This independent review of nuclear trends in the past century demonstrates that the effects of low radiation doses have been found to be substantially less than feared and that the rate of nuclear proliferation has been slowing down .
All too often some repetitive and challengeable themes have been propagated without substantiation. This Knol is intended to help the reader in differentiating between (1) routine skepticism, even cynicism, about some nuclear-related issues, from (2) assertive reports and writings which suffer from insufficient scientific foundation. The differentiation is based on established and defined scientific criteria, as well as comparison with a nuclear “scoreboard.”
Each of these topics listed below in the Primary Table of Contents are active navigational hyperlinks with the six topical Sections, their respective subject matter, and the corresponding Contents at the beginning of each Section. The reader can go back and forth between Sections and topics.
With the radiation age dating back at least a century, and the nuclear age being closing on three-quarters of a century, some long-standing concerns about radiation hazards and proliferation potential are now better understood. (To go direct to concluding remarks about a century of nuclear progress, go to Section VI in Table of Contents and click on “Nuclear Issues Being Resolved.”)
Whatever controversy remains about the underlying science and technology, the realities of nuclear experience after all these years are that nominal radiation exposures are harmless and weapons proliferation has been tamed.
[Version 17 Dec 09]
Primary Table of Contents
Three Strikes Against Immobilization
Fissile-Material Military-Production Limitations
END OF PRIMARY TABLE OF CONTENTS
Return to beginning of Primary Table of Contents
Quite a few factors have jelled that make this a propitious occasion for publication of a Knol about progress in nuclear understanding and information.
First, I recently completed a comprehensive three-volume overview of Cold War nuclear weaponry. It is published and available at www.Amazon.com under the encompassing title, Nuclear Insights: The Cold War Legacy.1 That overview, the result of nearly 20 years collaboration among four American and Soviet nuclear scientists, has provided timely resource material for extracting common-interest threads that contribute to improved nuclear information and understanding. (Relevant quotes from Nuclear Insights will be found isolated within this HTML-formatted Knol by indented [brackets]).
Second, being retired and not bound to a government entity, I am free to editorialize without external oversight or review. Of course, acquired professional ethics remain a constraint.
Third, and very important, is that the relevant events have transcended a sufficient 30, 50, 70, even 100-year test of time. Past predictions can now be compared with present realities.
A fourth factor is the availability of this new medium of communication: Knols afford an avenue, hopefully not to be bowdlerized, for instant and universal dissemination of written analysis. They also provide an otherwise unavailable and unfettered opportunity for expanded discussion.
Fifth, there has been gradual declassification of archives on both sides of the Iron Curtain, as well as issuance of personal memoirs.
Sixth, some conspicuous events are just now passing the 20-year mark since the 1989 Berlin Wall breach, which culminated in the 1992 USSR breakup, the formal end of the nuclear-zoomed Cold War.
Seventh, it would not have been possible to publish this review and exposè in the traditional media — even in science/engineering ethics journals — partly because individuals, journals, and organizations are necessarily named, and partly because critiquing controversial issues requires so much detail (as provided herein and in referenced Knols and sources).
Having been extensively educated through the PhD level and having worked in the nuclear field for some 40 years, I feel professionally and ethically obligated to call attention to certain misinterpretations or misstatements about nuclear technology repeatedly propagated by various individuals or organizations.
These remarks should not be construed to mean that I have a bête noir (black beast) to chastize. Rather, I’d like to promote an unbiased and knowledgeable discussion of these issues, and this is my marker for nuclear matters dealing with reactor technology and with arms control. In fact, you will find that almost every person cited here generally agrees and has long agreed about the unnecessary burden of nuclear arsenals.
The purview of this Knol excludes specific Cold War historical disputes insofar as they are not strongly germane to the topic at hand (see Exclusions).
Of course, there is nothing patently wrong with being a critic or cynic about selected or wide-ranging nuclear topics; in fact, valid criticism and healthy cynicism are worthy of the scientific method. However, criticism should be neither footloose nor unsubstantiated.
Caveats. It is with some trepidation that I have contributed these public Knol, but it is sometimes necessary to name and review qualifications of individuals who have implicitly or explicitly overstretched their relevant competencies. Such critiques are sometimes understandably taken quite personally by all of us.
Moreover, I admire and respect the individuals cited, most known to me individually, and many of whom I have worked with in the past on common and agreed interests, especially arms control and treaty verification. However, with regard to nuclear-weapons proliferation and nuclear-reactor technology, we sometimes have rational divergences that need to be openly addressed with appropriate understanding of complex technology. Also, our career paths have led to or are responsible for different external influences and limitations.
In order to place this critique on a solid foundation, U.S. Supreme Court fundamental standards for scientific methodology are invoked.
The Court revised federal judicial standards in 1993 for testimony regarding areas of science that required an explicit estimate of probabilistic error. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals2 ruled that quantifiable evidence should meet four “scientific method” criteria, namely peer review, replicability, documentation, and stated rates of error.
More specifically, the Daubert decision called for the admissibility of expert testimony to be based on explicit methodology and standards, key among them being whether the testimony is connected explicitly to a testable hypothesis, and whether there is a known or potential error associated with the evidence.
Judiciaries had and have encountered deficiencies in ad-hoc scientific/technical testimony and in forensic evidence that did not fully comply with a standardized methodology. For example, individuals have been wrongfully convicted of crimes; cancer and other illnesses have been incorrectly attributed; and epidemiological data has sometimes been misrepresented.
Additional information about these formalized criteria may be found in my Knol “NUCLEAR EXPERTISE: Role of Statistics in Forensic Science (The National Academy of Sciences report on Strengthening Forensic Science)” as well as in my Knol “ETHICS IN SCIENCE: The Exaggeration of Radiation Hazards.” The latter deals with lapses in scientific methodology that have sustained radiophobia, a cognitive orientation aggravated by misrepresentation of radiation effects.
Professional codes and canons of ethics for engineers also provide useful guidelines. These standards include maintaining impartiality; expressing technical opinions that are founded upon knowledge of the facts and competence in the subject matter; acknowledging their errors; performing services only in areas of their competence; incorporating all relevant and pertinent information in reports, statements, or testimony; expressing an engineering opinion only when it is founded upon adequate knowledge of the facts; not falsifying or permitting misrepresentation of their academic or professional qualifications or experience; and giving proper credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due.
In addition to applying scientific methodology in this Knol, I (Alexander DeVolpi) affirm and document technical credentials gained by experience and association that are relevant to this critique. The referenced compendium, Nuclear Insights: The Cold War Legacy and its predecessor volumes directly reflect the experience and contributions of four Cold War colleagues: all physicists and engineers, all participants in various aspects of the weaponry — especially nuclear. Together, we’ve had hands-on exposure (and sometimes undisclosable inside knowledge) regarding nuclear weapon and reactor technologies and practices on both sides of the Iron Curtain. We were studious and inescapable witnesses to passing events for most of the Cold War and its aftermath.
No financial remuneration is involved in this Knol, and I am no longer associated with Argonne National Laboratory, where I worked on various applications of nuclear technology. The Laboratory was operated by the University of Chicago, under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy. Some Argonne funding was also received from the Department of Defense and other agencies and organizations.
Nuclear Shadowboxing coauthors George S. Stanford and myself were involved professionally in arms-control and nonproliferation issues for more than 40 years, not only as scientists, but also as citizens vocally objecting to excessive military buildups. We worked with many like-minded NGOs in furthering the cause of sensible arm control and verification. Our coauthor Vladimir E. Minkov, an émigré from the Soviet Union, has be professionally involved in nonproliferation programs, and he returned to Russia many times as part of ongoing technical collaborations. The fourth Nuclear Shadowboxing coauthor, Vadim A. Simonenko, is a former Soviet thermonuclear-weapons developer — now free to describe some of his Cold War experiences, as well as to remind us of continuing dilemmas in the still partially closed nuclear cities of Russia. All of us earned PhDs in nuclear physics and/or engineering.
Moreover, we represent various past or present affiliations or inclinations, ranging from Soviet Communist Party to American liberal, with a Russian-American conservative caught in between.
All of us witnessed and have analyzed Cold War “nuclearization” events first- and second-hand.
Our joint publications on this subject can be differentiated from other written Cold War treatments, not only because we directly or indirectly witnessed the events, but also because of our collective proximity, capability, and experience that has helped us understand and interpret crucial events which had a large nuclear technology component.
The four of us actively participated in events and issues during much of the Cold War. We are (now retired, for the most part) nuclear scientists with a mix of experimental and theoretical nuclear reactor, arms control, and weapons-development experience.
Plus, we have been loyal citizens and family people vexed that important lessons are being ignored or distorted.
Except for Simonenko, deputy scientific director at one of the Soviet Union’s two main nuclear weapons laboratories, we were largely bit players in a broad, but traumatic phase of history. We published not as political authorities or academic historians, but as field practitioners who experienced and were able to understood many of the events that took place, especially the more complex technical happenings.
During the superpower confrontation, the four of us shared some common roles, particularly as nuclear scientists working for our respective governments. At the same time, we had different, but sometimes overlapping career experiences — in military service, in weapons design, in arms control, and with public-interest organizations. Because of this diverse background, we have been able to address in Nuclear Shadowboxing (and thus in Nuclear Insights) a wide range of issues, technologies, traditions, and lessons resulting from the breakup of the USSR. We often had contact in official and unofficial capacities with government authorities, policy makers, and public-interest leaders — even though we were not bureaucrats or academicians, but working laboratory scientists who sometimes took on leadership roles.
Offered to the reader as a result of our collaboration has been invaluable first-hand experience in practically every aspect of nuclear technology, as well as insight gained from having entered the gates and been inside the fences of just about every major nuclear program: the Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain, France, and China, as well as nuclear programs in Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Italy, and other nations.
We have had substantial hands-on experience — a rare and fleeting credential — with almost every aspect of nuclear engineering and nuclear weaponization. One of my coauthors designed and tested nuclear weapons (within and for the Soviet Union); we all worked with or carried out experiments with nuclear reactors; I had some uncomfortable opportunities to gaze on many hundreds of nuclear weapons in various stages of assembly, and to watch more than one being mechanically disassembled with a screwdriver and ball-peen hammer; we all supported sensible reductions in nuclear arsenals and the continued growth of peaceful nuclear power. Three of us devised instruments and gained experience in collecting measurement data. All this supports in part our fulfillment of both the peer and documentation criteria.
On the other hand, you will discover, if you look closely at the experience of some who have written on the complex topics discussed in this Knol, that very few have familiarization beyond classroom exposure. Those who approach the subjects from an academic or political background often have had little or no intimate opportunity to get their hands greasy or contaminated while carrying out messy or dicey experiments.
Self-promotion aside, with the passing of the Cold War era, you’ll find it increasing difficult to find comparable experience described in print. However, the intent of this description of our nuclear-expertise qualifications is to be up front regarding the background of its authorship and contributions. It is not to suggest or imply that there aren’t a large number of individuals with learned or experienced technical backgrounds who have and will constructively contribute to these complex nuclear topics.
This Knol is a monograph, a derivative of the referenced collaboration, and thus not necessarily a liability of my colleagues.
Certain published allegations about nuclear weaponry and technology lack substantive foundation. In examining these in detail, I have found several characteristic traits attributable to deficient scholarship and experience.
Most significantly, the analysis — as presented — frequently does not conform to established scientific reasoning and facts (peer review, replicability, documentation, and stated rates of error). Moreover, the passage of considerable time has been needed to invalidate some published assertions that were inherently flawed (that lacked replicability).
Another importatn aspect is whether or not statistical boundaries (stated rates of error) are presented within the publication. In a world without absolutes, the scientific method — by logic and by definition — requires that assertions be couched in terms that qualify results within probabilistic limits. Lack of statistical qualification is a tipoff that a published paper lacks quantitative merit and should be more properly considered an opinion piece.
A further feature to examine, especially in the case of technical-review papers, is whether the author is an established expert (peer and documentation). Are relevant credentials stated?
A closure-lacking violation of that standard was the 1980 publication, by the prominent scientific journal Nature, of a 7-page technical “Review Paper” by Amory Lovins, a person who lacked any of the usual qualifications normally required of established experts in the field. This paper and its rebuttal will be discussed below in more detail ( Letter to Nature).
Another indispensable question to ask is, has the paper in question been subjected to peer review? While peer review definitely helps in validation, there is still a question of which peers have been involved. Some magazines and journals have a narrow body of reviewers that tend to adhere to topical interests. Moreover, are the peers chosen on a basis of qualifications or simply availability? (Caveat Emptor: this Knol is not peer-reviewed, although it is open to timely and thorough post-publication comment.)
As an example of credential abuse, the academic and experience qualifications of David Albright, a self-designated IAEA inspector and commentator on nuclear proliferation. His accreditation has been critiqued by Scott Ridder, an experienced leader of the U.S. inspection team (see details in my Knoll, “NUCLEAR EXPERTISE: How Defined, How Abused”). Albright had chronically allowed himself to be identified as having a PhD degree and as a qualified arms-control inspector, without taking public actions to disavow the incorrect educational and participatory attributions.
Some individuals have conspicuously set themselves up or allowed themselves to be designated as “authorities” in matters for which they have had some access or proximity, but not much or any published or established credentials. Besides Lovins, another such person is Dr. Frank Barnaby, who worked at the British nuclear-weapons establishment Aldermaston, but I can find no published track record in the subject matter of his written opinions regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear technology.
As for the (Daubert) replicability criterion, I submit that the passage of several decades of time is sufficient to find out if a theory, a proposition, an extrapolation, or an interpretation was valid in the first place. Enough time duration has passed to make judgments on validity.
Besides taking note of the avoidance of statistical qualification for data or analysis presented, another factor related to challenging past utterances of various protagonists is their expressed or implied degree of exuberance, fervor, passion, or even palpable obsession.
Other prejudicial indicators are: selective data choices, statistical variance ignored, expressions made in absolute terms, nonsubstantive or irrelevant credentials, and/or glib presentations.
Also, some individuals invoke government secrecy and sensitivity to avoid full explanations. While secrecy is necessary for technical details, it should not be used to obscure basic scientific principles.
Someone needs to keep the score. So many claims have been made in the past about nuclear issues that some sort of scoreboard is needed, not so much to keep tabs on the players, but to keep track of hits and misses. With more than a half-century of events under our belt, certainly an evaluation of various claims and actual performance is in order.
With that in mind, I have undertaken such a assessment, partly the result of the writing process for this Knol. In fact, the nuclear scoreboard provides a useful enough framework that I am publishing it as a separate, self-standing Knol, hoping to get comments that well help make it more valid and useful.
|Chernobyl Public Casualties||tens to hundreds-of-thousands of deaths||more than 20 years||none clinically identified, but could be a few-thousand premature deaths|
|Chernobyl Emergency Worker Casualties||thousands||more than 20 years||about 55 deaths|
|Low-Level Ambient Radiation||many deaths from ambient radiation||eons||mostly beneficial to human speciation and survival|
|Food Sterilization||harmful||decades||increasing commercial and astronaut use|
|Electricity Cost||expensive to some, cheap to others||half-a-century||competitive|
|Electricity Reliability||unreliable||half-a-century||90% reliability|
|Radiation from Reactors||causes cancer||many decades||none|
|Occupational Radiation Exposure||causes cancer||many decades||no measurable harm from low doses|
|Radon in Basements||induces cancer||many decades||much less harmful than feared|
|Hiroshima-Nagasaki survival rates||high rate of fatalities expected for A-bomb survivors||more than half-a-century||remarkable survival rates despite radiation exposures|
|China Syndrome||meltdown through reactor floor||half-a-century||confined within reactor|
|Greenhouse Gas Emissions||reactors contribute||half-a-century||negligible|
|Plutonium Recycling||dangerous and costly||decades||contained and needed|
|Spent-Fuel Reprocessing||dangerous and costly||decades||routine and economical|
|Materials Safeguards||prone to diversion||many decades||none at all diverted|
|Waste Management and Storage||hazardous and costly||many decades||safe and stable|
|Resource Conservation||unimportant||many decades||now very important|
|Reactor Safety||unknown and danger-prone||half-a-century||remarkably safe|
|Medical Radiation Applications||minor and risky||half-a-century||common use|
|Research and Testing Reactors||dangerous||half-a-century||safe and ubiquitous|
|Radiation Production Reactors||unneeded and expensive||half-a-century||valuable and cost-effective|
|Ship Propulsion||efficient and inexpensive||decades||efficient, but expensive|
|Radioisotope Batteries||dangerous||decades||useful and safe|
|Capital Cost||too high||decades||high, but competitive|
|Reactor Lifetime||30 years||30+ years||60 years|
|Comparative Growth||predicted to decline||since 1974||has grown to 43% of all energy production|
|Fuel Resources||limited and expensive supply||half-a-century||nearly limitless and affordable|
|Research Applications||very few||half-a-century||very many|
|Topic||Claim||Time Span||Current Status|
|Explosive Testing||endless and hazardous||half-a-century||underground and controlled|
|Warfare||open-ended and uncontrollable||more than half-a-century||managed and controllable|
|Proliferation||increasing and endless||more than half-a-century||leveled off and manageable|
|Materials Diversion||great risk and opportunity||more than half-a-century||practically none|
|Reactor-Grade Plutonium Weaponization||inevitable and practicable||more than half-a-century||none at all|
|Weapons-Grade Material Production||endless and uncontrollable||more than half-a-century||coming to a voluntary halt|
|Weapons Demilitarization||no hope||decades||slowly happening|
|Weapons Abolition||a dream||decades||still a dream|
|Plutonium Demilitarization||dangerous and futile||many decades||practical and ongoing|
|Uranium Demilitarization||feasible but resisted||many decades||ongoing and profitable|
|Siberian Reactor Conversion||needed for nonproliferation||two decades||now moot|
|Immobilization/Vitrification||for reactor and weapons plutonium||two decades||unsafe and wasted effort|
|Terrorists Building Explosives||any day now||decades||highly improbable|
|Terrorists Acquiring Weapons||especially after collapse of USSR||two decades||none known to be diverted|
|Reactor Security||vulnerable to terrorist attack||many decades||no such events|
|Dirty Bombs||easily fabricated and dangerous||decades||over-hyped|
|Materials Security||large risk of diversion||many decades||practically none|
|Military-Waste Management||expensive and necessary||many decades||expensive and necessary|
|Military and Civilian Linkage||easy to make nuclear weapons||more than half-a-century||only in imaginations|
|Arms Control||formal measures needed||half-a-century||successful|
|Verification||widely needed||many decades||successful to extent implemented|
|Strategic De-Emphasis||needed to avoid accidental warfare||many decades||natural outcome of collapse of USSR|
|De-Targeting||don’t aim at cities and nuclear retaliatory targets||many decades||happening by default after collapse of USSR|
|De-Alerting||no need for continuous alert||many decades||happening by default|
|De-Mating||no need to keep missiles armed with nuclear warheads||many decades||slowly happening by default|
|De-MIRVing||reduce number of warheads per missile||many decades||provides more stable deterrence|
|De-Creasing Arsenals||less risk of breaking out into nuclear war and lower cost||ups and downs of the Cold War||taking place by attrition|
|De-Fending||defend against ballistic-missile attack||many decades||rather futile, but non-offensive|
|De-Weaponizing Outer Space||to protect satellites||many decades||still needed for mutual security|
|De-Militarizing Fissile Materials||impossible to do||many decades||on-going commercial operations|
|Naval Propulsion||dangerous and cavalier||many decades||safe and stable|
|Civilian-Military Linkage||chronic and destabilizing||more than half-a-century||chronic but stable|
Return to Primary Table of Contents
Return to beginning of Section I INTRODUCTORY INFORMATION
Here are specific nuclear issues that have been contentious through much of the Cold War. Many of these remain in dispute, despite years of institutional experience that has coped with and neutralized their ill-advised and harmful impact.
In the previous Section, a terse tabulation (Nuclear Scoreboard) has been provided that summarizes most of the issues and their outcome.
Although nuclear proliferation was feared from the git-go (politically, because it would nullify the original monopoly and later diminish the nationalistic hegemony), it has more-or-less asymptotically leveled off: Aside from the five Cold-War nuclear-weapon states, there are now “only” four more: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Iran is believed to be a “threshold” state. Other nations have been tempted.
[Proliferation Tempo]. Early during the East-West confrontational decades, a few physicists and academicians had extrapolated the number of weapons states from 5 in the 1960s to 20 or more by 1980. But, contrary to their dire warnings, the number of nuclear-weapons states did not increase at the predicted tempo; their pessimistic projections having proved unwarranted.
Some consummated proliferation (e.g., Israel and South Africa) indeed went without overt detection, despite comprehensive national-intelligence programs and IAEA declared-facility inspections.
▸ the limited military utility of nuclear weapons;
▸ existence of alternative means for fulfilling national-security objectives;
▸ public sentiment against nuclear weapons;
▸ success in technology denial;
▸ cooperation by suppliers in export control;
▸ stagnation in nuclear-power growth;
▸ discouragement because of detection and sanctions;
▸ the high cost of nuclear arsenals;
▸ the complicated secret infrastructure required for weaponization.
Probably all of those explanations have some validity. In any event, overly pessimistic predictive models failed to take into account (1) the lack of a fundamental imperative for nations to produce nuclear weapons and (2) the technological bottleneck in acquiring weapons-grade fissile materials.
A few nations deliberately abstained from signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or agreeing to international safeguards. Small-scale programs and facilities can indeed be hidden in places that are not accessible. It is important to note that no proliferator so far has depended on the direct purchase, theft, or diversion of nuclear weapons or weapons-grade plutonium or uranium; they have devised or acquired the means to indigenously produce their own materials. This factor has been important in limiting the rate of potential proliferation.
Experience with nations that have attempted or succeeded in making nuclear weapons indicates that enrichment of uranium is the most direct route to pursue indigenously (e.g., Pakistan, South Africa, Iraq). That is why there is universal concern over Iran’s acquired technical capabilities and underlying political intentions.
The original nuclear-weapon states were able to carry out both weapons-uranium enrichment and weapons-plutonium production for their vast arsenals. India seems to be alone in having reached militarization largely through indigenous production of weapons plutonium.
Contrary to exaggerated claims, diversion of fissile materials from commercial reactors faces too many obstacles in the form of poor-quality materials and inability to disguise the activity.
On a case-by-case basis, the linkage between existing commercial nuclear facilities with the decision to weaponize has been indirect, primarily consisting of technology programs (e.g., India, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel, Iran) that served as a cover for weapons activities. Nations that have weaponized had not joined the NPT or had withdrawn from it.
The risk of reactor-degraded plutonium being extracted and applied to weapons is extremely small (for good technical reasons); moreover, the material is self-protected against subnational diversion. A more direct way to clandestinely or overtly produce weapons-grade plutonium is through high-power materials-testing and nuclear-research reactors, as long as they are outside of the IAEA international safeguards regime. Uranium enrichment has been the main track for smaller nations to weaponize.
There a number of potential weak links in the nuclear-reactor fuel cycle. All such examples remain theoretical soft points because they have not been violated in more than a half-century of nuclear power. The moderate proliferation that has occurred has been based on indigenous development of facilities that were not part of, or were taken out of, the IAEA safeguards regime.
None of this discussion should be taken to be a definitive prediction for the future course of national nuclear proliferation (horizontal or vertical). However, this discussion should offer insight into what events and what policies have resulted in far less nuclear proliferation than many had anticipated.
Albert Wohlstetter. A mathematical logician, Wohlstetter was a RAND analyst who had considerable influence on U.S. strategic policy. He is credited with conceiving of the “second strike” as the key concept of deterrence. His primary concern then was his calculated vulnerability of U.S. strategic forces, and he went public on the issue, claiming that SAC was terribly exposed to a Soviet first strike. One outcome of this analysis was the development of hardened ICBM silos.
Another of Wohlstetter’s outspoken causes was ballistic missile defense. In the 1960s he advocated defending Minuteman missile silos because the Soviets had begun to deploy their own missiles in hardened silos. During the 1969 Safeguard ABM debate, Wohlstetter testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the percentage of the Minuteman force that would be destroyed, if undefended, comes to about 95 percent.”
With regard to nuclear proliferation, Professor Wohlstetter was an illusionist who (by extrapolation without statistical gauges) predicted linearly increasing proliferation that never came about (and it took decades to demonstrate his heart-felt folly). Rather than the dozens of additional nuclear-weapon states that he projected by now, we have “only” four more. Aspiring nations, such as Libya, have recognized that there are downsides in trying to become a nuclear-weapons state. Similar concerns were a factor in the South African government decision of the late 1980s to destroy its secret nuclear-weapons stockpile; foreseeing a change in governance, it found itself with six “hot potatoes” on its hands.
Although Wohlstetter evinced unsubstantiated alarmism much earlier, the University of Chicago professor carried it well over into the post-Cold-War period. His widely noted projection of rampant nuclear proliferation has yet to materialize. The underlying assumptions were demonstrably challengeable (and were often challenged) at the time of their publication.
Wohlstetter was eventually fired, for undisclosed reasons, from RAND. After joining the faculty of the University of Chicago, he continued to deal in ABM hyperbole. He denounced “minimum-defense theorists” who “call for no defense of our civilians and nearly total reliance on [retaliatory] threat to bombard enemy civilians.”
[Nuclear Alarmism]. Nation-states have internally motivated incentives and the competent professional means to securely safeguard their fissile materials and weapons; that innate protectiveness — though not necessarily unblemished — remains, as it has for these past six decades, to be the main barrier to outsider acquisition of a nuclear explosive. Such safeguards must to be continually audited and upgraded.
No significant quantity of nuclear materials is publicly known to have been diverted to outsiders from the possession of nation-states. That enviable record appears to be valid, even though there is substantial (legitimate, controlled, and safeguarded) international commerce in fissile materials, and even though there has been some illegitimate traffic in equipment that can be used for producing them. The most challenging (and formidable) roadblock facing non-state groups still remains to be the acquisition of weapons-grade fissile materials.
Government decision-makers could and should reduce the more-probable nuclear dangers of our time. There is inherent risk in maintaining arsenals that contain tens-of-thousands of nuclear weapons. Of great importance is to keep nuclear-armed missiles in less-vulnerable conditions of readiness, rather than reprogrammable for trigger-happy fingers. Why, one can ask, especially now that the Cold War is over, should some human beings have the nearly unchecked power and means to destroy millions of people? Now that is an alarming concern!
Over the long haul, several timely measures could de-emphasize (de-value) hazards from the Cold War nuclear legacy: (1) reduce the number of nuclear weapons in arsenals, (2) demilitarize high-grade fissile materials, (3) avoid nuclear-threat postures, and (4) shun nuclear warfare as a basis for national-security.
Reductions — not upgrades — of nuclear weapons are needed. Accidents, misjudgments, or malfeasance associated with military arsenals are more of a threat to national and international security than stateless terrorism. If government reliance on nuclear weaponry were downgraded, nations and peoples will become safer as international proliferation abates and, accordingly, as opportunities for nuclear terrorism are lessened.
While “alarmism” isn’t itself necessarily a negative trait, its overuse flags the need for detailed scrutiny to see if the publicized concerns warrant as much attention as alleged.
Return to Primary Table of Contents
Return to beginning of Section II FUNDAMENTAL NUCLEAR TOPICS
The safety record of nuclear reactors and its supporting infrastructure has often been challenged. Of course the public should remain vigilant. There have been several serious nuclear accidents, and — partly as a result — various institutional, procedural, project-design, structural improvements and safeguards have been initiated. However, unfounded and exaggerated public-health claims were made, and some continue to be made by individuals who have yet to recant after nearly a half century of minimal public-health outcomes.
The intent of this paper is not to embarrass individuals, or to squelch legitimate protest — but to identify chronic dissent and protestation that has continued more as a cause or by momentum, rather than being sustained by the comparatively benign situation that now prevails.
[Three Mile Island]. After the Three Mile Island reactor unit-2 meltdown, physical trauma to the population, surrounding and distant, was undetectable: No property damage occurred outside the TMI reactor vessel, which maintained its integrity. No adverse physical effects on humans, animals, or plants were ever found to be correlated with the accident. The internal structure (core) of the reactor was severely damaged; this resulted in a financial calamity for the owners, a cost increase to ratepayers, generation of more pollution when the lost power was made up by burning more coal, and an elaborate cleanup effort for the operator and the government. The reactor was permanently shut down and defueled. Considerable emotional trauma was experienced by the nearby population, aggravated by hysterical press coverage. Litigious reactions also ensued, stirred in part by antinuclear activists.
After the 1979 reactor meltdown in Pennsylvania, unwarranted fears and exaggeration of its effects resulted in injury expectations that never materialized. Contrary to persisting overstatement, no palpable deaths or injuries were suffered by plant workers or nearby residents:
[A] total of almost 20 years of follow-up … provides no consistent evidence that radioactivity released during the TMI accident … has had a significant impact on the [normal] mortality experience….
On the other hand, medical experts have presented reasoned arguments that certain psychoneurological syndromes — not directly correlated to dose (absorbed radiation) nor level of contamination — have nevertheless resulted in chronic fatigue, sleep disturbances, and impaired memory attributable to radiophobia.
[Chernobyl]. In contrast to the Three Mile Island accident, severe radiation sickness was suffered at Chernobyl by 134 people; all of them were staff and operators of the nuclear-power plant or members of the emergency teams who came to assist. They received very high-level acute radiation doses. According to international studies, 28 deaths were from (acute) irradiation and two from scalding. The total number of confirmed direct fatalities is now about 50, plus six or seven other fatalities might have been hastened or induced by the traumatic accident.
• No physical public-health impact explicitly attributable to radiation exposure.
• No unambiguous evidence for increased cancer incidence, although estimates are that as many as 4000 adults (out of 600,000 persons) exposed to radiation fallout might die prematurely because of Chernobyl radiation-induced cancer.
• No excess radiation-induced leukemia.
• No birth defects attributable to radiation exposure.
• Up to a dozen thyroid-cancer juvenile fatalities not necessarily caused by Chernobyl radiation.
• No detected genetic damage to humans.
More details regarding the content of this sub-section can be found in my Knoll “ETHICS IN SCIENCE: The Exaggeration of Radiation Hazards.”
Explicit Example of Radiation Hype. Just months after the Chernobyl accident, two physicists Frank von Hippel and Tom Cochran provided for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists their early evaluation of long-term health effects.3 For this, they had to make some interim radiation-dose approximations, followed by calculations of dose consequence.
In translating their dose estimates into tangible consequences, the two physicists adopted what they described as “the usual assumption … that the probability of incurring the consequence is proportional to the radiation dose” (the so-called linear hypothesis). They thus extrapolated “the number of cancers and thyroid tumor cases resulting from Chernobyl” through a process that includes “simply … summing the radiation doses of the entire exposed population.” However, that extrapolation would be valid only when the dose effect at low values is linearly related to consequences at higher doses (where measured data exist). Simplistically stated, double the dose: double the effect; halve the dose: half the effect.
Explicitly, on the basis of an extrapolation from high-radiation dose data, they envisioned the following aggregate medical consequences from the low doses received as a result of the Chernobyl explosion:
• 2,000-40,000 thyroid tumor cases from iodine 131 inhalation, of which a few percent might be fatal….
• 10,000-250,000 potential thyroid tumor cases….
• 3,500-70,000 cancer cases from the whole-body doses of cesium 137 (external and internal), of which approximately half might be fatal….
Of these calculated effects, very few — if any — have demonstrably materialized more than two decades after the accident.
The “Linear No-Threshold” (LNT) extrapolation, derived from the notion that risk is simplistically additive, was the stated basis for their estimates: ”[It] is the addition of such small extra risks over many millions of individuals that results in our estimate of thousands to tens of thousands of extra cancer deaths.”
While a linear relationship has been shown to be valid for measured higher-dose data (such as for Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims and survivors), it is yet to be established as the correct model for lower doses that fall within the range of normal human radiation background (which varies from 1 mSV/yr to well past 10 mSv/yr worldwide). As a matter of fact, several theories compete to account for the dose-effect relationship of small incremental exposures to radiation; some data and theory suggest beneficial (hormetic) biological effects from low doses of radiation.
The LNT hypothesis underlying the extrapolation was not really an oft-claimed “conservative” assumption; it was and still remains woefully inappropriate for the low-dose range. To this day, definitive data is lacking for choosing between any particular model of radiation effect at or below natural background levels, largely because the effect — if any— is so small. In any event, there was and is no proof at all of their gruesome death toll estimates.
As a result of such data-quality deficiencies, downward extrapolation using the LNT model introduces an extant calculable (systematic) error in accuracy which must be added to the stochastic (random, sampling, or imprecision) error that accompanies any estimation of low-dose radiation effects on populations.
The two physicists. by giving no indication of systematic bias resulting from the adopted LNT absorbed-dose extrapolation, misrepresented data quality. In addition, they omitted requisite statements of statistical variance with limits of confidence.
Actually, dose-rate — rather than accumulated-dose — especially at low doses and rates, might be a more appropriate parameter to model the effects of radiation. Because natural cell repair is rate dependent, cellular effects depend on the pace of radiation absorption, as well as on the accumulated dose.
What they could have advised is that their casualty projections were an upper limit, accompanied by a lower limit that, even in 1986, could turn out to be zero.
In any event, three shortcomings in their publication more than 20-years ago are evident: (1) The projected Chernobyl casualties have not materialized, (2) the LNT model is yet to be validated in the natural-background range, and (3) no error estimates were supplied. Even though in 20 years their predicted results have not materialized, the authors have not published rectifications, clarifications, or explanations. The publication failed to adhere to any of the criteria for scientific discourse: peer review, replicability, documentation, and stated rates of error.
Reactor Meltdown. Although a nuclear-reactor core can melt down (as it did in the Three Mile Island incident), its scope of harmful damage is mostly localized, limited to the reactor facility. While potentially quite internally destructive, with possible environmental consequences, the hypothetical range of damage is limited largely to the containment vessel and underpinnings.
Reactor physicists, in a process of evaluating hypothetical risks, routinely and responsibly evaluate whether a core meltdown could penetrate the vessel and by virtue of its density and reactive properties make its way through the foundation (in the direction of the center of the Earth’s core, hence toward China).
Although easily dismissed as contrary to fundamental physical phenomena, that didn’t keep the speculation from becoming dramatized in cinema and popular lore.
Had a breach of reactor vessel occurred at TMI, high pressures could indeed cause a release of radioactivity that —for Western-designed water-cooled reactors — would mostly be prevented from outside release by the containment shell. But the core meltdown in the TMI did not breach the reactor vessel, although some low-level radiation was vented out of the containment shell into the surroundings.
Not hypothetical was the rate and magnitude of hysteria propagated by panic-stricken individuals misinformed by sensationalist, self-serving media venders and nuclear-reactor opponents. The overly dramatized TMI accident was used by nearby students to weasel out of homework papers and tests, and by nearby residents to seek financial aid.
Like its movie namesake, the China Syndrome is doomed to endless repeats on the fiction movie-list.
As a result of the various reactor accidents and public concern over potential consequences, public-minded citizens and NGOs won important victories in setting up better government oversight, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
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Return to beginning of Section II FUNDAMENTAL NUCLEAR TOPICS
Not long after its inception, nuclear-generated power became both a hope and a threat, depending largely — it turns out — on a person’s degree of acquired familiarity with the technology. Underlying some public challenges engendered by interveners has been a palpable fear of radiation in low doses. While large acute doses can be and have been lethal, the alleged overblown risk from low chronic doses does not meet scientific-methodology criteria.
Radiation Effects. During later stages of the Cold War, there was a surge in anti-nuclear-power and anti-radiation sentiment. This was partly the result of public association of nuclear power with nuclear weapons, partly because of frustration over failure to tame the nuclear arms race, and, certainly a consequence of some arrogant and thoughtless human radiation experiments performed earlier without informed consent. All these factors contributed to fear of any “radiation” exposure, regardless of its intensity, impairment, origin, or benefit.
Another topic carried over from the Cold War was centered around radiation consequences of nuclear testing. Like others, I too expressed my concern about localized effects. However, these have turned out to be overstated. Professor Linus Pauling comes to mind as persistently and overly alarmed about radiation effects from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
[Key Radiation-Dose Studies]. Regarding research with substantial control of confounding (covariate) factors in low-dose radiation epidemiology, the technical literature draws attention to three particular studies: One relates to occupational gamma-radiation exposure, another involves public radon exposure, and the third is a sustained analysis of atomic-bomb survivors in Japan. Key results of these three key long-term epidemiological radiation studies can be summarized as follows:
• Workers at U.S. nuclear shipyards were not harmed by chronic low-doses of radiation from occupational exposure (see below).
• Radon in U.S. basements is far less harmful than widely feared.
• The oft-cited Hiroshima-Nagasaki studies show remarkable survival rates.
[Radiophobia]. As a result of unavoidable natural background, ionizing radiation is ubiquitous — it’s all around and within us. Deliberate exposure to radiation is a common option for beneficial medical applications. Even so, there is widespread apprehension: radiophobia — an (irrational) fear that any level of ionizing radiation is dangerous.
Unduly exacerbating radiophobia are factors such as the following:
(1) Radiation (like many malignant agents) is not detectable by human senses;
(2) psychological trauma from the atomic bombing of Japan left an abiding aversion to radiation;
(3) Cold War doomsday strategies and discussion of impending war amplified the public’s fear of nuclear weapons and radiation;
(4) strong vested interests, such as fossil-fuel industries and rabid environmentalists, have lobbied against nuclear power;
(5) a few radiation researchers, by playing up public fears, have sought increased recognition and budgets;
(6) politicians have found that exploitation of radiophobia can be a powerful tool in national and international power games;
(7) the news media profit from catering to public fear; and
(8) misguided, overly cautious assumptions about biological effects of radiation have led counterproductively to excessively stringent standards.
The pace for implementation of nuclear power has been strongly influenced by radiophobia. Scientists and engineers who have worked with radiation (not infrequently absorbing doses well above background) tend to understand and accept the risks, but the public has been misled into blind aversion to any radiation exposure. Nature, however, provides a constant deluge of radiation, both ionizing and non-ionizing. Ionizing radiation, which routinely damages cells, is delivered from almost all surroundings, including the sky, the ground, and buildings. In fact, a low level of continuous background radiation has accompanied life through its evolution. In addition, non-ionizing radiation — such as sunlight, radar, and microwaves — pervades modern life.
Professor Ernest Sternglass. Radiation exposures in the vicinity of nuclear reactors once became one of the most visceral public concerns. University of Pittsburg Professor Ernest Sternglass often expressed extreme and never substantiated alarmism. He would display to audiences viewgraphs purporting to show an anomalous increase in cancer near nuclear power plants. When challenged, Sternglass would simply replace the slide with another one in the next presentation. He was severely rebuked in a rare and unprecedented step by his professional peers in health physics. Public radiation exposures in the vicinity of nuclear power plants do not exceed normal background.
In addition to Sternglass, other names like John Gofman, Alice Stewart, and Helen Caldicottcome to mind as publically-minded individuals who clung to their beliefs about the deleterious effects of low-level radiation exposures without acknowledging statistically confounding factors and limitations that have undermined their predictions.
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One of the most daunting public-health tasks is to derive and attribute the small effects of low doses to a large population. Epidemiologists have attempted to deal with the many confounding variables in searching for the classic “needle in the haystack.” The publications of University of Pittsburgh professor Bernard Cohen4 are a sterling example of close attention and analysis of such confounding factors.
[Epidemiology]. The study of large population groups, appears to be the only way to quantify the effects of low-level radiation on humans. Such methods, though, can rarely be used to prove a cause-and-effect relation (because the epidemiologist can never control all related variables). Some uncontrolled variables (such as exposure to tobacco smoke) do not vary randomly but might change with the parameter that is being measured. Data bias of that sort can lead to spurious results. Another problem is that no substance is without toxic effects at high enough dose.
Epidemiologists have searched for evidence of low-level-radiation effects at and near nuclear-material production plants, such as the one at Hanford, Washington, where plutonium was produced. Also, comparisons are frequently made with other more accepted sources of radiation; for example, the effect of occupationally acquired ionizing radiation on the Hanford population has been very small compared to the risk of lung cancer from a fossil-fuel-burning power plant. (Coal-fired plants, including those with pollution controls and scrubbers, discharge radioactive materials— radium, thorium, etc. — but the lung problems have been largely caused by non-radioactive coal-combustion emissions.)
Alice Stewart. Contrary to unsupported analysis published by British epidemiologist Alice Stewart, the cancer rate at the DOE Hanford, Washington, site has been significantly lower than the general population, perhaps attributable to what is called the “healthy-worker effect” (better employee medical care).
Stewart , working with Professor Thomas Mancuso of the University of Pittsburgh, examined sickness records of employees in the Hanford plutonium-production plant, and they claimed to find a far higher incidence of radiation-induced ill health than was noted in official studies. Sir Richard Doll, an epidemiologist respected for his work on smoking-related illnesses, attributed the anomalous findings to a “questionable” statistical analysis supplied by her assistant who may have miscalculated the “over-reporting” of cancer diagnoses in communities near to the works5. (In a follow-up analysis, Professor Sternglass claimed that the linear no-threshold LNT model “confirmed” her work.)
[Naval Shipyard Workers Study]. In addition to the residential data, occupational studies have shown no adverse effects from low levels of radiation. One of the largest and most thorough studies of nuclear industry workers is the U.S. Nuclear Shipyard Workers Study, funded by DOE but not published. This 10-year, $10-million study, completed in 1987, took data from 108,000 of about 700,000 employees. In all, 39,000 nuclear workers were carefully matched with 33,000 non-nuclear workers. The radiography workers in the study had been exposed to external cobalt-60 gamma rays used in radiography. The study found that the mortality rate of the high-dose nuclear workers was markedly lower than that of the non-nuclear workers in the control group.
Return to Key Radiation Dose Studies
Still No Convincing Evidence of Cancer at Low Radiation Doses. The epidemiological and theoretical case for attributing excess cancers to radioactivity is so weak that it serves better as an example of difficult epidemiology and unsettled science. Here are studies that undermine the so-called “bad” news, and supply some “good” news about radiation exposure.
The “Bad” News. Villagers downstream from the Mayak weapons complex in the southern Urals from 1949 to 1956 were exposed to a steady stream of plutonium byproducts released into the Techa River. A recent study thoroughly scrutinized the health of 25,000 people who lived in 41 villages along the Techa between 1950 and 1952 and nearly 5000 people who moved to these communities between 1953 and 1960.
The biggest challenge in the epidemiological study has been getting a handle on individual radiation doses, which remain uncertain. In view of the very small association of mortality with radiation, good dose estimates are essential. According to death certificates, 1842 villagers died from solid tumors other than bone cancer and 49 died from leukemia. The researchers attributed deaths above the background rate simply to radiation.
So, of 1842 solid-tumor cancer deaths, at best they could attribute only 80 (4%) to solid tumors and leukemia. No measure of error is stated, and no indication is given of how many of these individuals inhaled tobacco smoke, lived in poverty, or imbibed alcohol — three life-risk factors that were prevalent in the Soviet Union and are much more strongly associated with various forms of cancer.
The figures are in line with the largest study of nuclear power workers ever carried out. A team from the IAEA pooled data on more than 400,000 plant workers in 15 countries. The finding suggested that between 1% and 2% of the deaths may be due to radiation.
But a shortcoming in that study has been “flagged”: Smoking may account for a large share of deaths mistakenly attributed to radiation. In the study, the risk of smoking-related tumors — primarily lung cancers — is much higher than for other solid cancers. Tobacco smoking is a well-established confounding factor.
The average lifetime dose in the IAEA power-plant study was only 19.4 mSv [milliSieverts], with less than 0.1% of workers receiving more than 500 mSv. Those are very small numbers, which results in poor statistical confidence.
Thus, there are three basic weaknesses for these two cited studies: (1) inaccuracy in determining radiation doses for the particular individuals that died of cancer, (2) poor statistics because of the small number of deaths attributable to radiation, and (3) inability to sort out life-risk factors correlated with known carcinogens.
The “Good” News. The preceding “bad” news is insufficient to support a one-to-one (linear) relationship between cancer and radiation dose at low levels; to the contrary, evidence has been surfacing to contradict that hypothesis.
The Chernobyl 20-year aftermath assessment tells us that mortality from the disaster has been adjusted from earlier estimates of tens or even hundreds of thousands future cancer deaths downward to 4000 at the very most.
Even more important is that these cancer deaths will probably never occur. No doubt some of these people will develop cancer, but it will likely have nothing to do with the radiation they received from the power plant. The thousands of highly exposed liquidators — the firemen and emergency workers at Chernobyl— have experienced no more cancer than the average Russian population.
As a matter of fact, there are many places on earth where background radiation is 50, 100, or more times higher than the sea-level worldwide annual average of 2.5 mSv (parts of Iran and India and China, the beaches of Brazil, parts of Central Europe, the southwest of France, Norway). Epidemiological studies were started and they produced a remarkably consistent and benign picture: People there have either the same or a slightly lower chance of cancer compared to their less-irradiated compatriots.
The good news thus indicates that radiation doses comparable to or less than natural background should not be considered a health hazard. This conclusion is reinforced by a number of carefully controlled epidemiological studies which have examined the effects of small added doses of natural, occupational, and medical radiation.
The very foundation of low-dose radiation epidemiology — the “LNT extrapolation” — has not withstood the test of time. As the preceding examples illustrate, this so-called “conservative” linear assumption (along the lines that it is better to be safe than sorry) has been responsible for untold financial and psychological costs that have not proven to be justified. Because of immense vested scientific and institutional interests, it cannot simply be said that the linear extrapolation is invalid; however, the low-dose extrapolation model has been the excuse used in predicting a great many radiation effects that have not occurred, and the unproven extrapolation has created a n unwarranted fear of radiation.
LNT Extrapolation. Lacking definitive results because of statistical uncertainties associated with the small impact of low levels of radiation (compared to other cancer-inducing agents), the international community has long resorted to the simplest extrapolation from high-level radiation effects: the linear-no-threshold (LNT) theory. This assumes that the low radiation doses are harmful, even though the effects have not been measured, and even though most biological models contradict that assumption.
While regarded as “conservative” for interests of public health, the LNT model itself has provoked considerable dispute, mainly because it is in conflict with existing data for low dose rates and because standards based on it cost so much to administer. By creating an impression of health hazards that do not exist, the model might be seriously counterproductive, resulting in more harm than good, deterring acceptance of beneficial treatments and applications of radioactivity.
