Too Dumb to Meter, Epilogue

As the book title Too Dumb to Meter: Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends, and Duds on the U.S. Road to Atomic Energy implies, nuclear power has traveled a rough road. For the conclusion of POWER’s exclusive serialization of the book, we offer the “Epilogue: Some Dumb Ideas Never Die.” The first 12 installments are available in the POWER online archives.

The Manhattan Project was a marvelous engineering success, but only on a limited front. It successfully captured the power of the atom for the purpose of war and mass destruction. Its success blinded postwar policymakers in the mid-twentieth century, who came to believe that big science melded to big government was the path to scientific progress.

The Manhattan Project proved to be a false god. As this book argues, the big-science approach to public science and engineering—the very model of what has come to be known as industrial policy and mimicked around the world—led to feckless, wasteful, needless dead-ends. We poured our wealth into bombers that could never fly, construction projects that could never work, mining and stockpiling fuel that we didn’t need, technologies that never delivered, and waste disposal projects that gave unintended demonstrations of the meaning of the word “waste.” Around it all, we developed an administrative and bureaucratic edifice that distorted our politics and misled our leaders and our people.

The folks who brought us these follies and failures weren’t malefactors by any sensible definition (including the popular villain Edward Teller). With good motives, exceptional educations, broad experience, and true public spirit, they were mostly brilliant. But they were often blinded by their success and pride in their accomplishments. On top of that, there was a pervasive attitude that money didn’t matter in the pursuit of atomic energy. British Energy minister Charles Hendry, in late 2011, summarized things well. Speaking to Britain’s Royal Society, he said that in the postwar period, government energy agencies operated “like an expense account dinner: everybody ordering the most expensive items on the menu, because someone else was paying the bill.”

While we should laud the virtues and many of the fruits of the labor of the leaders of the past, we should also see clearly where they failed and, as best we can discern, why.

Economist Lawrence Summers, adviser to Democrats from Carter to Obama, said recently, in the context of the Obama administration’s failed investment in a dodgy solar energy project, that the government is a “crappy venture capitalist.” That has been true for a very long time.

The spirit, concepts, and hubris flowing from the Manhattan Project have remained with us up to today. Hardly a month has passed without figures in policy and political circles proclaiming loudly, with nary a hint of doubt, that what America or the world needs is a new Manhattan Project to revitalize the economy, save the environment, or stretch our reach into outer space.

That’s just what we don’t need, but some dumb ideas never die.

Fly It

In 2008, a collaboration among the UK aerospace industry, two British universities, and the British government—known as the Omega Project—floated the idea of resurrecting nuclear-powered airplanes.

The need for flying nukes, explained Ian Poll, a professor of aerospace engineering at Cranfield University, flows from the specter of man-made global warming. In a 2008 interview with the Times of London, Poll, a distinguished engineer for many years, said, “We need a design which is not kerosene-powered, and I think nuclear-powered aeroplanes are the answer beyond 2050. The idea was proved fifty years ago, but I accept it would take about thirty years to persuade the public of the need to fly on them.”

Poll’s grasp of history may have been a bit uncertain, given that the idea was never proved, but his vision of the future was firm, if familiar. In his formulation, the atomic airplane—not a bomber this time, since the Cold War ended some twenty years ago, but a passenger vessel—would fly nonstop from London to Sidney or Auckland. There would be zero pollution—under an unstated assumption of no uncontrolled radioactivity.

What about shielding the crew and passengers from the local radiation of the engines? Not a big deal, Poll told the Times. “It’s done on nuclear submarines and could be achieved on aircraft by locating the reactors with the engines out on the wings. The risk of reactors cracking open in a crash could be reduced by jettisoning them before impact and bringing them down with parachutes.” Poll called for a large, government-funded program to develop the new generation of atomic-powered flight.

Poll’s A-plane would have to be large, at least twice the size of a Boeing 747 by several estimates. It would require new airports with new landing strips, and docking stations miles from existing terminals. The trip from the plane to the terminal would seem interminable to many passengers after a long flight.

Because of the local radiation, pilots could only fly for a limited time before exceeding radiation limits. Frequently fliers might also have to limit their flights on the A-planes to avoid exceeding radiation limits. Nuclear passenger planes, says Theodore Rockwell, a veteran radiation expert at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are “not good for anybody.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of Professor Poll’s paranormal vision is that it took place years after Arab terrorists crashed two conventional jet passenger planes into the World Trade Center in New York, demolishing them. In a 2008 article in Scientific American, David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, scratched his head and said, “We’ve been worried since 9/11 about how to protect against bad guys hijacking an aircraft and crashing it into a nuclear power plant upwind of a heavily-populated area. Let’s now put the nuclear reactor in the plane itself, so they can target cities without a nuclear plant upwind?”

Lochbaum called Poll’s idea “a Christmas present for the terrorists of the world.”

Fortunately, Poll’s attempt to revive atomic flight has failed—at least for the time being. The aptly named Omega Project had UK government funding from 2007 to 2009, with a mission of looking at the environmental implications of commercial aviation (Poll posed the notion of atomic flight on his own) and organized by Manchester Metropolitan University. After a series of worthy academic tomes, none of which appear to have had any discernible impact on any field of inquiry, the group quietly passed into the mists of history.

Since then, however, there have been whispers and murmurs about powering the latest, highest-tech war planes—the remotely piloted drones the United States is using widely in the wilds of Pakistan and Afghanistan—with small nuclear reactors. This, of course, gives new meaning to the term “collateral” civilian casualties.

Blow It Up

While the United States abandoned its “peaceful nuclear explosions” ambitions over thirty-five years ago, and the Russian remnants of the Soviet Union seem to have no interest in rearranging the physical landscape with hydrogen bombs, China appears to have big plans for blowing up portions of the Himalayas to reroute a major river system.

Around 2003, China began publicly discussing the idea of rerouting the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries, which begin in Tibet as the Yarlung Tsangpo River and flow into India in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, through territory that is the subject of dispute between India and China, into the Indian state of Assam, and then into Bangladesh. The flood-prone river joins the lower Ganges and empties into the Bay of Bengal through a giant delta. It is one of Asia’s most important, and least polluted, rivers.

For some twenty years, rumors have circulated that China planned to dam the river in Tibet, diverting its flow to China’s desert regions as well as generating electric power for China’s burgeoning industries. China has already built a dozen dams on the river in Tibet, without consulting its downstream neighbors. The rumored concept is that China would divert the flow of the Brahmaputra into China’s Yellow River basin, watering the Chinese desert and impoverishing India and Bangladesh. Many Asian analysts say water will be the key natural resource in the future, defining the course of economic development in the big rivals, China and India.

Indian geopolitical analyst Brahma Chellaney at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi wrote in 2009 that “China is now pursuing major inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects on the Tibetan plateau, which threatens to diminish international river flows into India and other co-riparian states.” Chellaney noted, “As its power grows, China seems determined to choke off Asian competitors, a tendency reflected in its hardening stance toward India…Water is becoming a key security issue in Sino-Indian relations and a potential source of enduring discord.”

Over the years, China consistently denied that it had any intention of building new dams on the Brahmaputra in Tibet. But, faced with satellite photos taken in late 2009 showing construction activities, the Chinese in October 2010 admitted they are building dams, including a 510 MW hydro project, with plans for four more. The Economic Times of India reported, “There have been reports that these projects are the beginning of a much bigger plan by China to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra to feed its parched northeast, an ambitious and technically challenging plan, called the Western Canal, that many Chinese reports say will be completed by 2050.”

While running only some three hundred kilometers, the Western Canal would present daunting technical, geological, and environmental issues. Building the canal would require blasting out tunnels and aqueducts at high altitudes and subzero temperatures. A 2006 estimate put the cost of the Western Canal at some $37.5 billion, compared to the $25 billion needed to build the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. China has officially denied plans to divert the river. In late 2009, China told the Indian government that reports of the diversion are not “consistent with facts.” Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna told Parliament during a questioning period in April 2010, “In November 2009, the foreign ministry of China clarified that China is a responsible country and would never do anything to undermine any other country’s interests.” This statement produced amusement among China mavens, noting that China has unilaterally seized Tibet and taken land from India over the years.

Chinese documents undercut the denials. A 2005 book, Tibet’s Waters Will Save China, argues in favor of diverting Tibet’s rivers from India to China. New Delhi’s Chellaney observes, “Diversion of the Brahmaputra’s water to the parched Yellow River is an idea that China does not discuss in public, because the project implies environmental devastation of India’s northeastern plains and eastern Bangladesh, and would thus be akin to a declaration of water war on India and Bangladesh.”

The Chinese apparently believe that nuclear geo-engineering would help overcome the technical obstacles to the Brahmaputra project. According to Chellaney, “Chinese desire to divert the Brahmaputra by employing ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ to build an underground tunnel through the Himalayas found expression in the international negotiations in Geneva in the mid-1990s on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China sought unsuccessfully to exempt ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ from the CTBT, a pact still not in force.”

Under its current leadership, China has emerged as more truculent and triumphalist in its relations with other countries. George Washington University’s China scholar, David Shambaugh, has described China as “an increasingly narrow-minded, self-interested, truculent, hyper-nationalist and powerful country.”

Leading China’s ambitious plans to drain Tibet for the benefit of the ethnic Chinese regions are party chief and state president Hu Jintao and prime minister Wen Jiabao. Hu, who is scheduled to turn power over to a new generation of Chinese communist leaders within the next year or so, is particularly identified with the project to use nuclear bombs to dewater Tibet. [Editor: Hu turned over his positions as general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission to Xi Jinping on Nov. 15, 2012.] He is a hydro engineer, long a traditional occupation among Chinese leaders, and a former governor of what China calls the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but which much of the rest of the world regards as conquered Tibet, brought under Chinese control in 1949 and strengthened in 1959, when Tibetan patriots spirited the young Dalai Lama out of the country and into India, where he has led a government in exile.

Wen is a geologist by training, and has a long association with Chinese government projects involving geology and hydro development, including the Three Gorges Dam.

Will China continue with its still undisclosed plans to use “peaceful nuclear explosions” to divert the Brahmaputra River system from its not-entirely-friendly neighbors of India and Bangladesh to water arid Chinese lands? That question is open, and the emergence of Xi Jinping as the likely successor to Hu in 2012 could soften Chinese geo-engineering plans. Fifty-seven-year-old Xi is a lawyer by education, a Marxist theorist, and a veteran bureaucrat. He’s often portrayed as a softer figure than either Hu or Wen, although there is little tangible evidence for this view. But the persistence of rumors of a Chinese plan to use nukes to rearrange the earth verifies the observation that dumb ideas die hard.

Breed It

Breeder reactor enthusiasts have always been possessed of a sort of religious fervor. Maybe it’s an engineering thing. Engineers seem to venerate efficiency, even when it isn’t economically efficient, so the thought of leaving unused energy behind in spent nuclear fuel rubs a lot of nuclear power advocates against the grain.

The notion that conventional nuclear power might be leaving a lot of energy on the table—or buried in a desert somewhere—has motivated a significant number of nuclear advocates to hew to breeder reactors and reprocessing: no matter what. So the death of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor didn’t represent the interment of the cult of breeders and plutonium reprocessing.

Not long after the nuclear devastation in Japan following an enormous earthquake and tsunami, an official of the World Nuclear Association in London (the spawn of the uranium cartel) was arguing that the events at Fukushima made the case for closing the fuel cycle. Steve Kidd’s reasoning was that because the spent fuel pools at Fukushima were damaged, it would be a good idea to empty them into plutonium reprocessing facilities. But, even if reprocessing were in place—as it is in Japan—those spent fuel pools would have been full of waste, waiting for reprocessing. Never mind.

Kidd even argued, rather astonishingly, that the Fukushima aftermath demonstrated that “the United States is gradually moving away, it seems, from a clear preference for the ‘once through’ nuclear fuel cycle, with the termination of the Yucca Mountain repository project.” Only a true believer could see that vision. Rather, the United States is clearly moving toward permanent, at-reactor storage in large, dry casks.

