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

Kentucky senator pushing for fair consideration of nuclear energy

with 6 comments

Atomic Insights reports that Kentucky state Senator Bob Leeper has been doing some reading and listening lately about the coming of a new wave of nuclear plant construction, and he is working to position his state as a potential site for consideration. He has recently introduced a bill that would change the language in the law to allow licensed on site storage as a means of safely handling the byproducts that remain after using fuel in a reactor for a period of time, as compared with current Kentucky law which precludes the construction of a new nuclear power plant until there is a licensed and available location for permanent disposal of used nuclear fuel or the radioactive waste which may be left following recycling of such used fuel, such as the Yucca Mountain facility under development in the United States.

Of course, some people, such as Joseph Mangano, executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a name that those with their finger on the pulse of nuclear energy policy in the United States and elsewhere will have heard before, has other ideas:

 “One problem with nuclear reactors is what to do with the high-level waste they produce. This waste is actually a cocktail of chemicals such as Cesium-137, Iodine-129, Strontium-90 and Plutonium-239, each radioactive and cancer-causing.”

There’s no way that it is appropriate to call these kinds of materials waste –  they are radionuclides with useful and important technological, scientific and industrial applications. Of course, if we greatly expand the use of nuclear fission as an energy source throughout the world, along with the recycling and efficient re-use of the materials contained within irradiated nuclear fuels, it is likely that the inventories of such fission products thus created will ultimately dwarf demand for some of these radioactive materials – and it could be decided that these surplus quantities might be moved to deep underground storage, either for very long term storage, or permanant disposal.

“The waste decays slowly, remaining in dangerous amounts for thousands of years, and must be kept from escaping into the air, water and food supply”

Relatively short lived fission products, such as caesium-137 and strontium-90, with half-lives of 30 years and 29 years respectively, must be isolated from the environment for around 300 years, not thousands of years.

Longer lived fission products, such as iodine-129, one of the very longest lived of the fission product nuclides, can have half-lives of millions of years – with correspondingly smaller specific activities, and in most cases, much smaller nuclear fission yields. Some such long-lived fission products, such as I-129 and technetium-99, have sufficiently large neutron capture cross sections such that destruction of the radioactive nuclide by way of nuclear transmutation in a nuclear reactor is feasable.

I get especially bothered when these people talk of plutonium-239 and “waste” in the same sentence – it is one of the most potent, most energy dense, and most useful fuels known to humankind. There is absolutely no way that it should ever be thought of as “waste”, and it should not be wasted.

 “Another potential health problem is a large-scale release of radioactivity from a meltdown. Accidents have occurred at several reactors, including the 1986 total meltdown at Chernobyl and the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. But in addition to accidents, a terrorist attack could also cause a meltdown. Safe evacuation would be impossible, and local residents would be exposed to toxic radiation, causing many thousands to suffer from radiation poisoning and cancer.”

The Chernobyl disaster was not a meltdown in the usual sense of the term – it was a disaster triggered by complete destruction of the reactor core caused by a massive, explosive power excursion and steam explosion, not a fuel damage accident caused by a loss of coolant accident.

 The design, operation and physical characteristics of the RBMK power reactors at Chernobyl during the era of the Soviets have absolutely nothing  to do with the operation of the commercial nuclear power industry in the world today. The Chernobyl disaster is absolutely irrelevant, it has absolutely no relevance at all, to the use of light water reactors in the commercial nuclear power industry in the United States today.

No accident even remotely comparable to the Chernobyl accident, which, in the absence of any kind of real containment around the nuclear reactor, spewed radioactivity from the destroyed reactor core for thousands of miles, has ever occured in the commercial nuclear power industry in the Western world.

At Three Mile Island, where a loss of coolant accident and partial meltdown occurred in 1979,  was safe evacuation impossible? Were local residents exposed to “toxic radiation”? What dose of ionizing radiation did they receive? This was what is usually claimed as the most dangerous nuclear power reactor accident ever in the United States – did it cause “many thousands to suffer from radiation poisoning and cancer”? Did it harm anyone?

“Although it has never had a nuclear power reactor, Kentucky is no newcomer to nuclear plants. The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant has been enriching uranium for nuclear weapons and reactors since 1952 — and contaminating the local environment for decades.”

 Does the USEC Paducah plant produce HEU for nuclear weapons applications? That’s an open question to my readers – I’d like to know the answer.

What evidence, is there, that Paducah has been “contaminating the local environment for decades“? Is there any evidence of health or ecological effects on the surrounding community?

Local residents have breathed, drunk or eaten these contaminants, and they may have suffered. In the past quarter century, the death rate in the four closest counties (Ballard and McCracken in Kentucky, Massac and Pulaski in Illinois) is about 9 percent above the U.S. rate for both whites and blacks. This amounts to nearly 3,000 “excess” deaths in a population of only 95,000. The four counties have no obvious health risk, like language barriers, lack of education or extreme poverty, so Paducah must be considered as a potential factor in these high rates.

Kentucky already has the highest cancer death rate of any state in the nation. There is no need to increase cancer risk by introducing a hazardous means of producing electricity.

Has any scientific, peer-reviewed, epidemiological study of  health, death and disease, and the aetiology of any such abnormalities, in these counties ever been performed?

Is there any evidence, peer-reviewed scientific evidence of any kind, that nuclear energy is a “hazardous means of producing electricity” which “increases cancer risk”?

 

 

 

6 Responses

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  1. “Has any scientific, peer-reviewed, epidemiological study of health, death and disease, and the aetiology of any such abnormalities, in these counties ever been performed?

    Is there any evidence, peer-reviewed scientific evidence of any kind, that nuclear energy is a “hazardous means of producing electricity” which “increases cancer risk”?”

    I don’t think there has been any research carried out on these topic in the UK, it would be interesting to see some.

    Nick

    March 13, 2008 at 11:23 am

  2. While I certainly agree in the necesity to move towards nuclear power, the statement that “The Chernobyl disaster is absolutely irrelevant, it has absolutely no relevance at all, to the use of light water reactors in the commercial nuclear power industry in the United States today” is simply incorrect.

    What happened at Chernobyl, and what (as the NRC reported) the accident demonstrated, was that radioactive iodine (RAI), if ever released from a reactor, forms an aerosol which can travel for hundreds of miles downwind threatening millions of people. Despite this, the NRC refuses to assure adequate supplies of potassium iodide tablets (KI) for anyone beyond 10 miles from US nuclear plants. This clearly gives the appearance of an indistry that places only secondary value on protecting the public.

    Yes, accidents are unlikely, but they can happen. And if one does, KI will be the first thing that will be required. For the NRC to activly argue against its wide availability reflects poorly on the industry’s reputation, and gives ammunition to those who feel nuclear operators can’t be trusted.

    Alan Morris

    March 13, 2008 at 7:45 pm

  3. The US National Cancer Institute (NCI)completed a comphrensive cancer mortality study (1990) of the populations around many aged nuclear facilities that demonstrated no negative impact from operation of the facilities. The study received the full support of two peer review panels, including a panel of seven non-governmental scientists led by Clark Heath, a vice president of the American Cancer Society. The study looked at 107 U.S. counties near nuclear facilities. Some of the 107 counties had higher mortality rates of certain cancers before than after any nuclear startup. For example, for children under 10, the overall risk of childhood leukemia in the 107 counties was slightly greater before than after any nuclear startup. The full three volume report, “Cancer in Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities”, Stock Number 017-042-00276-1, is available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402.

    Don Kosloff

    March 14, 2008 at 1:17 pm

  4. what the Chernobyl accident demonstrated is that you shouldn’t build overmoderated reactors with no containments.

    Don Kosloff

    March 16, 2008 at 2:47 am

  5. Alan;
    Thanks for your comment. Allow me to respond:

    “What happened at Chernobyl, and what (as the NRC reported) the accident demonstrated, was that radioactive iodine (RAI), if ever released from a reactor, forms an aerosol which can travel for hundreds of miles downwind threatening millions of people.”

    Certainly true – it was a very significant issue at Chernobyl. But the key words of significance here are “if ever released from a reactor”.

    A large-scale release and dispersion of radionuclides just cannot occur in modern Western reactors the way it did at Chernobyl.

    “Yes, accidents are unlikely, but they can happen. And if one does, KI will be the first thing that will be required.”

    Yes, accidents can happen – recall that dilemma which destroyed a commercial nuclear power reactor in the United States, at Three Mile Island in 1979.

    Whilst the reactor was essentially destroyed, no significant source term of radioactive iodine was released into the environment, and stable iodine prophylaxis was not required for surrounding communities at all.

    enochthered

    March 17, 2008 at 6:07 am

  6. Chernobyl accident is irrelevant, as was shown in TMI. Physics of the reactor is different, it does not run-away but shuts itself down on meltdown and containment prevents any significant radioactive emissions. Chernobyl style plants were banned everywhere in West and none but USSR deployed this risky technology, primarily developed for military uses, in commercial civilian sector. None also plans to build any plant like that, all the proposed plants are as safe as TMI, some are passively safe such that laws of physics prevent any meltdown in the first place.

    That said, no energy production technology is risk-free in the real world. Nuclear energy is the risk-minimized technology for producing energy, measured in deaths per energy produced, by far if compared with any combustion technology and about 100x smaller than wind: ~10 deaths/TWyear for nuclear versus over 1000 deaths per TW year for wind. (http://www.wind-works.org/articles/BreathLife.html)

    There is no other alternative for about 80% of the baseload electricity demand other than coal (+partially natgas) or nuclear in foreseeable future as demonstrated by Germany, the renewable energy leader, which plans to build 27 new coal plants to make up for the nuclear phase-out in 2020. (However looking at the demand in that region it seems that by 2020 they are going to need both…) Austria planning to build about 5 nuclear plants worth of capacity burning natural gas is another example that renewables just do not scale enough to even match with growing demand.

    ondrejch

    March 24, 2008 at 2:15 am


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