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30 August, 2007


Truly Unimaginable Magnitudes (The Bad, The Good and The Ugly)

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Part 1: The Bad
We are constantly trying to point out that using nuclear energy poses enormous dangers
and on the other hand the potential for renewable energies is far greater than we'll ever need. We know that we aren't succeeding in persuading anyone, or at least anyone with the will and the power to do anything about it. We believe that part of the reason is the short-term vested interests of some parties but another very important reason which we believe applies to more objective individuals is man's inability to comprehend the vast magnitudes involved on either side of the argument. Of course it could be that we're not worth reading, but let's pretend that's not true.
Science and engineering are intrinsically numerate subjects and they are broadly unappealing because manipulation of numbers and mathematical concepts can be hard work. However, it's not difficult for anyone to comprehend numbers up to a point. We have ten fingers so 10 is easy to visualise. Ten people, cooperating, could easily count to 100 and one hundred people, given very little patience, could count to 1,000. Just imagine a full pub of people it's easy to comprehend the odd thousand or two. So let's count the years backwards and go back to the life of Jesus. You've got to admit that seems a long time ago but it is only about 2,000 years; that's less than 70 generations*. One thousand three hundred years prior to that (give or take) Moses published the ten commandments so that was roughly 3,300 years ago. The Egyptians were building the Great Pyramid of Giza, in quick time, about 4,500 years ago. And just before that, about 5,000 years ago some anonymous, would-be Brits started building a roundabout near the A303. Like today's construction workers they took their time and kept changing their minds but after about 1,400 years they decided to call it a day and named it Stonehenge. We know that the Giza Pyramid and Stonehenge were there because they still are, but as for the everyday details we have to rely on guesses and fairy tales. As for the other happenings, beliefs rely on Chinese Whispers and faith. In short, despite all these events being momentous and that they occurred quite recently there is very little definitive, hard evidence to give us a clear picture of those events. Historical accuracy disperses very quickly and we reckon it won't be fundamentally different for our descendants.
Now return close to the present and go forward from there. We sometimes holiday in SE Spain in Almeria not far from Palomares. It just so happens that in 1966 a US bomber accidentally dropped four thermonuclear bombs in the vicinity of Palmers. There were no nuclear explosions but the HE igniters exploded in two of the bombs and dispersed Plutonium dust over a surrounding area of tens to hundreds of acres (already the data is confused). Much of the contamination was dug out and dumped in the US but not all of it. You might think that because it's 40 odd years ago the danger would have petered out. Nothing could be further from the truth. The half-life of this plutonium is likely to be over 24,000 years which, by our very rough calculations†, means that it could be dangerously radioactive for more than 240,000 years. Think about it, that's more than 8,000 generations into the future and probably you can visualise no more than 2. Compare it another way; the earliest fossil of homo sapiens in the world is about 100,000 years old (China claims 200,000). The examples in the last paragraph illustrate what we call unimaginable magnitudes. But surely you get the drift, some of our nuclear contamination will, effectively, last for ever and ever.
* Generation length is quite variable but 30 years is used as a fair guess.
† Assuming an exponential decay and a dangerous-full-life of seven times the time constant.

    Part 2: The Good
Following on from "Part 1: The Bad" we have more to say, particularly about the unimaginable magnitudes of renewable energy freely available.
One of our main references comes from a retired professor of physics, Keith Barnham, from Imperial College London writing in The Guardian: 'We Don't need the nuclear option', 1 August 2007. Admittedly professor Barnham has an axe to grind because he is a co-founder of Quantasol a company which is commercialising the manufacture of photo-voltaic cells with a claimed efficiency of 28%. Nevertheless we regard Imperial College as one of the leading academic institutions in the world and Keith Barnham, one of its professors, should be objective and accurate. He says that "more solar energy strikes the earth in one hour than is consumed by all human activity in a year". Try to imagine that; it is a remarkable statistic apparently not recognised by the pro-nuclear lobby. Of course we need to develop better ways of harnessing some of this energy but that is quite feasible. For example, interpreting Keith's words, it should be possible, in principle, to generate the equivalent of the total UK electricity demand by covering all the south facing roofs of buildings with his new PV cells. Something that simple is not going to happen; some significant diversity with elements of storage and distribution will be needed in practice. Nevertheless the magnitude of the potential available power is surprising. In order for major renewables' systems to be implemented substantial R & D costs and time will be needed but they would be phased and would be much less than those to produce lower magnitudes of power by atomic means.
Even if commerce were to agree to develop nuclear stations and that is not foregone the most optimistic returns would not start until at least ten years from kick-off. After that long period the power would come on stream and would expand with "a linear rise of one nuclear reactor per year". By comparison "micro-generation technologies have much shorter lead-in times [and] installations can grow exponentially as happens for consumer electrical products". An additional advantage of micro-generation is that it lessens the burden of maintaining and expanding the national grid system. The UK is backward with its green energy strategies despite disingenuous government claims to the contrary.
Professor B compares the UK with Germany and says "If similar policies were introduced here, the combination of wind and PV electricity generation would dwarf the proposed nuclear build well before a single new nuclear unit of electricity is generated". Imagine that if you can, that one statement alone completely destroys the arguments of the nuclear brigade. Strong though Keith's arguments are they focus almost exclusively on PV generation and some mention of wind and that does not do full justice to the potential of the sun. There are additional, simpler and cheaper low-tech ways of harvesting radiated solar energy for heating. It can be converted to other energy forms in a variety of ways. For example in hot climates (remember this is a global problem) the sun's heat can be used to produce hydrogen (and as a bonus also used for desalination). There is enormous potential to boost the economies of poor, arid countries such as parts of Africa. Then there are sources, apparently not solar but which depend on solar energy; the next paragraph gives an illustration. Sources of vast quantities of energy comes under the umbrella of Wet Power (excuse the pun). Examples include land-based hydroelectric systems which can range from major dam projects through to micro and even pico sized generators. Then there are sea-based wave generators and tidal power systems. All the categories give rise to sub categories and already many have proven track records; it has to be said that there is need to develop more efficient and less invasive systems. That means time and money but what the hell? If you insist on nuclear then that is certainly going to take a long time and swallow enormous amounts of cash and labour. As for the magnitudes of power available from water, look at it this way: hydro and wave sources are derived indirectly from the sun, and tidal sources from the moon.
All the energy sources we refer to above are there whether we use them or not and as a result (in part anyway) the sun is cooling and the moon slowing down in its orbit. When the sun goes out and the moon falls these renewable sources will disappear but that won't happen for an unimaginable time yet.
    Part 3: The Ugly
In this part we illustrate the potential horrors that a nuclear future can bring.
We have to be careful not to misrepresent because we aren't physicists but there seems to be ample evidence of the hazardous nature of nuclear processes from mining through to decommissioning and the consequences of accidents, which are inevitable, makes the dangers all too real. There are numerous records of events which have had devastating results and some near misses. Although our stance is to oppose the expansion of nuclear power generation as well as nuclear weapon production, reference to either is relevant because the two are coexistent: bombs normally depend on fissile materials produced in power stations, the two best known materials are plutonium and uranium 235. Nuclear fission refers to the splitting of the nucleus of an atom and with the appropriate materials this can produce a chain reaction and simultaneously release energy. Whether this is a slow process (as needed for a power station) or virtually instantaneous (an explosive bomb) depends on the mix and proportion of the materials and their isotopes. The value of nuclear fission is that energy can be produced in unimaginable quantities but the disadvantages are that the products and by-products (including isotopes of iodine and caesium) are highly radioactive and some of that radioactivity can remain lethal for unimaginably long periods of time. Adding to the fearfulness of these products and by-products is the fact that they are easily dispersed accidentally, for example by some (non-nuclear) explosion projecting radioactive particles and gases into the atmosphere or some leakage into a water and ground systems. With the current growth of terrorism it is feasible for similar consequences to be deliberately engineered. The contamination can be invisible and the after effects and distribution area may not be apparent for many years afterwards. Nevertheless the end results are extensive, crippling and deadly. Looking for objective evidence to assess the frequency and severity of nuclear accidents one is faced not only with the scientific difficulties of measurement and attribution but also with out of date data and deliberate obfuscation caused by cover-ups, exaggeration and under estimates. We take some information from Wikipaedia in the knowledge that it is not always the most reliable of sources but has the advantage of being constantly refreshed and where it is dealing with factual matters there is an element of constant peer review.
A brief summary of nuclear accidents shows that there were about 53 reported military accidents since the 1940s and about 22 civilian accidents since the 1950s. Some of these were not very serious apparently but others were. Of the civilian accidents the Three Mile Incident was the worst in the US but by far the worst ever was in April 1986 when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located near Pripyat in Ukraine (then a Soviet republic), exploded. The severity of the damage to flora and fauna is common knowledge but if you don't know how serious it was (and still is) please do some research. This one example illustrates that individuals and authorities will stop at nothing to cover up their mistakes. Moscow did not admit what had happened until Swedish scientists detected excessive radiation from the radioactive plume and pointed the finger. The eventual map of contaminated areas includes most of Europe as far west as France (whose politicians under-played the threats at first) and even the UK where livestock restrictions were put into force. Subsequently statistics regarding the number of deaths have been grossly under estimated. The original claim of several tens of deaths in the immediate proximity is no guide at all. Further studies have produced widely different estimates of the deaths and cancers, which as we have said transpire years following the event, varying from 4,000 to 200,000, the most vulnerable victims being young children. The reactor building was encased in a concrete sarcophagus to contain further deadly emanations. However, to add to the ugliness of this disaster there is a body of believable opinion which predicts that the hastily constructed container is deteriorating and will give way in the near future to cause a further leakage of the radioactive contents. I'd like to say more because there is so much to say but I'll desist except to add a couple of footnotes. Last in the sordid chain is the problem of decommissioning nuclear power stations.
There has never been, in our opinion, any plausible method proposed to deal with the contaminated residue from nuclear power generation. And, in view of the longevity of the radioactivity and the instability of the earth's crust there is not likely to be one. But first things last, let us refer to mining. It is an occupation always fraught with dangers but nothing surely can be as dangerous as uranium mining. Not only are the miners routinely exposed to lethal quantities of radioactive gases but the residues causes great hazards to non-workers in extensive surrounding areas. Well that's it then, for earth's sake let's spend the time and money on benign renewable energy sources not pernicious nuclear ones.
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Originated: 18 December , 2007,  Last amended: 7 May, 2013