Nuclear Power (for citizens + politicians)

Update: this web page went live on 2021-12-01 but other people must be having similar thoughts because I just (2022-01-08) reviewed this editorial (by Gwynne Dyer) in my local newspaper.
Executive Summary:
I am shocked by the number of nuclear reactors that have been retired, or are about to be retired before their scheduled end-of-life (eg. 2021 announcements by Germany and Denmark). Why?
  1. Nuclear Power is the safest technology ever conceived
  2. Nuclear Power has only experience 3 accidents over +60 years:
    • Three Mile Island (caused corporate and political incompetence)
    • Chernobyl (caused by political interference)
    • Fukushima (caused by poor American engineering - not a 100% safe design)
    ...which are all correctable by increased levels of engineering along with government regulation (as currently done with automotive, aircraft and medical industries). This already safe industry could easily be made ultra safe.
  3. Popular movies, like The China Syndrome (1979) scarred the hell out of citizens who had never attended a introductory college course on nuclear physics
  4. Nuclear reactors release absolutely zero CO2 during their operational lifetime.
    Note: some CO2 is only released during reactor construction (pouring of concrete). In the case of operational reactors the CO2 damage is already done.
  5. It makes no sense whatsoever to retire a nuclear reactor before its scheduled end-of-life unless there are safety concerns
  6. Why are Denmark and Germany switching from nuclear to natural gas? Did these countries not attend COP26 in Glasgow (Nov-2021) where the world was warned to begin reducing CO2 emissions NOW? Some EU countries are headed completely in the wrong direction.
  7. question: "When will leaders lead?"

So what follows is my attempt to talk non-specialists back from the edge of the cliff. Humanity does not need more politicians acting irrationally while they make more another ideologically-based decision.

General summary data (point form)

Nuclear vs Chemical (the facts)

  • Chemical reactions (burning chemicals or generating electricity) naturally occur in the range of 1-to-2 electron volts (a 12 volt automotive battery consists of six two-volt cells connected in series)
  • Nuclear reactions occur in the range millions of electron volts
    • naturally decaying uranium releases ~ 50 MeV for each Geiger counter click
      since: 1 eV = 1.6 x 10-19 Joules
      then: 50 MeV = 8.011 x 10-12 Joules
    • 1,000 Joules = 0.95 BTU = 239 thermal calories
  • Chemical waste may seem a million times safer than nuclear waste, but there is a million times more of it (so it is not safer at all)
  • Because chemical waste seems harmless, it is carelessly jettisoned into the environment (there is so much of it than no one even tries to collect it; companies just build larger smoke stacks)
  • Because nuclear waste is dangerous, great care is taken to collect it. (some reactor technologies can actually burn this waste as fuel)
  • All this information came from a public lecture given by the physicist Edward Witten at the Perimeter Institute circa 2014

Fission vs Fusion

  • Fusion
    • a huge amount of energy is released when atoms lighter than iron fuse into heavier atoms lighter than iron (this is not a typo)
    • this is the primary process in the Sun where gravity enables a reaction where Hydrogen is converted into Helium
    • since most man-made schemes (eg. Tokamak) employ electromagnetic fields which only affect charged particles but not neutrons, I have serious doubts that containment-based fusion will ever be practical.
      • on the flip side, America's National Ignition Facility (which is currently employing last-gen gas lasers) seems promising.Why?
      • no containment fields are required; next-gen solid-state lasers could greatly increase efficiency and control; the (deuterium + tritium) fuel is formed manufactured as a small pellet and are ignited one-by-one (your automobile engine moves by regular explosions of octane)
  • Fission
    • a huge amount of energy is released when atoms heavier than iron are split

More About Fission

  • Nuclear fission was first observed in 1938 (Although the credit, and a Nobel prize, was awarded to the German chemist Otto Hahn, it is now understood that Lise Meitner did all the heavy lifting)
  • The Manhattan Project was a collaboration between the USA, Canada and Britain to develop fission-based technology
  • Fission history after world-war-2
    • after world-war-2 the allies were experimenting with nuclear technology (known as Atomic Energy in those days) but didn't know which technology was the best so they divided the problem into three categories with the intent of comparing date later:
      1. America developed light water technology
      2. Europe developed breeder technology.
        • France installed more than 80 of these (there have been zero accidents and they are operated with zero political interference)
      3. Canada developed heavy water technology
        • CANDU reactors are installed in Canada, India, South Korea and China
        • CANDU heavy water reactors can burn waste material produced by light water reactors through a technique known as DUPIC (Direct Use of spent PWR fuel In CANDU). DUPIC has been used in CANDU reactors installed in China and North Korea
        • In 2011, nuclear reactor technology was greatly scaled back in Canada due to political interference when prime minister Stephen Harper (a Member of Parliament representing Calgary Alberta where that province's economy is dependent upon fossil fuel production) sold the federal government's +65 year investment to a private company for the tiny sum of $15 million (the office equipment would have been worth more)
      Note: To the best of my knowledge, the world-war-2 allies never got back together to compare notes. In fact, before US Admiral Hyman Rickhover suggested putting smaller light water reactors in US submarines, America was promoted light water technology as the superior choice.
    • Fission Accidents:
      year location wiki ref Technology Deaths
      1979 Three Mile Island
      Pennsylvania, USA
      link light water 0
      1986 Chernobyl
      Ukraine, USSR
      link light water 28(+15)
      2011 Fukushima
      link light water 0

    • Accident Reasons (abbreviated)
      • 1979
        • IIRC, a problem first occurred in secondary system BUT this situation got out of hand mostly due to the fact that poorly trained people were on duty at the time. IIRC, the situation was resolved within a hour after the full time staff came on duty. This is probably one example where capitalism in a bonus culture trumped safety concerns. Just as all commercial repair shops are not allowed to do brake repair and adjustment with out having at least one Class-A mechanic on duty (who is supposed to inspect the job), the nuclear power industry MUST have qualified licensed technicians/engineers on duty at all times. On top of this, those on duty should be authorized to hit a KILL switch (to shut down the reactor) any time a problem persists for too long.
      • 1986
        • IIRC, the Russians were testing the reactor with numerous safety systems turned off. At that time, this reactor was being managed by USSR politicians who were too cavalier in their project management. Meanwhile, the technicians, engineers and scientists were too afraid to stand up to their political managers.
      • 2011
        • IIRC, this American (General Electric) designed light water reactor cannot be shut down below the 7% level without removing fuel. So in the event of a problem, a standby cooling system is necessary to remove waste heat until the reactor can be serviced. Once a tsunami destroyed the standby cooling system, the reactor core melted. Contrast this to other systems which employ a SCRAM to drop control rods via gravity to completely shut down the reactor. On a related note, early CANDU designs also employed a secondary safety system where a contaminant was dropped into the heavy water (could be anything from light water to Gadolinium) which would stop the reactor. Like the SCRAM system, this containment was held in place above the reactor but would fall by gravity if the power to the electromagnets was lost. comment: there is nothing wrong with combining multiple safety systems. More is always better. Just look what engineers where allowed to do (or sometime forced to do) with automobiles, aircraft and spacecraft.
    • more to come...

Common Misunderstandings

The USA developed nuclear weapons, and nuclear technology, under the cover of wartime secrecy at such places as Los Alamos, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Even after the war, this technology was coupled to much secrecy for fear that other countries might quickly learn the secrets. It is in this environment that atomic power (as it was known in those days) came to be developed. Now although the scientists that worked on these projects were always in search of the truth, I do not think that politicians or their military counterparts were always forthcoming. And whenever the truth is hidden (even for a short while) it is replaced with conspiracy theories and fear.

Updating Misconceptions

"I think" many uninformed and misinformed politicians want to get rid of nuclear power in order to make the environment free from radiation and/or radioactive substances. This is misguided for the following reasons:
    quote: Fossil fuels also contain radioactive materials, mainly uranium and thorium, which are released into the atmosphere. In 2000, about 12,000 tonnes of thorium and 5,000 tonnes of uranium were released worldwide from burning coal. It is estimated that during 1982, US coal burning released 155 times as much radioactivity into the atmosphere as the Three Mile Island accident
    radiation location
    low sailors living in a nuclear-powered submarine
    medium laying on the beach getting a sun tan
    high traveling in a high altitude jet aircraft (or living in a high altitude location)
    I wonder how many people know that the bananas they put on their breakfast cereal every morning would make any Geiger counter go berserk. Yep, the potassium in bananas is radioactive

More External Links

A new name for Nuclear Power?

Everyone reading this will already know that the name "Fossil Fuel" is a misnomer because the majority of this chemical energy comes from decaying plant which (almost always) never leave behind fossil evidence. Technically speaking, this form of energy was solar in nature because the plants collected solar energy over the course of tens of millions of years which we are now burning over the course of a couple of centuries. But the name stuck.

Now I would like to propose changing the colloquial marketing name of nuclear power to stellar fuel or super nova fuel because anything that is fissile, like uranium, was created in a supernova explosion before our solar system coalesced out of that stellar ash.

Very bad news for limiting CO2 emissions
(Apparently Germany "learned nothing" about CO2 at the COP26 conference 2 months ago)

Gwynne Dyer

"How Fear Trumps Common Sense"
by Gwynne Dyer

At the stroke of midnight last month, half of Germany’s remaining nuclear power stations closed down. The remaining three plants (of an original 17) will shut down Dec. 31 of this year (2022), and Germans will no longer have to live with the fear of a nuclear (power) holocaust.

What’s more, all the lost energy from the nuclear plants will be “compensated for by the expansion of renewable energies,” promised Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research. An elegant solution, but there is a catch.

Most of the wind and solar power that Germany is building will go to replace its nuclear power plants, not to eliminate the coal and gas that it is still burning in huge amounts to generate electricity. So Germany will go on burning coal until 2038 (France is out now, the U.K. by 2024), and it also imports big volumes of gas from Russia.

Fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide; nuclear power doesn’t. By shutting down nuclear power instead of coal and gas, Germany has dumped an extra 350 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2 into the air in the past decade — plus maybe another 350 Mt yet to come before they have built enough wind and solar power to replace the fossil fuels they should have dumped first.

And when the European Commission proposed a new law that recognizes nuclear power as “green,” there was an outcry all across the European Union. German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke condemned the proposal as simply “wrong.”

This is the triumph of fear over common sense. To advocate abandoning nuclear power when the great threat is carbon dioxide emissions is folly.

There are 441 commercial nuclear reactors in the world, supplying about 10 per cent of the world’s electricity. There could have been three or four times as much nuclear power by now if the Green movement had not exploited a couple of accidents in the 1970s and ’80s to cripple it.

There is reason to suspect that the original Green hostility to nuclear power was encouraged and subsidized by the U.S. fossil fuel industry. But the hostility is self-sustaining now, fed by fantasy statistics and deliberate scaremongering.

There have actually been just three major accidents in some 60 years of operation by hundreds of nuclear power plants, only one of which caused human casualties: Chernobyl in 1986, where 28 plant workers were killed and 15 other people subsequently died of thyroid cancer.

But nobody died at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011 (although 20,000 died as a result of the magnitude 9.0 sub-sea quake and the tsunami that devastated the city). Many more people die from coal pollution each and every day than have died from nuclear power accidents in the entire past half-century.

Yet a vocal minority of Europeans are terrified of the technology, and they are so well organized that most European countries have banned nuclear power or are shutting it down now. What can explain this strange behaviour on the continent that was once home to the Enlightenment?

Never mind. We can forgive the Europeans for their antinuclear foolishness, because in most other respects they lead the world in cutting emissions. And outside Europe, the only noteworthy countries that ban nuclear power are Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and the Philippines.

There are new 52 nuclear reactors under construction, most of them in Asia. A new generation of compact modular reactors that can be assembled in factories and cannot melt down will be on the market in less than five years. The missing piece of the post-fossil-fuel puzzle has been found — and the Europeans can sleep in peace.


Comment: Apparently Germany "learned nothing about CO2" at the COP26 conference 2 months ago

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Neil Rieck
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.