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Nuclear fuel

Dear Reader,

When I read about the accident in France which turned out to be at a radioactive metal treatment site, I had said that I would write and explain some of the mysteries of how nuclear fuel is made. Now I suspect that you either think one of the following.

1. Nuclear fuel is some mysterious material which is made by some modern day version of a high priest.

2. You think that you know everything about nuclear fuel and how it is formed.

I hold the view that statement 1 is wrong, and many people who think statement 2 is correct are not so well informed as they think they are. I will be limiting what I write about to oxide fuel, the problem is that nuclear fuels can take many different forms and it is impossible for me to write about all fuels because no man (or woman) alive can pack their brain with everything about all forms of nuclear fuel.

The first thing to understand is that uranium dioxide (UOX) and plutonium dioxide (part of MOX) nuclear fuel are hard ceramics. These do not dissolve in water. But there is some important news to consider still about Greenpeace’s reaction to the French scrap metal accident.

A Greenpeace press release has said that this event is a “a tragic reminder of the dangers of nuclear power“, while I hold the view that the vast majority of deaths due to industrial accidents are very preventable and sad. I think that this statement is yet another example of Greenpeace’s irresponsible behaviour regarding nuclear matters, the accident in France has not caused a release of radioactivity, nor did it involve radiation nor did it occur because of the radioactive / nuclear properties of the materials being handled. To claim that the event is a “reminder of the dangers of nuclear power” is wrong, how does Greenpeace know that the accident was anything other than a normal industrial accident which happened to occur in an area where radioactive materials have been handled.

From what I know the French accident was a non-nuclear accident which happened to occur on a site where radioactive scrap metal is processed. I think it is wrong for Greenpeace to try to score political points through the death of a plant worker whose death is likely to be nothing to do with nuclear or radioactive materials.

I recently learnt about the circumstances of the death of a 36 year old man named Neil Cannon, he was working at height as a demolition worker taking down the stack of a Windscale pile. His safety line was damaged during an event which made him slip and fall. He then fell almost 100 meters, while this accident occurred in a contaminated area it is not a nuclear accident. This accident is special to me, in my youth I used to sometimes work on aerial farms doing things which I would not do today. Nowadays when I climb a radio mast I normally use PPE. I wear a builder’s hard hat and a harness which is fixed to a strong point to prevent me falling. While I am not as skilled a steeplejack as Neil Cannon or Fred Dibnah I know something of the dangers of working high above the ground. By the way I am a devote of the two line method of climbing.

You fix two lines to your safety harness, you start with one line fixed onto the tower. You then reach up and fix on the second line. Then you remove the first line and then climb a little further up the tower before fixing the original line a bit higher. This way no matter what happens you are unable to fall very far from the tower. You also make a point of not allowing your safety lines to come into contact with sharp edges or anything which could cut them.

What happened to Mr Cannon was very sad, but to dress such an accident up as anything other than a tragic building site accident is not right, Mr Cannon died because the system of work required him to leave the safety of a platform and work on a ledge. Something happened which both made him fall and also cut his safety line. To dress up that accident as a nuclear accident is not right, in the same way Greenpeace should not rush to label the French scrap metal accident as a nuclear accident.


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