Comments: Knock, Knock! Who's There? Iron!

I'm thinking the safe dose value should be 0. Then again plutonium will be with US for a long time with no escape from its influence.

Posted by Mike Meyer at September 3, 2011 01:04 PM

@Aaron Datesman:

--Plutonium traces have been found outside the Fukushima plant, but only in tiny amounts that are within the normal levels found in Japanese soil before the meltdowns (the residue of atomic bomb explosions.) Tepco is attributing these traces to the Fukushima meltdown, but it’s not clear why. The radioactivity of the plutonium in the soil there is less than 0.1 becquerel per kilogram. (http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/press/corp-com/release/betu11_e/images/110903e11.pdf)
The natural radioactivity of the average human body (maybe 70kg?) is about 7000 Bq, or 100 Bq per kilogram. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Background_radiation#Radiation_inside_the_human_body) So the plutonium contamination from Fukushima, if that is the source, is trivial and will harm no one. I-131 (now decayed away) and cesium (persistent) contaminations are the real things to worry about at Fukushima, and in all meltdowns.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 3, 2011 11:13 PM

@ Aaron Datesman:

--The two central citations for this post, regarding similarities in biological functioning of plutonium and iron, are narrow studies of the mechanism of plutonium uptake and metabolism. They do not seem to call into question established understandings of plutonium’s health effects, nor challenge regulatory limits based on those understandings. To imply that they undermine, rather than simply flesh out, the vast body of scientific work that has been done on plutonium toxicity is misleading. To further imply that nuclear engineers and regulators proceed without regard to scientific findings on plutonium toxicity is also unwarranted. You have adduced no evidence for this except your recollection of information presented verbally to you at a camp excursion fifteen years ago. As we’ve seen elsewhere, such reminiscences can be faulty.

--Getting a handle on the safety of nuclear isotopes is not quite as bewildering a prospect as you suggest. From your NAP source, 48 of the 100 isotopes in a reactor have half-lives of less than one day, including all of the isotopes of ten elements. Taking into account other factors, including the amounts present in reactors, their mobility in the environment and the ease with which they are taken up by living tissue, one can drastically narrow down the number of isotopes that are of real concern, which are I-131, Cs-134 and Cs-137, and to a smaller extent, Sr-90. All of these, as well as plutonium, have been studied exhaustively with special emphasis on their complex behavior and toxicity in living organisms.

--You’ve characterized the radiological metric of the “dose” as a simplistic number that hides complex characteristics and effects of radiation. Your critique, though murky in specifics, is misleading in its insinuations. Actually, the dose takes into account a subtle multi-parametric computation of radiation’s complexities, differentiating between the type and intensity of different forms of radiation, how much and what type of tissue is exposed, etc.; it is quite wrong to say that the dose treats living systems as inanimate and unconnected. Dose estimates then serve as a foundation for extensive investigations of the complexities of radiation effects, probing the differing effects of different doses from different isotopes on different organs and different victims; the literature on the effects of radioactive I-131 on the thyroid gland in children is vast, to take one example. You also suggest that the focus on dosage leads scientists to fixate on just one radiation-linked health problem. Not true. Scientists investigate the effects of acute radiation poisoning as well as radiation-linked cancer, cardio-pulmonary disease, immune disorders, cataract, birth defects, etc. To the extent that generalizations are imposed, like the assumption that effects of low-dose radiation are linearly proportional to those at higher dosage, they generally err on the side of caution in exaggerating the harms of radiation. Wikipedia gives a serviceable introduction to the complexities of radiation dose computations here and in included links: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiation_dose_equivalent)

--The thrust of your post is that scientists do--and can--know little about the health effects of plutonium and other radioactive isotopes, and that there is therefore no adequate basis for setting safety regulations for these substances. This is quite a wrong-headed characterization of radiation science, and one that’s unwarranted by the evidence you’ve presented. It is disappointing that a piece about the complexity of radiation has reduced the huge and multi-faceted field of radiation science to a one-dimensional caricature. I hope readers will reject this kind of obscurantism and learn more about radiation and its effects.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 3, 2011 11:15 PM

Will Boisvert:

First of all, I have a feeling the first rule of teh sciencez is never to assume that something has ever been studied exhaustively, Second, do you want to make-out? Unless you just really have it bad for Aaron, which would be okay.

Posted by Amanda Rex at September 4, 2011 01:23 AM

Oh, and I will definitely be pursuing more understanding on the effects of radiation through the multiple Wikipedia articles you've linked on the subject.

Posted by Amanda Rex at September 4, 2011 02:16 AM

Will: Your expertise is suspicious. You need to convince us that you're not shilling for nuclear power.

I keep a wide open mind about this issue. But I have no expertise in the matter. I believe there are tradeoffs and I am disappointed that Aaron won't address them. But he voiced incredulity about the disinterested nature of your comments and I share his concern. Maybe you're a Monbiot type figure with perfectly honorable intentions. Or maybe not. Please don't misinterpret my comment. But you sound like a pro and it might be good for us to know if you have skin in the game.

Amanda: I replied to you earlier but the satanic blog demon wouldn't post my comment. Nothing to do with Schwarz. Just the technology getting in the way. Probably too much plutonium on the line.

Posted by bobs at September 4, 2011 02:26 AM

For those who can't get into the science, check out the economics:

http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nuclear_subsidies_report.pdf

Posted by Amanda Rex at September 4, 2011 03:46 AM

Will Boisvert: Valence Works.

Posted by Mike Meyer at September 4, 2011 12:37 PM

Will Boisvert - I have to agree with Aaron about the weakness of a single measure, "dose", to represent alpha, beta, gamma, etc., radiation in a single number, as if they were equivalent, or to suggest that radiometric dose is independent of the biochemistry of the isotope in question.

The attempt to correct for biological effects in the Sievert is certainly multi-parametric, but I'd hardly call it subtle. It's incapable of, for example, accounting for the simple fact that Aaron pointed out above, that some elements are more likely to be absorbed by certain tissue types. It's unable to account for the risk of I-131 to the thyroid, for example, because it simply ignores the chemical properties of the element. So I think you're being rather unfair to Aaron, who is pointing out a legitimate weakness of the current paradigm for representing the danger of radiation.

Posted by saurabh at September 4, 2011 12:49 PM

@saurabh,

Indeed, there are aspects of radiology that can’t be captured simply by reading a dosimeter. (Actually, the dose does rather well at differentiating between alpha, beta and gamma radiation, and errs on the side of caution anyway.) For example, isotopes like I-131 accumulate in the thyroid and pose a special risk to children; others like Sr-90 and plutonium can accumulate in bone and stay there for years, which makes them perhaps more dangerous, atom for atom, than isotopes that quickly flush out of the body. (In plutonium’s case, this is more than counterbalanced by the low propensity of the body to absorb it and by it’s extreme scarcity during meltdowns, which is why plutonium is a negligible factor in the Fukushima incident.) Radiation scientists have been investigating the complexities of how radio-isotopes interact with living creatures for decades, and their findings inform nuclear regulations. (That’s why, for example, it’s standard operating procedure to dole out Iodine pills and ban milk-drinking in a radiological emergency--to protect children’s thyroids from I-131.)

