Posted on October 19th, 2013 No comments
Who says there’s no such thing as German humor? Take, for example, some of the comments left by Teutonic wags after an article about the recent fusion “breakthrough” reported by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory working on the National Ignition Facility (NIF). One of the first was left by one of Germany’s famous “Greens,” who was worried about the long term effects of fusion energy. Very long term. Here’s what he had to say:
So nuclear fusion is green energy, is it? The opposite is true. Nuclear fusion is the form of energy that guarantees that any form of Green will be forever out of the question. In comparison, Chernobyl is a short-lived joke! Why? Have you ever actually considered what will be “burned” with fusion energy? Hydrogen, one of the two components of water, (and a material without which life is simply impossible)! Nuclear fusion? I can already see the wars over water coming. And, by the way, the process is irreversible. Once hydrogen is fused, it’s gone forever. Nothing and no one will ever be able to make water out of it ever again!
I’m not kidding! The guy was dead serious. Of course, this drew a multitude of comments from typical German Besserwisser (better knowers), such as, “If you don’t have a clue, you should shut your trap.” However, some of the other commenters were more light-hearted. for example,
No, no, no. What eu-fan (the first commenter) doesn’t seem to understand is that this should be seen as a measure against the rise in sea level that will result from global warming. Less hydrogen -> less water -> reduced sea level -> everything will be OK.
Another hopeful commenter adds,
…if it ever actually does succeed, this green fusion, can we have our old-fashioned light bulbs back?
Noting that the fusion of hydrogen produces helium, another commenter chimes in,
So, in other words, if a fusion reactor blows up, the result will be a global bird cage: The helium released will make us all talk like Mickey Mouse!
In all seriousness, the article in Der Spiegel about the “breakthrough” wasn’t at all bad. The author actually bothered to ask a local fusion expert, Sibylle Günter, Scientific Director of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, about Livermore’s “breakthrough.” She replied,
The success of our colleagues (at Livermore) is remarkable, and I don’t want to belittle it. However, when one speaks of a “breakeven point” in the classical sense, in which the fusion energy out equals the total energy in, they still have a long way to go.
That, of course, is entirely true. The only way one can speak of a “breakthough” in the recent NIF experiments is by dumbing down the accepted definition of “ignition” from “fusion energy out equals laser energy in” to “fusion energy out equals energy absorbed by the target,” a much lower amount. That didn’t deter many writers of English-language reports, who couldn’t be troubled to fact check Livermore’s claims with the likes of Dr. Günter. In some cases the level of fusion wowserism was extreme. For example, according to the account at Yahoo News,
After fifty years of research, scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, have made a breakthrough in harnessing and controlling fusion.
According to the BBC, NIF conducted an experiment where the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction was more than the amount of energy being absorbed by it. This process is known as “ignition” and is the first time it has successfully been done anywhere in the world.
I’m afraid not. The definition of “ignition” that has been explicitly accepted by scientists at Livermore is “fusion energy out equals laser energy in.” That definition puts them on a level playing field with their magnetic fusion competitors. It’s hardly out of the question that the NIF will reach that goal, but it isn’t there yet. Not by a long shot.
Posted on October 10th, 2013 No comments
It has always seemed plausible to me that some clever scientist(s) might find a shortcut to fusion that would finally usher in the age of fusion energy, rendering the two “mainstream” approaches, inertial confinement fusion (ICF) and magnetic fusion, obsolete in the process. It would be nice if it happened sooner rather than later, if only to put a stop to the ITER madness. For those unfamiliar with the field, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, is a gigantic, hopeless, and incredibly expensive white elephant and welfare project for fusion scientists currently being built in France. In terms of pure, unabashed wastefulness, think of it as a clone of the International Space Station. It has always been peddled as a future source of inexhaustible energy. Trust me, nothing like ITER will ever be economically competitive with alternative energy sources. Forget all your platitudes about naysayers and “they said it couldn’t be done.” If you don’t believe me, leave a note to your descendants to fact check me 200 years from now. They can write a gloating refutation to my blog if I’m wrong, but I doubt that it will be necessary.
In any case, candidates for the hoped for end run around magnetic and ICF keep turning up, all decked out in the appropriate hype. So far, at least, none of them has ever panned out. Enter two stage laser fusion, the latest pretender, introduced over at NextBigFuture with the assurance that it can achieve “10x higher fusion output than using the laser directly and thousands of times better output than hitting a solid target with a laser.” Not only that, but it actually achieved the fusion of boron and normal hydrogen nuclei, which produces only stable helium atoms. That’s much harder to achieve than the usual deuterium-tritium fusion between two heavy isotopes of hydrogen, one of which, tritium, is radioactive and found only in tiny traces in nature. That means it wouldn’t be necessary to breed tritium from the fusion reactions just to keep them going, one of the reasons that ITER will never be practical.
Well, I’d love to believe this is finally the ONE, but I’m not so sure. The paper describing the results NBF refers to was published by the journal Nature Communications. Even if you don’t subscribe, you can click on the figures in the abstract and get the gist of what’s going on. In the first place, one of the lasers has to accelerate protons to high enough energies to overcome the Coulomb repulsion of the stripped (of electrons) boron nuclei produced by the other laser. Such laser particle accelerators are certainly practical, but they only work at extremely high power levels. In other words, they require what’s known in the business as petawatt lasers, capable of achieving powers in excess of a quadrillion (10 to the 15th power) watts. Power comes in units of energy per unit time, and such lasers generally reach the petawatt threshold by producing a lot of energy in a very, very short time. Often, we’re talking picoseconds (trillionths of a second).
Now, you can do really, really cool things with petawatt lasers, such as pulling electron positron pairs right out of the vacuum. However, their practicality as drivers for fusion power plants, at least in their current incarnation, is virtually nil. The few currently available, for example, at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Nevada at Reno, etc., are glass lasers. There’s no way they could achieve the “rep rates” (shot frequency) necessary for useful energy generation. Achieving lots of fusions, but only for a few picoseconds, isn’t going to solve the world’s energy problems.
