Powers That Cannot Be

POWERS THAT CANNOT BE

Just Pan:
Oh, the power of nature. When we build in earthquake zones, which side ultimately wins? When we live along tsunami prone coastlines, which side will prevail? It is invariable that momma nature will rule the day and inveigle to think otherwise. The devastation that has happened in Japan is beyond contemplation. Whole families are now gone, happy lives forever destroyed. I would hope that we all feel compassionate enough and compelled to reach out in giving what we can to aid in the double natural disaster. I know my seven-year-old and five-year-old daughters do. They have been asking what is it they can do to relieve the ongoing pain being felt there.

With this said, there is even another unfolding tragedy happening in Japan that is not natural, but manmade and could have even more far reaching results in its negative effect on life. It cannot be seen and strikes the body within and throughout. It can reach out riding the prevailing atmospheric winds and bid its doing thousands of miles away from its point source. We are talking about radiation in elevated levels. Japan is one country above all others that has considered building codes to resist high Richter magnitude scale earthquakes, but no matter how much we profess, no manmade construction is equivalent to match the forces of nature. To say we are failsafe, is more of a marketing scheme than a sound technical conclusion.

I once contracted out my skills to a nuclear power plant during rod replacement in the reactor core, but I am by no means an expert in nuclear physics and won’t pretend to be. I will though, attempt to convey in what I do know and hopefully it will shed some proper light on the matter.

Irradiation Influx:
We, as of late, have been bombarded by a constant streamline of radiation and nuclear power plant verbiage, so let’s try in attempts here of understanding them.

Irradiation, the capable process of shedding radiation upon, occurs naturally with every second ticked off in the light of day and dark of night. We’re constantly bombarded from natural widespread non-ionizing sources originating from weak forms, such as ultraviolet light rays, sound waves, magnetic fields and bizarre neutrinos. Artificially, we are exposed as well from induced electromagnetic radio and television frequencies. Naturally occurring ionized radiation from interstellar cosmic rays also bombard us on a constant basis. Originally from the deepest reaches of space and now as nearby as our sun, they are highly excited photons, due to high energy level protons and nuclei principally emanating from a helium nucleus.

Cosmic rays not only spray the Earth’s surface, but dig deep down into soil and bedrock. These primary cosmic ray exposures are stronger in higher altitudes thereby people 6,000 feet up in Denver receive twice the dosage amount than those living at sea level.

Cosmic rays also create a second source of radiation by the constant bombardment of primary cosmic rays continual pelting of gaseous elements in the upper atmosphere. This atomic smashing generates secondary radiation in the forms of gamma rays and high energy electrons. Strongest dosages of secondary radiation are defined by latitude instead of elevation, with the greater levels at the poles and least experienced along the equator.

Though life experiences a constant shower of natural and manmade radiation, there is no need to fret any or worry none. True radiation damage deals in the lengths of waves, amount and exposure times and for the most part, life has evolved protections against these natural properties, such as darker skin (melanism) in more direct ultraviolet sunlight. Radiation hazards do indeed occur though, but only when these three factors are coordinated for a specified wavelength to enter into an organism in an accumulative manner above the threshold dose. A radioactive shorter wavelength may not be harmful in succinct periods or smaller exposures, but may be in longer time frames and continued larger dosages.

TV and radio electromagnetic frequencies are harmless longwave magnetic transmissions. Not to confuse the issue, but there is also outgoing longwave radiation (OLR) exiting Earth in the infrared spectrum. In Earth’s current geological period of time, a radiation balance has been achieved where OLR nearly equals the shortwave absorbed radiation (SAR) as received from the sun in the form of higher energy. As of late though, OLR is being affected increasing the effect of SAR radiation. Introduced higher amounts of greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere absorb wavelengths of OLR adding heat to the atmosphere, in turn causing the atmosphere to emit more radiation. The increases in concentration of greenhouse gases are contributing to global warming by the increased amount of radiation absorbed then emitted and redirected back to Earth by the greenhouse gaseous constituents. Cosmic rays, a myriad collection of waves and sources, are at their prime dosage levels for life to exist and in fact are the substance of all life. We are simply composed no more or no less of…star stuff.

