Saturday, February 27, 2016

Philosophy on the Magic Mountain

Will humanists and theists be fighting forever?

Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain is a somewhat dreary, rigidly routine-ized, and heavily allegorical sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland. Its inmates while away their days waiting for (or not, as the case may be) clean bills of health from the ruler of this little state- the doctor, who performs occult operations to monitor their tuberculosis.

The hero of the book, Hans, comes to adopt the very static, passive, indeed patient, ethic of the place as a chosen way of life, drifting ever farther from normal conceptions of time, and from any regard for or social conenction with the "flatlands" below. The only fire in his story comes from a pair of philosophers who battle ceaselessly for Hans's mind (his soul is diverted by other temptations, such as a woman). Lodovico Settembrini is the die-hard humanist, atheist, and inheritor of the Italian enlightenment. Reason, and hatred of the old orders of aristocracy, church, and hierarchy are his watchwords. Later on in the book, his antagonist, Leo Naphta makes his appearance, a former Jesuit  and crypto-Marxist given to the most florid romanticism.

It is fair to say that Settembrini is given the best lines, and the most heroic action. Thomas Mann's sympathies are evident. But he portrays Naphta very thoughtfully, in perhaps the most interesting intellectual battle since the Brothers Karamazov.

"For even if the state's ungodliness were not branded on its brow, one need only note a simple historical fact- that its origins can be traced to the will of the people and not, as those of the Church, to divine decree- and thereby proves that the state is, if not exactly a manifestation of evil, then at least a manifestation of dire necessity and sinful shortcomings."
"The state, my dear sir-- "
"I know what you think of the nation-state. 'Above all else, love of the fatherland and a boundless hunger for glory.' That is Virgil. You amend him with a little liberal individualism, and call it democracy; but your fundamental relationship with the state remains completely untouched. you are apparently not disturbed that money is its soul. Or would you contest that? Antiquity was capitalist because it idolized the state. The Christian Middle Ages clearly saw that the secular state was inherently capitalist. 'Money will become our emperor'- that is a prophecy from the eleventh century. So you deny that it has literally come true, making life itself a veritable hell?"
"Can it be that your Manchester eyes have failed to notice the existence of a social theory that promises that victory of man over economics, a social theory whose principles and goals coincide exactly with those of the Christian City of God? The Church father called 'mine' and 'your' pernicious words, describe private property as usurpation and thievery. they repudiated private ownership, since, according to the divine law of nature, the earth is the common property of all mankind and therefore it fruits are likewise intended for the common use of all. They tought that only greed, itself a consequence of the Fall, defends the rights of property, since it also invented exclusive ownership. They were human enough, anticommercial enough, to call economic activity per se a danger to the salvation of the soul, that is, to humanity. They hated money and finance and called capitalist wealth fuel for the fires of hell. With all their hearts they despised the economic principle that declares price is the result of the workings of supply and demand, and they damned those who lived by the fluctuations oft he market as exploiters of their neighbors. Even more blasphemous in their eyes was another form of exploitation, that of time- the monstrosity of receiving a bonus, that is interest paid on money, from the simple passage of time and thereby perverting a universal divine institution, time itself, to one's own advantage and the detriment of others."
"Well, then- after having been buried for centuries, all these economic principles and standards have been resurrected in the modern movement of communism. The correspondence is perfect, down to the meaning of international labor's claim of dominion over international marketeering and speculation. In the modern confrontation with bourgeois-capitalist rot, the world's proletariat embodies the humanity and criteria of the City of God. ... Its work is terror, that the world may be saved and the ultimate goal of redemption be achieved: the children of God living in a world without classes or laws."
"'Form!', he said. And Naphta grandiloquently responded, 'Logos!'".
"In caustic words, Naphta forbade Herr Settembrini to call himself an 'individualist', because he denied the polarity of God and nature, and defined the question of humanity, the problem of man's interior conflict, as simply the conflict between the individual and the larger social units, and so was wedded to a bourgeois morality that was tied to life, understood life as an end to itself, saw its sole purpose in unheroic utility, and viewed all moral law as invested in the state; whereas he, Naphta- well aware that mankind's inner conflict was based instead on the contradiction between what the senses register and what transcends the senses- represented true, mystical individualism and was in actuality the genuine man of freedom and subjectivity."
"And at this Naphta begged them to forgive him for laughing out loud. The nihilism of the Church, had he said? The nihilism of the most realistic system for exercising authority in the history of the world? Could it be that Herr Settembrini had never been touched by that breath of human irony with which the Church continually made concessions to the world, to the flesh, cleverly acquiescing in order to disguise the ultimate consequences of the ascetic principle and letting the influence of the Spirit establish order by not opposing nature too sternly? And so he has never heard of the refined priestly concept of indulgence, under which even a sacrament was included- marriage, to be precise, which unlike the other sacraments was not a positive good, but a defense against sin, conferred solely to limit sensual desire and to instill moderation, so that the ascetic principle, the ideal of chastity, might be affirmed without defying the flesh with unpolitic severity?"

Etc... round and round they go, in a never-ending battle that remains just as active today between partisans of the transcendent Logos, and those of the embodied mind. Is a utilitarian, economically literate and politically moderate system sufficient for humanity, or is a romantic, mystical transcedence necessary? The truth of romantic & mystical propositions is quite beside the point. The Church was never a scientific institution. Religion cares about a truth behind the veneer of reality- however one calls it, it is a long-standing human fixation both to see ulterior conspiracies and realities behind all phenomena, and to demand the heightened drama and meaning from our lives and world that such fantastical realities generate.

It seems to be, in the end, a temperamental issue, between people with more imagination than sense, and others with more sense than imagination. Intuitions and artistic sensibilities point in one direction, and the facts of history and nature point in another. Whether we need both perspectives is a vexed question, but that we have them and may continue to have them perpetually is pretty clear.

The conflict between Settembrini and Naphtha is also, I think, infused with an allegorical relationship with World War 1 (spoiler alert!). Eventually, the combatants get so worked up that Naphta feels his honor impugned, and insists on a duel. Though Hans tries to mediate and diffuse tensions, seconds are chosen, arms are acquired, and the absurd ritual continues till the fateful morning comes. Settembrini has the first shot and fires into the air, declaring no intention to kill anyone. Naphta is so consumed by the conflict, his honor, and the romantic drama that he shoots himself in the head.

While one might view the rational side of the cataclysm in the system of alliances that were, not all the peaceful nations against the aggressor, as NATO is arranged now, but rather the Metternichian "balance" of the triple alliance vs the central powers, etc. But it was the romantic notions of a cleansing, dynamic, and manly militarism that were probably the more powerful motives toward that world war, and even more, the second.


Incidentally, Mann provides a Trumpian figure in this book as well, in the person of Pieter Peeperkorn. Given to great generosity and cryptic nonsensical utternances, Peeperkorn impresses everyone around him, especially Hans, who finds him charismatic and full of feeling, a welcome contrast to the ceaseless pedantry of Naphta and Settembrini. Indeed, Peeperkorn is irresistably magnetic, even if uncouth, incoherent, and generally oblivious, except when it comes to the deepest feelings, where he attacks mercilessly, or kindly, as his spirit moves.

  • Thomas Paine on the fraudulence of all religions.
  • DeLong on Piketty.
  • Euthanasia of the rentier ... some numbers.
  • House hunting while black...
  • Bill Black on Wall Street's shocked disbelief that millennials are infatuated with Bernie. How could they be so blind?
  • Let's pay a little attention to Rubio.
  • Trump and the stupid party / religion.
  • Lindsey Graham lets loose on the stupid party.
  • FOX and its clown posse.
  • Russia and the new cold war.
  • Afghanistan, heading downhill.
  • Is this who we are, lackeys of despots?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Mechanics of Influenza

The more we learn, the more amazing this tiny virus seems.

