Communication nuclear industry - public
What lies behind this glossy image?
Complexity and opacity
The nuclear energy system is the most complex energy system ever, not only in the technical sense, but also in economic, political and societal senses. As a result the nuclear complex is opaque to most policy makers. The confusing situation is exacerbated by divergent perceptions of the large uncertainties still existing with regard to the inevitable consequences of nuclear power. Economic, political and/or scientific arguments may easily exhibit widely different scopes and turn out to be not always compatible.
Reliable insight in nuclear matters is further complicated by the misleading practice of the nuclear industry to present unproved technical concepts as being mature technology, waiting on the shelf to be implemented on demand.
One-sided information and conflict of interests
Another factor troubling the transparency of the nuclear world is the one-sidedness of the information flow to people outside of the nuclear world. The primary information on nuclear power to decision makers originates almost exclusively from institutes with vested interests in nuclear power, such as: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), World Nuclear Association (WNA), Areva, Electricitéť de France (EdF), the latter two being 90% state-owned. The World Health Organization (WHO) cannot operate independently of the IAEA on nuclear matters, according to a UN resolution of 28 May 1959. There are strong connections between the IAEA and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), the authority who formulates the standards of allowable radiation doses. How independent is the IAEA, who's mission statement reads promotion of the use of nuclear energy and the achievement of 'high levels of safety'? Universities are not free in their choices of subjects for research and publications, if a significant part of their costs are paid for by the nuclear or nuclear-related industry.
Uncertainties and unknowns
No empirical figures are available of the energy and material consumption of the full back end of the nuclear energy system, for a number of essential processes still don't exist [more i12]. In addition even emprical figures often exhibit considerable spreads in their values. Any statement with solid figures, without indicating an appreciable uncertainty range, is unscientific and misleading. Think of the CO2 emission, energy security, costs, exposure to radiation and other quantities with regard to nuclear power.
Assessment of the implications of nuclear power should taking the whole cradle-to-grave period into account, because the greatest safety and health risks originate in the activities and processes following the final shutdown of a nuclear power plant, the so-called back end part of the nuclear process chain. Precisely these processes pose the greatest uncertainties and unknowns related to safety and health risks.
Downplaying the hazards
Usually it is hardly possible to prove unambiguously the relationship between a once contracted dose of radiation with an indiviual and carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic effects, because of the long incubation periods, months to years or decades. The long time lag between exposure and observable health effects – for example the heritable damage to egg cells in young women may only become evident after some 30 years – forces the medical sciences to employ special methods to assess the hazards of nuclear power.
The long time delay gives the nuclear industry the opportunity to downplay the effects and even to deny radioactivity being the cause of observed adverse health effects [more i22]. Other factors are blamed to be the cause of observed disorders, sometimes even psychosomatic factors: 'radiophobia', the angst of radiation. Of course this kind of assertions come from people living far from radioactive-contaminated areas.
From a purely scientific point of view above assertions are fundamentally flawed. When it is not possible to unambiguously prove that radioactivity is the cause of adverse health effects observed with a individual, then you have to prove that radioactivity cannot be the cause, before asserting that radioactivity is not the cause but other factors are. At present the nuclear industry is strongly downplaying the gravity of the Fukushima disaster, which is called 'non-catastrophic'[more i23]. The worst effects in the industrial view are economic: delay for new nuclear power stations.
Fostering the myths
During the past two decades, little spectacular developments have been visible with the nuclear industry, other than upgrades of existing reactor concepts (PWR and BWR) to a higher power level and a claimed, but yet to be proved, higher grade of safety. The world operating nuclear capacity has been nearly constant since the early 1990s and is will decline during the next decades [more i28, i29]. In addition there was the silent failure of the fast breeder development, disguised behind asserted economic, political and societal resistances [more i33].
Understandably the nuclear industry is looking for innovations, to keep nuclear power in the picture and to create new markets. Carefully an image of advanced and highly promising technology is being maintained. Old reactor concepts – such as molten-salt fast reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, accelerator-driven sub-critical reactors, traveling-wave reactors, liquid-metal cooled fast reactors, thorium-fuelled reactors, actinide burners – are brushed up and presented under new names, for example in the Generation-IV Roadmap. These novel-looking concepts would promise to be inherently safe, to burn fissile material much more efficiently and to generate much less long-lived radioactive waste than currently operational reactors. However, can they fulfil those promises?
Examination of the advanced concepts reveals fundamental flaws, originating from a belief in unlimited possibilities of technology, not allowing for the limitations set by natural laws, especially the Second Law of thermodynamics, and the finite size of the biosphere [more i30, i43]. For that reason the advanced concepts could only function in cyberspace and are to be classified as myths. The feasibility of the claims cannot be judged on feasibility by the public and politicians. Only experts, well-introduced in nuclear technology, can discern proven technology from paper concepts, and empirical facts from wishful thinking.
The futuristic sounding ideas, the myths, are eagerly adopted by enthousiastic people who believe in the unlimited possibilities of technology. Evidently the nuclear industry is pleased with any publicity which stimulates public and political support and, more importantly, financial support. Futuristic technical concepts promising nearly unlimited energy resources, safe, secure, clean, cheap, have a great appeal to the public [more i04]. The nuclear industry is the last who would publicly question the feasibility of the myths, even if they have become deformed in the public domain. It might be important to know the source of a statement or report concerning such an advanced concept.
A few habits lead to the one-sidedness of the communication from the nuclear world to the general public, such as:
• downplaying hazards,
• disposing of objections and complaints from the public as if originating from a lack of knowledge and/or from leftish environmental activism,
• asserting unverifiable concepts,
•not discerning between proved technology and theoretical concepts, existing only in cyberspace.
What lies behind that glossy image . . .
Stakeholders of the nuclear complex