Monday, March 28, 2011

Nuclear Power and climate change mitigation: the new Lysenkoism?

Remember our discussions about climategate and 'hiding the decline'? Remember our debates about Lysenkoism in this context? And how climate scientists lost the trust of the public? Now it's time to discuss a real nuclear-gate and  'hiding the fall-out' (or the potentiality of a fall-out). Is civil use of nuclear power just another Lysenkoism? How will nuclear science ever be able to regain the trust of the public?

Just look at the best of our nuclear scientists staring fascinated at Fukushima and the unpredictable series of events in the remainders of the power plant. Against their will, Fukushima and Japan turned into just another open air laboratory and a real life experiment. Remember, Japan already once served well to study the effects of nuclear power. What makes us separate the civic use of nuclear energy from its Siamese twin, the nuclear bomb? What makes us believe that nuclear power is a means to mitigate climate change? Is this indeed a valid opportunity, or is there a huge brainwashing machine at work?

I think it's necessary to understand this tragic nuclear catastrophe also as a challenge to re-evaluate our arguments. We have to compare what my skeptical friends call 'eco-dictatorship' with what my no-nukes friends call 'Atomstaat' (nuclear dictatorship) or what the sociologist Ulrich Beck calls 'risk society'. We have to compare the prize we have to pay; the prize Japanese people already have to pay (without ever being asked). Currently, no scientist in this world is able to reassure them that they are and that they will be safe.  Again: how will nuclear science ever be able to regain the trust of the public?
addendum: Andrew Revkin on has a great collection of articles and opinions which hit a similar tone.  He collects some interesting remarks about what might happen when scientific knowledge meets different organizational cultures, such as in Japan. When Andrew Revkin visited in 1995 the reactors at the Indian Point nuclear power complex 50 miles north of Manhattan, he wrote:

'Robert Pollard, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, which focuses on energy and environmental issues, said that valves, cables and wiring at the plant and others like it have never been tested under conditions simulating emergencies. “If the public understood the risk from Indian Point, they wouldn’t tolerate it,” he said. “Instead they get fed this pabulum of cultural something-or-other that puts everyone to sleep.” (...) If a new religion is being practiced by the 900 employees of Indian Point 3, then the 215-foot-tall concrete and steel dome encasing the reactor and related equipment is their cathedral.'

Here again the definition of Lysenkoism according to wikipedia:
Lysenkoism is used colloquially to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives.


Anonymous said...

@ Werner

"how will nuclear science ever be able to regain the trust of the public"

Hard to tell when you read this...

Counting on evolutionary adaptation to radiation maybe ...


Roddy said...

Werner - great subject.

You describe Fukushima as a 'tragic nuclear catastrophe' which would usually imply substantial loss of human life or health, which has not yet occurred in Japan, which perhaps begs the question in part?

I found it interesting to re-read the Chernobyl Forum material after Fukushima, as the best 'real life experiment' (as you put it) that we have. The best catch-all document is this one imho, , and the most distilled Press Release is this one,

The overall conclusion is that there was no health catastrophe caused by radiation. There was however a human catastrophe caused by resettlement, economic effects on the high-risk c. 600,000, psychological effects such as fear and dread, assumptions that any ailment was radiation caused, and so on. So the scale of the catastrophe in Japan, assuming it doesn't turn into a direct radiation catastrophe, will depend substantially on the government response and the psychological effects, at least according to the Chernobyl Forum experience and recommendations.

It's interesting stuff - at its baldest there was no absolute nuclear reason it had to be a catastrophe, it was the human response in all its forms that made it so.

eduardo said...

Well, it seems that there are some reports around, mainly from official UN or UN_related agencies, similar to the IPCC reports on climate change. And I must say that I am surprised by what I am reading.

Quoting from this report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomatic Radiation:

"Among the residents of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, there had been up to the year 2005 more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases can be expected during the next decades. Notwithstanding the influence of enhanced screening regimes, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to the shorter time expected between exposure and its occurrence compared with solid cancers, does not appear to be elevated. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure."

Werner Krauss said...

Thanks for the great links, Ralph and Roddy. The post by the Japanese scientist on the Pielke sen. blog fits well to the culture - science interface that Revkin identified as a critical point.

Roddy, you say that 'the overall conclusion is that there was no health catastrophe by radiation.' This contradicts what I just read in the summary of the Chernobyl report which you linked:

'Childhood thyroid cancer caused by radioactive iodine fallout is one of the main health impacts of the accident. Doses to the thyroid received in the first few months after the accident were particularly high in those who were children at the time and drank milk
with high levels of radioactive iodine. By 2002, more than 4000 thyroid cancer cases
had been diagnosed in this group, and it is most likely that a large fraction of these
thyroid cancers is attributable to radioiodine intake.'

Just one example only, which I indeed would call a health catastrophe. Children who drank milk...

It's one of the frightening things that no one knows the long term effects. Not attributable death causes. And, as you mention, the fear of being affected. What a mess that is. And who finds consolation in scientific statistics? Even more: who will ever trust scientific statistics in things nuclear? Isn't nuclear science itself contaminated by powerful interests?

Werner Krauss said...

we just quoted similar sources on thyroid cancer at the same time! Strangely enough, my source said 4000 children, yours says 6000 children and adolescents - makes a difference of 2000. Maybe mine didn't count adolescents? Or are the numbers in both cases just estimated? 2000 children more or less - negligible? Of course, not!

This points to an overall problem: who counts the dead and identifies correctly the death causes in countries such as Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine? I could imagine that these countries had a certain interest in keeping the death toll as low as possible. Furthermore, are their governments reliable? Are their administrations reliable? Does every doctor identify the death cause correctly? Does every sick person see a doctor? Did the researchers who produced the UN report have unhindered access to all information?

I don't want to fight about numbers. I just think that statistical information in these cases is not very reliable. That's a main problem with nuclear accidents: information is contaminated, too, in cases of emergency.

Roddy said...

Werner, the two numbers both come from the same source, different dated reports.

Werner - thanks for thanks.

there's a lot of reading in there, keep reading!

Re your thyroid cancer in children point, from the previously linked 2005 report:

“About 4000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, have resulted from the accident’s contamination and at least nine children died of thyroid cancer; however the survival rate among such cancer victims, judging from experience in Belarus, has been almost 99%.”

And in general, same source:

“As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident…..”

This report from the UN came out on Feb 28th this year (, so the most up to date. Re thyroid cancer “There were more than 6,000 cases reported from 1991 to 2005 in Belarus, Ukraine and four most affected regions in the Russian Federation. By 2005, 15 of the cases had proven fatal, the report said.”

I completely agree that the data gathering and measurement must be closely looked at, also the incentives for any or all of the participants to under (or over) count.

I gained some comfort from the large number of participants in all the studies, and the three regional governments, on the basis that they were unlikely to all have the same incentives, or make the same methodological erros.

eduardo said...

@ Werner,

I cant agree more that reliable numbers assessed by experts is the first pre-requisite. We should not forget that every death is one death too many, even more so regarding children deaths.

We have however to make some sense of our decisions as society. How well are we informed and how well would we like to be informed? When discussing the climate-related malaria deaths, I think nobody called into questions the statistics of developing countries. So do it know when they are written in UN reports ?

About 40 000 people die in car accidents every year in the US alone, but we do not call for a stop of traffic. We usually call for a better regulated safety provisions for traffic.

You are right, on the other hand, that the effects of nuclear energy on health may not be that well known, as long-term studies after nuclear accidents are obviously not that common.

It seems that nuclear physics will replace climate as the prime example of post-normal science in the next years.

Roddy said...

apologies for third comment out of eight ...

George Monbiot, who for those who don't know is a long-standing died-in-wool green environmentalist Guardian writer with a good brain, and loathes nuclear, the industry, the lies, the hidden subsidies, the unmeasurable risks, wrote this piece on March 21st; the headline is reasonably accurate:

'Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power - Japan's disaster would weigh more heavily if there were less harmful alternatives.'

This is one end of the debate - we need electricity from somewhere, and nuclear even with Chernobyl and Fukushima is less environmentally damaging (inc GHGs), and causes fewer deaths, than any other mass generation baseload technology. So get real. Remember - that's from an environmentalist.

The reaction to TMI, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima is more visceral than harshly rational, part of which derives from the lack of trust - see the LLRC website as a starter for total rejection of UN findings on Chernobyl's health effects - that Werner's piece is about. People do not trust that experts have any idea what they're talking about, and suspect cover-ups given half a reason.

Eduardo comments that long-term studies after nuclear accidents are not that common and hence we may not know much; the official studies over 25 years into Chernobyl should be a good start, at least in terms of measuring health damage versus local counterfactuals over that period, and thereby deriving an ability to get a handle on the quantum versus other forms of electricity generation into some perspective.

That the information supplied by the Chernobyl Forum appears to give no comfort at all to the public, indeed is often disbelieved, may be prima facie evidence that they think that Lysenko is abroad again. The UK government issued official guidance to the British in Japan throughout the crisis stating essentially that there was zero risk outside 20km, let alone 30km. I've asked people what they think the health legacy of Chernobyl was, and they speak of cancers, birth defects, fertility issues, and so on, on a large and unacceptable scale. That 171,000 people may have died when the Banqiao Dam burst in 1975 (Wikipedia) gives no comfort. Personally I'd rather be downwind of a nuclear power station than downstream of a giant dam, given equal (in)competence of the operators! It seems you have a better chance of outrunning radiation than a flood.

Werner Krauss said...

@eduardo #7
Postnormal? It's more a Lysenko case, I guess. Propagating an ideology of clean & safe energy supply based on scientific expertise, while at the same time being surrounded, silenced and hijacked by vested interests.

Hans von Storch said...

Would it be fair to say, that a postnormal situation prevails, when two antagonistic sides operate both Lysenko'isch?

Anonymous said...

@ werner krauss

"how will nuclear science ever be able to regain the trust of the public"

Vor einiger Zeit habe ich einige Jahre in der Kernphysik verbracht.
Überrascht es Sie, dass Kernkraftwerke in der Forschung bei uns überhaupt keine Rolle gespielt haben, das ist eher Sache der Ingenieure, die Physik sagt zu dem Thema eher: "The science is settled".

Spannender und aktueller waren Fragen zur Quantenchromodynamik.

Inwieweit Tschernobyl und Fukushima das Vertauen in die Quantenchromodynamik erschüttern, weiß ich nicht, es ist mir aber auch egal ;-)

Ist nicht eher der Glaube an technische Möglichkeiten und technische Beherrschung von Risiken erschüttert?

Ich meine, ja, vermutlich auch zurecht. Ob man jetzt noch Konstrukte wie "Lysenkoismus" und "postnormal science" benötigt, weiß ich nicht. Soll jeder selbst entscheiden.

Viele Grüße,

eduardo said...


I am not sure. the Chernobyls and Three Mile Island cases were indeed nuclear accidents and for those we can blame the nuclear science or nuclear industry or the complex science/industry. In the Fukushima case, I would argue it is not so clear-cut. The current problems do not stem from a malfunctioning of the nuclear technology. They are due to the fact that the diesel tanks, which should power the cooling system in case of a shut down of the external power, were not protected against a tsunami and were washed away.
So nuclear technology per se did not fail. There was, no doubt, a gross error in the design of the emergency systems, but this would apply to any other type of power plant. The difference is, of course that nuclear power is probably more dangerous and less explored than others.

I may also remind our readers than in China alone about 1000 coal miners die every year.

ghost said...

but emergency systems and the complete site design, maintenance, control, workers as well as the actual reactor technique belong to one package. I doubt you can separate this. As nuclear power is quite complicated, everything has to work. I mean, Reactor 4 was even shut down, and still there are serious problems.

Therefore, I think, nuclear power requires a certain degree of social and environmental stability for long times. Even really cool products like the EPR require this. The technology is really great, I suppose. However, I believe the stability is needed until a final waste deposit is closed for all times (many, many many years).

So, I think, nuclear power is not only a question of technology.

Well, maybe, I should be more optimistic and should say: the environment will be stable.

eduardo said...

@ ghost,
I am not advocating nuclear energy. One reason is that although my knowledge of it would be above average, I do not feel informed enough . I guess that most people are in a similarly position. So a useful step, as in the climate debate, would be an objective, neutral information.. maybe I am asking too much.
We are already now getting contradicting information about the feasibility of a shutdown of all power plants in Germany by 2020 or even earlier. This morning in the radio a representative of the Umweltministerium said that this is possible without major problems. In the evening, a representative of the German Energy Agency said in the same channel that this was impossible. This should be a technical question quite easy to answer.

I am considering the following counter factual story. Let us imagine that the designers of the Fukushima plant had thought that a tsunami ( a reasonable hypothesis as this region gas been stroke by several already) could eventually strike , and had placed the diesel storage and the cooling pumps in a bunker as well. We would be now celebrating the resilience of nuclear power against even the strongest earth quakes.

this illustrates my comment above.Apparently, It was not nuclear science what failed, all 11 nuclear power plants in the region - not only Fukushima- shut down as prescribed after the Earth quake happened. It was geology (!) that predicted a wrong probabilities of tsunamis of this size in this region.

Werner Krauss said...

@Eduardo 14
Or was it nuclear industry? Maybe geology warned but someone else decided not to listen? We will never find out.
You ask for 'objective, neutral information' - good luck! I think you know about the political sensitivity of nuclear information, as well as about the subsequent secretiveness of nuclear research institutes. 'Hiding' is an integral part of this kind of energy production.

I guess nobody knows whether it's possible to shut down all nuclear plants in Germany. Whatever 'possible' means, in terms of technology, energy supply, economy etc. We just cn do it or not and see what will happen.
Same with Fukushima right now: my guess is that nobody knows what is going on. If we are lucky, they manage to tame the energy and shut it down, somehow. Otherwise - we will find out, necessarily.

I think the case of nuclear energy is a good topic for religious studies. It's all about belief, with the nuclear rods in their cooling ponds as the Holy Grail; it's shrine protected by concrete walls and reckless guards; its holiness confirmed and interpreted by scientific experts, who serve as altar boys; admired and feared by lay people who stand in awe and watch the whole f***ing church of nuclear power explode (as seen in the picture above), while a chosen few are sent into the remainders in order to pacify or tame the angry Goddess, just like human sacrifice in the times of old...
While the old scientist-priest taught us that we have to live in the dark without nuclear power, the new ones preach global warming in case we refuse to worship the Goddess of nuclear power. Another determinism, another curse, while the high priests of capital bribe politicians and municipalities in order to milk that holy cow forever...

