back to radiation | rat haus | Index | Search | tree

Next | Top | Prev

N U C L E A R    P O W E R    K I L L S


I spent 17 years as an engineer studying nuclear reactors for power. During the following 34-years I continued thinking about reactors. I concluded that they are a threat to all life. What follows is my attempt to explain that the processes by which nuclear reactors generate power put the whole world at risk.

Reactors are a New Technology

Throughout history technological devices have failed, unexpectedly, even catastrophically. Part of the engineering learning process has resulted from the study of operating failures. Accidents are "normal," in spite of the knowledge and skill that have gone into their avoidance. Failures are inevitable for several reasons: complexity, human fallibility, and the compromises required to get on with the job. Structural materials are subject to random failure.

The nuclear reactor substitutes for the combustion boiler used in a conventional power plant. It uses a new source of heat from "fission" of uranium or plutonium. Nuclear power plants are complicated and dangerous beyond all previous experience. They can fail by nuclear, chemical or mechanical means. They are designed, built and operated by fallible human beings, some of whom may be malicious. Structural materials in reactors are weakened, warped, and embrittled by the intense radiation to which they are subjected. Reactors have failed, and will fail in the future.


Since Adam and Eve ate the apple, man has never
refrained from any folly of which he was capable.         

Bertrand Russell

After I learned of the power of nuclear fission, as demonstrated in 1945 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I accepted an invitation to help develop non-polluting, "safe", "peacetime" nuclear electricity, plentiful and "too cheap to meter." My life ambition was then to help establish design criteria to build the best possible nuclear power plants to use this new form of energy for the benefit of humanity.

I studied the reactors which had been built to produce bomb material and analyzed engineering methods for the design of reactors to generate thermal power. On the basis of my analysis I taught a design course to reactor engineering students at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. With my friend, Ole Rodgers, I co-wrote the book, Thermal Power from Nuclear Reactors, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1956.

I believed that a commitment to the construction of nuclear power plants should and would be preceded by detailed engineering development, including experiments, on each of the components required for a complete nuclear power system, and their interaction within that system. Instead a decision was made to form teams of power plant builders with electric utilities, under the loose technical guidance and firm financial support of the Atomic Energy Commission (the AEC). Each team would proceed rapidly to build a nuclear power plant based on its own intuitive concepts.

Gradually I realized the lethal load of radioactivity carried in reactors. My investigations showed potential power in-stabilities capable of spreading these deadly products into the environment. I felt a need for engineering development of any reactor system prior to commitment to its construction. The promoters of nuclear power hadn't time to listen.

The public trusted the private and public agencies charged with developing nuclear power. The technical "experts," on whom a complicated society must depend for advice on a complicated subject, warped or hid their opinions to fit their own short-range interests in nuclear power, giving support to corporate and private greed for continuing government contracts. The catastrophic potentials of nuclear reactors and their inadequate development were hidden from the public by use of the "secret" stamp. Nuclear truth sayers were ignored, or fired. The public trust was systematically betrayed.

God rest you, merry Innocents,      
While innocence endures. Ogden Nash

Government and private nuclear proponents proceeded with plans to build reactors based upon optimism and ignorance, and disdained all negative indications. They proposed to build peacetime nuclear reactors on an a-priori assumption that they were inherently safe and a multipurpose "good". Besides nuclear electric power plants there would be nuclear aircraft, nuclear space vehicles, and nuclear submarines. To prevent skidding on winter ice, our interstate highways would be underlain with nuclear-powered electric wiring. Automobile companies published promotional material, complete with pictures of models of the nuclear powered automobiles of the near future.

My engineering friend, Bill Parrish, terminated his "promising" nuclear career, stating that "Ignorance is a hell of a poor basis for nuclear optimism."

From my own experience I finally concluded that reactors constitute a disastrously uneconomic power source and the most violent and uncontrollable form of accidental and deliberate pollution ever conceived. In 1963, after seventeen years in what I thought was the terminally sick nuclear reactor business, I decided the rest of my life was too short to waste. One day I read an ad in a technical journal to "come teach engineering at the place where East meets West." I became a professor of engineering, first at Robert College, in Istanbul, then at Howard University, in Washington, DC. Then I retired to an abandoned mountain farm bordering Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, to work on its environmental problems which had been created by human and animal muscle, aided only by non-nuclear side-hill plows. I continued to think about reactor instability and the environmental impact of unsafe nuclear reactors. I tried to pass on my concerns to government agencies. My tentative appointments for consultation with staff members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were always canceled.

For a long time I could get nothing published in nuclear journals or in the public press. Then my son, Bruce Thompson, helped me write a technical paper analyzing one type of power instability in reactors. Our paper, "A Model of Reactor Kinetics," was published in the September 1988 issue of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Now some of the general public and its press have become more aware of nuclear perils and are more receptive to discussions of reactor safety. A relatively large quantity of anti-nuclear articles has been published. My article, "Nuclear safety can't be guaranteed," was published by The Register-Guard (Eugene, Oregon) on June 13, 1986. "The Myth of Reactor Safety" appeared in Friends Bulletin, San Francisco, October 1986. Since then others of my articles have appeared in The Register-Guard and in Friends Bulletin, June 1995, Friends Journal, June 1995, and in some of the alternative press. Parts of the expanding Internet appear receptive to discussions of nuclear peril, both military and civilian.

The nuclear establishment intends to continue with nuclear reactors and other nuclear devices, come hell or high water. How well are they doing?


Nuclear energy has been applied "successfully" to two specific military projects.

The first was the nuclear bomb, in both its uranium and plutonium forms. It has been made apparent, beyond logical argument, that a nuclear bomb makes a big bang, and is very devastating. It seems also apparent that a nuclear bomb cannot be beneficial to normal human beings, or to other living things. And production of the bomb has left its poisonous radioactive mark on the world, including Hanford, Rocky Flats, Chelyabinsk, and destroyed South Sea islands.

The second successful application, the nuclear submarine, is a monument to the astute, persevering, and single-minded efforts of Admiral Hyman Rickover. The nuclear submarine provides clandestine, unlimited, underwater mobility, as contrasted with the pre-nuclear submarine which had to surface to regain mobility. Like the bomb, it is one more item in the arsenal with which we appear determined to destroy ourselves.

Both the bomb and the nuclear submarine depend for their success on the characteristic that a tremendous production of energy consumes only a small mass of nuclear material.


A "successful" nuclear airplane would "burn" only a small amount of nuclear fuel to achieve a long range. If it could fly at all, it could supposedly fly "forever."

Two projects were established to develop nuclear power plants for aircraft propulsion, one under the aegis of the General Electric Company, a project called "NEPA" (Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft), directed by Miles Leverett. The NEPA project, based on a water-cooled reactor, appeared to me useless for any purpose. The other airplane engine project, under the direction of Ray Bryant at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was based on a daring concept, circulating a nuclear fuel mixture of fused fluorides at extremely high temperatures through the reactor and an external heat exchanger.

The non-nuclear aircraft builders were generally reluctant to define a mission for the nuclear airplane, maintaining that anything it could possibly do could be done better by conventional aircraft. Aside from the lack of an acceptable mission, other problems challenged the nuclear airplane. In operation the reactor must be surrounded by an immense mass of shielding to protect service personnel, and even equipment, from its radioactive emanations. Fifty to one hundred tons were discussed as a possible lower limit. It would present a huge, slow-moving, target for any enemy agent which found it flying over our own territory, where its crash would spread large amounts of radioactivity. The pilot would sit in a separately shielded compartment attached to the body of the enormous plane by a long boom. When the plane was high in the air, distance would protect objects on the ground from its radioactivity. What about radiation when the plane was on the ground? Perhaps it could be taxied quickly into an immense remotely serviced underground tunnel.

If the projected nuclear plane had no mission and no definable, relatively safe, mode of operation, shouldn't it have been canceled? Some people believed that their work on nuclear aircraft power plants might be useful for another purpose, perhaps for a high-temperature central station power plant. The feeling among many proponents was that one accepted whatever support was available to the nuclear program, and told the public as little as possible about problems. Congressmen might come to the wrong conclusions if they were burdened with all the complicated information available to the "nuclear experts."

Congress finally did come to a conclusion. They shut off the nuclear airplane program after over one billion dollars had been spent. At the point of termination most of the good experimental work disappeared, along with the faulty logistics and obfuscation, into the mound of paperwork which had been generated.


The officially unacknowledged disaster of peacetime nuclear power dwarfs the billion dollar failure of the nuclear airplane program.

The "peacetime" nuclear electric business is in bad shape. The hard fact is that nuclear power is the most subsidized of all industries, kept alive by taxpayer, ratepayer, and bondholder financed welfare, and by world-wide military support. Nuclear electricity has turned out to be prohibitively expensive. All new reactors ordered since 1973 have been canceled. Abandoned reactors include Rancho Seco in California, Trojan in Oregon, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Shoreham on Long Island. Estimates of the cost of disposal of decommissioned reactors rise fantastically above $500 million per reactor, and no one knows what to do with the lethal radioactive stuff stored within and around them. Radioactive waste is accumulating at reactor sites around the world. Attempts are being made to persuade some unsuspecting Native American community or South Sea Island population to accept waste in exchange for money.

Besides being disastrously uneconomic, reactors are radioactively lethal. If nuclear reactors are so bad, who wants them, and why?


A nuclear "military-industrial complex" has developed, despite resistance of vocal segments of the world's population.

Some countries, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, have renounced reactor development.

France, a nuclear country, is struggling under a great debt from its military-industrial nuclear enterprise. Its future as a nuclear nation may be in doubt.

Japan, a manufacturing country with insufficient natural resources, is torn between promoters and protesters of nuclear energy. At one time in 1991, 18 Japanese reactors of a total of 40 were out of service for a variety of reasons.

Why does any one want reactors, or any other nuclear venture?

U.S. reactor corporations and government bureaucracies see their economic future tied to the continuation of the nuclear power business. Their "risk analyses" demonstrate that present gain to their corporate entities is worth the radioactive degradation of all future generations. They debate how many future lives of our great grandchildren can be sacrificed for the present production of a megawatt-year of nuclear electricity? Reactor salesmen, admitting that present reactors leave much to be desired, claim they are now ready to produce a "new generation" of economic, "safe" reactors. Because power reactors are not competitive, even with government subsidies on nuclear fuel, more incentive is needed. Some public utilities have expressed willingness to produce tritium for bombs as a byproduct at taxpayer expense. The government in turn has expressed its desire for tritium to continue its hydrogen bomb project.

Nuclear engineering departments of many universities need reactors and nuclear-engineering students to maintain faculty employment and prestige. These departments advertise a coming shortage of engineers to design, build, and operate the new generation of "safe" reactors which will fill our coming electrical energy shortage.

The United States has proposed to provide reactors to North Korea. American, French, and Canadian nuclear companies propose joint ventures to build power reactors in Indonesia, I presume with financial aid from U.S. taxpayers. Some countries, including Iraq, undoubtedly need power reactors to make electricity and perhaps nuclear bombs.

Our own military needs peacetime and military nuclear reactors to keep its bomb stockpile "up-to-date."


In our nuclear past, the U.S. government used enormous diffusion separation plants in Oak Ridge and elsewhere to separate fissionable uranium from natural uranium for the purpose of making nuclear bombs, like the one dropped on Hiroshima, and as fuel for nuclear reactors. It was once argued that the tons of depleted uranium left over from the separation process would be a valuable "fertile" source material for conversion to plutonium for bombs and for peacetime use in fast-breeder reactors. Because fast-breeders are out of favor, depleted uranium is now considered a "waste" material in need of recycling. Because it is "free" and 30 percent heavier than lead, depleted uranium has apparently been used as counterbalance weights to control the position of the center of gravity of commercial aircraft, stabilizing their flight.

The assessment of the value of depleted uranium for "peace" has been replaced by its value as a new material for waging nuclear war. In the Persian Gulf the United States military used hundreds of tons of this depleted uranium, by then declared to be a free government "waste" material, in armor piercing shells and protective armor for tanks. After piercing a tank wall the depleted uranium burned, incinerating those inside and forming a radioactive and chemically lethal aerosol which spread unseen and undetected over large areas of Iraq, indiscriminately spreading sickness and death among Iraqi soldiers and civilians (particularly children). American soldiers and their children became victims of the Gulf War Syndrome.

The United States military has proposed a new use of depleted uranium to enable a nuclear bomb to penetrate "50 feet into the soil before exploding."

Now U.S. corporate military suppliers plan to sell this "free" material on the profitable world military market. The half-life of depleted uranium is about 4 billion years.


Have reactors operated safely? Can they operate safely?

Operators in a beginning accident cannot see what is going on in the depths of a reactor encased in several feet of shielding placed there to protect them from its violent radioactive emanations. Instead they face a vast array of sometimes faulty instruments, on extended panels with blinking warning lights, and control devices which they must manipulate with unerring precision throughout their panic at impending doom.

Are United States power plants, as our nuclear promoters would have us believe, particularly safe and effective because of the astute choice of water-cooled-and-moderated reactors made by our nuclear leaders? Or was the choice fortuitous?

Rickover's submarine reactor as it developed provided the only "successful" reactor on which Congressmen impatient for nuclear progress could push. Rickover had based his submarine on a high-temperature version of the Oak-Ridge-designed, high power density, water-cooled-and-moderated "Materials Testing Reactor." His reactor, in turn, and his Congressionally backed management provided the basis for the experimental "Shippingport" power reactor. The availability of Shippingport, rather than astute choices of reactor designers, became the choice-guiding model for many past and present water-moderated-and-cooled power reactors in the United States. All choices of "better" reactors have been developmental failures.

In the parlance of the nuclear industry, their "safe", non-polluting nuclear power plants have "incidents", not accidents. After each incident a post-mortem is conducted. The post-mortem is a self-deceiving and public-reassuring ritual to future disaster, meant to keep the nuclear industry alive. Its purpose is to show that only a negligible amount of harmless radioactivity was released, the cause was operator error or a specific case of faulty design, the public was at no time in any danger, and procedures have been changed so that renewed safety into the far future is guaranteed.

Our reactors may be "weapons in the hands of our enemies," susceptible to sabotage.

The nuclear business, here and abroad, has a record of willful and careless radiation exposure and killing of unaware people since the beginning: its miners on the Colorado Plateau, its "down-winders" near Hanford, Karen Silkwood at Rocky Flats, victims of Chernobyl in the Ukraine and SL-1 in Idaho, American soldiers and Iraqi soldiers and civilians in the Gulf War, the Japanese bomb victims - - - - - .

The public has been conditioned by both corporate and government proponents of nuclear power to believe in the inherent safety of nuclear reactors. But despite attempts at secrecy, the list of reactor accidents fills whole books (Nuclear Age, by John May, Pantheon Books). We were told that the nuclear scientists and engineers and salesmen knew what they were doing and that, with their knowledge, they were acting conscientiously on our behalf to avert a coming energy crisis. The "experts" may instead have been motivated, consciously or unconsciously, to preserve their jobs.

