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Nuclear Power, Weapons, and National Security

Jim Green's picture

Dr. Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter.

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  • Sep 13, 2017

India demonstrates its nuclear weapons capability.

The nuclear power industry, under pressure economically, is arguing that it deserves government support because it is essential for “national security”, notes Jim Green, editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter. Green explains why he finds this argument disingenuous and unconvincing.

The nuclear power industry has long maintained that it has no connection whatsoever to nuclear weapons proliferation. This argument was always based on lies and half-truths, as I make clear in this article in Nuclear Monitor #840.

Ironically, the nuclear industry is now admitting they were not telling the whole truth. Its proponents are arguing it deserves public support precisely because it is essential for national security reasons! Some of them are adding a peculiar twist to their argument: they are saying that a strong nuclear power sector needs to be maintained in western countries so that they can maintain a capability to constrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Massive subsidies

Is there any substance to this argument? Could a precipitous decline of nuclear power, for instance in the US, have adverse consequences for US national security?

That is certainly what a growing number of nuclear advocates are arguing. The Nuclear Energy Institute, for example, has been trying to convince politicians in Washington that if the AP1000 reactor construction projects in South Carolina and Georgia aren’t completed, it would stunt development of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex because the engineering expertise on the energy side helps the weapons side.

The pro-nuclear Environmental Progress group also issues ominous warnings of “global nuclear domination by Russia” and argues that this should be a reason for massive, multifaceted taxpayer subsidies for the nuclear industry and for a taxpayer-funded bailout of bankrupt Westinghouse.

A new report by the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) makes the same argument and arrives at the same conclusions, arguing for massive additional subsidies for the civil nuclear industry in the US, including credit support, tax incentives and federal siting and/or purchase power agreements. The EFI report also advocates establishing a broad-based consortium of nuclear supply chain companies, power-generating companies, financing institutions and “other appropriate entities” to share the risk and benefits of further new-build projects both in the US and internationally.

The EFI certainly carries much greater weight than Environmental Progress. The latter is a fake environmental group led by paid pro-nuclear lobbyists, whereas the EFI is a creation of Ernest Moniz, who served as Energy Secretary under president Barack Obama.

Ernest Moniz

Global mission

The EFI report argues on the one hand that effective international engagement on nuclear issues depends on a strong domestic nuclear industry, but it also explicitly makes the case that a strong domestic nuclear power industry is necessary to directly support the US nuclear weapons program. The report states that the US nuclear energy sector “helps the U.S military meet specific defense priorities, supports the implementation of U.S. nonproliferation policy, and is essential to the global projection of U.S. military capability. The flip side is that an eroding nuclear enterprise will compromise important nuclear security capabilities or make them more costly.”

For example, on the US Navy’s alleged need for a civil nuclear industry, the EFI report states“The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program is comprised of military and civilian personnel who design, build, operate, maintain and manage the nearly one hundred reactors that power US aircraft carriers and submarines and provide training and research services. The program is operated jointly by the Department of Energy and the US Navy. Nuclear reactors provide the Navy with the mobility, flexibility and endurance required to carry out its global mission. More powerful reactors are beginning to be employed on the new Ford class aircraft carriers and will enable the new Columbia class of submarines in the next decades.” 

“A strong domestic supply chain is needed to provide for nuclear Navy requirements. This supply chain has an inherent and very strong overlap with the commercial nuclear energy sector. This supply chain for meeting the critical national security need for design and operation of Navy reactors includes a workforce trained in science and engineering, comprised of US citizens who qualify for security clearances.” 

“The Navy will (also) eventually need additional highly enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel its reactors for long intervals between refueling. Because of the national security use and the sensitivity of HEU production, the entire supply chain from uranium feed to the enrichment technology must be of United States origin. There is currently no such domestic capability in the supply chain. The relatively lengthy time period required to stand up such a capability raises serious, near-term concerns about the US capacity to meet this critical national security need.” 

The EFI report also states that the companies that supply the shrinking civil nuclear reactor program are the same firms providing components and enriched uranium to keep the Navy’s nuclear-propelled vessels operating. And the report raises concerns about the workforce: “A shrinking commercial enterprise will have long term spillover effects on the Navy supply chain, including by lessened enthusiasm among American citizens to pursue nuclear technology careers.”

The refreshing honesty displayed by the EFI report about the connections between the peaceful nuclear industry and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) might indeed backfire

The EFI report also discusses civil/military connections beyond the Navy’s requirements. For example it states“The nuclear weapons stockpile requires a constant source of tritium (half life about 12.5 years), provided by irradiating special fuel rods in one or two commercial power reactors. As with the Navy HEU requirements, the tritium must be supplied from US-origin reactors using domestically produced LEU reactor fuel. Once again, we do not have the long-term capability to meet this need because of the absence of an enrichment facility using US-origin technology. This is a glaring hole in the domestic nuclear supply chain, since the only enrichment facility in the United States today uses Urenco (European) technology to supply power reactor fuel.”

In addition, the report broadens the workforce argument beyond the Navy, stating that the number of people pursuing higher education in nuclear sciences is becoming too small to sustain the nuclear industry and that a nuclear career path will be still less attractive if only military careers were available.

The EFI report concludes that “a stabilized existing reactor fleet and new builds” will be needed to rebuild a supply chain that will underpin national security “success“.

Economy of scale

Do these arguments stack up? Not really. A strong civil industry may help the weapons program but it isn’t essential.

If tritium isn’t produced in one particular power reactor, it can be produced in another power reactor, or a research reactor, or a small military reactor could be built or restarted to produce tritium for weapons. As for low-enriched uranium to fuel reactors used to produce tritium, the European consortium Urenco has reportedly approved the use of its enriched uranium to fuel reactors in the US used to produce tritium.

If HEU isn’t produced in a dual-use domestic enrichment plant, a dedicated military enrichment plant will do the job (and could be built with or without the support of a civil enrichment industry), or HEU can be sourced elsewhere (e.g. from dismantled weapons).

It also helps the weapons program to have a pool of trained personnel in the civil sector to draw from ‒ but again it isn’t essential.

The debate in the UK

The UK’s nuclear power industry is closer to extinction than the US industry. The US has 99 operable power reactors, a large majority of them 30+ years old. The UK has 15 power reactors, most of them 30+ years old.

The power/weapons arguments are also starting to surface in the UK. As Paul Brown wrote in Climate News Network on August 23: “Britain decided in 2002 after an objective inquiryby the government’s Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) that nuclear was becoming too expensive and renewables were a better alternative for generating electricity. However, quite unexpectedly, in 2005, after a secretive review under the premiership of Tony Blair, the policy was reversed and the UK government announced a revival of the nuclear industry.” 

“Corresponding with this unprecedented U-turn on civil nuclear power was an equally unprecedented intensification in efforts to preserve nuclear skills for the military sector. Many millions of pounds have been given in government grants since that time to set up nuclear training programmes. The Oxford Research Group (ORG), a UK think tank, published a two-part report, entitled Sustainable Security.19,20 Both parts examined the prospects of the UK’s Trident nuclear programme influencing its energy policy. The ORG concluded that the government realised it could not sustain its own nuclear weapons programme, or more particularly its nuclear-propelled submarine fleet, without a large and complementary civilian nuclear industry.” 

“Commenting on the release of the American report on the military crisis being caused by the lack of civilian power projects, Andrew Stirling, professor of science and technology policy at the School of Business, University of Sussex, UK, said: ‘With renewable costs tumbling and the international nuclear industry in growing crisis, it is becoming ever more difficult to carry on concealing this key underlying military reason for attachment to civil nuclear power.’ In the last year the UK government has been trying to generate interest in an alternative civilian nuclear programme. It has encouraged a competition to develop small modular reactors.” 

“These reactors are supposed to be dotted around the countryside to power small towns. There are a number of designs, but some are remarkably similar to the power generators for nuclear submarines, particularly those that will be needed for the UK’s so-called independent nuclear deterrent – the Trident programme. It is no coincidence that the frontline developer of both these kinds of reactors is Rolls-Royce, which has a workforce that seamlessly crosses over between military and civilian developments.”

Matt Kempner, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, questionsthe claim that the lack of a commercial nuclear industry to provide employment and training would have an adverse impact on the Navy: “Actually, a lot of the time it’s the other way around: Utilities often hire Navy-trained nuclear personnel. I asked the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program about how crucial the commercial nuclear industry is for the Navy. “The direct relationship between civilian and naval nuclear reactors is small,” public affairs director Lee Smith emailed me. But some components are supplied by the same companies, “providing some economy of scale for the manufacturer and reduced costs for the Navy.””

Of course, this discussion assumes that maintaining the US nuclear weapons program is a good thing ‒ an assumption that is strongly contested by many people. In fact, if the aim is to comply with the nation’s obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to seriously pursue disarmament, the decline of the civil nuclear industry would dovetail neatly with this obligation.

The refreshing honesty displayed by the EFI report about the connections between the peaceful nuclear industry and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) might indeed backfire. Opponents of nuclear power in the US (and comparable countries) might redouble their efforts, knowing that their campaigning would also serve to undermine the WMD program to a greater or lesser extent.

Interestingly, note that there are a great many profound contradictions between Moniz’s role at the EFI and his role as co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. To give just a couple of examples, the Nuclear Threat Initiative argues the case for the elimination of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in the civil nuclear sector, but the EFI is having none of that ‒ it wants a civil enrichment industry to underpin military production of HEU. The Nuclear Threat Initiative warns that the US and Russia keep nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons on high alert, leaving both countries vulnerable to nuclear launch by accident, miscalculation or cyber-attack, whereas the EFI report states that the existence of the Russian nuclear weapons arsenal underscores the importance of US nuclear weapons to “global strategic stability and deterrence”.

Weapons proliferation

What about the other argument put forward to bolster the case for expanded government support for the nuclear industry – that the US must be heavily involved in the global nuclear industry to prevent weapons proliferation and to shore up other geopolitical interests?

Michael E. Webber, an academic who receives funding from the US government and the power industry, argues that the “loss of expertise from a declining domestic nuclear workforce makes it hard for Americans to conduct the inspections that help keep the world safe from nuclear weapons.” Webber notes that around 2,500 people, including 200 US citizens, work at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ‒ but he fails to note that only 385 of the IAEA’s staff members are safeguards inspectors, and that inspectors come from around 80 countries. His argument might carry a little more weight in relation to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a US agency concerned with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.

Mark Hibbs from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written an article – enthusiastically endorsed by the World Nuclear Association, the Nuclear Energy Institute and other nuclear advocates – arguing that US nuclear firms are at a competitive disadvantage compared to Russian and Chinese state-owned enterprises. That argument dovetails neatly with industry calls for direct state funding to build nuclear power plants since private firms can’t or won’t cover the capital costs.

What will Trump do?

To what extent the Trump administration will be swayed by the arguments of the nuclear advocates is uncertain.

Trump is certainly an advocate of expanding the nuclear weapons program. But his comments linking civil and military nuclear programs have been so convoluted that it would take an oracle (or a Fox or a Breitbart) to decipher them.

He famously said in February 2017: “You know what uranium is, right? It’s a thing called nuclear weapons and other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium, including some bad things.” And in the same month he said: “I am the first one that would like to see everybody nobody have nukes, but we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power. It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”

At the Future of Energy summit in April 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry joined the dots more clearly: “As we have not built nuclear plants over a 30-year time, the intellectual capability, the manufacturing capability, I will not say has been completely lost, but has been impacted in a major way. In doing so, the development of our weapons side has been impacted.”

Rick Perry

Perry continued: “There is a conversation, there is a discussion ‒ some of it obviously very classified ‒ that will be occurring as we going forward to make sure that we have the decisions, made by Congress in a lot of these cases, to protect the security interests of America …”

Nevertheless, the Trump administration has done little to date in the way of actual support for the nuclear energy sector. A request for a non-repayable handout of US$1‒3 billion to help keep the VC Summer reactor project in South Carolina alive was rejected and the project was abandoned shortly thereafter.

The administration has also proposed cutting nuclear power R&D funding and killing off the loan guarantee program (which would jeopardize the only nuclear new-build program in the US ‒ the Vogtle project in Georgia). In June, the administration barred 27 Department of Energy scientists from attending an IAEA conference in Russia on fast neutron reactors. One scientist offered to pay his own way and was still barred from attending. 

Commenting on Hibbs’ article, Ted Jones from the Nuclear Energy Institute said: “The US nuclear industry has been competing not just against foreign companies but also against their governments ‒ which seek the unique strategic benefits of a nuclear energy supplier. For our nation, much more is at stake than billions in US nuclear exports and tens of thousands of American jobs.”

Hibbs, like Webber, argues that US capacity to constrain weapons proliferation will be adversely impacted by the domestic downturn of nuclear power and by the waning prospects for US nuclear exports (greatly diminished by Westinghouse’s bankruptcy filing).

He also argues that historically the US nuclear export program has facilitated “strategic trade penetration”. He states that the Atoms for Peace program “was designed to expand U.S. influence during the Cold War, and it succeeded” ‒ but he fails to note that the Atoms for Peace program also spread dual-use nuclear facilities and materials across the globe.

Hibbs further makes the exaggerated claim that the nuclear export programs of Russia and China give them “access to strategic decisionmaking” in dozens of countries “concerning technology, energy, and foreign policy for decades to come”.

Hibbs’ article says everything the US nuclear industry wants to hear ‒ and nothing it doesn’t want to hear

He states that the US and other established nuclear-technology-owning countries
“made the rules for nuclear exporting, nonproliferation, nuclear security, and business transparency” and problems loom if that leadership is ceded to Russia and China. He cites allegations of Russian cyberattacks against nuclear power targets and alleged Chinese economic espionage against Westinghouse.

Hibbs also questions whether Russia and China have strictly adhered to the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s guidelines concerning their exports to India and Pakistan, respectively. But he doesn’t mention that the US took an axe to the global non-proliferation architecture with the US‒India deal (in particular, the prior prohibition on nuclear trade with non-NPT states). And he doesn’t mention that the US is now trying to undermine the Nuclear Suppliers Group by pressuring it to include India despite India’s expansive program to expand its nuclear weapons and missile arsenal and its dodgy record in relation to nuclear exports.

Hibbs’ article says everything the US nuclear industry wants to hear ‒ and nothing it doesn’t want to hear. It also ignores the US’s own questionable geopolitical nuclear record, such as the fact that the US has done all it can to undermine the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by the UN in early July 2017, and the fact that the US boycotted the negotiations. Recently reports have surfaced that the US warned Sweden that if it signs the UN treaty, bilateral defence cooperation will be hampered and it would jeopardize the possibility of military support from the US in a crisis situation.

Coming from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hibbs’ article seems strangely irresponsible and one-sided.

The argument that nuclear energy needs to be propped up for national security reasons seems a desperate attempt by the sector to get their hands on government subsidies. It also exposes the lies that the industry has been telling about its supposed non-relationship with the military sector. That relationship has always existed. But we do not need nuclear energy to protect us from nuclear threats.

Editor’s Note

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter. This article appeared first in a slightly different form in Nuclear Monitor issue 850, 7 September 2017. It is republished here with permission.

Original Post

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Sep 14, 2017

This hatchet job on the nuclear industry is wrong is so many ways.

The core premise, the implication that nuclear power leads to nuclear weapons is still wrong and is not supported by the arguments in the article. Yes, we’ve known civilian nuclear power was linked to nuclear ship propulsion ever since 1957, when the very first submarine nuclear reactor served as the starting point for the Shippingport nuclear power plant which served the civilian power market with clean electricity for decades.

However, nuclear explosives are still very different than nuclear power & propulsion. It’s a weak argument to say they both require a workforce educated in STEM, or even nuclear fields, since these are broad. It is hopelessly naive to think that removing nuclear power will prevent nations from building or maintaining nuclear weapons. After all, nearly all nuclear armed nations (including the US) got nuclear weapons first, and civilian nuclear power as an after-though.

India is the perfect example. Its nuclear power plants can be grouped into two categories. The plants which were built with foreign help are all under international anti-proliferation protocols. Many of their domestically built plants (particularly the older ones) are under no international anti-proliferation controls at all.

If you look at what is happening in the energy industries around the world, you see slow adoption of renewables in rich countries, and even slower adoption in developing countries, even those with growing coal industries. Despite claims of advocates, renewables are still not cost effective (when the cost of storage, transmission, and flexible generation backup are included).

We are repeated told of the high cost of nuclear plants, but they are actually quite affordable when we remember their energy output is also very high. The fact remains that the only major grids which have ever successfully decarbonized are those which use a substantial portion of nuclear power (e.g. France, Sweden, Switzerland). Renewables advocates make big promises, but thus far, renewables are only used in fossil fuel dominated grids.

