Unmanned drone photos of Fukushima Nos 3 & 4 on 24March2011, released by Air Photo Service
Fukushima units Nos .3 (left) and 4 on 24 March 2011, looking seaward.  No.3 is in meltdown.  No. 4's 90 metric tons of fuel  rod assemblies (about 60 tons of uranium oxide and isotopes) had joined 130 tons of older "pins" in the 5th floor spent fuel pool during reactor maintenance.  A hydraulic cement pumping truck (red pipe) is trying to replace the boiled off water in the pool.  At 1200 deg C, the fuel rods oxidize directly with the remaining water's oxygen, leaving hydrogen gas explosions to cause the visible damage.  It is believed that most of the hydrogen came from the  failure of the primary containment vessels of the three reactors that went into meltdown, not the boiling pools.  Unmanned aerial drone photo released by Air Photo Service.
Bottom & links. 


Why the global reactor fleet must go
J. I. Nelson, June 2011
Rev 30Nov2011-Sec VIII

70 years ago, before the first reactor was ever built, we chose a reactor design optimized to produce radioactive waste, because among the isotopes was the plutonium for Nagasaki and the 60,000 warheads which followed . . . and we won the Cold War.  Now civic society wants electric power.  It is time for this industry to turn the page.  If it has water in it, don't build it.


Why couldn't the Fukushima reactors turn off?  Why did the spent fuel pools boil away?  High school classmates wrote back saying my explanations were helpful and again there was kidding for being a class brain.  Most touching was one man's hope that people out there with such understanding would bring a safer nuclear future for all.  I'm old enough to accept my inconsequentiality, so I had two choices:  send out more e-mails to explain that we are powerless and I can't help, or share knowledge with everyone, knowing that people united are more powerful than any ruling elite.  My choice was obvious, and here is the paper that tells you what you need to know.  Your efforts to follow this sometimes strange material will be a great comfort to me.  We roar through a lot of biology and physics in this teaching paper, and younger people you know might also enjoy the ride in order to see all the science.  If you visit a lot of physics and some of the history of WWII, you see that the reactors generating power today should never have been built, and the road to sustainable nuclear technology is obvious -- all we have to do is stop the global nuclear establishment dead in its tracks.  So this unconventional teaching paper is also neither conventionally pro- nor anti-nuke.  
    Corrections & comments:
    jerry-va RemoveThisTextAt speakeasy.net


We review first the biology of DNA, because DNA is the link between radiation and radiation sickness, as well as cancer.  Then we turn to the operating principles of nuclear power reactors to see what makes the trash coming out so much more radioactive than the fuel going in.

Atoms have outer electrons going around an inner nucleus. The electrons make chemical bonds, the nucleus makes trouble.  An energized or unstable nucleus emits radiation ("nuclear radiation", "atomic radiation" from "radioactive decay") and is "radioactive".  The nuclear-based nature of radioactivity makes it inherently more powerful than the electron-based nature of chemical bonds.   When nuclear radiation meets chemical bonds -- when physics meets chemistry -- nuclear radiation wins nearly every time, and  chemical bonds break.   Radioactivity able to break chemical bonds is called "ionizing radiation", after the fact that electrons are knocked clear out of orbit, leaving the molecule out of electrical balance; i.e., charged or ionized.  What matters about ionizing radiation is not that something gets ionized, but that molecules are left in pieces or bent and broken.

The bonds you don't want to break are the ones that hold your body's DNA together.   A look at the role of DNA in the life of every cell in our bodies explains why we so quickly see nausea (and worse) in workers exposed to a lot of radiation, but cancer rates rise only years later . . . and keep rising for decades.

These are bedrock principles of cellular reproduction, heredity, cancer.  There will always be more to learn, but the basics remain true.  Knowing the basics makes clear to us all when talk about the effect or lack of effect of radiation  -- and any settlement of damages that does not indemnify the listener for life -- is fraudulent.  A public exposed to radiation without a public health program is a public that has been betrayed by those in power.  If one corporation makes you sick and another treats you, both can make money.

Is radiation that bad?  There are research papers purporting to show benefits from small amounts of radiation.  There are papers purporting to convey documentation of  damage  from small amounts of radiation, and still more papers that claim the others are flawed and the documentation is invalid. Such arguments will not be reviewed and settled here, and I advocate no political group.  We are both tasked instead with laying out an understanding that makes ignorance, evasion, and outright lying easy to detect, an understanding that remains valid to the limits of human knowledge.  

Our main job after biology is reactor physics: what goes in, what comes out, what happens inside.

A modern nuclear reactor (1,100 megawatts) is loaded with 130 metric tons of fuel rod assemblies or about  78 tons  of pure uranium dioxide pellets.  96% of this uranium is the garden-variety U-238 isotope, and about 4% is enriched U-235.  These pellets, hardly larger than a pencil eraser, can be dropped by hand into the long, hollow metal tubes (the "fuel rods" or "pins"), wearing only latex gloves for protection against dust.  (In practice, machines load most pins.)  Packs of fuel rods (49, 64, more) make a "fuel assembly".  When a gantry crane hauls the fuel assemblies out of the reactor two years later on their way to the spent fuel pool, they are radioactive enough to kill a person in one second.  Under four percent of the fuel has been burned ("fissioned") and 96% has not.  But that 96% is now laced with a zoo of radioactive isotopes, some not seen on Earth for billions of years.  Producing 78 tons of hot trash every few years is not the result of choosing how to operate the reactor; it is the result of the reactor design we have chosen.  We will examine how the choice was made to (1) split uranium and (2) use slow neutrons to do it.  The choice between two things you may never have heard of -- "slow neutrons" and "fast neutrons" -- was the choice that sealed our fate.  These basic reactor design choices were made before the first reactor had ever been built.  A design to maximize the production of radioactive waste was chosen because, among the radioactive isotopes was the man-made element plutonium needed for the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan, and the 60, 000 others which followed, none of them a repeat of the first-and-only all-uranium bomb, the one dropped on Hiroshima.  Plutonium saved that day and won the Cold War too. Seventy years later, our needs have changed but the reactors have not.  It is time for this industry to turn the page.  

Basic physics makes it obvious that "clean, efficient nuclear power" is deceptive, because only 4% of the fuel is fissioned (not efficient), while 96% is laced with insanely radioactive elements that did not exist before, that never went into the reactor (not clean).  These reactors never burn most of what we put in them.  "Spent fuel" is deceptive because 96% of the fuel was never consumed and is not spent; rather, it has been activated, it has been made much more radioactive than it was. The activated, unspent fuel is declared "waste", a form of waste that will be dangerous to life for geologically long periods of time.  We still "reprocess" the fuel, even though we don't want the plutonium from it and the rest is never returned to service.   

The phrases "spent fuel" from "clean, efficient nuclear power" were lies when they were first coined, they are lies today, and our understanding of the universe around us -- bedrock principles of physics -- tells us they will be lies forever. You and I are tasked now, in the essay which follows, with mastering enough physics to see why these phrases are lies, enough to be able to explain it to others.  Other reactor designs greatly reduce waste production and storage problems.  These designs are called "fast-neutron reactors".  You may be opposed to all nuclear power, while I am not.  That's OK. My advocacy goes only as far as asking you to resolve with me to work for the abolition of the current global reactor fleet.  The nuclear power industry must start over. It is now up to the public to know more nuclear physics than the nuclear power industry.  We must teach the industry itself that they were dealt a bad hand for today's needs, and there are better choices.   Why is our situation as a people, as a great nation, so seemingly ridiculous?

However we got there, we found a rut and stayed in it until we had built an industry powerful enough to buy self-perpetuation.  An industry powerful enough to buy self-perpetuation uses money to corrupt institutions that work for public health, uses money to corrupt financial and legislative processes, uses money to corrupt institutions that work for reliable technological superiority and honorable behavior in the industry itself.  Ultimately, the problems we face are social: problems that multiply and won't go away in an increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional society.  Election cycles come and go. So do democracies, nations, empires, civilizations, species.  But here, we will expend effort mostly on what lasts:  knowledge of biology (especially the operating principles of DNA) and physics (especially neutron bombardment -- slow or fast -- of uranium and other big atomic nuclei). The water-moderated, slow-neutron reactors of the global fleet must be decommissioned.  It was the wrong choice. There are other choices and, speaking for myself, the industry is free to invest in them, and start over.  I thank the industry for working so hard to do so well with such terrible technology.  Now it is time to relax and apply those heroic skills to something happier, something different that can be what this nuclear industry will never be: sustainable.  Slow neutrons? Wrong technology.  Water inside?  Don't build it.   

You can get through this; just take aspirin and try again in the morning.  Yes, you're unqualified, but it's not hopeless.  My Ph.D. is in psychology, so I'm unqualified too.  I gratefully accepted help from one physicist friend who led some of  the design work on the Large Hadron Collider's largest detector at CERN, Geneva and another who once designed thermonuclear bombs with Edward Teller, and they said they were not reactor physicists and were unqualified too, so let's all just push on.  Qualified people who want to fix oversimplifications and misconceptions may write to me at jerry-va RemoveThisTextAt speakeasy.net  Qualified people too angry to write can send links for us to look at.
J. I. Nelson, Ph.D.
Optical Society of America
Society for Neuroscience

    I.   Atoms, Molecules, Proteins and the Genetic Code
              The link to cancer.
    II.  Physics:  Powerful Radiation Breaks Molecules
              "ionizing radiation"
    III. Let's Build a Reactor.
              Anyone can see the logic of any reactor's basic design principles.
    IV.  The Fateful Decision: Uranium and Slow Neutrons
              Before the first one was built, it was decided (it was just obvious?) to
              fuel reactors with uranium, and
              split the uranium with slow neutrons.
    V.   The Spent Fuel Story - No Place to Put Anything
              History handed us a reactor technology that
              celebrates waste production (plutonium was in the waste).
              What do we want now instead?
    VI.  The Big Picture: Uranium & Our Universe
              We all know the sun is mostly (98%) hydrogen and helium.
              So where did we and all our uranium come from?
    VII. Public Policy
              We subsidize this industry from cradle to grave.
              Since we already paid for it, let's just nationalize it.
     VIII. The Nuclear Renaissance:  Fast Reactors Only.
               They don't make waste, and perform their own burial.

               bottom & links


It is not that hard to set out the basics of cellular biology, physics and chemistry.  If only in self-defense, we will do all three, because the attack on public health and on the cells of our bodies with atomic reactors is an attack on chemistry by physics.  It is a clash of two very different worlds. Chemistry plays out in atoms' electron orbits as they bump into one another, while physics plays out in the nucleus.  Both electron orbits and nuclei play by similar rules: you can pump either up to higher energy levels, and they'll give it back later.  Normally, though, nothing ever reaches the nucleus -- unless you have an "atom smasher", or bombs and reactors, which hit the nucleus with neutrons.  And normally, nothing is ever heard from the nucleus -- except in bombs, reactors and radioactivity, when energy pours out of disturbed nuclei.  Inherent differences in these energy sources (outer electrons, inner nucleus)  brings inherent differences in their intensity.  It's a stacked deck: nuclear radiation breaks chemical bonds, damaging molecules.  When physics attacks chemistry, physics  wins.


An atom has a nucleus of neutrons (no electric charge) and protons (one positive charge each) whose net positivity attracts electrons (negative)-- most happily one per proton.  I got through most of my life thinking of electrons as orbiting the nucleus in tight little patterns (not necessarily all circular) which got bigger when you pump energy into the atom, until you put in too much energy and the outermost electrons fly away altogether.  An atom with one or more electrons knocked out is charged or "ionized".  "Ions" can be charged either way, since electrons missing one place can wind up as extras in another.

Actually the orbits are not tight at all.  If a simple atom (hydrogen; one proton, no neutrons) were a football field, the nucleus would be an ant. It's nearly all empty space.  In a childhood science fiction thriller, the protagonist figured out a way to align the nuclei with those vast, empty spaces, walk through walls, rob banks, and astound everyone.  But in reality you can't get through.  When atoms meet, the electron orbitals -- electrons in a whirling cloud that is everywhere at once, a giant beach ball -- bounce off one another.  Like charges repel.  In our world of regular stuff, objects rub their electron shells with one another, and electrons are always rubbing off, sometimes with shocking results after you slide across a car seat.  It may be mostly empty space, but, in everyday life, powerful electromagnetic forces keep us out of it
Simple model of electron oribitals for hydrogen and oxygen.
SHARED ORBITS IN CHEMICAL BONDS.  In high school I learned that not every orbit is possible; some were preferred and others, forbidden.  There were preferred numbers of electrons for any orbital that was permitted.  These preferences were so strong that atoms would put their nuclei beside one another and share their electrons to get the preferred orbits stocked with the preferred, full complement of electrons.  Atoms that share electrons in orbits around their nuclei are "chemically bonded"; all chemically-bonded atoms, whether only a pair of atoms or thousands, are called molecules.  Every molecule has vastly different properties from its constituent atoms because it now bounces off the rest of the world with a totally different electron cloud. When there's a single nucleus inside, people speak of the "electron orbital levels" or "electron shells"; when there's more than one nucleus inside, people speak of the "chemical bonds".  Because electron orbits aren't all circular, chemical bonds have preferred angles, and molecules have particular shapes.

We live in a world where nuclear radiation from radioactive decay meets chemical bonds and the radiation wins.  How come?

Radiation trumps chemical bonds because the energy saved by forming a bond is not very great.  So applying not much energy back again will break the bond. For example, most molecules we know can be destroyed by heat energy (think of fires).  You don't need an A-bomb, just a match.  What luck that chemical bonds are weak -- we constantly break and remake them: batteries are charged and discharged, plants build up carbohydrates and we animals digest them back down again, we store energy as starch and fats and hopefully exercise enough to re-bond most of those same atoms as sugar molecules, burn them, and piss it away.

QUANTUM LEVELS WE LIKE OR CAN'T HAVE.  I passed my high school chemistry and so did the years.  The magic of childhood faded a little.  Atoms didn't really "prefer" certain orbital levels filled with certain numbers of electrons; rather, those configurations just had lower energies, so atoms weren't necessarily any happier to find them.  They might have just been walking backwards at the time and fallen into them.  There were preferences everywhere, but the magic shared in Mrs. Walsh's chemistry class was gone.  Today, even the nucleus has preferred and forbidden energy levels just as the electrons do.  Since the nucleus can't orbit anything, its energy levels were seen at first as the vibrations of a suspended water droplet.  In atomic bombs and reactors, the droplets vibrate too much and shatter (we split the nucleus; we get smaller droplets). Now physicists realize the neutrons and protons don't touch one another, packed like red and green tennis balls in a Science Fair model. The soft touch of indistinct edges leaves a lot of freedom for movement somewhat like orbitals after all.  Unhappy nuclei can spend an awfully long time before settling into something preferable for them because of its lower energy level. We get the energy the nucleus doesn't need anymore as a radioactive emission.

The conceptual framework developed to bring order to the occurrence
everywhere of preferred and forbidden levels of energy is quantum mechanics, the product of the most famous people (Einstein & company) in the most famous century (the last one) in physics.  For the smallest units of matter, physicists want to describe everything as waves.  If we accept waves, we get quantum mechanics.  We can't expect energy to rise to levels they say are forbidden, any more than we can expect a guitar string to play a note to which it is not tuned.  You like it? I went into biology.  If you want to pursue quantum mechanics further, I must warn you that the next thing physicists ask for is to treat matter the same way as energy (E=mc^2).   Regarding solid matter as "waves" may lead to the lost magic you were looking for, but for the rest of us, what matters is that anything you do in an atomic bomb or a nuclear reactor to beat the crap out a nucleus will raise it to energy levels it does not prefer, and it will give that  energy back to you.  Sooner or later, the nucleus will find a lower energy state for itself, and hand nuclear radiation out to you.   

NUCLEI WE LIKE OR CAN'T HAVE.  Radioactivity is not just rearranging the furniture you already have.  Any nucleus has powerful preferences for how many constituent neutrons and protons it cares to unite into a single structure. If a nucleus bent on reorganizing itself changes its number of protons, then the (matched) number of electrons changes (you can always find one somewhere), the chemistry changes, and the name changes ("nickel" minus a proton is "cobalt").  A change to the neutron count matters more to the nucleus than it does to us.  The atom retains its chemistry, we keep the name (17 protons is chlorine), and some specialists speak of the "Cl-37 isotope" of chlorine, which is mostly (75%) chlorine-35.  Both isotopes are stable, but Cl-36 isn't.  Only the neutron count has changed when we go from isotope to isotope.  Proton changes change the associated electron cloud, the chemistry, and the name of the element.

Nuclear reactors throw neutrons at atoms, a lot of them acquire an extra neutron, and none of them like it.  We return to these extra-neutron isotopes when  we return to the unstable nuclei that pour out of our nuclear power plants.  Now it's time to make big molecules, not big atomic nuclei, because that is the road from chemistry to biology.  Biology goes to enormous lengths to preserve a place for itself on this planet.  Radiation must always bring disorder to Life, and will always be wedded to cancer.


SIMPLE, REPEATING CHAINS OF MOLECULES ARE POLYMERS.  If you make a molecule of 20 or 30 atoms and pick mostly carbon and hydrogen, you often find configurations that can connect together head-to-tail in long chains.  The chains are thin, can bend a lot, and get into tangled mats with one another (that can still slide past one another and bend a lot).  Chaining the identical molecules together into one really big molecule is called "polymerization", the tangled mat is "plastic" and, if you spend too much time at this, you're a hydrocarbon industrial chemist.  These polymer chains can go on for a million molecules, each link a dead repeat of the one before.  Plastics are wonderful, but biochemistry -- and, ultimately, life --  is going to need something less monotonous.

CHOOSING INDIVIDUAL LINKS, NOT REPEATING THEM.  In living cells, the polymer chain's individual links (the small molecules of 20, 30 or so atoms each) are not identical.  We draw links from a set of 21 different molecules, with more shapes and ways of connecting together.  We'll still make a chain, but, when it's done, the many attractions of the 21 different shapes used as links will cause the chain (now one single, larger molecule) to fold up into a particular shape. We need only 400, maybe 600 smaller molecules (the links) for the chain,  but the problem is, we need to know which of the 21 building blocks to choose for each next link, and we need to stop at some exact chain length.

The set of 21 molecules are the amino acids we make or eat, and then circulate all over our body.  The chain, after it folds up into a shape that does something wonderful, is one of the proteins that cells make as they grow; and the instructions for which one of 21 amino acids to link up next is the genetic code stored in our DNA.  Every cell has a copy of the code; how about the amino acids?  Animals have lost the instructions for making 9 of the 21 amino acids, so we have to eat plants (or other animals) to get them.  These 9 are the "essential amino acids".  Chained together, only one or two dozen amino acids makes a useful protein (e.g., the small, agile peptides, used for signaling), but let's look at a really big protein.  
Muscular contraction at the molecular level -- the actin-myosin ratchet mechanism.
FIGURE CAPTION: Muscular Contraction.  

With two proteins, we can create muscle fibers that contract. The size and complexity of actin and myosin carry us into the realm of micromachinery. Celebrate how much of this you already understand. On the lower left, a "ribbon diagram" represents the long chain of amino acids out of which myosin (or any protein) is built. You know that chains like this are built (linked up or "polymerized") under DNA control. The DNA dictates a particular choice of amino acid for each new link. Given abrupt changes in amino acid choices, you half-expected these abrupt turns and changes in the ribbon diagram. You were warned of the tangle we might get once we switched the chain's links from the simple building blocks of plastics to amino acids, because they attract each other laterally, causing the chain to "fold". The colorful helices (corkscrews) so common in the ribbon diagram are a common "protein folding" pattern. Each turn of such a helix is formed by about 3.6 successive amino acids. Thus, each turn is the polymer that 3 or so successive instructions of DNA ordered the cell to synthesize. Admit to yourself that you have a start-to-finish grasp of what a ribbon diagram for any protein molecule is, and how it got there. Down to the atomic level. Yes, there will always be more to add, but perhaps this is a painful admission -- is it? Because if it was so easy to get this far, you could go anywhere if you wanted to . . .

A better guide to how one protein fits alongside and interacts with another is a "volume diagram" of the molecule's surface, and most of the figure uses them, not ribbon diagrams. Chemical bonds can form if atoms get close, and proteins vary their shapes to control fitting and bonding.

Muscles can change their length much more than a molecular spring can, and hold the new length steadily with great force. Myosin fibers (pink) achieve muscular contraction with their numerous protruding ratchet arms that engage (make light chemical bonds with) actin fibers lying alongside them. The ratchet arm moves, and so actin fibers are pulled past myosin fibers. The change in tilt of the ratchet arm is a change in the preferred angle of chemical bonds when energy supplied by the body is consumed, an event marked by the absorption of the body's small, ubiquitous energy carrier ("ATP" in the diagram), and its eventual ejection -- now spent -- as "ADP". The helical springs so obvious in the ribbon diagram actually add some "spring" to the ratcheting action.

Finally, the ribbon diagram on the lower right is one unit of actin. This single actin "monomer" is the DNA-dictated chain of amino acids specified by the cell's actin-making instructions (this actin's "gene"). Multiple copies of these monomers are chained together -- top to bottom -- to make the actin filaments seen in the rest of the diagram (blue). Chains of chains? Yes; it is an added layer of complexity, but it brings magic. The monomers can be chained or unchained as the cell supplies or withholds energy for the reaction, in accord with signals from the world outside. Such polymerization and de-polymerization of "scaffolding" enables cells to migrate and move (using actin alone -- no big investment in muscle formation here). We are beyond plastics; this is responsive, alive. Using what is already a chain of amino acids for each link of actin makes it possible, as with everyday ropes, to create actin in the form of two intertwined strands for extra strength.

The stunning revelation of molecular micromachines like this one for muscular contraction inspired man to try his own hand at it, and the field of nanotechnology was born. Nothing, no single technology, can reveal what is portrayed here. The arguments and detective work are driven by genomic and protein sequencing, by clever preparations subjected to X-ray crystallography or electron microscopy, and by experiments to see what breaks the machine or makes it run. Love life. It is a marvelous gift.

(Adapted in part from Garrett & Grisham "Biochemistry")

THE INSTRUCTION MANUAL.  DNA instructs cells which amino acid to choose next (and when to stop) to make the string of amino acids that constitute a particular protein.  Proteins are the body's most specially-shaped molecules. Some are small and travel far, where their unique shape acts as a unique signal; others are among the body's largest molecules.  These molecules combine into sheets of muscle tissue (figure above), or cartilage, or scaffolding rods inside cells to give them shape and the ability to move themselves or their internal stuff around.  Proteins create lock-and-key communication systems that enable only a particular hormone or neurotransmitter to fit into the matching receptor on a distant target cell and thus command a nerve cell to fire, or a distant blood vessel to contract, or the target to secrete or release a needed growth factor / histamine / sugar.  Proteins evolved to make tubes of just the right size to let only calcium or only sodium ions through, then added a lid or other devices to open or close the tube, then a remote control system for the lid.  Not to be a protein chauvinist,  but the rest of the body is just water, teeth and fat droplets as far as I'm concerned.

The instructions for the the body's estimated 100,000 different proteins are all strung together, which, with a lot of "junk" DNA left over from Earth's 3+ billion years of cellular evolution, makes a chain 1 meter long -- too long to handle as one piece, given the fragility of a thread only a few atoms across. For convenience and safety, the DNA strand is broken up -- in humans, into 22 pieces plus the X and Y pieces.  Wound up so tightly that they appear dark under the microscope, these pieces or "chromosomes" are collected together and held by a thin bag with holes in it to form the prominent nucleus of nearly every cell in your body.  The nucleus holds the Instruction Manual for the total, unique you.  With few exceptions, every cell has one copy of the complete Instruction Manual.  Physics and biology chose the same word because the atomic nucleus (one atom) and the cellular nucleus (billions and billions of atoms) are both central, and important, in their respective worlds.  

As mentioned, not every cell in your body has a copy of the Manual for making You. Red blood cells are special.  Red blood cells are modified after formation to remove the chromosomes and other organelles, stripping the cell down to an oxygen carrying unit small enough to travel through the smallest capillary beds.  Deprived of a nucleus -- all the instructions -- red blood cells can only die, never reproduce, and so must get cranked out in a red blood cell factory someplace else.  This turns out to be the bone marrow.   Special exceptions like that aside, plants, animals and even bacteria have agreed:  a cell nucleus is a great place to put the Instruction Manual.   Each cell in every one of these life forms has a nucleus (the cells are "eukaryotic").  Anyone from Homeland Security who swabs the inside of your cheek gets the whole Instruction Manual too.  If we ever get as far as mail order clones and you want a spare copy of yourself, you won't have to enclose anything in the envelope but your check. Just lick the envelope and mail it.


Except when a lot of body needs to be built (embryonic months, early childhood), most cells never read more than a page or two of the Instruction Manual. Cellular roles are fixed, and narrow.  (Bone marrow and the new "adult stem cells" are exciting exceptions.) So, does this mean that damage to instructions that never get read doesn't matter?  It doesn't, until the cell needs to duplicate itself. A copy is a copy of everything: the cytoplasm, the organelles in it, and, not least of all, the three billion "code letters" in the meter-long DNA.

Only perfect copies will do.  Anything less is the end of "heredity".  

Gametes -- egg and sperm -- have been copied and now must wait for the big moment.
A single damaged molecule will have important consequences if the molecule was the set of DNA instructions your new child is about to inherit  from you. (The kid only gets a single copy, no spares; indeed, only a single half-copy from one of you, in the successful sperm, completed with a complementary half-copy from your mate, in the fertilized egg -- the two strands of the famous "double-stranded helix" that is DNA.)  Fortunately, the body detects and rejects most cases of DNA damage, and we experience "reproductive problems" (sterility) from radiation damage.  But sometimes there are stillbirths, and sometimes all barriers are passed.  Survivors of the Chernobyl meltdown had live-birth children that later developed leukemia (or other cancers) and died.  If you even get a live birth after germ cell damage, save for cancer bills, not just college.  A government's responsibility for the health of its people extends to two generations from a nuclear accident.

"Germ cells" (egg and sperm, the "gametes") are most vulnerable to damage from radiation. These cells have already copied, split the double helix, and are waiting, forever for many, for The Big Moment.  Until pairing, there will be no copying and no copy corrections.  Before a dental X-ray, the lead blanket goes over your pelvis.  
Unborn children should also recognize and do something about the special vulnerability of their mothers.  Women are more vulnerable to ionizing radiation than men, as they enter maturity with all the eggs for childbearing they will ever have.  Women are the sole source of their offspring's mitochondrial DNA, which lacks the repair mechanisms of nuclear DNA. 

The mitochondrial organelle has performed many regulatory roles -- most famously,  making energy available from metabolism -- so well since a big bacterium ate a little one 3.7 billion years ago and thus acquired the first one, that the once-ingested organelle wasn't digested, and every plant and animal cell in the world decided ever since to keep the mitochondrial organelle and its own, brief DNA.  No other DNA exists outside the nucleus.  The mitochondrial DNA has no sexual recombinations, no shuffling of the deck. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mothers to all offspring. Mitochondrial DNA's 
odd maternal-only inheritance -- and lack of deck-shuffling -- has made it a tool for tracing the races of man, his spread across the planet.
Gametes aside, copying goes on forever for most of the body's 10 trillion "somatic" (non-germ) cells.  This constant copying of cells is the key to the link between radiation, "radiation sickness", and cancer.

THE DNA POLICE.  Radiation breaks molecules, yet all my life I have heard people say this or that level or source of radiation was "safe".  How was I to know if it was true?  Then we discovered repair mechanisms for DNA, and control points during cell reproduction to stop the copy if repairs were impossible.  Perhaps up to some point, the body can repair any radiation damage to DNA (or completely kill off the damaged cell line).  Yet the research is now piling up that very small differences in amount of radiation make a difference in a particular individual's chances of getting cancer, and make a difference (tens of thousands of people) in the cancer rate for a nation's population as a whole.

If we have repair mechanisms for DNA that can fix a few errors, why are we seeing data that document a cancer rise for any rise in radiation?

DNA unzips and then makes itself a double helix again. For most of the body's somatic cells, the copy-error rate on the 1-meter long DNA strand of three billion code letters is one in a billion.  That's three mutations for the DNA police to set straight every time a cell replicates itself. There are more errors down stream ("What'd you bring me that for?  I said the protein's next amino acid was tryptophan"), but let's stick to DNA replication.  You are walking around today with 10 billion cells you didn't have yesterday. Some say we are not properly estimating the bone marrow's generation of blood cells, and the number is at least double that.

Ten billion cells arrive daily when you are not healing from surgery, when you are no longer a vulnerable, growing child, when you are not pregnant, when you are only replacing daily wear and tear. That's 30 billion mutations for the DNA police.  It now appears that research can document increases in cancer rates for very low increases in radiation because the body's DNA repair mechanisms are matched to, and have their hands full with, the 30 billion mutations that they catch and repair every day.

CANCER vs. AGING.  One reason we are all more likely to develop cancer the older we get is that the DNA police don't catch all the copying mistakes (mutations) that occur naturally, and, the faithful copying machine of heredity being what it is, each mutation is inherited forever.  The mutations accumulate.  If so, then
  1. any additional radiation-induced mutations move up our date with cancer, and
  2. anyone who talks about a safe level of radiation is wrong.
Declaring any increased level of radiation "safe" is unacceptable.  I would settle for "acceptable level of radiation for low-risk adults".  If there is no cancer in your family, maybe you don't care if your date with cancer is moved up from age 110 to 95.

CANCER'S SLOW EMERGENCE.  Reactors don't need iodine to run, and nobody puts any in, but iodine comes out.  The body concentrates iodine in the thyroid gland.  Although I-131 has a half-life of 8 days, today, 25 years after Chernobyl, the National Institutes of Health states that the rate at which new thyroid cancers are being reported is still increasing. In Japan, the number of new cancer cases per annum, especially leukemia, will peak 10 years from now in the younger school children of Fukushima Prefecture. Here is why the appearance of cancer is delayed.

A cell with a radiation-induced DNA error that doesn't get caught -- that overwhelms the body's ability to fix errors and let only perfect copies through -- that cell becomes a grandfather cell at the head of a growing population of equally-corrupted daughter cells (traditional terms; nothing do to with grandpas and girls).  The grandfather cell itself was a failed copy, but now the DNA police can only insure that each daughter cell is an accurate copy of grandpa. If the probability of cancer increases for all of us as "natural" copying errors accumulate with age, then these people have a head start on developing cancer, but need time to express it.   It takes the passing of years of body maintenance, of replacing old cells with new, to slowly cover the body with damaged daughter cells, just as weeds appear and cover a lawn.  The larger the patch of damaged daughter cells, the more likely that additional copying errors among them will add new errors to the original one. Without adding more radiation, you eventually cross your own personal threshold to cancer, and you will cross it sooner if you got a head start years ago.  

With ingested or inhaled radioactivity, the errors pile up faster.  When that nuclear "event" happened upwind from where you live, did you shower and drive away after exposure, or stay put? 
From the cancer's point of view, the beauty of a plutonium dust speck lodged in the bronchia or lungs is that only a small daughter cell population need  line up around a tiny area to receive the next hit of ionizing radiation, and the next.  The tissue sits, an enthralled audience around the inhaled particle, watching the dazzling show.  That tissue sums genetic errors to cross the line to cancer.  There's no waiting for the weeds to cover the lawn, no waiting for the daughters of childhood's forgotten exposure to sum with adulthood's occasional failures of DNA replication.  

Cancer is delayed because we are alive.  We have to grow and propagate changed daughter cell lines (mutated cell lines) that never should been initiated in the first place. The more daughter cells, the more chance new genetic errors will be added to the old, inherited one.  Children grow faster and we can see what we have done to them sooner.

RADIATION SICKNESS APPEARS FAST.  Radiation sickness doesn't arrive insidiously, as cancer does.  Why so fast?

The DNA police only check the Instruction Manual (the DNA) when it's time to copy.   Cells discovered to have errors make hasty repairs, or are "set" to commit suicide ("apoptosis").  There are places in the body where cells normally get copied (replaced) very often.  The lining of the gut turns over completely every couple of weeks; platelets important for blood clotting last only 10 days. Hair follicle roots push out 0.2mm of hair a day, and twice that for beards.  If you are exposed to high radiation levels, these are the areas of the body that will show the damage first (cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy go bald), these are the areas where the body itself will first detect that much is terribly wrong.  Since radiation is crude and mangles the double helix itself rather than merely slipping the wrong code letter into it (a normal copying error), cell reproduction will typically fail entirely and the cell will be killed ("apoptosis") when an irradiated cell tries to reproduce itself.  

After intense radiation exposure, so much of your intestinal lining will die that you will feel nauseous and vomit within hours. Within weeks, when your hair is falling out, you will get infections and bloody stools because your blood doesn't clot, the immune system (where white blood cells also turn over a lot) is shot, and your gut lining can't heal.  To look at treatments, run a search on "DTPA, KI,  Prussian blue". Remember to write down the number of hours between your exposure and first vomit.  The doctor can estimate your dose from the delay; beyond a certain dose, you cannot be saved.

RADIOTHERAPY.  Cancer cells turn over a lot also -- they have escaped many of the body's regulations that foster our common good, and instead they pursue only self-advancement.  Cancer cells use the body's food and oxygen supply, the body's waste removal systems,  but contribute only blight to the ordered tissues of the body where they claim membership.  Eventually they learn to influence the body's decision making, and then command blood vessels to proliferate toward them ("angiogenesis"), so that the tumor can grow and command still more resources. Fortunately, cancer cells preoccupied with copying their own perverted DNA are, like the gut lining, disproportionately sensitive to radiation.  Cancers try to copy often, and the DNA police come to check the copy.  By itself, the copy will pass inspection.  Radiation treatment in oncology adds enough damage to the DNA that the DNA police can recognize it. Apoptosis ensues.  The cancer itself attracts little attention because its instructions, while altered, are perfectly readable, whereas radiation shatters them.  

Cancer evolves as a disease of the genes to escape the body's controls. A pre-cancerous cell line that begins to escape local controls on copying makes too many cells that forget to read the Instruction Manual for advice on how to specialize.  This bunch of perennially immature cells are "dysplastic". When they finally learn to read the Instruction Manual, it will be the wrong page (the wrong genes are "expressed").  The cancerous cells can mature somewhat and organize into a neoplasm or tumor that doesn't fit with what their neighbors are doing. Errors in the DNA accumulate, rules are not followed, and the tissue becomes disordered as increasingly sloppy copies are made. The cancer makes so many copies that it doesn't care if some cells fail, doesn't care if some can't even metabolize food for energy.  What counts is the chance for the cancer to discover and turn on genes -- pages in the Instruction Manual long ago closed when the cancer's parent cells became matured and specialized. What counts, as reproduction gets sloppier and faster, is the chance to discover signaling proteins that turn on the body's angiogenesis (beckon blood vessels hither, we're hungry), that signal the body to deliver hormones or growth factors, that trick the immune system into not attacking.  It is Darwinian -- whatever works by chance grows, and soon there are millions. You want to catch cancer fast, not because it will be more to remove later, but because it will become a different, smarter enemy.  A cancerous cell line that escapes all apoptosis mechanisms (the suicide commands) achieves immortality.  Now these cells will never be flagged down by the DNA police.  Radiation therapy will lose its efficacy.  Metastasis requires cells to learn another particular skill set for budding and spreading.  Metastatic cells that are also immortal can spread with youthful vigor forever.  Your body's concept of government for the common good is now history.    

Cancer is a combination of disorganization (of growth, of genetic regulation, of assigned roles and contributions to the common good) and cunning (the discovery of genes that one's specialized neighbors do not express).  It is clear that ionizing radiation leads to mutant cell lines and cumulative genetic damage that will eventually trigger this disease and perhaps speed its progression.  

FREE RADICALS.  What if you only knock a few atoms out of the body's ordinary molecules (not the germ cells, not the DNA of somatic cells).  Violent changes to the molecule breaks up the electron cloud that had wrapped round and resonated across that molecule -- the bonds that made the molecule in the first place. What do the broken pieces do?

