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November 09, 2010

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There have been various thorium-fueled reactors designed and built over the years; I believe this is the best-known large-scale unit:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/THTR-300

Thorium is a possible reactor fuel, but it has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. And of course you are still dealing with a fission reactor with all the advantages and disadvantages of that technology.

Cranky

If Carlo Rubbia thinks it should be pursued, it's not snake oil.

Thorium only has "200 times the energy density of Uranium" if you assume that the Uranium is not being utilized in breeder reactors. A rather unfair comparison, given that Thorium reactors are, pretty much, all breeder reactors.

And, while you can't build a nuclear bomb using Thorium, you *can* use a Thorium reactor to generate a fissile isotope, U233, which is usable in bombs. Though it's not the isotope you'd chose for that purpose if you had your pick, and the reactor has to be specially managed to generate usable quantities.

Other than that, it pretty much does live up to the hype, and if we hadn't wanted the plutonium for nuclear bombs, we might very well have gone with Thorium reactors instead of Uranium in the first place.

I don't understand what question you're asking, specifically, Russell.

Also: "it isn't weaponizable" Er, wtf? You're suggesting that breeder reactors that produce plutonium and U233 aren't producing weaponizable fuel? What do you mean? The whole point of why breeder reactors never got a full-production go-ahead is precisely because they're terrific at producing bomb-grade fuel.

Breeder reactors are wonderful for generating electricity, and more fuel for electricity, but not so great if you're worried about weapons grade being constantly produced, because that's the whole "breeder" thing in the first place.

Plus, to get a thorium reactor breeding, which you have to do before you can start generating power, you have to start with bomb-grade U235.

Again, not exactly grand for nuclear non-prolif, to be shipping this stuff constantly in and out.

"And, if there's something to our powerful, ubiquitous, cheap, safe, non-carbon-emitting little cup of spumoni, how come we aren't knee-deep in this already?"

Perhaps you could rephrase your question? Perhaps more literally? And less abstractly?

Or maybe it's just me; goodness knows I'm tired enough.

Are you asking for a history of fission reactors, comparisons of the many varied possible kinds, and the disadvantages and advantages of each -- in which case I suggest a course, or some reading -- or what, specifically, would you like to know?

And, of course, neither am I an engineer or expert on nuclear power technology; I just pay some small attention as a lay reader.

If you want to embark on a discussion of the pros and cons of the many kinds of possible fission reactors, that's a bit encompassing, and my short response boils down to saying it's a matter of what trade-offs you want to make, what new designs you want to invest in experimenting with, or which proven and fairly safe designs you want to go with, so long as you can deal with the political NIMBY of where you dump your waste.

But that's a general topic of people's fears; relatively few folks "against nuclear power" can explain which reactor process is safer or more dangerous, or why, in their view, though there certainly are a minority who have a clue.

Simply put, Americans have been scared sh*tless of "nuclear power" ever since Three Mile Island, The China Syndrome, and Chernobyl, and that's why we haven't built any plants since. It's not a technical issue; it's a political issue.

All people hear is "radioactive," and that's all they need to know, and all they're apt to know. Pointing out that, in fact, everything is radioactive, including you, your clothing, the dirt under you, the air you breath, and in particular that giant fusion reactor in the sky, which is what gives most people skin cancer, doesn't get one very far.

Trying to get any more technical than that with most folks is hopeless, in my experience. I've yet to find anyone who is "against nuclear power" who differentiates between types of reactors, though I'm sure some exist. But as a political issue, no one has ever cared, so I don't know why this would suddenly change. Do you think it might, and if so, why?

I'm frankly doubtful that short of giving most voters a 7th grade course in physics it'll happen any time in the next twenty years. Look at how much support Obama has received from the Democratic base on putting nuclear power plants back into the energy mix. Has there been much? It's hardly as if the knowledge of how to do good reactors hasn't been known since Three Mile Island.

People just don't know, don't care, and don't want to know. Nuclear power is scary, unlike coal, which only kills maybe tens of thousands people a year, whereas nuclear power plants kill, er, um, none.

Trivially, incidentally, elements don't take capitals, save at the beginnings of sentences; they're common nouns, not proper nouns.

My understanding is, a nuclear industry based on the thorium cycle is somewhat harder to get started, and it wasn't an issue in the early days of nuclear reactors. Also, if you don't like nuclear reactors in general, you're probably not going to like thorium ones much more.

But I do suspect thorium is going to be important for keeping an industrial civilization going over the long term.

...that is, the deficiencies of uranium weren't an issue in the early days of nuclear reactors.

that's why we haven't built any plants since. It's not a technical issue; it's a political issue.

Um, cite please? There are many Americans that are scared of nuclear power. But absent evidence, one cannot just assume that this explains the lack of new nuclear power plants in this country. There are other possible reasons, starting with extremely high costs. Energy companies are, as a rule, not interested in losing vast sums of money by using technology that is not cost-competitive with alternatives.

It's hardly as if the knowledge of how to do good reactors hasn't been known since Three Mile Island.

The fact that you're a lay person is made blindingly, painfully obvious in sentences such as this one Gary. We might "know" how to make an awesome pebble bed reactor that is totally superior to any LWR reactor in every possible way...in theory. But so far, it does not appear that we "know" how to make one in practice. In other words, I've seen no evidence that we've actually developed the knowledge needed to scale the technology up to production volume. Making something work in a lab when it can be babysat by an army of physics grad students who you only have to pay $6.00 an hour for is one thing. Making it work at much larger scales with a normal work force that you have to pay real money for is something else entirely. There are many processes that look good on paper and seem totally feasible that turn out to be impossible to scale up. Pebble-bed reactors, which have been just around the corner for decades, may very well be one of them.

Unless you're going to assume that the laws of physics are different in, say, France, than they are in the US, I'd say the fact that some countries can build nuclear plants affordable, and some can't, does pretty well prove that the obstacles are political, not technical.

You're suggesting that breeder reactors that produce plutonium and U233 aren't producing weaponizable fuel?

"I'm suggesting" would be too strong. "I'm parroting stuff I've read" is more accurate. What I've read is that thorium reactors can be set up such that weapons-grade material isn't created, or at least any such is consumed by the reactor.

As I understand it.

Perhaps you could rephrase your question? Perhaps more literally?

I'll try.

"If this is so great, why aren't we doing it?"

Which is sort of two questions in one:

1. Is it really so great?
2. If it is, why don't we just give it a try?

I get the political reality of folks' aversion to nuclear power generation, and to the degree that it's based in reality I share it.

But if the problematic aspects - will folks make bombs out of it, are the by-products poisonous, if so what do you do with them - are addressable simply by using a different fuel, then I don't see a problem.

I know that some apparently successful exercises have been done with thorium, and some are ongoing now.

I'm just curious to hear, from folks who know about this stuff, if there's something promising there, or if it's a load of crap.

As noted in another thread, I live a couple of miles from a non-compliant coal-fired power plant. There's a natural gas delivery platform a couple of miles offshore of my town, and on a clear night you can see it all lit up like a UFO has landed on the water.

I don't really see industrial and post-industrial culture going away any time soon. If we can run the joint in a sane and relatively safe, clean, and generally non-harmful way, I'm all for it.

Trivially, incidentally, elements don't take capitals

What, not even when they're named after the God Of Thunder!?!?

Noted.

Unless you're going to assume that the laws of physics are different in, say, France, than they are in the US, I'd say the fact that some countries can build nuclear plants affordable, and some can't, does pretty well prove that the obstacles are political, not technical.

What exactly makes you think that French nuclear plants are substantially cheaper than their American equivalent? AFAIK, French nuclear construction costs are not fully incorporated into the energy costs that French consumers pay. You of all people should hardly find it surprising that a lefty government that exerts control over enormous swathes of the economy might hide the costs, especially in a field related to national security or one tinged with national pride. I mean, surely you don't think that the Paris metro or the success of the TGV prove that the US could have cheap effective rail and subway systems?

Russell,

An element discovered in 1828 is, is....named for a comic book hero by that genius Stan Lee? I read Marvel comics with near religious fervor during my misspent youth. Surely you jest.

(I'm still mad at my mom for throwing out my Fantastic Four #1--so I cut her out of the will).

I don't really see industrial and post-industrial culture going away any time soon. If we can run the joint in a sane and relatively safe, clean, and generally non-harmful way, I'm all for it.

Well, James H. Kunstler would disagree...after all a nuclear powered economy still needs that oil platform. Uranium can't power cars or lubricate gears. It's not so great for making plastics. And the waste? You thought storm water runoff was bad?

But then Jim tends to get carried away at times with his marvelously unique (and entertaining) acerbicity.

Take it for what it's worth.

Research into thorium cycle nuclear reactors are on going - I've seen a number of posters about this at physics convention. Physicists are interested because it is a practical use of accelerator technology.

Professor McIntyre at Texas A&M has been working on this. Some information can be found on his research page below.

http://faculty.physics.tamu.edu/mcintyre/research/index.html

Thorium cycle reactors are difficult because they require proton accelerators to transmute the thorium up to a fissionable product. However, they have many good points - they can't melt down, they can't have run away reactions, and properly tuned proton beams mean there are no long lived radioactive wastes.

"What I've read is that thorium reactors can be set up such that weapons-grade material isn't created, or at least any such is consumed by the reactor."

And this works how? At what cost? What's their track record? How does it compare to other reactors pros and cons?

Bottom line, what's any of this matter, when almost no voter cares if you explain it's pebble bed, u233 versus u235, or the details of the fueling?: it's nuclear, and it'll melt down. So the point is moot. Isn't it?

"Simply put, Americans have been scared sh*tless of "nuclear power" ever since Three Mile Island, The China Syndrome, and Chernobyl, and that's why we haven't built any plants since. It's not a technical issue; it's a political issue."

That's quite a statement to make after just a few paragraphs before,when you described some real dangers associated with Thorium: generation of weapons-grade waste, the need for weapons-grade materials just to initiate the Thorium process, and the concomitant risk of materials proliferation. What's "political" about a sane person's natural fear of those kinds of conditions?

You know what’s political? What's political is Bush flying around the country talking about what a righteous time he had as president, no regrets except for Kanye West of course. The sonofabitch got away with it, with murder, with looting, the whole bit. He's not even sorry for Nine-Eleven, not a tear, not a look off into the distance to think about what might have been. No, the problem is not that we're scared of nuclear power, and yes we did get the crap scared out of us by Three Mile Island and The China Syndrome. As for your comment that “nuclear power plants kill, er, um, none,” you might want to rephrase: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster.

Our problem is that we’ve got a no-fault government in place (except for us little people, of course). Nobody gets keel-hauled for any crime, no matter how gross, despicable, or cruel, or whatever might be the resulting damage to the commons. On the Thorium front, this suggests to me that the companies that own and build nuclear power stations might be right now getting the same kind of sweetheart deal as BP got, with the same level and quality of governmental oversight. That’s one aspect of the bathtub theory of government, though it was James Watt who, for me, really popularized the philosophy of “What, Me Government?” long before Grover Norquist became a national shithead.

So, that’s my bitch and my fear about nuclear power, among other things. As long as we've got governmental structures in place that will put the needs of the owners of nuclear plants above the needs of the people who live in their shadow--and the shadow is very long--then we have reason to fear. We depend on the government to be our behemoth in the face of the corporate behemoth, to keep megagiants like power companies and mining companies under control so they follow the rules and don't foul their nest and ours—which they are of course doing in some form or another at this very moment in numerous places at home and abroad. Rather than being our agent and protector, government serves the needs of these businesses by ignoring them, by refusing to make them follow the rules that Congress has approved. Well, actually, they probably are following the rules, since they themselves wrote them. Credit where it’s due.

Judging by the quality of people represented by Bush and his friends, and the Congress we now see before us, and some of Obama’s people, are we ready to entrust the oversight of a new and potentially hazardous industry to a government that seems determined to rip us off? Have you seen any evidence lately that we should? Or do you suppose that the corporations in charge of this new technology will do everything by the book, the way they’re supposed to, and not require any oversight. If so…

If we build a thorium-based commercial reactor in the near future, it won't be an accelerator-based one. That technology is not mature. A thorium breeder would be a rather conventional light or heavy water reactor.

Any presently buildable thorium cycle involves a phase where you have pure U-233, i.e bomb material. However, you need not transport it in that form. If you integrate the reprocessing facility either with a fuel factory or with the power plant.

In my opinion, the proliferation risk is overrated. No country has ever started a military nuclear program using material from civilian nuclear reactors. With proper safeguards, thorium cycle is not a security concern.

I agree with Bill Miller and turbulence here. The problem is not primarily the technology but human fallibility plus the proven tendency for reckless negligence on part of those running such enterprises. As last year's news have shown the French success was partly in their skill to keep the problems with their plants undercover. They did not have a Chernobyl admittedly but from what I read they got pretty close to severe accidents a few times (as did more than one German plant). Plus a bit of irradiated rivers (fortunately not running past population centers downstream).
I have zero trust in US companies running safe operations if not supervised round the clock. Maybe if in case of an accident the plant operators, the supervisors and the company CEO would be shot within 24 hours with no option of mercy, appeal or delay, then we could talk. Shoddy construction work should result in the same treatment.

"An element discovered in 1828 is, is....named for a comic book hero by that genius Stan Lee?"

An element discovered in 1828 is, is .... named for the same Norse god of thunder that Stan Lee based his comic book hero on? Yup.

Possibly relevant: India is building a nuclear power industry based on thorium. They're constructing a prototype heavy water/thorium reactor in Mumbai. I realise this may not count due to being foreign, but still.

I mean, surely you don't think that the Paris metro or the success of the TGV prove that the US could have cheap effective rail and subway systems?

Is this a trick question, Turb?

As for your comment that “nuclear power plants kill, er, um, none,” you might want to rephrase: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster.

Bill, it's worth noting that the number of reactors of the type that burned at Chernobyl in the US and EU is zero.

There are known issues with the Chernobyl RMBK reactor design, that aren't inherited by (to my knowledge, anyway) any of the domestic designs.

But, sure, decent point. If you're going to count coal-related deaths in a similar manner, though, you're going to have to expand your count to England, bits of the former Soviet Union, and China. According to this Time Magazine article, about 20k miners per year die in coal mining accidents in China alone.

Which is about 5x more than the Chernobyl disaster is projected to total up to by all causes, including additional cancer risk.

It's been 24 years since Chernobyl. In that time, if Time is to be believed, many tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of Chinese coal miners have died in accidents alone; this doesn't even begin to consider black-lung.

And this works how?

As I understand it, uranium is created in the process of using the thorium as fuel. You can then separate it out, or you can just burn it up (for lack of a better word) without separating it out, in which case, no risk of dangerous materials being diverted to other purposes.

NB: as I understand it.

At what cost? What's their track record?

Don't know, and don't know.

How does it compare to other reactors pros and cons?

The notable pros are the ones kyllaros lists upthread:

"they can't melt down, they can't have run away reactions, and properly tuned proton beams mean there are no long lived radioactive wastes."

To be honest, I'm one of the people you describe here:

"relatively few folks "against nuclear power" can explain which reactor process is safer or more dangerous, or why, in their view, though there certainly are a minority who have a clue."

Although in my case "against" should probably be read "skeptical of". Not on the basis of "will it work" or "will the world come to an end", but on the basis of "what do we do with the waste" and "why do we want to subsidize yet another massive, centralized, bureaucratic, monopolistic private enterprise".

But I'm def one of those people who has a hard time following along when folks explain the differences between reactor designs, fuel cycles, etc.

Long story short, this seemed like a possibly reasonable thing to do, I was curious if we were exploring it, and if not, why not.

I'm perfectly willing to buy that nuclear reactors can be safe and produce lots of energy, cheaply. Great.

What do you do with the waste?

All day every day I review hazardous waste/pollution claims. Run of the mill stuff. Landfills leaching whatever, dry clearners (Perc), gas stations (gasoline/oil w/a tasty side of MTBE), etc. Most of the time, the pollution has not resulted from some jerk intentionally dumping. Most of the time, it's a combination of poor design, unexpected things happening, negligence, and the simple passage of time (pop quiz, if you put a single-wall steel UST in the ground, put oil in it, and let it sit there for 40 years, whaddya think you're gonna get?).

None of that inspires ANY confidence from me regarding our ability to properly take care of nuclear waste. The same, of course, is true of wastes generated by other types of power generation, so a case can be made I suppose that nuke waste might actually be preferrable even if we assume we'll screw it up. I dunno.

You have to use 235U or Pu to get a Th fuel cycle started, Th doesn't do that for you (the wikipedia article you linked was for a mixed 235U+Th fuel; you get the same effect by having 238U instead of Th, so no big win there).

But to actually *do* the Th fuel cycle is crazy dangerous. Why? The danger is chemistry, but the motivation is inherent to Th nuclear reactions.

The intermediate isotopes between 232Th and 233U have such a short half-life and such a large neutron capture cross-section, that they must be removed from the reactor quickly. As in minutes.

That forces the use of a "liquid" fuel core, where a chemical reaction can turn the Protactinium into a gas and be removed quickly.

The current designs (Indian, although the Th power advocates do their best to avoid telling anyone details) have the Th in a very high temperature molten salt bath. THEN, they bubble fluorine gas through the salt to pick up the Protactinium and remove it before it can react or decay.

Sorry, but fluorine gas at thousands of degrees in a highly radioactive core is like the trifecta of insane danger.

A normal enriched uranium PWR is like a walk in the park on a mild spring day, by comparison.

There's a REASON that the Th power advocates hide the details and generally act like Amway reps.

fluorine gas at thousands of degrees in a highly radioactive core is like the trifecta of insane danger

As if fluorine gas at room temperature weren't bad enough.

How do they keep it from attacking absolutely everything else, along with the protactinium?

The current designs (Indian, although the Th power advocates do their best to avoid telling anyone details) have the Th in a very high temperature molten salt bath. THEN, they bubble fluorine gas through the salt to pick up the Protactinium and remove it before it can react or decay.

Link? I ask because this schematic of the Indian thorium reactor
http://www.dae.gov.in/publ/3rdstage.pdf
shows a heavy water moderator and light water coolant. No molten salt bath (whatever that means) and no fluorine.

Chernobyl was quite far away from major population centers. The same is not true in the West, definitely not in Central Europe, so the effect of a single maximum credible accident would be significantly greater.
And there have been some close shaves.
Coal firing plants can be fitted with filters (except for some unknown reason in the US) etc., it's a bit more complicated and expensive to build a fool-proof containment for a nuclear reactor.
As for miners. Mining uranium is also not known for health improvements in workers or people living around the mines and processing plants. There are just more coal than uranium miners in the world.

The same is not true in the West, definitely not in Central Europe, so the effect of a single maximum credible accident would be significantly greater.

Yes, it's a risk/exposure issue. If you've got a credible case for orders of magnitude lower risk, though, the increased exposure can be negated. In theory, anyway.

I live in sight of a coal fired power plant with a perfectly clean safety record. I would be more concerned living at the same distance from one of our older nuclear powered plants that just received a prolonged lease on life despite a far from clean record. But I would feel even more concerned to live in front of a hydrelectric dam (and ours are not as ramshackle as many in the US), although I am a supporter of hydro power.

We would probably think differently about cosmic impacts, if the Tunguska event had taken place in Massachusetts or Kent ;-)

Chernobyl was quite far away from major population centers. The same is not true in the West, definitely not in Central Europe, so the effect of a single maximum credible accident would be significantly greater.

I thought the key difference between Chernobyl and western plants was that Chernobyl lacked a containment building. Given that all western plants have a containment building (two-foot thick concrete walls), and all new western plants will also have one, perhaps we need not concern ourselves with Chernobyl overmuch.

That's one key difference, yes. Another is that it was graphite-moderated, and graphite burns at relatively low temperature. I believe there were also some issues with the reactor controls (as a consequence of design, IIRC) so that loss of control resulted in the reaction accelerating, not damping down. Which is the opposite of pretty much all US reactor designs.

Again, IIRC. I'd have to go read a lot more to recall the exact details.

I don't think we have any more graphite-moderated, water-cooled commercial power reactors left in the US.

Casting about the Internet for clues, I found that a reactor very similar in design to Chernobyl was allowed to continue operation for nearly another quarter of a century after the disaster. It makes me scratch my head, a little.

"It's not a technical issue; it's a political issue."

Yes and no. To a large degree, it is a political issue because it is a financial issue. As in, if it wasn't a financial issue, the country is big enough that some place to put one would have been found.

Building a nuclear plant isn't just a matter of getting planning permission -- and, if you pick a remote location in a rural county, you can probable get that. But there is a mis-match between the investment return horizon of a nuclear plant and the return-on-investment demands of most investors; especially institutional investors. So you also need some subsidies for the initial construction. And that means getting political approval from a much larger political unit.

And [snark on] one where most people are so removed from where their power (not to mention food, water, and other necessities) that they don't register what the alternatives mean. Yes, there are people, lots of them, who have never thought beyond "food comes from the store," "water comes from a tap," and "power comes out of the wall." Where, presumably, it magically appears. And, implicitly assuming that world-view, why take a chance on something that sounds scary?

As long as we've got governmental structures in place that will put the needs of the owners of nuclear plants above the needs of the people who live in their shadow--and the shadow is very long--then we have reason to fear.

Amen.

Also, it would be nice to see the waste question addressed by the pro forces in this discussion. As someone who follows political news in France fairly closely, I can tell you that they're far from "figuring it out."

I'm not quite a pro, especially in the realm of nuclear waste, but with radioactive waste, there's generally less of it than say, the toxic (and mildly radioactive!) slag from a coal plant. But radioactive waste also generally involves throwing out all the stuff that even came in contact with it, too.

As for groundwater, that depends a lot on the solubility of the elements and what form they're in.

wj,

Speaking of the financial constraints - another is insurance. The property-casualty insurance industry is positively allergic to nukes. They are considered (perhaps this is changing, but I'm no underwriter) impossible to properly rate. Chance of disaster - remote. Consequences of disaster - catastrophic.

So who has to insure nuclear plants? The US government, AFAIK.

...

On the waste, my issue is mostly that it remains toxic/radioactive for so damned long. It needs to be stored - properly - for ridiculously long periods of time. I have no faith in our ability to do that right.

This sort of reminds me of the enthusiasm for pebble-bed reactors a few years back, which seems to have faded away a bit. Those were supposed to be the magic bullet that would be safe and cheap and too cheap to meter etc.

The problem with all these new reactor designs is that we don't know what the problems are, because we haven't run dozens of full-scale reactors for decades at a time, and it is apparent that you need to do that before you can be really certain that they are safe.

There's a nice quote on the Wikipedia page on 4th-generation reactors:

Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum has explained that almost all serious nuclear accidents have occurred with what was at the time the most recent technology. He argues that "the problem with new reactors and accidents is twofold: scenarios arise that are impossible to plan for in simulations; and humans make mistakes"

I would be far more comfortable building new reactors to established designs than in building new experimental reactors. (For one thing, we could do the former probably a decade earlier than the latter.) It would also almost certainly be more cost-effective than building new designs since actual construction costs are already proven.

Natural gas is a cheaper, faster, safer way to replace coal, so I'm not enthusiastic about nuclear, which would take decades to ramp up and would be staggeringly expensive.

And [snark on] one where most people are so removed from where their power (not to mention food, water, and other necessities) that they don't register what the alternatives mean.

If I walk down the block, I can see this about two miles away.

They say they burn clean, other folks disagree.

Even the owners want to move toward shutting it down, but the regional power authority wants to keep it around.

At least they aren't dumping fly ash in the drinking water watershed anymore.

We got hazards everywhere in our modern world.

There have always been hazards all around us. All that has changed is:
a) We have mitigated some, so we are less accustomed to constant hazard than our ancestors. (Having parents obsessively protect their children from every conceivable, or even inconceivable, hazard doesn't help.)
b) we have much more effective methods of publicizing the hazards that remain.

Rob, who insures the new nuclear plants in the places (e.g. France) where they are being built?

Or are their liability laws enough saner than ours that the loss in case of a catastrophic event would be painful but tolerable?

wj,

I'm not an expert about how this is done internationally.

Every commercial general liability policy I've ever seen (all USian) have extensive exclusions re: nuclear power. At one point I asked about that and the answer I got was "uninsurable" (scary, hard for the actuaries to rate, whatever). Basically, private companies won't (or wouldn't) touch it. That's really all I know about it.

My expertise, such as it is, is limited to hazardous waste/pollution claims.

Rob, who insures the new nuclear plants in the places (e.g. France) where they are being built?

This is a useful summary, bearing in mind that the source is the nuclear industry's own trade group.

wj,

In France, international treaties limit nuclear operator liability. The operator is liable for a maximum of 91 or 700 million Euro (a 2004 convention changed the limit from 91 million to 700 million, it's not clear to me when this change takes effect). Other parties are liable for additional amounts (including the government of France and the signatories to the treaties.

Or are their liability laws enough saner than ours that the loss in case of a catastrophic event would be painful but tolerable?

I'm not sure what this means. Surely the damage caused by a nuclear accident is independent of the law. The French government subsidizes the liability of its nuclear industry and the liability cap is, in effect, a further subsidy. The victims of a nuclear accident will be stuck with any costs after the first 1.5 billion Euros.

From Jacob's link:

Liability is limited in time. Generally, compensation rights are extinguished under both Conventions if an action is not brought within ten years.

...

Jurisdiction over actions lies exclusively with the courts of the Contracting Party in whose territory the nuclear incident occurred;

...

Definition of nuclear damage covers property, health and loss of life but does not make provision for environmental damage, preventative measures and economic loss.

It looks like the nuclear industry has a good deal going with regards to liability.

Indeed.

"An element discovered in 1828 is, is .... named for the same Norse god of thunder that Stan Lee based his comic book hero on? Yup."

For what it's worth, Larry Lieber, Stan's brother, actually came up with about 93% of the original Marvel Thor character and traits; Stan just pretty much threw the idea at Kirby, and Larry. As usual, Stan Lee takes all credit, save when pushed. Notice no one here even said "created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby."

"What do you do with the waste?"

I am not an engineer, and I'm certainly not dismissing all concerns, but I thought the Yucca mountain facility plan was likely sufficient for at least a couple of generations, if not much longer.

"On the waste, my issue is mostly that it remains toxic/radioactive for so damned long. It needs to be stored - properly - for ridiculously long periods of time. I have no faith in our ability to do that right."

But the trade-off is that right now we kill hundreds of thousands of people with the alternatives. So you've got some risk to weight about future lives.

And meanwhile, definitely tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dead people per year.

I prefer to go ahead with continued development of fission power, naturally in combination with all other viable sources, including wind, geothermal, hydro, etc. But the rest only get you so far, and it ain't that far, compared to oil, gas, and coal.

Of course, fusion power is just around the corner any decade now! Just like it always has been.

Of course, we could start talking about solar power satellite beamed power, but people also will go nuts if you explain that you want to microwave beam that much power down from orbit. No matter that, you know, we have an enormous continuing fusion bomb in the sky that we can see whenever it isn't cloudy.

I have to admit that I have a fantasy of requiring legislators to pass an elementary school course on what the electromagnetic spectrum is, and what's harmful how far, and what isn't, before they get to vote on anything related to the topic, but that's definitely elitism, clearly.
Russell, if I came across as too snappish or dismissive last night, apologies. I would have been expressing some frustration at stress in moving, not intentionally at your post.

Oh, and for the record, without any malice, but simply because his memory is so bad, and he's so careless, pretty much everything Stan Lee has said in the past twenty years about stuff he did at Marvel earlier than that turns out to be untrue. He's simply that completely unreliable about the facts of what happened, because he relies purely on memory, and his memory is, proven by interview after interview, almost always wrong.

I still credit the man greatly for what he did do, but, jeeb, no one should ever mention Stan Lee "creating" anything without mentioning the actual people who did most of the work actually writing the story and creating the characters, namely, the artists: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and on down the list.

Kirby being dead, and politic before that, doesn't get to speak up these days, and Ditko, of course, famously quit working for Stan in 1966, and is, ah, not into self-promotion.

Gary, I hear you re: "right now we kill hundreds of thousands of people with the alternatives."

Or at least shorten their lives, yeah. I know.

This isn't easy, and I'm not saying I'm anti-nuclear power. I'm not. I'm simply advising caution wrt the waste.

I am not an engineer, and I'm certainly not dismissing all concerns, but I thought the Yucca mountain facility plan was likely sufficient for at least a couple of generations, if not much longer.

Wikipedia claims that Yucca Mountain is limited by statute to a capacity of 63K metric tons and that American nuclear power facilities will have produced about that much spent fuel around 2014. Now, spent fuel can be reprocessed but given that (1) we have no reprocessing facilities in the US and (2) we have no plans for building a large scale reprocessing facility anytime soon, it seems unlikely that Yucca Mountain, will be sufficient "for generations". Unless we're talking about goldfish generations.

To continue the sidebar about Stan Lee, anyone with any doubts about who should get credit for what and who created what should read the four-volume Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus that was published in 2007-8. The amount of creativity that was spewing out of Kirby across four titles over three years was unprecedented and remarkable, and his creations there have continued to impact the DC universe for decades since. They've got Darkseid, Granny Goodness and the Furies showing up on Smallville, for heaven's sake.

And that ignores the fact that Yucca Mountain has been a huge political disaster. It was foisted on a low population state against the strenuous objections of NV residents. And they've been fighting it for decades. The President and the Senate Majority leader are both strongly opposed to Yucca Mountain ever operating. That doesn't mean that they have the power to stop it, but they have demonstrated an ability to drastically slow down a massive challenging project that likely would have blown its budget and schedule even under the best of circumstances.

