Barry Brook – Brave New Climate

Barry Brook, Pinchy Lobster and Clive Palmer: Three Outstanding Scientists & Intellectuals

Tas Uni academic Barry Brook’s university webpage (see the Career tab, under “Awards and Prizes”) says that in 2005 he was listed as one of the “2000 Outstanding Scientists of the 21st Century” by the International Biographical Centre (IBC). But the IBC is a zero-credibility, money-making operation.

The WA Government’s Dept of Commerce ‘ScamNet’ website states: “The material promoting the International Biographical Centre creates a false impression about the credentials of the organisation. It also wrongly implies that the receiver of the letter has been picked through a special research process considering their work and qualifications.”

If there was any doubt about the IBC’s illegitimacy, one of Brook’s academic colleagues nominated a squeaky toy lobster and Prof. Lobster was accepted for inclusion as one of the ‘2000 Outstanding Scientists of the 21st Century’.

And the IBC has accepted a nomination for Clive Palmer to be listed as one of the ‘2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century’. A ‘Medal of Intellect’ will be sent to Palmer on payment of a $240 fee. Following an “investigation” by the its “research and editorial departments”, the IBC further decided to include Clive Palmer in its list of ‘Top 100 Professionals 2016’, and invited Palmer to part with $775 for a Certificate and Commemorative Medal – laminated for an extra $150.

Feel free to test the IBC’s credibility yourself … you’ll have no trouble getting the Wiggles or the Bananas in Pyjamas or Thomas the Tank Engine or Humphrey B. Bear or even Ben Heard accepted as Outstanding Scientists or Outstanding Intellectuals or Top Professionals.

Given that the illegitimacy of the IBC is beyond doubt, why does the IBC accolade remain on Brook’s university webpage?

Update – the sham award was removed from Brook’s university webpage approx. 12-18 months after it was publicly revealed and 12+ months after the Tas Uni V.C. was alerted to Brook’s self-promotion of a sham award.

Barry Brook promotes barking-mad conspiracy theorists

Excerpt from an article posted at The Ecologist.

Australian ‘ecomodernist‘ academic Barry Brook says that before 2009 he hadn’t given much thought to nuclear power because of the ‘peak uranium’ argument. By 2010, Brook was in full flight, asserting that the linear no-threshold (LNT) model is “discredited” and has “no relevance to the real world”.

In fact, LNT enjoys heavy-hitting scientific support. For example the US National Academy of Sciences’ BEIR report states that “the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and … the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.” Likewise, a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states: “Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology.”

On Chernobyl, Brook said: “The credible literature (WHO, IAEA) puts the total Chernobyl death toll at less than 60. The ‘conspiracy theories’ drummed up against these authoritative organisations rings a disturbingly similar bell in my mind to the crank attacks on the IPCC, NASA and WMO in climate science.”

But the WHO, IAEA and other UN agencies estimated 9,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states in their 2005/06 reports, and more recently UNSCEAR has adopted the position that the long-term death toll is uncertain.

Brook repeatedly promotes the work of Ted Rockwell from ‘Radiation, Science, and Health’, an organisation that peddles dangerous conspiracy theories such as this: “Government agencies suppress data, including radiation hormesis, and foster radiation fear. They support extreme, costly, radiation protection policies; and preclude using low-dose radiation for health and medical benefits that apply hormesis, in favor of using (more profitable) drug therapies.”

Brook promotes the discredited ‘hormesis’ theory that low doses of radiation are beneficial to human health (for a scientific assessment see Appendix D in the BEIR report).

And for comic relief Brook promotes his citation as one of the ‘Outstanding Scientists of the 21st Century’. But in fact the citation comes from the International Biographical Centre, an organisation whose raison d’etre is to separate the gullible and the narcissistic from their money. One of Brook’s academic colleagues nominated a squeaky toy lobster and Prof. Lobster was accepted for inclusion in the list of Outstanding Scientists.

