It has been said that people have a right to their own opinions but not their own facts.

Maybe, but in the range of topics that draw disagreement in the healthy public discourse of a modern democracy, it’s not always simple for people to know what is a fact and what is not.

We cannot all be experts in everything. However we can become familiar with the tell-tale signs of false-expertise.

Such familiarity would have been useful to readers of The Saturday Paper who came across SA’s short-sighted view of uranium and nuclear options by Helen Caldicott. It exemplifies writing that ought leave readers in no doubt as to the underlying expertise and motivations of the author.

Use of emotive language:

I use emotive language in blog posts, sparingly, to drive home conclusions that I reach via a process of evidence based analysis.

Caldicott does something different.

“Little” South Australia is being “seduced” by arguments for nuclear. Everything about nuclear, by contrast, is “massive” and “complex” with “huge expulsions” of greenhouse gas, “intensively radioactive” cores, material becoming “a billion times more radioactive”,  with processes that are “extremely dangerous” that leave “toxic corrosive brews”. It is “vastly expensive and dangerous” and “hugely expensive”, it involves elements that are “extremely dangerous” (again) , some “even more deadly” than others. Infrastructure is “dilapidated and dangerous”, the whole process is “disastrous”, the Royal Commission is “flawed” .

Emotive language of this type sheds no light on an issue, only heat.

Fear-mongering

In this piece Caldicott links the nuclear fuel cycle with the following conditions: “varieties of cancer, including lung, liver, bone, testicular, breast, muscle and brain…severe congenital deformities…inherited genetic diseases, including cystic fibrosis, diabetes, haemochromatosis and dwarfism”.

What I found particularly shocking was this statement:

“The South Australian population would be likely to experience epidemics of cancer, leukaemia, congenital anomalies and genetic diseases through future generations as the waste inevitably leaked”.

This statement, made with the merest shred of equivocation and zero evidence, is an attempt to frighten people. As I recently learned all too well, frightening people has consequences more deadly than actual nuclear accidents.

Furthermore the term “epidemic” refers to rapid spread of infectious diseases like flu, SARS or ebola, not congenital abnormalities, genetic diseases or cancers. For someone who makes much of her medical qualification, I find the above statement a blatant, loaded misuse of terminology.

Even taking a more colloquial use of the term epidemic,  evidence is sorely lacking. The sudden, uncontrolled release from Chernobyl delivered no such outcomes beyond the  definite and entirely preventable increase in thyroid cancer[1].

Responsible experts who are looking to shed light, not heat, are sparing in type of language and back it up carefully. When we read such unsupported statements, that is probably because the argument is perched on an evidentiary house of cards.

Absence of referencing and sourcing

In 1700+ words, to how many sources did Caldicott refer in support of her assertions?

One: the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research on the subject the potential build requirements for nuclear power plants.

It was George Monbiot who really blew the lid on such referencing errors in his legendary encounters with Caldicott[2]. Following a bruising television interview he simply and clearly requested sources for statements made. The sources provided were weak. The actual evidence was either absent or misrepresented, and consistently in opposition to the broad scientific consensus.

Appealing to authority

In the absence of referenced evidence,  Caldicott  appeals to her own expert authority, primarily her medical qualification. That entitles the rest of ask to ask: who is she? Does she warrant a hearing on nuclear matters on the basis of her expertise?

Caldicott was a doctor. From what I can discern, she was an excellent one. She was a teacher at Harvard Medical School, specialising in cystic fibrosis. On returning to Australia she established the cystic fibrosis treatment unit in Adelaide that brought the leading, effective treatment practices to Australian patients, with considerable success. She deserves recognition for this. She ceased practicing medicine in 1980 at which point she took on full-time social activism via Physicians for Social Responsibility. That was 35 years ago.

Thirty five years is virtually a whole career. So it’s credible that an outstanding paediatrician might then become a genuine nuclear expert. This is not the case. Caldicott has virtually no publication record on nuclear matters, or anything else, in peer-reviewed science. She has an h-index[3] of 1. That’s the lowest possible.

As a new doctoral candidate I hope to have an index of 1 shortly[4]. Other experts raised and dismissed by Caldicott for being associated with the “flawed” Royal Commission include the South Australian Chief Scientist, the biochemist, geneticist and biologist Leanna Read, with an h-index of 28. Professor Barry Brook of the University of Tasmania has an h-index of 39, with 6755 citations of his work. Professor Ian Lowe has a more modest h-index of 3, however he has been cited nearly 1000 times.

Caldicott is famous for her non-peer reviewed books, her articles in popular press and her public persona. Otherwise she occasionally has letters published in journals[5]. It appears that when Caldicott ceased practicing medicine, she also detached from the scientific establishment as a professional environment, in preference for full-time activism and popular engagement.

Now, there may be merit and value in that decision and that pathway. But if activism is all one does, there are important implications: Helen Caldicott is not an expert in nuclear matters in her own right within the strictures of the scientific process .

Naturally, an h-index is not the only measure of relevant expertise. There will be teachers in recognised institutions who are up-to-date in knowledge, exposed to and involved in professional development, but not publishing original research. Other people will be accumulating the knowledge and expertise that comes from being part of an industry and/or profession year-on-year. Neither of these cases apply to Caldicott for nuclear science, technology, or specific matters pertaining to radiation and health.

I can’t know with certainty what level of professional engagement Caldicott has retained with the medical establishment. I see that in 2011 Caldicott offered webcast instruction[6] to other doctors to enable them to:

  • Treat and counsel patients with regard to the medical hazards of nuclear power.
  • Dsign (sic) practice strategies to lessen environmental destruction caused by nuclear power.

Insulation and isolation from criticism and peer review is risky. For Caldicott, it appears to have led to complete distrust of any source in disagreement with her opinion[7], a distinct drift toward ever-more extreme statements and positions[8], and a consistent rhetorical fallback: appealing to the authority of her own, non-existent expert status.

Attempts to discredit

In the article Caldicott describes Senator Sean Edwards as a “real estate agent”.

Edwards ceased work in real estate eighteen years ago[9]. He is a Senator, chairs one Standing Committee (Economics) and is a member of another (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade).

Caldicott called me an “occupational therapist”.  No one calls me an occupational therapist anymore. In the both cases, Caldicott sought to define people not by what they are, but by what they were. Why might that be?

I have not worked as an O.T. for ten years. I am not accredited. I am not registered. I have not engaged in ongoing professional development as an O.T. I would never represent myself as an O.T. either to a client or the world at large[10].

Caldicott does the opposite. She concludes a 2007 letter to Medscape General Medicine[11] with the following statement:

“That’s my opinion. I’m Dr. Helen Caldicott, MD, pediatrician and President of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute”.

I fear that sums it up. Caldicott defends her opinions on the basis that she is (was?) a doctor. Her progressive relegation to the margins of debate and publication suggests the reality of her inadequacies have broadly sunk in over time. She openly acknowledged in a recent interview that she is not regarded as credible in Australia, yet lacked insight as to why that might be[12].

Factual errors

It is to be expected that this article will contain factual errors. I will cover four as briefly as possible.

“Enriching uranium also requires the enormous expense of energy, as in Paducah, Kentucky, where two huge coal-fired plants provided the requisite electricity for uranium enrichment for atomic power and weapons”.

Note the use of the past tense. This facility is closed, has been closed since 2013, and will remain closed. The modern techniques for uranium enrichment demand about 5 % of the energy of Paduch[13], making modern facilities approximately 95 % less useful for this line of argument.

“But this ignores the huge[14] expulsion of greenhouse gas that goes into producing nuclear power.” 

Related to the first point, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[15] reflects the overwhelming consensus that nuclear power is as low in emissions, across the full-fuel cycle, as are renewable technologies. Reference to outlier studies and out-of-date technologies is misleading. End of story.

“(Senator Edwards) said that South Australia could create a special economic zone, thus eliminating $4.4 billion in taxes, including payroll tax, motor vehicle taxes and the emergency services levy, if it became the world’s radioactive waste dump”.

No, he didn’t propose a waste repository in any sense. Senator Edwards proposed an integrated project including an approved multinational storage facility for used fuel, with full retrievability, as an economic cornerstone to developing the infrastructure needed for the full recyclability of this material with plentiful electricity being the beneficial side effect. This information was available in press releases and discussed in some detail in a speech to The Sydney Institute[16].

“Heard is advocating the reprocessing of radioactive fuel. This involves dissolving intensely radioactive fuel rods in nitric acid and chemically precipitating out plutonium, which would then fuel small, modular, fast-breeder reactors”.

This is incorrect. She is either confused or wants to confuse the reader. I have expressly recommended against reprocessing of radioactive fuel via the conventional aqueous reprocessing Caldicott describes[17]. I was referring to the very different electrometallurgical processes required for complete recycling of used nuclear fuel, known as pyroprocessing. These processes are very different in economic outcomes, fuel outcomes and waste outcomes. A tiny amount of short-lived waste is separated and encapsulated in mineral and glass, requiring management for just 300 years[18]. Everything else is fuel until it, too, is short-lived waste after giving abundant energy[19].

“a loss of coolant (in a fast reactor) could induce a huge nuclear explosion scattering deadly plutonium”

No it can’t. But she is not the only person saying this, so it is worth some explanation.

The TREAT facility, with EBR-II in background
The TREAT facility, with Experimental Breeder Reactor II (background)

The inherent safety characteristics of an integral fast reactor are increasingly well-known, with metal fuel that swells when over-heated and shuts down the chain reaction, and metal coolant that removes decay heat indefinitely with no mechanical intervention. In the extremely low probability event that these mechanisms are overcome, the low melting point of the metal fuel “provides a passive mechanism for dispersing the fuel so that it cannot resemble a prompt critical configuration”[20]. This “low temperature dispersal” of the fuel “provides a massive negative reactivity injection, overwhelming all other reactivity effects” and as a result “there is no prompt criticality[21].  This is not just theoretical. The fuel was tested in the Transient Reactor Test Facility, an experimental reactor that subjects reactor fuel to massive overpower events that are well-outside of normal operating conditions. In this case the fuel was taken from zero power to greater than 4 times the nominal peak power in just 5 seconds. The result was as described above but better than expected: the behaviour of the fuel serves to “terminate over-power transients no matter what their cause”[22],[23].

No sooner does an expert decide to recommend, with some passion, a course of action based on her-or-his knowledge than this can be construed as activism. I am grateful to those who do this. Climate scientist James Hansen (h-index 62) takes an activist line on climate change and nuclear power. Economist Jeff Sachs takes an activist line in his books (h-index of 45). Professor Geraldine Thomas puts in the time to see to it that the science of radiation and health is not abused for ideological purposes (h-index 11 and global authority on the health impacts of Chernobyl).

Contributions from such experts, whether one describes it as activism or not, enhances our public discourse. It should be honoured; in fact it should be actively sought. Activism of the unchained, unreviewed, inexpert variety puts quality public discourse at risk, often by deliberately frightening and misinforming the public.

The South Australian government is now considering  deepening its involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. It is doing so via a credible, transparent public process. Anyone can make a submission.

It will be evidence, not appeals to authority,  that will matter. For the authority is already sitting on the Expert Advisory Committee, and the commission has the power and resources to seek guidance of other experts as required.  I am confident that I speak for a growing number of South Australians when I say that we do not want inexpert, emotive fear-mongering to drive this discourse any longer.

Is everyone entitled to an opinion? Perhaps, but the rest of us only have to care about positions that can be robustly argued.  That’s what this Royal Commission is all about and I welcome it. “Little” South Australia has outgrown Helen Caldicott.

