Book Review: Nuclear options

Nuclear Power, Walter C. Patterson. (Pelican, 1983).

Ever since the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in Chicago Pile Number 1 in December 1942, nuclear technology has never been far from controversy. The first public display of nuclear power came in August 1945 with the destruction of Hiroshima by a bomb made with the fissile isotope of uranium. From the outset the inherent connection between the civil and military uses of the atom was recognised. The British Maud Committee, convened to examine the feasibility of a “uranium bomb” in 1941. and the 1946 Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy, realised that the civil and military applications of nuclear technology were interchangeable and interdependent. If that was not enough to contend with, nuclear technology has given rise to such controversies as reactor safety; the effects of low-level radiation; the disposal of high-level waste; the economy and reliability of nuclear power stations compared to coal-fired stations; and, of course, the nuclear arms race which has continued unabated since 1945. In the new edition of Nuclear Power Walter Patterson condenses all these problems into about two hundred pages and in doing so provides a very useful summary of nuclear power issues.

Many of the controversies that surround nuclear technology make little sense without an understanding of the fission process itself and the nuclear fuel cycle. Part One of Nuclear Power is devoted to the technicalities of nuclear fission, such as how plutonium is produced in a reactor. There are chapters on how a nuclear reactor works; the different types of reactors favoured by the world’s nuclear industries; and the nuclear fuel cycle which, as Patterson notes, “gives rise to many of the most controversial aspects of nuclear technology”. In this respect Patterson’s book remains one of the best introductions to nuclear technology, a fact which was reluctantly conceded by the then Chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, Sir John Hill, a few years after publication of the first edition in 1976.

Patterson’s description of the development of the H-Bomb, however, is a little misleading. In the 1940s. the H-Bomb was widely referred to as the super bomb. On page 113 Patterson states:

The Americans are commonly credited with having detonated the first thermonuclear explosion . . . but it was in no sense an H-bomb. It was an explosion of a large-scale experimental installation, nearly sixty tons of delicate equipment.

The Americans in the “Mike” shot of 1952, referred to above, used liquid deuterium as the thermonuclear fuel. This material has to be stored under high pressures and very low temperatures involving complicated pressure vessels and refrigeration plants; this would explain the enormous weight of sixty tons. However, the Mike shot was a superbomb since it was made possible by a small fission explosion which ignited a large fusion explosion. Patterson states that “the Soviet thermonuclear explosion of 12 August 1952 was a true H-bomb, portable and droppable”. Although it was a thermonuclear device, or as the Russians would say “one of the types of thermonuclear bomb”, it was not a superbomb. It used lithium deuteride as its thermonuclear fuel which is considerably easier to handle than liquid deuterium. The Soviet test ignited a fairly small amount of thermonuclear fuel with a comparatively large amount of fissionable material producing a yield in the region of 200-400 kilotons — much less than the American fission bomb test of November 1952. In March 1954 the Americans in “Operation Castle” detonated a superbomb, codenamed “Bravo”, fuelled by lithium deuteride which had a yield of 15 megatons. Hie Russians tested their first superbomb in November 1955, but it only produced a yield of 1.6 megatons.

One thing, however, is clear: the development of nuclear technology is subject to the limitations imposed by the type of society in which it exists. For example, in the chapter entitled “Nuclenomics” Patterson outlines the intense economic competition of the major nuclear supplier states to sell nuclear technology to the developing world. Indeed the competition between the United States and the Europeans represents the conflicting interests of different sections of the capitalist class over sensitive nuclear technologies and materials, like complete reactors and uranium fuel — commodities like any other of capitalism’s wealth.

Nuclear power produces dangerous long lived waste products, but it is not the only dangerous technology. The emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, for example, may have equally damaging environmental consequences. Other industrial processes produce highly toxic chemical wastes which are dumped into the world’s seas and rivers.

In his concluding chapter, “The Nuclear Horizon”. Patterson states:

We stand today before an abundance of potentialities and possibilities, the options are still open. Within the present generation they will almost certainly be foreclosed. The decisions now impending will affect not merely global energy supply and demand. but the entire organisation of our global society . . . Before we commit ourselves and our descendants to a nuclear future, it is vital that we concur in understanding the nature of our commitment.

It is, however, not a question of nuclear power or no nuclear power; but rather one relating to the entire re-organisation of society when the abundance of possibilities and potentialities is translated into reality.

John Walker