Archive for October 2007

Unclear? No, it’s nuclear

October 30, 2007

This is a general interest post I wrote for the website Desipundit linked below

Nuclear energy promises to be the safest, most efficient and reliable source of energy in the fight against carbon-emissions and climate change. Yet there is deep-rooted opposition to it in the minds of the public and policy makers, mainly based on a dissonance between beliefs and reality. It is important for the public to transcend gut reactions, political pandering and partisanship and have balanced and sound knowledge of this very important energy source…

…Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit…

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Before it’s too late

October 29, 2007

Nuclear Renewal: Commonsense about Energy
By Richard Rhodes
Viking Press, 1993

Nuclear Renewal: Commonsense about Energy is a clear cut and fact based objective assesment of the world’s, and especially America’s, nuclear choices by the acclaimed Richard Rhodes (who I had the pleasure of meeting and actually talking to for a few minutes last year). Compared to his other works, this one is a short one. But just like in his other volumes, Rhodes does not mince any words. He clearly sees that the present American disdain of nuclear power for electricity, remarkable for a nation who started it all in the first place, stems from a combination of public paranoia, bad management and a tendency to oversell on the part of nuclear managers.

It all started in the 50’s, when the US Navy, spurred ahead by star Admiral Hyman Rickover’s (See Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence) initiative, became the first one to harness nuclear power in their submarines. Quite disastrously, almost the same reactor model was carried over by overambitious Cold War public policy makers and managers, into the public arena for which it was anything but fit. Promises of nuclear technology and reactors were cheerfully oversold, with huge initial investments made, that were mostly based on optimistic future assesments rather than realistic present estimates. The result? Most reactors that were born of this bravado had to decomissioned after only a few years, because the then used models simply were not efficient, and could not pay off the initial investment that had been ceremoniously put in. By the 1970s, America’s practical nuclear advantage was stalling. In 1979, Three Mile Island made matters worse, and fuelled a public fear of the word “nuclear” that continues unabated till the present moment (that is why they had to name it Magnetic Resonance Imaging instead of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, which after all is the basic principle from which the medical technique stems; no person would allow himself to be put into a contraption that sported the title “Nuclear”).

The most revealing part of the book is the discussion of foreign reactor technologies and economies that Rhodes presents, especially France and Japan. Compared to the US (about 25%), 40% of Japanese electricity and 70% of French electricity comes from nuclear power. Ironically, most of the Japanese reactors are built using US technology. Why the glaring difference? Rhodes’s answers and investigations are sobering and again go a long way in telling us how the simplest of human measures can lead to a better world. In Japan, there’s simply much better housekeeping in the reactors. Basic things like safety valves and pipes are regularly checked by human beings (quite a telling fact, given the Japanese dominance in automation). The simplest of objects such as bright green fluorescent labels serve as warning signals at crucial points. In case of France, the main approach is different, and a powerful reminder to the opponents who are lobbying the Yucca Mountain project in the US. The French have superior spent fuel reprocessing plants, and care is taken so that the maximum amount of fissile material is recycled. Note that these are the same kind of spent fuel rods, currently sitting in huge water tanks in the US, that US policy makers are planning to actually bury leading to an enormous waste worth billions of dollars, as well as an environmental hazard that would be seen to be almost painfully crafted in an intentional way.

But the most important point, which I thought really highlights man’s relation, and conflict, with technology, concerns the basic assumptions that were made in constructing US reactors. Reactor makers right through the 50s sought to make their inventions perfect and infallible. This led not only to an inordinate amount of time in their development, but to painstaking attention to a goal that was absurdly unachievable. The Japanese, on the other hand, never assumed in the first place that their reactors would be perfect and infallible. With this in mind, they instituted double the number of safety measures, as well as easy human entry to the reactors’ environs, which would make manual shutting down of the reactors much easier. Faith in human infallibility born of hubris comes, it seems, at the cost of pragmatic failure.

The public’s eternal paranoia, almost a morbid fascination with nuclear power, is exacting a heavy toll on future nuclear options, possibly the only thing on the near horizon that can save humanity from the fuel and oil crisis. I remember reading an article by Paul Slovic and others in the December 1991 issue of Science in which they gave an account of a survey, in which people were asked to imagine the general scene that would ensue if a ‘moderately serious’ nuclear reactor accident happened near their homes. Shockingly, most people’s descriptions of the consequences of such an accident more closely resembled the aftermath of a nuclear war, paralleling descriptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is wildly absurd, given the fact that many many times more people have died because of industrial pollution than from nuclear radiation, let alone nuclear accidents. Also, a ‘moderately serious’ reactor accident may, if anything, mostly lead to a temporary evacuation of personnel in the immediate vicinity. The image of civilians sprawled dead and dying from such an accident is almost science fiction. The physicist Bernard Cohen has written an eye-opening book (‘Before it’s too late’, 1983), in which he makes a plea for nuclear energy. In the book, Cohen gives an estimate of risks that would be incurred from various random and common events in our lives, including nuclear accidents. It is quite clear, that the risks of me (and you) dying of heart disease, road accidents, pollution, and electric shock, are many hundred times more than those of me (and you) suffering death due to radiation poisoning, no matter if a nuclear reactor continuously runs within a mile of my house for the next fifty years. The public’s fears, as Rhodes notes, are simply unfounded, and mainly made more pernicious by the ravings of the anti-nuclear lobby. Similarly, the hazards of burial of nuclear waste are minimal, and can be completely averted if the spent fuel processing noted above is vigorously pursued. This spent fuel processing will essentially leave only either very short lived nuclides which will decay fast, or extremely long lived nuclides, which will decay very slowly, and thus can be safely buried without any significant risks. Clearly, the public needs to be educated as a whole.

The book is not without hope, however (as nothing can ever be). Experiments conducted with a prototype reactor in Idaho in the 80s promise a cheap, renewable, and completely safe source of nuclear energy. Public education about nuclear energy, of the kind vigorously pursued in Japan (they even have regular high-school trips to nuclear power plants) hopefully promise a manifest change in the public’s attitude. All that remains is for the public apprehension to subside, and for politicians and policy makers to start looking objectively at the nuclear world, and not simply as yet another political salvo in their foreign policy exegeses.

The real problem is that the word “nuclear”, like the word “holocaust”, has been so thoroughly and negatively ingrained in our mind, that it has become a painfully evident and constant part of popular culture. We need to take a fresh and detached look at this companion of ours, to whom we are surely bound for eternity. He holds promises on which depend our future and our hopes.

P.S: Rhodes also has written a very informative article in the January/February 2000 issue of ‘Foreign Affairs’, in which he makes a sound case why nuclear electricity is actually much more feasible and promising than the usually discussed alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power.

New nuclear power book by Gwyneth Cravens

October 25, 2007

I cannot wait to get my hands on this one. Her conclusions should reinforce decision making about nuclear power (Source:Amazon)
-Nuclear power emits no gases because it does not burn anything; it provides 73% of America’s clean-air electricity generation, using fuel that is tiny in volume but steadily provides an immense amount of energy.
-Uranium is more energy-dense than any other fuel. If you got all of your electricity for your lifetime solely from nuclear power, your share of the waste would fit in a single soda can. If you got all your electricity from coal, your share would come to 146 tons: 69 tons of solid waste that would fit into six rail cars and 77 tons of carbon dioxide that would contribute to accelerated global warming.
-A person living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant receives less radiation from it in a year than you get from eating one banana. Someone working in the U.S. Capitol Building is exposed to more radioactivity than a uranium miner.
-Spent nuclear fuel is always shielded and isolated from the public. Annual waste from one typical reactor could fit in the bed of a standard pickup.
-The retired fuel from 50 years of U.S. reactor operation could fit in a single football field; it amounts to 77,000 tons. A large coal-fired plant produces ten times as much solid waste in one day, much of it hazardous to health. We discard 179,000 tons of batteries annually–they contain toxic heavy metals.
-Nuclear power’s carbon dioxide emissions throughout its life-cycle and while producing electricity are about the same as those of wind power.
-Nuclear plants offer a clean alternative to fossil-fuel plants. In the U.S. 104 nuclear reactors annually prevent emissions of 682 million tons of CO2. Worldwide, over 400 power reactors reduce CO2 emissions by 2 billion metric tons a year.

The rights are right for once

October 25, 2007

I could not really imagine myself nodding my head in response to something on Fox News. But then their coverage of nuclear energy and my response just depicts the rift between political aspirations and labels and factual reality that is rooted deep among both conservatives and liberals. For some reason, opposition to nuclear power is supposed to be the domain of liberals, and support for it is supposed to be that of conservatives. Naturally the conservatives are against any liberal agenda, but for once their rants actually have something to with reality.

The program on Fox that had me nodding my head was a coverage of nuclear energy in France and the US and advocacy of nuclear power for the US. France is a role model for the world when it comes to nuclear power; almost 80% of their energy comes from nuclear (I wonder how many Americans actually know this) and in addition there has been not a single fatal accident related to nuclear power in France as in the US. More importantly, their spent fuel reprocessing plants firstly actually exist, and secondly are among the best in the world.

There were the usual environmentalists who complained about the dangers of nuclear power. Most of these people don’t seem to be familiar with facts. I have stressed several times that pollution from coal, car accidents, and even deaths due to drownings in swimming pools kill more people than nuclear power plants, the first two factors vastly more so. The radiation from a nuclear power plant is a miniscule fraction of the natural radiation around us. In addition, the whole debate about how dangerous the spent fuel rods are is clearly a straw man; the spent fuel rods are consigned to water pools and other storage facilities precisely because there is great inertia about reprocessing them. This is much more so in the US.

I always find it disconcerting how many liberals and environmentalists equate environmentalism with anti-nuclear activism. Campaigning against coal pollution is quite legitimate but campaigning against new nuclear power plants is regressive. I understand that this mental equivalence of environmentalism and anti-nuclear thinking among liberals is partly the result of sorid history, but things need to change for the future.

For once, I am with the rights on this one, if for an altogether different reason than liberal-bashing.

How rational thinking led to insanity

October 25, 2007

Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
By Richard Rhodes
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007

Richard Rhodes is perhaps the foremost nuclear historian of our time. His past two books (among many others on extremely varied subjects) on the making of the atomic and hydrogen bombs are landmark historical studies. But as readers of those books would know, they were much more than nuclear histories. They were riveting epic chronicles of war and peace, science and politics in the twentieth century and human nature. In both books, Rhodes discussed in detail other issues, such as the Soviet bomb effort and Soviet espionage in the US.

In this book which can be considered the third installment in his nuclear histories (a fourth and final one is also due), Rhodes takes a step further and covers the arms race from the 1950s onwards. He essentially proceeds where he left off, and discusses the maddening arms buildups of the 60s, 70s and 80s. One of the questions our future generations are going to ask is; why do we have such a monstrous legacy of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the earth many times over? The answer cannot be deterrence because much fewer would have sufficed for that. How did we inherit this evil of our times?

Much of the book is devoted to answering this question, and the answer is complex. It involves a combination of paranoia generated by ignorance of what the other side was doing, but more importantly threat inflation engendered by hawks in government who used the Soviet threat as a political selling point in part to further their own aims and careers. It is also depressing to realise how in the 50s, when the Soviet atomic bomb programs were still relatively in their beginning stage and the US had already amassed an impressive fleet of weapons, opportunity was lost forever for negotiating peace and preventing the future nuclear arms debacle that we now are stuck with. Rhodes details a very interesting and disconcerting fact; every US president since Truman wanted to avoid nuclear war and was uncomfortable about nuclear weapons, yet every one of them had no qualms about increasing defense spending and encouraging the development of new and more powerful weapons. It was as if a perpetual motion wheel had been set in motion, oiled by paranoia and deep mistrust, not to mention the clever manipulation of ambitious Cold Warriors. In the 50s, hawks like Edward Teller influenced policy and exggerated the threat posed by the Soviets, when in fact Stalin never wanted any kind of war with the US.

Later, this role was taken up by people such as Paul Nitze who admittedly was the “father of threat inflation”. His job and that of others was to exploit the uncertainty and fear and turn it into a potent force for justifying the arms race. Into the 60s and 70s, Nitze gathered around him a cohort of like-minded people who included today’s neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. They wrote reports that tried to argue against detente, and advocated further and more powerful arms buildups. In the middle of this politicking, it seems a wonder that presidents could negotiate treaties such as the anti-ballistic missile treaty and the NPT. Reading accounts of these people and their clever spin-doctoring and manipulation of the threat, one cannot help but feel a sense of deja vu, since it’s largely the same people who inflated the threat of WMDs in the Bush administration, as well as much else. What can we say but that public memory is unfortunately short-lived. Reading Rhodes’s accounts gives us a glimpse of the birth of today’s neocons, who have wrought so much destruction and led the country down the wrong path. Rhodes deftly recounts the workings of key officials in both governments, and how they influenced policy and reacted to that of the other side. He also has concurrent accounts of economic and military developments in the Soviet Union, and how channeling of funds towards defense spending created major problems for the country’s growth and development.

However, the major focus of Rhodes’s book concerns the two principal characters of the endgame of the Cold War and their lives and times; Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Rhodes paints a sensitive and insightful portrait of Gorbachev, as a man who was a reformist since the very beginning when he was a minister of agriculture. Rising to high positions from humble and trying beginnings, Gorbachev realised early on the looming menace of the arms race and its impact on his country’s development. He tried sensibly to negotiate with Reagan’s administration to cut back on nuclear arms. He could be compassionate and sympathetic, but also a very good politician. Rhodes’s portrait of Reagan is less favourable, and Reagan appears to be a complex man who harbored complex and sometimes puzzling ambitions. On one hand, he was a man who wanted to abolish nuclear weapons and end the threat of nuclear war. On the other hand, he was a naive idealist who sometimes thought of himself in messianic terms, thinking that God had a special role for him in the Cold War. Rhodes rightly compares some of Reagan’s thinking to religious thinking. Reagan quite bizarrely encouraged tremendous defense spending (more than the earlier three presidents combined) and massive and dangerous weapons developments and military exercises. Rhodes’s account of the NATO military exercise named Able Archer in 1983 which almost spurred the Soviets to ready a nuclear strike speaks volumes about Reagan’s belligerent policies, particularly strange given his “other side”, which eschewed nuclear conflict. An intelligent but not particularly intellectually sophisticated president, Reagan liked to hear about policy more in the form of stories than reports, and because of his relatively poor and unsophisticated background in issues of national security had to depend on his advisors for insight into these issues.

These advisors, especially Richard Perle and others, persuaded Reagan to stall negotiations with the Soviets, whose main insistence was that that he give up his dreams of SDI or “Star Wars”, a costly space-based weapons system that was clearly going to engender more animosity and arms buildups. This system was not just threatening and unnecessary, but would not have even been technically effective. Again, one cannot help but think of the Bush administration’s flawed insistence on missile defense systems. Reagan refused to back down on this central point in negotiations with the Soviets in Geneva and Iceland, mainly advised by Perle and others. Egged on by false hopes of security through SDI, he squandered important opportunities for arms reduction. In the pantheon of presidents trying to reduce Cold War nuclear threats and curtail weapons development, Reagan is surely the biggest offender. However, it is also not fair to blame him completely; clearly his hawkish advisors played a key role in policy making, even while his more moderate advisors struggled to find a way out of the madness. Ronald Reagan was a complex character, and a comment by Gorbachev, if perhaps a little too critical, accurately captures his personality; Gorbachev once said that he would love Reagan as a dacha neighbor, but not as president of the US.

In the end, it was largely inevitability that ended the Cold War. In this context, Rhodes also dispels some myths about it. One of them, cleverly used by conservatives these days, is that it was Reagan who was the principal instrument in ending the Cold War. Rhodes makes it clear that it was Gorbachev who was instrumental. Allied with this myth is another one, that the US drove the Soviet Union into the ground essentially by bankrupting them, as if that somehow almost points to a clever strategic decision by Reagan to increase his own arms spending to induce the Soviets to increase theirs. But this myth is also not true. The Soviet Union carried the seeds of its downfall inside itself since the beginning, and the fruits of those seeds were beginning to show since the 1970s. Gorbachev recognised this, and it was largely the economic situation in his country and his own actions and realisation of the inevitability of affairs that ended the Cold War. Reagan in fact may have slightly prolonged the Cold War, and he certainly made it more dangerous towards the end with his idealistic visions of more security through wondrous weapons building. He also made negotiations much more difficult by constantly casting Soviet-US relations under the rubric of good and evil, piety and godlessness, and by smooth talking rhetoric and debate. Robert McNamara has said that our immense nuclear legacy arose from actions, every one of which seemed rational at the time, but which ultimately led to an insane result. Ronald Reagan is perhaps the epitome of a US president who had his own remarkable but largely flawed internal rational logic for justifying enormous nuclear arms accumulation.

Throughout the book, Rhodes’s trademark style shines through; meticulous research that envelops the reader, remarkable attention to detail and internal logic, a novelist’s sense of character development and the retelling of key events,- such as his gripping account at the beginning of the book of the Chernobyl tragedy that exposed many of the Soviet Union’s weaknesses and contradictions- cautious and yet revealing speculation, and narration that instills in the reader a rousing sense of history and human nature. He gives sometimes minute-by-minute accounts of the deliberations and meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev. As in his other books, he liberally sprinkles all accounts with extended quotes and conversations between key participants, thus giving the reader a sense of being present at key moments in history. I have to say that this book, while very good, is not as engaging as his first two books, but it nonetheless is solid history and storytelling, and a chronicle of one of the important periods of the century, a period that influences the world to this day.

A dip into things nuclear

October 25, 2007

A bit about how I became interested in the topic. My original interest began with the history and future of nuclear weapons, and I read several books related to them, such as Richard Rhodes’s magnificent The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I understood that nuclear weapons were clearly a major threat which needs to be to greatly reduced by international action. But at the same time, I was quite puzzled about how people bin nuclear power in the same category as nuclear weapons. I was disheartened when I saw liberals and environmentalists (of which I consider myself to be one) who care about the environment and about global warming, vehemently argue against nuclear power. Even Al Gore does not give it serious thought. I was even more baffled when I read about the obvious promise nuclear power holds for humanity as a clean, efficient, and more importantly one of the safest sources of power that we can have. Clearly there is still great miscommunication between public and political perceptions of nuclear power and factual reality. I believe that we all need to consider nuclear power as one of our biggest allies in fighting climate change and the energy crisis.

On this blog, I hope to keep track of all things nuclear, from weapons to nuclear power. While it will serve as a platform for my views, I also consider it a platform for a learning experience. So all suggestions, comments and criticism are most welcome. So is anyone who is interested in contributing. I will start with posting some nuclear-related reviews from my old regular website.