November 7, 2008
The following text and images are all taken from a weblog by William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Energy Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey. Tucker is a seasoned journalist. He has done us all a great service by demythologizing nuclear power.
Tucker thinks it’s time to retire the name “nuclear power,” loaded as it is with frightful connotations, and start using the more realistic and palatable name, “terrestrial energy.”
The following is a crash course on the subject, courtesy of Bill Tucker. The Editor.
The theme of my book is that nuclear power is the only technology that’s ever going to make an impact in cutting carbon emissions and heading off global warming. Anyone who understands physics knows this is true. The quantities of energy we need to run our society just aren’t available from what we’re calling the “clean alternatives.”
The secret of understanding nuclear is in Einstein’s formula, E=mc2.
That says we derive energy by turning matter into energy. (You can also turn energy into matter, but that’s something only God has been able to do so far.)
When we burn coal we’re transforming very, very infinitesimal amounts of matter in the electron orbits into energy, or at least releasing it from where it’s been stored. The point is this. The structure of the atom is that 99.99 percent of the matter is in the nucleus. The protons and neutrons weigh about 2 million times more than the electrons, which are virtually weightless. Therefore the energy release from transformations in the nucleus are about 2 million times greater than what we can get from “chemical” changes in burning coal or oil. (The energy that comes from turning a windmill or a tapping a waterfall is orders of magnitude less than that. They’re not even chemical energy but kinetic energy, the weakest kind.)
Coal throws off 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year in America, nuclear zero.
Of course, there’s the “nuclear waste,” which is highly radioactive, but that’s completely misunderstood. That radioactivity is only more energy. We could tap it–and nations such as France and Japan, which are now way ahead of us on nuclear, already do. The reason spent nuclear fuel is so radioactive is because there’s so much energy left in it. The ultimate “waste” product of the breakdown of uranium by-products is non-radioactive lead. It’s harmless and useful.
Waste implies something that has been remitted into the environment so that, even though it may be potentially useful for something, it’s much too difficult and expensive to recover. The carbon dioxide exhausts from fossil fuel burning that are thrown into the atmosphere are “waste.” But nuclear by-products are all sitting in one place, waiting to be recycled or stored. There is no such thing as “nuclear waste.”
I’ve called nuclear energy “terrestrial energy” because that’s what it is. It’s energy stored in the earth.
The interior of the earth is heated to a temperature of 7000 degrees Fahrenheit by the breakdown of uranium and thorium in the mantle. That’s hotter than the surface of the sun. We can tap this as “geothermal energy,” but the much easier strategy is to mine a little bit of the source of this energy–the uranium–and duplicate the process, accelerating it a little, in a “nuclear reactor.”
Terrestrial energy is perfectly natural. It’s no different than digging up the stored solar energy in coal–and a lot, lot cleaner. It’s environmentally benign, not nearly as dangerous as people suppose, and has the potential to save the planet from all kinds of degradation caused by less concentrated and messier forms of stored energy. “Nuclear is green.”
Unfortunately, there’s a huge bifurcation in American society. We have a core of people who understand nuclear technology, who recognize its world-saving potential, but who simply can’t communicate this to the general public–and are getting kind of bitter about it as well. Then we have the general public that yearns for something exactly like nuclear–”clean energy”–but is totally misinformed about it and therefore fearful. If you take the time and patience to explain nuclear to people, they almost always understand. But it’s difficult and you have to get their attention.
The following are excerpts from Tucker’s blog and book. Notice his account of visiting a French nuclear recycling plant–the Editor
My 18-year-old son looked at the picture [of a nuclear power cooling tower] and said, “But Dad, you’ve still got pollution coming out of those towers.” I had to explain. “Dylan, that’s steam. It’s not carbon dioxide. The thin little wisps of smoke you see coming out of a cooling tower is just water vapor. There’s nothing bad about it.” It’s a distinction that a lot of people find hard to make–including me sometimes.
I’m headed out tomorrow to do a tour of the French nuclear facilities. I’m going to talk to executives at the offices of Areva, the French nationally owned nuclear company, and then tour the reprocessing facilities near Avignon and the “nuclear waste dump” in Le Hague. The facility (I forget the name of it) is France’s Yucca Mountain. The only difference is that, because the French reprocess–i.e., recycle–their nuclear fuel, they don’t really have any “waste.” The high-level material that can’t be immediately used for something–more fuel, medical isotopes–is all stored in ONE ROOM at Le Hague. That’s all the “waste” from 25 years of producing 75 percent of their electricity with nuclear. People find that hard to grasp. It is hard to grasp. We haven’t really understood how different–how much more highly concentrated–the energy stored at the nucleus of the atom really is. It really has nothing in common with fossil fuels. That’s something I spend a lot of time explaining in my book. You have to–it takes a lot of explaining.
The French had a slogan when they decided to go nuclear in the 1970s. “We don’t have any oil but we have ideas.” That’s the French for you. Unfortunately, in the U.S. our slogan at the time was, “We don’t have any ideas, but we have lots of coal.” That’s where we are today.
One fallacy that nuclear opponents all share–that, as Al Gore put it, “Nuclear reactors only come in one size–extra large.” You can build a micro-reactor that puts out 10 kW and it would probably fit in the palm of your hand. We may do that some day when we overcome our fear of nuclear power. But for now it makes sense to build the biggest reactors we can because we’re trying to REPLACE a coal infrastructure that reaches across the entire country (600 major plants putting out half our electricity).
I’ve just gotten back from a weeklong tour of France’s major nuclear facilities. It was like wandering around Narnia. Here’s a country that gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear, that doesn’t burn a single ounce of coal or oil, that isn’t uglifying its landscape with giant windmills, that imports only half as much natural gas as Germany and Great Britain, and that is reprocessing all its nuclear fuel both for itself and other countries. One of their biggest projects is taking enriched uranium out of former Soviet weapons and “de-enriching” it down to the level where it is being used for fuel in American reactors.
Briefly, here’s what nuclear power has done for France. It provides 80 percent of the country’s electricity at the lowest rates in Europe. It gives France the second-lowest level of carbon emissions in Europe, behind only Sweden, a smaller country that is half hydro, half nuclear. It provides France’s third largest export, behind only wine and agricultural products. It allows Germany, Belgium and Denmark to posture that they are anti-nuclear while in fact they are importing nuclear electricity from France and have quietly abandoned the vow to shut down their own reactors. Italy, much less skilled at hypocrisy, actually closed down its three reactors, leaving it with frequent blackouts. The country now imports 70 percent of its electricity and recently horrified Europe with plans to build several new coal plants.
Next morning we head for the Melox plant in suburban Marcoule. A very horizontal industrial establishment, it sits atop a small plateau overlooking the Rhone about 35 miles to the northwest. The building’s glass-and-steel façade is striped with individual red and yellow lines that the brochure says are designed to make it blend with the surrounding landscape. Security is tight, however, and the all-encompassing barbed-wire fences give it the feel of a low-grade state prison. Belying this atmosphere, the walkways glisten with Mediterranean sunshine and knots of workers stroll casually in Areva’s spanking white jumpsuit uniforms. After threading our way through numerous identification procedures and radiation checks, we are ushered into an upstairs conference room where we meet Pierre Guelfe, chief engineer of the facility. “There’s one thing I want to ask,” I said. “I’ve read this several times but I want to make absolutely sure. The plutonium that comes out of a commercial reactor, that you separate from the fuel rod, that cannot be used to make a bomb, right?”
