Cassini Division

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While you stand amazed and in wonder at the fantastic photos being beamed by the Cassini satellite as it orbits Saturn, let's take a little walk down memory lane to 1997.

Most Americans have forgotten that the Cassini launch was big time national news in the fall of 1997, occupying the front pages of our newspapers and national news broadcasts for months. Readers of the Orlando Sentinel declared that it's "disgrace to have that shot, and it's really putting all our lives in jeopardy" and "How dare they gamble with our lives like this." Fouteen year-old Juan Ribero emailed President Clinton asking him to stop the launch: "I told him that we can't learn enough about Saturn to risk lives. It's your choice, Saturn or Earth."

And these residents of central Florida were not alone. Sierra Club spokesperson Geraldine Swormstedt told The Miami Herald, "Floridians are at ground zero if there is an accident at launch. I really feel for people in that area." Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) told the Boston Globe, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the dangers of the Cassini probe." Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame demanded that the launch be cancelled at a protest rally in front of the White House. The Boston Globe cited the estimates of activist "experts" that the break up of Cassini as it flew back by Earth to get an gravitional boost on its way to Saturn in 1999 could cause from 200,000 up to 40 million deaths.

What were they worried about? The Cassini satellite is powered by three Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs), $ 50 million devices that will rely on the natural radioactive decay of 72 pounds of plutonium-238 to provide heat that can be converted to electricity. The anti-nuke activist community was eager to stop the "nuclearization of space" and the Cassini satellite was exhibit 1 in that campaign. How much danger was there really?

Without rehearsing the exhaustive arguments at the time, keep in mind that plutonium-238 primarily emits alpha particles that travel about three inches and are easily blocked by clothing, the outer level of skin, or a sheet of paper. Futhermore the plutonium is contained in heat resistant ceramic which would break into chunks (not fine dust particles) in an explosion. The ceramic pellets were surrounded by iridium cases that melt at 4,422 degrees Fahrenheit which in turn are surrounded by a heat resistant graphite shield. If the rocket exploded at launch, the ceramic pellets would have posed essentially no danger. In fact, as far back as 1968, NASA controllers were forced to blow rockets carrying satellites with RTGs. Those RTGs were so sturdy that they were recovered and reused in later satellites.

Never mind–as the past seven years have shown we can count on chicken little activists to oppose nearly any new technological project from here to the edges of our solar system and anywhere in between.

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  1. Chernobyl’s reactor used graphite as a moderator, making the reactor flammable. All US commercial reactors use water as a moderator. The only US reactor of which I am aware in the US is in Hanford, WA and is operated by the feds. Fermi’s first reactor at the University of Chicago also used graphite.

    I was a nuke in the navy (Maybe I was just brainwashed into thinking that nuclear power is safe, but I like to think I know something about it.) and once lived close enough to a commercial nuke to hear their PA system if I were outside. Given a choice, I wouldn’t live that close to a wind farm or a coal-fired plant. I don’t know why anyone in PA would be concerned about the accident at TMI, in which no one died, if they hadn’t already moved from the state because of coal mines – over 50,000 have died in PA alone in coal-mining accidents.

  2. I think the word “luddite” is sufficient to identify all morons who fear technology. I wonder if there were protests when fire was discovered..

  3. “…over 50,000 have died in PA alone in coal-mining accidents.”

    Don’t forget the joys of “black lung.”

  4. I didn’t think to mention that US coal plants release 800 tons of uranium per year:

    http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev26-34/text/colmain.html

    Nader’s deadly Plutonium-239 is produced from ambient neutrons bombarding Uranium-238 in coal waste. And people are worried about radioactive waste escaping from a hole deep in the ground in remote NV??

  5. ” “Since the ancient Greeks didn’t know about radiation or atomic nuclei, it’s hard to find an appropriate root to tag onto -phobia to produce the word you’re looking for.”

    Where do you think the word “atomic” comes from?

    You lack the education of a Gaul.”

    OK, except that the Greeks postulated an “atom” as the basic, indivisible, unit of matter. How can a basic indivisible unit be divided into sub-parts, e.g., the nucleus?

    Try again.

  6. Nice Ken MacLeod reference. (I’m guessing) When will people learn that the real threat is Post-human AIs descended from libertarian spacers?

    Seriously though, I was living in FL at the time and I remember the stories in the paper. It always seemed to me that it was a case of the media making a the story bigger than it realy was. Almost no one was really worried about the prospects of a nuclear disaster other than those who wrote the letters. More dangerous is the byproducts of rocket fuel. 🙂

  7. “Nice Ken MacLeod reference. (I’m guessing) When will people learn that the real threat is Post-human AIs descended from libertarian spacers?”

    How that reluctant Trotskyite won the Prometheus Award is beyond me.

  8. As usual I’m perplexed when Libertarians are inconsistently eager to trust government projects involving nuclear materials while opposing projects involving, for instance, inspection of frozen vegetables for insect parts.

    Bernard Cohen’s (Ph.D. from libertarianleaningcenterist’s alma mater) famous challenge was that he would eat as much plutonium as Ralph Nader would eat of caffeine. Nader wisely declined. (The point being that while only chicken-littles fret about *eating* plutonium — which passes through the intestinal tract unabsorbed.)

    It’s less well known that when another researcher offered to inhale 1000 times as much powdered caffeine as Cohen was willing to inhale of plutonium dioxide. Cohen wisely, and I believe curtly, declined. (The point being that only hawk-bigs dismiss the risks of inhaling finely divided plutonium which appears to reliably cause lung cancer in very small quantities.)

    As I recall, the legitimate concern about the Cassini fuel source wasn’t the use of plutonium per se — it’s a wonderful power source for trans-Martian expeditions. The issue instead was to the decision to use finely divided oxides of plutonium instead of the solid metal for something that might (but almost certainly wouldn’t) reenter the atmosphere not at relatively glacial launch speeds in 1997 but at meteoric speeds during the 1998 post-Venus flyby.

    That’s not nearly as exciting a story though, so don’t expect to see it repeated. Certainly don’t expect to see it repeated in Libertarian circles, where scoring points against tree huggers takes precedence against, oh, I don’t know, paying close attention to free-market forces and government interference therein.

    For instance, unlike Libertarians, who seem a little slap-happy about government interference in this area, I’m willing to support only those nuclear projects that are fully privately financed and, more importantly, fully underwritten by un-subsidized private insurers.

    If the risk of high-speed atmospheric dispersal of 72 pounds of 238PuO2 (not the more risky 239PuO2) was so low then private underwriting should have been available (and I expect would have been, if anyone had asked) and I would have felt sufficiently comfortable with NASAs decision.

    David Innes

  9. What David Innes said!!! Although, the science of orbital mechanics being what it is, I really don’t think that an impact on Earth very possible at all, so the fear of either a private or government spacecraft dumping plutonium/uranium finely divided or not is pretty darn overblown.

  10. “The issue instead was to the decision to use finely divided oxides of plutonium instead of the solid metal for something that might (but almost certainly wouldn’t) reenter the atmosphere not at relatively glacial launch speeds in 1997 but at meteoric speeds during the 1998 post-Venus flyby.”

    First and foremost, David, I can assure you that most of the folks protesting Cassini in the weeks leading up to its launch had nary a clue as to the difference between plutonium dioxide and its metal oxide counterparts. They just heard the word “plutonium” and started to panic on cue.

    And while the substance used in the Cassini RTGs was plutonium dioxide, it was hardly in any finely divided state. It was bound into a ceramic that had been engineered to break up into large pieces if there was a containment failure. This was the result of a lesson learned from SNAP-9A which used the more dangerous metal-oxide state of plutonium.

    You’re right, however that a fair number of people expressed concern that the Venus-Venus-Earth flyby could (however improbably) result in the craft re-entering the atmosphere. But even this concern seemed alarmist and over-blown. When Apollo 13 returned to earth, the LEM re-entered the atmosphere at a high velocity, and the RTG powered instruments onboard no doubt suffere a fate similar to that envisioned for a catastrophic loss of Cassini. How many people died from that? And then there were all those above-ground nuclear tests from the forties into the sixties…thousands of them. How much plutonium got thrown into the atmosphere by them? And how many died?

  11. How much insurance should be required for this sort of endeavor? Assuming the probe did reenter, who should collect?

    I’m probably not even asking this correctly, but this touches on two aspects of libertarian philosophy that I don’t understand. The first is how to deal with people who assume risks beyond their ability to make reparations. The second is that (and this is true specifically for pollution) if you divide he harm you cause finely and widely enough, nobody can attribute it conclusively back to you. In both cases the statist solution is to say, “you can’t do that.” What is anti-statist solution?

  12. The issue is whether it is the place of government to impose the risk — however small those in power may believe it to be — for the sake of these pretty pictures or interesting or useful information, on the human beings who did not launch the rocket, and their property.

    If that’s “the issue”, then there’s nothing to worry about. The government didn’t launch Cassini “for the sake of those pretty pictures” — ergo there’s no need to speculate as to whether or not it is the government’s “place” to do so.

    Now, if you want to ask the actual question — “does the government have the right to expose people to infinitesimally small risks as part of a general program of scientific research” — then the answer is simple. It’s “yes”.

  13. (BTW, is there an actual, clinical word for the irrational fear of radiation and nuclear energy?)

    Atomosophobia- Fear of atomic explosions

    Radiophobia – Fear of radiation

    Nucleomituphobia- Fear of nuclear weapons

    Courtesy of: http://www.phobialist.com/

    Of course, some of these folks are general technophobes.

    Kevin
    (Tyrannophobe)

  14. Anti-libs are so keen to prove libertarians in the wrong that they often ignore the point one is making (in this case Luddism) an criticize the libertarian on a point that one is not trying to make (government involvement in space exploration). Just as irritating are libs who criticize the point rather than using it to show how government involvement has skewed the discussion, and further, how government control of education has apparently produced a technically, and economically, ignorant citizenry.

    Libertarian ideas do not support government R&D.
    But libertarian ideas are not yet the norm, so what can you do?

    Cassini is there, the pictures are interesting and pretty, and the point of the blog is that people had protested the launch out of technical ignorance and emotional reaction because of the power soure, not because the government was invovled.

  15. Psion said:
    “And then there were all those above-ground nuclear tests from the forties into the sixties…thousands of them. How much plutonium got thrown into the atmosphere by them? And how many died?”

    Not the best question to ask someone who grew up 20 miles from Oak Ridge then moved to the Pacific Northwest and became friends with a bunch of downwinders, an unusual number of whom seem to have siblings or parents who developed or died of statistically anomalous cancers. (The plural of anecdote is not data, but the number really is unusual compared to any other subset of my fairly large circle of friends across the country.)

    There are a number of serious problems with attributing illness with specific material releases — not the least of which was the high mobility of high-tech workers in and out of lab cities, the coincidence of strontium-90 overlapping the bizarre practice of irradiating “enlarged” thyroids, improved construction techniques leading to increased radon concentrations in homes, etc. etc. etc. I would, however, be startled if you could produce evidence that radioactive material release is entirely benign — probably more startled than you would be if evidence were produced that there was.

    As an 80/20 Principle pragmatist I’m certainly aware that far, far more people die every year from coal, oil, and even firewood-related pollution than from human-introduced radiologicals. And I’m acutely aware that — thanks to all them know-nothing carrot crunchers and downwinders — a renewed nuclear energy industry would not behave with the criminal indifference to basic nuclear (or even chemical) hygiene practiced by their predecessors. So, with only two real reservations, I’m happy join the Audubon Society, Matt Yglesias, my friend’s father who designed the plutonium-powered power supplies for the Voyager probes, and others in calling for the sensible introduction of standardized navy-style nuclear power plants for generating electricity.

    The two reservations, for the record, are that a) there’s not really enough uranium to meet projected needs so we’d have to breed plutonium instead and b) I’m not confident that we could develop an infrastructure sufficient to keep any of it out of the hands of the likes of McVeigh, bin Laden, or Bart Simpson. (Having managed to ride I-81 through Harrisburg not once but twice the day Three Mile Island went up, and having tended bar to an inordinate number of unbelievably inept contruction workers on the TVA Browns Ferry plant I’m particularly worried about the Bart and Homer types.)

    Solve those problems though (and, not to beat a dead horse, do it so that private insurers would be willing underwrite it) and I’ll say go for it.

    Otherwise I’m more comfortable on the fence.

    David Innes

  16. Well, well, well. While I admire the Cassini program immensely, as well as NASA’s other interplanetary missions, I did not expect to find such support here at Reason Magazine. What, after all, is a purportedly Libertarian publication doing praising a Big Government Program?

    That said, three cheers for the Cassini team.

  17. Sam Grove said:
    “Cassini is there, the pictures are interesting and pretty, and the point of the blog is that people had protested the launch out of technical ignorance and emotional reaction because of the power source, not because the government was involved.”

    Technically it’s more accurate to say “some people” had protested… out of ignorance. (It would be a mistake to say everyone who disagreed with the decision agreed with the guys with the face paint, tie-dyed pants, and giant puppets.)

    Second, is it possible that no Libertarians or conservatives objected to the launch on principle?

    Finally, despite reservations a lot of people supported the launch supported it anyway, allowing us (unlike a lot of neo-libertarians) to have our cake and eat it too.

    The pictures are indeed very pretty and they look nice in USA Today too. Other scientific information being collecting is even nicer.

    David Innes

  18. “nuclearization of space”? Those activists obviously don’t know what makes stars tick (not that I’m surprised).

  19. End fusion power in space!

  20. What were they worried about?

    The coming end of the world via the Y2K bug.

    Actually, the RTG’s narrowly escaped being burned at the stake!

  21. I remember this incedent because I was planning to drive from Daytona to Ft. Lauderdale the day of the launch, and I was worried that traffic from all the nutball protesters flocking to the Cape would jam up I-95 near Titusville. It turned out to be no problem though. Incedents like this always remind me of Mencken’s observation that the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the public in a state of alarm by menacing them with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. Unfortunately, this will remain true as long as the bulk of the public remain technologically illiterate, which will probably be forever.

  22. Wasn’t there a protest sign saying “Keep Saturn Nuke-free” at some point?

  23. we can count on chicken little activists to oppose nearly any new technological project from here to the edges of our solar system and anywhere in between.

    And, if you give these people the force of government, they have the capacity to crush human progress.

    Back to the cool science: There is an interesting puzzle concerning the discrepancy between the value for Saturn’s rotational period ie, the length of its day, that was recorded by the earlier Voyager craft and the approximately 1% longer period recorded by Cassini.

    http://www.spaceflightnow.com/cassini/040628radio.html

  24. The issue is not whether the pictures are pretty, nor even whether we are now gathering interesting or useful information from the launch.

    The issue is whether it is the place of government to impose the risk — however small those in power may believe it to be — for the sake of these pretty pictures or interesting or useful information, on the human beings who did not launch the rocket, and their property.

    Would those who wanted the pretty pictures or the information have been willing to bear by themselves the cost of taking them and gathering it? Would they willingly bear that cost, if it included the cost of liability insurance as set by the market? Obviously not.

    And so those who purported to believe in the safety and worthiness of the mission turned not to the free market, but to collectivism, as they always do. I see this mindset has penetrated to the web page of Reason, and to those who responded in this blog before I did.

  25. I just chalk it up to the nuclear-a-phobia. The mere mention of anything remotely involving nuclear science is immediately overblown into an end-of-the-world scenario where all life on Earth is threatened when something goes wrong–and they “know” that it will. As a result, the U.S. is dependent on coal power plants for electricity, we can’t use methods like irradiation to perserve our food stuffs, and we can’t launch a space probe to Saturn without raising the ire of scientifically illiterate people.

    (BTW, is there an actual, clinical word for the irrational fear of radiation and nuclear energy?)

  26. I seem to recall back in the Seventies or early Eighties Saint Ralph proclaiming that one pound of plutonium is enough to kill eight billion people. Shortly thereafter, Bernard Cohen, Ph.D., a physicist at my alma mater (U of Pittsburgh) offered to eat one eight billionth of a pound of plutonium to disprove Nader’s idiotic claim — and he wanted to do so on TV so everyone could see what an idiot Nader was (and still is).

    Ralphie never took him up on the challenge.

  27. Peter K. the neoluddites oppose technological progress whether it’s public or privately financed. For example, their opposition to biotech crops.

  28. “The mere mention of anything remotely involving nuclear science is immediately overblown into an end-of-the-world scenario where all life on Earth is threatened when something goes wrong”

    There is no one more deserving of blame for this sorry state of affairs than the nuke industry and its government stooges themselves. Savannh River? Rocky Flats?

    When I was in sixth grade, a pr flack from a nearby nuke plant came to talk to our class about nuclear power. Even at 11 years old, it was obvious to me that he was transparently bullshitting us. I don’t blame the public for not believing a word that comes out of the mouths of nuke-boosters.

  29. Mark S.:

    Since the ancient Greeks didn’t know about radiation or atomic nuclei, it’s hard to find an appropriate root to tag onto -phobia to produce the word you’re looking for.

  30. Peter: While I agree that the state is poorly justified in its grandiose actions, I expect the protestors would have clamored even more loudly if a private concern had subjected them to this infitesimal risk. Rocketry has been a state project not due to risks to the public, but because the market dislikes enormous costs for uncertain benefits.

    At issue is not the validity of state action but the paranoia of a poorly informed populace. A private concern (thoreau rocketry?) might feel the exagerrated fear imposed upon it through state mechanisms, after the private risk market dismissed the concerns of the chicken littles.

  31. If you’re that frightened of plutonium, I’d think you’d be grateful to get that stuff off the Earth and millions of miles away.

  32. Having been raised by a “nuke-booster” and now possessing enough scientific and engineering knowledge to know the extreme basics of how a nuclear power plant operates, I find them far easier to believe than the anti-nuke chicken littles of the world. Most of it comes from paranoia associated with Chernoble and Three Mile Island. The likelihood of either happening again is slim. These are the same people that can be accurately described as having their fingers in their ears and shouting “Don’t confuse me with the facts!”

  33. mjs-

    while that may be true, I can’t say the public’s fear of nuclear projects is unjustified, given the government’s history of misinformation and denial of the negative aspects of nuclear power.

  34. mjs–you’re right about nuke power’s safety–I just wish there were some way to disentangle in public discourse Three Mile Island (where containment worked as designed and not single person was harmed) from Chernobyl (where Soviet engineering and no containment killed lots of people). Three Mile Island is an expensive failure, but not a notable health risk.

  35. “Since the ancient Greeks didn’t know about radiation or atomic nuclei, it’s hard to find an appropriate root to tag onto -phobia to produce the word you’re looking for.”

    Where do you think the word “atomic” comes from?

    You lack the education of a Gaul.

  36. Ron Bailey,

    Nice straw-man in post 1207. Without public sector funding, I’m guessing that most of this would be a moot point.

    I’ve yet to see a credible argument that biotech *could* exist without public sector involvement. Figure in the extent of government R&D funding, government-enforced patent monopolies, and government restrictions on commecial speech (agribusiness is pretty heavily involved in regulatory prohibitions on labelling food gm-free). If agribusiness had to bear the risks of funding R&D at its own cost, without being able to recoup costs through entry barriers, and had to cope with a free flow of information to those who didn’t want to buy the stuff, there would (at the very least) be a lot less of it.

    Same thing goes for nuclear power. Without government involvement in most stages of the process, from preferential access to federal land and the government role in building roads to uranium mines, all the way to the Price-Anderson Act’s assumption of tort liability costs beyond a certain amount (not to mention federal indemnification of liability at a level above that), the dangers of nuclear power would be a theoretical issue.

    Here’s what a Westinghouse official had to say about it in 1953:

    If you were to inquire whether Westinghouse might consider putting up its own money.., we would have to say “No.” The cost of the plant would be a question mark until after we built it and, by that sole means, found out the answer. We would not be sure of successful plant operation until after we had done all the work and operated successfully…. This is still a situation of pyramiding uncertainties…. There is a distinction between risk-taking and recklessness.
    –Walter Adams and James Brock, The Bigness Complex, pp. 279-81.

  37. And I forgot to mention the elephant in the living room: the status of civilian nuclear energy as an offshoot of the military’s weapon programs.

    BTW, in fairness, the use of graphite as a moderator isn’t the only way the U.S. nuclear power industry differs from Chernobyl. The Chernobyl reactor, like a large portion of reactors in the old USSR, was housed in an ordinary building without a containment dome. In 1986 less than 10% of American reactors lacked containment domes, and I think most of them were retired since then.

  38. Great post — but I second the emotion expressed by Mac, two comments up.

  39. The only US reactor of which I am aware in the US is in Hanford, WA and is operated by the feds. Fermi’s first reactor at the University of Chicago also used graphite.

    There’s a graphite reactor in Oak Ridge. It was decommissioned in 1963, though. I thought it was active a lot more recently than that; shows what I know. But not many were built in the US, because they’re just not that safe.

  40. “The Kennedy Space Center is enormously expensive in terms of prime real estate. NASA launches from the densely populated Florida coast precisely because they want an audience. ”

    Well the most efficent location for launches is the equator, the Europeans use French Guyana. The other US location is Vandenburg AFB in S California which is mostly for spy satellites that use polar orbits ie no extra energy from earths rotation
    This is why the private company you mention would use a ship , both to get on the equator and to have ocean to launch over.
    PS , the Florida coast has only become ‘densely populated’ since the establishment of Kennedy Space Centre (late 50’s)

  41. Curiously enough, the authentically private enterprise approach to space launches is to build a specialized ship for launching rockets, sail it out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, remove the crew to another ship and launch by remote control. There’s a firm in Los Angeles that uses this technique to launch communication satellites at prices NASA can’t match, using surplus Russian space gear, and Russian technicians who live out of suitcases, with their families back in Russia, and therefore don’t have to be paid at American scales.

    The Kennedy Space Center is enormously expensive in terms of prime real estate. NASA launches from the densely populated Florida coast precisely because they want an audience. They would be very unhappy if the eco-protesters simply ignored them. It’s a bit like the thirteen-year-old boy who makes obscene gestures at passing girls in the hope of attracting attention.

  42. Ron Bailey, this is the coolest post all day! Thanks. And the filter through which you’re looking at a currently exciting event — the filter back to inconsequential and mostly forgotten bitching — resounds in all kinds of interesting ways. Know what I mean?

  43. Kevin Carson at July 3, 01:02 PM:

    “I’ve yet to see a credible argument that biotech *could* exist without public sector involvement.”

    What concerns me with your point here is that if it is true, or believed to be true, it could be used as a practical argument by industry to keep those government interventions in place. Of course, the argument against them from principle (the most important argument) still obtains.

    But surely biotech, pharmaceutical research for instance, would still go on because with out all this government assistance, even if the profit stream was for a much shorter time duration, there would be would still be a reputation affect that companies could benefit from for introducing successful new products.

    Also, in the scenario with out all this government assistance for biotech industry, we’re also talking much less taxation and smaller punitive regulation costs. (as opposed to the regulation which protects some concerns from their competition)

    “Figure in the extent of…government-enforced patent monopolies”

    Do you favor zero patent protection?

    “Same thing goes for nuclear power. Without… preferential access to federal land…”

    Of course, if the government didn’t hold the huge amounts of land that it does, land would be much cheaper.

    Thank you for the The Bigness Complex citation.

  44. Kevin:

    “(agribusiness is pretty heavily involved in regulatory prohibitions on labelling food gm-free).”

    Is it actually illegal for companies to say that their food in non-gm?

  45. M. Simon:

    “Zero risk government. Sounds great.
    Know where I can get any?”

    Yes, it does sound great, and for that we need zero government.

  46. Rick,

    Well, I don’t have a crystal ball, so there might be some cases in which even the short-term profit might be enough to compensate for the high costs of development. But even this short-term profit would require total success in keeping a lid on the new line of technology. And it’s unlikely the competition wouldn’t have any clue, since most major technologies at the time of their introduction have been under development in several places at once. Generally, when the basic components or prerequisites of a technology already exist, it is “in the air.” Plus, Monsanto or whoever taking care of all their own trade secret protection, instead of relying on government help.

    But even if there were a few profitable cases, they’d be few and far between. And since there are other factors in play, like taking away government’s present subsidies to R&D and the FDA’s collusion in selling the stuff to unwitting consumers who don’t want it, I’d still guess that the synergistic effects of taking all these things away would pretty much do the industry in.

    And yeah, I’m 100% anti-patent. Are you?

    As I understand it the FDA’s labelling standards are maximum as well as minimum. If, for example, the FDA adopts a new “organic” standard that includes sewage sludge, GMOs, etc., then a producer that puts “REAL organic: no sewage sludge or GMOs” on the label will be committing a regulatory offense. Monsanto’s lawyers are real big on things like intimidating grocers who label milk displays “rBGH free,” and such.

    I can’t recommend *The Bigness Complex* highly enough. There’s also a lot of good stuff on economy of scale and the relative efficiency of small-scale production in the economic chapters of Kirkpatrick Sale’s *Human Scale*.

  47. I’m with Peter K.

    Zero risk government. Sounds great.

    Know where I can get any?

  48. I was one of the letter writers post Three Mile Island. Got published in Popular Science.

    What I said at the time was that the particular accident had been predicted. In fact I had learned about it in nuke school (Hi Kent). My point was that the aftermath of the incident was caused by poor training.

    The incident itself was caused by bad design.

    Still, as every one (scientific) here has pointed out the back up passive safety systems worked.

    Personally, I favor wind over nukes. Nuke plants have too many points of long term catastrophic failure. Of course I would still use nukes for Naval Ships. That is because only a wasteful government program could run a “money is no object” safety system. The civilians will always be tempted to cut corners to save on costs.

    To a certain extent TMI was its own cure. A lot more is spent now in training operators. A lot more is spent on safety in general.

  49. Kevin,

    The risks of plant design are a lot better understood today than they were in 1953. We have since added 50 years to our then meager (5 year) inventory of experience.

    Still, as you point out, without government insurance no one wold insure the risk. The odds may be small but no one has the trillions a really, really, really, bad accident might cost.

    Given all that I would still be a Naval Nuke again and would reccomend it to any one interested.

    BTW when I went to school at UC in the early 60s they had a water cooled water moderated research reactor on Chicago campus. I don’t know if they still do.

  50. Kevin,

    I have comments and questions but I’m really tired so I’ll post them later today. If this thread goes into archive before I post, please be so kind as to check back anyway.

    I ordered The Bigness Complex today. Also, I noticed that it was a Forbes.com Book Club selection. That sounds like an encouraging development.

  51. Right now I happen to be serving on a jury with the engineer who designed the containment units for the nuclear fuel. He was beaming the other day when Cassini went into orbit.

    He said that owing to the alarm about the spacecraft nuking Earth after the slingshot ride around Venus, he was called out of retirement to calculate the risk. It turns out that more precise data had been gathered in the intervening years. His new calculation was that there was even far less risk than assumed when the spacecraft was launched. He did mention that the plan to use several small burns for course correction was more risky than one large burn, but that if all went well, it would be more precise.

    He also described the complicated and lengthy tests designed to break the containers holding the ceramic pellets. He said that the containers would survive an explosion at launch and, more significantly, a serious fire once on the ground. He said in the event that Cassini plowed into Earth on the way back from Venus, the containers would only moderately ablate on reentry.

  52. Rick,

    I don’t have a crystal ball, so my opinion is only a guess. But I doubt that, without patents, most biotech (including both GM food and pharmaceuticals) could generate enough profit to pay for itself.

    On the issue of diffusion of technology, when the technical prerequisites for it are widely known: it boils down to second-guessing what everyone else is likely to do. Whether there’s competitive pressure for an individual firm to introduce it depends on the likelihood that other firms will consider it too costly for the benefits. If it’s too costly for any firm to recoup the outlay, I think it’s at least as likely that the leading firms will reach an agreement that it isn’t worth the cost of retooling, and not to introduce the new technology until all parties are agreed. That’s how the auto industry dealt with gas turbine engines in the early ’60s.

    Re Fumenton on Clinton’s GM regulatory plans, and the extent of industry support for it: that sounds like Kolko’s account of meat packers’ support for the Meat Inspection Act. It was essentially a federally enforced cartel for guaranteeing quality and safety standards across the board, so the industry didn’t have to compete in terms of such standards.

    I think of patents as an initiation of force, because the require the invasion of someone’s tangible property to restrict what he does with his own stuff. Rothbard supported a purely contractual basis for copyrights, and speculated on a similar basis for patents. But if it depended entirely on contract, there would be a big problem with third party violations. And if the parties to the contract had to absorb all the transaction costs of enforcement, it would be a lot less cost-effective in most cases.

  53. Kevin,

    Are you saying that all most all biotech and pharmaceutical research would stop with out government assistance? Or do you just mean GM food biotech? Whatever, ending government aid to all industry is a worthy goal because it’s a fair goal.

    Speaking to the general case; it seems to me that in an environment with out government help, including patent protection, (with patent protection, my case seems to easy) or government penalty, research would still continue because it would be cheaper to do, although, it would probably trend toward products with more rapid profit potential.

    If, as you say, “most major technologies at the time of their introduction have been under development in several places at once.”. than there would be an incentive to do research just to keep up. As you know, it’s always dangerous to underestimate the dynamism and productivity of laissez faire capitalism.

    On the specific case of research for biotech food products: Makers of these products have to answer to the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA. Makers of drugs and pesticides, for example, have only each of the first two respectively to answer to. ( see: BIO Evolution by Michael Fumento, pg. 276,277) where he also documents the extreme proofs of safety that Monsanto had to show the FDA for transgenic soybeans. So, it seems to be the case that the cost of government regulation and taxation is, although maybe not on net greater than the government assistance, still quite high.

    Fumento also recounts the Clinton administration’s plans to increase federal oversight of GM foods. He says that the certain people in the industry seemed to support them, despite the added burden because they saw the new regulations as a way to “help allay public concerns”.( pg. 280)
    I wonder though, if the actual intent of those regulations was to present an entry barrier to other competitive GM food concerns, and the regulations in fact came at the behest of the dominant companies. Of course, this general scenario is often the genesis of government regulation.

    I don’t know about patent protection. Is it fair to protect some ideas and inventions as if they were property? Or, is doing so an initiation of force in itself? What about copyright? Is it fair for someone to make unauthorized copies of another’s writings, and perhaps sell them? What do you think about this and how, if at all. is it different from patent protection? What I’m also asking is; if government is restricted to protecting against force and fraud, are these areas in which to extend this protection?

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