Thursday, April 22, 2010

survival and nuclear issues -- where is a way out?

So much has been happening lately that it reminds me a bit of the folks who theorize
about "the singularity." (Odd footnote: I received an email a week ago saying that it was John Von Neumann,
and not the transhumanist crew or the mystics, who coined the notion of .. global singularity...)

And not all is good.

Nuclear things are just as important a part of energy as oil, so I think it fits the list, even though it connects
with a lot of nonenergy issues. This is a survival issue. The level of interconnection between different levels
of the system is really incredible; I apologize that it's hard to make a linear story of the tangle.

For simplicity -- let me begin with a twelve year old's version. The school complains: "We think there is a problem. He seems to be depressed.
He's talking about everybody dying." I ask him: "What's the problem?" He says: "Dad, you know I watch
the news, not cartoons or stuff like that. Don't try to kid me. You know that Iran is going to have the bomb pretty soon --
maybe really soon, maybe 3-5 years, but soon enough. When they do, you know they are going to give it to Hammas,
which will immediately vaporize about half of Israel, and pretty much flatten the rest. The US won't take this lying down, but
there will be long-range missiles on all sides, and we will have World War III. You know where that goes."

Three obvious questions -- Would Iran really give it to Hammas and Hezbollah?
Would the US really retaliate if there is mutual assured destruction?
Would Iran also give the bomb to Chechens and folks in Venezuela and Afghanistan working with drug lords?

All of this is near term, and worrisome enough. But the need for sustainable electricity, at prices lower than the
high price of wind and solar today, worldwide, in the face of limitations of the simple "one cycle" nuclear fission we use in the US...
is a critical backdrop to this. What if we end up seeing not one but a hundred Irans in a couple of decades,
new nuclear states which may not even start out wanting bombs but which can't help having high-grade nuclear materials floating around.
The President's recent conference is a very important positive step, but no matter how strong the safeguard system...
it's a matter of life or death that we not OVERLOAD that safeguard system. Right now, the world is on course to doing precisely that,
moving us into problems much worse than the near-term Iran tangle I just mentioned.

Getting solar to 6 cents per kwh or less, and making it fully available to the entire world, is one part of a rational strategic response to this.
US renewable energy standards, focusing on sustainable nonfission sources, is another part, because of what it helps
all of humanity do with wind and solar. A fourth generation intelligent grid could help, if it lowers the effective price of wind.
But given the risks and costs of those two important efforts -- we really ought to be adding energy from space as a major,
large "third leg" of the core push on renewable electricity. Like the others, it is not economically ready yet to compete
in the baseload electricity market, but it really does have the potential, if we did what we need to do. What's more -- it
has far more support than American political people would think in the developing and multipolar world.

But "for want of a nail the war was lost."

In order to break the rather negative logic with Iran and Hammas -- to make it clear that the US **COULD** retaliate
if Iran's clients vaporized half of Israel -- the US **COULD** realistically develop and deploy affordable space-based missile
defense, if a few affordable things were done, most critical being the development of something like $200
per pound-in-low-earth-orbit (pound-LEO) access to space within something like 5 years. Turns out -- this IS doable.
Technologically, it is doable. Politically -- well, there are all those politically savvy cynical people who don't really care whether they and their families
may get physically dead. (This is an important study in psychology in itself, but maybe we should hold those details for later.
Some of us would like to proceed from the simple assumption that we would prefer our people to survive, and would like to
ask what it takes.) $200/pound LEO **IS** doable, but only if you know how....

It turns out that $200/pound-LEO is also crucial for making energy from space economically plausible.
Because the idea of energy from space arouses strong human emotions (which are already blinded by partisan emotions already
in Washington!), it is hard to get a straight objective story on this... but NSF ran a joint effort with NASA on this in 2002 which did
get the basic facts to me. At $200/pound, the best life-cycle cost estimate for space solar power (SSP) designs which were fully vetted
was 17 cents per kwh (from SAIC). In the neighborhood, but not good enough. IN ADDITION to access to space, SSP would require
an efficient (maximum information, minimum cost) research program to try to develop technologies beyond that vetted option, to reduce cost. (Not so different from earth solar that way!) John Mankins, who was my NASA partner in running the NSF-NASA effort in 2002 (but later purged by
the Ares people), has stated that he has improvements in hand to the vetted designs, which he expects would get to 10 cents per kwh
for baseload power. But with no money at all for this kind of thing, there are no SAIC numbers for that improvement. 10 cents per kwh
is not so far from the fully loaded cost of safe nuclear fission (especially if national security externalities are considered,
and we think global).

What's more... I see an unproven (risky as in 50-50 probability) way to get it down to 5 cents per kwh with room for less, low
enough to really eliminate the economic pressures for a nuclearized planet. Have published this in a few obscure places,
and talked about it in somewhat less obscure places. IT IS A FORM OF NUCLEAR POWER -- but NOT ALL NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGIES
ARE THE SAME. The breeder reactors that the earth is now on a path to disseminate worldwide are far more
hazardous than the various forms of US-style regulated fission. The alternative nuclear power I will discuss is far LESS hazardous.

Working in energy, you have probably heard the old saying "fusion is the energy source of the future and will always be so."
Back in the 1970's, I visited some of the top fusion folks at MIT, and was depressed by what they told me in all candor.
"Most of the high (6 cents?) cost of existing fission reactors is the cost of the high cost heat-to-electricity systems required
to handle radioactive materials. In 50 years, if we do perfect big magnetic bottles to do fusion, they will be very expensive,
and we will have to ADD their cost to the basic 6 cents for the heat exchange and radiation." In short, Mankins' 10
cent solution is probably at least as good or better, and more likely to be available sooner.

But that's magnetic bottles. There is another mainstream, credible approach to nuclear fusion -- laser or inertial fusion, where large lasers are used to ignite fusion in small fuel pellets. The US has been wise and unique in putting more energy into THAT approach, and becoming the world's leader in it,
rather than throwing too many billions into buying a ticket to watch what Japan and Europe do with magnetic bottles ("ITER").

Of course, paying for big lasers is now as hard as paying for big magnetic bottles. BUT -- laser technology is part of the world of Moore's Law
(my part of NSF!), where radical changes are happening, and even more radical opportunities are appearing on the near-term horizon.
GIven proper funding and encouragement and focus, our community probably could make it possible and affordable to build
lasers which can fuse deuterium-deuterium pellets (which dramatically reduce the problematic neutron production). If I were running
such a research program today, in today's climate, I'd put about half the effort into the kind of lasers Lawrence Livermore has been thinking about
(earth-based lasers powered by a surge in the electric power grid), and half into lightweight lasers to be deployed in space using mirrors
and solar light to power them. Using the second type of laser IN SPACE, IN VACUUM, there is no need for that six cents heat exchange system;
the energy comes out DIRECTLY as electrical currents! It all computes ...

but only if we have access to space.

Some people believe in the ultimate possibility of a third generation of nuclear energy, beyond both fission (first generation) and fusion (second generation).
I tend to believe that the probability of that is over 70%. But we will never get it if all we do is erect monasteries to worship superstrings
or the theories of the past. We will never get to it if all of our experiments go one proton at a time, at great expense. We would have to do
experiments which really probe the unknown, whose outcome we cannot predict, which evoke much higher energy levels than we have ever deployed
before in our history. To do this, at minimum risk to our survival and under maximally controlled large-scale conditions... I wouldn't
want to start the relevant experiments until we have the ability to do them in space. That too requires $200/pound, if we remember that
even physics has to live within budget constraints.


So will we get to $200/pound-LEO?

At, I have posted a couple of simplified basic explanations of what the problems are.

The President
has actually announced a new direction for NASA which could theoretically get us there, in time. That's incredibly encouraging...
BUT it will be no small matter to arrange it such that we really get the relevant technology.

For the Iran aspect... it would be better just to go ahead and develop the RLV which Chase has proposed ASAP (for which I have many more details
in various places, and he has many times more). And at the same time, to make arrangements with China and others
to get the full civilian electricity benefits from energy from space which access to such an RLV ("launch services") would allow.

Not easy, but there is hope.

Even if the probability should be more than 90% that we will all fail at this, and all die in the end, a rational
person does not just give up on a 10% chance of survival. Nor does he/she just ignore what's
coming. The rational response is to focus very, very intensely on maximizing what hope we have.


Nuclear things and oil are STILL not the whole game in the Middle East, not even remotely so.
There are also deep cultural aspects in play, but they do stretch the scope of this list and the length of this email.

Best of luck to us all,


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