Listen to a sane debate about nuclear energy

What happens when you get the chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the chief scientist of Greenpeace, an energy and environmental policy expert, and an environmental activist/politician in a room together to talk about nuclear energy?

You can listen to the whole (very, very interesting) conversation—part of the Science Question Time series—which was recorded last Thursday at the Institute of Physics in London.

I recently started describing my position on nuclear energy as "frienemies"—I'm not strictly against it, and think we're likely to need it, but I also have some serious issues with how safety is regulated and what we will do with the waste. I think this nuanced discussion did a nice job of laying out the benefits and detriments in a reasonable way. The discussion gets heated, but it is pleasantly lacking in the sort of wild-eyed propaganda and not-particularly-comforting-corporate-pronouncements that tend to characterize these sorts of debates. (Or, rather, it would be, were it not for one memorable audience heckler.)

Download the audio file.

Visit the Biochemical Society's website for updates about future Science Question Time events.


  1. Sounds good, I think I’ll fire this up tonight after the family is all tucked in. Thorium discussed I wonder or will I once again draw the conclusion that I am crazy?

    1. Not “crazy” just mislead by nuke propaganda. Thorium nukes don’t exist despite being researched for as long as there have been nuke power plants.

      One of the panellists has also been fooled by the thorium fantasy because she believed Kirk Sorensen, so she will be banging that drum.

  2. Maggie, I totally agree with your unease with nuclear energy. I was in Japan during the quakes (luckily not anywhere near Sendai at the time) and remember how on March 10th 2011 there were plenty of people in Japan who were openly petitioning domestic and foreign production to stop the use of coal-fired production when nuclear power is much cleaner and efficient. I remember checking a student’s composition where I specifically wrote, “You should talk about how many nations fear the use of nuclear energy and explain why they shouldn’t be afraid” if you are able.

    Personally, I think we (especially in the US), need to build new nuclear power plants in the coming years to fulfill our energy needs until we have another energy breakthrough.

    This morning, I was watching the news before heading to work and they were talking about the potential benefits to a hydrogen-based fuel economy, but I have yet to hear of a method of processing hydrogen-based fuel that didn’t require the use of fossil fuels or coal. Hydrogen, at this juncture, appears to be a pipe dream unless a production breakthrough occurs in the next few years.

  3. I unashamedly believe that the one radioactive power source that’s ballpark 93 million miles away showers us with enough energy to not need anything else. Heinlein phrased it as raining soup and us merely needing good enough buckets.

    I had a personally gut wrenching revelation. An example of calculating Ethical Responsibility.  A term to cause nightmares.

    Deaths Per BTUH.

    How many Deaths is that SUV causing per mile compared to a battery powered solar charged car?

    Technology inherently balances risk to life with extensions of life from technological tools. Choose your dangers? Deaths per MILE being on a window sticker might be a Very Good Idea.

    The only *REAL* danger posed by Solar Power is to Kleptocratic Oligarchies  and their entourages of evildoers.  Go Solar and bankrupt the oil industry.

    Solar power can eliminate the need for oil. And the wars fought over it. Simple fact. Oil is a horribly inefficient and dirty time machine for transporting solar energy across millions of years. Same with coal. ”

    Oh- BtW, Wind’s essentially solar power:}

    To be stupidly simple?  Fossil fuels inherently WILL cause more deaths than any non-solar method.

    If you factor wars in ? It’s even more staggering a deaths per BTUH ratio.  Lest we overlook the dirty bomb terrorist” when, not if- risk ” unless our world gets sane first? So fission has some risk factors too insane to condone if we can do better. Can we?

    Oversimplification ad absurdium: The deaths per BTUH calculations are what should determine our course of action.

    Oversimplication can be useful as going  further risks the TL;DR Syndrome. Which is more lethal to ideas than the China Syndrome movie was to perceptions about power plant risks

    1. I agree wholeheartedly.

      Given enough widgets and enough time, every possible failure mode will be experienced. The consequences of the inevitable failures in solar and wind widgets worry me much less than the inevitable failures in the nuclear widgets.

      It seems a no-brainer to me that as we decide on our power infrastructure into the future that we should build power plants that don’t require us to constantly shovel stuff into them, whether that stuff is coal, oil, gas or uranium. Of course, the folks who would like to sell those things might disagree. 

    2. How many people die from skin cancer each year?

      Solar power is great. It just isn’t concentrated or efficient. It IS expensive as hell, and not so great from an environmental side of land use, or when you consider how many solar panels (which you may not be aware are NOT made from fairy dust  and leprechaun tears) would have to be constructed and deployed to actually make up the difference should we go 100%.

      If you think that this is a viable alternative, you’re delusional.

      Yeah about the only energy source on earth that isn’t a net product of solar is nuclear (one could argue geothermal). Heck solar is just nuclear with a severe case of NIMBY!

  4. Man, I haven’t trusted nuclear energy since Arnie Vinick pushed through the license approval for the San Andreas plant.

  5. Realistically, the only way to deal with current nuclear waste is to burn it in molten salt reactors. It’s imperative we implement new nuclear technology to deal with the problems left by old nuclear technology.

    1. I agree completely. As long as it’s still radioactive, it still contains useful energy. If we call it waste, it just means we haven’t learned to use it yet.

  6. I just don’t understand why everybody seems to insist that fast reactors don’t work. On the order of 100 of them have been build. The Russian Alfa submarines ran with fast reactors. The EBR-II ran continuously for over 3 decades – just to give two examples.

    It’s as if everybody agreed that nobody ever landed on the moon.

  7. TThere is no debate.  It’s flatly immoral to risk people’s health and safety against their will. Look at the pictures:

    Chernobyl Children

    Watch the documentaries, and read the supporting documentation. This isn’t theoretical harm.  Radioactivity destroys the lives of populations.  It creates grotesque disfigurements in babies.   And cancers, heart and lung diseases, etc.

    It’s insane that apparently educated people need to “debate” this issue.  The only reason a debate can be had is because of skewed science from the IAEA/UN that covers up the true scale of harm from radiation poisoning.  This should be considered a crime against humanity, not some polite debating society topic.

    These technocrats who have no problem risking other people’s lives seem monstrous to me.  The little Eichmann’s of the atom.  By what right can you poison half of Japan’s people, and Ukraine, and Belarus, and where next?

    1. Show me your credentials you paranoia-laden sod. It’s amazing how many conspiracies you managed to mix into that fevered response. Based on your comment “Radioactivity destroys the lives of populations” I’m going to go ahead and assume you are a simpleton and simpletons understand pictures better than words.

      See that little box? That’s represents the deaths caused by electricity production via nuclear energy. See that big-assed box? That represents the deaths caused by electricity production via coal. See the difference in size? That represents how wrong you are.

      1. As we know, the ‘deaths from nuclear’ stats are spun down, criminally so in my opinion. Also the negative effects of nuclear will be felt for thousands of years.

        I’m interested in the phenomenon whereby people passionately argue for that that could ultimately destroy life on earth, and viciously attack those who raise the clear, sane, obvious arguments.

    2.  You seem to believe there exists a zero-risk option. That is false.

      If you get your energy from fossil-fuels, global warming and air and water pollution will kill millions each year.

      If you get your energy from nuclear sources, nuclear accidents will occasionally kill thousands or tens of thousands.

      If you get your energy from renewable sources, the price will go up and/or it will be intermittently unavailable (at least for the next several decades, long enough for the lifetime of any power plant built today). Higher prices (3-4x higher for solar, maybe 2x or 50% more for wind) mean the cost of all goods and services will rise. Many of the world’s poorest will then be unable to afford the essentials of life- food, water, shelter, medicine, transportation- and thousands or tens of thousands will die.

      If you don’t get your energy from any source, then civilization will come to a screeching halt, and hundreds of millions will die as we cannot provide food and water.

      There are good reasons to prefer renewables to nuclear, and vice versa. But for the foreseeable future, both have risks on the same numerical scale, several orders of magnitude less than fossil fuels or none-of-the-above. Once we’ve eliminated fossil fuels from the world, it might make sense to eliminate nuclear. Not before.

