Why Do They Listen to Alvarez?

Why do they listen to Alvarez?

Since I am a blogger on the Northwest Clean Energy Blog, the company sends me (and other interested people) links and public documents about Energy Northwest. I receive links to newspaper articles and TV shows that mention the company. I also have a Google alert set for Energy Northwest, which means I often get the same links twice in a day.

Recently, I received a link about Robert Alvarez writing a report about the safety of the used fuel pool at Columbia Generating Station, and the (imagined) catastrophes that lay in store. And I thought: OMG, here that guy goes again!

Now, before I go further with this post, I want to make it clear that this is my very own opinion of Alvarez and his writings. He wasn’t even on my radar until he came to Vermont and testified in front of a legislative committee… But I get ahead of myself…Let’s start with Alvarez in Vermont.

Alvarez in Vermont

Robert Alvarez came to Vermont and testified in front of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He claimed that the spent fuel at Vermont Yankee was very dangerous. He talked about the spent fuel pool at Fukushima 4 burning and releasing radiation. “When power failed at Fukushima, reactor operators could no longer pump water to keep the fuel cool. Some of the material burned, releasing radiation.” (From Vermont Public Radio)

However. The fuel in the fuel pool didn’t burn and it didn’t release radiation. It didn’t warp and it didn’t bend its support racks. As a matter of fact, Fukushima #4 fuel pool has recently been completely off-loaded of its used fuel.

I was at the Vermont committee meeting with Howard Shaffer, a registered professional engineer. We both knew that Alvarez was telling…umm…he was making incorrect statements. To see more of his quotes at the committee meeting, see my blog post Shaffer Knows About Spent Fuel, Alvarez Talks About It (April 2013)

As you can see by the graphic (a photo I took) the committee room was packed with people. I listened to these incorrect statements while sitting in very close quarters. Indeed, I began to feel slightly claustrophobic as the overloaded room heated up, physically and emotionally. When I left the room, I had two strong desires: a drink of cool water, and to know who the heck this guy Alvarez was, and how he could get away with this stuff.

Alvarez in committee

Alvarez in committee. He is seated at the head of the table, wearing a blue shirt.

Who is Alvarez?

Basically, Alvarez is a traveling nuclear opponent, going from place to place, telling everyone that fuel rods are just too dangerous. But who is he and how did he get such a gig?

First of all, Alvarez has no technical background in nuclear energy or engineering. As Rod Adams reported in Why does anyone trust Robert Alvarez’s opinions about nuclear energy? (June 2013), Alvarez went to college as a music major, but did not complete his degree. He was a political appointee to the Department of Energy for six years, and claims that he is a “former, I guess you would say, nuclear insider.” He then went on to say that knowledgeable people at the Department of Energy “weren’t candid” about dangers because “we can’t scare people.” In other words, people who work in nuclear can’t be trusted to tell the truth. Supposedly, however, Alvarez, a political appointee and dropout, is trustworthy. (Quotes from the Adams blog post above)

Maybe.  As reported in the Washington Post on November 20, 1999, Alvarez unceremoniously lost his job at DOE.

Okay. So now you know why I am not impressed with his qualifications.  But how did he get a gig as a “senior scholar”?

Looking at the gig

Alvarez worked at DOE, and political appointments tend to come with impressive, high-level titles. He now works (volunteers?) at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank. Their projects are designed to end extreme income inequality, support “peace economy” transitions, and so forth. In short, this Institute is not an engineering organization. As far as I can tell from the organization’s nuclear page, it opposes storage of used nuclear fuel—basically anywhere. That’s a policy, all right. It’s not exactly an engineering solution.

I suspect this think tank would have a hard time finding licensed professional engineers to work with them on their anti-nuclear agenda. They brought in Alvarez as their anti-nuclear leader.

Looking at the Report 

So, Alvarez wrote a report about Columbia Generating Station. What was this report like? Well, same-old, same-old—just like Alvarez in Vermont.

Energy Northwest sent me his report, a 61-page document that is heavily padded with elaborate descriptions of standard operating procedures at nuclear plants. I think that these sections give him credibility with his admirers, though not with anyone who works in the nuclear industry.

His report throws everything at the wall against Columbia Generating Station, hoping something will stick. For example: he places italics on his statement that The (fuel) pool does not have its own back-up water or power supply. (page 14 of his report). Indeed, the pool shares multiple redundant back-up water systems (3 of them) and back-up power supply systems (4 of them) with other protected areas within the plant. This type of redundancy is often called “defense in depth.” Apparently, Alvarez would prefer to see the pool have its very own, rarely used backup system. I’m a chemist, not a nuclear engineer, but I don’t think having a single back-up system for the pool would be as safe as the systems they have now.

And of course, he exaggerates the dangers of the fuel pool. For example, he says that the fuel pool was “originally designed to maintain the system at a temperature less than or equal to 125 degree F during refueling outages.”  He then goes on to say that the power uprate has resulted in an increasing heat load in the fuel pool, and that the pool is now allowed to run somewhat hotter, up to 150 degrees.

To which I say—and? and?  What is Alvarez saying? Is he claiming that the fuel pool is running at a higher temperature than permissable? If so, what is his evidence or where is his calculation?

But of course, he has no evidence and he isn’t an engineer, so asking him for calculations is not reasonable.  What he can do, however, is innuendo—“it was designed for this but things have changed.”  The implication is that the situation is out of control because Columbia Generating Station engineers would never have noticed this change or made allowances for it, without Alvarez pointing it out. (sarcasm alert).

His favorite numbers, often repeated, are curies of radiation that “could” be released. He likes big numbers. He doesn’t say how the radiation would be released, but the word “could” plus a big number is suitably scary.

Alvarez also has a whole report section about the Hanford 300-618-11 burial ground. This area is quite near the plant. Everybody at the plant knows about this area. Everybody at Hanford knows about the plant. Everybody is taking both the burial ground and the plant into consideration when planning the burial ground clean-up.

Why does Alvarez mention it? Because it is scary. Nuclear waste, right by the plant. More curies! I think he can’t avoid mentioning something with more curies!  Even though it has nothing to do with the plant. His report is a compendium of fear and innuendo, with very few facts.

What is really scary

What scares me, actually, is that a man with no credentials in engineering or science  can be so worshiped by nuclear opponents. I noticed this first in the committee room in Vermont, where everyone deferred to Alvarez.

I don’t get it (as I titled this post: Why do they listen to Alvarez?) Or maybe I do get it.

If I get it, it’s something like: For the big rewards, tell people what they want to hear. For the big heartaches, tell the truth.


Posted by Meredith Angwin

6 thoughts on “Why Do They Listen to Alvarez?

  1. Dr. Helen Caldicott knew Robert Alvarez in his younger days. She said “You were tall, and dark, and a guitar player”. From the picture above, he’s a sharp dresser too! No wonder people believe him!


  2. Pingback: Kitsap Connection » November 26, 2014

  3. I wonder why he didn’t calculate the “release” in becquerels. That would really run into big numbers. Alvarez, Caldicott, Gundersen, triplets separated at birth?


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