WBEZ | argonne http://www.wbez.org/tags/argonne Latest from WBEZ Chicago Public Radio en Does Illinois have a nuclear future? http://www.wbez.org/news/does-illinois-have-nuclear-future-106113 <p><p><iframe frameborder="no" height="166" scrolling="no" src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F83427532&amp;color=ff6600&amp;auto_play=false&amp;show_artwork=false" width="100%"></iframe></p><p>President Barack Obama was in town Friday visiting Argonne National Laboratory in the Western suburbs. The president talked about his &ldquo;all of the above&rdquo; energy policy, which includes alternative fuels and better batteries, but one area didn&#39;t get quite as much air time from the president: nuclear power.&nbsp;</p><p>Illinois continues to be the largest producer of nuclear power in the country.</p><p>And scientists at Argonne, and nearby Fermilab, want to keep it that way &ndash; by making nuclear part of our sustainable energy future.</p><p>But the future of nuclear here and across the country is shaky. After a long hiatus, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is licensing <a href="http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/col/new-reactor-map.html" target="_blank">new reactors</a> again, but most of those are in the Southeast, and none are in Illinois.</p><p><strong>Reduce, reuse, recycle...</strong></p><p>The first rule of Argonne National Laboratories: Don&rsquo;t touch anything. When nuclear engineer Roger Blomquist took me on a tour, he was sure to show me the Geiger counter the employees use to check their hands and feet on the way in and out of the lab where Argonne builds specialized parts for research reactors.&nbsp;</p><p>I learned the second rule of Argonne pretty fast, too: Don&rsquo;t say <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-10-04/illinois-swims-in-atomic-waste-with-dump-unbuilt-bgov-barometer.html" target="_blank">nuclear waste</a>.</p><p>&ldquo;The idea that it is waste is somebody&rsquo;s interpretation,&rdquo; Blomquist said. At Argonne,&nbsp;the radioactive stuff most of us know as nuclear waste is called spent nuclear fuel.</p><p>Part of the reason for the linguistic shift, says Blomquist, is that we could be recycling the materials in nuclear waste.</p><p>&ldquo;With enough recycling you can use 100 percent of the energy that&rsquo;s in the uranium ore you dig out of the ground,&rdquo; he said. Today&rsquo;s technology uses up just one percent of the power we could be getting out of uranium through nuclear fission. The rest comes back out of the reactors, mixed with a slush of more volatile, radioactive elements.</p><p>But recycling nuclear fuel is well within reach. Blomquist is working on the development of <a href="http://www.ne.anl.gov/research/ardt/afr/index.html" target="_blank">fast reactors</a>, a type of nuclear reactor that can run on reprocessed fuel and that he says would be smaller, more contained and safer than the reactors we currently use.&nbsp;</p><p>Just down the road at Fermilab, Argonne&rsquo;s sister laboratory, researcher and associate lab director Stuart Henderson agreed that the technology in use these days is way behind the times.</p><p>&ldquo;A lot of what we do with spent nuclear fuel is sort of what Homer Simpson would do,&rdquo; Henderson said. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s not very sophisticated.&rdquo;</p><p>Reprocessing or <a href="http://www.ne.anl.gov/pdfs/12_Pyroprocessing_bro_5_12_v14[6].pdf" target="_blank">pyroprocessing</a> nuclear waste would allow us to take the pellets of radioactive fuel out of reactors, separate out the elements with the longest half-lives, and reuse them as fuel for reactors. The only thing left over would be the most radioactive parts of the waste, which decay in just a few hundred years.</p><p>Right now spent fuel has to be stored in pools or casks for hundreds of thousands of years.<img alt="" class="image-original_image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/RS7145_DSC_1405-scr.JPG" style="height: 208px; width: 310px; float: right;" title="(WBEZ/Lewis Wallace)" /></p><p>Henderson&rsquo;s working on another type of nuclear reactor that would deal with both waste and safety issues, a reactor powered by a particle accelerator.</p><p>Right now, what happens in a nuclear reactor is a <a href="http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Nuclear_chain_reaction.html" target="_blank">controlled chain reaction</a>: in short, particles crash into one another and cause other particles to crash into one another, generating an enormous amount of heat.</p><p>But once it starts, nuclear fission in a reactor can be hard to slow down.</p><p>In the new model, called a sub-critical reactor, there would be no chain reaction. A particle accelerator would shoot particles into the reactor to keep the reaction going.</p><p>So if you want to stop it, you just hit a switch and turn off the accelerator.</p><p>&ldquo;That means that the reactor is never capable of having a Chernobyl-type explosion,&rdquo; Henderson said. He&rsquo;s in touch with Belgian scientists who are building one of these reactors, called a sub-critical reactor; his job is to help build the high-powered accelerator that&rsquo;s capable of doing the job.</p><p><strong>If you build it</strong></p><p>So, what&rsquo;s the hangup? Where are these reactors of the future?</p><p>Both Blomquist and Henderson say having the technology is simply not enough to usher in a nuclear renaissance. We&rsquo;d need to start building these reactors of the future now if we wanted to be getting power from them in less than 15 years, and in the U.S., that&rsquo;s just not happening.</p><p>They both say the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a part of that equation &ndash; it&rsquo;s expensive and complex to license a reactor design, so much so that companies don&rsquo;t see an incentive to get involved with the grandiose designs of the future, no matter how much safer they might be. Here in Illinois, Exelon is looking to make its current reactors more efficient, but there are <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2012/03/29/exelons-nuclear-guy-no-new-nukes/?feed=rss_home" target="_blank">no plans for new reactors</a> in the state.</p><p>&ldquo;Nobody&rsquo;s gonna build any new ones, anytime soon,&rdquo; said Mark Cooper, a researcher at the University of Vermont who studies the <a href="http://www.vermontlaw.edu/Documents/NuclearSafetyandNuclearEconomics(0).pdf" target="_blank">safety and economics of nuclear power</a>.</p><p>Cooper says other options available like solar, wind, natural gas and coal remain far more economically viable than nuclear, and he suggests we should be investing more in other high tech energy innovations.</p><p>Plus, he says even the most advanced nuclear reactors still come with risks &ndash; and someone has to pay for insurance on those, too.&nbsp;</p><p>&ldquo;As you operate them, you learn that you haven&rsquo;t done enough,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Mother nature throws you a curve, human beings don&rsquo;t behave properly, equipment breaks down.&rdquo;</p><p>Just two years after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan, those possibilities loom large, especially for people with nuclear power in their own backyards.</p><p><img alt="" class="image-original_image" src="http://www.wbez.org/system/files/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/RS7148_DSC_1438-scr.JPG" style="height: 228px; width: 340px; float: left;" title="Ronda Bally puts on music at the Stumble Inn in Godley, down the road from the Braidwood plant. (WBEZ/Lewis Wallace)" /><strong>Living with nuclear power</strong></p><p>Braidwood, Ill. is only 50 miles from the high tech labs, but in a lot of ways, it&rsquo;s a different world. The fear of nuclear power is real here.</p><p>Exelon operates a nuclear plant at the edge of the small town, and in the 1990s the water was contaminated with radioactive tritium from the Braidwood plant. <a href="http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2006-01-26/news/0601260133_1_exelon-nuclear-exelon-corp-nuclear-plant" target="_blank">According to the Chicago Tribune</a>, Exelon didn&rsquo;t admit the mistake until years later.</p><p>The people in Braidwood have developed a sort of gallows humor about living near a reactor.</p><p>&ldquo;You&rsquo;re gonna be the first one to go if you live by one,&rdquo; said resident Mike Franklin put it. In other words, you won&rsquo;t live to suffer through the devastating effects of radiation &ndash; and that&rsquo;s a good thing. Franklin, like a lot of people I talked to, grew up in Braidwood, and said he generally doesn&rsquo;t think much about the plant.</p><p>In a grocery store parking lot at Braidwood&rsquo;s main intersection, just up the road from the reactor, I caught an older man named Charles Crick unloading his grocery cart. He worked at the Braidwood plant.</p><p>&ldquo;I started in a nuke in 1971, and I worked in &lsquo;em until I retired,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Do I glow in the dark? No.&rdquo;</p><p>The Stumble Inn is a bar just a mile down the road the other way, in the 600-person town of Godley. The morning crowd at the Stumble Inn was small but enthusiastic - and none of them like living near the plant.</p><p>&ldquo;I&rsquo;m not for nuclear power,&rdquo; said Arthur Wallace, who goes by Slick here. Slick&rsquo;s son-in-law worked at the Braidwood reactor, and died of leukemia at age 44; some research suggests <a href="http://dels.nas.edu/resources/static-assets/nrsb/miscellaneous/Sauer_morning_present.pdf" target="_blank">links between leukemia and radiation</a>. His daughter worked in security at the plant.</p><p>&ldquo;They sent her home every once in awhile with her badge gettin&rsquo; too much rads. Too much radiation,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;She quit after 11 years.&rdquo;</p><p>The bartender, Ronda Bally, was a school bus driver for a long time, and recalled getting trainings from Exelon on how to pick up children and the elderly during a nuclear emergency.</p><p>&ldquo;My life is half over,&rdquo; she said. &ldquo;My kids and my grandkids still have a lot of years left ahead of them, and if something as basic as a water supply could cause them serious health issues or even possible death, I have a problem with that.&rdquo;</p><p>A lot of people here say they&rsquo;d support safer nuclear power in a heartbeat. But Bally, like Slick, isn&rsquo;t sure she wants a nuclear future at all.</p><p>&ldquo;I&rsquo;m kinda more interested in the whole wind farm thing that they&rsquo;re doing now&rdquo;, she said. &ldquo;Nuclear anything is very scary.&rdquo;</p><p><strong>The nuclear future</strong></p><p>&ldquo;Nuclear power is the worst investment in the current environment,&rdquo; said Mark Cooper. &ldquo;You have gone through a series of these pursuits of a technological holy grail. And they have failed.&rdquo;</p><p>His point: scientists have known about safer nuclear for decades &ndash; and companies just aren&rsquo;t willing to spend the money to make it happen.</p><p>But Roger Blomquist at Argonne thinks it&rsquo;s only a matter of time before climate change eclipses the barriers to nuclear innovation.</p><p>&ldquo;Then getting rid of burning fossil fuels will become a national emergency,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;And when that happens, that&rsquo;s when this technology will be blindingly obvious to most people.&rdquo;</p><p>At that point, he says, maybe living in the nuclear future won&rsquo;t seem so bad.</p><p>Follow <a href="http://twitter.com/lewispants" target="_blank">Lewis Wallace on Twitter.</a></p></p> Thu, 14 Mar 2013 23:00:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/news/does-illinois-have-nuclear-future-106113 Clever Apes: A world of bugs http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2012-02-22/clever-apes-world-bugs-96637 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2012-February/2012-02-22/Underwater sampling.jpg" alt="" /><p><p><img alt="A scientist samples the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, part of a global census of " class="caption" height="450" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2012-February/2012-02-22/Underwater sampling.jpg" title="A scientist samples the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, part of a global census of microbes. (Courtesy of Argonne National Lab)" width="600"></p><p>Microbes are by far the most abundant life form on the planet. The numbers are so big, they’re almost comical: maybe <a href="http://www.pnas.org/content/95/12/6578.full.pdf+html?sid=46290cc2-454b-4f78-8a1f-6d40b692e10d">five million trillion trillion bacteria on earth</a>, and that’s conservative. And yet we know shockingly little about who’s living where, and what they do.</p><p>So, big deal, right? We’ve gotten along this far without a phone book for the hordes of germs in almost every nook and cranny on the globe. But consider some of the very practical things bacteria do for us. They break down stuff in the soil, without which we couldn’t grow crops. They are a carbon spigot, releasing or trapping greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. They even <a href="http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=gulf-oil-eating-microbes-slide-show">eat oil spills</a>. That’s not to mention everything the bugs that <a href="http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2012-01-23/clever-apes-another-gut-check-95760">live in and on our bodies </a>do for our digestion, metabolism and immune system.