Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day 2011

Happy Earth Day from the energy source for the universe... nuclear!

Nuclear reactions power the stars, and rather importantly, our Sun. The Sun provides warmth and weather. The Earth's molten core is still molten thanks to nuclear decay, and as such we get plate tectonics and volcanism (which are responsible for most of our atmosphere) and a magnetic field (which protects the Earth's surface from the bulk of cosmic radiation, and gives us the auroras). And nuclear fission can provide us with clean electricity to continue powering our society. It's all thanks to nuclear physics!

It would appear I get the dubious honor (notoriety, perhaps?) of having my recent interview published on Earth Day, so I wanted to leave you with an Earth Day sentiment.
"In a city, everything is available all the time. Meat comes in plastic wrap and nobody thinks about the steer it came from. Death and birth are going on all the time, and you witness that when you're living on the land. But in cities and suburbs, that's all hidden or ignored.... People want goods and services and energy but they don't want to think about the costs to the environment. This is why I'm so scared of global warming. Almost nothing is being done." - Dr. R. Anderson (Sandia Nat'l Lab, quoted in Gwyneth Cravens' Power to Save the World)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Worst case scenario

My brain is exceptionally good at envisioning horrible outcomes. For whatever reason, my mind plays out daily what Stephen King achieves in 700 pages. My fear of flying turns every plane into a ticking time bomb of catastrophe - I might as well (as the prophets of old) see blood dripping from the wings and windows. But because I retain some capability of reasonable analysis, I know that these scenarios, while gruesome and frightening, are ultimately not real, nor are they ever likely to become so.

This doesn't seem to be a talent of the popular news media.

At softball practice the other day, a woman on the team mentions knowingly that the Japanese should have realized that they lived in an earthquake-prone area and built reactors that could withstand 9.0 earthquakes. Aside from the rather insidious proposition that an amateur slow-pitch softball player from the southeastern US knows more about nuclear reactor engineering than the whole of Japan, I was taken aback. Are you serious? Do you realize just how big a 9.0 earthquake is? Does it not matter that this particular quake was the fourth largest in the world's recorded history (and that the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi have actually done an excellent job of preventing a worse disaster, all this considered)? Her demand that Japan prepare for something that is historically unprecedented is the same in nature as my belief that every and all flight I take will crash in a burning fireball into the sea. It would seem that reasonable assessment is impossible. We can't just engineer for bad scenarios. We have to engineer for worst-case scenarios.

So here, for the benefit of all mankind, present and future, is a worst-case scenario for which you should all be planning.

First, terrorists will hijack not 1, not 4, but all (roughly) 28,000 commercial flights on this particular day. Also private planes, single- and twin-engine Cessnas, UPS and DHL freight carriers and anything else they can get their hands on (they'll probably break into the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum on the National Mall and take The Spirit of St Louis and a few old Air Force rockets, too, just to add insult to injury). Every one of these hundred thousand aircraft will be flown with one accord (and full complement of fuel) into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Somehow, every plane will reach the target, which is (in fact) deep underground in a thick, impenetrable salt deposit. All of the leaking jet fuel will ignite an explosion that somehow burns hotter than jet fuel is designed to burn and melts the nuclear waste containment canisters, releasing nuclear materials. The force of the explosion causes a crack in the crust, which quickly travels deeper until it hits a dormant lava plume below. The lava plume is reawakened and erupts, sending molten rock through the WIPP chambers and into the air, carrying with it jet fuel and radioactive waste. Immediately, it begins to rain, the water running off in all directions, carrying the nuclear material from the volcanic ash to hundreds of surrounding miles (never mind that at this point the nuclear material would be too dispersed to even be measured above background). Quick-reacting politicians in Washington hear about the unfolding disaster, but with information sketchy at best, they misinterpret the data (explosion, nuclear material...) and believe we have been hit by a nuclear weapon. The decision is made to retaliate, and the military immediately begins bombing North Korea. North Korea, in its death throes, retaliates by launching its own missiles, failing to hit the US but doing considerable damage to South Korea, Japan and China. Suddenly all of Asia is in a radioactive, deathly panic, and a high-ranking official in the Indian government takes advantage of the chaos to turn weapons on Pakistan. Pakistan retaliates. A misfire from Pakistan ends up in Russia, and the Russian military now joins the deluge.
The sheer quantity of nuclear weapons being detonated causes major earthquakes to occur along delicate fault lines, razing San Francisco and Los Angeles to the ground. Volcanoes in Iceland are triggered, sending plumes of ash (in addition to the radioactive fallout) across Europe, killing crops. Meanwhile, a rogue nuclear submarine from the US Navy gets incorrect bomb codes and hits several accidental targets along the eastern seaboard, as well as Canada.
After the two-minute rush of nuclear arsenals is used up, hundreds of millions of people are dead, and hundreds of millions more are without power, food, information, or clean water. Slowly the sky darkens from the quantity of ash in the air. Looting begins, people rioting in the streets, trampling children and the elderly, police beating people to death in a horribly awry state of martial law. Quasi-religious sects, seizing their chance, declare war on whomever they consider infidels, killing hundreds in the open during the chaos.
And then, to make matters worse, the Sun suddenly uses up the last of its hydrogen fuel. This causes a conversion to helium burning, turning the Sun into a Red Giant; its radius extends past Mercury's orbit, immediately incinerating the tiny planet, and the intense heat and radiation from the Sun's sudden proximity boils the atmosphere and all the oceans from Earth and fries us all to a crisp instantaneously.
If that's still not enough, a D-brane instability appears in our local region of 10-dimensional space, creating an ever expanding void of nothingness that envelopes the whole universe.

This is why it's ridiculous to demand that things be engineered for worst-case scenarios.

Get on it, people. I want my universe to be D-brane-instability-proof. Ready, go.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A useful analogy: Radiation and Temperature

In an attempt to explain the dangers - real and merely perceived - of radiation, I propose the following analogy: radiation and temperature*.

1. Radiation, like temperature, can cause immediate damage to a living being, but only if it is sufficiently "hot."

2. Some places on Earth are warmer than others, and some colder. But that temperature difference doesn't create differences in cancer rates (you're not more likely to get a tumor in Fort Lauderdale than you are in Omaha, Tacoma or Duluth). Similarly, some places on Earth have more natural radiation, and some less, but this difference isn't significant enough to affect us.

3. A small rise in temperature, even when sustained, isn't likely to cause us any damage. In fact, we hardly notice it. Same goes for radiation; if we're exposed to 300 mrem in a year or 400 mrem in a year, we won't notice, and the change isn't likely to hurt us.

4. There are natural "sources" of temperature, and man-made sources. We can locally raise the temperature (by lighting a fire or turning on the heater), but when taken in the context of the universe, it's hardly a blip on the screen. Similarly, we can create local sources of radiation (nuclear weapon, nuclear accident), but they too are minuscule in the grander scheme of things.

5. Temperature is not dangerous when it is understood and controlled. Neither is radiation.

*Microwave and infrared EM radiation, which are direct causes of temperature increases from the vibration of molecular bonds, are, in fact, radiation. So the analogy obviously has some weakness to it, just like all analogy and metaphor - they can only go so far. But I'm trying to convey information about what people think of when they hear the term "radiation," mainly, ionizing radiation, or, incorrectly, radioactivity. If the terminology is bothersome, substitute your own: "radiation" could be replaced with "release of radioactive materials" or similar. For the purposes of the analogy, decouple any effect which certain forms of radiation have on temperature, and pretend they're independent.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Another note on Fukushima

(original post may be found here)

With today's announcement that the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi will now be provisionally classed as a level 7, the worst possible in nuclear accidents, equal with Chernobyl, again I must insist that the fear-mongering press need a good kick to the head.

Firstly, we need to make sure that this fact is well understood: the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has not worsened. The change in category is based upon what happened at the beginning of the crisis, not what is happening now. As NPR's Eliza Barclay reports:
The decision to bump up the rating from 5 to 7 was prompted by new data on the amount of radiation released at the plant in the early days of the crisis — not by any recent change in the plant's status.
Having just witnessed NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams "explain" the situation without so much as one mention of the rating's meaning, the reasons for the change, or the fact that the alteration is being applied after the fact*, I knew the other "news" stations wouldn't be much different in this gross misrepresentation of facts.

