A Limit to Growth of Nuclear Fission Power
The fascinating exchange between Garwin and Hannum, Marsh, and Stanford in your January issue, on the subject of the necessity and advisability of nuclear fuel reprocessing, and the following article by Albrecht and Bodansky (AB), on the potential for nuclear energy, all omit to mention the key point that any reader of Vaclav Smil's "Energy at the Crossroads" (nicely reviewed by Cornelius Noack in the same issue) would realize at once: the US has only 5% of the world's population, and the rest of the world has an appetite for energy growing far faster than nuclear fission will ever likely safely accommodate.
Garwin touches on the point in mentioning that "the supply of uranium is no problem" for the world's 300 GWe capacity (though 300 GWe multipled by 12,000 tons/GWe lifetime requirement does exceed the 3 million ton current-price reserve he mentions) and suggesting that "those interested in expanding nuclear energy ought to [...] support R&D into acquiring uranium from seawater". AB echo this in a brief discussion of 1700-3000 reactors worldwide.
In discussing the potential for nuclear power to displace half of US oil consumption and all US coal, AB see a need for scaling up US reactor numbers by a factor of 6, to 600 GWe capacity. Those numbers may actually be low if the oil-replacement is supposed to be hydrogen, given energy losses in electrolysis or thermochemical production. But extended to the rest of the world 600 GWe becomes 2400 GWe if the US retains its 25% share of global energy use at roughly 2000 levels, or more likely 5000-10000 GWe or more by mid-century, as globalization extends its equalizing influence. Have any of the authors seriously considered the likely side-effects of a world with on the order of 10,000 1GWe fission reactors?
For one thing such a world would consume 2 million tons of uranium annually in the once-through cycle; the 20-200 million tons available without ocean processing suddenly seems much more limiting. The emphasis on reprocessing and breeder reactors by some of the authors is justifiable in this context - but the question really is, as suggested by Garwin's emphasis on terrorism and malfeasance, would such a world long remain inhabitable?
AB claim that "no restraints on nuclear power in 'peaceful' countries can prevent weapons development elsewhere". This misses the fundamental point that a lack of affordable energy alternatives in other nations justifies their construction of fission reactors for civilian use, and the step from a peaceful nuclear program to weapons is not large. If the US does not lead in R&D on affordable alternatives, and we have been derelict in this now for over 20years, much of the rest of the world will see nuclear as the only option, as for example China is now doing in planning for dozens of new fission reactors.
Perhaps there is a danger, as AB suggest, that "the opportunities offered by nuclear energy will be inadequately exploited" - but nuclear power has long had advocates at the highest levels of US government, and the 2006 budget proposal(1) includes $1.1 billion over seven years for the "Nuclear Power 2010" initiative, with a total of $100 million for that program and "Generation IV" nuclear plant design in the 2006 budget year. This is probably a good thing; in an ideal world, each of the likely components of large-scale energy supply (nuclear fission, fusion, solar PV, bio-fuels, and storage/transmission improvements) would receive $1 - $2 billion/year in advanced research and development funding, in the US. But fission is far from being the only answer, and it should not be pursued at the expense of alternatives that promise a cleaner, safer, and more scalable solution to world energy needs.
Physicists' affection for nuclear energy runs deep, but there are plenty of exciting things (applications of superconductivity and nanotechnology for instance) for physicists to work on in photovoltaics, energy storage and transmission, and even bio-energy alternatives. Solar photovoltaics have seen sales expanding at over 30% per year recently, despite continued high prices for the materials; in another decade that would provide the capacity of several new fission plants every year; wind power is already close to that level. Nuclear energy will continue to be needed as a component of world energy supply, maybe even expanded somewhat, but let's focus our efforts on the truly revolutionary options coming along.
(1) FY 2006 Budget documents are available online:
For the Department of Energy summary, including nuclear programs:
Arthur Smith, PhD
co-founder, Alternative Energy Action Network
There is no such thing as a proliferation-proof fuel cycle.