Sounds like irony? Maybe, maybe not. What if not we control our energy sources, but the other way round? Here we stand, with oil in our veins, wind in our hair and radiant eyes - and you ask for neutral information? Why not bring it all back home into democracy. Why not have a moratorium, talk it over, vote on it, find a way out of it. Sure, we will. Someday, reason and pragmatism will prevail!

Anonymous said...

"What if not we control our energy sources, but the other way round?"

Here's a document from NISA, leaving a deep impression of bureaucratic control and safety culture (no irony):

"When an event specified by a Cabinet Order under Article 10, paragraph 1 has occurred at the nuclear site managed by a nuclear emergency preparedness manager, the nuclear emergency preparedness manager shall, pursuant to the provisions of a nuclear operator emergency action plan, immediately have the onsite organization for nuclear emergency preparedness of said nuclear site implement the emergency responses necessary for preventing the occurrence or progression (expansion) of a nuclear disaster"

Read also the "code of conduct"

A field of research for linguistic anthropologists?

"Why not bring it all back home into democracy?"

Maybe you are right and this is the crucial point.
We should stop delegating responsibility to anonymous non-transparent organizations and vote for technologies we are able to control: smaller power plants and decentralized energy production, cogeneration etc. ... and new technologies WHEN they are developed and deliver what they promise. Actually they don't.
We need more money in R&D rather than subsidies for inefficient energy solutions.


ghost said...

I did not consider you as nuclear power friend. I agree with you in many points. Anyway, analogies are always problematic, but... if geologists would have said there may be tsunami waves of 14m height and we have to shut down the AKW immediately and improve all other safety installations everywhere, how would politicians, lobbyists, and "skeptics" have reacted? I think they would have called them alarmists.

Oh, and what did geologists say (I am not sure if the report is verified):

Anonymous said...

"Amakudari" the japanese version of "Lysenkoism"?,1518,754098,00.html

"In a loss of coolant accident, which is the severest postulated accident for a nuclear plant, the engineered safety facilities will be activated to effectively mitigate the impact of the accident"


Werner Krauss said...

Ralph, thanks for these links. They are really depressing. I simply didn't know what to answer.
Now I found a really good article, which takes up my idea that we have here a religious discussion, with scientific experts serving as the altar boys at the Holy Grail of the nuclear rods in their cooling ponds. Just read this excellent contribution of the faznet blogger Don Aphonso:

Anonymous said...

@ Werner

Very bright and impressive. Thank you for the link.

Read also Georg Diez: "Die Ehre der Freiheit", SPIEGEL 12/2011, page 127.


Anonymous said...

What has me chuckling, is the absolute "denial" people have. The ugly term has been conveyed to "skeptics" of CAGW, but it appears quite saliently with the other side as well. The correct use of the pejorative "denier" term is for "someone that denies history".

Now, in our current discussion of Nuclear Energy, the opening post is is all about the evils, the lying, the "hiding". Take the history of your cellular phone. Originally, it was a unit that would only fit in your car (circa 1986?). What do you have now?

With everyone pursuing the energy density barrier and breaking it every three years, how long will it take for people to develop the tech for basement reactors (especially if the one were to tax the Public Utilities into oblivion)?

Folks, it is just physics (and it does not require plutonium enrichment to work). Some arrogant elitists think that the poor are always idiots, but I could see them running a "pile" in the basement.

I would rather prefer the government to provide inexpensive energy at whatever means. Just think of the next energy hurdle is going to be like... Fukushima is just a dress rehearsal for us to grow out of those diapers ;)

Tobias W said...

"Lysenkoism is used colloquially to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives."

Werner you just quoted an activist from the "Union of Concerned Scientists" as being beyond ideological bias. This is certainly two-fold, but you're not really representing it that way. Could it be that even you have a bias against nuclear power?

You are absolutely correct in identifying nuclear science as belonging to the "political field", as it's entire history is that of scientists doing their masters bidding. That in itself does not mean that nuclear power isn't safe today, or that nuclear power is particularly unhealthy.

We have a catastrophy where ten to twenty thousand people are dead, upwards of a hundred thousand people have no home, god knows how many injured, etc, and not yet a single dead from nuclear fallout (I believe anyway). Yet the nuclear meltdown is all that the chattering classes here in Europe is concerned about. How can that be? And how can it be accepted completely uncritically - even as the morally sound alternative - that this disaster is used politically here under such circumstances where there will be no 9.0 earthquake with a 15-20 meter tsunami in the following?

When the tsunami struck in 2004 I remebered being overcome with grief at the pictures of the dead and the destruction. It made me emphasize with the victims and understand, at least a bit, the enormous terror and chock that was going through their societies. Now, apparently it is better to report from a geigermeasurement done somewhere and say how it affects people in Los Angeles, or Berlin for that matter, and such. Where did the victims go, does anyone know, because I haven't seen them since Fukushima started behaving badly?

Isn't there something deeply immoral about not showing the terror that can't hurt us, i.e. the victims of the tsunami, but instead just showing that which has some sort of relevance to us?

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous

"how long will it take for people to develop the tech for basement reactors"

... OH, maybe they are already at it - with or without the help of HORNBACH "Yippiejajayippieyippieyeah!" ...,1518,754760,00.html

@ Tobias W

This is not about Los Angeles or Berlin (yet).
Any idea of how much ground will be affected in Japan?
To compare: 1000 square miles (2800 Quadratkilometer) are still maintained around Chernobyl (1986) ...

"28,000 km² (10,800 mi²) were contaminated by cesium-137 to levels greater than 185 kBq/m². Roughly 830,000 people lived in this area. About 10,500 km ² (4,000 mi²) were contaminated by caesium-137 to levels greater than 555 kBq/m²"

"it is just physics - and it does not require plutonium enrichment to work"

How right you are.


Werner Krauss said...

Tobias W.,
thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Yes, indeed, there is a high possibility that I am biased. When I am in my professional anthropological mode, I try to measure the distance between my bias/emotions/perceptions and yours - I compare and try to put into relation. That's how we try to approach reality.

Yes, I understand your anger. Yes, I have the same impression that there is less public empathy with the victims compared to other catastrophes. But where do we know from? Getting angry about something is also a kind of empathy and showing sorrow.

We cannot stand still in awe and grief. It's not immoral or unethical to discuss the question of nuclear energy. In terms of klimazwiebel, climate change is the link. In terms of Japan, the media report that close to Fukushima, the victims of the tsunami cannot be buried because they are too contaminated. Imagine. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I get sick of the idea only.

We can do nothing about earthquakes and tsunamis, they are beyond our control. Nuclear energy is not. We have to discuss it. Not against the victims, but with the victims in mind.

But I do share your anger. ANGER written in capital letters.

Werner Krauss said...

There are really very informed articles about Fukushima, the catastrophe in Japan and German reactions in the German press, especially in the FAZ. Here ia another eloquent deconstruction of the famous "German angst" argument. Frank Schirrmacher instead points to the long history of the German anti-nuclear movement and its rootedness in science (and not in esoteric belief). Unfortunately for our English reades, it is again in German language:

Werner Krauss said...

Something wrong here: comments disappear instead of showing up! Just wrote a long comment on an article in THE Guardian, where the anti-nuclear movement is compared to the deniers in the climate debate. Besides a sometimes annoying scandalizing tone, the journalist makes a real worthwhile argument. Read it here:

isaacschumann said...


I unfortunately cannot read your link in german, but I would respectfully disagree with the assertion that the anti nuclear movement is rooted firmly in science, i find it to be quite the contrary. The risks of exposure to radiation, while certainly real, have been grossly overstated and have helped to create this culture of fear we see now where people are buying up mostly worthless iodine pills and iodized salt halfway around the world.

From George Monbiots correspndence with helen caldicott:

"Professor Gerry Thomas, Chair in Molecular Pathology, Department of Surgery & Cancer, Imperial College, London, tells me this:

I actually was a member of the UNSCEAR committee on the Health effects of the Chernobyl accident and wrote the section on the molecular biology of thyroid cancer. I can assure you that none of us are in the pay of the nuclear industry. I was anti-nuclear until I worked on the after effects of the Chernobyl accident – now I am very pro-nuclear as I realise that we have an unwarranted fear of radiation – probably due to all the rubbish about a nuclear winter we were fed during the cold war."

I would think a more interesting line of questioning for a sociologist would be to explore humanities disproportionate fear of radiation rather than to compare being pro nuclear to lysenkoism. Quite frankly, it appears as if it is the anti nuclear crowd that distorts science to fit their pre-existing agenda. I urge you to read monbiots email exchange with helen caldicott if you have not already.



P.S. When I opened the speigel english page a day after the tsunami, there were five articles about japan, one was about the actual disaster, the other four were anti nuclear opinion pieces; why is that?

Werner Krauss said...

Issac, you write:
"I would think a more interesting line of questioning for a sociologist would be..."
Here is my recommendation: don't tell sociologists what they should do. It's not cool.

Werner Krauss said...

Isaac, now I had a closer look at the Monbiot - Caldicott email exchange. The point of this dialog is that the activist Helen Caldicott cannot provide peer-reviewed evidence for her anti-nuclear claims.
That's all I can see from this conversation. Nothing else.

Hans von Storch said...

Werner/28 - I think it entirely legitimate that members of the public, as well as members of other scientific disciplines, are requesting sociology, and other fields, to deal with certain questions. Unfortunately, we see again and again sociologists - and others - to base their analysis not on the science but on popular reporting by newspapers and uncontested weltanschaulich formed beliefs.

It would indeed be helpful if we would be better informed about the dynamics behind Issac's observation - and similar dynamics in the field of climate change.

Anonymous said...

@ Werner

Here's what it all startet about ...

Monbiot: "Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry ..."

The question is - besides the real damage done in Fukushima (Chernobyl and elsewhere) - how democratic societies can deal with these lies.
Traube and Jungk told us that democracy and democratic control don't fit with nuclear industries.

Whatever we read on the issue makes it hard to believe that they ever will ...,1518,754933,00.html

Facing the fact that there are about 500 nuclear power plants all over the world and a lot of new ones planned to be built in the next years, we must get the industry under control. There is no way around it and almost nothing done when Germany phases out 17 reactors.

Instead of comparing the anti-nuclear movement to the so called deniers in the climate debate, we should take responsibilty for better control on all political levels. The IAEA, another deeply corrupted UN body with a lack of democratic legitimation, is obviously unable to do the job.


Roddy said...

Round and round we go!

The recent Monbiot columns are compellingly argued, with their attachments, the J'accuse one is superb journalism.

In the first few comments on this thread I highlighted the scientific evidence (UNSCEAR etc) on the damage caused by Chernobyl, and that it always surprises people that the numbers aren't larger.

This evidence has often/generally been rejected by 'greens', whether Caldicott, Greenpeace, the LLRC, whoever.

These rejections have left an impression in public consciousness that Chernobyl was a true disaster, catastrophe, with no sense of what that means in real human terms, whether absolute, or compared to a tsunami, let alone a Banqiao dam, or indeed radiation from coal plants.

Monbiot has examined those rejections, and finds not a shred of scientific evidence to support any of them, in fairly blistering terms.

That is significant, as he has spent decades perfectly ready to believe in government and big business conspiracies and cover-ups and is instinctively Atomkraft Nein Danke by heritage.

He has accused the anti-nuclear lobby, on the specific subjects of Chernobyl and radiation science, of perverting the truth for ideological ends.

The sociological questions like why we so easily believe that Chernobyl was so much more deadly than it was, why the Western media have focussed on Fukushima rather than the tens of thousands dead and dispossessed by the tsunami, why we would be happy to live below a dam or near a coal power station but a nuclear power station terrifies us, these are all interesting. And by clarifying so well, I'm sure not perfectly, the damage caused by Chernobyl, the real dangers of radiation (the Mark Lynas column George links to), and the motivations and half-truths told by the anti lobby, he has made us freer to examine those questions on a firmer footing.

That's my view anyway! Keith Kloor at Collide-a-scape considers he has committed heresy, and will now be put to death somehow, right or wrong.

Werner Krauss said...

Hans 30

You write:
"Unfortunately, we see again and again sociologists - and others - to base their analysis not on the science but on popular reporting by newspapers and uncontested weltanschaulich formed beliefs."

Who is talking here - "we"? And who are those "sociologists"? Do you talk about me? Why not simply say "I think" and "you" instead of hiding behind a Pluralis Majestatis? Why put on this rhetorical white coat? It doesn't fit you well.

By the way, I heard rumors that there are also again and again scientists who base their analysis on Weltanschauung etc. Even in climate science! It's pretty courageous to judge about another discipline with such a general statement when sitting in a glass house.

My suggestion: Wouldn't it be cool to take off the white coats and discuss together with other fearful earthlings possible energy futures?

Hans von Storch said...

Werner/33 - you are right, I should not have said "we" but "I". And no, I do not mean you - also you would not call yourself a sociologist, would you? Nico Stehr is one, Dennis Bray another one, and they have no such problems as I had described. So "some have the problem, as I have observed".

Anonymous said...

"Perverting the truth for ideological ends ..."

OK, let's have a look at the WHO report (2006):

Read pages 2, 3 and 108

or pages 118/119
("National registries")

Whatever side you're on, there are good reasons why we all hoped a similar accident would not happen again.


Anonymous said...

@ Werner

We are witnessing the failure of big organizations in series: international banking, Big Oil, the nuclear sector, bureaucratic institutions like the EU or the UN etc.

Asking you as an ethnologist (in or outside the glass house): is there a pattern to observe or some research done on the subject?

Are humans genetically limited in dealing with big systems? And therefore, are all these systems necessarily - and sooner or later - running out of control? What would that mean for democratic/human surveillance, reasonable sizing of organizations and applied technologies?

As a matter of fact we can hardly memorize numbers higher than seven ...
George A. Miller: "The Magical Number 7, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information" > see "Chunking" (Wiki)


isaacschumann said...


Apologies, I would not like being told that either. I wanted your feedback, which my aggressive tone has prevented. This is an emotive issue and I wrote in haste, I do not presume to know how to do your job.

Helen Caldicott is not some random activist, she is a nobel peace prize winner, my point was that how much of the fear of nuclear is based on these clearly unsupportable claims? What would we say if, for example, Al Gore was completely unable to defend his assertions about climate change in this manner?

Werner Krauss said...

Roddy / 32

Two thoughts after reading your comment:

1) your argument is almost identical to those who criticize the 'climate hoax'. Just replace nuclear through climate, and there we are. Is it 'skeptical' semantics driving the argument, or the facts? I find this similarity really something to think about.

2) I don't like your misuse of sociology. For you, sociological questions are like: why 'we' are afraid of Chernobyl; why 'we' would be happy to live below a dam but are afraid of nuclear power etc...
The questions you ask are fake questions, for a simple reason: YOU are not a part of WE, because you are NOT afraid of Chernobyl etc.
I am sorry to say, but this is the typical misuse of sociology or anthropology. We are asked to hide opinions in pseudo-scientific terminology. I am permanently asked to find out why 'we' do this and that - as if we, you and I, were not part of them. I guess, it's more challenging as a sociologist or anthropologist to focus research on those who ask these questions instead on an imaginary 'we'.

Werner Krauss said...

@ ralph /36

you ask: is there a pattern or not? Well, this is up to you or the researcher. In any case, it's tempting to see one. World system theories, network analyses or assemblage theory, mixed with 'risk society' or 'failed state' concepts and so on - there are many tools in the toolboxes of the social or cultural sciences. Each one, each combination of tools will deliver new insights. I guess it's impossible to 'see' the world from outside, from God's view - we are always part of the system we want to understand. We can follow certain connections or chains of people and things; conclusions are always temporary (but nonetheless necessary).
Today they discuss the EU bail-out for Portugal in TV. Science? Economic theory? Psychology? Madness? Failure? Success? We don't know. But individual people in Portugal, Germany and Brussels are connected through many chains, associations of money, talk, institutions, elections, negotiations, feelings etc. It's possible to follow these chains as a social scientist and to make judgments about their logic.

Ironically, those research are often times EU funded. There is no view from outside.

Genetically limited - in my experience, using nature or biology as an argument doesn't work as useful explanation. You find too many exceptions and variations etc...

Big systems - there are many activists and voters, for example in Baden Würtemberg, who share your opinion that big systems are problematic. One of the arguments against Stuttgart 21, to my knowledge. And against nuclear power - energy means power, and it is almost impossible for ordinary people to become a shareholder in nuclear industry. In terms of democracy, renewables are indeed interesting - in Germany, there are many 'civic' wind farms (Bügerwindparke), with locals owning the wind turbines.

This is just brainstorming, but I indeed think that the often time diffuse fear of nuclear energy has 'social' reasons - something which is mostly excluded in the scientific discussion of nuclear risks.

Roddy said...


1) My argument is almost identical to those who criticize the 'climate hoax'?

Is that really right? I would have thought it's the other way around, with UNSCEAR etc being the IPCC, the settled science, the Chernobyl Forum publications being the Assessment Reports, and those who persist in claiming up to a million dead the unreasonable sceptics, denying what all the settled accepted science shows, denying greenhouse theory for example if you like.

Helen Caldicott, about whom I only know what it says on her Wikipedia page, represents here the 'unreasonable sceptic', who has devoted a large part of her life to opposing anything nuclear. Monbiot asked her for scientific/documentary evidence of her Chernobyl claims and she was unable to provide any, in his judgement.

In his view, she is calling the UN Chernobyl findings a hoax, a conspiracy, and he suggests she, and other anti-nuclears, do this on ideological grounds, not those of science or fact.

For me that is similar to accusations that people who call the IPCC a conspiracy and a hoax are ideologically driven - many seem to be.

2) You don't like my misuse of sociology - apologies, I quite likely misused the word.

I am interested in why, from newspaper coverage, observation, people I meet, the coverage of Fukushima, strange ideas of what damage Chernobyl caused (the mutant children/cancer/infertility lines), people are very scared of civil nuclear power. Is it the Cold War, the fear of nuclear winter, the invisibility of radiation, I just don't know. You may well call that a 'fake' question, I'm not sure why but that may be my ignorance.

But you are quite right that 'I' am 'we' as well, and I shall go and re-read Gadamer's 'Truth and Method' immediately, and brush up on my hermeneutics. I guess, from what you wrote in reply to me, and more particularly to Ralph, that you might be a Gadamer fan.

Werner Krauss said...

@Isaac / 37

No need for apologies, Isaac! It's just blogging - short, sharp and dedicated!

I am sure Monbiot made a good job. Maybe Helen is wrong. That's all. Al gore was also not too much about wrong or right. He played in the field of the public sphere, where science is just another asset to convince people. It was important to debunk some of his assumptions, but to do him justice, we have to analyze his performance in the social field.

The question of nuclear energy is not one of detached science. Energy means power. Power relationships are not solved by science. They are a question of social relations. In this field, science is a symbol. (Scientists know very well to make use of the symbolic value of their profession, by the way!). Helen Caldicott, she makes use of this symbol, too. Amateurishly, obviously, but only a few people out there are scientific experts.

I don't say we should stop making a difference between right or wrong, but debunking Helen does not solve too many problems. It just shows that someone is right and someone else is wrong.

It's more important to analyze the field of these social relationships in order to find out which is the best energy future. It's not a question of peer-review only.

Werner Krauss said...

Roddy / 40

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

1) Yes, your version is better than mine, good point! In any case, it's just like another play from the same author - another Shakespeare drama, with same ingredients and roles but in different constellations. The events are made fit the script - if you get my point. So why not change the script? Beyond the skeptics versus alarmist story; the (scientific) reason versus (folk) mythology story; the conspiracy versus honest broker script...that would enable a completely different approach to current events.

2) Sure, I also think that it is completely legitimate to ask these questions. I hope you got my (poorly expressed) point: asking questions is can be both innocent and an act of power. 'The people' is as much a legitimate object of inquiry as assumptions about them can serve to legitimate your own argument.

Gadamer: yes and no. I think one can go beyond hermeneutics. But as much as I understand, you are right: that there is no outside to the 'we' is a hermeneutical argument. (as much as I remember).

isaacschumann said...


I agree that the nuclear question involves much more than peer reviewed science can answer. But in the limited area of the effects to humans and the environment of certain doses of radiation, science should play the central role. Helen rejects the general consensus because it does not fit her agenda. I maybe give more importance to this exchange because I think too many people believe what helen says and act on it.

I would not want to give the impression that I think monbiots 'debunking' of helen's claims means that the entire anti-nuke argument is invalid, far from it. issues of low level radiation exposure are only a small part of the larger question.

To give an example, while I would lean to the 'pro' nuclear side, a claim made often by nuclears proponents that particularly annoys me is the "nuclear is the safest power source per kw produced". While factually true, I dislike it because it specifically ignores the, IMO, central area of the debate; nuclear risk is very different in that it is of the 'black swan' variety, low probability but catastrophic outcomes. Maybe things we can't even imagine. Humans are particularly bad at gauging this kind of risk, as we have so spectacularly seen these last few years. I disliked your comparison to lysenkoism because I do not think that proponents of nuclear are distorting science. I would however agree that many of them are willfully ignoring this 'black swan' issue, which I think is so central.

I, personally, still believe we should pursue nuclear power because I perceive that humans are gradually improving our ability to manage collective risks and our ability to regulate harmful activities has and continues to improve, though not as fast as we would like. Following the fukushima disaster, there is a robust and open debate going on about nuclear, which I think is a good thing, and long overdue. I also think that spreading inaccurate information about radiation exposure makes coming to the best solution more difficult, whatever it may be. The sad fact is, we humans rarely have these self critical and introspective debates when everything is going well.

Roddy said...


Paras 1 and 2, quite agree.

Para 3 - what 'spectacular' black swans do you refer to in the last few years?

