A Tweet in the Ocean

As an advocate of modern nuclear power for primary baseload capacity within a broader suite of greenhouse gas-mitigating generating technologies (there should be a succinct term for this… maybe ) I maintain a twitter feed for updates from nuclear professional blogs and scientific news sources. An unfortunate consequence is irregularly having to witness this sort of ill-considered comment:
Not a matter of hope. It is merely a matter of time.

Not a matter of hope. It is merely a matter of time.

Despite the immediate temptation in such instances, I have so many other things to devote my day to than locking 140 (max) horns with someone I don’t know who will almost certainly refuse to be informed. I mean, has there ever been a recorded case of anyone anywhere ever changing their mind based on some brief, irrefutable tweet? That’s what anonymous blogs are for, after all.
We had a brief squall of Greens party apoplexy this week when Mark Parnell, MLC, provided comment on a regional survey form that dared included nuclear energy as an option alongside traditional, politically-friendly renewables.
Congratulations to  Regional Development Australia for braving orthodox environmentalist dogma.

Congratulations to Regional Development Australia for braving orthodox environmentalist dogma.

Parnell: “By the time you’ve taken into account the carbon emissions in the energy used to mine and process the uranium, built the reactor, operated the reactor, decommission the reactor and then store and monitor the waste for hundreds of thousands of years, … you find that the whole of life carbon emissions really add up.” But to merely the smallest fraction of the equivalent from oil, gas and particularly coal, which is what is installed in countries that avoid nuclear. The Greens listen to the IPCC when it comes to AGW… But apparently not when it conflicts with their tired, myopic anti-nuclear polemic.

To expand on the notion of nuclear in Australia being “just wrong”, he resorted to emotive illustrations of nuclear dumps In Your Backyard.

Used for illustrative purposes without permission. http://www.connyankee.com/

And Fukushima, which I and others have covered previously and comprehensively, and which I really was trying to move on from. Parnell is no less ignorant about the reality of Fukushima and the consequences of contaminated water release than my anonymous tweeter. Except that Parnell is an elected official, ostensibly representing the interests of Australia’s environment.

What do these sorts of commenters (and I’d hazard to guess the vast majority of people who identify as environmentalists) think is the true intention of nuclear professionals and scientifically informed interviewees, who state that releasing the cooling water into the Pacific is a good solution? I contend that there is indeed no thought involved. I am fully aware of how negative the idea seems prima facie, and thus I’m actually able to initially sympathise with those who reject it. But what should not be entertained is their righteous denial that the idea could be scientifically informed. That the idea, all else being equal, could be the right thing to do. It’s the same mentality that allows the dismissal of implorations from eminent climate scientists because they use the “N word”; it’s what we see here after a blinkered environmentalist apparently sits through Pandora’s Promise and utterly misses the point:

The uncomfortable truth is that the people presenting this unpopular option are not soulless monsters. They care at least just as much about the environment, children and civilisation as any given orthodox environmentalist.

C1V1 = C2V2

Let me be illustrative in response. Concentration and volume follow the above relationship for any given solute. When Volume 1 containing a Concentration 1 of a solute is mixed into a larger Volume 2, then Concentration 2 is necessarily less. You don’t need to be a chemist to understand this, but it underpins virtually all wet chemistry.  As long as units are consistent and appropriate, it matters not what they are. Breathless news reports claim up to 300 tons of contaminated water leak into the Pacific each day.

The Pacific is 7.14 x 10^17 metric tonnes of water.*

The stored water is measured in the hundreds of thousands of tons (10^6) and will be for the next few years. It has caesium and strontium in it, but this recent piece can only be specific about amounts in the tens of becquerels per litre range (1000 L per metric tonne, so divide by another 10^3 when it’s in the Pacific). Even the scary 1.9 million Bq/L material isn’t at all alarming when one keeps the orders of magnitude firmly in mind. And have you noticed how the more apocalyptic coverage never tells you what all these billions and trillions of becquerels mean? Big numbers. Better worry.
I’m not forgetting about the fisheries and livelihoods, and there sure as heck should be restrictions and monitoring along that coast. But the tweet was trying to make a point about the Pacific Ocean, which just won’t notice it.
So, happy Christmas, everybody. My gift is information. It may largely fail to reach those who really need it, such is the nature of the blogosphere and the power of confirmation bias. But at least it will further this blog’s original modest purpose, to add one more voice to the call for rationality in urgency.


* With a lot of rounding for density, etc. and assuming even diffusion throughout ocean, obviously.


8 thoughts on “A Tweet in the Ocean

  1. I am a former Senior Engineer for Pacific Gas& Electric in Technical Services, and before that was a Research Engineer testing safety systems for those same GE Mark I BWR’s.

    I understand how you want to defend your choice to do the hard work to save us from energy needs, but your dream has become a nightmare, and folk in the industry refuse to admit it. Shall we go through all the events the NRC hides from the American People? Can we start with Fermi 1, Brown’s Ferry, Rancho Seco, the breeder reactor in Idaho that BLEW UP killing three people? It was because of a fast fission, but the NRC carries it as a “steam explosion” to protect themselves.

    I guess you are unaware of Monju, and the great number of radiation “accidents” in Japan over the years, and the government coverups? Shall I go through the long list?

    I was testing those GE BWR systems in 1979, just as TMI II was melting down, and saw the endless lies from the industry and Metropolitan Ed.

    I’m sorry, but we cannot trust managers and engineers with this technology.

