Monday, March 14, 2011

So Much Going On, So Little Time

There's so much I could write on tonight, but let's go here:  is it night time where you live?  If so, walk outside where you can see stars and look up.  The farther you are from lights the better.  Stay there a minute or two so your eyes adapt to the dark and you see well.

Everything you see that is shining by its own light is nuclear powered.  Everything you see shining in reflected sunlight (the moon, the planets), all of that is lit by nuclear power.  Now look toward your house or a nearby city.  Everything you see is lit by chemical bonds being broken and re-established.  As someone put it, "everything God powers is nuclear; everything man powers is fire".  Almost true.
Every light in this picture is a thermonuclear fusion reaction. Photo credit is to a friend of mine, who probably wouldn't want to be identified on a blog, but the object is the area around the left star in Orion's belt - the brightest star in the image.  The object just below and to the left of it is the Flame Nebula; to the right, the famous dark nebula known as The Horsehead Nebula.  Imaged under city lights, but in the alpha light of Hydrogen.  Edited by me to colorize, in the Gimp.

Where's this going?  The news is full of dire stories about problems with damaged reactors in Japan.  It is difficult to sort out "wheat from chaff" in the reporting, Dr. Joseph Oehmen of MIT writes,
I repeat, there was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors.

By "significant" I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on - say - a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.
The whole article, "You Can Stop Worrying About A Radiation Disaster In Japan -- Here's Why" is worth the time to read.  If I may be permitted just another nice quote (since I've given two links back to them, sounds like fair use to me!):
I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism – that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are build and operated.  I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error.

Dr. Oehman goes to great lengths to describe the attention to cooling used in commercial reactor design.  He didn't mention they have a "SCRAM" mode, in which a failsafe mechanism plunges the moderating rods into the core to stop the main power source (the Uranium reaction).  He didn't quantify the radioactivity from the released gas, and compare it to the banana equivalent dose. I've heard many people got as much radiation as if they ate a dozen bananas.

People are unreasonably afraid of nuclear power.  Call it the Jane Fonda Syndrome, or the Cher Syndrome, whatever.  People react to nuclear power with more fear, even though they get a higher dose of radioactivity from a coal fired plant, or from a ski trip to the Rockies.  Just as we are getting close to putting nuclear plants online, the media has the opportunity to hammer on the fears people have, thanks to this disaster.  "Never let a crisis go to waste", right?  If the president (as a candidate) states "under my policies, electricity prices would necessarily skyrocket", is there any doubt his acolytes would do their best to deny any source of cheap energy?  There has been only one accident in a nuclear power plant that caused loss of life, Chernobyl; a plant designed by third-rate engineers and run by unmotivated idiots.  Even there, the actual effects, while undeniably present, have not come close to the dire predictions of disaster

There are new technologies for nuclear reactors that make a meltdown impossible.  There are many ways to address the technical issues, and I've never met a practicing engineer that's opposed to nuclear power.  We can't lose the public will to put more power stations on line.


  1. This whole affair is schizoid.

    On the one hand, we have all the "officials" telling us that there is "no danger" and that "a nuclear catastrophe is an impossibility".

    On the other hand, there is a 12-mile exclusion zone, soldiers everywhere and people running about in gas masks, clutching Geiger counters.

    I want to know why, if there is "no danger", those men aren't going about in business suits.

    Your citation that God's work is nuclear-powered is a pertinent observation. Other people might observe that we humans are NOT gods.

    All that said, I am a proponent of nuclear energy. Occasional crises are just a part of the price that we have to pay for knowledge. What a tragedy that the Japanese people should now suffer from the results of their own nuclear technology, after having been brutalised by that of the West.

    All part of that "perfect storm", perhaps. The nuclear industry will be set back for decades, by this catastrophe, I expect.


  2. In re: the guys walking around in white suits, gas masks and counters, I think a lot of what's being done is summarized by two words: "security blanket". Being done to make people feel safer.

    Again, people are unreasonably afraid of the "R" word. The people making those patrols for "hot spots" are undoubtedly better trained than average, but probably nervous, too.

    It's also worth noting this is a really extreme event. Not only is this the worst quake/tsunami to ever hit Japan, it's one of the worst in recorded history. The problem at Fukushima wasn't the reactor, which survived a quake 7 times more powerful than it was designed for; the problem was the generators being cut off from their fuel supply. It's nice to say we'll have power for the water cooling "forever" but everyone knows (especially preppers) that you can't store an unlimited supply of anything.

    That's why the ultimate answer is reactor technology that doesn't need power for water cooling: pebble bed reactors, or thorium. Or controlled fusion.

    Side story: my profile says I'm a lapidary (someone who cuts/polishes rocks) and we have a bunch of rocks around here. A while back, we bought a surplus Geiger counter just to see if anything in the collection was hot. Aside from some uranium-doped marbles that glow under UV, but are low enough radiation to be legal in the US mail, the most radioactive rock in the house was a camera lens. An old Pentax lens, probably with some heavy element in it to change refractive index.

  3. Governments and corporations have become insanely risk-averse, held hostage by the shamanistic fears of neoLuddites.

    If anybody dies of cancer within 100 miles of one of those nuke plants, the sky will turn legal-pad yellow, and that's in Japan. You can imagine what it would be like here at home.

  4. Greybeard, I have never been a fan of nuclear power and still not today. As safe as Nuclear Power Is or Might be is not the question for me. But the consequences of that one time that things go terribly wrong(at Chernobyl we never got the facts from the former Soviet Union) is enough that I don't want a Nuclear Reactor anywhere near me(the one in Houston is too close). This Country has enough Natural Gas that Nuclear is not a Option in my not so humble opinion.


  5. Dennis, I respect that, but (obviously) disagree.

    That said, my own energy approach is really "all of the above". Drill here, drill now, oil, gas, shale oil, nuclear, fusion reactors (which were "20 years away" in 1970 and are "20 years away" now) name it. I have doubts about the "environmental friendliness" of solar, wind and tide that no one talks about, but if you can make them work, fine.

    There is no such thing as a completely safe way to get energy. If it didn't have an excess of energy (enough to kill us) it wouldn't be worthwhile as an energy source.

  6. Excellent, thanks for the link to the "stop worrying" article, we need more good information.