Monday, May 21, 2018

Nuclear Power part 1: Radiation

                                                                                                written 13 February, 2018
                                                                                                published 18Mar18

            Nuclear power is unsuited for a populated planet for three reasons; radiation, waste, and economics.  This article will talk about radiation.
            Nuclear fission of a radioactive atom produces two smaller pieces (daughter products) and radiation of energetic debris consisting of gamma rays, beta and alpha particles, and neutrons.  The bombs dropped on Japan were detonated at altitude to maximize the blast damage.  The radiation damage was from gamma rays, which irradiate the entire body.  Biologists were not involved in the development of the atom bomb, so radiation devastation was unexpected.  Radiation deaths continued long after the armistice, but this information was overshadowed by the enthusiasm of using the bomb to end the war.
            Three years later, a detailed study examined the health impact of radiation.  Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated and people had moved, it was difficult to track effects accurately, but damage correlated inversely with radiation dosage.  One conclusion, which ignored long-term results, was the idea of a "safe" level of radiation exposure with no cause for concern. 
            External radiation exposure from a single blast differs in effect from long-term exposure to radiation from material ingested by breathing, drinking, or eating.  Radioactive isotopes concentrate in different parts of the body and decay at different rates, some long lasting.  Internal beta and alpha exposure is very damaging, increasing the likelihood of disease, cancer, and genetic mutation.  
            Physicians for Nuclear Responsibility have campaigned for decades against the idea of a safe level for ingesting radioactive material.  However, the idea of a "safe" level is important to governments and corporations that build nuclear power plants, because all aspects of the nuclear process release radioactive material into the environment.  The fiction of a safe level means that no one takes responsibility for the health problems associated with radiation, cruelly prioritizing profits over health.  Nuclear power technology developed from a physics of unity, where every part has power.  Dualistic economics ignores that actions have consequences, but since reality is whole, no action can be ignored. 
            The three worst nuclear power accidents released untold amounts of radioactive material into the environment.  At Three Mile Island, the reactor experienced a partial core meltdown in 1979, which vented contamination to the surrounding area for over 12 hours.  Onsite radiation instruments quickly went off scale and couldn't measure how much radioactive material was released.  To this day, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) states that only low amounts were released, and no people were harmed.  The many reports of health damage were dismissed as hysteria.  Recent studies by independent investigators indicate the NRC understated the radiation exposure by a factor of 1000.
            At Chernobyl, in 1986, the graphite core burned for more than a week, consuming over 5% of the nuclear fuel.  As there was no containment structure, a radioactive plume spread across western Russia and much of Europe.  The Chernobyl area is still contaminated, and requires constant investment to keep it contained.
            The 2011 Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami led to the core meltdown and containment breach in three of six reactors at the Fukushima complex, and an explosive release from a spent fuel pool.  The contamination of air, land, and water by highly radioactive hot particles was widespread, extending to Tokyo, 150 miles away.  Japanese authorities raised the "safe" level of radiation by a factor of 150.  Contaminated water continues to flow into the Pacific Ocean, but the US government has never measured radiation in the ocean or the air off the west coast. 
            While large contaminations due to accidents have been rare, reactors are aging and growing more vulnerable to failure.  Even normal reactor operation releases radiation into the environment.  The mining, refining, and enriching of uranium fuel releases radioactive material.  Mountains of radioactive mine tailings sit next to the Colorado River, the source of drinking water for millions.
            The efficiency of a uranium reactor core is reduced by contamination from the daughter products of nuclear decay.  Within a few years, when as little as 10% of the uranium has been consumed, this "spent fuel" is removed to cooling pools, and fresh fuel rods are installed.  Even though most of the uranium is still useful, it is expensive to reprocess the spent fuel by removing the daughter products, and reconstituting fresh fuel rods.  Everywhere this has been tried, massive radioactive environmental contamination has resulted.
            Every reactor has a designed life span, after which, it must be decommissioned, and the site cleaned of radioactive material.  There are 449 large commercial power reactors in operation globally.  Another 150 have been shut-down, but only 17 very small plants have been completely decontaminated.  The decommissioning of all the rest will introduce massive amounts of radioactive material into the environment.
            Dualistic economics, and the fiction of safe levels of radioactivity, guarantees that.