The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 36.0°F | Overcast

Some really bad deserve a second chance

It's getting harder and harder to be pro-nuclear in the 90s. Is is just me or has "nuclear" become a bad word?

Last week, the Federation of American Scientists leaked information concerning Timberwind, a Pentagon program to build a nuclear powered rocket booster. This device, which is still in its early research and development stage, would be used to launch heavy payloads, particularly anti-missile systems, into orbit. The principle for the booster isn't especially complex -- a small nuclear reactor would heat the engine's hydrogen fuel and blast it out the back at high pressure. An uproar has followed this disclosure demanding a termination of the program, particularly due to safety concerns. Many fear that this booster, which would be launched from the ground, would pollute the air with radioactive exhaust gases.

It would, but that's not the point.

Timberwood is a dumb idea. Launching this type of nuclear booster from sea level

would pose unacceptable risks. However for Timberwood to receive the kind of paranoid responses as it has in the United States press [Time, April 15] is unnecessarily destructive.

This is not the first time the United States has experimented with nuclear propulsion. Throughout the 1960s and 70s the United States researched and constructed a variety of devices under Project Rover. More than a dozen engine designs emerged from Project Rover, ranging from Project Orion, a ship propelled by a stream of small thermonuclear explosions, to designs very similar to Timberwood, which were deemed safe only if launched in space.

In 1972 Rover was killed to make room for the space shuttle, and since then, no non-nuclear technology has been able to compete with the nuclear engine's expected thrust and simplicity. The space shuttle, the Avis rent-a-truck of space, turned out to have leaky cylinders and a tendency to require long, costly repairs. Ten years after the shuttle's first flight, the United States still lacks the launch capability it possessed 20 years ago with the moon-reaching Saturn boosters. We are at a

crossroads. If the United States hopes to fulfill its lofty space goals, we cannot terminate research programs out of irrational fear. Timberwood should not go into production, but the idea upon which it was built should be thoroughly researched. Killing big money construction projects during a recession is dangerous for other reasons.

Proponents of nuclear space research are quick to add that no-nukers would protest any attempt to launch parts for a nuclear engine into space, even if the device were to be assembled and fired there. The only advice I have for the government is to shift launch operations to the Pacific or another secluded area, and try to educate the public as much as possible. Radioactive materials are dangerous, but only if they are improperly packaged.

If nuclear propulsion works (and it will), we can only gain from the experience. Unlike some defense technology, nuclear propulsion information would be immediately applicable to civilian and commercial power interests. Nuclear propulsion centers on controlling fission and fusion phenomena. At the heart of the

Timberwood program is a method for encapsulating bits of uranium fuel for the reactor. These fuel pellets have already been constructed and tested. If they can be utilized successfully, they, and the new technologies in reactor design that they spawn, will provide the United States and the world with safer, more efficient nuclear power systems. Experiments in fusion engines and plasma containment could explore even safer, cheaper technologies. And in a world with safe nuclear power there would be no sulfur dioxide, no acid rain, no smog, and no water pollution.

Nuclear power is not in its final stages. Nukes make people cringe. But in a world without nukes we would have exhausted almost all of our fossil fuels, would never have swam under the north pole, never have seen pictures of Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, and may still have been at war by now. I am pro-nuclear, and I am not afraid to admit it. We can either abandon all nuclear technology we have developed to date, or we can tread, carefully but surely, into a new era.

Don't stick the United States in the Dark Ages. Don't kill Timberwood.


Matthew H. Hersch, a freshman, is associate opinion editor of The Tech.