Ep 284: Ed Lyman - Director, Nuclear Power Safety, Union of Concerned Scientists
Introduction to the Union of Concerned Scientists (0:18-11:14)
Ed Lyman reflects on the path that led him from physics to energy policy and how the Union of Concerned Scientists got started
Q: When did you first hear about nuclear energy?
A: Ed Lyman is the Director of Nuclear Power Safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is a physicist by training and has always been engaged in political and public affairs, interested in science policy, energy, the environment. Ed went to graduate school for physics at Cornell University. The department was known for faculty and students interested in applying technical knowledge to public policy issues and the political ramifications of scientific work. At the time, the Reagan administration had the “Star Wars program” - the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) - which focused on space-based lasers used for ballistic missile defense. This brought the prospect of a tremendous amount of government funding going into various fields of physics, and also brought the question of if it was responsible for a scientist to take funding for a project that may lead to instability or an increased threat of nuclear war. A group of physics graduate students started a petition drive for physicists who would commit to not taking SDI money, attracting thousands of signatories across the nation. Cornell was at the center of this attitude focused on science with concerns about the implications of technical work on world peace. A group of physicists left academic physics to pursue technical policy analysis and advocacy. The leader and initiator of the petition, Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund, was Ed’s supervisor at the Union of Concerned Scientists for many years. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) started in 1969 as an effort led largely by MIT faculty and graduate students who were of the same ilk, concerned about the possible misuse of science at the height of the Vietnam War and the peace movement. One of the first public policy issues they took on as an organization was nuclear safety, in line with the push from the Atomic Energy Commission to build and license new reactors. The safety regulations had not caught up with the ambitions at the time, so it has historically been a core issue of UCS, but the group now pursues a wide variety of science and public policy issues. After leaving Cornell, Ed went to Princeton University where a group of physicists and academics were focused on science and security. One of his first projects was related to the surplus of nuclear weapons material - both highly enriched uranium and plutonium - that were accumulating in the US and Russia with no plan for how to deal with them. Highly enriched uranium can be reversed through dilution with natural uranium to bring concentrations well below 20%, reducing the threat. There is no way to dilute or denature plutonium that would make it unusable for nuclear weapons. The study focused on how to dispose of this plutonium by converting it into a form in which it would be less easy to divert or steal the material. Ed Lyman left Princeton after several years, leaving to join the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, DC whose focus was on fissile materials and nuclear proliferation. He worked there until 2003, when he joined the UCS.
Current Challenges Faced by the Nuclear Industry (11:14-27:49)
Ed discusses the cause and effect of the Fukushima accident and the long-term impacts on the industry
Q: What are the big challenges within the nuclear industry that UCS can solve or bring awareness to?
A: The nuclear industry is at a crossroads, with potential benefits of expanding nuclear power as a low carbon power source that come with safety, security, proliferation, waste, and cost issues that have to be addressed. When the Fukushima Daiichi accident happened in 2011, Japan was basing its long-term energy strategy on the progressive use of nuclear power, reprocessing of spent fuel, and recycling of plutonium. After Fukushima, the industry collapsed and all the reactors were shut down for years. They are being restarted gradually, but the whole fleet will not return and young people in Japan are losing interest in nuclear power. The way to avoid another Fukushima in the industry is by not assuming you know things you don’t really know and understanding and planning for the uncertainties. This takes money and time, two things the industry thinks it doesn’t have right now. Ed Lyman worries the financial and political pressure the nuclear is under - to show it can succeed, thrive, and play a role in climate change - may be leading to cutting corners in design, licensing, and oversight of nuclear power. Radiation is fairly well characterized carcinogen, given the large amount of data from intentional and accidental exposures over decades. Any ionizing radiation particle can ionize atoms in cells and DNA can be disrupted. Alpha particles are slow-moving heavy charged particles that cannot penetrate skin very deeply. If they are taken internally, they can do considerable damage to tissue. Genetic damage leads to cellular malfunctions in growth, which can propagate. The effects of acute radiation exposure are well known, as in the aftermath of Hiroshima or Chernobyl. The stohcastic effects of radiation are random, so a particle of ionizing radiation can randomly strike a cell causing damage. The risk of that lesion becoming a cancer depends on a lot of different factors. The data has established that there is a roughly linear relationship between ionizing radiation exposure and cancer risk on average in a population. Radiation exposure guidelines must be established based on facts and evidence, and then a public policy can be established to determine if it matters or not.
Role of the Nuclear Regulatory Bodies (27:49-41:01)
A look at the responsibilities of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the commercial nuclear power sector
Q: Why is the FDA allowed to make cost-benefit tradeoffs and the NRC is not?
A: It is the legal mandate of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to make sure there are no undo risks from commercial nuclear operations. The NRC hasn’t shut down a plant on safety grounds for decades. Under the law, the NRC does have a cost benefit requirement if they go above adequate protections. The Backfit rule states that, if the NRC wants to impose a stricter regulation that imposes a higher standard than the current baseline of protection, it must be a substantial safety enhancement and meet a cost benefit test. This rule has been used to block a range of additional safety enhancements, many of which were proposed after Fukushima. The NRC has a standard to provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection. Fukushima happened and there were populations around the plant that were not evacuated properly, evacuated too late, or moved into areas where the radiation was actually higher. Probably 1,000 or more cancer deaths will occur from Fukushima. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (SCEAR) provided crude estimates of the population dose. If people are exposed to ionizing radiation, there will be an effect. An epidemiological study can be done to show there is a statistically significant excess and one must estimate, from the likely exposures, whether that can be seen. There is a relationship between radiation exposure, dose, and consequence. The accepted view is that there is a basis for using the linear no-threshold hypothesis because a single ionizing radiation exposure can lead to cancer, but it is a low risk. Ionizing radiation is part of the natural environment, but there are also toxic chemicals in the environment and it is not acceptable not to regulate toxic chemicals.
The Study of Radiation Exposure (41:01-54:25)
Ed identifies some of the challenges of tracking radiation exposure and different tools available to critically analyze the data
Q: Why does a nuclear plant cost $10 billion dollars for a gigawatt plant instead of $1 billion to build a coal plant?
A: The AP-1000 reactors under construction at the Voegtle site in Georgia were designed to reduce the capital cost of nuclear power by reducing or eliminating some of the safety systems in the current generation of nuclear power plants. This has not saved any money. There are a number of problems with the construction of the plant due to not meeting the committed specifications. Codes and standards are integrated into the regulation because they are part of the critical aspects of civil engineering. Because there are known radiation exposures from the Fukushima accident, there will be cancer fatalities. A lot of the individual doses are not known because the exposure to evacuees in the populations has not been well characterized. There were people outside Fukushima who saw dose rates on the order of many millirem an hour over the course of weeks. Some children got doses to the thyroid that were in the realm where they should have gotten potassium iodide prophylaxis, but they didn’t. The vast consensus on radiation protection experts, such as the National Council on Radiation Protection & Measurements and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), believe there is a sound technical basis for the linear non-threshold hypothesis below that threshold. Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) believes in scientific integrity and focuses on facts and evidence and understands the uncertainties. If someone were to get 1,000 millirem dose from exposure at an accident like Fukushima, in a few days, it will be greatly over their background exposure in a few days.