Stagnation is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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144 Responses

  1. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Images like that annoy the hell out of me. The reason we haven’t been back to the moon is not that it isn’t interesting, it’s that the next time we set foot on it, we should be ready to start building a more permanent fixture there. Even way back when, we knew the technology, primarily materials technology, would not be up to the task. The moon really is a harsh mistress, with nights colder, and days hotter, than anything on earth. It is constantly bathed in radiation since it has no atmosphere to handle that. Then there are the meteorites, that don’t burn up during re-entry. And it is geologically unstable, suffering moonquakes quite regularly. So we need to build habitats that can withstand seismic activity, can handle the brittle cold & blistering heat, and shield against the radiation & impacts.

    That is a hell of a tall order & will require a considerable mass of materials from Earth to do it, and some further advances in materials science & manufacturing. Since we don’t seem to have much more than an academic interest in building a space elevator, the current focus has been rockets that are largely re-usable, so we don’t destroy millions of dollars in hardware everytime we go up to orbit.

    Developing all of that technology requires massive amounts of computing power, which we have been developing at a very steady pace. Your bare bones smart phone has more processing power than all of the Apollo missions combined, with more to spare. Twitter just happens to be a off-shoot of that rapid growth of digital technology.Report

    • There are a lot of places that we haven’t bothered to colonize. Random deserts, trenches, etc. We only go if the motivation to go there exceeds the barriers, even if it’s just “I hadn’t been to the Mohave desert before and wanted to see it.” It seems the Moon hasn’t yet risen to that level. Hopefully the barriers will fall someday.

      (I do admit that I’d rather visit the Moon than the Mohave Desert (not that I’d turn down either one.))Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        True, but we aren’t interested in colonizing the moon just because we need extra living space or because the photo ops are awesome. It has resources we can use, and not just down here at the bottom of the gravity well. It is in a handy spot for further exploration & exploitation of solar system resources, etc. etc.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        But that’s a chicken-and-egg argument. “We need to develop deep space flight!” Why? “So we can go to the Moon!” Why do we need to go to the Moon? “So we can develop deep space flight!” But…why do we need deep space flight? “So we can go to the Moon!”Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        That assumes the moon is the final objective. It isn’t. It’s just a way stationReport

    • My stock question — and I’m trying to be serious, not snarky — is where you’ll get the money. The US federal budget is overwhelmingly defense, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on a debt that’s increasing by around $400B per year. The states’ budgets are overwhelmingly Medicaid, K-12 education, other sorts of human services and income support, transportation, public safety, and higher-ed. Combined, they run to about 30% of GDP. The civil engineers tell us that our infrastructure is falling apart to the tune of a couple trillion dollars (although I’ve argued that that’s somewhat of a regional problem).

      So, where are you going to cut, or upon whom impose higher taxes? I’ve said in other forums that anyone who wants committed funding to return to the moon soon and go on to Mars and start all of the research and development an elevator would require ought to be a loud advocate for single-payer health insurance and a neo-isolationist foreign policy (where the US stops being the world’s policeman, unless the world is willing to foot the bill for it). Tough political problem.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        No one said government had to do it, or do it alone. NASA has been out of the spacecraft business for a while now.

        Something like a space elevator would require political involvement, in order to make it happen, but not necessarily tax money.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Michael Cain says:

        So, where are you going to cut, or upon whom impose higher taxes?

        Well, there’s the little tidbit that our tax rates are actually pretty low, at the moment.Report

      • Name a private company that has covered its development and operating costs for a launch system without contracts to provide lift services for government(s). (Note: SpaceX is not an example of such a company.) Assume that the total R&D tab, including construction, for the first elevator is on the order of a trillion dollars — name a company or likely consortium that can afford that without the kind of government contracts SpaceX depends on (large advance payments for services to be (hopefully) delivered in the future). If SpaceX were to fail in the next couple of years, most of the financial loss will be borne by the US government.

        Consider the new commercial power reactors being built in Georgia; they couldn’t raise private funding until the federal government guaranteed to eat the loss if the project failed, and that’s an already-deployed technology with an almost-guaranteed revenue stream. I don’t see any way an elevator gets built without the vast majority of the financial risk being assumed by various governments.Report

      • @patrick
        I’m not arguing about the relative level of our taxes; I’m asking for specific proposals about where to levy higher and/or new taxes, so we can discuss the political problems of implementing specific proposals. The flip side is the situation faced by the House Republicans. It’s one thing to pass a budget resolution that says, “We’ll cut a trillion dollars in spending on social insurance.” It’s another thing entirely to pass actual budget bills implementing cuts anywhere close to that big. Boehner quit bringing such bills to the floor after he discovered he couldn’t deliver the votes to pass them.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        @michael-cain

        I see your point, fair enough question.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Seems we will see more people go to the moon when the benefits outweigh the costs.

      If this is a goal for humanity — and I would argue strongly it should be for both scientific and long term catastrophe insurance reasons — then I would look first at property right systems related to lunar resources. If we were to come up with an effective system of claiming and guaranteeing property rights of lunar resources, my guess is the next space race would be off and running.

      I also suspect the fashionable anti-market zeitgeist would act as a strong headwind against solving the problem this way.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Roger says:

        FWIW, I’m eminently okay with the first folks to establish a habitat anywhere get solid property rights to serious homesteading.

        Why not? It’s not like we could revoke it in any meaningful sense.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    400 years ago we had The Merry Wives of Windsor. Today we have The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.Report

  3. Avatar zic says:

    @vikram-bath have you been reading Clown Town? Because Jason K. seems to agree; he’s imagining a world of reasonable post-scarcity. This post reminds me of his series (there are two proceeding).

    There’s something about human nature, we take our tableware and our phones and our health and our mobility for granted, and don’t really appreciate that we’re living in an age of miracles.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to zic says:

      Yep, I have been! I’m not scared off by the clowns. I had actually commented on that post you looked.

      My explanation for why we don’t appreciate our miracles:
      1. We redefine what miracles are. I can remember back when something as sophisticated as Google would have been considered an impossibility because it would come too close to “understanding”, which people often define as something only humans can do. Now that Google exists, (as Jason might say) the goalposts move. But there was definitely a time at which Google would have been considered full-blown artificial intelligence.
      2. We are focused on very specific miracles that we not, not those we actually get. Today’s smartphones make Star Trek handheld devices look like unimaginative jokes, but people very specifically wanted a flying car. We might find the elixir of life, and people will still be asking for their flying cars.Report

      • I’ve actually visited, too. Fortunately, the clown images don’t always show up.Report

      • …but people very specifically wanted a flying car.

        And not just any flying car, but George Jetson’s flying car. Which clearly involves what I used to tell senior management was New Physics [1]. George had some sort of antigravity or reactionless thruster, and sufficient energy to power it nearly indefinitely. People don’t want flying cars that are like full-blown airplanes or even helicopters that depend on large wing surfaces moving at high speeds.

        [1] You would be amazed at the kinds of proposed technology a large telecom company is offered, with terms usually being some smallish percentage of ownership in exchange for investing millions of dollars. For a few years, I was the technical staff on whose desk such proposals ended up.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Report

      • Today’s smartphones make Star Trek handheld devices look like unimaginative jokes…

        This is somewhat of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Today’s smartphones depend on a global terrestrial network that cost tens of billions of dollars and a couple of decades to build out. Get more than a few miles from the nearest cell tower, or have a mountain ridge between you and the tower, and the smartphone doesn’t communicate at all. The Star Trek devices provided no-lag voice communications with a spaceship in orbit — and apparently without regard to whether it was overhead or on the other side of the planet — with no other infrastructure at all.Report

      • Good point regarding the limitations, though I would still stick with the “unimaginative” label (though I admit the unfairness of the project of futurism). The number of actual uses of phones today greatly exceeded what they were able to dream up.Report

      • Is Jaybird’s comment above mine some sort of interesting trick? I note that it’s dated for some point in the near future, and displays no text. There’s a block quote in the page source, but doesn’t render on my machine (Firefox 32.0, Mac OSX 10.9.4). Plus an embedded script with a malformed URL (missing protocol specification).Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Sorry, it’s intended to be an embedded twitter.

        Here’s the relevant text: “Yearly reminder: unless you’re over 60, you weren’t promised flying cars. You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia. Here you go.”

        It’s from @Moochava.Report

      • The number of actual uses of phones today greatly exceeded what they were able to dream up.

        No argument about that. Most science fiction in the 50s and 60s completely missed the coming integrated circuit revolution, and what kind of capabilities it would be possible to put into a handheld computing device.Report

      • His post is a twitter posting that reads as follows along with a link to the post:

        Yearly reminder: unless you’re over 60, you weren’t promised flying cars. You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia. Here you go.

        — Kyle Marquis (@Moochava) July 10, 2013Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to zic says:

      It seems worth repeating part of a comment I left on one of Jason’s essays in that series: Any vision of the future to which both “post-scarcity” and “first-world technology” can be reasonably applied assumes electricity supplies that are robust, reliable, and too cheap to meter. As a more-than-casual student of that question, I claim that all of the current proposals for such include a “then a miracle occurs” step somewhere along the way.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Last I checked, we just needed to get electricity a few cents cheaper per kwh, and then it would be too annoying to meter (note: this was a few years ago, before some of the automation). Granted, a few cents might be hard to make happen… but it’s doable.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        But I was promised a Mr. Fusion! Dr. Brown said so!Report

      • Granted, a few cents might be hard to make happen… but it’s doable.

        I’m sorry, I must have missed the real-world deployment of something that resulted in delivering large amounts of power to actual consumers at prices low enough that overall rates went down. Coal is about to get much more expensive. Fission is expensive. Natural gas is enjoying a temporary supply glut, but that goes away if there’s big new demand (and very likely goes away if interest rates go up). Big dams are politically unpopular. Fission is politically unpopular, and expensive. Fusion is still 30 years away (and that’s assuming ITER/DEMO can meet their schedules, which has never happened), and is beginning to look like it will be more expensive than fission. Wind and solar are approaching price parity for raw generation, but that assumes that dealing with their intermittency doesn’t cost anything. Spending on efficiency is predicted on the assumption that “too cheap to meter” won’t happen. Beyond those, we’re pretty much into exotics that no one can price yet.

        Maybe out there somewhere is cheap electricity. Everything I see suggests that electricity will be more expensive in the future, and possibly much more expensive as significant supply problems develop in the 20-50 year time frame.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Fission is expensive because we’ve decided that it has to be.

        Space Solar Power could be cheap, but it would require a lot of money to get it there. (Note that nuclear power also required spending a lot of money to make it as cheap as it is; we just didn’t see that spending happening because it was part of the generalized Cold War military budget.)Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Fission is expensive because we’ve decided that it has to be.

        Fission is expensive because fission failures are VERY expensive, and people are keenly aware of that. That leads to over-designed systems that are still apparently run by corner-cutting morons.

        I suspect it’s an artifact of fission development — the modern reactor traces it’s roots to the Navy’s need for compact, high-power solutions — designed, monitored, and run by people VERY invested in proper training, procedure, safety standards, and handling all the dotted i’s and crossed t’s.

        In short, Naval fission plants are run by exactly the sort of people you’d trust with a high power, compact fission plant whose error modes trend towards ‘Oh CRAP!” levels of catastrophe.

        Whereas civilian designs should, frankly, be incapable of meltdown. They should be lower energy, more spread out, and basically designed so that total lack of maintenance, over-sight, and in fact total failure of all systems would lead to a failure state that’s harmless. Thereaction dies down in the absence of control, not accelerates.

        Hence the continuing interest in fusion — it (potentially) gives the compact power of fission, but has a failure mode of “All the energy stops being produced and people complain because they’ll have to jump-start the thing back up later” with exactly zero chance of “let’s irradiate the area for a few thousand years”.

        I’ll be blunt: I have no qualms about fission in the Navy’s hands. I’ve never once worried about their reactors going critical because of sub-standard design or lax oversight. I cannot say the same about CIVILIAN nuclear reactors, which are (theoretically) designed to extreme safety standards they never seem to meet. (“Where should we place this reactor? On an active fault line? Sounds great!. What, we shouldn’t let waste accumulate? Let’s do that. Just pile it up over there, what are the odds that anything bad happens?”).

        You want to understand why fission is expensive — it’s because despite all the money plant owners are forced to spend on safety, they still cut corner’s like it’s going out of style. (And they’re forced to spend all that money on safety because, to be blunt again — they guys who own and operate the plant will never, ever, EVER be able to afford to clean up the mess that would result if anything went seriously wrong. When you’re not on the hook for damages, you tend to skimp on preventing accidents).Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Michael Cain says:

        ” civilian designs should, frankly, be incapable of meltdown.”

        They are, so long as you shut them down when there’s a problem.

        If you haven’t been able to build a new plant for thirty years because oogly-boogly-nucular-scary, then you can’t shut them down without eliminating the sole source of power for a couple hundred thousand people.

        Fukishima was not inevitable. If there’d been redundant capability to bring on line then they’d have scrammed the place and you could have cleaned it up wearing nothing more protective than coveralls and a dust mask.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Michael Cain says:

        “Fukishima was not inevitable. If there’d been redundant capability to bring on line then they’d have scrammed the place and you could have cleaned it up wearing nothing more protective than coveralls and a dust mask.”

        Fukishima *did* scram in place. That part of the failsafe worked. What didn’t work was the backup cooling system to get rid of decay heat, as it was powered by diesel generators, which were taken out of commission by the tsunami flooding.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Civilian plants could always do what naval nuclear plants do: make the people in charge live on-site within a few hundred meters of the reactor 24/7 with no easy escape route. I’m betting that makes for a very high standard of operational safety.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        They are, so long as you shut them down when there’s a problem.

        And therein lies the core of the problem. No one making THAT assumption should be allowed to design power plants. That is a ridiculously optimistic assessment of a critical failure mode, because it assumes the people, the equipment, and the time exist to do that whenever the problem arises. That is not worst case.

        I actually think there’s a formal cognitive bias for that — it’s why project slippage is so common. Ask someone to model a ‘worst case’ scenario and they’re closer to ‘average’ than ‘worst case’. (Their ‘average outcome’ is pretty close to ‘the stars align for amazingly positive coincidence” level of ‘optimistic’).

        The military, again, is generally far more…pessimistic, and I think that’s mostly because they treat training drills like competition. Including the people coming UP with them, who are trained and skilled in making as much proverbial poo hit the proverbial fan as possible, all at the same time.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Michael Cain says:

        @troublesome-frog Actually, the reactors they use for training in Charleston have a lot of add-ons (many which parallel civilian plant safety features) compared when they were operational boats, because they don’t go anywhere anymore. For most of the nuclear navy, the ultimate failsafe is that the reactor will s*** the bed in the middle of nowhere ocean, or can be towed there (or, like the Thresher and the Scorpion, something else goes wrong but the end result is again just a hot rock in deep water)Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Jim isn’t wrong about Fukishima, it happened because they could not use a better cooling method in the event of a scram, because the place was built 40 years ago & was stuck using the cooling systems originally installed (instead of something better, like gravity feed).

        As for safer fission, there are lots & lots of designs that would be next to idiot proof, and even more where, given modern, computer controlled redundancies & cut-outs, would also be next to idiot proof. However, it seems that getting permission to build prototypes of said reactors is next to impossible in the US.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Wind and solar are approaching price parity for raw generation, but that assumes that dealing with their intermittency doesn’t cost anything.

        Yes. We’re getting within site of solving this problem, but integrating intermittent energy into the grid is still a challenge and it’s going to cost to get there. It will be good when we do, though. A big part of what will make it cost-effective is internalization of coal’s current externalities through required carbon capture and sequestration, which will bring coal power up to a more accurate market price.

        As to fission, when we say that word we should be thinking about small modular reactors, which will be significantly less expensive when the development costs are recouped. Factory production of ~250 mw reactors that can be linked in clusters, as opposed to building a 1500 mw reactor on site will provide great returns to scale. They’re expected to be placed underground, which makes them more secure, and provides a level of safety on top of their smaller size. The designs being worked on are aiming toward being walkaway safe for several weeks, and there are designs that are geared toward re-using spent fuel, reducing that problem.

        It won’t provide energy too cheap to meter, but it ought to provide reliable, safe and reasonable cost power.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        However, it seems that getting permission to build prototypes of said reactors is next to impossible in the US.
        You can claim NIMBY, you can claim unreasonable fears of radiation, but in the end — I’m pretty sure people don’t trust them to be safe enough. (After all, when an oil-fired plant explodes, there’s the boom and the fire and then it’s over. When a nuclear plant goes bad, nobody’s heading there for a VERY long time).

        And I don’t think it’s eco-nuts or anti-nuke folks or even unlettered fears that does it — I think it’s an absolute, total lack of trust in either the free market OR the government to ensure safety commiserate with the risks.

        I can’t really say they’re totally wrong — again, everyone was a-okay with building a nuclear plant on an active fault line except the people who would, you know, be living there if things went south. The folks in Japan were quite happy running an old design, without updating the plant architecture to make it safer (why waste all the money?) or even follow their own procedures involving spent waste — and this under a government far nosier than the US’s (at least to American eyes).

        And of course, their worst-case scenarios were the equivalent of making a ‘flash flood response plan’ that does not take into account the fact that it might be raining at the time.

        However awesome and safe a design could be, Americans seem to — by and large — fully expect whatever gets built to cut corners. (And indeed, one could say the market for nuclear plants practically invites it — catastrophe is more costly than the owners can handle, so it’s backstopped by government, and failures are not likely until decades in. The cost of building it is even heavily subsidized. From a purely market perspective, if the thing goes ‘boom’ you’ve already made your nut and probably sold the thing, and if you didn’t — the government will clean it up as you declare bankruptcy. Well your company. Not you, the owner).

        And honestly, the designs I see bandied around only work — even with corner cutting on safety and security — with massive government subsidies, government insurance, and still don’t seem to use those mega-safe designs. (Although China is talking about using a less powerful, safer design. Lord knows how that’ll turn out)Report

      • …integrating intermittent energy into the grid is still a challenge and it’s going to cost to get there.

        Yep. You have to overbuild some. You have to have a transmission network that can shuttle power around on a sufficient scale. You have to live by diversity, both type of source and geography, in order to get the statistics on your side. You probably have to have more demand management than we do today [1]. A number of rather detailed studies of the Western Interconnect have been done that demonstrate a renewable grid is feasible there. Doing the Eastern Interconnect with renewables is a much harder problem.

        My reading suggests to me that the places that are having the most success with integrating wind and solar are areas that have, due to their special circumstances, avoided the current federal policy darling of pure markets that reward dispatchable sources. I think the international experience in Spain and Germany supports the same conclusion. It’s interesting that some of the people who write under the Cato banner now assert that rate-of-return regulation of vertically-integrated utilities with sufficient oversight is probably the lowest-cost way to provide reliable electricity. It’s also the model that provides the easiest way to enforce dispatch rules that take full advantage of intermittent sources. Re the previous paragraph, I’ve written before that I think the states in the Western Interconnect are deciding — not necessarily in a conscious well-thought-out way — to pursue a renewable grid, and that it will put them at odds with the federal strategy.

        [1] I always have some cognitive dissonance when I write “demand management” in a discussion of post-scarcity economics.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        You probably have to have more demand management than we do today

        Yes, and that’s a pretty kettle of fish. But I think it’s going to happen. Real time pricing will help, but even more having pre-structured agreements with large users to cut back in high demand times.

        Doing the Eastern Interconnect with renewables is a much harder problem.

        I don’t think they’re going to try to jump to the whole interconnect in the short term anyway. The action’s going to happen in the regional transmission operators. Just getting it done within MISO or PJM will be complex enough, and have a big impact on renewables integration. That’s my take, anyway. I’m no expert on the RTOs.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Fission is lagging primarily due to irrational hyperbole and the brutal economics of being a heavily constrained industry competing with heavily subsidized fossil fuels. There’s not been much dough in Fission for decades, probably wasn’t going to be until AGW popped up as a concern. The existing plants in the US are terrible examples: should I be able to say that computers aren’t very helpful to your average Joe using the example of computers built in the 1960’s? The Canadians have been running CANDU reactors for as long as the US has been running theirs without any form of serious safety risk (though it’s pricey power). Current reactor design allows for default states that don’t permit the plant going kablooey in the event of any kind of failure.

        But this is just quibbling over the details. If fossil fuels became uneconomical or environmentally forbidden to use we’d raise energy prices by a (not enormously big) percentage and could power the system by fission if we needed to. If the choice is that or go back to horse power I know what people would choose. Hell if the choice is that or do any kind of massive decreasing of energy use I know what people would choose.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        @morat20

        We aren’t talking about building a reactor in downtown LA. These are companies just looking to build a reactor anywhere, so they can work out the bugs. Lots of open space in the US to play with radioactive stuff. Military does it all the time, not sure why a civilian power plant can not.

        As for nuclear accidents, well, the media overhypes the danger considerably, and consistently demonstrates a total lack of comprehension regarding radiation danger. All that fear regarding radiation from fission plants is almost entirely media/Greenpeace rhetoric. And I will forever curse the Russians for so utterly bungling Chernobyl & making it a much worse disaster than it should have been. It’s a travesty that one single incident that obviously represents that lowest end of competence forever damages the industry, thanks primarily to media hype.

        I mean, why isn’t the Kingston Ash spill the disaster benchmark for the coal industry? Hell, coal plants used to explode & burn regularly before we learned how to reduce the risk of that, and they would poison vast areas when they did. Why does everyone, including you, seem unable to grasp the concept of lessons learned?

        People are stupid.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Why does everyone, including you, seem unable to grasp the concept of lessons learned?
        We can’t all be as smart as you, sadly.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        K,
        The backup to THAT was fire engines, though (well, if you count backup as “gaijin has idea that the Japanese actually used”). Which didn’t work, but not for lack of trying…

        Fukushima was a minor, minor disaster. It could have been a major disaster, and we could be looking at the loss of the Japanese — as a culture, race what have you.

        MRS,
        Quehanna and Saxton stand as testament to “please, don’t do stupid things with nuclear power”. Fukushima stands as testament to “put the fissionable waste AWAY from the fission!”.

        And, hell yes, the continuing damage from coal is horrid and we really ought to do fission instead. I’d pay extra for that (and am paying extra for solar).Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        *shrug*. In the end, it doesn’t matter. You can scream until you’re hoarse that being uncomfortable about nuclear plants is an artifact of bad media analysis, or just plain stupidity, but you’re not gonna change minds that way.

        You’ve got to address the root cause — which is Americans, by and large, don’t trust the people building or operating the plants to do so safely. And yacking about how safe they are, with two nasty disasters in recent memory — both that were coupled with lax safety, bad design, inability follow their own procedures, lax government oversight AND a great deal of just flat-out lying — isn’t going to change their minds.

        You’re basically trying a “You gonna believe me, or your own lying eyes?” tactic. On safety.

        How you square that circle, I don’t know. But telling them their fears are stupid or baseless or “coal’s worse” isn’t going to work, however superior it might make you feel. Because you’re just insulting them, not addressing their concerns.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        @morat20

        Obviously, but could y’all at least try!Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I remain a fan of pebble bed reactors. Here’s a quote from the wiki: “A pebble-bed reactor thus can have all of its supporting machinery fail, and the reactor will not crack, melt, explode or spew hazardous wastes.”Report

      • As a descriptive rather than normative statement, I think Morat20 is more right than wrong. But as a descriptive matter, the concerns about safety can’t really be addressed due to the obstacles presented by North, MRS, and others. Nuclear power kills fewer people than just about any other source, world wide, despite the high-profile accidents.

        When people are choosing more dangerous forms of electricity generation over less dangerous ones, making the latter even less dangerous doesn’t seem any more viable a strategy than complaining about perceptions on Ordinary Times.

        So fossil fuels yesterday, fossil fuels today, and fossil fuels tomorrow. And hope for the best.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Will,
        hoping for the best is a luxury for the rich or psychopathic.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Michael Cain says:

        We have a fairly decently engineered place to put spent nuclear waste, we’re just not using it (probably because the head of the Senate doesn’t want us to do so.)

        Yes, on-site storage is a problem. Yes, none of the places that are currently using on-site storage were designed to use on-site storage.

        They were never supposed to use on-site storage because we were engineering a place to put the nuclear waste. We were spending billions of dollars on the project to do it right. We started working on it what, forty freakin’ years ago. We spent over $10 million dollars just to make the machine that they used to make the entry tunnel.

        If an earthquake happens in Southern California and the spent fuel pools at San Onofre develop a problem and actually kill somebody, I hope Harry Reid and the rest of the folks blocking Yucca go to sleep, every night, knowing that they were ultimately responsible for halting that project.Report

      • Kim, that’s pretty much how I feel about “We don’t need nuclear because we will use renewables” or anything to do with a significant reduction in consumption.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Michael Cain says:

        @north Fission is lagging primarily due to irrational hyperbole and the brutal economics of being a heavily constrained industry competing with heavily subsidized fossil fuels.

        Do you have any reliable numbers on those subsidies? I was trying to chase them down a while ago, but I couldn’t get details. Most sources were saying something like $10B-50B per year in the US, which—even assuming that none of those are just generic tax deductions that all businesses get—is less than is collected from gas taxes (state and federal) alone.

        Globally, it appears that the overwhelming majority of fossil fuel subsidies are actually implicit subsidies from oil-producing companies giving dirt-cheap fuel to their citizens, which actually increases prices for American consumers.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        will,
        we can already see significant reductions in consumption, I’m pretty sure the continuing impoverishment of America is making the Suburban Dream increasingly unaffordable). Tax breaks for housing energy efficiency will help cut more (as will increasing the building code. Houses built today are significantly more efficient than those built ten years ago).Report

      • Kim, globally, how much less energy are we using than we were five years ago?

        Brandon, my understanding is that in raw dollars fossil fuel subsidies do outstrip everything else, but that if you look at BTU that they are less. When I have brought this us, fossil fuel subsidies start including things like foreign policy, which can be hard to calculate. (The same is true of nuclear, because we don’t know how much liability caps are actually worth.)Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Will,
        any global reductions can be attributed to the “recession” and ought not to be taken seriously.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Brandon, I ran into the same problem once a while ago when trying to nail down pretty much the same thing you’re asking. Problem is the question of how much fossil fuel is subsidized is a red hot political/economic/environmental one so there’s an absolute brick ton of numbers flying back and forth along with furiously contested definitional questions with the environmentalist/renewable block trying to define everything as subsidies and the fossile fuel/politician block trying to hide subsidies all over the place.

        Short summary, it’s subsidized, plenty though exactly how much is a matter of furious debate. We also know, however, that even without subsidies fossil fuel is cheap as dirt (excluding externalities which other than that how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?)Report

      • Has there actually been a global reduction in energy use?Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Will I grant that as a practical and medium term issue nuclear power opposition will likely remain formidable. But the existance of nuclear power makes me relatively sanguine about long term prospects because as much as people go “ehhh all else being equal I’m not comfy with nukes” if you ask them if they’d rather double their energy costs then the vast majority would tie up the anti-nuclear partisans in the trunk of their electrical car and yell “Nukes! Nukes!!!”Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Nuclear power kills fewer people than just about any other source, world wide, despite the high-profile accidents.

        It’s the time-span, I think. “Screwed up forever” (yes, not really forever but certainly longer than a human life, absent some ridiculously expensive clean-up on TOP of the ridiculously expensive clean-up just to safe the place) is pretty hard-core. People don’t like failure modes that are, basically, “broken forever”.

        They’ll go with “Broken but fixable” (and you can vaguely repair the damage from coal mining or rebuild a blown-up gas plant and sure, coal seams might be on fire for a hundred years but that’s underground and not real).

        So you add in a time span like that, that humans instinctively feel is “permanent”, and it makes people REALLY nervous. Add in a few high-profile catastrophes that all seem rooted in incompetence and short-sightedness, with a side of lack of oversight and corner-cutting and lack of concern, and you get a really unpopular concept.

        Again, I go back to the Navy. While opposition to nuclear powered naval vessels does exist, compared to the numbers against civilian nuclear power in general, it’s pretty freaking tiny. Americans, by and large, don’t seem to worry about an aircraft carrier’s nuclear power plant NEARLY as much as they do a civilian one.

        Which says to me that the problem is we don’t trust the market to make safe nuclear power plants. (We apparently trust the government, but only when the people running them both live there AND are highly trained, highly motivated, professionals). We probably don’t trust the market to make safe gas power plants either, but the failures of those feel “lesser”.

        Which means if you want nuclear power plants, you gotta start with safety from moment one. Design a plant that’s walk-away safe if a freakin’ meteor comes out of the sky, hits the containment vessel, triggers and earthquake AND a rain of mutant ninja frogs. And then be aware that when you start to sell this to people, they’re not going to believe you.

        Trust is hard to build.Report

      • Well, fortunately, there are no “forever” concerns with coal…

        More seriously, it’s hard for me to look at the actual safety consequences of nuclear versus its most viable alternatives and say that the way to appeal to those steadfastly against nuclear energy is through rationality and by attempting to assuage their fears. With the Navy, people think of it as something mostly far away. When people talk about civilian power, they think of something right next to the wastewater facility that they drive past on their way to work. I don’t think the headway made with navy nuclear is reproducible in Vermont.

        Accepting coal as the lesser of two evils – even given our deeply imperfect governments and corporations – mostly makes sense to me in the context of climate change not representing a serious threat, and not in the context that it actually does.Report

      • @north I think you’re right if the question is “Where do we turn when/if we start running out of fossil fuels” but I find most helpful to suspect that we will ultimately go to the path of least resistance. As long as coal remains affordable, I have a hard time seeing nuclear as really taking hold. They’ll revolt in favor of nuclear if it means that they can’t get the energy (reliably) otherwise, but not to stop a global collection action with a significant time delay as far as action-consequence goes.

        Where we are, right now, is that environmentalists are losing the AGW battle and winning the battle against nuclear energy. Which kind of leaves us in an odd place.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Will:
        According to the numbers I found, the subsidies aren’t even positive, net of special excise taxes. The only way you can get them into positive territory is, as you say, to call big chunks of military spending “oil subsidies.” But “war for oil” has never been a particularly good description of US foreign policy. Countries with oil really, really want to sell it. Even back in the days when the US government was trying to prevent nationalization of American-owned oil wells, that wouldn’t have had much effect on the price of oil to US consumers.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Michael Cain says:

        It does Will, but it leaves the environmentalists in an even bigger bind- barring some truely impressive strides in solar, wind (and most importantly and difficultly) power storage technologies.

        By comparison making a passively safe fission nuclear power plant is childs play.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        “Screwed up forever” (yes, not really forever but certainly longer than a human life, absent some ridiculously expensive clean-up on TOP of the ridiculously expensive clean-up just to safe the place) is pretty hard-core. People don’t like failure modes that are, basically, “broken forever”.

        Except even that isn’t true. It’s what we thought, decades ago. Radioactive material, if stored in a sterile environment, will take forever to decompose to safe levels (half life calculations are easy & fun to do!). Mother nature, on the other hand, seems to deal with radiation much more effectively & quickly, and we are already taking a cue from her & breeding microbes & fungus that eagerly consume radiation (specifically for cleanup).Report

      • Patrick wrote: We have a fairly decently engineered place to put spent nuclear waste, we’re just not using it (probably because the head of the Senate doesn’t want us to do so.)

        And Reid is supported in his position by his own constituents (opinion in Nevada runs about 2-1 against ever opening Yucca Mountain) as well as the states through which all of that Eastern spent fuel will be transported. The history of how Yucca Mountain became the site for waste storage is ugly. The original DoE plan called for a large repository in the East, where the large majority of the commercial reactors are, and a quite small repository in the West for the much more limited amount of waste generated there. Eastern candidate sites were removed by Congress in fairly short order for political reasons, not engineering ones. The last two candidates other than Yucca Mountain were removed by Congress with no debate because Representatives from the two states where they were located — Washington and Texas — held top leadership posts in the House and could literally dictate that the necessary language be added to a budget reconciliation bill.

        Mad Rocket Scientist wrote: Lots of open space in the US to play with radioactive stuff. Military does it all the time, not sure why a civilian power plant can not.

        Military used to do it. Today, limited to a small number of permanent locations. Most of those sites are operated by DoE civilians rather than the military, and are extraordinarily unpopular in the states where they are located (think Hanford in Washington and Savannah River in South Carolina). I live relatively near the now-closed Rocky Flats site in Colorado which has supposedly been cleaned up. I say supposedly because the federal government allows no public access and refuses to allow the state to conduct independent testing on the quality of the clean-up.

        I know I sound like a broken record on this subject. But the 11-state West from the Rockies to the Pacific are generally anti-nuke because they’ve been stuck with the dirty end of the stick on nuclear since forever. At the peak, there were only ten commercial power reactors operating in those states. Four are closed, and the closures were related to problems that made the designers or operators look less than competent. Of those six, the two in California and one in Washington are under considerable local political pressure. There is some question about the long-term supply of cooling water for the reactors in Arizona. A non-nuclear West is a scenario with a reasonable probability; unless approached with considerable political sensitivity, a national spent-fuel repository in the region is likely to be perceived as the East ramming their toxic wastes down the western states’ collective throat.Report

      • As long as coal remains affordable, I have a hard time seeing nuclear as really taking hold.

        Of course, coal is in the process of becoming much more expensive to use. CSAPR is a done deal now that it’s cleared the SCOTUS. Coal-burners from Texas east are going to have to build better baghouses and scrubbers. The SCOTUS has also upheld the EPA’s plan for carbon dioxide emissions, which will hit coal-burners in some states hard. The new mercury rule has cleared the Court of Appeals, seems unlikely to be overturned by the Supremes, and again implies better scrubbers (also some tough choices for plants that burn a mixture of eastern and western coal — you need different scrubber tech for the two types). The EPA is under court order to issue rules for regulating coal ash storage by the end of the year. The reasonable expectation is that coal plant owners will be put on the hook for both better future storage facilities as well as mitigation at existing ones.Report

      • You can do that up to a point, but before long it becomes a campaign issue. Taking the tradeoff for cleaner air against cheap energy pre-supposes some degree of affordability to the latter. Arguments in favor of that tradeoff will struggle as energy prices rise, which is another reason I am not optimistic about combating climate change.Report

      • You can do that up to a point, but before long it becomes a campaign issue. Taking the tradeoff for cleaner air against cheap energy pre-supposes some degree of affordability to the latter. Arguments in favor of that tradeoff will struggle as energy prices rise, which is another reason I am not optimistic about combating climate change.

        Given that ~60% of world coal consumption is in China and India, being “not optimistic” is, in fact, being very realistic. Neither is likely to accept the developed countries implicitly saying, “Well, you’ll just have to stay poor,” and there’s no serious alternative to coal for them in a time frame shorter than decades.

        The campaign situation in the US will be… interesting. When you look at electric rates in the US, what jumps out is BosWash, California/Nevada, and Florida. Already high prices, and when you drill down, have already largely given up on coal or in the process of doing so. Toss in Oregon and Washington who have low prices but are low direct coal users, and probably a couple of other states like Colorado who have committed to reducing coal use separate from price (and have already spent a bunch of the cleaning-up money). That’s on the order of half the US population that has little or no sympathy for states with cheap electricity based on heavy coal use.

        And people laugh at me when I say there’s a growing list of issues where there’s more agreement within regions than across regions.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        “Nuclear power kills fewer people than just about any other source, world wide, despite the high-profile accidents.
        It’s the time-span, I think…

        I suspect it’s actually a cognitive bias issue. People tend to overestimate risk from rare but big events and underestimate risk from frequent small events.

        Globally, excluding Chernobyl, which used a design never used commercially outside the United States, commercial nuclear power has killed only about 200 people, including excess cancer deaths from exposure. Chernobyl will add potentially ~4,000 to the total, over time (estimates are an increase of cancer risk of <1% over a lifetime).

        Meanwhile, fossil fuel use produces an estimated 75,000 excess deaths annually, in the U.S. alone.

        Setting aside Chernobyl, which has effectively zero chance of being repeated due to design differences, we are sacrificing a Boca Raton, Florida every year to save a Gypsum, Kansas once a century.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        FYI, when I said “forever” I meant “the results of accident” not “the nuclear waste”.

        The perception is no-mans-land. You don’t work there, you don’t live there, the area isn’t safe for human occupation for a very long time. (Long enough to get shortened to ‘forever’ since it’s longer than a human lifespan and that’s how people think).

