Power Plant Wastes - Productive Usage of Nuclear Waste

Productive Disposal of Nuclear Power Plant Wastes

There has long seemed to me a pretty obvious solution to the disposal of the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. In the process, homes could be heated and massive amounts of electricity produced!

However, this last sentence is why no one has ever seriously looked into this before. If millions of American homes could be totally heated without needing heating oil or natural gas, very large and powerful Corporations would not be pleased, as their profits would be less. Ditto regarding people having a free (local, on or actually under the property) source of electricity.

Around 40 years ago, a technology was developed called an "isotopic power generator". Such devices used various isotopes such as Strontium-90 in an enclosed chamber. The concept was to have all the radiation get absorbed in the container, which then became very hot, and then various methods of generating electricity were applied to get productive use of that radiation. NO "chain reaction" was ever involved, so the concept was very different than in nuclear power reactors, which require such chain reactions to function.

A variation of that approach seems compatible with the spent fuel material from nuclear reactors. A relatively conventional water well hole would be bored, 100 feet deep, and the device would be lowered down there. A SMALL AMOUNT of USED NUCLEAR FUEL PELLETS would be dumped down into that sealed and sturdy device.

The hundred feet of soil and groundwater and some shielding on the device itself would eliminate any radiation hazard. Being 100 feet below ground, the small amounts of spent nuclear fuel in any homeowner's "well" would be extremely "secure", too. It would be pointless for any terrorist to even try to get any of those spent pellets back up to the surface, as their contained U-235 is nearly completely used up (down to around 1% left, just enough for the purposes of these devices).

Heat could be captured, and then heat-exchanged (twice) to provide heating for the home and the domestic hot water as well as supplying steam-driven turbine-generated electricity from a very small and inexpensive device.. It seems prudent for us to adapt that 40-year-old technology to solve both the spent-nuclear-fuel-disposal problem and the overwhelming energy needs of our country.

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The Situation

Every year, the 103 operating American nuclear power plants replace a total of around 2,000 metric tons of "spent" nuclear fuel pellets. Some sources claim that this number is around ten times larger at 44 million pounds per year. That is doubtful but it might describe a TOTAL quantity of all materials which contained nuclear contamination, but either number represents a huge disposal problem for the government and the nulear plants themselves. During the time that nuclear power plants have been in operation in the US, a total of about 60,000 metric tons of such spent nuclear fuel has been removed from reactors. Where has all that nuclear material gone, you say? Nowhere, really! It is all still just sitting there, in storage sites. As of early 2011, there are apparently 175 million pounds of such materials in 77 locations inside the United States. Nearly all are adjacent to the nuclear power plants that the fuel pellets had been used in. They now just lay in pools of water (which is necessary to keep them cool, due to the heat that the spent fuel pellets constantly still create.)

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You might note that the stored spent fuel pellets (in fuel rods) that had been stored in water tanks near each of the six Japanese reactors that had been denied electricity for circulating cooling water, each had that water evaporate soon after the tsunami of 3/11/11 and then several of them created so much heat that they had explosions which caused further damage.

The concept being presented here is a simple and known method to dispose of the thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel while also doing that in small enough quantities that the destinations would never be targets of terrorists and also while capturing a lot of that heat that was so destructive in Japan, and using that heat in constructive manners, to heat homes and create small amounts of steam to produce electricity for an individual house.

The giant power Utility Corporations have no interest in allowing such usage as it would clearly severely cut into the enormous profits which they are now guarateed of receiving from the public! The very IDEA of letting the public use such waste disposal materials without them making billions of dollars in profits, may not be politically possible to do! Their Lobbyists in Washington DC are just too powerful!

No one has really thought of any "good" place to put it all! The US Government has spent an enormous fortune to carved out Yucca Mountain, in order to collect all that existing spent nuclear fuel and store it inside that one mountain. That mountain would then be extremely radioactive for at least 490,000 years, and actually much longer. Does anyone know if there are any unexpected complications of storing such a huge amount of radioactive material in one place? No. Around 1967, Dixie Lee Ray was head of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), when she went on news broadcasts to "personally guarantee" the safety of all spent nuclear fuel while it is potentially dangerous. She did NOT mention that it would be dangerous for that 490,000 years or more! A year later, she was no longer head of the AEC, and a year after that, the AEC ceased to exist! Say anything about government promises? Like rapid response as Hurricane Katrina approached land? Right!

In any case, the amount of spent nuclear fuel currently being stored is pretty huge. If it were all collected together, it would cover an entire football field nearly 20 feet deep.

The Details

The nuclear fuel inside a reactor is actually in small "pellets" each of which is about the size of a stack of about a dozen dimes. Each pellet weighs about 7 grams.

Let's start to figure. The total spent nuclear fuel removed from the 103 operating American nuclear reactors in a year is about 2,000 metric tons, which is the same as 2 * 109 grams. Since each pellet weighs 7 grams, that means that about 280 million spent nuclear fuel pellets are removed each year. A lot!

When each little pellet is first put into a reactor, it starts out with an available energy of about 22 million Btus. (If you know that an average American house requires about 40 million Btus for an entire winter's heating needs, you are already starting to get way ahead of me!) Remember, every year, there are about 280 million spent pellets removed from reactors! And there are around 70 million family residences in the US.

Let's check these numbers. If each pellet starts out with 2.2 * 107 Btus, and 2.8 * 108 new pellets are added each year, that means that they are adding a total of 6.2 * 1015 Btus of new energy to the US reactors each year. The published total nuclear electric power created in 2004 was 7.89 * 1011 kWh of electricity. One kWh = 3412 Btu, so this means that 2.692 * 1015 Btus of electricity was produced. So the thermal efficiency of the nuclear power plants in 2004 was 2.692/6.2 or around 43%. That is a little higher than it actually is, but close enough to indicate that the numbers are all basically right. (Part of this difference is due to newer pellets being made with GREATER ENERGY in them than the nuclear plants were originally designed to use. The content numbers given above for the annual fuel pellets was based on the (conservative) original design values. With larger energy available, the actual published figures for electricity made from nuclear actually then is in line with the 31% overall efficiency of light water nuclear electric plant design expectations and there is no variation at all.

At some point a nuclear fuel pellet is determined to have a reduced remaining energy that it is considered not being worth keeping in the reactor. It seems very difficult to tell exactly when that is, as the decision is apparently generally made by a visual inspection of the pellets! But it is reasonable to assume that it is when the nuclear fuel is around 1/2 or 2/3 used up. The reason they are removed then is because the amount of steam generated (to power steam turbines which turn electric alternators) has dropped and the equipment all requires high and consistent production of steam.

A more technical explanation is that the pellets then have too few decaying 235U atoms (each of which creates TWO neutrons in the process, a VERY important fact!) where there are enough neutrons created to act like pool cue balls to hit and break apart (fission) other 235U atoms. It was discovered in the 1940s that if you have at least 90% 235U present (with the other ten percent being the natural 238U) there are plenty of targets for the neutrons to hit and the fission can occur REALLY fast (in a nuclear weapon). It was also discovered then that if there is roughly 4% 235U present, there are ABOUT enough target 235U atoms so that a "controlled chain reaction" can be created (for creating electricity in a nuclear power plant). Once the percentage of 235U has dropped below around 1.5% or 2%, the fuel pellets barely create enough neutrons to be "economically practical" in a large scale nuclear power plant. However, there is still a good amount of fission that can and will still occur in that spent nuclear fuel pellet. Just not enough to PROFITABLY make electricity in power plants! So those pellets are "thrown away" and new pellets replace them, ones that create lots of neutrons! (Over the years of nuclear power generation, the fuel pellet percentage of 235U has been raised from the old 4% or so [which worked fine] to around 5% or even higher today. There is no actual need for that to have been done, and the added processing to raise the percentage up to 5% is fairly expensive, but power plant operators now find that they can use those pellets FOR A LONGER TIME BEFORE HAVING TO REPLACE THEM! It was entirely an economic decision! An unfortunate side effect of the higher 235U percentage is that a reactor is therefore slightly more susceptible to bad things happening. If safety devices fail, as in Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, that higher percentage of 235U can cause REALLY bad things to happen pretty fast. Not nuclear-weapons-fast, but still a LOT faster than when they used to use 4% fuel. It was decided that power plants and Operators were capable of ensuring that the higher potency fuel would never become uncontrolled. We shall see. It sure seems doubtful to me when we see major disasters occuring around the world.

So it seems reasonable to assume that spent nuclear pellets currently have about 1/3 to 1/2 of their original energy content. Given the numbers above, that suggests that a SPENT 7 gram nuclear fuel pellet probably has between 7 million and 11 million Btus of energy left in it. And that energy is all left to gradually waste itself away, stored in some field somewhere, because no one has ever found any useful use for it where giant corporations could make billions of dollars in profits! There is also a little more normal radiation from all the 238U in the pellet.

The point of all this is that ALL spent nuclear fuel constantly produces and gives off heat. So there is a rather large amount of discarded spent fuel that is just sitting in storage, constantly and continuously giving off heat. The thought is to see if there might be some way of capturing that (low-grade) heat.

I originally came up with these basic ideas during the 1980s but only started seriously designing the necessary devices and bored wells around 2004. The publicity over the Japanese disaster due to their tons of stored spent fuel rods in their nuclear powerplants seems to provide impressive proof that the SPENT nuclear fuel rods DO still have a LOT of energy left in them. My long ignored idea may again have a chance of getting some attention, whether to provide an alternate to the really stupid Yucca Mountain idea that the government seems fascinated with, or just to dispose of 175 million pounds of spent nuclear materials which have simply laid all across America for many decades. No one else seems to either have interest or capability of developing a PLAN to dispose of them safely and properly, and in my case, even usefully.

The Concept

Say that you would bore a standard 4" diameter water well 100 feet deep near your house. Inside the well casing could be any of an assortment of approaches. I will mention a couple. ALL would have the bottom of the well casing SEALED so that nothing that could ever become radioactive could ever escape into the soil or groundwater. Say that at ground level, there is the equivalent of a "padlocked coin slot" but for a nuclear fuel pellet. When ONE pellet is dropped down in it, it would weave around in a labyrinth (like some giant gumball machines) (for radiation shielding purposes), before finally landing at the (closed and sealed) bottom of the well casing. And there it would stay, forever! Regarding nuclear terrorists, a single pellet is useless. A million pellets might be of some commercial use, but then a whole complex re-processing system would need to be applied to increase the 235U content back up to the 4% or higher needed for a nuclear power plant or far higher (around 90%) for a weapon. That processing is incredibly complex, and is a main reason why all those spent fuel pellets don't get re-processed. (There are also political reasons). But a single pellet? It would be truly stupid for any terrorist to dig up a hundred-foot-deep well, just to try to obtain a single spent fuel pellet!

So I am looking at a SAFE concept, one that has NO chance of aiding any terrorists! (Keep in mind that right now we (the US) has fields and fields of drums and other containers which are chock full of this spent fuel, in HUGE quantities! Also, with the pellet 100 feet down, there is NO radiation from it up where we are, since the ground absorbs any radiation coming upward.

Remember that above we mentioned that a single SPENT fuel pellet still contains between 7 million Btus and 11 million Btus of energy inside it. So now say that a Government Representative would come by and drop exactly 100 spent fuel pellets down into your device. (This totals less than a fist-sized amount of USED pellets, each of which only contain around 1.5% of U-235 in them, rather safe.) We now have an amount of energy down there which becomes very attractive for an individual house, on the order of 700 million Btus to 1100 million Btus of total energy. (Remember that the existing US Reactors need to dispose of 280 million used pellets every year, so this means that THREE MILLION HOMES might be able to receive this FREE HOME HEATING AND FREE ELECTRICITY FOREVER, just by them disposing of materials that they now cannot figure out how to dispose of at all!)

There are a number of processes that could be used to capture that nuclear radiation. Most involve using the Rankine Cycle. The Indirect Rankine Cycle, using water as both heat capture and heat transfer media seems worth considering. This is a standard and proven process, used in many operating reactors, although they usually use liquid sodium as the first circuit heat exchange fluid, to get higher power output. In this usage, we are not faced with trying to get any tremendous output. Both cycles of water are sealed, the lower one gradually becoming radioactive, but the upper one generally not. The upper circuit is the one that creates the steam to drive a steam turbine or other mechanism (also inside the well casing, which turns an alternator to produce electricity or transfers heat to a third circuit that is standard hydronic house heating.

