Volume 2, Number 3: February 4, 2001


Nuclear Power: how do we educate ourselves about complex technological issues?

This week’s topic is complex and controversial, so I should begin by emphasizing that I know almost nothing about nuclear power. Chances are that you don’t either, nor do most citizens in countries around the world. Most of the readers of TYR are intelligent, educated people; and there is a preponderance of expertise on the subject of computer technology and software engineering. But when it comes to nuclear power, my formal education consists of a graduate course on nuclear physics that I struggled through at MIT more than 35 years ago; aside from that, all I know is what I read in the papers and hear on the evening TV news reports.

Why discuss the topic at all — especially in an e-’zine that focuses primarily on information technology? Well, the specific reason is California, and the wide-ranging discussions about its ongoing energy crisis. Most of the discussions have focused on the financial plight of the utility companies, the botched attempt at deregulation, and the need for Californians to begin practicing conservation more aggressively. But we’ve also heard that California has not begun building any new power plants in roughly a decade, and that demand has grown sharply during that period because of population growth and an economic boom. Furthermore, many of the power plants are fueled by natural gas, which has become expensive; and the hydroelectric power plants are suffering the consequences of a dry winter. Thus, there have been wide-ranging discussions and debates about the feasibility and advisability of constructing new power plants in California (and elsewhere) that use coal, oil, solar energy, wind power, or ... nuclear power.

A spirited debate about nuclear power on the TYR discussion forum got me thinking about all of this; it also reminded me that nuclear power is only one of several technology-based issues that society is grappling with. Other examples include acid rain, global warming, the hole in the ozone layer, genetically altered foods, and cloning. I don’t know much about these topics either, but there are also some computer-related issues that we’re all going to be grappling with in the months and years ahead — Internet taxation, privacy, and security are among the more obvious examples. Unfortunately, the reality is that decisions will be made about most of these issues, whether we citizens participate or not; failing to make a decision (because the issues are too complex or controversial for the politicians to confront directly) is a decision in itself. Our elected and appointed leaders ultimately make the decisions on our behalf, but they are guided, influenced, coerced, bullied, or bribed .by lobbyists, corporations, special-interest groups, and even howling mobs of demonstrators. I don’t fall into any of these categories, but like most of us, I am a voter — and I’d like to make an informed, intelligent choice whenever these issues are presented to the electorate in the form of referendums, or whenever I have to choose a political candidate based on his or her position on the issues.

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know Is On The Internet

To acquire a superficial understanding of a topic, most of us rely on newspaper articles, television reports, and other traditional sources of information. Unfortunately, these sources typically present a shallow, superficial “sound-bite” summary of a topic that is often multifaceted, subtle, and complex. Perhaps they feel that average citizens wouldn’t have the attention span to listen to more detail, or that they wouldn’t be capable of understanding the complexities and subtleties. Whether or not that’s really true, it creates an obvious problem for those of us who do want more detail, and who feel that we can understand the concepts as long as they don’t require the second-order differential equations that we’ve long since forgotten from college calculus. Also, one of the things that I learned from my interactions with the media during the Y2K era is that many publications and TV news programs have a very definite “agenda” about the topics they cover — i.e., they’ve already decided on the conclusions they want to present, and they scurry about to find only the information that supports whatever their conclusion happens to be.

In the old BI (Before Internet) and BA (Before Amazon) days, the only available solution for individuals who wanted objective, detailed information was the public library: one could (and presumably still can) usually find a book or two on any topic, no matter how arcane and complex. But now we have the Internet; and if the topic really does require reading a book to understand the issues, we can order it for overnight delivery from Amazon or a dozen other online bookstores. I believe this represents a profound change from the social climate of the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s: if information is too remote and inaccessible, many citizens simply won’t bother to make the effort to track it down. True, not everyone can or will incur the expense to order a dozen books on nuclear power from Amazon — but the fact remains that information is now so readily accessible that we have no excuse for being uninformed. (There are exceptions, of course — e.g., if you live in a remote African village without access to the Internet, or if you live in a country that rigidly controls the Internet sites you’re allowed to visit — but for most college-educated people in both advanced countries and developing countries, the Internet has become a rich storehouse of knowledge.)

