In 1999 the Federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) undertook a comprehensive study of Federal energy interventions during that year. The EIA undertook a second study in 2007. Remarkably the EIA study foind that no growth in energy consumption had occurred during the previous 8 years.
The 1999 and 2007 EIA studies actually compliment and amend the 2008 MISI study I discussed in my last post. The MISI study did contain a summery of estimated subsidies from all sources for various segments of the Energy Industry from 1950 to 2006, there is no break down by year, except for R&D expenditures. There are discrepancies between the two reports. Thus The EIA found that nuclear R&D expenditures for 1999 to be $740 million, while the MISI estimated the 1999 nuclear R&D subsidy to be only $125 million. The EIA qualifies its R&D budgeting by describing the 1999 funding as being for “applied” R%D. Thus the entire $740 Million is the DOE budget for applied research, and not every research project is directed toward research that would qualify as a subsidy for the “civilian nuclear power industry”.
A further breakout of the 1999 DOE expenditures demonstrates some of the issues.
New Nuclear Plants (Nuclear Energy Research Initiative) 36
Waste/Fuel/Safety (Environmental Management) 530
Other Allocated (Termination Costs and Program Direction) 173
Is any of this a real subsidy for the Civilian nuclear industry? The first line would be, but it would it really be a subsidy unless energy utilities got some benefit from it. Thus if the New Energy Research Initiative produces something that actually benefits the nuclear power industry, it is a subsidy. If not it might be considered a dead end science project. The first line looks like a subsidy, however.
The second line, I have argued, cannot be considered a subsidy, In the DOE Budget the term Environmental Management, refers to the cleanup of old Cold War and WWII AEC sites, that were either being shut down, or in the process of being shut down. The cleanup problems were predominately a legacy of military uses of nuclear power. Most of the civilian research programs that were involved in the subsequent cleanup were not involved with LWR research, and hence the cleanup is not a LWR subsidy,
Finally the third line refers to the shut down of a Cold War Era production plant. The facility in question was involved in weapons related work and its clean up thus was not a subsidy for the civilian power industry.
There are a few items mentioned for the year 1999 in the MISI study of nuclear subsides, that do not seem to be subsidies for the nuclear power industry. Other items might be seen as not real subsidies at the present, but possibly they might have a future subsidizing effect. Thus for example, DOe’ grants for University Reactor Infrastructure and Education Assistance, benefit the civilian power industry? The answer is probably yes, and in several ways, But it could also benefit research programs that are unrelated to the nuclear power industry. It could also benefit the United States Navy, since the Navy might recruit naval reactor operators from such programs. The program might also be a source of earmark funds, that were far more about local politics, thn serving th interest of the nuclear power industry. Although the issue demonstrates how problematic determining a subsidy is, I would be inclined to think that the $10 million is a subsidy for the civilian power industry, even if it were not intended to be so.
In order to resolve some issues raised by the Energy Information Administration 2007 study of Nuclear Federal energy interventions, I reviewed the 2009 Federal Budget request for nuclear power, in order to identify 2008 appropriations.
In 2008 Congress appropriated for the Nuclear Power 2010 program, $133,771,000
For the Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems Initiative $114,917.000
The Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative received a 179,353,000
These programs at present cannot be described as nuclear power subsidies, unless or until research leads to a product or concept that benefits the nuclear industry.
In addition to research appropriations, other facilities which might been seen as a subsidy for civilian nuclear power would be the $278,789,000 appropriation for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facilities. However, the MOX Program is part of an ongoing nuclear disarmament/anti-proliferation effort. The long term goal of the MOX program is the lowering of stocks of Plutonium by using it as reactor fuel. The MOX facility is designed to manufacture reactor fuel containing plutonium and uranium. I believe that it would be extremely cynical for supporters of nuclear disarmament to describe a disarmament program as a subsidy to the civilian power industry.
Thus the current Federal budget contains few if any real subsides for the nuclear power Industry. Critics of nuclear power charge that the nuclear industry cannot live without subsidies, My review of the current Federal support roe nuclear power related research suggests that far from being subsidized by the government of the United States, the nuclear power industry is paying money to the Government but not receiving promised services. Relatively small long range DOE funded nuclear research programs have yet to produce any positive benefits for the civilian nuclear power industry, and may not produce any benefits for some time, if ever, Thus it is very inaccurate to speak of the current nuclear industry as being dependent on subsidies.
I posted the account of Milton Shaw in Three Parts on Nuclear Green. Other parts of this post are derived from early “Energy from Thorium” posts.
During the interview Weinberg was asked to comment on Milton Shaw. Weinberg responded, “Milton Shaw had a singleness of purpose. In many ways I admired him, and in many ways he drove me nutty. He had a single-minded commitment to do what he was told to do, which was to get the Clinch River Breeder Reactor built. My views were different from his. I think the Commission decided that my views were out of touch with the way the nuclear industry was actually going.”
Milton Shaw was actually a Knoxville boy. He was born on Oct. 5, 1921, in Knoxville. His father, William Shaw, was a professor of agricultural chemistry at the University of Tennessee. There were fewer than 1000 Jews in Knoxville when Shaw was born, and in some respects the Knoxville Jewish community was typical of the South. The Knoxville Jewish community had contributed a major voice to the nation, Adoph Ochs, the the founder of the Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty that still owns the New York Times grew up in Knoxville, and began his journalism career there.
Shaw studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, and probably received a draft deferment, because his field of study made him more valuable to the military with a complete education, than as a grunt. Upon graduation Shaw joined the Navy. He was sent to the Navy Propulsion School at Cornell University in 1944. The Navy then assigned him to the Pacific where he served as an engineering officer for the rest of the war.
Mr. Shaw served in the Navy as an engineering officer in the Pacific Theater during World War II. After the war Shaw continued his career with the Navy, working at the Naval Engineering Experiment Station and Testing Laboratory (EES) in Annapolis, Maryland. He sought out Rickover, and Rickover took him on, first sending Shaw to the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology in 1950-51, where according to Alvin Weinberg, he was an average student. Now average at Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology in 1950 probably meant very, very bright. To be above average in that crowd you had to be a genius, of which there were more than a few of those floating around Oak Ridge at the time.
Shaw had had the quality of relentless determination. to get whatever job he was assigned done. He was the perfect executive officer, which Hyman Rickover recognized.
Rickover managed to insinuate himself into the AEC bureaucracy while also working for the Department of Defense, and holding Naval rank. These multiple hats gave Rickover great power, and he brought Shaw into the system. Shaw learned the use of power, and an abrasive, autocratic leadership style from Rickover. From 1950 to 1961, he reported directly to Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, known as the “father of the nuclear Navy” and who was serving in the Office of Naval Reactors for the Atomic Energy Commission. When Shaw left Rickover in 1961, it was to serve as a technical assistant to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research and development.
Shaw had worked on the development of the nuclear submarine, and then was Rickover’s man in charge of surface nuclear systems. He was responsible from conception to completion for the aircraft carrier prototype plant and the nuclear propulsion plants for the Enterprise and the Long Beach, as well as for all other surface ship propulsion plant projects.
The Shippingport reactor was really a naval aircraft carrier reactor that had Shaw had developed. When President Eisenhower proposed his Atoms for Peace project, Rickover donated a spare aircraft carrier reactor that had been built for experimental purposes. The reactor was hooked up to a turbine and a generator, and thus became the nations first “civilian” nuclear power plant. Of course Rickover’s boys continued to run experiments on it.
Shaw understanding of technical issues, coupled with his management skills made him the supreme bureaucrat. During his three years as a senior assistant to the Navy assistant secretary, Shaw was actively involved with the management of all research, development, test and evaluation matters to the Navy and Marine Corps. He was also responsible for coordination and direction of the scientific and technical efforts of the Navy’s bureaus, laboratories and offices. Needless to say, Shaw had a position in which he yielded great power over the Navy’s scientific and engineering establishment, and he undoubtedly chose to do so.
In 1964 Shaw left the Navy Department, and joined the AEC as director of reactor research and development. That position gave him oversight of research the reactor programs of all the national laboratories including ORNL. Shaw did not flinch at using his authority to the utmost. In the case of ORNL he was accused of using his authority to destroy the Lab. I do not know if that was his intention, but he certainly succeeded in destroying the Reactor Chemistry Division.
