Ed Lyman of UCS – Defending The Technical Accuracy of His Presentation to the Blue Ribbon Commission
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Dr. Ed Lyman’s testimony in front of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in a post titled Union of Concerned Scientists Opposes ALL Proposed Used Fuel Recycling Efforts. I asked readers to watch his presentation and dissect it from a technical perspective.
Dr. Lyman has responded to my post and your comments in a rather dismissive, but lengthy post on the UCS “All Things Nuclear” blog titled Fact, Fiction and Faith: The Endless Debate Over Reprocessing. Here is a quote from that blog post:
My testimony appears to have given certain bloggers heartburn. Rod Adams of Atomic Insights saw fit to criticize my competence, my understanding of technology and my use of what he called “unsubstantiated statements and vague references.” Yet he was unable to actually point to anything specific in my testimony that he could contradict. Instead, he posted a video clip of my presentation and invited his loyal readers to defend the faith by “dissecting” my testimony.
I would be more than happy to engage Mr. Adams’ readers in a technical debate on these issues, so I thought, frankly, that this was a fine idea. However, two weeks later, it appears that Mr. Adams’ gambit has backfired. Out of twenty comments, only one actually professes any knowledge of any of the references that I cited. Most simply repeat unsubstantiated assertions themselves. Some claim that I must have misinterpreted the references but did not actually bother to look them up. Several are ad hominem attacks on me or UCS.
Note: Is is actually possible to engage in ad hominem attacks on an advocacy organization?
I have already responded to Dr. Lyman’s post with a comment, which might or might not have been approved by the time that you visit and see what else he has to say about the issue of recycling used nuclear fuel.
Here is a second comment that I just added and managed to remember to copy before submitting it to the moderation process.
“Numerous studies have shown that fast reactor (FR) recycle systems are very slow and inefficient in actually fissioning transuranic elements, even if they operate in burner mode with very low conversion ratios.”
I know that we have a completely different view of the world. Let me state the same facts in a different way:
“Numerous studies have shown that fast reactor (FR) recycle systems use very little fuel each day as they slowly fission transuranic elements and turn them into useful heat. If the fissioning is done in the presence of fertile isotopes in a configuration that approaches a conversion ration of 1:1, the total inventory of fissile isotopes will be essentially constant.
The process will have to continue for thousands of years in order to make a significant reduction in the world’s inventories of actinides. That important work of turning actinides into heat and then into useful energy will require hundreds of thousands of technically trained workers and provide useful energy for billions of people for the foreseeable future.”
Update: (Posted on September 18, 2010 at 1030)
Here is one more comment that I added to Dr. Lyman’s post. I am posting it here just in case it never becomes visible at the UCS site.
“It concluded that there is no “silver bullet” technology that would eliminate the safeguards and security issues associated with reprocessing, and also that “none of the proposed flowsheets examined to date justify reducing international safeguards or physical security protection levels. All of the reprocessing or recycling technologies evaluated to date still need rigorous safeguards and high levels of physical protection.” “
I have read the Bathke studies (warning for low bandwidth users – link leads to a 8.1 MB scanned PDF) and talked to one of the primary authors of the paper, Dr. Barley Ebbinghaus. You have accurately reproduced the bottom line conclusion that there is no silver bullet that will completely eliminate the possibility of using recycled nuclear fuel materials in an “explosive device”.
The material is undoubtably fissionable and CAPABLE of being forced to explode by groups that either have a very high level of technical sophistication OR a low threshold for self protection, predictability, and fission yield.
It is also capable of being assembled into reactors to produce a controllable, emission free source of reliable heat that lasts a very long time, so it has incredible potential value in a world that is faced with a constrained supply of useful fuel materials.
One thing that a careful reader of Bathke’s work will gain is an appreciation of the fact that the weapons designers agree that the higher the overall burn-up the less attractive the resulting material is for anyone – sub-national group, for most of the less advanced proliferant nations, or for a technically advanced proliferant state. The calculated Figure of Merit never dips below a threshold of 1.0, so the material still requires protection, but the FOM does fall rather substantially with higher and higher exposure to neutrons. (An FOM below 1.0 would indicate that it is physically impossible to achieve a critical mass which would completely eliminate the possibility of an explosion.)
“The FOM1 of Pu and Pu+Np decreases significantly with increasing burn-up, because the concentrations of 239-Pu and 241-Pu (i.e. the isotopes with relatively high fission cross sections) decrease and the concentration of 238-Pu, which is an intense heat source, increases with increasing burn-up.”
That is what recycle systems do – they keep exposing weapons usable material to neutrons and make them less and less attractive. At the same time, those systems extract more and more energy value out of the material.
In my conversation with Dr. Ebbinhaus, made it clear that he and his fellow authors were not arguing against recycle. They support technology programs that put fissionable and fissile material back into reactors. Power reactors are safe places to store the material, to get more useful energy out, and to continue to degrade the material’s attractiveness as a weapons material.
