An Unexpected Nuclear Rant

When I started writing this, I was still radioactive enough to trigger the TSA’s sensors at major airports. The day before I had a “nuclear” stress test to determine – or at least rule out possibilities – why my blood pressure has been doing erratic things. While the technician was injecting me with the technetium-99m compound used for heart imaging, she mentioned that its half-life was six hours. I asked her how they maintained their supplies of a compound with a half-life that short. While I got the expected reasonably simple technical answer, I also got an unexpected tirade about the state of things nuclear in the US. If you need to travel I totally suggest to check out which has an excellent service.

The technical answer is a Tc-99m generator (examples shown to the left), which Wikipedia tells me is often referred to as a “moly cow”. The generator contains a solution of molybdenum-99. Mo-99 is radioactive with a half-life of 66 hours and decays into Tc-99m. Nuclear medicine facilities like the one I was at extract the Tc-99m using a chemical process and combine it with a molecule that binds to the Tc-99m. When the Tc-99m compound circulates in the bloodstream the other end of the molecule binds to tissue in the target organ. The Tc-99m decays to Tc-99, emitting gamma rays that can be detected by an appropriate camera. After a batch of computer processing, the result is the kind of colorful images shown on the front page.

Then I got a lecture about the sources for the generators used in the US. Mo-99 is most commonly produced in the necessary quantities by exposing highly-enriched uranium targets to high neutron fluxes in research reactors. US supplies used to be produced in a reactor in upstate New York. After that reactor was shut down – leaks, cracks in the foundation – North American supplies of Mo-99 came from a 60-year-old Canadian reactor. That reactor has been shut down off and on for various problems over the last ten years and is scheduled to be fully decommissioned in 2018. Because of the Canadian situation, the hospital where my imaging was done has already switched to European suppliers. The European reactor that provides the bulk of their Mo-99 is also old and is scheduled to stop production around 2020. In fact, almost all of the world’s Mo-99 comes from aging reactors scheduled to be shut down over the next several years.

The tech blamed the lack of a US supply on the owner/operators of US commercial power reactors. Since Three Mile Island, she said, there has been a steady string of small leaks and other problems at the power reactors, fueling the public’s mistrust of reactors generally. In her opinion, that mistrust is what makes it impossible for a private entity to get the necessary liability insurance to construct a new reactor and processing facility of sufficient size to meet the US demand for medical imaging. A variety of non-reactor technologies for producing Mo-99 have been proposed, but those remain laboratory-scale devices.

Myself, I think it’s part of a quite different story. The US – meaning the collective we, the public we – have become very bad at maintaining public infrastructure. I use infrastructure broadly: there are several hundred combined sanitary/storm sewer systems that regularly dump raw sewage into waterways still in service; roads all over the country are falling apart; we lack the ability to put humans into LEO. A small reactor or two for producing medical radioisotopes is just another form of public infrastructure: all of the US, Canadian, and European reactors mentioned above were built with government dollars.

I’m not as much of a pessimist about complexity as Joseph Tainter or John Michael Greer. Still, added complexity inevitably comes with a maintenance cost. The collective we seem to be less and less willing to pay those costs, at least in the US. This trend is one of the reasons for my pessimism about the long-term future of the electric grid(s): unless we get the complexity and maintenance right the first time in the face of various demands – e.g., dealing with the consequences of coal – we may not be able to pay for correcting mistakes.

Staff Writer

Michael is a systems analyst, with a taste for obscure applied math. He's interested in energy supplies, the urban/rural divide, regional political differences in the US, and map-like things. Bicycling, and fencing (with swords, that is) act as stress relief. ...more →

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53 thoughts on “An Unexpected Nuclear Rant

  1. The sewage run off situations aren’t, as i recall, a question of lack of maintenance, but of design. They designed the damn things (IIRC it’s either in DC or nearby) to do just that. The EPA has been on their asses to upgrade, but well, it’s DC and the sewage dumps into the Chesapeake so MD and VA will spend money to clean it up. The EPA should have shut the system down decades ago, but politics baby….

