Saturday, October 4, 2008

Puncturing the Puff

The Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, where I got my Piled Higher and Deeper degree in Engineering Sciences in 1995, has published a pro-nuclear puff-piece titled "What About Nuclear?". The piece hits all the talking points of the new media discourse on nuclear power, where never is heard a discouraging word. The new nukes are going to be clean’n’green! Super-duper cheap! And safer than sex! (Not that any serious problems with the old nukes are admitted.) My response:

To the Editors:

It is disappointing that
The Dartmouth Engineer chose to run a one-sided puff-piece on nuclear power, a subject on which reasonable people may disagree. There are too many counter-points to fit in a comment window, but here are a few:

(1) With regard to new reactor designs, allegedly safer than the old ones, Prof. Wallis mentions only sunshiny positives. Readers interested in a more realistic view, including a discussion of safety issues unique to the new designs (e.g., graphite fires), might want to check out the American Physical Society’s article
“The Pebble-Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR): Safety Issues.”

(1) Prof. Wallis’s description of waste reprocessing makes it sound like Europe is recycling nuclear waste as easily as we recycle cans. But there is a significant case against reprocessing: for example, quoting the Union of Concerned Scientists, “reprocessing does not reduce the need for storage and disposal of radioactive waste, and a geologic repository would still be required. . . . After reprocessing, the remaining material will be in several different waste forms, and the total volume of nuclear waste will have been increased by a factor of twenty or more, including low-level waste and plutonium-contaminated waste” (
here). [A detailed 2007 technical report on the illogic of waste reprocessing by physicist Frank von Hippel can be had here.]

(2) Prof. Wallis reassures us that security procedures at nuclear plants are improved and that containment domes “may” even keep out crashing aircraft. It is hard to say what this statement means: my home’s shingled roof “may” keep out a 747, but then again, it probably won’t. Containments are not and have never been designed, certified, or tested for their ability to keep out large aircraft; in 2005, despite 9/11 and explicit Al Qaeda threats to target nuclear facilities, a majority of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s members voted against requiring reactors to be proof against aircraft. But the point is perhaps moot, since most of any US nuclear plant’s radioactive inventory is not inside the containment but in nearby spent-fuel pools. And in 2001, an NRC study of storage-pool accidents stated that half of all (large) aircraft could penetrate a 5-foot-thick containment dome and that half of all aircraft crashes would likely breach a typical spent-fuel pool (p. 3-23,
NUREG 1738). As for plant security, even the NRC’s pre-announced force-on-force security exercises have historically found almost half of all plants failing to repel armed attack. In 2003, 30 Greenpeace protestors effortlessly entered the control building at a British power reactor to show how weak its security measures were (Associated Press). The frighteningly bad state of US plant security is reviewed in detail here. But the nuclear industry has always lobbied against more serious security measures, knowing that these would significantly increase the already painful cost of nuclear power.

(3) Prof. Wallis does mention nuclear power’s high cost, though without drawing any unpleasant conclusions. Prof. Garmire, when asked about nuclear power’s drawbacks, does not mention cost at all. In fact, high cost is one of nuclear power’s most intractable problems, with academic and industry cost projections for new plants escalating rapidly in recent years. Buying nuclear power incurs a high opportunity cost because the same money could deliver far more energy services if spent on cheaper low-carbon rivals such as wind or end-use efficiency. Buying nukes will lead to more CO2 emissions, not less, than we would have had under more effective investment, just as buying caviar on food stamps actually reduces the amount of food on a family’s table — even though advocates of caviar can point accurately to its high protein content and exclaim that we do need protein and you can’t feed a family on efficiency! As long as market forces are allowed to work even approximately, nuclear power will stagnate in the US and everywhere else: it always has. The economic case against nuclear power is made in detail by Amory Lovins

(4) Prof. Garmire states that “In the 1970s, fear of nuclear proliferation resulted in a turn against nuclear power.” This is historically incorrect, at least as regards the US. Capital fled nuclear power simply because it cost too much, straining or bankrupting utilities and leading to what
Forbes characterized in 1985 as “the largest managerial disaster in U.S. business history, involving $100 billion in wasted investments and cost overruns . . .” In 2001, The Economist said that “Nuclear power, once claimed to be too cheap to meter, is now too costly to matter.” Moreover, were “fears” of a power/proliferation link silly? Today’s headlines buzz with the fact that despite extensive IAEA inspections it is impossible it is to prove that Iran’s civilian nuclear power program is not being used to build bombs. The unavoidable reason is that the technological basis of reactors and bombs is largely shared. India, Pakistan, and North Korea all began their bomb programs under the guise of peaceful nuclear activity. If this does not show that nuclear power supports proliferation, what would? And if the US declares that it must have scores of new reactors and nuclear weapons for its own energy and national security, how can other nations not seek to copy its example (and why shouldn’t they)? That nuclear power encourages proliferation is not a “fear” but a fearful fact.

France’s nuclear program, mentioned in your article as a proof that reliance on nuclear power can work, has been insulated from market forces by socialized ownership: its bottom line has been safely sheltered in the deep pockets of the French government. Nor has European nuclear power been without its political and technical problems — though there is no room to detail them here.

Nuclear power is a dangerous, slow-to-deploy way of funneling money away from more effective energy and climate-mitigation investments to the construction of high-value targets for terrorists.


Larry Gilman, PhD (Thayer 95)

Bonus Track! For my peace of mind, which is — alas! — easily disturbed, I must also respond to Prof. Garmire’s statement, in reply to a request to name the advantages of nuclear energy, that “Nuclear power is the most efficient energy source currently available. Uranium-235, the isotope used in nuclear reactors, can produce 3.7 million times as much energy as the same amount of coal.”

This is an amazing thing for an engineer to say. The mere energy density of nuclear fuel — the number of joules that it can release per gram — has nothing to do with “efficiency” in any sense of the word found in physics, engineering, economics, or anywhere else. Efficiency, generally speaking, is what you get out of a process compared to what you put into it. By a logic very similar to Gramire’s, one could nominate solar power as
infinitely efficient, because it requires no fuel at all (at our end). But that logic would be bogus too, because even solar and wind power, which require no fuel inputs, have to be harvested, which requires energy and materials . . . translation, money. Ditto for nuclear energy. The high energy density of nuclear fuel does not make nuclear energy cheap — so it is irrelevant. It is at most a thought-fuzzing factoid.

In fact, the ultra-high energy density of nuclear fuel helps make nuclear power
expensive. It is because nuclear reactor cores — compact, but pouring out rivers of heat — produce enough energy to melt themselves that nuclear reactors must be protected by elaborate emergency-cooling systems. And nuclear weapons are possible precisely because vast amounts of energy can be released quickly from small volumes of uranium and plutonium, albeit at higher enrichments than those found in standard reactors (though not in breeder reactors). Which is another fundamental problem: nuclear power and nuclear weapons depend on much the same materials, facilities, and know-how, so spreading nuclear power inevitably tends to spread nuclear weapons too.

That Professor Gramire can even think the energy density of uranium-235 worth mentioning as evidence of nuclear power's wonderfulness exemplifies, to my mind, how sheerly emotional the attachment to nuclear power can be. Fear can undermine reason, as advocates of nuclear power are fond of pointing out, but so can romantic devotion to the Machine. Back to the Future dreams are at least as potent as Back to Nature dreams, and even less realistic. For it is objectively possible to live as a hunter-gatherer sans iPod or dental care — it's how we evolved — but the idea that larger, more potent machines will ever be able to solve problems faster than they create them is contradicted by all our experience so far.