Posted on April 22nd, 2013 No comments
A while back in an online discussion with a German “Green,” I pointed out that, if Germany shut down its nuclear plants, coal plants would have to remain in operation to take up the slack. He was stunned that I could be so obtuse. Didn’t I realize that the lost nuclear capacity would all be replaced by benign “green” energy technology? Well, it turns out things didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, the lost generating capacity is being replaced by – coal.
Germany is building new coal-fired power plants hand over fist, with 26 of them planned for the immediate future. According to Der Spiegel, the German news magazine that never misses a trick when it comes to bashing nuclear, that’s a feature, not a bug. A recent triumphant headline reads, “Export Boom: German Coal Electricity Floods Europe.” Expect more of the same from the home of Europe’s most pious environmentalists. Germany has also been rapidly expanding its solar and wind capacity recently thanks to heavy state subsidies, but the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, especially in Germany. Coal plants are required to fill in the gaps – lots of them. Of course, it would be unprofitable to let them sit idle when wind and solar are available, so they are kept going full blast. When the power isn’t needed in Germany, it is sold abroad, serving as a useful prop to Germany’s export fueled economy.
Remember the grotesque self-righteousness of Der Spiegel and the German “Greens” during the Kyoto Treaty debates at the end of the Clinton administration? Complying with the Kyoto provisions cost the Germans nothing. They had just shut down the heavily polluting and grossly unprofitable industries in the former East Germany, had brought large numbers of new gas-fired plants on line thanks to increasing gas supplies from the North Sea fields, and had topped it off with a lame economy in the 90′s compared to the booming U.S. Their greenhouse gas emissions had dropped accordingly. Achieving similar reductions in the U.S. wouldn’t have been a similar “freebie.” It would have cost tens of thousands of jobs. The German “Greens” didn’t have the slightest problem with this. They weren’t interested in achieving a fair agreement that would benefit all. They were only interested in striking pious poses.
Well, guess what? Times have changed. Last year U.S. carbon emissions were at their lowest level since 1994, and down 3.7% from 2011. Our emissions are down 7.7% since 2006, the largest drop among major industrial states on the planet. German emissions were up at least 1.5% last year, and probably more like 2%. Mention this to a German “Green,” and he’s likely to mumble something about Germany still being within the Kyoto limits. That’s quite true. Germany is still riding the shutdown of what news magazine Focus calls “dilapidated, filthy, communist East German industry after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” to maintain the facade of environmental “purity.”
That’s small comfort to her eastern European neighbors. Downwind from Germany’s coal-fired plants, their “benefit” from her “green” policies is acid rain, nitrous oxide laced smog, deadly particulates that kill and sicken thousands and, last but not least, a rich harvest of radioactive fallout. That’s right, Germany didn’t decrease the radioactive hazard to her neighbors by shutting down her nuclear plants. She vastly increased it. Coal contains several parts per million each of radioactive uranium and thorium. These elements are harmless enough – if kept outside the body. The energetic alpha particles they emit are easily stopped by a normal layer of skin. When that happens, they dump the energy they carry in a very short distance, but, since skin is dead, it doesn’t matter. It’s an entirely different matter when they dump those several million electron volts of energy into a living cell – such as a lung cell. Among other things, that can easily derange the reproductive equipment of the cell, causing cancer. How can they reach the lungs? Very easily if the uranium and thorium that emit them are carried in the ash from a coal-fired plant. A typical coal-fired plant releases about 5 tons of uranium and 12 tons of thorium every year. The German “Greens” have no problem with this, even though they’re constantly bitching about the relatively miniscule release of uranium from U.S. depleted uranium munitions. Think scrubber technology helps? Guess again! The uranium and thorium are concentrated in the ash, whether it ends up in the air or not. They can easily leach into surrounding cropland and water supplies.
The last time there was an attempt to move radioactive waste to the Gorleben storage facility within Germany, the “Greens” could be found striking heroic poses as saviors of the environment all along the line, demonstrating, tearing up tracks, and setting police vehicles on fire. Their “heroic” actions forced the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants. The “gift” (German for “poison”) of their “heroic” actions to Germany’s neighbors came in the form of acid rain, smog, and airborne radiation. By any reasonable standard, coal-fired plants are vastly more dangerous and damaging to the environment than the nuclear facilities they replaced.
It doesn’t matter to Germany’s “Greens.” The acid rain, the radiation, the danger of global warming they always pretend to be so concerned about? It doesn’t matter. For them, as for the vast majority of other environmental zealots worldwide, the pose is everything. The reality is nothing.
Posted on May 6th, 2012 9 comments
Nuclear power is an attractive candidate for meeting our future energy needs. Nuclear plants do not release greenhouse gases. They release significantly less radiation into the environment than coal plants, because coal contains several parts per million of radioactive thorium and uranium. They require far less space and are far more reliable than alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. In spite of some of the worst accidents imaginable due to human error and natural disasters, we have not lost any cities or suffered any mass casualties, and the horrific “China Syndrome” scenarios invented by the self-appointed saviors of mankind have proven to be fantasies. That is not to say nuclear power is benign. It is just more benign than any of the currently available alternatives. The main problem with nuclear is not that it is unsafe, but that it is being ill-used. In this case, government could actually be helpful. Leadership and political will could put nuclear on a better track.
To understand why, it is necessary to know a few things about nuclear fuel, and how it “burns.” Bear with me while I present a brief tutorial in nuclear engineering. Nuclear energy is released by nuclear fission, or the splitting of heavy elements into two or more lighter ones. This doesn’t usually happen spontaneously. Before a heavy element can undergo fission, an amount of energy above a certain threshold must first be delivered to its nucleus. How does this happen? Imagine a deep well. If you drop a bowling ball into the well, it will cause a large splash when it hits the water. It does so because it has been accelerated by the force of gravity. A heavy nucleus is something like a well, but things don’t fall into it because of gravity. Instead, it relies on the strong force, which is very short range, but vastly more powerful than gravity. The role of “bowling ball” can be played by a neutron. If one happens along and gets close enough to fall into the strong force ”well,” it will also cause a “splash,” releasing energy as it is bound to the heavy element’s nucleus, just as the real bowling ball is “bound” in the water well until someone fishes it out. This “splash,” or release of energy, causes the heavy nucleus to “jiggle,” much like an unstable drop of water. In one naturally occurring isotope – uranium with an atomic weight of 235 – this “jiggle” is so violent that it can cause the “drop of water” to split apart, or fission.
There are other isotopes of uranium. All of them have 92 protons in their nucleus, but can have varying numbers of neutrons. The nucleus of uranium 235, or U235, has 92 protons and 143 protons, adding up to a total of 235. Unfortunately, U235 is only 0.7% of natural uranium. Almost all the rest is U238, which has 92 protons and 146 neutrons. When a neutron falls into the U238 “well,” the “splash” isn’t big enough to cause fission, or at least not unless the neutron had a lot of energy to begin with, as if the “bowling ball” had been shot from a cannon. As a result, U238 can’t act as the fuel in a nuclear reactor. Almost all the nuclear reactors in operation today simply burn that 0.7% of U235 and store what’s left over as radioactive waste. Unfortunately, that’s an extremely inefficient and wasteful use of the available fuel resources.
To understand why, it’s necessary to understand something about what happens to the neutrons in a reactor that keep the nuclear chain reaction going. First of all, where do they come from? Well, each fission releases more neutrons. The exact number depends on how fast the neutron that caused the fission was going, and what isotope underwent fission. If enough are released to cause, on average, one more fission, then the resulting chain reaction will continue until the fuel is used up. Actually, two neutrons, give or take, are released in each fission. However, not all of them cause another fission. Some escape the fuel region and are lost. Others are absorbed in the fuel material. That’s where things get interesting.
Recall that, normally, most of the fuel in a reactor isn’t U235, but the more common isotope, U238. When U238 absorbs a neutron, it forms U239, which quickly decays to neptunium 239 and then plutonium 239. Now it just so happens that plutonium 239, or Pu239, will also fission if a neutron “falls into its well,” just like U235. In other words, if enough neutrons were available, the reactor could actually produce more fuel, in the form of Pu239, than it consumes, potentially burning up most of the U238 as well as the U235. This is referred to as the “breeding” of nuclear fuel. Instead of just lighting the U235 “match” and letting it burn out, it would be used to light and burn the entire U238 “log.” Unfortunately, there are not enough neutrons in normal nuclear reactors to breed more fuel than is consumed. Such reactors have, however, been built, both in the United States and other countries, and have been safely operated for periods of many years.
Plutonium breeders aren’t the only feasible type. In addition to U235 and Pu239, another isotope will also fission if a neutron falls into its “well” - uranium 233. Like Pu239, U233 doesn’t occur in nature. However, it can be “bred,” just like Pu239, from another element that does occur in nature, and is actually more common than uranium – thorium. I’ve had a few critical things to say about some of the popular science articles I’ve seen on thorium lately, but my criticisms were directed at inaccuracies in the articles, not at thorium technology itself. Thorium breeders actually have some important advantages over plutonium. When U233 fissions, it produces more neutrons than Pu239, and it does so in a “cooler” neutron spectrum, where the average neutron energy is much lower, making the reactor significantly easier to control. These extra neutrons could not only breed more fuel. They could also be used to burn up the transuranic elements – those beyond uranium on the table of the elements – that are produced in conventional nuclear reactors, and account for the lion’s share of the long-lived radioactive waste. This would be a huge advantage. Destroy the transuranics, and the residual radioactivity from a reactor would be less than that of the original ore, potentially in a few hundred years, rather than many thousands.
