Atom Power

: from Half-baked Fission to Fusion Cornucopia

{Hydrogen Economy}

Ignoble Birth

Bursting on to human consciousness as the A-bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki with 100,000 outright deaths and untold misery, the Nuclear  industry had an image problem from day one.  But as "Truth is the first victim of war" the sinister threat with nuclear industry has not been; radioactive waste,  nuclear accidents, or possible core meltdowns,  but rather the falsehoods from being a part of the military industrial complexes.

The 1950's slogan the "Peaceful Atom" was both a cynical public relations make-over from the military coupled with starry-eyed dreams  from an age when science was trusted with-out question.  Before accusingly lambasting the people back then it is sobering to recall how little the scientist of the day understood their atomic genie. As late as the  evening before testing the first A-bomb at Trinity in the New Mexico desert, the developers where laying bets about what would happen at tomorrows denotation, one include possibility was that the nuclear blast would  trigger a run away chain-reaction in the Earths atmosphere and the end of all life!  Likewise the casual summer cloths (short sleeve shirts & short) of military observers of nuclear blast nonchalant of any risk  beyond a spot of man-made sunburn.  The whole concept itself of "long-term risks" (let alone the science) was then an idea still waiting to be found.

Failed Bloom

First nuclear power station,  Soviet Union 1954. The world's first commercially operating nuclear power-station, Calder Hall (Magnox) reactor opened in  the UK in 1956. First pressurized-water reactor (PWR) USA 1957. After the shock of Windscale (UK 1957) in the public's awareness the next twenty odd years where apparently disaster free, as the Nuclear power industry's  credibility slow grew. March 1979 Three-Mile Island accident then a string of other worrying incident rekindle opposition to the industry.  The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 killed 32 fighting subsequent fires  while  more than seven million suffered associated medical problems and genetic  damage . Today, years latter large areas of land in Ukraine, Belarus, and south-west Russia are  "the world's most radioactive environment , where 2,000 towns and villages lie eerily silent and uninhabited. This situation will continue forever" (Plutonium has a half-life of 24,400 years). Outside of this area thousand of children each year are added to the suffers of radiation related medical problems,  high levels of cancer like leukaemia in children are just one sad example.

...only 3% of the reactors lethal material was expelled in the initial accident in 1986, leaving 97% within the unstable sarcophagus. The next Chernobyl could be Chernobyl itself unless a new shelter is built but this project will cost E768 million.
"The concrete shell surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is in real danger of collapsing at any time"
This will  send another set of likely bigger clouds of deadly dust around the world.  Real fast, irrespective of what it may cost, the whole international nuclear industry will have to get serious making Chernobyl permanently  safe. If the nuclear industry cannot find what it takes to make Chernobyl  safe,  then the industry will have little to no chance, of selling the public the concept that atomic reactor proponents are responsible, technically competent enough, to be trusted with decision affecting public health & safety!,

Dr Helen Caldicott's resent article "Nuclear Power is the Problem, Not a Solution" succinctly elaborates the many worrying aspect of the dysfunctional edifice that is the Nuclear industry today. Highlighting the multiplicity of hidden problems and bald-face lies within the current industries apologist's 'Nuclear energy as clean greenhouse-free power' mantra.  On the otherhand {a pro-nuke perspective} well order web-pages on the technical questions of Nuclear power can be found at < > an ardent enthusiast of the nuclear industry John McCarthy ( who I characterize as a 'Dream-on Prophet of Techno Nirvana' ). John also has an interest counter-spin dismissal of many common objections of anti-nuclear movement..


The Swiss MP Rudolf Rechsteiner's article "Ten  Steps To A Sustainable Energy Future" < > summaries the current predicament of the nuclear industry "… the  hidden costs of nuclear power are not going away: costs associated with nuclear radiation and accidents, misuse of bomb material, terrorist attacks, lack of liability insurance and the issue of radioactive waste. On  purely economic grounds, nuclear power has no easy standing in competitive openmarkets …… Nuclear energy is viable only in state monopoly structures where initial costs for capital and fuel conditioning, decommissioning  and insurance are transferred to state bodies and paid for by the tax payer." 

Ignoring the crazy economics for the moment there are four objections people have to nuclear technology;-
1.  fear of future nuclear catastrophes;  from incompetence, penny-pinching, but most now as a result of terrorist attack,
2.  extremely long term storage / safety problems posed by the highly radioactive wastes, 
3.  that by-products of the power industry are the raw material of nuclear weapons
4.  without reprocessing  ( controversial due to the large amounts of radioactive waste ) there is only enough uranium  in all the world last for a thirty years.
"Furthermore, even if we decided today to replace all  fossil-fuel-generated electricity with nuclear power, there would only be enough economically viable uranium to fuel the reactors for three to four years.".

Despite years of effort until very recently all of these objections where insurmountable

Alternative Difficulties.

Solar and wind power enthusiast, have long argued that if the massive hidden under-writing and pork-barrelling the nuclear industry has historical enjoyed  would have been more beneficially invested into alternative energy technologies. As true as this maybe Europe's heroic efforts towards greenhouse gas abatement have engendered a sombre reappraisal of Europe's  alternative energy potential.  Just as  Nature's endowment of mineral resources and fossil fuels is not spread evenly to all, so to is the alternative energy potential of biosphere and landscape haphazardly  and unevenly spread over the face of the globe.

A good overview of PM Tony Blair's push for Nuclear Power with his supports can be seen in the Guardian story "Nuclear plants bloom"(12 August 2004).  In the context of the grave risk engendered by continuing to burn  fossil fuels James Lovelock (who popularized the 'Gaia Theory') began to advocate nuclear energy as the lesser of two evils, thus  calling down the religious wrath of the antinuclear movement on his learned head. The British newspaper The Independent (4 September 2004)  has ran both sides of the debate with No, thanks by Zac Goldsmith (editor of 'The Ecologist') then Yes, please from James Lovelock.   George Monbiot notes that the nuclear technology often fails to fulfil lofty promises because of profit motives' struggle with cost pressure, nor have the atomic powers honoured their side of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. If atomic nations can finally get their actions to line up with noble intentions, I could  appreciate both sides of this debate, unfortunately traditional nuclear technology for the most part remains a poor solution, but read on. 

Unexpected Twist.

As outlined above Uranium Fission Power has panned out to be a useful lesson in what not to do.  An economical expensive mistake humanity should chalk  up to experience and move on from.  To circumvent some countries dearth of national Uranium supplies the unorthodox choice of Thorium was considered.  Designing reactors to use lighter less reactive Thorium as  a nuclear fuel has thrown-up unexpected routes beyond Uranium Fission historical difficulties. Here is the transcript of the ABC science show Quantum episode of that sparked our interest.

This Fast Fission technique has two major advantages;-
1.  it is inherently a far safer reactor design,
2.  it can burn away all those nasty long term  radio-active waste stock-piles. It is not radioactive waste free, that is impossible for a fission reactor.  But the radioactive waste out of Fast Fission has half-life measured in hours or at worst days. Compared  to current nightmares of highly-radioactive waste with half-lives in thousand of years or eons, thus the Europeans have made a breathtaking breakthrough.

The French are already progressing plans to build one these  Fast Fission Waste Burners for every three normal reactors, thus dismissing their former long-term radioactive nightmares in pleasantly short time.  Thus with-in the context of a responsible state monopoly  structures (like Frances) Nuclear energy may yet have a popularly  acceptable future IF the public are willing to pay for it.  That said there is no roll (nor will there ever be) for a private nuclear  manufactures, or private nuclear generating companies.

Fusion Mirage.

"Fusion power is a very far cry from being safe and clean. It requires enormous quantities of radioactive hydrogen, causing unprecedented containment problems. Also, extremely high intensities of neutron  flows are physically unavoidable with fusion. Neutrons travel through virtually any wall material until they join unpredictably in all kinds of reactions, making the wall materials very unpleasantly radioactive.   Fusion neutrons may even be used to make nuclear bomb materials. And nobody knows whether it will ever be commercially viable" ( page 251, "Factor4: Doubling Wealth - Halving Resource Use" by Ernst  von Weizsäcker, A.B. Lovins & L.H. Lovins )



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