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Atomic energy technology, politics, and perceptions from a nuclear energy insider who served as a US nuclear submarine engineer officer

The Fearless Green Deal

Tue, 10/22/2019 - 21:39

By Robert Hargraves

Democratic president Franklin D Roosevelt proclaimed at his 1933 inauguration, “…the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” 

In years past Republican presidents were conservative stewards of the environment. Theodore Roosevelt started National Parks. Nixon created the EPA. George H.W. Bush moved to stem acid rain. 

Who now dares to conserve our planet, while advancing all its people’s prosperity, with ample new nuclear power? 

During the CNN climate town hall the leading Democratic presidential candidates opposed nuclear energy. The two fearless supporters trail in polled public support. 

The candidates’ Green New Deal illustrates the political maxim “never let a crisis go to waste”. Reducing CO2 emissions is buried under trillion dollar promises to guarantee jobs, health care, housing, healthy food, improved infrastructure, and reduced industrial pollution.

Our climate-energy crisis is not national; it’s global, so the Green New Deal can’t solve it. Even the UN IPCC Paris agreement can’t reduce emissions enough; it falls short by a factor of ten. 

Rich nations won’t stop their emissions while letting developing countries advance by burning ever more coal. Coal burning is the most rapidly expanding power source on the planet, because it’s reliable and cheap. But fearless developing nations would use nuclear energy sources if we make them cheap enough and accessible enough.

Greens had hoped to power us with wind and solar, but these intermittent energy sources require supplemental power. That assistance normally comes from burning natural gas that emits about half the CO2 of coal. Batteries that might store intermittent electricity are too expensive by a factor of ten, particularly for week-long energy supplies.

The Fearless Green Deal relies on cheap new nuclear power. The million-to-one energy density advantage of fissioning uranium makes it intrinsically cheaper than burning coal. 

New North American ventures are now combining proven technologies like liquid fuels, metal alloy fuels or coated particle fuels to allow higher temperatures and passive safety. They’re taking advantage of advanced manufacturing technology to drive nuclear energy costs below those of fossil fuels. 

Technology developers can build cost effective, full-time power plants emitting no CO2. If permitted to, they could export them to developing nations, improving their energy-hungry economies. As the newly energized, fearless countries prosper and compete internationally, all nations will seek the economics of new nuclear power. 

Clean, cheap, reliable power will encourage electrification of transportation, industry, and commerce. Fuel burning, CO2 emissions, and global warming will be checked. Why not?

Many citizens have been taught to fear nuclear power, though it’s proven safer than all other energy sources. The UN reported no one was harmed by it at Fukushima. Cancer rates did not rise in the years after Chernobyl. No one has been harmed by used fuel.

Yucca Mountain, Holtec cask storage, and Deep Isolation boreholes are all adequate nuclear waste solutions. Why is radiation so feared and nuclear power so expensive?

Fear sells

The media headlines trivial radiation releases. Greenpeace, NRDC, and other environmental organizations publish scare stories to attract donations from fearful people. These nonprofits also accept money from the oil and gas industry, a competitor to future nuclear. There are plenty of monetary motives for spreading fear.

Regulatory bodies such as EPA and NRC have accepted public fears and seek to prove their merit by continually lowering limits. They claim they are protecting the public, but decades worth of studies have shown that modest radiation exposures are not harmful.

Requirements designed to reduce already safe exposures raise costs for nuclear power. 

Modest radiation is not to be feared. We live in a background of natural radiation from cosmic rays, granite, radon, and even potassium in our bodies. Life evolved at much higher radiation levels. Moderate radiation has the same ionizing effect within our cells as breathing oxygen. Biology evolved all creatures to adapt to such insults. Radiation exposures forty times background reveal no harmful health effects.

Medical practitioners have known for centuries that it’s the dose that makes the poison, yet EPA policy is that radiation is proportionately harmful, no matter how low the dose. The policy conflicts with science; over a thousand published papers document the safety of low dose radiation and explain biology’s adaptive response.

By policy, not science, EPA and NRC require all radiation exposures to be ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable), well below low, mandated limits. Regulations have doubled and redoubled the cost of nuclear power. ALARA philosophy cements fear of all radiation in the minds of the public.

The EPA is taking an important step to counter global warming, reviewing “the dose response data and models” of radiation effects in its Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science effort

EPA recently appointed Dr. Brant Ulsh to chair its radiation advisory committee. Ulsh is an experienced health physicist whose careful studies led him to question EPA’s radiation policy and no-safe-threshold model of harm. Other scientists have petitioned NRC to replace all regulations dependent on the disproven EPA policy.

The Fearless Green Deal is a cost effective strategy for reducing emissions and promoting widely distributed prosperity.

  1. EPA completes review of existing science of health effects of radiation and then sets safe radiation limits based on science and observation. These replace the uninformed, elementary assumption that all radiation permanently harms people.
  2. NRC complies with EPA limits, ends ALARA, and revises all regulations accordingly. 
  3. Energy subsidies and preferences are phased out. 

A globally competitive new nuclear industry will then rapidly emerge to compete with coal and other fossil fuel energy.

The Fearless Green Deal harnesses economic self-interest to check CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels, reduce energy costs, increase US exports, and help developing nations prosper.

The Fearless Green Deal uses private capital to greatly amplify public investments in fundamental technology. Half the public already supports nuclear. Who would dare to oppose the Fearless Green Deal?

Did US Navy patent a functional fusion device?

Sun, 10/13/2019 - 11:31

The US Patent Office has issued a patent for a Plasma Compression Fusion Device to Salvatore Pais, of Calloway MD. The patent assignee is the United States of American as represented by the Secretary of the Navy, Patuxent River MD.

Plasma Compression Fusion Device from US2019/0295733 A1

The news of this patent issuance has produced a minor buzz that might turn into a cacophony or a flurry of excitement about ships, submarines and perhaps even aircraft powered by high powered, compact devices using a “virtually unlimited” fuel source.

I suspect many of the articles that might be written will gush about how these fusion devices will be far superior to conventional atomic fission devices because they will not produce radioactive waste products. [Right.]

As long term Atomic Insights readers know, I am a retired US Navy Nuke who likes atomic fission. I’m deeply skeptical about nuclear fusion devices that are not stellar masses and not explosive thermonuclear devices. (I fully accept the evidence that stars and bombs work.)

But I have to admit that a patent for a Plasma Compression Fusion Device was issued and that the US Navy, my former employer, apparently funded the research and inventions that supported the patent application.

I know there are Atomic Insights readers who are far more capable than I am of evaluating the patent claims and determining if the device described can be built and operated to provide reliable power.

I have a few questions about the sources of electromagnetism, the forces needed to push fusion gas fuel into the plasma, the heat exchangers required to move fusion heat out of the core, and the methods used to spin the fusors at the required rate, but I would like to hear your questions and concerns.

Please read through the awarded patent and references and begin discussing. It would be terrific if this is actually a viable path to abundant, clean, virtually perfect power for the people. But serious questioning attitudes are welcome here.

Sharing message at #StrikeWithUs – We can use nuclear energy to address climate change

Sun, 09/22/2019 - 12:30
Climate Strike Tarpon Springs Sep 20 2019

On Friday, September 20, I took to the streets with a couple dozen other locals as part of the Student Climate Strike. I’m pleased to note that this political action seems to be part of a movement that is capturing attention and providing numerous “teachable moments.”

Like any good activist, I carefully chose my attire to send a desired message. Among my many pronuclear tee shirts, the red one with “Why Nuclear? Ask Me.” in white letters seemed to be the most appropriate.

Matched up with dark blue shorts – after all, this event was in Florida on a very late summer day – I think I looked appropriately patriotic.

When I arrived at the specified gathering place, i found a friendly, compact crowd of perhaps 20 people. They were sitting on the front steps of the Universalist Unitarian Church, which I later learned is the oldest church in Tarpon Springs.

My Son is a Reactor Operator Quakers and Reactor Operator Mom

Some were conversing in small groups. Several were passing out fliers describing related events or affiliated groups, some were passing out signs to carry. One nice lady was asking people to sign a letter to Representative Kathy Castor, whose district is adjacent to that of Representative Gus Bilirakis, our congressman.

Her tee shirt said “Off Fossil Fuels” and the letter she wanted people to sign made a number of requests that were aimed at discouraging any fossil fuel extraction in or near the state of Florida. I told her I supported her message and her request, but asked her to explain what she thought could replace the tasks that fossil fuel performs for us.

Her quick response was to suggest that Bernie Sanders had laid out an extensive plan. That gave me the opening to ask her how she felt about the fact that Sanders had worked hard to close down a generating plant in Vermont that provided 70% of the electricity generated in Vermont without producing any climate changing gases.

That was when the really cool moment happened. She told me that she hadn’t been aware that Bernie was so actively involved in antinuclear activities and that she thought that position was wrong. She had been convinced by her son that nuclear was clean and safe. Her son is currently serving as a reactor operator on an aircraft carrier.

We agreed to keep in touch.

I then chatted for a bit with a young man with a head fully of curly red hair who shyly admitted this was his first public event as a member of Extinction Rebellion. More on him later.

Once the appointed time arrived, Rev. Murphy the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church, invited us into his church for some initial information and sharing.

The church had just completed a renovation that lasted for six years and was stunningly beautiful in its simplicity and environmentally themed art work. Rev. Murphy was justifiably proud of the building and the effort that the congregation had invested to restore their historic structure, which, among other issues, had been damaged by a sink hole.

Newly renovated Unitarian Universalist Church

Then Rev. Murphy asked if there were any students in the room who wanted a chance to speak. There were a few, but not many.

Then he asked if anyone else had anything they wanted to say about the theme of the event – addressing climate change.

I spoke about my experience of operating a submarine with a powerful engine that ran without consuming any oxygen or producing any waste gases. There were a number of friendly faces interested in what I was saying. One gentleman with a white beard and a cap indicating he was a destroyer veteran fed me some questions that gave me the opportunity to briefly explain how the Rockefeller Foundation paid the NAS to teach the public to be afraid of radiation.

A few other audience members thanked me for sharing and for teaching them something they did not know.

Hard-headed Quakers

I could tell, though, that there were a couple of people in the front row who were visibly discomforted. After I’d talked for about 5 minutes, one of them said, “Enough, let’s move on.”

Antinuclear Quaker

The following speaker, who was wearing a shirt that said “Quakers are way cooler than you think”, described how he and his partner had met while protesting the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. He mentioned the Clamshell Alliance, reminded the audience about TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima, blamed a recent breast cancer death of a friend in Pennsylvania on TMI and concluded by saying nuclear is not a solution to climate change.

After the short speeches were over and we were getting ready to head to Spring Bayou to continue our strike, I tried to talk with the Quakers. They were not interested. One of their friends did engage by thanking me for my service, telling me that she respected my point of view, and telling me that I was still wrong. She said she had been starting to change her mind until Fukushima happened and released radiation that was still harming “our fish.”

A few attendees came up to me to privately thank me for what I had said. It was clear that some of them were not keen on openly stating that they were interested in learning more about nuclear. I passed out several Atomic Insights business cards.

March to the Bayou

From the church, we walked to Spring Bayou, which is a focal point in the town. We held up our signs, posed for some photos, waved to passing cars and talked with other participants. There were no noisemakers, street theater performers, or musical instruments.

Student Strike for Climate. Tarpon Springs, FL Sep 20, 2019

The march portion of the event lasted about 30 minutes.

After the event, I spoke with Reverend Murphy. He’s an interesting man who has been actively involved in the Sierra Club since the late 1960s. He remembered the “Atoms, Not Dams” campaign, the firing of David Brewer, and the transition of what had been a conservation group of wilderness lovers to a more politically active and influential national organization.

He expressed his own open-mindedness to the idea that the Club might have been wrong to oppose nuclear energy, especially in light of what we now know. He admitted that nuclear energy has turned out to be a lot safer than they thought it would be and he agreed that climate change is showing that it a necessary tool. He agreed that solar, wind and geothermal were not going to be able to do the job – at least for the foreseeable future.

He didn’t think some of his contemporary colleagues would ever change because they were too immersed in their antinuclear habits. He thought that there were a lot of open minds among younger people with environmental concerns and that Florida was a good place to be sharing the pronuclear message.

He then thanked me for what I was doing and asked me to keep it up.

I also spent quite a few minutes talking with A. J. Arestia, a young guy with a name tag indicating he was a candidate for office in the Florida legislature. He has a physics background and declared that he is one of a relatively small group of politicians that is openly and aggressively pro-nuclear. He spoke about how his opponent believes that we should be covering everything with solar panels and how he is trying to help people understand why that was an expensive fantasy that won’t solve any problems.

I’m going to see what I can do to help him craft his message so he can keep spreading his thoughts in ever more important venues.

As everyone else was dispersing, I met back up with the Extinction Rebellion guy with the curly red hair. We had a fascinating discussion about the incredible power locked up inside the atom. He asked me for my opinion about disarmament. That gave me the opportunity to describe the Megatons to Megawatts program and marvel at how few people know that 10% of US electricity for 20 years came from fissioning former Russian bomb material.

I feel pretty good about my decision to take some time from my normal retirement activities to meet with concerned citizens and share hopeful information.

In my opinion, it is terrific to see that people are concerned about their futures. The primary message from Greta Thunberg, the inspiration held up as the creator of the climate strike movement, is that we need to listen to scientists. She’s correct. They have provided the diagnosis. Now it’s time to find people who are skilled in the art of engineering solutions and those who specialize in producing vast quantities of clean, reliable and affordable energy.

It’s time to listen to the nukes. But no one will hear us if we just talk among ourselves.

Atomic Show #267 – Dr. Lauren Jackson addresses radiophobia

Fri, 09/20/2019 - 13:22

A couple of weeks ago, I heard Dr. (Isabel) Lauren Jackson talking to Bill Nye on his Science Rules podcast. At the end of his discussion with her, Nye seemed to have changed his mind in the positive direction regarding the importance of nuclear energy.

He seemed far less worried about radiation and the potential for accidental releases when he finished his discussion with Dr. Jackson than he did when opening the show.

After hearing that episode, I decided I had to meet this convincing radiation expert. Through modern magical means (search and social media) I began conversing with Dr. Jackson and even progressed to first name basis. She readily agreed to be the first guest on a reenergized Atomic Show.

We talked about her discussion with “The Science Guy,” about the importance of nuclear energy in a world threatened by climate change, about her research on effects of high dose radiation (in the range of 2-6 Gy received in a single, acute dose), and about her efforts to communicate with the public about the far lower, often unmeasurable effects of low dose radiation.

I think you will enjoy this show. But even if you don’t, please provide feedback on what you liked and what you didn’t. Should I invest more time here or keep getting distracted by other endeavors?

What exploded in Russia on Aug 8? My estimate is a (chemical) booster rocket for a nuclear powered cruise missile.

Fri, 08/23/2019 - 10:30

A cruise missile with a nuclear reactor heated turbofan engine and a liquid fueled booster rocket is the most likely description of the Russian developmental weapons system that exploded while being tested on August 8. It’s likely that the explosion occurred during maintenance or fueling operations on a barge floating off shore and not during an actual flight test.

Like other operational cruise missiles, the developmental weapons system probably flies at a low altitude at a velocity of roughly 500 kts, well below the speed of sound. The payload is likely to be less than 1000 kilograms. The missile probably has a small radar cross-section and includes a sophisticated navigational, communications and maneuvering system that allows it to be redirected while in flight.

Its small (approximately 10-20 MWth) nuclear fission reactor heat source provides it with almost unlimited range and a flight duration that is likely to be measured in days or weeks instead of hours. While operating, the reactor heat source will create a moderate to high level of direct radiation. It is a “point source” of radiation with a dose rate that falls off rapidly in inverse proportion to the square of the distance from the reactor.

Since there are generally no living organisms close to a cruise missile in flight, that radiation field is not an operational impediment to using a nuclear fission-heated turbofan engine. Even after the missile hits its eventual target and explodes, the reactor is likely to remain just a local source of radiation without much spreading of radioactive material.

Aside: Basis for that surprising conclusion rests on what bomb damage assessment photos show of the remains of a conventional cruise missile. It’s common to be able to detect recognizable turbofan engine parts. If they can survive warhead detonation, so will a propulsion reactor. End Aside.

The above is my own pieced-together interpretation. It is not the official story released by any government agency or investigative news outlet.

What have other sources said?

On August 8, 2019, there was a powerful, deadly explosion on a barge floating near the Nenoksa military base on the White Sea’s southern shore. That base is well known to intelligence sources as a place where Russia tests military weapons systems.

Four Russian monitoring stations that are capable of detecting radiation and that routinely provide data into an international network set up to help monitor for nuclear weapons testing reported a brief-duration increase in background radiation levels.

Based on publicly available sources on the Internet, it’s not clear exactly how long the increased levels lasted. Even the most pessimistic articles indicate that the levels reported from Severodvinsk – about 40 km from the test site – were no more than 16 times normal background. No monitoring station outside of Russia measured any increased radiation levels.

On August 21, Vladimir Putin stated that the explosion happened during testing of a promising weapons system. He also described the people killed during the explosion as doing “extremely important work to ensure the security of our state.”

Official Russian news sources have described the explosion as one that involved “isotope power sources.” Several of the five killed or three injured people were described as experts in the nuclear energy or radiological fields and as employees of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center. In some reports, the word “fissile” has also been used along with isotope power sources.

President Trump has described the missile that exploded as a nuclear powered cruise missile. Quoted experts for major media outlets like the New York Times and CBS News have disputed that description.

CBS’s quoted expert, Pavel Luzin, stated the explosion could not have involved a nuclear powered cruise missile because “Its (characteristics are) simply against the laws of physics.”

Mr. Luzin expanded on his dismissal of the existence of a nuclear fission heated cruise missile in an article for the Moscow Times titled I Don’t Believe a Missile Is to Blame for Russia’s Deadly ‘Nuclear’ Explosion. That article concluded with a bold, but ill-informed and incorrect statement.

However, the bottom line is that the mysterious cruise missile doesn’t exist because it contradicts the laws of physics. 

“I Don’t Believe a Missile Is to Blame for Russia’s Deadly ‘Nuclear’ Explosion” Moscow Times, August 14, 2019

The New York Times quoted Ankit Panda, described as a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists as follows.

“I’ve generally been of the belief that this attempt at developing an unlimited-range nuclear-powered cruise missile is folly. It’s unclear if someone in the Russian defense industrial bureaucracy may have managed to convince a less technically informed leadership that this is a good idea, but the United States tried this, quickly discovered the limitations and risks, and abandoned it with good reason.”

“U.S. Officials Suspect New Nuclear Missile in Explosion That Killed 7 Russians”, NY Times, Aug 12, 2019 Truth about nuclear propulsion for aircraft

During the period from 1951-1961, the US invested more than $1 billion then-year dollars developing and testing a wide range of systems for aircraft nuclear propulsion. Though a number of “experts” have stated that the program was halted due to technical failures or insurmountable physical obstacles, the truth is that the program ended as a result of fairly typical budgeting and prioritization decisions.

Some decision makers, like Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson, weren’t impressed by the speed or altitude limitations in systems achievable with 1950s vintage materials and control system technologies. He called the proposed nuclear powered bomber a “shitepoke” a bird that flies low and slow when comparing it to supersonic, high-flying penetration bombers.

A major effort during the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program involved radiation shields for the crews of manned bombers with mission that lasted days or weeks. It is a big technical challenge to provide sufficient protection for long duration exposures.

The problem is made tougher by its circular nature. Big, heavy planes require high powered reactors. High powered reactors produced more intense radiation fields and require more shielding. More shielding requires larger, heavier airframes. And so on.

Those design challenges shrink rapidly when the airframe is a few thousand kilograms and the “pilot” is a lightweight, easily shielded piece of electronic equipment. Nuclear fission turbofans work just like those heated by chemical combustion, but their exhaust gas is heated air instead of a mixture of combustion products.

In contrast to the simple safety of a nuclear fission-heated turbofan motor, a liquid fueled rocket motor is a volatile, explosive component that has been known to suffer seriously damaging explosions.

Unlike the frequently directional explosions produced by cruise missile warheads, an exploding booster rocket can cause unidirectional harm and might even break enough barriers in the reactor to produce a moderate radioactive material release.

One final observation – creating mystery and refusing to openly answer simple questions is a terrific way to generate fear, uncertainty and doubt in a public that has been taught to distrust. Nations that depend on revenues from selling oil and gas to provide roughly 50% of their government budgets have numerous reasons to stoke fear of radiation and small nuclear powered systems.