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Nuclear Energy: Arnie Gundersen Going International

Arnie Gundersen has been making money by spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about nuclear energy for more than a decade. His career has received a measurable boost since March 11, when a large earthquake and powerful tsunami successfully peeled off most of the many layers of protection at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

Ever since that day, Gundersen has been giving scary interviews in a variety of media outlets that include a number of dire predictions. He claimed that the spent fuel pool for unit 4 had gone dry and that he had the video to prove it. That claim remains available on his web site, so he is apparently standing by his early evaluation despite all evidence that contradicts his claim.

He has been working with a PR firm to create a series of popular YouTube videos that build on his decade or more as a classroom teacher and as a former nuclear services salesman – he looks so calm, studious and trustworthy as he uses a variety of visual aids to convince his viewers of the provably false statement that Fukushima was worse than Chernobyl.
 
He has been making the rounds of the advertiser supported media recently with stories about the dangers of “hot particles” that are so tiny they cannot be picked up by normal radiation detectors. (Note: Radiation can be measured at extremely low levels, far below the levels that can cause human health effects. There is a reason why doctors inject small amounts radioactive materials into their patients as tracers to assist them in diagnosing organ function – those tracers make bodily systems visible without endangering the patient. If the hot particles are so tiny and dispersed that they cannot be detected, they are nothing to worry about.)

In the past 48 hours, I have received a link to an Al Jazeera story titled Fukushima: It’s much worse than you think from at least five separate sources. That article quotes Gundersen extensively – after it buffs up Gundersen’s credentials in an effort to add to the credibility of his claims.

“Fukushima is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind,” Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president, told Al Jazeera.

Japan’s 9.0 earthquake on March 11 caused a massive tsunami that crippled the cooling systems at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan. It also led to hydrogen explosions and reactor meltdowns that forced evacuations of those living within a 20km radius of the plant.

Gundersen, a licensed reactor operator with 39 years of nuclear power engineering experience, managing and coordinating projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the US, says the Fukushima nuclear plant likely has more exposed reactor cores than commonly believed.

“Fukushima has three nuclear reactors exposed and four fuel cores exposed,” he said, “You probably have the equivalent of 20 nuclear reactor cores because of the fuel cores, and they are all in desperate need of being cooled, and there is no means to cool them effectively.”

Gundersen goes on and on about how bad everything is and how the accident will go on indefinitely, will contaminate aquifers, and will result in harm to future generations. What he fails to mention is that the radiation and radioactive material that has escaped from Fukushima has not made anyone sick. It is difficult to imagine how a non-fatal accident can earn the title of “biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind” over events like those listed on the Wikipedia page titled List of industrial disasters. That list contains dozens of events that each killed hundreds to thousands of people and often resulted in widespread, long lasting chemical contamination.

Quite honestly, I have become tired of the effort required to respond and debunk each of his false claims.

Instead, I prefer to follow multifaceted strategy that includes pointing to much better sources of information. Will Davis provides an excellent June 18 update of Fukushima status that includes a calculation of exactly how many reactor cores are really involved, including all of the spent fuel pools. (Hint, it is no where near the 20 that Gundersen claims.)
Margaret Harding explains what really happened to Unit 4′s spent fuel pool and Ted Rockwell describes how radiation damage really works.

In addition to offering pointers to better sources of information, I take aim at Gundersen himself. He is a disgruntled former nuclear services salesman who has a strong motive for disliking the nuclear industry – he got fired from his lucrative position as a senior vice president in the early 1990s after accusing his employer of improperly handling radioactive sources that could be purchased via mail order. He was sued by his employer and he claims that he was blackballed by the industry.

For a decade or more, he worked as a private school teacher at a salary approximately 1/4th of what he was making in the nuclear industry and supplemented that income with expert witness testimony in cases in which he testified against nuclear companies. His qualification as an expert witness was based on the fact that he had earned both a BS and an MS in nuclear engineering. He knows enough of the technical details of nuclear energy to seem believable, but he also has been guilty of embellishing his experience to give his observations even more credibility.

