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Wikipedia distorts nuclear history

May 1, 2008

There are only seven Web sites that more people use than Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that lets anyone edit most of its articles. None of the sites that are more popular than Wikipedia have as their main purpose producing information about the world. The top sites, Google and Yahoo, mainly function as links to other sites. Facebook and Myspace, which people use to keep in touch with their friends, are third and fifth most popular, respectively. The other sites that are more visited than Wikipedia are YouTube (a kind of online TV), eBay (a virtual flea market), and Microsoft's version of Google.

For high school and college students researching their papers, Wikipedia is indisputably source number one.

Wikipedia was founded in 2001. It now has 16 employees. For such a young and small organization, it has made its share of headlines. The New York Times covered the story when Wal-Mart employees were found to have anonymously modified Wikipedia's article on Wal-Mart's labor practices, and ExxonMobil employees were caught anonymously changing the section on their company's disastrous oil spill in Valdez, Alaska. None of these editors disclosed who they worked for; a grad student created a program that ferreted out the names of the companies that owned the computers used to make the changes. More recently, one of Wikipedia's board members was criticized for freezing the site's article about his girlfriend, a conservative Fox TV commentator.

While Wikipedia lets anyone edit most of its articles, some can only be modified by Wikipedia staff. It is often hard or impossible to find out the identity of the people who wrote and/or modified an article.

It's likely that any college student who was assigned to write a research paper on nuclear power would do a Google search for those two words. A person who recently moved to an area near a nuclear power plant might do the same thing. The first result is Wikipedia's article on the subject. The article's introduction is locked, so only Wikipedia staff can edit it.

Printed out, Wikipedia's "Nuclear Power" article runs to about 20 pages. It serves as a good example of the famous Web site's flaws.

Nuclear power provides almost a fifth of the nation's electricity. The industry's two biggest problems are what to do with nuclear waste and the risk of a Chernobyl type accident.

Wikipedia bends over backwards to downplay these problems. And it fails to mention that there are much cheaper, safer and more environmentally friendly alternatives to nuclear power. The article also fails to mention the taxpayer subsidies that created the nuclear power industry in the 1950s and 1960s, that allowed the industry to grow and that keep it alive today.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 effectively created the nuclear power industry. The government provided the industry with millions of dollars of free research, heavily subsidized fuel, discounted waste disposal, tax breaks, and, perhaps most significantly, taxpayer-subsidized insurance in case of an accident. The insurance was provided by the Price Anderson Act of 1957. Congress has renewed the act approximately once every 10 years, and it's still in effect.

Between 1974 and 2005, the federal government spent (in 2005 dollars) on research and development $48 billion on nuclear power, $20 billion on fossil fuels, $12 billion for renewable energy like wind and solar, and $12 billion on energy efficiency.

A 1982 study performed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for Congress predicted that a serious accident at the Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York City would kill 50,000 people and result in 100,000 "radiation injuries" and $300 billion in property damage. This study has never been updated. The Wikipedia article "Nuclear Power" does not mention it.

Former federal prosecutor Kenneth McCallion wrote in his 1995 book, "Shoreham and the Rise and Fall of the Nuclear Power Industry" that "James Asselstine, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has concluded that there is at least a 45 percent chance of a meltdown of a nuclear reactor somewhere in the United States in the next 20 years."

If a plane hit the so-called "spent fuel pool" (the water-filled nuclear waste storage area) at a nuclear power plant, a catastrophic nuclear emergency could ensue, according to a 2004 report by the National Academies of Science. On Sept. 11, 2001 one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center had minutes earlier flown almost directly above the Indian Point plant.

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union in 1986 has killed or will kill (by cancer) an estimated 9,000 people, according to a United Nations report. The Wikipedia article wrongly puts the number at 4,050.

President Jimmy Carter's Department of Energy agreed in 1977 to take all the industry's "high-level" nuclear waste. It wasn't until 1987 that Congress decided where the federal government would dump the nuclear waste that Carter had offered to take: Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain still has not opened. The U.S. Department of Energy estimated in 2001 that the total cost of the dump would be about $58 billion. The waste is still being stored around the nation near the 103 reactors where it's created.

In 1995 the National Academies of Science issued a report that said nuclear waste kept at Yucca could still be deadly in 1 million years. The waste needs to be protected by armed guards around the clock.

The Wikipedia article repeats a claim that the industry has been making with no evidence for the past 60 years: "The current waste may well become a valuable resource in the future."

Spending one dollar on energy efficiency programs like Efficiency Vermont saves approximately three times as much energy as spending one dollar on nuclear power generates. That's according to a 2005 study by Amory Lovins in the journal Nuclear Engineering International. The dollar spent on energy efficiency also creates more jobs than the dollar spent on nuclear.

In other words, if Americans took the money they now give to corporations like Entergy Nuclear for electricity from nuclear power plants and instead spent it on programs like Efficiency Vermont, the nation's 65 nuclear plants could be closed, electricity bills would go down, and there would be a net increase in jobs.

Wind power is cheaper than nuclear power. Wind power and energy-efficiency programs are at least twice as cost-effective as nuclear power at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That's because of the fossil fuel emissions caused by construction of nuclear power plants, mining and transporting nuclear fuel, and transporting, guarding and storing nuclear waste. Nuclear power causes global warming.

On May 2, 1977, police arrested 1,414 protesters at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. In June 1978, some 12,000 people attended a protest at Seabrook. In August 1978, almost 500 people were arrested for protesting at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California. In May 1979, in Washington, D.C., about 70,000 people, including the governor of California, attended a march and rally against nuclear power. On June 2, 1979, about 500 people were arrested for protesting construction of the Black Fox nuclear power plant in Oklahoma. The next day, 15,000 people attended a rally at the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island, N.Y.; about 600 were arrested. On June 30, 1979, about 38,000 people attended a protest rally at Diablo Canyon. On August 23, 1979, in New York City about 200,000 people attended a rally against nuclear power. On September 23, 1979, about 167 protesters were arrested at Vermont Yankee. On June 22, 1980, about 15,000 people attended a protest near the San Onofre nuclear power plant in California.

No new nuclear power plants have been ordered in the U.S. since 1978.

Protests preceded the shutdown of the Shoreham, Yankee Atomic, Millstone I, Rancho Seco, and Maine Yankee nuclear power plants. A 2007 article in the Journal of American History did not hesitate to give protesters credit for the decline of the nuclear power industry: "The protestors lost their battle [when Diablo Canyon opened in 1984], but in a sense they won the larger war, for nuclear plant construction ended across the country in 1986."

The Wikipedia article says, "[P]olitical resistance to nuclear power has only ever been successful in New Zealand, and parts of Europe and the Philippines."



Eesha Williams is a graduate student in history at the University of Massachusetts and author of the book "Grassroots Journalism." He lives in Dummerston.

READER COMMENTS

I forgot,one of the liberals' pagan beliefs is nuclear power is scary and dangerous.Who cares.
Have you ever read what they wrote about Bill W.,co-founder of AA? You'd think the man was an absolute ogre all his life,never doing one good thing for mankind,when Time rated him one of the most infuential people of the 20th century.I think the folks who write that crap must be closet ETOHers,or are in complete denial.
I,myself have never had a case of denial,but if I did,I wouldn't admit it.Yea,Wikpedia sucks the big one.
-- Posted by tommy zarvis on Wed, May 7, 2008, 4:46 pm EST [report this comment]


Great article. Wikipedia has been climbing the ladder and has now passed facebook to 7th most used website. http://www.alexa.com/site/ds/top_500

Wikipedia staff does not edit articles, and even the founder (co-founder?), Jimmy Wales now shies away from editing articles. There is a hierarchy of "anyone" who can edit. Most of the millions of articles can be edited by anyone just by clicking on the edit links or tab. To reduce vandalism only editors who have chosen a username more than four days prior can edit most of the high visibility articles, like George W. Bush or Barack Obama, most of the time. To avoid edit warring, some articles are locked ("fully protected") until disputes can be settled, and can only be edited by trusted "administrators", who are some thousand plus editors who were selected by the Wikipedia community for their experience and trustworthiness, and rarely use their privilege to actually edit fully protected articles, preferring to allow the community to come to an agreement instead. Jimmy Wales is also an administrator, but he does not feel that he carries any more weight now than any other administrator, although if push came to shove the Wikipedia Foundation has the final word.

Wikipedia editors are identified either by their IP address (IPusers) or by a pseudonym (Username), and rarely identify their real name, making traditional journalistic identity verification nearly impossible, which is carefully protected for privacy reasons, although as pointed out it has often been abused. The Wikipedia community attempts to route out biases but is not always successful.

By the way, by policy, I personally never trust Wikipedia, and always check the references provided in the articles. Wikipedia is a good "first look" at a subject, but is rarely permitted as a reference by schools. It is too easy for the article to have recently been put into error or as shown above too long been avoiding controversy. The history tab is a good way to find out how stable an article has been, as it will show the last 50 edits, and has links to show more edits, and compare versions. It is possible that the coming school version, printed version, and cd version will be treated differently.
-- Posted by Christopher Booth on Sat, May 3, 2008, 1:48 pm EST [report this comment]


Yea, I am also going to have to disagree with your assertion that the Wikipedia article on Nuclear Power is supporting an agenda.

