An Exclusive Nuclear Street Interview with Dr. James Mahaffey, author of ATOMIC AWAKENING:  A NEW LOOK AT THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF NUCLEAR POWER

- By Randy Brich -

Dr. James Mahaffey synergistically merges education, experience and philosophy into a rational approach toward thinking about nuclear power.  Dr. Mahaffey’s writing skill, together with his engineering acumen provides a thoroughly energizing, thought-provoking discussion concerning all things nuclear.  Nuclear Street jumped at a chance to interview Dr. Mahaffey, who graciously agreed to take time out of his busy and important writing duties to respond frankly and honestly to some of the more pressing nuclear issues of our time. 

Nuclear Street:  Roughly how many hours of research and writing went into your book ATOMIC AWAKENING, what other projects are you working on and what research tools do you find most useful?
Dr. James Mahaffey:  Hard to estimate with engineering accuracy.  I signed the contract with Pegasus to write Atomic Awakening on 5 February 2008, and the research was full time, 10 hours a day.  However, I had signed another contract with Facts On File to write a 6-volume set of books on nuclear power on 29 October 2007.  The first book in this series is "The History of Nuclear Power."  Although it seems very similar in theme to Atomic Awakening, it's actually a completely different book, written for a different audience, using the National Scholastic Education Standards as a style guide.  The two books required basically the same research, and are written from the same filing cabinet of notes.  The Facts On File set is written as a reference for high school juniors, seniors, and college freshmen.  Upon seeing my first sample chapter, the editor at FOF had to warn me, "Don't be cute.  Follow the guidelines."  Atomic Awakening, on the other hand, was written for the general audience, for as many people as it can reach.  It was written specifically to be a fast, interesting read.
As for research tools, I read a lot of new books, and I re-read some books that I had digested 35 years ago, seeing them now in a different light.  I used my memory as a resource, but some of the most interesting material was found on the new research resource, the Internet.  In fact, this book, with some of its "new" details, could not have been written 15 years ago, before we had such marvelous access to information.  Now, you can do 3 years of library research in a few days, and there are things available that simply were not at hand before the Internet was fully developed.  Now, for example, instead of relying on an old textbook for an account of Becquerel's discovery of natural radiation, which is most likely distorted, I found facsimiles of Becquerel's original papers on the Internet.  I can even get a French-to-English translation easily.  The story is more accurate, and it makes more logical sense, when it is reconstructed from fundamental sources.
A lot of interesting source material was locked up as classified documents when I was in graduate school, and we were relying on what many people in the national labs relied on as an information source: rumors.  In the later 1980's much of that material, particularly from the atomic bomb development labs, was declassified, and by the early 1990's you could actually access and read it.  Many histories of the atomic bomb and nuclear technology had been written without some of this information.  It makes a more complete and possibly a more interesting history when you can work from original reports and memos.
NS:  With the decisions to not fund Yucca Mountain and to retire GNEP, do you have a sense of optimism regarding the energy paths the U.S. is currently following, or, would you prefer to see a different path be taken? If so, what path would you prefer the U.S. explore?
Mahaffey:  I was dismayed but not particularly surprised when Yucca Mountain and GNEP got the axe.  Yucca is the most blatantly political hot potato I've ever seen.  It makes absolutely no scientific or engineering sense not to use the facility for its designed purpose, and I don't think that GNEP is going to equip splinter terrorist groups with nuclear weapons.  I am optimistic that we have not seen the last of the Yucca Mountain as a waste repository.  Eventually, the self-serving political aspect of the funding cut will be so embarrassingly obvious that it will be difficult to justify it in the most democratic of legislative branches.
Even if you detest nuclear power to the point that you refuse to use 20 percent of the electricity coming out of your wall, there are still 100 plants that have burnt fuel to be put somewhere.  There is simply no choice.  It must be buried, like it or not, and we spent a lot of time and treasure coming up with an appropriate hole for it.  It makes no fiscal sense to find another place and dig another hole.  I hope that a new sense of monetary reality will take hold of the government, and Yucca Mountain will be reconsidered.  Anti-nuclear forces are apparently terrified, that if Yucca is allowed, it will solve the spent-fuel problem and nuclear power will be set free to take over the United States and crush all organic/solar/breezy, non-life-threatening power sources.  We should be so lucky.
NS:  If you were President what tangible steps would you take now to make your energy dream a reality in the near future? 
Mahaffey:  If I were President?  If I were President, I would go to lunch with Harry Reid.  I would tell him that he's brilliant, he's obviously presidential material, I approve of the fire in his belly, and I want him to pretend that Yucca Mountain is in West Virginia.  I would recommend the Australian chardonnay.
Under the last President measures were put in place, such as federal building loans and modified siting regulations, to gently encourage an expansion of nuclear power.  New concerns about atmospheric chemistry play into nuclear power expansion perfectly, and it is interesting to see environmental advocacy groups squirm and avoid this obvious connection.  As President, I would want to push the nuclear power expansion forward as hard as I could without breaking something, and that does not mean relaxing safety-related regulations.  If anything, they could be tightened up.
I learned things writing this book.  I started to see patterns and unobvious trends emerge from the noise of history.  There is nothing particularly safe about releasing thermal energy at the rate of a billion watts in a moderately sized concrete building.  The most dangerous thing we can do is to become so used to safety in nuclear plants that we no longer think about it.  As long as you treat nuclear power like it wants to kill you, an excellent level of safety can be achieved.  As President, I would be aware that this vitally important, inevitable form of energy has yet to win the hearts and minds of the American people.  A way to get there, eventually, is to keep the injury levels so low that the press finds it uninteresting. 
NS:  Since you’re not President and the new Administration appears adamant about following a soft energy path that eschews coal and nuclear would you care to comment on how you think the future might play out?
Mahaffey:  Actually, it makes perfect sense to build an energy economy on coal.  It is, after all, the low bidder.  Nuclear power has never fully accepted the fact that it is an expensive way to generate power.  But, so is solar, and so is wind.  They may, in fact, be even more expensive than nuclear.  Power generation methods in general have a problem coming to grips with the eventual, ultimate bottom-line cost.
This argument worked for decades, but in the new century the accounting of cost is not as simple as it used to be.  There are new factors, such as global warming.   How do you factor in the cost of global warming?  Are we serious about wanting to affect the climate-change, preventing global warming?  If so, coal may have to be phased out.   In our future, coal may be an industrial feed material, but not so much a major source of energy.
In the future, the concept of "clean coal" will be a punch line and not a policy, and plans to put carbon dioxide back in the ground may be particularly hilarious.  In the long term, nuclear power is inevitable, if we are to maintain or expand civilization and the world population.  Like it or not, we will go nuclear.  We have no choice.  It would be best if we know what we are getting into better than we, as an industrial-world population, are presently aware.

NS:  Any thoughts on this piece that recently appeared online:
Climate Bill Ignores Our Biggest Clean Energy Source

Mahaffey:  Two thoughts:
1)  Yes, the energy bill seems to ignore the huge potential of nuclear power as a complete solution to the various energy crises.  I say "seems," because I'm not sure anyone has actually read the bill.  I know that I have not.  From all that I can gather, the bill is less a technical solution to energy/atmospheric-chemistry problems and more a surreptitious means of imposing further taxation.  If so, then I would rather nuclear not be mentioned in this bill.
2)  The IFR, or integral fast reactor, is a marvelous idea.  It has always been a marvelous idea.  We used to call it the "LMFBR," or liquid metal fast breeder reactor.  The general concept of the fast reactor has always been a darling of the core physicists, because of its complexity and the neat trick of over-converting U-238 (making more fissile material than is needed to balance  what is burned).  The engineers, on the other hand, have generally found it a painful exercise, full of overlapping problems that look better on paper than they do in a reactor building.
In the beginning, or right after the war, we had no guarantee of a uranium supply, and the only way to make a uranium economy was thought to be by implementing the LMFBR.  The first power generated was from the experimental fast breeder reactor project in Idaho.  Engineering for the LMFBR thus got off to an early and well-funded start.
Why aren't all our power reactors LMFBRs?  Why was the Seawolf, the second nuclear powered submarine ever built, converted from LMFBR to PWR?  Why isn't Superphoenix generating power in France?  Why do they now call the design IFR, and not just LMFBR?
The answers are not simple.  I cringe when ever an engineering team designs a power reactor that can't possibly melt down.  That means they are not planning for it to melt down, and zero thought has been given to what you do when it melts.  Quick, how many liquid metal reactors can you think of that have not melted?  Not one was thought capable of it.  But, the big problem is the coolant.  Liquefied sodium or a sodium-potassium alloy, called "nak."  It activates readily under neutron bombardment, and it reacts explosively with air or water.  You can't spill a drop of it.  Atop all that, there has never been a need for this reactor, so far.  Uranium is still cheap.  From a purely accounting sense, there's no fiscal reason to breed fuel when you can just dig it up.
Having said all this, of course we need the IFR, and I greatly approve of the features of this design.  Eventually, if everything goes as it should, uranium will not be cheap anymore, and the breeder is the perfect solution to this change in availability.  As I stated, it always appeals to the physicist.  On the bottom line, the only problem with the IFR/LMFBR is that we are not to the crisis stage yet, with people and politicians screaming for a breeder reactor and why haven't we developed one yet?  Patience.  It will come.

NS:  Would you care to comment on the following excerpt from a piece by Dr. Perry Rahn, retired Geology Professor at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, that recently appeared in Prairie and Pines Newsletter of the Black Hills Chapter of the Sierra Club?  “The crux of the problem with nuclear energy is not the uranium mining, nor is it reactor safety, nor is it the disposal of high-level radioactive waste.  The most important liability of nuclear fission is the deliberate misuse of nuclear facilities and materials by terrorists.”

Mahaffey:  Ever worked at a nuclear plant?  Those that have know the profound absurdity of terrorists using nuclear facilities.  A nuclear power plant has only one purpose: to push electrons down a triangular array of three copper wires.  This, in a roundabout way, makes money for the owners of the power plant.  Any other activity, including the deliberate misuse of the facilities and materials by terrorists, is not on the work schedule.  How much of this activity has been observed, so far?

NS:  Finally, what should a small state like South Dakota with a peak load of less than 3,000 MW (3 nuclear plants) across 77,000 square miles be doing in the energy policy field?

Mahaffey:  Get on board, and help promote a stable, non-polluting base-power for the United States, bringing us up to French standards without embracing their silly metric system.  We're all in this together, and we all eventually breathe the same air and are washed by the same rain.  Worry about Chinese energy policies with the rest of us, and look forward to compact, inexpensive factory-built nuclear plants in the future, perfect for a wonderful place like South Dakota.  In the meantime, do not discount wind power in SD.  Honestly, it could be the most sensible way to make power in SD, given the terrain and the energy requirements.  It's hard, but try not to think of nuclear fission as the end-all solution to all energy challenges.

NS: Thanks for the interview and good luck with your books!

Mahaffey:  Thank you, Randy, for the thought-provoking questions.  It’s time for everyone to at least think about nuclear power and form an opinion.

James Mahaffey was employed at the Georgia Tech Research Institute for 25 years, and was a senior research scientist when he left to work in nanotechnology as Head of Advanced Research at Nanoventions Inc. in Roswell, Georgia.  While at GTRI, he directed or worked on projects for the U. S. Defense Nuclear Agency, the U. S. National Ground Intelligence Center, the U. S. Air Force Air Logistics Center, and other government and private industrial organizations, in such areas as nuclear power,  non-linear analysis,  digital systems design,  and cold fusion.  He holds a bachelor of science in physics as well as a master of science and a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.  He is currently a full-time writer and consultant, and he lives in Atlanta with his wife, Carolyn, and two box turtles.


NS Book Review: ATOMIC AWAKENING: A NEW LOOK AT THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF NUCLEAR POWER - A Nuclear Street Book Review by Randy Brich - Every once in a while an author comes along, publishes his first book and hits a home run. James Mahaffey not only hits a home run but knocks the proverbial ball clear... 

About Randy Brich
Randy graduated from South Dakota State University in 1978 with a M.S. in Biology.  After developing the State of South Dakota’s environmental radiological monitoring program, he became a Health Randy BrichPhysicist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, eventually transferring to the Department of Energy where he specialized in environmental monitoring, worker protection, waste cleanup and systems biology.  Later in his career he published a multi-sport adventure guide book and became a regular contributor to The Entertainer Newspaper’s Great Outdoor section. 

Since then he has retired from the federal government and, after taking time out to build an energy efficient house near the Missouri River, has formed Diamond B Communications LLC.  Diamond B Communications LLC uses a multimedia approach to explain complex energy resource issues to technical and non-technical audiences.  He also guides for Dakota Bike Tours, the Relaxed Adventure Company, offering tours of the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Devils Tower National Monument.

If you have questions, comments, or know of a book that you think Randy should review Email Randy Brich>>

  • Anonymous

    I started reading the book " Atomic awakening".  It has been a plesure  to read it,  I am in page 59..  

  • Anonymous

    A great book.  A pleasure to read.  In fact I had trouble putting it down.  It is exceptionally well written.  I'll be looking for more books by this man!

    Have you ever interviewed Gwyneth Cravens?

  • Anonymous

    I wish you had asked him about Thorium reactors and all the attention they are getting from the Google Techtalk series.

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic book. I was fascinated with the romp through atomic history in this condensed form. The location for Dawson Forest towards the end was incorrect but still a very interesting book!

  • Anonymous

    I read the article in Wired (Jan 2010) about Thorium reactors and found it interesting his recent "Comentary" in the Eugene Register Guard failed to mention this "buried" US government program and the possibility other countries around the world seem to be in the process of implementing the technology while our government continues business as usual.

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting and well written book.  The topic could not be more timely.  Our nation needs Nuclear Power if we are to survive.  We knew this back in the 1960's as research and system design pointed to a self sustaining, non polluting Nuclear Hydrogen Economy.  Maybe there is still hope.  Thanks Jim for getting it started again!

  • Anonymous

    A great book, well worth reading.   My only complaint is that Dr. Mahaffey seems opposed to fast neutron reactors.   He covers the failures (EBR-I, Monju and Santa Susanna), but writes not a word about the success of EBR-II, which ran flawlessly for 30 years, proved the concept of fast neutron reactors, but was shut down in the Clinton administration for what seemed to be purely political reasons.  That's a shame, since fast neutron reactors can eliminate "nuclear waste" by burning it to produce energy, which solves the problem of disposal.   For more info about fast neutron reactors, read "Prescription for the Planet" by Tom Blees.

  • Anonymous

    and what about the 'fast' reactors- the ones that burn spent fuel?

  • Anonymous

    I just finished the book, it is excellent. He explained Three Mile Island almost as well as the late Dr Edward Teller who I met in the early 1980's. I did not get to meet Einstein, Dr Teller was a worthy substitute.One very useful characteristic of the pressure water reactor is the fast response, on or off, Just what we need to handle the unpredictable power of solar and wind. The Canadian CANDU cannot response anywhere as fast. There is enough engineers now, what we need are salesmen to sell more reactors. I get the creeps with fast breeder reactors, they are temperamental, maybe they should be in the Yucca mountain to make fuel,but not the self regulating PWR. If the country are faced with brown outs and rolling black outs, the oppositions to nuclear would evaporate instantly.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous   Atomic Awakening.

    I get it, a nuclear plant in your neighborhood would save you energy, when you are glowing in the dark, you do not have to turn on the lights to read. You know there is trouble when the condiments on your table have a number behind the name !!