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RAND’s Nuclear Fantasy Land

I attended a one-man show last night, a work of fiction put on by the RAND Corporation ( www.rand.org ) in Santa Monica, California.

It was titled “Nuclear Energy After Fukushima” and “starred” Dr. Tom LaTourrette, Senior Physical Scientist, RAND Corporation.  Why this geologist was assigned the task of telling a couple of hundred people nuclear power is still safe is beyond me.  But important people were there to listen, including representatives from Senator Feinstein’s office, someone from Homeland Security, two diplomatic visitors from other countries, and former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner (and former Rand employee) Dr. Victor Gilinsky, whom I’ve debated on other nuclear issues and would be glad to debate again.

They were all there listening to this guy because he’s from the Rand Corporation.

I found it strange that the geologist apparently hadn’t heard about the water leakage problems or geological instability of Yucca Mountain, or the drip shield problems, or the vermin infestation problems, or the scientific fraud that crept into the project from time to time, or even the transportation dangers and worries — he had only heard that Harry Reid probably stopped Yucca Mountain — “mothballed” was the word he used.  He thought it was a purely political decision.

He picked all his “facts” carefully, always trying to appear to be leaving out his pro-nuclear bias.  He was lousy at it, of course.  Listening to him talk to people individually afterwards, I actually heard him say “I’m pro-nuclear.  I hope my bias didn’t show.”  It showed!  Dude, it glowed like the sun!  (Dear reader:  You can’t imagine how hard it is not to write, “what an idiot that guy was!” but I’ll refrain as best I can…)

I was going to talk to him, ask him where he got his “facts”, ask the question I didn’t get called on to ask during the Q&A.  But after he actually said that about being biased right in front of me, I decided not to bother.  Instead I considered going over to the new President of the Rand Corporation, who was also in the room and standing nearby, and telling him that if they really want to serve the needs of the public, as they claim, then they could start by firing that guy and never listening to him again.  Somehow I held myself back.

Unfortunately, Dr. LaTourrette’s audience wasn’t any less ignorant than he was.  One guy asked if the uranium used in artillery shells was one way that we could use up the spent fuel that’s piled at some 70 different sites around the country.  No, that’s not where “depleted” uranium comes from, LaTourrette explained.  Then he called D.U. harmless or “not radioactive” or something like that — a gross exaggeration, of course (and he was completely ignoring its heavy-metal toxicity issues).  If we reprocess spent fuel, then D.U. might come from that waste stream.  Is Dr. LaTourrette aware of that?

Someone asked if the dry casks were safe.  He said they’re so well shielded, you could put them in the Congressional Building.  This is not true.  He said you could fly an airplane into them.  This is not true.  In the months after 9-11, the nuclear industry attempted to claim their containment domes could withstand the force of a large air strike.  This is not true, and they were forced to back down from that claim.  Containment domes have approximately four to eight feet of concrete, and rebar a thick as a man’s forearm.  Dry casks typically have about two inches of steel and a foot or two of concrete.  They CANNOT withstand a rocket-propelled grenade, let alone an airplane strike!

Plus, Dr. LaTourrette ignored what will happen when one of these dry casks ruptures and catches fire and releases all its fission products:  Even Dr. Frank von Hipple, who I think minimizes the dangers significantly, calculated that a dry cask fire could spread its lethality 500 miles downwind.

Someone asked if the water in the spent fuel pool is “radioactive”.  Dr. LaTourrette didn’t know, but thought that it probably was.  (It is.)  He apparently also didn’t know that a guy fell in the reactor water at San Onofre a few weeks ago.   The temporary contract worker will just have to wonder if he swallowed any “fuel fleas” that were in the water.

Dr. LaTourrette concluded that there are four possible options for “solving” the nuclear spent fuel problem.  None of them are to stop making more waste!  He doesn’t see that as an option.

The first option he sees is to restart Yucca Mountain or some other geological repository.  Not only did he seem to be unaware of the many various real problems with Yucca Mountain, he didn’t seem to realize that Yucca Mountain was the last place on Earth we could find that “might” work!  No other state, not other nation, sovereign Indian, or independent, wanted it.  They still don’t.  (In fact, recently several nations tried to get Mongolia to build a nuclear waste repository, and — poor and “backward” though they might be — they had the good sense to say no.)

