Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Nuclear Madness: Chapter 1

with 10 comments

Yes, I’m referring to the book.

 “…we can no longer afford to entrust our lives, and the lives and health of future generations, to politicians, bureaucrats, “experts”, or scientific specialists, because all too often their objectivity is compromised.”

Oh dear oh dear. In other words, any scientist or engineer, physician or physicist, who potentially disagrees with us, must clearly be a shill.

But it doesn’t really matter, fundamentally. Ultimately, if a physicist or chemist says this or that, ultimately, what they say is tested against the physical characteristics of reality. What scientists say, by rights, doesn’t matter. What physical reality does is what matters. Nature can’t be paid off by the big scary corporations and lobby groups.

 “It (nuclear energy) is also obviously extremely unsafe, as opposed to the fallacious claims made by the nuclear industry…”

The empirical observation is that it is safe. He-says-she-says doesn’t matter.

“The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee exposed nearly 500 patients with leukemia and other cancers to exceptionally high levels of radiation from radioactive caesium and cobalt, including a six-year-old boy.”

The infamous human radioactivity experiments are potentially a great topic of discussion for the people that want to convince the public that human applications of radioactivity are intrinsically evil. I’m not quite sure what relevance the infamous and controversial research has to nuclear energy, but reading the above passage, one thing immediately stands out.

Thousands of patients with cancers are exposed to exceptionally high doses of radiation, from radionuclides of Caesium and cobalt, in hospitals every day, even today. And it saves their lives.

  “…the long-term medical consequences of radiation were just beginning to appear, in the form of an increased rate of leukemia among Japanese atomic bomb survivors.”

These are the medical consequences of very high doses of whole-body ionizing radiation exposure. That these grave medical consequences of very large doses of ionizing radiation exist, and what they are, has never, ever, been in any dispute. Very high doses of ionizing radiation kill people.

“Nonbiodegradable, and some virtually potent forever, these toxic nuclear materials…”

Radionuclides are non-biodegradable! My god.

If one synthesises a biodegradable polymer, such as a lactide-derived polyester, and labels it with say Tritium or Carbon-14, the radioactive polymer is still biodegradable.

All radionuclides intrinsically, inevitably, decay over time. This is one of the most intrinsic and fundamental aspects of the phenomenon of radioactivity.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, such as benzo[a]pyrene, are strongly mutagenic, and correspondingly carcinogenic and teratogenic, and exposure to these compounds in the environment has the potential to cause increased incidences of cancer, decades into the future, and leave future generations with legacies of genetic disease, birth defects and so forth, as a result of mutation of genes reproductive cells in generations exposed to these pollutants.

This is the legacy we leave to future generations with the continued use, and expanded use, of dangerous fossil fuels.

These persistent organic pollutants in dangerous fossil fuel waste are not biodegradable, and their nuclei are for the most part, stable. They do not break down over time, or decay. At all.

“Each 1 GW nuclear (power) reactor contains as much long-lived radioactive material (“fallout”) as would be produced by 1000 Hiroshima-sized bombs.”

Radioactive material is not “fallout” until is is dispersed in the atmosphere in the form of dispersed dust, volatile and particulate contamination. Arguably, the Chernobyl disaster created radioactive “fallout” contamination, kind of analogous to that produced by a nuclear weapon.

But in practice, what circumstances are required for such dispersion to be created with any other nuclear reactor?

“A “meltdown”, in which the fissioning nuclear fuel overheats and melts, penetrating the steel and concrete structures that encase it, could release a reactor’s radioactive contents into the atmosphere…”

Can a “meltdown” destroy the steel reactor vessel of a nuclear reactor? Theory shows it’s extremely doubtful, and experience, at Three Mile Island, says no. Even if the pressure vessel is destroyed, could the massive reinforced concrete containment building be destroyed by hot, partially molten, fuel? For all practical intents and purposes, such an idea is regarded as impossible.

 “One need not be a scientist or nuclear engineer to take part in this important debate; in fact, an over-specialised approach tends to confuse the issue. The basic questions involved ultimately go beyond the technical problems related to reactor safety and radioactive waste management.”

What? In other words, is Caldicott trying to tell us that the science and engineering does not matter? These are the most fundamental aspects of the debate. On a foundation of scientific and technological fact, the complex political and social debate over nuclear technology can proceed in a sensible, informed manner.

“How can we ensure the longevity of the social institutions responsible for perpetuating that isolation?” (the isolation of radioactive waste from the environment over the long term.)  “And what moral right do we have to burden our progeny with this poisonous legacy…

Social institutions do not perpetuate the longevity of that isolation. Half a kilometer of solid rock perpetuates it. We know from history, from the nuclear fission waste under the rock at Oklo, and from, say, the great Pyramids, that these great structures of rock will carry our legacy over the time frames required.

Permanent geological repositories,  such as that under construction by Sweden’s SKB, deal with the radioactive waste permanantly, and once it’s sealed, it’s dealt with, safe forever. These repositories require no monitoring or maintainence by future generations.

Well, that’s Chapter 1, and the Introduction, covered.

Written by Luke Weston

August 8, 2007 at 1:29 am

10 Responses

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  1. “On a foundation of scientific and technological fact, the complex political and social debate over nuclear technology can proceed in a sensible, informed manner.”

    Once scientific and technological fact (which “confuse the issue”) have been swept under the rug and replaced by gobbletygook, the political and social debate over nuclear technology can proceed in a manner that is more conducive to the anti-nuclear side of the debate.

    I think we’re on to something.


    August 8, 2007 at 5:20 pm

  2. Luke, wasn’t Chernobyl a meltdown where the core melted through to the last level of protection, into the basement?

    David Walters

    August 8, 2007 at 8:46 pm

  3. While it is important to point out the hucksterism in Caldicott’s writing, I think more is needed. A picture of the benefits of nuclear power has to be given in a manner that people can feel comfortable with. In other words, the frame of the discussion has to be shifted from fear to confidence. How to do this is explained in

    “don’t think of an elephant”
    by George Lakoff
    Chelsea Green Publishing

    Randal Leavitt

    August 9, 2007 at 2:23 am

  4. Unless i’m mistaken, Chernobyl was not a “meltdown” in the usual sense.

    A massive, uncontrolled power excursion (and resulting prompt criticality) caused a steam explosion which blew the reactor apart.

    Keep in mind that the reactor had no containment vessel remotely comparable to that seen on western reactors.

    With the reactor core blown open and exposed, the graphite core ignited and burned, and the fuel melted, as a result of the fire and decay/fission heat.


    August 10, 2007 at 3:39 pm

  5. You are close.

    If you _really_ want to know what went on, you should learn that there was no “graphite fire.” I know that a lot of nuclear experts claim that there was such a fire, but how many nuclear experts are also experts when it comes to nuclear-grade graphite?

    If you ask someone who actually is knowledgeable about the stuff, you will find that nuclear-grade graphite is very difficult to ignite. The inflammability of things like charcoal and coal is largely due to various impurities in the material, and the stuff that is used in nuclear reactors is very pure. Thus, you can take a torch to the stuff, you can heat it up until it is white hot, and it will not ignite.

    The events after the steam explosion at Chernobyl were driven almost entirely by the decay heat in what was left of the core. The responders who were flying over the remains of the plant could see a red glow, which they mistook for a fire; however, that was just the normal glow that would be expected from very hot graphite (i.e., from blackbody radiation).

    Now, before you start asking questions, let me preempt you to answer a few right now:

    So the graphite did nothing at all? No, there was significant oxidation of the graphite, as would be expected for graphite at such high temperatures in the presence of oxygen. Nevertheless, there was little or no self-sustained combustion.

    Did it impact the severity of the accident? Most certainly so. The oxidation did make the accident more severe than it otherwise would have been, contributing to the overall spread of radionuclides. Nevertheless, it played a small role in the consequences of the accident and an even smaller role in the progression of the accident.

    The real culprit after the explosion was the decay heat (as it usually is for nuclear accidents). After the core was blown apart there was little or no fission (and thus inconsequential fission heat), and there was no graphite fire.