Barry Brook loses plot, temper

Jim Green, Spinning Fukushima, New Matilda, 16 March 2011,

When will they call it a disaster? Jim Green looks at just how wrong Australia’s leading advocates of nuclear power got it on Fukushima this week

How have Australian scientists handled the difficult task of keeping us informed about the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan? Well, precious few Australian scientists have actually featured in the media. The most prominent have been Professor Aidan Byrne from the Australian National University, RMIT Chancellor Dr Ziggy Switkowski, and Professor Barry Brook from Adelaide University.

A clear pattern is evident: those with the greatest ideological attachment to nuclear power have provided the most inaccurate commentary.

The best of the bunch has been Byrne. He has presented the facts as he understands them — and has willingly acknowledged major information gaps.

Switkowski has been gently spinning the issue, repeatedly reassuring us that lessons will be learned, improvements will be made. However, history clearly shows that nuclear lessons are not properly learned. The OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency notes that lessons may be learned but too often they are subsequently forgotten. Or they are learned but by the wrong people. Or they are learned but not acted upon. The Nuclear Energy Agency says the pattern of the same type of accident recurring time and time again at different nuclear plants needs to be “much improved”.

The situation in Japan illustrates the point — it has become increasingly obvious over the past decade that greater protection against seismic risks is necessary, but the nuclear utilities haven’t wanted to spend the money and the Japanese nuclear regulator and the government haven’t forced the utilities to act.

Barry Brook is a strident nuclear power advocate and host of the blog, which has received an astonishing half a million web hits since the crisis in Japan began. Right now, Brook has egg on his face. Make that an omelette. He has maintained a running commentary in the media and on his website insisting that the situation in Japan is under control and that there is no reason for concern.

His message has not changed, even after efforts to cool the nuclear reactor cores met with mixed success, even as deliberate and uncontrolled radiation releases occurred, even as the outer containment buildings exploded, even as 200,000 people were being evacuated, even as a fire led to spent nuclear fuel releasing radiation directly to the environment — and even as radiation monitors detected alarming jumps in radioactivity near the reactor and low levels of radiation as far away as Tokyo.

On Saturday, Brook came out swinging, insisting that “There is no credible risk of a serious accident.” Phew.

That afternoon, after the first explosion at Fukushima, Brook kept going, making numerous assertions in the comments section of his website, most of which turned out to be wrong. Try this one:

“The risk of meltdown is extremely small, and the death toll from any such accident, even if it occurred, will be zero. There will be no breach of containment and no release of radioactivity beyond, at the very most, some venting of mildly radioactive steam to relieve pressure. Those spreading FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] at the moment will be the ones left with egg on their faces. I am happy to be quoted forever after on the above if I am wrong … but I won’t be. The only reactor that has a small probability of being ‘finished’ is unit 1. And I doubt that, but it may be offline for a year or more.”

On Saturday night, Brook continued, responding to a commenter on his website with the following words: “When the dust settles, people will realise how well the Japanese reactors — even the 40 year old one — stood up to this incredibly energetic earthquake event.” The dust is (hopefully) settling and it seems likely that four reactors will be write-offs.

It didn’t stop all weekend. On Sunday morning, Brook reflected on the unfolding disaster: “I don’t see the ramifications of this as damaging at all to nuclear power’s prospects” and that “it will provide a great conversation starter for talking intelligently to people about nuclear safety.” Actually Fukushima will likely prove a great conversation starter for talking intelligently to people about nuclear hazards. Not recommended at parties.

On Sunday afternoon, Brook was congratulating himself on his “just the facts” approach in media interviews. He pondered on the comments thread: “What has this earthquake taught us? That it’s much, much riskier to choose to live next to the ocean than it is to live next to a nuclear power station.” Well, the lesson for people in Fukushima is that if you live next to the ocean and next to a nuclear power station, then you’re really stuffed.

On Monday, when the second explosion at Fukushima occurred, Prof. Brook was still insisting that “the nuclear reactors have come through remarkably well”. On Monday evening, half a dozen people were banned from posting comments directly on the website. True, some of their comments were silly and unhelpful, but by that criterion Brook ought to have banned himself. And on Tuesday, with a fire at Fukushima spewing long-lived radioisotopes directly into the environment, Brook was rallying the pro-nuclear lobby, arguing that “now, more than ever, we must stand up for what we believe is right”.

Cracks were starting to appear on Tuesday night, with Brook finally acknowledging an “ongoing crisis situation”, banning another 40-50 “random nobodies” from posting comments directly on his website, and quoting Rudyard Kipling:

“If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools”

Make of that what you will.

One contributor to Brave New Climate summed it up nicely: “Unfortunately, Prof. Brook has really abdicated a neutral position on this event. His clear support of nuclear power seems to have impacted his critical thinking skills. … Every time he states something in this crisis is ‘impossible’, it seems to happen the next day.”

Andrew Bolt has been urging people to read the “marvellously sane and cool explanation” from “our friend Professor Barry Brook”. Both Bolt and Brook claim that no more than 50 people died from the Chernobyl catastrophe. More on that next month — the 25th anniversary falls on 26 April 2011. The scientific estimates of the Chernobyl death toll vary. The World Health Organisation puts the figure at 9000. A 2006 report based on Belarus national cancer statistics, paints a much gloomier picture: approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl.

Barry Brook’s nuclear misinformation

To read a detailed, referenced critique of Barry Brook’s nuclear misinformation online click here.

A shorter version of this material was published in New Matilda on 12 March 2012 and a similar version from Indymedia is copied below.

The detailed paper covers these topics: Introduction – Energy options – Nuclear power and WMD proliferation – Ionising radiation and Chernobyl – Safety and Fukushima- Terra Nullius – Radioactive waste – The responsible nuclear advocate – Conclusion

Conclusion to the detailed paper:

Many people concerned about climate and energy are wrestling with some enormous dilemmas:

  • Coal burning is a major cause of climate change, and efforts to develop ‘clean coal’ technology have been half-hearted and progress has been glacial.
  • Widespread nuclear power proliferation will run the WMD proliferation risks “off the reasonability scale” as Al Gore puts it. There is no reason to believe that the industry will seriously improve its performance on this front − it refuses even to address relatively simple problems such as stopping the stockpiling of separated plutonium. There is no reason to believe that fast reactor technology will come to the rescue − attractive theories notwithstanding − given that fast reactor programs have to date contributed to several WMD proliferation programs (e.g. India, France, Yugoslavia) without contributing in any way to the resolution of any WMD proliferation problems anywhere.
  • Renewables are generally benign but there are limitations to consider (and hopefully overcome through concerted R&D) and interrelated cost issues.

Some people live in a parallel universe where global warming is a myth, or clean coal technology is just around the corner. Some people live in a parallel universe where a global transition to renewables is simple, cheap, and potentially quick. Prof. Brook lives in a parallel universe where nuclear power is benign − the WMD connection is trivialised, nuclear waste is a multi-trillion-dollar asset, nuclear power is the safest energy source, low-level ionising radiation is harmless, Chernobyl killed less than 60 people, ‘integral fast reactors’ can’t produce fissile material for weapons, reactor-grade plutonium can’t be used in weapons, and problems such as inadequate safeguards and the (further) disempowerment of Aboriginal people are ignored.

Prof Barry Brook – Brave New Climate

Jim Green, 31 March 2012, Indymedia

One of the loudest nuclear advocates in Australia is Professor Barry Brook, a climate change scientist at the University of Adelaide who runs the Brave New Climate website.

The Brook mantra is this: “it’s nuclear power or it’s climate change”. However numerous studies exist that map out the options to sharply reduce emissions without recourse to nuclear power. See for example the UNSW study a more ambitious scenario that replaces all coal and gas with renewables.

Brook has shown himself willing to trivialise the repeatedly demonstrated connections between nuclear power and weapons. He has slipped up on this, claiming for example that North Korea never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty although Pyongyang’s accession to — then withdrawal from — the NPT is central to the unfolding story of North Korea’s nuclear program.

Brook claims to be concerned about nuclear weapons proliferation but the evidence suggests otherwise. Here is an example of his indifference: asked at a public forum what needs to be done to fix the safeguards system and what role he sees for scientists such as himself to help address the problems, Brook responded: “That’s a political and legal question and I have no further comment.”

To get a handle on the proliferation risks of the nuclear “renaissance”, if it eventuates, here are some figures:

  • Of the 65-odd countries with a nuclear program of any significance (involving power and/or research reactors), over one-third have used their ‘peaceful’ programs to advance weapons ambitions.
  • Of the 10 countries to have built nuclear weapons, six did so with support and political cover from their “peaceful” programs (India, North Korea, South Africa, Pakistan, France and Israel).
  • About 45 countries have the capacity to produce significant quantities of fissile material (more or less depending on where you draw the line with small-medium research reactors), and a vast majority of those countries acquired their fissile material production capacity through peaceful nuclear research or power programs.

As former US Vice President Al Gore has argued, a major horizontal expansion of nuclear power will “run the proliferation risk off the reasonability scale”.

Brook claims that the integral fast reactors (IFRs) he champions “cannot be used to generate weapons-grade material.” The claim isn’t true. To quote George Stanford, who worked on an IFR research program in the US: “If not properly safeguarded, they could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor — operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material.”

The misconceptions pile up. Brook states: “Prior to the Fukushima Daiichi accident, caused when a 14 metre tsunami crashed into a 40-year old power station in Japan, no member of the public had ever been killed by nuclear power in an OECD country.” However the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has estimated the collective effective dose to the world population over a 50-year period of operation of nuclear power reactors and associated nuclear facilities to be two million person-Sieverts (it does not provide OECD figures separately). Applying a standard risk estimate (0.05 fatal cancers per Sievert of exposure to low-dose radiation) gives an estimated 100,000 fatalities. Whatever the uncertainties with the dose and risk estimates, and whatever the OECD/non-OECD breakdown, Brook’s statement clearly doesn’t hold up.

Brook states that the linear no-threshold (LNT) theory of radiation exposure and cancer causation is “discredited” and has “no relevance to the real world”. However, the 2005 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation of the US National Academy of Sciences states that “the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and … the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.” And one further example of many, a study published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2003 concluded that: “Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology.”

Brook gets it wrong on Chernobyl, too. He states: “The credible literature (WHO, IAEA) puts the total Chernobyl death toll at less than 60.” However the studies he is referring to do not estimate a death toll of less than 60. He is referring to reports by the UN Chernobyl Forum  and the World Health Organisation in 2005-06 which estimate up to 4000 eventual deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations and an additional 5000 deaths among populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. (The Chernobyl Forum includes UN agencies such as the IAEA, UNSCEAR, and WHO.)

Still Brook is adamant that “nuclear power is the safest energy option”. Safer than wind and solar? He could only arrive at that conclusion by using the nuclear industry’s methodology: only consider accidents at nuclear power plants rather than accidents across the energy chain; understate the death toll from accidents by several orders of magnitude; only consider accidents rather than routine emissions; and ignore the greatest hazard associated with nuclear power — its repeatedly demonstrated connection to WMD proliferation (most recently with North Korea’s use of an “experimental power reactor” to produce plutonium for weapons).

As the Fukushima nuclear disaster unfolded in March 2011, Brook maintained a running commentary in the media and on his website insisting that the situation was under control and that there was no reason for concern. There was no correction until Brook had been publicly held to account for spreading misinformation. Andrew Bolt from the Herald Sun was urging people to read the “marvellously sane and cool explanation” from “our friend Professor Barry Brook”. Both Bolt and Brook subscribe to conspiracy theories about environmentalists with a hidden, authoritarian “political manifesto” to return to a pre-industrial society.

Brook wrote an ABC opinion piece in December 2011 which states that “no-one was killed by radioactivity” from Fukushima and is silent on the problem of long-term cancer deaths from exposure to radioactive fallout [see here for a recent estimate of the long-term cancer death toll, ~5,000].

Many people concerned about climate and energy are wrestling with some enormous dilemmas about how to move to a less emissions intensive energy economy. Some people live in a parallel universe where global warming is a myth, or clean coal technology is just around the corner. Some people live in a parallel universe where the global transition to renewables is simple, cheap, and potentially quick. Barry Brook lives in a parallel universe where nuclear power is benign, the WMD problem is trivial, nuclear waste is a multi-trillion-dollar asset, nuclear power is as safe as wind and solar power, ionising radiation is harmless, Chernobyl killed less than 60 people, and problems such as inadequate safeguards will magically fix themselves.

