Reviewed 6/10/2005

Megawatts and Megatons, by Garwin & Charpak

MEGAWATTS AND MEGATONS: A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age?
Richard L. Garwin
Georges Charpak
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001




ISBN-13 978-0-375-40394-1
ISBN 0-375-40394-9 412pp. HC/GSI $30.00

Here at the dawn of the 21st century, we face many vexing problems. In this book, the authors undertake to point the way toward the resolution of two of the most momentous problems of our day: How to safely use nuclear fission for power, and what levels and types of nuclear weapons will deter aggressive use while avoiding a global conflagration. Either one of these topics would be sufficient for most books. But Charpak and Garwin have extensive backgrounds in both technical areas as well as in policy matters, and they handle their mission with aplomb. Georges Charpak is a member of the French Academy of Sciences (L'Académie des sciences de l'Institut de France) and has long worked at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN)1 in Geneva. He won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1992 for inventing methods of detecting atomic particles. Richard Garwin is Philip D. Reed Fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. In 1996, he won the Enrico Fermi Award2 from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Today, around the world, there are some 400 commercial nuclear fission reactors producing electric power. Each 1-Gigawatt-output plant (the typical size) produces 21 tons of waste per year. Those waste products consist mostly of spent fuel rods. But this fuel is not "spent" in any conventional sense; it is not like the ash from a coal-fired power plant, which can be buried in a clay-lined pit3 and forgotten. Spent fuel rods from a typical nuclear power plant contain a mixture of short-lived and very dangerous radioisotopes, including cesium-137, strontium-90 and iodine-131. Close exposure to an unshielded spent fuel rod for just an hour or so can kill, invisibly but thoroughly. Proper disposition of these fuel rods and other nuclear wastes is critical, for they now amount to many tons of lethally radioactive material — over 4,000 tons in the U.S. alone.

Recycling is one possible answer. Along with the short-lived isotopes, a fission reactor produces plutonium — and in quantity. This plutonium, once removed from the spent fuel rods and made into new ones, can power a reactor again. France is doing this, and obtains 80% of its electric power from nuclear reactors.4 But separating and recycling the plutonium from spent fuel rods is more expensive than simply burying the old rods and using fresh uranium to make new ones. The authors point out that the price of uranium would have to be six times its current price (around $30 per kg) before recycling becomes competitive. The reactor that uses plutonium is also costlier to build than uranium-fueled designs. The more complex recycling process is less safe than direct disposal, because it presents a calculably greater risk of radiation exposure. And there is a security aspect. In America, even before 11 September 2001, the federal government was gravely concerned that reactor-grade plutonium could be stolen by terrorists and used in a bomb. For all these reasons, direct disposal is the method of choice in the U.S.

As the Table of Contents shows, the authors devote most of the book to nuclear power — fittingly, for this technically complex and rapidly evolving technology is vital for the public to understand. They describe the different classes of reactors (including some novel designs), analyze three of the major accidents (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Tokai-mura), and discuss uranium mining, plutonium recycling and waste disposal at length. This discussion includes the health impacts of nuclear power (especially cancer), and the sources and levels of natural radioactivity. Nuclear fusion also gets a brief mention.

Nuclear weapons are a more mature technology, having undergone extensive development during the Cold War. The authors are concerned mostly with the numbers of weapons extant in the world today, and with how to verifiably reduce those numbers. They advocate a cap of around 2,000 weapons in the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, with the arsenals of the other members of the nuclear club essentially unchanged in the near term. Chapters 10 through 14 cover the long and tortuous history of arms control negotiations (in which Garwin played an important part) and related matters like ballistic missile defense and the diversion of nuclear materials by terrorists. With regard to such diversion, they point out that biological weapons like anthrax spores might be more cost-effective, if not so dramatic. (Nuclear weapons technology itself is the subject of Chapter 3.)

Messrs. Garwin and Charpak are not shy with their political opinions. They feel that the current Bush administration's emphasis on deploying a defense against ballistic missiles and on developing new tactical nuclear weapons like the "bunker buster" is exactly the wrong emphasis. This does not make their book a polemic; rather, they simply state their opinions at certain points and continue dispensing information. I think this adds to the value of their work.

The book begins with "An Optional Review of Units and Dimensions". It is good that the authors declare it optional, for I found it a bit tedious. It is useful, including some history as well as the definitions of energy-related units in its narrative. However, I would have preferred a simple table. The writing is clear and straightforward throughout, and not overly technical. The sentences do tend to be long and convoluted, but I found this a minor defect.5 The book is well-illustrated with tables, graphs, some black-and-white photographs and an assortment of political cartoons. The information content is superb, as you might expect from two career nuclear physicists who between them seem to know everyone in the nuclear-power and arms-control communities. The material is well-researched, extensively annotated, and thoroughly indexed. There is a short For Further Reading list. If anyone wants a single source on nuclear power, nuclear weapons, their past impacts and future prospects, this book would be a fine choice. My sole caveat is that its broad coverage precludes every topic being treated in sufficient depth.

1 Many think "CERN" is the acronym for the French version of "European Center for Nuclear Research". Close, but no cigar. Actually it stands for "Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire". For the full story, see About CERN's Name.
2 The U.S. Department of Energy presents the Enrico Fermi Award to scientists it deems have done the most to advance the state of the art of energy production.
3 This assumes that the clay liner is well-made, not underlain by earthquake faults, etc.
4 France uses the "breeder reactor" specifically to create this reusable plutonium. A breeder reactor is a very different design from the uranium-fueled light-water reactors used in the U.S., or the CANDU reactors which Canada has exported to many nations. Breeders were the high-priority technology early in the atomic age, when it was thought that the world had only enough uranium for a few decades. Now we know there are 100 to 300 million tons in the Earth's crust, including "reasonably assured resources", and 4.5 billion tons dissolved in its oceans — enough for thousands of years, even if we get all our electric power from fission reactors.
5 The book was written originally in French, and translated into English by Robert and Ellen Chase. They did an admirable job, but this may be the cause of the convoluted sentence structure and the one or two sentences that don't seem to parse correctly.
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