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Nuclear Energy


13 July 2009

Abstract:This is a script for "Talk Geek To Me" episode 07. This biased view explains my feelings on the topic of Nuclear Power, and goes into some history as well as some of the hazards of Nuclear Power Generation.

1  Purpose

The purpose of this article is to examine the current propaganda effort of the nuclear energy industry to put forth the idea that nuclear energy is green. The nuclear energy industry would like you to believe that their energy is better than fossil fuel methods of creating energy because they want to you to believe that their form of energy does not have a CO2 footprint.

In order to examine this idea, we will have to have a long look at exactly what it takes to produce nuclear energy, and examine all the trade-offs. Whether they be any kind of waste, a number of other quality of life factors. In order to get there, we will have to also look at the origins of nuclear energy, and assess the risks involved also.

2  Origins

Nuclear Energy has it’s roots in the effort to manufacture nuclear weapons in order to end World War Two.

What we are talking about here, is how to build a bomb. A nuclear bomb is a bomb that created by bringing together enough fissionable radioactive material to create a nuclear reaction, which in an uncontrolled state is a blast, but in a controlled state is a slow burn.

The mechanics, and I only speak theoretically here, is that to create an uncontrolled blast, you bring enough radioactive material suddenly in order to create the blast. In order to create the “slow controlled” version of the nuclear reaction, you create a core with a number of “control rods” which are made of a neutron absorbing material, as well as the fissionable material. The presence of the “control rods” keeps the reaction from occurring. Then when the rods are removed to a certain extent, the reaction occurs.

The first important thing to take away from this, is that both devices are essentially bombs, but one is created in a way that it goes off all at once, and the other isn’t. The proof to this statement is that the removal of all the control rods creates a nuclear explosion.

With a nuclear reactor, the “slow burn” creates several things, but the first and most obvious thing it creates is heat, which is harnessed to create steam which turns a turbine that makes electricity.

After heat is used to turn the turbine, it must be gotten rid of. This excess of heat is “Thermal Pollution.” At the nearest nuclear power plant to me, the heat is dumped into the river. My nearest power plant uses two million gallons an hour, and creates a hot run off constantly into the local river.

The next thing created is radioactive gas. Each reactor at my local nuclear power plant creates two steam discharges per week. This discharge is considered to be safe by the government.

The last pollution created by the nuclear process is nuclear waste. The burned fuel contains unexpended radioactive Uranium. During the nuclear reaction some Plutonium (the substance you need to create better nuclear bombs) was created. This Plutonium can be extracted and raised in purity to make better atomic bombs, while the unused Uranium can be extracted and raised in purity to create more fuel for nuclear reactors. Nobody does this unless they need the Plutonium for weapons manufacture, as the extraction process is too hazardous. This waste is stored temporarily until it can be entombed in a radioactive waste dump. While nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons have been around for decades, there are no disposal facilities for this kind of waste, so it continues to sit there “temporarily” at the nuclear plant.

A second kind of nuclear waste is contaminated concrete. When the nuclear power plant is put into it’s “low power testing phase,” all the concrete around the core becomes irradiated. This radioactive concrete is supposed to be disposed of by burial at the state level, but in actuality most state nuclear dumps are not big enough to receive such a large amount of concrete. While the nuclear industry made a big deal of dismantling a plant in this manner, once you count all the power plants that were entombed at the Hanford Reservation, entombment becomes the much more normal method of nuclear power plant disposal. With entombment, you demolish the non-radioactive parts of the facility, and encase the remaining radioactive places in fresh concrete, where they stand forever.

This brings us to the second two facts that should be remembered about nuclear power plants. All nuclear power plants are nuclear waste dumps, and all nuclear power plants are munitions plants.

3  Better that fossil fuel?

So is this process better than fossil fuel? Initially, it looks like the CO2 that is given off by an oil or coal plant is so undesirable that maybe you would think so. However, nuclear power plants actually have quite a CO2 footprint, when you consider the effort at mining Uranium and purifying Uranium. When you consider these two phases, you see that what has really happened is the the pollution has merely been shifted to another place.

4  Uranium Production

Most of the good veins of Uranium are located under Indian reservations with some local Indians working in the mines, suffering a variety of cardio-pulmonary disease bought about by breathing potentially radioactive dust.

Tons of ground have to be extracted from the earth, in order to extract Uranium from it. This sort of mining uses heavy equipment which belches CO2, which is the first waste produced by the process. The second waste, is fannings left over from the mining process. This leftover debris is left strewn about the mine site, and in some cases of this debris being used in concrete, has created buildings which were radioactive themselves. These fannings really should be entombed or buried themselves, but they are not because that would increase the cost of mining, so they are left at the mine site, which becomes another radioactive waste site.

The rough Uranium is then transported in lead shielded trucks to a processing plant, these shielded trucks run on diesel fuel.

The Uranium is then put through a chemical process to raise the purity of the Uranium. The plants that do this, at least in the US, use Coal power plants to do this. Coal power produces CO2 also.

The chemical process produces Chlorofluorocarbons, which cause a worse greenhouse effect that CO2.

Then the purified Uranium is trucked to the power plants.

Finally, there is a core component at the nuclear power plant that is usually on a backup diesel generator, but if it isn’t, it must be on the traditional power grid. That component is the ECCS, the emergency core cooling system. This part is essential to a nuclear power plant because it is the part of the plant that shuts the plant down during a nuclear accident. It must be powered by something besides the plant it is protecting, because it only comes into play if that reactor malfunctions. The Chernobyl accident is a result of testing whether or not a plant can power the ECCS without external power. That experiment failed.

Thus we see that there is quite a greenhouse effect to nuclear power, it is merely shifted. If Uranium gets rare enough and we have to mine poorer veins, then the greenhouse gases for mining and purification will match that of traditional fossil fuel power plants. If the veins get even poorer than that, the Uranium mining must cease as there will be a net deficit to produce energy, this means that there will be more expended in fuel burned to make the energy than the energy made by burning the mined Uranium.

5  Older Promise of “Too Cheap To Meter” Energy

This brings us to the older promise made by the nuclear industry, that nuclear energy can produce power too cheap to meter. In hindsight, it looks like what they were thinking in the past involved the re-processing of spent fuel to create fresh fuel.

So what makes this fallacious? The problem of waste disposal. It is roughly a thirty step process that produces tanks upon takes of liquefied nuclear waste. The problem is that the liquid makes the storage of waste even more difficult.

First, there is the issue of the so-called temporary storage of nuclear waste at the plant level. After this many decades, no real permanent nuclear waste dump has materialized. Now the spent solid waste is stored dry, in drums suspended in water, commonly called “pools” within the nuclear industry. Now this solid waste has been waiting for decades for the a high level nuclear waste site to be constructed, and during that waiting process, guess what the nuclear industry discovered about the water in the pools. Surprise surprise, liquid tends to leak! These pools at these power plants are slowly leaking, and they are doing this near rivers.

Not to get too far from the topic at hand, which is reprocessing, is that the chemicals used to make the extraction of re-usable nuclear substance, after irradiation, cause a real soup of radioactive chemicals that are disastrous when leaked. This soup itself is not only highly poisenous and highly radioactive, it is also corrosive, which means that it eats at the tanks themselves.

Back at the Hanford Reservation, where the nuclear industry had it’s birthplace, half of the tanks that hold irradiated waste chemicals are leaking. People downwind of this toxic output are suffering a myriad of problems due to the leakage of this material into the ground water as well as the Columbia River. As matter of fact, the Hanford Reservation is the only current critical environmental disaster we have these days in the United States.

That makes an irresistible segue, because guess who is picking up the huge cleanup tab for Hanford. That’s right, the Federal Government, which is funded by the taxpayers. Hold this thought, I just have to switch back and finish up about the reprocessing of nuclear waste.

So, you know, India is a nuclear state these days, do you know how that happened? That’s right, they got their needed Plutonium for their nuclear program from a Canadian designed and manufactured nuclear power plant of a design called the CANDU reactor. Another reason against reprocessing, the method by which we were supposed to get plentiful fuel, is that it creates a race not unlike the nuclear arms race; a race to keep up with other countries stockpile of Plutonium, which represents an ability to manufacture nuclear weapons. Does it not strike you odd, dear listener, that we have a system where we basically give nuclear technology to other countries? Because the nuclear industry wants to sell nuclear power plants, in order to make money. So they say, in effect, “we will sell you the technology to make a lot of energy with nuclear power, but you agree not to use the technology to make bombs, only to make electric.” Of course the other country says “OK,” but really, when you know that all nuclear power plants make the precursors to nuclear bombs, is it really safe to assume that there might not be an ulterior motive to the purchase of a nuclear power plant by another country?

Lastly about the reprocessing, since we have nothing but so-called temporary storage for it, guess where the nuclear waste reprocessing plant needs to be? That’s right, on the campus of the nuclear power plant itself.

Think about it, transporting radioactive stuff is hazardous in and of itself. When the Chernobyl plant had a meltdown, they evacuated the nearby city of Pripyat via bus. In their panic they engineers who were meeting with the military who did the evacuation forgot to advise them to change the tires on the buses ten miles away from the evacuated cities. The bus tires tracked radiation all over the streets of the city of Kiev. When a concrete street is radioactive, you only real choices are to repave or over-pave them.

We have a guy where we work, he has a little trademark, he answers some questions by asking back “you tell me?!” I need to use that here, what is worse, the accident in the reactor, the accident with the solid waste, the accident with the liquid waste leaking, or the accident during the process of extracting more fuel? You tell me!

6  Nuclear Accidents

It’s hard to believe, as I write this script, that I actually had a fear of how I was going to make my segues, but they seem flowing. I think I should stick to this natural flow as I have so much to say.

What shall we discuss first, accidents that are accidents, or accidents that happen on purpose, which is called “nuclear terrorism.” Let’s start with accidental accidents. Further, in order to create a taxonomy of possible accidents, we will subdivide accidents into reactor-type as well as non-reactor accidents.

Non-reactor accidents are accidents that happen because you have a reactor, but don’t happen within the reactor. They are the leakage of radioactive material and all of it’s associated problems.

We’ve already seen that there are routine gaseous emissions from nuclear power plants that are considered safe. What is safe?

Well, if I go to the hospital and say “my arm hurts, give me an X-Ray please,” they will tell me no, because we need to minimize exposure to radiation, because the hospital considers *ANY* unnecessary exposure to radiation to be hazardous to you health. That is why they make a doctor authorize each X-Ray, and that is why the X-Ray technician stands behind a lead shield as he takes an X-Ray. Looks to me, that the phrase “safe exposure” means something different at the hospital than it does at the power plant.

I don’t put myself forth as an expert on nuclear, I know what I know as a result of my personal unstructured research. As such I need to say that the complexities of radiometry, the measurement of radiation, is beyond me. There are measurements for free standing radiation, how much radiation has been absorbed, how much radiation is being emitted. But let me do my best by focusing on one measurement, the rem, which represents an absorbed dosage of radiation to your body.

A rem is really quite a bit of radiation, but a one-time dose of 100 rems is nonclinical, even though it produces blood changes. 100-200 rems will produce illness, but not fatal. 200-1000 rems produce illness with quite a real possibility of fatality. Over 1000 rems is always fatal.

The problem with radiation is this: when you body absorbs radiation, you body tends to store it in places within your body. Radioactive iodine is stored in the thyroid, radioactive strontium in the bones, and radioactive plutonium in the male is typically found in the testes of the male. That’s right, the nuclear testing in the late fifties left superfine plutonium particles in the atmosphere, if you are a male and living in the continental United States, you have some trace amount of Plutonium in you testes. However, it is not a lot, if it were, Plutonium is so poisonous you would die. (Radiation is not detectable, except by special precision instruments.) The real problem in Belarus right now is thoracic cancer brought about by the teenagers thyroids being radioactive. The afflicted youth need to have thyroidectomies, and to take replace hormones for the rest of their lives.

So these one time exposure’s are really theoretical anyway, and could only be used by asking “will I die” after a nuclear accident.

Lets go back to that X-Ray technician in the hospital, he has on his shirt a device called a dosimeter, and it measures if he accidentally received radiation. You can buy a type of these device that does not need centralized processing like his for a little under a hundred US Dollars. An electronic one costs about five hundred dollars.

That X-Ray in the hospital costs you 10 millirems (thousandths of a rem) of exposure. Your normal limit as a civilian is 100 millirems per year. If you work in a nuclear power plant, you limit is 5 Rems.

So when there is an accidental radioactive discharge, how safe is it? I disagree with the nuclear industry. I think if my hospital would like me to have none, I think that even the so-called safe weekly degassings of nuclear reactors are unsafe, let alone the potential for slightly radioactive roads around nuclear power plants with rubber tired vehicles tracking radiation away from it. These discharges leave light radiation in the grass, from there it can sink into well water, be picked up by livestock, even raise the possibility of radioactive milk coming from livestock. No thanks, I don’t approve. Not at all.

Then there is the matter of accidental releases. I have a friend who told me that one day at a park near Indian Point plant, he witnessed the Hudson River was covered with dead fish. He actually witnessed the accidental release of a few hundred gallons of radioactive water into the Hudson River. My friend also told me that he had a rare cancer once. I think it is polite not to speculate to him that they may be related.

Let’s turn our attention to accidents in the core of the reactor. There are two kinds, there are “loss of coolant” accidents and “radiation excursion” accidents. “Loss of coolant” refers to meltdowns, such as Three Mile Island. Radiation Excursion refers to when the radioactive material is blown out of the reactor as in Chernobyl.

Some nuclear advocates say that core accidents can only happen about once every ten thousand years. Well, let’s see, there is Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, A bizarre one in a military plant in Ohio, and one in the half dozen or so on the Hanford Reservation. That’s four in a few decades, not one in ten thousand years.

6.1  Ohio

This one is notable just for how bizarre it really is. While trying to initiate a nuclear plant, a soldier caused a meltdown. The resulting explosion caused a great deal of force, which caused the soldier to be impaled upon a 12 foot long control rod being blown out of the reactor core. The soldier was impaled against the ceiling as he was bathed in radioactive steam while they took several days to bring the reactor under control. His radioactive remains are interred in a lead coffin that is sealed by the Atomic Energy Commission.

6.2  Three Mile Island

The nuclear industry calls this one a “partial meltdown.” That is supposed to make is sound better, it was actually a 50% melt down. Calling this a “partial meltdown” is like saying your daughter is a “little bit pregnant.”

6.3  Chernobyl

In Russian, the suits (the management, IE, not the nuclear physicists,) decided to test the idea that the ECCS might be able to be powered by a turbine spinning down during a nuclear accident. The failure is famous, for they committed the cardinal sin of disabling the Emergency Core Cooling System, which would have come up on diesel and shut down the plant peremptorily. The result was an explosion of radioactive material with fallout out as far as France and Alaska, USA.

6.4  Accidents on Purpose

Lastly there is the little matter of nuclear terrorism. Our audience is international, so I won’t be going into details. However, in my research I discovered that traditional plants have a real Achilles heal to them.

So, without giving away that info, let me explain what an Achilles heal can be like. In the Vietnam Was we used helicopters, and Vietnamese archers learned how to take them down with bows and arrows. Their Achilles heal was the rotor, which when hit with an arrow will cause it to crash.

There is something similar with attacking a nuclear power plant, a certain specific attack with cause a meltdown one hundred and eight minutes later.

7  Federally Funded

I now in an earlier section I asked you to hold the thought of the Hanford Reserve Cleanup being a federal project, but this is really related to the concept of nuclear energy being cheap.

Currently, the nuclear industry is considered too hazardous for private investment. It is therefore funded by a variety of grants. These grants, which do not include the costs of any civilian power plant cleanups or entombment’s, amount to about $15/kWh.

Now, perhaps these grants to develop nuclear energy could instead be diverted to develop renewable forms of energy. Maybe then renewable energy would be more advanced.

Furthermore, nuclear plants are further covered by liability limiting special federal laws, so if you house gets permanently irradiated, you will have no financial recourse. This situation is covered by the fine print of home owners insurance and the power utility not being liable.

No to mention the cost of burying or entombing radioactive waste at the site of nuclear mining.