Plastic bags and nuclear waste

Plastic bags, invented around 1960s have become indispensable in our lives for shopping, groceries, organizing home items, garbage collection. The low production cost and convenience brought to us by the plastic bags do come with environmental concerns that as a kind of litter they can last centuries to degrade and improper disposal can lead to land/water pollution. The more sensible use of plastic bag of course is to reuse it multiple times before final disposal, or have good recycling scheme, both reducing the demand of producing new plastic bags and their waste volume/mass.

If we replace the words ‘plastic bags’ with ‘nuclear fuel’ in the above paragraph (and a few other words of applications), we can clearly draw analogies between the two. Nuclear energy is seen as a relatively cheap and clean source of energy. Yet it does cause environmental concerns as its spent fuels last thousands of years. It is however little known to the public that, nuclear spent fuel recycling technologies do exist and methods to ‘burn off’ long-lived radioisotopes can reduce the toxicity of nuclear wastes to hundreds of years.

Nuclear energy though technically more complex, is just another invention by our society to increase our standards of living, like plastic bags have done. The intention is good yet the consequences of our actions weren’t entirely known from the beginning. Only by first recognizing and admitting the problems (long-lived and toxic nuclear wastes), then we can properly tackle them and show that nuclear energy can be safe and sustainable, and play a key role in giving an energy boost to propel our society forward into the future.

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can we all accept nuclear?

My personal introduction to nuclear engineering is pretty much by chance. Before taking a 4th year undergraduate engineering course in nuclear, I never really thought much about this type of energy. I was also guilty of knowing only very little about the atomic bomb. The course I took was divided into two parts. First on the types of radioactive decay, radiation dose, calculations of energy produced per kg mass of Uranium, etc. The second part was more on neutron transport theory, the multiplication factor and reactivity effects.  And just after one course, I was convinced by the robust understanding of physics and marvelous engineering principles that nuclear power is run on and that it will be able to support humanity’s endeavour to survive, flourish and sustain in the centuries to come. In retrospect, a single university course has made me steer the next three years of my life into the direction of nuclear energy and I do not regret my choice at all.

In the midst of all the debates about whether nuclear energy is really right for mankind, or is a purely evil creation that will leave our planet earth inhabitable for our future generations, I who is studying nuclear energy believe the latter is avoidable and wonder if science and facts can really change ANYone’s opinion about nuclear energy. There is no lack of clear information made available by authoritative sources such as:

Often we’re told to trust the experts and we’re given the facts and explanations. But I suspect, only certain types of people are able to absorb these facts and science, no longer uninformed will accept that nuclear energy is safe and crucial in providing enough energy for our expanding appetite and demand of electricity. The rest of the population, no matter how many accurate facts and cost/benefits analyses are given to them, simply cannot be convinced. As summarized nicely in this blog post on Brave New Climate: http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/04/15/who-has-changed-their-mind/, it is interesting to see who’s been “converted” to pro-nuclear or neutral from anti-nuclear. In theory, all these people could receive the same facts and figures about nuclear and the anti-nuclear group could raise issues that prevent them from accepting nuclear, while the pro-nuclear group could answer those issues that convinced them of a nuclear future. If it was all and only about facts and educating the public,  the pro-nuclear power group would prevail. But this hasn’t been the case.

The answer to “how to increase public acceptance of nuclear power” may not simply lie in providing accurate facts any more. When I ask myself why I am drawn to nuclear power, I attribute my affinity to nuclear to a bit of my personality and life philosophy. I’m practical and I take risks in life. Though I have visions and dreams, I’m realistic and not an idealist. If I apply my approach to life to nuclear power, I think it’s why I can accept that there are risks in running nuclear power plants, but they are acceptable risks. I hope for a future where the last quarter of the world’s population will have electricity, but realistically it will not be generated by solar panels or wind farms which have not consistent outputs and require large amount of lands. As for the nuclear wastes, I think a bit of land reserved for their disposal is insignificant, in comparison to the much greater impact  on geological areas lost due to rising sea level or climate abnormalities. Finally, the threat of an atomic war is present but nuclear power cannot be blamed; forbidding nuclear energy production will not make the threat disappear either. The root causes of many conflicts bury deeply in the lack of resource and energy security, more than religious differences. Why should nuclear be the scapegoat when it can actually provide energy security and independence?