Protesters at a rally against nuclear power outside Parliament House in Adelaide, Wednesday, March 11, 2015. It's just possible that opposition to nuclear in Australia is not what it used to be.
Protesters at a rally against nuclear power outside Parliament House in Adelaide, Wednesday, March 11, 2015. It’s just possible that opposition to nuclear in Australia is not what it used to be.

[1] For detail please review the report of the Chernobyl Forum http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/  and the special Annex from UNSCEAR  http://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf

[2] Documented in his blog post Evidence Meltdown http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/04/evidence-meltdown/ and follow-up here http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/13/why-this-matters/ and here http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/04/correspondence-with-helen-caldicott/ and here http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/04/interrogation-of-helen-caldicotts-responses/

[3] A good article to learn about h-index is this one http://conservationbytes.com/2015/04/24/lomborg-a-detailed-citation-analysis/

[4] Should I be honoured to received citations for Heard, B., Bradshaw, C.J.A & Brook, B.W. (2015), Beyond wind: furthering development of clean energy in South Australia, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, Vol. 139, No. 1, 57–82, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03721426.2015.1035217

[5] For example a 1979 volume of The medical journal of Australia (Uranium: Health risks from a nuclear power industry). More recently she had a letter published in Medscape General Medicine (2007) headed “Use of Depleted Uranium is a Form of Radiologic Warfare”.

[6] http://www.allkids.org/body.cfm?id=615&action=detail&ref=206

[7] For example, insisting that the work of the Chernobyl Forum is a “whitewash”

[8] Many of which are catalogued in this movie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qaptvhky8IQ

[9] Personal communication, Wade Laube, office of Senator Sean Edwards

[10] If you want to know more about me you might like this piece https://decarbonisesa.com/2014/06/20/am-i-an-environmentalist/  and here is an up-to-date CV Ben Heard CV June 2015

[11] Use of depleted Uranium is a form a radiologic warfare. Medscape General Medicine, Volume 9, Issue 2, 2007, Article number 45

[12] Interview with Helen Caldicott for One Plus One, ABC News 24, April 16 2014

[13] Table 3, page 14, Specific energy consumption (kWh/SWU) http://fissilematerials.org/library/ornl05a.pdf

[14] I’m not allowed to use words like “huge” in my writing. I get a slap if I write “very”. I am, correctly, taught to quantify everything, for otherwise it has no meaning.

[15] I recommend this analysis that covers the changing relationship of the IPCC to nuclear energy http://thebulletin.org/timeline-ipcc%E2%80%99s-shifting-position-nuclear-energy7975

[16] I published the speech here https://decarbonisesa.com/2015/04/08/we-must-act-and-we-must-act-now-speech-from-senator-sean-edwards/

[17] You can watch the words come out of my mouth in this video of a 2015 presentation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdjIdjS9Sf4

[18] As discussed in lay terms in the book Prescription for the Planet and in considerable detail in the book Plentiful Energy.

[19] Oops, there I go using an adjective without quantifying. About 1 ton of material per year is transmuted from longer-lived plutonium to shorter-lived waste products in the process of providing 1000 MW of generation . That’s AMAZING.

[20] Plentiful Energy, page 153

[21] Plentiful Energy, page 154

[22] Plentiful Energy, page 156

[23] For more discussion here is an excellent post from Rod Adams http://atomicinsights.com/how-do-fast-reactors-respond-to-rapid-reactivity-insertion-events/

15 comments

  1. “Explode catastrophically….”

    Now where have I seen a Loss of coolant accident with respect to a breeder reactor…

    Seems like Charles Till and the journalists survived that “catastrophe”, and Ian Lowe is on the expert committee of the Nuclear Royal Commission.

  2. Indice Mortalità per TWh prodotto
    .
    Fonte……….Morti/TWh…..% Energia Elettrica…..Totale per fonte
    ………………………………….Prodotta nel Mondo….Morti/anno

    Carbone…………….161……………………26…………….561’000

    Olio Comb…………..36……………………36…………….181’000

    Natural Gas………….4……………………21………………11’700

    Bio/massa
    e biocombustibile…12…………………….0,0X

    Torba…………………..12……………………..0,0X

    Idroelettrica………..1,4……………………2,2………………..431

    Nucleare…………….0,04………………….5,9………………….33
    .

