In Part 1 I showed that the arguments against private nuclear weapons (and nuclear devices in general) are faulty. I also intend to show that nuclear technology can be handled safely, without succumbing to the obsession of Safety Über Alles.
In the comments on Part 1 Vanmind brought up the danger of what might commonly be called “rogue elements” using nukes as states collapse. I consider this to be an example of the General Ripper version of the nut job problem, and I’ll also note that many of our theories dealing with the spasms of retreating statism seem to have pretty large holes. I made a comment on the previous part correcting some errors and oversights. I recommend reading it if you haven’t already.
The real problems with nuclear technology, and how to handle them:
Surprising as it may be to the layman, direct radiation from a nuclear explosive can be a relatively small, or even non-existent problem depending on the design and yield of the explosive. With low fallout, low yield, or enhanced radiation devices the released neutrons can travel significantly outside the fireball, and can cause low level (and short-lived) neutron activation of the surroundings. With a high yield device the sphere of total destruction will be larger than the sphere of radiation penetration, resulting in the emitted direct radiation being a non-issue.
For a nuclear power plant the core can be shielded by a number of methods, the first being the coolant (absorbing radiation is part of how it cools in fact). Shielding methods for the most part boil down to simply putting mass around the radioactive areas, though it is obviously somewhat more complicated than that.
What is interesting is that an operating coal fired power plant releases more radiation via fly ash than an operating nuclear power plant (note: this is often misreported as coal ash being more radioactive than nuclear waste, which is false). The only reason I can think of for why this is not considered a problem by most people is that coal is “known” and understood, lighting something on fire and being warm is very easy to understand. Putting certain metals next to each other in a specialized container and getting heat seems like magic.
Fallout mostly consists of vaporized radioactive elements spread over a given area. In many ways it is very similar to chemical pollution with a few tweaks. In addition, many of the isotopes commonly feared are feared because their chemical properties allow them to be absorbed by the body in large quantities. Fallout tends to be associated with bombs, but can also occur with catastrophic containment failure of a power plant, Chernobyl being the canonical example.
Larger devices, or ones detonated at high altitude have a massive advantage over power plant failures and low yield devices in that they can propel the radioactive “ash” into the higher atmosphere, where it would be mixed into the jet stream, diluting the ash to irrelevance.
But whatever the source, contamination by short or long-lived isotopes is a relatively minor problem. Isotopes with short half-lives burn themselves out quickly (however they release considerable radiation while doing so), and long-lived isotopes emit very little radiation.
Contamination by isotopes with a medium length half-life is what causes problems, because the isotopes stick around for a long time (months to decades), but emit significant amounts of radiation. It is also important to note that the chemical properties of the fallout are frequently more dangerous than the radiological properties. One example of this is depleted uranium, which emits only a minuscule amount of radiation, but is highly toxic. Plutonium is another element that is like this.
The answer for handling short-lived isotopes is to leave the area until radiation levels drop. For long-lived isotopes there often isn’t much that is worth doing. Cleaning up medium-life isotopes can be anything from trivial (shovel some dirt into a truck and take it away), to extremely complicated and expensive, making it more cost effective to simply wall off and abandon the property for a few decades. Chemical pollution can have a very similar spectrum of possible danger levels also, with the bonus that many kinds of contamination will stay there forever until they are cleaned up, with no option of waiting for it to decay.
For anyone who doubts that chemical pollution can be just as bad (read: FUD capable) as radioactive pollution, I suggest perusing Things I Won’t Work With, a collection of blog posts by a chemist talking about various nightmare chemicals, of particular interest are the methylates, and the classic Sand Won’t Save You This Time. The articles are written in an easy to understand (and hilarious) style, so even if you don’t know anything about chemistry there is still a lot you can get out of them.
This isn’t a problem for nuclear explosives, but it is relevant for reactors. In some ways it is the reactor counterpart of fallout because it is produced in normal operation. Since this is one of the Grand Boogiemen of anti-nuclear hysteria it requires some attention, so I need to explain just what nuclear waste is.
With a traditional reactor design the nuclear fuel is formed into pellets which are then placed in rods. As the reactor operates the fuel fissions and transmutes into different elements. Most of these elements are radioactive and promptly fission into different elements over varying amounts of time. During this process the operating reactor will slowly build up a concentration of what are called “neutron poisons” in the fuel rods. These isotopes absorb neutrons, but either do not undergo induced fission, or if they do fission they require more neutrons to do so than other parts of the fuel. The result is that after a while a fuel rod is useless as fuel. It simply can no longer sustain fission despite the fact that around 95% of the original nuclear fuel is still present. At this point the stupid (and costly) action is to take the rod out of the reactor and dispose of it. The smarter option is to reprocess it and remove the neutron poisons, resulting in a fresh fuel rod ready for use. This can be done about 20 times, resulting in a complete burnup of fuel in the reactor. Some reactor designs use fuel that doesn’t choke itself as quickly, or can be reprocessed while in use (molten salt reactors being one example).
