CGEP Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy

On April 10, 2015 the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy hosted a “Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy.” The CGEP panel:

Tom Blees, President, The Science Council for Global Initiatives;
Travis Bradford, Associate Professor of Practice in International and Public Affairs; Director, Energy and Environment Concentration, Columbia SIPA;
Eric Loewen, Chief Consulting Engineer, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy; and,
Robert Stone, Director, Pandora’s Promise.

There is a lot of well-informed discussion – I recommend the 90 minute video. Around 1:04 Robert Stone was asked to comment on current public attitudes towards nuclear power. He replied that of the screenings where he was present “the response overwhelming support, over 90% in favor of what I’m saying in the film.” At 1:06 Robert goes in to the exceptions to this positive outlook. Following is a loose partial transcript:

Surprisingly, audiences in Europe are still infused with this idea that Chernobyl killed 100s of thousands of people. There are continual documentaries on television about that.

(…snip…) Probably the most controversial and shocking aspect of the film was what the World Health Organization has reported after years and years of study. WHO has published that substantially less than 100 people have had their lives shortened by the Chernobyl accident.

The mayor of the town of where 50,000 people were relocated from Chernobyl asked me to bring the film. They were so grateful for the film because there is this perception that we all have two headed babies, we are all dying of cancer. They said no documentary film maker has ever talked to them or visited them.

Europe: there have been so many EU TV documentaries claiming great damage/death caused by Chernobyl – and more that talked about Fukushima in the same way. No European broadcaster has shown Pandora’s Promise. 

They said we can’t show your film because it contradicts all the films that we have produced. They can’t both be true. It will undermine our credibility with our audience.

New nuclear designs have a severe first-mover DIS-advantage


More from the Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering.

Prof. Per Peterson first discussed the unpriced carbon emissions externality. Which I would say is effectively a tax on nuclear because it competes directly with coal and gas.

Next Per raised a very important issue: how the NRC gatekeeping sets up a strong incentive to free-ride on NRC rulings.

But there is another important market failure that affects nuclear energy and is not widely recognized, which is the fact that industry cannot get patents for decisions that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes. For example, there are major regulatory questions that will affect the cost and commercial competitiveness of multi-module SMR plants, such as how many staff will be required in their control rooms. Once the first SMR vendor invests and takes the risk to perform licensing, all other vendors can free-ride on the resulting USNRC decision. This is the principal reason that government subsidies to encourage first movers, such as cost sharing or agreements to purchase power or other services (e.g., irradiation) make societal sense.

Is this being discussed in the USgov? I’ve never seen a word about it. This is another example of the sub-optimal result we get from wasting billions on energy farming production subsidies, while rationing a few millions for nuclear R&D. Even America has very limited funds – and needs to spend them very carefully.

Steve Kirsch writes open letter to Obama

Steve’s letter is addressed to Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. Don’t miss “Why Obama should meet Till” at Brave New Climate — it’s a good IFR summary and offers some background on how/why the IFR was killed by the Clinton administration. Steve is very well-informed and passionate about the importance of restarting the IFR. Also don’t miss the linked videos on the IFR.

(…) I will tell you the story of an amazing clean power technology that can use nuclear waste for fuel and emit no long-lived nuclear waste; that can supply clean power at low cost for our planet, 24×7, for millions of years without running out of fuel. I will tell you why this technology is our best bet to reduce the impact of global warming on our planet. And finally, I will tell you why nobody is doing anything about it and why this needs to be corrected.

If you act on this letter, you will save our country billions of dollars and allow us to become leaders in clean energy. If you delegate it downward, nothing will happen.

Steve concludes with “For Additional Reading”

(…) is an article written by Dr. Charles Till describing the history of the IFR, its benefits to society, and the reasons for its cancellation. Here are the last two paragraphs from that article:

The hard truth is this: Only nuclear power can satisfy humanity’s long-term energy needs while preserving the environment. For large-scale, long-term nuclear energy, the supply of nuclear fuel must be inexhaustible. That means the power system must have characteristics very similar to those of the IFR.

It is those very characteristics that led the proponents of this reactor type to single it out for development, and are also precisely what caused, and very likely will continue to cause, its opponents to single it out to be stopped.

BTW, I did not know the role of Frank von Hippel in killing the IFR. Nor the role of Obama insider Steve Fetter at OSTP (Assistant Director, At-Large, Principal Assistant Director of Environment). Kirsch writes:

I’ve discussed the IFR with Steve Fetter and he has his facts wrong. Fetter is basically a Frank von Hippel disciple: they have written at least 14 papers together! It was von Hippel who was largely responsible for killing the IFR under Clinton.