This leads me to my second point: The updated rating (on a scale about as useless as Homeland Security's color-coded terrorism threat levels) doesn't make clear that the release of radioactivity into the environment was ten times worse during the Chernobyl incident than for the Daiichi plant. We know this because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a Nobel-winning establishment which is internationally recognized as being foremost in the science, information and understanding of nuclear reactors and their ilk, said so. Not only that, but the categorization is provisional - which means it might not stick. And let's not forget that the Daiichi reactors suffered the fourth-largest earthquake in the world's recorded history, followed by a thirty-foot tsunami.

Third, reactor designs are updated, just like all engineering projects. To class the reactors themselves as "like Chernobyl" is as misguided as claiming all cars suffer the same weaknesses as a 1972 Ford Pinto. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors are not at all the same engineering design as the failed reactor at Chernobyl (which did not have a containment vessel, something required of all US reactors). They are incapable of failing in the same way. And so far, they have not failed in the same way. New reactor designs (currently referred to as "Generation IV") exist which could prevent completely the possibility of a core meltdown, such as liquid metal or pebble-bed reactors.

Lastly, the Chernobyl nuclear incident is not as bad as everyone seems to think it is. If we're going to compare the situation at the Daiichi plant with what took place outside Prypiat, why don't we care to know what we're talking about? For instance, despite panic on the part of the public and government officials, only 60 people died of acute radiation poisoning (the large majority of them first responders, who were not aware at the time of the inherent danger of entering the destroyed reactor building), and only 3,900 more are expected to develop cancers from it - out of an exposed population of 600,000 (compare this with another industrial, but non-nuclear, accident). When compared to the number of cancers normally expected for a "control group" of that size (ie, a group who are only exposed to natural background radiation), this is an increase of only 3%. As the IAEA explained:
Confusion about the impact has arisen owing to the fact that thousands of people in the affected areas have died of natural causes. Also, widespread expectations of ill health and a tendency to attribute all health problems to radiation exposure have led local residents to assume that Chernobyl related fatalities were much higher than they actually were.
Other effects the public generally blames radiation for, such as birth defects, showed no positive correlation with the exposure from the Chernobyl release. Also according to the IAEA's multitudinous reports, radiation levels in the Exclusion Zone have fallen, many to safe levels. In fact, the radiation levels in the Exclusion Zone are lower than the natural radiation you would get if you lived in certain areas in Brazil, China, India, Australia, the Colorado Plateau (CO, NM, AZ, UT), Finland, Iran, or Washington State, to name a few.

So please, please, please folks! Let's be reasonable. Should we not concentrate on the fact that thousands of tsunami victims are still missing? Or maybe... just maybe... we should actually help, instead of sitting around talking about it?

*and yet somehow keeping myself from throwing something at the TV...perhaps because I was on a treadmill at the time. An amusing note: Brian Williams, as is the case with many other purported "news" anchors, is so self-important that he himself counts as a "news" topic on NBC's website.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Government shutdown...

I'd like to make perfectly clear at this point, before it happens, the striking resemblance I see in the looming government shutdown to a story from my youth.

Most of us have heard the story. It's from the Old Testament, a story to show how wise Solomon was as king of the nation of Israel.
Two women come to Solomon to settle a dispute. Both claim that the same baby boy is in fact their own infant. The child is mine, cries one woman. No, she lies, the child is mine, wails the other. So Solomon thinks for a moment, and announces his decision: it cannot be decided, so the child will be cut in half and split evenly between the two of you.
And the king said, "Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other." Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, "Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death." But the other said, "He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him." Then the king answered and said, "Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother." And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice. (1 Kings 3:25-28, ESV)
Ok, American public, you want to know who loves you more? You want to know who really has your best interests at heart? It's the one who says, in order to keep the system going and to prevent a complete government shutdown, "oh, my lord, give her the living child." It's the side that caves first in the budget debate, because in doing so they realize that at least the entire system won't come to a jarring halt. It will be the side that seems to give in, because they know it's the only way to keep you alive. Not that I wish for it - we shouldn't give up all of the federally-funded programs that benefit the majority of American citizens. I hope I'm wrong. I really do. But right now it seems rather obvious to me that one side is going to concede the debate in order to ultimately save the object of the debate.

And I promise you it won't be the Republicans.