The Bush administration, late in its eight-year run in Washington, tried to revive reprocessing and breeder reactors, through an ill-designed and ill-fated Global Nuclear Energy Partnership aimed at building a multi-national program to supply the world with new reactors fueled with mixed plutonium and uranium from first-world reactors. It didn’t survive the laugh test.

Salt It Away

With Yucca Mountain’s waste dump program shut, those who continue to push for burying the byproducts of the U.S. nuclear endeavor were once again looking kindly on salt deposits. In particular, they are looking at a site near Carlsbad, New Mexico, where a small, test project has been storing wastes from the nuclear weapons program for over a decade. It’s known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or WIPP.

When President Obama pronounced his death sentence on an already senescent Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project in 2009, he attempted to soften the blow a bit with a classic Washington ploy. He announced appointment of a committee of credentialed and experienced insiders to advise him where to look next for nuclear waste disposal. These sorts of actions—political window dressing—seldom result in concrete results, but are popular among the pols nonetheless.

Out of either naïveté or a sense of humor, Obama named—what Washington has long-termed “blue ribbon panels,” to denote their putative quality—the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The commission was part of a compromise between Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, the most dedicated opponent of Yucca Mountain in Congress, and the administration. Reid wanted a congressionally-appointed commission to scope out what should come next in waste disposal, but the administration wanted more control. In March 2009, Reid and Energy secretary Steven Chu agreed to a White House–named panel, which the administration announced in January 2010. The chairman of the panel was former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana. Concluding that “[a] new strategy is needed,” the commission laid out its views in July 2011, and was unable to come up with anything new. Acknowledging that Screw Nevada had failed, the commission called for new legislation and a new arrangement of the waste management deck chairs at the Department of Energy, to administer a consent-based approach, rather than the political coercion that characterized the 1987 law. The commission said the approach taken to siting the small New Mexico test for disposing of transuranics could be a model for the future.

More explicitly, some in DOE have been focusing on expansion of WIPP for disposing of used civilian reactor fuel. The trade newsletter Energy Daily reported in early 2011 that “Energy Department officials, as well as some governors and lawmakers, are warming to the idea of trying to bury some of the nation’s high-level waste at DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.”

But there are serious technical obstacles to turning the much smaller WIPP salt-based storage site into a final spent fuel repository. Two Albuquerque, New Mexico, experts—Christopher Timm and Jerry Fox—discussed some of the limits to using WIPP in a September 2011 paper for Nuclear Energy International magazine. They also noted that the original decision to build the project created a considerable political uproar, including opposition by the local congressman, several lawsuits, and a twenty-year delay in the project while it could be restructured and reduced in size to meet local political objections.

Despite the failure of the 1986 law, former journalist Luther Carter, along with DOE waste program veteran Lake Barrett and former NRC commissioner Kenneth Rogers, were pushing for resurrection of the Nevada site. In a fall 2010 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, the three lobbied the Obama commission to spit in the face of its creators and support continued development of Yucca Mountain. They argued, “Surely this is not the time to abandon the only currently viable option for very long-term geologic retrievable storage of spent fuel, and possibly final disposal.”

It should come as no surprise that the commission deliberately refused to take this action, instead issuing a typically anodyne report advocating unspecified changes to make things right. In the meantime, the nuclear regulators have repeatedly judged that it is safe to store spent reactor fuel above the ground and at the site of the operating reactor. That will be the default position on minding the nation’s used nuclear fuel, and there appears to be no reason why it won’t continue for as long as anyone can predict.

Note to readers: If you wish to learn about the sources for this book, please connect to the web site, where you will find a bibliography and chapter source notes. The web site also includes a bonus chapter on the cons and frauds that have surrounded the quest for fusion energy, a picture gallery with images of many of the people, places, and things mentioned in the book, and the Too Dumb Film Festival, five YouTube videos related to the five sections of the book.

Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER. Too Dumb to Meter is available from the POWER Bookstore or and is serialized by permission.