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The Paradoxical Atom | Rise of the Nuclear Age | From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Cold War | The Industrial Atom | Chernobyl and Beyond | Concluding Comments

III. The Industrial Atom: Nuclear Energetics and the Cold War | Timeline

Invisible: The Arms Race

In the 1960s and 1970s, the nuclear arms race assumed an industrial character. From isotope separation to fuel fabrication, from testing of nuclear warheads to their production, every aspect of weapons design and deployment became industrial with large scale factories producing thousands of the devices and raising the threat of nuclear winter. Nuclear winter would occur when explosion of huge nuclear devices in a war spread particulate and especially smoke from ranging fires into the atmosphere. The smoke and particulate would shield the earth’s surface from the sun’s rays, and the temperature of the earth would drop significantly.

In the United States two major nuclear weapons factory facilities are the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, and the Y-12 plant, located near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Pantex still stores thousands of plutonium pits, some from 40-50 year old weapons, in bunkers dating to World War II. The Y-12 plant is an 811-acre compound where the U.S. Department of Energy manufactures highly-enriched uranium (HEU) weapons components. Roughly 700,000 people live within a 100 mile radius of the nuclear facility, and much of the HEU was for a long time stored in wooden buildings. The plant stores approximately 400 metric tons of HEU. While the plutonium and HEU are no longer necessary, the United States continues to store nuclear weapons at 33 locations in 17 states and seven foreign countries. From a peak in the 1980s of roughly 24,000 warheads, the number of U.S. nuclear weapons currently deployed stands at about 9,000. Since 1992, nine types of nuclear weapons have been eliminated from the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and nuclear weapons have been completely removed from eight states (Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York). The numbers of nuclear weapons stored in Georgia, Louisiana, and North Dakota have increased. It has been difficult both to recognize the true costs of industrial production of nuclear warheads and to reduce the number in a common sense fashion.

Between the mid-1940s and early 1960s, Russia had built up a vast nuclear warhead production network that designed warheads, produced fissile material (highly enriched uranium and plutonium), fabricate fissile material components for nuclear warheads, and so on. One of major centers was in Snezhinsk (formerly Chelyabinsk-70) and the so-called Installation NII-1011 that designed nuclear warheads and fabricated experimental and prototype warheads. Its facilities can simulate nuclear explosions for design of better (that is, more powerful, or with more or less radiation).

Another facility is Ozersk, formerly Chelyabinsk-65, the location of the Mayak Production Association which was the center of plutonium production and fabrication. Construction of the closed city began in 1945 and in 1948 its first reactor became operational. Mayak also reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from nuclear submarines, icebreakers , and from Russian and Soviet-made nuclear power reactors. All five of the plant’s uranium-graphite plutonium production reactors have been permanently shut down, but two tritium-producing reactors are still in operation. They also produce a wide range of radioactive isotopes. Mayak was also the site of tons and tons of stored low and high level nuclear waste, both liquid and solid, and tons and tons of weapons grade nuclear materials

The phenomenon of closed military establishments, or entire cities, would seem indigenous to the USSR. In Krasnoiarsk, Tomsk, Cheliabinsk, Sverdlovsk, Obninsk, Severodvinsk and a dozen other locations are entire cities of tens of thousands of inhabitants which were restricted to access from any non-resident. At the early stages of the cold war, those residents required special permission to leave the city and often could not gain employment elsewhere even had they wanted to. Because the cities were closed and closely guarded by military units it became possible for the government to shield information from the public, from the nation and from the international community about the dangers of living and working in nuclear facilities, about the scores of serious accidents that exposed people to radiation sufficient to cause cancer or severe radiation sickness, and about the haphazard storage of dangerous high level radioactive wastes in sites that were poorly designed and maintained. Invisible radiation surrounded closed cities.

Nuclear power stations, research institutes, fuel separation, enrichment and fabrication and other facilities all require restricted access. In the US, the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington, Padukah, Kentucky, Savannah, South Carolona, and other facilities took their function as closed military establishments seriously, although workers in the plants lived in typical American homes in typical American towns from which they were free to come and go. They could not, however, widely talk about their work and activities. In France, too, the government has restricted some information from the public with significant ’fallout’: when communities learned of the intent of the government to store radioactive waste nearby demonstrators gathered by the thousands to protest, although many of these people had welcomed nuclear reactors in their communities.

By the end of the cold war, the US and USSR had tested over 2,000 nuclear devices and had built some 70,000 of them in all, some for battlefield use, some so large as to render the concept of battlefield -- and of ’city’ -- pointless. The two main antagonists, the USSR and US, were unable to agree on arms control measures because the only way to verify compliance with a treaty was to allow one’s enemy to have site visits on your own soil -- or to trust him.


Visible: Nuclear Power and Applications in Industry, Agriculture and Medicine

In the 1960s the atom became a commonplace, ordinary thing. The media no longer covered achievements and futuristic proclamations in great detail. The atom had become industrial. France, Germany, Sweden and especially the USSR and the US built hundreds of nuclear reactors. These nations sought applications in food processing (radiation sterilization) and even peaceful nuclear explosions. Nuclear medicine enabled physicians to penetrate the body to take vivid, revealing photographs for diagnostic purposes without invasive trauma. Still, all of the uses would produce vast quantities of radioactive waste which remain a problem today, and the reactors have aged prematurely, suggesting the specter of a serious accident, dozens of which occurred. Especially noteworthy were Three mile island, Pennsylvania, in 1979, and Chernobyl in 1986.

