Grundgens, it turns out, had not begun his career as a Nazi but as a leftist: He may in fact have flirted with becoming a 1920's German communist. But in order to control the German theater, he surrendered whatever principles he may have had, and began to run a theater that served the 1930's Nazi ideas of Aryan art.
I like to begin my diary entries on tangents, even though almost all of my entries are about the same thing, energy, in particular, nuclear energy. One may wonder therefore what on earth, Mephisto, Aryan Art, and Szabo's film have to do with nuclear energy, so I'll get on with it.
I saw the film a long time ago, and I've forgotten much about it, except a particular scene when the Grundgens character, Hendrik Hofgen, is sitting before the Goering character, Tábornagy, who is reviewing the past files on Hofgren, shaking his head more as an amused remonstrance than a threat, asking Hofgren what on earth "his Mephisto" could have been thinking.
I have always wondered whether Szabo might have reflected, either in writing the script or filming the scene, on a similar event that some say took place not in Europe, but in the United States, when General Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project administratively, chose Robert Oppenheimer as its scientific director.
Groves took a lot of flak for naming Oppenheimer, even in the 1940's when the Soviet Union was an American ally, because Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty had been what the Red Scare FBI of the 1950's would call " premature anti-fascists," that is, he and she were suspected of being people who were communist sympathizers. Oppenheimer did in fact become the scientific director of the Manhattan Project although not before enduring some finger wagging from Groves about his past that must have looked very much like the scene in the Mephisto film where Tábornagy dresses down Hofgren.
Of course, Groves would have been out of luck if he pushed questions about communist sympathies and leftist attitudes. He would have been unable to build his bomb. Many, maybe even almost all, of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project had leftist sympathies. They weren't building a bomb in order to advance American hegemony. They were building it because they were afraid the Nazis would build one first. A few Manhattan Project scientists in fact had been communists, and some still were communists. One Manhattan Project scientist, Karl Fuchs, in fact thought that Stalin was a swell guy, and was feeding the Soviets details about the American nuclear program, including a description of Edwin Teller's ideas about the "Super," the bomb we would come to know as the hydrogen bomb. Robert Oppenheimer's brother Frank, who would go on to found the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco, had been a member of the American Communist Party and was, for much of the 1950's blacklisted. (Even though, like his brother Robert, he was a world class physicist, Frank Oppenheimer would only be able to get a job as a high school science teacher in Colorado, where he was shadowed by the FBI.)
There is no evidence to suggest that Robert Oppenheimer had been a communist, but he was clearly a leftist in his outlook, and during the 1950's his security clearance was pulled on the grounds he was a threat to national security because of this. (It cannot have helped Oppenheimer that upon meeting President Truman, he announced, "I have blood on my hands," whereupon Truman responded, "I suggest you wash them." Later Truman told his staff that he didn't "want to see that son-of-a-bitch in my office again." It also did not help that Oppenheimer, faithful to his liberal roots, opposed the nuclear arms race that arose after the war, including the development of the hydrogen bomb.)
Because of their obvious brilliance, the scientists on the Manhattan Project were all critical thinkers. This reflected not only in their science, but also in their politics, as well as their moral outlook on their responsibility to their fellow humans. Few were prone to black and white thinking, meaning that they actually weighed things and acted on the best information they had. Of course, many of us today question their decisions, but we should know that these men and women questioned themselves constantly.
The Manhattan project actually invented two types of nuclear weapons, one that relied on the separation of isotopes from natural uranium and one that relied on the production of what was then a new element, plutonium. The first approach actually didn't require the existence of nuclear reactors at all, but the second clearly did. Since the scientists at the time didn't know which approach would work the fastest, they tried both. The world's first industrial scale nuclear reactor was a weapons reactor, the B-reactor, at Hanford Washington, which operated for more than 20 years producing quite a bit of plutonium for quite a few nuclear weapons.
The B reactor had a power rating of over 250 MW for most of its tenure, but it never produced a single watt of electricity. All of its heat was dumped as waste. However the engineers and scientists who built and operated this plant recognized immediately that in theory the nuclear heat generated and dumped could be used to generate electricity. They did not, in general, assume that this would necessarily prove to be a great idea, of course, and they speculated about all of the issues. It is a reflection of there marvelous minds that all of the issues about which they speculated proved in fact to be critical issues in the development of commercial nuclear power. Fermi and Wheeler wondered whether the public would accept the creation of vast amounts of radioactivity as a by product of power production. Many of the scientists, including the brilliant future director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Alvin Weinberg, and others, including Hans Bethe, worried about the potential for nuclear accidents, situations in which nuclear reactors would go out of control.
Today, in fact, when you look at a nuclear power plant anywhere in the United States, and see its containment dome, you are looking at the thinking of Alvin Weinberg, his prescience. It was his idea to put those domes there, and his idea to provide "defense in depth" nuclear strategies. For these efforts - as well as his efforts to promote a type of nuclear reactor that could make plutonium that could never be optimal for making materials for nuclear weapons - he was fired. Weinberg did not call for containment buildings because of any experience with out of control reactors. He insisted they be built to address the worst conceivable case.
One of the striking things of course, was that in spite of being fired Weinberg's ideas prevailed. Commercial nuclear reactors in the United States and one in the Ukraine did go out of control. No one was injured in the US, whereas thousands of people were injured and some killed, in the Ukraine. An ordinary citizen today can have lunch within a few kilometers of the failed US reactor and be perfectly safe. The entire city near the Ukrainian reactor has been abandoned and left to rot.
In spite of their contemplation of the safety implications, both Alvin Weinberg and Hans Bethe - Bethe was a Nobel Prize winner for explaining the workings of the sun - were both lifelong champions of nuclear energy, both working continuously up into their deaths (in both cases in their 90's - Bethe almost made it to centenarian status) to promote nuclear power as the cleanest and safest energy option for the human race. Both men had excellent liberal credentials. Bethe, in particular, stopped speaking to the Strangelovian Edwin Teller for many decades because of Teller's part in smearing Oppenhemimer during the red scare.
What is interesting about these deliberations about the workability of nuclear power is not that they were prescient, but that they occurred at all. The builders of the world's coal plants largely never wondered at all to themselves about public acceptance or the long term consequences environmental or otherwise. With the exception of King Edward I of England, who banned the burning of coal in England in 1306 - a ban that was obviously overturned - the development of the coal industry in England or anywhere else did not occur with any real introspection about the consequences. Only recently - long after the first coal fired plants were built - has the concept of limiting the environmental impact associated with coal even been approached - and then only tentatively. Only now are there now beginning to be things like a containment building, generally sulfate and particulate scrubbers that have marginal success at lowering but not arresting the environmental impact of coal.
In fact, the nuclear industry is the only energy industry that had its environmental impact considered before it was built. This was undoubtedly because the men who conceived of the industry were socially responsible, and not because they were demonic mad scientists obsessed and drunk with power and a desire for wealth.
This consideration has had a rather bizarre effect in my opinion. It has caused people to scrutinize and magnify the risks associated with nuclear energy - and there are risks - way out of proportion. For instance, you can have heated arguments over whether the proposed Yucca Mountain facility for the isolation of spent nuclear fuel will cause either two or two hundred deaths from cancer over the next two thousand years. This conversation is in striking contrast to the conversation about air pollution and coal - including the conversation about climate change. Coal plants around the world have been responsible for millions of deaths but arguments about them do not inspire many conversations about coal phase outs, or coal bans, or inspire people to participate in anti-coal protests. Until recently people haven't offered elaborate wishful thinking schemes about how renewable energy can displace coal - or if they did - it has been largely as an afterthought. People can wax romantic and get very passionate about estimating whether the Indian Point Nuclear plant on the Hudson River has a one in 100 million chance or a one in ten thousand chance of injuring anyone - it has actually injured zero people - but they do not even bother to look up how many air pollution deaths occur each week in New York City. Often when people do for nuclear power what they do not do for coal - fight it - they cite, with criticism, the data inspired by men and women like Weinberg and Bethe, arguing that their work was speculative or wrong.
Be that as it may, whether the nuclear pioneers were correct in their prognostications or not, the nuclear industry exists, producing about 17% of the world's electrical energy. Thus there is no need to speculate further. We can point to direct experience with nuclear energy.
All of a sudden work on the external cost of energy - the cost to the environment and health - for all forms of energy is becoming available. I often link here and elsewhere the results of the European Union on this subject:
European Report on the External Cost of Energy
The units here are "eurodollars per kwh." The reason for the use of European currency is that the concept of calculating cost the external energy was pioneered in Europe, where, as it happens, the concepts leading to the invention of nuclear energy were aslo pioneered. The attempt here was to quantify the destruction to human health and destruction to the environment. When someone is hospitalized or killed by air pollution for instance - or for that matter by a nuclear accident - an economic cost is incurred. When crops fail because of climate change induced drought - there is an economic cost. When rivers are polluted by dumped coal ash, or by oil spills, there is a cost.
Of course, the data should not be considered precise, since to some extent determined by certain kinds of assumptions. For instance, more than 70% of the external cost of nuclear power, which is calculated to be 0.19 eurocents per kwh, is assumed to come from radioactivity. Of course, it makes a big difference about how you view this radioactivity. Right now all of it is contained in the fuel rods, and in fact, has resulted in zero injury and zero environmental destruction. It is not likely that any of this radioactivity will go anywhere in the next 50 years, since none of it has really gone anywhere in the last 50 years. In assuming that radiation will eventually leak and eventually cause damage, one must assume that costs will accumulate over many hundreds, if not thousands of years. This may or may not be true. In fact, much of this cost is connected with radon, which assumes that the uranium - its half-life is measured in billions of years - will decay to this element. Thus the external cost of nuclear energy could be lowered if one were to fission the uranium or something made from the uranium before it decays. On the other side of the coin, the fissioning of this uranium will create fission products, which have their own set of costs.
In any case the trends are clear. Nuclear power is much safer than coal, much safer than oil, much safer than natural gas, at least by an order of magnitude or two, maybe much more.
It is very clear that the most dangerous fuel widely used by humanity at present is not uranium, plutonium or thorium. The most dangerous fuel is coal. The details may vary, but the conclusion is overwhelmingly the same. Because the facts of the matter are so obvious, people who note that there is still lots of coal left to burn and not all that much natural gas or oil, are trying to dress up the pig. We hear a lot these days about so called "clean coal," and there's lots of talk about new technologies.
For instance we hear all about sequestration, about which I've written previously. Mind you there are no significant sequestration facilities planned. We also hear a lot about IGCC, Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, coal, often in connection with sequestration. From what you hear, you would think, that IGCC technology is the world standard for coal plants under construction, but that's not true. In fact, the few companies that have any plans for IGCC coal - which is expensive and capital intensive - are usually announcing their intention to build a small demonstration plant to cover for the fact that they are actually building conventional coal plants. This is, of course, because this is what people want to hear.
Because times have changed, because in modern times people have been more or less compelled to make the same kind of evaluations as those made by Bethe and Weinberg at the dawn of the nuclear era, the assumed external cost of IGCC plants have been theoretically considered, even though few such plants are either planned and no significant plants exist.
Here for instance is an evaluation of the external cost of various forms of energy from the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland:
Internalisation of external cost in the power generation
sector: Analysis with Global Multi-regional MARKAL Model
(It is an interesting sidelight that Paul Scherrer was a Swiss physicist who played a role in the events surrounding the Manhattan Project's understanding of the activities of the German nuclear physicist, Werner Heisenberg, and his intentions towards the development of a Nazi atomic bomb.)
Here is what the Scherrer Institute estimates for the external cost of IGCC coal, with and without sequestration, keeping in mind that no significant sequestration plants and no signficant IGCC plants, exist.
The Scherrer numbers - which are not identical with the ExternE numbers - are the numbers I will use to estimate by calculation, the cost in destruction of health and the environment, what the cost of coal is. According to these numbers, conventional coal costs 7.5 - 13.6 eurocents/kwh for health and environmental distruction. Coal IGCC (CHP) without sequestration - these kinds of plants exist on a pilot, but not an industrial scale, cost 2.4 - 3.0 eurocents/kwh in environmental and health destruction. Coal IGCC (CHP) with CO2 scrubber is estimated to cost between 1.1 - 1.4 eurocents/kwh in environmental and health destruction, and nuclear costs 0.5 cents/kwh in destruction to the environment.
Note that the external costs for coal exceed the internal costs. If you are free to dump wastes like carbon dioxide and other noxious materials into the environment without charge, coal in the United States - ignoring any exchange rate differences between euros and dollars - runs between 2 cents/kwh and 4 cents/kwh in general.
For the purposes of these evaluations, I am going to choose, somewhat arbitrarily, a mid sized nuclear power plant, the Brunswick Nuclear Station in North Carolina Unit 2 as a "typical" nuclear power plant. Some nuclear stations are smaller and some are bigger. The Brunswick Nuclear Station came on line in 1974 and is licensed for a 40 year life span. It is an 811 MWe power plant. Unquestionably, as it is an excellent performer, as many other nuclear utilities are doing, the owners will apply and receive a 20 year extenstion on the plant's life, giving it a lifetime of 60 years.
In 2003 the Brunswick Nuclear station produced 7.0 million megawatt-hours or 7.0 billion kilowatt-hours. We are now in a posistion with the Scherrer numbers what the cost, in environmental and health destruction would be if we were to replace it with a magical theoretical IGCC coal plant with a sequestration plant, a IGCC plant without sequestration, and with conventional coal.
If the Brunswick Nuclear station is typical, it costs $35,000,000 per year in health and environmental destruction in a year of operation like 2003. A putative IGCC plant with sequestration on the other hand would do twice as much environmental and health damage, about $70,000,000 dollars worth. A putative IGCC plant without sequestration - the only kind that has ever been built - would incur charges of $275,000,000. Thus the cost in environmental destruction for replacing just one nuclear plant with an IGCC coal plant would be about $238,000,000 million dollars per year beyond the cost of the nuclear plant.
Over the sixty year lifetime of the nuclear station, these costs again for one plant to more than 16 billion dollars in environmental and health destruction..
The United States operates more than 100 nuclear plants. If the Brunswick station is typical of them, replacing them all with IGCC coal plants without sequestration would amount to and additional cost 1.4 trillion dollars over a sixty year plant life. With sequestration the additional cost would be "only" $210 billion dollars. Of course no one really knows where one might sequester 60 years worth of such carbon dioxide. The concept is pure wishful thinking.
The world operates 441 nuclear plants. If the Brunswick Station is typcial, the replacement of these plants would cost the world 7.2 trillion dollars in additional destruction of health and the environment over and beyond the cost of the nuclear stations.
These numbers are incredible enough, but for the most part, IGCC plants are just wishful thinking nonsense. They don't really exist on a significant scale, nor is there any intention to build them instead of conventional coal plants. At the low end, replacing nuclear plants with conventional coal would cost 500 million dollars per year per plant, 31 billion dollars for a the lifetime (60 years) per plant, 3 trillion dollars for 100 plants and almost 14 trillion for all the world's nuclear stations. On the high end the premium for replacing nuclear stations with conventional coal, counting only existing coal plants would amount to 24 trillion dollars.
For comparison purposes, the US GDP, the largest in the world, is reported at 12 trillion dollars.
These numbers stun the imagination. How big is 24 trillion? Well, a year contains about 32 million seconds. Thus it would take 766,000 years, at a dollar per second, without interruption, to pay for this amount of additonal damage to health and the environment with coal compared to nuclear to match the cost of 60 years in which conventional coal replaced nuclear power plants. The numbers would be even more stark if we compared what it will cost to not ban existing coal.
Nobody will like the numbers and people will do all sorts of wiggling and posturing to pretend they aren't real. I hear it all the time. But the numbers are real. The impression that nuclear energy is bad for the environment is visceral and originates not from critical thinking, but from a kind of public mythology that attempts to view nuclear energy in isolation from its alternatives. Strangely enough this impression was created by the founders of nuclear energy, largely men who remained, throughout their lives, highly intelligent and wise advocates for the increased use of nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy is not risk free. No form of energy is risk free, except when they are largely imaginary. Nuclear energy is, however, risk minimized. With six billion people living on this planet, we will not survive without it.
Regrettably we are not living in an imaginary world, but a real one.