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Robert Zubrin joins Chelsea Follett to discuss the world-changing potential of nuclear energy and space travel, as well as the Malthusian forces that threaten humanity's future.

Robert Zubrin: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 30 Transcript

By Chelsea Follett @Chellivia

By Robert Zubrin @Robert_Zubrin

The conversation between Chelsea Follett and Robert Zubrin can be found here. The transcript is below.

Chelsea Follett: Joining me today is Robert Zubrin. He is an aerospace engineer and the author of many books on space exploration with a particular focus on Mars. He has frequently been a called a visionary and his work has been the subject of much favorable press coverage in The Economist, The New York times, The Boston Globe, The London Times, The Washington Post, Fortune Magazine, Newsweek, and many other publications. And he has appeared on the Discovery Channel, CNN, NPR, and the BBC. He is the founder and president of The Mars Society and was formerly a staff engineer at Lockheed Martin Astronautics. He holds a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics, and a PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of Washington. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to read the manuscript of his latest, not yet published book, The Case For Nukes: How We Can Beat Global Warming And Create A Free, Fun and Magnificent Future. And he joins me today to discuss how we can liberate the potential of nuclear energy as well as, if we have time, recent advances in private sector space exploration, which actually ties into his work on nuclear power. Robert, how are you?

Robert Zubrin: I’m fine. Thanks for inviting me on your show.

Chelsea Follett: So tell me what is the case for nuclear power, and how can it help to combat climate change and create a future with abundant energy – a free, fun, and magnificent future as you put it?

Robert Zubrin: The case for nuclear energy is the case for an unlimited future, which is essential for a free future. Okay. That is… Now we’ve been through this before in a certain sense, that is, if you look at human history, what you find is a progressive liberation of humanity through the creation of new resources. There’s no such thing as a natural resource; there’s only natural raw materials. It is human creativity that transforms materials into resources. For example, in the bronze age, metals, which are essential for good tools were limited to copper and then with tin, and these are materials that are present in the Earth’s crust in concentrations of less than a hundred parts per million. And so copper and bronze tools were, well, basically non-existent, metals were only available to aristocrats for either artwork, luxuries or weapons for the leading warriors, which is why, for instance, in Homer, it’s only the heroes, the kings who are fully armored and who really matter on the battlefield.

Robert Zubrin: But once people accessed higher temperatures in their kilns, it became possible to smelt iron. And iron is present in the Earth’s crust on average at 100,000 parts per million. It’s a thousand times more common than copper and the… And once you have this, then all of a sudden the supplies of metals available to humanity increase literally a thousand fold. And there’s a extraordinary transformation in civilization as iron and steel tools become available to the masses of humanity. You know, then mechanical sources of energy, first animals, and then wind and water and the perfection of wind power in the middle ages led to the tremendous liberation of people from using muscle power to grind grain and run sawmills and so forth, and water power as well. But then these limits were transcended by the introduction of fossil fuels, which enormously expanded the energy resources available to humanity still more.

Robert Zubrin: Now, think about this. People have always used fuel. Fire is fundamental. Humans had fire before we had language. Homo erectus had fire, we can see the evidence of that. And without fire humans would be limited to our original habitat in the tropics, in the Kenyan Rift Valley. We became a global species because we had fire, and fire is necessary not just for cooking, but also for making first pottery, and then of course metals. But if you’re limited to wood, okay, that then you have an extremely limited and an extremely polluting source of energy. And so you have to tear down forests to cook your food and make your pottery and metals. You get fossil fuels and these do not tax the biosphere in the way cutting down a forest would. You know, you get oil, it’s underground, and oil wasn’t a resource at all until the 1860s when people learned how to drill for oil and refine it and built machines that could run on the product. And all of a sudden we have this gigantic expansion of the energy available to humanity and a great reduction in the tax that humans place on nature. Okay. I mean, really, hunting whales for oil is vastly more damaging to the wild ecology than just getting oil out of the ground, using something that the biosphere hardly uses at all.

Robert Zubrin: So, Rockefeller saved the whales, and the… Well, there you go. But now we’re talking about uranium. Okay. Now uranium has 10 million times as much energy per unit mass as oil or coal, 10 million times as much energy. What that means is that an average piece of granite, ordinary rock that you see everywhere, which has about two parts per a million uranium in it, has 10 times as much energy per unit mass as gasoline. Okay. There’s energy in every rock that you see or almost every rock that you see. Now in fact, there are rocks that have more than two parts per a million, there’s rocks that have several percent uranium in it. And we prefer to mine them for our nuclear energy, but in fact, the amount of energy available from nuclear sources is not limited at all to the currently preferred ore, that’s just picking up the low-hanging fruit. I mean, you look at a mountain in New Hampshire made of granite, it’s made of energy. And this is what we’re talking about liberating, if we liberate nuclear power and then beyond fission there’s fusion, where there’s deuterium in water, and in fact, every gallon of water, fresh salt, clean or polluted, has about as much energy as 350 gallons of gasoline. So with energy, you can do anything. With energy…

Robert Zubrin: We have not used up a single piece of a kilogram of iron or aluminum in the entire history of humanity. We have degraded it in some instances from well organized, clean, good metal into other forms, but they can all be put… Recycled and put back together again, if you have energy. So there’s absolutely no possibility of running out of resources if we have this. And look, this is the fundamental to a free future, because the basic argument, the ultimate argument for tyranny is there’s only so much to go around, and so human numbers, activities and liberties must be constrained.

