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Should USA Massively Scale nuclear energy initiatives?

PostPosted: Fri Apr 24, 2009 12:56 pm
by Dr. April Dutta
This could possibly a good time to start a discussion on nuclear power. It seems the US citizens are inordinately phobic of the word “nuclear” and their fears are out of proportion to reality. Let’s address what the public seems to fear most about nuclear power:

1. that terrorists will get a supply of nuclear fuel and develop a bomb.
2. a meltdown, a breach or leak from a nuclear plant.
3. what to do with the nuclear waste.

In his book “Physics for Future Presidents”, Richard Muller deals with all aspects of this topic very succinctly. Nuclear power supplies about 75% of the energy needs of France today and have head room to be as much as 85%. So, what is it about France that they were able to do this while the US lags behind?

At the present rate of consumption and mining techniques, there is proven nuclear fuel for another 100 years, potentially for 500 more years. At higher costs for electricity, extraction of Uranium from sea water may be feasible. So, let’s address the above 3 points.

1. Consider the extraordinary efforts that countries have to go through to make a nuclear bomb, the intricate mechanisms involved to explode. Any slight misalignment and the bomb is likely to fizzle. There are those who think that N Korea has not yet been able to make a bomb work, the attempted 20 kilo ton bomb fizzled to a 1 kilo ton bomb. If a 1 kilo ton equivalent bomb, exploded in NY central park, the blast area would not extend beyond the park and outside the park more people would die from shrapnel and shards than radiation.
2. The 1979 Three Nile Island leak is probably what has traumatized the US public since. It turns out that the radiation that was intentionally leaked to contain a reaction – was less than that from the natural radon gas in the surrounding area. The 1986 Chernobyl explosion was a real meltdown. Cancer rate calculations show that this “major” leak may, worst case, will lead to an additional 4000 cancer deaths in a population of 10 million across Germany to Sweden to southern Russia, the area that saw any higher level of radiation. Assuming a cancer death rate of 20%, of the 10 million people, 2 million would be expected to die of cancer due to other causes. The 4000 additional deaths will be difficult to detect above the 2 million expected deaths. The modern nuclear plants should be much safer, especially with the modern pebble bed reactors.
3. Waste handling can be easily managed. US is now building a site in the Yucca Mountain, Nevada that should be amply sufficient. As fuel costs increase, it might be worthwhile to extract plutonium from the waste for further processing.

The concern it seems is not rooted in the Physics of nuclear power, but rooted in being unaware of the data and facts. Therefore it is more a political issue in that we need to educate our public and politicians.

Re: Should USA Massively Scale nuclear energy initiatives?

PostPosted: Fri Apr 24, 2009 12:58 pm
by Sol Shapiro
I think we all agree that nuclear weapons are horrible. I also believe that using solar and geothermal, the world can supply all its energy needs, probably at a cost no greater than nuclear. It is on this basis that I oppose nuclear; I am not afraid of safety of these plants or of waste disposal. I have great fear to spread the nuclear hardware around the world.

Re: Should USA Massively Scale nuclear energy initiatives?

PostPosted: Fri Apr 24, 2009 1:00 pm
by Probir Ghosh
I am not sure we all can agree. I am not an expert in Nuclear energy issues, but the very fact that many other countries besides France are building Nuclear Energy plants says that, US has no control over what all these countries can do with the material. If we go over to France, we can see that the general public is very comfortable with Nuclear energy plants and they recyle their waste fuels and hence get a much better recovery and cost of production compared to USA. I do not see US standing guard in France or Germany or China to see what is being done with the fuel or the waste. And now I understand Abu Dhabi is planning to set up one of the largest Nuclear energy plants for the Masdar city which plans to use zero fossil fuel (?) in the Middle East, which is sitting on the largest resources of oil in the world. Do they know something that we don’t?

On the other hand, US not looking at expanding the Nuclear energy option, while all other countries are ramping up, needs a serious review. I personally am still not fully comfortable with point 2 and 3 April pointed out. But I would like someone far more knowledgeable than me comment on those issues and educate us all. I have had an opportunity to exchange views with someone with a really deep knowledge on these issues. We would like someone who has actually handled the procedures and security to comment on this one.

Re: Should USA Massively Scale nuclear energy initiatives?

PostPosted: Fri Apr 24, 2009 1:02 pm
by Sol Shapiro
I am resigned to the fact that there wil be nuclear - whether in the U.S. or not, I’m not sure.
And as I think of it, the best approach I would have to minimize it would be to create public policy that would make visible the alternatives to nuclear at an early date. E.G., I’ve seen that there is $400 million to support development of geothermal. I see that Interior is trying to create renewable energy zones to help get more solar central. I see some discussion of a national grid.
I would like to see policy that speaks of national resources being used where they are most effective; e.g., the idea of eastern utilities owning generation in the west where it is more cost effective.

Re: Should USA Massively Scale nuclear energy initiatives?

PostPosted: Fri Apr 24, 2009 1:03 pm
by Dr. April Dutta
Yes, nuclear weapons are indeed horrible, we can all agree on that. My point is that they are however very difficult to make, requires the resources of a country. Unlikely that any terrorist organization could muster that.

Other forms of bombs are much easier to make for the terrorists, example the gasoline bomb if I can call it that, which occurred on 9/11. Then there was the Bhopal Union Carbide incident that while unintentional, was essentially a chemical bomb. Nuclear weapons require intricate mechanisms and very pure fuels that make them time consuming and impractical for terrorists. For the amount of effort required for a nuclear bomb, many other conventional bombs can be manufactured and deployed. Countries are a different game. As you say, we are all resigned that nuclear is now global. After all it is a technology that is half a century old and you cannot contain that.

I am thinking about how to bring the relevant nuclear data in front of the public to make them have a less visceral reaction to the word “nuclear”. I am not a proponent on nuclear over other forms of un-polluting energy sources, however I would like people to give it a chance to study if it is an intermediate term feasible approach. Solar is as good as any, solar thermal is even preferable to panels for utility companies since it is simpler.

This reminds me of something. We all know of the MRI human body scans. This technique grew out of what in Physics labs was NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance. When it came time to market the product the term “nuclear” was deemed too contentious and it became MRI or magnetic resonance imaging.

I am thinking about how to bring the relevant nuclear data in front of the public to make them have a less visceral reaction to the word “nuclear”.

Re: Should USA Massively Scale nuclear energy initiatives?

PostPosted: Fri Apr 24, 2009 1:05 pm
by Probir Ghosh
April, the MRI is an excellent point. I also noticed that while people in France seem to be very comfortable with Nuclear Energy in their own country, we in America seem to be very concerned (including me) about Nuclear side effects. I noticed even the French delegation was reluctant to discuss the topic of Nuclear energy while they were discussing the new energy initiatives in a recent energy summit.

Can someone educate us on the 3 side effect issues/perceptions April has raised?

Re: Should USA Massively Scale nuclear energy initiatives?

