Thursday, August 19, 2010

I Speak for the Dead

One of my favorite television shows has been Di Vinci's Inquest, a Canadian series from a few years ago. Di Vinci, a coroner has a line, "I speak for the Dead." In "Nuclear Green, I, of course, speak for myself, but beyond that, I speak for the dead as well. To explain what I mean, I would like to briefly refer to two bloggers who are very much living, Barry Brook and Kirk Sorenson. In a recent post, Barry spoke of what might be called his Damascus Road revelation about nuclear power. Barry in the not very distant past was a Australian climate scientist who had started to blog, and who had as of yet not thought through the energy issues. Barry wrote that in an early post he had extoold Australia;s renewable resources. Barry recently wrote,
my focus at this point was pointedly directed at carbon emissions reduction (clean energy was just a means to an end), and it was obvious to me that the logical path to achieve this was renewable sources such as solar and wind power. I was coming at this issue from a genuine concern for eliminating carbon-based energy, and was overwhelmed by a sense of frustration, because I couldn’t understand why the ‘clean energy revolution’ wasn’t happening. . . Indeed, I hadn’t given much thought to nuclear power at this point, not because I was ever ideologically ’anti-nuclear’ — I had simply accepted the ‘peak uranium’ argument and not thought much more about it, as this comment I made back in Dec 2008 indicates.
Then, reality bit me, and it hurt. I remember I was sent an early version ofTrainer’s thesis, and against all reason (’what nonsense is this?‘ I recall first thinking), I read the damned thing. Somewhat crestfallen, yet also morbidly fascinated, I followed up, reading ‘The Solar Fraud‘ (the only other book on this topic of renewable limits, according to Trainer’s piece) and then a bookshelf worth of other tomes on this general topic, including ‘Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air‘ and ‘Prescription for the Planet‘ (kicking off my nuclear education in earnest), followed by various technical analyses, IPCC WG III, blogs, etc. My first post on this blog on nuclear power was on 28 Nov 2008, 3 months after it has been launched. My transformation of thought had begun in earnest, and was reinforced by the work of people such as Peter Lang.
Kirk Sorensen responded to Barry's post:
I had a similar conversion story…I was once a hard-core wind and solar guy, spending lots of time thinking about how to cover deserts in solar concentrators and build windmills. I couldn’t figure out why everyone didn’t want this, but a couple of summers living in the Mojave and seeing the remnants of past solar projects and the half-broken windmills of the Tehachapi Pass began to dampen my enthusiasm.nNuclear didn’t seem particularly compelling to me. I had a lot of mistaken ideas, but there was still a lot of stuff about LWRs that I had right and left me underwhelmed. My conversion began when I started reading a book called “Fluid Fueled Reactors” and around the same time read an article written by Rod Adams on the subject of thorium…

Barry and Kirk can only testify to the living. They bare witness to themselves, they tell us what they experienced, how they came to certain views. I can speak for the dead, because I was a witness to their lives.

The dead include the Nobel Prize winning scientist/engineer Eugene Wigner who I, along with other ORNL supernumeraries, meet one summer afternoon in 1971. I did not fully appreciate who Wigner was then, but a long time later, as I began to understand the history of nuclear technology, I began to appreciate Wigner's towering genius.

The dead include Alvin Weinberg whose death triggered my recognition that Weinberg's generation of nuclear scientists had a lot to say to the living. Weinberg was far more than a reactor designer and science administrator, he was also a deep thinker who had a great deal to say about the role of energy and science in society. Weinberg offered a clear vision of the future, that has proven far more accurate than Amory Lovins has.

I speak for my father whose numerous contributions to nuclear science were almost unknown before I began to discover them in his papers. My father's vision of the future was clear, and pointed unmistakably to a future in which nuclear energy was to be a safe, clean and reliable source of energy for our future society.

I speak for many ORNL scientist of my father's generation, Ed Bettis, George W. Parker, Bob Moore, Raymond C. Briant, Warren Grimes, and numerous others, who worked to make safe, clean and reliable nuclear energy available the people of earth.

