nuclear power safe

Fear of Fission

So, here is sub-chapter #3, of Chapter 1, Science, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process of my book, Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. Sub-chapters #1 and #2, can be found here and here. I made the mistake of not throwing up the Introductory chapter online, so I’ll take a brief paragraph to describe the overall narrative of the book. The book takes twenty seemingly random subjects, attempting however poorly, to thread them together. In the process, attempting to make sense of the world we live in today. It is a very macroscopic worldview, as the whole book fits into two-hundred pages, but it aims to tickle the intellects of people just enough so they may go on to study more in-depth the subjects of their liking. The narrative really tries to inspire the abolition of thinking in isolation, i.e., we so often talk, discuss, and debate topics in isolation and assume that the same points prevail in the real world where nothing exists in isolation: such as the relationship between science and religion/society, fission with politics and economics, technology against government, and how they subtly, sometimes drastically, affect each other.

Would greatly appreciate any feedback, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.

Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress. At the conclusion of the twenty chapters, I may throw up a post with all hundred-fifty+ sources, but the final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.


FEAR OF FISSION

 There was a dream once, of atomic energy. It is as yet, unrealized. Our current energy portfolio, primarily consists of about eighty-eight percent coal, oil and natural gas, with nuclear power just shy of five-percent, and renewable energy making up the rest.

We will probably be using coal, oil, and natural gas for a while to come, especially natural gas as it is being found everywhere in huge quantities, but they should have started phasing out decades ago. Though because of our short-term irrational fear and hatred of things we do not understand, the safest, cost-competitive energy source, nuclear fission, was never given legs to stand upon.

We all know that coal, oil and gas are pollutants: the first two much more so than the third, so it is an environmentally favorable trend that so much gas is being found, as it will result in a downward trend of pollutants from the prior two. Though even natural gas pales in comparison to the safety and efficiency of nuclear power, which we shall see now.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”  ~ Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Sociologist)

 

First off, let’s look at some overlooked statistics of our current energy sources at 2011 usage levels:

  • Coal, which comprises 30.3% of world energy: causes 161 deaths per TWh (Terra-watt hour)
  • Oil, which makes up 33.1% of world energy: thirty-six deaths per TWh
  • Natural gas, 24.8% of world energy: four deaths per TWh
  • Nuclear power, 4.9% of world energy: 0.04 deaths per TWh

 

For every twenty-five TWh of power generation, one human death will occur because of nuclear energy, compared to 3,220 for the equivalent amount of energy from coal, 720 from oil, and eighty from natural gas. Yet, every time there is a nuclear accident, there is a global outcry to shut them all down. Even though they are, by far, the safest means of generating power and the cleanest, in relation to immediate environmental degradation and climate change, which are somehow always overlooked.

Since the first nuclear reactor in 1952, there have been only six accidents that resulted in a loss of human life; seventy-one people died as a direct result of these accidents. Compare that to the triumvirate of coal, oil and gas, which are linked to the deaths of 4,020 people for every seventy-five TWh. Coal, all by itself, kills around 24,000 people in the USA per year. And yes, eventually four-thousand people may die as a result of Chernobyl in the next twenty-years, which is an increase of one-percent compared to other spontaneous forms of cancer. But the biggest nuclear catastrophe in sixty-years, killed fewer people than one single year of coal in one of the most developed nations in the world—keeping in mind the distinction between ‘four-thousand people may die’ and ‘twenty-four thousand people die every year’. The data, when expanded worldwide indicate that coal-related deaths are at least one-million people per year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Of course, the nuclear accidents that do happen grab so much attention that we are irrationally coerced into a state of fear. But let’s critically examine the three biggest nuclear accidents of recent history without the scepter of hysteria influencing our collective amygdala: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima. The reasons for the disasters were: human stupidity, human error, and human arrogance respectively. Notice that none of them are technological in nature.

In dressing down Chernobyl, I prefer instead to quote an article from Cracked Magazine, titled ‘The 7 Most Mind-Blowing Places Science Has Discovered Life.

 “The lesson of Chernobyl is that the most dangerous substance in the world is human stupidity. If everyone who whined about nuclear technology actually understood it, the world’s average IQ would increase by 50 points. When idiots drink and drive and kill thousands, we don’t ban cars. But when idiots run emergency shutdown tests with an untrained night crew without telling the designer of the reactor or nuclear authority scientists, then deliberately drive the reactor into the nuclear equivalent of balanced on tiptoes on a stool perched on a stepladder on a table…made of plutonium, suddenly all nuclear power is evil…

 

 The events of Three Mile Island were somewhat less extravagant in comparison. What transpired was an obscure mechanical gauge failure that became compounded by a lack of training. The operators’ manually overrode the automatic cooling system—Why this is even an option befuddles the non-nuclear engineer in me—because they mistakenly believed there was too much coolant—nor can I see what’s wrong with this—which turned an otherwise fixable event, into the ‘disaster’ that hurt no one and killed nobody. The problem was correctly diagnosed and subsequently fixed upon the arrival of the next shift, whom spotted the odd readings the dashboard was giving, and having the proper-training, began reversing the situation. Overall, people living within five-miles of the reactor, were exposed to no more radiation than one would receive on a commercial flight. 

 

 The Fukushima plant in Japan, which underwent a reactor meltdown in 2011 is over forty-years old, and was built with fifty-year old technology. The owners knew what the plant’s shortcomings were and were even told by the courts and the government to fix them. To make matters worse, TEPCO, had a record of changing the layouts of the cooling systems without bothering to document them. So when the tsunami hit, the previous plans had the utility of soggy toilet paper in finding out what was happening. Only through sheer incompetence did the Fukushima reactor fail, using decades-old technology that has since been surpassed, and only alongside the naive human thought, ‘it’ll never happen here,’ compounded by ignoring the law, and the docile Japanese culture.

 

 A report released by the mouthful of a commission, the aptly named Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, confirms that thought.I will highlight the opening salvo, “The nuclear accident at Fukushima was a preventable disaster rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture.” And then there’s this little nugget a little later on, “Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented…” End of discussion you’d think, but alas. A few months later, Germany announced they were shutting down all of their nuclear reactors by 2022.

 The reasons for our three meltdowns are, as mentioned, primarily human error. Not an inherent danger in nuclear fission technology. Nuclear reactors are among the safest, most secure facilities in the world because engineers know to build them that way. It’s the managers, governments, and the presidents that end up breaking things, and the people are induced by a frenzied-media into blaming the reactor as a scapegoat to sleep better at night, which politico’s then go on to exploit for votes, and ever the cycle continues. And as a result of all this, nuclear power was never given the stage it deserved. So the market did what it does best. It routed around this obnoxious intervention, in the process increasing oil, coal, and gas power generation to feed our increasingly energy-hungry ways, because renewable energies were not yet cost-competitive. All of which come with the added bonus of pollution, disease, millions of deaths (per year!), resources wars, and the destruction of our environment which will results in tens of millions of more deaths…all because of seventy-one deaths and a few weeks of media coverage.

 Even the second point that a lot people, and environmentalists are especially guilty here, make against nuclear power—the storing of dangerous hazardous material that stays radioactive for thousands of years—is a moot point. Radioactive waste is stored in highly secure vaults underground, in mountains, or other equally secure areas with no immediate effect on the environment or to us. With the eventual mastery of nanotechnology sometime this century, it will cease to be a point at all. We will be able to sub-atomically rearrange the atoms that make the waste radioactive and render it inert and harmless, but more on that later. And even were that not the case, wouldn’t having the waste stored and put away for 10,000 years, out of sight and harms way, be better than pumping far more waste directly into the atmosphere—and into the lungs of every person, animal, and plant—as we do now with coal, oil, and gas? And causing irreversible climate change to top it off…Yeah though.

 

The folly of fearing fission, over coal, which powers thirty-percent of modern civilization:

  • A 1,000 MWh (mega-watt-hour) of nuclear fission generates twenty-seven tonnes of radioactive waste per year, stored out of sight and harms way—in some cases, ninety-seven percent can be reprocessed so only, leaving three-percent (1,500 lbs) needing storage. The same amount of power from a coal plant generates eighteen tonnes of radioactive waste spewed directly into the atmosphere, while also vomiting forth 3.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 400,000 tonnes of ash, 10,000 tonnes of sulfur dioxide (acid rain), 10,200 tonnes of nitrogen oxide (smog), 720 tonnes of carbon monoxide(toxic), 170 lbs. of mercury (extremely toxic), 220 lbs. of arsenic (poison), and 114 lbs. of lead (toxic)
  • Between 1970 and 2008, there were 1,686 accidents that killed more than five people at coal power stations. On the nuclear side, only one
  • One TWh of nuclear energy releases 30 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. An equivalent amount of power from coal releases 1,290 grams (forty-three times more)
  • Uranium provides sixty-thousand-times as much energy per kilogram compared to coal. One kilogram of uranium will power a 60-watt light bulb for 685 years. An equivalent amount of coal will power that same light bulb for four days

 

 Nuclear power is, in the popular vernacular of the green movement today, exceedingly efficient, needing sixty-thousand times less units—or eleven-thousand less if measured against crude oil—for an equivalent amount of energy. It can, should be, and always should have been part of our energy portfolio. It is much safer and cleaner than the other forms of energy we use today, all the while, having no short-term ramifications to the environment, and manageable, trivial almost, long-term ramifications, along with a proven economic record. 

 Another disconcerting fact is continued government interference, initially stemming from the Manhattan Project, but really exacerbating the situation throughout the Cold War, has greatly and destructively cemented uranium as the fissile material of choice in nuclear fission reactors, as opposed to thorium, which shares many of uranium’s beneficial characteristics and none of its ugly ones:

Thorium’s Advantages:

  • It is four times more abundant in nature
  • Produces 10 to 10,000 times less long-lived radioactive waste
  • Cannot sustain a continuing nuclear chain reaction, so fission stops by default in any emergency that shuts down the power, I.e., Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima would not have happened
  • Generates more energy per ton and its enriched material cannot be used for a nuclear bomb
  • Does not require enrichment, therefore usability is 100% of the isotope as it is found in the ground, compared to 0.7% for uranium, which must be enriched to U-235 (which can then be enriched to P-239, i.e., main ingredient of an atomic bomb)
  • The supply will not be exhausted for a thousand years at today’s energy levels

 

 Thorium reactors are finally beginning to catch on, with India leading the way, but the technology is still in its infancy. Norway has recently started a four-year trial of a Thorium reactor to work out the economics and make the theoretical efficiencies into practical realities. Were it not for the destructive nature of our species, the Manhattan Project, and the subsequent Cold War, we would probably already have clean, abundant, cheap, and safe energy, with no climate change. Imagine that. 

 This chapter has barely begun to scratch the surface on nuclear energy, without even mentioning ongoing nuclear fusion research, which aims to replicate the energy source of a star, the ‘perfect’ energy source. There is also the traveling wave reactor that aims to use the ninety-nine percent of waste left over from a normal uranium fission reactor, which Toshiba is aiming to have in production by 2014, financed by Bill Gates. It is just a taste, a mind-opener, and a realization that a future is possible; it can be bright and it doesn’t need to revolve around hydrocarbons or the destruction of our environment.

 

We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them.” ~Unknown

14 comments

  1. Yep, people are the problem with nuclear power. If people could just eliminate people then people could go ahead and develop nuclear power without anything that people should worry about. Since that won’t work, let’s look to other energy sources.

    1. People actually are the problem. Just like they were the problem when slavery was around. When the inquisition happened. When dictatorships and aristocracies were the norm. We didn’t need to eliminate people to get past these problems. We educated them. The thing is people worry about nuclear fission when only 71 people died, but don’t worry all that much about coal which kills a million people a year. People are the problem, educating is the solution. So I don’t really get your point. Yes, we need other sources too, and perhaps its to late for nuclear, but from what I hear, other sources are still twenty years away from making a dent, so we can use fission in the meantime. It beats millions of dead people, because for all we know, the death rate of hydrocarbons will continue increasing. Ignorance has its price. Eliminating people is what we are doing by delaying the transition. All our reactors are out of date, so instead of whining about fifty-year old tech, we should built new ones that are super-safe.

  2. Australia has roughly 40% of the worlds Uranium deposits, and with Kazakhstan and Canada we three countries dominate about 70-80% of the global market. Australia should be nuclear, but its not. It’s coal. Australia has a shitload of coal. The problem with nuclear is it has to be by the ocean, precisely where the population lives. Its the “not in MY backyard” problem. If what you say about nanotech is accurate then you should explore this further and make this chapter bigger. New tech is a GREAT subject matter. Clearly you know your stuff on this subject. That comes across and i find this text far more engaging than the last chapter. You were more present here. It was good.

    Just one minor critique which kilimanjournal picked up on in the first chapter. Your use of commas is a little baffling. A great deal of them can be removed and that’ll free up the flow.

    Good work. I liked this, and was left wanting to know more about the tech/advancements you brought up.

    1. Yeah, that’s true. The ‘not in my backyard’ problem is a bit of a pain. Which is more of a shame because Thorium has not of Uraniums disadvantages (plutonium, reactor meltdown etc). Even still, it’s one of those things that people can see and get scared off. But they never see the pollution particularates getting into their lungs, slowly eating away at them, which robs one-million people of their lives prematurely every single year. Education is the real issue here. Again, all three failures have been accidental in nature, not technological. I’m not sure we’ll get over it, but I wanted to speak my mind on it 🙂

      The 2nd last chapter is called, The Future of Tech, where I get into nanotechnology in far more detail. Remember, I’m sprinkling bits here and there throughout the book. I want to tickle people’s brains, have them connect dots, perhaps even some dots I didn’t think of. I’ll work on the commas. I know it’s my weakness. Thanks! Hey, you Aussie also?

        1. Touche. G’day mate. I’m an Aussie dating a Brasilian trying to move to Brasil :P. My gf convinced me not to move there, so we are going to Chile instead.

            1. Living in Italy for now. Took a vacation here a year ago and haven’t left… Planning on going to Chile next year or year after permanently. That’s why I want to live in Chile, the observatories and the nature! Beautiful country.

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