Thursday, May 13, 2010

Disastrous Stewardship 3: Seaborg

Glenn T. Seaborg had a ten year long, and as he believed it, successful career as AEC Chairman. Seaborg, lead what can be called an illustrative life, and had a long string of accomplishments, including the discovery or at least a role in the discovery of plutonium and 9 other transuranium elements. He had been the Chancellor of The University of California Berkley, a Presidential Science advisor, who made notable contributions to nuclear arms control, who made notable contributions to strengthening American Science education, who played a role in the foundation of the Pac-10 Athletic Conference, who was a listed author of 50 books and 500 scientific journal articles, who received over 50 honorary degrees, and who made at least one major theoretical contribution to Chemistry.

Yet despite his many accomplishments, Seaborg's career at the AEC is an example of the adage, "the cream rises until it spoils." Seaborg was the Chairman of the AEC at a time when it was greatly in need of leadership, and in that leadership test Seaborg was to earn an F. Seaborg had garnered his accomplishments by placing himself at the center of important actions and generally performing. In doing so, he had learned to depend on others to perform important back up roles. Yet we have seen already, Seaborg's chairmanship at the AEC coincided with the rise of the Holifield clique, which steered the agency onto the rocks. No long term chairman of an organization can be considered successful if that organization destroyed by the folie of its leadership less than four years after his departure from its.

The AEC did not truly understand the reactor business. Yet that business had been understood by scientists at the start of the Nuclear Age by the New Piles Committee. Liberated from the task of the development of World War Ii era reactors, a team of brilliant scientists including The committee members included three Nobel Prize winners in physics—Enrico Fermi, James Franck, and Eugene Wigner. As well as other conspicuous scientists, Samuel Allison, Charles Cooper, Edward Creutz, Farrington Daniels, Thorfin Hogness, Miles Leverett, Phil Morrison, Lee Ohlinger, Frederick Seitz, Leo Szilard, “Ace” Vernon, William Watson, Alvin Weinberg, Gale Young, and Walter Zinn. Among participants, the Fermi who along with Wigner was the most storied of the New Pile Committee's brilliant participants warned of the danger to the future of the new technology posed by public fears of its real and imaginary dangers. And no less a figure than Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen Bomb, had warned,
Up to the present time we have been extremely fortunate in that accidents in nuclear reactors have not caused any fatalities. With expanding applications of nuclear reactions and nuclear power, it can not be expected that this unbroken record will be maintained. It must be realized that this good record was achieved to a considerable extent because of safety measures which have necessarily retarded development.
Much of the de facto leadership of the AEC, Holifield, Shaw and Ramsey , were not at all in tune with Teller's warning. They believed that the most common form of reactor, the Light Water Reactor was a mature technology, that required no further safety research. They regarded scientists who declared otherwise as little better than charlatans, who were fishing for research funding for unneeded projects. The Holifield clique regarded even Alvin Weinberg, the patent holder for light water reactor technology, who had convinced Hyman Rickover of its usefulness to the future nuclear navy, was regarded as being dishonest, when he warned of nuclear safety dangers, and advocated more research.

In the face of a growing storm of controversy about nuclear safety during the late 1960's, the AEC needed strong leadership, that would support the concerns of the scientists about nuclear safety. As the most important and distinguished scientist in the AEC Seaborg, should have understood the concerns of and made common cause with the scientists who his agency employed. Instead Seaborg allowed the Holifield clique run roughshod over the concerns of the scientists, and ignored the danger to the nuclear project, posed by those concerns.

Fairly late in his life, Seaborg prepared an account of his career, that was his own public oral narrative. The Narrative was titled Pioneering the Nuclear Age, and it was delivered as a speech to the European Institute for Transuranium Elements. Karlsruhe. Germany on, October 28. 1988. Seaborg's omissions from his story were more telling than what he recorded. In his account of the discovery of plutonium and other transuranium elements, Seaborg named noted researchers, colleagues, and Manhattan project leaders. In contrast in his discussion of his AEC years, Seaborg only chose to mention the Presidents that he served. In a long speech, delivered less than two years after the Chernobyl accident, and less than a decade after the Three Mile Island accident, Seaborg failed to mentioned the important topic of Nuclear safety, and what, if any, role he had played in the Nuclear safety controversy of the 1960's and early 1970's.

Less than 10 years after Three Mile Island, Seaborg simply ignored the question of reactor safety. Seaborg focused instead on his own role.
In March 19b2 President Kennedy asked the AtC to take a "new and hard iook
at the role of nuclear power in our economy." The president asked that the study identify the objectives, scope and content of a nuclear power development program in light of the nation's prospective energy needs and resources and of advances in alternative means of power generation.
Seaborg asserted,
The year 1962 was an appropriate one for a "new and hard look." By this time 2'j experimental or prototype nuclear power reactors had been funded by the government, while 12 others had been funded under cooperative programs with industry. Krom this work had come substantial advances in nuclear technology and considerable operating experience, sufficient to make the goal of economically competitive nuclear power seem attainable, at least in areas of the country with high conventional fuel costs. Not surprisingly, such progress had stimulated increased industry interest in nuclear power and in the private ownership of nuclear fuel. On the other hand, general economic conditions did not seem to warrant the construction of additional experimental facilities without more definitive program guidance. Guidance was needed particularly to help determine what reactor concepts should be emphasized in the coming period. The plants thus far built had been of several different types, each having its virtues and its champions.
In fact, in his assessment 1992, Seaborg ignored one major reactor development, and offered shallow and problematic assessments of other reactor technologies. Even viewing his reviewing his report from the standpoint of the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident, Seaborg stated.
Light water-cooled reactors had demonstrated their reliability, having been used extensively, lor example, in nuclear submarines and in the Shippingport Atomic Power Station near Pittsburgh, they were not extremely complex either in construction or operation, and could be built and operated with available technology.
While it was safe to say that the Navy has by 1962 mastered the use of nuclear technology in ship propulsion, but there were flaws in the Naval nuclear model when applied to the generation of Civilian electricity. Civil reactors were at least one order of magnitude more powerful than naval reactors. Thinking in terms of scaling up naval reactors without modification was dangerous, as subsequent nuclear safety investigations and Three Mile Island experience was to prove. Unfortunately thinking about civilian nuclear power was in 1962 overly influenced by the Naval experience, The prototype civilian nuclear power plant, the Shippingport reactor, was in fact a naval research reactor. Although large by Naval standards the Shippingport Reactor operated at about 5% of the power that civilian reactors were being to designed to operate at a little over a decade later. The scale up brought its own safety issues, a fact that Seaborg, and the Holifield clique failed to notice.

Coping with the problems created by the issue of safety related to scale in Light Water ReactorTechnology was eventually to prove expensive. It was not that safety was to prove impossible, but that the creation of a system of safety barriers added levels of complexity that Seaborg's assessment did not even hint at. The commitment to light water civilian reactor technology meant ultimately a commitment to expensive nuclear safety approaches. There was a significant issue with the Light Water Fuel cycle as well. Nuclear fuel coming out of a reactor contained radip-active fission products as will as a significant amount of transuranium isotopes including various plutonium isotopes. Anti-nuclear proliferation Zealots believed that the reactor grade plutonium coming from nuclear fuel was a nuclear proliferation danger. in fact, the technological challenges involved in building an explosive device with reactor grade plutonium are formidable. When the British took a serious look at the Use of Reactor Grade Plutonium in Nuclear Weapons during the 1950's, they decided that was not practical, and after one reactor grade plutonium test, American nuclear weapons designers agreed. Not one member of the Nuclear Club has subsequently decided to attempt to build nuclear weapons from reactor grade plutonium. But the public fear of plutonium weapons from used light water reactor fuel is still with us.

Thus Seaborg underestimated the problems of light rater reactor technology in his report to President Kennedy. In addition Seaborg eyed another nuclear technology with favor. This was the liquid Metal Fast Breeder of which Seaborg said,
Light water-cooled reactors had demonstrated their reliability, having been used extensively, lor example, in nuclear submarines and in the Shippingport Atomic Power Station near Pittsburgh, they were not extremely complex either in construction or operation, and could be built and operated with available technology.
Seaborg went so far as advocating the development and future use of Fast Breeders during his years as AEC Chairman. There is little doubt that one of the ways which Seaborg exercised his influence over the AEC staff was too push to fast track the fast breeder. There is little doubt that other breeder options such as a thorium breeding Molten Salt Reactor, an a little known Liquid Chloride Salt Fast Breeder option that was explored by Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the 1950's. The use of sodium as a coolant posed and continues to pose significant safety challenges. The most obvious is the problem of fires created by sodium coolant leaks, but a far more terrifying challenge for nuclear engineers is posed by something called void worth. Void worth refers to a predicted tendency for voids or coolant free pockets to open up in the sodium coolant of fast reactors. These voids can in turn cause a run away reaction that ill in turn open an even greater void. Even if a void is unlikely under normal circumstances, the possibility of a void infrequently opening up in a sodium cooled fast reactor is very troubling.

Seaborg's choice of the sodium cooled fast breeder was at the very least premature. A simpler, safer, and less expensive alternative was being developed in Oak Ridge in the form of the Molten Salt Breeder Reactor. But the Molten Salt Breeder was expected to operate on a thorium rather than a uranium breeder cycle. The MSBR was foreseen offer a solution for the nuclear waste problem of light water reactors. Reactor physicist could not envision the sort of void problem that was so troubling in sodium cooled fast reactors. Finally, Oak Ridge cost studies suggested that it would not be expensive to build.

Glenn T, Seaborg regarded plutonium as his seventh offspring. Seaborg once said of Plutonium,
Born on a humble research budget, and cradled in a cigar box, it will become the energy giant of the future,
He also said,
i an so well well acquainted with plutonium's early childhood, that I might view it as one might consider a "bad" child.
He was not anxious to see his favored child displaced by the upstart thorium. In addition there was a in the late 196o's and early 1970's something of a fast breeder band wagon. Not only did powerful Congressman Holifield want it, and powerful AEC reactor development director Milton Shaw want it, but the LMFBR was written into the 1968 presidential platform of the Democratic party and became the future nuclere technology of choice for the Nixon administration. Only Alvin Weinberg and a band of nuclear scientists in Oak Ridge were offering opposition. Milton Shaw had plans for them. During the first Nixon administration Alvin Weinberg and about 1500 members of the ORNL staff, scientists and skilled technicians were ordered fired by the AEC. Most were terminated while Seaborg was still AEC Chairman. Seaborg now gone from the AEC and free of any obligation to the Washington powers that be, offered no known objection to Weinberg's firing.

8 comments:

DV8 2XL said...

Yet another example of how the political process trumps engineering arguments in the development of new technologies.

Those who wish to influence the direction of the nuclear renaissance need to pay head. I have written at length in many forums, of the need to consider the politics, and not hope to rely on superior design to carry the day.

As it currently stands the IFR crowd seems to have taken this lesson to heart, if there is any chance for MSR designs to move ahead, its supporters are going to have to follow suit.

Both camps have more than enough nerds and geeks, what LFTR needs now are those with the political acumen to have it noticed in, and to promoted it in the places that count. If this is not done, this design will be left at the alter again as it was in the past.

Charles Barton said...

DV8 2XL, I am not sure that the IFR advocates are doing such a good job, or what the LFTR advocates is too bad. We don't have name recognition, but we are getting our cause before the public.

DV8 2XL said...

Charles - Without trying to toot my own horn too much, it has been my observation that at least in the political aspects of nuclear energy, I am one of the more attuned in the pronuclear community. You know I have commented at length on this part of the problem in the past, so I am not pulling what I say out of nowhere.

The IFR has the momentum at present, and not recognizing that and not acting to counter it now will place the LFTR in a hole so deep it might not be able to dig it self out. Do a Google news search for both and you will see that more non-nuclear oriented news outlets are writing about the IFR, and largely ignoring the LFTR. This is a problem.

This is a problem that must be addressed now, while it still can be. Once the momentum build on the IFR side it will be damned near impossible to overcome.

Charles Barton said...

DV8 2XL we LFTR supporters have made very significant strides in the last three years. The IFR has gotten some good press, but there are some holes in the IFR story, that may bit them if they don't watch out. I am curious to see how Barry handles the problems. Also there is a demographic play involved. The LFTR has caught the attention of the young. IFR supporters know ancient history by first hand experience.

DV8 2XL said...

I calls them as I sees them, Charles, and as the very article you led off with attests, the politically wise punch above their weight at times like this. And never, ever discount the importance of getting good press, and getting it first.

Also the young may well be on side, but the money will will probably defer to experience. I wouldn't count on demography to carry the day here.

Look, I believe in LFTR as the best choice for Gen IV; I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't, but unless the message gets out to the general public more than it is now, it will not happen in our lifetimes. Please don't dismiss this, or think it can be deferred to sometime down the road. This is a very critical time in the development cycle, and LFTR is not in the lead.

Any rate I've had my say.

DocForesight said...

Charles - Considering how enthusiastic Sen. Alexander is for expanding new NPPs, I would hope someone, you or Kirk?, have made contact with his office.

Perhaps a presentation to a handful of senators that are warm to the idea of small, modular reactors would help open more doors, if that hasn't already been attempted. If it has, keep knocking on that door.

Kirk Sorensen said...

I met with two of the staffers for Sen. Alexander last week and talked about thorium and LFTR.

DocForesight said...

Ha! Do I have 'pull' or what? Now, where did I leave that Arabian urn that requires polishing? LOL

Good for you, Kirk! Here's to hoping common sense isn't an uncommon commodity in the Renaissance.

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