An atom you knock out is likely to be positively charged, having failed to take all its electrons with it.  The two pieces of a broken molecule are likely to wind up electron-rich -- negatively charged for one piece -- and electron-poor for the other.  A charged atom or (piece of) molecule is called an ion, so the beam or particle of radiation that committed molecular mayhem was "ionizing radiation".  Unimportant technical differences distinguish an ionized piece of broken molecule from a "free radical" -- they both have energy and charge, they attract stuff to them, they are chemically reactive with what they attract. Free radicals can react with (clog or bend and break) DNA, so we are back where we started.  More likely, the pieces will just be digested, but the reactivity can make the metabolic breakdown tough on the enzyme attempting to do it.

The body routinely creates several types (families) of molecules as free radicals and routinely makes use of their reactivity to signal that something needs to be done.  At least some naturally-occurring free radicals are useful.  When ionizing radiation creates free radicals, what molecule acquires free-radical activation and where it is activated are unnatural.  As a class, free radicals are implicated in aging as well as DNA damage.  Anti-oxidant-rich foods neutralize some of them.


In the world outside you will be told that such-and-such a level of radiation is safe, or maybe it isn't safe, but you would get more dosage if you flew across the country at 35,000 feet (less atmosphere between you and cosmic rays), so stop complaining.

Please turn away and consider instead these items as a starting point for arriving at your own approach to the conflict between public health and private nuclear power.

1. When ionizing radiation is absorbed, it ionizes something.  Was DNA never hit?  If by magic DNA molecules were missed every time, we'd both like to know this. What has been done to screen for genetic damage?  For many decades, we have been able to look for gross chromosomal abnormalities in response to radiation, changes visible in any pathology lab light microscope.  It is not expensive.  Have you run any checks even for gross chromosomal abnormalities?  Today we have gene chips to detect changes as small as a single code letter in the 3 billion letter-long human genome.  Have you surveyed SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) in the population?  Ultraviolet-induced genetic damage begins with the signature damage of fused thiamine code letters in the DNA wherever they happen to occur in adjacent positions.  What have you done to detect and characterize analogous genetic signatures for nuclear radiation damage?  If it is safe, then DNA was not changed.  Perhaps you should have a look.  

2. If the situation is safe, cover my health insurance.  It will cost you nothing.  A nation with a nuclear power program and no national health insurance has not kept its date with destiny, but, after a radiation event, all of us surely will.

3. What have you done to improve normative data for baseline cancer rates?  If you don't want to pay my health insurance, just insure the public for any cancer elevation over baseline rates for the next 2 generations.  At present, only Connecticut has historically deep, population-wide data with granularity fine enough to distinguish a useful number of different cancer types.  Once you have to pay for increases above baseline cancer rates, you will want to rely on good cancer rate data, not hide increases behind gross population averages.  

4. I cannot accept any settlement because I won't know the damages until decades from now.  

We turn from cellular biology to nuclear physics and nuclear reactors.

        Paper's PREVIEW 
  I.    Atoms, Molecules, Proteins and the Genetic Code

  II.   Physics:  Powerful Radiation Breaks Molecules
  III.   Let's Build a Reactor.
  IV.  The Fateful Decision: Uranium and Slow Neutrons
  V.   The Spent Fuel Story - No Place to Put Anything
  VI.  The Big Picture: Uranium & Our Universe
  VII.  Public Policy -- We subsidize this industry from cradle to grave.
 VIII.  The Nuclear Renaissance: Fast Reactors Only - They don't make waste, and perform their own burial.  


I remember how attractive she was, a former staff member for Newt Gingrich.  She put the coffee into the microwave, saying she would "nuke it" for me. Actually, she was using electromagnetic energy, and had probably never met nuclear energy in her life, since it could have killed her.  

There's certainly a lot of nuclear energy out there.  Throughout the cosmos, unstable nuclei abound, born anew in the violence of stellar collapse and sorted out to the inner rocky planet orbits at protoplanetary birth.  But on one small, blue, inner-orbit planet, radioactivity has largely faded in 4.5 billion years of charmed existence.  We have a nice rocky planet, in a quiet neighborhood, with an iron core like most of them, but ours is still molten, and ours is still rotating, and therefore ours still holds up a magnetic shield.  Yes, some cosmic rays do still penetrate this shield and keep up a little background radioactivity, but you can't say a few inter-galactic cosmic rays spoil the whole neighborhood.

Atomic weapons and nuclear reactors destroy what only time can heal.  Physics is physics.  If the decay time was 1.5 million years at the creation (e.g., for zirconium-93, common in spent fuel), then it is still 1.5 million years.  If we now look at what goes into a nuclear reactor, what happens inside, and what comes out, the absurdity of our choices becomes clear.  Just as clear is an alternative path to a sustainable nuclear energy industry, the path we have not chosen.  A lot of people will lie to you about our situation and earn a comfortable living doing so.  Our goal is to understand what is inherent in the physics, in our reactor designs.  Here we will learn what can never change on this planet, in this galaxy, in this universe -- from here to the limits of human knowledge.

THE STRONG AND WEAK NUCLEAR FORCES.  Let's go back to that coffee, she says it's hot now. The forces we experience in daily life are only two in number: gravity, and electromagnetism (light waves, radio waves, other waves, or electricity by itself and magnetism by itself).  Electromagnetism (radio waves) heated the coffee by shaking the water molecules and leaving them still vibrating.  We experience the motion of their vibration as heat.  

These forces are not nuclear.  Nuclear forces are very short-range -- they are designed for the nucleus, and that's where they usually stay.  We seldom experience nuclear forces directly in daily life, and their names are unfamiliar to most of us.  The "weak force" changes one element to another and leads to the emission of particles and radiation strong enough to kill us (thanks).  Calling that a weak force is enough to make you think physicists actually have a sense of humor, until you meet the strong force. The strong force creates and obliterates the known universe.  Fortunately for human curiosity, a little strong force leaks from the interior of neutrons and protons (which the strong force is responsible for creating) and out into the larger nucleus as a whole, where we can play with it by setting off atomic bombs to see what happens.

Both nuclear forces, the weak force and the strong force, don't do anything without calling for -- or giving back -- enormous amounts of energy.  Nothing new here: as we saw with the force that makes chemical bonds, some energy levels are preferred, some are forbidden, it takes energy to go up a level and you get it back when you come back down.  Only now the smallest steps between adjacent levels of energy happen to be enormous.  The suggested opening poker chip in the nuclear research game is a $10 billion particle accelerator.  That particle accelerator sits in Europe. We would have had a better one, but we quit because it would have cost us $11B.
"... the US was arguably the mecca for physics from 1950 to 2000, with the most Nobel Prizes, the biggest accelerators, and the leading journals."
--Michael S. Turner
Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago
Not anymore.  We tried, and you can't say we have nothing to show for it.  There's a big hole in the ground in Texas, and no way to get back the $2B in 1993 dollars we spent digging it.  

Since energy from nuclear forces is often put into electromagnetic form when sent out into our everyday world, it is worth having a closer look at the nature of electromagnetism.  The nuclear energy from radioactive decay which we receive in electromagnetic form arrives as "gamma rays".  There are only three kinds of radioactivity, and gamma rays are the most penetrating.  Of all electromagnetic waves (radio stations, radar systems, the microwaves that heated the cup of coffee), gamma ray waves are at the highest possible energy levels.  How do they behave?

ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVES: FROM BASICS TO GAMMA RAYS.  Electromagnetic waves -- of whatever energy -- cover distance at 186,210 miles per second.  If you divide the number on your car radio (e.g., 100.3 MHz, 100.3 million full cycles per second) into this speed, you get almost a car length for just one of those many cycles.  This is the distance the wave went in that fraction of a second, and, according to the radio dial, this is the distance it takes to trace out exactly a single, full cycle of the radio station you have selected.  One "cycle" or "wavelength" is the "up" and then the "down", a plus-to-minus voltage swing, and back again; or, for magnetism, a north- to south-pole swing, and back again. If the station sounds terrible, roll forward half a car length, and take yourself from a trough to the next peak of the radio wavelength, then stop. 

The speed never changes (186,210 miles/second, the speed of light; or, better, the speed of any electromagnetic radiation), so making faster frequencies means making shorter cycles. Short cycles have to be little -- the faster the wave changes direction (a growing positive electrical potential reverses; a growing North Pole magnetism stops and reverses), the less far it can go up before it has to come down again.  So the higher the frequency, the more "forward" and the less up-and-down "sideways" it goes. The electromagnetic whatever-it-is (radio, light, gamma rays) will be "more arrow and less feathers" (more particle-like) if it is higher frequency.  

As one might imagine, it takes more energy to get any physical system swinging back and forth more times per second.  Higher frequencies (shorter wavelengths) deliver inherently higher energies from one physical system to another.  The highest-of-all-energy gamma rays that radioactive isotopes emit act like particles that bounce from one collision to another before eventually disappearing.  Nevertheless, despite these particle-like properties, the fact that there's no big-mass object here is reflected in the ability of gamma rays, like X-rays and most radio waves, to penetrate deeply into objects.  Stepping out for a suntan will clarify all this.  

ENERGY LEVELS vs. SUNSCREEN.  Beyond the color violet (in frequency) lies Ultra-Violet, which tans, and far ultraviolet, which is dangerous.  Our treatment as a society of sun tanning is an interesting contrast to our society's ability to deal with nuclear power.

The violet just beyond the visible is UV Band A ("UV-A"); the more energetic bands are UV-B and UV-C.  The bonds of DNA cannot be broken by UV-A, but other molecules' chemical bonds have energy levels low enough to match the energy deliverable at UV-A's frequencies.  These molecules' bonds are broken.  The molecules, mostly smaller ones, are ionized, and the ions, sometimes after basically minor rearrangements (a bend here, a twist there) can act as free radicals.  So, in nuclear power industry terms, UV-A is only very weakly ionizing radiation; indeed, when climbing the electromagnetic spectrum to ever-higher energies, UV-A is the first radiation scientists see that can do any ionizing at all. Period.  UV-A usually can't ionize or damage any DNA.  Again, in nuclear power industry terms, any level of UV-A radiation is safe because science has established that UV-A radiation does not break DNA bonds.

Let us turn from what we imagine the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and United Nations health and atomic energy organizations might say, to look instead at the Food and Drug Administration.  The rest of the UV-A data now come into view.  This UV-A radiation ionizes part of the body's molecules, creating free radicals. The free radicals damage DNA. Indeed, 92% of malignant human melanomas are caused by such an indirect attack on the integrity of DNA by free radicals produced in turn by ionizing radiation.  Therefore, beginning in 2012, the Food and Drug Administration will require drugstore sunscreen products to protect from UV-A or else provide a consumer warning on the label that they do not offer any protection.  For the FDA, DNA damage defines public health. Radiation too weak to ionize DNA directly requires protection and warnings if we can show that this weak radiation (here, sunshine) can still do damage to DNA indirectly.  

Ionizing radiation in the form of gamma rays enters our environment in any reactor incident and accompanies every spent fuel rod.  Gamma rays are the most energetic from of electromagnetic radiation; the wavelengths are so short, the wiggles have so little time to depart from a straight-line arrow, that the radiation moves and acts like a hurled particle.  The ionizing gamma radiation of atomic power plants is not two or three times more ionizing than UV-A or UV-B radiation, it is 300,000 times more ionizing.  Penetration is measured not in millimeters of epidermal collagen, but in inches of concrete. The energy level is so high, the electromagnetic wave, acting like a particle, bounces off the first atom with enough energy left to ionize another atom somewhere else. 

        Paper's PREVIEW 
  I.    Atoms, Molecules, Proteins and the Genetic Code

  II.   Physics:  Powerful Radiation Breaks Molecules
  III.   Let's Build a Reactor.
  IV.  The Fateful Decision: Uranium and Slow Neutrons
  V.   The Spent Fuel Story - No Place to Put Anything
  VI.  The Big Picture: Uranium & Our Universe
  VII.  Public Policy -- We subsidize this industry from cradle to grave.
 VIII.  The Nuclear Renaissance: Fast Reactors Only - They don't make waste, and perform their own burial.  


The best way to learn reactor basics is to build one.  Let's start at the core and work outwards.

FUEL RODS ("PINS").  Just as in the spent fuel pool, we'll immerse the uranium in water to take the heat away.  The heat energy pours out in such ridiculously large amounts that we must keep the uranium down to a thin sliver not much bigger than the diameter of a pencil.  That way, no uranium is more than a few millimeters away from water cooling.  To increase the amount of uranium to increase power output, the only choice we have is to elongate this pencil, and so every reactor winds up with those typical long, thin fuel rods: perhaps 3.6 meters (nearly 12 feet) of uranium pellets dropped into a tube whose overall length is 4.5 meters (nearly 15 feet), but only 12.5 mm (1/2 inch) in diameter. It's already clear that, by the time we finish, our reactor housing -- any reactor housing -- is going to be a long structure, tubular like a big water boiler for strength against pressure when the water boils.  This housing or water boiler is the "reactor pressure vessel" which will have steel walls 7 or 8 inches thick and run at 1000 psi (I am using gauge pressures, "psig", the pressure above atmospheric by which we all measure our car tires).    In any reactor, the fuel rods are long and delicate, so we'll have to lower them up and down into the reactor with an overhead gantry crane -- true, a lot of conventionally-fired boilers are horizontal, but our reactor pressure vessel, like most of the others, will have stand vertically. (A wonderful exception is Canada's innovative CANDU reactor.)   Around the reactor pressure vessel is the larger steel "primary containment vessel".  The 
steel walls of Fukushima's BWRs (boiling water reactors) primary containment vessel are 3 cm thick, nearly 1 1/8".  PWR (pressurized water reactors), operate at higher pressures with thicker containments.  As with a kitchen pressure cooker, higher pressure means higher temperatures, which brings a couple percent greater efficiency to overall steam turbine operation -- as they have grown to larger sizes as well as higher temperatures and pressures, nuclear power plants have grown from efficiencies in the lower to mid-thirty percents, closer to the 40% achieved by the best oil- and coal-fired plants.   

FUEL ROD ASSEMBLIES.  Our main energy source is fission (splitting) of individual uranium atoms when they are struck by neutrons.  Our metal rods are made of a zirconium metal alloy ("Zircalloy") that lets neutrons pass through easily, if only we had some neutrons!  Neutrons are found in the nucleus of most atoms, but don't like to leave without an act of violent persuasion.  For getting neutrons loose, smashing atoms together or splitting nuclei apart are both effective. Reactors use the second method.  One of our uranium atoms somewhere will spontaneously split, releasing perhaps two neutrons which we want to hit other uranium atoms, but which instead promptly escape the thin fuel rod we have to use because of the heat, and hit nothing.  The obvious solution is to put more fuel rods around the first one so that neutrons escaping from from one rod will hit a uranium atom in another.  A few hundred rods would do, but for 760 megawatts of electrical power (Fukushima reactors Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5, Model BWR-4), we'll go for 34,524 rods. For control purposes, a small, scattered minority of rods will be filled with substances other than uranium, or sometimes with sensors.  The main control "rods" have a plus-sign cross section, and slide in between four fuel rod assembly baskets.  In a meltdown, all of this makes quite a mess at the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel.   

Fuel rods are delicate and heavy.  Uranium weighs half again as much as lead, bringing fuel rods to between 3 and 7 lbs each in most reactor designs.  Besides being stainless (corrosion resistant), stainless steel is a good neutron reflector, so we'll build stainless steel carrier baskets for groups of 7 x 7 fuel rods (and larger numbers in larger reactors).  These "fuel rod assemblies" are what the overhead gantry crane takes back and forth to the spent fuel pool when we take the lid off the primary containment vessel and the reactor pressure vessel inside to empty the entire reactor for maintenance, or to replace fuel rods that are "spent" after 18 to 24 months.  Because stainless steel is a good neutron reflector, it's also a good idea to line the primary containment vessel with it; neutron reflection is a well-engineered issue within the reactor pressure vessel itself.  

In the 1970s Model BWR-4 machines like Fukushima's Nos. 2,3,4, and 5 reactors, the 548 fuel rod assemblies -- stainless steel, Zircalloy tubes, uranium pellets -- weigh 90,000 kg.  Approximately 66% of the fuel assembly weight (60 tons) is the actual uranium dioxide fuel; press reports often confuse the two weights. New reactor designs are twice this size.

Maine Yankee power plant; drawing by David Fierstein  
click photo to enlarge
Figure caption:  Nuclear power plant basics, from steam generation in reactor to cool water returning from condensers  to be boiled again.  The neutrons flying everywhere inside reactors make water radioactive; some oxygen temporarily becomes a radioactive isotope of nitrogen (before returning to an O in H2O again).  Because the radioactivity in steam released from Stack "S" normally comes just from such N-16,  with a half-life of only 7 seconds, an increase in cancer rates has so far been demonstrated only for very young children (5 years and under) living very close (5 km and under) to such stacks.  When a reactor overheats and its fuel rods crack, the fuel spills into the water and the steam is deadly.   Maine Yankee plant, completed in 1972 for $231M ($1.1B in 2005 dollars).  Shut in 1997 and decommissioned by 2005 at a cost of $508M (1998 estimate).   During its lifetime, the  810MW plant (810 million watts) generated 119 billion kilowatt-hours of power with a retail value of $12 to $24 billion.   (Drawing by David Fierstein, http://www.davidiad.com/ ).

REACTOR PROBLEMS.  This completes the sketch of heating elements inside the reactor pressure vessel (boiler) and its primary containment vessel (also steel, or steel-lined concrete).  We are ready to boil some water.  There is a secondary containment structure which truly is a only a containment barrier with concrete walls, not a boiler.  The secondary containment structure is meant to contain the pressure if the reactor explodes its boiler.  The thick reinforced concrete walls, preferably lined with stainless steel, make secondary containment vessels (buildings) expensive.  There are controversies over whether companies build them large enough for an explosion to expand a lot and drop its pressure to something that actually can be contained.  Sometimes there are scandals surrounding thinning from corrosion of the innermost reactor  vessel itself (Davis Besse reactor, Ohio, 2002). 

