More Silly Thorium Tricks

You might get the idea from reading my blog that I have something against thorium.  It ain’t so!  I consider thorium a very promising candidate for supplying our future energy needs.  It’s just that there’s something about the stuff that seems to drive people off the deep end.  I actually missed the really bad thorium idea that’s the subject of this post when it turned up on the Internet about a year ago.  However, the articles are still out there, and are interesting examples of how really bad science can be promoted as perfectly plausible by people who have impressive credentials, but actually don’t know what they’re talking about.

The idea in question was the use of thorium fueled mini-subcritical reactors to generate power for a new generation of electric cars.  It was proposed by an outfit called Laser Power Systems (LPS).  Science may not be their strong suit, but their PR people must be top drawer.  They actually convinced the people at Cadillac to embarrass themselves by designing a “concept car” around the idea.

Steven Ashley penned an article for GE’s Txchnologist website about the idea entitled, “Thorium lasers:  the perfectly plausible idea for nuclear cars.”  Ashley, who is described as a contributing editor for Scientific American and whose work has appeared in such venues as Popular Mechanics, MIT’s Technology Review, and Physics Today, does not explain on what credentials or academic background he bases his conclusion that the idea is “perfectly plausible.”  Presumably, none, because it isn’t.  He tells us, quoting an LPS official, that they are “working on a turbine/electric generator system that is powered by ‘an accelerator-driven thorium-based laser.'”  The same individual further assured him that the new technology “would be totally emissions-free, with no need for recharging.”  Ashley adds that,

…because a gram of thorium has the equivalent potential energy content of 7,500 gallons of gasoline, LPS calculates that using just 8 grams of thorium in the unit could power an average car for 5,000 hours, or about 300,000 miles of normal driving.

Where, the interested reader might ask, is all this energy to come from?  Lasers, after all, are not a source of energy.  In general, they are rather inefficient energy sinks.  I found several similar articles, and none of them ever gets around to explaining this intriguing mystery.  Well, the only possible way that such a small amount of thorium could come close to producing that much energy is via fission, and even if every bit of it underwent fission, it would still produce about an order of magnitude less energy than 7,500 gallons of gasoline.  We are assured that, “only a thin layer of aluminum foil is needed to shield people from the weakly emitting metal.”  True, but the same doesn’t apply to thorium’s fission products.  They would eventually accumulate to become a potentially deadly source of radiation unless heavily shielded.  None of the articles ever gets around to explaining where, exactly, the “thorium laser” comes in, what specific atomic transitions it would rely on, how, exactly, it would be pumped, and similar seemingly obvious questions.

What can one do but shake one’s head and congratulate the LPS people on their brilliant success in bamboozling Cadillac and a whole host of ostensibly perfectly respectable science writers into taking seriously an idea that is completely wacky on the face of it?  I’m certainly glad that I don’t fall for such pseudo-scientific nonsense.  Oh, by the way, would anyone out there like to purchase a slightly used supply of fish oil pills?

Interstellar Transport: Freeman Dyson and Hydrogen Bomb Propulsion

And you thought I was crazy…  Check out this article by Freeman Dyson in the October 1968 issue of Physics Today entitled “Interstellar Transport.”  Dyson was an active participant in Project Orion, a program to build interplanetary space vehicles propelled by nuclear bombs.  After the program was ended by the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty, he decided to write a paper for a high visibility journal to insure that the idea was kept alive and people were aware of its potential.

People thought big in those days, and Dyson’s notional interstellar transports certainly reflected the fact.  The first was designed to absorb the blast of one megaton deuterium fueled bombs in a gigantic copper hemisphere with a radius of 10 kilometers weighing 5 million tons.  The fully loaded ship would have weighed 40 million tons, including 30 million of the one megaton bombs.  Assuming each bomb would require 10 pounds of plutonium (or about 60 pounds of highly enriched uranium), a total of 150,000 tons of plutonium would be required for the mission.

Dubious assumptions were made, as, for example, that 100% of the bomb’s energy would go into the kinetic energy of debris, even though it was known at the time (and certainly known to Dyson), that the actual fraction is much less than that.  The cost was calculated to be one 1968 gross national product, based entirely on the projected cost of the necessary deuterium fuel (3 billion pounds at $200 per pound in 1968 dollars, for a total of $600 billion.)  In other words, the cost of the plutonium, copper, and other building material wasn’t even factored in, nor was the cost of getting it all into earth orbit prior to launch.  In spite of all this, the massive ship, carrying about 20,000 colonists, would still take about 1300 years to reach the nearest stars.  Barring a “Noah’s ark” forlorn hope escape from a dying world, even Dyson considered this impractical for human travel, writing,

As a voyage of colonization a trip as slow as this does not make much sense on a human time scale.  A nonhuman species, longer lived or accustomed to thinking in terms of millennia rather than years, might find the conditions acceptable.

To obviate some of the objections of this “conservative” design, Dyson also proposed an “optimistic” design, which allowed some ablation of the surface of the vehicle nearest to the explosions, rather than requiring all the energy to be absorbed in solid material.  After removing this energy limitation, the main limitation on the ship’s performance would be imposed by momentum, or, as Dyson put it, “the capacity of shock absorbers to transfer momentum from an impulsively accelerated pusher plate to the smoothly accelerated ship.”  Basing his reasoning on the optimum performance of practical shock absorbers, Dyson calculated that such a ship could be accelerated at a constant one g, enabling it to reach the nearest stars in centuries rather than millennia.  The cost, again based solely on the value of the deuterium fuel, would be only $60 billion 1968 dollars, or a tenth of the GNP at that time.  The weight of the ship would be “only” 400,000 tons, a factor of 100 less than that of the “conservative” design.  Dyson concluded,

If we continue our 4% growth rate we will have a GNP a thousand times its present size in about 200 years.  When the GNP is multiplied by 1000, the building of a ship for $100B will seem like building a ship for $100M today.  We are now building a fleet of Saturn V which cost about $100M each.  It may be foolish but we are doing it anyhow.  On this basis, I predict that about 200 years from now, barring a catastrophe, the first interstellar voyages will begin.

I suspect Dyson wrote most of this paper “tongue in cheek.”  He’s nobody’s fool, has remarkable achievements to his credit in fields such as quantum electrodynamics, solid state physics, and nuclear engineering, and remains highly regarded by his peers.  Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg said that the Nobel Committee had “fleeced” Dyson by never awarding him the prize.  The objections to his designs are obvious, but for all that, bomb-propelled space vehicles are by no means impractical.  I suspect Dyson realized that other scientists would recognize ways they could improve on his “conservative” and “optimistic” designs as soon as they read the paper, and start thinking about their own versions.  Project Orion might be dead as a budget line item, but would live on in the minds and imaginations of his peers.  And so it did.

Nuclear Fusion Update

As I mentioned in a previous post about fusion progress, signs of life have finally been appearing in scientific journals from the team working to achieve fusion ignition at the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California.  At the moment they are “under the gun,” because the National Ignition Campaign (NIC) is scheduled to end with the end of the current fiscal year on September 30.  At that point, presumably, work at the facility will be devoted mainly to investigations of nuclear weapon effects and physics, which do not necessarily require fusion ignition.  Based on a paper that recently appeared in Physical Review Letters, chances of reaching the ignition goal before that happens are growing dimmer.

The problem has to do with a seeming contradiction in the physical requirements for fusion to occur in the inertial confinement approach pursued at LLNL.  In the first place, it is necessary for the NIF’s 192 powerful laser beams to compress, or implode, a target containing fusion fuel in the form of two heavy isotopes of hydrogen to extremely high densities.  It is much easier to compress materials that are cold than those that are hot.  Therefore, it is essential to keep the fuel material as cold as possible during the implosion process.  In the business, this is referred to as keeping the implosion on a “low adiabat.”  However, for fusion ignition to occur, the nuclei of the fuel atoms must come extremely close to each other.  Unfortunately, they’re not inclined to do that, because they’re all positively charged, and like charges repel.  How to overcome the repulsion?  By making the fuel material extremely hot, causing the nuclei to bang into each other at high speed.  The whole trick of inertial confinement fusion, then, is to keep the fuel material very cold, and then, in a tiny fraction of a second, while its inertia holds it in place (hence the name, “inertial” confinement fusion), raise it, or at least a small bit of it, to the extreme temperatures necessary for the fusion process to begin.

The proposed technique for creating the necessary hot spot was always somewhat speculative, and more than one fusion expert at the national laboratories were dubious that it would succeed.  It consisted of creating a train of four shocks during the implosion process, which were to overtake one another all at the same time precisely at the moment of maximum compression, thereby creating the necessary hot spot.  Four shocks are needed because of well-known theoretical limits on the increase in temperature that can be achieved with a single shock.   Which brings us back to the paper in Physical Review Letters.