When Milton Shaw went to the AEC in 1964 he already had a well-formed set of beliefs, attitudes and professional skills. His entire working career had been spent with the Navy, first as a junior officer, and then as a young engineer who had pioneered the modern nuclear fleet under Rickover. Almost all of Shaw’s reactor experience had been with naval ship propulsion. That was almost entirely with the light-water reactor. Rickover and Shaw had adapted Navy management systems to the running of shipboard reactors. Every system on the reactor was duplicated. If one system failed, another was ready to take its place. Duplicate systems meant that if a system needed to be shut down for maintenance another was available to take its place. Thus reactors could be run continuously. Crews were highly trained. Every operating procedure was elaborated in detail in technical manuals. Officers and men were expected to always follow manuals to the letter.
I once did a brief study of the Soviet Navy’s reactor problems. The Soviet Navy had a system which was much more lax than the US Navy, and the Soviets paid the price for it.
Shaw’s strengths as a manager included keeping researchers and research on track. Shaw identified objectives set by superiors, and worked relentlessly to make sure that objectives were meet. His attitude to authority was military. Orders were to be obeyed.
When he joined the AEC in 1964, Shaw took charge of a very different system. Scientists ran the national labs, and their methods took latitudes for curiosity. Scientists like my father and George Parker were given significant latitude to direct their own work. The result was that they sometimes solved problems, and sometimes discovered problems, as George Parker was doing in his reactor safety research.
Executive Officers in the Navy are the chief inspectors of shipboard operation, and Shaw functioned very much like a Naval Executive Officer. During the early 1960’s George Parker and my father had run an annual international conference on reactor safety issues. Shortly after Shaw’s ascension to power at the SEC, that conference was ordered shut down. Shaw then proceeded systematically to attempt to drive Parker out of the nuclear safety business.
From Shaw’s viewpoint nuclear safety was a done deal, and further research on it was a waste of time. Shaw viewed light-water reactors as a mature technology. From his perspective, all that was required was to build in sufficient redundancy, write the technical manuals, and make sure that the workers were well-trained and that
rules were followed.
From Shaw’s perspective the scientists at Oak Ridge and at other national laboratories were a bunch of unruly boys, recruits who need to be set in line by Chief Petty Officer tactics.
Chuck Rice, who had been the President of Aerojet Nuclear, an AEC contractor, recalled an encounter with Shaw:
After I had been elected president of Nuclear [Aerojet Nuclear], we had a big dinner for key managers in the company at the Stardust Motel. Milton Shaw was there, Bill Ginkel, many from Aerojet, all the way down to branch managers. Shaw got up and did his Rickover-type tirade on all that these people in the room had done wrong. They were lousy managers, had poor control, and so on.
When it was my turn to speak, I got up and listed the outstanding accomplishments of the group and complimented them on the work they had done so well.
As I walked out after dinner deBoisblanc came up and said, “I really appreciated the comments. You’ll be fired, but it was nice to hear it.”
The next day there was a meeting on whether to fire Rice or not. Shaw said, “Find out the reason for his speech. Then we’ll decide.” Someone called me and I said, “Shaw works at Headquarters, I work here. If we are to do well, I’ve got to invite the people who work here to join my party.” I kept my job.
Shaw believed that reactor operations should be subordinated to quality assurance. Parts and systems must meet standards, and management must assure the standards always be meet.
Shaw was authorized by the AEC to sweep the national labs clean with a new broom. Alleging that labs were duplicating efforts, he demanded the merger of working units, and the redirection of lab staff assignments. He sought tight control on research efforts.
Shaw believed himself to have all the answers, and did not brook opposition. Not even Alvin Weinberg was safe from Shaw’s broom.
Shaw believed that reactor safety was largely a matter of good engineering. Once the principles of proper reactor design were understood, good judgment and adherence to sound design principles would always assure that safety would be maintained. The belief of Weinberg and others that scientists like George Parker should continue to working on safety issues was discounted by Shaw who thought that further research was a waste of effort. Shaw believed that emergency cooling for reactors was a wasted effort, if the reactors were well-engineered to begin with. This belief was to cost the reactor industry billions of dollars and was to have serious consequences at Three Mile Island.
Scientists began to believe that Shaw was vindictive, and that he would punish people and institutions that failed to adhere to his dictates. As scientists (some late in their professional careers) began to be laid off from national labs, a belief set in that Shaw had instituted nothing short of a purge of AEC research programs. Morale plummeted at AEC facilities, and chaos reigned.
Chuck Rice explained Shaw’s new system to Idaho congressman Orval Hansen:
“In the past, reactor and environmental safety was derived from experienced experts working together as a loosely knit team, each member of which expected the remaining members to perform the appropriate functions at the appropriate time without clear cut lines of responsibility and delegated authorities.
Shaw was not above blaming others for problems he had himself created. Oscar Wilde once wrote about puppets, “There are many advantages in puppets. They don’t argue with you, they don’t have any tastes in art, and they don’t have anything to lose.” This was what Shaw sought in science.
From the viewpoint of nuclear safety, aspects of Shaw’s attitude were above reproach. The super quality of American reactors, which can operate at maximum efficiency 90% of the time, and the fact that no life has ever been lost due to civilian reactor safety issues, are certainly testimonies to the value of his quality control system. At the same time, Shaw’s short sightedness contributed to the Three Mile Island incident, which was more than anything else, a disaster for the American Nuclear Industry.
By 1970, concern about nuclear safety was spreading. The scientific community as a whole was aware of what was happening at places like ORNL, where the safety concerns of scientists like George Parker were being ignored. Weinberg went to bat for his scientist, and was told that he was out of touch, and that if he continued to speak out about safety, there was no place for him in the nuclear industry.
As the very moment Shaw was purging scientists who were concerned about nuclear safety, a widespread movement opposing nuclear power emerged.
Milton Shaw: Part III
Shaw’s Stalinism was beginning to tell. Claire Nader was an employee and friend of Alvin Weinberg. Through Dr. Nader, her brother Ralph began to hear about nuclear safety issues and the way that the AEC under Shaw was operating. Nader began to speak out. Nader’s views could never be described as subtle and nuanced. He began to attack the entire nuclear industry with a rhetorical sledgehammer.
The Union of Concerned Scientists had been formed in 1969, Information about nuclear safety issues flowed from both Oak Ridge and the Idaho National Reactor Testing Station. The Union of Concerned Scientists began to raise the issues. The AEC under Shaw’s direction began to cover up research that called attention to safety concerns.
During this increasingly tumultuous period in American nuclear history, Weinberg and his close associate Floyd Culler were summonsed to an interview with Congressman Chet Holifeld. Holifeld had the Chairman of the House Atomic Energy Subcommittee, and thus had great power over ORNL. He was also an ally of Shaw’s, and was clearly indoctrinated in Shaw’s way of thinking. It was Holifeld who delivered the message to Weinberg that he was out of touch, and that there was no longer room for him in the nuclear establishment. Seething, Weinberg had dinner that night with Ralph Nader, the brother of his friend Claire Nader. Boiling over with rage at his humiliation by Holifeld, Weinberg laid out for Nader the heart of the safety issue. Scientists thought of nuclear safety in terms of probabilities. Things might work well 99.99% of the time, but there might be a 0.01% of an accident happening. Safety involved being ready for that 0.01% probability that something bad might happen. Shaw trained as a mechanical engineer and did not think in terms of probabilities. Either things happened or they didn’t in Shaw’s world. Scientists who thought in terms of probability were just guilty of sloppy thinking, and needed to move over for the naval engineers who could always make things happen with 100% certainty.
Weinberg later regretted his conversation with Nader, who had no real respect for Weinberg or anyone who was capable of independent thought and had integrity as Weinberg did. But Weinberg had needed a chance to ventilate that night after the demeaning way Holifeld had treated him.
Within a few months Weinberg was fired as the director of ORNL.
Although Shaw did not know it then, his days at the AEC were numbered. The Nixon Administration had appointed a Washington State zoologist, Dixy Lee Ray, to the AEC. Ray, who lived in a mobile h
ome parked somewhere in the Virginia countryside, was a total outsider to Washington D.C. But she was nobody’s fool. During 1972 and 1973 scientists from AEC facilities were called to testify before congressional hearings. Scientist after scientist laid bare concerns about nuclear safety. It was not Alvin Weinberg who had been out of touch about nuclear safety, it had been Milton Shaw. A few months later, the Nixon Administration swept AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg aside, and appointed Ray to the Chairman’s position.
Ray almost immediately began to deal with Shaw’s power. By his rigidity on nuclear safety and his alienation of the scientific community, Shaw had created a serious public relations problem not just for the AEC and the nuclear industry, but for the increasingly for the embattled Nixon administration.
Ray rewrote Shaw’s job description to leave out nuclear safety issues for his area of responsibility. Shaw was furious and handed Ray his resignation. The damage that Shaw had done to America’s nuclear research establishment was immeasurable. The national laboratories, the crown jewels of American science, had been laid low. Shortly after Shaw’s resignation, still seething at the treatment the AEC have given his concerns about nuclear safety, Carl J. Hocevar, a Idaho National Engineering Laboratory scientist, resigned his position. In a public letter published by the New York Times Hocevar voiced the dissatisfaction that still was felt throughout the American nuclear establishment:
Ms. Dixie Lee Ray
1717 H Street NW
Washington, D. C. 20545
Dear Ms. Ray:
I am resigning my position as an Associate Scientist with Aerojet Nuclear Company in order to be free to tell the American people the truth about the potentially dangerous condition in the nation’s nuclear power plants. As an employee of Aerojet Nuclear I have not been able to freely express my concerns about the nuclear reactor safety issues. Consequently I will be working for the Union of Concerned Scientists in an attempt to more fully inform the public about the current state of knowledge concerning reactor safety, particularly the emergency core cooling systems.
I have been employed at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory for the past seven years for Aerojet Nuclear and its predecessors. During that time I have been involved in the development of computer codes which are used in the thermal-hydraulic predictions of loss-of-coolant situations. I was the principal author of the THETA1-B code which was adopted by the AEC as an accepted method of predicting the thermal behavior of a fuel rod during a LOCA. The last several years I have been working on a new thermal-hydraulic loop code. The primary goal of this project is to develop analytical models which will more realistically describe the physical processes that could occur during a LOCA.
While analytical models for predicting the fluid behavior during a LOCA have been developed by both the nuclear industry and the AEC, the techniques in general are not capable of describing actual physical situations with a reasonable degree of reliability. The AEC is using shaky and unproven computer predictions as a basis for answering such vital questions as the effectiveness of reactor safety systems in preventing catastrophic accidents. This is wholly unacceptable.
Adequate experimental programs to determine the workability of reactor safety systems are also urgently needed. Experimental verification of the analytical computer codes is a necessity if we are to place our faith in these methods.
Aerojet Nuclear employees were used by the AEC as consultants during the ECCS hearings. In 1971 the AEC adopted the methods we had developed, but completely ignored our reports concerning the serious limitations of those methods. They were the best that could be developed based on the limited analytical and experimental research the AEC and nuclear industry had carried out, but they were preliminary and definitely not an adequately proven way of determining nuclear reactor safety. Little has changed in the past few years, and the safety of nuclear reactors is still uncertain and unverified.
The AEC is ignoring advice from many of its experts on reactor safety problems, a situation that has given rise to numerous resignations. Several of my colleagues have gone to work trying to help the utility companies understand the reactor safety problems that the AEC would prefer to ignore, but I believe that the genral public, and not just the companies investing in nuclear generating equipment, must be told the truth about the potential hazards.
I also have personal reservations concerning the radioactive waste problems. While I am not an expert in waste management I find the long term radioactive waste question deeply disturbing. The present generations get the electricity from nuclear plants and we leave the radioactive wastes for our children and future generations to take care of. Plutonium, an extremely hazardous material that retains its radioactive potency for hundreds of thousands of years, is hardly a legacy that future generations should be given.
In spite of the soothing reassurances that the AEC gives to an uninformed, mislead public, unresolved questions about nuclear power plant safety are so grave that the US should consider a complete halt to nuclear power plant construction while we see if these serious questions can, somehow, be resolved. The most prudent course of action that we can take is to proceed cautiously.
Carl J. Hocevar
After I wrote this account of Milton Shaw’s career, I learned more about the role of Hyman Rickover in the story. Shaw seems to have Rickover’s creature. Shaw’s abusive and confrontational management style appears to have been a conscious emulation. However Rickover appears to have worked to bring his victims back on board after he racked them over the coals. Shaw, in contrast left his victims out to dry, and thus he collected more and more enemies. Shaw’s attitude toward nuclear safety tracks too closely with Rickover to be an accident. Other aspects of Shaw’s career are consistent with Rickover’s attitudes. I suspect that Rickover and Shaw may have been in close and frequent communication during Shaw’s AEC years, but I will leave that for future historians to test.
It is clear that by 1973 Shaw and Rickover had become a problem for the Nixon Administration. Nixon, in particular, appears to have gotten Rickover’s number. While Nixon increased the number of Rickover’s, those star were in fact waning. Shaw was vulnerable, because even a Nixon weakened by Watergate was still more powerful than Rickover, and Nixon understood even better than the aging Rickover, the mechanism of power.
From: A Primer on Nuclear Safety: 1.2.1
There is little doubt that Rickover’s influence played a pivotal role i
n the choice to concentrate reactor research on two reactor designs, the light-water reactor, and the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor (LMFBR). Both reactor concepts have safety flaws. But Rickover was more introduced in producing quick results than in building the safest possible reactors.
A. Stanley Thompson worked for North American Aviation during the 1940s and spent time in Oak Ridge during the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion days. Thompson had a chance to observe Rickover in action during a conflict between Rickover and two officials of North American Aviation. Rickover traveled to the North American headquarters to meet with company officials on a Saturday in 1949. Officials were called in for the meeting, and everyone arrived with the exception of physicist Mark Mills, who was out on a tennis court. When Mills finally arrived, Rickover started chewing him out about a report Mills had written about the potential for chemical explosions in reactors. Rickover launched into a tyrade, and eventually Mills tired of the abuse,
“Sir, I resent your treatment of me. I will no longer stand for it. I’m leaving!” Mills said, and started to walk out.
Rickover also stood smilling, and said, “Mark, I think we now understand one another. You can get back to your tennis game.”
After Mills walked our, Rickover commented to us, “Mills is now conditioned on reactor safety.”
After the meeting, North American’s Chauncey Starr complained to the AEC about Rickover’s abuse of Mills.
“The next time I saw Rickover was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at a conference on the nuclear propulsion of aircraft hosted by Alvin Weinberg, Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Rickover was there in his self-appointed capacity of keeping himself informed on everything in the nuclear business. Chauncey Starr gave a talk, for which he had been coached by aircraft engineers at North American, on the importance of Mach number, aircraft lift to drag ratio, and engine thrust to weight ratio for the design of an airplane and its nuclear power plant.”
“In the evening we were invited to a friendly and welcoming dinner at the home of Marge and Alvin Weinberg with several of the senior members of Weinberg’s staff and their wives. After dinner we were seated in a circle in the Weinbergs’ living room. For a while, Rickover was directing at Starr on the opposite side of the circle a series of stinging remarks against which Starr was doing what he could to defend himself. The rest of the party had lapsed into a stunned silence. Finally one of the wives remarked, “You know, there’s something going on here that I don’t understand.” Rickover addressed her, “I’ll tell you what’s going on. This man [pointing to Starr] has been knifing me in the back, and I don’t like it.” Word must have got back to Rickover that Starr had talked to people at the Atomic Energy Commission about Rickover’s visit to North American. On the way down the hill from the Weinbergs’ party, I saw Starr and Rickover walking arm-in-arm, and talking in a confidential manner. I assumed that Starr had now been “reconditioned” on interference with Rickover. I was impressed with Rickover’s ability to turn on alternating charm and ferocious attacks, as suited his purpose at the moment.”
From: A Note on Alvin Weinberg, Hyman Rickover, and Milton Shaw
It is clear from A. Stanley Thompson’s stories that Rickover was determined to silence scientists who were concerned about reactor safety in programs he had some control over. It is not that Rickover had no concern about reactor safety, rather he and his staff had worked out an approach to reactor safety and believed that they had solved all of the problems. All that was left, in Rickover’s mind was an almost fanatical adherence to Rickover’s safety system. Rickover was paranoid. Scientist who questioned the Rickover’s infallibility on safety were the enemy in Rickover’s book.
