President Trump and the Middle East

The following piece reflects the opinions of Dr. Paul J. Sullivan and does not reflect the views of the Federation of American Scientists.

I approach this article with some degree of uncertainty and trepidation. The uncertainty is due to the public vagueness about what president-elect Donald Trump’s policies towards the Middle East may be. The trepidation is due to a combination of that uncertainty and the realities of the fluid, dangerous and volatile nature of the region as it is today — and likely will be in the future — and how getting this right is so important for the United States.

The impression one gets is that a President Trump would want to scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the “Iran Deal.” The Iran Deal is hardly the gold standard of diplomatic agreements. It has many faults. I am on record as being critical of it for many reasons that go beyond the scope of this small memo. However, there is a certain asymmetry to diplomacy. A deal was struck to contain uranium enrichment in Iran to certain levels and amounts. A large number of the centrifuges were dismantled (yet are still in Iran), and many of the other provisos of the deal have been followed, albeit not perfectly, with some concern by outside parties. It is a limited document and fails to deal with ballistic missiles and Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region inter alia.

However, ripping this deal up could easily be seen as the green light for Iran to go right back to what it was doing prior to the deal — developing enriched uranium from centrifuge cascades that could lead to nuclear weapons development. Ripping this deal up could bring Iran into a political and military boil. It is already problematic and aggressive in many areas, particularly in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Ripping up a flawed document could create far greater and more negative consequences than keeping the flawed document. It might also lead to greater tensions between the mostly Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and mostly Shia Iran.

President-elect Trump will also have to deal with the disasters of Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Each of these countries needs to be rebuilt and moved forward if any sort of peace is to be won. There is no question of this. History shows those countries that are in wars, especially those with many ethnic and tribal differences, need to get back on their economic feet as soon as possible, or they will go right back into war. Winning battles and dropping bombs is a lot easier than winning the peace. Syria, Libya, and Yemen could prove to be far more difficult than Iraq, which continues to struggle with this.

President-elect Trump will need to deal with the chronic and seemingly insolvable Palestinian-Israeli issues, which are also projected as Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Muslim issues for a large part of the world. Solving these issues could help resolve many others, but will not necessarily resolve many others. There is so much work to do on so many problems in the region that it is immensely daunting and even paralyzing for some to even think about them as a whole. Each issue may be taken on separately, but it does not take long to figure out how intertwined and recursive so many of the issues are.

Egypt is a country that is in a battle against terrorism and has considerable economic and social issues to contend with. It is in an ideological battle with the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not see Egypt as a country but as a part of its quest for its own sort of community of like-minded people.The Muslim Brotherhood would have its own hierarchy running the country, as happened when the “morshid” ( the supreme guide) of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie,  gave edicts and orders to President Morsi during his failed rule. The Muslim Brotherhood is no friend of the United States either. It would be a huge win to stabilize Egypt and get it moving forward.

Look at the region. Egypt is one of the most vital countries in the region. And right now it is a wall against nearly complete anarchy and violence in some parts of the region. This country needs backup and needs economic and other developments to be a stabilizing influence in its very dangerous neighborhood.

President-elect Trump and those working or acting as spokespeople for him might want to think about treading very carefully, in nuanced and careful fashions, with regard to the Islamic world. Indeed, there are terrorists among those of the Islamic world (as well among people in the Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and other worlds). However, 1.6 billion people should not be branded as terrorists because they are Muslims or because they have beards or because they happen to be named Mohammed or Ahmed. There is a certain tyranny in small numbers when those small numbers of people, the terrorists, violently try to define and defy the massive numbers of people in their communities who disagree with them.

Antagonizing and pushing away the 1.6 billion people in the Muslim world will do our country no good. Reaching out and understanding the complexity of that community that stretched across most of the world is vital for the security of this country.

If national security is a goal, and it is, then we need fewer enemies, not more.

Indeed, we all need to work to even further separate, and prove as outliers and transgressors, these groups from the much larger community of Muslims in our thinking and in our actions. I respectfully submit that the rhetoric needs to be toned down considerably and real strategic thinking and actions need to take hold.

The election is over. Now the reality of leadership has begun. And that leadership will face many complexities and dangers that need to be understood for what they are — and not just what some would like to think they are. Realism, strategic thinking, and strategic actions are needed for the sake of national and international security and stability.

Yes, go after or neutralize the enemies of the country whose intent is to do us harm, but please do not make more enemies by going after or insulting our allies, potential allies, and even our friends. Many of the military and other people I have worked with, taught, and have known as friends will tell you how important those positive relations in the Muslim world have been and can be in the future — for the national security of the US and global stability.

The Middle East is far more complex than what the above shows. But this is a very limited article. Overall, I respectfully recommend that the real professionals and those who have dust and mud on their boots, and vast experience, be brought into the discussions regularly — and make sure these are the people who will have the courage and guts to be blunt, to the point, and tell it the way it is and could be, unlike the careerists and narrow-minded ideologues who have brought us into quagmires and traps in the past. A lot can be learned from the true experts who really care about the issues, especially those who have seen the wrenching developments. Yet, some hope — in a region that is still in search of its future.

We Knew the World Would Not be the Same


Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory

On July 16, 1945, the United States tested the world’s first nuclear device in the desert of Alamogordo, New Mexico, ushering in the Atomic Age.

Development and production of the atomic bomb began during World War II because of fears that Nazi Germany would develop one. For nearly three years U.S. scientists, scattered at various top secret sites across the country, worked feverishly to develop this weapon. And, though the war in Europe ended before the bomb was finished, development of the weapon continued.


Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory
Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory


Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory
Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory


To the scientists working on this bomb, it was known as the Gadget.

The Gadget’s core was made from plutonium. Perfectly synchronized conventional explosives surrounding the plutonium sphere rapidly crushed it increasing its density and starting a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

For the test, code-named Trinity, the bomb was hoisted up a 100-foot steel tower. Observers watched the test from a shelter located more than 5 miles from the explosion as well as a base camp 10 miles from the explosion.


Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory
Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory


Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory
Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory


Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory
Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory


Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory
Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory


The explosion was equivalent to detonating 21,000 tons of TNT and released enough energy to power a modern American home for over 2000 years.

It obliterated the steel tower, and turned the sand to green glass.


Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory
Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory


Photo by: Los Alamos Laboratory
Photo by: Los Alamos Laboratory


Several observers standing more than 5 miles away were knocked flat from the explosion. The sound was heard up to 100 miles away. A window 125 miles away was broken by the blast. Light from the explosion was seen up to 180 miles away.

Eyewitness to the event, Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell, wrote, “The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined.”

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita… “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all felt that, one way or another. 

— J. Robert Oppenheimer

The day after the test, seventy scientists working on the project petitioned the President not to use the bomb on Japan unless Japan was informed of the terms that would be imposed on it after the war and yet still refused to surrender.

Hauntingly, these scientists also warned of a future in which “…the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation.”


Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratory
Photo by: Los Alamos National Laboratoy


Petition from Leo Szilard and Other Scientists to President Harry S. Truman [General Correspondence 1940–1950]; Records of the Office of the Chief Engineers, 1789–1999, Record Group 77; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD [online version available through the Archival Research Catalog (ARC identifier 6250638) at; June 3, 2016].
Petition from Leo Szilard and Other Scientists to President Harry S. Truman [General Correspondence 1940–1950]; Records of the Office of the Chief Engineers, 1789–1999, Record Group 77; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD [online version available through the Archival Research Catalog (ARC identifier 6250638) at; June 3, 2016].

Three weeks later, the United States went on to bomb the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first and hopefully last time nuclear weapons will be used in war. We know that over the past 71 years, 8 more nations have acquired nuclear weapons. And we know that, especially during the Cold War, we have been perilously close to annihilation at times. On this anniversary of the Trinity test, take a moment to remember how the world changed forever that day. The advent of the nuclear age held with it both promise and terror. Let us hope for a day when the cities of the world are no longer held at risk, for a day when we can harness the power of the atom in our fight against climate change and not against one another.


Tara Drozdenko is the Managing Director for Nuclear Policy and Nonproliferation at Outrider. She has over a decade of experience in the National Security field and several years of experience managing complex government programs and supervising teams of talented researchers at both the U.S. State and Treasury departments. She earned a Ph.D. in plasma physics in 2001 and has worked for the U.S. Navy on issues related to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and for the U. S. State Department on Nonproliferation and Arms Control issues.