The paper, entitled Precision Shock Tuning on the National Ignition Facility, describes the status of efforts to get the four shocks to jump through the hoops described above.  One cannot help but be impressed by the elegant diagnostic tools used to observe and measure the shocks.  They are capable of peering through materials under the extreme conditions in the NIF target chamber, focusing on the tiny, imploded target core, and measuring the progress of a train of shocks over a period that only lasts for a few billionths of a second!  These diagnostics, developed with the help of another team of brilliant scientists at the OMEGA laser facility at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, are a triumph of human ingenuity.  They reveal that the NIF is close to achieving the ignition goal, but not quite close enough.  As noted in the paper, “The experiments also clearly reveal an issue with the 4th shock velocity, which is observed to be 20% slower than predictions from numerical simulation.”

It will be a neat trick indeed if the NIF team can overcome this problem before the end of the National Ignition Campaign.  In the event that they don’t, one must hope that the current administration is not so short-sighted as to conclude that the facility is a failure, and severely reduce its funding.  There is too much at stake.  I have always been dubious about the possibility that either the inertial or magnetic approach to fusion will become a viable source of energy any time in the foreseeable future.  However, I may be wrong, and even if I’m not, achieving inertial fusion ignition in the laboratory may well point the way to as yet undiscovered paths to the fusion energy goal.  Ignition in the laboratory will also give us a significant advantage over other nuclear weapons states in maintaining our arsenal without nuclear testing.

Based on the progress reported to date, there is no basis for the conclusion that ignition is unachievable on the NIF.  Even if the central hot spot approach currently being pursued proves too difficult, there are alternatives, such as polar direct drive and fast ignition.  However, pursuing these alternatives will take time and resources.  They will become a great deal more difficult to realize if funding for NIF operations is severely cut.  It will also be important to maintain the ancillary capability provided by the OMEGA laser.  OMEGA is much less powerful but also a good deal more flexible and nimble than the gigantic NIF, and has already proved its value in testing and developing diagnostics, investigating novel experimental approaches to fusion, developing advanced target technology, etc.

We have built world-class facilities.  Let us persevere in the quest for fusion.  We cannot afford to let this chance slip.

Nuclear Power, Thorium, and the Role of Government

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.

All Quiet on the Fusion Front: Notes on ITER and the National Ignition Facility

It’s quiet out there – too quiet.  The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a giant, 192 beam laser facility, has been up and running for well over a year now.  In spite of that, there is a remarkable lack of the type of glowing journal articles with scores of authors one would expect to see if the facility had achieved any notable progress towards its goal of setting off fusion ignition in a tiny target with a mix of fuel in the form of tritium and deuterium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen.  Perhaps they will turn things around, but at the moment it doesn’t look good.

The NIF was built primarily to study various aspects of nuclear weapons science, but it is potentially also of great significance to the energy future of mankind.  Fusion is the source of the sun’s energy.  Just as energy is released when big atoms, such as uranium, are split, it is also released when the central core, or nuclei, of light atoms are “fused” together.  This “fusion” happens when the nuclei are moved close enough together for the attraction of the “strong force,” a very powerful force but one with a range limited to the very short distances characteristic of atomic nuclei, to overwhelm the “Coulomb” repulsion, or electric force that tends to prevent two like charges, such as positively charged atomic nuclei, from approaching each other.  When that happens with deuterium, whose nucleus contains a neutron and a proton, and tritium, whose nucleus contains two neutrons and a proton, the result is a helium nucleus, containing two neutrons and two protons, and a free neutron that carries off a very large quantity of energy.

The problem is that overcoming the Coulomb force is no easy matter.  It can only be done if you pump in a lot of energy to “light” the fusion fire.  On the sun, this is accomplished by the massive force of gravity.  Here on earth the necessary energy can be supplied by a fission explosion, the source of energy that “lights” thermonuclear bombs.  Mother Nature decided, no doubt very wisely, to make it very difficult to accomplish the same thing in a controlled manner on a laboratory scale.  Otherwise we probably would have committed suicide with pure fusion weapons by now.  At the moment, two major approaches are being pursued to reach this goal.  One is inertial confinement fusion, or ICF, as used on the NIF.  In inertial confinement fusion, the necessary energy is supplied in such a short period of time by massive lasers or other “drivers” that the fuel is held in place by its own inertia long enough for significant fusion to occur.  In the other approach, magnetic fusion, the fusion fuel is confined by powerful magnetic fields as it is heated to fusion temperatures.  This is the approach being pursued with ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently under construction in France.

