Ben Heard - nuclear power - decarbonisesa

Adelaide-based Mr Ben Heard runs the decarbonisesa.com website. He is arguably the most aggressive and abusive of Australia's nuclear advocates − see for example this temper tantrum and compare it with the matter-of-fact tone of the paper he is attacking.

Like so many other nuclear advocates, Mr Heard very rarely or never says or does anything about the problems of the nuclear industry such as its systemic racism (abundantly evident in South Australia) or the inadequate nuclear safeguards system.

A mining industry magazine article says that Mr Heard was "once a fervent anti-nuclear campaigner". However there is no evidence of Mr Heard ever having any involvement whatsoever in anti-nuclear campaigning let alone 'fervent' involvement. And no evidence that Mr Heard has made any effort to correct the error in the magazine article.

Mr Heard has done some consulting work at Heathgate Resources' Beverley uranium mine. Heathgate's behaviour towards Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners has been highly controversial, the company has used one or more spies to infiltrate environment groups including Friends of the Earth, and the company supported brutal police violence against environmentalists and Traditional Owners. Mr Heard describes himself as an environmentalist - surely the first environmentalist ever to have worked for a company caught spying on environmentalists! Heathgate is 100% owned by General Atomics, which is run by this charming gentleman:

Referring to a Walkerville Council meeting in June 2012, Mr Heard claimed that Friends of the Earth "tried to have our event shut down". That is a blatant lie.

Mr Heard offers himself for pro-nuclear talks around Adelaide and beyond, and even asks for speaking fees although he has no relevant qualifications or expertise. Judge for yourself whether you'd pay to hear him speak ...

NUCLEAR WASTE

Some comments from an article by Ben Heard and Barry Brook (BH/BB) and my (Jim Green) responses.

BH/BB: "The best start for responsible management of any hazardous waste is to capture and contain it at the source. Nuclear power does this."

About one-third of the spent fuel produced in power reactors has been reprocessed and this results in considerable releases of radioactive materials (it is "environmentally dirty" according to the Deputy Director General of the World Nuclear Association). Then there are accidents and leaks − for example in April 2005 it was revealed that 83,000 litres of highly-radioactive liquid containing dissolved spent nuclear fuel (and 160 kgs of plutonium) had leaked from the THORP reprocessing plant in the UK, and the leak went undetected for at least eight months.

Uranium mine tailings waste isn't captured and contained, nor is the liquid waste from in-situ leach mining.

Hanford, Dounreay, Sellafield, Chelyabinsk/Mayak − these are synonymous with environmental pollution as a result of serious, protracted nuclear waste management problems.

BH/BB: "[R]adioactive waste is perceived as complex. This is far from the truth. Radioactive material is one of the most predictable, easily monitored and best understood forms of waste. We know what it does, and how it does it, forever, and we manage it accordingly."

Obviously there is no experience with the management of high-level nuclear waste over periods of centuries or millenia let alone "forever". Research continues to throw up surprises, e.g. colloidal migration of plutonium, and studies from the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory in Sweden suggesting that copper-encapsulated canisters will corrode much faster than previously expected.

BH/BB: "The material in Dry Cask Storage at Fukushima bore the full brunt of the tsunamis, with no damage."

True, but the spent fuel in the reactor buildings was responsible for a significant fraction of the radioactive releases.

BH/BB: "[T]he quantities in question are relatively very small. ... A large-scale 25 GW nuclear power industry would add a mere 50 tons, taking up just 250 m3 (six-and-a-half standard shipping containers)."

BH/BB ignore waste streams across the nuclear fuel cycle − mine tailings waste, depleted uranium, etc. Over a 50-year lifespan, a 25 GW nuclear power industry would be responsible for:

  • 900 million tonnes of low-level radioactive tailings waste − assuming the uranium came from the Olympic Dam mine in SA. (If the uranium came from in-situ leach mines, there would be no tailings waste but there would be many aquifers polluted with radionuclides, heavy metals and acid.)
  • 215,000 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process.
  • 37,500 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste (spent fuel).
  • 375,000 cubic metres of low-level and intermediate-level waste.

(The Switkowski report is the basis for most of the above calculations. The figure on tailings waste comes from BHP Billiton's literature regarding the Olympic Dam open-cut mine plan.)

The figures for one reactor (1 GW) for one year are: 720,000 tonnes of radioactive tailings waste (Olympic Dam), 170 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, 30 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste (spent fuel) and 300 cubic metres of low-level and intermediate-level waste.

Volume and mass are not the only parameters to consider. High-level nuclear waste (spent fuel) produced in power reactors around the world contains enough plutonium to build about 200,000 nuclear weapons. Heat generated by high-level nuclear waste is another concern.

