Nuclear energy and society

Discussion in 'Science & Society' started by Keln, Feb 4, 2011.

  1. Keln Registered Member

    This is a topic I like to discuss when I have the opportunity, so I thought I would bring it up here. I am sure there is a topic somewhere on it in these forums, but didn't want to "necro" an old post. Makes some people grumpy for some odd reason.

    I work in the nuclear industry, and I am sure there are a few of you on here that do as well. To the rest, what is your opinion about nuclear energy? Why do you think society, generally, has a negative feeling about nuclear energy? And whose responsibility is it to educate the public on nuclear power (assuming education is the issue)?

    Simple questions, I know, but I am interested in what people outside of the industry think about it. Specifically what concerns do you have about nuclear energy?

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  3. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

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  5. Read-Only Valued Senior Member

    First off, I believe you'll find me in the minority because I'm very much in favor of expanding our usage of nuclear energy.

    Reactor technology has improved by several generations since the last nuclear power plant was built in the U.S. Newer designs, like pebble bed reactors are considerably safer easier to operate and maintain.

    Two of the major problems facing the industry today are a shortage of fuel supply and long-term storage of spent fuel. Both of these could be VERY easily overcome if we simply reversed our head-in-the-sand attitude toward breeders and started building and operating them. Other than public opinion and fear-mongering groups like Greenpeace, the only obstacle in the way of building breeder reactors is primarily political.

    Yes, there would certainly be resistance from current energy companies that are heavily invested in fossil fuels - but we need to face the fact that even if we don't hit peak oil soon, the price is going nowhere except sky-high. (And higher.) Also, there are other important uses for petroleum besides burning it for fuel. Not only that, but the major oil companies already have the funds to switch over and become nuclear industries.

    The public certainly needs more education - but all the indicators point to the fact that they are already becoming more agreeable to accepting nuclear power.
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  7. jmpet Valued Senior Member

    I am very much in favor of nuclear energy. I came to this conclusion when I realized plutonium is EVERYWHERE on this planets in BBP!

    Then I came to accept drilling into mountains and putting our waste there, then blowing the hatches for 100,000 years until it's back to PPB.

    I also realized that technology in the next 1000 years will come up with a machine that eats radioactive waste and shits out roses, or whatever we want it to.

    Nuclear energy is practical. It is inevitable how the world will run- 50% nuclear by 2200.
  8. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

    Actually I am for Breeder Reactors myself and have talked about them from time to time on this forum. Breeders are , to me, one of the safest ways to produce energy and not have but few percent of waste.
  9. Keln Registered Member

    Well, the problem with breeder reactors, as far as political barriers, is that they tend to make things like plutonium, as well as high assay uranium 235, which are both regarded as "weapons grade" materials. Granted, a traditional PWR reactor also creates some amount of plutonium, and localized high assays of 235 towards end of life it is on a far smaller scale than that which occurs in a breeder. Not only is a breeder reactor a political concern, but it is also a security concern as well. But, like you, I think those are concerns that could, and should be overcome.

    PBRs seem to be a great design. More efficient, cheaper, and even less risk to the environment by eliminating reactor coolant liquids, taking away the possibilities of a leak (although coolant gasses could possibly leak in an accident, I don't think that would effect the environment like liquid coolants would). I honestly just don't have a warm fuzzy for a reactor that operates at such high temperatures, as well as using graphite as a moderator that is actually part of the fuel "pebbles".

    But, all I have worked on is PWRs, so maybe that is why I am biased towards them

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    As for fuel supply...we're working on that. Actually, that is the side of the industry I am currently in now. As it stands, the majority of fuel is manufactured in France and Russia. Japan manufactures some as well, and I think Australia is trying to get a type of laser enrichment going. And of course, there is Iran...

    In the United States, there is but one company that enriches uranium (USEC) and it is the leftovers of the original government nuclear program. It has a single plant in Kentucky that uses the expensive, power hungry and antiquated method of gaseous diffusion. But the company is working on a new centrifuge operation that will hopefully be operating a few years from now.
  10. Read-Only Valued Senior Member

    Yes, breeders produce PU and need heavy security. BUT we've got enough used fuel rods in storage *now* that if they were run through breeders we wouldn't even need the new centrifuges for a few hundred years! And by that time, surely fusion will have been tamed and up and running.

    Those are things - especially the importance and utility of breeders - that the general public AND congress needs to be educated about.
  11. Keln Registered Member

    You can say that again. I've been to DC and talked to some congressmen and senators about our industry, and they pretty much seemed like clueless buffoons when it came to that topic.

    Or pretty much any topic I suppose. Too many lawyers in government and not enough people with a background in science or engineering.
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Don't worry about it. Frankly, as a Moderator, I would much prefer posts to be added to an existing thread. This makes it easier for people to review the entire discussion and avoid repeating what's already been said. That's what makes me grumpy!
    I think it is the only short-term (~300 years) solution to our energy problem.

    The only long-term solution is to build giant solar collectors in orbit and beam the energy down in microwave form. The problem with this is that it will be the largest project ever undertaken by mankind--by more than one order of magnitude. This will require international cooperation on a scale we've never come close to achieving in the past. We'll have to wait a while until the United Nations is more than a page in a stamp collector's album before we can even think about launching it. And then of course it will take more than a century to complete--assuming that we'd like to reserve some of our labor and capital for other purposes such as producing food.

    So until then we'll have to make do. First with fossil fuels until our entire species begins to notice the needle hovering near "Empty." Then we'll have no choice but to shout down the objections, grit our teeth, and get serious about nuclear power.
    Hiroshima, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, Ahmadinejad's grandiose visions, a poorly managed former Soviet arsenal--yatta yatta. "Nuclear" means "DANGER!" to the whole human race, even the ones who can pronounce it correctly. More to the point, we don't trust either corporations or governments to do a proper job of risk analysis and risk management--with good reason.

    But even if we can reduce the probability of an accident to something that people can live with (which is more a matter of spin doctoring than actual engineering, considering that every American seems to be quite content with a 2% probability of a drunk driver being his cause of death) the real issue for many of us is waste disposal. Civilization has only existed on this planet for a little over 10,000 years, and the oldest continuous civilization only goes back 4,000 years. Can our descendants be trusted to remember where the waste dumps are, to be able to read the warning signs, and to not still have dysfunctional corporations that will take a chance of exposing the waste in order to pursue some hare-brained profit-making scheme? Or to not have fought World War III or IV and finally bombed themselves back to the Stone Age, so there's no continuity of civilization and within a few generations no one will know what nuclear energy even was, much less what those funny signs mean?
    I don't know what country you live in, but in the USA the best way to get something done is to do it yourself. Remember: It's always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
    I don't want to leave nuclear waste dumps for future generations to have to deal with. I've been convinced that it's impractical to launch the waste off the planet in rockets and dump it into the sun, if only because there would be so many of them that one is bound to crash back into the earth, probably in downtown Omaha or Marseilles. So my only choice is to put a strict time limit on the nuclear power industry, hoping that the nuclear waste of just 300 years is manageable, while we build those orbiting solar collectors.

    Of course this will never happen. I'm in the I.T. industry, and in 1988 I just happened to scroll too far forward in my calendar and discovered that the year 2000 was only 12 years away. Along with a very small number of other people I began reminding everyone that most of our automated systems had two-digit year fields, which would cause unpredictable results when it turned over to double-zero.

    The response was underwhelming. Except for a few visionaries (like the County of Los Angeles, who launched their Y2K remediation project in 1995 and completed it in 1998), every IT manager chose to put it off and let his successor worry about it.

    Since we actually had an immovable drop-dead date, the industry actually did finally wake up in the second half of 1998 and recruited every retired Cobol programmer on earth to remediate old code. We got all the red-blanket systems fixed by December 31--the ones that really would have shut down building access systems, thrown open the doors to mental hospitals, halted shipments of food and fuel, etc. But plenty of yellow-blanket systems failed in 2000. (My bank didn't get a single mortgage statement right in the entire year--which, by the way, seemed to have thirteen months--but at least they got the ATMs working. And I kept buying cases of diet soda with expired aspartame--but at least they got the expiration dates printed correctly on batches of insulin.)

    Our problem with nuclear power plants and orbiting solar collectors is that there is no immovable drop-dead date. Each political administration can make the decision to put off the launch of the project and let their successors worry about it. 300 years, 1,000 years, 5,000 years, and before you know it our worst nightmare comes true. The surface of the earth is peppered with nuclear waste dumps, built over the centuries with different technologies, different laws and different languages, and because of wars, terrorist attacks and bureaucratic incompetence, we no longer know where they all are and whether some corporation taking a short cut or some country full of starving people or some raving lunatic representing the militant new Worldwide Temple of Zarathushtra is going to accidentally dig one up.

    Sure we can't do that now, but what kind of excavation rigs will they have in 5011CE?

    My wife keeps insisting that I shouldn't lose any sleep over this. You see, we don't have any children. She argues that if the people who have children are satisfied with the world they are bequeathing to them--deforestation, greenhouse gases, national governments on the brink of bankruptcy, etc.--then we should trust their judgment and enjoy the ride.

    At our age (67), I have to say that it's tempting.
  13. X-Man2 We're under no illusions. Registered Senior Member

    Fraggle Rocker,

    What an absolutely great post :worship: You and BillyT are the 2 wisest Men I have ever came across on any forum.I nominate you 2 for cloning when it becomes perfected for humans.Rare breeds.
  14. Keln Registered Member

    Good post, exactly the sort of response I was looking for with this topic. It's funny you mention the bit about risk the public will accept. I read an article years back where people were asked what they were most afraid to die from, and nuclear accidents or nuclear weapons was very high up on the list. I found this rather funny since, to me, what does it matter what you die from? Dead is dead, isn't it? People consider radiation to be so spooky, when they live with it daily. Solar radiation and Radon, along with other radioactive ground gasses provide plenty of exposure during a persons life, yet the public simply fears radiation whilst chowing down on a McDonalds meal that is more likely to kill them.