PostPosted: Fri Apr 24, 2009 1:06 pm
by Mike Chritton
I have worked in the nuclear arena since 1982, and have been a certified reactor control room supervisor and reactor area manager amongst many other jobs in hat industry. I will try to address — too briefly I admit — the 3 issues April raised:
1. Theft or diversion of fresh nuclear fuel from a US or Canadian power reactor would not be usable to make a nuclear weapon. The Canadians “burn” natural non-enriched uranium in their CANDU reactors, and the US fuel for PWRs and BWRs is enriched from the natural 0.7% of fissionable U-235 to 3%. Although I am not a weapons design expert, my understanding is that it would be impossible to create a nuclear bomb with 3% fuel. The issue with Iran is that they are building their own enrichment facilities and there is concern that they intend to enrich well beyond the 3% needed for fuel to levels that would be usable for weapons. But that issue is separate from the non-weapons grade fuel used in our power reactors.
2. Both TMI and Chernobyl involved meltdowns of the reactor core, although neither created the China Syndrome that the movie hyped. The differences in Chernobyl and TMI are noteworthy. The Chernobyl event resulted from frustrated operators trying to run a test who intentionally bypassed safety systems without receiving proper review and approvals. That allowed the power to escalate very rapidly which caused a steam explosion of the water that ran through pipes to keep the graphite moderator cool during operations. The Chernobyl reactor did not have the familiar concrete containment dome that US reactors have - it was covered with a simple metal building that was easily breached by the steam explosion, releasing the contaminants from the burning graphite and reactor core. The containment domes in use at US reactors would have contained that steam explosion and not created a release, and we use water not graphite as the moderator.
At TMI the operators were faced with conflicting data from their instrumentation (including a valve that was stuck open but the indicator showed it as closed). In the absence of the multiple redundant systems and other automated processes designed to eliminate human error that were implemented after the TMI incident, they misinterpreted the conditions and believed that the reactor was “going solid”, meaning it was completely full of water. Without a cushion of air it makes it impossible to control the internal pressures, so they stopped the supply of water to the reactor not realizing they were actually dropping the water level to the point that half the core was no longer being cooled. It came as a complete surprise a year or more later when a camera was lowered into the reactor to discover that a significant part of the core had indeed melted. It was completely contained inside the inatct reactor vessel. As was indicated earlier, during the confusion of the event there was an intentional albeit misguided release of air from inside the containment dome. I had not previously seen the above comment that the radiation levels from the release were lower than the natural radon in the area, but it is consistent with what I had heard: that the release was so small that if you had been standing at the fence line of the reactor you’d have received more radiation by wearing shoes that had a 1/4-inch higher heel because of the infinitesimal decrease in atmospheric shielding from solar radiation.
TMI caused a lot of understandable but ultimately unfounded fear. The Worst Case Scenario happened and the safety systems worked despite several human errors. And the changes that have resulted from TMI have significantly increased the levels of redundancy of systems and instrumentation, and have made tremendous improvements in the human factors concerns so that the stressors on the operators during a potential crisis are greatly reduced with tools provided to assure correct decisions are made.
3. The waste issue is greatly exaggerated. Yes, the half-life of some of the radioactive byproducts of the fission process stretches beyond what most people can easily grasp. But the amounts of contaminants that are generated is very manageable. My understanding is that you could consolidate all of the spent fuel from all of the US reactors into one location and the space occupied would be less than two or perhaps three football fields. There are processes already available where the radioactive materials can be mixed into and entrained in obsidian-like glass cylinders designed to fit inside stainless 55-gallon drums. The material would thus be stabilized and could be safely transported and stored indefinitely.

About 20 years ago I read a great magazine article taped to an office wall — I regret that I now cannot locate it online and give it proper attribution. It made an excellent point by comparing people’s fear of sharks with their fear of nuclear power, and I will paraphrase what I recall from that article. Imagine a beach community that had never had a shark attack in history. One weekend the local officials look out at the throngs of people in the ocean and decide they want to make the place even safer for the beachgoers. So they buy a vehicle specially equipped to drive on the beach and provided with the very best emergency treatment for a shark attack victim, staffed with properly trained paramedics. They proudly painted Shark Attack Response Unit on the side and parked the vehicle smack in the middle of the beach to reduce response time and thinking that people would feel so much safer knowing that the officials were fully prepared for any emergency, even those that had never occurred and likely never would. To their chagrin, hardly a person went into the water even though nothing had changed — except that they were now safer than before. A similar phenomenon occurs with reactors - the public’s lack of understanding of the nuclear process compounded by the sci-fi hype of nuclear-created giant ants creates a visceral fear response. The massive domes and public outreach programs that include practice emergency response drills, both of which increase public protection, have the same psychological impact as that hypothetical Shark Attack Response Unit parked on the now-emptied beach.

Re: Should USA Massively Scale nuclear energy initiatives?

PostPosted: Fri Apr 24, 2009 1:09 pm
by Probir Ghosh
I am glad Mike decided to respond to April’s post, I have very high regard for them. Both of them understate their depth of knowledge, Mike is the go to expert and is considered an authority on the procedures, processes & educating teams involved with Nuclear Enigineering worldwide and April has a deep knowledge of Physics. I would value their opions deeply while considering the pros and cons. I especially appreciated Mike’s reference to the perceived shark episode and April’s reference to MRI, a device we are now very familiar with.

My own judgement is clouded by fear of the unknown, and I like many in this country need to be educated on harnessing nuclear energy in the most effective and safe manner. As Sol has mentioned, use of Nuclear Energy is out of US hands, there are already many countries harnessing Nuclear Energy and in countires like France the public seems to be very comfortable with producing 87% of electricity from Nuclear Energy and exporting a large amount to other countries.

The question that comes to mind is how is France so comfortable/nonchalant about having 59 Nuclear Power Plants in a land mass slighlty larger than Colorado with about almost 50 million people; surely if a mishap were to happen in France it would be much more catastropic because of the dense population not only in France but in other surrounding nations?

If we were to be technologically agnostic, and follow a structured approach described in the mapping tools of the invVEST Strategy document, here are the three steps we need to take to see if Nuclear Energy generation is a viable option USA seriously needs to consider. First use the matrix on page 19 to select a panel of experts who are deeply knowledgeable in this area (preferably evenly spread between the proponents and the opponents) to discuss the Nuclear energy option. It is clear to me we need to have a few Behavioral, Education and Policy experts in this group, besides the Technology and Process experts. I’d like to select Mike, April and Matt as the first of the 10 -12 thought leaders and let them select at least two facilitators. I’d like Matt to counter and pick a few people with deep knowledge in Nuclear Engineering to participate. I’d like April and Mike to pick a few counter parts to discuss the issues.

Once a team is assembled, go to Base Mapping tool shown in the Strategy Document. Let each individual on the team score on each of the six traits for SE and compare notes. Discuss why anyone scored more than a 7 or lower than a 4 for each of the traits. Identify and agree on each of the issues to be resolved for any score lower than a 6. If Side Effects are perceived to be catastropic, list all the issues point by point to see how the team can mitigate them. My own read (I am no expert in this area) is Nuclear can score reasonably high on most catagories except for Side Effects by most people. I would like the experts to bring up all issues, including the clean up costs (Rocky Mountain Flats for example, is it only weapons related? Could it provide Nuclear fuel for electric generation?).

I would strongly urge the team to look outside US to do benchmarking, both in terms of cost, policies, controls, and taking care of side effects. Were there any other episodes in other countires, France for example, and how did they take care of the issues?). When they consider cost of power generation (on paper it has one of the lowest cost/kWh), do they really consider the total life cycle cost? Is USA losing out on a low cost viable option for power generation that can be considered Sustainable in the true sense of definition. Can we afford not be competitive compared to other countries, if many of the top players in the world are getting low cost energy (?) & clean energy (?)from Nuclear Power?

I think Nuclear Power Generation is a fairly mature Technology and I am not sure the Team needs to consider the next step, CORE Mapping tool, meant to be used for assessing product maturity and life cycle issues. But I will leave it to the team to decide what tools they want to use. I can come up with many more tools to help a structured discussion to a logical conclusion. I’d like this team to come up with recommendations for next steps.

Re: Should USA Massively Scale nuclear energy initiatives?

PostPosted: Fri Apr 24, 2009 1:31 pm
by Dr. Mitul Sarkar
With the threat of superpower fueled nuclear conflict having decreased in the general public’s perception, and gas/utilities pinching the consumers’ pockets, the public perception of nuclear energy might be changing. Link to article: ... _grow.html