[an error occurred while processing this directive] ZEPHYR Magazine
                              T H E
                           Z E P H Y R
                  __     M A G A Z I N E
                 Issue #18                6-7-86
            A weekly electronic magazine for users of 
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                    Editor - Gene B. Williams 
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                            (c) 1986

   Ahhh. It's 6-7-8 (if you forget the final 6).
   I have no idea what that's supposed to mean or how it ties in
with this week's issue, but . . .

   This week we have a guest article from Jim Lippard. And what
perfect timing! All week long it seems that the major topic of 
discussion on Winds of Thought has been nuclear power, and the
relative safety, or lack of safety, of this power generating

                          NUCLEAR POWER

                         by Jim Lippard

  What is nuclear energy?
  To understand that question, it's important that you understand how
electricity is generated. There's nothing magical about it.
  The most common way of generating electricity is to move a conductor 
through a magnetic field. Hook a voltmeter to a coil of wire and 
you'll get no reading. Move a magnet by that coil and the meter needle
will jump, showing the voltage generating by the combination of a 
conductor (the coil of wire), a magnet (which generates a magnetic
field) and motion.
  Electrical generators work from the same principle. Get some coils
of wire, rotate a magentic field by the coils, and electricity is
  A commercial generator will produce electricity as the shaft of the 
generator is turned. This turning is done by a turbine connected to 
the shaft. If the idea of "turbine" seems confusing, just think of 
the child's toy called a pinwheel. Blow on it and the blades of the
pinwheel cause it to spin. That's really all there is to a turbine. 
Blades get pushed by some force or another. When the spinning motion
moves a coil around a magnet (or a magnet around a coil) the whole 
arrangement is known as a turbogenerator.
  Turbines may be turned by wind blowing across propellors, by water 
rushing through a dam, or by any number of other means. But most 
power plants are thermal in nature. Their turbines are either steam 
or gas. The turbine is turned by hot (and expanding) gases resulting 
directly from the combustion of fuel, or by the fuel heating water
to become steam (another hot and expanding gas) 
  Many turbines recycle the expanded gas. In a steam generator, for
example, the steam runs through a condenser, which cools the steam
and turns it back into water again, and thus back to the beginning
of the cycle. (The condenser in this case is a set of tubes filled 
with a separate circuit of cooler water. The condenser's cooling water 
is sometimes taken from a nearby river and is later returned to that
river after the water has passed through the cycle. 
  This may warm up the river by a few degrees near the plant. This 
warming is sometimes referred to as "thermal pollution". While it 
does drive out some species of life, it also provides a habitat for 
other species for which the water had previously been too cold. 
  Due to environmental pressure, cooling towers are becoming more
common. The water drips down from the top of the cooling tower, where 
it gives up its heat to air drawn through the tower by natural draft 
or by fans. Cooling towers often have a white plume of "smoke" coming 
out of them. This is pointed to as being pollution by some uneducated
"environmentalists" but is actually nothing more than water vapor - 
the same that results when you breathe out on a cold day. 