Radiator:
Many materials contain unstable atomic nuclei that disintegrate spontaneously, in which we call radioactive decay. In so doing, the decaying process emits alpha or beta particles and/or gamma rays that are energized short wavelengths that well touch on in a moment. This original disintegrating material is known as the parent substance which decays into daughter isotopes that can become extremely radioactive, in particular in man’s enrichment processes and nuclear dabbling.

Since the U.S. Nuclear Commission requires the rad as part of the code in federal regulations, I’ll first comment on the rad system in measurement of radiation levels. Radiation levels here in the U.S. are measured in units known as a rad, which is an acronym: (r)adiation/(a)bsorbed/(d)ose. Rads measure the absorbed doses expressed in ergs, a unit of work or energy and is based on per gram of irradiated material. Further, rem: (r)otengen/(e)quivalent/(m)an, is the biological measure of the effectiveness of radiation. One rem equals one rad for gamma rays and X-rays and normally 10 for neutrons, an uncharged atomic nucleus particle that when free can be hazardous. For other forms of radiation there is a special factor used to multiply by whatever the number of rems equal to whatever the number of rads.

The rest of the world measures radiation through an internationally agreed upon method called the Systeme Internationale or SI system. The three units involved are the Becquerel (Bq), Gray (GY) and Sievert (Sv). Bq is defined as one disintegration per atom (nuclear transformation) per second by measuring the radioactive source’s strength. Gy measures absorded doses broken down as energy absorption of 1 joule (an electrical unit of energy) per gram of radiated material. Gy is equivalent to and supercedes the American rad. Lastly, Sv measures an equivalent absorbed dose of radiation that produces the same biological effect as 1 Gy of gamma rays or X-rays. Sv supercedes the rem measurement. So, if you hear of any of these measuring terms, you’ll have some core understanding.

Now listen, if you think that this makes for difficult reading, you ought to try writing it, but as far as radiation touches us on a constant basis, we can at least touch the bases with it. OK, since we’ve had a breather, let’s continue.

Of all of the above discussion, it only entails two forms of radiation which are ionizing and non ionizing. Non ionizing radiation only penetrates the surface superficially. By far most of this form of radiation experienced is ultraviolet (UV) originating from the sun. Fortunately, Earth’s natural ozone layer composed of oxygen isotopes filters out most of the UV ray emissions intensity, as long as man quits poking holes in the ozone layer. When we jettison all those forms of pollutant hydrocarbons and chlorine fluorocarbons into the atmosphere, these carbon compounds readily combine with the isotopes dissociating the oxygen molecules, hence rendering the ozone inadequate in blocking UV waves. In stating non ionization radiation as superficial penetration we mean biological in that radiation only travels through the top layers of body tissue. Over exposure though, can do damage to these superficial layers by heating the exposed tissue, rearranging its DNA and RNA molecules as attested by those painful sunburns.

Non ionizing radiation causes excitation within the exposed molecule, harshly vibrating the constituent atoms. This is how a microwave functions; producing shortwave radio-frequency electromagnetic non ionizing energy. As microwaves are traveling through, they shake the holy bejesus out of the cooking food. The molecular excitation reaches an energized point resulting in heat as the by-product. The fact that metallic molecules are compacted much denser than other material, once excited, they are bumping and banging into each other at accelerated rates within their more confined configuration creating heat in a hurry; even to the point of sparking. That is why momma always says don’t wrap your burger in foil in the microwave.