Thorium breeders have other potentially important advantages. The fuel material could be circulated through the core in the form of a liquid, suspended in a special “salt” material. Of course, this would eliminate the danger of a fuel meltdown. In the event of an accident like the one at Fukushima, the fuel would simply be allowed to run into a holding basin, where it would be sub-critical and cool quickly. Perhaps more importantly, the United States has the biggest proven reserves of thorium on the planet.
Breeders aren’t the only reactor types that hold great promise for meeting our future energy needs. High temperature gas cooled reactors would produce gas heated to high temperature in addition to electricity. This could be used to produce hydrogen gas via electrolysis, which is much more efficient at such high temperatures. When hydrogen burns, it produces only water. Such reactors could also be built over the massive oil shale deposits in the western United States. The hot gas could then be used to efficiently extract oil from the shale “in situ” without the need to mine it. It is estimated that the amount of oil that could be economically recovered in this way from the Green River Basin deposits in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado alone is three times greater than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.
Will any of this happen without government support and leadership? Not any time soon. The people who build nuclear reactors expect to make a profit, and the easiest way to make a profit is to build more conventional reactors of the type we already have. Raise the points I’ve mentioned above, and they’ll simply tell you that there’s plenty of cheap uranium around and therefore no need to breed more fuel, the radioactive danger of transuranics has been much exaggerated, etc., etc. All these meretricious arguments make sense if your goal is to make a profit in the short run. They make no sense at all if you have any concern for the energy security and welfare of future generations.
Unless the proponents of controlled fusion or solar and other forms of alternative energy manage to pull a rabbit out of their collective hats, I suspect we will eventually adopt breeder technology. The question is when. After we have finally burnt our last reserves of fossil fuel? After we have used up all our precious reserves of U238 by scattering it hither and yon in the form of “depleted uranium” munitions? The longer we wait, the harder and more expensive it will become to develop a breeder economy. It would be well if, in this unusual case, government stepped in and did what it is theoretically supposed to do; lead.
Posted on August 24th, 2010 No comments
It appears that authorities in Moldova seized about four pounds of contraband uranium and arrested several suspects. The material in question turned out to be the isotope uranium 238 (U238), meaning that, unlike the fissile isotope U235, it couldn’t be used to make a bomb. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that whenever I have personal knowledge of what happened in an incident that makes the news, or expertise regarding its subject, the mainstream media, with their layers of editors and fact checkers, manage to botch the story. For example, CNN uncritically quotes Kirill Motspan, a spokesman for Moldova’s Interior Ministry as saying that, “…it was his understanding that 1 kilo of uranium costs $6.3 million on the black market and that is what the smugglers were expecting to get.” I seriously doubt that Motspan meant just any uranium, and especially not U238. If that were the case, the guys who fly A10 Warthog ground support planes armed with Gatling guns that pump out rounds that contain just under a pound each of the stuff at 4,200 rounds per minute must be using caddies to recover them. He was probably referring to uranium highly enriched in isotope 235, which can be used to make a bomb. In other words, the smugglers were intending to snooker their customers. Anyone can Google the fact that natural uranium, which contains at least a little (about 0.71%) U235, is currently selling for just under $50 per pound.
Not to be outdone, the Telegraph reports that the material seized was “enriched uranium.” Since the caption of the figure that appears in the article notes that the material was U238, commonly referred to as depleted uranium, none of their “fact checkers” apparently has a clue what they’re talking about.
BTW, have you noticed that whenever contraband radioactive and special nuclear material is seized, its usually due to good old fashioned police work, and not to those snazzy new radiation detectors that are being installed hand over fist at ports and border crossings? That’s not a coincidence.
Posted on May 30th, 2010 1 comment
As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use depleted uranium (DU) as ammunition because of its potential value as an energy source. Other than that, its substantial advantages as a penetrator for defeating armored targets are likely grossly outweighed by the value of the propaganda weapon we hand to our enemies when we use it, not to mention the massive cost of litigating cases brought by lawyers who are well aware of the potential value of DU hysteria for lining their pockets. That hysteria lost touch with reality long ago, and continues to grow. A glance at the facts should be enough to cure anyone of an overweening faith in the intelligence of human beings.