“That’s right,” he nodded. “You have four plutonium isotopes–Pu-239, Pu-240, Pu-241 and Pu-242. Of the four, only Pu-239 can sustain a chain reaction. The others are contaminants. The PU-241 is too highly radioactive. It fissiles too fast so you can’t control it to make a bomb. But you can use all of them to sustain fission in a MOX reactor.” I lean back for a second. “I don’t know whether you know all this–I’m sure you do–but we completely ended reprocessing in the United States in the 1970s on the premise that if we extracted plutonium someone might use it to make a bomb. We were saving the world from nuclear proliferation. But in fact, as you’re saying, this is all wrong. You can’t use plutonium from a commercial reactor to build a bomb?”
“You have to have a special kind of fast reactor that breeds only Pu-239,” he said. “That’s what the North Koreans did.”
“So we’ve created this whole problem of “nuclear waste” on a false premise. And we’re building this huge complex at Yucca Mountain on a completely mistaken idea.”
He gave a little Gallic shrug and smiled under his mustache. “That’s right,” he said.
We don our Areva jumpsuits and make tour of the plant. As soon as we enter the first room we encounter a seven-foot cylinder painted yellow. “This is plutonium,” says Marty Delphin, our guide. “It just arrived from La Hague.”
I put my hand up against it and sure enough, the container is warm. “So this is the dreaded plutonium?” Delphin nods. “Plutonium is not a gamma emitter, right?”
“Just alpha,” he says.
“Feels like energy!” I say.
“And it can’t blow up!” adds Guelfe. Everyone gets a laugh out of that.
“It’s difficult to see why this is so hard to sell to America,” says Besnainou with only a touch of regret. “You recycle household garbage. You’re very good at that. Why not recycle spent fuel as well. We’ve cut our need for uranium 30 percent by reprocessing. There’s so much energy left there. We’re calling spent fuel ‘the new uranium mines.’”
Source of Life. Since that gigantic nuclear explosion, origin of the universe, called the Big Bang, matter and energy have remained a united and faithful duo. Man himself is stardust…. Today the stars, the sun, and the burning core of the earth are ceaseless beds of nuclear reactions…. From distant stars to the earth’s core, it continues its constructive work. Man has learnt to master one nuclear reaction, fission, taming it into a clean and inexpensive energy. They understand these things over here.
The La Hague Reprocessing Center sits on top of a cliff just outside Cherbourg overlooking the English Channel. It’s the same flat, industrial design, trying to look unobtrusive, with its prison-fence surrounding. Security here is even tighter, with an endless round of ID cards and personal codes that change every time we enter a new section. Our guide is Christopher Naugnot, a mid-30s, brush-cut communications director whose English–like everyone else’s–is very good. He provides us with some bare details–the facility employs 5,000, 20 percent of the jobs in Cherbourg, it’s been operating for twenty years, the locals love it. “The U.S. has produced 50,000 tons of spent fuel and has designed Yucca Mountain to hold 70,000 tons,” says Naugnot. “We’ve already recycled 24,000 tons at this facility.”
“Why don’t you just take all our fuel off our hands?” I ask.
“You’re producing about 2,000 new tons a year. We can only reprocess 1,700 tons a year at this facility so we’d be hard pressed. We’d much rather recycle in the United States.”
“So are you going to do it?”
“That’s what we’re trying to do in South Carolina.”
We don jumpsuits once again and start through the facility. Naugnot tells us how the spent fuel casks are generally shipped by rail, then offloaded into trucks, which bring them to the plant. “They enter through the basement and then are brought into a sealed room where they are cooled for awhile before they’re put into the storage pools. We’ll see that next.”
We climb a stairs and find ourselves standing outside a glass window looking through a thick yellowish glass into a room perhaps about 2,500 feet square, brilliantly lit and filled with about as much equipment as the average weight room.
“Why is the glass yellow,” I ask with one of those innocuous questions that usually lead someplace.
“It’s treated with lead, for shielding the radiation.”
And suddenly, there it is before us. Like some benthic organism being hauled out of the deep, a complete fuel assembly is slowing rising out of the floor, lifted by an overhead crane, until it reaches the full height of the room. With its steel frame and vertical black lines–the fuel rods–it looks eerily like a miniaturized version of the World Trade Center. Yet its blank and featureless face has the soulless menace of a shark’s eye.
