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Bombs Wastes and Accidents

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 3 weeks, 2 days ago

a page of energy issues (one of my earliest in fact, maybe even the very first but a little updated since then)

 

a personal reflection on the main reservations people have about nuclear power

 

Bombs

A legitimate concern but simplistic and often overstated. 

 

The bomb came first. So obviously the first bombs weren't byproducts of nuclear power.

 

It's just the opposite. The bomb programs created enormous fissile materials industries, and without these most of the first two generations of nuclear power reactors would not have been possible.  

 

There is the potential for both technology and material transfer from power programs to bomb programs, but no evidence that it has ever happened and good reasons to think that it won't.

 

For example, there's the question of fissile materials. Now, bomb programs have fat but not infinite wallets. The cheapest way to produce plutonium for a bomb is to build a graphite-moderated, natural uranium fueled, low burnup plutonium production reactor. Surprise surprise, that's where nearly all bomb plute has come from so far. The only bomb plute that has come from power stations has come from the French and the British dual-purpose bomb plants that double as power stations, but even these can't do both at once. 

 

The Americans did conduct a successful nuclear test using "non weapons grade" plutonium. The plute involved was not from their power reactors, that would have been illegal under US law, and prohibitively expensive to do in any case. See fool grade for more on this.

 

And there are good reasons to promote the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and perhaps the Strategic Arms Limitation talks (I say perhaps because arms limitation talks have historically led to wars). A key requirement of the NPT is that members guarantee non-weapons states access to nuclear power.

 

More to follow

 

Wastes

Complete rubbish. The nuclear power industry is the first heavy industry in history to account for all of its waste and budget for its safe and responsible disposal, instead of (for example) just blowing it up the chimney as greenhouse gas.

 

The weapons people have a lot to answer for. They've left some horrible messes. But such things happen in wars, even in cold wars. That's not the fault of the nuclear power industry, in fact in the USA the industry is helping to support the cleanup of the bomb plant sites in many different ways... including financially if you do the sums honestly.

 

There are three good ways to deal with spent nuclear fuel: 

  • The KBS-3 technology for PWR and BWR fuel, and adapted for othe whole fuel elements;
  • Better, reprocess the fuel to recycle all long-lived nuclides (nearly all of which is fissile or fertile and can be used as fuel) and vitrify and bury the shorter-lived nuclides;
  • Better still, build reactors such as the IFR which don't produce long-lived waste at all, and vitrify and bury the shorter-lived waste that is produced.  

 

There has been a colossal and justified stink about the failure to clean up the site of the former Radium plant at Hunters Hill in Sydney. This wasn't really a nuclear industry plant at all, it extracted Radium from Uranium ore to use in luminous paint. But the waste it left behind was radioactive, not harmfully so, and gave off Radon gas, which is a legitimate worry. And people built houses on the site, and had dangerous levels of Radon in their subfloor spaces.

 

There were court hearings on the disposal of the contaminated soil. An expert on the subject said "Why not just dump it all in the fly ash pond of any one of the Hunter Valley coal-fired power stations? The extra contamination would not be significant compared to the amount of radioactive material that's there already." And he's right. There's Uranium in Hunter Valley coal, not enough to extract commercially but enough to provide plenty of Radium and all the other nasties in the fly ash, and to give off tiny but measurable amounts of Radon gas. It's a good plan.

 

The judge said "Strike that from the record." And that action is typical of the quality of information you have been fed by some of the more politically minded people you read. 

 

See also crossover period  

 

More to follow

 

Accidents

A legitimate concern, and the best reason to urgently depoliticise and depolarise the debate, and have some sensible discussion.

 

Because the world is going nuclear. Germany has abandoned Atomkraft only to instead import nuclear electricity from France. They sold their Thorium reactor program to China, who have built a prototype twice the size of the German one. India is committed to a Thorium based program. China and Russia are both building new FBRs. Many countries are building new PWRs or planning to. Germany and Switzerland are still planning to shut down their nuclear power industries, but in both cases the replacement capacity will be PWRs in other countries.

 

The question is not whether the nuclear industry will exist, but purely whether it will be responsible and accountable.

 

Three Mile Island

Despite what you've read, TMI killed nobody. See The Linear No Thought model or LNT.

 

Patrick Moore has even called TMI a success story. That's a bit over the top. It was a disaster for the company and the residents whose power it supplied, and an even bigger disaster for those in the area who were legitimately worried and even panicked by the events and the press coverage. Some were evacuated. Many were traumatised. No success there.

 

But the reactor did prove very hard to break, and even when they did break it, nobody outside the fence was in any danger from the radioactivity as it turned out. The meltdown was so complete and unexpected that until they took the head off, many thought it might be repairable., but the containment did its job even then.

 

Chernobyl

I blame the anti-nuclear movement for the Chernobyl disaster. What! How is that possible?

 

It's not only possible, it's logical. The Russians (Soviets in those days) announced the RBMK design at a World Power Conference in the 1950s. My father was there. There was the opportunity for questions. My father was going to ask a question, but the French delegation had the right to speak first, and asked exactly what every nuclear engineer in the room was wondering.

 

They asked "Surely this design would have a positive void and power coefficient?"

 

The reply was "In the West this design may be considered unsafe, but our control systems are so much in advance of anything the West will ever develop that in our hands, this design is entirely safe."

 

This is all on public record.

 

But did you ever hear, prior to the Chernobyl #4 explosion, a single word of criticism of the Soviet program from the environmental industry? There were several obvious reasons for this and I leave you to speculate on what they might be.

 

But the point is, some nukes are better than others.

 

See also why on earth did they build the RBMK and a nuclear glossary.

 

Fukushima

This was and is a real wake-up call. Fukushima Daiichi was a showplace, a plant where everything was supposed to have been done right. Wrong.

 

Mind you. the radiation didn't kill anyone, while the knee-jerk reaction to shut down all of the country's reactors, some of them nowhere near the coast, is estimated by some to have killed tens of thousands of people by poor air quality and power supply interruptions.

 

There are lessons to be learned. And again, one is, some nukes are better than others.

 

It may well be the end of the BWR. These reactors are only currently designed and built by one supplier, unlike the PWR which has been copied by several other companies and countries, and it may be the end of the company too.

 

The BWR is an elegant design concept with some considerable advantages, and is greatly admired by nuclear engineers generally. Nuclear power stations are not good load followers, but the BWR is better than most, and there have even been instances of BWRs operating for months without moving the control rods. Just open the steam valves to generate more electric power and the reactivity increases. Close them when you no longer need the steam and it decreases. That is stability!

 

But there are also some extra risks and some extra safety features built in to address these risks. The donut-shaped suppression chamber, for example, which has only been tested three times... at Fukushima. The score is 0/3. (The fourth explosion was in or above the #4 spent fuel pool, but reactor #4 was defueled at the time, so the suppression pool would not have helped with that anyway. It is not yet known whether any radioactive material was released from #4, but quite possibly not.)  

 

Some of the latest designs also feature a core-catcher... a structure under the reactor to catch the molten core in the event of a meltdown. Chernobyl was not a BWR, but was designed for the water to boil in the core in a similar fashion, and the molten core escaped and is now an expensive problem. But at Three Mile Island (a PWR, not a BWR) the molten core was caught, quite effectively, by the existing structure... to the point that until they opened the pressure vessel for a look, the extent of the meltdown was not really appreciated. The containment did well.

 

(Core catchers are also being installed under PWRs, see http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Core-catcher-installation-under-way-at-Rooppur-1 and they're not a bad idea on any power reactor. But the point is, on the evidence, BWRs do need them and PWRs may not.)

 

And the only US reactor accident to cause any immediate fatalities so far was that at SL-1,, a small BWR. 

 

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