Pandora's Revenge: Defending Pandora's Promise

By Dr. Nick Touran, Ph.D., P.E., 2013-05-18 , Reading time: 16 minutes

Pandoras Promise poster

On Januray 18, 2013, Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise [] was released at the 2013 Sundance film festival in Park City, UT. This feature-length documentary attempts to convince mainstream society that nuclear energy is a good idea, and to make us rethink our many assumptions. It features interviews with environmentalist Stewart Brand (who surprised some of his followers by going pro-nuclear in his latest book "Whole Earth Discipline"), New York Times editor Gwyneth Cravens (of "Power to Save the World" fame), and others. It explains even the more subtle advantages of nuclear energy extremely well. I watched a pre-release about a month ago and was very impressed. "What now, anti-nukes?," I wondered.

On May 13th, anti-nuclear group BeyondNuclear published a 38-page pdf written by Linda Pentz Gunter called "Pandora’s False Promises" [] which has been picked up by every anti-nuclear person on Earth and waved around as gospel. But, alas, rather than making some good, productive counter-points, it swings way the other way with unsubstantiated, inaccurate opinion. Granted, I’m a nuclear engineer but take a peek and see if it doesn’t sound a little out-there to you too. This is a very natural place for to jump in and deal.

Rebuttal against "Pandora’s False Promises"

To keep it short, we’ll just go point-for-point with the executive summary here. But the details covered deal with the entirety of the report.

Point number one: the scale of change needed for climate change is big

"Nuclear power, no matter the reactor design, cannot address climate change in time. In order to displace a significant amount of carbon-emitting fossil fuel generation, another 1,000 to 1,500 new 1,000+ Megawatt reactors would need to come on line worldwide by 2050, a completely prohibitive proposition."

Ok, let’s see here. The premise is that we need up to 1,500 gigawatts (electric) of new capacity from somewhere (based on an MIT report). That would be 1,500 regular sized nuclear power plants, or about triple current capacity (a fact the body of the report balks at). From another perspective though, the 2011 wind production average was 52.4 GW with 200,000 turbines worldwide [1]. So to get our 1,500 GWe, we would need 5.7 million new wind turbines, a factor of 28. Solar capacity has increased from 1.5 GW to 65 GW from 2000 to 2011 [2], but production is at best 0.5 of capacity for now (day vs. night) so we’d have to increase worldwide solar by a factor of 45 to get the required power. By the way, maximum solar incidence is about 1 kW per square meter and good (expensive) solar panels are about 20% efficient with 50% capacity (optimistic!), so 1500 GWe requires...15 billion square meters of land (5800 square miles, just 2% of Texas). Now look at the rare-earth elements required to build efficient wind turbines, and the chemicals used to build solar panels, and the water required to constantly clean them. Which option is better? Certainly wind and solar are ideal for certain locations and applications, but they are not yet practical large scale solutions. All this primary point proves is that the climate problem is a big one. Yes nuclear plants take 4-5 years to build but when they are done they produce insane amounts of energy.

BeyondNuclear targets advanced reactors like the IFR in the body with their 20 year development time. Right, so build conventional plants now and replace them with advanced technologies as they become available. As if options that can’t immediately solve the problem should not even be developed at all. How defeatist. Next please.

Point number two: Innovations are futile, nuclear is DOA due to cost

"So-called ‘Generation IV’ reactor designs, including ‘fast’ or ‘small modular reactors,’ are the last gasp of a failing industry. Earlier versions of the fast breeder reactor were commercial failures and safety disasters. The ever soaring costs make nuclear power a financial quagmire for investors, and expensive new prototypes commercially unattractive. "

Dramatic! First of all, nuclear being capital intensive is certainly a disadvantage that slows down the pace of innovation in advanced nuclear designs. It requires a lot of time and money to go through the processes required to prove that a new design is safe enough, and this kind of lag does not mesh well with typical venture capitalist ways of quick return. To deal with this, things like National Laboratories exist to invest public money in high-risk, high-payoff projects that are deemed by experts to be beneficial to society. The US fast breeder program (see Clinch River Breeder Reactor Plant) was one of these, and did indeed get canceled in part due to cost overruns. But first-of-a-kind technologies are expensive. This doesn’t mean the costs can’t come down with development. It was politically unpopular and so its government funding got cut. Now, the lure of such high-payoffs is manifesting in big private investors like Bill Gates working on advanced designs like the Gen-IV Traveling Wave Reactor (see TerraPower []). Fast breeders have a lot of great advantages in resource utilization, passive safety, and waste reduction that certainly don’t belong with such a dismal characterization. By the way, putting "quotation marks" around technical names of things doesn’t make them sound bad as much as they make the author appear to be hearing about these concepts for the first time.