  The only difference between a nuclear plant and a "conventional"
plant is the manner in which the water that drives the turbines is 
  In a conventional plant, coal, oil or some other burnable fuel
is used to bring the water to a boil. In a nuclear plant, the water
is brought to a boil by the heat of a nuclear reaction.
  To understand how a nuclear reactor works, it is first necessary 
to know a little something about atoms. An atom is composed of
a positively charged nucleus (made up of protons which carry a 
positive charge, and neutrons which carry a neutral charge) surrounded 
by negatively charged electrons. The number of electrons in a stable 
atom is the same as the number of protons in the nucleus. All this 
determines what element it is, and gives that element its atomic
  "Splitting the atom" is no big deal. The tough part is splitting 
the nucleus. If it were possible to split iron atoms (atomic number 
26) in half in such a way that the new atoms each had 13 protons and 
electrons, the new atoms would be aluminum (atomic number 13).  
  The atomic number is unaffected by the neutrons.  Chemically, the
number of neutrons in an atom is irrelevant. What -is- affected, 
however, is the mass number of the atom - its atomic weight. Neutrons 
do have weight.
  An isotope is an atom of an element that has a different atomic
weight than normal - too many or too few neutrons. For example, hydrogen
normally consists of 1 proton and 1 electron, and has a mass number 1.
An isotope of hydrogen (called deuterium) has the same proton and electron
but also has a neutron, giving it a mass number of 2. Then there is
tritium - 1 proton, 1 electron, 2 neutrons, and a mass number of 3.
  The isotopes of other elements do not have distinct names. They are 
specified by following the name of the element with its mass number 
(e.g.  carbon-12, carbon-14).   
  Different isotopes of the same element are chemically indistinguish-
able.  What do vary, though, are the element's nuclear properties, 
such as whether it is stable or radioactive, and whether or not it is 
fissionable. (Fission is the action of splitting an atom. Fusion is
the action of joining two atoms to become a single new atom.) 
  Radioactivity is radiation of various types that is emitted when 
a nucleus decays or disintegrates. This can happen in any number of
ways. To purpose cause this disintegration, you merely have to "shoot" 
a neutron into the nucleus, thus causing it to become unstable and 
causing it to fall apart.
  When a nucleus splits, it may emit one or more of its neutrons.  If
these neutrons are then absorbed by other nuclei, they in turn will 
split and send off even more neutrons, which affect more nuclei, which
send out even more neutrons, and so on. This is a chain reaction.  
  And along with all those flying neutrons is energy. In a controlled
chain reaction, that energy is well harnassed. In a run-away chain
reaction the result is a release of that energy VERY quickly. We call
it an atomic bomb. This is what causes a lot of problems with the 
way people understand - or rather DON'T understand - nuclear power.
  Since both are chain reactions, there is the common misbelief that
a nuclear power presents a danger of explosion. However, the two really 
have nothing in common. Just as the second by its nature is not 
controlled, the first by nature is always under control and cannot 
explode. Both are fission - but napalm and a candle are both burning.
  There are four types of nuclei that are fissionable, and only one 
of them occurs naturally in significant quantities - uranium-235.  
The average number of neutrons available for causing further fissions 
of a U-235 nucleus is between 2 and 3. In practice, the 2 or 3 neutrons 
emitted do not both cause another fission, even if it were possible 
to have a substance which was entirely pure U-235. A neutron can fly 
out of the volume of the substance altogether.   
  To get a nuclear bomb, the fissionable material is enriched to more 
than 90% U-235.  In natural uranium ore, almost all of the uranium is 
U-238, which is not fissionable. In other words, U-238 cannot explode.
It contains only about 0.7% U-235. To get a chain reaction, the 
average number of neutrons absorbed by other nuclei per fission of 
a nucleus must be greater than one. This is achieved by holding 
together pieces of a sphere of enriched U-235 for long enough to get 
a chain reaction (about a millionth of a second), which is done in 
bombs by firing smaller pieces into a sphere using high explosives.   
  As mentioned, such a chain reaction in a nuclear power plant is simply 
not possible due to the laws of physics. First, reactor fuel contains 
only 3.5% U-235. 100 fissions in a nuclear reactor can cause no more 
than 101 fissions in the resulting next generation, which takes place 
over a period of time more than 100,000 times longer than in a 
nuclear explosion.
  A U-235 nucleus is more likely to absorb a slow-moving neutron 
than a fast one. For this reason, a reactor uses a material called 
a moderator which does not absorb neutrons but bumps them back into 
the uranium at a slower speed. Among good moderators are many 
hydrocarbons, beryllium, carbon (including graphite), and, best of 
all, water.  
  The moderator is heated up by bombardment of the neutrons and is 
used to heat water in a boiler. The rate of heat production is 
controlled by controlling the number of neutrons which are allowed 
to produce the next generation of fissions. This is done by using 
material which absorbs neutrons, such as boron, cadmium, or hafnium.   
  The reactors most commonly used in the U.S. are Boiling Water 
Reactors (BWR) and Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR). Both use water 
as a moderator and as coolant. (Another type of reactor is the 
High-Temperature Gas reactor, which uses a gas (such as helium) 
as a coolant.)
   In a BWR, the water in the core is converted to steam and is used 
to power the turbines directly. In a PWR, the water in the core 
transfers its heat through a heat exchanger to a separate circuit of 
water which drives the turbines.  
  What is radiation? 
  Radiation comes in four forms: alpha, beta, gamma, and neutron. 
  Alpha radiation is caused when an atom releases two protons and 
two neutrons (a helium nucleus). Such radiation does not travel very 
far, perhaps a few inches through air, and may be stopped by a 
piece of paper. The danger of alpha-emitting substances (such as 
plutonium) comes when they are inhaled or ingested.   
  Beta radiation is caused when an electron is released from an atom.  
Beta particles travel slightly farther than alpha particles - perhaps 
a few feet through air.  
  A gamma ray is a burst of electromagnetic radiation (either a high 
energy photon or a quantum of light of extremely short wavelength, 
such as an X-ray). And you already know what neutrons are.
  Only gamma rays and neutrons travel any significant distance through 
matter before they are stopped. It takes many feet of earth or several 
feet of concrete to reduce their intensity to something approaching

  A radioactive element can give off any of these types of radiation, 
but a given isotope will always radiate the same type or types. 
  The timing of when a particular atom's nucleus will disintegrate 
and give off radiation is random and impossible to predict, though 
the probability is known. Given an amount of radioactive substance, 
it is possible to know exactly how long it will take for half of that 
amount to disintegrate. This is known as its halflife.   
  For a given substance, the intensity of its radioactivity is smaller 
the longer its halflife. Plutonium, with a halflife of some 23,900 
years, is not very radioactive. Polonium, with a halflife of 4 
millionths of a second, is highly radioactive. 
  Stable elements, which are not radioactive at all, have nearly 
infinite halflives. 
  Radiation may be measured in rads, roentgens, or, for our purposes, 
rems. "Rem" stands for "roentgen equivalent man." It is a measure of 
biological damage caused by radiation.
  Everyone is constantly being exposed to natural background radiation,
caused by the sun, by radioactive elements in the earth, etc. Each 
year, the average person gets about 35 millirems (35 mrems - or 
35/1000ths of a rem) from cosmic rays, 5 mrems from the air, 34 mrems 
from building materials, 25 mrems from food, and 11 mrems from the
ground. Add it up and it comes to a dose of a little more than a 
tenth of a rem.
  The natural background radiation, or NBR, varies from place to place.  
In Dallas, the average person gets 53 mrems a year; in Denver, between 
107 and 157 mrems, due to elevation and the rocks in the ground.   
  In addition to NBR there are man-made sources of radiation. A
coast-to-coast jet flight will give you a dose of about 5mrems. A 
typical television viewer gets 1 mrem/year. One chest x-ray gives you 
50 mrems.
  Yet, the dose is a mere 0.01 mrems/year from living within a 50-mile 
radius of a nuclear power plant.
  To get some idea of what this means, the International Commission 
on Radiological Protection has set 500 mrems as the maximum annual 
dose a person should receive. Even so, there are areas in Brazil and 
India where the inhabitants get 1500 mrems/year NBR with no unusual 
  Statistics show that for each rem of exposure over 1 rem, it is 
estimated that the exposed person's risk of dying from cancer increases 
between 16.8% and 16.818%. Radiation sickness results from exposures 
of more than 100 rems. Victims die within a few weeks after exposure 
or recover, with all symptoms disappearing. At 450 rems, half of the 
exposed victims die. Death is most often due to failure of the bone
marrow to produce white blood cells.
  Oddly enough , low levels of radiation (below a rem or so) have 
actually been found to -reduce- risk of cancer. This effect is known 
as radiation hormesis.
  What this comes down to is that living with a 50-mile radius of 
a nuclear power plant gives a dose that is 1/100th that of the average
television viewer. (You'd have to be that average TV viewer for
100 years to equal the dose from the nuclear power plant for just
1 year.) In actual fact, you get a considerably larger dose of 
radiation from the CRT of your computer than you would from living 
near to a nuclear generating station.
  The problem comes during a nuclear accident - when abnormal levels
of radioactivity are released.
  What are the safety features of U.S. reactors? The primary safety
defense in a U.S. reactor is that they are designed such that the 
laws of physics give a great deal of natural protection. The use of 
water moderation and coolant is so that of a loss of coolant accident 
(LOCA) occurs, the moderator is also lost, which means that the 
reaction stops.  The control rods, which are made of a neutron-absorbing 
substance such as boron, are supported above the reactor by an 
electromagnet which is powered by the reactor itself. 
  The philosophy is not that things go into action when something
goes wrong, but that the safety mechanisms are kept from acting only 
when things are going right.   
  The reactor vessel (with walls 6 to 11 inches thick) contains no 
combustible materials. The major problem at Chernobyl was the burning
graphite, which in turn pumped radioactive materials into the
atmosphere directly from the reactor core. 
  No such fire is possible in a U.S. reactor. (Try to light a gas of 
water on fire!) 
  In addition, the power density of the reaction is kept low at U.S.  
reactors, which means the temperature would not be high enough to 
ignite graphite even if it was in use.   
  U.S. reactors have primary and secondary cooling systems, an
Emergency Core Cooling System, water sprayers within the containment
building, and so forth. The containment building itself is made of 
six layers of thick reinforcing bars over a steel structure which is 
then covered by 3.5 feet of concrete. The containment building is 
required to be able to withstand a crash from a 727 at full landing 
  All this gets to be rather expensive, which is why nuclear stations
in America cost so much. It's also why they are safer than literally
any other form of power generation.
  But what is the worst case accident? Considering the various
safe guards built into U.S. nuclear power plants, how BAD can an
accident be?
  A worst case accident would involve loss of coolant, failure of
all backups, a meltdown, breach of the reactor vessel, breach of
containment (release of radioactive gases into the air), a
temperature inversion to keep the gases from dissipating, and wind
blowing into a heavily populated area. Even if all this took place, 
the accident would be less severe than the Chernobyl accident.
  In a meltdown, the melted fuel sinks a few inches into the floor 
of the containment building before cooling. The radiation is released 
in a short burst. There is no fire pumping particles into the air. In 
addition, the containment building is such that a breach would result 
in release of noble (stable and inert) gases rather than particles 
(which are the more serious problem).
  There is a new reactor design which has just been developed for which 
it is claimed that a meltdown is a physical impossibility. If this is 
true, this new type of reactor is almost ideal. 

  How do the risks and benefits of nuclear energy compare to other forms 
of energy production?   
  The primary benefit of nuclear energy is its cost. The capital cost is 
more, but the savings from fuel and operation and maintenance is 
considerable. The cost of nuclear power is about $2.47 per kilowatt/hour, 
compared to $3.32/kWh for coal and $4.26/kWh for oil. (Solar currently 
costs about $1500/kW in inv.shtmlent costs as of 1979.)
  In addition, the health risks of nuclear energy are minimal compared 
to other forms of mass energy production.  
  4,300 people a year die producing and transporting coal, not counting
Black Lung deaths. Per billion MWh (megawatt/hours) of electrical 
energy consumed, there are 1,000 Black Lung deaths among coal miners
compared to 20 deaths by lung cancers among uranium miners. For the
same amount of energy, the cost in fatal mining accidents is 189 
lives mining coal, and only 18 lives mining uranium. Per million MWh 
of electrical energy consumed, injuries cost 1545 disability days 
among coal miners and 157 disability days among uranium miners. Every 
year, the estimated excess deaths due to lung diseases caused by 
pollution from coal-fired power plants is between 10,000 and 50,000. 
  In addition, coal fuel to power a 1000 MWplant fills 38,000 
railcars. To get the same amount of energy from a nuclear plant requires 
6 truckloads of fuel.  
  An oil-fired plant burns 40,000 barrels of oil a day, and usually keeps 
six weeks' supply on hand, or 2 million barrels of oil. A fire there 
would produce smoke far thicker than the air pollution in London in 
December 1952 which resulted in 3,900 excess deaths.  
  On January 3, 1976, a 90,000 barrel oil-storage complex caught fire 
in South Brooklyn, burning out of control for four days. Fortunately, 
the wind had been blowing out to sea. The probability of such an oil 
fire killing the same number of people as a nuclear accident is tens 
of thousands of times higher than an equivalent nuclear accident.   
  Natural gas, usually stored in liquid form, is even more dangerous.  
The cost of moving LNG storage tanks out of cities (there are about 75 
in U.S. cities now) would amount to about $1,000 per life saved (based 
on past accidents).
  The probability of a dam break killing people is about 10,000 times 
greater than an equivalent accident at a nuclear plant. A recent study 
at UCLA revealed that failure of certain dams in the U.S. could cause 
tens of thousands of deaths, and one of them could cause between 
125,000 and 200,000 deaths.   
  Solar power is simply not practical for mass energy production. The 
maximum possible energy obtainable from a solar collector is 1 kW per 
square meter. With 10% efficiency and 50% spacing between collectors, 
this works out to a 50 square mile area to produce 1000 MW. There aren't 
many places where this is practical, and transporting electricity long 
distances is extremely uneconomical.  
  So then it is proposed that a solar plant produce hydrogen by 
electrolysis of water. Transportation of hydrogen in large quantities 
means accidents in large quantities. Hydrogen alone is flammable, and 
mixed with oxygen (i.e. air), it is explosive. Like methane, it is 
liquefied for storage and transportation, which brings us back to 
the dangers of LNG and natural gas in general.   
  Solar panels also need to be kept clean of dust or snow for maximum 
  The number two accidental killer (after automobile accidents), at 
16,500 deaths a year, is accidental falls. If people are climbing on 
their roofs to install and maintain personal solar panels, they are
risking their lives for 5-10 kW of power. 
  Compared to the death rate per billion MWh of nuclear generated power, 
you can count on more deaths with solar generation, no matter how you
look at it. And this is not even looking at accidents with solar storage 
cells - sulfuric acid in batteries, explosive hydrogen-oxygen mixture 
which arises in charging them, etc.
  What about the problem of nuclear waste?   
  The high level waste (spent fuel rods) from all the nuclear plants 
in the country up to the year 2000, with fuel reprocessing, would make 
a cube 70 feet on a side (343,000 cu. ft.).  
  Within 10 years, more than 99.9% of the high level waste's radio-
activity disappears by natural decay, and the majority of the 
remaining portion has a halflife of 30 years. The parts with a 
higher halflifeare, as we have already seen, are much less radio-
  So, of that 343,000 cu. ft., after 10 years only 343 cu. ft. will
remain radioactive (representing a cube of just 7' per side), and
this will be radioactivity of an ever decreasing level. After 30
years, just a few cubic feet will be left and of such a low level
of radioactivity that you could approach it quite closely without
any appreciable protective clothing required. 
  (The plans for nuclear waste disposal are to encase it in glass 
and then to bury it deep in the ground where it is kept solidly 
in place and will be continuously monitored.)
  Coal ash, on the other hand, must be carted out after use (36,500 
truckloads per 1000 MW plant per year) and dumped in landfills. No
precautions are taken to keep its poisons from being leached out by
rainwater. (Just the radioactivity of the radium and thorium 
isotopes in coal ash would violate NRC [Nuclear Regulatory 
Commission] standards if the NRC were responsible for coal-fired 
plants - not to mention a large variety of other toxins present 
in the ash.)
  In addition, coal-fired plants which use scrubbers (to reduce 
some of the poisonous fumes of burning coal that enter the 
atmosphere) produce a huge quantity of sludge. If all coal plants 
were brought into conformance with EPA pollution standards, in 20 
years the amount of sludge produced would cover 240,000 acres to a 
depth of 4 feet.
  (If you thought that the 343,000 cu. ft. of nuclear waste was
large, compare that to the sludge alone - a total of 41,817,600,000
cu. ft., or more than a million times the quantity. And that's
just the sludge, and doesn't include the quantity of ash that
has to be disposed of.)

   The production of large quantities of energy to meet this 
country's needs is inherently dangerous, no matter what the 
method of production. 
  But by looking at the facts it is obvious that the safest and 
most effective way to do it today is by using nuclear power. 

Recommended reading:
Petr Beckmann, "The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear," 1979,
Golem Press, Boulder, CO
"Access to Energy," Box 2298-H, Boulder, CO 80306 ($22/year or$1/year 
in pre-1965 U.S.  silver coins, 12 issues)
Patrick M. Hurley, "Living With Nuclear Radiation"


  Personally, I'm not 100% convinced that nuclear power is the
complete solution. However, it is my own opinion that it is 
just about the only viable solution for the present. Jim presented
some interesting statistics to show this - statistics that most
people don't even know about.
  Traditionally operated power plants are getting more and more 
dangerous with increasing demands for energy. The danger of having
accidents with such plants is greater, and the results of those
accidents are more deadly.
  Jim's statistics show the expected death count for operating 
those traditional plants comes to nearly 6000 deaths annually
just from direct results, plus a large number (in the tens or
hundreds of thousands) from indirect results.
  Compare this to the death rate of the worst nuclear accident
in history - namely Chernobyl. There have been fewer than 30
deaths, and fewer than 300 who are suffering from radiation
sickness. If such a disaster occurred every single year, the 
death rate for nuclear power generation would STILL be 200
times less than the death rate of fossil fuel power generation
WITHOUT such major accidents, and without taking into consideration
the thousands and thousands of deaths caused by the pollutants
from fossil fuel plants.
  Next take the death rates for equivalent power plant disasters.
Chernobyl was the worst nuclear disaster ever, and just about the
worst imaginable. Nuclear plants in America are physically 
incapable of anything even approaching this. Probably the worst
nuclear accident in America was the Three-Mile Island incident -
with a death rate of 0.
  It is statistically more probable that an oil-fired plant will
have a major fire. The resulting pollutants will cause contamination
to the point where, if the smoke blows inland, the expected death
rate would go into the thousands. As shown in this week's article
and by UCLA, the death rate for a hydroelectric dam bursting could
easily reach over 100,000.
  Coal mining deaths are 10.5 times as high as deaths in uranium
mining. If you take into account indirect deaths (from lung
disease, for example) the death rate for coal miners is more
than 66 times as high.
  What you end up with, very simply, is a statistically proven 
greatly higher incidence (from 10 times to thousands of times) of 
death and injury caused by traditional power plants when compared
to nuclear plants.

  Then there's the problem of waste.
  The quantity of waste from all nuclear plants is more than a 
million times less than the waste from fossil fuel fired plants.
Furthermore, after ten years only 1/10th of 1% of the nuclear
waste will still exist, while virtually ALL of the fossil fuel
wastes will still exist. After 30 years there will be almost nothing
left of the nuclear waste - and after 30 years, those fossil fuel
wastes will still be around.
  Producing the fuels is statistically more dangerous. The waste
products, although less dangerous pound for pound, are so much
greater in quantity (millions of times greater) that the overall 
danger is also considerably higher. For every ounce of nuclear
waste, a traditional power generating station will produce tons
of poisons and toxins.
  One of the statistics that comes from Jim says, "In 1973 the
maximum permissible radiation at the property line of a nuclear 
plant was reduced from 170 mrems/year to 10 mrems/year." So,
if you lived right on the perimeter of the power plant, the 
added dose you'd get per year would be the equivalent of 2 
coast-to-coast trips, or 1/10th of an x-ray, or 1/5th the amount
you get from eating.
  If you live farther away from the plant . . . well, statistically
the added dose on an average for those within a 50-mile radius of
the plant is .01 mrems - which means that you get 2500 times 
as much from eating, and 5000 times as much from an x-ray.

  What else is there? Fossil fuels are more dangerous to mine;
they're more dangerous to use; produce more death and illness; 
the wastes stay with us longer; is less efficient; and is more
expensive (a third again more expensive - and how many of us
likes to pay an extra $33 for every $100 for something that is
more certain to make us sick - or dead?).
  Nuclear power isn't THE solution. One day perhaps something 
better will be found. For the moment, it seems to be the only
viable solution.

  I'd like to thank Jim for contributing to the magazine - and
I hope that he'll be checking in on a regular basis this week,
since he is obviously more of an expert in this field and also
has access to the proper statistics.


  Unless Scott comes through with his own article on "American
Foreign Involvement," I'll most likely put up that miscellaneous
issue of strange things that happen in the world.
  Or perhaps this week's issue will generate not only interest
but a topic for some kind of continuing issue. Maybe alternate
power sources? 
  There *are* alternates. However, at present all are more dangerous 
and more expensive. (What comes to mind is a debate on another
system - where one uneducated user kept harping on the advantages
of solar power - at which point Jim tossed back at him, "Go ahead
and install one for your home." The reply was, "I can't afford
that!" Then there was fusion. Incredibly more powerful, but so
powerful that technology does not presently exist to control it.)

  We'll just have to wait and see.

Zephyr Magazine is © Gene Williams. All rights reserved.