I interviewed World War II veteran Walter Hooke at his home in New York State in 2002. I got to know him when he wrote to me supporting my idea of establishing a Truth Commission on the health and environmental damage done by nuclear weapons, including from their production and testing across the world — not only in the nuclear weapon states but other places like Polynesia, Algeria, Australia, Kazakhstan, and the Marshall Islands where weapons were tested and places like Congo and Namibia and Canada that supplied much of the uranium.
He was a concerned citizen in the very best sense of the term — his compassion and concern were global but he was specially worried about the United States. He was an activist for democracy, for equality, for workers rights, and for peace. He was among the US troops sent to occupy Nagasaki after that city had suffered an atomic bombing. He was posted there at the end of October 1945, more than two-and-a-half months after the August 9, 1945 bombing.
Nagasaki was not actually the intended target, but as it happened the target city, Kokura, had too little visibility; to its misfortune, Nagasaki had a break in the clouds and was destroyed. It wasn’t the first choice because it had already been bombed with other weapons. One of the Target Committee’s criteria for target selection was to bomb an in-tact city so the impact of the atom bomb could be evaluated more accurately.
“At the time everyone was relieved that the war was over,” he told me. “But once you saw what happened you wondered how you could do something like that.” He was referring to terrible destruction and suffering, of course.
“The first troops that went in the occupation went in on 22 September  and it was a lot worse then than in October. But in October there were still people walking around with their skin hanging. But we did not run into the terrible odors and everything. It was just an awful mess.”
Walter was very upset that General MacArthur had ordered the opening of “houses of prostituion”; he wrote a protest letter to Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal. He met and befriended Paul Yamaguchi, the Bishop of Nagasaki, which was demographically Japan’s most Christian city before the bombing. He “crawled all over” the destroyed cathedral to salvage things. Bishop Yamaguchi gave him a cross from that cathedral as a gift. He sent it home to his mother; it was eventually gifted to the Peace Resource Center of Wilmington College in Ohio. This year, 2019, the Director of that Center, Tanya Maus, returned that cross to the City of Nagasaki in an August 7 ceremony there. Walter died in 2010.
We had an extraordinary conversation. He mentioned his niece, Sister Megan Rice, who protested the training of Latin American military at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Two years after Walter’s death, Sister Rice was part of a three-person Plowshares group that broke into the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons complex and splashed blood on the Y-12 complex, the location for fabricating the uranium parts of nuclear weapons, as part of a non-violent protest.
On a broader note he wondered what had gone wrong in the United States after World War II. He thought World War II was fought for democracy; yet workers in the United States could not freely express their views. He thought “a lot of it takes off from the Manhattan Project” It was he said the marriage of “deep science and deep secrecy.”
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was mainly about oil — Indonesian oil. And oil is still in the center of global insecurity with climate disruption as an added danger; in fact, there is a lot of overlap in the cast of characters. First a few preliminaries on why I am saying that in the context of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Every August, on the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki U.S. public opinion divides sharply into two camps. One side, pointing to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the ferocity with which the Japanese militarists prosecuted the war, believes the atomic bombings were justified because they ended the war and saved half a million allied soldiers’ lives (as President Truman claimed in his memoir). The other, pointing to official statements, including that of General Leslie Groves, who directed the Manhattan Project, say the war was essentially over and the atomic bombings were essentially a message to the Soviets about the postwar world order in the context of a U.S. atomic monopoly. (The Soviets were U.S. allies in World War II; nonetheless, Groves had said “There was never from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this Project [in 1942] any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy” He further said that “The Project was conducted on that basis.” See A World Destroyed, p. 62.)
My own view of the bombings is somewhat more complex; it is laid out in an August 2012 talk I gave in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In this blog I want to explore the connections between events before Pearl Harbor and subsequent events including the atomic bombings. I do think that, when all is said and done, the bombings were unjustified even in a war in which all sides killed civilians in large numbers. The timing of their use is a critical factor. The atom bombs were used as soon as they were ready without waiting to see if the Japanese would surrender upon Soviet entry into the war. That this was likely to happen was a widely held view among the Allies, including by President Truman. The U.S. invasion of the main islands of Japan was not due to start till November 1, 1945. The bombings, of course, happened on August 6 and 9, 1945. The Soviets declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945.
Since about the start of the twentieth century Japan’s ambition was to become an imperialist global power, an Eastern counterpart of Britain, another island state and long a global imperialist power. Japan waged war on Russia and won. It conquered Korea.
But Japan had no oil. (Neither did Britain. But Britain, along with their Soviet allies had already invaded Iran in August 1941 to secure wartime oil supplies.) As is well known, oil had become central to modern war machines – for ships, tanks, aircraft….No oil, effectively meant no capacity for conquest on a continental scale.
The U.S. was at that time an oil exporter and a principal supplier to Japan. But as Japan expanded its war into China and Southeast Asian countries (themselves ruled by the French and the British until Japanese occupation), tensions with the United States rose. The United States itself nurtured Pacific region ambitions as evidenced by the conquest of the Philippines and the overthrow of the Hawaiian queen decades earlier. In mid-1940, the United States moved its Pacific fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. It also eventually embargoed oil exports to Japan.
The Japanese militarists now had a choice: they could occupy Indonesian oil fields and continue their conquest of China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia; or they could give up their imperialist ambitions. They chose the first course; the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor stood in the way. The United States had known that the fleet may be a target when it was moved — indeed, Admiral James O. Richardson was removed from command in February 1941 because he opposed the move, feeling the fleet would become vulnerable to attack. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel was installed in his place. Ironically, he had written in very the same month that “a surprise attack (submarine, air, or combined) on Pearl Harbor is a possibility…” He said he would take steps to “minimize damage” make the attacker “pay.” He, in turn, was relieved of his post ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
It is one of the bizarre facts of history and a commentary on that time that the casus belli in 1941 was the United States trying to prevent Japan from getting at Indonesian oil, when Indonesia was a Dutch colony and Holland itself was occupied by the Nazis.
President Roosevelt made the decision to pursue the atomic bomb with vigor on October 9, 1941, almost two months before Pearl Harbor. Einstein, like many other scientists, did not want Hitler to have a monopoly of the bomb, which is why he wrote to President Roosevelt in 1939 recommending a bomb project. But that project had been languishing in the backwaters of war research until a British scientific effort, organized as the MAUD Committee, concluded in mid-1941 that a uranium bomb was feasible. At about the same time, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union; the Nazis advanced with stunning speed.
Vannevar Bush, an MIT engineering professor and Vice-President, was the head of the Roosevelt White House’s Office of Science and Technology Development. He was in charge of critical wartime military R&D well before the United States entered World War II in December 1941. One of his goals was to make sure that the scientific and technological efforts of the United States during World War II were available for use during that war. Until mid-1941 he had been more interested in radar than the atom bomb. But once he made up his mind about the bomb, he convinced Roosevelt to commit vast resources to it. The die was cast. If it worked, he would help ensure the bomb was used in World War II.
Preventing a Nazi atom bomb monopoly and nuclear blackmail had been a principal reason, and for many the only reason, to develop a U.S. atom bomb. But sights soon turned eastward. The first official discussion of an atomic bomb target was held by the Military Policy Committee of the Manhattan Project, on May 5, 1943. The Committee was headed by Vannevar Bush. His deputy was James Conant, the President of Harvard University. Groves was a member. On that date, they decided to not target Germany. They were nervous that if the bomb was a dud, Germany might reverse engineer it and use it. Germany’s expertise in matters nuclear was well-known; indeed the first fission reaction was the result of an experiment in Germany in 1938. While many brilliant German and other European physicists had emigrated to Britain and the United States, the Germans still had Werner Heisenberg, known worldwide as one of the most brilliant in an age of brilliant physicists.
The target would be the Japanese fleet based at the island of Truk in the Pacific Ocean, the Committee decided on May 5, 1943; if the bomb were a dud it would sink. Bush had already made a similar decision in relation to the “proximity fuze” — which could be called the first smart bomb. Bombs carrying the fuze were not to be used over enemy territory to prevent reverse engineering. It is a testament to Vannevar Bush’s power that, until the Battle of the Bulge at the end of 1944, they were not.
As confidence rose that the bomb would work, Japan itself became the target. In September 1944 Churchill and Roosevelt discussed the possible use of the bomb against the Japanese. Despite much research, I have found no document specifying targets in Germany or any documentation after May 5, 1943 about preparations to use the atom bomb in the European theater. Groves, in preparing Secretary of War Stimson for his late April 1945 briefing of the newly installed President Truman, wrote that “The target is and was always expected to be Japan”.
There is more to the story of course, as I recounted in my August 2012 talk. Suffice it to say here, as we struggle to create a fossil-fuel-free world and as the U.S., British, Iranian nuclear crisis heats up, that oil, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are part of a deadly, tangled dance that is not yet over.
My friend Hank is involved with a summer science program that he attended and loved many years (decades) ago. He apparently posted something on the group’s FB page recently suggesting there is no viable plan for storage of nuclear waste and got this response (in part):
“We’ve known how to effectively destroy nuclear waste for fifty years, and refuse to do it. Read “Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste” in December 2005 Scientific American. Read “Plentiful Energy” by Charles E. Till and Yoon Il Chang….The stuff we call “nuclear waste” is actually valuable 5%-used fuel — 5% fission products and 95% future fuel. Future fuel needs custody for 300,000 years, which is madness to contemplate. Fission products, unseparated, need custody for 300 years — a trivial problem….. Of course, the American energy economy won’t be all nuclear, so the amount would be less. I don’t foresee a breakthrough in storage, so the options are nuclear, coal, and gas — if firm power is desired. Take your choice.”
Sigh. This is one of the claims that keeps on coming back. But here’s one thing (almost) right in it:
Pressurized light water reactor spent fuel is about 93% U-238, which is not a fuel but which can potentially be turned into plutonium, which is; about 1% U-235, which is fissile, and about 1% plutonium, which can be used as fuel (mostly). The rest is fission products though there are also some minor actinides: neptunium-237 (half-life 2.14 million years) and americium-241 (half-life 432 years).
To convert non-fuel U-238 to Pu-239 fuel you need a “breeder reactor,” which produces more fuel than it uses, the nuclear dream. Alvin Weinberg, nuclear physicist and inventor at Oak Ridge National Lab, called it a “magical energy source” that would need a priesthood to guard the waste and the bomb-usable fissile material — he famously called this the “Faustian bargain”).
The sodium-cooled reactor is an efficient breeder reactor in that it produces excess plutonium in a shorter time than other types of breeders. Roughly $100 billion has been spent globally over nearly seven decades to try to commercialize it. The International Panel on Fissile Materials did a good global survey of the technology in 2010. In fact, two of the most recent demonstration sodium-cooled breeders (Superphenix in France and Monju and Japan) were among the worst operating of the lot; they are both shut. Some sodium-cooled breeders have operated well, others with problems and yet others have had accidents (like Monju) and/or been failures (like Superphenix, with a lifetime capacity factor of about 7 percent — one half to one-fourth of a typical solar installation, depending on where it is). In other words after $100 billion, it is still not commercial. Not that the French and Japanese have given up. They are working on the “ASTRID Project” – target opening date is in the 2030s. If successful, it would be the 2040s and 2050s before they could be deployed in significant numbers. Got time to solve the CO2 problem?
Even if they worked reliably and consistently from one reactor to the next, sodium-cooled breeders are more expensive than current light water reactors, which, in turn are ~2 times the cost of wind and solar. Then there are the proliferation concerns. We currently have more separated commercial bomb-usable plutonium in the commercial sector than in all the nuclear weapons in all nuclear weapon states combined, enough for ~30,000 bombs or more. In addition, reprocessing, needed to recover the extra plutonium and fabricate fuel from it, is also costly and dirty. The French (at La Hague) and British (at Sellafield) reprocessing plants have polluted the oceans all the way to the Arctic and caused neighboring governments to ask them to stop the discharges of radioactive liquids into the seas.
The theory behind it and the gleam in the nuclear engineers’ eyes in the 1950s was this could make non-fuel U-238 (99.3% of natural uranium) into fuel. Uranium was thought to be scarce, and this would give us an inexhaustible energy source for hundreds of thousands of years. But uranium turned out to be plentiful and cheap – it is a small part of the cost of nuclear power. So the economic rationale was gone.
And now solar and wind are much cheaper than nuclear. My hour-by-hour modeling shows that solar plus wind can provide reliable supply at affordable cost, using a balanced solar and wind portfolio, storage, demand response with a smart grid, and peaking generation using hydrogen made when there is no other use for solar and wind electricity. See my 2016 report, Prosperous, Renewable Maryland. Moreover, storage is not needed until solar and wind penetration reaches a much higher level than at present. Costs of storage have come down. A recent commercial solicitation in Arizona for meeting peak load resulted in solar plus battery storage beating out natural gas turbines. The idea that nuclear is needed is as obsolete as the technology. The plutonium in existing waste is just 1% of the spent fuel and hard to separate. It can’t be used to make bombs if it is left there. We don’t have to make a Faustian bargain to have reliable, clean and affordable electricity.
People got too excited based on the physics; but that’s just the starting point. The technology has to work consistently; it has to be affordable; and its other attributes should not pose dire risks — like CO2 from fossil fuels or plutonium from breeders. Every commercial nuclear reactor, ~1,000 MWe, produces about 30 bombs worth of plutonium each year, if separated from spent fuel. Nuclear, in the end, is making plutonium just to boil water.
The 300-year waste claim is wrong. I-129 is one of the fission products: half-life ~16 million years; it is one of the more troublesome ones for a repository. Then there is Cs-135: half-life 2.3 million years; and technetium-99: half life — 212,000 years. In addition there are the above-mentioned minor actinides.
There is another breeder reactor that has many fans: the Liquid-Fueled Thorium Reactor (LFTR). It is promoted by a set of folks who feel very cheated that this approach (Alvin Weinberg’s brainchild) was rejected in favor of the sodium-cooled breeder in the late 1960s or early 1970s. In my view, the LFTR is the most proliferation prone of the various breeder approaches in that it could lead to more countries having the capability to acquire nuclear-weapons-usable material with less difficulty than other approaches to breeders. For one thing the separation plant for the fissile material (in this case uranium-233) would be located at every reactor. The precursor of U-233, protactinium-233, has a half-life of 27 days. Thus, it is available for chemical separation for much longer than the precursor of plutonium-239 (neptunium-239, half-life 2.4 days). Chemical separation of Pa-233 would yield bomb usable U-233 after the Pa-233 decays.
While nuclear-weapon states like the United States or Russia would not go through the bother, an aspiring nuclear weapon state might be tempted to separate Pa-233 and acquire weapons-usable U-233. Policing would be difficult, since there would be so many reprocessing plants (if this reactor comes into widespread use). The fission products are in fluoride form, which poses more difficult long-term management challenges than the oxide form of current spent fuel. A pilot LFTR reactor, 8 megawatts thermal was built at Oak Ridge. It operated reasonably well but was never used to generate electricity or to make more fissile material — that wasn’t the purpose. It cost much less than $100 million in today’s dollars. The decommissioning is estimated to cost north of $400 million — this for a reactor that was about a quarter of one percent the size of a commercial nuclear power plant (~3,300 MW thermal, or ~1,000 MW-electrical). See a debate I did on Science Friday with a proponent and make up your own mind.
You were essentially right — there is no good solution for the problem of spent fuel. The least bad approach to long-term management is disposal in a suitably designed geologic isolation system (the National Academies did an excellent report on this in 1983). It would also be sensible if we would transition to renewable energy so we are not burdening future generations even more with the waste from our economic activities.
The tests at Bikini in July 1946 were the coming out party for the atom bomb. Operation Crossroads began just two weeks after the United States presented the so-called Baruch plan to control the Bomb: The U.S. would give up its weapons only after it was sure no one else had them (or any other “weapon adaptable to mass destruction”). The United States would have the veto-free right to punish anyone that it thought was cheating. Operation Crossroads demonstrated what the “condign punishments” administered by the U.S. might look like, as up close and personal as a bomb explosion would permit.
The U.S. Pacific fleet was there along with 42,000 armed forces personnel. There were US and foreign dignitaries and journalists to report on the proceedings. But it was no tropical picnic for the armed forces personnel. Col. Stafford Warren noted with dismay the “hairy-chested approach” of many naval officers to the “unseen hazard” of radiation. In that spirit, after the first test (Test Able), 18-year-old sailor, John Smitherman, and others were ordered to fight a fire on one of the target ships that were stationed in the lagoon to assess the effects of the bomb. Afterwards, to cool off, he (and others) jumped into Bikini lagoon; He did not know and no one told him hat the lagoon was intensively radioactive, especially due to activated sodium (sodium-24), a powerful beta-emitter. He died in 1983 of lymphatic system cancer, a signature cancer of such exposure. The Veterans Administration repeatedly denied his claims that his illness was connected to his service.
The second test, Test Baker, was a more generalized radiological disaster. The bomb was under a barge; the explosion sent a million tons of radioactive spray into the air. Smitherman experienced some of the fallout. The ships of the fleet were taken into Bikini lagoon; all were contaminated.
The risks of significant exposure were widespread, from sailors scrubbing decks to meat being washed with contaminated seawater. There were no instruments to measure plutonium in the field. Yet even decades later, in the early 1980s, the Defense Department claimed that internal exposure was insignificant.
A study, I did with David Albright on the radiological conditions at Bikini (initiated by my friend Bob Alvarez) was presented to the House Veterans Affairs Committee by Karl Z. Morgan, who was present at Operation Crossroads. He was one of the founders of the discipline of health physics — assessing the risks of radiation to health. The study was based on the documents from the archive of the Chief of Radiological Safety during the tests, Col. Stafford Warren. The documents were brought to Bob and by Anthony Guarisco, who was a veteran of the 1946 Bikini tests.
The report created quite a stir in part because the director of the Defense Nuclear Agency testified that he was not aware of the Stafford Warren documents. In effect, the government had come to its conclusions that Smitherman’s cancer, and those of so many other atomic veterans, were not related to their service without consulting the data of the chief of radiological safety at Bikini. Subsequently, in 1990, the US government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to compensate armed forces personnel who participated in atmospheric testing, among others (including uranium miners and certain “downwinders” who lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site).
Operation Crossroads tragically established a pattern of all nuclear weapon states harming their own people in the name of national security — and doing so without informed consent. In fact, General Groves, who oversaw the making of the bomb during the Manhattan Project was fearful of claims being filed by participants in the Bikini tests.
My dear friend Bill Mitchell died on 25th May: a grievous loss for his family and friends as well as for all those who care about the Earth and about democracy. The story of Bill’s profound impact on my life and on the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research is a story really worth recounting as an example of the immense impact his life and work had on millions, yes millions, for remembering that we are again in the midst of rising nuclear dangers in the name of national security, and, not least, for describing the most extraordinary man he was.
As the Cold War began to thaw in the mid-1980s, Bill had the idea of bringing together democracy and environmental activists concerned about the dangers posed by Hanford (in Washington State), where the plutonium for the 1945 Nagasaki bomb and for much of the U.S. Cold War nuclear arsenal had been produced. Dark secrets lay there: tanks with liquid highly radioactive waste at risk of exploding; plutonium-laden waste dumped in open trenches; a 1949 experimental release of intensely radioactive iodine-131, known as the “Green Run”….Similar risks lurked throughout the country in the nuclear weapons complex owned by the U.S. government and operated with complete immunity from liability by multinational corporations, like DuPont and General Electric, and universities, with the University of California the most prominent among them.
His inspiration was to bring together community leaders from the places most directly affected by nuclear weapons production and testing. The demand for information about what the weapons made in the name of national security were doing to the land, water and people was simple enough. Nuclear weapons are by their nature antithetical to democracy. As (then) Deputy Secretary of Energy, W. Henson Moore, said in 1989, nuclear weapons production had been “a secret operation not subject to laws…no one was to know what was going on….[T]he way we’ve [the government and its contractors] operated these plants in the past…was: This is our business, it’s national security, everybody else butt out.” (as quoted in the Washington Post, 17 June 1989).
The notion that the public should “butt out” of activities that were laying land and water to waste, while endangering the very public the government claimed to protect was offensive to Bill and the core of activists who founded the Nuclear Safety Campaign that went on to become the Military Production Network (MPN), now known as the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, (ANA).
Information about and accountability for the environmental and health impacts of nuclear weapons production and testing was at the center of MPN’s demands. The people who were being harmed in the name of national security had a right to know. A claim of national security was not enough.
Bill Mitchell, Sharon Carlsen, Tim Connor, Lisa Crawford, and others began to expose the chamber of nuclear weapons establishment horrors. It was the U.S. version of the glasnost that was taking hold in the Soviet Union in the Gorbachev era. Through demands for and analyses of environmental impact statements, Freedom of Information requests, and savvy outreach to Congress and the media, the Military Production Network fostered a startling public awareness: the nuclear weapons complex was, first of all, hurting the very people it was supposed to protect. Under cover of national security and the demand that everybody but the government and its contractors “butt out,” the nuclear weapons establishment had been polluting the land and rivers of patriotic stories and songs, while conducting experiments without informed consent on its own people.
But the most remarkable thing about Bill Mitchell and the Military Production Network was this: the microphone was in the hands of the leaders and activists who were from the communities where the nuclear weapons plants were located. Bill Mitchell never put himself out front. He never was the principal speaker at a press conference. He was never the spokesperson quoted in news releases. On the contrary, he was always in the background.
It would have been easy to be otherwise. After all, Bill was the strategic inspiration of the enterprise, its co-founder, and its chief fundraiser. But there was something in his nature that was profoundly democratic. He never thought of it as ceding control. It came naturally that Lisa Crawford, who lived near the Fernald plant in Ohio that processed half a million tons of uranium and who was directly affected through pollution of the well from which she unknowingly used water for years, was one of the people who was front and center. And so were many other community leaders and activists. Bill’s stewardship of the group consisted in the empowerment of the grassroots activists and the groups who were directly affected
Bill was at the center of creating that most unusual of organizations that has had influence in Washington. MPN’s reins were not in the hands of some central, inside-the-Beltway office. They were firmly in the hands of strong community leaders who knew their minds and developed friendship and respect that results in a most remarkable accomplishment.
I was privileged to be a part of this, with IEER providing technical analysis and support as well as technical training workshops for community leaders that become the highlight of my professional year, each year for many years. The work that Bill began was at the center of my professional life for nearly two decades. It continues to inspire me.
By the mid-1990s, under relentless pressure to justify new weapons production when it was clear that there were already too many nuclear bombs, to clean up the mess already made, to explain how human radiation experiments could have happened, to put the estimates of cancers and deaths caused by nuclear testing fallout throughout the country, most of the production facilities in the nuclear weapons complex were shut. That included the plutonium and tritium production reactors, the Hanford plutonium separation plant, the Rocky Flats plant where thousands of plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were manufactured on an assembly line, the Fernald uranium processing plant, and many others.
The idea of accountability to the people by the nuclear weapons establishment had spread to the former Soviet Union. Grassroots collaborations between U.S. and Russian community activists were established. The Soviet nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk was closed. Nuclear testing was ended by the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and China. The United States, under pressure from ANA, made public a National Cancer Institute study on fallout that estimated that between 11,000 and 212,000 thyroid cancers would be caused by atmospheric testing in Nevada alone; those tests ended in 1962.
Not that the nuclear weapons complex gave up. Even as thousands of weapons were being declared surplus for security requirements in the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Energy was promoting plans for a spanking new nuclear weapons complex, called Complex 21. MPN/ANA made sure it was not to be.
The legacy of that shutdown of key facilities in the nuclear weapons weapons complex, notably Rocky Flats, is of immense significance today as tensions, including nuclear tensions, rise between Russia and the United States. The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability is among the groups pointing to the folly of the proposed 30-year trillion dollar “upgrade” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, aka the “Trillion Dollar Trainwreck”.
The work of the community activists and leaders is as important as ever, perhaps more so in the context of the climate crisis, where international cooperation to solve the problem is critical. Bill’s legacy lives on in rising demands worldwide for accountability and democracy; it has expanded to nuclear disarmament and to addressing the climate crisis without resorting to nuclear power plants.
But for me, the most important legacy of Bill’s life and work at least in the arena I know best was the humility, modesty, and fidelity to the principles of democracy with which he conducted himself when he conceived, launched and coordinated the Military Production Network. We need him sorely today. I hope we can take inspiration from the brilliant and principled way in which Bill Mitchell lived, and loved, and gave of himself.
Bob Schaeffer of Public Policy Communications, a long-time adviser to IEER and to MPN/ANA, helped with this remembrance of our mutual friend Bill.
May 5, 1943 is one of the most important dates, and possibly the least known, in the history of the nuclear age. It was the date when the first atomic bomb targeting decision was made — a full two years before the end of World War II in Europe.
The Military Policy Committee, the ultra-secret Manhattan Project’s de facto executive committee met that day to review progress. It also made the first decision regarding the use of the bomb: it should be used so it would land in water if it turned out to be a dud. And Germany would not be targeted; it would be the Japanese, who it was felt “would not be so apt to secure knowledge from it as would the Germans” (quote from a summary of the May 5 meeting). [After all, one of the world’s greatest physicists, Werner Heisenberg, was living in Nazi Germany.] So the Japanese fleet at the Pacific island of Truk was selected as the first target of the bomb; it met the criteria.
Later, in the fall of 1944, when scientists were certain that the uranium bomb would work, planning began for the use of the bomb on Japan. It was helped by the fact that Saipan had been conquered by July 9, 1944; Japan could be directly bombed from there using B-29 bombers. As Groves stated when he briefed the newly installed President Truman in April 1945, “The target is and was always expected to be Japan.”
Many of Manhattan Project’s scientists were European Jews motivated by a fear of a Nazi atomic monopoly. Ironically, they were completely unaware that Germany had been ruled out as a target two years before the war in Europe ended.
When the US atomic spy mission, called Alsos, confirmed in early December 1944 that Germany had no viable bomb project, the project was not stopped; rather it was accelerated. Joseph Rotblat was the only Project scientist who left at that time; he was to win a Nobel Peace Prize for that and later efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Decades later, the great physicist, Richard Feynmann, wondered why he had continued work and not thought about the fact that the purpose of the Project had been accomplished when the war in Europe ended.
A very real and reasonable fear of a Nazi nuclear monopoly had been central to Einstein’s recommendation that President Roosevelt initiate an atomic bomb project. Apparently no one thought to ask what might occur if the United States wound up with the atomic monopoly. The answer came, of course, on August 6 and August 9, 1945 when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated.
Like many I have concluded that the bombings were unjustified, though that is an opinion far from universally held. But some of my reasons may surprise you. I explained them in a talk I gave in Santa Fe in 2012, entitled From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima.
A 31-page accord on climate, the Paris Agreement, was adopted on 12 December 2015, and endorsed by acclamation by 195 countries, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at their 21st meeting (COP21). The achievement of universality was remarkable and historic because, for the first time, developing countries also committed to taking action to prevent climate disaster. The rich countries reaffirmed that there are differential responsibilities — code for their far greater contribution to the problem of climate disruption.
Another truly remarkable thing was the skill with which the small island states, like the Marshall Islands, and their supporters navigated the waters where the Exxons and Saudi Arabias of the world sail. They led COP21 to an accord that seeks to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” (Article 2). The slogan was “one-point-five to survive.” Anything more would mean their destruction by rising oceans — along with so many other coastal communities and lands from Bangladesh to Shanghai to Miami and Mumbai. Hundreds of millions would be displaced at 2°C, the previous average temperature rise limit agreed to in climate negotiations. Take a look at the excellent The New York Times illustration of Chinese cities now, with 2°C temperature rise, and with a 4°C rise.
The 1.5°C limit implies an end to the large scale destruction of forests; Article 5 begins to address the issue. It would require leaving most oil and gas and coal in the ground: fossil fuels would become like stones after the Stone Age — obsolete. While essential for Mother Nature and people generally, millions of workers would lose their jobs. A just transition for them and the communities they live in was an option in Article 2 of the draft going into COP21; it was relegated to the preamble in the final document, as were “obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity…” (p. 21). But the words are still there, inviting action. In addition, there was acknowledgement of the need for “gender balance” and that the knowledge of indigenous people would be valuable in adaptation.
Critically, the substance of the commitments, if they can be called that, are not remotely up to the task of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C. Indeed, there are no legally binding targets at all. Instead there are highly inadequate, voluntary “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) imply roughly a 3°C rise, double the 1.5°C target. Remember: damage would rise far faster than average temperature.
To keep temperature rise to less than 2°C, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), in its Mitigation Report, estimated that CO2-equivalent (CO2eq) concentrations would have to be limited to 450 parts per million (ppm) by the year 2100 (pp. 8-10). It means emissions 40 to 70 percent below 2010 by 2050 and “near or below zero” in 2100 (pp. 10, 12; italics added). That would make it likely that the temperature rise would be less than 2°C; the chance that it would suffice for 1.5°C? Just 16 percent with a likely overshoot above that in mid-century (Figure 6-13, p. 439). The IPCC also noted in its summary explicitly addressed to policy makers that “Only a limited number of studies have explored scenarios that are more likely than not to bring temperature change back to below 1.5°C by 2100 relative to pre-industrial levels; these scenarios bring atmospheric concentrations to below 430 ppm CO2eq by 2100.” (p. 16, emphasis in the original) Below 430 ppm! The world was already at 430 ppm CO2eq (including all greenhouse gases) in 2011; we are at more than that now.
The breathtaking scale of this task is not evident in the Paris Agreement, though it does express “serious concern” about “the significant gap” between the INDCs and the ambition. Only it’s not just a significant gap; it’s a Himalayan crevasse. It seems reasonably clear that for a reasonable chance of limiting the temperature to 1.5°C, global emissions would have to go to zero well before 2100. Considering differentiated responsibilities, rich countries would have to get to essentially zero emissions by about 2050 or before.
The Paris Agreement has provisions for countries to strengthen their commitments to reduce emissions and for five year reviews. The first review will be in 2018 (“facilitative dialogue…to take stock”, p. 4). A high priority task, if we are serious about 1.5°C, would be to get zero emissions in the energy sector for rich countries by 2050 (at the latest) on the agenda for that dialogue. Global justice requires at least that. Energy justice within countries will need to be addressed too. For the United States, I suggest that the energy burdens of low-income households be capped at 6 percent, considered an affordable level. We’ve done a study detailing that for Maryland, it also explores how to provide universal solar energy access. They are more essential now both for economic justice and climate goals.
Presumably, the $100 billion a year that the rich countries promise to provide by 2020 and thereafter (pp. 16-17) would partly make up for the constraining the carbon space of those who did not contribute much to creating the problem. In fact, while recognizing that countries and peoples are already experiencing “loss and damage”, the Paris Agreement flatly states that the article covering such losses “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” (p. 8) The accord lacks a vital tool: teeth.
There is one bad element, a carryover from the Kyoto Protocol. Article 6 of the Paris Agreement would allow international offsets (“cooperative approaches that involve the use of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes towards nationally determined contributions”). This means that some countries (likely rich ones) could continue to pollute while claiming that others are doing more than their share or storing carbon in some way, for instance in soil or trees (likely poor ones). It is a giant loophole with potential for serious corruption as well.
The Paris Agreement is a good start, especially in that it sets forth a temperature goal and commits all parties to act, with differentiated responsibilities for the rich. Most of the needed words are there; however, they are, for the most part, weak. To give them effect and keep most fossil fuels in the ground will take the global equivalent of the movement that stopped the Keystone Pipeline. Yet, the agreement could be a solid beginning: it has created immense organizing energy. The work of keeping fossil fuels in the ground has already begun, among others by 350.org, the group that led the huge and diverse Keystone struggle.
We will also need national and local roadmaps for efficiency and renewable energy, transportation, and sustainable agriculture (a large source of greenhouse gas emissions). That vision will need to be broad. For instance, it will need include the cooking energy needs of hundreds of millions of families who now cook with wood, cow-dung, and crop residues. Women and children die in the millions each year of respiratory diseases; and black-carbon (soot) emissions contribute to global warming.
The world already has more than one billion petroleum fueled cars — it is headed to 2 billion by 2030. That is incompatible with the Paris Agreement. Transportation will need to be revolutionized — and electrified — with electrified public transport much more in the center of things and all types of transportation running on renewable energy. Paris should be an inspiration for a walkable city with wonderful public transport.
We will need roadmaps, created with public input, for productively investing and spending the $100 billion-a-year, and intense pressure to ensure at least that much money is forthcoming and that it is well spent and that it creates good jobs for workers in the fossil fuel sectors now.
At bottom, 1.5°C is about reshaping a world created by imperialist-drawn borders, often with oil at the center, and a hundred years of wars — still going on — into one that is ecologically sane, peaceful, and economically just. Remember Syria and Iraq (among others) were essentially created by Britain and France after World War I. Actually achieving a limit of 1.5°C will mean taking the tiger out of Exxon’s tank and putting it into the Paris Agreement. It may well be a perilous exercise in itself. But it is one that is essential — it is the one-point-five imperative.
“Deep science and deep secrecy”: An interview with a Nagasaki veteran about the aftermath of the Manhattan Projecct
Walter Hooke, Nagasaki veteran, civil rights, democracy, and labor activist
29 June 2001
Makhijani: I am writing a book that will inquire about democracy and openness and science in the nuclear weapons complex. It is about the quality of the science on the bomb making side compared or contrasted to that on the health and environmental side. What are the reasons for the difference? The book will go into the question of democracy and harm without informed consent to some extent – the issue that you wrote me about. You are the first veteran I am interviewing for my book. Tell me a little about yourself before World War II.
Hooke: I was 29 when I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I was in Class III-A, which was exempt because I was the sole support of my mother. My father died in 1936. My brothers and sisters were married. I didn’t have to get involved but I got carried away about the Nazis and all and so I enlisted. I was doing labor relations for SH Kress. They had variety stores up and own the East Coast and on the West Coast and they had union and I handled their labor relations. I enlisted in 1942 in December. I was sent to boot camp in Parris Island. Then I went to Quantico to work in the office and I requested a transfer to the fourth division and on August 1, 1943 I went to North Carolina to join the 4th Division. I was with them until about April of 1944 when I was sent back to go to officer’s school and went to Quantico and officers training. After that I was assigned to Camp Pendleton as an instructor and the fact that I had been overseas they assumed I knew everything. I was a replacement in the Fifth Division after Iwo Jima. I was out there in the Pacific with the Fourth Division and the Fifth Division. Because I was older I had supervisory jobs of loading ships and jobs like that. I was in the Pacific twice.
I was with outfits that saw action but I personally didn’t. The Fifth Division was part of the planned invasion of Kyushu and for the occupation they took the units in training for that invasion, which was to have been in November of 1945, and made them temporary occupation forces after the Japanese surrender. We landed in Kyushu at the end of Sept 1945. I was an S4 officer for the battalion during the occupation. An S4 officer is in charge of supplies and getting the equipment to move people, trains etc. I got some kind of commendation, a kind of nice letter from the general.
We moved around Kyushu. The job was taking Japanese military equipment as part of the surrender. Towards the end of October I was sent over to Nagasaki to work over there. I was there until the first of February.
Makhijani: What was the state of Nagasaki at the time?
Hooke: The first troops that went in the occupation went in on 22 September and it was a lot worse then than in October. But in October there were still people walking around with their skin hanging. But we did not run into the terrible odors and everything. It was just an awful mess.
I had met the bishop of Nagasaki as we had a joint service of the Japanese Priests and Marine Chaplains. His church was blown up. It is famous in pictures that were taken after the bombing. They [the Japanese authorities during the war] took all the Christian ministers — if they were young they made them coal miners, and the old, they made them administrators. Bishop Paul Yamaguchi was not in Nagasaki but his mother and sister died in the bombing. I spent a lot of time with him. I met Dr.Takashi Nagai who wrote The Bells of Nagasaki. He had a hospital right near the bomb area and treated hundreds of casualties. He himself died from injuries and cancer in 1951. I drove the Bishop to visit him in a USMC Jeep on one occasion.
I got quite involved with the whole thing. Veterans were quite pleased with the bombing because they didn’t have to invade. I was with the unit that was to be part of the invasion so we were glad but when you got there it was different. The invasion was to be in November. But the war may have been over by then.
At the time everyone was relieved that the war was over. But once you saw what happened you wondered how you could do something like that. Incidentally the bishop thought that Japan was largely responsible. The bishop said that he and people of his caliber said once Saipan fell they knew they would lose the war. That would have been early 1945.
Makhijani: Has that view persisted? Over the years it seems to have become a more one-sided idea that the U.S. was solely responsible for the bombing.
Hooke: Yes that’s so. More and more people seem to think that.
Makhijani: Why is that so? There were, after all, Japanese generals who did not want to surrender after two bombs.
Hooke: That’s so. But we don’t know what would have happened. I’ve read the whole story. But once they agreed to maintain the emperor things calmed down. Once we got there we had no trouble with the Japanese. Once they got the word from the emperor or however it went thought their chain of command that was it. Turning over the weapons was just routine. We had more trouble with the Korean laborers. There is so much speculation. Everyone I knew was thrilled the minute the war ended. We even had the transports available. They had everything lined up for the November invasion.
Makhijani: Were there a lot of people who started having second thoughts after they saw Nagasaki?
Hooke: I don’t think so. Most of them were anxious to get home.
Makhijani: Did you advocate disarmament as a result of your experience?
Hooke: I would say from the early 1950s. I was interested in the United Nations Association. Early on I was involved in the UN and the need for it. The futility of the whole thing that we had been through. There had to be a better way. I was into reading the social doctrines of the Catholic Church. I was interested before I went in on the labor encyclicals. So I picked up that when I got out.
Makhijani: Was that why you were a labor representative?
Hooke: In 1935 I was part of labor’s nonpartisan league. It was part of the 1936 campaign for Roosevelt. Growing up in NYC in the depression and seeing everything it was sort of natural to become interested in workers, and to this day I still am and keep in touch with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and in 1936 I was involved in trying to bring democracy to the waterfront unions. When it spilled over into the other I don’t know.
Makhijani: Democracy seems to be the constant theme in your life.
Hooke: Yeah. I even gave up a couple of good jobs. I gave up a job at Sears even though I had a young family because of some unfair things they did. I was at UPS, which began using me as a consultant. They needed to get in conformance with the Civil Rights Act and I was deeply involved in the civil rights stuff, NAACP, even though I was doing management work. I set up a whole program for UPS, how they would hire a diverse work force, minorities and women. They still have one of the programs I set up [which involved] sending managers to poor areas. They’ve made a documentary about it. My main interest has always been labor and civil rights. I have never been really involved with peaceniks. I tried to get involved but I found they were the most hostile groups — they always seemed to fight each other. I got involved with the atomic veterans in 1972 or 1973.
When I got out of the Marines I was offered a commission in the reserves, but I refused it. But I stayed in touch with my unit. I got something in the mail [in the 1970s] about Marines from Nagasaki bulldozer operators and they felt they got their cancers over there and I got involved with them. When I retired in 1978, I met Dorothy Legaretta through the Catholic Worker and the farm workers. Dorothy had worked at Livermore. She invited me to a NAAV [National Association of Atomic Veterans] meeting in Las Vegas. She got thyroid cancer as a result of her exposure as a young woman. That’s how she got involved in it.
Makhijani: You said the subversion of democracy became routine after World War II. How do you think that happened?
Hooke: It was just a hunch. I guess it became a way of life [for the U.S. government], starting with the atomic bomb and the CIA. We had really deep science and really deep secrets combined. I read a lot about it, people like John Gofman, and about the groups of scientists who opposed the atomic bomb.
I was always upset by the way they [the U.S. government] treated the [American] troops in Nagasaki. They sent really young kids who were on the front line. I was not on the front line, but I knew a lot of them. I always felt they were good enough to go to Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima and then they were sent to Nagasaki and not a word was said to them about anything. They’d change tires and put their hands in their mouths. We had an atomic ball game they played it at ground zero. John Gofman said it was probably the safest place since it had the least fallout! They drank water from the Nagasaki reservoir. Young guys were invited to homes and ate the local food.
I also had quite a hassle in another area. The group I was involved with was a kind of monastic-like [group], several of them were Catholics. We were very upset when MacArthur issued an order opening the houses of prostitution. I got into trouble for sending a letter to Forestall. I collected signatures but our chaplain wouldn’t sign it. I couldn’t figure out why at the time, but I think he wanted to stay in the Navy. He retired after 30 years in the Navy. It was things like that I always seemed to get involved in.
Makhijani: So you were a troublemaker.
Hooke: No, not really. But I cared. We were supposed to be a Christian nation. And we were allowing patronage by our troops of houses of prostitution.
Makhijani: He issued an order to open it?
Hooke: Yes, in October 1945. It was signed by MacArthur as Supreme Commander. You were not supposed to go to local homes because they were short of food and the geisha houses were closed. You were not supposed have contact since they did not have food. Then there was this written order opening up the geisha houses. I did not retain that correspondence and order.
Carole [Gallagher] and others have scolded me many times – I never keep anything. I might have some reference to it. It was quite an issue and we were very upset about it. It was okay for the troops to go to then [after the order].
Makhijani: What did you know about radiation at the time?
Hooke: Nothing. Not one thing. No warning, no word, nothing. I crawled all over that cathedral to salvage things. The bishop gave me a wooden cross and I sent it home to my mother. She was afraid of it and she’d read about radiation and she put it in the closet.
Makhijani: So your mother was the first one in your family to be aware of radiation?
Hooke: Yes. That cross is now in Wilmington Ohio now at the Quaker College there which has a Hiroshima-Nagasaki peace museum located in the Pyle Center.
Makhijani: World War II was supposed to be about freedom and so on. Where did it go wrong?
Hooke: I believed that. I even thought World War II was about workers so they could express their freedom. I don’t know. To me a lot of it takes off from the Manhattan Project. And the secrecy. From there the attitude seems to be “Washington knows best” and “we’ll decide and tell you.” The attitude is that people can’t handle the information. Did they think if they told those Marines to be careful they would have refused to serve? They showed no confidence in the people. My real concern is about working people. They’ve destroyed unions. Reagan did it starting with the air controllers and they’re now destroying democracy in so many ways.
Makhijani: So what do you think World War II was about?
Hooke: I believed at the time it was absolutely necessary to stop Hitler and Mussolini. Then you start reading all this stuff about trapping the Japanese to attack us. Once they get power it goes off the track. I’ve written several letters about the CIA but never sent them. If you read the things they’ve done in Central and South America, they’re way out of control.
I’ve got a 73-year-old niece who was in jail for protesting the School of the Americas. She’s a nun living in Africa. She came home to help look after my sister, her mother, and while she was back she got working in the Bronx with the homeless and ran into the Maryknolls and the nuns who had been killed in El Salvador and got involved at Fort Benning [Georgia]. Every year they have a commemoration of when the six Jesuits got killed. Some years back they had 10,000 people there. The first time they crossed the line, the military told them not to come back. The second time she was given six-month in jail and she did it again a third time with Martin Sheen and got another six months. After my sister died, my niece went back to Africa. [Walter is 89]
It’s amazing some of those nuns are so militant. Phil Berrigan is a friend of mine. I still write to him and he is back in jail for a year for violating probation. He is very much involved about this depleted uranium and dropping the bombs over on Iraq. I believe in protest but I don’t believe in pouring blood on things and damaging them. Neither did my sister. That’s a long way of answering you about the CIA. At one point [Senator Patrick] Moynihan felt it should be abolished. They probably need some kind of intelligence but I don’t think we need all this Ollie North hiring airplanes and stuff. We’re probably doing that in Columbia. I have a hang up about that too. If some country wants to have some form of government, like Nicaragua, they ought to be able to do that.
Makhijani: Could the feeling on the part of the nuclear weapons makers be that what they’re doing is illegitimate?
Hooke: Yes. They were afraid of lawsuits. I know that that seemed to a factor in the Nevada testing. I know they were afraid of lawsuits not only from the public but also the military. I feel more and more that Washington is more about perception and not about truth.
Makhijani: Was it ever about truth?
Hooke: Well I like to think it hasn’t always been this bad. I think when you grew up in the World War I period and in the 1920s, it seemed like there was a feeling of patriotism and belief in your government — at least that’s the way I felt. I think General Groves is a real bad guy in the sense that he was the master in that he could control what the scientists could say. Maybe it’s because I’m more aware of that. It’s gotten progressively worse with the nuclear business.
Makhijani: What should we do to restore democracy?
Hooke: I don’t know. I’ve been telling people that [President George W.] Bush is going to get re-elected and shock them into getting involved. But we all must vote and be involved. When we quit the struggle for justice we cease to live.
Makhijani: Is it as simple as that?
Hooke: I don’t know if it is that simple. Look at what happened in the last election. I’ve had quite a bit of correspondence with the president of Notre Dame [University] for inviting Bush to give a speech. I’ve got a copy — it’s the worst thing. He [Bush] said that Dorothy Day was so concerned about the poor, just like he is. I know he’s trying to win over the Catholic vote and the labor vote. And he’s trying to appeal to labor though building nuclear power plants and the Alaska pipeline and oil exploration.
Makhijani: What did the president of Notre Dame say? [Walter sent Arjun a copy of the letter.]
Hooke: He wrote me back and said he did it because of the office. I don’t think he realized what he said. He said they award degrees on the basis of accomplishments. So I said: “What are his accomplishments? Love of the death penalty?”
I think you are on a very important subject. I don’t know what you’re going to say about it. I think people really need to discuss this deep science and deep secrecy.
Makhijani: This conversation is the first time I have heard it said like that.
Hooke: [With me] everything goes back to early concerns picked up from my parents about treatment of people and social justice. I grew up in Bronxville in NY. They sold the house and moved to New York City, where I went to a Jesuit school.
Makhijani: I went to Jesuit school too.
Hooke: Something of that education stuck with me too like the encyclicals on labor and social justice. I still write letters to archbishops and bishops in protest.
Makhijani: Well, you are inspiration.
Hooke: I don’t know about that, but I am concerned. There are quite a few wishes that I have got. I have catalogs going back 15 years with all white models and I’d write them to ask if they sold to people of color. I guess with the name Hooke they probably think I’m black. We have long way to go. I think your subject matter is something that really is buried and it needs the light of day shone on it. I was so thrilled to see it in your article [on a global truth commission on nuclear weapons].
Makhijani: Thanks so much.
With the publication of the final Clean Power Plan, the United States can finally claim some leadership in curbing CO2 emissions at the federal level. The final rule is, on balance, technically, economically and environmentally coherent. The actual goal is short of what it needs to be, but it is better than in the draft plan. And the direction is right, which is the most important thing. Thanks to all of you who worked with us and supported us in the process, especially Scott Denman, Diane Curran, Lisa Heinzerling, Elena Krieger, and my co-author, M.V. Ramana..
We asked for many things in our comments on the draft EPA Clean Power Plan. The EPA agreed not only with the substance, but more important, the reasoning underlying our policy positions in the final Clean Power Plan (CPP) rule.
Most of all we asked for a coherent, technology-neutral rule that would be more protective of climate. Here are some of the big picture items:
- Existing nuclear plants and license extensions will not be subsidized by the CPP: We asked that both existing nuclear power plants and existing renewable energy be removed from the calculation of emission targets because they do nothing to reduce CO2 emissions. We asked that they be treated consistently. (Neither have significant onsite emissions of CO2 and both have some offsite lifecycle emissions that are much less than natural gas per unit of generation). Existing generation should not be part of the “Best System of Emission Reduction” (BSER) because we want to reduce CO2 emissions from where they are now (or in 2012, the baseline year). The EPA agreed. Both are gone from the final rule. Further, in its draft rule, the EPA implicitly assumed (in its modelling of the electricity sector) that licenses of existing plants would be extended. The relicensing issue has been removed from the CPP since existing generation is not in the calculation of emission reductions. It is simply the baseline generation, as is clear from page 345 of the final plan (italics added):
…we believe it is inappropriate to base the BSER on elements that will not reduce CO2 emissions from affected EGUs below current levels. Existing nuclear generation helps make existing CO2 emissions lower than they would otherwise be, but will not further lower CO2 emissions below current levels. Accordingly,…the EPA is not finalizing preservation of generation from existing nuclear capacity as a component of the BSER.
The same reasoning was applied to license extensions. Only uprates (increases in licensed capacity of existing plants) would be allowed to be counted. This is consistent and technology neutral (in the same way that increasing the capacity of a wind farm would be counted). The rule does not seek to “preserve” existing power plants. Or to shut them down. That will happen on the merits without an EPA hand on the scale in favor of nuclear.
- New and under-construction nuclear reactors are not part of the best system of emission reduction; renewable energy is: We pointed out that new nuclear plants are very expensive; even the State of Georgia, whose ratepayers are forced to subsidize two nuclear units through their electricity bills, noted that in its comments. Since the “Best System of Emission Reduction” (BSER) has a cost criterion, new nuclear should be excluded from the BSER. (We also cited other reasons for that.) The EPA excluded new nuclear from BSER but included new renewable energy (p. 345, italics added):
Investments in new nuclear capacity are very large capital-intensive investments that require substantial lead times. By comparison, investments in new RE generating capacity are individually smaller and require shorter lead times. Also, important recent trends evidenced in RE development, such as rapidly growing investment and rapidly decreasing costs, are not as clearly evidenced in nuclear generation. We view these factors as distinguishing the under-construction nuclear units from RE generating capacity, indicating that the new nuclear capacity is likely of higher cost and therefore less appropriate for inclusion in the BSER.
This is a critically important statement. We don’t have a shortage of low CO2 sources. We have a shortage of time and money to reduce CO2 emissions. The EPA recognized (very delicately!) that renewable energy is better on both counts. As a result, one or more the four new reactors under construction at Vogtle and Summer can proceed or stop on the financial merits, rather than these units being pushed into existence with the Clean Power Plan playing the role of midwife.
The EPA also “seeks to drive the widespread development and deployment of wind and solar, as these broad categories of renewable technology are essential to longer term climate strategies” (p. 874). This is an excellent goal. The EPA recognized that costs of solar and wind are declining.
- New natural gas plants are not part of the best system of emission reductions: This is perhaps the best and most solid indication that the Obama administration takes long-term reductions seriously. New natural gas combined cycle plants, even though they have lower CO2 emissions per megawatt-hour (using EPA leak rates and global warming potential for methane), will not be part of the BSER even though they meet the cost test and emission rate test. The reason: they will be emitting CO2 for decades (p. 346, italics added):
However, our determination not to include new construction and operation of new NGCC capacity in the BSER in this final rule rests primarily on the achievable magnitude of emission reductions rather than costs. Unlike emission reductions achieved through the use of any of the building blocks, emission reductions achieved through the use of new NGCC capacity require the construction of additional CO2-emitting generating capacity, a consequence that is inconsistent with the long-term need to continue reducing CO2 emissions beyond the reductions that will be achieved through this rule. New generating assets are planned and built for long lifetimes –- frequently 40 years or more –-that are likely longer than the expected remaining lifetimes of the steam EGUs whose CO2 emissions would initially be displaced be the generation from the new NGCC units. The new capacity is likely to continue to emit CO2 throughout these longer lifetimes….
- Increased capacity factor of existing natural gas plants is BSER: The EPA is still allowing increased capacity factor of existing natural gas combined cycle power plants to displace coal. This is the result of its estimate of methane leak rates and global warming potential. So long as new central station natural gas plants are not encouraged, the rate of use of existing plants is a problem that can be sorted out in the coming years. It would have been very difficult to argue only on the grounds of the BSER rules and existing methane leaks estimates that increasing capacity factor of existing natural gas combined cycle units to displace coal is not BSER. The job now is to get the EPA to recognize a wider array of methane leaks rates (that have ample empirical support) and to use both a 20-year and 100-year warming potential screen in the design of its CO2 reduction programs. The recent report from the IPCC uses a global warming potential of 28-34, including feedback effects. It would be entirely appropriate for the EPA to adopt a similar evaluation metric. The 20-year warming potential, which is about three times higher would be even more appropriate given that the climate crisis is developing more rapidly than previously anticipated.
- The EPA has incentivized early investment in low-income efficiency programs (p. 864 onward): This is a very important feature of the CPP. States that want to make very sure that low-income households are not adversely impacted by the rule will take advantage of the additional emission reduction credits the EPA is offering for early action. This also promises to provide other benefits such as reduction of the cost of energy assistance programs and lower adverse health impacts due to inability to pay for health care or medicines.
- The cap-and-trade provision is OK in the electricity context, though with reservations: Carbon permits from new generation can be traded. For instance, existing nuclear plants cannot generate tradeable CO2 credits (unless they are from a licensed uprate). I am not a fan of expansive cap-and-trade but the EPA formulation in the CPP makes sense to me. It is the same as if emission limits were set for a group of states or at the grid level, such as the PJM grid in the mid-Atlantic region but extending inland to Ohio and beyond, or the MISO grid in the upper Midwest. The EPA seeks not to impose a model of reductions; only to get to a certain level of reductions. In the cap-and-trade system permitted by the EPA, the CO2 reduction could happen in one state or in another, but it will have to happen. One of my reservations is that the EPA also allows the trading of energy efficiency credits across state lines. It is difficult enough to account for program-induced efficiency improvements within a state and distinguish them from say, the effects of federal appliance standards. Bundling these efficiency gains into tradeable credits is not a good idea. Another issue is that the method of calculating the reduction in emission rate is not the best as applied to efficiency. We had asked for a more global and comprehensive approach to CO2 accounting, but did not succeed on this point.
- Conclusion – The CPP is a real tour de force; it gives me hope. Of course, there is much work to do now that the final CPP has been published (besides making it stick). We need to advocate for states to mandate GHG reduction targets of 40 to 50 percent by 2030 from all sources; we need to accelerate electrification of transportation and restructuring of the grid….But the CPP is a great springboard from which to make these leaps.