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A Disturbing Conversation about Nuclear Safety

Uploaded: Dec 6, 2020
It’s one thing to hear about the war on science but quite another to listen to it live as you are driving home on a quiet evening. Okay, it wasn’t really live (it was a podcast), but it packed quite a punch just the same.

I was planning to do a blog post on nuclear energy so I was listening to some podcasts for background. I had found one, Titans of Nuclear, that had interviews with a variety of interesting people, so I had downloaded a few to listen to. One episode was an interview with Dr. Edwin Lyman, the Director of Nuclear Power Safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists. It was pretty long and I figured I would learn a lot. I guess I did, just not what I was expecting.

What I learned, really viscerally, was the degree to which an impatience with science, a lack of appreciation for statistics, and a disinterest in precise speech can lead to a complete breakdown in communication, even between ostensibly intelligent parties. The conversation is eye-opening. I encourage you to listen to it, starting around 14:30 where Lyman says that we want to avoid another Fukushima.

Dr. Edwin Lyman has worked for decades in nuclear policy after receiving a PhD in physics from Cornell. He is a well-regarded expert on issues including nuclear safety and security. The podcast host, Bret Kugelmass, is a nuclear energy advocate in Washington DC, where he has interviewed hundreds of people in the field for his podcast. He earned a masters in robotics from Stanford before beginning his advocacy work out of concern for climate change.

The two have different styles. Lyman is a careful, dispassionate communicator, like many scientists. He prefers to move between academic and practical spheres in a principled way, understanding the data before making policy decisions. Kugelmass is more impetuous, a passionate communicator, perhaps more interested in persuading than he is in learning. In the case of nuclear, he feels strongly that the industry is over-regulated, resulting in too much cost for too little benefit. These two were oil and vinegar. I am sure that Lyman felt Kugelmass was egregiously sloppy in his thinking, while Kugelmass felt that Lyman was obstructively ponderous and impractical.

I am sympathetic with both. I can imagine Kugelmass thinking “Look, if you are in a burning building, do you stoop to take the temperature of the doorknob before you open it and rush out? No, it’s not that hot, just go already!” At the same time, I can imagine Lyman responding “Look, I don’t care if you grab the doorknob or not. That’s a policy decision. Just don’t claim the doorknob isn’t hot.” The issue that I have is we shouldn’t have to choose between a science-based approach and speed. We should be able to act, and even act quickly, without disregarding facts. “Science suggests the doorknob is hot. Grab it with a towel or something on your way out or you may have to deal with a bad burn.”

The host’s impatience with and disregard for science is the core problem I have with this podcast. The at-best-sloppy and at-worst-deceptive arguments put forth by Kugelmass distort the facts and in my opinion constitute a much bigger roadblock to progress than the facts (and uncertainty) themselves. Here is how it played out.

At the heart of much of the discussion was the basic question: “How much ionizing radiation is too much?” There are many studies demonstrating a linear dose-response relationship between the amount of radiation a person is exposed to and the amount of damage (e.g., cancer) they incur. When real-world events have exposed a large enough population to a large enough dose of radiation, this relationship is backed with statistically significant findings. The linear relationship is extrapolated to lower doses based in part on the biological mechanism by which ionizing radiation affects the body.

One of the initial exchanges was about this mechanism. Radiation can disrupt genetic material and cause tumors to form when the defective cells propagate. Lyman explains that the exposure works differently for different types of radioactive particles, and begins to talk about how some particles are so big they need to be ingested rather than go through skin. Kugelmass interrupts, questioning whether cell damage is inherently bad. “When I work out, I do considerable damage to my tissue also, but it makes me stronger in the net effect, at the end of the day. I’m literally destroying individual cells whenever I work out. And the same happens with radiation, on a micro basis…. Destroying cells doesn’t mean, on net, it leads to a cancer.”

How do you respond to a statement like that, essentially equating radiation exposure with exercise? Lyman methodically begins his response by distinguishing between cases in which tissue is destroyed (e.g., acute radiation syndrome) and cases in which genetic material is modified and propagated (e.g., cancer), and notes that they are talking about the latter. His communication is precise, while Kugelmass is more interested in making relatable statements that will appeal to his listeners. But if you want to make meaningful points on the possible beneficial impacts of low dose radiation, you need to be much more precise.

After this, the discussion was less about the mechanism by which radiation impacts the body and more about what we know about low doses of radiation. An analogy goes like this. Suppose you are panning for gold in a creek with a kitchen sieve. You don’t find anything after a day of looking. You declare “There is no gold here!” Is that right? What if you looked for longer? What if you were smarter about where you looked, or used a bigger sieve?” So you upgrade your equipment, talk with a geologist about where to look, and look for a full week. Still nothing. “There is no gold here!” Are you right now? What does the geology of nearby rock formations suggest? Is it likely there is gold in the creek? On the other hand, if you say “It’s not worth looking for gold here!”, then that is a perfectly fine and defensible value judgment. Scientists care a lot about that distinction, but not everyone else does.

How does this relate to our understanding of the effects of radiation? Much of our knowledge about the dose-response relationship of radiation exposure to disease has come from studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. As time has progressed, scientists have been able to gather more data and it has been possible to get statistically significant results for lower and lower doses of radiation. That is the equivalent of getting a bigger sieve when panning for gold. But still we do not have statistically significant findings below a certain level. Kugelmass interprets this as low doses having no effect. “There’s a practical threshold. In reality it doesn’t matter…. There is a net-zero effect on cancers at the end of the day.”

He searches for an analog. Background radiation in parts of Colorado is two to three times higher than elsewhere due to more uranium in the soil. “And yet we let people live in Colorado.” He then rails against the lack of “cost-benefit” analysis when it comes to nuclear energy. Lyman points out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s standard is one of “reasonable assurance of adequate protection,” emphasizing that many of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s recommendations in the wake of Fukushima were rejected due to excessive cost.

As I listen to the podcast, I hear a host who is passionate about nuclear energy but without much depth of knowledge, finding the facts too complicated or too unintuitive to deal with and instead making appealing but misleading arguments. The two go on to talk about the Fukushima meltdown, which occurred after a massive earthquake-induced tsunami flooded the emergency generators that were cooling the reactor. Many died from the earthquake and tsunami and subsequent social upheaval, but relatively little injury has been attributed to radiation exposure. Kugelmass is incensed by this.

“To me, what Fukushima showed is that we went so far overboard in our safety measures to begin with…. There were zero deaths in this accident, after the largest tsunami the Earth has ever seen and the second largest earthquake in human history.” Lyman pushes back, saying we don’t yet know the extent of the damage. He estimates that “a thousand or more cancer deaths” will be attributed to the excess radiation over time, based on the science, while Kugelmass says “zero deaths”. There follows a Seussian exchange.

Lyman: “If people are exposed to ionizing radiation, there will be an effect…. Because of the level of exposure compared to background, you may not be able to see it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Kugelmass: “It does mean it’s not there.”

Lyman: “No it doesn’t.”

Kugelmass: “Of course it does.”

Lyman: “That’s a fallacy.”

Kugelmass: “That’s not a fallacy, it’s logically consistent.”

Lyman: “It’s not logically consistent. If an effect can’t be detected in an epidemiological study, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Kugelmass: “On a practical basis, it’s not there. On a practical basis.”

Then, after more discussion, Lyman asks Kugelmass to be more precise:

Kugelmass: “At the point where you cannot tease out excess deaths from background cancer deaths, that’s the threshold. That’s the practical threshold.”

Lyman: “I don’t agree, people are still being harmed. It’s just there isn’t enough statistical significance to detect that. But if there is a dose-response relationship, people are being harmed, and you can’t pretend that’s not occurring.”

Kugelmass:Theoretically somebody is being harmed.”

Lyman: “Look, if you want the industry to thrive, I don’t think denying the harm is a useful or productive way to go.”

Kugelmass then goes on an aside to rail against the engineering requirements for nuclear reactors. “Why does a nuclear plant cost $10 billion for a 1 GW plant today instead of the $1 billion it takes to build a coal plant? It’s $9 billion worth of unnecessary safety equipment to save zero lives in case of an accident.” After a brief but futile exchange on the value of building codes, they return to arguing about how much radiation people were exposed to at Fukushima. Kugelmass again asserts that it was so low as to have had no effect.

