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

Looking for a particular graphic.

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Dear readers;

There’s a certain image that I’ve seen when browsing the web before which I found useful. I’m trying to find this image again, but haven’t seen any success in finding it again.

It’s a pie chart which shows the physical composition of typical used LWR nuclear fuel, showing a breakdown of x % uranium, y % Zircaloy cladding, z % hardware, w % fission products and so forth. This was notable in that it included the portion of the fuel element’s mass which is the cladding and hardware, not just the uranium oxide fuel matrix itself.

Does anybody recognise the graph I’m referring to, and know where to find it online?


Written by Luke Weston

March 25, 2009 at 12:52 am

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The argument from appeal to hatred of Howard.

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Here’s a comment I received recently, in the context of talking about nuclear power.

“remember John Howard sold his soul to GW Bush, why would yoy [sic] trust anything he supports ?”

We see this occasionally in discussions about nuclear power. It’s the appeal to hatred of Howard, an argumentative technique, similar to a kind of contemporary derivative of the good old fashioned argumentum ad hominem, that goes something like this:

i) John Howard was actively interested in investigating the use of nuclear power in Australia, and was open to the idea.

ii) Of course, everybody obviously knows that Howard is literally pure immoral evil, and he feasts on babies, or something.

iii) Ergo, nuclear power is bad.

You sometimes have the persuasive appeal to hatred of the GOP or hatred of Bush, or something similar, it works in exactly the same way.

Written by Luke Weston

March 11, 2009 at 12:54 pm

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Burning money with solar power in Victoria. Again.

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It has been announced this week that the Victorian Government will promote renewable energy by spending $100 million to establish a new regional solar power station, subject to the Federal Government matching its commitment.

Premier John Brumby will announce both initiatives today, focusing on the plan for a 330-gigawatt hours per year solar plant with the capacity to power the equivalent of 50,000 homes.

All right. More kumbaya and rainbows and sunshine courtesy of Brumby.

This proposed new solar power station will supposedly generate 330 gigawatt-hours of electrical energy per year. (The Age article originally mentioned a “330 gigawatt” plant, but they later caught the egregious mistake and edited it.)

How much energy is that?

In 2006, Loy Yang unit A in Victoria generated 15,995 GWh of electrical energy, sent to the grid.
(In doing so, it emitted 19,314,994 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, and a whole lot of other environmentally and aetiologically nasty, dangerous, toxic waste, such as fly ash, SO2 and NO2, as well.) That’s just one example of one of the coal-fired generators, of course.

Therefore, this proposed solar power station is generating about 1.88 percent of that one single coal-fired generating station.

How much will this plant cost? We don’t know. The article doesn’t say, nor does Brumby’s original press release. We don’t know how much it costs, and I doubt Brumby knows, either.

…promote renewable energy by spending $100 million to establish a new regional solar power station, subject to the Federal Government matching its commitment.

OK… we know that it costs at least $200 million. There is actually a convenient benchmark which we can use to make an estimate of how much the whole project will actually cost, and that is the $420 million solar energy installation planned by Solar Systems for northwestern Victoria. This is another expensive solar energy project that the Victorian government just loves to talk about as a poster child for their clean, green ways.

The Solar Systems project, with 154 MW of nameplate capacity, will generate 270 GWh per annum, and will cost 420 million dollars. If we assume that the newly proposed 330 GWh/annum installation might cost about the same, for a given amount of capacity, then we can expect that it will cost 513 million dollars.

To replace Loy Yang A, to have the equivalent amount of energy generation, you’d need 49 such installations of this size, at a cost of approximately 25 billion dollars to construct.

If you build a modern* nuclear power plant, with two 1100 MWe reactors operating with a 90% capacity factor, the plant will generate about 17,356 GWh per annum. That is, such a plant will replace Loy Yang A’s output about 1.09 times over; it’s more than sufficient.

How much does it cost, to build such a nuclear power plant?
Go on, consider an exaggerated, extra-conservative cost estimate from your local greenies. 9 billion dollars? 12 billion? 14 billion? 15 billion?

In every case, even with the most pessimistic cost estimates for nuclear power, it’s far, far cheaper than solar, assuming that you’re actually capable of counting kilowatt-hours.

(* Modern, but not bleeding edge. We’ll consider the presently available modern Generation III LWRs such as Westinghouse AP1000 that are available immediately, not Generation IV fast spectrum reactors, liquid fluoride reactors, or things like that, just to be a little conservative about it.)

Brumby’s press release says that they aim to have the plant operating by 2015. So, they aim to have the plant operating within six years.

Six years? To think that opponents of nuclear energy say that it takes too long to deploy.

If it takes six years to build, and you need 49 of them to replace one coal-fired station, well, would it take 294 years for them to accomplish that goal? Well, perhaps I’m being a tiny bit mendacious. You never know, perhaps they could achieve faster deployment constructing them in parallel, and maybe it would only take 200 years, or 150 years. Maybe.

Six years is in fact sufficient time to construct a nuclear power plant, if you’re serious about doing it and don’t allow it to be delayed. All the nuclear units at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear generating station in Japan were each constructed in timescales of between three and five years; Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Unit 2 and Unit 5 both commenced construction in 1985, and both were completed by the end of 1990, within 5 years. Obviously the Japanese operators failed to see any relevance what so ever of a certain ill-fated Soviet graphite pile to their operations.

Even if you want to talk about conservative, drawn out timescales for the construction of new nuclear power in Australia, say, 10 years maybe, it’s still a far, far faster option, for a given amount of energy delivered, than solar or wind.

Written by Luke Weston

March 11, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Nuclear power and terrorist proliferation of nuclear weapons

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Is the plutonium that is potentially formed within certain types of fuels in nuclear fission power reactors really suitable for the construction of nuclear weapons? How accessible and usable is such plutonium for such a purpose? How hard would it be to construct a nuclear weapon employing such material? Could terrorists steal nuclear fuel from a nuclear power reactor and construct a working nuclear explosive device, practice?

What characteristics would such a device have? Given the terrible power of nuclear weapons, and the very real threat of terrorists who would love nothing more than to wield such power, these are perhaps important questions to consider.

I assert that, no, there is no real threat here that is anywhere near as plausible in the real world as it is sometimes beaten up to be. Can terrorists steal nuclear fuel, and build a nuclear weapon? No. I don’t think so.

I mainly just wrote this because (i) I just wanted to get this off my chest, and it’s good to have a go at the unrealistic nonsense that gets bandied about without any real factual evidence to back it up, and (ii) because I found the Kessler paper interesting.

This little piece of writing of mine owes a lot to the always entertaining and scientifically interesting posts of NNadir, especially this one, and this one, where I was pointed to the interesting publications of Kessler and colleagues. Love your work, NNadir 🙂

My little essay is here (PDF format).

Pointing out of typos, peer review, comments, grammatical suggestions and other interesting discussion and feedback is appreciated.
(I know the sentence is too long in the last paragraph on page 5, and there’s a typo on the first line of page 13. Those are fixed in the CVS. 🙂 )

I hope you find it enjoyable, interesting and/or useful.

Well, it looks like the Obama administration is going to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain.

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Well, there will be no Yucca Mountain facility opening in the US any time soon. But is that a big deal? No. There never was any urgent need for Yucca Mountain. The used nuclear fuel at the civilian power reactors is quite safe where it is, and it isn’t hurting anybody. The current on-site storage can be maintained for many years to come, and it’s just not a problem that requires any pressing intractable attention.

It will be interesting to see what happens in relation to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act – obviously they will have to change the law.
I suppose that money will be put back into the hands of the nuclear utilities, or used by the government to implement recycling of fuel.
I’d be happy to see the money used by the government to implement recycling infrastructure, and/or used by the nuclear generation utilities to implement dry cask storage for all the on-site storage capacity for their fuel that they need and that they’re going to need, until reprocessing and/or central storage is implemented.

It’s worth remembering that we’re not abandoning Yucca Mountain, we’re not “wasting” billions of dollars – the Obama government is not going to backfill it with concrete and burn all the research data. We’re just putting Yucca Mountain on the back burner for a little while, that’s all. If, in 10 years, we decide that Yucca Mountain wasn’t such a bad idea after all, we can always go straight back to it where we left off.

I think that’s not actually all that bad, because it gives us time to step back, breathe, and realise that taking this used LWR fuel, which is 96% unchanged uranium, declaring it to be so-called “waste”, and throwing it in Yucca Mountain really is a little stupid.

Off the top of my head I can’t remember how deep the Yucca tunnels are, but perhaps the facility will be useful for particle physics experiments (neutrino physics, dark matter detection and the like) just like the WIPP site in New Mexico.

As much as I fully support sensible recycling of nuclear fuel, and I hate to see good useful material “wasted”, I think, yes, it’s worth ultimately having a geological repository, although it’s certainly not needed urgently.

Even with the efficient use of uranium and actinides, and the extraction of useful fission products, I think we’re going to be producing medium-lifetime radioactive fission products (such as Cs-137, Tc-99, Sr-90, or what-have-you) at a rate which will exceed their consumption for useful applications, and therefore, we will have surplus material that will probably be best going to deep geological storage. Add in the transuranic-contaminated waste from the Cold War and the weapons facilities, and industrial and scientific radioactive waste, and yes, it really doesn’t hurt to have a deep geological repository such as Yucca mountain.

Written by Luke Weston

February 27, 2009 at 6:05 pm

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A roundup of some interesting things.

