Saturday, July 10, 2010

The July 4th Letter to President Obama Falls Short

Mercy Hospital, Knoxville Tennessee. July 10, 2010

I happen to believe that the future of human society is closely tied to the future of nuclear power. That future in turn is closely related to the vision that the early nuclear pioneers created. They fully foresaw public mistrust of the ability of nuclear technologists to resolve problems which people believe are associated with nuclear power. Those problems were all anticipated by the band of brilliant Manhattan Project scientists, who undertook to understand the full social implications of what they had accomplished. With prophet clarity they foresaw public mistrust of nuclear power, but they also foresaw that with public acceptance a new route to virtually unlimited energy for a long period of time was available.

65 years later human society faces an energy crisis, and those long ago foreseen fears still haunts the public. Solutions to the problems are available, but the public will not accept them unless it can trust the community of scientists, engineers and other nuclear advocates who offer them.

Public trust cannot be earned, unless that community is open and honest with the public, lays its cards on the table, adopts an inclusive standard for dialogue with its serious critics, and makes its its internal discussions and debates open to the public.

Early this week, Rod Adams posted a July 4th open letter from selected members of the pro-nuclear community to President Obama. The overt purpose of the letter was to encourage the support of the Obama administration to support nuclear power. But the Obama Administration already supports nuclear power. The real purpose of the letter does not emerge until the the letter's third paragraph.
At the same time, we should reinstate our program to develop and demonstrate the technology conceived by Enrico Fermi and his colleagues. It was their intent to extract virtually all of the energy contained in uranium by using fast-spectrum reactors operating on recycled fuel. It was never intended that we would limit our nuclear power capability indefinitely to the approximately 1% recovery that we achieve now. And as a bonus, this technology transforms nuclear waste from the perceived 10,000-year problem to a 500-year solution.
If 0ne speaks of Enrico Fermi and and his colleagues in the contest of Breeder Reactors, one ought to add other illustrious names, Eugene Wigner and Alvin Weinberg, who were Fermi's colleagues on the famous New Piles Committee, where the breeder reactor was first discussed. Does Fermi desirve more credit for the breeder than Eugene Wigner who invented the sodium cooled reactor, the reactor that is at the heart of the sodium fast breeder?

Thus the letter to President Obama features a slight of notable nuclear pioneers who made significant contributions to the breeder concept. The omission was deliberate and it waspolit9cally motivated. The reason why the names of illustrious breeder reactor pioneers were excluded from the letter is simple, both Wigner and Weinberg were excluded from the letter is simple, both were critical of sodium cooled fast breeders, and both believed that fluid core/fluid fuel thermal thorium breeder reactors, offered a better opportunity for a sustainable nuclear future. Alvin Weinberg, in particular, went on, with Eugene Wigner's encouragement, went on to participate and lead in the development of of a superior breeding technology, a technology which the July 4th letter to the President attempts to hide.

The writers of July 4th wish to hide from the President knowledge of Wigner and Weinberg's criticisms of fast rectors and of the development by Oak Ridge National Laboratory of a safe, plutonium free alternative to the fast breeder, TheMoltvery significant questions about the motives of en Salt Breeder Reactor, or as it is currently known, the LFTR . THE PRESIDENT SHOULD BE INFORMED ABOUT THE EXISTENCE OF AN ACCEPTABLE ALTERNATIVE TO THE FAST BREEDER. The failure of the July 4th letter to inform the President about the LFTR does the president, the United States of America and the human population of the Earth a disservice. Why people who portray themselves as representatives of the nuclear community to so misrepresent the history of breeder technology, and to slight a potentially vitally important energy option in an era of an increasingly desperate energy situation raises

The letter to the President was conceived of in secret, and its actual content was controlled by a small group of people who wished to control the letter's agenda. That agenda emerges as much ffrom what the letter does not say, as from what it does say, Not only does the July 4 letter ignore a potentially superior and potentially more acceptable to the public nuclear breeding option to the public, but it largely ignores emerging commercial options that use existing fast breeder technology. Notable among these options are the ARC-100 which is closely based on well tested EBR-II technology. Thus the letter writers appear more interested in further research and development rather than reaping the fruits of the 25 billion dollars f research money the government has already invested in fast breeder research. There things that the Obama administration could do to help bring that technology to market, that would not involve a large future research investment.

Secondly, although the letter mentions that,
France, Russia, China, India, Korea, and Japan are already firing up the next generation of nuclear plants, derived and improved from designs we created in our youth more than half a century ago. Over 400 commercial nuclear power plants, and a comparable number of naval vessels, have operated for decades with unprecedented reliability and radiological safety. No non-nuclear system works as well. The principle of breeding more fuel than is used has also been widely demonstrated in several countries, including the U.S. Liquid metal-cooled, fast-spectrum technology is also demonstrated by extended operation of theFFTF in Washington State and the EBR II in Idaho.
While mentioning fast breeder R&D programs in other countries, the writers fail to suggest the possibility that the United States could benefit more by close involvement in these research probrams. In particular, India has announced a large R&D program to be undertaken during the next 15 years, that would perform all of the R&D tasks the letter writers have in mind. Collaboration with Indian fast breeder research will get us everything a go-it-alone research program would, at a fraction of the cost.

The July 4th letter was conceived of without widespread input from the pro-niclear community, and whil most of us would agree with many of the statements of that letter, we do not all agree with its emphasis on fast breeder technology, to the exclusion of other potentially more promising muclear breeding technologies. Guidance for the creation of the letter came from a small group of people, who are not interested in the input of views from other members of the pro-nuclear community. These people are not interested in open and honest within the pro-nuclear community, or in gaining widespread acceptance a statement of our views. They prefer secret deliberations, to open and public airing of our views. In short they do not offer a viable path forward toward the fulfillment of the promise offered by nuclear technology to our society.


9 comments:

Rod Adams said...

Charles - first off all, I hope you get better soon and can again contribute to your blog from some place more comfortable than a hospital bed.

Secondly - I think you have misread the letter. It was not conceived by a small group of people - it was written by two people, Theodore Rockwell and Leonard Koch, one of whom was a Manhattan Project ENGINEER and a published author. They did not involve a committee in drafting their prose. As Ted will point out, letters written by committees rarely carry the tight punch of one written by a person. It is always easy to criticize what gets left out, but all good writing is a matter of tight focus on the project at hand.

The section of the letter that you quoted does not talk about fast breeders but about "fast spectrum" reactors that can operate on recycled fuel. As I read it, with some enlightenment from many conversations with Ted Rockwell, the focus there is on ways to recycle and reuse the material that is currently stored in used fuel pools and dry storage casks. This task is not a particular specialty of the LFTR technology, as far as I know.

Ted and Len are not looking for research dollars or development projects - they specifically highlighted the word "demonstrate". They talk about a working relationship between project managers and engineers who are experienced in technology. That sounds to me like people who build systems that generate power, not people who produce research papers while collecting government paychecks.

You wrote that the letter largely ignores emerging commercial options that use existing fast breeder technology, but the letter specifically mentions building off of the EXPERIENCE of the FFTF and EBR II. Irfan Ali and "Grizz" Deal, two of the leaders of the companies developing the emerging technologies are in the list of additional signatories. So is Eric Lowen of GE, which is developing the PRISM reactor based on some of the same technologies.

Since the letter was aimed at the President of the United States and timed to be delivered on the anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, it should be no surprise that it focuses on what many perceive to be America's opportunity to regain some industrial leadership. Sure, we can participate in joint programs, but what good would that do in enabling industrial job creation here in the US? In case you have not noticed, we have a lot of people looking for good careers these days.

Finally, thorium advocates might get more automatically included in similar initiatives if they would quit asserting - without any demonstrable proof other than dusty research papers - that they have a "superior" technology. The implication is that there is something wrong with the refined light water technology that is reliably providing 20% of the electricity in the US, 80% of the electricity in France and 16% of the electricity world wide without producing any greenhouse gas emissions, without requiring further tribute to oil and gas companies, and without putting much strain on an enormous reserve of readily mineable uranium.

What is so great about avoiding plutonium anyway? It is a fine fissile material that produces 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as burning oil. The thorium that you advocate needs some kind of fissile material loaded into every core in order to work; plutonium is certainly one of the available options.

Meredith Angwin said...

Charles.

I didn't know about the letter, I wasn't asked to participate in the letter, and I didn't sign the letter. I just read the letter. That's all.

But I think this business of "oh they wrote the letter in secret" is a little much. People have a right to get a group together to write a letter expressing their mutual views. They don't have to advertise that they are about to do this. They don't have to hold town meetings and referendums on the content of the letter. This isn't "secret deliberations." It's just what people do to get something done.

My feeling is that if you feel that important technologies were left out of the letter, the supporters of those technologies should be writing their OWN letter.

I am totally out of it in terms of who hangs out with whom, or cliques, or competing breeder technologies. I'm up here in Vermont fighting for continued operation of an old-fashioned power plant. I don't have a dog in this best-of-breed(ers) fight.

But if a group writes a letter that doesn't support the technology you think is best, I think you should get a different group to write a letter supporting it.

Most important, Charles. GET WELL SOON! I miss our Facebook chats!

Meredith

al fin said...

Since the letter never made it through the dense labyrinth of presidential handlers, there are no worries. Mr. Obama will never see the letter, nor bother himself about it should it accidentally fall within his view.

I once had a pretty puppet that could make great speeches and bring about strong emotions in listeners. But he was just a puppet, and couldn't really think about what he was saying.

Kirk Sorensen said...

Rod, the superiority of U-233 (from thorium) to plutonium-239 (from uranium) is obvious to anyone who will take a moment to look up their relative absorption and fissile cross sections in the thermal and fast spectra. If you don't want to do that, I made a nice picture to make it clearer.

The inferiority of U-233 to plutonium for nuclear weapons construction is also plain to see for anyone who wants to look it up.

All reactors are not created equal. The LFTR technology is vastly superior to light-water reactors. But don't believe me. Those are the sentiments of the man WHO INVENTED the light water reactor, Alvin Weinberg.

So we can play nice and pretend like all children are above average or we can use clearly superior technology to solve planetary energy needs. Wasting time on sodium fast breeders or thermonuclear fusion keeps delaying that day further and further.

All of us make our choice. Mine was to express a contrary sentiment to the goals desired in the July 4th letter--reestablishing the sodium fast breeder as the heart of our future reactor endeavours.

seth said...

The "research" MSR operated for 5 years without a hitch at ORNL and was even flown around an an airplane. Maybe not the fast spectrum experience but good enough, to show the the superiority of the technology.

Given that the DMSR variation proposed by nuclear physicist David LeBlanc using no breeding seems so cheap and simple, all of us should be yelling for funding right now. With all that nuclear waste and DU lying around who needs to breed anyway.

I believe that Kevin Sorensen has convinced his new employer and they are in the process of building one.

The DMSR funding needed is minimal, and the tech so simple and unlike the LWR these things could be rolling out of factories by the thousands in five years. How does $200M/Gw sound - its possible.

Sure the current Gen III tech can do the job but the DMSR with so many advantages could get us off fossil fuels much faster and with a tiny fraction of the political and monetary cost of Gen III.

Robert Hargraves said...

Here's a letter I sent to President Obama just before July 4.

Energy security, carbon taxes, and advanced nuclear power

There is a solution to our energy security and climate crises. New, low cost
energy sources can spark economic productivity and efficiently end carbon
dioxide emissions from more expensive fossil fuels.

Advanced nuclear power technologies can achieve this, without contentious
global carbon taxes or cap-and-trade permits.

But US R&D for advanced technology is dropping, to $235 million for 2011,
compared to the $16 billion sum spent on breeder reactors previously.

Within DOE the prolonged high temperature gas reactor project absorbs
almost all the funding and stymies newer, superior technologies.
The liquid fluoride thorium reactor is one. It promises factory-produced
$200 million power plants that can safely provide energy cheaper than
coal, using inexhaustible thorium fuel. It also provides an opportunity for
US leadership in manufacturing and exporting nonproliferating nuclear
power plants to the developing world, which sorely needs clean, affordable
energy to rise out of poverty.

Please support aggressive development of advanced nuclear power, such as
described in the enclosed July 2010 American Scientist article.

seth said...

The "research" MSR operated for 5 years without a hitch at ORNL and was even flown around an an airplane. Maybe not the fast spectrum experience but good enough, to show the the superiority of the technology.

Given that the DMSR variation proposed by nuclear physicist David LeBlanc using no breeding seems so cheap and simple, all of us should be yelling for funding right now. With all that nuclear waste and DU lying around who needs to breed anyway.

I believe that Kevin Sorensen has convinced his new employer and they are in the process of building one.

The DMSR funding needed is minimal, and the tech so simple and unlike the LWR these things could be rolling out of factories by the thousands in five years. How does $200M/Gw sound - its possible.

Sure the current Gen III tech can do the job but the DMSR with so many advantages could get us off fossil fuels much faster and with a tiny fraction of the political and monetary cost of Gen III.

donb said...

I also second the motion of wishing Charles all the best in his recovery.

I am sure Charles is used to having a few bricks flying his way from other who also have a passion for nuclear energy, albeit using a different technology. The posting above this one about pro-nuclear bloggers and open science emphasizes the necessity of back-and-forth discussions, even if they aren't particularly pretty at times.

My view is that the problem at hand, supplying vast quantities of inexpensive energy for the world, is so large and has so many different requirements that multiple solutions are needed. The world has large quantities of thorium and uranium, "pre-owned" uranium-based nuclear fuel, plus tons and tons of DU. I don't think there is a single design that takes advantage of these wealths of energy. When I am made philosopher-king (I'm not holding my breath), I will see to it that the three best potential solutions are equally funded. The best single design, or multiple good designs that need just a little more development will emerge quickly and become commercially viable products.

Jason Ribeiro said...

Charles, I hope you are doing better these days as well.

Without diving into the details of who said and did what or why, I empathize with the thorium advocacy community in their struggle to get noticed by the senior leadership of this country.

Thorium was definitely worth mentioning in the letter. But this will not be the last letter President Obama will receive advocating nuclear energy. Though I am proud to be a thorium advocate myself, I am also very advocate that we must move forward with our current technology of nuclear technology in the meantime. In other words, I choose not to make the perfect the enemy of the very good.

I have written a letter to President Obama myself mentioning thorium but he probably never read it. That said, I think the best answer to the dissatisfaction with this letter is for the thorium community to simply write the President a letter informing him about thorium and the LFTR. I'm sure there are some esteemed names that would be willing to put their signatures on it as well.

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