Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Archive for the ‘Helen Caldicott’ Category

Helen Caldicott and the fine art of making up nonsense.

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Here’s a particularly egregious and scientifically vapid (as you’d expect, of course) interview with Helen Caldicott… recorded recently on some kind of “environmentalist” podcast.

Now… I could write a comprehensive technical deconstruction and debunking of essentially the whole lot… but I’m only one person, with a finite amount of time.

I’ll get started, just for now, by taking a look at just one particular sentence of nonsense from Caldicott.

Ask questions. Seek the evidence. Ask everybody questions, and never take anybody’s word for it. Are factual statements backed up by evidence? Are quantitative statements backed up by measurements, calculations, or derivations? Can those measurements or derivations be described and reproduced? Read everything you possibly can, and you decide.

Do people like Caldicott have the right idea? Or do people like George Monbiot have the right idea – that beneath the FUD, rhetoric and hysteria, these people have absolutely no real evidence, facts, knowledge or technical literacy at all?

HC: “Well it won’t recover. These accidents go on forever because plutonium’s half-life is 24,400 years. It lasts for half a million years. Thirty tons of plutonium got out at Chernobyl.”

Thirty tons of plutonium “got out” at Chernobyl!?

Personally, that reads many thousands of counts per minute on my baloney detector.

Let’s follow Dr. Caldicott’s favourite piece of advice… let’s read her book. Surely, just like all of Caldicott’s other “references” usually are, it’s got to be “in my book”, right?

“Plutonium is so carcinogenic that the half-ton of plutonium released from the Chernobyl meltdown is theoretically enough to kill everyone on Earth with lung cancer 1100 times, if it were to be uniformly distributed into the lungs of every human being.”

(From Nuclear Power is Not The Answer).

Hmmmm. Curious. It looks like we’ve gone from “a half-ton” in the book to “thirty tons” in this recent interview. Well, so much for “you should read my book… it’s all in the book!”

(By the way… that “kill everyone on Earth with lung cancer 1100 times…” bit is complete baloney. But that’s a story for another day.)

Reactor-grade plutonium typically consists of approximately 1.3% 238Pu, which has a half-life of 87.7 years and a specific activity of 634 GBq/g, 56.7% 239Pu, which has a half-life of 24,110 years and a commensurately far smaller specific activity of 2.3 GBq/g, 23.2% of 240Pu, with a half-life of
6564 years and a specific activity of 8.40 GBq/g, 13.9 % of 241Pu, with a half-life of 14.35 years and a specific activity of 3.84 TBq/g, and 4.9% of 242Pu, with a half-life of 373,300 years and a specific activity of 145 MBq/g.

Taking the weighted sum of all the above, we find that the overall specific activity of reactor-grade plutonium is 545.3 GBq/g, predominantly due to the 241Pu and the 238Pu content.

(Reactor-grade plutonium is considerably more radioactive than weapons-grade plutonium, due to the presence of substantial concentrations of these relatively unstable, high-activity plutonium nuclides. Weapons-grade plutonium is almost entirely 239Pu, which despite being a good fissile fuel, is more stable and less radioactive. The radiological heat output of 238Pu, gamma-radiation (from the 241Am daughter of 241Pu) and the high rate of neutron emission from the spontaneous fission of 240Pu all make these nuclides extremely deleterious and undesirable in nuclear weapon design and engineering.)

The best value determined based on the available data for the quantity of plutonium (a reactor-grade cocktail of different plutonium nuclides) released at Chernobyl is, as published in the reports of the Chernobyl Forum, 3 PBq (3×1015 Bq).

The approximate total mass, based on the best available data, of plutonium released into the environment at Chernobyl is 3 PBq divided by 545.3 GBq/g.

As the British physicist David Mackay put it, I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic.

It’s 5.5 kilograms.

