Union of Concerned Scientists Opposes ALL Proposed Used Fuel Recycling Efforts
If I was a print journalist, I would be limited in my ability to describe the vast difference between the presentations of Areva, GE Hitachi, Westinghouse, and EnergySolutions and that of the Union of Concerned Scientists during the first session of the Reactor and Fuel Cycle Subcommittee of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Fortunately, I do not write for a print publication, but I do have a YouTube account and a blog with the ability to embed a video.
After watching Dr. Edwin Lyman, the senior scientist of the Union of Concerned Scientists, you should be able to get a real feel for the depth of his knowledge and his facility with the concepts that the other people on the panel described. (I apologize if it was a little painful to watch and I congratulate you if you completed the task in a single sitting.) You should also be able to answer for yourself whether or not Dr. Lyman’s opening salvo explaining that “the Union of Concerned Scientists is not (emphasis in the original) an anti-nuclear organization” bears a distinct relationship to a frequently repeated line originating from Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act III Scene II – “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
As a nuclear professional and as a person who has been imbued from birth by both parents with a conservationist philosophy of avoiding wasteful habits by reducing material inputs, reusing what you can, and recycling whenever possible, I am offended by the UCS’s position taken in opposition to improving the material utilization rate in the nuclear fuel cycle. In the comments sections of other posts that have involved the UCS, people have expressed the opinion that the organization is neither “concerned” about the prosperity and safety of future generations nor particularly “science” based. After watching Dr. Lyman in action during both his prepared remarks and the question and answer session that followed, I have to agree.
If he is the best scientist or technologist that the UCS can offer to send to an important public policy discussion, then perhaps those of us who favor the use of nuclear energy because we have worked long and hard to understand the technology can stop worrying so much about the opposition. They are largely unarmed when it comes to facts or an understanding of reality.
We cannot allow the kind of unsubstantiated statements and vague references to “studies” that Lyman makes stand without challenge, however. In our society, we all have the right to talk. Some people have worked long and hard to attempt to dominate the available soapboxes. The answer is not attempting to silence the dissent, but to expose it to as much light as possible. We also need to work hard to respond effectively.
Along those lines, I would be pleased if you could all help me dissect Lyman’s presentation. If you want to take on a particular statement, note the time hack when his statement was made, a general summary of what he said and then your response. Links and references would be excellent contributions to a prepared, point by point response.
Update: (posted on September 6, 2010 at 0544) Transcript of Interview with Dr. Henry Kendall, founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Finn Aaserud at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 25 and 26, 1986
The above is a lengthy interview with some important details about the early days of the UCS as the effort of essentially two individuals, Daniel Ford (an economist) and Dr. Henry Kendall (a physicist whose research efforts were focused on high energy particle accelerators). According to Dr. Kendall, they did their work on nuclear reactor safety in the name of an organization that essentially had ceased to exist other than as a name. Most of the detailed information about the UCS and its interest in reactor safety starts toward the end of the first day of the interview and picks up again at the beginning of the second day. The first part of the interview provides some interesting background on Dr. Kendall and his research background.
Kendall: And then in 1971, I got into the big issue, the reactor safety business, which basically made UCS a nationally known organization. By that time, we had already learned reasonably completely how to proceed, although we had no resources to speak of. On the safety business we did a technical study, wrote a paper, had a news conference, and we were launched.
. . .
It is true that that was the opening gun, so to speak, on the nuclear reactor safety debate. And that report and press conference was followed by another one, I think in October of that year. Not long after that we became involved in the major hearings that went on for about two years on the subject of emergency core cooling and reactor safety.
This reactor effort, started when the Union of Concerned Scientists, was very small. Indeed there were really just two of us by early 1972 who carried the Union and its name through.
Aaserud: That was you and…
Kendall: Daniel Ford.
Article reprinted from New Scientist – 21 September 1972 US ponders possible runaway reactors.
