September 27th, 2003 ~ Anyone who has perused this journal will know that I am an avid proponent of nuclear fusion power, but for those who may not be familiar with fusion, this is a small and very simple primer.
What is fusion power and how is it different from the nuclear powerplants we're all familiar with? First off, a number of research efforts are underway (which I'll go into in a little bit) to develop the first commercially viable fusion reactor, but as yet, fusion powerplants do not exist.
A fusion reaction is the same sort of reaction that takes place in our sun or in a hydrogen bomb. A fusion reactor "fuses" atoms of lighter elements into atoms of heavier elements. In the process, a great amount of energy is released in a maelstrom of free protons and neutrons as the resulting heavier atomic nuclei attempt to regain stable shells of electrons. A sustained fusion reaction would keep these atoms in a constant state of instability as newly created neighbors fought for the available electrons to complete their own stable shells. Fusion reactions can only occur in an environment of unimaginable heat and pressure. The resulting superhot, superdense, stew is known as a "plasma". This plasma can be used to bombard a surrounding jacket of lithium with neutrons, which would, in turn, heat water to drive steam turbines, or can be passed at phenomenal speeds through a permanent-magnet harness to generate electricity directly.
Existing nuclear reactors are more like the original atomic bomb. They rely on the "fission" (or splitting) of extremely heavy elements like uranium with many-layered shells of electrons (much like the layers of an onion). When placed in close proximity to each other, atoms of such elements bang their outer electron shells together and some of the electrons are knocked free. These in turn bang into other shells, knocking more electrons free. With each collision, radiation and heat are generated, making the unstable atoms even more unstable. This is known as a "chain-reaction".
Fission reactors use a controlled chain-reaction with fuel rods of such elements just close enough together to sustain a low-level reaction, but not so close as to create a "critical mass" and allow a runaway reaction to take place. The heat generated by this controlled chain-reaction is absorbed by a surrounding jacket of water and the resulting steam is used to drive turbines to generate electricity.
Current fission powerplants must employ active measures to cool and keep fuel rods apart to avoid a runaway chain reaction. Fusion powerplants, by contrast, would need to employ active measures to sustain the dense, hot, fusion plasma. If controls were disabled in a fission powerplant, a meltdown or even explosion could occur. If controls were disabled in a fusion powerplant, the reaction would simply stop.
While both types of plants generate significant amounts of radiation in operation, current fission reactors remain radioactive as long as their fuel rods are present. Fusion plants would have no such intrinsic radioactivity. Fission plants must be refueled with fresh rods as their heavy atoms transmute into lighter isotopes. But while these isotopes are no longer sufficient to fuel the fission reaction, they are still lethally radioactive and will remain so for tens of thousands of years. The only by-product of a fusion plant would be helium.
So, with all the obvious safety and environmental advantages of a fusion plant over contemporary fission plants, why are we taxpayers spending so much to build new fission plants and so little to develop and deploy fusion plants? That's a question I've been asking for many years.
Part of the answer is clearly political. Many of the people with a stake in the oil, coal, natural gas, and automotive industries are also "players" in the nuclear fission industry. Fusion power threatens some of these industries with a diminished role at best and obsolescense at worst. Others would need to do some costly - if ultimately profitable - sea changes to cash in on the new technologies involved. With a Congress and White House bought and paid for, why allow such a threat to exist when it can be co-opted and buried like so many other threats to the status quo?
Part of the answer is also technological. While great progress has been made in recent years, there is still a great amount of research to do before a viable reactor is achieved. Creating, containing, and controlling a sustained fusion reaction - a sun in a bottle, if you will - is a daunting task. A hydrogen bomb, by contrast, requires no such controls.
There are two major projects underway which hold the most promise for a breakthrough in our lifetimes. One is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) which essentially builds a big "donut" of charged plasma contained within a powerful magnetic field. The ITER prototype is based on a Russian tokamak design.
The other prototype is our own National Ignition Facility (NIF) project which uses massively powerful laser beams - all focused on a single point - to implode small pea-sized globes filled with a mixture of Tritium and Deuterium. To sustain the reaction these little globes are fired in a "machine gun" stream to produce a sucession of mini suns at the target focal point.
Now that you know the differences between contemporary fission powerplants and the safer and more environmentally friendly potential of fusion powerplants, I'm sure you're wondering when we can expect such plants to be a reality. The answer depends on who you ask. Current estimates from our own Department of Energy (DOE) claim we won't see a commercially viable fusion plant for at least 35 years. British researches with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) give a somewhat more optimistic estimate of several decades.
Personally, I believe if we could put footprints on the moon within a single decade, and develop the atomic bomb in half that time, there's only one reason we cannot have commercial fusion plants online within 12 to 15 years: lack of national will. Our politicians will not inspire us to this challenge. They have election campaigns to fund. Our media won't take up the gauntlet. Their biggest advertisers are the auto industry. If fusion power is to be a reality in America, it's entirely up to US.
A program on the scale of the Apollo Lunar missions might be required. That program cost us $100 Billion dollars. With our President asking us for $87 Billion dollars to clean up the mess in Iraq and another $20 Billion to build new fission powerplants, it's obvious that when our elected officials want to spend our tax dollars on programs their campaign supporters like, they have no problem asking for it. Now it's time for US to ask.
Let your Senators and Representatives know that they can fill their political warchests with all the millions they want from vested interests, but it will do them no good come election day if we don't soon see a properly funded and highly focused fusion powerplant program to free us from our slavery to oil and fission power. Let them know that WE know fusion power can be a reality in half the time they claim. Let them know we are not afraid to invest our tax dollars in a technology which will provide our nation with clean, safe, limitless power and at the same time employ vast numbers of our unemployed both directly and in private sector spinoff industries. Let them know we will reward real leadership on fusion power with our votes and will relegate to the dustbin of history those who either cannot or will not share our vision for the future. Above all, let them know WE care about America.
September 25th, 2003 ~ Surprise, surprise! OPEC announced today a 3.5 percent cut in oil production effective November 1st; jacking up oil prices just as we go into Winter. Could the writing on the wall be any clearer? OPEC's interests are not in OUR interest. And those companies - like Halliburton - which actively lobby our Congress on behalf of OPEC, do so solely to line their own pockets at the expense of the American people.
There is one and ONLY ONE way to deal with such dinosaurs. Fusion power. We'll get through this Winter, despite the hardships imposed by OPEC and their American lackeys, because, as usual, we have no choice. But as we sit shivering in our sweaters and draining our savings to pay for the fuel oil available, I pray you write your Senators and Representatives DEMANDING a choice.
Ripping up the wilderness to further line the pockets of the Oiligarchy is NOT a choice in the interest of the American people. Burying megatons of radioactive waste for the next 60,000 years is NOT a choice in the interest of the American people. The ONLY choice fitting a 21st Century nation is Fusion Power. Let's make that choice today for a cleaner, safer, and more prosperous tomorrow.
September 23rd, 2003 ~ My wife and I celebrated our anniversary this year with a trip to Niagra Falls. I mention this, first of all, because I feel truly blessed to have such a woman sharing my life with me, secondly because The Falls are wondrous and well worth seeing, and thirdly as an admittedly awkward lead-in to an incident we experienced returning from our daytrip to the Canadian side to see the Horseshoe Falls.
We did not know at the time that a hacker's virus was rapidly working its way through the State Department's computer system and repeated attempts by the U.S. Border Patrol agent to confirm our U.S. citizenship met with a "system unavailable at this time" response. Fortunately, we had our passports and other identification with us, so we were able to return in relatively short order, but foreign visitors coming in from the Canadian side were being told to try again another day. We found this both encouraging, because it clearly demonstrated our government is on it's toes these days and discouraging that a computer system so critical to our national security would still be vulnerable to hackers at this late date.
In other news...
Two American soldiers - one, an Army officer and the other, an Air Force enlisted man - have been detained for suspected espionage on behalf of the Syrian government. The enlisted man, Airman 1st Class Ahmad al-Halabi, has been charged with posession of classified materials on the operations of the Camp Delta JTF facility at Guantanamo (where he worked as an Arabic language translator). He is also charged with having emailed classified data on the terrorist detention facility to Syrian officials. The Army officer, Captain James Yee, is also being detained for posession of classified materials he was not cleared for as well as possible contact with intelligence operatives working from the Syrian Embassy. Yee, a Muslim Chaplain who counseled foreign detainees at the JTF facility, has not yet been formally charged.
If convicted of treason, I can see no option but the firing squad for these men. They had the choice to fight against America in the ranks of the Taliban, or to plot against us from some terrorist enclave like Damascus, Tehran, or Riyahd. Instead, they slithered into the same uniforms worn by America's heroes and consorted with a state committed to our destruction. They made their choices. Now we must make ours.
Our President also appeared at the United Nations today to sweet-talk the Security Council into sending a significant relief force of U.N. peacekeepers to Iraq without French/German strings attached regarding a timetable for transfer of power. As stand-up comics say, "it was a tough gig". Secretary General Kofi Annan gave a beautifully balanced speech, preceding President Bush's, to stress that a doctrine of pre-emptive military action by one sovereign state against another is unacceptable and anathema to the 58 year history of the U.N. At the same time, he called upon the General Assembly and the Security Council to provide more muscle in dealing with states that support and harbor terrorism or violate WMD prolifieration accords.
As expected, French President Chirac followed Annan and Bush with a tediously predictable polemic and German Chancelor Schroeder reiterated his refusal to commit German troops to any Iraq peacekeeping force. So while Bush's appearance was not exactly an embarrassment, neither was it exactly effective in re-engaging a sorely alienated U.N.
September 19th, 2003 ~ Retired General Wesley "Wes" Clark has officially entered the Democratic field for President and I can think of no finer candidate to chase the chicken hawks out of the White House. For an administration which came to power, based on a public backlash against a degenerate predecessor, Clark must seem the monster in the closet. He doesn't need to play G.I. Joe dress up on an aircraft carrier to appear as a Commander-In-Chief. He isn't clueless about the loyalties and courage that men and women tested in combat deal with every day. He is the worst nightmare of men who considered serving one's nation on active duty, suitable only for riff-raff and cannon fodder. He is MY choice for President of the United States.
September 16th, 2003 ~ Even before last month's blackout that left 50 Million Americans and five states without power, key House and Senate committees began meetings to reconcile the Senate and House versions of a comprehensive energy bill, (H.R. 6 and S. 14 respectively). No sooner had negotiations begun, though, when Senate Republicans vowed to rewrite S. 14 - a slightly modified version of an earlier Democratic bill - to include drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and huge subsidies for construction of new nuclear fission powerplants.
Since Republicans control both the Senate bill's conference committee as well as the Energy and Natural Resources Committee under New Mexico Senator, Pete Domenici, it is clear that these provisions will be added onto any Senate version of the bill. It is equally clear that House and Senate Democrats will use this to make political hay with environmentalists and little will be done in either chamber, by either side of the aisle, to address the aging transmission infrastructure, or the government oversight deregulated out of existence, which allowed the blackout to occur.
Drilling and pipeline operations in the ANWR - even if legislation was passed tomorrow - would take $28 BILLION and nearly 10 years to produce any meaningful quantities of oil. While the monetary cost would be born mostly by the big oil companies, the irreversable loss of one of our last pristine wild places would be born by us all.
The picture is no less bleak if a large-scale build up of nuclear fission plants is the only solution our Congress can come up with to meet our nation's energy needs. I can certainly see updating and reactivating some of our older plants as a stopgap measure to quickly reduce our dependence on foreign oil and the unholy alliances that dependence implies. But in case nobody remembers, these plants generate megatons of radioactive waste; waste which will remain lethally radioactive for tens of thousands of years! I'm all for the power of positive thinking, but trusting the federal bureaucracy to safeguard our lives 10,000, 20,000, even 60,000 years from now is a stretch for even the most optimistic among us.
