Australian news, and some related international items

Bill Gates’ sodium-cooled ‘Natrium’ nuclear reactor design – strikingly like the disastrous reactors at Santa Susana Field Lab

Most striking of all is the success of official campaigns asserting that even the most serious accidents have caused little or no harm

Spent Fuel, Harpers, by Andrew Cockburn, 20 Dec 21, The risky resurgence of nuclear power  ” ………………………….  Gates and other backers extoll the promise of TerraPower’s Natrium reactors, which are cooled not by water, as commercial U.S. nuclear reactors are, but by liquid sodium. This material has a high boiling point, some 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, which in theory enables the reactor to run at extreme temperatures without the extraordinary pressures that, in turn, require huge, expensive structures……………….

Woolsey fire in 2019 spread radiological contamination from the Santa Susana site

Prosperous and 70 percent white, West Hills, California, is one of the communities that have sprouted near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the decades since the 1959 meltdown. Unlike the poor, sick, and embittered residents of Shell Bluff, people living in West Hills had until recently only the barest inkling that nuclear power in the neighborhood might have had unwelcome consequences. “Almost no one knew about the Santa Susanna Field Lab, or they thought it was an urban legend,” Melissa Bumstead, who grew up in nearby Thousand Oaks, told me recently. In 2014, Bumstead’s four-year-old daughter, Grace, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. “This has no environmental link,” her pediatric oncologist told her firmly. Childhood cancers were rare, and this was just cruel luck.

Then, while taking Grace to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Bumstead ran into a woman who recognized her from the local park where their young daughters played. The woman’s child had neuroblastoma, another rare cancer, as did another from nearby Simi Valley, whom they encountered while the children were getting chemo. Back at home, someone on her street noticed the childhood cancer awareness sticker on Bumstead’s car and mentioned that another neighbor had died of cancer as a teenager.

Bumstead began to draw a map detailing the cluster of cancer deaths in small children just in the previous six years, but stopped working on it in 2017. “I had such severe PTSD when I added children onto it, my therapist told me to stop.” But it is still happening, she said, mentioning the unusual number of bald children she had noticed in local elementary schools in recent years, as well as the far-above-average rate of breast cancer cases recorded in the area. A cleanup of the field lab was due to be completed in 2017, but it has yet to begin.

I called Bumstead because I had been struck by the fact thatTerraPower’s Natrium reactor resembles in its basic features the long-ago Sodium Reactor Experiment at Santa Susana. (Natrium is Latin for sodium.) “That’s exactly what we had!” Bumstead exclaimed when I mentioned that liquid sodium is integral to TerraPower’s project. “The meltdown was in the sodium reactor.” As her comment made clear, such liquid sodium technology is by no means innovative.

Nor, in an extensive history of experiments, has it ever proved popular—not least because liquid sodium explodes when it comes into contact with water, and burns when exposed to air. In addition, it is highly corrosive to metal, which is one reason the technology was rapidly abandoned by the U.S. Navy after a tryout in the Seawolf submarine in 1957.

That system “was leaking before it even left the dock on its first voyage,” recalls Foster Blair, a longtime senior engineer with the Navy’s reactor program. The Navy eventually encased the reactor in steel and dropped it into the sea 130 miles off the coast of Maryland, with the assurance that the container would not corrode while the contents were still radioactive. The main novelty of the Natrium reactor is a tank that stores molten salt, which can drive steam generators to produce extra power when demand surges. “Interesting idea,” Blair commented. “But from an engineering standpoint one that has some real potential problems, namely the corrosion of the high-temperature salt in just about any metal container over any period of time.”

TerraPower’s Jeff Navin assured me in response that Natrium “is designed to be a safe, cost-effective commercial reactor.” He added that Natrium’s use of uranium-based metal fuel would increase the reactor’s safety and performance. Blair told me that such a system had been tried and abandoned in the Fifties because the solid fuel swelled and grew after fissioning.

As the sodium saga indicates, the true history of nuclear energy is largely unknown to all but specialists, which is ironic given that it keeps repeating itself. The story of Santa Susana follows the same path as more famous disasters, most strikingly in the studious indifference of those in charge to signs of impending catastrophe.The operators at Santa Susana shrugged off evidence of problems with the cooling system for weeks prior to the meltdown, and even restarted the reactor after initial trouble. Soviet nuclear authorities covered up at least one accident at Chernobyl before the disaster and ignored warnings that the reactor was dangerously unsafe. The Fukushima plant’s designers didn’t account for the known risk of massive tsunamis, a vulnerability augmented by inadequate safety precautions that were overlooked by regulators. Automatic safety features at Santa Susana did not work. This was also the case at Fukushima, where vital backup generators were destroyed by the tidal wave.

No one knows exactly how much radiation was released by Santa Susana—it exceeded the scale of the monitors. Nor was there any precise accounting of the radioactivity released at Chernobyl. Fukushima emitted far less, yet the prime minister of Japan prepared plans to evacuate fifty million people, which would have meant, as he later recounted, the end of Japan as a functioning state. Another common thread is the attempt by overseers, both corporate and governmental, to conceal information from the public for as long as possible. Santa Susana holds the prize in this regard: its coverup was sustained for twenty years, until students at UCLA found the truth in Atomic Energy Commission documents.

Most striking of all is the success of official campaigns asserting that even the most serious accidents have caused little or no harm……………………

“The right not to know” about the effects of nuclear power is currently embraced far beyond Fukushima. In the face of escalating alarm about climate change, the siren song of “clean and affordable and reliable” power finds an audience eager to overlook a business model that is dependent on state support and often greased with corruption; failed experiments now hailed as “innovative”; a pattern of artful disinformation; and a trail of poison from accidents and leaks (not to mention the 95,000 tons of radioactive waste currently stored at reactor sites with nowhere to go) that will affect generations yet unborn. Arguments by proponents of renewables that wind, solar, and geothermal power can fill the gap on their own have found little traction with policymakers. Ignoring history, we may be condemned to repeat it. Bill Gates has bet a billion dollars on that.

December 21, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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