Monday, April 28, 2008

What Did The Paley Commision Report Actually Say About Nuclear Power?

Longstanding readers of this blog are probably aware of the fact that I'm infuriated by Harvey Wasserman's incessant declaration that the 1952 Paley Commission Report constituted a "road map to a clean energy future." Well, he's at it again. In response to queries on Mother Jones' ongoing nuclear power debate, Wasserman stated that:
There is more nuke than solar/wind capacity in the US not because of market forces favoring nukes, but because the US govt, iniitally at the behest of the nuke weapons industry, has poured hundreds of billions into the technology. A report done for Harry Truman in 1952 urged the US to go solar, but when Ike came in 1953, he decided otherwise, which is why we are where we are.

And in response to Rod Adams' questions:
AS MENTIONED ABOVE, in 1952 the Paley Commission advocated a massive shift to renewable energy, and predicted 15m solar-heated homes in the US by 1975. But Eisenhower embarked on a "Peaceful Atom" program that shifted government funding to nukes. It was done in no small part to paint a "happy face" on the nuke weapons industry. The utility industry was strong-armed into building reactors, and demanded a legal, financial and liability blank check. A trillion dollars later, there is still no level playing field in energy, and nukes still can't compete. Today wind is the cheapest new form of electric generation to build, and PV is not far behind, even in straight market terms, without accounting for the "ancillary costs" of fossil/nukes. And even with all the government subsidies, nukes cannot get private financing, or private disaster insurance. In a truly open market, all of them would shut, and no new ones would be seriously considered, even despite all the high-priced corporate hype.

In order to finally put this myth to rest, I'm going to reproduce the section of the Paley Commission Report on nuclear power here in full. From Resources for Freedom, Volume IV: The Promise of Technology. A Report to the President by The President's Materials Policy Commission, June 1952. Pages 20-21:


The chief use outside of military purposes presently visualized for uranium and its nuclear derivative, plutonium, and of thorium and its nuclear derivative, uranium 233, will be for producing energy through release of nuclear energy.

Here technology faces an unprecedented challenge, which if met successfully might double or triple the world's reserves of energy. According to a prewar estimate, the minable reserves of these atomic energy materials in the United States were 100 million pounds, and those probably minable were 1 billion pounds. If we assume complete conversion of these materials into fissionable material,--an achievement towards which experimental research has long been directed--the energy producible from the lower amount alone would be equivalent to all present fuel consumption for a period of 100 years, or all electric power for a period of 1,000 years.

Since this estimate was made, additional deposits have been discovered in the United States, Canada, and Africa. Studies are also under way to recover uranium as a byproduct from phosphate processing and from certain shales. An estimate has been made of the cost of uranium from Swedish shale at about 23 dollars per pound. On an energy basis this would be equivalent to coal at 2 cents per ton. Even assuming a cost 10 times as great, it is evident that the cost of the fuel for energy production from this source would be negligible.

The chief problems in developing nuclear energy for power are first, to develop a "breeder" reactor, i. e., one which produces fissionable material at a rate at least equal to its consumption; and second, to produce an efficient reactor at low cost. As to the first problem, an experimental power breeder has been designed to produce plutonium from uranium and is being tested in Arco, Idaho. Various other designs have been studied. The technical consensus appears to be that breeder reactors will ultimately be successful.

The problem of designing a reactor to produce power at costs competitive with conventional systems is being studied currently by industrial and utility groups associated with the Atomic Energy Commission. Such a reactor substitutes for the conventional furnace in a thermal power plant, but because of the nature of the reaction and the fact that, within its shields, the reactor and all its materials become dangerously radioactive, all processes and operations are difficult and expensive.

An important economic advantage of atomic power is that, not only is nuclear fuel cost relative to energy produced almost negligible, but the bulk of fuel required is small--an important consideration for areas remote from conventional fuel sources. These two factors open up the possibility of providing energy for developing and processing resources in areas now considered to be too inaccessible to be economic. Mining and beneficiating, and possibly even smelting, operations for valuable minerals in such areas, would thus become practicable.

The whole field of nuclear energy is in its infancy. A tremendous amount of research is under way, but much more is necessary before any definitive picture for the future can be drawn. Even from our present knowledge, it becomes evident that atomic energy will some day become a very important factor in the economy of the world. During the next 25 years its total effect on the energy picture may be limited by military use.

This creates a rather different impression than what Wasserman describes, doesn't it?

As for the "prediction of 15 million solar-heated homes by 1975," this is what the Paley Report actually says:

In the United States in 1950, comfort heating accounted for roughly one-third of total energy requirements.

Of the new dwelling units to be built in the United States by 1975, some 30 percent probably will lie north of the critical line--in New England, the North Central States, and the West North Central States.

Perhaps half of the remaining 70 percent will be isolated or small buildings, suitable for solar comfort heating. The assumption that solar collectors for space heating will be applicable only to isolated dwelling units, and not to individual dwellings, may be incorrect. It is possible to conceive of apartment houses located in the middle and southern tiers of States, and functionally designed for solar heating. If so, the maximum plausible market may be more than 13 million installations, selling in the range of $2,000 to $3,000 each, and supporting about 10 percent of the national energy system. (page 217)

That's 13 million, not 15; and it's an estimate of the "maximum plausible market" with very optimistic assumptions about the adaptability of the technology, not a prediction of actual technological adoption. The discussion of solar and wind energy in the Paley Report is actually very interesting, but it doesn't offer any kind of plan for a renewable energy future. The rationale was mainly that solar heating could reduce demand for fossil fuels and contain price growth. But nowhere does the report say that commercial nuclear power research should be abandoned; as seen above, the authors were actually quite enthusiastic about it. And the report also makes clear that commercial nuclear research was already well under way during the Truman Administration, contrary to Wasserman's claim that it originated under Eisenhower. I'd really like to know where he gets his ideas, as it certainly isn't from the documents he's referring to.


Tyler said...

how can I view this report in full????

Tyler said...

how can I read this report in its entirety???

Sovietologist said...

I apologize for my slow reply. Unfortunately, to my knowledge the report is not available online in digital format. I personally read it in the library of a large research university. You should be able to get a copy via interlibrary loan.