Nuclear Energy Doesn’t Have To Be Scary



Quick – can someone tell me what potential source of energy could single-handedly provide all of the energy requirements of the US for the next 1000 years? And at the same time, foster independence in rare earth materials that are mainly sourced from China? And would not generate carbon dioxide as it is consumed?

No, it’s not coal. Coal can provide a significant portion of energy needs, and coal ash is a prospective source of rare earth metals that may be harvested, but it creates a huge amount of CO2 and has other detrimental effects, like the mountain top removal that is a blight in my home state of West Virginia. (Point of personal perspective – over 40 years ago, I had a part-time job as a chemist for a concrete company. There was a new coal fired power plant coming on line in Nebraska, and the concrete company was considering using coal ash as an extender for cement in making concrete. I performed wet chemical analysis of fly ash, going through most of the metals by reacting with reagents, then precipitating out various compounds and evaporating them to dryness in platinum crucibles. The reaction stream went all the way to sodium, which had to be precipitated with some uranium salt. I had fun doing that work, but the one thing I remember is that if you hit a fly with a stream of acetone used to dry dishware, you would cause the fly to drop out of the air instantly, and a dehydrated fly husk would be all that was left behind.)

Give up on the original question? It’s thorium, the radioactive material that has a 14 billion year half life. Thorium, along with uranium, was looked at by the US government when nuclear power and nuclear weaponry were uppermost in the minds of the government. But one factor weighing against thorium, turns out to be now a very beneficial factor. See, it is nigh unto impossible to obtain any nuclear weapon grade material out of the thorium fission reaction process. Uranium reactors will create plutonium as one of the natural byproducts of fission. If U238 (the most common uranium isotope in reactor fuel) absorbs a neutron, it becomes an extremely unstable isotope U239, which eventually transmutes into a plutonium isotope. Since U238 is the primary isotope in a pressurized water reactor, the spent fuel rods from a reactor will always contain plutonium. That is one reason why fuel rod security is required, since plutonium can be chemically separated from the toxic mix of radioactive stew found in a fuel rod.

Thorium, though, does not create plutonium. It does create the uranium isotope U233  which is the active fuel for a thorium reactor.  It also creates small quantities of another uranium isotope U232 which acts as a poison against creating a fission bomb out of U233 . So the issues of nuclear weapon proliferation by segregating out fissile material from thorium fuel are not of concern.

(Paragraph of translation. If you understand the concepts of isotopes, please skip over this paragraph.  Now, the last paragraph used a bit of physics jargon that is necessary to understand this post. I mentioned Uranium 232 (U232)  and Uranium 233 (U233).   Both of those refer to the element uranium, which has 92 protons. Where they differ is in the number of neutrons. Uranium 233 has one more neutron than does uranium 233. An element may have many different numbers of neutrons, and that is especially true in the heaviest (by atomic number) elements. These different isotopes have remarkably different characteristics, especially when dealing with nuclear reactions. This is important in the discussion below.

In order to appreciate the difference between a thorium reactor, and the current pressurized water reactors (PWR) using uranium, it is necessary to discuss PWR’s. The current nuclear power industry takes fuel rods and inserts them into the core of the reactor. A reactor contains control rods of neutron-absorbing materials. These control rods are raised and lowered in order to moderate the nuclear fission occurring in the fuel rods. If the control rods were raised totally out of the core, the fuel rods would not be able to hold the runaway nuclear reaction that would ensue. The zirconium cladding of the fuel rods would melt, and the contents of the fuel rods would pool at the bottom of the reactor. This event would not be good, putting it mildly.

When a PWR works properly, it heats water which is kept pressurized in the primary coolant loop. The water is circulated into a steam generator, where the steam is created which runs the electrical generators. Fuel rods in a PWR have a limited lifespan, and once they are no longer useful to generate electricity, these rods must be pulled out and stored in water to handle the immediate heat generated from nuclear reactions still continuing in the fuel rods. In some cases, the rods are held in water pools for 10-20 years. Then the rods must be kept secure and eventually stored somewhere where they will be able to stay segregated from the environment for geologically significant periods of time (hundreds of thousands of years). It is only after that much time has gone by before the spent fuel rods no longer pose a threat to health.

So, with uranium as the source fuel, you can generate enormous amounts of energy without CO2 generation, but with huge potential issues. You have extremely complex systems operating at incredible pressures and temperatures that must keep operating in order to prevent a runaway reaction. Then, if all works right, you have to take the fuel rods out after only a few percent of the potential energy is released, since the fission byproducts work to poison the reaction long before all of the uranium has fissioned.  And then you must isolate the fuel rods for hundreds of thousands of years, or else there is a risk of radioactive contamination of the environment. No wonder nuclear power is viewed with disfavor.

Thorium would be significantly different, though. Thorium reactors can use a molten salt as the liquid that would carry the thorium, the U233, and all fission products coming from the nuclear reactions. This means that the operating pressures of the system are far lower than in a PWR, reducing the potential for leakage or cracking of the containment system. And if the liquid salt does leak out, what would happen? It would freeze in place. Indeed, the possibility of a reactor core meltdown disappears with a thorium-fueled reactor.

It is essential to separate out the fission products and radioactive isotopes generated in this type of reactor. This can be done by taking a small side stream of the circulating salt solution, and using standard chemical separation techniques to return the unburned U233 to the salt solution. Other radioactive isotopes can be removed using this method. Because the fuel can be recycled indefinitely until it is burned, the remaining daughter fission products (the lighter elements remaining from a uranium nucleus that has fissioned) have a much shorter half life. Instead of hundreds of thousands of years for spent fuel rods to become harmless, it will only take a couple of hundred years for the fission byproducts from thorium to decay to a harmless state.

One thing that thorium has going for it is 4 times more plentiful in the earth’s crust than uranium. And it’s primary ore is one that includes rare earth metals and phosphate. So a commercial mining operation aimed at recovering thorium will also produce rare earth metals, and phosphate for fertilizer. All of these materials are essential for our modern economy.

Granted, any process involving radioactive materials has risks, and even though a thorium-fueled liquid salt reactor is simpler than a PWR, there are many challenges concerning the commercialization of this technology. But if we as a society are concerned with trying to develop energy sources that do not produce CO2 , and can serve as baseload power generators, certainly thorium reactors are a technology that should actively be researched. To think, we may have had the answer to our energy dilemmas in hand over 60 years ago, only to throw it away since thorium doesn’t lend itself to making good bombs (an oxymoron of the first degree).  Let’s try to rectify humanity’s mistake and work to investigate and commercialize this amazing resource we have been given from our earth.

Let the Games Begin


Let’s get ready to rrrrruuuummmmbbbblllle! The Senate Republicans have now laid down the gantlet, and it is now time for us to have a complete and thorough discussion and debate about government involvement in the health care system. One where open suggestions and ideas may be freely floated, and where hearings will bring forth legions of experts, putting forth the benefits of the case for both parties.

Oh. You mean that’s not going to happen? We’re going to barely have a week to discuss and debate this immense change being proposed to our already dysfunctional health care system, then a vote will be forced through? No other alternatives except for what 13 white male Senators came up with will even be considered?

I am truly disgusted by the spectacle of our legislators working hard to craft a bill aimed at causing the greatest amount of harm to the greatest number of people. The old adage was that the legislative and bill drafting process was akin to making sausage. That may still hold true, but it seems that a new step is added whereby the sausage has to pass through the digestive system before the new legislation is laid, steaming fresh, at the feet of its admiring partisan supporters.

It has come down to this. Both parties repudiate any notion of working across the aisle in order to craft a thoughtful comprehensive approach to dealing with the huge problem we have with excessive costs and maldistribution of health care services. Instead, one party works diligently behind closed doors to create a tax cut that only affects those who have income greater than $200,000 per year ($250,000 for joint filers). True, it also removes $19 billion in taxes imposed on medical insurers, pharmaceutical firms, and medical device manufacturers. The removal of these taxes shows the value of campaign contributions to the Senators who drafted this legislation. I saw today on TV that over the past few years, these Senators received about $0.5 million in campaign contributions from these entities. $19 billion / $0.5 million = $38,000 in tax benefits for each dollar in campaign contributions.

