Nucular Energy

On Tuesday night I went to another Food For Thought lecture, this time all about nuclear energy. It was presented very well by Alastair McIvor, B.Eng. who works at Chalk River for the NRC.

I came away from the lecture with a much firmer conviction that nuclear energy is a good solution to our energy needs. Alastair addressed all the commonly perceived problems and misconceptions about nuclear fission and offered all the advantages.

Here are some things I learned:

  • Normal nuclear reactors need:
    • fuel (usually Uranium)
    • a moderator (stuff to slow down the zippy neutrons so that the uranium molecules can catch them)
    • a coolant (because the process generates mucho heat).
    • something to absorb the extra neutrons flying around (usually cobalt).
  • The “useful” uranium is uranium 235, which is less than 1% of all mined uranium. The rest is uranium 238 which is only useful in fast breeder reactors.
  • Fast breeder reactors don’t have a moderator, as the neutrons have to go faster to break Uranium 238 apart.
  • Un-processed uranium is relatively harmless.
  • Most nuclear reactors use water or heavy water as a moderator (which doesn’t catch fire, even if you try really really hard).
  • Chernobyl used carbon as a moderator (which does catch fire, quite easily).
  • After cobalt has absorbed lots of flying neutrons, it becomes highly radioactive. These used radioactive cobalt rods are sold to medical companies to be used in machines which remove tumours using gamma rays.
  • Nuclear waste is dangerous, just as the waste from other energy production is dangerous, but there is a lot less of it, and it can be contained. The waste will also become useful again when we get better at using Uranium 238 as the fuel.
  • Canadian reactors use heavy water as a moderator, because a bunch of it ended up here during the 2nd world war. It costs $300 per kilogram.
  • Only 52 deaths were directly attributed to Chernobyl.
  • 4000 other cases may have been caused by Chernobyl fallout.
  • More than 30,000 people died after the Bhopal chemical plant accident.
  • Russia pays Canada to take away the enriched plutonium they have left from de-commissioned weapons. Canada will be using it to produce cheap electricity.
  • There is enough uraniam 235 to last us about 50 years.
  • If the switch to fast breeder reactors is made we will have enough uranium to last for centuries.

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