I expect to see boilers explode here in the USA, because corrosion thins the steel, neutron bombardment makes the steel brittle, our reactors are old, the licenses are routinely extended,  the Nuclear Regulatory Commission relaxes safety standards instead of maintaining (enforcing) them as the installations age, and policy has shifted from 40 to 60 year lifespans for all nuclear plants.  Building a reactor without water inside eliminates explosion problems, leaving only the issue of heat control. The reactors that have no water to make explosions of steam or hydrogen are molten-metal or gas designs used to keep the neutrons "fast" instead of "moderating" them with water, as we shall see in concluding section VIII, The Nuclear Renaissance: Fast Reactors Only.  

A reactor pressure vessel without water is a nuclear power plant in meltdown.  Getting water into the reactor to save the day always means releasing radioactivity into the neighborhood.  Here is why.  

In order to pump emergency water into the reactor pressure vessel with ordinary electric-motor pumps, the pressure must be dropped from ca. 1000 psi to 350 psi by releasing radioactive steam into the atmosphere.  In normal operation at 1000 psi, only pumps run by the steam pressure itself can force water back into the reactor pressure vessel to keep it going. These pumps are in a big steam loop that must be shut down in any emergency. The shut-down must be fast.  All AC power generators run in perfect synchrony with the electric grid, or not at all, so  fluctuations at the reactor are intolerable.  If there is a fluctuation at the reactor, the generator must be shut off at once, and then there is no use for all the steam.
 The loop with the turbogenerator and steam condensers is shut down. We have a hot reactor and plenty of steam, but no place to put it and no way to pull out the energy and return the steam to water.  We have steam to drive the steam-driven pumps, but there is no water in the pipes.  So, to get cooling water into the reactor vessel, the plant can only use other water moved by electric pumps that only work at lower pressure levels.  To pump this water with lower pressure electric pumps, the reactor's steam pressure must be dumped, and the steam is radioactive, at least briefly.  No one is happy to release radioactivity into the environment, but that is what nuclear power plants are designed to do.  

Nearly all the world's power plant reactors have water inside, and all the water becomes radioactive -- some  oxygen atoms turn into an unstable nitrogen isotope.  The radioactive nitrogen-16 arising from neutron bombardment of the oxygen-16 in water has a half-life of only 7.1 seconds.
 Much equipment and attention is expended to condense this steam quickly back to water (somewhere else, not in the main condensers), to minimize what is released back into the atmosphere, to delay the release so the radioactivity can die down.  So then are we perfectly safe because it's only water, only 7 seconds?  We would like to think the water is perfectly pure, and it is indeed demineralized continuously as metal from pipes and valves leach into it, and as corrosion builds up.  But the public never thinks to ask about water purity, and we are not taught that cobalt (natural Co-59) and nickel (natural Ni-58) used to make most steel alloys become Co-60 and Co-59.  Cobalt-60 is responsible for most of the radioactivity that makes decommissioning any nuclear plant difficult.  Steam release is not just an N-16 story, and it would be nice to know completely what's being discharged.  But, in a serious accident, it will not matter that the public never demanded to know how pure the water once was, when operations were normal.  The fuel itself falls into the water and contaminates it with a zoo of radioactive isotopes.    

When cooling fails and the path to meltdown begins, the Zircalloy rods balloon at 900 deg C and may crack.  Cracks will give the water circulating through the reactor water more radioactivity, because neutron bombardment of reactor fuel (which starts as only uranium, or only a uranium-plutonium mixture) creates radioactive versions of many new elements.  Some of these are water-soluble, and out the cracks they go.  The cesium and the iodine that unite chemically to form cesium iodide from the I-131, I-132, Cs-134 and Cs-137 isotopes are a deadly example. Fukushima reactors No. 1, 2, and 3 surpassed this temperature and the cooling water which they subsequently boiled away into the atmosphere became sharply more radioactive on the first weekend after the Friday, March 11 tsunami and power failure. How much was released?  We do not know, but all four isotopes were seen in Seattle 7 days later.   

Reactors with water inside can explode unless steam pressure is released, and the steam carries dissolved radioactivity into the environment.  

At 1200 deg C, the zirconium of the Zircalloy fuel rod tubes oxidizes directly with the oxygen in the remaining water, leaving hydrogen gas which explodes, as we saw in Japan.  At 1800 deg C the fuel rods rupture and the fuel inside falls to the bottom of the reactor vessel. The fuel pellets -- the uranium dioxide itself -- are often referred to as "ceramic", which sounds sealed and stronger, but the iodine gets out and the pellets crumble.  The industry calls the collapse of fuel rods and the spilling of the fuel inside "rubbelization".  Rubbelized fuel which reaches 2700 to 2800 deg C melts and runs together.  Fukushima reactor #1 reached this temperature first.  Since the neutrons now find more uranium atoms close by to split, temperatures can rise even more to melt through steel and boil the damp earth and groundwater underneath the building.  Some newer reactor designs call for a large, thick pad of concrete under the reactor as a drip catcher for reactors that pass from the meltdown to the melt-through stage.  Fukushima reactors Nos. 1, 2, and 3 are now (late June, 2011) said to be in the melt-through stage.  The fuel rod assembly weights in Fukushima Reactors Nos. 1, 2, and 3 are 70, 90, and 90 metric tons respectively, representing about 150 tons of uranium dioxide in all (now partially transmuted into other elements).  

All the fuel rod assemblies of Fukushima reactor No. 4 (90 tons) were in the spent fuel pool (during reactor maintenance), along with about 130 tons of other, older spent fuel rod assemblies, all 5 stories above ground, so there is no steel reactor pressure vessel or steel primary containment vessel for protection.  When the lights went out and the circulation stopped, all the water boiled directly into the atmosphere.  

GOING CRITICAL: LET'S START OUR REACTOR.  Not to be discouraged by unlikely problems with reactors, let's start ours.  Our reactor, like the global reactor fleet, has to be stopped, not started.  It starts itself, so all we have to do is stop stopping it.  We do this as Enrico Fermi did it with the very first atomic reactor on 2 December 1942: we pull out special rods loaded with neutron-stopping elements, not fuel (silver, indium, hafnium, boron as boron carbide; Fermi's control rods were coated with cadmium). Fermi had the control rods pulled out a foot at a time, saw the radioactivity rise gently, and took a break for lunch.  After lunch, he pulled the last control rod out all the way, and the radiation level abruptly jumped as the reactor "went critical": it had crossed the dividing line between (on average) losing neutrons and gaining them with each successive fission.  It is a dividing line, a balance.  Once there is any small probability that more neutrons will be released by splitting new nuclei than disappeared crashing into the old ones, then the number of fresh neutron released will grow.  Fermi shut the reactor down after 28 minutes.  There was no radiation shielding, no cooling system of any kind, three million people living where the reactor had been built, and no problems with Enrico Fermi's prior calculations.  Please -- there will never be another Enrico Fermi, don't try it.    

The goal of any reactor is to split (fission) large nuclei, because that releases the energy we're after, 10 to 100 times the nuclear energy released by most single radioactive decays (they are very variable), and tens of millions of times the chemical energy released by burning in oxygen one atom of carbon (coal, oil, natural gas).  Any large nucleus will do, all of them can be split, although some have to be hit harder to do it than others.  The way every reactor gets the splitting done is neutrons. Neutrons can split the nuclei they crash into.  An intense neutron flux is the key to reactor operation; so, we must create a space, the core of the reactor, that becomes a cacophony of hurtling neutrons.  There must be neutrons everywhere, going in every directions, bouncing off the walls and hurtling into the fuel.  But you don't see free neutrons very often. Most neutrons are bound up tightly and not going anywhere; they are inside a nucleus, the ant at the center of the football field.  Key decisions were made very early about where to get neutrons and how to groom or "moderate" them for fissioning nuclei.   

        Paper's PREVIEW 
  I.    Atoms, Molecules, Proteins and the Genetic Code

  II.   Physics:  Powerful Radiation Breaks Molecules
  III.   Let's Build a Reactor.
  IV.  The Fateful Decision: Uranium and Slow Neutrons
  V.   The Spent Fuel Story - No Place to Put Anything
  VI.  The Big Picture: Uranium & Our Universe
  VII.  Public Policy -- We subsidize this industry from cradle to grave.
 VIII.  The Nuclear Renaissance: Fast Reactors Only - They don't make waste, and perform their own burial.  


We split U-235 with slow neutrons to boil water for atomic power in nearly every one of the world's 400+ nuclear reactors and the 65 more additional reactors now under construction in 16 countries around the world.  Water inside the reactor containment vessel itself is used to slow the neutrons down.    

Why do we use slow-neutron reactor designs that maximize the number of radioactive isotopes generated?  Why do we start with uranium, when thorium works also, and is three times more plentiful?  I cannot find the answer.  We seem to be trapped in an accident of history.    

ELECTRIFYING NEWS.  Fission with neutron bombardment was discovered at the end of 1938 in Germany, and confirmed at Columbia University on 25 January 1939. The confirmation data suggested that traces of U-235 within the natural uranium sample were doing most of the splitting.  The advantage of slow over fast neutrons for getting atomic reactions was known since Enrico Fermi's work in 1934, and U-235 also proved to split best with slow neutrons.  

The physics community was electrified.  It was known by all that splitting one atom released about 200 million electron volts of energy (vs. an electron volt or two per chemical bond in burning), and that the accompanying neutron release meant chain reactions of many splitting atoms could ignite either atomic reactors or atomic bombs. One ton bombs would become megaton bombs, and bombs certainly excite the human imagination.   By July of the same year, a parade of Hungarians anxious over Hitler's advances had trooped out to Albert Einstein's summer cottage on Long Island. Leo Szilard wrote multiple drafts, Einstein signed a longer version dated 2 August 1939, and on 11 October the hand-delivered letter that eventually launched the Manhattan Project lay on Roosevelt's desk.  The race to an atom bombs was on, on both sides of the Atlantic. The reactors and bombs of the impending Atomic Age would use the "235" isotope of uranium, and reactors would split it with slow neutrons, just as reactors do today.  

It soon emerged that even-numbered U-238 (99.3% of Earth's uranium), like other even-numbered, big-nucleus isotopes, fissioned spontaneously enough to give reactors their kick-starting neutrons (good), but made bombs explode prematurely.  U-235 (0.7% of the Earth's uranium), like other odd-numbered, big-nucleus isotopes, didn't fission much spontaneously (good for bombs), but was easy to fission with neutron bombardment, provided the neutrons were slow enough to stick.  Sticking of course makes the U-235 nucleus not only greatly disturbed from the collision, but even-numbered, and thus in possession of easier paths to splitting.  And it does.  Before the first atomic reactor had been built, we were heading towards uranium fission with slow neutrons using tons of natural U-238 fuel (the reactor starts all by itself), enriched with some added U-235 (sustains the chain reaction after startup).  Fuel choice and neutron moderation:  seventy years later, nothing has changed in these, the most fundamental choices of atomic reactor design.  

1. What fuel will we load? 
Natural uranium-238 enriched with some U-235.

2. What level of neutron energy -- fast or slow -- will we use to split the fuel?  
Slow.  As slow as possible -- no broad spectrum of energies.  

A third question is, How will we kick-start the reactor?  The first confirmation of fission on US soil used a particle accelerator to get the uranium to fission and release its own neutrons.  We can kick-start any reactor with a particle accelerator, but we marched off behind Enrico Fermi to reactors filled with a mixture of an even-numbered isotope to emit kick-starting neutrons (but they won't fission under slow neutron bombardment), and a fissionable odd-numbered isotope that needs other neutrons to get it started.  For 70 years, these three choices have given us reactors filled with some uranium-235 and over 90% of U-238 that absorbs neutrons but does not split.  Let's say this again: nearly the whole show -- all the power release -- is run by a small amount of U-235 that is only about 0.7% of the world's uranium deposits and thus requires uranium enrichment plants (big buildings full of centrifuges) to be built all around the world.  The vast bulk of the "fuel" isn't fuel at all, but provides a steady level of neutrons that makes it easy to start the reactor, but impossible to turn it fully off in an accident or any routine maintenance.  This vast bulk of non-fuel becomes the mountain of radioactive trash generated by the reactor.  Neutrons don't split it, but they do make it more radioactive.  

After years of neutron bombardment,  tons of U-238 emerge, containing a zoo of new radioactive isotopes that did not exist before, that were created from U-238 that never split.  Although -- in rough terms -- only 5% of all the U-238 atoms have changed, their radioactivity will kill you in seconds if you go near freshly irradiated fuel as it is pulled from a reactor.  Radioactivity declines but is persistent.  Two hundred tons or more of old reactor fuel rods per hectare (about 2 1/2 acres) are expected to keep an underground spent fuel repository above the boiling point of water for 10,000 yrs.

You may read elsewhere that our water-moderated reactors have to be refueled so often and need spent fuel pools so close by because "the uranium is gone in the spent fuel rods but they are still radioactive."  This person is wasting your time.

Atomic reactors were wedded to atomic weapons from the start, and this influenced their design.  With few exceptions, theNewton's Cradle illustrates neutron moderation design of the world's reactors is moderation with graphite (Hanford, WA or Chernobyl, USSR/Ukraine) or water (91% of the global fleet) to produce slow neutrons, and the fuel is a little U-235 added to natural uranium, which is U-238.

PLUTONIUM FOR BOMBS.  Before the world's first atomic reactor had ever been built or run on 2 December 1942, it was realized that getting tons of U-235 for bombs might be impossibly difficult.  It was.  The United States has only built and exploded a single A-bomb based completely on U-235 (6 August 1945, Hiroshima).  The rest (Trinity 16 July 1945, Nagasaki 9 August 1945, and 60,000 warheads more) use plutonium-239.  The critical mass to make a plutonium bomb is a third that of U-235, and this minimum can be reduced further with superior implosion explosives and neutron reflectors (e.g., beryllium) to concentrate more plutonium and plutonium-splitting neutrons together in the same place at the same time . . . before the device itself vaporizes.  Unlike trying to shut down a reactor, the vaporization of the bomb scatters everything and the atomic reaction stops suddenly and completely -- a clear advantage of bombs over reactors.  

Plutonium means smaller bombs than uranium, and small bombs mean more per B-52, more bombs per missile warhead.  The desirability of Pu-239 is clinched by the easier-to-stop radioactivity it emits (alpha particles, few gamma rays). Now we could build not only warheads with Multiply Independently-targeted Re-Entry Vehicles (MIRVs) inside each nose cone, but sailors could safely sleep next to those missiles on nuclear submarines.   Everything from small tactical nuclear weapons and "bunker busters" to the largest H-bombs use plutonium-based A-bombs to get started.  In the H-bombs, the plutonium-based A-bomb sets off the fusion-based "enhancement". All bombs throw in some uranium-238 casings -- it's cheap, and there are always enough neutrons around once the "real" bomb goes off, to split some of it, enhancing the explosive yield.  The U-238 splits because the neutrons are fast, they have extra energy -- there is no water inside the bomb to slow them.  

Victory in the grand pageant of human conflict was at hand.  There was only one problem:  no plutonium anywhere on Earth.  Our planet didn't have any. It might have had it once, but, since every plutonium isotope is radioactive, they all decayed long ago and the Earth was quiet.  

Man made plutonium.  By the 1960s, nine atomic reactors were operating on the Hanford campus in Washington State, not to produce electricity, but to produce plutonium.  (The Savannah River site in South Carolina was also a plutonium producer.)  Plutonium is created by changing something else into it.  Changing one element into another is "transmutation".  In general, we transmute elements by adding neutrons to them in a reactor.  Plutonium-239 is made in the intense neutron flux of reactors filled with garden-variety uranium-238.  Some neutrons stick to U-238 atoms making a new uranium isotope, U-239.  Like nearly all isotopes created by the addition of a neutron, the nucleus finds the addition unwelcome and the isotope is unstable.  Radioactive decay changes first one neutron to a proton (half-life delay of 23.45 minutes), and then another (2.4 day delay). With the first new proton, uranium-239 becomes Neptunium-239, and the next proton changes the Neptunium to Plutonium-239, which sticks around (half-life 24,110 years).  The Hanford reactors existed to make lots of radioactive isotopes, many rare or absent in nature.  The Hanford reactors existed to produce "spent fuel", not electricity.  The spent fuel was processed chemically (the start of today's fuel "reprocessing"), and the reprocessing separated the radioisotopes, removing only plutonium. Now all the natural U-238 taken out of mines had a bigger purpose than kick-starting the U-235.  Now all the insanely radioactive isotopes that ensued had a purpose: bomb production.  Neutron bombardment and absorption moved tons of U-238 up a notch on the Periodic Table of the Elements to a highly desired, radioactive, trans-uranic isotope, plutonium-239.

Plutonium production locked the United States and then the world into these most fundamental of reactor design choices:

1.What fuel will we load?
U-238 with 4% U-235.  For decades, if a nation wanted a nuclear power program, their reactors would not run without the approval of the USSR or the USA, the only nations with uranium enrichment programs large enough to provide the U-235.    

2 What level of neutron energy -- fast or slow -- will we use to split the fuel?
Slow neutrons; splits only the U-235 (through neutron-induced fission). Makes many intensely radioactive isotopes out of the U-238, plutonium-239 among them. Alas, 1% of the U-235 never gets split, because many of the isotopes absorb the neutrons even more than the U-238 did -- they are "reactor poisons".

3. How will we kick-start the reactor?
With neutrons from the spontaneous fission of the 96% U-238 atoms, instead of with a short blast from a neutron particle accelerator, which we then unplug.

These choices gave us plentiful plutonium-239.  As far as I know, nobody ever asked what to change for making electricity instead of plutonium.  Secrecy surrounded military efforts at Savannah, Hanford, Los Alamos.  Secrecy became the civilian culture as well.  Secrecy delayed civic society from asking,  Why are we doing it this way?  We left it to the experts, and the experts didn't just answer incorrectly, they never asked the question.  

Nuclear fission and neutron moderation. MODERATION MAKES SLOW NEUTRONS.  Any reactor with water inside is a slow neutron reactor.  It will split U-235 and make radioactive waste out of the U-238.  Water moderates the neutrons, and the moderated, slow  neutrons stick to the U-238 without splitting it.  The slow neutrons can't reduce the radioactive daughter nuclei of the fissioned U-235 either, and some of these (cesium, iodine) are particularly damaging biologically.  "Fast" and "slow" neutrons are seldom discussed, but neutron moderation to make them slow is easily understood.

"Moderating" (slowing) a neutron's velocity (lowering its energy level) occurs after neutron emission from one nucleus splitting event while the neutron is on its way to the next nucleus splitting event.  Moderation is done by bouncing the neutron around.  The thin Zircalloy walls of the fuel rods are transparent; the metal atoms of the stainless steel in the fuel assembly cages are so large that most neutrons bounce off them like a racquet ball off the wall -- going as fast as ever.  But the water is different.  The water we use to carry heat off on the way to making electricity also plays a fundamental role in the reactor's physics:  it is the moderator that slows neutrons down.  Atoms of water, especially the hydrogens, are about equally heavy as the neutrons themselves.  After an ideal, head-on collision, the neutron would be at a near-standstill, while what it struck would fly off with all its original velocity, just like the ball bearings in the "Newton's cradle" desktop toy illustrated above.  In the real world of glancing hits, figure that both parties fly apart on average at about equal velocities: the water's hydrogen takes away half the neutron's energy (and gets warmer).  After two dozen collisions, the neutrons are moving with whatever slow velocity represents the ambient temperature (stopping them entirely would require a temperature of absolute zero, -273 deg C).  Such "slow neutrons" are said to be "thermalized" or to be "thermal neutrons".  With thermalization, we have dropped a couple million electron volts of energy down to only a fraction of an electron volt (at room temperature, 1/40th eV).  Could we have used that energy for something else?  Reactors using molten metals for cooling (lead, sodium, something that melts easily) keep their neutrons fast.  Neutrons that bounce around in water between uranium collisions become slow.

SWIFT.  History was swift.  The United States tumbled into uranium fuel and slow neutron reactors in part because we were developing a technology to make plutonium for bombs.  It was a technology that celebrated radioactive waste production, not a technology to make electricity.  I know of no National Academy of Sciences review or any other national forum which asked, How should we generate electricity for civic society from nuclear power?  The pioneers asked, Can we do it?  And they did it.  And now it's done.  Each of us is left to ask, Is this what we wanted?

I understand that another generation in a prior century had to beat Hitler to uranium fission bombs.  I'm thankful they succeeded.  I'm thankful that neutron bombardment to produce plutonium weapons gave us Mutual Assured Destruction to hold the USSR at bay (and they, us) until their empire collapsed (not ours), even if we still have enough radioactive trash to render Hanford, Washington a wasteland for human eternity.  Now we want to generate electricity instead of plutonium. Uranium, slow neutrons, and tons of waste are not what we need, but the nuclear power industry never turned the page.

I see no way to change the physics that says slow neutron reactors are the wrong choice for generating the world's electric power.  Water-moderated nuclear power reactors take more from society than they give.  The nuclear power industry must reach financially the same bankruptcy it so fully enjoys socially and technologically.  If there's water inside it, don't build it.  

        Paper's PREVIEW 
  I.    Atoms, Molecules, Proteins and the Genetic Code

  II.   Physics:  Powerful Radiation Breaks Molecules
  III.   Let's Build a Reactor.
  IV.  The Fateful Decision: Uranium and Slow Neutrons
  V.   The Spent Fuel Story - No Place to Put Anything
  VI.  The Big Picture: Uranium & Our Universe
  VII.  Public Policy -- We subsidize this industry from cradle to grave.
 VIII.  The Nuclear Renaissance: Fast Reactors Only - They don't make waste, and perform their own burial.  


History handed us a reactor technology that celebrates waste production, a technology intended to produce radioactive isotopes, among them one ideal in many ways for nuclear bomb production.  Nature had handed us a planet with little U-235 and no plutonium at all.  Our nuclear power industry embraced a technology chosen to correct the planet's lack of radioactive isotopes.  

There was a time when Earth had so much uranium-235 that atomic reactors formed in hillsides and became active when it rained (water is the moderator of choice for U-235).  The natural reactors in Gabon, West Africa, ran for hundreds of thousands of years, but ours run out of fuel in 18 to 24 months. What happened?

Gabon's natural reactors occurred 2 billion years ago.  Today, the earth still has enough radioactivity to keep our deep rocks in meltdown.  This moves the continents and refreshes the scenery ("continental drift").   Radioactive potassium, plentiful thorium, and uranium heat and melt the rocks, but today this uranium is almost entirely the 238 isotope (durable, with a half-life 4.46 billion years), while the U-235 isotope (three fewer neutrons, same 92 protons, still called "uranium") is more radioactive (half-life 704 million years), and is all but gone. At a non-abundance of 0.7% in all ore bodies, nations go to great lengths to achieve uranium-235 enrichment for bombs, and to produce some for power plants.

The Manhattan Project enriched uranium from nature's 0.7% to 88% for the Hiroshima "Little Boy" bomb.
(the bomb had 64 kg total fuel: 50 kg at 88% and 14 kg at 50%). Other less-enriched uranium started nuclear reactors to create plutonium for the superior bombs which followed.  We never stopped making reactors that run on U-235 -- that today run on 4% of the fuel and stop running 24 months later.

Any nuclear engineer can increase plutonium production simply by wrapping the neutron inferno of his reactor core in a blanket of cheap uranium-238 and extracting the plutonium after the next refueling. This is how India created a "peaceful atomic explosion" on 18 May 1974. Plutonium complicates dealing with spent fuel. Political as well as health problems are released into our environment whenever a water-moderated reactor is refueled.

What has the world done to bury reactor waste and separate out the plutonium?

YUCCA MOUNTAIN FIASCO.  Tunnel boring machines able to drive a 7.6 meter diameter hole 30 meters daily, straight into a rock face, began the nation's first "geological repository" for nuclear waste in 1994.  The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act had authorized a capacity of 70,000 metric tons.  $25 billion and 25 years later, the Yucca Mountain repository was still unfinished, but the Department of Energy wanted to double its authorized size.  Why are we not surprised?

Our global fleet of 430+ reactors requires 67,000 metric tons of uranium each year (data for 2007) to be processed into fuel.  Out of the global reactor fleet come over 10,000 tons of spent fuel annually -- another Yucca Mountain every seven years.  84,000 metric tons of radioactive, useless, spent fuel rods will slide out of the nuclear power plants already running in the United States alone by the time they reach the end of their licensed operating life (40 years each, but now routinely extended).  Another Yucca Mountain.  A nuclear Renaissance to triple nuclear capacity using current "once-through" fuel cycles leave us wanting a 70,000 ton capacity Yucca Mountain every 2 years.  But we don't have any Yucca Mountains.  We canceled the first one in May, 2009.

From fuel costs alone, there is no pressure for change.  There is no end in sight for global uranium ore reserves mined at $130/kg and adding 0.3 cents to each kWh produced at a total wholesale cost of about 6 cents/kWh, and sold at retail for 10 to 20 cents.  Enrichment to 4.4% U-235 adds only 0.25 cents. Half-cent uranium costs could double with little economic effect on the industry we have today, a global industry locked into water-moderated reactors that split their 4% of U-235 and throw the rest away.  As long as financial risks and costs associated with building plants and cleaning up after them can be passed off onto others, the market dictates that nuclear power reactors will be built to convert everything but U-235 to radioactive garbage, dump it on the road to nowhere every 18 to 24 months, and reload.  The market always works:  we pay to distort the market, and receive what we paid for. This is not a free market -- state control has distorted it.  The few benefit financially by hurting the many and running away from responsibility for their own choices.    

What does the nuclear power industry itself think should be done with their waste?

THE REPROCESSING FIASCO.  A Fukushima model BWR-4 reactor is loaded with 90 metric tons of fuel rod assemblies (ca. 60 metric tons of uranium dioxide fuel). Eighteen to 24 months later, a remote-controlled crane lifts assemblies of fuel rods, now radioactive enough to kill a person in seconds, into the spent fuel holding pool.  When the fuel's radioactivity has died down enough to make handling easier (1 to 10 years), the nuclear power industry suggests "reprocessing" the fuel in the rods.

"Reprocessing" means separating the isotopes that have been created, not getting rid of anything, least of all any radioactivity.  What got separated out was the plutonium, so that the nuclear powers could make bombs.  What gets separated out now is the plutonium, so that no one else can make bombs.  One 1,000 megawatt nuclear power reactor makes enough plutonium for 30 nuclear bombs every year.   (Three-year fuel cycle yields 1/3 of 99 tons fuel per year; 4% plutonium generation, 50% recovery, 610 kg Pt, about 20kg/bomb -- nearly twice the critical mass --  because amateurs can't get down to the 5 or 6kgs of our sophisticated missile warheads.)

Separation methods vary, but share the key step of dissolving the fuel in acid (e.g., nitric).  Once we have a large vat of highly radioactive acid, relatively simple chemistry can retrieve desired components (usually plutonium). "Reactor poisons" (an element that absorbs neutrons, as a control rod does) that stopped the reactor before the 4% enriched uranium could be all split are usually not removed.  (One reactor poison is samarium-149, which is stable, not radioactive, and does not go away.  There are perhaps a dozen others.)  Reactor poisons are not removed because it is cheaper to mine new uranium.  Reprocessing does not retrieve, restore or return the original uranium-238 fuel for re-use.   Calling it for what it is -- separation -- would raise the question of what is done with what is separated.  The answer is: nothing.  The radiation is not decreased, and some decay times go beyond a million years (technetium Tc-99, half-life 211,100 years; neptunium Np-237 and cesium CS-135, half-lives of 2.144 and 2.3 million years).  If you do not want to store radioactive isotopes for a million years, do not make them in the first place.  If you can't avoid their appearance in a reactor's neutron bombardment, use neutrons strong enough to destroy them after they appear.  Use a reactor that can smash its own trash.

How are our fuel separation ("reprocessing") programs doing?

THE HANFORD, WASHINGTON FIASCO.  The Department of Energy (DOE) wound up holding approximately 100 million gallons of radioactive acid waste stored in 243 large underground tanks in 4 states. At Hanford, WA, one basin leaked millions of gallons of contaminated waste into the ground. The next 3 largest leaks of high-level radioactive waste are estimated at 115,000, 70,000 and 55,000 gallons.  The Hanford site runs for 50 miles along the Columbia River.
One of 5 nuclear fuel reprocessing "canyons" at Hanford, Washington
Photo (Dept of Energy/Boeing):  One of five atomic reactor fuel-reprocessing canyons in Hanford, WA.  At Hanford, the government made over half the plutonium for our atomic bombs (the Savannah River Site in Aiken, SC, did the rest).  Plutonium is man-made; it does not occur naturally. Plutonium is one of many intensely radioactive isotopes created in atomic reactors whenever their uranium fuel -- not very radioactive to begin with -- experiences a reactor's intense neutron bombardments.  Hanford ran up to 9 reactors day and night, threw away the energy from all but one, eagerly brought the spent fuel to this reprocessing canyon and four others, and reloaded the reactors for more.  Our atomic power plants today have the same short, once-through fuel cycle.

Separation of small percentages of plutonium was achieved by dissolving all the tons of spent fuel pouring out of all the 9 reactors.  Into vats of concentrated acid it went. The acid was then passed down the canyon through the ca. 174 tanks you see in this photo, and the plutonium was concentrated, step-by-step.  Remotely operated cranes and other machinery pursued the processing because the radioactivity levels in the canyon were lethal.  The workers above have left the lids on every tank, and they are wearing disposable clothing as they poke devices through little holes to get information on what's inside.    

Separating out ("reprocessing") only the plutonium left so many other isotopes in the acid that it became thermally hot.  Some unapproachable vats of radioactive acid that no one approached became  unapproachable vats of boiling-hot radioactive acid with accelerated corrosion and poison gas problems. Later, therefore, some reprocessing was done to separate out the cesium and strontium as well as the plutonium.  Spent fuel pools were built to hold the cesium and strontium underwater until someone could think of what to do next.  Since the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada, there has been more thinking in Hanford, Washington.  

The acid tanks in all 5 canyons were constantly refreshed.  Where did the old acid go?  177 dump tanks were built outside the canyons to hold the old acid until someone could figure out how to deal with it -- 55 million gallons, all intensely radioactive.  Meanwhile, the acid dump tanks rotted, and "a hellish mixture of liquids, gases, peanut-butter-like sludges and rocklike 'salt cake' " began to leak out.   "Although they were intended to hold some radioactive products with half-lives of thousands of years, the tanks were designed to last only 25 years -- and were built without any means for draining the waste." --Glenn Zorpette, Scientific American, 1996.

The first tanks were finished in 1944.  By 1959, weapons officials at the Atomic Energy Commission (today, the Department of Energy) knew that some of them had leaked.  When a tank started to leak, contents were shifted around among the 177 tanks. Today, nobody knows what's in each tank.

"Yet they kept building them until 1964 and kept introducing waste into them until 1980.  It's hard to explain this history in a rational way." --Andrew P. Caputo, Natural Resources Defense Council

For you and for me, these canyons and their leaking external tanks establish the level of care given by the most nuclear-savvy U.S. government agency we have, to 55 million gallons of the highest-level nuclear waste there is.  What was done with low-level waste?  It is believed that 343 billion gallons of liquid waste and contaminated effluents were directly pumped into Hanford's soil.

We do not leave children alone with gasoline and matches.  We cannot leave the government alone with atomic power.  The adult supervision these people so desperately need is called "democracy".  Secrecy kills democracy.  

That was then: we had a World War to win.  Today we know better.  The liquid can be evaporated, the acid sludge dried and converted to oxides, and, before any dust gets airborne (to induce bronchial or lung cancer from the alpha radiation of a single particle lodged in the airways, as described above), these oxides can be mixed with borosilicates and other minerals, heated until it all melts, and cast as glass logs ("vitrification"). Radioactive chemicals sealed in glass are less likely to leach into groundwater. Some things (cesium oxide) tend to crystallize out, thorium and aluminum don't like to dissolve, but, with $12 billion for Hanford's vitrification plant, you can solve a lot of problems.

High-level waste requires disposal in a geologic repository.  In today's world, 30 and 55 gallon drums with plutonium and radioactinides stored directly on the dirt (Colorado's Rocky Flats facility) or cardboard and wooden boxes (Idaho's "National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory," a site larger than the state of Rhode Island) simply don't cut it.  Vitrification will make 3 meter long glass logs 66 cm (26 inches) in diameter -- 10,000 to 60,000 of them, about 1.5 tons each.  President Obama canceled the waste repository at Yucca Mountain, NV, before Nevada Senator Harry Reid's re-election campaign, so, if we make the logs, there will be no place to put them.

Hanford's cleanup, launched in 1989, was to be completed a generation later.  In 2009, deadlines for eliminating sludge and saltcake from acids used to dissolve fuel rods were extended another generation to 2040.  After we complete the generations needed to finish reprocessing this fuel, we can begin waiting the millennia needed for the radioactivity to cease being a hazard to ground water and the food chain.

But at least we get the plutonium.  Thousands of gallons of radioactive acid is worth it because we can remove the plutonium and send it to a peaceful power plant before the terrorists get it.  Are you sure?

Nine hundred and forty tons of plutonium are already on the market from nuclear power plants. Any developing country that can make shaped explosive charges for an armor-penetrating roadside bomb (Iran; smuggled into Iraq) is close to making an A-bomb with 10 or 11 kg of plutonium (it takes the military to miniaturize it).  Their yield will be crummy compared to how many kilotons the government guys could get, but that's 94,000 idiot-grade atomic bombs from the power plants alone.  I am sure the nuclear power industry degrades their plutonium or guards it well, and I'm sure the reprocessing plants never lose any. But can we ever use it and make it go away?

STUCK WITH PLUTONIUM THE PLANET NEVER HAD BEFORE.  Our reactor design choices were chosen for plutonium production.  The US and USSR military's ca 100 tons and 160 tons respectively of plutonium are starting to come out of decommissioned weapons, adding to the 940 tons already separated out from commercial reactors, which generate about 30 nuclear bombs worth of plutonium per reactor per year (1,000 megawatt level; e.g., Fukushima No. 6).  A good idea would be a reactor design that did not produce plutonium (load the reactor with thorium fuel), or fissioned whatever plutonium appeared (fast neutrons).  The current idea is to reprocess the fuel just as the military did.  Reprocessing plants like Rokkasho, Japan -- $25 billion so far and opening date pushed back to October, 2012 -- separate out the plutonium, which is fed back into the reactors we have. Fukushima reactor No. 3 went into meltdown loaded in part with plutonium oxide fuel, called Metal Oxide or MOX fuel, to avoid the acronym "POX".

There is good news and there is bad news for Pu-239.  The odd-numbered isotope splits easily just as U-235 does. The bad news is that it is a much better neutron absorber than U-235.  In our reactors, some splits, but neutron absorption turns much of the rest into isotopes that won't split.  We put it in, it doesn't burn.  Meanwhile, the U-238 that comprises the bulk of the fuel is absorbing neutrons too, and generating fresh plutonium.  Some say our reactors only break even on the plutonium, and then it's off to the spent fuel pool all over again -- the public is  getting a good story, we are getting nowhere.   The companies getting $25 billion in contracts to build a new reprocessing plant will tell a different story.  

Whatever story you like best, burning plutonium is slow going.  France tried.  France’s nuclear conglomerate Areva bravely maintains that their early-generation fast-neutron reactors (not moderated by water) will ultimately fission all the plutonium building up in France’s water-moderated reactors, but both the Phenix and the Superphenix fast-neutron reactors have been disconnected from the grid.   

OUR REPROCESSING INDUSTRY.  Separating fuel into components we have no place to store and no reactors designed to split ("reprocessing") remains the goal of the world's nuclear power industry.  This industry has piled up 290,000 tons of used fuel, but managed to separate ("reprocess") less than a third of it.  Send consolation cards to the World Nuclear Association for the 400,000 tons of new waste their nuclear Renaissance will bring by 2030 (their estimate).

Taking stock, we the people of the United States have no reprocessing plants nor any geological nuclear waste repositories for radioactive nuclear garbage.  Yet our stated national intention is to build more water-moderated, slow-neutron nuclear power plants, using the people's money (the Federal budget) to subsidize private industry with loan guarantees.  Doubtless someone will get rich, but is this what the rest of us need?

Failed national leadership is not the path to national greatness.  Getting nothing accomplished -- going nowhere -- is bad enough, but setting the wrong priorities takes you to the wrong destinations.  Backing out of a place you don't want to be is harder than going forward.  The global nuclear power industry has taken us to a place we do not want to be.    

THE REFUELING MERRY-GO-ROUND.  In reactors we run today and have proposed for tomorrow, everything stops when the U-235 runs low.  The fuel alone weighs 78 tons (e.g., Fukushima No. 6, a General Electric BWR-5); with all the stainless steel fuel assembly cages it is 130 tons, but only about 4% is the U-235 enrichment.  As the U-235 runs low, the only thing the slow neutrons might have split is gone, and the reactor lacks more powerful, faster neutrons to split much else. Intensely radioactive isotopes generated from the U-238 undergo further cycles of neutron absorption--radioactive decay--more absorption.  The isotopes -- as well as the fission products from U-235 atoms that did split -- suck up neutrons, make chain reactions die, and make refueling urgent even before the 4% U-235 enrichment has been fully consumed.  In 18 to 24 months, it is reloading time in today's nuclear power fleet.

We load our reactors with tons of U-238, little of which is split. Back out of these "clean energy" machines come tons of "spent" (neutron-activated) fuel, now endowed with a zoo of radioactive elements. Neutron absorption, not nucleus splitting for energy release, turns some of the easily handled U-238 into intensely radioactive isotopes, all of them bad for health, and some also poisons for the reactor, where their neutron absorption shuts down chain reactions. The reactors, never designed to split more than the 4% of rare U-235 artificially added to the natural U-238, are described as "efficient" and the newly activated fuel rods still full of uranium that come back out of them are described as "spent". "Reprocessing" or separation of the "spent" (activated) fuel does not retrieve the U-238, which is cheaper to mine afresh.  "Reprocessing" does not reduce radioactivity. Separation begins by dissolving the fuel in acid.  A $12 billion government project to vitrify tanks of radioactive acid is not running yet.  We have no existing geological repository for vitrified or other waste, but we do have a demonstrated political will for canceling attempts to build one.

An industry that deceives itself and lies to the public about "clean, efficient nuclear power" cannot recognize or innovate a way out of its own problems. These problems will bury us.

        Paper's PREVIEW 
  I.    Atoms, Molecules, Proteins and the Genetic Code

  II.   Physics:  Powerful Radiation Breaks Molecules
  III.   Let's Build a Reactor.
  IV.  The Fateful Decision: Uranium and Slow Neutrons
  V.   The Spent Fuel Story - No Place to Put Anything
  VI.  The Big Picture: Uranium & Our Universe
  VII.  Public Policy -- We subsidize this industry from cradle to grave.
 VIII.  The Nuclear Renaissance: Fast Reactors Only - They don't make waste, and perform their own burial.  


 The universe is 13.7 billion years old and had already chugged along for 9 billion years before our sun and planets formed.  Good, direct evidence (a microwave "glow" that radio telescopes see bathing the cosmos everywhere) tells us that the universe started at a high energy level (the Big Bang).  The essence of the Big Bang is the conversion of some of that energy into everyday matter.  Nearly 5% of the energy became matter, but not in an everyday form.  The initial energy levels were so high that everything would have been blown apart into sub-atomic particles, particles whose interactions, on our small planet and in our time, demand the most powerful atom smashers we can build in order to re-visit them.

These particles present at the start of the universe were smaller than the protons and neutrons we see now.  Within the first second of creation, the strong force brought these particles together into something bigger.  That something was isolated neutrons and protons, a whole universe full of them, but it was momentous: matter as we know it today had appeared.  A little atom with only an isolated proton for its nucleus is hydrogen.  If the strong force played a key role at creation and the strong force is what puts protons together -- creates them -- then of course our universe will start with protons, with a glut of hydrogen gas.  A proton with an electron is what we call a hydrogen gas atom, and you can always find an electron somewhere.  Our universe began with 76% hydrogen, the rest helium and not much else -- with very little else, without you, without your planet, without your Milky Way galaxy.      

This is still a fairy tail of magic, and nobody likes to have the starry sky above and all of astronomy created by magic.  Will it ever get better?  When we try to get from all the energy of the Big Bang to all the hydrogen of the early universe, the strong force will tell us -- once we understand it better -- how the first matter was organized.   The first matter -- all that hydrogen -- set the stage for the formation of stars, galaxies, and us. Atom smashers of the small take us to ultimate questions of the big.  

But we live on a heavy, rocky planet.  Our sun is still running on hydrogen from the Big Bang but we are not.   Where does the large-nucleus fuel that we put into our reactors come from in a universe born mostly as hydrogen?

As our sun or any star fuses pairs of ever-larger atoms into bigger ones, atomic fusion's energy yield drops, and ceases altogether with nickel and iron. A lot of suns older than ours came to a screeching halt at nickel and iron, and the universe is full of it -- meteorites fall from the sky made of it, and below our planet's rocky crust-and-mantle lies more.

After iron, it takes very special, very rare events to make the other 66 heavier elements, culminating in the heaviest of all, uranium. (Earth has traces of plutonium-244, heavier still, but that arises -- transiently -- only from the uranium.)  Any event that can make big-nucleus elements has to put energy into
the synthesis.  When we split the large nucleus back down again (reactors, bombs), we get a little of that energy back out.

In 1054 Chinese astronomers recorded an explosion in the heavens that persists today as the Crab Nebula (switch Google to image search for pictures so stunning nine centuries later that people use it for computer wallpaper). During its first 10 seconds it is possible this explosion gave off more energy than all the other stars and galaxies in the rest of the visible universe combined -- more energy, 100 times more, than our sun will ever produce in its entire 10 billion year lifetime.  It was a supernova explosion.  This is what it takes to fill the periodic table, to make large nuclei like those we put into our reactors, hoping to split them, hoping to see a little of that energy come back out.

Long before the 1054 supernova, in a younger, more violent time, many other supernovas changed the universe, hurling unheard-of heavy elements across space. Soon stars were forming in polluted neighborhoods like ours, stars that now often had heavy, rocky planets in their inner orbits. These planets had their own deposits of various heavy elements.  The time when our sun and planets formed was a time closer to the creation of these heavy, trans-iron elements, many in unstable isotopes.  The early Earth was surely more radioactive then, but has had 4.6 billion years to get over it.

Today, supernovas are less common and most stars lead non-explosive lives unable ever to create large-nucleus elements beyond iron.  But the search is on with large-field telescopes and fast computers surveying the sky, to alert the global astronomical community whenever a supernova goes off, even if, unlike the one in 1054, the supernova is not in our own Milky Way galaxy.  At these energy levels, supernovas are bright enough to be seen out to the edge of creation.  Their flash of cataclysm takes so long to find us, that to see to the edge of creation is to observe back to the beginning of time.

Back in our solar system, in the quiet outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy, it's a peaceful scene except at Earth's nuclear power plants and waste dumps, where the strong and weak forces of unhappy nuclei are throwing nuclear radiation at us. Nuclei disturbed by neutron bombardment in reactors shift their arrangements, releasing energies in species-specific amounts.  These energy fingerprints (gamma ray spectra) of disturbed nuclei make elements released in reactor accidents identifiable all around the world, but the many energy levels from strong- and weak-force-mediated nuclear changes are all high enough to be lethal.  It was easy to build reactors to get the energy out that supernovas had put in.  Now we must find reactors that do not take us back 4.5 billion years to radioactivity levels incompatible with life.  The wise bird does not sully his own nest.    

        Paper's PREVIEW 
  I.    Atoms, Molecules, Proteins and the Genetic Code

  II.   Physics:  Powerful Radiation Breaks Molecules
  III.   Let's Build a Reactor.
  IV.  The Fateful Decision: Uranium and Slow Neutrons
  V.   The Spent Fuel Story - No Place to Put Anything
  VI.  The Big Picture: Uranium & Our Universe
  VII.  Public Policy -- We subsidize this industry from cradle to grave.
 VIII.  The Nuclear Renaissance: Fast Reactors Only - They don't make waste, and perform their own burial.    


The present nuclear power industry makes money; it is prosperous.

1. All of us pay to help build the plant (proposed loan guarantees) and insure it afterwards (Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act of 1957, and renewed perpetually thereafter).

2. All of us pay to haul away the spent fuel and create places to put it.

3. Old plants are sold to a smaller company that says it can't afford to get rid of it.  If we force it to honor its commitments, it declares bankruptcy.  All of us pay to reclaim the land.

4. When accidents occur, all of us pay by turning our wealth into medical care. There is no Price-Anderson Nuclear Indemnity Act for elevation of cancer rates in the nation's population.

The nuclear power industry has one clear responsibility which they invariably honor: to collect the public's monthly payments for electricity, and convert the margin over production costs into private wealth with no claw-back.

Corporate welfare subsidizes this industry from cradle to grave, and then they have the nerve to ask us to pay for the electricity.  Nationalize the nuclear power industry -- we've already paid for it.

Loan guarantees to build more water-inside reactors are a brilliant way to muzzle the public.  Imagine construction of a loan-guaranteed plant has started.  A worker reports X-ray inspections on the steel containment vessel were faked and we never hear from him again.  To avoid throwing construction off-schedule, there are changes in the water pumps and the pressure relief valves.  The new ones are "just as good".  The 10 million people within a 50-mile radius who must evacuate in emergencies depend on the new warning system's automatic alerts, but that system isn't installed yet.  Management says everything's new and working perfectly; critics say the staff isn't trained because computer-simulator trainers were cut from the budget. The power plant needs to sell its first electricity this month or bond payments can't be met. This is your moment, your credit default swap.  Like American Insurance Group (AIG), you insured the loan's creditors against default.  Now choose: you can leave well enough alone, or you can get this fixed, find out why the whistle-blower's car ran off the road and struck a culvert, and pay your $8 billion.  You pay, because you drove the company into bankruptcy over issues which experts testified did not matter.  You guaranteed the loan; now you bought the plant.  At least you capture the revenue stream.  But wait.  This industry is too big to fail (national brownouts, power grid collapse).  In the bailout that follows, you pay the $8 billion, and they keep their company, their salaries, and the plant.  The flawed reactor goes to full power.

It is best not to guarantee any loans.

Today, we get the radiation and they get the indemnity.  A national health insurance policy on the consumer side, to match the national nuclear industry's Indemnity Act on the corporate side, would make me happier about nuclear power.

What stake does the government have in public health?  No individual dying of cancer will ever prove in court (rationally, by any science I know) that his particular cancer was caused by a reactor incident years earlier, yet group averages might show thousands of surplus cancer fatalities in the population. When the Executive Branch goes to Congress under the Price-Anderson Act, will their report of damage from the latest "reactor incident" indemnify cancer bills 20 years down the track?  The record is bleak.

422 atomic bombs were exploded in the earth's atmosphere by the United States (206) and the Soviet Union (216) before the Partial Test Ban Treaty went into effect (1963).  The six largest Soviet tests totaled 136.9 megatons, the equivalent of Hiroshima plus Nagasaki combined (35 kilotons) 4,000 times over.  Radiation levels around the world rose -- radiation levels rose in the bones and teeth of humans alive at the time.

It is accepted that at least 15,000 additional people died from the radioactivity of atmospheric atomic testing.  You can still measure today the radioactive strontium-90 in baby teeth collected from children in the 1960s. Bodies with more strontium at that time have more cancers now (or at the time they died) of brain, bladder, colon, connective and soft tissue, esophagus, rectum, and testicles, and more leukemia, melanoma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Chernobyl's flames drove many tons of reactor fuel into the air.  The United Nations says, apart from thyroid cancers, "there is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidences or mortality rates..." (UNSCEAR, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation).  A Russian compilation of Russian health publications says that by 2004, 824,000 deaths resulted worldwide from the released radioactivity.

Something is obviously wrong with institutions in our society that go around distributing white papers saying all is well without tripping over even one corpse in 824,000.  The Russian publication has been put online by the New York Academy of Sciences, whose members since 1817 have included Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin and today, a council of 23 Nobel Laureates to advise them on what work to support and publish.  To get your own copy of "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment," go to janettesherman.com/books  for a $10 hardcopy with added index (I endorse the science Janet Sherman does) or download a pdf file at http://www.strahlentelex.de/Yablokov%20Chernobyl%20book.pdf    To review your own government's treatment of radioactivity-contaminated citizens from atom bomb-testing days, search "downwinders".

Let the nuclear power industry form an industry-wide consortium to underwrite the medical insurance for us, the public.  Don't want to guarantee payment for everyone's cancer therapy?  Not a problem.  Write a policy to insure the public only for the elevation in nationwide cancer rates compared to baseline.  We'll take halfway between your scientist's number (zero, perhaps?) and the numbers from scientists not supported by corporate money.  If the plants are as safe as you say, you won't have to pay anything but the salary of the office manager for the public insurance program you'll never have to use.

The failure to set up an industry-wide consortium for handling health costs in an accident suggests to me that the industry is confident it can escape accountability for its own actions and get others to pay the consequences. This lack of responsibility for the consequences of their own choices is a condemnation of the industry (for selfishness and indifference toward others), it is a condemnation of our government (for betrayal of its own people), and it is a condemnation of us for letting it happen.

Set up the health insurance syndicate and then we'll discuss guaranteeing the loans.

        Paper's PREVIEW 
  I.    Atoms, Molecules, Proteins and the Genetic Code

  II.   Physics:  Powerful Radiation Breaks Molecules
  III.   Let's Build a Reactor.
  IV.  The Fateful Decision: Uranium and Slow Neutrons
  V.   The Spent Fuel Story - No Place to Put Anything
  VI.  The Big Picture: Uranium & Our Universe
  VII.  Public Policy -- We subsidize this industry from cradle to grave.
 VIII.  The Nuclear Renaissance: Fast Reactors Only - They don't make waste, and perform their own burial.  


We need fast neutron reactors.  All but one of the world's fleet of power plant reactors is a slow-neutron machine.  It is time to shut down our simplistic reactors.   "Safe or unsafe" debates will never take this nation where it needs to go. Debating "safe or unsafe" will never give us the technology we deserve because the first question we must ask is, "Fast or slow neutrons?"

Instead of minimizing waste production, the industry maximizes it by using a once-through fuel cycle -- after 18 - 24 months, the uranium is pulled out of the reactor, never to be used again.  This is very expensive for civic society, which has spent billions of dollars unsuccessfully seeking ways to dispose of the trash.  Yet civic society has yet to penalize corporations for producing it. The global nuclear industry continues to buy cheap uranium and turn it into a million-year trash problem in mere months of time.  This is the rational choice for corporate executives and their stockholders -- we as a society pay them to do this.


At Hanford, 8 reactors ran day and night to do nothing more than make radioactive trash (a ninth reactor made some electricity as well as trash).  As soon as the natural uranium was laced with deadly isotopes, it came out of the reactors to separate the plutonium from the rest of the radioactive mess.  Our nuclear power generators are not much different -- we run them until many deadly isotopes have been created, then remove the fuel.  It is here, at refueling time, that current nuclear reactor designs and the industry itself have lost the way. 

Nuclear Engineer (NE): "I'm ready to refuel this 1100 megawatt boiling water reactor.  These BWR-5's don't run forever."
INNOCENT BYSTANDER (IB): "You just put in 78 tons of uranium dioxide fuel.  That was 764 fuel rod assemblies, 40,256 individual fuel rods, 130 tons counting all the steel & zirconium holders.  You must be kidding."
NE: "It's staggered -- 26 tons every 12 months, not 78.  36 months are up -- these 26 tons are ready for a trip to the spent fuel pool."
IB: "26 tons?  Didn't you use any up?"
NE: "One thing just turns into another.  It'll never weigh much less than 26 tons, even if you write E=mc2 on your T-shirt.  A kilogram less, maybe two.  Out of 78,000 kg who cares?  We used about 4% of the 5% U-235 we put in there."
IB: "Why didn't you use all 5%?"
NE:  "The U-238 absorbs too many neutrons, it turns into transuranic isotopes.  If you get splits, the daughter nuclei can be almost anything.  Some are worse neutron absorbers than the U-238 was to begin with -- the rare earths are terrible,  samarium-149 is a real killer.  We can never produce enough neutrons to finish off all the U-235 we paid for."
IB: "4%, that's a ton.  What about the other 25 tons?"
NE: "I told you, we don't split the U-238, it just absorbs neutrons.  Some turns into plutonium-239, we can split that, sometimes we get maybe a third of our energy from breeding plutonium.  We burn maybe half the 8% plutonium in there before we have to pull everything out.  We  don't do anything with the rest, and we hope nobody else does either -- there's enough in there to make 30 bombs easy, if the radioactivity doesn't kill you trying to separate it out."
IB: "Now we're two tons down and 24 to go.  What about them?"
NE: "I keep telling you.  Our neutrons get absorbed by the U-238 and get absorbed even more by some of the things the uranium turns into.  All 26 tons are trash as far as I'm concerned."
IB: "Why do you even put the U-238 into the reactor if you can't split it?"
NE: "We breed plutonium out of it and burn some of that, but, yeah, we're not breeders, we do U-235 and quit when that's done. The U-238 is sort of traditional.  It splits by itself, and we use those neutrons to re-start the chain reaction if we ever have to shut down the reactor.  We tell people it's "spent" but we really couldn't do anything much with it in the first place.  We tell them we "reprocess it", but we never use it again.   Believe me, for this machine,  these 26 tons are useless.  Take it away."
IB: "What will I do with it?"
NE: "Find a mountain where it will be safe for geologically long periods of time and put it under the mountain."
IB: "At least you split 2 tons of it."
NE: "I've got good news and I've got bad news.  The good news is that the split nuclei are smaller and won't be radioactive as long as the 24 tons of big unsplit nuclei will be.  Neutron absorption really activates that stuff."
IB: "And the bad news?"
NE: "The little ones won't be radioactive long because they are radioactive as hell -- it gets the half-life over with in a hurry, they break down into something more stable at a furious rate, but in the mean time, stay the hell away.   Leave all 26 tons in the pool for 10 years before you go on any trips to your mountain.  Don't you love the way the water glows blue in the darkness?"
IB: "Isn't there anything you can do?"
NE: "Not in this machine, not with slow neutrons. We make the isotopes, we don't break them.  Fresh uranium's cheap, I'm reloading -- 26 tons this morning, the whole set of 764 fuel rod assemblies every 3 years."

