Zubrin critiques Musk, and it’s fantastic!

I thoroughly enjoyed this article from New Atlantis.

My initial thoughts are that Zubrin nails it. Why increase the fuel burden on the Mars base just to haul a potential Mars habitat all the way back to Earth? Instead, the ITS should be able to leave the huge 100 person habitat on Mars as the beginnings of the Mars city, and just fire a smaller rocket & cabin back to Earth. Yes, there will be an increase in per-ticket cost leaving the crew quarters behind to become a Mars base. A new one will be required for every trip. But isn’t a home on Mars kind of important? Maybe once there is a native Martian population building new accomodations it will be cheaper to just front up the fuel and shoot the whole accomodation module back to Earth for re-use. But until there is a sizable industry on Mars, I can’t see how the earlier colonists are meant to colonise without a base. It’s not like you can just put a habitat module in your suitcase! Anyway, over to Zubrin.

 

Elon Musk debuting the ITS plans

Colonizing Mars

A Critique of the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System

Robert Zubrin

In remarks at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico on September 29, 2016, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk revealed to great fanfare his company’s plans for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). According to Musk, the ITS would enable the colonization of Mars by the rapid delivery of a million people in groups of a hundred passengers per flight, as well as large-scale human exploration missions to other bodies, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.

I was among the thousands of people in the room (and many more watching live online) when Musk gave his remarkable presentation, and was struck by its many good and powerful ideas. However, Musk’s plan assembled some of those good ideas in an extremely suboptimal way, making the proposed system impractical. Still, with some corrections, a system using the core concepts Musk laid out could be made attractive — not just as an imaginative concept for the colonization of Mars, but as a means of meeting the nearer-at-hand challenge of enabling human expeditions to the planet.

In the following critique, I will explain the conceptual flaws of the new SpaceX plan, showing how they can be corrected to benefit, first, the near-term goal of initiating human exploration of the Red Planet, and then, with a cost-effective base-building and settlement program, the more distant goal of future Mars colonization.

Design of the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System

As described by Musk, the SpaceX ITS would consist of a very large two-stage fully-reusable launch system, powered by methane/oxygen chemical bipropellant. The suborbital first stage would have four times the takeoff thrust of a Saturn V (the huge rocket that sent the Apollo missions to the Moon). The second stage, which reaches orbit, would have the thrust of a single Saturn V. Together, the two stages could deliver a maximum payload of 550 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), about four times the capacity of the Saturn V. (Note: All of the “tons” referenced in this article are metric tons.)

At the top of the rocket, the spaceship itself — where some hundred passengers reside — is inseparable from the second stage. (Contrast this with, for example, NASA’s lunar missions, where each part of the system was discarded in turn until just the Command Module carried the Apollo astronauts back to Earth.) Since the second-stage-plus-spaceship will have used its fuel in getting to orbit, it would need to refuel in orbit, filling up with about 1,950 tons of propellant (which means that each launch carrying passengers would require four additional launches to deliver the necessary propellant). Once filled up, the spaceship can head to Mars.

The duration of the journey would of course depend on where Earth and Mars are in their orbits; the shortest one-way trip would be around 80 days, according to Musk’s presentation, and the longest would be around 150 days. (Musk stated that he thinks the architecture could be improved to reduce the trip to 60 or even 30 days.)

After landing on Mars and discharging its passengers, the ship would be refueled with methane/oxygen bipropellant made on the surface of Mars from Martian water and carbon dioxide, and then flown back to Earth orbit.

Problems with the Proposed System

The SpaceX plan as Musk described it contains nine notable features. If we examine each of these in turn, some of the strengths and weaknesses in the overall system will begin to present themselves.

1. Extremely large size. The proposed SpaceX launch system is four times bigger than a Saturn V rocket. This is a serious problem, because even with the company’s impressively low development costs, SpaceX has no prospect of being able to afford the very large investment — at least $10 billion — required to develop a launch vehicle of this scale.

2. Use of methane/oxygen bipropellant for takeoff from Earth, trans-Mars injection, and direct return to Earth from the Martian surface. These ideas go together, and are very strong. Methane/oxygen is, after hydrogen/oxygen, the highest-performing practical propellant combination, and it is much more compact and storable than hydrogen/oxygen. It is very cheap, and is the easiest propellant to make on Mars. For over a quarter century, I have been a strong advocate of this design approach, making it a central feature of the Mars Direct mission architecture I first laid out in 1990 and described in my book The Case for Mars. However, it should be noted that while the manufacture of methane/oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide and water is certainly feasible, it is not without cost in effort, power, and capital facilities, and so the transportation system should be designed to keep this burden on the Mars base within manageable bounds.

3. The large scale manufacture of methane/oxygen bipropellant on the Martian surface from indigenous materials. Here I offer the same praise and the same note of caution as above. The use of in situ (that is, on-site) Martian resources makes the entire SpaceX plan possible, just as it is a central feature of my Mars Direct plan. But the scale of the entire mission architecture must be balanced with the production capacity that can realistically be established.

4. All flight systems are completely reusable. This is an important goal for minimizing costs, and SpaceX is already making substantial advances toward it by demonstrating the return and reuse of the first stage of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. However, for a mission component to be considered “reusable” it doesn’t necessarily need to be returned to Earth and launched again. In general, it can make more sense to find other ways to reuse components off Earth that are already in orbit or beyond. This idea is reflected in some parts of the new SpaceX plan — such as refilling the second stage in low Earth orbit — but, as we shall see, it is ignored elsewhere, at considerable cost to program effectiveness. Furthermore the rate at which systems can be reused must also be considered.

5. Refilling methane/oxygen propellant in the booster second stage in Earth orbit. Here Musk and his colleagues face a technical challenge, since transferring cryogenic fluids in zero gravity has never been done. The problem is that in zero gravity two-phase mixtures float around with gas and liquid mixed and scattered among each other, making it difficult to operate pumps, while the ultra-cold nature of cryogenic fluids precludes the use of flexible bladders to effect the fluid transfer. However, I believe this is a solvable problem — and one well worth solving, both for the benefits it offers this mission architecture and for different designs we may see in the future.

6. Use of the second stage to fly all the way to the Martian surface and back. This is a very bad idea. For one thing, it entails sending a 7-million-pound-force thrust engine, which would weigh about 60 tons, and its large and massive accompanying tankage all the way from low Earth orbit to the surface of Mars, and then sending them back, at great cost to mission payload and at great burden to Mars base-propellant production facilities. Furthermore, it means that this very large and expensive piece of capital equipment can be used only once every four years (since the feasible windows for trips to and from Mars occur about every two years).

7. The sending of a large habitat on a roundtrip from Earth to Mars and back. This, too, is a very bad idea, because the habitat will get to be used only one way, once every four years. If we are building a Mars base or colonizing Mars, any large habitat sent to the planet’s surface should stay there so the colonists can use it for living quarters. Going to great expense to send a habitat to Mars only to return it to Earth empty makes no sense. Mars needs houses.

8. Quick trips to Mars. If we accept the optimistic estimates that Musk offered during his presentation, the SpaceX system would be capable of 115-day (average) one-way trips from Earth to Mars, a somewhat faster journey than other proposed mission architectures. But the speedier trips impose a great cost on payload capability. And they raise the price tag, thereby undermining the architecture’s professed purpose — colonizing Mars — since the primary requirement for colonization is to reduce cost sufficiently to make emigration affordable. Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Following the example of colonial America, let’s pick as the affordability criterion the property liquidation of a middle-class household, or seven years’ pay for a working man (say about $300,000 in today’s equivalent terms), a criterion with which Musk roughly concurs. Most middle-class householders would prefer to get to Mars in six months at the cost equivalent to one house instead of getting to Mars in four months at a cost equivalent to three houses. For immigrants, who will spend the rest of their lives on Mars, or even explorers who would spend 2.5 years on a round trip, the advantage of reaching Mars one-way in four months instead of six months is negligible — and if shaving off two months would require a reduction in payload, meaning fewer provisions could be brought along, then the faster trip would be downright undesirable. Furthermore, the six-month transit is actually safer, because it is also the trajectory that loops back to Earth exactly two years after departure, so the Earth will be there to meet it. And trajectories involving faster flights to Mars will necessarily loop further out into space if the landing on Mars is aborted, and thus take longer than two years to get back to Earth’s orbit, making the free-return backup abort trajectory impossible. The claim that the SpaceX plan would be capable of 60-day (let alone 30-day) one-way transits to Mars is not credible.

9. The use of supersonic retropropulsion to achieve landing on Mars. This is a breakthrough concept for landing large payloads, one that SpaceX has demonstrated successfully in landing the first stages of its Falcon 9 on Earth. Its feasibility for Mars has thus been demonstrated in principle. It should be noted, however, that SpaceX is now proposing to scale up the landing propulsion system by about a factor of 50 — and employing such a landing techniques adds to the propulsive requirement of the mission, making the (unnecessary) goal of quick trips even harder to achieve.

Improving the SpaceX ITS Plan

Taking the above points into consideration, some corrections for the flaws in the current ITS plan immediately suggest themselves:

A. Instead of hauling the massive second stage of the launch vehicle all the way to Mars, the spacecraft should separate from it just before Earth escape. In this case, instead of flying all the way to Mars and back over 2.5 years, the second stage would fly out only about as far as the Moon, and return to aerobrake into Earth orbit a week after departure. If the refilling process could be done expeditiously, say in a week, it might thus be possible to use the second stage five times every mission opportunity (assuming a launch window of about two months), instead of once every other mission opportunity. This would increase the net use of the second stage propulsion system by a factor of 10, allowing five payloads to be delivered to Mars every opportunity using only one such system, instead of the ten required by the ITS baseline design. Without the giant second stage, the spaceship would then perform the remaining propulsive maneuver to fly to and land on Mars.

B. Instead of sending the very large hundred-person habitat back to Earth after landing it on Mars, it would stay on Mars, where it could be repurposed as a Mars surface habitat — something that the settlers would surely find extremely useful. Its modest propulsive stage could be repurposed as a surface-to-surface long-range flight system, or scrapped to provide material to meet other needs of the people living on Mars. If the propulsive system must be sent back to Earth, it should return with only a small cabin for the pilots and such colonists as want to call it quits. Such a procedure would greatly increase the payload capability of the ITS system while reducing its propellant-production burden on the Mars base.

C. As a result of not sending the very large second stage propulsion system to the Martian surface and not sending the large habitat back from the Martian surface, the total payload available to send one-way to Mars is greatly increased while the propellant production requirements on Mars would be greatly reduced.

D. The notion of sacrificing payload to achieve one-way average transit times substantially below six months should be abandoned. However, if the goal of quick trips is retained, then the corrections specified above would make it much more feasible, greatly increasing payload and decreasing trip time compared to what is possible with the original approach.

Changing the plan in the ways described above would greatly improve the performance of the ITS. This is because the ITS in its original form is not designed to achieve the mission of inexpensively sending colonists and payloads to Mars. Rather, it is designed to achieve the science-fiction vision of the giant interplanetary spaceship. This is a fundamental mistake, although the temptation is understandable. (A similar visionary impulse influenced the design of NASA’s space shuttle, with significant disadvantage to its performance as an Earth-to-orbit payload delivery system.) The central requirement of human Mars missions is not to create or operate giant spaceships. Rather, it is to send payloads from Earth to Mars capable of supporting groups of people, and then to send back such payloads as are necessary.

To put it another way: The visionary goal might be to create spaceships, but the rational goal is to send payloads.

Alternative Versions of the SpaceX ITS Plan

To get a sense of some of the benefits that would come from making the changes I outlined above, let’s make some estimates. In the table below, I compare six versions of the ITS plan, half based on the visionary form that Elon Musk sketched out (called the “Original” or “O” design in the table) and half incorporating the alterations I have suggested (the “Revised” or “R” designs).

Our starting assumptions: The ship begins the mission in a circular low Earth orbit with an altitude of 350 kilometers and an associated orbital velocity of 7.7 kilometers per second (km/s). Escape velocity for such a ship would be 10.9 km/s, so applying a velocity change (DV) of 3 km/s would still keep it in a highly elliptical orbit bound to the Earth. Adding another 1.2 km/s would give its payload a perigee velocity of 12.1 km/s, sufficient to send it on a six-month trajectory to Mars, with a two-year free-return option to Earth. (In calculating trip times to Mars, we assume average mission opportunities. In practice some would reach Mars sooner, some later, depending on the launch year, but all would maintain the two-year free return.) We assume a further 1.3 km/s to be required for midcourse corrections and landing using supersonic retropropulsion. For direct return to Earth from the Martian surface, we assume a total velocity change of 6.6 km/s to be required. In all cases, an exhaust velocity of 3.74 km/s (that is, a specific impulse of 382 s) for the methane/oxygen propulsion, and a mass of 2 tons of habitat mass per passenger are assumed. A maximum booster second-stage tank capacity of 1,950 tons is assumed, in accordance with the design data in Musk’s presentation.

Table: Analysis of Alternative ITS Concepts
Concept A B C D E F
Type (O=“original”; R=“revised”) O O R O R R
Stage dry-mass fraction 0.08 0.08 0.08 0.12 0.12 0.12
One-way flight time (days) 130 180 180 180 180 180
Launcher 2nd stage ΔV (km/s) 7.0 5.5 3.0 5.5 3.0 3.0
Ship trans-Mars ΔV (km/s) 0.0 0.0 2.5 0.0 2.5 2.5
Trans-Earth ΔV (km/s) 6.6 6.6 6.6 6.6 6.6 6.6
Habitat mass round trip (t) 200 200 60 166 42 10
Habitat mass one-way to Mars (t) 0 0 200 0 200 20
Other cargo one-way to Mars (t) 0 210 190 174 208 20
Launcher 2nd-stage dry mass (t) 150 150 110 228 171 15
Launcher 2nd-stage propellant (t) 1,950 1,873 1,429 1,950 1,426    177
Ship stage dry mass (t) 0 0 36 0 58 13
Ship stage trans-Mars injection propellant (t) 0 0 462 0 482 60
Trans-Earth-injection (TEI) propellant (t) 1,574 1,574 465 1,900 482 114
Total useful mass delivered 0 210 390 174 408 40
Number of settlers delivered 100 100 100 83 100 5
Payload per settler (t) 0.0 2.1 3.9 2.1 4.1 8.0
Trans-Sys mass (5 missions/op) 1,500 1,500 470 2,280 751 145
Payload/Trans-Sys (5 missions) 0.00 0.70 4.14 0.38 2.72 1.38
Payload/TEI propellant 0.00 0.13 0.84 0.09 0.85 0.35

Concept A is the original ITS concept as presented by Musk, with a 130-day transit from Earth to Mars. The plan is technically feasible, but it has the downsides discussed above, including the glaring problem marked in red: no payload is delivered along with the people, leaving the colonists at Mars with no supplies or equipment or housing.

Concept B gives Musk’s original plan only a slight twist: the trip to Mars is longer — by fifty days — which means a lower DV is required for the journey, which in turn means (as marked in blue) that 210 tons of cargo can be delivered along with the colonists, for 2.1 tons of payload per colonist.

Concept C incorporates another of my suggested improvements from above, leaving the second stage of the launch vehicle near Earth. In such an arrangement, the second stage needs to do only 3 km/s DV, with the remaining 2.5 km/s DV needed to reach Mars done by the (now separate) spaceship’s own much smaller propulsion system. Concept C then leaves the 200-ton habitat behind on Mars, along with a further 190 tons of cargo, for a total of 4.1 tons per colonist, double that of Concept B.

Concept C has another even greater advantage over Concepts A and B: it requires only 465 tons of propellant to go back from Mars to Earth, less than a third of that needed by Concepts A or B. Furthermore, because of its rapid reuse of the launch vehicle’s second stage, the in-space propulsion system required to support a rate of five missions per opportunity in Concept C is also less than a third of that in Concepts A or B. If we combine these advantages, we see as a bottom line (as marked in green) that during each launch window, Concept C would allow for the delivery of about six times the payload to Mars as Concept B per each unit of transport system mass or per each unit of propellant produced on Mars.

However, Concepts A, B, and C all embrace an optimistic aspect of Musk’s proposal: the estimate of propulsion systems with dry-mass fractions of 0.08. The “dry-mass fraction” is the mass of a rocket or stage “wet” (that is, filled with fuel) divided by its mass “dry” (that is, empty). A dry-mass fraction of 0.08 means that the mass of the empty rocket would be 8 percent the mass of the filled rocket. For the remaining concepts, we will assume a more conservative dry-mass fraction of 0.12.

So Concept D repeats Musk’s plan (the slower version described in Concept B), but assumes a higher dry-mass fraction. And Concept E repeats my revised version (the slower and staged Concept C), but assumes a higher dry-mass fraction. Using these more conservative assumptions, the Revised version performs an order of magnitude better than the Original in all the relevant figures of merit. The advantages of employing the Revised design with the six-month trip to Mars are thus decisive.

But the relevant issue is not how these ideas might be implemented in a future Mars colonization program, but how we might put them to use in the sort of nearer-term Mars exploration and base-building program to be conducted by our own generation. Such a possibility is illustrated in Concept F. Like Concept E, Concept F adopts the revision suggestions I described above, and assumes the more conservative dry-mass fraction. However, in Concept F, the design is scaled down by an order of magnitude, so that instead of requiring a launch vehicle that can put about 500 tons into low Earth orbit, a launch vehicle able to put 50 tons into low Earth orbit will suffice. This is a critical distinction because, in contrast to 500-ton-to-orbit launchers — which at this point are the stuff of science fiction — at least three different launchers with capabilities of 50-tons-to-orbit or more may soon be available, including SpaceX’s own Falcon Heavy (54 tons to orbit, scheduled for first flight in 2017), as well as NASA’s Space Launch System (75 tons to orbit, first flight in 2018), and the Blue Origin New Glenn (about 65 tons to orbit, first flight by 2020). The improvements and revisions I’ve described make it possible to accomplish a Mars exploration mission using a 50-ton-to-orbit launch vehicle. Indeed, the mission presented in Concept F is comparable in crew size and capability to the Mars Direct or Mars Semi-Direct mission plans that I’ve described elsewhere, but with the advantage of using a 50-ton-to-orbit launcher instead of the 120-ton-to-orbit launcher employed by those concepts. This is a very exciting prospect.

Near-Term Mars Missions Using the Improved ITS Plan

Consider what this revised version of the ITS plan would look like in practice, if it were used not for settling Mars but for the nearer-at-hand task of exploring Mars. If a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle were used to send payloads directly from Earth, it could land only about 12 tons on Mars. (This is roughly what SpaceX is planning on doing in an unmanned “Red Dragon” mission “as soon as 2018.”) While it is possible to design a minimal manned Mars expedition around such a limited payload capability, such mission plans are suboptimal. But if instead, following the ITS concept, the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy booster were refueled in low Earth orbit, it could be used to land as much as 40 tons on Mars, which would suffice for an excellent human exploration mission. Thus, if booster second stages can be refilled in orbit, the size of the launch vehicle required for a small Mars exploration mission could be reduced by about a factor of three.

In all of the ITS variants discussed here, the entire flight hardware set would be fully reusable, enabling low-cost support of a permanent and growing Mars base. However, complete reusability is not a requirement for the initial exploration missions to Mars; it could be phased in as technological abilities improved. Furthermore, while the Falcon Heavy as currently designed uses kerosene/oxygen propulsion in all stages, not methane/oxygen, in the revised ITS plan laid out above only the propulsion system in the trans-Mars ship needs to be methane/oxygen, while both stages of the booster can use any sort of propellant. This makes the problem of refilling the second stage on orbit much simpler, because kerosene is not cryogenic, and thus can be transferred in zero gravity using flexible bladders, while liquid oxygen is paramagnetic, and so can be settled on the pump’s side of the tank using magnets.