The interesting part of the BH/BB article concerns fast reactor technology. In theory fast reactor technology is attractive (potentially consuming more waste and weapons-useable material than the reactors produce) but in practice it has been highly problematic − fast reactor programs have contributed to several nuclear weapons programs; they have been leak-prone, fire-prone, and accident-prone; and there are a number of multi-billion-dollar white elephants such as the French Superphenix fast reactor. (On fast reactor technology see this report (PDF) by the International Panel on Fissile Materials.) Likewise the theory of conventional reprocessing is attractive but in practice it has been highly problematic.

BH/BB conclude their fast reactor promo: "So nuclear waste stops being a major headache, and turns into an asset. An incredibly valuable asset, as it turns out. In the US alone, there is 10 times more energy in already-mined depleted uranium (about 700,000 tonnes) and spent nuclear fuel, just sitting there in stockpiles, than there is coal in the ground. This is a multi-trillion dollar, zero-carbon energy resource, waiting to be harnessed." Nuclear utilities around the world disagree − they are keen to dump their nuclear waste in Australia or anywhere else that will take it and they are prepared to pay billions of dollars to get rid of it. In theory, nuclear waste is a multi-trillion dollar asset; in reality it is a multi-billion dollar liability.

More information on nuclear waste: www.choosenuclearfree.net/waste

CHERNOBYL DEATH TOLL

Mr Heard acknowledges a total of 43 deaths from the Chernobyl disaster from acute radiation exposure and thyroid cancer. He argues that the long-term non-thyroid cancer death toll is zero. He arrives at that conclusion by repeatedly misrepresenting a report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and ignoring all other estimates of the long-term cancer death toll.

The UNSCEAR report (PDF) argues that the long-term cancer death toll from Chernobyl cannot be meaningfully estimated because of "unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions", i.e. the limitations of epidemiological studies, and the uncertainties of applying a risk estimate (e.g. based on the linear no-threshold theory) to the collective radiation dose estimate (e.g. the IAEA's collective dose estimate of 600,000 person-Sieverts).

Mr Heard conflates UNSCEAR's unknown long-term cancer death toll with a long-term cancer death toll of zero. Obviously they are two very different propositions yet the distinction is lost on Mr Heard. An obvious question for Mr Heard − how could UNSCEAR arrive at a long-term cancer death toll of zero at the same time as it argues that the death toll cannot be estimated because of "unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions"? In truth, UNSCEAR doesn't estimate a long-term cancer death toll of zero − it simply declines to provide any estimate whatsoever.

UNSCEAR participated in the Chernobyl Forum study which estimates a death toll of 4,000 among the highest-exposed populations (with a follow-up World Health Organisation study estimating an additional 5,000 deaths among populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.) On the broader issue of the cancer risks of exposure to low-level ionising radiation, UNSCEAR's view (PDF) is that "the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates."

Back to the Chernobyl death toll:

  • A study published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2006 estimates that Chernobyl will have caused 16,000 thyroid cancers and 25,000 other cancers in Europe by 2065, and that 16,000 of these cancers will be fatal. The study does not consider emergency workers exposed to relatively high doses.
  • Research published in 2006 by UK radiation scientists Ian Fairlie and David Sumner estimates 30,000 to 60,000 deaths.
  • A 2006 scientific study commissioned by Greenpeace estimates a death toll of about 93,000.
  • A Russian study uses a dubious methodology to arrive at the unlikely estimate of a death toll of around one million - that study is best ignored.

Studies such as those listed above (other than the Russian study) typically use a risk estimate derived from the linear no-threshold theory (LNT). There is uncertainty about the accuracy of the LNT-derived risk estimate in relation to low doses and low dose rates. However that does not mean − as many nuclear advocates state or imply − that the LNT-derived risk estimate overstates the true risk. It may be accurate or it may understate or overstate the true risk. Thus the 2005 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR) of the US National Academy of Sciences states that (p.6) "combined analyses are compatible with a range of possibilities, from a reduction of risk at low doses to risks twice those upon which current radiation protection recommendations are based."

Mr Heard makes great play of the psychological impacts of nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, which he blames on radiophobia spread by nuclear critics. However the enormous psychological impact of the Fukushima disaster is not a result of  'radiophobia' — it is an understandable reaction to the circumstances people face, in particular the 100,000+ people evacuated from the 20-km exclusion zone. They are homeless, jobless, and many are separated from friends and family. Compensation has been too little, too late. The clean-up of contaminated areas has been slow and contentious.

Some useful discussions on the Chernobyl death toll: