Friday, May 15, 2009

Whither the Nuclear Renaissance?

I have heard mixed opinions from the Obama administration in regards to nuclear energy. Energy secretary Steven Chu seems to have a cautiously positive opinion of nuclear power. At the same time it seems the stimulus bill passed in February had the loan guarantees for nuclear construction written out of it while spending billions of dollars on "renewables" even though renewable energy sources by their very nature are both expensive and unreliable. I am left wondering what Obama really plans to do about nuclear power.

He at least acknowledged it during his campaign but when he said in needed to be "safer" it made me think that he was uninformed about how safe nuclear power really is. Very few industries in the world have safety records that could compare to nuclear energy in terms of the lack deaths or injuries in the years since nuclear energy was first developed. The two infamous incidents, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are frequently referenced by wide-eyed activists but the Chernobyl reactor did not have a containment dome that could have prevented the entire disaster as all new reactors across the world have now. At Three Mile Island, human error and lack of maintenance combined lead to a very serious malfunction, yet the safety systems built into the design of Three Mile Island prevented anybody from being injured or killed by the incident. To drive the point home even further, I have never heard of a single incident of somebody being injured or killed by spent fuel. Yet despite all of this, an embarrassingly large segment of the world population is eager to listen when activists paint the nuclear industry as being a modern day "Frankenstein's monster" poisoning the land and the nearby people with a mysterious force called radiation. Much of the public's imagination (Often fueled by science fiction B movies) has taken to thinking of radiation as being something that causes spontaneous and severe mutations such as animals growing to several hundred times their normal size or sprouting extra limbs. The more "informed" merely think that a nuclear power plant by its very nature will somehow cause the nearby populace to fall ill and be struck down by maladies such as cancer and radiation sickness.

Also, on the face of it, the idea seems rather absurd as to why Steven Chu seems unwilling to consider the MSR designs for Gen IV funding because of proliferation fears. The proliferation risk of an MSR design is quite low because the entire reactor would have to be shut down in order to divert the produced U233 into weapons production. The U233 will be contaminated with U232 and U234 that decay producing hard gamma radiation and terrorists working in a hastily constructed garage or cave would be hard pressed to steal enough for a bomb without instantly dying of radiation poisoning. There is also the question about how a terrorist would manage to steal liquid U233 from the molten core of the MSR which is surrounded by a massive field of radiation especially since you would have to shut down the MSR and reroute the plumbing of the reactor for such an operation. With that being said and done, it would be a lot easier to raid a radiology clinic for nuclear material.

Finally, the appointment of Gregory Jaczko as the new Chairman of the NRC has me concerned. Part of the problem of constructing new nuclear facilities is the inefficient and often nonsensical approval process that a power company must go through in order to obtain an operating license. I have heard some reports that Jaczko is in agreement with some anti-nuclear environmentalists groups and that he voted against renewing the operating license for the Oyster Creek reactor in New Jersey as well as collaborating with Rep. Ed Markey (D) for imposing more stringent regulations on classifying spent fuel when the nuclear industry is already choking on overregulation in general.

This is not to say that previous presidential administrations have been any more open minded in regards to promoting nuclear energy. The Bush administration amidst many of its other problems paid lip service to nuclear power while simply allowing it to languish during its pursuit of fossil fuel energy in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. In fact, a large part of presidential candidate McCain's energy policy during his campaign was the promotion of "clean coal" of which there is no such thing. Opposition to nuclear power sadly seems to be a bi-partisan phenomenon in the US.

Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic here. I would like to get a discussion going as to what my readers think we might expect in regards to nuclear energy under this administration. Are nuclear energy promotion efforts really being noticed, or are they just a minority in the void of the internet that is too willing to pat itself on the back as coal and natural gas take center stage in the future as they have in the past?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

My Long Silence is Over

I apologize to my readers for the prolonged absence of new posts. I have been extremely busy this semester and have also had some serious issues with my right eye developing endophthalmitis. It resulted after a minor injury involving a two millimeter long shard of corningware becoming lodged in my right eye after an old pot I was boiling ramen noodles in exploded on my stove. Corningware, because of its partially recrystallized structure, tends to shatter with explosive force rather than merely break when it fails.

I had gotten somebody to drive me to the emergency room where the shard of corningware was removed from the right side of my right eye where it had narrowly missed my lens and cornea. However, a few days later my eye had become infected by bacteria that had probably been introduced into the interior of the eye when it had been punctured. I had been taking some perscribed tobramycin eyedrops as a preventative measure until my eye healed but the strain of bacteria that infected my eye was apparently resistant to it. I went to a clinic where I had to have an antibiotic called polymixin B injected directly into the interior of my eye and had to apply polymixin B eyedrops to the eye three times a day in addition to taking an antibiotic called Zyvox orally. Towards the beginning of the infection, I felt miserable and my eye looked very ghastly indeed. At one point the physician that I was speaking to at the clinic said that if the treatment with the polymixin B and the Zyvox was unsuccessful, I would seriously have to consider enucleation (eye removal) to control the infection.

Thankfully, the treatment worked and my vision in the eye has returned to normal with no apparent permanent loss of vision. I am fortunate that I did not suffer any permanent injury to the eye as I was not sure how I would handle having monocular vision. Everyday activities such as driving a car, reading, or even drawing and painting for my studio art classes became a major challenge as I did not have any depth perception while wearing a patch over my right eye. It was only for four weeks yet I could barely stand it. I do not know how people who have only one functional eye can manage their disability for the long term.

Despite my apparent abandonment of my blog, I have done my best to keep up with the news regarding my fellow nuclear bloggers as well as reading the recent posts on my blog roll. I could not attend the last two AREVA conference calls as I have been extremely busy but I am sure that Dan Yurman over at the Nuke Notes blog can fill me in on the details. I will have more time during the summer so I hope to put up at least two posts per week again.