Can the Nuclear Industry Learn From It’s Mistakes?
"The discovery of nuclear reactions need not bring about the destruction of mankind any more than the discovery of matches." - Albert Einstein
Einstein is saying it’s what we do with technology that becomes destructive or beneficial. The choice is ours. Einstein made jokes about the capacity of human stupidity. It rings true that we have laid a path for our own destruction. Our biggest problem is collective blindness. The willful ignorance is frightening. In terms of probability for self destruction, it need not be nuclear weapons that does it. More likely it will be climate change that finishes the job.
The role humans have played in affecting climate change and ocean acidification is pretty clear. It has taken us a while to recognize the basic cause and effect of global warming as a result of coal burning. Greenhouse gases have been building up for over a century. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most plentiful of various greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The oceans have absorbed a lot of CO2 acting as a buffer to otherwise much faster global warming, lowering the ocean's pH level. So awareness of the buildup and future effects have snuck up on us. Not only the oceans but the existing backlog of CO2 in the air will not disappear quickly.
If by some incredible cooperative effort we somehow managed to stop emitting CO2 tomorrow, the warming and the trillion tons of CO2 not yet dissolved in seas will not stop for decades. Stopping all combustion would mean stopping coal and natural gas plants, commercial airlines, automobiles, industrial processes that use combustion, even your reading light by your bed is combustion if the energy comes from coal.
But many of the processes above could be sustainable if they used nuclear power for electricity that would charge car batteries and the molten salt reactor possibilities of industrial heat to produce low carbon fuel and create better ways to accomplish common industrial activities.
When did the alarm bells go off?
Some scientists warned us. I think of one scientist who will come back to our story again. Alvin Weinberg, the inventor of the light water reactor and the molten salt reactor, predicted that our over use of coal could have serious consequences back in 1974.
The obvious early warning signs of the effects of climate and ocean change are rising sea levels. New York city has started flooding due to the constant rising. Sea levels have risen 70% more rapidly since 1993.
In a video news release President Obama spoke of his plans for attending GLACIER, a conference held Aug 30th, 2015.
“Climate change once seemed like a problem for future generations, but for most Americans it’s already a reality – deeper droughts, longer wildfire seasons, some of our cities even flood at high tide,” he said...In Alaska glaciers are melting… the hunting and fishing upon which generation have depended for a way of life and their jobs are being threatened.”
But the politicians are still playing politics. They can count on the fact that the public does not fully understand how extreme the problem has become. It is right to take action but the bigger problem continues to be swept under the carpet. The bigger problem is a pandora’s box, too big to confront and not within the scope of even one election cycle. To burden a new president with a legacy set on a course of extreme action is just too big an issue for most politicians.
How We Measure Success
Most people would agree that technologically we have come a long way. But if we were to measure how much any particular technology has made a difference to our lives, nuclear technology might be the greatest of them all.
The engineers who designed and built the first nuclear reactors learned to apply science that was based on layers of engineering in many disciplines never seen before. They built the ultimate machine that could transform a "rock" into immense power. Power that could be extended, controlled and sustained for decades refueling once a year with some designs (i.e. CANDU) that never needed to shut down during refueling. The largest plants strong enough to supply electricity to an average city. That rock was no ordinary rock.
The irony is that the same science that led to the atom bomb is the same science that could save us. We already know that nuclear medicine is a field that has saved millions. Nuclear power plants have been a very important substitute for polluting coal plants. That alone goes a long way to presenting part of the solution.
From Innocence to Disillusionment
All this happened while we were not looking. It does raise some questions. What happened? What caused the industry to forge ahead scientifically without making the science and mathematics more accessible? How did the public's grasp on the science become so distant?
Our fears have affected the outcome of the dream of an atomic age. Even the medical world has been affected by the attitude towards nuclear plants. Such a slowdown was triggered by unfortunate circumstances. As a result of misunderstood mechanical failures in two nuclear plants (three if you count the more recent Fukushima) the industry became heavily regulated, over politicized and over scrutinized.
The 50s expanded and ushered in a real consumer and commercial age. It was a baby boom era that created a market frenzy that flaunted the products and lifestyle of the American dream as part of the ads in magazines and on sponsored television. Symbols of prosperity, innocence and hope clashed with those of the civil rights movement and the witch hunts against communists.
The depiction of the Russian adversary in films and news about a growing arms race heightened the fears. The rapid scientific advancement and military expansion on both sides as well as an attempt to justify aggression both abroad and against the so-called communist sympathisers produced deep psychological damage that would have repercussions in more than just America. The Middle East, Korea and Vietnam all became the stage to play out the drama of building American military might and the policing of the free world against communist expansion.
Who Will Communicate Lessons Learned after the Silence?
A lot of traditional values slipped away when mass media started to dominate our daily routine. At first it felt good economically because people had plenty of disposable income. But a lot started to change as the period of innocence gave way to cynicism. We started to recognize hypocrisy. We had been raised on a phony ideal.
One public figure who is willing to promote nuclear energy and take a stand is the popular and successful Brian Eno is no ordinary rock musician. As a known supporter of nuclear energy he stated the following in letter dated in April 2013 to Nassim Nicholas Taleb who wrote best selling book The Black Swan.
“We have less active engagement with our future than our ancestors did. This diminishing future horizon is mirrored by an equally shrinking backwards view. We find ourselves left with prejudices and opinions that were hastily and emotionally formed at the time and not revisited and reevaluated, drowned under a relentless stream of new stories and panics. We seem to be so thoroughly submerged by new impressions that we don’t have time to digest our own history.”
The ideal of being wholesome, law abiding and self sacrificing was the message coming from the establishment as the best path but after experiencing a lack of similar sentiments in return we began to feel betrayed. The preaching and the doing has not been consistent. That eroded our confidence in the system. But the system is supposed to be democratic. Do we let democracy perform as it should? How might our wishes be better represented?
How Silence, Secrecy and the Cold War Stifled Progress
The roots of the problem that produced a generation of anti nuclear citizens began with the second world war, the Manhattan Project (1939-1946). It was a project to develop the atomic bomb. It was done in secret. The best scientists from around the world were assembled.
How it happened and why it happened is generally understood. It was wartime. But that secrecy is what drove a wedge between public understanding and scientific advancement.
A great deal was accomplished in those few years. A very large body of scientific discovery was known by only a limited number of people and kept secret for several decades.
Glenn Seaborg had started to report on the properties of thorium and uranium in 1939. His big breakthroughs in 1942 were with thorium and plutonium. Seaborg knew that he had made a startling discovery and saw its potential for powering electricity for peaceful purposes. But his discovery that Thorium could become Uranium 233 was overshadowed by his discovery of Plutonium.
Thorium had the promise of being used for peaceful purposes but the bomb fuel plutonium became the focus till after the war. Thorium became the motivating purpose for the molten salt reactor over a decade later under Alvin Weinberg’s Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE).
Ironically the military quest intervened once more in the late 40s when it was requested that a nuclear powered airplane be designed.
The years following the 2nd World War were generally positive about the prospects of an atomic age. The public had visions of a very modern and affordable future. But the contingent of an uncertain future with an aggressive Russian leadership kept the US military leadership on a continuous R & D effort to hold on to its military advantage. The next goal was the Nuclear Energy Powered Aircraft (NEPA) under General Curtis. He had commanded the bomber attacks on Japan during the war. Conceptually the idea was to be able to keep a nuclear bomber aircraft airborne indefinitely, unrestricted by fuel limitations. There were several designs being considered. The idea was tested for a short time and it was dropped and picked up again later.
Weinberg had a long standing position as administrator at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 1945 to 1973. Just like many of his colleagues he had worked on the Manhattan Project. A smaller reactor was now being considered for flight. Weinberg knew it was not a smart idea for a few reasons but he welcomed a chance to develop the technology to become a better reactor than his first invention the Light Water Reactor (LWR) which eventually became a huge success on submarines and aircraft carriers and eventually civilian commercial reactors.
Since the light water reactor had been declared too heavy for flight a new design was requested and that is when the MSRE was born. What was called the Thorium cycle that produced U233 had been determined to be unsuitable for nuclear weapons.
Still thorium did not become the fuel of choice. But the design concept was radically different from any previous reactors. The fuel was blended with a molten salt mixture and it so happens that uranium was the fuel of choice. The eventual development of thorium processing would depend on getting the green light to develop a commercial reactor. Alvin Weinberg's focus on reactor safety and his strong preference for the molten salt reactor designs was what led to his being fired.
Much of the library at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) consists of thousands of pages that remained classified until the 1990s. This whole field of science had stayed secret while a new generation of engineers and scientists knew very little about it.
The knowledge gained from developing and processing the fuel for weapons during those early war years prepared the way for commercial reactors. But the secrecy caused a gap in understanding which led to the myths about nuclear energy and atomic science. This grew into a backlash that prevented us from benefitting from the full potential that nuclear technologies capability promised.
The quest for military power and the propaganda machine was certainly an obstacle. Various leaders and men in positions of power took on roles that were strategic for developing a superior military force and providing a technical knowledge that unintentionally became a part of a knowledge resource for positive change. President Harry Truman back in 1946 wanted nuclear research out of the hands of the armed forces and switched to civilian hands. This was a controversial issue and remained a divisive issue for decads to come. The
There were other factors, such as the hubris that accompanies any specialized field, that played a role in causing the delay of nuclear science advances reaching the public as well as contributing to a growing mistrust of scientists.
Science has grown and fragmented into an unimaginable number of fields and specialties. This trend has blossomed to a point where any member of the public is challenged to keep up. But energy is fundamental just like food and money. So the basics of energy need to be learned early. Now more than ever nuclear energy must play a role in restoring Earth to an ecological balance.
In light of this we need to understand what other obstacles also prevented acceptance of nuclear energy. These obstacles have their roots in anti nuclear groups and individuals. The original antinuclear groups never confused the two technologies of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. They simply wanted to ban the bomb. But with growing consumerism and personal possessions adding two or more cars per household began to make the oil companies very wealthy. They were so huge and wealthy that they made the nuclear companies seem commercially insignificant.
So joining the propaganda effort were the corporations who saw nuclear energy as a threat. On one hand you had the propaganda justifying the war machine and on the other you had a rationale designed to slow down or stop nuclear energy in order to ensure continued profits from oil and coal.
In hindsight a lot of the blame for the sins against the environment sits with corporate greed, the military complex and the growing gap between the public and scientific community. We can begin to see that turning a blind eye to important trends had repercussions. To ignore