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Debunking myths on nuclear power (it’s not for making bombs)

It is the received wisdom that nuclear weapons and nuclear power are inseparable. Consequently, any country that builds a civilian nuclear power station is able to build an atomic bomb within a couple…

Nuclear power and nuclear weapons: what’s the difference? Patrik Hermansson

It is the received wisdom that nuclear weapons and nuclear power are inseparable. Consequently, any country that builds a civilian nuclear power station is able to build an atomic bomb within a couple of years.

Clearly there are overlaps in knowledge and technology between the civil and military nuclear industries. How closely is power generation connected with weapons production?

Experiments in the 1960s, and a student project in the 1970s, showed that a well-informed scientist could get close to recreating the design of Fat Man, the atomic bomb used at Nagasaki.

Information about the physics of a nuclear weapon’s core is probably not the limiting factor in nuclear proliferation. The critical part of a nuclear bomb, which sets it apart from any other weapon, is the presence of an amount of a material (known as fissile material) that is capable of maintaining a nuclear chain reaction (called the critical mass). This usually means either uranium or plutonium.

While uranium is naturally occurring, plutonium is for all practical purposes a synthetic element – only produced by man.

However, it’s not as simple as digging up sufficient uranium ore and extracting the uranium metal. Only one isotope of uranium (235U) and one of plutonium (239Pu) can conveniently be used to manufacture a weapon (I’ll explain what the numbers mean below).

235U only occurs as around 1% of natural uranium. The other 99% is 238U.

To make a practical uranium bomb, about 60kg of 80% pure 235U is needed. There are several methods for separating 235U from 238U. All methods are complex and the details of some remain classified.

Heavier isotope, smaller bomb

Trinity, the site of the world’s first nuclear explosion. CHUCKage

You probably noticed that the superscript 238 (as in 238U) is one less than 239 (from 239Pu) – this is important.

Inside a nuclear reactor there is a large number of free particles called neutrons. It is the neutrons that mediate the nuclear reactions.

When a neutron hits the nucleus of a 235U atom, the nucleus usually splits into two large pieces and releases several new neutrons. This is the process known as fission.

A neutron hitting a nucleus does not always cause fission. 238U can absorb a neutron and after a couple of other reactions become 239Pu. This process is known as breeding.

Again this is significant – compared with 235U’s bare critical mass of ~50kg, the bare critical mass of 239Pu is around 11kg. In other words, the amount of material needed to make a bomb with 239Pu is a fifth that of 235U.

These figures can be lowered to around 4kg 239Pu for very advanced designs. Fat Man used around 6.2kg and some advanced methods, such as using a tamper and polonium based neutron boosting. The potentially much lower critical mass of plutonium makes it the preferred material for weapons production.

Another advantage of plutonium is that it has different chemical properties and reactivities to uranium. So, rather than needing sophisticated isotope separation technology, the two metals can be separated by well-known metal processing chemistry (such as the PUREX method which involves dissolving them in acid, reacting both metals with an organic compound, extracting the organic compounds into kerosene and selectively reducing the plutonium so that it can be re-extracted back into water).

Part of an ION Accelerator. Shutterstock

Side effects of breeding plutonium

239Pu is fissile, if a neutron hits it; about 75% of the time it splits. The other 25% of the time, the nucleus captures another neutron to become 240Pu.

240Pu is much less likely to capture another neutron. Therefore, over time the amount of 240Pu compared with 239Pu in a reactor core will go up. This isn’t a problem as such for the reactor (although it can create waste issues), but is a huge problem for nuclear weapons manufacture.

Induced vs spontaneous

Above I described induced fission. The question left hanging is – where does the first neutron in the chain come from?

Some atoms, when they undergo radioactive decay, do not follow their usual pathway (alpha decay for 239Pu and 240Pu). One in five million 240Pu atoms and one in five trillion 239Pu atoms undergo spontaneous fission, meaning they break up without warning and release some neutrons. These events are where those “first neutrons” can come from.

The high spontaneous fission rate of 240Pu acts as a kind of poison in the core of nuclear bombs. More than about 7% 240Pu and the likelihood that the warhead won’t work increases, and the dangers of handling the more radioactive 240Pu become too great.

The 7% limit is reached in a typical nuclear reactor after about 90 days (depends on the reactor design and the 235U enrichment). Typical commercial power reactor fuel cycles are around two years. If the fuel cycle is shorter the electricity becomes uneconomic.

All this means that the plutonium than can be extracted from the fuel rods of a commercial nuclear power reactor is not suitable for making nuclear weapons.

Historical perspective

International Regulators Conference on Nuclear Security meeting that took place in 2012. International Regulators Conference on Nuclear Security

There are five declared and four other nuclear-armed countries (assuming Israel’s warheads detonate). There are 31 nations with nuclear power stations (and 58 with research reactors). Only seven of the nine nuclear-armed countries have civilian power programs.

All of the technical factors can be circumvented with sufficient time and money. Uneconomic fuel cycles can be run and warheads built with high levels of radioactivity. However, no country has developed indigenous nuclear weapons after deploying civilian nuclear power stations.

Historically, if a country wants to produce a nuclear bomb, they build reactors especially for the job of making plutonium, and ignore civilian power stations.

Join the conversation

57 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    I understand Sellafield in the UK has 87 tonnes of plutonium in storage. It would be a shame not use that in low carbon electricity production. Plutonium and weapons proliferation is one of the scare issues put about by nuclear opponents. Other scare issues include decommissioning cost and terrorism. However the really thorny issue appears to be build cost and perhaps the need for active (as opposed to passive) cooling.

    By my reckoning most of the big coal fired power stations in Australia will need replacing by 2030 or so. I suggest it is extreme wishful thinking to get wind and solar from 7% of the electricity mix to over say 50% by then.

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    1. Ricky Ricardo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Newlands

      Both the British and the U.S. have tried reprocessing and MOX fuels in a desperate attempt to solve their Plutonium problem which both abandoned due to the high costs and nobody wanting to burn MOX.

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    2. Alex Cannara

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Ricky Ricardo

      Rick, perhaps you missed that we in the US have completed the consumption of thousands of Russian warheads containing both Pu and U fissiles. We did this over the years of our agreement with Russia to destroy, via MOX fuel fabrication, over 19.000 weapons in our commercial reactors. For a time. fully 10% of US electric power came from Russian warheads.

      And, the few hundred tons of Pu sitting around are exceedingly valuable for advanced reactor designs, such as IFR, MSR, etc.

      This is an excellent article.

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    3. Ricky Ricardo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alex Cannara

      Yes but the fuel in the warheads did not require reprocessing like spent fuel a very different thing. It had already been reprocessed by the Russians to make the bombs.

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    4. Ricky Ricardo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alex Cannara

      It is a good article Alex. I wasnt commenting on the article just the comment below.

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    5. Ben Marshall

      Writer

      In reply to John Newlands

      Hi John, could you please expand on decommissioning costs?

      You seem to imply that they are, relatively, negligible, whereas my understanding is that the decommissioning costs aren't routinely included in the overall economics of nuclear power generation, and that they do in fact cost a bomb. No pun intended.

      cheers,

      Ben

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    6. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Ricky Ricardo

      Processing existing stockpiles of separated reactor-grade plutonium that is separated and stockpiled in some countries (eg UK, Japan) or weapons-grade plutonium stockpiles from weapons decommissioning in some countries (eg USA, Russia) to make either Pu metal fuels for IFR type reactors or MOX fuel for LWRs does not require any significant chemical processing. Although "reprocessing" is a very vague, broad term, it does not require reprocessing.

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    7. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      How much does decommissioning a nuclear power plant cost?

      Let's make up a conservatively large guess. Say, maybe, 100 million dollars.

      A nuclear power plant with a pair of 1100 MWe power reactors operating with a 95% capacity factor for 60 years generates 1.1 PWh (petawatt-hours) of electrical energy over its lifetime.

      So how much does decommissioning cost, as a portion of the 20 cents or so cost of a retail kilowatt-hour? It costs 0.0091 cents per kWh.

      Even if we made up a completely over the top claim of 10 billion dollars in decommissioning costs it would still be less than one cent contributed to the cost of a kilowatt-hour. It's a negligible component of the cost of nuclear electricity.

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    8. Brian Kevin Duckworth

      part-time uni student & retired teacher

      In reply to Luke Weston

      As I understand it, no former nuclear reactor has been successfully decommissioned: not to the level that people could live safely on the site or grow food for human consumption..
      Again, as I understand it, no former nuclear reactor has been demolished with the detritus going to landfill as the very walls of the former reactor have themselves become radioactive and are unacceptable..
      If this is the situation, then no amount can be assigned as the "decommissioning cost" of a former reactor has never been accomplished.
      If I am wrong, please tell the reactor's location and date of radiation-free decommissioning

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    9. Ben Marshall

      Writer

      In reply to Luke Weston

      Thanks, Luke.

      Let's say your back of the envelope calculations are correct (or at least ball-park) and it's somewhere between the lower and upper ends of your scale. Has any nuclear power company or government added that cost to what consumers pay so their grand-kids don't get lumbered with a big bill, a big radioactive mess to clean up, and no power? Is there a big pot o' cash waiting just inside the front door so the last guy out can pay for decommissioning?

      Again, my understanding is that no one's doing that.

      Also, Brian Duckworth's reply and question is relevant. My understanding is there is no radioactive waste buried, and that it's all stored above ground awaiting burial. Can someone confirm or negate that?

      None of my reading of science journals over the last quarter century has ever eased my concerns over the mess nuclear leaves behind or the considerable decommissioning costs.

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    10. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Brian Kevin Duckworth

      "As I understand it, no former nuclear reactor has been successfully decommissioned: not to the level that people could live safely on the site or grow food for human consumption.. "

      Similar considerations hold for former Queensland coal mines.

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    11. robin linke

      stamp dealer

      In reply to Luke Weston

      I agree with Luke Weston. The good news is that the cost of the decommissioning of nuclear reactors (in the West at least) is already incorporated in the price per kWh and is not an impost on the great achievement of generating carbon free electricity 24/7 over 60 years at a competitive price, and also producing hydrogen and recharging battery driven vehicles, water desalination with tried and proven clean technology and an unbeaten safety record.

      If the population of the 3o+ advanced countries…

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  2. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    Regardless of the excellent science provided by Martin Boland, if you read the story below you will find that all blue fin tuna in California are testing positive for radioactivity, the scientists making the link with Fukushima.

    With the ability of renewable power sources moving ahead in leaps and bounds, why should we go down the non-renewable extremely expensive and centralised nuclear path for future energy needs?

    http://topinfopost.com/2013/10/10/fukushima-is-here-all-bluefin-tuna-caught-in-california-are-radioactive

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    1. John Newlands

      tree changer

      In reply to John Newton

      One of the comments to that article points out that it would take 20 portions of the deadly tuna to equal the radioactivity of 1 banana. I suggest there are two fantasies here
      - nuclear power poisons the food chain
      - wind and solar will replace coal.

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    2. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to John Newton

      Agreed John and the number of U.S. sailors (many in their 20s) who claim to have been exposed to Fukushima’s radiation emissions, resulting in diagnosed cases of leukaemia, thyroid and testicular cancers, chronic bronchitis and brain tumours, has now jumped to 51.

      These were crew members on-board the USS Ronald Reagan, assisting in Japan's earthquake/tsunami rescue. The number of plaintiffs in the case against TEPCO could now grow significantly as 150 additional crew members are currently being medically screened for radiation illness symptoms.

      http://www.coloradonewsday.com/national/34037-number-of-us-sailors-allegedly-poisoned-by-radiation-jumps-to-51.html

      And if not Fukushima, then what has caused the alleged radiation illnesses in 20+ year old sailors on-board the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan?

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    3. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to John Newton

      You do know that all tuna, and all living things, and everything everywhere, "tests positive for radioactivity", right?

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    4. Christine Brook
      Christine Brook is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Librarian

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Shirley, this is a mischievous claim supported by an hysterical media and uninformed members of the public. There is no way the sailors could have been exposed to enough radiation to cause all their supposed ailments. Don't forget they were on a nuclear powered ship with high levels of radiation capability, which would have quickly indicated unsafe levels and didn't . One of the most egregious claims was that the sailors were clearing radioactive snow from the decks. They weren't - it was water and detergent foam and the cleaning in this manner was all that was mandated to remove any possible low-level radiation. Anyone being led to believe these outrageous claims should watch this video which explains in detail why the claims are invalid.
      http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw33AVqzQxA&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DZw33AVqzQxA

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    5. robin linke

      stamp dealer

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Shirley, Every year there are two reports to the WHO. One is the deaths due to Chernobyl which are constant at 60,

      The other report is about car accidents which kill on average 1.3 million and seriously injure 37 million each year. 2 to 3 people every 30 seconds.

      But I am sure you still travel by car!

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    6. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Christine Brook

      Christine, there are not yet any reputable sources to verify that crew members aboard the USS Ronald Reagan have in fact been diagnosed with ‘radiation’ illnesses.

      Perhaps you may offer a logical explanation why TEPCO continues to discharge highly contaminated water when it's claimed that desalination removes radionuclides?

      On August 22, 2013, the Japanese government announced that, possibly since 2011, radioactive water has been leaking from the plant into the ground and Pacific Ocean…

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    7. Christine Brook
      Christine Brook is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Librarian

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      The desalination plant is fitted with radioactivity measuring equipment which would immediately sound a warning if any unusual levels of radioactive water were detected. I think we can rule that out. You obviously didn't watch the video or you would know this already.
      According to reports from WHO and UNSCEAR no one has died as a result of the Fukushima event and the likelihood of anyone doing so in the future is so remote as to be indiscernible from normal rates of other diseases including cancer…

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    8. Christine Brook
      Christine Brook is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Librarian

      In reply to Christine Brook

      If you or anyone else wants to read UNSCEAR's report it can be found here:
      http://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/fukushima.html

      And if you or anyone reading this, really wants to understand what effect radiation can have on health and the risks involved measured against other risks we face in our lives you should read the excellent 3 part series " Stayin' alive in the gene pool" by Geoff Russell at www.bravenewclimate.com
      "This is the first of a comprehensive new 3-part series on radiation, which will be published on BNC in weekly instalments. If you really want to distinguish science fact from science fiction on the many vexed issues surrounding radiation, including cancer risks, genetic and physical mutations, and the biological legacy of exposure to acute or chronic ionising radiation, then read on. You may be surprised."

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    9. Christine Brook
      Christine Brook is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Librarian

      In reply to Christine Brook

      A quote from the article:
      No it will not be dangerous. Even within 300 km of Fukushima, the additional radiation that was introduced by the Cesium-137 fallout is still well below the background radiation levels from naturally occurring radioisotopes. By the time those radioactive atoms make their way to the West Coast it will be even more diluted and therefore not dangerous at all.

      "It’s not even dangerous to swim off the coast of Fukushima. Buessler et al. figured out how much radiation damage you would get if you doggie paddled about Fukushima (Yes, science has given us radioactive models of human swimmers). It was less than 0.03% of the daily radiation an average Japanese resident receives. Tiny! Hell, the radiation was so small even immediately after the accident scientists did not wear any special equipment to handle the seawater samples (but they did wear detectors just in case). If you want danger, you’re better off licking the dial on an old-school glow in the dark watch."

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    10. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to robin linke

      "One is the deaths due to Chernobyl which are constant at 60, " Kindly provide a reference please Robin.

      Notes in particular :

      The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) signed the Agreement “WHA 12-40” on 28th May 1959.

      "The International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization recognize that they may find it necessary to apply certain limitations for the safeguarding of confidential information furnished to them …

      "The Secretariat…

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    11. robin linke

      stamp dealer

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Shirley, I gave you the reference, Google WHO Chernobyl. As of 2005 there were approx. 50 deaths, mostly soldiers who risked their lives. 6000 children developed thyroid cancer but only 6 died thanks to vaccination.
      Chernobyl no more condemns nuclear power generation than the GDR Trabant condemns cars.

      While there are a lot of fine people who have been to University I never ceased to be amazed at a significant number who condemn nuclear as a carbon free base load power source and at the same time chant 'we mustsave the planet' by drastically cutting our carbon emissions!

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    12. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to robin linke

      Wow, it’s astonishing that WHO asserts that not a single person in the provinces surrounding Chernobyl (and beyond) has died from a radiation-induced illness since 1986-1987. Unbelievable!

      Particularly when peer reviewed authors note that survivors of childhood cancers are at increased risk of developing subsequent carcinomas, typical of adulthood.

      It’s even more outlandish when UNSCEAR advises:

      ”While risk models by inference suggest increased cancer risk, cancers induced by radiation…

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    13. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Christine Brook

      Christine, I believe it's injudicious to convert the Fukushima tragedy into a sales pitch for the nuclear industry or to use this forum as a means of promoting an unqualified and untrained person as an expert in ionising radiation.

      Geoff Russell cites his credentials as a computer programmer, vegan and environmentalist. As an “environmentalist "and “vegan” he evades the irrefutable evidence of billions of marine life that are maimed and/or slaughtered annually by OTC nuclear reactors. To summarise…

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    14. Christine Brook

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Christine Brook

      And your qualification to expound anti-nuke, non-peer reviewed nonsense is exactly what?
      Where are the peer-review references to support your claims?
      Geoff RusselI is not providing his opinion but that of the many scientific articles he references.
      I have posted several refs emanating from well respected universities and Government authorities which back what I say. Instead you decide there is a conspiracy by world authorities to mislead the public and hide the truth. Sorry but you employ the same tactics as CC deniers. You are allowed your own opinion but not your own unsubstantiated facts and beliefs.

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    15. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Christine Brook

      “And your qualification to expound anti-nuke, non-peer reviewed nonsense is exactly what?”

      And Geoff Russell’s qualification to expound pro-nuke, non-peer reviewed nonsense is exactly what?

      And your qualification to expound pro-nuke, non-peer reviewed nonsense is exactly what?

      “I have posted several refs emanating from well respected universities and Government authorities which back what I say”

      So have I Christine and since 1976. And at all times, I endeavour to quote from reputable…

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    16. Christine Brook
      Christine Brook is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Librarian

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Pot, kettle, black!
      Stop playing the man- Barry Brook, Geoff Russell and me and concentrate on the science and the accepted scientific sources.
      It is obvious that you are not interested in the scientific appraisals of peak world bodies charged with investigating the issues so there is nothing more to discuss. Oh, and at 68, with a history of anti-nuclear activism from the 60's, it is rather amusing to be called " the new kid on the block". I changed my mind when I fully researched nuclear power and found I had been conned. Many prominent scientists and green activists, including James Hansen, Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand and George Monbiot have been through the same process. Here is a list of those people:
      http://decarbonisesa.com/who-gets-it/

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  3. Henry Verberne

    Former IT Professional

    I support a vastly increased roll out of renewables and urge we consider nuclear only when it is clearly demonstrated that we cannot supply our energy needs without it.

    From what I have read nuclear is too costly to compete with renewables when the capital cost and the retirement costs are factored in.

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    1. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      "From what I have read nuclear is too costly to compete with renewables when the capital cost and the retirement costs are factored in."

      Did you read this in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Green Left Weekly?

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    2. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Luke Weston

      Luke - maybe you should tell the German government that renewables are not the way to go. Because that's the way they're going, big time. And not n7clear which is, wherever you read it, far too expensive and will take too long to initiate.

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  4. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    That a dirty bomb made to spread dangerous radioactive materials over a city and therefore make it uninhabitable is not a "Nuclear" bomb seems to be quite academic a distinction, that will make no appreciable difference in war.

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  5. Brian Kevin Duckworth

    part-time uni student & retired teacher

    My thanks for a well-written article pointing out the differences between a commercial power- generating nuclear reactor and one specifically designed to produce plutonium.

    Looking at the comments so far it seems that some prejudices are already being rolled out:
    • renewable energy will not be able to supply base load,
    • radiation escaping from a reactor does not enter food webs,
    • coal, oil and gas are not fuelling [pun intended] anthropogenic global warming, and
    • nuclear reactors used for…

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    1. Ricky Ricardo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Brian Kevin Duckworth

      Yes nuclear myth #1 its cheap! England just signed a deal to build its first reactor in 30 years and had to guarantee their investors a strike price that will by the time it becomes operational of $200/MW. Compare that to $30/MW for our brownies in Victoria and try and find a Politician who will happily stand up and say prices will be nearly 7 times more.

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    2. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Ricky Ricardo

      The agreed strike price for Hinkley C was the lowest of all alternative technologies considered. In the real world of facts, nuclear power is the cheapest scalable, reliable clean energy technology suitable for real-world coal replacement.

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    3. Ben Marshall

      Writer

      In reply to Luke Weston

      If you're correct, Luke, then it's reasonable to think a fully commercial nuclear operation should fly. But are there any that aren't massively subsidised by the taxpayer?

      I'm not saying that cost alone should rule it out, but your definition of "cheap", especially when decommissioning is included, is perhaps not realistic.

      If the taxpayer helps foot the bill for a plant, then pays for the electricity from it, with the 'company' taking handsome profits for running it, then the taxpayer pays for cleaning up the mess, I'm not convinced it's an economic proposition on a large scale.

      Perhaps small nuclear plants for specific industries like aluminium smelting and so on, but not for domestic power. That should definitely all be renewables, surely.

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  6. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Excellent piece. I'll only add that U233 is also fissile, with a smaller critical mass, and is bred from Thorium in a reactor. This is the path to far more abundant nuclear energy than from natural Uranium, since Th is 4x as abundant as U and is dirt cheap -- actually, "sand cheap" since it's abundant in Monazite sands from Cina to Brazil to India. And, it's abundant in all rocky bodies in any solar system that's in a region like ours in any galaxy.

    By the way, if one BinGoogles "Oklo Reactors" one will find that Pu is also natural, as are fission reactors run by Ma Nature long ago, when U enrichment wasn't so necessary.
    ;]

    .

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    1. Ricky Ricardo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alex Cannara

      Yes all these theoretical discussions are nice but pretty much always exclude economic realities. When someone manages to make a fully certified commercially viable one of these atomic atomic bananas within the next 30 years feel free to call me 24/7.

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    2. Ricky Ricardo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ricky Ricardo

      And in the meantime dont expect to piss $Billions of Tax payers money up against the wall doing it. It is Christmas so its only a matter of days now before the Sydney to London in 3 hours folk emerge.

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    3. Henry Verberne

      Former IT Professional

      In reply to Ricky Ricardo

      Agree Ricky, Thorium always seems to be held up as the next best thing in nuclear technology but like fusion, always just around the corner.

      Encourage and work on renewables: much less impact on the planet and with time they will be able to supply most of our energy needs, leaving a diminishing role for gas, coal and nuclear.

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  7. Peter Lux

    logged in via email @hushmail.com

    One of the first nuclear reactors - Calder Hall Magnox reactor was used to produce plutonium for the UK nuclear weapons programme. This is openly admitted by the UK government and Ministry of Defence. N Korea also operated a Magnox reactor to produce plutonium for their weapons programme.
    Nuclear power and nuclear weapons programmes are linked. When Japan discussed getting rid of their nuclear power stations Japans former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said ”Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons,”

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    1. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Peter Lux

      Tritium boosts the explosive force of nuclear weapons and is used in every warhead in the U.S. arsenal.

      The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar civilian nuclear power plant in the US supplies tritium for use in nuclear weapons, which can be perceived as making a mockery of the NPT and Dwight Eisenhower's "atoms for peace" illusion.

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    2. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Peter Lux

      The first British reactors at Calder Hall were designed for weapons-grade plutonium production as their primary purpose, with the uranium targets unloaded and processed on 6-month cycles. As a secondary purpose, their energy output was harnessed usefully instead of just being dumped to the environment as waste heat, as done at Hanford for example. They were not really designed as nuclear power plants, and they were designed before any other reactors designed for power generation.

      The Yongbyon research reactor is hardly a nuclear power plant - at only 5MWe. it produces only about as much energy as a half a dozen wind turbines or so (although much more reliably).

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  8. Jena Zelezny

    research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

    Nuclear power does not have a proven track record of safety nor does any solution for the disposal of waste have validity in an environmentally friendly world.

    Solar energy is undervalued and under explored. Sometimes it is better to start new sources, grids and distribution networks instead of trying to patch up that which is clearly, either too expensive, or too dangerous.

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  9. Martin Boland

    Lecturer of Medicinal Chemistry at Charles Darwin University

    Happy new year all!

    Thanks for the comments

    Never mind three hours from London to Sydney - today I'd settle for six from Manchester to Melbourne!

    The goal of the article was just what it stated - to show that civilian nuclear energy is somewhat decoupled from atomic weapons production. Other issues are for another time.

    Ricky - I'm not sure what you're trying to say. your first reply to John mentions reprocessing and MOX, but then you say that the use of weapons grade material didn't…

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    1. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Martin Boland

      "civilian nuclear energy is somewhat decoupled from atomic weapons production" No, not as an associative function. The question is why nuclear energy when there is unlimited solar energy?

      And no, I am not a nuclear scientist, but I am a citizen and I don't want nuclear energy. I'm not into taking any more risks with our environment. You have a responsibility and it is a breach of human rights to over-ride the safety of all the flora and fauna of the planet.
      Science for the sake of science is no longer acceptable.

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    2. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      You don't want nuclear energy? So you want "coalwiende" as the Germans would call it, which is proving so successful in destroying any prospect of greenhouse mitigation in Germany, and Japan too? It's a terrible mistake, and not something for other countries to emulate.

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  10. Max Sargent

    logged in via email @ozemail.com.au

    Hi

    I'm not convinced that there is a way to ensure that a civil nuclear power program is never used to produce nuclear weapons. India developed it's first nuclear weapon using a CANDU civil reactor. Also, the more nuclear materials - fuel feedstock or nuclear waste in irculation or storage means that more material has the potential for diversion into dirty bombs. To produce a dirty bomb you don't need to be a technologically advanced nation state, you just need access to radioactive material and conventional explosives.

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    1. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Max Sargent

      The CIRUS research reactor purchased by India, an early reactor purchased in 1954 before IAEA safeguards existed, was not a CANDU reactor, nor any other sort of nuclear power reactor. Although I can see where the confusion with the CANDU reactors comes from, since this small research reactor was supplied by Canada and deuterium-moderated.

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  11. Brian Kevin Duckworth

    part-time uni student & retired teacher

    in reply to Luke Weston

    As I understand it, no former nuclear reactor has been successfully decommissioned: not to the level that people could live safely on the site or grow food for human consumption..
    Again, as I understand it, no former nuclear reactor has been demolished with the detritus going to landfill as the very walls of the former reactor have themselves become radioactive and are unacceptable..
    If this is the situation, then no amount can be assigned as the "decommissioning cost" of a former reactor has never been accomplished.
    If I am wrong, please tell the reactor's location and date of radiation-free decommissioning

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  12. Philip White

    PhD Student at University of Adelaide

    You say, "the plutonium than can be extracted from the fuel rods of a commercial nuclear power reactor is not suitable for making nuclear weapons."

    This is false.

    The United States tested a nuclear weapon using reactor grade plutonium in 1962.
    http://www.npolicy.org/article.php?aid=1212&rtid=2

    The higher percentage of pu-240 and pi-242 are inconveniences not insurmountable obstacles to making a nuclear weapon. A highly skilled bomb-maker can produce a weapon with no great loss of performance…

    Read more
  13. Eddy Schmid

    Retired

    Quote; "Martin Boland receives funding from and collaborates with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation." Unquote.
    So he is an admitted shill for the industry, everything he says must therefore be dismissed.

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  14. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    Nuclear power plants may not be for making nuclear (fission) bombs, but the concentration of such material, whatever the isotope numbers, must make such plants - and spent fuel storage facilities - tempting targets for nutters wanting to build a dirty bomb. I read somewhere (not very scientific evidence, I agree) that quite significant volumes of nuclear fuel (spent of otherwise) cannot be accounted for in stocktakes and there are real fears of some of the 'missing' material ending up in the hands of benign organisation like Al Qaeda. Security at these places must be a real headache for those responsible for it. Glad it's not me!

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