There are  78 tons of useless, highly radioactive trash in this BWR-5 reactor, or 130 tons counting the zirconium tubes and stainless steel racks, the "fuel assemblies" that come up on the crane, that go into the spent fuel pools, that fill the million-dollar, 100 metric ton cylinders for dry cask storage.  Globally, 400 other reactors run day and night producing similar output.  What is the alternative we seek as a nation today?


Fuel must stay in the reactor until nuclear reactions have smashed all the trash.  Smash the Trash reactors can  solve every problem this industry faces today.  

1. REDUCE WASTE:  Smash the Trash reactors would split all large nuclei, producing trash with only small nuclei.  A small-nucleus atom has fewer possible isotopes than a large-nucleus atom.  It therefore will make fewer radioactive transitions before finding a stable configuration and ceasing all radioactivity.  We say that, in general, small-nucleus atoms have "shorter decay chains" and shorter half-lives. Smash the Trash reactor designs are our best shot at reducing nuclear waste and eliminating the need for geological storage -- special facilities intended to remain stable and secure for geologically long spans of time.  We have no geological waste storage solutions to our trash problems, only a track record of proven failure to obtain them.  Many fast-neutron reactors that can smash the trash have been built, although mainly as pilot projects and research machines.  In aggregate, we have 400 years of successful operational experience with powered-up,  fast-neutron reactors (World Nuclear Organization figures), even if they did not become the world's dominant reactor design.  New, long-term-radioactive "problem nuclei" can only be created in nuclear reactors, and only in nuclear reactors can we move these nuclei on to more benign forms of matter.

2. ELIMINATE WEAPONS PROLIFERATION:  Atomic reactors are full of free neutrons flying into other atoms everywhere, because that's how "atom smashing" for "atomic power" gets done.  Atoms that did not split into small pieces just absorb the neutron and get a little bigger.  The bigger nucleus is almost always less stable; it almost always emits radioactivity and eventually changes into other elements.  All reactors create one element out of another -- that is how medical "tracers" are manufactured, that is where the Americium-241 in smoke detectors comes from.  The creation of uranium atoms from thorium fuel and the creation of plutonium atoms from uranium fuel presents a weapons proliferation problem.  Smash the Trash reactors will eventually split the large atoms we put in as fuel, and split any other large atoms that are created ("bred") from them.  Maybe sometimes a neutron is absorbed (bad), but, if ever a neutron succeeds in triggering atomic fission (good), the daughter fragments will never on Earth go back together again.  The Humpty Dumpty Principle of Smash the Trash reactors eliminates the nuclear proliferation problem for atomic power; once it's broken, you can never go back.  Keep the door closed and the fuel inside until the large nuclei have been split. The problem is also the solution when we just keep the door shut:  all reactors "breed" new fuel, faster neutrons can breed some things better, but, in time, faster neutrons can also split all things better.  

3. ELIMINATE REPROCESSING:  We have seen that fuel reprocessing is a fiction.  Separating the isotopes we created does not change their radioactivity or shorten their half-lives.  
Sorting the trash does not bury the garbage.  Further, the "reprocessed" uranium is never reused.  Reprocessing is also expensive:  it will take $100B in cleanup costs for the Hanford and Savannah River reprocessing sites by 2008 estimates; it took $25B to build Japan's new Rokkasho campus by Forbes 2011 estimate.  "Smash the trash" means split the large atoms, which eliminates the atoms from which bombs could be made, which eliminates in turn the expensive fiction of "reprocessing".  Fuel reprocessing is big-nucleus-isotope separation.  So, if there are no big-nucleus isotopes, there is nothing to separate.  Let us destroy the reprocessing plants and make the  2011-style reactors that feed them illegal.  The reactors themselves must eat what they cook.  Any nation which develops and preserves fuel reprocessing know-how is a nation which desires to develop and preserve the option of making nuclear weapons for itself, or for those who helped pay for the facility.

4. ELIMINATE FUEL POOLS AND MILLION DOLLAR CASKS:  Smash the Trash reactors do not stop running when 4% of the fuel is gone.  They keep going until every big-atom nucleus is split.  Because all large atoms are fissioned in these reactors, one load of fuel lasts longer.  Designers today aim to produce a reactor that can be run for 30 years without refueling, just as nuclear submarines do.  Fuel rods may have to be shuffled from one position to another, but they will not have to be removed -- spent fuel rod pools and dry cask storage are postponed, reduced, and, as we shall see, eliminated by new plant decommissioning practices.  

5. ELIMINATE REFUELINGToday we give up when the first new, heavy, radioactive elements appear, and declare the fuel "trash".  Smash the Trash reactors keep changing heavy nuclei until they get varieties that are fissile, and then they split those.  Just split it all:  the continued neutron flux from this continued fission will, over time, cleanse the core of all less fissile -- but harmfully radioactive -- nuclei that we do not want.  The reactors, like US atomic submarines today, will not have to be refueled for 30 years -- time enough for the neutron bombardment to finish its work on the fuel, time enough for the reactor to be its own spent fuel pool and give the early fission products -- the smaller daughter nuclei -- a chance to die down while the reactor captures their heat.  While smashing the trash, the reactor generates electricity and earns revenue.   Besides knowing how to take out their own trash, Smash the Trash reactors can consume the "spent" fuel of today's nasty reactors, can consume the weapons plutonium, can consume the 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium fluoride waiting at Paducah, KY and other government sites after having the U-235 mostly taken out of it.  

Decommissioning a nuclear power plant is difficult because it must be cut up into little pieces and buried.  Nobody can do this because of the radioactivity, so specialized, remotely-operated machines must be brought in, sometimes from other countries because the US no longer has the technology or the expertise.  Owners are understandably eager to prolong the license of an increasingly old,  leaky and risky plant rather than tear it down at great expense.  When the time comes for tear-down, owners are understandably eager to transfer ownership -- and legal liability -- to another company and move on.  If the new, nominal holder collapses financially, the burden of plant disposal falls to civic society -- a final, graveside subsidy to this industry.  

Our projected Smash The Trash reactor will be modular, shippable (as a long structure that fits onto a truck or rail car), installed by burying it vertically in a concrete cylinder on-site, and capable of running three decades without refueling.  Pioneering molten salt reactors have run 30 years without refueling in the past, reactors run 30 years without refueling on submarines today, and Smash the Trash reactors will run 50 years without refueling in the future. A steady run of 50 years is possible as a steady  succession of new fissionable material is created in a succession of fuel rods, and is in turn split.  Excess neutrons from regions of fission activity cleanse materials in the rest of the core.  After breeding has occurred inside them, newly fertile fuel rods may have to be shuffled into the core region of early reactor designs.  As reactor designs grow more sophisticated,  movable beryllium or stainless steel neutron mirrors (reflectors) can force the region of fertile fuel rods to migrate on its own as a traveling wave of fission moving down the reactor's extended core, a core that was pre-fueled with uranium-238, thorium-232, or trash from the horrible nuclear age of weapons and war that we linger in today.  When the reactor stops, the fuel is truly spent; large-nucleus-based radioactivity is gone.  

Reactor decommissioning problems disappear when smash-the-trash fuel cycles reach 50 years.  The reactor, heat exchanger and other plumbing reach the end of their useful life as the fuel itself comes to the end of its ability to sustain criticality, even if aided by an external neutron generator (see below).  We can now design the reactor to be self-decommissioning.  Installed vertically in a concrete silo at the start, cleared of long-lived isotopes at the finish, we just disconnect the pipes, leave it where it is, and order the next one.

7. ELIMINATE GEOLOGICAL STORAGE : The need for geological waste repositories is eliminated for modular, Smash the Trash reactors.  These reactors are installed in underground concrete cylinders to begin with and simply left in place when the systems and the fuel that drove them are both exhausted after decades of profitable use.  The daughter nuclei of fissioned large-nucleus atoms have half-lives mostly in the range of 10 to 30 years, not the hundreds and thousands of years seen with the large-nucleus atoms of the original fuel.  If the fuel and the isotopes that arose from it (were "bred" from it) are largely gone, the need for geological waste repositories is largely over.  It is stupid to keep building reactors that make trash that nations find so difficult to transport or bury.  


The goals are clear:
  1. reduced waste  -- reduced volume, reduced radioactivity, reduced half-lives   
  2. nuclear proliferation eliminated -- no weapons-usable isotopes ever come out of the reactor
  3. isotope separation technology ("fuel reprocessing" capability) disappears from civic society 
  4. reactor refueling stops -- No heavy isotopes are released; the reactor remains sealed and running until every large-nucleus atom is split.  The radiation for fully-fueled reactors that have not been turned on yet is low enough for rail and truck shipment to any town that wants one.  The reactor is a 30- to 50-year battery that any municipality can buy.  
  5. spent fuel pools and dry cask storage disappear from nuclear power plant campuses    
  6. decommissioning costs are radically reduced -- modular reactors installed in underground silos can be left there at the end of their useful life.
  7. "geological time" repositories for waste disappear, as all long-time-active, large-nucleus isotopes have been fissioned away in the reactors that made them in the first place.  
GOLDILOCKS TECHNOLOGY:  The choice is not this reactor or that, one fuel cycle (thorium) or another (uranium).  Bringing several lines of development together at once gets us all the goals at once.  Small reactors with long fuel cycles driven by fast neutrons are the Goldilocks combination.  Long fuel cycles of fast neutrons remove the worst waste, enabling a reactor to be buried to begin with and decommissioned where it sits, not sawed into little pieces and shipped in radiation-proof casks to a mountain repository that we don't have yet. There are no fuel pools, casks, geological repositories, separation ("reprocessing") or weapons-grade by-products.  The reactors we need will have neutrons with enough energy to smash all large nuclei, and will have a fuel cycle of 30 years or more that gives those energetic neutrons enough time to complete their work.  Let's take a closer look at what the rebirth of nuclear power must look like.


THERMAL ENERGY:  Nuclear power plants turn heat into electricity via steam.  The overall efficiency of such  "thermal energy plants" increases with size, and so, inevitably, we make reactors bigger with each successive generation.  Centralized power generation has now reached a staggering industrial scale.  

We have all boiled water by plugging in an electric teakettle.  An ice-cold Olympic swimming pool plugged into an 1100 megawatt atomic power plant (Fukushima model BWR-5, reactor number 6) will boil in 54 seconds.  Only about a third of all the reactor's heat energy gets turned into electricity.  Running normally day and night, the reactor itself is putting out enough raw heat energy ("thermal energy") to completely boil away one Olympic swimming pool every 2 1/2 hours.
A nuclear reactor cannot be switched off.  "Scrambling" a reactor does not stop it.  Chain reactions are broken, but neutrons still fly and nuclei are still split. Radioactive decay without nuclear splits adds more energy and is completely unstoppable.   If our nuclear engineers shove in every control rod to "shut down the reactor", they shut down chain-reaction growth, not the radioactivity.  We still need enough electricity, pumps, and cooling capacity to deal with a machine that can boil an Olympic pool worth of water every 35 hours (7% power level; it decays over ensuing weeks).  

There is danger here.  To perfect new Smash the Trash reactors, it would be best to start out small:   30, 40, 50 megawatts, the size of the natural gas generators so popular with electric utilities today.  

SMALLER REACTORS:  Smaller reactors are nice.  Nice reactors can be packed with tons of scarcely radioactive natural thorium or natural uranium.  Nice reactors loaded and ready to go (but not yet ever started) can be shipped to remote towns to light up the local economy as well as the power grid, neatly side-stepping a town's problems with highway or national grid access 

Prosaic reasons also favor small, modular reactors: they require smaller investments that can be made by more agile, private-sector investors.  A municipal bond issue can pay under $100 million for a municipal power plant reactor, but $9 billion is out of the question.  A municipality can plan around a 3 year assembly time to bolt fully manufactured,  modular components together after site work (e.g., Babcock & Wilcox's mPower plant), but not deal with an 8 year stretch of planning and financing (25 years' delay is the record).
"Modular" reactors give any town that orders their first machine a way of getting the right-sized machine without excessive engineering, test and certification costs for each departure they might make from a one-size-fits-all machine.  When it's time to go critical,  approvals are more predictable with a cookie-cutter design.  

Innovation is the real issue here:  
twenty smaller reactors at 50MW (megawatts, millions of watts) vs yet another 1000MW plant give us 20 generations of successive innovation, 20 different teams to climb the learning curve, and a chance for a new generation to see nuclear engineering as a workable career, as an area of rapid change in which to start their own company  

Nice reactors can be  fired up with a particle accelerator, as long advocated by Nobel physicist Carlo Rubbia with his ADSR, an Accelerator-Driven Subcritical Reactor.   30,000 accelerators have been built world-wide since 1950, growing to a 1000 machines a year -- an industry with $2 billion in annual revenues.  Neutron accelerators are lowered down oil wells to identify the stone types (neutron activation analysis).  We have the skills to create  kick-starters for reactors.  We do not need excessive U-235 enrichment to cold-start reactors.  We do not need U-235 enrichment plants in countries around the world.  Worried that natural thorium (Th-232) and natural uranium (U-238) won't split?  Bombard them with neutrons, augmented by accelerators at first if necessary, until they turn into something that will split (uranium into Pu-239, 240; thorium into U-233).  Worried that plutonium-239 and uranium-233 could be used to make nuclear weapons?  Keep the door shut until they are gone.  

The reactor can't be buried in place unless the worst radioactivity is gone (physics) and the investment is repaid   (finance) when the music stops.   Both the physics and the finance require a long run to smash the trash with no refueling, and to repay the investment.  In the neutron inferno all reactors create,  neutron absorption turns once-quiet fuel into wildly radioactive isotopes with thousand- and million-year decay chains.   Our failure has been to wed ourselves to reactor designs and fuel cycles that require us to declare the fuel "trash" and remove it when it is in its worst, most lethal state.  Bombardment for more time at a greater variety of neutron velocity levels would have cleansed the trash.  Getting 30+ years of neutron flux to perform the cleansing requires generating fuel as you go, so you can keep going until the reactor eats everything it cooked (until it fissions every activated isotope it made).  Both generating the fuel ("breeding"), and then smashing what was bred, require reactors with a range of neutron velocities that extends upward into higher energy levels we do not have today.  

THEY ALL BREED:  "Breeder reactors" have a bad name because, in the bad old days of the cold war, we used them only to breed plutonium for bombs.  "Breeding plutonium" is what we think a "breeder" does.  But every reactor breeds.  Our old breeders shifted neutron energies to shift the proportions of isotopes in the trash, but the other isotopes are still  there. Cold war breeders bred all the same isotopes that our electric power industry creates today, the isotopes that $100 billion will never fully eliminate at either Savannah River SC or Hanford WA.  As cold warriors, we refueled quickly and rushed to separate and extract only the plutonium and dump the rest. Today, we rush to get the radioactive trash out of the reactor (before the reactor can  fission anything away again), because the U-235 and the neutron flux are fading away and we have no other choice.  But the same cold war isotopes are there.  When it's running, you can't tell a reactor to stop the neutron bombardment, and you can't tell it to just make electricity.  Any reactor will turn natural thorium into bomb-type uranium,  or natural uranium into bomb-type plutonium (and a dozen other horrible isotopes).  But, idiots that we are, we surely can stop removing the fuel when those bomb-type isotopes have appeared, and instead leave the reactor alone and running until they disappear again.  

Smash the Trash reactors will stay active longer because we use neutron velocities that will eventually push big-nucleus atoms into forms that fission easily. New fuel appears.  Until we get the designs perfected, there will have to be some fuel rod shuffling over the years, to bring  the "bred", "fertile" fuel rods with their new fuel beside one another in the very core, and put the other rods where they can irradiate themselves in the lesser neutron flux at the periphery.  In many designs, movable beryllium or stainless steel reflectors will be used to change the focal point for neutron flux concentration.  In the active core, large atomic nuclei breed along from one thing to another, changing from one similar-sized atom to another, until we hit a combination of neutrons and protons that makes a fissile nucleus (splittable by neutrons of almost any energy level).  Because some large nuclei are still not sure they want to split, we design and run a broad-spectrum reactor (many energy levels for our neutrons) so that we can always provide neutrons with the appropriate energy level to drive a particular big-nucleus atom across the line to  fission.  Whether they change easily (fissile) or with reluctance (fissionable but not simply fissile), we will ultimately achieve the splits that get every large nucleus down to something small enough to change the radioactivity game for us and the reactor.  We will ultimately arrive at small-nucleus isotopes with short decay chains and briefer half-lives.  This is the 21st century.  We do not leave 96% of the fuel in big-nucleus form for anyone else's future.  It is already the 21st century.  We are already caught in the future.  

BROADBAND REACTORS - TIMING, POSITIONING, ENERGY LEVEL:  How can we have it both ways, the breeding and the cleansing?  They seem like opposite outcomes.  The answer is timing: if something won't split, it just absorbs a neutron and changes into something else, eventually into something else that will split when in turn it takes a neutron hit.  So the bad stuff tends to build up in reactors early, and, with continued neutron flux, it fades away. In the dominant designs of the day, we remove the fuel early, and then complain that it is too radioactive.  Smash the Trash reactors leave the fuel inside (no refueling, keep the door shut).  Besides timing to get the cleansing, there is also layout: the intense fission is very local, like the fire line in a forest fire, but the radiant energy -- the neutron flux -- can be used to breed "unsplittable" atoms into a usable form, in fuel rods spread across the reactor core.  And finally, there is the neutron energy spectrum.  Both the probability of breeding and the probability you can split what breeding hands you are a function of neutron velocity.  We need broadband reactors with a range of velocities.  A sophisticated broadband reactor with many neutron velocities gives designers a chance to "have it all," to breed it all, and to fission it all.  A sophisticated broadband reactor gives designers a chance to have 100% fuel efficiency.  Why bother with perfect fuel efficiency, you ask?   Uranium is cheap, you say?   But it's not the money, stupid, it's the radioactive waste.  

Today's low tech, slow-only reactor designs are a one-trick pony.  One or two isotope species within the tons of fuel we load into them are the chosen, splittable ones, and the rest -- unsplittable and worthless to the nuclear power industry -- are trash.  The trash is useless for today's global reactor fleet because today's global reactor fleet is the wrong technology.    


Only fast-neutron designs can breed fuel to achieve 30+ year fuel cycles, and smash our  trash, yet we use  slow-neutron machines almost exclusively.  It is time to innovate.  

Every technology has a learning curve.  Fast neutron reactors have been built, but they need to be better. We need innovations in
Reactor stability is more difficult when fast neutrons move the power level up faster than you can shove control rods in to lower it.  The fast-moving neutron has hit the next fissile nucleus before you could move the control rod.  As for coolants, reactors have kept neutrons fast with everything from molten lead to helium gas.  A gas leaves the neutrons fast because  there's just not enough molecules to hit very often, and the neutrons retain their speed.   And molten metals?  Neutrons hit lead so hard that they bounce off with nearly full velocity, like a ball hitting the wall in a racquet ball court.  As with ball vs. wall, the difference in weight (one neutron vs lead with 207 such nucleons) makes it impossible to share velocity equally, makes it impossible for each partner to leave the collision with half the original velocity (and opposite directions), and half again after the next encounter.  Instead, the small neutron leaves with most of its original velocity and the large nucleus has hardly budged.   But there are issues.  

Molten salts, sodium, lead, lead-bismuth mixtures:  successful fast-neutron reactors have been built with all of them, but all have shortcomings that future research must overcome.  The molten solids are corrosive, but there is no pressure, no explosions, no release of radioactive gases with every serious accident.  A gas like helium solves the corrosion problems and doesn't have even the short-term radioactivity we saw with water (O-16 turning into radioactive N-16), a breakthrough not lost on designers.  Turbogenerators directly driven by a helium-cooled fast-neutron reactor do not turn into piles of radioactive metal.  This simplifies the entire plant tremendously, and gives us power plants we can site anywhere -- no cooling towers, no seaside tsunamis, no polluted rivers, no water, no dual plumbing loops meeting at the steam generator, no steam at all.  But we are back to explosive pressures inside the key components.  

DEAD-END SPECIALIZATION -- BARELY FISSIONS ANYTHING:  Goldilocks is in the fast lane: it takes several things to get a nuclear energy program that is "just right":  fast neutrons, a long fuel cycles, and small modular reactors that can live and die in the same concrete cylinder.  Neutrons start fast.  Neutrons coming out of an atom splitting event have the velocity to be gained by falling down a hill nearly 2 million electron volts high, which gets you up to a velocity of 20,000 kilometers per second (same energy, different units of measurement).  Neutrons start fast, but today's reactors "moderate" them down to only a few hundredths of an electron volt, an energy level insignificant for splitting most nuclei. The only thing such neutrons can do is stick to a nucleus, join it -- that's why the trash is so laced with radioactive isotopes, each one of which started as a nucleus destabilized by an unwanted, stuck-on, extra neutron.  

Why do we get any fission at all with our wrong-technology reactor design?  Our lowest-common-denominator reactors can easily split only the most fissionable of nuclei, U-235 and Pu-239.  Nearly any nucleus resents an extra neutron and most express this resentment as radioactivity.  But U-235 and Pu-239 are special.  An extra neutron -- should it ever arrive -- makes proton and neutron numbers both even for both these large nuclei.  And then?  For reasons of quantum magic, "both even" is very special.  Settling suddenly down into their oh-so-different configuration, U-235+1 and Pu-239+1 fall apart from their own released energy, not ours.  Today, drowning in radioactive waste, we need to split all the heavy nuclei, not just the magic ones.  When plopping an unwanted neutron into a nucleus other than U-235 is not enough to split it, we need to supply the extra energy ourselves and force the issue.  That energy is the neutron velocity we moderated away in reactors that are the wrong design.  Since we must split all the heavy nuclei, we must retain all the velocities.  If a reactor has water in it, don't build it. Lowest-common-denominator reactors that are tuned to only the two or three most fissile isotopes and then hand us back everything else as trash -- tons of uranium the machine poisoned but cannot split -- these reactor  were the wrong choice.  We have specialized ourselves into a dead end with water moderation.  We need broadband reactors instead.  

BUILDING IN STABILITY:  Triumphs await innovators in fast reactor designs.  Reactor stability interacts with coolant choice and how the machine is fueled. The uranium-238 discarded today as trash can provide both fuel and stability tomorrow. Each big nucleus has its own preferences ("resonances") for either absorbing a neutron or getting fissioned by it.  Coolants will typically shift the range of neutron energies ("spectrum") higher when hotter, and broaden it.  There is a particular, higher neutron energy -- available in our broad-spectrum, fast-neutron reactors but not others -- at which the reactor's tons of U-238 preferentially absorb neutrons, enough neutrons to end further fissioning by them.  In an accident, the hotter coolant shifts more neutrons into absorption; chain reactions die.  The U-238's own resonance for neutron absorption also broadens as temperatures rise.  After broadening, more neutrons in our  reactor will "look acceptable" to the U-238, and disappear by absorption before they can split anything.  A reactor that eats its neutrons shuts down.  So changes in coolant, fuel, and the spectrum of neutron energies throughout the machine can be lined up to shut down runaway reactors. Finally, fuel in metallic but not ceramic form shows enough thermal expansion during thermal runaway to make the reactor core less compact and less neutron-efficient -- output drops.  

Under the right conditions, we have a fail-safe machine.   In April 1986,  Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR II), a 62.5 MW (raw thermal output) fast neutron reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory, had all its primary cooling pumps shut off.  As at Chernobyl, technicians had previously turned of key safety system because they wanted to run a test.  Temperatures rose quickly.  As temperatures rose, the chain reactions were broken, the reactor shut down from full power in 300 seconds, and did not restart.  That was the test.  The machine passed -- it had passive safety.    

COMPUTER MODELING CHANGES EVERYTHING TODAY:  It is a long road from passive safety in1986 to knowing a new design is fail-safe.  We want to breed and burn all the fuel,  so the fuel is constantly changing, constantly transformed.  We have a spectrum of neutron velocities, not the same wimpy (thermalized) neutrons everywhere.  More so than in today's reactors, that spectrum will be "harder" (more higher velocities; faster) in some places than others, and we need to know and exploit these differences so that every nucleus gets what it loves best for breeding and burning.  We want neutron reflectors to be moved around optimally, we want gamma ray spectrum data to tell us what the fuel has evolved into, year by year.  Today, we throw everything in the reactor out ("it's trash to me, you take it") and start over with fresh fuel -- we keep our primitive machines relatively uniform inside -- relatively uniform fresh fuel, relatively uniform neutron velocities.  Tomorrow we will keep the door shut on a Smash the Trash reactor for 30, even 50, years and a lot will change inside.   We have a lot of computer modeling to do, a lot to discover.  Spain has a network of teraflop computers, starting with the 94 teraflop Mare Nostrum in Barcelona.  It is time to model new reactors and run the modeled reactors through full fuel cycle simulations.  Go for it.  Spain wants the business.  

I am eager to see the innovation begin, in dozens of machines by different teams of innovators, not in trillion-watt, multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar projects that frustrate everyone who works on them.  Financially, these ponderous projects are not viable without government loan guarantees, even in a financial system willing to take risks that trillions of dollars in Federal Reserve and Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds did not fully cover.  


OPTICS: Something truly new attracts laughter.  The laser became "a solution in search of a problem" for most of the 1960s.  60,000 high-power units are sold today for materials processing (writing numbers onto parts, cutting, drilling, welding), they are sold for communications (fiber optics), read/write optical disks, medicine, research -- a $6 billion annual market.  We celebrate innovators like Gene Watson who saw what was coming, started one company (Spectra-Physics) and founded another (Coherent Lasers) when his own board of directors didn't share his vision of what high-power lasers would someday do.  His first one in the basement laundry room (220VAC, running water) burned the garage door paint on a neighbor's house across the street whom no one liked anyway, but many companies liked the CO2 laser and ordered them.   

COMPUTATION: Usually an innovation is pretty feeble at first, and ignored.  
In an open market, fat, comfortable, and lazy minicomputer companies (Digital Equipment Corporation, Data General) were free to ignore computers-on-a-chip which were only 4-bit, only 8-bit, which had no general purpose operating system written for them, which could therefore never become general purpose computers.  But 8 bits grew to 16, 32 and 64; Gary Kildall's CP/M operating system became DOS, Windows and Linux, and the entire Digital Equipment Corporation and its PDP/VAX minicomputers are both gone.  

COMMUNICATION:  At century's turn, the revolution in communication brought a more disruptive crisis than the explosion in computation.  The nation struggled to change from an analog national telecommunications infrastructure to a digital one, from an electronics-based national backbone to photonics and fiber, and from voice to data traffic.  This transition rendered $500 billion in central office voice switches obsolete.  It produced single Atlantic fiber crossings with more capacity than all systems built in telecom history since 1858 combined.  It promised to erase over 180 billion dollars in annual revenues for all long-distance phone companies.  The new players offered more, better, and faster.  Companies enjoying dominance in their markets faced great change.  Innovation confronted the nation.  

Dominance takes time and, when dominance is achieved, it will always be with yesterday's technology.  Dominance brings wealth and power.  A free market forces the wealthy and powerful to buy into the new technology and compete to bring it -- to bring More, Better, Faster -- to the nation faster than can small companies with great innovations but few resources.  How did it go?  The telecommunications industry chose to corrupt the marketplace, to buy influence in the Public Utility Commissions of the 50 States, to buy influence in (to lobby) Congress, to kill non-dominant competitors whose innovations would have carried the nation rapidly from analog to digital, from electronic to photonic,  from voice to data.  The result is that this nation is not even among the top ten in the strength of our Internet, however you measure it:  by speed, cost, or penetration (nor in 2006 or in 2008).  This is an odd societal outcome in the nation that first created an Internet, that invented so many of the foundational software protocols that define its functionality, so much of the hardware that directs its traffic,  so many of the solid state semiconductor components that gain its bandwidth.  We were the first.  We had the most.  Yet something suppressed our level of excellence.  We were pushed so far down in the global sweepstakes that we fell out of the top ten.  We are not among the top nations for providing Internet service to citizens, to the kids who will walk out of their dorm rooms with the next great companies.   Where are we headed next with nuclear power?  

NUCLEAR ENERGY & TERRAPOWER:  Reactors unlike any we see now would overcome the problems we suffer from, but first we must block a nuclear industry that had already overpowered governmental agencies and deceived itself and the people.  The nuclear power industry must start over with fast neutrons, but it is entrenched with the wrong technology.  

Nathan Myhrvold and the man who once hired him at Microsoft (Bill Gates) have been leading the financing, design and computer modeling of new-technology reactors at their adopted company, Terrapower, Inc. (search on TED Terrapower).  Terrapower has chosen all the Goldilocks features:  fast-neutrons and a long fuel cycle to smash the trash, a size and shape that can be buried and stay that way at decommissioning time because the large-nucleus isotopes are gone. Terrapower may create the first Smash the Trash reactor before anyone else does.  It is an innovative company. As we have seen, there is a lot of computer modeling to be done if we are to innovate our way out of one-velocity, one-fuel, one-trick-pony reactors into Smash the Trash technologies.  This is one reason why we see the nation's best innovation in nuclear engineering coming from former leaders in the nation's most famous computer software company, and not from the nuclear engineering departments of our universities, nor from the nuclear power industry itself.  

Myhrvold and Gates' Terrapower may be our most innovative nuclear power company, but our government forced its  backers to travel overseas seeking financial and technical support, while the government itself tried to sell the public on loan guarantees for more slow-neutron, wrong-technology reactors from old players with the dominant revenues.  If we must indeed spend the people's money on yesterday's technology, then let us spend it to clean up the pools of unusable radioactive fuel rods (which does not make private investors rich), lets spend to clean up the tanks of radioactive reprocessing acid (which does not make private investors rich), or to clean up the tons of bomb-grade plutonium (which does not make private investors rich).  No government loan guarantees should be used to build more water-moderated nuclear power reactors.  If there is water inside it, don't build it.

IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE:  The nuclear industry talks a good game, but the reactors remain the same.  

Fast-neutron research has all but stopped, not because there was no way forward towards smash-the-trash solutions, but because there was easier money to be made with the wrong technology.  There is plenty of money to be made because, instead of a free market, costs are off the books.  The industry enjoys cradle-to-grave support from a society unable even to get the industry to take out its own trash.  Corporate welfare dampens the need to innovate.  
The world’s reactors make 13.5% of all commercial electricity; they bring in about $220 billion a year in revenues.  One old 110 MegaWatt Boiling Water Reactor Model 5 (
110MW  BWR-5) brings in about $31 billion over a 50 year lifetime, if you can keep it up only three years out of every four.  What does it cost to play the game?  The uranium costs 0.3 cents a kilowatt-hour (kw-h).    Enrichment to 4.4% U-235 adds 0.25 cents per kw/h.  So, if total fuel costs are 0.55 cents/kwh and homeowners can be billed 10 to 21 cents/kwh retail, then there is no free market incentive to make any change in the fuel cycle. If that is your main cost, don't change a thing.  Evaluate the expected returns on investment and behave rationally.  Instead of research, load up on cheap uranium.  Invest the profits in corrupting the government.  Get the government to take out the trash.  See if the government will clean up the whole plant when it's done.  Get the government to pay for loan guarantees, then load up the new machines with more cheap uranium, and forget the trash they make -- it's all on their balance sheet, not yours.  Make it look like progress.  Call the new plants "Generation Two", "Generation Three," but don't change a thing.  Whatever the critics want, say it's coming, it's Generation Four, Generation Five, you're working on it.  Talk a good game, but keep everything the same.
The IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers):  
We asked the experts how to build a safer and stronger nuclear industry.

Q: Will the Fukushima accident cause companies to reevaluate their newest reactor designs?  Is there a new urgency to develop advanced, Generation IV reactors?

A: The entire nuclear industry is evaluating the impact of the Fukushima event on reactor designs.   Westinghouse will incorporate lessons learned into its AP1000 design ... There will be no significant change in our direction and no new urgency to pursue development of Generation IV designs.  These Generation IV designs are typically considered to be advanced reactors that use either gas or liquid metals as reactor coolant instead of water.  The commercialization of these Generation IV reactors is not feasible in the near term, as many technical challenges need to be addressed.
    —Ed Cummins, vice president of new plant technology for Westinghouse Electric Co.
    IEEE Spectrum, November 2011.  


Thank you for the time you have put into this paper.  We must all push for what is best to make our country strong, and not expect anyone who appears to be in a position of leadership to show any.  We must measure the radioactivity ourselves, document the dosage, and insist on health care for elevations in cancer case rates above national baselines.  We should choose the right technology, abandon the wrong technology, and oust a political system that cannot tell the difference between the two.  We are -- you, me, all of us -- members of the most technologically advanced civilization in history.  We must either understand the technology or lose the civilization.

This is one of history's great countries.  We can build fast neutron reactors that smash atoms and don't stop smashing them until the job is done and the radioactive dangers are largely past.  When everything becomes fuel and little remains as waste, there is power enough to run reactors for 50 years with no refueling.  And then just bury them.  The reactor proper is small.  Keep the plant, the electric and cooling towers, keep the huge generators and turbines, keep the pipes that bring steam and water to them, and just fire up the next 50-year reactor.  It is time for new fuel cycles and new reactor designs.  We can take fast-neutron reactors from pilot projects to 1,000 megawatts.  We are a great country.  We will do this.

I thank my wife for graciously giving me family time to teach others.
I thank my reviewers, especially A.A., for urging me to explain the pros and cons of Smash the Trash reactors and not merely be a cheerleader for them.  

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        Paper's PREVIEW 
  I.    Atoms, Molecules, Proteins and the Genetic Code

  II.   Physics:  Powerful Radiation Breaks Molecules
  III.   Let's Build a Reactor.
  IV.  The Fateful Decision: Uranium and Slow Neutrons
  V.   The Spent Fuel Story - No Place to Put Anything
  VI.  The Big Picture: Uranium & Our Universe
  VII.  Public Policy -- We subsidize this industry from cradle to grave.
 VIII.  The Nuclear Renaissance: Fast Reactors Only - They don't make waste, and perform their own burial.  

GE BWR-5  boiling water reactor, Browns Ferry, Alabama, 1973. This 1100 megaWatt unit is the same as Fukushima Unit 6.  We see the primary containment vessel with ca. 3 cm thick steel walls.  The smaller reactor pressure vessel goes inside and is not visible.  The lid (foreground) is removed every 18 - 24 months to pull fuel rods out the top.  During the triple meltdown at Fukushima, Japan in 2011, neither the smaller reactor pressure vessels nor older versions of these enormous containment structures (BWR-3's and BWR-4s) were able to contain the hydrogen gas that blew the roofs off buildings Nos. 1, 3 and 4 when it exploded.  A muffled explosion was heard inside No. 2.  

26Jun2011,  5Jul full paper at neutrons.notlong.com,
9Jul 4figs: e-shells; gametes, somatic DNA zipper, BrownsFerry
    Radioactive steam release clarified.  
    Neutron moderation's ideal (head-on)  vs real elasticity of collisions
10Jul mitochondrial DNA;  
29Jul Newton's Cradle figure illustrates neutron moderation.  
16Aug BIO-actomyosin figure.
18Aug  Big Bang converted only 4.6% of energy to  baryonic matter.
18Aug  free radicals natural vs by ionization.; better wave-particle duality for gamma radiation.  
18Aug  Better FDA sunscreen clarity.  
28Aug  BasicReactor figure added
5Sept   Better reactor steam loop description;
3Nov    Hanford reprocessing canyons figure added  
5Nov    link to big 24Aug2011 supernova in Pinwheel Galaxy
27Nov  Revise opening and closing fig caps in accord  w/IEEE postmortem on Fukushima disaster
4Nov - 2Dec  Section VIII FastReactors conclusion rewritten / new
2Dec  better breeder text