Shaw’s attitude toward nuclear safety appears to be identical to Rickover. It now becomes apparent that Shaw’s goals and methods were identical to Rickover’s. This would explain Shaw’s power. He was Rickover’s man, and could be counted on to do what Rickover wanted. In my account of Shaw, I could not understand how Shaw had received his appointment at the AEC. But it is plausible that Rickover wanted the Shaw in the AEC as Rickover’s long arm in control of reactor development. Shaw’s great political clout, would have really been Rickover’s then. It would also follow then that Rickover was behind Alvin Weinberg’s firing as Director of ORNL.
Rickover lacked the modesty to admit that he might be wrong, and Nixon’s words must have rankled him, as Nixon knew they would.
Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins has long advocated distributive electrical generation. There is an extensive discussion of the distributive generation concept in the book “Small is Profitable” parts of which are available in electronic form at the smallisprofitable.org web site. Among the materials found on the “smallisprofitable.org” is a list of 207 Benefits of Distributed Resources. One could go down the list of benefits, and with the exception of benefits that name or apply to renewable generating sources, much of the list would apply to small factory-manufactured Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors.
The first ten items on the list will be sufficient to demonstrate how well the benefits of LFTR tracks with the benefits of distributive generation:
1 Distributed resources’ generally shorter construction period leaves less time for reality to diverge from expectations, thus reducing the probability and hence the financial risk of under- or overbuilding.
2 Distributed resources’ smaller unit size also reduces the consequences of such divergence and hence reduces its financial risk.
3 The frequent correlation between distributed resources’ shorter lead time and smaller unit size can create a multiplicative, not merely an additive, risk reduction.
4 Shorter lead time further reduces forecasting errors and associated financial risks by reducing errors’ amplification with the passage of time.
5 Even if short-lead-time units have lower thermal efficiency, their lower capital and interest costs can often offset the excess carrying charges on idle centralized capacity whose better thermal efficiency is more than offset by high capital cost.
6 Smaller, faster modules can be built on a “pay-as-you-go” basis with less financial strain, reducing the builder’s financial risk and hence cost of capital.
7 Centralized capacity additions overshoot demand (absent gross under-forecasting or exactly predictable step-function increments of demand) because their inherent “lumpiness” leaves substantial increments of capacity idle until demand can “grow into it.” In contrast, smaller units can more exactly match gradual changes in demand without building unnecessary slack capacity (“build-as-you-need”), so their capacity additions are employed incrementally and immediately.
8 Smaller, more modular capacity not only ties up less idle capital (#7), but also does so for a shorter time (because the demand can “grow into” the added capacity sooner), thus reducing the cost of capital per unit of revenue.
9 If distributed resources are becoming cheaper with time, as most are, their small units and short lead times permit those cost reductions to be almost fully captured. This is the inverse of #8: revenue increases there, and cost reductions here, are captured incrementally and immediately by following the demand or cost curves nearly exactly.
10 Using short-lead-time plants reduces the risk of a “death spiral” of rising tariffs and stagnating demand.
Every item on this shortened list would apply to small factory-manufactured LFTRs. Thus such LFTR would seem to fit well into a broad definition of distributive generation. Indeed a strong case can be made, that the small LFTR is an ideal candidate for distributive generation, and that candidates proposed by the RMI carry significant liabilities and limitations. This view directly contradicts the view of the RMI which holds. The RMI favors “Micropower”, that is the use of very small decentralized units, but David Bradish has pointed out several problems with this construct in RMI literature. Bradish found that “the largest non-nuclear source of electricity . . . is decentralized generation . . .” Which RMI literature describes as “Non-Biomass Decentralized Co-Generation.” Here my focus diverges from Bradish, who argued that for diverging and conflicting RMI definitions of “Micropower”.
My purpose is served by noting that the RMI institute appears by referring to Non-Biomass Co-Generation to be endorsing fossil fuel energy generation, how-be-it in more efficient, decentralized forms. Elsewhere the RMI refers to “Micropower” co-generation as including “turbines and generators in factories or buildings (usually cogenerating useful heat)”. As the RMI admits, “Combined-cycle industrial cogeneration and building-scale cogeneration typically burn natural gas, which does emit carbon (though half as much as coal). so they displace somewhat less net carbon than nuclear power could: around 0.7 kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt-hour.(7)”
This is a truly astonishing claim and we ought to expect hard data to back it up. Instead we read in footnote 7 the following words: “7. Since its recovered heat displaces boiler fuel, cogeneration displaces more carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour than a large gas-fired power plant does”. That is it, no data at all for what must be seen as an astonishing and highly questionable assertion. But RMI does offer a further argument,
Even though cogeneration displaces less carbon than nuclear does per kilowatt-hour, it displaces more carbon than nuclear does per dollar spent on delivered electricity, because it costs far less. With a net delivered cost per kilowatt-hour approximately half of nuclear’s, cogeneration delivers twice as many kilowatt-hours per dollar, and therefore displaces around 1.4 kilograms of CO2 for the same cost as displacing 0.9 kilograms of CO2 with nuclear power.
This analysis would and should not go unchallenged, but I will leave the question for others to address. It is clear that the RMI analysis ignores the role that lower cost, factory built small nuclear generating plants can play in distributive generation.
The RMI wavers between viewing renewable micro-generators as supplements to fossil fuel powered central grid generating stations, or as replacements for them. Thus:
68 Distributed resources such as photovoltaics that are well matched to substation peak load can precool the transformer—even if peak load lasts longer than peak PV output—thus boosting substation capacity, reducing losses, and extending equipment life.
69 In general, interruptions of renewable energy flows due to weather can be predicted earlier and with higher confidence than interruptions of fossil-fueled or nuclear energy flows due to malfunction or other mishap.
Would tend to suggest that some local electricity would be supplied from the grid. Given the RMI’s often-stated opposition to nuclear power, that electricity could well come from fossil fuel powered generating facilities. The RMI leaves this ambiguous.
It is not without significance that on the “smallisprofitable.org” site we find these words, “Grants from the Shell Foundation, The Energy Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trusts partially supported the research, editing, production, and marketing of this publication, and are gratefully acknowledged”. Shell Oil which is the source of funding for for the Shell foundation, and Shell is very much involved in the natural gas business. Shell, while decrying dirty coal is very much involved in coal gasification technology as an adjunct to power production.
If we accept the RMI’s view we are forced to acknowledge that electrical generation will continue to produce CO2 for a long time to come, because the RMI does not have a practical plan to rid the Grid of CO2 emitters, and would only somewhat cut back CO2 emissions. Not only does the RMI fall short of demanding the total replacement of CO2 emitting generation facilities, they actually advocate the continued building of new micro-power, natural gas burning co-generation facilities. This would be a probl
em to those who think that to the extent possible electricity should be generated with no CO2 emissions.
I have a few other observations about the RMI concept of distributive generation. The RMI counts all renewables as distributive generators, but conditions are emerging in Texas and other states in which most of the features of distributive generation appear to be lacking in renewables projects. For example, a recent report from the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas, looked at new grid requirement imposed by the growing West Texas wind industry. The grid expansion turns out to be quite expensive. The report stated:
The estimated costs, excluding collection costs, of the transmission proposal that best meets the criteria for each are:
Scenario 1, Plan A, 12,053 MW, $2.95 billion
Scenario 1, Plan B, 12,053 MW, $3.78 billion
Scenario 2, 18,456 MW, $4.93 billion
Scenario 3, 24,859 MW, $6.38 billion
Scenario 4, 24,419 MW, $5.75 billion.
The cost of transmission is “uplifted to load;” it is rolled into costs that all ratepayers pay (also known as a “postage-stamp” transmission rate because – like stamps – it’s the same access fee no matter where the location is).
The RMI states:
82 Distributed resources have an exceptionally high grid reliability value if they can be sited at or near the customer’s premises, thus risking less “electron haul length” where supply could be interrupted.
83 Distributed resources tend to avoid the high voltages and currents and the complex delivery systems that are conducive to grid failures.
101 Distributed resources (always on the demand side and often on the supply side) can largely or wholly avoid every category of grid costs on the margin by being already at or near the customer and hence requiring no further delivery.
Perhaps you have noticed a contradiction between the attributes of distributive generation as suggested by the RMI and the RMI claim that all renewables belong in the category of distributive generation. I would argue that large renewable projects, located for maximum access to renewable energy rather than proximity to customers, costing billions of dollars to construct, requiring large scale fossil fuel burning backup, and requiring billions of dollars in grid expansion are not distributive generating facilities.
I will now turn to the question of how the LFTR can be the Ultimate distributive generator. First, unlike gas co-generators, LFTRs do not burn fossil fuels. They can be located close to customers. LFTRs can perform as co-generators. They can produce both electricity and heat. There are distinct environmental advantages to nuclear co-generation. Air pollution becomes a significant issue when fossil fuels or biomass are burned in co-generation facilities.. In addition to CO2, cogeneration produces NOx. Diesel powered co-generators may also produce SO2.
In contrast, the LFTR produces no air pollutants and no CO2. Heat from the LFTR can be used both for topping and bottoming cycles. Given the use of exotic materials, LFTR could produce heats of 1000C, and possibly higher. LFTR technology probably should never be pressed beyond 1200C but PBR technology might provide higher heat, perhaps up to 1600 C. Waste heat from industrial processes, could be run through boilers, for steam generated electrical production.
Topping cycles could use “waste” heat for water or space heating, for lower temperature industrial processes, or for desalinization. The desalinization option would be especially attractive for arid areas adjacent to sea coasts.
Canadian Reactor Scientist David LeBlanc has proposed a novel LFTR design using an elongated cylinder core. This design would allow a single reactor design to be built with various heat outputs. The only only change would be to the length of the reactor core. Thus factory-assembled reactors can be built to customer output requirements.
Because their higher operating temperature small LFTRs produce electricity with greater thermal efficiency than LWRs. Their high level of inherent safety, and smaller size open unusual siting options, and their high operating temperature will allow them to produce process heat for many heavy industrial processes. Thus small LFTRs posses considerable promise as co-generators. Single LFTR units can be used to produce power for isolated communities, or be placed in compact urban centers to provide space heat and/or hot water for commercial and residential customers. In addition, small LFTRs in the 100 MWe to 300 MWe range, can be clustered into larger power producing units that can generate the equivalent amount of electricity to a very large nuclear plant. Such a facility would have many of the advantages of distributive generation. Units can be built one at a time, lessening the financial risk imposed by the single huge investment approach imposed by the choice of a single huge reactor. The choice several small reactors decreases the effect of reactor down time on grid operations. The choice of LFTRs would of course eliminate down times for reactor refueling. LFTRs could be sited at the location of old coal and natural gas powered generating plants. The LFTR power output could be matched to the old plant’s, thus allowing for simple reuse of the old plants grid hookup, without modification.
Thus the RMI should recognize that the LFTR fulfills all distributive generation criteria. They don’t because it is a nuclear reactor. Not only does the LFTR fulfill the criteria, but it fulfills them better than any of the generating systems proposed by the RMI. It does not burn fossil fuels or require fossil fuel fired backup. It can produce electricity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without shutdown for refueling, the onset of night, or changes in the weather. it will be easy to site, will not require dozen of square miles of land to produce electricity, can be cooled with air rather than water. If sea water is chosen for cooling, it can in turn be desalinated. No conventional or renewable electrical source can fulfill the distributive generation role better than the LFTR can. The LFTR is thus the ultimate distributive generator.
The Rocky Mountain Institute advocates using the closed loop sort of materials and energy handling system found in nature:
Using nature as mentor, model, and measure often yields superior design solutions that profitably eliminate waste, loss, and harm.
Natural systems operate in closed loops. There’s no waste—every output is either returned harmlessly to the ecosystem as a nutrient, like compost, or becomes an input for another process. In contrast, the standard industrial model of our age is a linear sequence of “take, make, and waste” — extract resources, use them, and throw them away — a process that erodes our stock of natural capital by depleting resources and replacing them with wastes.
Reducing the wasteful throughput of materials — indeed, eliminating the very idea of waste — can be accomplished by redesigning industrial systems on biological lines that change the nature of industrial processes and materials, enabling the constant reuse of materials in continuous closed cycles, and often the elimination of toxicity.
The LFTR had its origin in the desires of the great scientists, Eugene Wigner and Alvin Weinberg to eliminate the wastefulness of early reactors. They saw that in order to eliminate waste from nuclear systems, materials had to flow from one process to another. Most reactors use a structured core with solid fuel that is moved mechanically in and out of the reactor. Nuclear fuel is designed only to serve as fuel in a nuclear reactor. It is difficult to reprocess. Eugene Wigner was trained as a chemical engineer, and thought in terms of efficient use of materials. And of the efficient transport of chemicals dissolved in, suspended in or bonded to liquids that flowed from process to process, within a chemical plant. Alvin Weinberg was trained in biology as well as in physics. He understood the role of fluid flow in live systems, and how fluids carried materials form one biological process to another. Weinberg also understood the transport of materials between organisms in environmental systems.
Wigner and Weinberg believed that reactors could, in effect, be turned into closed loop systems in which little would really go to waste. It is impossible, according to the second law of thermodynamics, to design a system in which nothing goes to waste. But it may be possible to design more efficient systems. Wigner and Weinberg determined that Thorium was a more efficient basis for nuclear fuel than uranium. The efficiency of the thorium fuel cycle rests on something called “neutron economy”, that is the efficient use of neutrons produced in a nuclear process.
Neutron are the keys to both chain reactions and the creation of nuclear fuel inside reactors. The nuclear fuel for thorium cycle reactors is Uranium-233, and U-233 has the best neutron efficiency of any fissionable material. The efficiency of the LFTR rests on its emulation of living organisms. Like living organisms it has a system to produce and distribute energy, a system to rid itself to of unwanted heat and materials, and systems to recapture energy, and the eliminated materials. Recapture of energy can be used for heat in industrial processes including hydrogen production, also for water desalinization, or for space heating, and of course to produce electricity, Recaptured materials can be used in industry, medicine, in food preservation, and in sanitation. Nothing need go to waste.
The LFTR also operates with thermal efficiency. It is capable of operating at a much higher heat than conventional reactors. High temperatures create potential for greater thermal efficiency. In addition, the use of closed cycle gas turbines create the potential for greater generating efficiency. The use of bottom cycle heat for space heating or desalinization, holds promise to further increase thermal efficiency,
The LFTR is efficient in terms of materials use. Some of the essential material used in the LFTR including Thorium are essentially wasted now in existing industrial processes. Other materials like graphite, can be manufactured, and thus are virtually renewable resources. Resources like nickel are rarer than graphite, but their use is LFTR is fully justified because no other energy use for Nickel would bring as high a rate of energy return.
A further efficiency of the LFTR is its capacity efficiency. The LFTR is capable of producing electricity 24 hours a day for extended periods of time. Unlike Light Water Reactors which must be shut down periodically for refueling, new fuel can be added to the LFTR while the reactor is operating. Thus the LFTR can operate continuously at 100% of capacity but need not do so.
The LFTR is demand efficient. Renewable energy systems, like Solar and wind generation produce electricity without any relationship to demand. Windmills generate electricity when moderate winds are blowing, but not in high winds, or on calm days. PV solar output varies with light conditions, while the electrical output of Concentrated Solar generators is effected by clouds and dust storms. All Solar generation systems produce more electricity over a longer periods of time during the summer than during the winter. Generated output from renewables like solar and wind, cannot be regulated by consumer demand. When renewables produce more electricity than the market demands, excess electricity has to be dumped. This is a significant inefficiency. On other occasions renewable generated electricity is sold on the spot market for at loss. Owner of renewables demand financial subsidies to cover costs during the frequent periods when the selling price of renewable generated electricity is sold at a loss.
In contrast the LFTR can always generate the amount of electricity consumers demand. The temperature of reactor salts rises as load drops, and as salt temperature rises, reactor salt expands, and thus is expelled from the reactor core. The loss of salt and fuel from the core slows and eventually stops the fission process, but the reactor salts continue to draw heat from the radioactive decay of fission products. Thus the salt will remain hot until consumer demand leads to electrical generation, and the electrical generation process, draws heat from reactor salts, lowering salt temperature, shrinking salt volume, drawing nuclear fuel back into the core, and starting the chain reaction again. This system allows for power to be immediately available from stopped reactors without neutron or fuel loss. Demand efficiency is the ability to respond quickly and automatically to ups and downs in grid electrical demand. Renewables just can’t do that, and conventional reactors cost too much to operate at any rate other than 100% of capacity.
Finally the LFTR is time efficient. Unlike renewables the LFTR can produce power at any time. Unlike conventional Light Water Reactors the LFTR does not need to stop producing power during refueling. Because of then LFTRs high level of inherent and passive safety, it is far less likely to experience emergency shutdown than LWRs. This means that 100% of the LFTR capacity will be online virtually 100% of the time. Renewables and conventional nuclear do not match this temporal efficiency.
The Rocky Mountain Institute has identified a number of problems with the system of providing nuclear power through the use of Light Water Reactors. I agree in whole or in part with their assessment of LWRs. However, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor brilliantly all of the problems that the RMI points to. The RMI states:
It’s too expensive. Nuclear power has proved much more costly than projected — and more to the point, more costly than most other ways of generating or saving electricity. If utilities and governments are serious about markets, rather than propping up pet technologies at the expense of ratepayers, they should pursue the best buys first.
Not only are LWRs but also renewable generating facilities are extremely expensive. The LFTR creates multiple potentials for cost breakthroughs:
1. Factory construction of small reactors, rather than onsite construction of large reactors.
2. Innovative approaches to reactor siting including reuse of old power plant sites, underground reactor placement, and underwater reactor placement.
3. Labor savings in reactor manufacture and operation.
4. Decreased interest carrying cost by greatly shortening manufacturing time.
5. Decreased facility building requirements.
6. An innovative approach to nuclear fuel that eliminates fuel enrichment and fabrication costs.
7. Eliminating the need for 95% of nuclear waste storage facilities.
8. Low cost inherent and passive reactor safety features, that rely on the laws of nature prevent
safety problems, rather than expensive engineered safety work around for safety issues.
Nuclear power plants are not only expensive, they’re also financially extremely risky because of their long lead times, cost overruns, and open-ended liabilities.
By building reactors in factories, and taking advantage of the many cost lowering features of the LFTR, the financial risks associated with the construction of nuclear power plants can be avoided. Factory built LFTR can be delivered, set up and be running within a few months of the initial order. Factory production methods assure price. The order price is the price electrical utilities will pay. Because of the inherent and passive safety features LFTR, the threat of nuclear accidents will no longer have the potential to create large open-ended liabilities.
Contrary to an argument nuclear apologists have recently taken to making, nuclear power isn’t a good way to curb climate change. True, nukes don’t produce carbon dioxide — but the power they produce is so expensive that the same money invested in efficiency or even natural-gas-fired power plants would offset much more climate change.
The LFTR will dramatically lower not only nuclear construction costs, but cost less to build than renewable electrical generating facilities with similar 24 hour a day electrical generating capacities. Thus the LFTR will be the lowest cost path to reduction of CO2 emissions, and and thus to fighting climate change.
And of course nuclear power poses significant problems of radioactive waste disposal and the proliferation of potential nuclear weapons material. (However, RMI tends to stress the economic arguments foremost because they carry more weight with decision-makers.)
By its efficient use of thorium based nuclear fuel, the LFTR will greatly reduce the volume of reactor product. The problem of long lived, radioactive transuranium elements in spent fuels is eliminated. The small amount of transuranium elements produced ny LFTRs can be extracted from fuel and reused as nuclear fuel in special reactors. The IAEA has designated the LFTR as a proliferation resistant technology. Unlike traditional reactors, the LFTR does not produce “nuclear waste” or “spent fuel”. All of the fission products from LFTRs are usable in a a variety of settings, and some materials are extremely valuable. The liquid nature of LFTR fuel makes the recovery of fission products possible. Many fission products from the thorium fuel cycle lose their radioactivity quickly, and become stable. They can be used almost immediately, while other fission products may remain radioactive longer, and may be stored until they are safe to use. Finally long term radiation emitters can be use in medicine, industry, food preservation, sanitation, and for other purposes. Thus reactor fission products are a resource to be used, and by efficiently using them the so called problem of “nuclear waste” will be eliminated.
I have been challenged to apply Rocky Mountain Institute principles to Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor technology. I am happy to do so, because the LFTR is the not only the Ultimately Efficient Reactor, but I believe that it may well be the ultimately efficient human system for providing energy to society. This might be seen as an astonishing claim, but consider these facts. The average wind Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) from 114 studies is 25.2, and this is considered a very good EROEI. Photo voltaic EROEI runs from 10 to 30. According to Chris Vernon of the Oil Drum, the EROEI of concentrated solar power runs from 27 with energy storage, to 44 without storage. An accurate account of nuclear EROEI is difficult to obtain because of dramatically different technologies. For example the EROEI of CANDU reactors using natural or slightly enriched Uranium is dramatically higher than Light Water Reactors, using more enriched Uranium. Gaseous diffusion enrichment takes 50 times as much energy as centrifuges. Extracting reactor fuel from mine tailings takes less energy than direct mining.
Finally thorium does not need energy sapping enrichment, and fuel fabrication. Thorium reprocessing inside the LFTR relies on internal reactor heat, and reactor derived energy. The once through LWR has been estimated to have an EROEI of from 5 to 10. The LFTR uses nuclear fuel about 160 times more efficiently. Using that efficiency alone, we would have an EROEI of between 800 and 1600 all other things being equal between the LFTR and the LWR. All other things are not equal, however. LWR fuel receives energy sapping enrichment and fabrication, while LFTR fuel does not. LWR “spent fuel” requires considerable energy to keep cool. But even our rough underestimate, it is clear that LFTR EROEI will run at least 20 times greater than the most efficient renewable and perhaps much more.
At the heart of all our work is a simple but powerful notion: using natural resources much more productively — efficiently — is both profitable and better for the environment. Indeed, integrative design often makes large resource savings work better and cost less than small ones.
Let’s see how LFTR efficiency works in RMI terms. The LFTR will derive its fuel from a previously unwanted heavy metal that has until now gone to waste. The fuel source is thorium, a heavy metal that is found in abundance in uranium mine tailings, phosphate mining tailings, and coal fly ash from power power plants. Currently thorium leaches into the environment from these sources, creating a pollution problem. In addition thorium is found in a rare-earth deposit at Lemhi Pass in Idaho. When that deposit is mined, hundreds of thousands of tons of up-til-now useless thorium will be made available for human use. The United States produces 3000 tons of coal thorium in ash from coal-fired power plants every year, enough to provide all of the energy the United States will consume during the year. This is a resource that is not only going to waste at present, but by wasting it we are actually creating an environmental pollution problem.
Thus at the heart of the LFTR is the idea that thorium, a largely wasted resource, can and should be used in the most productive fashion possible.
In addition to containing thorium, the 50 million tons of phosphate mining tailing produced by the United States contains significant amounts of fluoride. Fluorides leaching from mining tailings pose a significant environmental pollution problem. Even in low concentrations, fluorides are toxic to many organisms. Thus recovery of wasted fluorides from phosphate mining tailings, would not only be useful, but would decrease fluoride-related environmental pollution.
Thus both fluoride and thorium, which are abundantly available in nature, are mined in large amounts, but are almost entirely wasted, By utilizing fluoride and thorium, the LFTR would be using these natural resources much more efficiently, in fact enormously more efficiently than current usage.
The LFTR makes modest demands on all resources, but none of the resources used in LFTRs would find a higher use in terms of energy productivity.
Not only does the LFTR make use of thorium, a now largely wasted heavy metal found in mining tailings and coal fly-ash, but it uses the thorium with incredible efficiency. Typically less 0.6% of mined uranium is used in light water reactors. In contrast, 98% of thorium used in LFTRs will be used in the nuclear process, the other 2% is transformed into isotopes that can be used as fuel in modified liquid-salt reactors. Thus potentially every gram of thorium that is now the wasted byproduct of mining can be used to provide society with energy. Because the LFTR can extract energy from thorium so efficiently that the human use of the thorium fuel cycle will be sustainable for millions of years.
Other materials used in the construction of LFTRs would find no higher use in terms of energy output.
Not only does the LFTR make efficient use of natural resources, but it has great potential to make efficient use of human resources as well. First, LFTRs can and should be fabricated in factories. Factories almost always make more efficient use of labor than on-site construction processes. The efficient use of labor in factory production of LFTRs would be a significant way to lower production costs.
It is now clear that the MSR began with conceptual studies of a fluid salt fueled reactor conducted by a group of Oak Ridge scientists, in the late 1940’s. It is not clear what the original goal of this project, or even that there was a formal project, but in 1950 that original seed was to suddenly take root. ORNL had received a research project from the Air Force to participate in crazy project, called Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP). The Air Force had decided that it wanted a reactor powered aircraft. The whole business was insane, because reactor shielding is very heavy. Thus a reactor powered aircraft will either kill its crew with radiation, or be too heavy from radiation shielding to get off the ground.
Alvin Weinberg attributes the idea of a reactor powered aircraft to Gordon Simmons, a K-25 engineer. Weinberg described Simmons as an aggressive, fast talking optimist, who viewed difficulties of reactor powered flight as technical problems that could be overcome by research. Simmons convinced Fairchild Aircraft of the correctness of his views, and through Fairchild the Air Force and Congress. ANP was originally a K-25 project, and Gordon was its first head. Ed Bettis and his associates were part of the ANP project.
Eventually ANP research was transferred to ORNL, but it carried a K-25 legacy. A K-25 physicist Cecil Ellis was in charge of the project. Ellis favored a Liquid Metal cooled reactor. Weinberg was not satisfied with Ellis’s performance, and replaced him with the brilliant industrial chemist, Raymon C. Briant .
Briant was to smart to believe in nuclear powered flight, but he saw the project as an opportunity to do research high temperature reactors. But he was dissatisfied with the liquid metal reactor concept, that had emerged from the project under Cecil Ellis’s leadership.
The problems of the Liquid Metal cooled reactor were explained by Ed Bettis some time later, “a group of engineers and physicists at ORNL started design work
on a solid-fuel-pin sodium-cooled reactor, with the fuel consisting of 235U (as UO2) canned in stainless steel. It was decided to make this a thermal reactor and to use BeO blocks as the moderator. The circulating sodium was to extract heat from the fuel pins and at the same time to
remove heat from the moderator blocks. The design of this solid-fuel-pin, BeO-moderated, sodium-cooled reactor proceeded to the point of purchase of the BeO moderator blocks. . . .”
“The solid-fuel-pin thermal reactor design was found to possess a serious difficulty when the design concept was projected to cover a relatively high-power reactor. The problem was the positive temperature coefficient of reactivity associated with the cross section of xenon at
elevated temperatures. This xenon instability was considered to be serious enough to warrant abandoning the solid-fuel design concept, because of the exacting requirement placed on any automatic control system by this instability”.
Bettis’s explanation requires a translation for the 99% of people who know nothing about reactor physics. The positive temperature coefficient of reactivity means as the reactor gets hotter processes inside the reactor’s power level goes up as it gets hotter. As reactor power goes up, more heat is produced, which further increases the reactor’s power. Thus a reactor with a positive temperature coefficient of reactivity is difficult to control and potentially dangerous. In addition, if you are flying an atomic airplane and you want to increase your speed, you withdraw heat from the reactor. With a positive temperature coefficient of reactivity that decreases reactor power and heat production which makes the engine loose power, and the aircraft slow down.
The Xenon problem also needs to be explained. When U-235 encounters a neutron inside a reactor, most of the time it splits into two large atomic fragments and some left over bits including two or three neutrons. Xenon-135 is frequently one of those fragments. Xenon-135 is the Chuck Norris of neutron absorbers. Xenon atoms might also be described as the NFL linemen of reactors. Think of U-235 atoms as the quarterbacks of the reactor, and neutrons as pass rushers. Xenon-135 atoms are very big for rushing neutrons. When neutrons hit Xenon 135 atoms, they are blocked from hitting U-235 atoms. When neutrons hit U-235 atoms inside a reactor, more blockers, that is more xenon atoms enter the game. Xenon builds up as more and more fissionable atoms are split, and thus more and more neutrons are blocked by Xenon. The Xenon blocking, tends to slow down chain reactors, thus Xenon poisoning makes reactors more difficult to control.
It is highly likely that in 1950 Ed Bettis explained these problem and how the liquid salt reactor concept would solve them to Ray Briant and later to Alvin Weinberg. Although the MSR posed significant technological difficulties, they were not as difficult as making a reactor powered airplane fly.
Hot liquid salts expand as they heat. Suppose you have a one gallon pot on the stove and you fill it up with hot liquid salt. Now you turn up the heat under the salt pot. What will happen? As the heat goes up the liquid salt expands and starts running over the top of the pan. Now imagine that the hot salt includes a uranium salt that is enriched with U-235. You don’t need to heat the salt pot, a chain reaction of U-235 will do that for you. As the chain reaction heats the pot will do that for you. And as the salt gets hoter, it starts to run over the top of the pot, taking with it, some U-235. Removing U-235 from the pot decreases the chain reaction and thus the heat.
How about Xenon? Well Xenon is an a noble gas. That means it will not form chemical bonds and thus is free to bubble out if the hot salt liquid. Of course it is not quite simple as that, because Xenon is highly radioactive, stuff you would not want floating around your lab. But there are safe ways to get Xenon out of a hot salt fluid. And at any rate the first experimental reactor would not have to solve all of the problems. It could be operated without actually solving the Xenon problem, as long as ORNL reactor designers knew how to solve the problems.
There was an unfolding beauty to the reactor concept Bettis outlined. Consider its negative temperature coefficient of reactivity. The MSR would automatically supply more power to aircraft jet engines when power was needed. As heat was transferred from the reactor to the jet engines, the heat in the reactor dropped. As the heat dropped, more Liquid salts and more U-235 would be drawn into the reactor core, increasing reactor power output. This of course increased the heat available for the engines. As engine power requirements dropped, the engines used less reactor heat. The reactor then heated up and as U-235 was forced out of the core the chain reaction dropped. Thus reactor went to maximum heat while burning very little U-235. But the heat was instantly on tap once power was demanded from the engine.
The negative temperature coefficient of reactivity was a beautiful quality of the MSR, but it was never to be used in flight. Yet it does have potentially valuable uses in electrical generation. First the MSR alone among reactors is a load follower. The MSR is capable of automatically adjusting its power output to follow load demands on electrical systems. This would make the MSR particularly valuable in balancing the ever fluxuating electrical output of windmill generators, and photovoltaic electrical systems. Secondly the MSR would be well suited for a backup generating role. As generating sources
suddenly go off line, reserve MSRs, with their hot salt at peak tempreture, can come online at full power as fast as as their generating turbines can be spun up to full power. MSRs would be equally useful as peak power sources, which can be brought online almost instantaneously as electrical demand warrants. These are qualities that would be very useful in a post-fossil fuel age, and qualities that would cannot be obtained from renewable technologies, or from conventional nuclear power plants.
Weinberg agreed that Bettis’s radical reactor design had great promise, and became an enthusiastic backer of the MSR project. In the late spring of 1950 the Y-12 chemistry group headed by Warren Grimes was administratively transferred to ORNL effective on July 1, to begin work on Molten Salt reactor chemistry. They were assigned the task of investigating various Fluoride salt mineral and metal combinations. Thus my father went to work for ORNL on that day. He remained an ORNL employee for the next 27 years.
Eugene Wigner spent a brief period as Research Director of what was then called the Clinton Laboratories. Oak Ride was in 1943 a town that did not exist, so the Laboratory could not be named for it. Instead the assigned name that of Clinton, the old East Tennessee town that was the county seat of Anderson County, where most of the Oak Ridge complex was located. Wigner’s stay was not a happy one for him, but is was exceedingly fruitful for the Laboratory. Wigner brought with him a team of brilliant scientists, and attracted more first rate researchers to Oak Ridge. Frederick Seitz, Erich Vogt, and Alvin Weinberg left a brief account of Wigner’s stay in Oak Ridge:
“Wigner planned a two-pronged approach. First, he would establish a training program in which some thirty-five young scientists and engineers could learn the principles involved in nuclear reactors. These individuals would become future leaders in reactor development. Second, he would assemble an expert team to design nuclear reactors that could produce useful power efficiently and as safely as possible, placing much emphasis on the so-called “breeder” reactor. A substantial part of his research team in Chicago, including Weinberg and Young, agreed to join him there and spend the next phase of their professional careers promoting the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”.
