Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rediscovering Weinberg's Vision

I was in Oak Ridge to visit my father when Alvin Weinberg died. Immediately after Weinberg's death I looked at materials about him that were present on the Internet. I also had my memories of playing with Weinberg's son David when we were school boys. I recalled visiting the Weinberg home, and of David's mother Marge as well as Dr. Weinberg. The Internet stories were about the public side of Weinberg's life. I read an account of Weinberg's 80th birthday celebration at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1995, and a subsequent interview in which Weinberg talked about aspects of his career that were previously unknown including his firing.

Stories I looked at about Weinberg tied back to my father's ORNL career and my own year at ORNL. Mention was made in the materials I reviewed of the ORNL-NSF Environmental Studies project, at which I was employed as a sort of glorified intern for a year in 1970-1971. People I knew, who were involved in the Environmental studies project including project Directors David Rose from MIT, and later Presidential Science Advisor Jack Gibbons as well as Bill Fulkerson, later an ORNL associate director,were mentioned. Fulkerson described Weinberg as
Our Spiritual leader."
and said,
"He viewed national laboratories as tools for achieving social progress.
There is a tradition in Western thought, that goes back to Sir Francis Bacon, that views science as the primary tool for social Progress. Fiulkerson placed Weinberg squarely in that tradition. Among Weinberg's projects, was the use of nuclear energy to desalinate seawater and
make the deserts bloom.
The Weinberg story interlaced at significant points with my own life, among the significant projects which accounts of Weinberg mentioned, the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program, the Homogeneous Reactor Experiment, and the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, all played roles in my father's ORNL, and he in particular, as I was to learn, made major contributions to Molten Salt Reactor Technology.

At the time of Weinberg's death I had begun a return to themes I had encountered during my ORNL days. Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth had already opened a door to the past for me. During My ORNL days, Jerry Olsen had discussed briefed people working with the ORNL-NSF Project us on the CO2/Anthropogenic Global Warming problem. This was long before AGW became a political issue, and long before Republicans started reading Climate Audit and committing intellectual suicide. At that time it was perfectly possible to be a Republican and accept the mainstream science views on the greenhouse gas problem. Republican skepticism about AGW is not just wacky, it is tragic and pointless. What Republicans want is the continuation of economic freedom in the future. With a nuclear solution, they can protect the free market, while having an appropriate response to AGW.

When I worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in 1970-71, the idea of anthropogenic global warming was beginning to circulate. Alvin Weinberg had taken a long look at the future of humanity, and decided that for that long run to work, we had no choice but to use atomic power. There were two possible forms, Nuclear power from reactors, and thermonuclear power from Hydrogen fusion. T here was enough raw material available in the sea to last human energy needs a long time, but thermonuclear power posed daunting technological challenges.

Building advanced reactors was the option that appealed to Alvin Weinberg. And Weinberg, who was nothing, if not a forward thinker, had access to to the most forward thinking in the world about anthropogenic CO2 and global climate change, and idea that the upper reaches of the Atomic Energy Commission had begun to encounter during the 1950's. No less a figure than Willard Libby was interested in atmospheric CO2 as part of his radioactive carbon-14 research. Roger Revelle and Hans Suess were arguing the case for CO2 monitoring. The rational was simple and compelling. Scientists foresaw a need of "a clearer understanding of the probable climatic effects of the predicted great industrial production of carbon-dioxide over the next 50 years." Revelle tapped Charles Keeling to become the ultimate standard barrier of the project to monitor atmospheric CO2. By the 1960's awareness and concern about the long term implications of anthropogenic CO2 was spreading at the upper levels of the American Scientific community, and was beginning to enter into the voices of scientists who had influence over American policy.

During the late 1960's and early 1970's Weinberg's career and indeed the fate of ORN began to be effected by a high AEC official, The Director of Reactor Research Milton Shaw. Shaw was allied with the powerful Congressman Chet Holifield. It appears that neither Shaw or Holifield liked Weinberg. It is not clear if their animosity was at the root of their objection to Weinberg's ideas, but it is clear that they both felt that Weinberg had to go. There were clashes over the Molten Salt Reactor, and Reactor Safety. These were related issues. The Molton Salt Reactor, had a leg up in reactor safety, as compared to the then dominate light water reactor. Weinberg like many of his ORNL staff was acutely concerned about reactor safety issues. Weinbergs safety concerns directly conflicted with Holifield and Shaw. In 1973 Weinberg was fired as director of ORNL. But Weinberg was too big a voice to silence. In 1974 Weinberg published a major paper on the energy economy is the prestigious journal Science. In " Global Effects of Man's Production of Energy," Weinberg set out his case on the long term consequences of the human commitment to carbon based fuels. In 1975 during testimony to congress, Weinberg laid out his global warming concerns.

During his last years at ORNL Weinberg was very concerned about the Laboratory's future. also concerned about the future of ORNL. ORNL had been a reactor research center during the Weinberg years, and AEC reactor czar Milton Shaw had decided to shut down ORNL's reactor research establishment. Shaw decided that the AEC's biggest reactor research project, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, was to be built within a couple of miles of ORNL, but without ORNL supervision. The result was a disaster.

Dixie Lee Ray claimed,
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.

Weinberg denied Ray's claim that Shaw wanted to destroy ORNL, but it is quite clear that Shaw damaged ORNL to a much greater extent than simply firing Weinberg. Weinberg has proposed during the late 1960's to turn ORNL into an Environmental Laboratory, but Holifield and probably Shaw was opposed to that. It is probably the case, even though Weinberg later denied it, that he was aware that the Laboratory needed a new mission if it were to survive as a scientific institution. Weinberg brought David Rose to ORNL to lead the rescue attempt. Rose was a visionary like Weinberg, and was perhaps along with Weinberg and my father one of the most outstanding people i knew while I was at ORNL. What i recall about Rose now was how approachable he was, and that was a rare quality among the many ORNL chiefs. Rose owned two old Aston-Martons and he maintained them as a hobby. His official title at ORNL was Director of Long Range Planning, and he was not entirely comfortable with the day by day supervision of the ORNL-NSF program. It is perhaps a mark of Rose charisma, that when he was replaced by Jack Gibbons, some people in the program including me felt disappointed. Gibbons was of course an outstanding scientist and science communicator, who was later Presidential Science Advisor to President Clinton.

I left Oak Ridge at the end of the summer of 1971, heading out for graduate school, and left the environmental and energy concerns I had found at ORNL behind me for 35 years. Then I heard a wakeup call from Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth.' The death of Alvin Weinberg a few months later confronted me with the solution to the Climate problem that ORNL had to offer under Weinberg.

Following Weinberg's death I found that following his departure from the Laboratory, Alvin Weinberg had virtually assumed a prophetic mantel as he reviewed the issues forced on us by greenhouse gasses and the future of energy.

In a 1976 paper "Economic Implications of A US Nuclear Moratorium. 1985 to 2010," which Weinberg co-authored with Charles E. Whittle, Alan D. Poole, Edward L. Allen, William G. Pollard, Herbert G. MacPherson, Ned L. Treat, and Doan L. Phung, reveal to us exactly how accurate Weinbergs vision of the future was. In the paper Weinberg and his associates assessed the the economic and environmental consequences of moratorium on neuclear construction in the United States. He assumed that no new reactors would be ordered after 1980, but that reactor construction would continue till about 1985. He then looked at the consequences to allow continued operation of reactors on line by 1985. Weinberg tried to think out the implications of the cesation of new reactor construction.

Weinberg understood that if reactor construction ceased, power companies would construct more coal fired power plants to meet consumer demand for electricity. Weinberg assumed that consumer demand would be driven by two factors population growth, and economic growth. He also assumed that technological changes would increase the efficiency of electrical use, but that these efficiencies would not offset the increase in demand.

Weinberg saw
"four levels of environmental tradeoffs as a result of shifting the additional fuel requirements from nuclear to coal after 1985."
The first level of effect was what he called global. There were two components:
(1) Proliferation: Countries wishing to rely primarily on the nuclear option can do so whether or not the United States abandons nuclear power. Thus, a domestic moratorium on nuclear energy would have little effect on proliferation unless the rest of the world abandoned nuclear power.

(2) CO,: Should 20 percent of the world’s fossil fuel be burned, the CO(2), concentration might double; this could lead to unacceptable changes in the world’s climate. A U.S. moratorium per se would have little effect on this possibility; however, loss of the nuclear option through much of the world,’which is a conceivable consequence of a U.S. moratorium, might make it more difficult to respond quickly to a perceived danger from higher CO(2), levels in the atmosphere.

Weinberg's observations on CO2 were extrordinary:

The ultimate constraint on the burning of fossil fuel may be the climatic impact from atmospheric CO(2) buildup. This, of course, is a global problem; what the United States does during the next 30-50 years is likely to contribute little to total global atmospheric levels. Nevertheless, increasing reliance on fossil fuel by such a large consumer as the United States poses a prospect of severe climatic shifts that cannot, in principle, be dismissed. The extent to which a nuclear moratorium would aggravate the buildup of CO(2), must therefore be examined.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects the thermal radiative balance of the planet and through this balance the global climate. On the basis of the best atmospheric models now available, a doubling of the atmospheric CO(2), would result in a global average surface temperature increase of 1.5-2.4"C, with greater increases in the high latitudes. Although models of the type used in these studies predict present global climate surprisingly well, a number of significant variables are not included. Consequently, the results must be regarded as preliminary until additional information and more reliable climatic feedback mechanisms can be properly included.

During the past hundred years, the annual global production of CO(2), by burning fossil fuels has grown nearly fiftyfold. It now stands at 18 x lo9 tons, which is about one-tenth the amount accounted for by the annual net primary fixation of carbon by terrestrial plants. This production appears to have caused an increase in the concentration of CO(2), in the atmmphere. Since 1958 observers at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii have monitored atmospheric CO, content, and the 1975 measurements show an average CO(2), concentration of 330 ppm (in the latter part of the nineteenth century it was 290-295 ppm). The measurements show annual increases for each year, averaging about 0.7 ppm during the late 1950s and early 1960s and up to 1 .O ppm or more in recent years.

The cumulative production of C02 since the end of 1957 and the observed increase in CO, are plotted in Figure 8. The upper set of points indicates the increase in concentration of CO, in the atmosphere that would have occurred if all CO, produced from fossil fuels and cement since 1957 remained airborne. The lower set of points represents the observed increase in atmospheric CO, concentration at the Mauna Loa Observatory.
Weinberg added:

Almost any reasonable scenario for future global energy demand yields continued increases in atmospheric C02, but the resulting concentrations do not appear to reach levels that will cause severe climate alterations before 2000. However, little complacency should be derived from this, since continued energy demands during the first few decades of the next century will push atmospheric C02 concentrations to levels which warrant serious concern, even for the low
energy growth case. The inertial effect in energy supply systems makes it clear that decisions made now on the nuclear/nonnuclear issue will have an impact reaching many years into the future.

He observed "that the time when atmospheric CO, concentration will become crucial is early in the twenty-first century." He expected "an increase of 62-73 ppm over the 1958 value of 315 ppm by 2000. " Then he added, "atmospheric concentration of 375-390 ppm may well be a threshold range at which climate change from C02 effects will be separable from natural climate
fluctuations. "An increase of 150-225 ppm by 2025 (concentration of 465-540 ppm) should certainly result in recognizable climate change if such changes are ever to occur. The consequences of an increase of this magnitude in atmospheric C02 make it prudent to proceed cautiously in the large-scale use of fossil fuels."

In both nuclear proliferation and CO2/global climate change Weinberg was clearly correct. In 1974 India exploded its first Atomic bomb without possessing American reactors. Other nations followed in developing nuclear weapons programs without relying on American designed and built power reactors. South Africa which actually assembled 6 nuclear weapons during the 1980's. Pakistan built nuclear weapons using its own resources from the 1980's onward. Pakistan is believed to have stolen technology from the West, and also received some technological help from China. North Korea was able to construct nuclear weapons with Pakistani help. Iraq's nuclear weapons programs were blocked by Israeli military action in the 1980's, and by international pressure and military actions since the 1990's. Iran which received Pakistani help in developing a weapons program, but appears to have stopped the program for technical reasons as well as international pressure. Libya also received Pakistani help on developing a nuclear weapons program, but appears to have dismantled that development a few years ago, after an agreement with the United States. Israel acquired nuclear weapon making capacity during the 1960's with some French assistance.
Weinberg was also correct about the implications of an American reactor construction moratorium for CO2 emissions. The world wide demands for energy has increased rapidly, and as of January 2011, much of that demand has been filled by coal burning power plants. Despite the 1976 prophecy of Amory Lovins, that coal use would be in decline by 2011, Coal use for energy and its threat to the climate is still very much with us. In a discussion of Lovins vision or perhaps more accurately lack of vision of the future. Lovins had foreseen a coal burning bridge to a low energy, energy efficient future. Weinberg asked,
Can we really ignore CO2 during the coal burning fission free bridge?
Weinberg commented on the title of Lovins book, The Non-Nuclear Futures,
Despite its title, the book is not concerned with non-nuclear futures. The reader of a book so named is entitled to get from the authors a reasoned description of a feasible non-nuclear future. The authors excuse this omission with the assertion (p159), 'To show that a policy is mistaken does not oblige the analyst to have an alternative policy.' But this is inadequate. This is not dealing with a hypothetical issue, but a real one. It is not enough to point out the deficiencies of nuclear energy; one must deal with the situation that would arise if Lovins and price were successful in their onslaught: should the society indeed turn away from nuclear energy, what then?
What then Weinberg argued, against Lovins, was a loss of freedom. My own assessment is that Weinberg was correct, and that Weinberg not Lovins and the anti-nuclear environmentalists was the true progressive and the true champion of human freedom.


Eric said...

I agree with you about the nuclear solution to AGW, though I may quibble about the anti-Republican tone. To me at least, Republicans are perhaps over-cautious (as a stereotype) about the "what" of AGW and the costs of proposed fixes, but in classic counterpoint, the Democrats are wildly impractical about the "how" of fixing it. Solar+wind+kumbaya do not equal the panacea. I find myself unable to go along with costly cosmetic actions without real substance. I also think that the current administration has been sneakily anti-nuclear (e.g., the Yucca Mountain shutdown, etc.) and this stands in the way of a real compromise and also of an effective solution. Kudos on trying to bridge that gap.

Charles Barton said...

I think the Republicans have a better idea about fixes, but are ideologically blind to the urgency of the problem. Republicans need to understand that what they don't like is the unneeded taking of choices in the service of the anti-buclear ideology, and not the scientific AGW construct that appears to be sound.

NNadir said...

This was a pleasure to read Charles, a very fine account with a personal edge.




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