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Is Nuclear Energy Safe after Fukushima? by Michael Natelson
[Note from Howard: We just published a new working paper by Dr. Michael Natelson. Michael is a retired nuclear scientist from Westinghouse Corporation and a member of the Board of Directors of Ideal Taxes Association. Here is how he begins.]
“In the beginning” there was Einstein’s land mark 1905 paper on Special Relativity. He was primarily concerned with putting the laws of electricity and magnetism on the same bases as the laws of mechanics. They should be the same in all inertial frames of reference. (In an inertial reference frame an object at rest stays at rest, and an object moving with at constant velocity maintains that velocity.) Einstein succeeded making use of the assertion (resulting from the Michelson-Morley experiments, 1887) that the speed of light c (300 million meters/second in vacuum) is the same in all inertial reference frames. The key result in Einstein’s paper relative to “Nuclear Energy” is E=Mc2 , the most widely known equation to the educated public. To see how it applies to energy release it is better written as dE=dMc2 , the change in kinetic energy of participants in an inelastic collision (as apposed to an elastic (billiard ball) collision) is equal to the change in mass of the participants times the speed of light squared. Given the magnitude of the speed of light, it is easy to imagine a collision that resulted in a modest loss of mass would yield a huge increase in kinetic energy of the final constituents. When Einstein published his papers on this result no such collision (reaction) had been identified, but this did not inhibit people from imagining such a reaction and its possible consequences.
In early 1914, H. G. Wells published his novel The World Set Free. He wrote that in 1932 we would discover a means of controlling the rate of radioactive decay of heavy elements, thus releasing large quantities of “atomic energy”. This abundant, and cheep, new energy source would revolutionize the world economy. Not all for the good, massive unemployment of manual laborers would result. Also, “atomic bombs” could be constructed, and with economic/social unrest a cataclysmic “atomic” world war between nation states would take place in the 1950s. As a result of this terrible war, Wells envisioned that the surviving leaders would see that a world governing process was an absolute necessity for mankind’s survival, and that wars between nation state having these weapons would be an anathema.
All Wells’ predictions are not right on the money, but in the large they are remarkable. Einstein’s “equation” did lead to an abundant (if not “cheap) new energy source. And, this “energy source” could yield terrible weapons, which having been used in war once, has led to some international institutions devoted to world peace and controlling these weapons. Wars between nation states having these weapons have been avoided. One could assume, as I believe Wells would, that this is because of mutual recognition of the horrible consequences of their use (by design or accident).
It is a remarkable coincidence that Wells chose 1932 for the breakthrough development of the mechanism of “atomic” energy release. For in fact James Chadwick discovered the neutron in1932. In 1911 Chadwick’s mentor and colleague Ernest Rutherford had determined that most of the mass of atoms was concentrated in a compact positively charged nucleus surrounded by a cloud of much smaller negatively charged electrons. The make up of the nucleus was not initially understood, which is easily seen by noting that: The lightest atom (element), hydrogen, has one electron. It’s positively charged nucleus is called a proton. The next lightest atom, helium, has two electrons. But it’s nucleus, with twice the positive charge of a proton, has approximately four times the mass of a proton. Chadwick’s neutron has no charge and is slightly more massive than the proton. With a short range, attractive force it can be part of an atomic nucleus, aiding in holding the protons together (At distances larger than the diameter of an atomic nucleus positively charged protons repel, but like the neutron at small distances they also exert an attractive force.). Thus, in the above example, the helium nucleus (referred to as an alpha particle) has two protons and two neutrons.
Now why is the discovery of the neutron the “breakthrough development”? The Hungarian physicist and friend of Einstein, Leo Szilard first saw the answer to this question. A neutral, uncharged, neutron should be able to readily penetrate a nucleus in an inelastic collision, cause the nucleus to split, fission, with a loss of mass and a release of much energy and possibly additional neutrons so as to cause more fissions, i.e. to initiate a chain reaction. Even though fission had not been observed in the early thirties, Szilard prepared a patent based on this idea for a nuclear reactor and assigned it the British government in 1936. (Rutherford had speculated about an energy liberating fission reaction, but with knowledge of only positively charged protons and alpha particles as initiators, he thought these particles would need so much kinetic energy to penetrate a positively charged nucleus that the net energy release would not be of practical use.)
With the discovery of the neutron, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi began experiments bombarding naturally occurring heavy elements (e.g. Uranium) with neutrons to produce new heavy (transuranic) elements. He received a Nobel prize for this work in 1938. However, the German chemists Hahn and Strassman determined that Fermi had produced lighter elements. Hahn’s long time associate Lisa Meitner and her nephew Otto Frish identified Fermi’s process as fission, and reconciled it with a physics model of a heavy element nucleus absorbing a neutron and becoming unstable, splitting into high kinetic energy lighter elements (fission products), additional neutrons (2 or 3) , high energy electromagnetic radiation (gamma rays) and electrons/anti-electrons (beta particles)....
The entire paper can be read at:
Comment by votersway, 3/19/2012:
I had to jump through the article because of time constraints. It's good to see that you researched the issues instead of buying the media propaganda. There are a lot of possibilities in nuclear, one of the more extreme is PACER fusion hybrid which can supply 99% of energy from fusion, 1% fission. It's 100% safe, reducing waste to almost nothing at the cost of being a bit bulky. However it's a political taboo of highest degree. Pebble bed reactors are another safe and cheap choice - that's why they are outlawed. Ironically China is working on some of these technologies... We won't get to trade balance with artificial energy starvation policies in place. China is now burning coal, acidifying the oceans, the pollution is spreading everywhere, but they do offer low electricity prices and that's another reason to have our industries offshored there.
Journal of Economic Literature:
Atlantic Economic Journal: