Old enough to remember the horrors and extensive coverage of the U.S. Three Mile Island crises and the Chernobyl Disaster, many others and I have lodged a stop order in our thinking when atomic fission is mentioned as a way to power up the electrical grid. Add to those the incessant and furtive efforts around the world by the most evil of governments for atomic resources that by any sensible measure are routes to bomb grade materials, the recoil and thought stops seem quite reasonable.

Coached from a young age to choose between feeling because of how I think or thinking because of how I feel, the issues swirling around atomic fission need a re think. This plus a noteworthy file of email that councils a thoughtful consideration before I address fission have kept me alert to a good page that looks into fission in an even handed way.

Over the weekend serendipity has struck with Bill Hannahan’s essay “Things Everybody Should Know About Energy.” While Mr. Hannahan loads the essay with some hydrogen, wind, solar, biomass materials that can be skipped and could be removed, the balance of his work is top flight and meets or exceeds the demands of careful examination for being factual. Its also an engaging read that offers much technical detail in ways quite easy to understand and leaves little for mystification from the terms used.

As a policy matter, fission must remain on the table. Unless a sure “gold” strike is forthcoming from the fusion group lead by Dr. Bussard’s team, the Plan ‘B’ has to be thought through.

Sources, Flows and Outputs - US Energy and Fuels 2002

Here is about where the U.S. is right now on sources and outputs of energy sourced from energy or fuels as of 2002. The change in the graphic is in solar, wind, biomass and geothermal, and it isn’t a lot of the total. The graph measures by quads of energy, which is helpful and for illustrative purposes allows us to see these two paramount questions in hard numbers. The U.S. imported 28.3 quads of about 97 quads total energy use, something more than a quarter. The lost energy the escaped unused totaled 56.2 quads or double what was imported. Those are sure gut check numbers.

Today 19 or 20% of U.S. electrical generation is coming from fission-fueled plants. With Three Mile Island in mind, the assertion from the 1950s that atomic energy would be a low cost salvation has come to fruition in part. With drags of governmental policy, environmental activism, and press reports far from the facts, it’s a bit of a surprise that the U.S. got as far as it did. Regular readers will note that the suggestions here at newenergyandfuel.com run to more efficiency, electrification, and a migration to more recyclable fuel sources. The chart above, (Click on it twice to see a larger then largest version.) demonstrates that a lot of money can be made and saved by getting on with the change. The foremost good effect will be to not send (spent not invested) a billion dollars out of the U.S. each day.

To get one’s feelings right on fission requires at least a good base of facts and understanding. Bill Hannahan’s essay gets a lot of that on one website page. Actually, I enjoyed it and I’m happy to have one good spot for referrals. Granted, the page runs long, but there are some gems. I’ve posted below excerpts I hope will encourage you to look.

“Converting 5.4 ounces (0.34 lb) of Uranium to fission products will release enough heat to generate a lifetime supply of electricity for an average American with no CO2 emissions.” Mr. Hannahan is about right on this for generating electricity. This number could be a little high as improvements could increase efficiency.

Here is the whole energy and fuel budget, “Converting 13 oz (0.8 lb) of uranium to fission products will release enough heat to generate a total lifetime supply of energy for one average American, with no CO2 emissions.” It took a while to confirm this, but its about right too. Less than a pound of uranium for one “complete life powered” with NO improvements for efficiency provided.

I had to check this and he’s right – The spent fuel issue isn’t much of one- “A nuclear plant can store 30 years of spent fuel in a medium sized swimming pool, so there is no pressing need for a permanent disposal site. The Department of Energy estimates that there will be about 292,000 spent fuel assemblies by year 2040, containing about 557 million feet of fuel rods. Fuel rods are less than one half inch in diameter consisting of small non-flammable non-explosive ceramic pellets inside sealed metal tubes. Each American’s share in 2040 will be 18 inches long, accumulated over 70+ years, about one fourth the volume of a Chap Stick cap each year.” Incredible! I was expecting something much larger and problematic.

I understand this now too. “During the three years fuel spends in the reactor over 70% of the fission products decay to stable atoms, and most of the heat from those decays is used to make electricity. Over 57 % of possible fission products have half lives shorter than one minute. Ten minutes after the reactor reaches full power these fission products are essentially in equilibrium, decaying as fast as they are being created. When the reactor is shutdown, over 99.9% of these fission products have decayed within 10 minutes. 82 % of possible fission products have half-lives of less than one day. 6.6% have half-lives between 1 day and 1 year, only 3.2% have half lives greater than 1 year, and 8% are not radioactive. After three years in the intensely radioactive environment of a reactor, it is ironic to note that the discharged fuel contains fewer radioactive atoms than it did when new.” The follow on to this is, “The [remaining] fission products will be less radioactive than uranium ore within . . . 500 years.” Thus the horrors of the claims of “thousands of years of dangerous materials” is way over inflated, not that 500 years isn’t plenty long for the small part remaining.

I simply wasn’t aware of this: “As recently as 1,700 million years ago, a uranium deposit at Oklo, in Gabon Africa, supported at least 17 natural reactors that operated off and on when the ore was flooded with ground water, splitting a large quantity of uranium atoms. Studies show that the plutonium and most fission products remained very close to their point of origin despite the presence of moving water and the lack of engineered barriers.

If the last chain reaction at Oklo stopped exactly 1,700 million years ago, we can say with certainty that for the last 1,699.9 million years, that site has been less radioactive than it would have been if those reactors had not formed. That is because without those reactors, the uranium they destroyed would still be generating radioactive decay products and toxic lead. In the same way man’s nuclear power industry will leave the world less radioactive for most of its remaining life than it would have been without nuclear power.

The point is that the disposal of fission products is not a particularly new or difficult problem, though we can make it as difficult and expensive as we choose.”

About three quarters of the way down the page of Mr. Hannahan’s page is his treatise on Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. (Before you go, keep in mind that Mr. Hannahan’s choice to express releases in Curies is appropriate. Curie measures the activity of a source – the bulk whole. We are more familiar with “rads” and “rems,” which are measures that consider the absorbed radiation with a “rad” and the “rem” measure that is a calculation of the biological effect due to the various kinds of radiation. One can emit a massive amount of radiation with little rem or a little radiation with a huge rem depending on the type. An alpha won’t likely get through your clothes while x-rays go completely through you and more.)

The closing of the essay reads, “The energy systems proposed here can be created by blending technology that has been available for decades. No breakthroughs are required to insure an abundant supply of clean, safe, inexpensive energy for thousands of years.

Fission, like fire, is not intrinsically good or evil. They are both natural processes that can be used for good or evil purposes. Fission is the only process at hand that can produce the huge amounts of clean safe and cheap energy we are going to need to provide a comfortable life for 10 billion people, while preserving fossil resources for the non energy applications of future generations.

Opinions will vary widely but facts are facts.”

I must agree with the facts at hand today. Having been on the lookout for a good page, I find Mr. Hannahan’s work to be exemplary. I would only encourage him to rewrite with out the parts addressing other energy and fuel sources as they dilute the effect of this work. A more concise and tightened up version could make a big difference in policy worldwide.

The last note is Mr. Hannahan’s page is hosted on the nuclearcoal.com site. This site is making the case to use better than Generation IV and pebble fuels to convert coal to modern fission power. While the motive seems to be global warming, the money is a better reason. Nuclearcoal.com is a worthwhile site and quite extensive. Its well worth the time to closely learn what Jim Holm is attempting to get across.

OK! Its official, there is a kind of atomic fission that can be supported and shouldn’t need any federal guarantees for loans or equity or such. The fission business can stand on its own when enough people actually understand the facts, risks and rewards.


3 Comments so far

  1. Dean Crockett on February 25, 2008 9:45 AM

    Is the word “Buzzard” in your reference to Dr. Bussard’s team an intentional/juvenile slight or an unintentional mistake? Given the generally poor grammar in your blog entries, I can’t tell if this misnomer is purposeful or not.

  2. Brian Westenhaus on February 25, 2008 1:09 PM

    Thanks Dean, But I may disappoint you. Word’s spell check always corrects Bussard to buzzard and I don’t always catch it. Sorry. Fixed now.

    I passed English classes, barely. Any math was a cinch. That’s me. I apologize if that makes it harder to follow. But I marvel at the writers who can write so well and still misrepresent the facts. What might be really interesting is what goes on before all that poor grammar gets posted.

    Thanks again Dean, I’ll try harder!

  3. Roger10-4 on February 25, 2008 10:01 PM

    Brian! you can delete Crockett’s crack. I get it and almost everyone else does too. I like the conversational tone or style. Keep up the good work. At least someone that handles the information can check, filter and present it with some class. Thanks!

    PS Dean – do your criticism in private. Next time send an email.

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