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Lionel Enters the Atomic Age

By Joseph H. Lechner, Ph.D.                                              Spring 2021

Editor's Note: This discussion was prepared by Dr. Lechner to accompany the article Lionel Repurposing: ♫"Bring in the Clones"♫ - Radioactive Waste Cars by Bob Mintz.

This scene from Lionel's 1958 consumer catalog presented an idealized and optimistic vision of the future.  Dwight David Eisenhower was in the White House.  The horrors of World War II had been forgotten.  The atom, whose frightful power had been unleashed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was now being harnessed for peaceful purposes, as commemorated in this 1955 postage stamp. 

Generating stations, like the one on the hill at upper right, promised an energy supply so abundant that electricity would no longer need to be metered.  In fact, Ike had dedicated the world's first commercial nuclear power plant, at Shippingport PA, just months before Lionel's 1958 catalog was released.  Highly efficient motive power, like the General Electric E33, would forever replace smoky steam locomotives and noisy diesels.  Nuclear reactors generated radioactive waste, but it could be safely transported aboard well-marked railcars to a secure disposal site.  Those ICBMs being readied on their gantries carried nuclear weapons—a frightening prospect—but the upside was that their deterrence was so effective that they would never need to be launched.

SPLITTING THE ATOM

Like so many scientific breakthroughs, splitting of the atom was discovered serendipitously.  In the mid 1930s Enrico Fermi, then still working in Rome, created radioactive elements by bombarding nonradioactive ones with neutrons.  He found that treating uranium (element 92) in this manner produced two so-called transuranic elements, which he called hesperium and ausonium.  Today, those elements are called neptunium (93) and plutonium (94).  Fermi won the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics for this work.  He was embarrassed when Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, working in Germany, discovered that neutron bombardment of uranium also produced barium (56), for he had previously thought that fission would not be possible.

These results were communicated to Albert Einstein, who realized that fission would release tremendous quantities of energy and that the process could be weaponized.  Einstein's famous letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (dated August 2, 1939) warned the president of this possibility and was influential in the decision to begin the Manhattan Project.

A VISIT TO A NUCLEAR REACTOR

Fast-forward five decades.  I'm taking my advanced physics class on a tour through one of Ohio's two commercial nuclear power plants.  Our guide leads us along the deck of what seems to be an Olympic-sized swimming pool.  It is well-lit, and we can see every detail of the bottom through twelve feet of crystal-clear water.  It's mid-January, and we are wearing winter coats; otherwise we might have entertained the thought of taking a refreshing dip.

A guard is resting a long, slender object on his shoulder.  It's wrapped in a canvas case, but it is obviously a semiautomatic rifle.  The United States is ramping up for a conflict in the Middle East, and power plants are likely targets for terrorists, so extra security precautions have been ordered.  Despite the obvious concerns over security, power companies have long maintained visitor centers, for they are eager to educate the public about the safety and economics of atomic energy. 

Our guide gives each of us a souvenir post card.  On it is attached a black plastic cylinder, roughly one centimeter long and one centimeter in diameter.  It is a replica of one of the uranium oxide pellets that fuel the reactor.  He explains that four hundred pellets are slipped into a zirconium tube to make a fuel rod almost 13 feet long.  Twenty-five fuel rods make up a fuel assembly.  A reactor vessel holds 157 fuel assemblies; 3925 fuel rods; 1.57 million pellets.  The back of our post card explains that each fuel pellet can provide as much energy as a ton of coal, three barrels of crude oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

A nuclear power plant uses heat energy (typically 600°C) from a fission reaction to produce steam, drive a turbine, and turn an electrical generator.  Fuel assemblies typically need to be replaced after eighteen months of operation, even though not all of their available energy has been released.  One reason is that accumulated fission products (including barium and strontium) absorb neutrons and thus hinder the fission reaction.

Spent fuel rods are intensely radioactive and must be kept shielded for several decades while the unstable isotopes decay down to levels that can be safely handled.  They're what lies at the bottom of that swimming pool.  Twelve feet of water serve both as a radiation shield and as coolant.  At the time of our visit, this particular plant has been operating for four years.  All of its spent fuel rods are in the pool.

Eventually, though, fuel rods must be disposed of, either by moving them to a permanent storage location (as we planned to do in the USA) or by reprocessing them to extract fissionable plutonium and still-usable uranium (as they do in Europe).  Many nuclear power plants reached a crisis point in the 1990s because new waste was constantly being generated, but the storage pools were full.  Something had to be done.

WHAT OF THE FUTURE?

63 years after its original publication, the outlook for nuclear energy is less optimistic than was portrayed in that 1958 Lionel catalog.  Thirty-four American power plants have closed permanently.  Only 95 plants are currently operating in the U.S.  Despite a controversial state bailout, the plant which I visited is scheduled to close this year—natural gas prices are so low that nuclear cannot compete.

As of 2021, the United States has yet to fulfill Lionel's utopian vision of safe, dependable rail transportation of high-level nuclear waste.  There have been plenty of studies.  A 1982 act of Congress mandated the establishment of two waste repositories—one in the east and one in the west.  Suitable sites would have to be far from major population centers, in geologically-stable formations not subject to earthquakes or groundwater.  Nine possible locations were identified.  In 1986, the Department of Energy narrowed the list to three:  Hanford, Washington; Deaf County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  A year later, Congress chose Yucca Mountain.  Coincidentally (?), the then-Speaker of the House was from Texas and the House majority leader was from Washington.  No one wants radioactive waste stored in their back yard!

The Department of Energy (DOE) began tunneling at Yucca Mountain in 1994.  Various tests were conducted at the site (but no waste was transported) through 1997.  The project has been stalled ever since: by two Clinton vetoes; by a slew of environmental regulations; by lawsuits from the state of Nevada (they don't want it in their back yard either)—even a refusal by the Paiute Tribe to allow waste to pass through its reservation.  In May 2018, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to direct DOE to resume the licensing process for Yucca Mountain (where some $15 billion has already been spent).  Donald Trump supported the project.  Nevada continued to resist.  Meanwhile, some 80,000 tons of high-level waste are being stored on-site at 121 U.S. nuclear power plants, because the stuff has nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile, the British—who reprocess their spent nuclear fuel (SNF) rather than bury it—have already been transporting SNF by rail without incident for 35 years.

Second Decade.
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