The basic propaganda line relating to DU weapons is that a) Great increases in cancer and other health problems are experienced in areas where they are used, and b) Most of these health problems are due to radioactivity from DU. The professionally pious have devoted a great deal of webspace to the subject, typically short on facts but with lots of pictures of terribly deformed infants and, as usual, featuring themselves as noble saviors of humanity. Those with strong stomachs can find examples here, here and here. It’s all completely bogus, but the truth has never been more than a minor inconvenience for ideological poseurs.
The World Health Organization, public health arm of the UN, an organization that has not been notably chummy with the US of late, debunked the DU hysteria in a report that appeared in 2001 (click on the link to see the document). Quoting from the report,
For the general population it is unlikely that the exposure to depleted uranium will significantly exceed the normal background uranium levels.
Measurements of depleted uranium at sites where depleted uranium munitions were used indicate only localized (within a few tens of metres of the impact site) contamination at the ground surface.
General screening or monitoring for possible depleted uranium-related health effects in populations living in conflict areas where depleted uranium has been used is not necessary. Individuals who believe they have been exposed to excessive amounts of depleted uranium should consult their medical practitioner for examination, appropriate treatment of any symptoms and follow-up.
The potential external dose received in the vicinity of a target following attack by DU munitions has been theoretically estimated to be in the order of 4 μSv/year (UNEP/UNCHS, 1999) based on gamma ray exposure. Such doses are small when compared to recommended guidelines for human exposure to ionizing radiation (20 mSv/annum for a worker for penetrating whole body radiation or 500 mSv/year for skin (BSS, 1996).
Of course, the poseurs dismiss such stuff with a wave of the hand, claiming that, for reasons known only to them, the authors of the report suppressed damning evidence, or didn’t consider certain miraculous processes whereby the DU can be transported into the bodies of its victims without showing up in urine samples. If one points out, for example, that natural background radiation in places such as Iran and India is much higher than any increase due to DU in the places where all the birth defects and illness is supposedly taking place, without ill effects to the local populations, they merely reply that the DU is carried on insoluble particles, that are infinitely more dangerous than natural uranium. If it is pointed out that, in that case, it would actually be much more difficult for DU to cause birth defects because the rate at which the body carries insoluble compounds to the vicinity of the reproductive organs is an order of magnitude less than for soluble uranium compounds, or that it is much more difficult for insoluble compounds to get into the food chain, they quickly change tack. Suddenly, the DU becomes soluble, and the circle is squared.
A moment’s rational consideration of the facts demolishes the DU hype. For example, it is claimed that 320 tons of DU were used in the Gulf War in 1991 and 1700 tons in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Those numbers pale in comparison to the approximately 9000 Tons of natural uranium and 22400 tons of thorium currently released each year from the burning of coal. Much of this material is pumped directly into the atmosphere in the form of particulates that easily enter the lungs. It is far more likely to contaminate nearby population centers in this form than the byproducts of DU munitions. Coal consumption in China alone is over 2 million metric tons per year, resulting in the yearly release of about 3000 tons of uranium and 7450 tons of thorium. There have certainly been health problems downwind of these plants, but they’ve been due to plain old-fashioned air pollution. There have been no massive increases in birth defects or radiation-related cancer, flying in the face of claims about DU’s supposedly demonic power to sicken and kill. Uranium absorbed in the body will show up in the urine, whether it is ingested in soluble or insoluble form. Yet, despite massive screening of military veterans, ongoing studies find no persistent elevation of U concentrations beyond that found in the general population other than in soldiers actually hit by DU fragments or involved in friendly fire accidents.
Studies of uranium miners confirm the absurdity of the inflated DU claims. Exposure to increased levels of uranium dust has not been associated with increases incidence of cancer, even in older miners. Increased levels of lung cancer in such workers certainly have been detected, but it is associated with the breathing of high concentrations of radon in confined spaces. The contribution of DU to radon gas concentrations in the atmosphere in Iraq is utterly insignificant compared to natural seepage from the earth and release by coal plant pollution. Meanwhile, massive use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, the sabotage and burning of hundreds of oil wells after the first Gulf War, and the release of a host of carcinogenic chemicals in the process of oil production are somehow never considered as possible contributors to illness and birth defects, unless, of course, they happen to fit another narrative.
In a word, the DU propaganda is nonsense, but that doesn’t keep it from being effective. Other than that, because of DU’s potential value as a fuel in future breeder reactors that will be available to us without the environmental and health hazards of mining new uranium, we are almost literally shooting silver bullets. Under the circumstances, one wonders what possible justification there can be for the claim that the advantages of continued use of DU munitions outweigh the drawbacks. Why are we working so hard to confirm the familiar claim that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron?