Debunking 5 MYTHS of NUCLEAR ENERGY + Natural Nuclear Reactors | Casual Outdoors Weekly #14


I have a special outdoors weekly for you this week as a nuclear expert will debunk five common myths about nuclear energy such as: Can a nuclear power plant really blow up like a nuclear bomb? She’ll address this and more as she shares her knowledge and experience in this field of clean energy. [♪ theme music ♪] I’m Koaw. This is Casual Outdoors Weekly. And this week we’re doing things a little bit different; we’re interviewing an expert in the field of nuclear energy. With me I have Natalie McIntosh. I’m saying that right? -Yep. Very good. She’s been working in the field of nuclear energy for thirteen years. She’s a mechanical engineer. She’s a former Chair of the American Nuclear Society Chicago-branch. What got you into the field of nuclear energy. Well you know Koaw, when I was in college I realized that we had great energy needs and we’r e currently using many carbon dioxide emitting sources. So I wanted to be a part of the solution—the nuclear solution. And so I got involved right outside of college. That’s great! Can you explain for some of us that are not up on nuclear energy… what is exactly is nuclear energy and how do we use it? So nuclear energy, Koaw, is just a fancy way of boiling water! How we use most of our energy, except for wind and solar, is we boil water to turn a turbine, which turns a generator, which sends the electricity down those lines you’re familiar with on your street and into your outlet. So when you boil water with coal or natural gas, you burn it— maybe biomass like wood, you burn it—right? That’s intuitive. But to make the heat from nuclear we take the nucleus of an atom and we break it apart. And that’s different from fusion. You’re talking about fission. –That’s right. That’s fission. Fusion is… where you bring it together and that’s always twenty years away. [laughter] Always twenty years away, okay. So thanks again for coming out to my office. I know we couldn’t be in your office today. But let’s debunk some myths. I think my viewers really want to know this and you’re the perfect person to ask. First one: I know that we’re exposed to different types of radiation every day. Is it fact or myth that most of that (radiation) comes from nuclear power plants? That’s myth, definitely. Yeah! You get more radiation from flying in an airplane, from living in a home because there are radon sources. The average person gets about one millirem a day just being alive from the Sun, from the Earth. If you have granite countertops in your kitchen you’re getting a few millirem every year. And you’re going to get more (radiation) from living by a coal-fired power plant, believe it or not, than nuclear. So that’s definitely a myth! –Alright you heard it. That one’s a myth. [ plucky string music ] [ crashing noise ] Alright, next question. Nuclear energy is bad for the environment. Fact or myth? Uhh—myth! Again, so we talked about carbon dioxide emissions— everybody knows about global warming/climate change. It’s a huge problem! And nuclear has been about 20% of our energy needs since about 1980. Even as population grows into— We’re in 2019 now? –Hmm hm. The future with electric cars, you’re going to need a clean energy source to power all of those cars. Are you going to get that from coal or natural gas? That’s a great point. -No. Electric cars would still be plugging all that carbon into the environment if they were running off coal power plants and other fossil fuels. -Yep. [ plucky string music ] [ crashing noise ] I’m thirsty and I need my mug. And my cameraman is actually going to deliver it. –Okay. This is a very important mug to me. [laughter] Okay, so…fact or myth? There is absolutely way too much waste from nuclear energy and it’s too dangerous to dispose of. That’s definitely a myth. So let’s compare this to the existential crisis that we’re having right now with all the carbon dioxide that’s being pumped into the Earth’s atmosphere that is affecting the entire globe. It’s huge! And there’s like the sludge piles—they’re massive. Where do they put the coal waste? In comparison, the high level radioactive waste, um, over a sixty year lifespan of the nuclear industry would fit into a single football field about ten yards deep. That’s nothing! That’s pretty tiny. The whole…so nuclear energy has been around for what, sixty years? And you’re saying that all that waste could fit into a football field ten yards deep? The high level waste. Yes. And so we, right now, so we don’t have a Yucca Mountain solution which is what I think the public is most concerned about. But right now that high level waste is sitting at most plants. In fact I’ve walked up…they’re in canisters. I’ve walked up, ya know, and giving the canister a hug. It has next-to-no radiation. They’re safe. They’re currently being stored very safely. Yeah we do need to come up with a better long-term solution and it’s going to require public support. –That’s you. [ plucky string music ] [ crashing noise ] Question number four: It’s unsafe to work in a nuclear power plant and it’s unsafe for the nearby citizens. Is this a fact or a myth? That’s definitely a myth. So you might be thinking though, “Well, Natalie, Fukushima happened!” Japan. –In Japan. And for those of you who don’t know what Fukushima is: Basically there was a severe natural disaster. Tsunami right? Yes it was an earthquake but it was the tsunami that took out the nuclear power plant. And there was actually nobody at that plant that was killed directly from the nuclear radiation. And I remember because it was 3/11/11, never forget! I was working at a plant less than fifty yards away from an operating reactor very much similar to the Fukushima reactor. And we were thinking to ourselves, “Holy $#*t!” [laughter] Could this happen here, right?! And we realized that…you know.. So we were like, “Well…what if there was a nuclear disaster?” And we looked through a lot of our design bases. And we looked through a lot of our design and we realized, ya know, the operating procedures and everything… We had made a lot of changes. Actually…since 9/11, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, a lot of changes were made in the nuke plants that then allowed us to beef up the safety of the plants. And actually ever since Fukushima the nuclear industry in America has come up with a new flex strategy where we basically have two warehouses located at different ends of the United States with basically standard fittings, extra pumps and helicopters to fly that stuff to the location. Because ya know, a lot of people are like, “What if something beyond the design basis happens like Fukushima?” Well you know what? You’re ready for it. We’re ready! That’s very good! [ plucky string music ] [ crashing noise ] Last question: And I think we’re all curious about this one— can a nuclear power plant, like one of the ones you work at every day, can that blow up like a nuclear bomb? Uhh…myth! [laughter] Uh, so the short answer is we just don’t have our uranium enriched to the levels we need. I know we’re concerned with other countries having highly enriched uranium. And in the United States we’re only allowed to enrich our U235 to about 5% in a commercial reactor. And that prevents that from occurring. Also the style of the reactor… you might be thinking about the Chernobyl incident from 1986. I mean the history of the nuclear industry is very well-versed to everybody in the nuclear industry. Because we have to learn because it’s going to be our future. And we need to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again. They had a different style reactor. They also weren’t following procedures. They were outside of process. They had a mindset that they would kind of… not take safety seriously. And as a result, ya know, I think it was… fifty-six people actually died that day at Chernobyl and it was the most horrific event of nuclear. And actually Chernobyl today has become a beautiful environmental paradise with animals everywhere because all of the people are gone. But the animals have residual radiation in them. -True. So it’s not like a feel-good happy story but it’s definitely one of those situations where Chernobyl is a tiny little land mass vs. carbon dioxide which affects the entire globe. That you can’t escape from. There is never a silver bullet. There’s not a single energy source that is perfect. Ya know, maybe fusion, which is twenty years away, will be that silver bullet. But we’re not there yet. Alright, well thank you very much. [ plucky string music ] [ crashing noise ] So we do a Nature is Nifty segment on our Outdoors Weeklies and I think you have a really cool thing you want to talk about. Yeah, Koaw you should look into the natural reactors that occurred in Africa millions of years ago. They used uranium much like our reactors today use uranium. They weren’t a problem—very interesting. They were self-sustaining. Self-sustaining natural nuclear reactors in Africa. Okay! I’ll look it up. And I did look it up as Natalie pointed me to a great resource. Basically—about 2 billion years ago there were at least seventeen natural nuclear fission reactors under what is now known as Gabon in Western Africa. Remember that nuclear power is generated by uranium when uranium atoms fission, or break down, sending off fast neutrons thus releasing nuclear energy. If those neutrons are slowed by a moderator, or a go-between substance like water, other atoms could be triggered to experience fission as well. If the conditions are controlled and just right, this fission can occur for a very long time until the uranium depletes. In the case of these natural reactors, they operated for around one million years. Also note that the radioactive products from the fission in these natural reactors has been safely contained for more than two billions years thus demonstrating that containing these radioactive materials is possible. Essentially there are four requirements for a natural nuclear reactor to form: Firstly, the uranium ore must have a high uranium content with a thickness of almost a meter, as well as a certain geometric shape that assists the chances for spontaneous natural fission in uranium-238 that then induces the self-sustaining fission in uranium-235. Secondly, the uranium must contain a lot of uranium-235. Basically that’s the strong stuff. And our nuclear power plants today have to enrich their uranium-238 with more uranium-235 before it gets put to use. Thirdly, there needs to be a go-between substance, like graphite or water, to slow the neutrons when uranium fission occurs. Finally, near the uranium there can’t too much concentration of neutron-absorbing elements around like silver, iridium, or boron that would impede the nuclear reaction. These natural reactors weren’t putting out too much power, only around 100 kilowatts or enough to run 1,000 lightbulbs whereas our nuclear reactors today put out around 1,000 megawatts or so, enough to light 10,000,000 light bulbs. Nevertheless, it’s pretty damn cool that nature on Earth produced its own nuclear reactors. I’ll link a great read to this resource that explains so much more how these natural reactors occurred as well as other very cool nuclear energy resources that Natalie has pointed me towards. And I put those in the description below. So Dealer’s Choice! I think we should just thank Natalie for stopping by and sharing her expertise. Thank you Koaw for taking me to your wonderful outdoor laboratory! Yes, my office, my laboratory! [laughter] It’s a bit windy today but still nice. If you have any questions that you want this nuclear expert to answer then put ‘em in the comments. I’ll make sure she gets an answer to you. I’ll respond. I will channel her words to the comments for you. Is that okay? -Yeah! Well thank you again! And I hope to see you next week. And I hope you keep doing great things in the nuclear industry. Alright, thanks Koaw! *Koaw Nature 2019*

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