Incidentally, that’s a very small amount of plutonium compared to the amount of plutonium that has been dispersed around the environment from half a century of nuclear weapons testing. 5.5 kilograms of plutonium is, approximately, the amount of plutonium in the pit of a single nuclear weapon. A single zero-yield “fizzle” of a nuclear weapon with no fission, or a zero-yield one-point-implosion safety test, or the accidental HE explosion (without proper implosion of the primary, as in the Palomares and Thule accidents) of a single nuclear weapon will disperse a roughly comparable mass of plutonium into the environment. (But less radioactivity, since weapons-grade Pu is less radioactive than reactor-grade Pu.)

So, Caldicott has gone from exaggerating the true number by a factor of approximately 100 to exaggerating the true number by a factor of approximately 6000.

Anyway… let’s just step back a minute. 30 tons of plutonium released at Chernobyl? Let’s apply what scientists, engineers and technologists sometimes refer to as the “reasonableness test” or the “smell test”. Can you quickly “smell” the data and determine if it is roughly plausible or not?

The total mass of uranium dioxide fuel in the fuel assemblies of a fully fueled RBMK reactor is about 180 tonnes. That’s about 159 tonnes of uranium, if you take off the mass of the oxygen in the uranium dioxide. When LEU fuel is irradiated at a typical burnup in a nuclear power reactor, about one percent of the mass of the original uranium ends up as transuranic actinides, mostly plutonium, by the time the fuel is removed. So, that’s a total plutonium inventory in the Chernobyl reactor of approximately 1.6 tonnes.

So, if we make a conservative, pessimistic and entirely unrealistic assumption that 100% of the plutonium inventory in the nuclear fuel was entirely vaporised and released into the environment during the Chernobyl accident, that would be 1.6 tonnes of plutonium released to the environment. (In reality, that fraction was something more like 0.34% of the total inventory of plutonium within the irradiated uranium dioxide fuel.)

So, does “thirty tons” pass the smell test? Not by a long shot.

Written by Luke Weston

April 23, 2011 at 6:47 am

Anti-nuclear quote of the week.

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“The reuse of spent fuel is catastrophically dangerous. It means separating plutonium from the radioactive waste, fabricating it into fuel rods and fueling a reactor with 5 to 15 tons of plutonium, which is cooled by liquid sodium, a highly reactive explosive material.

As 10 pounds of plutonium is critical mass, and as less than one millionth of a gram is carcinogenic, a loss of the volatile coolant could induce a massive nuclear explosion which could be seen from the moon, scattering deadly plutonium to the four winds.”

There are no prizes for guessing who this is from. You can stop over on that page and post comments, if you feel so inclined.

We seem to just keep hearing claims that move further and further from reality, and further into the realm of just Making Stuff Up.

There was one simple sentence delivered by Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World that Caldicott, and her followers, might do well to take heed of: Try science.

Please just try the scientific method, just for once.

Written by Luke Weston

October 9, 2008 at 4:12 pm

Anti-nuclear quote of the week.

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“Every year Areva, the French conglomerate that handles reprocessing, dumps so much radioactive liquid into the Channel that, says Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “there are certain beaches where the effluent pipe is where you can get a suntan at night.””


What absolutely laughable, ridiculous nonsense. Hell, even Caldicott probably wouldn’t be that stupid. Lochbaum does know what a suntan is, and what causes it, right?

On the trail of Caldicott, 10 years on.

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I recently discovered this webpage, which makes for very interesting reading.

I always wondered what B.L. Cohen would have to say about Caldicott’s claims.

The more objective, informed people are exposed to Caldicott’s work – the more they’re all saying exactly the same things.

Mark the dates – Caldicott and her friends have been making the same arguments, the exact same hyperbole, for the last ten years.

We’ve made the same arguments against it, and we’ve seen the same lack of sensible response. All the while – the inevitable meltdowns, the epidemics of cancer and death, the four horsemen of the nuclear powered apocalypse have been on our door step for the last 10 years…

…Where are they?

Were Strontium-90, Americium, Caesium-137 and so forth really released in the Three Mile Island accident? Well, the Kemeny commission report says nothing of the sort, but if Caldicott and her colleagues are so damned sure, then go to Pennsylvania with a shovel, take the soil, and perform gamma-ray spectroscopy, and publish the empirical data in their books. If I was in the United States, I’d be doing just that, and posting the data for the world to study and reproduce.

