There’s a sea-change afoot when it comes to how society views nuclear energy, in large part driven by new supporters who see climate change as an existential threat, and are open to using available technologies, such as nuclear, to fight it.
This shift has not gone unnoticed in media reports (“…the anti-nuclear movement is fading…”) and elsewhere. A recent poll by the University of California, Berkeley showed more Californians support building additional nuclear plants (44%) than oppose it (37%).
Social media is a popular outlet for this new generation of nuclear advocates to express their support. One of the most visible is social media influencer Isabelle Boemeke, a Brazilian model who finds innovative ways through Twitter, Instagram and other platforms to showcase the benefits of nuclear energy, from decarbonization to safety. Generation Atomic is another spirited group encouraging global support for nuclear.
But for some change is hard. Dedication to a core belief, even one based on dodgy information, can be tough to jettison. Make no mistake, it can happen. Many environmentalists who once opposed nuclear have looked at its safety record and its carbon-free generation of electricity and declared it good for mankind.
The “fading” voices of the anti-nuclear movement continue to appear from time-to-time pushing a narrative that has long been eclipsed by new data, new facts and, the best teacher of all, history.
Times change. Technology changes. Global situations change. The ones to lead us through these challenging times are those who factor these changes into their thinking, who check and adjust, and chart the way forward to a better future based this informed perspective. That is not the anti-nuclear movement.
In my position I have an opportunity to speak with various community members who value service through membership in civic groups. From group to group, the questions that frequently come up are “why aren’t we using more nuclear?” and “why don’t we recycle nuclear fuel?” These are forward-looking questions that if answered properly could lead to a cleaner, more energy abundant future.
Anti-nuclear activists are still trying to convince people that spent nuclear fuel is somehow dangerous when properly stored.
“What about the waste?” is an argument that should have been sidelined by the facts but is still front and center for nuclear critics. Spent nuclear fuel has never harmed anyone in the more than 60 years we’ve been creating it in the U.S. And it won’t because we isolate the material from the environment and people. Yet, activists stick to the old narrative, calling it the “most toxic material ever created by humans” and saying it is dangerous to 8.5 million people living within 50 miles of San Onofre. They never point to any instance where this material has harmed anyone, and couldn’t, if asked. We could also quibble with the “most toxic” label—it’s not.
Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm held a news conference in April at the San Onofre spent fuel storage facility, where approximately 1,800 tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored. No one wore special clothing or dosimetry to measure radiation dose. The safety and shielding of the system made it unnecessary. We all gathered safely amidst this “most toxic” material … and were fine.
Yes, the federal government is behind on its obligation to develop a permanent repository for spent fuel, or to come up with an interim solution for storage at some location other than at nuclear plants, but that alone does not mean we don’t know how to safely store spent fuel on site at plants (operating or decommissioned) around the country. The Department of Energy has reinvigorated its efforts on finding a federal solution. Southern California Edison is co-founder of a coalition, Action for Spent Fuel Solutions Now, that seeks to bring community voices together to show elected officials and the federal government that the issue is important and must be addressed, now. We are encouraged by the DOE’s actions.
What about Radiation?
There is a continuation of this unsupported anti-nuclear narrative in Roger Johnson’s piece (published on May 26), which uses radiation as its main mode of fearmongering.
Johnson claims, “every scientist knows that radioactive exposure is cumulative in its effect.” This is simply false and meant to elicit fear. The Environmental Protection Agency says, on average, each of us receives 620 millirem of radiation exposure a year (every year), from both natural and manmade sources, such as medical and dental procedures.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission set the safe level of exposure for a nuclear worker at 5,000 millirem a year. That is about 519,000 times more than the total whole body dose level of the last water batch release in May, which was 0.00964 millirem. To get around that extremely negligible dose level, Johnson focuses on the “cumulative effect” of radiation dose, without really explaining at what dose and over what time period this “cumulative effect” would be damaging, which are the key metrics. Ionizing radiation can damage cells (at high levels) but cells also have repair mechanisms to deal with low levels of radiation. Johnson neglects to mention that part of the science.
SCE has been cooperating with Surfrider on that group’s independent testing of the ocean near San Onofre following a batch release. Surfrider took water samples they have sent to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for analysis. We welcome their review. For our part, we have sampled the ocean off San Onofre for decades. The monthly reports, and annual reports, are available here. In a past blog post, Surfrider wrote that Dr. Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole found the Cesium-137 radioactivity already present in the ocean is generally 20 times higher than what the batch releases contain. Neither level is considered a health concern by regulatory agencies.
Looking at the Science
Johnson’s attempt to create a linkage between cancer and nuclear energy or spent nuclear fuel is also misleading. He states that because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided not to pursue one such study with the National Academy of Sciences in 2015, we’ll never know the effects. He writes, “But no one knows for sure in this country because there has been no research here for over 30 years.”
That’s patently false. The Million Worker Study is one such effort, undertaken by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, to look at the effects of low-level doses on radiation workers from a number of populations, including the nuclear industry and veterans.
Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information point out multiple independent studies have investigated this supposed correlation and found it to be non-existent or impossible to prove, such as COMARE (2011), CANUPIS (Spycher et al. 2011) and RADICON (2013). This 2012 study by the State of Illinois also found no connection between childhood cancers and proximity to nuclear power plants, and the state is home to 11 reactors.
A paper published by another nationally recognized radiation authority stated it clearly. “The Health Physics Society advises against estimating health risks to people from exposures to ionizing radiation that are near or less than natural background levels because statistical uncertainties at these low levels are great.” (Emphasis added).
One can look at sea-level locations that provide 30 millirem of annual cosmic radiation dose and then look at Denver, which has 80 millirem. Cancer rates are lower in Denver than the U.S. average. According to Johnson, they should be higher. However, below an annual dose of 10,000 millirem there does not appear to be an increased risk for cancer due to exposure.
In fact, the National Academy estimates the annual dose to the general public from living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant is 0.009 millirem. You receive more dose from a granite countertop in your kitchen (.5 to 18 millirem a year). How does one ascribe an adverse effect to this miniscule source of dose, but not that one? Reasonable people will understand the futility.
Johnson even misrepresents the legislation recently signed by President Biden, saying it will “finally fund this (NAS) research.” That’s not true. In a Letter to the Editor Johnson sent to the Dana Point Times, an Editor’s Note was included: “Based on a review of the legislation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has only been encouraged by lawmakers to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to carry out the pilot study.”
Times Have Changed
Anti-nuclear activists tend to pick a moment in time and fail to account for any changes, which could entail shifting their views. Johnson references the extremely poor mining practices that took place in the first half of the 20th century and must believe, from his writing, that those practices are exactly the same in 2022. Obviously, they aren’t. Work on extracting uranium from seawater is creating a potential breakthrough in how we get uranium. Times change.
Johnson also ignores the data when he says nuclear energy is “unreliable.” Just a glance at the Energy Information Administration table of capacity factors for 2021 shows nuclear is the most reliable source of electricity, operating 92.7% of the time, the exact opposite of what Johnson claims.
The world now has more than 19,000 reactor years of experience, according to data from the IAEA, adjusted through 2021. The first commercial nuclear reactor launched in the U.S. in 1958. Three Mile Island 20 years later was a wake-up call for industry and regulators, one in which no member of the public was harmed by radiation. We are now 40 years past that event. The Nuclear Navy has an exemplary performance record throughout its operation. The International Panel on Climate Change recognizes the decarbonization benefits of nuclear energy and says it must be part of any climate change solution. Despite decades of safe operation, new data, new technology and deeper scientific understanding, the unsupported arguments of the anti-nuclear lobby have not changed. Those arguments serve an ideology, not the public interest.
John Dobken is public information officer at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station for Southern California Edison. He spent 14 years as a journalist, and has been in the nuclear energy field since 2010.
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