Kugelmass: “Not only was it well characterized, it was orders of magnitude, orders of magnitude, lower than what you would need to have an adverse effect from radiation.”

Lyman: “How do you know that? Have you done a population survey? Have you studied the movements of evacuees compared to the plume contamination, to ground contamination? You are saying ridiculous things. If you want to establish credibility, you can’t just dismiss the established basis for how you understand and study these issues.”

Lyman tries again when Kugelmass conflates whether the harm exists with whether the harm matters. “First you said it wasn’t going to affect anyone if it was below a certain dose, and now you’re saying from a cost-benefit it doesn’t matter. Those are different things. I accept if you say it doesn’t matter, that’s fine.” Kugelmass talks over him: “I say both of them! I say both of them!”

The podcast wraps up with this exchange:

Lyman: “Look, if you want to make a technically valid argument, then you have to provide references that support it. I haven’t heard anything…. Write a paper, have references, submit it for peer review. You have your opinions, but they’re worth nothing Bret. Sorry.”

Kugelmass (laughing): “That’s funny. That is the de facto argument whenever somebody feels like they’ve been outgunned, they say ‘Go write a paper.’”

Lyman: “I’m not outgunned. I’m not going to accept your assertions about stuff that you obviously have no basis for.”

So, what is my point here? I found this discussion truly awful. I have little tolerance for the intellectual hubris that Kugelmass displayed, coupled with his impatience with science and his unwillingness or inability to communicate precisely. Lyman displayed considerable forbearance in my book; it was all I could do to not turn the whole podcast off. But with similar conversations happening in so many places, with people deriding science while wielding megaphones, scientists have got to find a way to bridge the gap. Can we work out how to talk more intuitively about probabilities and risk? Can we acknowledge the urgency around climate change and find ways to address those who want to see more speed?

I had a chance to speak with Dr. Lyman about his thoughts on this. While he pointed to some efforts to streamline nuclear energy development, like the recent Nuclear Energy Innovation Modernization Act, he feels that this direction is misguided. “The real problem is not safety regulations, it’s the industry’s inability to build on time and on budget.” He points to recent studies by MIT showing that these problems largely stem from issues with planning and construction, such as incomplete designs, inflexible construction practices, unreliable supply chains, and inadequate expertise. “They can’t raise enough capital, so they are turning around and scapegoating others instead.”

Moreover, he emphasizes that cutting corners on safety can be counterproductive. “The legal authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is to protect public health and safety, but industry benefits from the regulations as well. When safety problems occur, it is bad for the industry.” He worries that financial pressure on the industry is pushing them to take shortcuts on safety.

I asked if he felt any technologies coming down the pike were particularly promising, and his response was a depressing “Not really.” As an example, he talked about the NuScale reactor, a next-generation small, modular reactor that is meant to be cheaper, safer, and more flexible than traditional reactors. It is designed to shut down and cool down automatically if the core overheats, with no need for power, water, or operator intervention. During the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval process, a significant flaw was found in the design, raising questions about whether the automatic safety mechanism would work. Yet the company had been so confident in their design that they requested a waiver of many of the other safety requirements, such as an emergency planning zone (the absence of which would make the reactors easier to site). Lyman thinks it is “penny wise and pound foolish” to forego proven safety mechanisms in the hope that a new technology will work flawlessly. “The industry needs to focus on the fundamentals, where the costs and delays are, rather than cutting corners on safety. There’s not much good to come from promising what’s too good to be true.”

I’ll end with this quote from Lyman from 2013, still very relevant today: “Nuclear power’s worst enemy may not be the anti-nuclear movement ... but rather nuclear power advocates whose rose-colored view of the technology helped create the attitude of complacency that made accidents like Fukushima possible. Nuclear power will only be successful through the vision of realists who acknowledge its problems and work hard to fix them.”

Notes and References
0. Interested in making some charitable donations to organizations that are addressing climate change? Or in purchasing offsets for your emissions last year (or this coming year)? Check out Giving Green, as recommended by Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic. “Giving Green advises people on how to fight climate change with their donations in the most evidence-based way possible.”