Robert Zubrin: And the left wing version of it is “Let’s all suffer together” and there’s the right wing version of it “Let’s make them suffer first.” But it boils down to the same thing: Somebody has to be crushed and ultimately everyone has to be crushed if resources are limited. But if resources are unlimited, then the more people and the better they live, the better educated they are and the more resources that are placed at the disposal of each individual, then the more inventors we have, the more inventions we have, and the more rapidly we can expand plenty for everyone. And this is the fundamental issue with nuclear power. And this is exactly why nuclear power was targeted by the Malthusian movement. Okay. Because it solves a problem they need to have.

Chelsea Follett: That is fascinating. Could you provide some more background on the history of nuclear power, why some people have negative misconceptions about nuclear power, how it was targeted by different groups, and describe some of the obstacles now holding nuclear power back?

Robert Zubrin: Okay. Well, I discuss a lot of this in my new book, but, in the first place let’s talk about the discovery of nuclear power. In the late 19th century, we knew a fair amount about physics, we knew all the laws of electromagnetism, the basic laws of chemistry, and we could measure for instance, the mass and the energy output of the Sun by using this knowledge. And so there was a real mystery, because geologists looking at various erosion features on the Earth like the Grand Canyon and other such things could calculate, based on the rate at which they were growing, that they had to be at least a 100 million years old, and therefore the Earth had to be at least a 100 million years old.

Robert Zubrin: Now, in fact, it’s much older than that, the Earth is over 4 billion years, but on the basis on the available evidence, the geologists said, “Look, Earth is clearly 100 million years old or more.” On the other hand, the physicists said, “That is impossible because we know the laws physics, and we know the mass of the Sun. And if it was made out of pure fuel, like coal, for example or any other fuel you might name and it’s putting out energy at its current rate, at the most it could have lasted 2 million years. So it is impossible that the Earth could be more than 2 million years old.”

Robert Zubrin: Well, 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington proves that Einstein’s theory of relativity was true, and the implication of that was E= MC squared, that is that there’s a conversion between mass and energy, and furthermore, they measured the mass of hydrogen atoms and helium atoms, and it… There’s a mass discrepancy, the mass of four hydrogen atoms is more than one helium atom which is slightly more. And, but it’s a tiny discrepancy, but E= MC squared is mass times the speed of light squared. So that is, one kilogram is nine times 10 to the 16th joules, it’s phenomenal. Eddington then concluded in 1920 that the energy of the Sun comes from this source, not from the burning of coal. And if you… Once you become knowledgeable that this kind of energy source, it can exist in the world, then the Sun doesn’t have to be 2 million years old, it could be billions of years old as in fact it is.

Robert Zubrin: So, boom. Okay. Now, this… And in this first announcement of this theory, Eddington in 1920 to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Eddington brought it right out at them. This is an enormous source of energy, and it can be used to power human civilization to unprecedented heights, or it could be used as a weapon of war with unprecedented capacity for destruction. And as World War II approached, people started looking into the possibilities, especially of the latter. And the actual discovery of the practicality of a way to do this was made in a German lab, by Otto Hahn, who had been the collaborator of Lise Meitner. And he did not understand what he had seen. He didn’t understand that in the transmutation that he had observed in some experiments, that it was nuclear efficient. But Meitner, who was in exile in Sweden because she was of Jewish heritage, when he told her about his experiment, she realized what it was, and she realized in full the implications of it. Down to the fact that a chain reaction could be done where… That any nuclear efficient event would release extra neutrons which could cause further fissions, and which would cause more neutrons to be released and it would multiply, and you could have a way to let loose nuclear power in the real world.

Robert Zubrin: And she told her nephew about this and he was working for Niels Bohr in Denmark, Bohr being a very prominent scientist of the highest level, one of the key people in originating our concept of the atom and quantum mechanics. He told Bohr about it shortly before Bohr sailed for New York in 1939 to go to a scientific conference where he met Fermi and Szilard and others living in exile in the United States. They were all refugees from fascist Europe. And while initially they tried to make contact with the American government, they were not successful, but Szilard was able to go and get Albert Einstein who was also living in exile in the United States to sign a letter to President Roosevelt. And then we had a leading, New York Jewish financier who was a friend of Franklin Roosevelt take the letter to Roosevelt in person, so it wouldn’t get lost in the mail room. And saying, this is possible, and Roosevelt is quoted as turning to Sir Alex and saying, “So Alex, what you’re saying is you don’t want Hitler to blow us up” Alex said, “Yeah.” Thus, was born the Manhattan Project, which, rapidly led to the development of Fermi in 1942, of the first self sustained chain reaction, proof of that. And within three years nuclear weapons, which ended World War II without the need for an invasion of Japan or a prolonged land war in China, which had already cost tens of millions of lives. The…

Robert Zubrin: And then Captain Rickover realized the potential of this source of energy for driving submarines, and against much opposition from the Navy carrier admirals who didn’t believe in this and from the oil industry as well, who saw a threat from nuclear energy, managed to push through development of the nuclear submarine, the Nautilus. Within three years of program start, we had a practical nuclear reactor and not just a nuclear reactor, but one that could fit inside of the submarine and drive it all over the world underwater, and sink the entire US fleet in a war game because it was completely invulnerable. Up till this point, submarines could only travel at very low speeds underwater for limited durations on batteries. The Nautilus had unlimited range and very high speed and no need to surface ever. Revolutionized that.