    August 10, 2007 at 6:48 pm

  6. Yeah, you’re right.

    It gets referred to as a “graphite fire” a lot, which makes people think of fire in the same way that fire burns in a material such as wood or coal or something.

    The “fire” – i.e. the oxidation of the extremely hot graphite core, which wasn’t really fire at all – contributed to the dispersion of fine particulate material and gases which carried the radioactivity in the reactor out across Europe. It’s a significant aspect of the Chernobyl disaster, because the significant long-term impacts of Chernobyl are largely due to the fact that the radioisotopes in the core were able to be dispersed across the environment to such a significant degree.

    Thanks for your input.


    August 11, 2007 at 7:28 am

  7. Most times I don’t even bother to point this out, but you seem like someone who is interested in getting his facts right.

    This is not an important distinction today and in fact is often used as talking point to show how relatively “safe.” western reactor designs (LWRs) are — e.g., “there’s no graphite to catch fire.” It is very tempting to do: I remember using his argument when I was in high school, before I knew better. The result is that we end up painting a picture of a graphite-moderated reactor as a bunch of uranium surrounded by charcoal briquettes.

    As the world goes forward with advanced designs — starting with the PBMR in South Africa — we will need to fix some of these misconceptions. Another one that needs fixing is the concept of containment. If small modular reactors, such as the PBMR, are ever going to be economically successful, we need to get beyond the idea of containment as a big concrete building. These structures work great for LWRs, but there are other very useful ways to prevent fission products and various radionuclides from entering the environment.

    I enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work!


    August 11, 2007 at 9:42 am

  8. I agree completely.

    I do put a lot of importance on getting the facts right, and I welcome and encourage constructive comments like yours above, skepticism and peer review.

    I’m very optimistic about the PBMR as a particularly promising and safe Gen IV technology.

    And you’re right, anti-nuclear groups don’t like it, because of what they perceive as intrinsic Chernobyl-style risks with graphite moderate reactors, and the lack of large LWR-style containment buildings.


    August 11, 2007 at 9:59 am

  9. Caldicott: “…we can no longer afford to entrust our lives, and the lives and health of future generations, to politicians, bureaucrats, “experts”, or scientific specialists, because all too often their objectivity is compromised.” IMO: Caldicott purports to be an expert/scientific specialist, thus she condemns herself. Given her public personna, she has also placed herself in the politician class – doubling the condemnation of herself.

    Re high dose patient irradiation: My brother is a radiation oncologist specializing in prostate cancer. He’s saved thousands of lives via irradiation. His irradiation technique has probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the world. I’m dang proud of him. Keep on zapping, bro!

    Re assuring waste isolation: Anybody want to bet that within 100-200 years the waste gets dug up and re-used? If my kids’ kids have any brains, its an energy source and they will likely find a way to harness and use it. Caldicott presumes/intimates that the forthcoming generations will be stupid. A fun line to use against these sort of arguments is, “Hey, are your kids stupid? No? Then they’ll find solutions to whatever the problem.”

    Re the graphite “fire” posts – great stuff. I remember when it happened thinking, “How the hell does graphite catch on fire?”, but I didn’t give it much follow up consideration. Though I heartedly agree with your posts, I doubt many in the public would make the distinction.

    Larry Grimm

    August 15, 2007 at 6:54 pm

  10. On Containment.

    Brian, rationally you are correct. But there are several things that are socially very important: big concrete structures give a tremendous amount of security to people. They are also not that expensive to built and, I suspect, the PBMR, being 90% underground, they could build mass-produced “containment modules”, probably the easiet thing on a PBMR. Additionally, because the area is smaller, they don’t have to be as ‘thick’ or ‘big’ since the strength is exponentially stronger the smaller the area is of containment is.

    Lastly, there is a ‘security’ part of this ‘social’ issue of big concrete structures: terrorism, or rather, the bogey man of nuclear terrorism via air planes. I actually think this is 100% irrelevant, but ‘social’ translate into political and at the end of the day, the whole issue of containment is also 100% political.


    David Walters

    August 17, 2007 at 9:27 pm

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