Tuesday, August 14, 2012

misuse of nuclear: still #1 threat of human extinction

At the Lifeboat Foundation, there has been a discussion of the questions: "What is the probability that humans will continue to exist at all for now? What are the biggest threats of human extinction?" I said that misuse of nuclear technology is number one on my list.... and explained a bit more this morning.


The metaphor of "deadwood and spark" can be helpful for folks who are
really trying to understand this kind of complex system,
and not just looking for a convenient hole to bury their head in.

As I mentioned, I recall a major electric power blackout (hitting the
whole Northeast) where top engineers discussed at length
what "the cause" was. It was a very simple blackout, but even the
simplest realistic explanation involved two "causes" --
the "deadwood" of a vulnerable grid, and a "spark" which was basically
just a tree falling on a power line. (Even the spark was not entirely
There were questions about what the rules are for pruning trees near
power lines.)

Likewise, with forest fires, the accumulation of dry deadwood is a
crucial cause. Some forest managers say
we shouldn't just put campers in jail for providing the initial spark,
since even lightning will cause a fire when the deadwood accumulates
But I personally would prefer that we mandate cars flexible enough
to use the kind of fuel which is easily made by
converting that dry scrub wood into biofuel a bit like wood alcohol;
it's a case where opening up a market could solve the problem
rather nicely.


The future explosive growth of bomb-grade materials and technology and
people willing and able to use them, all over the world...
that growth has begun, but has not YET become a kind of tidal wave,
and there is hope that we could prevent it (e.g. by
doing better to improve and accelerate renewable electricity)...

But no, having tons and tons of deadwood all over the world is not the
same as having a forest fire. For that you also need one more
ingredient -- a spark. And some folks would ask: "where is the precise
location of that spark going to come from?"

I can imagine someone asking that question, standing in an open meadow
pointing towards a huge forest clogged with
dry scrubwood.. and also pointing inadvertently towards a sky just
full of giant thunderclouds about to emit lightning.
Where will a spark come from, with all those clouds and all that
lightning? I cannot say precisely where,
but I can say that there will be more than one spark out there, at the
rate things are moving. And I really wish we could hurry a bit
in clearing out that deadwood... or at least, reducing its speed of

Where is the first spark going to come? North Korea? Iran and Israel?
Kashmir? DC? New York? Beijing? Moscow?
All of the above? We don't need precision to know we will be a lot
safer if we can reduce the threat....


With regards to DC and New York...

All of us on this list know that even ... would not REALLY
just send a thank you message and a
box of champagne and cigars to Al Qaida if nuclear weapons of any kind
went off in those cities.
Indeed, the Fox news types would be the first to demand instant
retaliation against any possible plausible guilty party
(except of course the owners in Saudi Arabia, aka "our job creators")
with or without clear evidence.

We all know that -- yet, as ... has pointed out, it doesn't help
if right wing rhetoric announces to the whole world that
they would actually be happy in such an event.... It reminds me of
what Saddam Hussein once said, that he actually thought that US
diplomatic signals were saying he should feel free to take over Kuwait.

Best of luck. We really do need it.

P.S. And yes, we do of course also need to pay attention to sparks and such.

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