Based on computer models and the results of experiments on much smaller facilities, such as NOVA at Livermore, and OMEGA at the University of Rochester, it was expected that fusion could be accomplished with the nominal 1.8 megajoules of energy available from the 192 NIF laser beams.  It was to happen like this – carefully shaped laser pulses would implode the fusion fuel to extremely high densities.  Such implosions have already been demonstrated many times in the laboratory.  The problem is that, to achieve the necessary densities, one must compress the fuel while it is in a relatively “cold” state (it is much more difficult to “squeeze” something that is “hot” in that way).  Unfortunately, fusion doesn’t happen in cold material.  Once the necessary high densities have been achieved, it is somehow necessary to heat at least a small portion of the material to the extreme temperatures necessary for fusion to occur.  If that can be done, a “burn wave” will move out from this “hot spot,” igniting the rest of the cold fuel material.   Of course, this begs the question of how one is to produce the “hot spot” to begin with.

On the NIF, the trick was to be accomplished by setting off a series of converging shocks in the fuel material during the implosion process.  Once the material had reached the necessary high density, these shocks would converge at a point in the center of the imploded target, creating a spot hot enough to set off the burn wave referred to above.  It would be a neat trick if it could be done.  Unfortunately, it was never demonstrated on a laboratory scale before the NIF was built.  Obviously, the “trick” is turning out to be harder than the scientists at Livermore expected.  There could be many reasons for this.  If the implosion isn’t almost perfectly symmetric, the hot and cold fuel materials will mix, quenching the fusion reaction.  If the timing of the shocks isn’t just right, or the velocity of the implosion is too slow, the resulting number of fusion reactions will not be enough to achieve ignition.  All kinds of complicated physical processes, such as the generation of huge magnetic and electric fields, so-called laser-plasma instabilities, and anomalies in the absorption of laser light, can happen that are extremely difficult to include in computer models.

The game isn’t up yet, though.  There are some very bright folks at Livermore, and they may yet pull a rabbit out of the hat.  Even if the current “mainline” approach using central hot spot ignition doesn’t work, it may be possible to create a hot spot on the outer surface of the imploded target using a technique known as fast ignition.  Currently, “indirect drive” is being used on the NIF.  In other words, the laser beams are shot into a cylindrical can, or “hohlraum,” where their energy is converted to x-rays.  These x-rays then “indirectly” illuminate the target.  The NIF can also accommodate a “direct drive” approach, in which the laser beams are aimed directly at the target.  Perhaps it will work better.  One hopes so.  Some of the best old knights of science have been riding towards that El Dorado for a long time.  It would be great to see them finally reach it.  Alas, to judge by the deafening silence coming out of Livermore, it seems they are still a long way off.

And what of ITER?  Let me put it this way.  Along with the International Space Station, the project is one of the two greatest scientific white elephants ever concocted by the mind of man.  The NIF is justified because it cost only a fraction of ITER, and it was never conceived as an energy project.  It was always intended as an above ground experimental facility that would enable us to maintain our nuclear arsenal in the absence of testing.  As such, it is part of an experimental capability unequalled in the rest of the world, and one which will give us a very significant advantage over any potential enemy as long the ban on testing continues.  ITER, on the other hand, can only be justified as an energy project.  The problem with that is that, while it may work scientifically, it will be an engineering nightmare.  As a result, it is virtually inconceivable that magnetic fusion reactors similar to ITER will ever produce energy economically any time in the next few hundred years.

A big part of the problem is that such reactors will require a tritium economy.  Each of them will burn on the order of 50 kilograms of tritium per year.  Tritium is highly radioactive, with a half-life of 12.3 years, is as difficult to contain as any other form of hydrogen, and does not occur naturally.  In other words, failing some outside source, each reactor will have to produce as much tritium as it consumes.  Each fusion reaction produces a single neutron, and neutrons can interact with an isotope of lithium to produce tritium.  However, some of the neutrons will inevitably be lost, so it will be necessary to multiply their number.  This trick can be accomplished with the element beryllium.  In other words, in order to build a workable reactor, it will be necessary to have a layer of some extremely durable material containing the plasma, thick enough to resist radiation embrittlement and corrosion for some reasonable period of time, followed by a layer of highly toxic beryllium thick enough to generate enough neutrons, followed by a layer of highly reactive lithium thick enough to produce enough tritium to keep the reaction going.  But wait, there’s more!  It will then be necessary to somehow quickly extract the lithium and return it to the reaction chamber without losing any of it.  Tritium?  Lithium?  Beryllium?  Forget about it!  I’m sure there are any number of reactor design studies that all “prove” that all of the above can be done economically.  I’m also sure none of them are worth the paper they are printed on.  We have other options that don’t suffer from the drawbacks of a tritium economy and are far more likely to produce the energy we need at a fraction of the cost.

Meanwhile, ITER crawls ahead, sucking enormous amounts of research money from a host of more worthy projects.  A classic welfare project for smart guys in white coats, there are no plans to even fuel it with tritium before the year 2028!  I’m sure that at this point many European scientists are asking a simple question; Can’t we please stop this thing?

Fusion is immensely promising as a potential future source of energy.  However, we should not be seduced by that promise into throwing good money after bad, funding a white elephant that has virtually no chance of ever fulfilling that promise.  I suspect that one of these days we will “finesse” Mother Nature, and devise a clever way to overcome the Coulomb barrier without gigantic superconducting magnets or massive arrays of lasers.  Scientists around the world are currently working on many novel and speculative approaches to fusion.  Few of them are likely to succeed, but it just takes one.  We would be much better off funding some of the more promising of these approaches with a fraction of the money currently being wasted on ITER, and devoting the rest to developing other technologies that have at least a fighting chance of eventually producing energy economically.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the NIF crew at Livermore.  It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, and she’s still a long way off.

Germans Reconsidering Nuclear Power?

I don’t think so!  Less than a century after H. L. Mencken wrote that the Uplift was a purely American phenomenon, there may now be even more of the pathologically pious in Germany per capita than in the U.S.  They all think they’re far smarter than the average human being, they all see a savior of mankind when they look in the mirror, and almost all of them are cocksure that nuclear power is one of the Evils they need to save us from.  Just last November tens of thousands of them turned out in force to block the progress of a spent fuel castor from France to the German radioactive waste storage site at Gorleben.  The affair turned into a regular Uplift feeding frenzy, complete with pitched battles between the police and the peaceful protesters, who were armed with clubs and pyrotechnics, tearing up of railroad tracks, etc.  It’s no wonder the German government finally threw in the towel and announced the country would shut down its nuclear power plants.

At least the decision took the wind out of their sails for a while.  As Malcolm Muggeridge once said, “nothing fails like success” for the Saviors of Mankind.  Success tends to leave them high and dry.  At best they have to go to the trouble of finding another holy cause to fight for.  At worst, as in the aftermath of their fine victory in establishing a Worker’s Paradise in Russia, they’re all shot.

It would seem the “bitter dregs of success” were evident in a recent article on the website of the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, entitled “Electricity is Becoming Scarce in Germany.”  Der Spiegel has always been in the van of the pack of baying anti-nuclear hounds in Germany, so I was somewhat surprised by the somber byline, which reads as follows:

The nuclear power shutdown has been a burden for Germany’s electric power suppliers in any case.  Now the cold wave is making matters worse.  The net operators have already had to fall back on emergency reserves for the second time this winter, and buy additional electricity from Austria.

That’ s quite an admission coming from the Der Spiegel, where anti-nuclear polemics are usually the order of the day.  Even the resolutely Green Washington Post editorialized against the German shutdown, noting, among other things,

THE INTERNATIONAL Energy Agency reported on Monday that global energy-related carbon emissions last year were the highest ever, and that the world is far off track if it wants to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, after which the results could be very dangerous.


So what does Germany’s government decide to do? Shut down terawatts of low-carbon electric capacity in the middle of Europe. Bowing to misguided political pressure from Germany’s Green Party, Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed a plan to close all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.


European financial analysts (estimate) that Germany’s move will result in about 400 million tons of extra carbon emissions by 2020, as the country relies more on fossil fuels. Nor is Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, who ominously announced that Germany has put coal-fired power “back on the agenda” — good for his coal-rich nation directly to Germany’s east but terrible for the environment and public health.

