Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Getting the Science Right – And a Bit More

The New Yorker and Time Magazine get nuclear science right this week. Unfortunately, the New Yorker article is behind the subscription wall, and what I’ve linked is what it makes available for free.

The Time Magazine article highlights a joint success: nonproliferation programs working with the nuclear power industry. About 10% of American electrical power comes from uranium from Soviet nuclear weapons. As the Russians disassemble nuclear weapons in compliance with arms control treaties, they are selling us the enriched uranium, which is blended down to reactor grade and burned up in reactors. Kind of a nice story, as close to beating swords into plowshares as we are likely to come in today’s world. But I’ve been told by people in power companies that they don’t want to publicize this for fear of connecting civilian nuclear reactors to bomb-making in people’s minds, and, for some reason, the nonproliferation community isn’t saying much either. I think that’s a mistake; we need all the successes we can get. Now we need to burn up American weapons uranium.*

Peter Hessler gets the science right for the New Yorker, unusual for an MSM reporter writing about nuclear issues. He also does a nice job of investigating risk perception. He doesn’t say it that way, but that’s what he’s doing. He visited southwestern Colorado, some of the places that mined and milled uranium for America’s atomic bombs in World War II and after. The article deals with the uranium miners and their relatives. The names of the towns are evocative: Uravan, Nucla, Paradox. Uravan, the town and the site of the mill, is long gone, shredded and buried to contain the radioactive materials handled under the less stringent standards of that time.

His own risk perceptions come into play: you can feel his “eewww” when he mentions that some folks keep pretty pieces of uranium ore in their living rooms. The miners and their families (at least the ones he reports on) don’t feel victimized. Frank Munger of the Knoxville News quoted another person, Harold Cofer, whose views were similar:
I may have destroyed my good health by working in Y-12, but we were in a race with Russia, developing the Hydrogen bomb and we beat them so badly, they just gave it up! I would do it all over again, I have no regrets!
The Coloradans are not so emphatic, but they don’t have regrets either.

On the other side of the mountains lies Telluride, another former mining community (you can tell from the name!). People there tend to be against mining, but are also more poorly informed on the science than the miners’ families, Hessler notes.

Telluride, now famous for its film festival, is one of those places in the West that has been developed as a playground for the wealthy from other places. And such folks don’t like mining in their backyards. Now that nuclear looks like it may have an increasing role in power generation, the Uravan area may have more mining and milling, and the Telluride folks don’t like that. People also go to Telluride for skiing, an activity I find too dangerous to undertake. There’s an element of the subjective in which risks we’re willing to accept.

It’s important that The New Yorker and Time Magazine have managed to get these two articles right. The perception of risk is a particularly difficult subject to write about, and all too often, nuclear energy risks loom far out of proportion to their reality. We can’t intelligently plan our energy future on the basis of inaccurate information. Maybe this is the beginning of an improved national conversation on the subject.
*The National Nuclear Security Administration has responded to the report I linked to and says
The POGO report is riddled with inaccuracies and half-truths intended to mislead the public into believing that downblending highly enriched uranium is as simple as waving a magic wand and snapping your fingers. This is a complicated process that involves multiple entities and requires a great deal of oversight.
This is not persuasive, as the Russians must have equal concerns about eliminating their weapons uranium by sending it off to a former enemy. I will admit that I haven't read either the POGO report in full or the NNSA statement. Maybe a subject for a later post.

No comments: