Transcript of Atomic Show #61 – Allison Macfarlane, Atomic Agnostic (June 15, 2007)

On June 13, 2012, Allison Macfarlane will be a witness in her confirmation hearing as a new commissioner and the prospective Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Commissioner Kristine Svinicki will also be a witness in her quest to be confirmed for a second term as a commissioner.

In June 2007, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Macfarlane for the Atomic Show Podcast. At that time, she proclaimed herself to be an agnostic, neither pro nor antinuclear. Several Atomic Show listeners and Atomic Insights readers have asked me if I had a transcript of that one hour interview.

Until today, the answer was no, but when people ask, I try to deliver, especially when the request sounds like a good and timely idea. (Note: I had a little bit of help, but I take responsibility for any mistakes.) It’s not perfect. If you see any obvious errors, please feel free to point them out in the comment thread.


Transcript of Atomic Show #61 Allison Macfarlane, Atomic Agnostic (Recorded on June 15, 2007)

Adams:
How did you get into the nuclear business, it looks like your academic background is in geology?

Macfarlane:
It is, it is. For a long time I worked on mountain formations, which doesn’t really have a lot to do with nuclear issues, but I got into them. It was sort of a side interest and I was a professor teaching geology and decided that I was a little bored with the research I was doing. I decided to see if I could make a move into this other field or at least learn more about nuclear issues and nuclear policy. I did so by having a couple of different post-doctoral fellowships at Harvard, and Stanford and back at Harvard. So I ended up developing an expertise, actually geology is very relevant to certain aspects of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons issues.

Adams:
So what particular area did you get interested in, the long-term waste disposal issue?

Macfarlane:
Well, I’m interested in a whole lot of issues, long-term waste disposal is certainly one of the main ones. I’m also interested in long-term nuclear weapons materials, in other words plutonium and high-enriched uranium management and disposal. I’m interested in the nuclear fuel cycle as well. I worked on issues on about different storage of spent fuel. I’ve done a lot of looking recently at the viability of nuclear energy as a solution to climate change and other energy issues in general. So through a wide spectrum.

Adams:
So as we started talking about you coming on the show, you described yourself to me as a nuclear agnostic, can you elaborate on that? Because I just want to let you know you are on a show with someone who definitely has made decisions and is no longer agnostic. I am a true believer in the power of the atom.

Macfarlane:
Yes, well the atom is powerful, I will agree with you. But in terms of nuclear energy I would describe myself as agnostic, I am neither pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear. I think nuclear has been doing a good job in the United States and other industrialized countries at providing a good reliable source of electricity, and they have been improving on that. At the same time I think in terms of expansion in nuclear power over the next 50 years or something. Nuclear has a lot of liabilities and I don’t know if it can get over them. So I am a sort of a just the facts ma’am, kind of person towards nuclear.

Adams:
Let’s talk about some of those facts. I actually got introduced to you by watching a video of a discussion forum that you participated in at MIT, I think that was back in February maybe or March.

Macfarlane:
Yea, February or March, I think it was maybe March 1st or something, yes.

Adams:
In that you did talk a lot about the economics about the expansion of nuclear energy. One of the questions that I wanted to be able to be in the room and raise my hand and ask you, “How does nuclear cost compare with the cost of producing electricity by burning something like natural gas or diesel fuel?”

Macfarlane:
Well, in terms of operating and maintenance costs, it’s cheaper. Which is the point that Andy Kadak was making. But the problem is that if you are going to be building new reactors, and if you look at the total life cycle cost, so that’s you know is from building the reactor, operating it, maintaining it and then dismantling it. And the same thing would be true for the life cycle of gas plants or diesel fuel plants or whatever, nuclear is a lot more expensive, largely because of the capital costs involved in building a nuclear plant.

Adams:
There was a study done at MIT in 2002, I believe, titled the “Future of Nuclear Power” and it appeared to me in my review of that study, that that conclusion is not as clear to me as it is to you.

Macfarlane:
Oh yea, they were very clear about that. Nuclear only becomes viable economically if there is some kind of carbon tax. That’s what they said.

Adams:
That’s what they said, but I looked at the numbers. One of the things that study assumed, of course remember that study was conducted in 2002. The assumed high price case of natural gas for that study was $4.50 per million BTU with an assumed inflation rate of 2.5%, today and for the last several years natural gas has been hovering closer to $8.00 per million BTU.

Macfarlane:
Right, but the thing is that’s the fuel cost, which is part of the operating and maintenance cost.

Adams:
Right, but with natural gas plants, 93% of the cost is the cost of fuel. So, that means the price of electricity from a natural gas plant is almost twice today what MIT’s study assumed it would be.

Macfarlane:
Well, it still doesn’t make it cheaper to build a nuclear power plant. I would still maintain that we’re not going to see a large expansion of nuclear power in this country unless there is a lot of government subsidy. I don’t think nuclear is competitive in a free market economy. Unless there is some kind of carbon tax or unless coal plants are required to be built with carbon sequestration, unless there is some kind extenuating situation like that. Nuclear has two problems in terms of financial risk; one is that the plants cost a lot and the other is that it takes a long time to build them; much longer to build them than it does to build a natural gas combined cycle plant, for instance. There are all also all these other liability risks involved in nuclear that don’t exist for fossil fuel plants. So, you know, you may get permission to build your plant and you may build it and you may sink billions into it and then because of citizen protests and concerns you may never operate your plant.

Adams:
Of course that occurred once before up in New York. I think they said they spent about 6.5 billion dollars on the plant and never generated any power at all.

Macfarlane:
A huge sum of money for an investor.

Adams:
I think that the New York Long Island customers are still paying for that plant today.

Macfarlane:
Yea, they probably are.

Adams:
Interestingly enough, I’m not sure you’ve done any research on me, but one of the things I have been doing for the last fifteen years is trying to attack the cost of nuclear power, not from a point of view of trying to shave margins or anything, but trying to completely rethink how nuclear power plants are built; whether or not they can be built at a different scale than the typical 1000 to 1600 megawatt light water reactors that produce secondary steam. As a former steam plant engineer myself, I have a pretty deep understanding of why steam costs so much. In general, commercial plants that burn other fuels don’t build steam plants anymore either, except maybe coal plants. Combustion turbines are the heat engine of choice in the combustion world because they are much less expensive than a steam plant. My research has lead me to believe that a nuclear gas turbine is the right way to go, I guess the folks in South Africa have some agreement with me.

Macfarlane:
Yea, with their pebble bed reactor, the high temperature gas reactor.

Adams:
The more important part of that system is not so much the reactor but the way that the heat from the reactor is converted to electricity, it is a much different system than what is used in a light water reactor so there is completely different economics involved.

Macfarlane:
Well, I guess it depends on who you are what part of it you think is important. I guess nuclear engineers, or at least some of them, like the pebble bed reactor because they say that it is inherently safe.

Adams:
Well that’s true.

Macfarlane:
To a degree it’s true.

Adams:
The pebble bed reactor is what I call more easily safe. As you mentioned the safety record of the existing nuclear power industry is certainly an enviably one. Most industries of any kind in the world would kill for a safety record that is similar to what we have in the nuclear business. Now of course that safety record hasn’t come at no cost, as you mentioned, there are lots of expenses associated with building and maintaining a nuclear power plant, that don’t exist because the standards are completely different. As you say, nobody ever tries to go sue a coal plant if the water level happens to start rising, they don’t have to pay their fair share of that cost. Although there are about at least 30 major industrial companies whose CEOs have approached Congress and asked Congress to start thinking about either a carbon tax or carbon cap and trade system. So it seems to me that someone who is an investor, if you want to build a coal fired power plant today you have to at least take that risk into account, that your plant may be regulated in a way you don’t expect.

Macfarlane:
Yea, certainly, I think if you were smart you would put more money into the plant upfront and build a plant that is much more efficient than the regular old pulverized coal plants.

Adams:
What would you suggest?

Macfarlane:
Well, you can build these pulverized coals plants that are much more highly efficient than most of the ones that exist today or you could build a gas fire with the coal plants.

Adams:
Like an IGCC, are there any of those operating today?

Macfarlane:
I think there is one in this country. MIT just did another big study on coal that they released in March, I think, this year and they talk about a lot of these different coal plants.

Adams:
A lot of people talk about carbon sequestration. One of the things they don’t mention is what the cost of that is in the terms of the efficiency hit that the plant will take.

Macfarlane:
Actually MIT makes those calculations.

Adams:
Oh, do they, I need to go back and review that study.

Macfarlane:
They do make those calculations in terms of the efficiency loss, because you are right it is a big efficiency loss when you add the separation of the carbon.

Adams:
One of the neat things about having been a submarine officer, I have done things like I’ve made hydrogen on a regular basis, of course we threw away the hydrogen and kept the oxygen. I also used to run CO2 scrubbers so I know a lot about amine chemistry and how you separate CO2 out of the air, because we had these silly carbon producing units on board we called people. We had to clean up their carbon dioxide so we could keep breathing. Fortunately I had plenty of power.

Macfarlane:
I guess the Navy has been good at that, yea.

Adams:
We operate sealed ships for months at a time, so you have to take those things into account. I mean that’s one of the reasons why I became such a fan of nuclear power, because I kind of think of the world’s atmosphere as a closed system, and I’ve always hated the idea of fouling our own nest by just building a taller smokestack. It’s kind of amusing to me that there is some much emphasis being placed on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and we’ve almost stopped talking about all the other nasty stuff that comes out, like nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxides, and fly ash.

Macfarlane:
I know but at least those things are regulated.

Adams:
True, but grandfathered.

Macfarlane:
Yea well, that’s a problem that has been going on with this administration, the Bush administration should step back a lot of those regulations and to loosen them, unfortunately. (17:09)

Adams:
They just kept doing what everyone else has been doing since, the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, if I remember correctly.

Macfarlane:
Right, but then it was amended and recast a number of times since, most recently in 1990. The 1990 regulations require that basically by 2015 or 2020 there are much more stringent requirements on sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, mercury and I think also particulate matter.

Adams:
That should be just enough time to allow the people that built those plants to get their full use out of them before the shut them down.

Macfarlane:
I don’t know, those plants operate a long time.

Adams:
Well you know, we haven’t built many coal plants in the US since about 1980 or so.

Macfarlane:
No, but China is building two a week.

Adams:
That’s a scary thought isn’t it?

Macfarlane:
Two 500 megawatt coal plants a week, it’s a horrifying thought, absolutely horrifying. You know if people would get on the ball here and really develop some of these efficient technologies and also carbon sequestration. In China and India there is a great business opportunity there.

Adams:
As a geologist, what do you think of carbon sequestration? Do you really think we are going to be able to store long term CO2 under the ground and have it stay there?

Macfarlane:
I think it is great. Absolutely, yea, yea, I think it is the solution.

Adams:
What kind of volume do you think we need to have?

Macfarlane:
Its huge, its huge. I don’t have the numbers at the top if my head. But the volume is enormous. The thing about, and I think about putting things in the ground for very long periods, I’m thinking about spent nuclear fuel and geologic repositories. The nice thing about carbon sequestration, the attractive thing to me, is that it only has to stay down there for a couple thousand years; it doesn’t have to stay for that long. So you don’t have to build this facility that’s gonna 100% for sure keep this stuff there forever. Which is, you know, I think, the unrealistic, requirement that is put on nuclear waste repositories. Because, you know, carbon dioxide has a lifetime in the atmosphere of about 120 years on average, so if we just keep this stuff from going into the atmosphere over the next thousand years or so, then we’ve really solved the problem.

Adams:
I’ve run the numbers before, and I guess a single coal fired power plant produces something on the order of 45,000 tons of CO2 every single day.

Macfarlane:
No, it’s a huge volume. That’s for sure.

Adams:
If you run the numbers worldwide, we burn 3 billion tons of coal every year in the world, maybe more than that.

Macfarlane:
Yea, the numbers are large, but from what I understand from the reading I’ve done, this is a solvable problem. There are a number of different rock types and settings, geologic settings that you can put the stuff into.

Adams:
Are those settings kind of limited? I grew up in South Florida, for example, are the coal fired plants in South Florida, do they have any place to put their CO2?

Macfarlane:
No. For South Florida, you’d probably have to have a pipeline and you’d have to pipe it over to, probably Mississippi or Louisiana, somewhere that they have salt domes, something like that, not that far.

Adams:
Well, building a pipeline from South Florida to Mississippi or Louisiana would be a great thing. As a matter of fact, people have been trying to do that for a long time to bring natural gas into South Florida. There is only one pipeline that ever reached the bottom of the state because they’re so expensive to build. And that’s a pipeline carrying something that people pay for at the end. With CO2, you’re just trying to build a pipeline to carry the waste. That sounds like a HUGE problem.

Macfarlane:
Right, right. Actually the biggest problem with carbon sequestration is separating the carbon at the power plant. That’s the biggest technological issue and that’s where most of the expense is. Because as you pointed out, you lose efficiency at the power plant. So probably the least expensive is just putting it under ground and the next most expensive is transporting it.

Adams:
What kind of pressure does it need to be at to get it underground? How much compression do we have to have?

Macfarlane:
I don’t remember. You know, oil companies do this now, already – right?

Adams:
Not very much.

Macfarlane:
Now, they do. It’s called enhanced oil recovery. Where you have oil that is more viscous you use the carbon dioxide, which occurs naturally with the oil and natural gas deposits. You strip that off and you pump that down under ground and it reduces or increases – I never get the viscosity right – it changes the viscosity of the oil. (Chuckle)

Adams: (Also chuckling)
It has some effect. Yeah, I think that in Alberta that they use steam to do the same thing. My reading shows that there are only a couple of places in the world actually using that, although the oil and gas industry and the coal industry talk about it a lot.

Macfarlane:
Not the enhanced oil recovery. But in terms of actual carbon sequestration demonstrations there are maybe four or five in the world. There’s one in Algeria, in Sala. There’s one in the Slicener (sp) project, I think its a Norwegian project in the North Sea and there is one that is either the US west or the Canadian west. I forget the name of that one, it might be in North Dakota or something like that. So those are the sort of major ones. One thing that the MIT coal report was calling for was to do a large scale carbon sequestration project.

Adams:
Well, we’re talking about something called Future Gen here in the US.

Macfarlane:
I know, but that’s not going to be adequate.

Adams:
No?

Macfarlane:
No.

Adams:
Okay. What do you think would be a reasonable amount of money to spend on such a project to demonstrate that you MIGHT be able to put CO2 underground?

Macfarlane:
A reasonable amount of money? I think would be many hundreds of millions if not a billion dollars. Or more. I think this is an issue, it’s sort of like – okay guys, drop everything, this is what you have to do. This is what is going to save us, otherwise we’re really screwed. So let’s put all of our effort into this.

Adams:
Hmm. Now you would not advocate doing that in terms of actually building a few nuclear plants?

Macfarlane:
Well, we are doing that. With the Energy Policy Act of 2005, we’re giving a lot of money to the nuclear industry.
Adams:
Really? Are there any checks going? (Interrupted)

Macfarlane:
(Continuing) Which is what I would call a subsidy.

Adams:
Any checks flow to the nuclear industry yet?

Macfarlane:
Ah, no. The nuclear industry has to go ahead and, you know, apply for license applications and then start building plants to get the tax breaks and whatnot.

Adams:
You know how much they have to pay to get that license application started?

Macfarlane:
Oh, they’ll have to pay millions, or tens of millions of dollars and that sort of thing. It’s not cheap (25:25)

Adams:
Right now the nuclear industry has to pay the NRC $217 for every hour that a bureaucrat spends reviewing their license application. The typical fee for that license application is between 60 and 100 million dollars, just to get permission to build the plant.

Macfarlane:
Yeah. Hey, it’s part of the cost of the plant. You know it’s, this is the deal with nuclear. It’s not coal. If a coal plant blows up, okay. If a nuclear plant blows up, it’s such a serious problem that it might end the nuclear industry. So it is in their best interests to have a very strict regulatory regime.

Adams:
I’m not arguing whether or not it’s important to be very careful and have strict license requirements. What I am discussing is the difference in the nuclear industry being accused of getting subsidies when they are actually writing checks to the government. Whereas the coal industry, which is certainly a profitable and long established industry is going to get subsidies to stop doing the harm that they are doing right now.

Macfarlane:
Weell, but you know you could say that the coal industry has to pay a lot of extra money in terms of adding scrubbers for sulfur and particulates and for nitrogen oxides and that kind of thing, so it’s not like they get off scott free.

Adams:
That’s true, but, however, they do not have the same emission limits as a nuclear plant.

Macfarlane:
What do you mean, emission limits?
Adams:
Well, the nuclear plant can operate forever without producing any CO2, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide (interrupt)

Macfarlane:
That’s not completely true. Okay, this is where I get on the facts here. When you mine the uranium for the nuclear plant, you use a lot, and not just mine the uranium but you mill it and turn it into fuel you use a lot of energy.

Adams:
How much is a lot?

Macfarlane:
I don’t have the numbers. But most of that is from fossil fuel plants. Okay, the electricity to run, especially in our country, because we have these huge gaseous diffusion plants instead of centrifuge plants, the electricity to run those is enormous and so you put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere doing that, okay?

Adams:
What if we decided we would just buy our enriched fuel from France?

Macfarlane:
Well, it doesn’t matter. I mean they’re doing the same thing, so…

Adams:
Isn’t 80% of the electricity in France produced by nuclear power? So their enrichment plants have to be far less CO2 emitting than ours. (28:36)

Macfarlane:
Yeah. You think this country would ever do that? Be realistic. No way!

Adams:
Well actually, do you know where 50% of the enriched uranium fuel over the last ten years has come from in the US? (28:50)

Macfarlane:
No. Oh, 50% has come from Russia

Adams:
50% has come from, from beating swords into plowshares. It’s come from destroying nuclear weapons.

Macfarlane:
I know, I know.

Adams:
That’s kind of a good idea, isn’t it.

Macfarlane:
It’s not from destroying nuclear weapons.

Adams:
It’s not?

Macfarlane:
So don’t get that. The Russians produced HUGE quantities of highly enriched uranium in their nuclear weapons complex, that they didn’t put into nuclear weapons, that they had in excess. And so that’s where that comes from. (29:30) It’s not from dismantled Russian weapons.

Adams:
Why did they do that?

Macfarlane:
The same thing with the US. We have large quantities but not as big, as much as Russia, of highly enriched uranium in our nuclear weapons complex. And I think that we’ve decided that most of that is going to go to the Navy.

Adams:
That’s a good place for it, I think. That’s a great place for it. (Chuckle) (29:55)

Macfarlane:
No. We have to convert your nuclear powered subs to operate on low enriched fuel.

Adams:
Why is that?

Macfarlane:
Because highly enriched uranium poses a security threat, right? If you can convince everybody to use low enriched uranium, then we have that much less highly enriched uranium walking around the world that could be turned into a nuclear bomb.

Adams:
I know a LITTLE bit about the technology of a nuclear submarine reactor and can tell you that once it is turned into submarine reactor fuel, it will never, ever, be walking around lose for anybody to turn a bomb and it would not be suitable bomb material.

Macfarlane:
Well, the submarines don’t operate forever, right?

Adams:
Right. But what’s left over after a submarine has operated is certainly not suitable to turn into a bomb. It has these very self-protecting things called fission products and other things that make it not workable.

Macfarlane:
I think that actually, and I could be wrong about this, it’s my understanding that when, well you still have highly enriched uranium in the spent sub fuel. It’s not like light water reactor fuel. No arguments against the Navy. You guys operate your reactors much better than basically anyone else in the world. That’s the US Navy, let’s be specific. It’s too bad the rest of them do not do what you guys do.

Adams:
Ahh the British Navy does almost exactly what we do; they learned from us. The French Navy does a very good job. I won’t speak for the Chinese Navy or the Russian Navy. That’s a different story. (31:59)

Macfarlane:
I don’t know that the Chinese Navy has any nuclear powered subs.

Adams:
Ah, they do.

Macfarlane:
They do?

Adams:
Yes, they do and they are building more. They’re building them very rapidly as a matter of fact. I think that the Chinese Navy plans to build at least 10 nuclear subs in the next three or four years. Of course, the Chinese are also recognizing that building two coal fired power plants every week is not in the best interests of their people.

Macfarlane:
They are, but I do not think they are really going to do anything about that.

Adams:
Really?

Macfarlane:
Yeah, I mean, I think that is going to continue to happen. I don’t know what they are going to do about the pollution, specifically the air pollution problem that is going to arise from that. They’re going to have to put some thought into that sometime. You know they have these big plans to expand their nuclear industry. Again, you know, I am not going to hold my breath because they had big plans to expand their nuclear industry in the early 90s. Oh by 2000, or 2010 they were going to have about 25 plants or something like that and they have, like six. So I take a wait and see attitude.

Adams:
Yeah. As long as you wait and see …

Macfarlane:
I’m not betting any money on it.

Adams:
Actually, I not betting any money on the Chinese, but I am betting substantial dollars that you are wrong about the US and other areas where nuclear power is quite competitive with the alternatives. My economic calculations are considerable different than what you’ve shown. And again, the operating cost of natural gas and oil fired power plants are extremely dependent on the cost of fuel. I know there are places in Alaska, for example, where the people pay 30 to 40 cents per kilowatt hour because that is what it costs to get diesel fuel to that area.

Macfarlane:
Right. That’s sort of a unique situation.

Adams:
Well, you know that the US Army had a program back in the early 60s to build very compact reactors for isolated places.

Macfarlane:
Well, the Russians are doing that now. (34:30)

Adams:
Yep, they sure are. They are also talking about building some floating plants, particularly for Siberia, which is a very difficult place to supply with oil.

Macfarlane:
Right, right. There’s also talk about, at least in some of the national labs in the US, about building some of these little nuclear batteries where you do not have to change the fuel. You know like the way that Navy reactors run except not with highly enriched uranium fuel.

Adams:
Now you know, what do you consider highly enriched, just out of curiosity?

Macfarlane:
It’s not what I consider, it’s the standard – anything above 20% uranium 235 is highly enriched.

Adams:
Do you know why highly enriched uranium was intriguing to those people who built small reactors?

Macfarlane:
Because it’s more bang for the buck, basically.

Adams:
It’s the difference between burning gasoline in a car engine and trying to burn crude oil.

Macfarlane:
Right. Well, none the less, the problem is that you can make nuclear weapons with it. To finish up this nuclear battery discussion. The problem is that the idea was to sell these to developing countries, to make them small. You know, little 100 MW deals, 300 MW deals something like that.

Adams:
We like 10 MW, by the way, at Adams Atomic Engines.(35:59)

Macfarlane:
Yeah, but I think it would be prohibitively expensive. I don’t think these countries would be able to afford them. That’s sort of the current… I do not know where we are going with that.

Adams:
The nuclear industry has always operated under the economic assumption of the economy of scale was going to be what would drive the cost down. Sort of like General Electric and their 3 MW windmills that are 90 meters per blade.

Macfarlane:
Well unfortunately, though the US built the most power plants of any country in the world, it was never able to take advantage of economies of scale because each power plant was unique. If you look at the record of building these power plants in the 1970s when most of them were built – and the late 60s – every one of them had pretty enormous cost overruns.

Adams:
Well, that’s not true. Not every one of them. Certainly the ones that were in the last half of the 125 or so that were actually completed got very expensive, but the first half had some cost overruns but nowhere near as big. Some of the reasons for the cost are kind of interesting.

A lot of the cost was not in steel and labor or that kind of stuff, it was in paying for compounding interest at a time when interest rates got as high as 18 to 20 percent. I remember those days. I remember when I was in college in the late 1970s and early 1980s sitting there calculating how much interest I could get every month if I took my signing bonus for nuclear power training and put it into a certificate of deposit.

It was a different time than what we have today. And particularly when compounding interest on a very large capital investment, it grew very rapidly at a time when the large capital investment was not allowed to operate for a period of time, sometimes due to no fault of the designer.

Macfarlane:
No, I know. But that’s the issue.

Adams:
You know it’s interesting to me that some of the people who are most adamant about doing something about global climate change, when people like me suggest well, we ought to talk about nuclear power they turn us off and say, well it takes too long or you’ve got a waste issue, or it costs too much or whatever.

Macfarlane:
Well, I think in terms of technology, nuclear power may be a solution for 30-50 years down the road, as long as things are set in motion now, but over the next 30 years it is not going to help us because we will NOT be able to build plants that fast. (39:22)

Adams:
Well, how long did it take to build the plants that we have operating today?

Macfarlane:
Oh some of them it took … ten years? Which is ridiculous.

Adams:
Yeah, but all 104 that are operating today were started and completed between about 1965 and 1985.

Macfarlane:
Right. I’m just saying that people who think that this is going to be some kind of solution over the next 20 to 25 years are completely wrong because there are major parts of the industrial complex which would have to be built up again. For instance, to get, I think, the reactor vessel head, it’s a big part and I think there are only two companies in the world who can make such a thing, one is in Japan and one is in China and they are backed up making other large items, so there is just not a way to make it happen quickly. And there is a big manpower issue. (40:30)

Adams:
That’s another reason why we like smaller machines. We do not want to stand in line for the big machines. The small machines use a completely different infrastructure.

Macfarlane:
But that is not what the utilities are thinking about.

Adams:
Well the utilities have never been right in the past, why would they be right now?

Macfarlane: (laughter)
Don’t let them hear you say that.

Adams:
Why not? I hope they listen to me. Also to give you a little bit… I’ve been around the utilities my whole life, my father was a 35 year electrical engineer for Florida Power and Light Company. So when I was a kid, Florida Power and Light made the decision to build Turkey Point and then St. Lucie, so I’ve been around and talking about nuclear waste issues my whole life. Cause Dad said to me, man these nuclear plants, they’re great but we don’t know what we are going to do with that waste because… Well, I said what do you do with your fossil waste? Ahh, we just build a smokestack. We just pump that waste into the common atmosphere. It’s just this nuclear waste that we actually have to do something with. Which is not really true. (41:40)

Macfarlane:
Well, you do have to do something with it.

Adams:
Put it into a container.

Macfarlane:
But you can’t just leave it there forever.

Adams:
Why not?

Macfarlane:
Well, because the container will collapse eventually.

Adams:
And then?

Macfarlane:
Depending on the surface you will be exposing people to high levels of radiation.

Adams:
If there’s people around to expose, wouldn’t the people be able to fix the container?

Macfarlane:
Ah, hopefully. But we have no idea where this country is going to be 200, 300 years from now. Maybe it will turn into something like the Soviet Union. Look what the Soviet Union did. They made a huge mess. They exposed their people to lots of toxic and radioactive materials all over the place. I think that we have to be a little more responsible than them and try to solve this problem, now.

Adams:
I agree with being responsible, but I have a tough time understanding what the rush is.

Macfarlane:
I’m not saying there’s a big rush. But what I’m saying there’s a number of people now, often on the antinuclear side of things who say, well we do not have to build a big repository now, why don’t we just leave it in interim storage forever. And my argument is no, that’s not okay. For my children and my children’s children I don’t want it left in interim storage forever. Because I don’t have any guarantee where this country is going in the future. And I think we have an ethical responsibility to be thinking about the problem now and actively working on it. We don’t have to solve it in the next 20 years, but we do in the next 50 years. And I think we can. (43:43)

Adams:
I think that our philosophy is not too different. I believe that we have a very deep ethical responsibility to our children and one of the things that I want to do with my children is that I want to leave them in a situation that is better than it was when I came onboard. I don’t look at the byproducts of nuclear fission as waste materials. I believe that they are rare materials with unique physical properties and they are a small enough volume that they can be isolated and contained and monitored so that we can consider and think about what the best thing to do with those materials is. And in some cases, the best thing to do, is maybe recycle those materials and use them for more power production, or for other uses. I mean there are some materials in there – there is ruthenium, there’s rhodium, there’s silver, gold. There’s all kinds of materials inside of what is, in some people’s minds, considered to be waste, but it’s valuable stuff. It still contains 95% of the initial stored energy.

Macfarlane:
Yeah, well unfortunately, I am very much against reprocessing. It does not make economic sense; it won’t make economic sense for at least the next 100 years, probably for the next 200 years, based on my assessments of uranium resources so there is no economic argument to do it.

Adams:
What price of uranium was that analysis done at?

Macfarlane:
Sorry?

Adams:
I said what price of uranium was that analysis completed for? Because that is an economic assumption that requires you to have some sort of assumed price of uranium. Because the cheaper the uranium the less economical it is to recycle, the more expensive the uranium the more potential there is to recover the material and get some value out of it.

Macfarlane:
Right. But it’s not the uranium that we are talking about, okay. It’s the plutonium because basically, every country that recycles recycles just the plutonium. They don’t use the uranium.

Adams:
Well they haven’t used the uranium in the past because uranium was very cheap. It was much cheaper to get virgin uranium out of the ground than to look at used nuclear fuel as a source of uranium that could be used.

Macfarlane:
Well, but there are complications from the isotopics because of the different uranium isotopes that are present. So it is sort of too messy to use right now. You’re right, there is some sort of theoretical price at which it becomes more reasonable to do so but it’s just not done now.

Adams:
Well, of course it is not done now. There’s a lot of things that are not done now. Hopefully, they will be done in the near future.

Macfarlane:
But the real problem with reprocessing is that it creates this huge proliferation problem. Right now, in this world, there are about 250 metric tons of separated plutonium just in the civilian sector. And do you know how much there is in the military sector in the world? About 250 metric tons. So, if you say that, let’s use the IAEA numbers, which I think are very high, they say that the amount for a nuclear weapon is about 8 kilograms, that’s a hell of a lot of bombs that you’ve got there.

Adams:
How many bombs do we have made out of that material, or is it just potential bombs?

Macfarlane:
Those are potential bombs that I am talking about. Part of that military plutonium is in nuclear weapons. Right now we have on the order of 20,000, I think. More than that, 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world.

Adams:
Okay.

Macfarlane:
A huge quantity. Totally unnecessary. So we’re really in this situation now that countries that recycle aren’t really recycling. The only country that comes close is France and its got its own huge stockpile of plutonium sitting there that it cannot keep up with that it can’t use what it makes.

Adams:
Well if we built a bunch of reactors…

Macfarlane:
So far. So THEORETICALLY you can do this nicely but that is not how it’s done in practice and so I don’t see any reason to argue that this is going to be done in the future, just because it sound nice doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen. I don’t see any argument to be doing reprocessing. So there is a little gold in there. Get gold somewhere else. (49:21)

Adams:
Part of the reason that I believe that we need to reduce, reuse and recycle most of the materials that we use in an industrial society is that’s just the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do whether it is office paper, aluminum cans or used nuclear fuel. As it happens, used nuclear fuel has a lot more value, particularly since it gives us the ability to not burn as much coal, oil and natural gas every year as we do now.

Macfarlane:
That argument doesn’t fly because we have plenty of uranium so we don’t need to do it. I’m all for recycling metals and paper and plastics and all that kind of stuff because I’m not in danger of being attacked by a nuclear weapon when I do so. Nuclear fuel is different. Recycling it puts us all in danger and I don’t see that there is any way to make an argument that gets around that. (50:36)

Adams:
Of course, right now there are people who are concerned about the long term danger of the Earth dying a slow, maybe not the Earth dying, but the ability of the Earth to sustain civilization as we know it trickling away as our atmosphere gets contaminated or as we gradually run out of accessible fossil fuels to sustain the kind of lifestyle that you and I, I believe at least I know what kind of lifestyle I live, and I believe if you life in Washington, DC that you probably also live a fairly high energy lifestyle.

Macfarlane:
Not by choice. I am renting a house. It’s a sieve. (Chuckle)

Adams:
I drive on DC highways every day. I recognize that the vast majority of Americans could not sustain their current living without a lot of power.

Macfarlane:
We live unsustainably, I think it’s fair to say. That’s fine, you do not need to reprocess nuclear waste.

Adams:
Okay, but I need to build a lot of nuclear power plants to shut down those coal fired power plants.

Macfarlane:
That’s fine. You can build a lot of nuclear power plants. You are not going to build 1500 GW by 2050 anyway.

Adams:
Why do I need that much power?

Macfarlane:
You’re talking about the world. 1500 GW in the world. Between 1000 and 1500 GW would reduce carbon emissions by 10 to 15 percent.

Adams:
I come at it a different… Let me think about this. Our coal fired power plants in the US produce 1/3 of the US carbon dioxide emissions. Right now, 100 plants in the US produce 20% of the electricity in the US. So by rough math, if we had 250 new plants, if they were the same size as the old plants, and they would probably be a little bigger, all it would take to shut down all of the coal fired power plants in the US would be 250 nuclear power plants. We could completely shut down coal plants.

Macfarlane:
And you do not have to reprocess to fuel those plants.

Adams:
No, I don’t HAVE to. But I don’t have to bury the waste in Nevada either. I could also just leave it on site because 250 power plants is not a very large number.

Macfarlane:
No. You could leave it on site, but again I would say that you cannot leave it on site forever. That can’t be the plan. So the plan should be to do something with it eventually.

Adams:
The plan should be to pay for a few researchers to figure out something to do with it?

Macfarlane:
Ah, no, I think we know what should be done with it. It should be put into a geologic repository.

Adams:
Okay. I thought you were “uncertain” is the word in the book title about the geologic repository. (53:56)

Macfarlane:
At Yucca Mountain. The one at Yucca Mountain. Yeah, but in general, and we say this outright in the beginning of the book that we think that repositories are the solution to the problem of nuclear waste.

Adams:
Where should they be?

Macfarlane:
Where should they be? In a place that is not seismically or volcanically active and in a place that offers a reducing chemical environment.

Adams:
Reducing chemical is like?

Macfarlane:
No oxygen present. Usually it means below the water table. And the rest of the world is going to be doing that. And Yucca Mountain violates two of what the IAEA has pointed out are four siting criteria, so it wasn’t a good choice.

Adams:
Well I certainly agree with that. I think it is a lousy choice for a lot of reasons. Particularly since if you draw a map of all of the currently existing nuclear plants in the US, you cannot think of a place that requires more transportation of the fuel in terms of total number of ton miles moved is Yucca Mountain.

Macfarlane:
Well, there’s always Alaska and Hawaii.

Adams:
But that’s not in the lower 48.

Macfarlane:
We’ll keep quiet.

Adams:
Yeah, we could move it to the Arctic Circle. That would definitely be a long distance traveled.

Macfarlane: (Chuckling)
Guam.

Adams:
That would certainly provide the most number of jobs in the locomotive industry. Even just the last 60 miles, as the crow flies, to Yucca Mountain is looking like it is going to require 1.3 billion dollars worth of railroads winding their way around all Indian reservations and all gullies and everything else.

Macfarlane:
No, it’s around Area 51 and around Nellis Air Force Base. That’s what it is avoiding.

Adams:
That and Indian reservations. Most recently a tribe said, “Hey, you can’t run it through our land.” So it’s 350 miles long to go 60 miles. It’s absurd. What a stupid way to spend money.

Macfarlane:
No, I agree. Maybe it won’t get spent.

Adams:
Well, we’ve already spent 7 billion dollars on something, I don’t know what.

Macfarlane:
Right. We spent it on the DOE.

Adams:
Well, we’ve got to keep those labs in business, right.

Macfarlane:
The labs are fine. They are not the problem. It’s the main management.

Adams:
I drive by that building every day. It’s a strange looking building.

Alright, well, I really appreciate you coming on and chatting. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I really believe that the risks that the US and the rest of the world are taking by continuing to depend so heavily on oil, coal and natural gas outweigh most of the risks that I see in the nuclear industry. The proliferation is certainly something to be considered, but obviously there is no such thing as proliferating into a country like the US, the UK and France since we already have as many nuclear weapons as we want, and we can certainly make more if we needed more. I just do not see that the separated plutonium in those areas makes much difference one way or the other.

Macfarlane:
No it doesn’t but it’s always a problem for the ?? You can’t think that we are invulnerable to them.

Adams:
Well, we’re pretty darned invulnerable. I’ve been inside some of the facilities and though I cannot say much about the security posture, I would not want to move a penknife in one of those places. Anyway, any last words from you?

Macfarlane:
No. I think we’ll just wait and see what happens. We’ll see if we get a Renaissance or not. Like I said, I wouldn’t put money on it. You know, but I’m not against using nuclear power. I certainly think that we can’t really afford right now to decrease the number of nuclear power plants in this country, you know back away from that 20% and replace it with … fossil fuels?

Adams:
Well you know some people say that just to keep even at 20% we need to build 20 to 30 reactors in the next 15 to 20 years, I should say 20 to 25 years.

Macfarlane:
Right.

Adams:
We need to build that many just to keep at 20%.

Macfarlane:
Right, right. So it’s the going beyond that it’s real wait and see.

Adams:
Well, I am not a passively minded person, so I will do more than wait and see. At least that is my intention. And whenever I do have a spare dime, I do bet it on nuclear power. Take care, have a great evening, and I hope you come back and talk again later and we’ll see if my aggressive attitude has beaten the wait and see attitude.

Macfarlane:
Okay. (Chuckle) Thanks a lot.

About Rod Adams

22 Responses to “Transcript of Atomic Show #61 – Allison Macfarlane, Atomic Agnostic (June 15, 2007)”

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  1. Brian Mays says:

    Thanks, Rod.

  2. Jason C says:

    Reading this is definitely a different experience than listening to it.

    Dr. Macfarlane claims to have no anti-nuclear bias but I find that hard to believe based upon the her favoring CO2 sequestration, despite not being familiar with the engineering difficulties of such, over that of building new reactors to maintain that valuable 20% (and 73% of all emission free electricity) market share that nuclear provides us.

    She may not be anti-nuclear but she’s definitely a nuclear pessimist.

    When she states, “Well, because the container will collapse eventually.” and continuing with, “Depending on the surface you will be exposing people to high levels of radiation.” — This is perpetuating a myth that dry cask container storage is no good and unmanageable. It also shows that she isn’t aware that the older slightly used nuclear fuel gets, the safer it gets. If one of these dry casks were to grow so old that it decayed away and collapsed, I’m sure we’d be looking at fuel rods that would be about as radioactive as the its original ore source. Given a reasonable amount of human care, I think these containers could last hundreds of years, perhaps thousands. Contrary to many arguments that we can’t build things that last thousands of years, if the Egyptians can build tombs that preserved clay pottery and other artwork for 3000 years, it shouldn’t be too hard to build a steel and concrete container that could perform just as well if not better.

    The waste and proliferation issues are issues to be sure, but they are hardly in the realm of being insurmountable as some would want them to be. These are wedge issues touted to slow the progress of nuclear energy. Not being able to recognize and put into perspective the overwhelming benefits of nuclear against these overly magnified issues that are propped up with justifications of morality and legacy, does call into question one’s critical thinking skills.

    She is being called upon to be the “CEO” of the NRC bureaucracy. This is a bit like a junior software engineer being called upon to suddenly become CEO of Microsoft. You don’t have to be a human resources expert to see there isn’t a good fit here. Frankly, I’m little surprised she didn’t turn down the offer. On the few occasions where I was offered something where I knew was out of my depth, I was honest about it and recommended someone else.

    Does Dr. Macfarlane have the integrity to admit this would be the biggest challenge of her life and she’d be out of her depth? The NRC has suffered too many fools already, please not one more.

    • Brian Mays says:

      Jason – Well, she’s right about one thing: we have no idea where this country is going to be 200, 300 years from now — or even a few years from now.

      Example: Who would have predicted five years ago, when this podcast was made, that this woman would be appointed to chair the NRC?

      • Jason Kobos says:

        We may not know where we will end up in 300 years. We are talking a time frame where 300 years ago the United States didn’t even exist. Just to get a message from New York to Brittan took weeks if not months. The photograph is only 200 years old. Who would have predicted what we have today?.

        And we are supposed to believe that 300 years from now that people won’t be able to make concrete? In any dooms day scenario where people push the idea that society will fall to such a point fail to consider that there far more important and dangerous problems that enter the lives at such a point. Namely not starving to death. You’d be lucky to live long enough to get cancer. So, no I don’t buy this argument at all. Just more FUD to scare people.

      • Daniel says:

        @ Brian,

        Indeed. For all we know, Rod could be NRC Chairman in a new republican administration.

  3. Joris van Dorp says:

    I think people with a ‘wait and see’ attitude are really just good-for-nothings. Doubt is a state of mind that precedes knowledge. So doubters should never be put in a position that requires knowledge. The right place for a doubter is inside a university in the role of a student.

  4. Susan V says:

    I would disagree with Dr MacFarlane’s statement: “I am neither pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear”. It is clear from her statements throughout that she consistently leans against nuclear power. Her focus was consistently on “clean” coal and gas. She does not appear to believe that nuclear power is advantageous or of interest – rather her focus seemed to be on why you would not want to have nuclear power. Is this really the person we are putting in to run the NRC?

    For the record – Macfarlane states that the low enriched uranium for US commercial nuclear power plants provided from Russia is not from nuclear weapons –
    ——————————————————————
    Macfarlane:
    It’s not from destroying nuclear weapons.
    Adams:
    It’s not?
    Macfarlane:
    So don’t get that. The Russians produced HUGE quantities of highly enriched uranium in their nuclear weapons complex, that they didn’t put into nuclear weapons, that they had in excess. And so that’s where that comes from. (29:30) It’s not from dismantled Russian weapons
    ——————————————————

    This is not a correct statement since it is verified by the US government, the DOE, that the uranium the US receives is from HEU down blended from nuclear weapons components not just stocks of excess HEU. The Russians stopped producing HEU in 1988. The HEU-LEU blend down agreement began in 1993 and runs through 2013 – with the agreement to blend down 30 MT of HEU/yr and a total of 500 tons of HEU plus 12 tons under the material conversion and consolidation. Less than 30MT/yr was provided during the initial start of the program.

    The LEU the US receives is verified to be from dismantled nuclear weapon components from the Russian stockpile.

  5. Ioannes says:

    Rod Adams is Democrat

    Allison MacFarlane is Democrat.

    Rod Adams deserves what he gets.

    Liberal. Progressive. Democrat. Three of the dirtiest words in the English language.

    • turnages says:

      Rod Adams is a human being.

      Allison MacFarlane is a human being.

      Even Ionnes is a human being.

      When attacking other human beings, you will only, at the end of the day, end up attacking yourself. You reap what you sow.

      Why destroy yourself with this twisted bitterness? It’s not too late to get some help.

    • Jonathan says:

      Not sure what her political beliefs have to do with this (although the politics of the anti-nukes is trending obviously toward democrats).

      So yes, statistically democrats are anti-nuclear and republicans are pro-nuclear. BUT don’t get too comfortable, we are just one Limbaugh comment away from republicans being vehemently anti-nuclear.

  6. Cory Stansbury says:

    She’s certainly no engineer from what I can tell. Her total lack of quantitative understanding baffles me. She also speaks in generalities and only looks at problems without pondering the solutions of nuclear while dismissing immensely challenging issues for coal and natural gas. Apparently it’s easier to store cubic miles of pressurized CO2 than a football field’s worth of ceramic pellets. She also speaks so nonchalantly about proliferation without any idea of the challenges associated with using reactor grade plutonium in a non-industrial facility.

    The argument for proliferation has always been pretty hotly contested. The issue is that of Plutonium 238 and 240 making weapons design and performance challenging. Pu240 is a strong spontaneous neutron emitter, is not fissile, and is 4x as radioactive as Pu239 (making it harder to work with). Pu238, on the other hand, generates significant heat in reactor grade Pu. (10.5 W/kg for reactor grade vs. 2.3 W/kg for weapons grade).

    The spontaneous neutrons of 240 will start the chain reaction during the compression phase of the detonation. This causes pre-detonation, as the Pu blows apart before it can be compressed to the point of maximizing fission from the Pu239/Pu241. In addition, while Pu240 isn’t fissile, it does absorb neutrons, further diminishing the potential yield of a device. The heat from the 238 also poses a problem, as it requires cooling in order to prevent it from destroying the explosive charges around it. All of these effects have largely caused fizzles in tests done by the US and the UK. That said, it is still indicated that with very elaborate design, reactor grade plutonium could make for effective weapons. Lastly, even a fizzle is a big boom.

    A report from the US Department of Energy (1997) puts the following view:

    “Virtually any combination of plutonium isotopes – the different forms of an element having different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei – can be used to make a nuclear weapon. …

    The only isotopic mix of plutonium which cannot realistically be used for nuclear weapons is nearly pure plutonium-238, which generates so much heat that the weapon would not be stable. …

    At the lowest level of sophistication, a potential proliferating state or subnational group using designs and technologies no more sophisticated than those used in first-generation nuclear weapons could build a nuclear weapon from reactor-grade plutonium that would have an assured, reliable yield of one or a few kilotons (and a probable yield significantly higher than that). At the other end of the spectrum, advanced nuclear weapon states such as the United States and Russia, using modern designs, could produce weapons from reactor-grade plutonium having reliable explosive yields, weight, and other characteristics generally comparable to those of weapons made from weapons-grade plutonium. …

    “Proliferating states using designs of intermediate sophistication could produce weapons with assured yields substantially higher than the kiloton-range possible with a simple, first-generation nuclear device. …

    “The disadvantage of reactor-grade plutonium is not so much in the effectiveness of the nuclear weapons that can be made from it as in the increased complexity in designing, fabricating, and handling them. The possibility that either a state or a sub-national group would choose to use reactor-grade plutonium, should sufficient stocks of weapon-grade plutonium not be readily available, cannot be discounted. In short, reactor-grade plutonium is weapons-usable, whether by unsophisticated proliferators or by advanced nuclear weapon states.”

    Now given our government’s need to justify large military expenditures and control world policy on everything, I felt that might be too rosy a picture. After all, if it was so easy, why did we spend BILLIONS, if not TRILLIONS (in today’s dollars) on a massive infrastructure of make high purity Pu239?

    Another article painted a not so rosy view of reactor grade Plutonium being good for bombs. Alex diVolpi contends that Von Hippel (a major contributor to the above DOE report) misconstrued the remarks of weapons designer J. Carson Marks and hand-picked the statements he wanted in order to overstate the danger of reactor grade plutonium.

    “Some individuals have chosen to interpret Mark’s conclusion differently, arguing that because it is possible to make nuclear explosives out of “heavily irradiated reactor plutonium,” nations would actually undertake an expensive and clandestine development program using materials that would lead to uncertain results. Such a suggestion defies engineering logic and historical experience.”

    “Von Hippel has persistently overstated the supposed weaponization qualities of reactor and demilitarized grades of plutonium. Although deficient in direct experience — particularly with nuclear engineering, nuclear weaponization, quality control, and military organizations — he has cavalierly reinterpreted and widely exploited his interpretation of Carson Mark’s published conclusion. Von Hippel has assumed that lack of attractiveness implies that the fissile composition is based on some undefined convenience factor rather than meaningful military standards.

    Even with ample analytical experience, and presumably access to some classified information while serving briefly in a government bureaucracy, Von Hippel has persistently underrated the fundamental complexity of nuclear-weapons physics and engineering. He and his acolytes rely on second-hand assurances instead of fundamental specifics about the difficulties in weaponizing degraded plutonium. Von Hippel has employed poorly substantiated “worst-case” methodology to exaggerate the weaponizability of reactor-grade and degraded plutonium. This has lead him to support flawed and overly expensive propositions for less-effective options than offered by the U.S. Department of Energy to demilitarize and salvage the latent energy and economic value of surplus plutonium.”

    So while it does seem there MIGHT be justification for the theoretical (albeit poor) performance of a reactor grade bomb, my concerns rest moreso on the ability of an unsophisticated aggressor to manufacture a weapon and that weapon’s ability to stay together long enough to be useful. With a critical mass of 13kg required, we’re talking about over 1300 watts of heat degrading your super sensitive explosives. Any uneven damage could further reduce yield by causing uneven implosion of the Pu. Lastly, even the manufacture of the bomb would prove difficult considering the heat and radiation given off by the material.

    I feel like we base a lot of energy and defense policy off a series of hypotheticals, ignoring that it would likely be easier to buy a functioning warhead on the black market or steal one from Russia. And it would surely be easier still to deliver a deadly biological/chemical attack using WWI technology.

    • Jason Kobos says:

      Her worries are not directly related to the use of reactor grade materials to make bombs. Her fears, like all nuclear weapons disarmament advocates is the POTENTIAL to make bombs. Their idea is that if you have the potential to make one, you eventually will. If you make a bomb you will eventually use it.

      The reason that these people are against reprocessing is not for fear that countries will turn reactor grade materials into weapons grade. They are afraid of the potential of the enrichment equipment. Fear that a country will be like “Hey, we have these facilities why not just put virgin uranium in and start making bombs so we can go blow stuff up.”

      If you listen closely this is their entire position. Enrichment is the choke-point for non-proliferation. Most of the time it is an ideological position because they do not look at the world for how it is. They just use their idea of how the world should be. This is why you get people fighting against enrichment facilities in the U.S. A country with thousands of nuclear weapons is not a proliferation risk as we have already proliferated to the max. So much so that we had to start taking some apart because we have too many.

      Any argument about the weak performance of reactor grade material in bombs is a wasted argument because the facilities can be used to enrich virgin uranium.

      When Rod baffled her by asking her what price she used to determine that reprocessing would never be financially good was telling. She either does not understand how to do financial planning and forecasting (which is a critical skill to run a major organization effectively). Or simply has never done the math. Her position that reprocessing will never be financially sound is reach through hearsay alone. Again, this is very dangerous for her position as she will be basing most of her decisions over the next year on the advice of others. At least in this aspect has shown that she does not question her advisers if it fits her worldview. She will also likely surround herself with “yes men.”

      Don’t expect her to make any change on any position she has already publicly stated.

    • susanne vandenbosch says:

      Again and again I read claims that politics has stopped development of fast reactors and the development of a repository for spent fuel. It may be a more serious handicap to lack understanding of the politics of our political system than to lack a degree in ewngineering. The active participation of of Allison MacFarlane in the activities of the Blue Ribbon Commission has convinced me that she understands scientific reports and presentations as well as being sensitive to the political obstacles associated with implementing solutions for management and disposal of spent fuel. Inability to solve this problem as well as economics and cheap gas have slowed the nuclear renaissance. She already has shown a great deal of interest in improving the safety of existing reactors and has issued orders regarding vents for certain reactors and installing instrumentation to assess the water levels in spent fuel pools.

  7. James Greenidge says:

    Jackzo II

    Thanks for the heads’ up, Rod

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  8. turnages says:

    People are fed scare-propaganda along the lines of “huge quantities of nuclear waste we don’t know what to do with”.

    But in volume terms, it’s tiny compared to coal.

    I think there’s a very good visual demonstration to be had here. A picture is worth 1000 words.

    Wave a pencil with an eraser on its end at the audience. A pencil-eraser sized uranium oxide fuel pellet can generate as much electricity as a whole ton of coal.

    When burned, that ton of coal produces 3.6 tons of CO2.

    That 3.6 tons of CO2 occupies about 2000 cubic metres at normal temperature and pressure. That’s the area of a football pitch, covered with pure CO2 to a depth of 11 inches. As you explain this, display an animation of a gigantic inflatable bag on a football pitch, being inflated by the smokestack of a coal-fired power station to that depth. (Or hire a bouncy-castle pump and some large inflatable object.) Then wave the pencil eraser at them again. “Which is going to be easier to sequester?”

    Not to mention the other nasties in coal like mercury, arsenic, selenium, and cadmium. I don’t have exact figures for the concentrations of these, but one ton of coal contains a LOT more than a pencil-eraser’s worth of these toxins too.

    It’s “just the facts ma’am”, presented in a way everyone can understand.

    Simon

  9. Carl Lumma says:

    The technical term for MacFarlane’s position here is “concern troll”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troll_%28Internet%29#Concern_troll

    The UCS has this down to an artform. They’re not against nuclear, you know.

    -Carl

  10. Daniel says:

    Rod,

    Let say the next Republican president asks you to join the NRC as a

    1) Commissionner —- Would you accept ?
    2) Chairman —- Would you accept ?

    I say you should.

    If you were to accept, would you put an end to this blog ?

  11. Frank Jablonski says:

    Ms. McFarlane appears simply to be another anti-nuke, with “concern [troll]” veneer. It is disappointing that her concern does not extend to sources of energy that are, per the scientific consensus, destroying the conditions that facilitated the development of human civilization, in short order.

    It seems like Ms. McFarlane picks and chooses which general scientific consensus (of well-informed scientists) she will accept, and which she will reject, accepting the one on climate change, and rejecting the one on nuclear energy. This is the wrong combination for an NRC Commissioner at this time. It is no different from the right wing climate change deniers; it just reflects a different set of irrational prejudices. It is the attitude-of-mind that seems to be the problem to me.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Frank Jablonski

      I agree, but remain frustrated that so few people understand the reasons why being opposed to nuclear energy is so politically popular even if scientifically unsupportable.

      People who cheerfully accept the risks associated with continued dependence on fossil fuels and feign deep concern about the “safety issue” associated with nuclear energy are simply going with the establishment. They might even be sincerely hoodwinked by the decades long campaign of misinformation that has been rather successfully propagated by the fossil fuel funded establishment that is such an ingrained part of our hydrocarbon based industrial economy. Some of the resistors are fully cognizant of the superiority of fission and resist nuclear for more selfish financial reasons.

      It takes a deep well of personal experience or a strong and questioning attitude to be able to pull back the covers to see that nuclear fission is not such a scary phenomenon. It does not pose any unique challenges that cannot be technically overcome with good design and well trained operators. It offers unique advantages that address or solve essentially ALL of the well known problems that the fossil fuel industry has taught most people to accept as part of the bargain associated with having reliable power.

      That comprehension, however, cannot be accepted by people who have deep roots in the establishment as demonstrated by a history of education and fellowships at places that are paragons of the established way like Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford and by deep associations with the antinuclear anti proliferation establishment. Acceptance would require giving up a lot of cherished beliefs and advantages.

      As a graduate of the US Naval Academy and as a career military officer, I have glimpsed the inside of the establishment, but my knowledge of nuclear energy comes from deep personal experience supplemented by a couple of decades of almost obsessive study of a wide range of related subjects. It is the great hope for the vast majority of world citizens, even if they do not yet know it. It is also the greatest risk to the status quo so it has been, and will be, resisted with a great deal of what appears to the unquestioning to be scientifically based argument.

      • Aaron Rizzio says:

        Rod,

        I missed it the first time but I thought your interview with Macfarlane was one of your most entertaining yet, as both a socratic dual and insight into the personality of the people who make it to the top of the US nuclear policy-making bureaucratic heap.

        She’s obviously at least knowledgeable enough to know what positions to take on all the salient policy issues. I would’ve liked to have her pinned down precisely on her opposition to re-processing/re-cycle; does she refer specifically to MOX/PUREX or any kind of recycle as a matter of principle involving used fuel including IFR pyroprocessing, how about DUPIC? In fact Savannah River is now building a huge French-designed MOX facility at massive expense just to blend down ~54 tons of surplus weapons plutonium into MOX fuel per treaty obligations — to simply hand it over to the French to do in France would violate US policy. That plutonium could otherwise fuel the inventory of a couple GWs of GE’s S-PRISM SFR IFR facility for that same amount of money. Does she favor MOX over IFR?

        Cory Stansbury above details the long standing government concern over reactor grade plutonium’s theoretical weapons potential at the back-end of the fuel cycle, but this distracts from the comparatively easy HEU route at the front-end of the cycle that should be the real focus of anti-proliferation efforts.

  12. Cyril R says:

    During Jacko’s period I could not imagine anyone would be less qualified to be the NRC Chairman.

    After reading this transcript, it’s clear that my imagination was sorely lacking.

    If Macfarlane had bothered to look up the LCA emissions of nuclear power, from scientific work available even online these days, she would know that mining and enrichment CO2 emissions are trivial compared to coal burning in a coal powerplant. Clearly she is not in to reading scientific papers on this, which is extremely alarming. She’s just like all other anti-nukes that have the default-negative opinion on anything nuclear because they never bothered to do proper research.

    If Macfarlane would have read about CCS, she would know that you cannot capture 100% of the CO2. The best hoped for is 90-95%. Even 5% of coal’s emissions is substantially greater a CO2 emission than all the uranium mining and enrichment emissions…

    Get ready for Jacko the Second.

  13. Nathan Wilson says:

    Appointing some as unsupportive of nuclear as Macfarlane to head the NRC is like appointing an anti-flying person to head the air force.

    Here are a few core value that the NRC chief ought to believe:
    1) It is a crime against the poor the way the NRC drives up the cost of clean electricity with the expensive licensing regime and useless delay.

    2) The most important thing we can do to promote world peace is promote plentiful sustainable energy for all nations.

    3) Nuclear has the potential to be the lowest cost large scale sustainable energy source, but reprocessing and breeding will be required (unless one doesn’t mind building a plutonium mine, which strikes me as a bad idea).

    4) Nuclear needs a supportive regulatory environment for new designs in order to come down in price.

    5) Our anti-proliferation goals are best supported by fuel take-back agreements with non-fuel cycle countries that use nuclear power. And we can’t take-back their fuel if we don’t have anyplace to put it.
    ———-
    On the bright side, I’m glad to hear that she is confident that long term geological storage of waste is doable. I expect that when we do get breeders with reprocessing that it will be most cost effective to allow 1% or so of the TRUs to remain with the fission products that go to waste repositories.

    I’m also glad to hear that as a geologist she believes that carbon sequestration can work. Not for power plants but for coal-to-liquids. I think that ammonia will be our dominant non-fossil transportation fuel for the next millenia (it’s the cheapest fuel that can be made from sun, wind, or nuclear; and it’s not too much more costly than other liquids from coal). But it won’t have critical mass without a viable fossil fuel pathway (and ammonia from natural gas is not competitive with cng).