        Again, you can call it cognitive bias or whatever, but unless you’re grappling with the real issues (as in the “the actual things going on in people’s heads”) you’re not going to get much traction. (Especially if you keep up with “idiots” as a method of argument. “You’re just too stupid” has carried no arguments, ever. Even when — and perhaps especially when — true).

        I think that’s the risk calculus people look at it — when a nuclear plant goes wrong, it can go VERY wrong and the wrongness lingers for a very long time. Couple that with a deeply held belief that the people operating and building the things will cut corners on safety, and you can see why people tend to be distrustful.

        Which goes back to the original point: You want more nuclear power, the BEST method is to address people’s safety concerns — from design to the people running it. And address true worst-case scenarios, not scenarios that assume you have plenty of time to react, and only one problem at a time….(again, that’s where I think the military has the edge. People in general tend to think those guys train for everything. And also live right next to it. In short, they think THESE guys are capable, willing, and able to handle anything that can be handled at all).Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Morat,
        Well, that’s why I try to point out that we’re offing the whole population of Boca Raton every year. Maybe Florida doesn’t grab you? How about Longview?

        Every.
        Single.
        Year.

        But also, that’s why we’re talking about small modular reactors. Underground. Walk-away safe for 30 days. Thorium, which won’t melt down because it can’t sustain a reaction unless continually bombarded with neutrons.

        So, you say this is what you’re asking for. It’s what you’re being offered. So will you support it, or was “give us something safe” meant to be an impossible demand posing as an honest request?Report

      • For the record, and granted we know more than we did back then, the first commercial thorium reactor in the US was Fort St. Vrain in Colorado, and it was… not a disaster, but too expensive to keep fixing. Spent fuel — and some that was not so spent — is stored on site in containers with high thermal transfer rates (not your standard dry storage cask), in a building carefully designed to provide high-flow convective air cooling. Worth pointing out now that US reactor licenses include specific fuel mixes and geometries. You don’t just casually say, “We’ll burn thorium instead.” The regulators will require years’ worth of numerical studies to show that there won’t be hot spots or excessive localized neutron flux before they’ll let you burn different fuel.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        @michael-cain
        You don’t just casually say, “We’ll burn thorium instead.”

        Oh, sure, I’m not saying you csn just switch fuels in the same reactor. My point is thorium designs are being worked on, but the question is whether there’ll be support for them. I’m honestly curious whether “give us safer designs” is a sincere request or a misdirection play that folks don’t expect to get called on.

        Of course we’d be a lot further along with thorium reactor research if we hadn’t pulled the plug a long time ago because it’s not weaponizable.Report

      • @james-hanley
        Of course we’d be a lot further along with thorium reactor research if we hadn’t pulled the plug a long time ago because it’s not weaponizable.

        And farther along with working fast-neutron designs if we hadn’t pulled the plug on the Integral Fast Reactor 20 years ago. Fast-neutron designs can be passively safe — if the IFR’s coolant pumps weren’t running, the chain reaction slowed to a stable safe level. Fast neutron reactors aren’t proliferation proof, but they do make it more difficult to extract weapons grade materials. It’s possible to use thorium as the breeding material in a fast-neutron reactor, but U-238 is better. Just happens that the US has a half-million tons of that lying around already refined. Living in a state where we’re still struggling to contain the pollution from old uranium mining and milling operations, I like the thought that the bulk of the fuel could be drawn from existing stockpiles.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I like the thought that the bulk of the fuel could be drawn from existing stockpiles.

        No doubt. Fortunately that’s on the drawing board with SMRs, also. I’d really like to see that happen.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Michael Cain says:

        “So will you support it, or was “give us something safe” meant to be an impossible demand posing as an honest request?”

        You’re trying to argue against Evil Magic. Good luck with that.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        So, you say this is what you’re asking for. It’s what you’re being offered. So will you support it, or was “give us something safe” meant to be an impossible demand posing as an honest request?
        I’m not asking for anything, that’s the mistake you keep making. I’m telling you why Americans don’t trust nuclear power in civilian hands, but you keep arguing with me, like that’s gonna do any good.

        Furthermore, you keep making the arguments you feel are strong — rather than the ones that address the concerns rational or irrational the American public has. Which is my point, and which is why little headway is made. You’re not addressing their concerns. At all. You’re calling them stupid, or dismissing them, or sneering that their way is worse in this way or that way. They’re not going to care.

        That was my whole point. Their concern isn’t “relative safety”. It’s not even “environmental impact”. Heck, it’s not even “radioactive waste”.

        It’s entirely “We don’t trust the guys building and running this to do it right, and when it goes wrong it’s gonna go SO MUCH MORE WRONG than oil, gas or coal”. You know, ’cause of all the radiation that makes the area unfit for some time, due to all the cancer and death and stuff.

        That is the argument you have to address, because that is what’s preventing them from accepting nuclear power. Any argument that does not go straight to that core — that fundamental, deep belief that the people designing, building and operating the plants will not do so safely and competently is pointless.

        Arguing with me is pointless. I’m not blocking nuclear power. I’m fine with nuclear power. My entire objection to nuclear power can be boiled down to “We should use designs aimed at civilian use, and not co-opted naval designs — but we use the latter because that’s what we’ve got tons of experience with”. But see, I realize the American public is NOT and it boils down to an absolute lack of trust.

        Which is not, I note, the focal point of pro-nuclear power arguments.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        @morat20

        But that is what we are saying. There are reactor designs that are walk away safe, the are safe, they are effective, they are idiot proof. But because they are nuclear, we can not get the federal government to let the reactor developers build a prototype so they can do the final debugging, and a huge part of that reason is not people, it’s ideologically blinkered activists & ignorant media who work very hard to scare the piss out of people with regard to anything nuclear.

        Does everybody remember the brouhaha over space probes using nuclear decay power sources being launched. The level of hyperbole & exaggeration of the danger was utterly insane.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        James,
        Okay, 200 people died. How many potential people died?
        (no, I don’t expect you to have a “hard” number. ballpark estimate will do).Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        MRS,
        I remember nMRI. And why they dropped the “nuclear”… (if they were doing electrical resonance, I’m pretty sure that would be a lot more dangerous to living tissue…)Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Then I suspect you’ll have a much easier time convincing people once some other country puts a bunch into place and they work fine. (China, for instance).

        But again, you’re not pushing back against media fears nearly as much as you want to believe — you’re pushing back against quite a few other things.

        1) The history or nuclear power has been filled with examples of ignoring safety concerns, poor design, and poor management and oversight. People have just done some stupid things, and people really don’t like “stupid” and “nuclear” in the same sentence. Maybe it’s only 1%, but that’s enough to make people suspicious.
        2) The most recent disaster included government lying, owners lying, lax oversight, ignoring rules and laws — basically the sum total of everyone’s actual fears about nuclear. No one will care about safety and they will lie about it.

        And lastly, a perfectly political confluence: Liberals think private nuclear plants — operated for profit — will cut safety (from design to operation) to increase profit. And conservatives think government will screw it up and get in the way with ‘burdensome’ and ‘pointless’ over regulation. Nobody trusts anyone but the military to design and run the things.

        People aren’t pointlessly afraid of nuclear power — they’ve got reason to be suspicious about how it’s implemented and run, with examples dating back 40 years of idiot moves, catastrophes, and near misses through incompetence and short-sightedness. That’s a legitimate reason to be distrustful.

        That distrust is blocking more progress than fears of invisible death rays, and that distrust is not one that’s being addressed. (To use a blunt example: “You say PBR’s are walk-away safe. That’s what they were saying about Japan as it was happening, and that turned out worse than what was ‘said’ every day”. Which is more or less true, as the government and owners downplayed it day in and day out. You don’t NEED biased media coverage or fear-mongering when you have, day in and day out, the people responsible being shown to be overly optimistic at best and liars at worst.)

        Again, uphill battle. I get that it’s frustrating. It’s easier to argue technical details than try to convince a WHOLE lot of people that yes, you can totally trust us on this one when, in fact, they don’t.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        morat20,
        So france is just chopped liver?
        France gets 75% or more of its power from it’s nuclear power plants.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        @morat20

        u’re calling them stupid, or dismissing them, or sneering that their way is worse in this way or that way.

        Where did I call anyone stupid?

        It’s entirely “We don’t trust the guys building and running this to do it right, and when it goes wrong it’s gonna go SO MUCH MORE WRONG than oil, gas or coal”. You know, ’cause of all the radiation that makes the area unfit for some time, due to all the cancer and death and stuff.

        That is the argument you have to address,

        Funny, I did address that, what with walkaway safe reactors; reactors that if left unattended cool down, rather than heat up, but you seem to pretend no such argument is on the table.

        My entire objection to nuclear power can be boiled down to “We should use designs aimed at civilian use, and not co-opted naval designs

        Which, again, I addressed, because that’s precisely what the goal is with new generation nuclear power such as SMRs, and which you seem to pretend is not on the table or has not been mentioned.

        You’re telling us we need to do, without, it seems, recognizing that we’re actually doing that. Sloughing all the blame off on those other people with their, in your words, irrational concerns, isn’t really persuasive when you give every appearance of not hearing what we’re saying. You begin to sound like one of those folks yourself.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Again — YOU’RE NOT ARGUING WITH ME. I’m not against nuclear power. My only — ONLY — issue on that is I think nuclear plants should be walk-away safe designs rather than the designs derived from the needs of the US Navy. And such designs exist.

        I’m not the American public. But the campaign for more nuclear power follows a handful of trends — individually, there’s a lot of “And you’re an idiot of you don’t” or “You’re just a hypocrite environmentalist” rather than grappling with the real objections, which aren’t all fully rational (some are, some aren’t) but are still the objections you have to deal with.

        In terms of larger, more PR campaigns it’s “Trust us, it’s safe”. They don’t trust you, that’s the problem.

        For the millionth time: AMERICANS DON’T TRUST IT. They don’t trust it because there’s been enough “Oops” problems, accidents, and catastrophes to make them think safety is not, in fact, the number one concern.

        They don’t trust it because “catastrophe” means “Nobody’s gonna live there, for a very long time”. (Which wouldn’t be that big a deal if, in fact, they trusted them to be run safely).

        You can wax poetic about safe, PBR designs until you’re blue in the face and they’re not going to believe it’s really that safe. Why? Well, because it was supposed to be safe before and it turns out, oops, not so much. Human error, lack of foresight, poor regulation, bad design….

        It goes back to trust. American’s don’t trust it.

        As I said way back in the beginning, step ONE is walk-away safe designs. Not walk-away 30 days safe. Literal “we can just all leave, never come back, and everything will just be fine. It’ll just boil water and eventually run out of steam” walk-away safe. (Honestly, you might need something that’s still pretty safe even if someone blows open the containment system to boot. People REALLY don’t trust nuclear power).

        Then comes the long, painful, UPHILL slog against people who think you’re exaggerating, lying, or otherwise hiding the truth. Because that’s what they’re expecting.

        “Fusion” is as close to a silver bullet as you’ll get, because it’s at least a break from the past.

        Honestly, it wasn’t just the actual catastrophe in Japan that dealt nuclear a nasty setback — it was weeks of government and plant officials consistently being wrong about it that did it. Cemented that “They’ll lie and don’t care about safety” feeling.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Michael Cain says:

        For the millionth time: AMERICANS DON’T TRUST IT. They don’t trust it because there’s been enough “Oops” problems, accidents, and catastrophes to make them think safety is not, in fact, the number one concern.

        I fully agree that Americans don’t trust nuclear power. But it’s largely because people are terrible at risk analysis, not because nuclear power has a demonstrated track record of poor safety.

        Nuclear power accidents are like two-airlines-collide-in-midair sorts of stories, though, they do stick in the consciousness.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        For the millionth time: AMERICANS DON’T TRUST IT.

        And you support it, but only if it’s 100% safe. And no matter about the 75,000 deaths per year from fossil fuel pollution.

        And yet it’s not you we have to argue with, but all those other Americans? Oddly, you’ve done a good job of persuading me otherwise.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        James and everyone else.
        Since Americans clearly don’t respond well to reason, I suggest we use scare tactics. If Americans understood how much fossil fuel generation cost, in terms of “probability of still having a liveable planet”, they’d fall right over themselves heading to nuclear.
        [This is not a global warming argument. This is a ‘we might have broken the earth’s crust, with catastrophic oceanic results’ argument.]Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        For the record, I said people are stupid.

        @patrick

        Exactly! No one remember the tens of thousands of hours of perfectly safe operation. They remember that one time, that one plant had an accident. Hell, Three Mile Island, the ONLY US incident, EVER, was very much a local event, and the site is still producing power.

        Fukishima was a 40 year old plant that got a massive one-two punch no one was even remotely thinking about when it was built. It could have weathered an Earthquake or a Tsunami, but the two so close together…

        And Chernobyl is, well, Russia.

        The US Nuclear safety record is, given everything that can go wrong, phenomenal.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        MRS,
        There are 3 nuclear areas in PA alone.
        Saxton, Quehanna, and TMI. Quehanna is still a “do not live here” place, and Saxton’s never recovered from the contagion (the radiation goes away, but everyone left and didn’t come back. place used to be fabulous, now it’s hideous).

        James is right that two of those weren’t Commercial.
        But then again — we almost lost Detroit.Report

      • …and the site is still producing power.

        First, I’m on your side; I see no way for the US Eastern Interconnect to maintain adequate reliable electricity supplies other than nuclear. Second, just for clarity, the undamaged Unit 1 reactor at TMI is still producing power. The Unit 2 reactor is permanently dead, and the steam turbine and generator has been relocated to a plant in North Carolina.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

        And you support it, but only if it’s 100% safe. And no matter about the 75,000 deaths per year from fossil fuel pollution.
        Do you just like lying about people? Or are you so invested in a strawman that you can’t tell reality from your mental image?

        I couldn’t be more clear: I support nuclear power, just using — already existing! — designs that are not derivative of naval designs, but instead designed from the ground up for civilian use. (Pebble bed reactors are one such design). The Navy needs compact, high-energy designs. That has trade-offs (everything does) that are sub-optimal for civilian needs, and despite 50 years or so, a lot of commercial plants still aren’t very far from those roots. (PBR’s, for instance, are utterly unlike anything a Navy vessel would need and come from a completely different design philosophy).

        Nor does 75,000 deaths a year from fossil really mean anything to me, because I’m already ON record as supporting nuclear power. But apparently, to YOU, if I don’t support a specific exact design I’m apparently anti-nuclear power and also love killing people through pollution.

        I admitt, slamming ME over things I don’t believe is much easier than the task of dealing with an untrusting American public. It’s a lot less useful, especially given you’re slamming me over things I don’t believe and, in fact, over things we actually agree on, but everyone’s got to have a hobby.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        we almost lost Detroit.

        No, we did not. There was a partial meltdown in one of our first attempts at a full scale commercial breeder reactor. There was no release of radiation, and the damage was minimal enough that the reactor remained operational, although not at full capacity, so it was eventually–6 years later–shut down.

        But for a journalist wanting to publish a sensationalistic book, “We had a small problem that got stopped and things never got too bad” isn’t as good a title as “We almost lost Detroit.”Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        james,
        have it your way, you’ve probably done more research on this than I have. Of course, I also count fukushima as a “minor issue” (with the potential to have gone into Major Problem). I wonder how much the japanese gov’t has doctored their data?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Morat,

        Lying about you? No. I think you may not grasp how your comments looked to someone who’s not you. But with your specifics about what you support, I believe you and withdraw my erroneous suspicions.Report

  4. Avatar Damon says:

    Let’s see, human technological advancement: We went from putting a man on the moon to having twitter. We went from actually getting to another planet to hacking phones for naked selfies. Truly the human race has advanced signficantly in this time span.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Damon says:

      Fine, fine, we’ll get off your lawn Damon.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to North says:

        yeah, instantaneous worldwide mass communication from a device that fits in your pocket is sooooo lame.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to North says:

        @dhex

        Yeah, the only improvement from world wide communication is the speed, and maybe, the cost. That’s SO much more significant that the technology to put a human being on another rock in our solar system. Going to the moon was something. The other is just an improvement over something that already existed.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to North says:

        @north

        *waves cane* Damn kids!Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to North says:

        Yeah, the only improvement from world wide communication is the speed, and maybe, the cost.

        Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to North says:

        Yeah, technology that helped launch the Arab Spring is nothing compared to a few guys walking on a satellite, collecting dust and rocks, and hitting golf balls while they bounce around.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to North says:

        @damon

        “Going to the moon was something.”

        it sure was. and there’s been about a billion different advances that added actual value to human lives. they could have picked up on any of the advances in cardiac care, or joint replacements, etc etc etc.

        straaaaaaaaawmen innnnnn spaaaaaaaaaaaace! 🙂

        but seriously though the way telecom has changed in just the last ten years is astounding. and frankly more amazing to me than moon landings are, which i see as more like technocratic cold war masturbation proxy something something something dudes in short sleeves and ties.

        (is there anything worse than short sleeves and ties? maybe cancer. maybe.)Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to North says:

        eta: and i don’t even use twitter. if it weren’t for the job, i’d never interact with it even obliquely.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to North says:

        Yeah, technology that helped launch the Arab Spring is nothing compared to a few guys walking on a satellite, collecting dust and rocks, and hitting golf balls while they bounce around.

        On the gripping hand, the guys hitting the golf balls didn’t spark a few massively violent insurrections while they were at it, some of which have deteriorated into what will probably be decades-long failed statehood(s).Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to North says:

        @patrick @dhex
        Well said patrick.

        Yeah, that whole telecom improvement helping out the arab spring…Now there’s a coup in Egypt and the “govt” is holding sham trials and convicting folks without evidence and issuing death penalties. Helped a lot didn’t it?Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to North says:

        Eh, I wouldn’t say it “hurt”, either, to be fair.

        Technology only moves things along. It doesn’t usually create or destroy real problems itself.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to North says:

        @damon

        part of the strawwwwmaaaan innnnnn spaaaaace quality of the image is that it’s predicated on picking something incredibly historical and something that’s very much quotidian and mashing them up because…something? i’m still not sure what the driving impetus was beyond a nasa fetish. (i mean, hey, who can blame them…all them helmets and puffy gloves? woof!)

        you could get the same effect in reverse contrasting the money spent in ’69 versus the average household income for poor americans. it would tell you something, i suppose.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to North says:

        Yeah, the only improvement from world wide communication is the speed, and maybe, the cost.

