FRONTLINE VS. THE FACTS
A Rebuttal of PBS Frontline's
Nuclear Control Institute
April 25, 1997
NCI/Frontline home page
"Nuclear Reaction," which was aired April 22 on Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) "Frontline," presented a grossly inaccurate picture of the safety, security and viability of the nuclear power industry. Producer Jon Palfreman and guest correspondent Richard Rhodes attempted to show that the demise of nuclear power in the United States is due to the public's irrational fears of radiation.
In fact, nuclear power's demise is attributable to the industry's poor energy economics, its inability to solve the nuclear waste problem, its determination to use bomb-usable plutonium as fuel despite obvious proliferation and terrorism risks, and the public's legitimate safety concerns following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. "Nuclear Reaction" ignores, glosses over, or inaccurately portrays each of these issues.
Public Concerns About Nuclear Power
Frontline: Public fear of nuclear power is irrational "risk perception." Nuclear experts conduct methodical "risk analysis" and conclude that nuclear power is safe.
Response: This claim is arrogant and elitist. There is a substantial basis for the public's fears. Environmental devastation has been inflicted for the last 50 years upon dozens of the Department of Energy sites involved in the U.S. nuclear weapons program, posing potentially large threats to nearby communities. Over fifty million gallons of intensively radioactive, potentially explosive, high-level radioactive waste at the Hanford Reservation in Washington state provide stark evidence of what happens when these problems are left to the "experts." Plans to reprocess spent fuel to extract plutonium only compound the nuclear waste problem. Moreover, nuclear experts' "risk analyses" usually ignore the crucial difference between voluntary and involuntary risk. The public has virtually no say in nuclear power development and its hazards, and so is less willing to accept the involuntary risks associated with things nuclear than the voluntary risks that they choose to take in everyday life, like driving or flying.
Frontline: In France and Japan, citizens better understand the issues, and thus nuclear power has widespread public support.
Response: France and Japan provide their citizens far less access to a free flow of information about, and even less of a voice in, their nuclear power programs than in the United States. But even in these nuclear closed societies, support for nuclear power in general, and plutonium recycling in particular, has begun to slip in the wake of recurrent safety problems at the plutonium-fueled Superphenix fast breeder reactor in France, and serious accidents at the Monju breeder and Tokai reprocessing plant in Japan. Particularly in Japan, high officials of the government-run plutonium corporation are now being demoted and are facing criminal prosecution because of deliberate concealment and distortion of the evidence of accidents, such as filing of false reports and doctoring of videotapes. Public support based on distortions and lies is undeserved.
Nuclear Power Safety Risks
Frontline: Even in the worst case, a nuclear meltdown would not release any radiation outside the containment building.
Response: This is simply untrue. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recognizes the possibility of so-called "beyond-design-basis" ("Class 9") accidents in which steam or hydrogen explosions caused by molten fuel interacting with water could rupture the containment building and cause large radiation releases. Also, France's standardized nuclear plant design, praised by Frontline, is vulnerable to "common mode failures." A serious accident caused by a design defect in one plant could force a shutdown of all other plants of the same type and leave France with a greatly reduced capacity to generate three-quarters of its electricity. The French nuclear industry's recent large-scale distribution of potassium iodide tablets to populations around its nuclear plants---a means to reduce thyroid-cancer risk in the event of a large radiation release---went unreported by Frontline but indicates that France's confidence in its own "fail-safe" safety measures is somewhat less than total.
Frontline: Nuclear power does not pose a radiation health threat to the public because it creates far less exposure than such natural "background" sources as cosmic rays and radon.
Response: The question is not how much background radiation exists, or how much higher it is than normal nuclear power plant emissions, but how dangerous is the additional man-made exposure above background. There is a scientific consensus, reflected in international radiation guidelines, that the danger from low-level radiation is linear: each additional exposure creates a proportionally increased risk of cancer, and small increases in risk to individuals can accumulate to large increases for the total population. Frontline's logical fallacy should be obvious: the fact that indoor radon and cosmic radiation can be dangerous does not mean that nuclear-power-related radiation is not. In fact, by causing exposures above those already caused by radon and other background sources, nuclear power does put the general population at greater risk.
Frontline: Nuclear-power opponents overstate the impact of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Only 31 people died. Some children got thyroid cancer, but it's curable. Even the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings resulted in only a slight increase in long- term cancer risk.
Response: The official Soviet figure of 31 deaths from Chernobyl, more propaganda than science, is universally rejected as far too low. It reflects only short-term deaths from acute radiation poisoning. More recent and realistic assessments suggest that long-term fatalities will number in the tens of thousands. Richard Rhodes should have taken Frontline's camera to Belarus to record the large number of radiation-induced illnesses that are in evidence there. What he would have found is that, as of April 1996, 680 cases of thyroid cancer have been confirmed in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia since the Chernobyl accident, and the number of new cases has risen annually. In some regions of Belarus, the incidence of thyroid cancer in children has increased by a factor of 200 since the accident. Experts on the scene have observed that the type of cancers being seen are "unusually aggressive, often with prominent local invasion and distant metasteses ... this has made the treatment of these children less successful than expected ..." However, even if the cancers prove "curable," it is highly offensive to suggest, as Rhodes does, that the suffering and expense involved in the treatment of thousands of children is a reasonable price to pay for the "benefits" of nuclear power. Similarly, Frontline dismisses the increased cancer incidence among survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki as insignificant. Yet, the 500 additional cancer fatalities among survivors of the atomic bombings still represent a six percent increase over what would normally be expected.