A growing body of radiobiological data is failing to support the LNT theory. The technical literature is increasingly contradicting it for low doses of radiation (<100 millisieverts = 10 rems) and even more so for very low doses (<10 millisieverts) and for very low dose rates. The available data confirm that it is inappropriate to use collective-dose (person-rem) concepts to evaluate irradiation risks for populations. In other words, linear extrapolation of health risks from high acute radiation doses to low doses or dose rates is invalid.
More specifically there are these comparatively benign epidemiological results: a marked lack of attributable radiation-induced cancers in the comprehensive Naval Shipyard Workers Study, an absence of specific clinically confirmable cancer deaths from the Chernobyl explosion, the minimal consequences of delayed radiation for Nagasaki and Hiroshima survivors, and all other thorough “longitudinal” evaluations like them. These and many other similar epidemiological and clinical results strongly impugn the overly conservative models still used to extrapolate effects for doses so low that they cannot be directly correlated.
The linear extrapolation has yielded many published estimates of radiation effects that — after several decades of time and study — are yet to materialize. The unvalidated theory has provided shelter for pessimistic predictions of health consequences that have simply not materialized decades after exposure. Now that nearly of century of awareness of radiation and its effects has transpired, it is time drop the pretense that that natural doses of radiation are harmful. The outmoded idea is not supported by conclusive, statistically valid scientific evidence.
Sanitizing Sterilization. Because of harmful effects from ubiquitous parasites and bacteria, irradiation has taken on an increasingly important role in sanitizing food and other items that require sterilization. Many people have become ill or died of food that harbored live salmonella or E. coli; thus, food irradiation, at very slight incremental cost, can be of considerable public-health benefit. The U.S. agricultural department has so far permitted irradiation of beef, pork, poultry, spices, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
Some public interest groups, like Public Citizen, have opposed irradiation of food; however, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration give it high marks in safety and benefits. Studies in animals and humans show no statistically valid increases in premature deaths, cancers, stillbirths, genetic damage, organ malfunctions, weight gain, or other deficiencies. Food irradiation does not destroy vitamins or other nutrients; it does not significantly change flavor, odor, or texture; and it does not harm the nutritional value or make it unsafe to eat.
Fearful views of internal radiation effects at low doses, as well as ill-advised non-proliferation objectives, have also led to a ongoing shortage of medical radioisotopes that should be available on a timely and cost-effective basis. In addition, beneficent applications of external radiation have been impaired as a result of unscientific belief systems that have been given undue emphasis.
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Return to beginning of Section II FUNDAMENTAL NUCLEAR TOPICS
According to critics of nuclear power, nuclear power has been neither economically competitive nor dependable as a source of electricity.
In 1996, Arjun Makhijani, founder of the NGO Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, posted the following statement on the web:6
In contrast to the rosy propaganda and promises, commercial nuclear power from new nuclear plants has become the most expensive form of commonly used baseload electric power in the United States. In part, this was because utilities canceled 121 reactors in the post-1974 period; the money squandered on these canceled plants alone was about $44.4 billion in 1990 dollars, or about $50 billion in 1995 dollars. Even larger costs were incurred, in the form of higher electricity costs for instance, because of the very high costs of plants completed in the 1980s. Enjoying virtually every conceivable advantage at its birth — from high public popularity to lavish government funding to virtually unanimous political support — the commercial nuclear power industry in the United States is a moribund one, with virtually every one of its early advantages reversed.
In 1954, Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, proclaimed that the development of nuclear energy would herald a new age. “It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter,” he declared to a science writers’ convention. The speech gave the nuclear power industry a memorable phrase to be identified with, but also it saddled it with a promise that was essentially impossible to fulfill.
Dr. Arjun Makhijani is an engineer with academic specialization in nuclear-fusion plasmas, but no professional experience in nuclear fission or reactor technology. His “main findings” in support of his explicit claim of “nuclear power deception” are as follows, with my comments in [brackets]:
1. There was no scientific or engineering foundation for the claims made in the 1940s and 1950s that nuclear power would be so cheap that it would lead the way to a world of unprecedented material abundance. On the contrary, official studies of the time were pessimistic about the economic viability of nuclear power, in stark contrast to many official public statements. [True about early optimism, but there’s nothing like eventual success of nuclear power to deflate theorized pessimism about economic viability.]
2. Cold War propaganda rather than economic reasoning was a driving force behind the rush to build a commercial nuclear power plant in the United States. [Maybe, but foresightedness and success now has to be given some credit.]
3. The AEC overruled some of its own personnel and the official Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) in its rush to build large scale power plants that would feed electricity into utility grids.[Maybe so, but does it matter?]
4. Every major reactor design that was adopted had and continues to have crucial unresolved safety vulnerabilities as a result of the rush of the nuclear weapons states to deploy nuclear power plants well before the technology had been properly investigated and developed. [There’s nothing like the track record of 400 nuclear power plants humming away to provide the antidote.]
5. Nuclear power became established in the market place at a low price in the 1960s as a result of government subsidies, lack of adequate attention to safety systems, and an early decision by manufacturers to take heavy losses on initial orders. Costs increased when these advantages were reduced. [Subsidies did help, as often the case with new technologies.]
6. The non-proliferation issues related to nuclear power, and in particular their relation to the arsenals of the existing nuclear weapons states, have never been satisfactorily resolved. [There has been essentially no connection between nuclear power and the proliferation that has occurred.]
7. Management of spent nuclear fuel has become a central concern regarding nuclear power growth. [True about the concern, but mainly a self-fulfilling prophecy because of doubts raised on emotional, rather than technical grounds.]
8. Reprocessing, which is the separation of plutonium and uranium from used reactor fuel is a costly, dangerous, and proliferation-prone technology. Yet political pressure is building to reprocess spent fuel as a waste management method. [Although costly, civil reprocessing has had essentially nothing to do with the proliferation that has occurred.]
9. The problem of what to do with the surplus plutonium in U.S. and Russian military stockpiles is exacerbating a growing commercial plutonium surplus. [That’s why we need nuclear-power plants: to burn up the surplus plutonium.]
10. Nuclear power plants cannot simultaneously meet stringent safety criteria that would rule out catastrophic Chernobyl-like accidents and also contribute significantly to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in a timely manner. [Over 400 nuclear-power plants are doing a pretty good job of being both safe and free of carbon emissions.]
11. It is possible to simultaneously phase out nuclear power plants and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning. [Totally unrealistic.]
In short, it is difficult to see where Makhijani can justify his claim of a “nuclear power deception” when the big gorilla in the room has had a notably successful and competitive production record. This is more broadly reinforced by comparing his assertions and predictions with the record compiled on my Nuclear Scoreboard.
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Three Strikes Against Immobilization
Fissile-Material Military-Production Limitations
Despite agreement by most nuclear-issue NGOs on the benefits of reducing or even eliminating nuclear weapon inventories carried over from the Cold War, there is significance divergence on just how to carry it out. Part of this stems from an underlying reluctance of some NGOs and individuals to give any uplift to nuclear power and its related infrastructure, as discussed in Section II in connection with exploitive overhyping of low-radiation-dose effects.
Assertions or innuendos can still be found in testimony and publication claiming that it is possible to make nuclear weapons out of reactor-grade plutonium. While that politicized position has been challenged for many decades, it still remains a bone of contention. Reluctance to accept the well-substantiated proposition that existing nuclear arsenals do not contain weapons made of reactor-grade plutonium is also linked to and a source of chronic opposition against spent-fuel processing.
In any event, the unfounded and non-scientific claim that common reactor-grade plutonium can be converted to nuclear weapons has not deterred more than a half-century of expanded nuclear development and reinforced proliferation containment. A few stubborn anti-nuclear activists keep repeating the reactor-grade weaponizability canard at the expense of progressive nonproliferation.
Few issues have generated more heat in print than the overhyped topic of whether reactor-grade plutonium can be used to make military-quality nuclear weapons. Despite my contributing a book7 based on detailed analysis and reactivity calculations, and writing peer-reviewed technical papers8 specifically on this topic, those and other notable contributions have done little, if anything, to quell the claims of determined dissidents. Nevertheless, the preponderance of evidence accumulated in the nearly 70 years that have passed since the first controlled fission reaction indicates that reactor-grade plutonium has not been militarized by any nation.
The following paragraphs contain a distillation of the technical and experiential evidence explaining why reactor-grade plutonium has not been put to use in nuclear arsenals.
[Technical Deductions from Public Sources]. The technical inferences that can be drawn from fundamental, textbook concepts in reactor physics strongly support scientific evidence that sub-grade [reactor-grade] fissile materials fall short of military-quality standards.
Physicists recognized from the beginning that a highly destructive fission explosive could, in principle, be manufactured from low-grade plutonium. But they also understood the importance of using high-grade plutonium to achieve military-quality weapons, which is exactly what has been done by all nuclear-weapons states.
The high-grade, military-quality plutonium needed for weapons is only produced in special “production” reactors that have brief fuel-burnup cycles. Such short operating intervals are not practical with power reactors, which must run for much longer periods of time to be economical.
Plutonium produced in power reactors, in strong contrast to plutonium-production reactors, automatically acquires a combination of isotopic, radiation, and chemical resistance against unauthorized diversion and illicit use. This is the unavoidable result of long commercially-efficient operating intervals that are easily monitored by international agencies.
Unavoidably, steadily, and irreversibly — because of high burnup — power-reactor plutonium accumulates physical characteristics that are inherently prohibitive to weapons applications.
[Hype About Reactor-Degraded Plutonium]. Another example of excessive government secrecy deals with the risk of nuclear-weapons proliferation by nations that might divert impure fissile material out of the civilian nuclear fuel cycle. To independently estimate and debunk this overhyped risk, a realistic understanding of unclassified physics of reactors and engineering of fission explosives is necessary — and sufficient.
It is also helpful to reassess some still-classified historical events. For instance, oft-heard claims that (impure) plutonium from commercial reactors can be used in nuclear weapons are based in part on a 1962 nuclear explosion that made use of what was called “reactor-grade plutonium” (usually defined as containing up to 80 percent fissile isotopes).
However, details of that particular experiment are still classified as secret— details which are identical to those released for other nuclear tests that no longer have national-security significance. The anomalous 40-year-plus information clamp-down on this particular experiment has blocked independent confirmation of the enormous difficulties that a wannabe proliferating nation would encounter in trying to use such unfavorable material. (Tellingly, none have; all have made nuclear weapons only from pure materials.)
Relying on published physical principles, one can confidently distinguish impure reactor-grade (e.g. degraded) plutonium from the high-grade weapons plutonium used in military-quality nuclear weapons.
(Heat and other effects generated by radioactive isotopes in reactor-degraded plutonium introduce all-but-insurmountable problems for warlike military-quality weapons — as distinguished from a crude, inefficient explosive device that might conceivably, but illogically, be fashioned out of impure fissile materials.)
With regard to weapons plutonium and uranium in existing nuclear arsenals, the problem of demilitarization is now becoming of much greater interest.
Demilitarization refers to the intended goal, that is, to render nuclear materials unsuitable for use in a nuclear arsenal. Degradation refers to the process or end result of demilitarization. Denaturing is the process, as applicable to fissile materials, that leads to their demilitarization; it is not necessarily absolute nor irreversible. They are often used rather interchangeably.
However termed, the end result represents a major and practical obstacle in reutilization of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.
Rather than recognizing the physical and practical significance of demilitarization, some individuals, allowing arms control and nonproliferation to be undermined, have focused more on an equivocating academic approach to terminology.
Disposition of Weapons Uranium and Plutonium. In the aftermath of the Cold War, there is increasing trans-ideologic agreement on reductions or even abolition of nuclear weapons; nevertheless, unreconstructed holdouts oppose the only practicable means of rendering weapons plutonium unusable for nuclear weapons.
Surplus uranium from weapons is already being disposed of by using it as fuel in nuclear reactors. In fact, the United States and Russia have a commercial enterprise devoted to salvaging former Soviet weapons uranium, and — after blending it down to reactor-fuel grade — selling it on the market as a source of fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. It’s a win-win proposition that benefits nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.
Some surplus and or recycled plutonium is being likewise converted into fuel for commercial reactors.
In fact, about half the reactor fuel in the United States now contains downgraded uranium or plutonium. Not only is this a commercially viable recovery of sunk investment, it is good for nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.
But guess who has been offering ideologic opposition? Some familiar and vocal opponents have mixed objectives: They want to eliminate nuclear weapons, but not enable civilian nuclear power. In their zeal to oppose nuclear power, they have had to hype up the proliferation risk of reactor-grade plutonium.
Let’s look at the scientific and technical foundation for an against consuming plutonium in nuclear reactors.
Disagreement on Usability of Reactor-Grade Plutonium for Weapons. A. David Rossin, a former DOE official who had substantive nuclear-technology experience before entering government service, writes that long ago he first heard the term “weapons-usable” from Tom Cochran of the NRDC. Rossin noted that — despite the large body of contradictory evidence — the term has often applied by “nonproliferation activists” indiscriminately to “all isotopes of plutonium.” Rossin advised that “a credible nuclear deterrent” must have “reliable deliverable WEAPONS that can be safely stored and ready to use” — characteristics not at all attributable to anything less than weapon-grade plutonium.
Needless to say, as recited in my Knol “Controversy About Demilitarizing Plutonium” 9 there are plenty of American and foreign experts who concur with me about the diminished value of reactor-grade plutonium. Read on for more about this topic.
There are many possible degrees of drift or concerted national actions that are short of the actual possession of nuclear weapons, but that can account for much of what has to be done technically to acquire them. [Princeton professor] Harold Feiveson has called such activity “latent proliferation” of nuclear weapons. A national government that sponsors acquisition of nuclear power plants may have no intention to acquire nuclear weapons; but that government may be replaced by one that does, or may change its collective mind. A country that is actively pursuing nuclear power for peaceful purposes may also secretly develop nuclear explosives to the point where the last stages of assembly and military deployment could be carried out very quickly. The time and resources needed to make the transition from latent to active proliferation can range from very large to very small. Inadequately controlled plutonium or highly enriched uranium, combined with secret design and testing of non-nuclear components of nuclear warheads, can allow a nation or terrorist group to have deliverable nuclear weapons within days, or even hours, after acquiring a few kilograms or more of the key nuclear weapon materials.
Contrary to widespread belief among nuclear engineers who have never worked on nuclear weapons, plutonium made in nuclear power plant fuel can be used to make all types of nuclear weapons.
[Note: Conversely, Ted Taylor had no direct experience on nuclear-reactor design or engineering.]
This “reactor grade” plutonium has relatively high concentrations of the isotope Pu-240, which spontaneously releases many more neutrons than Pu-239, the principal plutonium isotope in “weapon-grade” plutonium. In early nuclear weapons, such as the plutonium bomb tested in New Mexico in 1945, and then used in the bombing of Nagasaki, use of reactor grade plutonium would have tended to cause the chain reaction to start prematurely. This would lower the most likely explosive yield, but not below about 1 kiloton, compared with the 20 kiloton yield from these two bombs. Since that time, however, there have been major developments of nuclear weapons technology that make it possible to design all types of nuclear weapons to use reactor grade plutonium without major degradation of the weapons’ performance and reliability, compared with those that use weapon grade plutonium. These techniques have been well understood by nuclear weapon designers in the United States since the early 1950s, and probably also for decades in the other four declared nuclear weapon states.
[Note: Indeed, he should know, having had a multi-decade career of designing and facilitating some of the most lethal nuclear weapons .]
Reactor grade plutonium can also be used for making relatively crude nuclear explosives, such as might be made by terrorists. Although the explosive yields of such bombs would tend to be unpredictable, varying from case to case for the same bomb design, their minimum explosive yields could credibly be the equivalent of several hundred tons or more of high explosive. Such bombs, transportable by automobile, would certainly qualify as weapons of mass destruction, killing many tens of thousands or more people in some locations.
Total net annual production of plutonium by these plants is nearly 70,000 kilograms, enough for making more than 10,000 nuclear warheads per year.
[Note: Nevertheless, without using reactor-grade plutonium, 100 thousand or more nuclear weapons have been constructed by the ten or so extant nuclear-weapon states (or envisioned by several other nations that have closely and competently investigated weaponization) . And there are thousands of tons of reactor-grade plutonium around!
Despite the horrifying implications brought up by Taylor, it is extremely unlikely than any have chosen sub-grade materials, such as reactor-grade plutonium (or reactor-grade uranium, for that matter). To the contrary, each weaponizing state has independently adopted a carefully selected, expensive, and indigenous program to acquire high-grade fissile materials. These observations of mine about weapons consummation apply to the entire nearly 70-year history of nuclear exploitation to date.]
[Note: None of my clarifications should be interpreted to imply that there aren’t potential horrific consequences of terror in detonating an explosive device fueled with optimal forms of reactor-grade plutonium.11]
[Note: The reason for this dichotomy between theory and practice can be found in the profound explanation publically provided by nuclear-weapons theorist J. Carson Mark. Indeed, this very portion of Mark’s explication was apparently excised from Mark’s 1990 Science & Global Security paper.]
Here is what I published in 2005 about that article:12
[Distorting J. Carson Mark]. Particularly unjustified has been selective “milking” of publications written by J. Carson Mark, who headed Los Alamos’ weapons-theory branch early in the Cold War. Some nonproliferation dogmatists have been exploiting his written words to support their otherwise unfounded alarmism.
Mark wrote a paper, “Reactor-Grade Plutonium’s Explosive Properties,” a definitive description of the topic published in 1990 by the Nuclear Control Institute. At the behest of the Department of Energy, a revised version, “Explosive Properties of Reactor-Grade Plutonium,” was published in a 1993 issue of Science and Global Security (Vol. 4, pp. 111-129), which includes an “Appendix: Probabilities of Different Yields” by Frank von Hippel and Edwin Lyman.
It is instructive to compare the 1990 and 1993 papers which are essentially the same except for a curious, but important difference: Missing from the 1993 revised version is Mark’s carefully defined term “weapon” as “an object suitable for a stockpile by a military organization.” No explanation for this obvious and crucial omission is supplied. In my personal conversations with Mark before 1993, he confirmed the intended the significance of his 1990 definition.
Mark has often warned that plutonium of any grade (i.e., isotopic composition) could probably be incorporated into an explosive device by subnational groups to produce a fission yield of “some hundreds of tons.” But he also pointedly advised that a “military organization” (of an industrialized nation) would want warheads using fissile materials that result in a “reliable known yield” and “objects that could be turned out in production-line fashion.”
In any event, Mark’s papers are not scientific or technical descriptions of weapons design; they plainly describe a standard model of statistical variation in the fission chain reaction for an implosion process. Nominal qualitative parameters are used in his published calculations. There is no reason to quarrel with his conclusions about the theoretical possibility of making an explosive out of reactor-grade plutonium, but — based on a careful reading of his papers — he supplies a basis for doubting its practicality.
Thus, civil plutonium certainly could not directly meet Mark’s weaponization criterion; it should not be loosely represented as “weapons usable.” Normative domestic and international safeguards would be sufficient (as well as obligatory) to keep civil plutonium from being used as a nuclear explosive by anyone.
Those who bandy the vague term “weapons usable” are demonstrating their unfamiliarity with military specifications, which are explicit quality standards intended to assure predictable results with high confidence. National military organizations stipulate military-grade materials for reliable weapons, not materials that are simply “usable.”
Contrary to Mark’s more nuanced and pointedly qualified definition, the term “weapons usable” is an opportunistic equivocation not at all justified by Mark’s articles (or any other technical literature).
As a matter of fact, all of those topics are fully and similarly addressed in Nuclear Insights and its coauthored 2005, 2006 two-volume predecessor, Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats from Cold War Weaponry.13
Rather than accept reactor burnup to demilitarize weapons plutonium, in the early 1990s a number of intervenors, favoring a more passive course, proposed “immobilization,” whose final stage would be underground storage. “Single-track” (immobilization) advocates would have mixed the weapons plutonium with radioactive byproducts from reactors and “immobilized” it by vitrifying the mixture and burying the highly radioactive glass “logs” underground. No other options were to be tolerated by the “single-track” advocates; reactor-burnup was specifically to be prohibited.
Many technical problems were found with the immobilization-only option. The National Academy thus hedged initially by endorsing DOE’s “dual-track” approach of both vitrification and reactor degradation for weapons plutonium. The study’s chairperson (John Holdren) reminded reprocessing opponents that under the “dual-track” recommendation, “There would be no reprocessing of spent fuel.” This was meant to appease the diehards, while still allowing some degradation of weapons plutonium in the first reactor irradiation phase.
Interim and Long-Term Disposition of Reactor-Grade Plutonium. In order to advise an alternative to civilian and military plutonium recycle and burnup in nuclear reactors, opponents had to something to do with spent fuel that contains reactor-produced plutonium. Their primary option was to “immobilize” it, either by retaining spent fuel in casks at reactor sites, or by partially separating it from the spent fuel and storing it underground. “Vitrification” became in the early 1990s a method adapted from ongoing research for long-term storage of radioactive fission products.
In any event, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences was tasked in the 1980s and 90s to analyze and recommend technical-policy options in dealing with spent reactor fuel.
To meet primary security goals, the National Academy in its mid-90s studies stressed three objectives: minimize risk of diversion, minimize opportunities to reverse the arms-reduction process, and strengthen control mechanisms against proliferation. Regrettably, adoption of the committee’s initial recommendation for interim — but indefinite — storage of weapon pits and unadulterated plutonium — the so-called “spent-fuel standard” — had the effect of postponing irreversible arms reductions. Surplus plutonium, even though securely stored, thus remained through the years in forms that could be recovered for any purpose.
The National Academy originally came up with a “dual-track” approach, catering to proponents of interim spent-fuel storage and “immobilization” by means of underground storage in a converted form known as “vitrification” (more about this coming in next subsection, Immobilization/Vitrification Detour) .
Opponents of the interim approach pointed out that delay in consuming the plutonium and uranium as fuel in nuclear reactors was not in the long-term interests of arms control. Opponents also identified technical inconsistencies in the Academy’s reasoning with regard to long-term nuclear reduction and irreversibility.
Holdren’s Reversal. In March/April 1997 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the chairperson of a landmark National Academy study, Harvard professor John Holdren [now science advisor for the Obama administration], publicly reversed his own long-standing position, having come to realize that vitrification has the “disadvantage of not changing the weapon plutonium isotopically” (which is just what irradiation in a reactor does — it reduces the fissile composition, making the plutonium far less suitable for weapons). Holdren explained his revised views about the demilitarized nature of reactor-grade plutonium:
[Because] the isotopics are different, weapons using this plutonium would have to be redesigned, which would require nuclear tests. That means the path to reuse of spent fuel would be more difficult technically and politically — as well as easier to detect — than reusing weapons plutonium extracted from glass.
Holdren, a university physics professor, who wrote of this change of view on behalf of study, candidly acknowledged:
those who know my history know that I did not reach these positions because of lack of concern about proliferation or any history of understatement of the proliferation dangers of plutonium recycle.
Without forsaking his nonproliferation credentials, Holdren has reaffirmed the Academy consensus and his own revised reasoning that disposing of fissile materials to effectively preclude re-use in weapons represents one of the most urgent and cost-effective tasks of arms control and nonproliferation. In Holdren’s modified view, U.S. participation in weapons-plutonium degradation would pose a smaller and more manageable danger than leaving the stockpiles untreated.