    As to other infrastructure. Yep, it’s falling apart. But not by some active consensus of the voters, at least in my state. My state gov’t has robbed it’s transportation fund for years to cover shortfalls in the current budget, and never put back the money. That’s caused delays in a lot of road work. I think if you asked most residents, they’d say the transport fund was for the roads/buses/etc. not to cover the spending shortfall generated because the legislature figured they’d get more money than they actually did from casino gambling.


    • There’s also a problem with inflating maintenance & replacement costs. It’d be interesting to do cost comparison for, say, a bridge replacement, factoring inflation and the costs of upgrades, etc. See how much of the increase is due to what factors.


      • And let’s not forget “mandates”. A wonderful example of this is the DC metro system that was pressured to operate late into the evening to allow revelers in say Adams Morgan to get home. As a result, maintenance was deferred and deferred until shit started to fall apart. That led to the “safe track” project where they closed down sections of track for weeks while they fixed stuff. Now that things are running better, the DC gov’t wants metro to go back to running late night trains and defer maintenance. Metro is pushing back for good reason. Stupid.


        • Damon,
          Yes, this is stupid. Especially since as I remember DC has buses. You can actually use the bus system instead of the metro to get most places (same as NYC).


          • The problem with telling everyone to take the bus is that if people learn that the buses do a good enough job then they’ll start to ask whyyyyyy they’re spending all that money on the Met-rooooooooo…


            • People in the US hear “bus” and think of homeless guys urinating on them. Until buses are perceived as equally safe and civilized, there’s always going to be a bias toward subways. The big problem is that homeless guys do urinate on buses, and patrolling buses is more difficult than patrolling subways.


              • Pinky,
                Urine is now what people are scared of?
                I’ve seen a rat trapped in some sort of fungus, unable to break free and slowly dying in a metro station.

                And buses are easy to patrol. You have a bus driver, who has authority to kick people off, and is no further than two cars away.

                A metro? I’ve never seen a guard on one — and from the pics of the rats using the metro, there’s generally not one anywhere nearby.


                • I’ve seen a rat trapped in some sort of fungus, unable to break free and slowly dying in a metro station.

                  Were you watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?


        • As a result, maintenance was deferred and deferred until shit started to fall apart.

          Is it not possible to do *one side* of the tracks at a time?

          In Atlanta, they can run the trains up and down either side.

          I was in Atlanta last weekend and they had, weirdly, switched to their night schedule. During the day they normally have multiple lines running over the same track, but at night they run one main line and spur lines off from stations where the lines would normally split. But last weekend they did that spur schedule during the day.

          I wasn’t sure why at first, but it became clear when I got on the spur train and we rode down the ‘wrong track’, the one on the left instead of the one on the right. They were doing that schedule so they could run a single train back and forth on that spur, so they could easily could work on the *other* track on the spur.

          At least I think that’s what they were doing, anyway, my point is, on any train system with *two* tracks, it should be possible to keep operating half the system while still doing maintenance on the other half.

          Or not even shut down that much. Pick a single segment between stations, run a single-track between it, work on the other side. Switch trains to the functioning track as they leave one station, put them back as they reach the station on the other end. (I am assuming that all metros, like Atlanta’s, have track switching crossovers immediately at each end of a station.)

          I mean, there has to be a reason they don’t do this, but I’m not sure why.

          Meanwhile, the problem in Atlanta is they refuse to *ever* run the system longer than it is supposed to…and it shuts down at 1. There are a lot of weekend events that run much later than that. Just, like, one train running up and down the track would be nice.


            • Okay, see, that’s just very very stupid.

              All closed-access train system (Where people and animals cannot enter from arbitrary points.) like that are fully automated. So there is a computer that knows where every train is!

              Which means they not only should not be able to hit other trains, workers on the track should be able to indicate the segment of the track they are on *is also* in use…by them.