    • Thank you for the comment and indeed the first contribution to this blog’s conversation. The sorts of issues you raise are exactly what I think needs to be included in the discussion about pursuing nuclear.

      I do know about Monju, and not I nor anyone who I regularly read is interested in apologising for the Japanese authorities who saw fit to lie and cover up. Technical treatments of liquid metal cooled fast breeder technology are also somewhat beyond the scope of this blog. This may change as I progress through my studies and as more modern fast reactors come online in the next few years.

      • How about solving the waste problem first? Despite the claims, no way has been found to store this nasty stuff for very long. We have failed so far.

        Vitrification does not work: The inclusions form points of nucleation and crystallization begins, eventually (in short time), fracturing the glass and releasing the radionuclides, which are then taken to the surface by thermal convection and diffusion.

      • I was genuine in acknowledging your points about governance of nuclear power (though it should be equally strict for all forms of power generation), but with all due respect to your professional background, I don’t share your specific concerns about nuclear waste, the difference being that I don’t reject the potential of breeder reactors and the far higher burn up which they can achieve. Importantly to me, spent fuel and other contaminated materials, while requiring processing or regulated disposal, do not contribute to anthropogenic climate change, which is the far greater potential threat. Unfortunate deaths notwithstanding, you’ve not presented anything that, in the context of challenges, risks, hazards and deaths throughout the entire varied field of energy generation, convinces me.

        Resistance and complacency may still keep the IFR (and dare I say MSR) from ever being built, but in the meantime Russia, China and India will pull ahead in technology, experience and capacity to export such. We *will* see whether predictions from optimistic commentators and professionals bear out regarding accessing the majority of untapped uranium and thorium energy, but I’d personally rather the US still led the way.

    • @George Kamburoff
      Since you are a former Senior Engineer for an electric utility company, I presume that you also had some experience in testing and operating fossil fuel plants. In your experience, did you find them to be less problematic than nuclear plants? What did you think about their constant need to dump their noxious waste products into our shared environment?
      You provide a list of events and tell readers here that the NRC is hiding them from the public, but you fail to mention that detailed descriptions of most of the events are available on the NRC ADAMS data base. There are hundreds of documents, for example, about the Browns Ferry fire.
      The fatal event that you mention had nothing to do with the NRC. It took place in January 1961, more than a dozen years before the NRC came into existence. It was a steam explosion caused by a rapid power excursion. It was not a nuclear explosion.
      I once devoted a monthly issue of Atomic Insights (when it was still a paper newsletter) to the topic of the SL-1 accident so that people could better understand exactly what happened, how it happened and what the industry successfully did to make sure that it never happens again.
      As a long time nuclear energy professional, I am offended by your assertion that the industry is full of liars.

  2. Thanks for the reply. I am not trying to convince you of anything, but it is interesting to see how quickly I was brushed off.

    Before Fukushima, I would have agreed regarding AGW, since my MS is in Environmental Management dealing with energy systems. i have been watching since 1980 as our fears were realized.

    RE: Global Climate Change and potential new climatic stable states, have you considered the petroleum cost of the entire fuel cycle? Lots’a heat to calcine cement, refine, re-melt and re-work steel, transport it all over than to the site. Do you think the nuclear powerplant produces as much energy as it took to build it? All that concrete and steel, and transportation and workers, and the fuel cycle of subsidized enrichment? While at the research company for which I worked on the safety studies for the NRC, we asked to study that question and were refused. In fact, they told us if they caught us doing it for ourselves, we would never get another contract.

    How can we leave such toxic residue for others to clean up, . . because somebody made money selling the idea? Perhaps your plutonium future can burn much of our weapons material, and the 400 tons in Japan, and suignificantly reduce the problem, but it entails more Police State. In my 69 years in many fields, I learned how to see past my expectations or desires or fears, and see the Human frailty that ruins all those grand fail-safe plans.

    Using ten million-degree Neutrons to boil water is ridiculous. Take away the subsidies and nukes are gone. Even with them, plants are already closing because they are too expensive to operate.

    But Fukushima will kill nuclear power. The People of the World will do it themselves, if the Nuclear Complex does not, like they did at Shoreham and Rancho Seco.

    Maybe you can prove me wrong, and if you do we will all win, . . . but first, go clean up your present disasters. If you do not, and do not gain the trust of The People, you will find a tough road ahead.

    Good luck.

    • @George Kamburoff
      The damage at Fukushima Daiichi was limited to destroying the plant and releasing a few kilograms of Cs-134, Cs-137 and I-131. None of those isotopes remained concentrated long enough to harm anyone.
      Your comment about “ten million degree neutrons” exposes you as an Amory Lovins acolyte who never really understood nuclear energy to begin with. The average temperature in a nuclear fuel rod is only in the range of 1000 F during normal operation; the cladding temperature is only about 600-700 F.
      Using fission to create steam is remarkably simple – one of the most boring jobs on the submarines I operated was being the reactor operator. He could spend dozens of watches without doing anything other than taking a few readings and writing them in a log.
      Protecting nuclear materials is not difficult and does not require a police state any more than protecting valuable material like gold or diamonds from theft requires a police state.
      Your notion about the energy return on energy invested in nuclear energy has been well studied. The return is on the order of 20-50 times as much as invested when the whole life cycle is taken into account. That gets better the longer plants are used.
      Perhaps the reason that you were discouraged from doing the study was that the funders already knew the answer with a sufficient level of precision.

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