Saturday, December 15, 2007
According to Wasserman:
In 1952, President Harry Truman's Blue Ribbon “Paley Commission” Report showed that the future of American energy was with the sun and wind. Predicting 15 million solar-heated American homes by 1975, the administration pointed the way to a green, energy efficient economy. One that would have avoided the current climate crisis, and rendered the nation energy self-sufficient.
But in December, 1953, at the behest of the nuclear weapons industry, President Dwight Eisenhower told the world its energy would come from atomic reactors. The “Peaceful Atom” would provide electricity “too cheap to meter.” When no utilities would invest in it, the Republican administration offered massive subsidies, and federal insurance against liability for accidents and terror attacks. When it became clear the industry had no answer for its radioactive waste problem, the government promised to take care of it. Federal agencies promoted the technology while allegedly regulating it.
Readers who saw my earlier post on the Paley Commission know that this is a load of balderdash, but I'd like to particularly call attention to Wasserman's claim that the report "pointed the way to a green, energy efficient economy." The Paley Commission predicted the United States consuming several times as much coal in 1975 as it actually does in 2007. It predicted that nearly every imaginable natural resource would be used as fast as it could be pulled from the ground. Its predictions were, with almost no exceptions, wrong.
Much like Wasserman himself.
As for "Atoms for Peace," this isn't the way it happened... at all. There was no "behest of the nuclear weapons industry," as the nuclear weapons industry was probably the most socialized entity in US history in its early years. (My entire hometown was planned, owned, and operated by the U.S. government until 1959. I grew up going to church in a standardized, Army Corps of Engineers-issued chapel.) Also, Wasserman's claim that "no utility would invest in it" is simply wrong. American utilities risked considerable amounts of their own capital on the first-generation nuclear plants knowing that they would be unprofitable. It's true that there were subsidies, but the construction of fossil fuel plants was heavily subsidized in the 1950s as well. Simultaneously, the Soviet decision to pursue civilian nuclear technology was made before Eisenhower's 1953 speech- at a time when nuclear resources were desperately needed by the Soviet military. Indeed, Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" strategy was to try and cripple the Soviet nuclear weapons program by convincing them to divert fissile material to an international repository of fuel for civilian nuclear enterprises. This is widely understood by historians, but for some reason Wasserman seems incapable of acknowledging it.
Friday, December 14, 2007
Green Energy Advocate Amory Lovins: Guru or Fakir?
It says all the things I've been trying to say, with much better eloquence and evidence.
A representative quote:
The facts plainly show that Lovins has been consistently wrong about the ability of renewables to take large amounts of market-share from fossil fuels. He’s been proven wrong about the long-term ability of efficiency to reduce overall energy consumption. And yet, despite being so wrong for so long, he keeps getting awards and prizes by the forklift-load. And the fact that the Lovins love-fest continues unabated causes no small bit of antipathy among some long-time energy watchers. One of them is Vaclav Smil, the polymath and distinguished professor of geography at the University of Manitoba who has written numerous books on energy. “Inexplicably,” Smil wrote recently, Lovins “retains his guru aura no matter how wrong he is.”
The article strongly supports my case that Lovins simply does not understand Jevons' paradox:
Lovins refuses to admit that his forecast was flat wrong. In an e-mail, Lovins said he couldn’t verify the quote and that the Business Week piece was “widely misquoted.” In his initial response to the question, he said that “the general sentiment is correct in its historical context.” What that means, I have no idea. A few days later, after I sent him the full text of the Business Week story, Lovins sent another response, in which he again declared that the magazine had misquoted him and that “Cost and climate pressures and revolutionary efficiency techniques will ultimately make electricity demand stabilize and then decline in most states as it has begun to do in some. Most electricity is now wasted, and eventually economics wins. New central plants are uncompetitive and getting more so.”In fact, the author actually asked Lovins directly, and got this response:
Despite the evidence stacked against him, Lovins insists that Jevons – and Smil, and especially Mills – are wrong. In an e-mail response to my question of whether Jevons was wrong, Lovins replied, “Broadly, yes.” He goes on to try to turn the point into a non sequitur by saying, that if his thesis were true, if we wanted to save energy, “we should mandate inefficient equipment.”
One area the article doesn't go into, however, is the area in which Lovins' claims are closest to my field of study- nuclear proliferation. I'm planning a future post on this issue.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
From the article:
Nuclear reactors generate heat that produces electricity when uranium atoms split. In the reactor core, uranium is kept in water to prevent it from overheating, melting down and releasing radiation.
A meltdown by itself typically would not be disastrous because the reactor sits in a concrete containment structure to prevent radiation from escaping.
However, a meltdown could cause a buildup of temperature and pressure that ruptures the containment building. A massive release of radioactive gas into a surrounding community could destroy or damage human cells and cause death or cancer.Lots of uncritical reporting from a recent Union of Concerned Scientists report, too. But note one bright spot in the UCS press release:
"The risks posed by global warming may turn out to be so grave that the United States and the world cannot afford to rule out a substantial expansion of nuclear power," said Dr. Gronlund."
