Nuclear Power: Sweden sees the Light

It’s been a long time coming, but the Swedish government has finally given the green light to construction of new nuclear power plants. The Guardian reported a ministerial decision to present a law to that effect to the Swedish parliament in February 2009. It’s taken a while for the legislative process to run its course, but Der Spiegel now reports that the new law has been approved. The restrictions on nuclear power in Sweden and several other European countries have never made much sense. They exist as a result of the now familiar efforts by “Greens” to evoke a fantasy world in which they are the noble saviors of humanity against the forces of evil, represented in this case by radioactive doom. Think “China Syndrome.” In the process of “saving” them, their environmental “gift” to the people of Europe has been to insure that any number of dirty coal-fired power plants would stay on line spewing massive amounts of cancer causing particulates and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, while at the same time representing a substantially greater radioactive risk than nuclear plants of similar capacity.

It is unclear whether the new Swedish law will have concrete results. The situation there is similar in many respects to that in the United States where, in spite of the pro-nuclear stance of the Obama Administration, the ineptitude of government and the legal system and the short-sightedness of industry have combined to make the construction of new nuclear capacity prohibitively expensive. The “green light” also comes with many caveats. As Spiegel puts it,

The majority in favor was extremely thin, and came with any number of “whens” and “buts.” New reactors can only be built to replace one of the ten already in existence at the three Swedish nuclear plants at Ringhals, Oskarshamn, or Forsmark, and only then if one of them is taken off the net permanently. Government subsidies for private power companies are forbidden, and any approval of new construction will require demonstration of an increase in demand for electric power.

It is hardly a sure thing that new nuclear power plants will ever be built on Swedish soil. Demand is on the decline, and the Swedes are getting a good look at everything that can go wrong thanks to their neighbors, the Finns. The new Finnish reactor at Olkiluoto, western Europe’s first new construction project since the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, is providing arguments for foes of nuclear power: a doubling of the original cost estimates, constant construction delays, and constant bickering between the government and the French consortium doing the work.

Depleted Uranium: The Hysteria Rolls On

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?

Japan Restarts the Monju Fast Breeder Reactor

It’s encouraging to learn that Japan has decided to restart its Monju fast breeder reactor. Among other things it will supply electricity to many Japanese households without releasing greenhouse gases in the process. If global warming is really a terrible threat to all mankind, one would think we would be building such energy sources as quickly as possible. One would, however, be wrong.

For global warming alarmists, the pose is everything and the reality nothing. You can tell because they have no interest in solutions to the problem that happen to be unfashionable. Fast breeder reactors are an excellent example. They produce electricity without releasing greenhouse gases, and without releasing the particulates that kill tens of thousands of people every year, while representing a smaller radioactive hazard than coal fired plants. In that respect the pathologically pious saviors of the environment are more or less as irrational as our military. After all, the Lone Ranger only shot silver bullets. They shoot depleted uranium bullets that are worth their weight in gold as potential sources of energy. Allow me to explain.

Imagine dropping an iron ball into a deep well. What happens when it hits the bottom? It releases energy, right?  If the bottom of the well were a sheet of glass, that energy would probably cause it to shatter.  The ball releases the energy because it has been accelerated by a force. In this case, it is the force of gravity. However, there are other forces in nature. One of them is the strong nuclear force. It is vastly more powerful than gravity, but is only effective at distances on the order of the size of an atomic nucleus. At that distance, however, when an “iron ball” in the form of a neutron happens along, it can make the nucleus of a heavy element such as uranium look like a very deep well indeed. Just like a real iron ball, when the neutron falls into the well, it releases energy. If you think of the nucleus as a drop of water, that energy can cause the drop to start jiggling and stretching, just like a real drop. If the neutron releases enough energy, it can even cause the “drop of water” to break into two, smaller drops, releasing more neutrons in the process. That’s what happens in nuclear fission. The neutrons released in the process can drop into other “wells,” resulting in more fission, leading to a self-sustaining chain reaction, which can be used in controlled form to power a reactor, or in uncontrolled form to cause an atomic explosion.

When a neutron falls into a nuclear well, the energy released is only large enough to actually split certain very heavy atoms.  One of them is uranium 235, or U235 for short, which occurs in nature as 0.7% of natural uranium.  The rest is mainly uranium 238, which generally doesn’t split unless the neutron is going very fast to begin with, and therefore has some of its own energy to contribute when it falls into the well.  Another of the “fissile” heavy atoms that can split even when a slow neutron falls into its well is plutonium 239.  It can also be used to power nuclear reactors.  It doesn’t occur in any significant amounts in nature.  However, it is produced in nuclear reactors.  Interestingly enough, the “raw material” for its production is the  U238 which makes up the lion’s share of natural uranium.  When a neutron falls into a U238 “well,” the nucleus usually doesn’t split, but can capture the neutron, becoming U239.  This nucleus then releases an electron, resulting in its transmutation into neptunium 239. The neptunium nucleus, in turn, releases another electron, leaving Pu239. 

Now, if we’ve produced Pu239, and Pu239 is the fuel for nuclear reactors, we should simply be able to keep the reactor running, gradually converting the U238 to Pu239 and “burning” it right along with the naturally occurring U235, right?  Wrong!  In order to change to Pu239, U238 has to capture a neutron, but neutrons are what’s necessary to keep the nuclear chain reaction going.  Take away too many neutrons and the chain reaction stops, shutting down the reactor.  That’s where “fast breeders” come in.

Recall that, if the neutron that falls into the well is going very fast, then it can add a substantial amount of its own energy to that which is released when it falls to the bottom of the nuclear well.  In some cases that can cause even U238 to split, or fission.  More importantly, however, when such a fast neutron causes an atom of “fissile” material, such as U235 or Pu239, to split, the number of neutrons released in the process goes up.  If enough extra neutrons are released, the chain reaction can keep going even if many of them are captured by U238 to produce Pu239.  This is what makes it possible for a fast breeder reactor to produce more fuel than it consumes.  In the process, it gives us access to the massive amounts of energy locked away in the U238.  Instead of wastefully burning up the U235 in natural uranium and throwing away the rest by, say, shooting it out of gatling guns, we can now burn a large proportion of the U238 as well. 

Under the circumstances, does it make much sense for the military to be turning this potentially invaluable material into projectiles?  Apart from being a grotesque waste of a potentially valuable resource, it also releases radiation into the environment.  Granted, the amount of radiation will be very low.  It takes over four billion years for half of the atoms in a chunk of U238 to decay, and since there are many other natural sources of radiation in the environment, it is generally difficult to detect its presence above the background noise.  That fact, however, has hardly prevented legions of freeloaders and their professionally virtuous advocates from pretending that any number of ills from hangnails to heart disease are all directly caused by that radiation, and getting gullible politicians to believe it.  Apart from the waste, is it worth the grief?  I think not.

If fast breeder reactors can vastly increase the amount of energy available from the limited quantities of uranium available to us, what is the point of building more conventional reactors that waste most of the available fuel?  If global warming is really such a terrible threat to mankind, and the environmental alarmists are really more concerned about actually doing something to address the threat than in striking heroic poses from the moral high ground and pretending to do something about it, why aren’t they on board as well?  Whatever the severity of the threat of global warming, fast breeder reactors, along with solar, wind, hydroelectric, and other sources of energy that do not emit greenhouse gases could substantially end that threat.  Why, then, aren’t we building them?

Japan's Monju Fast Breeder
Japan's Monju Fast Breeder

Whither Nuclear Power?

Carl at Chicago Boyz has some interesting insights on the future prospects for nuclear power.  According to his latest,

While there has been talk of a nuclear “renaissance” in the media for years, it is mostly hype. Existing nuclear plants in the US are running at a high capacity factor and making money for their owners, but there has been little tangible investment in new nuclear plants in the US.

One giant barrier to building new nuclear plants in the US is financing. We haven’t built a new nuclear plant in the US in decades so no one really knows what it will cost (and it depends on which design is chosen) but it is safe to assume that they will cost more than $8-10B each. Given that the entire market capitalization of most US electric utilities is smaller than this figure, as I discussed in this post in June of 2009, the idea that new nuclear plants would be built in large numbers was a pipe dream.

Read the whole article and some of the outstanding comments as well.  For example, one of the nuclear engineers working on the new starts in Texas writes,

First, let’s understand the nature of the loan guarantees. I’m a nuclear engineer who has been involved with the South Texas Project’s new reactor plans since near the beginning.

The loan guarantees do not guarantee against technical risk. They only cover subsequent GOVERNMENT actions. In the last batch, investors lost billions due to capricous government actions either to delay or prevent startup. Once the NRC issues a “combined operating license” (COL) per 10CFR52, the guarantee is to kick in so that no county government or state agency (or feds) can block construction and completion. When a number is given on the amount of loan guarantees, that is NOT the money that has to be spent. It is merely the exposure of default. Each applicant for a guarantee has to pay an upfront fee like an insurance premium to the government based on the expected risk of default. Basically, the federal government is acting as an insurance company, collecting premiums and covering specific risks.

THAT’S ALL WE NEED! Get government and politics out of the way and we can build and run new nuclear power plants in the country.

As you will see if you read the article, Carl is extremely pessimistic about the possibility of a nuclear “renaissance.”  Unless we can find a rational way to deal with lawyers, NIMBYs, and multiple layers of redundant government regulation, he’s probably right.  He summarizes the countries energy picture as follows:

– new drilling technologies are making natural gas in the US cheaper, which makes other types of investment (nuclear, coal) less financially feasible
– while many companies were potential investors in new nuclear plants, only one (Southern Company) was really feasible, and they seem to be first out of the gate (woe to their shareholders, however)
– NRG jumped out first with their Texas plant but it is looking like they are going to pull the plug on that under-capitalized effort
– the Federal government is continuing to be completely inept in their activities 1) unable to disburse stimulus funds, as predicted 2) no plan for waste after abandoning Yucca Mountain 3) can’t figure out what to do about “clean coal” projects after spending over $1B in Illinois and 7 years to boot
– not covered here is cap and trade, which needs its own post to do it justice. It looks like the recent change in the senate will stop this in its tracks, but legal efforts to stop the EPA from implementing new draconian rules continues

As Carl says, the key problem when it comes to nuclear startups is the “giant barrier” of cost.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but a suggestion by one of the other commenters seems to make sense:

One way of solving the quick problem is to use smaller units manufactured offsite. E.G. Babcox and Wilcox, proposes self contained reactors producing 100 — 250 MWe. The site would be prepared, the reactor could then manufactured in a factory and brought in by train or barge. Once at the site the reactor could be hooked up to the system and started up quickly.

There’s an excellent article on small nuclear reactors at the World Nuclear Association website.  Carl plans to take a closer look at the cost issue in a later post, but, if new conventional plants really cost “more than $8 to $10 billion each,” small reactors look very competitive.  After all, a complete Virginia class nuclear submarine only costs $1.8B.  Why not just build a whole fleet of dummy nuclear submarines, float them out beyond the territorial limit, and hook them up to the grid with extension cords?  It would knock out the lawyers and the NIMBYs at one blow!

Political Progress on the Nuclear Front

According to Nuclear Notes, the Obama Administration has created a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Its members will include such worthies as Brent Scowcroft and former U.S. Senators Pete Domenici and Chuck Hagel. According to NN, “the commission’s charge is to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel.” This is another sign that the Administration is keeping an open mind towards nuclear as part of the overall energy mix. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and his chief science advisor Steve Koonin are both brilliant scientists in their own right, and both appear to be genuinely committed to the goal of achieving substantial reductions in our carbon emissions in the coming decades. I suspect both would welcome a greater role for nuclear as a step towards achieving that goal. However, both realize they must move ahead deliberately, but not recklessly. There are issues of Realpolitik as well as science here, as can be seen from the following blurb in the NN article,

Chu does not consider the focus on nuclear energy in President Obama’s State of the Union or the founding of the commission to represent a “betrayal” of environmentalists who supported the President’s election (nor should he – Obama was muted but definite during the election that he supported nuclear energy.)

Regarding the Commission’s charge, I found this bit at NN interesting:

Yucca Mountain will not be considered an option. For all intents and purposes, it’s dead.

Why not Yucca Mountain? Because, said Chu, “science has advanced dramatically” in the 20 years since Yucca Mountain was chosen and a better, safer solution is preferable and now possible.

The thought of all those plutonium-laced fuel rods just sitting in cooling pools around our current reactors makes me a bit uneasy, but perhaps there’s method to the Secretary’s madness. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until we hear from the Commission.

It happens, BTW, that Koonin has a long history in connection with inertial confinement fusion (ICF). For example, he chaired the Committee for the Review of the Department of Energy’s Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) Program, established by the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council on behalf of DOE. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to the upcoming experiments to achieve fusion ignition at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) should they prove successful.

Crunch Time for the National Ignition Facility

ICFThe news from California is encouraging.  In an article recently published in Science and summarized on the website of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), scientists working at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) report efficient coupling of energy from all 192 beams of the giant facility into a hohlraum target similar to the one that will be used later this year in the first attempts to achieve fusion ignition and “breakeven,” usually defined as more energy production from fusion than was carried in the laser beams used to hit the target.  The design energy of the NIF is 1.8 megajoules, and, according to the latest reports from Livermore, the threshold of one megajoule has already been achieved. 

In inertial confinement fusion, or ICF, the target, a thin, spherical shell containing a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen, is first compressed and imploded to very high densities.  A series of converging shocks then create a “hot spot” in the center of the compressed material, setting off fusion reactions which release enough energy to set off a “burn wave.”  This wave propagates out through the remaining fuel material, heating it to fusion energies as well.  The process is known as inertial confinement fusion because it takes place so fast (on the order of a nanosecond) that the material’s own inertia holds it in place long enough for the fusion reactions to occur.  There are two basic approaches; direct drive, in which the laser beams hit the fusion target directly, and indirect drive, the process that will be used in the upcoming Livermore ignition experiments, in which the beams are shot into a hollow can or “hohlraum,” producing x-rays when they hit the inner walls.  These x-rays then implode and ignite the target.  

A potential problem that must be overcome in ICF is known as laser plasma interactions (LPI).  These are parasitic interactions which can soak up laser energy and quench the fusion process.  According to the Livermore paper, special grids at the hohlraum entrance holes were used in the latest experiments, allowing the use of LPI to “tweak” the incoming beams, steering them to just the right spots.  This recent (and elegant) innovation allows the exploitation of a process that has always been considered a major headache in the past to actually improve the chances of achieving igntion.

The BBC and Spiegel both have articles about the latest experiments today, conflating the energy and military applications of the NIF as usual.  According to the Spiegel article, for example, it will be necessary for the lasers in a fusion reactor to hit the target ten times a second, whereas hours are necessary between shots at the NIF.  The reason, of course, is that the NIF was never designed as an energy project, but is being funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to conduct nuclear weapons experiments.  If ignition is achieved, the prospects for fusion energy will certainly be improved, but the prospects aren’t nearly as bright as the press releases from LLNL would imply.  It will still be necessary to overcome a great number of scientific and engineering hurdles before the process can ever become useful and economical as a source of energy.

I am not optimistic about the success of the upcoming experiments.  I suspect it will be too difficult to achieve the fine beam energy balance and symmetry that will be necessary to ignite the central “hot spot.”  It will take more than one converging shock to do the job.  Several will be necessary, moving inward through the target material at just the right speed to converge at a small spot at the center.  If they really pull it off, I will be surprised, but will be more than happy to eat crow.  A lot of very talented scientists have dedicated their careers to the quest for fusion, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for them. 

Even if these ignition experiments fail, it won’t mean the end for fusion by a long shot.  We know we can achieve the high fuel densities needed for inertial fusion, and there are other ways of creating the “hot spot” needed to achieve ignition, such as “fast ignitor.”  Other approaches to fusion keep showing up in the scientific literature, and I can’t help but think that, eventually, one of them will succeed.

Germany Ends the End of Nuclear Power

Philippsburg_qThe editors of Spiegel magazine still think anyone who supports nuclear power is a minion of Satan bent on the destruction of humanity, but according to this article, at least some Germans are beginning to see the light. Under the byline “End of the Atom Shutdown,” and the lugubriously disapproving headline, “The Federal Government wants to leave Ancient Reactors Online,” we read:

The atom lobby got its way: Spiegel has learned that the federal government wants to leave all 17 of Germany’s reactors online, including the ancient reactors at Neckarwestheim and Biblis – that will continue in operation by virtue of a trick.

Hamburg – For the time being, it’s the end of the atomic shutdown: According to Spiegel’s information the federal government has decided to leave all 17 of Germany’s nuclear reactors on the net for the time being following a meeting with energy concerns in the chancellory. Even the ancient Neckarwestheim 1 and Biblis A, which would soon have been required to shut down according to the red-green consensus on atomic power, are to remain in operation until the black-yellow government has agreed on a new energy policy. This might take until October…

…Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the SPD, expressed outrage, and accused the government of “dirty deals.”

Well, you can see which way the spin blows, but apparently a good number of Germans, with the obvious exception of Spiegel and the wildly misnomered “Greens” are beginning to realize that taking nuclear plants offline means keeping coal plants online. It is difficult to imagine why this makes sense in a world in which our number one environmental problem is supposed to be global warming, but human beings can convince themselves of anything if they happen to be wearing the proper ideological blinders.

The German government is to be congratulated for putting common sense over ideological purity. Meanwhile, here’s a clue for the editors of Spiegel. In addition to being world champion air polluters and prodigious producers of greenhouse gases, coal plants are also a greater radioactive hazard than nuclear plants.

Thorium: Wired Magazine Muddies the Water

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit recently linked to an article by Richard Martin in Wired Magazine entitled, ‘Uranium is so Last Century:  Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke.”  I cringed when I read it.  I suspect serious advocates of thorium did as well.  It was a piece of scientific wowserism of a sort that has been the bane of nuclear power in the past, and that its advocates would do well to steer clear of in the future.  It evoked a romantic world of thorium “revolutionaries” doing battle with the dinosaurs of conventional nuclear power.  Things aren’t quite that black and white in the real world.  Thorium breeders deserve fair consideration, not hype, as does nuclear power in general.  There are many good reasons to prefer it to its alternatives as a source of energy.  It doesn’t take a genius to understand those reasons, assuming one approaches the subject with a mind that isn’t made up in advance, and is willing to devote a reasonable amount of time to acquire a basic understanding of the technology.  Martin would be well advised to do so before writing his next article on the subject. 

In the first place, thorium is not a replacement for uranium, as implied by the title of the Wired article.  Rather, the point of putting it in nuclear reactors is to breed uranium, which remains the actual fuel material, albeit in the form of isotope U233 rather than U235.  Thus, when Martin writes things like,

Those technologies are still based on uranium, however, and will be beset by the same problems that have dogged the nuclear industry since the 1960s. It is only thorium… that can move the country toward a new era of safe, clean, affordable energy.

in comparing thorium reactors to their more conventional alternatives, it is evident he doesn’t know what he is talking about.  Referring to the physicist Alvin Weinberg, he tells us,

Weinberg and his men proved the efficacy of thorium reactors in hundreds of tests at Oak Ridge from the ’50s through the early ’70s. But thorium hit a dead end. Locked in a struggle with a nuclear- armed Soviet Union, the US government in the ’60s chose to build uranium-fueled reactors — in part because they produce plutonium that can be refined into weapons-grade material. The course of the nuclear industry was set for the next four decades, and thorium power became one of the great what-if technologies of the 20th century.

With all due respect to Weinberg, a brilliant scientist whose work remains as relevant to conventional reactors as to their thorium cousins, this picture of thorium knights in shining armor doing battle with the dark forces of the nuclear weapons establishment is certainly romantic, but it leaves out some rather salient facts.  In the first place, conventional power reactors do not even produce weapons grade plutonium, which contains a high concentration of plutonium 239.  Special reactors that run for a much shorter period of time are used for that purpose.    Furthermore, thorium is not a nuclear fuel.  A reactor using thorium alone would never work because thorium is not a fissile material.  In other words, unlike, for example, uranium 235 or plutonium 239, it cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction.  The point of putting it in nuclear reactors is to breed uranium 233, another isotope that is fissile.  We began producing nuclear power with conventional nuclear reactors based on uranium 235 rather than thorium breeders because of their simplicity, not because of their usefulness as sources of bomb material.  The fuel needed to run them is available in nature as one of the isotopes in mined uranium, and doesn’t depend on a complex breeding cycle for its production.  There are other drawbacks to thorium breeders that Martin doesn’t mention in his article.  For example, in addition to uranium 233, they produce significant quantities of uranium 232, a short lived isotope with some nasty, highly radioactive daughters.  Separating it from U233 was out of the question, and its presence makes the production and handling of nuclear fuel elements a great deal more difficult. 

I’m certainly no opponent of thorium breeders.  In fact, I think we should be aggressively developing the technology.  However, before writing articles about the subject, it can’t hurt to have some idea what you’re talking about.  There are no lack of good articles about the subject on the Web within easy reach of anyone who can use Google.

thorium

Climategate and Scientific Credibility

I think this article at Reason.com by Cathy Young about the global warming debate is spot on (hattip Instapundit). Her conclusions:

There is no doubt that refusal to accept human-made climate change is often self-serving. But the other side has blinders and selfish motives of its own. “Going green” has turned into a vast industry in its own right—as well as a religion with its own brand of zealotry. For many, global warming is the secular equivalent of a biblical disaster sent by God to punish humankind for its errant (capitalist) ways. Those who embrace environmentalism as a faith have no interest in scientific and technological solutions to climate change—such as nuclear power—that do not include imposing drastic regulations on markets and curbs on consumption.

In theory, science should be above such motives. Yet, at the very least, the scientists who back strong measures against global warming have not objected to the alarmism, the political fanaticism, or the pseudo-spiritual drivel promoted by many of the crusaders in this cause.

Public trust is something scientists must work hard to maintain. When it comes to science and public policy, the average citizen usually has to trust scientists—whose word he or she has to take on faith almost as much as a religious believer takes the word of a priest. Once that trust is undermined, as it has been in recent years, science becomes a casualty of politics.

It was obvious to me that environmental scientists had a major credibility problem when I read Byorn Lomborg’s “Skeptical Environmentalist.” This impression was greatly stengthened when a gang of scientific hacks set up a kangaroo court known as the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, and “convicted” Lomborg of “scientific dishonesty,” noting, however, with supreme condescension that Lomborg was “not guilty” because of his “lack of expertise” in the fields in question. How this arrogant, scientific pond scum could have come to such a conclusion when they were unable to cite a single substantial example of factual error in Lomborg’s book is beyond me. Their abject betrayal of science spoke for itself. Needless to say, the credibility of environmental scientists has not improved in the interim, as Young notes in her article.

This is unfortunate, as it seems to me that the evidence is strong that we may be facing a serious problem with artificially induced global warming. However, because, as Young points out, “…the scientists who back strong measures against global warming have not objected to the alarmism, the political fanaticism, or the pseudo-spiritual drivel promoted by many of the crusaders in this cause,” the issue has become politicized to such an extent that the chances that we will be able to do anything more effective than ideological grandstanding to address the problem are almost nil. As usual, the politicians, who rejoice whenever a crisis comes along for them to “save” us from, will promote any number of very expensive but useless nostrums that present us with the pleasant illusion that we are doing something about the problem, perhaps reducing greenhouse emissions by some insignificant fraction in the process, but accomplishing nothing in the way of really solving the problem. In the meantime, the rest of us must keep our fingers crossed that some fortuitous technological advance will allow us to dodge the bullet, perhaps in the form of the discovery of a way to tame fusion or a transformational improvement in the efficiency of solar collectors. For those of us who possess the means, it is, perhaps, not too soon to begin looking for attractive tracts of land in Alaska, preferably on high ground.

Germany to Reverse Course on Atomic Energy?

As a result of their dismal showing in the elections to the Bundestag on September 27, Germany’s left of center Social Democrats (SPD) have been replaced in the former “grand coalition” government with the more conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) by the market oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP). One salutary result has been an apparent reversal of course on the irrational but ideologically fashionable decision to shut down Germany’s nuclear generating capacity. According to Der Spiegel,

The Union (CDU) and FDP will accommodate the nuclear industry – but under stern conditions. The operational lifetime of German nuclear power plants can be extended on condition that high safety standards are met. According to a paper by the new coalition’s working group on the environment made available to Spiegel Online, “Nuclear energy will be necessary as a transitional and bridge technology until climate friendly and more economical alternative means of producing sufficient electricity are available capable of meeting baseload electric generation requirements. Therefore, the operational lifetime of German nuclear power plants will be extended to 32 years.