The Great Pause Week 89: Martians in Wyoming
Imagination is not messy. Reality is.
One of the more humorous aspects of Clubhouse, the social audio platform, is that it was heavily seeded at the start with Silicon Valley insiders, and although it has since gone far broader in its audience reach, it can still have that hermetic feel of a Valley Be-in. Perhaps I should say a hermeneutic feel, because it is built upon shared semiotics, presuppositions, and pre-understandings, tracing a line through Snow Crash, Neuromancer, Ayn Rand, Black Boxes, and the metaverse: libertarian capitalism über alles. Clubhouse parodies the HBO parody, Silicon Valley.
As Karl Marx put it in Das Kapital, “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this: that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” Reality is messy, imagination is not. Where it gets dangerous is when money has gotten so funny that even the wildest follies can be brought into reality without the usual laws of physics or social consent having to apply.
Valley thinkers have a liturgical devotion, if not to Elon Musk the person, then to the Blue Origin/Space-X/Virgin Galactic ecosystem that considers colonization of other planets a manifest destiny. If not Musk, then Bezos, Branson, Gates, or Buffet. Films like The Martian are seen less as fantasy than as future.
History is replete with examples of civilizations that placed their equivalents of deca-billionaires or centa-billionaires at the top of the decision-making pyramid. That did not end well.
Who could have imagined anyone would dredge up the old 1950s canard of “safe, clean, too cheap to meter” that floated the nuclear boat on its lake of lava before the ring of fire blew up Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima? “Poorly designed” seems to be the excuse de jour for those minor mishaps. Just “fail forward!”
Valley thinkers envision a new generation of modular thorium salt reactors. Bill Gates recently bought Kemmerer, Wyoming, a frontier-era coal town, for a prototype. Berkshire Hathaway Energy — Warren Buffet’s latest venture — will operate the plant with Rocky Mountain Power. The reactor will cost $4 billion, a third the cost of a typical nuclear reactor today, and generate 345 megawatts baseload, a third the rated capacity of standard reactors. Half the price will come from the U.S. Department of Energy, a.k.a. you and me. Gates and Buffet plan Kemmerer One to be operational by 2028. Most nuclear projects take decades.
U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the Biden administration sees the project as a starting point for replacing fossil-fuel-generated power in the U.S. in a way that doesn’t leave mining communities in the cold. “As with the president’s proposal, the American Jobs Plan, this administration will see to it that we launched more nuclear energy demonstration projects across the country.”
— Joel Funk, WyoFile, June 2021
Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, the Wyoming, Idaho and Utah business unit of PacifiCorp, said:
We know as a utility in the utility industry, like everyone else does in the utility industry, that you can’t do 100% renewable and battery power and serve 24/7 — not with the current technology that we have,” he said. “That’s what’s so exciting about today, because this technology can allow us to provide carbon-free electricity 24/7, 365. And that is amazing. There’s no other word for it.
Amaze: from the Old English verb amasian; “confuse, perplex, surprise.”
The new design uses liquid sodium as a coolant, which will be stored in a central tank, or heat battery. Molten sodium can absorb more heat than water, hence hold significantly more energy. It reacts explosively with water and even the moisture in air is enough to detonate a catastrophic blast should tanks or piping ever leak, which of course can never happen.
Kemmerer is 180 miles due south from the edge of Yellowstone’s 45-mile wide caldera. Yellowstone averages one earthquake every 5.1 hours. A USGS station near Norris Geyser Basin is now showing signs of uplift — the station has risen by about 1 inch over the past few months. It is as yet unclear if this is a seasonal signal or related to magmatic or hydrothermal processes at depth.
The fuel that K-1 uses is called high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU, which is not yet available for commercial scale. Wyoming thinks it can cash in on a new wave of uranium mining because there is a global uranium shortage that deepens by the year. Russia is melting down old nuclear warheads to fuel its reactors. Valley thinkers believe uranium is inexhaustible because it can always be harvested from seawater. There is an energy equation somewhere in there if you care to build the algorithm. Gates says his reactors would produce two-thirds less waste than conventional water-cooled plants because he assumes the transuranic nuclear waste normally lost to coolant water or evaporated to the atmosphere will be captured and collected in the sodium salt. Maybe that can be reprocessed into fuel some day. Another algorithm needed.
For some reason, and I have my suspicions, there is a modern discussion void surrounding the biological effect of ionizing radiation. The tragedy of Hiroshima survivors, radium dial painters, Navaho uranium miners, Kazahk, Nevadan, Bikini and Palau downwinders, and the detailed epidemiological studies of atomic workers and residents in or near power plants have all vanished down a convenient memory hole.
Manned missions to Mars will be a different story. On the international space station, trips to the Moon and eventually to Mars, astronaut crew members are continuously exposed to highly energetic particles and waves of cosmic rays. Earth’s ionosphere spares our terrestrial lifeforms from these, as do the meters of radiation shielding that allowed life to arise in Earth’s ocean. Cosmic radiation consists of alpha particles, protons, electrons, positrons, and high atomic number ions, stripped of their electrons. Neutrinos and quantum-tunneling electrons may pass straight through the Earth and keep going but ionizing radiation — alpha, beta, gamma and x-rays — is captured by biological tissues, breaking apart DNA helices and leaving long ionization tracks, with strongly clustered damage to information molecules in our brains and to the blockchain coding that is our genetic heritage.
On missions outside of LEO, SPE dose inside a spaceship can be as high as 100 mGy/h, but can reach peaks of 500 mGy/h during extravehicular activity. Due to the high flux and relatively low energy, SPE radiation is absorbed by the most superficial tissues.
GCR nuclei span a wide range of energy and linear energy transfer (LET). The major components consist of hydrogen (87%), and helium (12%) nuclei, with the remaining 1–2% of particles are comprised from Z = 3 (Li) to Z = 28 (Ni). High-Z and energy particles (HZE), such as iron (Z = 26), are particularly challenging, because every particle can cause damage to cellular DNA which is difficult to repair and no reasonable thickness of shielding material can safely stop them. GCR particle energy allows them to penetrate very deeply into biological tissues, as well as other organic and inorganic materials. In particular, HZE nuclei are an outstanding threat to body cells, which may strongly contribute to the cumulative equivalent dose absorbed by astronauts beyond LEO. Shielding is only partially effective to reduce the doses experienced inside a spacecraft, but increasing shields’ thickness leads to the production of high levels of secondary radiation, which can be absorbed even more easily by biological tissues. HZE nuclei may strongly contribute to the carcinogenic risk to which crew members are exposed. Indeed, even at relatively low energy, iron ions are shown to be potent inducers of ovarian tumors formation in rodents. Due to their high penetration power, GCR can efficiently reach CNS cells and pose a major risk to CNS function.*
To translate: “LEO” is low-earth orbit. “SPE” is solar particle events. “GCR” is galactic cosmic radiation. A “mGy” is a milliGray (0.001 Gy), or unit of radiation in dry air equivalent to one mRad. To get the biologically active dose one would need to convert Grays to Sieverts or rem, which factor in tissue absorption and exposure pathway. For people who work with ionizing radiation, the limit is set at 100 mSv (10 rem) for a set of 5 consecutive years, where the maximum for one year must not exceed 50 mSv (5 rem). There is no safe dose; all doses carry risk. There is evidence that lower doses may carry a higher risk of cancer and birth defects because they allow damaged cells to survive and propagate, even to later generations, whereas higher doses simply kill cells and the damage stops there, unless the damage is in a vital organ and the end result, 20 or 30 years later, is death. Based on drosophila experiments by Mueller in the 1930s, genetic damage is known to propagate for a minimum of 70 generations.
Oak Ridge physicist J.W. Gofman, later director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, reported in 1960 that:
The best estimates are that approximately 400 rads of whole-body radiation, if delivered rapidly, are sufficient to cause 50% of the exposed humans to die within a period of days to weeks. This is the so-called acute radiation sickness.
On any space trip beyond low earth orbit, astronauts would likely receive cosmic and solar storm radiation of 100 mGy per hour inside the spacecraft and 500 mGy during extravehicular activity. This converts to 0.1 to 0.5 rads per hour. If a trip to Mars lasts 4382 hours, their dose would be north of 432 rad in each direction. That would be 100% lethal to 100% of astronauts.
To shield from ionizing radiation in a power station or submarine requires several inches of dense metals like lead and steel alloys or meters of water. Journeying space capsules are designed to be made from very light alloys to conserve weight, which is critical on launch. Even if such heavy metals could be ferried to space and assembled in low earth orbit, they would then pose an even greater risk to astronauts because of neutron activation, turning the shielding into radioactive sources within the spacecraft itself. The same would apply to shielded metallic habitats assembled on the Moon or Mars.
The same phenomenon will occur with the buildings Gates and Buffet are erecting in Wyoming.
The observations from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter indicate that a 6-month mission to Mars would induce a radiation dose equal to 60% of the lifetime limit afforded to atomic workers. We know from the experience of atomic workers and x-ray-induced cancer and leukemias that individual sensitivity to radiation is dependent on genetic traits. Women are more sensitive than men, for instance. Teens are more sensitive than adults. Assuming we could improve genetic screening, our knowledge of sensitivity to the cosmic radiation of deep space is still very limited and won’t improve until there have been thousands of long exposures with guinea pigs of one species or another.
Lax in Space
Of the health concerns for astronauts — acute radiation syndrome, carcinogenesis, degenerative tissue alterations, and central nervous system (CNS) loss of performance — the last is of greatest concern to NASA. If a lifetime dose (or life-ending dose) is shrunk down to a 6-month voyage, what guarantee is there that the mission will not degenerate the CNS of crews even before arrival?
I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you. Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it.
— Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey
After arrival, there is no safe haven. Mars does not have an ionosphere or an ocean. Each month spent on the surface would elevate the risk of irreversible cellular damage, especially CNS damage. And then there is the trip home. Even if a Mars veteran successfully returns to Earth, his or her future may be only a short hospital stay followed by quick burial with honors.
This is the future Gates and Buffet, and other nuclear boosters like James Hansen, James Lovelock, Jennifer Granholm and Joe Biden are blindly laying on the 3000 residents of Kemmerer, Wyoming. Blissfully ignorant of the biological effects of ionizing radiation, they would condemn us all to a future where we jump out of the frying pan of climate change into a fire of cancer and brain disease.
Don’t Nuke the Climate
Statement to COP26 signed by 460 Non-Governmental Organizations in attendance:
We are especially worried about the nuclear power industries plans in Africa. Nuclear power is not an alternative anywhere, and especially not in Africa. Nuclear plants are enormously expensive, and the costs are exponentially increasing with the needed new security measures. They are slow, and want to take away funding from renewables. They can cause radioactive catastrophe earlier than the climate catastrophe comes. In African countries, there is also a high risk of accidents and radioactive leakages of waste; caused by failure in building and in maintenance, because of lacking capacity, technical knowledge, and of high corruption. Moreover, they can be targeted by terrorist actions, used by the military. They indebt a country for 30 years, and the costs emerging in case of an accident is enormous and not included in any budget.