    It is kind of like how people are afraid of, at least the idea of, monsters, but aren't nearly as afraid of bears or lions. Does it matter what mauls and/or eats you? I am guessing that has more to do with psychology, and if there is a shrink on the board, I'd love to hear your thoughts on that particular phenomenon.
  15. Skeptical Registered Senior Member

    Radiophobia is irrational, like lots of things people are scared of.

    My reading on studies at Hiroshima show that a single dose of 80 millisieverts is relatively harmless. This is way higher than the dose any normal person is ever likely to be exposed to from nuclear energy.

    How to dispose of nuclear waste?
    What we need is a very large worked out open cast mine in a place that is far from cities, underpopulated, very arid (desert), and geologically stable.

    We put all the nuclear waste, that has been stored under water long enough for short half life isotopes to decay, into well designed containers, and bury them in those open cast mines.

    Such mines are available in both Australia and southern Africa. Disposal fees would immediately make such places very wealthy.

    It takes about 10,000 years for normal waste to decay to the point where the levels of radioactivity are tolerable (not too much above background and well below the 80 msv for reasonable exposure times, as previously mentioned). In fact, once buried, the dose close to the storage site at the beginning of the storage period will still be way below 80 msv over any reasonable time period.

    If buried deeply enough (some such mines are 1000 metres deep), then it does not matter if WWIII sends humanity back to the stone age. The primitives will never dig a hole one kilometre deep in the middle of a desert and get exposed.

    There are other perfectly acceptable disposal options also. The only reason they are not being used is because of the paranoia of nut cases.
  16. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

    And the negative campaign by the oil industry.

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  17. Stoniphi obscurely fossiliferous Valued Senior Member

    Then they honestly represent their electorate, some 26% of whom expect their god to return every Jan 1 to take them up to heaven....even though this has not yet occurred.

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    Well, considering how much Polonium 210 cigarette smokers already consume (the most recent issue of Sciam), I suggest we just let the tobacco companies put that radioactive waste in their ciggies and have the smokers inhale it. Problem solved.

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  18. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Thanks for the compliment, and I'm proud to share the honor with Billy, who both impresses and astounds me.

    But teaching is much more effective than cloning. Besides, one of the main reasons I don't have children (semiclones?) is that I wouldn't want to pass on my physical and emotional frailties to anyone.
  19. billvon Valued Senior Member

    Actually I think it's closer to "I want to make sure that nuclear material is accessible to future generations if they need it." It's pretty useful stuff; it can be remixed with degraded weapons-grade plutonium and re-burned, it can be burned in subcritical reactors with some "help" in the form of a particle beam etc etc.

    Take a section of the Nevada desert that doesn't drain anywhere, level it, and store our waste in dry casks there. Put every warning known to man around the outside of it. Guard it well. It's pretty easy to guard a field of casks. And if we need that stuff in 300 years, it will be easy to access.
  20. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Within the next 10,000 years, as the glaciers and polar caps melt and release more water into the biosphere, rainfall will increase dramatically and sea level will rise by half a kilometer--more than one-fourth the mean elevation of the state. This may very well cut new rivers that we can't predict.
    In 10,000 years it's quite possible that no one will understand any language from our era, or even the symbology. The Egyptian stone writings are only half that old and look how long it took us to decipher them--and only with the unique and incredibly fortuitous discovery of the Rosetta Stone.
    You're presuming a continuity of government more than twice as long as the recordholder: China, roughly 4,000 years.
  21. Skeptical Registered Senior Member

    There is another method of disposing of nuclear waste which has no long term problems whatever, and is cheap and easy. It's downfall is that it is not politically acceptable, and the radiophobic nutters will oppose it tooth and nail.

    The solution is to dissolve nucleic waste in strong acids (mostly nitric) and flush the resulting solution into the oceans.

    The liquid waste will have to be disperse widely. This can be done by pumping it down a pipeline into a major ocean current, or sending it via tanker to pump it slowly over a wide expanse of ocean.

    The world's oceans contain 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes of seawater. The final concentration of radio-isotopes even for 1000 years of nuclear energy generation, is too low to be a problem. After all, there is 50 million tonnes of Uranium dissolved in the world's oceans right now.
  22. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    You'll just have to excuse me if I make the sign of the cross when I hear yet one more person in yet one more era say, "It's a big river/forest/ocean/atmosphere/planet. Nobody will ever notice. Trust me." They have always turned out to be wrong, because they couldn't foresee how civilization was going to change in ways that increased the waste, harvesting, encroachment, etc., by several orders of magnitude.

    Nobody thought it would be possible to pollute the Great Lakes. And don't say they were stupid. We're all stupid by the standards of the people who come after us.

    But like I say, it's not my children or great-great-great-great-greatgrandchildren who will have to live with the results of this generation's shortsightedness, since I don't have any. Carry on. Don't mind me.
  23. lightgigantic Banned Banned

    in short , the treatment of nuclear energy requires programs that are maintained for thousands of years longer than what we have experienced so far in terms of stable (or even constant) civilizations and society.
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2011

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