Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I'll Take Nuclear, Please

Latest fossil fuel disaster, this time quite near my hometown of Oak Ridge:
A wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from a coal plant in central Tennessee broke this week, spilling more than 500 million gallons of waste into the surrounding area.

The sludge, a byproduct of ash from coal combustion, was contained at a retention site at the Tennessee Valley Authority's power plant in Kingston, about 40 miles east of Knoxville, agency officials said.

The retention wall breached early Monday, sending the sludge downhill and damaging 15 homes. All the residents were evacuated, and three homes were deemed uninhabitable, a TVA spokesman told CNN.

The plant sits on a tributary of the Tennessee River called the Clinch River.

"We deeply regret that a retention wall for ash containment at our Kingston Fossil Plant failed, resulting in an ash slide and damage to nearby homes," TVA said in a statement released Tuesday.

TVA spokesman Gil Francis told CNN that up to 400 acres of land had been coated by the sludge, a bigger area than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Could TVA please finish Watts Bar 2 and shutter these decrepit old coal plants? In terms of real environmental consequences, this is bigger than any accident ever experienced by the nuclear power industry in the U.S.--Brown's Ferry, Three Mile Island, any of them.

Furthermore, this is a good example of how "clean coal" can't be expected to be "clean." All the ash will have to be put somewhere--and some will inevitably leak out into the environment, with deleterious effects. But given that "clean coal" primarily exists as a marketing slogan at the moment, it's not really serious competition for new nuclear plants anyway. So make mine nuclear, please. Before your coal plants end up destroying my house and/or killing me.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

An Energy Pick I Can Live With

WashPo's Al Kamen has a new piece on Obama's possible choices for remaining cabinet picks, including that for Energy Secretary. While the names we've been hearing for awhile are repeated, including Google's Dan Reicher (who according to Tom Blees was intimately involved in killing off the IFR in the Clinton Administration). However, Kamen also repeated some Washington buzz I hadn't heard:

There's buzz that the transition folks are also looking hard at some scientific types for the energy job, including Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at Cal-Berkeley. Chu co-chaired a group producing the international study "Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future." He also shared the Nobel Prize for physics, but that was back in 1997.
Who is Steven Chu? From what I gather, this is the guy we want to head Energy. This is what he said about nuclear energy issues back in 2005:

Should fission-based nuclear power plants be made a bigger part of the energy-producing portfolio?

Absolutely. Right now about 20 percent of our power comes from nuclear; there have been no new nuclear plants built since the early '70s. The real rational fears against nuclear power are about the long-term waste problem and [nuclear] proliferation. The technology of separating [used fuel from still-viable fuel] and putting the good stuff back in to the reactor can also be used to make bomb material.

And then there's the waste problem: with future nuclear power plants, we've got to recycle the waste. Why? Because if you take all the waste we have now from our civilian and military nuclear operations, we'd fill up Yucca Mountain. [Yucca Mountain, which sits on federal land in Nevada , is under consideration as a long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.] So we need three or four Yucca Mountains. Well, we don't have three or four Yucca Mountains. The other thing is that storing the fuel at Yucca Mountain is supposed to be safe for 10,000 years. But the current best estimates - and these are really estimates, the Lab's in fact - is that the metal casings [containing the waste] will probably fail on a scale of 5,000 years, plus or minus 2. That's still a long time, and then after that the idea was that the very dense rock, very far away from the water table will contain it, so that by the time it finally leaks down to the water table and gets out the radioactivity will have mostly decayed.

Suppose instead that we can reduce the lifetime of the radioactive waste by a factor of 1,000. So it goes from a couple-hundred-thousand-year problem to a thousand-year problem. At a thousand years, even though that's still a long time, it's in the realm that we can monitor - we don't need Yucca Mountain.

And all of a sudden the risk-benefit equation looks pretty good for nuclear.

Right now, compared to conventional coal, it looks good - what are the lesser of two evils? But if we can reduce the volume and the lifetime of the waste, that would tip it very much against conventional coal.

I like the sound of that! Furthermore, an experienced administrator from one of the national labs is a much better pick than an outsider unfamiliar with what DOE actually does and the byzantine world of internal DOE politics. In my opinion, this is by far the best candidate I've seen mentioned for this position. We should do what we can (however limited) to advance his candidacy.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hyperion Poll

Rod Adams' post on Hyperion's claims about nuclear waste production from their Hyperion Power Module has elicited a very interesting series of responses, with several commenters casting serious doubt not only on the volume of fission products produced, but also on the viability of the entire Hyperion concept. I recommend that anyone interested in the Hyperion read the thread. In particular, there is concern that the finely divided hydride fuel used in the Hyperion has never been tested, and that Hyperion has not put out any kind of timetable for doing this despite their ambitious commercialization plans. I'm not sure if it's true that finely divided hydride fuel has never been tested; it's an elegant idea, and it's possible that the Soviets looked into it, so I'm going to do my small part by checking the Russian literature for any exploration of the concept. Personally, I'm choosing to be optimistic that Hyperion has some kind of good answer to the concerns that are being raised about issues like fuel testing, but the company needs to provide some kind of explanation of how they are expecting to demonstrate their technology. In order to gauge the sentiment of this blog's readership on the Hyperion issue, I have created a poll. Also, I'd like to hear about readers' concerns about the Hyperion concept, so please comment if you have any insights or strong feelings on the matter.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Marginal Revolution Discussion of Nuclear Power

Marginal Revolution, one of the internet's premier economics blogs, on nuclear power:
If President-Obama is serious about green energy it's not wind he needs to look at but nuclear. Nuclear is clean and green and we can build power stations where we need power, instead of having to invest in costly and inefficient transport networks.
As you can imagine, this has inspired intense debate. Feel free to contribute your insights.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Romm on Hansen

In response to Jim Hansen's latest piece on policies and taxes to get us to 350 ppm, Joe Romm felt the need to write an "Open Letter to Jim Hansen" in which he claims that have made an uncompelling case about how President-elect Obama should go about achieving 350 ppm in your new draft essay Tell Barack Obama the Truth — The Whole Truth and in previous essays (see here). You are, for instance, overly dismissive of cap-and-trade and overly enamored of a carbon tax, when, in fact, neither holds any prospect whatsoever of achieving your goal. Your discussion of as-yet non-commercial 4th generation nuclear technologies is equally off the point, as we’ll see.
Romm's position is basically as follows:
1) Neither cap-and-trade nor a carbon tax can work because pricing carbon high enough to drive amortized coal plants out of business is impossible
2) Generation IV nuclear power is irrelevant
3) A WWII-style national economic mobilization (apparently based on command-and-control economics) is the only way to address the climate crisis

All three of these arguments are unconvincing, and indeed Romm seriously contradicts himself on the energy technology issue. But I believe that Romm's argument rests on his glib dismissal of Gen IV nuclear options. With Romm's favored technologies, 350 ppm is impossible; with LFTRs and IFRs, 350 ppm becomes feasible and potentially not even that difficult. As Blees put it, it's the "painless" option.

On nuclear, Romm claims that:
NUCLEAR: The single nuclear wedge requires building 35 nukes a year — roughly 10 times the current production rate, more than 50% higher than the greatest rate the world ever sustained for even a single decade, and far in excess of what current production bottlenecks would allow. Nuclear plant prices in this country have already tripled since 2000 to nearly price themselves out of the market (see “The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power, Part 1“).

Is it now clear why your extended nuclear power discussion is off the mark?

If I can speak for Dr. Hansen, "Not really, seeing as none of those points have anything to do with the Gen IV reactors under discussion. You're just changing the topic to link to your critique of Gen III+ reactors, which has received a Bronx cheer from most of the informed people who have read it."

Romm continues in response to Hansen's comment that Gen IV reactors could be ready in the 2015-2020 timeframe:

Sorry, too late. The incomprehensibly fast scale up of low carbon generation we need for 350 ppm leaves no time for such hypotheticals, no time for hoping things get commercialized within 10 years. After all, somebody has to build the massive manufacturing capacity right now, and somebody has to train all of the people needed to build these reactors right now (not to mention training people to run them), and somebody has to contract for all of the relevant raw materials pretty damn soon.

Damn, it's a good thing Eskom and Hyperion are already well on their way to mass-producing small, mass-produced, idiot-proof reactors in the middle of the next decade. Rosatom is in the middle of constructing their "commercial" LMFBR, the BN-800, and has a lead-cooled passively-safe IFR-like fast reactor in the development pipeline as well. Speaking of which, even though Russia is short on forging capacity to build VVER pressure vessels, they have ample spare capacity to construct components for various Gen IV reactor designs, particularly fast reactors--a field in which Russia is undisputed world leader. Indeed, Russian companies like OMZ and Energomash would jump at the chance to build this stuff for export. This is one more reason why we need to get Gen IV reactor development going again in the US--otherwise, the Russians and other nations with more foresight will end up ruling our energy future.

Maybe fourth-generation nukes could be useful in the next set of post-2030 wedges, which is why a major ramp up of R&D remains incredibly valuable. But for getting off of coal in two decades, we gotta go with what we have.

Again, I’m not advocating building 700 nuclear plants over the next 20 years, and certainly agree with the myriad failings of existing commercial nuclear plant designs that you describe. I am merely pointing out what the logical technology and policy implications of your paper is.

This is one of your problems, Joe; you should be. Actually, I think you should advocate building, say, 2500+ GW of nuclear by 2030. About 3 1/2 "wedges" and eminently achievable using mass-produced small reactors like the Hyperion. This would require building an average of 6,200 27 MWe Hyperions every year between 2015 and 2030--and given that the reactors are about the size of a hot tub, not a serious manufacturing problem. What about the infrastructure? Why, we reuse what we already have, using the Hyperion to generate steam to turn turbines in existing coal plants, sending electricity through existing grid resources. Perhaps this scheme could be scaled up further, but it is not at all implausible at this scale. Between this and the number of LWRs that will probably be built in the next two decades, that's half of your eight wedges--without needing either the IFR or LFTR. Now, I'm certainly not saying that we can't do a similar deployment of those in the 2020s...

As for Romm's favorite energy technology, solar thermal:

And the other renewable wedges require an even more challenging ramp up. Solar thermal electric (aka solar baseload power) holds perhaps the most promise of all renewables because it can be integrated with low-cost high-efficiency storage to provide power when it is most needed, because it has no obvious production bottlenecks, and because the United States, China, and India have vast solar resources. The market might plausibly achieve 50 to 100 GW a year of growth, but only after a steady ramp up for the next 5 to 10 years. If you wanted to do that faster, you’d again need the WWII-style approach.

Never mind that energy storage on solar thermal plants is far from being proved cost-effective; there are several ways to do it, and between that and the diversity of different solar thermal technologies it's hard to issue any kind of blanket statement. Solar Two demonstrated molten salt storage in the 1990s, but its performance in terms of cost per annualized capacity factor was less than spectacular. Ausra's approach is apparently the same as that used in fireless steam locomotives, which is simple but comes with unavoidable thermodynamic efficiency limits. A lot of the solar thermal capacity currently being built is of the stirling-dish type made by Stirling Energy Systems; these do not lend themselves to thermal energy storage at all. What's really significant here is that Romm admits that solar thermal needs the government to force people to buy it in order for it to become the dominant energy source he insists it will become.

Indeed, it turns out that Romm simply distrusts "the market" to solve climate change. Instead, he repeatedly uses the metaphor of WWII to describe the policies he thinks should be enacted:

This national (and global) re-industrialization effort would be on the scale of what we did during World War II, except it would last far longer. . . .

But of course we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, the world was at war, and the entire country was united against a common enemy. This made possible tax increases, rationing of items like tires and gasoline, comprehensive wage and price controls, a War Production Board with broad powers (it could mandate what clothing could be made for civilians), and a Controlled Material Plan that set allotments of critical materials (steel, copper, and aluminum) for different contractors.

He says to Hansen that "[this] is what you are talking about — or should be — not “tax & dividend” and fourth-generation nuclear power."

There is, in fact, a much more adept historical analogy for what Romm is proposing: the forced industrialization program undertaken by Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s. And as an honest-to-God sovietologist, I feel I am more qualified than most to comment on the efficacy and pitfalls of command-and-control economics and central planning.

To be fair, the command economy worked--for Stalin. This was because Stalin had very definite goals--avoiding being conquered by the Nazis, building an atomic bomb--and cared not a wit at the cost paid by his subjects in blood and treasure to effect these ends. At the end of his life Stalin and the Soviet Union were more powerful than ever--he had won WWII, he built the bomb, he and his allies straddles most of Eurasia--but tens of millions were dead, living standards were abysmal, and the threat of a new war loomed. In order for a command economy to operate optimally, planners need to be both omniscient and precognitive. Generally, this approach is only called for in order to do something a market will never do--like mobilize resources for a large war. But as a rule, they are inefficient--given information problems, this is unavoidable.

Economically, Romm's charge that Hansen's proposed carbon tax would be ineffective makes little sense.
A price isn’t what is needed to stop building any new coal plants and shut down every existing one in 10 years in rich countries and 20 years everywhere else — and replace all that power (plus growth) with carbon-free generation and efficiency.

Indeed, I can’t imagine how high a price would be needed but it is probably of the order of $1000 a ton of carbon or more starting in 2010. Talk about shock and awe. Remember, we are talking about a carbon price so high that it actually renders coal plants that have been completely paid for uneconomic to run. And once you stop new demand and start shutting down existing plants, the price of coal will collapse to almost nothing.

Once you start building all of the alternatives at this unimaginable pace, bottlenecks in production and material supply will run up their costs. The collapse in coal prices, making existing plants very cheap to run, together with the run up in the price of all alternatives will force carbon prices even higher.

So carbon pricing is a bad idea... because it would fulfill its intended purpose by making carbon emissions expensive? I'm not sure what Romm is getting at. The point is that pricing carbon will make whatever changes are necessary cost-competitive, and nothing Romm presents suggests that this will not work.

He continues that
But, in any case, if you want to replace all those existing coal plants with carbon free power that fast, again the carbon price is almost beside the point. How are you going to site and build all the alternative plants that fast? How are you going to site and build all the power lines that quickly? How are you going to allocate the steel, cement, turbines, etc? How are you going to train all the people needed to do all this?
This is where Romm really falters. Of course, if you try and build eight wedges of windmills and solar thermal plants, you won't be able to build infrastructure fast enough. We need low-carbon power that can use existing infrastructure wherever possible, and small, mass-produced nuclear reactors fit the bill perfectly. Given an appropriate regulatory environment and a sufficiently high carbon price, utilities will buy these reactors. The initial adjustment will be painful, but once transport is electrified, the economy would actually benefit, since nuclear power was already qualitatively superior to carbon-based energy anyway. Meanwhile, the idea that massive government intervention into the economy is likely to successfully develop a low-carbon energy infrastructure seems profoundly improbable. In the absence of price signals, it is not merely implausible, but laughable. This is the same organization that gave us the Synthetic Fuels Corporation and ethanol subsidies; how is it wiser than individual consumers? Without a recourse to Romm's (apparent) skepticism about the ability of markets to solve complicated economic problems, this makes little sense.

In any case, I believe nuclear technology already in the commercialization pipeline is more than sufficient for a 350 ppm strategy. Without nuclear, even 450 ppm is probably unfeasible. Hence, Hansen's preoccupation with nuclear power in his letter is absolutely justified--especially in a global perspective, Gen IV nuclear technology is the key to our energy future. Furthermore, Romm's critique of Hansen's carbon tax proposal is based far more on his own incredulity than any kind of reasoned argument. On the whole, I have to say that I'm proud to share Hansen's position on this one.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is Obama's Energy Plan Enough?

I fear it may be too much--of the last thing we need more of.

From Time:

With the possible exception of Barack Obama's puppy-anticipating daughters, no one is more eagerly awaiting the incoming Administration than the leaders of the renewable-energy industries. President-elect Obama campaigned on the promise to spend $150 billion over the next 10 years to support alternative energy, like wind and solar, as well as the green jobs that the sector has the potential to create. At California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's climate summit on Nov. 18, Obama, in taped remarks, reaffirmed that he would hold fast to those campaign promises, starting with mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. "This is a crucial step forward," says Linda Church Ciocci, the executive director of the National Hydropower Association.

The problem is, it won't be enough. As ambitious as Obama's campaign promises were — at least compared to his predecessor's — the future state of global energy will demand government policies with a much longer reach, according to alternative-energy leaders.
And what precisely is it that these "leaders" want? Turns out, it's our tax dollars.

In a press conference last week the leaders of the solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower industries called on Obama and the incoming Congress to look ahead. First, energy leaders asked Obama to immediately adjust the alternative-energy production credit to provide green investors with a cash rebate, rather than a tax reduction. With the economy tanking, simple tax credits — which Congress renewed in October and without which the renewable-energy industry would not survive — aren't the lure they once were for companies looking to invest in new energy projects.

Other items on the renewables industry's wish list: a national renewable-energy portfolio standard, which would require a certain percentage of U.S. electricity to come from alternative sources. (More than 20 states already have similar standards, but a national one would be tricky, given that utility regulation in the U.S. is localized.) Green energy leaders would also like to see an executive order that would greatly expand the federal government's procurement of renewable energy — a smart idea, easily doable — plus a major initiative to update and smarten the nation's aging, overworked electrical grid.
Huh, I'm kind of curious as to why an industry that is supposedly so much more economic than nuclear power needs the PTC "just to survive." This is rent seeking, plain and simple, as are all the other desires of the renewable energy industry. The last thing America needs is another corporatist energy boondoggle--remember this one? How about this one?

In all fairness, it's not like this list is Obama's actual energy platform, which remains obscure. Recent indications, however, suggest that many of the desires of the renewable energy industry will be realized. Most worrisome is the prospect of a national renewable portfolio standard, which is just bad policy any way you look at it. Most forms of renewable energy are already a costly means of reducing CO2 output, but a national RPS would encourage building renewable generation facilities in marginal areas--making them increasingly uneconomic. Furthermore, certain parts of the country are far better endowed with renewable energy potential than others. For instance, my home state of Tennessee is deficient in solar, wind, and geothermal resources, and TVA has already tapped out most of the hydro potential. While an RPS would presumably allow trading so that utilities in such underendowed locales could buy offsets, this doesn't end up going anywhere near far enough. This is because it would require that the areas with better renewable potential (such as, say, California) develop an overdependence on renewable energy, creating all kinds of attendant problems and costs.

Furthermore, such a scheme actually encourages making compliance maximally expensive. Let's think through the incentives facing the "haves" in a system with an RPS that requires that every utility either produce a particular percentage of electricity from renewables or buy credits from another utility with excess renewable capacity. Say it's 2030, and you're a utility in Southern California. There's a 25% RPS, but thanks to some very expensive solar thermal plants built during the Obama administration, you actually generate 30% of your output using renewables. This gives you tradeable credits worth 5% of your output that you can now auction off to the highest bidder. These are worth a lot, since no utility east of the Mississippi has actually managed to meet the RPS by generating its own power. This, of course, means that whatever ratepayers ultimately pick up the tab for these credits end up paying the most any utility would bid on them. This is one disincentive to building more renewable capacity--the tighter the market for RPS credits, the more the utilities that sell these credits can get for them. If the utilities are rational maximizers, they will only build out their capacity to a point that is far less than adequate for supplying cheap credits to the rest of the country. The second disincentive is that the utilities' need to deal with the intermittency of the renewable resources on their grid. Even with the construction of "smart grids" and "green energy superhighways" (whatever the hell those are), this will be first and foremost a local problem, since renewable generation facilities have to be integrated into the utilities' own grid resources. Research from Europe indicates that once you start trying to integrate much more than 30% intermittent generators, things start getting really unmanageable (and it's pretty hard even below that). These two disincentives would work together to encourage the utilities with renewable resources to maximize the cost of compliance for the have-nots, rendering the RPS an extremely inefficient and expensive way of reducing CO2 emissions.

A better plan would be some kind of cap-and-trade scheme for CO2 emissions themselves. Indeed, I like the sort of "cap-and-auction" idea that Obama is pushing, but I'm extremely wary of the apparent plan to use the proceeds to subsidize certain energy technologies. Personally, I think that the ideal policy would be as follows:
1. Set stringent CO2 output limits that go down each year.
2. Auction off emissions permits for the legal CO2 emissions--no grandfather clauses for industry or other measures that would render the scheme impotent.
3. Enforce compliance, but let individuals and corporations find their own preferred measures for doing so.
4. Divide the auction proceeds among all American taxpayers as a dividend. This will both act as a way of helping American families deal with the costs of compliance, but also serve as an economic stimulus. And as the costs of permits go up, so does the dividend.
I believe that this scheme probably has the best achievable mix of economic efficiency and fairness. In practice, I believe that it would encourage investments in efficiency in the short run, and modular, mass-produced nuclear reactors in the long run. But even if I'm wrong about that, these measures should find the most cost-effective means of reducing CO2 emissions. Compared to the RPS, which even on paper appears to be a highly inefficient way of fighting climate change, this is a vastly superior policy prescription. But somehow I imagine we'll end up with an RPS anyway. Let's just hope the government realizes the folly of this before they've done any more damage to our already faltering economy than necessary.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Soviet Civil Defense: Now A Tourist Attraction

Tourists Don GP-5 Gas Masks to Relive the Soviet Experience

In 1980, the Soviet government constructed an underground TV station near Vilnius, the capital of the Lithuanian SSR. Intended to be used in the aftermath of nuclear war, the facility has now been perverted to the ends of capitalism--that is, it is now a tourist attraction. For a mere $44, you can descend underground to eat Soviet food, listen to Soviet music, and be "interrogated" by the KGB. You'll also get to learn all about the the GP-5 gas mask, just like generations of Soviet people did in civil defense drills.

The tourists in the picture have donned GP-5 gas masks (Гражданской противогаз-5, lit. "civilian gas mask 5") and are circling around an "injured" comrade on a stretcher. The combination of gas masks and first aid was a common тренировка (drill) used by Soviet civil defense in its training activities. The GP-5 is probably the most common of the many civilian gas masks made in the Soviet Union, and is now widely available as a surplus item.

Gas mask training was the closest Soviet equivalent to the "duck and cover" drills found in the US in the 1950s. It was not, in fact, a product of the Cold War; they were something of an obsession dating back to the days of Osoaviakhim before WWII, and were merely continued from that era into the nuclear age. Beginning under Khrushchev the claim was made that gas masks like the GP-5 would help protect citizens from internal radionuclide expose following a nuclear attack, but Soviet civil defense was also convinced that NATO would also use biological and chemical weapons against the USSR. Therefore, the gas mask drills continued up until the end of the Soviet period, and became an ubiquitous part of every Soviet citizen's education.

While I was in Moscow this summer, I met with prominent Russian historian Elena Zubkova, who told me an anecdote about these gas mask drills. Just like almost every Russian I've met, Zubkova and her peers did not take civil defense training very seriously. Instead of paying attention to the instructor, she and her schoolmates kept twisting the air inlet on each others' gas masks, making it impossible to breathe. I gather that Soviet kids spent most of their time in these classes goofing off. Somehow I doubt this dimension of Soviet civil defense training is showcased in the totalitarian world portrayed by the underground TV station outside Vilnius, but who knows. I'm mainly just fascinated that these civil defense activities are now regarded as quintessentially "Soviet," at least it Lithuania.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Stylish and Functional

I recently noticed that someone has listed a vintage operating fluoroscope on eBay. This head-mounted radiological appliance was made during the interwar years and allowed surgeons to x-ray their patients constantly during surgery--at the cost of massive radiation exposure to everyone in the operating theatre. In practice, the patient would be "illuminated" by an X-ray tube, while in order to simultaneously operate the surgeon could be afforded little or no shielding. Add to this the fact that fluoroscopes require relatively large amounts of X-rays to get satisfactory results, and the problems of the device become even more onerous.

The Patterson Operating Fluoroscope: X-Ray Glasses That Really Work

The fluoroscope is on a hinge, allowing it to swing out of view if necessary. A red lens included in the device keeps the surgeon's eyes adapted to the dark, ready to re-engage with the darkened interior of the leatherette-covered fluoroscope.

Fluoroscope in Use.

These devices seem useful, and remained in use from WWI until the 1950s, but died out in light of increasingly stringent X-ray exposure standards. In 1965, E.R.N. Grigg wrote: “The appliance is hopelessly obsolete by any standards of radiation protection”. ORAU has one of the fluoroscopes in its collection of antique radiology equipment. I wonder if modern imaging technology could produce an equivalent device with acceptable exposure levels...

Friday, October 31, 2008

Science and its Enemies

I have grown increasingly convinced that the greatest threat to science today comes not from the usual suspects--creationists and the like--but rather from the "holistic science" movement. Unhappy with the findings of "reductionist" science, they attack the fundamental methodology upon which all modern science is based, usually in conjunction with a disgusting degree of self-righteous moral opprobrium. Take, for instance, this gem from (in)famous organic agriculture activist Vandana Shiva:
"In order to prove itself superior to alternative modes of knowledge and be the only legitimate mode of knowing, reductionist science resorts to suppression and falsification of facts and thus commits violence against science itself, which ought to be a search for truth. We discuss below how fraudulent this claim to truth is."
This is from her essay Reductionist Science as Epistemological Violence, which is in my view not merely an outstandingly wrong-headed document, but also the sociopathic ramblings of a dangerous fantacist:
"Medicine is generally presented as an area in which modern science has the most achievements and successes to its credit. But there is increasing evidence that modern medicine and therapeutics have themselves become a source of disease and death. According to Ivan Illich, diseases brought on by doctors are a greater cause of increased mortality than traffic accidents and war-related activities. Iatrogenic illnesses cause between 60,000 to 140,000 deaths in America alone each year, and leave 2 to 5 million others more or less seriously ill. The situation is worst in establishments which generate medical knowledge, viz. university hospitals where one in five patients contracts an iatrogenic disease which usually requires special treatment, and leads to death in one case out of thirty.

'Scientific medicine' extends its monopoly even to those cases of common diseases in which people would get well without therapeutic intervention. It only converts simple problems into serious or fatal ones."

This flies so far in the face of well-understood historical fact that it boggles the mind that this author is not only taken seriously, but is regarded as a great authority and even a "hero" by many in the west. I, for one, owe my life to the achievements of modern science and medicine--I was born with a condition that even thirty years ago was usually fatal. And as a historian, I am all too aware of just how much better the present day is than the "natural" past idealized by people like Shiva. Life in the not-to-distant past was nasty, brutish, and short--and the reason it's better now is because of modern technology that has been enabled by "reductionist" science.

Shiva concludes that:
"Protest against reductionist science is emerging in all spheres. In India, for instance, the famous 'Chipko' movement is a movement against reductionist forestry; organic farming movements are challenges to reductionist agriculture; and health-care movements are projecting alternatives to reductionist medicine.

Since the monopoly of special interest groups over peoples' lives is mediated by the state, these movements have political implications. The search for alternatives to reductionism is basically a political struggle which cuts across material and intellectual domains. The non-reductionist alternatives that people across the world are building together is a non-violent science that respects the integrity of nature and man and truth and seeks liberation of the people, which is what science is, or should be, all about. And when a large number of little people think alike and act together, major changes may well be in the offing, including a change in worldview."

Apparently, Shiva is under the unfortunate delusion that reality is some kind of political choice. Given the facts on the ground, I believe that what the world needs is more science, and considerably less pseudoscientific hogwash based on undefinable concepts like "the integrity of nature." Wishful thinking and misplaced nostalgia are the absolutely wrong prescriptions for the many challenges facing the world today. It's true that the gifts of science have all too often been used for destructive ends; but this is no more an argument against reductionism than the possibility of choking is an argument against eating solid food. I, for one, know what side I'm on.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sovietology: No Appeals to "Common Sense" Allowed

In his HNN interview decrying Hiroshima "revisionism," Robert Maddox made the following statement:
VF: The peace movement condemns the attack as triggering the nuclear arms race. Is this the right cause-effect chain? If so, isn't it impossible to support the mission?

RM: This is absurd on its face. The Soviets had their own atomic program in place long before Hiroshima and knew through espionage all about the US effort. There would have been an arms race even if the US did not use the bombs against Japan. Can anyone imagine that, if only the United States had not used the bombs, Stalin would have permitted the US to enjoy a perpetual nuclear monopoly [with] the Soviets...helpless? The idea that Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the arms race merely provides revisionists with another beat Truman.

To answer Maddox's rhetorical question, I can imagine it. Anyone who knows anything about Stalin's USSR knows that appeals to "common sense" don't work in this mileau. I've seen what Stalin wrote about the bomb in his own private papers, and the impression I get is that Stalin did not regard nuclear weapons as an effective weapon of war. Instead, he saw the bomb as a must-have prestige item. Not only would a Soviet bomb undermine belligerent anti-Soviet elements in the west, it would also prove that Soviet science and technology were equal to America's.

Stalin was infuriated by the failure of the United States to involve him in the decision to develop and use the atomic bomb. It is true that Communist spies within the Manhattan Project kept the Soviet government apprised of American progress, but the available evidence suggests that whatever information about this reached Stalin made little impression on him. Stalin, after all, was no scientist, even if he had pretensions to the contrary. Contemporary records show that Stalin and his inner circle were shocked and disturbed by the news of Hiroshima--quite possibly because it threatened their hoped-for gains in their campaign against Japan which began August 8th. Stalin craved acknowledgment from other nations that the USSR was a fully-fledged great power, and the decision to develop and use the bomb without so much as mentioning it to the Soviets was interpreted by him as a sign of Western disrespect at best and a willful insult at worst.

The Soviet atomic project began in 1941 but received only minuscule funding and attention until late August of 1945--several weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After this it became a top priority, but it was never high enough to cannibalize other projects Stalin regarded as critical. On the military front, Stalin was determined to expand Soviet naval power to world-class standards, expending enormous resources on ship construction. Domestically, major prestige projects in Moscow alone consumed several percent of overall Soviet GDP. Regarding his own capital's low skyline as a retrograde embarrassment in comparison to modern American cities, Stalin ordered the construction of a group of bizarre ornamental skyscrapers in Moscow. The Moscow Metro and its highly ornamented stations also sucked up vast amounts of Soviet blood and treasure--even in a period when famine was widespread in the USSR. Stalin's priorities were plainly irrational--a point which should be kept in mind.

Most significantly, Stalin saw little need to develop a means to deliver the few nuclear weapons available during his twilight years. The earliest Soviet delivery system for nuclear weapons was the Tu-4A--a modified version of the Soviet clone of the B-29. As the earliest Soviet nuclear weapons were copied from the American Mk-III that was dropped on Nagasaki, these had to be modified to carry a weapon considerably larger than would easily fit in the bomb bay; however, only three of these bombers were built. More credible delivery systems only became available only around the time Stalin died. What this means is that Stalin was perfectly pleased to be "helpless"--he did not order his followers to build less skyscrapers and more bombers to carry his handful of weapons. Furthermore, the Tu-4A would have had difficulty reaching Britain from the USSR without refueling, much less the United States. It appears that no Tu-4s were built with both refueling equipment and the ability to carry nuclear weapons--meaning that the ability of the Soviet Union under Stalin to project nuclear force was essentially non-existent. Soviet delivery capabilities lagged far behind Stalin's infant nuclear arsenal, and as far as I can tell the dictator did not regard this as a problem.

What implications does this have for our understanding of Stalin's intentions? I am inclined to draw the conclusion that Stalin regarded nuclear weapons as a gimmick, at least until the end of the 1940s. Flush from Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, he placed his faith in the Soviet Union's colossal land forces rather than America's strategic aviation and nuclear arsenal. I can easily imagine Stalin being content with his armies and tanks in a world where nuclear weapons remained a murky, undemonstrated secret. After all, to a considerable extent he was content without a credible nuclear deterrent despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is not because Stalin was a peacenik at heart, as he wasn't; it's because Stalin failed to understand the power of the bomb and its effects on Soviet security. He wanted the bomb because it was source of American pride, and because it convinced the Truman Administration it did not need to accommodate Soviet interests in the postwar world. If neither of these factors came into play--and if the atomic bomb had not been used, it's hard to imagine how they would have--it's hard for me to see why Stalin would have thought it necessary to build a Soviet bomb.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Fact Check: Joe Romm on New Nukes

Joe Romm manages to be quite a chameleon when it comes to nuclear power. On certain occasions, he manages to be quite reasonable--as when he admitted that the Russians have no good non-carbon energy options outside of fission. He insists that he's not "anti-nuclear." But much of the time his writing on the subject is more reminiscent of Paul Gunther than of an even-handed, sober-minded analyst. And for someone who has been bashing nuclear power in the national media for years, Romm seems to have a difficult time keeping basic facts straight.

Take, for instance, this statement that Romm inserted into Finrod's comment to this post on Climate Progress:
JR: Gimme a break Once there is a price for carbon dioxide that reflects its actual damage to humanity, wind and solar will do just fine, thank you. Right now, new nuclear plants get all of the subsidies that wind gets, plus this absurd 80% loan guarantee, full liability protection, and expedited licensing.
In this comment Romm makes four claims, which I will go through one at a time.

Claim #1: New nuclear plants "get all of the subsidies wind gets."
It's hard to boil the complex reality of US energy subsidies to a short statement, but all things considered I don't believe this is a fair assessment. It is true that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 expanded the Production Tax Credit of 1.9 cents per kW/hr to the first 6000 megawatts of new nuclear capacity. However, with current reactor designs this only represents 4-5 units, when there are dozens currently being planned for the US. The act calls for allocating the 6000 MW among various reactors, with each of them receiving a fraction of the credit.

The list of federal incentives (which represent de facto or explicit subsidies) for renewable energy sources is actually pretty extensive. Fortunately, there's a handy website that lists and explains them all. You can go through them at length if you like, but I would like to direct readers' attention to the Renewable Energy Production Incentive (REPI). This is not the same thing as the Production Tax Credit (PTC). As the DSIRE website explains:
The Federal Renewable Energy Production Incentive (REPI) provides incentive payments for electricity produced and sold by new qualifying renewable energy facilities. Qualifying systems are eligible for annual incentive payments of 1.5¢ per kilowatt-hour (in 1993 dollars and indexed for inflation) for the first 10-year period of their operation, subject to the availability of annual appropriations in each federal fiscal year of operation.
As new nuclear systems are ineligible for this significant federal subsidy, I believe that we can dismiss Romm's first claim as demonstrably false.

Claim #2: New Nuclear Plants receive "this absurd 80% loan guarantee" in addition to all the incentives received by new wind capacity.
I find this sentiment quite ironic, given that the DOE program that provides the loan guarantees provides the same incentive to renewable power projects. Here's the nuclear power solicitation, and here's the renewable power solicitation. Seems like nuclear projects possess no advantages that renewables do not from the loan guarantee program, with the exception of the $18 billion limit for nuclear plant guarantees (vs. $10 billion for renewables). Doesn't strike me as all that "absurd."

Claim #3: New Nuclear Plants receive "full liability protection."
This is one of the longstanding myths about the Price-Anderson Act. Buried in the intense legalese of the law is a section that nullifies any guarantee of legal protection above the Price-Anderson limit. The relevant text is here:
(2) In the event of a nuclear incident involving damages in excess of the amount of aggregate public liability under paragraph (1), the Congress will thoroughly review the particular incident in accordance with the procedures set forth in subsection (i) of this section and will in accordance with such procedures, take whatever action is determined to be necessary (including approval of appropriate compensation plans and appropriation of funds) to provide full and prompt compensation to the public for all public liability claims resulting from a disaster of such magnitude.
(3) No provision of paragraph (1) may be construed to preclude the Congress from enacting a revenue measure, applicable to licensees of the Commission required to maintain financial protection pursuant to subsection (b) of this section, to fund any action undertaken pursuant to paragraph (2).

Translation: In case of a nuclear incident resulting in claims greater than the Price-Anderson limit, Congress can pass measures to extract revenues from the licencee to cover the cost of liability. This means that if the "American Chernobyl" that anti-nukes like Harvey Wasserman fantasize about somehow actually happened, Congress would use its powers to expropriate everything the reactor operator owned. That doesn't sound like "full liability protection" to me. The provisions of the law are a considerable deviation from how liability law normally works, but that sword cuts both ways--take, for instance, this clause in the legislation:

The Commission or the Secretary, as appropriate, may incorporate provisions in indemnity agreements with licensees and contractors under this section, and may require provisions to be incorporated in insurance policies or contracts furnished as proof of financial protection, which waive
(i) any issue or defense as to conduct of the claimant or fault of persons indemnified,
(ii) any issue or defense as to charitable or governmental immunity, and
(iii) any issue or defense based on any statute of limitations if suit is instituted within three years from the date on which the claimant first knew, or reasonably could have known, of his injury or damage and the cause thereof.

Basically, under Price-Anderson licencees waive their right to several defenses that they would be fully entitles to use in conventional liability cases. Full liability protection? I think not. At the same time, the law is very helpful in case of incidents with claims below the Price-Anderson limit, as operators are not individually liable for the full sum under such cases. So it is a subsidy--just not anywhere near as advantageous one as its detractors imagine.

Claim #4: New Nuclear Plants Receive "Expedited Licensing"
A semantic quibble, but current NRC procedures are only "expedited" in comparison to the way they worked prior to the 2005 Energy Bill. Under current circumstances, all the new plant designs still require NRC approval--and the shortage of qualified NRC staff to evaluate them isn't making things progress any quicker. If the NRC was rubber-stamping applications, that would be one thing; but so long as it takes four years or more for new designs to be approved, licensing is anything but "expedited."

So on the whole, I think Romm's aside has a somewhat tenuous relationship with legal reality. Wind power receives a lengthy list of subsidies not available to new nuclear plants, wind and nuclear receive the same 80% loan guarantees from the same DOE program, Price-Anderson allows Congress to expropriate the assets of reactor operators in case of a serious accident, and 48+ months is still a long time. But somehow I doubt that he will admit any of this.

Monday, September 29, 2008

It's Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

You just can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

NRDC: Russian Fast Reactor Program "A Failure"

From the ongoing BAS roundtable "Managing the Global Growth of Nuclear Energy":
As has been noted by Frank von Hippel, co-director of Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security, the GNEP vision of burning the long-lived actinides, requires for every 100 thermal reactors of the type used throughout the United States today, some 40-75 new fast reactors of similar capacity. The commercial use of large numbers of fast reactors for actinide burning is unlikely to occur because--to borrow observations made by U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover more than 50 years ago--fast reactors have proven to be “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolong shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.” The development of fast reactors to breed plutonium failed in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. I would argue it failed in the Soviet Union despite the fact that the Soviets operated two commercial-size fast breeder plants, BN-350 (now shut down in Kazakhstan) and BN-600 (still operational in Russia), because the Soviet Union and Russia never successfully closed the fuel cycle and thus never operated these plants using MOX (mixed-uranium and plutonium oxide) fuel.
That's from Thomas B. Cochran of the NRDC. Clearly, someone forgot to tell the Russians, given what Premier Putin said back in July:
But it is necessary to migrate to new technologies: to introduce a closed fuel cycle, to construct a commercial fast reactor.
Meanwhile, construction of the BN-800 is continuing apace. Never mind as well that MOX fuel assemblies made with recovered plutonium have been tested in the BN-600. Even though I agree with Cochran that the GNEP plan to build dozens of commercial fast reactors is a non-starter, the fact of the matter is that the Russians' fast reactor efforts show that these plants can be operated on a commercial basis, and constructed affordably enough that, given a very significant increase in uranium prices, they could be competitive with conventional LWR designs.

The Internal Layout of the BN-800 Reactor Scheduled for Completion in 2012.

The real question is whether the BN-series reactors are safe enough. Even though Rosenergoatom claims that the BN-800 incorporates features that avoid the problem of a positive void coefficient and possible recriticality in case of a meltdown, I haven't been able to locate technical information detailed enough to evaluate these claims. The Russians are also developing the BREST series reactors, which are lead-cooled fast reactors intended to incorporate passive safety features like the IFR concept. Unlike the BN-800, however, these are clearly a long way from fruition. In any case, however, the Russians seem to be betting the future on these fast reactors--wise or not.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Who Will Build the Next Generation of Russian Nuclear Plants?

Russia's plans for the expansion of nuclear power are ambitions. The plan announced at the end of July calls for essentially doubling the size of Russia's reactor fleet by 2020. But are these plans even remotely realistic? After all, ambitious construction programs laid out for the industry in previous decades have gone almost totally unfulfilled. Does Russia have the capability to build dozens of reactors in the next decade?

The bulk of Russia's nuclear plant construction in the coming years will consist of the AES-2006, a modernized version of the VVER pressurized-water reactors built during the Soviet period. The major components for these plants were built in three facilities, all of which currently exist in some capacity:

1. The Izhorskie Zavody, in Kolipino. These plants manufactured the vast majority of pressurized-water reactor components in the Soviet period. From naval reactors to VVER-1000s, the Izhorskie Zavody is still the center of Russian reactor manufacture. Estimates of its theoretical capacity to produce pressure vessels vary considerably, from a single unit a year to approximately four. The latter seems like an overestimate, and in the past few years production has averaged less than two sets of reactor equipment a year. Rosatom is making sizable investments in the facility to raise this to three sets a year by 2011, and four sets a year a few years after this. Due to long lead times and the fact that the plants produce a wide array of equipment for other industries, it is unclear how great production will be in the next few years.

2. Skoda Power, in the Czech Republic. The division of Skoda that produced reactor equipment under socialism was acquired by the same company that owns the Izhorskie Zavody several years ago. Historically, this plant produced 21 VVER-440s and 3 VVER-1000s prior to the collapse of Communism. Today it still produces parts and equipment for existing VVERs and is exploring the prospect of beginning production of components for new reactors.

3. Atommash. As its name suggests, this plant was founded to produce nuclear power equipment for the Soviet electrical sector. One of the most ambitious industrial investments of the Brezhnev years, Atommash was planned to produce eight complete VVER-1000s a year in an assembly-line fashion. This would enable the USSR to fulfill its plans to produce 60% of its electricity from nuclear power by the year 2000. As one might imagine, the scale of this factory is absolutely colossal. Unfortunately, the plant never managed to produce reactor equipment at anything like the projected rate. To date, Atommash has only ever produced three sets of equipment for VVERs. This was the result of a myriad of problems, including labor difficulties and architectural oversights that allowed the pressure vessel foundry to settle and caused one wall of it to collapse. However, Atommash has enjoyed a quite successful second life producing heavy equipment--albeit mainly for the burgeoning Russian petroleum and natural gas industries. Today it is owned by Energomash, and as such is not responsible to Minatom in the sense that the previous two factories are. At times Atommash seems to have been written off as a supplier of pressure vessels, but occasional mention of the plant by figures in the Russian nuclear industry suggest that the prospect of procuring AES-2006 components from the facility is still under consideration.

Can these facilities produce all the components needed for Minatom's nuclear construction program? Within Russia, there are naysayers. They believe that between the unavailability of Atommash and the failure of the Izhorskie Zavody to build even two VVER-1000s a year so far as a sign that Minatom cannot build anywhere near as many new plants as it plans to. On the other hand, Putin's promise of over $40 billion dollars in state investment in the nuclear industry through 2015 should work to bolster the prospects of the Russian nuclear revival. Some of this money is bound to be used to increase the production capacity of the Izhorskie Zavody. But ultimately, only time will tell whether Russian industry is up to the challenge of the nuclear renaissance.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Russian Article on the LFTR

From ProAtom, May 8th 2008, "Nuclear Energy Without Plutonium or Chernobyl":
Страна, которая первой освоит и запустит в серийное производство экологически безопасные ядерные реакторные установки уран-ториевого цикла на базе реакторов с расплавами солей фторидов, выйдет на передовые рубежи высококонкурентоспособных ядерно-энергетических технологий со всеми вытекающими из этого преимуществами.

The country which first develops and mass-produces safe uranium-thorium cycle nuclear reactor installations on the basis of reactors with flowing fluoride salts will move to the leading edge of highly competitive nuclear energy technology with all the advantages resulting from it.

ProAtom has a number of pro-LFTR articles, which suggests that there is a vocal (if small) pro-LFTR minority within the Russian nuclear establishment. The primary figure in this group appears to be P.M. Yakovlev of the Khlopin Radium Institute, whose name is associated in some capacity with nearly all of the pro-LFTR pieces.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pamir: Nuclear Power Goes on the Road

The strange tale of the Soviets' mobile nuclear power plants is largely unknown to the English-speaking world. Which is a shame, as these machines offer fascinating insights into the world of the Soviet nuclear complex.

The first mobile nuclear generator built on the USSR was the TES-3, completed in 1961. This treaded monster was designed to rumble around the countryside on 4 modified T-10 tank chassis, conveying a 2MWe nuclear plant wherever it might be needed.

The TES-3 Mobile Nuclear Power Plant, 1961

Over the course of the next two decades the mobile nuclear concept was revised by researchers at the Belorussian Academy of Sciences Institute of Nuclear Energy. In the mid-1980s they created the road-mobile Pamir. The Pamir consisted of four heavy trailers, one of which contained a 630kW reactor, another the gas turbine, one which contained a miniaturized control room, and one to house the plant's sizable staff. The reactor and control trailers are illustrated by these models:

The "Pamir" Mobile Nuclear Power Plant

The Pamir was designed to operate in a wide variety of conditions--temperatures from -50 to 50 degrees centigrade, with a fuel load sufficient for five years. The reactor utilized HEU and was gas-cooled with dinitrogen tetroxide a single loop, and was part of a 60-ton truck. Operation of the plant required a staff of 28 people. Two examples of the system were completed by 1986, when the Chernobyl accident inspired a campaign within the Soviet government to end the Pamir program. The location of the BSSR's nuclear research institute a mere seven kilometers outside Minsk concerned the protesters, who feared the consequences of an accident with the exotic reactors. Both of the plants were scrapped, leaving only a few mementos of a 300 million ruble development program. One of the reactor vessels was fashioned into a memorial outside the institute:
A Pamir Reactor Vessel Preserved at the Belorussian Academy of Sciences Institute of Nuclear Energy

Soviet engineers imagined a variety of uses for the Pamir. The primary purpose of the system was to power military radar outposts in remote parts of the USSR. Part of the appeal of the concept was that these road-mobile nuclear plants could be dispersed under the threat of nuclear war to secure locations, then used to help rebuild Soviet defenses after a nuclear attack. More mundane uses also included civil disasters: after catastrophes like the 1988 Armenian earthquake, or ordinary power outages, the mobile nuclear plants could be used to restore electrical service.

The road-mobile nuclear generator is one concept that I very much doubt will see any kind of revival, but it does serve as proof of just how compact and mobile nuclear power can be. Not only can nuclear plants be built in sizes other than "extra large," it is possible to build an entire nuclear power plant that will fit inside a truck trailer. After all, the Soviets did it over twenty years ago.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Recipe For Failure

Why does the anti-proliferation crowd continue to stubbornly insist on the efficacy of policies that are demonstrable failures?

Take, for instance, this recent piece from Leonor Tomero of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: "The Future of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership: Next Steps." I believe that this article typifies the dangerous trend towards Americocentrism in U.S. policy circles. As a Russia specialist I find the once-through fuel cycle argument incomprehensible, as it is so clearly an abysmal failure that I have a hard time believing that professionals can pretend otherwise.

In their world, apparently, a "good example" on the part of the United States will forestall the spread of weapons-sensitive technologies. But in actuality, other nations have generally scoffed at American demands that they forgo particular technologies. Especially today, with Russia offering civilian nuclear technology to Iran in open defiance of US wishes. In earlier years Russia had offered fuel reprocessing services to all countries as well, but in the last few years this has been restricted to fuel made in Russia only. Russia has made a point of aggressively marketing nuclear power abroad, and there is no good reason to believe that this will stop anytime soon.

Even sillier is the proposal that "Washington should demand that its allies abandon ongoing plans or forego ambitions to develop these technologies. [reprocessing and fast reactors]" One need only look so far as France to see the wonderful success that this policy is likely to have. Thirty years of U.S. "leadership" in this area has been completely ignored by the French, who in the meantime have managed to demonstrate that reprocessing can be done well. In practice, we are in no position to "demand" anything. Tomero claims that this policy "worked in the past," citing the example of Taiwan (which in my mind is not really a great supporting case). The places where reprocessing has been abandoned have generally done so for the very sensible reason that uranium was absurdly cheap for decades, and without fast reactors the need for separated plutonium failed to materialize as expected. U.S. pressure seems to have had very little to do with it. Besides, North Korea proved dramatically that even a desperately poor and isolated country can develop the technology to construct a nuclear weapon. No commercial reprocessing needed.

Tomero suggests that "at home, the new administration should redirect funding currently provided to the national labs for reprocessing and fast neutron reactor research to programs that improve and reduce the cost of safeguards technology, explore ways to make uranium enrichment more proliferation-resistant, and develop renewable energy." To understand just how little good this is likely to do, just imagine what the likely results would be after a few decades. Research funding for reprocessing research and fast reactors has been moribund for years in any case. I cannot imagine any credible means how uranium enrichment can be made "proliferation resistant"--indeed, at Oak Ridge back during WWII the U.S. succeeded in producing weapons-grade material using even crude, inefficient, and handicapped technologies. In the real world, we're likely to see the commercialization of laser enrichment techniques like Silex. Even if the U.S. government squelches current research into this technology, it is so advantageous that it is certain to be reinvented by some other interested party. This may be unfortunate, as the very features that make laser enrichment so attractive make it a genuine proliferation nightmare. Unlike commercial fuel reprocessing, laser enrichment could make the clandestine production of weapons-grade U-235 absurdly easy.

Hard experience is fast exploding the popular notion that government investment in renewables will prevent the need for nuclear power in the future. Just look at Germany, where the nuclear phase-out is quickly losing public favor and will likely become an unpleasant memory when the SPD loses power. France is already nuclear, the UK is planning new plants, as are many of the former Soviet satellites and republics. The UK seriously reviewed the renewable options and found them inadequate, choosing to go nuclear despite the unpopularity of doing so. Indeed, it appears the rest of the world will ultimately go nuclear no matter what the US does.

The choice, therefore, is likely to be between various nuclear futures, rather than between a nuclear and a nuclear-free option. And because the U.S. has to live among its brother nations, it is in our interest to help build the best of all possible nuclear futures. Do we want to abandon the future to other nations with more vision and foresight than we? Do we want the Russians to realize the light-metal fast breeder using aqueous reprocessing, with all its attendant risks, when we could create a thorium-based fuel cycle that, upon maturity, would end the need for enrichment and produce no separated weapons-usable materials? I know what option I want. And pretending that we can go on with the failed policies of the 1970s isn't doing anyone any real favors.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Modest Proposal

Here's an ad that Barack Obama's campaign has been running in Nevada:

This is, of course, standard anti-nuclear scaremongering, but we oughtn't let McCain off the hook for his opposition to nuclear "waste" shipments moving through Arizona.

In any case, we should make the best of the situation. If the Democrats' opposition to Yucca Mountain can be translated into government support for advanced fuel cycles, this is all for the better. After all, Yucca Mountain and the open fuel cycle to epitomizes have failed to have the desired effect. In theory, U.S. opposition to closed fuel cycles was supposed to encourage other nations from pursuing this technology, but in experience no one seems to have cared about what US practice was. France, Russia, and Japan have gone along the closed fuel cycle path with little regard for American disapproval. Meanwhile, Yucca has turned into an albatross for the nuclear industry. So long as the repository remains incomplete, the nuclear waste problem can be used as a bat to bash nuclear power.

To people in the know, of course, this is all very maddening. The nuclear "waste" awaiting disposal at Yucca Mountain still contains nearly all of its potential energy--enough to provide for all of America's energy needs for over a lifetime if utilized efficiently. So sensibly, pro-nuclear types have wanted to use this energy rather than throw it away.

At the same time, some solution must be found for the large quantities of nuclear waste produced by the U.S. government over the last 65 years in military programs. The decision to store this material with spent civilian fuel in the Yucca repository may have once been a way of "killing two birds with one stone," but in retrospect it seems to have been ill-advised. In any case, it is inarguable the United States government has a responsibility to develop a way of dealing with this material. Harvey Wasserman's weird fantasies aside, wishful thinking won't allow us shut every nuclear facility, turn Yucca Mtn. into a casino, and somehow ignore this stuff.

So long as politicians are going to oppose Yucca, therefore, they are obligated to provide some kind of alternative. So here's my proposal: a program to develop a transmutation reactor (perhaps to be called the Waste Transmutation Pilot Plant) whose primary purpose would be to demonstrate transmutation, preferably on a commercial scale. There are a variety of technological options for this, but the most mature are light-metal cooled fast reactors. I'm a fan of liquid-fuel reactors, but I'm not sure how well the existing research will translate into a fast transmutation reactor. In any case, I think the best way to deal with this question within DOE would be to have a competition between various proposals of varying degrees of technical ambition. I'm sure that even among ALMRs, there are many possible options to choose from. Ideally I'd prefer it if Argonne got a fast transmutation reactor project and ORNL got to build a follow-on to the MSRE that would demonstrate the thorium fuel cycle in an MSR, but perhaps this is wishing for too much.

But in any case, we need a solution to break the deadlock that has held up nuclear power development for decades. If the waste issue can be manipulated to spur the development of more modern nuclear technologies, America--and the world--will be better off for it. It's like making lemonade from the Yucca lemon.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Understanding "Duck and Cover"

Everyone's heard of it... but why would anyone think it was a good idea? Who made it, and why? How did it become a cultural milestone?

I have to confess that I find "Duck and Cover" maddening. Not so much the film itself, but the reputation it's developed, and the fact that no one bothers to contextualize it in its proper historical context. "Duck and Cover" is a unique historical artifact, one that could only have been produced in a very particular cultural and political context. What should be emphasized is that this particular historical moment lasted all of a few months, after which the Federal Civil Defense Administration realized that they had made some very serious mistakes.

The roots of "Duck and Cover" can be found in the efforts of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey to interview survivors of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Irving L. Janis wrote in 1951 that "A substantial proportion of respondents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki reported having reacted immediately to the intense flash alone, as though it were a well-known danger signal, despite the fact they were unaware of its significance at the time. A number of them said that they voluntarily ducked down or "hit the ground" as soon as the flash occurred and had already reached the prone position before the blast swept over them." Janis argued that these findings suggested "that the casualties of an A-bomb attack might be reduced if the population had been well prepared in advance to react appropriately to the flash of the explosion." The U.S. Army Medical Department estimated in 1948 that "of the 50,000 or more deaths which would ordinarily result from a single attack on a modern city about 10,000 could be avoided if every person in the city were adequately informed beforehand as to what he could do for himself in case of an A-bomb disaster."

Clearly, the U.S. government regarded improvised civil defense measure like "duck and cover" to be minimally effective. So why did they create an instructional film emphasizing them? The answer can be found in the Report of Project East River, a colossal 10-volume review of the U.S. civil defense program made in September, 1952. As the authors explained:
With the advent of the Korean difficulties, it appeared that the civil defense structure of the nation should be brought to readiness at the earliest possible moment to meet an immediate threat.

"Duck and Cover" was meant as a temporary measure, in case of a sneak Soviet nuclear attack before U.S. active and passive defenses could be improved. These were to include better radar systems to give earlier warning of impending Soviet attack, improved active defenses to intercept and destroy incoming bombers, and an elaborate civil defense system to protect American urban dwellers. However, only the first two of these ever saw fruition. The FCDA, in large measure due to its own bungling and incompetence, proved unable to convince Congress to fund its shelter program. This did not, however, prevent the FCDA from including a public blast shelter in the film. Had the FCDA's plans been realized, these would have been a common sight in American cities. Instead, public shelters only became a reality in the Kennedy years.

One should keep in mind that a major (and perhaps the major) goal of the FCDA's 1950s propaganda efforts was to enlist public support for the FCDA's more ambitious schemes. After all, like all bureaucracies the FCDA's primary imperative was its own perpetuation and growth. This is not to say that the FCDA's motives were cynical--it genuinely feared the prospect of Soviet nuclear attack--but its desire was for the funding to create a credible civil defense, not for the American people to complacently believe in "duck and cover." But in order to create the public clamor for increased civil defense funding, the people needed to fear the prospect of enemy nuclear attack, and to believe US defenses were inadequate. The FCDA's initial efforts to stoke nuclear fear, unfortunately, failed to inspire Americans to write their Congressmen to demand the allocation of funds for shelter-building.

Even by mid-1952, it was clear that the FCDA's efforts to "sell" civil defense to the public were failing. As the Report of Project East River stated:
Thus far, the major appeal has been on the likelihood and imminence of attack. The country, now in its second year of major civil defense effort, has not responded to the continuous campaign stressing the need for civil defense. Since the appeal has not led to durable results, new ways must be found for establishing a sounder basis for civil defense needs and participation.

"Duck and Cover" is perhaps the epitome of civil defense propaganda emphasizing the likelihood and imminence of attack. (I won't bother going into the production history of the film, as Conelrad has already done a far better job of that than I could.) Therefore, the film was recognized as a failure less than a year after it was produced. Unfortunately, the film failed to disappear from circulation, and continued to torment children in some places for years to come. This, of course, ultimately worked against the purpose for which the film was originally intended. Instead of encouraging greater support for civil defense, the film's apparent naivete in the face of the growing nuclear threat helped convince an entire generation of Americans that defense against nuclear attack was impossible.

"Duck and Cover" probably owes its current notoriety to the 1982 film The Atomic Cafe. On the one hand, The Atomic Cafe is a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Its creative editing and exposition-free presentation make for a powerful viewing experience. On the other hand, these very features make the film incapable of historicizing its contents. Indeed, even though all of the footage is from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, The Atomic Cafe really tells us much more about the culture of the early 80s than it does about the early Cold War. Among other things, its makers edited the historical footage (and particularly "Duck and Cover") for maximum irony. For these reasons I disapprove of the use of this film as a means of instructing students about Cold War civil defense. Without an understanding of the activities of the FCDA at the time it was created, it gives a highly misleading impression of the goals and methods of civil defense.

Indeed, "Duck and Cover" is so fascinating and ironic because it is atypical of U.S. civil defense propaganda, not because it is representative of it. Because the FCDA changed propaganda tactics less than 18 months after it was founded, "Duck and Cover" is very unusual. In large measure because it was made before the development of the H-bomb, it looks especially foolish in retrospect. It is a film that could only have been made in 1951, and can only be understood in the context of 1951. Any other way, the film is reduced to mere kitsch, rather than history.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More Soviet Bomb Shelters

Thanks to a Russian website, I can now offer some more images of Soviet bomb shelters:

A Blast Door

Air Filters.

A Generator.

This Shelter is Flooded.

Soviet Bomb Shelter Sign

Nearly everyone, it seems, is familiar with the American Kennedy-era yellow and black fallout shelter sign:

But it seems that hardly anyone, even older Russians, remembers the Soviet equivalent:
It reads:
OAO "Tiazhpromarmatura"
Keys are at Dormitory Security
Tel. 46-4-08
Under the leader of factory shop no. 33
V.I. Diudnev
Tel. 46-4-61

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Убийство и сверхубийство

One of my great finds on my recent trip to Moscow was a copy of the Russian-language Soviet translation of Ralph Lapp's 1962 Kill and Overkill: The Strategy of Annihilation. This little volume had eluded me for years. I was quite eager to find out exactly what Soviet censors regarded as unacceptable for their readership, and why they picked Lapp's book instead of the many other contemporary Western books about nuclear strategy.

Published in 1964, the Soviet translation is titled Убийство и сверхубийство. This is an earnest translation of the title, but the meaning in Russian is something like "Murder and Overmurder." Soviet readers were treated to an extensive introduction detailing Lapp's various ideological errors, but which concluded that the book would benefit Soviet readers by unveiling the self-apparent moral bankruptcy of the U.S. strategic nuclear posture. It explained that "the Soviet Union is opposed to nuclear war because it is confident in its strength, certain that its cause is just, certain that it will outperform imperialism in the world economic arena, while being steadfastly guided in its foreign policy by the great Leninist principle of peaceful coexistence of states with different social systems."

The edits made in the course of translation are certainly revealing. Take, for instance, this passage from Lapp's original (p. 140):
If the "semi-official estimates" are even approximately correct, the Soviet striking force was astonishingly far below that of the United States. Senator Stuart Symington conceded in 1961 that our intelligence agencies had vastly overestimated Soviet strength. (Among other things there was no "missile gap.") It became obvious that the U.S.S.R. had relied on a "minimum deterrent"--a force not designed to knock out our striking power but only large enough to destroy our cities and industries if it were attacked. In short, a second-strike force.

The Soviet translation renders this paragraph rather differently:
СССР явно полагается на "минимальные средства сдерживание"--на силы, предназначенные не для разгрома и уничтожения наших ударных сил, а для того, чтобы в ответ на нападение нанести сокрушительный удар по нашим городам и промышленности.

The USSR clearly relies upon "the minimum means of deterrence"--upon forces, intended not for the crushing defeat and destruction of our strike forces, but rather for the conveyance of a crushing blow to our cities and industry in answer to an attack.

The avoidance of any admission of Soviet weakness is typical of literature published in the USSR about the nuclear threat. Lapp's original paragraph has been changed here so that the Russian uses phrases common in Soviet propaganda of the Khrushchev years--particularly the phrase "в ответ на нападение нанести сокрушительный удар."

An edit I found particularly interesting, given my interest in civil defense, was to be found in this paragraph (p. 121):
But this technical question, as I have mentioned, is only one aspect of a vastly complex problem. Among many other aspects, one must consider the strategic effects. General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, welcomed the fallout shelter program as "an essential element" of our "deterrent"--that is, our military power. There can be no doubt that a large-scale shelter program would intensify the arms race, leading to Russian shelter-building and the pyramiding of more and bigger weapons by both sides. Shelters would then become part of a vicious cycle in strategic thinking.

Soviet readers, meanwhile, were treated to the following:
Но эта техчическая сторона вопроса, как я отметил, является только одним аспектом исключительно сложной проблемы. А мы прежде всего должны помнить об ее стратегических аспектах.

Бывшый председатель комитета начальников штабов генерал Л. Лемитцер охарактеровал программу строительства убежищ, обеспечивающих защиту от действия ядерных излучений, как "существенный элемент" нашей "сдерживающей силы", то есть нашей военной мощи. Не может быть никакого сомнения, что программа строительства убежищ в крупных масштабах вызовет гонку вооружений и приведет к увеличению количества и мощности оружия, создаемого обоими странами. Убежища тогда станут частью порочного круга в стратегическом мышлении.

But this technical part of the question, as I mentioned, is merely one aspect of an extremely complex problem. Most of all, we must consider the strategic aspects of it.

The former head of the committee of heads of staff General L. Lemnitzer characterized the program of the construction of shelters offering protection against the effect of nuclear radiation as "an essential element" of our "deterrent forces", that is, our military power. There can be no doubt, that the large-scale construction of shelters would intensify the arms race and lead to the increase in the number and power of weapons constructed by both countries. Shelters would then become a part of a perverse circle in strategic thought.

I am not quite sure what the deletion of the clause about Soviet shelter construction means. The Soviets had a much larger shelter program than the United States, but they were quick to emphasize that their civil defense program was qualitatively different from its American counterpart as it "served the people's interests" rather than the ambitions of "adventurists who seek to start a new world war." In any case, it's certainly an interesting editorial choice.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Civil Defense History: The Importance of Chronology

The latest issue of BAS contains an article by Joseph Masco, "Target Audience," about government films about nuclear weapons effects from the 1950s and how they continue to affect Americans' understanding of nuclear weapons. This attracted my attention as it contains a discussion of "Operation Cue," a civil defense film produced in 1955. I have to say that I think that the author's analysis is not particularly astute, as it ignores the issues raised by chronological context. As such, it cannot avoid being ahistorical.

According to the author:
This scripting of danger and stagemanaging of nuclear effects became increasingly sophisticated at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s, eventually including parallel civil defense material aimed at civilians. Again, panic, not nuclear destruction, was positioned as the real danger in nuclear warfare. This argument was made with careful crafting of the images of nuclear warfare, censoring of nuclear effects such as fire and radiation, and focusing on atomic bombs rather than the much larger thermonuclear weapons already in the U.S. arsenal.


In Operation Cue, there is no discussion about radioactive fallout or the extensive fires that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced. Instead, the film provides a detailed portrait of a functioning post-nuclear state. Rescue personnel pull damaged mannequins from the rubble, flying several to off-site hospitals; meanwhile, the mass feeding takes place alongside standing homes and power lines. Later, the mannequins scorched by Operation Cue went on a national tour of J. C. Penney department stores, which had provided the clothing used in the test, offering an explicit portrait of nuclear survival to the U.S. public.

A closer reading of Operation Cue reveals a more complicated message: The film is training citizens to accept nuclear war as a normative threat, employing nuclear fear to craft a militarized society organized around preparing for nuclear war every minute of every day. To accomplish this, the portrait of nuclear danger presented in Operation Cue is partial, a carefully edited version of nuclear science that the day’s prevailing experts had already disproved via the test programs in Nevada and the South Pacific. In actuality, the fallout produced by nuclear tests such as Operation Cue traversed the continental United States, creating negative health effects for soldiers and civilians that continue to this day—a much starker reality than Operation Cue promises viewers.

Here Masco is arguing that the Federal Civil Defense Administration was being willfully mendacious in its propaganda efforts, intentionally withholding disturbing facts about nuclear weapons in order to engineer Americans' emotional lives to fight the Cold War. The truth of the matter is that when the film was made, the FCDA was not privy to the information that the AEC had gathered about fallout in the course of the nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1954. Indeed, a big part of the reason that Ralph Lapp went public with the problems posed by fallout in 1954-5 was so that civil defense planners could take this information into account in their planning efforts. (Lapp was a longstanding civil defense advocate, who wrote a pro-civil defense book titled Must We Hide? in 1949.) After information about fallout began reaching the FCDA, "Operation Cue" was edited to include an introduction regarding the fallout problem, as seen here:

And part two:

Besides the fact that the FCDA lacked up-to-date information to censor, the current knowledge about fallout in mid-1955 left a very great deal to be desired. It doesn't help that Masco's citation on this issue is to Richard L. Miller's 1986 Under the Cloud: the Decades of Nuclear Testing, a book which does not evaluate the health impacts of fallout scientifically. Indeed, in 1988 Technology and Culture published a scathing review of the book by Barton C. Hacker dismissed the book as merely the latest addition to the lengthy list of anti-nuclear screeds (including Harvey Wasserman's Killing Our Own) which "vary considerably in quality, but all are one-sided" and "selective in their use of evidence." In particular, Hacker noted that "nowhere, in any event, does Miller show that detectable fallout equals hazardous fallout. There may be a case for that view, but it needs better evidence than hazy memories, self-interested statements, or innuendo." This book hardly seems to be a stable foundation upon which to build a historical argument.

On the fire issue, Masco calls on Lynn Eden's Whole World on Fire, which is certainly not a bad book (albeit very partisan to the Harold Brode school of predicting fire effects from nuclear explosions). Unfortunately, I do not believe that Eden's book supports Masco's claim that the FCDA was willfully ignoring fire effects of nuclear explosions. The entire point of Eden's argument was that the AEC, SAC, and the other pillars of the American nuclear establishment all downplayed or ignored fire effects in their nuclear war planning. Seeing as the FCDA played second fiddle to these organizations, it's no surprise that they followed the contemporary fashion. It is also worth pointing out that the nuclear explosion in the film did not incinerate the model buildings prepared by the FCDA. This was due to inadequate fuel loading, and as a result of this and similar tests civil defense planners concluded that so long as fuel loading was kept sufficiently low, firestorms could not develop. Brode regarded this as a serious error, but it is worth pointing out that his was a minority view. In any case, I do not believe that the FCDA was being willfully mendacious on the fire issue, even if they were arguably very wrong about it in hindsight.

On top of this, "Operation Cue" is not a good example of the FCDA's elaborate fear management theories. This is partially because Behavioralism was on the wane by 1955, but it is also because the film is about nuclear weapons effects rather than people. Although subtle, the message of the film is really that then-current investment in civil defense infrastructure was inadequate. Keep in mind that hardly anyone built the home blast shelters featured in the film, and plans for public blast shelters were canceled by the Eisenhower Administration. Therefore, the average viewer in 1955 was likely to have thought, "what if that was my house? I don't have a shelter...I'd be killed!" This is very different from "I must accept nuclear war as a normative threat, and prepare for it every day of my life." The FCDA's hope was that this would translate into clamor for increased civil defense spending, but between the problems posed by the H-bomb and the highly disturbing overtones of civil defense in general, these efforts were in vain.

Besides this, the author gets even the simplest facts wrong, such as describing Val Peterson as the "inaugural head of the Federal Civil Defense Agency." Firstly, it was the Federal Civil Defense Administration; and secondly, Val Peterson was the second head of the FCDA. The actual inaugural head of the FCDA was Millard Caldwell, a segregationist southern Democrat whose racism and general incompetence caused massive problems for the FCDA's initial civil defense efforts in 1951-2. So on the whole, I must say that I am not altogether impressed by this article.