15 thoughts on “Nuclear Energy by David Bodansky”

  1. I made a comment over on Tom Harrison’s 5% blog in response to someone’s suggestion that the only economical carbon free power source we have is nuclear, and pointed the author at this post. She responded:

    Thank you for the information Zane. I read it, but I don’t agree. There hasn’t been a nuclear accident in this country since 1979, no one died, and Chernobyl was a third world country’s incompetence. I don’t agree about the costs at all, but, full disclosure, my husband is a nuclear engineer. Our planet is very important but it is not necessary to destroy our standard of living to rush into something so we can be the lead nation when no one is following as the recent G-8 summit demonstrated. The climate bill is so botched by special interests, I find it to be a mess as I read it.

  2. Leaving aside the question of whether the USSR, (or Ukraine, or Russia) really qualified as a third world country in 1986 (I might agree in some ways, but definitely not in others), part of my point is that if we are going to get the atmosphere back down to 350 ppm CO2, or even prevent it from getting above 450 ppm, we are going to have to deploy some kind of carbon free power on a massive scale, both here and in all the “third world” countries. India, China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Ukraine, Iran, etc. If you don’t think nuclear is safe in such countries on a massive scale, then it’s not a solution.

    Additionally, much though we like to pretend it isn’t possible, we, and any number of other great nations are entirely capable of descending into chaos. In the fullness of time there is nothing that fundamentally rules out another Chinese civil war. Or another Russian civil war. Or a second Mexican revolution. Or another American civil war. In such a situation a desert valley filled with solar panels or mirrors, or a continental shelf carpeted with offshore wind turbines does not become the same kind of liability that a nuclear power stations does.

    We are not in control. Nobody ever really runs the show for long.

  3. A technology incubator partially funded by Bill Gates has been working on a traveling wave reactor design which is much closer to looking like the kind of nuclear power I could at least imagine supporting. He talked quite a bit about it in his recent TED talk Innovating to Zero.

    It’s a novel fast-breeder reactor design in which decades or centuries worth of fertile fuel is loaded into the reactor core one time only (at construction), and it is bred in-place into fissile fuel, which is subsequently burned in a wavefront that propagates through the nuclear “log” over time, leaving behind highly radioactive (but short lived) fission product waste, and ultimately extracting virtually all of the available nuclear energy from the initial fuel (vs. the ~1% that we get now in the US) without expensive and proliferation-prone re-processing, and without the error-prone process of re-fueling. Ideally, the reactor could be built deep underground, and the containment vessel would also serve as the disposal container. Because of the relatively short lifetime of the waste products (decades-to-centuries, not millennia-to-eons), this is actually technically plausible. Because of the in-ground set it and forget it construction, it’s (more) plausible that political stability only at the time of construction (vs. over the centuries following construction) would be sufficient to ensure safe operation for the lifetime of the reactor.

    However, this power source still has the very significant drawback that there’s no way we’re going to be installing tens of terawatts of it (no matter how good the design is) for at least 20+ years, and in the meantime, we’re going to continue emitting a serious amount of CO2, which is unacceptable.

  4. I am doing research on Japan’s atomic program, relying on never-before-seen (or at least never-before published intelligence documents. Since I am an historian and author on intelligence matters, and not a physicist (by a long shot), I had to rely heavily on the advise and suggestions of physicists and books on the subject. Even so, this was not an easy assignment being a complete layman.

    One of the more interesting documents I’ve discovered was the interview of one of Japan’s top physicists during that era as well as a report by the other top physicist. It is commonly believed they never worked together, which may or may not be true since the Japanese destroyed most of their documents at the end of the war. another misconception is that work on the atomic bomb ended when the war ended. Again, apparently not.

    I recently picked up Nuclear Energy by Bodansky. He offers an easy-to-understand explanation of photofission and the cross section of U-233. I have reason to believe that the Japanese may have considered both for their atomic bomb. Here’s why…

    That Japanese scientist who I mentioned earlier? … the one who was interviewed. He said that the trigger for their atomic bomb DID NOT use an explosive charge, such as Little Boy (U-235) or Fat Man (plutonium). He described it as the “Universal Ray.” Could the Universal Ray be photofission, the fission of fissile material such as enriched uranium or U-233 using a gamma ray “gun”?

    I know that Dr. Arakatsu experimented with photofission even prior to WWII, and Dr.Nishina was able to split an isotope of uranium and thorium shortly after the Americans and the Germans accomplished that feat.

    Does this make any sense? Like I said, I am not a physicist.

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    1. Everything I might possibly know about the Japanese nuclear weapons program and nuclear research pre-WWII came from The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which is probably the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read. Highly recommend it!

      1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb is an excellent book, the winner of the Pulitzer prize in fact, but it is the story of the U.S. atomic program (the Manhattan Project), not the Japanese atomic program. That is my lofty goal.

        1. It’s not just the story of the US atomic program or the Manhattan Project, it covers almost a hundred years of history and science, and looks at the substantial German effort as well as the Japanese, though the latter only in passing.

          1. Now that my book is nearing completion, I’ll be able to tell the untold story of Japan’s atomic program during WWII. Yes, others have written bits, but I go into ten times the depth….

            Luckily, I have 400+ consultants including historians, authors, physicists, B-29 experts, and eyewitnesses and authorities from a dozen countries.

            Unfortunately, several — including a Manhattan Project scientist and the son of the Japanese liaison officer who arranged the shipment of uranium from Germany to Japan — have since died.

  5. “I do not find the position which Thomas Barnett and others within the military establishment take, that nuclear weapons have ruled out the possibility of so-called Great Powers War, to be convincing. Under normal circumstances yes, but under abnormal circumstances, which are more common than we like to imagine, no.”

    You are actually agreeing with Barnett. By “abnormal circumstances” I think you mean a collapse of government order. But in that case the country would no longer be a “Great Power” and therefore any war would not be a Great Powers War.

    1. I think there are abnormal circumstances which don’t involve wholesale governmental collapse — the USSR “collapsed” in a relatively graceful way, and still introduced substantial uncertainty with respect to their nuclear arsenal. It didn’t have to go as smoothly as it did. Great Powers don’t last forever, and in any case, nuclear power at a scale that would be meaningful in the context of enabling global economic development and avoiding climate change would necessarily involve nuclear deployments in places that aren’t Great Powers.

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