Three Strikes Against Immobilization. The process of “immobilization” of plutonium by vitrification has had three strikes against it:
(1) The radioactive byproducts admixed with weapons plutonium typically contain little of the plutonium isotopic diluents found in spent reactor fuel; thus, the immobilized plutonium would remain in a form directly recoverable for reconstitution in weapons pits. Simply incorporating weapon-grade plutonium in a glass or ceramic matrix does not diminish its isotopic potency, that is, it does not terminate its direct usefulness as a weapon material.
(2) In order to make the immobilization process affordable, a lot of weapons plutonium needs to be mixed with the radioactive byproducts, thus increasing the risk of spontaneous nuclear criticality during preparation and long after underground burial. Because of these concerns about criticality, underground storage — except for highly diluted mixtures — might not be able to satisfy licensing criteria.
(3) The technology for long-term stabilization of weapons plutonium in a glass or ceramic matrix has been difficult to adequately demonstrate.
Persistent Proponents of Immobilization. Professors Marvin Miller and Frank von Hippel have frequently authored articles and statements advising that all plutonium should be immobilized (vitrified) and buried.
While they shared the same worthy concern as Holdren about proliferation, Miller and von Hippel have been handicapped by their persistence in labeling plutonium “weapons usable” — an imprecise and ambiguous term obscuring the crucial fact that isotopic quality significantly affects a weapon’s yield, reliability, complexity, stability, and ease of manufacture. They have relied on the statements attributed to “U.S. weapons experts” for guidance. If, instead, they placed greater emphasis on fundamental nuclear physics, they might have come to the conclusions ultimately reached by their scientific and engineering peers at the National Academy of Sciences.
Von Hippel, in July 1998, well after Academy’s 1995 recantation, wrote in Nature that “Plutonium separated from fuel in nuclear power reactors can easily be stolen and is directly usable in weapons.”14 If one considers that the nuclear age began more than a half-century ago, and weaponization of reactor plutonium has yet to happen, it cannot be as easy or usable as he insists.
Opposition to reactor degradation, stemming from misdirected fear of nuclear power, is often disguised as environmentalism. For example, Arjun Makhijani, a self-styled environmentalist, in the February 2001 issue of his in-house publication Science for Democratic Action, argued that converting weapons plutonium in commercial plants raises concerns about proliferation and safety (due to the use of plutonium as fuel). Makhijani preferred single-track immobilization, which he considered to be safer, faster, and cheaper — ignoring the 1999 National Academy report which pointed out that immobilization was going nowhere.
Having seen the National Academy adopt a “dual-track” course, the interveners did not publicly abandon advocacy of the single-track burial approach. They continued to advocate that plutonium should be “immobilized” underground without reducing its military potential. The Academy later recanted it original single-track burial recommendation, having found that the immobilization concept did not benefit arms control and nonproliferation as well as the built-in isotopic barriers created by MOX irradiation.
Also of fundamental importance is that the National Academy in its 2000 report recognized that various interim storage configurations (such as “can-in-canister”) were vulnerable to “on-site attack” while the “immobilized” plutonium was still in a form lacking isotopic barriers to reuse in nuclear weapons.
This still-born conversion project in Russia is one of the most egregious and expensive examples of technology hubris regarding non-proliferation goals and measures.15 It involved an failed attempt by the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction assistance program to convert or shut down three aging plutonium-production reactors situated in Siberia.
Urged on by NGOs and committed individuals, this program became an ill-conceived nonproliferation initiative. The initiative was misguided from the beginning and mishandled throughout. Their personal intervention was attempted despite dissent from better informed and more objective scientists.
In the minds of anti-nuclear-power activists, plutonium in any form has constituted a proliferation risk. Ever since the breakup of the USSR, some activists persisted in urged that the three reactors in Russia to be shut down without realistic alternatives. After learning that essential heat and electricity production could not be interrupted, they advised replacement with polluting fossil-fueled plants, and later advocated converting the reactor cores so that less weapons plutonium would be produced. All of these options would have been predictably costly, politically impractical, or unduly harsh for the remote region’s economy, employment, and environment. Moreover, proliferation concerns were exaggerated and misdirected. What should have been emphasized was practical, cost-effective improvements in the reactors’ operational safety, along with improved physical security and nuclear-materials control.
The actual outcome was that the reactors remained operating until the last one was shut down in 2009; perhaps some 50 to 100 million U.S. dollars was largely wasted; no proliferation or diversion of plutonium was experienced; and few of the needed operational or safety improvements were expedited.
Despite practical alternatives, the anti-nuclear militants had such an enduring hangup about the military value of civil plutonium, that they gave nebulous “potential” proliferation much greater priority than reactor safety and environmental preservation.
Ill-Advised Intervention. Frank von Hippel and Harvard professor Matthew Bunn have jointly chronicled their knowledge of the wasteful Siberian-reactor saga, which included ill-fated, time-consuming efforts to substitute coal- and oil-fired plants and later to convert the reactor-fuel cores to a more diversion-resistant composition.16 They provided a first-hand recollection of their personal involvement in trying to shut down or convert the reactors. Although the two professors recognized the need for improved safety and security, they retained a fixation on plutonium production and separation.
The very first paragraph of their personal “Saga” report, divulges their concern and emphasis on trying to get a nuclear-weapons state (Russia) to stop producing weapon-grade plutonium, when high priority should have been to improving the safety of the reactors and continue their operation.
European involvement had been justified by apprehension over inadequate safety of the 30-year-old dual-purpose (military plutonium production and civil district heating) Soviet reactors. American fixation, however, was over continued production of high-grade plutonium.
Disparate roles of U.S. government agencies, lacking high-level coordination during the Clinton administration, lead to — according to one nonproliferation-policy expert — a loss of numerous opportunities to enhance their impact.
In addition, interventionists obviously gave little weight to analysis and choices preferred by Russian scientists and policymakers.
Although the Von Hippel and Bunn blamed “nasty” U.S. government and laboratory turf wars, their own policy direction was doomed because it was based on questionable premises regarding the proliferation value of depleted and irradiated spent fuel: If they had their way, significant U.S. resources would have been applied to preventing a highly improbable diversion of plutonium.
One option originally considered was converting the existing low-enriched uranium (LEU) plutonium-production reactor core to high-enriched uranium (HEU) . But a few prominent Americans had argued that conversion to an HEU core could actually increase proliferation risks. Their intervention evidently contributed to downgrading and stalling reactor security and safety improvements.
Judging from the report by the two professors, it looks like they became part of the problem; they didn’t get qualified assistance from unbiased technical experts until too late (and didn’t seek help from, or listen to, experienced professionals in the field).
The three condemned reactors lasted for up to and more than 40 years — a remarkable testimony to their design, construction, and operation. While the Siberian reactors produced enough useless unseparated plutonium for approximately one nuclear weapon every 36 hours, they also generated heated water and electricity for the surrounding communities.
The program was “mismanaged” said one American official, but “misdirected” would be a better word choice. Russian officials indicated to the U.S. delegation that replacing the reactors with conventional (coal-fired) power plants would cost an estimated $230 million, most of which would have to be provided by the United States. The cost of converting the reactor cores, originally slated at $80 million, expanded to approximately $300 million, making the construction of conventional plants preferable from a fiscal perspective.
Several Russian and American nuclear experts had raised doubts about the feasibility and safety of the core-conversion project. According to a report by Russian nuclear regulators provided to U.S. officials in September, the three military reactors were in such poor physical condition that conversion could have resulted in a Chernobyl-like accident.
In the minds of experienced nuclear engineers, corrective remedies and operational upgrades should have been given the highest priority. However, Western interventionists assigned insufficient priority to the more urgent need for upgrading physical security and safety of the reactors, including the option of replacing them with modern, safer reactors.
DOE’s indecision and inaction were a predictable outcome of allowing parochial anti-nuclear-power obstructionists to dominate the intra-governmental decision process, thus losing time, funds, and opportunity.
Fissile-Material Military-Production Limitations
Ten nations are known or believed to have produced fissile materials of sufficient quality and quantity for nuclear weapons: United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and Israel. A universal halt in deliberate production of weapon-grade fissile materials is widely considered an important gesture for nonproliferation.
“Fisban” is the working name of the proposed formalized halt in production of fissile material, the acronym referring to a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty. The United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom have announced that they no longer produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons, and it is generally thought that China has also ceased such production. Still lacking as of 2009 is any formalization of this freeze.
The proposed cut-off addresses both production and stockpiles of weapons-grade fissile materials. (However, nuclear-weapon states only put forth for discussion those stockpiles that they considered “surplus” to their needs). The addition of new (e.g., India and Pakistan) and emerging nuclear-weapon states have been discussed. The problems of dealing with undeclared nuclear-weapon states (e.g., Israel) have made negotiations quite complicated.
A cut-off would be effective in limiting the size of nuclear arsenals only if existing stocks of weapon-grade fissile materials were eventually to be demilitarized. The ban would be more convincing if disposal took place under international safeguards. A thorny issue has been to get declarations of pre-existing stocks; these were often shrouded in secrecy. A third problem is the current requirement to fuel naval reactors with enriched uranium.
Complicating the treaty scope were attempts to include other related materials, i.e., tritium, which is not fissile but essential in fusion-boosted and two-stage thermonuclear weapons. A few interveners, such as Frank von Hippel, have also wanted to include reactor-grade materials — although the materials are not known to have been employed at all in any nuclear arsenals or in any of more than 100,000 nuclear weapons produced so far. In fact, there are definitive theoretical and practical reasons to exclude reactor-grade materials from a production ban.
Special difficulties arise in disclosing past production because such declarations tread on sensitive nuclear information and residual attitudes. Perhaps the biggest problem, a consequence of complications in assessing actual inventories and losses, has been unwillingness and inability of the nuclear-weapons states to certify production records and existing tally. The reluctant nations do not want to disclose sensitive information about the amount of material used in weapons, nor do they want to admit inability to account for significant ordinary “losses” (to piping, tanks, waste, and spillage).
Because of increased intransigence on the part of the United States, and because of gradual realization that there is much less likelihood of a resurgence in fissile production, arms-control priority has inevitably diminished for the fisban.
Professor Von Hippel has been a prominent supporter, with particular creditable responsibility for shepherding the supportive “International Panel on Fissile Materials.”
However, the Panel’s imperative includes gratuitous negative assessments of the role of nuclear energy and plutonium recycling, e.g.: “Nuclear power worldwide would have to expand five-fold or more to make a significant contribution to greenhouse-gas reductions…. Even if nuclear power expands substantially, there is no economic rationale for reprocessing, for the recycling of plutonium in light water reactors, or for the adoption of closed fuel cycles of any type. Furthermore, there are compelling security reasons to avoid reprocessing and recycling.”
It is not clear what these assessments have to do with production limitations on fissile materials for weapons purposes; however, the inclusion of those assessments reflect the influence of those who consider reactor-grade plutonium to be weapons-usable.
Further, the Panel’s preambular statement reads like an anti-nuclear-power manifesto:
Possession of civilian nuclear power would shorten the time required for a state to break out of a disarmament agreement and produce nuclear weapons. By the same token, such possession also would allow a more rapid deployment or redeployment of nuclear weapons by states wishing to match such a breakout. The existence of a civilian nuclear program would probably also make more possible, though still difficult, a clandestine program by a state to produce fissile material for weapons, which if successful could reduce the time available for the international community to react against the country.
Now, approaching 70 years since the first reactor reached criticality, the predominant evidence indicates that this assessment is entirely inconsistent with the de-facto separation of civilian and military programs.
The International Panel was founded in January 2006 and is an independent group of arms-control and nonproliferation experts from both nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states. It is an undertaking of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. The Panel’s stated mission has been:
to analyze the technical basis for practical and achievable policy initiatives to secure, consolidate, and reduce stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. These fissile materials are the key ingredients in nuclear weapons, and their control is critical to nuclear weapons disarmament, to halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to ensuring that terrorists do not acquire nuclear weapons.
The UN General Assembly in 1993 passed by consensus a resolution calling for the negotiation of: “a non-discriminatory, multilateral and international and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” However, it doesn’t follow that the expressed anti-nuclear-power tone of the “International Panel” is constructively consistent and supportive of the resolution.
In any event, with the ongoing post-Cold-War phaseout of large nuclear arsenals, it would seem that a ban on the deliberate production of fissile materials for weapon purposes is no longer a high priority for nuclear arms control. Yet, for those have an agenda for deliberately reducing the role of civilian nuclear power, it might remain a high priority.
Several facets of the nuclear-power industry, particularly it fuel cycle, have been stress points attracting conflictive views and interventions from the academic and NGO communities.
The fuel cycle starts with the mining and refinement of uranium-bearing ore, the enrichment of uranium for use in light-water reactors, and the fabrication of fuel elements. After functioning as fuel for reactors, the spent elements are removed, and stored — now mostly indefinitely. The discharged fuel, however, could be reprocessed so as to recover its largely unspent fissile uranium content and its accumulated plutonium, both of which could re recycled into fuel for the same or some other type of advanced nuclear reactor.
The mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel that could be (and is often) recycled consists of a consolidated ceramic mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides that result after an industrialized chemical process that removes the fission products accumulated after the original fuel irradiation and burnup.
In the 1970s a lively public-policy controversy, especially in the United States, unfolded about reprocessing spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors. This controversy lingered in such as way as to affect present-day options for the disposition of surplus weapons plutonium.
Commercial Nuclear-Fuel Reprocessing. When a typical nuclear-burnup cycle is terminated (three years for a light-water reactor), the depleted fuel contains unexpended, reusable fissionable material, as well as radioactive fission products. Sometimes as much as 99 percent of their energy content remains unutilized.
These discharged fuel elements are handled with remote controls because they are extremely dangerous to manage — being highly radioactive, metallurgically fragile, and intensely hot. Usually the spent fuel rods are placed in a water-cooled storage pool for several years, to allow the heat and radiation to diminish.
After the Cold War, nuclear-fuel reprocessing resurfaced in the context of arms control, because of its linkage with beneficial aspects of weapons-plutonium burnup and irradiation. MOX burnup is essentially the only technologically feasible near-term means of irreversibly degrading weapons plutonium that has been surplused from dismantled nuclear weapons.17 (However, partial MOX burnup could be accomplished without reprocessing spent fuel.)
Spent-Fuel Reprocessing. According to an anti-nuclear-power manifesto published by the International Panel on Fissile Materials: “If civilian nuclear power is not phased out, it is important to limit to the extent possible national nuclear fuel cycle facilities. Reprocessing plants, by producing nuclear weapon material directly or nearly directly, present the greatest dangers in a nuclear-weapon-free world.”
Uranium-fueled civil reactors produce low-grade plutonium, and it is technically possible to separate plutonium from radioactive co-products of spent fuel. With expectations of a rapidly growing nuclear economy, especially in Russia, came a concomitant need to recycle plutonium into reactor fuel. However, commercial recycling in the West has so far been neither economical nor prudent; as a interim result, spent fuel is now being processed once-through in a manner that incorporates plutonium into a diversion-resistant mix with radioactive fission products.
Several nations have embarked on or engaged in spent-fuel reprocessing and even recycling of its unexpended fissile content. One reason has been to salvage the latent energy value; another has been to reduce the nuclear-waste burden; and yet another has been to decrease national dependency on fossil energy sources, especially petroleum — over which major wars hare been fought. Commercial and national interest also exists in reprocessing for gainful income.
It has evidently been in Russia’s national-security interest to export or allow illicit diversion of plutonium to non-nuclear-weapons states. Nevertheless, prodded by influential anti-nuclear-power activists, DOE tried to reach agreement with Russia’s MINATOM to suspend reprocessing of civil-reactor-generated spent fuel. From Western economic and proliferation viewpoints, reprocessing may not be the wisest option for Russia, but it has important domestic and remunerative value — such as keeping spent fuel in a stable condition and making long-term byproduct disposition or sale easier to carry out.
How to Simplify (But Avoid Dealing With) the Plutonium Problem. In a 1998 article published in an overseas magazine,18 Frank von Hippel, cavalierly advised that “Plutonium separated from fuel in nuclear power reactors can easily be stolen and is directly usable in weapons.” Each of those assertions — that it “can easily be stolen,’and that it is “directly usable in weapons” — seem to have reflected his short-term service in a federal bureaucracy, more than it substantiated a qualified reckoning by an open-minded scientist.
In attempting to influence an ongoing UK analysis of plutonium conversion, Von Hippel challenged as “misinformation” the Royal Society’s recommendations. He argued against reprocessing spent fuel to recover its energy and economic value on the grounds that “enormous growth projected for nuclear power did not materialize.” The article also criticized the “vision” of a “plutonium-based energy economy…embraced by virtually all the nuclear establishments….”
Von Hippel’s advice that “The surest anti-proliferation measure is to stop reprocessing spent fuel,” would have precluded MOX burnup of weapons plutonium, a process now commonly and economically in widespread use. Since the dual-track challenge was lost on the American side of the pond, the Brits were being advised on “How to solve the problem” by exchanging its reactor-grade plutonium for unprocessed foreign spent fuel. Counsel was also provided against reprocessing services being put into operation at a commercial plant in England.
The proposals, which were ignored in the UK, would n’t simplify — only temporarily avoid — the “plutonium problem” that was created in the United States as a result of persistent lobbying.
Return to Primary Table of Contents
Return to beginning of Section III NUCLEAR WEAPONS
Improvised devices, intended to harm by spreading radioactivity, have very limited potential as either military weapons or terrorist devices. However, permeating the public media had been considerable misinformation, much of it propagated by anti-nuclear-power activists.
[“Dirty Bombs”]. Loosely characterized in popular press, the “dirty bomb” label would refer to the deliberate use of explosives for dispersing radiation. Any conventional explosive can help scatter radioactive substances, possibly for a few blocks. The physical harm likely to be caused by such a device comes directly from the explosive, not from the radioactivity; so it is more of a psychological weapon, the purpose being to cause fear and anxiety.
To begin with, radiological materials difficult to obtain because they are government- controlled substances; however, there are possibilities of stealing from commercial or government inventories or acquiring orphaned sources. Harmful explosion-driven dispersal would not be easy to achieve. Physical injury that could be produced from the radiation is insubstantial compared to the high-explosive itself. In general, dispersed radiation can be washed off and decontaminated, although some short-term risk of particulate inhalation could occur. Most technologically advanced nations that might be targets of terrorist attack have well-trained personnel for radiological cleanup. The most noxious radiation is readily detectable.
The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement, advising on the mitigation of radiation effects from potential terrorist attacks, has concluded that “radioactive contamination, whether internal or external, is never immediately life threatening.” There’s usually plenty of time for successful decontamination and medical treatment.
Human casualties might occur in a very hypothetical situation, including an accident, if a strong (probably commercial) radioisotope source were forcefully scattered, causing particles to be inhaled, imbedded, or ingested at some populated location that lacked prompt and disciplined detection and treatment.
Even if serious casualties did not occur, radioisotope dispersion would likely create a psychological and logistical nightmare. While the complications in decontamination of individuals and surroundings can be dealt with in a straightforward manner, the psychological trauma is more likely to be magnified by ill-informed government officials, newsmedia, and environmental agitators. The Three-Mile Island reactor accident is such an example, where — despite the total absence of physical harm to the public — considerable psychological trauma was induced.
Here are the results of a specific estimate of what would happen if a specific intense radioactive source were dispersed, as in the dirty-bomb scenario. The most likely outcome would be that the perpetrators would be the sole victims — because of the difficulties and hazards involved in carrying out the operation.
[Radiation Dispersion]. A very hazardous 1000-curie (3.7 x 1013 Bq) Co-60 gamma-ray source, if uniformly spread over an area of about two football fields (a typical city block), would induce about 25 mSv/hour average radiation dose. Victims who experience only radiation exposure (no blast or thermal trauma) would have up to an hour or so to get out of the area without receiving much more than a year’s dose of radiation above typical background. Only those close to concentrated gamma-radiation fallout, felled by injury and unable to be evacuated within many hours, might have their physical trauma aggravated by radiation exposure.
Notwithstanding the technical-risk perspective supplied above, the public-TV program Nova web site advertised its program as follows:19
There are any number of reasons why we should be worried about the dirty bomb menace, says nuclear terrorism expert Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Clinton. Among them: Radioactive substances are everywhere; anyone can build a dirty bomb; and Al Qaeda has sought to make or acquire one.
This is the type of truth and speculation mixture that increases media ratings.
As Charles D. Ferguson, a former nuclear submariner, then a professor at the Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies, began to realize when he fended questions about Nova’s 2003 dramatized “Dirty Bomb” episode, the topic unleashed an outpouring of public overreaction that became difficult to put into context, as much as he tried.
One individual who has done much to place the risks of radiological-dispersion devices in perspective has been Professor Peter D. Zimmerman, whose academic affiliations have included Louisiana State University and King’s College London and who served in U.S. government scientific advisory positions. He too has been active in arms-control activities.
Depleted Uranium. A “scare-case” example that depends solely on the linear LNT extrapolation interpretation is typified in an academic analysis.20 The abstract contains the following conclusion:
[The] cumulative “population dose” resulting from the dispersal of hundreds of tons of [depleted uranium], as occurred during the Gulf War, could result in up to ten cancer deaths.
That conclusion is highly speculative alarmism. To place depleted uranium in a better context, here is some extracted material from Nuclear Insights, Volume 2: Nuclear Threats and Prospects (A Knowledgeable Assessment).21
[Depleted Uranium Hazards.] Consisting of almost entirely of the very long-lived isotope uranium-238, depleted uranium is a recoverable uranium-enrichment byproduct. It is only slightly radioactive — less so than the original ore.
Two abundant sources of depleted uranium exist: “tails” or leftovers from separating fissile isotopes from natural uranium, and reprocessed fuel discharged from plutonium-production reactors. Residual radiation levels (from uranium and sometimes a trace of plutonium) are quite low, but still detectable with specialized, very sensitive instruments. Much of the fissile component, uranium-235, has been removed, leaving primarily the nonfissile isotope, uranium-238.
U-235 is now the primary fuel for nuclear reactors, and it was once produced to be a major ingredient in nuclear weapons. The depleted-uranium byproduct has had both civilian and military functions.
The intrinsic value of depleted uranium depends on its marketability: It could be treated as waste, sold commercially, or retained by governments. Natural uranium has approximately 0.7% of the valuable U-235 fissile isotope, the rest being largely the more abundant U-238. Nuclear reactors can be fueled with different compositions of natural or enriched uranium.
Considerable residual energy value exists in depleted uranium. It constitutes an enormous energy resource, containing as it does about ten times as much energy as all the U.S. coal reserves. That energy can be accessed by fast reactors, postponing for centuries the need to mine any more uranium — and eliminating forever the need to enrich uranium.
Quite a few nations —Russia, France, Japan, South Korea, China, and India — have maintained or initiated programs for fast-breeder reactors that are designed to recycle depleted uranium and other forms or components of spent reactor fuel.
If not used in nuclear reactors, the hazards from depleted uranium are comparable to lead, tungsten, or mercury — all heavy metals that, when pulverized or dissolved, become toxic to living organisms. Although radiation properties of depleted uranium add no meaningful physical hazard, heavy-metal poisoning is a matter of public concern.
Depleted uranium is a Cold War environmental legacy. Because of lower cost and higher density, it has also become favored over tungsten, lead, and steel for armor-piercing munitions. Battlefield depleted uranium does not represent a radiological threat; that is, it is not a viable candidate for use in a “dirty bomb” or any type of radiological-dispersion device. Any cancers or deformities found in a battlefield would be much more likely caused by other toxic agents, not depleted uranium.
Depleted uranium has been exploited for nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors, as well as commercially in radiography shielding, coloring agents, and aircraft trim weights.
A great deal of depleted uranium is held in storage by nuclear-weapon states. Military tacticians have come up with a potent use: It is much (70-percent) denser than lead, so it is the preferred bullet or projectile against shielded targets. Depleted uranium shells have been used by coalition forces in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Notwithstanding considerable public concern, extensive independent analyses have not identified any unique risks or harm to civilians or military forces from exposure to depleted uranium in those warfare theaters. These results have held even where the material was shattered into tiny particles, the form that might cause cancer if inhaled or ingested.
Some residual radiation measured at battle sites might actually come from infinitesimal amounts of plutonium, but generally plutonium signatures found on the ground are from global atmospheric nuclear testing and from Chernobyl. These negligible plutonium levels, if measurable, exceed what depleted-uranium arms residues might add in a battleground.
Uranium is ubiquitous in trace amounts. With sensitive-enough analysis, it could be detected in soil and water almost anywhere. Over a million tons have been separated and remain in national and multilateral stockpiles. In certain forms, uranium is pyrophoric.
In any event, common solvents, lead-based paint, aerosol mercury, and organic pollutants are much more frequent sources of toxicity.
Depleted uranium converted to a metal has been utilized by the military as armor plate or in armor-piercing projectiles. None of these particular functions make use of its intrinsic fissionable nuclear attributes. With ongoing development of new means of isotope enrichment, existing and future stockpiles of depleted uranium have significant potential value as feedstock for re-enrichment or as fuel for plutonium-breeding nuclear reactors.
For a given mass, depleted uranium metal has a smaller diameter than an equivalent lead projectile, thus less aerodynamic drag and deeper penetration due to a higher pressure at point of impact. After piercing armored-tank plate, some depleted uranium residue might be dispersed as metallic or oxide fragments, but it is very unlikely to become a powder that could cause an inhalation hazard.
Because its harmful properties derive from high density — rather than mild chemical reactivity or low-level radioactivity — battlefield uranium merits no more, no less proscription than any other conventional means of warfare.
There are two different aspects of waste management and storage f or nuclear wastes, depending on their origin: military or civilian programs. Military programs have generated nuclear waste derived from the development and production of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors for military applications, including propulsion and test reactors.
[Military Waste Management]. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, is a designated repository for defense-program transuranic wastes, but it would not be sufficient to dispose of all residue from the weapons complex. WIPP is making use of underground salt beds; some controversy continues over whether the site has the needed long-term integrity.
Radioactive waste and spent fuel were (and are) also being generated in commercial nuclear-power operations. Except for the uranium mill tailings (leftovers after extracting uranium from ore), industrial discharges have been handled with considerably more care than those from weapons production.
[Civilian Waste Management]. Concurrent with the 1970s controversy over reprocessing, disputes also arose about the safe and secure management of nuclear waste, with many of the same protagonists and antagonists involved. Regulations, standards, and repositories for treatment, handling, transport, and storage had not yet been established. Long-term immobilization of high-level waste had been investigated and was being developed for deep underground emplacement. It is now clear that universal understanding and acceptance had been presumed without taking into consideration public attitudes and ideological positions.
Because of priorities now being attached to secure disposal of weapons plutonium, interest in nuclear-waste treatment and underground burial has revived. MOX containing weapons plutonium could be irradiated and then buried without another stage of reprocessing.
During the expansionist days of nuclear power, “closure” of the nuclear cycle meant that discharged fuel would be routinely reprocessed. This would result in residual fissile materials being recycled into new fuel and the radioactive waste being reduced in volume and stored underground. Methods were developed for safe storage with multiple barriers to prevent radioactive materials from contaminating the surrounding soil and water. Public opposition, as well as reductions in economic value, has put a monkeywrench into fuel-cycle closure.
[Civilian Waste Storage]. Commercial-reactor owners have contributed to a substantial fund set aside to pay for waste disposal, and a desolate site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, had been prepared as a repository for civilian nuclear-reactor fuel. However, the site has been controversial even though it is on a former nuclear-weapons test reservation. Costs have increased and licensing has been postponed. Under the G.W. Bush administration, the government declared the site to be qualified to receive spent fuel, but as of January 2005 the matter had not been settled [In fact, the Obama administration but it on hold and did not request funding from Congress] . In the meantime, discharged fuel is piling up from the nation’s nuclear plants; there were then more than 50,000 tons stored at more than 100 interim locations in 39 states within 75 miles of 161 million people.
Many of these issues dealing with civilian nuclear-waste management and long-term storage have been politicized by interveners. The political costs have become too large for policy-makers to overcome. In addition, economic costs and recovery values are marginal enough that reprocessing can be postponed, at least for a while. That makes it easier to avoid difficult policy decisions, especially if there is no immediate danger or urgent need. This is notably the situation for spent-fuel reprocessing, tagged as proliferation-sensitive by many interveners who have offered few — if any — constructive long-term alternatives. In addition, as noted in the nuclear scoreboard and throughout this critique, the alleged foundation of proliferation sensitivity has withered substantially.
Several issues regarding securing nuclear materials have arisen. One long-recognized concern has been that of protecting against materials or technology access by foreign nations, and the other concern is that of securing materials and reactors against non-state (terrorist) type threats.
[Nuclear-Reactor Security]. While nuclear-power plants, because of their physical profile and emotionalized status, appear to be vulnerable targets for terrorism, most are inherently quite secure and resistant to external attack — even by large fuel-laden aircraft. In the United States, power reactors are surrounded by a steel-lined reinforced concrete shell about five feet in thickness — unlike the World Trade Center towers that were very tall and completely unprotected. Moreover, inside the reactor are additional barriers that protect the reactor core from being breached. Tests and calculations show that heavy aircraft could penetrate only a harmless few inches of the outer containment even with explosives. Doleful, pessimistic predictions by anti-nuclear partisans — such as Paul Leventhal of the Nuclear Control Institute and Steve Fetter of the University of Maryland — are based on invalid or unrealistic assumptions.
[Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?]. An obscure 1987 paper written by five eminent U.S. weapon-laboratory specialists described many inherent technical and logistical obstacles to be faced by terrorists before they could conceivably construct nuclear explosives.
The experts addressed both crude and more sophisticated design options. They mentioned the critical-mass requirements of either gun- or implosion-type weapons, the chemical and isotopic properties of fissile materials, the potential sources of such materials, and the physics concepts associated with creating nuclear explosions. They also described the considerations necessary to take into account preinitiation, neutron reflectors, and other design factors. Formidable barriers must be overcome for terrorists to succeed in acquisition of high-grade materials from storage sites or nuclear transport.
A terrorist group would have to proceed deliberately and with caution to have a good chance of avoiding any mishap in handling the material, while at the same time proceeding with all possible speed to reduce their chance of detection.
The time factor also enters the picture in a quite different way. In the event of timely detection of a theft of a significant amount of fissile material — whether well suited for use in an explosive device or not — all relevant branches of a country’s security forces would immediately mount an intensive response. The production of sophisticated devices should not be considered a possible activity for a fly-by-night terrorist group.
In summary, the main concern with respect to terrorists should be focused on those in a position to build, and bring with them, their own devices, as well as on those able to steal an operable weapon.
Despite the incentives and track record of nuclear power as a modern and dependable means of energy in several usable forms, at competitive cost, and little harm for the ambient environment, its presence and even its success has generated considerable debate. Part of the public reaction surely dates to its common foundation with the hugely destructive nuclear weapons.
[Nuclear Power as Green Weapon Against Global Warming]. In order to supply large-scale electric power without contributing to global warming, nuclear reactors are needed to replace or supplement fossil-fueled plants. This was recommended by an interdisciplinary research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The MIT report addresses several problems that would have to be resolved in order to carry out a large-scale reduction in carbon emissions. Perceived inadequacies of the current international nuclear-safeguards regime would have to be transcended by a “once-through” nuclear-fuel cycle. However, because of the benefits of transmutation (for burning up weapons-plutonium and for reducing radioactive-waste), their recommendation for once-through fuel-cycle has been questioned by other experts.
Three other “critical problems” that must be overcome for a successful “large-scale expansion” of nuclear power are cost, safety, and waste disposal. The MIT group made the following suggestions: The differential cost problem could be overcome if a “carbon tax” were levied on coal and natural gas to level the playing field. Reactor-safety standards would need to be strengthened to reduce the hypothetical frequency of serious reactor-core accidents. And, capacity for radioactive-waste storage depots would have to be expanded.
The MIT study favored nuclear energy “because it is an important carbon-free source of power” that could supplant fossil-fuel burning.
Medical Isotopes. As an example of the ill-destined consequences of anti-nuclear campaigns, one can point to nuclear-reactor radionuclide production. As an older person who has at least several times so far benefitted from medical isotopes, I have a personal stake in seeing that radioactive sources, including Mo-99, are maintained. Frankly, it is with some chagrin that anti-nuclear policies are impeding the commercial availability of radionuclides. This is traceable specifically in part to the senseless U.S. emphasis on domestic reactor core-enrichment conversion is another example of misplaced nuclear priorities to be found in Science and Global Security.22 More generally the medical-isotope shortage is a result of the many years that the broader anti-nuclear-power bias prevailed.
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Return to beginning of Section IV NUCLEAR MISUNDERSTANDINGS AND TRENDS
A number of organizations that have commendable environmental objectives, but have gone far adrift on nuclear issues include Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Nuclear Control Institute (led by David Albright), Greenpeace, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Princeton University Center for Energy & Environmental Studies, and Rocky Mountain Institute (Amory Lovins). The MIT-associated UCS originated with the anti-Vietnam-war movement, but eventually transitioned into a chronic anti-nuclear-power complainant. All of these organizations have continued to oppose the nuclear-weapons burden.
With the Vietnam war and the Cold War having gone their way, and with the decades of peaceful construction and operation of nuclear-power plants, there are not the same number or vituperation from entrenched anti-nuclear-power organizations as in past.
A great many NGOs, many largely web-based, focus mostly on their concerns about nuclear weapons. These include the following: Abolition 2000, Acronym Institute, Arms Control Association, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Council for a Livable World, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Henry Stimson Center, International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility, International School on Disarmament And Research on Conflicts (ISODARCO), Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies, MoveOn, Nuclear Threat Initiative, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs, Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council(RANSAC at Princeton), Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), University of Illinois Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security Program, Verification Technology Information Center (VERTIC), and Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
A few old standbys, such as the Federation of American Scientists, for many years under the leadership or directorship of Professor Frank von Hippel, drifted far from their roots.
Perhaps the one weapons scientist who eventually most regretted his career in designing some of the most destructive fission explosives was Ted Taylor. He not only became a notable defector from the weapons community, but became an active advocate for nuclear disarmament, even going as far as to advise the rejection of all nuclear power worldwide, fearing that it would engender the type of destruction that he had once exploited.23 His anti-nuclear conversion became a beacon for non-proliferation advocates.
Facing the realities of the Nuclear Age as they have become evident these past 50 years has been a difficult and painful process for me, involving many changes of heart in my feelings about nuclear weapons and nuclear power since I first heard of nuclear fission on August 6, 1945. I started with a sense of revulsion towards nuclear weapons and skepticism about nuclear power for nearly five years. Then I worked on and strongly promoted nuclear weapons for some 15 years. In 1966, in the midst of a job in the Pentagon, I did an about-face in my perception of nuclear weaponry, and have pressed for nuclear disarmament ever since. My rejection of nuclear power, because of its connection with nuclear weapons, took longer, and was not complete until about 1980. Since that time I have been persistent in calling for the prompt global abolition of all nuclear weapons and the key nuclear materials needed for their production.
Since all of the more than 400 nuclear power plants now operating in 32 countries produce large quantities of plutonium that, when chemically separated from spent fuel, can be used to make reliable, efficient nuclear weapons of all types, I have also found it necessary to call for phasing out all nuclear power worldwide.
In contrast, few if any other nuclear-weapon designers and developers underwent such a conversion, most of them being rather supportive of the parallel and consequent growth of nuclear power. In common, many warned of the risks of proliferation, although it was mostly out of national-hegemonic security concern. Some, such as Vadim Simonenko and J. Carson Mark also reached out to NGOs in trying to personally improve Cold War relations and reduce risks of nuclear war.
Notable conversions from opposition to pronounced support of nuclear power have been occurring as it is more and more realized that various contemporary situations benefit from a clean, safe, and reliable source of power. Two prominent conversions are those of Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, and Stewart Brand, an entrepreneur that once helped usher in the environmental movement in the 1960s and ’70s.
the rest of the environmental movement … to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.
Once dismissive about a positive role for nuclear power, Moore now looks at it from a broader perspective:
More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions — or nearly 10 percent of global emissions — of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power. And these days it can do so safely….
The 600-plus coal-fired plants emit nearly 2 billion tons of CO2 annually — the equivalent of the exhaust from about 300 million automobiles. In addition, the Clean Air Council reports that coal plants are responsible for 64 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 26 percent of nitrous oxides and 33 percent of mercury emissions. These pollutants are eroding the health of our environment, producing acid rain, smog, respiratory illness and mercury contamination….
Moore is “not alone among seasoned environmental activists” in changing their mind on this subject despite rebuke from “the anti-nuclear priesthood.” He now argues that
...the only way to reduce fossil fuel emissions from electrical production is through an aggressive program of renewable energy sources (hydroelectric, geothermal heat pumps, wind, etc.) plus nuclear….
Meanwhile, the 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States effectively avoid the release of 700 million tons of CO2 emissions annually — the equivalent of the exhaust from more than 100 million automobiles….
[Going from Anti-Nuclear to Pro-Nuclear (Getting Informed)]. Now that the former Greenpeace skeptic Patrick Moore has educated himself on the comparative impact of nuclear and fossil energy sources, he has also made a point to become better informed about other concerns: reactor safety, spent-fuel storage, potential terrorism, and proliferation.
Moore’s perspective about the 1979 reactor core meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant has changed too:
The [reactor] concrete containment structure did just what it was designed to do — prevent radiation from escaping into the environment. And although the reactor itself was crippled, there was no injury or death among nuclear workers or nearby residents. Three Mile Island was the only serious accident in the history of nuclear energy generation in the United States, but it was enough to scare us away from further developing the technology:
Indeed, Moore recognizes significant differences with the design and operation in 1986 of the former Chernobyl reactor:
[Chernobyl] was an accident waiting to happen. This early model of Soviet reactor had no containment vessel, was an inherently bad design and its operators literally blew it up….
Tragic as the [56 confirmed deaths at Chernobyl] were, they pale in comparison to the more than 5000 coal-mining deaths that occur worldwide every year. No one has died of a radiation-related accident in the history of the U.S. civilian nuclear reactor program….
As for other problems perceived with nuclear energy, Moore now places each in a broad perspective. Here’s a sampling of his revised views on cost, waste storage, and potential terrorism:
[Nuclear] is in fact one of the least expensive energy sources. In 2004, the average cost of producing nuclear energy in the United States was less than two cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable with coal and hydroelectric….
Within 40 years, used [nuclear] fuel has less than one-thousandth of the radioactivity it had when it was removed from the reactor. And it is incorrect to call it waste, because 95 percent of the potential energy is still contained in the used fuel after the first cycle….
[Nuclear reactors have a] six-feet-thick reinforced concrete containment vessel [that] protects the contents from the outside as well as the inside. And even if a jumbo jet did crash into a reactor and breach the containment, the reactor would not explode. There are many types of facilities that are far more vulnerable, including liquid natural gas plants, chemical plants and numerous political targets….
Patrick Moore has gone a long way from anti-nuclear abstractionism to nuclear realism, and he is working to get other environmentalists to see the benefits for our planet.
Since the counterculture sixties, entrepreneur and philanthropist Stewart Brand has been a critical thinker and innovator who helped lay the foundations of our internet world. He founded the Whole Earth Catalog, a massive compendium of resources. He now calls himself an “ecopragmatist.”
Here are some extracts found on his web site:25
Global warming has to be slowed by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases from combustion, but cities require dependable baseload electricity, and so far the only carbon-free sources are hydroelectric dams and nuclear power. Brand contrasted nuclear with coal-burning by comparing what happens with their waste products. Nuclear spent fuel is tiny in quantity, and you know exactly where it is, whereas the gigatons of carbon dioxide from coal burning goes into the atmosphere, where it stays for centuries making nothing but trouble. Brand declared that geological sequestering of nuclear waste has been proven practical and safe by the ten years of experience at the WIPP in New Mexico, and he paraded a series of new “microreactor” designs that offer a clean path for distributed micropower, especially in developing countries.
On the subject of bioengineering (direct intervention in climate), Brand suggested that we will have to follow of the example of beneficial “ecosystem engineers” such as earthworms and beavers and tweak our niche (the planet) toward a continuing life-friendly climate, using methods such a cloud-brightening with atomized seawater and recreating what volcanoes do when they pump sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, cooling the whole world.
“Green” aversion to technologies such as nuclear and genetic engineering resulted from a mistaken notion that they are somehow “unnatural.” “What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable,” Brand concluded. “We live one life.”
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Return to beginning of Section V THE DYNAMICS OF NUCLEAR CONTROVERSY
How about abolishing nuclear weapons? While its achievement has been welcomed, the full-fledged concept is so unrealistic on technical grounds as to be potentially harmful to realizable nuclear-arms reductions. As a goal, abolition is nice to echo; as a viable program, it runs too contrary to human history. I don’t know of any weapon that’s actually been abolished, although many have been at least partly circumscribed.
Perhaps one of the most apologetic converts to abolition was Ted Taylor, a former nuclear-weapons designer responsible for some of the most devastating fission weapons ever developed:
I believe the time has come to establish a global popular taboo against nuclear weapons and devices or processes that might be used to make them. The taboo should be directed specifically at any action — by governments, nongovernment enterprises, or individuals — that is in violation of international laws specifically related to nuclear technology.
Unfortunately, Taylor espoused the fanciful idea of abolishing both nuclear weapons and nuclear power, an extremist stance that undermined his credibility after he had spent decades vigorously and substantially as a physicist and government official personally abetting nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare.
The notion of total nuclear disarmament gained credibility a few years ago when four Cold War veterans — George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, both secretaries of state; William Perry, a defense secretary; and Senator Sam Nunn — overcame their political differences to endorse the idea in a Wall Street Journal op-ed article. Now that it has been embraced by Presidents Obama and Medvedev, the notion seems to be moving from the realm of fantasy to the hardscrabble world of policy and politics. One must keep in mind, however, that some recent proponents of abolition had helped create the nuclear monster, not so easily willed away.
The Washington heavyweights say the United States should launch a major effort towards banning all nuclear weapons.
Citing nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, the officials say the world “is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era.”
Aside from the threat of terrorists using nuclear weapons, “unless urgent new actions are taken, the US soon will be compelled to enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was the Cold War deterrence.”
In the lengthy article the ex-officials recommended a series of measures that include strong support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other non-proliferation efforts. But more has to be done, they suggested.
“We believe that a major effort should be launched by the United States to produce a positive answer through concrete stages.”
Proposed measures include:
– increasing the launch warning time on deployed nuclear weapons to reduce the danger of an accidental or unauthorized use,
– decreasing the number of nuclear weapons among all nations,
– eliminating short-range nuclear weapons, designed to be deployed with front-line troops,
– providing the highest possible security around the world for all nuclear weapons, weapons-usable plutonium, and highly enriched uranium,
– phasing out the use of highly enriched uranium in civil commerce,
– removing weapons-usable uranium from research facilities around the world.
“Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage.”
“Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.”
If those former Cold Warriors who lately become vocal converts to nuclear abolition were to express contrition and promote the unraveling of still-egregious national-security secrecy, this might do more for nuclear reductions than all the petitions in the world. (They would also find, especially by reading Volume 3 of Nuclear Insights, that although the nuclear-transition road should indeed be paved with political good will, the foundation must consist of technically viable and verifiable means of fissile demilitarization.)
Kissinger and Schultz were once part of the problem associated with massive nuclear deterrence as a day-to-day and year-to-year strategy, regardless of risk. The two former secretaries of state have now been welcomed aboard an increasingly popular bandwagon. Nevertheless, if they published a reasoned renunciation of their Cold War nuclear-brandishing stances, it would go much further in promoting reductions.
Kissinger and Schultz’s conversion to nuclear abolition is somewhat worrisome to a viable process of incremental reductions. Considering their sudden changeover from intractable hard-line nuclear positions, one can’t help but wonder whether their abolition advocacy might delay or sabotage a process of systematic, stepwise reductions.
Although “abolition” of nuclear weapons is a lofty and commendable goal, the Nuclear Insights book trilogy, especially Volume 3, identifies manageable measures that would lead to systematic and feasible de-legitimization and de-militarization of nuclear weapons. Here’s its list of recommended goals in de-emphasizing nuclear weapons.
[Nuclear “De-Emphasis”]. By making use of the Latin prefix de- (which means reversal or removal), and taking slight liberty with the English language, nine specific goals can be identified to reverse (or de-emphasize) the Cold War instruments of nuclear destruction:
1. “de-targeting” nuclear aim-points
2. “de-alerting” missile-launch systems
3. “de-mating” nuclear warhead s from delivery systems
4. “de-MIRVing” ballistic-missile reentry vehicles
5. “de-creasing” nuclear arsenals
6. “de-fending” against ballistic missiles
7. “de-weaponizing” outer space
8. “de-militarizing” fissile materials
9. “de-minishing” the inherited nuclear-weapons infrastructure
What you will not find in Nuclear Insights is a discourse about “abolishing” nuclear weapons. It’s an apt goal for political figures, a few of whom share responsibility for the current state of affairs, but too impractical for those who have in-depth, hands-on experience with nuclear weaponry and arms-control verification. Abolition is an admirable goal, but it should not jeopardize more manageable reductive measures that could greatly detoxify the prevailing existential threat.
[Unfinished Business]. The threat of nuclear war, which has been an “inescapable backdrop” for about half a century, remains to haunt the world. Newly constituted Russia, inheriting many thousands of nuclear weapons, has been mired in deep economic distress. Strategic nuclear-weapons systems remain on high alert, launchable by accident or mistake. The prospect of additional proliferation lingers. These prolonged hazards have led some observers to “counsel the complete abolition of nuclear weapons” and others to advocate less-traumatic “deep cuts” in nuclear inventories. Less vocal and less dogmatic now are the proponents of massive retaliation.
Many reductive proposals are aimed at deep cuts, others at abolition, the latter sometimes seen as a “fanciful dream” derived largely from moral principles. In clarifying the different goals, the now-deceased Wolfgang Panofsky posed by the following rhetorical question:
Can conditions ever be achieved in which the possession and use of nuclear weapons can be prohibited worldwide? I advisedly use the word “prohibited” rather than “eliminated” or “abolished.” Nuclear weapons cannot be “un-invented.” Thus the best hope for mankind is to arrive at an international norm under which nuclear weapons are prohibited….
While “abolition” seeks the total elimination of nuclear weapons, “renunciation” is the policy equivalent, a governmental commitment that lacks durability and tangibility. Renunciation would be a necessary but not sufficient step towards nuclear abolition.
In any event, the way from here to there — however far the nuclear-reduction journey travels — has to go through a special process for eliminating the special fissile materials that constitute the nuclear arsenals. Fission and thermonuclear warheads only work with uranium and plutonium of weapons grade . Their demilitarization is not only practical, it is already underway on a moderate scale in several weaponized nations, including the United States, as summarized in the following news excerpt.
What’s powering your home appliances? For about 10 percent of electricity in the United States, it’s fuel from dismantled nuclear bombs, Russian and American ones.
But if more diluted weapons-grade uranium or plutonium isn’t secured soon, the pipeline could run dry, with ramifications for consumers, as well as some American utilities and their Russian suppliers….
Salvaged bomb material now generates about 10 percent of electricity in the United States — by comparison, hydropower generates about 6 percent and solar, biomass, wind and geothermal together account for 3 percent.
Utilities have been loath to publicize the Russian bomb supply line for fear of spooking consumers…. Today, former bomb material from Russia accounts for 45 percent of the fuel in American nuclear reactors, while another 5 percent comes from American bombs….
Treaties at the end of the Cold War led to the decommissioning of thousands of warheads. Their energy-rich cores are converted into civilian reactor fuel. In the United States, the agreements are portrayed as nonproliferation treaties — intended to prevent loose nukes in Russia….
The program for dismantling and diluting the fuel cores of decommissioned Russian warheads … is set to expire in 2013, just as the industry is trying to sell it forcefully as an alternative to coal-powered energy plants, which emit greenhouse gases.
Finding a substitute is a concern for utilities today because nuclear plants buy fuel three to five years in advance…. American reactors would not shut down without a deal; utilities could turn to commercial imports, which would most likely be much more expensive….
The United States Enrichment Corporation … is the treaty-designated agent on the Russian imports. It, in turn, sells the fuel to utilities at prevailing market prices…. American utilities operating nuclear power plants … have benefitted as the abundance of fuel that came onto the market drastically reduced overall prices and created savings that were ultimately passed along to consumers and shareholders.
Nuclear industry giants … are deeply involved in recycling weapons material and will need new supplies to continue that side of their businesses.
In the United States, domestic weapons recycling programs are smaller in scale…. diluting uranium from the 217 tons the government declared surplus; so far 125 tons have been processed….
The American plutonium recycling program is also well under way… in South Carolina to dismantle warheads from the American arsenal; a type of plutonium fuel, called mixed-oxide fuel, will come on the market in 2017. In total, the 34 tons to be recycled there are expected to generate enough electricity for a million American homes for 50 years.
To get from here to there, whether it is systematic nuclear demilitarization or abolition, the technical means to irrevocably destroy the critical constituents of nuclear warheads needs to be in place and functioning on a practicable scale.
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Return to beginning of Section V THE DYNAMICS OF NUCLEAR CONTROVERSY
Marvin Miller of MIT and Frank Von Hippel of Princeton used the term “obdurateness” in 1997 to characterize the non-proliferation reasoning of those who disagreed with them.26 Their own obdurateness probably contributed to delays in making irreversible nuclear weapons reductions — most likely just the opposite of their intent.
In their publications, the two professors have underrated the advantages of moving expeditiously toward irreversible isotopic demilitarization of weapons-plutonium stockpiles. They have personally and vigorously promoted the indefinite storage of weapons plutonium in a vitrified form (which, ironically, would be relatively easy to reprocess into weapons). Their stance seems to have been derived from their oft-expressed antipathy to nuclear power, especially fast reactors.
As described in Section III, the professors repeatedly expressed their opinion that all plutonium should be immobilized (vitrified) and buried without reducing its military potential. In 1997,27 Miller and Von Hippel reasserted their retrograde position even though the National Academy of Sciences had forsaken single-track immobilization in favor of isotopic transformation of plutonium to demilitarized forms. Two years earlier, a National Academy “clarification” of a earlier report concluded that there were “nonproliferation liabilities” in not moving ahead with “imposing some built-in [isotopic] barriers to the reuse of military plutonium.” (As a matter of longstanding experience, intrinsic isotopic barriers have kept Cold War nuclear arsenals of any nation or aspirant from being made out of low-grade materials.)
The electrical power now being derived from old nuclear weapons, as noted in the preceding New York Times article, would not be flowing if the two professors had prevailed.
Professor Miller has also teamed up with Dr. Victor Gilinsky, former Commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in writing an unpublished 2004 NGO Nonproliferation Policy Education Center report which incongruously argued that Iran could derive “60 Nagasaki bombs’ worth of near-weapons grade material” from its internationally safeguarded Bushehr nuclear-power reactor, have its “first bomb made in a matter of weeks,” with “the reliability of the bombs made of this material [being] similar to that of devices made of pure weapons grade plutonium.” This is the type of selective and obdurate analysis that gives rise to the next topic, Alarmism and Alarmists.
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Return to beginning of Section V THE DYNAMICS OF NUCLEAR CONTROVERSY
One detrimental feature of many publications and statements is a unsubstantiated degree of alarmism. Because it is important to address individual and societal risks, sufficient and substantive evidence is needed, not just personal concerns or agendas.
The purview of this Knol has been largely confined to issues dealing with nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Although there is inescapable commonality in these topics, there is as well a meaningful difference, a differentiation that many outspoken individuals still deny. That shortcoming remains part of the Cold War legacy.
In order to keep this Knol within reasonable size, many potential topics have not been rehashed here (see Exclusions). These are mostly topics that deal directly with the Cold War and various decisions that were made. Most of this is discussed in Nuclear Insights Volume 1: Nuclear Weaponry (An Insider History).
Here’s a personal note about alarmism as a tactic to get needed attention: I know about alarmism, having used the tactic myself from time to time, especially during the Cold War when nuclear arsenals were being expanded at scary rates. I could indeed have been called to task for insufficient scientific substantiation.
The fundamental question to ask is whether alarmism is supported by scientific methodology. Is the perceived danger generated from a statistically valid assessment? That’s a useful criterion for placing probability and consequence of events into systematic perspective.
Some alarmism during the Cold War was vested in “worst-case” strategic assessments. These were the product of analysts such as Albert Wohlstetter and Herman Kahn (see “Doomsday Machine,” next) .
As for premature judgments related to low-dose nuclear-radiation exposures, I would designate that type of alarmist tactic “scare-case.”
“Doomsday Machine.” This fateful concept was the creation of Herman Kahn, a RAND Corporation nuclear physicist. In order to enable the U.S. to take a much firmer position against the perceived threat of the Soviet Union, Kahn advocated a first-use policy for nuclear weapons, and he proposed the construction of a massive civil defense. Kahn was sometimes likened to the cinematized persona of Dr. Strangelove.
In Kahn’s treatise, On Thermonuclear War, he argued that American security depended on “a willingness to incur casualties in limited war just to improve our bargaining position moderately.” His primary illustration of this point was the ill-fated American involvement in Vietnam. Kahn believed that a thermonuclear war could be “won,” and titled the second Chapter of his book “Will the Survivors Envy the Dead?”
Robert McNamara. In his earliest exposure to strategic policy, Secretary of Defense McNamara was impressed most by RAND’s graphs of calculated costs that the Soviets would incur in offsetting the U.S. mix of damage-limiting measures — fallout shelters, ABMs, bomber defense, and counterforce capability. McNamara began to argue that an era of mutual assured destruction (MAD) was arriving; thus, he calculated that it would be cost-effective to counter a Soviet buildup of offensive and defensive forces, to retain superiority in strategic forces, and to deploy an ABM system. However, it turned out that the Soviets did not have a nationwide ABM after all, and their feared SS-9 was not MIRVed and was not accurate. Much, much later McNamara realized this and changed his mind and his outlook about nuclear weapons.
Weapons-Grade Pu Alarmists. Several leading bomb designers from Los Alamos — Robert Selden, J. Carson Mark, and Ted Taylor — were delegated in the late 1960s by the U.S. government to advocate publically that any grade of plutonium could explode.
This rendering was true in a narrow technical sense, but actually only weapons-grade plutonium has been used in military quality weapons, and — with the exception of one U.S. oft-cited experiment in 1962 — no nation has been known to use or try anything except high-quality fissile materials for weapons.
Dissident nuclear physicists endeavored to counter the misleading impression and implications suggested publicly by the trio of weapon scientists. Attempts were made to put the matter into a more meaningful and practical perspective regarding plutonium safeguards. The dissidents also sought, unsuccessfully, to have more technical information about the dispute and the 1962 test placed in the public domain.
The carefully managed information that was released about the test is another example of what one informed former official, David Rossin, called “selective marketing” to support a “political policy.” In order to bolster statements being made by the administration at the time, just as few results of the aforementioned 1962 nuclear explosion were leaked. Although the test has frequently been cited by the U.S. government to support claims about the usability of low-grade plutonium in weapons, Rossin says its yield “was minuscule by nuclear-weapon standards — of the order of a large chemical ordnance.” Having been a high-level DOE official, he should know.
The orchestration by U.S. weapons designers had a disproportionate impact in creating a red-herring. On the basis of all prevailing evidence, they inaccurately portrayed the likelihood of reactor-grade plutonium militarization. No confirmation was publically released by other nations or designers. Their public statements (and some subsequent clarification) were seized upon by the anti-nuclear-power faction without looking into the nuances appropriate for the politically brokered announcement. Much more on this topic can be found in Nuclear Insights and Nuclear Shadowboxing, as well as a relevant Knol .28
Princeton University. Princeton’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies (Program on Science and Global Security) has been the academic base for Frank von Hippel, the issue-oriented professor who initiated NGO arms-control projects and shouldered a guiding role for the FAS. As the driving force of a joint FAS/NRDC Cold War verification project, he is deservedly known for his proactive and organizational leadership, especially (as early as 1983) in reaching out to Soviet and later Chinese scientists. I admire his guidance and tendentiousness against excessive nuclear weapons.
Detracting, however, from his leadership and damaging his credibility has been his absorbed campaign against nuclear power, especially reflected in a preoccupation about reactor-grade plutonium. Many of Von Hippel’s associates and students have been associated with similar sentiments.
In my own experience with other universities, I have never run across such purposeful structured commitment to a single cause.29 For example, the nuclear-related programs at the University of Chicago and the ACDIS program at the University of Illinois had clearly balanced agendas. When making presentations at those education institutions and at MIT, I found open-minded discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear power. Overseas, at Bochum University and at ISODARCO, all sides were fairly presented and objectively analyzed.
Selective Resources. Recently I came across an interesting and relevant example of information being selectively channeled through in a “Resource Letter” written and provided for the American Association of Physics Teachers.30 The Resource Letters are “literature guides” for college and university physicists, astronomers, and other scientists. Each Resource Letter focuses on a particular topic and is intended to help teachers improve course content in a specific field of physics or to introduce nonspecialists to this field.
Alexander Glaser and Zia Mian of the Princeton Program on Science and Global Security were notably exclusive in their guidance on nuclear arms control.
The Resource Letter was billed as “a guide to the literature on nuclear arms control for the nonspecialist. Journal articles and books were cited for the following topics: nuclear weapons, fissile materials, nonproliferation, missiles and missile defenses, verification, disarmament, and the role of scientists.”
One of the entries, under the subtopic of “Nuclear Weapons” is the following:
“Explosive Properties of Reactor-Grade Plutonium,” J. C. Mark, F. von Hippel, and E. Lyman, Sci. Global Secur. 4(1), 111–124 (1993). Coauthored by the former director of the Theoretical Division of Los Alamos National Laboratory, J. C. Mark, this article shows that reactor-grade plutonium can be used to construct a nuclear explosive device — a fact that had been long disputed. An appendix details how the probable yield of a plutonium-based nuclear-weapon detonation depends upon the isotopic composition.
However, a substantial body of public literature has existed challenging this interpretation and revision of J.C.Mark’s original article (detailed earlier in Section III above). There has also been abundant technical literature predating the distorted rendering of Mark’s paper. None of these contrary books, review articles, or other publications are cited by Glaser and Mian.
The “literature guide” is heavily larded with Princeton publications. Moreover, in addition to the selective omission mentioned earlier, there is a visible inclusion of the characteristic anti-nuclear thrust found in Princeton publications. In any event, in my opinion, such omissions and commissions should not be so perceptible in an alleged list of resources supplied under the aegis of a learned society.
Further skewing can be found in Glaser and Mia‘s topical summaries that precede the referenced “resources.” For example, under Section “B. Fissile Materials,” the point is raised that “technical analysis is required to estimate historic or current production capabilities, to verify nondiversion or nonproduction of fissile material, and to identify viable disposition strategies for existing stocks.” However, a most viable and substantive disposition strategy — namely burnup in nuclear reactors, a process that is already well underway — is omitted from their list. Instead, their paragraph cited below displays both lack of awareness and and/or bias favoring the chronic Princeton anti-nuclear-power perspective.
Disposition of Fissile Materials. Disposition of fissile materials first became an issue with the end of the Cold War, when the United States and Russia began to declare large amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and weapon-grade plutonium as exceeding their military needs. Fissile materials are also present in the civilian nuclear fuel cycle and therefore risk diversion or theft of the material by state or substate actors. Two cases are most relevant: the use of highly enriched uranium to fuel research reactors and the separation of plutonium from spent fuel in order to fabricate it into nuclear fuel. In principle, disposition of HEU is technically straightforward and economically attractive because it can be blended-down to low enrichment and be used as fuel in nuclear-power plants. Plutonium disposition, on the contrary, is costly and has proven difficult to implement.
Few readers might be able follow the ins and outs of the above regarding weapons-grade plutonium and its potential role in nuclear proliferation. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Princeton program has simply glommed onto a few self-serving assertions going back several decades ago, and they have not revised their thinking despite the lack of supporting evidence in the course of time. Aside from misinterpreting the physics and making their own exclusive rendering of the initial publications, the Princeton academics have attempted to perpetuate their interpretation by making use of selective repetition and omission.
Nuclear proliferation has proven to be incremental, not expansive, and weapons built have not been made of reactor-grade plutonium. Substantial scientific evidence and inferences exist to explain why that is the current situation. Moreover, plutonium and uranium can be and is being demilitarized in ongoing, easily implemented, and profitable programs; in fact, half of the nuclear reactors in the United States are now routinely involved in weapons-material demilitarization. This would not have been the case if other scientists, engineers, and policymakers had heeded the Princeton rendering of the underlying science and technology.
The understanding of such complex topics is relayed, somewhat imperfectly, via journalists and historians who gather information from scientists and activists.
[Journalists, Activists, Scientists, and Historians.] Some career individuals have contributed to both proportionate and disproportionate reactions for modern-day incidents and accidents. For example, much of the public perceived the TMI reactor accident completely out of proportion to the actual human trauma. (While considerable financial and institutional damage occurred, no bodily harm at all befell facility personnel or the public).
Journalists are schooled and trained in reportorial techniques (as I was, having graduated with a journalism degree from a top-notch four-year institution). While I had an excellent schooling in liberal-arts, my science-related courses were limited to algebra and geology. Only after being discharged from the Navy did I enter graduate school and the nuclear field.
Very few science reporters in the media have acquired formal engineering or sciences training, a shortcoming that makes it quite difficult for them to comprehend and translate the substance and complexities of modern technology. Add to that the pressures of commercialized journalism and deadlines, and you have a recipe for episodic misunderstanding.
To write about complex — especially nuclear — issues or practices, reporters have little choice but to seek competent human sources of quotable or background information. Having been one of these sources — for numerous newspapers, technical journals, and other media — I understand the difficulties that experienced or inexperienced journalists face in dealing with the medley of complex issues to be reported or analyzed.
Having also once been an activist, mostly in the cause of arms restraint, I can relate to how easy it is to get carried away with a cause. Emotions often run high. Sometimes, in the interest of message-simplification, it becomes difficult to include the necessary caveats and nuances.
While most people tend to favor firm declarations, professional scientists are trained to choose their words carefully (at the risk of sounding like an elitist). Thus, a responsible activist-scientist has to be especially careful to remain credible.
Less self-constraint, though, is evident for anti-nuclear-power activists. Very few of them have scientific or engineering education or laboratory experience, and they do not publish in peer-reviewed scientific or technical journals. While dedicated to their cause, they have not adhered to the same standard or earned the same credibility as professional scientists.
Compounding the problem, journalists — eagerly seeking to furnish the public with balanced or divergent views — have often attributed as much credibility to anti-nuclear-power activists as they have to experts in nuclear science and technology. The reader should beware of quotes that have caveats or bona fides omitted.
Moreover, most historians lack credentials in science and technology; so only a few are able to master the nuances that span the field.
With such weaknesses in popular technical communication, it is not a big surprise that the public and policymakers have difficulty in understanding complex nuclear topics.
The following critique is directed not at the underlying scholarship and data collection, but at the interpreted degree and urgency associated with the alarmist results.
[Nuclear Fright (Stateless Terrorism)]. Reminiscent of the nuclear-fallout debate in the 1970s and 80s, Harvard University Professor Graham Allison has been highlighting his concerns about terrorism by graphically depicting the potential impact of nuclear explosions in American cities. Based on a seemingly plausible sequence of events, he wagers that terrorists will bring nuclear-explosive devices to the United States, detonating one with better than 50-percent probability by 2014.
However, in examining the logic and likelihood of such a sequence, aside from motivation, one must consider a number of technical and logistic factors — all of which militate against successful acquisition, transportation, emplacement, and detonation of an achievable nuclear explosive.
Illicit acquisition of materials or weapons by stateless individuals is severely limited. Despite dramatization (in cinema, TV programs and public presentations), domestic and international nuclear safeguarding has been impressively successful for more than 60 years. The contributors to [Nuclear Insights] have personally or collectively visited or worked in many nuclear facilities — including those involved in national, regional and international safeguards —witnessing the secure protection of nuclear materials and weapons, even from complicit insider access. We couldn’t say impossible, but it would be extremely difficult for terrorists to acquire sufficient usable nuclear-explosive material or full-up weapons, especially without timely discovery of the plot.
That said, we realize that the increase in nuclear-weapon states since the Cold War brings additional hypothetical avenues for terrorist acquisition, e.g., deliberate nationalist policy tantamount to or supportive of terrorism, or overthrow of a government that possesses the necessary weapons or materials. Yet, this hypothetical danger — for example from Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, or Iran — has been strongly inhibited because they have a “return address”: Retaliation against the nation and its leadership for a wanton nuclear attack would likely be overwhelming.
That brings us back to terrorists who scheme entirely as outsiders. Allison expresses a valid need for close scrutiny of weaknesses in safeguarding nuclear materials and weapons at storage sites. Indeed, one cannot rely solely on natural and institutional barriers to keep terrorists from implanting a nuclear weapon in the United States. Cargo shipments from overseas and across American land borders receive only limited scrutiny; they are a weak link in preventing clandestine entry.
Even so, undetected emplacement and successful detonation of a nuclear explosive or a crude radiological-dispersion device should by no means be taken as any more than a working hypothesis for the purposes of evaluating appropriate policy options.
Moreover, one must distinguish between possibilities and probabilities. Even though terrorists might get away with secretly transporting a nuclear device to a target, it remains extremely difficult for them to acquire the nuclear-explosive in the first place. Undetected emplacement and successful detonation by the inexperienced are not a slam-dunk either.
Meanwhile, there are more frequent daily and realistic dangers from conventional terrorism and natural catastrophe. Nuclear alarmism is fashionable, sells books, and diverts attention from addressing the underlying causes of terrorism.
Although we of course concur and encourage systematic safeguarding of fissile materials and weapons, we find a suggestion by Allison of resorting to prayer as bordering on flippancy. We think that more attention should be given to the reduction of existing nuclear arsenals as an essential first step rather than an afterthought.
I wouldn’t want to be associated with unequivocal rejection of Professor Graham’s hypothesis, but it doesn’t seem to be quantitatively well grounded and it lacks statistical gradation. If statistical characterization were introduced, the hypothesis could be a candidate for theorization of catastrophic events that have very small probability but potent consequences. A far better perspective and assessment of potential catastrophes is provided by Professor Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba.31
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Return to beginning of Section V THE DYNAMICS OF NUCLEAR CONTROVERSY
It’s been 100+ years since the nuclear genie emerged, more than 70 years since both Nazi Germany and the United States governments became interested in uranium fission, nearly 70 years after the first reactor, and over 60 years since the first nuclear bombings.
During the same time period, many dams have breached, mines have caved in, air pollution has increased, bridges have collapsed, world and regional wars have been fought, infectious pandemics have spread, humans have starved, and other calamities have occurred.
The perspective of time now allows some constructive and manifest observations, supported by a preponderance of evidence, about progress in nuclear-related science, technology, and applications.
[The following propositions have survived intense scrutiny, intuitive repugnance, normal skepticism, informed criticism, and calculated misinformation by naysayers.]
Radiation Science and Technology:
▸ The effects of natural and low-level radiation have been carefully investigated and evaluated for nearly a century, with no definitive finding of overall harmful consequences. [Comprehensive epidemiological studies after accidental radiation exposures — resulting from the Chernobyl reactor radioactivity discharge, as well as other systematic, occupational, or environmental risks — have uncovered no clear evidence of abnormal physiological effects from radiation doses and rates up to several times natural background levels.]
▸ The earliest additive theory of radiation damage, which linearly extrapolated from high to low doses, remains unvalidated. [The outmoded “LNT” (linear, no-threshold) idea is still not supported by statistically conclusive scientific evidence. After nearly a century of scientific awareness of ionizing radiation, it is time to dismiss the unsupported hypothesis that low doses and dose rates of radiation are harmful. Nevertheless, the LNT theory continues to be an expensive basis for pessimistic predictions of health consequences of the sort that have not materialized decades after human exposure.]
▸ Healthful radiation imaging and therapy applications in medical, dental, and industrial fields have become routine, and public approval of radiation sterilization of food and other products is increasing despite some chronic resistance.
▸ The deliberate dispersal of radiation with harmful intent would have psychological and economic consequences, but — except in the most extreme and unlikely circumstances — the radiation itself would not be injurious to humans. [Nazi Germany and the United States contemplated radiological weapons during World War II, as did Iraq in its seven-year war with Iran, but they concluded that radiological-dispersion devices (“dirty bombs”) would not be effective as antipersonnel weapons Nor has the low-level radiation from indirect weaponization (depleted-uranium ammunition) been shown to have harmful effects.]
▸ Intense radioactive sources have been found useful for certain specialized electrical and heating applications, especially in outer space.
Nuclear Reactors for Power:
▸ Nuclear reactors have gained a sturdy foothold in both electricity production and naval propulsion. [Contrary to assertions by unrelenting opponents, nuclear power has established itself throughout the world to be competitive, reliable, durable, and environmentally benign.]
▸ Nuclear power has proven itself to be much more eco-friendly than fossil-fuel plants (coal, oil, and gas) in terms of atmospheric emissions, environmental pollution, and carbon-dioxide releases. [Nuclear power, a reliable baseload source, is a backbone of the electric grid, and as such it helps increased adoption of alternative and supplemental electricity sources, such as solar and wind.]
▸ Nuclear accidents have been infrequent, manageable, but costly. [Future accidents would still be a economically expensive and a public-relations tragedy.]
▸ Advanced nuclear reactors are not needed yet [but eventually would be effective in nuclear-fuel-resource conservation and nuclear-waste-storage reduction].
▸ Nuclear reactors in some situations offer a competitive large-scale alternative for district water heating, for desalination of salt water, and for electric-vehicle battery recharging [as part of a strategy for displacing petroleum consumption].
Nuclear-Weapons Proliferation and Nonproliferation:
▸ Cold-War nuclear-weapon states are gradually allowing their existing nuclear arsenals to diminish, or they are deliberating reducing weapon inventories and means of delivery. [So-called “vertical” proliferation has been halted and reversed.]
▸ The total number of extant nuclear-weapon states has been leveling off and seems to be asymptotically reaching a limit. [The containment of “horizontal” proliferation is based partly on inherent security limitations and partly on effective structuring of institutional controls. South Africa is an example of a nation that found its nuclear arsenal no longer beneficial to its changing security needs.]
▸ Nuclear-power reactors and commercial nuclear fuel have not been responsible for, nor a factor in any of the proliferation that has occurred. [The production processes for weapons-grade uranium and plutonium are very difficult and complex, and they require specialized technical knowledge, complex laboratory facilities, and substantial government financing. The limited nuclear proliferation that’s taken place has not been derived from civil-reactor uranium or plutonium.]
▸ The manufacturing processes for nuclear weapons are complex and time-consuming, requiring acquirable but specialized skills, materials, and processes. [Contrary to the pedantic expectations of misinformed individuals, reactor-grade plutonium was not used in any of the more than 100,000 nuclear weapons that have been fabricated by any of the dozen or so nations that have made or attempted to make nuclear weapons.
▸ The ability to successfully and reliably deliver nuclear weapons against an adversary has inherent technological limitations, apart from the risks of massive retaliation. [Ever since World-War II was punctuated by the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear-weapons states have become careful and realistic about the purpose, value, and utility of their arsenals.]
▸ Nuclear-power reactors can be and are being used for demilitarizing weapons-grade fissile materials. [Commercial reactors thus constitute the best and most economical means to help forestall revival of a nuclear-weapons arms race.]
▸ Indefinite storage of spent nuclear fuel at existing reactor locations is not necessarily optimal [but it is working as an interim solution].
▸ Centralized storage of radioactive waste and spent-fuel is currently on hold in the United States. [But — for secure and safe regional, national, and international management — the interim decision is ultimately going to require careful consideration].
▸ Although wide-scale reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel has not been favored by government policy or economic return, some limited treatment and recycle of mixed-uranium/plutonium oxide fuel for commercial nuclear reactors has been undertaken, with separation and consolidation of radioactive fission products.
▸ Burnup and demilitarization of weapon-grade uranium and plutonium are being routinely and profitably carried out in existing civilian power reactors. [Nuclear weapons are thus being irreversibly and permanently removed from service under commercial arrangements that benefit arms control and nonproliferation.]
The propositions highlighted above are derived from two decades of analysis and writing: three new books extracted from two collaborative and documented volumes, with contributions from four nuclear scientists from both sides of the former Iron Curtain.
New government policies need to be formulated in keeping with evolved nuclear actualities.
Of course, in the minds of many individuals these matters will not be “resolved” in our lifetimes. Nevertheless, the prevailing evidence indicates at least those two trends heading towards technical settlement. In the case of the proliferation, a very-high level of confidence can be associated with the combined technological and institutional barriers. As for low doses of radiation, a high level of assurance can be placed in their minimal effect.
Conscious of a lack of consensus regarding my assessment, I challenge disputants to provide comprehensive evidence refuting these historic trends and the underlying science.
Other identified contentious nuclear issues remain far less “resolved” with regard to their state of closure, as submitted in this Knol. These include national policies associated with spent-fuel management and storage. The nuclear scoreboard in Section I contains cryptic comments reflecting my personal assessment. In addition to technical factors, there are many economic, environmental, emotional, and political determinants.
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Because of his involvement in a broad spectrum of nuclear issues, the person mentioned most in this Knol is that of Dr. Frank von Hippel, a prominent professor of physics at Princeton University. One of his preoccupations has been nuclear arms control, and I have heartily supported his leadership and worked closely with him on that issue. Frank has earned considerable and deserved accolades for his initiative and guidance in arms control and verification.
As a matter of fact, I was a technical consultant with a number of joint FAS/NRDC/CSS projects that he, Roald Sagdeev, and Tom Cochran organized and led. In particular, I contributed technical analysis and editing to the Project’s 1990-published collaborative book, Reversing the Arms Race.32
However, Frank and I have differed, respectfully, in regard to his expansive anti-nuclear-power stance. This Knol identifies specific topical subjects where his positions and predilections are questioned. Needless to say, my well-informed Argonne colleagues and I have long attempted, without success, to alter Frank’s views. Frank worked at Argonne National Laboratory for about two years, I think in the 1970s in an unrelated field, at a time when we and the Argonne/Chicago Chapter of Federation of American Scientists was engaged in public-policy issues about nuclear-arms-control. As early as then — in regard to achievable, controllable, and positive benefits of nuclear power — we were unable to personally alter Frank’s strong contrary notions.
Frank has been a prodigious advocate of nuclear-arms control and other causes, taking maximum advantage of his platform at Princeton University and his NGO affiliations — for example, at the Federation of American Scientists, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and various foundations, such as MacArthur and Ploughshares.
At Princeton, Frank headed up the Program on Science & Global Security, ostensibly dedicated to providing “the technical basis for policy initiatives in nuclear arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation.” The Program has vested itself with the principal additional role “to train U.S. and foreign scientists interested in informing their publics and governments about nuclear arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation policy options.” It was “generously supported” by several philanthropic foundations.
A product of that Princeton program is the journal Science & Global Security (to which I have contributed in authorship as early as 1990). The journal has gradually drifted from its original focus on the technical basis of arms control to become somewhat of an outlet for anti-nuclear-power articles.
During and after Frank’s relatively brief Clinton-administration service as Assistant Director of National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology, progress in nuclear power was slowed and nuclear nonproliferation came to a standstill. Regardless of his efforts or influence, not much progress was made in counter-proliferation or arms-control.
It was during his “watch” in Washington that the Siberian-reactor fiasco was taking place. It also paralleled the Clinton administration’s accommodation with North Korea to substitute nuclear-power reactors in exchange for their (temporary) stand-down from nuclear-weapons development.
During Frank’s official tenure in Washington, some nuclear-weapons policy changes took place, not all constructive. High levels of nuclear forces remained on hair-trigger alert, arms reductions made little headway, and nuclear weapons continued to be an integral part of the Clinton administration’s policy of “ambiguity.” During this period, Frank admittedly continued his preoccupation to “minimize the commercial separation of weapons-useable plutonium from spent reactor fuel.”33
Von Hippel’s principled crusade against reactor-grade plutonium has been based on his personal assessment regarding its military capabilities. This is traceable in part to J. Carson Mark’ article in which Frank had a hand in consequential modifications of its underlying context. Now, many decades later, none of his publicized fears about weaponization of reactor plutonium have materialized, even though well over 100,000 nuclear weapons have been produced and somewhere near a dozen nations have made or attempted to make nuclear weapons.
With regard to the ill-fated Siberian-reactor episode, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Frank’s fixation on Russia’s unavoidable production of weapon-grade plutonium34 did not help resolve the dispute. The conversion was doomed by an endless series of expensive alternatives that ultimately scuttled the entire effort. His stated lament, seven years after first trying to fix the problem, stressed that “byproduct plutonium continues to accumulate in storage.” To a nation more concerned about supplying heat and electricity to its citizens, Frank’s intervention did nothing to solve Russia’s domestic problem, while — to U.S. taxpayers and public foundations — his intervention wasted substantial money on unfulfilled endeavors.
Although Von Hippel’s officialdom in Washington, DC, was limited to a couple of years, his actual interval of influence in nuclear policies, through a network of connections, has been much more extensive, with Princeton tenure as its foundation.
Many of his anti-nuclear-power positions lack basic scientific foundation. His published articles on radiation effects, such as those following Chernobyl, have been found to be erroneous and unfulfilled. His unsubstantiated positions on reactor safety, nuclear security, and radiation hazards depict academic shallowness and reflexive alarmism.
Frank’s “obdurate” campaign (applying his own adjective) against reactor plutonium is reflected in his published challenges to the expansion of nuclear power, production of fissile materials, reprocessing of spent fuel, spent-fuel storage at Yucca Mountain, development of fast reactors, and reactor demilitarization of weapon-grade materials.
At least as recently as 2008,35 Von Hippel has been delivering seemingly authoritative and impressive adversarial presentations about the nuclear-fuel cycle, although there is no record that I can find of any direct and relevant hands-on experience that he might have acquired. Moreover, other criteria for scientific credibility, such as probabilistic boundaries, are almost entirely absent from his publications and presentations.
He and his advocates must bear significant responsibility for lack of progress in achieving a formal ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, despite stated good intentions. This, as mentioned, is traceable to his repetitive abhorrence of reactor-grade plutonium.
Several retrogressive nuclear-power and arms-control policies can be placed at Von Hippel’s office door — an outcome of his multi-decade anti-nuclear-power focus, his ostensibly neutral academic platform, and his ability to marshal impressive resources.
Amory Lovins’ name has been brought up in the Knol a number of times because of his penchant to denigrate nuclear power.
Lovins’s writings on the subject do not appear to sustain any of the systematic standards for scientific discourse: peer review, replicability, documentation, and stated rates of error.
His key publications on the topic of nuclear proliferation appeared in Nature and Foreign Affairs. Even though he has frequently cited these as building blocks for his more recent presentations, neither of those two published works meet any established criteria for a expert topical review paper, neither have materialized in replicable results, and neither represents the work of a published expert in the field. No statistical humility is expressed at all with regard to the likelihood of any of his predictions materializing.
Here are letters sent to the editors of Foreign Affairs and Nature (most endnotes deleted).
Nearly three decades have passed since Foreign Affairs published the contrived and misinforming polemic “Nuclear Power and Nuclear Bombs” under the lead authorship of Amory B. Lovins.36 The alleged coupling between nuclear power and bombs represented in the title was demonstrably wrong then, and the ensuing three decades since has proven it to be based on incorrect assumptions and analysis. As a matter of fact, since 1980, just a few nations, far from the number implied by Lovins, have undertaken programs to develop nuclear weapons, and those that did obtained their weapons-grade fissile materials from military reactors, not civilian nuclear power.
Speculative reasoning in the paper by Lovins, et al, is evident in their following overconfident and unfulfilled forecast:
Lovins: Our thesis [regarding the inextricable linkage between nuclear power and bombs] rests on a different perception. Our attempt to rethink focuses not on marginal reforms but on basic assumptions. In fact, the global nuclear power enterprise is rapidly disappearing…. For fundamental reasons which we shall describe, nuclear power is not commercially viable, and questions of how to regulate an inexorably expanding world nuclear regime are moot.
Essentially none of those predictions, claims, or assessments has withstood the test of time or critical analysis. Most egregious has been the assault on the proliferation-security and energy-viability of civilian nuclear power. Despite Lovins’ asserted “perception,” many nuclear reactors have since been built; in fact, they supply a major fraction of power in some nations, and the limited nuclear proliferation that has occurred was unrelated to civilian-reactor plutonium.
Lovins has repeatedly cited and relied on a 1980 paper “Nuclear weapons and power-reactor plutonium,” published in Nature, a magazine for scientists. In my opinion, Nature should not have accorded its technical review pages to a person completely lacking in demonstrable qualifications. His inferences about being able to make nuclear weapons out of reactor-grade plutonium were markedly untenable and are still unrealized. Back in 1980 his inferences flunked the technical evidentiary standard, and since then they have failed commonsense and historical materialization tests.
Let’s parse relevant propositions of the Foreign Affairs paper of 1980; here are some more quotes, followed by my comments in [brackets]:
Lovins: The nuclear proliferation problem, as posed, is insoluble. [Response: Oratorical, yes; axiomatic, no. Although Lovins proclaimed proliferation as “insoluble,” it has in actuality been limited to a few nations for the 30-year time span since this ominous prediction. Moreover, the more dangerous hegemonical aspect of vertical (superpower) proliferation has come to a halt and is now in the process of being reversed.]
Lovins: All policies to control proliferation have assumed that the rapid worldwide spread of nuclear power is essential to reduce dependence on oil, economically desirable, and inevitable; that efforts to inhibit the concomitant spread of nuclear bombs must not be allowed to interfere with this vital reality; and that the international political order must remain inherently discriminatory, dominated by bipolar hegemony and the nuclear arms race…. [Response: A reckless message. Regardless of the validity of Lovins’ embracing assumptions about proliferation “control” policies and rhetorical flourishes about “vital reality,” it takes considerable interpretive skill to understand, much less agree with his message.]
Lovins: In fact, the global nuclear power enterprise is rapidly disappearing. De facto moratoria on reactor ordering exist today  in the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, and probably the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Canada. Nuclear power has been indefinitely deferred or abandoned in Austria, Denmark, Norway, Iran, China, Australia and New Zealand. Nuclear power elsewhere is in grave difficulties. Only in centrally planned economies, notably France and the U.S.S.R., is bureaucratic power sufficient to override, if not overcome, economic facts…. We shall argue that the collapse of nuclear power in response to the discipline of the marketplace is to be welcomed, for nuclear power is … the main driving force behind proliferation…. [Response: Attention grabbing, yes; sage, no; confusing, yes. The nuclear “collapse” that Lovins, et al, so confidently proclaimed ex cathedra did not occur in the 20th century and is premature for the 21st century. To the contrary, there has been significant worldwide expansion (especially in China) for nuclear-power plant planning, orders, and construction since the quoted argument was published in 1980.]
I wouldn’t buy a lottery ticket on the basis of the Lovins projections; the odds are worse than usual. It should be readily transparent to anyone who follows current events that nuclear-weapons proliferation (Israel [presumably], India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran [potentially], South Africa [self-reversed]) — since the ominous 1980 prediction — has taken place primarily for geopolitical reasons and is very loosely linked to energy capability or resources.
Lovins: [Nuclear power is the] least effective known way to displace oil: indeed, it retards oil displacement by the faster, cheaper and more attractive means which new developments in energy policy now make available to all countries… [Response: Another prophecy unrealized. Nuclear power, despite being capital intensive, has been one of the most viable and proven (politically and economically) means of stable, indigenous, and affordable means of “oil displacement.” Nuclear power has ingrained its role as one of several dependable and notably cleaner, healthier energy contributors. Moreover, in shifting to pollution-free electric plug-in vehicles, as part of a strategy to displace oil consumption in the transportation sector, nuclear-generated electricity looms ever more important. Even so, less contentious supplementary and complementary energy sources will likely evolve.]
Lovins: So far, nonproliferation policy has gotten the wrong answer by persistently asking the wrong questions, creating “a nuclear armed crowd” by assuming its inevitability. [Response: Something’s “wrong” indeed. But it should be probatively clear that commercial nuclear power is currently competitive in price, benign for the environment, and not an actualized source of proliferation. The nuclear-armed “crowd,” as such, consists of just a few self-indulgent nation-states added since 1980.]
Posted by Lovins on the Internet in 2008, is a declaration that “nuclear power is continuing its decades-long collapse in the global marketplace because it’s grossly uncompetitive, unneeded, and obsolete — so hopelessly uneconomic that one needn’t debate whether it’s clean and safe; it weakens electric reliability and national security; and it worsens climate change compared with devoting the same money and time to more effective options.”37 It is a familiar, incessant, and wishful refrain found in publications by Lovins.
Science is supposed to be self-correcting: Wrong results or theories are ultimately corrected and superseded, but their tenure is costly to those who spend time or direct significant resources.38 No matter how indirectly, deferentially, or politely one puts it, claims that are deceptive and unsubstantiated need to be outed.
Inasmuch as Foreign Affairs bills itself as forum for serious discussion of American foreign policy and international affairs, I submit that Lovins’ illogical and unfulfilled speculations published in 1980 about nuclear power and nuclear bombs should be disavowed. These unsupported allegations have been unconscientiously cascaded, manipulated, and perpetuated through an edifice of unanswered publications. [End of letter to Foreign Affairs]
Foreign Affairs rejected publication of the above letter, explaining “Unfortunately, the editors will not be able to publish this piece, given the time that has elapsed since the Mr. Lovins’ article and ongoing competition for space in our journal. Our web content and next several issues remain full. We have too much material already in preparation to take on more now or in the near term.”
As I have previously noted, it is because 30 years have passed that it has now become possible to debunk the Lovins claims: All the more opportunity for a magazine to uphold its credibility.
Nearly three decades have passed since Nature published a 7-page review paper39 by Amory B. Lovins,40 containing many flawed or misleading assertions.41 Essentially none of his (probabilistically unconditional) predictions, claims, or assessments has withstood the test of time or critical analysis.
This Knol will be updated whether Nature does or does not publish my rebuttal letter.
In short, the publications, statements, and postings of Amory Lovins regarding nuclear issues have little or no scientific foundation or methodology, and they convey a strong personal anti-nuclear power bias.
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Return to beginning of Section VI CONCLUSIONS
Having assembled this sizeable critique by selecting repetitively disputed nuclear themes out of two book series and related Knols, it is now possible and necessary to make a few logical generalizations.
Academics. One can’t help but note that a disproportionate number of disputants cited in this critique are academics who, based on their curriculum vitae or publication track record, have had little or no laboratory, field, or industrial experience. Although there is a large pool of informed and available teachers and instructors, considerable care should be taken by policymakers when giving weight to advice on technical or scientific matters. Comparably neutral as the advice might seem to be, it is sometimes inadequately informed, and this nuclear survey shows that it might even be biased.
Having been weaned by academics who were neither advocates nor contrarians, I know that being so outspoken is not typical. One must tread carefully in generalizing. Just a few academics stand out for their strong and unbending positions — characteristics one wouldn’t expect in open minds. With the passage of time, it is now possible to debunk unscientific predictions that have been propagated by some of the academics.
Just having a classroom education is not a substitute for relevant hands-on industrial, field, or laboratory experience. While I’d prefer to have neutral academics on a committee evaluating proposals submitted by various vested interests, I’d much rather have experienced professionals carrying out specific analysis. There’s a world of difference between teaching and doing, a difference that tends to induce academics to oversimplify complex things. Unless a writer demonstrates actual hands-on laboratory, in-depth field, or solid industrial experience, I’ve found it necessary to require that the analysis presented be scrupulously valid: no shortcuts — nothing taken on faith. Give me solid proof, and, please, present some measures of probabilistic outcome, in accordance with the established scientific method.
Needless to say, too many techno/scientific publications and statements fall short of the four basic tenets in scientific methodology — peer review, replicability, documentation, and stated rates of error. Realistically, of course, many audiences and media are oblivious of the existence or the need for criteria in scientific methodology. But it is especially disappointing to see this shortfall in those who teach future generations.
Moreover, there are a noticeably disproportionate number of theoretical or high-energy physicists have attempted to analyze and pontificate on nuclear technology. The results have been detrimental to practical applications and to respect for the scientific process.
A bad proliferation “rap” has been applied by anti-nuclear-power activists to commercial plants and fuel reprocessing. However, industrial nuclear-power technology has been largely irrelevant to the horizontal proliferation that has occurred. To date, all known programs for production of nuclear explosives have been undertaken with facilities and technology dedicated to military production and development. Some “cover” has been achieved by using research or materials-testing nuclear reactors or government enrichment facilities to produce the plutonium or uranium needed for weapons, but no weapons-grade materials are known to have been diverted from civilian nuclear-power reactors.
The bottom-line is that, contrary to uninformed academic and journalistic theorizing, nuclear-power reactors could not generate weapon-grade plutonium unless they were totally unrestricted by safeguards over their operation and output, and then only if they were visibly diverted from their normal role of producing base-load nuclear power.
In Frank von Hippel’s published post-Cold-War manifesto,42 he emphasizes a goal that we both share: “Eliminate the surplus nuclear weapons materials freed by the downsizing of the Cold War nuclear arsenals.” Regrettably, he also caters to and continues to promote his long-standing personal crusade to “Minimize the commercial separation of weapons-useable plutonium from spent reactor fuel.”
In contrast to Von Hippel and the few other opinionated academics mentioned in this critique, one can cite many who have engaged in well-documented and carefully rendered research. Two of those include Professors Bernard L. Cohen and Peter D. Zimmerman. Professor John Holdren is an example of a leader who actually admitted a significant change in heart and position when faced with overwhelming evidence about the disutility of burying reactor-grade plutonium.
Professors Albert Wohlstetter and Ernest Sternglass have come under communal condemnation for their respective persistent and misleading analyses.
All of us being products of the academic nurturing would certainly not castigate the entire community for the missteps of a few.
Somewhat more reprehensible are those outspoken individuals, such as David Albright and Amory Lovins who have alleged or implied academic credentials that they did not possess.
Two “hotbeds” of academic pronouncements on these complex nuclear topics seem to be Princeton and Harvard. Yet, as Shakespeare once said, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”
No matter how many times and ways I try to place this critique in perspective, I expect some of it to be either misunderstood or misrepresented, especially by taking something out of context. Of course, for manageable brevity, I’ve had to take some information out of context too!
Nevertheless, as I pointed out earlier, rather than a bête noir (black beast) to castigate, I put this marker out as a challenge to those who have a publication record that expounds nuclear misunderstanding and misinformation.
Now that I am no longer directly involved in laboratory or funded work, I have time, ability, and immunity to call attention to specific examples that have systematically and egregiously violated scientific methodology, especially the universal obligation to characterize technical results with statistical boundaries of reliability and reproducibility.
Besides those who commit scientific transgressions, there are enablers, including publication media, that should exhibit more responsibility and maintain more stringent standards.
Thanks to the evolution of the Internet, and more specifically this outlet provided through Google Knols, there is now this universal platform for instant, unfettered comment.
Even those who consider others to be “obdurates” have an opportunity to respond and clarify.
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Return to beginning of Section VI CONCLUSIONS
Topics this Knol excludes (but discussed in Nuclear Insights):
▸ not a rehash of Cold War disputes (except in so far as they linger to this day)
▸ not about nuclear weapons experts: e.g., J.C. Mark, Robert Selden, or my coauthor Vadim Simonenko
▸ not the military decisions of generals and other officials
▸ not about the military-industrial-laboratory-congressional complex
▸ not government officials or political leaders doing their jobs
▸ not about scientists who presented properly qualified scientific data in appropriate forums
▸ not about other professionals engaged in their field of expertise
▸ not right-wing or left-wing politics
▸ not professional historians nor their interpretations and omissions
▸ not regarding the decision to atomic bomb Japan
▸ not professional or scientific organizations
▸ not most public-interest organizations
▸ not most ad-hoc organizations and movements
▸ not the Fourth Estate (although there are many media with careless standards)
▸ not contentious issues like the G.W. Bush-administration invasion of Iraq
Return to beginning of Observations About Nuclear Misinformation
While quite a few institutions and organizations have published “anti-nuclear (power)” articles, books, and dramatizations, it is difficult to challenge their authors or content because of a lack of referenceable product. Examples are some topical magazines, ad-hoc advocacy organizations, house publications, Internet declarations, and organization outlets.
Professional publications, especially those tied to scientific societies, still tend to maintain tight peer standards for published technical and review articles. However, non-professional publications, such as The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, no longer in the hands of scientists, have opened their pages to declaratory prose that does not meet the faintest standards of scientific methodology.
A few organizations, many with colorful web sites, have become staunch sources of anti-nuclear advocacy. They do not pretend otherwise, and they do not adhere to any of the scientific publication standards used in this critique of referenceable individual statements. Of course, there are countervailing “pro-nuclear” organizations and outlets.
Knols, incidentally, offer a new-media advantage for open and universal discourse and critique. Knols are not restricted by institutional hurdles, and the price is right, especially for those of us retired from our occupations.
Gradual Cold War closure has resulted in many thematic organization having fulfilled their objectives. While not as many remain active as in past, there are still some addressing their causes, especially through the organizational attributes of the Internet.
Indiscriminate dumping of waste — underground, in ponds and rivers, and elsewhere — was carried out with few public safeguards during the Cold War, under the auspices of “national security,” and it was done in secret under the cover of wartime exigency. Much waste consisted of metallic and chemical compounds that should have been better isolated. Some of this was radioactive too. That combination of radioactive compounds and metals was, and is, especially difficult to remediate.
The original and some subsequent contamination surveys conducted by government officials were classified as “secret” (from the public and from other government agencies). The locations and quantities of fissile nuclear materials were also kept from the public; nearby populations did not realize how much added risk to which they were exposed. Large expanses of the United States and the former Soviet Union are still contaminated with radioactive materials, and some locations and hazards were yet to be declassified. The chemical toxicity of these sites is the greater hazard.
As shown in Nuclear Insights for the former Soviet Union, there was much chemical and radiological contamination of ground water, rivers, and lakes.
For what its worth, many of the dumping violations — especially in the United States — involved chemicals, explosives, and metals that were not radioactive. But both in the United States and the former Soviet Union, radioactive byproducts were also trashed. However, because of the natural decay of radioactive substances, the contemporary risk with wastes has usually more to their residual chemical or metallic form than it has to do with its radioactivity. Nevertheless, it is all to easy for the radiophobic public to be aggravated by exposure to radiation.
In keeping with the underlying theme of this Knol, responsibility should be exercised by individuals, reporters, and publications in placing these occurrences within an understandable and balanced technical framework.
As a way of moderating what might appear to be overconfidence in this critique, I should like to mention a humbling shortcoming in my own professional growth. In the 1960s I was tasked at Argonne National Laboratory with making an “absolute” measurement of the number of neutrons emitted by the spontaneous-fission isotope Cf-252. This parameter was a standard by which comparable properties of uranium and plutonium were determined, and these were among the fundamental parameters for fissioning reactors (and weapons). I had to spend considerable time in evaluating the statistical properties to be assigned to the result, with statistical boundaries estimated for defined confidence intervals. Years later, an independent evaluation found that my results — though close — were not statistically congruent with a systematically weighted mean of other measurements and calculations. As careful as I was, my results probably had a systematic error that I could not track down. We are all familiar with human shortcomings.
As in any work this size, caveats arise. Particularly noticeable in judgment of other works are certain patterns of inadequacy. By recalling the Daubert Supreme Court standards, four “scientific method” criteria have been employed herein as a guideline in assessing published work on nuclear issues: peer review, replicability, documentation, and stated rates of error.
In a sense, this critique represents the only peer review that many nuclear cynics have experienced. For the most part, they have not submitted to the usual avenues of contemporary peer review when publishing their statements. In fact, many of their reports are presented in house publications, favored magazines, or verbal testimony. Few are to be found in peer-reviewed journals of scientific and professional societies.
In terms of replicability, I interpret the test of time to satisfy that criterion: Are the proposals or analyses valid now, after two or more decades of actual events? Almost universally, the identified anti-nuclear-power propositions put forth, some many years ago, have not come to fruition. It’s time for closure. This particularly applies to the utterly insolvent and wide-ranging predictions of Amory Lovins.
Regarding documentation, most of my critique is aimed at a mixed bag of publications, some of which have few, if any citations. In addition, there is a noticeable tendency in these publications to avoid acknowledgment of conflicting views. I interpret such shortcomings as a infringement of the scientific-documentation standard.
One of the most egregious flaws in published nuclear critiques is the absence of stated rates of error. To the non-scientist, this might seem like a welcome relief, but to anyone interested in meaningful assessments, it is tipoff that the work should not be taken too seriously. It is obligatory for credibility in any type of technical assessment to state explicitly (or possibly implicitly) the limits of confidence that can be ascribed to the conclusions. A statement of systematic and statistical error must be noted for credence to be attached. You will an abysmal lack of statistical humility associated with many of the analyses and predictions of those that I have identified as egregiously flawed.
Certain names appear more than once in this overall assessment. The names of authors were necessary to identify the publications and also to look for flagrant patterns. While I respect their motivations, the methods employed by Frank von Hippel, Amory Lovins, Ernest Sternglass, and Albert Wohlsteter have drawn my repeated attention because of their topical coverage and repetitive lapses in scientific methodology.
Although I strongly personally respect and willingly participated with Von Hippel in many of his nuclear-arms-control NGO initiatives, one reason for my personal collaboration was because he early on evinced a both a lack of hands-on technical credentials and a visible anti-nuclear-power bias. Good intentions don’t cancel flawed execution. Moreover, Frank allowed his high-minded hubris to engage in political maneuvering regarding the extremely expensive and wasteful effort to shutdown or convert the Siberian nuclear reactors. In addition, he has become part of the problem with regard to meaningful progress in nuclear arms control, especially in the case of the fissile-material production cutoff. It is also noticeable that Frank is a board or marquee member of many organizations that he presumably influences.
In the case of Amory Lovins, he has created a house of cards with almost no relevant credentials, and he has succeeded in gaining a foothold in publications and platforms that far exceeds his track record for predictions, at least with regard to nuclear-power issues.
What is particularly lamentable is that many of these nuclear adversaries have expressed attitudes congruent with mine regarding the need to reduce and eliminate nuclear arsenals. However, they fail to realize (or even oppose) nuclear-reactor burnup as the only practicable means of irreversibly destroying the substances that uniquely constitute nuclear weapons. Rather than support, even reluctantly, the growth of peaceful nuclear power, they have advocated either its elimination or strangulation.
Another identifiable pattern that can be extracted from my review is that some “academics” have stretched their obdurate opinionation well beyond their range of relevant experience. Academics disproportionately bear the brunt of my criticism with regard to insufficient adherence to scientific methodology. And, in particular, some repeat offenders are identified. Von Hippel is certainly one of these who had very little relevant “hands-on” laboratory-type experience in the topics in which he acted and published. A required study course for all — to match the experience of those who have engaged in real-world experiments and tribulations — should be in statistical methodology and probabilistic humility.
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Return to beginning of Section VI CONCLUSIONS
Considerable explicit backup information exists for the material contained in this Knol. Some has been previously posted in topical Knols, and some can be found in the two-volume co-authored book Nuclear Shadowboxing (http://www.NuclearShadowboxing.INFO). The Nuclear Insights trilogy tracks the contents of Nuclear Shadowboxing without its specific citations.
Relevant Knols at Google.Knol. A number of these misinformation Observations have already been posted as Knols. Except for these summaries, the Knols will not be rehashed here. However, they are available for additional detailed information: Go to http://www.Google.Knol and enter the specific title.
“NUCLEAR EXPERTISE: The Amory Lovins Charade” Subtitle: “Applying Smell and Ripeness Tests to (30-year-old) Predictions”
Regarding nuclear power and weapons proliferation, conflictive views are often invigorated by individuals whose influence far exceeds their relevant expertise or who display a palpable bias. Amory Lovins, a long-time anti-nuclear gadfly, has exhibited both pretentious expertise and publicized prejudgement. This Knol applies two qualitative tests to Lovins’ 1980 predictions about (1) nuclear-power’s demise, (2) weapons-proliferation propensity, and (3) plutonium-demilitarization utility. NONE of his predictions have come to pass. His most egregious fault is total lack of statistical context; his papers fail scientific-publication standards. Lovins has been so wrong that he should not be accorded credibility. While still adamant about nuclear power’s demise and proliferation risk, he now apparently concedes that commercial reactors effectively demilitarize weapons materials. Constructive vigilance needs to be maintained so that (nuclear) policy is not misdirected by charlatans.
“NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROLIFERATION: Outspoken Opponents of Plutonium Demilitarization”
This Knol deals with obdurate opponents of plutonium demilitarization. That’s not a term I ordinarily use, but what a pair of academic physicists chose to apply to those who didn’t agree with them on viable pathways to nuclear demilitarization.
Because demilitarization of nuclear weapons is an issue coming inexorably to the foreground, several flavors of expertise are needed. Mine comes from hands-on experience in nuclear methodology, reactor experiments, arms-treaty analysis, and verification technology. Moreover, I have analyzed and published extensively on the subject of plutonium demilitarization for over 30 years.
Unfortunately, a stumbling block for plutonium demilitarization includes NGO individuals with whom I collaborated just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This topical Knol is at odds with the views of some former associates, mostly from America and Western Europe, but notably not at all in disagreement with former Soviet colleagues.
Topics: What Expertise is Relevant to Nuclear Demilitarization? Limitations of Government Service; Perspective on Relevant Expertise; Disclaimer; Who Is Obdurate? Selective Interpretation of Weapon-Lab Statements; Against the Dual-Track Plan; Usability of Reactor-Grade Plutonium in Nuclear Weapons; How to Simplify (But Avoid Dealing With) the Plutonium Problem; Stalling Peaceful Conversion of Siberian Plutonium-Production Reactors; Closed-City Legacy; Reprocessing Alternatives; Alternative Energy Sources; Lack of Safety Features; Inadvisable Intervention; Further Delays Reported; Mischaracterization of Disarmament; Remarks on Context; References for Demilitarization Opposition
“MIT Studies on the Future of Nuclear Power”
A prestigious interdisciplinary faculty group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology posted in 2003 and updated in 2009 its findings on The Future of Nuclear Power.
The MIT group had one misstep in its nuclear non-proliferation assessment. It mischaracterized separated plutonium from irradiated power-reactor fuel as “readily usable in weapons.” To the contrary, not only is there no evidence that any civilian plutonium has actually been diverted or used in nuclear weapons, there is considerable published analysis indicating that reactor-grade plutonium is not usable in military weapons (see my Knols about nuclear weapons proliferation). All five Cold War nuclear powers, and the handful of subsequent weaponized nations, have had to develop the necessary specialized and expensive facilities to produce weapons-grade fissile materials; none of them used the more abundant or accessible nuclear-reactor-grade plutonium.
“NUCLEAR EXPERTISE: Role of Statistics in Forensic Science” The National Academy of Sciences report on Strengthening Forensic Science
Breaking news in mid-February (2009) highlights the importance of statistical considerations in forensics science, the methodology underlying crime-scene data analysis. In the Chicago Tribune (19 February), the title of a headline article is “Forensics Under Fire: Real-world CSI in question,” and the subtitle is “Influential report casts doubt on nation’s crime labs, evidence techniques.” This refers to a just-released two-year study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which “called for a wholesale overhaul of the crime lab system that has become increasingly important to American jurisprudence.” “Among the recommendations” are to “Fund research into … studies of the accuracy and reliability of forensic techniques.” The methods used that deal with statistical and expert analysis have come under renewed scrutiny.
“NUCLEAR EXPERTISE: How Defined, How Abused”
In trying to understand the risks and complexities of nuclear proliferation, well-honed advice should be sought from knowledgeable individuals. Decisionmakers need informed input about technology, policy, politics, psychology, and other factors. In this Knol, I address some issues about nuclear expertise, in particular, technology qualifications that individuals ought to have before writing meaningfully about nuclear proliferation.
As for nuclear expertise itself, one dictionary characterizes it as skill or knowledge about using energy released in fission or fusion, or about designing or manufacturing nuclear weapons. While the classroom is the beginning stage in acquiring the requisite professional skill set for these complex technologies, the essential and practical nuances are achieved primarily by actual experience with the hardware, facilities, materials, and calculations for producing fission and fusion energy releases.
This assessment is directed at delineating nuclear expertise, partly by illustrating some use and misuse of assumed or presumed credentials. Too often academics, advisors, analysts, consultants, environmentalists, writers and others depend on reputations or titles to shore up their arguments and conclusions on contentious issues, especially nuclear proliferation.
My remarks about educators fall upon a few topical suppositions or pretensions that do not withstand close scrutiny. Even though I have tutored students in classes, lectures and laboratories, I am not an academician and would have difficulty passing an exam of basics without being refreshed. Conversely, those who carry out the honored profession of teaching might overreach if their experience is obtained secondhand rather than through hands-on active participation.
Of course, this is a sensitive inquiry for all of us, but needed to help validate qualifications for credibility on complex topics. In any event, credentialed weighting is far from enough to assure the reader of a given publication’s or Knol’s validity, but it helps in sorting through competing views.
“ETHICS IN SCIENCE: The Exaggeration of Radiation Hazards“ Radiophobia Aggravated by Misrepresentation of Radiation Effects (Lapses in Scientific Methodology)
Despite the Chernobyl reactor explosion in 1986, the death toll — examined 20 years later — has been considerably less than many individuals had predicted. Nevertheless, based on unrealized projections of cancer and other unfulfilled medical outcomes, enormous and wasted resources were applied to site remediation and regional relocation.
For damning but unrealistic expectations to have persevered so long indicates that significant errors took place in forecasting latent medical consequences, irrespective of extensive and credible research undertaken throughout the world.
Moreover, radiophobic misrepresentation — inadvertent or otherwise — has aggravated a pervasive fear of any radiation, at the expense of its beneficial applications.
This paper delves into some media-amplified instances that are associated with conspicuously detrimental public consequences. These examples are sufficiently documentable: Specific lapses in scientific methodology by individuals and institutions are identified.
“NUCLEAR EXPERTISE: Role of Statistics in Forensic Science” The National Academy of Sciences report on Strengthening Forensic Science
Breaking news in mid-February (2009) highlights the importance of statistical considerations in forensics science, the methodology underlying crime-scene data analysis. In the Chicago Tribune (19 February), the title of a headline article is “Forensics Under Fire: Real-world CSI in question,” and the subtitle is “Influential report casts doubt on nation’s crime labs, evidence techniques.” This refers to a just-released two-year study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which “called for a wholesale overhaul of the crime lab system that has become increasingly important to American jurisprudence.” “Among the recommendations” are to “Fund research into … studies of the accuracy and reliability of forensic techniques.” The methods used that deal with statistical and expert analysis have come under renewed scrutiny. Adherence to scientific principles is important for concrete reasons: they enable the reliable inference of knowledge from uncertain information….
Relevant Appendices in Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats from Cold War Weaponry. Each of these appendices also contains detailed literature citations. Other relevant material, along with citations, can be found in the main text of both volumes. Sufficient access to these topics in both volumes can be gained by going to Google Book Search.
Nuclear Shadowboxing Vol. 1 Appendices
Appendix IId FISSION AND FUSION WEAPON BASICS
Appendix IIe PRODUCTION OF FISSILE MATERIALS FOR WEAPONS
Appendix IVa NGO JOINT VERIFICATION PROJECTS
Nuclear Shadowboxing Vol. 2 Appendices
Appendix Va RADIATION, POLLUTION, AND RADIOPHOBIA
Appendix Vb COMPARATIVE RISK
Appendix Vc REACTOR-RELATED ACCIDENTS
Appendix Vh STORAGE OF NUCLEAR WASTES
Appendix Vk ENERGY CHOICES
Appendix VIg IMPROVISED FISSION, FUSION, AND RADIATION DEVICES
Appendix VIi WEAPONIZABILITY OF FISSILE MATERIALS
Appendix VIj CONTROVERSY ABOUT DEMILITARIZING PLUTONIUM
Appendix VIk NUCLEAR COVERUP
Appendix VIl DEMILITARIZATION EPILOGUE: NAS REPORTS
Appendix VIn SIBERIAN PLUTONIUM-PRODUCTION REACTORS
Appendix VIIb THE NUCLEAR TIPPING POINT
Despite directed criticism of some named individuals, it must be kept in mind that this is a narrowly focused critique; after all, many of the individuals and I mostly agree and have agreed on the need to rein in nuclear weaponry, both during and since the Cold War. What we usually disagree on is the most viable means of carrying out the task in a irreversible way, namely through whether or not it should be carried out through nuclear-reactor burnup.
Named individuals are welcome to comment on this Knol. One of the advantages (and occasional disadvantage) of this medium is that — in contrast to past publication cycles and governance — comments and responses can be posted with minimal delay and no filtering.
Return to beginning of Section VI CONCLUSIONS
1. A. DeVolpi, Nuclear Insights: the Cold War Legacy (2009), Volume 1: Nuclear Weaponry (An Insider History); Volume 2: Nuclear Threats and Prospects (A Knowledgeable Assessment); and Volume 3: Nuclear Reductions (A Technically Informed Perspective). All three volumes available at http://www.Amazon.com. These three volumes were derived from two co-authored volumes, Alexander DeVolpi, Vladimir E. Minkov, Vadim A. Simonenko, and George S. Stanford, Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats from Cold War Weaponry (2004 and 2005) www.NuclearShadowboxing.INFO. The latter pair of books contains the supporting references and technical details that had to be omitted from Nuclear Insights.
2. Daubert, W. et ux., etc., et al. (1993). Petitioners v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Supreme Court of the United States (28 June).
3. F. Von Hippel & T.B. Cochran. “Estimating long-term health benefits,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,” (Aug./Sep. 1986).
5. Alice Stewart (extracted from Wikipedia).
6. Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska, “ THE NUCLEAR POWER DECEPTION: U.S. Nuclear Mythology from Electricity ‘Too Cheap to Meter’ to ‘Inherently Safe’ Reactors,” http://www.ieer.org (April, 1996).
7. A. DeVolpi, Proliferation, Plutonium and Policy: Institutional and Technological Impediments to Nuclear Weapons Propagation, Pergamon, New York (1979).
8. A. DeVolpi, “Denaturing Fissile Materials,” Progress in Nuclear Energy, Vol. 10 (1982); “Fissile Materials and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation,” Annual Reviews of Nuclear and Particle Science, 36:83-114 (1986).
9. A. DeVolpi, “NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROLIFERATION: Controversy About Demilitarizing Plutonium (Delays and Missteps in Nuclear Demilitarization) Part 3 of 5″ Knol.Google.com
10. Theodore B. Taylor “Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons” Science and Global Security, 13:117–128 (2005).
11. My review papers (op cit.)
12. From Nuclear Shadowboxing, Volume 2, op cit.
13. Op cit, Ref. 1
14. Frank N. Von Hippel, “How to simplify the plutonium problem,” Nature (July 1998).
15. For considerably more details, see my Knol “NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROLIFERATION: Outspoken Opponents of Plutonium Demilitarization Delays and Missteps in Nuclear Demilitarization: Part 4″ Knol.Google.com
16. F.N. von Hippel and M. Bunn, “Saga of the Siberian Plutonium-Production Reactors,” FAS Public Interest Report (Nov./Dec. 2000).
17. A. DeVolpi, Nuclear Reductions (A Technically Informed Perspective) Volume 3 of the trilogy Nuclear Insights: The Cold War Legacy (http://www.Amazon.com, 2009).
18. Von Hippel, Nature (op cit.)
19. Dirty Bomb” Interview with Nova, PBS science programming on air and online (undated, circa 2003).
20. Steve Fetter and Frank N. von Hippel, “The Hazard Posed by Depleted Uranium Munitions, Science & Global Security, Volume 8:2, pp.125-161(1999).
21. A. DeVolpi, Nuclear Insights (op cit.).
22. E.g., F. N. von Hippel,. and L. H. Kahn, “Feasability of Eliminating the Use of Highly Enriched Uranium in the Production of Medical Radioisotopes,” Science & Global Security, Vol. 14, 2-3: 151-162 (2006).
23. Theodore B. Taylor “Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons” op cit.
24. A Green Makes the Case,” Washington Post (16 April 2006)
26. M. Miller and F. von Hippel, “Usability of Reactor-grade Plutonium in Nuclear Weapons,” Physics and Society, Vol. 26, No. 3 (July 1997).
27. M. Miller and F. von Hippel, “Let’s reprocess the MOX plan,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (July/Aug. 1997).
28. A. DeVolpi, “NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROLIFERATION: Controversy About Demilitarizing Plutonium (Delays and Missteps in Nuclear Demilitarization) Part 3 of 5″ Google.Knol.com
29. See especially Nuclear Insights, Volume 1: Nuclear Weaponry (An Insider History).
30. Resource Letter PSNAC-1: Physics and society: Nuclear arms control,” written by Alexander Glaser and Zia Mian of the Princeton Program on Science and Global Security (accepted 26 September 2007)
31. Vaclav Smil, Global Catastrophes and Trends – the Next 50 Years, MIT Press (2008).
32. Frank von Hippel and Roald Z. Sagdeev (Eds.), Reversing the Arms Race: How to Achieve and Verify Deep Reductions in the Nuclear Arsenals (444pp, Gordon and Breach, NY, 1990).
33. Frank von Hippel, “Working in the White House On Nuclear Nonproliferation and Arms Control: A Personal Report,” Journal of the Federation of American Scientists, Volume 48, No. 2, March/April 1995.
34. F.N. von Hippel and M. Bunn, op cit.
35. Frank von Hippel, Princeton University, “Reprocessing and Proliferation,” Dirksen Senate Office Building (June 23, 2008).
36. Amory B. Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins and Leonard Ross, “Nuclear Power and Nuclear Bombs,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1980.
37. Amory B. Lovins and Imran Sheikh, “The Nuclear Illusion” preprint Ambio (Nov. 2008), “dr 18, 27 May 2008, DRAFT subject to further peer review/editing.” [unpublished] (www.rmi.org/images/PDFs/Energy/E08-01_AmbioNuclIlusion.pdf)
38. Myriam Sarachick, “The cost of blind ambition,” a review in Physics Today (Oct. 2009) of Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World, Eugenie Samuel Reich (Palgrave MacMillan, NY, 2009).
39. Amory B. Lovins, “Nuclear weapons and power-reactor plutonium,” Nature 283, 817-823 (1980).
40. Affiliation given: UK Friends of the Earth. Almost all technical assertions regarding nuclear weapons and physics in the review paper imply or assume that the author has substantive credentials. Nothing that I can find in the public record confirms that he has an advanced or even relevant academic degree. As for myself, I have an MS in nuclear-reactor engineering, a graduate certificate from the International Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and a PhD in nuclear physics. I affirm that I carried out experimental and analytical work at Argonne National Laboratory for about 40 years, initially in nuclear-reactor metrology and related experimentation, later in nuclear-reactor safety diagnostics, and eventually in arms control, non-proliferation, and treaty verification. Moreover, I have published technical books and qualified articles and have had hands-on technical experience with the subject matter in this critique.
41. A. De Volpi, “Explosive reaction” Nature 289, 115 (1981).
42. Von Hippel, “Working in the White House…” op cit.
END OF REFERENCES AND END OF KNOL