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By William Murray
North Carolina State University
B.S. Nuclear Engineering, May 2018

Created for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security


Introduction ................................................................................................................................................. 4
Stable and Unstable Isotopes ..................................................................................................................... 5
Atomic Structure ....................................................................................................................................... 5
The Periodic Table and Chart of the Nuclides ......................................................................................... 7
Stability ................................................................................................................................................... 11
Radioactive Decay .................................................................................................................................. 15
Conservation of Mass-Energy................................................................................................................. 21
Radiation and Radioactivity .................................................................................................................... 27
Decay Modes........................................................................................................................................... 27
Radioactivity ........................................................................................................................................... 32
Binary Nuclear Reactions......................................................................................................................... 34
Cross Sections ......................................................................................................................................... 34
Binary Nuclear Reactions ....................................................................................................................... 38
Nuclear Fission ....................................................................................................................................... 41
Fission Spectrum..................................................................................................................................... 46
Fission in Other Isotopes ........................................................................................................................ 49
Controlling the Chain Reaction ............................................................................................................... 51
Neutron Life Cycle .................................................................................................................................. 51
Delayed Neutrons and Multiplication Factor ......................................................................................... 55
Moderation, Shielding, and Cooling ....................................................................................................... 58
Critical Masses and Reflectors ............................................................................................................... 61
Nuclear Weapon Design ......................................................................................................................... 63
Research and Experimental Reactors ..................................................................................................... 69
Nuclear Power Plants ............................................................................................................................... 70
Nuclear Power Reactors ......................................................................................................................... 70
Nuclear Power Plant Mechanics ............................................................................................................ 73
Safety Features in Nuclear Power Reactors ........................................................................................... 76
Nuclear Fuel Cycles .................................................................................................................................. 79
Overview of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle ....................................................................................................... 79
Uranium Enrichment Techniques ........................................................................................................... 84
Uranium Enrichment Facilities .............................................................................................................. 87

In-Core Fuel Management ...................................................................................................................... 97
Spent Fuel Reprocessing ....................................................................................................................... 100
Nuclear and Radiological Waste .......................................................................................................... 103
Radiation Detection and Handling ........................................................................................................ 108
Radiation Detectors .............................................................................................................................. 108
Radiation Safety .................................................................................................................................... 111
Basic Health Physics............................................................................................................................. 112
Risk Assessment and Management ....................................................................................................... 114
Risk and Society .................................................................................................................................... 114
Influence of Familiarity and Dread ...................................................................................................... 117
Quantifying Risk using Frequency-Response Curves ........................................................................... 120
Frequency-Consequence Curves for Nuclear Power ............................................................................ 125
Energy Economics and Politics .............................................................................................................. 129
Power Consumption Trends .................................................................................................................. 129
Base Load, Intermediate Load, and Peak Load .................................................................................... 132
Renewable vs Non-Renewable Energy Resources ................................................................................ 133
Energy Resource Considerations in Meeting Power Demand .............................................................. 135
Environmental Consequences for Various Energy Resources .............................................................. 140
Utility Economics and Distributed Energy Resources .......................................................................... 151
For Your Consideration ......................................................................................................................... 155

The purpose of this guide is to teach the scientific concepts necessary to understanding
issues in the nuclear sector. This guide is written for non-scientific professionals who are
currently working with the government in the nuclear sector. The mathematics needed to
understand the physics in this guide will go up to basic calculus, though this guide will
explain the bottom line and important results from each section in plain English.

Throughout this document I have included hyperlinks and images that will bring you to
their source when clicked. These links will bring you to either the source of the information
being discussed, or videos that help to illustrate a concept. You can use the hyperlinks by
using CTRL+CLICK on the image. Content that is not available digitally has been formally
cited. Additionally, some sources may not meet academic citation quality, but provide
some useful information regardless.

If you have trouble understanding a concept, try to complete the entire section you are
reading. You should expect to be confused for the first time you are introduced to
something new, and things will begin to make sense the more times they are referenced.
Any specific questions or comments about how information is presented should be sent to
me via email at wrmurray@ncsu.edu, which is my primary academic email address.

This is a large, technical document that will likely take several days for you to fully read
through, and probably several weeks to appreciate its depth. The content covers most of
my own technical studies in Nuclear Engineering at NC State, and it is meant to give you
the deepest understanding of the nuclear sector without a Nuclear Engineering degree.

To avoid mental burnout in reading this document, I have tried to incorporate various types
of content such as graphs, photos, schematics, videos, and historical context. I hope you
will find some parts of the document more interesting than others and laugh at least once
at an engineers sense of humor.

William Roysdon Murray

B.S. Nuclear Engineering, NCSU Spring 2018

Stable and Unstable Isotopes
Atomic Structure
One of the more useful models of the atom is the Bohr Model. In this model, the
atom consists of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Neutrons and protons make up
the nucleus of the atom (and are therefore called nucleons), and electrons surround
the nucleus in an orbit. A more modern model based on quantum mechanics
places the electrons in an obscure, probabilistic cloud around the nucleus. While
this electron cloud model is more physically correct, the Bohr Model is sufficient
for the purposes of nuclear science.

Fig. 1 Bohr Model with the Fig. 2 The modern Quantum Mechanical
orbiting electrons surrounding Model of the atom, with the electrons
the nucleus surrounding the nucleus in a cloud.

The units for atomic mass are normally given in Atomic Mass Units (amu), rather
than kilograms in the traditional metric system. Knowing the mass of each particle
will be helpful later when analyzing collisions between atoms and these particles.

Particle Atomic Mass (amu)

Proton 1.0072764669
Neutron 1.0086649156
Electron 0.000548579909

While the neutron is slightly more massive than the proton, both particles are
significantly more massive than the electron.

Elements are determined by the total number of protons in the nucleus. For
example, Hydrogen has one proton, while Helium has two protons. However, the
atomic mass of the entire atom is determined by the mass of all of the protons,
neutrons, and electrons in the atom. The notation and nomenclature of this topic
will be covered in the next section.

The Periodic Table and Chart of the Nuclides
You have likely seen the periodic table at some point in your life, which lists all of
the known elements in order of increasing number of protons from left to right,
starting from the top and looping downwards:

Fig 3 The periodic table as of May 2017.

Any element on the periodic table can be written in the following manner:

X is the chemical symbol of the element, Z is the atomic number, indicating the
number of protons in the nucleus, and A is the atomic mass of the atom, indicating
the total number of nucleons in the nucleus. For example, if we look at Helium on
this periodic table, we can write the element in the following manner:


The chemical symbol for Helium is He, which has 2 protons, and 4 nucleons. We
can find the number of neutrons in the nucleus by simple subtraction:

4 nucleons 2 protons = 2 neutrons

You may notice that on the periodic table, the atomic mass listed below each
element is not exactly the total number of nucleons. The atomic masses listed on
the periodic table are the average mass of all of the isotopes of that element,
weighted by how common they are found in nature. An isotope refers to a specific
type of atom with a specific number of neutrons. It is possible for the same element
to have multiple isotopes. This means that even though two isotopes can have the
same chemical properties because they have the same number of protons, their
nuclear properties are very different due to a different amount of neutrons.

In the case of Helium, with an atomic mass listed as 4.0003 amu, you are most
likely to be using a Helium-4 isotope with 2 neutrons and 2 protons. However,
Helium-5 isotopes with 3 neutrons and 2 protons are found in nature, but they are
much rarer. Helium-3 may also exist in rarer quantities.

Fig 4 Different isotopes, including those of the same chemical element, have
different amounts of neutrons in the nucleus.

While there are mathematically an infinite amount of isotopes, the isotopes that
have been found in nature or have been synthesized in a lab are finite. In the same
sense that all of the known elements have been documented on the Periodic Table,
all known isotopes have been documented on the Chart of the Nuclides:

Fig. 5 The complete Chart of the Nuclides, listing all known isotopes. The
horizontal axis indicates the number of neutrons in the nucleus, and the vertical
axis indicates the number of protons in the nucleus. Stable isotopes are indicated
by black squares.

The Periodic Table presents merely 118 elements. The Chart of the Nuclides
presents approximately 3600 isotopes and is therefore much more impressive to
learn than the Periodic Table. Thankfully, much of the information found on the
Periodic Table is displayed in a similar manner on the Chart of the Nuclides.

If we zoom in near the bottom left of Fig. 5, we will find data on the natural
abundance of each nuclide, and some information on how each isotope handles
radioactive decay:

Fig. 6 Zooming in on the Chart of the Nuclides reveals decay schemes, atomic
masses, half-lives, and abundances for each isotope.

If an isotope is unstable, it will undergo radioactive decay in order to transmute

itself into a stable isotope. If the new isotope is also unstable, it will decay again
and again until it becomes a stable isotope. The relationship between radioactive
decay and the Chart of the Nuclides will be covered in another section.

When you need to use the Chart of the Nuclides, there are many websites and
mobile apps that provide an interactive and user-friendly interface to obtain nuclear
data. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a mobile app called
Isotope Browser available for Android and iPhone, and Brookhaven National Lab
has an interactive online Chart of the Nuclides available for public use.

The two fundamental forces you are most likely familiar with are gravity and
electromagnetism. Sir Isaac Newtons Law of Universal Gravitation states that any
two objects are attracted to one another, the strength of which is based on their mass
and the distance between them, multiplied by a constant value :

1 2 (1)

Newtons Law of Universal Gravitation serves as one of the main governing agents
that organize the universe. Objects in space will eventually join together due to their
gravitational attraction, and may orbit one another due to this force. You see in
equation (1) that if you increase either objects mass 1 or 2 , or decrease the
distance 2 between them, the gravitational force will increase.

Fig. 7 Illustration of Newtons Universal Law of Gravitation between two

objects of different masses.

Coulombs Law is very similar in appearance, however unlike gravitational forces,
the Coulombic force may attract or repel another object.

1 2 (2)

Coulombs Law states that objects that have opposite charges (1 = , 2 = ),

will be attracted to each other, and that objects with the same charges (1 = ,
2 = ), will repel each other. Coulombs Law governs most chemical principles;
positively charged protons in the nucleus will attract negatively charged electrons
into the orbit of the atom. Two positively charged atoms will repel each other. If
you bring these objects closer together, the magnitude of the attraction or repulsion
will increase.

Fig. 8 The direction of the Coulombic force depends on the charge of the two

You should know that Coulombs Law is much stronger than Newtons Law of
Universal Gravitation. You may be gravitationally attracted to a bowling ball, but
the Coulombic force from the atoms in your hand and in the ball allow you to repel
the bowling ball away down the bowling lane.

If you look at a Helium nucleus once more, you will notice that there are two
positively charged protons right next to each other. Why do they stay together if
their charges repel one another? The gravitational force is extremely weak since the
masses of the nucleons are so small, so we know that observed attraction is not due
to gravity.

There is another fundamental force known as the strong nuclear force. When two
objects are placed very, very close to one another, the strong nuclear force binds
them together. It is called the strong nuclear force because this force is stronger
than the Coulombic force that repels the protons away from each other. Lets re-
examine the Chart of the Nuclides:

Fig. 9 The Chart of the Nuclides with the stable isotopes shown in black.

Notice how the known isotopes tend to have similar amounts of neutrons and
protons. The stable isotopes of Helium are Helium-3 and Helium-4. However, at
much higher masses, the stable isotopes will have more neutrons than protons.
Iodine-127 has 53 protons and 74 neutrons. There are no iodine isotopes with only
one neutron. The Coulombic force would be much greater than the strong nuclear
force in that case. The neutrons act like nuclear glue that helps bind the particles
together in the nucleus.

There are other examples, such as why there are no hydrogen isotopes (# of protons
= 1) with 50 neutrons, which are better explained by the Liquid Drop Model of the
atom. This model takes into account the Coulombic force, volume of the nucleus,
surface area of the nucleus, and even and odd pairing of nucleons. It is
recommended to learn more about the Liquid Drop Model on your own time, but it
is not essential to this guide.

Radioactive Decay
Isotopes that are unstable have an excess amount of energy in their nucleus, and
they want to release this energy in order to become more stable. The isotopes will
release their energy in the form of a particle or energy wave, and this process is
known as radioactive decay. Radioactive decay is a completely random process,
however we are able to make some statistical observations that allow us to utilize
this process. Let us consider an analogy for running a restaurant.

If you run a restaurant, it is impossible to know the exact time a singular customer
will come in for lunch. They may arrive at 11:30am, they may arrive at 1pm, or
they might skip lunch entirely on that day. However, if you have many customers,
and serve lunch on many days of the week, you can observe general trends about
when people eat lunch. You will notice that most people will eat lunch around
11:30am to 1:00pm. You will have a few people who come in before or after that
time period, but you record the most common time window people come in for
lunch so that you can properly staff your restaurant.

You can utilize the randomness of radioactive decay in the same sense that you can
utilize the randomness of running a restaurant. If you have a single unstable isotope,
Cesium-137 for example, it is impossible to predict when it will undergo
radioactive decay. However, if you have multiple isotopes of Cs-137, you can
observe the average time it takes for a fraction of your Cs-137 sample to decay
away. In nuclear science, the probability that an isotope will decay away is known
as the decay constant, represented by (lambda). The decay constant has units of
inverse time, meaning that if = 1 , then the isotopic sample will, on

average, undergo radioactive decay at a rate of 1 decay per second.

There is another method of observing how an isotope decays. Say you have a
sample of Nitrogen-16, which is commonly found in the primary cooling loop in
nuclear power plants. You notice that after 7 seconds, half of your sample has
decayed away. After another 7 seconds, half of the remaining half of Nitrogen-16
has decayed away. Your observations say that after 7 seconds, you will only have
half of whatever amount of Nitrogen-16 remaining. In this case, the half-life of N-
16 is 7 seconds. In nuclear science, it is traditional to use half-lives in radioactivity
calculations, however it is certainly possible to observe when 1/10th of the sample
remains and label it as a 1/10th life.

Lets plot the amount of N-16 as a function of the number of half-lives, and lets
assume we start with 100g initially of N-16:

Amount of Isotope vs Number of Half Lives

Mass (g)

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Number of Half-Lives

Fig. 10 Radioisotopes decay exponentially over time.

We can see that the concentration amount does not decrease linearly with the
number of half-lives, it instead decays on an exponential curve. Another thing we
notice is that after 7 half-lives, less than 1% of the original amount of the isotope
remains. In many cases, an isotope is considered safe to handle after 7 half-lives.

Equation (3) describes how to calculate the remaining amount of an isotope:

1 (3)
() = 0 ( )

Where () is the remaining amount of the isotope, 0 is the initial amount of an

isotope, and is the number of half-lives. The exponential variable is responsible
for the curved shape of this graph.

For the more mathematically inclined, this change in concentration of the amount
of N-16 atoms can be modelled using the following differential equation:

() (4)
= (); (0) = 0

Where () represents the amount of N-16 as a function of time, is the decay

constant, and 0 is the initial amount of N-16. When this differential equation is
solved, the result is a function describing the amount of N-16 as a function of time:

() = 0 (5)

If we plot this equation, we should see something very familiar:

Amount of N-16 vs Time

Mass (g) 60
0 7 14 21 28 35 42 49
Time (s)

Fig. 11 Radioactive Decay of N-16 using the differential equation solution.

Figure 10 and figure 11 have the same shape, but different equations! Both
equations (3) and (5) allow you to calculate the remaining amount of an isotope;
neither one is more accurate than the other.

Differential equations are used more often in nuclear science to model radioactive
decay because they offer more flexibility with what information you can use to find
a solution describing the amount remaining over time. They also allow you to
model decay chains, when one isotope decays into another, which decays into
another, etc. The solutions are lengthy and normally found through software.

Lets try an example using the differential equation solution. Say that we start with
100 grams of N-16, and we want to know how many grams of N-16 remain after
two minutes (120 seconds). Using the Chart of the Nuclides to look up the decay
constant of N-16, we can enter our numbers into equation (5) to find an answer:

() = 0 (5)
( = 120) = 100 (0.099021 )(120)
( = 120) = 0.00069101
( = 120) = 0.691

The half-life of an isotope can be used to calculate its decay constant. After one
half-life 1/2 , half of the isotope sample is gone. Therefore, we must know that
( = 1/2 ) = 0 2. Writing the initial amount as 0 rather than as its actual value
as a number is helpful because we can use 0 to describe any initial amount.
Similarly with 1/2 , we can use 1/2 for any time value (seconds, minutes, years).

We can now put this knowledge into equation 4 to find the half-life of any isotope:

() = 0 (5)
(1/2 ) = 0 2 = 0 1/2
12 = 1/2
ln(12) = 1/2
ln(2) = 1/2
ln(2) (6)

Equation 6 can be used to find the decay constant for any isotope. As an example,
if we used half-life for N-16 of 7 seconds, we can calculate the decay constant for
N-16 that we found from the Chart of the Nuclides:

ln(2) (6)
= 16
0.00069101 = 16

If one is given the decay constant, one can rearrange equation (6) to find the half-
life instead. Since the decay constant is a probability that is calculated, you are more
likely to find the half-life in the Chart of the Nuclides instead.

Conservation of Mass-Energy
Two of the most fundamental concepts in all areas of physics are the conservation
of mass and conservation of energy. In a closed system, it is impossible for total
amount of mass or energy in the system increase or decrease. If two cars collide
head on and become fused with one another, the mass of the conjoined lump is the
same as the total mass of the two cars.

Similarly, the total energy of the two cars does not get destroyed, even though it
transformed. Before they collide, all of their energy is kinetic (based on motion).
After the collision, the energy transfers from the vehicles into sound, heat, and
kinetic energy of any shrapnel resulting from the collision.

These fundamental rules of conservation can be written mathematically as follows:

= (7)

= (8)

If we have two cars colliding into one lump, we can write the mass and energy
conservation equations as:

1 + 2 = (9)
1 + 2 = (10)

The most important form of energy in this example, as well as in radioactive decay,
is kinetic energy. All of the energy in our car collision system is kinetic. Kinetic
energy is associated with an objects mass and velocity , and is defined as:

1 (11)

In the example of the colliding cars, we can rewrite the energy equation as:

1 2
1 2
1 2 (12)
1 2 + 2 2 =
2 2 2

Lets apply the conservation equations to an example of radioactive decay. From

looking at the Chart of the Nuclides, we can see that Nitrogen-16 decays into
Oxygen-16 by emitting a negatively charged beta particle. The reaction can be
written as:

16 16 0
7 = 8 + 1 (13)

Note that the total charge in this reaction is also conserved. Nitrogen has 7
positively charged protons in its nucleus. One of the neutrons in nitrogen releases
a negatively charged beta particle, which turns the neutron into a proton. The
nucleus now has 8 protons and is called oxygen. The specifics of nuclear decay will
be covered soon, but lets return to mass and energy conservation. The mass
conservation equation can be written as follows:

16 = 16 + (14)

Lets check that this is true for nuclear decay by looking up the masses of each
particle on the Chart of the Nuclides:

16 = 16 + (14)
16.0061014 = 15.9949146221 + 0.000548579909
16.0061014 = 15.995463202009
0.010638197991 = 0

There seems to be an issue with our calculation; the combined mass of the final two
particles is less than the mass of our initial N-16. The reason behind this issue is
not an error in mass measurement or in our calculations. Instead, it can be explained
with Einsteins famous equation:

= 2 (15)

This equation relates both mass and energy to each other. In other words, mass and
energy are physically the same, and can be related to each other using the speed of
light squared.

In most physics, the units for mass are in kilograms, and the units for energy are
expressed in Joules. Since nuclear science works with atomic mass units for mass
instead of kilograms, most energy calculations are expressed in a unique unit called
the electron volt. The conversion between Joule and electron volt is:

1 = 1.60217646 1019 (16)

Lets observe the units for Einsteins equation. In traditional physics, velocity is
given as distance per time, such as meters per second, miles per hour, etc. We can
do some very simple math with units to express the speed of light not as distance
per time, but as energy per mass:

= 2
[] = [] 2

[ ] = 2

We now see that we can express the speed of light squared in units of [].

However, the electron volt is a very small unit, so nuclear science tends to use the
Mega-electron volt instead, where 1MeV is equal to 1,000,000 eV. You may do the
unit conversions and calculations on your own if you wish, but the numerical value
for the speed of light squared in these units is:

2 = 931.5 [ ]

Now we can finally return to our decay equation. We saw that when the N-16
nucleus emitted a beta particle, some mass was lost in the process. This mass was
converted into the kinetic energy of the beta particle and O-16 nucleus. We can
calculate just how much additional energy was sent into the products using
Einsteins Mass-Energy equation:

= 2

= 0.010638197991 931.5 [ ]

= 9.9094814286165

For comparison, one of the major gases burned at natural gas power plants is
methane. The energy released by burning one molecule of methane is
approximately 9.2275 eV. The energy released by the decay of one isotope of N-
16 is over one million times greater than burning a single molecule of methane.

It may seem hard to interpret where this energy goes and why its magnitude is
significant. The additional energy from this reaction is converted into the kinetic
energy of the products, which in this case are the N-16 and the beta particle. In
other words, the velocity of the two particles when they break up is significantly
increased due to the loss in mass converting into kinetic energy.

In thermodynamics, temperature is defined as the motion of particles. Cold particles

move slowly, and hot particles move fast. Plutonium-238 is often described as
physically warm to the touch, and in nuclear science, highly radioactive isotopes
are dubbed hot as well. Pu-238 decays by alpha decay to Uranium-234:

238 234
94 = 92 + 42 (18)

We can do the same calculations to find that 5.593 MeV of energy is released every
time a Pu-238 isotope decays. The alpha particle collides with other particles in the
Plutonium metal, which causes the temperature of the Plutonium metal to increase.
In this sense, the Plutonium metal is both hot from a temperature standpoint, as well
as hot from a radioactivity perspective; Pu-238 has a half-life of only 87.7 years!

Fig. 12 Plutonium sphere glowing red-hot from alpha decay of Pu-238.

The heat from Pu-238 decays makes it a popular choice for space missions. The
heat can be converted to electricity in a radioisotope thermal generator (RTG), and
the heat also keeps the electronics warm in the cold of space.

Radiation and Radioactivity
Decay Modes
Up to this point, we have not discussed the different ways isotopes can decay, only
that they do decay over time exponentially. Recall that the purpose of decay is to
attempt to become a stable isotope. An isotope can be unstable because it is too
large, has too many neutrons, has too many protons, or simply because it doesnt
like existing. Lets look at the Chart of the Nuclides (Fig. 5) once more:

We can see that the stable isotopes are illustrated in black, while the rest are
unstable. The goal of the isotope is to move along the chart of the nuclides as fast
as possible to a black square. The different methods types of radioactive decay
allow isotopes to move in different directions along the Chart of the Nuclides,
however they will tend to move towards a black square and all decay chains end at
a stable isotope.

The table below lists all methods by which an isotope can decay:

Fig. 18 Summary of all decay mechanisms.

Note that a proton is the same as a Hydrogen-1 nucleus, and an alpha particle is the
same as a Helium-4 nucleus. You may see the notation for each interchangeably.
You will also notice that the general format in Fig. 18 is that a parent nucleus P will
decay into a daughter nucleus D plus one or more particles.

Since the Chart of the Nuclides is organized by the number of protons and neutrons
in an isotope, we can observe how an isotope moves along the Chart of the Nuclides
by the type of decay it undergoes At this point, you should be looking at an online
version of the Chart of the nuclides and follow along. If we move one square to the
left, the isotope has emitted a neutron. If we move one square down, the isotope has
emitted a proton.

A summary of the grid movements and their decay modes is presented below:

Fig. 19 A simple guide to read the Chart of the Nuclides

Some things to note: the d in figure 19 refers to deuterium, which is another name
for Hydrogen-2 with one neutron and one proton. Similarly, the t refers to tritium,
or Hydrogen-3 with two neutrons and one proton. You will also notice that if you
move upwards or to the right, the nucleus has absorbed a proton or a neutron
respectively. It is possible for an isotope to absorb additional nucleons, and this
topic will be covered later.
It is worth mentioning that radiation in a general sense is just the decay of
radioisotopes. Radiation does not describe by what process particle decays, only
that it is unstable. Some decay modes are far more hazardous to work with than
others. Alpha-emitting isotopes can be protected against (shielded) very easily, but
are dangerous if inhaled. Neutron emitters are extremely dangerous because
neutrons require a lot of shielding.

Radioisotopes also have a random probability to choose a specific decay route. This
means that they dont always emit the same type of radiation. Additionally, if they
emit the same type of radiation, they may not emit it with the same energy.

Two examples will illustrate this concept:

Fig. 20 Decay scheme for Bismuth-211

Here we can see that Bismuth-211 will decay into Thallium-207 by beta minus
decay 99.72% of the time. Bismuth-211 may instead emit alpha particles 0.28% of
the time and decay into Polonium-211. The probability that a nuclide will decay
along a specific decay route is called a branching ratio. Branching ratios are unique
to an individual isotope and have no correlation with other isotopes.

Another example is Cobalt-60, which is used in many applications for its high-
energy gamma ray emissions. If we look at the decay scheme for Co-60, we will
see it also has multiple decay options:

Fig. 21 Decay scheme for Cobalt-60

Even though Co-60 will always decay by beta minus emission into Nickel-60, the
(kinetic) energy of the beta minus particle will be dependent on the Co-60s
branching ratio.

When we discussed radioactive decay and the mathematical equations we could use
to model it, we were interested in just the number of isotopes that were present after
a certain amount of time. What is often far more important is not the number of
isotopes present, but how fast they decay away.

The rate at which an isotope decays is called its activity, and activity is measured
in two units: Becquerels (Bq) and Curies (Ci). The Becquerel is a very simple
unit, and is simply one decay per second. The unit Curie was named after Marie
Curie (1867 1934), who was one of the pioneers of nuclear and radiation science,
along with her husband Pierre Curie (1859 1906). One Curie is the approximate
activity in one gram of radium-266, which was an isotope commonly used in Marie
Curies lab.
One can convert from Becquerels to Curies using the following equation:

1 = 3.7 1010 (19)

When doing nuclear calculations, Bq is the preferred unit since its physical
interpretation is straightforward and easy to use. In practice, and in understanding
how dangerous a sample may be, Curies are the preferred unit. Most safe laboratory
samples are on the order of micro-Curies (1*10-6 Ci). While you should always
exercise caution in nuclear science, you should be extra cautious when your
samples are one Curie or greater. Fun Fact: the Cobalt-60 sources used in medical
sterilization applications can have activities of up to 3 million Curies.

Thankfully, calculating activities is very similar to calculating the number of
decaying radioisotopes. Activity is defined as:


Where A is the activity, lambda is the decay constant, and N is the number of
decaying nuclides. If we recall the differential equation solution in equation (5):

() = 0

We can simply multiply both sides of the equation by lambda to find the activity as
a function of time:

() = 0
() = 0
() = 0 (21)

Where () is the activity at any given time, 0 is the initial activity of a source,
and lambda is the decay constant. Source refers to any source of radiation, which
in most cases is simply a decaying radioisotope. Certain accelerator devices or
nuclear reactions can also be considered a source of radiation.

We can see that the activity of an isotope also decays exponentially over time, in
the exact same fashion as the total number of isotopes.

Binary Nuclear Reactions
Cross Sections
Imagine you are playing catch with a baseball, and your partner throws the ball
at you with 100% accuracy. From your perspective, you are a stationary object
with the ball rapidly approaching you. What happens next? The answer depends
on your own abilities as a catcher and on the properties of the baseball. Lets
look at the table below for some possibilities:

Speed of the Baseball (mph) Outcome

30 Ball is caught in hand
120 Ball bounces off shoulder
500 Ball takes chunk out body
50,000 Ball rips catcher in two pieces

Of course, what actually happens depends on your abilities as a catcher; you

may catch baseballs travelling at 120mph; you may split apart in two or more
pieces by catching a ball travelling at 30mph. You may not catch a ball every
time it travels at 50,000 mph, but you might catch it once or twice. The same
principle is true for nuclear reactions.

How a nucleus interacts with incoming radiation is dependent on two main

factors: the properties of the nucleus itself, and the (kinetic) energy of the
radiation. If a neutron approaches a Plutonium-239 nucleus, the Pu-239 nucleus
may absorb the neutron, may undergo nuclear fission, or may bounce the
neutron off itself. Like radioactive decay, what the nucleus does is entirely
random, however there are probabilities associated with each possible outcome.
In the realm of nuclear science, these probabilities are called cross sections.

Cross sections can be either microscopic () or macroscopic (), and each
have their own units. Microscopic cross sections have units of cm2 and
macroscopic cross sections have units of 1/cm. Microscopic cross sections are
often given in the unit of barns, which is terminology leftover from the
Manhattan project.
The conversion from cm2 to barns is provided below:

1b = 1 1024 2 (22)

The relationship between micro and macroscopic cross sections is as follows:

= (23)

Where N is the number of isotopes per unit volume. In many nuclear

calculations, the macroscopic cross section is used to save time and space from
writing in multiple places. The microscopic cross section is a
fundamental property of an individual nucleus. As stated earlier, the
microscopic cross section of a nucleus is primarily dependent on the energy of
the incoming particle.

The most frequently-used cross sections are listed below:

Type Symbol Description

Scatter , Probability that when a particle hits the nucleus, it
will scatter (or bounce off of) the nucleus
Absorption , Probability that when a particle hits the nucleus, the
nucleus will absorb the particle
Fission , Probability that when a particle hits the nucleus, the
nucleus will absorb the particle and immediately
undergo nuclear fission
Total , The sum total of all the cross sections of the nucleus

Lets look at a sample cross section graph for different neutron energies:

Fig. 22 A graph of an arbitrary cross section across different neutron

energies for an arbitrary isotope.

Notice that the horizontal axis is energy (speed of the neutron), and the vertical
access is the cross section. Lets say that this is the cross section for Uranium-
235 to undergo nuclear fission. We see that the probability of U-235 undergoing
fission when it absorbs a neutron is fairly high at low neutron energies (when
neutrons are moving slowly). At high neutron energies, the probability of U-
235 undergoing fission is small when compared to the low-energy probability.
You will notice that in the middle, there are spikes in the fission cross section.
This means there are very specific energies that U-235 likes to absorb neutrons
to undergo nuclear fission. These specific energies are called resonance peaks.

Cross sections are important to understand because even though certain nuclear
reactions are physically possible, they may be extremely likely to occur. If we
design a nuclear reactor to produce high energy (fast) neutrons, we will still get
fission with U-235, however we may want to use a different fuel that has a
larger fission cross section at high energies. An appropriate cross section will
bring more fission reactions and in turn more energy production.

Now that we have covered a sample fission cross section, lets look at the real
fission cross section for Uranium-235:

Fig. 23 A graph of the fission cross section for Uranium-235.

The shape is very similar to figure 23. The cross section is high and linearly
decreasing at low energies, the cross section is low at high energies, and there
are resonance peaks in the middle level energies. If you want to build a nuclear
reactor using Uranium-235, you will want to make sure the neutrons are slow
enough so that the probability of Uranium-235 undergoing fission is relatively

Binary Nuclear Reactions
Binary nuclear reactions are analogous to chemical reactions; two reactants
interact with each other to form several products. The total number of protons
and neutrons remain the same. However, like in the case of radioactive decay,
there are slight differences in the masses of the reactants and the products.

One simple reaction is Nitrogen-14 absorbing an alpha particle:

2 + 147 17
8 + 11 (24)

We see here that the total number of nucleons remains the same on both sides
of the equation: 18. We also see that the total number of protons remains the
same: 9. If we perform a mass-energy calculation on this reaction:

+ 14 = 17 +
4.0026032497 + 14.0030740052
= 16.99913150 + 1.007825031
18.0056772549 = 18.006956531
0.0012792761 = 0
= 2

= (0.0012792761 ) (931.5 )

= 1.19164568715

We see that the energy produced by this reaction is negative. In other words, in
order for this nuclear reaction to occur, you must input 1.19164568715
of energy into the reaction. These types of reactions are not normally observed
in nature since they require an energy input.

Lets look at another example, but without the energy calculations. Oxygen-16
absorbs a neutron to produce Nitrogen-16 and a proton:
0 + 168 16
7 + 11 (25)

This type of reaction is very common in light water reactors. Neutrons will
escape the reactor core and hit oxygen in the water molecules that are used as
coolant. The result is the highly radioactive Nitrogen-16 with a 7 second half
life, and a proton, which is simply a Hydrogen-1 nucleus.

Binary nuclear reactions are more commonly written in shorthand form:

+ ()
( , ())

So if we take our previous two binary reactions:

2 + 147 17
8 + 11
0 + 168 16
7 + 11

We can rewrite them in shorthand form as:

14 17
7(, ) 8
16 16
8(, ) 7

This notation is particularly useful not only to save time, but it also lets you
immediately know what is hitting the nucleus and what particle is being emitted
as a result. In certain circumstances you may not care what isotopes are
produced, and the only subject of interest is the type of radiation that comes out.
Knowing the type of radiation being emitted is especially important in medical
imaging, where the isotopes are encased in shielding, and radiation can exit
through a hole in the shielding to allow a medical scan to be performed.

There are many types of binary reactions: (, ), (, ), (, ), (, 2), (, ),
and so on. It is important to remember that even though the reactions may be
different, the physics is the same: one small particle hits one large nucleus, and
a new nucleus plus some other small particles are made as a result.

Nuclear Fission
Lets do an example of a neutron hitting a Uranium-235 nucleus; can you
predict what the resulting products of the reaction will be?

0 + 235
92 ? (26)

If we were to guess a result by conserving the total number of nucleons and

protons, we could predict some of the following reactions to occur such as:

A scattering reaction where the neutron bounces off the nucleus:

0 + 235 1 235
92 0 + 92 (27)

Or perhaps an (, ) reaction:

0 + 235 4 232
92 2 + 90 (28)

When this reaction was analyzed by European scientists just before World War
II, the only types of nuclear reactions observed were those that produced small
particles. When a uranium sample was bombarded with neutrons in an
experimental setting, Barium was discovered in the resulting sample. In other
words, it appeared as though the neutron did not take off a small chunk of the
nucleus; it nearly split the nucleuss mass in half:

0 + 235
36 + 136
56 (29)

As we now know, the Uranium-235 nucleus will split (fission) when it absorbs
a neutron. While this was a very interesting finding during the 1930s, it wasnt
very impactful until some additional observations were made.

