Thursday, May 24, 2012

A closer look at Jazcko's replacement

Dr. MacFarlane
Earlier this week, embattled NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko announced he would be stepping down from his position contingent upon the confirmation of his replacement. Wasting no time, the Obama administration announced their nominee today, a mere three days after Jaczko's announcement. Their candidate? Dr. Allison MacFarlane, an associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University.

MacFarlane is not without technical credentials - she holds a Ph.D. in geology from MIT and has written extensively on nuclear waste management issues - in particular, serving on the recent Blue Ribbon Commission. And, unlike the departing Chairman, MacFarlane at least has an academic career to point to, rather than solely being employed as a political aide for entire career. Ideologically however, she is relatively aligned with the departing Chariman however - thus, while not quite Gregory Jaczko II: Electric Boogaloo, she is likely close enough for government work.

A mixed bag

Suffice it to say, MacFarlane's ideological interests represent a mixed bag, to say the least. In many of her writings concerning the siting process for a nuclear waste repository, MacFarlane has repeatedly pointed to the need for a consent-based process (like that used for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [WIPP] in New Mexico) for locating a disposal facility, something which has been repeatedly stressed by other nuclear professionals (including myself). Thus, her influence over the Blue Ribbon Commission's final report is quite obvious.

On the other hand, MacFarlane has been extremely critical of spent fuel reprocessing along with being a tenacious opponent of Yucca Mountain itself; she, along with Frank Von Hippel of Princeton have repeatedly advocated plutonium immobilization of surplus stocks of reactor-grade plutonium from civil reprocessing programs, as well as for weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads. Needless to say, this is an incredibly wasteful and inefficient waste management solution. (It is thus perhaps unsurprising then, given her influence, that the BRC final report also declined to endorse reprocessing as a policy solution for spent nuclear fuel.)

MacFarlane couches her objections chiefly in terms of nonproliferation concerns (something which I have an academic specialty in); what is not clearly demonstrated in any of her analysis is how reactor-grade plutonium (itself not suitable for direct use in weapons, due to heat-producing impurities such as Pu-240 and Pu-242 which make for sub-optimal weapons materials - more on this in a moment) represents a viable proliferation concern, particularly in nuclear weapons states such as the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the United States.

The exception here to this trend is of course Japan, which currently reprocesses fuel and ultimately aspires to achieve a fully "closed" fuel cycle for reasons of resource independence. However, even absent a reprocessing program, their world-class leadership in nuclear technology means that they are hardly constrained on a technical basis from developing a weapons program. (Japan is quintessentially a "screwdriver's turn" from nuclear weapons capability.) Yet given their deep cultural aversion to nuclear weapons, Japan is in fact a leading figure in the international nonproliferation community.

All of this said, MacFarlane herself has gone on the record of indicating the she personally does not oppose nuclear energy itself, arguing that in the face of climate change, we "absolutely need nuclear power." Again, very much a mixed bag, so to speak.

The two faces of the nonproliferation community

Much of MacFarlane's background has been associated with what I term the "political" wing of the nonproliferation community - the other being the "technical" side (where my background is from). Her affiliations include the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard (not exactly a hotbed of pro-nuclear activity or solid technical analysis at that), home of well-known academic nuclear critic Matthew Bunn, as well as being a regular co-author with Frank Von Hippel (someone also not known for his warm feelings for nuclear energy - although a perfectly pleasant person in real life.)

Nonproliferation tends to get a poor reputation among nuclear professionals and advocates, precisely due to the "political" wing, who tend to focus on opposing any nuclear technology seen as "proliferant," which in turn lends itself to the anti-nuclear strategy of "bottle-necking" - in other words, "constipate" the nuclear fuel cycle and then complain loudly of the "lack of solutions" for nuclear waste (despite the plethora of available technical options).

Conversely, the "technical" nonproliferation community tends to focus on aspects such as how to improve aspects of verification and measurement within fuel cycle facilities - in other words, ensuring that declarations of sensitive facilities are complete and accurate and that material is fully accounted for. An example of this includes projects like those I am currently working on, which seek to use radiation detectors to better characterize the isotopic contents of spent nuclear fuel in order to provide for a superior accounting of materials such as plutonium. The difference in focus thus could not be more stark - one side complaining of the potential problems and the other seeking solutions to improve facilities such to eliminate said problems.

Ultimately, these kinds of debates come back to the question I frequently ask: "So what's your alternative?" To her credit, MacFarlane at least does offer an alternative solution - one I find to be highly flawed, but it is nonetheless out there. And again, likewise to her credit, MacFarlane does not declare herself to be outright opposed to nuclear energy. Thus, the problem is simply a matter of coming to an agreement on a better solution for nuclear waste management.

A small background on "weapons-usable"

So-called "weapons-grade" plutonium contains more than 90% Pu-239 - the isotope most suitable for weapons use (given its low spontaneous fission rate and low heat generation rate). Even-numbered plutonium isotopes - Pu-238, Pu-240, and Pu-242 - tend to have a high heat generation rate (Pu-238 has such a high heat generation rate from alpha decay that it is frequently used as a power source for space missions such as the Cassini-Hugyens probe which took spectacular images of Saturn and the New Horizons probe currently en route to Pluto). Pu-240 and Pu-242 also have a high level of spontaneous fission, which means in addition to producing large amounts of heat they produce high levels of neutrons - in a weapon, this leads to unpredictable yield, or "fizzle." Thus, generally speaking, "reactor grade" plutonium, while usable in the strictest sense (i.e., one can construct a fission chain reaction using the materials), they are far from optimal for a national weapons effort - any nation with the capability of reprocessing would easily choose a more dedicated route (i.e., with separate plutonium-production reactors to produce high-purity Pu-239 and separate reprocessing facilities) before resorting to diverting civilian stocks.

Political calculations - the "twofer"

So why did Obama tap MacFarlane? Two reasons are likely in play. The first of course is that given her prior criticisms of Yucca Mountain, her nomination has been bolstered by the support of Senate Majority Leader and infamous Yucca Mountain opponent Senator Harry Reid (D-NV). Second, her nomination comes on the heels of President Obama's renomination of current Commissioner Kristine Svinicki. Thus it is likely the Obama Administration is seeking a "twofer," seeking to align the confirmation of Svinicki with that of MacFarlane as a "package deal." Senate Republicans are unlikely to object to Svinicki, who has enjoyed the support of the nuclear community given her extensive expertise in nuclear issues. (And indeed, even NEI has been pushing this strategy of jointly confirming the two nominees.)

The nomination of MacFarlane as chair may also be a concession to Reid and other anti-nuclear Senate Democrats in another sense - Senator Reid has complained (without substantial basis) of Svinicki's record on the NRC - a rather questionable position, given Svinicki has generally voted with her three other commissioners on many important issues (in other words, it would seem that Reid's criticism, and in particular singling out Svinicki, is mostly upon the grounds of several prominent 4-1 votes in which Chairman Jaczko stood alone).

However, his grumbling appears to be muted in a press release similar to that of NEI, stating:
I continue to have grave concerns about Kristine Svinicki’s record on the Commission. But I believe the best interests of the public would be served by moving the nominations of Dr. Macfarlane and Ms. Svinicki together before Ms. Svinicki’s term expires at the end of June, to ensure that we have a fully functioning NRC. Republicans claim to share that goal, and I hope they will work with us to make it a reality.
The smart money will thus likely be on a joint appointment deal hammered out sometime this summer.

And as for Yucca Mountain? I still wouldn't bet on it.


  1. Nuclear energy is in and of itself, not a proliferation risk. So far none of the countries “illegally” producing their own nuclear weapons to date have leveraged their nuclear power sectors in any meaningful way. Even if the question of supplying weapon-grade fissile material is removed, it still requires a sizable technological infrastructure and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to make a weapon. The costs of a more ambitious program aimed at producing a militarily significant number of weapons can easily run into the billions of dollars, and the idea that such a project could be carried out by surreptitiously stripping power reactors of their fuel or using spent fuel belongs in pulp novels, not in any rational discussion of the issue.

    No country has ever proceeded with a nuclear weapons program, just because it was able to. All of them were driven by extreme geopolitical pressure in their perceived need for a N-weapon capability. There has to be a really strong perceived need for this capability, that when present is enough to carry the task through as much international pressure as can be applied short of military.

    Proliferation is a canard used to hobble the development of nuclear power in the places that need it most. Far from creating a safer world, nonproliferation activities help to maintain the status quo where concerns over energy cause geopolitical destabilization and enable the inevitable risks of conflict this causes.

  2. You give a very good review … much of which hinges on the claim plutonium is not suitable for weapons use.

    With a half life of 24,000 years, what is your recommendation for minimizing risks from nuclear terrorism and use of plutonium in a dirty bomb (other than Macfarlane's solution of immobilization and storage in a deep geologic repository below water table and with very low geological instability … as they are currently doing in France, Belgium, Finland, Japan, Germany, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, and elsewhere).

    I would be very pleased if her appointment re-activated these discussions, proposals, and consideration of alternatives, and once again looking at long-standing safety, proliferation, and environmental concerns from nuclear waste management in this country (which don't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon). In fact, many of these concerns are a liability for the taxpayer, and may start adding up to significant amounts … from lawsuits and the Government not living up to it's responsibility to adequately deal with these issues and other long-standing Federal commitments.

    1. @EL - to be honest, if we're talking about the prospect of nuclear terrorism, I would be far more concerned with shorter-lived isotopes, particularly from less-secure sources. (Examples include radiological sources from medical applications, like a blood irradiators, etc.)

      Roughly speaking, the longer the half-life, the poorer a radioisotope is as a radiological weapon. The reason for this is simple - a longer half-life means a lower rate of decay, which means a lower rate of overall danger.

      Likewise, bear in mind that the purpose of a radiological dispersal device (a "dirty bomb") really isn't to kill people (it is extraordinarily inefficient to this end), but rather to cause panic and mass economic damage, namely by making a very expensive mess. Again, in this regard, shorter-lived isotopes are much more useful to this end.

      But to answer your question - we do not currently separate plutonium - and have not done so since the late 1970's. Right now, plutonium from spent fuel in the U.S. is where we left it - inside the fuel rods. So MacFarlane's immobilization solution doesn't really apply to this specifically. Instead, her solution applies to plutonium from dismantled weapons and excess plutonium stocks from countries which do reprocess.

      Likewise, I think you are somewhat confused about the issue of geologic disposal. Every country with a nuclear fuel cycle - recycling or not - will require a deep geologic disposal facility. Whether it is below the water table or not is a matter of debate - salt dome repositories like WIPP are not, however this is acceptable due to the geologic stability which allows a salt dome formation to exist to begin with. (i.e., a salt dome exists only if water has not infiltrated for a long time - otherwise, it would be brine).

      However, countries like France and the U.K. separate plutonium for re-use in MOX fuel before final disposal in order to extract additional energy content. So, geologic disposal does not stand in opposition to partial or full recycling of actinides from spent fuel - rather, it is a question of direct disposal vs. recycling and disposal of (less) material.

      I should emphasize that despite my disagreements with MacFarlane over the relative issues of proliferation and conclusions over the suitability of Yucca Mountain, I think she would make a valuable contribution to the discussion of waste management, which I agree appears to have been stalled. It is my sincere hope that the issues raised in the BRC report might reopen some of these discussions.

    2. MHO radiation dispersal devices (RDD) popularly called 'dirty bombs' are a non threat. This whole fantasy is rooted in the mistaken belief that these are crude devices that can be slapped together by anyone with access to a source, some C3, and a grudge. This is just far, far from the truth.

      These devices were looked into by the weapons design community in the late 40's and early 50's and they were deemed ineffective both in terms of making a deployable device or taking any particular steps to defend against them.

      The U.S. military Radioactive Subcommittee estimated that a bomb carrying 10,000 curies (enough to contaminate 250,000 square feet of open fields—approximately 5.7 acres) would require 310 pounds of lead to protect those handling the device. In addition, the radioactive material would have to be ground to a dust of 5-micron-size particles and then mixed with an inactive solid material to enhance dispersion and increase the inhalation hazard. Lastly, the effects would be highly dependent on local weather conditions and terrain.

      These early experiments showed that cities, or build-up areas, would require "something approaching 100 times greater concentration" because structures would absorb a large fraction of the radiation. As a result of these early studies, the U.S. government concluded that RDDs were not a "militarily useful weapon."

      [as an aside: the term 'dirty bomb' at that time was used to denote what is now called an enhanced radiation weapon or salted bomb. This should not be confused with radiation dispersal weapons which are under discussion here. The terms are not interchangeable]

      The British did tests in Australia of RDDs during Operation Rats at the Maralinga Test Site. 125 devises were exploded between 1956 and 1960. Results were disappointing, in fact more radiation was dispersed in the Operation Vixen tests which investigated what would happen to a nuclear device if it were in a fire that were also done at the time.

      In short, construction and use of a physically effective RDD is more difficult than popularly assumed. Terrorist groups would have to overcome significant technical difficulties to construct and effectively deliver an RDD on target. While it is possible for a subnational group to acquire materials for a device it is difficult to assemble enough highly radioactive material to produce mass casualties or to achieve wide area denial.

      Even if a sufficient amount of the right material can be acquired, the handling of high emitting radioactive substances becomes very difficult due in part to the heat generated by large quantities of such material and the extreme exposure hazard from the intensity of the radiation. These substances require heavy shielding to protect handlers from overexposure and death. It's just not that easy to process source material into a dispensable medium to begin with, and anyone that tried with a significant amount of any radioisotope (especially a gamma emitter) without special equipment is a dead person before they are finished. Dispersing it as a dust is not that easy; the physics of powders is very complex and varies with the material.

      While it is true that almost any use of an RDD could have a tremendous psychological—and therefore political—impact, acquiring a sufficient amount of highly radioactive material, constructing the device without overexposure to radiation in the process, effectively delivering the device on target, and achieving the necessary contamination in the target area are tasks beyond the capability of most non-state actors. Research and experimentation over 50-plus years indicate that RDDs are not simple weapons, notwithstanding popular perception.

    3. Thanks ... your blog is excellent.

      I will add that MacFarlane also supports your view of salt domes. Even more in her favor, she almost always distinguishes her comments (of a personal nature) from those of her professional role (such as member of Blue Ribbon Committee). I have every confidence she will continue to do so in her role as Chief Commissioner, and adhere to the mandates and legal guidelines of the office with great skill.