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Revising the History of the Nuclear Age

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Revising the History of the Nuclear Age

By Charles Barton

When I first began to write Nuclear Green, I did not realize that I would be engaged in revising the history of the nuclear era. Indeed I was unaware that the very possibility of such a revision could be possible. But there were always questions that had first arisen from my fathers choice in 1964 to leave the field of nuclear safety where he was happy and enjoyed very considerable success, in order to return to the field of Molten Salt Chemistry, a field where he had once covered himself with glory, but where he had never known happiness and where he had been for half a decade worn a crown of thorns.
There was the 1969 shutdown of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, which ended my father's career as a reactor chemist, and then there is the shocking matter of Alvin Weinberg's firing as director at ORNL in 1972, a fact that was almost completely unknown until Weinberg revealed it in his autobiography.
Accounting for these facts led me to discover Milton Shaw, and the role he had played in the administration of AEC research facilities from 1964 to 1973. Perhaps the greatest damage which Shaw did to the American nuclear future is found in WASH-1222, a document written by Shaw's staff to assess MSR technology. Unlike previous AEC assessments which viewed the MSR as a promising technology, WASH-1222 reached negative conclusions about MSR technology. However, a careful examination of WASH-1222 reveals deep flaws in the thinking that lay behind it. The strongest objection to the MSR was that it required more development. Thus the basic argument was not that MSR technology was fundamentally flawed, but that it should not be developed because it required development. Other assumptions were equally flawed. For example, WASH-1222 asserted that unlike the MSR, the LWR and the LMFBR were mature technologies. In the case of the former technology, this view seriously underestimated problems with LWR safety which was to lead to the Three Mile Island accident. In the case of the LMFBR, WASH-1222 seriously underestimated the technological problems which LMFBR developers faced. In retrospective, the history of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor demonstrates that the LMFBR faced far more serious developmental challenges than the MSBR did.

WASH-1222 argued, quite mistakenly, that the Light Water Reactor and the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor were technologically mature, while the Molten Salt Reactor was not. In fact the AEC, American Reactor manufacturers, and utility companies were losing their illusory control over a vary immature light water reactor technology at the very moment WASH-1222 was written, while the Federal Government was fated to spend over 20 Billion 2009 dollars in a vain attempt to master LMFBR technology. In ORNL-TM-7207, a 1980 Oak Ridge document, ORNL staff members reported that a commercial proliferation-proof MSR could be manufactured for the equivalent of a 2.37 billion 2009 US dollar investment in research and development. A flawed computer model for assessing the capital costs of conventional LWRs failed to alert the Oak Ridge scientists to the fact that the DMSR could be manufactured for 43% of the cost of the Light Water Reactor. Given the superiority of the MSR over the LWR in safety, nuclear waste handling, and power production efficiency, and its ability to manufacture its own fuel on a sustained basis, there is little doubt that the MSR offered a far superior option for American energy future. The failure to recognize that option, and the consequences of that failure is part of my historic revision.
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