The nuclear waste problem is a fantastic example of what happens when you allow government to decide on matters of safety. In the US reprocessing is illegal. Officially that is because of fears of “nuclear proliferation.” However, like anything else, there are conspiracy theories about what the real reason might be. Personally I believe that the coal, oil, and in modern times “renewable” energy industries are partly responsible due to lobbying (why wouldn’t they try to hobble nuclear tech?). However this is merely speculation.
What is not speculation is that in the USA those in a position to choose reactor designs have repeatedly picked ones that produce large quantities of bomb making materials, even when there were much safer, or potentially more efficient designs available. If the spent fuel rods are considered waste then the military can buy bomb making materials far cheaper than the market price.
For radioactive isotopes that simply can’t be burned up in a reactor and have no economic use there are methods of disposal that take into account the long time span of radioactivity, one of which is to mix the waste with borated glass, and drop the canisters into a subduction zone. It is also possible to drop the canisters into the sun, or a crater on the moon, but only if the price of putting mass into orbit is cheap enough.
Low fallout devices
There are ways to build nuclear explosives that produce very little fallout, even when detonated as a groundburst. Among the evidence for this are the Soviet devices (3 x ~15 kiloton) detonated as part of the Tagia test to excavate the Pechora-Kama Canal.
With pure fission explosives a lot of the fallout is a result of low efficiency. Devices designed for small physical size (such as artillery shells) have some of the worst efficiencies, because they simply don’t have the space to use a design with good efficiency. One way to increase the efficiency of a pure fission device is to use larger and more powerful conventional explosives to produce a denser compression in the fissile material, this results in a more complete burnup (lower fallout), as well as less fissile material needed for a given yield.
In a fusion explosive (at least in the Teller-Ulam design) in order to reduce fallout the fusion stage uses a lead tamper instead of the usual uranium tamper. In addition the radiation case is made of thin, neutron transparent materials. Hilariously this turns it into a neutron bomb, increasing the direct radiation blast but producing minimal fallout. Also designing the device to get more of it’s total yield from fusion reduces the fallout.
What I implied in the Fallout section is not strictly true; radioactive fallout does behave differently than chemical pollution, and the damage mechanisms are different. But the point is that they can be handled the same way. There is nothing about nuclear pollution that prevents suing the polluter for damages and cleanup. The argument from diffuse fallout does not hold because this question must be answered for chemical pollution as well. The possible argument that the sheer damage possible is beyond what anyone could pay does not hold either, for reasons that I addressed in Part 1.
It turns out that we do have an answer (two actually) to the problem of diffuse pollution injuring many people by a small amount each. One is the class action lawsuit, the other is Coase’s Theorem. Coase’s Theorem states that if transaction costs are zero all externalities will be internalized. It is not possible to actually drive those costs to zero, but we can push them low enough to have a good approximation. For two examples of the effect of low transaction costs see Kickstarter and Bitcoin.
Coase’s Theorem is one of the bedrock concepts on which libertarianism is based, because it utterly repudiates one of the common justifications for the state as a means to prevent and/or control negative externalities.
“I like to describe Coase’s Theorem as the Killer Joke of political economics. That is, you can spot the people who understand it in fullness easily – because they turn into libertarians.” ~ Eric S. Raymond
The Extortion Scenario
One common problem raised against anarchism is how to defend against a foreign power who simply says, “Pay X amount or City Y is vaporized.”The small form of this is the Dark Knight Rises scenario. A small group takes over a city by the threat of destroying it if anyone attempts to take them out.
Unfortunately for the would-be extortionist, everyone involved will think through the logic of how this works (given the existence of a functioning defense network). If the people pay up he comes back for more, other extortionists show up, and it will not stop. The result is that he may get the first payment, possibly even the second payment before an insurance company posts the video of the extortionist and his henchmen being killed. This outcome is assisted by the fact that the extortionist is highly unlikely to have the air of legitimacy that a government has.
This may regrettably result in a crater or two before people figure out that it won’t work, but the results of giving in are worse. No one complies with a plane hijacker anymore, do they? They know that the results of doing so are worse than taking out the attacker, because the passengers know that they are probably already dead. That lesson has been learned, though it sadly cost thousands of lives to do so.
In this scenario, a nuclear device does not change the situation much, as this kind of extortion does not depend on their existence. A couple aircraft or a ship full of ammonium nitrate can do the same thing. The Texas City Disaster of 1947 being a classic example.
Safety Über Alles
Sadly, thinking that nuclear hazards are always more dangerous than any other hazard, combined with government regulation, has resulted in a situation where the vast cost per gigawatt savings of nuclear power is almost completely soaked up by nonsense standards and completely illogical ways of thinking. It is possible to submit a reactor design for approval that is provably safer than any current design and have it rejected because it uses parts which have not been certified as “nuclear grade.” This also ties in to regulatory capture because there are many groups who stand to benefit, or at least think they do, from high cost nuclear power.
Without statist interference this can not happen, the structural shielding, and reprocessing methods will be chosen based on the true costs and risks, not on what someone thinks who will never have to live with the consequences, but can force their opinion on others with impunity. Similarly, explosives will be designed for efficiency and safety based on their economic uses, whether that is mining, or spacecraft propulsion, or yes, even as weapons.
This implies that if a solution to the nut job problem exists it will be far more likely to be found, and the damage mitigated by a private system.
Tags: nuclear weapons