Arguing that subsidies is the only thing supporting the nuclear industry is a pointless argument because subsidies is what is supporting just about every other energy industry there is. Those solar farms being constructed in California would not have gotten off the ground if it were not for subsidies.

Most of the other problems with this article are covered in other comments, so I will only make comments on the next quote.

"A 1982 study performed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for Congress predicted that a serious accident at the Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York City would kill 50,000 people and result in 100,000 "radiation injuries" and $300 billion in property damage. This study has never been updated. The Wikipedia article "Nuclear Power" does not mention it."

How is this relevant? The 'Nuclear Power' article is not going to mention the possible effects of every scenario imaginable. This has not happened, and frankly, will not happen. An encyclopedia's purpose is to report the facts, not raise conjecture. There are plenty of near-impossible scenarios that I could come up with, but they also have no place in an encyclopedia.

It seems that you either do not know what an encyclopedia is, or have such a negative bias towards nuclear power that your judgement is severely clouded. I am guessing it is the latter.

I absolutely support your right to be against nuclear power, but many of your beliefs on the industry are either half-truths or completely false. Just because someone says something as fact does not make it so. The reason this is such a hotly debated topic is because there are people out there willing to spread lies in order to support their opinion. I would love to see an open discussion between the pro and anti nukes, but I don't think that would happen. If you are not willing to listen to and understand your opposition's beliefs, you can never truly understand your own. Pro nukes are not crazy people bent on nuclear catastrophe. We are just as reasonable as the next person. I urge you to put aside your anger and at least consider the opposition and see the facts that back up those beliefs. If you still feel the same way, that is fine, but at least then you will know the facts and help stop the spread of lies and deception.
-- Posted by Ian Francis on Sat, May 3, 2008, 11:04 am EST [report this comment]


If you are going to write an article about Wikipedia spreading lies, please tell the truth or at least provide sources. Below Ill correct some of the many mistakes in the article.

First Id like to point out that Nuclear power has never killed a civilian in the US. 40 years 0 deaths, and a meltdown did happen at TMI. The myriad of safety systems required for all US reactors will keep the public safe from danger.

About Chernobyl Id really like to know where you got your death total. According to the Chernobyl Forum, 50 people have died from accident related reasons and they approxiamated that about 4000 more will from various cancers. That would be where wikipedia got their information, whats your source?

The assertion that global warming is caused by nuclear power is also false. According to a series of scientific articles by Edward Alsema nuclear power emits less greenhouse gasses over its life cycle than any other power source except hydro. This is coming from a scientist who is researching photovoltaics. Again I ask where your information is coming from.

The one source you did mention was Amory Lovins who is cited by every antinuke activist Ive talked to. The reason is because no other serious scientist makes the ridiculous claims that he does. He believes that all our energy problems can be solved with efficiency and renewables, which sadly is not the case. Efficiency has had a habit of increasing energy use as theorized by Jevons Paradox and renewables technologies just arent there yet.

Wikipedia blocks user changes to the nuclear power article because of people spreading misinformation, fear mongering to support an agenda.
-- Posted by Jon Facemire on Thu, May 1, 2008, 12:28 pm EST [report this comment]


As you say, ANYONE can enter or edit information on Wikipedia, with certain exceptions.

As such, ANY topic is likely to have been entered by someone with strong feelings one way or the other about the subject. Otherwise why bother? If someone does not have some feelings about the subject they are not likely to spend much time commenting on the subject. Certain subjects... abortion, politics, nuclear power, global warming, etc. obviously are more controversial say than a pair of children's rain boots, there are hordes of people on all sides only too eager to post their views, right or wrong as they may be. You don't see that many people that passionate about children's rain boots.

I use Wikipedia a lot, BUT I take it with a grain of salt and never use it as a sole source of information. The students you refer to who do, are lazy and not doing any real research. Furthermore, if one enters various search terms, even while searching for the very same topic, they will get various results, as you would have yourself had you not gotten bogged down in your own opinions. Further still, if one looks at the references, behind the scene comments and 'related searches' one can and will find much more information likely entered from across the spectrum of thought.

I have seen some very good, factual Wikipedia entries, and I have seen some that are blatantly biased in any one of several directions.