Robert Zubrin: And Eisenhower, who wanted to take the initiative with the idea of putting the atom to work for peace, gave his Atoms for Peace speech. And in 1953 or ‘4, I forget at the moment… But anyway, the Rickover team was the one that knew how to do it, and they put them to work and they built the first commercial nuclear reactor within three years of program start, at shipping port Pennsylvania. Now, it is an amazing thing that while the first nuclear reactor was… It went from program start to commissioning and production of power in three years, you would think that with the gain of experience, we could produce them faster and faster, get the time down to two years, one year. And during the ’60s though, it went to four years rather than going down, and then during the ’70s under the Carter administration, who imposed an entirely new regulatory regime on nuclear power, the time ballooned to 16 years, in the United States. So, and this was strictly due to the creation of an insane bureaucratic structure with numerous opportunities created for people who wanted to stop nuclear power, to intervene with lawsuits at every level of the process, including after the plant had been permitted to be built, they could stop it from operating. And this completely crippled the nuclear industry.

Robert Zubrin: A study was done on this by a professor, Bernard Cohen, who shows that the cost of a nuclear power plant went up as the time squared, both because cost is basically people times time, you’d think it would go up with time, but in fact, the longer it goes on, the more lawsuits are launched and the more complicated everything gets, and the more chance the risk for the NRC to change its regulations and require things that are built to be torn out and replaced with other things. And anyone who ever modified a house or something like this knows that the most expensive thing you could possibly do is change the design in the middle of the job. And that’s what happened.

Robert Zubrin: Now, it’s quite clear that the purpose of this war on nuclear energy, which was unleashed during the ’70s, was to stop humanity from getting unlimited energy. In 1972, there was a unique group called the Club of Rome formed, which issued a report called The Limits to Growth, in which they said that humanity’s resources are limited and we’re gonna run out of everything by the year 2000, maybe we could extend it to 2020, if we put severe limits on human consumption and reproduction, have population control, income control, and so forth, and anyone who doesn’t believe this is clearly somebody on the payroll of the Chamber of Commerce who just wants to increase business, regardless of the fact that they’re destroying the planet. Well, in order for this to go down, they had to stop nuclear power.

Robert Zubrin: Now… And the Carter administration was infested with people associated with the Club of Rome, and they created this extremely harmful bureaucracy. This bureaucracy has not done anything whatsoever to improve nuclear safety, exactly the opposite. They prevent any improvements in nuclear power plants, because it’s not in the original permit. I, myself, was involved actually with the Washington State Office of Radiation Protection, which is a state-level nuclear regulatory agency, but not one that was trying to wreck the industry, but we had some regulatory oversight of the Trojan nuclear power plant, this is we’re now talking in the 1980s, which was an excellent nuclear power plant in Oregon on the Washington border, and it was producing electricity at two cents a kilowatt-hour, because it was built in the ’70s, early ’70s, before the Carter war on energy had been initiated. But they had a problem, they had corrosion in the pipes in the secondary loop.

Robert Zubrin: The nuclear reactor produced very hot water in the primary loop that goes to the reactor, then that exchanges heat with the secondary loop that produces steam for a turbine and so this turbine never sees water that has gone to the reactor. And the pipes in the secondary loop were being corroded and it was forcing shut down the plant every six months. The utility knew what the problem was, that they should have made the pipes in the secondary loop out of stainless steel, but to save money they’d use carbon steel so they were rusting. So they wanted to replace the pipes with stainless steel, they wanted to improve it. NRC, Nuclear Regulatory Commission says, “No, you may not do that. Your permit is for this design, and if you try to change it, you will need to have a new permit,” which would have been absolutely impossible by this time with the whole new regulatory structure in place. So basically they prevented them from spending their own money to improve the plant and imposed complete paralysis on even obvious engineering improvements, let alone introducing more advanced types of reactors than the pressurized water reactors, which were modeled on Rickover’s original submarine reactor.

Robert Zubrin: So, the industry was not quite destroyed ’cause there’s still some plants operating. But in the early ’70s, we were getting orders for two new nuclear power plants a month, and if it had been allowed to continue, the United State’s entire electric grid would have been decarbonized by around 1990. You know, people talk about wanting to go to net zero? The very same groups that scream about net zero are the ones who stopped us from getting to net zero. Because nuclear power has no carbon emissions. Now, I actually do not believe that carbon emissions are an immediate emergency in the sense that is currently being argued for the purpose of wrecking the American oil industry, but they are an eventual problem. And we cannot get rid of them and go to inferior sources of energy, like wind…

Robert Zubrin: There was already inadequate power civilization in 1800. We must supersede them with superior forms of energy. We’ve got the time to do it if we’re allowed to do it. We can… So supersede fossil fuels with a much vaster and ultimately cheaper form of energy, one large enough to give every person on Earth a decent standard of living, but it’s being stopped by Malthusians. And the insincerity of this is most clearly exemplified by the German Green Party with very important… It’s a flagship environmentalist party in Europe, which has pushed to shut down the German nuclear industry and what are they replacing it with? They’re replacing it with Russian natural gas. So they’re adding to carbon emissions. These are the people who say that carbon emissions are a existential threat to humanity, that means they’re a threat to human existence. They’re producing more of that. And not only that, the money for it that they’re giving Russia is going not just to commit mass murder in Ukraine, but to fund the Russian thermonuclear weapons program. Okay.

Robert Zubrin: So the greens who allege to be for peace and a clean environment are funding pollution and weapons instead of simply allowing people to make use of peaceful nuclear energy, to increase abundance. And really the issue here is, Will wealth and power be to those who make resources or those who take resources? Okay. Because nuclear energy is power from thought in its most pure form. In every rock, there… Or every metamorphic rock like granite there’s 10 times as much energy per gram as there is in fossil fuels, which themselves have much more energy per gram than wood or animal dung or more primitive forms of energy.

Chelsea Follett: That’s incredible. And not only have anti-nuclear activists created this overly burdensome regulatory process, but they’ve also spread a lot of misconceptions. Many people are genuinely afraid of nuclear power. They have safety concerns. What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about nuclear power?

Robert Zubrin: Well, okay. So the anti-nukes have systematically lied about nuclear power. Okay. They’ve circulated the idea that a nuclear power plant can explode like an atom bomb, that is physically impossible. The nuclear power plants use 5% to 5% enriched uranium. To make a bomb you need at least 80% enriched uranium, it’s just a different material entirely, and furthermore, you need an exquisite construction to bring that material together in a very elegant way to make it all come together faster than it can begin to react and blow itself apart, which was really the hard part of making atom bombs. And so it’s the wrong material and it’s entirely the wrong structure. So it’s pure nonsense. The idea that commercial nuclear energy contributes to proliferation of nuclear weapons is false. Okay.

Robert Zubrin: Because while commercial nuclear reactors use 3% to 5% enriched uranium, which requires some enrichment facilities, the bombs use 80% or really over 93% with a modern well-built atomic weapon enriched uranium. The people at the Atomic Energy Commission, opposed Rickover’s nuclear submarines and then the reactors on the grounds that they were diverting uranium away from bomb production. And so while it is true that the same enrichment facility that can produce enriched uranium for reactors can, with additional steps, produce enriched uranium for bombs. The enriched uranium produced for reactors takes away from the uranium that can be used to make bombs. And both the US and the Soviet Union had hundreds of nuclear weapons before they had a single nuclear reactor. The nuclear reactor… Commercial nuclear reactors are not used to make bomb grade material.

Robert Zubrin: In fact, they cannot be, because while some plutonium is bred in commercial nuclear reactors, you get a mixture of plutonium 239, which is something you might want to use to make a bomb, with plutonium 240, which wrecks it as a bomb grade material and the… You need special atomic piles in which the fuel is removed quickly and frequently out of the reactor in order to stop the plutonium 239 from being converted to plutonium 240, and commercial nuclear actors do not do this. They can’t do it and operate commercially. So it’s just wrong. A bomb making reactor is a different animal from a pressurized water reactor. Now it’s also claimed that we’ve had incredible loss of life due to the commercial nuclear shit. This could not be more false. There’s not been a single person in the world who has been harmed by a radiological release from a pressurized water reactor. Okay. The Three Mile Island, okay. Their radiological release from Three Mile Island to the nearby town was so small that anyone there… It was Pennsylvania. If they had spent a week in Colorado, would’ve gotten a larger dose from the higher background radiation we have here due to our higher altitude.

Robert Zubrin: So ski vacations cause more radiological exposure than Three Mile… Three Mile Island is the only mega disaster in human history in which no one was hurt. Then even Fukushima, which much more substantial, there you had earthquakes and tidal waves destroy the city and killed 28,000 people through the effects of the earthquake and the tidal waves, drowning, falling buildings and this kind of thing, not a single person was harmed… And several nuclear reactors were destroyed. But even so, there was no significant radiological release outside the plant gate. And not a single member of the public was not only not killed, but even exposed to anything remotely harmful. Now, I should say there’s a reason why a pressurized water reactor, which is the Rickover reactor, which in a number of variations is the overwhelming dominant form of commercial nuclear reactor in the world to this day…

Robert Zubrin: The reason… You cannot have a runaway chain reaction in one of these, because you have low enriched fuel, which can only be made to sustain a chain reaction by the presence of water in the reactor. The water is what’s called the moderator, as well as the coolant. And it is the hydrogen in the water slows down the neutrons that are emitted from fissions, and when they’re slower, they’re actually more effective at causing fissions, than when they’re borne and they’re moving hot and fast. You can’t have… With three or five or even 10% enriched uranium, you can’t sustain a chain reaction unless you moderate the neutrons. Well, in a pressurized water reactor, if you began to have a power excursion, the reactor will get too hot and all the water and it return into steam and it would no longer be an effective moderator, and that would shut down the chain reaction.

Robert Zubrin: So it’s a very powerful built-in negative feedback that makes it runaway reaction impossible. Now, people say, What about Chernobyl? Chernobyl was not a pressurized water reactor, Chernobyl was a graphite moderated reactor, and graphite does not vaporise when we make it too hot, so it doesn’t… The moderation stays, regardless of how hot the reaction gets, and furthermore, Chernobyl did not have a containment building around it. And so when they did this ridiculous experiment that caused a power excursion, that blew the top off the reactor and a hole in the ordinary building that was containing the reactor, you then had hot graphite exposed to the air, and that’s flammable. So the Chernobyl reactor… And then once the graphite caught fire, it could take all the nuclear waste products that have been accumulated in the reactor over time and send them up into the air and cause dispersal.

