Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Can We Send Our Nuclear Waste to Siberia?

John McCain's speech yesterday has been making the rounds on the blogosphere. It's received a Bronx cheer from some observers (see Kate Sheppard in Grist here) but on the whole I feel better about it. McCain's stated commitment to multilateral arms control agreement and, particularly, the need for close cooperation with Russia, are both good developments.

Readers familiar with McCain's earlier rhetoric about Russia may find this surprising. He did, after all, say awhile ago that Russia should be kicked out of the G8. This is inconsistent, and my hope is that it signals some moderation in McCain's stance on Russia. One would certainly expect so, given that one of the things McCain is proposing is a repository in Siberia for foreign spent nuclear fuel. As he stated in his speech:
I would seek to establish an international repository for spent nuclear fuel that could collect and safely store materials overseas that might otherwise be reprocessed to acquire bomb-grade materials. It is even possible that such an international center could make it unnecessary to open the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The location of this facility was only clarified by one of his advisors:
Randy Scheunemann, a senior foreign policy and national security advisor to the McCain campaign, said later that the repository could be in Siberia and that if there were sufficient security guarantees, McCain had a "willingness to entertain possibility ... that we could possibly send some of our spent fuel there."

However convenient this might be for American politicians, it is not something that the Russians are likely to agree to. The enthusiasm of the Russian government for providing spent nuclear fuel storage has waned in recent years as their economy has boomed. The concept is unpopular with the Russian public, who are tolerant of the idea of offering reprocessing services but not of becoming "the world's nuclear waste dump." At the same time, international cooperation on monitoring the nuclear fuel cycle is important, so any step towards working closer with the Russians could be interpreted as a good thing.

In any case, the real proliferation danger is associated with the front end of the fuel cycle. McCain's solution to this is reminiscent of internationalization schemes from Atoms for Peace to GNEP:

The most effective way to prevent this deception is to limit the further spread of enrichment and reprocessing. To persuade countries to forego enrichment and reprocessing, I would support international guarantees of nuclear fuel supply to countries that renounce enrichment and reprocessing, as well as the establishment of multinational nuclear enrichment centers in which they can participate. Nations that seek nuclear fuel for legitimate civilian purposes will be able to acquire what they need under international supervision. This is one suggestion Russia and others have made to Iran.

It is interesting that McCain seems to be implicitly endorsing Russia's scheme for Bushehr: allowing the Iranians to possess the VVER-1000 reactor but making them dependent on foreign (i.e., Russian) fuel suppliers. This is in marked contrast to many Congressional critics of Russia's nuclear export policies, who are threatening to block the 123 agreement over Bushehr.

While a fair amount of what McCain proposed in the speech is no more than a pipe dream, on the whole it marks an enormous improvement over the policies of the current administration in several areas, particularly the need for real arms control negotiations with Russia. As such, I'm heartened by it. As Obama has also emphasized the need for such negotiations, there's reason to hope that there will be new arms control efforts irrespective of who wins the election this fall.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Indy's Atomic Fridge Ride

By now I'm sure most of you have heard of the scene in the new Indiana Jones movie where the title character survives a nuclear explosion by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator. I get the bad feeling that I'm going to be answering questions about this for the remainder of my career, so I figure I may as well get started. Here's the summary:
1. There is such a thing as a lead-lined refrigerator.
2. This was not a feature that ordinary household refrigerators had in the 1950s.
3. Even a refrigerator made entirely of lead would probably not save you receiving a lethal radiation dose within the radius of the blast depicted in the film.
4. When attempting to survive a nuclear blast, do NOT hide in a refrigerator.

The lead-lined refrigerators are made to store materials used in nuclear medicine. The shielding they offer is pretty limited, only .125" of lead. Also, they're made to fit under a lab bench, and I doubt that any normal adult could shoehorn themselves inside of it. For comparison, let's explore the kind of radiation protection offered by a hypothetical refrigerator made entirely of lead.