Can you imagine a UCS scientist making this statement even five years ago? Perhaps there's hope for them after all. We should make every possible effort to build bridges with the open-minded and reasonable "nuclear power skeptics"- the long-term outcome of the current nuclear debate depends on it.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
In general, I believe that arms control has suffered from the fact that many of its proponents have conceived of it as a mass protest movement, rather than as an exercise in intellectual debate or policymaking. Although some of the greatest intellects of the 20th century wrote learned treatises against nuclear war- Bertrand Russell, for instance- it seems to me that too little attention has been paid in the disarmament field to the matter of sitting down and doing the requisite research. Another problem now is that many of the people who did this work in the past have died or retired, leaving too many puppet-wielding marchers, and not enough scholars.
Another problem was that the disarmament community lacked competent Soviet specialists. (This was not limited to disarmament: knowledgeable Sovietologists were always quite rare, so the government was only slightly less deprived.) Before Gorbachev western knowledge of the Soviet nuclear complex was extremely limited, and rumor and hearsay substituted for fact.
In my opinion, the disarmament debate needs the following qualities:
1. The highest levels of intellectual rigor, research, and decorum;
2. Thorough knowledge of the societies, cultures, and governments possessing nuclear weapons or contemplating their acquisition;
3. A Realist policy outlook (at least in the near-term) that eschews wishful thinking in favor of real, foreseeable measures that are achievable in the current geopolitical environment.
I believe that Pavel Podvig is the best current example of an arms control expert who embodies these three qualities. Firstly, Podvig's research is nothing short of first-class. His edited volume on the Russian nuclear arsenal, Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, is without a doubt the best work available on the subject. I seriously doubt that there is anyone outside of the Russian government whose knowledge of the subject is broader than Podvig's. On the second point, Podvig benefits from the fact that he is Russian, and was educated at first-class Russian educational institutions. On the third point, Podvig understands that the only way to restart disarmament in the near term is to try and repair the fraying relationships between the Russian and American governments and militaries that were forged in the 1980s and 1990s. Closer US-Russian cooperation is the key to arms control.
I don't agree with Podvig on everything. I have a very different take on the motivation behind some of the recent decisions made by the Russian government- the MIRVing of the Topol-M missile, for instance. But I utterly respect him. Furthermore, Podvig has been extremely hospitable to me and (I presume) to others who send him inquiries. He also has a wonderful blog that I heartily recommend. In my humble opinion, we need more people like Pavel Podvig.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Try actually reading the posts-"
My Dear D'oh (Sovietologist):
I did read the first sentence of Adams' post and it is an ad hom attack.
That's all I need to read.
If "Adams is a genuine nuclear energy expert" as you claim, he would not need to resort to such attacks.
I don't read ad hom crap.
Your man Adams is pathetic.Well, besides the fact that Rod's "ad hominem attack" is really a series of factual, if unflattering statements about Lovins (quote: "One of the great ironies in today's America is that a two time college drop out and Friends of the Earth campaigner who spent a lot of time advocating the use of coal is often held up as a hero of the environmental movement while also making a lot of money as a consultant for the natural gas industry, Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense."), I don't know what to say. Are we going to let this outrage stand? I beseech the readers of this blog to go and stand up for "our man Adams" over at Deltoid. Just remember to be polite!
Obviously, Cuomo doesn't have any idea of the sheer magnitude of the problems that shutting down Indian Point would create for his constituents. Maybe he thinks blackouts and the social chaos that follows them are a good thing. Maybe he believes that New Yorkers will gladly pay $20+ billion dollars in additional electricity bills over the next 25 years.
Maybe he has no idea just what hardship these problems would cause for New York's least privileged. Maybe he just doesn't care.
In any case, Andrew Cuomo is no more a friend of the poor than predatory lenders or Dick Cheney. Closing Indian Point? Not progressive, not democratic.
Sunday, December 09, 2007
One of the great frustrations of my field of study is the fact that it is (to my judgment) dominated by people who aren't very knowledgeable about the real issues. My specialty is the history of nuclear technology in the Soviet Union, but the study of the nuclear arms race is dominated by Americanists. These fall into two categories:
1. Cold War Triumphalists. The premier example of these is John Lewis Gaddis, the "doyen" of Cold War studies. The problem with these scholars is that they generally know little or nothing about the USSR, so their historical narratives are very one -sided. They also tend to have little or no technical knowledge about nuclear technology. Although historians in this category are often famous, they're actually fairly rare in my experience.
2. Peace Movement Hagiographers. A good example of one of these is Lawrence S. Wittner, who wrote an enormous three-volume history of the anti-nuclear movement that claims that it was the efforts of protesters that shaped the history and outcome of the arms race. These scholars tend to glorify the peace movement because they participated in it themselves. Unfortunately, this generally blinds them to the fact that the movement was and is an utter failure. These scholars dominate the nuclear field outside of political and military history- i.e., they tend to write histories of Atomic Culture. At the same time, they generally have no knowledge of the USSR or nuclear technology either.
In my view, both of these groups are deficient. No-one without at least a superficial knowledge of Soviet history and culture can claim to understand the dynamics of the arms race. This is not to say that there aren't some fine scholars (and some fine scholarship) in both categories; it's just that most of what's been written is just plain inadequate.
What causes problems for me is that my particular sub-field (civil defense) is dominated by a particularly uninformed and dogmatic division of the latter group. All of them are Americanists, and the average level of scholarship is simply abysmal. There are some exceptions to the rule- I value Kenneth L. Rose's One Nation Underground and Laura McEnaney's Civil Defense Begins At Home. Neither of these scholars is knowledgeable about Russian history, nor are they experts on nuclear weapons effects; however, their arguments are restrained and fairly well-researched.
And then there's this.
It's kind of hard to describe my enormous frustration with this book. As someone who has done extensive archival (and non-archival) research on civil defense, I can assure you that the author's thesis (that the "civil defense protest movement" killed civil defense) is totally unsupported by the historical record. It's also obvious if you search old H-Net postings that she came up with this idea back in the early 1990s, and that she had decided before doing her research that this would be her argument. (A little aside: I used to have this kind of take on civil defense too. Then I went to the National Archives and went though Record Group 304.) In any case, check out the endorsement from Helen Caldicott herself!
My problem is that these are probably the people that are going to review my research when I submit it for publication. No amount of fact or reason will save me from the fact that they are simply anti-nuclear. I'm hoping the worst of them retire soon.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Sunday, November 18, 2007
One of the official reviews of the resource situation in the early 1950s was conducted by a commission appointed by President Truman, called The President's Materials Policy Commission. It came to be known as the Paley Commission, after its chairman.
In the energy sector, the prime area of concern that the Paley Commission addressed was petroleum. The 1952 report predicted oil shortages by the 1970s. Furthermore, the Paley Commission made a strong negative assessment of nuclear energy and called for "aggressive research in the whole field of solar energy - an effort in which the United States could make an immense contribution to the welfare of the world." The Commission also encouraged work on wind energy and biomass. However, despite the Commission's conclusions, a significant renewable energy effort was not made until the oil crisis was upon the US in the 1970s.
Given the assessment that nuclear energy could meet only a modest fraction of energy requirements at best, it seems illogical that nuclear energy was pursued vigorously rather than solar and other renewable energy sources. Evidently, it was assumed that renewable energy sources would not provide the same propaganda capital in the Cold War as nuclear energy. Interestingly, a lack of government money for renewables was accompanied by a lack of corporate research effort and an absence of interest on the part of large numbers of scientists and engineers.
Anti-nuclear activists from Amory Lovins to Harvey Wasserman have cited the existence of the Paley Commision report as evidence that renewable energy was seriously considered during the 1950s, only to be rejected in favor of nuclear energy. However, this is simply not what happened.I'm not sure that this blog has any readers old enough to remember the Korean War, which provided the historical context for the Paley Report. What is generally forgotten in the United States is that many of the same sorts of economic controls were imposed during the Korean War as were in WWII. One particular area in which these controls had particularly significant effects was in the area of raw material supply. Between the demands of war industries and the Office of Defense Mobilization stockpiling materials for a potentially global and nuclear war, serious deficits emerged. With these came understandable anxieties about the long-term outlook of America's supply of raw materials. The Paley Commission was assembled during the last years Truman Administration to produce an authoritative report addressing the subject.
The report was published in mid-1952 and remains an interesting document, as it provides insight into how less optimistic economists projected intermediate-term economic growth in the early 1950s. The commission presented a projection of what the American economy would look like in 1975. There is a serious caveat, however: the Paley Commission report was incorrect in almost all of its predictions, often by an enormous margin.
It's true that the Paley Commission predicted that there would be oil shortages in the 1970s. However, it also predicted that there would be coal shortages, and chromium shortages, and shortages of almost everything else. In short, rather than being a prescient prediction of the future, the Paley Report was like a stopped clock that is still right twice a day.
The basis of the Paley Report's errors lies in its overall economic projections. It underestimated GDP growth and private domestic investment enormously, while simultaneously anticipating massive increases in demand for certain raw materials that never materialized. The Paley Commission was also pessimistic about the prospects for commercial nuclear power. As a result, they predicted massive energy shortages that were radically different qualitatively than those that actually occurred.
It is true that the Paley Commission recommended massive investment in renewable energy technology. But this was a result of its errors, not because it was presbyopic. Its authors thought that solar water heaters would be necessary because there would be insufficient fossil fuels and nuclear-generated electricity would be unavailable. In practice, they were wrong on both counts. And the actual document is not exactly something Amory Lovins would endorse. Richard N. Cooper wrote in 1975 that "... the report gave little encouragement to true conservation, and only general encouragement (rather than concrete recommendations) to the development of substitute materials."
Anti-nuclear activists who cite the report make much of its pessimistic expectations for nuclear power. But this was not because the commission had some magic insight into the problems that nuclear generation would encounter. It was more that they assumed that raw materials shortfalls would affect nuclear generation as well, and underestimated the speed at which the technology would mature. It's important to remember just how primitive existing nuclear reactors were in 1951- most of them were crude plutonium-production reactors, and many respected nuclear experts believed that it would be many decades before their commercial exploitation became remotely practical. It is unreasonable to expect the Paley Commission to have been aware of the ongoing reactor research that would produce practical reactors- after all, much of it was highly classified. This changed not because of some Cold War propaganda plot, but rather because the PWR emerged as a highly promising technology soon after the report was published. At the same time, reactor research in Idaho, Tennessee, and elsewhere had produced five different potential commercial reactor designs , with plans to build operational versions of each by the early 1960s. The enthusiastic participation of large utilities in this research program indicates that they expected nuclear power to be a highly lucrative endeavor.
The historical influence of the Paley Report was minimal. This was not because it failed to suit Cold War propaganda needs, but because it was wrong. Wrong about economic growth, wrong about growth in the demand for raw materials, and wrong about the practicality of nuclear power. Once Korean War-era government controls were lifted and reactor research progressed this became abundantly clear, and economists became optimistic that technological advancement would obviate the effects of any supply deficits that emerged. And so far, this optimistic view has been absolutely correct. In any case, the Paley Report is not proof that there was a "path not taken," but rather an indication of how short-sighted pessimistic predictions of the future often are.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
As our country looks for ways to reduce carbon emissions, nuclear energy must be part of the equation to help meet our country's future energy demands. As chairman of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus for seven years, I am among the most outspoken Members of Congress on alternative sources of energy. Nuclear energy is essential to providing low cost energy in the Tennessee Valley and we need to expand its use to other parts of the country.
Yucca Mountain has been authorized as a nuclear waste repository, but I am also a strong supporter of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership initiative (GNEP), which supports nuclear power and the reprocessing of nuclear waste.
The research and testing should and can be done in Oak Ridge but the reprocessing of this waste will likely be handled in a more remote location in Idaho. There are many questions the Department of Energy and Congress must consider before a final decision is made.
We must determine if a large scale reprocessing plant or smaller scale pilot plant will work best and how many regional facilities are needed. We have several missions going strong at the lab and at Y-12 and I am looking forward to what the future holds for Oak Ridge. I am sending you an article from The Oak Ridger about this very issue.
Thanks for being an active citizen and supporter of nuclear energy. Keep up the good work!
Wamp touts TVA role in nuclear waste project
SPRING CITY (AP) - The Tennessee Valley Authority is vying to host a national demonstration project for recycling spent nuclear fuel, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp said Thursday.
"I believe TVA is going to ... prove to our country that you can deal with the No. 1 liability associated with the nuclear industry and that is the waste," the Chattanooga Republican said after touring an unfinished Watts Bar Nuclear Plant reactor that TVA intends to complete in five years.
America needs nuclear power to meet growing demand for energy and power sources that don't foul the air like coal-fired plants, he said.
But the country will never be able to find enough places to bury the radioactive waste already piling up at nuclear plants, including TVA's, he said.
"You can't build Yucca Mountain after Yucca Mountain after Yucca Mountain," Wamp said of the long-stalled Nevada site for nuclear waste. "As a matter of fact, we are proving it is kind of hard to build the first one."
But if an anticipated nuclear revival develops as predicted, the United States will need six more Yucca Mountains over the next 50 years, said Wamp, a member of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee.
"So let's look at what the British and French do and prove to our country that you can close the fuel cycle. Reprocess the waste back into energy - safely and efficiently," he said.
Wamp is confident that reprocessing works. He said he's seen it work on a small scale at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Reprocessing the waste to extract still-usable uranium could help recycle about 80 percent into new fuel. Officials estimate the remainder would still have to be buried at a facility like Yucca Mountain.
Toward that end, the Department of Energy is reviewing proposals from four industry groups for a nuclear fuel reprocessing pilot project under the Bush administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership initiative.
Cooperative agreements with the groups are expected to be announced next month. They will then have until 2008 to come up with more detailed business plans.
TVA, the nation's largest public utility, has incorporated its processes into proposals from three of the four groups - AREVA Federal Services LLC, EnergySolutions LLC and General Electric-Hitachi Nuclear Americas LLC. The fourth group is General Atomics.
Warmest Regards,Zach Wamp
Member of Congress
Monday, November 12, 2007
Toward the end of the meeting at Kleiner's offices with Ausra, the solar thermal company, one of the executives starts to boast that the plants Ausra is building will thrash nuclear, geothermal, clean coal, and photovoltaic solar solutions. Gore cuts in, a mildly alarmed look on his face. "You know, all of these technologies are going to play a role," he says. "I hate to see you assassinate the competition as a key messaging point."
Now, if only he'd express this sentiment publicly and explicitly...
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Nuclear Jesus and the NEI Kids
("NEI Kids" stands for "Nuclear Energy Indigo Children," which seems a bit redundant. Wondering what an indigo child is? Aren't you sorry you asked?)
With enemies like this, we don't need allies. The mixture of New Age crackpottery and sheer blasphemy seems perfectly calculated to alienate mainstream readers. Anyone who asks "WWJD?" and responds by redefining himself as "Jesus" isn't going very far in Red-state America.
Also, given Jesus' predilection for clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and bringing light to the world, I'm pretty sure he'd build the reactors. Just a thought.
Monday, November 05, 2007
Addressing Nuclear Power: Hillary believes that energy efficiency and renewables are better options for addressing global warming and meeting our future power needs, because of significant unresolved concerns about the cost of producing nuclear power, the safety of operating plants, waste disposal, and nuclear proliferation. Hillary opposes new subsidies for nuclear power, but believes that we need to take additional steps to deal with the problems facing nuclear power. She would strengthen the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and direct it to improve safety and security at nuclear power plants; terminate work at the flawed Yucca Mountain site and convene a panel of scientific experts to explore alternatives for disposing of nuclear waste; and continue research, with a focus on lower costs and improving safety.
At first glance, this appears very anti-nuclear. But in fact, I believe that Hillary would never be using this kind of language if she didn't think that she might need to support nuclear at some point in the future. Let's break it down line-by-line:
"Hillary believes that energy efficiency and renewables are better options for addressing global warming and meeting our future power needs, because of significant unresolved concerns about the cost of producing nuclear power, the safety of operating plants, waste disposal, and nuclear proliferation."
This is mostly nonsense, of course, but it's required for anyone in Sen. Clinton's end of the political spectrum. Taken in context with other things said here and elsewhere, I believe that this can be dismissed as window dressing.
"Hillary opposes new subsidies for nuclear power, but believes that we need to take additional steps to deal with the problems facing nuclear power."
On the first point, the cap-and-trade scheme described in Hillary's energy plan would operate as a de facto subsidy for nuclear, although without more details it's impossible to say how large it would be. I personally believe that any such scheme strong enough to seriously discourage carbon emissions will be enough to carry nuclear on its own. As for the "additional steps," these are probably a blessing in disguise.
"She would strengthen the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and direct it to improve safety and security at nuclear power plants;"
What does this mean? My guess is "not much." And in any case, improvements to NRC procedures aren't a bad thing. Done correctly, they'll just demonstrate how superior nuclear power is. And given Hillary's "agnosticism," I doubt they'll be vengeful attempts to cripple the industry.
"... terminate work at the flawed Yucca Mountain site and convene a panel of scientific experts to explore alternatives for disposing of nuclear waste..."
I am probably in the minority here, but I think this is a Good Thing. This is probably the only way to get out of the nuclear waste disposal rut that the Ford and Carter Administrations got us into thirty years ago- for a Democrat to sponsor research into advanced fuel cycle management. Hanging the future of nuclear power on the Yucca facility is extremely foolish- so long as the opponents of nuclear power can cripple the nuclear industry by targeting one facility the prospects for a genuine "nuclear renaissance" are slim indeed. Now, I'm perfectly aware that geological repositories will still be needed in any case. However, if Yucca is mothballed, it can still be completed later. And with Yucca unavailable for storing material from civilian and military nuclear programs, the pressure will really be on to develop viable alternatives- like transmutation and pyroprocessing. Once these technologies are available, a future administration can complete Yucca or some other site, and the waste problem will finally be over.
" ...and continue research, with a focus on lower costs and improving safety."
Am I crazy, or does this sound like an endorsement of advanced reactor research? After all, Generation IV reactors are intended to do those two things... (Keep in mind that the Clinton Administration killed this sort of research in the 1990s, like the IFR. I may be wildly overoptimistic.)
Now, I'm no great fan of Hillary. I'm not exactly in the same end of the political spectrum (I'm a small-l libertarian), and there is much in this energy plan that I find absolutely horrifying. But I don't think that Hillary actually intends to carry out all of this if she gets into office. Parts of it, such as the carbon caps, are highly likely, but other sections are unlikely to pass even a firmly Democratic Congress. But this document is intended to shore up Hillary's support in the Democratic base. I suspect her real energy policy is far more pragmatic, and that her "nuclear agnosticism" is a symptom of this. Her language on the nuclear power indicates a conscious calculation that she might have to endorse nuclear energy in the future- or maybe even an understanding that if she's elected she'll have to. After all, she's a smart woman, and Tony Blair had to do the same thing a few years ago.
Friday, November 02, 2007
As the name implies, this kind of nuclear battery was the same kind of chemical battery that we're all familiar with- with a radioactive twist. The oxidation of the electrolyte was achieved by the use of a beta source. (The article suggests that alpha sources were also tested, but it states that the best results were achieved with beta sources.) According to the description in the book, the "coefficient of use of the energy of decay" entering into the oxidation process with their apparatus was 60%- and even if the battery could only capture a fraction of that back as usable electricity, that still puts most kinds of nuclear batteries to shame. The chapter concludes that "Several experiments, conducted according to these principles, yielded promising results."
I'm kind of skeptical. If this "betagalvanic nuclear battery" really worked so well, it's kind of hard to imagine how it became lost to history. The entire chapter was written by the scientists who performed the original research at the Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute in 1954, so perhaps they exaggerated their success. Does anyone know of western experiments with devices like this? My attempts to find references to any on the internet came up with nothing.
This does not mean that the magazine does not suffer regular lapses. There was, for instance, the May/June piece on the recent revival of the "nuclear winter" idea. The new nuclear winter studies make for interesting reading, if only because they admit that the original TTAPS study was as useless as its detractors said it was back in 1983. Unfortunately, the new models are almost as lacking in credibility as the old one, because the study simply guessed on the most important variable- the proportion of soot that would be lofted above the tropopause to begin with. The authors had no justification for this beyond "we think .8 is a reasonable value." I think it's probably off by at least a factor of 10, but I digress.
Unfortunately, the November/December BAS has more than its fair share of clunkers. The most distressing is a piece advertised on the cover as "A clear-eyed look at nuclear power risks." Unfortunately, what the magazine actually contains is an interview with Brice Smith. Smith, if you don't recall, is a former consultant at IEER and author of Insurmountable Risks, a book purporting to demonstrate that nuclear power is unnecessary to combat climate change. Smith states that proliferation, the risk of reactor accidents, and waste disposal , along with the cost of nuclear power, make it "a very risky technology overall." I think that's balderdash, but I won't give an in-depth critique here. What's significant is not that BAS included an interview with Smith, but that they characterized the perspective of this less-than-unbiased researcher as "clear-eyed."
Another disappointing piece was "Thinking Past Ourselves," an article by noted environmentalist Bill McKibben, which posits that "Climate change challenges us to move beyond a culture that has reduced nature to yet another consumable." McKibben believes that modern American society is hyperindividualistic, and that we should adopt a more communal, "sustainable" lifestyle. He literally argues that the "liberation" brought about in Western society by modern technology has gone too far. Words cannot describe the depth of my disdain for misanthropic luddites like McKibben- but this 2003 effort by Ronald Bailey comes pretty close.
A rare high point of the issue was a brief piece about civil defense. As civil defense is my specialty (I'm currently writing my thesis on Soviet civil defense), I was pleased to hear of efforts to revive the idea as a response to nuclear terrorism. It should also be noted that in most cases, shelter-in-place is the most efficacious response to radiation hazards resulting from nuclear power plant accidents. In fact, the grandiose evacuation schemes demanded by some state and local governments would result in unnecessary casualties, since the populace would receive less radiation exposure if they just stayed indoors. Because of this, I believe that it is actually immoral to keep these inane and dangerous requirements in the law books- and the nuclear power industry should make this fact abundantly clear to the government, the American public, and everybody else.
I don't think that the editorials suggestion that the loan guarantees be spun out into separate legislation would end well for the nuclear industry. I suspect that such a bill would be tied up in committee and might never come up for a vote, and I have a hard time imagining it passing in both houses of Congress.
So Harvey Wasserman and his "NO NUKES!" minions may yet win after all- thanks to a veto from George W. Bush.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Now, I don't like Lovins any more than Rod Adams does, but I'm inclined to think he's not dishonest. He actually reminds me of a deluded cult leader more than a con man. One of the main reasons I think so is that Lovins has earnest acolytes who emerge from Snowmass and actually attempt to implement his theories in the real world. Take, for instance, this article in Business Week, which describes the misadventures (and partial disillusionment) of one such RMI apostle. On the other hand, Rod has far more experience with Lovins than I do, and uncovered his dishonest portrayal of his educational credentials. Perhaps I need to get to know Lovins better.
I think that Lovins has a fetish for certain things- energy efficiency, small, local generation, and so forth- and an irrational disdain for others, particularly nuclear power. The problem is that Lovins' theories make economic assumptions that are utterly heterodox- neither Karl Marx nor Milton Friedman would ever accept them. This is because Lovins assumes that individual people want to "do more with less" rather than "get the best deal they possibly can"- i.e., maximize utility. Lovins actually claims that "doing more with less" = maximizing utility, but this logic is so flimsy that I cannot understand why the man has gotten away with saying it for thirty years. Resource efficiency can be a critical aspect of maximizing utility- but as Jevons discovered back when my mustache was in style, the results of this are increased resource utilization.
Similar to the Communists of old, I think Lovins has a vision for social transformation that begins with the individual. The New Efficient Man will waste little or nothing, because this will be the New Morality. But besides this, he will embrace "soft" technologies that tread lightly on the earth, apparently because he will share Lovins' disdain for things like biotechnology. For reasons I don't really comprehend, making these "right" choices would somehow result in utopia, or at least a much-improved world. I have a hard time taking any of this seriously, to be honest. Compared to Marxism or other coherent ideologies with similar utopian goals, it's a half-baked, illogical mess.
Any thoughts? Also, does anyone know of a bonified economist who's taken the time to refute Lovins?
Friday, October 26, 2007
Nuclear Terrorism's Fatal Assumptions
This is the best piece I have ever seen on the subject. The problem of nuclear terrorism has been completely overblown, and most of the things "everyone knows" about the subject are simply wrong. Popular misconceptions about the potential misuse of ordinary civilian nuclear technology by terrorists, or the supposed ease of acquiring nuclear weapons, materials, and expertise in the former USSR, abound.
I'm planning to write a post about the usability of reactor-grade plutonium in nuclear weapons, and the reasons that I believe that the proliferation risks of this class of material have been grossly overestimated. The incredible thing is that a critical part of the debate hinges on an appeal to the authority of a single document produced by Sandia National Lab in the 1970s- a document that is probably being misinterpreted, at the very least. Besides this, there are excellent historical reasons for believing that this material is extremely difficult to use in nuclear explosives. I'll explain this in detail when I have time.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
"The opponents of clean energy like to fall back on that old chestnut, claiming it's jobs v. the environment--but never both. They argue that thousands will be thrown out of work as we transition to America's clean energy future. Unfortunately for our opponents--and fortunately for America's economy and environment--nothing could be further from the truth."
I have two major issues with this:
1) I read pretty widely on energy issues, and I have never seen this argument. Ever. I suppose someone has made it at some point, but if I had to guess it's probably somewhat less common than the "Tesla invented secret technology that could supply all our energy needs if Thomas Edison hadn't suppressed it" meme. In fact, it seems that just about everyone believes the opposite- for instance, the Apollo Alliance makes job creation the centerpiece of their renewable energy campaigning.
2) The idea that renewable energy "creates jobs" is economically dubious. Under some (probably most) circumstances job creation is good. But the supposed "advantage" of renewables in this area is based on replacing industries that aren't very labor intensive (fossil fuel and nuclear power) with labor-intensive substitutes. This is one of the reasons renewable energy is so expensive- all those new workers have to eat, after all. Now, if the marginal utility of renewable energy was vastly superior to conventional or nuclear power, the new jobs would be a net economic benefit. But a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a solar panel does the same job a kilowatt-hour from a nuclear plant does- and is several times as expensive. Taking environmental externalities into account helps renewables' case some- but I doubt that it's anywhere near enough to make up for the price difference in most cases, at least compared to a well-run nuclear plant.
Economically, this means that renewable energy isn't creating jobs at all- it's actually depriving other sectors of the economy of skilled labor while producing less utility (usable energy) than before.
This goes against the popular intuition that "more employment=better." But the problem with this logic is readily apparent from an example near and dear to my heart- the Soviet Union. In the USSR, there was "full employment." If greater employment was the key to economic success, the Soviets would have beaten us into the ground and I'd be studying the collapse of American capitalism instead of the other way around. But in an economic system that seeks to maximize utility, employment isn't about "more jobs," It's about "getting the most bang-per-buck." New technologies create jobs because they create new goods and services people want to buy, and therefore create new markets. They also free up labor by maximizing the productivity of the workers who remain. This may seem like a bad thing, but in the long run it's good for society- because the same work is getting done with fewer people and less money, and now more labor is available to create more utility. It's a cyclical process, and can be painful at times, but without it we'd be in the dustbin of history along with the Soviet Union.
So, we shouldn't be trying to "create more jobs with renewable energy." Instead, we should be building an economically rational energy infrastructure. This doesn't mean we should ignore environmental externalities or dismiss renewable power altogether. We should be trying to internalize the various externalities of energy sources- carbon emissions, toxic waste from semiconductor manufacture, wars over oil, and so on- and let the market create the energy supply we need. This supply would include "renewable" energy when it made economic and geographic sense- some wind, some hydro, some geothermal- but these wouldn't be forced into existence through Soviet-style "mandates." We need to build a better market and let the market decide.
But I believe that the real winner of this fair match-up would be nuclear power- whose spectacularly low labor intensity is an economic asset, and whose environmental externalities are, joule-for-joule, on par with renewables. In short, nuclear power can provide the clean, affordable energy America needs while fueling real economic growth.
As an aside, I've noticed that Salon.com is the only site I've seen so far where the commenters appear to be largely anti-nuclear power. I was a little disheartened by this because reader response to the entire No Nukes revival stunt has been so negative in other venues. But for a variety of reasons, I think that Wasserman's tactics may be more beneficial to our cause than his. His media grandstanding detracts attention from people like Amory Lovins who are capable of misleading people who have some actual knowledge of the issue. I'm tempted to do my own Wasserman rebuttal explaining why the example of Russia proves him utterly, utterly wrong, but I lack a camera and physically resemble a villain from a D.W. Griffith one-reeler, so I probably shouldn't.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
In light of our nation's ongoing energy crisis, as well as climate change, it is vital that we develop a diverse portfolio of energy sources that will provide our citizens with cheap, safe energy for the foreseeable future. I believe that currently, nuclear power is the only technology that fits the bill. Renewable energy is only cheap in the feverish imaginations of the rent-seekers who are eager for politicians like you to force the citizenry to buy their product via "renewable energy mandates." Nuclear is currently competitive with fossil fuels. And in real terms, nuclear is safer than either fossil fuels of some kinds of renewables. Coal plants cause global warming and release noxious, carcinogenic particulates into the atmosphere, while windmills produce so many worker accidents that in any given year they kill more people than the US nuclear power industry has in fifty. Outside the realm of wishful thinking, the expansion of nuclear power is essential to the continued health and prosperity of America. Meanwhile, the "Renewable Energy Mandate" is, in effect, a tax raise on all Americans who buy electricity. It makes as little sense as a "coal mandate" or an "oil mandate." All energy sources should be compared based on their actual virtues- and on this issue, there has been broad consensus among scientists for decades- that nuclear power is the answer.
I myself was born and raised in Oak Ridge and I know better than to believe the stories that anti-nuclear activists have promulgated for decades about nuclear power. And as a historian studying Soviet history- and in particular, the history of the Soviet nuclear program- I have considerable familiarity with the history of nuclear energy abroad as well. My professional and personal opinion that opposing the construction of new nuclear power plants is not only foolish, but irresponsible. Fortunately, our own state is moving in the right direction, but there are powerful forces working to lead our country astray.
Please work to see that our country's energy future is secured. Be willing to compromise. For instance, there is no reason that a nuclear renaissance has to be tied to the Yucca Mountain facility. Certain members of Congress are determined that this project fail. But I believe that this may not be a bad thing, and could in fact benefit our state. In light of experience in Russia, France, and Japan, I believe that we should construct a centralized interim repository for nuclear fuel, and I believe that Oak Ridge is a logical place to put it. As a longstanding Oak Ridge resident I can assure you that many Oak Ridgers would welcome this- not just because of our familiarity with nuclear materials and nuclear technology. The founders of our city had a vision- a vision of a world made, safer, healthier, and wealthier by nuclear energy. They may have built bombs, but they dreamed of nuclear desalination plants that would make the African desert green and fertile. Although most of the men and women who first had this vision have since passed away, I hope to someday help make it a reality.
Please take these thoughts into consideration when the current Energy Bill comes up for debate.
My girlfriend suggested that the last part was over the top, but it's true. (Perhaps my childhood in Oak Ridge was a bit abnormal.) It's not like I think Lamar Alexander is going to suddenly sponsor sweeping new pro-nuclear legislation after reading my letter. I'm just sticking it to Harvey Wasserman.
Monday, October 15, 2007
(334 x 10^11) x 1,000,000,000 x 2.85= 9.519 x 10^20 joules
(This is the amount of energy 7,268 billion gallons of gasoline.)
Perhaps this isn't soon enough for you. Maybe you're a supervillain or someone suffering from an ice phobia. You want that ice sheet gone, by, say, next month.
Fortunately, technology has an answer.
One megaton is 4.184 x 10^15 Joules, so the amount of energy needed to melt the ice sheet is 227, 509.56 MT.
This is a very large amount of megatonnage, far more than existed even at the very height of the Cold War- but far from beyond the scale that could be built, as we will see.
The first nuclear weapon, the Mk-1 dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, had a yield of approximately 15 kT. Therefore, it would take 15,167,304 Hiroshimas to melt the ice sheet. This is an imposing number, and would require far too much enriched uranium to be practical. Large thermonuclear weapons make this far more practical. The largest nuclear weapon ever built, the Soviet Tsar Bomba, had a predicted yield of 100 MT. (It tested at 56 MT because the U-238 tamper was replaced with lead to reduce fallout.) It would take 2,275 of these bombs to melt the ice sheet. The largest nuclear weapon ever mass-produced, the American B-41, had a maximum yield of 26 MT. It would take 8,751 B-41s to melt the ice sheet. As 400-500 of the B-41 were built during the early 1960s, large thermonuclear bombs can almost certainly be built in the quantity required. The primary problem would be sourcing enough tritium and Li-6 to build the bombs (or maybe deuterium, as the bombs don't need to be deliverable.) In any case, it is definitely possible to melt the ice sheet on a short-term basis if need be.