Friday, March 18, 2011

Stupid science writing

I'm not quite sure what to make of Wilson da Silva's opinion piece for Cosmos magazine. da Silva is the editor-in-chief of Cosmos and apparently has had more than enough of sensationalistic and misleading news coverage of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Why do accidents around anything ‘nuclear’ – from the accidental release of gas no more radioactive than the air in the northern Flinders Ranges, to the leak of low-level hospital waste of used gloves and smocks – trigger such panicked coverage?
He makes some good points, noting that some coal-fired power plants emit radioactive materials that constitute "one of the largest sources of man-made radiation exposure," yet this fact never makes the news. He also notes that the panic that could be induced by all the misleading and wrong news coverage could make the situation worse for the already suffering people in the quake- and tsunami-devastated areas.

However, da Silva does himself and his viewpoint no favors by acting as though there is nothing to worry about. His determination to show that the media sensationalism is completely meritless leads him to write things like this:
In a very real sense, solar power is really just nuclear power from a distance. Ditto with wind power (winds are generated by the difference between warm air, heated by the Sun, and cool air at the poles) and wave power (largely powered by winds). Even geothermal energy has a nuclear origin, largely generated by the radioactive decay of minerals.
True statements all -- and completely beside the point.

While there may be some coverage out there that has mischaracterized the technology underlying nuclear power plants, and while I don't doubt opinion pieces have been written that raise da Silva's hackles by inveighing against nuclear power in any form, I've found the coverage to be no worse than is usual in the wake of a disaster. I certainly don't think the coverage has been so bad or misleading (outside, perhaps, of some cable news outlets) that it warrants the condescension of da Silva's attempt to put solar and wind power on the same footing as fission-based power generation.

Nuclear fission involves fuel that is harmful to living beings. Wind doesn't. Solar doesn't. (da Silva never mentions how our atmosphere protects us from the "titanic nuclear reactor" that is the sun.)

Moreover, da Silva totally ignores the fact that the design of the Daiichi power plants has been known to be more vulnerable to failure than other designs. The Times had an article to this point on 16 March, and it was not the only news outlet to report on the G.E. Mark 1's design problems.

da Silva not only asserted that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was safer than the Russian-designed Chernobyl plant, but also suggested that the Daiichi plant flat-out could not cause a disaster of Chernobyl's magnitude.
To say - as some news outlets have - that the Fukushima accident was now worse than the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, just shows how bad the coverage can get, and why people get anxious. Chernobyl was a Russian design without a containment vessel and the reactor core was exposed, on fire, and large quantities of the fuel itself released into the air.

The Japanese reactors are designed to prevent this ever happening; fuel is inside a thick steel vessel, itself within a containment structure that is specifically designed to prevent release of core materials even during an accident such as this. Also, boiling water reactors like the ones in Fukushima are cooled by water which, unlike the graphite core at Chernobyl, cannot burn.
It's not clear to me, at least, whether the containment vessels were "designed to prevent release of core materials" if their cooling systems had been damaged, as has happened at the Daiichi plant. Too, the ancillary pool of cooling water (the suppression chamber) at Reactor 2 may have been damaged, which would allow the continuous release of steam containing radioactive materials. In any case, to claim that the still-unfolding situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant simply could not approach the magnitude of the Chernobyl disaster purely on the basis of the reactors' designs is arrogant and foolish.

Abstractly, I agree with da Silva's closing thought:
What we need to do as an advanced technical society is learn from each such calamity, so our engineers and scientists can build better and more resilient systems – bridges, buildings, roads and – yes – nuclear reactors. That’s progress. That’s science.
However, da Silva's opinion piece doesn't contribute to our self-education. It merely gives science's opponents a concrete example of how science's proponents scoff at mere mortals' legitimate concerns about uncertain situations.

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