According to Cresson Kearny, 1 cm (.4") of lead reduces the intensity of gamma rays by 50%. Therefore, 2" of lead would reduce gamma ray intensity to 6.25% of the original intensity. Note that this does not include the effects of neutron, beta, and alpha radiation. Calculating this is a LOT more complicated. As the 1977 edition of The Effects of Nuclear Weapons explained:
Neutron shielding is a different, and more difficult, problem than shielding against gamma rays. As far as the latter are concerned, it is merely a matter of interposing a sufficient mass of radiation between the source of gamma radiations and the recipient. Heavy metals, such as iron and lead, make good gamma-ray shields because of their high density. These elements alone, however, are not quite as satisfactory for neutron shielding.

Using the graphs provided in The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, it appears that from a distance of 1000 yards, a 20 kT fission explosion would result in a dose of about 4,000 rads from gamma and 4,000-6,000 from neutrons. Therefore, the shielding offered by our hypothetical lead fridge would reduce exposure to its occupant to 260 rads, with a presumably greater dose from neutrons. More than half of individuals exposed to 500+ rems will die of acute radiation poisoning, with several months of convalescence minimum. In short, Indy would not be up for a trip in the near-term to battle Soviet agents in exotic South American locales. Never mind the massive injuries he would have sustained from being flung around inside a heavy metal box.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Podvig on US-Russia Civil Nuclear Cooperation

From a column in BAS:

Two weeks ago, the United States and Russia signed an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, commonly known as a "123 agreement." It was immediately attacked from all sides. Some members of Congress urged the Bush administration not to submit the document to Congress and threatened to block it once they did. Meanwhile, nuclear skeptics in Russia raised concerns that the agreement could revitalize the idea of importing foreign spent nuclear fuel into Russia or strengthen the U.S.-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. For their part, U.S. nuclear enthusiasts suspected Russia of attempting to gain access to advanced U.S. nuclear technologies, which, they argued, Moscow could use to establish a competitive advantage in the international nuclear trade.

There are many good reasons why such a nuclear deal should receive scrutiny and raise questions, but in this case, the opponents of the U.S.-Russian agreement are wrong. Whatever their concerns, blocking the cooperation agreement is the worst way to address them.

I'm in general agreement with this. A particular statement in the piece caught my eye:

The Russian public may be sympathetic to using the spent fuel to recover plutonium and produce electricity--a grand vision promoted by the Russian nuclear industry--but it's not ready to accept the idea of permanently burying nuclear waste somewhere in Siberia.

Go read the whole thing.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

In Case of Nuclear War, Take...

Аптечка индивидуальная АИ-2

This item, available now on eBay for the princely sum of $35, is an example of the first aid kit stockpiled by the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s to distribute to ordinary individuals in case of nuclear war. The ominous-looking black thing at the top is a single-use morphine syringe. Quite a few of these little orange kits seem to have been made, and they were featured fairly prominently in Soviet civil defense propaganda.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

With This Missile, India Can Even Strike Shanghai

From The Times of India:
India's long-range nuclear capable Agni-III missile, which was successfully tested on Wednesday, is not aimed at any particular country but can hit targets deep inside China or any West Asian country, according to Group Captain R K Das, spokesperson of the Indian Army's Eastern Command.

"The Agni-III is not country-specific but was test-fired to strengthen our military power. With the successful launch of the missile, India has joined the league of global superpowers like China, France, Russia, US and UK who already have this type of weapons in their possession," Das said here Wednesday evening.

He said: "With this missile, India can even strike Shanghai. Agni-III was developed indigenously by scientists in India. The research and development activity of the missile had been on for the past eight years."

India successfully test-fired the 3,000 km range surface-to-surface nuclear capable missile from Wheeler's Island off the Orissa coast Wednesday morning.

"We can't let ourselves be unprotected. We have built a capability to retaliate if we are threatened. This missile would help India form a credible defence from China. With this launch, China will think twice before attacking us," Das said.

Who said the arms race was over?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

20% Wind By 2030?