So here's where I, once again, put in a plug for ITER. Iter is a Latin word meaning "The Way". ITER is also an acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a collaborative effort to develop and deploy the worlds first cost-effective fusion powerplant. Significant progress is being made daily, in the U.S. and elsewhere and it's clearly no longer a matter of "if", but rather of "when" this research will bear fruit. Our government has been dancing around fusion power for years; denying our own research the funding needed to rapidly reach a breakthrough, but funding it just enough to keep things going out of fear that some other nation will realize that breakthrough before we do.
I won't go into all the reasons I believe there are those on both sides of the aisle who may perceive fusion power as a threat instead of an opportunity. Suffice it to say that any bill titled the "Comprehensive Energy Bill" which doesn't include significant funding for and a greater U.S. involvement in ITER, is documentary evidence of criminal negligence if not downright treason.
Since both parties and both chambers look to fast-track this bill to show they're doing something after the blackout and before the upcoming elections, the Comprehensive Energy Bill provides a golden (if fleeting) opportunity for you and I to have some say in the direction our nation will take. I urge you to contact your Senators and Representatives TODAY to demand that bill include provisions to rehabilitate our crumbling power transmission infrastructure, greater government oversight of rule compliance by companies in the power sector, and decisive funding for American research in support of ITER. We can either go down the same old dusty road to nowhere, or we can blaze the way to a bright, prosperous, and secure future for ourselves and our children. The choice is up to us.
September 12th, 2003 ~ I just watched "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS, and happened to catch a terrific segment by Paul Solman where the brilliant author of "World On Fire", Amy Chua, held her own against a supercilious World Bank mouthpiece in Washington Square Park. He was eminently forgetable. She was not.
In the same News Hour, William Safire, and Mark Shields squared off over the $87,000,000,000.00 President Bush is taking from our pockets to fund his ongoing Iraq operation. Safire explained that while the polls indicate a dip in the President's approval ratings, the Congress will go along with this fleecing. Sheilds, in turn, said there would be a political price to pay in Congressional micro-management. Both sort of missed the point.
We WILL cough up the $87,000,000,000.00 because the alternative is a world MORE threatening to YOU and ME if we don't. It has little to do with our agreeing with the President's actions in Iraq. WE would rather have Usama Bin Laden's head buried at Ground Zero so we could bring our dogs to pay homage to his martyrdom. WE would rather have anti-missile systems on our commercial aircraft. Saddam Hussein and his minions - as despicable as they were - were not OUR problem. They were a Bush family problem and our President abused his position to coerce US into solving HIS problem at OUR expense.
WE the People WILL rebuild Iraq. WE the People WILL see a thriving, democratic nation there. Too many body bags have come home with purple hearts pinned to them to accept anything less. And WE the People WILL remember. We will watch Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all the other Texas Tea-Totalers sing the praises of this mendacious regime as Iraq flourishes with OUR tax dollars, OUR blood, OUR sweat, and OUR tears. And WE, the People, will have our own "Texas Tea Party" next November.
September 11th, 2003 ~ I know I should be mentioning something about the mass murders which occurred two years ago today, but they are already being memorialized by so many better suited to the task, that I thought I would remember a man whose passing yesterday might have gone unnoticed amidst the preparations for today's tragic anniversary. I'm speaking about Dr. Edward Teller, one of the fathers of the nuclear age, who died yesterday at the age of 95.
Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1908 and receiving his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Leipzig in Germany, Teller was instrumental in establishing the Los Alamos laboratory during World War II and later became its Assistant Director. In 1952 he helped set up a second lab at the Livermore branch of the University of California and served as Director there from 1958 to 1960; later serving as Associate Director to more readily pursue his teaching and writing.
Teller was a lifelong and tireless advocate of science and technology as the keystones to American economic and military strength. He championed both nuclear fission power and the high-energy beam technology of the Reagan-era Space Defense Initiative (SDI); both increasingly unpopular positions with a public jaded by past technological hubris and a runaway DOD wish-list for big-ticket toys. Ironically, both technologies have gained renewed respect in this post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, as showing great promise in allowing us to achieve the first viable nuclear fusion powerplant as well as protecting America and our allies from North Korean missile attacks.
Edward Teller held the "old school" belief that science and technology are not intrinsically evil; that the boon or bane of science and technology is tied directly to how we use them. To that end, he often appeared at the United Nations to advise on weapons proliferation and energy policy, noting that responsible political leadership goes hand in hand with responsible science. His was an adult voice in an increasingly infantile and dangerous world. I pray we find new voices of reason as Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" retire from the great dialogue.
September 10th, 2003 ~ I just watched Lou Dobbs on CNN interviewing Ken Starr, lead counsel for Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell's Supreme Court challenge of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Law. I had not known before this interview that Ken Starr was spearheading that challenge, but now that I know, it seems all too appropriate that this modern-day Tomás de Torquemada is the mouthpiece for an eclectic army of organizations (including the ACLU, the NRA, and the AFL-CIO) that stand to lose their stranglehold on our political process if their $500 MILLION in soft money is sidelined in the upcoming election. McConnell, Starr, and their vested interest legions have done a magnficent - one might say Machiavellian - job of obfuscating the purpose of our Constitution's First Amendment to argue that regulating totally artificial, non-corporeal entities, somehow abridges our very real, very human, and very sacred rights as HUMAN BEINGS.
So let me make it really simple for the morally challenged like Mssrs. Starr and McConnell.
If the ACLU, the AFL-CIO, the NRA, or any of the other "plaintiffs" involved in this abuse of our Supreme Court can submit an electrocardiogram (EKG) as evidence of physical life, I will PERSONALLY apologize for having impuned their HUMAN RIGHTS as protected by our beloved Constitution. Failing that, these artificial entities should stop wasting OUR tax dollars and OUR highest court's time with their flimflam and mendacity. I - as a living, breathing, HUMAN BEING - will use my $2,000 to elect a President and Congress who reflect my values of honesty, liberty, and justice. I hope you - as a living, breathing, HUMAN BEING - will as well. Perhaps, in concert, we living, breathing, AMERICANS can reclaim our government from the Corpocracy which has dominated our lives for so many decades.
September 10th, 2003 ~ Okay, let me see if I have this straight...
Two years later and we still don't know where Usama Bin Laden is.
Two years later and Afghanistan is still a chaotic mess.
Two years later and NOW we learn that the air in NYC after 9/11 was less than healthy.
Two years later and we still have no anti-missile systems on our commercial aircraft, but we do have a nifty new color code system to tell us how likely it is that some maniac will kill us.
Two years later and we've been shanghied into a war in Iraq which has cost thousands of lives, over $200 Billion of our tax dollars, INCREASED the number of bloodthirsty sociopaths who wish to kill us, alienated nearly all our traditional allies, and put the cost of gas at the pumps above $2.00 per gallon.
Does that about sum things up? Have I missed anything? Man, oh man! About a million Americans have lost their jobs in the past two years and I'll bet NONE of them screwed up THAT bad! It must be nice to have friends in high places.
September 7th, 2003 ~ I wonder what the President would say, if WE said, "No". Not that we can, of course. With their invasion of Iraq and despite the fact that no terrorist links or weapons of mass destruction have been found there, our President and his "TexasTea-totalers" have seen to it that we really have no choice but to pay to rebuild that nation. Otherwise, it would become a hotbed of terrorist activity.
So I don't understand why he felt it necessary to break into our Sunday evening TV viewing to blather a bunch of hooey at us before telling us he's reaching into our pockets for another $87,000,000,000.00. Can we say "No"? No. I hope when he comes around for yet another $87,000,000,000.00 he doesn't interrupt our Sunday evening TV. It's one of those small pleasures we Americans share before facing either a grueling work week, or the unemployment line on Monday morning.