Robert Zubrin: So the reactor was not only unstable, it was flammable. No pressurized water reactor has this flammable material built into it, or has a containment building… You can have a meltdown in a pressurized water reactor, that is a radioactive products that are built up in a reactor, if you shut down the reactor it will go from 100% power instantly to 7% power. The 7% coming from residual energy coming from radioactive decay of the products, and the environmentalists had argued, “Well, this could cause a meltdown, then there would be… With no coolant in the reactor, it would meltdown and the reactants would melt right through the thick steel pressure vessel containing the reactor and then through the containment building and then right down through the Earth all the way to China.” Well, at Three Mile Island, there was a complete loss of coolant, and so there was a meltdown, and the reactor did meltdown inside the pressure vessel and it melted its way about two inches into the eight inch thick pressure vessel, and that’s where it stopped. It didn’t make it through the pressure vessel, it didn’t make it anywhere near through pressure vessel, let alone even reach the containment building, which is a further eight foot thick.

Robert Zubrin: And it didn’t go to China. The… So absolutely, the entire meltdown was contained inside the pressure vessel. So much for that. So yeah, the reactor was destroyed, a valuable piece of property, but there was never any danger whatsoever to the public. And then in addition, a very odd character named Herman Muller was responsible for prescribing the regulatory framework for nuclear reactors, and Muller has a long history. He was actually a very high level member of the Communists internationally, he knew Stalin personally, and he was also very prominent eugenicist, okay. And this was somewhat unusual in the 1930s, most of the well-known eugenicists were people of the radical right, Nazis. Muller, however, was of the radical left. And he felt that in order for the eugenics program to be fully carried out, it could only be done under socialism where you could control the mating of people. And the… And he tried to sell Stalin on this in particular, on a plan where only the 1% of the fittest Soviet men would be allowed to have sex with women, and this way we could breed under socialism a superior race of people. Now, Stalin was not without political instincts, and he clearly saw that this this plan could present problems.

Robert Zubrin: And so basically he thought Muller was nuts and he ordered him killed. But Muller had friends in the NKVD and was able to escape from the Soviet Union and come to the United States. And he had a rather successful scientific career, Muller in addition to it, was a real scientist. He did much of the important work on fruit fly genetics that people read about, but even so, gotta know where this guy was coming from. And then it became a very strong… After World War II all the eugenicists switched over to becoming population control advocates, because you could no longer say that the reproduction of inferior people had to be stopped because they weren’t members of the Nordic race. Instead you had to say it had to be stopped because the world’s overpopulated. So he was a founding member of the population council as well.

Robert Zubrin: So he was a arch-Malthusian and… Anyway, in the ’50s, he managed to get himself appointed to be the guy that would set the radiation dose limit structure. And what he came up with, what is called was is the Linear no-threshold theory. And what this theory amounts to is saying that, any amount of radiation is automatically toxic, and is toxic in a linear way, that is, if a thousand REMS of radiation has a 100% chance of killing you, then 10 REMS of radiation has a 1% chance of killing you. And then a 10th of a REM of radiation has a 100th of 1% chance of you killing you. But then if a million people are exposed to a 10th of a REM of radiation, then 10,000 of them are gonna die. Well, guess what? Everyone is exposed every year to a 10th of a REM of radiation, that’s background at sea level.

Robert Zubrin: And in some places, like where I live in Colorado, it’s more than twice that. This is nonsense. In toxicology it’s very clear there is a threshold, if you… For instance, alcohol can be a toxin, but if you drink a glass of wine every night, you’re not gonna die. Whereas if you drink a glass… 365 glass of wines in one night, it absolutely will kill you. And the… So because the body has certain capacities to remove toxins or correct the damage caused by toxins if given time. So, which is why a massive amount of a toxin, like 365 glasses of wine, in one night will kill you, whereas one glass of wine every night for a year won’t harm your health at all. And… But so the linear no-threshold then basically says that all radiation is harmful, okay. But in fact, just as red wine can actually be good for your health and… Well, basically if you eat 365 apples in a night, you’ll die. The… Okay, so it doesn’t matter.

Robert Zubrin: Anything can be toxic in massive doses. The… And in fact studies have shown that a small amount of radiation is necessary for human health. It’s why people who stay inside all the time and never go outside look and frequently are unhealthy, because they need to be exposed. People need to get a certain amount of the solar radiation to promote the vitamin D production in the body and the… And so forth. You need this. So it’s a completely nonsensical framework. But if you impose this framework, then the tiniest release of radiation from a nuclear power plant becomes cause for alarm. And interestingly, the nuclear… The radiation releases from coal-fired power plants are much larger than from nuclear power plants, vastly larger, because coal contains a certain amount of uranium and thorium, and when it’s burnt the stuff goes up the stack. But they are not exposed to this very same regulatory framework which imposes vast costs on the nuclear industry.

Robert Zubrin: Now in fact, the radiation releases from coal-fired power plants are very insignificant, very small part of the pollution that they cause because while radioactive releases are tiny compared to mercury and arsenic and all these other toxins that are in the coal in much larger amounts in which are released to the environment and which have an infinite half-life, the… So this is not even addressed because it can’t be.” The claim… Okay, here’s the other thing, “Nuclear waste, my god, what are we gonna do with the nuclear waste? The only reason why nuclear waste is a problem at all is because, unlike fossil fuels, it’s a problem that can be addressed, that millions of tones of toxic waste produced by coal-fired power plants, it’s not even conceivable how to address them, whereas tens of tones of waste produced by nuclear power plant could be addressed. Now, in fact, the so-called environmentalists have done everything they can to prevent it from being effectively addressed.

Robert Zubrin: The easiest way to dispose of nuclear waste is first of all, to reprocess it to get out the useful plutonium and such, and then turn it into borosilicate glass, which is not water soluble, put it in a stainless steel can, go out into the middle of the ocean and drop it. And it goes down several thousand feet through the water and then several hundred feet through the mud and it’s buried, and you’re never gonna hear from it again. This was stopped by the Carter administration. The Department of Energy said, “Fine. We’ll have land based disposal.” And they… But then they imposed…

Robert Zubrin: But safety regulations on the land based disposal, which included making sure, for example, that no one would be exposed to any of the nuclear waste in it for the next 20,000 years, which means taking into account glacier movements and the possibility that civilization would be destroyed, and the nomads roaming around the post ice age north America wouldn’t be able to read English and so that you’d have to come up with warning signs that would supersede language and so forth to prevent this from occurring before you could open up the nuclear waste repository. So instead, to avoid this danger, they said, “Well, we’ll just keep the nuclear waste stored in swimming pools next to the nuclear power plants in suburban areas, near American cities. And it should be pretty clear that if there is any danger from nuclear waste, it’s a lot more dangerous keeping it in the suburbs than putting it under a mountain in Nevada because 10,000 years from now, after the glaciers come and go, the nomads could conceivably be exposed to it at that time unless we could come up with pictographic languages that humans will understand instinctually and avoid the waste.

Robert Zubrin: The… So this is completely crazy. So therefore the nuclear waste repository for civil waste has not been established. Now, the military, nuclear Navy, they have nuclear waste too. What do they do with their waste? They store it in a facility in New Mexico, in salt caverns underground. They haven’t… Because they don’t have to put up with this nonsense. Okay. So storing nuclear waste underground is completely possible. In fact, we do it. We just don’t do it with civilian waste because the so-called environmentalist movement wants to try to create as big an apparent hazard associated with nuclear waste as they can, because they have determined that if they can stop the industry from disposing of its waste, they can basically kill it. And that is the purpose of their efforts to stop safe disposal of nuclear waste.

Chelsea Follett: So it’s actually very safe and some people are starting even within the environmental movement, some people are starting to recognize that. Ecomodernists, they’re often called. And you’ve put forward some proposals for simplifying the licensing process, limiting the time it takes. Could you describe your ideal regulatory reforms and how anti-nuclear activists might be removed from that process?

Robert Zubrin: Okay. Well, first of all, you need to understand, and I discuss it in the book and it is amazingly complex, 32 step process that is currently there with each step involving many other steps. And the many other agencies being brought in before you can go to step seven, to step eight, 12 other agencies have to sign off and each of them could take years to do it, and furthermore, in various agencies there’s opportunity for interveners to come in. And some of these steps are amazing. Of course, the most notorious agency in this respect is the Environmental Protection Agency, which has frequently come back with a demand for explaining why it was decided to build a nuclear power plant instead of building something else. And imagine if you are planning on building an A-frame in the mountains and you go to the town board for approval and they look at your plans and say, “Your plans are okay, but prove to us why it was necessary you built an A-frame here. Why not a log cabin? Why not a chalet? Why not a toxic fuel dump? Why not an anti-aircraft installation? Why not a pet store? Okay. Can you prove that none of these alternatives might not have been better?”

Robert Zubrin: Well, there’s an infinite number of alternatives to doing anything. And, and then furthermore, even if you’ve satisfied the town board somehow with this, there’s an opportunity then for anyone opposed to you to intervene with a lawsuit challenging the conclusion that you did in fact prove that an A-frame was the unique solution for the proper use of this property, the… And then you go to court and if you win in court, they appeal and it’s a total nightmare. Now, in fact, okay, the way it should work is this, is there should be a single agency that you go to approval for your plan, and they should have a year to either approve it or come back with reasons why it was not approved.

Robert Zubrin: Okay. They should not have an infinite amount of time. And there should be no opportunity for people who are hostile to you to intervene in the process, the… And then once you get the permit, the permit is to build the plan and operate it, and you should be allowed to operate it. And authorities like the EPA should only intervene against you if you create an environmental release. Okay. In other words, it’s not a question of proving them to advance that you would not do an environmental release. When you do a road trip, you don’t go to the police in advance and have to prove to them that you’re not going to speed, you just take the trip and if you do speed, they give you a ticket, okay. You’re not required to prove to them that you’re not gonna speed let alone prove to anyone else who comes into the police station and demands proof to their satisfaction that you’re not gonna speed.

Robert Zubrin: That’s a ridiculous system. So it needs to be amended in that way. There needs to be a simplified regulatory process. Enforcement should only be if you cause harm, and there should not be any role in this for individuals who are hostile to your project. If somebody thinks that it’s better that there’d be solar energy, they’re welcome to build solar energy and compete with you, but they should not be allowed to stop you from using your own property to try to produce nuclear power.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. And as a segue into space policy, how can nuclear power help to open up the space frontier and what do you see as the most significant developments recently in space exploration, especially from the private sector?

Robert Zubrin: Okay. Well, first of all, nuclear power is central to space development, because in outer space you can’t use fossil fuels unless you make them with some other energy source. There’s no wind power, no hydropower… Maybe there’ll be hydropower on Mars after we Terraform it, but not until then. So, that basically leaves you with either solar energy or nuclear energy. Now solar energy is okay if you’re Earth’s distance from the Sun and in space rather than on the surface of a planet because even if you’re on the Moon where you have direct sunlight, it’s only for half the time. And not only that, it’s two weeks on two weeks off. So it’s a rather difficult energy source to do much with. And as you move out Mars, solar energy is only 40% as strong at the centre on Earth, at Jupiter 4% as strong. At Saturn is 1% as strong and in deep space it’s negligible.

Robert Zubrin: Whereas nuclear power is available all the time anywhere. And you need energy. For instance, if we want to settle on Mars, we need energy. We need a lot of energy. And once again on Mars not only is the solar energy only 40% as strong than it is on Earth, you can have dust storms that can effectively make solar energy negligible for months at a time. You need nuclear power on Mars. And once again, there’s no natural resource; it’s only natural raw materials. And typically to transform a raw material into a resource, it requires energy and so without nuclear power, there is no spacefaring future. Now, of course, there’s other things needed for spacefaring future beyond just nuclear energy. For instance, we need cheap transportation from Earth to space. And this is what is now happening in a very impressive way with the entrepreneurial space revolution spearheaded first and foremost, by Elon Musk and his SpaceX company.

Robert Zubrin: Cost of space launch was absolutely stagnant from 1970 to 2010 for 40 years, $10,000 a kilogram. In the past 10 years, SpaceX by introducing increasing degrees of reusability in their launch systems have cut it to $2,000 a kilograms, it’s a factor of five in a decade. It’s enormously significant. And not only that, the rate of launch has increased, SpaceX is now launching Falcon 9s every two weeks. In fact, faster than that. They’re actually achieving the launch rates that the shuttle program claimed it would do and were proved to be fantasy for them. It is… Are now a reality and with a much cheaper vehicle. And…

Robert Zubrin: But the SpaceX is not sitting tight with the Falcons. It’s moving to actually make them obsolete which it needs to do because the Falcons are being copied by China. China within a couple of years is gonna have launch vehicles that are comparable to the Falcon 9. There’s about five entrepreneurial companies in China that have investor backing and government approval that are trying to create launchers of the general sort of the Falcon 9, which is a reusable first stage and expendable second stage. So, unless Musk makes his Falcons obsolete, he will be matched. And by people with cheaper labor than you can find in California or even Texas. And so he’s gonna do exactly that. He’s working on a vehicle called the Starship, which will have five times the payload capability of the Falcon 9, but even more importantly, be fully reusable. Both the first stage and the upper stage will be reusable. And with would… I think the first generation starships will probably be able to reduce the cost of launch from $2,000 a kilogram down to like $400 a kilogram and eventually $200 a kilogram. And so, these have enormous…

Robert Zubrin: Significant. All of a sudden all sorts of new things become possible, things that NASA talked about, like orbital research labs, they’ve talked about using the space stations as more of a research lab with the space shuttle transporting experimenters up and down to it. Well, the costs involved in that program, as well as the bureaucratic overhead made that completely impractical. But if we’re bring bringing down the costs by more than an order of magnitude, which is what’s in the works here… Or basically three orders of magnitude compared to the shuttle program, then it becomes true. If a Starship could launch a space station for a private company for $20 million… $20 million, a lot of money that you would need, but to a fortune 500 company, something in the budget, let’s have a space station.

Robert Zubrin: So we’ll have a Pfizer orbital research lab and a Hyundai orbital research lab and so forth. And there’s all sorts of very viable research you can do in zero gravity and hard vacuum that’s available in space. And they’ll create all sorts of new products that are now not possible. And other form in fusion power. The biggest expensive fusion power is creating large high vacuum chambers that’s available for free in space. Okay, so this is gonna happen… But even rapid intercontinental transport. You know, you can go through space from any point to any point on Earth in less than an hour. Okay. And okay. You know, there were about a hundred launches in the world last year to orbit SpaceX got almost half of them. And with making it cheaper, they’ll soon be 200 launches, 300 launches, but there’s hundreds of intercontinental flights every hour.

Robert Zubrin: And once space technology breaks into that market, then we’re talking about mass producing starships, which is why by the way Musk is not building a starship. He is building a ship yard with the capability of churning them out right now at the rate of one a month. And eventually the rate of one a week. There’ll be hundreds of these things. That’s his approach. And of course this allows him to pursue a very aggressive kind of test program, build, fly, crash, figure out what went wrong, launch the next one, just keep going. Whereas, we’ve been waiting 30 years to see SLS flying then NASA announced delays.

Robert Zubrin: And if the first flight fails, the thing will be grounded for another half decade and whatever. This is just a different way of doing things. And so it’s gonna unleash tremendous progress. Now the cheaper space launch gets, the more progress we’ll see in spacecraft, because if your space launch costs a billion dollars, you’re not gonna take any chances on trying new kinds of technologies for the various satellite subsystems. You’re gonna go with what’s proven. Okay. Whereas if the space launch costs $10 million, well, take a lot of chances, especially if something… If it’s something that costs… Cuts the cost of the satellite by $10 million it’s not worth doing on a billion dollar satellite if it introduces any element of risk at all, but if it’s a 10 million launch saving 10 million off the satellite that’s a lot.

Robert Zubrin: And so this means that spacecraft designers are gonna be much less conservative and they’ll be, as a result, there’ll be much more rapid progress in spacecraft technology, making it cheaper, lighter, more capable, all these kind of thing. And so between having more cost, effective spacecraft and more cost effective space launch or a variety of business plans that didn’t make any sense in the previous era, all of a sudden the numbers start to make, make a lot of sense. And so we’re gonna have a space age comparable to the air age that we’re in now.

Chelsea Follett: And with all of that progress, obviously it’s unpredictable exactly how quickly things will progress, but what do you think a realistic timeline might be for when humanity… for when you hope humanity will reach Mars? And, relatedly, what do you think the prospects are for the American nuclear industry to be revived by possibly adopting some of those regulatory reforms you’ve mentioned?

Robert Zubrin: Well, okay. Those are two separate questions. First of all, humans to Mars. I think we can have humans to Mars by 2030. You won’t see that on any NASA planning chart. You’ll see a notional date of 2040 but in fact they’re not doing anything to get there by 2040. However, the realities are going to change. I think Starship, it’s possible will fly to orbit this year. I think it will, as soon as the regulatory authorities get out of the way. So if not this year, then next year. And by 2024 Starship’s taking a hundred ton cargos to low Earth orbit they’re gonna be a reality. We’re gonna have an election in 2024, and whoever is elected with that as the reality of seeing these Starships taking a hundred ton payloads to orbit at a cost of $400 a ton. A factor of 20 cheaper than was previously the case.

Robert Zubrin: They’re gonna say, “Look, here’s this guy who wants to go to Mars. If we got together with him and supplied all the missing systems, he’s got the transportation system, but we need more space suits, we need surface power, we need more vehicles and there’s this net. Could we get to Mars by the end of my second term?” And the answer’s gonna be, “Yes.” “Will it cost a trillion dollars?” “No, we could probably do it within NASA’s existing budget.” Then why aren’t we doing it? So I think that by making this practical, Musk is gonna make it sellable and it’s gonna sell. And I think we’ll probably get people to Mars with a kind of a public private partnership, ’cause American people want a space program that’s really going somewhere. And as soon as the means becomes apparent to make that possible, it’s gonna be very hard to turn them down.

Robert Zubrin: Now, in terms of nuclear power, it’s a question of wanting to do it. If you have a government that is intent upon blocking nuclear power, then it doesn’t matter… Now there’s a bunch of entrepreneurial companies right now trying to introduce more advanced designs of nuclear reactors. And it’s certainly possible to have more advanced design of nuclear reactors than the Rickover reactors we still have. Okay. Although I disagree that the problem with the nuclear industry is the Rickover reactor. No, Rickover… There’s been over a thousand Rickover reactors in the world on land and sea since 1954 and not one of them has ever caused any harm to anybody. Okay. So that’s just nonsense, but it is true that there are new ideas that are potentially better, cheaper, more scalable up and down in size and could access new markets, all this kind… It’s all possible. But it won’t happen unless people say, “This is what we want and we want a regulatory framework that permits it.” If we had a regulatory framework for air travel, like we have for nuclear power, there would be no airlines. Okay. None. There might be military bombers because…

Robert Zubrin: You know, military gets what it wants. But there wouldn’t be air travel for you and me no way. But people said, “Yes, there’s risks in air travel. And we will impose a reasonable set of regulations to reduce those risks while making air travel possible.” Okay. As opposed to the nuclear industry, which is a regulatory structure, which frankly is dedicated to destroying the industry. And so we need to make a societal decision. If the Democrats actually believe that fossil fuels are an existential threat, threatening the existence of the human race, or at least human civilization, then they have to act like it and allow the development of a power source that can produce ample amounts of power for everyone without carbon emissions. It’s right there in front of them. And the question is, are they serious about that? Now frankly, I don’t think that you have to believe that there’s an existential threat from carbon emissions to want nuclear power, should want nuclear power because it’s cleaner and potentially far cheaper, and certainly vastly more plentiful than fossil fuels. Okay. And that’s why there should be nuclear power. And because the world needs more energy. America, average per capita income in America is $60,000 a year. Okay.

Robert Zubrin: That’s pretty good, but there’s still poor people here. The average worldwide is $10,000 a year, $10,000 a year is well below the American poverty line. So that’s about the average in some place like Brazil. Okay. Where you go to Brazil, you see places with incredibly desperate poverty because that’s the average in Brazil. There are people in Brazil who have a lot less than $10,000 a year. And then if you go to Africa, you can go to countries where the average income is $2,000 a year. And if we are to raise the entire world to an American standard of living, which once again, it’s not perfect, but okay. It would require increasing worldwide energy use five times what it is today. And that does not even take you to account population growth. And the… So we need a lot more energy to get to where we need to be, to get to a human civilization that we can be proud of. But we can get there and no, and when we do, no one will be… No one will not be proud to be human.

Chelsea Follett: I think that’s a good note to end on. I hope that everyone who listens to this will check out, buy your work on both energy and space, and we’ll keep an eye out for The Case For Nukes when it eventually does come out. Thank you so much for joining me and sharing your many insights. I really enjoyed all this conversation.

Robert Zubrin: Right. Well, thank you. And in the meantime, my latest book that is out now is called The Case For Space. And it discusses both what’s going on in space, but also some of this broader framework than we’ve been talking about today.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. And for people who are interested in that, we spoke with Robert actually at Cato… I had the honor of moderating an event on The Case For Space when it came out. We can link in the description of this podcast the video and transcript from that event, and you can learn more about that as well. Thank you again, Robert.

Robert Zubrin: Thank you.

Chelsea Follett is the managing editor of HumanProgress.org and a policy analyst in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

Robert Zubrin is the founder and president of the Mars Society.

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