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ERRORS in rebuttal to "Pandora's Promise"

In "The Nation" magazine, writer Mark Hertsgaard has taken it upon himself to "correct" the "errors" of the documentary film, "Pandora's Promise". However, it is Hertsgaard that is in ERROR and needs to be corrected.

In "The Nation" article:


Mark Hertsgaard makes the following claim:

"Itís an inalterable physical fact: nuclear fission produces plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.

BZZZT!! WRONG!! Hertzgaard "thinks" that fission produces plutonium? The statement just shows that Hertzgaard doesn't understand the word "fission" in the everyday English vernacular, let alone in the context of nuclear reactions. The word "fission" in BOTH the English vernacular and in the context of a nuclear reaction means to have something split in two. In the context of nuclear bomb fuel, "Plutonium" means "Plutonium-239". It is only the Plutonium-239 (Pu-239) isotope of Plutonium that is "fissile" and can be nuclear bomb fuel. Likewise, when we talk about the fissioning of fuel in a reactor, we are refering to Uranium-235 (U-235). The number suffix in both cases denotes the atomic mass of the isotope. Because 239 is greater than 235; Pu-239 is a larger and heavier nucleus than U-235. In analogy, the Pu-239 is like a grapefruit which is bigger / heavier than an orange which corresponds to U-235.

So would it make sense to say that when one slices an orange in half ( fissions the orange ) that the process creates the heavier grapefruit? Of course NOT!! That's NONSENSE. However, that's exactly what this Hertzgaard is saying when he states that fission producing plutonium is an inalterable physical fact. Hertzgaard is just plain WRONG!!

We do know that Plutonium CAN be produced in a reactor; so if not fission, what makes Plutonium? Glad you asked. Plutonium is produced via neuton capture on Uranium-238 followed by two radioactive beta decays. The process is:

U-238 + n --> U-239 (neutron capture)
U-239 --> Np-239 + e + (anti-neutrino) (beta radioactive decay)
Np-239 --> Pu-239 + e + (anti-neutrino) (beta radioactive decay.)

In order to produce Pu-239, the reactor must have U-238 in the core in addition to the U-235 fuel. The neutrons that come from fission can provide the original neutron that is captured. However, without the presence of U-238; there can be no production of Pu-239 in the reactor.

Many pro-nuclear supporters cite reactors that work on the "thorium cycle". If one puts plentiful Thorium-232 into the reactor, it will be transmuted into Uranium-233 in a manner similar to the way that U-238 is transmuted into Pu-239. The Uranium-233, however, is fissile like Uranium-235 and is fissioned. Hence one can have a fission reactor fuel cycle that does NOT involve the production of Plutonium; in contradiction to the ill-founded claims of Hertzgaard.

Hertzgaard also states:

The problem is that this same miracle fuel is a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. In fact, it was by exploiting the dual nature of nuclear fission that India acquired nuclear weapons in 1974ómuch as Iran is believed to be trying to do in 2013.

Actually Iran's attempt at obtaining a nuclear weapon has NOTHING to do with nuclear fission. It has to do with enrichment, or isotopic separation. Iran is seeking NOT a plutonium bomb, but a uranium bomb. Natural uranium consists of 99.3% U-238 and 0.7% U-235. It's the U-235 that can be used as a nuclear bomb fuel in high enough concentration. Therefore, Iran is using isotopic separation technology to increase the concentration of U-235 from the 0.7% found in natural uranium, up to a percentage that can be used in a nuclear weapon. Herzgaard is in ERROR; fission has NOTHING to do with that quest.

Hertzgaard further claims:

The film accepts uncritically Tillís claim that the IFR is inherently safe. IFRs are, however, cooled by sodium, which reacts violently upon contact with air or water; nearly all of the worldís sodium-cooled reactors have suffered fires, like the one that closed the Monju nuclear plant in Japan in 1995.

Actually, the claims made by Dr. Till as to the inherent safety of the Integral Fast Reactor or IFR were based on a series of tests conducted on the IFR prototype at Argonne. There's nothing "uncritically" about it; when the claims are based on scientific tests.

Hertzgaard's concerns are based on the fact that the IFR is liquid-metal cooled, and there have been fires at other test reactors that are liquid-metal cooled. However, one should keep in mind, that these other reactors that had the
fires were NOT commercial reactors; they were ALL experimental reactors. Evidently, Hertzgaard doesn't appreciate what scientists do; which is to conduct tests, to stress the system, to find the "breaking points". That's how scientists and engineers learn. For example, in the interview with Dr. Till that I've often quoted here:


Dr. Till describes some of the tests that the IFR prototype was put through; including one test that was eeirily similar to the accident scenario that resulted in the Chernobyl crisis. The IFR prototype faired well in the test. But that is not the case in all scientific experiments. Sometimes experimental equipment breaks, and that's how scientists / engineers learn. The breakdowns that happened at these test reactors weren't happenstance. They were done "on purpose" to stress the system, and find where the weak spots were. Does Hertzgaard not know that there were crashes of experimental planes in the aviation industry? Should we all eschew commercial air travel because some of the forebearers of the airliners in which many people fly had problems when pushed to the limits by their designers?