Anti-nuclear activism (such as this article) has always lead to more fossil fuel use, more air pollution, and more negative health impacts from the energy sector. The world needs nuclear power to reduce our fossil fuel addiction, and the global powers (including the US) need to be a part of it.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Sep 14, 2017

This article is a well-written anti-nuclear hit piece, but fundamentally dishonest. Its argumentation essentially rests on the equation of a nuclear powered navy with nuclear weapons. Of course that’s never stated; if it were, the fallacy would be obvious. Instead, the author evidently hopes that his semantic slight-of-hand will pass unnoticed.

The author starts out by observing (more or less correctly) that “The nuclear power industry has long maintained that it has no connection whatsoever to nuclear weapons proliferation.” He then goes on to assert that “the nuclear industry is now admitting they were not telling the whole truth. Its proponents are arguing it deserves public support precisely because it is essential for national security reasons!” That’s false — or deliberately misleading — on several counts. To begin with, there is no singular “nuclear power industry” that speaks with one voice about anything. It’s true that the idea that a healthy nuclear power industry has important implications for national security is common among nuclear power proponents. However that has to do with energy independence and avoiding the immoral (and ultimately futile) attempt to dominate world oil producing regions through military force. I don’t know of any nuclear power proponent who believes, as the author would have us think, that public support for nuclear power is necessary in order to maintain our arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The pro-nuclear Environmental Progress group also issues ominous warnings of “global nuclear domination by Russia” and argues that this should be a reason for massive, multifaceted taxpayer subsidies for the nuclear industry and for a taxpayer-funded bailout of bankrupt Westinghouse.

I’m not familiar with the Environmental Progress group. Perhaps they are indeed saying something like that. I’m a little suspicious, because that “nuclear domination” phrase is so loaded. And why just Russia? Russia seems to be the official boogyman of the day, for those committed to maintaining a state of permanent war. But assuming that the Environmental Progress group consists of rational individuals committed to what their name implies, I suspect that their warning was more along the lines that “abandonment of nuclear power by the United States would leave the world market for clean nuclear power to Russia and China. (Two years ago, the list would have included South Korea, but with the successful installation of an anti-nuclear administration that has promised to shut down nuclear power in South Korea, it’s doubtful that the country’s previously ambitious plans to become a major supplier of nuclear power will get very far.)

That warning seems quite valid. In contrast to Europe and the US, China and Russia are building track records for completing nuclear power projects on time and budget. Without the specter of decade-long delays and many-to-one cost overruns that haunt Western attempts to rekindle a light-water nuclear power industry, NPPs make a lot of sense. Developing nations, and developed nations that are serious about kicking fossil fuels provide a very large market. If we choose to ignore that market, that’s a serious economic issue. Allowing the developing world to depend on Russia and China for their energy infrastructure arguably has national security implications as well. But it has nothing to do with proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Not, that is, unless building up more and better nuclear weapons in order to blackmail the world with a first-strike nuclear attack capability becomes our chosen counter to our inability to compete economically.

David Gattie's picture
David Gattie on Sep 14, 2017

Nice comments, Nathan. My own two-cents worth is here:

David Gattie's picture
David Gattie on Sep 14, 2017
Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Sep 14, 2017

Excellent overview.
In addition:
Countries which nowadays started to develop nuclear energy frequently are, or may expect to come, under some pressure from a (potential) nuclear power. So they use the development of nuclear energy to build the expertise such that they can develop an atomic bomb within a few years in case that becomes political important.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Sep 14, 2017

… you see slow adoption of renewables …

Renewable expansion is much faster than nuclear ever reached.
In 2015 renewable capacity increased 147GW (wind+solar 113GW), accounting for 60% of all generating capacity expansion in 2015.
Wind+solar alone were in 2016 already 800GW, more than twice the capacity of nuclear.
And the expansion speed of renewable is still accelerating.

… grids which have ever successfully decarbonized are those which use a substantial portion of nuclear power (e.g. France, Sweden, Switzerland)…

That depends on what one calls successfully.
France is migrating towards more renewable (following Germany), reducing nuclear.

Sweden and Switzerland both decided not to install any new nuclear plant and to increase renewable. Which implies that they consider renewable more attractive.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Sep 15, 2017

China and Russia are building track records for completing nuclear power projects on time and budget.

Their more safe nuclear power plant projects also suffer delays and costs escalations. All 6 Russian and 11 of the 20 Chinese NPP’s under construction, are behind schedule. Regarding costs, they have other book keeping standards.

… healthy nuclear power industry has … to do with energy independence …

Renewable do that much cheaper nowadays.

NPPs make a lot of sense … If we choose to ignore that market, that’s a serious economic issue.

No longer, as nuclear is slowly fainting away.
Of the 31 countries with nuclear energy, nuclear produced only in 2 countries (China, Iran) an higher share of consumed electricity than earlier years.
In 1996 nuclear produced 17.5% of all electricity in the world, in 2016 it was 10.5%.

Environmental Progress is a nuclear promotion group, mainly Michael Schellenberg.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Sep 15, 2017


Just to be clear, what you’re disagreeing with, I believe, is Jim Green’s article itself, and not a specific comment that appears in the thread above yours. That seems consistent with what you wrote in Forbes — which I happen to agree with.

I’m generally pretty tolerant of diverse opinions on issues; I understand how difficult it is for people to know what sources of information to credit when it comes to matters outside their areas of expertise. Confirmation bias is a potent psychological force. Since I can see it operating in my own opinions, I can hardly blame others for being influenced by it. What I find reprehensible in Green’s article is that it does not reflect simply a different opinion; it appears to be a conscious and calculated attempt to mislead.

A key charge that has long been levied against nuclear power by opponents is that it facilitates proliferation of nuclear weapons. That charge has been soundly refuted, on both historical and technical grounds. I wrote about that a few yeast back in an extended comment at What Green has attempted to do in this article is to discredit the refutations, not by addressing any of the issues directly, but by using the fact that that some nuclear power proponents are citing national security reasons for supporting nuclear power as proof that “the nuclear industry” was not telling the truth about nuclear power having nothing to do with weapons proliferation.

The rest of the article is mostly camouflage and misdirection to hide the absurdity of that complete non sequitur. It’s skillfully written propaganda, but still propaganda. Its aim is to confuse, not to illuminate.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Sep 15, 2017

Nobody needs to develop nuclear energy to “build the expertise” to develop an atomic bomb. The required expertise is pretty modest and easily acquired. The genie of knowledge required has long escaped its bottle.

The only viable non-proliferation strategy, at this point, is to work for an international order in which nations don’t feel the need to develop nuclear weapons in order to deter attack or bullying by powerful opponents. That’s pretty much the direct opposite of the aggressive foreign policy that the US has been waging since pro-war interests have taken charge. But that’s another topic.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Sep 16, 2017

I’m not interested in getting into (yet another) “nuclear vs. renewables” debate. The only issue I have with renewables is the failure by many of its advocates to realistically account for the economic costs of intermittency and the associated environmental costs. But it’s amusing to see “energy independence” raised as an argument for renewables. Virtually all solar panels being installed these days come from China, and the wind turbine industry is dominated by a handful of European companies. Of course, once the resources have been purchased and installed, they do operate independently for a long time. In that sense, they do support a kind of energy independence.

You’re probably right that — at least in the West — nuclear power is slowly fading (not “fainting”) away. Or rather, “old style” nuclear power is doing so. A number of efforts to revive the industry have now fallen flat. However, the field appears ripe for innovation. There are quite a few startups working on new technologies and design approaches. If successful, they will slash costs and lead times.

Many of the startups are American, but working with foreign partners and with foreign governments for licensing approval. They’re more or less forced into that by the dysfunctional bureaucratic regulatory environment in the US. But I can see no basis for predicting that all these efforts will fail. If one or more do succeed, it will change the economic landscape for clean energy.

BTW, thanks for the info regarding Environmental Progress. I did some research, and find Michael Schellenberger’s positions refreshingly lucid. As I suspected, Green’s statement that Environmental Progress warns about Russian “nuclear domination” if the US does not give more support to the nuclear industry is a gross mischaracterization of what Schellenberger has actually said.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Sep 18, 2017

“the economic costs of intermittency”.
French govt institute ADEME did simulation studies to find the optimal solution for French electricity supply in 2050.
They report that 80% renewable deliver the lowest price, and that 100% renewable implies 4%- 5% higher costs.

It we assume that those higher costs are mainly due to the intermittency of wind & solar, and that wind & solar are delivering 50% of the increase from 80% towards 100% renewable then the costs of intermittency are <8% of the costs of wind & solar.

So while not negligible also not very significant.
Earlier studies from German think tank Agora arrived at similar results.

The high storage costs pro-nuclear always note, are mainly because they don't consider the full spectrum of solutions, such as;
– some curtailment of wind & solar;
– adaptation of consumers such as German aluminum smelters who only operate when the whole sale price is low, making good profit while other producers have a hard time
– adaptation of other renewable production such as hydro, biomass.
– grid extension. Agora study found that cheapest also because it has other benefits.
– computer managed (unmanned) Powet-to-Gas plants, operating only when power price is very low, delivering the produced gas for many purposes incl. storage in cheap earth cavities to compensate long winter lulls.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Sep 18, 2017

Furthermore note that nuclear share of the production can only be up to ~50%. Becauses reducing output is extremely costly for NPP’s (also due to fuel poisoning) and consumption easily varies more than 50%….

So nuclear needs highly variable dispatch-able sources for the other 50%, which in practice are fossil or biomass….

I don’t see a low carbon solution for this problem of nuclear?

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Sep 18, 2017

You underestimate the needed knowledge; a country also needs enrichment, etc.
And development must be fast to have a bomb before … takes real actions.
So it helps when there is a nuclear plant where people learn how to handle radiation, enriched uranium, plutonium, and then can start with separation technology, etc.

I share your preferred non-proliferation strategy and agree that US shows that they are far off. Especially considering the 2002 “axis of evil” speeches of US govt. Those stated a.o. that Iraq, Libya and N.Korea are evil states.
And then US invaded Iraq based on a fantasy, killing many and in the end also its leadership. Libya followed….

So N.Korean leaders learned what may happen if they were not successful with their weapons of mass destruction and rockets. So they increased their efforts as it’s literally a matter of life and death for them…

David Gattie's picture
David Gattie on Sep 21, 2017

Yes, I was speaking directly to Green’s article. I’m also in agreement with you on the “nuclear vs. renewables” argument, which is why I posted such a short response. It seems to be a waste of time to discuss this while the 100% renewables-only camp is unwilling to concede any shortcomings in their beliefs–and, as far as my interactions with them have been, they are unwilling to concede any at all. While the technical inadequacies of the 100% RE proposals are troubling enough, the national security implications of the U.S. simply abandoning the civilian nuclear power space altogether are disturbing to say the least. Green and others fail to admit to the geopolitical realities of the world we live in.
And thanks for the link to your article on–it will be very helpful on my end.
Also, I apologize for the delayed response–I’ve been out of town.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Sep 21, 2017

I would expect that germany, when the population would decide it is absolutely neccesary to have a nuclear bomb would nee just a few weeks to build one, with all thinkable knowledge, machines and material readily at hand within the country.
I think the same would apply to italy, even without nuclear power stations in italy. General knowledge is too big in a fully industrialised country not to know how a thermonuclear bomb is to be biult today.
E.g. my colleagues one floor below would know how to do the simulations to proof a design in advance. Although they work not on weapons, but on safety and security topics. but they do their work on very sophisitcated level.
For less industrialised countries bentvels might be right.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 21, 2017

Bravo, Roger. Your comments here present a thoughtful, cogent summary of the status quo on nuclear energy.

I will venture to add one observation after having a comment deleted – author Jim Green represents an organization, “Friends of the Earth”, which is actively campaigning to undo the hard work I and others are doing in California to preserve nuclear’s clean contribution here. So yeah, it gets personal, and I will change the subject before it gets personal again.

Lately I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with an astounding array of experienced nuclear professionals. One MIT nuclear engineer designed his first reactor core the year I was born, and spent years as the head structural designer for GE Nuclear. As an octogenarian, he is currently consulting for DOE on nuclear/ion propulsion systems for space flight.

His take on Gen-4 nuclear and other new designs: it will take at least a decade before we see any prototypes, and that’s not fast enough. He believes dangers we face using the current generation of PWRs (and even those thirty years old) are infinitesimal compared to the danger to humanity from climate change. He speaks with some perspective – as a recreational scuba diver, he has witnessed first-hand the destruction of underwater ecosystems over the last three decades.

Michael Shellenberger agrees, and it’s created somewhat of a rift in the pro-nuke community. Both of them have opened my eyes to the possibility fossil fuel interests are highlighting new designs as a means of abetting the elimination of current ones, in an attempt to doom nuclear to the same Brave New World of renewables – one which has been, and will always be, 20 years in the future.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 21, 2017

Bas, on a recent airplane flight I took my Geiger counter along with me. It’s about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and told me I at a cruising altitude of 36,000 ft I was being exposed to 2.84 µSv/hr.

Imagine my surprise, when I discovered the same level was the maximum level of environmental radiation that day in all of Fukushima Prefecture! That antinuclear activists were panicking about exposing residents to the same level hundreds of thousands are exposed to every day on airplane flights – and think nothing of it.

I suppose your absurd need to compare nuclear energy to human atrocities, to represent it using photos of missiles armed with nuclear warheads, is indicative of the frustration you must be experiencing at its renaissance. But if you want to talk facts about radiation, about exposure, about proliferation, and not empty rhetoric – bring it on. The truth will set you free.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Sep 22, 2017

No, Helmut, the gating factor is not knowledge, but rather access to the fissile material. Germany has no uranium enrichment facilities, and AFAIK, has no stores of weapons grade HEU or plutonium (not counting what’s in US nuclear weapons stationed in the country).

Germany presumably does have access to spent reactor fuel from which it could quickly extract plutonium, if for some reason it felt it really had to. But the extracted plutonium wouldn’t be weapons grade PU 239. It would be heavily contaminated with intensely radioactive PU 240 and heavier isotopes, which make it impossible to use in a military weapon.

The most Germany or anyone else could do with plutonium extracted from spent reactor fuel would be to assemble it into a very low yield “dirty bomb”. Such a bomb could contaminate a city block or two beyond any hope of decontamination. It would also, before detonation, deliver a lethal radiation dose to the team that assembled it and transported it to the target. (It couldn’t be used for a missile warhead, because it would fry the guidance electronics.)

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Sep 22, 2017

Calibrate your geiger counter.
You can easily google studies regarding the extra radiation that crews of long distance flights get, Those are at roughly 2-3mSv/a.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Sep 22, 2017

We in NL have an ultra-centrifuge plant and smaller test facilities which can do the enrichment job (the ultra-centrifuge enrichment technology was developed by Dutch scientists).
It takes some months to create enough weapon grade uranium. It’s a major (I think, insurmountable) stumble block if one wants to develop an atomic bomb within six weeks.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 24, 2017

Bas, no calibration needed. Assuming flight crews spend an average of 1 hr/day at altitude, my measurement – 2.84µSv/hr – would correspond to 2.5mSv/a, the number you easily googled. My Geiger counter appears to be working fine.

Now – residents of Fukushima, according to data collected at 386 stations throughout the prefecture by the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority, are exposed to 1.04 mSv/yr. Meaning: flight crews on commercial flights are exposed to 2-3 times as much radiation as residents of Fukushima Prefecture, site of the horrible nuclear accident which has yet to be blamed for one radiation death. Maybe that’s why.

Data here.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Sep 25, 2017

Germany had uranium enrichment facilites (4200t/year), which are still working (others were closed down), and it has experience snce the 1940’s with enrching uranium. And, most important, manufacurers of enrichment technologoies are based in germany. For scientific purpuses there is all kinds of enriched material in germany, not in the large amounts than in the US for military purposes, but enough.
So germany can start at any time to produce any amount of any enrcihment level you like.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Sep 25, 2017

A good argument – from american point of view. From european point of view, the wind industry is home grown, and the chinese panel industry works with european processes and european machnes. So if there is any problem with module delivery from china, modul dfatories can be built in some months in europe in any scale.
It will become more a problem if the chinese facturies would work with chinese machinery which can not be buit in europe. But this is not (yet) the case, and we try to stay ahead of china in this point.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Sep 25, 2017

There’s a world of difference between an ultracentrifuge used for scientific research and the production centrifuges used for uranium enrichment.

That said, I have no doubt that scientists and engineers in the NL have all the technical knowledge to build a uranium enrichment facility if it became a strategic priority. But even on a crash program, it’s hard to see the process taking less than two years. It would probably be three years from program launch until enough weapons grade HEU had been produced for the first bomb.

All of which is academic. It has nothing to do with either of the two main points. The first is that the capacity to produce weapons grade HEU does not depend on the presence of a civilian nuclear power industry. The second is that the easiest, and most clandestine way for a country to acquire nuclear weapons, if it feels need, is to forget about HEU, and focus on producing weapons grade plutonium from a secret military plutonium breeder reactor.

The bottom line remains: if you want to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons, stop creating the perception of need. for them.

Jim Green's picture
Thank Jim for the Post!
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