In the pdf, BeyondNuclear hilariously quotes the price of pyro-processing as $88,000/kg based on the fact that INL has spent that much managing EBR-II fuel over eight years. Yeah, BeyondNuclear, because that’s a really realistic assumption to make. If the cost of a lab scale experiment was used as the commercial cost estimate for everything, nothing would be economically feasible.

They say Thorium reactors are nowhere near a reality, just keep in mind that a fully operational molten salt reactor was operated in the 60s and it performed very well. Not so distant, I would say.

Point number three: One conceptual reactor design is pointless

"Proponents of the Integral Fast Reactor, overlook the exorbitant costs; proliferation risks; that it theoretically ‘transmutes,’ rather than eliminates, radioactive waste; that it is decades away from deployment; and that its use of sodium as a coolant can lead to fires and explosions. "

The IFR is an evolution that came out of the US fast reactor program. It’s a small fast breeder reactor that has a fuel cycle facility on-site that can reprocess the fuel, enabling very high fuel utilization and very good waste treatment over typical reactors. The proliferation concern mentioned is that people could break into the fuel facility and pull out weapons-usable plutonium from the processes that would be ongoing within and then run off and make nuclear weapons. This particular concern affects all reprocessing facilities. It is typically thought that first-world countries could protect their plutonium inventories from such invasions, but building these facilities in non-weapons states is definitely a concern for those of us who want to keep nuclear weapons at a minimum. There have been various international programs proposed (AFCI, GNEP, etc.) where weapons-states would have IFRs and they would sell fuel to user nations who would then give their waste back to the weapon states for recycling. These never got too popular because no country wants to rely on powerful neighbors for their fuel (understandable). Twists on this policy (with mechanisms to guarantee fuel supply) may be possible.

As for this theoretical transmutation, I study this all the time personally. The idea is that the long-lived components of nuclear waste can be split (fissioned) with fast neutrons. If you recycle aggressively enough, you can reduce the radiotoxicity of nuclear waste from something that takes 100,000 years to reach the level of the dirt it was mined from to something that decays in about 500 years [3] (note: this reference is fantastic. Check out figure 1 if interested). This is an excellent answer to the important question of nuclear waste. Storing a small amount of radioactive things for 500 years is a tractable problem, where storing it for 100,000 is more questionable. Also, again with the quotation marks!

The cost of developing advanced nuclear reactors is definitely high. Granted. But the pay-off might be huge, e.g. solving the energy problem. There are a lot of young nuclear engineers out there right now trying to figure out how to bring costs down. Will they fail? Maybe. But also, maybe not.

Sodium fires have happened in many past and operating fast reactors and will continue to break out. Sodium fires will be minimized through modern procedures and design. Even when a sodium fire happens by accident, it will simply be an operational cleanup problem, not a safety hazard to the public. A comprehensive review of sodium fires and their implications can be found [4]. The benefit of using sodium (besides enabling the fast neutrons of fast reactors) is that it is such a good coolant that it can passively remove decay heat, meaning these reactors can withstand Fukushima-like loss-of-power accidents indefinitely with no active systems or human intervention, without melting. Because of this, sodium cooled reactors are thought to be about 2 orders of magnitude safer than current reactors by nuclear safety experts.

Fun fact: The largest sodium leak ever happened at the Alermia Solar Power Plant in Spain, 1986. Sodium is such a good coolant that solar folks like it too

Point number four: nuclear reactors emit radiation that can mutate you

"The continued daily use of nuclear power means continued risk of radiation exposure to surrounding populations, especially children who are vulnerable to leukemia when living close to reactors. Ionizing radiation released by nuclear power plants, either routinely or in large amounts, causes cellular damage and mutations in DNA, which in turn can lead to cancers and other illnesses."

This has been studied at length in the peer reviewed journals where wide surveys of hundreds of nuclear plants were done [5,6]. "For childhood leukemia mortality, the relative risk comparing the study counties with their controls before plant start-up was 1.08, while after start-up it was 1.03" [6]. So the science shows no increase, but rather a decrease in cancer after nuclear plants started up (likely due to some other factor). This is being looked at again by the US National Academy of Science. Expect an update soon.

