Smoking gun part 26 – Coal lobbies versus National Reactor Testing Station

Proving the Principle provides some wonderful and inspiring stories about the days when the United States had a place where atomic tinkerers could explore new ideas and test those ideas with real reactors and real materials. It also provides some insights about the economically and politically motivated reasons that a place with those characteristics no longer exists in the US. It now takes about a dozen or more years to move from initial concept to an operating reactor; at the National Reactor Testing Station, 52 different reactors were built and operated in the period between 1949 and 1970.

Proving the Principle is a history of the Idaho National Laboratory, written in 1999 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the facility that was, at the time named the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). Here is a quote from the author’s introduction.

“What did they actually do there?” This question has come my way frequently while researching and writing this history. Idahoans seem to have a sense of continuity with their mining and timber roots, their agricultural heritage, and the great themes of the West—Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail, Reclamation. But when it comes to their nuclear heritage, connections seem vague. The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) was set up deliberately in a remote area. Fifty years later, it still is remote, in more ways than one.

I found a fascinating, smoking gun-quality, story at the beginning of Chapter 19.

Between 1965 and 1970, utility companies in the United States ordered a hundred nuclear power plants—all of them moderated and cooled by water. Shaw and the others felt that the torch had passed to industry, and water-moderated reactors should no longer require federally subsidized research1.

The national coal lobby had objected for years that Congress subsidized nuclear power. Congress was unfair, it said, to displace coal plants by financing the research that would make commercial nuclear power possible. The lobby had protested the AEC’s reactor demonstration program. It objected to federal insurance subsidies for utility companies in the event of a nuclear accident2.

The AEC and the JCAE were in a position, therefore, in 1964 to make a concession to the coal industry while at the same time advancing to the next level of the nuclear future, which was to bring liquid-metal-cooled fast-breeder reactors to the commercial market. It could conclude research on water-cooled concepts.

Ideas about the world’s reserves of uranium were still driving reactor development ideas. The global wave of new nuclear power plants would consume more and more uranium, probably depleting it if the demand for energy continued to grow. Water-moderated reactors used uranium extremely inefficiently. Of the uranium in a reactor core, a typical commercial reactor burned about one percent, perhaps a little more. The rest of the uranium—the unfissioned U-235 and the U-238—could be recycled at great expense or discarded as a contaminated waste. A breeder, on the other hand, could produce something valuable—plutonium fuel—out of U-238 and thus convert it into an energy source. The breeder could use nearly all of the uranium. Besides, breeders had the potential of burning up a higher percentage of the fuel to begin with3.

Therefore, Shaw and the AEC shifted their resources to the breeder. Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel laureate chemist who, as part of the Manhattan Project, had made the world’s first plutonium, became chairman of the AEC in 1961. Seaborg was completely committed to the “plutonium economy” of the breeder reactor. He told President Kennedy in 1962 that the way for the United States to maintain nuclear reactor technological preeminence in the world was to perfect the breeder reactor as a safe and commercially viable source of energy. He even suggested that plutonium would eventually replace gold as the standard of the monetary system4.

Washington politics favored the AEC’s new focus on the breeder. But many safety and engineering questions still remained to be solved if breeder reactors were to scale-up to commercial proportions. Physics and chemistry questions remained. As a more distant achievement, therefore, the breeder represented less of a threat to the coal industry and their opposition evaporated. The breeder research program would take many more years.5

(Emphasis added.)

It is obvious to me from the history of both the Clinch River Breeder Reactor and the Integral Fast Reactor that the hydrocarbon (coal and natural gas) lobbies never lost track of their recognition that nuclear energy was an existential threat to their profitable enterprises. Whenever the “distant achievement” of a sustainable, affordable, abundant nuclear energy technology seemed to be getting close, they worked their friends in Congress and in various Administrations to move the goal.

Once again, Lucy moves the football

Once again, Lucy moves the football

Every time I read more about this continuing saga, I am reminded of the classic, often repeated “Peanuts” cartoon where Lucy is holding a football for Charlie Brown to kick. Every time Charlie Brown attempts to kick the ball, Lucy pulls it out of his way and Charlie Brown falls flat on his back. The sadly amusing part of that cartoon is that Lucy continues to reassure Charlie and convince him that it will be different the next time that he tries to kick, and Charlie keeps believing the lie and ending up flat on his back.

I never liked the “Peanuts” series. As a kid, I could never understand why Charlie Brown didn’t simply tell Lucy to take a hike and find someone else to be his place holder.

The analogy with nuclear engineers and scientists is that we need to recognize that the federal government is hugely influenced by a powerful lobby that has no desire to be replaced. Though sold with a completely different cover story, the Department of Energy was established from the start to more firmly establish coal, oil and gas as the primary energy sources.

Take a hard look at the amount of money that is being spent to build demonstration carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects and compare it to the piddling amount of money that the House of Representatives included for small modular reactor licensing support. Even that pittance of well under $100 million was removed from the Senate version of the bill. Look at the way that the Senate is trying to redirect any nuclear energy money into “safety and security” for a power system that already has the best safety record and highest security posture of any part of our entire industrial infrastructure.

There is a reason why there is so much federal taxpayer money available for wind, solar, geothermal, fusion and any other hair-brained scheme except nuclear fission. Fission reliably takes market share from fossil fuel. That is its primary strength for most of us, but its primary downfall in the eyes of the establishment. Nukes need to understand that the federal government is the Lucy in this story; it will never be the source of the resources that will enable nuclear to take market share from fossil fuel. We must stop being the gullible Charlie Brown and find ourselves some other place holders.

Fortunately, the federal government is not the only source of cash for a energy investments that yield real returns. Heck, the federal government is mostly broke anyway.


Notes:

1. (FARET canceled) “AEC Kills Argonne’s FARET in favor of Fast Flux Test Facility,” Nucleonics Week (December 2, 1965).
2. Holl, Anders, Buck, Civilian Nuclear Policy, 6. The Price-Anderson amendment to the Atomic Energy Act capped the coverage for a nuclear accident at $560 million. The government supplied $500 million of the insurance at a nominal cost, while private companies supplied the remaining $60 million at standard rates.
3. See EBR-II Since 1984, p. 26-29 for operating data on EBR-II reactor. According to Richard Lindsay, a water cooled reactor can make plutonium, but not with enough efficiency to make recycling economic for more than about one recycle.
4. William Lanouette, “Dream Machine,” Atlantic Monthly (April 1983): 45.
5. There were several types of breeders. Using combinations of uranium and thorium, the concepts had in common the conversion of otherwise useless metals into new fissionable fuel. See Lanouette, “Dream Machine,” 36.

About Rod Adams

24 Responses to “Smoking gun part 26 – Coal lobbies versus National Reactor Testing Station”

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  1. Wayne SW says:

    So, who would you suggest as possible placeholders? I have to tell you that in my experience (going on 32 years in the business), there are two primary sources of funding for research programs with the chops to yield tangible results: the feds, or private industry. Of these, when I have approached various elements in private industry with any number of ideas for evolutionary or revolutionary reactor systems, the answer I get is, “it isn’t our job to fund R&D of this sort, try DoE”. Lately, when I have gone to DoE for SBIR funding, the answers are much like “you should get industry to fund this”. IOW, the players who might assume the role of placeholder are fairly limited in number, and of those, Lucy is one.

    • Brian Mays says:

      Wayne – There are two problems here.

      First, Congress is responsible for the budget of various DoE programs. Thus, you get the inefficient up-down-up-down funding that can never run a long-term project very well. (Just look at Yucca Mountain.) The yearly cycle is inefficient as well. If you are familiar with government programs, you must know about the spending splurges in September (the end of the government fiscal year) as money is literally wasted so that programs can demonstrate that they have spent their budget, for otherwise their budgets may very will be cut in future years.

      Next, the DoE is rather incompetent in the way it goes about its business. They are horrible in distinguishing the difference between private companies that are actually hoping to build something and private companies that only want to produce paper — i.e., impressive-looking reports. Since much of the DoE’s R&D work is producing reports, they tend to favor the latter.

      Many years ago, several oil companies were interested in exploring using nuclear reactors to reduce the cost of energy required for extracting oil, particularly in remote locations. So they teamed up with the DoE and reactor vendors to look into this possibility. Of course, I’m sure that you realize that this would have meant a huge potential for tapping private capital that actually would have built something. The technology and experience that resulted would have naturally spilled over into the electricity generation sector and other industrial sectors as well. Unfortunately, however, the DoE was so slow to move and so incompetent at managing the work that the oil companies left disheartened. Every now and then, this idea pops up again, but the oil companies, remembering their previous experience with DoE nuclear research, are now hard customers to sell on the idea.

  2. Jeff S says:

    “I never liked the “Peanuts” series. As a kid, I could never understand why Charlie Brown didn’t simply tell Lucy to take a hike and find someone else to be his place holder.”

    You were apparently a nicer kid than me. What I never understood is why CB didn’t start kicking Lucy instead of the Ball. “Oh, totally sorry Lucy. Slipped on the grass. Complete mistake. Let’s try it again. You put the ball down, and I’ll kick.”

    Turn it around on her. *grin*

  3. Jeff S says:

    “Take a hard look at the amount of money that is being spent to build demonstration carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects”

    I’m a cheerleader for those programs. Why? Because if CCS is proven as a technology, then at that point, logically, Coal plants should be *required by law* to all incorporate the CCS tech. Under the same principle which requires many very expensive, multiple levels of containment for nuclear which has so driven up the costs of nuclear (so that at the beginning of the nuclear age, a plant could be built for a few hundred million, but by the 1980′s was costing a few billion).

    If Coal is thus held to the same standard of environmental protection as nuclear, all the cost advantages of coal will go away, and all that will be left is something which costs as much for the plants, costs far more for the fuel, and for which the mining processes do far more environmental damage than uranium or thorium mining ever will.

    Nuclear can compete very favorably against CCS coal plants, as far as I’m told, so let’s get the CCS tech proven, then made a legal mandate for the coal industry. Turn about is fair play, I think the saying goes.

  4. Rod Adams says:

    Jeff – I like cheap energy. I would much prefer for nukes to meet the standards of safety and security that have already been established as acceptable for coal, oil, and natural gas.

    • James Greenidge says:

      “Rod Afams”;

      You have it totally in reverse. If the coal and oil and gas industries met nuclear’s safety record in production and public health there would’ve been tens of thousands workers spared and millions less lung and skin afflictions. What would be “acceptable” in this case? You’d have to shut every oil and coal and gas installation clear to gas stations and your kitchen range down!

      James Greenidge
      Queens NY

      • Rod Adams says:

        James – if oil and gas had to meet nuclear’s requirements, we would all be walking and either sweating or shivering. The large numbers for health effects pale in comparison to the shorter lives and meaner existence that all but the very rich would be living.

  5. Daniel says:

    The carbon tax will be the key for coal plants to convert to nuclear. Oddly, a GOP creature will be used by the dems. The GOP have grown to distance themselves from the carbon tax.

  6. Jim Holm says:

    My response to this situation is the “Proof-of-Performance” Reactor Prototype” mounted on an ocean-going barge” located at the bottom of my web site’s first page.

    America has turned into an Ayn Rand novel.

  7. Can someone explain the difference between the 1960s plutonium breeder fast reactors and the Intergral Fast Reactor now?

    My understanding of the “We Almost Lost Detroit” kind of breeder is that they are very difficult to control.

    • Atomikrabbit says:

      The delayed neutron fraction (beta bar effective) from the fission product decay chain of Pu-239 is smaller than that of U-235 or fast fission of U-238, so reactor startup rate can be faster and the margin to prompt critical smaller.

      This does not make it less controllable though, just different design considerations.

      If you read the Fermi scare book, now read this, from a guy who was there:
      http://tinyurl.com/3qdg5ue

  8. donb says:

    Rod Adams wrote:
    Fortunately, the federal government is not the only source of cash for a energy investments that yield real returns. Heck, the federal government is mostly broke anyway.

    Unfortunately, broke or not, the federal government through the NRC still sets the rules. About a year ago (IIRC) the Department of Energy was soliciting vendors to build their first-of-a-kind reactors at the DOE site at Savannah River. As soon as the NRC got wind of it, they said, “Oh no you don’t. You have to come through us first.” As Rod Adams noted, “National Reactor Testing Station, 52 different reactors were built and operated in the period between 1949 and 1970.” That is more than two different reactors per year! Until the rules of the game are changed, don’t expect even two different reactors per decade to be built, especially if they are cooled by something other than pressurized water or run on something other than enriched uranium.

    • Daniel says:

      This is why Sen Domenici said that the French had 2 reactor models and 50 different sort of cheeses while the US had 2 sort of cheese and 50 reactor models. I think we should go the French way from now on. (economies of scale and labor mobility and costs)

      • donb says:

        The problem is, over the last 30+ years of NRC regulation we have gone from 50 reactor models to zero, as far as what has been built. (I am happy to see we have gone from 2 different sorts of cheese to 50.)

        While we probably should not have 50 reactor models in the commercial market, we should have a goodly number of prototypes operating at (say) Savannah River to see what the future might hold. Instead we have the NRC throwing a hissy fit, saying that if they don’t approve it (on their own good time when they get around to it, of course), it cannot possibly be safe and therefore must not be built anywhere.

        • Daniel says:

          Regulations can do wonders to make you loose your competitive edge. California has taken giant leaps in terms of wine production of great diversity and quality.

          France, with its regulation and ‘apellations controlées’ is sinking fast with increasing inventories, work conflicts and barriers to outsiders to enter the french market and compete.

          As for cheese, I still vote for France.

        • Brian Mays says:

          Funny, the French have about 4 reactor models and much more than 50 varieties of cheese.

          I should know. I used to live there.

        • Daniel says:

          Sen Domeneci was using bigger numbers, but I did not want to start hyperboling again !!!

          No floating jabs on this board again.

  9. James Greenidge says:

    You know, this nuclear blog and the nuclear carnival are great, but we still lack a nuclear media “S.W.A.T.” corrections force to pounce on the first fear-laden off-the-wall speculations of any nuclear incident, like rampant ones on Times and Fox blogs over this French accident. Mako was already making his rounds on TV! Where or Who’s his counterpart and why aren’t he or she picking up the Batphone??

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  10. Jeff S says:

    “You know, this nuclear blog and the nuclear carnival are great, but we still lack a nuclear media “S.W.A.T.” corrections force to pounce on the first fear-laden off-the-wall speculations of any nuclear incident,”

    I appreciate this idea, but I think there’s one fundamental problem, to some extent:

    You can be wrong *very quickly*, but it takes time to be correct. That is, if you actually care about the TRUTH, you have to wait until you actually know what has happened. The alarmists who don’t care about the truth can state lies within seconds, which you can’t really ‘disprove’ until enough time has passed for the facts to come out fully.

    The best you can do is try to inform people that there is simply not enough information yet to substantiate the early wild claims being made by nuclear alarmists.

    • John Englert says:

      if you actually care about the TRUTH, you have to wait until you actually know what has happened.

      Your correct, unfortunately for the Japanese government and TEPCO officials their desire to get the correct information while also managing a major natural disaster was interpreted as telling lies and engaging in a coverup.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Jeff S – You are correct and fortunately not the only one who has noticed the need.

      We are not making progress as fast as some would like, but we are making some progress. For example, yesterday, the ANS Nuclear Cafe posted an article explaining the event at the material recycling facility in France.

      http://ansnuclearcafe.org/2011/09/12/explosion-at-french-furnace-used-to-melt-llw/

      That post was up before 2:00 pm. I happen to know that several major news sources follow the RSS feed from that blog and lurk on an email list of nuclear experts who had engaged in the discussion that resulted in the post.