Now a massive public-relations effort is being launched to retrain the public to trust the "experts" to give us a new generation of "safe" reactors.

Here are some of the more notable reactor accidents.

The Sodium-Graphite Reactor (SGR)
Atomics International, with its industry partners and Atomic Energy Commission support, built a sodium-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor experiment at its test site at Santa Susana, a suburb of Los Angeles. In 1959, after it had put on a show of powering some light bulbs, the reactor melted its core, endangering the city of Los Angeles, an event long kept secret from the public.

The High Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor (HTGR)
General Atomic labored for fourteen years with much financial support and with the best scientific help available to develop and build its high-temperature gas-cooled reactor for the Ft. St. Vrain power station, in Colorado, in partnership with a consortium of electric utilities. The severely troubled reactor could not be brought to power because of excessive power oscillations which continually worsened as power was increased. A rate-payers lawsuit removed the cost of the abandoned nuclear plant from the rate base.

Washington Public Power Supply System (wppss)
In 1971 the Washington Public Power Supply System began building five reactors to produce 6,000 megawatts of power for the Pacific Northwest. The project was beset with incompetent management, faulty construction, billions of dollars in cost overruns, and the largest bond default in U.S. history. Two reactors were mothballed in 1982. Two others were terminated. One of the five was completed, years behind schedule at over ten times its projected cost. A newly formed Columbia Nuclear Corp recently proposed to complete the two mothballed WPPSS reactors to burn American and Soviet plutonium.

SL-1, a small water-moderated-and-cooled reactor was designed to be "inherently" safe, so that it could be operated unattended on the polar icecaps. On January 3, 1961, at the Reactor Test Station in Idaho, it was shut down for routine maintenance by a three man night crew. A nuclear explosion contaminated the reactor building and killed the three men, leaving one hanging from the ceiling, impaled on a control rod. The official hypothesis was that the operator had pulled the control rod too far out. How could a "safe" reactor be so easily exploded?

Three Mile Island
In March 1979, the Three Mile Island reactor melted part of its core, threatening (and perhaps contaminating) Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Browns Ferry
On March 22, 1975, at Browns Ferry Power Station on the Tennessee River, near Decatur, Ala., a worker looking with a candle for air leaks set fire to control cable insulation. Fire spread over control wires for three of the world's largest reactors, two of which were at full power. Catastrophic meltdown of one reactor was narrowly averted.

Indian Point
An October 1980 error flooded the cavity of Indian Point No. 2 reactor, 25 miles from New York, with brackish Hudson River water, closing the reactor until June 1981 and drawing penalties from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In the 1970's the Windscale reactor accident polluted the coast of Great Britain.

Chernobyl (Nuclear-Powered, World-Wide Cancer)
In 1986 the Chernobyl reactor exploded, blowing off its two-thousand-ton lid, polluting the northern hemisphere with radioactivity, casting radiation sickness and death into the far future, leaving a million acres of land ruined by radioactive contamination. Radioactive reindeer meat was discarded in Lapland, and milk in Italy. It is reported that half of the 10 million people in Belorussia live in contaminated areas.

Behold, I am going to feed them wormwood
And make them drink poisonous water,
For from the prophets of Jerusalem
Pollution has gone forth into all the land.           Jeremiah 23:15

Chernobyl is the Russian word for wormwood.

The radioactive consequences of Chernobyl are worse than all previous official announcements. Since 1986, estimates of the total radioactivity released have increased by a factor of three. More than two million people living within the 61,000-square-mile heavily contaminated area have suffered from radiation. Rather than the 31 or 32 workers claimed officially to have died, it is estimated that 150,000 people have died from radiation. It appears that more like 32,000 (out of the 800,000 so called "liquidators") died horrible deaths as a result of their heroic efforts to contain the overwhelming radioactive mess.

To date an estimated 375,000 people have been relocated, and 270,000 require evacuation due to the high radiation levels.

Cancer rates are up to 200 times higher than average in areas contaminated by radiation. The rate of thyroid cancer in Ukrainian children has increased tenfold, and is expected to rise further. Thyroid cancers in the heavily contaminated areas of Belarus, in Gomel, have increased to nearly 200 times above that expected. The standard treatment for these children is removal of the thyroid, and lifetime remedial medical treatment.

Greek children who were in the womb at the time of Chernobyl's relatively small fallout over their country are said to have a doubled expectancy of leukemia.

Some estimates of adults and children doomed to be killed and maimed by cancer and mutations run in the millions.

Note: The following "e-mail" message is pertinent to denials of worldwide damage from the failed Chernobyl reactor.

In November 1993, the War and Peace Foundation arranged for Vladimir Chernousenko, the Ukrainian nuclear physicist who supervised the `clean- up' of Chernobyl, to come to the US and reveal the true magnitude of the disaster. 25 April 1996 marks the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. A victim himself of radiation poisoning resulting from the Chernobyl accident, Chernousenko is now dying of cancer. The following is excerpted from his talks.
        "The Chernobyl reactor exploded on 25 April 1986. With nothing to contain its temperatures, the reactor overheated and a nuclear blue heat burned for 16 days. Everything that could burn, burned. The smoke went up 3-4 kilometres [1.8-2.4 miles]. We could not ascertain the full damage, but still the government issued reports that everything was in order.
         "As soon as the explosion happened, troops were placed around the area. The government put a lid on what had happened, and millions were not evacuated in time. There was finally an evacuation on the 27th, but this was already too late.
         "I was called in by [then-president] Mikhail Gorbachev to evaluate what had happened. With my colleagues, we flew several times a day over the reactor with military instruments to measure the intensity of radioactivity. Since [our instruments] could only go up to 400 rems, we had no way of reporting or measuring further.
         "Young recruits, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, came to assist in the clean-up. Many died immediately. They were given no protective clothing. Why? I believe it was to show the world that it could be easily cleaned up.
         "When I concluded my investigation, I sent a three-volume report to Gorbachev. Immediately it became a secret document. The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) would not acknowledge the scope of the damage. According to the IAEA, there were only 31 casualties. There has been no talk of the 7,000 who died immediately.
         "Kiev, a city of four million people, was heavily dosed, as were a number of little villages and hamlets. I found that the magnitude of the damage was enormous. Rather than affecting 3% of the reactor core, as had been reported, actually 70% was affected. As a result, 65 million people in Russia received a dose.
         "What followed the tragedy is much worse and will be larger than the aftermath of World War II. So many people are going to die. With genetic reactions, the threat will continue for future generations. There are four times more childhood and animal diseases, and they keep increasing every month. Ninety million people north of the Ukraine have been contaminated. It is the worst catastrophe that has ever happened to humankind.
         "A million and a half people in or around Chernobyl (including the people who cleaned up the site) received extremely high doses of radiation. [Millions of others] received internal radiation from food contamination. Prior to the Chernobyl disaster, the Ukraine had been the breadbasket of Europe. Now, 70% of the food is contaminated. There is no way to clean [the soil] up, but since they must grow food, they use it and the food is irradiated.
         "Those who consume these irradiated products develop problems of the oesophagus and circulatory system, anaemia and other disorders: the blood becomes totally affected and the immune system completely breaks down. For a child, a small cold is tragic. A seven-year-old dies of cancer. There is a plethora of diseases - some illnesses not even diagnosed yet. To this day, there is no understanding of how to deal with the thousands who have received radiation.
         "The international nuclear mafia says of Chernobyl that, "the machine broke down." We cannot dismiss so simply what has caused so major an ecological disaster. They say it is fully under control and will not happen again. The fact remains that they have not resolved the real reasons for this catastrophe.
         "The Chernobyl disaster had little to do with "accidents" or mistakes of personnel. People should know that Chernobyl had explosions before. It was a military reactor and all military reactors were kept secret. There had been 104 prior accidents in Russia, but radioactive material was not emitted, so no attention was paid.
         "There was no organisation in the former USSR to monitor these reactors. There have been more than 200 accidents in nuclear installations, with millions of curies of radiation released. Since 1986, all accidents have been kept secret. In my country not one inch of area is free of radioactive fallout. People are losing their hair and blood is coming out of mouths.
         "Nuclear power stations are dangerous not only because they can blow up; they are dangerous even when they do not blow up. My assistants and I researched 10 plants, and we consistently found the water polluted and people around the plants sick. We found 152 lies and cover-ups. Such details are considered treasonable, but the truth should be found.
         "Between 1991 and 1993, there were 152 nuclear catastrophes in 14 countries, including some in the US. There were none like Chernobyl, only because reactors in Russia are larger and we did not have enough money to correct certain factors and there was no punishment if we did not. Half occurred because of errors made by personnel. In 1989 alone, there were 860 stoppages because of imminent danger due to improper management.
         "The international nuclear mafia will not accept the necessity to deal with the problem. But we must talk about the atomic energy situation, because the next explosion will be larger. There are 65 reactors in Russia and 110 in the US. With one or two such explosions, it is utterly ridiculous to discuss defence measures. We shall be killed in silent ways. It is virtually impossible to make a reactor safe.
         "Still we have not learned this. There has been no significant change in the US or Russia since the Chernobyl accident. It has not changed the mindlessness of government. Yeltsin is continuing with nuclear power and the same thing is likely to happen again. Further tragedies will cost the lives of more millions."
        Third World Network Features/Earth Island Journal
        When reproducing this feature, please credit Third World Network Features and (if applicable) the cooperating magazine or agency involved in the article, and give the byline. Please send us cuttings.

        Published by Third World Network 228, Macalister Road, 10400 Penang, Malaysia. Email:;; Tel: (+604)2293511,2293612 & 2293713; Fax: (+604)2298106. 1443/96

Fast-Breeder Reactors
In 1955, an accident to the experimental fast-breeder reactor, EBR-1, at the Reactor Test Station, in Idaho, melted half its fuel elements.

In October 1966, "We Almost Lost Detroit" when the Fermi fast-breeder reactor partially melted its core.

France's Superphénix, the world's largest fast-breeder, was shut down in 1987 after 20 tons of liquid sodium, which explodes on contact with air or water, leaked from the cooling drum. Because breeder reactors in France are prized for their ability to make high quality bomb material for military purposes, as well as civilian, their operation is clothed in secrecy. France has no "Freedom-of-Information Act." Information to ordinary citizens is limited to events which cannot be hidden.

In 1995, the government-funded Japanese fast-breeder reactor, Monju, leaked about three tons of coolant, causing the reactor to overheat, burning holes in the cooling pipes. In sorrow over a bungled attempt to cover up the seriousness of the accident, the plant manager, Shigeo Nishimura, committed suicide.


Societies have generally accepted willingly the risks of failure which accompany exciting technological developments, automobiles, airplanes, power plants, and explosives. Reactor planners ask that we embrace their risk analyses for our children, accepting reactor failures as we accepte failures of their non-nuclear predecessors.

Why not?

The answer is, nuclear reactors pollute the earth with radioactivity. The fuels the reactor uses and the poisonous radioactive products which it mass produces threaten all life until the end of time, whether by "success," accident, or military diversion or sabotage. The relatively benign habitat for our lives was made possible partly by the decay of violently radioactive materials into less virulent forms, over many half-lives, during millions of years of evolution,. The manufacture of radioactive nuclei in reactors reverses parts of the beneficent evolutionary process.


Overconfidence in the Challenger space mission killed its crew and an unsuspecting school teacher. When an airplane wing fails or an Amtrak train falls through a bridge, a hundred passengers may die. The spilled chemicals from a plant like Bhopal kill thousands. A reactor failure near a large city could kill millions of unsuspecting school children and their parents and teachers, and leave a vast area uninhabitable for more than a thousand generations. A saboteur might love the damage he could inflict by blowing up a reactor, or spreading stolen plutonium as an aerosol. Experience and common sense show that building reactors contributes to the earth a legacy of violent radioactive contamination for a time far longer than previous human history, whether the reactors succeed or fail.

American reactor enthusiasts like to claim that their reactors cannot fail as did Chernobyl. Only a monstrous ego, or naiveté, persuades a nuclear designer that accident-free operation of his particular reactor is assured.

6 munts ago i cudent even spel nuculer engenear
and now i ar one

As reactor accidents continue around the World, there are bound to be "Chernobyls" in other countries, perhaps with worse consequences for larger populations. We cannot afford to continue the learning process with accidents to reactors, risking radioactive spills more catastrophic than we have witnessed so far.

Even "successful" reactors are intolerable. We as a society cannot afford, even if we knew how, the cleanup of the radioactive products from those reactors which come "successfully" to the end of their poison-generating lives. Nuclear power, with its lethal radioactive poisons, pollutes "forever", in new, more insidious, more intransigent ways than any other form of energy. Reactors are costly and serve no legitimate purpose.

The present generation of nuclear reactors was achieved by the consumption of large amounts of fossil fuels. The energy which could be obtained in the future by a new generation of such reactors would not greatly extend the energy of fossil fuels. Successful breeder reactors would considerably extend the supply of energy available from nuclear fuels, but the breeder has proved to be the most dangerously unstable of all reactors.

Because I am interested in the welfare of the people on the earth, including my own children and grandchildren and their progeny, I am compelled to conclude not only that we shouldn't allow any more reactors to be built but also should rapidly phase out current ones. Life is too complicated and too sacred to trust to the vested corporate-government nuclear interests. The "experts" have misled us. As ordinary people we have enough knowledge to take back the power to control nuclear reactors.


We are driven by greed to use ever increasing amounts of energy, and to consume ever increasing consumer goods, whatever the costs. Electricity generated by use of our plentiful supply of coal causes global warming. We wage war in the Middle East to protect the oil supply which runs the automobiles and trucks that jam our highways.

I do not know of any energy alternatives which will fulfill the sham promises which have been made, and still are being made, for the unlimited potential of nuclear reactors. The large-scale application of energy to the transformation of resources depletes the world's supply of those resources. I believe there are no energy alternatives which will allow worldwide waste of energy and materials on the scale to which we have become accustomed. The application of nuclear energy destroys both ourselves and our resources.

We cannot continue with impunity to support our lavish power-supported life style, let alone maintain the cruel hoax that we can in addition provide its equivalent to all third-world countries?

We must learn to use alternative, less polluting, renewable sources of energy in passive, gentle forms. We must also learn to be less wasteful in our use of energy, even in its more benign forms. What will the nuclear corporations do if denied their demands for nuclear power, and nuclear bombs? We need beware of future mega-corporation proposals for government contracts to cover all of Arizona with solar collectors, or all of California with windmills, for generating electricity at taxpayer expense. All energy forms pollute to some extent, if applied on too large a scale. Windmills kill the birds in their vicinity, and their widespread use is at least a form of visual pollution.

The promise of limitless benefit from nuclear reactors is negated by the harm done by the lethal radioactivity of the materials they use and produce. These radioactive materials are like characters in a 16th century morality play. They change their chemical and nuclear identity by radioactive "decay" and by nuclear processes in reactors.


I discuss briefly the nuclei of some radioactive materials of importance in reactors, the processes by which they change, and their dangers to life. The slightly technical discussion is meant to be helpful. If you do not find it so please skip to the Postlog.

Atoms, Nuclei, Protons, Neutrons, Electrons and Isotopes
An atom is portrayed as a nucleus, containing positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons, about which is an array of negatively charged electrons equal in number to the protons in the nucleus. Two atoms having the same number of protons (and electrons), but different numbers of neutrons, are said to be "isotopes" of the same element. A useful symbolic representation of the nucleus consists of the chemical symbol of the element, preceded by the subscript number of protons, and followed by the superscript number of the sum of the protons and neutrons. For example, the prevalent isotope of the oxygen atom, 8O16, has a nucleus containing eight protons and eight neutrons (16 - 8 = 8). Less prevalent isotopes of oxygen are 8O17, containing 8 protons and 9 neutrons and 8O18, containing 8 protons and 10 neutrons. The nucleus of any electrically neutral oxygen atom is surrounded by eight electrons.

Uranium and Plutonium and Other Reactor Materials
The radioactive materials which are of primary importance for nuclear processes in a reactor are (1) the fuel materials which produce "useful" nuclear energy when they "fission," (2) "fertile" materials which can be made fissionable in a reactor, (3) "fission products" and (4) "particles" of radiation produced in a reactor. The source materials for nuclear processes are naturally occuring uranium and thorium. Naturally occurring thorium, designated, 90Th232 is a "fertile material.

Natural uranium, chemical element number 92, is composed mostly of two "isotopes" mixed together, one part 92U235 and 140 parts 92U238. The nucleus of the uranium isotope, 92U235, contains 92 protons and 143 neutrons (235 - 92 = 143). The nucleus of the uranium isotope, 92U238, has 92 protons and 146 neutrons. The uncharged neutron is designated, 0n1.

Only the 1/140th part of natural uranium, 92U235, is "fissionable" by bombardment with neutrons. It is therefore "useful" as the primary natural source of fissionable material. The large remaining part of natural uranium, 92U238, is "fertile." It can be made fissionable by bombardment with neutrons. The two isotopes of uranium are not separable by normal chemical methods. Separation requires methods depending on the small difference in their mass numbers, 235 and 238, using equipment such as a cyclotron or a massive "diffusion plant." The "depleted" uranium left over from the separation process is mostly 92U238.

Nuclear reactors produce thermal energy by bombarding "fissionable nuclei" with neutrons. When a fissionable nucleus of 92U235 absorbs a neutron it generally becomes unstable. It splits (fissions) into two or more nuclei of a wide variety of generally radioactive elements called "fission products," scattered about the middle of the periodic table. A large amount of "nuclear" energy is released, plus some extra neutrons. Thus fission both uses and produces neutrons. To maintain steady operation of a nuclear reactor one neutron per fission, on average, must be available to cause a new fission.

Equations can be written for each of the various fission processes. One example, producing fission product isotopes of xenon and strontium, is expressed in the equation,

        92U235 + 0n1 -> 54Xe141 + 38Sr92 + 3 0n1 + Q

Both the subscript numbers (protons, 92=54+38) and the superscript numbers (neutrons plus protons, 235+1=141+92+3*1) must balance on the two sides of a nuclear equation.

In this example three new neutrons are made, more than replacing the one neutron used in causing fission. On average of all fissions of uranium, about two and one half neutrons are produced per fission. Some of the neutrons produced are lost by leakage or non-useful absorption. Some of the extra neutrons above the number required to maintain steady operation may make plutonium from 92U238.

Q represents the energy of fission, about 200 Mev (million electron-volts). About 80 percent of the total fission energy is in the kinetic energy of the relatively heavy fission fragments, xenon and strontium, as they fly apart. This "desirable" portion of the energy is turned into thermal energy and is absorbed near the point of fission. About six percent of the total energy, in beta and gamma rays, is produced with a measurable time delay after fission. To prevent "meltdown" to destruction by this residual energy the reactor needs cooling from an independent source for a long time after "shutdown." Some of the energy of neutrons and gamma rays is absorbed at a great distance from the point of fission, requiring immense quantities of "shielding" to protect personnel and equipment.

Fission Products
Many fission products "poison" reactor operation and produce radiation which is destructive to life processes.

Samarium, 62Sm149 , is a "stable" fission product (infinite half-life). Xenon, 54Xe135, has a half-life of 9.2 hours. Both are neutron "poisons" which absorb neutrons wastefully. Particularly samarium collects to a peak abundance after the reactor shuts down, absorbing neutrons, making restarting the reactor difficult and dangerous.

Strontium, 38Sr90 , with a half-life of 19.9 years, chemically similar to calcium, is a carcinogen which gains entry to living organisms. The fission product, radioactive iodine, likewise fools living organisms to accept its destructive presence.

Fertile Materials and Breeding
"Fertile" uranium, or thorium, when bombarded by neutrons produces new "fissionable" material. Bombarding "fertile" 92U238 with neutrons "breeds" the "fissionable" plutonium isotope, 94Pu239. This conversion can be presented in a nuclear equation, where the entities on the left of the equation combine to produce those on the right.

        92U238 + 0n1 -> 94Pu239 + 2 -1ß 0 + q

Both the subscript numbers (protons, 92=94-2) and the superscript numbers (neutrons plus protons, 238+1=239+0) must balance on the two sides of the equation. The symbol q signifies the energy released in the conversion. The two beta particles, -1ß0, are the radioactive result of converting two neutrons into protons.

A similar equation represents the change of fertile thorium, 90Th232, into fissionable uranium, 92U233 by bombardment with neutrons.

        90Th232 + 0n1 -> 92U233 + 2 -1ß0 + q

Plutonium as a fissionable material "manufactured" in "fast-breeder" reactors promised a means of greatly extending the supply of fissionable materials. If for each fission one fertile nucleus could be changed into a fissionable nucleus, then all the fissionable material used would be replaced in a process called "breeding." Because there are 140 times as much fertile 92U238 as fissionable 92U235 in nature (and even more 90Th232), these changes of fertile materials into fissionable represent a tremendous potential increase in the amount of fuel available for nuclear reactors, or nuclear bombs.

With "breeding" then there are three potential fissionable materials are naturally occurring 92U235 , and artificially made 92U233 and 94Pu239. Fast breeders are currently unacceptable in the United States.

Alpha particles are nuclei of the helium atom, designated by a = 2He4. They result from the radioactive decay of uranium, thorium, plutonium, and many other radioactive materials. Because an alpha particle is relatively massive its energy is absorbed destructively within a short distance from its point of origin.

Beta particles, designated, ß = -1ß0, are electrons produced by radioactive decay. They release their energy over a greater distance than alpha particles. Neutrons are uncharged particles from nuclei. Gamma rays, g , are like high-energy x-rays. Neutrons and gamma rays kill even at a great distance from the source material. The smallest reactor requires hundreds of tons of shielding to protect persons and equipment from these "particles.". A person approaching an unshielded reactor would be dead before he arrived.

Radiation from plutonium
Because of its radioactive decay over millions of years of evolution, plutonium existed only in trace amounts before 1941. There are now perhaps 1,000 tons scattered around the world. Both uranium and plutonium are the stuff of nuclear bombs as well as of reactors. Ten kilograms of stolen plutonium is enough for a crude nuclear bomb with which to hold society hostage.

Plutonium is unstable, yielding 92U235 and radiating alpha particles (the helium nucleus, 2He4), according to

        94Pu239 -> 92U235 + 2He4

Plutonium is the world's most carcinogenic material, poisonous both by its chemical nature and by its radiation of energetic alpha particles. Because of its half-life of 24,400 years plutonium is lethal forever in human terms. A particle of plutonium too small to be seen, if breathed into the lungs, causes lung cancer. As a heavy metal, plutonium seeks the bone marrow where it sits bombarding the body's source of blood cells with millions of high-energy alpha particles per second.

Radiation from Fission Products
Besides plutonium, nuclear reactors mass-produce a wide variety of radioactive poisons among their fission products. Over a long period of operation, radioactivity equivalent to that released by many nuclear bombs is stored in the reactor. Throughout the lifetime of a nuclear reactor, barring catastrophic accident, it will have turned several core loadings of fissionable materials into radioactive waste, violently destructive forever in human terms. Any attempt at disposal of this waste foists off onto all future generations the responsibility to prevent escape ever into the life-supporting environment.

By mimicking natural elements such as calcium and iodine which are necessary for normal cell development, some of these corrupting radioactive products gain entry to living organisms where they blast cells, killing and mutating them.

Note: Anyone who believes a small added amount of radiation will not hurt him or his grandchild should read Dr. John Gofman's books, including Preventing Breast Cancer, 1996, CNR Book Division, P.O Box 421993, San Francisco, CA 94142.


Alfred Korzybski, Polish-U.S. scientist and philosopher, defined "man as time-binder", unique in the ability to pass accumulated ideas as well as genes from one generation to the next. I think of each person as a temporary trustee of his or her share of human inheritance, including genes, ideas, and a living environment. The most recent end of my family tree contains my seven grandchildren, their first and second cousins, and more distant relatives. For each of those special newer persons there is a page containing his or her name, birthdate, place of birth, and blank places for the names of a future spouse and children. How will life go on for these, my progeny, and yours after the nuclear age?

Damaged gene pools and cancers, and a ruined environment, will be our legacy to my grandchildren, and yours, if we continue to build nuclear reactors and nuclear armaments. How many of our children are we willing to sacrifice for the continuation of nuclear electric power and nuclear war?

I have attempted to state my case here. A completed nuclear reactor is a menace to the future of humanity whether it succeeds or fails. Fifty years after I first studied the physics and engineering of reactors, I am appalled by the threat to my grandchildren, and yours.

Next | Top | Prev

back to radiation | rat haus | Index | Search | tree