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I have been an advocate of thorium based nuclear power for a long time. There are certain advantages that thorium based nuclear technology has over uranium and plutonium systems that make it appealing, as long as the nuclear genie is out of the bottle anyway. Others have written about this and there is no point in my wasting bandwidth on it here.  Fort St. Vrain Generating Station, one of the very few HTGR Thorium plants ever operated in the US sat a half hour from here from 1979 to 1989. As prototypical operations go, the plant had a history of upsets and unforeseen complications and was decommissioned after a decade of sub-commercial output. Eventually the plant was converted to a natural gas turbine plant and runs to this day in that capacity.

So it was of interest to learn that the venerable European company Solvay has teamed up with AREVA to develop thorium technology. Uranium and rare earth processing, as well as other minerals produce side streams enriched in thorium.  According to the link, both players have been accumulating inventories of thorium.  Hmmm. What could they be up to…?

It is a crying shame that we (the rest of the world) did not think to encourage Iran and other states to develop thorium-based nuclear power many years ago. The thorium fuel cycle provides nuclear-powered steam generation, but is largely absent the use of fissile isotopes in the cycle which may be used for nuclear proliferation.  Thorium-232 is more abundant that uranium-(235 + 238) isotopes and does not require isotopic separation as uranium does.

The great exploration boom in progress with rare earth elements would facilitate thorium supply. Thorium and uranium are commonly found in rare earth ores and, to the dismay of extractive metallurgists since the Manhattan Project, these elements tend follow along in rare earth extraction process. The isolation of thorium was developed long ago.  Point is, since so many rare earth element extraction process streams are either in operation or are pending, now is the time to accumulate thorium.

At present however, thorium is a troublesome and undesired radioactive metal whose isolation and disposal can be quite problematic. The best process schemes partition thorium away from the value stream as early in the process as possible and channel it into the raffinate stream for treatment and disposal in the evaporation pond.

The specific activity of natural thorium is 2.2 x 10^-7 curies per gram (an alpha emitter). The specific activity of natural uranium is 7.1 x 10^-7 curies per gram.  Alpha emitters pose special hazards in their handling. Dusts are a serious problem and workers must be protected especially from inhalation or ingestion. While alpha’s are not difficult to shield from, their low penetration through ordinary materials or even air makes them a bit more challenging to detect and quantitate relative to beta’s and gamma’s. In spite of the mild radioactivity of thorium, managing the occupational health of workers is known technology in practice in the nuclear industry.

Regrettably, most of the world’s nuclear power infrastructure is geared to uranium and plutonium streams. Thorium, the red-headed stepchild of the actinides, is thoughtlessly discharged to the evaporation ponds or to the rad waste repository- wherever that is- to accumulate fruitlessly. If we’re digging the stuff up anyway, why not put it to use? It is a shame and a waste to squander it.

There is a saying that opportunity doesn’t beat the door down, it only knocks quietly. So it seems to be with uranium.  The American uranium extraction business took a big hit when the Three Mile Island accident happened in the late 1970’s. Nuclear power growth was tabled and only recently has it shown signs of recovery. 

With few exceptions, the rebound of the North American nuclear fuel business is largely invisible, apparent only if you go digging for signs.  One exception is happening in north central Colorado, near the town of Nunn.  A Canadian company, Powertech Uranium Corp., has acquired mineral rights to a sizeable parcel of land northeast of Ft Collins along the eastern side of I-25. It is called the Centennial Project and circumscribes an ore body estimated to hold 5.1 to 9.6 million pounds of U3O8, according to a technical report posted in the public domain at the Powertech website. The extent of U3O8 recovery would depend on the percent cutoff level of acceptable ore. The ore body is a discontinuous series of subsurface deposits with the top of the uranium mineralization at ca 82 feet below the surface. 

According to the report by Gorski and Voss, the average grade of the ore is 0.094 % and the average thickness of the vein is 8.8 ft (Table 1, latest estimate). Powertech has mentioned the possibility of in-situ extraction with bicarbonate leach as the means of removal of the mineral value rather than underground mining.

Naturally, the locals have not warmed up to the news that there might be a uranium mining operation in the area. A local group, Coloradoans Agains Resource Destruction (CARD), has put up a website (NunnGlow) and are vigorously lobbying against the development. In particular, the matter of leaching has brought a large negative sentiment to the forefront and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO) has intervened with the NRC to allow a more lengthy public comment period in the permitting process. Locals are rightfully concerned about their aquifer and are entitled to some straight talk about the matter.

While I am generally in favor of uranium mining, I have to agree with NunnGlow in regard to contamination of the aquifer by this in-situ leaching process. Powertech needs to offer some compelling evidence that the aquifer won’t be harmed by their leaching operations.

We’re approaching full circle from cold war to Perestrioka and collapse of the Soviet Union to re-ignition of cold war fires.  News sources are reporting bluster of the most serious kind issuing from Vlad Putin in response to plans by the US to place ballistic missile interceptors in eastern Europe. 

What motivates the Bush II administration to place anti-ballistic missiles and radar near the eastern frontier of Russia is a perceived ballistic missile threat from so-called rogue states.  The reality of ballistic flight is that missiles launched from the region of Iran will fly over southwestern states of the former Soviet Union (FSU).  In order to best detect and intercept such missiles heading for the EU, equipment would optimally be set up along the trajectory.  Within the logic of strategic planning, the site placement seems consistent with the goal. 

What is less than clear is the excuse for our ham fisted diplomacy with Russia.  Yes, obviously Putin is escalating the bluster and the tensions in a manner that is less than rational. But the decision makers in the Bush administration appear to have been asleep during the cold war.  Evidently the Bush administration didn’t consult with Russia in the run-up to missile site selection.  It was felt that as members of the EU, Poland and the Czech Republic were no longer part of the eastern bloc and therefore Russia’s input was irrelevent.  This was a whopper of a blunder.

The predictable result is that Russia is behaving like Russia, and, outwardly at least, the Bush people seemed slow to pick up on this.  Finally, Bush Jr. is getting some on-the-job-training in eastern bloc politics.

The confrontation with Putin and Russia has begun to spin into something that will force Russia to vigorously protect and promote its interests.  Putin is a lame duck and has to make some kind of stand to satisfy the quiet power brokers behind him.  They can’t accept the placement of ABM systems in Poland anymore than we could allow it in Cuba or Alberta. Doesn’t matter if the initial placement consists of “smart rocks”.  Any missile site can be quietly modified quickly.

There has been a disturbing lack of cultural and economic engagement between the United States and the FSU following the dissolution of the CCCP and the communist party.  This is unfortunate.  Western states should have made a more concerted effort to engage the FSU economically and socially.   

For its part, the US has been curiously lacking in interaction with or even simple curiosity in regard to the progress of the FSU states in their difficult period of reconstruction.  But I think that Russia has been characteristically distrustful of western intentions as well.  Historians will ponder this transition period in world political history and wonder how it could be that even though a society got to push the reset button, the best it could come up with was Putin and the best that the other states could muster was benign neglect.

Iranian progress towards nuclear fuel processing seems to have everyone twittered. Recently on NPR a guest raised the question as to whether or not Iran has enough reactor capacity to consume the potential output of their nascent uranium enrichment program.  Good question.

The refinement of fissile materials offers hazards that are poorly understood outside the actinide community.  One of them is the “criticality” hazard.  In the US nuclear program, there have been a few criticality events leading to heavy radiation dosages and even death in a few cases, i.e., Louis Slotin.  Slotin’s case is unusual in that he was manipulating a subcritical bomb assembly rather than a uranium solution. A recent example is the criticality event at Tokai-mura.  According to the literature, numerous elements (in addition to beryllium) absorb alpha’s and then emit neutrons.