One of the few regular and severe diseases still prevalent in the developed world among people of all ages is influenza. It causes misery to millions and significant mortality, and can occasionally mutate to pandemic strains that kill millions; 2% of the human population in 1918. Nor is the current vaccination system very effective. We need something better.

What a simple organism it is, though! Only nine genes, in a genome of less than 15,000 bases, enveloped in a membrane coat carrying a couple of proteins on its surface. How does it cause all this misery? Well, each of its genes is intricately designed and multifunctional. The principal outer coat protein, for instance, called hemagglutinin or HA, is specially shaped to bind to the sialic acid on the surface of our respiratory mucosa cells. Then, when ingested into the endomsome/lysosome of the poor cell, it acrobatically flips its structure to thrust out a hydrophobic spear that punctures the lysozomal membrane. This same protein then refolds its shape once again to bring the viral membrane and the lysozome membrane into close enough contact that they fuse, releasing the viral contents into the cell. Not only that, but the HA protein plays a special role in mutating all the time in different viral strains so as to retain function on the exterior of the envelope, but evade the host immune system.

Sequence of refolding and membrane fusion events, by the surface HA protein. It takes only about three HA molecules to carry out membrane fusion between the surface of the virion and the endosomal membrane.

There are many other molecular functions encoded in this tiny parasite, such as a polymerase that both replicates itself and copies itself to message RNAs, an enzyme on the surface that allows the virus to eat through the mucus in our respiratory tract, structural proteins that assemble the new viral particles, an enzyme that steals the caps of cellular mRNAs and plants them on viral RNAs, and even a proton channel protein that allows the virus to equilibrate with the low pH of the endosome/lysozome and trigger disassembly of the virion, so that, given that the membrane fusion has taken place at the same time, its genome can get out to take over the cell.

Electron micrograph of two influenza particles inside an endosome, waiting for their chance to escape and take over the cell.
The inhibition of the host immune system deserves special mention, for its deviousness. The interferon response is one of the most powerful immune and especially antiviral responses, which influenza takes special care to counter-attack. This is a rapid and non-adaptive ("innate") part of the immune system, where once a virus is detected, a program of hundreds of genes is activated that renders a cell strongly primed to shut down viral replication and commit suicide. While the virus eventually succumbs to the much slower adaptive immune response, (B cells, antibodies, killer T cells, etc.), that only happens after it has already replicated and been sneezed back out to other targets. Evading the more prompt early immune response is absolutely essential, and is partly mediated by a viral protein called non-structural protein 1 (NS1). So-called because at the time it was discovered, researchers had no idea what it did.

Now, they know that it has at least four, and possibly more, functions.
  1. It binds to a shuts down cellular TRIM25, a key part of the detection system that turns the interferon response on. 
  2. It also binds to and shuts down cellular PKR, which is one of the prime components of the interferon response downstream, which shuts down most translation, including viral translation. PKR also promotes cell suicide and amplifies the interferon response through NFkB. 
  3. Thirdly, NS1 binds and shuts down cellular CPSF4, which processes and tags cellular mRNAs for export from the nucleus. So while the interferon system is trying to shut down viral and cellular translation, the virus, through this single protein, is specifically shutting down cellular translation, and also shutting down the interferon response. 
  4. Some researchers claim a fourth function is most important, which is the ability of NS1 to bind to double-stranded RNA, like the genome of the virus and its replication and transcription structures. This binding seems to hide the RNA from OAS, an interferon-induced protein that would otherwise bind the double-stranded RNA and initiate an RNAse L response to destroy it. 
  5. Fifth, NS1 binds to and inhibits another cellular protein, PAF1, which is a regulator of transcription that has a central role in antiviral gene expression. 
  6. Sixth, NS1 binds to and activates PI3K, a kinase that promotes cell survival, which is helpful in the face of attempts by the host cell to commit suicide
  7. Seventh, a small portion of NS1 from some strains of influenza binds to PDZ domain-containing proteins DLG1 and LIN7C, thereby disrupting tight junctions between cells, and possibly helping the virus spread to other cells and tissues. 
It is simply astonishing that a small protein of 230 amino acids could do so much, and wreak such havoc.

Complete structure of NS1, colored by position in the protein, from the N terminal to the C terminal.

Portion of NS1 that binds to RNA, bound to RNA. The tiny stick molecules are  glycerol molecules from the crystallization mixture.

That is just a taste of the complexities that are known, and there is surely much else as yet unknown. But what to do about it? The current system of annual viral surveillance and specific vaccine production is routinely outsmarted by this tiny speck of a virus. We probably need a more serious program of vaccine research and testing from all parts of the virus, under the assumption that there may be epitopes not in the usually studied surface antigens that might be helpful in preventing infection, assuming that some cells manage to kill themselves and display the internal viral proteins to the adaptive immune system.

Likewise, study of all the virus products and screening of small molecule drugs against them in all their facets would be a significant research program directed to treat an infection once it has begun. This needs a broad approach that is possible with current technology, since it is hard to predict what all the functions of the virus are or which ones are most vulnerable in the body. The interfaces between the NS1 protein and its various targets are examples presenting many possible forms of therapy. Current drugs like Tamiflu are only modestly effective, if at all. This kind of commitment is something we should be doing much more actively as part of the NIH system. It would have higher and quicker payoffs than the war on cancer, while still at much lower cost.

  • One reason that states have been going red.
  • And going a little nuts.
  • Scalia and the petulant right.
  • Is willful stupidity part of the strategy? No, just a quest for bad government. Or no government.
  • Next stop, civil war?
  • Social Democracies do it better.
  • War in Afghanistan ... between the Taliban and ISIS.
  • On the duty to cheat on taxes.
  • In appalling interview, the "reasonable" candidate Kasich vows to bring America together by supporting the Senate Supreme Court blockade.
  • Bernie's economics are the real deal.
  • Ideas matter.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Say's Law

The convolutions of economics, cranks, and class.

The class war has deep roots, and is fought on many fields, in many guises. One of the most interesting and influential is the field of economic theory, which as Paul Krugman persistently points out, has undergone startling episodes of battle, tide turning, and forgetting over the last century. One battle is over the meaning, interpretation, and validity of Say's law.

Enunciated by Jean Baptiste Say, who lived through the French revolution as an economist and businessman, and founded the first business school, the law states that production calls forth demand. If an excess of some good is produced, someone is sure to want it, at some price. More importantly, in general, if production in an economy increases, that production will be eagerly sold by its producers and bought by someone, even if the price might be less than expected. For instance, if a technological change makes it much cheaper to make computer memory, demand for that memory is sure to materialize, even as its cost and price go down. And if productivity decreases the prices of many goods, that allows consumers to buy more of other things, and have higher living standards. To some degree, this law makes assumptions about human psychology- that entrepreneurs meet a market, and that prices provide the flexible mechanism to bring supply and demand into agreement, pretty much at all times.

Unfortunately, Maynard Keynes claimed by the 1930's that Say's law was invalid. Then classical-minded economists tried to reclaim its validity by the 1950's and the debate has proceeded onwards, though mainstream economists give it little explicit credence these days. Its significance lies in the issue that if one grants that production can occasionally and on a wide scale be glutted, or demand be deficient in aggregate, that opens the door to solutions that come from elsewhere than the free, unfettered market- i.e the state as a manager of the macroeconomy. And this causes ideological heartburn to many on the right.

The Great Depression was an obvious case in point. Why did economic activity grind to a virtual standstill? The people still had the same needs they had before, and the skills, factories, and materials were the same as well. Yet a plague of unemployment and, frankly, deficient demand ripped through the economy causing misery for millions. Conventionally-minded economists, called "liquidationists" maintained that the financial fever would quickly work itself out if all businessmen cut their costs to meet the new (lower) demand, and if workers accepted the lower wages that they deserved given the reduced business conditions. A new equilibrium would be found at a new, if lower, level. Indeed, they argued that it was the perverse reluctance of workers to accept lower wages that led to the whole problem, preventing a new equilibrium from being achieved rapidly.

But we need to go back a step to the start of the process. How is it that business conditions could deteriorate so dramatically in the first place, if production always calls forth appropriate demand? Keynes didn't dispute that a supply-demand equilibrium, particularly of labor, would eventually be achieved, in the long run. But when? His quip was that in the long run, we are all dead. An event like the Depression, caused by a dramatic collapse of the financial system which drained wealth, consumption and investment, and thus effective demand out of a system whose actual, human demand was unchanged caused unprecedented misery, though milder depressions were common enough through economic history. This misery is prima facie evidence that Say's law is invalid in the short term in macroeconomic terms. Demand can be dramatically deficient, especially in modern economies with enormous financial superstructures whence investment and credit flow (or don't flow).

So why the continuing discussion? There are strong ideological forces at work. The Mises, Rand, Hayek, Austrian wing of the right, seeing themselves as the last pillars of human freedom, find it hard to accept that, into this breach of deficient demand should step the only actor with the wherewithal to do so: the state. Not only that, but the amelioration of the misery of the working class (though also the much more modest misery of the business class) by way of public works and other forms of macroeconomic management, (even including the printing of paper money in place of proper gold!), reduces the power of the employer class. Which is certainly relevant to the class war. This attitude is ironic, if one defines human freedom as the freedom of most humans, but that is how the class war works. It is the freedom of the upper, employer, feudal overlord class that concerns the Austrians and conservatives, not that of the workers who are dependent upon them. Under this system of thought, there can be no such thing as involuntary unemployment, there being always some work somewhere at some wage, for the worker willing to take it. If only workers were willing to be paid pittances, everyone could be happy!

Thus one gets quotes like: "The short answer is that there is still need and place to assert Say's Law whever anybody is foolish enough to deny it. It is itself, to repeat, essentially a negative than a positive proposition. It is essentially the rejection of a fallacy. It states that a general overproduction of all commodities is not possible. And that is all, basically, that it is intended to assert." - Henry Hazlitt, "The Failure of the 'New Economics'", 1959. Hazlitt's book is little more than a screed, but can still be found in my local library, proudly placed right next to Keynes' general theory, a sign of the seriousness with which it once was taken, and perhaps is, in some quarters.

Say's law was reflected more recently in the ideology of supply side economics, whose contention was that prosperity arises from unleashing job creators from taxes, regulation, unions, and other obstacles, so that production can increase and the benefits trickle down to everyone. Subsequent history has not been kind to this theory either, yet it remains the cornerstone of Republican platforms in this year's campaign, for obvious reasons of the class war.

Unfortunately, Keynes had an even deeper insight about Say's law, which was that even if the employers had their way, and reduced worker wages and positions as rapidly as they liked to bring their businesses back into equilibrium with demand, they would not, on a macroeconomic basis, be successful any more rapidly. As wages sank, so would demand, since over the whole economy, income equals demand minus savings. As income heads south in a massive depression, so would demand, in a downward spiral whose limit is reached when something changes in this dynamic- when money comes out of mattresses for consumption and capitalists eat into savings, setting a floor for demand, given the (reduced) stocks of money available.

How much more civilized if the demand can be made up before all the parties are reduced to extremis- if the state steps in with a tool kit that can include public works, tax cuts, reduced interest rates, and all the money required to make it happen, when the private financial system goes through one of its regular collapses. But that requires a state with great technical and moral resources. That was the work of the New Deal and the Greatest Generation, who not only won World War 2, but demonstrated in doing so that the state could dramatically re-establish demand through the economy and keep it going through efforts like building the interstate highway system and winning the Cold War.

One can argue whether the prosperity of that era was due to tremendous technological advances, the artifical demands generated by wars hot and cold, and / or the newly installed Keynesian macroeconomic management. But its wide demographic distribution was a matter of the power of workers, which was aided at the time by strong unionization and the Keynesian economic policy. These conditions required some decency on the part of the elite, to recognize their choice between reform and revolution.

The US has always been run by a rich elite, from the founding onwards. The question is whether these elites work for all, as Washington and FDR did, or for themselves, as the slaveholders did who wrote the evil lines into our constitution which took so much blood to expunge. The retreat and even forgetting of Keynes, under the assault from Milton Friedman, the Chicago school, and other ideologues of the right, which has resulted in the withering of the position of workers and the vast inequality seen today, results from a callous and short-sighted (not to mention corrupted) elite culture, mostly on the right, whose current candidates to a man (and woman) promote the interests of the rich in the most blatant ways, such as planning big federal deficits to give them money through the tax system.

So, we have to ask what is the point of freedom, and of the economic system. Governments are certainly capable of destroying freedom in a quest for economic and moral perfection (and power). At the same time an unfettered, unregulated capitalistic system destroys the freedom of its workers just as surely, ending up in feudalism. Predators are on every side. Say's law and the other ideological structures of classical and right-wing economics hide a presumption in favor of the capitalist, championing the freedom of the 1% while treating labor as a faceless, disposable commodity. We need a middle way, as exemplified by the mid-20th century compromise, and indeed the social democracies of Europe, where the democratic state acts as the balance-wheel to promote the freedom of all classes in rough proportion, as well as their prosperity.

"Twitter chatter aside, when it comes to judging who's more progressive than who, political scientists have an app for that—at least for those who've served in Congress, as Sanders and Clinton both have. It's the DW-Nominate first dimension, scaled from +1 to -1, which explains the lion's share of how members vote. For the two years when they served in the Senate together, Sanders had a score of -.717, making him far and away the most liberal member. Number two, Sheldon Whitehouse had a score of -.507, while number 15, Hillary Clinton had a score of -.403. The difference between Sanders' score and Clinton's was greater than the difference between Clinton and Evan Bayh, the second-most conservative member of the Democratic caucus at the time. So in short, the difference between them in terms of who is most progressive is both objective and huge."
  • For instance, the Fed and Bernie Sanders.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Clean(er) Nuclear Power?

Thorium as a better nuclear power system.

The US has made progress reducing carbon emissions, mostly by substituting fracked gas for coal. This is not a long-term solution however, only cutting carbon emissions to half, instead of to zero. The climate needs more help faster, if the biosphere is to survive the anthropocene.

Renewable power sources have become economically viable, but not quite system-viable, since they are intermittent. Progress on grid-scale power storage has been very slow. The best power storage system remains gravitational water pumping/storage, which is available in relatively few places. In the absence of a good power storage and intermittancy management solutions, solar and wind energy simply can not be relied on for more than about 25% of grid energy. While most of the carbon emissions problem is one of public policy and communal action, this is an example of a remaining technical hurdle.

While I hope those issues are solved, the rest of the world, especially the developing world, keeps turning to coal, which is a planetary disaster. We need something better, in operational, economic, and planetary terms. One solution that has been floating around the margins has been nuclear power from thorium. We are familiar with nuclear power from enriched uranium- the pressurized water reactors that have been chugging away for decades both on the power grid and in aircraft carriers and submarines. (Related reactors) These reactors require quite a bit of uranium 235 (using the same systems as bomb-grade enrichment but to lower levels, and generate quite a bit of extremely long-lived waste, especially trans-uranic waste products like plutonium. Indeed, one of the reasons they were selected was that they generate plenty of bomb-making material.

On the other hand, there is another method of nuclear power generation, using thorium. Thorium is not fissile itself, and is four times as abundant as uranium, and doesn't need to be enriched. Indeed, there are virtually limitless supplies. Once placed in a running reactor and bombarded by neutrons, thorium breeds uranium 233 which is fissile, and generates power. The decay series of this isotope is far more favorable than uranium 235, in terms of making far fewer transuranic products, (fewer bombs), and allowing better recycling. Indeed, the ultimate amounts of long-term waste from a thorium reactor are about a thousandth of that from a U235 reactor. The reactor design is very hot, but unpressurized, and comes with safety features that significantly outstrip U235 reactors. (The gung-ho nerd-tube version.)

Since the main issues of conventional nuclear plants are safety and waste disposal, this is all very good news. How does it all work? A demonstration plant was built and run by the US in the 1960's, but was shut down because it did not provide a path to bomb making materials. This seems now a bit short-sighted, yet the basic principles were demonstrated. The main features are that the fissile fuel exists as a liquid rather than a solid, at rather high temperature (600˚C to 700˚C, which leads to higher electricity generation efficiency), and needs an extra circulating loop of another fluid to transfer heat to turbines. This second fluid has typically been lithium/fluoride/berylium mixture, (the same as the fuel, only without the thorium/uranium), of which berylium is particularly toxic. But apparently the berylium could be left out, so this might not be a necessary element of the design.

The fuel cycle is that unenriched thorium 232 is either included in the liquid fuel, or blanketed around the outside of the reactor. It captures neutrons which transmute it to protactinium 233, which decays in a matter of weeks to U233, whose half-life is 160,000 years. U233, the actual fissile fuel, is then burned to completion in the system, leading to various smaller waste products including noble gasses, cesium, strontium, and other elements whose longest half-lives are on the order of 30 years, (though quite toxic and hard to handle). Very little of the waste is up-converted to transuranic elements like plutonium and neptunium that are especially long-lived. Indeed so little is produced that such elements can be added right back to the fuel, along with recycled U233, to be destroyed by further fission. This assumes an on-site method of pyroprocessing or distillation that can separate the burnt waste from the fissile material to be recycled, to the tune of about 200 kg of fuel elements reprocessed per day. The overall cycle leads to far more efficient use of the fuel, however, hundreds-fold less waste, and particularly less long-lived waste relative to the conventional U235 reactor cycle.

A second significant problem is how to start these reactors, given the need to generate the U233. The Oak Ridge experimental reactor was seeded with U235, for instance. Starting up a fleet of such reactors from scratch would require quite a bit of our stockpiles of enriched uranium. And while melt-down is impossible, given the already melted state of the fuel and the ease of diluting it or spreading it to a non-critical state, it presents significant shielding and handling problems, like any nuclear reactor. Here is a point-by-point critique.

Time scales of the budgets of various elements in a thorium/U233 reactor. If initiated with transuranics like plutonium, (yellow), they would burn off to a low steady state by about 50 years. That level is a small fraction of the total fuel mass, and never needs to be disposed of as long as the reactor is running and its fuel is thoroughly reprocessed. Th=thorium, U=uranium, Pu=plutonium, Np=neptunium, Pa=protactinium, Cm=curium, Am=americium TMSR=thorium molten salt reactor.

The thorium reactor is extremely complex- there is no doubt about that. It is unlikely to be made into a plug-and-play system that could be transported to remote or undeveloped areas, or run with little expertise. It would take a decade or more of serious research to make practical utility scale designs and plants. Not only is there a great deal of high-temperature, high-radiation plumbing, but it needs onsite fuel reprocessing of materials that are extreme gamma emitters, and thus can not be handled directly, even with gloves. Additionally, parts of the reactor like key graphite neutron reflectors & heat exchangers would need to be replaced or refurbished every few years.

The current light water pressurized U235 reactor technology is also complex, and has proven itself to be highly problematic. It generates large amounts of unimaginably long-lived waste, demands large amounts of hard-to-enrich fuel, and has been demonstrated to be unsafe in the short and long terms, requiring heroic levels of engineering for utility use. This is what broke the back of current reactor technology around the world, making it economically inviable, despite the fact that a large fleet of plants are being run ever more efficiently (with due respect to the Fukushima and other disasters like Three Mile Island and the San Onofre plant in California.)

Compared with the tens of billions of dollars that have been spent on fusion power research, the thorium system is significantly more realistic, addressing the need for baseline power that is extremely pressing. Perhaps renewable power and power storage will be solved and take the place of fossil fuels. I certainly hope so- we need to get to zero carbon as soon as possible.