We would like UNFCCC to prioritize the presence of the UN agencies of IRENA promoting renewables, rather than IAEA, which is lobbied by countries where the nuclear industry is based, misunderstanding its role and promoting unsafe nuclear technology instead of safeguarding the existing ones. Renewable technologies are flexible as decentralised, available at competitive decreasing prices, much cheaper than nuclear, and the climate funds must be used on the real solutions and not on unsafe, false solutions such as nuclear, geoengineering etc. In Africa, there is also abundant renewable resources and potential for local solutions with mini grids with solar and wind, improved efficient cookstoves using less firewood, household biogas for cooking, solar collectors, dryers, solar cookers etc. In Africa, there is much more sunshine to produce solar power, which might be difficult to imagine in the cloudy Britain in November.
One of the great honors of my life was getting to personally know John W. Gofman, MD, PhD, co-discoverer in 1941 of Uranium-232 and -233, the same isotopes that will power Kemmerer-1. In an interview late in his life, Gofman said:
Many people think nuclear power is so complicated it requires discussion at a high level of technicality. That’s pure nonsense. Because the issue is simple and straightforward. There are only two things about nuclear power that you need to know. One, why do you want nuclear power? So you can boil water. That’s all it does. It boils water. And any way of boiling water will give you steam to turn turbines. That’s the useful part.
The other thing to know is, it creates a mountain of radioactivity, and I mean a mountain: astronomical quantities of strontium-90 and cesium-137 and plutonium — toxic substances that will last — strontium-90 and cesium for 300 to 600 years, plutonium for 250,000 to 500,000 years — and still be deadly toxic. And the whole thing about nuclear power is this simple: can you or can’t you keep it all contained? If you can’t, then you’re creating a human disaster. You not only need to control it from the public, you also need to control it from the workers. Because the dose that federal regulations allow workers to get is sufficient to create a genetic hazard to the whole human species. You see, those workers are allowed to procreate, and if you damage their genes by radiation, and they intermarry with the rest of the population, for genetic purposes it’s just the same as if you irradiate the population directly.
So I find nuclear power this simple: do you believe they’re going to do the miracle of containment that they predict? The answer is they’re not going to accomplish it. It’s outside the realm of human prospects.You don’t need to discuss each valve and each transportation cask and each burial site. The point is, if you lose a little bit of it — a terribly little bit of it — you’re going to contaminate the earth, and people are going to suffer for thousands of generations. You have two choices: either you believe that engineers are going to achieve a perfection that’s never been achieved, and you go ahead; or you believe with common sense that such a containment is never going to be achieved, and you give it up.
If people really understood how simple a problem it is — that they’ve got to accomplish a miracle — no puffs like Three Mile Island — can’t afford those puffs of radioactivity, or the squirts and the spills that they always tell you won’t harm the public — if people understood that, they’d say, “This is ridiculous. You don’t create this astronomical quantity of garbage and pray that somehow a miracle will happen to contain it. You just don’t do such stupid things!”
In Silicon Valley stupid is as stupid does.
Bates, Albert K., The Karma of Kerma: Nuclear Wastes and Natural Rights, Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation, Univ. of Oregon School of Law Vol 9, Page 3; February 1988.
Gofman, J.W., MD, Radiation and Human Health, Sierra Club Books 1981.
Onorato, Giada, Elia Di Schiavi, and Ferdinando Di Cunto. “Understanding the effects of deep space radiation on nervous system: the role of genetically tractable experimental models.” Frontiers in Physics (2020): 362.
Ratcliff, D.T., John W. Goffman, His Life, and research on the health effects of exposure to ionizing radiation, Rat Haus Reality 2015.
During a long career as an environmental litigator I successfully represented victims of nuclear radiation from atmospheric nuclear tests, nuclear plants, uranium mines, and national laboratories. I unsuccessfully sued in 1978 to shut down the entire U.S. nuclear fuel cycle on constitutional grounds, a case that went before 22 federal judges and four times to the United States Supreme Court. I reviewed and consulted on more than 700 medical claims by atomic veterans at the V.A. I assisted in drafting legislation to extend the range of covered diseases. I testified to Congress. I attended meetings of the National Academy of Sciences. I have written a law review article and two books on this subject. I am not neutral on this subject.
The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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