Arnie Gundersen has been making money by spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about nuclear energy for more than a decade. His career has received a measurable boost since March 11, when a large earthquake and powerful tsunami successfully peeled off most of the many layers of protection at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.
Ever since that day, Gundersen has been giving scary interviews in a variety of media outlets that include a number of dire predictions. He claimed that the spent fuel pool for unit 4 had gone dry and that he had the video to prove it. That claim remains available on his web site, so he is apparently standing by his early evaluation despite all evidence that contradicts his claim.
He has been working with a PR firm to create a series of popular YouTube videos that build on his decade or more as a classroom teacher and as a former nuclear services salesman – he looks so calm, studious and trustworthy as he uses a variety of visual aids to convince his viewers of the provably false statement that Fukushima was worse than Chernobyl.
He has been making the rounds of the advertiser supported media recently with stories about the dangers of “hot particles” that are so tiny they cannot be picked up by normal radiation detectors. (Note: Radiation can be measured at extremely low levels, far below the levels that can cause human health effects. There is a reason why doctors inject small amounts radioactive materials into their patients as tracers to assist them in diagnosing organ function – those tracers make bodily systems visible without endangering the patient. If the hot particles are so tiny and dispersed that they cannot be detected, they are nothing to worry about.)
In the past 48 hours, I have received a link to an Al Jazeera story titled Fukushima: It’s much worse than you think from at least five separate sources. That article quotes Gundersen extensively – after it buffs up Gundersen’s credentials in an effort to add to the credibility of his claims.
“Fukushima is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind,” Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president, told Al Jazeera.
Japan’s 9.0 earthquake on March 11 caused a massive tsunami that crippled the cooling systems at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan. It also led to hydrogen explosions and reactor meltdowns that forced evacuations of those living within a 20km radius of the plant.
Gundersen, a licensed reactor operator with 39 years of nuclear power engineering experience, managing and coordinating projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the US, says the Fukushima nuclear plant likely has more exposed reactor cores than commonly believed.
“Fukushima has three nuclear reactors exposed and four fuel cores exposed,” he said, “You probably have the equivalent of 20 nuclear reactor cores because of the fuel cores, and they are all in desperate need of being cooled, and there is no means to cool them effectively.”
Gundersen goes on and on about how bad everything is and how the accident will go on indefinitely, will contaminate aquifers, and will result in harm to future generations. What he fails to mention is that the radiation and radioactive material that has escaped from Fukushima has not made anyone sick. It is difficult to imagine how a non-fatal accident can earn the title of “biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind” over events like those listed on the Wikipedia page titled List of industrial disasters. That list contains dozens of events that each killed hundreds to thousands of people and often resulted in widespread, long lasting chemical contamination.
Quite honestly, I have become tired of the effort required to respond and debunk each of his false claims.
Instead, I prefer to follow multifaceted strategy that includes pointing to much better sources of information. Will Davis provides an excellent June 18 update of Fukushima status that includes a calculation of exactly how many reactor cores are really involved, including all of the spent fuel pools. (Hint, it is no where near the 20 that Gundersen claims.)
Margaret Harding explains what really happened to Unit 4′s spent fuel pool and Ted Rockwell describes how radiation damage really works.
In addition to offering pointers to better sources of information, I take aim at Gundersen himself. He is a disgruntled former nuclear services salesman who has a strong motive for disliking the nuclear industry – he got fired from his lucrative position as a senior vice president in the early 1990s after accusing his employer of improperly handling radioactive sources that could be purchased via mail order. He was sued by his employer and he claims that he was blackballed by the industry.
For a decade or more, he worked as a private school teacher at a salary approximately 1/4th of what he was making in the nuclear industry and supplemented that income with expert witness testimony in cases in which he testified against nuclear companies. His qualification as an expert witness was based on the fact that he had earned both a BS and an MS in nuclear engineering. He knows enough of the technical details of nuclear energy to seem believable, but he also has been guilty of embellishing his experience to give his observations even more credibility.
One example that is nearly unforgivable is his continued claim that he is a licensed nuclear reactor operator. The only reactor that he was ever license to operate was a 100 Watt “critical assembly” at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. That reactor had no power generation ability – its thermal power was about as much as a single lightbulb. Operating it provides no experience at all in nuclear power plant operations or maintenance. It frosts me to think that the news media ignores the thousands of far better qualified sources of information simply because Gundersen is accessible and willing to tell fibs in order to provide exciting copy.
Several people have challenged me with regard to my efforts to expose Gundersen as having strong personal and financial motives to attack his former industry. They do not like my efforts to show that he has not been completely forthcoming about his experience. They have told me that it is not fair to focus on the messenger; they say I should focus on countering his assertions instead.
My response is to remind people that it is often far more effective to aim at the archer than to aim at the arrows. (Of course, I am speaking figuratively here. My weapon is my keyboard.)
PS – For the search engines out there, Gundersen is sometimes misspelled as Gunderson.