On December 11, 2013, Henry Sokolski, the Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), hosted a event titled Avoiding Future Irans: A New Course for US Nonproliferation Policy.
The papers offered as background material before the event started, the prepared remarks from Sokolski’s invited speakers, and the post meeting engagements I had with a couple of the speakers all supported my theory that many of the leaders in the “nonproliferation community” will do everything they can to maintain the hydrocarbon hegemony by restricting access to useful fuel materials and fuel manufacturing technology.
Sokolski revealed the fact that his true purpose was to slow or prevent nuclear fuel development — as opposed to preventing nuclear weapons proliferation — with the following statement from his introductory remarks.
Today, we are going to try to speak to what our government might do to reduce the likelihood of ever pushing another civilian nuclear cooperative agreement with a state like Iran the way we did in 1957. Most people don’t know it, but the nuclear cooperative agreement that was largely responsible for launching Iran’s nuclear activities today began with a nuclear cooperative agreement that did not even have a hearing, never mind a vote. It certainly did not lay down conditions to get Iran to foreswear making nuclear fuel or to open up for inspections that would prevent it from ever getting as far as it has gotten today.
Sokolski went on to mention several other recently completed or in-progress cooperative agreements and his desire that they should all include provisions in which the other party — the one that is not the United States or one of the existing nuclear fuel suppliers — foreswears the capability to make nuclear fuel.
From a technological and economic perspective, there are many reasons why companies or nations might be interested in making nuclear fuel. Fuel may not be the biggest component of cost in nuclear power generation, and it may seem to the superficially informed that commercial nuclear fuel is a mere commodity. However, fuel is the most important component of a nuclear power plant; its capabilities and limitations drive an almost infinite set of design choices for the rest of the plant. Without the capability to manufacture fuel, there is little or no capability to move nuclear technology beyond large, light water reactors.
Fuel manufacturing is an activity that almost always involves isotope enrichment or recycling used nuclear fuel; it is wrong to believe that any nation that expresses interest in developing those capabilities has a secret desire to use the materials or the associated skills to make nuclear weapons. It is economically and environmentally harmful to impose policies that assume everyone has — or may develop — the worst intentions.
That policy assumption drives decision makers to place severe restrictions on access to any technology remotely associated with fissile material. Despite the nonproliferation crowd’s repeated assertions to the contrary, the ability to make traditional fuel has value. The creative process of developing and making new kinds of nuclear fuel is a key to developing future capabilities that are barely imaginable today. Excessive restrictions on materials and associated technologies pose a larger-than-admitted burden on nuclear energy development.
For example, the current effort to make the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium fuel almost taboo limits the ability of nuclear fuel designers to build power producing machinery with reactor cores that are compact enough to compete with diesel or gas turbine engines. In another example, avoiding HEU makes isotope production more difficult, creates extraneous radioactive waste, and limits the development of long-lived reactor cores.
I’m even more convinced than I was before the seminar that Sokolski and many of his colleagues are closet fossil fuel marketers with a well-rehearsed sales pitch that allows them to advance their true goal while claiming to be deeply concerned about protecting the world from the dangers of nuclear weapons. Their approach has been working for close to four decades; it has helped to add enough cost and uncertainty to most nuclear energy efforts that actinides, a substantially superior heat source compared to hydrocarbons, are having a difficult time competing in markets that are driven by short-term, financially-focused decision making.
The strategy is quite elegant and was probably originally conceived by people with good reading skills and experience in product development. The strategic thinkers probably had a clear understanding of the factors that can be controlled to reduce cost and improve quality of any product and the factors that can be externally imposed to purposely increase the cost, impose delays, and create quality uncertainties.
A key part of involves efforts to impose increasingly onerous restrictions on fissionable materials. I believe that the inspiration for this component of the strategy comes from a recognition that Eisenhower was absolutely correct when he penned the following paragraph of his Atomic Power for Peace Speech. (That was, by the way, the original title of the speech that has generally been referred to as “Atoms for Peace”.)
The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here–now–today. Who can doubt, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, that this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage?
(See paragraph 62 of Voices for Democracy: Eisenhower, “Atoms for Peace,” Speech Text
Nearly everyone in the world would be ecstatic if nuclear energy really had been transformed into “universal, efficient, and economic usage”. It would mean that we would universally have access to a reliable, abundant energy source that is concentrated enough to power machines that only need to be refueled every few years — or possibly never need to be refueled — and clean enough so that the machines can be operated inside sealed buildings. Think about the beauty and prosperity that could be unleashed in a world where everyone has access to that kind of energy source.
Aside: That is not a pie in the sky vision, by the way. As a former nuclear submarine Engineer, I can testify from personal experience that the technology is not only possible, but that it has existed for more than five decades. End Aside.
Now, put yourself into the shoes of someone whose livelihood depends on selling the substantially inferior energy fuels on which we currently depend or on supporting the massive infrastructure network required to find, extract and move our current fuel sources from their natural location to the places where consumers use them. Stretch your imagination even further to think about how you would feel if you were in a position of almost unimaginable wealth and power enabled almost completely by controlling the market supply of those inferior fuel sources.
Be honest; wouldn’t you be tempted take action to prevent the “universal, efficient and economic usage” of nuclear energy by doing exactly the opposite of what Eisenhower suggested? Wouldn’t you seek to build a consensus among a “bipartisan” group of people that could help you to ensure that the world’s scientists and engineers were prevented from having “adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas”?
I’m going to take a little detour to provide an overview of history that is not well known, but which is important for understanding why I have reached my conclusion. I’ll skip many important details; a blog post is not the right format for a detailed account.
During the first decade or so after Eisenhower’s speech, there was excitement, progress and development, partially because the traditional fuel suppliers thought they had an inside track on controlling the new fuel source like they had been able to control the old ones. After a few years of intense exploration, however, it became apparent that there was simply too much accessible uranium and thorium in the earth’s crust and it was too widely distributed for the old methods of market cooperation among suppliers to work. The fossil fuel suppliers were faced with one of their worst recurring nightmares – a glut of available fuel so large that it would drive prices down to the point at which no one makes very much money. (Their other recurring nightmare was having their own wells run dry without access to replacement resources.)
Once the abundant uranium resources were identified, hydrocarbon fuel suppliers cooperated with free market advocates to encourage the government to stop assisting the development of machinery that could make use of the new fuel source. About the time that General Electric (GE) won a head to head competition to supply a nuclear power plant instead of a coal plant based strictly on economics, intense political pressure came from competitors claiming that nuclear energy had proven that it was mature enough to no longer need government sponsored research and development to make any additional technology improvements. Since the fuel suppliers recognized that the public was strongly in favor of increased nuclear technology development, they threw their support behind the breeder reactor.
The advantage that breeder reactor technology development had, in the eyes of the hydrocarbon lobby, was that it needed at least a decade’s worth of laboratory work before it could reach the market and impact hydrocarbon fuel sales. GE’s sale of Oyster Creek and the subsequent “bandwagon market” showed them that light water reactors were a more immediate threat to their sales and would be an even greater long term threat if anyone spent any time or money refining the technology to improve economics or reliability.
Aside: This story is available in more detail at Smoking gun part 26 – Coal lobbies versus National Reactor Testing Station. End Aside.
By the mid 1970s, the laboratory work on the commercial scale breeder reactor had progressed enough so that the next step in the process was to build a demonstration plant that could be used as the basis for additional learning and design refinements. (Unlike politicians and accountants, people that design and build things for a living never expect the first — or even the 10th — of a kind to be perfect. They know there is always room for improvement.)
A sustained, bipartisan effort by the Establishment — which derives great benefits from the hydrocarbon economy — arose to discourage the breeder reactor program because its success would lead to a conversion to a plutonium economy. I believe the people who stimulated that effort did it because they understood that the skills and specific capital assets that have value in a plutonium economy are quite different from those that ensure prosperity in a hydrocarbon economy.
Henry Sokolski initially entered the political picture as a consultant for the Heritage Foundation. He was assigned to work against the Clinch River Breeder Reactor project. He developed his bipartisan network, including an “across the aisle” friendship with a young congressman from Massachusetts named Ed Markey. Regular Atomic Insights readers will recall numerous posts describing Markey as someone with deep and consistent involvement with the antinuclear movement.
