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.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Hansen on Nuclear Redux

In the past I have blogged several times about James Hansen's not-entirely-clear attitudes towards nuclear power as a climate change solution. Interestingly, Hansen's recent "trip report" contains a section on the subject, which I will highlight here:
Nuclear Power
On one of my trips I read a draft of “Prescription for the Planet” by Tom Blees, which I highly recommend. Let me note two of its topics that are especially relevant to global warming. Blees makes a powerful case for 4th generation nuclear power, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). IFR reactors (a.k.a. fast or breeder reactors) eliminate moderating materials used in thermal reactors, allowing the neutrons to move faster. More energetic splitting of nuclei releases more neutrons. Instead of using up less than 1% of the fissionable material in the ore, a fast reactor burns practically all of the uranium.

Wait a minute! If it’s that good, why aren’t we doing it? Well, according to Blees, it’s because, in 1994, just when we were ready to build a demonstration plant, the Clinton Administration cancelled the IFR program. Blees offers a partial explanation, noting that Clinton had used the phrase “You’re pro-nuclear!” to demonize rivals during his campaign, suggesting that Clinton had a debt to the anti-nuclear people. Hmm. The matter warrants further investigation and discussion. It’s not as if we didn’t know about global warming in 1994. Even more curious is the assertion that Argonne scientists, distraught about the cancellation, were told they could not talk about it (why do I find this easy to believe?). Here too there is no explanation in depth, although Blees notes that the Secretary of Energy, Hazel O.Leary, was previously a lobbyist for fossil fuel companies (my gosh, is everybody in Washington an ex-lobbyist – alligators will go extinct!).
I have always been agnostic on nuclear power. I like to hope that, if our next President gives high priority to a low-loss national electric grid, renewables will be able to take over most of the power generation load. Wind and solar-thermal are poised to become big players. IEA’s estimate that renewables will only grow from 1% to 2% (by 2030!) can be dismissed due to IEA’s incestuous relation with fossil industries – nevertheless, one must have healthy skepticism about whether renewables can take over completely. Maybe an understatement – I’m not certain.

Blees argues that it made no sense to terminate research and development of 4th generation nuclear power. Was it thought that nuclear technology would be eliminated from Earth, and thus the world would become a safer place?? Not very plausible – as Blees points out, several other countries are building or making plans to build fast reactors. By opting out of the technology, the U.S. loses the ability to influence IFR standards and controls, with no realistic hope of getting the rest of the world to eschew breeder reactors. Blees suggests, probably rightly, that this was a political calculation for domestic purposes, a case of dangerous self-deception.

Bottom line: I can’t seem to agree fully with either the anti-nukes or Blees. Some of the anti-nukes are friends, concerned about climate change, and clearly good people. Yet I suspect that their ‘success’ (in blocking nuclear R&D) is actually making things more dangerous for all of us and for the planet. It seems that, instead of knee-jerk reaction against anything nuclear, we need hard-headed evaluation of how to get rid of long-lived nuclear waste and minimize dangers of proliferation and nuclear accidents. Fourth generation nuclear power seems to have the potential to solve the waste problem and minimize the others. In any case, we should not have bailed out of research on fast reactors.

I don’t agree with Blees’ dismissal of the conclusion of most energy experts that there is no ‘silver bullet’; they argue that we need a mix of technologies. Blees sees a ‘depleted uranium bullet’ that could easily provide all of our needs for electrical energy for hundreds of years. His argument is fine for pointing out that existing nuclear material contains an enormous amount of energy (if we extract it all, rather than leaving >99% in a very long-lived waste heap), but I still think that we need a range of energy sources. Renewable energies and nuclear power are
compatible: they both need, or benefit from, a low-loss grid, as it is more acceptable to site nuclear plants away from population centers, and nuclear energy provides base-load power, complementing intermittent renewables.

This is simultaneously encouraging and disappointing. On the bright side, it's great to see Hansen pointing out that anti-nuclear activists haven't been doing the climate any great favors. But the particular endorsement of the IFR I'm not so excited about. I'm not a great fan of liquid-sodium cooled reactors like the IFR; I think that various kinds of molten-salt reactors offer more attractive options for Gen IV reactor research. Hansen doesn't seem to be aware of the rather significant difference between the IFR and the fast reactor projects under construction abroad, such as the BN-800.

Commenters on Climate Progress pointed out Hansen's comments on nuclear power, resulting in this response from Joe Romm:
JR: you guys must be joking right? We have thrown some $100 billion in subsidies at the nuclear industry since 1948, we have forced taxpayers to take the economic burden of any nuclear catastrophe, We have streamlined the permanent process, states Re: even allowing nuclear utilities to raise people’s utility bills years before a single electron flows to pay for new budget busting nukes, we’ve had nuclear-loving conservatives running this country for most of the last seven years, and notwithstanding the efforts of most conservatives, we’re probably going to have a price on carbon dioxide within a few years. And all those for an extremely mature technology that is 20% of the electricity market. If we did those things up for efficiency, wind, solar PV, and solar baseload nobody would even think of building another nuclear plant. Your product is too damn expensive to convince even Warren Buffet it is worth the risk.

I won't take the time to respond to these allegations in particular (Charles Barton and others have already done this elsewhere), but rather stick to my own area of expertise in relation to another area in which it seems Hansen's and Romm's views have diverged. Not too long ago Romm wrote a post for Next Generation Energy titled "Forget energy diversity, we need energy action," which contained the following series of gems:

Indeed, the country that may be the biggest obstacle to the clean energy transition is likely to be Russia.

Russia does not have a good solar resource. But they do have a lot of coal and oil-- and they very much want to stake a claim to the rich oil resources in the Arctic. Moreover, they may (mistakenly) think global warming is good for them. Since it will create a navigable Arctic and open up "currently inaccessible energy resources" no less an authority than The Economist has written, "warming is likely to make Russia richer rather than poorer." Sad -- but quite untrue.

Perhaps the most important climatic tipping point is in Russia -- the Siberian tundra. If that defrosts, then avoiding the equivalent of 1000 ppm atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will be all but impossible. After all the tundra contains more carbon than the atmosphere does, and much of it would likely be released as methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Indeed, we have some evidence that may have already started.

Russia does have a staggering amount of wind potential, but it tends to be in the sparsely populated areas. Russia will need to be convinced that some combination of nuclear, wind, and natural gas can provide all the power it needs -- but the even harder task will be convincing them not to use all that oil and coal they have.

As a professional Russia specialist, I was a little mystified by this post. I know that up-to-date information about Russian energy policy is a little hard to find in English, but the fact that coal makes up only a minor proportion of Russia's generation mix isn't exactly a big secret--as Dr. Hansen rightly pointed out in his trip report:

Figure 3 also shows that coal use in Russia is modest and not increasing. Thus the common assertion that Russia is a wild card that would prevent successful control of global warming is diminished by realization that the primary requirement is phase-out of coal emissions.
Never mind as well that the Russians are building new nuclear plants as fast as they can, and that their per-capita CO2 emissions are not particularly high by world standards. Indeed, far from being the intractable obstacle to global warming action, Russia has a much more credible policy for developing a post-carbon economy than most. Compared with nations that claim to be building a post-carbon future while building new coal plants, I think that Russia is making a more than respectable showing for itself. At the same time, it must be emphasized that Russia intends to export its oil and gas until it runs out. But I have a hard time ascribing the belief that Russia poses an insurmountable obstacle to climate change mitigation to anything other than ignorance and Russophobia on the part of Joe Romm (and others). It simply lacks any basis in fact.

Office of Technology Assessment on Nuclear Power

From the Office of Technology Assessment's Nuclear Power in an Age of Uncertainty, February 1984:

Without significant changes in the technology, management, and level of public acceptance, nuclear power in the United States is unlikely to be expanded in this century beyond the reactors already under construction. Currently nuclear powerplants present too many financial risks as a result of uncertainties in electric demand growth, very high capital costs, operating problems, increasing regulatory requirements, and growing public opposition.

If all these risks were inherent to nuclear power, there would be little concern over its demise. However, enough utilities have built nuclear reactors within acceptable cost limits, and operated them safely and reliably to demonstrate that the difficulties with this technology are not insurmountable. Furthermore, there are national policy reasons why it could be highly desirable to have a nuclear option in the future if present problems can be overcome. Demand for electricity could grow to a level that would mandate the construction of many new powerplants. Uncertainties over the long-term environmental acceptability of coal and the adequacy of economical alternative energy sources are also great and underscore the potential importance of nuclear power.

A significant passage:
The use of coal can and will be expanded considerably. All the plausible growth projections considered in this study could be met entirely by coal. Such a dependence, however, would leave the Nation’s electric system vulnerable to price increases and disruptions of supply. Furthermore, coal carries significant liabilities. The continued combustion of fossil fuels, especially coal, has the potential to release enough carbon dioxide to cause serious climatic changes. We do not know enough about this problem yet to say when it could happen or how severe it might be, but the possibility exists that even in the early 21st century it may become essential to reduce sharply the use of fossil fuels, especially coal.

On the whole, a very interesting historical document. It will take me awhile to fully digest it in light of the events of the past 24 years.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


As a rule, I'm generally quite wary of the generalization that environmentalists are misanthropes. On the whole, I think, they are well-meaning people who want the best for humanity; it's just that I believe that the policies they advocate would result in a disastrous reduction in the quality of life enjoyed by most people, especially with regards to energy. But the recent hoopla over Joe Romm's post about low-level radiation has seemingly drawn some people like this out of the woodwork.

Take this comment from "Wolverine" (a regular commenter on Gristmill posts related to nuclear power):

Local solar and wind power can supply all the energy that's needed. Keep in mind that electricity is not a necessity, but is a luxury that some humans have had for so long that they can't imagine living without it.

Electricity is a "luxury" only in the sense that clean food and water are "luxuries"--especially given that electricity is instrumental in powering the infrastructure that provides us with these necessities. Many people, particularly in the poorer parts of the world, must do without all of these things. The association between electrification and better health outcomes is well-established. I want to live in a world where all people can enjoy the benefits that electricity brings--and outside of the realm of wishful thinking, advanced nuclear fuel cycles appear to be the only available option for making this vision a reality.

'Wolverine" also had this to say about my (and Charles Barton's) hometown of Oak Ridge:


Good post until you got to the nukes v. coal issue. While I assume you oppose both coal and nuclear power, Oak Ridge is not a credible source for this information, as it is heavily invested in nukes, though probably more as weapons than as energy. Just as you would not use a "study" by the KKK to determine whether racism was worse in the U.S. or Africa, it's equally illegitimate to use the study you cited for the purpose you did.

"Wolverine" apparently assumes that we Oak Ridgers are just Klansmen with radiation suits instead of sheets. I cannot help but be rather put of by the implications. After all, so many of my neighbors, friends, and relatives are being tarred by a very wide brush here. Especially given the lofty and humanitarian goals that ORNL researchers have put themselves to over the decades, and in many cases even achieved. Many of them were (and are) not just good, but great scientists. The work of ORNL researchers stands on its own merits--science does not operate on a principle of "appeals to authority." But I suppose that humane goals pursued by ORNL over the years like curing cancer and electrifying rural Africa are probably rather alien to the sort of person who would say something like this:

I think our differences on this issue come down to priorities, and mine is protection and restoration of the natural world. Humans began their massive ecological destruction 10-12,000 years ago when they discovered agriculture, which lead directly to gross overpopulation. Because it took millennia to create the ecological problems we now face, it will also take a very long time to fix them. But if we don't have fixing these problems as our goals and instead prioritize how we can supply massive amounts of electricity to grossly overpopulated masses of people, these problems will never be solved.

If humanity is the problem, I don't want to be part of the solution. I am certain that most self-identified environmentalists would disagree with this outrageous statement. After all, I've known many of them over the years and, however much we may have disagreed over specific issues, I've never met one with the callous disregard for their fellow human beings expressed here.