So, maybe I should have said that the greater problem with Aaron’s piece is that it wrongly implies that the “dose” is the only thing that radiation scientists and regulators look at, and that they ignore all health effects of radiation except (I’m guessing) cancer. That’s a serious misrepresentation of the field.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 4, 2011 04:06 PM

@Amanda Rex:

The Union of Concerned Scientists report you link to, on government subsidies to nuclear power is rife with distortions. It’s author, Doug Koplow estimates the subsidies at anywhere from 8 to 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s way out of line with other estimates. Take a look at this 2008, report from the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency, which puts nuclear subsidies at $1.59 per megawatt-hour (0.16 cents per kilolatt-hour.) (http://www.eia.gov/energy_in_brief/energy_subsidies.cfm)
It lists subsidies to wind and solar at $23.37 and $24.34 per Mwh, about 15 times higher than nuclear’s subsidies per unit of energy produced. A 2010 update of that report put nuclear subsidies at $3.14 per mwh (0.314 cents per kwh), vs. $56 per mwh for wind. (http://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/2011/08/03/eia-releases-new-subsidy-report-subsidies-for-renewables-increase-186-percent/)

--Like all energy sources, nukes get subsidies. Nowadays, they are mostly targeted at new builds. The main ones are:

1) About $20 billion in currently authorized federal loan guarantees. Note that that’s the amount of the loans that are guaranteed, not an amount the government is loaning out. The government will only pay out if the company running the nuke goes bankrupt before paying back the loans. (The value to the utility is that it can borrow at lower interest rates.) Meanwhile, the government does collect hefty loan insurance fees upfront, which are meant to cover losses if any of the loan guarantees do need to be paid off. So it’s a “subsidy” that will in all likelihood be a net money-maker for the feds.

2) For a period of 8 years after start-up, the first six gigawatts of new nukes get a production tax credit of about 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour. Existing nukes don’t get it.

Renewables get both of these subsidies, and more besides.

--Here are a few of the distortions in the UCS nuclear subsidies report:

1) In assessing the value of the loan guarantees, Koplow uses not the estimated cost of the loan guarantees to the government, which he puts at $5.2 billion, but the estimated value to the borrowers, which he estimates at $23-34 billion dollars over 30 years. That lets him inflate the size of the subsidy seven-fold from about 0.37 cents per kwh to 2.5-3.7 cents per kwh. (p. 35, e.g.)

2) Koplow reckons construction-work-in-progress (CWIP) financing, under which a utility charges the construction costs of a nuclear plant to rate-payers as they are incurred, as a subsidy. (pp. 37-9) He puts the value of CWIP, which lets a utility pay construction costs without paying interest on borrowed money, at up to 0.97 cents per kwh. But this “subsidy” involves no taxpayer dollars. CWIP is nothing more than a utility charging its customers on a pay-as-you-go basis to build generating capacity that the customers will then use. It’s used for all manner of projects, including wind farms and solar plants.

3) My favorite distortion, a small but entertaining one, is in section 7.2.1.1, “Break-even operation of repository.” (pp. 97-8) This concerns the permanent waste-disposal facility that was to be built at Yucca but is now in doubt because of political opposition. That facility is financed by a 0.1 cent per kwh fee on nuclear power generation; tens of bilions of unspent dollars have accumulated in the trust fund to pay for it. So here’s Koplow’s reasoning regarding it. Suppose the Feds open a Nulear Waste Facility, building it and running it on the proceeds of the 0.1 cent per kwh tax on nuclear power, and then run it on a break-even basis. Well, those tax proceeds are all technically government money, right? And the government has sunk those billions into running a NWF, as prescribed by law. But wait—the money the government sank into that NWF would be earning interest or dividends if invested in the financial markets, yet the government isn’t earning a dime on the NWF. Therefore the government is foregoing income on the money it is spending on the NWF—maybe 5.12% per year--that it could earn if it just played the markets with that money. Ergo, that foregone income is a subsidy to the nuclear industry that the government doles out simply by using the taxes it gets from the industry for the purpose of run a NWF—the very purpose for which they were collected. (He reckons the subsidy at 0.08 to 0.15 cents per kwh.) Brilliant reasoning.

Amanda Rex, I urge you and everyone to go through the Koplow report with a fine-toothed comb. There’s a lot of bizarre stuff in there.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 4, 2011 04:25 PM

Will, I'm afraid you've missed the point about your "favorite distortion." The issue is NOT that the government is passing up an opportunity to invest in the markets. The issue is that, if the nuclear providers were charged with handling waste themselves they WOULD adjust their pricing structure to provide an ROI on invested capital for waste facilities. By not doing that, i.e., by not increasing the fee it charges providers beyond the break-even level, the government in effect subsidizes them. This has nothing to do with playing the markets. Nuclear energy providers would have to charge their customers more if waste management was their responsibility, even with the fee removed. That's point 1. Point 2 is why this is indeed a subsidy. And that has to do with risk. Nuclear waste treatment is a process over thousands of years involving huge industrial, social, and political uncertainty. That's called risk, and risk must be priced into any investment. Just as nuclear energy providers would if they had to take care of that themselves. By not doing so, the government is socializing the risk by taking it away from the private profit-making entity.

So I guess that answers my question to you: Are you an expert? The answer is no. And so I hereby absolve you of any suspicion that you flack for nuke power.

Posted by bobs at September 4, 2011 06:29 PM


@Will Boisvert

"Actually, the dose takes into account a subtle multi-parametric computation of radiation’s complexities, differentiating between the type and intensity of different forms of radiation..."

That statement strikes me as upon first reading as seeming much more complex than it probably is, and with a bit of haughty superiority in its tone to boot. This is an argumentative technique that I dislike, perhaps because I think it is commonly used to persuade people that they should just think what they are already inclined to think, because figuring out if that's wrong would be way too hard. And sometimes it would, but not generally in those instances where someone tries to make it seem so.

Because Aaron is such a straight shooter and in my view a pretty rigorous thinker, I trust him even though I don't often know enough to have a very good idea whether he's right. He doesn't usually even claim to know answers, which I like, but my sense of your comments is that they are a little conclusory and a bit obscure, with the ample use of technical and scientific jargon to impress instead of illuminate, generally with the goal of making people think questions like those Aaron raises aren't serious questions. Maybe that perception on my part is the result of a strong bias in favor of questioning, but I have a lot of experience slowly and even tediously penetrating scientific language that feels like your style of language to me, and my experience has been that people using that style often aren't saying nearly as much as they would like you to think.

Or maybe you're just showing off, which I respect more and can forgive.

Posted by N E at September 4, 2011 09:18 PM

@Will -

If we didn't previously have knowledge about uptake and metabolism, how could we make knowledgeable judgments of safety? This particular piece of science by ANL/NU researchers has only been possible for a few years. If you're aware that similar data exists for other radioisotopes, please share the references.

I am a trained scientist, and am entitled not to be impressed with glorious descriptions about how smart scientists are. Please stop. The truth is, we know generally only what we pay scientists to know about.

Regarding many of your other points, I stand by the opinions I've expressed many times about the dose model and its underpinnings. You believe they are solid, I believe they are very, very shaky. Have you read BEIR VII?

Going back to the last post, I'd also like to respond to a point you raised, echoed by @bobs. My opinion: the choice is not between COAL KILLS XXX and NUKES KILL YYY. This is a very incomplete view of the issue.

The fact is, IF YOU BELIEVE EITHER OF THESE THINGS, THEN ENERGY EFFICIENCY IS THE OBVIOUS AND ONLY GOOD ANSWER. Change building codes. Pay for weatherization. Build transit. This is perfectly obvious, although I think it's not widely understood that we could go very, very far simply by being more careful.

(Now, it is also my opinion that renewables could go quite far and very quickly if we spent on them in the style of the Apollo program. Read, for instance, the Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study, EWITS, or the 20% by 2030 report. We made changes on the same scale with nuclear, up to 20% from zero between around 1960-1980.)

Appreciate the comments. Also, Will - I wish I believed that scientists are as smart, curious, honest, and multidisciplinary as you believe. But I have known scientists - very many, very good ones - and have never observed this.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at September 5, 2011 12:26 PM

A man I once knew was killed by a horse. He was shoeing the animal, it spooked and stompped him to the point he was hospitalized. But horses are energy efficient, natural, easily biodegradible, and can be eaten if desired. Still horse can kill someone. Although a horse's fumes may dismay a person, they don't kill nor is proximity to a horse dangerous to DNA. ALL energy endevors involve risk BUT a rotting horse doesn't last 1000 years or need a lead liner to protect the local environment. One kick to the head, one dose of horse energy, may well kill a man OR that horse may have to jump up and down on a man to kill him, as in the case of my aquaintance's untimely demise. One kill is usually all a horse gets in a lifetime, nothing close to 1,000,000 lives downwind. Usually a horse kills quickly, death isn't a long term lingering affair. Horses are naturally occuring on planet earth, whereas plutonium isn't.
I'm not against using radiant energy to do work, after all I build a fire most everyday for some sort of use/s, but I don't burn down the neighborhood to cook a can of beans or stay warm. I see that Texas is burning down with wild fires. Next year though, it'll all grow back and be green and safe, can't say the same for Fukashema or Chernobyl.

Posted by Mike Meyer at September 5, 2011 03:55 PM

@ bobs:

You’re right, the issue is not that the government is passing up an opportunity to invest in the markets. But that sure is how Koplow talks about the taxpayer-funded NWF--as if we should expect it to generate market-rate returns: “This results in lower prices for waste management services than should apply because there is no return on investment to reward the providers of capital (i.e., taxpayers) for putting so much money at risk for so long.” (Note that the “taxpayers” he’s talking about are the nuclear utitlites who pay the tax that builds and runs the NWF.) And this: “The core reality is that operating the repository as a tax-free entity requiring no return on capital has the effect of reducing the price to the nuclear sector for dealing with its wastes.”

But you’re right, he also discusses the counterfactual: what if the nuclear utilitites were to voluntarily build and run their own private NWF? Then I suppose its true that internal corporate bean counters might expect a 5% or more return on investment (although they might simply account it a cost center rather than a profit center). But I still don’t see how this implies a government subsidy. Remember, the nukes are providing all the capital for the NWF in the first place; by paying the tax to the government, the nuclear utilities are already foregoing the ROI they could have gotten had they not paid the tax and instead invested that money in something else. The expense of the NWF is therefore already incorporated into their pricing structure, foregone ROI and all.

Here’s how weird Koplow’s reasoning is. Suppose that a town taxes a group of homeowners to put in a new sewer line, raising $1 million dollars. That $1 million builds the sewer line with enough left over to fund its maintenance indefinitely. Then the town council says to the homeowners, “You know, the normal return on investment for $1 million is 5% a year. If we had invested the $1 million we raised from you guys at 5% a year instead of building the sewer line, we would be making $50,000 a year off of it. Or, conversely, if you had had to raise the $ 1 million per year on the capital markets to build your own sewer line, the markets would have demanded 5% a year ROI. Or, if you’d taken the $ 1 million out of your own savings, your spouses would have complained that you were foregoing ROI on that money, and you would have had to pay them 5% in diamonds or golf clubs to keep them happy. So, any way you look at it, by taxing you folks to build that sewer line, we’re subsidizing you to the tune of $50,000 a year. So we should really add an extra fee on to your tax bill to cover that subsidy!” I’m not sure most people would find that reasoning compelling.

Are nuclear utilities saving money by off-loading waste-management onto the Feds? I’m not sure about that. Because the Feds never built the NWF that they are taxing nukes to build, nuclear facilities are currently bearing the full cost of maintaining the nuclear waste in long-term dry cask storage, in addition to the tax for the federal NWF. So far they’re doing it pretty well—not a single fatal accident involving nuclear waste in the U.S. in over 50 years of operation. All these costs, the federal NWF tax, the current costs of waste storage, etc.--and of course the foregone ROIs from these expenses--are already accounted in nuclear’s pricing structure. You insist that “Nuclear energy providers would have to charge their customers more if waste management was their responsibility, even with the fee removed.” I’m afraid I just don’t understand that conclusion.

As far as the government socializing the risk of nuclear waste, it looks to me like it’s doing the opposite. So far, the government is charging the nuclear industry what by any reasonable calculation is the full price of dealing with its waste (while not actually building the NWF.) If the costs turn out to be higher than anticipated, what is to stop the government from charging more? This is in contrast to many other industries, for example the coal and natural gas industry, which bears no charge for lethal air pollution and the toxic waste, including unregulated nuclear waste in uranium and thorium residues and radon gas, that it regularly discharges into the environment.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 5, 2011 04:08 PM

@Aaron Datesman:

“If we didn't previously have knowledge about uptake and metabolism, how could we make knowledgeable judgments of safety?”

--It’s straightforward to do empirical studies of toxicity without knowing the exact biological mechanisms. Scientists have done such studies with plutonium and other radioisotopes ever since they were discovered. For example, you can feed plutonium to lab animals and observe the health effects. Or you can do studies of workers in plutonium factories, like this one. (http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/160/2/163.full) Studies like this can tell you what kinds of illnesses, with what frequency and at what dosage, can result from exposure to radioisotopes, and therefore can serve as a sound basis for regulatory estimates.

Further studies that elucidate the specific mechanisms of toxicity are very useful, but they don’t necessarily revise previous empirical estimates of toxic effects. The two studies on plutonium and iron that you reference are like that. They uncover new wrinkles in plutonium’s mechanism of action, but they don’t in any way challenge previous empirical studies and regulatory guidelines. Scientists and regulators have understood since plutonium was discovered that it was seriously toxic. The studies you reference do not suggest that plutonium is more toxic than previously estimated; all they do is tell us a little bit more about how and why its toxic effects occur.

Scientists are sinners like all of us. But before we accept your conclusion that radiation scientists are venal fools, and dismiss the field of radiology as a swamp of ignorance and deception, could we have some evidence beyond your own personal opinion? Something we could check?

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 5, 2011 04:10 PM

@Aaron Datesman:

--Re the dose model. I have read your previous posts—past the comment deadline, unfortunately--on the alleged excessive toxicity of low doses of radiation, including your treatment of statistical mechanics and your posts on infant mortality after Three Mile Island and Fukushima. I have grave doubts about all of these posts; they all mistake random statistical flukes for significant correlations, using very misleading methodologies. We can revisit these issues if there is interest and the comment deadline permits. I accept the consensus Linear Non-Threshold dose model for the purposes of calculation, but here is a lot of interesting evidence that this model overstates, rather than understates, radiation risks at low dose.