Contact information: [email protected]; @TaraDrozdenko, @Outriderfdn

George Rathjens: A Reflection


1925 – 2016

On one of my last visits with George, we were having dinner at the assisted living facility where he had an apartment.  Looking over the dessert selections, I mused out loud that I wasn’t sure I knew the difference between sorbet and sherbet.

“Oh, that’s easy,” George said without missing a beat, “one’s French and the other’s English.”

This type of wry humor was typical of George, as was the unconventionality of his analytic mind.  Looking back on my 37-year friendship with him, if asked what one word best described how George approached problems and looked at the world, it would be “orthogonal.”  He always delighted in turning a problem inside out and looking at it from a variety of angles, recognizing, as Buckminster Fuller noted, that “every boundary is a useful bit of fiction.”

It was this type of thinking that made George such an asset in the numerous important positions he held prior to joining the MIT faculty in 1968: at the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense.

I first met George when I arrived at MIT in the fall of 1979 to begin Ph.D. work in the Defense and Arms Control Studies program of the Political Science department.  Along with Jack Ruina, William Kaufmann, Carl Kaysen, and other faculty, we graduate students were blessed by having teachers who, similar to George, constantly tested the boundaries of conventional thinking.

George had little patience for many things besides conventional thinking, one of them being graduate students who took more than 3-4 years to finish their studies, complete the dissertation, and obtain their degree.  He was constantly urging all of us to get to work, get the degree, and get the hell out of MIT and into the world.   In this, as in benefiting from his intellectual rigor, I was fortunate to have George on my thesis committee.

I also remember George having no patience for Air France, which he always found difficult to deal with in trying to get an exit row seat because of his 6’6” frame and the ever-shrinking economy class airline seat!

In early 1982, while finishing my thesis, George and Jack helped me get my first job after MIT, as director of the international security studies committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass.  One of my duties was assisting the Academy’s oversight of the U.S. Pugwash Committee, of which George and Jack were both members.  I remember well George’s pivotal role that spring and summer in the midst of a U.S. Pugwash controversy over whether to attend the Pugwash Quinquennial Conference in Warsaw, scheduled for August 26-31, 1982.

Given the imposition of martial law by Marshal Jaruzelski in December 1981 and the subsequent suppression of Solidarity and other pro-democracy movements, many U.S. Pugwash members called for cancelling or postponing the conference to avoid any appearance of conferring legitimacy on the Jaruzelski government.  For their part, Pugwash co-founder Joseph Rotblat and Secretary General Martin Kaplan urged that the conference go ahead so that Pugwash could fulfill its role of acting as an intermediary across the Cold War divide, especially in moments of crisis.

In the event, the Warsaw Conference did proceed and was the subject of continued debate within the international press and scientific community, all the more so as conference participants were the recipients of a contentious open letter by Andrei Sakharov, then under house arrest in Gorky in the Soviet Union, questioning the continued validity of Pugwash.  For his part, George went to Warsaw, but only to participate in separate meetings of the Pugwash Council, not the Conference.  Upon his return, he and others in U.S. Pugwash committed themselves to strengthening the work and effectiveness of both U.S. and international Pugwash.

Thus began my work with George and others at the American Academy and in Pugwash on various defense and foreign policy projects that tested conventional thinking in international security studies.  One noteworthy project  involved working with George and Tad Homer-Dixon of the University of Toronto in the 1990s on a multi-year American Academy study of environmental degradation and civil conflict that, sparked by George’s intellectual probing, led to landmark articles in Scientific American and the New York Times and helped create the field of environmental conflict studies that has gained such prominence today.

Then, in 1997, George succeeded Francesco Calogero as Secretary General of the Pugwash Conferences and I joined him as Pugwash Executive Director.  As anyone who was involved with Pugwash during George’s tenure from 1997 to 2002 knows, it was both an intellectually stimulating and at times contentious time for Pugwash.  George would often delight in playing devil’s advocate; he and Jo Rotblat in particular did not always see eye to eye in pursuing the Pugwash agenda of eliminating nuclear weapons and the scourge of war.  But well beyond any differences there may have been between them, George and Jo were both passionately committed to the mission and goals of Pugwash.  Each fervently believed there was one boundary that must never again be breached: the use of nuclear weapons against humanity.

During these years, my wife Sara and I joined George and his wife Lucy, often times joined by Claudia Vaughn and others from Pugwash, in traveling together following Pugwash meetings.  Especially memorable were Pugwash conferences and meetings in Mexico and South Africa, road trips through New England up to Pugwash, Nova Scotia, and from Havana to Cienfuegos and Santa Clara in Cuba, as well as the final large international conference of George’s tenure, held at UC San Diego in La Jolla in August of 2002, assisted greatly by Ruth Adams, Herb York, and Marvin Goldberger.

During our time together, we would be treated to great stories that George would tell of his travels around the world going back to the 1950s.  From icy scientific research in the Antarctic to escaping from Shining Path guerrillas on a mountain trail to Machu Picchu, George would regale us endlessly with wondrous tales of his (and Lucy’s) travels.

I know that one of George’s great pleasures in working with Pugwash were the friends and colleagues with whom he worked so closely on the Pugwash Council.  There were many of them, too numerous to list (and I apologize to those I don’t mention) but three in particular who George so admired and liked were Sverre Lodgaard, Marie Muller, and Michael Atiyah, and of course Claudia and Mimma de Santis in the Rome office.

George and I continued to stay in close touch after he left Pugwash, and even in declining health, he never lost his intellectual curiosity, expansive framework for viewing the world’s problems, or disdain for those political leaders who failed to confront head-on the major issues of our day.  I doubt many of the residents of Fairbanks, Alaska in June of 1925 – where George was born – could have foreseen all that he would experience and accomplish, in government, in academia, and through organizations such as Pugwash, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Council for a Livable World – or the lives of numerous colleagues and students that he would enrich so fully, mine included.

Oh, and the difference between sorbet and sherbet?  I now know, and am sure George did at the time, that it’s the simple presence or absence of up to 3% milkfat.  Of such are great memories made.

Jeffrey Boutwell is the former Executive Director of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. His working career consisted of 30+ years focusing on international security, nuclear weapons, and Middle East issues for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston (1982-2000) and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (2000-2010) in Washington, DC.

Contact information: [email protected]

Chernobyl After 30: The Vesuvius of our Time

© Szustka, iStock images

While Chernobyl has been by far the most serious nuclear accident in history and has probably put the brakes on nuclear power development worldwide more than any other event, this anniversary is a good time to assess how meaningful those lessons might be.

The decision to build Chernobyl was ill conceived; the design was faulty; its construction was botched (since the plant was opened without full testing of important design features); its management was flawed; and the execution of the critical tests, that were the immediate cause of the disaster, were ill advised.

The accident itself was initially denied; the blame was misplaced; show trials were held; and the guilt felt by a senior scientist was so great that it led to his suicide just two years later.

There have been exaggerated reports that have both overstated and understated the impact on the lives of people in the former Soviet Union and in Europe. After 30 years, there is some clarity on these numbers, but they remain controversial.

The poignancy of the Chernobyl event has been encapsulated in a touching collection of interviews by Belarusian writer, Svetlana Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 in recognition of her artistry in capturing these oral histories. One review of her work commented that she wrote about a “combination of disaster and mendacity.”

Today, we still struggle to unravel the origins of the disaster and the magnitude of the mendacity. The history of Chernobyl is a bizarre anomaly which offers few lessons for the future directions of nuclear energy, but much that is instructive about the need for openness and an absolute requirement for a culture of safety.

The smoldering remains of Reactor 4 are being covered with a huge airtight enclosure that we hope will protect society for at least the next 100 years. This enclosure, which is often referred to as a “sarcophagus,” is an international effort costing more than one and one-half billion euros and that is so large, it could encapsulate the soccer stadium of Paris.

But while the physical remains of reactor 4 can be shielded from view, we still confront, in plain sight, eleven similar reactors that are operating in the Russian Federation. There are several of this model that were closed since 1986, including two in Lithuania that were taken out of operation at the insistence of the European Union that would not allow the accession of Lithuania into the EU unless that were accomplished. While the eleven that are still operating have been modified to improve their safety, it is doubtful that they would pass current operating standards. We call upon Russia to work with the IAEA to carefully evaluate the status of these reactors.

Edward A. Friedman is the Professor Emeritus of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology. His undergraduate and doctorate degrees in Physics are from MIT (1957) and Columbia University (1963), respectively. He has had a long time interest in nuclear weapons issues. In recent years he has developed new courses that deal with nuclear weapons in international affairs and the threat of nuclear terrorism.

His career has included development of a computer intensive educational environment at Stevens, which in 1982, became the first college in the United States to require all students to own a computer. He played a key role in a U.S. government program to develop an indigenous college of engineering in Afghanistan, where he was director from 1970-1973. From 1988 thru 2004, he pioneered in the use of Internet resources in teaching mathematics and science in primary and secondary schools. From 2004 thru 2008, he worked with the United Nations Development Program on computer assisted medical diagnoses at rural clinics in Africa. Dr. Friedman received the national education medal from King Zaher Shah of Afghanistan and an Honorary Doctorate of Mathematics from Sofia University in Bulgaria. He was also awarded the New Jersey State Albert Einstein Medal for educational leadership.

Contact information: [email protected]

What Happened at Chernobyl 30 Years Ago?

The world’s worst nuclear power accident took place thirty years ago on April 26, 1986.  The accident released radioactive material over parts of Ukraine and Europe and permanently displaced 350,000 people. Thirty people, mostly firefighters, died from radiation exposure within months of the explosion. The long-term health impacts are ultimately unknown, but some studies suggest there could be thousands of premature deaths due to cancer. The 1621 square mile area surrounding the reactor (bigger than the state of Rhode Island), known as the “exclusion zone,” will not be safe for people to live in for at least 175 years, though there are a few people, mostly elderly, who have returned to their homes within the zone.

Sarcophagus surrounding the destroyed reactor.  Photo by Ukrainian Authorities
Sarcophagus surrounding the destroyed reactor. Photo by Ukrainian Authorities

After the accident, the Soviet authorities hastily constructed a “sarcophagus” to encase the damaged area so that the other three reactors on site could continue to operate.

The sarcophagus was not built to last, so the international community is building a New Safe Confinement structure designed to last 100 years. It is due for completion in 2017. The enormous structure is being built some distance away due to radiation concerns, and will be slid over the old sarcophagus and reactor building on rails.

So, how did the accident happen? Ironically, the events leading up to it centered around a special safety test, but the ultimate causes of the accident were an unsafe reactor design, insufficiently trained plant operators, a lack of safety culture, and a culture of secrecy that discouraged operators from thinking critically and taking initiative.

To understand exactly what happened, you first have to understand how the power plant works in broad strokes.

Uranium or plutonium atoms are split (also known as nuclear fission or nuclear reaction), producing heat. The heat boils water, which then turns into steam. The steam spins large turbines, which look something like large fans. The turbines are attached to generators, and spinning them produces electricity.

Three other things you need to know:

(1) In the Chernobyl reactor design, as the water circulated through the reactor, it cooled the reactor. Some of it turned into steam, and some of the steam was used to spin the turbines.  Eventually, the steam was condensed back into water and it recirculated, continuing to cool the reactor.

(2) Power plants control how many nuclear reactions are taking place by inserting and removing “control rods” into the core of the reactor. The control rods are made of materials which absorb neutrons. The neutrons are what cause the uranium or plutonium to split. So, by inserting the control rod, you absorb some of the neutrons and can slow down the number of nuclear reactions. By removing the control rod, you can increase the number of nuclear reactions because more neutrons are available to split the uranium or plutonium. However, the design of the control rods in the Chernobyl reactor was poor. The way they were designed, there was an increase in nuclear reactions for just a few seconds as they were inserted.

(3) Also in this reactor design, when the reactor is operating at low power, an increase in the amount of steam present can cause the number of nuclear reactions to increase. This is because the water acts a bit like a control rod and absorbs some neutrons. When it turns to steam, there are more air pockets, and the steam doesn’t absorb as many neutrons as the water. So, an increase in steam leads to more reactions, which in turn generates more heat, which then produces more steam.

So, back to the special safety test.

Progress of the New Safe Confinement structure as of March 31, 2016.  Photo by Ukrainian Authorities
Progress of the New Safe Confinement structure as of March 31, 2016. Photo by Ukrainian Authorities

The test was an attempt to see if, in the event of power loss, the turbines in the power plant would keep spinning long enough to keep the water pumps running until the emergency generators kicked in. The reactor had a safety system that would automatically shut it down by inserting control rods if it detected a loss in steam supply to the turbine. In other words, if the water pumps stopped, the reactor would shut itself down.

Before the test started, they bypassed that safety feature and made sure the reactor would keep running even if there wasn’t enough water circulating. The reactor was operating at low power.  Remember, in this state, more steam can lead to more nuclear reactions. The power level was too low for them to conduct the test, so they removed some control rods — too many, in fact.  They exceeded the established safety standards. Only then did they start the test.

The turbines shut down. The water pumps stopped. This caused a steam build up, which caused the nuclear reactions to increase, generating even more heat.  At this point, they tried to reinsert the control rods to slow down the reactions, but the Chernobyl control rods caused the nuclear reactions to increase for just a few seconds after they were inserted, generating even more heat. The fuel inside the reactor started to break apart. Steam explosions destroyed the reactor core and blew the roof off the building. Fires broke out everywhere. The whole thing went down in under a minute.

A lot of things changed after the Chernobyl accident. The Soviets tried to cover it up at first, but ultimately they weren’t able to keep it under wraps for long. Western governments applied intense pressure on the Soviets to provide details about the accident. Ultimately, Gorbachev was fully transparent about the accident, in contradiction to the traditional Soviet culture of secrecy. Changes were made to Soviet reactors of similar design, as well as the control rods, so that they now operate safely. Secrecy no longer abounds, and technical exchanges take place between countries. There is also now a more highly developed culture of safety.

There are many lessons that can be learned from the Chernobyl accident but I think the most important one is this: Cooperation and exchange among the international scientific community is vitally important. The Soviet culture of secrecy surrounding their nuclear programs prevented input on safer reactor and control rod designs. And technical exchanges could have established industry best practices and fostered a culture of safety. Just talking to one another could have prevented the accident in the first place.

Tara Drozdenko is the Managing Director for Nuclear Policy and Nonproliferation at Outrider. She has over a decade of experience in the National Security field and several years of experience managing complex government programs and supervising teams of talented researchers at both the U.S. State and Treasury departments. She earned a Ph.D. in plasma physics in 2001 and has worked for the U.S. Navy on issues related to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and for the U. S. State Department on Nonproliferation and Arms Control issues.

Contact information: [email protected]; @TaraDrozdenko, @Outriderfdn

Low Pollution at the Lowest Cost

As we consider America’s actions to counter climate change, one fact stands out: Our largest solutions to power plant pollution are going broke. Clean alternatives to fossil fueled electric generators are under pressure from low natural gas prices. Power prices are so low that four nuclear plants have recently announced that they will close. Other new technologies can’t make a profit either.

These low power prices do not take into account the costs of pollution. The National Academies report The Hidden Cost of Energy estimates that the costs of pollution from power plants (without considering costs related to climate change) should add just under 20% to the price of power. Economists favor that solution since it would allow markets to operate efficiently.

We can’t bring ourselves to do that in the United States. Instead, we adopt strategies such as renewable portfolio standards (RPS) to reduce pollution.

The trouble is that “low pollution” and “renewable” are not synonyms. America generates 32% of its power from low polluting generators, only 6% of which is from sources that qualify under an RPS.

The remaining clean 24% of our electric generation is in trouble. We are closing nuclear plants that generate as much electricity as all the wind plants in Texas; in fact, as much as all the wind installed in the USA in the past three years. Even new hydroelectric projects can’t make money in this market. And development of advanced pollution capture technology for fossil fuel plants and other innovative generators is largely moribund since investors see no reward.

Fortunately, there is a practical solution. We can broaden the RPS concept to be a low pollution portfolio standard, sometimes called a capacity portfolio standard. Such a standard would allow all low-pollution sources to qualify.

New York’s Governor Cuomo is considering a similar step. New York, Pennsylvania, and many other states should act now to support all low pollution sources of electricity by requiring that a large fraction of electricity come from such sources by a date certain.

For years, models of the electric power system have shown that the price of power is greatly increased whenever policy choices are artificially restricted. The President’s “all of the above” strategy acknowledges this. But restricting ourselves to only certain types of low pollution generators through an RPS does not.

Economists call the cost of such restrictions a shadow price. And the effects are large: if the portfolio of pollution reduction options is restricted, the wholesale electricity price will be much higher than if a full portfolio is used. How much higher? Models by the Electric Power Research Institute show that limiting the portfolio can result in prices doubling over the next generation compared to the same pollution reduction with all clean sources allowed.

If we restrict ourselves to the few sources of low polluting power that are allowed under renewable portfolio standards, there is a real danger that we will quickly price ourselves out of clean energy.

We are now making a modest pollution reduction through RPSs, including reducing greenhouse gases a little. But that will likely not be the least expensive way of making the big reductions we need.

If we were to rely only on ever-increasing RPS targets, we would run into two main problems. First, some areas of the country simply don’t have bountiful renewable resources. But those same regions would be fertile ground for other technologies.

Second, a truly large-scale power system based on only wind and solar would be much more expensive than one based on a full portfolio of low polluting generators. Money saved on fuel would not be nearly enough to offset the additional cost of transmission lines, storage, and the additional turbines and solar plants that are necessary to compensate for the fact that the wind doesn’t blow nor the sun shine as often as other plants are able to run.

A combination of renewable and other low-pollution generators will achieve a given target for reducing conventional and greenhouse gas pollution at significantly lower cost than renewables alone.

By putting all clean power sources on the same footing, we can gain the benefits of reducing pollution at the lowest cost. A low pollution capacity standard would save middle-class jobs. Forbes reports that the average worker at the Fitzpatrick nuclear plant in New York earns a bit over $100,000 annually. At the Kemper carbon dioxide capture plant in Mississippi, over 6,000 workers were employed in construction, and the plant will generate more than $40 million annually in local tax revenues.

Wind and solar power are big business now, and good for them! But we can’t forget that innovating to zero pollution requires that all entrants be given a chance.

With a shift from renewable portfolio standards to low pollution capacity standards, we can correct the failure of the market to price pollution at the lowest cost. Pennsylvania, New York, and other states (such as Illinois) have nuclear plants closing due to bargain-basement power prices that don’t account for costs of conventional or greenhouse gas pollution. Those states should lead the way in adopting broader standards that encourage all low pollution generators.

Jay Apt is a Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and in the CMU Department of Engineering and Public Policy. He is the Co-Director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center and Director of the RenewElec (renewable electricity) project. He has authored more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals as well as two books and several book chapters. He has published op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post.  Professor Apt received an A.B. in physics from Harvard College in 1971 and a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in 1997 and the Metcalf Lifetime Achievement Award for significant contributions to engineering in 2002.

Contact information: [email protected]; 412-268-3003

Thinking Outside Fukushima

This month—nearly two and a half years after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) finally admitted that it needed outside help to control the numerous problems at its stricken plant.

After news broke recently that at least 300 metric tons of contaminated water leaked from above-ground storage tanks into the surrounding soil, the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), an agency formed after the Fukushima crisis, classified the situation as a serious incident—a three on the International Nuclear Event Scale (far from the highest level seven, a major accident, which was the scale of the Fukushima accident in March 2011).

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Lessons Unlearned

Syria is the first WMD-armed country to descend into civil war. How the United States and the world handles Syria will unmistakably affect future dealings in similar situations in which hostile countries possess WMDs. To get the WMD assessment in Syria right, U.S. and world leaders will have to break free of the past habits of obfuscation, unsound scientific forensics, and withholding of conflicting data.

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Syria’s age-old Question

In an op-ed published in The Hill, Charles P. Blair writes that before the Obama administration acts on Syria, there are a variety of factors that need to be considered including a deadly chemical weapons stockpile and growing instability in the Middle East. Blair writes that there are no simple solutions and finding answers takes time before taking immediate action.

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