Saturday, November 6, 2010

A response to President Obama's recent comments about the nuclear industry

November 6th, 2010

Dear Readers,

During a press conference after the elections this week, President Obama made a short reference in vague support of nuclear energy. He said:

"There's been discussion about how we can restart our nuclear industry as a means of reducing our dependence on foreign oil and reducing greenhouse gases. Is that an area where we can move forward?"

Mr. President, the answer is no: There isn't any way to move forward with nuclear power. There isn't any reason to. Nuclear power is incredibly expensive, highly polluting, it risks unstoppable catastrophe every day, and it's a hazard to nuclear industry workers and to the public.

A "commercial" nuclear reactor would cost upwards of 15 billion dollars to build in America today and require massive government subsidies which could be invested in, for example, offshore wind power and transmission lines instead.

Some people want to develop thousands of "small" nuclear power plants for elite communities of perhaps 20,000 homes each. Supposedly they will run for several decades and "only" need their fuel replaced maybe once. But from the moment ANY reactor reaches criticality, lethal quantities of fission products are created: Every atom of radioactive uranium which is split with a neutron to release energy (heat, which is turned into steam, which, a few steps later, turns a turbine to generate electricity) becomes approximately TWO radioactive fission atoms.

Fission products are especially dangerous because many of them have half-lives that are measured in human generations, which gives them time to get into a human being somewhere if they are released to the environment. When the fission products decay, they usually transmute into something which is ALSO radioactive. Each of those isotopes then decays into something which is ALSO radioactive... this decay chain goes on for twenty or more steps. When one uranium atom is split, the result is dozens of separate radioactive events before all the products of that original fission event become something stable (for example, lead). The entire process is very unpredictable but usually takes hundreds of thousands of years, so nuclear accidents last a long time in the environment. Radioactive fallout from atmospheric weapons testing continues today, as does fallout from Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Mayak, Sellafield, and thousands of other so-called "accidents".

ALL nuclear power plants are simply accidents waiting to happen.

As fission products decay and release alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays and so on, all these radioactive emissions are hazardous to all living things AND are also destructive to everything we've ever built -- especially including the computer chips that control the nuclear reactors -- and on which most of our current lifestyles depend!

Fission products build up very quickly, and even "little" reactors would be ideal targets for terrorists. No wonder these are intended to only be used in "gated" communities! Nuclear processes invariably lead us towards a more totalitarian future, which, of course, NOBODY wants -- in part because it won't work. We will never be able to relax... especially if we have to build a police state just to feel safe. It's a fundamental contradiction, Mr. President.

Also, there's the nuclear waste problem. You stopped Yucca Mountain all but dead in its (crooked and rusting) tracks, and set up a commission to talk among themselves about the waste problem, as if it hadn't already been talked about by "experts" for more than half a century! What's new under the sun?

At technology's pace everywhere else, lots. So doesn't it seem ODD to you that the problem of how to properly store nuclear waste still remains so completely unsolved by ANY nation? It's not politics: Some of the nations that can't solve it are dictatorships! And would YOU expect their solutions to work, anyway, considering that WE can't come up with anything that works? And when their solutions fail, everyone globally suffers. A nuclear disaster anywhere is a nuclear disaster everywhere.

There is no way to safely secure nuclear waste from all probable (over time) natural and man-made disasters. You can't stuff a red-hot poker into a paper bag and expect containment. And since ionizing radiation is hotter than a red-hot poker, and cuts through all chemical bonds like butter, the analogy is appropriate. The problem will remain unsolvable and intractable. Permanent safe storage of nuclear waste is statistically, logically, and scientifically impossible. So we have to stop making more nuclear waste. That's the FIRST priority.

The use of nuclear power does NOT reduce our dependence on foreign oil, nor is it ANY net benefit to society. Nuclear power doesn't even reduce the COST of electricity, despite all its subsidies and nearly-free insurance.

The chemicals used to enrich the nuclear fuels from raw ore are the ozone layer's most significant industrial pollutant. Thus, the global increase in skin cancer rates can be attributed at least in part to the global use of nuclear power, although radionuclides which continue to land on everyone's skin from past weapons testing and from other current nuclear operations may also be a significant contribution. And at least one estimate of internal radiation pollution -- which came from nuclear supporters, by the way -- suggests that an average American adult male urinates out about a million atoms of plutonium every day, the vast majority of it from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, some from Chernobyl and other civilian nuclear power releases, some from rocket accidents, some from truck accidents, ship accidents, rail accidents, airplane accidents... and quite a bit was intentionally released, and is still being released from every nuclear reactor globally on a daily basis.

Radiation kills. As a bladder cancer survivor, I know that radiation is an acknowledged cause of that particular disease (and many others). So it seems to me that there could be a connection between the 60 thousand new cases of bladder cancer in America each year and all the unnecessary and unnatural radiation we are each forced to eat, drink, breath, and absorb, including tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Hydrogen is a basic building-block of nearly every molecule of every cell in our bodies, including our genetic code. We don't need ANY of our hydrogen decaying inside our bodies (these decays eject an extremely damaging beta particle at nearly the speed of light).

The nuclear industry fails to achieve its promoters' dreams for numerous reasons, including the simple fact that radionuclides invariably leak or are intentionally released from ALL nuclear operations, and radiation is a killer -- and it especially kills fetuses, infants, and babies. Furthermore, it destroys God's greatest gift to mankind: Our DNA. (Or evolution's greatest stroke of luck... take your pick... either way, it's precious...)

Because radiation is implicated in so many diseases, and because the nuclear industry has a long history of accidents, cover-ups, lies and propaganda, rational people will ALWAYS oppose nuclear power. Strong-minded, intelligent, educated, caring citizens all over America (and all around the world) will ALWAYS oppose nuclear power. And the waste problem WON'T be solved -- ever -- because ionizing radiation destroys any container you put it in. Even pure gold wouldn't work -- though it might work better than the relatively inexpensive solutions (costing tens of billions of dollars....) that have been tried, and failed, so far.

The entire planet -- and everyone on it -- is unstable. Yes, I mean earthquakes. But also: Unstable PEOPLE have been found at virtually ALL levels of our military and government over the years, and even within our so-called "national security" forces and "intelligence" forces... there are leaks and always will be, turncoats and always will be, double-agents and always will be, and always have been. Maybe it's the price we pay as a "free" society.

But in any event, it is one more reason that the requirements for nuclear power cannot be met: Perfect security is impossible. Failure-free operation is impossible. A solution to the waste problem is impossible.

EVERYTHING humans build fails eventually... including jet engines made by "venerable" Rolls-Royce, who also make NUCLEAR REACTOR COMPONENTS using the same or similar alloys. Of the two recent turbine engine failures on Quantas jetliners this week, one was a relatively new RR engine on a French-built (mainly) Airbus A-380, and one was an older RR engine on an American-built (mainly) Boeing 747. Catastrophic failures are often predictable and in fact, in nearly every instance in which the cause can be determined afterwards, the catastrophe could have been prevented if the clues and signs had been considered, if proper procedures had been followed and proper inspections had been done, if accurate data had been available, etc. etc.. But in the real world, accidents happen. People fail, and the things we build fail.

There are embrittlement problems regarding our nation's so-called "super" alloys -- alloys that were supposed to save the nuclear industry (and not to mention, the gas pipeline industry and the jet aircraft industry).

In reality these so-called "super" alloys aren't so super, in part because they are very difficult to manufacture correctly, and it's very difficult to tell afterwards if they have, in fact, been made properly. So a lot of lower-quality parts slip through the cracks -- which causes cracks. And most worrisome of all is that these so-called "super" alloys don't always respond very well to a radioactive environment (plus heat and vibration). Keyword phrases include: "self-organizing criticality of alloys" and "avalanches of dislocation on glide planes, which can cause either plastic creep or ductile fracture, embrittlement, etc.." It's why older people often break a hip when they fall, while younger people do not. Younger bones are less brittle. Our nuclear reactors are ALREADY broken. The massive failures are just WAITING to happen, when already-brittle parts are finally over-stressed for some reason.

The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is a perfect example of supposedly good technicians and engineers pushing the "envelope" JUST LIKE AT CHERNOBYL. Some engineers are called "cowboys" because they rely on their "last resort" to work. Others are called safety inspectors because they try to keep the operation well away from the final safety margins at all times.

Luckily, the brash attitude of the British Petroleum workers and their subcontractors in the Gulf of Mexico this year "only" resulted in a blowout of an oil well, not a meltdown of a reactor. But brash attitudes abound at our nuclear facilities, and arrogance does, too.

Also consider this: Currently many of our nuclear reactor control rooms are being "modernized" and computerized.

As a technologist with more than 30 years in the computer industry, you might think I would welcome this. And perhaps I might, if software bugs weren't so often blamed for rockets exploding or flying themselves into various moons and planets they were supposed to circle, and if airplanes didn't occasionally fly themselves into mountains or dive themselves into the ground, and if nearly every banking mistake made in the past 50 years wasn't blamed on computers. (Ahem! Public Disclosure: I used to program computers for a bank...) No, I'm NOT happy to hear that our nuclear reactors are being "modernized." The new components are vulnerable to hack attacks (such as what's been happening in Iran recently -- and all over the world -- including in the U.S. -- with the Stuxnet worm) as well as "random" failures.

Computer-controlled nuclear reactor control rooms sound great. But they are vastly more complex than the old control rooms, and can suddenly "reboot" themselves just when the reactors need them to "think fast" and SCRAM the reactor.

There is no way to guarantee this won't happen. Even though there is such a thing as "Mil Spec" and many companies follow those requirements, nevertheless, even the "experts" can't decide on the exact definition of "MTBF" (does the "M" stand for "mean," "minimum," or "median"? Does the "B" stand for "between" or "before"? And that's just for starters!). Electronic component failure is caused in part by cosmic rays and stray alpha particles -- both impossible to prevent or predict. This is especially true in modern, ultra-high-density computer chips, which are particularly susceptible to an Electro-Magnetic Pulse because the circuits are so delicate and so small compared to the runs of wires on a motherboard or beyond.

Reactors are NOT "hardened" facilities. Previously, they were entirely "hard-wired" (not electronic) and it was thought that, being so, they would SURVIVE an EMP from a nuclear blast. So the regulations didn't demand hardening. Now they are being computerized and modernized, but the regulations still don't demand they be hardened against EMPs. Just one more loophole the nuclear reactor industry wallows in.

Most of our nuclear reactors are using technology envisioned in the 40s, designed in the 50s, sited and built in the 60s, and they have been running (erratically, I might add...) since the 70s. Most are currently held together with bailing wire twisted around things that are falling apart, and toilet paper wadded up with spit to plug up things that are leaking.

Mr. President, there are 1000 things wrong with nuclear power, and you won't fix them in your residency at the presidency, and nor will your so-called science advisors, who apparently are too narrow-minded to even smell the cordite, let alone the cancer... Perhaps it would be better if your advisors were dogs, frankly, since dogs can actually sniff out both of those things!

Mr. President: Last month (October 2010) the National Science Foundation found that the West Coast -- from Alaska to California -- was generally unprepared for a tsunami such as occurred to Bande Ache and other coastal communities around the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. The NSF report was all over the media, but media accounts never mentioned that our biggest danger is from our coastal nukes. These reactor sites currently store enough nuclear waste to destroy the planet if it were released in an inextinguishable fire -- which a tsunami OR an earthquake (let alone both...) could certainly do.

Spent nuclear fuel storage in coastal communities and/or earthquake zones is definitely foolhardy. But spent fuel storage in tornado zones is ALSO illogical. And under commercial or military flight paths makes no sense either! There's just NO safe place to put it anywhere! So we really have to stop making more nuclear waste. That's the best step forward.


Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

The author, 54, has been studying nuclear issues since his teens. His educational software products are used in over 1000 universities and colleges around the world.