Wigner quickly saw the hand writing on the wall: “In the meantime, there was a great deal of legislative activity in Washington about the way the national nuclear energy program should be managed in peacetime. The debate was intense and protracted. The final result was the creation of a new civilian agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, which was put in charge of the operation on January 1, 1947. As the year progressed, Wigner eventually decided he was not really suited to serve as manager of a laboratory in such a complex, politicized environment. Many of the most important technical decisions would be made in Washington rather than in the laboratory”.
Wigner and Weinberg remained personal friends, and wigner continued to visit the Laboratory on a regular basis. Hence in the Summer of 1971, I was offeed a chance to meet Wigner, along with other ORNL supernumeraries.
Alvin Weinbery was officially the Director oif the Laboratory’s Physics Division from 1945 to 1948, when he assumed Eugene Wigner’s former position. Weinberg was to become, among other things a custodian of Wigner’s legacy, and much of ORNL’s work on reactor development overthe next 25 years was to be guided by Weinberg’s fidelity to the Wigner vision.
H. G. MacPherson’s account of the history of the Molten Salt Reactor states, “Molten salt reactors were first proposed by Ed Bettis and Ray Briant of ORNL during the post-World War II attempt to design a nuclear-powered aircraft”.
Alvin Weinberg stated in 1957,” At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory we have been investigating another class of fluids which satisfies all three of the requirements for a desirable fluid fuel: large range of uranium and thorium solubility, low pressure, and no radiolytic gas production. These fluids, first suggested by R. C. Briant, are molten mixtures of UF4 and ThF4 with fluorides of the alkali metals, beryllium, or zirconium”.
Other sources tell a slightly different story. By M.W. Rosenthal, P.R. Kastin, and R.B. Briggs state “experiments to establish the feasibility of molten- salt fuels were begun in 1947 on “the initiative of V.P. Calkins, Kermit Anderson, and E.S. Bettis.”.
Ray Briant did not come to ORNL until 1948, so it would appear that preliminary MSR research began before his arrival in Oak Ridge,
Rosenthall Kastin, and Briggs add, “At the enthusiastic urging of Bettis and on the recommendation of W.R. Grimes, R.C. Briant adopted molten fluoride salts in 1950 as the main line effort of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion1 program.”
Here we see a divergence between the collegiate nature of science and credit given a conduits of information. Calkins, Anderson and Bettis appear to have decided on their own to investigate the possibility of a Molten Salt Fuel in 1947, but only Bettis gets credit for their joint research. Bettis gets credit more for his advocacy than for the uniqueness of his role. Finally Warren Grimes got consulted on the chemistry, because his group was was to be assigned the task of researching MSR chemistry. Now the interesting thing was that in 1950 my father, C.J. Barton, Sr was the expert in Grimes’ group on Fluoride Salt Chemistry. That is because my father was the person who did the literature review on Fluoride Salt chemistry that lay behind Grimes recommendation. How much of Grimes’ recommendation rested on my father’s judgment is probably beyond knowing.
Eugene Wigner was not a politician, not at least a politician in the way that Weinberg was. The giving and taking of credit was an important part of the management system of ORNL in the Weinberg era, and upper level managers were to use the giving and taking of credit to aggrandize themselves, and to reward and punish their subordinates, and not always for the best of reasons.
Bettis, Calkins, and Anderson could not have initiated research without an idea about what they were doing, thus they must jointly be credited with the MSR idea. It would appear that Briant’s was the idea that thorium could be added to the fuel mix. But note, the idea of converting thorium to U-233 in a fluid fuel reactor goes back to Wigner. I don’t know if Wigner played a role in the initiation of the Bettis, Calkins, and Anderson molten salt research, but Wigner was still at the Lab for the first half of 1947, and its hard to imagine researchers striking out on their own in order to develop a new reactor concept, without the support of the most creative reactor designer of their generation.
The history of the nuclear reactor usually begins with the first successful operation of Enrico Fermi’s Stagg Field reactor on December 2, 1942. In fact, scientists working at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, England built the first successful reactor in 1940. British scientists mixed 112 liters of heavy water with U308 powder inside an aluminum sphere that was 60 cm (2 feet) in diameter. The mixture was mud like and was called slurry. The aluminum sphere was immersed in a bath of heavy mineral oil to serve as a neutron reflector. The British researchers had already found that although a chain reaction was not possible if the U3O8 mixture was suspended in ordinary water, but they were able to witness signs of a chain reaction with heavy water.
During World War II the Canadians were able to successfully produce heavy water so in 1943, Harold Urey and Enrico Fermi suggested repeating the Cavendish experiment. Eugene Wigner became interested in the experiment and began working on an optimal design for a reactor. The original Wigner design called in which the slurry was pumped through a lattice of tubes immersed in a heavy water moderator.
After the value of heavy water as a moderator was better understood, researchers suggested building a large heavy water-uranium slurry reactor as an alternative to the Hanford pile reactors for Plutonium production. The reactor proved to be too great a technological project to be useful as a wartime project. Wigner and other researchers however noted the advantage of using fluoride-uranium salts, rather than U3O8 in the reactors. Of course the mixture of fluoride-uranium salts and heavy water would have created a significant corrosion problem in the reactors.
Beginning in 1943 developed a small aqueous homogeneous reactor was built and operated at Los Alamos. Like the early Cavendish experiment the core of the little reactor was a pot into witch a mud like mixture of water and a uranium compound was poured. Several similar reactors were developed Los Alamos during and after World War II, but eventually Los Alamos scientists began to see the project as a dead end.
Oak Ridge scientists were also interested in the aqueous homogeneous reactor concept during World War II. Meanwhile, Eugene Wigner, who was still in Chicago, had become interested in breeder reactors, and their siblings, converter reactors. Wigner became intrigued by the potential of a thorium breeding cycle. Wigner concerned about future uranium supplies envisioned a reactor that would burn Pu239 and would be surrounded by a blanket of Th232. The reactor would produce U-233, a fissionable nuclear fuel. But, it was noted that the cost of fuel reprocessing for such a reactor would make it not competitive with coal as a power source.
At that point Wigner and Harold Urey realized that the aqueous homogeneous reactor offered a solution to the problem of fuel reprocessing costs. Unlike Fermi who was strictly a classical physicist, Wigner was trained as a chemical engineer. For Wigner, the fluid fuel approach meant that the fuel could be withdrawn without difficulty from the reactor, reprocessed, and returned in a process that would cost much less than the cost of reprocessing solid reactor fuel. It is a tribute to the genius of Eugene Wigner, that he understood the problem that would create nuclear waste in conventional civilian power reactors, and that started the process of developing a solution to the problem.
Wigner, and his bright young assistant, Alvin Weinberg, together with engineer Gale Young, wrote a report outlining the concept in the spring of 1945. Thus the notion that the aqueous homogeneous reactor could serve as a basis for a civilian power industry remained a focus of Wigner for some time. Weinberg, both a research director and later as general director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, championed Oak Ridge research on the aqueous homogeneous reactor until the end of the 1950’s.
Critics of nuclear power often depict nuclear scientists as lacking in vision or a concern for human well-being and impractical. In fact the opposite is the case. Eugene Wigner was a scientist who could look long into the future and anticipate resource shortages. He was practical enough to see that low-cost power was highly desirable, and as someone who had actually worked as a chemical engineer, he applied a sound chemical engineering approach to the reprocessing of nuclear fuel, and worked that approach back into the design of the reactor. Alvin Weinberg, Wigner’s young assistant, was to learn from Wigner’s long vision, and was to elaborate it during the coming years. Both Weinberg and Wigner were profoundly concerned about human well-being, and both saw the possibility that nuclear power could be directed from war to the improvement of the quality of human life.