The Castle Bravo incident

In my previous discussion of the disasters of the nuclear age, there was one that I probably should have mentioned. To be honest, I had never heard of it. That itself speaks volumes about the influence of certain mindsets on the nuclear debate. The incident I’m talking about came to be known as the ‘Castle Bravo’ incident, and it remains the worst example of US caused nuclear contamination ever.

You may never have heard of Castle Bravo, but you probably heard of its flow on effects. Ever heard of Godzilla?

Early in the morning of March 1, 1954, the USA detonated the most powerful weapon it has yet detonated. The ‘Bravo’ test of Operation Castle, this bomb was designed to study the efficacy of ‘dry fuel’ fusion nuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs). Originally planned to be around 5 megatons in power, the actual blast was on the order of 15 megatons.

Photo of the Castle Bravo test fireball, an immense fireball seen from a great distance, the sky is dark because of how bright it is.

The Castle Bravo explosion from 30 miles away. Los Alamos National Laboratory.

This highlights some of the problems in the scientific culture at the time (and to a lesser extent, today), as the scientists involved were completely sure that what they had planned would happen. A vast miscalculation about the behaviour of the fuel resulted in the enormous blast, but this miscalculation had further effects as the safety protocols developed for the test underestimated the strength of the explosion. In the ensuing chaos, many military personnel were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout.

In addition to the size of the explosion, there was also a meteorological miscalculation, that resulted in the fallout cloud drifting towards the Marshall Islands, instead of away from them. The populations of the effected islands are still unable to return. A Japanese fishing vessel was also hit hard, with one man dying, which caused a significant political issue with the US.

Because they messed it up so much, the US government was forced to go public about the test, in one moment revealing the extent of their nuclear research to the USSR, but also revealing to the world the terrifying strength of nuclear weapons (especially the effects of radiation and fallout).

The Castle Bravo test is said by some to be the first incident to spark ‘radiophobia‘ around the world, with the dangers being made visible through the suffering of the Japanese and Pacific Islander bystanders and the members of the military who were inadvertently exposed.

In terms of the nuclear power debate, as I said in my previous post, these events have the power to impact the public in a way that cannot simply be undone by presenting facts. Too often, such as in the case of the Chernobyl or Sellafield, the public (or the government) is assured of the safety of a particular scenario, and it is only after problems have developed that the scientists critically evaluate their work (if ever). To combat radiophobia and the negative impacts of these sort of events, much more needs to be done than just reiterating facts at people.

Say something controversial.

Matt

Sources

https://medium.com/war-is-boring/those-who-witnessed-castle-bravo-looked-into-armageddon-fa7610578413

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Bravo

http://www.lanl.gov/science/weapons_journal/wj_pubs/12nwj1-06.pdf

Advertisements

Location, location, location: Why doesn’t location get talked about in the nuclear debate?

VICE’s technology arm recently posted a story called: “​How Volcanic Eruptions Threaten Nuclear Power Plants“, which details the debate going on in Japan about the proximity of some of their nuclear power plants to active volcanoes. Despite the fact that they are not close enough to be affected by actual lava or pyroclastic flows, (as reiterated by vulcanologists), these plants are close enough to be negatively affected by ash from the eruptions. This article gave me something to think about, how location affects the nuclear debate.

Volcanoes are not the only problems that Japan’s nuclear power industry faces. Japan has a lot of volcanoes because it is on the edge of what is called the ‘Ring of Fire’. The ‘Ring of Fire’ runs around the boundary of the Pacific Ocean, and is where numerous undersea tectonic plates meet with the continental tectonic plates. The result of this is that there is a lot of volcanic activity as well as lots of earthquakes.

What else comes with earthquakes though? Tsunamis. As everyone is probably aware, Japan has to deal with tsunamis at comparatively frequent rate. We only need to recall the Fukushima Daaichi disaster to see how true the fear of natural disasters affecting nuclear power plants is. To be fair, Fukushima was unlucky enough to be hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami. But it does beg the question, is it wise to build a nuclear reactor, no matter how well designed and how many precautions have been taken, in a place where these sort of natural disasters are commonplace?

Compare Japan with Australia on that map above. Australia sits right in the middle of a continental tectonic plate, and the centre of Australia is pretty much as far from the sea and large earthquakes you can get.

