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East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Nuclear Reactors Anybody?

A remote Alaskan town is considering an offer from Toshiba for a free small scale nuclear reactor. The town Galena currently barges in expensive diesel fuel to power the village, which carries a considerable risk of a fuel spill on the rough Yukon River. Galena pays three times the national average for electricity, and the offer of cheap, reliable nuclear power could cut the town's power bill from 28 ¢/kwh to less than 10 ¢/kwh.

Toshiba is offering the town one of their new 4S (Super Safe, Small & Simple) sodium cooled nuclear reactors. There are no control rods to sustain the nuclear chain reaction, the reactor uses reflector panels around the core. If the reflector are removed the density of neutrons drops below the level needed to sustain fission. The reactor uses liquid sodium to cool the reactor and create steam to drive the generators instead of water. The 4S generator can produce 10

Galena looked at other options but decided coal was too dirty and solar was not feasible at the extreme latitude of Galena. It sounds like an interesting test case. Obviously Toshiba hopes this will spark other isolated towns to consider nuclear power in the future. The 10 megawatt reactor would be the first nuclear power plant approved and constructed in the United States since the early 80's.

I am certain that some environmental groups are protesting this action. But I think the time has come to face up to it; only nuclear power offers a chance for humanity to escape the ravages of global warming. Civilization isn't in any danger of running out of fossil fuels in the near future, the real crisis is that the world is running out of capacity to absorb the damage we are doing to it. Even with the Kyoto Protocol now in effect, it is too late to stop global warming, the best we can hope for is to minimize the damage it causes in the coming decades. The originator of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, endorsed nuclear power last year, saying it offered the best hope for curbing global warming.

While it took humans until this past century to harness the power of the atom, natural nuclear reactors once existed in the earth's crust during the formative stages of our planet. Scientists researching a 'georeactor' found in Togo in 1972 discovered that the nuclear reaction was controlled by river water trickling into rich uranium ore deposits. The water acted like control rods in a modern reactor, stabilizing the reaction and releasing tremendous amounts of heat. Once the water boiled away, the chain reaction fizzled out until more water seeped into the ore. The reactor worked like clockwork, every couple of hours it would ignite for exactly 30 minutes before cutting off. And it lasted like that for 120 million years.

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