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Why I Believe that Nuclear Energy is the Safest Form of Energy

Nuclear Safety

One of the advantages of having a father who was a nuclear safety researcher is that I had a chance to look at nuclear safety from the inside rather than from the outside. Most of my father’s work during his twenty-nine year Oak Ridge career was either directly or indirectly related to nuclear safety. My father made significant contributions to the safety of reactors in several respects. He also made contributions to the study of the release of radioisotopes in the environment through a number of sources including natural gas. He concluded that radioisotopes from natural gas could be far more dangerous to customers than radioisotopes from nuclear power plants because some radioisotopes are delivered to homes through natural gas pipes. Needless to say, people who are frightened about radiation from nuclear power plants steadily ignore the far more dangerous problem of radio active materials traveling into the home through natural gas pipes. My father estimated that there were as many as ten thousand causalities in the US every year due to breathing radioisotopes transmitted to the home by natural gas. Critics of nuclear power do not worry about the radiation safety problems of natural gas even though they may be far more serious.

The first commercial reactors were far less safe than the current generation of reactor design. Reactor scientists expressed their concern during the 1960s and early 1970, although the nuclear establishment in Washington D.C. steadfastly refused to acknowledge the problem. Eventually, this refusal led to the Three-Mile Island accident, but subsequently great strides were made in improving nuclear safety. The accident at Fukushima was the result of human error as well as huge and unexpected natural events. The human error was not anticipating a natural event; a forty-five foot tsunami that overwhelmed the backup generation system of the Fukushima reactors. This deprived the reactors of coolant water and eventually led to partial core meltdowns.  Despite these catastrophic accidents, no one was killed by core meltdowns or the radiation released as a consequence. The truth is, that no one has ever been killed as a result of a commercial reactor core meltdown.

In contrast, construction and maintenance workers have fallen to their death from wind generator towers making wind far more dangerous than a nuclear power plant. There have also been causalities in relationship to both solar voltaic installations and concentrated solar energy facilities. Despite this evidence, some claim that nuclear power is more dangerous. When asked to explain this claim, they say that accidents will happen because we are human and human beings always make mistakes, however there is one way to avoid human mistakes leading to serious nuclear accidents. That is to take human judgment out of the equation. Reactors can be designed so that they will be safe by nature.

Nuclear accidents in the past have been the consequence of human errors, but if you take the safety out of the hands of human operators and place it in the hands of Mother Nature you can avoid accidents. How do you put nuclear safety in the hands of Mother Nature? In a West African nation called Gabon in a place called Okla there is a Uranium mine. Scientist exploring the Uranium mine discovered evidence that ore in the Uranium deposit had gone critical spontaneously some two billion years ago and continued to go critical at times over a period of several million years. The criticality came about as underground water seeped into the ore and, as in Light Water Reactors, it moderated neutron speed thus stimulating a chain reaction.

There were as many as twenty separate natural reactors uncovered in the mine none of which had what could be called a nuclear accident. As the temperature of water in the ore went up, it boiled away and as it boiled away the chain reaction slowed and then stopped. The heat was not great enough to melt the ore and most of the nuclear byproducts did not leave the locality. Eventually, as the natural reactor cooled, water seeped back into it and the chain reaction commenced again. Finally, the amount of U-235 in the ore became too low to sustain further chain reactions and the natural reactors died. The Okla events tell us that by following the laws of nature nuclear safety is possible. Furthermore, if we are only following the laws of nature, it is not possible for mistakes in human judgment to produce major accidents. We need only trust the laws of nature to establish safe nuclear power. Unfortunately, safety of Light Water Reactors is not based on the laws of nature.  Their safety is based on multi layered defense systems.

The latest generation of reactors is designed to partially use natural safety, but still has to go on the multi layered defense system in order to make them safe enough. The next generation of reactors called generation IV includes a number of designs that are even safer than the most recent water cooled reactor designs. These include both the Integral Fast Reactor and all forms of Molten Salt Reactors including LFTRs. Critics of nuclear safety often fail to recognize the evolution of reactor safety design and further fail to recognize the potential for developing even safer reactors. Given that nuclear power is now the safest form of energy and that very great improvements in nuclear safety are possible, the arguments against nuclear power for safety reason are absurd. The critics of nuclear power have been informed of the actual situation of nuclear safety. The source of information is science, thus the attacks on the safety of nuclear power are attacks on science.

Photo Credit: Nuclear Energy and Safety Concerns/shutterstock

Charles Barton's picture

Thank Charles for the Post!

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George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on September 9, 2013

Good read!

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on September 9, 2013

I have no doubt that nuclear is safe. The doubt lies with whether or not the the technology can compete.

For places with no other fuel resources, probably. However, in places like the US with a number different fuel options, no. In nuclear’s current form, it cannot compete in the US.

 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on September 13, 2013

Charles,

 

  Did you know over 90% of the uranium used in the remaining 100 Nucleasr plants is imported from Russia?

  Did you know all the spent fuel has to be replaced every 18 months? with a total shut down to do it? That often takes weeks instead of day?

  Did you know all the waste is stored on site at each plants? Over 70 tons at Palo Verde in Arizona! it’s stays deasdly for thousands of years and there is no solution at all 100 locations !!!

  Did you know Nuclear just boils water to make power? Over 20 million gallons a day at each reactor. It all evapoartes and leaves tjhe area! Palo Verde is in a desert! with a 10 year drought!

  Did you know you can’t ramp down or up a Nuclear plant so Off Peak it stil produces full power and much has to be dumped (shorted to ground) or given away.

  Nuclear is the most expensive power ever made. The G10 summit projected it cost about $1 a kWh just in capcitol cost. Include lives, water, deadly waste and it’s over $7 a kWh. No one has a system on their roof like solar since it’s not cost effective. If the government didn’t sunbsidies Nuclear it would not exist anyplace except bombs.

   Only the Sun at 93 Million miles away is the safe Nuclear.It makes more than we every need with no waste or pollution, reduces at night when we don’t need it and comes back just as we do need it.

 

 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on September 13, 2013

Charles,

 

  Did you know over 90% of the uranium used in the remaining 100 Nucleasr plants is imported from Russia?

  Did you know all the spent fuel has to be replaced every 18 months? with a total shut down to do it? That often takes weeks instead of day?

  Did you know all the waste is stored on site at each plants? Over 70 tons at Palo Verde in Arizona! it’s stays deasdly for thousands of years and there is no solution at all 100 locations !!!

  Did you know Nuclear just boils water to make power? Over 20 million gallons a day at each reactor. It all evapoartes and leaves tjhe area! Palo Verde is in a desert! with a 10 year drought!

  Did you know you can’t ramp down or up a Nuclear plant so Off Peak it stil produces full power and much has to be dumped (shorted to ground) or given away.

  Nuclear is the most expensive power ever made. The G10 summit projected it cost about $1 a kWh just in capcitol cost. Include lives, water, deadly waste and it’s over $7 a kWh. No one has a system on their roof like solar since it’s not cost effective. If the government didn’t sunbsidies Nuclear it would not exist anyplace except bombs.

   Only the Sun at 93 Million miles away is the safe Nuclear.It makes more than we every need with no waste or pollution, reduces at night when we don’t need it and comes back just as we do need it.

 

 

Willem Jan Oosterkamp's picture
Willem Jan Oosterkamp on September 13, 2013

I worked from the mid sixties to the mid nineties in the design and operation of nuclearpower stations. 

After the nuclear accident in Chernobyl I made an analysis of the development of the accident.

In the nanalysis I included accidents that had taken place in Idoho (1960) and Harrisburg (1978). In all these accidents the exothermal steam zirconium reaction played a maior role. In this reaction heat and hydrogen are generated. It would have been easy after the Chernobyl acccident to substitute the zirconium components in the light water reactors by stainless steel where there is no heat generation during the steel steam reaction and only a limited hydrogen generation. This was not done and the nuclear industry continued business as usual.

In Fukushima I was shocked to learn that during the Tsunami in the unit one the emergency condensor, that was designed to cool the reactor when ther was no electricity available was shut off. An explosion followed. 

In unit three a non licensced operator shut of a steam driven pump, that was also designed to cool the reactor with no electricity available.

