Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Just Like [Illegible] Used to Make
by J.R. Johnson

by Molly N. Moss

Archimedes’ Gambol
by Eric M. Jones

Cynthia 2246
by Mark Ayling

Where the Rivers Meet
by Vincent Knight

A Woman’s Place
by Guy Stewart

Mindship Decommissioned
by Karl El-Koura

Anna Who Reached for the Stars
by Janis Zelcans

Mad Dogs Raid Mars
by Michael Andre-Driussi

Blissful Twilight
by Jessica Payseur


A Case for Nukes
by John McCormick

Nuns in Space
by Carol Kean




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Making a Case for Nukes

By John McCormick

GLOW IN THE DARK? Or sit in the dark? That’s essentially the choice some people say we need to make for the future health of the planet, or for nothing more than sensible economic reasons.

Coal pollutes; natural gas does also, but far less. Wind turbines are expensive, noisy, utterly lacking the charm of Dutch windmills, which is the picture many people have of these monsters.

Solar panels are a great idea, especially for the new USB standard that specifies the ability to carry 100 watts of direct current, a perfect match for small solar plants to run office or home computers. But they work best for nine-to-five businesses making hay while the sun shines.

Use oil to generate electricity? You gotta be kidding.

Whether you worry about global warming, or just think people shouldn’t waste the planet’s valuable and limited resources when there are better alternatives, you should be interested in a zero carbon, inexpensive, safe power source ready to deploy today. If possible, it would be nice if it didn’t involve digging or drilling or transporting a lot of fuel to the plant and hauling tons of waste away each day.

And, while we are at it, how about an energy source that includes a built-in way to use up radioactive waste without even needing to mine anything, just use above-ground piles of waste metal?

Despite what propaganda you have heard or seen, nuclear power from plants built using modern designs fit all those criteria. Let's examine the possibilities.

Among the most innovative and useful of modern designs is the travelling-wave reactor that runs on the otherwise wasted Uranium 238 left over from removing it from refined uranium ore, the fuel used in most common light-water reactors today.

TWRs are about 50 times (not 50 percent) more efficient in their use of raw mined uranium so, according to the developer, TerraPower, the 750,000 metric tons of now mostly useless Uranium 238 already sitting in piles would power the entire U.S. for up to 700 years. Bill Gates is backing this technology.

Using common sodium (from table salt) as the heat exchange fluid instead of water, the TWR reactors run at higher temperatures and thermodynamics tells us that always means greater efficiency.

If that isn’t enough, TWRs will produce up to seven times less waste than current models so they actually reduce the amount of radioactive waste above ground.

Portable power.

Another modern innovative design is the Babcock and Wilcox self-contained modular nuclear power plant, which can be easily loaded onto a convoy of trucks and quickly installed in a prepared industrial structure.

The power plant would arrive pre-charged with fuel ready to provide up to 745 megawatts of electricity for up to five years before being refueled. The waste would be stored in the facility for the 60 year expected life of the power plant.

Each of these small, modular B&W reactors would, according to the company, save 57 million metric tons of CO2. Not only would the reactors be built in the U.S., because they would be standardized and made in a central location the quality control is uncomplicated.

More U.S. jobs would be created at the installation site—these would be standard construction jobs as all the critical components arrive pre-assembled. Building these B&W mPower reactors in a factory has many obvious advantages over trying to assemble a new plant from scratch on site; if nothing else, there aren’t enough skilled nuclear technicians or engineers to simultaneously build a dozen or so plants scattered around the country. So onsite construction would not require any skills beyond building an normal office building or chemical factory. (A side benefit would be that protesters would have far less time and ability to picket and disrupt work.)

B&W offers a video of the short construction cycle of an mPower reactor that explains the process.

General Atomics manufactures a self-contained nuclear generating plant that can be hauled from the factory to a town near you on a flatbed truck. Designed to run 30 years and then trucked off, each unit can power a city of 250,000 without refueling and won’t even require a large water source because it is air cooled.