So von Hippel’s misguided thought process is driving White House policy today. That’s a big mistake. Professor von Hippel twists the facts to support his point of view and fails to bring up compelling counter arguments that he knows are true but would not support his position. He’s not being intellectually honest. I’ve experienced this myself, firsthand. For example, von Hippel often writes that fast reactors are unreliable. When I pointed out to him that there are several examples of reliable fast reactors, including the EBR-II which ran for decades without incident, he said, that these were the “exceptions that prove the rule.” I was floored by that. That’s crazy. It only proves that it is complicated to build a fast reactor, but that it can easily be done very reliably if you know what you are doing. There is nothing inherent to the technology that makes it “unreliable.” You just have to figure out the secrets. When von Hippel heard that Congressman Garamendi was supporting the IFR, he demanded a meeting with Garamendi to “set him straight.” But what happened was just the opposite: Garamendi pointed out to von Hippel that von Hippel’s “facts” were wrong. Von Hippel left that meeting with Garamendi with his tail between his legs muttering something about that being the first time he’s ever spoken with anyone in Congress who knew anything about fast nuclear reactors. In short, if you watch a debate between von Hippel and Garamendi (who is not a scientist), Garamendi easily wins on the facts. If you put von Hippel up against someone who knows the technology like Till, Till would crush von Hippel on both the facts and the arguments. But the Clinton White House never invited Till to debate the arguments with von Hippel. They simply trusted what von Hippel told them. Big mistake.

Retired Argonne National Laboratory physicists Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford wrote a 2005 letter-to-the-editor to the Arms Control Association that very clearly makes the IFR case in the context of proliferation concerns. I cite this source because Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel respond with economic arguments that basically IFR reprocessing is too expensive while uranium is cheap. I agree with Marsh/Stanford who conclude with this:

The energy and dollars needed to implement large-scale deployment of MOX recycle technology would be better spent on wrapping up the development of fast reactors and their fuel cycle, thus achieving ultimate closure of the fuel cycle, an assured energy supply in perpetuity, removal of plutonium from commerce, proliferation-resistant nuclear energy, and optimal utilization of the Yucca Mountain repository.

Lastly, here’s an excerpt from Charles Till’s article referenced above, where Dr. Till discusses the politics that killed the IFR.

The end of the IFR was signaled in Bill Clinton’s second State of the Union address in early 1994. Development of the reactor that consumed much of its own waste, was largely proof against major accident, and was so efficient that existing fuel supplies would be inexhaustible, was to be terminated immediately. The bright promise of an energy future with a new, much improved reactor system was to be extinguished.

The new Clinton Administration had brought back into power many of the best-known anti-nuclear advocates. The IFR developers at Argonne National Laboratory were well aware of the implications of this disturbing development, and they were under no illusions about what the future held for them. Ten years of development work were behind them. From tiny beginnings midway through the first Reagan Administration, success after success in the development work had allowed a broad and comprehensive program to be put in place. Every element and every detail needed for this revolutionary improvement in nuclear power was being worked on. Another two years should bring successful completion of the principal elements, the program leaders believed.

In 1994, Democrats were in the majority in both houses of Congress. Anti-nuclear advocates were also settling into key positions in the Department of Energy, the department that controlled IFR funding. Other anti-nuclear people were now in place in the office of the President’s science advisor, in policy positions elsewhere in the Administration, and in the White House itself. The IFR had survived the first year of the new Administration on its unquestioned technical merits, but only after some debate within the Administration. But the President’s words were chilling, “We will terminate unnecessary programs in advanced reactor development…”

The one-sided fight was on. The President’s budget, submitted to Congress, contained no funding for the IFR. There is no funding source to tide over a National Laboratory when funding is cut off�the program is dead and that is that. Democrat majorities in the House of Representatives were nothing new, and in themselves they were not especially alarming to the IFR people. During the previous ten years the votes on IFR funding in the House had always been close, and although a majority of the Democrats always opposed, enough of them were in support that IFR development squeaked through each year. The Senate votes on the IFR, sometimes with Republican majorities, sometimes without, as a rule went easier. But this was a very different year: the Administration had gone from weak support of the IFR program to active opposition.

Congressional staff, some of whom later moved to staff the White House itself, began coordinating the opposition to the IFR, in support of the Administration’s decision to terminate its funding. The usual Congressional hearings followed, testimony pro and con was offered, and in the end the House of Representatives upheld the President’s position. The battle moved to the Senate. There everyone knew the vote was going to be close. The key to the Senate position was Bennett Johnston, Democrat of Louisiana, and Chairman of the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. This committee oversaw IFR funding in the Senate.

After lengthy testimony, Johnston decided to fight for continued IFR development. That set the stage for a full-scale Senate floor fight. It took place over a period of several hours. The pro-IFR forces were led by Johnston himself. He had like-minded colleagues in both parties give supporting speeches, and he himself summarized the need for continued development of the IFR. Johnston had been involved in energy matters for decades, knew his subject, and matter-of-factly put the case for the IFR. He stressed the likely need in the light of the vastness of future energy needs.

The anti-IFR forces were led by John Kerry. He was the principal speaker and the floor manager of the anti forces in the Senate debate. He spoke at length, with visual aids; he had been well prepared. His arguments against the merits of the IFR were not well informed�and many were clearly wrong. But what his presentation lacked in accuracy it made up in emotion. He attacked from many angles, but principally he argued proliferation dangers from civilian nuclear power.

While all serious weapons development programs everywhere in the world have always taken place in huge laboratories, in specialized facilities, behind walls of secrecy, and there has been negligible involvement with civilian nuclear power, it is impossible to argue that there CAN be none. For this reason the IFR processes were specifically designed to further minimize such possibilities, and, if developed, they would have represented a significant advance over the present situation. This did not slow Senator Kerry, as he went through the litany of anti-nuclear assertions, articulately and confidently.