Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Myth of a Path Not Taken- the Paley Commision Report

A myth within the anti-nuclear movement that I find particularly galling is summarized neatly by this excerpt from a 2000 op-ed by Arjun Makhijani:

One of the official reviews of the resource situation in the early 1950s was conducted by a commission appointed by President Truman, called The President's Materials Policy Commission. It came to be known as the Paley Commission, after its chairman.

In the energy sector, the prime area of concern that the Paley Commission addressed was petroleum. The 1952 report predicted oil shortages by the 1970s. Furthermore, the Paley Commission made a strong negative assessment of nuclear energy and called for "aggressive research in the whole field of solar energy - an effort in which the United States could make an immense contribution to the welfare of the world." The Commission also encouraged work on wind energy and biomass. However, despite the Commission's conclusions, a significant renewable energy effort was not made until the oil crisis was upon the US in the 1970s.

Given the assessment that nuclear energy could meet only a modest fraction of energy requirements at best, it seems illogical that nuclear energy was pursued vigorously rather than solar and other renewable energy sources. Evidently, it was assumed that renewable energy sources would not provide the same propaganda capital in the Cold War as nuclear energy. Interestingly, a lack of government money for renewables was accompanied by a lack of corporate research effort and an absence of interest on the part of large numbers of scientists and engineers.

Anti-nuclear activists from Amory Lovins to Harvey Wasserman have cited the existence of the Paley Commision report as evidence that renewable energy was seriously considered during the 1950s, only to be rejected in favor of nuclear energy. However, this is simply not what happened.

I'm not sure that this blog has any readers old enough to remember the Korean War, which provided the historical context for the Paley Report. What is generally forgotten in the United States is that many of the same sorts of economic controls were imposed during the Korean War as were in WWII. One particular area in which these controls had particularly significant effects was in the area of raw material supply. Between the demands of war industries and the Office of Defense Mobilization stockpiling materials for a potentially global and nuclear war, serious deficits emerged. With these came understandable anxieties about the long-term outlook of America's supply of raw materials. The Paley Commission was assembled during the last years Truman Administration to produce an authoritative report addressing the subject.

The report was published in mid-1952 and remains an interesting document, as it provides insight into how less optimistic economists projected intermediate-term economic growth in the early 1950s. The commission presented a projection of what the American economy would look like in 1975. There is a serious caveat, however: the Paley Commission report was incorrect in almost all of its predictions, often by an enormous margin.

It's true that the Paley Commission predicted that there would be oil shortages in the 1970s. However, it also predicted that there would be coal shortages, and chromium shortages, and shortages of almost everything else. In short, rather than being a prescient prediction of the future, the Paley Report was like a stopped clock that is still right twice a day.

The basis of the Paley Report's errors lies in its overall economic projections. It underestimated GDP growth and private domestic investment enormously, while simultaneously anticipating massive increases in demand for certain raw materials that never materialized. The Paley Commission was also pessimistic about the prospects for commercial nuclear power. As a result, they predicted massive energy shortages that were radically different qualitatively than those that actually occurred.

It is true that the Paley Commission recommended massive investment in renewable energy technology. But this was a result of its errors, not because it was presbyopic. Its authors thought that solar water heaters would be necessary because there would be insufficient fossil fuels and nuclear-generated electricity would be unavailable. In practice, they were wrong on both counts. And the actual document is not exactly something Amory Lovins would endorse. Richard N. Cooper wrote in 1975 that "... the report gave little encouragement to true conservation, and only general encouragement (rather than concrete recommendations) to the development of substitute materials."

Anti-nuclear activists who cite the report make much of its pessimistic expectations for nuclear power. But this was not because the commission had some magic insight into the problems that nuclear generation would encounter. It was more that they assumed that raw materials shortfalls would affect nuclear generation as well, and underestimated the speed at which the technology would mature. It's important to remember just how primitive existing nuclear reactors were in 1951- most of them were crude plutonium-production reactors, and many respected nuclear experts believed that it would be many decades before their commercial exploitation became remotely practical. It is unreasonable to expect the Paley Commission to have been aware of the ongoing reactor research that would produce practical reactors- after all, much of it was highly classified. This changed not because of some Cold War propaganda plot, but rather because the PWR emerged as a highly promising technology soon after the report was published. At the same time, reactor research in Idaho, Tennessee, and elsewhere had produced five different potential commercial reactor designs , with plans to build operational versions of each by the early 1960s. The enthusiastic participation of large utilities in this research program indicates that they expected nuclear power to be a highly lucrative endeavor.

The historical influence of the Paley Report was minimal. This was not because it failed to suit Cold War propaganda needs, but because it was wrong. Wrong about economic growth, wrong about growth in the demand for raw materials, and wrong about the practicality of nuclear power. Once Korean War-era government controls were lifted and reactor research progressed this became abundantly clear, and economists became optimistic that technological advancement would obviate the effects of any supply deficits that emerged. And so far, this optimistic view has been absolutely correct. In any case, the Paley Report is not proof that there was a "path not taken," but rather an indication of how short-sighted pessimistic predictions of the future often are.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Response From Zach Wamp

This morning I received the following email in response to the message I sent to my Congressman using the link on Harvey Wasserman's website:

Dear *****:

As our country looks for ways to reduce carbon emissions, nuclear energy must be part of the equation to help meet our country's future energy demands. As chairman of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus for seven years, I am among the most outspoken Members of Congress on alternative sources of energy. Nuclear energy is essential to providing low cost energy in the Tennessee Valley and we need to expand its use to other parts of the country.

Yucca Mountain has been authorized as a nuclear waste repository, but I am also a strong supporter of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership initiative (GNEP), which supports nuclear power and the reprocessing of nuclear waste.

The research and testing should and can be done in Oak Ridge but the reprocessing of this waste will likely be handled in a more remote location in Idaho. There are many questions the Department of Energy and Congress must consider before a final decision is made.

We must determine if a large scale reprocessing plant or smaller scale pilot plant will work best and how many regional facilities are needed. We have several missions going strong at the lab and at Y-12 and I am looking forward to what the future holds for Oak Ridge. I am sending you an article from The Oak Ridger about this very issue.

Thanks for being an active citizen and supporter of nuclear energy. Keep up the good work!

Wamp touts TVA role in nuclear waste project

SPRING CITY (AP) - The Tennessee Valley Authority is vying to host a national demonstration project for recycling spent nuclear fuel, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp said Thursday.

"I believe TVA is going to ... prove to our country that you can deal with the No. 1 liability associated with the nuclear industry and that is the waste," the Chattanooga Republican said after touring an unfinished Watts Bar Nuclear Plant reactor that TVA intends to complete in five years.

America needs nuclear power to meet growing demand for energy and power sources that don't foul the air like coal-fired plants, he said.

But the country will never be able to find enough places to bury the radioactive waste already piling up at nuclear plants, including TVA's, he said.

"You can't build Yucca Mountain after Yucca Mountain after Yucca Mountain," Wamp said of the long-stalled Nevada site for nuclear waste. "As a matter of fact, we are proving it is kind of hard to build the first one."

But if an anticipated nuclear revival develops as predicted, the United States will need six more Yucca Mountains over the next 50 years, said Wamp, a member of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee.

"So let's look at what the British and French do and prove to our country that you can close the fuel cycle. Reprocess the waste back into energy - safely and efficiently," he said.

Wamp is confident that reprocessing works. He said he's seen it work on a small scale at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Reprocessing the waste to extract still-usable uranium could help recycle about 80 percent into new fuel. Officials estimate the remainder would still have to be buried at a facility like Yucca Mountain.

Toward that end, the Department of Energy is reviewing proposals from four industry groups for a nuclear fuel reprocessing pilot project under the Bush administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership initiative.

Cooperative agreements with the groups are expected to be announced next month. They will then have until 2008 to come up with more detailed business plans.

TVA, the nation's largest public utility, has incorporated its processes into proposals from three of the four groups - AREVA Federal Services LLC, EnergySolutions LLC and General Electric-Hitachi Nuclear Americas LLC. The fourth group is General Atomics.

Warmest Regards,

Zach Wamp
Member of Congress

Monday, November 12, 2007

Gore on New Nukes: They're Going to "Play a Role" in Solving Climate Crisis

From this article in Fortune:

Toward the end of the meeting at Kleiner's offices with Ausra, the solar thermal company, one of the executives starts to boast that the plants Ausra is building will thrash nuclear, geothermal, clean coal, and photovoltaic solar solutions. Gore cuts in, a mildly alarmed look on his face. "You know, all of these technologies are going to play a role," he says. "I hate to see you assassinate the competition as a key messaging point."

Now, if only he'd express this sentiment publicly and explicitly...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Delusions of Grandeur

I just discovered this recent addition to the antinuclear blogosphere:
Nuclear Jesus and the NEI Kids
("NEI Kids" stands for "Nuclear Energy Indigo Children," which seems a bit redundant. Wondering what an indigo child is? Aren't you sorry you asked?)

With enemies like this, we don't need allies. The mixture of New Age crackpottery and sheer blasphemy seems perfectly calculated to alienate mainstream readers. Anyone who asks "WWJD?" and responds by redefining himself as "Jesus" isn't going very far in Red-state America.

Also, given Jesus' predilection for clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and bringing light to the world, I'm pretty sure he'd build the reactors. Just a thought.

Is This Blog Inpenetrable?

.... apparently.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Hillary: Secretly Pro-Nuclear?

Hillary Clinton's campaign recently released her energy plan. While I can't say that I'm thrilled by its actual contents (a lot of it seems to have been inspired by a certain resident of Snowmass, CO), I believe that it's less menacing in actuality than it appears in print. Take, for instance, the section on nuclear power:

Addressing Nuclear Power: Hillary believes that energy efficiency and renewables are better options for addressing global warming and meeting our future power needs, because of significant unresolved concerns about the cost of producing nuclear power, the safety of operating plants, waste disposal, and nuclear proliferation. Hillary opposes new subsidies for nuclear power, but believes that we need to take additional steps to deal with the problems facing nuclear power. She would strengthen the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and direct it to improve safety and security at nuclear power plants; terminate work at the flawed Yucca Mountain site and convene a panel of scientific experts to explore alternatives for disposing of nuclear waste; and continue research, with a focus on lower costs and improving safety.

At first glance, this appears very anti-nuclear. But in fact, I believe that Hillary would never be using this kind of language if she didn't think that she might need to support nuclear at some point in the future. Let's break it down line-by-line:

Hillary believes that energy efficiency and renewables are better options for addressing global warming and meeting our future power needs, because of significant unresolved concerns about the cost of producing nuclear power, the safety of operating plants, waste disposal, and nuclear proliferation."
This is mostly nonsense, of course, but it's required for anyone in Sen. Clinton's end of the political spectrum. Taken in context with other things said here and elsewhere, I believe that this can be dismissed as window dressing.

"Hillary opposes new subsidies for nuclear power, but believes that we need to take additional steps to deal with the problems facing nuclear power."
On the first point, the cap-and-trade scheme described in Hillary's energy plan would operate as a de facto subsidy for nuclear, although without more details it's impossible to say how large it would be. I personally believe that any such scheme strong enough to seriously discourage carbon emissions will be enough to carry nuclear on its own. As for the "additional steps," these are probably a blessing in disguise.

"She would strengthen the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and direct it to improve safety and security at nuclear power plants;"
What does this mean? My guess is "not much." And in any case, improvements to NRC procedures aren't a bad thing. Done correctly, they'll just demonstrate how superior nuclear power is. And given Hillary's "agnosticism," I doubt they'll be vengeful attempts to cripple the industry.

"... terminate work at the flawed Yucca Mountain site and convene a panel of scientific experts to explore alternatives for disposing of nuclear waste..."
I am probably in the minority here, but I think this is a Good Thing. This is probably the only way to get out of the nuclear waste disposal rut that the Ford and Carter Administrations got us into thirty years ago- for a Democrat to sponsor research into advanced fuel cycle management. Hanging the future of nuclear power on the Yucca facility is extremely foolish- so long as the opponents of nuclear power can cripple the nuclear industry by targeting one facility the prospects for a genuine "nuclear renaissance" are slim indeed. Now, I'm perfectly aware that geological repositories will still be needed in any case. However, if Yucca is mothballed, it can still be completed later. And with Yucca unavailable for storing material from civilian and military nuclear programs, the pressure will really be on to develop viable alternatives- like transmutation and pyroprocessing. Once these technologies are available, a future administration can complete Yucca or some other site, and the waste problem will finally be over.

" ...and continue research, with a focus on lower costs and improving safety."
Am I crazy, or does this sound like an endorsement of advanced reactor research? After all, Generation IV reactors are intended to do those two things... (Keep in mind that the Clinton Administration killed this sort of research in the 1990s, like the IFR. I may be wildly overoptimistic.)

Now, I'm no great fan of Hillary. I'm not exactly in the same end of the political spectrum (I'm a small-l libertarian), and there is much in this energy plan that I find absolutely horrifying. But I don't think that Hillary actually intends to carry out all of this if she gets into office. Parts of it, such as the carbon caps, are highly likely, but other sections are unlikely to pass even a firmly Democratic Congress. But this document is intended to shore up Hillary's support in the Democratic base. I suspect her real energy policy is far more pragmatic, and that her "nuclear agnosticism" is a symptom of this. Her language on the nuclear power indicates a conscious calculation that she might have to endorse nuclear energy in the future- or maybe even an understanding that if she's elected she'll have to. After all, she's a smart woman, and Tony Blair had to do the same thing a few years ago.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Friday, November 02, 2007

Soviet Civil Defense

Speak Russian? Отлично! Прочитайте сразу!

Радиогальванизм- что это такое?

In the course of my studies into the history of the Soviet nuclear complex, I occasionally encounter descriptions of unusual research that I have never encountered in western sources. An example of one such discovery is радиогальванизм- literally "radiogalvanism." This is described in a book I purchased in St. Petersburg this summer titled Атомная энергия в мирных целях- "Atomic Energy in Peaceful Uses." Published in Leningrad in 1957, this volume contains chapters including "The Development of Science About the Atomic Nucleus" and "The Atomic Icebreaker." The final chapter, however, is on the subject of nuclear batteries, and it is this chapter that describes the "radiogalvanic source of current."

As the name implies, this kind of nuclear battery was the same kind of chemical battery that we're all familiar with- with a radioactive twist. The oxidation of the electrolyte was achieved by the use of a beta source. (The article suggests that alpha sources were also tested, but it states that the best results were achieved with beta sources.) According to the description in the book, the "coefficient of use of the energy of decay" entering into the oxidation process with their apparatus was 60%- and even if the battery could only capture a fraction of that back as usable electricity, that still puts most kinds of nuclear batteries to shame. The chapter concludes that "Several experiments, conducted according to these principles, yielded promising results."

I'm kind of skeptical. If this "betagalvanic nuclear battery" really worked so well, it's kind of hard to imagine how it became lost to history. The entire chapter was written by the scientists who performed the original research at the Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute in 1954, so perhaps they exaggerated their success. Does anyone know of western experiments with devices like this? My attempts to find references to any on the internet came up with nothing.

Disappointing New Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

I believe that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has improved considerably in recent years. It seems that the current editorial staff is somewhat more hesitant to publish dubious articles written by people like Joseph Mangano. One area of marked improvement has been its coverage of Russian nuclear affairs. Years ago, the BAS occasionally published something about the Russian nuclear complex that was not simply ill-informed, but actually insane. (Perhaps I'm imagining it, but I remember an editorial piece that argued that the Russians would be better off not upgrading their early-warning systems, because they would trust the new systems too much and this would increase the likelihood of accidental nuclear war.) But now that Pavel Podvig is writing for them, things have really looked up. While I have some serious differences of opinion with Podvig, he is definitely the best analyst currently working on the subject of nuclear weapons in Russia. The September/October issue was quite strong, and included a special report titled "getting Power to the People" which I found fair, balanced, and to the point.

This does not mean that the magazine does not suffer regular lapses. There was, for instance, the May/June piece on the recent revival of the "nuclear winter" idea. The new nuclear winter studies make for interesting reading, if only because they admit that the original TTAPS study was as useless as its detractors said it was back in 1983. Unfortunately, the new models are almost as lacking in credibility as the old one, because the study simply guessed on the most important variable- the proportion of soot that would be lofted above the tropopause to begin with. The authors had no justification for this beyond "we think .8 is a reasonable value." I think it's probably off by at least a factor of 10, but I digress.

Unfortunately, the November/December BAS has more than its fair share of clunkers. The most distressing is a piece advertised on the cover as "A clear-eyed look at nuclear power risks." Unfortunately, what the magazine actually contains is an interview with Brice Smith. Smith, if you don't recall, is a former consultant at IEER and author of Insurmountable Risks, a book purporting to demonstrate that nuclear power is unnecessary to combat climate change. Smith states that proliferation, the risk of reactor accidents, and waste disposal , along with the cost of nuclear power, make it "a very risky technology overall." I think that's balderdash, but I won't give an in-depth critique here. What's significant is not that BAS included an interview with Smith, but that they characterized the perspective of this less-than-unbiased researcher as "clear-eyed."

Another disappointing piece was "Thinking Past Ourselves," an article by noted environmentalist Bill McKibben, which posits that "Climate change challenges us to move beyond a culture that has reduced nature to yet another consumable." McKibben believes that modern American society is hyperindividualistic, and that we should adopt a more communal, "sustainable" lifestyle. He literally argues that the "liberation" brought about in Western society by modern technology has gone too far. Words cannot describe the depth of my disdain for misanthropic luddites like McKibben- but this 2003 effort by Ronald Bailey comes pretty close.

A rare high point of the issue was a brief piece about civil defense. As civil defense is my specialty (I'm currently writing my thesis on Soviet civil defense), I was pleased to hear of efforts to revive the idea as a response to nuclear terrorism. It should also be noted that in most cases, shelter-in-place is the most efficacious response to radiation hazards resulting from nuclear power plant accidents. In fact, the grandiose evacuation schemes demanded by some state and local governments would result in unnecessary casualties, since the populace would receive less radiation exposure if they just stayed indoors. Because of this, I believe that it is actually immoral to keep these inane and dangerous requirements in the law books- and the nuclear power industry should make this fact abundantly clear to the government, the American public, and everybody else.

Why Harvey Wasserman May Win After All

I encountered this today and I realized that the ongoing debate over the energy bill has really missed the point. Basically, there's good reason to believe that President Bush will veto the bill because of the provisions related to fossil fuel power- which means the "$50 billion in loan guarantees" that have generated so much controversy in recent months may be a dead letter in any case.

I don't think that the editorials suggestion that the loan guarantees be spun out into separate legislation would end well for the nuclear industry. I suspect that such a bill would be tied up in committee and might never come up for a vote, and I have a hard time imagining it passing in both houses of Congress.

So Harvey Wasserman and his "NO NUKES!" minions may yet win after all- thanks to a veto from George W. Bush.