Para 3 - the reason I kicked off the Lysenko thread comments with Chernobyl is because it's the blackest nuclear swan we have where the effects have been so exhaustively studied, since Japan A-Bombs. It's by definition not the blackest there could be, but it was very black. I don't think many 'experts' foresaw such a 'worst case' explosion and fall-out.

So I'm more forgiving of the pro-nuclear claim that it is the safest, historically, because the record includes Chernobyl, and will now include Fukushima, so the claim is not meaningless.

(The gap in what I laughingly call my knowledge is the risk of nuclear waste, where the historical record is necessarily rather short.)

To have such an event where the public beliefs and perception of the impacts is at odds with the apparently exhaustive UN version is weird. They say c. 40 dead, yet versions of up to a million continue to be believed, and argued by people of the stature of Caldicott.

What explanation other than conspiracy / hoax / Lysenko can there be for people who have studied it, like Caldicott? I guess Monbiot's allegation, where they know the UN version is broadly right, but attack it for some perceived greater good.

Your last three sentences, completely agree. The timing is sort of perfect, when huge amounts of new electricity generation are needed, tens (hundreds?) of new nuclear plants are planned, and CO2 is part of the environmental challenge. Makes it interesting!

And as a spectator sport, watching Monbiot versus Caldicott et al is very entertaining!

Re radiation Mark Lynas (ex Greenpeace) has a long post on it on his blog.

isaacschumann said...


As to the 'black swans', i'm thinking specifically of the financial crisis and the bp explosion. I agree that the safety claims from the nuclear proponents are accurate, its just that I don't think the problems of nuclear stem from its everyday effects on the environment, like fossil fuel extraction, but from infrequent yet catastrophic failures.

That being said, I'm still in favor of continuing or even expanding nuclear power. I completely agree that effects from radiation have been overstated considerably by the anti nuke advocates like caldicott, I would consider it lysenkoism as well.

Werner Krauss said...

Roddy & Isaac,

so at the end of this thread, you guys turned the table and accuse anti-nuke folks of Lysenkoism? I guess I lost the debate. At least in terms of rhetoric.

I am sure you guys will solve those minor safety, waste and democracy problems related with nuclear industry. I'll go out for a walk. It's springtime over here. Cherry blossom time.

Anonymous said...

"spreading inaccurate information about radiation ..."

... is as bad as trying to sugarcoat the problem we are confronted with - or to build a sarcophagus of silence and ignorance around it.

Again: read the WHO report, see post n° 35 or then read this here ...

"creating radioactive sacrifice zones on our planet"

It makes no sense weighing one thing against another. If the nuclear industry ist not working safely, we cannot answer the problem focussing on climate impacts or the climate debate - even if we like to be well "untertained" under all circumstances.


isaacschumann said...


I only meant in the very limited context of human exposure to low levels of radiation. But as you say, the nuclear question is far more complex. I absolutely did not mean to tar the entire anti-nuclear movement with this label. Your post started out putting fourth the proposition that nuclear science is the new Werner,

I only meant in the very limited context of human exposure to low levels of radiation. But as you say, the nuclear question is far more complex. I absolutely did not mean to tar the entire anti-nuclear movement with this label. Your post started out putting fourth the proposition that nuclear science is the new lysenkoism, I disagree. I said so in my first comment, tho you may not have gotten that far because of my offensive behavior.

I don't understand this democracy critique of nuclear, all forms of energy are being shoved down the throats of people who don't like them. there are 1000 wind turbines right outside my house, nobody voted for them. (I and most of my neighbors really like the wind turbines, a minority do not). Indiana gets most of its power from coal, which I and many others are opposed to. In germany, they are in the process of stopping nuclear power production because the people do not want it. It is no more or less democratic than any other form of large scale energy generation.

And I'm sure you will solve all of the health and safety issues with fossil fuel industry;) We face hard choices. A walk does sound nice, but here, spring means wind and lots of it! (hence the wind power)

isaacschumann said...

*... disregard the first paragraph, I had to copy and paste as it deleted my comment when I first tried to post, don't know how this happened. I will express my embarrassment with an emoticon:\

Werner Krauss said...

@ Isaac
1) Sorry for the inconveniences with posting; same happens to me that comments just disappear etc.
2) Thanks for keeping up the dialog; I really appreciate it!

So here my Sunday sermon:

In the long run, no nukes, no crude, no coal - what about that? If large scale is the problem, why not do it small scale? We still treat energy as a right, as an endless available resource. Maybe we should make energy availability more part of our everyday lives. People love to take care of their houses and things; municipalities love to take care of towns and cities; and so on. Lots of love in play, instead of the technocratic 'sorry, no other solution, folks!'.

Science went to bed with big business and large scale thinking too often. Global governance, big science, big solutions. Why not delve more often into the messy small scale world where real people live? It does not corrupt science to focus more on the grassroots level. It also does not corrupt science to think about small scale energy solutions instead of big solutions.
It's just a different mindset.

Anonymous said...

"comments just disappear ..."

So did the one I had posted yesterday. Someone didn't like, I think - though it was not offensive at all.

Accept this one maybe which could be titled "exporting the risks on the short run"?,1518,754957,00.html


Hans von Storch said...

If a comment disappears, it likely went into the SPAM-bin. Send me an e-mail to check. -- Hans

isaacschumann said...


I can agree to all of that:) I am also a big fan of small scale energy generation. I dislike the 'no other solution', mantra as well, there is always a choice. In my work we do sponsored research converting lignocellulosic materials into more valuable products, our clients are municipalities, farmers and companies.

These ideas are right up my alley, different ways of looking at energy.

isaacschumann said...

maybe i should have just said, amen;)

eduardo said...

I am imagining a future in which we would have one million deaths every year due to radiation from nuclear plants, and yet we would not complain.. we would even flirt with the idea of taking some risks by living closer to one of them. We would even thank the powerful industrial lobby for manufacturing more powerful plants, which they would boast in flashy tv commercials

Yet, this is what happens with the car accidents and car industry. Werner, why do people have such differential perceptions ?

Anonymous said...

@ Isaac

"Amen ..." אָמֵן-آمين -ἀμήν

what a good and strong word.
But don't let us finish here and - if Hans allows - tell us more about "converting lignocellulosic materials into more valuable products".

Laila tov


Werner Krauss said...

@Eduardo 55

I think this is a not a fair question. You always find a negative comparison, whatever position you take. Furthermore, we do not live in a statistical world. We maybe consider statistics, but they don't always have the highest priority in final decision making. Or did you make a cost-benefit analysis before you definitively fell in love with your significant other?

Roddy said...

What is 'small-scale electricity generation'?

I live in the centre of what Wikipedia like to call the 'most populous municipality in the European Union.' - London.

London has rather large scale demand for electricity.

Where will my electricity come from?

Werner - your 'significant other' question to Eduardo. I've just finished reading a novel by Trollope, but Jane Austen or any other might do as well. In these books it seems clear that not to do a full cost-benefit analysis of one's potential significant other would count as negligence.

I've had these precise discussions with my previous and current girlfriends. The former said that any such consideration was disgusting, described my value system as 'completely f***ed', and said that women who took economics into consideration, even if solely out of concern for the raising of their children, were not worthy to be called women.

Current girlfriend says that as far as she can see of life from her forty-something years most marriages are harsh economic transactions!

