Extreme Weather Threatens Military Facilities

Extreme weather events and rising sea levels are causing damage to U.S. military facilities and could threaten U.S. military infrastructure around the world.

“Is the military ready for climate change?,” asked Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA). “It is not.”

“In the last 12 months, severe storms have devastated Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, Tyndall Air Force Base, and Offutt Air Force Base,” he said during the House debate on the FY2020 defense authorization bill on July 10.

The defense bill that was passed by the House therefore included several provisions to require the Department of Defense “to plan for and respond to the threat that climate change poses to military installations and military operations.”

Similar requirements to incorporate weather projections in defense facility planning were included in the Senate version of the pending defense authorization bill.

On a political plane, there are still ideologically-driven disparities in perception of the threat of climate change. But those disparate perceptions may soon be overtaken by the reality of climate-induced damage, including damage to defense infrastructure.

“The Department of Defense (DOD) manages more than 1,700 military installations in worldwide coastal areas that may be affected by sea-level rise,” the Congressional Research Service observed in a new brief. See Military Installations and Sea-Level Rise, CRS In Focus, July 26, 2019.

“Hurricane Michael damaged every building on Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base (repair estimate $4.7 billion),” CRS noted. “Hurricane Florence dropped 36 inches of rain, flooding three North Carolina Marine Corps installations (repair estimate $3.6 billion).”

Failure to act will incur increased costs, the Government Accountability Office warned in June.

“Not assessing risks or using climate projections in installation planning may expose DOD facilities to greater-than-anticipated damage or degradation as a result of extreme weather or climate-related effects,” GAO said. See Climate Resilience: DOD Needs to Assess Risk and Provide Guidance on Use of Climate Projections in Installation Master Plans and Facilities Designs, GAO-19-453, June 12, 2019.

“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations,” the Pentagon acknowledged in a January 2019 report to Congress (with a March supplement).

“Damage to communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure could affect low-lying military bases, inflict economic costs, and cause human displacement and loss of life,” warned outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in January.

“Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond,” he told Congress.

Trump Admin Would Curtail Carbon Capture Research

The Trump Administration budget request for FY 2018 would “severely reduce” Energy Department funding for development of carbon capture and sequestration technologies intended to combat the climate change effects of burning fossil fuels.

The United States has “more than 250 years’ worth of clean, beautiful coal,” President Trump said last month, implying that remedial measures to diminish the environmental impact of coal power generation are unnecessary.

Research on the carbon capture technology that could make coal use cleaner by removing carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust would be cut by 73% if the Trump Administration has its way.

“The Trump Administration’s approach would be a reversal of Obama Administration and George W. Bush Administration DOE policies, which supported large carbon-capture demonstration projects and large injection and sequestration demonstration projects,” the Congressional Research Service said this week in a new report.

“We have finally ended the war on coal,” President Trump declared.

However, congressional approval of the Administration’s proposal to slash carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) development is not a foregone conclusion.

“The House Appropriations Committee’s FY2018 bill funding DOE disagrees with the Administration budget request and would fund CCS activities at roughly FY2017 levels,” the CRS report said.

“This report provides a summary and analysis of the current state of CCS in the United States.” It also includes a primer on how CCS could work, and a profile of previous funding in this area. See Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) in the United States, July 24, 2017.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Methane and Other Air Pollution Issues in Natural Gas Systems, updated July 27, 2017

The U.S. Export Control System and the Export Control Reform Initiative, updated July 24, 2017

Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS): OECD Tax Proposals, July 24, 2017

Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated July 25, 2017

Lebanon, updated July 25, 2017

Aviation Bills Take Flight, but Legislative Path Remains Unclear, CRS Insight, July 25, 2017

Military Officers, CRS In Focus, July 3, 2017

Military Enlisted Personnel, CRS In Focus, July 3, 2017

Transgender Servicemembers: Policy Shifts and Considerations for Congress, CRS Insight, July 26, 2017

Systematic, authorized publication of CRS reports on a government website came a step closer to reality yesterday when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to approve “a provision that will make non-confidential CRS reports available to the public via the Government Publishing Office’s website.”