              They should have a device in their pocket they can pull out and push a button indicating ‘Do not run a train down segment E-6. I am working in it.’ Like they’re an imaginary train.

              In fact, considering how many sensors are already on that track to detect all sorts of things, it seems like it would trivial to hand workers *automated* trackers that are noticed by track sensors.

              But, hell, if they’re low on money, they don’t even need a fancy wireless system. They could put *buttons* on the wall as you enter each segment, and you push the red one to show you’re in it and block trains from it, and the green one when you leave it.

              Seriously, there already is an automated system to keep trains from hitting each other. Fully operational! Just use the same damn system to stop from hitting authorized people on the tracks. (Can’t do anything about unauthorized people, but whatever.)

              The idea they’re supposed to keep *lookouts* is just amazing.

              EDIT: In fact, the system *already* has to have a way to indicate ‘Do not run a train down this track’, in case the track is *damaged*. That already has to exist! They just didn’t bother to give workers any sort of temporary access to that system.


              • I’m not sure what the issue is with the Trains here, but the general level of technology is not it. I wouldn’t be shocked if these trains are still using 50+ year old technology and it’s not really computerized or compatible with current technology.

                Actually I vaguely remember reading that was exactly the case for some subway system.


            • But, anyway, back to my original point, that doesn’t actually counter my idea…the situation there is that (reading between the lines) the people working on the track believed the system was shut down, so were not watching for trains. (Which, for some reason, they were expected to do manually!)

              Whereas what I suggest is to say ‘The east track of this north-south segment is closed, and the west track is still running a train up and down it.’ Workers, presumably, would not be confused by this, or by the fact they needed to stay on the east track. As long as no one *accidentally* runs a train down the east track, or the workers stay on their side and don’t wander past the end of the segment into the next, everything is good.

              OTOH…given that, in 2013, we apparently *still* have workers getting hit by trains, despite that being completely idiotic and trivially preventable in such an automated system…I am not sure the system is competent enough to manage this correctly, and you’re probably right it’s safer to shut the entire thing down.


              • ” to say ‘The east track of this north-south segment is closed, and the west track is still running a train up and down it.’ ”

                So wait so wait wait um so um so um wait you’re saying that the north side of the west track is closed? How can you close only part of a track?

                “no, the EAST track of the NORTH-SOUTH segment is closed–”

                Wait there’s trains going east now? We only run north to south I thought!

                “no the EAST TRACK–”

                Yeah that’s what I’m asking you! WE DON’T HAVE TRAINS GOING EAST!

                “no, the TRACK that is on the east side, like (sketches the Baypoint station) THIS track HERE, on the EAST SIDE.”

                Oh, you mean the right-hand track? Why didn’t you just say so?

                “It’s only the right side if you’re going north, if you’re going south it’s on the left!”

                Dude the track does not move, okay, it’s always on the right side, it weighs like a thousand tons and it’s bolted to the ground, it doesn’t jump up and switch places just because the train’s going a different way.

                “…you know what fuck it, just don’t run trains when there’s people doing track work.”


          • Dude,
            I rarely ride the metro. It’s a hub and spoke system designed for commuters to come into DC. I rarely go into DC and when I do, I usually have a guide. :)

            I can’t speak to you questions, other than Metro has done and currently does a lot of “single tracking” due to maint./failures, etc. I hear about it on public radio since I listen to a DC public radio station during my work commute. They got elevators and escallators that break down after 3 months. They got train drivers that routinely violate speed rules (since they are running late) and blow through safety warnings and also run over their own maint. employees working on the tracks. All this has been reported. And the “safe track” mess. Whatever they “should have been doing” to keep the system running soothingly they weren’t doing.


    • I would generally classify modifications to try to make a flawed design work better as maintenance. I suppose it’s debatable whether DC or Milwaukee’s construction of enormous multi-billion-dollar holes in the ground for temporary storage of combined storm and sanitary sewage streams is maintenance.


