Archive for May 2008

Kaku on nuclear

May 18, 2008

Michio Kaku is a well-known physicist who is a primary researcher in string theory and the author of some delightfully engaging books detailing the spectacular predictions of modern physics. NIE nuclear notes has some thoughts on an interview that he gave to The Times of India. While the interview and his answers suffer from the problem of lack of time to say something comprehensive that’s typical of such short interviews, here I briefly focus on his answer to the nuclear energy question:

Q: Would you say nuclear energy is the future?

Going for nuclear energy is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Fusion (based on hydrogen) is clean. But fission (based on uranium) generates tremendous waste. Nature uses fusion; for example, allowing the stars to recycle themselves cleanly. But nature does not use uranium, which is filthy. Nature only uses fusion, the power of the stars.

While what he says is strictly true, there are two issues here: firstly, as some have documented, the Oklo Reactor was a fascinating example of at least one time when nature “used” fission. But more importantly, just because nature does not use something does not mean it’s necessarily bad to do so. Also, nature does not have to tackle the same kinds of complex problems that we humans have created for ourselves, not to mention that nature has billions of years at its leisurely disposal to solve them in its own way. It’s probably a self-evident truth that most of what we do in our artificial world, such as the production of synthetic materials for example, goes “against” nature. Nature does not synthesize many drugs for cancer or nylon. Yet we need such things, sometimes for satisfying our creature comforts, and sometimes for empowering us to lead healthier and longer lives. That’s how we have always lived. To this extent we have been going against nature ever since the dawn of humanity; while some of our actions have been unequivocally bad for both nature and us, there’s no reason to stop considering them as a whole simply because nature does not indulge in them. Further on,

Like nature, we should go on without uranium power. I can think of four reasons to avoid nuclear energy: 1. Risk of proliferation: the technology of commercial nuclear energy is identical to what is required to make an atomic bomb — there is no wall separating the two; 2. Vulnerability to accidents and meltdowns; 3. Radioactive waste disposal; and 4. To make any dent in global warming, we would have to increase our commitment to nuclear energy by 10 to 50 times, which is totally impractical. So there is no necessity to go nuclear.

I have talked about point 1 a couple of times here. Every technology is a mixed blessing and we always have to strive to minimize its negative influence and maximize the positive influence. On the other hand, safeguards against proliferation can be implemented; by having multiple layers of security, by internationally controlling and keeping account of fissile material, and by switching to more proliferation-resistant fuel cycles such as those involving thorium. Potential solutions to proliferation exist, and it would be a little defeatist to simply give up because of proliferation fears without thinking about them.

Point 2 also has been addressed several times before. Many scenarios involving accidents are exaggerated; Chernobyl is now pretty well-known to be an anomaly. Meltdowns can be prevented by having inherently safe reactors with many backup safeguards. Even simulations of terrorist attacks against nuclear power plants don’t result in doomsday situations. And finally we cannot say this enough; comparing the risks from nuclear power plants to risks from widespread climate change, carbon emissions, oil crises and the resulting international political and social disruption makes the former seem like a small price to pay.

Point 3 is of course the favourite beating stick of anti-nuclear activists. Kaku is not an anti-nuclear activist, but he should understand and say that the problem of waste disposal is technically nuanced (which isotopes? what’s their physical state? how long would they pose a hazard? would all of them be equally hazardous? what are the risks exactly?) and has more importantly been turned into a political minefield. Without the damage that has been done to it by political scare-mongering, it would be a challenging technical problem, many solutions for which have been advocated. Yucca Mountain is a sound repository. Again, compare these waste issue to immediate problems stemming from oil consumption and the related political turmoil.

And finally point 4 and beyond…

No nation is going to multiply reactors 10-50 times because of inherent dangers. The marketplace will eventually decide, especially since the cost of solar hydrogen will continue to go down.

Why is it so unimaginable to contemplate increasing nuclear capacity by 10 to 50 times? Just because uninformed governments don’t contemplate it, does that mean the problem is with nuclear? One thing is resoundingly true of course. The marketplace will eventually decide. But market forces are fundamentally driven by public demand and therefore public opinion. Blaming nuclear for not making a dent in market share because of ill-informed public opinion is unfair. The fault is not with nuclear, it’s with lack of cogent dissemination of knowledge and consequent action. There is no reason why softer public opinion compounded with shorter licensing times for reactors should not make nuclear competitive. All we need is to give nuclear a good chance. It’s not like it’s not been around at all.

And finally, I don’t know what to make of the statement, “the cost of solar hydrogen will continue to go down”. The day we get abundant, cheap and safe hydrogen for transportation from abundant and cheap solar power will be the day that I will retract everything I ever said about nuclear power.

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Memorandum for the next President

May 7, 2008

The Union of Concerned Scientists has released a statement imploring the United States among other things to basically get rid of most of its battle-ready nuclear weapons, halt missile defense, halt all new weapons development programs and sign treaties banning the development of any nuclear weapons. The statement is signed by as distinguished a roster of scientists that you could hope to find; it includes 23 Nobel laureates, 10 recipients of the National Medal of Science and 91 members of the National Academy of Sciences. The list includes scientists from across the political spectrum, lest the usual cynical folks see it as another “liberal conspiracy”.

Currently the United States is probably the biggest destabilizer of international security in the world, especially because of the global image that it maintains. A ridiculous number of nuclear weapons are still on hair-trigger alert. The US through various maneuvers continues to antagonize and alienate Russia. As I have said before on this blog, global missile defense is eating away at the fabric of world peace. Sadly all this has seriously undermined the national security of the US itself, with virulent antagonism against it having emerged both among nations and terrorist-groups. The US today, even when its statements may be well-intended in an objective sense, has almost zero credibility when it asks other countries to disarm. All this is mainly thanks to the Bush administration, although they are carrying on a grand tradition perfected by the Reagan administration. This is one of the biggest holes they have dug their country in. One only hopes they don’t drag the entire world into it.

Some of the statements are worth copying out at length:

“By maintaining thousands of highly accurate nuclear weapons on alert, the United States perpetuates the only threat that could destroy it as a functioning society: a large-scale attack by Russia launched either without authorization, by accident, or by mistake because of a false warning of an incoming U.S. attack.

By giving nuclear weapons so large and visible a role in U.S. policy, and by planning to maintain and even upgrade its nuclear arsenal indefinitely, the United States has increased the incentive for other nations to acquire nuclear weapons, and reduced the political costs to them of doing so. The United States has further bolstered this incentive by threatening to use nuclear weapons against states that do not possess them.

By contributing to a climate in which possessing nuclear weapons is legitimate, the United States has also undermined the ability of the international community to prevent more states from acquiring them. And while the political barriers to acquiring these weapons are crumbling, technical barriers are also falling. The world could soon face a spate of new nuclear weapons states.

The world will stay on this course as long as the United States and the other nuclear powers —Britain, China, France, and Russia—assume that nuclear weapons are essential to their security. To avoid a new and more dangerous nuclear era, these states must drastically reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in their security policies. The United States can, and should, take the lead in promoting an effort to clear the path to a world free of nuclear weapons.

There is no plausible threat over the next decade or beyond that requires the United States to maintain more than a few hundred survivable nuclear weapons. There is also no military reason to link the size of U.S. nuclear forces to those of other countries. Nor does any plausible threat require the United States to retain the ability to launch nuclear weapons in a matter of minutes, or even hours.

Then, as we are all just holding our breath for Bush to leave, there are sound and straightforward prescriptions (italics mine) for the next President, as well as a reference to the ambitious disarmament plan uncovered by the group headed by Reagan defense secretary George Schultz. The plan is lent credence by the fact that all these gentlemen are seasoned leaders and statesmen, and most importantly they are no doves who would espouse a knee-jerk pacifist stance.

Four of the most seasoned architects of U.S. national security policy—George Shultz, Secretary of State under President Reagan; William Perry, Secretary of Defense under President Clinton; Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford; and Sam Nunn, former Senator from Georgia—have forcefully articulated the need for a new approach. They argue that the United States should embrace the goal of a “world free of nuclear weapons” as a vital contribution to preventing more nations, and eventually terrorists, from acquiring nuclear weapons.[1]

In short, it is time for a change.

The next president should bring U.S. nuclear weapons policy into line with today’s political and strategic realities by taking 10 critical, unilateral steps. These steps are practical and pragmatic: they would increase U.S. security by decreasing the risks of a Russian nuclear attack, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear terrorism. These steps would also lay the groundwork for a world without nuclear weapons, and enable the United States to lead other nations in that direction:

1. Declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter and, if necessary, respond to the use of nuclear weapons by another country.

2. Reject rapid-launch options by changing its deployment practices to allow the launch of nuclear forces in days rather than minutes.

3. Eliminate preset targeting plans, and replace them with the capability to promptly develop a response tailored to the situation if nuclear weapons are used against the United States, its armed forces, or its allies.

4. Promptly and unilaterally reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal to no more than 1,000 warheads, including deployed and reserve warheads. The United States would declare all warheads above this level to be in excess of its military needs, move them into storage, begin dismantling them in a manner transparent to the international community, and begin disposing—under international safeguards—of all plutonium and highly enriched uranium beyond that required to maintain these 1,000 warheads. By making the endpoint of this dismantlement process dependent on Russia’s response, the United States would encourage Russia to reciprocate.

5. Halt all programs for developing and deploying new nuclear weapons, including the proposed Reliable Replacement Warhead.

6. Promptly and unilaterally retire all U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons, dismantling them in a transparent manner, and take steps to induce Russia to do the same.

7. Announce a U.S. commitment to reducing its number of nuclear weapons further, on a negotiated and verified bilateral or multilateral basis.

8. Commit to not resume nuclear testing, and work with the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

9. Halt further deployment of the Ground-Based Missile Defense, and drop any plans for space-based missile defense. The deployment of a U.S. missile defense system that Russia or China believed could intercept a significant portion of its survivable long-range missile forces would be an obstacle to deep nuclear cuts. A U.S. missile defense system could also trigger reactions by these nations that would result in a net decrease in U.S. security.

10. Reaffirm the U.S. commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament, and present a specific plan for moving toward that goal, in recognition of the fact that a universal and verifiable prohibition on nuclear weapons would enhance both national and international security.

If the next president takes these steps, the United States will have greatly enhanced national and international security, while also setting the stage for negotiations to reduce the nuclear arsenals of other countries. Together with these nations, the United States can then tackle the challenges entailed in negotiating and implementing verifiable, multilateral reductions to levels well below 1,000 nuclear warheads—thereby laying the groundwork for an eventual worldwide prohibition on nuclear weapons.

Even 1000 warheads are quite a lot. China, Britain and France have had no more than 200-400 warheads each. The US with its bigger size might need say 500-600. But 1000 seems to be a good goal for appeasing people from the entire political spectrum. A larger number can also be based on submarines, as is the case with Britain. It’s also interesting that these scientists have unanimously opposed the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. In my opinion, eliminating missile defense or greatly limiting it would be the top priority for now.

Whoever the next President is has a lot to accomplish. I personally believe that radically changing the face of US nuclear weapons strategy is the single-most important international goal for him or her. Combined with other policies, in this action lies the key to national security. I don’t see John McCain doing it to any reasonable extent. Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama (who apparently has signed on to the Schultz vision) would do well to have a copy of the above statement in one of their drawers. We can only hope.

Straws for Mr. Strauss

May 6, 2008

I know this is probably well-known but I have seen this mentioned enough number of times to feel that I should be explicit about rebuking it. Let’s be clear about this.

Lewis Strauss was no expert on nuclear energy

This is for all those anti-nuclear people out there who are fond of quoting his rather asinine and knee-jerk statement about nuclear energy becoming “too cheap to meter”.

Strauss was a banker who was interested in physics (Leo Szilard corresponded often with him) but did not really have any sound knowledge of physics or nuclear engineering. As far as I know he never consulted with physicists or engineers with a view to assess the true potential of nuclear power.

More importantly Strauss was well-known for being a shrewd, calculating political hawk who could be counted on to toe the party line even for getting personal favors. He was the man who more than anyone else was responsible for shamelessly bringing down Robert Oppenheimer, a man who he enthusiastically supported earlier when it was convenient for him. Clearly anything that Strauss said was almost always politically colored with a view to advance personal goals.

So anti-nuclear lobby, please, if you want to erect straw men and pummel them to death, stop using Lewis Strauss. He is too easily recognizable as a straw man. You will have to be cleverer than that and look for someone else who could fool us more easily.

Made for each other

May 3, 2008

In spite of being technically infeasible and politically misguided, why have successive US administrations been so besotted by missile defense, with George Bush’s latest generous act being to essentially strong-arm NATO into agreeing to his demands for installing such defense systems in Eastern Europe, clearly an act that is if anything going to instigate even more antagonism against America?

Lawrence Korb writing in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists nails down the phenomenon- Republicans have been having a love affair with missile defense since their patron saint Ronald Reagan embraced the ideal in the pseudo-delusional confines of his idealistic mind. In fact so did Reagan believe in this coveted ideal that he even went to the length of offering to share this technology with the Soviets. In his belief in missile defense Reagan displayed the classic qualities of delusional religious thinking- thinking that something that isn’t actually there is going to save us all. In spite of there being not a shred of serious scientific evidence that any such system could work in practice nor a demonstrated need for it, Reagan made up his mind that it was necessary and would work splendidly. He, Ronald Reagan, would then be known as the great prophet of peace. Through his fantasizing Reagan bequeathed an ignominious legacy to his Republican successors. Now in his rebirth as George Bush, Reagan has returned with a vengeance. He still haunts the deep recesses of space, looking for sites to install x-ray lasers, perhaps telling jokes to the little angels gently guiding CIA spy satellites.

As Korb notes, at least some Republicans may have trouble supporting some of the sacred pillars of the party for fear of losing votes; abortion and gay marriage for example. But no Republican has to fear slighting his voter base by supporting missile defense

It has become a litmus test of loyalty to the Reagan legacy. President Reagan has assumed the same iconic place for Republicans that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had for so many years for Democrats. For example, John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, often refers to himself as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution, as did his former opponents Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani. This revolution was based on three pillars–pro-life as opposed to pro-choice; government as the cause of society’s problems as opposed to the solution; and a robust national missile defense as opposed to arms control negotiations or disarmament. Some Republicans have difficulty completely supporting the first two pillars: The majority of Americans want to place only a few restrictions on a woman’s right to choose and view government as a solution to many of our economic and social problems. But there is no political downside for a Republican to embrace missile defense.

To me that says as much about people’s apathy about this issue as it does about Republicans’ love for it. As Korb says, most Americans either don’t care about missile defense, consider it necessary by default, or assume that they already have it. All three beliefs are fatalistic. The US has already engendered much ill-will even among potential allies such as Russia by planning to install missile defense systems in Europe and now that he knows that he is going to leave soon, Bush seems to be obsessed with putting everything in place before the end of his regime. He and his associates are finely honing their long-acquired skills of causing the maximum damage in the minimum amount of time. Just like RAND theorists in the 1950s pleasured their intellectual apparatus by imagining global thermonuclear war, so do the current denizens of the Pentagon spend their twilight hours fantasizing about hordes of non-existent North-Korean and Iranian ICBMs. And they spend hundreds of billions of dollars on this treasured dream, more than on any single goal. As I have mentioned before, libertarians should be up in arms against this gratuitous diarrhea of taxpayer dollars.

And all this when even the basic technical feasibility of missile defense is questioned. The bottom line is simple. Almost every ABM system imagined in the US since the 1960s has focused on midcourse interception, that is trying to intercept and destroy a missile as it makes its way down through the atmosphere. Simply put, this is almost impossible to do since countless decoys dressed up in the missile’s visual and thermal signature will be making their way down at the same speed, making it more than a nightmare for any interceptor to distinguish missile from noise. Using such cheap decoys, the offense will quickly overwhelm the defense. This fact has been demonstrated time and time again, ad nauseam for the last 40 years, most notably by Richard Garwin (see Garwin’s presentation on the proposed European “shield”). So not only is the proposed system politically and internationally misguided, but it won’t even work. Many compliments to the brilliant officials at the Pentagon.

But it is wrong to feel frustrated, and prudent to understand. We should know that minor kinks like “feasibility”, “facts” and “international goodwill” have never thwarted the wishes of the current administration. So it’s probably not surprising that they would follow the path to hell inaugurated by their illustrious predecessor. But as far as foreign policy goes, this issue is as good a reason for Democrats to take power as any other. And it’s high time that Americans take as much cognizance of and express as much outrage on this issue as they do on healthcare or the war in Iraq. This issue will have as deep and perhaps more long-lasting significance for the national security of the US as anything else. Meanwhile, defenses against terrorists smuggling dirty bombs across borders remain weak.