Sunday, December 11, 2005

Science Sunday -- The Nuclear Nobel

THE NUCLEAR NOBEL: MOHAMED EL BARADEI and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize. CNN's Jonathan Mann interviewed El Baradei live in Oslo for a worldwide audience last night. I stayed up late to catch the show because I wanted to hear more of his views on Iran's nuclear program. But perhaps the most important thing he said was in response to CNN's question regarding what he thought the biggest global security threat might be. His answer was that the greatest threat facing the world is the threat of terrorist organizations acquiring and using a nuclear weapon. He also said that in the foreseeable future, it is more likely that a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda will deploy a nuclear weapon than a rogue state such as North Korea, or indeed Iran. The Nobel Committee said it was giving IAEA and its leader this year's Peace Prize "for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way."

UPDATE (1400) CNN just replayed the interview with Nobel Peace Laureate Mohamed El Baradei so I got more of it now. In the segment on AQ Khan the Pakistani metallurgist-cum-nuclear tycoon, El Baradei mentions the fact that this person was running a global K-Mart for nuclear technology doing business with 30 countries, including North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya and others. He said that in this regard that the "technology is out of the tube" and that it was futile to base nonproliferation activities on "guarding the experts" since the know-how for building nuclear weapons is "like a Genie out of the bottle." Consequently, El Baradei believes that many countries see nuclear weapons as instant national security that they can buy at some price. "It's security, stupid" was how he expressed what is driving the thinking of states in the market for nuclear technology. But he reserved his most alarming statements for the non-state players in that market. He said it was obvious Al Qaeda and other global terror groups, even small, unknown ones, are interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. He said that unlike state players, if a terrorist group like Al Qaeda were to get their hands on a nuclear explosive device or even a dirty bomb, "they would surely use it." He contrasted this to the state players like Iran and North Korea that do have states and populations and cities to lose and could be moderated and controlled by agencies like the IAEA. El Baradei said that "we are now in a race against time" with respect to the danger of a nuclear terror attack. He emphasized the need to discard the Cold War strategy of of Mutually Assured Destruction in the strategic thinking of people and states because of [without using the words] the assymetric nature of the conflict. (I think he was actually addressing these remarks to the audience that clapped loudly at times when he seemed to be criticizing American policies.) I get the feeling that Mr. El Baradei is seriously interested in preventing a nuclear catastrophe and is an important voice and champion for a new and more effective strategy than just NON-PROLIFERATION, which I heard him say loud and clear was futile because the premise is moot. AQ Khan saw to that.

CONSENSUS ON NUCLEAR TERRORISM: Although Dr. El Baradei has had strong differences with the US Government, particularly over Iraq, both parties probably agree on the assessment that the greatest threat is in fact a nuclear terror attack. This consensus can be seen in action right here in the Philippines with the installation last July of special nuclear contraband detection equipment at the Port of Manila. Xinhua reports --
(July 17) The US and Philippine governments will sign on Tuesday an agreement to install special equipment at the Port of Manila to deter and detect illicit shipments of nuclear and other radioactive materials, reported the local newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer on Sunday. US Embassy Charge d'Affaires Joseph Mussomeli will sign the document on behalf of the US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) with Philippine Science and Technology Secretary Estrella Alabastro, said the report. The agreement will be implemented under the NNSA's Megaports Initiative, which supports foreign governments in deploying radiation capability at key seaports to screen cargo containers for nuclear and other radioactive materials.
This terse announcement appeared in various newspapers in Manila too last July, but there has been no further announcement, though I understand the system is in place. I'm still wondering about the capabilities of the system that was actually installed. I am sure it is not just a bunch of Geiger counters since the concern is fully loaded 20 ft and 40 ft sea containers. Is it something as sophisticated as this system developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories which is intended for inspecting a whole cargo container (of which 7,000,000 enter US ports annually!) Here is one technical description --
"Our method is based on the fact that neutron-induced fission of special nuclear materials is followed by beta decays of short-lived fission fragments during which large numbers of high-energy gamma rays [above 3 million electron volts] are emitted," the authors write in a paper that will appear in the journal Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research.
This sounds like they are bombarding the target volume with a beam of neutrons that induces the emission of detectable high energy gamma rays (shorter wavelength higher energy photons than xrays.) But I wonder if they've actually installed a powerful enough neutron source in the Port of Manila. It doesn't seem possible, given what that must look like. There'd be too much superstitious talk going on from the cargadores down by the docks...

The research and development team is led by Dr. Eric Norman, of Berkeley Lab's Nuclear Science Division, and Stanley Prussin, with UC Berkeley's Nuclear Engineering Department. The area of detection systems for nuclear contraband is a very active R&D area judging by the number of published articles on both theory and practical technology. Several systems are apparently being deployed at ports worldwide. Even one in Manila. Makes one realize how deeply interconnected the world is.

RELATED POST: Metaphor of the Single Jetliner.

THE GREEN REVOLUTION REVISITED At there is a guest lecture by the Father of the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s. NORMAN BORLAUG is perhaps no longer a household word. But, his lasting contributions to fighting world hunger involved much work by Filipino and Indian agriculture scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños. I heard him speak in Manila a few years ago when the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was made a favorite cause of local radical environmentalists. The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate of 1970 gave a retrospective on the Green Revolution --
In his introduction, Borlaug says he often speculated that if Alfred Nobel had written his will to establish the various prizes and endowed them fifty years earlier, the first prize established would have been for food and agriculture. However, by the time Nobel wrote his will in 1895, there was no serious food production problem haunting Europe like the widespread potato famine in 1845-51, that took the lives of untold millions.
I think it was also around that time that I attended Norman Borlaug's talk here in Manila, which wsa well attended by many Filipino scientists, who, unbeknownst to many of their countrymen, sill soldier on in the fields of agronomy, microbiology and lately genetic engineering. We still have some of the world's leading researchers in this area, though they labor under deprived conditions, in a country that worships Saints that aren't even officially canonized or recognized by the Catholic Church (the Sto. Niño!). Thirty years after he received his Nobel Prize, my impression was he had not given up the good fight to feed the world's hungry millions, or disabuse them of their illusions.

REPENT YE SUPER-SPREADERS OF PSEUDOSCIENCE: An article I wrote in 2003 published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer related to these matters is still available online, I was surprised to discover on Google: Repent Ye Super Spreaders of Pseudoscience! There are also two posts on Philippine Commentary related to the topic of radical environmental activism. The first is Attack of the Rainbow Warrior covering the recent Greenpeace interloping on the Masinloc Power Plant last month. During this incident one of the German activists got a crowbar to the head from sleepy guards who might have thought this was an Abu Sayyaf raid, considering the raiders of Greenpeace came with 5 motor launches from their base ship Rainbow Warrior just before dawn -- pretty much the same modus operandi the real Abu Sayyaf used when they kidnapped several dozen people at Dos Palmas in Palawan some years ago, including Marcia and Martin Burnham. I hope the head wounds of that German Greenpeace activist , heal (both physical and ideological). But the Greenpeace campaign on global warming conducted here the past few months has been an utter failure with the Filipinos, who are hospitable to a fault, but recognize boorishness and melodrama all too well. It certainly did not help their cause either when the Rainbow Warrior rammed into centuries old coral reef also in Palawan, damaging an area wtih the length of a football field. Philippine Commentary followed that embarrassing accident with not a little schadenfreude in Land Ho! Oops, It's the Tubbataha Reefs! There are some very interesting links to Greenpeace websites in both these articles that are so revealing. Follow them. Hilarious.

MORE MOOSE LESS BULL: New on the Blogroll is BULL MOOSE whose post today Listen Up, Democrats opens with some tough love for the Donkey --
There is only one force that can save the Republican Party and it is called the Democratic Party.
Hey Rizalist, what sound does a Bull Moose make? ... Oh. About Dr. Moose: The Bull Moose is an unofficial blog sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council. Although the Bull Moose has a deep affinity for the New Donkey, he is an independent in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party of 1912.

Matthew Yglesias of TPM Cafe (Best Liberal Weblog of 2005) had a very interesting post on this topic last Thursday. In Broken Promises he was reading the State of the Union Address where President Ronald Reagan declares --
We're going forward with our shuttle flights, we're going forward to build our space station, and we are going forward with research on a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours.
I couldn't resist joining this thread because in the 1980s (in a different lifetime) Rizalist worked for GE Aircraft Engines in Cincinnati, Ohio. That concept of the Orient Express was a serious project back then and one can follow its complex evolution in what is called the United States National Aerospace Plane.. The NASP is a jet aircraft intended to take off from a normal airport like Kennedy or LAX using normal jet engines, then above about 40,000 ft, it would turn on SCRAMJETS that would boost it into suborbital flight at above 120,000 ft or so travelling at Mach 20, re-entering the earth's atmosphere after treating its passengers to a grazing encounter with the Face of God, and cruising to a nice conventional landing at Narita Airport. Elapsed time was 3 hours according to rough calculations given the available materials, components, and technology in the late eighties. One must not underestimate what a huge R&D effort is required. Our space-faring culture has been stamped -- some would say stuck -- in the mold of Werner von Brauns "vertical" ideas for over half a century. It was perhaps a necessary phase to get us quickly into space and get a feel for things. But evolution is not always punctuated, so lets not rush it. We might just end up with an American version of L'Concorde.

Some of the Commenters at the TPM Cafe asked about two important issues: SAFETY AND COST. Rizalist's Caveats to these two issues:

SAFETY: The NASP are potentially as safe as present trans-hemispheric flights. One might think it should actually be safer, since the plane is in flight for only (2-4 hours) a quarter or less of the typical flight durations of 12-20 hours LAX-Tokyo or London-Singapore. This assumes of course that the basic flight package is sound and there won't be scramjet combustor parts flying out the back during the boost phase of the flight.

COST: I would expect initially such a service would cater to the same market that rode on the Concorde, or just a touch higher. There are good economic arguments for even a $50,000 fare if your passengers are going after billion dollar deals or on urgent international humanitarian missions. First class on ordinary airliners today can go upwards of $5000 or more. And eventually there is no reason the fares wouldn't come down to what we are used to today.

SO WHY NO NASP YET? One big reason is the economics of scale. The NASP would be economical if it could carry about the same number of passengers -- or even half the number as typical jetliners today. But a hypersonic 747 flying at Mach 20 is a very different beast than we know how to build commercially even today. There are also many other reasons of a technical nature -- Maybe the physics of turbulent aerodynamics, maybe the materials for safe re-entry aren't ready (remember Columbia!) Maybe politics. Probably politics.

It's too bad the Archipelago doesn't have much of this Big Science and Technology stuff going on. But there's always BIOTECHNOLOGY....


Rizalist said...

A warm welcome traveler! Welcome to the Archipelago of our Dreams...

Corsarius said...

what an informative blog you have here. and what's more, looking at your previous posts, i can't believe the bristling pace with which you post rich and timely articles.

true -- biotech is and should be the archipelago's ace. and by the looks of the results of a recent Philippine enterpreneurship contest, biotech might have an excellent future. (joined the competition, but never made it to the finals, hehe.)

more power.

Rizalist said...

A warm welcome Corsarius!

Thanks for the link. I checked it out wish i'd known about the event earlier. I liked the startup with KAMLONG = kamatis and talong. They can start with lowland vegetables like that and move up to high value pharmaceuticals. Doesn't require huge infrastructure or foundation technologies like computer hardware projects and others. i didn't notice any killer apps for cellphones like one would expect of pinoy cellheads. Good of you to drop by Corsarius.