So we have a bill nominally posited as a health care bill, but in reality it’s a tax cut favoring the top 1% of income earners, and favoring those whose businesses greatly benefited by the increased demand attributable to the Affordable Care Act. And in order to frame this as a win for the average person, we will enable states to allow for limited insurance products, much like it was prior to the ACA’s implementation. Can’t wait to see the expression on the face of some poor schmuck who grabbed on to one of the new cheap health care insurance plans only to find out it pays a total of $400 per day for hospitalization expenses when they have to cover a heart attack hospitalization.. But it’s all good, since the health insurance consumer could have chosen a better plan (but couldn’t afford it).

Let’s have a real debate as the outcome of this faux discussion. Let’s make a determination whether we believe the US is an outlier from the rest of the civilized world, and make health care an independent responsibility, or whether we wish to join the rest of the world and enable a single-payer system to provide health care for all citizens.

My confidence that this type of discussion will occur in the hallowed halls of Congress? Less than the square root of negative 1. My reasoning? There is zero incentive for members of Congress to reach across the aisle and actively involve the opposition party in legislative negotiation. As the French have said, La Plus ça Change, la plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same. It sounds better in French.

Whatever happens with the current health care bill negotiations, I sincerely doubt whether the outcome will improve the situation for the majority in this country who are dependent upon either government policies directly, or dependent upon the structures set up by the ACA.

I call for the creation of a brand new party that is no beholden to the existing power structure. I call for a Macron-like entity to take over US politics from the completely corrupt and compromised party structures that we are burdened with. Part of our problem in the US is that we do not have a parliamentary structure. If we did, then Nancy Pelosi would have been driven from her leadership position in disgrace over the last few election cycles as her position would have been exposed as having a fatal flaw. Meaning, the vast majority of voters in this country do not agree with a San Francisco liberal.

Nothing will happen unless enough of us speak out and demand change. Even then, there is no guarantee that we will see significant change. But I do know that if no one speaks out, there will be no change. I am speaking out, here and now.

Pay Me Now, or Pay Me Later! Guess What? It’s Now Later!

Computer desk IBM 360 Desk Console

Want to cut down on the size and ineffectiveness of the Federal government? If so, then you will need to shell out significant dollars to replace the decades-old IT systems that the government uses for many of its programs. And you will need to rework many of the procurement practices and political machinations that have hamstrung efforts to update IT systems in the past.

It is not a secret that the IRS is at the rear of the organizations that are updating their IT systems. Two of the main systems for the IRS are IT antiques dating back over 50 years ago, running on IBM mainframes, with programming that is written in assembly language code. There have been requests to modernize the systems involved, but since the IRS is viewed as anathema to the Republicans dominating Congress, the trend over the past decade has been to cut IRS spending, not upgrade the systems. I actually remember IBM mainframes – the IBM 360 was the workhorse of the university computing systems at our school. The fact that essential government functions still run on a similar system now should bring shame to any who care about efficient government services. Indeed, it appears that up to $60 billion per year across the Federal government is being spent trying to nursemaid these antiquated systems through yet another day.

Not only does the government incur substantial costs for keeping these antiques running, it cannot achieve the efficiencies in service delivery that are possible if we use modern computer systems. I worked for over 20 years for my company installing and upgrading our business enterprise software. Our system was SAP, and in the early 1990’s I began work at a chemical plant implementing the mainframe version of this system. Beginning in 1999, I worked full time on SAP implementation for our department, and I understand the complexity involved in uprooting existing systems and implementing brand new business processes. The period immediately before and after go-live was always traumatic and stressful. But it is only after going through these efforts that it is possible to reap the benefits of improved IT. The increase in direct IT support costs is greatly outweighed by the reductions in support staff at the plants and in central offices. Not only are overall costs lowered, but the information that comes from such a system is up to date and accurate. When I began working at a plant, it took a clerk in each process in a plant multiple days to assemble the information needed for monthly cost reporting. These reports were circulated in a preliminary form among the management of the process, and eventually they were issued. Then the plant accountant would assemble all of the overhead cost sheets, and the allocated costs would be figured. All of this meant that cost information was never current, always subject to significant revisions, and provided only a snapshot once a month.

By the time I retired in 2015, cost data was available instantaneously for all products, including labor costing and allocated overheads. The manpower was greatly reduced at a site, the information was better, and managers could focus on factors within their control instead of trying to manipulate the reports to put their operations in a better light.

The Federal government cannot achieve the efficiencies that private industry has achieved, because the impetus to upgrade IT systems has not been sufficient to enable the departments to get the funds to implement the upgrades. In fact, lately this effort has gone in the opposite direction. According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), Operations & Maintenance spending on IT systems has been rising year by year since 2012, while spending for modernization and development has declined. From fiscal years 2010 to 2017, such spending has decreased by $7.3 billion.

Even when funds are appropriated for upgrades, current procurement practices preclude efficient implementation. I am aware of an effort to implement a portion of business enterprise software for the army. Supposedly the contract for this project was approved in late 2016. However, due to the nature of government procurement, a competitor who was unsuccessful in the bidding process appealed the awarding of the contract. It has been six months, and there has not been any update on the resolution of the situation. Meanwhile, those employees who would have been assigned to the project are awaiting actual productive work at the government contractor. Such delays lead to projects running behind schedule and much above budget.

One reason why the funding has decreased for modernizing IT systems has been the sequester process for budgeting. With funding for discretionary spending flattened by decree, it has been increasingly difficult to gain support for funding for IT improvements. But for fiscal conservatives, it should be a primary goal to ensure that if the government must spend tax dollars, they should do it in a cost-effective manner, and in such a way that overall government employees could be reduced. Unfortunately, this approach has not reached the top 10 list of the Grover Norquist acolytes who view any increase in expenditure from a government agency as sacrilege.

Since the current administration is full of folks with business experience, maybe these types of modernization efforts may finally gain traction. This is one area where I do find agreement with the priorities of the Trump administration. This past week’s gathering of tech business executives with the administration did discuss IT modernization. My fear is that in this administration’s pogrom against discretionary spending, once more we will fall further behind the IT curve. Future archeologists will excavate data centers complete with mainframes and tape drives intact, and will marvel that these relics maintained their usefulness long after they had been abandoned by the world of business.



Make! America! Great! Again!

Trump's world


Let’s make America Great! How do we do that? First, let’s piss off every ally we’ve had for the past 75 years by insisting they all are out to rob us blind, and they don’t have the guts to fight terrorism the way we do. Next, let’s make it way harder for others to come to the US by implementing half-baked bans against certain religions to enter this country (we have to be oh so careful to be politically correct and not call them bans or the namby-pamby courts will rule against us, as if they actually are a co-equal branch of government).

We can make America great by creating our own sense of reality, where only what we say is the truth. And we can convey that sense of reality directly to the American People (We do love the people. They voted for us hugely.) in our tweets. Someday the tweets we make will be the basis for a little red book like that Chinese guy used to have. Everyone will wave a copy around to show how much they adore us.

We can make America great by leaving a lot of these government positions empty. Who needs all of these folks anyway. I can fire all of the US attorneys and not nominate anyone to fill the slots, and no one will notice. And diplomats? Do we really need diplomats, except for our favorite countries?

We can make America great by showing America how great leaders work. Like this guy Duterte in the Philippines. Wonderful how he’s leading by enabling those mobs to kill all of the druggies. Wish we could do something like that here.

We can make America great by cutting back on a bunch of silly spending. Why in the world do we need to invest in scientific research? What has science ever done for us? It’s not like our lives are longer than they used to be because of medical research. Or how is it that we gained anything from research into solid state physics. What a waste of time and money! Losers, all of them. Can’t wait to use my cell phone to post a tweet about not wasting money on basic research.