“Climate Change” Enters the DoD Lexicon

The term “climate change” was included for the first time in the latest revision of the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Joint Publication 1-02), published last week.

Climate change is officially defined by DoD as “Variations in average weather conditions that persist over multiple decades or longer that encompass increases and decreases in temperature, shifts in precipitation, and changing risk of certain types of severe weather events.”

The new entry in the DoD Dictionary reflects a growing awareness of the actual and potential impacts of climate change on military operations.

The definition was originally proposed in the January 2016 DoD Directive 4715.21 on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience.

“The DoD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military,” the January directive stated.

Department of Defense Confronts Climate Change

The Department of Defense is organizing itself to address the effects of climate change on the U.S. military, some of which are already being felt.

“The DoD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military,” according to a Pentagon directive that was issued last week. See Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, DoD Directive 4715.21, January 14, 2016.

Among other things, the new directive requires the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and the Director of National Intelligence to coordinate on “risks, potential impacts, considerations, vulnerabilities, and effects [on defense intelligence programs] of altered operating environments related to climate change and environmental monitoring.”

“The Department of Defense sees climate change as a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk,” DoD said last year in a report to Congress.

“We are already observing the impacts of climate change in shocks and stressors to vulnerable nations and communities, including in the United States, and in the Arctic, Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America…. Although DoD and the Combatant Commands cannot prepare for every risk and situation, the Department is beginning to include the implications of a changing climate in its frameworks for managing operational and strategic risks prudently.” See National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate, DoD report to Congress, July 2015.

“We are almost done with a baseline survey to assess the vulnerability of our military’s more than 7,000 bases, installations, and other facilities,” wrote then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap. “In places like the Hampton Roads region in Virginia, which houses the largest concentration of US military sites in the world, we see recurrent flooding today, and we are beginning work to address a projected sea-level rise of 1.5 feet over the next 20 to 50 years.”

“Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning,” Secretary Hagel wrote.

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” said Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump in a 2012 tweet that has been retweeted more than 24,000 times. (h/t Ed Husain)


What to Expect from Paris Climate Talks, and More from CRS

The possible outcomes of the ongoing Paris climate change conference, and the challenges remaining to be overcome, are considered in a new report from the Congressional Research Service. See International Climate Change Negotiations: What to Expect in Paris, December 2015, November 27, 2015.

The shifting numbers of U.S. troops and contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past eight years were compiled in another newly updated CRS report. “As of June 2015, there were almost 29,000 DOD contractor personnel in Afghanistan, compared to 9,060 U.S. troops,” the report said. “As of September 2015, there were 1,349 DOD contractor personnel in Iraq, compared with up to 3,550 U.S. troops.” See Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Iraq and Afghanistan: 2007-2015, December 1, 2015.

Another CRS report notes that there are currently 53 judicial vacancies in the nation’s 91 judicial districts, and that 25 of those vacancies are considered to be “judicial emergencies.” The situation is described in U.S. District and Circuit Court Vacancies: Overview and Comparative Analysis, CRS Insight, December 3, 2015.

“The federal executive branch controls an extensive real property portfolio that includes more than a quarter of a million owned and leased buildings,” according to another new CRS report. “The cost of operating and maintaining these diverse properties, which total more than 2.8 billion square feet, exceeded $21 billion in FY2014.” See Federal Real Property Data: Limitations and Implications for Oversight, November 25, 2015.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service that Congress has declined to make publicly available online include the following.

Tying Up Loose Ends… Supreme Court To Evaluate Federal Firearm Provision Again, CRS Legal Sidebar, December 3, 2015

College and University Endowments: Overview and Tax Policy Options, December 2, 2015

State Management of Federal Lands: Frequently Asked Questions, November 12, 2015

The Enactment of Appropriations Measures During Lame Duck Sessions, updated December 2, 2015

Courts Grapple with States’ Efforts to Bar Medicaid Funds from Providers that Also Perform Abortions, CRS Legal Sidebar, December 2, 2015

Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS): Final Rule for 2014, 2015, and 2016, CRS Insight, December 2, 2015

Doubling Research and Development for Clean Energy: “Mission Innovation”, CRS Insight, December 1, 2015

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE): Authorizations of Appropriations Proposed by the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 (S. 2012), November 25, 2015

Multilateral Development Banks: Overview and Issues for Congress, updated December 2, 2015

President Obama’s $1 Billion Foreign Aid Request for Central America, CRS Insight, November 25, 2015

Venezuela’s December 2015 Legislative Elections, CRS Insight, December 2, 2015

Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) and Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC): Background and Issues for Congress, updated December 3, 2015

Corporate Expatriation, Inversions, and Mergers: Tax Issues, updated November 30, 2015

The Lobbying Disclosure Act at 20: Analysis and Issues for Congress, December 1, 2015

Federal Reserve: Oversight and Disclosure Issues, updated December 1, 2015

Energy Policy and National Security: The Need for a Nonpartisan Plan

As I write this president’s message, the U.S. election has just resulted in a resounding victory for the Republican Party, which will have control of both the Senate and House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January. While some may despair that these results portend an even more divided federal government with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, I choose to view this event as an opportunity in disguise in regards to the important and urgent issue of U.S. energy policy.

President Barack Obama has staked a major part of his presidential legacy on combating climate change. He has felt stymied by the inability to convince Congress to pass comprehensive legislation to mandate substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, his administration has leveraged the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to craft rules that will, in effect, force the closure of many of the biggest emitters: coal power plants. These new rules will likely face challenges in courts and Congress. To withstand the legal challenge, EPA lawyers are working overtime to make the rules as ironclad as possible.

The Republicans who oppose the EPA rules will have difficulty in overturning the rules with legislation because they do not have the veto-proof supermajority of two-thirds of Congress. Rather, the incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said before the election that he would try to block appropriations that would be needed to implement the new rules. But this is a risky move because it could result in a budget battle with the White House. The United States cannot afford another grinding halt to the federal budget.

Several environmental organizations have charged many Republican politicians with being climate change deniers. Huge amounts of money were funneled to the political races on both sides of the climate change divide. On the skeptical side, political action groups affiliated with the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch received tens of millions of dollars; they have cast doubt on the scientific studies of climate change.  And on the side of wanting to combat climate change, about $100 million was committed by NextGen Climate, a political action group backed substantially by billionaire Tom Steyer. Could this money have been better spent on investments in shoring up the crumbling U.S. energy infrastructure? Instead of demonizing each side and just focusing on climate change, can the nation try a different approach that can win support from a core group of Democrats and Republicans?

Both Democratic and Republican leaders believe that the United States must have strong national security. Could this form the basis of a bipartisan plan for better energy policy? But this begs another question that would have to be addressed first: What energy policy would strengthen national security? Some politicians, including several former presidents, have called for the United States to be energy independent. Due to the recent energy revolution in technologies to extract so-called unconventional oil and gas from shale and sand geological deposits, the United States is on the verge of becoming a major exporter of natural gas and has dramatically reduced its dependence on outside oil imports (except from the friendly Canadians who are experiencing a bonanza in oil extracted from tar sands). However, these windfall developments do not mean that the United States is energy independent, even including the natural resources in all of North America.

Oil is a globally traded commodity and natural gas (especially in the form of liquefied natural gas) is tending to become this type of commodity. This implies that the United States cannot decouple its oil and gas production and consumption from other countries. For example, a disruption in the Strait of Hormuz leading to the Persian Gulf will affect about 40 percent of the globe’s oil deliveries because of shipments from Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirate. Such a disruption might occur in an armed conflict with Iran, which has been at loggerheads with the United States over its nuclear program. Moreover, while the United States has not been importing significant amounts of oil from the Middle East recently, U.S. allies Japan and South Korea rely heavily on oil from that region. Thus, a major principle for U.S. national security is to work cooperatively with these allies to develop a plan to move away from overreliance on oil and gas from this region and an even longer term plan to transition away from fossil fuels.

