Op-Ed

Patt Morrison Asks: Albert Carnesale, Professor Nuclear

A nuclear engineer, he is serving on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which presents its draft report to President Obama at the end of this month.

As a matter of fact, he is a nuclear engineer. And through all of the titles Albert Carnesale has taken on in the upper reaches of academia -- professor and provost of Harvard and dean of its Kennedy School, chancellor of UCLA, where he is still a professor -- one thread has been a constant: his work on the science and the political science of matters nuclear, both peaceable and belligerent. He now serves on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which presents its draft report to President Obama at the end of this month. Its task is to make recommendations on just about everything touching nuclear power and fuel in this country. And he recently wrapped up work on the Committee on America's Climate Choices, analyzing the options in a climate-changing world. His joke bomb clock freaked out more than one Secret Service agent scoping out his Harvard office in advance of visits from various dignitaries. It's also a reminder of how our clock -- the nation's clock, humanity's clock -- is ticking away.

Fukushima has people questioning the risk of nuclear power; you've used cars versus planes as an example of how we may not be very good at assessing risk.

The probability of really bad things happening [at nuclear power plants] is relatively small. But the consequences could be extremely large. Cars versus planes is a good example.


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Look at how many people die in the United States [each year]. How did they die? One in six dies of heart disease. A car accident, about 1 in 100. In a plane accident, about 1 in 5,000. From a terrorist attack, about 1 in something like 150,000. And yet what do we focus on? Terrorism and planes. When a plane goes down with 200 people on it, it's [on] front pages everywhere.

Now, what are the chances that a nuclear reactor is going to blow up and kill thousands of people? There are about 400 operating in the world, 104 here. What are the accidents that actually killed people? Chernobyl: 53 people died, but many more probably will get cancer. At Three Mile Island, none [died]. Now we have Fukushima -- fewer people were killed right away; in terms of cancer, [it's] unlikely to be as bad [as Chernobyl]. But the data are incomplete. People understandably are concerned about nuclear power because the consequences can be very, very high, but they tend to think it's more likely than it really is.

What are some of the lessons we've learned from Fukushima?

That "extremely unlikely" is not the same as "impossible." They designed for earthquakes [and] tsunami, but not this high a tsunami. We learned you don't have to design to make sure the reactor would still operate; let's design so maybe the reactor will never be able to operate again but you don't have a radioactive disaster on your hands.

The U.S. government recommended that American citizens within 50 miles of Fukushima get out. If, God forbid, something happened at San Onofre, good luck: Ever try to get out of Los Angeles on a Friday night?

If you exercise an evacuation plan, people [think], if they're making us do this, it must really be that they're expecting an accident. But if you don't --. Think of fire drills: Most people's reaction is, is there some way I can stay at my desk?

We learned that we have to put most of our effort into preventing the accident; and we have to think more seriously about responses to an accident.

More than 40 years ago, you worked on a Ford Foundation report called "Nuclear Power Issues and Choices." What did you recommend then?

Think carefully what we do with the nuclear fuel cycle and how it could be used for weapons. It was pretty much pro-nuclear power. It pointed out the risks tend to be low probability/high consequence, whereas coal kills people every day. Think of nuclear power certainly not as risk-free, but it's to be compared not to the perfect but to the real.

Yet people demand safety guarantees for nuclear energy that they don't from any other energy source.

Where it becomes the most absurd is in radioactive waste management; people were insisting that none of the radioactive material stored underground would get into the water or air for a million years. Now, a million years is a shorter period than we've been walking upright, but not by a lot. The idea of guaranteeing anything for a million years is absurd on its face, right? You can't do it. Let's have a little humility.

But the thing is silly both ways. It's silly to ask for it, but equally bad are people who say we can meet that criterion. No one really says we can meet it, but they're very careful. That's why we've had this big fuss with [storing waste at] Yucca Mountain. The people of Nevada were very much opposed from the beginning. President Obama and [Energy] Secretary [Stephen] Chu concluded we need an alternative strategy.

The total accumulated U.S. inventory of commercial spent nuclear fuel is about 72,000 tons, virtually all of which is stored at the plant sites. One of the [commission's] draft recommendations is to get consolidated storage for the spent fuel. We have experience transferring military [nuclear] waste; it has an extraordinarily good safety record, as, by the way, does the American nuclear power plant industry. If you don't count people who fell off ladders in nuclear power plants, basically no one has died in a nuclear reactor accident, ever, in this country.

I don't mean to be the proponent of nuclear power. I'm just trying to point out how we do not compare it with alternative [energy source risks]. I believe it would be valuable for nuclear power to be part of our mix.

You grew up in the Bronx and your dad drove a cab. How did you get where you are?

My ambition was to have a job where you wore a white shirt and a tie and you enjoyed what you were doing. Where I grew up, that was a pretty big thing. Oh, and it was important to make at least $100 a week. I studied engineering, which was instant middle class. I studied mechanical engineering, went into industry and hit my hundred-dollar mark. I got my PhD in nuclear engineering. After that, I [worked] on the Nonproliferation Treaty. This was 1970, and I've worked on [nuclear issues] since then.

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