The Hill to Die On

I swear, I have never been able to understand how the loud and proud Capital-F official feminists made the ready availability of abortion the hill (for the pre-born fetal humans, mostly) to die on. Yes, I’ve pondered this in blogposts many a time. The 19th century suffragettes certainly were what we would now cast as pro-life, and so was a modern iteration, IIRC. (I used to get their newsletter.) Why that one single aspect, out of all the others which would have a bearing on the lives of females; extended maternal leave and benefits, quality childcare … practically any other concern other than that of abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy could be a rallying ground for those affecting an intense interest in matters of a particularly female orientation. This, when birth control in so many forms (and for male and female alike) is readily and economically available. This is not the 19th century anymore, not even the first half of the 20th,. Truly, it is a mystery why this particular cause and no other animates the radical fem-fringe. I can only surmise that many of the radical and early feminists had abortions, felt horrifically guilty about it all and wished to drag other women into that particular hell with them as a matter of solidarity.

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Cloward Pivening

Once upon a time in the mad 60’s a pair of mad lefty (but I repeat myself) socialist sociologists refined a strategy for bringing about the blessed socialist utopia by overloading and bankrupting the welfare system. This, they confidently hoped, would crash the capitalist system and bring about the longed-for socialist utopia. Essentially, they drafted the poor and unprivileged into an army demanding services which the state ultimately could not provide; somehow, this would crash the system and bring about radical social reform. The whole thing sounds rather like the Underpants Gnomes theory of economics or the cartoon showing a pair of white-coated scientists examining a complicated mathematical sequence on a chalkboard with a notation in the middle of it which says, “And here a miracle happens.”

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Nuclear Power: Has the Time Finally Come?

Commercial nuclear power emerged in the mid-1950s, to great enthusiasm. The Eisenhower administration promoted it as a major part of its Atoms for Peace program.  There was talk about ‘electricity too cheap to meter,’ and about making the world’s deserts bloom via nuclear-powered desalination.

And quite a few commercial nuclear plants were indeed built and put into operation.  In the US, there are presently 93 commercial reactors with aggregate capacity of 95 gigawatts, accounting for about 20% of America’s electricity generation.  But overall, adoption of commercial nuclear power has not met early expectations.  Costs have been much higher than were  expected.  There have been great public concerns about safety, stemming originally from the association of nuclear power and nuclear weapons as well as by practical concerns and then supercharged by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and then by Chernobyl (1986) and the Fukushima disaster in 2011.  Permitting and construction times have been long and  unpredictable, driven by the public concerns as well as by the general growth of regulation and litigation in the US and the custom, one-off manner in which these plants have been constructed.

There are reasons to believe that the stalled state of nuclear power may be about to change.  Some factors are:

Concerns about CO2 emissions, combined with increasing realization of the intermittent nature of wind/solar energy, point to nuclear as a solution that could be both practical and politically acceptable.  Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas, the downside of which has been strongly pointed out by recent events, further builds the case for nuclear on that continent.  Politicians are feeling cornered between their promises of green-ness, the now-obvious dangers of energy dependency, and the need to not do too much economic damage if they want to get reelected.  Some will turn to nuclear.

The Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation are now a long way behind us–surely there are many fewer people who have nightmares about mushroom clouds than there were in, say, 1985.  (Although this point has been partially negated by Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling and by the battles around the Chernobyl area–still, I don’t believe nuclear fears are anywhere near the original-cold-war level)

The French experience with nuclear power, from which it generates about 70% of its electricity, helps build credibility for nuclear as a practical and safe energy source.  Also, the US Navy’s successful operation of nuclear submarines and other ships over several decades.

The downsides of wind and solar in terms of their very considerable land use as well as their fluctuating outputs, are being better understood as a result of experience.  Starry-eyed views of a new technology often become a little less starry-eyed following actual experience with its downsides.

New-generation nuclear plants which can be largely built in factories, substantially reducing the on-site construction time and effort required and potentially reducing the capital costs per kilowatt, are being developed.  The greater standardization, as compared with one-off construction, will hopefully also reduce licensing problems and delays.  Very importantly, most of the reactors are designed to avoid meltdown situations even if left unattended and without backup power.

Most of the new plant designs are of a type called Small Modular Reactors, although the definition of ‘small’ varies from case to case.  Companies in this space include the GE-Hitachi joint venture, a private company called NuScale (soon to go public via a SPAC), Rolls-Royce, the Canadian company ARC Energy, and a consortium of French companies developing a product to be called Nuwber.  I’ll discuss some of those SMR products in more detail later in this post.  There is also interesting work being done at Terra Power (Bill Gates is founder and chairman), which will probably merit a separate post, and on designs using thorium rather than uranium as a fuel.

The products which seem furthest along toward commercial adoption are the modular design from NuScale and the BWRX-300 from GE-Hitachi.

Some deals which are signed or in process:

–In Utah, NuScale plans to deploy their system for an organization called UAMPS (wholesale power services)

–In Romania, NuScale has a deal with SN Nuclearelectrica for a 6-module unit.

–In Canada, Ontario Power has picked the GE-Hitachi system for its first nuclear site–they ultimately plan to install up to 4 reactors there.

–In Poland, GEH has a letter of intent for up to 4 BWRX-300s to be installed by Synthos Green Energy.  Also in Poland, NuScale is working with KGHM, a leader in copper and silver production–sounds like this application is for industrial energy rather than for grid electricity.

–In Estonia,  Fermi Energia OÜ is moving toward deployment of a BWRX-300.

–The US Tennessee Valley Authority has embarked on a program to install several SMRs at its Clinch River site, starting with the BWRX-300.