As it happens, conventional accelerators can also be used for fusion. As a matter of fact, it’s a common way of generating neutrons for such purposes as neutron radiography. Unfortunately, none of the many fancy accelerator-driven schemes for producing energy that people have come up with over the years has ever worked. There’s a good physical reason for that. Instead of using their energy to overcome the Coulomb repulsion of other nuclei (like charges repel, and atomic nuclei are all positively charged), and fuse with them, the accelerated particles prefer to uselessly dump that energy into the electrons surrounding those nuclei. As a result, it has always taken more energy to drive the accelerators than could be generated in the fusion reactions. That’s where the “clever” part of this scheme comes in. In theory, at least, all those pesky electrons are gone, swept away by the second laser. However, that, too, is an energy drain. So the question becomes, can both lasers be run efficiently enough and with high enough rep rates and with enough energy output to strip enough boron atoms to get enough of energy out to be worth bothering about, in amounts greater than that needed to drive the lasers? I don’t think so. Still, it was a very cool experiment.
Posted on May 13th, 2013 2 comments
Paul Gross and Norman Levitt published their now classic Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science almost two decades ago. The book described the flipping and flopping of the various species of self-appointed saviors of mankind on campus left high and dry by the collapse of Marxism. In the absence of that grand, unifying philosophy, the authors found them running about like so many chickens with their heads cut off, engaged in internecine warfare, and chasing after the various chimeras of postmodernism, eco-extremism, radical feminism, anti-racist racism, etc. For some reason, perhaps because they were scientists and they objected to their ox being gored, Gross and Levitt were willing to subject themselves to the incredible boredom of attending the conferences, following the journals, and reading the books emanating from these various swamps. Since they happened to be on the left of the ideological spectrum themselves, their book was also thoughtfully written and not just one of the usual rants from the right.
Unfortunately, no one with similar insight and tolerance for pain has published anything of similar stature in the ensuing years. We have been reduced to scrutinizing the data points that periodically bubble up through the froth to formulate some idea of how close we are to being saved. Based on the meager information at our disposal, we gather that no great new secular religion has sprung up in the meantime to take the place of Marxism. The only thing on hand to fill the vacuum left behind by its demise has been radical Islam. Since, in a sense, it’s the only game in town, we’ve been treated to the amusing spectacle of watching leftist “progressives” making eyes at the fanatical zealots of one of the most reactionary religious systems ever concocted by the mind of man, while the latter have been busily cannibalizing the revolutionary vernacular familiar from the heyday of Communism.
Other than that, it would seem that the scene today would be quite familiar to readers of Higher Superstition. Consider, for example, the recent “revolutionary action” that took place on the campus of Swarthmore. If we are to believe the somewhat overwrought account at National Review Online, it involved intimidation of the school administration and bullying of conservative students at what was advertised as an open Board of Managers meeting. The ostensible goal of the disruption was to get the administration to agree to the divestment of stocks in fossil fuel companies, apparently based on the rather dubious assumption that nothing disagreeable would happen if all mankind suddenly stopped using them. However, the divestment thing is hardly what is nearest and dearest to the hearts of the “academic left” at Swarthmore. What is nearest and dearest? According to NRO,
The radicals are demanding a massive expansion of Swarthmore’s politicized “studies” programs, with a new Latino Studies major specifically dedicated to Latinos in the United States, and mandatory classes for all Swarthmore students in ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies.
I doubt that the gentry at NRO really understand what is going on here, because they lack the proper grounding in Marxist theory. As Trotsky might have put it, they just don’t understand the dialectic. What we are really seeing here is the emergence of a new exploiting class of gigantic proportions, cleverly attempting to obfuscate their true historical role behind a smokescreen of revolutionary jargon. These people are exploiters, not exploitees. Ensconced in their ivory towers, untouchable within their tenured cocoons, they are increasingly gaining a monopoly of the social means of education. Like the bourgeoisie of old, who used the social means of production to suck the blood of the exploited workers, they use their own monopoly to feast on the sweat of the academic proletariat – their students. They accumulate these useless “studies” courses for the same reasons that the capitalists accumulated money.
Little realizing that they are being reduced to debt-serfs, with lives sold out and mortgaged to maintain these academic vampires in their accustomed luxury, the student proletariat are kept docile with fairy tales about “saving the world.” Now, if Marx was right (and how could he possibly be wrong?) this “thesis” of the academic exploiters will soon run head on into the “antithesis” of the developing revolutionary consciousness of the student proletariat they have so cynically betrayed. At least the bourgeoisie used their monopoly to produce something useful. The new class of academic exploiters fobs off its victims with “studies” that they will find entirely useless in their struggle against the slavery that awaits them, unless they are among the happy few co-opted into the exploiting class. Where is this leading? How will the exploited academic proletariat react when they finally figure out, crushed under a mountain of debt, with heads full of “liberating” jargon and no prospect of employment that the “radical and emancipatory” blather they were being fed really leads to chains and slavery? I can but quote the ringing warning of Edwin Markham in his famous poem, Man with the Hoe:
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the Future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?
The pundits at NRO should relax. If I’ve interpreted the Marxist dialectic correctly, the revolutionary climax will be followed by a brief period of the dictatorship of the academic proletariat, followed by the gradual withering of academic administrations, and a new era of universal wisdom based on enlightened self-education.
And what of the academic exploiters? I think it goes without saying that it will be necessary to “expropriate the expropriators.” However, being by nature a kindly and sedate man, I can only hope that it doesn’t come to the “liquidation of the academic exploiters as a class.” On the other hand, I don’t want to be accused of “right opportunism” and realize full well that “you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.”
Posted on April 22nd, 2013 No comments
A while back in an online discussion with a German “Green,” I pointed out that, if Germany shut down its nuclear plants, coal plants would have to remain in operation to take up the slack. He was stunned that I could be so obtuse. Didn’t I realize that the lost nuclear capacity would all be replaced by benign “green” energy technology? Well, it turns out things didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, the lost generating capacity is being replaced by – coal.
Germany is building new coal-fired power plants hand over fist, with 26 of them planned for the immediate future. According to Der Spiegel, the German news magazine that never misses a trick when it comes to bashing nuclear, that’s a feature, not a bug. A recent triumphant headline reads, “Export Boom: German Coal Electricity Floods Europe.” Expect more of the same from the home of Europe’s most pious environmentalists. Germany has also been rapidly expanding its solar and wind capacity recently thanks to heavy state subsidies, but the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, especially in Germany. Coal plants are required to fill in the gaps – lots of them. Of course, it would be unprofitable to let them sit idle when wind and solar are available, so they are kept going full blast. When the power isn’t needed in Germany, it is sold abroad, serving as a useful prop to Germany’s export fueled economy.
Remember the grotesque self-righteousness of Der Spiegel and the German “Greens” during the Kyoto Treaty debates at the end of the Clinton administration? Complying with the Kyoto provisions cost the Germans nothing. They had just shut down the heavily polluting and grossly unprofitable industries in the former East Germany, had brought large numbers of new gas-fired plants on line thanks to increasing gas supplies from the North Sea fields, and had topped it off with a lame economy in the 90′s compared to the booming U.S. Their greenhouse gas emissions had dropped accordingly. Achieving similar reductions in the U.S. wouldn’t have been a similar “freebie.” It would have cost tens of thousands of jobs. The German “Greens” didn’t have the slightest problem with this. They weren’t interested in achieving a fair agreement that would benefit all. They were only interested in striking pious poses.
Well, guess what? Times have changed. Last year U.S. carbon emissions were at their lowest level since 1994, and down 3.7% from 2011. Our emissions are down 7.7% since 2006, the largest drop among major industrial states on the planet. German emissions were up at least 1.5% last year, and probably more like 2%. Mention this to a German “Green,” and he’s likely to mumble something about Germany still being within the Kyoto limits. That’s quite true. Germany is still riding the shutdown of what news magazine Focus calls “dilapidated, filthy, communist East German industry after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” to maintain the facade of environmental “purity.”
That’s small comfort to her eastern European neighbors. Downwind from Germany’s coal-fired plants, their “benefit” from her “green” policies is acid rain, nitrous oxide laced smog, deadly particulates that kill and sicken thousands and, last but not least, a rich harvest of radioactive fallout. That’s right, Germany didn’t decrease the radioactive hazard to her neighbors by shutting down her nuclear plants. She vastly increased it. Coal contains several parts per million each of radioactive uranium and thorium. These elements are harmless enough – if kept outside the body. The energetic alpha particles they emit are easily stopped by a normal layer of skin. When that happens, they dump the energy they carry in a very short distance, but, since skin is dead, it doesn’t matter. It’s an entirely different matter when they dump those several million electron volts of energy into a living cell – such as a lung cell. Among other things, that can easily derange the reproductive equipment of the cell, causing cancer. How can they reach the lungs? Very easily if the uranium and thorium that emit them are carried in the ash from a coal-fired plant. A typical coal-fired plant releases about 5 tons of uranium and 12 tons of thorium every year. The German “Greens” have no problem with this, even though they’re constantly bitching about the relatively miniscule release of uranium from U.S. depleted uranium munitions. Think scrubber technology helps? Guess again! The uranium and thorium are concentrated in the ash, whether it ends up in the air or not. They can easily leach into surrounding cropland and water supplies.
The last time there was an attempt to move radioactive waste to the Gorleben storage facility within Germany, the “Greens” could be found striking heroic poses as saviors of the environment all along the line, demonstrating, tearing up tracks, and setting police vehicles on fire. Their “heroic” actions forced the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants. The “gift” (German for “poison”) of their “heroic” actions to Germany’s neighbors came in the form of acid rain, smog, and airborne radiation. By any reasonable standard, coal-fired plants are vastly more dangerous and damaging to the environment than the nuclear facilities they replaced.
It doesn’t matter to Germany’s “Greens.” The acid rain, the radiation, the danger of global warming they always pretend to be so concerned about? It doesn’t matter. For them, as for the vast majority of other environmental zealots worldwide, the pose is everything. The reality is nothing.
Posted on February 24th, 2013 3 comments
In his latest book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan Last warns us of the dire consequences of shrinking populations. He’s got it backwards. It’s the best thing that could happen to us.
Before proceeding with my own take on this issue, I would like to assure the reader that I am not a rabid environmentalist or a liberal of the sort who considers people with children morally suspect. I have children and have encouraged my own children to have as many children as possible themselves. It seems to me that the fact that those among us who are supposedly the most intelligent are also the most infertile is a convincing proof of the stupidity of our species.
Why did I decide to have children? In the end, it’s a subjective whim, just like every other “purpose of life” one might imagine. However, as such I think it’s justifiable enough. The explanation lies in the way in which I perceive my “self.” As I see it, “we” are not our conscious minds, although that is what most of us perceive as “we.” Our conscious minds are evanescent manifestations of the physical bodies whose development is guided by our genes. They pop into the world for a moment and are then annihilated in death. They exist for that brief moment for one reason only – because they happened to promote our genetic survival. Is it not more reasonable to speak of “we” as that about us which has existed for billions of years and is potentially immortal, namely, our genes, than to assign that term to an ancillary manifestation of those genes that exists for a vanishingly small instant of time by comparison? We have a choice. We can choose that this “we” continue to survive, or we can choose other goals, and allow this “we” to be snuffed out, so that the physical bodies that bear our “we” become the last link in an unbroken chain stretching back over billions of years. There is no objective reason why we should prefer one choice or the other. The choice is purely subjective. The rest of the universe cares not a bit whether our genes survive or not. I, however, care. If countless links in a chain have each created new links in turn and passed on the life they carried over the eons, only to come to a link possessed of qualities that cause it to fail to continue the chain, it seems reasonable to consider that link dysfunctional, or, in the most real sense imaginable, a failure. I personally would not find the realization comforting that I am a sick and dysfunctional biological unit, a failure at carrying out that one essential function that a process of natural selection has cultivated for an almost inconceivable length of time. Therefore, I have children. As far as I am concerned, they, and not wealth, or property, or fame, are the only reasonable metric of success in the life of any individual. The very desire for wealth, property or fame only exist because at some point in our evolutionary history they have promoted our survival and procreation. As ends in themselves, divorced from the reason they came into existence in the first place, they lead only to death.
Am I concerned if others don’t agree with me? Far from it! And that brings us back to the main point of this post. I do not agree with Jonathan Last that a constantly increasing population, or even a stable one at current levels, is at all desirable. As far as I am concerned, it is a wonderful stroke of luck that in modern societies the conscious minds of so many other humans have become dysfunctional, resulting in their genetic death. I am interested in keeping other genes around only to the extent that they promote the survival of my own. That is also the only reason that I would prefer one level of population on the planet to one that is larger or smaller. That, of course, is a very personal reason, but it seems to me that it is a conclusion that must follow for anyone else to the extent that they prefer survival to the alternative.
Survival, then, is my sine qua non. Given that this planet is, for practical purposes, the only one we can depend on to support our survival, I consider it foolhardy to prefer a population that is potentially unsustainable, or that will diminish everyone’s chances of long term survival. I am hardly a fanatical environmentalist. I would just prefer that we refrain from rocking the boat. I have read Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, and am well aware of how frequently the environmentalists have been crying “wolf” lo now these many years. However, like Lomborg, I agree that there is still reason for concern. Pollution and environmental degradation are real problems, as is the rapid exploitation of limited sources of cheap energy and other raw materials. Obviously, Paul Ehrlich’s dire predictions that we would run out of everything in short order were far off the mark. However, eventually, they will run out, and it seems reasonable to me to postpone the date as long as possible. Let us consider the reasons Jonathan Last believes all these risks are worth taking. In all honesty, assuming we are agreed that survival is a worthwhile goal, they seem trivial to me.
To begin, while paying lip service to the old chestnut that a correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, Last suggests exactly that. On page 7 of the hardcover version of his book he writes, “Declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things. Disease. War. Economic stagnation or collapse.” To see whether this suggestion holds water, let’s look at one of Lasts own examples of “declining populations.” On p. 36 he writes, “World population also declined steeply between 1340 and 1400, shrinking from 443 million to 374 million. This was not a period of environmental and social harmony; it was the reign of the Black Death. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine whether declining populations were the cause of the Black Death, or the Black Death was the cause of declining populations. To anyone who has read a little history, it is abundantly clear that, while disease, war, and economic collapse may cause depopulation, the instances where the reverse was clearly the case are few and far between. In a similar vein, referring to the Roman Empire, Last writes on p. 35, “Then, between A.D. 200 and 600, population shrank from 257 million to 208 million, because of falling fertility. We commonly refer to that period as the descent into the Dark Ages.” Where is the evidence that the population fell because of “falling fertility”? Last cites none. On the other hand, there is abundant source material from the period to demonstrate that, as in the case of the Black Death, declining populations were a result, and not a cause. In Procopius‘ history of the Great Italian War in the 6th century, for example, he notes that Italy has become depopulated. The great historian was actually there, and witnessed the cause first hand. It was not “declining fertility,” but starvation resulting from the destruction of food sources by marauding armies.
However, this allusion to “Very Bad Things” is really just a red herring. Reading a little further in Last’s book, it doesn’t take us long to discover the real burrs under his saddle. Most of them may be found by glancing through the 50 pages between chapters 5 and 7 of his book. They include, 1) The difficulty of caring for the elderly. 2) The decrease in inventiveness and entrepreneurship (because of an over proportion of elderly) 3) A decline in military strength, accompanied by an unwillingness to accept casualties, and 4) Lower economic growth. The idea that anyone could seriously suggest that any of these transient phenomena could justify playing risky games with the ability of our planet to sustain life for millennia into the future boggles the mind. The population of the planet cannot keep increasing indefinitely in any case. At some point, it must stabilize, and these consequences will follow regardless. The only question is, how many people will be affected.
Consider Japan, a country Last considers an almost hopeless demographic basket case. Its population was only 42 million as recently as 1900. At the time it won wars against both China and Russia, which had much greater populations of 415 million and 132 million, respectively at the time. Will it really be an unmitigated disaster if its population declines to that level again? It may well be that Japan’s elderly will have to make do with less during the next century or two. I hereby make the bold prediction that, in spite of that, they will not all starve to death or be left without health care to die in the streets. Demographically, Japan is the most fortunate of nations, not the least favored. At least to date, she does not enjoy the “great advantage” of mass immigration by culturally alien populations, an “advantage” that is likely to wreak havoc in the United States and Europe.
As for military strength, I doubt that we will need to fear enslavement by some foreign power as long as we maintain a strong and reliable nuclear arsenal, and, with a smaller population, the need to project our power overseas, for example to protect sources of oil and other resources, will decline because our needs will be smaller. As for inventiveness, entrepreneurship, and economic growth, it would be better to promote them by restraining the cancerous growth of modern tax-devouring welfare states than by artificially stimulating population growth. Again, all of Last’s “Very Bad Things” are also inevitable things. What he is proposing will not enable us to avoid them. It will merely postpone them for a relatively short time, as which point they will be even more difficult to manage because of depleted resources and a degraded environment than they are now. It seems a very meager excuse for risking the future of the planet.
In a word, I favor a double standard. Unrestricted population growth of my own family and those closely related to me genetically balanced by an overall decline in the population overall. There is nothing incongruous about this. It is the inherent nature of our species to apply one standard to our ingroup, and an entirely different one to outgroups. We all do the same, regardless of whether we are prepared to admit it or not. I leave you, dear reader, in the hope that you will not become confused by the distinction between the two.
Posted on May 6th, 2012 9 comments
Nuclear power is an attractive candidate for meeting our future energy needs. Nuclear plants do not release greenhouse gases. They release significantly less radiation into the environment than coal plants, because coal contains several parts per million of radioactive thorium and uranium. They require far less space and are far more reliable than alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. In spite of some of the worst accidents imaginable due to human error and natural disasters, we have not lost any cities or suffered any mass casualties, and the horrific “China Syndrome” scenarios invented by the self-appointed saviors of mankind have proven to be fantasies. That is not to say nuclear power is benign. It is just more benign than any of the currently available alternatives. The main problem with nuclear is not that it is unsafe, but that it is being ill-used. In this case, government could actually be helpful. Leadership and political will could put nuclear on a better track.
To understand why, it is necessary to know a few things about nuclear fuel, and how it “burns.” Bear with me while I present a brief tutorial in nuclear engineering. Nuclear energy is released by nuclear fission, or the splitting of heavy elements into two or more lighter ones. This doesn’t usually happen spontaneously. Before a heavy element can undergo fission, an amount of energy above a certain threshold must first be delivered to its nucleus. How does this happen? Imagine a deep well. If you drop a bowling ball into the well, it will cause a large splash when it hits the water. It does so because it has been accelerated by the force of gravity. A heavy nucleus is something like a well, but things don’t fall into it because of gravity. Instead, it relies on the strong force, which is very short range, but vastly more powerful than gravity. The role of “bowling ball” can be played by a neutron. If one happens along and gets close enough to fall into the strong force ”well,” it will also cause a “splash,” releasing energy as it is bound to the heavy element’s nucleus, just as the real bowling ball is “bound” in the water well until someone fishes it out. This “splash,” or release of energy, causes the heavy nucleus to “jiggle,” much like an unstable drop of water. In one naturally occurring isotope – uranium with an atomic weight of 235 – this “jiggle” is so violent that it can cause the “drop of water” to split apart, or fission.
There are other isotopes of uranium. All of them have 92 protons in their nucleus, but can have varying numbers of neutrons. The nucleus of uranium 235, or U235, has 92 protons and 143 protons, adding up to a total of 235. Unfortunately, U235 is only 0.7% of natural uranium. Almost all the rest is U238, which has 92 protons and 146 neutrons. When a neutron falls into the U238 “well,” the “splash” isn’t big enough to cause fission, or at least not unless the neutron had a lot of energy to begin with, as if the “bowling ball” had been shot from a cannon. As a result, U238 can’t act as the fuel in a nuclear reactor. Almost all the nuclear reactors in operation today simply burn that 0.7% of U235 and store what’s left over as radioactive waste. Unfortunately, that’s an extremely inefficient and wasteful use of the available fuel resources.
To understand why, it’s necessary to understand something about what happens to the neutrons in a reactor that keep the nuclear chain reaction going. First of all, where do they come from? Well, each fission releases more neutrons. The exact number depends on how fast the neutron that caused the fission was going, and what isotope underwent fission. If enough are released to cause, on average, one more fission, then the resulting chain reaction will continue until the fuel is used up. Actually, two neutrons, give or take, are released in each fission. However, not all of them cause another fission. Some escape the fuel region and are lost. Others are absorbed in the fuel material. That’s where things get interesting.
Recall that, normally, most of the fuel in a reactor isn’t U235, but the more common isotope, U238. When U238 absorbs a neutron, it forms U239, which quickly decays to neptunium 239 and then plutonium 239. Now it just so happens that plutonium 239, or Pu239, will also fission if a neutron “falls into its well,” just like U235. In other words, if enough neutrons were available, the reactor could actually produce more fuel, in the form of Pu239, than it consumes, potentially burning up most of the U238 as well as the U235. This is referred to as the “breeding” of nuclear fuel. Instead of just lighting the U235 “match” and letting it burn out, it would be used to light and burn the entire U238 “log.” Unfortunately, there are not enough neutrons in normal nuclear reactors to breed more fuel than is consumed. Such reactors have, however, been built, both in the United States and other countries, and have been safely operated for periods of many years.
Plutonium breeders aren’t the only feasible type. In addition to U235 and Pu239, another isotope will also fission if a neutron falls into its “well” - uranium 233. Like Pu239, U233 doesn’t occur in nature. However, it can be “bred,” just like Pu239, from another element that does occur in nature, and is actually more common than uranium – thorium. I’ve had a few critical things to say about some of the popular science articles I’ve seen on thorium lately, but my criticisms were directed at inaccuracies in the articles, not at thorium technology itself. Thorium breeders actually have some important advantages over plutonium. When U233 fissions, it produces more neutrons than Pu239, and it does so in a “cooler” neutron spectrum, where the average neutron energy is much lower, making the reactor significantly easier to control. These extra neutrons could not only breed more fuel. They could also be used to burn up the transuranic elements – those beyond uranium on the table of the elements – that are produced in conventional nuclear reactors, and account for the lion’s share of the long-lived radioactive waste. This would be a huge advantage. Destroy the transuranics, and the residual radioactivity from a reactor would be less than that of the original ore, potentially in a few hundred years, rather than many thousands.
Thorium breeders have other potentially important advantages. The fuel material could be circulated through the core in the form of a liquid, suspended in a special “salt” material. Of course, this would eliminate the danger of a fuel meltdown. In the event of an accident like the one at Fukushima, the fuel would simply be allowed to run into a holding basin, where it would be sub-critical and cool quickly. Perhaps more importantly, the United States has the biggest proven reserves of thorium on the planet.
Breeders aren’t the only reactor types that hold great promise for meeting our future energy needs. High temperature gas cooled reactors would produce gas heated to high temperature in addition to electricity. This could be used to produce hydrogen gas via electrolysis, which is much more efficient at such high temperatures. When hydrogen burns, it produces only water. Such reactors could also be built over the massive oil shale deposits in the western United States. The hot gas could then be used to efficiently extract oil from the shale “in situ” without the need to mine it. It is estimated that the amount of oil that could be economically recovered in this way from the Green River Basin deposits in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado alone is three times greater than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.
Will any of this happen without government support and leadership? Not any time soon. The people who build nuclear reactors expect to make a profit, and the easiest way to make a profit is to build more conventional reactors of the type we already have. Raise the points I’ve mentioned above, and they’ll simply tell you that there’s plenty of cheap uranium around and therefore no need to breed more fuel, the radioactive danger of transuranics has been much exaggerated, etc., etc. All these meretricious arguments make sense if your goal is to make a profit in the short run. They make no sense at all if you have any concern for the energy security and welfare of future generations.
Unless the proponents of controlled fusion or solar and other forms of alternative energy manage to pull a rabbit out of their collective hats, I suspect we will eventually adopt breeder technology. The question is when. After we have finally burnt our last reserves of fossil fuel? After we have used up all our precious reserves of U238 by scattering it hither and yon in the form of “depleted uranium” munitions? The longer we wait, the harder and more expensive it will become to develop a breeder economy. It would be well if, in this unusual case, government stepped in and did what it is theoretically supposed to do; lead.
Posted on February 20th, 2012 No comments
Rick Santorum threw the Left a meaty pitch right down the middle with his comments about “theology” to an audience in Columbus. Here’s what he said:
It’s not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology. But no less a theology.
The quote seems to lend credence to the “Santorum is a scary theocrat” meme, and the Left lost no time in flooding the media and the blogosphere with articles to that effect. The Right quickly fired back with the usual claims that the remarks were taken out of context. This time the Right has it right. For example, from Foxnews,
Rick Santorum said Sunday he wasn’t questioning whether President Obama is a Christian when he referred to his “phony theology” over the weekend, but was in fact challenging policies that he says place the stewardship of the Earth above the welfare of people living on it.
“I wasn’t suggesting the president’s not a Christian. I accept the fact that the president is a Christian,” Santorum said.
“I was talking about the radical environmentalist,” he said. “I was talking about energy, this idea that man is here to serve the Earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal.
I note in passing a surprising thing about almost all the articles about this story, whether they come from the Left or the Right. The part of Santorum’s speech that actually does put things in context is absent. Here it is:
I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it backwards. This idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth. Man is here to use the resources and use them wisely. But man is not here to serve the earth.
I can understand its absence on the Left, but on the Right? Could it be that contrived controversies are good for the bottom line? Well, be that as it may, I’m not adding my two cents worth to this kerfluffle because I’m particularly fond of Santorum. However, he did touch on a matter that deserves serious consideration; the existence of secular religions.
In fact, there are secular religions, and they have dogmas, just like the more traditional kind. It’s inaccurate to call those dogmas “theologies,” because they don’t have a Theos, but otherwise they’re entirely similar. In both cases they describe elaborate systems of belief in things that either have not or cannot be demonstrated and proved. The reason for this is obvious in the case of traditional religions. They are based on claims of the existence of spiritual realms inaccessible to the human senses. Secular dogmas, on the other hand, commonly deal with events that can’t be fact-checked because they are to occur in the future.
Socialism in it’s heyday was probably the best example of a secular religion to date. While it lasted, millions were completely convinced that the complex social developments it predicted were the inevitable fate of mankind, absent any experimental demonstration or proof whatsoever. Not only did they believe it, they considered themselves superior in intellect and wisdom to other mere mortals by virtue of that knowledge. They were elitists in the truest sense of the word. Thousands and thousands of dreary tomes were written elaborating on the ramifications and details of the dogma, all based on the fundamental assumption that it was true. They were similar in every respect to the other thousands and thousands of dreary tomes of theology written to elaborate on conventional religious dogmas, except for the one very important distinction referred to above. Instead of describing an entirely different world, they described the future of this world.
That was their Achilles heal. The future eventually becomes the present. The imaginary worker’s paradise was eventually exchanged for the very real Gulag, mass executions, and exploitation by a New Class beyond anything ever imagined by the bourgeoisie. Few of the genuine zealots of the religion ever saw the light. They simply refused to believe what was happening before their very eyes, on the testimony of thousands of witnesses and victims. Eventually, they died, though, and their religion died with them. Socialism survives as an idea, but no longer as the mass delusion of cocksure intellectuals. For that we can all be grateful.
In a word, then, the kind of secular “theologies” Santorum was referring to really do exist. The question remains whether the specific one he referred to, radical environmentalism, rises to the level of such a religion. I think not. True, some of the telltale symptoms of a secular religion are certainly there. For example, like the socialists before them, environmental ideologues are characterized by a faith, free of any doubt, that a theoretically predicted future, e.g., global warming, will certainly happen, or at least will certainly happen unless they are allowed to “rescue” us. The physics justifies the surmise that severe global warming is possible. It does not, however, justify fanatical certainty. Probabilistic computer models that must deal with billions of ill-defined degrees of freedom cannot provide certainty about anything.
An additional indicator is the fact that radical environmentalists do not admit the possibility of honest differences of opinion. They have a term for those who disagree with them; “denialists.” Like the heretics of religions gone before, denialists are an outgroup. It cannot be admitted that members of an outgroup have honest and reasonable differences of opinion. Rather, they must be the dupes of dark political forces, or the evil corporations they serve, just as, in an earlier day, anyone who happened not to want to live under a socialist government was automatically perceived as a minion of the evil bourgeoisie.
However, to date, at least, environmentalism possesses nothing like the all encompassing world view, or “Theory of Everything,” if you will, that, in my opinion at least, would raise it to the level of a secular religion. For example, Christianity has its millennium, and the socialists had their worker’s paradise. The environmental movement has nothing of the sort. So far, at least, it also falls short of the pitch of zealotry that results in the spawning of warring internal sects, such as the Arians and the Athanasians within Christianity, or the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within socialism.
In short, then, Santorum was right about the existence of secular religions. He was merely sloppy in according that honor to a sect that really doesn’t deserve it.
Posted on February 11th, 2012 No comments
I don’t think so! Less than a century after H. L. Mencken wrote that the Uplift was a purely American phenomenon, there may now be even more of the pathologically pious in Germany per capita than in the U.S. They all think they’re far smarter than the average human being, they all see a savior of mankind when they look in the mirror, and almost all of them are cocksure that nuclear power is one of the Evils they need to save us from. Just last November tens of thousands of them turned out in force to block the progress of a spent fuel castor from France to the German radioactive waste storage site at Gorleben. The affair turned into a regular Uplift feeding frenzy, complete with pitched battles between the police and the peaceful protesters, who were armed with clubs and pyrotechnics, tearing up of railroad tracks, etc. It’s no wonder the German government finally threw in the towel and announced the country would shut down its nuclear power plants.
At least the decision took the wind out of their sails for a while. As Malcolm Muggeridge once said, “nothing fails like success” for the Saviors of Mankind. Success tends to leave them high and dry. At best they have to go to the trouble of finding another holy cause to fight for. At worst, as in the aftermath of their fine victory in establishing a Worker’s Paradise in Russia, they’re all shot.
It would seem the “bitter dregs of success” were evident in a recent article on the website of the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, entitled “Electricity is Becoming Scarce in Germany.” Der Spiegel has always been in the van of the pack of baying anti-nuclear hounds in Germany, so I was somewhat surprised by the somber byline, which reads as follows:
The nuclear power shutdown has been a burden for Germany’s electric power suppliers in any case. Now the cold wave is making matters worse. The net operators have already had to fall back on emergency reserves for the second time this winter, and buy additional electricity from Austria.
That’ s quite an admission coming from the Der Spiegel, where anti-nuclear polemics are usually the order of the day. Even the resolutely Green Washington Post editorialized against the German shutdown, noting, among other things,
THE INTERNATIONAL Energy Agency reported on Monday that global energy-related carbon emissions last year were the highest ever, and that the world is far off track if it wants to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, after which the results could be very dangerous.
So what does Germany’s government decide to do? Shut down terawatts of low-carbon electric capacity in the middle of Europe. Bowing to misguided political pressure from Germany’s Green Party, Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed a plan to close all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.
European financial analysts (estimate) that Germany’s move will result in about 400 million tons of extra carbon emissions by 2020, as the country relies more on fossil fuels. Nor is Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, who ominously announced that Germany has put coal-fired power “back on the agenda” — good for his coal-rich nation directly to Germany’s east but terrible for the environment and public health.
…and so on. Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the German Greens optimistic plans to replace nuclear with solar in a cloudy country that gets cold in the winter and lies on the wrong side of the 50th parallel of latitude. Poland’s prime minister is right to worry about being downwind of Germany. In spite of the cheery assurances of the Greens, she currently plans to build 26 new coal-fired power plants. It’s funny how environmental zealots forget all about the terrible threat of global warming if its a question of opposing nuclear power. But Poland has a lot more to worry about than Germany’s carbon footprint.
It’s estimated that 25,000 people die from breathing coal particulates in the U.S. alone every year. The per capita death rate in Poland, directly downwind from the German plants, will likely be significantly higher. Then there’s the radiation problem. That’s right, coal typically contains several parts per million of radioactive uranium and thorium. A good-sized plant will release 5 tons of uranium and 10 tons of thorium into the environment each year. Estimated releases in 1982 from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium. China currently burns that much coal by herself. The radiation from uranium and thorium is primarily in the form of alpha particles, or helium nuclei. Such radiation typically has a very short range in matter, because it slows down quickly and then dumps all of its remaining energy in a very limited distance, the so-called Bragg peak. On the one hand that means that a piece of paper is enough to stop most alpha radiation. On the other it means that if you breath it in, the radiation will be slammed to a stop in your sensitive lung tissue, dealing tremendous damage in the process. Have you ever heard of people dying of lung cancer who never smoked a day in their lives? If you’re looking for a reason, look no further.
No matter. As Stalin said, one death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic. Germany’s Greens will continue to ignore such dry statistics, and they will continue to strike noble poses as they fight the nuclear demon, forgetting all about global warming in the process. For them, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.
Posted on October 30th, 2011 No comments
As I pointed out in my last post, “The outgroup have ye always with you.” Of all the very good reasons for mankind to give up the cobbling together of new moral systems once and for all, it’s probably the best. It’s more likely you’ll find a unicorn browsing in your back yard than one of the pathologically pious among us suffused with the milk of human kindness. One typically finds them in their “ground state,” frothing at the the mouth with virtuous indignation over the latest sins of their preferred outgroup.
So it is with Eugene Robinson, one of their number who happens to pen an occasional column in the Washington Post. He recently delivered himself of some observations concerning the phenomenon of global warming. As anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last decade will be aware, no branch of the sciences has been more afflicted of late by the attentions of the professionally righteous than climatology. Robinson gives us a good example of how the neat separation of climate scientists into good guys and bad guys works in practice.
Hero of his piece is one Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley who, we learn, once dismissed “climate alarmism” as “shoddy science.” Not to worry. Though once lost, he is now found, and though once blind, he now sees. It turns out the scales fell from his eyes after he “launched his own comprehensive study (referred to as the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature, or BEST, study, ed.) to set the record straight,” and discovered that, lo and behold, “Global warming is real.” Well, perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t. I happen to believe that the arguments as to why it should be real are plausible enough, but that’s beside the point as far as this post is concerned.
What is to the point is Robinson’s reaction to all this. For him, Muller’s study isn’t just another batch of data points relating to a very complex scientific issue. For him, global warming is an absolute and incontrovertable certainty, because it represents the “good.” Muller’s study is, therefore, not just a scientific study, but a victory in the eternal battle of good versus evil. In Robinson’s own words,
For the clueless or cynical diehards who deny global warming, it’s getting awfully cold out there.
Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and the rest of the neo-Luddites who are turning the GOP into the anti-science party should pay attention.
But Muller’s plain-spoken admonition that “you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer,” has reduced many deniers to incoherent grumbling or stunned silence.
and so on. As it happens, not all of the “skeptics” have been reduced to incoherent grumbling or stunned silence. Take, for example, Judith Curry, a distinguished climate researcher and Chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. She was actually a member of Muller’s team, and so is presumably familiar with the copious data Robinson was so enthused about. However, in an interview for the Daily Mail, Curry accuses Muller of “trying to mislead the public by hiding the fact that BEST’s research shows global warming has stopped.” She also says that, “Prof. Muller’s claim that he has proven global warming sceptics wrong was also a ‘huge mistake’, with no scientific basis,” and goes so far as to compare the affair to “Climategate.” This is strong stuff, but Prof. Curry has the goods. She notes that, in carefully sifting through, as Robinson informs us, “1.6 billion records,” Muller somehow failed to mention that, according to BEST’s own data, “there has been no significant increase in world temperatures since the end of the 90′s.” The following two graphs from the website of the Global Warming Policy Foundation summarize that data:
Source: Global Warming Policy Foundation
It would seem that the good Prof. Muller, who had much to say about the first graph, complete with “hockey stick,” somehow forgot to mention the data in the second. In fact, as Prof. Curry put it, “…in the wake of the unexpected global warming standstill, many climate scientists who had previously rejected sceptics’ arguments were now taking them much more seriously.”
The Daily Mail article contains much else in the way of less than pleased reactions by a number of other climatologists at what was apparently a premature release of the BEST data before the peer review process was complete. Of course, all this fits very ill with the lurid picture of good triumphing over evil painted for us by Mr. Robinson. Predictably, while he was apparently observant enough to turn up any number of “grumbling and stunned” warming deniers, when it came to Prof. Curry and her equally chagrined colleagues, he didn’t notice a thing.
It should come as no surprise. Mr. Curry is merely acting as one might expect of a member of a species endowed with certain innate behavioral characteristics. Some of those traits give rise to what is commonly referred to as moral behavior, and none of us are free of their emotional grip. That’s why Hollywood still makes movies about good guys and bad guys. It is our subjective nature to perceive sublime good, but the yin of sublime good cannot exist without the yang of despicable evil. Every ingroup implies an outgroup. There is little we can do to change our nature, and we would probably be unwise to try given our current intellectual endowments. We can, however, while accepting it for what it is, seek to find ways of channeling its expression in ways less destructive than we have experienced in the past. At the very least we need to understand it and develop an awareness of how it affects our behavior. The results of failing to do so in the past have been destructive enough, and have certainly made a hash of the science of climatology. The results of failing to do so in the future are unlikely to be any more encouraging.
Posted on January 19th, 2011 No comments
For those who don’t follow fusion technology, the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, is a giant, 192 beam laser facility located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. As its name would imply, it is designed to achieve fusion ignition, which has been variously defined, but basically means that you get more energy out from the fusion process than it was necessary to pump into the system to set off the fusion reactions. There are two “classic” approaches to achieving controlled fusion in the laboratory. One is magnetic fusion, in which light atoms stripped of their electrons, or ions, typically heavy isotopes of hydrogen, are confined in powerful magnetic fields as they are heated to the temperatures necessary for fusion to occur. The other is inertial confinement fusion, or ICF, in which massive amounts of energy are dumped into a small target, causing it to reach fusion conditions so rapidly that significant fusion can occur in the very short time that the target material is held in place by its own inertia. The NIF is a facility of the latter type.
There are, in turn, two basic approaches to ICF. In one, referred to as direct drive, the target material is directly illuminated by the laser beams. In the other, indirect drive, the target is placed inside a small container, or “hohlraum,” with entrance holes for the laser beams. These are aimed at the inside walls of the hohlraum, where they are absorbed, producing x-rays which then compress and ignite the target. The NIF currently uses the latter approach.
The NIF was completed and became operational in 2009. Since that time, the amount of news coming out of the facility about the progress of experiments has been disturbingly slight. That is not a good thing. If everything were working as planned, a full schedule of ignition experiments would be underway as I write this. Instead, the facility is idle. The results of the first experimental campaign, announced in January, sounded positive. The NIF had operated at a large fraction of its design energy output of 1.8 Megajoules. Surrogate targets had been successfully compressed to very high densities in symmetric implosions, as required for fusion. However, on reading the tea leaves, things did not seem quite so rosy. Very high levels of laser plasma interaction (LPI) had been observed. In such complex scattering interactions, laser light can be scattered out of the hohlraum, or in other undesired directions, and hot electrons can be generated, wreaking havoc with the implosion process by preheating the target. We were assured that ways had been found to control the excess LPI, and even turn it to advantage in controlling the symmetry of the implosion. However, such “tuning” with LPI had not been foreseen at the time the facility was designed, and little detail was provided on how the necessary delicate, time-dependent shaping of the laser pulses would be achieved under such conditions.
After a long pause, another series of “integrated” experiments was announced in October. Even less information was released on this occasion. We were informed that symmetric implosions had been achieved, and that, “From both a system integration and from a physics point of view, this experiment was outstanding,” Since then, nothing.
It’s hard to imagine that the outlook is really as rosy as the above statement would imply. The NIF was designed for a much higher shot rate. If it sat idle through much of 2010, there must be a reason. It could be that damage to the laser optics has been unexpectedly high. This would not be surprising. Delicate crystals are used at the end of the chain of laser optics to triple the frequency of the laser light, and, given that the output energy of the facility is more than an order of magnitude larger than that of its next largest competitor, damage may have occurred in unexpected ways, as it did on Nova, the NIF’s predecessor at Livermore. LPI may, in fact, be more serious, more difficult to control, and more damaging than the optimistic accounts in January implied. Unexpected physics may be occurring in the absorption of laser light at the hohlraum walls. Whatever the problem, Livermore would be well advised to be forthcoming about it in its press releases. After all, the NIF will achieve ignition or not, regardless of how well the PR is managed.
All this seems very discouraging for the scientists who have devoted their careers to the quest for fusion energy, not to mention the stewards of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, whose needs the NIF was actually built to address. In the end, these apparent startup problems may be overcome, and ignition achieved after all. However, I rather doubt it, unless perhaps Livermore comes up with an alternative to its indirect drive approach.