The above article documents a view about the Emergency Core Cooling System related safety hearings held during the first eight months of 1972 that helped to establish the UCS (consisting at the time of Daniel Ford and Henry Kendall) as a potent force in the debate on nuclear power plant construction. It provides some cautionary tales worth remembering – the vendors did not do themselves any favors by their claim of “trade secrets”. The failure of the AEC leaders to read and head reports that they had commissioned also did not play well in the hearing.
Shall we say a dearth of information that would back up claims. Both LFTR and IFR advocates support the use of actinides from “nuclear waste” to form start up charges for power generating nuclear reactors. These reactors can be proliferation resistent. Fuel reprocessing would recycle sufficient fuel to keep the nuclear process going, but would not add to the global stock of weapons grade material, while the reuse of actinides would in Generation IV power producing reactors would divert actinides away from potential weapons use.
Going point by point? As best I can tell there were only two points he made. I’ll address the more serious one.
At 8:24 he states that it would take hundreds to thousands of years to reduce actinide levels below where they are today.
Certainly, when it comes to using MOX in PWRs it is a fair point that we don’t gain much reduction in plutonium.
A 1 GWe LFTR could be started using reactor grade plutonium. Depending on the neutron spectrum each reactor would use 3-5 tonnes of such plutonium. After some 30-40 years the inventory of plutonium would be reduced to around 300 kg and the annual production for a pure thorium fed machine would be around 20 kg (of Pu238 so not weapons usable).
The second point that the volume isn’t significantly reduced – this is easy for any recycling system to achieve should it be valued. Simply fluorinate off the uranium. I’m guessing that bringing this up lowered his credibility before the commission.
In the time frame 5:50 to 9:00 minutes, Dr. Lyman argues that removing transuranics by recycling only reduces the total actinide inventory by a small amount. What he leaves out is that the transuranics are the actinides of interest. The other actinides are hazardous materials with no proliferation risk and have to be secured the same way all hazardous materials do, except that they have the unique feature of slowly decaying away.
By “inventory” I infer that he means the level of radioactivity. It’s true that the transuranics have low levels of radioactivity. But they represent some 96% of the material by weight.
But his objection is that decay of the remaining actinides takes place over centuries. He says hundreds to thousands of years, but that clearly is an overstatement. In either case, he rebuts the debating points of nuclear opponents, who agonize over imagined decay periods of hundreds of thousands of years. His decliningl to admit as much belies UCS’s feigned objectivity.
In the time frame 6:57 to 7:45 he cites an EPRI paper to claim that recycling spent fuel somehow triples the inventory of actinides. He doesn’t explain from where the extra 200% of actinides comes. Given the adversarial tone of the presentation, one has to suppose that some creative interpretation is at work here. That may be a fair description of the entire presentation.
There’s a small double word “should should” grammar error in the first sentence of the second paragraph. Didn’t you mean “you should”?
Thanks Jason. Correction made.
Dr. Lyman cites Charles Bathke’s study of the relative proliferation resistance of various separative recycling proposals — UREX+, COEX, pyroprocessing — to underline his point that “the mixtures themselves are still attractive” to proliferators.
Really? From what I know of the proliferatioon cases that have occurred during the nuclear age, not a single one was based on reprocessed civilian fuel. Two of these cases, India and Pakistan, involved countries that had devoted very considerable national resources to developing nuclear weapons. Both countries had power reactors under their control (PHWRs, either CANDUs or derivatives). Neither obtained their nuclear explosive using these reactors.
On this basis, it doesn’t sound like used fuel from power reactors is attractive at all.
Forgive my rudimentary knowledge of scientific method, but doesn’t it involve testing hypotheses and discarding or modifying those that don’t pass the test? Dr. Lyman says this material is attractive to proliferators. Which proliferators?
Having some familiarity with Dr. Bathke’s work, I can perhaps shed some light on this a bit.
Lyman’s claim is correct but extremely misleading. To give a little background, Bathke’s work involves making an assessment of the usability of a SNM mixture for weapons, based upon consultations with weapons designers. The mixtures Lyman talks about are classified under Bathke’s Figure of Merit as “attractive” to a proliferant state-level actor, however they show a marked penalty compared to say, WGP. This is important, and this is where Lyman is intentionally being deceptive.
Furthermore, the measure for these materials is for a state-level actor with the resources to overcome the substantial penalty in terms of heat and spontaneous neutron emission to create a weapon. Bathke’s other metric – FOM2 – is designed for a sub-state level actor, and it shows that such materials are generally unattractive to that threat profile. So, the threat we’re talking about here, in Bathke’s work, is a national actor. This is important, namely because where are these processes going to be applied? Either A) Here in the US, where the idea of the US government diverting civilian SNM for weapons is moot, or B) In other NPT signatories, which means safeguards and monitoring will already be in place.
What this means really is this is a red herring thrown out by someone who is basically throwing out everything but the kitchen sink. And as someone whose research work actually deals with PR assesment, suffice it to say that it is greatly annoying to see someone like Lyman abusing such metrics in such a manner.
In his opening comments, he speaks to the UCS goal of “mitigating climate change”.
The UCS website site indicates that this is the primary Concern of the Scientists.
He tries to make two points about fuel reprocessing: actinide reduction and proliferation.
He never even attempts to speak to a relationship between Fuel Recycling and climate change.
The UCS website does suggest that the Union believes that any federal $$ spent on nuclear would be better spent on “lean, affordable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar”.
It also says that “The life cycle of nuclear power results in relatively little global warming pollution”.
I wonder how they feel about defense spending, Social Security, Medicaid, and The Stimulus?
Whoever paid this guy is not getting his money’s worth.
I haven’t got the stomach right now to watch the video, but I’ve seen Ed Lyman on video quite a few times before. He is not the first physicist with a PhD who is anti-nuclear but he’s not even a good physicist as he gets many basic facts completely wrong. He shares the same warped attitude that I find very common among anti-nuclear types that see everything about the nuclear technology as evil and should be condemned while they almost unconsciously use vast amounts of energy and sophisticated technology in their daily lives.
Even if one has concerns about nuclear because of the common myths, I would hope rationality would prevail and we can hear people humbly ask “how can we make this better and cheaper?” rather than “What about the waste?”. The wonderful technologies that we enjoy today have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of years to develop. The progress that nuclear energy has made in 50 years is tremendous, yet a small amount of easily contained by-product is made as reason to abandon it rather than improve it? And in favor of vastly inferior dilute forms of energy at that. This makes no sense to me at all. The UCS is effectively a disinformation service and they are hurting America. I’m appalled they are even invited to such events.
Lyman is not a physicist, and you shouldn’t be calling him that. Nor is he a scientist. He is a policy wonk and propagandist. Simply having a doctorate that says “physics” on it does not make him a physicist. If that were the case, then I would be a “physicist” — except that I’m not; I’m an engineer.
Physicists do scientific research in physics. Lyman has worked in energy and environmental policy-meddling since the time he finished graduate school at Cornell.
Considering that he has spent the past 18 years at this stuff, it’s really quite sad that he is still so bad at it. Then again, anti-nuke organizations (including the Union of Corrupt pseudo-Scientists) have never had the highest standards.
(Ed Lyman – 3:05 minutes into talk – http://bit.ly/aOGCFL):
It seems better to me to propose disposing of Actinides while producing more fuel for starting new Thorium LFTR reactors and for this purpose there exists a fine French design called AMSTER (Actinides Molten Salt Transmuter). .
AMSTER is a concept for a graphite-moderated molten salt reactor, in which the salt treatment chemical support plant has been redesigned in order to also facilitate destruction of Minor Actinides. Using AMSTER it is possible to consume transuranium elements and generate fissile material (U-233) from Thorium. This produces a reactor, which is highly economical in uranium and thorium consumption, and is also efficient at destroying TRUs (only a few grams TRUs per billion KWhe are left in the ultimate AMSTER waste stream to be stored or disposed of).
Instead of burning up and destroying Minor Actinide in Spent Nuclear Fuel, AMSTER burns up the Minor Actinides in SNF while producing U-233 that can be used to start new LFTRs that also breed their own fuel from Thorium. Instead of burning up the Minor Actinides in SNF one time and getting some (valuable) energy out of the burning of Actinides (MOSART), AMSTER produces the ideal startup material for new Thorium Reactors while doing an efficient job of burning the MA in SNF to fission products. This permits a sustainable chain of fuel burning and fuel creation as long as you continue to feed Thorium into the LFTR reactors that have been started by originally using AMSTERs to burn Minor Actinides in SNF.
One drawback to AMSTER is that it probably does not destroy Minor Actinides in SNF as quickly as MOSART (and I do not currently have estimates for how many AMSTERs it would take to consume all accumulated Minor Actinides in US SNF in a set period of time).
 Vergnes, Jean and Lecarpentier, David “The AMSTER concept (actinide molten salt transmutER)” (2002) – http://bit.ly/aWyumi
I have to add a little levity to a finely written comment.
As soon as I saw AMSTER associated with France my mind jumped to Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the French soldier says King Aurthur’s father was a Hamster in a very bad French accent that sounds close to Amster.
They are concerned scientist living in the past. Scientists who retire can be excused for not keeping up to date but they should then call themselves “former scientists”.
But they’re not even “former scientists.” How many of these job postings would you say is for a real scientist (i.e., someone who does original scientific research)? No, they’re all jobs for managers, policy analysts, and public relations specialists.
The UCpS started life four decades ago as a quasi-political organization promoting a left-wing, anti-war agenda, and it hasn’t strayed far from its original mission. Back then, it might actually have had some real scientists from Harvard and MIT in prominent positions in the organization. Today, however, it’s just yet another special interest group, promoting a left-leaning, “green” agenda — which includes doing everything it can to kill nuclear power.
Shouldn’t anti-war groups support nuclear energy, as a way of breaking our addiction to Middle East oil (and thus our need to engage in imperialism in the Middle East)?
Thank you for the heads-up on the torture segment. Watching it was painful, and we give committee time to such nonsense…..
Starting at 4:00 : “the notion that having plutonium that is not separated from other transuranics provides very marginal benefits with regards to either the risk of theft of nuclear materials or the risk that the material could be used directly in a nuclear weapon”:
I agree with Mr. Lyman that not removing transuranics only marginally decreases the chances that the outcomes he has described will occur. Of course, since the outcomes described by Mr. Lyman – use of spent LWR fuel directly in a nuclear weapon – or theft of LWR spent fuel for some other nefarious purpose (that purpose being as of yet unknown to mankind, since the dire effects of a “dirty bomb” are practically a joke that would be funny if it was not as absolutely stupid as it was) have a chance of occurring that is so far below marginal that it is nearly in the “patently ridiculous” range for reasons previously extensively discussed in this forum. Reducing a “nearly patently ridiculous” chance of something happening to the “absolutely patently ridiculous” level is an unnecessary expenditure of resources.
If terrorists and proliferators are so interested in spent fuel and reprocessing, let’s see the evidence. And by evidence, that means that a state actually decided to pursue a civil grade to weapons program, or even seriously considered it. No, we’re not talking about speculation from speculators who are paid to speculate with unlimited times on their hands.
There was one state that did. That was because it didn’t know any better (seeing as it was engaged in the first program of nuclear developmental ever). That state was the United States of America. And the year it ditched it was 1944, when Tall Boy was canceled as infeasible.
This is the thing – the idea of any threat from a sub-national actor acquiring SNM from reprocessing would be laughably small were it not being pushed so hard by the anti-reprocessing (i.e., as a proxy for anti-nuke) forces. Works like what Lyman cites show attractiveness for a state with the resources to overcome the substantial penalty incurred from RGP – which a sub-national actor doesn’t have. It furthermore assumes the ability to gain large amounts of material from such a plant – which again, a sub-national actor would be very unlikely to achieve, given that this would be difficult for a host state to do except through overt means.
I think you mean “Thin Man”. The “Tallboy” (one word) was a British conventional 12,000 lb bomb used in World War II (to sink the Tirpitz, among other things).
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