Beginning in the late 1950s in the United States and the Soviet Union, followed soon by France, England, Germany and Canada, nuclear reactors spread throughout the world. There are now over 440 commercial reactors with total generating power of almost 369,000 MW. In some countries private utilities played a major role in building reactors, in other nations a consortium of state agencies. Proponents of nuclear power claimed that electrical energy would be ’too cheap to meter.’ They anticipated lower capital costs as the industry turned quickly to economies of scale, and standard components and building practices. They anticipated that construction costs would drop quickly, and they also predicted that reactors would have a long life, up to 40 years. Because of the costs of safety improvements, many of which they did not anticipate, the reactors have been much more expensive than originally forecast. A new 1,000 MW (megawatt) unit in 2006 might cost $1.5 billion. The high temperatures, pressures and action of radioactivity in the reactors has also reduced life-expectancy well below that forecast. Finally, energy is ’too cheap to meter only when the costs of the reactor itself are amortized. In fact, the people who pay for reactor pay for cheap electricity for next generation of people.

In the United States, four major manufactures built nuclear reactors: Westinghouse, General Electric, Combustion Engineering and Babcock and Wilcox. They settled on the pressurized water reactor. P ower reactors have three major sections: the reactor core where the fuel is concentrated, the hermetically-sealed cooling loop with pipes that run through and around the core usually containing water under high pressure, and the heat exchange loop, also usually water, that takes the heat from the cooling loop to turn water into steam, and then uses steam to turn turbo-generators to produce electricity. In this way, a reactor is a complex tea kettle that uses the heat from fission to produce steam to produce electricity. Power reactors usually have a containment vessel to keep the reactor core isolated from the environs. The containment is intended to keep products of fission (radioactivity) from spreading beyond the reactor in case of an accident, meltdown or explosion.

In 1979 a reactor at Three Mile Island had a partial meltdown through a series of missteps and failings in the safety systems that operators failed to recognized. Plant and Pennsylvania state officials also failed to warn the public of the full extent of the danger. The visible reactor released invisible but dangerous radioactivity. Soviet engineers and politicians used the Three Mile Island accident toward propaganda purposes, condemning US nuclear programs, never realizing that they would foster the world’s worst accident at Chernobyl some six years later.

Pressurized water reactors are standard throughout the world, including the so-called water-water reactor, known as the VVER, developed by the USSR, and used throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The VVER has appeared in three different variations. The first generation was unreliable and lacked containment The second generation was much improved, and came in 440 MW electric (e) versions. The third generation came in 440 MWe and 1,000 MWe versions both with containment.

Soviets engineers built a factory, Atommash, at Volgodonsk, to build pressure vessels and associated equipment for these reactors in a series, 8 per year. Atommash never produced as intended. Like the USSR, it literally collapsed into the muck -- in this case of the Tsimlianskoe Reservoir, and has been mothballed. The VVER reactors still operating in East Central Europe have been upgraded and modernized, in part to meet the requirements of joining the European Union, although many people worry about their safety compared to non-Soviet reactors owing to their original construction, their age, and the difficulty in maintaining them. Engineers at Paks in Hungary dreamed of another 8 to 10 reactors in this 1,000 MW model.

The RBMK Chernobyl type reactor was simpler to build in larger and larger models -- the USSR had several 1,000 MW models in operation, Lithuania at Ignalina had two 1,500 MW models, and engineers forecast building mammoth 2,400 MW reactors. But the reactors were inherently unsafe at low power because of a ’positive void coefficient’ and lacked containment vessels. The US built somewhat similar reactors but for plutonium production in the military sector, and these, too, were closed down after Chernobyl. Soviet planners saw cost savings by building these reactors in ’parks’ with some equipment being shared. They forecast building another 6 reactors at Chernobyl, for example..

One of the most visible efforts to promote the peaceful atom in the 1960s and 1970s was connected with so-called peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs). The goal was to turn ’swords into plowshares,’ hence the name of the US ’Project Plowshares.’ Such scientists as Edward Teller suggested using PNEs to build or deepen harbors, to excavate, even to build a new canal across the ismuth of Panama (’the Panatomic Canal’). In the US, scientists conducted at least 67 PNE experiments, in the USSR at least 120 PNEs to build dams, put out runaway oil well fires, create underground caverns for storage and other outlandish uses. But fear of environmental damage from unintential releases of radiation put an end to PNE programs. Most tests vented invisible radionuclides into the atmosphere, making the prospect of building a harbor or a canal safety an impossibility.

Nuclear medicine uses internally administered radioactive materials (called radioisotopes) to help diagnose and treat a wide variety of diseases. No sooner had scientists built the first nuclear reactors than they recognized the possibility of producing various radioisotopes in them, some of which had short half-lives and might be used as tracers. The US Atomic Energy Commission encouraged applications in medicine that by the 1960s had become widespread. With nuclear medicine physicists can screen a variety of organs to identify tumors or other problems (the thyroid, liver, spleen, intestines, brain and so on. Computers were added to the scanning process in the 1980s to help enhance emages and improve diagnosis. Roughly 100 different nuclear medicine imaging proceduresnow exist.

Of course, the invisible atom made the internal organs and bones of the body visible with the discovery of X-rays. Some of the early techniques turned out to be quite dangerous. After Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium in 1898 it quickly became a "cure-all," with people drinking radium-laced water for their health until the 1920s. The Hungarian Georg von Hevesey first used radioactive tracers in 1923 to study biologic systems by tracking the flow of radioactive tracers from plant roots to the leaves. In 1943 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work. As noted, pioneers of the cyclotron used it to create radioisotopes, and secured additional funding for new machines by claiming extensive medical applications. From these early roots, nuclear medicine has become widespread in most industrialized nations.


The Paradoxical Atom | Rise of the Nuclear Age | From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Cold War | The Industrial Atom | Chernobyl and Beyond | Concluding Comments

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