  8. While the debate is indeed interesting I have to say I was expecting a bit more.Why is it that the nuclear energy public debates systematically only have panelists that originate from a scientific background? And before you say, “Because this is a scientific matter that needs to be handle by coldly looking at the facts” Let me give you a few reasons why it’s not.No other debate on technology usage has ever been so controversial. Anyone that comes to terms with the existence of nuclear technology immediately formulates an opinion leaving barely anyone indifferent. As a strategy to pull away from what seems to be a dead end, reasoning has not worked so far and trying to explain people how safe nuclear energy is based on numbers like “Teapot” suggests hasn’t worked. Instead of repeatedly argue about how safe nuclear is or not – We should realize by now this approach is not working and we should perhaps seek other ways of looking into the problem.
    Addressing the question  “why do we have an irrational fear of nuclear?” might be one way.We can find a similar example in transportation. Considerably more people die by road accidents than flying every year. Statistics say the likelihood of getting killed in a car accident is roughly 2000 times higher than by airplane, yet the fear of driving is residual. It is as if we were accepting the one thing that kills us all the time and fear the remote possible death. Well, that is exactly what we are doing, and that is because the opposite would be unbearable. Psychologists point the way: We fear more what we can’t control.  What happens inside a plane 10 thousand 000 ft up in the air is totally out of one’s control. Can’t we establish a direct parallel with nuclear energy here? Even if we know that way more people die because of carbon burning than nuclear aren’t we still considerably more afraid of this last one?
    Like one of the panelists suggests radioactivity is invisible, we can’t see it, we can’t control it. The slow death of coal burning is nothing, even if in larger numbers, compared to the traumatic impact of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tchernobyl, Fukushima… And try to tell people that the bombs and the power plants are not directly related. Let’s forget the technicalities, whenever the word “nuclear” pops out in the news what people envision is the giant mushroom of Hiroshima, not the technical details on how it is different.The nuclear ghost is a part of our society it is a fear that can only be surpassed by a bigger fear. It has kept the world in a suspension state of a possible annihilation for almost four decades. Such is the scope of the issue not the so much the melting temperature of Uranium or the cost of R&D in Renewals. If you bring nuclear into the discussion you need to understand the irrationality that feeds it. Well these panelists have proven that scientists are not the most qualified people to see that.There were some hints at the wider problem – For example when one of them essayed on the matter of international regulation regarding storage and waste handling,and was unfortunately interrupted by the senior nuclear advocate in the room. The first one claimed that #there’s need or a political solution” to solve the radioactive waste issue and there hasn’t been one anywhere. Cashmore, that so rationally kept his temper when the emotional spectator made his appearance towards the beginning of the discussion, replied now visibly altered, saying “that is a lie!” and went ahead to embarrass himself and destroy his credentials as the resident fact-checker and truth holder by claiming that Finland had indeed find a political solution for the problem. He was referring to the Onkalo project, about which i strongly recommend this documentary:
    The claim that a political solution was found with the agreement of the local populations is ludicrous to put it politely: Micahel Madsen that directed this documentary interviews scientists responsible for the project, politicians that made the final decision and the local people of the Onkalo region. The film does not present a stand on the issue, rather it asks questions revolving around the idea of a human made project made for last 100 thousand years.  
    What to think when one sees that top scientists and politicians that took the decision and made it happen are confused by Madsen’s simple questions like: – How do we know someone will not come here in say 10000 years and digg up the place where we don’t want them to?
    – We will put signs. a lot of signs. And the Finish state has a mandate to inform future generations.
    – What if the people that live 10 years from now don’t understand our signs? I mean what if Finland does not exist?
    (the answer is silence)How can a government that changes every four years commit to a project for 100 thousand? How on Earth can we take a parliamentary democracy for granted for one thousand centuries when a country is barely 1 century old?How can the chairman of the UK Atomic energy Authority claim a political solution has been achieved when on the next mandate, or on the next century, or the next millennia the Parliament can overthrow  the decision? Or they can simply… forget it.
    I wonder if Mr. Cashmore knows there are hundreds of artifacts containing inscriptions written literally yesterday by Onkalo time span standards, that we “forgot” how to read?
    100 000 years ago the modern humans were not even around. All history of the world happened in the last 6 to 7 thousand years in the more optimistic interpretation.
    We wouldn’t be able to explain nuclear energy to Ptolemaeus or Copernicus, perhaps not even to Leonardo, the praised genius of our ancestry, how do we expect to be understood in 100 000 years time?
    How narcissistic is that? Both sides of the panel agreed that we need a political commitment. Really? the one class we are constantly suspicious and changing our minds about, now we are just going to trust that? We need more than scientists debating these issues. Scientists have obviously a delusional faith in humanity and are too alienated from what history has taught us. I want Historians, Archaeologists, Anthropologists, Philosophers, to explain these children what one hundred thousand years is and how we actually don’t know how long the radioactive levels of the capsules at Onkalo will stay dangerous to human exposure and how we can’t know for sure the next species will not start digging in the exact same spot unaware of what is there. Ignoring these questions redefines the concept of irresponsibility.

  9. People get too hung up on the battle between whether coal or nuclear is safer.  

    Advocates for Coal tout the risk of radiation from nuclear accidents and our continuing inability to deal with the waste they produce.
    Meanwhile advocates for Nuclear tout the release of radioactive particulate matter and carbon from coal.

