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Playing Defense
Ashton Carter’s Nuclear Know-How

Obama’s new nominee for Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, has a particularly important skill set for modern times: he’s an expert on nuclear weapons. That will make him a useful leader to have at the helm when it comes to negotiations with Iran, as well as when dealing with smaller nuclear nuisances like North Korea. But the challenges of nuclear power don’t end with these irrational actors; in the future, more countries around the world will find themselves considering nuclear as a source of base-load power, especially because (as we often say) it is a far greener energy source than fossil fuels.

What is the world to do with a power source that is on the one hand so promising and on the other so dangerous? Many states eyeing an investment in nuclear aren’t strong enough to ensure that the materials don’t fall into the wrong hands (and in certain cases, those wrong hands are pretty close to the levers of power). This is no short-term dilemma, either; highly-enriched uranium or plutonium stays potent for thousands of years.

Soon-to-be Secretary Ashton Carter supplied an answer to this problem in our magazine’s pages way back in 2006, with co-author Stephen LaMontagne. They suggest that the solution is a multi-national regime that can “provide enrichment and spent fuel removal services to states that abstain from domestic enrichment and reprocessing, submit to strict safeguards (such as those stipulated in the IAEA Additional Protocol), and reaffirm their intention not to pursue nuclear weapons.” As the authors point out, less-developed countries have strong incentives to work with a multi-national body instead of going it alone (for one thing, it’s less expensive), and under this arrangement, everybody’s happy: many countries that need it get a reliable source of power, and the world at large doesn’t face a nuclear free-for-all.

You can read the argument in full here. Agree or disagree, if there’s one person who knows his light water from his heavy, it’s Ashton Carter. With Iran our biggest current threat (as our editor Adam Garfinkle says), we’re glad President Obama will have Carter’s expertise close at hand.

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  • wigwag

    Yes it’s good that Ashton Carter will be close at hand; the question is whether President Obama or the keystone cops also know as his White House staff will keep the new Secretary of Defense in the loop.

  • Andrew Allison

    Why would the SecDef be “at the helm when it comes to negotiations with Iran, as well as when dealing with smaller nuclear nuisances like North Korea.”?

  • Corlyss

    I’m not keen on this guy and his procurement policy background. The last time we had one of these guys (perhaps also a last resort) was Bill Cohen under Clinton. They are place holders, time-servers. Carter may have always wanted to be SecDef, just as Doofus may have always secretly harbored a desire to run a big country, but that don’t make for qualifications. I worker for a great guy who was a procurement expert of the highest order. He went off to run the procurement shop at Defense Nuclear and spent the remainder of his career buying loose nukes from the Russians and the newly independent SSRs to keep them from selling them to free-lancers like Al Qaeda. I’m sure he knew a lot about both negotiations and nukes. But he was always at the mercy of policy makers way above his pay grade. It will be the same with Carter. By this time EVERYONE knows the knock on this administration is that it is run by a tiny cadre of trusted advisors to a man who thinks he’s always been the smartest man in any room he’s ever occupied and who doesn’t like criticism and he don’t listen to anyone not in that tiny circle. If Carter were part of that circle, he would not be brought in in the last stages of the administration; if he weren’t a part of that circle already, he won’t be listened to either. I dunno why anyone would take the job, except maybe the janitor who wouldn’t have anything to lose.

  • LarryD

    The Thorium Advocates are correct in pointing out that thorium is proliferation resistant. Trying to make a nuclear fission weapon from a thorium fuel cycle is hideously difficult and expensive. The fissionable material needed to start up a thorium fuel cycle reactor is small, and therefore easier to monitor.

    • TheRadicalModerate

      You beat me to it. Even with an international body controlling the fuel cycle for light water reactors, you’re still going to have lots of Pu-239 lying around, and somebody’s eventually going to get control of it. Thorium breeders mostly produce U-233, which, unlike Pu-239, can’t be chemically purified to bomb-grade. It has to be enriched to bomb grade, which requires massive industrial infrastructure that’s obvious and vulnerable.

      There’s an awful lot of engineering to be done to produce a viable thorium breeder design, but I’m 99% sure that if you dumped $1B a year into R&D over 20 years, you’d have a certified reference design pop out the other end–a reference design that your hypothetical international body could hawk to every developing nation on earth with little risk.

      In theory, fusion would be cleaner, safer, and maybe cheaper (lots of caveats for that last one), but even if you got lucky and found a viable design (maybe a 30% probability over 20 years), things that spew lots of fast neutrons are a big proliferation risk, because fast n + U-238 = Pu-239 in abundance. It’s taken me a while to come to this conclusion, but thorium looks like the horse to bet on if you’re serious about nuclear. And if you’re not serious about nuclear, I hope you’re not a climate change hysteric.

      • LarryD

        Oak Ridge explored molten salt reactor (MSR) technology fifty years ago. Another pass is needed to produce a certified reference design, but it wouldn’t take $1B for 20 years. India (lots of thorium, little uranium) and China have both decided to give it a go, most likely using Oak Ridge’s published papers as a starting point. Unlike fusion, MSR technology has been demonstrated, its inherent safety has been established. And a MSR can be used to “burn” spent nuclear fuel from light water reactors (LWR) and depleted uranium, allowing us to solve our nuclear “waste” problem. And then we can switch to thorium, which occurs in some rare earth ores, so rare earth mine tailings is our first source.

        There are two or three fusion projects I’m hopeful about, but even if one or more of them pans out, the nuclear waste disposal application of MSR is compelling, and MSR technology is a sure thing. The fusions projects preferred fuel cycle is proton + boron-11, which is aneutronic. Which is why it’s preferred. But if fast neutrons are desired, you can bypass a power reactor entirely.

        • TheRadicalModerate

          The Oak Ridge MSRE was a toy. It produced only about 7 MW of thermal energy. It didn’t breed U-233 from Th-232. It didn’t extract fission products in the reactor cycle. There’s a huge amount of engineering to do–but it’s just that, engineering. There are no insurmountable problems, or at least none we know of. But there’s a lot of development to do and, because it’s nuclear, the safety analysis is going to take years and years and billions of dollars. A $10 to $12B present value for the amount of development isn’t unreasonable at all. That amount of money is going to be a serious political problem, though. On the other hand, you can solve your energy problems forever for about 20% of the flyaway cost of the F-35 fleet.

          We don’t have a nuclear waste problem. We have political problem about the public fear of nuclear waste. If you could get a LFTR to burn waste, that’d be nice to solve the political problem. But you can use fast neutrons from fusion to burn waste as well. Indeed, there are several hybrid concepts floating around where you use a not-quite-breakeven fusion reaction to generate net positive thermal power from a waste blanket surrounding the reactor.

          I’m afraid that p-B11 aneutronic fusion is a pipe dream for the foreseeable future, but I’d say that there are more than two or three fusion projects that have non-trivial probabilities of success. I don’t think the current generation of tokamaks (e.g. ITER) have a prayer of being economical in their current form, but the spherical tokamak concepts look more interesting, and the materials research is at least somewhat important. The Sandia MagLIF project is extremely promising, as is the General Fusion weirdo steampunk monstrosity, as are the colliding FRC systems that Helion and Tri-Alpha are fooling with. I’d give Polywell and Focus Fusion lower probabilities of success (<10%) but I'm not willing to count them out. I have no way to judge whether the Lockheed compact reactor concept is going anywhere or not, but you always have to pay attention when giant aerospace companies, who are notoriously conservative in maintaining what credibility they have, make big announcements.

          The reason to be hopeful about fusion is that it's likely to go from successful lab experiment to commercialization very quickly. It just doesn't have the certification problems that fission nukes have. But getting to the successful lab experiment is a complete crapshoot.

          That said, I think that thorium is the way to go if we're serious about low-carbon energy. The power densities of solar and wind are so hopelessly anemic that there's no possibility of running a modern civilization on them, so nukes are really the only game in town. Thorium seems to have major safety advantages, and the fuel economics are clearly superior to uranium. Of course, if you’re not worried about climate change, then we’ve probably got enough gas for another century. I’m not freaking out over climate change, but it’d be nice to have a hedge in case things turn more definitively bad.

          • LarryD


            “Terrestrial Energy Inc. (“TEI” or the “Company”) announces that it has entered into a Letter of Intent for services with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, based in Ontario, Canada. This arrangement includes research and development work that is required to bring the company’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR) to the engineering blueprint stage, expected in late 2016.”

   – Oak Ridge’s Molten Salt Reactor Experiment investigated both fluoride and chloride salt formulations. The composition of the salt determines whether the MSR has a fast or thermal neutron spectrum. And their research included low-pressure distillation of the salt to remove neutron absorbing “poisons”.

          • TheRadicalModerate

            “Engineering blueprint” for what? A commercial reactor? Almost certainly not. You need engineering designs for experimental reactors, too.

            MSRE was able to flush Xe-135 (one of the major reaction poisons) from the system and recover U-233 as UF6, but that was it in terms of reprocessing the salt.

            Again, I think that thorium breeders are a terrific idea. But they’re not even close to ready for prime time.

      • Josephbleau

        U 233 makes a high capacity tiny bomb, not sure I’d like a lot of it around as you can mix and match.

        • TheRadicalModerate

          A bit bigger and slightly less energetic than Pu-239, quite a bit smaller than U-235 but a little bit less energetic. But you’ve got Pu-238 causing pre-detonation problems, and Pa-233 spewing hard gamma rays during extraction/enrichment/manufacturing (and probably deployment).

          After reading a bit more, I’m on shakier ground than I thought on requiring enrichment, though. I’d think that the U-238 you have mixed in with most natural Th-232 would require enriching the U-233 for bomb purposes (with the whole industrial plant turning into a gamma emitter because of Pa-233) but it wouldn’t cause a problem for reactor purposes. Of course, then you have Pu-239 floating around that you can get to with PUREX, but I’m not sure how much. And Pu-238 is an even bigger pre-detonation problem then.

  • FriendlyGoat

    I’m afraid Mr. Carter and everyone else will find that if Iran had any interest in an arrangement like that proposed by Carter/LaMontagne in 2006, we would have all known it in 2006.

  • bobbymike34

    Let’s not forget the Triad and the nuclear enterprise needs complete modernization after 23 years of neglect. The best thing Mr. Carter can do is set the stage for steady funding for this going forward.

  • R Spitzer

    Mr. Carter has advocated attacking North Korea, bombing and destroying them.

    Maybe the current US administration can start another war while under funding the military.

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