EOL efficiency.

“End of Life” is a term for the eventual demolition of a plant and bears upon how efficient or non polluting the reactor is. This factor is often ignored or greatly exaggerated; there seems to be little if any middle ground.

One argument against nuclear reactor power stations is their short 20 to 25 year lifetime. This would be a good argument except for two misconceptions.

First, nuclear plants designed to run 20 years are still operating after 30 years and some new designs are planned to last up to 60 years. The plants designed for a 20 year life are also inexpensive and easy to remove.

Second, the argument ignores the short lifetime of “green” alternatives such as wind turbines that are projected to last only about 20 years.

Vestas, a major wind turbine manufacturer, says theirs should last 20 to 25 years. Offshore installations will not last as long since the ocean environment is inherently unfriendly to metal structures.

The next time you see a giant wind turbine farm, consider how much of it can be recycled in 20 years when they wear out. Do you really think solar panels will last 60 years? How about giant mirror solar farms? If they do last that long, how how much water will it take to keep them clean enough to work? I’ve noticed they are often built in a desert area.


Are rechargeable batteries hazardous waste? How about the old technology lead acid battery in your car? Any idea how the total volume of discarded toxic rechargeable batteries compares to the volume of nuclear power plant waste? Sulfuric acid from car batteries can also kill you. So can the lead.

When was there a significant radioactive material spill from the waste at a U.S. nuclear power plant?

Coal fly ash piles litter the landscape in some areas and, as happened at the TVA Kingston power plant on December 22, 2008, these toxic waste lakes sometimes break free and poison hundreds of acres of land and entire rivers. The Kingston, TN spill covered 300 acres and flowed into a river. West VA alone has 20 similar coal ash slurry impound lakes.

Frequently cited is the concern that nuclear power plants can only run at full power. This is false. A modern reactor actually can run at 25 percent rated capacity and ramp up to 100 percent in 30 minutes or less.

Another claim is that nuclear power plants take too long to construct, seven to ten years. But the Japanese ABWR reactors were certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission long ago and took 48 months to build.

Renewable power is better. In some cases it probably is, but it is very land intensive and you really wouldn't want to live next to a wind farm.

Then there is the law of unintended consequences. We may not even know all the potential downside of relying on too much renewable green energy; for example, pulling massive amounts of energy out of a weather system with wind turbines.

At one time people thought hydroelectric power was perfect, but it turned out there are a lot of environmental problems with dams even when they don’t break.

Coal was once considered a wonderful fuel in Victorian England.

The fact is that alternative or renewable power today supplies about five percent of the electricity used in the U.S. Total solar, thermal, and photovoltaic electric generation hasn't even doubled from 1997 to 2008.

What about radiation dangers from nuclear power? Cell phones emit radiation. Some of them are at the very upper permitted limit. Do you still use one? Have you tested your home for radon? How about x-ray machines? Ever had an x-ray? Have any plareactorns to shield your house from cosmic rays? Do you fly in airplanes? You get more radiation at altitude than on the surface.

Yes, nuclear power can be dangerous. So can falling in the bathtub, or driving a car, or crossing the street. In fact, so far any of those have been more dangerous to both nuclear power plant workers and those who live near the plants.

The sad fact is that everything is dangerous. Too much food, or too little. Too much sun, or too little. Even staying inside and staying in bed all the time will eventually kill you.

The very latest medical research shows that everyone is going to die, although most people (and not just teens) act as if they don't know about that and seldom worry about what is most likely to be dangerous. Despite all the concerns about pollution and even cancer, you are most likely to die of heart failure. Does that cause everyone to exercise, take aspirin, and eat right?

The basic energy technology choice we have to make in the very near future is whether we follow the example of France, and even China, and produce clean nuclear energy as fast as we can build power plants. We can continue to burn coal and natural gas. Or hope we can quickly go from getting four percent of our power from wind and solar to 90 percent or more in a few decades.

