The Air Conditioned Nightmare II

A few months ago, I wrote about Henry Miller’s travelogue The Air Conditioned Nightmare (written 1939-42, published 1945), and noted how striking it was that he had a prophetic sense of the ominous changes about to happen to the world. It was not just a matter of him being aware, like everyone at the time, that the world was hurtling toward a massive war for the second time in twenty-five years. He had been living in France during the years of the Great Depression, and when he returned to America and traveled across it by automobile, he actually didn’t pay much attention to the material poverty. Instead, he saw new machines and material comforts everywhere. Alongside the desperate joblessness he also saw people mad to acquire cars just so that they could commute to work and sit in air-conditioned offices all day. He was most aghast at the spiritual change in people:

"A great change had come over America, no doubt about that. There were greater ones coming, I felt certain. We were only witnessing the prelude to something unimaginable. Everything was cock-eyed, and getting more and more so. Maybe we would end up on all fours, gibbering like baboons. Something disastrous was in store - everybody felt it. Yes, America had changed. The lack of resilience, the feeling of hopelessness, the resignation, the skepticism, the defeatism - I could scarcely believe my ears at first. And over it all that same veneer of fatuous optimism - only now decidedly cracked." (p.13)

Henry Miller couldn’t have known about the top-secret Manhattan Project underway at the time, but he must have been aware of headlines of the early 40's reporting on the splitting of the uranium atom. These headlines appeared in The New York Times before the Manhattan Project got underway:

·   Vast Energy Freed by Uranium Atom; Split, It Produces 2 'Cannonballs,' Each of 100,000,000 Electron Volts Hailed as Epoch Making, New Process, Announced at Columbia, Uses Only 1-30 Volt to Liberate Big Force. Jan. 31, 1939.
·   The Week in Science; When Uranium Splits Doubtful Source of Power Cancer and X-Rays Neutron Possibilities News Notes. March 5, 1939.
·   Vision Earth Rocked by Isotope Blast; Scientists Say Bit of Uranium Could Wreck New York. April 30, 1939.
·   Release Largest Store Known on Earth A ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ When Separated in Pure Form It Can Yield 235 Billion Volts Per Atom of Its Own. May 5, 1939.
·   New Key is Found to Atomic Energy; Actino-Uranium Is Credited With Power to A Mixture of Physics and Fantasy. March 17, 1940.
·   Vast Power Source in Atomic Energy Opened by Science; Report on New Source of Power. May 5, 1940.
·   Third Way to Split Atom Is Found By Halving Uranium and Thorium; Scientists at University of California Say Cleavage Creates Much Energy -- Tokyo Men Also Report Uranium Fission. March 3, 1941.
·   Scientist Reaches London; Dr. N.H.D. Bohr, Dane, Has a New Atomic Blast Invention. October 9, 1943.
·   Research Institute is Seized in Denmark; Germans Are Expected to Work on New Secret Weapon. December 12, 1943.

(List of references made by Korean Minjok Leadership Academy)

This quote is from an article in Scientific American in 1939:

“The latter problem brings up an interesting and rather disturbing aspect of the case. These secondary neutrons constitute a fresh supply of ‘bullets’ to produce new fissions. Thus we are faced with a vicious circle, with one explosion setting off another, and energy being continuously and cumulatively released. It is probable that a sufficiently large mass of uranium would be explosive if its atoms once got well started dividing. As a matter of fact, the scientists are pretty nervous over the dangerous forces they are unleashing, and are hurriedly devising means to control them.
It may or may not be significant that, since early spring, no accounts of research on nuclear fission have been heard from Germany — not even from discoverer Hahn. It is not unlikely that the German government, spotting a potentially powerful weapon of war, has imposed military secrecy on all recent German investigations. A large concentration of isotope 235, subjected to neutron bombardment, might conceivably blow up all London or Paris.”

   In hindsight we can see that the nuclear age and the permanently militarized economy was Miller's premonition of “something unimaginable” that was being born. His insight might have been less prophetic and more just wise observation of changes happening in the world. However, in choosing his title, he couldn't have consciously known that the new technology of air conditioning would play such a crucial role in building atomic weapons. For how many people even today know that coolant technology has been essential to every nation that has enriched uranium for nuclear fuel and weapons?
Since the UN and nations of the world applauded themselves for signing the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, they have all done a good job of not mentioning that uranium enrichment processes were exempted from the agreement. If you do internet searches for exemptions to the protocol, you’ll find some for asthma inhalers and other uses that account for trivial amounts, but you won’t find mention of the large consumption of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) used in uranium enrichment since 1987. It seems to have been tactfully left unmentioned in UN documents that were meant to tout the victory and not allow the public to question the judgment that nuclear was clean and green enough to be given a pass on its ozone depleting emissions. Although no one wanted to draw attention to the exemptions, CFC pollution by the nuclear industry has long been an open secret, and it is not denied by the polluters themselves.

have built an atomic bomb while under Allied Forces bombardment. Essential facilities like this would have been impossible to hide.
The additional problem with CFCs is that, as well as being ozone depleters, they are said to trap heat 10,000 to 20,000 times more effectively than CO2. Thus the carbon footprint of nuclear energy (mining, processing, construction of plants, cooling of fuel, decommissioning of plants, decontamination, transport of waste, storage of waste) takes a huge increase when you consider the energy used to run the cooling systems and the impact of leaks of coolant. A 2004 report from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research described the recent history of American enrichment facilities this way:

"In addition to requiring a large amount of electricity during operation, the compressors in the gas diffusion facilities also generate a great deal of heat that requires dissipation. In U.S. plants this heat is dissipated through the use of ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) such as the coolant CFC-114 (often referred to simply as Freon or Freon-114). The manufacture, import, and use of CFCs were substantially restricted by the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, which the U.S. is implementing through the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act. As a result of these commitments, the manufacture of Freon in the U.S. ended in 1995 and its emissions to the air in the United States from large users fell by nearly 60% between 1991 and 2002. The emissions from the Paducah gaseous diffusion plant, however, have remained virtually constant over this time, falling just over 7% between 1989 and 2002. In 2002, the Paducah enrichment plant emitted more than 197.3 metric tons of Freon into the air through leaking pipes and other equipment. This single facility accounted for more than 55% of all airborne releases of this ozone depleting CFC from all large users in the entire United States in 2002. Due to the lack of additional manufacturing of Freon since 1995, the U.S. Enrichment Corporation [USEC] is currently looking for a non-CFC coolant to use. Likely candidates would still have heat trapping potential, and thus even if they were not as dangerous to the ozone layer, they would still remain a potential concern in relation to global warming and climate change."

-Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D., Lois Chalmers, Brice Smith, Ph.D. Uranium Enrichment: Just Plain Facts to Fuel an Informed Debate on Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Power. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. October 2004. http://ieer.org/resource/reports/uranium-enrichment/

Since this time, USEC, the corporation that leases and operates the government-owned enrichment facility in Paducah, has not denied this history, but they claim to be moving toward a solution:

"Project sponsor USEC Inc. intends the American Centrifuge Plant to replace its existing energy-intensive, Cold-War era production facility. This transition will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions related to USEC’s existing enrichment technology by millions of tons annually."

The downside of this new, less energy-intensive technology is that once it is no longer exclusively possessed by one country, nuclear fuel enrichment becomes more small-scale and concealable. The US government and USEC have responded to public pressure to reduce the environmental impact of uranium enrichment, but they have very strong incentives to not share this technology. The benefit of the old technology is that it is so energy intensive and hot that facilities are difficult to hide from IAEA inspections. If the new technology were used by anyone other than its self-appointed guardians, uranium enrichment could become accessible to “rogue” states and non-state entities. If the new technology really does mitigate an old problem, it just creates a new one with equally unsettling implications.
However, the really unsettling thing about this issue is what it shows about our system of global governance. The UN proudly proclaims the following on its webpage entitled “ozone day”:

"In 1994, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 16 September the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, commemorating the date of the signing, in 1987, of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (resolution 49/114). Implementation of the Montreal Protocol progressed well in developed and developing countries. All phase-out schedules were adhered to in most cases, some even ahead of schedule. In view of the steady progress made under the Protocol, already in 2003, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated, ‘Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol’. His views are shared widely in the international community."

By the standards of all other international agreements, perhaps the Montreal Protocol is the most successful, but in light of what we know about the exemptions granted for uranium enrichment, it is clear that such agreements are made behind closed doors in an undemocratic process that leaves electorates and citizens uninformed about the issues in question. No one asked you if you thought the nuclear industry should be exempt from restrictions on CFC use, and the UN made no effort after the fact to inform you of its decision.
The decision to grant these exemptions must have been based on the “realism” that holds that nuclear disarmament is not going to happen and that the global investments made in nuclear power plants cannot just be written off in order to quickly halt destruction of the ozone layer.
No doubt, the UN must have turned to its own promoter of nuclear energy, the IAEA, to quantify the overall carbon and ozone impact of nuclear energy. Unsurprisingly, the IAEA would conclude that in spite of the negative effects of nuclear energy, the overall harm would be greater if the world had to produce electricity by other means.
Of course, opponents of nuclear do their own calculations and argue that nuclear energy has a much greater carbon footprint and ozone effect than the nuclear industry cares to admit. The negatives accumulate if one also considers the costs passed on to future generations for decommissioning, waste storage, decontamination and liability for accidents. The nuclear industry claims that money has been put aside for decommissioning and waste storage, but it is likely that the costs are going to be much higher than what has been put aside.
The public wasn't involved in this discussion at all when the Montreal Protocol was signed, although it is an interesting question to wonder what large environmental NGOs consented to and agreed not to discuss when compromises were worked out.
We can see in hindsight that the Montreal Protocol could have gone a lot further. It could have disallowed the exemptions for uranium enrichment and turned the world away from nuclear energy. It was, after all, just one year after the Chernobyl catastrophe. Now, twenty-five years later, when alternative energy sources are finally being developed on a large scale, it is clear that action should have been taken sooner. As much as the Montreal Protocol was a success in mitigating the worst damage to the ozone layer, it was a failure for continuing to support nuclear energy while missing an opportunity to promote alternatives.
We know about the exemptions for uranium enrichment only because of the relatively open nature of the United States government and the culture of citizen activism there. Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom are the other known operators of enrichment facilities, but nothing seems to be published about their impact on global warming and the ozone layer, or what these countries are planning to do to limit the environmental damage.

UPDATE MAY, 2013: For an update on USEC, see Ecowatch's Countdown to Nuclear Ruin at Paducah. The federal government privatized the enrichment plant many years ago, and now that USEC has made as much money as it can, it is abandoning the toxic legacy for tax payers to deal with.

Further reading and notes:

  • "The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Paducah, Kentucky, is the only U.S.-owned uranium enrichment facility in the United States. Owned by the U.S. Department of Energy, it is leased and operated by the United States Enrichment Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of USEC Inc. The plant employs about 1,200 people and produces low-enriched uranium fuel for commercial nuclear power plants in the United States and around the world."
  • A good analysis of the claims made on both sides of the issue about of CFC use in uranium enrichment:
  • A response to anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott's “distortions,” apparently written by a loyal employee of USEC.
  • Understanding the Cleanup Process at Paducah’s Gaseous Diffusion Plant
  • A likely justification for allowing enrichment facilities to continue operations was so that they could afford to carry out downblending – the process of turning highly enriched uranium from decommissioned weapons into less enriched uranium for nuclear power plants. The existence of weapons grade uranium does not, however, mean that it must be used up in nuclear power plants if a nation has good reasons to produce its electricity by other means. Nuclear waste, regardless of its level of enrichment, can be disposed of in the same way that spent nuclear fuel is disposed of.
  • In the list above of other known operators of enrichment facilities, South Korea is not listed, even though it has adopted an energy policy of strong reliance on nuclear energy. It is curious that it would choose this policy while being utterly dependent on a foreign country continuing to operate enrichment facilities. This underlines the falsity of claims by some nations that they can achieve “energy independence” while becoming reliant on a form of energy that requires massive infrastructure investments, raw material imports, and other forms of energy for cooling and backup in case of accidents.
  • John Warrick. "Paducah Plant Spewed Plutonium." The Washington Post. October 1, 2000. "The unsigned maps, bearing a handwritten date of Aug. 26, 1999, show a plant ringed with contamination that extends in some cases for well over a mile. The diagrams also show elevated levels of plutonium in the Ohio River, about two miles north of the plant."
  • Jean Harrington. "Splitting the Atom." Scientific American. October 1939.
  • Pavel Podvig. "The Fallacy of the Megatons to Megawatts Program." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. July 23, 2008.
  • Geoffrey Sea, "Countdown to Nuclear Ruin at Paducah," Ecowatch, May 22, 2013.

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