We can make America great by showing America how fake the media is. They won’t acknowledge our greatness all the time, so they are fake. Fake, fake, fake. We’d be better off if everyone just used my twitter feed to learn all they need to know about the world. Boy, I wish they wouldn’t keep asking those damn questions. Why do they keep harping on all of these things we did with our friends the Russians? You’d think they thought someone out there in the mid-west actually cared about selling out to the Russians. Love the mid-west. They voted for me when no one ever thought they would. Led to my huge electoral college victory. Biggest one ever for a Republican. Did you know I’m a Republican? I used to donate money to Democrats.

We can make America great by passing the biggest tax cut in history. I can get the Congress to do just what I want. Just give them the talking points and they take it from there. That’s Leadership! We haven’t had leadership in this country since Andrew Jackson. Tax cuts. Get rid of that stupid death tax. Do you know how much that would cost my children if we don’t get rid of that? Of course, I plan on living a long time. Did you see how my doctor said that I had the best health of any President EVER! No, we can just keep cutting the taxes and watch the money pour in. I can see 5%, 6% growth coming just because of these tax cuts. Just watch and see.

We can make America great by getting rid of that terrible thing Obamacare. Just get rid of it and we’ll have the greatest health care ever. Costs will go straight down. People won’t have to spend money on insurance since we will get rid of the requirement to have it. Shoot, I’ll just tell the IRS not to enforce the requirement. I can do that you know. I love to sign executive orders. I can get a huge crowd in the office just to hold one of these signing ceremonies. I love ceremonies. It’s like a parade, only just in one room. Did you see the parade for my inauguration? Biggest Parade and the Biggest Crowd ever! And those executive orders. Sometimes I read them before I sign them. Sometimes not. But we’re not going to cut Medicare or Social Security. That’s my pledge to the American people.

We can make America great by getting us out of all of these agreements and treaties with other countries. We never do well in these things. Get taken advantage of bigley. Like that NAFTA thing. Or was that the NATO thing? Both of them – worst treaties ever. Tear them up, start over, we’ll show them that you can’t take advantage of the United States! Did you see about those children over in Syria? I showed them who’s boss. Gave them a dose of Tomahawks! Just wait till that fat little punk in North Korea tries something. I’ll show him. Of course, it’s hard for a young kid to be running a country. I can understand why he’s had to be tough with folks, shooting them with anti-aircraft rounds. I know I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and my supporters would cheer.


Whew! I’m sure glad that Donald Trump didn’t get elected as President. What a horrible dream! Can you imagine someone thinking and acting like that? Wait. What’s that you’re saying? All of the things in my dream – they’re real? And all have taken place in less than 5 months? And we have 3 years and 7 more months to go? Where is that alternate reality we were talking about? I think I’m gonna need to live there in order to stay sane.


Not All Archeological Digs Are Below Ground

Attic before

We set up the plastic dust barriers from the attic, down the hallway and stairway, and out to the front door. Plastic sheeting covering handrails, much of the carpet on the steps, and all to prevent the potentially asbestos contaminated dust from escaping into the house. My brother and brother-in-law took the hard tasks of cleaning the initial dust off of the innumerable boxes stored in the attic, then hauling the boxes and bags down the stairs and out to the front yard, where we awaited with dust masks as I would blow the remaining dust off of the detritus from the attic.

My parents moved into the house in 1957. I did not realize it all through my childhood, but the attic was not just the place where Christmas decorations resided in sturdy apple boxes. No, the attic became a black hole that sucked all of the possessions and ephemera of a lifetime into its gaping maw. It was harder for it to serve this purpose for the first 20 years of their residency, since hoisting items to the attic required hauling the stepladder from the garage to the second floor, then up the steps into the attic, and finally finding a place for the new attic inhabitants. But in the late 1970’s, as part of home improvements, a collapsible ladder was installed leading to the attic. After that time, it became much easier to feed the inexhaustible appetite of the attic.

The removal of the attic contents became an archeological dig. As the available space for storage decreased, the recent articles tended to be near the opening to the attic. Thus it was items from the last decade that emerged first. As the excavation proceeded, it was fun to determine which decade we were into. The 1990’s emerged, then the 1980’s, and on back all the way to the early 1960’s and late 1950’s. What emerged? There was luggage. Every piece of luggage that they ever owned was still in the attic. From the metal suitcase that my father used to take his meager possessions to Purdue, to the latest Oleg Cassini suitcase that I claimed for my son’s use in the future. There were the two brown leather sided suitcases I remembered from my youth, along with the blue suitcases trimmed with white that were my mothers. There had to be at least 20 pieces of luggage that emerged.

Did you say clothes? Well, there were huge bags of blue jeans. My mother lived in blue jeans for much of her life, and when they wore out, they would find their way into a plastic bag and take the migratory route up to the attic. Did you need some ties? My father wore ties every day when he worked at the Nebraska Department of Roads, and even though we had already given countless ties away after his death, more bags full of ties came out into the sunlight once more. Mugs? Multiple boxes of mugs came down, along with pottery and figurines and glasses and plates.

Yes, there were the treasures we expected to find as well. The Tonka and Ny-Lint trucks we had used in our sandbox to dig and delve came out, though their bodies bore the dents we had imposed and the rust of ages. We’ll have to see if they are desired by collectors. The multiple boxes belonging to each of us siblings, holding our school memories. I could see my report cards all the way from kindergarten. The pictures of me in the plays in high school where I began my love of the theatre. All of the scholastic honors I got from high school and into college, with my notification of my Regents scholarship that paid all tuition for 16 hours per semester. In the 1972-1976 era, that was worth about $500 per year. Quite a change to now, with tuition continuing to skyrocket.

Other memories surfaced as the dig continued. Old pictures that had been replaced decades ago brought smiles. Chairs that had been superseded by newer seating made their way down the attic stair and out into the light again. The old pressure cooker once used for certain foods was intact, and the boxes of my uncle Bill’s remaining possessions surfaced. There were treats like the letter from Bill to his mother that had to be written so as to pass censor’s requirements.

But interspersed with all of the good stuff, was the chaff. So many bottles set aside as they were “collectors editions” of syrup. Ancient Windsong perfume dispensers. Old Spice bottles. If the bottles were clean, they were tossed into the recycling bin. Then, there were the magazines. Let’s start with the Reader’s Digests and the National Geographic’s. Decades worth of these magazines filled countless boxes. There were Popular Science magazines, and Boy’s Life from the early 1970’s. Even the most ephemeral of magazines, the ubiquitous TV Guide. I have no idea why these magazines were singled out for retention. At least they didn’t keep the weekly Engineering News Records that were delivered faithfully for years upon years, nor did they box up Newsweek or Smithsonian’s or any of the other historical magazines they loved in their later years. We would do a cursory search through the boxes of these magazines, to ensure that no other worthwhile item had been included in a box, but literally tons of these were either put out for recycling, or delivered directly to the dump in my brother-in-law’s pickup.

Not all of the paper was totally worthless though. My parents must have kept every card, Christmas, birthday, Easter, whatever type of card they received, they kept. Bags and boxes of these held notes and sometimes photos, and seeing the sentiments from many years ago brought back to light was fun. Unfortunately, those were outweighed by the years and years of bank records and tax returns that had to be sifted through to ensure that there was no information that would identify us as the remaining generation. I had forgotten that it was a relatively late development to add the social security numbers for dependents, so even tax returns held no new identity threat to us.

Then there were the work files from my father’s years at the highway department. Why he took so many boxes of records with him when he retired I’ll never know, but if you want the listing of the challenges facing the Nebraska Department of Roads in the 1980’s, we can point you to a section of the dump where it may be found.

The lesson I took away from this 4 day dig was this: If you love your heirs, clean up your stuff now so they don’t have to separate the wheat from the chaff. Leave only wheat that they will enjoy as they review your life well spent.