Note that the SINGLE VISIT from the Government Representative to drop 100 spent fuel pellets (where they will then forever be beneath 100 feet of radiation-blocking soil) might never even need any future visits and the device should provide both electricity and house heating for possibly 100 years for that house! I personally find that quite attractive! Eliminating 100 years of winter heating bills (maybe $200,000 for fossil fuels now) and also eliminating 100 years of electricity bills (maybe $50,000 to cause fossil fuel coal to be burned to make electricity which then has to get wasted on a long trip to your house), where NO COST WHATEVER for heat or electricity would ever be needed and NO FOSSIL FUELS would require imports from any other countries and would also not cause any global warming. MIGHTY attractive!

Note that in a VERTICAL well, a very simple and natural "thermosiphon" effect could be used to move that water around. As water got hot inside the fuel chamber, its density becomes less and it would rise up one passageway, to carry the useful heat upward up to the next thermosiphon loop of water. No pump is necessary, so there is less that could ever break down, and the water will flow at all times. (Both TMI and Chernobyl failed when water circulation stopped, the chamber overheated, water boiled and exploded, etc. That could not happen with this, partly because of the thermosiphon and partly because of the very small amount of low-grade nuclear fuel present.)

There are also gas-cooled technologies, which generally use the extremely cheap carbon dioxide as the heat transfer medium. CO2 has the advantage of virtually not ever becoming radioactive. Many, many other technologies are known, and some are probably ideally suited to this "low-power" application. In general, all the research has gone into achieving higher power densities, so the field of low-power applications seems wide open.

This premise might have some Government representative stop by every few months and drop another pellet (or a few of them) down, down, down, into this well casing to add to the power generating capability. The bottom chamber would be made so that maybe 200 pellets would fit (roughly the size of a closed fist).

There are actually two completely different ways of considering this. Water and/or graphite could be used as a moderator to slow down neutrons to accomplish a very minimal "chain reaction". This is where the (two) neutrons (mentioned above) are slowed down enough to be "thermal neutrons" which are rather good at causing some other Uranium atom to split (fission) when they hit them. That is the process that all nuclear power plants (and weapons) use. However, with a very small mass of Uranium, the reaction cannot sustain itself enough to be dangerous. The thermal neutrons would simply increase the natural rate of radioactivity of the Uranium, to produce more power, faster.

An alternative is to not even consider fission reactions, and simply capture the heat that is always given off (by natural radioactivity) by the Uranium. This is far less effective, so more pellets would be needed, but the technology is extremely simple. The chamber around the nuclear pellets would be made of material that did not allow energy to escape, so that most or all of the energy produced would wind up heating water, boiling it, and causing steam as described above. This approach would be quite similar to the isotopic power generators invented about forty years ago.

This approach is technically not like nuclear reactors, because absolutely natural nuclear reactions occur. And again, the technology to do this is over 40 years old!

Some Numbers

When an atom of 235U92 fissions, it generally breaks apart into two medium-sized nuclei, usually one with an atomic weight in the 90 to 100 range and the other in the 140 to 150 range. An example is a 92Kr36 nucleus and a 141Ba56 nucleus, along with three neutrons. (one neutron + 235U briefly becomes 236U which breaks up into the five objects mentioned which have a total atomic mass of 92 + 141 + 1 + 1 + 1 or 236). Note that this is extremely different from if the 235U was left alone to spontaneously disintegrate (in millions of years) where it simply gives off an alpha-particle 4He2 and becomes a 231Th90 nucleus.

So there are generally two large new nuclei, which are driven off with about 168 MeV of kinetic energy (energy of motion). That energy gets converted to heat as the nuclear chunks (and neutrons) slow down in the moderating (water). There are also those two neutrons emitted, which start out with a total of 5 MeV of kinetic energy. Again, in conventional fission reactors, they are slowed down such that they each could cause new fissions in nearby atoms of 235Uranium

There is also about 10 MeV of energy given off in gamma-rays (radiation), which again can be captured when the radiation hits matter and causes kinetic energy and then heat energy. Another 5 MeV is carried away by beta-rays (actually electrons), which also can be captured easily as heat. Another 11 MeV is carried away as neutrinos. The total energy released when a single atom of 235U> fissions is therefore 199 MeV. If suitable materials surround it, virtually all of this can be captured. Whatever is not captured simply becomes a slight warming of the soil and rocks around the area. No danger, and potentially nearly 100% thermal efficiency.