The point is, when it comes to Yucca Mountain, we gambled and lost. We made a bet that we could ram it down the throats of NV residents and that they wouldn't be able to stop us. We could have tried buying them off by giving NV large sums of cash to compensate them for the fact that they were getting stuck with a huge nuclear waste dump that no one else in the entire country wanted. But we didn't. And it turns out that NV residents and politicians have been more resourceful than Yucca Mountain proponents ever expected at stalling the project.

Similar over here. Politicians trying to ram it down the throats, then acting suprised that citizens are suspicious and not pleased. And then the studies they tried to suppress come up and news hit the headlines showing that the 'ideal final resting place' for the nuclear waste (a salt mine) has by now literally a river running through it and that the risk of that has been known for many years. And the politicians in questions are not even bought by the industry, just arrogant bastards.

In general, that incredibly corrosive substance known as water is found in the cracks and fissures of mountains. Underground burial is just a bad idea. The serious solution to radioactive waste is to split the low-level stuff off first, bury that in a standard hazardous material landfill, glassify the high-level stuff and store that in warehouses. Then build a big Marine Corps base around the glasssification facility and warehouses. Choose a particularly dry, hot, dangerous and remote area -- like a chunk of the Mojave east of Death Valley in southeast California or a slice of the Sonoran desert of Arizona.

But oddly enough no one's willing to commit to that idea.

Yucca Mountain as a disposal (storage) site was handled very badly. Cf the comment about "...ram it down the throats of NV residents." With a little more honey and less vinegar, they probably could have sold it (for better or worse) to the residents of Nevada. But arrogance (not too surprisingly) triumphed tactically; which meant a failure of the strategy to get something done.

But for long-term disposal, there really only seems to be one choice. I don't know if it is technologically viable yet, or even if anyone is working on it. But if you want to get rid of this stuff long-term, the only thing to do is find a nice subduction zone, insert it, and let it be carried down to the mantle. Anything else, and it's just a question of when it will intrude into our environment again.

"They've got Darkseid, Granny Goodness and the Furies showing up on Smallville, for heaven's sake."

And Glorious Godfrey.

Though I really disliked what they did with Doomsday.

I see a possible geeky Smallville open thread in the future, which all of four or five readers interested in might participate in. :-)

What we call "nuclear waste" right now is really unused fuel. In the long run we're going to need to extract energy from every gram of that stuff and turning it into hazardous waste that we have to keep secure for 10,000 years strikes me as completely crazy.

To me it seems the promising technology is "fast neutron" reactors, coupled with a reprocessing fuel cycle that doesn't produce bomb-grade material. There was a Scientific American article about this back in 2005 and of course the Wikipedia has details.

The basic points are that such a reactor is a breeder, consumes almost all of the fissionable material and after reprocessing produces waste that decays to a safe level in about 300 years. Well, that's quickly compared to 10,000 years although you might not have confidence in keeping hazardous material safely stored for even that long.

The reprocessing is akin to electroplating, and the deposited new fuel is not directly suitable for bombs, although no doubt bomb material could be extracted from it. Yes it uses nasty chemicals and high temperatures but not as crazy as high temperature fluorine gas (ugh!).

Also the reactors have to be cooled with liquid metal rather than water because water acts as a neutron moderator. There's pro and con to this -- liquid sodium is one option, but sodium of course reacts explosively with water so care is required. Still, it operates at atmospheric pressure rather than the high pressure when water is used.

For security the reprocessing should be on the same site as the power generation, and my preference would be to have it run by the military. I don't trust commercial entities to handle this safely.

I thought the key difference between Chernobyl and western plants was that Chernobyl lacked a containment building.

No, Turb, Chernobyl had a "containment building". It had a massive concrete 'biological shield' weighing a thousand tons, which got blown off the top by superheated steam during the disaster, like a DC manhole cover.
Any thoughts on your "high-temp fluorine" point earlier? Sounds interesting if true.

For general interest, a young Ukranian woman tours the area around the Chernobyl accident site by motorcycle.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium_fuel_cycle

explains more, look for "molten salt reactor"; now the information is primarily historical, not "advocating what to do in future". But there are links that are relevant to future plans.

AND, the fuel cycle is well explained. Under "disadvantages":


Advocates for liquid core and molten salt reactors claim that these technologies negate thorium's disadvantages

India has certainly been at the forefront of developing Th cycle technology, and I applaud them for that. But I'm not optimistic at all.

Technology Review, from MIT, has an article on Thorium:
http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/19758/

russell, that site is actually the subject of some interesting discussion. It seems likely that the photos are real, but that they were taken during an official tour rather than on a solo trip. But the latter makes for a much cooler story, and I have to admire the creativity of the whole exercise.

Damn.

If you can't even trust cute Ukrainian girls on sport bikes, who can you trust?

The world's going to hell.

"No, Turb, Chernobyl had a "containment building". It had a massive concrete 'biological shield' weighing a thousand tons, which got blown off the top by superheated steam during the disaster, like a DC manhole cover."

All the sources I've been able to find state that Chernobyl did NOT have a containment building. Though a 'biological shield' matching your description was indeed built there, AFTER the accident.

Wikipedia confirms my and Brett's claims that Chernobyl lacked a containment building (at least before the accident):

the reactor had not been contained by any kind of hard containment vessel (unlike Western plants).

ajay, if you have a cite indicating otherwise, I'd be curious to see it.

When Chernobyl happened there was a discussion in Germany whether the containment on German plants could withstand a similar oxyhydrogen explosion. Iirc the engineers asked about it would not put their reputation on the line guaranteeing it. A "we hope so" is not the most encouraging message in this context. At least the containment would buy time by slowing down the emission unlike the chimney effect observed in Chernobyl.
After 9/11 there was another discussion about how big a plane crash a typical containment dome could survive and again the results were ambiguous (definitely safe against small planes and fighter jets, no guarantee in case of fully loaded passenger liners). There were actual plans to fit plants with fog machines, so hijacked planes would have difficulty to find the target.
I guess nuclear power plants should better be buried a mile underground in geologically inactive regions, if one insists on containmant in even a worst case scenario.

ajay, if you have a cite indicating otherwise, I'd be curious to see it.

Certainly. Here is a schematic of the RBMK reactor from the Nuclear Energy Agency's report on the Chernobyl disaster.
http://www.nea.fr/rp/chernobyl/chernobyl-figure2.pdf
Note the thick dark grey layer surrounding the reactor and marked "biological shield".
Here, from the British Nuclear Energy Society, is a detailed analysis of Chernobyl, including a more detailed diagram and description of the biological shield.
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=oEqd0IeAhccC&pg=PA7&lpg=PA7&dq=chernobyl+biological+shield&source=bl&ots=K57u5jQDnD&sig=gfcwdvT2VvLp3Fnr4J3ijqAFh-k&hl=en&ei=uxjdTILqN9CEhQeP3bS9DQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CGUQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q&f=false

In fact, even if you do the absolute minimum of research and look up "RBMK" on Wikipedia, you'll still see the biological shield (green, labelled "radiation shield and containment structure") on the diagram there.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RBMK

Brett is confusing this with the concrete "sarcophagus" that was built around Reactor 4 after the explosion.

I'm really not sure why you and Brett are so invested in talking rubbish about reactor designs, but talking rubbish is in fact what you are doing.

There's all kinds of stuff on the biological shield, frex:

The reactor core is surrounded by a biological shield in the form of a cylindrical coaxial filled with water and 16.6 meters in diameter.


So, not quite as straightforwardly steel-reinforced-concrete as you're making it out to be.

But maybe there's yet another document that contradicts the above.

Read the whole thing, slarti. It goes into detail that you may have missed on a quick skim. Like "the 1000 tonne steel and cement filled biological shield", for example.

What you basically have is a big box made of steel and concrete. It's full of water. It's got a lid (the upper shield) made of steel and concrete, and a base (the lower shield) made of the same stuff. In the middle of the box is another steel box, full of helium/nitrogen mixture, and inside that is the reactor core, which is a big block of graphite drilled full of holes.

The outermost box, plus the water, is the biological shield.

Fair enough; I did miss that.

1000 metric tons is approximately 400 cubic meters of concrete & steel, which means that the lid was just under 2m thick.

IOW, fairly stout.

ajay,
From the wikipedia article on RBMK reactors, it seems that there was a shield around the core itself and some of the plumbing, but that other pipes carrying radioactive steam were not within this containment shield. So not the big containment building that we're used to seeing in the West (nb this article notes The Russian VVER design is mostly the same as Western PWRs in regards to containment, as it is a PWR itself.
Old RBMK designs, however, did not use containments, which was one of many technical oversights of the Soviet Union that contributed to the Chernobyl accident in 1986.
).

Also, Harmut, that article notes: In the United States, the design and thickness of the containment and the missile shield are governed by federal regulations (10 CFR 50.55a), and must be strong enough to withstand the impact of a fully loaded passenger airliner without rupture. fwiw.

Carleton, do you by chance know when this became part of the law? Was it before or after Chernobyl/Three-Mile-Island/other specific incident? Genuine question, no intention of goalpoast moving.

Not sure- earliest date I saw in the code was 1963, but this part might have been added later. And I didn't think that contradicted what you said- just bc they're supposed to be that strong doesn't mean that they *are*. Or that containment is exactly the same in the US and Germany.
Also, the max takeoff weight of a 727 is about .2M lb. The max takeoff weight of an A380 is 1.3M lbs- so maybe the earlier shells were built with the former in mind.

I think the discussion was before the first A380 took to the skies but a Boeing 747 Jumbo (I assume) is in a similar weight class. I have no idea how the German engineers came to their conclusion (likely not by testing it under real life conditions ;-)). If the mentality has not changed in the last decades, it might be simply the old rule always to understate what a system can take. For pressure vessels the safety margin was traditionally 2.5-3, i.e. if the engineer was sure that a vessel could withstand 25 bar and would likely fail at 30, he would put a sign on it saying 'never ever increase pressure above 10 bar!!!'. A US engineer would put a 'working pressure 18 bar, safe up to 22' sign on it on a day of low self-confidence.
I think we can agree that we all would prefer for such a critical situation never to occur in real life in connection with nuclear installations.

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