Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Glow in the Dark Option - Oh, my!

I have been meaning to write a little something about nuclear power plants for a long while. Radiation is one of those scary unseen things that horror movies and nightmares are made of. That means that a rational discussion is impossible because irrational perceptions defy logic. Way back when Three Mile Island hit the news there was so much sensational press that it scared the hell out of everyone. The news media was talking about how catastrophic the accident was and throwing out unfamiliar terms like picocurries and millirems. Real scary stuff for people that have no clue what either of those are. Back in the day, I tried to explain how much radiation living in a concrete block house exposed you to but that never sunk it. Then radon made the news because it can leak into your house and cause more nightmares. I actually made a little money off of radon testing and indoor air quality testing in general. BTW, mold due to water leaks and unwanted condensation is the number one cause of unhealthy indoor air quality in case you are wondering. In most cases, stopping the leaks and treating with bleach or vinegar with ease the problem.

My concrete block thing never caught on. It was perfect for me since I have been involved in construction most of my life. Anthony Watts made a post today that is a lot better, the banana dose. People, plants and animals are constantly exposed to nuclear radiation. How much, how fast and what type are the things that should be considered not if. Just about everything puts off some radiation, dirt, concrete blocks and food. Bananas are high in potassium which is a good health food ingredient if you want to live and live without cramps. BUT BANANAS ARE RADIOACTIVE!! Oh my (fill in your own higher power)we are all going to DIE!! Duh!

Using Watts' data, a banana dose is 520 picacurries, so over a year's time eating one banana a day, an annual banana dose is 3.6 millirems or 36 micro sieverts[1]. As with all analogies, the banana dose is less than perfect. The body gets rid of excess potassium-40, the main radioactive element in bananas, so that makes it less of a direct comparison. Remember how much, how fast and what type are important. So the US government in its code of federal regulations has a occupational dose regulation that tries to explain all that here.

Since we are bombarded by radiation everyday from all sorts of stuff, it is something we have to deal with. Rapid doses like big time nuclear accidents kill cells in the body fast, causing radiation sickness. Slow exposure causes cell damage and DNA mutation. If you got rid of everything you think cases cancer, there will still be cancer because of background radiation we can do nothing about. If you are a health freak, there are things you can do to reduce the effects of radiation on your body. Eat more foods high in potassium iodide like kelp, yogurt and 2% milk (woohoo, I like milk and sushi, can't stand baby burp much though). I am using Lance Armstrong's site for this information.

The US government and most countries in the developed world have done studies on the negative health impacts of nuclear power plants and declared them safe unless you trust communist quality control standards. There really aren't that many good government conspiracies yet, so the data is pretty accurate and the occupational dose limits are pretty conservative. Personally, I would rather live by a nuke plant than a coal plant or near high tension power lines.

The only good thing about mistakes is that you can learn things. Three mile island was nothing compared to Chernobyl. The first lesson is low bid is preferred to state controlled. Then if you dig into the design stuff you will find that there are "walk away" reactor designs. So even if Chuck's cousin Will, that was dropped on his head a few times in childhood, gets into the union, he would have to do things way beyond his grade level to cause a meltdown. The second thing is that a lot of these walk away designs can use lower grade fuel. There is a lot of talk about Thorium reactors right now. It is kind of a yawner subject to me since Depleted Uranium reactors are about the same thing, but without the sexy name. Sex sells though, so whatever floats your boat.

Small Modular Reactors (SMR) are a sexier subject to me since they are like cookie cutter power plants manufactured in large manufacturing facilities where security and quality control can be better maintained. There are a variety of SMR designs. Light Water Reactors are proven technology. Think US Navy nuke plants that have one kick butt safety record. Some others are a little more tricky, which is not all that good a thing to be jumping on out of the gate. SMR's average about 300 to 500 Megawatts each which is good for spreading power production to extend the life of the existing electrical distribution grid. Estimated cost per Kilowatt/hour is from 6 to 9 cents. Anything nuclear in the US pretty much means the high end of the estimate. Then that is the kinda things rational, technologically savvy geeks would think about. Maybe Brad Pitt, Susan Sarandon or some other Hollywood genius can set us straight on the technological aspects?

Anyway, if you read Popular Science as a kid you know most of their predictions for the future were totally wrong. So planning for the "real" future is a little harder than reading what some semi-retired whack job is spouting off about the future. You actually have to think for yourself since you will be voting for the guys planning our future. Nuclear reactors designed so 18 year old kids can operate them safely is not something you should disregard in favor of fancy new designs that are unproven. In time, those designs can prove themselves, but until then we have to make the best use of what we have. So after you do your research, a SMR-LWR power plant with walk away safety design is something you could have near your house without worrying about your cat having kittens with two or more heads. Submariners in the US Navy nearly sleep on top of that technology and still do normal procreating.

How much we can count on nuclear power in the future is up in the air. All it would take is one "Invasion of the Nuclear Bananas", horror flick to shut it all down.

A little more reading for the interested, Three Mile Island Accident Health Effects. This is really interesting reading if you go through the whole article in Wikipedia. The initial Government report determined that nothing much happened health wise. Either fear factor, class action law suit piling on or hyper awareness cause residents to report more heath problems which started another health study. That study showed an ~ 0.14 % +/- 0.07% increase in all cancer cases which is barely statistically significant. A study in 2008 found that thyroid cancer rates in the county of the reactor were 1/3 the rate of neighboring counties. Like the low level radiation dosages may have acted like a thyroid cancer vaccine. Pretty fascinating stuff but health statistics are not in my job description.

[1] 1 seivert (Sv) = 100 rem. 3.6x10^-3 rem = 36x10^-6 Sv. milli (10-3) and micro (10-6) is confusing to many reading technical stuff.

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