--I have indeed read BEIR-VII, the National Academy of Science report on the health effects of radiation. Here’s a precis for anyone interested (http://dels-old.nas.edu/dels/rpt_briefs/beir_vii_final.pdf). Some interesting quotes from p. 3: “At doses of 100 mSv or less, statistical limitations make it difficult to evaluate cancer risk in humans”—that is, cancer risks from low-dose radiation are so low they cannot be empirically detected by epidemiological studies. And this: “However, there is no direct evidence of increased risk of non-cancer diseases at low doses, and data are inadequate to quantify this risk if it exists.”

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 5, 2011 04:12 PM

@ Aaron Datesman:

--I support conservation efforts. But given the drastic need in the Third World to consume more, rather than less energy, and the billions of new people from population increase, and the political difficulty of austerity measures, we cannot conserve our way to sustainability. There’s no getting around the fact that world will need stupendous new supplies of energy, hopefully clean energy. In this regard, I note that France managed to almost completely decarbonize its electricity grid in just twenty years using nuclear power; their electricity is now about 80% nuclear, the balance being mainly hydro and—yay!—a few percent wind. This is by far the best decarbonization performance of any energy technology. Renewables can make a dent in the problem of greenhouse gases. Nuclear wins the war.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 5, 2011 04:14 PM

So, Will, does this mean you don't want to make-out?

Posted by Amanda Rex at September 5, 2011 05:08 PM

@ bobs and Amanda Rex,

Here’s my larger problem with the UCS-Koplow report on nuclear subsidies. If you go through it, you find at every turn that Koplow estimates subsidies not by the actual outlays of the government, but by their (often inflated) imputed value to the recipients. So it’s not how much cash the government is actually doling out to the nuclear industry that counts, but how much money the industry would otherwise pay without the alleged subsidy, an amount that’s always hugely larger than the actual government outlay. That’s how he arrives at subsidy estimates that are way higher than other sources.

But I feel that Koplow’s is a very odd, and I think bogus, way of accounting government subsidies. What if we applied it to fire departments and homeowners? A fire department accountant could argue that, if there were no fire department, homeowners’ fire insurance rates would double. Therefore, the money homeowners save on their insurance is a subsidy provided by the fire department to homeowners, regardless of the fact that homeowners are already fully funding the fire department through their property taxes. Does that make sense to you? It sure would to Koplow.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 5, 2011 06:11 PM

I am not sure that we conclusively know the full set of radioactive items that come into existence after plutonium is exposed to fusion.

Many radioactive particles come into being only some time after the event - let's say some three months later for one nineteenth of a nano second, item "Fdbx" comes into existence.

But how can a scientist, even the one who discovers the hypothetical Fdbx, actually be able to know what effect this item would have on the developping fetus of a human? Or the seed development and release of an important food crop? Or on its effect on cancerous tumnors already established inside a certain percent of humans that are going to experience this new readioactive element?

So since we humans have only had the ability to "play" with radioactivity for little over a hundred years, I am willing to venture that we don't yet know the full scope.

A person can say that one half of all the DISCOVERED items that are radioactive items come about within X amount of time, with such and such half times.

But this is a new genie released from a relatively new bottle, and I don't think that our top science people (Einstein, Feinman, Hawking) would be so willing to credit the human race for having so much knowledge of such a new playing field.

Posted by Elise Mattu at September 5, 2011 06:15 PM

Will Boisvert; NO NWF exists. No matter what the investment or who pays said investment, no such animal exists, the investment fund is therefore someone's slush fund. Count ALL the beans ya like, nuclear waste ends up laying around the parking lots of the powerplants themselves. No REAL safety or security in the present situation, NO real future viable plans for anything different. YOUR entire arguement rests on investment in something that doesn't exist and looking at past history to extropolate the possibility of some future facility, NEVER WILL EXIST.

Posted by Mike Meyer at September 5, 2011 06:22 PM

Thank you for the information about plutonium mimic-ing the element iron, in terms of the mammalian response to plutonium.

I am not sure that we conclusively know the full set of radioactive
items that come into existence after plutonium is exposed to fusion.

Many radioactive particles come into being only some time after
the event - let's say some three months later for one nineteenth of a nano second, radioactive particle "Fdbx" comes into existence.

But how can a scientist, even the one who discovers the hypothetical particle "Fdbx," actually be able to know what effect this item would have on the developping
fetus of a human? Or on the seed development and release of an important food crop? Or on
its effect on cancerous tumnors already established inside a certain percent of
humans that are going to experience this new readioactive element?

So since we humans have only had the ability to "play" with
radioactivity for little over a hundred years, I am willing to venture that we don't yet
know the full scope.

A person can say that one half of all the DISCOVERED items
that are radioactive items come about within X amount of time, with such and such half times.

But this is a new genie released from a relatively new bottle,
and I don't think that our top science people (Einstein, Feinman, Hawking) would be so
willing to credit the human race for having so much knowledge of such a new playing field.

Posted by elise mattu at September 5, 2011 06:24 PM

Thank you for the information about plutonium mimic-ing the element iron, in terms of the mammalian response to plutonium.

I am not sure that we conclusively know the full set of radioactive
items that come into existence after plutonium is exposed to fusion.

Many radioactive particles come into being only some time after
the event - let's say some three months later for one nineteenth of a nano second, radioactive particle "Fdbx" comes into existence.

But how can a scientist, even the one who discovers the hypothetical particle "Fdbx," actually be able to know what effect this item would have on the developping
fetus of a human? Or on the seed development and release of an important food crop? Or on
its effect on cancerous tumnors already established inside a certain percent of
humans that are going to experience this new readioactive element?

So since we humans have only had the ability to "play" with
radioactivity for little over a hundred years, I am willing to venture that we don't yet
know the full scope.

A person can say that one half of all the DISCOVERED items
that are radioactive items come about within X amount of time, with such and such half times.

But this is a new genie released from a relatively new bottle,
and I don't think that our top science people (Einstein, Feinman, Hawking) would be so
willing to credit the human race for having so much knowledge of such a new playing field.

Posted by Elise Mattu at September 5, 2011 06:26 PM

Thank you for the information about plutonium mimic-ing the element iron, in terms of the mammalian response to plutonium.

I am not sure that we conclusively know the full set of radioactive
items that come into existence after plutonium is exposed to fusion.

Many radioactive particles come into being only some time after
the event - let's say some three months later for one nineteenth of a nano second, radioactive particle "Fdbx" comes into existence.

But how can a scientist, even the one who discovers the hypothetical particle "Fdbx," actually be able to know what effect this item would have on the developping
fetus of a human? Or on the seed development and release of an important food crop? Or on
its effect on cancerous tumnors already established inside a certain percent of
humans that are going to experience this new readioactive element?

So since we humans have only had the ability to "play" with
radioactivity for little over a hundred years, I am willing to venture that we don't yet
know the full scope.

A person can say that one half of all the DISCOVERED items
that are radioactive items come about within X amount of time, with such and such half times.

But this is a new genie released from a relatively new bottle,
and I don't think that our top science people (Einstein, Feinman, Hawking) would be so
willing to credit the human race for having so much knowledge of such a new playing field.

Posted by Elise Mattu at September 5, 2011 06:26 PM

bobs:

Knock, knock!

Posted by Amanda Rex at September 5, 2011 07:58 PM

Hey, how's about that nuclear debris problem from when the plant wears out or degrades from neutron errosion and everything all the way to the chainlink fence around the facility IS hot???

