Carte Blanche: messing up the science since 1988

A couple of weekends ago, Carte Blanche decided to broadcast yet another uninformed, one-sided pretense at science reporting, with a feature about the proposed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) program. Typical of Carte Blanche, their piece can roughly be summarized as:

  • Start out wasting time with an emotionally-charged but utterly irrelevant history of South Africa’s Cold War nuclear weapons program. Blame everything on apartheid and completely ignore the Mutually Assured Destruction scenario that the world existed in at that time.
  • Bring on an environmental sociologist and political economist, who chairs an anti-GM organization and stirs up anti-nuclear energy hysteria professionally, to talk about SA’s nuclear program. But, most importantly, imply that he’s an unbiased, independent nuclear energy researcher.
  • Talk about the PBMR program, give exceedingly brief air time to the people who designed, commissioned and okay’ed the thing, but give lots of air time to detractors, and definitely don’t give air time for responses to their comments. Imply conspiracies and cover-ups, but don’t show any hard evidence of either.
  • Question the level to which Eskom has listened to public opinions on the reactor, then interview some members of the public whose level of education and personal research into nuclear energy and its environmental effects proves exactly why Eskom shouldn’t be listening to these people’s opinions.
  • Harp on about Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, North Korea, Lybia, Hiroshima and any other scare tactic you can think of. Use this opportunity to mention apartheid again.
  • End on a dramatic note: that the South African Government will almost certainly use the nuclear program to throw out the non-proliferation treaty and build a bomb at its earliest convenience.

This was hardly a balanced report on the state of nuclear energy in SA – it was a hysterical, sensationalist opinion piece fueled by anti-nuclear lobbyists and environauts with an agenda. It was bad reporting, plain and simple.

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t potentially issues with the PBMR design, or that nuclear power doesn’t bring with it inherent safety guidelines that need to be strongly followed. I’m also definitely not saying that there couldn’t have been some miscalculations on the government’s behalf about the cost and timelines for getting these plants online. But I am definitely saying that if you are going to run a report that asks questions about whether the government’s current nuclear power plan is a good idea, intimating that the government’s reason for building it is to create a front for nuclear weapons manufacture is just plain stupid.

Let’s start with a basic bit of logic: we already have two nuclear reactors. If the government wanted to extract weapons grade plutonium from nuclear materials used in power plants, they wouldn’t have to build a new nuclear plant to do it. Here’s another idea: it’s a hell of a lot easier to buy a nuclear weapon than to build one, and it’s even easier to just hang on to the ones you had during the Cold War and not report them. So frankly, if the government really wanted a nuclear weapon, chances are they already have it, which makes objecting to the PBMR on the basis of nukes utterly pointless. Finally, PBMR reactors are within a class of reactors considered to be proliferation-resistant i.e. it’s a damn side harder for the men in black hats to get weapons grade plutonium from these reactors than from traditional reactors like Koeberg. So really, if the government wanted to build a nuclear plant to use for making weapons, it would make more like Koeberg, not invest time and money in a plant that will make it harder to make nukes!

The PBMR design has its shortcomings, but so does every other design of power plant ever, nuclear or otherwise. That doesn’t mean that we should have no power plants, or that no design is worth building. Don’t throw the entire nuclear power baby out with the PBMR bathwater.

Nuclear power has safety issues, but I challenge you to name even one accident other than Chernobyl and Three Mile Island off the top of your head. Then compare that to the hundreds of reactors around the world, and you maybe get some perspective for the safety figures. Comparing every nuclear power plant to Chernobyl is like arguing to ground all aeroplanes on the basis of the Hindenburg disaster.

And finally, whatever your issue with nuclear power, it’s very telling that not a single person ends their anti-nuclear tirade with a better solution.

6 Responses to “Carte Blanche: messing up the science since 1988”

  1. The thing that really irks me about Carte Blanche is that they insist on pronouncing “nuclear” as NOO-KLEE-AH, not NOOK-YULLER, like Homer Simpson would.

  2. My biggest beef is the people who whine about the pollution issue when coal-fired power stations are the worlds biggest polluters. You just have to go to Jhb and look around to see hundreds of ash dumps, not to mention the Olifants River is swimming in acid mine drainage released from coal mines.
    I attended a talk by one of the designers and got to see the little graphite balls and the design, while by no means having any expertise in the field, seems to be incredibly safe, and in fact incapable of melt down as the whole thing is designed to be a feedback mechanism where as soon as the temperature gets too high the reaction stops working. Rather like the Oklo natural reactor.

    PBMR FTW!!

  3. Gah! have just actually finished reading through the transcript. It’s horrible! It says absolutely nothing about PBMR! “Gaining access to Koeberg was easy” In 1978!!! Before it was even a nuclear plant!!

    Good grief, it’s like reading an article in Die Son – The tokoloshe made me design tristructural-isotropic micro fuel particles!!

  4. Finally, someone else who points out that no one is putting forth a better solution with their protests – one-sided protests make me what to quote Cid “shut up, sit down and drink your god damned tea”.

  5. Hehe… I was wondering when you would do a write up on this article… So nice to see an opinion of someone who uses their grey matter.
    Keep up the good work, Moonflake!

  6. residentRSole Says:

    moonflake: Thanks. I have been defending PBMR for years. When I challenge the tree-huggers for a better idea they invariably screech about wind power, ocean power and occasionally flower power (the idea being that we will just “solve this problem by working together for a better future, blah, blah, blah”).

    So does anyone know when is the first one coming on line ? Somebody the other day said that South Africa was phasing out electricity in a series of power cuts. That piece of wit no longer amuses me.

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