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22 Comments

  1. 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.

    1. 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?

      1. 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.

      2. @ Brian,

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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 ?

  8. 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.

    1. @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.

      1. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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).

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