“What’s the radiation coming out of that thing?”
Naugnot consults quickly with a nuclear engineer who speaks only French.
“Un million millirads,” says the engineer. A million millirem. Quick calculation–that’s 1000 rems. The highest exposure people got standing near ground zero at Hiroshima was only 500 rems. This is truly the most powerful and dangerous material on earth. Yet here we are, perfectly shielded by a foot of lead-laced glass. If we suffer the slightest exposure, the full-body radiation detectors will catch it when we leave.
“What happens if something goes wrong in there?” I ask.
“Right here,” says Naugnot. On either side of the window there are handles that attach to two long arms extending inside the room that can reach almost 20 feet in any direction. “You should see what those guys can do with these things. We should have brought someone down to show you.”
“How long has it been since someone was in that room?”
“Not since it was built. And they won’t be in there again until years after it’s decommissioned. If you walked in there now, you’d be killed instantly.” But we have that wall and glass between us.
The next stop is the “swimming pool,” a larger version of the storage pools that hold spent fuel at almost every nuclear plant. This one is near-Olympic size. The blue Cerenkov glow is fainter, giving it the color of one of those horrible kids’ kool-aid flavors. As we scan the perimeter I suddenly see something wildly incongruous and yet perfectly appropriate–life preservers hanging about every twenty yards along the guardrail–a perfect conjunction of high- and low-tech.
“Anybody ever fall in?” I ask.
“Not yet,” says Naugnot. “But if they did, it wouldn’t hurt them. The water protects you.” “How long do the rods stay in here?” I ask.
“Up to fifteen years.”
Fifteen years?! I would have thought a few months. “So all this happens on a completely different time scale than any other industrial operation,” I say.
“It takes a long time to get one of these operations started,” he says. “But once you get going, it runs pretty smoothly. We don’t have many lulls.”
Next we see more behind-the-glass machinery slicing operations of the fuel assemblies being sliced into small sections and submerged in nitric acid, which dissolves the material. Then another solvent extracts the uranium and plutonium, which is shipped off to Avignon. Other actinides are drawn off by similar procedures.
What remains are the fission products–cesium, strontium and others–all highly radioactive and highly compact. These are “vitrified”–dissolved into a molten glass that hardens with the radioactive material in solution. “The glass will stay the same for thousands of years,” says Naugnot. “It isn’t protective–you need a steel container for that–but the radioactive products won’t dissolve or move anywhere.” It is this vitrified material that is put in final storage.
And so at last we find ourselves standing in that “one room” in La Hague, the place where the French keep all the nuclear waste from 25 years of producing 80 percent of their electricity beneath the floor. I have thought about this room for months. Now I am standing in it. It is a bit larger than I imagined. Somehow I had seen it as about the size of a small visitors’ center. Instead it is more like a large basketball gymnasium. Still, it’s one large room. In the floor there are about 40 manhole covers stenciled with Areva’s triangular logo. All are so tightly sealed with no visible handles it seems impossible they could ever be removed.
“They’re magnetized,” Naugnot explains. He points to the ceiling. “See this large–how do you say it in English–”
“Yes, gantry. There’s a magnetized crane that removes them. Inside the plug there’s another cap with handles. The crane can grasp them as well. The canisters are very small. There’s room for six in each ring. They’re stacked six-deep beneath the floor. The total material stored here for each French citizen is ten grams–about the weight of a two-Euro coin.”
And that’s it–the sum total of what the French call “les dechets”–their nuclear waste. Even this storage is only temporary. The material can be retrieved any time the French Parliament decides that recycling of more radioactive isotopes is economical. The entire environmental footprint of 25 years of producing France’s electricity–the equivalent of all those sulfur sludge piles and billions of tons of carbon dioxide hurled into the atmosphere–is right here beneath my feet. The French have proved in practice what we can only say in theory–there is no such thing as nuclear waste.