One example that is nearly unforgivable is his continued claim that he is a licensed nuclear reactor operator. The only reactor that he was ever license to operate was a 100 Watt “critical assembly” at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. That reactor had no power generation ability – its thermal power was about as much as a single lightbulb. Operating it provides no experience at all in nuclear power plant operations or maintenance. It frosts me to think that the news media ignores the thousands of far better qualified sources of information simply because Gundersen is accessible and willing to tell fibs in order to provide exciting copy.

Several people have challenged me with regard to my efforts to expose Gundersen as having strong personal and financial motives to attack his former industry. They do not like my efforts to show that he has not been completely forthcoming about his experience. They have told me that it is not fair to focus on the messenger; they say I should focus on countering his assertions instead.

My response is to remind people that it is often far more effective to aim at the archer than to aim at the arrows. (Of course, I am speaking figuratively here. My weapon is my keyboard.)

PS – For the search engines out there, Gundersen is sometimes misspelled as Gunderson.

Content Discussion

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on June 19, 2011

You wrote – “I have yet to see a nuclear proponent speak about the serious nuclear safety issues coming out of Japan, with some candor and honesty.” 

I guess you must have missed the many reports on my blog which do exactly that. 

http://djysrv.blogspot.com/2011/06/nyt-japans-prime-minister-micro-managed.html

http://djysrv.blogspot.com/2011/06/tackling-tepco-water-problem.html

http://djysrv.blogspot.com/2011/06/iaea-report-on-fukushima-leaves-no-one.html

http://djysrv.blogspot.com/2011/05/tepco-concedes-severe-fuel-damage-at.html

So there are four examples.  I think that you should take care not to make wide ranging generalizations.  Just because you didn’t see something online doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

The Internet is a big place. FYI – .  By last count I am getting over 200,000 page views a year.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on June 19, 2011

Frankly I’d like to see the Site’s Moderation used in a clearly persuasive manner at this time.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on June 19, 2011

The nuclear power industry is not calling the shots on safety. The US Govt. through the NRC does.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on June 20, 2011

Anja – that is an awful lot of personal accusations that condemn a lot of very fine and hard working people who care deeply about their responsibilities to provide safe, clean and reliable energy. You know little about those of us who proudly call ourselves “nukes”. I will admit up front that the industry is not perfect, that human beings are not perfect, and that engineers can make errors or poor assumptions.

I have lost a lot of sleep during the past three months worrying about the long term effects of the tsunami and earthquake. My first concern is for the 20,000 people who lost their lives in the immediate aftermath and for all of the survivors who are now dealing with the loss of loved ones, the loss of everything they owned, and the loss of the physical infrastructure that provided sanitary services, fresh water, shelter and food.

Then I worry about the people who are improvising, adapting and overcoming at the Fukushima nuclear station. So far, they have done an admirable job in very difficult circumstances to contain the effects of the accident. They have made mistakes, but they are working in difficult and unanticipated conditions. It is really easy to armchair quarterback, but remember, their power station AND its surrounding area was overrun by a massive wall of water carrying a lot of destructive force that put a lot of obstacles in their way.

Yes, the plant equipment did not perform well in the situation of being underwater. Yes, the hydrogen explosions caused far more damage to the secondary containments than what should have happened if the hydrogen could have been properly vented. 

The fifty year old design – which would not have been built even 10 years later – did not hold up as well as we would have hoped. However, the basic strength and resiliency of light water reactors with thick pressure vessels and thick containments has failed slowly enough to give time to save everyone’s life. The vast majority of all of the core material remains inside the pressure vessel, though essentially all of the gaseous and water soluble isotopes have escaped through some penetrations and cracks through which some water leaked. I remain doubtful that very much of the core will be found outside of the containment. That is one of the reasons that I discount the hot particles theory – exactly what isotopes is Arnie claiming have escaped? As far as I can tell from digging through his material, he never says.

The whole notion of a “prompt criticality” in a used fuel pool is hard for me to comprehend. In other words, I think that Arnie is making stuff up because it sounds really scary.

Not to make this a secondary concern, but I could not figure out how to write this response and put all of my concerns in the first paragraph, but I am also very concerned about the people who have lost access to their homes and livelihoods as the result of the radioactive materials that escaped and as a result of the world’s poor understanding of the real health effects of low level radiation. Our current rules are incredibly conservative and add huge burdens of fear that are unjustified by science. I have written a lot about this, quoting some real experts in the field.

http://atomicinsights.com/2011/04/fear-of-radiation-is-killing-people-and-endangering-the-planet-too.html

It is fine to raise health and safety concerns, but you have to be willing listen to the answers to the questions. If you raise the concerns and then tell those of us who try to answer them that you simply do not trust us to tell the truth, what is the next step? How can we communicate?

You accuse the nuclear industry of secrecy, an accusation that has some historical basis in fact. Please understand that some of the secrecy has been imposed by elected government officials – heck, for the first 10 years after World War II, politicians (not scientists or engineers) made it illegal on penalty of death for us to share information outside of very carefully bounded programs. That heritage is difficult to overcome, but the commercial nuclear industry has been working hard for many years to be as open and forthcoming as they are allowed to be. There are a number of nuclear energy experts who have decided on their own to operate blogs and other forums. They engage with the public on a regular basis. Even the industry itself is operating a blog at NEI Nuclear Notes.

I care deeply about humanity. I want a far greater portion of humanity to live more comfortable lives with greater access to the services that reliable energy can provide. I have had a lot of conversations with other nuclear energy professionals and believe that we share some common motives. This is not an industry that attracts people who are in it for the money. The paychecks are pretty fair compensation for hard work, but there are not very many ways of getting rich quick in this business.

I have been fortunate to have always lived in places where electricity comes with the flip of a switch, but I have also been able to visit many places where such a capability is just a distant dream. I know a lot about making clean water, providing refrigeration, enabling lights and computers, providing labor saving devices, and enabling local climate control and understand how much that changes life for human beings. I recognize how little time our fossil fuel endowment will last if we keep consuming it at the present rate. I understand the long term effects of continuing to dump fossil fuel waste into the atmosphere.

I do live in a dream world – one that is haunted by the memory of being able to operate a powerful ship full of people sealed underwater, not consuming any fossil fuel and not allowing any waste to enter the environment. That ship used less fuel than my body weight while operating for 14 years. My dream is for more of the world to be powered by that kind of fuel source – long lasting, abundant, affordable, reliable, emission free. 

I’ll ask one final question – where is the accountability for fossil fuel waste? The nuclear industry can account for almost every kilogram of its waste material produced over the past 6 decades; it is all stored in safe secure locations that are not part of the common environment. Our competitors are constantly dumping their waste for free into our common environment.

 

 

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on June 20, 2011

Anja – one more thing. I wrote a post on Atomic Insights in response to your post quoting Robert Alvarez.

 

http://atomicinsights.com/2011/06/why-does-anyone-trust-robert-alvarezs-opinions-about-nuclear-energy.html

A while after posting that, I received a message from a reader who worked with Alvarez while he was at the Department of Energy. He told me that I had generously credited Alvarez with holding a PhD in musical studies when the truth was that he was a “nondegreed music major”.

I find it interesting that you call him a scholar instead of a more accurate title of “activist” or “politician”.

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on June 20, 2011

Hi Paul,

 

We are on it.

Cheers, Amelia

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on June 20, 2011

Lots of scary descriptions about hot particles etc, the only problem is, the overall risk is greatly exaggerated.  Reactor accidents are nothing new.  The very detailed studies done after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island showed few fatalities for the former and none for the latter.

The bottom line is that even with inevitable accidents, nuclear power is still not only safer than fossil fuel, it is safer than any plausible combination of fossil fuel and renewables.  Every year, dozens of Americans are killed in fossil fuel accidents, and air pollution from routine fossil fuel use plays a roll in the deaths of thousands more.  That is the real safety risk that we are overlooking (not to mention the very tragic loss of lives in Fukushima due to the tsunami).

And to say that radiation from Fukushima is a danger to people outside Japan is even more absurd.  By an enormous margin, the biggest safety risks to everyone in the developed world (including Japan) comes from ordinary things like cars, cigarettes, and obesity.  Radiation simply doesn’t compare; even so, the vast majority of the radiation we get every year comes from natural sources and medical tests.

Fear-mongering by Gundersen and others helps to blind us to the real risks (from fossil fuel), while turning us against the most potent tool we have for reducing those risks.

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