1. Cynthia Jones of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) provides an interesting overview of the history of the NRC’s radiation protection policies.

Current Climate Data (October 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 6, 2020 at 7:58 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

There is probably no such thing as a totally safe nuclear reactor...impervious to any & all natural disasters.

Add potential melt downs or human operational errors and "Houston, we have a problem".

That said, the fewest nuclear reactor installations around is probably the best case scenario...including submarines with ICBMs.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Dec 6, 2020 at 10:24 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I've gotten several emails on this blog post from people working on new nuclear technology and/or studying nuclear engineering and policy. They are sympathetic with the frustration Kugelmass expresses, though most agree the case was poorly made and likely counterproductive.

Their sense is that the regulators worry too much about low dose radiation given that (a) our bodies have effective defense mechanisms at low levels, so the relationship between dose and effect may well not be linear; (b) measurements indicate that the effect that does exist is small or we would have seen significant effects already; and (c) competing concerns are much more significant, including the need to address climate change and to support economic growth in developing nations.

Some of these are questions of fact and others are questions of value. I hope the industry will continue to find common ground and engage in productive conversations around these issues.

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Dec 7, 2020 at 9:25 am

Neal is a registered user.

Although I'm in favor of increasing our nuclear power capacity, it's politically dead. I think the benefits out weigh the risks, but I will never see another nuclear power plant go on line in my life time.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Dec 7, 2020 at 9:52 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I have received a few emails that are in a form where I can just cut-and-paste them, so I will share them. Here is one.

I found your recent piece about radiation dose response quite intriguing, and I mirror many of your concerns. While I'm personally sympathetic to the viewpoint (somewhat inelegantly) espoused by Kugelmass, I believe the trying to get rid of LNT is counterproductive at best. Whether or not the health effects at low doses are actually as bad as predicted by LNT, the optics of arguing against it are terrible. There are legitimate arguments to be made that the focus on minimizing dosage at all costs is actually detrimental to our overall health and safety, but this is hardly unique to the nuclear industry. An example that comes to mind is the passenger railroad industry. Despite death figures being much, much lower than vehicular transportation, the industry was saddled with a multi-billion dollar obligation to install safety systems even as thousands continue to die on our roads with nary a peep.

The truth is that our human perception of risk is fundamentally irrational, and there's very little that can be done to change that. Trying to fight against it is a losing battle and usually engenders more fear. Thus, I believe efforts to try and overturn LNT are not only doomed to failure, but outright counterproductive to greater public acceptance of nuclear technology.

Now I am not a nuclear engineer by trade, but I have educated myself about the technology and strongly believe it should be playing a greater role in our climate response. This is where I somewhat diverge from Lyman. I think there are a lot of promising technologies currently working their way down the pipeline. The US and Canadian governments in particular are now funding nuclear R&D on a scale that hasn't been seen in decades.

You mentioned in your piece that you listen to the Titans of Nuclear podcast, so I'd highly recommend listening to the episode featuring Ian Scott of Moltex Energy (if you haven't already). His company advocates a more conventional approach to molten salt reactor design, and they've had a fair bit of success getting funding and partnerships over in Canada. For something closer to home, I find Terrapower and GE's joint Natrium reactor design quite compelling. While the safety benefits of a sodium reactor are likely lower than a molten salt reactor, both are superior to our current light water fleet, and the technology is more mature. Both propose to do some really interesting things with solar salt-based thermal storage to improve revenue and allow better integration with renewables, and the increased thermal efficiency allowed by higher output temperatures coupled with the decreased regulatory burden achieved via separation of the nuclear and generating islands seem like a promising approach to solving nuclear power's capital woes. The decade-long deployment timeline isn't optimal, but considering the woefully inadequate speed of our current mitigation efforts... let's just say that I'm glad we're keeping our options open.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Dec 7, 2020 at 9:53 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

And here is another, from a reader in Grand Junction, Colorado:

I listened to the entire discussion between Lyman and Kugelmass. The problem in the discussion arises from the Linear No Threshold hypothesis. To learn about low-dose radiation and the LNT hypothesis it is logical to ask what the Health Physics Society position is on the matter. Here is what I found:
1. The HPS has concluded that estimates of health risk should be limited to individuals receiving a dose of 50 mSv in one year or a lifetime dose of 100 mSv above that received from natural sources.
2. Estimation of health risk associated with radiation doses that are of similar magnitude as those received from natural sources should be strictly qualitative and encompass a range of hypothetical health outcomes, including the possibility of no adverse health effects at such low levels.
3. The linear no-threshold hypothesis oversimplifies the relationship between exposure and cancer or hereditary effects in the low dose/low dose-rate region.
4. Calculation of collective dose (the sum of individual doses in a defined exposed population expressed as person-mSv) for low doses over large populations carries uncertainties too high to make it useful for estimating health effects in the low dose/low dose-rate region.
5. For populations in which almost all individuals are estimated to receive a lifetime dose of less than 100 mSv above background, collective dose is highly speculative, and detriment should not be determined for individuals with doses less than 50 mSv.


I also found this question in HPS “Ask the Experts” section where the reader asks:

My question has to do with health effects of low levels of radiation exposure associated with the Fukushima reactor accident. Fox News interviewed a person who said that any level of radiation is harmful. Does the Health Physics Society (HPS) endorse this position? Does the HPS endorse the linear no-threshold (LNT) model for realistically calculating latent cancer deaths from low levels of radiation (i.e., below 100 mSv)? . . . . (use link below to read on)


Posted by yup, a resident of Barron Park,
on Dec 7, 2020 at 6:34 pm

yup is a registered user.

The money quotes:

"...issues with planning and construction, such as incomplete designs, inflexible construction practices, unreliable supply chains, and inadequate expertise.

“They can't raise enough capital, so they are turning around and scapegoating others instead."

The industry generally hasn't been profitable despite immense government support, liability protections, soaking the citizen ratepayer, etc..

Posted by Shawn, a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills,
on Dec 7, 2020 at 7:26 pm

Shawn is a registered user.

Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) - are they really that concerned or genuine about low dose radiation? Nuclear power plants in normal operation emit less radioactivity than coal power plants. Try to find easy references of UCS and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that an added dose of 0.3 µSv per year for living within 50 miles (80 km) of a coal plant and 0.009 milli-rem for a nuclear plant for yearly radiation dose estimation.

I could not find any? Boy was Dr. Edwin Lyman passionate about how those low doses of radiation could be serious and life threatening ... The Uranium and Thorium would be in the air from a coal plant and able to be ingested into lungs. Also, what about natural gas plants and radon? How can you take any of these people seriously when fossil fuels kills millions of people every year from 2.5 PM via heart disease, lung, COPD, high blood pressure et al. In the United States alone, PM2. 5 air pollution from fossil fuels is attributed to approximately 429,000 asthma-related trips to the emergency room each year. Have some perspective?

They do not have a concerned science approach. UCS has an anti nuclear agenda.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Dec 8, 2020 at 9:56 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

And... here is another comment. The email was much longer but would reveal the author's identity, which I don't know if they want. This person has a long history in the development of energy technology.

"Had nuclear not had TMI (that’s another story that isn’t as you’ve heard it), we would have had another century to get our global warming under control. Now the world has changed and variable renewable energy will continue to grow, but the nuclear zealots still want to build uncompetitive base-load plants.... The whole industry is inward focused without being introspective, so I doubt they will change."

My 2c: The impression I get is that the technology side is evolving. For example, the Natrium reactor mentioned by an earlier poster (emailer) is designed to deliver flexible power that can complement renewables. And it's just one of many new/interesting designs. But getting the policies to evolve in pace with the technology is the very, very hard part. Maybe Biden's pick for head of DOE can make a difference here, and two contenders are local!

Posted by Huyen, a resident of another community,
on Dec 10, 2020 at 9:36 am

Huyen is a registered user.

When I was a child I listened to Sting's song "Russians", and I was very scared of this war possibility. Las 10 years I thought that people grew over this terrible danger... Now I can see how I was mistaken.

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