Sunday, May 2, 2010

Milton Shaw and the Road to Energy Failure

It is probably safe to say that Milton Shaw was almost unknown when I wrote a three part account of his career and his role in the termination of the MSBR program at ORNL, his role in the firing of Alvin Weinberg, and in the controversy about nuclear safety which lead to a revolt of national laboratory scientists, and indirectly to the emergence of a vigorous anti-nuclear power movement. Eventually Shaw's attempt to quash the scientific revolt lead to his downfall in the AEC. The charge that Shaw wanted to destroy ORNL was made by Dixy Lee Ray in her biography, Is It True What They Say about Dixy? Ray stated,
One of the notions he (Milton Shaw) had was his stated desire to destroy the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I never really knew exactly why but I was equally determined that that fine American institution should live forever. At one time he (Milton Shaw) could have accomplished his goal, because he had Congressman Holifield on his side and both of them detested my old friend, Dr. Alvin Weinberg, who ran the Oak Ridge lab. To this day I don't understand the Holifield-Shaw dislike of Oak Ridge, but I had to believe it had no place in the Holifield nuclear empire."
Alvin much later stated,
Her claim that he was out to destroy the Lab is not realistic because the Lab is a big place.
there is an ambiguity here because it is not clear what was unrealistic. Was Weinberg referring to Ray's statement that Shaw wanted to destroy ORNL? Or was Weinberg arguing that Shaw in wishing to destroy ORNL was being unrealistic?

How far Weinberg believed Shaw might have been willing to go in the K.Z. Morgan affair is relevant, because there are hints from Morgan that Shaw was prepared to damage the Laboratory in retaliation against Morgan's plan to criticize the Nixon Administration's support for the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR).

In his 1995 interview with Bill Cabage and Carolyn Krause, Weinberg was asked
You have spoken out on your beliefs, even when your views were, as we say today, politically incorrect. Should researchers at government laboratories speak out truthfully about their findings and concerns even if their careers could be jeopardized?
Weinberg responded,
Karl Morgan, once director of ORNL's Health Physics Division, disagreed with the way reactor development was going. He thought the thorium cycle (breeding uranium-233 in a reactor by neutron bombardment of thorium) should be pursued because the waste disposal problem was simpler to handle. We had some difficult times there. The problem that Laboratory management always faced was that our survival depended on our ability to get money, mostly from the Atomic Energy Commission's Reactor Division under Milton Shaw. Karl Morgan's dissenting views on reactors placed ORNL in an awkward position, but Karl's career didn't suffer.
We can turn to K.Z. Morgan's biography ''The Angry Genie: One Man's Walk Through the Nuclear Age.'' Reviewers have pointed out significant flaws in Morgan's book, but his claim that Laboratory management - undoubtedly including Weinberg - had censored one of his papers in an effort to protect the jobs of Laboratory workers. Weinberg acknowledges that he had felt a reason for concern but did not confirm the censorship story.

According to Morgan in 1971 he had written a paper on nuclear safety, in which he had argued that the Molten Salt Breeder Reactor (MSBR) provided a provided a safer and more acceptable means of producing nuclear power. This is consistent with Weinberg's account. Morgan was also concerned about nuclear safety and proliferation issues in connection with the operation of the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle in Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactors. Morgan appears to have argued that the MSBR had superior proliferation resistance potential vis-a-vis the LMFBR.

According to the story which Morgan told shortly before his death and which appears in his biography, the paper had been completed by July of 1971, and 250 copies sent to the conference chairman for distribution during the meeting. Morgan then went on vacation and when he returned, he learned that the 250 copies of the paper had been destroyed, and that a revised paper had been substituted in its stead. Morgan was told to ignore the whole comparison of the LMFBR and the MSBR portion of the paper. Morgan was told that
"the President has decided to allocate $30 million of extra money to expedite building a demonstration LMFBR. You are jeopardizing the welfare of the laboratory."
And that
hundreds of people in Oak Ridge (might lose) their jobs
Morgan then went on to speculate that he might be one of those people, and Morgan, who was nearing retirement age, might lose his pension. This has to be regarded as something of a joke, because the ORNL pension at the time was nothing to brag about. The pension loss was probably never on the table, and it was Weinberg not Morgan who was fired because he was seen as out-of-step with policy. Morgan was very highly regarded as the founder of the Health Physics profession, and would have received an academic appointment had he been fired from ORNL, as he did when he retired in 1972. Thus Morgan's speculation appears more than a little melodramatic, and perhaps self serving.

Despite legitimate questions about the accuracy of some of Morgan's statements Weinberg offers support from some of Morgan's charges. It would appear from Weinberg's statement that Morgan's politically unfashionable advocacy for the MSBR and against the LMFBR did cause problems for the Laboratory including a threat to Laboratory funding sources which Milton Shaw controlled. Weinberg also viewed Shaw's threat as a part of Shaw's zealousness in following objectives set by others. But who set Shaw's objectives? At the AEC Shaw's boss was probably James R. Schlesinger. Schlesinger was a Nixon retainer who served the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations in a variety of positions, but his fundamental focus was on national defense. Schlesinger's arrival at the AEC coincided with the announcement of a new Nixon administration energy initiative on June 4, 1971. Legislation for the program's implementation was proposed to Congress the same day. In his June 4, 1971 message to Congress, Nixon stated,
Our best hope today for meeting the Nation's growing demand for economical clean energy lies with the fast breeder reactor. Because of its highly efficient use of nuclear fuel, the breeder reactor could extend the life of our natural uranium fuel supply from decades to centuries, with far less impact on the environment than the power plants which are operating today.

For several years, the Atomic Energy Commission has placed the highest priority on developing the liquid metal fast breeder. Now this project is ready to move out of the laboratory and into the demonstration phase with a commercial size plant. But there still are major technical and financial obstacles to the construction of a demonstration plant of some 300 to 500 megawatts. I am therefore requesting an additional $27 million in Fiscal Year 1972 for the Atomic Energy Commission's liquid metal fast breeder reactor program--and for related technological and safety programs--so that the necessary engineering groundwork for demonstration plants can soon be laid.

What about the environmental impact of such plants? It is reassuring to know that the releases of radioactivity from current nuclear reactors are well within the national safety standards. Nevertheless, we will make every effort to see that these new breeder reactors emit even less radioactivity to the environment than the commercial light water reactors which are now in use.

I am therefore directing the Atomic Energy Commission to ensure that the new breeder plants be designed in a way which inherently prevents discharge to the environment from the plant's radioactive effluent systems. The Atomic Energy Commission should also take advantage of the increased efficiency of these breeder plants, designing them to minimize waste heat discharges. Thermal pollution from nuclear power plants can be materially reduced in the more efficient breeder reactors.

We have very high hopes that the breeder reactor will soon become a key element in the national fight against air and water pollution. In order further to inform the interested agencies and the public about the opportunities in this area, I have requested the early preparation and review by all appropriate agencies of a draft environmental impact statement for the breeder demonstration plant in accordance with Section 102 of the National Environmental Policy Act. This procedure will ensure compliance with all environmental quality standards before plant construction begins.

In a related area, it is also pertinent to observe that the safety record of civilian power reactors in this country is extraordinary in the history of technological advances. For more than a quarter century-since the first nuclear chain reaction took place--no member of the public has been injured by the failure of a reactor or by an accidental release of radioactivity. I am confident that this record can be maintained. The Atomic Energy Commission is giving top priority to safety considerations in the basic design of the breeder reactor and this design will also be subject to a thorough review by the independent Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, which will publish the results of its investigation.

I believe it important to the Nation that the commercial demonstration of a breeder reactor be completed by 1980. To help achieve that goal, I am requesting an additional $50 million in Federal funds for the demonstration plant. We expect industry--the utilities and manufacturers-to contribute the major share of the plant's total cost, since they have a large and obvious stake in this new technology. But we also recognize that only if government and industry work closely together can we maximize our progress in this vital field and thus introduce a new era in the production of energy for the people of our land.
Two previous AEC cost/benefit assessments, prepared in 1968 and 1970, underlay the Nixon plan, but neither assessment had included a direct comparison between the costs and benefits of liquid-sodium breeding technology and molten-salt breeding technology, despite the fact that ten years previously a committee of nuclear scientists commissioned by the AEC had determined that the Molten-Salt Breeder Reactor was a promising alternative nuclear technology. Thus while some in the AEC preferred the liquid-sodium breeder, it is far from clear upon what basis that preference was based.

The Nixon choice was of to commit to liquid-sodium breeder technology was ostensibly based on the AEC's prior cost/benefit assessment, but that assessment had not included an environmental impact assessment in addition to having neglected a LMFBR/MSBR comparison. Thus Morgan's critique of LMFBR safety vis-a-vis the MSBR would have proven a direct challenge to to the newly announced Nixon Administration energy policy.

The liquid-metal-cooled Clinch River Reactor was a proposed part of the Nixon energy legislation. The Clinch River Reactor was to be built in the Oak Ridge Reservation, thus the project would have the political support of the Tennessee congressional delegation, but at the same time, the Clinch River Reactor was not an ORNL project. Thus while many ORNL scientists had long standing reservations about sodium-cooled reactors, they lacked political protection for voicing those criticisms, especially if comparisons were offered between ORNL's proposed Molten-Salt Breeder Reactor and the proposed Liquid-Metal Clinch River Breeder Reactor. It appears that the Nixon administration could have used the AEC's Milton Shaw to bring ORNL into line over energy policy, and probably was motivated to do so.

The publication of WASH-1184 and WASH-1222 was an attempt by the AEC to justify the 1971 Nixon choice to of the Liquid Sodium Fast Breeder as a centerpiece of the proposed future "clean energy policy" of the Nixon administration. I have discussed WASH-1222 a couple of years ago. WASH-1222 demonstrated what everyone already knew, that the MSBR required development. WASH-1222 argued
Significant experience with the Light Water Reactor (LWR), the high-temperature gas-cooled Reactor (HTGR) and the Liquid Metal-cooled Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR) has been gained over the past two decades pertaining to the efforts that are required to develop and advances nuclear reactors to the point of public and commercial acceptance.
This statement was written seven years before the Three Mile Island accident. Given the state of public acceptance of nuclear power in 2010 the 1972 statement can only be characterized as unbelievably naive. Thus major premise of the WASH-1222 was that other forms of nuclear power had reached a far more advanced stage in technological development and public acceptance than the MSBR. Three Mile Island demonstrated that Light Water Reactors were not nearly as mature as WASH-1222 assumed, and even in 1972 widespread suspicion about nuclear power demonstrated that even LWRs had failed to gain the sort of public acceptance WASH-1222 assumed. The other major argument referenced by WASH-1222 was that the MSBR should not be developed, because it needed to be developed.

Taken together WASH-1184 and WASH-1222 represented a serious but not intellectually sound attempt by the AEC-Nixon administration to replace a fact-based account of energy technology with spin. I hope at a future date to demonstrate how absurdly incompetent the so-called cost/benefit analysis of WASH-1184 was conducted, how the projections of WASH-1184 fell far beyond the actual historical accomplishments accomplishments of future American breeder reactor projects, while the the costs of those projects vaulted high above WASH-1184 predictions. WASH-1184 set the United States on a future energy course that was to prove a costly failure.

1 comment:

John in the Lot said...

I'm amazed that no-one has commented on this very interesting historical piece. Thanks for providing such clear and useful background to the demise of Alvin Weinberg and the role of Milton Shaw in that event.


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