Fusion Follies at Der Spiegel

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.

and,

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.

 

Accelerator-Driven Thorium Reactors, or An Easy Way to Eliminate Surplus Population

The Daily Telegraph has just taken thorium wowserism to a whole new level.  According to the title of an article penned by International Business Editor Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Obama could kill fossil fuels overnight with a nuclear dash for thorium.  Continuing in the same vein, the byline assures us that,

If Barack Obama were to marshal America’s vast scientific and strategic resources behind a new Manhattan Project, he might reasonably hope to reinvent the global energy landscape and sketch an end to our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years.

And how is this prodigious feat to be accomplished?  Via none other than Nobel laureate Dr. Carlo Rubbia’s  really bad idea for building accelerator-driven thorium reactors.  It would seem that Dr. Rubbia has assured the credulous Telegraph editor that, “a tonne of the silvery metal produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium.”  This egregious whopper is based on nothing more complicated than a comparison of apples and oranges.  Thorium by itself cannot power a nuclear reactor.  It must first be converted into the isotope uranium 233 via absorption of a neutron.  Natural uranium, on the other hand, can be used directly in reactors, because 0.7 percent of it consists of the fissile isotope uranium 235.  In other words, Rubbia is comparing the energy potential of thorium after it has been converted to U233 with the energy potential of only the U235 in natural uranium.  The obvious objection to this absurd comparison is that the rest of natural uranium is made up mostly of the isotope U238, which can also absorb a neutron to produce plutonium 239, which, like U233, can power nuclear reactors.  In other words, if we compare apples to apples, that is, thorium after it has been converted to U233 with U238 after it has been converted to Pu239, the potential energy content of thorium and uranium is about equal.

As it happens, the really bad news in the Telegraph article is that,

The Norwegian group Aker Solutions has bought Dr. Rubbia’s patent for an accelerator-driven sub-critical reactor, and is working on his design for a thorium version at its UK operation.

In fact, Aker has already completed a conceptual design for a power plant.  According to Aker project manager Victoria Ashley, the group needs a paltry $3 million, give or take, to build the first one, and another $150 million for the test phase to follow.  Why is that disturbing news?  Because the U233 produced in these wonderful new reactors will be ideal for producing nuclear weapons.

In fact, it will be even better than the “traditional” bomb materials; highly enriched uranium (HEU) and weapons grade plutonium.  The explosion of a nuclear device is produced by assembling a highly supercritical mass of fissile material, and then introducing a source of neutrons at just the right moment, setting off a runaway chain reaction.  The problem with plutonium is that it has the bad habit of occasionally fissioning spontaneously.  This releases neutrons.  If such a stray neutron were to happen along just as the bomb material became critical, it would set off a premature chain reaction, causing the device to “fizzle.”  As a result, plutonium weapons must rely on a complicated implosion process to achieve supercriticality before the stray neutrons can do their dirty work.  Implosion weapons are much more technologically challenging to build than the gun-assembled types that can be used with HEU.  In these, one subcritical mass is simply shot into another.  However, the required mass of HEU is much larger than the amount of plutonium needed in an implosion-assembled weapon.  As it happens, the amount of U233 sufficient to build a nuclear device is about the same as the amount of plutonium, but spontaneous fission is not a problem in U233.  In other words, it combines the plutonium advantage of requiring a much smaller amount of material, and the HEU advantage of being usable in gun-assembled weapons.

Why, then, you might ask, are we even giving Rubbia’s idea a second thought?  Because of people like Professor Egil Lillestol, who, Evans-Pritchard helpfully informs us, is “a world authority on the thorium fuel cycle at CERN.”  According to Lillestol,

It is almost impossible to make nuclear weapons out of thorium because it is too difficult to handle.  It wouldn’t be worth trying.

Rubbia has made similar statements, based on the same “logic.”  The rationalization for the claim that U233 is “too difficult to handle” is the supposed presence of U232, an isotope of uranium with a half-life of about 69 years, one of whose daughters (elements in its decay chain) emits a highly energetic and penetrating, and hence deadly, gamma ray.  In fact, avoiding the production of U232 in accelerator-driven reactors would be a piece of cake.  Rubbia and Lillestol must know this, making it all the more incomprehensible that they dare to foist such whoppers on unsuspecting newspaper editors.

Only one neutron absorption is needed for the production of U233 from naturally occurring Th232.  Two are needed to produce U232.  Thus, one way to keep the level of U232 within manageable levels is to simply extract the U233 before much U232 has a chance to form.  However, there’s an even easier way.  Very energetic neutrons, with energies above a threshold of around 6 million electron volts, are necessary to produce U232.  Not many fission neutrons have that much energy, and slowing down the ones that do is simple.  Simply pass them through a “moderator” rich in hydrogen or some other light element.  Think of billiard balls.  If one of them going at a good clip hits another dead on, it stops, imparting its energy to the second ball.  Neutrons and the proton nuclei of hydrogen atoms have nearly the same mass, so the same thing can happen when they collide.  A fast neutron will typically lose a large fraction of its energy in such a collision.  In other words, the “secret” of avoiding the production of dangerous levels of U232 is as simple as passing the neutrons through a layer of hydrogen-rich material such as paraffin before allowing them to interact with the thorium.  All this should hardly come as a surprise to people like Rubbia and Lillestol.  It’s been old hat in the literature for a long time.  For a more detailed treatment, see, for example, U-232 and the Proliferation-Resistance of U-233 in Spent Fuel, a paper that appeared in the journal Science and Global Security back in 2001.

