Alvin Weinberg greets President Kennedy during a visit by the President to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Weinberg was one of Kennedy’s science advisors.
Update Note: This post was one of the first I wrote for Nuclear Green in December 2007. Because it deals with the early history of studies of carbon mitigation and Alvin Weinberg’s far sighted views on post-carbon energy forms are still relevant to recent discussions on energy, I felt reposting a slightly revised version of my original post was in order.
I have told the story before of my proto-internship in the ORNL–NSF Environmental Studies Program in 1970-71, and hearing there, for the first time about the problem of CO2 emissions and AGW. I no doubt heard it first from Jerry Olson, an ecologist, who was part of an ongoing ORNL research effort on the global carbon cycle. In addition to alerting me, Olson appears to have been the first to alert Alvin Weinberg, who was the Director of ORNL until his politically inspired firing in 1973. When, in 1974, Dixie Lee Ray brought Weinberg to Washington to serve as Director of the Office of Energy Research and Development, his focused shifted from reactors to the relationship of energy to CO2 emissions. I have recently started looking at a collection of Weinberg’s papers that is available online. Weinberg’s papers reveal him to be a thinker of great depth, and range. What I find most interesting about Weinberg’s papers is the role that CO2/global warming played in his discourse after his firing from his position of Director of ORNL in 1973. For the rest of his progessional life, Weinberg warned us, of the dangers that we faced from CO2. In 1974 Weinberg published a major paper on the energy economy is the prestigious journal Science. In “Global Effects of Man’s Production of Energy,” Weinberg set out his case on the long term consequences of the human commitment to carbon based fules. In 1975 during testamony to congress, Weinberg again laid out his global warming concerns. In 1975 Weinberg returned to Oak Ridge where he led the Institute for Energy Analysis until his retirement in 1984. During that period, the IEA was a major center for the study of energy on climate, and of energy alternativives. In 1977 Alvin Weinberg was named the chairman of a National Study Group on the Global Effects of Carbon Dioxide.
Today Weinberg’s views on CO2 and global warming seem prophetic. In a 1976 paper “Economic Implications of A US Nuclear Moratorium. 1985 to 2010,” which Weinberg co-authored with Charles E. Whittle, Alan D. Poole, Edward L. Allen, William G. Pollard, Herbert G. MacPherson, Ned L. Treat, and Doan L. Phung, reveal to us exactly how accurate Weinberg’s vision into the future was. In the paper Weinberg and his associates assessed the the economic and environmental consequences of moratorium on nuclear construction in the United States. He assumed that no new reactors would be ordered after 1980, but that reactor construction would continue till about 1985. He then looked at the consequences to allow continued operation of reactors on line by 1985. Weinberg tried to think out the implications of the cessation of new reactor construction.
Weinberg and his associates understood that if reactor construction ceased, power companies would construct more coal fired power plants to meet consumer demand for electricity. Weinberg assumed that consumer demand would be driven by two factors population growth, and economic growth. He also assumed that technological changes would increase the efficiency of electrical use, but that these efficiencies would not offset the increase in demand.
“four levels of environmental trade offs as a result of shifting the additional fuel requirements from nuclear to coal after 1985.”
The first level of effect was what he called global. There were two componants:
(1) Proliferation: Countries wishing to rely primarily on the nuclear option can do so whether or not the United States abandons nuclear power. Thus, a domestic moratorium on nuclear energy would have little effect on proliferation unless the rest of the world abandoned nuclear power.
(2) CO2: Should 20 percent of the world’s fossil fuel be burned, the CO2 concentration might double; this could lead to unacceptable changes in the world’s climate. A U.S. moratorium per se would have little effect on this possibility; however, loss of the nuclear option through much of the world,’which is a conceivable consequence of a U.S. moratorium, might make it more difficult to respond quickly to a perceived danger from higher CO, levels in the atmosphere.
Weinberg and his associates believed that
the effect of a moratorium (on reactor construction) adopted only by the United States would be marginal and secondary: marginal because reactors would be available from other countries, secondary because of the influence of the United States on world nuclear energy policy (including decisions by others to follow suit).
It is no longer possible for a single nation to influence significantly the possibility of proliferation through a unilateral capacity to supply nuclear power systems. On the other hand, the extent to which the U.S. influence on worldwide nuclear policy would be diminished by its withdrawal from nuclear power development could result in less rigid international regulation and inspection.
But their observations on CO2 were extraordinary:
The ultimate constraint on the burning of fossil fuel may be the climatic impact from atmospheric CO, buildup. This, of course, is a global problem; what the United States does during the next 30-50 years is likely to contribute little to total global atmospheric levels. Nevertheless, increasing reliance on fossil fuel by such a large consumer as the United States poses a prospect of severe climatic shifts that cannot, in principle, be dismissed. The extent to which a nuclear moratorium would aggravate the buildup of CO, must therefore be examined.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects the thermal radiative balance of the planet and through this balance the global climate. On the basis of the best atmospheric models now available, a doubling of the atmospheric CO, would result in a global average surface temperature increase of 1.5-2.4 C, with greater increases in the high latitudes. Although models of the type used in these studies predict present global climate surprisingly well, a number of significant variables are not included. Consequently, the results must be regarded as preliminary until additional information and more reliable climatic feedback mechanisms can be properly included.
During the past hundred years, the annual global production of CO, by burning fossil fuels has grown nearly fiftyfold. It now stands at 18 x 10(9) tons, which is about one-tenth the amount accounted for by the annual net primary fixation of carbon by terrestrial plants. This production appears to have caused an increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Since 1958 observers at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii have monitored atmospheric CO2 content, and the 1975 measurements show an average CO, concentration of 330 ppm (in the latter part of the nineteenth century it was 290-295 ppm). The measurements show annual increases for each year, averaging about 0.7 ppm during the late 1950s and early 1960s and up to 1 .O ppm or more in recent years.
The cumulative production of C02 since the end of 1957 and the observed increase in CO2 are plotted in Figure 8. The upper set of points indicates the increase in concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere that would have occurred if all CO, produced from fossil fuels and cement since 1957 remained airborne. The lower set of points represents the observed increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration at the Mauna Loa Observatory.
The paper added:
Almost any reasonable scenario for future global energy demand yields continued increases in atmospheric C02, but the resulting concentrations do not appear to reach levels that will cause severe climate alterations before 2000. However, little complacency should be derived from this, since continued energy demands during the first few decades of the next century will push atmospheric C02 concentrations to levels which warrant serious concern, even for the low energy growth case. The inertial effect in energy supply systems makes it clear that decisions made now on the nuclear/nonnuclear issue will have an impact reaching many years into the future.
The authors also observed
that the time when atmospheric CO, concentration will become crucial is early in the twenty-first century.
“an increase of 62-73 ppm over the 1958 value of 315 ppm by 2000. “
Then they added,
“atmospheric concentration of 375-390 ppm may well be a threshold range at which climate change from C02 effects will be separable from natural climate fluctuations. “
An increase of 150-225 ppm by 2025 (concentration of 465-540 ppm) should certainly result in recognizable climate change if such changes are ever to occur. The consequences of an increase of this magnitude in atmospheric C02 make it prudent to proceed cautiously in the large-scale use of fossil fuels.”
In both nuclear proliferation and CO2/global climate change Weinberg and his associates were clearly correct. In 1974 India exploded its first nuclear device bomb without possessing American reactors. Other nations followed in developing nuclear weapons programs without relying on American designed and built power reactors. South Africa which actually assembled 6 nuclear weapons during the 1980’s, using a locally designed uranium seperation technology. Pakistan built nuclear weapons without using American reactor technology from the 1980’s onward. Pakistan is believed to have stolen technology from the West, and also received some technological help from China. North Korea was able to construct nuclear weapons with Pakistani help. Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs were blocked by Israeli military action in the 1980’s, and by international pressure and military actions since the 1990’s. Iran received Pakistani help in developing an apparently ongoing nuclear weapons program. Libya also received Pakistani help on developing a nuclear weapons program, but is believed to have dismantled that program a few years ago, after an agreement with the United States. Israel acquired nuclear weapon making capacity during the 1960’s with some French assistance, but without American reactors.
Weinberg was also correct about the implications of an American reactor construction moratorium for CO2 emissions. The world wide demands for energy has increased rapidly, and as of December 2009, with that demand predominately having been filled by coal burning power plants.
Weinberg and his associates foresaw the possibility of reactor accidents including a core melt down. He also envisioned the deaths of coal miners in accidents.
Some of their predictionsd are amazingly accurate. For example, they foresaw that
The decade 2000-2010 is the period of rapid deployment of the new supply technologies and/or stringent conservation measures. In this period world oil and gas production is expected to peak and begin to decline.
They predicted that in 2000 the price of oil would be $25 a barrel. The price actually ranged between $22 and $28 a barrel. They foresaw that a moratorium on reactor production after 1985 would increase OPEC’s power.
The paper suggested
In the very long run, the society may have only solar energy and nuclear power as its major energy options. Solar energy, especially as a stand-alone electric system, presently appears to be much more expensive than nuclear energy.
This study disclosed several areas where additional research is needed: (a) specific regional impacts from alternative energy strategies; (b) the feasibility of mining multibillion tonnages of coal; (c) potential long-range environmental impacts, particularly that of CO, ; and (d) long-range asymptotic energy supply and demand beyond 2010.
and noted some implications of the solar choice, that are still not addressed by the current energy discussion:
insofar as solar may impose an intermittency on our pattern of living, an all-solar energy system would seem to be far from a totally “free” society. What may ultimately be at issue is freedom in the use of time. The nuclear society, with its high energy potential, allows us to use our time without regard to energy availability. The price we pay for this freedom is the necessity to organize and manage the nuclear system so as to avoid recognized potential hazards.
The consequence of failing to listen to Dr. Weinberg’s excellent advice in the 1970’s is that the world faces a global CO2 – energy crisis in 2010 without the tools to take deal with it. Continued hysteria about the alleged liabilities of nuclear power still block our path to a low carbon future, and so called energy experts have as of yet not come to terms with the solar cost issues that Alvin Weinberg pointed to a generation ago.