Posted by Mike Meyer at September 5, 2011 09:12 PM

Will: Not exactly! (Sorry, NE, I'll send you a check for copyrights violations.) Unlike a fire station or a sewer system, an NWF handles a problem that will still have to be handled long after all nuclear energy companies have vanished from the earth. That's a long time and lots of thing can happen between now and eternity: for example, Larry Summers might become our dictator and decide that all that nuclear waste should be dumped in South Central LA. At a huge cost to the taxpayer (and probably others, too). Or political pressure might result in not building the thing in the first place. So the government might stand to make a short term profit for a much bigger delayed cost. No one knows. And that's why if the providers were in charge of waste they would have to pay extra insurance costs and ensure healthy ROIs as a premium for risk. Investors would demand higher interest rates.

All of that because an NWF comes with uncertainty -- big and long -- and economics has a way of pricing such items differently from run-of-the-mill goods like fire stations. So a break-even deal is a subsidy for the providers.

Posted by bobs at September 5, 2011 10:26 PM

Will -
Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't one of the arguments against going nuclear to 'decarbonize' that mining, transport, and refining are all highly carbon intensive (aside from the start up costs which solar and wind would also incur)? Do you factor this in to your calculations of the success of the French energy sector?

Posted by Robert Mailhot at September 6, 2011 01:18 AM

Amanda –

I know little about nuclear energy, but quite a bit about horses. If Will spurns you, and I elaborate eloquently, perhaps...

Posted by Tony C. at September 6, 2011 08:29 AM

Amanda –

I know little about nuclear energy, but quite a bit about horses. If Will spurns you, and I elaborate eloquently, perhaps...

Posted by Tony C. at September 6, 2011 08:29 AM

@ bobs

On ROI subsidy on the NWF:

--Note that in the section we’ve been discussing, Koplow assumes for the sake of argument that the NWF is accurately priced to handle the waste in perpetuity, and will do so. His estimate of extra insurance costs to cover the uncertainty associated with the future disposition of waste is in adjacent sections. The particular “subsidy” Koplow is discussing here is just about foregoing ROI on capital, not extra risk premium; he estimates the “subsidy” for the latter separately.

--On the risk premium: I suppose it’s conceivable that the government might decide to do bizarre things with the waste and with the NWF tax money it has collected. For now, it’s true, the Feds have not actually built the thing because of political opposition, in violation of the law. But wouldn’t these problems be a case of the Feds and the political process actually imposing extraneous, irrational costs on the process of handling waste, rather than subsidizing its disposal?

--After an NWF is built, filled, and sealed off under hundreds of feet of solid rock with the waste in inert vitrification inside reinforced concrete casks, is it really such an imponderable risk that unlimited insurance premiums are required?

--Again, I’m just not seeing the subsidy here. The nuclear industry is paying fees up front to build an NWF and fund its maintenance in perpetuity, and foregoing whatever ROI it could have earned on those fees. In addition, because the NWF has not yet been built, the nuclear industry is also paying for long-term storage of the NWF on site and in intermediate facilities, again foregoing ROI on those costs as well, which do indeed include insurance. As far as I can see, the nuclear industry is paying every conceivable cost and risk premium on the waste, twice over. In fact, I can’t think of any other industry that actually does fully control and pay for the disposal of its waste the way nuclear utilities do, even other industries that dump millions of tons of toxic and radioactive waste every year, like the coal industry. Can you?

--You sidestepped my point about Koplow’s general method of estimating subsidies by their imputed value to recipients, rather than the actual government outlay. Do you feel that a fire department should be regarded as paying a subsidy to homeowners’ fire-insurance premiums? If not, how do you feel about Koplow’s analyzing nuclear subsidies in that way? (Note that he does that with every subsidy, not just those associated with risk.)

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 6, 2011 10:50 AM


@ Robert Mailhot,

You’re right, life-cycle carbon emissions have to be taken into account. Wikipedia has a good summary of life-cycle studies for various energy sources, with links, here: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparisons_of_life-cycle_greenhouse_gas_emissions). The studies vary widely, but nuclear’s life-cycle emissions are not far from those of wind and solar, and way below coal and gas. Some numbers from the studies wiki cites, in grams CO2 per kwh, for nuclear: 66, 11, 130, 40, 3.3, 60-65. For wind: 10, 11, 37, 10, 20. For solar pv: 106, 70. Coal and gas are in the 400-800 range.

Relatively easy reductions in nuclear’s life-cycle emissions could be made by running energy-intensive enrichment plants off of nuclear electricity.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 6, 2011 10:55 AM

Will Boisvert - "Studies like this can tell you what kinds of illnesses, with what frequency and at what dosage, can result from exposure to radioisotopes, and therefore can serve as a sound basis for regulatory estimates."

No, this is horseshit. Studies like this can tell you what kinds of illnesses, with what frequency, and at what dosage can result in the population you studied. Doing a study on radiation workers and then pretending that that somehow informs you about how those same radioisotopes are going to behave in the environment at large (e.g., what's likely to happen if they get into the air, water or food supply) is shit science. Which, unfortunately, is the kind of science that gets done all the time for all manner of environmental safety concerns, nuclear or otherwise. Let's NOT pretend that we have perfect knowledge, or anywhere close.

Posted by saurabh at September 6, 2011 11:54 AM

"But it might be that we just don't know enough about enough to justify making safety judgments at all"

Wouldn't it be nice if radiation was the only place that applied!

But alas, it is not.

Researchers have recently found out how important microbes are to human genetics.

Think of what pollution (including radiation) does to microbes, and therefore potentially to our genetic realm.

Posted by Dredd at September 6, 2011 11:56 AM

Tony, you're so kind!

Posted by Amanda Rex at September 6, 2011 01:35 PM

@ saurabh;

The study I referenced looked specifically at the inhalation of plutonium dust by workers and its effect on lung cancer rates. I believe its findings are indeed germane to the question of the toxicity of airborne plutonium particles to the general adult population. There are other empirical studies that estimate the toxicity of plutonium ingested in food and water, which is considered less of a threat because very little plutonium is absorbed by the gut; almost all of it passes out through the colon. Interested readers can see the Wikipedia article on plutonium for links to studies and reports on plutonium toxicity.

You’re right that “perfect knowledge” of radioisotopes, or any substance, is unattainable--but that doesn’t necessarily imply that we can’t make meaningful risk assessments. After all, people accept that flying in airplanes is pretty safe, even though we don’t have “perfect knowledge” of everything that can go wrong with them (and they do sometimes crash). Radiology is a big field that looks at a multiplicity of isotopes, illnesses and populations from many different angles, so before we dismiss it all as “shit science” let’s at least make an effort to see what it really can tell us about radiation risks.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 6, 2011 02:32 PM

@ bobs

You write “An NWF comes with uncertainty—big and long—and economics has a way of pricing such items differently from run-of-the-mill goods like fire stations. So a break-even deal is a subsidy for the providers.”

Actually, economics doesn’t have any way of pricing “big and long” uncertainties, certainly not on the time-scale of centuries. Markets always ignore those risks as externalities—they are simply dumped on outsiders, including generations yet unborn. Take, for example, the mercury emitted by coal plants, the major source of mercury that accumulates in fish and the food chain. It is a neurotoxin that causes measurable harm to people all over the world. And it’s here to stay in the food chain for eons—it won’t even decay away like plutonium will. But coal-fired utilities don’t pay any price at all to cover payouts to possible future victims of mercury poisoning. That’s also true of the mercury in compact fluorescent light bulbs, or the toxic metals in solar panels. Right now they seem to be a tiny risk, but centuries from now maybe they will have leached into the water supply and we will suddenly find out that they are a lot more toxic than we thought they were. (After all, this post is all about how little we know about toxicity, right?) Should we require that compact fluorescent light-bulb makers and solar farms take out insurance policies to cover these potentially unlimited liabilities, or that the risk should be priced into the ROI that investors demand from them? If not, then is the government, which will have to deal with these harms if they materialize centuries from now, subsidizing these industries?

The nuclear industry is unique in the extent to which it is required to internalize such risks rather than externalizing them—to take responsibility for its waste and make financial provision for it centuries ahead of time. That’s quite the opposite of a subsidy—it’s a (rightly) imposed burden, priced by the state in the only possible way it can be: through scientific risk assessment.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 6, 2011 02:39 PM

Amanda –

I'm wondering whether your have tried anything other than symptom relievers for your allergies? That may seem like an odd question – and it unquestionably comes from out of the blue – but I have a recommendation that has benefitted quite a few of my friends if you are interested. If so, it's probably best that you can contact me through my website.

Posted by Tony C. at September 6, 2011 06:00 PM

Will: you're confusing risk and externalities. The latter address the issue of responsibility for unaccounted costs. Risk is about uncertainty. There is no externality issue here. By law, the taxpayer is contractually obligated to handle nuclear waste. This, I assume, must be fairly unique in the energy business. Break-even pricing doesn't factor in risk, so that's in effect a subsidy.

Posted by bobs at September 6, 2011 07:02 PM

@Will:
After reviewing the Wikipedia article you cite (admittedly, using just my smart phone), the conclusion you draw on carbon emissions doesn't seem wholly warranted. Is there a reason you buy into the Vattenfall study over the others? At best, it would appear the jury is still out on this question. I'd also be curious to see the cumulative risk to workers over the lifespan of these different power sources.

Posted by Robert Mailhot at September 6, 2011 08:15 PM

Will is by far the most impressive internet troll I've come across. And thanks, Tony! I take it you've seen my Twitter ramblings.

Posted by Amanda Rex at September 6, 2011 08:36 PM

@ Robert Mailhot

I'm not sure what "conclusion" you are referring to here. I did not "buy into" the Vattenfall study; I listed all the numbers cited by the wiki article, Vattenfall and others; readers can judge for themselves which ones they like. The point is, all the studies show dramatically lower life-cycle carbon emissions for nuclear than for fossil fuels. It might help to see that if you use a bigger screen.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 6, 2011 09:23 PM

@will
It's not the size of my screen. Your initial response to me indicated that nuclear's carbon footprint is ' not far' from that of the renewables. Yet according to the Sovacool study, nuclear's footprint is more than 6 times that of wind, and more than 5 times that of solar. Yes, it is still well below fossil fuels, I grant you that - but not necessarily all that close to the renewables, depending on which study you go with.
The Oxford study gives a broad range of figures that the authors place between biomass and natural gas, and presumably worse than wind (i don't see solar listed here), and then note that nuclear's emissions will grow as the high quality ore is depleted.

Posted by Robert Mailhot at September 6, 2011 10:05 PM

will
I realize I'm picking and choosing the studies that contradict your position. Had you said that nuclear's emissions were arguably close to or better than the renewables, I wouldn't quibble. Please take more care to state your position more accurately if you don't want to be questioned.

Posted by Robert Mailhot at September 6, 2011 10:15 PM

@ bobs

You're looking at the wrong section of the Koplow report. As I wrote above, I'm referring to section 7.2.1.1, headed "Break-even operation of repository: no return on invested capital." In that section he assumes that the NWF is accurately priced, that there are no costs for unanticipated risks, like clean-up costs or payouts to victims, etc., that have not already been priced into the budget. That essentially assumes no financial risk to the operation. (That's why it's "break-even;" if risks materialized that imposed costs over budget, it would be money-losing, not break-even.) Under those conditions of no unbudgeted risk, he still estimates a subsidy based solely on ROI, that is, the costs nuclear utilities would pay for having capital tied up in the NWF if they ran it themselves, as opposed to using the capital for other profit-making opportunities. In section 7.2.1.1, he strictly isolates subsidy to ROI; none of that subsidy comes from risk. So 7.2.1.1 is the subsidy portion I was objecting to. It's in section 7.2.1.2, headed "underestimating the cost of the repository" that he treats the subsidy arising from the nationalization of risk. That's a completely separate subsidy, arising from the risk of costs over budget from extra clean-up costs, liability, etc.

The only reason other energy sources don't have similar arrangements is that they are allowed to treat their long-term waste as an externality--they dump it in the temporal commons. There is no reason not to insist that coal plants sequester their mercury emissions for millions of years; it just isn't done for political reasons, not reasons of risk or health. Of course, since no private entity can plausibly undertake to be around to exercise such regulatory responsibility for millenia, except maybe the Catholic Church, any such mercury repository would of necessity have to be a government facility, because the government doesn’t trust anyone to be around that long. So the fact that the government assumes control over such repositories is a logical necessity of the politically-imposed regulatory time-horizon; it has nothing to do with costs associated with risks.

Again, bear in mind that nuclear utilities are not now using the federal NWF, because it doesn't exist. They run long-term storage themselves right now, bearing all the risk-associated costs out of current revenue. By now the costs and risks are readily calculable after fifty years of experience. So there is no reason I can see why the industry couldn’t use NWF fees to fund a trust in perpetuity to store the waste. The notion that investors today will demand a risk premium for potential liabilities that may or may not materialize a thousand years in the future is absurd. Markets simply do not recognize such conjectures as risk; they dismiss them as temporal externalities.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 6, 2011 10:36 PM

NO matter the size of the trust fund, the waste ends up in a parking lot near YOU. Perhaps YOU can talk some Injuns out there on the rez to hold onto ALL that nuclear waste for the next 50,000 years. They were here at least 10,000 before US and the nukes. Maybe they can be talked into some kind of agreement or surety contract.

Posted by Mike Meyer at September 7, 2011 12:55 AM

@Robert Mailhot,

Again, not sure what you’re getting at here. The Sovacool study is just one of many cited by the wiki article. Of the sources cited, 2 give nuclear life-cycle emissions in g CO2 per kwh of 3.3 and 11, while others give higher values of 40, 60-66 and 130. I reported all these values in my original comment. Wiki cites studies that give values for wind of from 10 to 37, as I reported, and for solar from 32 (oops, I overlooked that one originally) to 106. I also noted accurately that the wiki article lists gas and coal values ranging from roughly 400-800, because the original question (I thought) was about how nuclear life-cycle emissions stacked up against fossil fuels. I did not endorse any of these values, I simply noted that the ranges wiki cites for nuclear, solar and wind are “not far” from each other, and indeed the ranges quoted in wiki have substantial overlap. I correctly reported values in my original comment, and represented the article accurately. Now you write, “Had you said that nuclear's emissions were arguably close to or better than the renewables, I wouldn't quibble.” That’s pretty much exactly what I did say, except that I didn’t say nuclear’s emissions were better than renewables, and I left out the word “arguably.” I think you’re trying to stir up a controversy that just doesn’t exist, Robert.

Folks, its easy for commenters on a thread to incorrectly interpret each others’ statements. So I urge other readers not to take either my own or Robert Mailhot’s representations as gospel, but to check out the wiki article and judge for yourselves. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparisons_of_life-cycle_greenhouse_gas_emissions).

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 7, 2011 11:45 AM

@Robert Mailhot,

Oops, I also overlooked the Sovacool entry for solar thermal at 13 g CO2 per kwh, in my original comment I only mentioned solar PV; and the 9 g for offshore wind. Apologies.

Still, the life-cycle carbon emissions ranges for nuclear given in the wiki article are 3.3 to 130; for wind 9 to 37; and for solar, both thermal and PV, 13 to 106. As I said, these studies vary widely, and both low and high figures have been criticized; interested readers should delve into them. But taken together, the picture they give is that life-cycle carbon emissions for nuclear and renewables are roughly comparable and drastically lower than for fossil fuels.

By the way, do you know whether these studies factor into wind and solar life-cycle emissions the use of fossil-fuel backup during periods of calm, night and cloud? If not, that might change the picture considerably.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 7, 2011 12:32 PM

Well done, Will. You've more than proven yourself capable of reproducing large amounts of readily available information.

Posted by Amanda Rex at September 7, 2011 01:13 PM

If we could collectively agree that our beloved troll has fashioned himself a new alias by way of Robert Mailhot, then maybe we can agree to stop feeding him new information to dispute with arguments formed from his findings on Wikipedia.

Posted by Amanda Rex at September 7, 2011 02:35 PM

We've been spoiled by commentators who want to discuss viable answers/solutions to problems and learn new ways to approach the same old problems, and it's made us vulnerable to attention-seeking statistics nerds. I say, ignore him, baby.

Posted by Amanda Rex at September 7, 2011 02:44 PM

Will writes: >> So there is no reason I can see why the industry couldn’t use NWF fees to fund a trust in perpetuity to store the waste.

Hmm, let's see... oh, maybe because the current pricing scheme does not provide for ROIs, and as the author remarks, "The DOE's own assessments of fee adequacy note that funding for the entire enterprise between 2046 and 2133 will be dependent on investment earnings, given that it assumes the last fee payments from utilities will arrive in 2046."

Maybe the author is right. Or maybe he's wrong. But his economic argument (the "big and long") is both logical and plausible. Your attempts to portray his argument as idiotic reeks of bad faith. I don't do "bad faith," so I am done with this thread. You can have the last word.

Posted by bobs at September 7, 2011 07:01 PM

I reckon it is time to go back to nature and get totally in tune with the earth and the inner energy. The modern way has not worked well and we need another solution.

Posted by Tony at September 7, 2011 10:38 PM

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Posted by gjfytbddnb at September 8, 2011 12:14 PM

jorjhujozsfwpmvujpo, zfzrzasjcz

Posted by gjfytbddnb at September 8, 2011 12:17 PM

jorjhujozsfwpmvujpo, zfzrzasjcz

Posted by gjfytbddnb at September 8, 2011 12:18 PM

Re: @Will Boisvert's Sept 5 post, I agree with this:

It’s straightforward to do empirical studies of toxicity without knowing the exact biological mechanisms.

That's why, when I find information like this, I conclude that our estimates of harm are very likely very wrong. It would seem that low dose exposures caused 60,000 excess deaths in Tula over the 15 years following Chernobyl. Why experiment on rats when we already are experimenting on humans?

The Pu study cited seems to link one health outcome (lung cancer) to one indicator (dose). It applies for one population for one method of intake utilizing a number of models for exposure and dose. It's stretching the science quite far to conclude from this that Pu is not very harmful. I'm willing to consider that inhaled plutonium appears not to increase the risk of lung cancer very much, although I'd want to look at the study in greater depth.

However, I have a secret to share: wearing a dosimeter has a very beneficial effect regarding one's awareness of safety. A little girl playing in a sandbox is more vulnerable and much less aware than adult workers in a manufacturing facility. So I'm generally skeptical of health studies which focus on nuclear facilities.

This is beside the point, however. Our bodies evolved to obtain nutrients from the environment in the chemical context in which they were available. For instance, we can absorb iron more easily by eating spinach leaves than by swallowing pellets of iron. Because plutonium is chemically very similar to iron, then, I think it's very reasonable to ask whether spinach can take up plutonium from contaminated soil.

And what happens to me if I eat that spinach? Or if I drink water containing particles of plutonium? Perhaps in combination with a mineral to which the plutonium binds? The location in my cells to which the plutonium is delivered depends completely on the context in which it entered my body.

I do not believe that a study about lung cancer risks due to inhalation provides any insight whatsoever regarding these questions. I also don't believe that there's a team of scientists out there anywhere farming spinach on a plot of contaminated ground in order to answer them.

Finally, the only scientist whose venality I can speak to authoritatively is my own: and I am very, very venal. But venality is not the operative mechanism. It's worse than that - it's grades. If a student wants to get an A in a class on radiation health physics, she had better do the problems in the book about calculating doses, and answer the exam questions accordingly.

Then, a few years later, when that student is working in industrial hygiene, the dose model will be the first tool in her intellectual toolbox. It's not venality; it's simply culture.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at September 8, 2011 12:34 PM

@ bobs,

“The DOE’s own assessments of fee adequacy note that funding for the entire enterprise between 2046 and 2133 will be dependent on investment earnings, given that it assumes the last fee payments from utilities will arrive in 2046.”

--Right, the NWF’s ongoing maintenance would be funded indefinitely by a trust fund, which is also funded by the proceeds of the fee currently paid by nuclear utilities. It would work like an endowment. (The fees stop in 2046 because eventually the nuclear plants paying them for the current inventory of waste close.) The author is here speculating that the returns on the endowment for the NWF won’t be big enough to fund maintenance, and that extra costs will have to be paid from general revenue. That’s conceivable, though I think it unlikely (see below).

--But, again, I’m talking about the subsidy specified in section 7.2.1.1, “Break-even operation of Repository: No Return on Invested Capital.” (pp. 97-8; The above quote is not from that section.) Section 7.2.1.1 explicitly assumes that the fees are indeed adequate to fund the NWF in perpetuity. Koplow says that right in his calculation of the subsidy: “Even assuming all cost estimates for the repository are correct, nuclear plants would need to charge an extra $700 million to $1.2 billion per year, equal to roughly 0.08 to 0.15 cents/kWh.” He assumes that so he can isolate the part of the subsidy that comes just from return on investment, independent of the separate part of the subsidy that comes from the government assuming risk on cost overruns, as in the above quote. In other words, Section 7.2.1.1 is about the opportunity cost of putting capital into the NWF as opposed to other more lucrative investments that could be made with the money. That’s the “capital risk” he’s talking about in 7.2.1.1, the risk that you could discover a more lucrative investment opportunity that you now can’t pursue because you put your money in the NWF. He says exactly that; that the fee the government should charge to reflect ROI should be “set to reflect the scarcity value and opportunity cost of the resources being consumed.” That “opportunity cost” is different from the risk of cost overruns and liability that he discusses separately in section 7.2.1.2 and in the quote above, and for which he calculates an entirely independent part of the subsidy. So Koplow breaks the NWF subsidy into independent parts; it’s the ROI part in section 7.2.1.1 that I originally disputed, not the cost overrun and liability risk part in section 7.2.1.2, which is a different issue.

--The reason I disputed Koplow’s alleged ROI subsidy described in 7.2.1.1 is that nuclear utilities are already bearing all the “opportunity cost” of investing capital in the NWF—because it is their money that’s being used to fund it, through the NWF fee they have to pay. The government isn’t shielding them from foregoing ROI on money they would have to invest in an NWF; they are already foregoing all that ROI, because the money has been taken from them by the NWF fee.

--But then, you’re right, there’s the entirely separate question, from section 7.2.1.2, of the subsidy that stems from the government’s assumption of responsibility for possible cost overruns and liability risk related to maintaining an NWF for thousands of years. Would nuclear utilities be charged a high risk premium by investors and insurers for doing that on their own, without the government assuming responsibility? Conceivably yes, but probably not. Remember, nukes have been handling their own waste storage safely for 50 years now. Risks and costs on that time-horizon are readily calculable and known to be modest, and nukes are already including them in their price structure. What about the unknown risks and costs on the time-horizon of centuries and millenia? Well, incalculable risks are just that—incalculable; markets don’t recognize or price such risks. (My own opinion, from the merits, is that they would be minuscule.) Nuclear utilities would just guess at an amount of insurance that seems reasonable and affordable to them to cover such risks--probably close to zero--buy it and move on. And investors wouldn’t care; no investor is going to demand a risk premium—an increased ROI--to cover the possibility that a thousand years from now lawsuits over waste seepage will bankrupt the nuclear utility he is investing in. Any such costs are ignored as temporal externalities. So any current subsidy to the nuclear industry from the government assuming the risk of eons-long responsibility for waste is almost certainly tiny to nil.

--And there’s the larger issue of Koplow’s general method of inflating subsidies by assessing their imputed value to recipients rather than actual government outlays. That still seems bogus to me. By that standard, a fire-department is providing a subsidy to homeowners by lowering their fire-insurance rates, which would be higher if there were no fire department—even if homeowners are fully funding the fire department through property taxes. Does it make sense to think of subsidies that way?

--I’m sorry if all this strikes you as “bad-faith” argument, bobs. I really do mean these criticisms sincerely; I’ve worked hard to justify them and respond to your objections. Other interested readers—anybody there?—can read the UCS nuclear subsidies report and judge for themselves:
http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nuclear_subsidies_report.pdf)

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 8, 2011 12:45 PM

@ Amanda Rex,

Robert Mailhot is most definitely not me. I think you owe him an apology for insinuating otherwise.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 8, 2011 12:58 PM

@Aaron Datesman;

--The link you provided to the Tula study doesn’t work. Could you supply the web address?

--The plutonium study I referenced carefully distinguished between whole-body exposure from external radiation caused by plutonium, and the specific dose delivered to the lung by inhaled plutonium. It was therefore making precisely the fine-grained analysis of specific radio-isotope, specific organ and tissue, specific pathway of exposure and specific health outcome that you claim radiologists do not make. It was most certainly not relying on an undifferentiated concept of dose.

--“I also don’t believe that there’s a team of scientists out there anywhere farming spinach on a plot of contaminated ground in order to answer them.” Aaron, try this. Go to Pubmed, the online biomedical research database, and search for “plutonium spinach.” Slim pickings, but you will get one study, which looks at, among other things, plutonium uptake in leafy vegetables on contaminated plots of ground. (The abstract doesn’t say “spinach”, just “vegetables” but I presume spinach is in the text; no access to an academic library so I can’t check.)

--Now search on Pubmed for “plutonium vegetable” and you’ll get 23 studies. Among them are “Retention and translocation of foliar applied 239, 240 Pu…into bean plants,” “The uptake of radionuclies by beans, squash, and corn growing in contaminated alluvial soils at Los Alamos National Laboratory,” which includes discussion of Pu; “Atmospheric deposition, resuspension, and root uptake of Pu in corn and other grain-producing agroecosystems near a nuclear fuel facility,” “The gastrointestinal absorption of ‘biologically incorporate’ Pu-239 in the rat,” “The uptake of Pu-238, 239, 240…into potatoes,” “The speciation of plutonium in foodstuffs and its influence on gut uptake” “Plutonium contents of broadleaf vegetable crops grown near a nuclear fuel chemical separations facility,” “Phytate may influence the absorption of plutonium from food materials,” “Absorption, transport, and chemical fate of plutonium in soybean plants,” and “The relative uptake of 237 Pu (IV) and Pu (VI) oxidation states from water by bush beans.” Now search “plutonium food” and you’ll get 175 entries. “Plutonium ‘drinking water’” gets you 24 studies. “Plutonium cancer” has 502 studies, “plutonium cardiovascular” has 29 studies; “plutonium children” has 58 studies, and “plutonium children soil” gets you 8 studies. “Plutonium human uptake” gets you 53 studies, “Plutonium human metabolism” gets you 409 studies, and plain old “plutonium metabolism” gets you 1,211 studies. “Radionuclide metabolism” gets you 164,175 entries. Have you read any of these studies? If not, what’s your rationale for claiming that radiation scientists are not investigating the details of human uptake of radionuclides from food and water and soil?

--Aaron, you’re casting false aspersions, based on no evidence at all, on an academic field that you haven’t even bothered to look into, just because its findings clash with your own ideological commitments. That’s exactly what global warming deniers do when they dismiss the entire field of climatology as corrupt and biased without ever bothering to engage with the scientific findings. Is that how you folks roll on this blog?

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 8, 2011 03:50 PM

Will Boisvert: Thanx for the links, STILL all the studies in the world won't make plutonium the safe and natural food additive WE all need and could surely learn to love, after a while. One atom of plutonium or ANY isotope thereof IS one hell of a lot more then I care to ingest. How's about YOU?

Posted by Mike Meyer at September 8, 2011 06:24 PM

@Amanda rex
No, I'm not WBoisvert - No apology required, though given the relative lack of time and energy spent between us on our particular corner of this discussion, I'm a little taken aback that you'd accuse me of trolling. Sorry if I stepped on anyone's toes.

Posted by Robert Mailhot at September 9, 2011 04:08 AM

@Mike Meyer,

You almost certainly have already eaten or inhaled some plutonium. It’s everywhere in tiny trace quantities, thanks to atmospheric atomic testing in the 1940s-1960s, which vaporized tons of plutonium and distributed it around the world. A bit of it is on everyone’s lawn. The radiation you get from the plutonium inside of you is hundreds of times less than what you get from the naturally-occuring potassium-40 that is inside of everyone and constantly irradiating your innards, so the plutonium poses no risk.

People are terrified of plutonium, but it’s actually far down the list of radio-isotopes you need to worry about. Meltdowns spew vanishingly tiny quantities of it, and it is not absorbed very readily by the body. Some Pu isotopes decay within decades, other have half-lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of years; the ones with long half-lives are actually less dangerous, because they don’t emit much radiation in a given period of time. (Remember, the longer the half-life, the less radioactive an isotope is.)

Really, folks, you are not going to die from plutonium in your spinach. There are much more serious risks to fret about, like fluoride in your drinking water.

Posted by Will Boisvert at September 9, 2011 11:48 AM

Will Boisvert: I'm not in the least consoled by YOUR arguement, in fact its gonna give me nightmares. Perhaps trying a different tack?

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