Finally, a few examples of Prof. Brook’s attacks against environmentalists − a problem that his employer, Adelaide University, needs to address:

  • accusing a Friends of the Earth campaigner of “intellectual dishonesty” with no attempt to justify that defamatory accusation.
  • another defamatory accusation of dishonesty (“anti-intellectual sleight-of-hand”) directed at Friends of the Earth in relation to a World Water Day statement.
  • falsely accusing anti-nuclear and climate action groups of vote-rigging at a public debate in Melbourne (“frankly pathetic, but not unexpected”).
  • claiming that “all they [Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace] care about is being anti-nuclear” and that Friends of the Earth “doesn’t care about climate change” − despite an abundance of readily-available evidence to the contrary.

[Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.]

Tas Uni academic less than “abundantly clear” about Generation IV nuclear reactors

Jim Green, 23 June 2015

Academic Barry Brook began working at the University of Tasmania last year. He is a strident nuclear power supporter and is particularly enthusiastic about non-existent ‘Generation IV’ reactor types.

The enthusiasm is understandable. Theoretically, Generation IV fast neutron reactors could gobble up waste and weapons material and convert them into low-carbon power, solving several problems at once. Unfortunately, these fast neutron reactors aren’t actually new and they have failed spectacularly to live up to their potential. The history of fast reactors has largely been one of extremely expensive, underperforming and accident-prone reactors.

For example, Japan’s Monju fast reactor operated for 205 days after it was connected to the grid in August 1995, and a further 45 days in 2010; apart from that it has been shut-down because of a sodium leak and fire in 1996, and a 2010 accident when a 3.3 tonne refuelling machine fell into the reactor vessel. The lifetime load factor of the French Superphenix fast reactor − the ratio of electricity generated compared to the amount that would have been generated if operated continually at full capacity − was a paltry 7%, making it one of the worst-performing reactors in history.

Fast reactors haven’t helped to resolve weapons proliferation problems; on the contrary, France has used a fast reactor to produce plutonium for weapons and India plans to do the same in the coming years.

Not easily deterred, Brook and other nuclear lobbyists promise a new generation of fast neutron reactors. A recent guest post on Brook’s website claims that Generation IV fast neutron reactors will be mass produced and “dominating the market by about 2030.”

Compare that claim with the following:

1. The intergovernmental Generation IV International Forum states: “Depending on their respective degree of technical maturity, the first Generation IV systems are expected to be deployed commercially around 2030-2040.” (emphasis added)

2. The International Atomic Energy Agency states: “Experts expect that the first Generation IV fast reactor demonstration plants and prototypes will be in operation by 2030 to 2040.” (emphases added)

3. A 2015 report by the French government’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) states: “There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen.”

IRSN is also sceptical about safety claims: “At the present stage of development, IRSN does not notice evidence that leads to conclude that the systems under review are likely to offer a significantly improved level of safety compared with Generation III reactors, except perhaps for the VHTR …” Moreover the VHTR (very high temperature reactor) system could bring about significant safety improvements “but only by significantly limiting unit power”.

4. The World Nuclear Association noted in 2009 that “progress is seen as slow, and several potential [Generation IV] designs have been undergoing evaluation on paper for many years.”

In 2009 Brook wrote a puff-piece about Generation IV fast reactors for the Murdoch press. On the same day he said on his website that “although it’s not made abundantly clear in the article”, he expects conventional reactors to play the major role for the next two to three decades but chose to emphasise Generation IV reactors “to try to hook the fresh fish”.

So that’s the game plan − making absurd claims about Generation IV reactors, pretending that they are near-term prospects, and being less than “abundantly clear” about the truth.

The guest post on Brook’s website was written by conspiracy theorist Geoff Russell (who holds me personally responsible for all the death and suffering from the Fukushima disaster … go figure).

Russell cites the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in support of his claim that “The Chinese expect these [fast reactors] to be dominating the market by about 2030 and they’ll be mass produced.”

Does the WNA reference support the claim? Not at all. Russell is making stuff up. According to the WNA, China has one very small experimental fast reactor and plans for a larger ‘Demonstration Fast Reactor’ by 2023 and plans its first fast reactor “for commercial operation from 2030”.

So China doesn’t expect fast reactors to be dominating the market by 2030. China may have one commercial fast reactor by 2030 … but almost certainly won’t. One of the reasons China’s fast reactor program is going nowhere fast is that China is collaborating with Russia, and Russia’s fast reactor program is going nowhere fast.

Rosatom subsidiary Rosenergoatom recently indefinitely postponed construction of the BN-1200 sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor, citing the need to improve fuel for the reactor and amid speculation about the cost-effectiveness of the project. The decision to indefinitely postpone the project might be reviewed in 2020. The reactor had been scheduled to start commercial operation in 2025, depending on experience operating a pilot BN-800 fast-neutron reactor which achieved first criticality in June 2014 but has not yet started commercial operation.

As recently as July 2014, Rosenergoatom’s director general said that Russia planned to begin construction of three BN-1200 reactors before 2030. OKBM − the Rosatom subsidiary that designed the BN-1200 reactor − previously anticipated that the first BN-1200 reactor would be commissioned in 2020, followed by eight more by 2030.
Rosenergoatom spokesperson Andrey Timonov the BN-800 reactor “must answer questions about the economic viability of potential fast reactors because at the moment ‘fast’ technology essentially loses this indicator [when compared with] commercial VVER units.”

Another fast neutron reactor project − the BREST-OD-300 − is stretching Rosatom’s funds. Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin said that Rosatom’s “Breakthrough” program to develop the BREST-OD-300 reactor was only breaking Rosatom’s piggy-bank.

Nuclear lobbyists claim that the next generation of fast neutron reactors are near-term prospects and they will be the best thing since sliced bread. In reality, fast neutron reactors have a long and troubled history, and most of the countries that invested in fast reactor technology have abandoned those efforts; they decided not to throw good money after bad.

Small modular reactors

The federal government’s 2014 Energy Green Paper promotes ‘small modular reactors’. Here’s a sample of the government’s rhetoric: “The main development in technology since 2006 has been further work on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). SMRs have the potential to be flexibly deployed, as they are a simpler ‘plug-in’ technology that does not require the same level of operating skills and access to water as traditional, large reactors.”

Perhaps SMRs would be an ideal fit for Tasmania? Some nuclear lobbyists certainly think so. But as with fast neutron reactors, the rhetoric doesn’t match reality. Interest in SMRs is on the wane. Thus Thomas W. Overton, associate editor of POWER magazine, states: “At the graveyard wherein resides the “nuclear renaissance” of the 2000s, a new occupant appears to be moving in: the small modular reactor (SMR). … Over the past year, the SMR industry has been bumping up against an uncomfortable and not-entirely-unpredictable problem: It appears that no one actually wants to buy one.”

Overton explains the chicken-and-egg problem: “The problem has really been lurking in the idea behind SMRs all along. The reason conventional nuclear plants are built so large is the economies of scale: Big plants can produce power less expensively per kilowatt-hour than smaller ones. The SMR concept disdains those economies of scale in favor of others: large-scale standardized manufacturing that will churn out dozens, if not hundreds, of identical plants, each of which would ultimately produce cheaper kilowatt-hours than large one-off designs. It’s an attractive idea. But it’s also one that depends on someone building that massive supply chain, since none of it currently exists. … That money would presumably come from customer orders − if there were any.”

Dr Mark Cooper, Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School, notes that two US corporations are pulling out of SMR development because they cannot find customers (Westinghouse) or major investors (Babcock and Wilcox). Cooper points to some economic constraints: “SMR technology will suffer disproportionately from material cost increases because they use more material per MW of capacity. Higher costs will result from: lost economies of scale; higher operating costs; and higher decommissioning costs. Cost estimates that assume quick design approval and deployment are certain to prove to be wildly optimistic.”

Westinghouse CEO Danny Roderick said in January 2014: “The problem I have with SMRs is not the technology, it’s not the deployment − it’s that there’s no customers.” Westinghouse is looking to triple its decommissioning business. “We see this as a $1 billion-per-year business for us,” Roderick said. With the world’s fleet of mostly middle-aged reactors inexorably becoming a fleet of mostly ageing, decrepit reactors, Westinghouse is getting ahead of the game.

