Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Nuclear Industry Subsidies Part III: The Military Connection

This is the Part III of my review of Doug Koplow, Union of Concerned Scientists report titled, Nuclear Power: Still not viable without subsidiesThePart I offered some definition of subsidies, and noted that very large government subsidies to the renewable power industry had not made renewable generated electricity cheap. Part I noted that the definitions of subsidy and nuclear industry needed to be determined in any valid study of subsidies, and questioned whether Koplow had done so. Part II looked at Koplow's claims about subsidies to the uranium mining and determined that these subsidies were largely intended to support military uses of uranium, were typical of the energy and mining industry, had little effect on the cost of nuclear generated electricity, and had offered little long term benefit to the either the American uranium mining industry or to the American civilian nuclear power industry as a whole. At the end of Part II. I promised to look carefully at Koplow's claims concerning the relationship between military nuclear weapons programs, and the civilian nuclear industry.

Although Doug Koplow frequently makes many factual and logical errors in his report "Nuclear Power: Still not viable without subsidises," he is sometimes on the right track. He correctly acknowledges military involvement with the United States Nuclear program as creating problems for the Civilian Nuclear power industry. Koplow quotes
Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the “dual-use [civilian and military] nature of nuclear technology is unavoidable. For the five nuclear-weapons states, commercial nuclear power was a spinoff from weapons programs; for later proliferates, the civilian sector has served as a convenient avenue and cover for weapons programs” (Squassoni 2009a). By artificially accelerating the expansion of civilian programs, subsidies to nuclear technology and fuel-cycle services worldwide exacerbate the already challenging problems of weapons proliferation. To date, the negative externality of proliferation has not been reflected in the economics of civilian reactors.
In fact there have been several attempts to serve military interests with ostensibly civilian oriented nuclear R&D programs. In other instances scientists diverted military programs to civilian purposes. The ORNL report,AN ACCOUNT OF OAK RIDGE NATIONAL LABORATORY’S THIRTEEN NUCLEAR REACTORS, by Murray W. Rosenthal demonstrates examples of both tedencies at ORNL. For example the ORNL gas cooled reactor was an attempted replication of the British dual purpose Magnox reactors.
The British wanted to produce plutonium for bombs and simultaneously generate nuclear power, and the 50 MW(e) Calder Hall power plants that they built used dual-purpose reactors that could do both. The British did not yet have enriched uranium and had no domestic source of helium, so the Calder Hall reactors were restricted to natural uranium and used carbon dioxide as the coolant. The metal fuel was clad in a magnesium alloy called Magnox, and from that they came to be called Magnox reactors. The Calder Hall reactors were the first to supply commercial amounts of power to a utility grid.

The dual-purpose Magnox reactors were followed in the United Kingdom by larger gas-cooled power reactors. They were still cooled with carbon dioxide but used low-enriched uranium in stainless-steel-clad UO2 fuel elements that enabled higher temperatures and thus higher thermal efficiency.
The British attempt to kill two birds with one stone was much admired by some members of the United States Congress who probably thought the British approach would save money. In fact, the Magnox reactors produced plutonium of an inferior quality. British and American weapons testing involving the use of Magnox plutonium's, proved so disappointing that work on the Oak Ridge gas cooled reactor was terminated before the reactor could be tested. This was unfortunate because the gas cooled reactor was probably safer than conventional water cooled reactors.

The ORNL Aircraft Reactor Experiment was an example of the diversion of money from a purely military program to civilian oriented scientific use. The idea was to design a reactor to power large military aircraft - bombers. The reactor had to be light and compact, but it also had to produce a lot of power. Oak Ridge engineers came up with a novel idea, a high temperature salt cooled reactor, with the uranium fuel dissolved in the liquid salt. None of the scientists and engineers involved in the project believed that the ARE would serve a military purpose.

The ORNL Thirteen Reactor Report states,
The Air Force was pleased with the performance of the ARE and brought Pratt and Whitney Aircraft Company aboard to develop the indirect cycle power plant. ORNL began the design of a compact 60 MW reactor. And in spite of growing skepticism about success and the recognition that missiles might substitute for bombers, industrial and political support kept the national program going. But it was killed in March 1961 soon after John Kennedy took office.

Thus ORNL’s ANP program came to an end, but in its 12-year run, it greatly expanded knowledge of the chemistry and technology of molten salts and made advances in materials, shield design, and other areas that enlarged the Laboratory’s ability to undertake new projects.
So basically ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg tricked the United States Air Force into developing new civilian nuclear technology.

The Shippingport Reactor was an apparently successful dual purpose nuclear program, but one which was to have a serious long term consequences for the United States nuclear industry. The design of the Shippingport reactor emerged from the design of the of a reactor intended to power air craft carriers. Early in the Eisenhower the Navy was not yet ready to build nuclear carriers, so when President Eisenhower proposed the Atoms for Peace Program Hyman Rickover offered to build an experimental nuclear power plant based on the Navy carrier reactor design, but with low enriched fuel, rather than the highly enriched fuel. The beauty of the Rickover plan is that the Navy got a reactor it wanted to test for nothing while seemingly operating the test reactor as a peaceful atomic project.

While the Shippingport project probably proved useful to the Navy, it may have had a negative impact on the development of the Civilian nuclear industry. Everyone involved in reactor development understood that there were safety problems with the Light Water Reactor (LWR). The military realized that there were safety problems with its LWRs, but thought that it could solve those problems with careful designs, reactor operator training, and rule books that cover every possible aspect of reactor operation.

