Friday, March 18, 2011

The Nuclear Decision

Yeah, yeah, I know, I’ve been a lowly insurance broker for 34 years. What do I know about nuclear energy?

Does anyone grow up “hoping” to spend a lifetime selling insurance? I guess you might suffer that idea as a twisted nightmare, but nobody in high school dreams about becoming an insurance salesman. I was no different. I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. I thought I could design better technology and that nuclear energy would be a long term solution to my country’s energy needs. That was in 1967.

My life-path wandered along unmarked trails that led me from college, to Vietnam, into the mental health business, back to college, and then into thirty-four years of boredom, explaining insurance to sleepy-eyed people who didn’t really want to hear answers to questions they asked. Along the way, I studied the nuclear industry from top to bottom. I’d like to share that knowledge with you.

Hold your breath as long as you can. Did you make one minute? Maybe two minutes if you are really good. Look at your shoes. How old are they? Why aren’t you still wearing the same pair of shoes you bought ten years ago? Let’s up the ante. Who is the oldest living person you know? How old is the United States? (235 years, in case you didn’t know.) Now, let’s really go back in time.  How old is the Khufu pyramid in Egypt? (5,200 years old by most estimates)  When did the last ice age recede? (10,000 years ago)  Even the first vestiges of agrarian culture only started in Mesopotamia (Iraq) around 7000 years ago. Before that, humans wandered in small packs trying to find berries or kill deer.

“Okay, Dean...what the hell do pyramids, old shoes, ice ages and Neanderthals have to do with nuclear energy?”

Time.  Our country, indeed all of mankind, is on the brink of a giant leap of faith that involves time. Before I connect the time risk to the nuclear energy industry, let me explain a little about modern nuclear power plants.

All nuclear power plants have one thing in common. Heat from a radioactive core is used to turn turbines and produce vast amounts of electricity for civilization. These radioactive cores “consume” either Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239 in fuel rods (actually pellets inside tubes). Each pellet contains as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, almost 2000 pounds of coal or 150 gallons of oil. They do not “burn” like fossil fuels, sending vast amounts of particle and gaseous waste into the atmosphere. Instead, they simply emit various forms of radioactivity that generate heat to boil water for the turbines. And, all that radioactivity is safely contained inside the reactor core or in cooling ponds next to the facility. Sounds good so far, huh?

Buckle up your seat belt, because here come the stunners!

Nuclear power plants use enriched Uranium or Plutonium as the fissile (radioactive) material to generate heat. Enrichment means that the fuel pellets contain about 4% of the good stuff and a bunch of other inert material.  As the Uranium-235 undergoes fission, it decays into other elements, many of which continue to be radioactive. Iodine-131 is a good example of a nasty byproduct. It is highly radioactive but retains the chemical properties of the beneficial, non-radioactive version of iodine. Human bodies need iodine and store it in the thyroid gland. If radioactive iodine escapes from a reactor core, it will be concentrated in human thyroids. How would you like to have a little bundle of radioactivity right at the base of your throat?

Let’s talk about another byproduct. Strontium-90. Ever heard of it? How about milk? Ever heard your mother tell you to drink your milk so you will have strong bones and teeth? Strontium and the calcium you get from milk are the same chemically. Biologists call Strontium a “bone seeker” because your body will absorb it and deposit it in your bones, bone marrow and teeth. Its “half-life” is 28.8 years which means it will be sitting there for a long time pumping out radioactivity before it decays into non-threatening “daughter” elements.

How about this byproduct of reactors...Cesium-137? Do you like bananas? Ever eat one for the help with muscle cramps? Potassium and Cesium-137 act the same biochemically. Only difference, Potassium is not emitting radioactivity in your muscle tissue.

Did you think the information about these three byproducts of nuclear power plants is scary? You’re wrong.  The scary thing about these byproducts of radioactive decay is TIME! That’s right. The "half-life" of a radioactive isotope is the time it takes for half of the atoms in a sample to decay into lesser elements. Here are the half-life stats for the radioactive elements mentioned above:

Strontium-90:  28.8 takes 230 years to get below 1% of the original amount
Cesium-137:  30.2 years...242 years to get below 1%
Iodine-131:  8 days...64 days to get below 1% (but remember, this chemical has been concentrated by the thyroid creating much higher radiation dosage in a confined area)
Plutonium-239:  24,000 years...192,000 years to get below 1%
Uranium-235:  704,000,000 years...just to get half way.

These numbers show that radioactive isotopes either used in, or produced by, fission power generation facilities will remain dangerous for enormous periods of time.

The United States only had thirteen states 235 years ago. Consider all the changes since our founding. Can we trust future generations to safely contain Strontium-90 or Cesium-137 for the next 240 years? Is it even fair for us to impose such a burden on yet unborn generations? Also, nuclear reactors do not burn 100% of the radioactive fuel they contain. Fuel rods that are considered “spent” still contain huge amounts of radioactive Uranium and Plutonium and they are currently being “stored” in cooling ponds on the nuclear power plant facilities because we have no permanent storage place. President Obama says he wants more nuclear energy, but he ordered the only large-scale storage facility in the United States at Yucca Mountain to be closed. Are those power facility cooling ponds supposed to last 200,000+ years?

Now, for the kicker. Most nuclear power plants have a life expectancy of...are you sitting down...40 years!  So, if we are going to have a “long-term” nuclear energy policy we’ll be building hundreds of nuclear power plants over the next 200 years, 515 just to replace the 103 that we have now. Each one of them removes a few dozen acres of usable space for...let’s see...the last ice age was around 10,000 years ago, so my guess is that a couple more ice ages will come and pass before those “cooling ponds” become safe to stock fish.

My conclusion is clear. What do you think?


  1. The by products of nuclear power are certainly scary! With all of our technology today you would think we could find a way to neutralize these things. Possibly at a later time. I am not a scientist nor anything coming close to being an expert in generating power.However I see a sucession of power sources - first, using our fossil fuels - they were put here for a purpose. Then solar and wind (with the things I see in place right now these may work for awhile, but they do take up farmable land), and then perhaps we will have found a way to make nuclear energy safe. (Just my humble opinion) Sharon Williams

    1. Thanks, Sharon. The real issue is not energy's energy consumption. Until we get that under control, we need fossil fuels to keep us going. In the meantime, we need to realize that nuclear energy production places a terrible burden on future generations for a period of time lonmger than all of modern human existence. Thanks for commenting...Dean


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