Monday, January 2, 2012

Can Nuclear Power Be Safe?

by Richard Crews
Apparently, yes, it can.

In the middle of the last century when engineers and scientists were developing a plan for generating electricity from nuclear reactions, they had a couple of dozen good possibilities to choose among, and not much predictive information to go on. They chose one--fission of Uranium.

Since then trillions of dollars have been spent researching and developing practical generation of electricity from Uranium fission. There are, at present, nearly 500 Uranium nuclear power reactors in operation in the world; they produce about 14% of the world's electricity.

But four important problems have arisen that were not anticipated by the original pioneers. First and foremost, Uranium nuclear generators are intrinsically unsafe: they are complex pieces of machinery that present the unavoidable possibility of dangerous failure because of natural disasters or human errors.

Second, they produce dangerous radioactive wastes, and--amid a firestorm of public worry--there has proved to be no politically acceptable way to decontaminate or dispose of these wastes. In fact, these wastes are accumulating by the ton year after year around the world.

Third, the worldwide supply of usable Uranium ore is running out. By some reckoning, it may last 100 years, but it is not unlimited.

And fourth, the handling of refined Uranium for power generation may present a terrorist threat, either from a rogue atomic bomb that could kill hundreds of thousands of people, or from a so-called "dirty bomb" in which radioactive contamination could be spread over a populated area by exploding a conventional bomb with radioactive material attached.

The world has pretty much concluded that generating electrical power from Uranium fission is too dangerous to pursue. Reactors are being shut down or decommissioned around the world.

What about another of those dozens of possibilities for generating power from nuclear reactions--those possibilities that scientists and engineers set aside many decades ago? In fact, there are several good, safe candidates.

For example, using radioactive Thorium in molten-salt solution. This method was proven effective in U.S. government tests in 1964 to 1969. It is currently under commercial development in India, China, and Russia (the thorny political and regulatory landscape makes it impossible to develop it in the U.S.).

Such Thorium reactors do not present any of the drawbacks associated with Uranium fission. (1) They cannot explode or melt down. (2) They do not produce long-lived toxic bi-products. (3) The supply of minable Thorium fuel is essentially unlimited. And (4) they and their products cannot be used for terrorist threats.

The world was once promised electricity from nuclear reactors that would be "so cheap it [would] not be worth metering." Thorium still holds this promise; Uranium does not.