Kyoto – A Perspective (Part 15)

Posted on Wed 04/23/2008 by



I might guess some of you have been waiting to see how I might tiptoe around this subject, probably leaving it until the last and then only giving it a cursory mention.
Contrary to tiptoeing, I might just stomp around yelling about it, and there might even be the possibility that I might include two and maybe even three pieces on just this method.

See the long subtitle. I purposely did that rather than just say Nuclear Power, because electricity produced by this means suffers from that one word, NUCLEAR.
You say the word nuclear and the only thing people think of is a mushroom cloud. That may just have been the biggest mistake coming out of the Manhattan Project all those years ago.
It did however serve a purpose, and that was to stop a terrible war.
Incidentally, one small and possibly quirky thing about that and I won’t dwell upon it. Only one man in all of history has authorised the use of thermo nuclear weapons to be used against an opposing force, and for all you doves out there, it was a President from the Democratic Party, Harry S Truman. For all you keen history buffs out there, just what did the S stand for in Harry S Truman’s name?

Not long after the war, that nuclear reaction was developed for peaceful purposes, but because of what happened on that Monday August 6th 1945, nuclear power means only one thing.

So then, before we actually discuss electricity from Nuclear means, let’s look at the process and how it is being used.

It was feverishly being worked upon by people in three Countries after the war, the Russians, the English and the Americans.
It is used for US Naval vessels, the submarine fleet in particular and some of the larger surface vessels.
was the first to use a nuclear reactor to generate steam to drive the turbine to drive the boats screw. This boat operated from 1955 for 25 years without a problem. The nuclear process was so safe that after she was decommissioned, she became the US Navy’s submarine museum. The reactor was removed and besides the huge numbers of people who crewed the boat over the years, 250,000 people visit the boat every year, so the nuclear process must be relatively harmless, even considering the reactor having been removed.
The Big E, has eight second generation Westinghouse reactors that power the four steam turbines on board. Enterprise first sailed in 1962 and is not scheduled to be taken out of commission until 2014/15, after a trouble free history of more than fifty years. With a complement including the air wing at close to 4,800, it’s quite conceivable that around 100,000 and more will have served on her. Incidentally, there are more fighter aircraft on the Enterprise than in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Soon, the tenth ship in the Nimitz class of carriers will be launched. Each have two fourth generation reactors from Westinghouse with a 25 year lifespan, and as each comes in for major overhaul, they are upgraded, and the lifespan for the ships increased out to around 50 years.
There have been literally hundreds of years total service for Navy ships powered by nuclear reactors and hundreds of thousands of men and women who have served in them.
Tragically, two nuclear powered submarines, the Scorpion and the Thresher lay on the bottom of the Atlantic, neither accident caused by the reactor, but the reactors are benign and inoperative where those boats lie on the ocean floor.

The same safety record applies for using Nuclear reactors in a civilian capacity for the production of electricity, and I’ll go into that in the second piece.

However, there is a lot of misinformation out there regarding Nuclear power generation. There’s not enough space here for me to clear that up, but I will however mention something that has always been misunderstood regarding the use of nuclear energy for this purpose, and it relates directly back to that one word at the top of this piece, NUCLEAR.
People have always associated the two things, nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. They are about as similar as a pushbike is to a Rolls Royce, and therein lies the rub.

Nuclear power generation for electricity requires nuclear material to be enriched to a level between 4 and 7 percent, and some may even be as high as 9 percent, but that might be the exception rather than the rule.
Weapons grade material however must be enriched beyond 95 percent and most is up around 97/98 percent.
Okay you say, I can see that now, but the process is immensely more difficult than that. It’s not like a steak being cooked rare, so it stands to reason that if you wanted that steak cooked well done, then you’d just leave it on the grill for a longer period of time. So then, why not just continue the enriching process until the level is reached.

There are a reasonable amount of countries which have the ability, and more importantly the equipment and the facility to enrich uranium to the minute level where it can be used for the generation of electricity, or for that matter how it is most commonly used even, in the form of nuclear medicine, that no one seems to mind all that much, and you’ll never see people out demonstrating against nuclear medicine, just proving that the word nuclear can be used in a good manner.

However, to enrich uranium to the level for use in nuclear weapons requires something else indeed.
I’ll again use the pushbike and Rolls Royce analogy. To make a pushbike you would need relatively rudimentary equipment and the end product could be rolled out in a short time. For the Rolls Royce however, specialised equipment is needed and it will take a thousand times longer. The cost of the equipment itself is also quite large, and that equipment is not readily available.
To enrich uranium to weapons grade level requires immensely expensive equipment that is only available from certain places, and that equipment can only be used for one purpose, that being to enrich uranium to that level. Hence any time that piece of equipment is detected then it is patently obvious what is happening, and it’s not like that equipment is small and easily moved around in an undetected manner, because it is quite easily able to be traced.

So when a rogue State places its hand on its heart and says in all innocence, ‘stop picking on us, we’re only enriching uranium for the production of electricity’, what they are relying on is the innocence of the public not knowing what is happening, because those who know are fully aware of exactly what IS happening.

A reverse situation applies also. Weapons grade uranium is absolutely useless for electrical power generation, and electricity reactor grade uranium is absolutely useless for weapons. Also just getting hold of reactor grade uranium and further enriching it is also useless as an option, as it is impossible, and the materials are totally different.

People have the impression that one equals the other, and the truth of the matter is at opposite ends of the spectrum.
So, what I needed to do before just blandly detailing how the Nuclear reaction is used in the production of electricity, was to explain the difference in uses of enriched Uranium, and really, just how safe it can be with all the regulations that are in place.

In that next piece I’ll detail how Nuclear power has been used for the production of electricity, and how the thought of using it as a viable alternative to coal fired power should not be just discarded out of hand, especially in a technologically advanced and wealthy nation as the US is.

Regarding the link I included to the USS Nautilus Submarine museum. If you take the link I urge you to look around by following the menu tabs at the left of the text, most especially the virtual tour of the boat.

Oh! By the way, the S in President Harry S Truman. It doesn’t stand for anything at all. His parents just gave him the initial S instead of a second name.