Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Agreement between Vermont Yankee and Some State Agencies

The Agreement

The Department of Public Service (PSD), the Agency of Natural Resources, and the Vermont Department of Health signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Entergy on December 23.

The link is below (13 page pdf).

The Missing Link

Christopher Recchia
Dept of Public Service
Understanding this agreement and commenting upon it will take some time. Right now, however, I want to point out that one important agency has not signed off on this yet--the Public Service Board.  For this agreement to take effect, the Public Service Board must grant Vermont Yankee a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) in accordance with the provisions of this agreement.

 The agreement gives the Public Service Board a deadline of March 31, 2014 for granting this certificate.

Section 2 of the agreement below:

Entergy VY and PSD shall jointly recommend to and shall support before the Board the issuance of CPG(s) effective as of March2l,2012, for: (1) operation of the VY Station through December 31,2014, and (2) storage of SNF derived from such operation, as requested by the second amended petition filed by Entergy VY in Board Docket No. 7862 on August 27,2013. Entergy VY and PSD will submit a Memorandum of Understanding ("MOU") to the Board, in the form attached as Exhibit A, in connection with those filings.

In the event that by March 31 ,2014, the Board has not granted Entergy VY a CPG that: (i) approves operation of the VY Station until December 31, 2014, and the storage of SNF derived from such operation; and (ii) approves the Parties' jointly filed MOU substantially in its entirety and contains conditions that do not materially alter, add to, or reject what is provided for by the MOU, each Party agrees that this Agreement may terminate, if such Party so determines in its sole discretion and provides written notice within ten (10) days of Board issuance of its order, whereupon each Party shall be placed in the position thatit occupied before entering into this Agreement, except that the obligations of paragraph 3(a) through (c) and the actions taken thereunder are final and shall not be affected by any termination.

Sections 3 a, b and c....this is an agreement that both sides (state and Entergy) promise not to appeal the court of appeals ruling in the major federal lawsuit. I blogged about this issue in The Second Lingering Lawsuit: The Attorney Fees.  I said that the state was unlikely to bring an appeal, since they had lost on the pre-emption issue in two courts.

Not Over Till It's Over

The day after the agreement was signed, I was interviewed by Pat Bradley of WAMC: Vermont and Entergy Reach Agreement on Future of Vermont Yankee Operations.

Here's my quote from that interview.

Public Service Board members Coen, Volz and Burke
See note below
Ethan Allen Institute Energy Education Project Director Meredith Angwin has worked in the power industry and pens the blog Yes Vermont Yankee. She notes that the Public Service Board, which has a case involving the plant, was not involved and expects some controversy to continue.   “What they really kind-of announced is that the Department of Public Service would advocate for this agreement before the Public Service Board. And the Department of Public Service carries a lot of weight. The Public Service Board still has to rule, but the intervenors will have plenty of time in front of the Public Service Board to say ‘no, no that’s a terrible idea, that’s a terrible idea.”

In other words, it's not over till it's over.

Note:  Coen has left the Public Service Board and been replaced by Margaret Cheney. Here's the new page with the new picture.    However, at the time of the Cheney appointment, I got the impression that Coen would continue to serve on any open dockets and Cheney would take over new dockets.  It is not clear to me which group of board members will be seated on the bench for this docket.  I will let you know when I find out.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Be Prompt and Positive with Vermont Yankee: Guest Post by Patty O'Donnell

Patty O'Donnell speaking to Public Service Board
November 2012

Prompt, positive Vermont Yankee decision benefits everyone

By Patricia O’Donnell, Chair
Vernon Board of Selectmen

For the sake of the residents of Vernon, I strongly encourage the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) allow Vermont Yankee and the State of Vermont to come to an equitable agreement, and issue a clean Certificate of Public Good (CPG) at the end of this year guaranteeing Vermont Yankee’s continued operation until late 2014. An unburdened CPG will provide much-needed and much-warranted economic and environmental certainty and will give all stakeholders the unobstructed opportunity to plan for the future.

As an elected representative of Vernon – a town now facing the loss of its largest employer and taxpayer, significant budget cuts, and mounting questions about its financial footing – I hope the Public Service Board will at least grant us this gift of clarity as we continue the difficult task of planning for life without Vermont Yankee.

Vernon and its residents deserve to know whether Vermont Yankee will continue to operate through next year. A prompt decision by the PSB will allow us to clearly anticipate and navigate the road through 2014 and beyond, and help to ease the financial blow to our school system, our police departments and other local services resulting from the loss of this crucial revenue source.

It is equally important for the Public Service Board to pursue a course that is both fair and equitable and looks to mitigate any further harm. Assigning a tangle of conditions or refusing outright to grant the CPG will only add insult to injury for the people of Vernon – and a contentious ruling will only hinder our efforts to recover from the loss of Vermont Yankee.

For nearly four decades, the town of Vernon, as the host community for this important economic and energy generator, has been integral to Vermont’s strength and sustainability, contributing billions of dollars in tax revenues, billions more in economic benefits, and supporting thousands of jobs statewide.

It is crucial that the PSB act expeditiously and fairly in issuing a decision, and provide some semblance of certainty as we continue through this difficult transition period. The residents of Vernon, indeed all Vermonters, deserve the security of knowing what the future holds.

Note: O'Donnell wrote this before the recent agreement between Entergy and the state.  However, it is still relevant.  The Public Service Board has not ruled yet.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
It's gloomy and rainy and ice-storm-y here in Vermont as I write this, but it still is the holiday season.

I wish all my readers happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

May you have the joys of the season: friends, family, good food and great music.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Updated: Breaking News: State and Vermont Yankee Make a Deal

The Deal

The State and Vermont Yankee have a deal about closing Vermont Yankee, announced this afternoon. I have read the breaking news report at WPTZ, and watched Shumlin's press conference as described in  Vermont Digger and embedded below.  Thank you to Digger for posting the conference so quickly!

The deal seems to have hard-edged parts (yes, I understand what's happening) and soft-edged parts (hmmm, open to interpretation here).  I share my opinions below, but I also share the press conference video, so you can form your own opinions.

Hard-edged parts of the deal:
  1. Entergy will file a decommissioning plan with the NRC in about a year, although it can legally take up to four years to do so. This plan will include an estimate of the total costs of decommissioning.
  2. Entergy will pay $2 million dollars a year for the next five years, some of which will go into the Clean Energy Development fund, and some of which will go into helping displaced workers in Windham County (or at least, something about Windham County--unclear).
  3. Entergy will put another $25 million dollars into the decommissioning fund.
  4. Entergy will attempt (it can't promise) to move all fuel into dry casks within about seven years. 
  5. When the money in the decommissioning fund has grown to the level needed for decommissioning (see #1 above), Entergy will start decommissioning activities within three months. It will not just keep the plant in SAFSTOR for sixty years or so.
  6. The state and Entergy drop all lawsuits against each other.
Update: According to the Brattleboro Reformer, "lawsuits are over" does not apply to the generation tax lawsuit which will be heard in Vermont Supreme Court.

Second Update: An article in my local paper seems to have a different take on the generation tax--that Entergy will pay the tax-to-date and the state won't expect the tax going forward?  I am sorry, but we will have to wait till after the holidays to get this straight.  Here is the article, originally from the Rutland Herald, but it may be behind a paywall.

Soft-edged parts of the deal:
  1. Entergy agrees that it will "Greenfield" the plant. Actually, Entergy agreed to this in the memorandum of understanding when it bought the plant in 2002. "Greenfielding" means site remediation beyond what the NRC requires for decommissioning.  However, what does greenfielding mean in practice?  Level and reseed the ground? Entergy had always agreed to do that.  Or  does it mean "dig up every foundation to a depth of 40 feet, at great trouble and expense"? Entergy has never agreed to that.
  2. Who is agreeing here? I mean, I think it is great to see Governor Shumlin up there explaining the deal, but what about the PSB? Will they be willing to agree to this?  Will they be annoyed that their quasi-judicial process isn't processing?
  3. Who is not-suing here?  I can practically hear the howls of "Shumlin betrayed us" from the intervenors.  I suspect more lawsuits will come from that direction.
  4. Did the state promise "no clever new taxes on the plant or fuel"?  If they did, I didn't see it in the press conference.  
My Current Opinion:

It seems to me a good-enough agreement.
  1. Entergy didn't promise anything it can't perform (such as promising to decommission within ten years or something like that).  
  2. Entergy supplied enough Danegeld to allow Shumlin to tell his supporters he made a great deal for the people of Vermont, so he doesn't lose face and he may abide by the agreement.  
  3. But Entergy didn't provide too much Danegeld.  After all, the state wanted $12 million a year to make up for the generation tax, though they knew they couldn't actually obtain that amount.
I am sure we will hear more about this, and I bet some intervenors are getting their legal briefs ready, even as I post this.

Meanwhile, the press conference that announced the deal:

The Second Lingering Lawsuit: The Attorney Fees

Attorney's Fees: The Second Lingering Lawsuit

What it is: Will the state of Vermont have to pay Entergy's legal fees in the major recent lawsuit?

History:  The state of Vermont passed laws by which the state legislature could shut down Vermont Yankee.  Then the legislature spent a lot of time and energy discussing nuclear safety, which is an area that is regulated only at the federal level. A federal judge reviewed the record, and decided in Vermont Yankee's favor: the state was indeed, attempting to pre-empt a federal prerogative.  The judge also ruled that the state of Vermont also had to pay Entergy's legal fees.  

The state appealed this ruling, and the appeals court also ruled in Vermont Yankee's favor, on the same basis of pre-emption.  However, the appeals court ruled that Vermont did not have to pay Vermont Yankee's legal fees.  So the ruling on nuclear safety was the same in both courts, but the ruling on legal fees was different.  The legal fees at issue are over $4 million dollars.

What happened recently:  Entergy filed a brief claiming that it had other bases on which to claim the legal fees: you can see the brief here at Entergy Fees Memo, filed October 31. The state filed a brief the same day claiming that Entergy should not be allowed to appeal to other reasons to claim the legal fees: you can see that brief at State Fees Memo

What is next:  It's not really clear.

About the legal fees:  the state and Entergy are keeping their options open, I believe.  However, they haven't actually started an appeal process. An appeal would be a filing to the United States Supreme Court, and I see no such filing.

Pre-emption is a separate issue, and it was the main issue of state versus federal jurisdiction on nuclear safety. At this point, two courts have ruled against the state on this major issue. The state can appeal those rulings to the Supreme Court.  However, with such a consensus from the lower courts, and the plant shutting down, such a state appeal seems a fantastic waste of taxpayer money. (I am not claiming the state won't press this appeal, you understand.  I just think it isn't very likely.)

Notes: Yesterday I blogged about another lingering lawsuit: the generation tax.  I plan a sporadic series of such blogs to keep up with the legal issues. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Lingering Lawsuit: The Generation Tax

Since I blog about Vermont Yankee, every now and again I have to update the legal issues.  So here we go...again.   The first lawsuit is about the Generation Tax.

The Generation Tax: The First Lingering Lawsuit

What it is: A tax law written so narrowly that only Vermont Yankee was affected by it. This tax was challenged by Entergy in federal court

History: The legislature passed a law which increased the "generation tax" on Vermont Yankee (fee to the state per kWh sold) to a total of about $12 million a year.  This tax was designed to force Vermont Yankee to continue to make payments to the state at the same level as it had been paying the state under Memorandums of Understanding (signed contracts with the state). However, these contracts ended in March 2012.

A federal court called some of those payments  "a form of blackmail (extorted by the state) for approval of construction (by Entergy)," but at least they were signed contracts.  The new twelve million dollar tax, however, is a tax imposed by the state on "power plants with a nameplate capacity of over 200 MW."  There's only one such plant in the state. When they passed this law, legislators were warned by lawyers that such a closely-directed law would probably be challenged in court. (See page 12 of this Entergy filing.)

What happened recently:  Entergy lost in federal court and in appeals court.  The tax continues in effect.

On the other hand, courts do not like to rule on constitutional issues if they can find another way to decide. Both federal courts ruled mostly on jurisdictional issues, claiming that Entergy should have filed suit in the state courts before coming to the federal court.  You can see these rulings on this page, maintained by the Attorney General of Vermont: Generating Tax Entergy Litigation.

In the sequence:

  • the federal court dismissed the case,
  • Entergy appealed the dismissal 
  • the appeals court ruled against Entergy.  

The appeals courts said that that Entergy has to start the appeals process in state courts.

You can also read a review of the case by Gabriella Khoransanee at FindLaw, a website for legal professionals.

Calvin Coolidge tips hat
By the way, a big hat tip and kudo to William Sorrell, Vermont Attorney General, for keeping up these user-friendly and complete pages on the various lawsuits.

What's next:   Khoransanee expects the legal challenges to the tax will continue in other courts, as suggested by the federal court rulings.  To some extent, the whole thing is going to be moot pretty soon, because Vermont Yankee is planning to close.  At that point, Vermont Yankee will no longer pay a "generation" tax, because it won't be generating electricity.

However, twelve million dollars for a year's worth of tax is twelve million dollars.  I suspect both sides will consider it worthwhile to keep litigating about this sum of money.  I think Entergy will follow the guidance of the federal court, and begin the litigation process again in the state courts.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Howard Shaffer Post at ANS Nuclear Cafe: What are opponents doing nowadays?

Vermont Yankee
Howard Shaffer's most recent contribution to ANS Nuclear Cafe was posted yesterday afternoon.

Vermont Yankee: Now What Are Opponents Doing?

In this post, Shaffer describes the many ways opponents are attempting to generate political cover for the ways in which the plant's closing will affect the state, and the related ways in which they continue to foster fear about the decommissioning process, the last few months of the plant's operation, etc.

Governor Shumlin
Vermont Yankee management and the Shumlin administration are in closed-door meetings at this time.  Who knows what they will resolve?  Who knows what they are even discussing, since almost everything about the decommissioning is in the hands of the NRC and Entergy, not the state?  I suspect the discussions are another case of the state attempting to extract Dane-Geld from Entergy.

In the meantime, I recommend reading Shaffer's post for the most up-to-date information on the current "controversies."  Comment on the post, too!  (The opponents are commenting.)

Vermont Yankee: Now What Are Opponents Doing?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pandora's Promise on iTunes Now

Robert Stone's Documentary, Pandora's Promise, is now available on iTunes.  It was shown in theaters all over the world, but rather a limited number of theaters-- not everyone was able to see it.  Now you can see it, own it, get some friends together to watch it!

Here's a link to Pandora's Promise on iTunes.

Pandora's Promise is about the promise of nuclear energy.  It stars active environmentalists who learned more about nuclear energy, and now support it.  A review by Cal Abel on the iTunes website includes this summary:

The people he (director Stone) chose to show in the movie didn't change their values. They changed their understanding. 

Understanding nuclear power means realizing that it is indeed the promise for an abundant world in the future.  Here's an earlier post of mine, just after I saw a screening in June. I talk about environmentalists who have their eyes open, and some who have deliberately kept their eyes completely closed.  Pandora's Promise does not expect people to suddenly be convinced that nuclear energy is wonderful, but it DOES effectively start a conversation.

Now everyone can see this movie!

Once again, the link to Pandora's Promise on iTunes!

And just for fun, once again, the trailer

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Vermont Yankee's Closing Will Hurt Vermont

The Plant Will Close

On Aug. 27, Entergy announced that Vermont Yankee would be shuttered in the fall or 2014, when its current fuel load is finished producing power.

Entergy’s decision elicited a variety of reactions. Some regarded this as a great victory and were practically dancing in the streets. I was among those who were upset and depressed by the news. But I suspect that most people were somewhere in the middle. They thought, well, Vermont isn’t using Vermont Yankee power anyway, so it shouldn’t make much of a difference.

It does. Vermont Yankee’s closing will affect everyone in Vermont. It will make our electricity more expensive, more fossil-fuel based and less reliable.

Vermont utilities are using Vermont Yankee power now. They’re not officially buying Vermont Yankee power, but “using” power and “buying” power are different. Power use has to do with physical structure — where power plants, transmission lines and users are located. “Buying” power is about power contracts. A utility can choose to “buy” power from far away, but it will continue to use the power from the local generators. For example, when Green Mountain Power bought power from Seabrook instead of from Vermont Yankee, no power lines needed to be constructed. When a major supplier of regional power is lost, it must be replaced, regardless of who’s buying it.

So when Vermont Yankee closes, people in Vermont will have to get actual power from other sources. Can they get this power? The short answer is yes. Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO) manages the state transmission systems. VELCO was concerned that Vermont Yankee might close. Between 2010 and 2013, it invested $30 million in new lines and substations to bring replacement electricity to Vermont.

The Replacement Power

What will the new power sources be? Despite the Vermont Comprehensive Plan, very little will come from renewable sources. Building renewables is a slow, expensive, land-intensive job. Vermont Yankee generates 620 megawatts of power and is well-connected to the grid. In contrast, the Lowell Mountain wind project produces 64 MW and has difficulty getting on the grid. Rep. Tony Klein, a strong advocate of wind energy, said recently that he expects no more wind farms to be built in Vermont for another 10 to 15 years.

When Vermont Yankee goes off-line, Vermont will get its power from outside Vermont: either power supplied by the regional grid, ISO-NE, or hydro-power from Canada. With Yankee closing, much of the power on the grid, especially the spot market power, will be gas-fired and its price is due to go up. Power supplied under contract by HydroQuebec follows that spot price. Before, when gas prices went up, Vermont Yankee could underbid the gas prices, and supply many megawatt-hours at a lower price than gas. But without Vermont Yankee, gas prices will determine the price of almost everything on the grid.

Natural Gas and Some Oil

Industrial Gas Turbine
Our local grid power is already overdependent on natural gas. Right now, 52 percent of the power on the grid is produced from natural gas, and it will be a higher percentage when Vermont Yankee closes. ISO-NE considers gas dependence a “key strategic risk” for New England. The area is vulnerable to supply disruptions and price changes for this commodity.

Let’s start with supply disruptions. We had a natural gas supply crisis during the January 2013 cold snap. Although many in New England heat their homes with natural gas, the limited gas lines serving the region make for an inadequate supply. In cold weather, when domestic demand for gas spikes, those customers receive priority, and the power plants can’t get enough gas. During that cold snap, the grid would attempt to summon the help of a gas-burning power plant, and the plant would answer: “Sorry. Can’t go online. No gas.”

This year, ISO-NE started a “Winter Reliability Program” to address this problem — by using oil. ISO-NE has set aside $75 million to keep (mostly) oil-burning plants at the ready. That’s right, the grid is paying $75 million to have oil-burning plants keep oil onsite. (This is a “capacity” payment; the plants will be paid separately when they actual make power.) ISO-NE is ensuring reliability, but at a high dollar cost and a high cost in fossil-fuel use.

Without Vermont Yankee, more power will come from gas plants, but they will still be supplied by the same set of pipelines. Unless new pipelines are built quickly, an unlikely event, it will take less of a cold snap to activate the “we can’t get gas for our power plant” situation. In that case, more oil will be needed for back-up.

Price also matters, and once again, the problem is a lack of pipelines. Fracking has made a lot of gas available, but New England’s access to it is limited. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which tracks national supply and demand, published a market assessment in October that reported that gas prices are relatively stable in most of the country, except in New England. In other regions, gas prices charged last winter and for futures contracts written on the coming winter are around $4 per MMBTU (1 million BTUs). In New England, natural gas prices last year were $6.60 MMBTU, but the futures price for the winter of 2014 is soaring to $11.75. Electricity prices in this area are also expected to rise, since electricity prices customarily track gas prices.

Canadian Hydro--only a very partial solution

What about getting more power from hydro plants in Canada? This will work … partially. Depending on how much electricity we import, new transmission lines may well be needed. Some of these lines are already being planned. We should also note that Canadian power is unlikely to shield us from price rises on the grid. Under the new HydroQuebec contracts signed around 2012, the price HydroQuebec charges will fluctuate; it will move according to the market price on the grid, which itself follows natural gas prices.

Ice Storm of 1998
In this case, we will be actually moving more electricity from Canada, not just writing contracts. Electricity carried long distances is also liable to disruptions. In 1998, an ice storm devastated HydroQuebec’s power lines, causing widespread, lengthy power outages. This could happen again, but let’s look at a more recent and more mundane supply disruption.

During that same cold snap last January, HydroQuebec exported only about half of the usual amount of electricity to the U.S. Why did it cut back just when the power was most needed?

Quebec law requires HydroQuebec to supply inexpensive electricity to “legacy” customers within the province. The needs of those customers must be met, and at a retail price of around 3 cents per kWh. Therefore, many people in Quebec heat with electricity. In a cold snap, the Quebec heaters go on, and HydroQuebec has less power to send to us. HydroQuebec hates this, but has no choice.

Cold Weather and Reliability

Even with Vermont Yankee running, Vermont and New England were overly dependent on natural gas. Without Vermont Yankee, the problems will get worse,. Our dependence on natural gas and on Canada sets us up for a perfect storm of increased power prices — and it won’t take a monster storm to trigger it. Cold weather itself will do a fine job.


Reference list about effects of closing Vermont Yankee

My op-ed, Vermont Yankee Closing Will Hurt Vermont,  was based on many references. This list of links helps support it, but no simple list can be a complete set of references on these subjects.

Wind Projects in Vermont

Representative Klein on not-expecting wind projects in Vermont for about ten years

Natural Gas

ISO says natural gas dependence is key strategic risk

FERC Market Assessment of price nationally

Matt Wald of the NYTimes on natural gas and New England

20% electricity price rise expected in Boston this winter

Portland at Forbes on the gas crisis in New England

Winter Reliability with Oil

ISO Winter reliability program---burning oil

Hydro Quebec and more

When HQ exported only half the electricity during a cold snap...

HQ Planning document:
Note page 6 on 97% of electricity goes to Heritage Pool in Quebec
Note page 32 on plans for profits from exports

An older blog post about HQ and profits.
HQ charts showing where their profits come from.  This post is old, but HQ puts equivalent charts in every annual report.  Look at the blue charts...also see page 32 of planning document above

The great ice storm of 1998

Careful review of who-owns-what in the weird structure of Gaz  Metro and HQ. My basic conclusion---ordinary shareholders do not influence these companies.  The government of Quebec controls the actions of these companies.  It's hard to figure out, however.  Good links within the post.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

400K Pageviews at Yes Vermont Yankee Blog

A Successful Blog

Yesterday afternoon, I took this screen shot of the page-views on Yes Vermont Yankee blog.  It's from the blogger "Stats" page. Clearly the time-line is not right, because the blog began in January 2010. Still, I think the page-count is accurate.  For example, the big blip shown in "April 2009" is certainly the giant readership of the 25th Carnival of Nuclear Energy blogs in October 2010.  That post was featured in Instapundit and other venues.

I'm proud of the record of this blog. The blog has followed the story of Vermont Yankee and put that story in perspective. The issues in Vermont are a reflection (exaggeration?) of the type of opposition faced by nuclear plants world-wide.  In my opinion, knowing the specifics of a single example illuminates the "big picture" of nuclear.

Angwin and Shaffer as Visible Supporters of Vermont Yankee

This blog has also served as a voice for the pro-nuclear side of the debate about Vermont Yankee.  Howard Shaffer and I have been voices for Vermont Yankee. We have been rewarded by frequent media interviews, plus opportunities to write op-eds and participate in debates. (But the opponents won't debate us any more. More accurately, opponents tried to back out of our most recent debates, and no new debates are currently scheduled...)

The presence of this blog also means that reporter bias becomes visible.  A biased, rushed or lazy reporter can interview a well-known opponent. He or she can follow this by getting a "no comment" from the plant.  That's the end-of-story for that reporter! However, the more enterprising reporters know that Howard and I are available. We are knowledgeable, we are credible, and we are always good for a sound-bite.  We don't expect to get interviewed every time, but we do get interviewed.

A Voice For Many Supporters

Howard and I are not the only voices in this blog.  I am pleased that this blog has hosted guest posts from plant supporters within and outside of Vermont: Willem Post, Charles Kelly, Guy Page, Dr. Robert Hargraves, Cheryl Twarog, Cavan Stone, and many more. This blog has been a place for pro-nuclear voices to be heard.

I am especially proud of the many examples of pro-Vermont Yankee statements submitted to the Public Service Board in November 2012: many of these are guest posts on the blog.  For a listing of Public Service Board posts on this blog, I recommend Vermont Yankee's Greatest Hits at the Public Service Board Meeting, posted at ANS Nuclear Cafe.  

But better yet: get the book!  George Angwin and I put together Voices for Vermont Yankee, a compendium of pictures and testimony from plant supporters at the Public Service Board meeting.

You can buy Voices for Vermont Yankee as a Kindle for $2.99
You can buy Voices for Vermont Yankee as a paperback for $4.51
You can buy Voices for Vermont Yankee on the Nook for  $2.99

Just in time for Christmas!  (Though it's late for Hanukkah, it could be a New Year's present maybe?)

The ebook versions are less expensive than a ginger latte, or whatever the local coffee shops are serving nowadays. The paperback version is something you can hold, and it has a pretty full-color cover.  Yes, you can afford one of these books!  You will find reading the book to be heartening and inspiring.

Supporting the Work

Buying the book also supports the pro-nuclear activism of the Energy Education Project: a portion of book profits is donated to the Project. We do everything on the super-cheap, but we still have expenses.  There's mileage, some Internet fees, travel for ourselves and for guest speakers. We have summer interns when we can.  Every now and again, if we can, we pay ourselves something (not much, alas, not much).  Your contribution helps a lot!

Or you can donate to the Energy Education Project directly.  There's a Donate button at the top right of this page.  Please click it and make a donation of any amount.  If you want to be a full-fledged member of the Energy Education Project, please donate $30 ($40 for a family membership) . It is perfectly okay to donate more ;-) I think $50 is a nice number, don't you?

Any amount is helpful, it really is. When you make is a direct donation to our cause, it is fully tax-deductible.  The Energy Education Project is part of the Ethan Allen Institute, a 501c(3) nonprofit, educational organization.

Here's a link to more information about donation and membership.

Thank you for reading this blog. Please support it if you can.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Pay for Education, Not Tribute: Vermont Yankee ANS Nuclear Cafe

Viking Longship Reconstruction
Extorting Money from Vermont Yankee

On ANS Nuclear Cafe today,  I have posted a history of the extortion against Vermont Yankee, and some advice for the nuclear industry going forward:

Millions for education, but not one cent for tribute.

Vermont Yankee made  certain agreements with the Vermont Public Service Board. They made these agreements in order to get permission to run their plant and upgrade their equipment. These agreements were straight extortion.

According to these agreements, Vermont Yankee paid for cleaning up Lake Champlain (it's the other side of the state from the power plant) and for wind turbines.  In other words, in order to keep operating, Entergy paid for pet projects of the legislature and Public Service Board.

But to save money, Entergy closed the visitor center.

Keep the Visitor Center, Lose the Extortion

In my opinion, this was a backward strategy.  The visitor center was important.  The money for legislative-pet-projects was counter-productive.

I suggest nuclear plants should fund outreach (visitor centers and more).  They should fund their lawyers, when necessary.  They shouldn't give in to extortion and to paying Dane-geld.  Paying off the Vikings doesn't work.

Rudyard Kipling has a memorable poem about Dane-geld. It explains why trying to pay off the Vikings is a bad idea.  "Once you have paid him the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane."  The extortionists will certainly come back later, for more money.

Deliver the Public Service Board From Temptation

The Kipling poem includes some surprising advice. It suggests you should save the Vikings from
John McClaughry
by not paying the Dane-geld:

"It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
  For fear they should succumb and go astray;"

John McClaughry of the Ethan Allen Institute wrote about this shake-down back in 2005, though he called it the extortion "simony" instead of "dane-geld."  In that article, McClaughry quotes the state auditor, who also wants to protect the Public Service Board from itself:

In November 2003, in return for Public Service Department support for a reactor power uprate, Entergy agreed to pay $7.8 million to cleanup algae in Lake Champlain, 180 miles away, plus $2.1 million to subsidize low income home heating. The deal was criticized not only by the anti-nuclear activists, but also by state Auditor Elizabeth Ready: “(Vermonters) health and safety could be placed at risk if utility regulation is allowed to become a pay-to-play endeavor, fueled by extracting millions from applicants for pet projects in order to get the Public Service Department’s stamp of approval.”

In other words, this sort of thing is just too tempting for the Danes and for the Public Service Board.

Instead of giving money to clean up Lake Champlain, or whatever pet project the Public Service Board requires, nuclear plants should spend money on outreach. And, if necessary, on lawyers.

Kipling and State Auditor Ready would agree: Do not put temptation in the path of any nation...or any Public Service Board.

Don't pay.


I am sorry.  I cannot easily find a link to McClaughry's 2005 Commentary: "New State Revenue Technique: Simony."

John McClaughry is the founder of the Ethan Allen Institute. The Energy Education Project is part of that Institute, and I am the director of the Energy Education Project.

Monday, December 2, 2013

SAFSTOR: On Decommissioning Vermont Yankee

Mark 1 Schematic

SAFSTOR is a method for delayed decommissioning of a nuclear plant. With SAFSTOR, fuel is taken out of the reactor and put in the fuel pool.  Then the plant remains basically intact for some years.  After some time (up to 60 years after fuel is removed from the core) the plant is fully decommissioned.

Vermont Yankee opponents are very determined that the plant should not be put in SAFSTOR. However, even the opponents are beginning to realize that Entergy's agreement about buying the plant (state agreement), and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (federal oversight)  allow the use of SAFSTOR.  The opponents will not have much to say about what decommissioning methods (including SAFSTOR) Entergy chooses.

One advantage of SAFSTOR is that the workers who decommission the plant will be exposed to less radiation, because much of the radiation has decayed away.

The opponents are opposed to SAFSTOR, because they consider the "danger" of the plant (danger to them) while it is in SAFSTOR is a far more important problem than any extra radiation exposure to nuclear workers.  The opponents are personally very frightened (or they say they are).  Simultaneously, they are very willing for other people to face increased radiation.

In contrast, in an article at WCAX, Bill Irwin of the Vermont Department of Health says the plant will be generally safer after shutdown, even in SAFSTOR.

(Irwin) uses the analogy of a boiling pot: When the pot is hot and the water boiling, they're more concerned about spills. But a pot of cold water won't boil over -- though it could still leak, which is what they'll look for. But as the years go by, they will have to monitor a smaller and smaller area


In this case, opponents are  not going to get what they want.  According to the Memorandum of Understanding, the agreement by which Entergy bought the plant, SAFSTOR is an option for decommissioning.  It is also the option which Entergy has always said it would choose.

In an article by Susan Smallheer in the Rutland Herald, Mike Twomey of Entergy was quoted as follows:

Michael Twomey, vice president of external affairs for Entergy Nuclear, Yankee’s owner, told the panel Thursday that while the company was leaning toward a delayed decommissioning, it’s not a given that it will take all 60 years allowed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But Twomey said there would be little activity at the plant, except for handling spent fuel, in any event, for six to 10 years after it shuts down in late 2014. Twomey, who recently testified before two Vermont House committees on the plant’s pending shutdown, said the company had two years after the reactor actually stops generating power next year to study how much it would cost to decommission the plant, and choose a course for federal regulators.

Entergy has two years to file a decommissioning plan with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It plans to have little activity at the plant for six to ten years after the plant shuts down. For six to ten years (at least) the plant will be in SAFSTOR.

Architecture is Destiny

In terms of decommissioning, one of the things I have thought about is the position of the fuel pool at Vermont Yankee.

Once fuel is removed from the core, it must stay in the fuel pool for about five years before it can be put into dry cask storage. At Vermont Yankee,  the fuel pool is in the same building as the reactor. Therefore, it would be very hard to begin dis-assembling the reactor while maintaining the fuel pool.

The obvious schedule would be to wait about five years for the fuel to cool, and then transfer it to dry casks. After the transfer, when the fuel pool no longer needs to be maintained, the workers could begin   dis-assembling and decommissioning the reactor, the fuel pool and the reactor building.

I expect that this  is Entergy's plan. The protestors in Vermont cannot change the internal arrangement of the plant. Therefore, Entergy's plan will be the way the plant is decommissioned.

More on Decommissioning

This is one of a series of posts on issues on decommissioning Vermont Yankee.  The earlier posts:

Vermont Yankee Site Unlikely to be Used Again.  There are many vacant industrial sites in the Northeast: adding one more is unlikely to attract a new business.

Backwards reasoning about Greenfields.  Insisting on expensive "greenfield" work will not make the site more attractive to another business, and will slow down site availability.

The Formal Negotiations.  Shumlin's team and Entergy are sitting down together, in closed session.  They are discussing"issues" such as "how long fuel has to stay in a fuel pool."  (Issues? Facts, maybe..)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Vermont Yankee Site Unlikely to be Used Again: On Decommissioning Vermont Yankee

Industry in the Northeast

In order to get new business to the area around Vermont Yankee, the area needs incentives, not further industrial sites.  The existence of a decommissioned Vermont Yankee site will not attract an employer.

In the nineteenth century, and even up to World War II, the Northeast was a manufacturing powerhouse.  Since then, industries have been leaving the area. In Vermont, there are far more industrial sites than businesses that want such a site.
Mill on the Merrimack River

If you live in the Northeast, you know this.  There are hundreds of sites in Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire that used to be industrial sites-- until the industries moved away.  There are mills that have been turned into art galleries, and there are mills that are just decaying in place.  People talk about the "old Georgia Pacific site," or the "old gear factory."  And so forth.

Getting the Vermont Yankee site ready for a new business will do absolutely nothing for the economy of the region.  Having one more site available is not going to attract a new employer.

Nuclear sites are rarely used again, except sometimes for fossil plants

Also, it is a nuclear site. A few days ago, Terri Hallenbeck of the Burlington Free Press wrote an excellent article about the fate of decommissioned nuclear sites: A Future Use for Vermont Yankee? Don't Hold Your Breath. Her article puts the "we need to decommission it quickly" rhetoric in context.

In her article, Hallenbeck shows that most of the decommissioned nuclear sites had no further industrial use, though some eventually hosted other power plants (usually gas-fired). The location of these sites usually works against their use as anything except a power plant.

Furthermore, the Vermont Yankee site is clearly not attractive for further development.  The Hallenbeck article quotes Ray Shadis. Shadis thinks the site should "probably be ... left alone" after decommissioning. He notes the Vermont Yankee site is long and narrow, which is problematic (for further development).

Despite all the fuss about "decommission it promptly," the Vermont Yankee site is unlikely to attract another employer to the area.  I will also note that many of the people who are most eager to encourage "prompt decommissioning" don't live in Windham County. They live in Massachusetts, and they live in Maine.  They will not be affected by the employment situation in southern Vermont. Their rhetoric shows their hatred of nuclear power far more than it shows any care for the economy of the region.


This is the third in a series of blog posts about various aspects of Vermont Yankee decommissioning.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Backwards Reasoning About Greenfields: On Decommissioning Vermont Yankee

Field in Fairfield, Vermont

A confession: I am not immune to believing a statement if it is repeated often enough. 

For example, it took me a long time to notice that this quote is completely backwards:

Among the conditions sought by the state is a $60 million fund to ensure that the Yankee site in Vernon be returned to “green field” status, so it can be used for further economic development. 

Many plant opponents have made similar statements: "Extra money is needed for greenfielding so the site can be used for economic development."

That is backwards! The NRC standards for decommissioning get the site ready for another industry--that is the point of the standards. If Vermont imposes extra "greenfield" decommissioning requirements, these requirements will:
  • increase the cost to Entergy.
  • increase the time required for decommissioning the site.
  • not increase how attractive the site will be to a new industry.
Remember that next time you hear talk about the necessity of extra money for "greenfielding" to ensure "economic development."  

(Quote is from an article by Susan Smallheer in the Rutland Herald: Vermont seeks $60 million fund for Entergy plant to keep running.  This article is about Vermont granting a Certificate of Public Good for Vermont Yankee, the Certificate to be valid only through the end of 2014.)


This is the second of a series of posts about Vermont Yankee decommissioning.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Formal Negotiations: On Decommissioning Vermont Yankee

Attorney General Sorrell 
After some preliminary reports that "negotiations between Governor Shumlin's administration and Entergy would be held," we finally have a report that one such meeting was held.

"Issues" were discussed--

Dave Gram of Associated Press reports that Governor Shumlin, Attorney General Sorrell, Department of Public Service Commissioner Recchia (and perhaps others) are meeting with Entergy. The group plans to prepare a "global agreement" on decommissioning issues. They have met at least once, and  they plan to meet again in early December.  

This is a round of "formal negotiations." According to Sorrell, it includes discussion of the following "issues":
  • how much work will need to be done on the site, 
  • what's in the underground piping, 
  • how long it's likely to take for the nuclear fuel rods to cool enough that they can be moved
Since these "issues" are actually not "issues" but facts, I think  the Shumlin people are actually just getting a briefing from Entergy. This doesn't sound like a "negotiation."  If it is any kind of negotiation,  I wish the plant the best of luck.  I think that Entergy may want a global agreement.

But sound bites may be planned.

I also think that Governor Shumlin will prefer having sound bites to having an agreement. 

Governor Shumlin
I suspect Shumlin plans to hold a press conference after the meetings. In this conference, he will claim that Entergy-Louisiana would not give Shumlin what he wants for the people-of-Vermont. (We don't live in Louisiana, you know?)

Okay, okay, I am judging Shumlin by his past words and his past actions.  He may have changed.  I believe that people can change.  I will have to wait and see if Governor Shumlin has changed.  For the sake of my friends at the plant, I hope Shumlin has changed!

However, if Shumlin begins insulting "Entergy-Louisiana" in the near future, please remember that you read it here first.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

On Plutonium, Nuclear War, and Nuclear Peace: Guest Post by NNadir

On Plutonium, Nuclear War, and Nuclear Peace

I trust – and I hope I am justified in this – that no one wants a nuclear war.   I know I don’t.   We already have a set of environmental problems that are worse than a limited nuclear war, and may be facing an environmental crisis that might be as dire as a large scale nuclear war, specifically, a collapsing atmosphere.    Adding a nuclear war to our list of problems – to vastly understate – is, um, undesirable.    We should therefore, and must, do everything we possibly can to prevent nuclear war.

The world at large learned of nuclear war pretty much at the same time as it learned of the existence of a “new” element, plutonium, about which we now know a great deal more than we did at the time of the announcement.  The point of this article is to discuss the psychological and practical relationship of plutonium’s existence to the probability of nuclear war.

We now know that plutonium once occurred naturally on earth, but with the exception of a few atoms discovered in California in lanthanide/thorium ores at Mountain Pass by Darleane Hoffman1 of UC Berkeley, all of the primordial plutonium that was once present on this planet is now extinct, although its “bones,” if you will, its ashes, its fossils, remain in many places, notably in our atmosphere as an isotope of the noble gas xenon, but also in fact in many other places on earth, from the crust to the core.

Among those “ashes” of primordial plutonium is the radioactive element thorium, which is a significant component of the same lanthanide ores that are mined to manufacture wind turbines and hybrid/electric cars; the Mountain Pass Mine in whose ores primordial plutonium was discovered was closed because, among other things, of a concern, albeit an extremely silly concern, about the radioactivity of lanthanide mine tailings.  Hoffman chose to look for plutonium in these ores since she expected that the geochemistry of plutonium dioxide would be very similar to the geochemistry of thorium dioxide and cerium dioxide minerals, both of which are significant constituents of most lanthanide ores.  (The Mountain Pass mine is now in the process of being reopened, because new sources of lanthanides are required owing to Chinese restrictions on their export.) 

Nevertheless, for the record, the mine tailings associated with the wind/hybrid car industry, as represented by milled ore tailings, will prove more radioactive (unless the thorium is removed and fissioned in nuclear reactors) over the long term than the mine tailings of uranium ores, since the processing of the latter removes the radioactive source and ultimately destroys it, whereas the wind/hybrid car industry simply dumps all of its radioactive waste without restriction and without “the public” issuing even a faint whimper of concern about it.

Be all of that as it may, to return to plutonium, the first samples visible to the human eye of the fascinating revived element, plutonium, were prepared for the purpose of making war, and this most remarkable scientific achievement was announced to the public at large in the context of announcing a new kind of war, nuclear war, a kind of war that had only been imagined in what was once assumed to be fanciful science fiction, the science fiction of H.G. Wells.

Thus there exists a psychological impetus, if not a rational impetus, always to associate plutonium with war, and the fear associated with this element has often caused its name to be written or spoken after adjectives like “deadly” and “dangerous” though plutonium need be neither of these things.   In practice, though considerable inventories of it exist, plutonium is seldom either deadly or dangerous – indeed many lives have been saved by plutonium - but, as it is not new to tragedy that fear is often more powerful than reason, and thus this questionable and unfortunate association continues.

I have thought in my long lifetime a great deal about plutonium, and now will set out to address this association of plutonium and war, an association that has caused many people to suggest in all kinds of contexts that we should seek to avoid this element, avoid making it or using it, for fear of nuclear war, even though, I suggest, the element may prove to be the last, best hope for humanity in its increasingly failing efforts to stabilize its environment.  With respect to the particular issue of war, I will thus now advance the thesis - it may seem counterintuitive given common parlance for more than half a century - that the best route to minimizing the risk of nuclear war is to make more plutonium, not less of it.