The Soviets did not take reactor safety seriously, used careless naval reactor designs, allowed untrained people operate its reactors, and had operation rule books that were no where as strict and comprehensive. The Soviets had far more accidents, and worse accidents, so the U.S. Navy's approach works, but the U.S. submarines were Cadillacs driven by engineers who followed precise rules, while the Soviet subs were probably cheaper to own and operate. Sure accidents in Soviet Subs would every now and then kill a member of the crew, but there were always plenty of farm boys who could take their place.

Unfortunately the Cadillac approach is required to keep the Light Water Reactor safe, so towards the Light Water Reactor safety ends up costing money, which the Civilian Nuclear Power industry has to pay. LWR operators are expensive to train, and everyone has to follow detailed rulebooks. All of which makes nuclear power expensive. Those expensive reactors frightened the public too. Of course, nuclear power while expensive, is not as expensive as making renewable generated electricity reliable. And a reliable no-nuclear, all renewable grid can be built with big enough subsidies, built that is, if society does not collapse under the weight of the subsidies to renewable power.

Edward Teller had a different approach to nuclear safety. He thought that reactors should b e buried deep underground and operate with out human intervention. That way if the reactor broke, you could throw in a few shovels of dirt, and that would be all it took to keep the reactor safe forever, or so Teller thought. Towards the end of his life, Teller realized that Alvin Weinberg's Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) was safe, and that if you built MSRs they would not have to be buried so deep in order to protect the public. The MSR was very stable, in fact so stable that no operators were required. Since the reactor core was a molten fluid, you did not have to worry about nuclear meltdown. Teller explained it all in his last paper, Thorium fueled underground power plant based on molten salt technology.

We don't have MSRs because the government preferred to subsidize a money pit called the Fast Breeder Reactor. People at ORNL knew that the MSR would be cheaper to develop, cheaper to build, and cheaper to operate. But the fast breeder was capable of producing bomb grade plutonium. Could the MSR be built without subsidies? Undoubtedly yes, it would be no more expensive develop than a modern large passenger jet is. It would probably be no more expensive to buy as well. A business would just have to be willing to take an unsubsidized risk.
Thus the statement
commercial nuclear power was a spinoff from weapons programs;
is undoubtedly true, but the statement
the civilian sector has served as a convenient avenue and cover for weapons programs
is quite problematic. Many of the dual purpose technologies proved quite useless for military purposes, and in other instances development of military technologies for civilian purposes proved quite expensive as well as militarily useless.

The claim that
By artificially accelerating the expansion of civilian programs, subsidies to nuclear technology and fuel-cycle services worldwide exacerbate the already challenging problems of weapons proliferation.
is more than questionable. The fact is that with the exception of India, nuclear power programs played no role in the development of nuclear weapons, and India should have never been excluded from the original nuclear arrangement. It is absurd to suggest that cost related to nuclear proliferation and its prevention somehow represent a subsidy to the nuclear power industry. The global spread of nuclear technology has not lead to nuclear proliferation. Most nations which have developed nuclear weapons without authorization by anti-proliferation treaties, have done so without possessing civilian nuclear power industries. Knowledge of nuclear weapons technology is sufficient to start a nuclear weapons program, and that knowledge can be found in physics and physics and engineering text books. South Africa demonstrated that a limited number of nuclear weapons could be built from scratch very cheaply. The nuclear proliferation problem will not go away, or lessen even if there are no civilian power reactors, as long as there are physic and engineering textbooks.

Koplow boasts of his many reviewers,
We are grateful to the following people for reviewing versions of this paper: Michele Boyd (Physicians for Social Responsibility), Peter Bradford (University of Vermont Law School), Simon Carroll (Swedish Biodiversity Centre and Member, Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurance Board, UK), Mark Cooper (University of Vermont Law School), Robert Cowin (UCS), Antony Frogatt (Chatham House), Ken Green (American Enterprise Institute), Autumn Hanna (Taxpayers for Common Sense), Dusty Horwitt (Environmental Working Group), Stan Kaplan (U.S. Congressional Research Service), Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute), Ed Lyman (UCS), Arjun Makhijani (Institute for Energy and Environmental Research), Alan Nogee (UCS), Doug Norlen (Pacific Environment and ECA Watch), Marcus Peacock (Pew Charitable Trusts/Subsidyscope), Mycle Schneider (Mycle Schneider Consulting), Henry Sokolski (Nonproliferation Policy Education Project), Sharon Squassoni (Center for Strategic and International Studies), and Steve Thomas (University of Greenwich Business School).
Didn't one of them catch the erroneous linking of the nuclear proliferation problem and subsidies? Of course most of these reviewers are strident critics of nuclear power, who may be emotionally incapable of spotting logically fallacious anti-nuclear arguments.

Thus the marriage of military and civilian nuclear technology proved to be quite unsuccessful, and in cases where it worked, expensive. Reactors that are both cheaper and safer are possible, and without subsidies. What is required is some investors who are bold and imaginative enough to take some risks. Government subsidies to the nuclear power industry have been relatively small, and have not enhanced nuclear weapons programs. A civilian nuclear power industry might flourish if left to its own devices and if it were willing to take a risk on the molten salt nuclear technology developed in Oak Ridge.

1 comment:

Engineer-Poet said...

FYI, the link to the Teller paper is dead.

The Wayback Machine has a copy:


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