APS News

December 2011 (Volume 20, Number 11)

Letters to the Editor

Once a Physicist...

Contrary to the characterization by Brian T. Schwartz of Rush Holt as a “physicist-turned-Congressman” (letter, November APS News), Holt is a physicist elected to Congress. And lucky we are.

Michael D. Rosenthal
Washington, DC

Consumers’ rights to catastrophe

In his letter in the November APS News, Brian T. Schwartz opposes legislation to limit the sale of incandescent lamps because it would “violate consumers’ rights to choose.” Did he oppose or would he have opposed (on the same grounds) the legislation that limited the use of chlorofluorocarbon compounds, legislation that has been at least partly successful in limiting the damage to the ozone layer? Did he oppose or would he have opposed the legislation that limited emissions of sulfur dioxide, which had the effect of reducing acid rain? Does he oppose the legislation that limits hunting, even if such laws are instrumental in protecting many species from extinction?

Schwartz writes: “Businesses in relatively free markets innovate just fine”, and this is true, but unregulated businesses do a very poor job of avoiding future catastrophes. Moreover, the evidence suggests that consumers, acting individually, do not do a good job of making choices that lead to a secure future, but that they are happy to accept legislation that leads them, collectively, to make choices that help avoid catastrophes, in this case catastrophic climate change.

Alwyn Eades
Bethlehem, PA

Kelvin No Hero to Geologists

George R. Bart (letters, October APS News) is correct that history should give full credit to Lord Kelvin’s enormous accomplishments. It is also obliged to record  some of his less than stellar contributions. He stubbornly insisted on assigning to the Earth a much too short age, based on his simple but inadequate model for thermal cooling. What were some of the consequences? : (a) Without the prestige his conviction carried, “the theory of continental drift might have been accepted decades earlier”1; (b) Because of his rigid stance “geologists and biologists no longer felt that they had to justify their conclusions to physicists”2 !

1. P.C. England et al, American Scientist 95 , 342 (2007)
2. B.C. Shipley, Geol. Soc Lond. Special Publications 190 , 91 (2001)

Hellmut J. Juretschke
Mount Desert, ME

There is no game to change 

The Back Page in the October APS News by Kate Marvel and Michael May implies that there is a nuclear energy game to change. In the United States there is not. Many of us were hoping that there would be a revival of nuclear power in the US in the 21st century, but nuclear energy in the US and Europe has priced itself out of the market. I quote Wigner who in 1973 said that if nuclear energy is not cheaper than alternatives it will not be used. Nuclear power was cheaper in 1972-4 when a nuclear power plant took 3 years to build from planning to operation including all licensing and permits.1 If one is lucky enough to own a power plant with the mortgage costs paid (as they all now are) it is still cheaper to operate than alternatives. In 2007 I was optimistic that the cost of new nuclear plants would still be within reach at $1,000-$1,500 per kwe installed. But when new orders came in since then, the price was $4,000 per kwe installed. The capital cost, including paying off the mortgage, is now about 20 times what it was in 1974, much more than inflation.

Of course there have been safety improvements. But these have mostly arisen from improved analysis. The increased time for approval and construction has of course increased costs. It is well known that to build something cheaply it must be done fast. Robert R. (Bob) Wilson in building Fermilab knew this. It is likely that Steve Jobs did too. Parkinson2 stated it well in his first law “work expands to meet the time available for its completion.” In the 1970s Ralph Nader explicitly encouraged nuclear power opponents to use a tactic of delay. But several careful studies suggest that there must be something more: I tentatively have suggested that the quality, dedication and enthusiasm of the scientists and engineers in the 1960s made the difference.

After World War II society looked to physicists in particular for guidance. This declined after 1970. The scientific issues of global warming were already visible on the horizon, and it was clear that nuclear power could aid in addressing this. Glen Seaborg made a public appeal as President of AAAS for grass roots support but very few physicists responded. When they do speak up they tend to point out, as Marvel and May do, that the “industry” should act to ensure that there are no accidents. They are of course right. But all too many scientists have a knee jerk response and ask for immediate abandonment of all old nuclear reactors–before asking for a new replacement and ignoring the fact that all existing coal fired plants are worse. Much more important is for physicists to bring to the table the rigorous thinking they employ in the laboratory.

Many scientists are unaware that radiation does not cause unique cancers but increases the probability of a cancer that might happen without exposure. All too often it is said that we do not know the effects of low exposures to radiation. True. But we do know what they are not and physicists in particular know how to discuss an upper limit on such effects. Although I have never had Seaborg’s authority I have often  repeated his appeal to fellow physicists. Make the effort to understand the effects of radiation. Make the effort to understand the implications to public health of TMI, Chernobyl and now Fukushima. For example NO ONE in Fukushima got acute radiation sickness leading to death within a month. The calculated increase in cancer rate for the first year of continuous exposure in the open in the worst location is about 3%.3 Scientists should be explaining this to the public in all fora; then perhaps we could get a game change. In about 1988 I was asked to explain to a meeting of the Center for Environmental Information what nuclear power could do to avert global warming.4 I said unequivocally that unless physicists stood up, the “nay sayers” would carry the day. ln 2002, I was optimistic that the tide had changed and new nuclear plants were discussed at $1,000 to $1,500 per Kwe and so described the reasons for the optimism at the World Federation of Scientists in Erice, Sicily 5 and later in reference 1. By 2008 my optimism had been destroyed as the new estimates were over 4 times greater!6 In December 2008 an ad-hoc group of scientists presented to each incoming Congressman (and Congresswoman) a list of the extensive “road blocks”7 put in place since 1974 which delay construction and help to make it expensive. If physicists do not act, the only nuclear power will be in China, India and smaller countries who are far less likely to do it safely than the US. The world will have all the disadvantages of nuclear power but few of the advantages.

Richard Wilson
Cambridge, MA

1. Richard Wilson, “Sustainable Nuclear Energy: Some Reasons for Optimism,” International Journal of Global Energy Issues (IJGEI): Special Edition on Innovations in Energy Systems, December 2007. Available at: http://phys4.harvard.edu/~wilson/publications/pp877.
2. C. Northcote Parkinson, “Parkinson’s Law,” The Economist, November 1955.    
3. Richard Wilson, “Lessons from history of radioactive use and accidents especially Fukushima,” Presented at the 44th Seminar on Planetary Emergencies, Erice Sicily, August 20th 2011. Available at: http://physics.harvard.edu/%7Ewilson/publications/pp923.doc.
4. Richard Wilson, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” Printed 2 years later in: Env. Sci. Technol., 26:1116-1120, 1992. Available at: http://physics.harvard.edu/%7Ewilson/publications/Nuclear%20Future%201992.rtf.
5. Richard Wilson, “Energy Permanent Monitoring Panel: Report of the Chairman,” Presented at the 34th International Seminar on Planetary Emergencies, Erice Sicily, 19-24 August 2005.
6. Richard Wilson, “No Nuclear Revival in the USA in the near future,” Presented at the 42nd International Seminar on Planetary Emergencies, Erice Sicily, August  2009. Available at: http://physics.harvard.edu/~wilson/energypmp/2009_Wilson.rtf.
7. Energy Forum, “Nuclear Power: Some thoughts for the new administration,” Report by an ad-hoc group (Energy Forum) of Nuclear Scientists from MIT and the surrounding universities, December 2008. (Personally presented by the author) Available at: http://phys4.harvard.edu/~wilson/publications/pp909.pdf.

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Editor: Alan Chodos