FWIW I support neither position! I find both rather extreme.

isaacschumann said...


I am thinking of roof top solar, and wind. It has become very popular in my area, there are a few companies that sell small wind turbines for the front yard. On the municipal level, many now run digesters to make a methane bio gas. I am optimistic that we (humans) will come up with ever more creative ways to harness energy on a small scale like this.


Currently I am working with orange peel waste from juice maker tropicana. We are extracting the limonene, which is quite inhibitory to microorganisms and is a valuable chemical, as well as pectin, which is used in food manufacturing and is also valuable; the remainder will be made into ethanol or methane. Most of our other clients right now are in the paper industry.

Roddy said...

Isaac I wish I could believe that a bit of solar and a wind turbine in very densely populated cities could provide even a tiny fraction of what is required.

There was a report recently on UK wind (which I believe is largely Scottish, it's windy up there) from the John Muir Trust (a UK charity), executive summary here:

A rather fabulous quote from the Press Release (which also might give away their feelings on wind farms in general!):

"Indeed, for numerous extended periods of time all the wind turbines in Scotland linked to the National Grid muster less than 20MW of energy - that's enough power for a mere 6,667 households to boil their kettles for a cup of tea."

And we like our tea!

Roddy said...

I see this morning that Fukushima is up to level 7. I'm not sure what this actually means, except it's clearly not good and indicates further loss of control?

I'm reminded of Macondo, where early assurances re stemming the flow became less credible daily as we realised they had no idea what was happening or how to deal with it.

eduardo said...

@57 Werner,

in your repose you seem to indicate that in our decisions are mostly emotional, no matter which type of decisions. I think this your stance on climate as well: science is by far not the strongest argument, but only our gut feelings. But then, why discuss about climate, nuclear energy or health, or about the organization of society in general? if there is no rationality, the collective discussions make no sense. I think this is a quite negative stance.
It is true that decisions are not totally rational, but there is some objective element, or there should be. Now, humans are quite bad at the estimations of risks, especially those risks with low probability, for which the memory sample size is small. But I argue that exactly on those fields, like nuclear power, developed societies should try to base their long-term important decisions on very well informed science. This applies to climate as well as nuclear power. What we have seen so far in Germany is actually the opposite: politicians taking long-term decisions on important matters in just a matter of days and just with the next election in mind. Like more or less dumping the significant other on a whim

Werner Krauss said...

@ Eduardo, 62
your statement that decisions should be based on rationality is pretty common sense, even for an anthropologist.

Anyway, yes, it's true, I think emotions matter. I even think that there is a certain logic of emotions we can decipher. I personally wouldn't make long-term decisions without taking the factor 'emotion' into account. I also would consider such things as 'trust'. It is not enough to wave a flag with 'rationality' written on it to silence all other arguments.

Hannah said...

I have been "lurking" on this blog for some time but on an irregular basis so apologise if I haven't picked up on all points and please correct me if I got anybody's arguments wrong etc....however, I do think this is a very interesting thread and these are my thoughts so far:
Eduardo, you refer to the number of killed miners and to people killed in car accidents and ask why is it not the same with nuclear? I would propose that a better comparison is people killed in aeroplane accidents? It is a lot less than what is killed by cars but still the number of people who are afraid of flying are a lot higher than the number of people who are afraid of driving in a car. Next question is then, why? I would suggest that perhaps it is because there is something slightly “nature defying” about both planes and nuclear reactors and therefore scary? So how do plane disasters (and cars accidents) then differ from nuclear? The main difference, as I see it, is that when nuclear goes wrong it has the potential to go REALLY wrong, each car or plane accident, in itself, is a "limited accident” in terms of numbers and also you know the full extent of the damage pretty immediately and yes, the fact that we have known it to be used as weapons of destruction does make a difference I think.
Werner, you make an interesting point about the emotional aspect of nuclear. I am, on balance, pro nuclear, but it is an intellectual rather than an emotional conclusion. I grew up in Denmark in the seventies where half the population seemed to own a "squeezed lemon Citroën" car with a "No to Barsebäck" (Swedish nuclear) sticker glued to the back window so my immediate emotional response to nuclear is one of distrust or even fear. You say: “Furthermore, we do not live in a statistical world. We maybe consider statistics, but they don't always have the highest priority in final decision making. Or did you make a cost-benefit analysis before you definitively fell in love with your significant other?” (One of my absolute favourite quotes is Montaigne's "If you press me as to why I loved him all I can say is that he was he and I was I":o) It is a fair point you make and so is Eduardo’s response. If I were to argue the emotional aspect rather than just the rational one in decision making and were to be a bit provocative then I might use the fairly recent rescue of the miners in Chile. Now if we were to purely look at it from a cost benefit point of view then the amount of money spent saving them would probably have been “better spent” in say an African country saving more people from staving than was saved from the mines but obviously, these things are more than just raw economics or pro and cons, just as love is. Perhaps an interesting analogy to what has happened in Japan would be finding out that your significant other has had an affair. Do you leave or do you ask questions and re-consider/re-address the relationship (including such things as emotions and trust) before making the decision to stay? Surely the only wrong thing would be to stay without any questions asked or lessons learned? :o)

Thomas said...

I will stay mostly technical but I have some relevant precisions concerning nuclear questions (risk assessment , rationality etc) .
Indeed to the contrary of many people talking in media about nuclear nowadays , I am a real expert .
I have been working on nuclear plant design for years .
During this time I have been driving meine Ente mit einem Aufkleber "Wir brauchen keine Kernkraftwerke , der Strom kommt aus der Steckdose ."
My parents live not very far from a KKW I contributed to design. Yes , their health is well , thank you .
I have been especially working on safety systems and on transitories during a LOCA .
A LOCA is the worst scenario used - a Loss Of Coolant Accident .
There are many misconceptions , especially the black swan theories .
A safety system can ONLY be designed for a scenario , not in some abstract probabilistic void .
The scenario has NEVER an associated probability because it is and will forever stay unknown .
For example we use a plane crash - 9/11 scenario has been used in nuclear design decades before it really happened ...
That means mass , velocity , energy .
Nobody knows what the probability is but that's one scenario .
Another is the "man with a suitcase" .
Of course Earthquakes and Tsunamis too . Etc .
There is also a vast misconception about the vital safety systems .
It is often , mostly , assumed that a safety system must insure that (almost) NEVER anything bad happens .
This is not the case - the purpose of a safety system is that if something bad happens , then it doesn't get MUCH worse .
Obviously if I have a LOCA , then something bad ALREADY happened and my systems must make reasonably sure that it doesn't get much worse .
In some cases a safety system will prevent something bad too but these are trivial cases in every industry that we don't discuss here
Tchernobyl (whose technical reports I read) is a good example of what safety systems can NEVER be .
For what was the scenario ?
The Xe135 concentration was too high when the test had to be run because it was too cold in Ukraine and they had to stay in full power operation longer than planned . Nothing bad sofar .
But the Xe135 half time is 9 hours so there is a conflict with the scheduled test time .
The authority doesn't want or can't reschedule the test for 24 hours later .
So the operator has a problem because his reactor is spontaneously shutting down by the Xe which absorbs too many neutrons .
What does he do if he has orders to perform the scheduled test ?
A momentaneous power boost by withdrawing almost all moderation bars .
He overrides many safety rules by doing that but that is nothing exceptional - he's used to overriding automatic systems daily like every experienced operator .
Then when the transitory finally catches up and because he is in the unusual low power instability domain , the reactor goes from 200 MW to 20 000 MW in some 15 seconds .
An explosive LOCA , end of story .

Thomas said...

Three Miles Island is a very similar story .
Of course such a scenario has never been used for design and will never be used for design because it is unforeseeable .
It is simply impossible to design a safety system protecting against an operator overriding safety rules in one of an infinity of situations .
A proposition "What has priority in safety - the operator or the system ?" is a question undecidable in Gödelian sense .
But as it is impossible to design a system without answering , the conventional answer is : the operator .
This has nothing to do with "black swans" .
The human is so full of "black swans" that it is not even funny .
So why do we have only 1 Tchernobyl every 30 years or so ?
Because most among the infinity of black swans (like buying a Kalatchnikov and gunning down more people than Fukushima will ever kill) are irrelevant for nuclear plants .
Actually nuclear plants are among the systems that are mostly kind , well behaved and naturally stable .
Nobody knows what a HF alkylation unit is but if somebody knew , he would be much more scared of it than of a nuclear plant .
We are lucky that the crazy green have not yet heard about alkylation units :)
The last point is more philosophical .
Why would anyone need a "democratic discussion" about nuclear power ?
It reminds me when back in time I met Müller who was Schröder's minister of industry .
Concerning the infamous "Einstieg in den Ausstieg" I asked him why they did such a clearly meaningless announce .
He told me laughing "Ach most of us know that it is ridiculous , you would believe that a Kindergarten child would have found out . But nobody did , this democratic discussion is just magical thinking . In fact Schröder to govern must give Trittin a symbolical pat on the back and this one is as convenient as any other . It is not even harmful because we won't be here anymore when somebody will try to convince people that there is no difference between having electricity and not having it . There will probably be much more important issues in 20 or 30 years anyway ."
What can there be "democratic" about a discussion as complex and emotion laden as nuclear power ?
Or even power itself .
The man on the street really assumes that "der Strom kommt aus der Steckdose" and like Müller said , adopts magical thinking when the issue needs more knowledge than he has .
There are many issues where it is better NOT to ask the "democratic" opinion .
In France a democratic discussion would get the death penalty back , in Germany they would prefer whales to human etc .
This week Strasburg voted the shut down of the Fessenheim plant . Kohn Bendit radiously explained to the media that it was natural that Alsace was "infected" (his word !) by the german spirit .
Apparently the "german spirit" means to be the first to find an idiocy if there is an idiocy to be found .
I don't even disagree - as we couldn't self destruct yet despite having repeatedly tried hard , perhaps it is the evolution that must wipe us out .
And as I have been living in Strasburg for a time , I told myself that the best answer to the "infected" Alsacians would be to shut down Fessenheim fast -within 1-2 years .
Obviously there is no reason whatsoever to provide them power from elsewhere in France because it's naughty and nuclear .
That would allow them to realize that if there was enough sun and wind in Alsace to power their homes , hospitals and economy in winter , it would have been discovered already in the Middle Age .
When they begin to die by thousands during their first Fessenheimless winter , they would understand the lesson .
Unless they are already infected too much in which case they deserve to disappear ;)

Freddy Schenk said...

maybe this is a little bit good news about bad news:

"NASA wind and precipitation data suggest optimistic picture of spreading of particles from Fukushima Daiichi reactors"

Werner Krauss said...

thanks for these highly interesting insights into the safety systems of nuclear plants. Great stuff to think with, at least two thirds of it.

Only in the end you seem to be haunted by the ghost of Hans Filbinger, who once babbled that "ohne Atomkraft gehen die Lichter aus". Spooky! He also was a denier of democracy, deep in his heart. And I hope I won't dream tonight of former minister Müller's scornful laughter when he talked to you about democracy. And thousands of dead Alsacians, because they were infected by the German anti-nuke virus: wow, that's really creepy, Thomas!

Thomas said...


I am glad to see that you you are as enjoyed by the infected Alsacians as Kohn Bendit was .
I wonder why .
Perhaps the use of the derogative "babbled" instead of the correct "conjectured" is a hint ?

Perhaps it has escaped you that , even in an "infected" state , Alsace is still France not Germany .
And in France nuclear power is 80 % , so yes ohne Atomkraft gehen die Lichter aus . Und nicht nur die Lichter .
In Germany the percentage is smaller so coal and perhaps natural gas is an alternative .
But then it seems also to have escaped you that for people like Kohn Bendit and Trittin coal and gas is verboten too ...
However I believe that you missed the point of my Alsacian example or perhaps I was not clear enough .
I do not oppose the shut down of nuclear plants in Germany .
Close also all coal and gas plants while you are at it . Ban GMOs and medical research . Tax air transport and create a Sondererlaubnissamt für Luftreisen . Create new laws for crimes against environment and appoint new Volksrichters . Transfer 100 G€ every year to Africa on account of our climate debt .
I haven't made up ANY of the above ideas - they all figure at due place in the political proposals in Germany . Nuclear power is just the tip of the iceberg .
Vote it all or partly "democratically" if you want , I am far past caring .
When too many people begin to shout "Wir wollen eine totale Umwelt" , you finish to stop fighting and let them have what they want .
Germany has become a country of old people with negative demographics and it behaves like old people do - driven by fear and opportunismus .
As for me , my daughter is married with an Argentinian and I just bought an appartment in Buenos Aires .
When Germany increases the pace to democratically self destruct , I'll move there where the future seems to be . That will make a few people less to finance your windmills and Sondererlaubnissämter .
Call it voting with one's feet like my parents did .
In case you are interested , yes Argentina has nuclear power , will finish a new reactor next year and plans more .
They are still too far to be infected by the "german spirit" like the Alsacians :)

Roddy said...

Thomas ..... Magnificent stuff. Superb.

Crimes against the environment, really? Brilliant.

I have nothing against emotion playing a part, how else could it be, but the vision of the Alsatians dying in their thousands in the first Fesselheimless winter is excellent.

I have these conversations in the UK with my green friends, still infected with Greenham Common, CND, Atomkraft nein danke, consumption guilt, and having a romantic vision of I don't know what, watermills? Tetanus? C18th farming practices? It's difficult to tell, but it won't involve CAT scans and advanced medicine and ambulances and heated schoolrooms.

And you tell them they will die young/early, whether of hunger, cold, disease, lack of hospitals, unless they accept fossil fuel electricity generation and/or nuclear, and I think they almost hope lots of people will die (the over population meme) but trust it won't be them.

I feel like asking them how they can say these things, they should think of their children and their childrens' children, like Al Gore does.

I'm not sure Argentina is the answer, BA is the maddest capital city I've ever visited - more shrinks per head than New York, amazingly. Are they Italian, Spanish, Parisian, or English gentlemen. They just don't seem to know who they are.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Eduardo -55

The problem of why people perceive risks differently has been addressed by economics, social psychology, social anthropology, to name a few. You can find a Wiki entry on Risk Perception which summarizes most of them.

To apply one of these to your question: Driving a car has elements of individual pleasure and control which a nuclear plant has not.
Furthermore, the social amplification thesis considers the various feedback processes during public debates, and as a result "the same risk" is perceived differently at different times or in different cultural settings.

What all of these approaches show (perhaps with the exception of the economic "preference approach") is that risk perceptions can never be "rational"--there is no agreement on what that could be.