The CEO of Duke Energy, Lynn Good, says that the company is talking to GE-Hitachi and NuScale as well as TerraPower and Holtec International about SMRs and advanced nuclear with storage capability.

Despite the traction, however, numerous challenges remain for nuclear.

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Titanic Metaphors

It’s been 110 years since the RMS Titanic sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.  The event has been a prolific source of books, movies–and metaphors.  Titanic has often been viewed as a metaphor for the complacency and arrogance of Western civilization before 1914, a symbol of technological overreach and hubris.  (The Onion had some fun with the Titanic-as-metaphor theme)

I think that there are a couple of other Titanic-related metaphors which are worth considering in our present era:

‘Working Cape Race’…around noon on April 14, Titanic received wireless messages warning of icebergs. The captain altered course to the south, a path believe to be free of ice, but maintained a speed of 22 knots.  That evening, senior wireless operator Jack Phillips,  was dealing with a flood of messages from passengers to friends ashore, when the SS California attempted to broadcast another ice warning to ships in the area.  The message was broken off by Phillips with “Stop Sending! I am working Cape Race.”  (‘working’ means ‘communicating with’, Cape Race was a Marconi Company shore station)

Not long afterwards, Titanic hit the iceberg.

Apparently the term ‘Working Cape Race’ has been adopted by some people to refer to those who are too preoccupied with the task at hand to perceive very important obstacles and hazards.

The phrase often seems apt these days–for example, when tv networks focus on the Johnny Depp defamation case when there are plenty of truly critical national and world issues to talk about.  I’m sure you can think of many more examples.

Progressive Flooding.  The compartmentalization which made the Titanic supposedly unsinkable obviously did not work.  One reason was that the iceberg was hit at an angle such that multiple compartments were torn open; the other reason was the phenomenon of progressive flooding.  This is a nautical architecture & operations term referring to the phenomenon where one compartment gets flooded…leading not only to the ship settling somewhat in the water, but also to a change in trim, namely, bow down…which can lead to other compartments overtopping their watertight bulkheads and spilling water into previously-safe compartments.

Again, I think the concept is sadly applicable to some of our political and social problems.  Failures in one aspect of society can lead to failures in another aspect…which can feed back to that first aspect, making it still worse…and so one.  Malign positive feedback, that is, a network of interconnected vicious circles.

For example, long-term unemployment can lead to an increase in drug addiction…both of which can lead to dysfunctional families…which drives reduced educational achievement for kids.  That reduced educational achievement drives further unemployment.

Discuss, if so inclined.


Book Review: Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein

In William Golding’s 1955 novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, a group of students is stranded on an island–and they revert quickly to barbarism.  The book sold millions of copies and has become common assigned reading for high school classes.  Another book, published at about the same time, projects a very different view of human nature and society.

Heinlein’s future world in Tunnel in the Sky has been faced with a crisis of massive overpopulation…a common projected future in books of this period:

…the population of Terra had climbed well beyond that which its farm lands could support.  The hydrogen, germ, and nerve gas horrors that followed were not truly political.  The true meaning was more that of beggars fighting over a crust of bread…Life, all life, has the twin drives to survive and to reproduce.   

Release from the Malthusian Trap was ultimately gained through an invention that opened up new worlds for settlement:  a hyperfold device called a Gate allows people to transition instantly from earth to their new homes light-years away…and, unlike rockets, the Gate technology allows very large numbers of people to be transferred.  There’s a catch, though:  keeping a gate open requires huge amounts of energy, so when the migrants move to a new planet, the gate is relaxed and they are left on their own until such time as they can offer enough trade goods to be worth the energy of reconnecting them…which may be a long, long time.  Hence, old skills have again become relevant…the situation of the settlers:

…made horses more practical than helicopters, picks and shovels more useful than bulldozers.  Machinery gets out of order and requires a complex technology to keep it going–but good old “hayburners” keep right on breeding, cropping grass, and pulling loads.

The book’s protagonist, Rod Walker, is a high school senior who plans on a future as a pioneer and a colonist and hence is taking a course in Outlands Survival.  Final exam time has arrived: the students will be sent to a planet of which they know nothing–the test rules are ANY planet–ANY climate–ANY terrain and NO rules–ANY weapons–ALL equipment.  They will be left on their own for 1-2 weeks, then returned to earth.

The class (which includes girls as well as boys) has a final session with their instructor…Rod is asked to stay after the others and is advised that he would be wise drop the course and skip the test:

Rod, you’re a good boy…but sometimes that isn’t enough.  I think you are a romantic.  Now this is a very romantic age; it calls for practical men…You are way too emotional, too sentimental to be a real survivor type…I’m not sure that you can beware of the Truce of the Bear.

But Rod decides to go, despite the advice and despite the fact that the boy he had intended to team with decides at the last moment to drop the class.  After passing through the Gate and finding himself alone, he discovers one of his classmates–who has been killed.  By a predator?  Yes…but:

Yo’s proud Thunderbolt gun was no longer in sight…The only animal who would bother to steal a gun ran around on two legs.  Rod reminded himself that a Thunderbolt could kill at almost any line-of-sight range–and now somebody had it who obviously took advantage of the absence of law and order in a survival test area.

After surviving for several days, beginning to get oriented, and encountering various local animal species, Rod meets up with Jack, a member of a different class sent to the same survival area.  Over time, they encounter others, and a group begins to develop with Rod as the de facto leader.  Their recall at the end of the test period is delayed–at first, they think it is just a minor technical problem of some sort, but the feeling grows that something has gone very badly wrong, and they may be stuck on this planet for an indeterminate time–maybe forever.

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