In short, Wikipedia is what it is. Not everything there should be confused with fact. Just because someone wrote something there does not automatically make it fact, and that holds true whether you are in agreement with what is written, or opposed to it. Wikipedia is a good reference, but it is only a reference... a starting point, perhaps, and nothing more.
-- Posted by Allen Kuusela on Thu, May 1, 2008, 8:45 am EST [report this comment]


Spending one dollar on energy efficiency programs like Efficiency Vermont saves approximately three times as much energy as spending one dollar on nuclear power generates. That's according to a 2005 study by Amory Lovins in the journal Nuclear Engineering International. The dollar spent on energy efficiency also creates more jobs than the dollar spent on nuclear.

In other words, if Americans took the money they now give to corporations like Entergy Nuclear for electricity from nuclear power plants and instead spent it on programs like Efficiency Vermont, the nation's 65 nuclear plants could be closed, electricity bills would go down, and there would be a net increase in jobs.


And this shows exactly the problems with many editorials, and why Wikipedia remains a far better source than dubious polemics posted on the internet. You cited one source, a study without the name of the paper or a place where one can review it. Unlike Wikipedia where sources are usually easily available for personal reference, allowing people to reach their own conclusions.

(I am not providing sources as I do not pretend to be a substitute for Wikipedia)

Secondly, you reach an extremely dubious conclusion which can not be inferred from the study. That one dollar wisely invested in conservation will yield a greater return than a dollar invested in generation is a sensible conclusion. However, it does not follow that one can then invest an infinite amount of money and yield ever greater electricity savings. There is a point of diminishing returns. Even countries such as Germany which have very aggressive electricity saving programs have not even approached a 20% reduction in demand - especially combined with our growing population!

Finally, Americans do not "give" Entergy money. It is not a charity. Entergy supplies electricity in exchange for money. Entergy does this whether people demand more or less electricity, it's up to consumers to save energy. This has nearly nothing to do with nuclear power. By even bringing conservation into the argument you only muddle and confuse the issue, by presenting a false choice (Conservation OR Nuclear).

You then proceed to present more false choices, such as Nuclear or Renewable sources. You provide no sources for your conclusion that a 400% increase in government subsidies for non-hydro renewable energy (10B to 40B) over the last thirty years would have yielded a 2000% increase in modern day renewable energy capacity. This quite an ambitious claim, and really needs a strong source to have any believability whatsoever.

Wikipedia bends over backwards to downplay these problems. And it fails to mention that there are much cheaper, safer and more environmentally friendly alternatives to nuclear power. The article also fails to mention the taxpayer subsidies that created the nuclear power industry in the 1950s and 1960s, that allowed the industry to grow and that keep it alive today.

Have you read Wikipedia's article guidelines, or ever used a different encyclopedia? The article is not about the best source of electricity generation. It is about nuclear energy.

Secondly the taxpayer subsidies spent on nuclear may be argued about, but back in 1960 there were no other pollution-free base load generation possibilities outside of nuclear.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 effectively created the nuclear power industry. The government provided the industry with millions of dollars of free research, heavily subsidized fuel, discounted waste disposal, tax breaks, and, perhaps most significantly, taxpayer-subsidized insurance in case of an accident. The insurance was provided by the Price Anderson Act of 1957. Congress has renewed the act approximately once every 10 years, and it's still in effect.

Yes, and it's been a great investment. Tax payers have not paid a single cent out in compensation under the act. And it's saved rate-payers huge insurance charges.

There hasn't been a single one in the history of the US civilian nuclear industry. Compare this with the very real health care costs we are already paying which have been incurred during accidents which occurred during the construction of wind mills, or the massive health toll which coal power and coal mining incur (tens of thousands of deaths yearly).

A 1982 study performed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for Congress predicted that a serious accident at the Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York City would kill 50,000 people and result in 100,000 "radiation injuries" and $300 billion in property damage. This study has never been updated. The Wikipedia article "Nuclear Power" does not mention it.

I can't find this study. It was probably not well reviewed by peers. Otherwise it would be cited in scientific publications. I only find it referenced on a number of anti-nuclear websites.

Former federal prosecutor Kenneth McCallion wrote in his 1995 book, "Shoreham and the Rise and Fall of the Nuclear Power Industry" that "James Asselstine, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has concluded that there is at least a 45 percent chance of a meltdown of a nuclear reactor somewhere in the United States in the next 20 years."

Greenpeace and anti-nuclear activists love to play with words and exploit the publics lack of understanding about terminology. A melt down, a situation where the reactor core over-heats such that it is no longer functionally usable, is not Chernobyl. Despite what Greenpeace might like to believe, a Chernobyl situation is virtually impossible in a US reactor because US reactors have containment domes, an explosion of the reactor core with a massive outside release requires destruction of the containment dome.

Three Mile Island was a melt down, but demonstrated the efficacy of good safety systems. Furthermore, safety has improved even more since then.

It wasn't until 1987 that Congress decided where the federal government would dump the nuclear waste that Carter had offered to take: Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain still has not opened. The U.S. Department of Energy estimated in 2001 that the total cost of the dump would be about $58 billion. The waste is still being stored around the nation near the 103 reactors where it's created.


Oh, where to start? There's so much bad information here...

Yucca mountain is paid for by a tax which the NUCLEAR INDUSTRY paid on electricity that it generated. That is not your money. The US electricity market is in the trillions of dollars, $58 Billion for waste storage is almost meaningless. Actually, the further blocking of Yucca mountain is costing taxpayers money, as under the tax laws nuclear companies get compensation from the government for every year the government fails to develop a permanent storage facility.

In 1995 the National Academies of Science issued a report that said nuclear waste kept at Yucca could still be deadly in 1 million years. The waste needs to be protected by armed guards around the clock.

Those two statements next to each other are very misleading. For the short term, it would be wise to protect the waste to prevent (very stupid) terrorists from attempting to release it.

But that's not necessary anyway since anyone wanting to build a nuclear bomb or something would be better off just mining Uranium and running it through centerfuges, as Iran and North Korea have demonstrated.

For the million years statement, yes it could be deadly. However, uranium ore is also deadly. After 100,000 years un-processed "waste" reaches roughly the radiation of the ore it was originally mined from. So the 1 million statement is true, but leads one to a false conclusion. Also, if it were re-processed, as France does, then the waste reaches normal radiation levels within a few thousand years!

http://www.uwig.org/ewec06gridpaper.pdf

The biggest problems with your alternatives, Wind and solar, is intermittentcy. They can go from 60% of capacity to 1% over the course of two hours. This means it�s ability to replace coal power is essentially zero, the coal power plants cannot be brought up quickly enough to ever shut them down, whatever the wind production may be. Even if advanced forecasting methods enabled one to sometimes shut down coal power plants it would likely not be desirable to do so, since the heat up and cool down stages are the most environmentally damaging and economically expensive (coal used to heat up gigantic metal furnaces generates absolutely NO electricity, only CO2 and other nasty GHGs and cancer causing substances).

Wind and solar could complement natural gas pretty well, as it can be quickly cycled. Over the course of thirty minutes or so a natural gas plant may be brought online. Also this is not without losses, since the thermal mass of the turbines must be first heated up. But natural gas prices are already high and will only increase if we need to rely on them more to offset the uneven production of wind power. Add to this that the US is running very short of natural gas, to expand much more we�ll need to liquefy it, put it on a fossil fuel burning boat, and transport it from the middle east to the US.

Also, Germany is not taking coal power plants off line, despite the growth of renewable capacity they are actually still building coal power plants. Ironically they could reduce emissions more, but silly environmentalists stop the construction of any new coal plants, so they are just running dinosaurs from the 40s which have much lower efficiencies.

All said and done, renewable energy is useful for up to 20% penetration, but beyond that it becomes increasingly expensive to integrate it and returns begin to really diminish (see above report). Solar might compliment wind to some degree and increase maximum useful penetration, but on a cloudy overcast day it�s sometimes quiet still, and you�re getting about 5% of the light, so wind cannot really be depended upon to replace solar.

Just look to Denmark, they�ve already reached this penetration, and are seriously cutting back subsidies simply because there ISN�T enough of a return for further capacity expansion. Furthermore they are actually already overly penetrated, but they can rely on Sweden to provide hydro-power at low points. If Sweden decommissioned 20% of their nuclear capacity and replaced it with wind, as you would likely advocate, then Denmark would indeed be in dire straights.

Also the places where wind is plentiful, as mentioned, such as the mid-west, have few or no options for pumped hydro storage, because we don�t have big hills. The only significant one in the midwest, Taum-sauk, collapsed last year scaring what was a truly beautiful stretch of river and a very popular tourist destination (Johnson Shut-ins). Environmentalists are blocking the construction of a new one.

Take on the other hand France, which has even the most ambitious wind proponents beat since 1980 when it comes to carbon free power. They have some of the cheapest electricity in Europe, and it�s 95% fossil fuel free (and 80% nuclear)! Not a single person has died in either the civilian French or American nuclear industry. Unlike our wind industry, where something like 20(?) people have died during the upkeep of windmills, so much for safe power. They reprocess their waste, eliminating the long lived isotopes and reducing the dangerous life or the waste down to a few thousand years. You can thank Greenpeace and Carter that we�re forced to store our waste for 100,000 years in Yucca mountain.
-- Posted by Andrew H. on Thu, May 1, 2008, 6:24 am EST [report this comment]

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