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American Institute of Physics



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Nuclear Insecurity

Mark Maiello’s letter on nuclear insecurity (December/January, p.5) posits all kinds of fanciful scenarios. I wish that Richard Meserve’s reply had been less diplomatic, but I suppose it was written when he was still chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As the current head of the Carnegie Institution, he could have told Maiello more explicitly:

  1. Nuclear plants are the best protected of all of our industrial installations, certainly more so than refineries, chemical plants, pipelines, et cetera. Just-published studies show that they could withstand the impact of a fully loaded airliner.

  2. Storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel are a most unrewarding target, difficult to hit and easily protected.

  3. “Dirty bombs” are indeed a potent psychological weapon—as long as the media propagate unreasonable fears of radioactivity among the public. They are often confused with nuclear weapons. By contrast, dirty bombs are easy to detect and extremely hazardous to the assembler; and they will melt most containers. Personally, I am much more concerned about biological weapons, which are difficult to detect, easily assembled and released, and lethal.

S. Fred Singer
Science & Environmental Policy Project
Arlington, Virginia

Author replies: Dr. Singer focuses only on power plant concerns. I had hoped to make it clear that nuclear security concerns were much broader and complex. I also hoped that the references I cited indicated that the scenarios were not “fanciful.” U.S. nuclear security concerns include the issues of a well-run domestic nuclear-waste repository, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons post 9/11, the security of enriched uranium and weaponsgrade plutonium in Russia, and the transportation and disposition of mixed-oxide fuel.

In my opinion, it is dangerous to be so absolute in our language when we discuss these issues, lest it breed complacency. To say that nuclear plants are the best-protected industrial installations in the country may be true and may make everyone feel better, but that needs to be repeatedly shown and resolutely maintained. And when warranted, plant protection must be vigorously improved.

I indicated in my response to Dr. Meserve’s article that containment structures are robust structures. But if we cannot reach a consensus on a realistic power plant terrorist mock drill, so what? A spent-fuel storage facility may be hard to hit (who needs to be right on target with a fireball?), but if questioning its integrity results in an improvement to protected dry-cask storage, then we’ve made progress. And Russian nuclear security is such a concern that the U.S. has committed $750 million to enhance it (1).

As for dirty bombs, the Health Physics Society and the Federation of American Scientists are not writing them off as mere psychological weapons that are hard to construct. They are designing education programs and first-responder training (2, 3). Municipalities such as New York City are already on guard for bomb-making materials (4). Detection is easier with trained personnel and the right equipment in place. If you don’t make a move, you don’t improve.

If Dr. Singer’s point is to call attention to other terrorist threats and to other vulnerable industries, then his point is well taken (5). Let us protect both nuclear and nonnuclear facilities. Physicists should be interested enough to contribute to the cross-disciplinary nature of the technology needed to address security threats, including longdistance surveillance; detection of chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons; facial, retinal, and fingerprint identification; and analysis of the vulnerability of the global commodity transportation system to terrorism. But being complacent about nuclear (and nonnuclear) security post 9/11 does none of us any good.

Mark L. Maiello

1. Bumiller, E. U.S. drops threat to cut aid to Russia for disarming. New York Times, Dec. 28, 2001.
2. Blackwood, V. Utilizing information technology to prepare the nation’s responders to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. F.A.S. Public Interest Report, May/June 2002.
3. Radiation Safety Aspects of Homeland Security and Emergency Response (American Academy of Health Physics Courses). Health Physics Society Newsletter, Oct. 2002.
4. Santora, M. Finding the Scary in the Merely Messy. New York Times, July 23, 2002.
5. Nuclear News. Exercise shows NPPs not good terrorist targets. Dec. 2002.

It ain’t necessarily so

Your article “Building the nanofuture with carbon nanotubes,” by Jennifer Ouellette (December/January, p. 18), intimated that they are the most expensive of all materials. I submit that this honor belongs to antimatter, which has been routinely produced and used for quite a few years. In keeping with its price—four and a half trillion dollars a pound at last look—it is traded in appropriately small quantities.

Also in that issue, “Buying patterns in ecommerce” contains a slight but meaningful error. Zita Paprika states that “e-business provides the necessary framework to cope with these demands by cutting the waiting time for a service.” This is true only where the vended service or good can be acquired wholly within the online transaction. For consumer goods, this is often the case. In the industrial world, where product diversity is far greater, some actual customer service is generally required, and this is now less, rather than more, available.

Just as voice mail gave vendor personnel something to hide behind when it was introduced, so e-mail enables them to evade dealing with customers who need more service than can be obtained with a computer mouse. This trend has accelerated in the past decade and promises to make life in the industrial marketplace increasingly unpleasant and less productive.

David Fisher
Fisher Aircraft Corporation
Rochester, New York

Research fraud

The traditional peer review process, as discussed in your article “Fraud shows peer-review flaws,” by Eric J. Lerner (December/ January, p. 12), is long overdue for a major overhaul. The process of anonymous reviewers fosters political backstabbing of research rivals, stifles innovation, and erects barriers against new researchers entering the various scientific communities. I wish to suggest the following changes to the peer review process: The names of the reviewers who approved the paper for publication should appear somewhere in the paper; the writers/researchers should have the option of selecting three reviewers of their own choosing to review and endorse the paper instead of anonymous reviewers chosen by the editors; reviewers should themselves have papers published in the same field and/or have a Ph.D. in the field and/or be actively working in the field; and the authors of the paper need not meet the requirements of a reviewer to be published.

This process would allow radically new ideas to enter the system of knowledge that today would fail the review process because of secondary reasons unrelated to the quality or originality of the work. It would encourage the writing of cross-disciplinary papers that have the potential to significantly advance a field, yet whose authors lack reputations outside their specialty area. It also would allow the occasional innovator, who completely lacks any kind of professional reputation, to get published in a journal that reaches the appropriate audience.

The amended process would not result in the literature being filled with fraud and nonsense any more than it now is. A person choosing his or her own reviewers would have the arduous task of convincing three coworkers, teachers, or unrelated researchers to read his or her paper and endorse it as legitimate. Even if the reviewers were personal friends of the author, they would be unlikely to give their professional endorsement and risk their reputations on a worthless paper.

Maurice Daniel
DCS Corporation
Alexandria, Virginia

Eric Lerner’s article chose to address the problem of research fraud using the rearview mirror approach. It addresses the outcome but not the cause. This is the typical modern approach—let the bank be robbed, and the law can catch the bad guy. The real question is, “Why did fraud take place, and why don’t controls that worked previously work now?”

I read the article with more than a bit of sadness, having spent 43 years at Bell Labs during its “golden” years of the 1950s through the 1970s. It also brought me to the realization that a prediction I read in the mid-1980s has come true (“Another endangered national resource,” Electronic Design, Nov. 10, 1983). Prior to the breakup of AT&T into its “component” parts, funding for Bell Labs came from a tax on the operating segment of the Bell System. This stream of funding isolated the scientific processes from the mundane world of business and finance, that is, from the world of M.B.A.s, lawyers, and C.P.A.s. Then, in the early 1980s, our legal profession, through the courts, accomplished the disassociation of the Bell System begun in the 1950s. The result was the elimination of independent research and development and the substitution of the M.B.A./C.P.A. idiom of quarterly reports. When profit motive enters the scientific process, the unscrupulous will capitalize on any possibility that can improve the bottom line. With the incentive to push “advances” and make a faltering organization appear as a front-runner, why not remove obstacles to publicity and come up with a scientific winner?

During my tenure at Bell Labs, discoveries, developments, and publications were subject to significant scrutiny. One of my early discoveries was subjected to review by my peers, supervisor, department head, director, vice president, and Nobel laureate Bill Shockley. And this was even before I thought of publication. How any person could publish a paper every other week (in groundbreaking areas) without being intensely reviewed blows my mind. He did not accomplish his mission in a vacuum; he was aided and abetted by many others, either willfully or through omission. The call of fame and fortune has created many charlatans. Unfortunately, a formerly prestigious organization, living on its laurels, chose the “easy” route to new glory. It didn’t work, and now the recovery process is more difficult because, as we all know, every action has a reaction.

Paul Michaelis
Bell Labs Technical Manager (retired)
Watchung, New Jersey

Author replies: Maurice Daniel’s suggestion that authors be allowed to pick reviewers would certainly help to overcome the problems faced by those with innovative ideas. Again, as many authors have pointed out, the key reform needed is to ensure that reviewers sign and publicly take responsibility for their reviews, thus cutting back on both unfairly hostile and unfairly generous reviewers who hide behind anonymity.

My article did, in fact, point out that controls formerly in place at Bell Labs were no longer employed, as Paul Michaelis emphasizes. Michaelis accurately describes an incentive to fraud - the closer linking of research and commercial profit. With the deregulation wave of the Reagan era (and after), which induced the break-up of AT&T into "more competitive" units, companies could no longer "afford" basic research, and the emphasis shifted to fast research, closely linked to the bottom line. Corner-cutting became inevitable, which has been only made worse by the mass layoffs of recent years. As everyone learned last year, scientific fraud was hardly the most common type of deception in the corporate world, but the incentives for scientific and financial fraud are linked. The reduction of funding for research, especially long-term research, in the physical sciences by industry and government has also exacerbated problems with the peer-review system. When competition is fierce for a dwindling supply of funds, the temptation is much greater to use anonymous reviews as a means to eliminate rivals and support allies. There is no doubt that a more secure and expanded funding of research is essential. But in the meantime, reforms of the review system, such as eliminating anonymity, can serve to mitigate some of the effects of the funding shortage.

Eric J. Lerner


In his article "Superconducting magnets get bigger and better" (October/November, p. 32), Alan Street refers to niobium-titanium wire as "a workhorse superconductor developed in the 1970s at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (Chilton, England)." Although that laboratory did indeed make significant contributions to the later application of Nb-Ti technology, the discovery of the superior high-magnetic-field, highsuperconducting critical-current-density properties and easy manufacturability of Nb.Ti took place at the Atomics International Division of North American Aviation (Canoga Park, CA) in 1962. These early results were first reported in a post-deadline paper authored by R. R. Hake and me at the April 1962 meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) in Washington, D.C. We presented additional results in a contributed paper at the Evanston, Illinois, APS meeting in June 1962 (Bull. Am. Phys. Soc. 1962, 7, 408). Subsequent extensive investigations by commercial producers. among them Atomics International, Wah Chang, Supercon, and Westinghouse. were required to establish the most appropriate compositions and metallurgical structures to optimize performance for various applications. Details of the early history of Nb.Ti can be found in a historical account, "Emergence of Nb-Ti as supermagnet material," which I published in Cryogenics (1987, 27, 283).

Ted G. Berlincourt
Elk, California

Author replies: I did not intend to imply that the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory originally developed niobium-titanium superconducting wire. It is, of course, well known and documented that the first niobium-titanium conductor was developed in the United States, and in fact the initial supplies of such material to Oxford Instruments came from U.S. companies. However, significant problems were associated with this newly developed material that resulted in a large number of magnet failures. In 1967, the IMI company in the United Kingdom found a solution to these problems and was able to deliver usable conductor. IMI joined forces with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and developed multifilamentary Nb-Ti conductors that became available around 1970. It was this material that became the workhorse for Oxford Instruments' range of superconducting magnets in the 1970s.

I thank Mr. Berlincourt for his letter and would be happy at any time in the future to discuss the contents of this article.

Alan Street
Oxford Instruments Superconductivity Ltd.
Tubney Woods, Abingdon, U.K.