When you hear people complaining about nuclear reactors, remember that someone is against everything, whether it makes sense to others or not. A lot of the time they have hidden agendas and make their arguments by ignoring or dissembling simple facts.

Some people believe that mining the metals for and manufacturing solar and wind power equipment is somehow different from mining uranium, and that the mills and mines producing rare earth elements don't pollute.

A lot of people are against building nuclear power plants, but most of their concerns aren't well thought out or can apply equally to other power generation systems.


Let's dispose of the safety issue first by citing Chernobyl, which employed ancient technology. The reactor at Chernobyl was essentially a slow-motion nuclear device (bomb) right from the early design stage. The steam explosion polluted a large area of marginal farm land and displaced a lot of people, but a decade after the explosion only 64 deaths have been attributed to radiation exposure caused by the accident. The entire region is so sparsely populated that relocating really wasn’t the sort of problem it would be in, say, Germany or Florida.

Now, 64 deaths are terrible, but are they any reason to stop development of nuclear power plants? OSHA reports that there were 4,609 deaths due to industrial accidents in the U.S. in 2011. We still build factories. It is said that medical errors/accidents are the the third leading cause of death in the U.S., totalling about 200,000 each year.

Using anti-nuke activists’ logic we should immediately shut down every hospital, clinic, and doctor’s office in the country—people die in hospitals.

As someone who has worked in a coal mine, let me assure you that coal is far from a safe technology. Even the deaths from coal truck road accidents in the Eastern U.S. coal region total more in a month than all the deaths from all civilian nuclear accidents so far.

Three Mile Island.

Yes, the incident at TMI was a horrible accident; everyone remembers it and it stopped reactor power development in this country dead for decades.

So, how many people died due to the nuclear accident at TMI? How many suffered serious injuries? How many minor injuries were reported? How many were exposed to dangerous radiation levels? It must have been a really terrible total to completely stop the move to nuclear power.

I’ve never found anyone except nuclear experts or other emergency management officials who actually know—hint—those are all trick questions.

The answer to all the above is—absolutely zero, nada, none.

The Three Mile Island accident stopped the construction of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. despite the fact that it actually showed how safe even the old style nuclear reactors are. In large part, the sensationalist media, especially TV, is to blame. After all, how many viewers would stay riveted through the commercials to be repeatedly told that nothing significant happened? The nuclear industry failed to realize how much public education they needed to do.

So, the absolute worst U.S. civilian nuclear accident caused no deaths and no injuries from radiation.

The truth is, while many people die in coal mines and coal/gas-fired power plants, no U.S. commercial nuclear power plant has resulted in any death other than from construction accidents such as occur in any major construction project.

So why don’t we have nuclear power today as a major source of electricity in the U.S? France is able to do it and they can’t make a decent hamburger!

You might think that oil, coal, and gas lobby propagandists, along with a few extreme environmentalists with personal agendas or who don’t really understand nuclear power, plus the poor U.S. educational system, and the fact that most TV and print reporters couldn’t explain the difference in threat level between alpha radiation and gamma radiation, are responsible. If you do think that way, I agree.

(Alpha radiation can be stopped by a piece of typing paper. Typical gamma radiation might require several inches of lead or a dozen feet of water.)

Even famous environmentalist Stewart Brand of “The Whole Earth Catalog” has endorsed nuclear power now that he understands it and the implications of ignoring it.


Wind turbines and solar panels. China has a stranglehold on the rare earth elements needed to build these. The mining and refining processes are highly polluting. Wind turbines can’t be put near major electric consumers; they render an area virtually unlivable. Solar panels only work efficiently on sunny days.

What about clean coal? First, I want to make this perfectly clear—coal mines pollute. I live in coal country, so no one can tell me otherwise. Also, coal-fired power plants produce poisonous fly ash and sludge, and they actually emit radiation in their smoke. Even the cinder blocks made from fly ash are radioactive. Coal-fired plants also require a lot of expensive and polluting transportation just to fuel the plant daily. They produce vast quantities of CO2.

