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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

NUCLEAR POWER ON EARTH AND IN SPACE

Well, reports on the latest Fukushima (above) disaster show costs up to a quarter trillion dollars.  While this number is at the high end of prognoses, I would not be surprised if Japan will ultimately face a trillion dollar bill for that Great Tohoku Catatastrophe when everything impacted is added up.  On this basis, I fear the worst for the future of the country.

But how do you value the fact that a thousand square miles and more might remain inhabitable for centuries (the radioactive pollution is similar to Chernobyl (above), where it is expected that the land there might become safe in 300 years).  There is a world of difference, as it turns out, between a nuclear bomb and a nuclear powerplant.  In any case, there is no future for nuclear fission power on Earth.

In space, nuclear power works.  The Sun, for example, creates heat from nuclear fusion, combining hydrogen to form helium and energy.  But that is fusion, and I remain confident about these terrestrial applications someday.  However, when I worked on inertial confinement fusion at the Lawrence Livermore  National Laboratory a third of a century ago, I did not think that the operative laser was going to be invented for half a century.  Likewise, ITER in France, using magnetic confinement (that donut), is so far away from commercialization that we cannot today consider fusion as a solution to Peak Oil and Global Warming.  There is Chuck Helsley's (and Bob Burke's) heavy ion fusion scheme, but I haven't heard much about their advancements recently.  Maybe this will inspire them to send me an update which I can post in this blog.

A colleague, Tom Burnett, sent me an analysis of nuclear power in space.  For now, no one is considering shooting off 1000 MW nuclear powerplants into space.  Yes, there was a serious discussion to send nuclear wastes into space until someone asked what happened if the rocket crashed on land?

The problem with solar PV is that far away from the Sun it becomes useless.  So small nuclear devices have been used for certain space projects.  However, there have been some problems just getting them up into space.  In 1964 a launch involving a plutonium 238 powerplant suffered an accident, and the global isotopic nuclear burden (which largely came from nuclear bomb tests) went up by 4%.  There were others.  So NASA has given up on nukes in space?  Nope.  The rover "Curiosity" (right)  of the Mars Science Laboratory scheduled to be launched later this year  will be powered by, get this, radioisotope thermoelectric generators, fueled with 10.6 pounds plutonium 238 as plutonium dioxide.  Notice how the publicized drawing says nothing about this:

I wonder how many people know this?  Curiosity will test for microbial life on Mars.  Haven't we done this already?  Oh, by the way, this project will cost $2.3 billion of your tax dollars.

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What is happening to our stock market, as the Dow Jones Industrials again jumped up, today +145 to 12,189, with much of the whole world going up by more than 1%?  Gold increased a buck to $1502/toz and oil rose, the NYMEX at $93/barrel and Brent Spot at $109/barrel.  I would guess that those semi-feeble protests in Greece are just visible signs that their legislators will tomorrow vote for further cuts, thus avoiding what loomed as that hypothetical straw to break the back of Europe, catalyzing yet another crisis for the world economy.

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