Why We Should Delay Closing Nuclear Power Plants
The problems at nuclear power plants have been so rare that the continuing smaller, but wide- spread health problems with fossil fuel power like mercury and smoke have to be much greater. It is remarkable that the thought of giving up nuclear power production has taken hold so quickly in spite the fact that many of us still seem to think that climate change is a hoax. Global warming was predicted in the 1890s when the father of physical chemistry, Svante Arrhenius, was measuring the infrared absorption spectra of common gases and discovered the remarkable properties of carbon dioxide and methane. The gradual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide had already been conclusively demonstrated. Our media’s giving equal time to the opposition is like giving equal time to people who believe the world is flat. * This article’s purpose is to explain why it is very premature to discontinue atomic electric power production until it has time to consume all the nuclear waste crated by nuclear disarmament. Nuclear disarmament must succeed. One pound of nuclear fuel (or bomb) contains the energy of 1500 pounds of coal. The world capacity of nuclear power reactor producing electricity increased from 25 million kilowatt hours in 1970 to 250 million in i980 (My encyclopedia is rather old, but you get the idea.)
The uranium in atomic bombs made of uranium 235 can be mixed with depleted uranium 238 (half life 4.5 billion years) to make the material no more dangerous than the uranium originally was before it was mined. Separating uranium’s isotopes is very expensive and requires highly technical processes---difficult to accomplish let alone conceal. There is no comparable easy way to similarly deal with waste plutonium 239 (half life 25,000 years) because it has no stable isotopes. All of our plutonium was produced by capture of neutrons by heavy elements such as thorium and uranium in nuclear reactors (hence the term breeder reactors), but even ”journeyman” reactors create some trans-uranium elements as waste. Plutonium is the most useful of these.
Atomic power (and bombs) depends on fission (splitting) of unstable heavy nuclei. This produces nuclei of about half of the atomic weight of the nuclear fuel, mostly stable light elements and a few radioactive isotopes of them with short half lives. ** Destruction of our large amount of nuclear waste including the nuclear fuel for electric power production will take a few centuries of storage instead of tens of thousands of years if we bury the bombs. A final run of just one atomic power plant with mostly Uranium 235 should get rid of most of the small amount of plutonium that crept into the new waste as mentioned in the previous paragraph. None of my friends, more knowledgeable about these matters than I, has contradicted the above.
I wanted to be an astrophysicist when I went to college until I realized that medicine would relieve the stresses of academic politics. I have been a life member of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), attended many of their annual meetings, and have read their weekly journal for 70 years.
* Should the agreed acceptance of a scientific theory be called its hypotheosis---compare with apotheosis of human saints.
** An incidental and fascinating fact: A large fraction of common potassium is its isotope, potassium 40, which has been newly discovered to be radioactive with a half life of 40 billion years. It decays to Argon 40, 1% of our atmosphere. Modern sophisticated analysis has confirmed many somewhat controversial geological dates previously calculated from uranium’s 2.5 billion year half life in decaying to Lead 207. The discovery 150 years ago that lead had three different atomic weights was the first inkling of isotopes. To persistent cross examination the chemist involved simply replied, “I do good work and that is what I found. ” A reply worthy of a Nobel prize.
John Frantz, MD,
December 30, 2016