A Little Nuclear History
In the sixties, the United States built a new, super-safe, highly efficient Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). Fuelled by uranium dissolved in a very hot, liquid salt, the MSR had performance and safety advantages over water-cooled, uranium-powered, solid-fuel Light Water Reactors (LWRs) – also called “conventional” reactors.
LWRs are cooled with normal (light) water, a term used to distinguish them from reactors cooled with “heavy” water – deuterium. LWR pellets contain 3.5 – 5% U-235, with the remainder being “inactive” U-238 for dilution, but deuterium cooled reactors can utilize un-enriched U-238. (Most nuclear reactors in use today are LWRs).
Alvin Weinberg, the Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratories, proved the superiority of MSRs in hundreds of tests during 22,000 hours of operation, but due to the success of conventional reactors in Admiral Hyman Rickover’s submarines, water-cooled reactors became the choice for commercial power production. Weinberg, who protested that MSRs were safer and more efficient, was fired, and the MSR program was terminated, partly for political reasons [See more about Dr Weinberg’s firing here].
“I hope that after I’m gone, people will look at all the dusty books ever written on Molten Salt and say hey, these guys had a pretty good idea, lets go back to it.”
There was a second reason: The Cold War was heating up, and the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle of LWRs could be adapted for making bombs. However, making a weapon with MSR technology is more difficult and dangerous.
The Atomic Energy Commission also knew that MSRs could generate abundant, low cost, 24/7 electricity while breeding their own fuel from U-238 or Thorium – and that Thorium would create less waste than conventional reactors.
If we had switched to MSRs in the 1960’s instead of burning carbon, we would have eliminated much of the CO2 that created Climate Change and reduced the toxic emissions that have caused medical expenses in the billions of dollars.
From the April, 2013 Scientific American: “Dr. James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has said that just our partial reliance on carbon-free nuclear power since 1971 has saved 1.8 million lives that would have been lost due to fossil fuel pollution. By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of natural gas use would not mitigate the climate change problem and would cause more deaths than expansion of nuclear power.”
Carbon-fuelled power plants cause at least 30,000 premature U. S. deaths/year.
Because we rejected MSRs, almost all of the electricity we have generated with nuclear power has been produced by high pressure, water-cooled LWRs, which require a containment dome. MSRs do not.
Unfortunately, according to Michael Mayfield, head of the Office of Advanced Reactors at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NRC is “unfamiliar with most, new small reactor technology, [including MSRs] and has no proven process to certify one.” (2010)
THAT MUST CHANGE!
In 2013, the U. S. Energy Information Administration predicted that world energy use will increase 56% by 2040. Most of that increase will come from burning carbon-based fuels, which will add even more CO2 to our already damaged biosphere.
We must replace CO2-creating power plants with GREEN nuclear power plants!
When Radiation Is Safe and When It Isn’t
The largest obstacle to expanding nuclear power is the fear caused by misinformation about radiation safety, so let’s begin with a question intended for seniors like me: “Do you still have your toes?”
This foolish sounding question refers to a machine that, during the thirties and forties, stood near the entrance of every up-to-date shoe store in America. Called the ADRIAN shoe fitting machine, it was ballyhooed as the perfect way to see if one’s shoes fit properly.
Attractive ads with photos of the marvellous machine proclaimed, “Now, at last, you can be certain that your children’s foot health is not being jeopardised by improperly fitting shoes. If your children need new shoes, don’t buy their shoes blindly. Come in and try our new ADRIAN Fluoroscopic Shoe Fitting machine. Use the new, scientific method of shoe fitting that careful parents prefer.”
The customers, usually children, inserted their feet into an opening while their parents watched the image in two viewing ports. Unattended children would often repeatedly switch sides to watch their siblings’ toes wiggle. It was fun, and no-one gave a thought to X-ray exposure.
Despite these fairly high exposures to children who frequently hopped onto the machine just for fun, no malignancies or other damage to the feet of foot-radiating junkies like me were ever reported.
Now, as I travel the country with my presentations on nuclear power, “renewables” and radiation safety, I always ask the seniors in my audiences, all of whom instantly recognize the machine, if they still have their toes.
During 2016, I queried some 1,000 seniors, but I never found any evidence of damage. However, my tale of the shoe-fitting machine always brought laughter and an opportunity to talk about the Merchants of Fear whose hype created a new 20th century word: radiophobia.
“We’ve accepted for decades that millions of people are allowed to be killed by combustion pollution and mass produced weapons. We’ve accepted for at least 100 years that the planet’s climate and oceans can be allowed to be changed for the worse because of our love of combustion. We even accept poverty and all its ill effects, simply due to our general inaction. But the safest form of energy production, nuclear power, is foolishly married to fear of nuclear weapons.”
– Dr. Alex Cannara
Radiation from nuclear power is just a tiny part of the “industrial” sliver.
We are bathed in radiation for our entire lives – 2/3 from cosmic radiation and elements like radon, and the rest from elements within us plus from consumer products like smoke detectors and medical use. We all have some 4,400 beta/gamma decays per second throughout our bodies for life, largely from Potassium-40 in foods like bananas and potato chips. (Living beside a nuclear power plant for a year is less “dangerous” than eating bananas and potato chips.)
by Geoff Watts
by Ross Pomeroy
Because radioactive elements are constantly decaying, our ancestral life forms evolved during times when radiation levels were far higher than they are today. As a consequence, they evolved some very effective ways to repair the damage to the DNA in our cells caused by radiation and oxidation, which is why we are told to favor anti-oxidants like grapes and greens. (DNA is “short” for deoxyribonucleic acid, a complex, spiral, chain-like molecule that contains our genetic codes.) If you irradiate E. coli bacteria for many generations, the bacteria evolve amazing radiation resistance, surviving huge doses of radiation, and some fungi even thrive on radiation.
“Fear and paranoia are the two most common forms of radiation sickness.” Mike Conley, Road Map to Nowhere
However, even the highest natural background radiation rate is insignificant compared to the damage caused by our internal chemistry. DNA bond breaks caused by oxidation and toxins occur more frequently than breaks caused by background radiation. Our bodies are actively repairing DNA damage every second of our lives.
If people understood that “…we have billions of cells that die every day and must be replaced, they will be better able to accept the fact that our bodies have efficient repair mechanisms that can handle low level radiation”. Science Magazine, March, 2015. (Adults have about 37 trillion cells.)
“Each cell contains a coiled mass of DNA that carries the thousands of genetic instructions that we need to run our bodies. These strands of DNA undergo thousands of spontaneous changes every day, and DNA copying for cell division and multiplication, which happens in the body millions of times daily, also introduces defects.
DNA can be damaged by ultraviolet light from the sun, industrial pollutants and natural toxins like cigarette smoke. What fights pandemonium are our DNA repair mechanisms.
“In the 70s, Dr. Lindahl defied orthodoxy about DNA stability by discovering a molecular system that counteracts DNA collapse, and Dr. Sancar mapped out how cells repair DNA damage from UV light.
“People born with defects in this system, when exposed to sunlight, develop skin cancer, and Dr. Modrich showed how our cellular machinery repairs errors that arise during DNA replication, thereby reducing the frequency of error by about 1,000.”
Coming up next week, Episode 8 – More Beer. More Bananas.
Links and References
1. Next Episode 8 – More Beer, More Bananas
2. Previous Episode – Episode 6 – The Big Deceit
3. Launching the Unintended Consequences Series
4. Dr. George Erickson’s Website, Tundracub.com
5. The full pdf version of Unintended Consequences
6. Oak Ridge National Laboratories Molten Salt Experiment
8. Tribute to Dr. Alvin M Weinberg, The Thorium Network Patreon
21. Paul Modrich: Mechanisms in E. coli and human mismatch repair
#GeorgeErickson #UnintendedConsequences #MoltenSaltFissionEnergy #Thorium #ClimateChange #MoltenSaltFissionTechnology #beerandbananas