Chernobyl Discredited Communism, Not Nuclear Power

(p. C2) In his chilling new book, “Midnight in Chernobyl,” the journalist Adam Higginbotham shows how an almost fanatical compulsion for secrecy among the Soviet Union’s governing elite was part of what made the accident not just cataclysmic but so likely in the first place. Interviewing eyewitnesses and consulting declassified archives — an official record that was frustratingly meager when it came to certain details and, Higginbotham says, couldn’t always be trusted — he reconstructs the disaster from the ground up, recounting the prelude to it as well as its aftermath. The result is superb, enthralling and necessarily terrifying.
. . .
Higginbotham describes young workers who were promoted swiftly to positions of terrific responsibility. In an especially glaring example of entrenched cronyism, the Communist Party elevated an ideologically copacetic electrical engineer to the position of deputy plant director at Chernobyl: To make up for a total lack of experience with atomic energy, he took a correspondence course in nuclear physics.
Even more egregious than some personnel decisions were the structural problems built into the plant itself. Most fateful for Chernobyl was the baffling design of a crucial safety feature: control rods that could be lowered into the reactor core to slow down the process of nuclear fission. The rods contained boron carbide, which hampered reactivity, but the Soviets decided to tip them in graphite, which facilitated reactivity; it was a bid to save energy, and therefore money, by lessening the rods’ moderating effect. Higginbotham calls it “an absurd and chilling inversion in the role of a safety device,” likening it to wiring a car so that slamming the brakes would make it accelerate.
. . .
. . . Chernobyl exposed the untenable fissures in the Soviet system and hastened its collapse; the accident also encouraged Mikhail Gorbachev to pursue drastic reforms with even more zeal.
Higginbotham observes that the plant was run like the Soviet state writ large — with individuals expected to carry out commands from on high with an automaton’s acquiescence. At the same time, when it came time to assess responsibility for the disaster, any collectivist fellow feeling evaporated, as the ensuing show trials insistently scapegoated a few individuals (some of them already dead) in a desperate attempt to keep a crumbling system intact.
The accident also decimated international confidence in nuclear power, and a number of countries halted their own programs — for a time, that is. Global warming has made the awesome potential of the atom a source of hope again and, according to some advocates, an urgent necessity; besides, as Higginbotham points out, nuclear power, from a statistical standpoint, is safer than the competing alternatives, including wind.

For the full review, see:
Jennifer Szalai. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Nuclear Disaster In Chilling Detail.” The New York Times (Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019): C2.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 6, 2019, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; An Enthralling and Terrifying History of the Nuclear Meltdown at Chernobyl.”)

The book under review, is:
Higginbotham, Adam. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Bill Gates Says Regulations Keep Innovative Nuclear Technology Out of U.S.

(p. B3) Add Bill Gates to the list of executives whose businesses have been ensnared by the Trump administration’s battle with China over technology and trade.
The tech tycoon and philanthropist said in an essay posted late last week that a nuclear-energy project in China by a company he co-founded called TerraPower LLC is now unlikely to proceed because of recent changes in U.S. policy toward China. That leaves TerraPower, which had been working on the China project for more than three years, scrambling for a new partner and uncertain where it might be able to run a pilot of the nuclear reactor it has been developing, according to company officials.
. . .
Mr. Gates, in a year-end essay posted on his personal website on Saturday [December 29, 2018], said TerraPower might be able to build its nuclear-reactor pilot project in the U.S., but only if there are changes to regulation. The Microsoft Corp. co-founder said he intends to advocate for those changes in 2019 because he sees nuclear power as “the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.”
“The world needs to be working on lots of solutions to stop climate change,” he wrote. “Advanced nuclear is one, and I hope to persuade U.S. leaders to get into the game.”

For the full story, see:
Greene, Jay. “Bill Gates Project Hit by Trade Fight.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019): B3.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 1, 2019, and has the title “Trump’s Tech Battle With China Roils Bill Gates Nuclear Venture.”)

Chernobyl Was Due to “Bureaucratic Incompetence,” Not Due to Technology

(p. C6) Dr. Medvedev’s study of Lysenko was not approved for official publication in the Soviet Union, but samizdat, or clandestine, copies circulated among the intelligentsia. In 1969, the book was translated into English and published as “The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko.”
Dr. Medvedev was fired from his job at an agricultural research laboratory, and within a few months was summoned to a meeting with a psychiatrist, on the pretext of discussing the behavior of his teenage son. Instead, Dr. Medvedev was taken to a holding cell, where he managed to pick the lock and walk away.
Soon afterward, on May 29, 1970, as Dr. Medvedev recounted in his book “A Question of Madness,” he was confronted at his home by two psychiatrists accompanied by several police officers.
“‘If you refuse to talk to us,’ one of the psychiatrists told Dr. Medvedev, ‘then we will be obliged to draw the appropriate conclusions . . . And how do you feel yourself, Zhores Aleksandrovich?’
“I answered that I felt marvelous.
“‘But if you feel so marvelous, then why do you think we have turned up here today?’
“‘Obviously, you must answer that question yourself,’ I replied. “A police major arrived. “‘ And who on earth might you be?’ Dr. Medvedev asked. ‘I didn’t invite you here.’ ”
“He protested, to no avail, that the homes of Soviet citizens were considered private and inviolable to the forces of the state.
“‘Get to your feet!” the police major ordered Dr. Medvedev. ‘I order you to get to your feet!’ ”
Two lower-ranking officers, twisted Dr. Medvedev’s arms behind his back, forced him out of his house and into an ambulance. He was driven to a psychiatric hospital.
The preliminary diagnosis was “severe mental illness dangerous to the public,” and Dr. Medvedev was repeatedly warned to stop his “publicist activities.”
Meanwhile, his brother, Sakharov and other activists for greater openness in the Soviet system sent telegrams and published open letters calling for Dr. Medvedev’s release. One of his friends, the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, then still living in the Soviet Union, condemned Dr. Medvedev’s detention with a bold and blistering statement.
“The incarceration of freethinking healthy people in madhouses is spiritual murder,” he said. “It is a fiendish and prolonged torture . . . These crimes will never be forgotten, and all those who take part in them will be condemned endlessly, while they live and after they’re dead.
“It is shortsighted to think that you can live constantly relying on force alone, constantly scorning the objections of conscience.”
Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize for Literature later that year.
. . .
In 1990, Dr. Medvedev wrote an account of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, which he considered inevitable, with the Soviet Union’s history of scientific and bureaucratic incompetence.
“In the end, I was surprised at how poorly designed the reactor actually was,” he told the New York Times in 1990. “I wanted to write this book not only to show the real scale of this particular catastrophe, but also to demolish a few more secrets and deliberate misconceptions.”

For the full obituary, see:
SCHUDEL, Matt. “‘Scientist exposed agricultural fraud and Soviet incompetence.” The Washington Post (Sunday, Sept. 6, 2018): C6.
(Note: ellipses between paragraphs, added; ellipses internal to paragraphs, in original.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Sept. 4, 2018, and has the title “‘James Mirrlees, Whose Tax Model Earned a Nobel, Dies at 82.”)

The books by Zhores Medvedev that were mentioned above, are:
Medvedev, Zhores A. The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
Medvedev, Zhores A., and Roy A. Medvedev. A Question of Madness: Repression by Psychiatry in the Soviet Union. London: Mcmillan London Ltd., 1971.
Medvedev, Zhores A. The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.

Floating Nuclear Power Plants May Be Cheaper, Greener, and Safer

(p. B5) MURMANSK, Russia — Along the shore of Kola Bay in the far northwest of Russia lie bases for the country’s nuclear submarines and icebreakers. Low, rocky hills descend to an industrial waterfront of docks, cranes and railway tracks. Out on the bay, submarines have for decades stalked the azure waters, traveling between their port and the ocean depths.
Here, Russia is conducting an experiment with nuclear power, one that backers say is a leading-edge feat of engineering but that critics call reckless.
The country is unveiling a floating nuclear power plant.
Tied to a wharf in the city of Murmansk, the Akademik Lomonosov rocks gently in the waves. The buoyant facility, made of two miniature reactors of a type used previously on submarines, is for now the only one of its kind.
Moscow, while leading the trend, is far from alone in seeing potential in floating nuclear plants. Two state-backed companies in China are building such facilities, (p. B5) and American scientists have drawn up plans of their own. Proponents say they are cheaper, greener and, perhaps counterintuitively, safer. They envision a future when nuclear power stations bob off the coasts of major cities around the world.
“They are light-years ahead of us,” Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the Russian floating power program.
Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company, has exported nuclear technology for years, selling plants in China, India and a host of developing nations. But smaller reactors effectively placed on floats can be assembled more quickly, be put in a wider range of locations and respond more nimbly to fluctuating supply on power grids that increasingly rely on wind and solar.
The Russian design involves using submarine-style reactors loaded onto vessels, with a hatch near the bow to plug them into local electrical grids. The reactors will generate a combined 70 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 70,000 typical American homes. Rosatom plans to serially produce such floating nuclear plants, and is exploring various business plans, including retaining ownership of the reactors while selling the electricity they generate.

For the full story, see:
Andrew E. Kramer. “Drifting toward the Future.” The New York Times (Monday, Aug. 27, 2018): B1 & B5.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 26, 2018, and has the title “The Nuclear Power Plant of the Future May Be Floating Near Russia.” The online version says that the title of the New York edition version was “Rocking the Nuclear Boat.”)

“Renewables Are Not the Answer”

(p.B1) . . . : Global carbon-dioxide emissions have stopped rising. Coal use in China may have peaked. The price of wind turbines and solar panels is plummeting, putting renewable energy within the reach of meager budgets in the developing world.
And yet as climate diplomats gather this week in Bonn, Germany, for the 23rd Conference of the Parties under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, I would like to point their attention to a different, perhaps gloomier statistic: the world’s carbon intensity of energy.
(p. B2) The term refers to a measure of the amount of CO2 spewed into the air for each unit of energy consumed. It offers some bad news: It has not budged since that chilly autumn day in Kyoto 20 years ago. Even among the highly industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the carbon intensity of energy has declined by a paltry 4 percent since then, according to the International Energy Agency.
This statistic, alone, puts a big question mark over the strategies deployed around the world to replace fossil energy. In a nutshell:
. . .
The most worrisome aspect about the all-out push for a future powered by renewables has to do with cost: The price of turbines and solar panels may be falling, but the cost of integrating these intermittent sources of energy — on when the wind blows and the sun shines; off when they don’t — is not. This alone will sharply curtail the climate benefits of renewable power.
Integrating renewable sources requires vast investments in electricity transmission — to move power from intermittently windy and sunny places to places where power is consumed. It requires maintaining a backstop of idle plants that burn fossil fuel, for the times when there is no wind or sun to be had. It requires investing in power-storage systems at a large scale.

For the full commentary, see:
EDUARDO PORTER. “Why Slashing Nuclear Power May Backfire.” The New York Times (Weds., NOV. 8, 2017): B1-B2.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 7, 2017, and has the title “Wind and Solar Power Advance, but Carbon Refuses to Retreat.”)

“The Ideological Insistence on Renewables and an Irrational Fear of Nuclear Power”

(p. A25) Berkeley, Calif. — CALIFORNIA has a reputation as a leader in battling climate change, and so when Pacific Gas & Electric and environmental groups announced a plan last week to close the state’s last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, and replace much of the electricity it generates with power from renewable resources, the deal was widely applauded.
It shouldn’t have been. If the proposal is approved by the state’s Public Utilities Commission, California’s carbon dioxide emissions will either increase or decline far less than if Diablo Canyon’s two reactors, which generated about 9 percent of the state’s electricity last year, remained in operation. If this deal goes through, California will become a model of how not to deal with climate change.
. . .
Nearly every time a nuclear plant has been closed, its energy production has been replaced almost entirely with fossil fuels, including in California. In 2012, when the San Onofre nuclear plant closed, natural gas became the main replacement power source, creating emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent to putting two million cars on the road.
. . .
Even if by some miracle California did manage to replace 100 percent of Diablo Canyon’s output with renewables, why would a state ostensibly concerned with climate change turn away from its largest single source of clean energy? The answer, as is perhaps obvious, is the ideological insistence on renewables and an irrational fear of nuclear power.
The only countries that have successfully moved from fossil fuels to low-carbon power have done so with the help of nuclear energy. And the backlash against antinuclear policies is growing. Increasingly, scientists and conservationists in the United States are speaking out in defense of nuclear power.
If California indeed closes Diablo Canyon, emissions will either rise or fail to fall as quickly as they could, and the antinuclear agenda will be exposed as anathema to climate protection.

For the full commentary, see:
MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER. “How Not to Deal With Climate Change.” The New York Times (Thurs., June 30, 2016): A25.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Without Clear Regulatory Pathway, Investors Will Avoid the New, Small, Safe, Modular Nuclear Reactors

(p. D1) To its advocates, nuclear power is a potent force for fighting climate change, combining the near-zero emissions of wind and solar energy with the reliability of coal and gas. And nuclear power, which provides about 19 percent of all electricity in the United States and 11 percent worldwide, could be a greater source.
. . .
In a report she prepared in 2009, Ms. Squassoni wrote that in light of steep construction costs, only a handful of new reactors would come on line by 2015, even in the best of circumstances.
“If you really wanted to reduce carbon emissions through nuclear, it was going to be incredibly expensive,” she said. “You’d have to build an incredible number of power plants.”
Now plants are even more expensive, in part because of new safety requirements in the wake of Fukushima. So-called small modular reactors have been proposed as a lower-cost alternative. There are many different designs — at least one is meant to run on waste fuel — but the federal Department of Energy has provided significant development money only for two designs that are smaller variations of the most common kind of reactor.
Ashley Finan, an analyst with the Clean Air Task Force, which focuses on technologies to fight climate change, said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had not made it easy for alternative designs to win backing from private investors.
“There’s a lack of a clear and predictable regulatory pathway,” Dr. Finan said. “You’re really not able to attract funding without a clear regulatory process.”
As a result, small modular reactors are many years from reality in the United States. Overseas, there are only a few isolated small-reactor projects underway, including one under construction in China.
Most modular designs have features that are intended to make them safer than existing reactors. Safety, as always, looms large in the debate about nuclear power. Although some watchdog groups point to incidents like leaks of radioactive water from some plants, the industry in the United States promotes its safety record, noting that events like unplanned reactor shutdowns are at historical lows. And the American industry’s one major accident, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, pales in comparison with Fukushima or the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union.

For the full story, see:
HENRY FOUNTAIN “THE BIG FIX; Nuclear: Carbon Free, but Not Free of Unease.” The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 23, 2014): D1-D2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 22, 2014.)