To power a better future

By Bobby Prater

Humanity has searched for power since we first began to build a better life for ourselves. Whether we sought it through power over people, over land, over resource or over nature itself, we have been on a long conquest to fuel our imagination and reach for the stars. Recently there has been a wrench in the gears of progress. Problems such as peak oil, emissions and a growing need for energy and power have begun to push in upon our lifestyles. However, there is an alternative that could help solve many, if not all of these problems, and we have it right now at our very fingertips. This asks the question; why are we not using nuclear energy?

In his presentation “How will we Power the Future: The Case for more Nuclear Energy,” Washington State University Nuclear Chemistry Professor, Kenneth L. Nash, Ph.D., discussed why he believes the populace of America is afraid to use nuclear energy, the reasons we should use nuclear energy and how his research into nuclear radiology helps bring both the costs and risks of Nuclear energy to all time lows.

Nash began his presentation with some simple facts about today’s world. During the late 19th and 20th centuries with the Industrial Revolution came many wonderful innovations and comforts that we enjoy today, but with it came the price of replacing our naturally reoccurring fuels such a wood and manpower with fossil fuels to power and grease the engines of progress.

“Today fossil fuel makes up 85 percent of all energy produced in America with the rest of the world not too far behind,” claimed Nash.

That seems like a huge percent given the many issues that have arisen with natural gas, petroleum, and oil with the environment and peak oil. Nash believes that the need for these high-energy, dense materials is driven by the exponential growth in population that the country has experienced in just the past century. These growth rates demand a higher need of cheap and efficient energy, therefore the increase in use of fossil based energy products. However, Nash believes that such problems can be quelled, and a little prosperity for the region gained, through the uses of nuclear fission energy.

Fission as process is the breakdown of radioactive materials like uranium into daughter particles by means of neutrons being absorbed into the radioactive nucleus. This process continues to then produce a chain reaction, which makes fission possible. According to Nash, the Triga Nuclear reactor that powers one of WSU’s off-campus research centers put out one mega watt of power – enough power to keep over 12,500 eighty watt bulbs, powered for the lifetime of the reactor. Nash also compared Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) to other forms of major power plants. It was the common list of pros and cons, fossil fuels are cheap, but dirty to operate with and have high maintenance costs, while wind and solar energies are just too expensive to be beneficial to the overall system and their integration into the current power system would be nearly impossible. Nuclear energy is expensive because the NPPs are costly to build, but the maintenance costs are fairly low, and new safety features that allow for automatic shut down before critical meltdown make reactors  much safer than ever before. The big problem still remains, however. How do we deal with nuclear waste?

Nash advises that we reuse nuclear waste. Nash’s research in the recycling of nuclear waste and the treatment of these fuel cores after one cycle of use is a  fascinating, new argument into the nuclear power debate.

“Only one percent of the potential work stored in the fission core is used in a single cycle,” states Nash.

The reason the core is disused is because the radiotoxic daughter particle buildup makes running the reactor for longer periods of time more dangerous. Therefore the cores are stored in geological reservoirs where these “hot” cores can cool to normal toxicity levels in 250,000 years, twice the half-life (decay period) of uranium. Nash believes that he can significantly reduce that time; in fact he says by removing one critical particle group from the array of daughter particles, the storage period could be as short as 500 years. This is why Nash studies actinides and their propagation in nuclear decay of uranium. If Nash and his research team can eliminate these particular daughter particles, that other 99 percent of nuclear energy still unused can be tapped sooner with less heat radiation from the unusable reactor cores having to sit underground in very special sites.

Other than the large part of anti-nuclear litigation (government laws) that impose limits on NPP construction, there is the common fear of nuclear anything, and Nash’s biggest concern is a lack of interest from students and researchers who could develop these technologies. It is funny to think we are so worried about radiation since anyone who has ever had an MRI has undergone direct nuclear treatment. Fear of nuclear technologies was a big part of Nash’s closing argument as he went through different examples of a micro-risk or a million-in-one chance of death occurring. This included riding a bike for 12 miles, smoking a cigarette, living next to a nuclear power plant and working in a coal mine for three days.

Nash’s final words were a call to action urging the wider study of nuclear processes to help further humanity and relive our dependence from environmentally harsh fossil fuels. In his presentation, Nash spoke of how all energy and life as we know it comes from nuclear integrations and how even our magnetosphere that shields us from damaging radiation from the sun is a byproduct of fission deep within the earth’s core. So maybe it is time for us to rethink our stances on nuclear energy so we can move ahead to a brighter and cleaner future. 

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