Sep 132011

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!


 Posted by at 3:45 pm
Aug 022011

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.

 Posted by at 12:27 pm
Jun 292011

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.

 Posted by at 12:14 am
Mar 272011

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.

 Posted by at 2:27 am
Jun 172010

BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, responding to questions from journalists, described the residents of the Gulf states as “small people”.

Many suggested that this gaffe should be ignored, as the chairman is from Sweden, he is not a native speaker of English, and in his mother tongue, the term is commonly used to describe average citizens, small businessmen, and the like.

Now it so happens that I am not a native speaker of English either, and my mother tongue also has a phrase, translated literally into English as “small people”, but used the same way as it is used supposedly in Swedish.

So how come I almost fell off my chair when I heard Svanberg’s remarks during the televised news conference?

 Posted by at 2:29 am
Jun 102010

I admit: I really thought Obama was better than this.

Back after 9/11, the moronic Bush administration shut down all commercial air traffic for days in a knee-jerk reaction that exaggerated the economic fallout of the 9/11 attacks possibly by orders of magnitude. (None of which prevented them from chartering special flights to help Saudi nationals, including members of the Bin Laden family, flee the United States in haste. But that is another story.)

Now here’s this oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. To be certain, there exists a serious need to review how these rigs are licensed, how they are operated, and whether or not future drilling is worth the economic risk. But shutting down on-going drilling operations? Not only does it do grave economic harm to an already heavily affected region, it may actually increase the risk of another spill.

If this is how Obama continues his presidency, I don’t know what will save us from seeing Sarah Palin and her friends move into the White House in January 2013. Now there’s a scary thought.

 Posted by at 2:51 pm
Jun 032010

Greenpeace had a contest to redesign the BP logo. Here’s my favorite:

Yes, I am partial to cats. Though truth to tell, I hesitated… at this point in time, a cat’s hind hole seems a lot nicer than anything BP does or says.

 Posted by at 7:35 pm
May 302010

After six weeks of non-stop gushing, an oil spill that is already several times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and numerous failed attempts to stop it, I am beginning to wonder if it might have been a good idea after all to follow a Russian suggestion and just try to nuke the well. Then again, had that failed, too, the Gulf coast would now have to deal with a spill that is not only poisonous but also radioactive.

 Posted by at 5:30 pm
May 262010

I don’t think I ever watched the unscrewing of a screw with as much anticipation as last night, staying up way past my bedtime, glued to the BP live stream bringing video from the bottom of the Gulf.

I watched as a robot was struggling to remove a screw by “hand”, and failed. I watched as another robot approached, handing this robot a T-shaped tool that turned out to be a screwdriver of sorts. I watched as this robot used its two manipulator “hands” to position the tool just right, approach the problem screw, and try again. I watched as, every once in a while, the oil plume hit the scene, making everything murky for a while. I watched as the robot finally unscrewed the screw, and I realized that I was holding my breath.

Amidst the environmental tragedy, I continue to remain amazed by the astonishing robotic infrastructure that can operate and carry out complex industrial operations a mile beneath the surface of the sea,

 Posted by at 12:18 pm
May 062010

Here’s an idea that only Dr. Strangelove, Edward Teller, or the Communist Party of the Soviet Union could come up with: nuke that oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, it has been done before, and only one out of five attempts was unsuccessful. So how about that, folks? What’s a bit of radioactivity when you have an 80% success rate?

 Posted by at 7:54 pm