Ionized radiation has a differing effect on biological tissue, in that traveling through material in its wake it can forcibly eject electrons orbiting an atom, creating an ion that is capable of chemical combination with other ions. This ionized re-combination can totally deform the molecule, disrupting its intended original function. You can imagine the strong effects on a molecular level ionized radiation can have on organic tissue. I understand that this is the exact mishap that occurred with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m quite sure that candidly bombed.


Ionized radiation comes in three flavors…X-ray, gamma ray and particle radiation that exhibits mass. X-rays are electromagnetic waves primarily mechanically produced and rarely universally found in nature. Gamma rays in contrast, occur naturally, but are normally shorter in wavelengths with higher frequencies. They result from the spontaneous decay of radioactive material. Lastly, particle radiation is subatomic particles exhibiting accelerated velocities due to an element’s radioactive decay, therefore possessing a highly unstable nucleus. Particle radiation essentially is an unfinished atom emitting either negatively charged electrons or positively charged protons with neutrons in the nucleus. These highly unstable subatomic particles decay in seeking a more stable and balanced charge. Of course all atoms possess electrons, protons and except in hydrogen, possess neutrons. Most of these atoms are, thank goodness in equilibrium due to the electron’s negative charge cancelling out the proton’s positive charge. The neutron is neutral in charge.

The principal sources of ionized radiation, is radioactive decay from elements and minerals containing unstable atoms that break down. This spontaneous disintegration emits the positively charged protons called alpha particles (α), the negatively charged electrons called beta particles (β) and gamma rays (ϒ) that carry no mass. Alpha particles hurled off from the original atom are positively charged with two protons and two neutrons. Beta particles are negatively charged electrons cast off from the decaying atom, while gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation emitted from the nucleus of the atom. The accompanying gamma ray during the decaying process is pure radiant energy known as a photon and as light, is regarded as a wave with no particle traits.

Any wave is merely a disturbance through the medium it is traveling through. A more defined wave, or ray, is a vector normal to an undulating surface indicating direction and velocity of propagation. In describing radioactive emissions, alpha, beta and gamma are characterized as rays. So, to refine the discourse here, radioactivity is simply the spontaneous transmutation of one element into another by the emission of these three rays.

Nuclear Fishin’:
There are good arguments for nuclear fission power plants. Nuclear fission, the splitting of an atom, is the process nuclear utility companies incorporate. It provides clean non airborne pollutant energy that coal fired power plants do and may be set up anywhere by not relying on local generating sources such as dams or waterfalls. There is also debatable argument that it is cost effective and more efficient due to less expensive fuel costs overall versus coal and gas fired plants and nuclear power plants are with nil pollutant discharges that add to costs.

Nuclear reactors in conventional nuclear power plants are not only point sources of direct radiation, but are also prolific producers of radioactive isotopes that are left behind once the enriched uranium fuel is reacted while undergoing fission. This creates an immense amount of heat which is utilized to turn exposed water into steam that is forced through piping that in turn spins the turbine blades thus generating electricity. Isotopes of iodine: I-131, caesium: Cs-137, along with the radioactive isotopes of tellurium and ruthenium are the by-products most produced, but are considered low level radiation. Nonetheless, I’m sure that most have heard of the brisk sales of iodine pills. Our thyroid stores iodine. The iodine radioactive isotope, I-131 once exposed, can be picked up and held by the thyroid in the body potentially creating a carcinogenic stage. If iodine tablets containing harmless potassium iodide are consumed first, the idea is that the thyroid becomes saturated and can no longer take in iodine nor its compounds, or in our case, radioactive isotopes of iodine. In the fission process, there is also an appreciable amount of radioactive strontium isotopes formed that are more likely a biological danger.

The 104 operational conventional U235 nuclear enrichment plants in the U.S. consume nearly 3% of all electricity produced, while producing a little less than 10%. For those favoring a nuclear form of electrical production, theyre satisfied with this and feel there is value in its return. Of course, they’re ignoring the mining, refining and exorbitant initial construction costs.

