[LINK] Dangers of Nuclear power

Robin Whittle rw at firstpr.com.au
Tue Mar 29 14:06:49 AEDT 2011

Hi Kim,

You wrote:

> I find this "dangers of nuclear power" debate fascinating.  Not just
> on link but clearly the same debate is happening around the world.  I
> don't think anyone much is changing their minds.  Those who think
> nuclear power is too dangerous still think so.  Those who think it's
> safe haven't changed either.
> What's happened in Japan has clearly stirred the pot though.  The
> extremes on either side have upped the anti.

Indeed.  Like quite a few debates about public affairs, politics etc. I
think there's growing polarisation.  To what extent people's views
really are polarised is hard to determine, but the more extreme things
tend to get reported and passed around via mailing lists, Facebook pages
and the like - so arguably the Internet is acting as an extremism
amplifier.  There are probably fundamental reasons for extreme positions
being adopted and extended, irrespective of what communication
technologies are used.

> There are people declaring that California is or will be
> contaminated, others saying that everyone in Japan is perfectly safe
> while the Japanese government is telling people this is not good and
> radioactive stuff is leaking out in a big way although there is going
> to be a lot of water under the bridge, so to speak, before Japan is
> out of danger.

I think it is nuts to give "perfectly safe" assurances about Japan since
we are a long way from having the reactors properly cooled and
contained, let alone dismantled safely.

> For all those who say that there are no negatives to Nuclear power
> and that it's environmentally safe, at the Japanese plant we may be
> quickly coming to the major elephant in the room.  What do you do
> with a nuclear plant at the end of its life, with a place and a bunch
> of stuff too contaminated and too radioactive to allow people to use
> it for a million years or so?  Or is that half a million years, I
> forget.

The shorter the half-life, the more breakdown there is per unit time for
a given quantity of the material.  Even tens of years is a big problem,
but nuclear waste needs to be kept safe and to to have its decay heat
dissipated continually for thousands of years.

It may be possible to bind all the atoms with chemical bonds, but when
an atom's nucleus undergoes radioactive decay, it typically becomes the
nucleus of another element, which probably can't be contained by those

The electromagnetic and particle emissions (both are ionizing radiation)
tends to breaking those bonds anyway.

So there's no reliable way of chemically binding the radioactive stuff.

This leaves physical containment, which requires security against
attack, and continual heat dissipation, without any chance of water or
air mixing with the radioactive material and its sometimes gaseous
radioactive by-products.

Since no-one has figured out a good solution, after decades of intensive
work, I think the problem of long-term nuclear waste storage is properly
regarded as insoluble.

Then there are the dangers of reactor failure, attacks by terrorists,
production of plutonium for weapons etc.

One unfortunate development, I think, is a new technique for separating
U235 from the other isotopes:

  Atomic Vapor Laser isotope separation (AVLIS)
  Separation of Isotopes by Laser EXcitation (SILEX)

This may turn out to be easier and more concealable than the currently
best approach of large numbers of power-hungry centrifuges.

With sufficient such concentration, natural uranium could be refined to
the point of making a U235 bomb - about 65kg of highly refined U235 was
used in the technically very simple Hiroshima bomb:


This new refinement technique could make nuclear power marginally more
attractive, by reducing the costs of producing the low enriched uranium
(a few percent U235) which is used in reactors.  It could also be used
by "rogue states" or whatever to make a bulky but effective weapon.

This is somewhat separate from the problem of the nuclear power industry
being used to create Plutonium 239 by short-term irradiation of
naturally abundant U238.  So nuclear power is not the only reason why
weapons-ready isotopes (U235 and P239) may become increasingly available
to countries and groups who at present don't have them.

 - Robin


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