Spending two days surrounded by scientists was not all I expected…

I have just spent a very stimulating two days at the Australian Frontiers of Science conference Science in a Green Economy in Sydney. My thanks go to the organisers for their invitation and hospitality.

I learned about some amazing work by lots of amazing people, like a genetically modified rice strain that holds enough iron and zinc to become a far more nutritious food for the billions depending on it as a staple. Punchline? No genes from other organisms, just using science to leave a natural rice gene running. The kicker? Early field trials indicate yields are increased.

I learned even more about just how badly we have dropped the ball in terms of our rampant, unfettered use of nitrogen fertiliser. I learned about efforts to control this while maintaining and increasing yields from cereal crops.

I learned that an Australian outfit  is now able to accurately predict and measure the carbon held in biochar produced from a range of different feedstocks. That’s big news for a climate geek like me. I learned that much aquaculture comes at a serious ecological penalty of fish that are sacrificed as an input, but that this is improving fast.

I also learned a little more about uncertainty.

As I heard in the opening speech of the conference, uncertainty in science does not mean we do not know where the truth lies. It is the way of putting some bounds around the truth. It is in the uncertainty that scientists like to spend their time, because that it where the interesting debate and work lies. But it is in the truth that they want the decision-makers to focus.

So you could say I have found the mixed response to my presentation to be very, very interesting.

Faithful to my remit, I focussed on the role of specifically Small Modular Reactors (SMR) and their potential role in the process of decarbonising Australia.

Frontiers in Science v3,

mPower_CutAway_Comp_102711_high-res-wCR

Some responses were very, very positive. But something else went around. The idea that it was a “sales pitch”, which I heard second hand (which is sadly ironic, as I was present at the conference unpaid and absent from my business), but this to me first hand: “You presented it as though there is no uncertainty”.

I knew I was an outsider, but this drove it home.

I do not work in science. I work in environmental decision-making where science is one of my tools. If my default focus was on uncertainty… I would be exceptionally poor at it. So, no. I did not spend 15 valuable minutes exploring the “uncertainty” associated with the potential role of Small Modular Reactors in Australia.

But now that I have the luxury of time, waiting for my plane…

Greenhouse gases are warming the planet to a very, very dangerous level. This is certain.

Nuclear power performs the same job as coal in much the same way. This is certain.

In doing so, it emits no greenhouse gas. This is certain.

In 1998 Australia prohibited nuclear power. Since then greenhouse emissions in our electricity sector have grown 18%. This is certain.

If we replace our aging fossil generation with nuclear generation, our greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector will plunge. This is certain.

As discussed in my presentation, the high capital costs, lag on returns, and size of the single generating units will make large nuclear difficult to deploy in Australia. This is certain.

Now for a few areas where I think I was expected to discuss the “uncertainty” in a little more detail.

Nuclear power is, by a significant margin, the safest major power source in the world.

The three nuclear incidents that we can all name have a total number of attributable fatalities approximately the same as that of the explosion at a Venezuelan oil refinery in 2012 which no one can name.

Peer reviewed modelling undertaken to measure the worst possible fatality outcome from the release of radiation from Fukushima, using the most conservative possible approach (linear, no threshold model), yielded a total hypothetical future number of fatalities (134 deaths) around 10 times smaller than the best estimate death toll from exposure to one type of air pollution in Bangkok alone (1,580 deaths)…every single year.

Spent nuclear fuel in dry storage is a heavy, radioactive ceramic encased in monolithic concrete and steel structures. The radiation goes nowhere, nor can it, unlike the everyday gaseous pollution from fossil energy production. The human and environmental hazard from spent nuclear fuel is infinitesimally smaller than that of pollution from fossil fuels.

None of the above statements are uncertain to any serious degree. So rolling all of the above together, how certain can we be that the deployment of nuclear in place of fossil would make the world a much better place? Something just short of 100%.

So, to my new scientist friends, recall the description of uncertainty we were all given, walk a day in my professional shoes and ask yourself this question:

If I am ever using your research to assist in an environmental decision making process, where might you hope I help my clients focus? On the uncertainty? Or on the truth that lies within it?

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17 comments

  1. First, I really appreciate your work and your blog. That said, it’s a bit hard to get an idea of the substance of the criticism you received from this blog post? I get that you are upset, especially if it got to you second hand, I would be too. But from what you write it mainly seems like it was just an ill fit to invite someone with a policy analysis and proposal talk to what was more of a scientific research conference? I think a typical experience of many scientists is going to a research conference and one of the presenters holding a talk more about how awesome this or that equipment is than what the actual research, with its limitations etc, is about. If your talk was different in style than the others it might have reminded them of such a situation and provoked more of a negative reaction? My advice in this kind of setting: Be upfront about what you are doing is advocacy but with science to back it up, list the main references and acknowledge the limitations in our knowledge while stating that this is not an excuse for inaction. Things you already know I’m sure and this is just an uniformed reading of the situation from your post. Anyway, best of luck with the launch of your report!

    1. Hi,

      Firstly, basically good advice. That’s my typical MO. I took a liberty on the basis of the audience being science professionals, and my bio being in the program. Probably, in retrospect, a mistake.

      While the conference was not under Chatham House Rules, I just feel it would be discourteous to go into the details, so I didn’t.

      More broadly though… I’m not so sure about your critique. Plenty of the folk who had something cool were happy to say so. “Invest in us!!!” was one call from the stage. It was not as dry as perhaps you expected.

      Check the name of the conference: can you imagine how much climate change was discussed? Constantly! This really felt like that experience where climate change was generally accepted as really urgent… until the point where someone seriously puts forward nuclear as a solution that will work… then it is not so urgent!

      I did get a very good question from the audience asking me to describe the passive safety features in further detail which I was happy to do. I also got serious soap-boxing monologue and a few strange discussions afterward where people, instead of asking a question, just explain why I must be wrong.

      I don’t think my delivery was really the issue, though I could have improved it. I think the knee-jerk negative response to nuclear is strong even among scientists, some of whom preferred to assume that I was hiding the uncertainty in my back pocket, rather than form a good question about their area of doubt.

      That all said… better than half my personal interactions were very positive or honestly interested on the topic.

      1. Just a quick question, I think I got the tone of your post very wrong since it seemed to be peppered with weird sentences !that!looked!like!this! It’s even more in you reply and makes even less sense here so I switched from Chrome to Internet Explorer and then it was just normal text. Anyone else got this? Hilarious effect that made your post seem written in a major tantrum!

      1. I’d assume that the Tsunami would have caused most of the immediate fatalities. There were two main refinery fires, one in Sendai (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12722960) and one in Ichihara (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8375497/Japan-earthquake-causes-oil-refinery-inferno.html).

        A wikipedia article cites 6 fatalities at Ichihara, but that is unconfirmed. Who knows if they were as a result of the earthquake or tsunami, or the fires. There were two non-Nuclear related fatalities at Fukushima (one tsunami related, and the other a cardiac arrest) as a matter of fact.

        Nevertheless that much black smoke (inefficient combustion) wouldn’t do any wonders for local residents lungs. Although from footage it looks like the immediate surrounds were rather inundated by the tsunami.

  2. There has been plenty of crossover between the scientific fraternity and those advocating real world solutions. Barry Brook, James Hansen, the IPCC and our own Climate Commission come to mind.

    I’d liken the present situation to a car hire company which only has one stick shift vehicle left for a customer used to automatic transmission. The advice to the customer is if you stay in second gear you’ll never make it to your destination.

  3. I was recently in a brief discussion with someone on another blog who queried the possibility that nuclear power plants could be assessed for insurance risk. When I provided him with the PSI energy risk assessment report used by the Swiss government (showing that NP is one of the safest energy options) he immediately dove for the uncertainties saying things like “the situation is not as clear as you think” and “it contains some very fuzzy reasoning”. Finally he concluded “it was not to be trusted”!

    It is well known that, unless we are experts in a particular field, humans tend to rely a good deal on intuitive reasoning.
    Problem is, our intuitions are just no good at weighing scientific uncertainties.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/30/opinion/sunday/why-smart-brains-make-dumb-decisions-about-danger.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1&
    Because of this, I think one of the most important jobs of the science communicator must be to weigh the relative importance of the uncertainties for us. Given human beings propensity to distort uncertainty and front the wrong risks, that basically means leaving out discussion of the uncertainties unless *they are the main finding*.

    If an individual wishes to move beyond the introductory “need-to-know” stage and into a deeper, more nuanced, understanding (i.e. not something one should expect from a single sitting, introductory presentation) then that is the time to discuss the uncertainties.

    I think you are on the right track.

  4. Well done! I had the feeling that you stepped into a field of scientists who are trained to receive information in a structured manner and claim with measured certainty that what they are talking about is correct within those limitations. Perhaps when confronted by a plain English storyboard approach they became uncomfortable, especially amongst their peers.
    It could have been some perceived lack of science, adhesion to long-held dogma, or maybe some kind if intellectual ambush that swept them beyond their comfort zone and into their personal “uncertainty” zone. Scientists need to deal with the uncertainties as you point out. It ultimately reassures the quality of their work. But it is also a caveat allowing future challenges to be admitted without the scientist being destroyed.

    Perhaps it was that the environment (audience) in (to) which you gave your presentation was simply unprepared for the content and style. Or the blunt realisation that nuclear has an undeniable future. There are doubtless many explanations for what seems to have been a subdued response, and many of those not based upon scientific rigor.

    Well done Ben for getting it out there.

  5. Given the data, at https://decarbonisesa.com/what-about-nuclear-waste/, on the annual wastes, toxic and GWG, for the Loy Yang 2.2 GW coal burner, we can be pretty sure that the worst fallout from the crippled nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, will come from the oal burning to take up the slack. Most shocking of all, some of it will be in Germany, where the “greens” are so afraid of an earthquake/tsunami hitting their nuclear plants, that they shut down many of them.

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