dr Anderson said that if the ozone hole was repaired, hydroxyl levels would be expected to decline dramatically, and the world would choke in smog.

Comment: So---does the ozone hole really prolong life? Best argument yet for bringing back CFCs. We will wait anxiously while readers react to this surprising conclusion.



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