Nuclear Power: Fission to Fusion

On the grand scale, there are few things more powerful than the power of the stars – or more specifically nuclear fusion. As you probably learned in junior high or high school, nuclear energy includes both nuclear fission, where you split high-mass atoms into lower-mass atoms, and nuclear fusion, where you collide low-mass atoms together into larger-mass atoms. During the collision, both give off tremendous energy as a byproduct.

In return, that tremendous energy is used to heat water in powerplants to generate electricity as the steam moves through the generator. One of the biggest misconceptions is people often mix up fission and fusion and group it together into one thing. I want to explore that.

I also will explore the issues with nuclear fission and the counter-arguments. Fusion is clearly within our grasp so I will consider that too.

Intro to Nuclear Power

As it is well-known, the nuclear age began with the Manhattan Project, which started with a letter Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt in 1939 about the power of nuclear weapons. The Nazis began work on it first, but they did not have the resources or time to finish it since they had to go on the defensive as the Allies pushed in from the West & Soviets from the East. It climaxed into the nuking of Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, ending the war on an explosive note that pushed humanity into the nuclear age.

nuclear power

Photo by unknown

Since the 1950’s, governments around the world quickly realized that they could harness the insane power of the beast to energize our need for electricity. This beast was nothing more than a few tiny atoms being torn apart. The science behind it was seen as a groundbreaking shift from dirty coal to clean nuclear energy. They felt they could push the limits of the number of reactions taking place to create almost infinite energy.

Nuclear Fission

At the moment, nuclear fission is what is used in nuclear powerplants. Fission works simply by using heavy radioactive atoms, such as uranium & plutonium, that are placed in fuel rods. Before ending up in the fuel rods, uranium goes through an entire enrichment process. That enrichment process makes uranium usable as energy or fuel.

One single pellet of Uranium-235 could power an entire nuclear aircraft carrier — more uranium is necessary since it must be continuously alternated as the rods heat up. Uranium in its state of Uranium-235 may look like any other metal, but it is a very unstable isotope (isotope has a different number of neutrons than natural thus the 235.. U-238 is naturally more stable as it has 3 more neutrons). Isotopes are often unstable as long as they stay in that state (adding neutrons should improve stability, but instability is better if you’re trying to do nuclear fission).

The decay of a single U-235 atom releases approximately 200 MeV (million electron volts). That may not seem like much, but there are lots of uranium atoms in a pound (0.45 kilograms) of uranium. So many, in fact, that a pound of highly enriched uranium as used to power a nuclear submarine is equal to about a million gallons of gasoline. (howstuffworks)

Here’s an image of one of the current nuclear fission facilities. The smoke you see coming out is hot water steam. As you can see, this facility is built next to a lake to provide water as a coolant.

Photo by Stefano F / CC BY

Photo by Stefano F / CC BY

There are 3 main issues that most people cite for why nuclear power should be abolished for good.

Nuclear Waste

Nuclear waste, or used fuel rods, are sometimes reused or disposed of. This is the only byproduct, but there are ways to recycle the used fuel rods. The French reprocess their waste with entire facilities built just for reprocessing the waste (NYTimes, 2009). It is mind-boggling why USA does not reprocess like France, considering the amount of fission waste piling up yearly. If danger is an issue, you can automate most of it with controllable robots.

Photo by Alberto Garcia / CC BY

Photo by Alberto Garcia / CC BY

When I found out the issue it poses (waste is often buried underground), the first word that popped into my mind was ‘space’. I asked one of my professors in college why we don’t send the waste into space. After entering space, all you need is a minor nudge on a trajectory away from our solar system or even into the sun itself. Since space has no friction, it will continue to speed up in the direction you point it at & will not return to Earth. My professor responded that sending the waste in rockets is against laws and international agreements. That is when I realized how far behind aeronautics is. Seriously, our limiting factor is ROCKET technology???

Understanding physics would help identify other alternatives, such as shooting it into space using something like a rubber-band mechanism that does not use any rocket fuel. Once it is in space, you can use a satellite to slightly nudge it on a trajectory toward the sun/Jupiter or towards outside our solar system. Even something simpler could be a towing mechanism that would pull a container with the nuclear waste using a long carbon fiber wire with the tow truck being an actual rocket. There has also been a concept of space elevator for 130 years, but we have the ability today using a carbon nanotube wire. Currently, the costs may be too high for the space elevator but not the other things! If you consider all of the money being thrown here and there, imagine if there was more focus on the big picture. Imagine how much things could improve if lawmakers and every person took into consideration long-term vision.

Nuclear waste being the reason to abolish all nuclear energy is not an argument I buy. Get some physicists together and put together a fund to get the waste away from Earth. I may be a dreamer, but this is me being a realist. The simple logic is that space is big and the volume of waste is little. Considering how long the radioactivity will last there, burying it in the ground is ineffective and completely foolish. SPACE.

Keep in mind you must consider the entire life cycle, not just the end result or just the initial costs. As per Scientific American Journal article, the volume of radioactive waste being emitted from a single coal plant annually far outweighs the radioactivity waste being emitted from a single nuclear fission plant. While the ash from coal plants might be MUCH safer than uranium fuel rods, the sheer volume of ash being emitted from coal plants simply makes the damage MUCH worse. Also, lots of ash is often dumped like regular garbage while uranium rods cannot be. Do note that this does not even consider the other dangers of coal plants, such as greenhouse gases (almost none from fission).

Nuclear Bomb Threat

Uranium for the sake of nuclear reactors does not need to be enriched much. The fear is that a dangerous regime, such as North Korea, could enrich uranium enough to be able to place it into nuclear warheads. North Korea has already done small-scale nuclear tests so in the wrong hands, it could be dangerous. Anyone sane would only showcase it as nothing more than a threat, but all you need is one madman to take it to the next level, forcing countries like the USA to use their own nukes in retaliation.

But on the other hand, I do not believe it is a large enough threat to completely give up on nuclear powerplants, especially once we see the benefits of it in France. Deterrence alone is a powerful argument against fear of countries like North Korea having a few nukes. If they used a single nuke on Seoul, South Korea, the USA would nuke all of North Korea within hours, taking North Korea completely off the global map. The same goes for Iran if it came down to it. The concept of deterrence ultimately works (and has worked for over 60 years).

Of course, there is a threat of a terrorist organization getting their hands on a nuke through a corrupt country. That may be the biggest fear, but is it enough to give up on nuclear power completely? Truth is it has not been enough for countries to give up on nuclear bombs so why should nuclear power be any different? Keep in mind that nuclear powerplants use very low enriched uranium so you cannot just directly use that in bombs. There is a very long process to enrich it further to nuclear weapons grade.

Complexity

So this is just easy infinite energy from atoms you pick up, right? Of course, it does not work that way as you still have to mine Uranium. While you only need very tiny amounts of Uranium, there is still not much Uranium to begin with. Other radioactive elements, such as thorium and plutonium, could also be used (Scientific American, 2009). Finding it is one thing but the enrichment process requires resources, time, money, and of course teams of nuclear physicists & nuclear engineers. This is not like coal where you can just find somebody off the street to use a shovel to throw coal into a truck, and the truck goes to dump coal at some plant. You need significantly more specially trained people. I am sure they also do heavy background checks – the last thing you need is a spy or terrorist prowling inside a nuclear powerplant.

As far as mistakes go.. You cannot take shortcuts as it can have dire consequences. With coal & oil, you might just lose a plant or have a massive fire that you can put out. A shortcut or a mistake in a nuclear plant might destroy everything for many miles.

To overcome the complexity, nuclear powerplants are expensive to build. High cost is one issue difficult to overcome. It essentially comes down to a cost-benefit analysis by each area considering it. Is the high expenses worth it for the nearby cities?

Disasters

People often cite past meltdowns that have occurred, such as Fukushima and Chernobyl. This is a valid argument, but not complete by itself without studying the underlying reasons.

How do nuclear meltdowns occur? Nuclear fuel rods work by turning water into hot steam as fission takes place underwater. When the water level drops, the rods no longer have the water cooling them down. As the exposed rod heats up to a tremendous level, that is a nuclear meltdown. The Three Island meltdown was a partial meltdown while Chernobyl & Fukushima were a complete meltdown. Chernobyl was due to faulty designs/mistakes and Fukushima was due to poor planning (Phys, 2011).

Here’s an image of Chernobyl Reactor #4 that exploded and this person took a reading of it. If that is 804 mSv, that is fairly high (5,000 mSv or higher is usually deadly for extensive periods – Chernobyl Gallery).

Photo by Pedro Pinheiro / CC BY

Photo by Pedro Pinheiro / CC BY

When we look at the danger factor, we must look at how often such incidents happened over the decades the reactors have been in use.

“Civil nuclear power can now boast over 15,500 reactor years of experience and supplies almost 11.5% of global electricity needs, from reactors in 31 countries. In fact, through regional grids, many more than those countries use nuclear-generated power.” (World Nuclear Association, 2014)

From the number of nuclear reactors and the experience compiled over the decades, nuclear power has been vastly beneficial. Yes, there was the Fukushima meltdown, but is one freak incident in a modern nuclear facility from a large tsunami going to blanket all of the goods seen from nuclear energy?

Fission has its issues, but it is not a lost cause. It has gotten much safer in the last 20 years as France, South Korea & Japan have shown. Of course, location must be considered. Areas that get hurricanes often or tornadoes or earthquakes may not be proper locations. This is the advantage countries like France, South Korea, and Russia have.

Natural disasters can often be avoided by simply building smart and in-depth planning. For example, if the sea wall was a little higher around Fukushima, the tsunami damage could have been averted from the beginning. Chernobyl could have been avoided if they did not take shortcuts in the designs, but human errors may often be unavoidable. What can you do about errors by people?

Nuclear Fusion

The power of the stars is truly spectacular.

Stars use nuclear fusion to combine lighter atoms to create heavier atoms. Nuclear fusion in centers of stars is possible all the way up to iron for the largest stars. Iron atoms are so heavy that fusion cannot naturally happen for iron. When iron ends up in a star’s core, fusion stops and stars begin to lose their equilibrium between gravity and pressure. Note: high temperatures from nuclear fusion leads to outward pressure, and gravity creates inward pressure. They both balance out to create an equilibrium that keeps the massive star somewhat stable. The moment fusion stops, the equilibrium instantly evaporates. When that happens, the outward pressure keeps building to the point where gravity loses the tug-of-war. KABOOM, SUPERNOVA!! More here: Star cycle.

fusion

Photo by Image Editor / CC BY

People forget how powerful nuclear fusion is that it could fuel a MASSIVE star for millions or often billions of years. And if you consider the number of stars in this universe, it becomes mind-boggling how widespread this simple mechanism of physics is. Nature never ceases to amaze.

So now you may wonder about the danger factor, byproducts, and feasibility of nuclear fusion.

The truth is nuclear fusion is extremely clean as the only byproduct would be helium, which is not a greenhouse gas. Helium can be reused in other things. The danger factor is also low since you are not dealing with highly radioactive substances like Uranium. The only thing needed is hydrogen isotopes (isotopes have a normal number of protons but different numbers of neutrons) and a way to heat them tremendously (planete energies, 2015). You simply pump in hydrogen from one side and out comes helium from the other side. In the process, you end up with tremendous energy. Perhaps not as much energy as fission, but you can build many more fusion plants (or a few very massive ones with hundreds of reactors each) as there is only minor danger. There is no meltdown risk involved.

Feasibility? Nuclear fission requires uranium mining and so is not renewable, but fusion is a whole different story. 75% of the universe is composed of hydrogen as it is, by far, the most abundant element. Hydrogen isotopes are widely present in seawater and can be acquired from many different locations. Hydrogen is something we will not run out of anytime soon as long as oceans exist on Earth.

Lockheed Martin is currently working on the first fusion reactor that it says will be built by 2017 (Forbes, 2014), and they expect it to be powerful enough for 80,000 homes in less than a decade (Discover, 2014). Imagine an entire farm of these reactors or spread out across the globe! More money and resources need to be pumped into this to speed it up.

Future of Nuclear Energy & Beyond

Now comes the dreamer side of me. What if you were to create a small facility that had zero dangerous byproducts and continuous energy recycling in every city for you and your town?

Maybe a small fusion facility for every city doing nuclear fusion. Imagine turning hydrogen into helium using fusion, and once a month the electric company would send a truck out to refill the hydrogen & take the helium away for other uses.

There would ultimately be no reliance on any foreign oil or worries about damaging the environment. That is the future of nuclear fusion.

Current electricity picture:

electricity

I believe it is time to move away from coal and oil fast. Natural gas is safer than coal or oil, but it is still FAR from clean with its dangerous byproducts. Nuclear fusion is where it is at.

Harsh Shukla
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