Nuclear accidents are catastrophic, but the worst one in the modern world (Fukushima) hasn’t damaged anyone’s DNA or health (that we know of) yet. Here’s a quote from a 2012 UN report on the health effects of Fukushima: "To date, there have been no health effects attributed to radiation exposure observed among workers, the people with the highest radiation exposures. To date, no health effects attributable to radiation exposure have been observed among children or any other member of the population;" [7]. Further discussion of this report is found in [8].

Fun fact: 100-200x more radiation comes out of coal plant stacks than out of a typical nuclear power plant. Why? Because natural uranium and thorium minerals and their decay products exist in coal. Throwing them up in the air to be inhaled causes much more dose than a nuclear plant [9]. Crazy!

And here’s my favorite part. Just a few months ago, James Hansen (the climate scientist from NASA who initiated the uproar about climate change decades ago) published a peer-reviewed journal paper [see 14] concluding that nuclear energy has saved a net of 1.8 million lives that would have been lost if fossil plants had been built instead.

Point number five: The UN and World Health Organization reports on Chernobyl are completely and utterly wrong

"Low-ball health predictions after nuclear accidents are not reliable. The 2005 IAEA/WHO Chernobyl health report has been discredited for suppressing key data to justify low death predictions that do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Furthermore, the IAEA has a mandate to promote nuclear technology. Given the long latency period of cancers caused by radiation exposure, it is too soon to accurately predict the ultimate health impacts from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, although some health effects are already being observed. "

That’s a bold statement considering the number of WHO, UN, and IAEA studies that say to the contrary. You have to run a pretty serious conspiracy theory to maintain this belief. For Chernobyl specifically, there has been a huge amount of study on the radiation effects. A even-more-recent-than-cited United Nations study (2008) says that 68 people died from radiation from Chernobyl [12], and that "the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident". The controversy on Chernobyl death tolls is also discussed at length [13]. For instance, Greenpeace claims 93,000 fatalities from the radiation. The Chernobyl reactor did not have a containment structure, so much more radiation was emitted than from Fukushima. Regardless, these accidents unquestionably have major psychological effects and it is the responsibility of reactor designers, owners, operators, and regulators to prevent such horrible events from happening in the future. The personal terror that was brought by Chernobyl is featured on our exclusive Chernobyl memories page.

Point number six: Nuclear can be phased out by renewables

"The example of Germany — and numerous studies — demonstrates that both coal and nuclear can be phased out in favor of renewable energy. Jobs are more plentiful and enduring in the renewable sector. In Germany, renewable energy already employs 380,000 people compared to 30,000 in the nuclear sector."

This may be true. But how quickly? And to what sacrifice? Someday we may be totally solar powered with environmentally friendly collectors and energy storage systems. But it is not this day. This day we need to use all the tools we have, including nuclear. The fact that renewables can employ more people is not necessarily a good thing. For instance, in the 16th century, 75% of people worked in agriculture. So should we go back to that? Since nuclear is so energy dense, you can get lots of energy with a small footprint, leaving more people to solve other problems of the world. In 2011, renewables and nuclear generated the same amount of electricity in Germany [10], so apparently 30,000 people accomplished the same things as 380,000. I understand jobs are a big deal in this economy, but this isn’t really a very good point.

And, about Germany; it might be wise to read this article []. tl;dr is that the solar panels in Germany will make power at 32 cents/kwh while the behind-schedule and over-budget nuclear power plant being built in Finland will produce power at 7 cents/kwh.

Point number seven: geothermal and offshore wind are good ideas

"The argument that only nuclear provides ‘carbon-free,’ base load energy is out of date. Geothermal and offshore wind energy are capable of delivering reliable base load power with a smaller carbon footprint than nuclear energy. Energy efficiency is also an essential component in displacing nuclear and coal."

Hydro is also fantastic carbon-free base load, but I guess it’s not mentioned because it is very hard to expand these days since most good waterways are already dammed and river ecology is not renewable [11]. Geothermal and offshore wind are totally cool, but they only work in certain areas. So I guess nuclear is the only expandable carbon-free proven flexible base load generation technology. And efficiency is great. But India and China are the big energy gainers, and while efficiency can help keep their growth lower, it will not prevent their growth. Mark my words. Hey! A proper use of quotation marks this time. Love it.

Well, that was fun.

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Nick Touran snowshoeing

Nick Touran has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan. He works as a reactor physicist at a nuclear-power startup company in Seattle, WA that is developing advanced nuclear reactors to help with the world’s energy problems. was started by him and classmates years ago back in school and neither this page nor the site are affiliated with his workplace in any way.