Billions of tonnes of the uranium required for fuel pellets is found in the world’s oceans
A happy coincidence in the seafood industry has raised the prospects of harvesting uranium – the fuel source for nuclear power – from seawater.
Oceans hold billions of tonnes of uranium at tiny concentrations, but extracting it remains uneconomical.
A report at the 244th meeting of the American Chemical Society described a new technique using uranium-absorbing mats made from discarded shrimp shells.
A range of improved approaches were outlined at a symposium at the meeting.
The developments are key to a future nuclear power industry. Uranium is currently mined from ore deposits around the world, but there are fears that demand may outstrip the supply of ore as nuclear power becomes more widespread.
At issue is the tremendously low concentration of uranium in seawater: about three parts per billion, so that just 3.3mg exist in a full tonne of water. As a result, extracting it is an inherently costly process.
Much work carried out in Japan in recent decades has sought to address that.
Researchers there came up with a design of a mat of plastic fibres impregnated with molecules that both lock onto the fibres and preferentially absorb uranium. That work culminated in a 2003 field test that netted a kilogram of the metal.
The mats can reach 100m in length, suspended underwater at depths up to 200m. They are withdrawn and rinsed with an acid solution that frees the uranium, and the cycle is repeated. …
Chitin is the principal protein in crustaceans’ shells, but its toughness and its ability to be “electrospun” into fibres that can be made into mats make it an ideal sustainable and biodegradable choice for uranium harvesting.
While research is continuing, there is still some way to go to reach cost parity with the more mature – but more environmentally damaging – technology of mining uranium ores. …
Here’s an interesting pro-nuclear energy statement by a professor at the University of Pittsburgh:
… The principal risks associated with nuclear power arise from health effects of radiation. This radiation consists of subatomic particles traveling at or near the velocity of light—186,000 miles per second. They can penetrate deep inside the human body where they can damage biological cells and thereby initiate a cancer. If they strike sex cells, they can cause genetic diseases in progeny.
Radiation occurs naturally in our environment; a typical person is, and always has been struck by 15,000 particles of radiation every second from natural sources, and an average medical X-ray involves being struck by 100 billion. While this may seem to be very dangerous, it is not, because the probability for a particle of radiation entering a human body to cause a cancer or a genetic disease is only one chance in 30 million billion (30 quintillion).
Nuclear power technology produces materials that are active in emitting radiation and are therefore called “radioactive”. These materials can come into contact with people principally through small releases during routine plant operation, accidents in nuclear power plants, accidents in transporting radioactive materials, and escape of radioactive wastes from confinement systems. We will discuss these separately, but all of them taken together, with accidents treated probabilistically, will eventually expose the average American to about 0.2% of his exposure from natural radiation. Since natural radiation is estimated to cause about 1% of all cancers, radiation due to nuclear technology should eventually increase our cancer risk by 0.002% (one part in 50,000), reducing our life expectancy by less than one hour. By comparison, our loss of life expectancy from competitive electricity generation technologies, burning coal, oil, or gas, is estimated to range from 3 to 40 days.
There has been much misunderstanding on genetic diseases due to radiation. The risks are somewhat less than the cancer risks; for example, among the Japanese A-bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been about 400 extra cancer deaths among the 100,000 people in the follow-up group, but there have been no extra genetic diseases among their progeny. Since there is no possible way for the cells in our bodies to distinguish between natural radiation and radiation from the nuclear industry, the latter cannot cause new types of genetic diseases or deformities (e.g., bionic man), or threaten the “human race”. Other causes of genetic disease include delayed parenthood (children of older parents have higher incidence) and men wearing pants (this warms the gonads, increasing the frequency of spontaneous mutations). The genetic risks of nuclear power are equivalent to delaying parenthood by 2.5 days, or of men wearing pants an extra 8 hours per year. Much can be done to avert genetic diseases utilizing currently available technology; if 1% of the taxes paid by the nuclear industry were used to further implement this technology, 80 cases of genetic disease would be averted for each case caused by the nuclear industry. …
Well, it could be that there were only 400 extra cancer deaths in the follow up group, but “some estimates state up to 200,000 had died by 1950, due to cancer and other long-term effects.[ref] Which is it, 400 or 200,000?
Ref: Rezelman, David; F.G. Gosling and Terrence R. Fehner (2000). “The atomic bombing of Hiroshima”. The Manhattan Project: An Interactive History. US Department of Energy. Archived from the original on 2010-11-12. Retrieved 18 September 2007.
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