Atomkraft? Nein Danke

As a nation with a large reserve of uranium but no nuclear energy industry Australia is periodically subject to op-ed pieces designed to drum up support for a domestic nuclear power industry.

Australian uranium reserves account for roughly 30% of the ‘proven’ worldwide total and we are one of the major exporters of uranium used for nuclear power generation. Given our geological circumstance the arguments put forward over the last 70 years to justify the creation of a nuclear power industry in Australia have mainly centered around energy security and the economic temptation to take advantage of all that hot rock underfoot. More recently, however, the growing impact of climate change has opened up another avenue of argument for pro-nuclear advocates. Political lobby groups like the Minerals Council of Australia now point out that mounting CO2 levels in the atmosphere mean that renewable energy – and improvements to energy efficiency – may not be enough to solve our energy and climate crisis.

That this message is now being relayed by the same organisations that spent the last 20 years attempting to deny climate change and undermine carbon pricing and emissions trading schemes is galling in the extreme but some people might still find it worthwhile to consider whether nuclear energy could provide a clean alternative to Australia’s overwhelming reliance on coal.

Enter a vast number of articles on the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy. Given the vested interest from established mining and energy industries and the deep-seated emotional reaction that nuclear power sometimes provokes it’s difficult to know how much credibility to extend to various authors and publications. The available commentary runs the gamut from expert opinion to public relations announcements to outright misinformation.

Somewhere in the middle is this article on Forbes.com by Michael Shellenberger titled ‘Stop Letting Your Ridiculous Fears Of Nuclear Waste Kill The Planet’.

To separate actual analysis from anti or pro-nuclear propaganda three main criteria need to be examined:

1. The credentials of the author*
2. The platform they’re speaking from
3. The actual content of the argument being made

That order is not accidental. To avoid becoming mired in a vast swamp of half-baked online opinion and empty rhetoric it’s important to be somewhat discriminatory about the sources that we chose to read or share. Articles without an author or by-line can generally be considered public-relations exercises and should be treated with the same skepticism as press-releases or advertisements. Articles with named authors are an improvement but the reader is then faced with the task of establishing the author’s level of authority and level of independence in regards to the subject at hand. Indicators of a writer’s authority might include obvious cues like educational background and personal circumstance but might also involve more intangible measurements such as affiliations with respected institutions or the esteem with which they are held by peers on the other side of an ideological divide.

Independence can be determined, to some extent, by establishing whether the author draws an income for their opinion and how reliant they are on a single source of funding. At the other end of the scale you find sources that may have exposed themselves to a certain level of professional or personal risk in order to voice their opinions. Sam Kekovich’s attitude towards lamb ought to be taken with a grain of salt while Edward Snowden’s opinion on surveillance overreach deserves careful consideration. To paraphrase Lord Acton; money tends to influence opinion. Excessive sums of money tend to influence opinion excessively.

Dry casks outside Vermont Yankee

 

In the case of Michael Shellenberger his credentials are those of a career lobbyist. Far from physics or medical science his academic background is in cultural anthropology and although he claims to have been an environmental activist there doesn’t seem to be anyone fitting that description willing to vouch for him. Instead we find that he sits at the helm of two conservative economic ‘think tanks’ – one dubiously called ‘Environmental Progress‘ and the other known as ‘The Breakthrough Institute‘. Shellenberger visited Australia last year to deliver a keynote address on nuclear power at The Australian and International Mining and Resources Conference in Melbourne. At the time The Australian acted as cheerleader but the article in question here is one of a handful of more-or-less identical opinion pieces all added to the Forbes Magazine website in the last week^.

That brings us to task number two – examining the platform being used. Forbes is best known for its annual lauding of the richest people on earth and its editorial slant can best be described as attempting to ensure those same people continue to grow richer. The editor – Steve Forbes – is a 70 year old 3rd generation media mogul (himself worth several hundred million dollars) who has twice stood as a republican presidential candidate on a platform of various neo-liberal and libertarian economic policies. He is on the board of two large lobby groups pushing for industrial deregulation (FreedomWorks) and tax relief for the rich (National Taxpayers Union). A brief look at the featured articles on the front page of Forbes.com would seem to suggest a publication dedicated unashamedly to avarice.

So between the author and the platform what we mostly see are red flags when it comes to credibility. But let’s give Shellenberger and Forbes the benefit of the doubt and have a look at what the article has to say. Shellenberger starts by explaining that everyone is misguided in their attempts to deal with nuclear waste.

Nuclear waste has never been a real problem. In fact, it’s the best solution to the environmental impacts from energy production.

What this statement means is never clarified. Instead Shellenberger quickly follows up with three dot points. Let’s take them one at a time;

Every year, the lives of seven million people are cut short by waste products in the form of air pollution from burning biomass and fossil fuels;

Whataboutism seems like a loss-leader of an argument but hopefully it gets better…

No nation in the world has a serious plan to prevent toxic solar panel and wind turbine waste from entering the global electronic waste stream;

That’s interesting but unfortunately Shellenberger’s evidence is a link to his own article – if I wasn’t allowed to cite myself as an undergrad he shouldn’t be allowed to do it as a published ‘academic’.

No way of making electricity other than nuclear power safely manages and pays for any its waste [sic].

Finally we get to the crux of the argument; nuclear power as a money saver. Pointing out the market conditions that would make nuclear power cheaper than alternatives would be a useful thing to do and would seem to fit squarely in the wheelhouse of Forbes readers. Instead Shellenberger follows that point with a drawn-out Jack Bauer terrorist heist storyline under a bold title that informs us that our ‘Concerns About Nuclear Waste Are Ridiculous’. At the end he admits that his scenario is ludicrous which makes me wonder why he decided to take his readers up that particular garden path to begin with. A better rhetorical device would have been to cite a public statement by an anti-nuclear campaigner evincing a similar concern but fear of elaborate terrorist plots is mostly the domain of fictional spies. Anti-nuclear campaigners are more worried about the documented and ongoing risk of fissile material being sold on black markets. As a report by Major General Bruce Lawlor in the Bulletin of the Atomic explains;

The real threat of nuclear terrorism stems from the world’s growing stockpiles of plutonium and HEU, both of which can be used to make crude atomic bombs. A recent US — Russian report catalogs nearly 2,000 metric tons of these materials, which are stored in hundreds of buildings in 30 countries under security conditions that range from “excellent to appalling.”

Looking down into the well of Australia's Lightwater reactor at Lucas Heights

 
After describing the appearance of the containers currently used to house spent uranium fuel rods Shellenberger then goes on to point out that “There’s nothing in our evolutionary past that would lead us to fear drab cans of metal” as if that supports his stance rather than undermines it. The innocuous appearance of waste storage canisters is one of the reasons that an entirely new field of linguistics had to be created to communicate the danger of nuclear waste because what’s inside those ‘drab cans of metal’ will still be hazardous to humans long after every language on earth has become unrecognisable.

Shellenberger then cites himself again in the link about scare tactics by anti-nuclear groups (the aforementioned mining lobby group EnvironmentalProgress.org). Next we’re treated to some facts and figures that detail how long the fuel rods are used to produce energy (4.5 years), how long the fuel rods need to cool before dry storage (6 years) but then Shellenberger entirely forgets to mention the length of time those rods have to be stored before they are safe (anywhere from several centuries to several hundred thousand years).

In the next paragraph Shellenberger feigns ignorance on the question of why, after decades of public outcry, the waste is still sitting in yards next to power stations. ‘Nobody’s quite sure’ he insists. Presumably he knows the actual reason which is that no one has been able to find a suitable site to house spent fuel rods – so called ‘high level waste’ for the time it will take for them to be rendered safe. Back in 1979 engineer and physicist Hannes Alfvén identified two fundamental prerequisites for storing high-level radioactive waste;

The problem is how to keep radioactive waste in storage until it decays after hundreds of thousands of years. The [geologic] deposit must be absolutely reliable as the quantities of poison are tremendous. It is very difficult to satisfy these requirements for the simple reason that we have had no practical experience with such a long term project. Moreover permanently guarded storage requires a society with unprecedented stability.

Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the proposed site for the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste. The need to ensure the material remains undisturbed for thousands of years has required the creation of a new discipline of semiotics to ensure that warning signs will last at least 10,000 years into the future and remain intelligible to future generations of humans speaking a language that is impossible to predict.

 

Shellenberger then spends the next paragraph explaining how transporting and storing nuclear waste would be prohibitively expensive (some might consider that an own-goal) and then returns to the assumption that shutting down current nuclear power stations would necessitate reverting back to fossil fuels.

The real threat to public safety comes from the risk that America’s nuclear plants will be replaced by fossil fuels. Whenever that happens, air pollution and carbon emissions rise and people die. By letting go of our nutty fears of nuclear waste we can save nuclear power.

Statements like these might seem superficially reasonable but it’s crucial to recognise how important ‘framing’ is when it comes to propaganda. Shellenberger’s arguments are weak and don’t address real concerns held by opponents of nuclear power but his arguments are only half the equation. The other half consists of suggesting to his audience that everyone that disagrees with him is ‘ridiculous’, ‘nutty’ or ‘paranoid’.

In his final few paragraphs Shellenberger leaps to the conclusion that future reactor technology will ‘probably’ take care of the waste problem. We will all be saved from having to do anything about the current waste stocks by Bill Gates. This seems like a curiously selective form of trust in technology considering how readily the author has written off year-on-year improvements in the efficiency of wind, solar and battery storage.

Ultimately what Shellenberger is proposing in this article is that we do nothing to address the problem of nuclear waste. He suggests that the problem is actually not our problem to solve. At its core this attitude betrays a staggering sort of optimism – that subsequent generations will have the resources to deal with the problem, that technology will continue to improve, that the United States will remain intact and that nuclear sites will somehow be able to maintain an unbroken chain of custody of their ‘drab cans of metal’ for more generations than our civilisation has thus far existed.

For now though what he wants us to do is kick those cans down the road.

Notes:
Grist.org – The Radioactivity of the Breakthrough Institute: lies, misstatements, and critically flawed analyses
The Conversation – Climate change and the soothing message of luke-warmism
Bulletin of the Atomic – Pushing the storage horse with a nuclear waste cart
World Nuclear Association – Radioactive Waste – Myths & Realities
Archnect – Ornament and Extinction in the Nuclear Era
Friends of the Earth – Michael Shellenberger’s pro-nuclear lobby group ‘Environmental Progress’
Renew Economy – The Breakthrough Institute; Why the Hot Air?
Clean Technica – Self-Styled “Pro-Nuclear Environmentalists” In Denial About Connections Between Nuclear Power & Weapons
Media Bias Chart – Why Measuring Political Bias is So Hard, and How We Can Do It Anyway

Australia's Open Pool Australian Lightwater reactor is used for research in a number of different fields and is also used to make radiopharmaceuticals for imaging diseases and for cancer treatment.

 

*Before anyone suggests that my credentials as an expert on nuclear power might be lacking I would like to point out that my contribution to the debate here is mainly confined to interrogating the rhetorical techniques used and the financial interests at play. As to my authority in those areas I would humbly submit my seven years working in advertising.

^My own weird back-dating of posts notwithstanding this is another red flag. Start fresh on the homepage of Forbes.com and you wont see any links to these articles. If you look in the print magazine and you wont find them. If you search through the menu for the ‘OPINION / ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT’ section you wont find them either. This could be an indexing issue but it’s more likely to be part of a search-engine optimisation strategy aimed at promoting Shellenberger and his lobbying websites.

Here’s a summary of how it works; due to the volume of traffic going to Forbes.com, the Google search engine considers it to be a reputable/valuable source of information. By extension outgoing links from the Forbes.com domain also confer some ‘authority’ on the destination domain. The exact way in which Google ranks websites is a closely guarded secret but the practise of setting up, so called, ‘orphan’ pages which link to other pages simply to boost the recipient’s ranking is an established strategy. Aside from a paucity of reputable sources it’s probably one of the reasons for the onanistic linking frenzy in Shellenberger’s article. The website MOZ.com provides a tool that estimates a site’s level of ‘authority’ on Google. It also shows key sources of traffic from ‘backlinks‘.