…and so on.  Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the German Greens optimistic plans to replace nuclear with solar in a cloudy country that gets cold in the winter and lies on the wrong side of the 50th parallel of latitude.  Poland’s prime minister is right to worry about being downwind of Germany.  In spite of the cheery assurances of the Greens, she currently plans to build 26 new coal-fired power plants.  It’s funny how environmental zealots forget all about the terrible threat of global warming if its a question of opposing nuclear power.  But Poland has a lot more to worry about than Germany’s carbon footprint.

It’s estimated that 25,000 people die from breathing coal particulates in the U.S. alone every year.  The per capita death rate in Poland, directly downwind from the German plants, will likely be significantly higher.  Then there’s the radiation problem.  That’s right, coal typically contains several parts per million of radioactive uranium and thorium.    A good-sized plant will release 5 tons of uranium and 10 tons of thorium into the environment each year.  Estimated releases in 1982  from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium.  China currently burns that much coal by herself.  The radiation from uranium and thorium is primarily in the form of alpha particles, or helium nuclei.  Such radiation typically has a very short range in matter, because it slows down quickly and then dumps all of its remaining energy in a very limited distance, the so-called Bragg peak.  On the one hand that means that a piece of paper is enough to stop most alpha radiation.  On the other it means that if you breath it in, the radiation will be slammed to a stop in your sensitive lung tissue, dealing tremendous damage in the process.  Have you ever heard of people dying of lung cancer who never smoked a day in their lives?  If you’re looking for a reason, look no further.

No matter.  As Stalin said, one death is a tragedy.  One million is a statistic.  Germany’s Greens will continue to ignore such dry statistics, and they will continue to strike noble poses as they fight the nuclear demon, forgetting all about global warming in the process.  For them, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

Belgium Joins the Nuclear de-Renaissance

The move away from nuclear power in Europe is becoming a stampede.  According to Reuters, the Belgians are now on the bandwagon, with plans for shutting down the country’s last reactors in 2025.  The news comes as no surprise, as the anti-nukers in Belgium have had the upper hand for some time.  However, the agreement reached by the country’s political parties has been made “conditional” on whether the energy deficit can be made up by renewable sources.  Since Belgium currently gets about 55 percent of its power from nuclear, the chances of that appear slim.  It’ s more likely that baseload power deficits will be made up with coal and gas plants that emit tons of carbon and, in the case of coal, represent a greater radioactive hazard than nuclear because of the uranium and thorium they spew into the atmosphere.  No matter.  Since Fukushima global warming hysteria is passé and anti-nuclear hysteria is back in fashion again for the professional saviors of the world.

It will be interesting to see how all this turns out in the long run.  In the short term it will certainly be a boon to China and India.  They will continue to expand their nuclear capacity and their lead in advanced nuclear technology, with a windfall of cheaper fuel thanks to Western anti-nuclear activism.  By the time the Europeans come back to the real world and finally realize that renewables aren’t going to cover all their energy needs, they will likely be forced to fall back on increasingly expensive and heavily polluting fossil fuels.  Germany is already building significant new coal-fired capacity.

Of course, we may be dealt a wild card if one of the longshot schemes for taming fusion on the cheap actually works.  The odds look long at the moment, though.  We’re hearing nothing but a stoney silence from the National Ignition Facility, which bodes ill for what seems to be the world’s last best hope to perfect inertial confinement fusion.  Things don’t look much better at ITER, the flagship facility for magnetic fusion, the other mainstream approach.  There are no plans to even fuel the facility before 2028.

Fukushima and the Battle of the Hysterical Headlines

I’ve seen some wild disinformation about the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in the British and U.S. media, but the Germans take the cake.  Here’s the headline and byline that just appeared on the site of Focus, Germany’s second leading news magazine:

A Super Meltdown is Imminent at Fukushima

50 workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are fighting a hopeless battle – it appears that a super-meltdown is now just a matter of time. The operators anticipate explosions in the last two intact blocks.

You’ll find a more sober assessment of what’s going on here.  I suspect it’s moot as far as the U.S. is concerned at this point.  For the time being, our nuclear industry is dead, and I will be very surprised if it experiences a resurrection any time in the next decade.  The Chinese will likely be the biggest beneficiaries of the disaster in Japan.  That country’s leaders aren’t stupid enough to be taken in by the hysteria mongering in Focus and Der Spiegel, and will likely proceed with the building of a series of new reactors as planned.  They will probably find the cost of fuel to be significantly lower than anticipated.

