Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ignorance is not Strength

So I ended up reading an article entitled "some people shouldn't talk about science".  While I found the article interesting at first, I was utterly repulsed by the idea that we should arbitrarily limit scientific discussion.  Even someone who is uninformed can contribute meaningfully to a scientific discussion, I thought.

And then I read this article. And, filled with righteous indignation I began to question whether or not some people really shouldn't talk about science.

While warning that "it only has to leak" once to cause an irreversible calamity, the author then points to a leak that occurred at the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station where 6 L of heavy water were spilled on the floor. Evacuation of the 'facility' occurred.  And more ominously, the author warns us, some of that dangerous radioactive stuff may have escaped into the atmosphere.  This comes on the heels of an incident where barrels of diluted hydrazine were accidentally dumped into the ocean.

I'm not completely familiar with the incidents, but a couple things I want to note.

Firstly, as you probably know the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station has been shut down for refurbishment for a few years now and they are on the verge of starting it back up so they are refilling the primary heat transport system with heavy water.  Without heavy water, a CANDU reactor cannot sustain nuclear reactions.  Heavy water that has been inside the primary heat transport system of an active nuclear reactor will have increased amounts of tritium and potentially radioactive iodine and other radioactive elements from failed fuel elements.  Heavy water that has never been inside a core still will contained some tritium.  But the water in your fridge also contains tritium, because tritium is produced naturally through the interaction with cosmic rays (although less than heavy water).  I'm not sure if the heavy water that spilled had ever been inside a core or not, but since the discussion is only about tritium I'm guessing not likely. So, if 6 L of heavy water spilled inside a building and some small trace amounts of tritium escaped will anyone, anywhere be harmed by it? Absolutely not. Which is why the CNSC stated unequivocally that [1]

"The spill did not result in any risk to the public, the environment or the workers."

So why evacuate the 'facility' you may ask? Well, chances are they didn't evacuate the whole 'facility'. They probably evacuated staff from a portion of the facility, specifically the reactor building [1].  And probably it was just a precaution.

Finally, hydrazine is a non-nuclear danger at power plants in general, not just nuclear power plants. Thermal power plants such as natural gas or coal fired power plants both use hydrazine. So even if nuclear power plants never existed and instead Point Lepreau was a giant natural gas fired power plant, it would still be possible to have hydrazine accidentally dumped into the ocean.

I could go on about how no a single death can be attributed to Three Mile Island accident.  How Windscale's "deadly release" only caused an additional 30 cancer deaths, but over 100 people were killed in a Russian dam accident in a single day.  How the public hysteria about a shipment of steam generators from Bruce Power is an example of junk science winning over reason.  But you get the idea.

The article over-hypes the dangers of nuclear power plants and to someone who is uninformed of the topic, will badly mislead them.  However, I'm not worried and I don't believe that the author shouldn't be allowed to voice his opinion on nuclear power plants.

Whenever someone or some group exaggerates the truth to make a political point or makes a statement that is uninformed it will inevitably backfire on them. Because when the truth is ultimately made known and the person or group is shown to be untrustworthy on the topic, their credibility in general goes into the toilet.  Hilary Clinton's claim that she landed 'under fire' was shown to be false and public backlash over her exaggeration helped turn the tide in favour of Obama.

So if you think someone is twisting the facts about a scientific topic, as frustrating as it may be, don't try to ban them from talking. Let them have their say and then prove them wrong.  But that's just my opinion.

References

[1]  "Small spill of heavy water at Point Lepreau", CNSC, December 14th, 2011 [link]

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