Uranium: It's Creation, Use and Misuse
Can we really handle such a dangerous material?
Uranium is a high mass element that can only be created in the energetic explosions of a supernova or in specially arranged experiments in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). As an element much more massive and more atomically complex than Iron-56, it requires energy to make it out of other elements. No energy is liberated by fusing elements more complex than iron-56. Stars fuse light elements into heavier ones (by atomic number and mass) and in the process, energy is liberated. It is this energy of fusion that can power stars for billions of years for ones that are about the size of the sun. It takes a larger star of about three solar masses to create conditions for a super-nova. As stars consume lighter elements, they must then move up to the next phase of fusion. Once simple hydrogen or deuterium is used up, the star then goes on to fuse helium.
During the transitional phase from hydrogen to helium fusion, the star must contract in order to generate the heat to fuse helium. Once the helium flash is achieved, then the outer region of the star expands as a result of much higher internal temperatures. This process goes on through discreet stages for heavier and heavier elements from carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and so on all the way to iron.
Iron represents a transitional point where energy is not created either by fusion or fission. It is at the bottom of the energy well as far as elements are concerned. Any element that is more massive than iron-56 requires energy to create it by fusion. This represents an energy catastrophe for the star once the iron stage is reached. The star that is capable of producing an iron core then collapses on itself and the outer layers bounce off the core, exploding outward with tremendous force. It is during this explosive phase that all elements atomically more massive than iron are created and energy is absorbed in the process. This includes uranium, which is one of the most massive of atomic naturally occurring elements. Only one element is more massive and that is plutonium, which is unstable.
Uranium comes in the form of a basic element and a few isotopes that have more or less neutrons, but the same number of protons. The stable Uranium atom is generally written as U-238, and its principle unstable isotope is U-235. In the natural state, the stable form consists of over 99 percent of the mass. Enriched uranium is thus that which has removed a substantial portion of the uranium 238 in favor of increasing the proportion of Uranium 235 that can be used in nuclear reactors and bombs. The uranium 238 is a massive surplus that has to be dumped as “depleted uranium” and this is used in depleted uranium bombs today in the theater of war such as in Iraq.
Uranium exists naturally in our solar system and could have only gotten there as a result of a supernova exploding before the solar system was born and condensed from an interstellar cloud containing uranium in its various forms. As the sun and planets formed, Uranium drifted to the center due to its mass. Most of it wound up in the sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth and to a lesser extent, the asteroid belt and Mars.
We know asteroids contain uranium because of impacts that occurred on Earth after the Earth solidified and deposits wound up on the surface, such as in Gabon Africa and in Canada. Other than that, early uranium sunk to the core of the earth. The sun contains some uranium as we can detect it by reading Fraunhoffer absorption spectra and identify it along with iron and most of the other elements.
We have learned to obtain energy from uranium, by splitting (fission) the unstable isotope of the element. Uranium usually comes well mixed with other elements and molecules in the rocks of the earth. It usually oxidizes to create what is referred to as yellow cake. It is this yellow cake that contains by way of oxides, about 99 + percent stable U-238 and less than 1 percent of the unstable U-235. The yellow cake must first be reduced to produce pure atomic uranium and then the element and isotope separated by a mass spectrometer or its equivalent. This can only be done in small batches as even stable uranium 238 will react when heated sufficiently. The molecule can be “cracked” by electrolysis in the context of a centrifuge, releasing the oxygen and leaving the uranium behind which is then “purified by element and isotope. The centrifuge also serves to separate the stable “heavier” uranium from the unstable “lighter” bomb quality uranium isotope.
Processing uranium today is done largely in China due to much cheaper labor costs. Seeming opposition of regimes notwithstanding, Canada, US, Europe and other nuclear members get China to process the resource as there are very few health and safety standards and a lack if environmental controls that hamper efforts in many member nations. Processed and enriched uranium are sent out of Canada via Vancouver and out of the US via the west coast ports of call. This is routine and goes unnoticed until now, when a major nuclear accident occurred on January 3rd, 2011 during a severe storm on the ocean en route to China. This trade is in contravention to the message that we are told about the opposition between the capitalist west and the communist east. The trade goes on regardless of propaganda. In this instance the contents of the ship shifted, fell and broke out of the containers and spilled all over the hold in a chaotic manner creating multiple radiological hot spots. Nothing is told of what happened to the crew when the ship turned back and docked at Ladysmith, BC on the 16th and was boarded briefly by a hazmat team to assess the severity and risk. On the 23rd, it was towed and docked at Ballentyne peer in the Vancouver harbor without fanfare. After that, every effort was made to keep a lid on the shipboard disaster still in process.
“depleted” uranium is that major part that is essentially useless for reactors and bomb making. It is not nuclear waste per-Se, but more akin to tailings that forms the majority of material in other mining operations when the valuable ore is extracted. depleted uranium does have a use as armor piercing munitions that can blow up tanks and personnel carriers. When the specially shaped bomb penetrates the armor, it vaporizes due to the heat of impact and explodes the tank from internal over pressure and then the vaporized depleted uranium disperses as an aerosol.
Nuclear accidents are nothing new. The two most well known are the Three Mile Island incident and Chernobyl in the Russian Urals. We can now add another. Vancouver is now being visited by high seas nuclear accident with 350 tons of “enriched” reactor and bomb quality uranium spilled throughout the hold. The ship is likely filled with dozens of hot spots including some that could potentially melt right though the hull and into open water in the harbor. Then there will be the problem of keeping the MCP Altona afloat and deciding where to dispose of the mess. In this case, the enriched uranium is in the form of powder that was being shipped off-shore for further processing. It is the powder that spilled all over the place. With a disaster like this, there will be radiation discharges into the atmosphere to be carried off by prevailing winds. On the day the mess arrived in Vancouver, large numbers of several hundred seagulls were affected and roosted en-masse on the ground of a nearby park in behavior that is completely out of accord with normal seagull behavior. This alone suggests a radiological leak. Heavy rains on the following day dumped the radiation into the harbor waters to be removed to sea with the tides.
The risks are not being told, nor are there any announcements of a possible mass evacuation. But where would you place 2 to 3 million evacuees? In addition to this risk, the fact that the incident was mentioned by name and place in the press is virtually an open invitation for terrorists who would be interested in even a small part of the 350 tons of enriched uranium. The land side if the peer is heavily protected, but the seaward side is virtually defenseless and open.
We do not need to use uranium as there are plenty of ecologically sound alternatives such as geothermal energy, which BC is rich in and is not being developed and exploited. Instead we get stuck with a floating (at this time) nuclear accident deposited right beside one of Canada's poorest communities; the Downtown East Side. Direct radiation spread functions on an inverse square function, so the closer you are to the source, the much more intense the exposure. There are plenty of variables and unknowns and it does not help that a public relations lid is being placed on this floating nuclear time bomb. This censure alone makes the whole thing highly suspicious.
24 Hours News Vancouver, Monday, Jan. 24th, 2011, page 3