Friday, July 4, 2008

On the History of Nuclear Safety

One of the follies of my youth was to spend a couple of years being trained as a Historian of Ideas. This gives me an unusual perspective as a nuclear blogger. I had a couple of guest posts on Harry's Place last year. In my second post, I discussed the positive secondary benefits of using nuclear power as an energy source. My post attracted an inordinate number of anti-nuclear responses. One of my most vociferous critics was an English woman who was chemist.

My Harry's place critic focused on a number of events in the history of the British nuclear adventure. It is clear that everyone who was doing nuclear science in the 1950's cut corners, and covered up problems, and no one more so than the British. The Windscale fire was a major nuclear accident, and the British covered up quite a lot of the problems. My critic however, chose to attribute to something she called "the nuclear industry" all of the characteristics, of what was a quasi-military nuclear production establishment of the cold war 1950's.

My father did some research on the Windscale accident, because he was researching the movement of radioisotopes in the environment after a nuclear accident. Lots of radioisotopes had escaped into the environment because of Windscale, so Windscale was high on nuclear safety researchers interest list in the early 1960's. Several things about the Windscale reactors, and the 1957 Windscale fire. First the design if the Windscale piles was primitive by American standards. They were graphite piles designed to produce bomb grade plutonium. unlike the Hanford Reactors, which were water cooled, the Windscale reactors were air cooled. The X-10 reactor was the only American air cooled graphite reactor. Eugene Wigner had rejected the use of air or gas cooling in the Hanford reactors. The British did not have a Wigner, and ended up up with an unsafe reactor design.  In addition to being badly designed, the Windscale reactors were poorly instrumented, and the British were having increasing problems managing the reactors graphite moderator.  Those problems had significant safety implications, which the British failed to identify and analyze.

Thus the history of the Windscale fire must include questions about why the British had in the late 1940's chosen a production reactor design that was already considered obsolete in the United States by the time it went into operation, and why they chose to manage it the way they did.  The combination of the reactor design and the management style adopted by the British made an accident in the Windscale reactors quite probable.  Of course there was a coverup because culpability for the accident ran to the top of the British Government and military.   

The history of nuclear safety is both a history of ideas and a socio-political history. The two are intertwined. My British critic on Harry's Place, however, took an ahistorical viewpoint. She refused to place the Windscale reactor fire into the historic context of the British states management of cold war related technology.  It was her view that if something was true of nuclear technology at one time, in one place, it was true everywhere and always. Thus what was characteristic of the Windscale reactors was true of every reactor. And the management of the consequences of the Windscale fire by the British government is characteristic of all aspects of nuclear safety at any time and in any place.

Ahistoric views of the development of any technology are profoundly unsophisticated. Technologies evolve in socio-economic and historical contexts, and attitudes towards technological issues like safety, are in no small measure related to the context in which the technology evolves.  Knowledge evolves and with that evolution comes a greater appreciation for risk and understanding of methods of controlling risk,.  As knowledge evolves it can begin to change the social and political context, thus altering public attitudes and beliefs.  

A historian would, of course, note changes in attitude toward nuclear safety, developing research, on safety, the introduction of new safety concepts, conflicts within the research community, and conflicts over safety involving scientists, interest groups, self styled experts, research funders, policy makers, and policy implementation establishments. Partisans in a conflict might well take a less nuanced view. My British critic from Harry's Place surely took and extremely unsophisticated view that reduced the history of nuclear safety to a simple narrative of good verses evil, With "the nuclear industry" embodying evil, and the critic fantasizing herself to be a warrior on the side of good. This fantasy has characterized the anti-nuclear movement since the 1970's. At its heart then the anti-nuclear movement, to the extent it rejects a historical view of nuclear safety, is wedded to a fantasy politics of identity.

I have pointed out in Nuclear Green, that nuclear critic Ralph Nader's sister Claire had a professional association with with Alvin Weinberg and had discussed nuclear safety issues with Weinberg. Claire Nader undoubtedly passed on the substance of her discussions with Weinberg to her brother, who was later to talk directly with Weinberg about safety issues. The Nader's were both treated with respect by Weinberg. In turn Ralph Nader should hsve known of Weinberg's expertise both on reactor design and on nuclear safety issues. Nader also know of Weinberg's struggle with Chet Hollifeld and Milton Shaw. Thus Nader had no reason to doubt Weinberg commitment to nuclear safety. Nader could have undoubtedly used Weinberg's knowledge in a fight for nuclear safety. Instead Nader made hiscause the fight against nuclear power.

Nader posed for the public as a good little guy, who fought against evil incarnate, represented by such evil forces as "the nuclear industry". Unfortunately this absurd story was bought be an increasingly simple minded media, that wanted to interpret every story for the public as a matter of good verses evil.  Good verses evil was easy to sell to ther public, and drew eyes and ears to the media that told the stories.   Stories with shades of gray were complicated. They required a lot of thinking and a lot of information.  Thinking and information lost readers and viewers. In order to understand the history of nuclear safety in America, we must understand the increasing incompetence and corruption of what past for the mainstream news media during the last third of the 20th century.

There were some bad actors in the nuclear safety story, and Ralph Nader turned out to be one of them. The television networks, and the press were simply too lazy to get the whole story, so the media was content to sell the Saint Ralph line.

Nader tells stories about himself, in which he claims to be a saint of knowledge.  For example, Nader claims that in 1964 he attended a conference at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Over lunch Nader claims that he began asking nuclear engineers some questions. "They couldn't answer them, or the answers weren't satisfactory," Nader claims. "'What could happen if a system goes wrong?' Nader asked. They avoided any such descriptions or said, 'we've got defense in depth' -- and other jargon."  "Defense in Depth" is of course an effective operational concept, that was proven to be effective at Three Mile Island.  By describing a discussion of things things that he did not understand as jargon, Nader revealed his lack of understanding of nuclear safety.   As Gomer Pile  use to say, "surprise, surprise surprise."  There were of course, other people at ORNL who could have the answered Nader's 1964 questions,  or at least would have known the answers within the state of knowledge. If Ralph Nader wanted people who could answer his questions about what could go wrong in reactors and under what conditions, he could have talked tp George Parker, or he could have talked to my father. Needless to say, Nader did not seek out nuclear safety experts to answers to his questions. Certainly Alvin Weinberg would and could have answered Nader's questions about nuclear safety, and made himself available to Ralph and his sister Claire. It is quite possible that Nader talked to someone in Oak Ridge who did not answer his question, or alternatively gave Nader an answer that Nader did not understand.  Had Nader sought out answers about nuclear safety in 1964, he would have found them, but Nader wanted answers that made nuclear scientist look bad, not in truth.

Nader was not interested in truth, he was looking for witnesses for his drama which would feature Saint Ralph fighnting an evil dragon "the nuclear Industry." People, like Alvin Weinberg, George Parker, and my father were much to dangerous to rely on as witnesses.  George Parker might start talking about how improbable it would be for most radioisotopes to escape from Light Water Reactors. My father might have started talking about how coal fired power plants and natural gas furnaces were delivering more radioisotopes to the environment than reactors were. Such people might blow Nader's cover, night reveal that Nader was only concerned about radiation coming from reactors. If natural gas delivered radioactive gases to American homes, the Saint Ralph and the nuclear dragon drama might fall apart. People might start asking why does Saint Ralph ignore the Natural Gas Dragon, that is brining radioactive gas to the lungs of so many Americans. If people knew that Alvin Weinberg had been fired over nuclear safety, he might steal attention from Saint Ralph. Weinberg was so dangerous to Nader's because he actually understood reactors, and safety, and his integrity was unquestionable unlike Saint Ralph's. Thus Nader's account of the history of nuclear safety, is self serving and dishonest.

Thus in the case of my British Harry's Place critic, the history of nuclear safety was something to be ignored. Nuclear power is a manifestation of something called "the nuclear industry", an evil despicable entity that transends time and space. "The Nuclear Industry" is always and everywhere the same, thus it cannot evolve, it cannot change, and has no history.  Thus it is impossible to speak of something called the history of nuclear safety.

For Ralph Nader the history of nuclear safety exists to promote his own reputation. Nader has maintained for over a generation that reactors are always and everywhere unsafe. Thus Nader also  believes in a mythic "nuclear industry" which also exists outside of time and space. There is for Nader a history of nuclear safety, which is his account of his own struggle to slay the nuclear dragon.


Rod Adams said...


As an Historian of Ideas, did you do much work on the interplay of economics with technological development?

Like you, I like to look at technological developments through a lens that is different from that provided by the conventional wisdom. I have always been intrigued by the strength of the movement against nuclear power led by people like Nader when there were so many obvious hazards imposed by all other energy sources.

I have pretty much convinced myself that the nuclear industry came under attack BECAUSE it was technically so much better than the competition that the people selling fossil fuels could not allow any kind of fair competition.

Now, some would tell me that I am crazy to try to link Nader to the fossil fuel establishment, but here are some items for thought.

1. Nader grew up in an Arab-American household that owned a restaurant and served a largely Arab-American community. He has mentioned in several biographies the importance of many conversations in the restaurant to his career as a political activist.

2. One of his earliest campaigns was against the first popular small car built by an American manufacturer.

3. He began his anti nuclear activities in 1970 at a time when oil cost about $3 per barrel. He was working for the University of Texas Law Review. According to "Ralph Nader: A Biography" by Patricia Cronin Marcello, "We thought the mere investment in energy efficiency would replace far more than the megawatts that could be supplied by risky nuclear power." In Texas, in 1970, there was a pretty deep recession assisted by low oil and gas prices partly as a result of a growing interest in building new nuclear power plants.

4. His first Critical Mass conference which turned anti-nuclear questions into a focused campaign with coordinated efforts in protests and legislative action took place in 1974, right during the height of interest in oil prices caused by the Arab Oil Embargo. When nuclear fission should have been seen as at least one of many available answers, he was hard at work to take it off of the table.

5. Nader played king maker in 1976 when he threw his considerable political support - far more then than now - behind Jimmy Carter in exchange for an agreement to discourage nuclear energy, especially the breeder reactor and recycling programs.

Nader's power came from some well connected friends who kept him in the limelight and kept him funded to conduct his high visibility campaigns. I think that part of the support came because they liked his anti-nuclear stance. Perhaps, it was the other way around and his anti-nuclear stance came because it met the interests of his supporters.

Any thoughts?

Rod Adams
Atomic Insights

Charles Barton said...

Rod, I think I will have to answer your comment with a post, but will require too big an answer to give in a comment.

Greg Barton said...

Nader and his ilk just delayed the inevitable. Was he a tool of the oil industry? Who knows? I don't think it matters anymore, except maybe as an example of the rhetoric and tactics we need to diffuse in order to see a nuclear future realized. But I doubt those tactics can or will be used again. Too many people from all parts of the political spectrum see the value of nuclear power.

Excellent post, unc! :)


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