That’s how we find out; with this thing we call the Scientific Method. With this tool, we vanquish the impossible, as Caldicott’s friend Carl Sagan once said.

On that note: I have the deepest respect and admiration for the late Carl Sagan. Every thinking person fears nuclear war, and every technological nation plans for it. Everyone knows it’s madness, and everyone has an excuse.

Carl had, as many of us have, great respect for Caldicott’s tireless work on nuclear weapons policy, nonproliferation and disarmament. But would he tolerate this perversion of science? This complete disregard for the tools and philosophies of science, in favour of an agenda of political rhetoric? What would he have to say to Dr. Caldicott, today?

Written by Luke Weston

December 6, 2007 at 7:32 pm

The White Elephant.

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I hope Caldicott doesn’t think that’s really John Howard she’s speaking to, but you never know.

Also, I can’t help but wonder if the air compressor they’re using to inflate the elephant is powered by some sort of renewable energy?

Written by Luke Weston

November 23, 2007 at 3:27 pm

Lovins and Caldicott: Hypercars and Hyperbole

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Rod Adams over at Atomic Insights recently considered an interesting question – Who is more dangerous, Amory Lovins or Helen Caldicott? An interesting question.

Adams says that “Caldicott energizes and adds emotional fervor for people who have little understanding of the way the world work; Lovins gets entry into board rooms and government conference rooms where real money gets moved around.”

I think this statement is absolutely true. Whilst Helen Caldicott’s claims about nuclear power absolutely infuriate and annoys me, as well as many other people who look favourably upon nuclear energy because they’ve looked at it in a rational, sensible way, informed about the science and the technology, I think that Dr. Caldicott isn’t as dangerous, fortunately, as you may think.

I have spoken with people who are vehemently anti nuclear energy, and they’ve told me that they they cannot take Caldicott seriously, and that the anti-nuclear movement, at least that part of it which is somewhat rational, would be a lot better off without Caldicott as one of the high-profile public faces of this movement.

First and foremost, many regard Lovins as something of a shill for American corporations – Although there’s a lot of negative things we can say about Caldicott, nobody ever accused her of being a “shill”.

“Our thesis rests on a different perception. Our attempt to rethink focuses not on marginal reforms but on basic assumptions. In fact, the global nuclear power enterprise is rapidly disappearing……For fundamental reasons which we shall describe, nuclear power is not commercially viable, and questions of how to regulate an inexorably expanding world nuclear regime are moot.”

— Amory Lovins, 1980.

“De facto moratoria on reactor ordering exist today in the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, and probably the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Canada.

Nuclear power has been indefinitely deferred or abandoned in Austria, Denmark, Norway, Iran, China, Australia and New Zealand…”

— Amory Lovins, 1980.

The fact is, in 1980, Lovins got it wrong.

Scientists, sometimes, get it wrong. Carl Sagan, when he claimed that oil fires during the Gulf War would induce a worldwide ecological catastrophe, akin to a “nuclear winter”, got it wrong. When Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki claimed that CCS and geosequestration of Australia’s CO2 emissions from energy generation would require the sequestration of one cubic kilometer of carbon dioxide a day, and is absolutely unfeasable, he got it wrong. If somebody asked Lovins about his 1980 publication, he will most likely admit that he got it wrong.

However, I’m fairly confident that Amory Lovins knows that tritiated water is not H3O, and he knows the difference between the neutron-absorbing control rods and the moderator of a nuclear reactor.

In 1976 Amory Lovins coined the term “soft path” to describe an alternative future where efficiency and appropriate renewable energy sources steadily replace a centralized energy system based on fossil and nuclear fuels.

The “hard energy path”, as described by Lovins, with which the “soft path” contrasts is based on the assumption that the more energy we use the better off we are. It involves inefficient liquid-fuel automotive transport, as well as giant, centralized electricity-generating facilities, burning fossil fuels or harnessing nuclear fission. The hard path is not simply a matter of energy sources, though, because it is greatly augmented and complicated by wastage and loss of electricity and other common, directly usable forms of energy.