The DOE issued a report today claiming that the US can generate 20% of its electricity with wind by 2030 without tax credits and without running into serious grid-balancing problems. While the report has received a lot of praise from the likes of Joe Romm and Ezra Klein, among others, I have to say that it left me somewhat incredulous.

What bothers me is the contention that the variability of wind really doesn't matter. According to the report:
A statistical analysis of the load net of wind indicates the amount of reserves needed to cope with the combination of wind and load variability. The reserve determination starts with the assumption that wind generation and load levels are independent variables. The resultant variability is the square root of the sum of the squares of the individual variables (rather than the arithmetic sum). This means that the system operator, who must balance the total system, needs a much smaller amount of reserves to balance the load net of wind. Higher reserves would be needed if that operator were to try to balance the output of individual wind plants, or all the wind plants aggregated together in isolation from the load.

For a concrete case, it offers:
A hypothetical example is offered to calculate reserve requirements. Say that system peak load for tomorrow is projected at 1,000 MW with a 2% forecast error, which makes the forecast error (i.e., expected variability of peak load) equal to 20 MW. Wind generation for a 200-MW wind plant in that balancing area is predicted at a peak hour output of 100 MW with an error band of 20%. The expected variability of peak wind generation, then, is 20 MW. Assuming that these are independent variables, the total error is calculated as the square root of the sum of the squares of the individual variables (which is the square root of 2 × 20 squared, or 1.41 × 20, which equals 28 MW). Adding the two variables to estimate reserve requirements would result in an incorrect value of 40 MW.

The problem is, wind doesn't really work this way. The "expected variability of peak generation" is an estimate. Even with very good forecasting techniques, it's sometimes going to be too small. In any case, you need enough dispatchable reserve to make up for shortfalls in relatively extreme situations--and in a grid with 20% wind, that means enough natural gas or hydropower to make up nearly all the variability. I'm also disturbed that the report talks a lot about hypothetical "studies" while paying very little attention to real-world experience with wind power in Europe. Far from the rosy picture painted in the report, countries like Denmark have not really gotten their money's worth out of their investment in wind power--see, for instance, this study of how Denmark balances its power grid in practice. It concluded that:
Denmark has the most intense wind carpet in the world, with a total of 3000 MW installed by the end of 2003— equivalent to 0.88 kW of wind energy per person in west Denmark. The average annual load factor for the wind turbine carpet in west Denmark is measured at approximately 20%. There are considerable and often rapid output variations throughout the day and throughout the year. Accurate forecasting of wind speeds is still difficult and output rarely matches demand, sometimes dropping below zero as stalled wind turbines still require power for their steering systems.

The variations, which are inherent in any wind energy system, can be readily accommodated in west Denmark because there are very strong electrical connections to the much larger grid systems of Norway, Sweden and Germany that can absorb these variations, particularly due to their reliance on rapid-reacting hydropower. Countries such as the UK, which operate an ‘island’ grid, will find it difficult to do this with slower-reacting thermal power stations and may thus have to limit their reliance on wind power.

If this is any indication, the DOE report vastly underestimates the challenges of integrating large amounts of wind generation into our power grid. To their credit, though, they do get this much right:
Reliability planning entails determining how much generation capacity of what type is needed to meet specified goals. Because wind is not a capacity resource, it does not require 100% backup to ensure replacement capacity when the wind is not blowing. Although 12,000 MW of wind capacity have been installed in the United States, little or no backup capacity for wind energy has been added to date. Capacity in the form of combustion turbines or combined cycle units has been added to meet system reliability requirements for serving load. Thinking in terms of “backing up” the wind is not appropriate because the wind capacity was installed to generate, low-emissions energy but not to meet load growth requirements. Wind power cannot replace the need for many “capacity resources,” which are generators and dispatchable load that are available to be used when needed to meet peak load. If wind has some capacity value for reliability planning purposes, that should be viewed as a bonus, but not a necessity. Wind is used when it is available, and system reliability planning is then conducted with knowledge of the ELCC of the wind plant. Nevertheless, in some areas of the nation where access to generation and markets that spans wide regions has not developed, the wind integration process could be more challenging.

Translation: Wind can "work" because it's not expected to substitute for baseload: i.e., even building 300GW of new wind turbines will not obviate the need to build new nuclear plants to provide carbon-friendly dispatchable baseload power.

Friday, May 09, 2008

What Do Putin's Liberal Russian Opponents Think of His Nuclear Policies?

The answer may surprise you.
Boris Nemtsov is an important figure in Russia's liberal opposition movement. He was Deputy Prime Minister of Russia during the late 1990s under Yeltsin. Nemtsov was one of the founders, and now the main spokesperson of, the Union of Right Forces. Despite its ominous-sounding name, the Union of Right Forces is one of Russia's two main liberal opposition parties, along with the more left-leaning Yabloko. Nemtsov, in particular, is the proponent of a particular brand of Russian liberal thought that is as suspicious of the west as it is disapproving of Putin.

This outlook led Nemtsov to make a critique of Putin's nuclear weapons policies that will surprise most westerners. In his recent "White Paper" in which he critiques the legacy of Putin's presidency at length, Nemtsov claims that Putin has allowed a catastrophic decline in the quality of Russia's nuclear deterrent, and that that this threatens Russia's national survival:
This was the time to arm the army adequately. However actual arms deliveries and even plans for re-equipment have been scandalously low. According to data from the Council for National Strategy published in November 2007 published in a report entitled Results under Vladimir Putin: Crisis and Decay of the Russian Army, between 2000 and 2006, the Armed Forces received deliveries of only 27 ICBMs (27 warheads) while 294 (1779 warheads) were written off. In the penniless years 1992-1999, the army received 92 ICBMs (92 warheads). Since the year 2000, only 3 new aircraft have been delivered: one Tu-160 and two Su-34s. Around 100 aircraft were delivered during the 1990s. Since the year 2000, a little over 60 T90 tanks have been purchased while the total for the 1990s was 120. During the same decade, the Navy and seaborne frontier forces took delivery of over 50 surface and subsurface vessels. The figure for the current decade is less than ten [FN 1]. The state armaments programme for 2007-2015 plans to deliver a mere 60 aircraft to the armed forces in that time. This means that it will take … 80 years …. to renew our existing air fleet.

But the main blow has been against the most important element of Russia’s military potential, the support of the country’s sovereignty – the strategic nuclear forces. During the Putin years, Russia’s strategic nuclear forces have decayed at a frightening rate. More data from the Council for National Strategy’s report quoted above shows that between 2000 and 2007 the strategic nuclear forces wrote off 405 delivery units and 2498 warheads (as against 505 warheads only in the 1990s, during which time 60 new delivery units were bought while the army also took delivery of 1960 Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers). Under Putin, only 27 rockets have been produced – three times fewer than in the 1990s. So while Russia was overall able during the 1990s to maintain its nuclear potential at the level of that which it had inherited from the USSR, under Putin its reduction has become a serious threat to national security.

Furthermore, while the numbers of relatively invulnerable silo-based and RT-23 [FN 2] rail-mobile ICBMs (these latter look like standard refrigerated rail cars, which make them difficult to keep track of) were reduced, the armed forces continued to be given mobile Topol [FN 3] units that are highly vulnerable (these are 100-ton, 22-metre-long road-mobile units which can easily be found by optical, radar and infrared intelligence).

One hardly need say how important a country’s strategic nuclear force is to its sovereignty. One might even say that no SNF = no sovereignty. The rest of today’s armed forces are most unlikely to be able to resist large-scale attack by a strong aggressor. If Russia’s nuclear arsenal continues to be shrunk at current rates, by the middle of the next decade Russia’s SNF will have at its disposal no more that 300 ICBMs and 600 warheads. In that case, it is questionable if it will be able to perform its nuclear deterrence function: it becomes possible for an aggressor to make a disarming non-nuclear strike with high accuracy weapons to annihilate practically all of Russia’s nuclear strike power and take out the few rockets that the country does manage to launch with its anti-missile defence capability. China’s strategic nuclear force will equal that of Russia in the next 10 years or maybe even exceed it.

There’s no sensible response to the endless jabber about “sovereignty” as the main aim of Putin’s policies if in reality the main factor in that sovereignty – the strategic nuclear deterrent – has been undermined under Putin.

I don't think that this critique of Putin's nuclear policies is remotely fair (Russia does have obligations under the SORT treaty to reduce its nuclear arsenal), and claiming that the silo-based ICBMs and the rail-based SS-24s were vastly more survivable than the road-based Topols simply strains credulity. In fact, if current trends continue the Russian nuclear deterrent may be qualitatively superior to that of the United States twenty years from now--it'll be 50+ year old Minuteman IIIs and 30+ year-old Trident IIs versus road-mobile Topol-Ms and Bulavas of vastly more modern design (not to mention new weapons systems that are being considered by the Russian government right now.) Western critics of Putin tend to make the opposite criticism: that he has squandered precious resources on strategic nuclear forces while neglecting other areas of policy. But the fact that this kind of thinking about nuclear weapons exists among influential members of Russia's liberal opposition should give serious pause to those who think that it will be easy to "induce" Russia to abandon its nuclear armament.

Topol Missiles on Red Square

From yesterday's Victory Day Parade on Red Square: Topol missiles pass by a military review. These road-mobile ICBM launchers have no American equivalent, and the Topol is about the size of the US Minuteman, which was considered for rail-based deployment in its early development. These are the old Soviet-era Topol (RT-2PM, NATO reporting name: SS-25), not the current Topol-M, which is the most advanced ICBM in the world.
I'm actually a little surprised that the Topols would fit through the entrance to Red Square. I guess that the gap between the Kremlin Wall and the State Historical Museum is bigger than I remember it being.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Rocky Mountain Instititute's "Rebuttal" of Bryce

From the RMI website:

Energy efficiency has been a consistent part of America's energy security policies and increasingly become an essential framework for abating carbon emissions. In fact, the federal government now offers several tax credits for everything from green home improvements to fuel cells.

But the effectiveness of energy efficiency does not go undisputed.

Skeptics such as the Energy Tribune's Robert Bryce point out that total energy use in the United States continues to rise, despite efficiency gains. Per capita, we're using more energy even as sales of hybrid cars increase and more green buildings get erected.

The argument hinges on an economic theory called Jevons' Paradox.

In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons wrote a book called The Coal Question. In it, he observed that the consumption of coal had gone up in England even after more efficient technologies, like an improved steam engine, had been introduced.

Later economic theory moderated Jevons' observation to say that a more efficient technology could create a rebound effect: Some of the efficiency gains are wiped out by greater demand for the resource.

Today's popularity of more efficient vehicles and green home retrofits means it is worth seriously considering if there is evidence for Jevons' Paradox -- or even a significant rebound effect -- that could dampen some of the enthusiasm for these technologies.

Luckily, we are observing only very small rebound effects (if any at all) in the United States. For example, we can look at household driving patterns: While total vehicle miles traveled have increased 16 percent between 1991 and 2001, there is no evidence that owners of hybrid vehicles drove twice as much just because their cars were twice as efficient.

Uh, no. This isn't what Bryce is arguing. Here RMI has turned Bryce's thesis--that we can't "save our way to energy independence"--into a preposterous strawman--that efficiency is bad. Bryce believes that efficiency is very important, but that it is a tool for containing growth in energy usage, not a cure-all that will solve all of our social ills and give us "lunches that we'll be paid to eat," as Lovins has been saying for decades.

Honestly, I think that the events of the past year may be the beginning of the end for RMI. Many of the technologies that Lovins has been pushing since the 1970s--ethanol, fuel cells, hydrogen, biofuels, etc.--have lost their credibility as serious contenders in the energy market. Meanwhile, nuclear power is roaring back, with the first new nuclear plant order in the United States in thirty years, the decision by the UK to build new nuclear plants, and the general trend basically everywhere but Germany and a few other holdouts. I'm not sure how Lovins can maintain much credibility in light of these developments. But seeing how being wrong has never seemed to slow him down in the past, perhaps he'll survive this too.

Wohlstetter in India

From Chalmers Johnson's review of Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire by Alex Abella:
"Starting in 1967, I was, for a few years -- my records are imprecise on this point -- a consultant for RAND (although it did not consult me often) and became personally acquainted with Albert Wohlstetter. In 1967, he and I attended a meeting in New Delhi of the Institute of Strategic Studies to help promote the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was being opened for signature in 1968, and would be in force from 1970. There, Wohlstetter gave a display of his well-known arrogance by announcing to the delegates that he did not believe India, as a civilization, "deserved an atom bomb." As I looked at the smoldering faces of Indian scientists and strategists around the room, I knew right then and there that India would join the nuclear club, which it did in 1974."

I'll have to read Abella's book. I'm not so sure quite what I think of Johnson's portrayal of RAND, especially as (at least in the field of nuclear strategy) there was very considerable disagreement among their specialists. By the mid-1960s, Brodie, Kahn, and Schelling were all making very different arguments, with varying strengths and weaknesses, all of which were different from what they had been saying a few years earlier. It's hard to demonstrate a straight path between their inconsistent ideas about nuclear strategy and later policy, except that their language was and is used to describe strategic concepts. At the same time, Johnson is right that RAND wasn't very good at understanding the Soviet Union, or indeed anything that wasn't a machine or a game theory model. I have mixed feelings about RAND; on the one hand I believe that they were instrumental in making the world safer by getting the military to replace some incredibly bad policies with considerably better ones, but on the other their influence in third world policy was, as Johnson notes, not very positive. In any case RAND is certainly a fascinating mileau for a historian.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Атом для мира!

From Izvestiia, April 14, 1961 (two days after Yuri Gagarin's spaceflight):

Впереди перекресток Ломоносовского проспекта. Уже видны витрины магазина "Изотопы", над которым в вышине укреплена такая простая и такая понятная всем людям на Земле надпись - "Atoms pour la paix - Атом для мира - Atom for peace"!

Да, в нашей стране атом служит мирным целям - ведь недаром на одном из самых красивейших проспектов столицы нашей Родины есть этот магазин. Советские ученые и инженеры раскрывают тайны атома, чтобы заставить его до конца служить благу всего человечества так же, как они заставили служить делу мира наши самые мощные, самые точные ракеты. И кто знает, может быть, пройдет совсем немного лет, и в космос устремится могучий краснозвездный межпланетный корабль, который будет двигаться силой покоренного атома.

Ahead is the crossing with Lomonosovskii Prospect. The windows of the store "Isotopes" are already visible, above which on high is expressed the simple and universally understood inscription--"Atoms pour la paix - Атом для мира - Atom for peace"!

Yes, in our country the atom serves peaceful ends. Why, it is for good reason that such a store exists on one of the most beautiful prospects of the capital of our Motherland. Soviet scientists and engineers are are unlocking the secrets of the atom, in order that it may serve the interests of all mankind as they made our most powerful, most accurate rockets serve the interests of peace. And who knows--maybe, in a few years there will fly into the cosmos a mighty red-starred interplanetary spacecraft, which will by powered by the power of the subdued atom.
Store "Изотопы" in the Early 1960s

What did "Isotopes" sell, you ask? Exactly what it sounds like. They didn't let ordinary Soviet citizens come in and buy the wares, of course, but the fact that the Soviet government would build and advertise a store for radioisotopes in their capital is one of the ways in which "Atoms For Peace" differed in Khrushchev's Soviet Union from that in Eisenhower's United States.