One wonders if the Iranians have the infrastructure to safely perform this activity.  A nuclear state needs a health physics community, sensitive and accurate radiation detection systems, and the ability to handle hazardous radioactive materials that are chemical hazards as well. Then there is the matter of what to do with high level rad waste.  The US is still struggling with its rad waste inventory generations after the Manhattan project began.  Who knows, maybe NIMBY isn’t an issue in modern Persia.

Nuclear weapons seem so secular for hyperorthodox nations. But these things do capture the fancy of many people- even followers of the worlds major Iron Age religions. Among scientists, the explosive runaway potential was considered not long after it was discovered that nuclear fission released two neutrons per fission.  The human brain seems constructed to find extrema.

I wonder how the Iranians will validate their weapon’s design? I assume their program is not an ab initio project.  No doubt they have culled design information from somewhere (Pakistan?).  Eventually they have to assemble their weapon and tighten the wingnuts on the casing.  But how will they know if it has enough thump?  Will they be able to resist performing a test shot?  Israel, to its credit, has not performed a test of theirs, though I have no doubt that considerable super computer time has been dedicated to validating their design.

How will these sons of Xerxes construct the chain of command for the release of nuclear weapons?  What kind of fail-safe mechanisms will they put into place to safeguard against inadvertant or unauthorized arming and detonation? Even martyrs have to be careful.

Nuclear weapons have their military uses, but they are primarily a political amplifier used by states to project their voice on the world stage.  But what happens when a religion gets hold of nuclear weapons?  Clearly, the Islamic Republic of Iran is interested in more than mere self defense.  They seem compelled to promulgate standards and doctrines given to them in the form of revealed truth.  A nuclear weapon is as much about prestige and credibility as firepower. 

The Iranians are very pragmatic people.  They know that the US can easily rain nuclear destruction on them and then bounce the rubble a few times for good measure.  They’ll use the bulk of the uranium for electrical power generation.  But they’ll be sure to use a part of it for politcal power generation.

At the CERN facility in Geneva, Switzerland, a mammoth detector array is being built to detect events resulting from proton-proton collisions.  It is called Atlas.  There is an impressive collection of public outreach web sites to afford some background to the interested viewer.  The Atlas project has produced some swell animation too. 

I think these physicists have done a first-rate job of trying to make their work comprehensible to the public.  I wonder if we chemists have made a comparable effort in our endeavors? But maybe there are not comparable projects in chemistry.  Whereas there are 1800 physicists working on Atlas, where are there comparable numbers working in unison in chemistry?  Answered my own question.

Near as I can tell, there is some kind of demand in the marketplace for all of the elements from 1 through 92, with the exceptions of Pm, At, and Rn, I suppose. It is hard to gauge the trade in actinides since precious little gets outside the realm of government regulatory frameworks. Clearly there is demand for certain isotopes of Th, U, and Pu.  But the nuclear regulatory people keep a tight reign on that stuff.

I remember a pottery class I took some years back in a nearby town. I was snooping through the pottery stockroom looking for glazes and what did I find? I found a sizeable quantity of Thorium nitrate.  These hapless middle-aged, post-hippy era, meadow muffin starving artisans running the co-op clearly had no idea that they had an actinide a nuclear-age artifact in their midst. Obviously, it had been secured for colored glaze applications.  I warned them about it but was met with the cow-in-the-headlights-look. I call it the “bovine stare”.  So, I brought a GM survey meter the next week and opened up the jar with a few of them standing there. As the clicks ramped up from the beta’s and as I switched the attenuation to keep the needle on scale, I thought I heard the unmistakeable faint slapping sound of multiple sphincters slamming shut.

The first question was “Would I like to have it?”.  Pppffffttttt!  “Hell no!” says I.  Nuclear cooties. Jesus H. Crimony!!  I did a careful survey with the GM counter and found that the surrounding area was clean. The material (early 1960’s vintage by the looks of the label) had hardly been used, so I was confident that contamination was not too bad, if indeed there was any. There may have been alpha emitters but this counter wouldn’t pick them up.  I gave some names of hazardous waste vendors and a stern warning not to drop it or spill it.  That’s the last I heard of it.

I remember a seminar in grad school when a visiting rock star from ETH gave an organic seminar detailing the use of Li-6 in NMR studies.  The fellow lamented in his fastidious German/Swiss accent that it was difficult to get Li-6.  He also said that for a time much of the refined Lithium in the market place was depleted of Li-6.  It would be interesting to hear someone comment on the accuracy of this. 

It appears that some of our clever friends and neighbors at the local military/industrial complex have been busy designing millimeter-wave radio frequency weapons.  Last year the DoD announced the development of a new form of weapon billed as non-lethal to fill the “gap between shoot and shout”.  The device consists of a powerful rf source and what must be a fairly narrow beamwidth antenna for illuminating unruly people.  The website includes video clips of test subjects and their descriptions of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this radiation weapon. 

I refer to it as a radiation weapon because that is precisely what it is.  Millimeter wave radiation is directed at a person or a crowd and in short order the recipients in the beam feel their skin temperature rise to discomfort. Whether it truly raises skin temperature or the sensation is an artifact of surface electrical currents in the skin is unclear. The fact is that it can cause instantaneous discomfort and anxiety about burning to a crisp.  Obviously, the purpose is to discourage aggressive behaviour in individuals or of crowds and do so in a non-lethal manner. 

So, really, what is wrong with this?  In a sense it is like a shock collar on a dog.  An occasional burst of juice causes the unruly dog to suspend the offensive behaviour.  The dog learns the lesson and is not physically harmed by it. 

I’ll admit to being quite uncomfortable with this “technology”.  The potential for abuse and exploitation is staggering.  If a short burst of rf energy will cause people to scatter or desist their behaviours, what will a long exposure do?  And, just what happens to someone on prolonged exposure?

What is the difference between negative reinforcement and torture?  Is it the difference between a 5 second exposure and 60 seconds?  And, when will a tin-pot dictator acquire this capability now that we have proudly trotted ours out?  Whereas ours will have controls for non-lethal operation, would a terror group or arms merchant bother to have safety protocols to guard against overexposure? Maybe a stripped down version absent interlocks will be the weapon of choice among African dictatorships.

How long will it take for civilian units to come on stream? What US city will be the first to acquire one of these things for crowd control and when?  LA?  DC?  NYC?? 2015? 2020?  Pretty soon every SWAT commander will be clamoring for one “just in case”.  Whose march on the Capital Mall in DC will trigger the first use of such a device on civilians? 

Can the energy be reflected back to the source or in some other direction?  Is a metal trash can lid or aluminized mylar blanket an effective countermeasure?  Maybe we’ll see rock throwing 12 year olds in Gaza with a stone in one hand and a trash can lid in the other after its inevitable introduction in the middle east.

Microwave/millimeter technology is ubiquitous.  No nuclear materials. No ammunition.  Just a powerful rf source and an antenna. No doubt arms merchants are already lining up buyers for this weapon of mass agony.

What a lamentable development for mankind.  Our ability and willingness to commit violence from a distance is one of our greatest downfalls.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced on 3-2-07 that the US would be pursuing the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program.  The program makes a lot of sense on many levels. But the timing of the press release is a bit odd.  Certain sandy states will no doubt notice the irony of the program. While the US is browbeating them into abandoning their dreams of a fissile future, we on the other hand are pursuing better and safer nukes.  Of course, we’ll argue that it is a smaller and safer stockpile, and I’m sure that is true. But I’ll wager that the next generation nuke will be designed for better efficiency as well. 

Maybe we’ll launch them from the new Cheney Class of submersible aircraft carriers…

Somewhere on the web I saw a funny warning sign for lasers- I’m sure it was a joke.

Do not stare into laser with remaining eye.”

What a hoot!


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