Considering the environmental impact, fuels of conventional fission nuclear plants cannot explode like an atom bomb under any circumstances, but the potential hazards currently being experienced in Japan for a meltdown, is very real. As the nuclear fuel is split and broken down, there is a tremendous release of heat that, as mentioned earlier, turns the circulating water into steam. This same water acts as a coolant dissipating the heat. If any kind of leak was to occur and lowers the water level, the temperature of the nuclear fuel would rise rapidly and once reaching its melting point, a meltdown develops. Three Mile Island nearly reached this point where Chernobyl did. Once reaching the melting point and melting, it would begin to boil and pour out coming into contact with the remaining liquid water, instantly vaporizing it. The end result is with the sudden steam greatly expanding in a confined spacing, it would blow the system apart. In this process, witnessed by the Chernobyl incident, radioactive fuel is spewed to the exterior of the plant and ejected up into the atmosphere where the radioactive particles are free to travel the globe eventually settling back to Earth by weather or gravity.

Contrary to popular beliefs, the Chernobyl plant was not a dilapidated run down joint, but a state of the art complex of the day with numerous built-in safety features and shutdown precautions. Even when all kinds of safety are in place and implemented, there still is the human error factor, which was precisely the Chernobyl case. When the accident at Three Mile Island occurred, Russian officials sent a message out that this could never happen to a Russian nuclear facility and of course when the Chernobyl incident occurred, the U.S. reciprocated in stating that this could never happen in America’s nuclear plants.

Even when the uranium rods are spent, they’re still decaying and giving off a tremendous amount of heat and once replaced are immediately plunged into pools of water. Stored in the water pools, they’re allowed to cool for several months until 99.99% of the original heat has dissipated, signaling the shorter lived radioactive isotopes have broken down. What is left are the longer living irradiated isotopes that are considered to be low level radiation. Even though they are low level, they can also be lethal depending on exposure parameters such as dosage, time exposed and parts of the body that radiation traveled through. Besides, level ratings are based on healthy adults. For wildlife, the sick, the frail and children, there are no level ratings. Long half-life isotopes cannot be further used in conventional reactors for they would make it non-functional, so must either be stored indefinitely or recycled purifying the leftover uranium and isolating the highly reactive plutonium isotope.

Since nuclear reaction began, there are no permanent sites to store the spent rods and resultant radioactive fuel waste. They are stored onsite at every nuclear plant and with rod replacement having to occur every two years, inventory is accumulating. Salt deposits as storage sites were first carefully evaluated due to ambient stability as long as floods do not come into play, but the radioactive waste contains daughter isotopes that have thousands of years of half-life. The Bush administration was pushing for Yucca Mountain in Nevada to be a permanent storage site for the entire accumulating spent fuel inventory, but that was axed by the Western Shoshone Indian tribe, as Yucca Mountain is on their lands and by other critics due to how the nuclear waste would be transported. The radioactive waste was to be carried by rail, but once after evaluating how many population sites numbering in the millions the railroads pass through, it was rejected due to possible accidents exposing the populace. In addition, radioactive secondary wastes are accruing, such as irradiated nuclear plant dust, work clothing, tools and equipment.

Of course any radioactive storage site or radioactive transport is a prime target for terrorists. So what do you do with all this radioactive long lived waste? In further adding to the problem, uranium ore sites are becoming exhausted. If more conventional nuclear plants are built, this will only hasten the depletion. If one wants to continue with the nuclear fission strategy in generating electricity, what does one do?

Breeder reactors pretty much address all the above problems with a solution. Breeder reactors would forestall uranium depletion and accumulated radioactive waste simultaneously. Breeder reactors can tolerate the spent fuel rods and by recycling the radioactive waste in breeder reactors, the need for radioactive waste dumps is eliminated while the unspent uranium is recovered. As breeder reactors consume a more rare form of uranium, they convert a much greater amount of the usable uranium form into one of its rarest isotopes…plutonium…a much more efficient fissionable material. This most highly reactive isotope could then be isolated and used to fuel breeder reactors as well as the current conventional nuclear plants.

