Thrawn Rickle 7

Atomic Power

© 1990 Williscroft

As an ex-nuclear submariner (pronounced submarine-er, not sub-mariner) with over twenty-two actual submerged months on submarines living in close proximity to a nuclear reactor, I am in a unique position to present some unvarnished facts.

Electricity, in its simplest sense, is electrons flowing through a conductor. We use this flow to make heat and light, and by creating moving magnetic fields (motors) to move things.

We make electricity by reversing these reactions: most frequently we use heat to create steam to drive turbines to produce electricity. This is how a nuclear reactor works.

A naturally occurring substance, Uranium-235, produces a great deal of heat when it is concentrated, heat that can be used to create steam to drive a turbine to generate electricity. When you create steam by burning coal, you must be careful not to expose yourself directly to the fire: it burns. Ditto for heat produced by concentrated U-235: hot is hot. In addition to heat, concentrated U-235 also produces x-ray like emissions. There is nothing particularly mysterious about these. They consist primarily of high energy electrons (the same kind that flow through conductors) and energetic neutrons, natural building blocks of everything in nature. They’re dangerous because they’re energetic. A handful of lead pellets poses no danger, but stand in front of a loaded shot gun at your own risk!

A nuclear reactor is nothing more than a device to boil water into steam to drive a turbine. Can it explode?

A reactor is as likely to explode as any other pressurized steam device. If you build it right, it won’t happen. But if it does, you get a bunch of hot steam and pieces of pipe and boiler, and—unfortunately—unwanted high-energy emissions. This is why reactors operate inside containment buildings.

Three Mile Island happened because of a stupid sequence of human errors. Nevertheless, everything remained inside the containment building. There was no release of harmful emissions. Had people not reacted so stupidly to the initial problem, the plant could be in production today.

The Soviets designed the Chernobyl reactor to “go supercritical” on failure. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, if something went wrong, it would keep getting worse. Why do this? This reactor could produce about 10% more energy. It’s a stupid thing to do, but they did it. An engineer facing Siberia if the reactor shut down during a day-long test, ordered all five safety circuits bypassed. Another stupid thing to do, but he did it.

You know the rest of the story.

By design this can not happen to any western reactor.

In its lifetime a typical reactor will produce several cubic yards of waste. While not much, this poses a problem. Unlike coal ash which can be handled in a relatively normal manner, reactor ash continues to give off dangerous emissions for a very long time. Nuclear engineers have developed an effective method for containing these residues by encasing them in borated glass beads. These beads withstand over 10,000 years of test abrasion.

Recently, engineers developed a new reactor. Should it develop a problem, even if the operators do nothing at all, it will shut down every time, all the time, just as a dropped apple must fall. Inherently safe nuclear power: it’s a great idea.

Incidentally, during my entire time aboard nuclear submarines I wore a radiation badge. My total radiation count was actually lower than yours for the same time, no matter where you were. The ocean and the submarine hull shielded me from the sun and from cosmic radiation, which pose a million-fold greater risk to humans than do nuclear reactors.