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Science news: a “new,” safe, clean nuclear tech that’s actually decades old!

February 27, 2019 1 comment

It’s been a while since I did a science-themed post around here, partly because of generally neglecting my blog but partly because I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading science magazines online — something that I fear has been affecting my professional writing as well, since I’ve been having trouble thinking up new story ideas in recent years, and maybe the lack of inspiration from science articles is part of the problem. But recently, when the Firefox browser discontinued its inbuilt support for RSS feeds, I found a separate add-on that worked even better, in that it notified me of new posts and made it easier to keep current. So I decided to take advantage of that to subscribe to some science sites’ feeds so I could stay more current with the news.

Anyway, Discover Magazine just posted the following article, which is quite interesting:

Nuclear Technology Abandoned Decades Ago Might Give Us Safer, Smaller Reactors

It’s a long article rather than the short colums the feed usually gives me, so I’m not sure if it’ll stay permanently available or go behind a paywall at some point. So I’ll summarize here.

It turns out that, in the early days of nuclear research, scientists had examined various options for generating power from atomic fission, including a system called a molten salt reactor. Per the article:

Every other reactor design in history had used fuel that’s solid, not liquid. This thing was basically a pot of hot nuclear soup. The recipe called for taking a mix of salts — compounds whose molecules are held together electrostatically, the way sodium and chloride ions are in table salt — and heating them up until they melted. This gave you a clear, hot liquid that was about the consistency of water. Then you stirred in a salt such as uranium tetrafluoride, which produced a lovely green tint, and let the uranium undergo nuclear fission right there in the melt — a reaction that would not only keep the salts nice and hot, but could power a city or two besides.

Weird or not, molten salt technology was viable; the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee had successfully operated a demonstration reactor back in the 1960s. And more to the point…, the liquid nature of the fuel meant that they could potentially build molten salt reactors that were cheap enough for poor countries to buy; compact enough to deliver on a flatbed truck; green enough to burn our existing stockpiles of nuclear waste instead of generating more — and safe enough to put in cities and factories. That’s because Fukushima-style meltdowns would be physically impossible in a mix that’s molten already. Better still, these reactors would be proliferation resistant, because their hot, liquid contents would be very hard for rogue states or terrorists to hijack for making nuclear weapons.

Molten salt reactors might just turn nuclear power into the greenest energy source on the planet.

It sounds paradoxical — they’re safe from meltdowns because they’re already molten? But the thing is, they’re designed to contain material at that temperature to begin with, and since it’s already liquid, any temperature runaway would just make it expand until the reaction shut down. Plus the coolant wouldn’t need to be under pressure so there’d be no risk of a steam explosion, and there’s a failsafe built in that would drain the molten salts into an underground tank so they wouldn’t be released into the environment. The one real problem, it seems, was finding a sufficiently corrosion-resistant material to make the tanks and pipes from.

Better yet, the liquid nature of the nuclear fuel means that it could be continuously filtered, purified, and cycled back into use like the liver cleansing the bloodstream, so eventually all the nuclear material would be used up and there’d be no nuclear waste — or rather, what little waste there was would have a short enough half-life to be safe after about 300 years rather than a quarter of a million. What’s more, it could use some of our existing nuclear waste as fuel and help reduce that problem too.

So why was this superior technology abandoned decades ago in favor of the riskier water-cooled, solid-fuel nuclear plants? Largely just industrial and political inertia, it seems. The solid-fuel design was already in use on nuclear subs when the effort to build civilian nuclear power plants got underway, and the molten salt design was still experimental. So by the time molten salt technology was experimentally proven viable, the industry was already fully committed to solid-fuel reactors, with a big infrastructure built up to support them and deal with their fuel. And there were big plans to recycle their fuel in breeder reactors and create more and more plutonium to power future reactors, which seemed like a great idea until it turned out you could build bombs from the spent fuel, which meant the recycling plan was shut down and we were stuck with a bunch of nuclear waste we didn’t know what to do with, and that problem plus Three Mile Island and Chernobyl soured people on any nuclear-fission research, even something like molten salt reactors that would be far safer and cleaner and have none of the drawbacks that made people so afraid of fission power. But now, people (at least those who aren’t in denial) are more afraid of climate change and are looking for green energy sources, and this might be one of the best.

Then again, MSRs are not a perfect technology. I looked around and found another site talking about the tech:

Molten Salt Reactors

This article is more cynical about the downsides of the tech than the Discover article, asserting that it could be used to create weapons after all, and that there are a number of unknowns yet to be addressed.

And here’s the World Nuclear Association’s assessment, which mentions that MSR research is already pretty big in China, something the Discover article doesn’t mention:

Molten Salt Reactors – World Nuclear Association

Although it doesn’t seem to agree with the previous article about the weapons risk, barely mentioning the issue in its discussion, and suggesting that the early research into the technology was specifically focused on finding a form of nuclear power that would minimize the proliferation risk. So evidently there are differing points of view on this, which is why it’s always a good idea to look beyond a single source.

