Nuclear Electrical Power Generation – Why The Fuss? (Part 4)

Posted on Thu 07/30/2009 by


When the Nuclear process for the generation of electrical power is talked about, it suffers from misconceptions, and they all stem from that one word ….. Nuclear.

In the main people will tend to believe the worst things rather than actually find out about it for themselves, and because the loudest voices are from those environmentalists who, to further their own agenda, spread those worst possible scenarios, then that is what gains the most traction. Because of that the scare campaign that surround the word Nuclear, then those misconceptions are enhanced.
Consider this.
Nearly every hospital uses nuclear material in every day operations. Somehow, that is okay, and yet using that same material in a similar, and yet different process to generate electricity is somehow more inherently dangerous, and by extrapolation more worthy of banner headlines, while the nuclear medicine processes are somehow totally ignored, as if they are okay, while Nuclear power is not. That is the incongruous situation that faces those who rationally try and explain that both processes are as inherently safe as each other.

Whole geographical areas have gone to great public lengths to declare themselves nuclear free zones, and yet hospitals in those areas still operate as they always have, giving the impression that somehow, there is good Nuclear and bad Nuclear, when both use the same process, and in most cases the same materials.

Again, you may think I’m drawing a long bow here, and seeking to in some way act as an apologist for the Nuclear Industry, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have no links whatsoever to it, and I only speak as someone from 25 years background in the electrical trade.

The problem stems from that one word most closely associated with the word Nuclear, and that is radiation.

Look closely at this chart, and see how just how much radiation you are subject to in your everyday life.

Background radiation levels. Click on the image to open in a new and larger window.

Background radiation levels. Click on the image to open in a new and larger window.

These Worldwide average levels apply whether you live close to a nuclear power plant or whether you live in a Country that has no nuclear power plants at all. In everyday life you are subject to radiation from numerous sources, and there is no avoiding it. It surrounds you completely. Those levels of radiation are completely safe for you, and are considerably lower than anything that might even approach dangerous levels.
As you can see from that chart, the medical use of the nuclear process alone exposes you to 2,000 times the radiation you might be exposed to from having a nuclear power plant in your back yard. Radiation exposure from Nuclear power plants is so low on the scale of everyday radiation exposure that it barely even registers.

The secondary problem that is so often raised is that of disposal of the nuclear material, and that the radiation from it lasts what might be classified as ‘forever’. That is the worrying thing that people always fall back on.
In later posts in this same series, I will explain the whole process in greater detail, but the main focus of this waste disposal, and the radiation inherent in that is not what it actually seems, or more importantly, what you are told as part of the scare campaign.

The ore is dug from the ground, and is then converted to fuel for the nuclear power generating process. It goes through many stages to get to that point, and again, I will explain that in further posts.
This chart indicates those levels of enrichment.

Uranium enrichment levels. Click on the image to open in a new and larger window.

Uranium enrichment levels. Click on the image to open in a new and larger window.

In this chart, the level is the area below the coloured area containing the text.

Uranium still in the ground has an enrichment level at the left of the chart at 0.7%. It is in the surrounding soil at that level, and the first process sees the uranium separated from that soil body. The Uranium now undergoes an enrichment process, and this entails several stages of enrichment.

For the construction of fuel for Nuclear power plants, it is enriched to around 3 to 5%, typically the lower level of 3%.

For the fuel for some research reactors and for the reactors that are used to power Naval vessels, it is enriched to around 20%. Incidentally, Nuclear reactors have been powering Naval Vessels in the U.S. now for 54 years, totalling 5,400 reactor years of operation, with no nuclear accidents, and even the two Nuclear submarines lost at sea, Thresher and Scorpion, those reactors are safe. Other Navies in other Countries also use nuclear propulsion.

For weapons grade enrichment, it undergoes processes to take the enrichment levels beyond 90%, and this is typically up to 98%.

The enrichment processes are totally different, and to enrich uranium to weapons grade, it is not just a matter of keeping going with the one process. The processes are separate one from another.

The fuel for nuclear power plants is only 3% enriched.

During the process of the generating of the electrical power, the enrichment process is used up, as you might expect, and at the end of the process, that fuel is no longer viable because it cannot sustain enough reaction to be used as fuel.

A similar analogy is that you fill up your car with fuel, you drive the car, using the fuel, and when the tank is empty, the fuel no longer drives the car.

So, the fuel used in nuclear power plants uses up its enrichment as part of the process, and at the end of its useful life, all that remains is an enrichment level indicated at the right of that chart above. That level is typically back at around 1%. The fuel remains in the reactor for a couple of years, and when it is ready, it is removed to a dry storage facility for storage. The enrichment level at this time is back down to 0.6 to 0.8%.
The most surprising part of that is that it is back to same level as the Uranium that exists in the ground.

Again, I will go into further detail in subsequent posts in this same series, but these two charts quite graphically indicate that the Nuclear process for the generating of electrical power is quite a safe process and accrues no deleterious effects to human life.

The misconceptions from this form of generating electrical power rely on instilling fear in the general public, and these stem mainly from people who have no idea of the processes involved, the process of the enrichment, and the process to actually generate the electricity itself.

Once these processes are explained, and then understood, it is easy to see that the fear campaign is just that. It relies on your lack of understanding.

There is a process of using the fuel to generate the electricity in much the same manner as using the same nuclear fuel in the numerous medical applications that use nuclear fuel for them.

In the next post, I will show you how the fuel for nuclear power plants comes into being, from the hole in the ground to the actual fuel being used in the reactor in the Nuclear power plant.