This total amount of energy is equal to 1.2 * 10-11 watt-second. This means that 1.12 * 1017 atoms of 235U must fission to produce 1 kWh of energy.

One fuel pellet has a mass of 7 gm as mentioned above. That means there are (approximately) (.007/235) * 6.02 * 1026 atoms of Uranium in that pellet, or 1.8 * 1022 atoms. Only four percent of these are the fissionable 235U so there are 7.2 * 1020 atoms of 235U in a newly made pellet.

This means that a new pellet starts out with 6,400 kWh of energy in it, or 6.4 MWh. Since a watt-hour is 3.412 Btu, this is 21.9 MBtu, in good agreement with the number given above.

Different Numbers

Say that we are not even going to consider the possibility of fission. How much natural radioactivity is there from a spent nuclear fuel pellet. Well, 235U has a long half-life, around 800 million years. So half of the 7.2 * 1020 atoms (or 3.6 * 1020) will spontaneously fission over 2.52 1016 seconds. This means that 14300 235U atoms naturally fission every second. This would only be .00064 watts of output from them. The 238U actually provides more natural heating, around 5 times as much. But this would suggest that if only natural radioactivity of the spent fuel pellets were considered, there would need to be around 250 of them just to produce 1 watt or 3 Btu/hr of heating. That would accomplish a "distributed storing" of the nuclear waste materials, but that large amount might be considered to be impractical.

However, spent fuel pellets have a number of additional sources of radioactivity (some of which are potentially dangerous, being the assorted fission product nuclei. Nearly all of those daughter nuclei have too many neutrons to be stable, so they all tend to soon have some sort of secondary radioactive decay where additional radiation is given off.) The total ambient radiation is therefore far higher than for natural Uranium. I have not been able to locate any data on exactly how much higher. The assortment of different elements/isotopes in the spent nuclear fuel pellets is very complex.

But the point of this section is that natural radioactivity would work for this purpose, but only if thousands of spent fuel pellets were dropped down into this system. That would still not remotely be enough to inspire any terrorist to try to dig up a hundred-foot-deep device, but it may be considered impractical. (There are other radio-nuclides that are commonly used in this way, but they each have far shorter half-lives, but their usage would not result in the usage of scrap spent nuclear material. Polonium210, for example, has a half-life of about 139 days, and produces a typical power density of 1210 watts per cubic centimeter. Unfortunately, there is not much of that isotope and it is rather dangerous to handle!

This implies that the only possibility of this premise being of practical use is by using at least some of the remaining fission capability of the spent fuel pellet, by suitable moderation (to slow the emitted neutrons down, which water does pretty well, and heavy water does even better) and a chamber that might reflect some neutrons back toward the Uranium atoms.

One other note: When a 235U fissions, the neutrons are emitted at extremely high speed (they carry a lot of kinetic energy away). They are moving so fast that other nearby 235U nuclei cannot easily capture them (unless they happen to be hit dead on, which is relatively rare). So the neutrons need to be slowed down, or "moderated" so that they can more easily be captured. Research in the 1940s determined that if the neutrons could be slowed to around 5,000 mph, when they are considered "thermal neutrons" then other nearby 235U nuclei can very easily capture them and the effect of a chain reaction can be encouraged. It turns out that if you surround 235U with around double that much water, the neutrons are slowed enough to be easily captured. This is why the references to water being used as a moderator in this discussion.

A relatively obvious configuration seems worth experimenting with. If a grid-structure (made of a material that would not degrade due to radiation) was made so that spent nuclear fuel pellets were kept spaced so that an appropriate amount of water was always between pellets, a significant number of thermal neutrons would be present to inspire other 235U nuclei to capture them, which would greatly increase the performance of this very simple system.


I believe I see a number of excellent benefits if such an approach can be created. At least it seems like a concept that should be seriously explored! Yes, I realize that the calculations above suggest that the problem might be difficult to solve efficiently. However, it seems logical to at least TRY some ideas along this line. Such a well might be bored on the Hanford facility, and 10,000 spent fuel pellets dumped down in it, just to see if the natural radioactivity actually would provide a permanent 40+ watts of power. I am not sure I see any downside even close to the current situation. If they discovered that they could dump/store 10,000 pellets in such a well, those are pellets that would not represent surface hazards, and it might even provide a continuous and permanent (at least for 800 million years or so) small amount of heat or power.