Actually, this long term plan is not really that far into the future. According to optimistic estimates (for example, from Cambridge Energy Research Associates) for when global oil production will reach its peak, the world only has until at least 2030 before the peak is reached, and then there will be a gradual decline in production over the next few decades after the peak.1)Peter Jackson, The Future of Global Oil Supply: Understanding the Building Blocks, Report, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, November 2009. (Pessimistic views such as from oil expert Colin Campbell predict the peak occurring around 2012 to 2015.2)Colin J. Campbell, “The Age of Oil,” in Ugo Bardi, Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014). We thus may already be at the peak.) Once the global decline starts to take effect, price shocks could devastate the world’s economy. Moreover, as the world’s population is projected to increase from seven billion people today to about nine billion by mid-century, the demand for oil will also significantly increase given business as usual practices.

For the broader scope national security reason of having a stable economy, it is imperative to develop a nonpartisan plan for transitioning from the “addiction” to oil that President George W. Bush called attention to in his State of the Union Address in January 2006. While skepticism about the science of climate change will prevail, this should not hold back the United States working together with other nations to craft a comprehensive energy plan that saves money, creates more jobs, and overall strengthens international security.

FAS is developing a new project titled Sustainable Energy and International Security. FAS staff will be contacting experts in our network to form a diverse group with expertise in energy technologies, the social factors that affect energy use, military perspectives, economic assessments, and security alliances. I welcome readers’ advice and donations to start this project; please contact me at [email protected]. FAS relies on donors like you to help support our projects; I urge you to consider supporting this and other FAS projects.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Peter Jackson, The Future of Global Oil Supply: Understanding the Building Blocks, Report, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, November 2009.
2. Colin J. Campbell, “The Age of Oil,” in Ugo Bardi, Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014).

Moral Rights in International Political Discourse on Global Ethics

Yesterday, I was pleased to find in my inbox a response to my recent blog post on global citizenship by His Excellency Alvaro Cedeno Molinari, who serves as the Ambassador of Costa Rica to Japan. His narrative reply elaborates on his thoughts on global citizenship as originally presented to the Junior Chamber International Tokyo a few weeks ago.

In his response, Molinari appears to argue for a conceptualization of morality best suited to natural law (lex naturalis). By this, I mean that he appears to conceptualize certain global ethics as natural rights for all humanity. I say this because he argues that there exists an ontologically objective “moral right” for all humans to live in a world that respects nature. He maintains this to be the case even if the positive laws governing inter-state and intra-state behavior fail to construct such rights in the absence of global consensus on their necessity. And, he appears to argue for epistemological objectivity through an appeal to rationalism when he takes the methodological approach of “restating the obvious” and outlining moral truths.

In Molinari’s argument, one therefore finds a natural affinity to classical natural law theory grounded in moral realism. Yet, at the same time, one also finds a strong sense of moral idealism in his response. This is evident in his reference to Einstein’s quote, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

So, how does one reconcile notions of moral rights with a world where intra-state and inter-state relations are governed almost exclusively by international and domestic conventions (ex. laws)?

To begin with, it is important to point out that aspects of Molinari’s argument are not mutually exclusive of a social constructivist interpretation of morality. If we engage our imaginations as Molinari suggests, we can imagine ideal worlds. Each of these ideal worlds will be subjective. By this, I mean that they will represent each individual’s world as viewed through that individual’s mental states. However, these subjective worlds may in fact share common features. And, these common features may hinge on certain shared imagined rights and obligations governing human behavior.

The crux of socially constructing new moral rights and obligations therefore hinges on our ability to collectively agree on shared features. These shared features represent the lowest common denominator (LCD) of what we consider to be our shared conceptualization of “morality.” It is through such shared features that we can socially construct “moral rights” through positive law (jus positum). But, if we don’t explore these imagined worlds and determine our own subjective moral rights and obligations, we cannot hope to collectively define a set of common features upon which to base new laws and conventions since the ideal worlds upon which they are based are not experienced as part of every day life.

Of course, moral rights and obligations need not be based on a social constructivist theoretical approach. There are a wide variety of alternatives upon which to conceptualize such rights in both objective (ex. moral realism) and subjective terms (ex. ethical subjectivism). And, this takes us back to my earlier comments on the apparent affinity between Molinari’s arguments and the appeal of moral realism and the natural law of morality.

If one contends that such moral rights and obligations exist absent formal and/or informal conventions (i.e. international laws; international conventions, etc.), then one of the most common philosophical arguments held is the claim that they just exist out there in reality and we can come to know what they are through our sensory experiences or through reason. In this sense, moral rights and obligations are held to be natural. It is not explicit whether or not Molinari endorses this reading, but many others have in the past. And, at least from my reading of Molinari, it would appear that he is attracted to similar philosophical predispositions.

In any event, I found the Ambassador’s response to be quite valuable so I would encourage others to read it over as well. Perhaps you will arrive at different conclusions. But, either way, I believe that it is important for each of us to consider Molinari’s claim that there are certain objective moral rights and obligations when we consider the emerging concept of “global citizenship.” Whether you agree with Molinari’s argument will depend upon your own philosophical commitments. However, if you maintain that such moral rights and obligations are in fact natural rights and obligations that exist out there beyond humankind, then you would place yourself in opposition to those who argue that these written declarations provide the sole basis for the existence of such moral rights and obligations in the social world. Yet, at the same time, you would in turn possess a theoretical basis for endorsing the notion that such moral rights and obligations can exist absent their constitution through formal and/or informal conventions, which is a central tenet of Molinari’s conceptualization of global citizenship.

Michael Edward Walsh is an Adjunct Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. He is also the President of the Emerging Science and Technology Policy Centre and a Visiting Scholar at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @aseanreporting.

Global Citizenship in International Political Discourse

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by His Excellency Alvaro Molinari, the Ambassador of Costa Rica to Japan, on the concept of “Global Citizenship and the Creation of Shared Value.”

Speaking to the International Committee of Junior Chamber International (JCI) Tokyo, Molinari argued that the recently awarded Olympic Games provides the people of Japan with a unique opportunity to be a global thought leader on environmental sustainability. Citing a number of Japanese technological innovations, Molinari challenged the young Japanese business leaders in attendance to push themselves to show the world “what you have done, how you have done it, and how it can be done in other countries.” He held that such an effort would not only pay economic dividends but also enhance the country’s long-term political influence within the international community.

If Japan was to pursue such an agenda, Molinari suggested that the country embrace the concept of “global citizenship.” He defined this as a culture of “different leadership styles, cultural sensitivities, capacities for team building, cross-cultural communications regardless of language, negotiation skills, and a sense of global ethics.”

As an International Relations theorist, I found Molinari’s appeal to “global citizenship” to be an interesting point for conceptual inquiry. For, it would appear that both “global citizenship” and “global ethics” remain conceptually weak; making it difficult to operationalize either as a guide for human behavior.

Let’s take “global ethics” as an example. “Is there a collectively accepted set of ethical commitments that count as [global ethics] across the member states of the international community?” While there are certain moral rights and obligations codified in international laws and conventions which can be said to represent ethical commitments, there also remains significant divergence in their interpretation. For example, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council regularly disagree on the most fundamental principle of the United Nations Charter, “When, if ever, is it permissible for one state to violate the territorial integrity of another?” And, these debates often extend beyond the legal into the ethical (ex. Right to Protect principle).

The question then is “What are global ethics?” If the members of the United Nations do not currently agree on the answer to this question, including what rights/obligations entail from “global ethics,” it is difficult to understand what exactly an appeal to “global citizenship” means when employed in international political discourse. To have any real force, both “global citizenship” and “global ethics” will need to evolve into strong concepts with collectively agreed upon meaning in specific contexts. Right now, that simply is not the case. And, as a consequence, appeals to global citizenship remain purely idealist in outlook and subjective in nature.

Michael Edward Walsh is an Adjunct Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. You can follow him @aseanreporting.

In closing

lastpageFor a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, in an appendix to the report on the loss of the space shuttle Challenger.


The first post in this series was put up a little more than two years ago and I’ve written a hundred of them (a dozen more, counting Martin Hellman’s estimable contributions). And, for reasons both personal and professional, it’s time to draw this blog to a close. I have enjoyed writing it and I have enjoyed the thoughtful comments that so many of you have made – I hope that you’ve gotten as much out of it as I have. And, as the habit dies hard, I’d like to take one final opportunity to opine, if I may.

Although the topics covered have been primarily radiological and nuclear-related, I have at times delved into areas of geology, astronomy, the life sciences, and even into philosophy and ethics. But regardless of the topic I have tried to take the same approach to everything – to try to take a skeptical look at the science that underlies claims or stories that are based on science. Anybody can use invective, can rely on “gut” feelings, cast aspersions, and so forth – but if something rests on a foundation of science then it cannot be resolved without understanding that science. And any attempt to circumvent the science tends to be an attempt to circumvent the facts – to bolster an argument that might have little or no basis.

To me, skepticism is of paramount importance – but I need to make sure we’re all on the same page with what is meant by skepticism. First, being skeptical does not mean simply rejecting every claim or statement that’s made – this is simply being contrary, and contrarianism is actually fairly brainless. It doesn’t take much to say “you’re wrong” all the time, and it takes no thought at all to have this as your default response. Being skeptical also doesn’t mean steadfastly opposing a particular point of view, regardless of any information that might support that point of view. This approach is denialism and it also requires little thought or effort.  Skepticism is a bit more difficult a beast – it means questioning, probing, and ultimately deciding whether or not the weight of evidence supports the claim being made. And – very importantly – skepticism also means questioning claims that might support your preconceptions, lest we fall prey to confirmation bias. In fact, I remember looking at some plots of data with my master’s advisor – he commented that “they look plausible but they’re not what I’d expected; so they might just be right.” Skepticism takes work, but if the stakes (intellectual, scientific, technical, societal, or otherwise) are high enough then it’s effort that must be made.

Unfortunately, the reality of science is that what is true is often counter-intuitive, contrary to what we think we see, and different than what we would like to be the case. At one time in the past, for example, fossils were thought to be rocks that looked strangely like bones and shells, the Earth resided at the center of an infinite universe, time moved at the same rate for everybody everywhere, and mountains formed as the Earth slowly shrank due to cooling. That we now know differently is due to past scientists exercising their skepticism, their rationality, and choosing to look beyond what their obvious gut feelings were telling them.

The fact is that the world and the universe run according to the laws of science –astronomers have found fairly convincing evidence that the laws of physics seem to be the same across the universe while geologists and physicists have shown similar consistency over time. Not only that, but the scientific method has been developed, refined, and tested over centuries. To have all of the tools of science available to us and to simply disregard it in favor of an emotional gut feeling is something I just can’t understand. Gut feelings, instinct, and intuition have their place in some areas – fields that are more person-oriented – but they have only limited utility in science-based arguments. Let’s face it – whether we’re talking about radiation dose limits, global warming, nuclear energy, vaccines, or any of the myriad of questions with which we are confronted – if we ignore the science then we cannot arrive at a good answer except by sheer chance. To that end, I’d like to draw your attention to a fascinating website, a checklist, and an associated paper.

These links deal with forecasting – along the lines of weather forecasting, but extended to a number of areas in which people make predictions about what might happen next – but they have relevance to many areas of science. Predictions can take the form of models (such as climate models), calculations of cancer risk from radiation, forecasts of the stock market, or predictions of terrorist activities. People – even trained scientists – are often not very good at assessing these sorts of questions; this is why we have developed the scientific method and why the scientific process can take years or decades to play out. But even then, scientists are frequently too willing to rely on their scientific intuition, to make predictions based on their experience rather than on a scientific process, to overlook (or exclude) information that doesn’t support their hypotheses, and to give excessive weight to studies that agree with them. The principles outlined on the website, checklist, and paper I’ve linked to help all of us to avoid all of the mistakes of thinking that can otherwise lead us astray.

The bottom line is that the universe runs according to science and it doesn’t care what we would like to be true. All of our wishful thinking, outrage, and wishes can’t change the laws of physics; and issues of fairness – even ethics and morality – don’t matter to the universe one whit. If we try to use these principles – regardless of how important they might be in unscientific matters – we will be led astray.

I would like to invite you to continue exercising your own skepticism, especially any time you read (or hear) a story that seems either too good to be true, or too bad to be true. Be on the lookout for pathological science and for arguments that play to the emotions rather than to the rational and the scientific. Being a skeptic doesn’t mean being a contrarian – it means that you ask someone to prove their case to you rather than just accepting it at face value. It also means trying – as much as possible – to remove your feelings from the picture; once you think you’ve figured out what’s going on you can decide how it makes you feel but you can’t use your emotions to solve a scientific problem.

So, as a parting thought, I would urge you to take the time to think carefully about all of the media stories that are (or ought to be) science-based. If claims seem to be incredible – either too good or too dire – ask yourself if they make sense. Take an hour to go through the Standards and Practices for Forecasting (linked to earlier in this post) to see whether or not the argument(s) presented have any legitimate scientific justification, or if they are simply the opinions of scientist, however dressed up they might be. Most importantly, as Ronald Reagan famously told Mikhail Gorbachev with regards to nuclear weapons limits, “trust but verify.”

Again, I’ve enjoyed writing ScienceWonk for the last two years. I very much appreciate the Federation of American Scientists for giving me a home for this blog and I especially appreciate all of you who have taken the time to read it, to comment, and hopefully to think about what I’ve written. Many thanks for your attention – and I hope you have got as much out of it as I have.

The post In closing appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.

Yucca Mountain – Packaging and Storing Radioactive Waste

t1larg.casks.nrcSo – thus far we’ve gone over a little of the history of the Yucca Mountain project and how both geology and hydrogeology can affect waste disposal. What I thought could be interesting today would be to talk a little about how the spent reactor fuel is packaged – both for transport and for disposal – because this is a third factor that has a profound impact on how well the waste can be isolated from the environment. Then, for the last installment in this series (next week) I’ll try to examine some of the claims both for and against the site to see how well they hold up.

To recap a little bit – fissioning a uranium atom splits it into 2 radioactive fission products. These accumulate as the reactor operates – adding more radioactivity as time goes on. As the reactor operates, though, the fuel “burns” up the uranium – after a few years the concentration of fissionable atoms drops to the point where it’s time to swap out the spent fuel rods for new ones. The spent rods are intensely radioactive so they’re normally stashed in spent fuel pools until they can cool off a bit – and in this case, “cooling off” means thermally as well as radiologically since the energy given off by the decaying fission products causes the spent fuel to heat up. But after a long enough time the fuel will cool off to the point at which it can be removed from the water and placed into huge casks that are placed in storage yards at the reactor sites – this is called dry cask storage.

At some point – if Yucca Mountain or some other high-level waste repository opens up – either the dry casks will be used for transport or the spent fuel will be transferred to transport casks that will be loaded onto rail cars or trucks and relocated to their final resting place. It’s these casks that will also be the penultimate barrier between the radioactivity within and the environment so they warrant a description.

First of all the things are huge. I saw some in Lithuania about a decade ago and they looked to be at least 10 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter. And since the physics of uranium fission are the same around the world (reactor design changes somewhat from place to place, but not enough to make a huge difference for commercial reactors) the characteristics of spent reactor fuel are reasonably similar as are the characteristics of the casks. In other words, the spent fuel casks in the US are huge as well.

In addition to providing protection to the spent fuel they are also designed to reduce radiation dose rates to an acceptable level – low enough to pose no risk to those sharing the road with the casks if they are transported by truck. But there’s a lot more to safely shipping waste than keeping rad levels down – the spent fuel casks must also be able to protect the waste while it’s in transit to the final disposal site, not to mention protecting it during its long millennia in storage. We’ll tackle these one at a time.

Spent fuel casks have to meet some stringent requirements to ensure that they don’t release highly radioactive fission products while they’re in transit to the final disposal site. Casks must be able to pass these tests without suffering a failure:

  • A 9-meter (30 foot) fall onto a hard surface
  • Puncture test where the container falls 1 meter onto a 6” steel rod
  • 30 minutes of being engulfed in an 800 degree C (1475 degree F) fire
  • 8 hours of immersion beneath 3 feet of water
  • 1 hour of immersion beneath 200 meters (655 feet) of water

These requirements are more than theoretical – in the 1970s Sandia National Laboratories tested some spent fuel containers with full-scale crashes to confirm that what looked good on paper and in the laboratory would work in real life. The most dramatic test was running a locomotive engine into a flatbed truck carrying a cask on it – the locomotive was pretty much destroyed while the cask, while damaged, survived and would not have leaked radioactivity into the environment. There’s a nice video on YouTube showing the locomotive test and others – these videos alone ought to allay any doubts about the ability of these casks to protect spent fuel while it’s en route to the disposal site.

Physical ruggedness is nice, but there’s more to keeping radioactive waste safe than protecting it from collisions – once delivered to the site the casks have to help keep the waste isolated from the environment for up to a million years and that takes a lot more than strength. Rust and corrosion will attack the strongest container – all they need are the right conditions and enough time to work. Not only that, but metals behave differently (and chemical reactions proceed more quickly) at higher temperatures – such as those produced by the decay of fission products. So the thermal effects also have to be factored in when designing the things.

So here’s the bad news about long-term disposal of spent reactor fuel – and the containers meant to hold it. Nobody knows how a container is going to hold up over even 100,000 years, let alone a million years (the time span required by EPA). We can do our best to design something with the lowest possible corrosion rate and we can do our best to design in a high level of structural strength – but no matter how we try to artificially age these materials in the lab we can only guess at their long-term performance. Let’s face it – all of human history is only about 5000 years and the Pyramids are younger than that. We can assert the longevity of our designed structures all we want, but we have no direct experience with anything so long-lived. Of course we can put other barriers in place as well – and likely will – but anything artificial suffers the same drawback, that all of human history is far shorter than the period of time for which we’re hoping to isolate the waste.

On the other hand, the engineered packages aren’t the only barrier between the radioactive waste and the environment – and we actually do have one data point about the ability of rock to hold radioactive waste for prolonged periods of time. In fact, what we have is the remnants of a natural nuclear reactor that achieved criticality in what is now the nation of Gabon (in Western Africa) about two billion years ago. The details of how the reactor (called the Oklo reactor) formed and operated are fascinating, but there’s not enough room in this posting to go into the details. For the purposes of this, let it suffice to say that in two billion years, virtually all of the fission products have remained in place. This is in spite of the reactor zone being located in fractured and porous sandstone that was below the water table more often than not – in fact, if the reactor zone were not completely saturated with water the reactor could never have operated. So – remembering the last two posts – porous and water-saturated rock are not well-suited for waste disposal. But in spite of this, the fission products have remained in place for two billion years. This bodes well for the ability of Yucca Mountain (or whatever location ends up with the spent fuel repository) to safely isolate the waste until it decays to stability.

So here’s the bottom line with regards to the waste containers. First, they certainly seem capable of safely storing spent reactor fuel for the length of time that they’re stored at the reactor plants and multiple tests have shown they can protect the waste while it’s en route to wherever it will be disposed of. But no matter how well we design the containers – no matter how convincing our computer models and calculations might be, there’s no guarantee that they’ll last the million years that is the current standard for the waste site. But that doesn’t mean that Yucca Mountain is incapable of storing radioactive waste safely for that length of time – the natural nuclear reactor in Oklo shows that even radioactive waste that’s stored in porous and water-saturated sandstone can remain in place for the eons. This bodes well for the Yucca Mountain site’s ability to retain our radioactive waste for a paltry million years or so.

The post Yucca Mountain – Packaging and Storing Radioactive Waste appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.