Posted on March 21st, 2014 2 comments
The deadline to develop a new design of nuclear power plant has been brought forward by 15 years as the central government tries to reduce the nation’s reliance on smog-producing coal-fired power stations. A team of scientists in Shanghai had originally been given 25 years to try to develop the world’s first nuclear plant using the radioactive element thorium as fuel rather than uranium, but they have now been told they have 10, the researchers said.
I have to admit, I feel a little envious when I read things like that. The Chinese government is showing exactly the kind of leadership that’s necessary to guide the development of nuclear power along rational channels, and it’s a style of leadership of which our own government no longer seems capable.
What do I mean by “rational channels?” Among other things, I mean acting as a responsible steward of our nuclear resources, instead of blindly wasting them , as we are doing now. How are we wasting them? By simply throwing away the lion’s share of the energy content of every pound of uranium we mine.
Contrary to the Morning Post article, thorium is not a nuclear fuel. The only naturally occurring nuclear fuel is uranium 235 (U235). It is the only naturally occurring isotope that can be used directly to fuel a nuclear reactor. It makes up only a tiny share – about 0.7% – of mined uranium. The other 99.3% is mostly uranium 238 (U238). What’s the difference? When a neutron happens along and hits the nucleus of an atom of U235, it usually fissions. When a neutron happens along and hits the nucleus of an atom of U238, unless its going very fast, it commonly just gets absorbed. There’s more to the story than that, though. When it gets absorbed, the result is an atom of U239, which eventually decays to an isotope of plutonium – plutonium 239 (Pu239). Like U235, Pu239 actually is a nuclear fuel. When a neutron hits its nucleus, it too will usually fission. The term “fissile” is used to describe such isotopes.
In other words, while only 0.7% of naturally occurring uranium can be used directly to produce energy, the rest could potentially be transmuted into Pu239 and burned as well. All that’s necessary for this to happen is to supply enough extra neutrons to convert the U238. As it happens, that’s quite possible, using so-called breeder reactors. And that’s where thorium comes in. Like U238, the naturally occurring isotope thorium 232 (Th232) absorbs neutrons, yielding the isotope Th233, which eventually decays to U233, which is also fissile. In other words, useful fuel can be “bred” from Th232 just as it can from U238. Thorium is about three times as abundant as uranium, and China happens to have large reserves of the element. According to current estimates, reserves in the U.S. are much larger, and India’s are the biggest on earth.
What actually happens in almost all of our currently operational nuclear reactors is a bit different. They just burn up that 0.7% of U235 in naturally occurring uranium, and a fraction of the Pu239 that gets bred in the process, and then throw what’s left away. “What’s left” includes large amounts of U238 and various isotopes of plutonium as well as a brew of highly radioactive reaction products left over from the split atoms of uranium and plutonium. Perhaps worst of all, “what’s left” also includes transuranic actinides such as americium and curium as well as plutonium. These can remain highly radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years, and account for much of the long-term radioactive hazard of spent nuclear fuel. As it happens, these actinides, as well as some of the more dangerous and long lived fission products, could potentially be destroyed during the normal operation of just the sort of molten salt reactors the crash Chinese program seeks to develop. As a result, the residual radioactivity from operating such a plant for, say, 40 years, could potentially be less than that of the original uranium ore after a few hundreds of years instead of many thousands. The radioactive hazard of such plants would actually be much less than that of burning coal, because coal contains small amounts of both uranium and thorium. Coal plants spew tons of these radioactive elements, potentially deadly if inhaled, into the atmosphere every year.
Why on earth are we blindly wasting our potential nuclear energy resources in such a dangerous fashion? Because it’s profitable. For the time being, at least, uranium is still cheap. Breeder reactors would be more expensive to build than current generation light water reactors (LWRs). To even start one, you’d have to spend about a decade, give or take, negotiating the highly costly and byzantine Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process. You could count on years of even more costly litigation after that. No reprocessing is necessary in LWRs. Just quick and dirty storage of the highly radioactive leftovers, leaving them to future generations to deal with. You can’t blame the power companies. They’re in the business to make a profit, and can’t continue to operate otherwise. In other words, to develop nuclear power rationally, you need something else in the mix – government leadership.
We lack that leadership. Apparently the Chinese don’t.
Posted on March 16th, 2014 2 comments
Secretary of State John Kerry appeared quite concerned about global warming during a recent visit to Indonesia, telling students,
The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the worlds most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.
A bit later, Harry Reid and his fellow Democrat senators pulled an all-night talkathon to sound the climate change alarm. According to Reid, climate change is “the worst problem facing the world today.” All this left reporter Susan Davis at USA Today scratching her head:
The Democratic effort is cause for some confusion because these senators are calling for action in a chamber they control but without any specific legislation to offer up for a vote, or any timetable for action this year.
As noted at Hot Air, the talkathon and Kerry’s bloviations were nothing but PR stunts:
In other words, this is nothing but a stunt — and transparently so. Senate Democrats control all of the Senate committees, and what comes to the Senate floor. Boxer herself is the chair of the committee on environmental affairs, and could push through legislation any time she wants to the floor.
In other words, it’s business as usual when it comes to environmental activism. The pose is everything, and the reality is nothing. The reality is that Kerry, Reid, and the rest are transparently indifferent to the problem of climate change, except as it serves them as a political tool. If they really cared about it, they would have put a stop to illegal immigration long ago. The carbon foot print per capita of the United States is four times that of Mexico, and the ratio is much greater for most of the other countries of origin. If they really cared, they would put a stop to Nuclear Regulatory Commission stonewalling of innovative nuclear plant designs, not to mention grossly excessive litigation hurdles for plant construction. If they really cared, they would get behind the shale-energy revolution which has cut 300 million tons of US greenhouse gas emissions by replacing heavily polluting coal with natural gas, a contribution greater than that of all the worlds solar and wind power installations combined. In other words, they don’t care.
It’s sad, because climate change actually is a potentially serious problem. Kerry is just blowing hot air himself when he makes statements like,
We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact.
The idea that someone like Kerry could distinguish “shoddy scientists” from “scientific fact” when it comes to climate change is beyond ludicrous. What qualifies him to even make such a statement? Certainly not the faintest understanding of current climate models. The most powerful computers on earth couldn’t even come close to achieving a deterministic solution of the problem. It involves billions of degrees of freedom in atmospheric and ocean conditions, and the necessary initial conditions are mostly either unknown or of limited accuracy. The only way we can even begin to address the problem is with serious (and potentially inaccurate) data interpolation, and probabilistic computer models, the equivalent of “throwing dice” on a vast scale to see which numbers come up. The statistical noise alone in such models renders it impossible to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change, but only a range of possible outcomes. In other words, Kerry’s crude “alarmism” is an easy mark for the climate “denialism” on the other end of the ideological spectrum. That’s too bad, because denying that any problem exists is just as bad as demagoguing it.
We may not be able to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change. We do know, however, that solar radiation passing through a simplified model of the atmosphere and striking an “average” patch of the earth’s surface will raise the temperature of that atmosphere in proportion to the concentration of greenhouse gases. The best computer models we have are not perfect, but they’re not useless either, and they predict that significant warming will occur over the coming decades. In other words, we can’t speak of “facts” or certainty here, but we can say that there is a substantial risk that significant human-induced climate change will occur. The effects might be benign, outweighed by the same factors that have driven variations in the earth’s climate throughout its history. They might also be disastrous. Given that earth is the only planet we have to live on at the moment, it seems foolhardy to rock the boat.
Under the circumstances, Kerry, Reid, and the rest might want to think twice about the value of crying “wolf” to score cheap political points, when it’s clear that they have no intention of seriously addressing the problem. Particularly at the end of a 15 year pause in the rate of increase of global temperatures, the result, already much in evidence, will be an increase in cynicism and skepticism that the problem is real. The resulting reluctance to sacrifice other priorities to address it may come back to haunt the alarmists if, as the boy in the story discovered, the “wolf” turns out to be real.
What to do? Some of the most effective solutions are precisely what the alarmists who bray the loudest don’t want to do. End significant immigration to countries with the most emissions per capita, for one. Lead in the introduction and adoption of more efficient and safer nuclear technologies and the expansion of nuclear capacity instead of blocking it for another. Instead, the wildly misnomered “Greens” in Germany are shutting down the nuclear plants in that country, with the entirely predictable result that Germany is currently planning to build 26 new, heavily polluting, coal-fired power plants to replace them. Divert heavy subsidies for existing solar and wind technologies to investment in green technology research and development. As those famously “green” Germans discovered once again, taxing the poor to finance the solar energy hobbies of the rich in a cloudy country whose capital lies above the 52nd parallel of latitude is a dubious proposition. The cost of electricity there after years of massive subsidies to solar and a nuclear shutdown is now twice as high as in heavily nuclear France. As noted in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the burden of these skyrocketing costs is falling disproportionately on the backs of those least able to afford them.
Beyond that, we might want to get serious about finding another habitable planet, and developing the technology to get there. We’ve been doing a lot of rocking the boat lately. It would behoove us to have an alternative in case it eventually tips over, and the sooner the better.
Posted on February 23rd, 2014 No comments
There are lots of great ideas out there for improving the way we do nuclear power. For instance, Transatomic Power recently proposed a novel type of molten salt reactor (MSR). The Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) Industry Alliance, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, has chosen a high temperature gas reactor (HTGR) as its reactor of the future candidate. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are all the rage, and a plethora of designs have been proposed. Unlike the others, Terrapower’s traveling wave reactor (TWR), which is backed by Bill Gates, actually has a fighting chance to be built in the foreseeable future – in China. With the possible exception of SMR’s, which have strong military support, the chances of any of them being built in the United States in the foreseeable future are slim. Government, the courts, and a nightmarish regulatory process stand in the way as an almost insuperable barrier.
It wasn’t always this way. A lot of today’s “novel” concepts are based on ideas that were proposed many decades ago. We know they work, because demonstration reactors were built to try them out. More than a dozen were built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. No less than 53 were built at Idaho National Laboratory! Virtually all of them were completed more than half a century ago. There are few historical precedents that can match the sudden collapse from the vitality of those early years to the lethargy and malaise prevailing in the nuclear industry today. It’s sad, really, because the nuclear plants that actually are on line and/or under construction are artifacts of a grossly wasteful, potentially dangerous, and obsolete technology.
The light water reactors (LWRs) currently producing energy in this country use only a tiny fraction of the energy available in their uranium fuel, producing dangerous transuranic actinides that can remain highly radioactive for millennia in the process. Many of the new designs are capable of extracting dozens of times more energy from a given quantity of fuel than LWRs. Molten salt reactors would operate far more efficiently, could not melt down, and would consume dangerous actinides in the process, leaving such a small quantity of waste after several decades of operation that it would be less radioactive than the original ore used to fuel the reactor after a few hundred years rather than many millennia. Besides also being immune to meltdown, HTGRs, because of their much higher operating temperatures, could enable such things as highly efficient electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen fuel and greatly improved extraction techniques for oil and natural gas from shale and sand. Why, then, aren’t we building these improved designs?
It’s highly unlikely that the necessary initiative will come from industry. Why would they care? They’re in the business to make a profit, and LWRs can be built and operated more cheaply than the alternatives. Why should they worry about efficiency? There’s plenty of cheap uranium around, and it’s unlikely there will be major shortages for decades to come. Ask any industry spokesman, and he’ll assure you that transuranic radioactive waste and the potential proliferation issues due to the plutonium content of spent LWR fuel are mere red herrings. I’m not so sure.
In other words, strong government leadership would be needed to turn things around. Unfortunately, that commodity is in short supply. The current reality is that government is a highly effective deterrent to new reactor technology. Take the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for example. Read Kafka’s The Trial and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how it operates. So you want to license a new reactor design, do you? Well, most of the current regulations apply specifically to LWRs, so you’ll have to give them time to come up with new ones. Then you’ll need to spend at least a decade and millions of dollars explaining your new technology to the NRC bureaucrats. Then you can expect an endless stream of requests for additional information, analysis of all the threat and failure scenarios they can dream up, etc., which will likely take a good number of additional years. After all, they have to justify their existence, don’t they? If you ever manage to get past the NRC, the court system will take things up where they left off.
What to do? I don’t know. It really doesn’t upset me when reactors built with legacy technology are pulled off line, and replaced with fossil fueled plants. They just waste most of their fuel, throwing away energy that future generations might sorely miss once they’ve finally burned through all the coal and oil on the planet. Maybe the best thing to do would be to just buy up all the available uranium around and wait. We might also stop the incredibly block-headed practice of converting all of our “depleted” uranium into ammunition. The Lone Ranger’s silver bullets were cheap by comparison. Future generations are likely to wonder what on earth we were thinking.
Things were a lot better in the “apathetic” 50′s, but the novelist Thomas Wolfe had it right. You can’t go home again.
Posted on February 16th, 2014 5 comments
John Derbyshire’s reaction to the BBC documentary, “No Sex Please, We’re Japanese,” about Japan’s “demographic catastrophe” is probably somewhat different from what the producers had in mind. In short, he considers it a feature, not a bug. In fact, he thinks “The 21st Century Might Belong to Japan” because they are biting the demographic bullet now.
The documentary follows reporter Anita Rani, a Briton of Indian descent, as she leads us through a series of nightmares in the demographic basket case that is modern Japan. There is Yubari, a coal-mining town in the north, that once teamed with children, but whose maternity ward has been converted to a dusty storeroom. There are a pair of late-30′s geeks whose main love interests, schoolgirls aged 15 and 17, reside in the virtual world of a Nintendo box. There is a prison that is rapidly becoming a geriatric ward. And finally we cut to the chase. In a conversation with American-born economist Kathy Matsui, Rani observes sagely, ““Immigration. Surely that’s the solution that’s staring them in the face.” Matsui agrees, noting the extreme indebtedness of Japan, its stagnant economy, the increasingly unbearable cost of caring for a rapidly aging population without a steady supply of young taxpayers to milk, etc., etc. However, she notes, “There is an order of steps that need to occur” for mass immigration to become acceptable in a traditional society like Japan. Right, just like the order of steps that take you to the top of a gallows.
According to Derbyshire, “Mass immigration at best postpones the day of reckoning for a few years,” and by biting the bullet now, Japan may, “…speed off ahead of us into some new socio-economic order suited to low population levels and better age ratios, as we struggle with the transition they have already mastered.” Regardless of how she masters her economic problems, Japan is fortunate indeed to have a “traditional” society that discourages immigration. As Jayman put it in a recent tweet, “we should be so lucky” as to have a similar problem. I can but hope that Japan never becomes so suicidal as to take the “order of steps” to mass immigration.
The peddlers of the “demographic catastrophe” scare stories would have us believe that there can be nothing worse than stagnant or declining economies. Actually, there is something worse; failure to survive. You don’t have to go back too many years to come to a time when this was actually a serious concern for Japan. Just read some of the books and magazines about her published in the 30′s when her population was half what it is today. However, with the agricultural technology available at the time, it appeared that there was no way she could continue to feed her population if it grew much beyond that. We now know how she attempted to solve the problem, and the results of that attempt. Now we are supposed to be shaking in our boots if her population returns to that level at the turn of the next century.
Apparently we are to believe that such unfortunate byproducts of continuous population growth are all behind us now. Search the Internet and you can find articles claiming that the planet can easily accommodate 10, 50, or even 100 billion people. As a wag on the nightly news once put it, “maybe so, but who wants to eat standing up?” What’s amazing is that this stuff is being eagerly swallowed on both the right and the left. The Beeb, of course, is reliably leftist, like most of the rest of the western European media, and unlimited immigration is one of the boards that makes up the ideological box that the left lives in these days. It’s as if the denizens of that box are a bunch of lemmings who can’t wait to commit demographic suicide, or serve as promoters for the next wave of civil wars.
Consider, for example, the case of Switzerland, whose voters recently decided to apply some reasonable limits to immigration from the rest of the EU. The German papers and news websites, which I happen to follow, became positively hysterical. I haven’t seen much to compare with it since the most recent eruption of anti-American hate in the late 90′s and early 2000′s. Among other things, the evil Swiss were supposed to be hicks from the back woods, consumed by greed. Their vibrant economy was built with the wealth accumulated by the Nazis and assorted other dictators, etc. It was a classic example of the response of an ingroup to perceived attack by an outgroup.
Oddly enough, the right is playing a similar tune. Anyone who thinks the planet might be better off with a smaller population must be “anti-Life.” I have personally heard a retired Army 4-star general defend unlimited immigration, supposedly because it’s necessary to support a strong economy and, with it, a powerful military. I’m of a different opinion. I’d rather not rock the boat.
Global warming may or may not be a reality. We may or may not run out of clean water. We may or may not be able to produce enough food to feed the planet’s increasing population. We may or may not run out of affordable energy in the next few hundred years. It seems to me the pertinent question is, “Why take chances?”
Does that mean that the readers of this little blog should refrain from having as many children as possible? Of course not! Heaven forefend, gentle readers, that any of you should ever become defective biological units. However, Mother Nature, in her wisdom, enabled us to perceive the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different rules and versions of morality applying to each. To paraphrase General Patton, the idea isn’t to commit genetic suicide yourself. The idea is to get the other poor, dumb bastard to commit genetic suicide. The result will be a world with a manageable population where you will be able to pursue your own version of “human flourishing” in peace. As for Japan, I don’t doubt that she is still producing men (and women) whose love interests don’t reside in Nintendo boxes. In time, their children, and their children’s children, will inherit the islands. When they do, the population demographics will likely take a turn for the better.
Of course, I’m supplying you with a “should” here, and as my readers know, I don’t admit the existence of objective “shoulds.” Take it with a grain of salt, if you like. It certainly won’t bother me. I’ve made my reasons for preferring genetic survival to a life in which I make a “meaningful contribution” to the rest of mankind, and then croak, clear enough in earlier posts. My point is, if you happen to share this whim, this preference for survival with me, don’t be concerned the next time you see some feminist harridan railing about the evils of having children. Why on earth would you ever attempt to persuade her she’s wrong? The best response is to smile, get a room, and get busy.
UPDATE: More on the Derb’s article over at Occam’s Razor
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.