UPDATE: Today’s (March 16) Wall Street Journal has a nice graphic of the six Fukushima reactors on the front page, showing the spent fuel cooling ponds all neatly ensconced above the primary containment vessel near the roof. It boggles the mind that it never occurred to the apparently brain-dead designers that maintaining the coolant levels in the ponds might be problematic in the event of an environmental disaster.

The Radioactive Danger of Natural Gas

All radioactive dangers aren’t created equal, or at least they aren’t in terms of the stories the media reports and those it ignores. For example, the recent tritium gas leak at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant was a major news story. There’s nothing wrong with that. Tritium is radioactive and carcinogenic, and the amount leaked through two cracked underground pipes represented a potentially serious public health hazard. Fortunately, the sources of the leaking gas were found before the radioactive gas could contaminate the local drinking water. However, there are other sources of radioactive danger. They are potentially a great deal more dangerous than the leaks at Vermont Yankee, but not as sensational, because they’re not associated with the nuclear boogeyman. As a result they don’t lend themselves to the striking of heroic poses by those who have appointed themselves our environmental saviors, and are therefore ignored.

A case in point is the potential radioactive hazard of drilling for natural gas. It’s been known for more than a year that wastewater from gas drilling in New York’s Marcellus shale (hattip Atomic Insights) has been coming up laced with something more dangerous than organic hydrocarbons; namely, radium. According to ProPublica,

The information comes from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which analyzed 13 samples of wastewater brought thousands of feet to the surface from drilling and found that they contain levels of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.

There happens to be a difference between radium and tritium in the type of radiation they emit. Both are dangerous, but tritium emits a relatively low energy (average 5.7 thousand electron volts, or keV) electron, or beta particle. When radium decays, however, it emits a much heavier helium nucleus (two protons and two neutrons), or alpha particle, carrying nearly a thousand times more energy (4.871 million electron volts, or MeV). The good news is that alpha particles have a much shorter range. They can’t penetrate your skin. The bad news is that, once they get in the body (for example, if you drink radium-laced water) that short range becomes a liability. All the alpha particle’s energy is again dumped in a very short distance, but not in dead skin tissue.  Instead, it causes massive damage to living cells. 

Radium is problematic for another reason.  It is chemically similar to calcium, and is therefore a “bone seeker,” where it accumulates over time.  What happens next was experienced by the “radium girls,” young women hired to paint a “glow-in-the-dark” radium compound on watch dials over a period of about ten years starting in 1917. Many of them later died of various forms of cancer.  As I’ve pointed out earlier on this blog, tons of uranium and thorium, also emitters of powerful alpha particles, are released directly into the atmosphere every year from the burning of coal.

I point these things out, not because I’m fundamentally opposed to the use of gas, coal, or any other energy source.  It is highly unlikely that any of the ones commonly in use today are anywhere near as hazardous as a lack of electric power would be. As noted by Carl from Chicago at Chicago Boyz, who knows whereof he speaks, we may find that out to our cost in the not-to-distant future if shortsighted policies of blocking the building of all new generating capacity continue unchanged.  Rather, I point them out because of the basic truth that there is no way to produce the energy we need that is environmentally benign.  That basic truth applies to solar, wind, and other “alternative”  energy sources just as it does to coal, nuclear and gas.  It would be well if the media provided us with the information we need to make rational choices, rather than limiting itself to providing environmentalist poseurs with a handy source of propaganda.

German Nuclear Power Update: A “Bizarre” Twist

In the ultra-stereotyped world of Germany’s Spiegel Magazine, the three most common words used to describe anything going on in America are “Fiasko,” “Debakel,” and “Bizarr.”  As it happens, on rare occasions, “bizarr” things happen in Germany, too.  In my last post I described the fine anti-nuclear posing of that country’s activist peacocks.  Well, according to Spiegel, another rare bird has just outdone them all.  Author and TV moderator Charlotte Roche has just offered to jump in the sack with Christian Wulff, president of the Federal Republic, if only he will refrain from signing a law to keep Germany’s nuclear power plants on line.  Apparently her husband has agreed to the deal, and Charlotte has assured the President that, ” I have tattoos,” just like his wife.  So far no one has reported seeing Wulff rushing to the drugstore to stock up on Viagra, but a commenter on the article demonstrates that the good, old German spirit isn’t dead:

Super! Now the President can show what kind of balls he really has by 1) Accepting the agreement, and 2) then signing the law anyway.

Charlotte Roche