Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Paradox of Nuclear Power by James Mahaffey

Radiation. Just the naked word, radiation, is enough to make us uncomfortable. The word carries a sinister, dangerous under-meaning, even to someone who has worked closely with it. I have stared, by way of a mirror, at the center of a nuclear reactor core at full power. I have gazed down into a swimming pool holding 700,000 curies of cobalt-60, I have dangled a californium-252 source at the end of a 10-foot pole, and still "radiation" gets to me. Our chimes are still vibrating, from being banged roughly during the periods of The Fantasy and The Puzzle, the newsreels of Chernobyl* and Hiroshima/Nagasaki* still burned in our brains. Radiation remains secretly harmful. You can just be standing there, feeling nothing unusual, while being killed by it, never mind being actively hit with it via a meltdown or a bomb.

The practical mode of nuclear power, fission, releases a tremendous blast of radiation in a wide spectrum, and extraordinary precautions must be exercised to prevent it from sterilizing the vicinity of the reaction. However, to put it in perspective, a major component of The Paradox of nuclear power is that far more people die each year of radiation-induced disease from standing out in the sun than have ever died from the (peaceful)application of nuclear power. There is, after all, radiation all around us. There has always been radiation penetrating our bodies, 24 hours a day.

I drew pay at Georgia Tech Research Institute for 25 years, with my office in the Electronics Research Building, or the ERB. It was a serviceable building, Spartan by contemporary standards, three stories, with an over-built steel frame, filled in with concrete blocks, completed in 1966. In the next lot, just north of the ERB, they had built the Frank H. Neely Nuclear Research Center in 1963. It contained a faithful copy of the 5-megawatt CP-5 heavy water reactor at the Argonne National Lab, hand-built and looking as if no expense was spared.

Being a nuclear research reactor, radiation monitoring at the Neely Center was taken quite seriously. Not only was the inside of the air-sealed reactor containment building monitored continuously at several key locations, the entire facility was wired for radiation detection, with a staff of trained health physicists constantly vigilant. One sunny day in in 1965, all hell broke loose. Radiation alarm bells started going off, indicating that there was an unintended critical mass of fuel somewhere inside. That was impossible. All the uranium in the facility was accounted for. The health physics team grabbed their portable counters, switched them on, clicked down-scale, and started scanning the floor to locate the source. The electronics maintenance team checked the alarm settings and started testing the equipment, beginning with the power supplies. The Geiger-counter-equipped health physicists followed the radiation out the front door and up the hill, south, to the adjacent building, which was under construction. Their alarms were being rattled, not by a mass of uranium accidentally dumped on the floor of a nuclear laboratory, but by a newly delivered load of construction materials for the seemingly benign Electronics Research Building.

The ERB was made of an enormous pile of concrete blocks which had naturally been supplied by the lowest bidder, a phosphate mine in Florida. A Florida phosphate digger makes a strip mine, and there is a lot of waste material that must be stored or gotten rid of. It made perfect sense to bake the tailings, form them into concrete blocks, and sell them for cheap in Georgia. It at least gets rid of the stuff. But there's a catch. Phosphate mines are unusually rich in uranium. Just about every dirt, rock, soil, sand or dust sample in the world contains at least a small amount of uranium. It is the most universally distributed material on Earth, albeit in diluted quantities; but phosphate mines are so uranium-heavy that the tailings are now considered to be a strategic resource. The ERB basically amounted to a big pile of uranium ore, and it was gradually decaying away into lead, shooting off a variety of rays, particles, and radioactive 'daughter products'.

The unusual nature of our building was never officially mentioned to the occupants, for fear of a stampede, but it was the talk of health physics meetings nationwide. I gained some amusement by parking a scintillation counter in the corner of my office and watching the rate meter climb off-scale to the right. Professionally, we call it "pegging the needle". Occasionally a colleague would see my radiation instrument going wild and ask, "This isn't going to...harm me, is it?

"Probably not," I would shrug. "By the time the cancer kicks in, you'll probably have heart disease." My sarcasm was often not appreciated.

In 2007 both buildings were torn down to make way for the new Nanotechnology Research Center. What is interesting is the way the two buildings were demolished. The reactor was covered with an air-tight plastic tent and was ever so carefully broken down piece by piece, over the course of months, extremely expensive work. The reactor containment structure had for all its life been kept spotlessly clean. Every surface was wiped, cleaned, polished and scrubbed to prevent the slightest buildup of anything radioactive and any hint of contamination would be noted on the constantly swooping instruments and treated rigorously. You could literally eat off the floor in that building. There was probably no public health hazard from striking that place, even without all the plastic sheeting.

