Nuclear Control Institute
1000 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 804
Washington, DC 20036
Dear Mr. Leventhal,
Your letter responding to FRONTLINE's "Nuclear Reaction" program has been passed to me. It occurs to me on reading your piece that you may not have seen the program but instead worked from some press release or other document--you attribute many statements to the program that were not in fact in the program. In case you have not had a chance to see the broadcast program, I am enclosing a script so you can, if you wish, revise your document.
For example, nowhere in the program do we say ordinary people's views are "irrational". Popular views about nuclear energy are certainly mistaken --natural radiation is no different from ordinary radiation, nuclear reactors cannot blow up like bombs, etc., etc. -- but with the poor media coverage and scare mongering by antinuclear advocacy organizations it's hardly surprising. Your contention that past experience of military accidents and errors justifies public fear of civilian nuclear reactors is a bit like saying that accidents in chemical warfare research justifies fear of the chemical industry. It may go some way to explaining why people feel afraid but it obviously doesn't change incorrect views into correct ones (in other words, it doesn't change the laws of physics).
Nowhere in the program were Japanese attitudes to nuclear power mentioned. I certainly would not have argued that Japanese people were better informed than US citizens -- they are, if anything, less informed. The situation is quite different from France where people are extremely knowledgeable compared to Americans. Japan has mismanaged their nuclear program (from a public relations point of view), and the high regard that citizens have traditionally held for their public officials has been eroding since the Kobe earthquake. I expect that nuclear power will continue to expand in Japan because they do not have any energy choices.
The nuclear engineers in the film did say that they thought it very unlikely that there would be a breach of the containment vessel in a US reactor. This was the view of every nuclear engineer I spoke with. If you've seen how containment domes are constructed you will know that they are very strong structures. Nevertheless, these engineers would never deny that there are theoretical, rather improbable, accidents that depend on a whole series of events going wrong together -- so-called "beyond design basis accidents"-- that might conceivably breach containment. Professor Al Reynolds (who appeared in the program) was one of the consultants to the NRC for their NUREG-1150 report published in 1990 (it is that publication, I believe, that you are referring to). According to this report, the likelihood per year of such an accident occurring and killing at least one member of the public (a so-called early fatality) is close to one in a billion.
As to your second point, I am perplexed why you think the fact that the French gave out potassium iodide tablets to citizens is a bad (or revealing) thing. Surely this is very good public health policy. If Ukrainians had had such tablets most of the thyroid cancers would not have occurred. It's a bit like saying that asking people to wear protective glasses in a factory constitutes an admission that factory safety is not up to par.
I find your paragraph on background radiation Vs man-made radiation totally mystifying. While, as you know, there is no direct evidence of a radiation-cancer link below about 10,000 millirems, by convention radiologists and health physicists assume that the dose response curve below this dose is linear. [As you know the Health Physics Society recently changed its view on this. There are also scientists who argue that small amounts of radiation are protective against cancer (hormesis). But no matter.] If we assume (as the National Committee on Radiological Protection and Measurement do) that any additional exposure carries a definite risk then we have a public health duty to uncover either situations where the exposure is large, or situations where the exposure is small but the exposed population is large. For instance, the people living in Denver get two to three times the amount of radiation I get in Boston. If you are arguing that the one hundredth of a millirem a year extra I get from nuclear power matters, then surely the 30 millirems extra someone gets living in Denver matters 3,000 times more. Moving one's home is inconvenient, but checking one's house for radon is easy. What sense does it make for a population to fear tiny emissions from nuclear reactors while ignoring radon radiation in their homes thousands of times higher? Less than 5% of the population have checked their homes for radon. I wonder if you have? Moreover, natural gas contains small amounts of radon. If low levels of radiation are dangerous then logically the radioactivity delivered by natural gas to millions of Americans produces a significant public health risk concern--much larger than that from nuclear power plants. If low levels of radiation were really a genuine public health issue, then emissions from natural gas and coal plants would also attract your interest. But they don't seem to.
The fact that people tolerate voluntary risks more than involuntary ones was elaborated quite strongly in the program. But again this is an issue of perception not reality. Simply thinking you are safer when you drive a car than fly in a plane (flying is not really voluntary in modern America as the distances are so great), will not change the fact that flying is much safer than driving. In much the same way, simply thinking coal is safer than nuclear energy will not change the fact that it carries a much greater health risk.
The death toll we quoted from Chernobyl is the official WHO report. Our web site has details of the scientists conference held on the 10th anniversary of the accident in which all of the data are discussed. These are currently the most reliable figures. (Incidentally, two of those 31 death are believed to be from non-radiation causes). At no stage did the narration say that the mortality and morbidity at Chernobyl was a reasonable price to pay for nuclear energy. It asked whether the accident at Chernobyl was really fundamentally different in scale from other industrial accidents.
I suggest you read the script carefully around the nuclear waste section. At no stage did we say that reprocessing would eliminate a need for a repository or stocking center. Obviously nuclear fission produces fission products. These fission products are very radioactive and need storing. Reprocessing, however, greatly reduces the amount of plutonium--the substance the NCI is most concerned about. Getting rid of plutonium is surely good (a) because it is long-lived and (b) because of possible proliferation dangers. The IFR (which we didn't end up including for time reasons) offers the possibility of more completely dealing with plutonium not only from nuclear reactors but also from nuclear warheads. It also offers the option of fissioning other actinides as well.
I have always been somewhat surprised why the NCI prefers to bury plutonium, which in principle can be dug up and used, rather than consume it in reactors. The Russians, it would seem agree with me, and are anxious that their warheads be used to make energy rather than buried in a graveyard.
If you read the script you will see that the program didn't discuss breeder reactors, made no mention of President Carter and only made passing reference to the US decision not to reprocess. I am not sure why you are "rebutting" something that wasn't there. We avoided the issue of whether or not a terrorist group or rogue state could make a weapon from reactor-grade plutonium. This is a complex issue. Most, but not all, of the nuclear scientists I spoke to thought it was far-fetched. But if you read the script, we didn't debate the issue at all.
Issues of cost were certainly raised in the program. They are not seriously disputed by any parties--certainly not by me. But polls show this is not what concerns people about nuclear energy (they are unaware of this issue for the most part) and the market will certainly take care of itself. Moreover, cost is not a moral issue. A war in the Gulf, a rise in the price of oil, coal and gas could change everything. If nuclear power suddenly became cheap, would this change your views?
I think this addresses your points. If you wish to write again after you have read the script or seen the program I should be pleased to respond.
Reading your letter has confused me as to the NCIs policy regarding nuclear energy. Unlike, say, Public Citizen, I thought the NCI was not opposed to nuclear energy using the once-through fuel cycle? I seem to remember that this was your testimony before Congress in 1993 and 1994. Perhaps it's changed.