I was disappointed by the speeches given during the plenary session of the 2013 American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting. There is no value in trying to say that more gently.
The advertised theme of the still on-going conference is a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the human discovery of fission. That is the almost magically energy-dense natural process in which a neutron — a neutrally charged particle that was first discovered by James Chadwick just 5 years before the official discovery of fission — enters a nearby nucleus of certain actinide elements and breaks it into two energetic fragments.
Unfortunately, most of the speakers for the opening session — with the notable exception of Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy — appear to share the view that the use of the incredible power stored in uranium, thorium, and plutonium for massively powerful weapons continues to be fundamentally and inextricably linked in a single enterprise with the beneficial use of those same elements for a wide range of purposes that have nothing to do with wanting to control, terrorize or kill people.
I’ll start with some positive words from Jim Rogers that energized the gathered audience of nuclear professionals by reminding us that we have an important mission. He charged us with the task of helping others understand the importance of producing electricity with the emission-free process of atomic fission. He also asked us to help government leaders understand the importance of encouraging companies to build new nuclear production capacity. He reminded us that we need to take this action in order to address the risk of continuing to dump an increasing quantity of fossil fuel combustion waste products into our shared atmosphere.
We are gathered today to celebrate the 75th anniversary of nuclear fission. I stand here just as one employee of Duke Energy, whose mission is to provide affordable, reliable and increasingly clean electricity in safe and sustainable ways, 24 x 7, 365 days per year. That’s our mission; it’s been our mission for a very long time. And it will continue to be our mission, but in different ways as we look into the future.
At the heart of our operation is our 11 nuclear units. We have the distinction of having the largest regulated fleet in the country. We also have the good fortune of having a geographic footprint with all of our units in both North and South Carolina, which really gives us the opportunity to operate on a fleet basis.
We’re also people that believe in “all of the above”, but unfortunately, “all of the above” as used by Republicans and Democrats in our country means two different things when you hear it said. But the reality is we need to demonstrate our commitment to nuclear when we say all of the above. Just chanting the bumper sticker phrase is not enough for us to move forward in a way to serve the people of this country and serve the people of the world.
So I ask you to think with me today as we think about the challenge. We’ve been on a long road to where we are today. We’ve made progress, but I look back and think. Five years ago, we were at the start of the nuclear renaissance in the United States. It’s amazing what has happened in the last five years.
Today our view is different; a number of things have happened that we couldn’t have predicted. We couldn’t have predicted that there’d be no price on carbon, that our congress would bog down and not address this important world issue. Because the reality is, if you’re serious about addressing climate, you have to be serious about nuclear energy, because as y’all all know, it is the only way we produce electricity 24 x 7 with zero greenhouse gases. [Applause]
It’s also important for us not to lose focus on making the message clear about where we’re going. I listened to Don talk about the things you are doing. But I read a survey the other day that the American people just don’t understand how electricity is made, how gas arrives at the pump.
They are illiterate when it comes to energy in America and each of us has a responsibility to help educate the people of this country about how we fundamentally transform their lives every day by bringing electricity into their homes and businesses across our country.
So the educational piece. We’ve fallen behind, we have to do more, we can’t do enough when you look at the illiteracy that exists in this country. Not just up here on Capitol Hill, which is pretty amazing in itself, but also throughout the country, in the state legislatures as well as among every man and woman in every community in this country.
Unfortunately, the rest of the morning’s speakers, including Ernest Moniz, George Schultz, Sam Nunn, and Sidney Drell, were less confident about the vital importance of using nuclear energy to address the existential issue of providing abundant energy to the world’s growing population without producing damaging greenhouse gas emissions. In their view, the challenge of supplying adequate energy — in the United States — is already adequately taken care of by coal, oil and natural gas (with a special emphasis on the latter). In their collective opinion, if we think we need to consider emissions, we might be able to produce enough using wind, solar, and hydro.
Here are some words from Sam Nunn that illustrate his position regarding the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation:
The world needs members of the American Nuclear Society to be leaders in the field of security as you’ve done so well in the field of safety. Your wisdom and experience are vital to the future of the nuclear enterprise and our security. Yes, government does have the primary responsibility, but you can help. We’re in a new era and we must think anew.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed titled “Strategic Terrorism”, former chief technology officer of Microsoft, Nathan Myrvold observed, quoting him, “Throughout history, each generation of weapons technology was deadlier and more lethal than its predecessor. More lethal weapons required larger investment and larger industrial bases. A single nuclear device can destroy an entire city, but it also cost as much as a city and was also more difficult to build.”
Nathan makes it clear that the economics of weapons of mass destruction have radically changed and that today we face a different cost equation and a different world. With today’s technology, a small number of people can obtain incredible destructive power with crude nuclear and yes, also biological, chemical or cyber weapons. We must deal with this reality; it’s the challenge of our generation.
I close with this thought. We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe. We must run faster. With your help and leadership, I’m confident that we will.
Aside: Senator Nunn carefully selected parts of Myrvold’s op-ed, giving it his own slant. Myrvold wrote “Biological weapons can be incredibly dangerous, but they can also be cheap to produce and deploy.” (Emphasis added.) He also said “In a world where former superpowers have fallen on hard times and states such as Pakistan and North Korea have nuclear weapons, another path to cheap lethality is simple theft: A terror group could steal a nuclear bomb.” He did not mention — and probably does not believe — anything close to Nunn’s implication that a crude nuclear device would be an existential threat on the same scale as a sophisticated nuclear weapon. Nuclear weapons — despite all propaganda to the contrary — are not easy to build without a national level effort that can be detected with marginally intrusive external monitoring. End Aside.
I suspect that each of the speakers would take issue with my interpretation of their spoken words. After all, each one of them claimed that they supported the use of nuclear energy to produce electricity. However, they also stated that they were extremely worried about the mere possibility that nations or groups, other than those few countries that already have nuclear weapons, might decide to use uranium or plutonium to produce nuclear weapons.
They are so worried, in fact, that they believe that it is virtually impossible to devise a system that is secure enough. In their opinion, there is always room to do more to ensure that no one else has access to the material and technology that has even a remote possibility of being used to produce a weapon. If there is no limit to the potential for increased security and no recognition of the differences between the innumerable available compositions of the material, there is no limit to the amount of money that can be spent to provide that security.
In many parts of the United States, we have a competitive electricity market where money is the sole criteria for decision making. The ever-increasing security demands on all nuclear materials and nuclear-related technology that the assembled cast of cold warriors would impose would inevitably result in a situation where no company would choose to build a nuclear plant. Under their paradigm, for-profit corporations will always find less risk and more financial success building something without that open-ended resource commitment.
At the end of the series of talks, there was an opportunity for questions. Just to make sure that I had not misinterpreted the speeches, I asked the following question:
Adams: How secure is secure enough? We recently made the decision to shut down a perfectly well-operated nuclear plant, partially because of operating costs. About half of the staff at that plant was protecting low enriched uranium from attack. The question is, how secure is secure and when are we going to basically shut down nuclear power because we are afraid of the possibility of nuclear weapons?
Schultz: I’ll take a whack at that. I think you have to put safety and security at the top of the heap. And the reason is that the consequences of a lapse are so horrific. So you can’t make compromises. Having said that, it seems to me that the record of our nuclear power industry is just sensational. And they have applied it. And this system that they have where the industry itself goes around and polices itself is stunning. Because the people that go around are serious about it. They all realize that if there is an accident at any one of them, it affects them all. So the people go around; they know what they are looking at. They’re tough with each other and it works. So I think it’s exemplary and its exemplary because it hasn’t made any compromises with the absolute need for safety.
Moniz: I would just add, maybe an answer to a different question, but it’s connected. This goes back to what I was discussing in terms of the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations and the importance of moving to consolidated storage in parallel with geologic repositories. Part of that is for consolidation with regard to security and it’s especially acute with the shutdown reactor sites when the job there is almost nothing but security. So we feel very strongly that we would like to move in this direction. Once again, that will require, however, congressional action.
Those responses convinced me that I had not misinterpreted the speeches. For the old guard, there is no such thing as secure enough. They hold firm to a belief — not supported by technical facts or historical evidence — that even used light water reactor fuel needs an uncompromising focus on security. With that belief, there is little or no possibility of expanding the use of nuclear energy to serve the people that need it the most.
Absolute security of useful nuclear materials might be the challenge of their generation, to paraphrase Nunn’s words, but it is not the challenge of my generation or the generation that follows my generation.
We must make cost-informed choices that enable us to provide adequate safety and security. We must make those choices in the full understanding that there are numerous ways to generate electricity and useful heat that are more dangerous and less secure than nuclear fission. We also should consider historical evidence showing that any nation — with sufficient desire and resources applied to the task — can create a nuclear bomb out of readily available natural materials.
In my opinion, our modern challenge is to learn how to make nuclear energy safe enough, secure enough and affordable enough so that we can create a more equitable, prosperous world. We should strive to eliminate energy poverty and reduce the potential motivation to use a nuclear weapon to destroy other people. This is not a matter of making dangerous compromises, but it simply a matter of recognizing that the search for perfection is the enemy of good enough.