And what about the “clean coal” legislators have been persuaded to spend our tax money on research to produce?

The largest clean coal pilot plant is Mississippi Power’s Kemper County plant, which turns cheap coal to clean gas and captures the majority of the CO2. The plant is still touted by the EPA as the way of the future. But Kemper’s original budget of $2.9 billion has doubled and the Mississippi Public Service Commission already had to approve a 15 percent electric rate hike.

The bottom line is, coal provides a lot of jobs but so have many other bad business models such as serfdom, so that isn’t a reason to continue coal mining for fuel. Eventually we will need coal as a source of hydrocarbons replacing oil. But burning coal is the worst use for these precious hydrocarbons, not the best.

Natural gas is very good as a substitute for coal; it is an easy conversion for existing power plants. Natural gas is also a great way to heat homes, can easily be compressed to produce a vehicle fuel (even home kits are available), and is a vital petrochemical in manufacturing. However, it also generates a lot of CO2.

Nuclear waste.

This is a highly exaggerated problem. Proportionally to the energy produced, only a tiny amount of nuclear waste is produced by a plant over its lifetime vs. tons of toxic waste from coal ash every day.

I have a simple proposal for disposal, one I’ve never heard a good argument against. There are existing deep uranium mines. They are already radioactive whether they are geologically “safe” or not; they will remain radioactive forever. So, my proposal is to put nuclear waste right back in these played-out mines.

Late developments.

Besides the TWR I described above, CERN is now embarking on a research program investigating pebble bed thorium reactors, a technology invented in the US. and tested over the years in Russia.

The Shippingport Atomic Power Station, Beaver County, PA, which I toured as a student back in 1964, was the first full-scale generating plant devoted entirely to peaceful uses. This reactor design relies on thorium rather than a lot of uranium and works by converting thorium 232 to uranium 233, a fissionable isotope. It was 30 miles west of Pittsburgh—the prevailing wind is from the west—but even that earliest nuclear power technology ran without incident for decades despite its questionable location.

The plant was the brainchild and personal project of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy, and it operated from the end of 1957 through the fall of 1982.

Pebble bed technology was invented in the U.S. Along with standard nuclear power plant production, advances in this technology has moved overseas and, despite being used in the first commercial reactor, it is actually making a comeback as a “new” technology.

Fusion is better, why not wait?

Fusion energy, surplus power generated by the tiny amount of mass missing when you force two hydrogen atoms together to form helium, is the holy grail of atomic power because it doesn’t produce any significant waste. The popular press sometimes refers to fusion as getting energy from water as H2O is a good source of hydrogen.

So, it is clean and can’t be used to make weapons. (Hydrogen bombs don’t use anything found in a fusion reactor, or its “waste,” helium, which you can breathe without harm at parties.) This is a proven technology on the large scale; it is the reaction that powers the sun.

So, if fusion technology is so good, why not wait until it is developed into a commercial design instead of rushing to build more fission plants? For one thing, no fusion test facility has ever produced more energy than it consumed so we may not have commercial fusion plants for 50 years, especially because most research projects are being cut back. In fact, we may never have commercially viable fusion power plants.

The Princeton plasma physics fusion project was stopped in 2008 when it had already cost more than $74 million and it was projected it would cost that much more to complete, double the original price tag.

MIT’s decades-long fusion research project recently saw its federal funding cut and will shut down this year, leaving one U.S. fusion project, and students are no longer flocking to study in this field at the Alcator C-Mod device.

Click here for a link to all current fusion research data and projects from around the world.

The giant European fusion project termed ITER has had its funding cut again and again, resulting in the first projected break even test for the Tokamak style reactor (economic break-even, where output is 10 times input) in 2028, at the very earliest, and many essential parts of the research have been dropped, which will likely make the 2028 deadline difficult to achieve. Just three years ago, it was expected that the ITER reactor would be complete and start producing plasma in 2020. As of now that isn’t expected to take place until 2027 at the earliest.

There is a South Korean fusion project that shows early signs of success but, considering the difficulty in moving from a research project to commercial venture, even if the test run is a complete success by 2015, it will be a decade or more before the technology could be commercially developed on any useful scale.


So what’s the matter with antimatter? Life aboard The Enterprise(s) 1701.x seems pretty sweet, and much of that derives from the vast amount of power that can be generated mixing matter and antimatter. (If you are applying to the Academy, the correct matter-antimatter mixture ratio is always 1:1 for maximum efficiency.)

Unlike fission, which is about five percent efficient at best, antimatter annihilation essentially converts 100 percent of mass directly into energy. It shouldn’t even be difficult to design a reactor as long as you can safely store and handle the antimatter.

But as of this century there are two big problems. First, CERN has been able to store antimatter for only about 30 minutes maximum. That might work if it were easy to generate; unfortunately it currently takes most of the gigantic CERN installation and a vast amount of energy to produce a few antimatter particles—the most expensive matter on Earth. Billions of dollars worth of energy in, tens of dollars of energy out.

In addition, there are a few fundamental properties of anti-hydrogen that aren’t fully understood yet, so it is still a bit early to begin engineering plans for its use as a high-density power source. Minor things such as whether anti-hydrogen will fall in a gravity field, that is, how it is affected by gravity, really aren’t understood.

In fact, if you are interested, you might be able to join the group of amateur scientists who are helping to analyze the vast amount of antimatter data already recorded through Project AEGIS.

Not all antimatter is a blue sky theoretical thought experiment; your local hospital may well be using antimatter in the form of a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner. But for the foreseeable future we won’t be producing antimatter in quantities capable of running an electric razor, let alone powering a warp drive starship.

Bottom line.

Will we continue to pollute the only place humans currently live, cut back energy consumption to the level solar and wind-power plants can conceivably generate? Or can the U.S. follow the lead of the French and get most of our power from nuclear (atomic) plants?

Cutting back on consumption is actually what I would favor, but I am not delusional. I know this is the very last option people would accept. People want more convenience, not less, and that, along with an ever-growing population, means an ever increasing demand for power.

Will the ignorant win out? Will we do our level best to pollute the planet until it is unlivable, or reject the hysteria generated by the anti-nuclear lobby?

Scientists don’t lobby for new technology. Companies making lots of money from old technologies and energy sources have a vested interest in convincing people that new technologies are expensive and dangerous, or that there really isn’t anything wrong with their old technology a few minor changes won’t fix.

Even the government regulators aren't immune from bias. Someone at the EPA is in charge of clean coal research. They also approve government reports. But their career advancement is strongly tied to the continued investment in clean coal. Will they honestly report problems with clean coal?

Remember that tobacco companies spent decades denying the dangers of cigarettes. They had many researchers back up their denial of both the danger of addiction and that of the carcinogens the companies actively added to cigarettes to keep them burning, get them to last longer in the package, and, just incidentally, to make them more addictive. END

John McCormick claims to be biased only on the side of science and logic. He has studied nuclear physics, and served as a PA Commonwealth Radiologic Monitor. Living in coal country, he sees the dangers caused by mining coal on a daily basis.








John McCormick studied physics at Northeastern U., humanities and philosophy at Harvard. For the past 40 years he has been a writer/reporter. He has authored five technology books. He is a disabilities activist, a former locksmith, a former race car and drag line mechanic. He spent two years with WGBH-TV (PBS). He has also worked as a commercial fisherman and a professional photographer. He is a member of the AAAS and the National Press Club. His full biography is at his SiliconSamurai website.

Favorite drink: God's Blessing (Bushmills, Jamacia Blue Mountain coffee, whipped cream).

Favorite movie: “Forbidden Planet.”

Pet peeve: Environmentalists who don’t understand ecology or technology.

Advice to NASA: Keep out of the way of private space ventures, join forces with China and India.benday