        Isn’t that a bit like saying that the only difference between air travel all over the world and putting a men on the moon is distance? There are a whole lot of important details wrapped up in that pithy summary.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Damon says:

      Apollo was selected because it was the most impressive example from the recent past. Twitter was selected because it is the most trivial example of our present. And even with this unfair selection process, there is still room for debate as to which is more impressive. Putting a man on the Moon very much sounds cool, and I wouldn’t turn down the chance to try it, but it didn’t actually change people’s lives here on the ground. Twitter inarguably does that. That we use it for silly things says that we are silly, not that technological progress has failed us.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        MiniComputers didn’t change people’s lives? Velcro? Tang?
        we got a lot out of our space program.Report

      • Fair or not, I’m only counting the direct impact of the mission itself and of Twitter itself. I’m not counting the Arab Spring in Twitter’s scorecard either.Report

      • MiniComputers didn’t change people’s lives?

        My version of history would be that minicomputers changed engineers’ and programmers’ lives, but the man in the street had to wait for cheap microprocessors. Reasonable people can disagree about the impact that the space program and military had on IC development. The aerospace industry rejected early ICs for space because they were fragile and subject to assorted problems with radiation. There’s a case to be made that those government programs, the military in particular, were important in creating enough demand for 7400-series ICs to bring the prices down to the point they were attractive for commercial use (through improved production technique). Certainly since the introduction of 8-bit microprocessors, the space program and the military have lagged well behind the leading edge of IC technology.Report

  5. Avatar Kim says:

    Um, how many of those twitter accounts are doublecounting?
    A friend of mine has well over 100 (each with a different use, naturally)…Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Kim says:

      Good question. These are at least somewhat active accounts, for what it’s worth. To be honest, the 271 million number doesn’t mean that much to me beyond “a lot, including a lot of ordinary people rather than a highly-selected elite”.Report

  6. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    The moon shots were certainly impressive, but were also a great example of one of the few times the adage “just keep throwing money at it until it works” was true. We already knew how to get into space, and how to get to the moon, etc. The largest hurdle to getting to the moon was, quite simply, a rocket big enough to do it! Hence the SaturnV.

    The one thing we learned from the moon shots (besides wondering why anyone would mix gin & clam juice, yuck!) was that we needed to learn a LOT more about living outside of a gravity well before we could make the cost of going back to the moon worth it.

    So, for those grousing about the lack of moon launches & how we are so reduced, I’d like to remind you about the International Space Station, flying past 420 km above your head. It has been continuously manned for the past 13 years, & is constantly doing real research into how we can thrive in space.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Hence the SaturnV.

      Well, in defense of the Saturn V being a difficult project, nobody has yet managed to come anywhere near close to building something that violently explodes but only in one direction long enough to get that much mass into orbit. Everybody else that’s tried has just managed the violently exploding part.

      We’re only just now trying to replicate it, ourselves.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick says:

        I’m always a little amazed that none of the SaturnV’s fell back to earth as flaming wreckage. If we were to do a moon shot today, my bet would be that it would involve 2 or 3 rockets, one for the crew module & lander, and one or more for the boosters & fuel. Then assemble in orbit.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Patrick says:

        Assembly in orbit is like two flatbed tractor-trailers driving along the highway at 70 miles an hour while you try to build a third tractor-trailer between them.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Patrick says:

        You want fun — research all the ways rockets go wrong. The things that HAVE to be taken into account.

        Like, for instance, the sheer amount of effort spent dampening the noise from launch so the rocket doesn’t shake apart. (They don’t dump all that water into the blast pit because of heat — it’s to tamp down the noise and keep it from reflecting back upwards and vibrating the rocket).

        There are wooden posts — telephone pole looking things — around the launch pad, designed to basically last the first milliseconds after launch before being destroyed — so that the instruments behind them can function after the initial wave has passed.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick says:

        I didn’t say it was a walk in the park, but we do dockings all the time these days. What is more cost effective, building another ginormous rocket, or just using what we have?Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Patrick says:

        What is more cost effective, building another ginormous rocket, or just using what we have?

        For certain reasons — like safety — some bits have to be made in one giant piece. And some bits are just gonna be heavy, or have a large volume.

        And cost wise — the cost-per-pound-to-orbit doesn’t really go down with smaller rockets. It’s cheaper, theoretically, to go with bigger rockets with bigger payloads. It doesn’t scale quite like you’d think.

        Some of these things you can design around. Others, well — perhaps not as much. Space travel is fun and complicated.

        (And BTW, the moon landing DID involve launching multiple pieces and assembling in orbit. What do you think Gemini was the test-bed for?)Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Patrick says:

        “What is more cost effective, building another ginormous rocket, or just using what we have?”

        Building a ginormous rocket. Getting two things into the same orbit is not a trivial process, and that’s before you even begin to try and fit things together. And there’s no machine shop in space–if two things don’t fit together that’s it, you’re done for the next six months until somebody builds an adapter and launches it up to you.

        You cannot assume that everything is easy and gets done right the first time.

        “BTW, the moon landing DID involve launching multiple pieces and assembling in orbit.”

        Ah-heh. With Apollo, both things launched on the same booster and “assembly” consisted of one docking maneuver.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick says:

        Building a ginormous rocket will NOT be cheaper overall, because we don’t have anything on par with the SaturnV in inventory (the SLS Block 2 will be bigger, if it ever gets built). The closest we have is the SLS Block 1 or the Falcon Heavy, both of which are also still in development. The Delta IV is the only one operational, and that is maybe a fifth of the payload of a SaturnV.

        If the Block 2 comes on line, then we’d have a rocket for a single lift moon launch.

        However, now that I think about it, we do have the advantage that it’s 40 years on since we did it last, and we could do a moon shot with a lot less mass (lighter materials & equipment, better rocket nozzles for more efficient thrust, etc.), so a rocket with the lift capacity of a SaturnV could very well be overkill. I’d have to crunch some numbers.

        And yes, I know somethings have to be sent up in one piece (like tanks or SRBs), but not all. If we to try a moon launch today, the ship would have to go up in pieces and be assembled in orbit. Not impossible, not even terribly difficult anymore. Seriously, I’ve designed rockets & space craft. Designing the craft is not that hard, and with modern computers & automatic controls, docking maneuvers are orders of magnitude easier. And you would not design the various pieces of a space craft in a vacuum. The builders would test fit everything on the ground.

        I mean, seriously, we have ships launch & dock with the ISS regularly, without needing a machine shop. The only way you have trouble getting pieces to fit is if the joint is damaged during launch, which, again, we’ve gotten real good at preventing.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Patrick says:

        “Designing the craft is not that hard, and with modern computers & automatic controls, docking maneuvers are orders of magnitude easier.”

        Or you could launch a single vehicle and not have to do any of that at all.

        “And you would not design the various pieces of a space craft in a vacuum. The builders would test fit everything on the ground.”

        See above re: building one tractor trailer between two of them that are moving. Oh, and you have one tractor trailer start driving in Sacramento and the other in Oakland and they both have to get to the same spot on I-5 outside of Fresno within one minute of each other, or else they have to drive all the way to LA and all the way back before they can try again.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick says:

        @jim-heffman

        Go read a book on orbital mechanics & try again. That is not how docking maneuvers work. I was doing the math for stabilizing a wildly rotating body & docking it to another my junior year of college. With a TI-89. It’s a slightly hoary bit of coordinate transforms and associated vector math, but it’s not difficult to program the algorithm into a hand calculator. Give me a 15 year old computer and a good set of automatic controls with a radar or lidar suite & some optical sensors for final alignment & the craft will do it themselves while I relax with a water bulb.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Patrick says:

        We’re not even at the docking yet, we’re still getting to orbit.

        And, what, when we get there you’re going to have autonomous docking systems on every segment of this multi-part monstrosity you want us to build? And this is going to be less expensive than just launching the whole thing as a single unit?

        (Bearing in mind that if one part doesn’t dock then you have a very bad problem and you are not going to space today.)

        I am not arguing that docking is impossible, I’m asking why you’re so married to the idea of doing it.Report

  7. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    Going to the Moon is like climbing Mount Everest. Everyone remembers Sir Edmund Hillary. Not many people outside the climbing hobby remember Schmied and Marmet. And their summit did not detract from Hillary’s accomplishment, for all that he never went back.Report

  8. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Up above, Jim is confusing Orbital Rendezvous with Ballistic Interception. Two completely different domains.

    Ballistic interception is essentially the old Star Wars program, or any of the current missile interception technologies. It is incredibly difficult to do because the sensor resolution needs to be incredibly precise, which is hard to do. Israel’s Iron Dome is one such functional example, as is active armor on tanks, or air-to-air missile guidance systems. However, all three rely on one half of the problem being relatively slow & on an explosion nearby doing enough damage to take out the target.*

    Orbital Rendezvous is two objects in the same orbit coming together. Orbital altitude is determined exclusively by orbital velocity. If you want an object to be in orbit 500km above the earth, you get it into orbit & you boost the velocity until you are at the correct velocity for that orbit. So if I have two space craft, A & B, & B is 50,000km behind A at an orbit 500km above earth, what I do is tell B to decelerate a bit & sink to a lower orbit, which means it will travel a smaller distance and eventually catch up to A. Once it is in the correct position, we have it boost back up to speed and if everyone involved did their ALGEBRA** right, it will ascend to the 500km orbit right next to A. From there, it’s a series of small course corrections and everyone comes together at speeds measured in cm/s.

