An Evolved View on Nuclear Energy: Q&A with Richard Rhodes

Richard Rhodes (Photo by Nancy Warner)

Richard Rhodes (Photo by Nancy Warner)

Richard Rhodes, author and editor of twenty-four books — including Nuclear Renewal: Common Sense About Energy and the Pulitzer-prize winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb — educated a generation on early nuclear weapons history, as well as the development of modern physics in general, during the first half of the 20th century. Rhodes is among the experts featured in “Pandora’s Promise,” a documentary on the evolution of the environmental movement from anti-nuclear to one that sees nuclear energy as a key component in the fight to slow climate change.

In this interview with Forum on Energy, Rhodes explains why Japan should continue using nuclear energy.

Forum on Energy: Why were you a nuclear power skeptic and what changed your perspective?

Richard Rhodes: In the 1970s I was a journalist writing for magazines like Playboy, the Atlantic and Harper’s. It was an era when there was great interest in energy policy and the environment. I acquired the usual journalist’s knee-jerk reaction against nuclear power and wrote several pieces that scoffed at it. It was not much more than simple ignorance: I really had no particular knowledge of the field.

That knowledge came as I researched my book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I interviewed, one by one, the original nuclear physicists and chemists who had worked on the first atomic bombs. They were of course credible people. Many of them were Nobel Laureates. Hans Bethe, a central figure at Los Alamos, was especially impressive. My attitude toward nuclear power changed as I became educated. I realized that my anti-nuclear perspective was derived from ignorance.

Rhodes-quote1As I listened, I came to understand what we all must understand eventually, which is that we can’t know everything. At some point you have to trust the authorities in their field — as long as there is no evident reason to distrust them. (Despite what some environmentalists seem to think, those of us who support the development of nuclear energy aren’t on the payroll of the nuclear industry.) So these are some of the considerations that led me to understand that nuclear power is one of the truly great discoveries and developments of the 20th century.

Forum on Energy: How has Fukushima changed your perspective of the Japanese system?

Rhodes: To this degree: The Japanese cultural bias against acknowledging public responsibility needs reexamination. It seems to me that within the Japanese nuclear power industry there has been a culture of not acknowledging responsibility. That tendency is probably, as much as anything, behind the industry’s problems.

For example, there were obviously design flaws at Fukushima. I still don’t understand why the crucial backup generators were in the basement, given the risk of flooding.

One thing I have heard emphasized, again and again, in every country that has developed nuclear power, is the great importance of a safety culture. A safety culture should include transparency about problems. In Japan, the close relationship between the government and the private power companies is perhaps a factor in a dangerous reticence about acknowledging problems. Not that such hasn’t been true in the United States. The safety culture in the United States improved enormously after Three Mile Island. I hope that will be the case in Japan, as well.

Forum on Energy: Do you think Japan is right to consider going back to nuclear? What about Japan’s “nuclear allergy”?

Rhodes: I don’t see what other options Japan has. The French used to say of their focus on nuclear: We had no coal, gas or oil, so we went nuclear. That’s true with Japan as well. Nuclear power is a first-class source of energy, but it’s intensely concentrated and it has to be handled with care. There is no doubt that Japan’s superb engineers and fine operators can develop safer designs and operating procedures. Japan will need to continue nuclear power and probably expand it. There is just no other large-scale answer to her energy needs in a world of global climate change.

Forum on Energy: In Japan, they are saying that they can make do with these other energies. What is the response to that?

Rhodes: A movement toward more concentrated sources of energy began 500 years ago when the English shifted from wood to coal in the early 17th century. That movement has been continuous: Toward more concentrated sources, away from more dilute sources.

I don’t see how you can return to energy sources — the so-called renewables — that are dispersed and intermittent, with enormous peaks and valleys of capacity. One of the dirty little secrets of solar and wind is that they have to have backup systems — typically natural gas today — to supply power when they’re not operating because of nightfall or windless conditions. Their capacity factors are correspondingly low. Compare that to nuclear energy, which is operating at above 90 percent capacity in the United States. Wind and solar have a capacity factor of about 12-15 percent, which means they don’t produce energy most of the time. Low-capacity areal sources aren’t a long-term solution; they just encourage the continued use of fossil fuels. Certainly there are places in the world where solar and wind make sense. And more to the point, we’re going to need it all — nuclear and renewables — if we’re going to move beyond fossil fuels.

There’s a direct correlation between energy and human life span. There’s a direct correlation between electricity use and quality of life. The population of the world by 2050 will be 10 billion people. If developing countries are going to have a standard of living that is anything like the standard of living in the United States, Europe and Japan, we are going to need much more energy than we produce now. And I don’t see that coming from a warming world except with a greatly-increased development of nuclear power. Japan, South Korea, China and India evidently agree, since they’re all either extensively nuclear already or planning to become so. Saudi Arabia is the latest country to sign on, with recently announced plans to build a large number of nuclear power plants and an equivalent solar capacity to supply desalinization and air-conditioning. Interestingly, the solar capacity is projected to cost ten times what the nuclear will cost.

Forum on Energy: In your book, Nuclear Renewal, you talk about the French system for nuclear waste reprocessing as a technology that the U.S. should consider adopting. Do you continue to think this way?

Rhodes: More than ever. It’s never been clear to me why President Jimmy Carter, trained as a nuclear engineer, arbitrarily decided to forego reprocessing. It’s a decision that should be reversed. Uranium supplies, as plentiful as they are, are relatively limited without recycling nuclear fuel. Ninety-eight percent of the energy in uranium fuel is not used the first time around. Burying once-through nuclear waste is like burying gold. Why would you do that?

Rhodes-quote2When you take the fission products and plutonium out of the spent fuel, it is much easier to deal with the much smaller quantity of long-term waste. There are good technologies — particularly electroprocessing — for recycling nuclear fuel, pulling out the parts that need to be put away for several hundred years until they decay, and putting the rest back into fuel. There are advanced reactor designs that will be the next generation after the next generation that can burn the plutonium as well as the uranium. Under those circumstances we have something like 20,000 years of nuclear fuel around.

Forum on Energy: Is it a problem, in terms of a nuclear weapons threat, to be pulling out the plutonium?

Rhodes: Not if you use the right process. Electroprocessing not only pulls out plutonium — it also pulls out really nasty high-level radioactive waste along with it, which imbeds the plutonium in a matrix that no one can easily steal or use. The chemical process that was originally developed to make plutonium for atomic bombs is not the one that should be used, as it is now, because it separates plutonium in its pure form, which you can handle with your bare hands.

The Argonne / Idaho electroprocessing technology, which was developed in the 1980s with the development of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), is fundamentally proliferation-proof. Plutonium is almost impossible to use in a homemade bomb anyway. It tends to predetonate.

Reprocessing is something we should all be doing, as the French are. If necessary we can store the materials until we have reactors that can burn MOX, which is coming along.

Forum on Energy: There are a lot of U.S. technologies. Is there a commercial future for them in the United States?

Rhodes: Yes, but in the long term. Because of the availability of natural gas, the price of uranium reactor fuel has dropped to a point where it is hardly worth thinking about reprocessing for years to come. Right now U.S. reactors are storing spent fuel in water tanks or dry cask storage. And that’s OK. I’ve been around dry casks and held Geiger counters up to them — they are a nice, safe place to store spent fuel until we need it. And in the meantime the most radioactive fission products in the fuel are decaying nicely.

Forum on Energy: Given the slow growth of nuclear energy in the United States, will U.S. leadership in nuclear technology and knowledge dissipate in the future?

Rhodes: Certainly the plans to build nuclear power plants in China, South Korea and elsewhere will draw on American knowledge. But in the long run those countries want to develop their own knowledge and expertise. So I don’t know where the U.S. technology leadership will be in the next 20 years.

About 10 years ago there was concern that no one was signing up for graduate studies in nuclear engineering. That’s not as true as it was, but my impression is that most students are coming from China, Korea and other countries. The knowledge and technologies are not going away, but they may be going abroad.

Forum on Energy: In a Foreign Affairs article in 2000, you stated that nuclear isn’t dead. It seems that you would still hold to that today?

Rhodes: I don’t see how nuclear could possibly be thought of as dead given all the new developments in Asia. There was a wave of anti-nuclearism that followed from Chernobyl. Now there is a stall related to the availability of natural gas. Nuclear is a good technology and beautifully matched to a problem that the world is going to be facing, and that is global warming. In the long run, that has to count. I’ve stopped arguing with antinuclear activists. The world has voted, and nuclear won.

For more information, visit Forum on Energy’s recent interview with Oscar nominee, filmmaker Robert Stone.