The ERB, on the other hand, was blown down by a bulldozer and wrecking ball one work-day afternoon as the students and faculty strolled by. Three guys with garden hoses tried to keep down the choking dust as it wafted out of the wreckage, coating everything and everybody, deep down into their lungs, with pulverized, medium grade uranium ore. A plume of gray concrete dust drifted slowly over the campus, raining down what we used to call "fallout".

See what I mean, when I call it The Paradox? Much effort and millions of dollars were put into protecting the people on the Georgia Tech campus from radiation, but all the effort may have been directed into the wrong coordinates. The people were actually protected from something much more important than the inhalation of uranium. They were protected from the perception of radiation contamination. It will be hard to prove that anyone on campus on the day the ERB came down dies of lung cancer because of the dust, and I highly doubt that anyone will, but the perception of radiation exposure due to a decommissioned research reactor, if allowed to propagate uncontrolled, could bring down the trillion-dollar nuclear power industry. Tearing down a nuclear facility in the city of Atlanta in full public view in a plastic bubble showed good faith, even if it had the reality component of Disney World. The public is hyper-sensitive to the issue of industrial radiation contamination, and the psychology of it is very powerful. The general feeling took decades to fully develop, and the excesses of the Age of Wild Experimentation did not help dampen the growth of radiation anxiety.

*There were 55 recorded deaths from radiation exposure at Chernobyl, and many large, non-fatal doses. To be fair, it must be noted that 171,000 people died in China in 1975 when the Banqiao Dam failed, 18,000 people died in Bhopal, India, in 1984 when a valve was left open in a Union Carbide pesticides plant, and in London, England, 12,000 people died in a frightfully thick fog from sulfurous coal burning in 1952.

* A short time after the bombing of these cities they were both struck by a typhoon which washed most of the radioactive dust lingering in these cities to the bottom of the sea, rendering them habitable.


  1. Around 1978 nuclear engineering as a profession went dark, as the power industry tried its best to stay out of the public mind. And then, over the decades of sleep, something very odd happened. It is not easy to describe. It had that same component of deepest-felt, secret disappointment one feels when the bad boys you knew in high school, the ones that you were certain would do time, grow up and turn into responsible human beings. It can be frustrating when things do not turn out as they were supposed to, when the laws of nature are ignored. As I watched, helpless, nuclear power became the safest industrial process in the world.

    Gone was the excitement, the hint of danger, and the risk-taking of the experimental years. The indescribable sense of exclusive fun that we all felt, whether we admitted it or not, had disappeared. The improved technology, the allowed radiation dose standards, and the general sense of industrial safety had finally caught up with the power source of the future, and the result was the edgy nuclear technology reduced to crashing boredom. In a research area once abuzz with hyper-speed nuclear propulsion, neutron weapons, and experimental molten-salt reactors, I was now hosed down with discussions of maintaining nuclear safety standards in a time of craft labor shortages and news of an exciting Paint and Coating Expo in Los Angeles. Even the Yucca Mountain repository, which I counted on as a sources of refreshing controversy, had been rendered safe as a sandbox by careful engineering and was simply waiting to open.

    The environmental movement, started in England after the killer coal-fog in 1952, gained national prominence, a Nobel Peace Prize and motion picture Academy Award. The new term of atmospheric pollution is now "global warming" and there is a suggestion for how it can be curtailed. We must stop burning things to generate power, artificially increasing the carbon-dioxide component in the air. That is not a difficult problem to address. We have worked on it for half a century. It is that enormous elephant in the room whenever global warming is discussed. It is not entirely solar energy, wind power generation, or geothermal steam. It is a power source that can base-load the world's increasing energy needs, and it works in the dark. on cloudy days, in rain, in fog, tornados, perfectly still air, twenty-four hours a day. It is something for which we may finally be willing to pay.

    The ball has started moving, if not rolling...on September 25, 2007, the first application for a new nuclear power plant construction and operating license in 30 years was received by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In October of the same year four more projects filed for a license and two engineering and procurement contracts were signed...

  2. "Atomic Awakening; A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power" by James Mahaffey; Pegasus Books, 2009.

    If you can follow the quantum mechanics that is the theoretical foundation of nuclear power then good for you! Just about the most I could get was that the popular model of an atom- sort of like a planet with various moons orbiting around it is all wrong, though the symbol is ubiquitous, used even by those who know better. I might also safely conclude that, microscopically, the world is contingent, the boundaries between energy, matter, space and time not all that clear cut. Thus the author refers to his topic as the paradox inside a puzzle inside a fantasy- explaining the great and uncertain difficulties surrounding early efforts to develop nuclear power, as well as the suspicion with which it is viewed by the public.