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A few interesting things I’ve come across this week:

i) In pure water, (and in particular in ice, which has a much greater density of hydrogen bonds) electric charge is primarily carried not by electrons, but by a flow of mobile protons. (Or deuterons, in D2O.)

Further reading here and here.

ii) A compendium of water-related pseudoscience and quackery. From magical quantum water purification, to “water memory”, to converting your car to run on water, it’s all discussed here.

iii) Neodymium-iron-boron magnets are dangerous!

Super-strong neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnets are very cool. They’re fun to play with, and they’re also extremely useful for many technological applications.

But they should be treated with a great deal of respect, and not toyed around with, especially not if they’re large – anything bigger than a few cubic centimetres.
A pair of these magnets the size of cigarette packets are not novelties and they’re not toys – they will take off your hand quite easily if they’re not treated with respect.

Do not want! 😦 😮

To Mars by A-bomb: The Secret History of Project Orion.
I think I’ve posted little bits from this before, but I was delighted to find that someone’s posted the entire one-hour series on YouTube. Very, very cool.

Here’s the first part, the next five parts are at the above page.

Watching the start of this program, I was actually a little surprised to see that there actually exists video footage (indeed, colour video footage) of the assembly of the Gadget for the Trinity test in 1945.

Written by Luke Weston

February 27, 2009 at 8:03 am

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‘Dirty bomb’ parts found in slain man’s home?

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The Bangor Daily News reports that one James G. Cummings, who police say was shot to death by his wife two months ago, “allegedly had a cache of radioactive materials in his home suitable for building a “dirty bomb.””

According to an FBI field intelligence report from the Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center posted online by WikiLeaks, an organization that posts leaked documents, an investigation into the case revealed that radioactive materials were removed from Cummings’ home after his shooting death on Dec. 9.

The report posted on the WikiLeaks Web site states that “On 9 December 2008, radiological dispersal device components and literature, and radioactive materials, were discovered at the Maine residence of an identified deceased [person] James Cummings.”

It says that four 1-gallon containers of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide, uranium, thorium, lithium metal, thermite, aluminum powder, beryllium, boron, black iron oxide and magnesium ribbon were found in the home.

Also found was literature on how to build “dirty bombs” and information about cesium-137, strontium-90 and cobalt-60, radioactive materials. The FBI report also stated there was evidence linking James Cummings to white supremacist groups. This would seem to confirm observations by local tradesmen who worked at the Cummings home that he was an ardent admirer of Adolf Hitler and had a collection of Nazi memorabilia around the house, including a prominently displayed flag with swastika. Cummings claimed to have pieces of Hitler’s personal silverware and place settings, painter Mike Robbins said a few days after the shooting.

Now, of course, this seems like a bit of a beat-up – but I’m not sure who’s to blame here, the newspaper, or the perhaps overly dramatic (internal) FBI report.

The memo leaked on WikiLeaks reports that:

“State authorities detected radiation emissions in four small jars in the residence labelled ‘uranium metal’, as well as one jar labelled ‘thorium’. The four jars of uranium carried the label of an identified US company.”

“Further preliminary analysis on 30 december 2008 indicated an unlabeled jar to be a second jar of thorium. Each bottle of uranium contained depleted uranium-238. Analysis also indicated the two jars of thorium held thorium-232.”

Now, regarding this US company. I have a pretty good suspicion who this company is – there aren’t too many companies that sell small samples of depleted uranium to the public – but I’m not going to mention the company by name, simply because they do not deserve to be unfairly tarnished or persecuted in relation to this incident.

This company provides quite a few products which are very interesting and very useful in scientific teaching, education and research, including some items which are extremely difficult to find on the market anywhere else, and they already cop enough persecution and flak as it is. Nothing they sell poses any special danger to the community at large, and small samples of uranium metal are, personally, one of the least dangerous things they sell.

The company in question, from what I recall, sells (depleted) uranium metal samples in 5 gram bottles, and used to sell thorium as one-gram samples.

If these samples were what these bottles possessed by this person were, then you’re talking about approximately 20 g of depleted uranium metal, and approximately 2 g of thorium metal. That’s about 10 microcuries of uranium, and about 0.22 microcuries of thorium.

There’s nothing that constitutes any radiological hazard to anybody. A bucket full of uranium-bearing rock picked up out of the ground would contain more radioactivity than this. Uranium-238 and thorium-232 are some of the least radioactive substances you can find that can still actually be called radioactive. They’re completely, utterly irrelevant to any threat of a radiological weapon, at all.

That said, however, I’m sure it is within the limits plausibility that this person was intent on trying to build a radiological weapon, he simply didn’t go about it in a particularly effective fashion.

Written by Luke Weston

February 27, 2009 at 7:25 am

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