Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, July 30, 2007

"Too hot to handle? The future of civil nuclear power - a review," July 30, 2007.

If we have learned anything at all from the past it is that the issue is not what you think about nuclear power. The issue is where you are going to go for reliable information so that you can decide what you think about nuclear power.

Back in the 1950s Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder spent an iconic time in a couple of the last fire lookouts of the Cascades Mountains along the upper reaches of the Skagit River and just south of the Canadian border near Hope.

In David Burner's words, “Snyder represented a cultural movement that distrusted modern technology, practiced simple crafts, and thought to return to fundamental impulses of the body and compositions of nature.”

By contrast, Kerouac's characters glimpsed the world in passing, with a restless spontaneity which they “expressed and gratified with the very considerable and unabashed aid of modern technology.”

Kerouac sought to find his place in post-war America, but eventually came to reject the values and social norms of the Fifties.

Regarding the counter-culture, he argued the lifestyle position. Politics would, he believed, carry on pretty much as usual, but the counter-cultural change then underway would mean that people in the White House would wear sandals and sit on the floor.

Snyder, on the other hand, was a serious student of Zen. He meditated an hour or more a day and pursued simplicity and compassion in his life.

The post-war crisis as he saw it was global. 15 years later he wrote that nothing short of a total transformation would make much difference.

To say that climate change and nuclear terrorism were serious issues even in those days is not to attribute the gift of prophecy to either Snyder or Kerouac.

On the contrary, it is to identify another instance of media failure. For the American street, climate change resulting from excessive use of hydrocarbons to produce energy was the primary reason why the emerging environmental movement embraced energy as one of its core issues.

The anti-nuclear branch of the environmental movement regularly warned against the threat of nuclear terrorism. Nuclear power plants were for the terrorist what honey is for the bear—an irresistible feast.

Greenpeace is an organization whose charismatic name has testified from its inception to a fundamental unity in the peace and environmental issues.

In January 2003, more than 30 anti-nuclear protesters used ropes, ladders and wire-cutters to break into the central control building of the Sizewell B nuclear power station in eastern England.
But this was not the first action of its kind.

Nuclear and large-scale hydroelectric plants have been targets of nonviolent terrorism demonstration actions by Greenpeace and other environmental groups for decades.

The changing of the times has brought some analytical changes, too. For example, terrorism and our very slowly evolving understanding of it suggests that terrorists invent faster than analysts analyze. So the bear and honey metaphor breaks down because the bear seems to be a creature lacking restraint and discipline. Not so the terrorist.

To change the metaphor, then, to a terrorist, nuclear plants represent not so much an irresistible feast as an ace in the hole—or as we shall see maybe even a Jack or a Queen.

A second cluster of analytical changes has occurred around climate change. The Club of Rome limits-to-growth model has given way to peak oil as a more accurate view of the depletion process. The use of hydrocarbons for the production of nitrogen fertilizers is now understood to be of much greater significance than was formerly believed. And today even the March 12th edition of Sports Illustrated proclaims, "climate change is not coming; it is here.“

Climate change is ready for the big leagues.

While the mainstream media were debating the trumped up issue of whether climate change was a real policy issue or not, a version of Kerouac vs Snyder was being played out in the wings.

On the Snyder side, were deep ecologists and others making changes in their lives that went far deeper than style in a quest for the fundamental transformation.

On the Kerouac side consumer advocates called on the invisible hand of the market to provide a new generation of purchasable green technology.

For those of us on the low-budget end, salvation presumably lies in the changing of light bulbs from traditional incandescents to the new micro-fluorescents. For the big-spenders, the newest gadgets are third- and fourth generation nuclear power plants—once promoted in the 70s as sources of "renewable" energy.

Climate change and nuclear terrorism were issues during the first energy crisis of the 1970s too, but the political elite and its colleagues in the media didn't want to hear about them. Few were prepared to believe that a civil nuclear programme could be used to develop nuclear weapons despite clear evidence from India, probable evidence from Israel—and the historic experience of every nuclear-weapons state. Commercial nuclear power stations weren't necessary, but they sure helped.

Today, what nuclear dreamers herald as a “nuclear renaissance” is driven by concern about the security of energy supplies and by climate change.

After a thirty or forty year delay by the gullible press, the floor is now open for debate about whether or not nuclear power can rescue us from climate change.

If we have learned anything at all from the past it is that the issue is not what you think about nuclear power. The issue is where you are going to go for reliable information so that you can decide what you think about nuclear power.