Dr. LaTourrette mentioned two countries which he feels have solved the geological waste disposal problem, by getting the local populations involved.  What actually happened is those countries made special laws that would allow very small communities to decide to take the waste and not allow the larger communities around that area to stop them!  That’s Dr. LaTourrette’s idea of a successful siting of a nuclear waste dump, and that’s what he want’s to have happen here in America, too.

But if that won’t work, he had three other “solutions” to the growing, glowing problem of spent nuclear fuel.  His favorite is to dump the waste on Indian territory.  The difference between this and the geologic repository is that this is temporary and above ground.  (By the way, “temporary” might mean hundreds of years.)  This way, in his mind, we would have only “three or four” sites to guard, instead of the seventy or so that we have now.  He ignored the fact that as long as the plants remain operational (and for several years afterwards) we would still have all the current sites, PLUS the new “temporary” dumps.  And since he thinks airplanes, RPGs, etc. can’t harm the casks, he thinks of this as a perfect solution.  Out in the desert somewhere.  If something goes wrong, and they catch fire, you can’t put it out with water, but there’s no water for miles around anyway.  That’s his idea of a perfect solution!

Oh, he’ll tell you it’s not perfect, that nothing is.  Windmills are expensive, he says.  Solar is too.  Only coal is cheap.  I find it baffling (get it, that’s a pun) that wind power and solar power are considered expensive, considering they’re big advantage is that once installed, you don’t have to bring any fuel to them, ever — the fuel comes to them!  That’s a huge saving in green-house-gas-emitting fuel right there.  Even nuclear can’t boast that advantage because removing /storing the fuel is very energy-intensive when one considers how long it has to be stored for, or if there’s an accident, or just considering the difficulties in transporting the spent fuel — building the transportation casks, the storage casks, the next set of storage casks after the first, and the hundredth, as they each wear out and the fuel is still hazardous.  It all adds up, but not for Dr. LaTourrette.

His third option is to reprocess the spent fuel.  He sees it as recovering an asset — the Uranium 235 and Plutonium 239.  He did admit that the fission products are very dangerous and would have to be stored for a long time, but there again, his estimate of “10,000 years” for how long spent fuel is dangerous was way off — try a million years, Dr. LaTourrette!  He didn’t mention how energy intensive reprocessing is — he called it “recycling” the fuel, since that sounds green, of course.  He didn’t mention that we would have to change the laws in America to do it.  And he didn’t mention that it would cost many tens of billions of dollars.

His fourth option is to just keep putting it in spent fuel pools and dry storage casks on site, but he says that’s not being fair to our children and grandchildren.  Gosh!  How he sees any of the other options as being any better for them, I don’t know.  What he had to say was along the lines of, “but since we’re already doing it, that’s not an issue.”

Stopping the nuclear waste pile from growing any larger doesn’t occur to him.  He can’t understand why the Japanese, the Swiss, the Germans, the Italians and many others want to kill nuclear power or not start using it in the first place.  He’s not sure what happened at Fukushima.  He doesn’t know how many people died because of Chernobyl but figures it’s not more than 10,000.  He probably never heard that there’s a book out, published by the New York Academy of Sciences, that looked at thousands of studies done in the aftermath of Chernobyl and concluded, by looking at the metadata, that as many as a MILLION people have died from Chernobyl already, and the deaths have only just begun!  And far, far more were harmed but not killed outright.

Dr. LaTourrette is living in a fantasyland.  It was very sad to see him have the floor for an hour, knowing my government’s representatives were there listening to his spiel.  I felt like I was in a seance or something, where science had been tossed out the window.  But there he was, being believed, and getting a nice round of applause at the end for his performance.

Disneyland is just a few miles away.  At least there, the fun is real.  There was simply nothing real at Rand this evening.

Russell D. Hoffman lives in Carlsbad, California. He is an educational software developer and bladder cancer survivor, as well as a collector of military and nuclear historical documents and books. He is the author and programmer of the award-winning Animated Periodic Table of the Elements. He can be reached at: rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com

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