This is informative stuff for a science fiction writer like me. For decades, SF writers have assumed that the future of clean nuclear power would be fusion rather than fission. I’ve long been a believer in the aneutronic form of fusion that would react deuterium with helium-3 (which is abundant on the Moon due to being deposited by the solar wind) and react without neutron radiation. But it turns out there’s been a viable, safe, fairly compact fission technology that’s been known about this whole time and largely ignored — already pretty much proven viable, while fusion has remained just out of reach (they’ve been predicting it was 30-40 years away for the past 50-60 years now). I mean, sure, a reactor based on what’s essentially a pit of radioactive lava sounds scary, but no more so than a starship engine based on constantly annihilating matter and antimatter.

It’s also a good reminder that technology doesn’t always develop in a straight line — that viable advances can be sidelined for a generation or more because industries choose to concentrate all their attention elsewhere, or because the political will to explore them is lacking. Of course, there’s no shortage of SF stories about scientists (often of the mad persuasion) trying to prove to Those Fools at the Institute that a discredited fringe idea is viable after all, but it might also be worth exploring what comes after that, when the fringe idea finally starts to get acceptance — or when it was never really discredited to begin with, just overshadowed and forgotten until the hero of the story tried digging into old research and turned up an overlooked gem.

By the way, it’s amusing to read that the molten uranium-salt mixture has “a lovely green tint,” given that the public has long associated radioactivity with a green glow. That myth arose as a result of the glow-in-the-dark radium clock and watch faces that were common back in the days before it was understood how dangerous radioactivity was. The green glow wasn’t from the radium itself, whose emissions (like those of all radioactive isotopes) are invisible; rather, the radioactivity excited luminescence in the phosphor dyes the radium was mixed with. But since such items were common in the early 20th century, people assumed that anything radioactive would glow green, which is part of why the Incredible Hulk is that color (although it’s largely because his original gray hue was hard to reproduce consistently with cheap 1960s printing methods), along with various vintage monsters like those in The Green Slime and Doctor Who‘s “The Green Death,” and why the nuclear rod prominently featured in the titles of The Simpsons glows green. It’s also probably why kryptonite is green. So anyway, given that I’ve grown used to thinking of “green radiation” as a total myth, it’s ironic that the molten salt fuel in this case actually is green in color (though presumably not glowing except thermally) — not to mention that it’s a “green” power source in the environmental sense!

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Two million words!

February 15, 2019 2 comments

It’s time to do another one of my overview posts of the word count of my published works, since it’s been nearly three years since the last one and I’ve gained a significant number of original published works in the interim. Plus, as you can tell from the title, I’ve just achieved another milestone! With the recent release of my second Star Trek Adventures game campaign The Gravity of the Crime, I have now surpassed 2 million words of paid, published fiction!

The list below includes all my paid fiction that has been published as of February 2019, plus two upcoming releases that have already been copyedited so that I have final word counts, namely Crimes of the Hub and Star Trek: The Original Series — The Captain’s Oath. It excludes the sold stories “The Melody Lingers” (Galaxy’s Edge magazine) and “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” (the Footprints in the Stars anthology) because they haven’t been copyedited yet, but they should be around 4400 and 5000 words, respectively. There’s another story for which I’m currently waiting for a contract and copyedits, so I may update this list once that or the others come together. I’ve left out the unpaid essays I’ve contributed to various sites, since it’s hard to keep track of them all, and I do so much unsolicited blathering online as it is.

ORIGINAL FICTION

Default/”Only Superhuman” universe:

Novels:

  • Only Superhuman: 118,000 words

Stories:

  • “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” (revised): 12,100
  • “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele”: 9400
  • “The Weight of Silence”: 7600
  •  “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing”: 8900
  •  “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad”: 8200
  • “Twilight’s Captives”: 10500
  • “Aspiring to Be Angels”: 7900

Total story count: 64,600 words

Additional material:

  • Among the Wild Cybers Historical Overview, Glossary, and Afterword: 6500

Total default universe: 189,100 words

Hub universe:

  • “The Hub of the Matter”: 9300
  •  “Home is Where the Hub Is”: 9800
  •  “Make Hub, Not War”: 9800
  •  Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy: 33,300 (preceding stories + 4400 words new material)
  • “Hubpoint of No Return”: 12,400
  • “…And He Built a Crooked Hub”: 12,500
  • “Hubstitute Creatures”: 14,200
  • Crimes of the Hub: 45,600 (preceding stories + 6500 words new material)

Total: 78,900 words

Other:

  •  “No Dominion”: 7900
  • “Abductive Reasoning”: 4100

Total: 12,000 words

Total original fiction count:  280,000 words

MARVEL FICTION

  • X-Men: Watchers on the Walls: 83,500
  • Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder: 71,000

Total Marvel novel count: 154,500 words

STAR TREK FICTION

Novels:

  • Ex Machina: 110,000
  • Orion’s Hounds: 105,000
  • The Buried Age: 132,000
  • Places of Exile: 55,000
  • Greater Than the Sum: 78,500
  • Over a Torrent Sea: 89,000
  •  Watching the Clock: 125,000
  • Forgotten History: 85,500
  • A Choice of Futures: 81,000
  • Tower of Babel: 84,000
  • Uncertain Logic: 109,000
  • Live by the Code: 106,000
  • The Face of the Unknown: 95,000
  • Patterns of Interference: 85,500
  • The Captain’s Oath: 106,000

Total ST novel count: 1,446,500 words

Novellas:

  • Aftermath: 26,000
  • Mere Anarchy: The Darkness Drops Again: 28,900
  • Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within: 25,400
  • The Collectors: 35,400
  • Time Lock: 26,500
  • Shield of the Gods: 28,700

Total: 170,900

Novelettes:

  • “…Lov’d I Not Honor More “: 12,000
  • “Brief Candle”: 9800
  • “As Others See Us”: 9100
  • “Friends With the Sparrows”: 10,300
  • “Empathy”: 11,000

Total: 52,200

Total ST short fiction count: 223,100 words

Star Trek Adventures RPG campaigns:

  • “Call Back Yesterday”: 8200
  • “The Gravity of the Crime”: 10,500

Total ST RPG count: 18,700

Total ST fiction count: 1,688,300 words

STAR TREK MAGAZINE ARTICLES

  •  “Points of Contention”: 1040
  •  “Catsuits are Irrelevant”: 1250
  • “Top 10 Villains #8: Shinzon”: 820
  • “Almost a Completely New Enterprise”: 800
  • “The Remaking of Star Trek“: 1350
  • “Vulcan Special: T’Pau”: 910
  • “The Ultimate Guide: Voyager Season 3″: 1170 (not counting episode guide)
  • “Star Trek 45s #11: Concerning Flight”: 1000

Total article count: about 8350 words

All told:

  •  Novels: 1,719,000 words
  • Short fiction: 385,100 words
  • RPG campaigns: 18,700 words
  • Nonfiction: 8350 words

Total fiction: 2,122,800 words

Total overall: 2,131,150 words

 

(And just a reminder — if you enjoy any of my books, please post reviews of them on Amazon or other sites where books are sold. The more reviews they have, the more notice they can attract.)

More STAR TREK ADVENTURES coming this year (and one just released)!

February 9, 2019 1 comment

I just noticed this item on the TrekCore news site:

http://trekcore.com/blog/2019/02/star-trek-adventures-continues-to-expand-in-2019/

It’s an announcement of several new Star Trek Adventures publications slated for 2019 release, including a couple of new sourcebooks, but at the bottom, it mentions the August release of Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2:

STA Strange New Worlds Mission Compendium

In August, Star Trek Adventures will begin to explore Strange New Worlds with its second mission compendium of the same name. The book will contain 10 original missions to play through, exploring the strangest and most challenging away missions on dangerous planets and weird environments.

Strange New Worlds follows These Are the Voyages in providing fans with adventure material for the game from both Star Trek fiction writers such as Christopher L. Bennett (The Captain’s Oath, Greater Than the Sum) and roleplay gaming luminaries like Jason Bulmahn (Pathfinder).

My contribution to this volume is the fifth adventure scenario I wrote, but it’ll be my first to be released in print instead of PDF form. At this point, only one of my PDF campaigns has been released, but hopefully more will come out in the 6 months before Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2 comes out.

Hmm. Twenty years ago, I tried to break into Star Trek writing by submitting a few stories to another thing called Strange New Worlds, the annual contest anthology that Pocket ran for 10 years to discover new authors. As it happens, the first one I submitted to was the second volume of SNW. I never got into that SNW (although some of my Trek Lit colleagues got their starts there, including Dayton Ward and William Leisner), but now I finally get into another Trek collection of the same title, more or less.


EDIT: Thanks to Bernd in the comments, I now know that my second PDF game, The Gravity of the Crime, was released just two weeks ago:

https://www.modiphius.net/collections/star-trek-adventures/products/star-trek-adventures-the-gravity-of-the-crime-pdf

STA_The_Gravity_of_the_CrimeWill you violate the Prime Directive?

Welcome commander…  Your orders are go undercover on the pre-contact planet of Kalmur to investigate the accidental death of a Federation observer.

When a Kalmuri experiment into artificial gravity goes wildly wrong, an experimental device explodes crushing everyone within the test lab, including a Starfleet scientist, Lieutenant Li, who had infiltrated the project as an observer.

Sent to investigate this apparently accidental death, your team is confronted by a Kalmuri detective, Lanox, who is convinced the deaths are the result of sabotage.

Can you solve this classic locked-room murder mystery without violating Starfleet’s Prime Directive?

Set during the TNG era, this adventure also contains advice for adaptation to other eras including The Original Series.