    Advocates of Coal talk about the fly ash, particulate, and carbon sequester techniques that are becoming commercially viable.
    Meanwhile advocates of Nuclear talk about recycling spent fuel and using newer fuels that leave less radioactive waste.

    Advocates of Nuclear will spew statistics such as “the radioactive particulates coming out of coal plants cause more cancer than any nuclear accident”, and they’ll talk about climate change impact based on best estimates and incomplete science.
    Advocates of Coal will take that climate change talk and turn it on its head to discuss the effects of nuclear disasters.  The truth is, our understanding of the effects of these disasters is just as incomplete as our understanding of carbon emissions’ effect on climate change.

    It doesn’t matter which is “safer” because neither is safe.

    That isn’t to say we should just up and replace all coal, oil,  and nuclear power plants and cease the research being done to mitigate their problems.  And it CERTAINLY doesn’t mean we should give up on nuclear research.
    But we SHOULD be concentrating the vast majority of our efforts on wind/solar/hydro/geothermal and storage technologies because the sooner we can dump both Uranium and Coal as power sources, the better off we’ll be.

    1. “It doesn’t matter which is “safer” because neither is safe.”

      I agree with you about where we should focus our efforts, but this particular claim is not reasonable. You point out, correctly, that coal/nuclear is not black and white. You then infer, absurdly, that all grays are the same. No, gray has shades, and all those power sources- including renewables- fall on a continuum of risk-per-unit-energy, none of them at zero.

  10. Just look at Paul Fusco’s photos, just look.

    These children are experiencing unimaginable suffering from the effect of the Chernobyl disaster. Are you willing to allow a technology that has this kind of effect?  If you are then in all seriousness your sanity must be questioned. The pro nuclear panelists hide nothing less than genocidal madness behind their hideous superciliousness, and the desire to spin lower the numbers of deaths from Chernobyl is criminal insanity. 

    On top of the horrendous health issues, the environmental issues are staggeringly huge and unsolve-able. We are leaving a deadly toxic legacy for future humanity for thousands of years. And radioactive fallout from chernobyl and now Fukushima has compromised food sources across the globe.

    ” I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.” ~ J. Robert Oppenheimer

  11. I’m not sure how “sane” this debate was, but it was certainly filled with plenty of pro-nuclear propaganda and fantasies.

    The claim that only “50 or 60” people died as a result of Chernobyl is a vile lie. The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates 16,000 total deaths – and that is one of the lower credible estimates.

    Thorium reactors are nothing but a dangerous distraction from the real solutions. Thorium nukes have been researched for 60+ years and failed to deliver. Even if someone builds a working prototype it will be decades before that will result in one commercial reactor, by which time it will be far too late to help mitigate deadly global warming.

    We already have all the renewable energy technology needed and it is already cheaper than nukes – so let’s get on and deploy it to save a liveable climate.

  12. That was a little insane.  Though the ‘heckler’ was way out of line in terms of format, and killed his personal credibility through his actions, he did raise some very important questions that weren’t really adequately addressed.  I mean really, 50 people died at Chernobyl?  That’s a total farce.  The estimation done by the World Health Organization calculated 4,000 civilian deaths.  That figure doesn’t include military efforts of containment or cleanup.  The estimates from various agencies range wildly but have been estimated at 25,000 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and up to 200,000 in an estimate by Greenpeace.  So, 50 deaths?  Like the IAEA has no incentive to minimize the figures. Of course, he used some shifty language, saying that people weren’t killed, they simply had their “life expectancies shortened.”  That’s some scary phrasing.

    We’ve come a long way since Chernobyl, so I don’t even see the reason for denying that anything bad happened there.  We haven’t fully addressed the issue of nuclear waste, and the stagnation of politics surrounding disposal has led to overburdened temporary on-site storage at many nuclear facilities around the world.  These storage methods are incomplete and short-sighted and have led to many concerns in borderline communities.  The closest we have come to a complete long-term storage solution is the idea of sticking nuclear waste in a salt dome in Germany.  But the Germans don’t want it, and don’t trust this million year plan.  The Finnish storage plan is not adequate to store all of the world’s nuclear waste. Proper reverence for the scale of these forces is necessary to frame the debate over nuclear energy, and nuclear waste disposal.  Short term mining death figures cannot compare with the potential dangers of nuclear waste, over the time frame of several thousand years (at least).  Without this respect, the debate will be skewed in favor of a short-term discussion of risk/reward, and will be an incomplete discussion at best.

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