Aside: Senator Markey took the time out of an apparently busy schedule to drop by Sokolski’s seminar and said a few words about his long involvement in nuclear nonproliferation. There was some joking about the fact that many of the people in the room, including Senator Markey, think of him as having “Congressman” as his first name. As he told us, he still looks over his shoulder when someone addresses him as Senator, wondering who they are talking to.
I don’t think he quite understood why I was smiling so broadly as he talked about the impact of “actuarial” tables in finally overcoming the threat of the Soviet Union. He described a period in which the Soviet head of state changed frequently because the Politburo kept selecting old leaders who died in office. With all due respect, I think Senator Markey needs to look in the mirror; he was born in 1946 and served in the House for 36 years before being elected to the Senate. End Aside.
Sokolski has served in increasingly responsible nonproliferation related roles for several Republican administrations, his many publications generally express a deep skepticism for the economics of nuclear energy. That concern about economics, however, has always been accompanied by continuing efforts to ratchet up the overhead requirements associated with adhering to nonproliferation principles of tight control of any useful nuclear fuel technology that might have a relationship to weapons production.
Sokolski’s technical nuclear expertise — as opposed to his evident political skills — are illustrated by a this quote from a 1982 paper titled “The Clinch River Folly”.
Only seven-tenths of one percent of the uranium found in nature is fissionable, that is, useable for nuclear power generation. This small percentage is U 235 (which gets its name from having 235 neutrons in its nucleus).
Henry Sokolski, “The Clinch River Folly” p. 2
Editor’s note: Each nuclei of U-235 contains 92 protons and 143 neutrons to add up to a total atomic weight of 235.
Evidence for Sokolski’s dislike of the nuclear energy enterprise is shown in his 1982 vintage description of the industry’s lack of interest in completing the Barnwell, South Carolina reprocessing plant. Although wrote the paper as a consultant for the Heritage Foundation, which often points out how government interference affects business decisions, Sokolski does not even mention the fact that Presidents Ford and Carter stopped the Barnwell project with executive orders in 1976 and 1977.
Even though the fuel reprocessing — I prefer to call it recycling — ban had been lifted by President Reagan, there should have been no mystery why industry had no interest in spending money on a project that had been interrupted for more that half a dozen years by a unilateral government order. He also described the project “over 50 percent complete” but when it was stopped by presidential order, all construction was complete. In 1976 Barnwell was in the process of cold flow testing. In 1982 Barnwell was not 50% complete and on its way forward; it was 50% dismantled and already useless.
With a careful reading of his published work, it’s possible to discern Sokolski’s continuing support for hydrocarbon products and his denial that fossil fuels are both finite and impose a negative effect on the environment. Here is a relevant quote from a working paper titled Serious Rules for Nuclear Power without Proliferation that he coauthored with Victor Gilinsky in February 2013.
The putative climate imperative for nuclear power has made it easy for U.S. nuclear officials to argue that, yes, they would like to see effective anti-proliferation protection, but at the end of the day we have to settle for what we can get because we must have lots of nuclear power to deal with climate change, no matter what. However, that is exactly the case where that anti-proliferation protection is needed most.
More important, there are environmentally acceptable energy alternatives to nuclear power, including ones superior for coping with climate change. An obvious example is natural gas, which allows faster and cheaper reductions in carbon. We certainly do not accept the notion that the world is locked into eventually relying on large numbers of nuclear power plants to cope with global warming.
Only a natural gas advocate would make the false claim that natural gas, which emits a minimum of 450 grams of CO2/kilowatt of generated electricity, is superior to nuclear fission — which produces a complete lifecycle average of 10-20 grams of CO2 per kilowatt of electricity — for coping with climate change. I fundamentally believe that nuclear fission energy is the only technology that enables human society to progress, to more equitably allocate resources, and to do it without harming the atmosphere or the oceans’ ability to maintain a reasonably stable chemistry.
I’d like to leave you with more inspiring and important words from Eisenhower’s “Atomic Power for Peace” speech.
The United States would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes.
It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.
The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.
Voices for Democracy: Eisenhower, “Atoms for Peace,” Speech Text paragraphs 59-61.
Ashutosh Jogalekar, Scientific American Blogs (December 6, 2013) The Future of Nuclear Energy: Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom
Susan Eisenhower, (December 10, 1959) Swords into Plowshares