I have drawn two conclusions:

The nuclear industry is not willing to change on a fundamental level

Safety analysis are flawed because they do not take into account irrational actions of reactor operators

 

 

 

 

Alain Verbeke's picture
Alain Verbeke on September 13, 2013

” I have drawn two conclusions:

The nuclear industry is not willing to change on a fundamental level

Safety analysis are flawed because they do not take into account irrational actions of reactor operators”

AND THE THIRD ONE IS, WHEN THE SHIT HIT THE FAN, RUN AWAY AND LET THE TAXPAYER CLEAN UP THE MESS ….

met vriendelijke groeten uit een buurland.

http://www.nuclearpowerdaily.com/reports/Viewing_Fukushima_in_the_cold_light_of_Chernobyl_999.html

Aug 23, 2013. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster spread significant radioactive contamination over more than 3500 square miles of the Japanese mainland in the spring of 2011. Now several recently published studies of Chernobyl are bringing a new focus on just how extensive the long-term effects on Japanese wildlife might be. Mousseau and Moller have with their collaborators just published three studies detailing the effects of ionizing radiation on pine trees and birds in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. In the journal Mutation Research, they showed that birds in Chernobyl had high frequencies of albino feathering and tumors. In PlosOne, they demonstrated that birds there had significant rates of cataracts, which likely impacted their fitness in the wild. And in the journal Trees, they showed that tree growth was suppressed by radiation near Chernobyl, particularly in smaller trees, even decades after the original accident. “There’s extensive literature from Eastern Europe about the effects of the release of radionuclides in Chernobyl,” Mousseau said. “Unfortunately, very little of it was translated into English, and many of the papers – which were printed on paper, not centrally stored, and never digitized – became very hard to find because many of the publishers went belly up in the 1990s with the economic recession that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.” A large body of this work finally came to the attention of Western scientists in 2009 with the publication of “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” as a monograph in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. “The uniform theme we find from these papers is that, when you look carefully, in a quantitative way, you see numerous biological impacts of low doses of radiation. Not just abundance of animals, but tumors, cataracts, growth suppression.”

 

http://www.nuclearpowerdaily.com/reports/Japan_unveils_ice_wall_plan_for_Fukushima_water_leaks_999.html

Sept 03, 2013 . Tokyo on Tuesday unveiled a half-billion dollar plan to stem radioactive water leaks at Fukushima, creating a wall of ice underneath the stricken plant, as the government elbowed TEPCO (the utility operator) aside. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his administration will step in with public money to get the job done. The utility — one of the largest in the world — has been effectively nationalised by vast government bailouts needed to stop it from sinking beneath the weight of bills from the clean-up and compensation claims. Vast tracts of land had to be evacuated as a direct result of the radiation leaks, with tens of thousands of people still unable to return to their homes.

 

 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 13, 2013

Jim, half of nuclear power in the U.S. comes from Russian nuclear warheads, which have been recycled in the Megatons to Megawatts program. I’d say turning weapons of mass destruction into weapons on climate change is a pretty good development.

Much more misinformation in your post, but another glaring error is the notion that somehow Palo Verde in AZ is depleting water from the environment. The plant uses 100% recycled municipal water from nearby Phoenix.

Recycling is a common theme in discussions of nuclear power, and an important benefit.

Willem Jan Oosterkamp's picture
Willem Jan Oosterkamp on September 13, 2013

In Pakistan you should look at biogas from manure and agricultural residues

Willem Jan Oosterkamp's picture
Willem Jan Oosterkamp on September 13, 2013

It is unfortunate that the the Megatons to Megawatts programms runs out at the end of this year.

 

The plutonium recycleprogramm is frustated by the inability of the American Industry to build a plutonium-uranum mixed oxide fuel plant. spent already several billion dollars and another few to go.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on September 13, 2013

The recycled water is processed 1 step away from being drinking water again. One of my firends used to work at the water plant and later quit. It’s lost to Arizona ,a desert. Read the book by ASU Prof Martin Pasqualetti on water used for power.

Recycled means you can use it again, heated and having trishism in the means it’s no longer usable.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 13, 2013

Jim, though that’s a very attractive way to phrase it sufficient drinking water in Arizona is a non-problem; only 1/4 of Arizona’s water goes to the municipal water supply; while 3/4 go to agriculture (where an even larger percentage evaporates) and industry.

Sufficient carbon-free energy is a problem not only for Arizona but the world. Palo Verde helps AZ do much more than its share, providing almost a third of local electricity and keeping Arizonans cool during their blazing summers.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on September 13, 2013

1) Michael, Fukushima does not sit in a huge contaminated area. If it did, there would be an ongoing health emergency. There is contamination in and around the power plant there, for sure. 

2) People drive to work Build ng and Maintaining Solar PV plants and Solar CSP plants, and Windmills, is this argument a joke or something.

 

What is see is that there are fresh new people coming here from Activist renewables websites, who need to be disabused of the anti-nuclear propaganda diet they have been consuming.

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