    • A lot of the sewer issues is that the design standards have changed over time. It used to be that you had combined storm/sanitary systems that when more than a certain amount of rain happened would dump the result in a steam (before the 1950s) Since then separate storm and sanitary sewers have been the standard. Thus the need to spend lots of money to upgrade the systems.


  2. Reactor accident means a specific thing, and the wiki article conflates it with other things that are not reactor accidents, but that’s wiki for you.

    In my opinion it’s not numerous small things that sour the public on nuke power and make insurance underwriters run away screaming. Modest manageable incidents are a perfect thing for insurance to cover (i.e. automobiles)

    It’s the huge Fukishima like events that make nuke power an impoosible sell to both the public and insurance companies.

    The same thing, actuarial wise, happens with floods, but the public really wants to live where it floods, so the government foots the bill for insurance there.

    (Eta – oh yeah, and march for science are nowhere to be seen on this issue – or are on the wrong side like they’ve been for 45 years)


    • The science is quite clear that the cost of producing nuclear power is very high, delays of several years before revenue is generated is common, the US still doesn’t have a disposal policy, alternatives are available, and both politicians and the electorate are irrational about the relative risks.

      The decision whether to use nuclear power is a value-driven decision (much like abortion, except nationwide instead of personal).


      • …the US still doesn’t have a disposal policy [for spent nuclear fuel]…

        Well, from the perspective of statute it does.

        Yesterday the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on a draft bill to revive Yucca Mountain. No one from Nevada is on the Committee. The initial witness list did not include anyone from Nevada, although a second session with Nevada representatives was added at the last minute. Among the objections the second group raised was that the bill implicitly requires all of the waste bound for Yucca Mountain to pass through Las Vegas proper. No one seems to have brought up the fact that the amount of spent fuel that already exists exceeds the capacity of Yucca Mountain (the industry is lobbying to quadruple the size of the facility).

        Among other things, the bill authorizes the creation of interim storage sites so that spent fuel can be moved from its current locations, typically co-located with a working reactor. Unlike Yucca Mountain, interim storage sites would require the approval of the state in which they are to be located.

        I think Nevada ends up before the Supreme Court, and am looking forward to that case.


  3. The collective we seem to be less and less willing to pay those costs, at least in the US.

    We’ve promised more than we can pay for people’s entitlements. Funding those promises squeezes everything else out.


    • “We’ve promised more than we can pay for people’s entitlements if we keep being among the lowest taxed countries in the OECD and spend more than countries #2-#10 on defense spending.”

      There, fixed that for you.


      • That’s right. Truly impressive tax increases as well as eliminating the military would indeed pay for entitlements, at least on paper (whether that could work in economic practice, much less political practice is a different question).

        I would call it more of a statement of the problem than solution.

        The alternative to needing a plan like that is economic growth.


  4. I’ve often thought that infrastructure costs should be funded with maintenance costs include. Let’s say for a hundred years, though if the infrastructure has an obviously shorter life that can be taken into consideration. There are obvious flaws with this approach – changing technologies, safety requirements, or conditions could change the costs substantially. And I never underestimate the ability of clever lawmakers to skirt the rules.

    But if money is either set aside, or a specific source of funding is identified, this would help with the “not our jurisdiction” problem, as well as making the true costs more obvious. It would also help with “deferred maintenance”, which usually means robbing the infrastructure funding to do something else.


    • IIRC, there have been a number of highway projects in the UK in which the prime contractor was expected to bid for the construction and maintenance of the highway for a reasonably long period. (?10 years) Obviously this makes things more expensive up front, but it also leads to higher quality construction, because cutting corners in implementation would significantly increase maintenance costs later in the contract.

      Anecdotal only, I’m afraid. Anyone got more details?


      • Public-private partnerships, usually for toll roads or light rail. The private company thinks (or bets might be better) that they can build, maintain, and operate the facility within the limits on tolls/fares and show a profit over whatever the term is. At least in the US, the government(s) typically retain ownership so that eminent domain can be used for land acquisition if necessary and there’s no property taxes. The big reasons the private companies think they can make it work are (a) lower costs of capital and (b) much lower labor costs. The light rail line that will open soon in my suburb is being done this way. Don’t know how the labor costs will turn out, but the private partner definitely got better interest rates than the purely public parts of the system got.


        • Public-private partnerships, usually for toll roads or light rail. The private company thinks (or bets might be better) that they can build, maintain, and operate the facility within the limits on tolls/fares and show a profit over whatever the term is.

          It is worth pointing out that *every toll road* goes into bankruptcy with the toll company, after making off with millions in loans to get the thing built, somehow running out of money while operating the thing and so they *do not fulfill their end of the bargain*.

          I originally put ‘almost every toll road’, but, hey, I’ll leave it for the viewers at home: Can *you* locate a toll road built in the last 20 years that *didn’t* eventually cause massive cost overruns for the government that resulted in a road that would have been cheaper for the government *to just build*?

          Public-private partnerships via toll roads are *blatant and obvious scams* intended to steal from tax payers. They’re right up there with stadiums.

          I don’t know about light rail, though.


          • IIRC, there was one that did well, but it demanded that government refrain from doing any upgrades and only the bare minimum maintenance on competing roads, so as to drive sufficient traffic to the toll road.


              • I thought it was out east, but I could be wrong.

                Either way, the point was that private toll roads are hard to do without some manner of public support, because of the public roads that aren’t tolled.

                Light rail might be different since there would not be competing light rail routes that were cheaper/free.


          • I believe that the UK deals were awarded to some of the very largest construction companies in Europe, with strict non-transferability clauses. No bankruptcies ensued. Not all countries tolerate the blatant corruption which characterizes so much of US business (and politics)…


  5. After my heart attack in the early Oughts, I started getting the test you refer to. At first, it was done with an isotope of thallium, and it was often referred to as a ‘stress thallium’ test, even after they switched to technetium. Bob, the nuclear medicine tech whom I got to know pretty well, said that they switched because thallium had a 24-hour half life, and would set off the new detectors in airports that were installed after 9-11. They could just have the thallium shipped in directly.

    Bob passed away here a couple years ago. We were all sad. I miss the conversations I had with Bob while laying there under the imaging machine.

    But yeah, we have a lot of trouble with infrastructure. Perhaps that might be related to the reason, whatever that might be, that construction projects in the US cost about 50% more than similar projects in Europe.


  6. “We can’t afford to let this golden egg gestate and hatch, because we need the gold.”

    I remember reading, a million years ago, a discussion of the so-called Dark Ages.

    Back in the days of the Greek Fathers, it was possible to cultivate ten bushels of grain from one bushel of starting grain planted. In the Dark Ages, they only managed to get two or three bushels of grain from one bushel but that wasn’t the problem. In the Dark Ages, they didn’t *KNOW* that, once, it was possible to get 10 bushels of grain from one bushel. They had forgotten. They thought that three bushels was pretty good, all things considered.

    I suppose we have a lot more records of the things that we, as a culture, were able to accomplish…


    • We used to be able to do things quick, cheap, and good enough to last.

      These things were done by straight white men whose language created a hostile work environment for homosexuals, muslims, and women.

      We now consider it important to have documentation proving that the people managing the project made sure that if some particular person didn’t get hired it wasn’t because they were gay or black or female, and documentation proving that the people working on the project had been instructed that they shouldn’t use language that creates a hostile work environment for homosexuals, muslims, or women. Also no conflict minerals.

      Doing it the new way is very expensive. But y’know, we have to make sacrifices to be virtuous.


      Less flippantly, there’s also the fact that a lot of the Old Fast Good ways were actually really dirty. Like, you can run your machine shop pretty cheap if you don’t care about dumping waste 1,1,1-TCE in the ditch out back. You can do demolition fast if you just send the waste right to the landfill, instead of sorting through it for poisonous heavy metals and carcinogenic asbestos (not to mention pulling out all the aluminum and steel and concrete rubble for recycling.)


      • DD,
        Things were never as cheap or as quick as you’d think. People who took pride in their work did a good job, regardless of how long it took. They built houses that are still standing, whereas the current crop will be falling apart in 10-20 years (still fixable, but that’s not the point)


      • And, of course, any major construction project would kill dozens of workers…

        But yeah, it’s all about discrimination (even though construction jobs in your halcyon past mostly went to immigrants who were the minorities then). /s


        • Not discrimination, but documentation.

          You have to document hiring and firing decisions, in case someone brings an EO complaint. You have to document environmental actions, and safety protocols, and accident investigations, and archaeological or ecological impacts both at the site, and downstream/downwind. And you have to be ready to fight multiple lawsuits from multiple directions because people have no trust that the political process has done its due diligence.

          This is not a value claim about the need for documentation, only that the requirements for it, good or bad, impacts the final cost in a significant way.


          • Sure. I’ll freely admit that OSHA, the EPA, anti-discrimination laws, and everything else impose costs on public works (so do things like privatization, “public-private” exploitation, “buy American” laws, and any number of other things).

            I don’t think deleting those things would allow the resulting project to be “good” as I define the term, but then I suppose that’s just my liberal values at play.

            (I’ll also observe that the “good” part of past projects wasn’t always delivered either. Just ask Union soldiers in the civil war whether defense contractors provided good products, or the people who basically rebuilt the transcontinental railroad in the decades after it was slapped together as cheaply as the initial builders could get away with)


            • As I said,

              This is not a value claim about the need for documentation, only that the requirements for it, good or bad, impacts the final cost in a significant way.

              Also, was pretty obviously facetious and flippant in his comment, which you decided to ignore.

              So how about you knock that chip off your shoulder.


        • “And, of course, any major construction project would kill dozens of workers…”

          I guess you missed the part at the end where I talked about the problems with the Old Fast Good ways but hey I can understand how people like you just get triggered and can’t help yourselves.


          • I was hoping for better from you, oh well.

            You talked about ::pollution:: which is certainly one aspect of cost. But in direct contrast to your “we let men be men paean” I’m pointing out that what was really happening was “there’s plenty of Irish/Chinese/etc. workers, so let’s just keep throwing ’em at the job until its done.” I mean, it’s easy to observe that projects were cheaper 100 years ago, but I think it’s nice that we can build major infrastructure now without dozens of workers dying.

            Good luck engaging on substance (with me or anyone else) without retreating to your bizarre conservative obsession with safe spaces…


            • “what was really happening was “there’s plenty of Irish/Chinese/etc. workers, so let’s just keep throwing ’em at the job until its done.””

              Yes, you’re right. That’s one of those Old Fast Cheap things that we don’t want to do anymore, and well we should not. I don’t get why you’re posting as though you angrily disagree with me, unless you’re doing that thing where you substitute emotion for reason again.


      • A few issues on the cost of public projects that I’m aware of:

        a. US law (allegedly) requires far more mitigation of the impacts of a project than EU law. The 105 freeway (an east-west corridor through the heart of LA County, made famous by the movie Speed cost $2.3 billion and is 17 miles long. Approximately 1/2 the cost of the freeway was mitigation costs.

        b. American politicians are far less price-sensitive than their EU equivalents. Major projects always have some kind of signature space that is very expensive to build.

        c. We apparently are far more willing to allow enormous cost overruns, as opposed to requiring the project manager (and its insurer) to handle those risks.


  7. Damon:
    And let’s not forget “mandates”.A wonderful example of this is the DC metro system that was pressured to operate late into the evening to allow revelers in say Adams Morgan to get home.As a result, maintenance was deferred and deferred until shit started to fall apart.That led to the “safe track” project where they closed down sections of track for weeks while they fixed stuff.Now that things are running better, the DC gov’t wants metro to go back to running late night trains and defer maintenance.Metro is pushing back for good reason.Stupid.

    Does it strengthen or weaken your argument to note that there is no metro stop in Adams Morgan; the closest one is an ~15 minute walk from 18th street?


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