First some history:

When Hannibal crossed the Alps – although he could not have known this – nuclear war was possible.   Later, when Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, nuclear war was possible, as it was when Alaric I sacked Rome, indeed as it was when Henry IV fought at Agincourt, as it was when Washington took Yorktown.  Nuclear war was possible when Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Donelson, also when he captured Vicksburg and also when he captured Robert E. Lee and his army at Appomattox.   Nuclear war was possible during the Battle of the Somme, and it was possible – and for the first time was understood by some to be so – when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, this in an unwise effort to protect its flanks as it drove for the oil fields of Java and Borneo, thus commencing the oil war that would also prove to be the only nuclear war that ever took place.   When the Nazi general Paulus drove on Stalingrad in hopes of reaching the Caucasian oil fields at Baku, preparations for nuclear war were well underway, and by the time of the American obliteration of the city of Tokyo in March of 1945 using petroleum and biomass (nitroglycerine, palmitic acid and nitrocellulose) derived weapons of mass destruction, nuclear war was no longer merely possible:  It had become inevitable.

We know that nuclear has always been possible since nuclear war has been observed.


Nuclear war has never been impossible, nor is likely that it ever will be impossible, since uranium exists. There is no human technology, not even its consumption in nuclear reactors that can ever consume all of the uranium on earth.

To wit:

Crustal uranium is all derived from continuous cycling from the earth’s mantle to the planetary surface.    The composition of the earth’s upper mantle can be directly ascertained from the composition of mantle rocks.  An example of very old mantle rocks is found on Baffin Island in Canada and in Greenland from which the uranium content of the mantle can be directly measured by calculation.2

If we note that the upper mantle constitutes about 10% of the mass of the earth, generally taken to be about 5.97 X 1024 kg, and allowing for the decay of uranium since the formation of the rock, the value given in reference 2 for the uranium content of the mantle 4.5 billion years ago, 0.0117 ppm, suggests that about 3 trillion tons of uranium now exist in the upper mantle, never mind the planetary lower mantle, never mind the outer and inner cores.  Moreover the existence of this uranium, along with thorium and radioactive potassium, provides almost all of the Earth’s internal heat, an enormous amount of heat, the heat that drives plate tectonics and thus accounts for all the earth’s land mass on which the human race evolved.

If this planet had not formed containing a vast amount of uranium, neither the text here nor the eyes that read it could exist, since without it, human beings would not exist, and not existing, would be thus deprived of their ability to fear their own extinction.   As a result of the heat generated by the decay of uranium, thorium and radioactive potassium – said heat dominated by the former - all of the layers of the earth experience convective flow and we may presume – we know this to be true for the mantle-crustal interface – elements exchange between layers as if the each of planet’s layers were continuous extraction devices.   The energy content of the uranium in upper mantle, were it converted to plutonium and fissioned – the heat it generates comes not from nuclear fission but from the far more inefficient process of alpha decay - is roughly equivalent to the energy output at current levels, 520 exajoules per year, to about a trillion years of human energy consumption, although neither humanity nor the planet will survive that long.

A little less than 5 billion tons of this uranium, at little more than 0.1% of what’s in the Earth’s upper layers, has leached into the earth’s oceans, limited only by the solubility of uranium in seawater.   Any attempt to remove this oceanic uranium would be futile, again, since volcanism and weathering of crustal rocks continuously cycles mantle and crustal uranium to the oceans.    Seawater is thus probably the most sustainable resource for supplying uranium indefinitely.

The topic of obtaining uranium in this way, from seawater, has been the subject of research for more than sixty years. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and the basic concepts, generally relying on resins – solid phase extraction - are well understood.   The recovery of kg quantities8 been demonstrated using three 4 m2 absorbent beds stacked under a small anchored buoy in the sea off Japan:   The energy required to overcome the free energy of mixing is provided wave motion and sea currents, although pumps connected to water intake piping for cooling power or desalination plants could also be used on shore.   India – which has faced international restrictions for the importation of uranium because of its nuclear weapons program – has examined precisely this approach using the cooling water intake canal at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station.9  

The cost of recovering uranium in this way – for a single use resin - has recently been estimated10 to be between $1000/kg and $1400/kg, about 15 times as much the current market price from terrestrial ores.   For resins that can be used for six cycles, the price is lower, around $300/kg.   (In familiar energy/cost terms, the higher figure is the cost of fuel equivalent of gasoline at 0.002 dollars per gallon because of the extreme energy density of uranium:  Raw material fuel costs are a trivial component of the cost of nuclear energy.)  One would therefore expect uranium from continental mines to remain a cheaper route for generations to come, but the point is this:  For a few million dollars, any nation with access to the ocean could acquire sufficient uranium to make a nuclear weapon using well understood separations chemistry.    There really isn’t much mystery in this.

The scientists and engineers who achieved turning the 1941-1945 US-Japan oil war into the first and only nuclear war had natural uranium and only natural uranium as the starting material:  Ironically in 1940 much of the world supply of the isolated element was being stored for use in the glaze and glass industries in a warehouse in Staten Island NY; this was the relatively small quantity used to start the Manhattan Project work.

It would have been nice, as an aside, if the US-Japan oil war, a sub-conflict of World War II - the only nuclear war ever observed - was also the only oil war ever to be observed, but alas, that was not to be.  Every war fought in modern times has been an oil war in the sense that all modern wars rely on petroleum diverted to weapons use, and, in addition, as we know, many of these wars were fought because of the politics of oil and/or to obtain or control access to oil.   (By way of contrast, no war has ever been fought to get access to uranium.)   Cities and towns destroyed or severely damaged by petroleum diverted to make weapons of mass destruction include, but are not limited to, Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden, Frankfurt,  Berlin, Nagoya, Haiphong, Rotterdam, London, Coventry, Baghdad, Guernica…we could spend hours making a complete list.

But to return to the question of nuclear war - the only kind of war that people ever seem interested in preventing - I note again that the first nuclear weapon ever to be dropped on a city, Hiroshima, did not require the construction of a single nuclear reactor.    It was made from natural uranium, processed using coal powered electricity and hydroelectric power to run a gaseous diffusion plant in Tennessee to separate a single isotope in natural uranium, 235U, which was then used to construct the bomb in question.     Despite this fact, no one has ever proposed the banning of hydroelectricity or coal fired power plants (or any other form of electricity) to prevent nuclear war.

The scientists who built the uranium weapon were so confident in its performance that they didn’t even bother to test it; its first test being on the city it destroyed.      The first nuclear bomb ever detonated – this famously took place in New Mexico – as well as the second, and last, nuclear bomb ever used in the only nuclear war relied on plutonium, which was produced in a nuclear reactor – a reactor designed and built solely for the purpose of making nuclear weapons – using natural uranium as a starting material.    Because of plutonium’s rather strange properties, represented by the fact that it has more allotropes than any other element, the scientists did need to test their plutonium weapon – to make sure it worked, as it was a far more challenging device to make – before they used a second plutonium device at Nagasaki.

Although nuclear war can never be rendered impossible, humanity can engage, by various means including, but not limited to, political means, in the minimization of the probability of additional nuclear wars, something it obviously has managed to do successfully:  The first nuclear war, which took place more than half a century ago, has not been followed by a second nuclear war.

That, of course, is a good thing.   

Nevertheless, humanity spent much of the last century manufacturing tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in various countries around the world, preparing for a nuclear war or nuclear wars that thankfully never came.   It is, therefore, maybe, not a good idea to be too glib about the matter.   The construction of these nuclear weapons, their manufacture, has provided a large inventory of very high grade nearly isotopically pure 235U - isolated from natural uranium - as well as inventories of nearly monoisotopic plutonium, 239Pu, roughly 300 MT.

This nearly pure 239Pu is known as “weapons grade plutonium” and has been specifically prepared, often at great expense, for that purpose - the manufacture of nuclear weapons -usually using specialized reactors designed to make it in relatively pure form.   Weapons grade plutonium is much more expensive to make – and has much higher external (environmental) costs than other grades of plutonium, since the uranium (238U) from which it is made must be irradiated only a short time to prevent the formation of 240Pu:  Thus weapons grade plutonium is found in irradiated uranium in low concentrations, causing the need to dispose of large amounts of byproduct and unreacted material that is not usable in nuclear weapons.   This has caused the generation of huge amounts of byproducts of nuclear weapon manufacture to accumulate in places like Hanford in Washington State, as well as in various sites in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.

The inventories of the weapons grade (fissionable) nuclear materials produced at Hanford and elsewhere are quite stable.   Without human intervention, they will not go away at least not in the lifetimes of any human now living.

Nevertheless the inventory of weapons grade nuclear materials on the planet as a whole is somewhat less than it used to be.    In the late 1990’s former Vice President Al Gore worked closely with the Russians to negotiate the dismantling of some of their nuclear weapons – the uranium fueled versions – thereafter mixing the resultant highly enriched 235U with so called “depleted uranium,” 238U, to make “low enriched uranium”, which was then sold to the United States, where it was used to manufacture fuel used in nuclear reactors to generate electricity.

Much of the nuclear power generated in the United States in the last two decades has been generated by burning uranium that was formerly a constituent of the nuclear weapons once aimed at the heads of Americans.   This was called the “Megatons to Megawatts Program,” and it was a wonderful idea:  We should do more things like that.   The Russians at the time of the negotiations needed the money, so everybody won:   The Russians made a few bucks, the probability of nuclear war was reduced via the reduction of weapons inventories, and the United States was able to produce clean nuclear energy without engaging in very much uranium mining, uranium enrichment or any other questionable enterprise that would involve additional external and internal costs, although truth be told, the external costs of nuclear energy are trivial when compared to everything else.

Thus the nuclear power enterprise has already worked to reduce the probability of nuclear war.    If there were no nuclear power reactors, it would have not been possible to destroy – for eternity – the isolated uranium, at least not without the added incentive for one holder of such weapons grade uranium (nearly pure 235U) of allowing them to get some cash for agreeing to its peaceful consumption.
But we could even do better.

The Russians wanted to sell us some “weapons grade” 239Pu forour reactors too – even though their scientists correctly thought that fissioning this isotope in a thermal flux was wasteful and silly, as fast reactor use of this material would be superior for the conservation of nuclear resources – but even that proved to be politically impossible: There was too much fear and ignorance in this country about “MOX” (Mixed OXide, uranium oxide and plutonium oxide) fuel to allow that to happen.

There is another source of plutonium besides weapons factories:   It is clear that the use of the world’s largest, by far source, of climate change gas free primary energy, nuclear energy, has provided more than a thousand tons more - in addition to the smaller quantities of “weapons grade” plutonium - of lower grade, “reactor grade,” plutonium, which is a mixture dominated several isotopes of plutonium, 239Pu, 240Pu, 241Pu, with a smaller fraction of 242Pu and even a very small amount of 238Pu. 

Note that some but not all of the plutonium is burned in situ as it forms, meaning that some of the energy provided by a nuclear fuel rod comes from 238U transmuted into 239Pu.   Right now, the majority of the metric ton quantities of residual “reactor grade” plutonium are mostly suspended in used nuclear fuel – although some has been isolated, mostly in France, but also in Britain, India, China and Japan.  Some of this isolated plutonium has been fissioned in MOX fueled reactors in Europe and Japan with the result that hundreds of millions of tons of coal that might have been burned have not been burned. 

Overall though, regrettably I think, in the vast majority of cases represented by the vast majority of nuclear reactors used to generate clean nuclear energy, most of which are “thermal” reactors as opposed to “fast” reactors, the used nuclear fuel from them contains less fissionable material than that which goes into it.    Under the conditions in which MOX fuel is utilized, the overall tendency is to consume more plutonium than is formed.

Too bad.

There is some irony in the fact that it is this accumulated plutonium, both “weapons grade” and “reactor grade,” which has long been regarded as a threat to the human race, represents a key not only to solving a much greater threat to humanity than nuclear war, that threat being the destruction of the planetary atmosphere, which unlike nuclear war, is continuously observed and which now, in fact, is causing and inevitably will cause more and greater destruction of the biosphere.

Be that as it may, I will now argue that plutonium is not only the only tool that can save our pathetic butts from climate change and other environmental disasters, but that, used properly, may also prove one of the very best tools at lowering the probability of nuclear war, although, to beat the horse again, said probability has never been, is not, and never will be zero.

Irrespective of my opinion – and I recognize that I am often iconoclastic – decisions of vast import have been made because of the assumption that plutonium always raises the risk of nuclear war.
I once went, back around 2008, to a lecture by the great physical and organic chemist Jim Wishart of Brookhaven National Laboratory – his physical chemistry expertise is in radiation chemistry and his organic expertise is concerned with an exciting new class of solvents known as ionic liquids – where he discussed the intersection of the two areas, specifically the use of ionic liquids for nuclear fuel reprocessing.    He began his lecture with a statement that was quasi-political but quite on the mark when he stated that in the 1970’s the United States, at the behest of its then President, Jimmy Carter, -one of those who claimed that the opposite case that I am trying to make was true, that plutonium technology made nuclear war more probable - abjured the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel to recover plutonium.    “This,” Dr. Wishart said, describing Mr. Carter’s plutonium policy, “was a mistake.”

If you think that this remark, “This was a mistake,” lacks scientific precision, or that it is a matter of opinion, I respectively disagree.

In fact, converted to plutonium, uranium already mined, coupled with thorium resources already mined and dumped as a side product of lanthanide mining for the dubious enterprises of, among other things, making wind turbines and hybrid cars, would allow the closure of even continental  uranium mines now operating for generations, albeit at a marginally higher cost than using current technologies based on mining and enrichment.     So as an issue in environmental science, given the huge external costs of all forms of energy mining – certainly not limited to uranium mining - Carter’s decision was a mistake.

The rest of Dr. Wishart’s lecture – which made no further reference to political decisions - was quite interesting.   Frankly, though, I forget many of the technical details, although I seem to recall that it was about the presence of plutonium electrides – that is plutonium in an ionized state where free solvated electrons exist.11   However much I have forgotten of the technical arguments, I remember the political statement.   After the talk I spoke briefly to Dr. Wishart, who told me that he hoped that then candidate Barack Obama would be more sensible than Mr. Carter was on nuclear issues.

So much for hope.

The association of plutonium with nuclear war is, nevertheless, absurd on its face, unless one is willing to argue that all human technology should be associated with war and abjured.   Stone technology has been diverted to war; bronze technology has been diverted to war; iron technology has been diverted to war, woodworking has been diverted to war; steel, coal, oil and even the wind has been diverted to war, and all of these technologies have killed more people than plutonium based warfare ever did.

And like all of these other technologies, plutonium technologies have also worked to save lives.

Jimmy Carter – and, by the way, in spite of what proved to terrible, awful energy policies I confess that I voted for him twice – argued that by abjuring the isolation of plutonium, he would set a “moral example” for the rest of the world to follow to prevent nuclear war.  Although the rest of the world has prevented another nuclear war, Carter’s prescription for doing so, which was largely ignored, had nothing to do with that outcome.  Being older than I was during the Carter Presidency, I have a more jaundiced view of people who set themselves up as moral exemplars than I did when he was a President, but in any case, two major industrial nations were unimpressed and went ahead and reprocessed nuclear fuel irrespective of Jimmy Carter’s lectures and his “moral example.”   The number of nuclear wars observed as a result of the decision of Britain and France to reprocess used nuclear fuel is zero.    By the way, the number of oil wars since Britain and France began to preprocess nuclear fuels in not zero, although no one ever speaks of banning oil, or oil refineries, although perhaps they should, at least on environmental and safety grounds.

There is, by the way, a very good technical reason why people, with the possible exception of the bumbling sadistic fools in North Korea, don’t use reactor grade plutonium to make bombs.    It is known that theoretically one could make nuclear weapons using reactor grade plutonium – and according to Clinton era Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, the US built and tested one - such nuclear weapons would be unreliable and low yielding, tending to “fizzle” as apparently the first North Korean test weapon did.    (Rumor has it that because of these problems the North Koreans are moving away from plutonium weapons in favor of uranium weapons.)

Although the “reactor grade” plutonium weapons can be made, the level of sophistication required for their construction is significantly higher. Because of the high neutron flux associated with accumulated 240Pu in used nuclear fuel – which appears only at much lower levels in weapons grade plutonium – the assembly of such a weapon would be/is problematic.    The neutron flux makes it much more difficult to assemble the weapons owing to the tendency of a criticality accident – particularly if one is interested in avoiding killing the assembler.   (US weapons scientists were killed in such an accident in 1946 while assembling a nuclear weapon, this with higher grade plutonium.)  Moreover the chemical explosives that are a constituent of all nuclear weapons would tend to be less stable in a weapon with a higher neutron flux.   Thus the conversion of weapons grade plutonium into reactor grade plutonium, which is possible by running the former through a nuclear reactor, lowers the probability of nuclear war by raising the difficulty of assembling them and storing them and by reducing their reliability and lifetime.

But we can do even better with plutonium.

One of the remarkable benefits of plutonium technology that ought to thrill all members of the human race – but perhaps it doesn’t – has been its use in the exploration of deep space in our solar system.    The chief isotope in use for this purpose is one that is normally not produced in large quantities in power reactors – although in theory it could be – is 238Pu.    This isotope has a half-life of 87.7 years, and it decays by releasing a helium atom (4He) –a helium nucleus moving at very high speeds is called an “alpha particle” – to decay into 234U.   This decay process releases a fair amount of heat, about half a watt per gram, and this heat has been used in thermoelectric devices to power many space missions, including Pioneer, Voyager, Cassini, Galileo, New Horizons (on its way to demoted ex-planet Pluto), some instruments on the Apollo missions, as well as on the wonderful SUV sized Mars Odyssey Rover now tooling around Mars.     Anti-nuke fear and ignorance has led to a worldwide shortage of relatively pure inventories this valuable isotope; hopefully this shortage will be addressed in the next decade.

There are two routes to making 238Pu.   One – the one historically most used - uses neptunium, an actinide element that forms in most nuclear reactors. The other starts with americium, also formed in nuclear reactors, particularly those where the main fissionable isotopes are plutonium, i.e. “MOX” fueled reactors.

As implied above, for those who don’t know, not every fissionable atom splits when it is hit by a neutron.    Depending on the nature of the fissionable atom and the conditions under which fission occurs, there is a known probability that instead of undergoing fission, the nucleus will absorb the neutron thus becoming a heavier isotope of the atom so struck.   A parameter representing this probability known as the capture to fission ratio is one of the most important parameters in nuclear engineering.    In the current practice of nuclear power generation we are generally talking about  three fissionable nuclides, 235U, 239Pu, and 241Pu, although there are many advocates for using a fourth, 233U, derived from thorium.

Depending he speed of the neutrons that are inducing fission, whether the reactor is “fast” or “thermal,” each of these nuclides has a nontrivial capture to fission ratio, and will form the next heaviest isotope when a neutron is so captured.    If the new isotope is heavy enough, it will decay via β emission to one or more heavier elements.    Neptunium, for example, forms from two capture events, one in which fissionable 235U captures a neutron rather than fissioning, to give 236U, an isotope which does not naturally occur and which itself has a very high capture to fission ratio, so high that it essentially does not participate in fission, meaning that when it is struck by a neutron a second capture event takes place to form 237U, which decays with a short half-life (6.75 days) to give 237Np.  237Np is quite stable, its half-life is 2,144,000 years, and small amounts of it are always found in used nuclear fuel that has been irradiated in power reactors.

236U has an even longer half-life than 237Np, 23,400,000 years, making it relatively stable, although not stable enough to have survived since the formation of the Earth.    Any 236U that was present (or resulted from the decay of 244Pu) when the Earth formed from the radioactive cinders of supernovae explosions has long since decayed to 232Th. 

236U is considered a “parasitic” nucleus, since, effectively, in order to make it into a nucleus that easily fissions, it needs to absorb three neutrons, followed by β- decay in each new nuclide in order to form 239Pu, which is fissionable, but releases less than 3 neutrons when undergoing fission:    236U is thus a neutron “sink.”   It’s presence in a putative nuclear weapon requires the weapon, were it operative at all, to be significantly larger in order to obtain a critical mass than one with pure fissionable isotopes, and will also result in a lower yield by soaking up neutrons during detonation.  Thus it is more difficult to make nuclear weapons from the uranium in used nuclear fuel than it is to use natural uranium, since uranium in used nuclear fuel contains a new isotope that is not found in natural uranium, 236U, the presence of which complicates the separation of 235U, at least in the commonly used gas diffusion process and the related ultracentrifuge process, in ways that natural uranium does not.    In this way running uranium through a nuclear reactor reduces the probability of nuclear war.

But we could do better with uranium.

But to return to the point of how we could do even better with plutonium, I mentioned above that 238Pu generates significant heat.    One can find all over the internet, in many libraries and elsewhere all kinds of information about the structure and design of nuclear weapons:   There really is very little mystery about the subject, despite the generalized fear associated with such weapons.

Indeed, the training manual given to scientists joining the Manhattan project is available both on line and in print.12   I’ve leafed through it myself; it’s a fun read if only to see how the development of physics concepts as understood in the 1940’s – the statistical mechanics of gases for instance – were applied to neutrons.     There are also a large number of scientific papers that discuss the structure of nuclear weapons, and I will discuss one here, by Kessler et al 13, that shows how the use of 238Pu can be used to minimize the probability of nuclear war.

In his paper, Kessler defines how the heat (and radiation) generated by 238Pu makes the construction of nuclear weapons increasingly difficult, and he also defines the level of sophistication required by nuclear weapons engineers needed to overcome this difficulty as a function of the concentration of the heat generating isotope, arriving at a concentration figure for this isotope, finally, where effectively no amount of sophistication will suffice to use reactor grade plutonium in a nuclear weapon.    He considers three broad classes of nuclear weapons sophistication, low technology, medium technology and high technology weapons designers.

The details, which include a rather detailed analysis of what Kessler calls “HNEDs,” (Hypothetical Nuclear Explosive Devices) are contained in reference 13 and the reader is referred to the paper and the references therein for deeper details. 

The operative point is that the heat released by the 238Pu, has physical effects on the chemical explosives required to produce the shock waves in plutonium to cause a nuclear explosion, including melting, degradation and explosive decomposition.    For a nuclear explosion using plutonium to take place, very precise timing and geometry of the initiating chemical explosions is required.   In the presence of increasing amounts of significant heat, such timing and geometry becomes increasingly difficult and eventually, as Kessler argues, impossible.   In addition, the plutonium is subject to phase changes, including partial melting, as well as a significant radiation hazard to possessors of the putative “weapons.”   (In plutonium based nuclear weapons one particular solid phase, the δ phase, with a relatively small area on phase diagrams must be stabilized.)

One recognizes, of course, that the preternaturally paranoid partisans of the anti-nuclear regimes that are causing the collapse of the atmosphere by appeal to ever more convoluted suggestions of dreamt up visions of nuclear disasters, will imagine ever more complex Rube Goldberg schemes that might circumvent these arguments.   In so doing, by appealing to ridiculous fears, they will thus increase the ever growing certainty of a climate disaster that nuclear energy, and, I argue, only nuclear energy can ameliorate, if not prevent.    They will continue thus to ignore the fact, however, as stated in this communication’s opening paragraphs that easier approaches are available using seawater and electricity.  It is difficult to imagine that anyone would choose a more difficult route to something done more simply, but no matter.

There is a big difference between “could” and “is.”   Lots of nations, Japan and South Korea and Canada for instance, “could” make nuclear weapons – they certainly have the technical expertise to do so, having “high technology” nuclear infrastructures  - even with reactor grade plutonium.   In addition, it would be straight forward – especially for the South Koreans and Canadians, because they have a number of “CANDU” heavy water moderated reactors – to make weapons grade plutonium, but they don’t do so.  In not doing so, they are making a moral choice, one that demonstrates that they have a huge amount of common sense and don’t want to spend huge amounts of money preparing for a war that neither they nor any putative opponent can win.

Speaking of “could” and “is” Kessler notes that neptunium is one nuclear material that is relatively impossible to denature, as neptunium has only one long lived isotope, 237Np, a precursor of 238Pu.   Neptunium, he states “could” be used as a nuclear weapon material.   It has, he states, a bare sphere critical mass of 57 kg that can be reduced with a beryllium reflector to 45 kg.   Given the high density of actinides, this is certainly a feasible, if less than practical, material for use in constructing a nuclear weapon.   Thus he advises against large inventories of purified samples of this element.  He cites a reference14 that estimates that the world inventory of the isolated element – mostly contained in used nuclear fuel – is on the order of 90MT and suggests that we transmute it.   I agree, although I am less concerned with the minor risk of nuclear war and am more concerned with the major risk to the atmosphere.

 At this point someone who hates the possibility of nuclear war (or is highly invested in generating fantasies about putative nuclear wars or nuclear terrorist events) and less interested in the ongoing reality of massive death and destruction from the continuous use of dangerous fossil fuels and generation of deadly fossil fuel waste, that the extant neptunium is “enough” to make more than 1500 nuclear weapons.

Those who spew such garbage will, of course, fail to note that neptunium has been isolated and transmuted into 238Pu for decades without observing even one nuclear war resulting.   In fact, the stuff that powered the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Voyager missions to all of the outer planets, several Apollo missions, the Cassini mission, the Mars Odyssey mission that is now tooling around on Mars, as well as sundry other devices, including pacemakers placed near the hearts of human beings, was all obtained by transmuting isolated neptunium into 238Pu.    The number of nuclear wars that resulted from this practice is zero, and the number of people killed by such putative nuclear wars is also zero, a number that is infinitely smaller than the number of people who will die in the next hour from air pollution, about 380 human beings.

I note that instead of making nuclear weapons, the very same neptunium, just as well, could be utilized to denature, via transmutation into 238Pu, all of the weapons grade plutonium that now exists on the planet.    The question of what to do with the weapons grade plutonium and neptunium – both of which exist – is a moral choice, no different than the choice to refine petroleum to make gasoline for lawn mowers or to refine it to make napalm and jet fuel for the purpose of delivering flaming napalm to cities.

Kessler points out in the paper, that the use of such a scheme to denature reactor grade plutonium with 238Pu will require advanced chemical reprocessing schemes that do not rely – as traditional (Purex) reprocessing does – on solvent extraction.  

To my mind, many of these schemes already exist, one of my favorites being the fluoride volatility method, which can be used not only in the much discussed liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LTFR) but with used oxide fuels as well.  

In these schemes, plutonium, neptunium, and uranium are distilled out of fuel mixtures dissolved in appropriate molten salts – the presence of heat generating isotopes is ideal for this process - as the hexafluorides.   The chemical stability of these fluorides is in the following order UF6 > NpF6 > PuF6

A particularly cool modification15 of this process would allow for the separation of these three elements simultaneously in the presence of one another, with the added benefit of being able to incorporate either depleted uranium or once through uranium at any desired proportion, using exchange reactions of the following type:
 PuF6 (g) + UOF4 (s) ↔ UF6 (g) + PuOF4 (s)

The equilibrium lies far to the right.   A similar reaction can be utilized wherein plutonium is substituted (or partially substituted) by Neptunium.   UOF4 might conveniently be obtained, currently, by partial hydrolysis of the huge stockpiles of depleted UF6 left over from traditional enrichment programs.

Indeed, by incorporation of thorium into this mix, along with 239Pu, “once through” uranium from low enriched uranium obtained from used nuclear fuel, neptunium, depleted uranium, and americium, one can show that with appropriate balancing, one can eliminate the requirement of all enrichment facilities, said facilities, as the Iran controversy has obviated, representing the main approach to converting natural uranium and electricity into weapons grade uranium.     While, again, it is impossible in theory to prevent the use of said technology for nefarious purposes, the fact that it would not be required for peaceful purposes would obviously have the desired effect of reducing the probability of nuclear war, although said probability has never been, is not, and never will be zero.

I also note that in many of the proposed schemes for burying the valuable constituents of used nuclear fuel for eternity – schemes I regard as silly and wasteful – americium and neptunium dominate the radiotoxicity of the residues after a few hundred years.   Utilized in the preparation of 238Pu – a process in which some portion will be directly fissioned and converted to clean energy – there is no need to bury them at all.

I noted that the CANDU type heavy water reactor can be and perhaps has been (in India and Pakistan) utilized to make weapons grade plutonium.   Equally well it can be made to make plutonium and even uranium that are denatured as to be far less suitable for nuclear weapons manufacture than natural uranium is. 

A recent paper by Isreali scientists16, building on the work of Kessler, discusses this fact in some detail, utilizing sophisticated burn-up calculations to evaluate various admixtures of plutonium and uranium with either or both neptunium and americium fractions within them.   However, as written, there’s a pretty big drawback to this approach.

Anyone who may be familiar with my ramblings around the internet will know that I am very fond, owing to their high neutron efficiency, of CANDU reactors, although one can easily imagine hundreds of types of better reactors that might be but haven’t been built.    But among existing commercialized reactors, the CANDU (HWR) is pretty damn good, but its drawback – low burn-up – would only be exacerbated by the scheme in reference 14.  “Burn-up” is a measure of how much energy is extracted from the actinide metals in nuclear fuel before it must be removed from the reactor and either stored or reprocessed. 

A particularly convoluted unit of energy called a MWd or Megawatt-day is used to describe burnup; it is the equivalent of 86.4 billion joules.    In nuclear parlance, burn-up for any type of nuclear reactor is often given in terms of MWd/MT, megawatt-day per metric ton of heavy metal.   This unit might be thought of as “gas mileage” on a nuclear reactor.    A typical light water reactor – not a CANDU – might have a burn-up around 40,000 MWd/ton or more, which means that in this case one ton of enriched uranium produces as much energy as 80 thousand tons of oil.   A CANDU can use natural uranium with no enrichment, although in practice the uranium in them is very slightly enriched, but as a result a typical burn up is only on the order of 9000 MWd/ton.    This means that for a given amount of energy produced more uranium must be used than in a light water reactor.   The scheme proposed in reference 15 further erodes this efficiency, reducing it to around 6000 MWd/ton. 

However the situation is not quite hopeless:   The authors in this reference choose a fuel of a particular composition that is fueled by natural uranium with no enrichment, and no plutonium with the only transuranium elements being neptunium and americium.

Parenthetically, about these two elements and their potential for weapons diversion the Isreali authors say this:

By itself the 237Np isotope is potentially a weapons grade material, although with a value of 57 +/- 4 kg for its critical mass, it is not practical. On the other hand, the critical mass of 241Am is ≈34 to 45 kg. With the heat production of 114W/kg, we have a heat source of 3.9 to5.1 kW for the critical mass, which makes 241Am unsuitable for weapons, and as a result, it is a non-proliferating material.
By contrast, there is an Indian paper17 that speaks of CANDU’s with burn-ups that are not only as high as those obtained in light water reactors, but are actually higher, approaching 60,000 MWd/ton.   The fuels analyzed herein are not natural uranium, but rather contain various arrays of plutonium, thorium, enriched uranium and the synthetic uranium isotope prepared from natural thorium, 232Th  – an element of which India has huge reserves – 233U.   (The Indians are well ahead of the rest of the world in advancing the 232Th/233U fuel cycle, but to kick it off, they recognize that they’ll need a healthy dollop of plutonium.)   233U is the only nuclide that can operate under thermal conditions as a “breeder,” a breeder being a nuclide that has the potential to produce more fissionable material than it consumes.   (241Pu is an excellent breeder under epithermal – and fast - conditions, and 239Pu is a breeder under “fast” conditions.)    Fuels of various compositions as well as fuel bundle arrangements are considered, but there is no mention of either americium or neptunium.

Advocates of the 232Th/233U cycle like to claim that it is “proliferation resistant” because intrinsic to the preparation of 233U, small amounts of another uranium isotope 232U are formed - via (n, 2n) reactions (neutron spallation reactions) and capture in the resultant 231Pa in the parent thorium.   This isotope, 232U, rapidly produces in its decay chain an isotope, 208Tl, that is a powerful gamma ray emitter, meaning that anyone trying to assemble a nuclear weapon manually from 233U (with a232U impurity) would  be killed by radiation.    (I’m not sure I totally buy it – and Ms. O’Leary, mentioned above, reported that the United States did test a 233U nuclear weapon, although undoubtedly it involved high tech remote handling.)   But while 233U is not impossible to use in nuclear weapons, this property of necessarily containing a high gamma emitting isotope, does make its use far less probable, as the use of natural uranium obtained from seawater would actually be easier to use.   (That’s my point.)

But consider a heavy reactor that had not a ternary fuel composition – various compositions and arrays of uranium, thorium and plutonium – but instead had a quaternary arrangement with either americium or neptunium – or a composition consisting of all five elements.      Instead of natural uranium, let’s consider that the uranium was obtained from used nuclear fuel from thermal reactors – these can already be used directly to fuel CANDUs in a fuel cycle called the “DUPIC cycle - since this composition would be slightly enriched and would also contain the synthetic isotope 236U.    Without doing sophisticated analysis, I am sure that such a reactor could be operated and designed so as to produce a reasonably high burn-up.

How would the fuel emerge?   It would actually contain on removal 8 actinide elements, protactinium (formed from thorium) two isotopes 231 and 233, thorium that was more radioactive than natural thorium since it would have isotopes 228, 229, 230 – three that favor the formation of additional 232U in additional recycles of the same thorium - as well as the natural occurring thorium isotope, 232Th, uranium with six isotopes, 232, 233, 234, 235, 236, and 238, neptunium, plutonium with six isotopes, 238, 239, 240, 241, 242 and even traces of 244, americium with three isotopes, 241, 242m, 243, and curium with three or more isotopes, including the very hot isotope 242.

I assure you that the use of this material for nuclear weapons would prove so difficult that even the most advanced nuclear technology state would abjure it, never mind the “terrorists” and others that anti-nukes are always dreaming up in their rich and toxic imaginations while, with no imagination required, the world is literally choking to death on dangerous fossil fuel waste.

What is most interesting is that the uranium in this case, as opposed to the trillion ton quantities of natural uranium in earth’s mantle, crust and oceans, would be denatured, and that in this case, any attempt to isolate any single isotope by gaseous diffusion or centrifuge methods would be dangerous and so difficult that it would perforce fail.

The same would be true of the plutonium, which would also be generating significant heat, making it problematic to handle.

The plutonium so produced could, of course, be mixed with “weapons grade” plutonium to make it instantaneously denatured, or as an alternative, the “weapons grade” plutonium could be the initial loading of plutonium and be denatured in process.    What’s more world regulatory authorities could insist upon the denaturing any inventory of uranium isolated from natural sources and thus make the use of natural uranium more problematic than it was in the early 1940’s.

We refer to the isotopic composition of actinide elements as “vectors,” vectors being of course, the simple mathematical constructs of ordered arrays.   There is no doubt in my mind that, given the development of very sophisticated computational scientific tools we now possess in the human race, that we can deliberately construct actinide vectors having any components we wish them to have, via the choice of the initial composition and the type of nuclear reactor we utilize, including many such vectors that are directly possible to use in recycled fuel without appeal to any enrichment technologies at all.   This, of course, means that we can further reduce the probability of nuclear war.

Note that above, the appeal to the CANDU type reactor is merely an example of the types of reactors that we might use in such a scheme.    Some of the so called “Generation IV” reactors, as well as reactors that already exist, would be well suited for further refinements of these techniques, and of course, one can imagine all sorts of hybrid or novel reactor types that can add refinements to this technology.    It is claimed that after three recycles, plutonium must be fissioned in fast reactors to provide suitable saftey margins (in existing types of thermal reactors), but this is no matter.   Although the liquid sodium metal fast reactors have not been successes, many other fast reactor types can easily be constructed, particularly those using other metals.

Speaking for myself, even as a non-professional, self-taught nuclear thinker, I have been long considering a hybrid fast reactor that might easily incorporate actinide composition of variable vector types.  (It has elements of liquid metal reactors, fluid phase reactors (a class which includes the much discussed, LFTR), and a reactor based on a type proposed by Sekimoto,18 the “CANDLE” reactor, a variant which in the United States, if I have this right, is advocated by Bill Gates and other nuclear aficionados as the “traveling wave” reactor.    My reactor, of course, will never be built – I have neither the resources nor prestige to accomplish it - but I have confidence that in the increasingly uncertain case where humanity doesn’t choke to death from dangerous fossil fuels, someone will “reinvent” something like it or something even better, since on some level this design should be obvious to someone else. )
Using the approaches described above, would nuclear war thus be impossible?   No, as I stated at the outset of this long argument.    Nuclear war will never be impossible; it is not impossible now and it never was impossible.

But would it be less probable?

Of course it would.

And that’s the best we can do, until we teach ourselves to abjure not just nuclear war, but all war, because the problem is not uranium, nor plutonium, nor jet fuel, nor nitroglycerin, nor poison gas, or any warlike application of chemistry, nor, for that matter, guns, sticks, nor spears nor rocks.

The problem is war itself.

The problem is the moral choice we make about whether to use those tools we have invented either for conducting war or rather for constructing and enjoying peace.

As for nuclear technology, right now and throughout its history since the 1950’s, nuclear energy is saving and has saved lives on a scale of millions of human beings.19

Thus the real advantage of the whole process herein described is not merely to guard against ourselves but also to claim clean energy, air free of pollutants, water without oil slicks and the like, few or no energy mines or wells of any type – the already mined depleted uranium in the United States alone is enough to supply the entire energy demand of all of humanity for almost a century if converted to plutonium - and so enjoying such benefits, allowing ourselves to become more of a race of human beings rich enough, safe enough, to do the great things that humans can do, make art, develop science and share in the love of each other and the love of the world with which we’ve been blessed.

This too – whether we undertake such a course – is nothing more than a choice, ideally one made rationally.

Have a nice day.
Notes and References.
  1.  Darleane Hoffman F. O. Lawrence,  J. L. McWherter & F. M. RourkeNature 234, 132-134 (19 November 1971)
  2. Matthew G. Jackson, Richard W. Carlson, Mark D. Kurz, Pamela D. Kempton, Don Francis              & Jerzy Blusztajn  Nature, Vol 466, pp 853-858, (2010).    
  3. For a fifty year old report on the feasibility of recovering uranium from seawater see Davies et al, Nature, 203, pp. 1110-1115, 1964
  4. For a recent review, see Costas Tsouris et al, Separation Science and Technology, 48:3, (2013) 367-387
  5. Hiroaki Egawa,' Nalan Kabay, Akinori Jyo, Masaki Hirono, and Taketomi ShutoInd. Eng. Chem. Res. 1994,33, 657-661 This paper is the 15th in a series of papers written by the Egawa group at Kumamoto University in Kumamoto, Japan between the late 1980’s and early 1990’s on the capture of uranium from seawater.    In this series polymer bound amidoxime groups were used to complex uranium in seawater and surrogate matrices.    The amidoxime moiety has been investigated in a large number of systems.
  6. Manolis. J. Manos and Mercouri G. Kanatzidis* J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2012, 134, 16441−16446  This paper refers to an inorganic species, a complex potassium manganese tin sulfide, that is said to capture uranium from seawater.
  7. Remy Sellin, Spiro D. Alexandratos  Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 2013, 52, 11792−11797 This is the most recent paper available to my knowledge as of this writing (August 25, 2013), and is found in the current issue of the cited journal.   The authors claim a recovery rate of uranium from seawater that is 7 fold greater than the more widely investigated amidoxime based resins.    The resin described here is amine based and on inspection of the structure, it would seem that the resin could be also be useful to the capture of carbon dioxide, although many similar examples, probably all of which better for that purpose have been explored in recent decades.
  8. Lingfeng Rao,  LBNL-4034E (2010) “Recent International R&D Activities in the Extraction of Uranium from Seawater”    The paper contains a photograph of the apparatus used to collect a kilogram of uranium from the ocean buoy.
  9. Prasad, Saxena, Tewari, Sathiyamoorthy, Nucl.Eng.Tech.41.8.1101-1108 (2009)
  10. Erich Schneider and Darshan Sachde, Science & Global Security, 21:134–163, 2013
  11. For one discussion of solvated electrons in ionic liquids see  Shkrob, Chemerisov, and Wishart, J. Phys. Chem. B 2007, 111, 11786-11793
  12. Robert Serber, Los Alamos Primer  (1943).   Also available in print, copyright 1992 from the University of California Press with a foreword by Richard Rhodes.
  13. G. Kessler, C. Broeders,W. Hoebel , B. Goel, D.Wilhelm  Nuclear Engineering and Design 238 (2008) 3429–3444  
  14. Fukuda, K., 2004. IAEA Scenario of MA Transmutation in LWR COES-INES Topical Forum on Protected Plutonium Utilization for Peace and Sustainable Prosperity. Tokyo Institute of Technology.
  15. Yuko Kani, Akira Sasahira*, Kuniyoshi Hoshino , Fumio Kawamura Journal of Flourine Chemistry 130 (2009) 74-82
  16. Yigal Ronen, M. Aboudy, and D. Regev Nucl.Sci.Eng: 170, 16–26 (2012)
  17. H.P. Gupta *, S.V.G. Menon, S. Banerjee Journal of Nuclear Materials 383 (2008) 54–62
  18. For just one example of Sekimoto’s many papers on this topic, see Mingyu Yan, Hiroshi Sekimoto Annals of Nuclear Energy 35 (2008) 18–36
  19. Pushker A. Kharecha * and James E. Hansen Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (9), pp 4889–4895

N Nadir is a well-known blogger about energy: for a long time, he blogged at Daily Kos.  A few years ago, Charles Barton of Nuclear Green described and listed many of his posts.  This post was also seen recently on Atomic Insights blog (Rod Adams blog) where it has a very interesting comment stream.