Some SMR work continues. Argentina is ahead of the rest, with construction underway on a 27 megawatt reactor − but the cost equates to an astronomical US$15.2 billion per 1000 megawatts. And that cost would be greater still if not for Argentina’s expertise and experience with reactor construction − a legacy of its covert weapons program from the 1960s to the early 1980s.

The myth of the peaceful atom − debunking the misinformation peddled by the nuclear industry and its supporters

Click here for a detailed article responding to misinformation peddled by Barry Brook, Corey Bradshaw and others.

See also: Response to Barry Brook / Corey Bradshaw’s 2014 ‘open letter to environmentalists’

Nuclear power and biodiversity – don’t forget WMD proliferation!

Jim Green, 18 Dec 2014, The Ecologist

Nuclear energy is essential to preserve the world’s biodiversity, according to 69 conservation scientists. But there’s a mysterious omission in their analysis, writes Jim Green: nuclear weapons proliferation. And after a major exchange of nuclear bombs, and the ‘nuclear winter’ that would follow, exactly how much biodiversity would survive?

A group of conservation scientists has published an open letter urging environmentalists to reconsider their opposition to nuclear power. The letter is an initiative of Australian academics Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw. The co-signatories from 14 countries “support the broad conclusions drawn in the article ‘Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation’, published in Conservation Biology.”

The open letter states: “Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources – including nuclear power – must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change.”

So, here’s my open letter in response to the open letter initiated by Brook and Bradshaw:

Dear conservation scientists …

If you want environmentalists to support nuclear power, get off your backsides and do something about the all-too-obvious problems associated with the technology. Start with the proliferation problem since the multifaceted and repeatedly-demonstrated links between the ‘peaceful atom’ and nuclear weapons proliferation pose profound risks and greatly trouble environmentalists and many others besides.

The Brook / Bradshaw journal article emphasises the importance of biodiversity – but even a relatively modest exchange of some dozens of nuclear weapons could profoundly effect biodiversity, and large-scale nuclear warfare undoubtedly would.

The Brook / Bradshaw article ranks power sources according to seven criteria: greenhouse gas emissions, cost, dispatchability, land use, safety (fatalities), solid waste, and radiotoxic waste. WMD proliferation is excluded. By all means ignore lesser concerns to avoid a book-length analysis, but to ignore the link between nuclear power and weapons is disingenuous and the comparative analysis of power sources is a case of rubbish in, rubbish out.

Integral fast reactors

While Brook and Bradshaw exclude WMD proliferation from their comparative assessment of power sources, their journal article does address the topic. They promote the ‘integral fast reactor‘ (IFR) that was the subject of R&D in the US until was abandoned in the 1990s. If they existed, IFRs would be metal-fuelled, sodium-cooled, fast neutron reactors.

Brook and Bradshaw write: “The IFR technology in particular also counters one of the principal concerns regarding nuclear expansion – the proliferation of nuclear weapons – because its electrorefining-based fuel-recycling system cannot separate weapons-grade fissile material.”

However Brook’s claim that IFRs “cannot be used to generate weapons-grade material” is false. George Stanford, who worked on an IFR research program in the US, states: “If not properly safeguarded, [countries] could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor – operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material.” IFR advocate Tom Blees notes that: “IFRs are certainly not the panacea that removes all threat of proliferation, and extracting plutonium from it would require the same sort of techniques as extracting it from spent fuel from light water reactors.”

Brook and Bradshaw argue that “the large-scale deployment of fast reactor technology would result in all of the nuclear waste and depleted uranium stockpiles generated over the last 50 years being consumed as fuel.” Seriously? An infinitely more likely outcome would be some fast reactors consuming waste and weapons-useable material, while other fast reactors and conventional uranium reactors continue to produce such materials.

The reality of fast reactor technology

The Brook/Bradshaw article ignores the sad reality of fast reactor technology: over US$50 billion invested, unreliable reactors, numerous fires and other accidents, and one after another country abandoning the technology.

