On April 8, 2015, Bill Nye (The Science Guy) presented a keynote speech on the screening of Pandora’s Promise for Columbia University Coalition for Sustainable Development.1. Nye obviously doesn’t think nuclear energy should be part of the solution for climate change. In fact, he makes it clear he doesn’t like nuclear energy at all. His 30-plus minute speech explains why he has such a deep aversion – his nuclear objection results from a severe case of the Hiroshima Syndrome.
The Hiroshima Syndrome is psychological distress which results in a mortal fear of nuclear energy. It is caused by one or more of three not-uncommon misunderstandings: (1) Uranium is an explosive, thus a worst-case nuclear power plant reactor accident could conceivably result in a nuclear detonation, (2) nuclear power plant atmospheric releases are the same as bomb fallout, and/or (3) there is no safe level of radiation exposure. All three confusions can be traced back to the August, 1945, bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To those infected by the Hiroshima Syndrome, reactors are little more than bombs that haven’t exploded yet. Of the three predicating misconceptions, Bill Nye’s aversion appears to be most influenced by confusion #1.
Nye spends the first half of his speech talking about nuclear weapons, with a noticeable number of incorrect statements. (see Rod Adams’ Why doesn’t “The Science Guy” like nuclear power – yet? 2.) As we reach the 17 minute mark, Nye begins to demonstrate his confusion between reactors and bombs. He has just completed a rather convoluted explanation of Uranium enrichment during the WWII Manhattan Project, when he says, “Secrecy was required to develop the processes that allowed the United States to develop the first nuclear weapon – this stuff is still with the nuclear industry – this secrecy.”
I was part of the so-called “nuclear industry” for 15 years, and there was never any sort of secrecy involved. Never! Colleagues with much longer “industry” association say the same thing.
So…is Bill Nye lying? He’s confusing reactors with bombs. The Manhattan Project was cloaked in secrecy, so the nuclear industry must also be under the dark veil of concealment; they are both nuclear, so what is true for one must be true for both. Nye would be better-served to do his historical homework, which it seems he has not. Bill Nye has not lied; he just didn’t know what he was talking about.
He then explains what he believes as the Achilles Heel of nuclear energy; nuclear waste. He starts by saying he doesn’t know how many reactors the US Navy has, and asserts, “If they told me they may have to kill me,” clearly another appeal to his notion of nuclear secrecy. He seems to be trying to make a joke, but there wasn’t a hint of a chuckle from the standing-room-only audience. Regardless, all he should have “Googled it”. The number of US Navy nuclear-powered ships and subs, with the number of reactors on each, is not a secret.
He then asserts that the Navy takes the old reactors and buries them, “Usually in Idaho…but there are a lot fewer people there than in other parts of the world, so leaving it there is OK.” This quickly shifts to his aversion with the nuclear waste issues at Hanford, Washington…a nuclear weapon’s facility that was critical to producing plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Hanford was entirely a nuclear weapon’s development facility. The Columbia nuke station happens to be a few miles from Hanford, but they literally have nothing to do with each other. The problems with cleaning up Hanford are used by Nye to argue that the same issues exist for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, which is to be used for power plant wastes. He says he has been to Yucca, saw a small stream burbling nearby, to which he shouts, “Dude!!” This is his way of saying that what was true for the Manhattan Project is necessarily going to be true for Yucca Mountain. Again, Nye confuses reactors with bombs.
Nye next shifts to nuclear accidents. He says, “Three Mile Island…almost blew up. Then Chernobyl did blow up. And Fukushima is still trouble…the nuclear mass of molten metal goo… remains in the containment… and they’re trying to set up this muon detector, and it’s just not working.” The implication of nuclear explosions is clear. If he knew what he was talking about, he would never imply such a thing. Reactor fuel is way, way too dilute in the fissionable isotope, U-235, for a nuclear detonation. It’s the wrong kind of uranium! Again, a simple “Googling” by Nye could have corrected his misconception, but either he didn’t feel the need to do it or feared that secrecy would keep the truth from being published.
It is important to point out that the Muon detection of Fukushima Daiichi unit #1 worked very, very well, and will be used for at least one of the other two units with damaged cores. The Muon imaging for unit #1 showed that it experienced a full, core-relocating meltdown. It did exactly what it was supposed to do…find out if any of the core remained in its original location.
Nye subsequently asks the question “Is this (nuclear energy) worth the risk?” He spends nearly 25 minutes confounding reactors and bombs, makes an implied assertion of a near nuclear explosion at TMI, and an actual one at Chernobyl, and then pops his question. To those in the audience who have the same reactor/bomb confusions as Nye, this is powerful rhetoric. He believes, and wants everyone to believe, that reactors are bombs waiting to happen.
Bill Nye is a star when it comes to the TV screen. Why…he’s the “Science Guy”! He has a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell, and more than a handful of honorary Doctorates. But, this does not mean he has sufficient expertise to make a realistic presentation concerning nuclear energy.
I have a diverse education…I could have declared any of five majors on my Bachelor’s degree: history, environmental biology, nuclear science & technology, philosophy, and art (photography). I also have a considerable experiential background in radio-chemistry, environmental biology, nuclear plant operations, and health physics. But, none of this means I should be spouting my opinion on anything outside my academic or experiential purview. I would never allow myself to be posed as an expert on paleontology, if you will.
Yet, Bill Nye has the hubris to voice his Hiroshima Syndrome-based aversion concerning nuclear energy, about which he appears to know very little. He believes intertwining nuclear weapons with reactors is perfectly acceptable and correct. His aversion is the result of the Hiroshima Syndrome. Like the majority of those so-afflicted, he has no idea that his nuclear paradigms are as empty as space-itself.