We can modify the above reaction to produce free neutrons by taking some of
the neutrons out of the products:

0 + 235
36 + 136 1
56 + 2 0 (30)

We notice that for every one neutron we put into the U-235, we will receive two
neutrons in return. This is a very interesting observation with very impactful

If we have 100 total nuclei of U-235, we will only need to use one neutron to
split all 100 using this reaction. The first neutron will split one nucleus,
producing two more neutrons, which will split two more nuclei, which will
produce four more neutrons, and so on and so on until there are no more U-235
atoms to split. This is called a fission chain reaction.

Fig. 24 A fission chain reaction, where two neutrons are produced for every
split nucleus.

You have likely worked with similar chain reactions in your life: if you tell just
your parents that you are going on a date, your entire family and all of their
friends will find out very quickly. In the same sense, once you fission one
nucleus of U-235, all of the other U-235 nuclei will fission very shortly after.

This may seem like a very useful way to produce certain isotopes or free
neutrons. However, once we perform a mass-energy calculation on our sample
reaction, we can see why this discovery would have world-wide consequences:

0 + 235
36 + 136 1
56 + 2 0

+ 235 = 98 + 136 + 2
1.0086649233 + 235.0409456
= 97.952430 + 135.904576 + 2
236.0496105233 = 235.8743358466
0.17527467669998487 = 0
= 2

= (0.17527467669998487 ) (931.5 )

= 163.2683613460359

The first observation is that the energy released from fission is very, very large.
In our radioactive decay example, we found that the energy released from one
radioactive decay is roughly 1 million times larger than burning natural gas.
This energy from this nuclear fission reaction is nearly 163 million times larger
than burning natural gas.

The second observation is that this reaction can be made into a fission chain
reaction. In one gram of Uranium-235, there are 2.5621021 atoms that can be
split. So if our sample nuclear chain reaction is started and all Uranium-235
isotopes fission, then the energy released is:

= 163 2.562 1021

= 4.176061023

We can understand the magnitude of this discovery by delving into some

scientific history. The scientists that discovered this during WWII were in the
United States seeking refuge from the chaos in Europe. They were afraid that
the German scientists who were working on similar research at the time would
use this discovery to create a weapon of unimaginable destruction for use in the
war. One of the concerned scientists was Leo Szilard, who wanted to alert
President Roosevelt about the discovery. Szilard drafted a letter to the President
and had it signed by Albert Einstein, whose renowned fame would make certain
that the letter reached the President. Below is an excerpt of that letter, dated
August 2nd, 1939:

In the course of the last four months it has been made probablethrough the
work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in Americathat it may
become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium
by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like
elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be
achieved in the immediate future.

This phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is

conceivablethough much less certainthat extremely powerful bombs of a
new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat
and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with

some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove
to be too heavy for transportation by air.

This letter sparked the Manhattan project and lead to the development of
nuclear weapons, which would end the largest conflict the world has ever seen
at the time of fissions discovery. It would also lead to the development of
nuclear power, which has provided electricity for millions of people world-wide
without creating harmful emissions.

Fission Spectrum
Previously, the nucleon conservation rules were only applied to particles found
in nuclear decay. If you irradiated Oxygen-16 with neutrons, and you observed
that protons were being emitted, you could determine that the resulting isotope
was of Nitrogen-16 without performing any kind of chemical analysis on your

0 + 168 16
7 + 11 (31)

Lets recall our sample fission reaction:

0 + 235
36 + 136 1
56 + 2 0

When the uranium fission experiment occurred, the isotope that confused the
scientists was the Barium. We were able to use some conservation rules to
determine that Krypton and perhaps some other neutrons were also produced.

This analysis raises some important questions: How do we know what products
result from the fission reaction? Will the reaction always include Barium?
Couldnt we subtract more neutrons from the main products and have more than
two free neutrons produced?

The truth about nuclear fission is that like many other processes in nuclear
science, the results are random yet probabilistic. Nuclear fission can produce
any mix of isotopes, as long the entire reaction obeys our particle conservation
rules. The amount of neutrons produced per fission is not always two; it is
dependent on the type of nuclear reaction that occurs, and this number can be
as large as 10 neutrons produced per fission.

The two isotopes produced from nuclear fission are simply called fission
products, or sometimes fission fragments. A nuclear fission reaction will
produce some fission fragments as well as some neutrons. The distribution of
fission products produced in a nuclear reaction is called a fission spectrum.

The fission spectrum for Uranium-235 is shown below:

Fig. 25 The fission spectrum for Uranium-235.

In Fig. 25, we see that there are peaks in the fission spectrum around mass
numbers of 95 and 137. While we might not know the specific elements
produced, we can say that the isotopes are most likely to be produced through
nuclear fission with have roughly 95 total nucleons or 137 total nucleons.
Meanwhile, there is a local minimum for having a fission fragment with 118
total nucleons. The main observation here is that the Uranium-235 nucleus can
split roughly in half when it fissions, but it is more likely that the nucleus will
partition itself into two chunks of different sizes.

It should be noted that the average amount of energy produced by fission of U-
235 is 200 MeV, and the average amount of neutrons released per fission is
2.42 neutrons per fission.

Fission in Other Isotopes
Uranium-235 is not the only isotope of uranium that can fission, and uranium
is not the only element can fission. In general, only very large isotopes can
undergo nuclear fission, and not all very large isotopes will fission; elements
larger than Uranium are unstable and may decay instead of undergoing fission.

The most common fissionable isotopes studied in nuclear reactor systems are
Uranium-235, Uranium-238, and Plutonium-239. Each isotope has different
fission cross sections and fission spectrums.

Fig. 26 Fission cross sections for three different isotopes.

You will notice that U-235 (green line) and Pu-239 (blue line) have very similar
fission cross sections across all energies. U-238 (magenta line) has a much
different fission cross section that is only comparable at extremely high neutron
energies (~1 MeV or greater). In most reactor systems, neutrons do not reach
the high energies necessary to use U-238 as the primary fission fuel. Most
nuclear power reactors and nuclear weapons will use U-235 or Pu-239 (or a mix
of both) as the primary fuel to power their system.

You may have heard the term enriched uranium somewhere in your work.
Enrichment refers to the percent of Uranium-235 found in a sample; a 5%
enriched uranium fuel pellet is composed of 5% Uranium-235 and 95% other
Uranium isotopes (where Uranium-238 is the most common). Natural uranium
that is found in the Earth has an enrichment of 0.72%. Uranium fuel used in
nuclear power plants are typically enriched up to 5%. Nuclear weapons and
naval propulsion reactors used in submarines and aircraft carriers are enriched
to 90% or greater. Different goals will require different nuclear reactor designs
which may include different types of fuel.

Another consideration in choosing fission fuel for a reactor, especially in

nuclear weapons, is an isotopes spontaneous fission branching ratio. Large
unstable isotopes have a chance to spontaneously fission on their own instead
of undergoing traditional radioactive decay. For example, Plutonium-244
decays by alpha decay 99.879% of the time, and spontaneously fissions the
other 0.121% of the time. Isotopes that are likely to spontaneously fission are
poor choices for use in nuclear weapons because the fission will produce
neutrons to start the chain reaction. You can imagine why this would be a

Controlling the Chain Reaction
Neutron Life Cycle
The purpose of a nuclear reactor is to control the fission chain reaction, and the
primary method of controlling a nuclear reaction is to control the flow of
neutrons. A basic understanding of the neutron life cycle will highlight how we
can control a nuclear reactor.

To start the fission chain reaction, a neutron must be introduced into the fission
fuel. The neutrons that start the reaction are called source neutrons; normally
these neutrons are produced by introducing the fuel to a radioactive source that
decays by neutron emission or by spontaneous fission.

Once a fission has occurred, the reaction creates fission products and some
neutrons. The neutrons produced as a result of the fission reaction are called
prompt neutrons. Recall from the mass-energy calculations that there is a lot of
energy produced in a fission reaction; part of this energy is put into the speed
of these prompt neutrons. Prompt neutrons are fast and have an energy of about
2 MeV.

However, Uranium-235 doesnt like fast neutrons. The cross section of

Uranium-235 shows that it prefers neutrons to be slow, or at very specific
(resonance) energy levels before it is likely to absorb a neutron and undergo
fission. So, the neutrons must slow down a bit before the Uranium-235 will use
them for fission.

Neutrons slow down when they collide with other nuclei. High-energy prompt
neutrons are fired off from the fission reaction, and they will collide with a U-
235 nucleus. Since they are fast, they simply scatter off of a U-235 nucleus and
continue travelling. They lose some of their energy by scattering off the
nucleus, and their speed is reduced. They will continue to scatter with nuclei
until they are at a speed where they can be absorbed by the U-235 nucleus.

These slowed-down neutrons are called thermal neutrons, and have an energy
of about 0.025 eV.

At this point, we have a complete fission chain reaction: a source neutron starts
the first fission event, the prompt neutrons born from fission collide with nuclei
until they are thermalized (become thermal neutrons), and the thermal neutrons
are then absorbed by the U-235 to start a new fission.

Fission in
[1] Source Neutrons

[3] Thermal Collisions

Thermal Absorption
(Slow) Neutrons with
in Fuel

Fig. 27 The simplified neutron life cycle.

The only way to exit the cycle in this model is by running out of fission fuel. In
a real reactor, not all of the neutrons will cause fission in the fuel. Some
neutrons are prone to leak out of the reactor, be absorbed by the non-fuel
material, or be absorbed by the fuel but not cause fission. It is also possible for
neutrons to enter some of the resonance energies (the mid-range energy spikes
on the cross-section plots in Fig. 26) while they are slowing down.

When we take these into account, the neutron life cycle is no longer closed:

Fission in
[1] Source Neutrons

Thermal Absorption [3] Thermal (Slow)
in Fuel Neutrons

Thermal Leakage
No Fission Event


Fig. 28 The open neutron life cycle with leakages presented in green.

Engineers of any discipline care about three main concepts: gains, losses and
control. Nuclear engineers apply this mentality to nuclear reactor systems.

Losses and gains due to absorption are controlled in choosing the materials that
are near the fuel, or in choosing the materials for the fuel itself. In most power
reactors, the chain reaction is stopped by fully inserting control rods into the
reactor core. The control rods are made of materials with large absorption cross
sections that do not fission. If the control rod materials were capable of fission,
then inserting the control rods would have a similar effect as if you were to
throw a lit match into a barrel of gunpowder.

Losses and gains due to leakage are controlled by the material surrounding the
reactor. Designs for fast reactors (which use fuel that fissions with fast neutrons)
will reduce leakage by surrounding the reactor with material that reflects
neutrons back into the system, rather than simply absorbing them. Neutrons
may also leak into the system from outside the reactor.

Delayed Neutrons and Multiplication Factor
When a fission event happens, there are two processes that produce neutrons.
Prompt neutrons, as discussed earlier, are produced directly through fission, and
make up most of the free neutrons in a reactor. The fission reaction also
produces fission products, and these fission products are quite often unstable
isotopes. Some of these unstable isotopes will decay by emitting neutrons. The
neutrons produced by this decay are called delayed neutrons.

Consider the timeframe in which these neutrons are produced. Prompt neutrons
are born after 10-14 seconds after the atom has been split. It is impossible to
perform any human-controlled action on a nuclear reactor in less than
0.000000000000001 seconds. Delayed neutrons take much longer to produce
by comparison; depending on the isotopes produced, delayed neutrons may be
produced in seconds, minutes, or hours. This timeframe is much better suited
for reactor controls, and it is why nuclear reactors can be controlled. A reactor
that relies only on prompt neutrons is more commonly known as a nuclear

While there are many aspects in the design of a nuclear reactor, the most
important concept to understand is the multiplication factor. The multiplication
factor describes the amount of neutrons produced vs the amount of neutrons
lost each time one goes through the neutron life cycle, and can be thought of in
two different ways:

# (32)


Assume you start with 100 neutrons in your system. In your first cycle, your
fission reaction produces 5 neutrons. You lose 4 total neutrons due to leakage
out of the reactor and absorption in the control rods. Your multiplication factor
k = 5/4 = 1.25, meaning that each cycle you go through will produce more
neutrons. If you produced 3 neutrons but lose 6 in the next cycle, your
multiplication factor is k = 3/6 = 0.5.

The multiplication factor does not describe the total number of neutrons in your
reactor, only how many neutrons your reactor gains or loses each time it
completes a cycle. The total amount of neutrons in your reactor can be described
by how much power it produces. The correlation is simple: more free neutrons
= more fissions = more power produced. The relationship between the
multiplication factor and power level is summarized in the table below:

Value Term Power Result

k<1 Sub-critical Power level decreases
k=0 Critical Power level remains
k>1 Super-critical Power level increases

In nuclear power reactors, the reactor starts at a power level of zero. To bring
the power up to 3000 Megawatts to produce electricity in the power plant, the
reactor operators make the reactor slightly supercritical so that the power level
increases slowly over time. The multiplication factor k is kept at a value around
1.05 to 1.25 until it reaches 3000 MW, at which point the reactor operators will
keep the reactor critical at k = 1. Power is brought up slowly to ensure that the
plant remains safe.

Naval propulsion reactors and nuclear weapons that use highly enriched
uranium will have much higher multiplication factors. Naval reactors will have
to change from low power during stealth operations to very high power very
quickly in order to flee from detection or attacks from other vessels. Nuclear
weapons require a high multiplication factor because if the fissions do not
happen fast enough, the bomb material will shatter before the nuclear yield due
to heat generation. The multiplication factors in these systems can reach
upwards of k = 20.

Moderation, Shielding, and Cooling
We now understand the neutron life cycle responsible for controlling the fission
chain reaction, and begin to observe the designs of nuclear reactors. The neutron
life cycle encompasses most of the necessary physics to create a reactor, but it
does not address some of the logistical challenges of operating one.

To build a thermal reactor, meaning a reactor whose fuel uses thermal energy
neutrons (~0.025 eV), then we must have a material that slows down the
neutrons from high energies to thermal energies. This type of material will
ideally only scatter neutrons into lower energy levels, and not absorb the
neutron. If the material absorbs the neutron, then it becomes harder to maintain
a chain reaction. This material is called the neutron moderator because it
moderates the speed at which the neutrons travel.

Once you have a stable chain reaction, you must now make sure the reactor
operators are protected from any radiation caused by the reactor. Another
material is needed to shield the operators from radiation, hence the material is
called shielding. The shielding material can protect the operators by directly
absorbing the radiation, or by removing energy from the radiation particles
through collisions. If the shielding material absorbs radiation, it should ideally
not become a radioactive isotope upon absorption.

The final component in operating a reactor is ensuring that the fuel in your
reactor does not overheat. Many power reactors will use solid fuel made out of
uranium dioxide (UOX) or a mix of uranium dioxide and plutonium oxide
(MOX). If the fuel becomes too overheated by the fission reactions, then the
fuel will melt, and many problems will ensue. Hence, a coolant is needed to
remove heat from the fuel to ensure that the fission reaction can be controlled.

The first nuclear reactor ever constructed was the Chicago-Pile 1 at the
University of Chicago, finished in December of 1942 as part of the Manhattan
Project. This reactor use graphite (carbon) as its moderator because graphite has
a low absorption cross section and a high scattering cross section, and was
named the Chicago-Pile since it was simply uranium fuel surrounded by a
massive pile of graphite slabs. This reactor used natural air circulation as its
primary method of cooling, and the thick layers of graphite also served as
protective shielding for the observing scientists.

Fig. 29 Painting recreating the scene of the first time the Chicago-Pile 1
was brought to criticality. The black slabs on the right are made of graphite,
used to moderate the neutrons in the reactor.

For all commercial power reactors in the United States, water serves as all three;
water is the moderator, the shielding, and the coolant. While this isnt
impressive from a physics perspective, there is merit to using such a simple
design: investors, construction workers, regulators, and the general public are
very familiar with water. Other materials such as such as graphite, molten salt,
sodium, and lead are present in experimental and future reactor designs,
however the lack of familiarity with these materials raises many unanswered
questions regarding cost, safety, construction time, and operation of such

reactors. Reactor physicists and engineers are perfectly capable of answering
these questions, but typically do not have all of the financial capital, time, or
motivation to spend years or decades constructing an experimental reactor.

Critical Masses and Reflectors
The main requirement for creating any type of a nuclear reactor is by first
having an appropriate amount of nuclear fuel to sustain a fission chain reaction.
The minimum amount of fuel necessary to sustain a fission chain reaction is
called a critical mass. The critical mass for any reactor is dependent on a variety
of factors: the isotopes in the fuel, the material density of the fuel, the shape of
the fuel, the temperature of the fuel, and the surroundings of the fuel.

Critical masses requirements typically assume a bare, spherical geometry, and

these assumptions are very applicable to nuclear weapons. Bare spherical
geometry means that the fuel is arranged into a sphere, and no material
surrounds the material. It is possible to reduce the critical mass necessary to
create a nuclear reactor using a reflector. In a bare spherical reactor, neutrons
will leak out of the system through the surface of the sphere. If the sphere is
surrounded by material that reflects some of the neutrons back into the reactor
system, the critical mass size can be reduced.

Fig. 30 Bare sphere critical mass vs a reflected sphere critical mass.

Mattingly J. 2017. Notes on Requirements for Nuclear Weapons Development.
Raleigh: NCSU Nuclear Engineering

Nuclear Weapon Design
A nuclear weapon can be thought of a very specialized type of nuclear reactor;
it is a reactor where having a runaway fission chain reaction is the desired goal.
Nuclear weapons want to maintain a state of super-criticality to produce the
largest possible explosive yield, whereas a standard nuclear power reactor aims
to change between states of sub-critical, critical, and super-critical in order to
adjust and maintain power levels.

Some terminology on nuclear fuel types before we continue. Isotopes that will
fission upon absorption of a neutron of any energy level is referred to as fissile.
Isotopes that fission only upon absorption of a fast neutron are referred to as
fissionable. Isotopes that will absorb neutrons and transmute into a fissile
isotope are referred to as fertile.

There are many considerations when selecting fuel for a nuclear weapon, with
the first being that it must sustain a fission chain reaction. The fuel should have
a fairly long half-life as well, for two reasons: isotopes with short half-lives are
difficult to handle, and a nuclear bomb is useless if its fuel decays below its
critical mass. Another consideration related to handling the weapon is the
neutron emission rate of the fuel. Neutrons are very difficult to shield, and can
cause significant damage to both people and the electronics necessary to
detonate the weapon. The fuel should also not produce a lot of heat until it is
detonated; heat can degrade the electronic detonation system and change the
density or shape of the fuel itself. Some more obvious considerations are that
the fuel should have a small critical mass (which makes it easier to load onto a
weapon delivery system) and be easy to manufacture.

The ideal nuclear weapon characteristics can be summarized as:

Half-Life Neutron Rate Power Critical Mass Manufacturing
Long Low Low Low Simple, Fast

The table below lists the characteristics of different isotopes capable of
sustaining a fission chain reaction:

Fig. 31 Summary of all potential fuels for nuclear weapons. The best
options are written in red text.

The Manhattan projects first nuclear weapon design was the uranium gun,
which used Uranium-235 as the fuel. The idea was that a critical mass could be
created by quickly combining two halves of a complete bomb using chemical
explosives to shoot one half at the other. This design was simple and almost
guaranteed to work, however the rate at which U-235 could be produced was
about one critical mass (~50 kg) per year. The Manhattan scientists then turned
to Pu-239 which could be produced at a rate of about one critical mass (~10.2
kg) per week.

However, the gun type design would not work for the Pu-239 fuel. The Pu-239
core would heat up quickly once the critical mass was formed, and the heat
would cause the core to shatter before it achieved a nuclear yield. The scientists
created a new design which would use explosives to compress and hold the Pu-
239 core into a critical mass. The explosion would compress the core long
enough so that a nuclear yield would occur before the core shattered.
Fig. 32 The two weapon designs used during the Manhattan Project.

The plutonium implosion device was an unproven concept. A test bomb dubbed
The Gadget was built, encapsulated in a container in the event that a nuclear
yield was not achieved, and then hoisted into the air via crane. At 5:29 am on
July 16th, 1945 the worlds first nuclear weapon was successfully detonated at
the Trinity test site in New Mexico. The uranium gun-type bomb Little Boy
was first tested on the city of Hiroshima, Japan on August 6th, 1945. The
plutonium implosion bomb Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on
August 9th, 1945. Japan announced their surrender on August 15th, effectively
ending the Second World War.

Fig. 33 The Gadget containing the explosives and plutonium core.

Fig. 34 Jumbo being suspended via crane, originally designed to hold

containing The Gadget to salvage plutonium if the nuclear yield failed.

Fig. 35 Snapshot of the Trinity Test 0.025 seconds after detonation.

Even though the Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by the nuclear
explosions, they have since been rebuilt and are well-inhabited today. The
Trinity test site remains contaminated from the experiments from the Manhattan
project and onwards. This is because the bombs dropped on Japan were
detonated in the air, which resulted in most of the radioactive material being
dispersed throughout the atmosphere. The experiments at the Trinity site were
conducted very near the ground, significantly contaminating the land itself.

Mattingly J. 2017. Notes on Requirements for Nuclear Weapons Development.
Raleigh: NCSU Nuclear Engineering

Research and Experimental Reactors
Recall that the first critical nuclear reactor was the Chicago-Pile 1, not the
experimental detonation at the Trinity Test site. Research reactors are built at
universities and national lab facilities to aid in academic research or test
experimental reactor designs, and nearly no research reactors share the same
design. It is hard to create an accurate overarching description of research
reactors because their purposes vary based on what they were built to do.
However, they are often designed so that different materials can be inserted into
the reactor to study the effects of radiation.

Research reactors typically operate at low power compared to commercial

nuclear power reactors. The Shearon Harris Unit-1 reactor, located in New Hill,
North Carolina, operates at approximately 3000 MW, while the PULSTAR
research reactor, located in Raleigh, North Carolina at NC State University
operates at a maximum of 1 MW. The PULSTAR reactor performs radiation
imaging services and trains the students in the Nuclear Engineering program on
the general operation of nuclear reactors. The High Flux Isotope Reactor
(HFIR) is a research reactor located at Oak Ridge National Labs at Oak Ridge,
Tennessee. The HFIR operates at 85 MW and is used to examine environmental
samples, study the effects of radiation on materials, and to produce medical,
industrial, and research radioisotopes.

Experimental reactors are built to study the concept of a new reactor design.
While research reactors exist to provide a service, experimental reactors exist
to analyze the behavior of the reactor itself and assess safety features. The
Stationary Low-Power Reactor 1 (SL-1) was an experimental 2-MW light-
water reactor built for the Army for the purpose of providing power and heat
for small military bases. The SL-1 test reactor underwent a steam explosion at
Argonne National Lab on January 3rd, 1961. The explosion killed three of the
reactor operators, one of which was impaled in the shoulder by a control rod
and pinned to the ceiling. The Armys nuclear program ended in 1977.

Nuclear Power Plants
Nuclear Power Reactors
All nuclear power reactors in the United States are one of two different designs
that use regular (light) water. These Light-Water Reactor (LWR) designs are
the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) and the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR),
the former being far more common.

Both designs have a similar reactor core structure. The most basic component
is a small, cylindrical fuel pellet typically made out of uranium dioxide or
plutonium oxide. These fuel pellets are stacked and placed into tubes known as
fuel rods. These fuel rods are arranged in a square grid called a fuel assembly.
Multiple assemblies are placed together to create a reactor core.

Fig. 36 Creating a nuclear reactor core from solid cylindrical fuel pellets.

The criticality in nuclear power reactors are primarily controlled using control
rods. These control rods can be moved in and out of the reactor to absorb
neutrons, preventing fission reactions from occurring. The control rods are
located purposefully in channels in-between the fuel assemblies in the core. In
a Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), the control rods are inserted from the top

of the reactor. In a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), the control rods are inserted
from the bottom of the reactor.

Fig. 37 A PWR illustration showing the location of the core.

In both BWRs and PWRs, cold water flows in from the bottom of the core and
superheated steam or water exits from the top of the core. In a Pressurized
Water Reactor, the pressure inside the primary loop is increased so that the
water inside the core will never boil. In a Boiling Water Reactor, the water is
allowed to boil and turn to steam as it passes through the reactor. Allowing the
water to boil changes some of the neutron physics that occur in the reactor core,
and there are different safety considerations for the two types of reactors. Both
designs however are surrounded by pressure vessels to prevent water or steam
from bursting out of the reactor.

For all power reactor designs in the United States, the reactor is surrounded by
a thick concrete container called containment. The purpose of a containment
unit is to contain any possible steam or radiological release from a reactor
incident, preventing the general public from exposure to radiation. Each reactor
at a power plant facility has its own containment building.

Fig. 38 A schematic of a containment building

Fig. 39 The containment units at the Cook Nuclear Plant in Michigan.

Nuclear Power Plant Mechanics
Many of the mechanics of a nuclear power plant are identical to those found at
other fossil fuel based power plants. A heat source is used to heat cold water
into steam, and this steam is used to turn a turbine to produce electricity. After
the steam passes the turbine, the steam is taken to a condenser to be cooled back
into liquid water. This water is then fed back into the heat source and the cycle
repeats. This simple cycle of power production is known as the Rankine cycle.

Fig. 40 The Rankine cycle. In this illustration, the burning of natural gas is
used instead of a nuclear reactor to produce heat.

Turbines at these power plants require steam, not liquid water, in order to spin
and produce electricity. Any liquid that interacts with the turbine can lead to
corrosion and shorten its lifespan. Similarly, the pumps that feed water into the
heat source require liquid water. While there is less of a corrosion concern,
pumps have difficulty pumping steam or two phase systems consisting of both
liquid water and steam.

A Boiling Water Reactor utilizes the Rankine cycle to produce electricity. In
order to condense the steam into water in the condenser, cold water is pulled
from a natural water source located near the plant. The cold water exchanges
heat with the steam in the primary loop, and exits the power plant through the
cooling towers in the form of steam.

Older plant designs may directly dump the heated waste water downstream into
the water source. This method of wastewater disposal was abandoned because
the plant would warm the water source, attracting fish to live near the dump
site. When the plant would shutdown to reload its fuel, the fish would die in
mass and create problems for others using the waterway.

Fig. 41 A power plant design using a BWR. Note that the water that passes
through the reactor core is sent directly to the turbine.

Recall that in Pressurized Water Reactors, the water that flows through the
reactor core is always kept in a liquid state. An intermediate loop is needed to
take heat from the primary loop to create steam for the turbine. An additional
benefit to this design is that the turbine does not get irradiated since the primary
loops coolant never reaches it.

Fig. 42 A power plant design using a PWR. Note that the primary coolant
loop is closed off from the rest of the plant.

Both designs have similar overall efficiencies and operational costs.

Westinghouse Electric Company was the primary proponent of Pressurized
Water Reactors, while General Electric was the main proponent of Boiling
Water Reactors. Most power reactors in the United States are PWRs due to the
Navys Admiral Rickover, who implemented PWRs in the Navys nuclear
submarine program and shared the concept with the international community
during President Eisenhowers Atoms for Peace program.

Safety Features in Nuclear Power Reactors
In the event of any accident of a nuclear power plant, the primary goal is to
protect the reactor core, for two main reasons. The first being that the core is
the most expensive and vital part of the power plant, and the second is that
damage to the reactor core could lead to radiological material being released to
the atmosphere.

Nuclear reactors are designed and regulated to operate in an extremely

conservative, predictable manner to ensure safety. Thus, if any significant
changes occur during plant operation, the reactor will automatically shut itself
down. This is called a SCRAM. SCRAMs can occur for any number of reasons:
the temperature of the water in the core is too high, the turbine is spinning at an
irregular frequency, a coolant pump malfunctioned, the plant loses all available
power to the control systems, or the operators pressed the big red button on the
control panel that says SCRAM. When a SCRAM is triggered, all control rods
are fully inserted into the reactor to end the fission chain reaction. SCRAMs are
the first response to any significant nuclear incident, and the only major
consequences of an unexpected SCRAM to a power plant are lost electricity
sales and a visit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the U.S.
government agency responsible for ensuring safe operation of nuclear reactors.

On June 8th, 2017, the Unit 1 reactor at the Susquehanna (Pennsylvania) nuclear
power plant underwent an automatic SCRAM as a response to some
maintenance work being done at the plant. This unfortunate event will result in
the plant losing money, as it will take several days to complete the necessary
paperwork (and to allow the Xenon-135 neutron poison to decay away) to
restart the reactor. However, there was no damage to the reactor itself nor any
of its operators, meaning that the SCRAM was successful and the plant will
most likely be able to continue operating. The statement from the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission reads as follows:

"At 1527 hrs [EDT] on June 8, 2017, Susquehanna Steam Electric Station Unit
1 reactor automatically scrammed due to a loss of Main Turbine Electro-
Hydraulic Control (EHC) logic power causing a High Flux Reactor Power RPS
[Reactor Protection System] trip.

All control rods [fully] inserted and both reactor recirculation pumps tripped
due to reaching reactor water level 2 All safety systems operated as expected.

The suspected cause of the loss of power to the EHC logic circuit is ongoing
maintenance on the system.

At natural gas plants, turning off the gas supply immediately cuts off all heat
input into the primary loop. The same cannot be said of nuclear power plants
because nuclear fission produces an effect called decay heat. Recall that as a
result of nuclear fission, radioactive fission products are created. The decay of
these isotopes produces heat, even after the fission chain reactions have
stopped. Although the amount of heat produced is significantly less than during
normal operation, it is still significant enough to cause the reactor core to melt
down if it is not continuously cooled after shutdown.

In the event of an accident, it is important to know that the decay heat will never
completely go away, however after a certain point in time the reactor can be
cooled with natural air circulation. The goal during an emergency is to provide
active cooling to the reactor core until it reaches this point. If cooling cannot be
provided to the reactor, the temperature of the fuel and the fuel cladding will
increase beyond their respective melting temperatures, and the core will begin
to melt down, at which point the reactor is irrecoverable.

Fig. 43 Graph showing Power vs Time after a reactor SCRAMs.

Some advanced and experimental reactors are designed so that the reactor can
be cooled sufficiently after a SCRAM event using only natural circulation. This
would be extremely beneficial in a Loss Of Coolant Accident (LOCA) where
cooling water cannot be pumped to the reactor core.

The accidents at Three Mile Island and Fukushima were both LOCA events. At
Three Mile Island, one of the coolant pumps malfunctioned and this was not
detected as a result of an instrumentation failure. At Fukushima, the reactor was
SCRAMed after the Tohoku earthquake caused the plant to lose power from the
electricity grid. The backup diesel generators provided electricity to the cooling
pumps, however the resulting tsunami from the earthquake flooded the
basement where the generators were housed. The reactors were left without
sufficient cooling in both accidents and caused the cores to melt.

Nuclear Fuel Cycles
Overview of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

The nuclear fuel cycle covers the extraction, processing, use, and disposal of
nuclear fuel. The management of a nations nuclear fuel cycle is directly related
to issues regarding supply chain management, nuclear waste disposal, and
preventing the spread of nuclear weapons (also known as nuclear

The fuel cycle begins with the extraction of natural uranium from the earth at
mining and milling locations. The natural uranium ore is then chemically
processed into Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) so it can be used at uranium
enrichment facilities. Once the enrichment facility has enriched the uranium to
the desired percent enrichment, the enriched uranium is then sent to a fuel
fabrication facility where the Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) is chemically
processed into Uranium Dioxide (UO2). The UO2 is shaped into fuel pellets to
make fuel rods, which are made into fuel assemblies to be placed in a reactor
core. After about 18 months in the reactor core, the spent fuel assembly is
placed into a spent fuel pool for 5 years so that the decay heat can dissipate.

Fig. 44 A spent fuel pool cooling the old fuel assemblies from the reactor.

Once the spent fuel assembly has been cooled for 5 years, there are different
options. In the United States, the spent fuel is then placed into concrete storage
casks on-site at the nuclear power plant where it is cooled by natural convection.
Eventually the spent fuel will be moved from the power plant to a permanent
geologic storage facility, which has yet to be constructed. This is known as the
once-through fuel cycle.

Fig. 44 Several spent fuel dry-storage casks located outdoors at a nuclear

power plant. These casks are designed to last roughly 40 years while a
permanent storage facility is being selected.

It is also possible to reprocess the spent fuel assembly to create new fuel for
another nuclear reactor. Plutonium is produced on the surface of the fuel pellets
as a result of the neutron irradiation in the reactor. It is possible to chemically
separate the plutonium (and any remaining uranium) from the rest of the
isotopes in the spent fuel to produce mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) that consists of
both Uranium Dioxide and Plutonium Oxide. This fuel can be used in fast
breeder reactors, which use fast neutrons to fission the fuel in the reactor. This
is known as the closed fuel cycle because the fuel can continually be reprocessed
into new fuel and reduce the total amount of radioactive waste produced.

The United States does not have a closed fuel cycle for two primary reasons.
The first reason is that an open fuel cycle requires uranium and plutonium
extraction, which can be stolen to produce a nuclear weapon. While this
argument does not accurately encapsulate all of the nuclear nonproliferation
concerns associated with the nuclear fuel cycle, as uranium can be over-
enriched to weapons-grade, it has been the policy of the United States since
President Jimmy Carter declared it to be so in 1977.

Fig. 45 A summary of the nuclear fuel cycle highlighting where nuclear

material can be diverted to produce a nuclear weapon.

Another more modern reason that the United States does not possess a closed
fuel cycle is simple due to economic constraints: it is cheaper at present to store
existing spent nuclear fuel on-site at the power plants than it is to create a closed
fuel cycle. Adopting a closed fuel cycle would involve political and logistic
issues regarding the transportation of spent nuclear fuel, construction of
reprocessing facilities, construction of breeder reactors to consume the fuel
(none of which currently exist in the United States), and the training of both
workforce and regulatory personnel on the operation of fast breeder reactors.

It is possible to develop a closed nuclear fuel cycle; Frances nuclear industry
operates using a closed nuclear fuel cycle. However, overturning existing U.S.
policy on the nuclear fuel cycle would require immense political and economic
motivation. The non-fuel nuclear waste produced by reprocessing has a half-
life of about 800 years, which is comparable to the decomposition times of some
common plastics. The volume of all solid nuclear waste produced by American
nuclear power since its inception is negligible compared to the gaseous volume
of carbon and pollution emissions produced through the burning of fossil fuels.
Even so, very few people are willing to live near a nuclear waste storage facility,
and perhaps even fewer are willing to invest billions into an alternative nuclear
fuel cycle.

Fig. 46 A summary of a closed fuel cycle that reprocesses spent nuclear

fuel to produce new fuel for breeder reactors.

Mattingly J. 2017. Notes on Nuclear Fuel Cycles Raleigh: NCSU Nuclear

Uranium Enrichment Techniques
We have discussed earlier that there are different grades of enriched uranium
depending on what application the reactor is meant to perform. Now, we will
discuss in detail how the uranium is enriched to produce nuclear fuel.

We must first recognize that our goal is to take natural uranium from the earth
and extract any Uranium-235 isotopes within the natural uranium sample. The
first problem is that chemical extraction methods will not work since they are
dependent on elemental properties rather than isotopic properties. The second
problem is U-235 has a very low natural abundance; only 0.72% of all natural
uranium consists of U-235 isotopes, while U-238 makes up 99.27%. These two
problems require a physics-based extraction method and a very large input of
natural uranium in order to produce any significant amount of enriched

The most obvious isotopic property that can be utilized is the difference in mass
of the nucleus; a U-235 isotope will have an approximate atomic mass of 235
amu, while U-238 will have an approximate mass of 238 amu. This very slight
difference of ~3 amu is enough to allow us to separate the two isotopes. While
there are multiple ways to separate these isotopes based on their mass
difference, the most popular method in modern times is to use a gaseous
centrifuge. Natural uranium is manufactured into gaseous Uranium
Hexafluoride (UF6) and then placed into a gaseous centrifuge. The centrifuge
will spin at a very high velocity, and the heavier UF6 containing the U-238
isotopes will be spun with a larger radius to the outer wall of the centrifuge,
while the lighter UF6 containing the U-235 will stay closer to the center of the
centrifuge. This allows for the centrifuge to separate the U-235 from the U-238,
however this process must be repeated thousands of times as a single centrifuge
only increases the concentration of U-235 by ~1%.

Fig. 47 A simplified schematic of a gaseous centrifuge.

Fig. 48 An array of gaseous centrifuges at a uranium enrichment plant.

Gaseous centrifuge enrichment plants require a large amount of land space and
a lot of power to operate. These factors make them relatively easy to detect via
satellite or by monitoring the electricity grid. Iran tried to covertly construct a
gaseous centrifuge enrichment facility by placing the centrifuges underground
and declaring their above-ground facility as an agricultural research center to
study desert eradication to justify the land space and energy consumption.

If a neutral atom is given enough energy, a valence electron will pop off the
atom and separate, creating a positively charged ion that can be influenced using
electromagnetism. This amount of energy is called the atoms ionization
energy. A very interesting isotopic property is that different isotopes have
different ionization energies, meaning that it is possible to ionize Uranium-235
without ionizing Uranium-238 in the same sample. You can then separate the
U-235 from the U-238 by simply controlling the U-235 ions using electric or
magnetic fields. The amount energy that is put into a sample of natural uranium
is controlled via a laser that pulses at a very specific frequency, and thus this
method is known as laser enrichment.

Fig. 49 A simple schematic of a laser enrichment device.

Although commercial laser enrichment plants do not yet exist, this technology
requires significantly less land space and energy consumption compared to all
other existing uranium enrichment methods. This has the benefit of reducing
the cost of nuclear fuel, but also raises concerns in the nuclear nonproliferation
community since facilities that use this technology are harder to identify.

Regardless of what technology is used to enrich the uranium, it is possible to

calculate the percent enrichment of the uranium a plant is producing if the inputs
and outputs of the uranium are known. This is especially useful when
attempting to evaluate whether or not a plant is producing weapons grade

Uranium Enrichment Facilities

Fig. 50 Uranium enrichment plants typically have one input of natural

uranium, and two outputs: the product and the depleted uranium tails

The unit used to evaluate a plants ability to produce enriched uranium is the
Separative Work Unit (SWU). SWU is defined based on the mass of the
uranium going in and out of the enrichment facility, and the percent enrichment
of the uranium going in and out of the enrichment facility. Uranium enrichment
can be thought of as a filtering process. When you put natural uranium through
the filter, you will have a tiny amount of the desired U-235, and a lot of waste
U-238. The desired U-235 is labelled as the plants product, while the waste
by-product is labelled as tails, a term taken from mining and milling operations.

= ( ) + ( ) (33)

( )

In this equation, is mass, is the percent enrichment of the uranium, and

() is shorthand for the value function (which has no units):

1 (34)
() = (1 2) ln ( )

The International Atomic Energy Agency provides public information on the
SWU capacity of enrichment facilities across the globe. The plants are typically
evaluated in terms of Megaton-SWU per year, or how many megatons of
uranium the plant can enrich in a single year (1 megaton = 1 million kilograms).

Fig. 51 Snapshot of the IAEA website listing US enrichment facilities.

To calculate the inputs and outputs of an enrichment plant, all we need to do is

to apply conservation of mass to two inflows. First, the total amount of all
uranium entering and leaving the facility must remain constant:

= + (35)

Second, the total amount of uranium-235 entering the plant must remain the
same. We can account for the U-235 in the conservation of mass equation by
multiplying the individual masses by their percent enrichment:

= + (36)

In most cases, we will know all of the percent enrichments. So, if we know of
any two of the masses, we can do some algebra to find the third mass.

To understand how this information is useful, lets do two hypothetical
examples. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),
Japans Rokkasho Uranium Enrichment Plant has an enrichment capacity of
1050 Megaton-SWU/year. We observed that in the last year, the plant takes in
10 Megatons (10,000,000 kg) of natural uranium (0.72% U-235), produces
3.5% enriched fuel for their power reactors, and their uranium tails are only
0.2% enriched. How much product and tails were produced?

First, lets summarize the problem in table format:

Ex. 1 x V(x) Mass (kg)

Input 0.0072 4.85551 10,000,000
Tails 0.002 6.18776
Product 0.035 3.08461

We want to find the values in the yellow cells. If we use the SWU calculation
in Eq. 33 and conservation of mass, we have two equations that let us solve for
two unknown values. All we need is to do a little bit of algebra:

= + (35)
= + (36)
= +
= + ( )
= +
( ) = ( )
( )
( )

So, if we punch in the numbers from the table into a calculator, we will find that
mass output of the plants product is:

( )
( )
(0.0072 0.002)
(10,000,000 ) =
(0.035 0.002)
1,575,757.576 =

And by doing conservation of mass, the amount of tails produced is:

= + (35)
10,000,000 1,575,757 =
8,424,243 =

So now our table is complete:

Ex. 1 x V(x) Mass (kg)

Input 0.0072 4.85551 10000000
Tails 0.002 6.18776 8424242
Product 0.035 3.08461 1575758

Notice that even though the enrichment of the product was low, nearly 85% of
the uranium entering the plant exited as waste. Now we need to calculate how
much SWU was needed to process this much uranium, using the data from our
completed table:

= ( ) + ( ) (33)

( )
= ( ) + ( ) ( )

= (1575757.576 )(3.084605437)
+ (8424242.424 )(6.187755671)
(10000000 )(4.855507354)
= 8432670.687
= 8.432670687

So in order to process this much uranium, 8.4 million kg-SWU (or 8.4 Megaton-
SWU) was needed. Since we know the capacity of the plant (1050 Megaton-
SWU/year), we can calculate how long it took for Japan to process their


1050 /
= 0.008031115
= 2.931356953

To process 10 Megatons of natural uranium into 1.5 Megatons of 3.5% enriched

uranium (suitable for a power-reactor), it took just under 3 days.

For our second example, say you are called by the FBI who found a secret laser
enrichment facility in an abandoned warehouse in Pittsburgh, PA. The plant
was located after some traces depleted uranium were found in the Allegheny
River, and twenty tons of depleted uranium were found in the back of the
warehouse. It looks as though the place only abandoned within the last hour.
The FBI needs to know if enough enriched uranium was produced for a nuclear
weapon in order to shut down the city and conduct a manhunt.

Uranium is enriched to about 93.5% for nuclear weapons, and the critical mass
of U-235 is about 50 kg. So, we can summarize this scenario in table format as:

Ex. 2 x V(x) Mass (kg)

Input 0.0072 4.85551
Tails 0.002 6.18776 20000
Product 0.935 2.31956

We can perform the same calculations as before to calculate the input and
product masses. The product mass is a more immediate concern for the FBI, but
finding the input amount will be useful later for an investigation:

= + (35)
= + (36)
= +
= ( ) +
= +
= +
( ) = ( )
( )
( )

Now using the numbers from our table:

( )
( )
(0.002 0.935)
= (20,000 )
(0.0072 0.935)

= 20112.09312

And performing conservation of mass once more:

= + (35)
20112.09312 20,000 =
112.0931235 =

Ex. 2 x V(x) (kg)
Input 0.0072 4.85551 20112.09
Tails 0.002 6.18776 20000
Product 0.935 2.31956 112.0931

Since the critical mass of Uranium-235 is only slightly less than 50 kg, our
calculations indicate that enough uranium was produced for two nuclear
weapons. The FBI should be authorized to shut down the city (and possible the
entire state) and conduct a manhunt as well as a search for two nuclear weapons.

The FBI needs to know how long it took to enrich this much uranium so that
they have a time frame to look at security camera footage. If we assume this
covert laser facility has a capacity of 1 Megaton-SWU/yr (which is appropriate
for a laboratory setting and the actual capacity at Lawrence Livermore National
Labs according to the IAEA), we can calculate the SWU needed and the time it
took from the start of operations to enrich the uranium.

SWU required:

= ( ) + ( ) (33)

( )
= ( ) + ( ) ( )
= (112.0931235 )(2.319558556)
+ (20000 )(6.187755671)
(20112.09312 )(4.855507354)
= 26360.70393
= 0.026360704

Time required with 1 MGT-SWU capacity:


1 /
= 0.026
= 9.621656935

In less than two weeks, two nuclear weapons were produced from natural
uranium. After conducting an extensive manhunt, the FBI finds the facility
operator and begins interrogating him for the location of the two bombs. The
man laughs and confesses that there are more than two bombs. A background
check reveals the man is an exiled Iranian nuclear engineer. Iran has drawn
international criticism in the past because while the do not possess any nuclear
weapons, they will stockpile their enriched uranium, meaning that they will
enrich uranium up to 19.75% and place it in storage should they ever want to
develop a weapon quickly. If the operator smuggled just 250 kg of 19.75%
enriched uranium from Iran for use in this secret facility, how many bombs
could he have produced?

At this point, the calculations are the same but will not be repeated. Lets look
at the results in table format:

Ex. 2.1 x V(x) (kg)
Input 0.1975 0.84821 250
Tails 0.002 6.18776 197.6152
Product 0.935 2.31956 52.38478

This means that a third bomb could be produced using a comparatively small
amount of 19.75% enriched uranium. To understand why, consider the amount
of work necessary to enrich uranium from natural to 20%, and 20% to 93%:

Fig. 52 SWU input needed vs percent enrichment

Most of the SWU needed to enrich the uranium (shown in Fig. 52 as the vertical
axis) is already performed when the uranium is enriched to 20%. This means
that if partially enriched uranium is stockpiled, it can be used later to develop a
weapon much faster than if natural uranium were used instead.

Mattingly J. 2017. Notes on Nuclear Fuel Cycles Raleigh: NCSU Nuclear

In-Core Fuel Management
Nuclear power plants typically operate in 18-month cycles, shutting down for
6 months to perform routine maintenance and to shuffle the fuel within the
reactor core. In a power reactor core, not all of the fuel assemblies are made of
the same fuel, or are enriched to the same percent. The reason for this un-even
arrangement is that it is desired to keep all parts of the reactor at the same
temperature, which gives a uniform power distribution throughout the core.

Fig. 50 A top-down view of a reactor core. The different colors of the fuel
assemblies identify the percent enrichment of the fuel assembly.

You will notice in Fig. 50 that the higher enriched assemblies (purple 3.1%) are
located towards the edges, and the lower enriched assemblies (yellow 2.4% and
red 1.6%) are located toward the center. This is done to try and keep the
temperatures even throughout the core.

If all of the assemblies were given the same percent enrichment, then the core
would be hottest at the center and coolest at the edges. The assembly at the
center would be the most prone to melting, and the fuel at the edges are not
producing as much power even though they are made of the same materials and
cost the same price.

When a power reactor is started for the first time, its core is loaded similarly to
that shown in Fig. 50, however replacing an entire core for every outage, is
labor intensive and financially expensive. Instead, the fuel assemblies are
shuffled within the core during the outages so that only about 1/3rd of the core
needs to be replaced with fresh (newly made) fuel. If you start a cycle with 5%
U-235 fuel, over the course of 18 months your percent enrichment may decrease
to around 3% U-235. Since the same assembly is now at a lower enrichment, it
will produce less power and can be moved towards the center of the core.

Fig. 50 A top-down view of a reactor core. The gray colored assemblies

were shuffled from a previous cycle, while the colored ones are fresh.

The assemblies are shuffled 2-4 times before they are permanently removed
from the core to be placed into waste storage. It is interesting to note that even
though the assemblies are chosen to be removed, the fuel is still capable of
producing power at lower levels in the core. The reason they are removed is
that the power plants need to operate at a constant, high power level to be
economically feasible, and this requires new fuel to be added during each cycle.

Spent Fuel Reprocessing
Spent fuel rods that are sent to fuel reprocessing facilities arrive in dry storage
casks, which are then placed into pools. The pools provide both cooling and
radiation shielding for the workers when the fuel assemblies are extracted from
the storage casks. The fuel assemblies are then moved to a protected location
where they are chopped up by an industrial shearing device; this allows the fuel
pellets to be physically separated from the cladding that forms the tube of the
fuel rod. The chopped bits of fuel are then dissolved in nitric acid (or
hydrofluoric acid if the cladding still remains) so that the uranium, plutonium,
and waste fission products can be chemically separated.

Fig. 51 Summary of the first chemical separation process.

After the uranium and plutonium have been separated from the fission products,
they are then chemically purified so that the uranium and plutonium are
separated from one another. This process is repeated multiple times to extract
as much U and Pu as economically feasible.

Fig. 52 Summary of the purification process.

The resulting U and Pu can then be used to create uranium oxide fuel or
uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel and placed into storage.

Fig. 53 Summary of the entire fuel reprocessing process.

Worrall A. Reprocessing and Recycle. Oak Ridge National Laboratory;
[accessed 2017 Jun 21]

Nuclear and Radiological Waste
In addition to the spent nuclear fuel, there are other forms of radiological waste
that require special care and protection. Many industrial and medical
radioisotopes have very high activities that require large amounts of shielding,
and one of the more pressing challenges in the United States is finding
alternative technologies to replace these radioisotopes that arent based on a
decaying radioisotope. Assuming this goal is met, the government will have
many industrial and medical radioactive sources that will need proper disposal.

High Level Waste (HLW) is made of the fission products from the fission of
uranium or plutonium in the reactor. HLW isotopes can have medium to short
length long half-lives (hundreds of years), resulting in fairly high activity levels
that require long term storage solutions to allow the HLW to decay away.

Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) is a vaguely defined category, though items in

this category will normally require shielding when handled. This may include
mechanical parts that have been exposed to radiation and as a result have
become radioactive themselves.

Transuranic Waste (TRU) are the large isotopes produced from uranium and
plutonium absorbing particles without undergoing fission or decay. TRU is
normally found at fuel reprocessing facilities and includes the plutonium that
can be extracted from spent fuel and made into new reactor fuel.

Mine and Mill Tails are byproducts of uranium mining. The primary concern
with this waste is that natural uranium will decay into radon gas, which in large
quantities over a long period of time may induce lung cancer.

Low Level Waste (LLW) includes items or sources with activities of up to 1 Ci.
These do not normally require shielding to handle but should be kept in separate

storage containers and properly labelled, such as some research isotopes or
gloves that were disposed of after handling some radioactive material.

The requirements for storing and shielding against nuclear and radiological
waste is highly dependent on what isotopes are present. Different forms of
radiation have different health effects and material penetration depths. The
categories above are helpful when categorizing mixtures of isotopes such as
spent nuclear fuel where the exact amount of an individual isotope are not
precisely known for each individual fuel assembly.

Spent nuclear fuel makes for an interesting example of nuclear waste

management because of its composition. Uranium-238 is by far the most
common isotope present, and there are small but not negligible quantities of
Plutonium and other Uranium isotopes that could be used for new fuel. The
actual waste products that cannot be reused in a power reactor only make up
a small fraction of the spent fuel.

Fig. 54 Composition table of LWR fuel

The most important thing to note here is that the Uranium and Plutonium
isotopes (except Pu-241) have long half-lives, and thus very low activities. Most
of the activity from spent nuclear fuel comes from the fission products which
only comprise 3.5% weight of the spent fuel. Reprocessing the spent fuel to
separate the uranium and plutonium isotopes would significantly reduce the
volume of nuclear waste that would need long term storage.

The U.S. Department of Energy was required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act
of 1982 to remove spent nuclear fuel from power plant sites into a long term
storage facility by 1998, and they have yet to achieve this goal for a mix of
technical and political reasons. This has resulted in multiple lawsuits against
the Department of Energy, and required modification and inspection of existing
dry cask storage containers to store the waste long past their original 40 year
lifespan design.

Fig. 55 Possible HLW Storage Solutions

The goal of nuclear waste storage is not to contain the waste forever; only long
enough for the radioactivity level to decay beneath background radiation levels.
The radioactivity of natural uranium is a common metric, since very few people
consider natural uranium ore to be a radiation hazard.

Fig. 56 Toxicity of different components of spent nuclear fuel.

Notice that if the Plutonium isotopes and the Minor Actinides & decay products
were recycled into fuel or repurposed as industrial isotopes, only the fission
products would remain a radiological hazard. This would turn a 100,000 year
storage problem into one that only lasts 300 years.

Shultis JK, Faw RE. 2008. Fundamentals of Nuclear Science and Engineering.
Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Worrall A. Reprocessing and Recycle. Oak Ridge National Laboratory;

[accessed 2017 Jun 21]

Radiation Detection and Handling
Radiation Detectors
Radiation detectors are based on radiation interactions with matter. You can
think of a film photograph as a type of photon detector because the image it
produces is based on the light that interacts with the chemicals in the film.

The two most common types of radiation detectors used in nuclear science are
gas-filled detectors and scintillation detectors. In gas filled detectors, incoming
radiation strikes gas molecules in a sealed container containing two electrically
charged plates. The energy from the radiation separates electrons from their
host atoms, and creates electron-ion pairs that are oppositely charged. These
charged particles will move to the oppositely charged plates inside the
container, creating an electrical signal that can then be correlated with the
radiation itself. Depending on the design of the gas chamber, the detector can
be used to determine the type (beta, gamma, etc.) and the energy of the

Geiger-Mueller counters are perhaps the most commonly known, but these
detectors are only capable of detecting the presence of radiation, not the type or
energy of radiation. GM counters are useful in evaluating contaminated
environments or identifying whether or not a substance is radioactive. GM
counters consist of the gas filled chamber and the electric signal reader. The gas
chamber may be seen as a cylindrical tube that can be moved around, or the gas
chamber may be included on the bottom of the detector which must be moved
as a whole. The electric signal reader may be a simple analog dial, similar to a
car speedometer, or it may have an electronic interface. All types of GM
counters work on the same physical principle; everything else is simply
preference in design.

Fig. 57 Image of a GM counter with a cable-attached gas chamber.

Scintillator detectors work on a slightly different principle. Incoming radiation

excites electrons in solid (crystalline) materials to a higher energy level. The
electron returns to its original energy level by emitting light. This light is then
sent through a photo-multiplier tube that amplifies the light, which is then used
to create an electrical signal.

Fig. 57 Scintillation detector schematic with photo-multiplier tube.

The design of a radiation detector will depend on its intended application.
Design parameters will include the size of the detector, type of gas or crystal
inside the detector, the amount of shielding that surrounds the detection
chamber, and the operating voltage of the detector. Radioisotopes can be
identified using certain detectors because the distribution (or spectrum) of the
type and energy of radiation emitted is unique to the isotope. Mixtures of
radioisotopes are more challenging to identify as signals may overlap, but it
may still be possible to identify some of the isotopes present in the sample.
Identifying isotopes based on the electrical signals produced by their radiation
is called spectroscopy.

Fig. 58 An example spectrum for a Cs-137 source.

Spectroscopy is used in forensic analyses to identify contaminants or poisons,

and in nuclear security to identify special nuclear material or radioisotopes
present in a sample.

Radiation Safety
It has been mentioned previously that different types of radiation have different
penetration distances requiring different amounts of radiation shielding.
Specific calculations will be done by nuclear engineers or health physicists if a
sample is extremely dangerous, but in many cases people will work with low to
medium risk radioisotopes without significant shielding.

Radiation exposure to living material (plants, animals, and people) is referred

to as dose, and dose limits are normally set on yearly amounts. Different
radiation sources have different dose rates that determine how much dose you
will receive in a certain time. People working with low-level radioisotopes will
experience low dose rates and likely never exceed their yearly dose limit.
Underwater welders who service the pools at nuclear facilities may receive their
entire years worth of dose in only a few days. Emergency responders to nuclear
accidents will also reach their yearly dose limit rather fast, which is problematic
as it requires additional emergency responders and no one with experience with
the accident. Once you reach your yearly dose limit, you are legally not allowed
to be exposed to radiation until the next year.

The first rule in working with radioactive materials is referred to keep your dose
ALARA, which stands for As Low As Reasonably Achievable. This simply
means only spend as much time as necessary next to a radiation source, and stay
as far away from the source as you can while you have to work with it.

The units for dose are complicated, because some forms of radiation are more
dangerously to be exposed to than others. Alpha particles are dangerous due to
their size, but can be protected against very easily. Neutrons are dangerous as
they can be absorbed by the organic nuclei in your body, and they are difficult
to shield against because they do not have an electric charge.

Basic Health Physics
The unit for Radiation Absorbed Dose is the RAD, which refers to the amount
of energy any type of material absorbs through radiation. RADs are used to
describe how long a material has been left exposed to radiation. A more
common unit for radiation absorbed dose is the Gray (Gy), which puts the RAD
in terms of the amount of energy absorbed per unit mass:

1 = 1 = 100

The unit for exposure to people is REM (Roentgen Equivalent Man). This unit
relates human exposure to radiation to the amount of biological damage caused
by the radiation. Again, a more common unit for REM is the Sievert (Sv):

1 = 1 = 100

The difference between equations (37) and (38) is simply in the type of material
that is being exposed: is it living? If yes, use equation (38)

The effective dose H (REM or Sv) is calculated by multiplying the material

dose D (RAD or Gy) by a quality factor QF. The quality factor describes how
damaging the type of radiation is to living material.

= (39)

Another complication is that the human body is made up of many different types
of living tissue. Different organs and bones will be able to tolerate higher doses
than other parts of the body before they show signs of damage.

Exposure to radiation can have deterministic (short-term) effects as well as
stochastic (probabilistic) effects on human health. Deterministic effects are
effects that do not occur below a certain level of radiation. Common examples
of a deterministic effects of radiation include hair loss, which occurs after a
dose of about 2 Gy, and skin erythema (first-degree burn) after a dose of about
2-3 Gy. While these effects are considered short-term, they are not necessarily
immediate; hair loss and skin erythema may occur over a period of two weeks
or more. Further exposure may result in permanent damage to the skin or
possibly death.

Stochastic effects are effects that occur by chance and the severity of the effects
are not determined by a persons dose. An example of a stochastic effect is
cancer; one either contracts cancer or one does not, and the severity of the
cancer is unrelated to how long someone was exposed to radiation. The Nuclear
Regulatory Commission uses a linear no-threshold model for stochastic effects
of radiation, meaning that for regulatory purposes, any exposure to radiation in
any amount should be considered as an increased risk for contracting a
stochastic effect of radiation.

The reasoning behind the linear no-threshold model is that data points to
correlate dose to cancer contraction exist at very high doses (Japanese victims
of the atomic bombs) and low doses (workers in the nuclear industry). The
safest possible assumption given this data is that higher doses will increase the
risk of cancer. While middle-ground data points exist in laboratory settings for
animals, no significant amount of data exists for humans. As it turns out, very
few people are willing to volunteer themselves to be exposed to medium
amounts of radiation that may or may not induce cancer as well as other
deterministic effects to develop a more accurate model for health physicists.

Risk Assessment and Management
Risk and Society
Risk in a very general sense is a probability that something undesirable will
occur, and there are different magnitudes of risk that people are willing to
accept. A minor risk may be tripping as a result refusing to tie ones shoes. A
major risk may be to jump out of a building to escape a fire. These examples
give us a qualitative understanding of what risks people will accept, and in
many applications only a qualitative understanding is needed. However in cases
that have severe consequences, a quantitative, mathematical understanding of
risk is needed. An individuals understanding of risk greatly influences their
personal lifestyle choices, and societys understanding of risk greatly influences
public policy. Having a mathematical understanding of the different risks
people face in society can identify the greatest risks posed to society, which can
then be addressed through public policy and individual behavior.

As an example, one of the greatest concerns of American citizens is the risk of

contracting cancer. Cancer of any form terrifies Americans for several reasons:
cancer may result in death, treatment of cancer is expensive and invasive, and
perhaps most significantly it is a disease that very few people fully understand.
Significant amounts of money and education go towards supporting research
that aims to prevent or cure cancer. People will avoid things that are associated
with contraction of cancer, such as unknown chemicals or exposure to any
amount of radiation. Different types of cancer will receive different amounts of
financial and academic resources based on how society perceives the risk posed
by that specific type of cancer. For example, breast cancer and prostate cancer
have similar contraction rates among their respective sexes, but breast cancer
receives disproportionally more funding from the compared to prostate cancer.
This is a result of breast cancer having greater publicity than prostate cancer,
and different cultural values placed on womens health and mens health.

Fig. 59 Distribution of cancer research funds by cancer type.

Yet in the United States, cancer is not the leading cause of death; it is heart
disease, which is comparatively less dreadful. Heart disease is considered
normal or socially acceptable cause of death because its causes, symptoms, and
treatments are seen as more familiar and more preventable than those associated
with cancer.

Fig. 60 CDC mortality statistics for the US in 2014. Malignant neoplasms

represent cancer, and are the second leading cause of death in the US

Consequentially, heart disease receives less research funding than cancer.
Another interesting example is the funding between HIV and Alzheimers
disease research; HIV kills significantly less people than Alzheimers disease
per year (~7,000 vs ~100,000), yet HIV receives far more research funding.
Again, this is due to different cultural values placed on the victims of each
disease (Alzheimers is seen as primarily a disease for the elderly, while HIV
is associated with young adults) and the publicity associated with each disease.

Fig. 61 NIH research funding allocations by disease for 2011

The purpose of invoking these statistics is to illustrate how social perception of

risk affects human behavior. People will act on what they believe to be true, and
the goal of risk assessment is to find and communicate accurate information so
that individuals and societys beliefs are based on truth.

Influence of Familiarity and Dread
Regardless of the consequences or likelihood of an event, the primary factors
that influence how a person will respond to a risk is familiarity with the risk,
and the dread associated with the risk. Auto accidents are a very familiar, well
understood risk that do not induce a lot of dread, despite the fact that auto
accidents are frequent and kill ~33,000 Americans per year. When auto
accidents occur, blame is normally placed on the operator of the vehicle, and
less frequently on the auto manufacturer or the surrounding infrastructure.
Risks that are less familiar to society will often be blamed on the developer of
the technology or public policies rather than the operator itself. These are
independent of the consequences or frequency of an event.

Consider the following: when a bridge collapses, societys first priority (after
emergency response) is replacing the bridge. Bridges are critical pieces of
infrastructure that are necessary for that society to function economically. No
one doubts the concept of a bridge or proposes that all bridges be replaced with
landfills connecting the two ends of the bridges. People understand that bridges
fail for a number of reasons, but they can be repaired and properly maintained
by trained professionals.

Now consider the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power accident in March 2011.
The worlds fourth largest earthquake on record (and Japans largest ever) at
magnitude 9.0 hit off the coast of Fukushima, Japan. Without going into
technical details about the accident (which can be found here), the earthquake
was followed by a large tsunami that resulted in significant amounts of property
damage and death. The main story at the time of the earthquake did not follow
the flooding damage or disaster relief; it focused on the Daiichi Nuclear plant
which was beginning to experience core meltdowns and loss of coolant to the
spent fuel pools. People recognized the implications of the tsunami damage, but
not the implications of a major nuclear power accident.

The international response to the accident were significant. Siemens
engineering company withdrew from the nuclear industry altogether and
cancelled nuclear power plant construction plans in Russia. Public opinion of
nuclear power in the United States fell below the levels seen after the Three
Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. Switzerland decided that it would no
longer build any nuclear power plants in the future and would concentrate their
energy growth on renewables.

Although the economic and cultural impacts of the Fukushima accident were
significant, there have been no reported deaths associated with the release of
radiation since the accident. Fukushima was far from the worst possible nuclear
accident, but it was extremely well publicized through traditional and social
media. Communication between the response team, the international nuclear
industry, and the public was poor, which lead to confusion about the severity of
and response to the accident. Existing fears about the effects of radiation still
lingered from the Cold War, previous nuclear accidents such as Three Mile
Island and Chernobyl, and pop culture media involving movies and comic
books creating super-heroes and monsters resulting from radiation exposure.

Paul Slovic was a psychologist who in 1987 attempted to quantify public risk
perception. Familiarity factor with a risk was placed on one spectrum and
included whether or not the consequences were observable, immediate, new,
known to science, and known to the victims. Dread associated with risks was
placed on a separate spectrum that included whether or not the consequences
were controllable, fatal, individual, reducible, increasing over time, voluntary,
and risky to future generations. After these spectrums were created, different
risks faced by society were placed according to their familiarity and dread. The
most socially unacceptable risks were those that were unfamiliar and had high
amounts of dread, while socially acceptable risks were well understood and not
very dreadful.

Fig. 62 Paul Slovics spectrum. Socially acceptable risks are located at the
bottom left, and unacceptable risks are located towards the top right.

There are important considerations that must be taken when looking at Slovics
spectrum. The first is that this spectrum is based on psychological factors, not
statistical factors. In the entire history of American nuclear power, there have
been no deaths resulting from the operation of a civilian nuclear power plant.
Yet, nuclear power is often deemed a socially unacceptable risk because it is
not well understood by the general public, and that the potential consequences
may be extreme. The second consideration is that this 2D spectrum was created
in 1987, before the age of the internet and social media. Social media tends to
spread misinformation as it is based on popularity rather than truth, but the
internet has also allowed for rapid access to information about previously
esoteric topics. There are numerous high-quality and publicly understandable
videos on unfamiliar topics such as nuclear power, genetically modified foods,
cyber security, medical procedures, and industrial chemicals. The availability
of accurate information as well as the desire to seek it out can change public
opinion on controversial topics involving risk.

Quantifying Risk using Frequency-Response Curves

The factors considered on Slovics psychological spectrum were familiarity and
dread, and any risk could be represented on this spectrum as a single point.
Statistical modelling uses the frequency of an event associated with the risk and
the consequences associated with the risk to create a 2D spectrum. Quantifying
frequency is very simple since it is simply the number of times an accident
happens. Consequence, however, is much harder to quantify. The consequences
of any accident may be immediate, prolonged, cause irreversible damage, affect
future generations, psychological and cultural. In most cases, statistical models
will quantify consequence in monetary amounts or in number of deaths. One
unsettling factor is that human life is often assigned a monetary value to perform
these analyses, and the monetary amount will be different depending on what
risk is being analyzed.

Consider that all risks associated with driving a car are purely financial, and
that your car is worth $10,000. The worst possible accident would involve
having your car totaled or completely break down, making you lose all the value
on your car. The simplest accident associated with owning a car would be
simple repairs and maintenance; you would have to pay $25 to replace a faulty
light bulb, $200 to replace the brake pads, etc. Now consider how often these
accidents would occur; would you buy a car that would completely break down
once every 5 years? If not, would you buy a car if it completely broke down
once every 50 years? What if you had to replace the brake pads every two
months? Every year? Every decade?

Every accident has a frequency and a consequence, and these can be represented
on a graph as coordinates. Ideally, all frequencies and consequences will be
low, but it is more important that the high consequence accidents have a very
low frequency. Lets look at a Frequency-Consequence graph using our car
ownership example.

Replacement Frequency (per every 10 years) Cost
Lights 2 $25.00
Brakes 15 $200.00
Tires 15 $300.00
Airbags 1 $400.00
Bumper 3 $600.00
Windshield 1 $800.00
Car 0.4 $10,000.00

After owning a car for 40 years, we have made a table showing the types of
expenses, how many times they occurred every 10 years, and how much they
cost. These results can be displayed graphically, as shown below:

Risks Associated with Owning a Car


Frequency (per every 10 years)



$0.00 $2,000.00 $4,000.00 $6,000.00 $8,000.00 $10,000.00
Consequence (in Dollars)

Fig. 63 Frequency-Consequence curve for car owners.

We can visually see that there are quite a number of accidents (which will be
addressed as events from now on), but the most frequent events did not cost a
lot in comparison to the worst possible scenario. Most of the data points are too
close together to see properly on this graph. We can fix this by putting the axes
on a log-log scale, which increases by factors of 10.

Risks Associated with Owning a Car

Frequency (per every 10 years)


$1.00 $10.00 $100.00 $1,000.00 $10,000.00
Consequence (in Dollars)

Fig. 64 F-C curve for car owners on a log-log plot.

Although the shape of the plot is slightly different, the data points remain the
same, and now we can see the individual data points much more clearly. Many
formal risk analyses will use log-log plots to display their data. Now lets find
a way to use this plot.

We want to buy a new car, but we want it to be better than the one we just had.
Specifically, we want the car to require less maintenance, and we do not care
how long the car will last because we are now rich and can buy a new car every
five years. How do we represent this on a Frequency Consequence curve? Lets
update our table to show what kind of car we will accept.

Frequency/Decade Frequency/Decade
Replacement (Old) (New) Cost
Lights 2 4 $25.00
Brakes 15 4 $200.00
Tires 15 2 $300.00
Airbags 1 0.5 $400.00
Bumper 3 0.5 $600.00
Window 1 0.5 $800.00
Car 0.4 2 $10,000.00

Overall we are asking for less total maintenance, particularly in changing the
brakes and tires, but we would like to change the lights more often because
there are different colored lights we can try out. If we plot this on our existing
Frequency-Consequence curve, we get the following graph:

Risks Associated with Owning a Car

Frequency (Per every 10 years)


$1.00 $10.00 $100.00 $1,000.00 $10,000.00
Consequence (in Dollars)

Fig. 65 Our desired specifications for a new car.

So when we buy a new car, all of our points for our new vehicle should be under
the red dashed line. Engineers must design a product that meets this requirement
so that the customer is satisfied. Regulatory agencies will often give engineers
similar demands that are based on number of fatalities per accident rather than
financial cost as a means to protect the public.

When we apply this concept to societal risks such as bridges, highways, power
plants, disease, famine, and airplanes, the red dashed line represents the socially
acceptable risk threshold. As long as all of the risks faced by society fall under
this threshold, people will feel at ease when a specific technology is being used.

Frequency-Consequence Curves for Nuclear Power
Now we must shift our focus of risk from owning a car to allowing a nuclear
power plant to operate. Many of the same concepts apply, however the
magnitude of the consequences are much larger.

In general, nuclear power plants are high consequence, low frequency facilities.
Nuclear facilities recognize that the material they work with is critical
infrastructure that provides immense amounts of electricity to the nation, and
that in a major disaster there is a very real threat of exposing the public to high
amounts of radiation. Whats more is that any medium to high level
consequence event puts not only their own facility at risk, but also the entire
global nuclear industry. These considerations have created a safety culture at
most nuclear facilities where failures are seen as a systematic failure, and so
everyone must be responsible in ensuring the safety of the workers at the facility
as well as the facility itself.

A recent (2013) study done by Ohio State University compared the risks posed
by nuclear power plants to socially acceptable risk in the United States. Socially
acceptable risk was determined by events such as hurricanes, mine collapses,
auto accidents, and plane crashes. Engineers at nuclear power facilities like to
design new plants and modifications to existing plants with the aim of making
the plant three orders of magnitude (1000 times) safer than socially accepted
risks. The idea is that this provides real, quantitative data that can then be used
to prove the safety of a nuclear facility to the public or to regulators. Of course,
not everyone will be able to understand these concepts, so it is necessary that
someone who does understand can properly communicate how a plants safety
performance is evaluated using these statistical methods.

Fig. 66 Nuclear Power Plant risk compared to socially acceptable risk.

Another study performed by the Nuclear Energy Agency in 2010 compared the
global risk of nuclear power to other forms of energy by analyzing the number
of severe accidents between 1969 and 2000. Two Frequency-Consequence
graphs were created; one for countries participating in the Organization for
Economic Co-operation Development (OECD) and non-OECD. These graphs
were primarily focused with the safety of each energy source, and modelled
their consequence spectrum with deaths resulting from an event rather than the
monetary cost. Two trends can be observed: countries that participate in the
OECD have safer records with energy production, and nuclear energy has the
fewest amounts of deaths per amount of electricity produced. The study used
latent fatalities for nuclear, meaning that they performed a statistical estimate
on the number of people expected to die in the future resulting from exposure
to radiation from the use of nuclear power.

Fig. 67 Excerpt from the NEAs 2010 study on risks in the energy sector.

An additional study published by two NASA-affiliated scientists in 2013

analyzed how many lives were saved by using nuclear power rather than
fossil fuels. The study found that historical use of nuclear power has globally
prevented 1.84 million air pollution deaths and 64 giga-tons of greenhouse gas

Denning R, McGhee S. 2013. The Societal Risk of Severe Accidents in Nuclear
Power Plants. The Ohio State University.

The Societal Risk of Severe Accidents in Nuclear Power Plants. 2010. Nuclear
Energy Agency 6861.

Kharecha PA, Hansen JE. 2013. Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas
emissions from historical and projected nuclear power. Environmental Science
& Technology [accessed 2013 Mar 4];

Energy Economics and Politics
Power Consumption Trends
Consider your daily routine, from 12:00 am 11:59pm. You wake up at 7am,
turn on some lights and make yourself some breakfast, while watching the
morning news. You will take a shower using warm water and possibly an
electric heater. You then turn off your unused appliances and lights and then
head to work at 8am. Your office is located in a fancy LEED certified energy
efficient building, and your building is shared by thousands of other office
tenants. You work from 9am 5pm with a small lunch break, and then you head
home. You are mentally drained from work, so you play video games from
6pm-8pm until you get hungry enough to make dinner. You decide you want to
make pasta on your electric stove, and it will take some time for the pasta to
boil, so you turn on some music. You finish dinner at 9:30pm, then take another
shower. You finish showering at 10:30pm, set your thermostat to the
temperature that best helps you sleep, and fall asleep by 11:30pm, or perhaps
3:00am if you have children. You repeat this routine 5 days a week for 50 weeks
out of the year.

As it turns out, you are one of millions of Americans with this lifestyle. Most
of your personal time is spent in the morning and evening, while you operate
on autopilot at work, and sleep overnight. The electricity grid is responsible for
providing you with the electricity you and millions of other Americans need in
order for this lifestyle to work. The utility companies that manage the
economics of the electricity grid will solicit multiple power plants to send
electricity through the transmission lines and charge their customers through
their electricity bills. The utilities may or may not be regulated, but like every
other business, the reason for their own existence is to make money. However,
the amount of electricity that is being produced must exactly match the
electricity being consumed by the customers; any less results in unsatisfied
customers, any more results in damaging the grid and potential wide-spread

Lets look at a chart showing how power consumption changes through the day:

Fig. 68 A typical electricity load curve.

You can see that in the early hours of the morning when people are sleeping,
the power consumption is rather low, and more importantly it is fairly constant.
Even when we arent active, we need electricity to power our refrigerators,
HVAC units, and street lights. When we wake up, we start turning on appliances
like televisions, toasters, computers, mobile devices, and so on, increasing our
power consumption. Large office buildings and industrial complexes consume
a lot of electricity, and will put forth a lot of effort into improving their energy
efficiency to save significant amounts of money. This is why you see a flat,
almost dipping curve during the middle of the day. After work, people like to
entertain themselves at smaller facilities like restaurants or theaters that dont
care as much for energy efficiency, or they will go home and use their
entertainment devices instead. Power consumption finally falls when people
start to go back to sleep.

All power plants will need to know how much power they should be expected
to produce. The utilities will look at energy consumption data and develop
power production plans for each plant based on this data. You can imagine that
the amount of power needed will be dependent on a lot of factors, especially
the weather. Many people will want to heat their homes during the winter, and
many will want to turn on the air conditioning during the summer. Christmas
lights put up in millions of homes for the month of December will certainly
increase the load of electricity needed as well.

Fig. 69 Power demand changes depending on the weather.

The terms base load, intermediate load, and peak load are used in describing
different parts of the load curve and are discussed in detail in the next sections.

Base Load, Intermediate Load, and Peak Load
Regardless of the time of day or season of the year, you can say for certain that
there will always be a minimum amount of electricity demand. Beyond home
appliances, public services such as hospitals, police stations, fire departments,
and Dennys restaurants will be in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
This minimum amount of demand is referred to as the base load. Utilities must
plan their power plants to always be capable of providing base load electricity,
primarily because it is guaranteed revenue, but also because it serves as the
cornerstone for a modern functioning society.

Above the base load is the intermediate load. This load is a secondary base load
that is consumed by facilities that operate during daytime hours. Office
buildings, industrial production facilities, and commercial stores & restaurants
with happy employees all fall into this category. Utilities will need power plants
that can make money by only operating during daytime hours.

The most challenging power demand to meet is the peak load. The peak load is
entirely dependent on impulsive or personal human activities, such as HVAC
systems, parties, festivals, home entertainment and appliances, emergency
responses, laboratory experiments, and so on. The hours of the day that have
the highest energy demand are called peak hours. Meeting the peak load
demand is difficult because power plants that can switch from 0 to 100% power
in a very short time frame are needed to meet the exact energy demand. Most
utilities have a monopoly on energy production for their area, and a condition
of allowing this monopoly is providing peak load electricity. Even if these types
of power plants are not always profitable, the utility can still make a return on
investment through providing the other loads.

Renewable vs Non-Renewable Energy Resources
Renewable energy resources are loosely defined as energy sources that
harvest energy from the Earth in such a way that the depleted resource can be
replaced in less than 100 years. Wind turbines, solar photovoltaic cells, solar
towers, solar farms, hydroelectric generators, geological heating, and biofuels
all fall into this category. Many renewable technologies that rely on a heat
source (such as solar towers and biofuels) rely on the same Rankine cycle that
nuclear power plants use to produce electricity. Wind turbines and hydroelectric
generators skip the Rankine cycle and instead use a one-directional flow of air
or water to directly spin a turbine to produce electricity. Solar photovoltaic cells
(or solar panels) utilize a completely different physical process that involves
silicon absorbing photons (light particles) from the sun, causing electrons to
separate from their host atom and creating differently charged parts of the cell.
This causes the electrons to flow towards the positively charged end of the cell,
and this flow is the electricity itself.

Non-renewable energy resources are resources that cannot be replaced in the

foreseeable future of human existence. All fossil fuels fall into this category
because they are based on the burning of hydrocarbon molecules made with the
remains of dead plant and animal matter over thousands or millions of years of
geological pressure. Biofuels may fall into this category depending on how the
fuel is harvested. As an example, trees in forests are often cut down in
developing countries for use as firewood. The presence of these trees keeps the
forest soil moist and protected from the sun, so cutting them down may result
in the soil drying up, especially if they are cut down before they can naturally
regrow. If the soil dries up, then no trees can be planted or grown, therefore
making the harvest of trees for firewood a non-renewable resource. This
specific process is an example deforestation, where large forests or stands of
trees are removed and not replaced with new trees. Deforestation reduces the
amount of carbon dioxide (and air pollutants) absorbed from the atmosphere
and destroys food sources & habitat options for local and migrating wildlife.

Fig. 70 NASA satellite images showing deforestation occurring in
Cambodia, as forests are cleared to make room for agricultural plots.

Nuclear energy is traditionally categorized as a non-renewable resource

because of the once-through fuel cycle that consumes natural uranium and
produces nuclear waste. Nuclear engineers may argue that nuclear power can
be made partially renewable as much of the spent nuclear fuel can be
reprocessed into new fuel for specialized breeder reactors. The labels
renewable and non-renewable are environmental science terms that are
useful in performing macroscopic studies on human behavior, but are
functionally irrelevant to utility companies. These terms and the yes vs no
mindset they promote fail to encompass the truly important aspects of selecting
an energy resource: cost to the owner, capacity, reliability, resilience, impact
to human society, and impact to the environment.

Energy Resource Considerations in Meeting Power Demand
Consider the distribution of energy resources used to power the United States:

Fig. 71 Electricity generation by resource in the United States.

The cost to the owner of an energy resource is the most important consideration
for the majority of energy consumers. Fossil fuels readily accessible using
traditional mining, drilling, and transportation technologies, and have become
cheaper to acquire using advanced and automated techniques. The main
requirement in operating a fossil fuel plant is knowledge of the Rankine cycle.
Nuclear facilities are slightly more expensive to operate due to severe (but
necessary) safety and security regulations that protect the public, as well as
additional understanding on the operation of nuclear reactors. For many years,
renewable energy resources simply did not produce enough electricity to offset
their production. This is beginning to change for multiple, complex reasons that
will soon be discussed.

Capacity is the maximum possible amount of energy that can be produced by an
energy resource. The recently built Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System
in Californias Mojave Desert uses hundreds of mirrors to redirect sunlight into
towers containing water. The sunlight inputs heat to turn the water into steam
for the Rankine cycle. This facility has a capacity of 392 Megawatts; its actual
power output is entirely dependent on the time of day since it requires the sun
to operate.

Fig. 72 Ivanpahs eastern solar tower.

Reliability is the ability of a technology to produce a specific amount of power

at the time it is demanded. Choosing a solar facility to provide base load
electricity would be a poor choice as solar technologys energy input is only
available during daytime hours. Similarly, wind turbines are dependent on the
speed of the wind, which is arguably less predictable than the availability of the
sun. Natural gas and hydroelectric plants are extremely reliable for meeting
peak load demands because they can rapidly change their power production.
Coal and nuclear plants are very reliable for providing base load electricity
because they can be scaled up to produce large amounts of power and can
operate for years at a time without shutting down.

Significant amounts of research are being invested in energy storage technology
to improve the reliability of renewable technologies. A major challenge for all
forms of energy storage is The Second Law of Thermodynamics, which
effectively states that you will lose energy every time it is stored or extracted.
More simply, you can never get back 100% of the energy you store. Even so, it
is still possible to make money using energy storage by providing electricity
when it is high demand. As an example, water at a hydroelectric facility may
be pumped up to an emergency reservoir. Should there be an increase in power
demand, the facility can open the gates to the emergency reservoir to
temporarily increase the flow of water and produce more electricity. An
advanced concept of energy storage involves voluntarily allowing the
electricity grid to siphon electricity from the batteries of electric cars and mobile
devices to meet peak demand.

Resilience is the ability of a power production facility to recover its power

output in an emergency and its ability to prevent emergencies from impeding
its power production. Emergencies that would affect power production plants
include natural disasters, physical attacks, cyber-attacks, and human error.
Wind turbines are inherently more resilient to flooding than they are to
tornados. Nuclear power plants are extremely resilient to physical and cyber-
attacks due to extensive and proactive security practices. Human error can range
from poor operational practices at a Ukrainian nuclear power plant to a sleeping
truck driver plowing through an array of solar panels beside the road. Each
energy resource has vulnerabilities unique to the resource itself, as well as
vulnerabilities shared by other resources. For this reason, it is important to have
a mixed portfolio of energy resources that are capable of covering for each other
should one become unavailable. An energy grid that is 100% reliant on solar
would do poorly in the evenings, and an energy grid that is 100% nuclear would
do poorly when the uranium fuel needs to be swapped out.

Impact to Human Society is a factor that encompasses economics, health, and
culture. Using an energy resource should improve a societys quality of life, at
least more than it may harm it. Coal use during the Industrial revolution brought
significant air pollution and industrial waste to manufacturing cities, and
marked the first significant human release of greenhouse gas emissions into the
atmosphere. Burning coal made city life miserable, but what is often forgotten
was that it made city life an option in the first place; most of humanity lived in
rural farmlands until the Industrial revolution began. Dangerous and morally
questionable jobs became available in industrial cities, but they allowed for a
lifestyle that was not relegated to tending fields. The advent of nuclear
technology brought the risk of nuclear war and hazardous nuclear waste, but it
also replaced coal power plants and improved air quality. The use of nuclear
power requires technical expertise that promotes higher education and well-
paying jobs. Each resource has benefits and drawbacks, and a primary goal of
using a mixed energy portfolio is to balance out the drawbacks such that society
as a whole continues to improve.

Fig. 73 2016 employment statistics for electricity production by resource.

Impact on the Environment is a factor that considers how an energy resource
affects the ability for humans to use other natural resources as well as the ability
for the natural environment to function and recover autonomously. Beyond
general concern for environmental quality, it is important to recognize that
nature is directly intertwined with local economies and cultural heritage. In
2014, improperly stored coal ash at a retired coal power plant was discharged
into the Dan River in North Carolina. The river was used as a source of fresh
water, recreation, tourism, and fishing, and the Coal Ash Spill effectively
terminated these uses. An effect of burning fossil fuels is that the ocean
chemistry is changing as it absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,
creating carboxylic acid. This ocean acidification has irreversibly damaged
coral reef ecosystems that serve as habitats for fish and economic assistance as
popular tourist destinations.

Fig. 74 Ocean acidification has caused once colorful and vibrant coral
reefs to bleach themselves white.

All energy sources have an impact on the environment. Again, having a mixed
energy portfolio ideally distributes the damage in a way that the environment is
capable of self-recovery.

Environmental Consequences for Various Energy Resources
Renewable energy resources that do not produce carbon emissions are often
erroneously labelled as clean or eco-friendly for having no carbon
emissions during their electricity production operations, implying that the
technology has little to no harmful impact on the environment. These labels are
granted in the sense of combating climate change, however they ignore the
immediate environmental effects of using an energy resource.

Solar Towers
Solar towers are sited in remote desert locations where the air is naturally hot
and the sun exposure is prolonged. This heat is then concentrated by the
heliostats (large mirrors) into the central solar tower. Anything that flies in the
path between the heliostats and the tower instantly ignites. Roughly 6,000 birds
die annually at the Ivanpah solar facility as they fly by or towards the tower to
perch. These birds (and the insects they chase) are dubbed streamers by the
plant workers because they stream smoke trails as they ignite and then crash
into the ground. This non-graphic video details the streamers issue at Ivanpah.

Fig. 75 Streamers falling at the Ivanpah solar tower facility.

Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Panels
Similar to spent nuclear fuel reprocessing, strong acids are used to refine the
silica mined from the earth into wafers. These wafers are then treated with
additional chemicals and then soldered together to form the solar panels. This
process is extremely toxic is responsible for rooftop solar panels having a higher
mortality rate than wind and nuclear power. Industrial and chemical waste
dumping from solar panel production in China, who produces almost half of the
worlds solar panels, ruins waterways used for drinking and agriculture in the
communities surrounding the manufacturing facilities.

Beyond manufacturing, the usage and amount of land required to run a solar
plant operation must be considered.

Fig. 76 Germanys Neuhardenberg 145-MW solar plant.

This location was previously a military airfield and was chosen to be repurposed
for power production using solar technology. While other types of power plants
couldve been built, and arguably with a greater power output per land mass,
this land was intentionally not restored with the forest and agricultural plots that
surround the plant. The soil beneath the panels remains barren and a dirt runoff
hazard during rainy periods.

Wind Turbines
Wind turbines are advantageous compared to solar farms in that even though
the wind farms may be large, the turbines themselves do not consume a lot of
land space, and that the land beneath the turbines can be used for different
purposes, especially agriculture.

Fig. 77 Wind turbines do not significantly interfere with agriculture.

However, wind turbines are the largest killer of bats in the world, responsible
for the death of nearly 600,000 bats annually. Bats consume large amounts of
insects that damage produce growing on agricultural lands. This can be partially
mitigated by not operating wind turbines at low wind speeds, when bats are
most likely to fly. Less significant impacts include minor sound pollution and
a flicker effect for homes that live within the shadow of the wind blades; the
spinning blades will block the sun periodically (one rotation every 3-4 seconds)
creating an annoying flicker of sunlight similar to that of a dying light bulb.

Hydroelectric Generators
The environmental impact associated with hydroelectric power comes from the
need for dams to house the generators, which are also built for flood control and
fresh water acquisition. Upstream, dams turn flowing water sources into
stagnant reservoir pools, causing organic material that flows down the river to
stay in the reservoir and consume large amounts of oxygen in the water upon
decomposing. This leads to the reservoir becoming a dead zone incapable of
supporting plant or animal life. Additionally, significant temperature
differences in the reservoir based on depth complicate any existing marine life
to properly function.

Fig. 78 Downstream ecological effects of dams.

Downstream, the dams significantly reduce the flow of water as well as

sediment and debris that maintains the structural integrity of the river,
eliminating habitats for surrounding wildlife. Fish that travel up the river to
breed will get stuck at the dam as well.

Hydro power is unlikely to expand in fresh water systems in the US because
most of the rivers that can be dammed have been dammed, and most dams that
can support hydro power already support hydro power. Expansion in hydro
power technology is focused on coastal tides and along ocean floor currents.

Fig. 79 Illustration of a hydro system utilizing the ocean tides.

These systems are still in development as well as solutions to some of the

environmental concerns. Marine life can be killed as the water flows through
the turbine blades, or could be stranded in the tidal basin when the sluice gates
are closed. From a power production standpoint, tidal production behaves more
like solar or wind than traditional in that its production is dependent on forces
far beyond human control.

Turbines placed on the ocean floor may have a more open system preventing
fish from being caught in the blades, however the placement of the turbines
themselves will damage the life on the ocean floor. In the same sense that most
life on the surface of the earth lives near the surface and not the atmosphere,
most of the ocean life lives on or very near the ocean floor. Additional studies
are needed to assess the potential impact of this technology.

The air pollution releases of coal are well-documented; toxic chemicals such as
arsenic, lead, mercury, vanadium and several others are released when coal is
burned. The burning of coal and other fossil fuels for electricity production is
responsible for 29% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
Clean-coal technology is being developed and implemented in developed
countries with the aim of filtering out the toxic pollutants before they are
released into the atmosphere, and carbon sequestration technology looks at
geological storage methods to store greenhouse gases in the Earth. In
developing countries, coal is one of the cheapest sources of energy available
and is burned without these filter and sequestration technologies.

Fig. 80 Burning of coal for electricity production continues to increase

worldwide as countries like China, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia grow their
economies and power demand.

Perhaps the most environmentally destructive practice in using coal is strip
mining. Mountains, hills, and holes are carved out of the earth to extract coal
that is located near the surface. These enormous strip mines produce massive
amounts of geological waste that is frequently dumped into nearby water
streams, and the locations chosen for strip mining are often located in otherwise
pristine forests. Old strip mines are closed down and partially reclaimed by the
Earth, but will never fully recover to the original forest ecosystem they once

Fig. 81 Aerial view showing a large coal strip mine operation.

Fig. 82 Satellite view of a mountaintop removal coal mine.

Natural Gas
Natural gas is extracted from the earth by blasting shale rock several thousand
feet underground with explosives and sand, releasing hydrocarbons such as
methane, butane, and propane up the well shaft. The extraction process is
known as hydraulic fracturing, or simply fracking, and consists of a drill site
and a waste pool to hold the fracking fluid. The price of natural gas has
plummeted in recent years with the development of horizontal drilling
techniques that allow one drill site to extract the same amount of gas as six or
more traditional vertical drill sites.

Fig. 83 Difference between vertical and horizontal drilling capabilities.

Natural gas is a less harmful fossil fuel to burn when compared to coal because
it does not contain many of the heavy metals and other toxic chemicals found
in coal. However, methane is several thousand times more effective than carbon
dioxide as a greenhouse gas and can be released from the drilling site if the gas
is not burned.

The most credible concern with natural gas drilling operations has to do with
the use and disposal of fracking fluid. Very large amounts of water are mixed
with industrial lubricants and coolants, then fed into the drilling site to facilitate
drilling operations. The fracking fluid mixture is then stored near the drilling
site in a waste pond. The waste pond itself has several issues: evaporation will
transfer some of the highly toxic industrial chemicals into the atmosphere,
strong rain can cause the pool to overflow and contaminate the nearby area, and
improperly built pool bottoms can cause seepage of the fracking fluid into the
soil. Additional concerns with natural gas have to do with geological instability
as well as localized air & noise pollution caused by fracking operations.

Fig. 84 USGS map of water use from hydraulic fracturing between 2011
and 2014. One cubic meter of water is 264.172 gallons.

Nuclear Power
We have discussed earlier that nuclear waste remains an unresolved issue with
the once-through fuel cycle. Even if the spent nuclear fuel were reprocessed
into fuel for breeder reactors, there would still be small (but not insignificant)
amounts of actinides that would require at least 800 years of storage to allow
for at least one half-life to pass for all isotopes.

Nuclear plants built before the 1970s will often use a once-through cooling
system rather than the recirculating cooling system which utilizes the iconic
cooling towers. Rather than having the steam produced by the condenser exit
via cooling tower into the atmosphere, the steam (or hot water depending on the
pressure) is dumped directly back into the water system, creating thermal
pollution. The increase in water temperature may make the water uninhabitable
for sensitive marine life, or it may make it more habitable than desired. This
remains a problem since the power plants run on an 18-month cycle, and the
temperatures would return to normal for 6-months when the plants refuel. The
change in temperature may cause death in aquatic life, abnormalities in species
that lay their eggs in the water, or mass migration of aquatic life into warmer
waters nearby. Additionally, fish may be sucked into the condenser intake pipe
in the river and subsequently die.

Fig. 85 These cooling system choices apply to all types of power plants.

Problematic plants such as the Indian Point plant in New York (who is now
scheduled to be decommissioned by 2021) have had leaks that resulted in
radioactive coolant water entering the surrounding environment. While the
activity produced by the released isotopes is far below what a health physicist
or nuclear engineer would deem dangerous, Indian Point Contaminates the
Hudson River With Uncontrollable Radioactive Flow and similar articles over
enough time raise enough public concern to spark protests against nuclear
power in general, and make excellent news sales as well.

Another concern with nuclear power is with respect to land use. Although the
physical amount of land space needed for nuclear power is immensely small
compared to wind and solar, the sites will still require monitoring and
supervision long after the plant has stopped producing electricity. The current
state of the American nuclear fuel cycle will require monitoring of the spent
fuel pools for several years after shutdown, and further monitoring of the dry
storage casks until a repository or commercial reprocessing facility is built. That
said, it is possible to fully dismantle decommissioned reactors and reuse most
of the sites land area, if desired.

Fig. 86 The decommissioned Yankee Rowe site.

Utility Economics and Distributed Energy Resources
In the United States, 40% of all energy is consumed by residential and
commercial customers, while the remaining 60% goes towards industrial and
manufacturing facilities. This 40% of energy consumers include every house,
apartment, commercial store, and public services such as outdoor lighting and
sewage treatment; in other words, the 40% make up the majority of the total
number of customers on the electricity grid.

Traditionally speaking, the presence of major industrial facilities will determine

the minimum number of power plants the utility must own. These large scale
facilities will receive excellent deals from the utility in order to keep them from
relocating, and the utility in return has a guaranteed customer that will justify
the construction of new power plants. Price increases in electricity go toward
the housing and commercial sectors and are meant to cover the cost of variable
resource prices, transmission line maintenance, and power plant modifications
and maintenance.

In recent years, solar panels have become affordable enough that middle to high
class residents can invest in rooftop solar panels to reduce their electricity bill
over a 40 year period. On occasion, these solar panels will produce more than
the amount of electricity a home needs, and may even eliminate the demand
entirely for a few minutes to an hour a day around noontime. Personal wind
turbines are also becoming affordable for personal ownership and can provide
much of the electricity for a home during at certain wind speeds. These small,
locally owned energy resources are referred to as distributed energy resources.
Additionally, local and regional laws will require that utilities purchase excess
electricity produced by their customers to feed back into the grid, and that the
electricity produced by these resources must be used before they can sell the
electricity from their power plants.

Fig. 87 A simplified explanation of a traditional energy grid.

This phenomena has shaken up the relationship between residential consumers

and utility companies. First, most homes will still want to be connected to the
electricity grid to rely on electricity production in the evening or when their
distributed energy resources (henceforth referred to as DERs) malfunction.
Though peak hour profits remain largely unaffected, electricity sales are more
profitable during the daytime than at night. These profits not only cover worker
and executive pay, but they also fund infrastructure development and
maintenance that the DER owners will continue to use.

Second, the electricity produced by these DERs cut into the base load demand,
which is especially problematic for nuclear power plants. The nuclear plants
that are currently in operation were not designed to change power levels rapidly.
While reactors can be designed to rapidly increase in power (such as a nuclear
submarines reactor), repeated increasing and decreasing the power level can
thermal shock to the reactor materials. Not only are there no customers to sell
electricity to during this time period, the nuclear power plants must continue to
operate at near-full power. It is the equivalent of owning a restaurant where
your lunchtime customers utilize photosynthesis to skip lunch, yet you still need
to keep the stoves and ovens hot for the eventual dinner rush.

Fig. 88 The duck curve, showing how solar technology cuts into mid-day
electricity demand.

Another consideration is that large, centralized systems are easier to regulate

and operate than distributed systems. As an example, critics of electric vehicles
will argue that they produce just as much carbon emissions as internal
combustion engine (ICE) vehicles since the electricity is often produced from a
coal power plant. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant; simply think about
where the emissions are coming from, and how can laws be enforced to reduce
these emissions. The United States has over 240 million ICE vehicles on the
road; how many of them meet yearly emissions standards? How can you
effectively enforce emissions standards on vehicles that do not pass inspection?
What if the owners of ICE vehicles erroneously believe their car meets the
proper standards? In 2015, Volkswagen auto manufacturer was caught using
technology that allowed their ICE vehicles to pass emissions inspections despite
normally emitting amounts far above permitted levels. Alternatively, what if
people simply do not care about meeting emission standards at all?

Now compare the number of ICE vehicles (240 million) to the number of coal
plants in the United States (1,308 as of 2012). There are significantly fewer
plants than vehicles that need to be inspected for emissions. Additionally,
marginal improvements in plant efficiency can lead to hundreds of thousands
of dollars being saved at any power plant over a long period of time,
incentivizing innovation. Marginal improvements in small scale ICE vehicles
do not have a large impact on the vehicles owners.

Apply these thoughts to DER systems. With prices decreasing annually, will
there be a point where it is cheaper to replace faulty solar panels or wind
turbines than it is to service them for repairs? Neighborhood power outages
make local headlines for their disturbance, yet power is normally restored
within the same day when the transmission lines are repaired or a power plant
is ordered to start. What will happen when only an individual household reliant
on their DER system loses power? Will the owner have the technical expertise
to repair it? Will they have the time to take out of their day to do the repair
themselves, or will they have to hire a contractor? Power plants, including large
solar farms, are equipped with full time staff that are responsible for
maintaining the facility and protecting it from intrusion. What is stopping
vandals from going door to door smashing or stealing solar panels while the
owners are away at work? While these questions may seem outlandish or overly
critical of a developing technology, they must be answered by engineers, policy
makers, and future owners of DER systems. That is not to say that having a grid
rely entirely on DER systems is impossible; it is simply different than the
traditional, centralized power plant based grid that has serviced the United
States for over a century. Any new technology should be respected with caution,
especially when the technology is involved in infrastructure as vital as the
nations electricity.

For Your Consideration
Economic constraints are causing nuclear power plants to shut down long
before their operational licenses are set to expire. Three Mile Island Generating
Station (who still had 1 working reactor following the 1979 meltdown) had its
license renewed by the NRC to operate until 2034, but announced in May of
2017 that it will soon close down its power production operations. Competition
with cheap natural gas is the main issue in a free market, but nuclear also
struggles in competing with renewables that have highly favorable policies and
subsidies that prioritize their use in the energy grid. These large capacity, base
load providing plants cannot be replaced by renewables alone. In California, the
now closed ~2500MW San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is being
replaced with natural gas power plants. These gas plants are well suited to meet
the fluctuating power demands caused by Californias growing investments in
solar and wind energy resources.

A question worth is asking is whether or not the investment in renewable

technologies is reducing nationwide greenhouse gas emissions. Financial and
policy investments in DERs have caused significant problems for aging nuclear
power plants that provide almost 20% of the nations electricity without carbon
emissions. Natural gas is doing extremely well since horizontal drilling has
significantly reduced gas extraction prices, and the rise of DERs has forced
utilities to seek rapidly scaling power plants to supplement the required use of
DERs. Additionally, while there are 99 reactors currently in operation in the
US, one can expect almost all of them to close by 2050 when their renewed
licenses expire; most reactors were built before the 1980s, and a renewed
operational license in 2050 would mean that the power plant would be licensed
to operate up to 100 years after its first criticality.

For the 99 U.S. reactors that will need to have their power contribution replaced,
only 4 new reactors are currently under construction. Historically, it has taken
10-15 years and roughly $10 billion to construct a new power reactor. At this

rate, nearly 100 nuclear reactors of the same power scale would need to have
their construction started by 2035 just to keep the existing nuclear capacity. For
comparison, France constructed 56 power reactors in 15 years in response to oil
prices increasing in 1973, and this construction rate is not even being met by
China, who is currently building 20 reactors in an effort to bring large scale
power without the infamous coal smog associated with Chinese cities. Of the
60 reactors being constructed worldwide, 50 of them are improvements of
pressurized water reactors, the most popular design found in the United States.
In other words, alternative designs such as high temperature gas reactors or fast
breeder reactors arent gaining much attention.

One of the popular models used by the environmental science community to

guide progress in combating climate change is the stabilization wedges model.
The goal of this model is to use a mix of technologies and approaches to keep
global carbon emissions constant by the year 2050.

Fig. 89 The stabilization wedges model attempts to curb emissions

increases followed by a progressive reduction in emissions worldwide.

Fig. 90 The triangle is divided into multiple wedges that can be fulfilled
using a multitude of different technologies.

This wedges in this specific model by Princeton call for energy efficiency, wind
and solar technology, replacing coal plants with natural gas, use of biomass,
carbon sequestration, increasing natural carbon sinks such as forests, and use of
nuclear power. Nuclear power is asked to double its existing global capacity
before 2050 to replace coal-based electricity. For the United States alone, this
would require beginning the construction of nearly 200 reactors within the next
15 years.

An interesting note is that Princetons model not discuss improving automobile

transportation or transitioning from ICE engines to electric vehicles, which are
responsible for nearly 27% of the U.S.s carbon emissions. Perhaps this is
because the model is sponsored by Ford Motor Company and BP Oil who would
likely not benefit from the transition to electric vehicles. Variants of the
stabilization wedges model discuss the impact of vehicles and more specific
efforts such as building efficiencies and hydrogen fuel cells.

It is difficult to assess the impact of future technologies, especially those that
may be developed and mass produced in a short time frame. Smartphone
technology and the internet of things have significantly improved the
performance and manufacturing of electronic components within the last
decade, yet these have also increased the number of devices requiring electricity
and the total amount of electronic waste. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are
very close to commercialization and may start providing electricity to the U.S.
electricity grid before 2030. Development of this reactor design considered
streamlining the production of the reactor vessel as well as power economics;
the small size of the reactors produce less power than a traditional nuclear
power plant, but this also means that there is less capital investment.
Additionally, if a utility requires more power, they would simply need to order
a completed reactor vessel and install it on site, rather than going through a
lengthy 15 year or longer construction period.

The workers in the global nuclear industry are few, and a large portion of them
are retiring; after the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, plant construction
in the U.S. ceased, as did interest in a career with nuclear power. Young people
are needed in this field to sustain its existence, and there is much more
demanded of them than merely technical expertise. A holistic understanding of
the technical aspects, economic constraints, political baggage, and social
concerns is required to address problems in this field. Nuclear Engineers with
additional studies in Economics & Environmental Science who have held
public office for several years and possess great public speaking skills are few,
if they exist at all. Collaboration and outreach from experts across all fields are
necessary in order for global nuclear industry to prosper.