TOWNHALL Q&A: RICKOVER TO THE RENAISSANCE

Nuclear Townhall Editor-at-Large William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy, introduces a new Townhall nuclear newsmaker Q & A feature today recounting a recent chat with Ted Rockwell, a true legend of the Nuclear Era.

A participant in the Manhattan Project going all the way back to Oak Ridge, he became technical director of Admiral Hyman Rickover’s Nuclear Navy and eventually Rickover’s biographer.  A highly skilled engineer with a literary flair, Rockwell is still an enthusiastic participant of the struggle to win acceptance of nuclear power at age 86.  He still travels the world, testifies before Congress and is ready at the drop of a hat to engage anyone in a debate over the virtues of nuclear energy.  We caught up with him at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland where he is busy firing off op-eds and engaging the New York Academy of Sciences over its publication of its new Chernobyl book.  As you can see, he hasn’t lost his combativeness or his sense of humor:

Nuclear Townhall: What’s your view of the Nuclear Renaissance?  Is it real?  Is there a possibility it may happen in the rest of the country but not the United States?

Rockwell: The Nuclear Renaissance is definitely happening in the rest of the world. The latest WNA list of world commercial nuclear power plants shows 436 operating reactors, 53 more under construction (first concrete poured), 142 more ordered (funded), and another 327 proposed (specific programs), which will bring the total number of operating plants to nearly 1000 worldwide. That is just the commercial, electricity-generating plants.  There are a comparable number of research and other special-purpose reactors in universities, hospitals and research centers.  The Renaissance Deniers have nice, abstract arguments, but they just don’t match the facts.  New nuclear construction is not actually underway in the U.S., but lots of the necessary preparatory work is being carried out.  No one wants to be first, and pay for resolving all the uncertainties.  But once it gets started, I think it may pick up fast.

NTH:  How essential is Yucca Mountain?  Do we really need it to proceed with nuclear?  What are the alternatives? 

Rockwell:  Good. Let’s get that subject out of the way, because it fuzzes up everything else. Yucca Mountain was never essential, or even desirable. Its origin was reasonable, but the whole story got out of hand. The early history of nuclear power found protestors raising every objection they could think of. That is not surprising, or even unusual. The thing that makes nuclear nearly unique in this regard, is the extraordinary steps that were taken from the beginning to make the regulatory process not only transparent, but virtually negotiable with the public.

That fact is the exact opposite of what critics describe: policies established in back rooms, secretly. So this brings us to another special feature of the nuclear enterprise:  critics have taken each advantage of nuclear technology, and characterized it as a problem. And nuclear advocates have been so inept in public relations, that we’ve let them get away with it. So our uniquely open and negotiable regulatory process is described as secret, imperious, arbitrary.

That tactic, of making problems out of advantages—making sow’s ears out of silk purses, I call it—permeates the whole nuclear enterprise. The advantage that radioactivity continually and automatically gets less and less toxic every day, is converted to, “it stays toxic for thousands of years.”  And this is implied to pose an unprecedented problem that humanity is not equipped to deal with. And breakable light bulbs containing mercury are called “green,” and radioactivity is called uniquely hazardous.

But I digress!  I was going to describe how Yucca Mountain originated.
In the 1970s, public hearings were held on whether to grant a license to build a nuclear plant, and then a similar hearing was held for permission to operate it. Any individual could raise any question, and no matter how silly, the question was laboriously adjudicated. Licensing hearings could be delayed ten, fifteen or more years, while the plant owners were paying up to 20% interest on the money they had borrowed to build the plant. They were not allowed to make any income from the plant until electricity was actually delivered to customers. (A British friend remarked that even Socialist England understood that plant owners should not have to wait years to start collecting income from the equipment they’ve already paid for and installed.)

In that situation, as with dealing with a blackmailer, the best strategy is often to concede even an outrageous amount, rather than lose months in negotiating. So when more and more demands were made, to ensure that  “nuclear waste” never contaminated the environment, the owners said, “Okay, okay, we’ll bury it deep underground, in some remote, uninhabited location.”  And thus was born Yucca Mountain. An understandable and reasonable decision, under the circumstances. No one could imagine that this would become what was recently estimated to be a $100 billion (with a “b”) project.

Of course, that was only the beginning. Drawing up specs for this hole-in-the-ground became a decades-long project for an increasing number of people. It was decided that it should be required to be required to maintain almost hermetic integrity for 10,000 years. Then the National Academy of Sciences upped that to a million years. Bernie Cohen had already demonstrated that radioactivity leaking into any nearby well would consist primarily of naturally radioactive material in the thousand feet of soil above the storage point, and not the stored material. And no one can claim to know what the characteristics of the earth will be a million years hence. The site could be deep under water, potential leakage paths will have shifted unpredictably, the possibility of active volcanoes and other critical changes cannot be ruled out. I cannot begin to picture how one could demonstrate that such specifications can be met. To try to prove it is a trap for suckers.

So, when President Obama opted to build nuclear plants, he announced that Yucca Mountain was not an option. I don’t know or care what his motivation was. All I’m interested in is that he correctly stated that the “nuclear waste” posed no significant public health hazard in its present rugged, stainless containers, and could safely stay there for several decades, until we are ready to recycle the material to get power from the unused fissionable material; and to convert the “fertile” uranium into fuel, while generating more electricity; and to recover the tremendously valuable fission products. The technology for doing all this was demonstrated decades ago. We just have to decide which of several approaches is best, and to demonstrate the most economic cycle for carrying this out. Since we know that we will want to do this some day, we should get started soon on doing so, while some of the people and equipment are still available.

But, with characteristic stubbornness, many nuclear advocates can’t bear to part with good ole Yucca Mountain, and are fighting to get this albatross back around their necks. “We’ve spent billions of dollars on it. It would be terrible to walk away from it now.”  That is a tempting argument, but there are a number of time-honored warnings against it:  “Don’t throw good money after bad.”  And most poignant, “If you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

We faced that kind of dilemma more than once, in the Naval Reactors program, and Rickover always had the guts to say, “This is turning out to be a bad path; let’s get off it.”  One example was the complex control rod mechanism that Argonne had designed for the submarine Nautilus. Jack Crawford and others told Rickover they were not confident it would work reliably. Maybe it would. Argonne protested that a change, that late in the game, would set the program back months, maybe a year. That must have been about 1950. But we did it, and looking back, few would argue that this was a poor decision.

NTH:  The public’s fear of radiation is still an overwhelming factor in selling nuclear. A small tritium leak at Vermont Yankee has threatened to shut down that plant and may reverberate throughout the industry. Is there any sensible strategy for convincing the public that every radiation exposure is not harmful?

Rockwell:  Not while we keep telling them the opposite. This is the great paradox that shapes the whole nuclear enterprise. Advocates complain, “I just can’t get my message across.”  But in fact they’ve been fully effective. They tell people that one gamma ray can kill you, and wonder why the public is afraid. The fact is, that that Yucca Mountain, in its worst realistic failure mode, could never endanger the health of the people of Nevada. Tritium leaks cannot be a public health threat. There is more tritium in a luminous exit sign than in any of the ballyhooed power plant tritium leaks. The radiation from tritium is so low-energy, and its biologic behavior so benign, that I expect it is physiologically impossible to significantly harm anyone with one of these tritium leaks.

Yet the good people of Vermont voted to close the power plant, which has reliably produced enough electricity to meet 85 % of their needs. I recognize that there were other issues with the utility and its relations with the regulator. But TRITIUM was the scare-word that grabbed the headlines. And it was tritium that led to the closure of the medical research reactor at the Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island, New York. Although the underground leakage plume never reached outside the restricted reactor area, and the plume itself was within permissible levels, U.S. Senator Alphonse D’Amato said, “Those bastards are killing my people, and I’m not going to let them get away with it.”  And he convinced the Department of Energy, under nuclear critic Bill Richardson, to shut the reactor down and dismantled it, at great expense.

But let me also challenge the claim that the public is anti-nuclear. That’s another myth we’ve allowed to stand. Yes, the cases I’ve just cited show the potential for irrational anti-nuclear behavior. But what’s the bottom line?  That’s not something we have to speculate about. The latest Gallup Poll shows 62% of the public favoring more nuclear build —twice as many as voted “No.”

NTH:  There have been claims that hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. What’s your take on that?

Rockwell:  I blame it largely on the reluctance of nuclear people to speak out bluntly to repudiate false claim. Sure, the anti-nukes spread phony stories, and the press cherry picks the dramatic ones and downplays the dull truth. That’s the world we live in. Our adversaries are playing their usual roles, but we don’t play ours. I’m told that telling our side of the story would just be written off by the public as self-serving. Of course!  As Rabbi Hillel said 2000 years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” 
I also hear complaints that these issues are seldom settled on the basis of science, so why bother?  But that’s just an excuse for scientists and engineers to shirk their duty. Our job is to state the science clearly, in advising those who set the policy. If we do our job properly, then the decision makers will have to defend any other bases for decision.
When we hear a claim that is based on poor science, or none, we generally respond with a lot of mumbling about probability and endless qualifying remarks that may be models of good public relations practice, upsetting no one, but leaving the false claim largely unchallenged. The whole business about “nothing is really 100% safe,” and “we’re looking into the matter” implies that the complaint has a firmer basis than the response. There ARE some absolutes, and we should state them. A used fuel container is not a “mobile Chernobyl.”  It cannot explode like a bomb, Period. No ifs or qualifiers.

The conclusion that the reactor or the fuel of an American commercial power plant cannot realistically create a significant public health hazard has been published and documented in two peer-reviewed papers in Science, by 19 top nuclear experts, all members of the National Academy of Engineering. That conclusion reaffirms and updates previous reports by EPRI and others, as a result a multi-national, billion-dollar research program, carried out during the past four decades. That conclusion was affirmed by the then-Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If someone wants to claim that the conclusion is flawed or incomplete, he should start first by challenging that paper and its extensive supporting data.

If someone wants to claim that an airplane crash could initiate a nuclear meltdown, he should challenge the results of that research program. We have put the facts out there. They have not been repudiated. We should use them to renounce false claim. With such facts, the burden is on the challenger. We should act accordingly.

NTH:  Having been the nuclear business all the way back to the Manhattan Project, what’s your biggest impression about the way things have changed over the years?  Is there any point in the history of nuclear in this country where a small change might have made things turn out differently?

Rockwell:  With 20-20 hindsight, I wish we had never created Yucca Mountain. I wish Al Weinberg had never issued his statement that nuclear technology is a “Faustian Bargain.”  We used a similar fear-inducing approach in the Naval program, because otherwise an Engineering Duty Captain could never have forced the changes necessary to achieve such remarkable performance. But the most damaging action was President Carter’s renunciation of fuel reprocessing. He hoped other countries would follow suit, but they didn’t. It was a step in the wrong direction.
By now, we have 50 years of safe and reliable performance of hundreds of plants in all sorts of national environments, a record unprecedented in industrial technology. A career in nuclear power operation is now deemed by the insurance industry to be safer than many clerical jobs. Nuclear submariners live in a sealed hull, working and sleeping within yards of an operating nuclear reactor. We have proved our safety. And we have proved the value of an extraordinary level of technical excellence and control. We don’t need a Satanic myth to justify that excellence. We must, and will, maintain that high standard on its own merits. It’s good business, as well as good public relations.

What we don’t need is to keep adding more “safety provisions.”  Safety is not an independent variable that we can control at will, like operating temperature or pressure. Safety is an emergent property that results from all the relevant variables like management attitude, materials control, selection and training of operators, etc. The idea that “you can’t be too safe with nuclear” is a trap. If you add provisions to prevent a condition that is demonstrably impossible to occur in your plant, you will generally create new paths to trouble, without any gain in safety. Other things being equal, the simpler the system, the safer the plant. And solutions that have been proved in operation on other plants are apt to have fewer surprises than some clever new “safety gadget,” dreamed up by a kid who’s never seen a nuclear plant.

NTH:  Give us one of your favorite recollections of Admiral Rickover.

Rockwell: 
Oh, there are thousands—maybe millions of them. He was an original. Unlike most of us, who like to be comfortable and occasionally relaxed, Rickover was a “happy warrior.”  He thrived on challenge. One time, he and I were coming into “Washington National Airport” on the red-eye from San Francisco, about 6:30 AM. The woman behind the Eastern Airlines desk called out “Good morning, Admiral.” 

“Who’s that?” he asked me. I explained that she was dating Gene Rogers, one of his senior engineers. The Admiral sensed a target of opportunity. Even at 6:30 AM, he could not resist taking on another challenge.

“I understand you’re dating Rogers,” he said to her.

“Yessir, he’s very nice,” she replied.

“He’s married, you know,” said the Admiral, and kept walking.

“Admiral,” I said, astonished. “What the hell are you doing?

“Rogers can use a challenge,” he replied nonchalantly. “If he can’t get out of this one, he doesn’t deserve the girl.”

NTH:  Thanks very much and congratulations on all you’ve done for nuclear.
 

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  • White Flinter

    They don’t make blue-chippers like Ted Rockwell anymore Clearly a trailblazer from the greatest U.S. nuclear generation to date.

    Well-organized and a good read. Keep up the good work. You’re turning heads already.

  • White Flinter

    They don’t make blue-chippers like Ted Rockwell anymore Clearly a trailblazer from the greatest U.S. nuclear generation to date.

    Well-organized and a good read. Keep up the good work. You’re turning heads already.

  • White Flinter

    They don’t make blue-chippers like Ted Rockwell anymore Clearly a trailblazer from the greatest U.S. nuclear generation to date.

    Well-organized and a good read. Keep up the good work. You’re turning heads already.

  • crf

    Rockwell said: “Yet the good people of Vermont voted to close the power plant, which has reliably produced enough electricity to meet 85 % of their needs.”

    To clarify this comment, it was a vote of the Vermont legislature, rather than a referendum (I don’t know what Rockwell meant: it’s often that the phrase “the people” is metaphorically substituted for government.)

    Here’s a NYT news story on that vote.

  • crf

    Rockwell said: “Yet the good people of Vermont voted to close the power plant, which has reliably produced enough electricity to meet 85 % of their needs.”

    To clarify this comment, it was a vote of the Vermont legislature, rather than a referendum (I don’t know what Rockwell meant: it’s often that the phrase “the people” is metaphorically substituted for government.)

    Here’s a NYT news story on that vote.

  • crf

    Rockwell said: “Yet the good people of Vermont voted to close the power plant, which has reliably produced enough electricity to meet 85 % of their needs.”

    To clarify this comment, it was a vote of the Vermont legislature, rather than a referendum (I don’t know what Rockwell meant: it’s often that the phrase “the people” is metaphorically substituted for government.)

    Here’s a NYT news story on that vote.