If Australia were to build nuclear reactors somewhere in the vast unused land area that in the middle of the outback, it is almost guaranteed (touch wood) that there would be no natural disasters that could affect it, the main issues that would remain would be dealing with the heat, getting water to the site and getting the energy back to the coast.

But this point rarely, if ever, comes up in debates. Anti-nuclear advocates are allowed to go on about the possible dangers of natural disasters (an in places like Japan, they are probably right), but the pro-nuclear side never seems to rebut this with the idea that we build somewhere where that these things are unlikely to happen.

Say something controversial.

Matt

Introduction: History of nuclear power (Part 2)

So, I left off the last post with the start of commercial nuclear power testing, where did it go from there?

The first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant was called ‘Yankee Rowe’ and was opened in Rowe, Massachusetts in 1960 (it operated until 1992). This facility was able to produce 250MW of electricity, and its success spurred on the uptake of nuclear technology around the world(1).

By 1972, there were commercial nuclear reactors built in Canada, France, the UK, Russia and Kazakhstan, along with those already built in Iran, Pakistan and Israel(1).

Despite a drop off in orders for new reactors during the 1970s and 1980s, global electricity production from nuclear remained at around 16-17% (1).

Following this slump, nuclear energy began to take off again, mainly due to the development of the ‘third generation’ style of nuclear reactors. The first third generation reactor was built in Japan in the late 1990s, and boasted superior safety and affordability(1).

The attributes that signify a third generation reactor include:

  • Standard (often modular) design
    • This allows for cost savings and for some parts of the structure to be built off-site
  • Longer lifespan
    • Up to 60 years
  • Reduced possibility of meltdown
    • This is achieved by including many more redundant and ‘always on’ passive safety features
  • Resistance to external damage
  • Higher efficiency of the reactor itself by:
    • Using more of the stored energy in the fuel
    • Producing less waste
    • Extending the useful life of the fuel (2)

The realisation that the world is using every increasing amounts of electricity, along with concerns for energy security and carbon emissions has also seen a spike in the amount of nuclear power being accessed around the world (1).

However the areas traditionally associated with nuclear power, the US and Russia, are not where this new demand is coming from. There has been a huge increase in uptake of nuclear power in India and Eastern Asia, where energy demands and the environmental impacts of massive coal-burning power stations are being felt (3).

China currently has 26 active nuclear power stations, with 25 more currently under construction. There are also plans for many more to be built in the future (3).

On our home turf in Australia, we still only have one (experimental) nuclear reactor, despite having 31% of the world’s uranium supply (4). There are hints of change on the horizon, with South Australia’s royal commission and increasing calls from the public for investing in non-fossil fuel alternatives.

Hopefully we will see some change in the future, but that is unlikely to happen in the current nuclear climate in Australia, with a lingering resistance to this kind of technology. And who knows, if the Greens (who steadfastly refuse to use nuclear power) continue to gain more seats in the parliament, we may not see this change for a while.

You may have noticed three glaring omissions from this brief history of nuclear power, don’t worry I haven’t forgotten.

My next post will be one where we start to look a little bit more at the nuclear controversy itself, when I discuss three events that have probably had the biggest impact on the debate of nuclear power: the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuclear disasters.

Say something controversial.

Matt

References

(1) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Outline-History-of-Nuclear-Energy/

(2) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Power-Reactors/Advanced-Nuclear-Power-Reactors/

(3) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/China–Nuclear-Power/

(4) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/Australia/

Introduction: The history of nuclear power (Part 1)

So, where did all this begin? Unfortunately, there is no denying that the roots of nuclear power have their origins in something far more sinister: nuclear bombs.

The first part of this two part history will focus on the initial development of nuclear energy tools, and the second part will discuss the development of this technology to where it is today.

The driving force that was WWII resulted in a burst of research on nuclear energy; nuclear fission had only been discovered in the 1930s but there were mounting fears of a German nuclear weapon(1). The Manhattan project was the result of this fear, and following many years of research in the UK and the US, the first successful nuclear weapon was detonated on 16 July 1945, at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. The ‘Trinity’ test was the first to showcase the awesome power possible from an uncontrolled nuclear reaction(2).

image of first nuclear bomb detonation

The Trinity test, 0.016 seconds after detonation. The height of the blast wave is 200 meters.

Just 21 and 24 days later respectively, the bombs would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was only after the end of WWII, that the potential energy generating applications of controlled nuclear reactions were explored. After the huge effort required to create the atomic weaponry that ended WWII, there was a large accumulation of technology and expertise that allowed the USA to direct its energy to energy production(1).

The first test nuclear reactor to produce electricity was named ‘Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 (EBR-1), and was switched on for the first time in Idaho, in December 1951 (1).

The US President at the time was Eisenhower, and following the end of the war he gave a speech titled ‘Atoms for Peace’. An example of cold war propaganda, this speech attempted to muffle the fear the world was feeling about living in a nuclear age, and direct their thoughts to the possibilities nuclear power offered:

“To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you–and therefore before the world–its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma–to devote its entire heart and mindto find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”(3)

This speech also initiated a US government program of the same name which entailed the free spread of information around the world to enable governments to build their own nuclear reactors, with the goal of cheap energy for everyone. It was through this program that Pakistan, Iran and Israel were able to build their first nuclear reactors(4).

Aside from basic electricity generation, nuclear reactors also had the benefit of using much less fuel for a given amount of energy, and it for this reason that much research in the late 40s and early 50s was directed towards producing reactors for naval use(1).

The Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) was a design that was favoured for naval use as it used ordinary water in its reactor core, where previous designs had required the use of ‘heavy’ water(1).

Following the development of PWRs the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, was launched in 1954. The USA and USSR then went on to launch nuclear powerd ships in 1959.

The first nuclear power plant that provided electricity to the grid was also a PWR, and was switched on in 1957 and ran until 1982. This was the dawn of the commercial age of nuclear reactor technology(1).

I will finish up the history of nuclear power in the next post.

Say something controversial.

Matt

References

  1. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Outline-History-of-Nuclear-Energy/
  2. https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945/trinity.htm
  3. https://www.iaea.org/about/history/atoms-for-peace-speech
  4. http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2003_12/Lavoy

Introduction: Context for the blog

For my first real post on this blog, I thought I might outline the idea behind the blog and what you can expect in the future.

In a world where climate change is a topic almost constantly in the media, energy generation and fossil fuels are important topic in both civil and political spheres. Renewable energy solutions are important and there is much exciting science coming our way in the future. Then there is nuclear power. Nuclear power, specifically fission power, has been around for a while (a lot longer than you think, as I’ll explain in my next post) and boasts significant efficiency, cost and safety (yes, safety) benefits over other non-renewable energy sources (1).

Despite this, nuclear power remains a controversial topic worldwide, and especially in Australia. Disasters such as the infamous Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, as well as lesser known incidents, such as the Sellafield fire in the UK reinforce the negative associations of nuclear power. Atomic energy of any sort has this negative association, and this is probably due to the effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the above ground testing in the USA, and the Pacific in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and all the negative outcomes associated with these events.

But all is not bad with nuclear power. In fact, a recent study showed that nuclear fission is significantly safer than coal power, despite the three major nuclear incidents of the past 70 years. The paper published by NASA (2), showed that nuclear power was responsible for preventing an average 76,000 deaths between 2000-2009, and an estimated 1.8 million deaths before 2000, because less coal power was needed.

The controversy surrounding nuclear power is one fraught with emotion and complex discussions of risk vs. reward. In Australia we currently have no commercial power stations, and only one small research reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). However, we also have the majority of the world’s uranium ore, with current estimates at 31% of the world’s supply (we are the third largest producer of uranium after Canada and Kazakhstan) (3).

Having this valuable resource and not making use of it seems a bit counter intuitive, and there has been multiple attempts to allow nuclear power in Australia, all of which were unsuccessful. However, the nuclear landscape in Australia is still lively, with South Australia announcing a Royal Commission into nuclear power generation, in response to the current economic contraction.

Nuclear power remains contentious and I hope to delve deep into the controversy in Australia and around the world of the next 10 weeks. First I will start with a bit of history, of nuclear power itself, and the controversies and social movements that have grown up around it. After this, I hope to flesh out the controversy, identify the key players, their impacts and motviations, and really get to the core of the nuclear power issue. Thanks for reading, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the blog, please comment below.

Say something controversial.

Matt

References

(1) http://www.nei.org/Master-Document-Folder/Backgrounders/Fact-Sheets/Quick-Facts-Nuclear-Energy-in-America

(2) http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3051197

(3) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/Australia/