F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
July 2007 
Vol. 36, No. 3



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Nuclear Shadowboxing Vol. 2: Legacies and Challenges

by Alexander DeVolpi, Vladimir E. Minkov, Vadim E. Simonenko and George S. Stanford, (Fidlar Doubleday, Kalamazoo, MI, 2004)

I have already reviewed a descriptive part of this book. Now, A. DeVolpi, V. E. Minkov, V. E. Simonenko and G. Stanford, to be mentioned henceforth as the “gang of four” or G4, came up with a prescriptive part. This work is clearly a labor of love for the authors. Yet, as in the previous volume, self-critical restraint is sometimes missing. 

I might say that the authors did a significant editing job. In comparison with the first volume, this volume dispenses with the disparate fonts for the boxes, puts sections headings and chapters in a logical sequence, etc. However, my main concern about Volume 1 was not with typographic conventions, but more with organization of content. Disorganized treatment betrays lack of clarity of thinking, and accurate tables of contents make unclear substance dimmer still. One example: the Contents section for Chapter VI alone lists more than 200 sections for 121 pages (I am not joking!) with appropriately complex conventions for page numbering. The manuscript can be significantly streamlined by omission of extraneous material such as rants on global poverty, Mattias Rust (still remember him? p. V-33), torture (p. VI-78), non-nuclear terrorism, chemical and biological weapons and so on. Information on “axis of evil” conventional armed forces creeps into the section on the Russian Federation (p. VI-35). Some of the material looks undecipherable, being put in enigmatic table with zeroes in all columns and rows (Second part of Table 3 on p. VIa2-2), or in a table with four of five columns empty (Table 1 on p. VIIg-5). Yet, amidst this largesse, some of the omissions look puzzling; for example, who knows what are or who are Quemoy and Matsu (p. VI-31)? 

As far as the book’s content is concerned, the authors pretty much reiterate the existing consensus of academic physical scientists: thumbs down for nuclear weapons, thumbs up for nuclear energy. Their prescriptions for enhancing nuclear security range from what this author considers a reasonable but missed opportunity (“de-MIRVing of the strategic missiles”), to the naïve (“prohibition of putting countermeasures and decoys on missiles”) (Table VIIg-1),1 but all within the prevailing thinking of the academic nuclear establishment. I must mention, and not just with respect to the authors but also to other oft-cited speakers on nuclear disarmament such as Richard Garwin or Joseph Biden, that the Anglo-American viewpoint can be very remote from the thinking in the rest of the world. For instance, the political consensus in Russia on whether the country should maintain relatively large and survivable nuclear forces, which did not exist in the first half of the nineties, emerged practically overnight after NATO bombed Yugoslavia. From what I know, this might also be the case with India.

I have a more difficult time judging the G4 ideas on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which they embrace too enthusiastically for my taste. While I am hardly an anti-nuclear zealot and consider nuclear power plants as an important contributor to the future energy mix, some of the authors’ projections concerning the viability of the nuclear option seem wildly optimistic. For instance, G4 considers scuttling nuclear ships in deep seas as a safe method of disposal. The possibility of using ocean trenches was explored in the much less environmentally sensitive 1960s and, as I recall, was rejected on the grounds that underwater currents and oceanic turbulence would insure mixing. The statistics on the level of federal R&D expense per kilowatt-hour of energy does not look credible to me (for instance, a factor of 11 favoring of oil vs. nuclear R&D) and is altogether laughable for photovoltaics (p. Ve-2).2 It appears to have been taken straight from the nuclear lobby’s publications. 

The chaos grows when we approach the authors’ narrow field of expertise, probably because they feel more secure. For instance, in the otherwise very useful Table 2, (see also pp. VIf4-1 and VIf4-3) one spots the figure 94% of the fissile-isotope’s fraction for weapons-grade plutonium, while on an adjacent page the authors list it as 20% (p. VIf4-2). In fact, both figures could be accurate if G4 would consistently follow their own distinction between weapons-quality (considered as such by the US standards of nuclear weapons production) and weapons-grade material. The latter is deemed dangerous by the IAEA as indicative of the intention of potential proliferators to build a weapon, but not necessarily useful for the bomb. Some of the reasoning (for example, “especially the rapid excursion that is characteristic of explosive assembly,” p. VIf5-1) seems too involved for an intended reader of a book that also takes the time to explain the conversion of pounds to metric tons (p. VIf1-3).

What I hope for from the G4 would be a new book where they could put in the experiences of their own life spent in the US and USSR nuclear complexes.  Such a book could be more personal, containing for example anecdotes and professional jokes. This final volume could be a towering monument for the many lives spent in building the nuclear weapons legacy, which they now take so much effort to undo.


1. All nuclear powers, except for the US with their extensive plans of strategic defense, would certainly view this impediment as a cheap American ploy to undermine the credibility of their nuclear deterrent. Similarly, another proposal, namely a separate storage of nuclear warheads from the delivery systems, would only increase suspicion that the United States plans to attack the delivery vehicles of the counterparty by conventional smart munitions before they could be used in a counterstrike.

2. My own, very conservative, estimate (assuming zero private funding for nuclear energy research but including it in oil and gas) suggests roughly $80/MBTU (million BTUs) of R&D money for fossil fuels and $126/MBTU for nuclear energy in 2005/2006, i.e. a factor of 1.5 in the opposite direction. Comparing photovoltaics with oil and gas on this basis seems as reasonable to me as comparing nutritional caloric yield per dollar in corn syrup and in caviar. You cannot plug a gas pump to a space station.

Peter B. Lerner
Quantum Transistor LLC[1]


Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons

by Joseph Cirincione, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007.

As the UN and world powers struggle with enrichment and proliferation concerns in Iran and North Korea we would be wise to look back on and learn from six decades of history as to how the nuclear world has come to be what it is.  This eight-chapter book reviews the history of nuclear weapons and nonproliferation agreements and offers some solutions to the threat of nuclear terrorism as well as ideas to address lack of security of the nuclear fuel supply and preventing the development of new nuclear-weapon states. Cirincione has extensive experience in nonproliferation issues. He is a former staff member with the House Committee on Armed Services, spent eight years as Director for Nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and is currently Vice President for National Security at the Center for American Progress.

The first three chapters review the development of nuclear weapons from the discovery of fission up through the North Korean test of late 2006, the evolution of the nuclear arms race, and the various treaties and institutions that have emerged to control the spread of nuclear weapons. While these chapters provide a good general review of these matters, this reviewer caught some technical errors. A discussion of assembly timing issues in the gun and implosion mechanisms of Little Boy and Fat Man are sufficiently garbled as to indicate that the author is unaware of the crucial role of spontaneous fission. Also, one finds the patently incorrect assertion that the Sun will be able to synthesize elements as heavy as sulfur. These are quibbles in comparison to the grand themes of nonproliferation and disarmament, but one would expect an author of this experience to be more careful: policy issues can and do hang on technicalities.

In Chapter 4, his longest, Cirincione frames the debate of the future of post cold-war nonproliferation initiatives by positing five factors that can act as incentives/disincentives for states to acquire nuclear weapons, illustrating each with historical examples. In order, these are security (self-security/alliances with stronger powers), prestige (great-power aspirations/ nonproliferation leadership), domestic politics (interest-group agendas/grass-roots citizen campaigns), technological determinism (scientific prowess/engineering difficulties), and economics (cheaper than conventional forces/opportunity and environmental costs). Chapter 5 applies this mix of factors to an assessment of today’s nuclear world. The author credits the START and INF treaties with reducing the threat of global thermonuclear war to near zero, leaving us with four current threats: nuclear terrorism, arsenals on hair-trigger alert, the prospect of new nuclear weapons states, and the collapse of the nonproliferation regime.

The terrorist threat revolves largely around issues of security of Russian supplies of weapons-grade materials and the specter of instability in Pakistan. Cirincione dismisses North Korea in this context by arguing that that country is not likely to give away what its leadership sees as its most precious security jewel, an argument this reviewer does not find entirely convincing. The hair-trigger situation is aggravated by deteriorating Russian infrastructure. The threat from new nuclear weapons states may not lie so much in those states themselves but in their catalyzing regional arms races.  The author argues that the double-standard of the US investing in new warhead designs while encouraging other powers not to go nuclear will only increase the prospect of a world with more nuclear-armed states. His deepest concern, however, is the potential collapse of the non-proliferation regime, a prospect for which he lays much blame with the current US neoconservative policy of interventionist regime change. Critics of this policy will find much to their liking in a laundry list of policy failures detailed in Chapter 6.

Chapter 7 takes up what the author offers as good news about nuclear proliferation: over the last 20 years the number of warheads has been cut back from about 65,000 to 27,000 while the number of ballistic missiles has also been reduced. More than once he emphasizes that the number of countries with nuclear weapons and programs has declined, but the proffered count includes countries such as Canada, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine that never had indigenous programs to begin with.

In his last chapter, Cirincione offers solutions to the threat of nuclear terrorism as well as the issues of securing the nuclear fuel supply and preventing new nuclear states. This material is the weakest of the entire book. Strengthening the Nunn-Lugar program is an obvious way to help thwart nuclear terrorism, but this is accompanied by the suggestion of ending the use of all weapons-usable material in civilian power, research, and naval reactors. Laudable goals, perhaps, but no alternatives to these systems are offered. A multi-national system of assured nuclear fuel services is proposed, a sort of updated Baruch plan minus any requirement or incentive for current nuclear weapon states to decrease their arsenals. The author is silent, however, concerning the resistance such a scheme would face in view of US suspicion of a UN-administered program and the vested interests of producers and consumers of nuclear materials and weapons. He also does not address what to do with waste fuel, not a gram of which seems likely to see the inside of Yucca Mountain anytime soon. A suggestion that Israel consider abandoning its nuclear capability without proposals for security guarantees from its neighbors seems divorced from reality.

Despite these criticisms, Crinicione gives us much to think about; this book should be required reading by anyone interested in these issues. In the end, this reviewer shares the author’s sentiment that stronger international nonproliferation, disarmament, and technology-transfer agreements backed up by meaningful enforcement are likely our best hope for preventing a new wave of proliferation. But given the state of the world today I am not as optimistic as he that these might soon come to pass.

Cameron Reed,
Department of Physics, Alma College, Alma, MI 48801

Physics of Societal Issues: Calculations on National Security, Environment, and Energy

David Hafemeister (New York: Springer, 2007) ISBN 978-0-387-95560-5, xvii + 487 pp, € 114.95.

Perhaps at no time in history have big-picture societal issues such as national security, climate change, and energy supply demanded such broad understanding of underlying physical principles as they do now. David Hafemeister’s Physics of Societal Issues is a call by a physicist to the physics community to join in improving the science-and-public policy process. This 16-chapter book is subdivided into three major sections that deal respectively with the fundamental physics of national security (nuclear weapons, missiles, missile defense, treaties, and proliferation), environment (chemical and nuclear pollution, climate change, effects of EM fields), and energy (usage, buildings, solar and renewable energy, efficiency, transportation, and economics). Indeed, it is, as advertised, essentially three texts under one cover. Hafemeister is exceptionally qualified in all of these areas: his resume' lists, among many other activities, stints as a Science Fellow in the physics division at Los Alamos, as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Fellow, as a Special Assistant to the Under-Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science, and Technology, as a professional staff member on the US Senate Committees on Foreign Relations and Governmental Affairs, and as chair of both the APS Panel on Public Affairs and the Forum on Physics and Society. He has published extensively on areas as diverse as the nuclear arms race, renewable energy, global warming, and the biological effects of EM fields.

As described in its preface, Physics of Societal Issues addresses the need for a text that analyses the physics of its three main topics. It is written for scientists and engineers with a solid grasp of baccalaureate-level physics who want to be able to calculate approximate but useful answers in a Fermiesque “back-of-the-envelope” way to help inform and enhance the debate on these issues.

This is not a textbook in the conventional sense of the word. Each chapter is divided into a number of sections and subsections where relevant physics is applied to a single concept that is part of a larger issue. Mathematical expressions are not derived but simply stated and then applied. The breadth of the physics, mathematics, and general knowledge exhibited is staggering; one can learn a lot by simply choosing a section at random and dipping into it. A very incomplete list of topics, with applications in parentheses, includes the Coulomb self-energy of an electric charge (fission energetics), the rocket equation and parabolic trajectories (ICBMs), error propagation and Gaussian distributions (missile targeting), the optics of laser-beam spread (space-based lasers), kinematics (railguns), the convolution and Fourier addition theorems (digital image processing), the Stefan-Boltzmann law (IR reconnaissance), pH chemistry (acid rain), adiabatic expansion (monitoring of explosions), diffusion (pollutants and power-plant plumes), chemical reactions and rate equations (the ozone layer and CFCs), radiation exposure units (theory of excess cancers), heat capacity and thermal conductivity (heat loading in geological repositories and household energy efficiency), economics (carbon taxes and elasticity of demand), Ampere’s Law (effects of power lines), statistics (risk assessment), exponential growth (energy consumption), thermodynamics (power-plant efficiency), atmospheric extinction (solar flux), rotational dynamics (flywheels), and drag forces (automobile efficiency). This reviewer can think of only a very few areas of his undergraduate physics curriculum that were not touched on in some way or other in this book.

Each chapter is accompanied by about 20 problems in which readers are challenged to apply concepts and make estimates. These range from exercises designed to build familiarity with unit conversions (what is a Dobson unit in ozone-molecules per square meter?) to full-scale calculations such as the energy loss from a house of a given size with given window-area and insulation characteristics; no answers are supplied, however. Appendices offer chronologies on the development of nuclear arms and energy and the environment, as well as on units (including tongue-in-cheek humor units), symbols, websites, and glossaries for each of the three topic sections. The index is likewise divided into the three topic sections, but struck this reviewer as very abbreviated.

My only disappointment was in the quality of a number of the figures. A map showing contamination from a dirty cobalt-bomb attack on New York City is virtually unreadable and appears to contain no length-scale bar (p. 181); a diagram of ocean circulation shows both land and water masses as almost the same muddy grey color (p. 218); the key to a chart of contributions (industrial, agricultural, residential …) to summer peak-day power use in California is printed in such a way that one cannot tell various contributions from each other (p. 366); the axes values and legend text on a graph of cost of conserved energy are blurry (p. 413). There are a number of such examples, all of which seem to involve diagrams and graphs that were adopted from other sources and that do not appear to have happily survived transformation from color printing to black-and-white. For a volume with the Springer imprint and a list price in excess of 100 euros, I would have expected better. A casual perusal revealed a few misspellings, and one technical error caught this reviewer’s eye (on page 10, it is Po-210 that is used to help trigger nuclear weapons, not Pu-210), but such minor oversights are to be expected in the first edition of a technically complex work.

Hafemeister has produced a masterful and long-overdue work that should be on the shelf of any physicist interested in or who is asked to comment upon physics-and-society issues. In an ideal world, this book would be picked up not only by scientists and engineers but also by media commentators and legislators.

Cameron Reed,
Department of Physics,
Alma College, Alma, MI 48801

The Grid: A journey through the heart of our electrified world

by Phillip F. Schewe, Joseph Henry Press, 311 pp., ISBN-13:978-0-309-10260-5

Phillip Schewe is excellently qualified to write this popular account of the history and present status of our American electric grid, since he has been active both in physics research and in writing about science.  He is a member of three quite diverse organizations: the APS, the Dramatists Guild, and the National Association of Science Writers.

Schewe gives us a fine history of the creation and development of our American grid.  His history starts with Thomas Edison’s 1882 creation of a square-mile direct current grid in downtown Manhattan.  Then came the alternating-current and three-phase grids of Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse.  Next, Samuel Insull sold Chicago on more and more electrification, and created a financial empire that collapsed during the great Depression.  Schewe balances his narrative of these stupendous scientific-engineering-business activities with philosophical quotes from Lewis Mumford and Henry David Thoreau such as the latter’s “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Schewe discusses in detail our two major American blackouts on 9 November 1965 and 14 August 2003.  Could these serious problems be avoided with improved technology?  Schewe writes (p. 145) “Achieving a grid that never crashes is like trying to reach the speed of light or a temperature of absolute zero.  It can’t be done.”  He supports his pessimistic conclusion by reference to “complexity theory,” for example, analysis of avalanches in unstable sandpiles.  Complexity theory is an ambitious program that tries to relate the behavior of many different complex systems.  But complexity theory, I believe, does not prove that a specific complex system—such as our American grid—is bound to fail.  And complexity theory just isn’t in the same league as the well established theory of special relativity.  Also, see Clark Gellings and Kurt Yeager's "Transforming the Electric Infrastructure" (Physics Today, December 2004, pp. 45-51) for their discussion of ways to improve our grid and achieve massive reduction of the probability of failure.

Although Schewe presents a fine discussion of the variety of energy sources used to power the grid, his discussion of nuclear energy suffers from our lack of firm scientific knowledge of the safety or danger of rather low doses of nuclear radiation of order of magnitude 0.1 Sieverts (or 10 Roentgens) a year.  Did the Chernobyl disaster actually kill 50,000 people over the next twenty years, or only the fifty who received very large amounts of radiation?  Schewe tacitly accepts governmental standards for a safe amount of radiation, an acceptance that leads to severe problems in finding “safe storage” of radioactive waste for many thousands of years.  I can see why in his popular account Schewe does not want to open the can of worms of the linear hypothesis vs. threshold for radiation damage.  But we scientists have to open this can of worms, even though we still don’t know what to do after we’ve opened it. 

Joe Levinger
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

[1] Ithaca, NY 14850.