      Though it is important to be correct, it is also important to share as much information as possible quickly so that you do not have to be ponderous about making a call. If you are able to provide good information nearly as quickly as those who lie and provide crap that is proven to be false, you can gain a great deal of credibility and visibility.

      You might even start changing a few minds and helping people to understand the nature of the opposition to nuclear energy. I remain convinced that you have to be ignorant to remain afraid of nuclear energy and that a large, powerful establishment has worked for many years to enforce ignorance among the population. They have not really understood that they are losing their grip on information distribution in the current era of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other forms of widespread, readily available, repeatable information.

      • Rod Adams says:

        Here is a link to a decent and accurate article about the explosion in the incinerator in France from the NY Times. Note the fact that the authors did not bother to get quotes from UCS, Beyond Nuclear, or NRDC.

        http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/world/europe/13france.html

      • Joel Riddle says:

        Rod,

        Regarding your comment “powerful establishment has worked for many years to enforce ignorance among the population”:

        I would add that to an extent ignorance has been perpetuated by the nuclear establishment itself. There is a level of prestige or pride that could be derived by being able to understand a “difficult subject” like nuclear energy. In reality, though, understanding fission and nuclear power production from a not-too-detailed perspective is NOT all that difficult.

        Historically, the nuclear “establishment” hasn’t done anywhere near enough to give “Average Joe” any confidence that he could understand fission or nuclear power production. This is something that should be changed.

        On a personal level, a big reason I dismissed nuclear engineering as being my chosen discipline to study (despite that I could have gotten $2,000/yr more scholarship money) and instead selected mechanical engineering was because of the number of times I heard that nuclear engineering was so difficult.

        “Nuclear people” need to keep shifting more towards encouraging “Average Joe” that fission and nuclear power production is not some mystical thing that requires an IQ over 150 to understand, because frankly, it isn’t.

        • James Greenidge says:

          It’s amazing how the media is snickering at France calling this an industrial accident which is exactly what it is. Just had to get a dig in that it’s dark baddie nuclear _somehow_, but wonder how many oil and gas worker fatalties got reported this month!
          You know, I’d really like to see a kind of “media psychological” analysis of why the greater media just has it in for anything nuclear to the extent they’ll warp and exaggerate the reality and facts and aid and and abet disinformation to the extent that they’d be appalled if someone did same to any other issue. Why exactly are they so anti-nuke upstairs despite nuclear power’s long unreal safety and health record — INCLUDING accidents? Why aren’t they put on the carpet for willfully disinforming the public so? Where does the hate come from?? Is it that the moral crusaders media wants to punish and banish the dragon of nuclear energy for the (supposedly) ultra-different ultra-evil thing it did at Hiroshima or there’s a deep-seeded ignorance and laziness to learn or what? Why are people so willing to swallow the idea that enough radiation will turn tadpoles into Godzilla while turning the channel on how downwind smokestack emissions from coal is like a drag of one cigerette per week, man or child? It doesn’t help when pop culture drives the same anti-nuke highway either; I remember watching “The Thing” (the 1950′s original sci-fi) and there was a scene where the scientist proclaims “science’s done great things! Sent rockets into space! We’ve split the atom!” and a nearby reporter snickers “Yea, that sure helped the world!”. I mean, it’s AMAZING to me how NASA will cluck that some probes are solar powered but acts like “The Scarlet Letter” hardly mentioning some probes are nuclear powered — even hastily shoehorning some nuclear probes into solar ones to look more “people friendly” like with this latest Jupiter probe. Ridiculous! Just what is this big stain that’s been attached to nuclear energy? I’d like to see more investigation into “The Stain” which can be revealed to the public of how unreasonably biased their priniciple source into the world comes from.

          James Greenidge
          Queens NY