The “soft energy path” assumes that energy is but a means to social ends, and is not an end in itself. Soft energy paths involve efficient use of energy, diversity of energy production methods (matched in scale and quality to end uses), and special reliance on co-generation and “soft technologies” such as solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, geothermal energy, etc.

Now, quoth the good Dr. Caldicott:

“Nuclear power is often referred to behind closed doors in the U.S. Department of Energy as “hard” energy whereas wind power, solar power, hydropower, and geothermal energy are referred to as “soft” energy pathways.

Clearly the same psychosexual language used by the Pentagon generals to describe various aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclear war has been translocated into the nuclear power vocabulary of some very powerful and influential men in the electricity generating field.”

I’ve heard that Lovins used to talk about the risks of nuclear proliferation as a key argument against the use of nuclear energy, however, I haven’t read these particular arguments – unfortunately, I haven’t yet read any of Lovins’s books.

“If you go to the December 2005 issue of Nuclear Engineering International, you’ll find a paper called `Mighty Mice’ that summarizes an economic analysis. What that analysis shows from the best empirical data available last year, is if you spent 10 cents (U.S.) to make and deliver a new nuclear kilowatt-hour — notice I said deliver, so that’s at your meter — you can displace 1 kilowatt-hour of coal power. That’s what Patrick is talking about. And it might seem like a good idea until you look at the competitors.”

“Given the relative cost and financial risk of Canadian or U.S. nuclear, you have to have a very restrictive set of options or strange idea of economics to conclude a nuclear plant makes any sense. So I don’t know how they could have reached that conclusion, unless it’s ideological or designed just to support the nuclear industry.”

Today, from my reading, for the most part, Lovins never seems to say that nuclear energy is bad. Lovins does not rant on about waste, meltdowns, proliferation, terrorists attacking nuclear power stations, or anything of the sort that Caldicott does.

Lovins just says that conservation, distributed generation, solar, wind and so forth can do a better, cheaper, job of meeting our energy needs in a clean way.

I support the clean, “soft” technologies promoted by Lovins, and I think that there’s certainly a place for them in the energy mix of the future. But I do not believe that it would be easier or cheaper for these energy systems to meet all our energy needs than it would be for nuclear energy to be a key contributor in an energy mix that will meet all our energy needs.

Even Lovins’s HyperHouse uses a little bit of electricity off the grid, and a little bit of fossil fuel. We can have a world completely free of the need to burn fossil fuels, and this should be the number one aim.

Whilst Lovins does have real influence in the boardrooms of industry and commerce and the halls of government, and this is a potential dangerous mixture, if Lovins is pushing flawed science, or no science at all. However, from my knowledge of Lovins, he, at the very least, knows how to use the Scientific Method. I’ll give him the benefit of my finite reading and experience and reading of Lovins’s works, and say this: Dr. Lovins is a scientist. A shill, perhaps, but a scientist none the less. Caldicott is no shill, but no scientist, no way, and never was.

Now, I’d buy a hydrogen Hypercar. I’d love a hydrogen Hypercar. I first got excited about hydrogen hypercars when I read an article about the design, engineering and electronics that went into General Motors’s HyWire, actually. (OK, it’s not the genuine Lovins HyperCar, but let’s expand the definition to include all modern designs for advanced Hydrogen-powered wheels.) Whilst I’d be quite happy to see the hydrogen produced from solar energy, or wind energy, or from clever hydrogen-producing algae, I’d be equally as happy, more happy in fact, to see the hydrogen produced from the cleanest large-scale energy system we have proven at the moment – and that is nuclear energy.

The following is taken from the visitor’s guide to Lovins’s Snowmass HyperHouse:

“Above the decking is a three-eighths-of-an-inch (1-cm) base layer of Freon-filled polyurethane foam; a polyethylene vapor barrier sealed at its edges to the wall insulation; and, depending on location, another four to eight inches (10–20 cm) of polyurethane.”

Freon!? My goodness! Won’t somebody please think of the atmosphere!

I wonder how much Potassium-40 is being consumed each year from Lovins’s HyperBanana crops, anyway?

Anyway, in conclusion: Amory Lovins is the “more dangerous”, probably, of the two. Shilling for industry is nothing to be proud of, if Lovins is somewhat guilty of that, but it’s still Lovins who I have more respect for, of the two.

I’ll leave you with a quote from NNadir, who certainly has a few interesting things to say about Lovins – and a few interesting things to say about just about everything else.

“I measure time in billions of tons of carbon dioxide. People started investing in Amory Lovins’ ideas 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide ago.”

More Nuclear Madness

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I’ve just finished reading and taking notes from Helen Caldicott’s Nuclear Madness. In time, you’ll see a detailed chapter-by-chapter deconstruction released, just as i’m working on with her other book.

Until then, i’ll leave you with a few choice quotes:

“The radioactive inventory [[released at Chernobyl]] contained plutonium; iodine-131 and iodine-129 (half-life of 16 million years); neptunium-139; 2.5 million curies of cesium-137; and strontium-90.”

There’s no such thing as Neptunium-139. Even if we assume that’s a misprint, and it’s supposed to say Np-239, that has a half-life of 2.4 days.

…a nuclear reactor must operate at full capacity for ten years to repay its energy debt incurred by uranium mining, enrichment, fuel fabrication, steel and zirconium manufacture, and plant construction (this does not include decommissioning). Add to this eight to ten years for plant construction and fuel loading and reloading. It would therefore take approximately eighteen years for one net calorie of energy to be generated for societal consumption.”

Here’s a tip. Don’t double count the costs and then explain in detail where you’ve double counted it.

“Long-term plans call for the disposal of the plutonium derived from these decommissioned former Soviet Union and US weapons. The plutonium will be placed in reactors and fissioned and converted or “transmuted” to shorter-lived, radioactive isotopes; eg, from 239-Pu, with a total life of 500,000 years, to 90-Sr and 137-Cs, with radioactive lives of 600 years. Sounds good, but I wonder if eighteen generations from now, the people will appreciate the carcinogenic and mutagenic effects of ubiquitous 90-Sr in their bones, and 137-Cs in their muscles and reproductive organs.”

Maybe we should just keep the bombs, then? A fission reactor destroys, permanently and immediately, weaponisable Plutonium, something that can not be accomplished with any other means.

“Hanford – America’s nuclear cemetery – a vast dead satanic area, poisonous for millions of years.”

The above paragraph is quoted verbatim. That’s a separate paragraph in its entirety.

“We do know for a fact, however, that ground water at the [[Savannah River]] complex is already contaminated with cesium 137, cobalt 60, plutonium 238 and 239, radium, ruthenium 166, strontium 90, tritium, uranium, and complex organic solvents that enhance the radioactive migration.”

Ruthenium-166? Great. Now we’ve got radioactive contamination from radioactive isotopes that do not exist.

Now, on page 196 we’ve got this:

“Some of this material contained 99-Tc – a mobile isotope with a half-life of 212,000 years.”

(The symbols for the elements are mine, they’re not used in the book, but i’ll use them for the sake of brevity. I’m sure all readers are capable of recognising chemical symbols.)

But, on page 204, something a little interesting:

“The grout contains, among other isotopes to mention, technetium-99, with a half-life of 210,000 years.”

In case anyone’s curious, the half-life is actually 211,100 years. Getting it right to within 1000 years, as 212,000 years, is good enough for me, but I can’t for the life of me work out why a different figure was used.

“When rain falls on the desert, the water migrates deeply very quickly carrying with it the toxic radioisotopes; and should it evaporate in the heat, soluble isotopes evaporate with it.

Good grief. Did this woman have any exposure to science in elementary school?

“Israel cooperated with South Africa to test its first nuclear weapon in 1979…”

Can any credible source credibly call this a truth? To this day, it remains a conspiracy theory.

“Once an individual or group is in possession of Plutonium, bomb fabrication is not very difficult. Using only declassified information, college students have succeeded in designing functional bombs.

The designs call for metal fixtures bought at local hardware stores and ten to twenty pounds of plutonium, an amount that can easily be concealed in a shopping bag”

Oh dear.

Written by Luke Weston

September 5, 2007 at 4:16 pm