Moreover, fast reactors have worsened, not lessened, proliferation problems. John Carlson, former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, discusses a topical example: “India has a plan to produce such [weapon grade] plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors. This is problematic on non-proliferation and nuclear security grounds. Pakistan believes the real purpose of the fast breeder program is to produce plutonium for weapons (so this plan raises tensions between the two countries); and transport and use of weapons-grade plutonium in civil reactors presents a serious terrorism risk (weapons-grade material would be a priority target for seizure by terrorists).”

The fast reactor techno-utopia presented by Brook and Bradshaw is theoretically attractive. Back in the real world, there’s much more about fast reactors to oppose than to support.

Creative accounting

Brook and Bradshaw also counter proliferation concerns with the following argument: “Nuclear power is deployed commercially in countries whose joint energy intensity is such that they collectively constitute 80% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. If one adds to this tally those nations that are actively planning nuclear deployment or already have scientific or medical research reactors, this figure rises to over 90%. As a consequence, displacement of fossil fuels by an expanding nuclear-energy sector would not lead to a large increase in the number of countries with access to nuclear resources and expertise.”

The premise is correct − countries operating reactors account for a large majority of greenhouse emissions. But even by the most expansive estimate − Brook’s − less than one-third of all countries have some sort of weapons capability, either through the operation of reactors or an alliance with a nuclear weapons state. So the conclusion − that nuclear power expansion “would not lead to a large increase in the number of countries with access to nuclear resources and expertise” − is nonsense and one wonders how such jiggery-pokery could find its way into a peer-reviewed journal.

The power-weapons conundrum is neatly summarised by former US Vice-President Al Gore: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”


The Brook / Bradshaw article adds one further comment about proliferation: “Nuclear weapons proliferation is a complex political issue, with or without commercial nuclear power plants, and is under strong international oversight.”

They cite a book by the committed IFR advocate Tom Blees in support of that statement. But Blees argues for the establishment of an international strike force on full standby to attend promptly to any detected attempts to misuse or to divert nuclear materials. That is a far cry from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards system. In articles and speeches during his tenure as the Director General of the IAEA from 1997-2009, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei said that the Agency’s basic rights of inspection are “fairly limited”. The safeguards system suffers from “vulnerabilities” and “clearly needs reinforcement”, he went on, while efforts to improve the system had been “half-hearted”, and the safeguards system operated on a “shoestring budget … comparable to that of a local police department”.

Blees doesn’t argue that the nuclear industry is subject to strong international oversight – he argues that “fissile material should all be subject to rigorous international oversight” (emphasis added). This conflation between reality and wishful thinking is a recurring feature of Barry Brook’s nuclear advocacy.

Strengthening safeguards

Of course, the flaws in the nuclear safeguards system are not set in stone. And this gets me back to my original point: if nuclear lobbyists want environmentalists to support nuclear power, they need to get off their backsides and do something about the all-too-obvious problems such as the inadequate safeguards system.

Environmentalists have a long record of working on these problems and the lack of support from nuclear lobbyists has not gone unnoticed.

To give an example of a topical point of intervention, Canada has agreed to supply uranium and nuclear technology to India with greatly reduced safeguards and non-proliferation standards, and Australia seems likely to follow suit. Those precedents will likely lead to a broader weakening of international safeguards – and make it that much more difficult for nuclear lobbyists to win support from environmentalists and others. The seriousness of the problem has been acknowledged by, among others, a former Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors and a former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office. It is a live debate in numerous nuclear exporting countries and there isn’t a moment to lose.

To mention just one more point of intervention, the separation and stockpiling of plutonium from power reactor spent fuel increases proliferation risks. There is virtually no demand for the uranium or plutonium separated at reprocessing plants, and no repositories for the high-level waste stream. Yet reprocessing continues, the global stockpile of separated plutonium increases year after year and now stands at around 260 tons. It’s a problem that needs to be solved; it’s a problem that can be solved.

Endorsing the wishful thinking and misinformation presented in the Brook / Bradshaw journal article is no substitute for an honest acknowledgement of the proliferation problems associated with nuclear power, coupled with serious, sustained efforts to solve those problems.