Hans Bethe and Nuclear Power
April 24th 2005
The Editor, Science and Society
I must disagree most strongly with the implication by Professor Salpeter in your April issue that Hans Bethe was being a moderate liberal scientist in his discussions of nuclear bombs but not being a moderate liberal scientist when he supported the development of nuclear electric power and disagreed with the positions taken on nuclear power by the Union of Concerned Scientists from 1973 on. It is an interesting paradox that in the 1960s it was liberals, usually Democrats, who supported nuclear power development and Republicans who were reluctant. Now liberals, although mostly not liberal scientists, have rejected nuclear power and by default the globe may be warming somewhat faster! To many of us, the Union of Concerned Scientists was, in 1973, incorrect and counterproductive. By taking a very public position against nuclear power, UCS deflected attention from their important position of opposition to the arms race. Bethe remained consistent. While arguing for a strong control of, and reduction in the number of nuclear bombs, he supported civilian uses of nuclear fission. His logical, and in my view liberal, position was made clear in the statement of which he was the architect “Scientists’ Statement on Energy Policy” in 1975. Hans felt that there were, and are, legitimate concerns about nuclear power that had to be, and have to be, addressed, and was willing to address them.
Hans had thought carefully about the safety of liquid sodium reactors in the 1960s and “invented” the “Bethe-Tait“ accident whereby, after a loss of sodium coolant, the top of the reactor fuel assembly falls to the bottom with a velocity great enough to make a considerable reactor excursion. Until the 1980s this was the dominant safety worry. Fortunately this is avoided in modern designs, with metal fuel, by a natural shut down before the likely accident initiators can evaporate the sodium. In 1975 Hans gave a lecture on the Breeder Reactor at Fermilab. In the question period I criticized him for ignoring some specific safety issues. His reaction was characteristic. He telephoned me the next day and asked me to join a small committee on Breeder Reactor Safety the AEC had just asked him to form. Although I had of course admired Hans Bethe since my undergraduate days, and first met him in 1950, this was when our friendship began. When in 1983 Charles Till at Argonne National Laboratory came up with the idea of the Integral Fast Reactor, which has the potential to reduce the proliferation worries of the Purex fuel cycle, both Hans and I served on the advisory committee. Hans was characteristically enthusiastic, was meticulous about editing our draft reports to ensure the correct balance of optimism and reality and was constantly emphasizing the importance of preventing proliferation. Health prevented Hans from coming to some of the later meetings, and in 1995 the IFR program was abandoned, hopefully only temporarily, but I still discussed with him all my thoughts on nuclear energy on my many visits to Cornell for colliding beam physics.
Nor is it correct that Hans has had no input into problems such as nuclear waste. In one of my many discussions in late 1997, Hans mentioned that an Indian tribe (the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes wanted to store nuclear waste (temporarily) in their back yard. This would enable spent fuel to be stored with an even smaller risk than in the reactor complex. By January 13th 1998 I had formed Scientists for Secure Waste Storage - with 6 Nobel Laureates, 2 Ambassadors, an astronaut and a Presidential Science advisor to support the tribe’s efforts in the long public hearing. There was, and is, opposition. Hans always wanted to know the progress. I had hoped to be able to tell him of even partial success. But it was just a week after Hans’ death that the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board recommended approval (although there are still many avenues open for opposition).
Hans was a conciliator. When in 1988 half a dozen liberal Nobel laureates were upset with the Union of Concerned Scientists for using their names (as they had used Hans’ name) in a position paper against nuclear power, and one was threatening legal action, it was Hans who calmed them down. In 1997 at an energy conference held by the Global Foundation, it was my privilege to be Chairman at the final panel session on nuclear power. Hans and Edward Teller, who disagreed on military uses of nuclear energy, expressed complete agreement with each other on the need for nuclear power. I understand it was the first time their wives, who were present at the meeting, had talked to each other for 20 years.
In honoring and remembering Hans we must not forget the power, strength and support of his wife Rose (Ewald). Although not cognizant of details of our technical discussions, she understood the principles. Rose and her parents understood the evils of fascism even better than Hans, and it was principally Rose who shared with us her deepest concerns about the trend of the US government. I had followed the terrible events of the 1930s from across the English Channel and share their concens.
We in physics have lost a mentor and friend. We give our sympathy to Rose who has lost much more.