Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

Nuclear Power

I’m reading about nuclear power. A fellow blogger wrote a post on the general coolness of pebble bed reactors, and I’ve been trying to “get” the whole nuclear power thing. It’s strange to find what’s out there. I had no idea there were so many types of reactors, or fuel methods, or methods of operation.

And I hate to admit this…they scare me a little.

I pride myself on being able to divorce my emotions from a topic of consideration, but emotions exist for a reason. We tend to think humans are unique in having emotions (we’re not) or that emotions are useless (they’re not). Emotions help us make decisions in the absence of meaningful data. Survivors of traumatic brain injuries who have received injury to the emotive part of the brain find it very difficult to do simple things. They excel at things such as playing chess, but may struggle for hours to do something as simple as step into a room. Without an “Emotioner” they can’t determine the value of the data they receive, so the angle in which they cross a threshold is of equal importance to them as things like oxygen and not starving to death.

So, I am nervous about nuclear power not because I can’t get any data; far from, I am awash in data. The problem is deciding the relative value of each datum.

Some of the most common “facts” about nuclear power are, in fact, bologna. For instance:

Chernobyl was not a nuclear explosion. It was plain, old-fashioned boiler explosion in a pressure vessel which had nuclear materials in it. The same thing would happen if you took World War I locomotive, and put uranium in it, for the same cause and reason: heat something which is cooled by boiling water, let the water run out, and it blows up.

Chernobyl did not release more 30 times fallout of Hiroshima. It didn’t release any “times” more of anything. The differences between the two are large enough you can’t really pin it down with a mathematically precise comparison. You might be able to say “…the calculated mass of fallout from Hiroshima following a nuclear explosion was roughly a 1/30 the calculated mass of the total sum of all the radioactive materials that were vaporized without a nuclear explosion in the steam explosion and following fire at Chernobyl.” But even that is pretty misleading. A lot of the mass of Chernobyl had a half life measured in seconds. That is to say, in less than a minute, it was totally harmless.

Three mile island was a total non issue. Due to stupidity and laziness on the part of both plant designers and plant operators, the first three fail safes didn’t work. The forth kicked in fine, and there was still 5 and 6 to go. Was “radioactive material” released into the environment? Yes. About 6 bananas worth. Every person reading this who isn’t a nuclear scientist just went HUH??? Bananas are full of potassium. Totally naturally, some potassium is radioactive. The amount of radioactivity released was about the same as the total radioactivity of 6 everyday bananas, per capita.

The standard anti-terrorism yardstick is now “747 resistance.” No one will put it in those words, but in all seriousness, it is everybody’s terrorism related question. So yes, reactors are 747 resistant. The part of the reactor made to withstand high-pressure and high temperature from the inside will do about as well from the outside.

The kind of reactors which are the best at making a lot of electricity are totally incapable of making materials for nuclear weapons. This is not because of regulation, this is because of the inescapable laws of physics. You have a better chance of making nuclear materials in your backyard with home made equipment. Read the Radioactive Boyscout if you don’t believe me.

But then there is the other side…

However, the above much touted fact sort of obscures this one: the reactors which are pretty good at making power are also pretty good at making new fissionable materials. Many of these fissionable materials are only useful for electrical production, but some are the type needed for nuclear weapons, and sometimes (depending on the reactor type) these materials are presented in a relatively convenient way. (Note that this is how India got the material to build their bomb. They got this from a totally normal US/Canadian experimental reactor, which makes about 10 Kilograms of Plutonium a year.) England had a reactor commonly called a Magnox reactor. France, and North Korea use an identical design. It makes a lot of electric power and a lot of weapon grade material. The Magnox reactors is what the UK used to build their entire nuclear arsenal.

The reality of nuclear material recycling is this: we can recycle huge quantities of nuclear material. Nuclear physics allows us the near magical ability to transmute waste into fuel and use it again. So called “breeder reactors” are real and usable. In fact, they are used all the time. See above. The insurmountable fact, mentioned above, is the recycling process produces weapons grade materials. Now these weapons grade materials can be used in the right kind of reactor to make electricity, and more waste which can go back to the breeder reactor and continue the process. It’s fascinating, its exciting, and hopefully we can do it some day. But don’t be misled, it does mean weapons grade material.

Reactors ARE NOT “coal plants with nuke plants instead of coal burners.” Yes, the generator side of a nuclear power plant is identical to coal plants. Even the “feed water” pumps, without which, both coal plants and nuke plants will have catastrophic steam explosion are identical. But the differences come up immediately. When coal plants explode, radio active materials are not released into the air. Many reactors operate in non-intuitive ways. The Chernobyl reactor is a good example. If you cooled it off very quickly, it flushed out all the radioactive materials which had damped the reaction, and the reactor suddenly became more reactive. The Chernobyl reactor didn’t explode until they tried to keep it from exploding, after hours spent trying to make it explode. Seriously. Nuke plants are different.

Now this is the non-nuclear part and where my emotions come into play. People are stupid. I believe there is about 1 out of 10,000 people in the world who can truly create. That leaves 9,999 who are all destroyers. And at least 1 out of 10,000 of those disassemblers is a Newton or Einstein in their particular line of work.

When you read about nuclear reactors you will run into the words “Intrinsically Safe.” And that’s stupid. Three Mile Island was considered to be intrinsically safe…until it wasn’t. There is no such thing as “Intrinsically Safe.” My brother worked in a window factory. He ran a machine that had 6 “deadman” controls on it. (A deadman is a switch that shuts off if the person holding it is injured or killed.) This particular machine had a deadman for each foot, each hand, and each knee. You activated the moving part of it with you right knee, after holding down every other switch. In the 50’s this same machine had one foot switch. You loaded the material in and hit the switch. The reason the 90’s version had 6 switches was because consistently, over the years, people somehow kept getting one body part or another somehow injured.

Nuclear power will never be “intrinsically safe”. The cross roads of radioactive isotopes, high pressure/high temperature gases, huge machinery, and human frailty will aways be a dangerous intersection. Nuclear power is risky and anyone who says otherwise is a fool. The question is, “How does the risk of nuclear power stack up against other risks in this crazy life?” Quite well, actually. Thousands of people die every year in coal mining accidents. Around 40,000 die a year from car accidents alone. Life is a constant game of risk management. The winners get to add to the gene pool; the losers do not.

In the end, I guess my observation is this:

You can’t diffuse a bomb after it goes off. Magical thinking tells us that if we wish enough against something it will go away. Nuclear energy will never go away. Ever. If some killer virus killed all the human beings, in x number of years, a new species say, Proboscidea Sapiens (sentient elephants) will develop. They will have their Hiroshima. Even without us, nuclear power will be discovered. We need to accept the fact we have the power to kill ourselves, and choose not to. Prohibiting nuclear weapons while encouraging nuclear energy is not possible. Not because the reactors have to make the material. They don’t. It’s impossible because that’s the way man is.

Abstinence kills. Countries which teach “abstinence only” sex ed to their teens have the highest teen pregnancy. Regions which require total abstinence from hand guns have higher gun crime than nearby regions which are do not have total abstinence from hand guns. Total abstinence from alcohol (a.k.a. The Prohibition) reduced total alchohol consumption by only 60% (remember this was a total ban) and created organized crime. Countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands which have the least restrictions on pornography have some of the lowest crime rates against women.

I say again TOTAL ABSTINENCE KILLS. Total abstinence NEVER, EVER, comes from a rational mind. Total abstinence is an intrinsically unreasonable standpoint which says, “Even a little bit of ‘whatever’ is infinitively worse than anything that might be inflicted upon us to ‘protect’ or ‘free’ us from it.” People have drives. If abstinence doesn’t keep people from smoking, drinking, using drugs, masturbating, hitting women, killing people, or getting pregnant, I doubt, very seriously, it will prevent the drive to dominate a neighboring country and take their stuff by any means necessary.

We don’t need a ban on reactors that can make weapons grade nuclear materials. We need education starting at a grade school level on how energy works, nuclear and otherwise. Raise a generation of rationalists and nuke plants will be built and staffed by good people. Keep doing what we are doing and nuke plants, and anything else we need, will be prevented by legions of superstitions, fearful, illogical people who think they can make a problem go away by not liking it hard enough.

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May 11, 2008 - Posted by | Ecology, Government, Politics, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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