The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Feb 2, 2006

Nuclear Power Play

One of my favorite books is Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. It’s a great novel, but it’s incredibly violent and very, very graphic. It’s something, for example, that if I had a child—let’s say an impressionable young son—I wouldn’t want him to get his hands on it. This leaves me with a few options:
  1. I could destroy all available copies of A Clockwork Orange, but then nobody would be able to enjoy it—not to mention censorship being a very dangerous prospect in general.
  2. I could make sure my son doesn’t have access to any books at all, but I don’t want to end his intellectual growth so early on.
  3. I could throw out my copy, but I wouldn’t be able to explore and learn from the novel anymore.
  4. Or, I could keep the book, but monitor it and my son very closely, making sure the two don't come into contact with each other.
The last option seems like the most reasonable and best overall solution. This isn’t universal, and I wouldn’t apply the same standard to firearms, an issue where I would lean more closely to option #1. If there is a tangible social benefit, though, it would be a shame not to take advantage of it, and the book example might be relevant in an indirect sort of way to nuclear energy, or at least to the reprocessing of nuclear fuels.

The U.S. has been giving Iran a lot of flak lately about its nuclear ambitions. Iran claims that it just plans to build nuclear power plants, but the U.S. is “worried” that Iran may have nuclear weapons in mind. Although I’ll admit that Iran seems pretty shady, the U.S. and its allies have not actually presented any evidence that Iran plans to do use its nuclear program for anything but nuclear power. It would be a shame not to let a country develop a cleaner and more efficient alternative to greenhouse gas-releasing fossil fuels. On the other hand, the stakes are too high to just let Iran run loose. A compromise is definitely in order.

Making things more complicated, the U.S. has announced plans to begin reprocessing spent nuclear fuels, a practice suspended there since 1977. Although some countries, particularly France, still reprocess their nuclear fuels, others do not because the process can also be used to create weapons-grade material. Reprocessing nuclear fuels, though, greatly decreases the amount of nuclear waste generated by power plants. This is significant since no sufficient long-term waste storage solution has been agreed upon.

In an editorial in its current issue, Nature argues that the benefits of nuclear fuel reprocessing do not outweigh the risks. (The editorial can be read here if you or your institution has a subscription.) The argument is disappointingly weak, though, and it does not offer any solutions: only a vague charge to deal with disposal issues:
It may be that the Bush proposal reflects the administration's frustration over continued opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository. But, in the end, the only environmentally or financially viable path to nuclear power generation involves wrestling with the murky details of long-term waste disposal. Fuel recycling may look exciting on paper; in practice, it is part of the problem, not the solution.

Finding a repository, though, is not a permanent solution, especially if it will be filled up by unnecessarily large amounts of unprocessed waste. More relevant to the issue at hand, the editorial also addresses the connection between reprocessing and building weapons:
When it is released next week, Bush's 2007 budget proposal is expected to include a provision that would start to revive nuclear-fuel reprocessing. That would end a three-decade-old strategy in the United States that has sought to sever the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

This is an interesting statement, since the Bush administration has already explicitly made this connection in regards to Iran’s nuclear power program. The course the U.S. is currently taking would be akin to me deciding in the scenario above that access to any books could be a source of violent inspiration for my hypothetical son, and therefore I should not let him read any. Sure, by capriciously exerting my power in such a way I could get rid of any insecurities I might harbor about my position as “man of the house”, but it would be pretty damaging to him in the long run.

In the case of nuclear energy, at least, this strategy could also be much more difficult. If the U.S. continues to try to prevent Iran from having any nuclear energy program, it will have to monitor Iran’s program remotely, because all diplomatic channels would be shut down. This is no easy task, and a recent article from The New York Times details just how undeveloped the technology needed to perform such a task is. Here is an example of “successful” monitoring:
There are signs that atomic espionage is already aiding Washington's hunt for clandestine Iranian sites. Late last year, Iran publicly complained to the United Nations about two unmanned American aircraft that it said crashed on its territory. In interviews, two federal intelligence experts said such drone aircraft, launched from Iraq, periodically spy on suspected nuclear sites.

Remote sensing wasn’t particularly successful in providing intelligence on Iraq’s purported nuclear program either, as I recall. Direct inspections, then, are much more preferable.

Unlike the Nature editorial, I will offer a clear solution. The U.S. should go ahead with plans to reprocess nuclear fuels while allowing Iran to develop its own peaceful nuclear program, but Iran should not be allowed to reprocess its fuel. Diplomatic channels will remain open, allowing international organizations to monitor Iran’s program closely for signs of an underground weapons program. This seems like a win-win situation, one that would be beneficial for all parties involved.


  • I am missing the premise to Iran's nuclear development.
    They have a lot of oil why don't they just use it.
    If the concern regarding using oil is its environmental inpact or running out of oil then it's time the all the countries of the world create an agreement to jointly control the use and expansion of nuclear power and technology.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 02, 04:25:00 PM  

  • I agree, although I think the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is supposed to be that agreement.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Thu Feb 02, 04:50:00 PM  

  • I think Iran should be allowed to develop nuclear fuel and even nuclear weapons and evolve to a position of magnanimity where it would never contemplate using nuclear weapons just the same as evey other nation that has nuclear capability( except of course america the only country to use nukes agressively all be it when the technology was nascent). By imposing restrictions on their development we are not allowing them to evolve to a secular society and giving fuel to the fundamentalists fire

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Feb 03, 08:04:00 PM  

  • Nick Anthis is right on monitoring Iran's attempts to seek nuclear energy. Only an idiot thinks oil will last forever and would not seek another source of energy (ie. read one of the other comments on this page). It's better to start looking for other sources now while there is oil instead of waiting until it's too late when war has broken out over the remaining oil resources and global warming has melted half the world's ice sheets.

    On another matter, it's funny how the US claims to be "worried" about Iran and threatening to invade. It was the US who aided the Shah, during 1953, to overthrow the PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY that was Iran's government. Yes, that's right, Iran was a democracy, and the US destroyed it (just like Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, etc. etc.). During 2005, the US pumped in US$57 million to Ukraine to interfere in their elections, yet didn't spend one thin dime on Iran to help its opposition candidates to win the Iranian elections. Were they saving that US$57 million for the cost of invading the country? (you can figure it out)

    By Anonymous Bob Dog, at Wed Feb 08, 05:03:00 AM  

  • Iran is pretty much going to do exactly as they please no matter the thoughts of anyone else involved. The same manner in which the Bush administration operates. Their truth is the only truth.

    By Blogger cking, at Wed Feb 08, 08:51:00 AM  

  • Eggy wegs and lomticks of toast...yum!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Feb 08, 12:52:00 PM  

  • the U.S. and its allies have not actually presented any evidence that Iran plans to do use its nuclear program for anything but nuclear power.

    While this is probably literally true, it seems more than a bit rich to suggest that a nation that a) sits on some huge percentage of the world's oil reserves, b) is led by religious figures who propogate an apocalyptic worldview, and c) perceives itself as surrounded by "enemies", at least one of which is a nuclear power that they have pledged to destroy -- is doing nuclear research in order to produce civilian electrical power in a more environmentally-sensitive way.

    By Anonymous jacflash, at Wed Feb 08, 03:33:00 PM  

  • While I agree with some of what you wrote, stating that the U.S. has not presented evidence to the IAEA that shows Iran's nuclear intentions to be less than civilian in nature is not something that you would be privy to. After all, unless you have a security clearance, one that you would be violating by making such a statement if based on what you knew from that clearance, what you wrote is about as speculative as me writing, "George Deutsch has bad hair and a tiny brain." Might be true, might not. Neither of us knows. It's just...speculation and opinion. But I think mine is more accurate than yours.

    Doesn't it bother anyone else that Iran does not want its nuclear fuel processed by an ally in that friend's homecountry? Why not? Why does Iran need a program to process yellow cake? Russia has said that it will be glad to supply Iran with all of the fuel it needs so that this whole controversy can go away. But no, President Ahmadinejad doesn't like that idea. What is it about processing the fuel that necessitates that it be done in Iran rather than Russia?

    Also, we are talking about a country that has in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad someone who has said that Iran should wipe Israel off the map (nukes sure help with that) and do so even if that means martyrdom for all Iran. Nice. Sounds like some kook out of "Dr. Strangelove".

    No, for the Chinese and the Russians to be convinced by the US that Iran's case should be referred to the Security Council by the IAEA indicates to me that they too are worried. They don't want a nuke-Iran. It tells me that western intelligence (US) has given these guys, who are skeptical enough of us as it is, enough evidence for them to come to the same conclusions that the Europeans have.

    After all, as the leader of China, you may not like, may even viscerally resist, others (US) telling you how to run your country--fair enough--but you also don't want to wake up one morning to find that Iran decided to go the martyrdom route.

    By Blogger Jim, at Wed Feb 08, 05:06:00 PM  

  • Theodore Dalrymple has a brilliant (as always) piece on A Clockwork Orange in the latest City Journal:

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Feb 08, 06:28:00 PM  

  • Its interesting that you are against censoring books (1st Amm.) but lean toward gun bans (2nd Amm.)
    Re: the nuclear issue - even unreprocessed fuel has serious 'dirty bomb issues with the current Iran regime's statements on Israel.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Feb 08, 06:42:00 PM  

  • "It would be a shame not to let a country develop a cleaner and more efficient alternative to greenhouse gas-releasing fossil fuels."

    While I don't think any country should be given the greenlight to go unmonitored on the nuclear frontier - is nuclear truly the "clean" alternative to fossil fuels? Maybe there's a reason we can't come to a consensus on a "safe" place to put nuclear waste.

    By Blogger Amy Stodghill, at Wed Feb 08, 07:04:00 PM  

  • It's quite naive of you to harbor the idea that Iran might actually want nuclear power just for the clean electricity. You may recall the secrete nuclear program Saddam had prior to the first Gulf War, the secret program Quadalfi in Libya gave up recently when he was afraid the U.S. might send our Army his way, and the secret network for nuclear technology centered around the group from Pakistan which was making Libya's program possible. If you believe having nuclear weapons will suddenly turn the mad mullahs of Iran into responsible world citizens you're in serious need of therapy.

    Despite the rantings of Jimmy Carter and the anti-nuclear organizations he caved in to, reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is only periferally related to weapons production. It requires chemical separation of plutonium from the other elements in spent fuel through a complex process that is much harder than using centrifuges to enrich uranium. Nuclear fuel can be safely reprocessed, reducing the amount of waste to be buried, and getting the most energy out of the uranium we dig up at considerable expense.

    If you would like examples of groups on the left who also ignore science in favor of their political agenda, look no farther than the anti-nuclear movement. From promoting the myth that plutonium is "the most toxic substance known to man," to ignoring 50 years of safe nuclear plant operation, to being outraged when a U.N. sponsored study concluded that only 56 people have died as a direct result of the accident at Chernoybl, which was the worst nuclear accident of all time (and just about the worst we can imagine), these people simply refuse to acknowledge what science is clearly telling us. In case you haven't got the message, nuclear power is clean, safe and doesn't have nearly the potential for catastrophe that we've been led to believe.

    Back to Iran, I don't think anything would be more dangerous than the radical mullahs in that country feeling they were immune from attack because they possessed nuclear weapons. Neither can we assume that they would act responsibly toward their neighbors, which are Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Israel, and the entire oil infrastructure of the middle east.

    By Anonymous Breck Henderson, at Wed Feb 08, 07:29:00 PM  

  • The real crime of the Bush administration is that their invasion of the phantom menace of Iraq has left us (I am writing this as a US citizen) powerless to deal with real threats. The Bushies have destroyed our credibility when it comes to our motives and to our evidence. Make no mistake, Iran is everything Bush wanted you to think Iraq was. It is a theocracy; Iraq was not. It is trying to make nuclear weapons; Iraq was not. We cried wolf when the real wolf was around the corner.

    Look, I can't stand Bush. Worst president ever, and dangerous as hell. And, global warming is a very very serious problem. But it is ridiculously naive to think that it might be OK to let Iran have a domestic nuclear energy program, because, hey, it's good for the environment. If you were Iran, with oil coming out your #$%, why do you suppose you might push a nuclear energy program, make hardened underground buildings at a secret nuclear facility (Natanz), start reprocessing your uranium, and grandstand and posture so you can manufacture an excuse to deny access by the IAEA? We are not talking aluminum tubes here. The evidence is substantial.

    Why would Iran want nukes? The same reason everybody else wants them. They are the ultimate trump card. You got nukes, nobody messes with you. So, there is the purely defensive angle. But when Iran's president says it wants to "wipe Israel of the map," it doesn't really give you a warm and fuzzy feeling that defense is all Iran has in mind.

    There is the tendency on the part of the left to take relativism to an extreme. If we have nukes, the idea goes, then it is hypocritical for us not to allow others to have nukes. Look, I am no hawk. I have never supported the Iraq invasion, and I think that we have phenomenally misplaced priorities in this country the way we spend money on defense instead of, oh, science and education. But it is flatly absurd to think that the world should let Iran develop nuclear weapons, and it is a very difficult thing to monitor them and walk the line, allowing them some nuclear technology but not all of it.

    With a functional device in its own hands or passed off to terrorists, on top of a missile or smuggled onto a container ship, Iran could nuke Israel, or the US, or Europe, or Iran's neighbors, or anyone else. This may be unlikely, but ask yourself, how unlikely? One in 100? One in 20? One in 5? We can not allow this possiblity. If Iran does not cooperate with the IAEA, and/or if Iran insists on reprocessing its fuel, its nuclear facilities should be wiped off the map. Period.

    By Blogger starfysmn, at Wed Feb 08, 09:52:00 PM  

  • Er, I meant enrichment, not reprocessing. Which brings up the point that it is incumbent on all of us to learn as much as we can about the technology and science of this issue, just as in all other science/tech - related political issues. Lack of knowledge by the public about nuclear energy has lead to hysteria, and lack of understanding of uranium and plutonium processing and their roles in civilian and military nuclear technology is something that is easily manipulated both by our own government and by the Iranians and others.

    By Blogger starfysmn, at Wed Feb 08, 11:48:00 PM  

  • Your comment "Although I’ll admit that Iran seems pretty shady..." brought a hoot of laughter. Looking at our country from the outside, the USA seems pretty shady too. Although our current administration and conservative mainstream media would like to paint Iran as a twisted sister frreakishly bent on deconstructing the world as we know it, those painters have serious issues and have been shown to be sniffing the thinner a bit in all the us vs. them rhetoric coming out of the chicken hawks.
    BushCo has shown no inclination to hold substantive talks with any country they have identified as unlikely to kowtow to WarInc and given the bilge pumped to push our nation to war in Iraq it is apparant to many of us that strident voices for war with Iran in the US continue to say and do anything to incite a war that neither our nation or their nation needs. It is about time to stop the insanity being practiced by BushCo, Rummsfeld, et al.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 09, 12:44:00 AM  

  • Well Nick there is a compromise that I have discovered, after many go arounds on nuclear power on various venues.

    How about letting the nuclear industry build a few waste processing reactors at Yucca Mountain. The waste needs to be dealt with anyway.

    If they can operate safely, efficiently, and agree to real regulation instead of industry self regulation, then more plants can be considered.

    The tradition of contamination and corruption in the past government/industry operation needs to be eliminated before widespread nuclear power buildout occurs. Trust must be restored.

    Of course this will mean only a few new plants are built in the next decade. It will be 10 years until they are proven to be safe and safely and economically operated.

    Meanwhile that leaves nuclear fission out of the global climate change cure for awhile. Hundreds of new plants would need to be built to have any signifigant effect.

    After 10 years of power generation and waste processing, the lessons learned should be applied to new designs and new nuclear plants should then compete without subsidies with other clean power generatinmg technologies on long term cost, including any fuel requirements and future waste disposal costs.

    This is a compromise that environmentalists may be able to live with, providing subsidies now in place for coal, nuclear, and fossil fuel power are eliminated.

    And a substantial portion of those savings are put into temporary subsidies for wind, solar,and wave power, large scale electrical energy storage, geothermal heat pump heating and cooling, and conversion from internal combustion transportation to battery electric vehicles.

    By Blogger, at Thu Feb 09, 09:37:00 AM  

  • After reading all the comments posted here, it seems that most people are under the impression that nuclear power is a clean and environmentally friendly method of energy production. I would like to suggest that this is an incorrect assumption.

    While nuclear power plants do not burn fossil fuels and are not belching out smoke into the atmosphere, they do contribute to pollution of the environment in a number of ways. The mining of uranium ore is one significant contributor, as is the dissemination of still dangerous depleted uranium in munitions. Another is the processing and enrichment of uranium, a process that consumes a great deal of energy itself. Reprocessing spent uranium fuel also consumes a great deal of energy, with diminishing returns. Storage of nuclear waste is another huge issue. Once you factor in the danger of a nuclear plant having a melt down, it becomes pretty clear (at least in my opinion) that nuclear power is not an ideal alternative to fossil fuel energy production. If anyone would like to research more about what I’ve said here, I suggest you do an internet search for "Helen Caldicott" or the "Nuclear Policy Research Institute".

    I would also like to make a comment about Yucca mountain… it was my understanding that this was to be used as a storage facility only, not a reprocessing centre. Does anyone know for sure which is true? Thanks.

    By Blogger uraniborg, at Thu Feb 09, 06:01:00 PM  

  • Yep, it was supposed to be only for storage.

    Since it is flawed,whistle blowing scientists actually resigned to expose the fraudulent groundwater analysis (because confidentiality agreements they were forced to sign as employees were used in a coverup), nuclear power advocates want to build reprocessing reactors in existing plants to handle the waste.

    I am wondering how nuclear power advocates and opponents will respond to this possible compromise.

    Maybe Yucca Mountain is not a good place for waste processing? Perhaps one of the already contaminated uranium mines or site like Rocky Flats could serve?

    By Blogger, at Fri Feb 10, 03:24:00 AM  

  • Shh ... you will wake the children. They have been playing so nice lately. They haven't even noticed the 10 nuclear power station that our government is planning. The have been so distracted by our current show the war for oil. Hmmm well just let them play ok?

    By Blogger JasonSpalding, at Sat Mar 25, 12:39:00 AM  

  • Nuclear power advocates like me would rather have the waste-eating reactors built where they can generate electricity--at sites that were designed for more reactors than they have now:
    Callaway: designed for 2, currently has 1
    Clinton: designed for 2, currently has 1
    Davis-Besse: designed for 3, currently has 1
    Fermi: designed for 3, currently has 2 (one decommissioned)
    Fort Calhoun: designed for 2, currently has 1
    Grand Gulf: designed for 2, currently has 1
    Greenwood: designed for 3, had 1 (shut down)
    Hope Creek: designed for 2, currently has 1
    North Anna: designed for 4, currently has 2
    Palo Verde: designed for 12 (yes, 12), currently has 3
    Perry: designed for 2, currently has 1
    Pilgrim: designed for 3, currently has 1
    River Bend: designed for 2, currently has 1
    Seabrook: designed for 2, currently has 1
    Shearon Harris: designed for 4, currently has 1
    Surry: designed for 4, currently has 2
    Vogtle: designed for 4, currently has 2
    Watts Bar: designed for 2, currently has 1

    Yucca Mountain would be a functional site for these reactors, but would not be our first choice.

    It's not a compromise. It's what we've wanted all along. Remember, the nuclear industry is just looking out for their bottom line, thus opting for a repository, while we look at policy, opting for the best solution.

    By the way, the problem is not competing with other clean technologies--it's competing with dirty technologies that are free to use the sky as a waste dump.

    By Blogger Stewart Peterson, at Tue Jun 27, 04:34:00 PM  

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