Friday, December 31, 2010

Was Alvin Weinberg a Team Player?

I generally have high regard for Rod Adams work. Rod's blog posts are evidence driven, and Rod almost never jumps the track, but this morning he did in a comment on Nuclear Green. The comment was a response to my recent post on Alvin Weinberg's integrity. Rod wrote
I am not sure why you think Weinberg was so correct about his safety concerns with light water reactors. Certainly they are not "inherently safe" and they require care in design, manufacturing and operation, but the safety record of the machines that caused Weinberg so much worry has been extraordinary all around the world.

Sometimes I think that the real answer to why Weinberg was fired was that he was not a team player and was so sure of his own knowledge that he overlooked the fact that others were just as smart and just as concerned about the welfare of their fellow man.

I cut my nuclear teeth on light water reactors. One of the most intellectually difficult tasks I had every year was coming up with some kind of reasonable scenario for our annually required "reactor accident" drill. My down to earth technicians and I just could not figure out how those thick stainless steel pipes were supposed to suddenly burst open.
These comments were most unfortunate. Rod appears to have made this comment without being aware of a number of Nuclear Green posts that would have better established the relationship of the nuclear safety issues to Weinberg's firing. Since I have offered a number of reasonably well documented posts on Weinberg's firing, Rod seemingly has ignored the available evidence and has not offered other evidence in support of his contentions.

Since my discussion of the evidence regarding the major actors in the Weinberg firing is quite extensive, I will point to relevant posts rather than discuss the evidence at length. First I noted what is arguably the unconstitutional authority which Congressman Chet Holifield exercised over the AEC. Hiring and firing decisions are made by persons with executive authority in an organization, yet Alvin Weinberg was invited to the office of a member of the legislative branch of government to be told that he was hired. Constitutionally, Congressman Holifield had no right to fire Alvin Weinberg. I have tried to point out that the safety nuclear safety conflict that formed part of the back drop of Weinberg's firing was not between and Weinberg and the Holifield clique, it was between the community of National Laboratory scientists. I have tried to lay out the issues that motivated that conflict. In fact Rod Adam's comment sheds some light on the attitude of Milton Shaw who played a major role in the safety conflict. Rod argued,
One of the most intellectually difficult tasks I had every year was coming up with some kind of reasonable scenario for our annually required "reactor accident" drill. My down to earth technicians and I just could not figure out how those thick stainless steel pipes were supposed to suddenly burst open.
Robert Pool described the difference of attitudes between the national laboratory scientific community and ex-Navy reactor developer Milton Shaw,
Milton Shaw, the head of the AEC's Division of Reactor Development and Technology, was convinced that such safety research was reaching the point of diminishing returns. An old Rickover protege, Shaw saw light-water reactors as a mature technology. The key to the safety of commercial power plants, he thought, was the same thing that had worked so well for the navy reactor program: thick books of regulations specifying every detail of the reactors, coupled with careful oversight to make sure the regulations were followed to the letter.
In fact the Three Mile Island accident was to show that the civilian Light Water Reactor had not reached a level of maturity comparable to that of Naval Light Water Reactors which Shaw (and Rod Adams) assumed.

Post Three Mile Island the civilian Light Water Reactor did reach an outstanding level of safety, but at a considerable cost. As I have documented, Alvin Weinberg's conflict with Milton Shaw had to do with an experiment which involved deliberately destroying a reactor in order to find out what happened. The worse case that concerned the scientists was the China syndrome, a core melting through all containment. A reactor was being built in Idaho in order to conduct this experiment. Shaw decided that the reactor was not needed, and stopped further construction. Dozens of National Laboratory scientists objected to the scrapping of what was considered an important nuclear safety experiment, and testified before Congress. Weinberg agreed with them, but did not take his disagreement to the level of Congressional testimony. Eventually the Three Mile Island accident was to substitute for for the Idaho nuclear accident experiment.

Rod tells us,
Sometimes I think that the real answer to why Weinberg was fired was that he was not a team player and was so sure of his own knowledge that he overlooked the fact that others were just as smart and just as concerned about the welfare of their fellow man.
My evidence suggests that Holiway, Ramsey and Shaw failed to exercise proper leadership. Holiway, as I have indicated exercised executive authority over the AEC even though he was not entitled to by the constitution. Ramsey's appointment as an AEC Commissioner had been dictated to the Kennedy Administration by Holifield. Ramsey was in fact a member of Holifield's staff, and after his appointment continued to engage in the subordinate relationship with Holifield, continuing to report to him. Shaw improperly turned decision making about a personnel matter, Weinberg's status as a National Laboratory Director to Holifield.

Considering the misconduct of all of the key players, the alligation that Weinberg was not a team player does not hold true. There is more evidence. The Nixon administration appears to have decided to attack the power of the Hloifield clique. When Ramsey's appointment came up for renewal, he was not reappointed by Nixon. His replacement was Dixie Lee Ray, who was soon appointed AEC Chairman. Ray proceeded to outmannuver Shaw, who was forced to resign. Holifield was shorn of his power and decided to not run for reelection in 1974. Ray, now had a chance to right the wrong done by the Weinberg firing episode, and she did so, by arranging for Weinberg to come to Washing as the first Director of Energy Research. Weinberg's appointment, if I am not mistaken involved directly reporting to the President. Weinberg was not happy with his position, and left it after a year, but this appointment should be taken as evidence that Weinberg was viewed as a team player.


Rod Adams said...

Charles - I am not sure why you think that we disagree. I stated that Weinberg was not a team player. You describe in intricate detail how adamant that he was in trying to force his opinion and push for the construction of a very expensive test platform. I have no idea what the rest of the budgetary situation was at the time, but I am pretty sure that the early 1970s were not a period in which anyone working in the government could fund everything they wanted to fund. They had to pick and choose, so funding Weinberg's priority would have meant NOT funding someone else's priority.

You also seem to have a rather formal view of the actual relationships between the legislative branch and the executive branch. Sure, the executive is charged with actually making specific personnel decisions. However, the legislators are charged with "the power of the purse," so they get to determine what does and what does not get funded. Often that power extends to "influencing" personnel decisions. Heck, that is nothing new or old, why do you think that Jaczko is Chairman of the NRC today? Who do you think "appointed" him?

Finally, the TMI post accident analysis tells me that Weinberg over estimated the hazard of a meltdown. TMI was actually a privately funded demonstration of what Weinberg apparently wanted - a full scale test of what would happen if the operators really screwed up, disabled protective systems, and turned off core cooling at the most inopportune time.

The answer was that the reactor would be destroyed, but that no one would be hurt, exposed to excessive radiation, or otherwise impacted by the accident.

By the way, if Shaw's advice had been followed and commercial operators did the kind of plant specific and demanding training required in the Navy program, TMI would have never happened. Instead, the owners took a short cut. They built a brand new reactor, hired a few ex Navy folks and assumed that their navy training would be sufficient. They did not spend much time or money giving them plant specific training and running them through the kinds of drills that are a fundamental part of Navy training.

Though I was a qualified Engineering Officer of the Watch at a land based prototype, I still took another three months of very intense training to qualify to stand the same watch on board a submarine. The plant was different. Buddies who were qualified on S5W took several weeks to months to qualify on S6G, even though they were similar.

I recognize that Weinberg was a very smart fellow. I also know that you have a great deal of personal admiration for him, but perhaps you are simply too personally involved to recognize that he might not have been completely right in this case.

Rod Adams said...

@Charles - we also come at this history with two totally different backgrounds. I have been in charge of quite a large number of people at various times in my career (max was 140) and been responsible for government budgets in excess of $5 billion per year. I spent 9 years on a Washington, DC staff for a major federal agency and engaged in annual budget battles with some pretty strong will characters.

I was also a reactor plant operator with day to day responsibility for maintenance and training. I was never a research scientist and cannot imagine life inside a laboratory full of chalkboards and slide rules with people who come up with fanciful "what ifs."

Shaw may not have been as successful an SOB as his mentor was, but in real life where machinery means the difference between life or death, people trained by Rickover have a better chance of success and survival than PhD chemists or physicists.

Charles Barton said...

Rod, you are quite correct. Alvin Weinberg viewed his role at ORNL more as a listener than a commander. He listened, as questions, and once he understood the problem looked for solutions. Weinberg viewed his role with the ARC as communicating what the scientists told him. He did the same thing with Congress and Presidents. Weinberg was the first scientist to testify to a Congressional committee about the CO2 and global warming.

Weinberg was also far more successful than Shaw. From ORNL's viewpoint Shaw was the one who was not the team player, because he did not listen to what he was told, and wanted to have things his own way, no matter how mistaken he was. Although Shaw's nuclear safety solution would habe worked, it had to be implemented, which is what the NRC eventually did after Three Mile Island. Since Shaw failed to implement his safety solution, and blocked safety research, he left the American Nuclear industry vulnerable with serious safety problems. Finally, Shaw pressed for the Clinch River Breeder reactor, which was to prove an extremely expensive white elephant. When Shaw stopped construction of the Loss of Coolant reactor, he diverted the funds to a far more expensive reactor project, the CRBR. Later Shaw invested money into a redesign and rebuilding of the Loss of Collant reactor, for non-safety experimental purposes. I believe however that reactor project was also never completed.

Rod Adams said...

Charles - to use a sports analogy, Shaw was not a "team player" he was the head coach. Weinberg was like a certain exceptional wide receiver who has played for three different teams this year because he could not fit in to the coach's scheme.

Please understand that I mean no criticism. I happen to admire the skills of that particular wide receiver, but I understand that teams need leaders and followers in order to function. Scientists from national labs that testify to congress in opposition to what their AEC leaders have determined is the agency's course of action should not be surprised when they are asked to go work for someone else.

After all, there are plenty of places to practice solid science without drawing a government paycheck.

Bill Hannahan said...

I believe that Gen III reactor safety is well beyond the optimum level of safety. Not building Gen III reactors shortens far more lives than building less expensive reactors with slightly more risk. So I think it is a mistake to promote one reactor design over another on the issue of safety, as it reinforces the idea that reactors are unsafe.

The real tragedy is that we did not and are not developing every possible reactor design in order to determine the optimum designs. U.S. R&D spending on energy is only 0.3% of revenue.

The TMI accident was not equivalent to the test in question because cooling water leaked off slowly and was restored before the reactor vessel boiled off all its water, while some fuel was still underwater.

In a real large break accident with no cooling water restored, the water would foam up in response to rapid pressure drop and blow out of the system. The fuel would heat up and melt rapidly while decay heat of short lived fission products is near maximum. What happens next is still up for conjecture.

This is why I support adding a full meltdown to the design basis accident criteria. Meeting that standard eliminates the public safety issue for a meltdown accident and allows further simplification and cost reduction in plant design.

Anonymous said...


I think you continue to exhibit the same "expert engineer" hubris that has held back nuclear power in this country. The same hubris that discarded LFTR et al even though it was inherently safer because pressurized light water reactors were deemed "safe enough".

Can you imagine how much better accepted nuclear power would be today if we had not had Chernobyl and Three Mile Island because the world had chosen the molten salt approach?

The molten salt approach was dropped because safety was given a much lower priority at the time than it is given today. Today's LWR technology has a proven safety record made possible by costly "bolted on" safety in depth that has made the technology too costly to be commercially attractive.


Charles Barton said...

Rod, your sports analogy clearly suggests the source of your problem. Science is not like sports, and successful science administration cannot be compared to coaching. Leslie Grove offers a good example of how military leaders can successfully interact with scientists. Grove does not appear to have regarded himself as a "head coach" and further Grove was able to listen to scientists in a way that Milton Shaw was not able to do. If Weinberg was adamant with Shaw, it was because Weinberg regarded the information he was trying to communicate as important. As it turned out the information Weinberg was trying to communicate was very important politically, and Shaw's failure to listen to Weinberg was at the core of the political problems which nuclear power still faces. Shaw neither imposed a military style solution to the problem of nuclear safety, nor did he follow the advice of Weinberg and the scientists. The result was political turmoil with scientists testifying to congressional committees against Shaw's policy, an anti-nuclear movement and Three Mile Island. As a coach Shaw was a failure whose team ended up with a 0-10 loosing record. This is not just my assessment. It was the assessment of Dixie Lee Ray, a scientist administrator who took responsibility for supervising nuclear safety research away from Shaw. Ray agreed with Weinberg and not Shaw. From Ray's perspective it was Shaw who had failed to perform as a team player.

Rod Adams said...


I am apparently not communicating my thoughts correctly. I am really not trying to defend Shaw; I am trying to express a belief that reactor safety is not a "science" issue. It is an engineering, operational, human performance and manufacturing issue that requires attention to detail, firm decision making, and a recognition that perfection is the enemy of "good enough."

Laboratory scientists have the luxury of debate, opinions, and ever more "research." In the meantime, people need massive amounts of electricity every second of every day and they are willing to pay for that service. I have no doubt that there are ways to make better reactors - I also have no doubt that if we continue to debate the "best" reactor, that electricity demand will continue to be met by burning coal, oil and natural gas in less than optimal ways.

Light water reactors have an advantage of being well proven to be good enough and safe enough. All of the layers of regulations added after TMI have simply added cost and made an already tiny probability of any health or safety impact on the public theoretically a little bit smaller. Of course, we can mathematically "prove" just how much safer we are than we were before using our incredibly detailed PRA models that are still fundamentally based on a whole series of estimated event probabilities.

The fact of the matter is that the accumulated safety record of both small and large light water reactors is far superior to almost any other industrial activity ever attempted. Even with all of the known challenges of thick walled piping, concrete containments, corrosion control chemistry, and the inefficiency of relatively low temperature steam plants, the documented cost of operation is well below that of any competitive power source. The cost of construction - less some of the human imposed costs associated with excessive and multilayered regulations and legal challenges that impose a risk of stopping projects before revenue generation - is low enough to complete with both coal and combined cycle gas.

The emissions level for any fission plant is something near enough to zero so that it is not a lie to round down to that number.

Weinberg's stubborn insistence on emphasizing a scientist view of safety is directly responsible for arming people like Ralph Nader with enough distracting arguments to keep the fossil fuel dominance going for at least 30 decades longer than it should have lasted. (That is my interpretation of some of the Claire Nader stories that you have published.)

Sometimes, being absolutely right is just not all that important.

@charlesH - Even if we had perfect LFTRs being mass produced in several countries and available for a fraction of the cost of a light water reactor, there would still be a well funded, well orchestrated, and international opposition effort to allowing them to take markets away from coal, oil and natural gas. I accept that as simply the cost of being a strong competitor - there will always be naysayers who jealously protect their own interests.

Charles Barton said...

Rod, Your current employer has an obsolete business plan and is selling an obsolete product. Current nuclear projects are having great difficulty finding financing, and potential owners of new reactors are backing off from the high financing costs being offered by the market. I agree with you that Light Water Reactors are extremely safe, but obtaining that safety is way too expensive. More advanced technology offers equivalent safety at a far lower price.

My viewpoint is that such a product is not good enough if lower cost inherently safe reactors are possible, and it is possible to build safer reactors in 10% of the time and for half the cost (or less) of conventional nuclear power plants. The cost of developing this technology would likely be no greater than the cost of developing the A-380 or Boeing 787 aircraft. Then why stick to the expensive
Relics of the 1950's?

As far as opposition to nuclear power is concerned, the Molten Salt Reactors will negate almost all of the risks that concern the market about nuclear power.

Rod Adams said...

Oops - I just realized that my last comment included an inadvertent typo. I meant to say 3 decades, not 30 decades.

Rod Adams said...

Charles - I love you, man.

But the fact of the matter is that you are a retired counselor, not a businessman and not a technical leader. I have no idea what you are using as the basis for your cost estimates for molten salt reactors because they have not yet been commercially developed. There are still a lot of inventions required and a lot of industrial techniques and tooling that does not yet exist. No one knows how much it will cost or how long it will take to get those necessary components into place. Your supply chain discussions have not even started.

I find it interesting that you make reference to the development of the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A-380. Those are both great examples of just how many unknowns there are with new products that use novel techniques, business practices, and materials. In both cases, what would have seemed to have been a relatively straightforward process of estimating the time and costs for development have been grossly wrong.

In the case of the 787, the final numbers are not yet in - the plane has not yet entered commercial service. Its flight certification is supposed to occur sometime in 2011, but history has proven that projections about this particular aircraft are not terribly accurate.

(By the way, Amory Lovins is a huge Dreamliner fan because of its use of light weight composite materials - the use of which has been one of the issues that have challenged its schedules.)

In the case of the A-380, the development started in 1988 and the first commercial delivery occurred in October 2007, 19 years later. There were many cost overruns and unplanned delays in that process and quite a few heads rolled - many with some rather generous golden parachutes.

I am not saying that molten salt reactors cannot be developed or that they might not eventually surpass the economics of the light water reactors that my company is developing now.

I am simply saying that it is naive to believe that you know how much they will cost or how long it will take to develop them. In the meantime, I expect that my employer will be making some substantial market inroads into the dominance of coal and natural gas. I hope that we roll some of the profits into continued improvements and continued training of the people (engineers, technicians, machinists, and operators) that will be required to keep our systems competitive.

Though I do not speak for B&W, I must personally disagree with your assertion that we have an obsolete business plan. Our business plan is quite modern and quite traditional at the same time. It is based on seeing a market opportunity, determining what we think is the best available way to meet that opportunity using our current assets, and striving to produce a sellable product in the most reasonable period of time. We need to complete the engineering, supply chain development and licensing process so that customers can start buying rather than waiting.

When customers start buying, revenue starts flowing. When revenue flows, R&D investment becomes something that we control rather than something that a government bureaucrat or an elected official influenced by our competitors controls.

I think you supply valuable information and provide a unique insight about the scientists who helped unlock the secrets of the atom. You also have an interesting perspective on human behavior and the way that organizations work. I respect that.

However, I do not think that your business acumen or your understanding of applied science is quite up to the task of predicting what might actually transpire in the market. It is entirely possible that I am wrong, but I think my background has given me a bit of a leg up when it comes to this particular aspect of nuclear technology.

Charles Barton said...

Rod, you seem to think that I am not capable of understanding practical considerations, but this is just not so. I do understand, for example the importance of making allowances for unknowns, in any developmental program for new technology.

My attempts to calculate the cost of developing the LFTR ended with it costing as most $5 to $6 billion, but I was skeptical, so i looked for examples of the development of similar manufactured objects. The A-380 and the 787, for my requirements and for the very reasons you point out and if anything they are more complex, and use more exotic materials than the LFTR. I did look at the developmental difficulties encountered by these projects, as well as the failed Clinch River Breeder Reactor, in my cost calculation. My approach is to acknowledge the worse case, and plan for it. My assumption is that it would be possible to squeeze out a uranium fueled MSR, using the technology tested by the MSBR during the course of LFTR development, so a 50% investment will yield you a money maker. The uranium fueled MSR will be less expensive to build than a LWR (see Per Peterson on cost estimates). Once the MSR hits the market the the day of the LWR will be over.

Charles Barton said...

Rod, you also have to understand that I grew up in the shadow of the Manhattan Project, and understand the trade off between time and money. If matters become urgent enough, the money to speed things up will be found. It is my assessment that the matter is soon going to become extremely urgent, and people will be willing to pay Manhattan Project prices for quick answers.

Fordi said...

In my experience (which, mind, is in software dev, not nuclear engineering), "not a team player" is a cop out. Usually, it means "I want to get rid of someone who has hurt my ego", and comes after a significant amount of mutual antagonism, intentional or not.

I also have a lot more respect for engineers, programmers, and other professional technicians than admins, so there's that.

Frank Kandrnal said...

Rod, I agree with pretty much on everything you said except one thing! You said.

"I am trying to express a belief that reactor safety is not a "science" issue. It is an engineering, operational, human performance and manufacturing issue that requires attention to detail, firm decision making, and a recognition that perfection is the enemy of "good enough."

Nothing what you say can outperform mother nature and it's physical laws. Nature is the ultimate judge to prove the humans wrong when something is not perfect to her liking. We have seen many examples when nature always win when humans screw up.

Science has a lot to do with safety issue.
I think, Alvin Weinberg clearly understood that safety issues could not be relied only on engineering, human performance, pumps, hardware and software, but that laws of mother nature needed to be implemented as much as possible to achieve better reactor safety.
Today's trend in passive reactor safety designs, utilizing gravity and other natural behavior of physics are the testimony that Weinberg was right and his concern was justified.

David said...

But, By B&W pursuing the small light water reactor, many issues will be pioneered making the job of those who follow much easier.

1. The NRC will need to deal with the per reactor fee.
2. The site license will need to be adjusted to account for the increased placing of reactors in many locations previously not suitable.
3. The market will see that nuclear is possible in a smaller package opening up resources from investors eager to get into this new market.

All these are positive aspects that will assist LFTR when the development is done. They are benefits that give us a "today" reactor and open the way for "tomorrow's" improvements. Sure there will come a day when the LWR is obsolete, but with a lifetime of 60 years, no one will replace these for some time to come. Instead, new markets will be created that will accelerate the development of LFTRs.


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