Sounds pretty enticing and the logical way to go, but unfortunately, there are hitches to contend with. Breeder reactors cannot be cooled by water due to the generation of extremely high heat. Instead, a very corrosive and caustic, but more efficient heat absorbing metallic liquid would have to be incorporated. That metallic liquid is sodium. To contain the molten sodium, while maintaining the reactors from its corrosive effects is almost insurmountable and very dangerous if a way was conducted.

Lastly, if you might recall, a conventional nuclear plant may experience a meltdown, but will not explode like a nuclear bomb. Well guess what sports fan…a breeder reactor nuclear facility can to the equivalency of 1,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. The plutonium isotopes, Pu-239 and Pu-241 are fissile meaning that they are capable of maintaining a nuclear chain reaction. These plutonium isotopes are highly toxic due to their high rate radiation of alpha particles and specifically are readily absorbed into the bone marrow. If just an invisible to the naked eye speck of radioactive plutonium is inhaled and settles inside the lung, its more than enough to cause fatal cancer. If America ever does become breeder reactor dependent, the rare plutonium isotopes could most certainly become a favorite extortion commodity for the illegally minded.

Nuclear Confusion:
In my opinion anyway, it is downright shameful we have divested and invested all of our time and expense in nuclear fission rather than nuclear fusion. The binding or fusing of atoms, as opposed to the splitting apart in fission reactions, generates no radiation waste. In fusing atoms together, a tremendous amount of energy is given off in the form of heat as exemplified by our trusty sun fusing hydrogen into helium liberating vast amounts of heat in the process that warms Earth’s surface a mean distance of 93 million miles away. In hot fusion, investment is very rare and costly, for as it currently stands there is no net power output. In other words, it takes far more energy to produce a fusion reaction with only a fraction of energy created.

Extreme heat and pressure must be induced to fuse atoms. The sun and stars naturally do this quite liberally, but as for us, artificially, no feasible method thus far has been procured, except for in creating a nuclear fusion chain reaction resulting in the hydrogen bomb, but that would not work for electrical generation. Cold fusion is an experimental concept where fusion occurs without extreme heat, therefore would create a cheap abundant and pollution free energy source with minimum effort involved. Cold fusion involves palladium and hydrogen and tabletop experiments have been unsuccessfully conducted since the late nineteenth century. In the late 1980s though, there was a stir from reports of a successful cold fusion experiment. In this experiment, conducted by two electrochemists, Martin Fleischmann from England and Stanley Pons from the U.S., deuterium nuclei, otherwise known as heavy water, were driven to a palladium core within a lattice type reactor composed of platinum. There, the deuterium atoms fused with each other due to erasure of their repellency by donating positively charged protons to the platinum lattice wiring. That then allowed the deuterium atoms to attract one another confined by the palladium at room temperature. Once the tests were demonstrated the chemists reported that measured heat was given off. Skeptics protested the demonstration pointing out a fact, then asserting a conclusion that no by-products of fusion were detected. Controversy ensued and experimentation was severely halted. Even though this Fleischmann-Pons demonstration may not have been a true example of nuclear fusion, something did occur as evidenced by the resultant heat that was given off.

A cold fusion process known as muon catalyzed fusion is now a recognized method of inducing nuclear fusion without the aid of extremely high temperatures. Cold fusion needs further attention and more research to be poured into it if we want to continue with the generation of electricity via nuclear power. We should wean ourselves off of...then replace nuclear fission leaving it behind in the dust and that is my final stand…

Japan’s Wake/The World’s Wake-up:
The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Japan is sobering to watch as it unfolds. After all the suffrage experienced with the 8.9 quake, then the charging in of the 30 foot plus tsunami, possible nuclear fallout is now at play in contention of becoming Japan’s third strike and yore out. But, there is no reason for the doomsayers to get all bent out of shape and begin to rant their mantra. Nuclear radiation is an extensive possibility, but still the eruptive situation remains in a manageable context. At what degree though, is the crux of it all.

In areas of Japan, there is not enough of the living to take care of the dead, shortages of food and no electricity in below freezing weather. As of 03/20/2011, there are 8,133 counted dead with well over 12,000 missing.

Rocked by an 8.9 quake that specialists said could never rank that high in magnitude, also dropped 250 miles of Japan’s coastline 2 feet---stop---400 miles of Japanese northeastern coastline inundated by a monstrous 33 foot tsunami slamming inland six miles, pushing water and debris another 4 miles further inland---stop---radiation contamination with an evacuation zone reaching ever outward in perimeter!!!

Yes, after a press wire as this, Japan is humbled. As if the disasters that have happened aren’t enough, there is still a waiting game yet if radioactive fallout materializes, adding even further to Japan’s misery and perhaps with this manmade one, the world. Let’s quickly review the nuclear plants affected.

Japan had 11 nuclear reactors affected by the two natural disasters, in which power was shut down to the reactors halting fission reaction. Then diesel back-up generators were used to keep the water pumps operating in cooling the reactors and fuel. The Fukushima Daichhii facility has 6 of those 11 reactors. Their back up diesel generators did not perform and failed due to their basement location being flooded by the tsunami. Let’s do a snapshot of the reactor structure.

Fuel rods are placed inside a nuclear grade steel reactor vessel that is within the primary containment housing composed of two parts, the drywell and wetwell. The drywell is constructed with a concrete floor and steel-lined concrete walls, while the wetwell sits below having water pumped through it to maintain drywell pressure. This is maintained by steam in the drywell being forced into the wetwell where it condenses.

The primary containment is further surrounded by a secondary concrete containment structure. All this together is the reactor building and is designed so to contain any radiation leaks. The reactor building has an air supply that is ventilated so as to give a lower pressure inside the reactor building than outside, thus air will leak into the building rather than out. Finally, the air supply is filtered to catch any air borne radiation particles.

The explosions experienced first at reactor 1, then at reactor 3, were not the reactors themselves, but were caused from the heating up of the spent fuel rods when they were partially exposed from a water level drop in the pool. The radiation produced hydrogen that ignited and blew portions of the reactor building’s ceiling and walls apart. The reactor vessels were not damaged. In these two reactors, the storage pools were located adjacent to the reactors.

Outside power from power cables have successfully been hooked up to reactors 1, 5 and 6, while inside power was restored to reactor 2 to keep the reactor and spent fuel cooled. Reactors 3 and 4 still have no power source, so brave firefighters and plant workers are continually hosing the storage pools. There is detected drainage coming from the plants water piping.

This is managed risk and crisis kicked in high gear, but as each day passes, it is more assuring that a complete meltdown will not occur. There yet has not been even a partial reactor meltdown which releases a tremendous load of radiation, but does not breach beyond the primary containment walls. Even though the reaction process has halted, which is the original source of the heat, it takes days if not a couple of weeks for the reactor vessels and fuel to cool down enough to no longer pose a threat of meltdown.

Back home in the U.S., $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear fission plant construction have been appropriated in this year’s budget. But after the Japan tragedy, knowing one third of existing U.S. plants have the same Japanese technologies and the extremely high costs of nuclear construction, Wall Street gets nervous and finicky. When investors get twitching nerves, costs and risks elevate even more.

Half-life radioactive fallout is not measured in months, years or even decades, but in centuries. In Chernobyl that just witnessed its 30 year anniversary, still has high enough radiation levels that people cannot live in the city or its surrounding countryside, even though the reactor vessel and rods were covered and sealed with sand and cement the year it happened.

Coal mining disasters, oil spills and nuclear fallout…when will we ever get our butts out our heads, get serious and reassess our energy alternatives.

BJA
As Reporting
03/21/2011