Using such a system, a manned expedition of Mars could be carried out any number of ways. For example, it could be done in a manner similar to the Mars Direct mission plan, with the first trans-Mars payload delivering an unfueled Earth Return Vehicle with an onboard propellant factory to make methane/oxygen propellant on Mars, and the second delivering a habitat module with a crew of astronauts aboard who land near the ERV, using their hab as their house on Mars. After 1.5 years of exploration they would return in the ERV, leaving their hab behind on Mars to add incrementally to the facilities of a growing Mars base as the missions proceed.

Or a different plan, closer in spirit to the SpaceX ITS, could be adopted, in which a single payload combining the hab and the ERV is sent, with the hab above and the ERV below. The ERV would use a limited amount of methane/oxygen propellant to perform supersonic retropropulsion of the combined payload upon Mars entry, bringing the assembly to subsonic speeds. Once this is done, the hab would pop a parachute, or possibly a parasail, to lift it off the ERV and then land nearby using a very small terminal landing propulsion system. The first such mission could send such an assembly out with no crew, allowing the ERV to be fueled in advance of the first piloted launch, which would then arrive two years later provided with a redundant hab and plentiful extra supplies. Once the base is well-established, the hab and ERV modules could be landed together, with the hab subsequently lifted off the ERV by a crane.

The number of such potential variations is endless. Another: In initial missions, the Falcon Heavy second stage could perform the full burn, allowing it to coast out to Mars in company with the piloted spacecraft, which could then use it as a counterweight on the opposite end of a tether to provide the crew with artificial gravity on their way to Mars (just as in the standard Mars Direct plan). This would entail expending the second stage, but it could be worth it for the first missions to have their crews in top physical strength, as they will reach a Mars with minimal support facilities. In later missions, the Falcon Heavy second stage could be left behind just short of Earth escape for ready reuse (as in the revised ITS plan I described above), and the crew be allowed to fly to Mars in zero gravity, since they would by that point have plenty of ample base facilities to provide local support for recovery from zero-gravity weakening once they reach the Red Planet.

Dawn of the Spaceplanes

Toward the end of his presentation, Musk briefly suggested that one way to fund the development of the ITS might be to use it as a system for rapid, long-distance, point-to-point travel on Earth. This is actually a very exciting possibility, although I would add the qualifier that such a system would not be the ITS as described, but a scaled-down related system, one adapted to the terrestrial travel application.

The point is worthy of emphasis. For three thousand years or more, people have derived income from the sea, for example by fishing — but far more by using the sea as a favorable comparatively low-drag medium for transport. Similarly, while there is money to be made by human activities in space, there is potentially much more to be made by human travel across space, taking advantage of the drag-free quality of space for rapid travel. It has long been known that a rocketplane taking off with a high suborbital velocity could travel halfway around the Earth (that is, reaching anywhere else on the planet) in less than an hour. The potential market for such a capability is enormous. Yet it has remained untouched. Why?

The reason is simply this: Up till now, such vehicles have been impractical. For a rocketplane to travel halfway around the world would require a DV of about 7 km/s (6 km/s in physical velocity, and 1 km/s in liftoff gravity and drag losses). Assuming methane/oxygen propellant with an exhaust velocity of 3.4 km/s (it would be lower for a rocketplane than for a space vehicle, because exhaust velocity is reduced by surrounding air), such a vehicle, if designed as a single stage, would need to have a mass ratio of about 8, which means that only 12 percent of its takeoff mass could be solid material, accounting for all structures, while the rest would be propellant. On the other hand, if the rocketplane were boosted toward space by a reusable first stage that accomplished the first 3 km/s of the required DV, the flight vehicle would only need a mass ratio of about 3, allowing 34 percent of it to be structure. This reduction of the propellant-to-structure ratio from 7:1 down to 2:1 is the difference between a feasible system and an infeasible one.

In short, what Musk has done by making reusable first stages a reality is to make rocketplanes possible. But there is no need to wait for 500-ton-to-orbit transports. In fact, his Falcon 9 reusable first stage, which is already in operation, could enable globe-spanning rocketplanes with capacities comparable to the DC-3, while the planned Falcon Heavy (or New Glenn) launch vehicles could make possible rocketplanes with the capacity of a Boeing 737.

Such flight systems could change the world.

Colonizing Mars

In his talk introducing the ITS, Musk suggested that a Mars colonization program using thousands of such systems could be used to rapidly transport a million people from Earth to Mars. This would be done to provide a large enough population to allow the colony to be fully self-sufficient. In subsequent interviews, he also said that none of these colonists would include children, since having kids around would be a burden upon the colony.

My own ideas on how the colonization of Mars could be achieved are different. Rather than a massive convoy effort to populate the planet, I see the growth of a Mars colony as an evolutionary development, beginning with exploration missions, followed by a base-building phase. As the series of missions proceeds, additional elements of the flight-hardware set would become reusable, causing transport costs to drop. Furthermore, as the base grows, its capability to produce more and more necessary items, including water, food, ceramics, glasses, plastics, fabrics, metals, wires, tools, domes, and structures, would expand — progressively reducing the amount of materials that needs to be transported across space to support each settler. This will provide the material basis for an expanding Martian population, which will grow exponentially as families are formed and children are born.

That said, Mars is unlikely to become autarchic for a very long time, and even if it could, it would not be advantageous for it to do so. Just as nations on Earth need to trade with each other to prosper, so the planetary civilizations of the future will also need to engage in trade. In short, regardless of how self-reliant they may become, the Martians will always need, and certainly always want, cash. Where will they get it?

A variety of ideas have been advanced for potential cash exports from Mars. For example, Mars might serve as a source of food and other useful goods for asteroid-mining outposts which themselves export precious metals to Earth. Or, since the water on Mars has six times the deuterium concentration as Earth’s, that potentially very valuable fusion-power fuel could be exported to the home planet once fusion power becomes a reality. Or maybe precious metals will be found on Mars, which, with a fully reusable interplanetary transportation system, it might be profitable to mine and export to Earth.

While such possibilities exist, in my view the most likely export that Mars will be able to send to Earth will be patents. The Mars colonists will be a group of technologically adept people in a frontier environment where they will be free to innovate — indeed, forced to innovate — to meet their needs, making the Mars colony a pressure cooker for invention. For example, the Martians will need to grow all their food in greenhouses, strongly accentuating the need to maximize the output of every square meter of crop-growing area. They thus will have a powerful incentive to engage in genetic engineering to produce ultra-productive crops, and will have little patience for those who would restrict such inventive activity with fear-mongering or red tape.