How Much Nuclear Fuel is Available?

No one seems to address the question of how long we might be able to rely on nuclear fission energy. There is much talk regarding depleting most of the world's known oil reserves by around 2050, and most of the world's known natural gas reserves by around the same time. The known supplies of coal are expected to last a little longer, at least until around 2100. But no one seems to talk about nuclear reserves.

I have seen government numbers which indicate that the "reasonably assured" natural Uranium resources, within practical mining capabilities, in the US was around 581,000 metric tonnes in 1975, AND IS ESSENTIALLY NOW AROUND ZERO, and in Canada was around 204,000 metric tonnes (but additional Canadian deposits were discovered. Only Sweden, South Africa and Australia have reserves on that scale, with no other country higher than 1/10 of these amounts.

No one seems to publicized that the US currently has NO uranium mines! They were all closed before 1992 because nearly all the accessible ores had already been mined! Even in 2002, the US IMPORTED around 92% of the uranium used in our power reactors, with the other 8% primarily coming from re-processed nuclear warheads.

Natural Uranium only contains 0.711% 235U, and that has to be enriched up to at least 4% for use as nuclear fuel pellet material. What this means is that nearly 5/6 of the mined natural Uranium must later be discarded as "depleted uranium" in order to collect the 235U in the enriched portion. This is NOT "spent nuclear fuel" because it never even became fuel, it was all simply discarded! There are two significant points here:

Really large amounts of Depleted Uranium wind up being discarded in that process. You may have heard of "Depleted Uranium artillery shells"? Did you ever wonder why they use it there? Did you think it was simply a way of using it up? Well, maybe, but that is not the main reason. It turns out that Uranium has a Density that is about as high as anything known, more than two and a half times the density of steel. When a high speed shell has such high density, traveling at a similar speed, it therefore has 2.5 times the momentum of a steel shell. When such a shell hits the side of a tank made of steel, the extremely dense uranium tends to pierce right through. Not much can stop a very high speed piece of flying uranium!

The second point is more of what we are interested in here. The enriching process can only get (0.711 / 4.0) (around 18%) of enriched uranium that can be used for power plants. This means that the world's known reserves are really equivalent to only about 1/6, with the other 5/6 being immediately discarded.

Did you notice above that we already have 40,000 metric tonnes of spent fuel pellets? There are certainly also hundreds of thousands of metric tonnes of depleted Uranium. Keep in mind that we are only getting around 20% of our electricity from nuclear. In another 20 years (of ONLY getting 20% from the existing nuclear reactors) we will have used up 80,000 metric tonnes of fuel and equivalent amounts of depleted uranium will exist. This is a problem! It implies that even only providing 20% of our supply, our American supplies of Uranium from mines has already essentially been all used up, and even if we maintain close friendships with Australia and Canada, even their nuclear resources will be used up around 2030, roughly the same time that oil and natural gas (worldwide) will be running low.

Now, you have undoubtedly seen where Washington Politicians have started pushing nuclear again, now that they are starting to realize the immense crisis regarding oil and natural gas. There are only 100 currently operating American nuclear power plants. Imagine that our politicians decide (because of lobbyists' pressure, to authorize another hundred to be built. In the short run, that SOUNDS good, reducing foreign oil dependence and all. But if we use up the world's nuclear supplies twice as fast in providing 40% of our electricity, we will cause the entire world to be out of nuclear reserves even faster, maybe by 2025 or so.

Speaking as a Physicist and a scientist, Washington politicians seem to never actually know any facts about such things! They only know what their "wealthy friends" the lobbyists, tell them. So I can easily imagine that the US will soon go on a binge of building new nuclear plants, which have traditionally taken at least ten years before they go into operation, oblivious to the fact that they might easily have no fuel well before they are paid off, or potentially before they are even completed!

This presentation is not meant to be "political" but merely informational and accurate. But if people or politicians become so averse to oil and natural gas that they run to nuclear as a "saving grace", they will certainly be seriously disappointed.

This concept first occurred to me in the early 1980s, but no serious thinking about it was done until around 2004. This presentation was first placed on the Internet in Sept 2005.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago