The Ottawa “winter” recently ended. On the first official day of spring I was outside in shirtsleeves, trying not to move too fast so I didn’t sweat. Unseasonable is too mild a term for this weather. It is strange and unsettling. People in Inuvik, Northwest Territory were possibly feeling a bit more “normal”—it was minus 29 there on March 22. But as I pointed out in “Extreme heat” on December 29, 2011, the ice in Canada’s arctic last year melted to its second-lowest level on record. Inuvik is on the front-line of global warming.
Ironic then that the town is powered and heated 100 percent with diesel and natural gas, two of the fossil fuels responsible for climate change. Most of Inuvik’s power has for the last while come from natural gas, which itself comes from a nearby gas field. But that field is running dry, which has, according to a CBC report, already forced the power commission to use more diesel. For the nine out of ten Inuvik homes that heat with gas, the most touted alternative is propane, another fossil fuel.
Is this really the only way Inuvik can ward off the shrewd Arctic air? Of course not. There is another, utterly reliable alternative heat source that could provide absolute assurance against the destruction by freezing of Inuvik’s critical infrastructure. This alternative heat source has the added benefit of being utterly devoid of greenhouse gases. This alternative is the heat generated by radioisotopes as they naturally disintegrate and transform into other elements.
The most practical radioisotope for this purpose is Strontium-90 (Sr-90), a fission product. Sr-90 has been used since the early 1960s as an uninterruptible power source. It has an illustrious history in the arctic. In the early ’60s an Sr-90-based radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) for two years powered a remote weather station on Axel Heiberg Island in the high arctic.
And since the 1970s, Sr-90 fueled RTGs have provided reliable power to a remote seismic monitoring site near Burnt Mountain, Alaska—468 kilometers (291 miles) southwest of Inuvik.
Sadly, the Burnt Mountain RTGs are being phased out in favour of solar and diesel. Communities near Burnt Mountain believe the Sr-90 poses a threat, even though in the RTGs Sr-90 is locked in strontium titanate, a molecular bond of strontium with titanium and oxygen. This turns it into something like a radioactive diamond—a material so tough and durable that it can’t dissolve even if you heat it beyond its 3,000 degree melting point. Properly shielded, Sr-90 RTGs pose no threat at all.
I wish the communities near Burnt Mountain would reconsider their opposition to the RTGs. The alternative, diesel generation, will dump huge amounts of climate-destabilizing CO2 into the pristine arctic air. That air should be cold and clean, not hot and polluted. (And because diesel is so inefficient compared with Sr-90, huge physical amounts of it are required to provide the same amount of electric current that is provided today by an oil-drum-size RTG that will run for 30 years. That diesel won’t get to the Burnt Mountain site by magic. It will be transported in fossil-fueled helicopters.)
In his 1966 book The World of Radioisotopes, Jack Gregory said that if Sr-90 and other reactor fission products could be used on the million-curie scale, then that could be a major step toward further mitigating the already-small nuclear waste problem.
Sr-90 could solve some serious problems dogging permanent settlements in the North. A thirty-year uninterruptible source of carbon-free heat would provide absolute assurance that water infrastructure will not freeze—a perennial problem in cold climates. This in turn would ensure safe, reliable protection of municipal sewage infrastructure, which is also under continual threat of destruction by freezing.
It is interesting to consider whether Inuvik could benefit from this elegant waste-to-power solution.
Ironically, the Burnt Mountain RTGs’ purpose is to run seismic monitoring equipment that listens for nuclear explosions. The Burnt Mountain station is part of the verification mechanism for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Hi Steve: Very interesting article on radioisotopes How come it was used in providing energy to an Arctic community as early as 1960 with very good results. This kind of information about “clean” nuclear power should be shouted from the rooftops. And if I were you, I’d get this out to the news more and more often. Good job Steve!! and keep at it. Olga
Interesting article, but I suggest you look a little deeper into some current sources regarding this technology. It really isn’t designed for the kind of thing you are talking about here. Each of these units is quite large and only supplies about 400W of power for 12 years – which is fine for a lighthouse or weather station, but not a town.
To heat and power an entire town – even a small town like Inuvik – you would be looking at a huge warehouse filled with thousands of them. The cost of constructing the devices and nuclear-safe facility would easily run into the hundreds of millions – if not billions – of dollars.
Further, the spent units are still radioactive and dangerous. Such devices currently are occasionally found by passers-by in old abandoned soviet stations and kill people.
There are elegant power and solutions out there for northern communities, but this is not one of them. Better to direct attention to research into micro-fission reactors or deep-geothermal.
Sean, thanks. I should have been clearer that the power to which I refer (in waste-to-power) is thermal power, rather than electricity. As you correctly point out, RTGs are very low current and you could not hope to power much beyond very low-power devices. I was thinking more of freeze protection for water infrastructure, potable water treatment, plus sewage treatment (either using Sr-90’s heat to keep an anaerobic digester warm or in combination with Cs-137 which emits gamma radiation that could kill sewage pathogens).
My use of the Burnt Mountain example was just to show that the use of isotopic heat (in this case in RTG technology) is not new, and that it is proven.
But your argument that some old spent units tracking back to the USSR (which dissolved in 1991) are “still radioactive and dangerous” … can’t say I agree. How many people have died from tampering with old Soviet RTGs? I think Bellona lists exactly one instance.
Meanwhile, there’s an epidemic of gas- and propane-sniffing all over the arctic. People die from it with depressing regularity — I medivacked a number of poor mixed up kids hopped up on propane out of the NWT back when I worked up there — not all of them survived the experience. Accidents are frequent, often fatal, and almost always involve terrible burns. I remember one particularly tragic incident in which two kids blew themselves up after opening a propane tank valve in a pup tent. This happens all the time. You think strontium, which in this case is in the form of strontium titanate, is more dangerous than gasoline and propane? We should be worried about real threats, not made-up ones.