Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Social Construction of Ignorance: Cochran and the Fast Reactor Canard

Thomas B. Cochran is a lobbyist employed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, to attack nuclear power on a full time basis. As befits a Lobbyist, Cochran is well compensated. In 2006 Cochran was one of the 5 highest paid employees of the NRDC, with a total compensation package approaching $200,000. In 2006 the largest single foundation donor to the the NRDF was the Energy Foundation, an environmental funding NGO, that also funds many other anti-nuclear "environmental organizations. The NRDC has been a recipient of funding from the Pro-coal Joyce Foundation, which has served as a conduit for funding of pro-coal lobbying, and propaganda activities to a number of environmental organizations. The NRDC has also been the recipient of funding from the infamous Tides Foundation, which allegedly provides sub-rosa funding services between supposedly ideologically pure organizations and environmentally tainted funders. The NRDC also receives funding by the Ted Turner foundation, a funding source controlled by natural gas baron, Ted Turner, who along with T. Boone Pickens is on of the architects of the natural gas-renewables alliance.

Cochran is a long time critic of nuclear power, whose criticism seemingly do not squarely put him in the nay sayers camp. Cochran is not as obviously a fake expert as is Amory Lovins, but there are some red flags. Cochran is a Nuclear proliferation expert and nuclear proliferation canard has been a major item in the the anti-nuclear propaganda story. Alex DeVolpi writes,
A. David Rossin, a former DOE official who had substantial nuclear-technology experience before entering government service, writes that long ago he first heard from Tom Cochran of the NRDC the term “weapons-usable.” Rossin agrees that — despite the large body of contradictory evidence — the term is often applied by “today’s nonproliferation activists” indiscriminately to “all isotopes of plutonium."
The Hoffnagles offer a category of "denialist" strategies, Impossible expectations (and moving goalposts). it is fair to ask if the nuclear proliferation argument against nuclear power is not an anti-nuclear ploy. Since Cochran testified before the DoE Blue Ribbon Commission last week, it is legitimate to ask if his testimony amounted to knowledge pollution or if it expressed a fact and science based set of rational beliefs.

Cochran's testimony before the Blue Ribbon Commission included a challenge to the legitimacy of the Commission, that the Commission was not lawfully constituted:
The Commission membership is not balanced as required by law. First, let me make that we do not question the integrity of the members of the Commission, for which we have regard, and we recognize your dedication to public service. The issue arises from the legal requirement that committees under FACA be balanced in terms of the points of view represented, and from the common-sense view that if you desire to succeed you shouldn’t begin by locking out constituencies that you need for success. This commission is not balanced and important points of view are not represented on the Commission.
This objection appears to have been proforma, and intended to lay the groundwork for a subsequent propaganda anti-nuclear campaigns against the Blue Ribbon Commission report, which is likely to make recommendations that the NRDC and its fossil fuel industry paymasters oppose. Cochran articulated the NRDC's interests, as one of fair representation,
NRDC, other NGOs and individuals with long interest and sometimes active participation in federal policy related to the management and disposal of nuclear wastes share a range of views from a position that nuclear power should compete for market share without further federal subsidies to the belief that the role of nuclear power should not be expanded due to cost, proliferation, safety and waste management considerations. Many believe further nuclear subsidies carry high opportunity costs in mitigating climate change. The views of these groups and individuals are not represented on the Commission. . . .
Cochran then cleverly set the commission up for failure by suggesting who should be represented in its membership, and what it should try to accomplish. First,
Attachment 3 is a statement of Principles for Safeguarding Waste at Reactor Site. This statement was produced and circulated long before the formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission. It is signed by representatives of some 170 national and local groups in 50 states— a very large, thoughtful constituency that are actively participating in matters now under consideration by the Commission. In NRDC’s view these groups have essentially no representation on the Commission. The DOE and the Obama administration should have been aware of this statement, the long involvement of many of these organizations in the “issues under consideration” by the Commission, and should have made sure that they were represented on the Commission just as the nuclear industry is well represented.
The Commission cannot expect to be an effective voice in solving the nuclear waste problem if it excludes representation of important constituencies from participating in its discussions and formulating its recommendations. If you expect to reform the process for managing and disposing of spent fuel and nuclear waste, you best not begin by locking out of the process important constituencies whose inclusion is needed to reach a durable consensus on future policy.
Secondly Cochran recommended goals for the commission,
The Commission should focus on getting the geologic repository program back on track. Regardless of whether U.S. nuclear capacity increases, decreases or stays approximately the same, and regardless of which nuclear fuel cycle is adopted or when, the United States needs one or more geologic repositories for the sequestering of spent fuel and high level radioactive waste for very long periods. Consequently, in our view the highest priority of the Blue Ribbon Commission is to get the repository program back on track. This should be the focus of your efforts and recommendations of your interim report. The issue of what is the preferred future fuel cycle can wait.
These two suggestions, taken together are a trap, likely to lead the Commission into failure in its assignment. The groups which Cochran recommends for inclusion in the Commission, undoubtedly include "Not in My Back Yard" (NIMBY) constituencies. The recommendation of a geologic repository program is likely to bring out NIMBY opposition in force.

Cochran then clearly joined the anti-nuclear cam by attacking the fast reactor option for closing the fuel cycle:
The wide spread use of fast reactors and a closed fuel cycle to burn selective actinides for waste management purposes has essentially no chance of succeeding within any policy time frame that is relevant to resolving either current nuclear waste storage issues or the problem of decarbonizing the U.S. electric power generation sector. Continued U.S. research and development (R&D) on advanced reprocessing will also fan global interest in plutonium separation and utilization technology and thereby increase nuclear weapons proliferation risks.

Closed fuel cycle schemes to reduce repository requirements typically require that on the order of one-third of the reactor capacity be comprised of fast reactors. The precise fraction is not important here—only to note it is a large fraction. To achieve such a balanced ratio of fast to thermal reactor capacity in the United States in the next few decades would require roughly that the next 50 gigawatts-electric (GWe) of reactor capacity built in the United States to be fast reactors, e.g., 50 fast reactors each about the average size of U.S. nuclear power reactors operational today. The Commission should acknowledge the fundamental reasons why this outcome is highly unlikely in the next few decades or for that matter in this century.
History has not been kind to fast reactors. They have cost considerably more than thermal reactors, and seem likely to stay that way, and have proven to be much less reliable than thermal reactors.
There are several acts of knowledge pollution here. First Cochran is aware that fast reactors are not the only plutonium burning option. If he is unaware of the Molten Salt Reactor actinide burning option, then his competence as a nuclear proliferation/nuclear arms control expert is open to question. In effect Cochran attempts to fines all plutonium burning breeder options by dismissing fast reactors. In doing so he ignores the potential nuclear waste disposal use of Molten Salt Reactors. Canadian Reactor Scientist, David LeBlanc has recently pointed out the developmental potential of the Denatured Molten Salt Reactor (DMSR). The DMSR could be quickly developed, because its design utilizes already mature, tested, technologies, it is highly safe, and can use any possible nuclear fuel. ORNL originally proposed the DMSR because it had outstanding proliferation prevention characteristics. These proliferation prevention features would undoubtedly undercut Cochran's objection to plutonium burning closed fuel cycle reactors, and thus would destroy his attempt to destroy the nuclear power option by setting the bar to high.

That Cochran is aware of the Molten Salt Reactor option is beyond dispute. He is a listed co-author report on the history and current developmental status of Fast Breeder Reactors, titled "Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status. " Cochran co-authored a chapter of that report which includes a discussion of the Molten Salt Reactor:
Although the highest priority was given to LMFBRs, several other types of breeders were considered, and reached various stages of development in the United States. In addition to the LMFBR, these included the gas (helium) cooled fast breeder, and two thermal-neutron reactor types, the light-water breeder reactor and the molten-salt breeder reactor (MSBR). The fast-neutron breeder reactors were designed to breed plutonium from uranium-238, while the thermal-neutron breeder designs were optimized to breed uranium-233 from thorium-232.
Perhaps the most interesting alternate concept explored in this early work was the molten-salt breeder, which still has advocates.47 In this reactor, the fuel and coolant are combined in a molten mixture of fluoride salts. The salt flows through the reactor core, through an intermediate heat exchanger, and then back to the reactor core. Molten-salt reactors were first proposed by Ed Bettis and Ray Briant of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) during the post-World War II attempt to design a nuclear-powered aircraft.48 Two molten-salt reactors were built at ORNL. The first was a prototype aircraft reactor, the 1.5 MWt Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE), which operated for 100 hours in October 1954. The second, the graphite-moderated 8 MWt Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE), operated between June 1965 and December 1969, demonstrating the technical feasibility of the molten-salt breeder concept.
In 1972, ORNL proposed a major development program that would have culminated in the construction and operation of a demonstration reactor called the Molten Salt Breeder Experiment. The total program cost was estimated at $350 million over a period of 11 years.49 Those who would have had to approve the funding of the program were already heavily committed to the LMFBR, however. The ORNL proposal was rejected by the AEC partly because it wished to reduce the number of breeder candidates to be developed and because the breeding ratios projected for the molten-salt reactor were low compared to those foreseen for the fast-neutron reactors.50 In January 1973, ORNL was directed to terminate MSBR development work. The program was reinstated a year later, and in 1974 ORNL submitted a more elaborate proposal calling for approximately $720 million to be spent over an 11-year period. This proposal was also rejected, and, in 1976, ORNL was again ordered to shut down the MSBR program “for budgetary reasons.”
Thus clearly Cochran is aware of the MSBR's existence, and has some idea about its potential. Yet in his testimony before the Blue Ribbon Commission, Cochran omitted mention of the Molten Salt Reactor based closed end fuel cycle options. Given the statement on the Molten Salt Reactor which Cochran allegedly co-authored, the omission of mention of a Molten Salt Reactor closed fuel cycle option appears to have been deliberate. Cochran ignored important information, which would have given the the Blue Ribbon Commission an attractive option that would have offered a potential contribution to managing the problem of used light water reactor fuel, while also offering a potential source of low cost nuclear generated low carbon electricity. Thus even as he ignored the potentially attractive DMSR option, Cochran sought to block all use of closed end fuel cycle approaches to the LWR nuclear waste issue, by an attack on the LMFBR. This argument fails the standard, of rational fact and science based discourse.

A canard, is a story intended to distract its hearers from an important truth. Cochran's attack on fast reactors thus is a canard intended to distract the Blue Ribbon Commission from the promising solutions to the problems of current nuclear technology offered by molten salt nuclear technology. I can only conclude that Thomas Cochran engaged in deliberate acts of knowledge pollution during his testimony before the DoE's Blue Ribbon Comission on the Nuclear Future.

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