    .

  3. Caldicott has her followers who will never be pro-nuclear. Facts are of no interest to them so there is probably no return on trying to show how wrong they are. We need to ignore Caldicott not try to show where she is wrong. (Sorry Ben. Just my belief and I understand why you need to vent your spleen.)

    We can only win against this kind of anti-nuclear hysteria by building a better case than they are presenting. I believe this is happening and the words and enthusiasm of Senator Edwards is where we need to focus along with supporting the Royal Commission and helping it in any way possible. We just have to put up with the nonsense from Caldicott because we cannot influence her or her followers.

    1. It doesn’t hurt to have a counter in the internet, but I agree with your point to the extent if it was the only thing that was being done.

    2. Martin – I have to disagree. Caldicott gets invited to speak at too many respectable venues (college campuses, Democracy Now!, woman’s political groups) for the tactic of ignoring her to work. Her factual misstatements [aka – lies] must be repeatedly highlighted, as well as the fact that her self admitted inspiration for 35 years worth of antinuclear activism was a reaction to a work of fiction (On the Beach.)

      My primary hope is that Ben has produced a condensed version of this post for publication in the same venue where Caldicott’s diatribe was published.

      1. Right of reply was requested and refused. I was offered the opportunity to have a letter published (150 words) which was not satisfactory. I believe the Office of Senator Edwards will be having a letter published. I am very disappointed in The Saturday Paper.

        1. That Saturday Paper article was hard to read, even after steeling myself for what I knew was awaiting me. Was hard not to yell at the screen when the bit about exploding reactors was inflicted on the world… she surely must be entirely deluded, no one can maintain such willful misleading of the public so consistently, for so long? In the light of FIFA, then again I could be wrong. While there I also stumbled across this, which provides some small insight into the way she thinks – https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2015/05/09/the-hashtag-crusaders/14310936001854 (& is just worthwhile reading anyway since I notice so many of you are on the twitters)
          …so if anyone feels the need to by-pass their 3 free articles a week limit & ruin their economic model, it like the Guardian’s is surprisingly easy to bypass …just say the word.

  4. Martin, I think Ben is doing more than venting his spleen. He is performing a public service in helping us grapple with that sort of nonsense, and probably enlightening some who might be tempted to give some (even minor) cred to her.
    But you are right about building the better case.

  5. While I am no longer an SA resident I spent the weekend in company with some Safstrines. I think job layoffs of their colleagues in car making, defence contracting and gas production have focussed their minds. Caldicott’s dire warnings about nuclear may have resonated once now it’s getting serious. Something has to fill the economic void. That incidentally is why I think it is unhelpful to talk about 4th generation nuclear at this early stage. Start building something off the shelf (to use a WW1 expression) to keep the home fires burning. Caldicott resonates with the silverhaired now middle class hippies but their influence will wane.

  6. Given the choice of: –
    1. I admit that I must be wrong because of the weight of opinions of the experts, or
    2. The experts are wrong, and therefore MUST be part of a conspiracy,
    the human mind nearly always chooses 2 above.
    The creationist will never CONSIDER option 1 above because of their absolute faith, and inevitably embraces option 2.
    Helen Caldicott has been wrong for 35 years, but will continue to delude herself.
    Both climate-change-deniers and doctrinaire anti-nukes cannot choose 1 above, because it violates fundamental dogma.

  7. How does two or three 250MWe SMR’s sound for Port Augusta? That would negate the useless solar thermal fantasy being considered. If Kevin Scarce fails to recommend nuclear expansion for SA then we and SA are all well and truly stuffed.

  8. Memo to Helen Caldicott: Hyperbole can be quite a handy device but it needs to be handled with care. Spoon it on too intemperately and you look like a nut case.

    Ben’s pointing out of some of her more lavish adjectives initially had me chuckling. But no, the situation’s too dire to feel amusement for more than a fraction of a second.

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