Thanks very much for sending me the January 2005 copy of Physics and Society. It is a very informative issue. One comment on the exchange between Dick Garwin and the Argonne group supporting pyro-processing: There is no such thing as a proliferation-proof nuclear fuel cycle; this point tends to be submerged in the detailed exchange of views. All nuclear fuel cycles differ in the amount of effort required for safeguarding in terms of money, manpower, and technological tools, but that amount is never zero.
Pief [WKH Panofsky, Director Emeritus, SLAC]
Response to Arthur Smith's Letter
Before responding to Arthur Smith’s letter, we should call attention to the footnotes to our article (P&S, Jan. 2005). These were too extensive to include in the printed version but they appear in the web version. Unfortunately the note indicating these footnotes was omitted from the printed version, as were the references to them beyond that for footnote 5. [Editor's Note: We apologize for the inadvertent dropping of many of the references intended for the web edition. We are currently attempting to re-insert them into the archived January edition and suggest that readers look for them there.]
Dr. Smith is correct in pointing out that the U.S. has only a small share of the world’s population. But we consume a much larger share of the world's fossil fuels. Thus, reducing fossil fuel use in the U.S. alone would be a big help---not only in easing our own burden of oil imports but globally by easing the competition for oil and reducing CO2 emissions.
Although our article focused for specificity on the United States, nuclear expansion should proceed elsewhere. Countries that already have nuclear power account for over 60% of the world’s population and almost 80% of the world’s energy consumption (as of 2002 data). Their increased use of nuclear power would give similar national and global benefits as gained from U.S. use.
We do not expect the needed future energy supplies to come from nuclear energy alone. Our hypothesized U.S. target of 600 GWe of new nuclear capacity by 2055 covered substitution for coal and (some of the) oil and the replacement of aging existing reactors. The target did not take account of other increases in electricity demand or the role of non-nuclear energy sources. These obviously will have to be major contributors. [The magnitude of the nuclear requirement was discussed in footnotes 4-10; the possibility of achieving this expansion was discussed in footnote 26.] Global nuclear usage was not addressed, aside from a brief reference to uranium supplies. However, one of us (DB) has discussed, as an illustrative target, a global total of 3000 GWe in 2050, with nuclear sources supplying something like half of the world’s electricity.
We are mindful of the proliferation risks to which Dr. Smith alludes, but as discussed in our original letter we think that any incremental proliferation risks are outweighed by the risks posed by oil dependence and accelerated global warming.
Of course, any capacity estimates, for some 45 or 50 years hence, are highly speculative and useful only for purposes of crude orientation. The outcome in 50 years will be determined by a variety of technological, economic, and political factors that can be only dimly perceived now. The probably optimistic targets cited above define a direction in which to proceed, not definite milestones that we expect to be reached on schedule.
We fail to understand the “fundamental point” that Dr. Smith makes connecting nuclear fission, nuclear weapons, and a lack of affordable alternative energy sources. If nuclear power in the United States, and in other developed countries, frees fossil fuels to use elsewhere, it would lessen, not increase the “justification for their construction of fission reactors.” As to China, we applaud its pursuit of nuclear power. Every new reactor in practice replaces a much more damaging coal-burning plant. Of course, for China there is no issue of weapons proliferation because it developed weapons long before developing nuclear power.
We concur in Dr. Smith’s view that the U.S. should also play a leading role in the development of alternative sources---which we interpret as meaning renewable sources---but see no conflict between an ambitious nuclear program and an ambitious renewables program. It may be a zero-sum game at some future time, but with federal appropriations for both of these programs now at a regrettably low level, it is far too soon to pit these complementary approaches against each other.
Thus, we agree that far more should be spent on all promising energy sources, including nuclear fission, renewables, and “carbon-free” coal. We obviously disagree on the relative promise of these potential contributors, but are content to let time determine the appropriate role for each. This determination can be properly made only if these avenues are all vigorously pursued.
Robert W. Albrecht
Department of Physics, Box 351560
University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195
Phone: 206-543-2996 FAX: 206-685-0635
Nuclear Power Know-how is Here and should be Used
Dr. Smith notes that expanded deployment of nuclear power is desirable, but then he argues that nuclear power initiatives "should not be pursued at the expense of alternatives to cleaner, safer, and more scalable solutions to the world energy needs." He appears to suggest that solar, bio-energy, and wind are viable alternatives to large scale deployment of nuclear energy.
But none of those alternatives is "scalable" the way nuclear power is. Each of them surely has a role to play, and each is receiving significant federal funding, but they cannot supply the bulk of the energy needed for a healthy and dignified life in the developing world. Artificially restricting the growth of nuclear power would severely limit per capita energy consumption -- a condemnation to continued poverty.
Dr. Smith asks, "Have any of the authors seriously considered the likely side-effects of a world with on the order of 10,000 1-GWe fission reactors? . . . would such a world long remain inhabitable?" We would turn the question around, and suggest that he do some serious calculating. He should look at the side effects of a world not making large-scale use of nuclear power. He needs to consider the vast expanses of real estate that would be preempted for massive solar power and wind power, the backup energy systems needed for times when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine, life-cycle costs, and the environmental consequences of trying to make up the overall shortfall by burning coal at many times the current rate. His quantitative case has not been made.
With regard to a world dependent on nuclear energy, he says, "For one thing such a world would consume 2 million tons of uranium annually in the once-through cycle. . . ." That's an eventuality that is not in the picture, of course. The idea that it would be economical to try to meet the world's long-term energy needs with the throw-away, once-through cycle -- which extracts well under a hundredth of the energy in the mined uranium, and leaves troublesome by products -- is preposterous.
He also comments that "the world has an appetite for energy growing far faster than nuclear fission will ever likely safely accommodate." Perhaps the global energy appetite is indeed insatiable, but that does not excuse us from doing whatever we can to meet it. The major point of our initial article was that for nuclear power to replace fossil energy as the dominant supplier of the world's long-term energy needs, an effective, proliferation-resistant recycle technology will be needed -- such as the combination of fast reactors and pyrometallurgical recycling. That technology can tap a safe, truly sustainable, inexhaustible source of energy in quantity that is beyond the reach of the other renewable candidates.
Dr. Smith remarks that "a lack of affordable energy alternatives in other nations justifies their construction of fission reactors for civilian use, and the step from a peaceful nuclear program to weapons is not large. . . ." He is correct, of course, on both counts, which is why we all stress that judicious management of the nuclear cycle is mandatory. A realistic goal is a safeguarded fast-reactor economy that limits the global inventory of plutonium to what is in service at power plants.
Political realities aside, in theory, it is possible for developing nations to have the benefits of nuclear power without the need for sophistication in nuclear technology. H. Feiveson describes a concept "that holds promise of being proliferation-resistant in a nuclear world 10-20 times expanded from today is the . . . hub-spoke arrangement where all sensitive activities are performed at a central, perhaps international, facility, with sealed nuclear reactors . . . then sent out from the central facility to the 'client' states."  An example is the exceptionally small, 10 megawatt "nuclear battery" that can run for perhaps thirty years without refueling being proposed by Toshiba for the town of Galena, Alaska. Other models could supply up to several hundred megawatts of electric power.
A world with adequate supplies of energy and fresh water is vital for international stability. Nuclear know-how is here to stay, and it offers an affordable way to obtain adequate quantities of both of those commodities -- a vital contribution to reduction of tension between nations. It is stability, not lack of reactors, that is necessary to prevent nuclear conflict.
 Harold Feiveson, "The Search for Proliferation-Resistant Nuclear Power." FAS Public Interest Report, Volume 54, Number 5,September/October 2001. On the Web at < http://www.fas.org/faspir/2001/v54n5/nuclear.htm <http://www.fas.org/faspir/2001/v54n5/nuclear.htm> >.
William H. Hannum, email@example.com
Gerald E. Marsh, firstname.lastname@example.org
George S. Stanford, email@example.com
William H. Hannum has been a senior official with the Department of Energy; Gerald E. Marsh, retired from Argonne National Laboratory, is a physicist who served with the U.S. START delegation and was a consultant to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on strategic nuclear policy and technology for many years; George S. Stanford is a nuclear reactor physicist, now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety.
Weaponizability of Degraded Plutonium
The 1962 test was advertised to prove experimentally that reactor-degraded plutonium could be used for military-quality weapons. I do not believe that reactor-degraded plutonium is suitable to substitute in warheads designed with weapons-grade plutonium (or uranium, for that matter.)
This is how I would restate the Hannum, Marsh and Stanford case:
…weapons made from reactor-grade plutonium have a yield that is highly [somewhat] unpredictable — they would be very likely to “fizzle,” producing no mushroom cloud at all [might “fizzle”]. Thus their usefulness as a military weapon is questionable [extremely unlikely] to say the least, and even as a terrorist weapon that will definitely [has a good chance of being a] fizzle, they are technically beyond the reach of subnational terrorist organizations.
We probably all agree that plutonium categorized as reactor-grade should be accorded high-level intrinsic, procedural, and technical safeguards, just as all other plutonium. It’s too bad the second Volume of Nuclear Shadowboxing had not been published, because it contains a far-more detailed update and analysis of this persisting issue.
Anyway, since we lack evidence that reactor-degraded plutonium has the same proliferation risk as weapons plutonium, I don’t think we want to appear too cavalier. The canard about equal risk for all grades of plutonium is amply addressed in Nuclear Shadowboxing. Suffice it so say here: Evidence to support a position that fails to discriminate between grades of plutonium is under daily onslaught as additional nations proliferate nuclear weapons, evidently confining themselves to weapons-grade plutonium and uranium.
Of the half-dozen or so nations known to have gotten close to the weaponization threshold, none chose reactor-degraded plutonium. Some readers might not realize that the longer it is left in the reactor after the initial creation of isotope 239, the poorer the plutonium quality gets. Light-water power-reactor burnup utterly destroys the weapons-grade utility of plutonium, no matter how you sugarcoat it.
The tally to date is as follows:, the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France, China, India, and Pakistan (the acknowledged nuclear-weapon states) made all of their weapons strictly from weapons-grade fissile materials. Threshold states — e.g., Israel, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Iran, South Korea, and Iraq — have flirted only with weapons-grade materials. After more 60 years of nuclearization, that’s a score of about 14 to 0 in favor of weapons-grade vs. reactor-grade. How would you explain that away?
Nor is the physics or engineering of reactor-degrade plutonium very promising. Moreover, the experimental results (of the1962 test) are kept from the public, Can you see why there are skeptics among us?
Sure, terrorists might dream of getting their hands on nuclear or radioactive material, and certainly it should be tightly protected at least as well as gold bullion. But let’s not go overboard.
Like many fine wines, plutonium left too long in the confines of a hot reactor will turn vinegary, too sour for military quality weapons.
The legendary capabilities of weapons-grade plutonium are unassailable, but what defies public physics and engineering is the overhyped status accorded to reactor-degraded plutonium (aka reactor-grade plutonium). Just as all nuclear materials must be fully safeguarded, it does not serve the cause of nonproliferation, nuclear safeguards, or counter-terrorism to let policymakers and the public be led astray by vastly overhyped claims about weaponizabilty of reactor-degraded plutonium.
Time for a New Paradigm
I have followed the material fighting against all the forms of creationism, with interest, cheering them on, until Alvin Saperstein's Commentary on the Two Brains (where his A student in Astronomy asked after the course if the Earth wasn't just 5000 years old, as she had been taught in church). This made me finally face up to the fact that exposure to scientific facts have little effect on beliefs. And our effort to stem the still active tide of imposing irrational beliefs on our children will not be stopped by correct knowledge alone. We need a new paradigm.
The battle for our minds between measurement-based science and faith-based religion cannot be settled since the two realms scarcely overlap. On the other hand the source of any set of beliefs is today easily accessible to scientific inquiry. This is a result of the remarkable discoveries that science has made on how our brains function. I believe that physicists, in particular, being so focused on the external world, have overlooked the results of brain function research with respect to its implication on what is real and what is imagined.
One of our own, Francis Crick, made great advances in this field, and his book The Amazing Hypothesis lays out the functioning of the brain's visual system in great detail. We all know that there is no projection screen in our brains, so just how does the brain reconstruct for us a sensation that we are seeing the real world out there? An interesting physics question. Crick himself was convinced that all the sensations we ascribe to our minds have "neural conjugates" that is, specific neural bundles where this sensation is generated.
One specific case is that of color. All of my friends and even some physicists have trouble with the statement that "the color is not on the object it is in the mind". Color is very real to all of us, yet it is not a property of the physical world. What is a property of the physical world is the reflected spectrum, which we can measure accurately with an external instrument, so it must be really real. What the brain does for us, which is of tremendous importance to our being, is to convert this spectrum into the sensation of color. Thus the color exists only in the mind. One can say it is imagined.
Backing up, evolutionists show us that what really set our species apart were changes in the brain structure, not body structure. All animals have emotions and instincts, more complex animals have consciousness, reasoning, remembering, thinking and various levels of intelligence. We may have a superior level of "intelligence‚" called symbolic, linked perhaps to one thing no other animal brain has - a language capability. There is no question that this capability takes us far beyond animal communication to the accumulated, shared, store of knowledge, which we call culture. This is why education is so important in maintaining our way of life. This knowledge base is not built in. And when it is distorted, it changes us, because we are what is in our minds.
There is another brain sensation that we all have, whose reality is questionable, like color, and which dominates our belief systems. That is the sensation of being aware of ourselves, sometimes called self-consciousness. We perceive that we exist beyond our mere bodies. This is tremendously important to us, like color. The self becomes the important thing. And security of this self becomes the dominant factor in our behavior. Death has meaning for us, as it does not for any other species, because we come to wonder if the self survives. We also come to wonder what we are doing here. We wonder what this is all about. But most immediately, quite naturally, knowing death, we wonder if we are secure.
Whether the self is imaginary or not, this sensation had, has, terrific consequences. It drives us to use our intelligence to search for security (would we use our intelligence just because we had it? This is a point evolutionists make about how latent features come to the fore). And it made us hope that life everlasing exists. But if it did, where does it exist, who arranges all these things, who is in control so we are safe, who am I really?
Lacking science technique, the early members of our species, who had the same brain we have, and language skills, made up explanatory stories, invented gods and religions, to satisfy this need to know. This calmed the fears aroused by being self-conscious, fears stirred up by becoming aware of themselves, awakening in a strange and unknown universe.
Does an active God exist who cares for us, who created all this, recently or long ago, or not at all, is a matter of individual faith. What is clear is how that faith originated.
The critical belief is whether one believes in life after death. For me, the self is just a brain sensation which drove us to become human, and when my brain ceases to function, my soul, my personal consciousness, vanishes. For me, the exciting thing is, even though by accident, I know that I am alive, and that the only way to keep this happy experience going is to make sure the human species survives, which requires all of us to work to that end. We should keep reaching for the stars.
If one believes in a life after death, then there has to be a heaven, that is, some place to go, supervised by good super natural beings, and a hell, if a judgment is involved, supervised by bad super beings. The collection of stories that lay this all out in rich detail are the evolved religions, which satisfy the need for security and explanation..
Certain stories are more dangerous to our survival than others. One way to fight their acceptance is to point out the source of the beliefs.
For my friends in organized religions, God bless. For my other friends, you are already blessed.