This is an eerie anniversary.

Thirty years ago today, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew to smithereens.

It’s really hard to assign blame.

Was it the designers who came up with a reactor design that was fundamentally unstable at low power?

Was it the bureaucrats who, in the secretive Soviet polie state, made it hard if not impossible for operators at one facility to learn from incidents elsewhere?

Was it the engineers at Chernobyl who, concerned about the consequences of a total loss of power at the station, tried to test a procedure that would have kept control systems and the all-important coolant pumps running using waste heat during an emergency shutdown, while the Diesel generators kicked in?

Was it the Kiev electricity network operator who asked Chernobyl to keep reactor 4 online for a little longer, thus pushing the planned test into the late night?

Was it the control room operator who ultimately pushed the button that initiated an emergency shutdown?

And the list continues. Many of the people we could blame didn’t stick around long enough: they died, after participating in often heroic efforts to avert an even greater disaster, and receiving lethal doses of radiation.

Some lived. This photo shows Arkady Uskov, who suffered severe radiation burns 30 years ago as he helped save colleagues. He, along with a few other people, recently revisited the control room of reactor 4, and were photographed there by Radio Free Europe. (Sadly, the photos are badly mislabeled by someone who didn’t know that “Arcadia Uskova” would be the name of a female; or, in this case, the genitive case of the male name Arkady Uskov. Thus I also cannot tell if “Oleksandr Cheranov”, whose name I cannot find anywhere else in the literature of Chernobyl, was a real person or just another RFE misprint.)

Surprisingly, the control room, which looks like a set of props from a Cold War era science fiction movie, is still partially alive. The lit panels, I suspect, must be either part of the monitoring effort or communications equipment.

It must have been an uncanny feeling for these aging engineers to be back at the scene, 30 years later, contemplating what took place that night.

Incidentally, nuclear power remains by far the safest in the world. Per unit of energy produced, it is dozens of times safer than hydroelectricity; a hundred times safer than natural gas; and a whopping four thousand times safer than coal. And yes, this includes the additional approximately 4,000 premature deaths (UN estimate) as a result of Chernobyl’s fallout. Nor was Chernobyl the deadliest accident related to power generation; that title belongs to China’s Banqiao Dam, the failure of which claimed 171,000 lives back in 1975.

Warning: I don’t usually use strong language in my blog. This post is an exception. Sometimes a spade has to be called a spade… or an asshole has to be called an asshole. If you are offended by strong language, please stop reading now.

I am writing this blog entry on account of the fact that a famed lion in Zimbabwe, a 13-year old male named Cecil, was killed by an asshole. An asshole whose pecker is too limp, I suppose, so he has to supplement his masculinity by killing rare, magnificent animals.

The asshole’s name is reportedly Dr. Walter Palmer, an American dentist from Minnesota. And yes, Dr. Palmer, you are a class one asshole. A disgusting, sad, pathetic, sick moron. (Palmer is on the left in the archival picture below, but his smiling buddy is a sad, pathetic, sick moron, too.)

A picture like this actually makes you feel proud? Happy? The carcass of a beautiful big cat gives you a sense of accomplishment? That you made the world better? Contributed something to humanity? Something for your children to remember you by? Or are you just one of those jackasses who doesn’t care one way or another, so long as you can prove that you have money to waste and creatures to kill?

The killing itself was reportedly quite gruesome. Shot not by a gun but by an arrow (possibly to avoid the noise that might have called attention to the fact that the lion was illegally lured from a nearby national park; the jackasses claim though that this is a way to “honor” the animal) the lion escaped and was tracked for a day or two before it was finally shot dead, skinned, its head removed as a trophy.

To be clear: I eat meat. I am perfectly comfortable with people hunting for food or survival. Yes, that includes hunting for seals, too. But hunting for glory? In the 21st century? When we have the power to destroy most living things on this planet in a matter of minutes? Yes, successful hunters had reasons to be proud back in centuries past when hunting skills were essential for survival. But today? The real heroes are those who help preserve fragile ecosystems, who save species from extinction. The real heroes are those African park rangers, for instance, who earn pennies a day trying to protect such glorious creatures from sickos like Palmer.

This animal was not killed for food or because it threatened someone. It was killed because a pathetic asshole wanted to collect its preserved head as a trophy.

I was hoping that Dr. Palmer is still in Zimbabwe; that he would be caught there and would spend a few years rotting in an unpleasant, dirty, hot, smelly African jail. Sadly, it appears that he is safely back in the US, and he is unlikely to be charged.

Fuck you, Dr. Palmer. Really, really, really fuck you. Fuck you for drawing pleasure from destroying some of the most magnificent things that exist on our shared planet. It is shitheads like you that make me want to get off the planet at the earliest opportunity. You might think that what you have done was legal… but it only shows the kind of human garbage that you really are. So from the bottom of my heart… fuck you.

Trees in Ottawa are being devastated by an invasive species, the emerald ash borer. The city decided to get rid of infected trees as quickly as possible, to prevent the further spread of these bugs and also to avoid accidents that may occur as sick, weakened trees may fall in storms.

Whether or not the city is doing the right thing, I don’t know. The result, however, is devastating. Here is one example: the intersection of Murray and Beausoleil streets right here in our neighborhood. This is what the intersection looked like back in August 2012, when Google’s Street View vehicle roamed the neighborhood:

And this is what the same corner looked like just a few days ago:

The trees are gone. All of them.

I honestly don’t know what to think. I just hope the city knows what they are doing.

After spending a week in Hungary earlier this year, on my way back I stopped in London for three days. London is one of my favorite cities, and I haven’t spent any time there in years. My plan to enjoy myself was simple: get an Oyster card, take the Underground to random places, walk.

A few days before, still in Budapest, I badly twisted an ankle. Still, even this did not deter me, although it did slow me down; occasionally, I felt the need to sit down and rest my aching and swelling foot a little.

That’s precisely what happened one early evening in central London, where I found a tiny little park tucked in between two large office buildings near the Thames. Despite the fact that I was in the center of a world metropolis, it was eerily quiet in this spot, except for the loud singing of birds.

As soon as I sat down, I spotted a bunch of pigeons eating some crumbs from the pavement and occasionally fighting each other off. It was fascinating. My phone was with me, so I started capturing the scene on video.

Don’t expect anything spectacular. Just a bunch of pigeons living their lives in a big city. I don’t even like pigeons; many believe that they are flying rats, and I think they have a point. Still… these guys were funny. And the surrealist quiet of the spot I found right in the heart of a big city created an atmosphere that I will forever remember.

Two days ago, a woodpecker appeared on our linden tree. By the time I managed to grab my phone, it was gone.

Today, the bird reappeared and kindly stayed long enough for me to shoot a few minutes of video.

Nothing exciting here. Just a woodpecker doing what woodpeckers do, on a dead branch of our tree. I just found the bird fascinating, and I found it especially fascinating that a somewhat uncommon bird like this one would appear on a tree in a busy city.

Today was the 68th anniversary of the last (for now) use of a nuclear weapon in anger, three days following the first such use. The city of Nagasaki was destroyed by the explosion of Fat Man, the world’s second plutonium bomb; the first one was used less than a month earlier at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.

Since then, more than two thousand nuclear explosions took place on or beneath the surface of the Earth as declared nuclear powers tested their designs.

Twenty seven years ago tonight, an ill-prepared overnight crew at reactor #4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine began an unauthorized experiment, originally scheduled to run during the day, and designed to test how much power the reactor was able to supply while it was shutting down, keeping emergency systems powered while waiting for backup generators to kick in. Trouble is, this particular reactor type was known to have instabilities at low power even at the best of times. And these were not the best of times: the reactor was operated by an inexperienced crew and was suffering from “poisoning” by neutron-absorbing xenon gas due to prolonged low-power operations earlier and during the preparation for the test.

The rest, of course, is history: reactor #4 blew up in what remains the worst nuclear accident in history. A large area around the Chernobyl plant remains contaminated. The city of Pripyat remains a ghost town. And a great many people were exposed to radiation.

The number of people killed by the Chernobyl disaster remains a matter of dispute. Most studies I’ve read about estimate several thousands deaths that can be attributed to the accident and the resulting increased risk of cancer. But a recent paper by Kharecha and Hansen (to be published in Environ. Sci. Technol.) cites a surprisingly low figure of only 43 deaths directly attributable to the accident.

This paper, however, is notable for another reason: it argues that the number of lives saved by nuclear power vastly exceeds the number of people killed. They assert that nuclear power already prevented about 1.8 million pollution-related deaths, and that many million additional deaths can be prevented in the future.

I am sure this paper will be challenged but I find it refreshing. For what it’s worth, I’d much rather have a nuclear power plant in my own backyard than a coal-fired power station. Of course the more powerful our machines are, the bigger noise they make when they go kaboom; but this did not prevent us from using airplanes or automobiles either.

I came across this a while back; one of the most astonishing places on Earth, near the village of Derweze (also spelled as Darvaza) in Turkmenistan.

Situated in an already lunar looking landscape in the Karakum desert, there is a crater that is unlike anything on the real Moon: it’s a crater full of fire. The ground collapsed here in 1971 after Soviet geologists were drilling for oil and found natural gas instead. The gas was ignited in the hope that it would safely burn off in days… it has been burning ever since.

It appears that there is middle ground after all between pro-nuclear complacency and anti-nuclear alarmism.

Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker, points out that “America’s hundred-and-four nuclear reactors handled hurricane Sandy with far less trouble than other parts of the power grid”. But he goes on to note that a higher storm surge could have caused grave trouble, just as the tsunami did in Japan. He quotes a former nuclear engineer who said that complacency “is precisely that kind of closed or narrow mindedness that allowed Fukushima to happen.” The United States has a significant number of vulnerable plants. Whereas in Japan, the history of the island is known going back well over a thousand years (a history, specifically the history of the tsunami of 869, that Fukushima’s designers chose to ignore, with tragic consequences.) In the US, records only go back a little over three centuries, so if anything, more caution should be warranted.

But Osnos is not advocating shutting down the industry. “the key is not to pretend that the nuclear industry is a house of cards,” he writes, “but to prevent a non-disaster from becoming a disaster.”

Unfortunately, our memory for disasters tends to be alarmingly short. Osnos points out that after a flood wreaked havoc with New York’s subways in 2007, some 30 million dollars were spent on flood protection… and that’s it. Then it was all forgotten. One can only hope that Sandy will leave a more lasting impression when it comes to disaster preparedness, especially when nuclear plants are concerned.

News flash this morning: the first (of hopefully many) Japanese nuclear reactor is back online.

On March 11, 2011, the fifth biggest earthquake in recorded history, and the worst recorded earthquake ever in Japan, hit the island nation. As a result, some 16,000 people died (the numbers may go higher as some are still listed as missing). Most were killed by the natural disaster directly, as they drowned in the resulting tsunami. Some were killed as technology failed: buildings collapsed, vehicles crashed, industrial installations exploded, caught fire, or leaked toxins.

None were killed by the world’s second worst nuclear accident to date, the loss of power and resulting meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Some of it was due, no doubt, to sheer luck. Some if it due to the inherent safety of these plants and the foresight of their designers (though foresight did not always prevail, as evidenced by the decision to place last-resort emergency backup generators in a basement in a tsunami-prone area). The bottom line, though, remains: no-one died.

Yet the entire nuclear power generation industry in Japan was shut down as a result. Consequently, Japan’s conventional emissions rose dramatically; power shortages prevailed; and Japan ended up with a trade deficit, fueled by their import of fossil fuels.

Finally, it seems that sanity (or is it necessity?) is about to prevail. The Ohi nuclear power plant is supplying electricity again. I can only hope that it is running with lessons learned about a nuclear disaster that, according to the Japanese commission investigating it, was “profoundly manmade”; one “that could have been foreseen and prevented”, were it not for causes that were deeply rooted in Japanese culture.

A couple of weeks ago, somewhere I saw a blog comment that mentioned a book, Rad Decision, written by nuclear engineer James Aach.

Back in the late 1970s, when I got my hands on The Prometheus Crisis by Scortia and Robinson, I just couldn’t put the damn thing down; I read through the night and I finished the book by the morning. So naturally, I couldn’t resist the temptation to buy the last in-stock copy of Aach’s book on Amazon.ca.

And I am glad I did. My concerns that it would be a trashy, amateurishly written novel quickly dissipated. Indeed, in a sense it is a lot better than The Prometheus Crisis: the crisis in Aach’s book is far less dramatic, but the story is believable, the characters perhaps more credible.

My only concern: while this book teaches a lot about nuclear power (and why we should not fear it), its likely audience already knows. Those who would benefit the most from reading it, well, won’t.

Years ago, I expressed my (informed, I hope) skepticism concerning climate change in the form of several questions. One of these questions has been answered in a very resounding way by a most thorough independent analysis: yes, the warming trend is real and statistically significant.

So then, my questions are:

Is global warming real?
Is it a future trend?
Is it man-made (caused by CO2 emissions)?

The fundamental dilemma is that on the one hand, it seems irresponsible to advocate the spending of trillions of dollars (and potentially wrecking an already fragile global economy) before all these questions are answered. On the other hand, by the time we have all the answers, it may be too late to act.

But then, perhaps none of it matters. I do not believe that harebrained schemes like carbon trading are ever going to work. Humanity will continue to burn fossil fuels in ever increasing quantities in the foreseeable future, and atmospheric CO2 will inevitably increase. Ultimately, we may be faced with choices such as geoengineering or simple adaptation: moving from coastal lands to higher ground, evacuating areas that become unsurvivable in the summer, but also taking advantage of longer growing seasons or more fertile areas in the north.

Courtesy of IEEE Spectrum, we can read an English translation of the now vanished blog of a Japanese robot operator working at Fukushima.

Now is the time to panic! At least this was the message I got from CNN yesterday, when it announced the breaking news: an explosion occurred at a French nuclear facility.

I decided to wait for the more sobering details. I didn’t have to wait long, thanks to Nature (the science journal, not mother Nature). They kindly informed me that “[…] the facility has been in operation since 1999. It melts down lightly-irradiated scrap metal […] It also incinerates low-level waste” and, most importantly, that “The review indicates that the specific activity of the waste over a ten-year period is 200×109 Becquerels. For comparison, that’s less than a millionth the radioactivity estimated to have been released by Fukushima […]”

Just to be clear, this is not the amount of radioactivity released by the French site in this accident. This is the total amount of radioactivity processed by this site in 12 years. No radioactivity was released by the accident yesterday.

These facts did not prevent the inevitable: according to Nature, “[t]he local paper Midi Libre is already reporting that several green groups are criticizing the response to the accident.” These must be the same green groups that just won’t be content until we all climbed back up the trees and stopped farting.

Since I mentioned facts, here are two more numbers:

• Number of people killed by the Fukushima quake: ~16,000 (with a further ~4,000 missing)
• Number of people killed by the Fukushima nuclear power station meltdowns: 0

All fear nuclear power! Panic now!

Finally, a voice of reason.

I just read an opinion piece in New Scientist by Erle Ellis. His message is simple: Welcome to the Anthropocene. Ellis believes that the geological epoch called the Holocene is over; the landscape of the Earth has been altered irreversibly by humans, but not all such change is bad or unwelcome. In any case, there is no turning back. The question is not how to undo what we have done, but how to create a better, more sustainable Anthropocene, as we have become the creators, engineers, and stewards of this world.

This has also been my opinion for a long time. Humans are no less “natural” than apes, ants, whales, or trees. By extension, a skyscraper or a factory are no less natural than an anthill or a bird’s nest. However, it has happened in the past that a species overwhelmed and destroyed the environment in which it once thrived. Humans can suffer the same fate… except that we do possess oversize brains and the ability to plan ahead in the long term. What we need is not some romantic notion of a “pristine planet”, but to learn how to manage a planet of finite resources that is dominated, and irreversibly altered, by our presence.

The headline on CNN tonight reads, “An American Fukushima?” The topic: the possibility of wildfires reaching the nuclear laboratories at Los Alamos. The guest? Why, it’s Michio Kaku again!

What I first yelled in exasperation, I shall not repeat here, because I don’t want my blog to be blacklisted for obscenity. Besides… I am still using Kaku’s superb Quantum Field Theory, one of the best textbooks on the topic, so I still have some residual respect for him. But the way he is prostituting himself on television, hyping and sensationalizing nuclear accidents… or non-accidents, as the case might be… It is simply disgusting.

Dr. Kaku, in the unlikely case my blog entry catches your attention, here’s some food for thought. The number of people who died in Japan’s once-in-a-millennium megaquake and subsequent tsunami: tens of thousands. The number of people who died as a result of the Fukushima meltdowns: ZERO. Thank you for your attention.

If it has atoms in it, it must be bad, right?

The government I least expected to fall for this kind of illiterate populism was the government of Switzerland… until today, that is, now that they announced that they will be phasing out nuclear power in Switzerland. I guess they, too, want more people to die.

Am I a fan of nuclear power? Probably not… but I like it more than most of the alternatives, including many supposedly “clean” ones.

I have seen statistics before that showed nuclear to be one of the safest, if not the safest, form of electricity generation. I was trying to find the data, and instead, I found this excellent article on the topic, followed by a passionate, but surprisingly civilized discussion with actual information content.

I wonder how many of the purported 200,000 who protested against nuclear power in Germany actually realize that if their wishes came true, many more people would be condemned to death than those killed by all nuclear disasters combined. Here are two numbers to illustrate that point. The worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, killed perhaps as many as 10,000 people. Compare that to the worst hydroelectric disaster, the collapse of the Banqiao dam in China… roughly 170,000 killed.

Fukushima was hit by a once-in-a-millennium natural disaster that far exceeded its design limits. Not surprisingly, it failed, along with many other man-made things, buildings, oil refineries, roads, bridges, railway lines, and more. We don’t single out any one of those industries as being inherently unsafe, despite the fact that hundreds (thousands?) died in Japan as a result of these failures in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. In Fukushima, to date only one person died, in a crane accident. I’d say that this suggests that nuclear power is pretty safe even under a worse-than-worst-case scenario.

Banq

In the wake of the unimaginable disaster in Japan, I only have one hope: that the word Fukushima will not be listed along with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in future encyclopedias.