It is in this context that the Oxford Research Group's new briefing paper “Too hot to handle? The future of civil nuclear power” is most useful.

The ORG's so-called Oxford Process brings together senior government decision makers with experts in military strategy, political affairs, and international relations to explore the non-military resolution of global conflict.

Dr. Frank Barnaby, the lead author of “Too hot to handle?” is a nuclear physicist by training. He worked at the UK's Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in the 50s, served as the Executive Secretary of the Pugwash Conferences during the late 60s and as Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) between 1971 and 1981.

His co-author, James Kemp is a Research Associate who coordinates ORG's Secure Energy project. He has done research and engaged decision makers on nuclear terrorism, EU Security and Defence Policy, government subsidies to UK arms exporters, and government expenditure on conflict prevention, among other things.

They are neither as witty nor as abrasive as Helen Caldicott. Their conclusions are perhaps less predictable than those of Gordon Edwards to mention just two writers who may be familiar to Canadian readers.

Those who are new to the nuclear issue may find the text a little more demanding and a bit too neutral for their tastes. There is no glossary. Nor are there explanations of what goes on, for instance, during uranium enrichment or how the Canadian CANDU differs from a pressurized water reactor. If you are a little fuzzy about why you should be concerned about fissile material, "Too hot to handle" won't help.

But then “Too hot to handle?” is not a technical paper, and for some readers that will be a big relief.

Barnaby and Kemp do outline a basic set of concerns--arguments and counterarguments—regarding climate change, nuclear terrorism, proliferation, and the shortcomings of the proposed “nuclear renaissance.”

Their conclusions and the general shape of their arguments are clear enough. A worldwide nuclear renaissance, they say, is beyond the capacity of the nuclear industry to deliver.

Even if it were not, the construction of 2000 to 2500 new power reactors worldwide between now and 2075 would stretch the International Atomic Energy Agency's monitoring and safeguarding capacity to the breaking point.

The central question posed by this study is whether, in the 21st century, the security risks associated with civil nuclear power can be managed or not. The answer, in the words of David Howarth, the UK Liberal Democrat's energy critic, who has written a useful introduction, is that "Nuclear power is ... the only form of electricity production that in itself poses a threat to international peace and domestic security.” (Forward Jun 07).

According to the IAEA, within 30-40 years, the civil nuclear programs—including competent nuclear physicists and engineers--of about 30 currently non-nuclear weapons countries will produce enough fissile materials that they could design and build their own nuclear weapons in a matter of months rather than years.

Barnaby and Kemp believe that Even a small increase in electricity generation by nuclear power “would have serious consequences for the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that do not now have them and for nuclear terrorism.”

Even though the focus of this paper is mainly British, we do learn about a new design of CANDU reactor. We also learn about concerns associated with declining quality of uranium ore and CO2 emissions associated with the whole fuel cycle.

The authors cite a study that directly addresses claims like that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's that nuclear power is “emission-free.”

They cite an analysis of the full cycle J. W. S van Leeuwen and P. Smith (2005) indicating that emissions from ore processing, construction and decommissioning are significantly higher than is claimed by other official sources. (10)

When Kemp and Barnaby talk about nuclear terrorism, they are not just talking about dirty bombs (aka Radiation Dispersion Devices). Although they do discuss RDDs and terrorist attacks on nuclear power stations like Sizewell B, the new emphasis which they bring to the discussion concerns the eventual possession of actual fission explosives by non-state actors like Al-Qaeda, an eventuality which, as they point out, is “receiving very little attention.”

An appropriately skilled terrorist group could design and build a crude nuclear device with enough explosive power to completely devastate the centre of a large city. That's an ace in the hole that would make the occupation of a power plant seem relatively benign.

Even a failed terrorist attack on one of the first new plants under construction as part of the “nuclear renaissance” would probably halt construction in many countries. Valuable time would be lost developing a revised energy policy excluded nuclear energy. The time to exclude nuclear, they argue, is now.

Who will prevail? The descendents of Synder? Or of Kerouac? In either case, Barnaby and Kemp—and the Oxford Research Group are one good place to gather information along the way.

Digg This

Recommend this Post

Sphere: Related Content


James Aach said...

You might find this another interesting resource on nuclear energy - "Rad Decision" is a novel that covers all the necessary ground about the technology, the politics and the people of nuclear power (in the US), written by an longtime nuclear worker. I like to think the insider's viewpoint has some validity (particularly if they're not working as a paid spokesman). See