The solution to making nuclear power more acceptable is not to aim for full acceptance. Aim for 50% of the population, in which influential individuals or groups of individuals who think in similar ways as people who already support nuclear.  Give them the facts and they can be “converted” more easily from anti- or neutral to pro-nuclear. Once we have over 50% of the public, the support is enough to keep nuclear going. In case that we cannot find more that 50% of the public, our planet will only have to run on solar panels and wind farms (if not coal, oil and gas). If we could still prevent climate change without nuclear and continue to have technological advances, we could wait for the day that our intergalactic transport vehicles were powered by fusion energy or anti-matter.

Matter of hope or trust in the days to come in nuclear age

Can you imagine we might live to see the day of a nuclear weapon testing in this century? The unmistakable mushroom cloud engulfing the vast sky and the sense of death permeating in non-stoppable speed. It is to me, unthinkable that any nation would want to commit something so destructive and have that engraved in its history forever.

Therefore, I was extremely pleased to read that:

Iran, facing growing international pressure over its nuclear program, called for more talks with the UN nuclear watchdog on Tuesday and condemned production of atomic weapons as a “great sin.” –  28.02.2012, National Post

Do I believe the words of the Iranian politicians? It’s my wish that they speak their mind and true belief.  I support the peaceful utilization of atomic energy in terms of electricity production. But nuclear bomb as a weapon of mass destruction is condemned unconditionally.

One year to Fukushima and future of nuclear power

Today our research group was visited by a Scientific Advisory Committee. As for the students, we were also seated down with the chair of this committee to talk about our experiences at the research group this year. Let me tell you first that, the group of attended students consisted of 2 PhD candidates (I’m one of the 2) and 3 Master’s students. The meeting went on for more than an hour and I really enjoyed listening to and discussing various topics. I brought up the Fukushima accident which happened almost one year ago. Around this time last year, I was in the process of finishing my Master’s thesis, preparing for the defense. I still remember, soon after accepting the offer from the RI, I was almost glued to the computer screen for every piece of news about Fukushima, from the first explosion, to the next one. Then I found out Switzerland politicians were considering a phase-out of nuclear. That did not deter me from coming here. However, I have to admit that, since my arrival, several research staffs already left and in comparison, there is fewer people coming to replace those positions. I reported my feeling of uncertainties to the Chair and we shared further opinions of how we evaluated Fukushima in terms of our future career prospects.

This led to another topic that I was interested in hearing the opinion from the meeting participants. As Switzerland, Germany are phasing out nuclear, Japan is planning to reduce dependence on nuclear power, we cannot ignore the more and more political support and activities in countries such as Iran, China, UAE, Turkey [WNA] . I have concerns that while nuclear energy is considered to provide energy independence for countries which obviously need it, they might not actually have enough of trained nuclear engineers, scientists, and advanced technological capabilities to accomplish the complex tasks of constructing and running, maintaining nuclear power plants.

Let’s be honest, will skilled engineers be willing to relocate from Switzerland or Germany to Iran, China, Vietnam, Jordan for more abundant jobs after their own countries decided to shut down their reactors?  If not, where will those nuclear-growing countries get the  expertise? They could of course develop themselves or buy from others (which seems to be the only commercial activities left for nuclear engineers in German). Well, take China for example. It buys and builds all types of NPP and from them, it tries to learn of the technological know-how. However, from every Chinese nuclear engineer I met, I was told that the nuclear activities in China are disorganized and the actual knowledge of nuclear power is immature. That’s the situation in the most “promising” nuclear-thirsty nation in the world. Not an assuring thought, is it? And don’t let me start on the situation in Iran!

I guess what I’m really worried is that, the safety of nuclear technology may not be adequately secured in countries that are (too) fast developing. On the other hand, the number of competent nuclear engineers are going to be smaller and smaller in countries that have a long history of nuclear presence after the decision of phase-out. Switzerland, Germany should have stayed unswayed and showed to the world that their nuclear power plants are safe and they have the competent nuclear engineers to make them safer.