However, the particular reactor that served as the IFR prototype had a flawless history that spanned decades. That reactor spent the first 20 years of its life as Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II), and never had a fire or sodium accident. It then spent over 10 years as the prototype IFR, again flawlessly. One of the reasons for this flawless record is that EBR-II / IFR was a "pool" reactor:


As can be seen from the above; the reactor sat in a large vat of liquid sodium; which eliminated the need for a lot of "loop-type" sodium piping.

Additionally, Hertzgaard implies that there is something outlandish and uncommon in dealing with liquid metals. For Heaven's sake, doesn't Hertzgaard realize that EVERY FOUNDRY deals with liquid metals. Does Hertzgaard drive a car, own metal tools, even flatware, forks, spoons, and knives? ALL these metal products were liquid metals at some previous time.

Hertzgaard also engages in a lot of foolishly FLAWED logic that many anti-nukes do; which is to consider all members of a given class or set; as equivalent. The Boeing 777 airliner in which you fly is a jet aircraft. The B-52 and B-2 are also jet aircraft and they drop bombs. Therefore, one can drop bombs with a Boeing 777.

Or consider the following analogy; if I have discovered a new, cheap way to produce alcohol then I can conquer the liquor industry, right? Not if the alcohol that I'm producing is methanol! The type of alcohol in liquor is ethanol. Methanol is toxic. Can one "reason"; "Liquor is made with ethanol. Ethanol is an alcohol. Methanol is also an alcohol. Therefore, I can make liquor with methanol."

This FAULTY LOGIC would say that since ethanol is potable and an alcohol; then all alcohols must be potable; so methanol is potable because it is an alcohol. By the same token, all mammals are the same. Finally, all plutonium is the same, and thus all is nuclear bomb fuel.

Now isn't "logic" like that the epitome of being BRAINLESS STUPID!

However, Hertzgaard engages in this same flawed logic by stating that since the IFR is a breeder-type reactor, and breeder type reactors produce Plutonium, and Plutonium has been used in nuclear weapons; concluding that the IFR is a proliferation risk.

Hertzgaard is clearly lacking in the brainpower that it takes to understand that this line of so-called "reasoning" is
flawed. As Dr. Till states in the above PBS Frontline interview:

Q: So it would be very difficult to handle for weapons, would it?

A: It's impossible to handle for weapons, as it stands.

It's highly radioactive. It's highly heat producing. It has all of the characteristics that make it extremely, well, make it impossible for someone to make a weapon.

Herzgaard doesn't understand that not any old composition of Plutonium isotopes can be made into a weapon; that it takes a particular type of composition which the IFR doesn't produce and was specifically designed NOT to produce.

The fact that IFR Plutonium can NOT be used to make nuclear weapons was certified by the very people that design nuclear weapons for the USA. They certified that in a report to their bosses; the US Congress. Senators Simon(D) and Kempthorne(R) refer to this report in their rebuttal to a New York Times editorial:


You are mistaken in suggesting that the reactor produces bomb-grade plutonium: it never separates plutonium; the fuel goes into the reactor in a metal alloy form that contains highly radioactive actinides. A recent Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory study indicates that fuel from this reactor is more proliferation-resistant than spent commercial fuel, which also contains plutonium.

Hertzgaard speaks about the cancellation of the IFR:

Under Republican and Democratic administrations alike and with bipartisan congressional support, Washington halted the development of breeder reactors in the 1970s and canceled Tillís beloved IFR program in 1994.

It was the Clinton Administration that halted the IFR program, and did so by having then Senator Kerry LIE to his colleagues in Congress. As a Senator, Kerry was briefed on the findings of Lawrence Livermore that Senators Simon(D) and Kempthorne(R) quote above. However, as Dr. Till states in this article:


The anti-IFR forces were led by John Kerry. He was the principal speaker and the floor manager of the anti forces in the Senate debate. He spoke at length, with visual aids; he had been well prepared. His arguments against the merits of the IFR were not well informed?and many were clearly wrong. But what his presentation lacked in accuracy it made up in emotion. He attacked from many angles, but principally he argued proliferation dangers from civilian nuclear power.

So if someone LIES to the Congress and MISREPRESENTS scientific facts; as long as they do it passionately, with emotion; and the Congress gullibly "buys into" the LIES and votes accordingly; then somehow that is OK?

I guess some think that "the ends justify the means" when it goes their way; and ignore the fact the such a justification is considered UNETHICAL.

Hertzgaard also contends that renewables will solve our problems and meet our energy needs. However, Hertzgaard is NOT a scientist, and, as demonstrated above; could NEVER be since he is such a piss-poor thinker; but the rest of us know what some of the most respected climate scientists say about the potential of renewables:



Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power

So the fact of the matter is that the documentary "Pandora's Promise" was pretty much "right on" in all it stated, and the so-called "errors" pointed out in "The Nation" article are due to misunderstandings, ignorance, or just plain deficient mental reasoning powers on the part of Mr. Hertzgaard.

It was EXACTLY the level of journalistic quality that I would have expected from "The Nation".

The good thing about science is that it is true, whether or not you believe in it.
--Neil deGrasse Tyson


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