Similarly, there will be nothing in shorter supply in a Mars colony than human labor time, and so just as the labor shortage in nineteenth-century America led Yankee ingenuity to a series of labor-saving inventions, the labor shortage on Mars will serve as an imperative driving Martian ingenuity in such areas as robotics and artificial intelligence. Such inventions, created to meet the needs of the Martians, will prove invaluable on Earth, and the relevant patents, licensed on Earth, could produce an unending stream of income for the Red Planet. Indeed, if the settlement of Mars is to be contemplated as a private venture, the creation of such an inventor’s colony — a Martian Menlo Park — could conceivably provide the basis for a fundable business plan.

To those who ask what are the natural resources on Mars that might make it attractive for settlement, I answer that there are none, but that is because there is no such thing as a “natural resource” anywhere. There are only natural raw materials. Land on Earth was not a resource until human beings invented agriculture, and the extent and value of that resource has been multiplied many times as agricultural technology has advanced. Oil was not a resource until we invented oil drilling and refining, and technologies that could use the product. Uranium and thorium were not resources until we invented nuclear fission. Deuterium is not a resource yet, but will become an enormous one once we develop fusion power, an invention which future Martians, having limited alternatives, may well be the ones to bring about. Mars has no resources today, but will have unlimited resources once there are people there to create them.

Martian civilization will become rich because its people will be smart. It will benefit the Earth not only as a fountain of invention, but as an example of what human beings can do when they rise above their animal instincts and invoke their creative powers. It will show to all that infinite possibilities exist — not to be taken from others, but to be made.

No one will be able to look upon it without feeling prouder to be human.


Robert Zubrin, a New Atlantis contributing editor, is president of Pioneer Energy of Lakewood, Colorado, and president of the Mars Society. The paperback edition of his book Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by New Atlantis Books/Encounter Books.

Posted in Futurism / Singularity, Mars, Space | Leave a comment

Australia adds 49 species to threatened list

The Guardian reports that Australia has added 49 species as threatened, 9 of which are *critical*. Again it’s habitat loss. Again we see the need for a ban on suburban sprawl, fast adoption of comprehensive conservation laws protecting habitats, and immediate adoption of job creating tree farms.
>Most of the species were threatened due to habitat loss, he said – and commercial activities that contributed to this were ongoing, compounding the problem of inadequate funding.
“What hope is there? … The logging continues, the habitat loss continues – it’s no surprise that the species ends up on the threatened species list.”

 

Posted in Biodiversity loss | Leave a comment

How low is Trump’s IQ?

Wow, Trump can’t bother to even ask his advisors how NATO works before insulting the leader of an important ally with a ‘bill’. If this is how he treats his allies in a routine diplomatic visit, how is the guy going to respond in a real crisis with an antagonist? The guy is seriously deluded and dangerous. As The Guardian reports, the American representative to NATO says…

‘That’s not how it works’

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Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

This is my kind of solar!

Hi all,

I normally diagnose a fast build out of nuclear power, eventually scaling this up to GenIV breeder reactors like the Integral Fast Reactor or eventually the ultimate waste-eating reactor, the Molten Salt Reactor. (The IFR is a GREAT and very safe reactor, but the MSR has passive safety systems that I personally think are even better. EG: No liquid sodium).

But I mentioned solar? Well, this is a futuristic scenario about automation on the moon, and a series of these around the moon could provide a lot of the power they need constructed from local materials. They could also build nuclear, but if automated robots are building this, then it may be easier for them to build a number of these solar towers around the moon and overcome the fortnight night-time that way. But the best bit? Build the solar concentrators in impact craters, and they get the inwards curvature for free.

 

Just whack this…

concsolar.jpg

 

In one of these…

cratermoon.jpg

Again, this is assuming an almost post-scarcity economy with far more sophisticated robot-labour practically for free. In today’s economy, renewables are not going to do the job here on earth, not unless something radical changes in energy storage technology. But in the future? Maybe with a lunar moon robot industry with an output a million times America’s economy today,  maybe we’ll have the sheer robot-labour to build space-based solar power systems that beam microwaves back to receiving stations on earth and get all our power from the sun. Who knows? That’s for our grandchildren and great grandchildren to decide.

 

Posted in Nuclear, Renewable energy, Space, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Robot cars as child rescuers?

Robot car function I just thought of: will a little kid, lost in suburbia without adults around, be able to walk up to a public robot-car and say, “I’m lost, help me!” and that will trigger facial recognition software, access the parent’s emergency contacts and emergency account protocols, and the car will go into comfort mode, invite the kid in to give them somewhere safe to sit while the car facilitates Skype calls to the parents, calls the local police , etc.  The parents comfort the kid while they approach the car in their own robot-cab.

 

Posted in Robot Cars | 2 Comments

Free speech not a big priority for doomers

It doesn’t take long to get banned from doomer websites. They tend to quickly recycle tired old myths to people like myself that quote peer-reviewed research into nuclear power, affordable synthetic diesel, and other matters. Then, before too long, your posts just don’t get accepted. Days later, and my post is still in the ‘awaiting moderation’ stage.

For example, Alice Friedman of the Energy Skeptic blog just posted a circular argument entitled:

Coal power plants depend on railroads to deliver coal

But, of course, my reply is still ‘awaiting moderation’, so I thought I would post it here!
Eclipse says:

Your comment is awaiting moderation.

Hi Alice,
again I think you’re making quite a few large assumptions and leaps.

“What’s interesting to me about this hearing is how vulnerable our system is due to this interdependency. If trains can’t deliver coal, then coal plants can’t make electricity, which would make it impossible to refuel trains (pumps are electric).”

That’s an enormous sweeping statement painting a very complex situation that requires tiny brushes to make out the detail, but you’ve simplified it all down with ceiling rollers wiping out all the details. I’ll explain why below.

“Climate change is likely to buckled rail (extreme heat), wash away tracks (extreme storms and flooding), leading to even more unreliable coal delivery.”

Yes, but it’s not like there’s just one rail system leading to one coal powerplant. There are multiple intersecting grids with multiple power sources. The grid generally has enough power back up for when a large 1 GW or 2 GW coal plant goes down, the rest of the grid picks up Gigawatts of power outage and takes over!

“Now natural gas and nuclear can still step in to keep the grid up,”

And don’t forget that many mines find their remote locations expensive to pipe power into, and are starting to find that even intermittent renewables can play a part out there, cutting the cost of diesel generators and only switching to diesel when it is an overcast day and the solar isn’t producing as much as it should. This is not necessarily ideal, but I’m just pointing out that there are multiple redundancies in a complex story that you appear to want to dumb down and over simplify.

“but as natural gas and uranium ores decrease,”

I can’t WAIT for natural gas to decrease so we stop burning the polluting stuff. But uranium ores decrease? Are you kidding me? There’s enough uranium in the world’s oceans to power a large civilisation for billions of years because it keeps getting topped up by erosion. It’s essentially ‘renewable’, especially if we use breeder reactors which get 60 to 90 times the energy out of the uranium.

“and up to half of nuclear power plants retire by 2030 with few new ones built,”

You’re assuming you know the future. China will mass produce breeder nukes cheaper than coal in just 6 years!
http://nextbigfuture.com/2014/06/china-seriously-looking-at.html

Do you *know*, for a fact, that the next decade/s will not see a rise in breeder reactor companies selling different reactors for around $1bn per gigawatt? Once they start coming off the line, they’ll start breeding all your waste up into higher and higher grades of reactor fuel. I’ve read some estimates that claim America’s nuclear waste will power you for 1000 years. But here’s Dr James Hansen:

“Both IFR and LFTR are 100-300 times more fuel efficient than LWRs. In addition to solving the nuclear waste problem, they can operate for several centuries using only uranium and thorium that has already been mined. Thus they eliminate the criticism that mining for nuclear fuel will use fossil fuels and add to the greenhouse effect.”
https://bravenewclimate.com/2008/11/28/hansen-to-obama-pt-iii-fast-nuclear-reactors-are-integral/

“the electric grid will grow increasingly fragile, until it isn’t always up most of the time.”

A conclusion that would seem to run against the evidence. There are not less ways of producing electricity, but far more as we move ahead. There are various solar and wind projects that can take the edge off afternoon ‘peaks’ in demand, and reliable baseload nukes keeping the baseload ‘mountain’ stable.

There are as many different ways of building a nuclear power plant as there are of building a house. There are fast reactors and thermal reactors, traditional light water reactors with once-through fuel cycles that can then feed breeder reactors, and dozens and dozens of varieties within each major category. The Russians have their BN-600 and BN-800 burning nuclear waste and gradually breeding it into more fuel to start up other reactors that can breed waste into fuel… and on and on it goes.

Posted in Doomer, nuclear power, Rail, trains, Transport | Leave a comment

Blargh! Nuclear industry in trouble

Straight from my email inbox comes this latest news from Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress:-

"Brace for impact."

“BRACE FOR IMPACT.”

The looming insolvency of Toshiba has set off a chain reaction of events that threatens the existence of nuclear power in the West:

— Britain’s plan to build six new nuclear plants — based on four different plant designs — in order to phase out coal by 2025 is now up in the air.

— Britain’s turmoil creates uncertainty for the French and Chinese nuclear industries — as well as for another Japanese company, Hitachi — that had won contracts to build other British plants.

— In response to Toshiba’s failings, one of India’s leading nuclear policy experts is calling for the government to scrap existing plans with Areva, Westinghouse and Russia’s Rosatom, and “Make Nuclear Indian Again” by scaling up the country’s indigenous design.

— On Wednesday Mitsubishi’s CEO told the Financial Times that the company is not considering a merger with Toshiba. The reason? Toshiba’s nuclear design “is a totally different technology” from Mitsubishi’s.

— A proposal by Southern Company to build a third nuclear plant based on Toshiba’s Westinghouse AP1000 design in Georgia is increasingly unlikely.

The Japanese and French governments will be compelled to act for economic reasons — their nuclear industries are too important to their economies to fail. The Japanese government has always played a strong role in shaping the direction of its industries, including nuclear, while the French nuclear industry is entirely government-controlled.

Even though it lacks its own nuclear industry, Britain is emerging as the strongest of the three nations because it has a significant number of planned nuclear plants that involve Japanese and French companies, and is a big player in a buyer’s market.

The new Conservative government of Theresa May has expressed more interest in industrial policy than prior Conservative governments, and has already begun talks with the Japanese government about the UK government coming in as an investor on two of its planned plants.

The question is whether anyone in the three governments will have the vision and strength to make the right choices. The right choices will be the most difficult ones because they will require standing up first to the nuclear industry and next to ideologues on the Left and the Right.

But crises bring opportunities and there are large ones for reformers within the industry and within governments to do what should have been done 40 years ago: standardize designs, reorganize and consolidate the industry, and implement a vision to scale up plants while bringing down costs.

But before doing any of that, policymakers and the public must understand why Toshiba and Areva failed.

Why Nuclear is Failing

1. Lack of Standardization and Scaling

“Everything you described in your article was true for nuclear plants built in the 1970s,” an industry veteran told me.

In my investigation, I described how Toshiba’s Westinghouse AP1000 design was radically new — it had never been tested and indeed wasn’t even complete before construction began.

And yet when it came time to build two of them in Georgia and South Carolina, all parties were afflicted with a kind of historical amnesia.

“No one involved seemed to fully appreciate just how difficult it would be to build new reactors, especially the AP1000 — a ‘first of a kind’ design,” reports the Financial Times.

It’s not unusual for big construction and manufacturing projects to go over time and budget.

Consider the San Francisco Bay Bridge. After an earthquake in 1989 caused part of it to collapse, California officials decided to replace the entire eastern span.

Construction started in 2002 and was supposed to cost $1.5 billion. The project was afflicted with challenges. In 2009, steel rods flew off the span and hit at least two cars. Faulty bolts were discovered. The problems delayed the opening by four years and cost $6.4 billion — four times more than what had been estimated.

Or consider the Boeing “Dreamliner” jet aircraft. The FOAK arrived three years late, in 2011. Immediately things went awry. Engines failed along with fuel pumps, computers and wings. Lithium batteries caught on fire. The problems were so bad that the Japanese government launched its own investigation.

Now consider that building a nuclear plant isn’t like building a bridge or a jet plane — it’s like building a bridge and a jet plane at the same time.

Except it’s not. It’s much harder than that.

The reason has to do with scale. Where Boeing is making 10 aircraft per month — allowing everyone involved to become more efficient and produce planes faster — it takes nuclear plant construction companies up to 10 years to build one plant.

Boeing knows the importance of standardization. The company is losing money on every Dreamliner it makes, and says it hopes to make money after selling 1,100 of them. Thus, when faced with a rash of problems in 2012, Boeing didn’t give up on the Dreamliner design — it fixed the problems.

The response from the nuclear industry to such problems would have been to invent yet another nuclear plant design complete with promises of greater safety and lower cost. And yet what makes nuclear plants safer and cheaper to build and operate is experience, not new designs.

What the constant switching of designs does is deprive the people who build, operate and regulate nuclear plants of the experience they need to become more efficient.

Why then does the industry keep doing it?

2. The War on Nuclear

To some extent, the 40-year obsession with innovative new designs is a consequence of an industry dominated by the engineers — the project architects — rather than by the construction firms.

But Boeing and Airbus are companies headed by engineers who don’t make the nuclear industry’s mistakes. Why?

The answer in part is that Boeing doesn’t have to deal with a powerful, $500 million annual lobby that does everything it can to deliberately make nuclear expensive.

NRDC, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, UCS, and myriad state and local groups have spent 50 years frightening the public with pseudo-science, suing utilities, subsidizing the competition, and winning regulations that do nothing for plant safety.

On the one hand, the nuclear industry responded brilliantly to these attacks. After the anti-nuclear movement landed a decisive blow against the industry in 1979, with the meltdown at Three Mile Island book-ended by the release of the hysterical film “China Syndrome” and “No Nukes” concerts, the industry got its act together.

Over the next 30 years the industry worked diligently to better train its workers and create a culture of safety that resulted in an extraordinary rise in plant efficiency from about 50 percent to over 90 percent today.

But the industry also responded by creating new and untested designs: Westinghouse’s AP1000 and Areva’s EPR.

The problem of serial design-switching is compounded by the vanishingly small number of nuclear plants being built. Just 60 plants total are currently under construction — most of different designs.

The Koreans, by contrast, prioritized efficient construction over innovative new designs, and are now leading the global competition to build new nuclear plants.

3. Too much focus on machines, too little on human beings

Areva, Toshiba-Westinghouse and others claimed their new designs would be safer and thus, at least eventually, cheaper, but there were always strong reasons to doubt such claims.

First, what is proven to make nuclear plants safer is experience, not new designs. Human factors swamp design.

The same is true of aircrafts. What made air travel safe was many decades of training and experience by pilots, air traffic controllers, and regulators — not radically different jet plane designs.

In fact, new designs risk depriving managers and workers the experience they need to operate plants more safely, just as it deprives construction companies the experience they need to build plants more rapidly.

While Boeing has touted the Dreamliner as a kind of breakthrough, it was an incremental improvement on the same jet planes we’ve been flying on since the 1950s, and did little to change the procedures of pilots and flight attendants.

To be sure, continuous improvement of jet plane technologies has contributed to making flying safer than ever.

But the key factors were executive-level commitment to risk reduction, a company-wide safety culture, better emergency trainings, inspections and accident investigations.

Second, how do you make a technology that almost never harms anybody any safer than it already is?

Fossil fuels operating normally kill far more people than nuclear plants do when they malfunction.

And given such tiny health impacts, it’s simply not clear that making plants any safer is actually possible. Long time horizons and small sample sizes will likely make it impossible to ever know — scientifically — that newer plant designs are safer.

Advocates of new designs, including the EPR and AP1000, will acknowledge this point, but point to their enhanced safety, such as the EPR’s double containment dome, the AP1000’s back-up water system, or meltdown-proof fuel-coolant mixtures.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already ruled that all new nuclear plants will be subject to the Aircraft Rule and thus require containment domes.

And containment domes are not as large of an expense as is sometimes suggested. A 2012 Black and Veatch study estimated that for the AP1000 the reactor island was just 13 percent of total plant costs. And the reactor island’s actual share of costs would be lower given the $10 billion in cost overruns of the two US AP1000s.

The key takeaway from the Toshiba and Areva debacles is that the cost overruns due to construction delays from building a highly regulated FOAK nuclear plant swamp any savings from modestly smaller amounts of necessary equipment.

Finally, the overwhelming amount of harm caused by accidents are due to fear and panic, not radiation exposure.

What made Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima the three worst nuclear accidents wasn’t the radiation released. The fire at an innovative gas-cooled reactor in Windscale, England, in 1957, and the partial meltdown of a sodium-cooled reactor near Detroit in 1966, were both far worse than Three Mile Island.

What made the more famous accidents harmful was how local and federal governments panicked and triggered dangerous over-evacuations. What they should have done was told local residents to simply “shelter in place” — as is done for things like tornadoes — until the accident was dealt with.

Contrast that to the handling of jet plane accidents.

Passengers on Sully's flight brace for impact by sheltering in place.

PASSENGERS ON SULLY’S FLIGHT BRACE FOR IMPACT BY SHELTERING IN PLACE.

In the recent film “Sully,” based on a real event, an Airbus 320 loses both of its engines to bird strikes in just five minutes. With all power gone, the pilot has seconds to act. Can he make it back to La Guardia airport in New York? Or should he attempt a water landing in the Hudson river?

Captain Sully chooses the latter. He tersely announces, “Brace for impact,” at which point the flight attendants in unison begin a kind of creepy, hypnotic chant: “Brace! Brace! Heads down! Stay down! Brace! Brace!…”

The passengers comply. They are frightened, and some scream, but they stay seated. They tuck their heads and some put hands on the seat in front of them. In other words, they shelter in place.

And everyone survives.

 

How to Save Nuclear

1. Consolidate or Die

Only two companies make large-bodied jet planes: Boeing and Airbus.

Large, complicated projects like building a jet plane or a nuclear plant require very large, upfront investments that only large, well-capitalized entities can back — like an electric utility, or Boeing, which invested $32 billion making the Dreamliner.

If nuclear is going to survive in the West, it needs a single, large firm — the equivalent of a Boeing or Airbus — to compete against the Koreans, Chinese and Russians.

There will never be as many nuclear plants as jet planes, especially not during a time of low overall demand for electricity. As such, economies of scale must be achieved more rapidly.

One of the keys is making both construction and operation as efficient as possible.

Many of the big global nuclear players offer to build and operate the plants. That’s what the Korean company, KEPCO,  has done in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The four-reactor nuclear plant KEPCO is building is in UAE on-time and appears to be on-budget. In January, the UAE awarded KEPCIO with a 60-year, near-$50 billion contract to operate and maintain the plants it built.

I was told by someone in the industry that KEPCO treated the construction part of the work as a loss-leader in order to get the more lucrative operation, maintenance and refueling contract — and perhaps to advertise its construction prowess to other nations.

The Airbus of nuclear should be run by someone with significant experience in nuclear plant construction — since that’s where the cost savings (and overruns) come from — not engineering.

To some extent, consolidation is already happening. In 2006, Toshiba bought Westinghouse and Mitsubishi partnered with Areva, while in 2007, Hitachi partnered with the GE nuclear division.

Toshiba recently bought the construction firm hired to build the AP-1000 Vogtle plant, but with the latter deal, the consolidation came too late. It was done in response to, not in anticipation of, future construction and manufacturing delays.

Of course, consolidation on its own is not enough, as Areva learned. There must also be standardization, scaling and social acceptance. Consolidation is essential to achieve the repetitions required for cost reductions. And a planned scaling-up of nuclear is the key to achieving those repetitions.

2. Standardize or Die

First, the new Boeing or Airbus of nuclear should build a single design. Standard-setting is a traditional role of government, and in the past has been a huge aid in helping industries consolidate, grow and achieve continuous improvement.

The UK has key role to play here. The heterogeneity of its planned reactors is astonishing:

  • AP1000 x 3 for Moorside
  • EPR x 2 for Hinkley Point C, EPR x 2 for Sizewell C
  • Hitachi ABWR x 2 for Wylfa Newydd, ABWR x 2 for Oldbury B
  • Hualong-1 x 2 for Bradwell

The UK should scrap all existing plans and start from a blank piece of paper. All new UK nuclear plants should be of the same design.

Second, the criteria for choosing the design should emphasize experience in construction and operation, since that is the key factor for lowering costs.

Reprocessing waste should be off the table. It is unnecessary and adds to the costs.

Some emphasis should also be on mass-manufacturing modules, something the Koreans are also pursuing.

But what both Toshiba and Areva failures underscore is that all new nuclear plants, however much they are going to be manufactured, are going to require construction according to the exacting standards of strict regulators, and it was that kind of construction that helped destroy not just one but two of the world’s largest nuclear companies.

Third, the plants should be constructed sequentially so that managers and workers in Airbus Nuclear can learn from experience.

Fourth, the firm should have strong financial incentives for reducing costs.

Fifth, the program should include a significant increase in funding to test alternative reactors.

The record here is clear: governments only invest significantly in demonstrating new nuclear reactor types when their nations are building new nuclear plants. And with good reason: people believe there is a future for nuclear.

It works the same way in reverse. Long before they had achieved their goal of shutting down existing plants, anti-nuclear activists avidly sought to cut funding for nuclear innovation. They won a big victory in 1982 when Congress cut funding for the Clinch River fuel processing project. And they won another in 1993 when Congress cut funding for the integral fast reactor.

Funding for the experimental molten salt reactor developed at Oak Ridge in the late 1960s was cut before it could ever become a test reactor. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission estimated that building one would cost $10 billion (in 2016 dollars), and noted that past tests usually cost twice what had been estimated.

A long-term, global build-out of standardized nuclear plants is the only way in which states will invest the billions needed to test radically different designs.

3. Scale or Die

What’s behind the crisis facing nuclear generally and Toshiba in particular is the utter lack of certainty about any future nuclear plant builds — including those under construction.

Nations must work together to develop a long-term plan for new nuclear plant construction to achieve economies of scale. Such a plan would allow for certainty, learning-by-doing, cost declines and lower financing costs.

Risk and rewards should be pooled. Cost savings achieved through experience should be shared along with the cost overruns of the first few plants.

Governments should invest directly or provide low-cost loans. While this will inevitably be decried by anti-nuclear groups, the truth is that the U.S. and Europe have been subsidizing wind and solar for decades. In Illinois and California, subsidies for wind and solar have played a key role in threatening nuclear plants with premature closure, undermining clean air and climate goals.

Some basic fairness is in order. This starts with investment and financing as well as support for nuclear plants at risk of premature closure due to our discriminatory subsidy regime.

Others might wonder why nuclear energy should be supported when Boeing and Airbus flourished without government help. But the truth is that they didn’t: last year the World Trade Organization says Boeing and Airbus received billions in government subsidies — up to $22 billion worth for Airbus alone.

UK Labor leaders have already called for direct government investment to save the plants:

“The delay we’re seeing under the Tories is leaving thousands of nuclear workers uncertain about their future,” the shadow Labor secretary said on Wednesday. “Public investment in nuclear energy would bring huge benefits through the nuclear supply chain and energy security.”

Plus, financing is the key to opening up the global market — something that is in the entire industry’s interest.

Vietnam recently cancelled plans to build nuclear plants and is now planning to build coal plants instead. Someone close to the situation told me that had foreign nations financed the nuclear plants, they would have gone forward.

And the quantities of financing — not development aid — are trivial considering the potential benefits to nuclear supplier nations, especially when the financing is spread out over 30 years and is shared by UK, Japan, France and the United States.

And such financing would offer a decisive advantage to the Airbus of nuclear over its competitors, allowing it to win contracts and provide the certainty everyone in the industry needs.

For such an effort to work, it would need widespread support that lasts for many decades. That will require that national governments work together to increase public demand and social acceptance of nuclear. Toshiba and Areva show that declining social acceptance drives demand for unnecessary regulations, as well as the industry’s constant changing of designs.

Japan’s nuclear industry cannot survive so long as public opposition is preventing the restarting of shuttered nuclear plants.

The Japanese government and industry leaders must overcome their shame and seek help from allied nations in overcoming the public’s continuing radiophobia in response to Fukushima.

What’s needed is an independent, serious and sustained effort by health and medical professionals to help Japanese and other publics to overcome fears based on grossly unscientific information.

France, Canada and most recently Vietnam all show that this can be done.

And as an analogy, there is much more to be learned from efforts to increase support for vaccinations among skittish parents. There is an aggressive and effective effort to educate the public about vaccines that, for the most part, still works. In response to a recent measles outbreaks, for example, California started requiring students be vaccinated to attend public schools.

If millions of parents will inject their children with the polio virus because they understand that it is a weakened version of the one that cripples and kills, they are capable of understanding that nuclear plants are the safest and cleanest way to make electricity.

The truth is that human beings around the world have been victimized by fake news about nuclear power since the late 1960s. When most people learn the basic facts about nuclear they become far more supportive of it.

And yet neither governments nor industry have ever, in the 50 years of nuclear energy, made a serious effort to provide those facts.

What that means is that there is enormous potential to touch hearts and change minds, just as many of ours were upon learning why nuclear is essential to mitigating climate change.

Now Change

The crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West also offers an opportunity for a new life.

When you consider that the nuclear industry has for 40 years often done the exact opposite of what’s known to work, it’s a small miracle that nuclear is still 11 percent of global electricity, instead of zero.

Everything that’s wrong — the proliferation of designs, the delay in project starts, efficient Korean competitors, low demand, low social acceptance — is something that can be made right.

We can learn from the Koreans. We can standardize design. We can finance the necessary scale. We can go back to Vietnam with a better deal. And we can increase public acceptance.

Policymakers have a special role to play. They must seek out reformers and change agents within an industry that is dominated by the same kind of thinking that led to today’s crisis. They must reach out to their counterparts in other nations. And they must stand up to ideologues peddling pseudo-science on the Left and pseudo-economics on the Right.

Ultimately new leadership with a new vision and plan must emerge from within the nuclear industry. Toshiba has seen a succession of leaders pitching what is fundamentally the same approach. It’s not clear that Areva has yet learned the lessons from its EPR debacle, or whether anyone has really started to clean house.

But, happily, Toshiba and Areva are not the only two companies capable of exercising the leadership required to save the world’s most important environmental technology from being consigned to the long-term waste repository of history.

Posted in Nuclear, Uncategorized | Leave a comment