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I have been asking myself this question recently.

How would you make a reactor powering a powerful weapon harder to produce for each successive reactor being produced?

My solutions currently would be :

  • One reactor construction/design needs to be pre-calculated by a simulation with a supercomputer and the difficulty of the computation would be exponential. But why would the computation need to be redone for building the next reactor?
  • Another solution would be to make the reactors hard to build and only one could be built at a time for various reasons. But then it would mean the construction time could be static or random but not strictly increasing with time.

What other limiting factors could be employed?

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    $\begingroup$ What's a "reactor"? Anyway, the solution is to require some resource which is in short supply. For example, let's say that you need ten tons of tantalum per reactor; the total worldwide production of tantalum is some 500 tons per year, and it was never ever more than 1500 tons per year. The production could be ramped up (to a limit) but that would take a loong time, and you may not be friendly with Australia... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 29 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Australia says that you can take the coal, but not the Tantalum. We will use the drop bear division, unleash the boxing kangaroo's, and deploy several regiments of wombats. $\endgroup$ – Kain0_0 Jan 30 at 1:25
  • $\begingroup$ The minute hand of a doomdays clock ticks each time a reactor is commissioned... our leaders must be a lousy time keeper. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jan 30 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ Government/international regulation No example needed. $\endgroup$ – fraxinus Jan 30 at 10:34
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    $\begingroup$ Generally the experience with technical items is the reverse. Each construction teaches you things that make the next one easier. Or at least more predictable. $\endgroup$ – puppetsock Jan 30 at 14:41

18 Answers 18

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Something based on randomness, difficult to reproduce. E.G.:

The reactor is extremely efficient because all the radiation that does not directly contribute to the energy output like neutrons and beta particle is reflected inside and recycled. However the reflecting surfaces rely on particular random patterns etched on them. The random patterns are so difficult to produce that getting the right reactor is a matter of chance.

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  • $\begingroup$ This solution is more what I was looking for, it involve the uses of an enormous amount of computation power to pull it of. Everyone has great idea on this forum, it's really nice to read everything on this problem. Thank you everyone. $\endgroup$ – Malo Jan 31 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ This answer does not explain how complexity increases with time (or with each reactor built). $\endgroup$ – void_ptr Jan 31 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ This answer doesn't address the central question being posed by the OP. -1. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jan 31 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop Just because you read the question and have your specific interpretation doesn't mean your interpretation is what the OP is looking for. Seeing as the OP selected this, it's clearly what they were looking for. Down-voting the answer because it doesn't fit your version of things is silly. Instead maybe edit/comment to provide a reason why one random pattern can't be used in more than one reactor, so a new random pattern must be identified for each, making it more difficult each time, and then it meets your technical requirements... (disclaimer: I do like Joe Bloggs answer better) $\endgroup$ – TCooper Feb 1 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ @TCooper OP clearly stated: "harder to produce for each successive reactor". This is not a matter of interpretation or opinion. That OP accepted this answer does not change the fact that this answer ignores key point of the question. $\endgroup$ – void_ptr Feb 1 at 2:25
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To offer a different answer to the previous:

The reactors interfere with each other in increasingly hard to predict ways.

Reactor one takes no effort to build. It’s discovered almost at random.

Reactor two blows up several times. Each time a corresponding dip in power output at reactor one is noted. Eventually shielding is devised based on the distance between the reactors.

Reactor 3 doesn’t blow up, but it does turn reactor one into a pile of slag. After much careful testing reactor 1 is rebuilt and all three reactors now work. The theories on how the reactors interact are now wildly divisive within the scientific community.

Reactor 4 takes years of testing before anyone dreams of turning it on. These tests reveal deep and complex models of the long distance reactor interactions. It is turned on with no issues.

Reactor 5 is built according to the best known model of reactor interaction, but preflight checks reveal that the model is flawed. Half a decade of testing and improvements later the reactor is tentatively brought online.

The modelling process alone takes years for reactor six, and the most recent understanding of how and why the reactors work shows that reactors seven and eight will take a decade of design each, with design and test complexity (and appropriate modifications to existing reactors) growing exponentially with each extra reactor.

Physicists are genuinely unsure if more than 17 reactors can be built. Debate rages, and all the while no new reactors are built for fear of disturbing the fragile six reactor setup.

The word ‘quantum’ is used a lot.

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    $\begingroup$ Plot Twist: After decades of debate, the power-hungry society decides to turn on reactor 7. Little they knew that the positioning of the reactors was an eldritch diagram and the (auspiciously numbered) seven reactors humming open a gate to R'lyeh, Tartarus, Abyss, Rick's pocket dimension battery, you name it. Civilization as we knew it ends. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Jan 30 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Mindwin: Further plot twist: The now extremely accurate scientific model of power station function is actually a near-complete guide to the Eldritch Powers, enabling the survivors of humanity to turn the Dark Old One’s power against them and leading to the rise of the Pan Dimensional Human Empire. Humans now accidentally inspire cults in lesser races. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 30 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ I imagine with a setup like this, even thinking of dabbling in the technology used by the reactors would probably be illegal, for the obvious reason that any unsupervised experiment could lead to any number of the existing reactors blowing up. $\endgroup$ – Steven Mills Jan 30 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ Of course - the Pauli Exclusion Principle must apply to Axions that may have macroscopic size. It's obvious in hindsight. $\endgroup$ – JollyJoker Jan 30 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ Alternate plot twist: The six reactors are humming normally until one day when they experience an unexpected drop in efficiency. International police never locate the seventh reactor. $\endgroup$ – mm201 Jan 30 at 17:11
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One option would be to have the reactor require some very rare material, so it's easy to find enough of the material for the first one, but each successive reactor requires looking harder and harder to mine/gather enough of it as more of the readily-available deposits are used up.

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    $\begingroup$ Like helium! Actually requiring helium (as a catalytic component, rather than a fuel, so you wouldn't simply be using it up) would work really well, because not only is there a finite supply, but left to its own devices, it goes away on its own, so the supply dwindles even if you're not using it. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jan 30 at 0:56
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    $\begingroup$ This already happens, the next civilization on Earth will have a much harder time finding mineral fuels like coal, oil, and uranium, because we've mined all the easy stuff. That'll affect their development. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 30 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Harper-ReinstateMonica For suitable values of "next" sure. Right now, the current usage of fossil fuels is unlikely to run out for centuries. And Uranium and Thorium similar time scales. $\endgroup$ – puppetsock Jan 30 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ Only a continuation of this civilization, preserving this civilization's tech, manufacturability and domain knowledge. If there's a Malthusian die-off and humanity must climb back out of the middle ages, well, it's hard to run out of thorium until somebody starts using it for something other than TED talks, but it may be hard to start the party without uranium (or, uranium is easy but it's all depleted, which confounds science because it shouldn't be.) Nobody's going to find any coals in Newcastle, and while Jeb's out looking for some food, up from the ground won't come bubbling crude. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 30 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ Francis Perrin, an early nuclear physicist, calculated the critical mass of uranium to be on the order of a few dozen tons and so concluded that a uranium bomb would be wildly impractical. His number was 1000 times too large given the limited data he was using; but it's possible to imagine a universe in which his estimate was 1000 times too small instead. $\endgroup$ – Michael Seifert Jan 30 at 18:46
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The reactor requires a hyper rare material to be used within it.

Once used the material has no known way to recycle it.

Thus each new weapon produced makes it far more difficult to produce the next.

To mitigate this engineers are forced to use more creative designs, more expensive modelling, and improved manufacturing technologies in order to use the least amount of this material.

This leads to the knowledge and capabilities to work with this material becoming highly valuable, and due to its weaponisable nature it becomes a secret of national importance.

The state then adds further red tape and bureaucracy to the situation to control the resource itself, and regulate who can posses it, and certify who has the technical capabilities to work with it.

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This kind of reactor requires some specific substance at extremely high purity, as a catalyst, shielding or similar. But the reactor produces a kind of pollution that affects that very substance (perhaps only that substance, perhaps not; perhaps its natural deposits, perhaps it gets into the substance during processing). Purifying that substance to the levels required to build another reactor gets exponentially more difficult the more such reactors are already in operation (as new batches of the substance are increasingly more contaminated).

(Inspiration from real life: Low-background steel vs. newly smelted steel that got contaminated with radionuclides from the air used in the smelting.)

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  • $\begingroup$ In contrast to a substance which is needed once to build a reactor, this would need a constant supply of a substance. If building a reactor needs 100kg and running it needs e.g. 10kg a year and the yearly production is about 20kg a year, the first reactor can be built after 5 years. The second 10 years after that and a third can only be built, once the yearly production of the substance substantially increases. $\endgroup$ – Falco Jan 31 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Falco: No, consumption of the substance is not part of my answer (as there were others to that effect already). $\endgroup$ – DevSolar Jan 31 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for clearing that up. I just read the article on low-background steel, very interesting indeed that a natural resource could be contaminated world wide, so only older batches of steel have the needed properties and newer ones would be much costlier to produce without contaminated particles. $\endgroup$ – Falco Jan 31 at 10:05
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The reactors suck.... a special and rare kind of energy from the nearby universe. This energy gets produced continuously but at a very slow rate.

You can build and second reactor easily, but now you have two reactors half as strong as the first one used to be. In order to build a second useful reactor, you need to increase its sucking distance (which is impossible with current technology) or move its sucking centre by a few light seconds, which is possible, but very expensive.

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    $\begingroup$ Even if it's not "half as strong", it might both have diminishing returns, and make existing reactors less powerful: if they are reduced to 75% power for each reactor built, then 1 reactor produces 1024 units of power, 2 reactors each produce 768 units, 3 result in are 576 units per reactor... Once you get past 4 reactors (1728 units each), then the total goes down. If each active reactor reduced the power of all active reactors by 5% or 10% instead of 25%, then the difference would scarcely be noticeable for the first few too $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Jan 30 at 16:46
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This assumes something more fantastical than a nuclear reactor.

Each reactor has some sort of 'frequency' to its energy output. If two reactors within X miles have frequencies too similar to each other, they will resonate and cause a runaway reaction, killing everyone. X miles happens to be the size of a typical country or region. To avoid catastrophe, each reactor must have a different frequency output, but it becomes progressively harder to engineer a reactor as the required output frequency increases (or decreases).

This way, every country can easily build one reactor that outputs energy at the lowest/highest allowable frequency, and then move up the cost scale as they build more.

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  • $\begingroup$ frequency +1. But not the output; the containment fields' EMI interfere with each other. One is easy. Two can be modeled. Three exceeds our current understanding of mathematics: the n-body problem. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 30 at 21:29
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Soul Power: Reactors are powered by Ghosts

Okay bear with me here, but it's less that reactors cost more (inherently) and more that the more of them there are the less efficient they are, and so the extra cost for additional reactors is in increased efficiency or increased siphon range.

The thing is, Reactors are powered by the resonant energy of ghosts (Soul Power), and have a range of about 25,000km (a little over twice the radius of earth). As we all know, ghosts maintain inertia in their frame of reference to the sun, not the earth (this is why they only manifest for a short period once a year).

You can't just create multiple reactors, because they're all siphoning energy from the same pool of ghosts. Ultimately there are three ways to increase the power output of reactors:

  • Increase the range at which the Reactors can siphon soul power. This is only practical for a couple of reactors due to the logarithmic increase of cost/range.
  • Increase the efficiency of the Reactors. This does cause older Reactors to also become less efficient (they're able to pull a small share of the soul power) and means that in addition to having to design better reactors, old reactors have to be decommissioned or upgraded.
  • Kill a lot of people. More ghosts = More power. Fortunately this happens naturally, more and more people are born every year, and eventually they'll all die. In fact killing people prematurely might lead to short term gains in soul power, but will likely lead to reduced long term yields as the birthrate will also go down.
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  • $\begingroup$ Why the downvote? OP didn't ask for hard science. $\endgroup$ – aslum Jan 31 at 16:56
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I remember reading a book a long time ago (I don't remember the name of it now) in which a superweapon required using massive banks of supercomputers to manipulate quantum-entangled particles at high speed. The effect of this weapon was the ability to simultaneously manipulate all other particles at least on a planetary if not a universal level. If I recall correctly, the first weapons test involved the quantum teleportation of a moon.

However, trying to operate two of these weapons at the same time would be nearly impossible because of the entangled nature of the particles at the center of this weapon. You'd need at least enough computing power to predict and counteract the supercomputers at the core of the other weapons.

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Each reactor has a higher and higher toll on the planet humanity... the factions creating the devices become more desperate and intent on "winning" and don't realize until deep into the conflict as to the true cost of their reactors. Often this concept has a precept with some level of "good" intent before the consequences are revealed.

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After building the first reactor your government realizes how powerful it is and decides that no one else but them should have control of a reactor like this. So they go to war to blow up any competing reactors being built. Additional reactors get harder as either you have to be very good friends with the people who built the first one, be a big enough superpower that the first people wont attack you, or build it deep underground in secret and hope no one notices.

Your reactor could also give of some sort of radiation (or leave behind a deadly waste product) such that the local population no longer one wants it built in their backyard. So it gets harder to find politically/geologically safe places to build additional reactors.

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A dark ages, society no longer possess the knowledge or skill to make new designs. They can make copies of existing designs, but the tooling need in the manufacturing is getting old and failing.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is cool, you should develop it into a full answer. $\endgroup$ – Legisey Jan 31 at 15:03
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The reactor can be built only in a very specific spot of this planet

If the reactor requires a very peculiar geographic feature to work correctly, this could make very hard to build another one. The first already occupies the only suitable place where it can be built; if the spots (as proposed below) are in hard-to-reach places, the first will probably be built in the best one, so that the eventual other reactors will require an increasingly harder effort to build.

About the reason why a reactor must be constrained to a specific location on Earth, I can think of some possibilities (warning: heavy handwavium ahead), but probably it is possible to find some simpler explanations

  • It requires a very tall (order of 1-2 km) and thin (order of some cm) vertical structure to accelerate some chargeless particles: because of Coriolis force, particles tend to deflect from the straight structure (because of Earth rotation, its top rotates slightly faster than its base), and being chargeless, they can't be forced in a straight line by an electromagnetic field: as a result, you can build such reactor only near the North/South pole.

  • It requires a very precise value of gravity, slightly lower than the value at sea level... The exact value can be found at more or less 6.5km of height above sea level.

  • It requires to be placed in the middle of a volume of at least 300m of radius of not.salty water (which means that it can be built only in the lake Bajkal, I suppose)

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Public opinion is against the production of nuclear reactors, with opposition growing more intense with each reactor

Regardless of the actual risk, as long as public opinion is against the production of nuclear reactors and becomes more strident and intense, the cost to produce a reactor will increase.

This can occur due to additional regulation requiring increasing amounts of over-engineering.

This can be a result of construction delays and paperwork costs due to additional environmental studies or more extensive licensing requirements.

This can be due to lawsuits opposing the construction that can be delay construction or run up legal costs.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is very much a real-world answer. As of 2013 there had been no new nuclear power plant construction starts in the US since the Three Mile Island incident (1979). $\endgroup$ – arp Feb 1 at 16:25
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The reactor and weapon require complex quantum entanglement calculations. Maybe it uses virtual particles popping into existence just outside a singularity or something like that. As the number of reactors there are in a region of space increases the complexity of the equations goes up by !n and they all decrease in efficiency.

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The reactor needs constant maintenance by extremely skilled specialists

The problem is not really building the reactor, but running it. The reactor technology is highly unstable and needs constant maintenance and adjusting. The complex physics you have to understand to even be able to adjust the reactor and keep it running are only understood by a few people on the planet. And the engineering to adjust and repair the complex parts, are so complex that only three people on the planet usually get it right on the first try. And a wrong application severly damages the reactor and creates weeks of downtime.

The limiting factor is the amount of genius physicists and engineers available. They are needed constantly and each reactor has its own set of quirks and problems, because minimal differences in building materials produce different runtime characteristics. Each reactor could also have its own set of software algorithms which are fine tuned and constantly updated, adding a whole team of specialized software engineers to the required personell to keep a reactor running.

Since the best people in the field are already working on the first reactor, building a second one will be much harder, because you can't easily create skilled professionals in this narrow field out of thin air.

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More reactors complicate the powergrid

Some of this is from my layman understanding of power production, but it should be accurate enough for a story if no hard science is required.

If the reactors are all connected to the same power grid, you could say that the power management becomes more difficult.

Even in the real world, this is a large issue; Reactors don't turn on and off at the press of a button, they have spinup and spindown times.

Remember, a reactor in the real world is often just a producer of heat, and we're not talking just 110 degree Celsius, which would be 10 above boiling water, we're talking 500+, in order to make steam, that is used by turbines to produce electricity. And these are BIG. So they are slow to cool, and slow to stop or slow down spinning. So they constantly produce

But excess electricity isn't just stored in magical hammer space. It's like pressure in a pipe, it has to go SOMEWHERE. If you don't feed it to the weapon, there are wires and capacitors that are going to heat up, and that's going to cause interesting reactions in said capacitors. (Don't stand near them, is what I'm saying)

Having extra reactors could complicate the power grid, especially if the grid is separate from a city or nationwide grid.

If each reactor is paired up with a separate reactor on individual power grids, this is less likely to be the issue, but if they are all connected, and feeding one singular weapon, management of these systems would be a cause for making the setup harder, if not the actual construction.

TLDR; You can contrive the technology for energy management to be such that having multiple reactors requires more and more intense infrastructure

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Designing a functioning reactor is extremely difficult but if you can pull it off, the reactor's output can make you fantastically wealthy. The first scientist to build a working reactor patented the design, refused to license it, and retired in style due to the large royalty checks. He absolutely refuses to build a second reactor. Artificial scarcity keep prices high and retirement comfortable.

Over time, more working reactor designs are created, but they all tend to follow the same model. None are mass-produced because the inventors want to keep prices as high as possible.

The reactor industry has become a patent minefield. With every successful reactor design, it gets harder and harder to design a reactor that doesn't infringe on someone's existing patent. The patent holders are extremely aggressive about pursuing potential infringers, so the legal processes associated with building a reactor soon start to take more time than the scientific design and construction.

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    $\begingroup$ The USA government already takes any patent it wants, and quite often to the exclusion of allowing use by the actual inventor. If someone said "I've built and designed a superweapon/superpower-source, but I'm not sharing it because it makes me wealthy" their reaction would be "no, you're not sharing it because it's not yours any more". $\endgroup$ – Nij Jan 31 at 4:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Nij As a matter of law, Graham v. John Deere Co. (1966) the Court opined that the patent system as adopted must “promote the Progress of . . . useful Arts.” I.e., if all you do is use a patent to exclude any use by others, the government has the inherent right to revoke the patent, because it is not promoting progress. Clearly not applied in many cases (court costs are high in patent cases), but the principle exists in law that is based upon constitutional law re: patents. Not exactly your point, but I think it is an interesting related point. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Jan 31 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ Don't forget this is fiction, their laws aren't necessarily the same as ours. $\endgroup$ – bta Jan 31 at 22:42

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