</p><p>Now the <a href="http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&amp;rct=j&amp;q=&amp;esrc=s&amp;source=web&amp;cd=1&amp;ved=0CCwQFjAA&amp;url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.earthmicrobiome.org%2F&amp;ei=_qhFT8T9Ha7MsQKQt83CDw&amp;usg=AFQjCNGfbEVeT_VlkeubEK-QcNpIp8Wucw">Earth Microbiome Project </a>is out to catalog microbial life all over the planet – it’s billed as the largest microbiology study ever undertaken. Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory are taking much of the lead. They are collecting samples from basically everywhere: the arctic tundra, the deep ocean, a farm in Ohio, the hind legs of a lizard, the inside of a kid’s aquarium.</p><p>They also have samples from <a href="http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=283433271723536&amp;set=a.266678816732315.61506.260248800708650&amp;type=1&amp;theater">my cell phone, and my left shoe</a>. Last weekend, at the annual meeting of the <a href="http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&amp;rct=j&amp;q=&amp;esrc=s&amp;source=web&amp;cd=1&amp;ved=0CEcQFjAA&amp;url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.aaas.org%2F&amp;ei=malFT_PAA6qKsAKKpoHEDw&amp;usg=AFQjCNF2TmSKtn3_NU20wh7uJAsOC7HYVg">American Association for the Advancement of Science</a> in Vancouver, Canada, Argonne scientists Jack Gilbert and others briefed the press on the project. In a PR masterstroke, they distributed swabs to all the reporters and had us swab our phones and shoes. They then rushed the specimens back to Argonne, where they’re rapidly sequencing the genes. Any day now, they’ll be publishing the results on <a href="http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&amp;rct=j&amp;q=&amp;esrc=s&amp;source=web&amp;cd=4&amp;ved=0CEQQFjAD&amp;url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FHomeMicrobiome&amp;ei=6q9FT7z0HszyggfI-9yLBA&amp;usg=AFQjCNG_UTzJ7QGpLe8lCPXzp9m_H1NWsQ">Facebook</a>. As soon as I know what kind of filth I’m carrying around on my touchscreen and shoe sole, I’ll post it here.</p><p>(I talked over these issues on WBEZ’s new show, <a href="http://www.wbez.org/afternoonshift">The Afternoon Shift with Steve Edwards. </a>You can hear the conversation by clicking the “listen” link above, or by subscribing to our <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/wbezs-clever-apes/id379051174">podcast</a>.)</p><p>A fuller picture of earth’s microbial life could have some very concrete benefits for us. Gilbert says by understanding the soil bacteria on farmland, we might be able to put together a kind of microbial weather report, predicting what will grow well there under which conditions. We might also be able to come up with better climate change models, and even change the course of climate change, by figuring out where microbes are big players in either producing or trapping greenhouse gasses. We might someday be able to predict where and when to expect a particularly high load of bad bugs, like tropical diseases or flu. And we might even be able to make better decisions about when to wipe out all the microbial life somewhere (99.9 percent of which is benign, or even beneficial) by, say, sanitizing your hands, sterilizing a hospital room or <a href="http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2012-01-17/clever-apes-24-gut-feelings-95602">taking an antibiotic</a>, or when to leave well enough alone.</p><p>We’ll have more on the microbial civilization that lives on my iPhone and my Doc Martens in coming days, along with a whole other fascinating element of this microbiology bonanza: the <a href="http://scistarter.com/project/562-Home%20Microbiome%20Study">Home Microbiome Study</a>. You can find out how you might enroll in the study, and learn how your microbial profile matches up with your house’s.</p><p>Don’t forget to subscribe to our <a href="http://feeds.feedburner.com/CleverApesPodcast" target="_blank" title="http://feeds.feedburner.com/CleverApesPodcast">podcast</a>, follow us on&nbsp;<a href="http://twitter.com/#%21/cleverapes" target="_blank" title="http://twitter.com/#!/cleverapes">Twitter</a>, and find us on&nbsp;<a href="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412" target="_blank" title="http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clever-Apes-on-WBEZ/118246851551412">Facebook</a>.</p></p> Wed, 22 Feb 2012 23:09:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blog/clever-apes/2012-02-22/clever-apes-world-bugs-96637