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Monday, March 29, 2010

The UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists) is Always Right

Photo courtesy of silkegb via Flickr

Self-described as an organization of "citizens and scientists for environmental solutions," their chosen name almost demands respect--a union of scientists who are concerned. But they don't hide the fact that they are not all scientists, so, in theory only two of them have to be scientists to keep the name legitimate, and in any case nobody knows exactly what a scientist is.

The fact that other scientists often disagree with their positions (as scientists always do) is problematic as well.

Are they always right? That can't be possible.

Does every member of UCS agree with every other member on every topic (are they really united)? Well, of course not.

Is their work peer-reviewed and published in science journals? No [Most of] it is not. [Most of] their research is as subject to subconscious bias as anything else. [Update: See comment from UCS press secretary, Aaron Huertas in the comments and this link for official stance on Nuclear.]

Once you take a scientist out of his or her lab, they are no wiser or more knowledgeable than anyone else. Ask a nuclear physicist to paint your portrait or rebuild your brakes and watch what happens.

It is the scientific method that makes science work, not so much scientists.

I like the UCS because they do a good job of sifting the chaff from the wheat. You still have to take their positions with at least a small grain of salt because there is still some chaff left.

Their position on biofuels has changed considerably as research has rolled in over the years. I am qualified to critique that subject and their positions on it are for the most part accurate but there is plenty of room for improvement.

Their positions on nuclear energy tend to be heavily biased, and there are plenty of very high ranking physicists and scientists who disagree with them.

Here is a UCS response to a claim that the reprocessing of nuclear waste reduces waste.

I'm not qualified to refute the physics but this raised my right eyebrow precipitously, while simultaneously lowering my left one.

Why do most other first world nuclear powers melt their long-lived waste into handy dandy blocks of glass if not to reduce its volume, make it easier to handle, transport, and store?

You never know with the French, but it seemed unlikely to me that they process their waste to "increase" their disposal problems. Which led me to wonder why fuel is reprocessed in the first place. I found the answer here:

Over the last 50 years the principal reason for reprocessing used fuel has been to recover unused uranium and plutonium in the used fuel elements and thereby close the fuel cycle, gaining some 25% more energy from the original uranium in the process and thus contributing to energy security. A secondary reason is to reduce the volume of material to be disposed of as high-level waste to about one fifth. In addition, the level of radioactivity in the waste from reprocessing is much smaller and after about 100 years falls much more rapidly than in used fuel itself.

And here is more from The American Physical Society:

Rather, waste management is made very much easier. The decree that Yucca Mountain must isolate the waste for more than 10,000 years is due primarily to the presence of long-lived transuranic elements. Appropriate reprocessing will allow those troublemakers to be consumed in fast reactors, leaving only the real waste—the fission products—to be disposed of, and their radioactive toxicity fall below that of the original uranium ore after less than 500 years. Effective waste management becomes a slam dunk.

The UCS downplayed the fact that by creating more of the short-lived, less problematic stuff, reprocessing reduces the amount of the much more problematic long-lived stuff.

Information about the technical and economic viability of renewable energy is also growing. At some point the UCS is going to have to soften its stance on nuclear energy. As a student of human nature I suspect that will not happen without a power struggle inside the UCS because people are swayed less by strong rational argument than they are by strong emotions.

We will need every weapon at our disposal to displace coal. Renewables can't do it alone. See my article Reframing Nuclear Power as an Ally of Renewable Energy

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  1. Thanks for this post. Clearly, this is the best headline ever.

    We do publish peer-reviewed research, including this assessment of climate change impacts in the Northeast:

    A lot of people think we're anti-nuclear power. We're not. But we are critics of the nuclear industry. We think they could be doing a much better job on waste and safety and we question the wisdom of giving the industry billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees. Our recent report on nuke power is here:

    Aaron Huertas
    Press Secretary
    Union of Concerned Scientists


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