Politics & Policy

Going Nuclear

A memo to John McCain.

Dear Senator McCain:

You don’t know me but I just published a book entitled Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Long Energy Odyssey. I think it would be helpful to your campaign. I called your staff a couple of times to try to get someone interested, but of course this is the middle of an election and it’s too long to read now anyway.

So here’s a briefing.

#ad#I heard you speak about nuclear power in a previous debate and I think you’ve got Senator Obama cornered on this one. He says he’s for nuclear power and against Yucca Mountain, but that’s a giveaway. Nuclear opponents have long seen Yucca Mountain as the place to strangle nuclear power. California and several other states even have laws saying no new reactors can be built before Yucca is completed. So you only have to scratch him a bit to find he’s not going anywhere with it.

But this isn’t just about energy. Our whole economy is at stake. If we’re ever to free ourselves from foreign energy supplies and turn this country into a productive society again, it’s going to have to be by pushing through to the next era of human progress — the age of nuclear power.

So here goes.

Let’s begin by understanding that the scale of the energy stored at the nucleus of the atom is so great — so completely unlike anything in human history — that people are having a hard time understanding it. Everybody thinks of the atom in terms of a big, big bomb. But that’s the wrong approach. You have to think of it as a small, small amount of matter producing almost unimaginable amounts of energy. That’s what makes uranium so easy on the environment — because it takes only a very small quantity of material to produce statewide levels of electrical power.

Let’s look at some numbers. Fossil fuels, as you know, are a concentrated form of solar energy. Plants capture sunlight and use it to create long hydrocarbons. When these plants or algae are fossilized over millions and millions of years they become oil, coal and gas. In the process, the energy is concentrated. Coal has about twice the energy density of wood and oil and natural gas are about double the density of coal.

Sunlight and wind and so-called “renewables” are even more dilute than wood, by a factor of about 10 to 50. When you’re thinking in terms of industrial quantities, the amount of sunlight falling on any square yard of earth is miniscule — about enough to power one 100-watt light bulb. That means collecting solar energy consumes huge amounts of land. If we covered every building in the country with solar panels, we could probably get enough electricity to supply our indoor (about 8 percent of our consumption) — and that only in the daytime. The solar thermal plants being considered in Florida and California — where they used mirrors to concentrate sunlight to boil water — will cover a hundred or more square miles to match one coal or nuclear plant. We’re building these things because the federal and state governments are providing huge tax subsidies and many states are even mandating that utilities buy the power. But once the size and expense of these projects becomes clear, a lot of people are going to start to object.

The same goes for wind farms, which will also cover hundreds of square miles with 65-story structures. The problem with wind is that it is totally unpredictable and very difficult to integrate onto an electrical grid. At least solar electricity is there when you need it — on hot sunny days when everyone turns on the air conditioning. Wind comes and goes at it pleases but tends to blow hardest when it’s not needed — at night and during the spring and fall. Biofuels, another form of “alternate energy,” ran into trouble last winder when people suddenly became aware of the huge amounts of land they consume. We’re now fomenting 30 percent of the corn crop and replacing only 3 percent of our oil — plus pushing up world food prices. The U.N. is calling biofuels a “crime against humanity.” Supporters talk about “cellulose ethanol” but it’s never been done and they’ve been trying for almost a hundred years.

Now let’s look at nuclear. Remember, when we talked about the energy density of fossil fuels and renewables we talked in factors of 2 thru 50. Do you know what the density factor is for uranium? It’s 2 million. A pound of uranium gives you 2 million times as much energy as a pound of coal. That means you can run a whole city for a week with a lump of uranium you can hold in one hand. In fact a 110-car “unit train” of coal has more energy in the uranium traces in the coal than in the coal itself.

Let’s see what this means in practice. The average 1,000-megawatt coal plant must be fed by a unit train arriving at the plant every day. Such trains now leave Cheyenne, Wyoming every 12 minutes carrying coal from the Powder River Basin to power plants from Nevada to Arkansas. More than half the nation’s rail freight is now coal. In fact, it’s straining the whole infrastructure and we may have to build new rail lines before long.

#page#Now lets’ look at nuclear. A 1000-MW nuclear reactor is refueled by a single tractor-trailer arriving at the plant once every eighteen months. The fuel rods are only mildly radioactive and can be handled with gloves. Over their four-and-a-half-year life cycle those fuel rods will put zero greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the coal plant across town will spew 3 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s why we have a problem of global warming.

Where does all this energy come from? To understand, you have to look at Einstein’s famous formula, E = mc2. Everybody knows about it — Mariah Carey named her latest album after it — but how many people understand exactly what it means?

#ad#E = mc2 means matter can be transformed into energy and energy can be transformed into matter. The important thing is that co-efficient — the speed of light squared. That’s a very, very large number — about one quadrillion. That means a very, very small amount of matter can be transformed into a very, very large amount of energy. That’s what happens when we put uranium in a nuclear reactor.

Burning fossil fuels also involves transforming matter into energy, but those reactions are “chemical,” meaning they take place in the electron shell. Electrons make up 1/1800th of the mass of an atom so there isn’t that much matter there. The other 1,799/1,800ths is in the nucleus, where the protons and neutrons reside. (You remember all this from high school, right?) That’s why transformations in the nucleus release such extraordinarily large quantities of energy — 2 million times what we can get from fossil fuels and 10-to-100 million times what we can get from wind and solar energy. The result is an impact on the environment that is two to twenty million times smaller. That’s why nuclear power — the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century — is also the best friend the earth’s natural environment ever had.

So what can possibly be wrong with nuclear power? Is it prohibitively dangerous? Is a nuclear reactor an atomic bomb waiting to explode? And the perennial question — what are we going to do with all that horrible nuclear waste?

Let’s start with the idea that a reactor can explode. The next time someone asks you this, answer them, “Do you have a jar of Vaseline at home in your medicine cabinet? And if so, do you lie awake at night worrying that it’s going to explode like a jar of napalm and set your house on fire?” Look on the side of the Vaseline jar. It says “petroleum jelly.” It’s made out from oil. What is napalm? It is jellied gasoline. Can’t Vaseline blow up like napalm? Obviously not. But why? Because they contain different fractions of petroleum with different volatilities.

It’s the same with uranium. There are two types of uranium — “isotopes,” as we say. (They have different numbers of neutrons.) U-238 (238 neutrons) makes up 99.3 percent of the natural ore. It sheds a couple of protons occasionally but its half-life is 5 billion years and it’s relatively harmless. (The longer the half-life, the less “radioactive” an element is.) Uranium-235 is the powerhouse. It can split in half — “fission” — releasing huge amounts of energy. But U-235 constitutes only 0.7 percent of the natural ore. It’s so sparse it can’t undergo the “chain reaction” that leads one breakdown of an atom to produce others.


As a result, in order to set of a chain reaction you have to “enrich” the U-235 to a higher percentage than the natural ore. This is extremely difficult because it can’t be done chemically — they both have the same chemical properties. Instead, you have to build a factory the size of a Ford plant and separate them by various techniques such as running them through magnetic fields or whipping them around in centrifuges. That’s what we did in the Manhattan Project.

But there are different degrees of enrichment. In order to produce the nice calm chain reaction you get in a nuclear reactor — enough heat to boil water — you enrich the U-235 from 0.7 to 3 percent. That’s reasonably doable. In order to enrich up to bomb-grade material, however, you have to enrich to — can you guess? — 90 percent. That takes a long, long time and a lot of work. The Iranians have been trying to do it for years and haven’t gotten very far. But that’s the reason a nuclear power plant can’t blow up like a bomb. It’s like the jar of Vaseline in your medicine cabinet — there’s not nearly enough of the key ingredient in there to explode. It’s also the reason why it’s much more difficult to build a nuclear weapon than most people imagine.

#ad#Now how about that matter of “nuclear waste?” Once again it pays to know what you’re talking about. Basically, there is no such thing as “nuclear waste.” It’s not like you’re burning coal — where you end up with gargantuan amounts of something you can’t use, like carbon dioxide. Nearly all the material in a spent fuel rod is recyclable or easily handled. Ninety-five percent of a spent fuel rod is U-238 — the same natural uranium that comes out of the ground. We could just put it back where it came from. The other 5 percent is fissionable U-235 (1 percent), various “fission products” from the breakdown of U-235 (2 percent), plus a group called the “minor actinides” which are formed when U-238 is transmuted into heavier, man-made elements (2 percent). Among the minor actinides is plutonium (1 percent), one of whose isotopes can be used for making bombs.

So why are we do we need Yucca Mountain, a huge repository designed to “bury” 77,000 tons of “nuclear waste,” when 95 percent of the material is non-fissioning natural uranium? We’re doing it because in 1976, President Jimmy Carter — a President many people feel Barack Obama may eventually resemble — got cold feet and outlawed the reprocessing of spent fuel. Instead of treating it in an environmentally efficient way and recycling, we ended up with huge, mixed-up gobs of material that we can’t think of anything to do with except “throw it away.”

#ad#Almost everything in a spent fuel rod can be recycled. The U-235 can be used again for fuel. So can the plutonium. Among the fission products and minor actinides there are lots of useful isotopes used in medicine and industrial procedures. Forty percent of all medical procedures now involve some radioactive isotope and nuclear medicine is a $250-billion industry. Unfortunately, we must now import all our medical isotopes from Canada because ours are all being treated as “nuclear waste.”

The French have complete recycling. (I know you talk about France’s nuclear power a lot but I doubt you know this.) They take plutonium from spent fuel, mix it with uranium depleted by enrichment, and call it “mixed oxide fuel.” It’s sold all over Europe and Japan. They’re also importing bomb-grade uranium from old Russian nuclear weapons, mixing it with the tailings from uranium mines (another “waste product”) and shipping it to the United States of America as reactor fuel. It’s a treaty engineered by your old colleagues Senators Pete Domenici and Sam Nunn in the 1990s. One out of every ten light bulbs in America is now being lit by a former Soviet weapon! It’s the greatest swords-into-plowshares effort in history — although very few people know about it. Things nuclear, of course, are not the subject of polite conversation.

So what’s left when all this reprocessing is done? Essentially nothing. All of France’s nuclear waste from 25 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity is stored beneath the floor of one room at Le Hague. The lifetime output for each French citizen would fit in a soda can. That’s what the incredible energy density of nuclear power can do for the environment.

Want to hear one more irony? The reason we gave up reprocessing in the 1970s was because we thought we were stopping nuclear proliferation. The idea had gotten around that terrorists or somebody from another country would steal plutonium from an American reactor and use it to make a bomb. As it turns out, proliferation has not taken this route. Countries that wanted nuclear weapons — China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Israel and South Africa — have built their own reactors or smuggled material from friendly countries.

But that’s not the real irony. The most preposterous thing is you can’t build a bomb from the plutonium in a commercial reactor. You have to build a special reactor for making only bomb material. (That’s what the Russians were doing at Chernobyl.) The reason is this. There are four plutonium isotopes produced in a commercial reactor. Only one of them — Pu-239 — can be used to make a bomb. The others are too fissionable or not fissionable enough. They “poison” the chain reaction by going off too slowly or too quickly. At best you can get a bomb maybe big enough to blow up a single building. (The terrorists have already figured out how to do this with airplanes.) In order to separate the plutonium isotopes, you’d have to build an enrichment plant far more complicated than the ones used to enrich uranium. Nobody has ever done it. So plutonium from our reactors is essentially useless, except for producing more electricity.

Nuclear experts knew this all along but nobody ever listens to them. In fact, this whole country is filled with nuclear engineers and scientists who know that nuclear power is the greatest gift ever bestowed on humanity but most of them have quit trying to make their case. Instead, the discussion is dominated by the Ralph Naders and Robert Redfords and Sierra Club tyros who basically don’t know what they’re talking about.

So there you are, Senator. Nuclear power is humanity’s next great industrial advance. It’s going to give us a whole new, clean source of energy that will scale to our industrial society. It will even give us enough electricity to convert our transportation sector to electric or hydrogen cars. It will free us from foreign oil, provide enough good jobs for tens of thousands of construction workers and highly skilled nuclear operators and engineers — and cure global warming as well! What more could you ask? What better platform to run for president in 2008?

And in case you’re listening, Senator Obama, you too should shed that half-hearted endorsement of nuclear power and embrace it as the technology of the future. It will be the only thing that that will set us on the right path for solving the nation’s problems if you become president.

Yours truly,

William Tucker

— William Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey.

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