In other words, the idea that “it is almost impossible to make nuclear weapons out of thorium” is a pipe dream.  That does not necessarily mean that thorium technology should be rejected root and branch.  It will always be necessary to exercise extreme care to insure that U233 isn’t diverted for illicit purposes.  However, managing the risk will be considerably easier in “conventional” thorium breeders, which rely on assembling a critical mass to supply the necessary source of neutrons.  Such reactors have already been built and successfully operated for years.  The U233 they produce will always be mixed with highly radioactive fission products, and can also be “denatured” by mixing it with U238, from which it cannot be separated using simple chemistry.  Such reactors would produce few of the transuranic actinides that are the main culprits in nuclear waste, potentially requiring it to be stored securely for millennia.  They could also consume the actinides produced in the current generation of reactors, so that the remaining waste could potentially become less radioactive than the original uranium ore in a few hundred years, instead of many thousands.

If, on the other hand, the accelerators necessary to provide the neutron source for Dr. Rubbia’s subcritical facilities were to become readily available, they would be much easier to hide than conventional reactors, could be configured to produce U233 with almost no U232 contamination, and with much less radioactive fission product contamination.  In other words, they would constitute an unacceptable risk for the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  One must hope that the world will wake up in time to recognize the threat.

Fusion Update: The NIF Inches Closer to Ignition

In a recent press release, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced that it had achieved a yield of 3 x 1015 neutrons in the latest round of experiments at its National Ignition Facility, a giant, 192-beam laser facility designed, as its name implies, to achieve fusion ignition.  That’s nowhere near “ignition,” but still encouraging as it’s three times better than results achieved in earlier experiments.

The easiest way to achieve fusion is with two heavy isotopes of hydrogen; deuterium, with a nucleus containing one proton and one neutron, and tritium, with a nucleus containing one proton and two neutrons.  Deuterium is not radioactive, and occurs naturally as about one atom to every 6400 atoms of “normal” hydrogen, with a nucleus containing only a single proton.  Tritium is radioactive, and occurs naturally only in tiny trace amounts.  It has a half-life (the time it takes for half of a given amount to undergo radioactive decay) of 12.3 years, and must be produced artificially.  When tritium and deuterium fuse, they release a neutron, a helium nucleus, or alpha particle, and lots of energy (17.6 million electron volts).

Fortunately (because otherwise it would be too easy to blow up the planet), or unfortunately (if you want to convert the energy into electricity), fusion is hard.  The two atoms don’t like to get too close, because their positively charged nuclei repel each other.  Somehow, a way must be found to make the heavy hydrogen fuel material very hot, causing the thermal motion of the atoms to become very large.  Once they start moving fast enough, they can smash into each other with enough momentum to overcome the repulsion of the positive nuclei, allowing them to fuse.  However, the amount of energy needed per atom is huge, and when atoms get that hot, the last thing they want to do is stay close to each other (think of what happens in the detonation of high explosive.)  There are two mainstream approaches to solving this problem; magnetic fusion, in which the atoms are held in place by powerful magnetic fields while they are heated (the approach being pursued at ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently under construction in France), and inertial confinement fusion (ICF), where the idea is to dump energy into the fuel material so fast that its own inertia holds it in place long enough for fusion to occur.  The NIF is an ICF facility.

There are various definitions of ICF “ignition,” but, in order to avoid comparisons of apples and oranges between ICF and magnetic fusion experiments, LLNL has explicitly accepted the point at which the fusion energy out equals the laser energy in as the definition of ignition.  In the experiment referred to above, the total fusion energy release was about 10,000 joules, give or take.  Since the laser energy in was around 1.7 million joules, that’s only a little over one half of one percent of what’s needed for ignition.  Paltry, you say?  Not really.  To understand why, you have to know a little about how ICF experiments work.

Recall that the idea is to heat the fuel material up so fast that its own inertia holds it in place long enough for fusion to occur.  The “obvious” way to do that would be to simply dump in enough laser energy to heat all the fuel material to fusion temperatures at once.  Unfortunately, this “volumetric heating” approach wouldn’t work.  The energy required would be orders of magnitude more than what’s available on the NIF.  What to do?   Apply lots and lots of finesse.  It turns out that if a very small volume or “hot spot” in the fuel material can be brought to fusion conditions, the alpha particles released in the fusion reactions might carry enough energy to heat up the nearby fuel to fusion conditions as well.  Ideally, the result would be an alpha “burn wave,” moving out through the fuel, and consuming it all.  But wait, it ain’t that easy!  An efficient burn wave will occur only if the alphas are slammed to a stop and forced to dump their energy after traveling only a very short distance in the cold fuel material around the hot spot.  Their range is too large unless the fuel is first compressed to a tiny fraction of its original volume, causing its density to increase by orders of magnitude.

In other words, to get the fuel to fuse, we need to make it very hot, but we also need to compress it to very high density, which can be done much more easily and efficiently if the material is cold!  Somehow, we need to keep the fuel “cold” during the compression process, and then, just at the right moment, suddenly heat up a small volume to fusion conditions.  It turns out that shocks are the answer to the problem.  If a train of four shocks can be set off in the fuel material as it is being compressed, or “imploded,” by the lasers, precisely timed so that they will all converge at just the right moment, it should be possible, in theory at least, to generate a hot spot.  If the nice, spherical symmetry of the fuel target could be maintained during the implosion process, everything should work just fine.  The NIF would have more than enough energy to achieve ignition.  But there’s the rub. Maintaining the necessary symmetry has turned out to be inordinately hard.  Tiny imperfections in the target surface finish, small asymmetries in the laser beams, etc., lead to big deviations from perfect symmetry in the dense, imploded fuel.  These asymmetries have been the main reason the NIF has not been able to achieve its ignition goal to date.

And that’s why the results of the latest round of experiments haven’t been as “paltry” as they seem.  As noted in the LLNL press release,

Early calculations show that fusion reactions in the hot plasma started to self-heat the burning core and enhanced the yield by nearly 50 percent, pushing close to the margins of alpha burn, where the fusion reactions dominate the process.

“The yield was significantly greater than the energy deposited in the hot spot by the implosion,” said Ed Moses, principle associate director for NIF and Photon Science. “This represents an important advance in establishing a self-sustaining burning target, the next critical step on the path to fusion ignition on NIF.”

That’s not just hype.  If the self-heating can be increased in future experiments, it may be possible to reach a threshold at which the alpha heating sets off a burn wave through the rest of the cold fuel, as described above.  In other words, ignition is hardly a given, but the guys at LLNL still have a fighting chance.  Their main challenge may be to stem the gradual evaporation of political support for NIF while the experiments are underway.  Their own Senator, Diane Feinstein, is anything but an avid supporter.  She recently turned down appeals to halt NIF budget cuts, and says the project needs to be “reassessed” in light of the failure to achieve ignition.

Such a “reassessment” would be a big mistake.  The NIF was never funded as an energy project.  Its support comes from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous arm of the Department of Energy charged with maintaining the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.  As a tool for achieving that end, the NIF is without peer in any other country.  It has delivered on all of its performance design goals, including laser energy, illumination symmetry, shot rate, the precision and accuracy of its diagnostic instrumentation, etc.  The facility is of exceptional value to the weapons program even if ignition is never achieved.  It can still generate experimental conditions approaching those present in an exploding nuclear device, and, along with the rest of our suite of “above-ground experimental facilities,” or AGEX, it gives us a major leg up over the competition in maintaining our arsenal and avoiding technological surprise in the post-testing era.

Why is that important?  Because the alternative is a return to nuclear testing.  Do you think no one at NNSA wants to return to testing, and that the weapon designers at the National Weapons Laboratories wouldn’t jump at the chance?  If so, you’re dreaming.  It seems to me we should be doing our best to keep the nuclear genie in the bottle, not let it out.  Mothballing the NIF would be an excellent start at pulling the cork!

I understand why the guys at LLNL are hyping the NIF’s potential as a source of energy.  It’s a lot easier to generate political support for lots of electricity with very little radioactive waste and no greenhouse gases than for maintaining our aging arsenal of nuclear weapons.  However, IMHO, ICF is hopeless as a source of electricity, at least for the next few hundred years.  I know many excellent scientists will disagree, but many excellent scientists are also prone to extreme wishful thinking when it comes to rationalizing a technology they’ve devoted their careers to.  Regardless, energy hype isn’t needed to justify the NIF.  It and facilities like it will insure our technological superiority over potential nuclear rivals for years to come, and at the same time provide a potent argument against the resumption of nuclear testing.

German “Greens” and the Poisoning of Eastern Europe

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.

coal-power-plant

More Plutonium Horror Stories in Germany

Germany is plagued by an unusually large number per capita of pathologically pious zealots of the type who like to strike heroic poses as saviors of humanity.  The number may even approach the levels found in the USA.  They definitely take the cake when it comes to the subspecies of the tribe whose tastes run to nuclear alarmism.  They came out of the woodwork in droves the last time an attempt was made to move radioactive waste via rail to the storage facility in Gorleben, tearing up the tracks, peacefully smearing a police vehicle with tar and setting it on fire, and generally making a nuisance of themselves.  Now, in keeping with that tradition, an article just appeared in the German version of New Scientist, according to which those evil Americans are actually planning to restart the production of (shudder) plutonium.

Entitled The Return of Plutonium and written by one Helmut Broeg, the article assumes a remarkable level of stupidity on the part of its readers.  Mimicking Der Spiegel, Germany’s number one news magazine, its byline is more sensational than the article that follows, based on the (probably accurate) assumption that that’s as far as most consumers of online content will read. Here’s the translation:

The USA stopped producing plutonium 25 years ago.  In order to preserve the ability to launch deep space missions, they will resume the production of the highly poisonous and radioactive material.

Only in the body of the article do we learn that the particular isotope that will be produced is plutonium 238, which, unlike plutonium 239, is useless for making nuclear explosives.  As it happens, Pu-238 is the ideal material for powering thermoelectric generators such as that used on the Curiosity Mars rover because it decays primarily via emission of alpha particles (helium nuclei) and has a half life of 87.7 years.  That means that its decay products are mostly stopped in the material itself, generating a lot of heat in the process (because of the short half life, or time it take half of the material to decay), which can be converted to electricity using devices with no moving parts.  The world supply of the material is currently very short, and more is urgently needed to power future deep space missions.

All this is very sinister, according to Broeg.  He quotes Heinz Smital, who, we are informed, is an “atomic expert” at Greenpeace, that, “the crash of such a satellite could contaminate large areas with radioactivity.  Don’t look now, Mr. Smital, but if you’re really worried about radioactive contamination by alpha emitters like Pu-238, you might want to reconsider building all the coal plants that Germany is currently planning to replace the nuclear facilities it has decided to shut down.  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.  That amount has gone up considerably in the intervening years.  The cumulative radiation now covering the earth from these sources dwarfs anything that might conceivably result from the crash of a rocket with a Pu-238 power source, no matter what implausible assumptions one chose to make about how its containment would fail, how it would somehow enter the atmosphere at hypersonic speed so as to (optimize) its dispersion, etc.  Of course, the radioactive isotopes released from burning coal will also be with us for billions of years, not just the few hundred it takes for Pu-238 to decay.

But wait!  Dispersal of Pu-238 isn’t the only problem.  There’s also (drum roll) the BOMB!  Broeg drags in another “expert,” Moritz Kütt, a physicist at the Technical University of Darmstadt, who assures us that, “In the production of Pu-238, some Pu-239 is produced as well.  As a matter of principle, that means the US is resuming the production of weapons-useful material.”  Kütt goes on to ask what the world community would have to say if Iran announced that it would produce Pu-238 for a space mission?

To appreciate the level of gullibility it takes to swallow such “warnings,” one must spend a few minutes to check on how Pu-238 is actually produced.  Generally, it is done by irradiating neptunium 237 from spent nuclear fuel with neutrons in a reactor.  Occasionally the Np-237 captures a neutron, becoming Np-238.  This, in turn emits a beta particle (electron), and is transmuted to Pu-238.  It’s quite true that some of the Pu-238 will also capture a neutron, and become Pu-239.  However, the amounts produced in this way would be vanishingly small compared to the amounts that could be produced in the same reactor by simply removing some of the fuel rods after a few months and chemically extracting the nearly pure Pu-239, which would not then have to be somehow separated from far greater quantities of highly radioactive Pu-238.  In other words, if the world community learned that Iran had a nefarious plan to produce bomb material in the way suggested by Kütt, the reasonable immediate reaction would be a horse laugh, perhaps followed by sympathy for a people who were sufficiently stupid to adopt such a plan.  As for the US deciding to replentish its stocks of bomb material in this way, the idea is more implausible than anything those good Germans, the brothers Grimm ever came up with.  It only takes 4 kilos of Pu-239 to make a bomb, and we have tons of it on hand.  In the unlikely event we wanted more, we would simply extract it from reactor fuel rods.  The idea that we would ever prefer to attempt the separation of Pu-239 from Pu-238 instead is one that could only be concocted in the fevered imagination of a German “atomic expert.”

 

Plutonium 238
Plutonium 238

 

 

Nuclear Energy and the “Too Cheap to Meter” Lie

According to a German proverb, “Lügen haben kurze Beine” – Lies have short legs.  That’s not always true.  Some lies have very long ones.  One of the most notorious is the assertion, long a staple of anti-nuclear propaganda, that the nuclear industry ever claimed that nuclear power would be “Too cheap to meter.”  In fact, according to the New York Times, the phrase did occur in a speech delivered to the National Association of Science Writers by Lewis L. Strauss, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, in September 1954.  Here is the quote, as reported in the NYT on September 17, 1954:

“Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter,” he declared.   …    “It is not too much to expect that our children will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”

Note that nowhere in the quote is there any direct reference to nuclear power, or for that matter, to fusion power, although the anti-nuclear Luddites have often attributed it to proponents of that technology as well.  According to Wikipedia, Strauss was “really” referring to the latter, but I know of no evidence to that effect.  In any case, Strauss had no academic or professional background that would qualify him as an expert in nuclear energy.  He was addressing the science writers as a government official, and hardly as a “spokesman” for the nuclear industry.  The sort of utopian hyperbole reflected in the above quote is just what one would expect in a talk delivered to such an audience in the era of scientific and technological hubris that followed World War II.  There is an excellent and detailed deconstruction of the infamous “Too cheap to meter” lie on the website of the Canadian Nuclear Society.  Some lies, however, are just too good to ignore, and anti-nuclear zealots continue to use this one on a regular basis, as, for example, here, here and here.  The last link points to a paper by long-time anti-nukers Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska.  They obviously knew very well the provenance of the quote and the context in which it was given.  For example, quoting from the paper:

In 1954, Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, proclaimed that the development of nuclear energy would herald a new age. “It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter,” he declared to a science writers’ convention.  The speech gave the nuclear power industry a memorable phrase to be identified with, but also it saddled it with a promise that was essentially impossible to fulfill.

In other words, it didn’t matter that they knew very well that Strauss had no intention of “giving the nuclear power industry a memorable phrase to be identified with.”  They used the quote in spite of the fact that they knew that claim was a lie.  I all fairness, it can be safely assumed that most of those who pass along the “too cheap to meter” lie are not similarly culpable.  They are merely ignorant.

Second Thoughts about Green Energy in Germany

Der Spiegel, Germany’s top news magazine, has been second to none in promoting green energy, striking pious poses over the U.S. failure to jump on the Kyoto bandwagon, and trashing nuclear energy.  All this propaganda has succeeded brilliantly.  Germany has a powerful Green Party and is a world leader in the production of wind and solar energy, the latter in a cloudy country, the lion’s share of which lies above the 50th parallel of latitude.  Now the bill has come due.  In 2012 German consumers paid more than 20 billion Euros for green energy that was worth a mere 2.9 billion on the open market.  True to form, Der Spiegel has been churning out shrill condemnations of the high prices, as if it never had the slightest thing to do with promoting them in the first place.  In an article entitled “Green Energy Costs Consumers More Than Ever Before,” we find, among other things, that,

The cost of renewable energy continues climbing year after year.  At the beginning of the year it increased from 3.59 to 5.27 (Euro) cents per kilowatt hour.  One of the reasons for the increase is solar energy:  more new solar facilities were installed in Germany in 2012 than ever before.  The drawback of the solar boom is that it drives up the production costs paid by consumers.  The reason – green energy producers will receive guaranteed compensation for every kilowatt hour for the next 20 years.

As a result, German consumers saw their bills for electricity increase by an average of 12% at the beginning of 2013.  The comments following the article are at least as revealing as its content.  The environmental hubris of the population shows distinct signs of fading when tranlated into terms of cold, hard cash.  Examples:

What a laugh!  The consumers pay 17 billion Euros, and the producers receive 2.9 billion Euros.  Conclusion:  End the subsidies for solar facilities immediately!!  It’s too bad that the pain of consumers – if the Green Party joins the government after the Bundestag election – won’t end, but will only get worse.  Other than that, solar facilities belong in countries with significantly more hours of sunlight than Germany.

Those were the days, when (Green politician) Trittin told shameless lies to the public, claiming that the switch to green energy would only cost 1.5 Euros per household.

In ten years we’ll learn what the green energy lies are really going to cost us.

The real costs are even higher.  When there’s no wind, or clouds cut off the sunlight, then the conventional energy sources held in reserve must make up the deficit; the oil, coal and brown coal energy plants.  If production costs are calculated correctly, then their expense should be included in the price of green energy.  All at once there is a jump from 17 billion to 25 billion Euros in the price we have to pay for the “favors” the Green-Red parties have done us.

Specious arguments about the supposedly comparable costs of the nuclear power plants Germany is in the process of shutting down are no longer swallowed with alacrity.  For example, in response to the familiar old chestnut of citing exaggerated costs for decommissioning nuclear plants and storing the waste a commenter replies:

Hmmm, if nuclear energy is so expensive, why are so many countries in central Europe – for example, the Czech Republic – interested in nuclear power?  Certainly not to breed actinides to build nuclear weapons in order to become “nuclear powers.”  The cost of long term waste storage in terms of the energy produced only amounts to about 0.01 Euros per Kw/h.  Even decommissioning expenses don’t add significantly to the overall cost… Let us split atoms, not hairs.

A “green” commenter suggests that the cleanup costs for the Fukushima reactors be automatically added to the cost of all reactors:

According to the latest figures for November 2012 for Fukushima:  100 billion Euros.  Distributing this over the total energy production of 880,000 GWh (according to Wikipedia) that’s 11 cents per kilowatt hour.  That amounts to twice the “prettified” cost of nuclear power (without insurance and without subsidies) of 5 cents per kilowatt hour.  And even then the Japanese were lucky that the wind didn’t shift in the direction of Tokyo.  But the 100 billion won’t be the last word.

Drawing the response from another reader:

Let’s see.  Japanese nuclear power plants produce 7,656,400 GWh of energy.  In comparison to economic costs in the high tens of billions, 100 billion suddenly doesn’t seem so unreasonable.  It only adds 1.3 cent per KWh to the cost of nuclear energy.  Peanuts.  In Germany, renewables are currently costing an average of 18 cents per KWh.  That translates to 100 billion in under four years.  In other words, thanks to renewables, we have a Fukushima in Germany every four years.

In response to a remark about all the wonderful green jobs created, another commenter responds,

Jobs created?  Every job is subsidized to the tune of 40,000 Euros; how, exactly, is that supposed to result in a net gain for the economy overall??  According to your logic, all we have to do to eliminate any level of unemployment is just subsidize it away.  That’s Green politics for you.

Another unhappy power customer has noticed that, in addition to the hefty subsidy he’s paying for his own power, he has to finance his well-healed “green” neighbors rooftop solar array as well:

Whoever is surprised about the increases in the cost of electricity hasn’t been paying attention.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  At the moment the consumer is paying for the solar cells on his neighbor’s roof right along with his own electricity bill.  Surprising?  Who’s surprised?

It’s amazing how effective a substantial and increasing yearly hit to income can be in focusing the mind when it comes to assessing the real cost of green energy.

Of Cold Fusion and the Timidity of ARPA-E

ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, is supposed to be DOE’s version of DARPA.  According to its website, its mission,

…is to fund projects that will develop transformational technologies that reduce America’s dependence on foreign energy imports; reduce U.S. energy related emissions (including greenhouse gasses); improve energy efficiency across all sectors of the U.S. economy and ensure that the U.S. maintains its leadership in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies.

So far, it has not come up with anything quite as “transformational” as the Internet or stealth technology.  There is good reason for this.  Its source selection people are decidedly weak in the knees.  Consider the sort of stuff it’s funded in the latest round of contract awards.  The people at DARPA would probably call it “workman like.”  H. L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, would more likely have called it “pure fla fla.”  For example, there are “transformational” systems to twiddle with natural gas storage that the industry, not exactly short of cash at the moment, would have been better left to develop on its own, such as,

Liquid-Piston Isothermal Home Natural Gas Compressor

Chilled Natural Gas At-Home Refueling

and,

Superplastic-Formed Gas Storage Tanks

There is the “transformational” university research that is eye-glazingly mundane, and best reserved as filler for the pages of obscure academic journals, such as,

Cell-level Power Management of Large Battery Packs

Health Management System for Reconfigurable Battery Packs

and,

Optimal Operation and Management of Batteries Based on  Real Time Predictive Modeling and Adaptive Battery  Management Techniques.

There is some “groundbreaking” stuff under the rubric of “build a better magnet, and the world will beat a pathway to your door.”

Manganese-Based Permanent Magnet with 40 MGOe at 200°C

Rare‐Earth‐Free Permanent Magnets for Electrical Vehicle Motors and Wind Turbine Generators: Hexagonal Symmetry Based Materials Systems Mn‐Bi and M‐type Hexaferrite

and,

Discovery and Design of Novel Permanent Magnets using Non-strategic Elements having Secure Supply Chains

…and so on. Far be it for me to claim that any of this research is useless.  It is, however, also what the people at DARPA would call “incremental,” rather than transformational.  Of course, truly transformational ideas don’t grow on trees, and DARPA also funds its share of “workmanlike” projects, but at least the source selection people there occasionally go out on a limb. In the work funded by ARPA-E, on the other hand, I can find nothing that might induce the bureaucrats on Secretary Chu’s staff to swallow their gum.

If the agency is really serious about fulfilling its mission, it might consider some of the innovative ideas out there for harnessing fusion energy.  All of them can be described as “high risk, high payoff,” but isn’t that the kind of work ARPA-E is supposed to be funding?  According to a recent article on the Science Magazine website, the White House has proposed cutting domestic fusion research by 16%to help pay for the U.S. contribution to the international fusion experiment, ITER, under construction in Cadarache, France.  As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, ITER is second only to the International Space Station as the greatest white elephant of all time, and is similarly vacuuming up funds that might otherwise have supported worthwhile research in several other countries.  All the more reason to give a leg up to fusion, a technology that has bedeviled scientists for decades, but that could potentially supply mankind’s energy needs for millennia to come.  Ideas being floated at the moment include advanced fusor concepts such as the Bussard polywell, magneto-inertial fusion, focus fusion, etc.  None of them look particularly promising to me, but if any of them pan out, the potential payoff is huge.  I’ve always been of the opinion that, if we ever do harness fusion energy, it will be by way of some such clever idea rather than by building anything like the current “conventional” inertial or magnetic fusion reactor designs.

When it comes to conventional nuclear energy, we are currently in the process of being left in the dust by countries like India and China.  Don’t expect any help from industry here.  They are in the business to make a profit.  There’s certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but at the moment, profits are best maximized by building light water reactors that consume the world’s limited supply of fissile uranium 235 without breeding more fuel to replace it, and spawn long-lived and highly radioactive transuranic actinides in the process that it will be necessary to find a way to safely store for thousands of years into the future.  This may be good for profits, but it’s definitely bad for future generations.  Alternative designs exist that would breed as much new fuel as they consume, be intrinsically safe against meltdown, would destroy the actinides along with some of the worst radioactive fission products, and would leave waste that could be potentially less radioactive than the original ore in a matter of a few hundred years.  DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy already funds some research in these areas.  Unfortunately, in keeping with the time-honored traditions of government research funding, they like to play it safe, funneling awards to “noted experts” who tend to keep plodding down well-established paths even when they are clearly leading to dead ends.  ITER and the International Space Station are costly examples of where that kind of thinking leads.  If it were really doing its job, an agency like ARPA-E might really help to shake things up a little.

Finally, we come to that scariest of boogeymen of “noted experts” the world over; cold fusion, or, as some of its advocates more reticently call it, Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR).  Following the initial spate of excitement on the heels of the announcement by Pons and Fleischmann of excess heat in their experiments with palladium cells, the scientific establishment agreed that such ideas were to be denounced as heretical.  Anathemas and interdicts rained down on their remaining proponents.  Now, I must admit that I don’t have much faith in LENR myself.  I happened to attend the Cold Fusion Workshop in Sante Fe, NM which was held in 1989, not long after the Pons/Fleischmann bombshell, and saw and heard some memorably whacky posters and talks.  I’ve talked to several cold fusion advocates since then, and some appeared perfectly sober, but an unsettlingly large proportion of others seemed to be treading close to the lunatic fringe.  Just as fusion energy is always “30 years in the future,” cold fusion proponents have been claiming that their opponents will be “eating crow in six months” ever since 1989.  Some very interesting results have been reported.  Unfortunately, they haven’t been reproducible.

For all that, LENR keeps hanging around.  It continues to find advocates among those who, for one reason or another, aren’t worried about their careers, or lack respect for authority, or are just downright contrarians.  The Science of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions by Edmund Storms is a useful source for the history of and evidence for LENR.  Websites run by the cold fusion faithful may be found here and here.  Recently, stories have begun cropping up again in “respectable” mags, such as Forbes and Wired.  Limited government funding has been forthcoming from NASA Langley and, at least until recently, from the Navy at its Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR).  Predictably, such funding is routinely attacked as support for scientific quackery.  The proper response to that from the source selection folks at ARPA-E should be, “So what?”  After all,

ARPA-E was created to be a catalyst for innovation. ARPA-E’s objective is to tap into the risk-taking American ethos and to identify and support the pioneers of the future. With the best research and development infrastructure in the world, a thriving innovation ecosystem in business and entrepreneurship, and a generation of youth that is willing to engage with fearless intensity, the U.S. has all the ingredients necessary for future success. The goal of ARPA-E is to harness these ingredients and make a full-court press to address the U.S.’s technological gaps and leapfrog over current energy approaches.

The best way to “harness these ingredients and make a full-court press” is not by funding of the next round of incremental improvements in rare earth magnets.  Throwing a few dollars to the LENR people, on the other hand, will certainly be “high risk,” but it just might pan out.  I hope the people at ARPA-E can work up the minimal level of courage it takes to do so.  If the Paris fashions can face down ridicule, so can they.  If they lack the nerve, then DOE would probably do better to terminate its bad imitation of DARPA and feed the money back to its existing offices.  They can continue funding mediocrity just as well as ARPA-E.

Pons & Fleischmann

The NIF Misses its Ignition Milestone

We have passed the end of the fiscal year, and the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) failed to achieve its goal of ignition (more fusion energy out than laser energy in). As I noted in earlier post about the NIF more than three years ago, this doesn’t surprise me. Ignition using the current indirect drive approach (most of the jargon and buzzwords are explained in the Wiki article on the NIF) requires conversion of the laser energy into an almost perfectly symmetric bath of x-rays. These must implode the target, preserving its spherical shape in the process in spite of a very high convergence ratio (initial radius divided by final radius), and launching a train of four shocks in the process, which must all converge in a tiny volume at the center of the target, heating it to fusion conditions. That will release energetic alpha particles (helium nuclei) which must then dump their energy in the surrounding, cold fuel material, causing a “burn wave” to propagate out from the center, consuming the remaining fuel. It would have been a spectacular achievement if LLNL had pulled it off. Unfortunately, they didn’t, for reasons that are explained in an excellent article that recently appeared in the journal Science. (Unfortunately, it’s behind a subscriber wall, and I haven’t found anything as good on the web at the moment. You can get the gist from this article at Huffpo.)  The potential political implications of the failure were addressed in a recent article in the New York Times.

All of which begs the question, “What now?” My opinion, in short, is that the facility should remain operational, at full capacity (not on half shifts, which, for various reasons, would reduce the experimental value of the facility by significantly more than half).

I certainly don’t base that opinion on the potential of inertial confinement fusion (ICF), the technology implemented on the NIF, for supplying our future energy needs.  While many scientists would disagree with me, I feel it has virtually none.  Although they may well be scientifically feasible, ICF reactors would be engineering nightmares, and far too expensive to compete with alternative energy sources.  It would be necessary to fabricate many thousands of delicate, precisely built targets every day and fill them with highly radioactive tritium.  Tritium is not a naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen, and its half-life (the time it takes for half of a given quantity to undergo radioactive decay) is just over 12 years, so it can’t be stored indefinitely.  It would be necessary to breed and extract the stuff from the reactor on the fly without releasing any into the environment (hydrogen is notoriously slippery stuff, that can easily leak right through several types of metal barriers), load it into the targets, and then cool them to cryogenic temperatures.  There is not a reactor design study out there that doesn’t claim that this can be done cheaply enough to make ICF fusion energy cost-competitive.  They are all poppycock.  The usual procedure in such studies is to pick the cost number you need, and then apply “science” to make it seem plausible.

However, despite all the LLNL hype, the NIF was never funded as an energy project, but as an experimental tool to help maintain the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile in the absence of nuclear testing.  The idea that it will be useless for that purpose, whether it achieves ignition or not, is nonsense.  The facility has met and in some cases exceeded its design goals in terms of energy and precision.  Few if any other facilities in the world, whether existing or planned, will be able to rival its ability to explore equations of state, opacities, and other weapons-relevant physics information about materials at conditions approaching those that exist in nuclear detonations.  As long as the ban on nuclear testing remains in effect, the NIF will give us a significant advantage over other nuclear states.  It seems to me that maintaining the ban is a good thing.

It also seems to me that it would behoove us to maintain a robust nuclear stockpile.  Nuclear disarmament sounds nice on paper.  In reality it would invite nuclear attack.  The fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 is a tremendous stroke of luck.  However, it has also seduced us into assuming they will never be used again.  They will.  The question is not if, but when.  We could continue to be very lucky.  We could also suffer a nuclear attack tomorrow, whether by miscalculation, or the actions of terrorists or rogue states.  If we continue to have a stockpile, it must be maintained.  Highly trained scientists must be available to maintain it.  Unfortunately, babysitting a pile of nuclear bombs while they gather dust is not an attractive career path.  Access to facilities like the NIF is a powerful incentive to those who would not otherwise consider such a career.

One of the reasons this is true is the “dual use” capability of the NIF.  It can be used to study many aspects of high energy density physics that may not be relevant to nuclear weapons, but are of great interest to scientists in academia and elsewhere who are interested in fusion energy, the basic science of matter at extreme conditions, astrophysics, etc.  Some of the available time on the facility will be reserved for these outside users.

As for the elusive goal of ignition itself, we know that it is scientifically feasible, just as we know that its magnetic fusion equivalent is scientifically feasible.  The only question remaining is how big the lasers have to be to reach it.  It may eventually turn out that the ones available on the NIF are not big enough.  However, the idea that because we didn’t get ignition in the first attempts somehow proves that ignition is impossible and out of the question is ridiculous.  It has not even been “proven” that the current indirect drive approach won’t work.  If it doesn’t, there are several alternatives.  The NIF is capable of being reconfigured for direct drive, in which the lasers are aimed directly at the fusion target.  For various reasons, the beams are currently being frequency-tripled from the original “red” light of the glass lasers to “blue.”  Much more energy, up to around four megajoules instead of the current 1.8, would be available if the beams were only frequency-doubled to “green”.  It may be that the advantage of the extra energy will outweigh the physics-related disadvantages of green light.  An interesting dark horse candidate is the “fast ignitor” scenario, in which the target would be imploded as before, but a separate beam or beams would then be used to heat a small spot on the outer surface to ignition conditions.  An alpha particle “burn wave” would then propagate out, igniting the rest of the fuel, just as originally envisioned for the central hot spot approach.

Some of the comments following the Internet posts about NIF’s failure to reach ignition are amusing.  For example, following an article on the Physics Today website we learn to our dismay:

With all due respect to the NIF and its team of well-meaning and enthusiastic researchers here, I am sorry to state hereby that sustainable nuclear fusion is predestined to fail, whether it be in the NIC, the Tokamak or anywhere else in solar space, for fundamentally two simple reasons paramount for fusion: ((1) vibrational synchronism (high-amplitude resonance) of reacting particles; and (2) the overall isotropy of their ambient field.

Obviously the commenter hadn’t heard that the scientific feasibility of both inertial and magnetic fusion has already been established.  He reminds me of a learned doctor who predicted that Zadig, the hero of Voltaire’s novel of that name, must inevitably die of an injury.  When Zadig promptly recovered, he wrote a thick tome insisting that Zadig must inevitably have died.  Voltaire informs us that Zadig did not read the book.  In an article on the IEEE Spectrum website, suggestively entitled National Ignition Facility:  Mother of All Boondoggles?, another commenter chimes in:

How about we spend the billions on real research that actually has a chance of producing something useful? There are a gazillion ideas out there for research that has a much higher probability of producing useful results. Must be nice to work for LLNL where your ideas don’t need vetting.

In fact, the NIF was “vetted” by a full scale Federal Advisory Committee.  Known as the Inertial Confinement Fusion Advisory Committee, or ICFAC, its members included Conrad Longmire, Marshall Rosenbluth, and several other experts in plasma physics and technology of world renown who had nothing whatsoever to gain by serving as shills for LLNL.  It heard extensive testimony on plans to build the NIF, both pro and con, in the mid-90’s.  Prominent among those who opposed the project was Steve Bodner, head of the ICF Program at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) at the time.  Steve cited a number of excellent reasons for delaying major new starts like the NIF until some of the outstanding physics issues could be better understood.  The Committee certainly didn’t ignore what he and other critics had to say.  However, only one of the 15 or so members dissented from the final decision to recommend proceeding with the NIF.  I suspect that LLNL’s possession of the biggest, baddest ICF computer code at the time had something to do with it.  No one is better at bamboozling himself and others than a computational physicist with a big code.  The one dissenter, BTW, was Tim Coffey, Director of NRL at the time, who was convinced that Bodner was right.

There are, of course, the predictable comments by those in the habit of imagining themselves geniuses after the fact, such as,

I am convinced. Garbage research.

and,

Don’t these people feel ashamed telling so many lies?

after the IEEE Spectrum article, and,

It’s amazing to think that you can spout lies to the government to receive $6 billion for a machine that doesn’t come close to performing to spec and there are no consequences for your actions.

Following a post on the NIF at the LLNL – The True Story blog.  Fortunately, most of the comments I’ve seen recently have been at a rather more thoughtful level.  In any event, I hope Congress doesn’t decide to cut and run on the NIF.  Pulling the plug at this point would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

One of the two NIF laser bays

Interstellar Travel Here and Now

The words “interstellar travel” seem to have generated some interesting data relevant to human behavior. Specifically, they generate a “good” moral intuition in some, and a “bad” moral intuition in others. There does not appear to be a linear relationship between the nature of the response, and the space occupied by the responder along the left/right political spectrum, or at least not yet. For example, Bill Clinton, who is identified, by conservatives, at least, as a “liberal,” recently gave a boost to DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Program. The similarly liberal editors of the New York Times, on the other hand, have just published a piece in their Op-ed section by astronomer Adam Frank heaping scorn on the very idea of travel to the stars. Perhaps the ideological divide will eventually become more focused, as the reasons given on the “bad” side tend to gravitate to the left. They include for example, the conclusion that only rich people will have the means to leave our home planet, leaving the poor, exploited masses behind on a planet they have polluted and despoiled, the belief that the result of interstellar distractions will be insufficient levels of alarm about problems such as global warming and overpopulation, diminished hopes of a peaceful world if there is some means of escaping the aftermath of the next world war, etc. The “good” reasons for interstellar travel tend to focus on existential threats, such as the possibility of a massive asteroid striking the earth, drastic swings in climate, whether natural or anthropogenic, and depletion of the earth’s resources. It has even been proposed that destructive humans be transplanted to other, less sensitive planets, leaving the earth as a “nature park” in space, presumably to be visited by interstellar tourists from time to time.

My own moral intuitions tend to favor survival as a prime virtue, so I support continued research towards enabling interstellar travel. After all, if we choose not to leave our home planet, our genetic descendants, whether in the long or the short run, are doomed to extinction. That said, I do not underestimate the difficulty of reaching the stars. Human interstellar travel will require massive amounts of energy stored in a much more concentrated form than chemical rocket fuels. The smaller the mass, the easier it is to accelerate to extreme velocities, so it may be that we will need to rely on seed ships to escape our home world. These would carry only eggs and sperm, or genetic material in a similarly compact form. Human beings would be born in artificial wombs, and raised by intelligent robots in prefabricated bases, perhaps constructed by self-replicating nano-robots at the destination planet.

All this, of course, assumes massive technological advances in many areas, and it is impossible to predict when and even if they will occur. In the meantime, I suggest we make a start with the technologies available now. We cannot leave the planet and expect to survive the trip across the vast interstellar voids at the moment, but other life forms, with all of which we share a direct, if distant ancestor, can. The 32,000 year old seed of a complex, flowering plant recovered from the ice was recently germinated by a team of scientists in Siberia. Ancient bacteria, as much as 250 million years old have been recovered from sea salt in New Mexico, and also brought back to life. Tiny animals known as tardigrades have survived when exposed to the harsh environment of outer space. We might choose the species from among such candidates most likely to survive the 50,000 to 100,000 years required to journey to nearby stars with conventional rocket propulsion, and most likely to evolve into complex, land-dwelling life forms in the shortest time, and send them now, instead of waiting 100’s or 1000’s of years for the emergence of the advanced technologies necessary to send humans. Slowing down at the destination star would not pose nearly the problem that it does for objects traveling at significant fractions of the speed of light. The necessary maneuvers to enter orbit around and seed promising planets could be performed by on-board computers with plenty of time to spare. Oceans might be seeded with algae in advance of the arrival of organisms that feed on it.

The travel time could be reduced significantly by using nuclear rockets similar to those which have already been built and tested decades ago. The nuclear reactors would be shut down during most of the journey. They would be activated again as the destination star was approached for deceleration and the necessary final maneuvers. During the journey, the small amounts of energy needed to power timing devices for signaling the nuclear reactors to resume operation when necessary, maintain minimal environmental life support conditions, etc., could be supplied using the same power source used by the Curiosity Rover. However, for such long voyages, plutonium 239 could be used instead of the plutonium 238 used on the rover. With a half life of over 25,000 years, it could supply a small but sufficient amount of energy during the long voyage and, perhaps, contribute power to the propulsion reactors at journey’s end.

Missions using such advanced nuclear technology could probably only be carried out by technologically advanced states. However, seeding of the planets around nearby stars with very simple life forms such as bacteria could be undertaken by private companies such as those now engaged in building rockets for missions such as resupplying the space station. The main problem they would need to solve would be how to bring the seed craft out of hibernation at the end of the voyage without access to a suitable radioactive material. Perhaps they could purchase enough americium 243 or some other radionuclide with a sufficient half-life to do the job. Solar panels would begin to generate electricity as the craft approached the target star, but none currently available are capable of surviving such a long voyage. Still, the amount of energy necessary to signal the propulsion and other systems to resume operation would be tiny, and this does not seem to be an insurmountable problem.

Why would this be “ethical”? Because it would enable the survival of the DNA-based life that has evolved on earth, to all forms of which we humans are related. There cannot be anything more immoral than failure to survive. Anyone who thinks otherwise lacks awareness of why morality exists to begin with.