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Of Pandora and Prometheus

By Margaret Harding, Columnist

November 07 2013

The intertwined myths of Pandora and Prometheus eerily echo the history of nuclear energy: promise and potential, followed by punishment, and ending with hope and hindsight. With the documentary film “Pandora’s Promise” set to premiere on CNN on Nov. 7, FCW columnist Margaret Harding explores the parallels.

The myths of Pandora and Prometheus are some of the most interesting of the Greek myths.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that these two myths are related.

Prometheus—whose name means “forethought” or “forward thinker”—was a Titan who helped to create humans and stole fire from Zeus and the rest of his Olympus gang to help humans live a better life.

For his troubles, Zeus eventually chains him to a rock and has an eagle eat his liver each day. The liver grows back each night so that the punishment can be eternal.

Many know this myth and many nuclear projects use the word “Prometheus” in honor of his actions.

Certainly, given nuclear energy’s potential it feels a great deal like we’ve stolen the ultimate fire from the universe.

Pandora, though, I was less familiar with.

Like most folks, I knew that Pandora’s box was filled with evil things and that she loosed them on the world by unlocking a box
 she’d been told to keep shut.

We’ve all heard the phrase “opened Pandora’s box” to connote something that someone had done that created all kinds of problems.

Anti-nuclear activists like to describe nuclear technology as an act of opening a Pandora’s box.

They almost gleefully describe a litany of ills and problems that the curious scientists that developed this technology have opened with their discovery.

When the documentary “Pandora’s Promise” was released this past summer, and director Robert Stone explained that Pandora’s myth ends with the revelation that hope for all mankind was at the bottom of the box, I decided to investigate a bit further the story of Pandora.

Who was this Pandora woman anyway?

Pandora—the name means “all gifts”—is the first human woman in Greek mythology. Before her, all females were either gods or Titans.

Zeus demanded that the other Olympian gods create her in order to play a trick on mankind as punishment. What transgression was Zeus so angry about? He was angry because Prometheus stole fire and gave it to mankind.

Depending on the version of the myth, the gods first tried to give her to Prometheus, who recognized the potential trick and refused her.

The gods then give her to Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. Epimetheus means “after thought” or “hindsight.” He’s less well known than Prometheus, mostly because he always failed to plan ahead.

These myths are compelling. Nuclear technology is indeed the fire we stole from the gods.

As mere mortals, it has taken thousands of competent and dedicated engineers and scientists to wrest this fire from Olympus and bring it to mankind.

Some days, it certainly feels like our livers are being pecked out by something—and that, like Prometheus, we are being punished.

However, the campaigns by anti-nuclear activists over the past several decades now appears to be Epimetheus-like.

Lacking any foresight, they’ve been seduced by a pretty vision of the future. The ills our continued reliance on fossil fuels has created certainly seems to be Pandora’s box.

Our air is dirtier, our energy more expensive and less reliable, and our future less certain because of the delays in getting nuclear energy used more widely, not just in the U.S, but globally.

But there is still hope at the bottom of that box.

Many environmentalists have rejected the traditional anti-nuclear stance. There has been quiet talk in the corners of the movement that perhaps that knee jerk stance was wrong.

The documentary “Pandora’s Promise” brings that discussion into the forefront and perhaps begins to get us to the bottom of that box and to the hope that it brings.



Nuclear Energy, Not Unreliables, Is the Solution to Climate Change

By Andrea Jennetta, Publisher

June 25 2013

After listening to President Obama’s speech and reading the broad outline of his administration’s plan on climate change, FCW publisher Andrea Jennetta was angry enough to post a comment on the White House web site expressing her disgust at its refusal to accept that nuclear energy IS the answer. She wants other Democrats and her colleagues in the global nuclear industry to read what she wrote—and hopefully be inspired to take action and let their own voices be heard. The bottom line is that nuclear energy will only be part of the discussion if we in the nuclear industry speak up and out to make it happen.

I’m a lifelong Democrat. I’ve worked in the U.S. nuclear industry 25 of my 47 years on planet Earth. And I want to say that the focus on renewables to the near exclusion of nuclear energy in the climate change plan President Obama unveiled today is groundless and gutless.

While unreliables resonate with a specific wing of the Democratic party they cannot power a modern economy. Unlike nuclear energy, solar and wind are fraught with innumerable technical and economic problems. You know it and I know it. And the anti-nuclear “environmentalists” know it, too, even if they can’t—or won’t—admit it.

It is time to stop pandering to those elements in the base and start educating the American people on the realities of the modern electricity grid, “the dangers” of radiation, the amount of CO2 emitted by “clean burning” natural gas and the plain truth that energy consumption is increasing so fast that conservation and efficiency isn’t enough.

The bottom line is that Democrats, the so-called party of science, need to get a grip and get leading on nuclear energy—not wasting time and resources on intermittent technologies that blow billions of dollars, wreak havoc on the economics of deregulated power markets and send Wall Street running for cover.

Moreover, this ridiculous, fantasy-based approach to fighting climate change sends the wrong message to developing countries, where access to reliable, inexpensive and clean energy sources like nuclear power are literally matters of life and death.

Nuclear energy is the solution, people. All of its so-called problems are political, not technical. But real leadership is needed to solve those problems. What was announced today is a series of colorful graphics, a panacea, a way for those at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW to feel good without actually accomplish anything.


P.S. Pandora’s Promise is playing at the E Street Cinema, a 10-block walk from the White House. The environmentalists depicted in that film know more about climate change and how it could be effectively fought with nuclear energy than any of the hundreds of analysts and unreliables lobbyists consulted by the president. Perhaps after seeing it the Obama policy shop will be shamed into an immediate overhaul of today’s plan.

(Terrible) Business as Usual at Kudankulam

By Miriam Mazer, Insight Writer

April 26 2013

Once again, commercial startup of India’s Kudankulam-1 plant has been delayed. Once again, Indian nuclear officials botched the related public communications effort. When will that reactor ever be operational? FCW’s Miriam Mazer reports on the latest developments.

At the start of April, Kudankulam-1 seemed ready to reach criticality—again. Plant engineers were wrapping up the final tests. Government officials were bickering over the start-up date. Fishermen were besieging the plant’s employee and contractor housing facility. In other words, business-as-usual for the troubled project.

The first signs of trouble started on April 7, when a top nuclear scientist issued a thundering condemnation against Kudankulam.

A. Gopalakrishnan, a former chairman of the Indian regulatory agency, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), claimed that the plant’s Russian makers had used inferior components to build the reactor. He castigated the AERB and the Department of Atomic Energy for the lack of transparency surrounding the project.

Anti-nuclear activists latched onto Dr. Gopalakrishnan immediately, who is the first major Indian nuclear scientist to attack Kudankulam.

But beyond a few articles in the Indian media, Dr. Gopalakrishnan’s remarks provoked little response from either the government or the public.

During the same speech, the former AERB chairman, who strongly opposes all foreign involvement in the Indian nuclear program, attacked the government for abandoning nuclear independence from Western countries and the earlier goal of developing a thorium fuel cycle. This was another instance of his long-running anti-foreign agenda.

In the end, Dr. Gopalakrishnan was right. On April 19, the Secretary of AERB, R. Bhattacharya, told the press that pre-commissioning tests revealed four defective valves in the emergency core cooling system. Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) replaced the valves on April 24 and has continued the pre-commissioning tests.

Springtime Start-up Unlikely
AERB refused to elaborate on the valves’ deficiency, but Nalinish Nagaich, the executive director of NPCIL, explained that the commissioning team discovered the defects when testing the valves in situ in an integrated manner. AERB is now reviewing the performance of the valves’ replacements.

Since March, the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and NPCIL have bickered over the plant’s start-up date. Singh told Russian President Vladimir Putin during the BRICS summit on March 27 that Kudankulam-1 would begin commercial operations in April, even though NPCIL had changed the date to May.

Most likely Singh hoped to reassure an increasingly impatient Russia that India remained committed to its many nuclear deals with Rosatom. However, the faulty valves have delayed Kudankulam’s operation yet again. NPCIL may yet meet the May commission date, given its rapid replacement of the valves.

Ironically, Russia may be responsible for the latest lag. Last year Russia’s Federal Security Service busted a prominent official of a Rosatom subsidiary for corruption.

Starting in 2007 Sergei Shutov, the procurement director of ZiO-Podolsk, had purchased cheap, low-quality raw materials for building reactor components intended for foreign customers and pocketed the difference.

Kudankulam used ZiO-Podolsk parts in its reactors, though it remains unconfirmed if these valves came from the company.

Despite these recent troubles, the Russian-Indian nuclear relationship remains strong. Atomstroyexport will construct Kudankulam-3 and -4, a project green-lighted by Singh’s cabinet in March.

Agreements for the two units date back to 2008, but India’s notorious nuclear liability law, which forces companies to take responsibility for any plant disasters, held up the final contract.

However, the two countries have finally reached a compromise. India will pay more for the reactors, while Rosatom will take responsibility for the plant’s safety.

Neither country has released details about the new payment plan. A Russian technical team is now tying up loose ends in Mumbai before finalizing the deal.

Transparency Issues Continue
AERB and NPCIL’s decision to publicize the faulty valves is laudable, especially in the context of Kudankulam’s troubled history. The plant’s officials have repeatedly failed to communicate with locals on the most basic issues. Such blunders have energized anti-nuclear activists, time and again.

The latest flub started on March 29, when steam relief valve tests released plumes of foul-smelling smoke and loud noises over the course of three days. Incredibly, the plant officials failed to inform locals about the tests.

Villagers were alarmed, fearing the plant had gone online. To make matters worse, a copper plant in nearby Tuticorin had shut down several days before after emitting poison fumes.

Sound familiar? Kudankulam’s directors repeated the mistake that started the current protests. In August 2011 plant officials tested Kudankulam’s alarm system but did not alert the nearby villages.

Locals panicked, fearing a Fukushima in their backyards. Furious in the face of government indifference, they organized the antinuclear movement that is responsible for the delay in operations that stretches to this day.

In a clumsy attempt at damage control, Kudankulam site director R.S. Sundar evoked the industrial accident at Bhopal in 1984, when thousands of local residents died in their sleep after the release of fumes from a pesticide plant. That tragedy was seared into the collective memory of the Indian public and underpins the anxiety of the locals.

“These tests are conducted only during day time and only steam is released as part of the [steam valve] test. No tests are being conducted at the plant which are harmful to the environment and public.” The local anti-nuclear still surrounded the plant’s housing facility several days later in protest.

AERB and NPCIL’s willingness to discuss the faulty valves openly is a step in the right direction, but India’s nuclear establishment still has a long way to go. India must demonstrate its commitment to greater transparency before it can complete its nuclear roadmap.