A primary conclusion of their work, however, reminds nuclear fuel cycle innovators that there is little they can do to completely eliminate the potential that someone might want to use fissionable material to do harm. We must continue to invest in the physical protection systems and safeguards that make it possible to both use nuclear energy and to halt the potential for nuclear explosions.
That is really no different from the notion that we cannot fly in airplanes without some security precautions that prevent nefarious individuals from turning those very useful tools into explosive weapons of mass destruction capable of destroying large areas of populated major cities. (Of course, that never happens, does it?)
Publisher, Atomic Insights
@Rod: Your reading of Bathke’s FOM study is exactly right; these are some of the main takeaway lessons. Namely, that while SNM like Pu and Np require safeguards, their attractiveness precipitously falls with increasing burnup – which means the best safeguard is consumption within a reactor. The fact is, Lyman was grossly distorting the findings of the paper to support his conclusion in a way that was opposite of the authors’ intent.
Also, I’d love to know where he came up with the last name of “Darden” for me (which is clearly not my last name).
Rod, do you still beat your wife?
Debating devices like this are used to shift the debate. Organizations like UCS & NRDC confuse the debate by inferring this or that. There is no point in debating them.
If the US adopts a policy of recycling spent commercial fuel (similar to MOX programs for other countries), NRC oversight will prevent diversion. It is that simple. End of debate.
@KIt P – with all due respect to your overwhelmingly superior debating skills and ability to sway public opinion, I disagree.
The UCS and the NRDC are skilled at getting their point of views into the mainstream. They get invited to testify in front of key congressional hearings and presidential commissions. That alone tells me it is worth the effort to discuss matters with them. My intention is not to change their minds, but to use their platform to share ideas that their audience does not often hear.
It may or may not work, but so far, whatever you have done to move along the nuclear renaissance has not worked either.
PS – there is no need to be obnoxious.
Kit P – It still can be fun to mock them.
The UCS & NRDC unfortunately have the misguided weight of anti-nuclear grassroots. I have an awful difficult time explaining things to local activist groups here in NYC which equate Indian Point with Chernobyl or TMI etc.
Once again, Dr. Lyman demonstrates why he is a professional bullshitter and not a physicist. Of course, I realize that he will now simply dismiss my comment as an “ad hominem attack,” so that he can ignore it. Considering how intellectually lazy his arguments are — and what that implies their author — I guess I’m doing him a favor. 😉
Let’s consult his written works and references and throw some darts, shall we?
Point number 1: Here Dr. Lyman, as usual, focuses on only one metric, volume, which is probably one of the most useless metrics to consider. (Especially since, the volume of this material is quite small compared to the amount of energy available from it.) This is Lyman’s metric of choice because it is the one that he can most easily abuse to make his point. This type of cherry picking is common with the UCS, by the way.
What is more absurd than his choice of metric, however, is that he then criticizes a set of AREVA slides for … gasp … having the audacity to include the volume of the packaging in the total amount of volume required for disposal. Oh, the horror!
No, Dr. Lyman, comparing the numbers across studies (where different assumptions and definitions have been used), as you have done, is the apples-to-oranges comparison. Meanwhile, Dr. Davidson’s very next slide indicates, with pictures, that she has included the volume of the packaging in both of her estimates, whether the packaging consists of cement, glass, or “empty space.” That’s the honest thing to do.
Besides his difficulty with understanding Powerpoint slides, Dr. Lyman has also conveniently chosen to ignore the more important metrics, which involve units like watts, sieverts, and dollars. While he glosses over the heat load (somewhat reluctantly admitting that reprocessing will lower it), he completely ignores radiotoxicity (gee … I wonder why?). Furthermore, he fails to consider that there is a substantial difference between the cost of disposing of high-level waste and the cost of disposing of all of the other non-high-level waste. Thus, even if the volume of the latter is increased, the reduction in the amount of the former will result in savings that offset the costs of the additional lower-level wastes. The exact numbers are unclear, but Dr. Lyman doesn’t even bother to discuss this.
Point number 2: Dr. Lyman seems to complain that burning transuranic elements in a fast reactor is “slow.” All I can say to this is: so what? The amount of transuranics concerned is small any way you look at it. It’s small compared to the total amount of high-level “waste” from LWR’s, compared to the amount of waste from a coal plant, compared to the amount of toxic waste produced by the manufacture of solar panels, etc., etc. — the list goes on.
Besides, the most troublesome transuranic is plutonium, which can be reduced without resorting to fast reactors. It can be burned as MOX fuel in today’s LWR’s.
What’s troubling to me, however, is that Dr. Lyman appears to be surprised (or at least concerned — he is a “concerned scientist” after all) that the inventory of transuranics would increase and ultimately approach equilibrium in a scenario involving recycling of this material. I’m baffled beyond belief as to why this even deserves mention.
Gee … you’d think that a guy with a PhD in physics would have heard of the Bateman equations, or at least would be familiar with the underlying mathematical concepts. I guess differential equations wasn’t Lyman’s strong point when he was in school. He apparently doesn’t understand the concept of asymptotic solutions.
Anyhow, I guess he didn’t spend much time thinking about it, because he quickly moves on to a frivolous complaint about the need for “indefinite reprocessing and recycling.” What nonsense! By his logic, we should abandon the use of aluminum cans, because the best way to use them is to continuously recycle them, which requires maintaining recycling facilities indefinitely. Oh, the humanity! What he fails to understand is that indefinite recycling means indefinitely extracting more useful energy from the same material rather than just throwing it away. Personally, I consider this to be a gift for future generations, not a liability. Dr. Lyman, on the other hand, has different, strange priorities.
Point number 3: Here, Dr. Lyman shows us that he is still stuck in the Ford/Carter era. Perhaps he still wears polyester leisure suits and owns a pet rock too. 😉 Apparently, he has learned nothing from the last three decades of nuclear geopolitics. Specifically, he hasn’t noticed that banning reprocessing in the US has done nothing to prevent other countries from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Once again, Dr. Lyman sticks to his cherry-picked points, avoiding such inconvenient details as the isotopic composition of reactor-grade plutonium and (more importantly) the number of nuclear weapons that have resulted from the commercial-fuel reprocessing programs in places like France and Japan. (By the way, that last number would be zero.)
Summary: All three of Dr. Lyman’s points are carefully constructed to confuse the ignorant. They are smoke and mirrors that play well to the peanut gallery, but anyone with any common sense and knowledge of the subject can see through the nonsense.
Lyman’s point about the remaining transuranics hinges upon a point over “intergenerational equity,” which he uses in a particularly obnoxious form. That is, we take zero credit for the savings in uranium mining achieved by actinide recycle, or by the ready availability of a fuel resource for said generation. Instead, the very presence of this resource is a “burden” by virtue of requiring a “stable society” to either utilize it or dispose of it. Compared, of course, to the societal burden imposed of maintaining a permanent exclusion zone at a geologic repository, along with the additional environmental costs imposed through using a replacement energy source.
Of course, the nonsense doesn’t even stop here, of course, because Dr. Lyman doesn’t even acknowledge that, were the UCS’ most fevered dreams to come true tomorrow and every reactor to shut down forever, we still need to dispose of spent fuel. By not reducing heat and radiotoxicity through recycle, how does Dr. Lyman truly believe we’ll solve this problem? News flash: on-stie dry storage doesn’t meet the (frankly nonsensical) “intergenerational equity” standard either – while most reasonable estimates put the lifetime of dry storage at 50-100 years, there’s no way it provides the natural and engineered barriers for storage over millenia required without further recycle. In other words, it still requires future intervention.
Were Dr. Lyman and the UCS even remotely serious about solving the issues of spent nuclear fuel while being steadfastly opposed to reprocessing (oxymoronic as that may be), they would be at the forefront of campaigning to get permanent geologic repositories online. Instead, silence – or worse, campaigning on why this issue makes nuclear a non-starter. It goes to show just how “seriously” they take their own arguments on this subject. (About as seriously as they do other research, apparently, including getting the names of their critics correctly…)
Lyman wants to have his cake and eat it too. None of the other considerations matter, because the UCS’s opposition to recycling is all part of a larger plan to demonize nuclear power because of the supposed “scarcity” of the fuel. This plays well to the peak-oil crackpots, don’t you know.
For example, the UCS lectures us that
“Uranium is one of the least plentiful of minerals, making up only two parts per million in the earth’s crust.”
This is nonsense, of course. Uranium doesn’t even come close to being one of the “least plentiful” substances in the earth’s crust. This is just more corrupt science from the UCS.
Brian writes: “Summary: All three of Dr. Lyman’s points are carefully constructed to confuse the ignorant. They are smoke and mirrors that play well to the peanut gallery, but anyone with any common sense and knowledge of the subject can see through the nonsense.”
Ah, but therein lies the rub, Brian. Most of the members of the BRC have little knowledge of the subject, and I leave it to you to guage their individual level of common sense. We can only hope that at least one of the few members of the panel with knowledge of the subject will explain the vapidity of Lyman’s arguments and the deception that he is hoping to get away with.
Comments are closed.
Recent Comments from our Readers
The Clinton Nuclear Plant also in Illinois was shutdown essentially for almost 2 years before it was taken over by…
Good Podcast – Very informative One thing that was not discussed is how to deal with a particular fear that…
Renewables people are masters in marketing. Unreliable intermittent generators whose output is all over the place, and usually badly correlated…
Looking at their lineup, Westinghouse seems bound and determined to keep Gen IV in its “place” which is apparently the…
So they are developing a scaled down version of the AP1000, which is a scaled up version of the AP600,…