    *All of these technologies, even AA missiles never hit the target. the explode toward the target in the hopes that the explosive force will do the target in. So they just get to within the blast radius.

    **This is high school level math.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      “Orbital Rendezvous is two objects in the same orbit coming together. Orbital altitude is determined exclusively by orbital velocity. If you want an object to be in orbit 500km above the earth, you get it into orbit & you boost the velocity until you are at the correct velocity for that orbit.”

      There’s more in a TLE set than semi-major axis, Buck Rogers.

      ” if everyone involved did their ALGEBRA** right”

      Dude, we had to invent calculus to deal with orbits. You are correct that the two-body problem has been reduced to a closed-form equation but that by no means implies that determining where something will be at a specific time is a simple activity. You can do all the algebra you like but if you don’t take the J-2 into account then you will not be in the same place.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Jim,

        Exactly my point. The macro problem is Algebra, thanks to being able to reduce the calculus to a two body problem (my undergrad had a heavy concentration on aero & astronautics, I’ve done all this math, both the basic algebra & all the hoary calculus & linear algebra). I’m not saying it’s something we should be letting high schoolers do, but we aren’t carving out fresh territory to do it. Doing these kinds of calculations, especially with a good calculator or a computer, is quick & easy. Code it into a good control system & it can do real time course corrections without human interaction (which, again, is something we already do regularly).

        As for why I like the idea of a multi-launch system, I already explained that. We don’t have a heavy lift platform right now. We have a few still in development, one of which will, once it’s ready, be able to lift more than a SaturnV. But none of them are ready NOW. Which was what I originally put forward, that if we were to do a moon shot TODAY, it would have to be on multiple launchers & assembled in orbit.

        If we wait for the SLS Block 2, then it makes sense to lift on one (I had forgotten that the Block 2 was in development when I commented originally on developing a ginormous booster).Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        “We don’t have a heavy lift platform right now. ”

        And we aren’t trying to go to Mars right now, either.

        I mean, yes, if we needed to do something right now then obviously we’d need to do on-orbit assembly. But since we’ve got the time, why not take steps to mitigate that risk?Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Again, I’d like to point out that rocket’s don’t scale the way you think. The bulk of what a rocket lifts is fuel for the rocket. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I’d be VERY shocked if lifting a 100 tons in three launches was actually cheaper at all than lifting 100 tons in one.

        The math on cost-per-pound to orbit can get really fun (since, you know, 99% of the rocket is fuel and rocket, not cargo). Then there’s also the cost of the rocket and fuel. Big rockets are more expensive, true. But if you launch 3 rockets versus 1, is the one three TIMES more expensive? (Given that SpaceX, NASA, and everyone else seems to be going for ‘more cargo’ I’m guessing “it’s cheaper for one big one than two smaller ones”).

        There’s also the sheer hassle and trade-offs of using a multiple-piece vehicle that has to dock in orbit (when, to be honest, some pieces you’d not so much want docked as assembled into one).

        Truly, a cargo you can launch NOW with three existing rockets is cheaper than a cargo you can launch in 10 years with one rocket, but as Jim notes — we’re not actually doing that. We’re not launching anything at the moment.

        NASA is certainly capable of multiple-piece design — the ISS is, you know, EXACTLY that. They still want a heavy lift rocket and have been basically working around Congress’s yearly “Let’s scrap stuff and pretend R&D has no sunk costs” tactics to keep plugging away at it. They really, really want it for some reason. I’m guessing because they really, really, REALLY want that extra room.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        @morat20

        Yes, I know they don’t scale like that. I never said they did. I’ve designed rockets, I know how to do the math.

        My whole point was, if we were to do a moon shot today, it would be cheaper to launch on multiple platforms than to incur the costs of developing a super heavy lift platform & fielding it. At the time I made the comment, I had forgotten that we have a super heavy lift platform in development already (i.e. sunk costs), and it looks like it will be finished in a few years (2018 I think).

        Once the SLS Block 2 is operational, then if given a choice between the existing ginormous rocket & smaller rockets, you use the big one. If you are going to have to develop the ginormous rocket from scratch, the cost of the development program plus launch costs vs. the cost using existing systems means you launch with the smaller rockets.

        I apologize if I wasn’t clear about this distinction.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        You also forgot to add in the general utility of a heavy-lift vehicle, and that it’s development costs should be spread across everything NASA (or anyone using that rocket, should NASA launch other people’s really big stuff) will launch using that vehicle.

        Developing a heavy lift vehicle SOLELY for a moon-shot is most likely a waste, unless there are serious design constraints that no current rocket can handle. (And there might well be). In which case, if you’re having to design a rocket, you might as well design it to fit as many needs as possible.

        And some components don’t lend themselves to modular design — some things have to be built or assembled as single pieces, and while docking is easy, assembly is a real PITA because you need people in orbit. (Assuming it can even be assembled in orbit).Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        @morat20

        With rockets, it’s mostly fuel tanks & SRBs that have to be lifted in one piece. Beyond that, what is assembled on earth is mostly a function of what will make it simplest in orbit. Obviously you want to have as much put together as humanely possible.Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Maybe as material science becomes better we could see LTA (lighter than air) drones deliver most assemblies. Save the rockets for the heavy pieces.

        Regular civilians are sending payloads into the blackness rather often these days.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Regular civilians are sending payloads into the blackness rather often these days.
        Using, to be honest, a hundred billion dollars worth of public investment and expertise.

        NASA never really built rockets — they often designed them, did the research into the materials (developing them, many times) and spent a great deal of money and brainpower, but then paid someone to do it.

        And the engineers and scientists who got skilled doing this — or the people they trained and the fields they pioneered — are what powers SpaceX, for instance. (Quite a few folks wandered away from NASA and NASA contractors and into SpaceX and it’s brethren, mostly because they were hiring and NASA was downsizing everything, including contract work).

        Rocket science is, in fact, quite hard. There’s a hilarious video at the Saturn V museum at Canaveral that shows rocket after rocket failing in a variety of amusing ways.

        I’m pretty sure NASA would love SpaceX’s funding structure, though. One reason ISS cost so much was that Congress would retask it (and alter funding massively) every other year or so, forcing NASA to scrap months or years of R&D and design work to do the whole bloody thing over from scratch. That adds up surprisingly fast.

        It’d be like SpaceX developing a rocket, then every year at the end of the year their budget would alter by 30% for the next year, the rocket parameters (payload, orbit height) would be altered, and every three years SpaceX would be told it would be subbing out critical systems to a different partner, and half the time it couldn’t use any pre-existing work.

        Honestly, it’s a wonder anything got done.Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        This guy probably should get some funding:

        Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        One of these capable of lifting 2000lbs.
        http://www.gizmag.com/go/3060/

        Operational 200 days a year.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      As someone who knows less than jackshit about all this, I just want to say I’m finding this discussion very interesting.Report

  9. Avatar Kim says:

    http://www.strahlentelex.de/A-Koerblein_spontaneous-abortions_english.pdf
    on fukushima, if anyone’s interested.
    might have been stress related…Report

  10. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    @michael-cain

    I know the one reactor at TMI was down. My point was that the worst US nuclear incident resulted in no significant loss of usable land, and the facility itself is still operational.

    @morat20

    My whole original point was that it is next to impossible for anyone to get permission to build a prototype of an idiot proof nuclear power source. The NRC, who are the people in government who know better, won’t issue the permits, due in a large part to activist & media fearmongering over anything that uses radiation to generate electricity in some fashion (and that is even before we get into the whole political hot fuel rod that is nuclear arms & how the fed demands the nuclear power industry be all tied into that). People have been trying for years to get any safer reactor design online, and it just goes nowhere.Report

  11. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    @citizen

    Just to be clear, lofting something on a balloon is not getting it into orbit. A balloon can get it up there, but a rocket will still be needed to accelerate to orbital velocity, and the balloon adds a nasty wrinkle in that it can drift quite a distance on the way up depending on the winds, enough such that it may be impossible to get it into the desired orbit.

    Now something like that gravity plane, if it had the ability to rise vertically & do station keeping, could function in much the same way that the Virgin Galactic White Knight aircraft does.

    For those who are curious, the reason rockets have stages is two-fold. The first & most obvious is so the rocket can shed dead weight. Once a fuel tank or Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) is spent, it makes no sense to hang onto it. Lose the empty weight & you don’t need as much fuel for the rest of the craft to keep going. If they are jettisoned low enough, it is possible to recover them & recondition/reuse them; too high and they do an uncontrolled re-entry and are too burned to be useful.

    The second, and less obvious reason, has to do with rocket nozzles. The (for lack of a better term) efficiency of a rocket nozzle is heavily dependant upon the internal shape of a rocket nozzle & the density of the fluid it is working in. What this means is that the ideal rocket nozzle at sea-level is crap & 30km altitude, and vice versa. So when a rocket sheds a stage, you’ll notice that the newly exposed rocket nozzles are different from the previous ones. One notable exception is the Space Shuttle, whose main engines would fire all the way up. At the pad, they weren’t doing much, but by the time the SRBs fell away, the shuttle engines were doing it all.

    As to the question of why don’t we just use nozzles that can change shape? Well, it is theoretically possible, as soon as we find a material that can withstand the heat and forces of the rocket plume without extra strength or cooling systems.Report

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