For example, during the lively debate about nuclear power on the TYR discussion forum, I recalled that France generates 75% of its electricity from nuclear power plants (this was an issue during the Y2K era, when some of us wondered whether France had bothered checking its nuclear plants for Y2K compliance). And since French society tends to be highly critical of things they feel to be inappropriate (i.e., not invented, designed, and built in France), I figured that if there is something wrong with nuclear power, the French would have said so in loud, unmistakable terms. So I simply typed “French nuclear power” into my Google search engine, and found a number of interesting tidbits. For example, an article entitled “The French Nuclear Barometer 97 Vintage at a First Glance: Economic Benefits of Nuclear Power ” provided charts like this one to illustrate that, as of 1997, the French were favorably disposed toward their nuclear power industry:

But then I found a more recent article, dated March 5, 1999, entitled “Nuclear Power Nears Peak,” that provided an interesting little factoid: France now has (or, to be more precise, did have, as of March 1999) a moratorium on construction of new nuclear power plants. And as the article pointed out,

“As the world approaches the 20th anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident on March 28 [1999], global nuclear capacity stands at 343,086 megawatts, providing just under 17 percent of the world’s electricity. Both of these figures will likely turn out to be close to the all-time historical peak-and less than one-tenth the 4,500,000 megawatts that the International Atomic Energy Agency predicted back in 1974. The Worldwatch Institute projects that global nuclear capacity will begin a sustained decline by 2002 at the latest, and the US Department of Energy projects that it will fall by half in the next two decades.”

An even more recent article, dated March 2000 and entitled “French Nuclear Power Program and Australian Uranium Supply to France Nuclear Issues,” notes that one of the reasons for France’s decision to focus on nuclear energy is its “long-standing policy to promote energy independence.” Such a concept might be more meaningful to California today than it was a year or two ago: the state does not generate enough power to cover its own needs, and now finds itself in the delicate position to coaxing its neighbors to draw down the water level in their reservoirs, in order to generate power from their hydroelectric plants. Indeed, France has apparently gone one step further with its program: according to the March 2000 article, “France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity, and gains some A$3.7 billion per year (EUR 2.3 billion) from this.” (For the benefit of our American TYR readers, and with all due respect to our Australian colleagues, I feel obliged to note that an Australian dollar is worth even less than a Canadian dollar, and is sometimes confused with the Italian lira.)

Finally, a January 2001 paper entitled “The International Status of Nuclear Power” provided the following chart to show the sources of electrical power for a wide variety of countries; the article notes that “Fifteen countries derive at least a quarter of their electricity from nuclear power. France gets more than three quarters of its power from nuclear energy, while Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, Lithuania, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovenia and Ukraine get 35% or more from nuclear.” In particular, note that Japan, England, and the OECD European countries all depend more heavily on nuclear power than the US:

The article also notes that “over 9800 reactor years of experience has been gained with civil nuclear power,” which may be worth keeping in mind when contemplating such obvious examples of nuclear problems as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

These tidbits come from a mere three of the 160,000 entries that Google retrieved for me; there are presumably dozens, if not hundreds, of additional articles from which I could have learned some useful things — and this is without even looking into the vast trove of information about US nuclear power issues. Among other things, for example, TYR reader Roger Statz provided us with a link to an interesting FAQ-list organized by Stanford University’s John McCarthy (yes, the same John McCarthy known for his pioneering work in artificial intelligence and other aspects of computer science).

And then there’s Amazon. I won’t bore you with the long list of titles that Amazon retrieved when I typed “nuclear power” into its search engine; suffice it to say that there are enough books to keep me occupied for months. One of the more intriguing ones was Commercial Nuclear Power: Assuring Safety for the Future by Charles B. Ramsey and Mohammad Modarres (John Wiley & Sons, 1998); but I balked at the $89.50 price tag. On the other hand, I did order a book recommended by several TYR forum readers: The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear, by Petr Beck (Golem Press, 1977). TYR reader Jim Torson commented, on the TYR discussion forum that:

“Yes, it would be good to read Beckmann’s book. But don’t stop there. You should follow it by reading some of the arguments on the other side of the issue. This will allow you to clearly see the lies and misrepresentations of the nuclear proponents. A highly credible source of information is the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility (CNR).

“The chairman of CNR is Dr. John Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology, U.C. Berkeley. His Ph.D dissertation was on the discovery of Pa-232, U-232, Pa-233, and U-233 and the proof that U-233 is fissionable by slow and fast neutrons. In the early 1960s he established the Biomedical Research Division at the AEC’s Livermore National Laboratory. He also served as an Associate Director of the full laboratory. After reading Beckmann’s book, I would recommend that you read Poisoned Power, The Case Against Nuclear Power Plants Before and After Three Mile Island by Gofman and Arthur R. Tamplin, Ph.D. (Tamplin was a college of Gofman at Livermore.) This book is available online at the CNR website, so you won’t even have to patronize Amazon.com ... ”

Additional Issues

Obviously, the fact that there is an enormous amount of information available on the Internet does not mean that we can all become legitimate experts in a field by merely downloading a few papers. And even if we did become technical experts, there are a number of additional issues to worry about when faced with a complex decision like building nuclear power plants. One such issue is the fallibility of humans who are charged with operating and/or maintaining complex technological systems; as someone joked on the TYR discussion forum, perhaps we should only allow nuclear power plants to be built and operated by German or Swiss engineers. The much-publicized Chernobyl disaster, for example, resulted from a combination of primitive technology and faulty decision-making; an excellent postmortem can be found in The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Failure in Complex Systems, by Dietrich Dorner (Addison-Wesley, 1996).

What’s even more interesting is the politics of anticipating, acknowledging, and confronting risks and failures in complex technological systems. I’ve seen a lot of that during my career in the computer field, and there are certainly examples in many other engineering disciplines, too. One of the classic examples is the 1986 Challenger disasters; for a fascinating discussion of the disagreements between the engineers and managers about the risk of failure in the Challenger spacecraft, take a look at the Appendix to the Rogers Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, by Nobel-prize winner Richard Feynman. The appendix begins with Feynman’s observation that:

“It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask ‘What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery?’ ”

The primary cause of controversy about nuclear power is, of course, safety — both short-term and long-term. Can we be assured that a California nuclear power plant won’t sit astride an earthquake fault line and suffer the kind of problems illustrated in the 1979 movie The China Syndrome? Can we be assured that the long-half-life radioactive waste can be contained and stored safely, so that it won’t contaminate the water supply of our grandchildren’s grandchildren? Advocates and opponents of nuclear power argue strenuously about these points — but one thing must be remembered: the consequences of a nuclear failure are more visible and have more political consequences than the various forms of pollution that we’ve seen from traditional sources of power. Whether or not nuclear power “mistakes” actually kill or maim more people than do other sources of power is apparently also a matter of enormous debate; Chernobyl obviously killed and injured a lot of people, but how many people were killed or injured by the consequences of oil drilling, coal-burning, or liquid-gas explosions?

What makes this particularly difficult to evaluate is the fact that the negative consequences of nuclear power (or any other source of power) are not always direct and immediate. Yes, lots of people died within days of the Chernobyl explosion; but health problems might not be visible, in some cases, for ten or twenty years; the health problems transcend at least one generation, if not two. And while the immediate consequences of a Chernobyl explosion — or, for that matter, an oil spill (like the Exxon Valdez disaster) or a natural-gas explosion — are easy to see, the indirect secondary and tertiary consequences may not always be so easy to identify. And even if scientists and engineers can see them, it may be difficult to explain them to the voters and the politicians.


After this brief investigative journey, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert — or even a competent spokesman — on the subject of nuclear power. But at least I have an idea of where to look for information, and what kind of issues I would have to consider before arriving at some kind of conclusion. I doubt very much that nuclear power will be one of the options considered by California voters and politicians as they continue to struggle with their problems of limited, expensive energy. But I do hope they will take the time to track down the kind of detailed information they need in order to have an informed opinion on the subject. Otherwise, they put themselves as the mercy of the politicians, bureaucrats, and big corporate interests.




©2006 Ed Yourdon