I first realized that the dead needed a voice when Alvin Weinberg died in October 2006. Alvin had been the father of a childhood friend, David Weinberg, and I had had a distant acquaintance with Alvin from my childhood onward. In reviewing past stories about Weinberg in the ORNL Review, I discovered the astonishing fact that Weinberg had been fired as ORNL director in a spat with AEC leadership over Weinberg's insistence that continued nuclear safety research was important. It was clear that Ralph Nader had known both about Weinberg's firing and the circumstances around it, but Nader, who professed to be concerned about nuclear safety chose to say nothing on Weinberg's behalf. Weinberg's vision of the future has proven far more accurate than that of Amory Lovins, who he befriended and sparred with over their contrasting visions of the energy future. Important parts of the Weinberg legacy is accessible on the Internet, much through The Information Bridge.

In 2007, for the first time I thought seriously about carbon mitigation. It did not take me long to find a solution. Part of my solution, scalability energy through reliance on mass produced small reactors, was very much a part of the spirit of our time. But the memory of voices from the past influancec my designation of the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor, the LFTR as the technology of the future, as the energy Black Swan. Fortunately my father was still alive then, and I had the unique opportunity to talk with him as I read his papers. I want to briefly mention Richard "Dick" Smyser, the long time editor and publisher of the Oak Ridger. I mention Smyser because he was the faithful scribe who reported the visions, wishes and aspereations as of Oak Ridge scientists as they ORNL. It was through Smyser's reporting that I learned much about the visions of a high energy nuclear future pioneered by Alvin Weinberg and the ORNL staff. during my childhood and early adult years.

In a way, what I say now about nuclear power and particularly Molten Salt Reactor/LFTR technology is said for those who no longer speak for themselves. I speak for the dead. I bear witness to their voices. I learned of Anthropogenic Global Warming at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the spring of 1971. I had no doubt from the first moment that nuclear power would offer a superior solution to the problem. I watched for decades after 1971, as so called renewables advocates such as Amory Lovins openly advocated the use of carbon emitting coal, oil and natural gas technology in preference to nuclear generated electricity.


jagdish said...

I agree that nuclear energy is the long term energy solution. However we have a big and diversified world and there is 'no one size fits all' solution. The US, UK, France and Russia have so much of DU and SNF that a fast reactor technology will last them at least a century. By that time the economy may ask for a different technology. Most of the mankind lives in East, South and south-east Asia. These regions are also energy and uranium poor. They may have to opt for thorium fueled nuclear power. Graphite moderated LFTR itself has a huge graphite waste problem besides not yet solved material problems. Some new coolant/Heat transfer medium like Al-Mg eutectic may be a better alternative to hazardous sodium in fast reactors. Energy has always had safety problems. 'Playing with fire' has always been synonymous with anything dangerous. We have to keep our minds open.

Charles Barton said...

jagdish As you must be aware, Molten Salt Reactors do not need to be moderated by graphite, if the graphite core is as serious a problem as you suggest, Others who have looked at the use of graphite in MSR cores do not agree with your assessment of the problem it poses, Molten Salts are capable of tolerating far higher temperatures than liquid metals, and thus molten salt reactors will be more efficient, as well as capable of producing combined industrial heat and power, as well as cogeneration. You must be aware that MSRs offer high levels of inherent safety.

Meredith Angwin said...

Gosh, I wouldn't call it a road-to-Damuscus experience, but my experience was similar to Kirk's.

I was a geothermal project manager at EPRI, and I had also done research on NOx control for combustions systems. I got tired of how hard people were fighting against geothermal plants, I didn't like combustion very much, so I was discouraged.

However, by chance, I began working some with the Steam Generator people at EPRI on corrosion problems they were having that were similar to some problems we had in geothermal. After a while, nuclear began to make a LOT of sense to me, and when a job came open with the Steam Generator group, I applied. I was very happy to get it and turn my loyalty to nuclear. Finally, I was working on a technology that could actually make a difference!

Some negative side-effects ensued, however. Attend a Palo Alto party as a "geothermal project manager, you know, in the renewable resources group at EPRI" and you get offered a smile and a glass of wine. Attend the same party as a "nuclear project manager" and you get an argument instead.


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