Would you want to live within 20 miles of a nuclear reactor?
I hope this doesn't come as a shock, but if you live in Pullman or Moscow, you already do.
Washington State University has had a research reactor in operation since the early 1960s. It has recently been named for Harold W. Dodgen, the physical chemistry professor who started it. The Department of Chemistry hosted a lunch for Harold, his family, and his friends last October, where I learned a number of facts about the reactor that I had not known or had forgotten.
This is a small reactor, maximum power one megawatt. Its design does not allow the possibility of a meltdown or explosion for any reason. If all control systems fail, the fuel rods will get hot and expand, leaving more empty space between uranium atoms. Then more neutrons escape from the fuel rods. When too few neutrons collide with uranium atoms, the chain reaction dies out and the rods quit getting any hotter.
A quarter century ago, most university reactors were shut down to save money. WSU could not afford the short-term cost of decommissioning, and the defenders of the reactor prevailed by default. Ironically, we are now left with a unique and valuable facility.
The reactor has helped WSU to attract outstanding faculty who are working on ways to clean up the Hanford mess left over from atomic bomb manufacture. With the looming global warming problem, for which the scientific evidence is very strong whether you believe it or not, nuclear power will be a future necessity. WSU is uniquely positioned to train people to understand nuclear chemistry and how reactors work.
Aren't nuclear plants dangerous?
Nobody died at Three Mile Island, and there is no evidence for the speculation that there might be one extra cancer case within 50 miles of the accident. Chernobyl was a bad design run by Soviet cowboys and has no relevance to American safety.
The risks of radiation are grossly overestimated by alarmist organizations that depend on contributions for their existence and peddle irrational pseudoscience to scare people into giving. People really have died from coal smoke pollution. No deaths are attributable to the operation of more than 100 nuclear power plants during the last 45 years in the United States. Nuclear is in fact safer.
Isn't the solution solar power?
In the January 2008 issue of Scientific American magazine a scheme is suggested for covering 30,000 square miles of our Southwest deserts with solar collectors to produce 69 percent of our electricity, 35 percent of our total energy, by 2050. That area equals all of the state of Washington east of Vantage. The endangered pink spotted cactus beetle hasn't been discovered yet, but figure it would be.
Solar power can help a little. Chemists at WSU and elsewhere are working on it, but progress is slow.
Biofuels? Forget it.
Corn ethanol is popular with farmers, but evidence whether it produces a small net energy gain or loss is ambiguous. All large-scale biofuels have bad environmental effects. Conservation? Windmills? Sure, but these solve small parts of the problem, and windmills kill birds. When scientists who understand the physics crunch the numbers, they conclude that we will either need to burn an awful lot of environmentally damaging coal or go nuclear.
A typical nuclear power reactor produces about 1,500 megawatts, roughly equivalent to a hydropower dam. Physicists already know how to design them so that a runaway nuclear reaction is physically impossible. Advanced nuclear power plants can directly produce hydrogen for clean fuel from water. With abundant power we can desalt sea water to make up for shortages of natural fresh water.
The waste problem is mainly political. A typical nuclear power plant generates only about six cubic yards of high level waste a year. Besides, known technology can reduce the long-lived waste 20-fold in breeder reactors that recycle plutonium, a valuable nuclear fuel that should not be dumped.
We now get 20 percent of U.S. electricity from nuclear power. If we imitate France and increase that to 80 percent, we will be a long way toward solving our future energy problems in a safe and environmentally benign way.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
"Nuclear power will be a necessity in the future"
Semiretired WSU Chemistry professor Don Matteson wrote a Town Crier column that appeared in today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News that actually made sense for a change. The last few, it seems, have been monotonously left-wing pie-in-the-sky. If global warming is a real threat, then going nuclear is the only answer,