Frontline: Plutonium is not "the most toxic substance known to man." A piece of paper can stop its radiation, and ingesting small amounts poses little danger.
Response: Plutonium is highly carcinogenic, and debates about whether it is the most carcinogenic or toxic man-made substance miss the point. It is surely among the deadliest, on a par with the military nerve gas, sarin. The greatest health risk from plutonium is not external exposure, but inhalation. Deposited in the lungs, even a few micrograms (millionths of a gram) of plutonium are sufficient to cause cancer. The nuclear-power industry in Europe and Japan processes plutonium by the ton. How can a sheet of paper stop a microscopic plutonium particle from irradiating lung tissue? Ingesting plutonium is also dangerous because lethal quantities will migrate to bone marrow and cause cancer. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible. Perhaps that is why Professor Bernard Cohen did not offer on Frontline, as he has done in past public appearances, to drink plutonium to prove it is safe. Someone might actually take him up on his offer.
Frontline: Unlike the United States, most nations that utilize nuclear power reprocess their spent fuel and recycle plutonium. Examples include France and Japan.
Response: To the contrary, most nuclear-industrial nations have abandoned plans for spent-fuel reprocessing, plutonium recycling, and breeder reactors. Even France and Japan, two of the few remaining plutonium stalwarts, have put their breeder reactor programs on hold, and are slowing down their reprocessing programs. Britain, the other principal purveyor of plutonium, has cancelled its breeder and has no domestic plutonium program to speak of, because only one of its power-plants is suitable for using MOX fuel. The introduction of plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in conventional light-water reactors is proceeding very slowly.
Frontline: Recycling plutonium eliminates its long-term hazards, whereas spent fuel perpetuates the risk for hundreds of thousands of years.
Response: Recycling plutonium does not "burn it up" or even reduce it significantly. Only about one-third of the plutonium in a MOX fuel element is fissioned when irradiated in a conventional nuclear reactor. And plutonium cannot be reprocessed and recycled indefinitely until eliminated: after three or four cycles (and perhaps only after one or two cycles), the plutonium is too degraded to be re-used. Eventually, even with large-scale plutonium recycling, large amounts of plutonium will remain in spent fuel, and that spent fuel will have to be placed in a repository. So, Frontline's suggestion that reprocessing and recycling eliminate the need for a waste repository is fallacious.
Frontline: Plutonium recycling would eliminate the need for a permanent geological repository for nuclear waste. Instead, scientists in a high-tech underground "nuclear waste laboratory" would use new technologies to transmute plutonium and other waste into less harmful substances.
Response: As noted above, recycling does not eliminate plutonium in spent fuel, or even the need for a permanent spent- fuel repository. Eventually, spent MOX fuel, like standard, spent low-enriched uranium fuel, will require permanent disposal in a repository. "Transmutation" remains a pipe dream that looks less promising the more it is studied. Even if it is ever proven successful, transmutation would require thousands of years and hundreds of reactor cycles, and still would not eliminate all plutonium and other actinides.
Frontline: The Carter Administration took the United States off the plutonium recycle path in the 1970s based on irrational "concerns that plutonium would end up in the wrong hands."
Response: Plutonium proliferation and terrorism risks cannot be dismissed so quickly. Less than 15 pounds of plutonium-- -about the size of an orange---is enough to build a nuclear bomb that could destroy a city. A group of former U.S. nuclear weapons designers, in a study for the Nuclear Control Institute, concluded that terrorists would be capable of building such a bomb using reactor-grade plutonium of the sort separated out by commercial reprocessing plants. Further, it is technically impossible to safeguard plutonium bulk-handling facilities, such as spent-fuel reprocessing and MOX fuel-fabrication plants, that process plutonium by the ton. Unavoidable measurement uncertainty means that knowledgeable insiders could beat the accounting system and remove significant quantities from the plants, perhaps via the unsafeguarded low-level waste stream. [For detailed analysis of these proliferation risks, see studies by Paul Leventhal and Marvin Miller, and the plutonium section on our "What's New" page.]
Why Is the Nuclear Power Industry in Trouble?
Frontline: Irrational public fears have strangled a clean source of limitless electricity.
Response: Nuclear power has been done in by its inability to compete economically with other sources of electricity---a situation that will become even more apparent in the United States as the electricity market is deregulated. Plutonium fuels are even less competitive---MOX fuel costs about four to eight times more than standard, low-enriched uranium fuel. Reprocessing, far from solving the waste problem, creates much more waste than that contained in spent fuel (including the reprocessing plant itself and all waste it produces), and puts nuclear waste into a less manageable form than spent fuel.
The producers of "Nuclear Reaction" ignored or distorted the most significant problems of nuclear power and plutonium recycle--- safety hazards, proliferation risks, and an inability to compete economically despite billions of dollars in federal subsidies. These problems disprove their main thesis that irrational fear is what threatens nuclear power in the United States. Public fear and rejection of nuclear power are not only rational but sensible.
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